Captain Cartwright # 2 – To Fly with Eagles (by Krystyna)

Summary: This is the second of the Captain Cartwright series in which Joe leaves the Ponderosa and finds true love, extreme danger and a longing for home. It also brings Adam home from sea to join with Hoss in a search for their little brother.

Rated: K (154,265 words)

“Joseph’s restless by nature, gets that from me I suppose. He wants a chance to find his own rainbow and his own pot of gold at the bottom of it. Well, this is his chance.”

The final page contains reviews/comments from the Old BonanzaBrand Library.

Captain Cartwright Series:

To Soar on Albatross Wings
To Fly with Eagles
Captain, Oh My Captain
The Commodore
Invictus
Carpe Diem
A New Command
A Duty to Live
All Those Tomorrows
Written in Stone

 

To Fly with Eagles

Chapter 1.

Ben Cartwright took down the green jacket and smoothed its lapels and smiled up at the young man who was buckling on his gun belt,

“Joseph, you will be very careful, won’t you?” he said as he helped him into his jacket, then stepped back to survey him as Joe straightened his jacket and picked up his hat. He laughed as he slipped the hat over his unruly crop of hair,

“Nothing can happen, Pa,“ he took his father’s hand and then winked, “I’m indestructible.”

Ben smiled and nodded, but his eyes did not smile, his grip on his son’s hand only tightened, and he seemed, for a moment, to be struggling to find the right words to say,

“Well, Joe? All ready, lad?” he managed to utter eventually, and Joe, realising the difficulty his father was having could only muster up a rather quavering smile now,

“As ready as I ever will be,” Joe replied, and released his hand. Then, involuntarily, he turned, and hugged his father tightly in an embrace that Ben would savour for months to come, “I’ll be alright, Pa.” he said, his voice lost against his father’s shoulder against which his face was pressed.

“Take care, son.” Ben smiled again, and pushed the younger man away. Any longer and he would have lost his resolve, weakened, and refused to ever let him out of his sight. “Where’s Hoss?”

“Seeing to Cochise,” Joe replied, and he looked once again into his father’s dark eyes, “I will be careful, Pa, I promise.”

They shared a moment of silence, holding it close, vowing never to forget the look on the face of the other, promising themselves that this moment was to last forever, or, at least, for as long as it needed.

Then Joe turned, and walked quickly away to the stables. Ben watched, put his hands to his hips, but did not move. This was now the time for Hoss and Joe to share together. Why prolong the agony of farewells? So he stood there, a tall, solitary figure, waiting.

It was a beautiful day, spring had arrived and the sun shone and already there was the sweet smell of flowers and herbs growing in the little garden that Hop Sing had rescued and which Marie Cartwright had prepared long years before. Joe flexed his shoulders and rubbed his hands together and waved to Zeke and Hop Sing who were in the yard as they passed. He felt as bouyant as the day, and wanted to whistle for the sheer joy of being alive.

He turned to where Hoss was leading out his horse and grinned,

“I wish you were coming with me, Hoss.” he said, as though he were just going to ride into town for a cold beer and nothing else.

“Shucks, I wish I were coming with you, Joe, but you know how it is?” Hoss wrinkled his brow and led the horse to his brother and sighed, “Look, Joe, don’t you be getting yerself into any trouble, you hear?”

“If I do, you’ll be the first to know about it,” Joe replied and held out his hand towards his brother. This Hoss seized and held between both his own, before grabbing him towards him and hugging him in the familiar bear hug that Joe had grown up with all his life.

They said nothing more. Everything that had to be said, could have been said, had already been spoken many times over during the course of several weeks. Now was not the time for words. Neither of them would have been able to have found the appropriate ones anyway.

Joseph Francis Cartwright gave a nervous laugh and mounted his horse. Cochise, as though sensing the tense excitement coursing through the young man’s veins gave a little sideways step as though expressing his desire to be off, sooner than soon, and he snorted through his nostrils as though to tell his master to hurry up.

“I’ll write,” Joe cried, and his generous mouth parted in the merry grin that was so familiar and so beloved to them all. He raised his hand and called out a farewell and was galloping out of the yard as though he could not wait to get started on this latest adventure in his life.

Hoss stood watching as his brother galloped out of sight. He stood as though frozen on the spot, as though disbelief had rendered him totally incapable of motion. He did not stir even when his father stood at his side and placed his hand upon his son’s shoulder,

“I didn’t want him to go either.” Ben said quietly, as he watched his youngest son turn at the stables with a final wave of his hand.

“I didn’t think he would go, Pa.” Hoss eventually managed to say, struggling to suppress emotion that hit at the back of his throat, “Not after knowing how much we missed Adam when he left.”

“Yes, I know, son.” Ben said quietly, “But I was proud of him, still am,” he smiled at him, “Adam always loved the sea, it’s in his blood after all. Not just mine, but from his mothers side too. Abel Stoddard used to say that when the sea called to a man with salt in his blood, then you answered the call. I guess, Adam did just that.”

“I know, I know,“ Hoss sighed and frowned very slightly, “But Joe ain’t got no salt in his veins.” and he pouted, much as he would have done years ago when a child and his favourite toy had been taken from him.

ut, Pa -” Hoss began in protest, staring unseeingly at the stables, hoping to see a black and white horse galloping back into view, a green jacket, a young man with a wide generous smile and a merry laugh.

“No ‘but’s’, Hoss, we’ve talked about this a long time now, it isn’t any real surprise to us now, is it?“

They turned together, walking side by side, returning to the ranch house. Ben continued talking, as though to bolster up his own flagging emotions as much as to console Hoss,

“Remember the time when Joe signed up as a pony express rider in ’61? He loved it although he only rode for a little while as the company closed down in the October. It was a good idea while it lasted.” he looked into the far off distance and remembered his youngest sons excitement when he had ran into the house flourishing the advertisement ‘Wanted – young, skinny, wiry fellows, not over 18, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week’ Adam had talked to him at length, explaining that what it really meant was a great relay race with death as the loser’s prize, but it had fired the boy’s imagination and after a year they had finally acceded to his wishes and thanked God when he had returned home crestfallen and miserable because the company had stopped functioning.

“It made him want to do more I suppose. To see more of this world beyond the Ponderosa,“ Hoss sighed, “Guess we should be grateful he didn’t go immediately after Adam had left, but hung on until now.”

“Well, I guess we’re all aware of how quickly things are changing hereabouts. Even the Pony Express idea was out of date by the time they had got it up and running, which is why it never lasted very long. When I think back to how things were when I came here with you and Adam,” he paused and shook his head and sighed “the boundaries and borders are changing so much, industry is monopolising the mines, there are more towns growing closer to home for our cattle. Sometimes I wonder how things will be by the time I die.”

“Don’t talk about dying, Pa,” Hoss said, as a shiver trickled down his spine at the thought.

“Well, Joe wants to explore this world of ours before it gets changed too much. And I can’t blame him for that, not at all. He’ll come home happier as a result, you’ll see.”

He released a deep breath after making that statement as though wondering how he had survived uttering the words and not been struck down by lightning from the Almighty. Hoss said nothing. He knew his father too well, too intimately, and knew that Ben’s heart was breaking at the loss of his two sons.

As he made his way into the house Hoss called to Hop Sing “What’s for supper?” all the while thinking of the changes that had taken place during the past few years. First of all there was Adam deciding it was time to leave. He wanted to fulfil his dreams of going to sea before he got to be too old. That had been a rather sad time. But there were frequent letters from the seafarer, and Hoss was reminded of the times when Adam had gone to college and after a short while had returned. Hoss smiled, he was convinced that Adam would be home again soon.

Weeks had trickled into months and years and now here was Joe wanting to exercise his muscles and go off and see what was beyond the horizon. That had been a blow to Hoss at first, because he had had no intention of leaving the Ponderosa and listening to his brothers plans had made him feel excluded and miserable. But, as he had told himself for weeks on end now, Joe was not the best cook in the world, and it would not be long before he would be wanting a taste of Hop Sings cooking. No, he’d be home soon enough.

He could hear the plates and cutlery being set out onto the table and smiled a wistful smile. It had taken Hop Sing a year to realise he was cooking for three and not four, perhaps it would take him as long to realise that he was now cooking for two and not three.

Evening arrived and the two men sat on opposite sides of the big fire. Ben smoked his pipe, and stared up at the ceiling, his eyes half closed as in his mind he tried to visualise what his youngest boy would be doing right there and then. That led him on to other thoughts and memories. With a deep sigh that he was unable to suppress he realised that if he had the power to turn back the clock just five years he would happily have done so. Oh, why did Joe have to leave now? Why had Adam not resisted the urge to go to sea? Why couldn’t everything have remained just the same, just as they had been, just as he longed for it to be once again

Chapter 2

The Fort was a misnomer! In October 1865 it was merely a huddle of huts beside the overland telegraph. Soldiers were hurrying to get ramps and palisades built around them before the winter set in. There were several wells which was a bonus, and the Sutlers store was well stocked with food and other essentials.

Joseph Cartwright rode into the Fort and looked about him thoughtfully. He had ridden into several such fortifications, all hastily built and ill prepared for the winter to come, but all well manned. This particular Fort* was one of the larger sites and from the size of the Sutlers store definitely the best equipped. He dismounted and hitched Cochise to the rail and walked into the building, taking off his hat as he did so.

A large man with sallow skin and a balding head, and hardly a tooth in his jaws, left the table where five soldiers were arguing over a game of Faro, and approached the young man with what, in the majority of cases, would be mistaken as a smile.

“Anything you want that I can get you, young man?” he asked in a surprisingly quiet and cultured voice .

Joe pulled off his gloves and looked about him. The far corners of the room were shrouded in obscurity due to poor lighting. Smoke from pipes, cigarettes and cheap kerosene in the lamps was making the wicks smoulder. He nodded in a friendly fashion to the store man,

“Can I send a telegraph from here?”

“Certainly you can.” and he pulled out the necessary form, a pen and ink and pushed them over to the youth who took them with a pleasant smile of thanks.
He began to fill in his message “Travelled far?”

“From Nevada,” Joe replied quietly with the faint smile still on his lips.

“That’s quite a distance,” the Sutler replied, “Haven’t run away from home, have you?”

“No, of course not,” Joe glanced up at him and grinned, his face too honest and cheerful for anyone to even think that he could ever have left home other than with his family’s blessing. He pushed over the completed form and some money and frowned, “Would it be possible to buy some rations from here? And a meal and drink?”

“Just say the word, sir.”

Joe glanced about him, conscious now that there was a silence in the room and very aware that he was now the object of all eyes. He half turned and nodded to several of the soldiers, some even younger than himself. They looked him up and down quietly and then turned back to their card playing and drinking.

“And can I have some paper, as I’d like to write a letter.”

The paper, ink and pens were duly handed over to him. It did not take him long to locate a table at which he sat down. It was in a far off corner, and afforded him some privacy. He settled himself to write.

He had written one letter, eaten his meal, which turned out to be quite a pleasant stew, and was about to begin his second letter when a shadow obscured his vision. He glanced up to find a tall, lanky officer looking down at him. This man extended his hand and smiled pleasantly,

“Edward Nordstrum*” he said “Mind if I sit down?”

Joe said nothing but watched as the lanky fellow tentatively lowered himself onto the chair and smiled again,

“I heard that you were from Nevada, Virginia City way?” he asked in a deep voice and Joe looked at him a little closer. Anxious as he was to finish his letter to his brother, at the same time it was pleasant to talk to someone after so many days alone on his travels.

“That’s right. My father owns a ranch some miles out of the town.”

“Wouldn’t know anyone by the name of Cartwright, would you? Ben Cartwright?”

Joe’s handsome features immediately creased into a warm smile, the sound of his fathers name on a strangers lips and so far from home made his heart swell and he nodded.

“He’s my father.” Joe extended his hand again “Joseph Cartwright.”

They shook hands again and smiled at one another and then Nordstrum turned and called out for two beers before looking at Joe more closely.

“I would reckon on you being the youngest?”

“That’s right, I have two older brothers.” Joe smiled “How come you knew my Pa?”

“Well, it must have been about 14 years ago now. He was in the army for a spell.”

“Yes, that’s right, he did some scouting for the army in Yuma.” Joe nodded, recalling the times when he would wander to the window and gaze out to see if his Pa would ever come home. But things were not going so well back then and Ben needed money, to finance the Ponderosa and the many and various projects he had in hand.

“I was just a rookie then myself,” Nordstrum took the beers and passed one over to Joe, “But I liked Ben enormously. He could see that I was nervous and homesick too.” Nordstrums face softened as his thoughts drifted back to those days, then his features hardened, “It didn’t help with our having just about the most incompetent officer in the army put in charge of our expedition. Led us straight into an ambush and then what few of us were left he took straight into enemy territory. If your father had not assumed command then, I guess we would have all died.” He sipped his beer and frowned over the rim of the glass at the wet rings that had been left on the table “Old Fuss and Fuddle we called him. I wonder what ever happened to him?” he frowned again “I did hear he was drummed out of the army eventually for incompetence.”

Little Joe nodded but refrained from making any comments about the late departed Colonel Jonathan Fry who had spent the last weeks of his life trying to ruin Ben and the Ponderosa and died as a result. He looked at Nordstrum again and liked what he saw. He leaned back in the chair and sipped his beer as though he was in no hurry to see the Lieutenant go. Nordstrum ordered himself another beer and pulled out the makings for a cigarette.

“Your Pa used to write letters all the time in the evenings, he said they were to his boys. I know he missed you all.” he murmured, blowing out the match once his cigarette was alight.

“We always longed for those letters. He used to write one for each one of us. Sometimes I got annoyed because Adam seemed to get the longest ones but he was the eldest and kind of in charge.” his mind drifted back to the times when he would creep downstairs at night and see his elder brother toiling over the ledgers, or writing long letters.

Joe often wondered, as he had grown older, whether the responsibility Adam had taken on for his father at that age was because of the money he knew Ben had toiled to find to send him to college. Often, Joe recalled, Adam would glance up and see the night shirted figure of his youngest brother sitting on the stairs. He sit back in his chair and smile, and the night would turn from ledgers and letters to fairy stories and songs for his little brother. Joe sighed and emptied his glass,

“So? What are you doing here, Joe? You really are a very long way from home and not, in my opinion, in the best place to be right now,” he stuck the cigarette between his lips and inhaled, his features soon obscured by the smoke that curled about his head.

“I got restless.” Joe replied slowly, and began to doodle in the wet rings on the table “I just wanted to explore as much as I could and get it out of my system.”

“Ever thought of joining the army?”

“No, sir.” Joe smiled and shook his head, his hazel eyes twinkling “I love my home, and I want to get back to it as soon as I can. I guess I’ve ridden out my curiosity now.”

“Well, I guess you’re doing the best thing. Most of the men who are here,” he jerked his thumb at the soldiers who were lounging about the room, drinking, gambling and shouting at one another as though to hold an ordinary conversation was impossible for them “they recruited for Indian territory to get out of fighting in the civil war. Now they wish they were back home too.”

“So why are you here? I noticed that there were quite a number of forts being built in what I thought was Indian territory.”

“It was until a few years ago.” Nordstrum took a deep draw on his cigarette and the tip of it glowed red. He exhaled foul smoke and Joe blinked and sat back a bit further, “Every hear of Black Kettle?*”

“Who? No, sir, I haven’t”

“Motavato is what the Cheyenne call him. He’s a gentle old man and one of the chiefs of the Southern Cheyenne. Nice, friendly folk they were too.”

“They were?” Joe raised his eye brows.

“He and his other chiefs practically gave away all this land. They swore to die at peace with their white brothers.”

“And?” Joe prompted, trying to ignore the feelings of discomfort that were now stirring at the pit of his stomach.

“They went back to their camp and a few days later Chivington*,” he paused and glanced at Joe, “Ever heard of him?”

“I’ve heard of him.” Joe muttered.

“Well, he rode into their camp at Sand Creek*. Black Kettle and his chiefs nearly found themselves dead as promised. Along with hundreds of women, children and old men.”

“You were there?” Joe leaned back further in instinctive disgust.

“No, I was not. Chivington raised a private army of men, said he was Moses come to rid the land of the Canaanites all over again. No, sir, I was not there .” Nordstrum stubbed out his cigerette fiercely “but I am here now, reaping the consequences.”

“What does that mean exactly?”

“Well, Black Kettle won’t fight against the soldiers or white people, but some of his people don’t agree, so a once nice and friendly and united tribe were split in two. Some went with Black Kettle, whom we know will always give us his support, but the others rode to join up* with their cousins the Northern Cheyenne and the Souix along the Powder River.”

Joe frowned and looked at Nordstrum thoughtfully.

“Why are you telling me all this, Lieutenant?” he asked, picking up the pen between his fingers and staring at it now as though he had never seen a pen before in his life or had forgotten why he had it there in the first place.

“Because I want you to know, son, that you have just ridden into the middle of a hornets nest and my best advice to you is to get home as fast as you can.”

“That serious?” Joe frowned, thinking of the leisurely pace at which he had ridden through the Indian territories and realising that the return journey home was going to be spent with one eye open when he slept. It went without saying that he would be riding and constantly looking over his shoulder.

“There’s going to be a lot of trouble here soon, probably sooner than later.”

“Is that why you’re here, to finish off what Chivington started?”

“No, son,” Nordstrum smiled, “We’re here to ensure the safety of Black Kettle’s people, and to keep the white settlers and prospectors out of here, that’s all.”

Joe rolled the pen between his fingers and stared at the words he had already written down on the paper before him, he sighed and looked up,

“Didn’t anyone try to help them?”

“Help who?”

“The Cheyenne? At Sand Creek?”

Their eyes met and held for an instant and then Nordstrum nodded,

“Yes, quite a few soldiers were so moved as to rescue some of the Cheyenne and to hide them at risk of their own lives.”

“Then they were heroes.” Joe said quietly.

“Perhaps.” Nordstrum replied “Fact of the matter is..” he leaned forward and lowered his voice to a whisper “those that Chivington caught were court-martialed* for dereliction of duty and treason, and they were hanged.” he watched the young face crumple into dismay, and shook his head, “Another fact is, that there weren’t any heroes that night, none whatsoever.” he turned to go and paused for an instant “If you are writing to your Pa, would you send him my regards?”

“Yes, sir. I will do,” Joe replied very quietly.

For an instant or so he sat very still, rolling the pen round and round between his fingers, then he looked at his letter and resumed writing. Once or twice he paused and looked around at the assembly of soldiers who came and went through the Sutlers stores. Nordstrum was gone, some of the soldiers looked no older than himself, others were even younger and there were the ones hardened by years of battle, army duties and harsh conditions. He shook his head, and sighed and looked thoughtfully at his letter, carefully re-reading it before adding a rider as it’s conclusion. He knew the telegraph would be winging his message to his family as he sat there, this letter would take much longer, perhaps it would get there after his own arrival. Perhaps it was pointless sending it at all.

He slipped it into an envelope and sealed it and wrote down the address and frowned, what if he never did get home ? With that thought in mind he underlined the addresses carefully. If he did not return home, then these letters would probably be the last ones they would ever receive from him.

.Chapter 3

“A message came through from Joe, Mr Cartwright,” Tom Riley grinned at the big man standing on the opposite side of the counter and passed the slip of paper over to him. He said brightly, “Seems a while since we heard from him, huh?”

“Yes.” Ben said with a brighter smile on his face than when he had entered the office “ Thank you, Tom.”

“Is he alright?” Hoss looked over at Ben as they left the Telegraph Office and stood together on the sidewalk.

“Sounds like your little brother is on the way home.” Ben declared with the biggest grin of relief on his face. He had felt like a dog that had lost its tail for months on end and the delight at knowing Joe was on his way home was quite intoxicating,
“He said that he’s written a letter to us, which he sent the day he cabled through so it should be here in a few weeks, if the weather holds.” Ben laughed, and his laugh held so much pleasure in it that Hoss knew that all the days of denying his anxiety over his youngest boy had been just a cover up for how he really felt.

“He could even be home before the letter gets here.” Hoss chuckled, rubbing his hands in anticipation. It was the best news in all the world to him, better than discovering the biggest vein of gold running through their land. Joe coming home. He took a deep breath to calm the excitement that was trickling through every bone in his body.

“Wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened,” Ben smiled, folding the slip of paper and slipping it into his vest pocket.

“Whereabouts was he when he sent the cable, Pa?” Hoss asked as they walked companionably together towards their horses.

“Fort Cobb.” a slight frown settled on his face. “Indian Territory. I didn’t realise they had any forts thereabouts.”

“Aww, he’ll be alright. If the armies there it’s for good reason, Pa.” Hoss muttered, although he was looking rather more thoughtful again and his jolly mood seemed to have evaporated somewhat.

“Well, things are changing all the time.” Ben said quietly, “I just never expected there to be Forts so far into Indian territory.”

“Are you worried, Pa?” Hoss asked, looking thoughtfully at his father, and Ben sighed, and paused in mid-stride. He put his large hand upon his son’s arm,

“If truth be told, Hoss, I’ve always worried about Joseph,” he smiled then but with a hint of sadness lurking at the corners of his mouth, “I’ve worried more about him than any of you, probably because I noticed that from an early age he had a greater ability to fall down stairs and trip over his own feet than you or Adam ever did.”
They continued walking, their feet beating a staccato rap on the hard wooden boards that had been bleached grey by the summers sun of many years. Hoss realised, as he began to untether the reins of his horse, that the sense of joy he had initially experienced only moments earlier, had now been replaced with a dark sense of foreboding.

He said nothing to his father as both men mounted into their saddles and turned their horses’ heads towards home. People they had known for years turned to acknowledge them, a wave of the hand, a hand to the brim of the hat, a smile. But Hoss saw none of them. He just felt a sudden empty feeling in the depths of his soul and knew it would only be filled when he saw his little brother walk through the door of the Ponderosa.

Chapter 4

Joseph Cartwright watched as Cochise cropped at the grass. He had had a feeling for a few hours that he had been watched or followed, but was wondering now whether or not it was just nerves. It had been a week since he had left the fort and he had seen no one. He had seen the signs that indicated that there were Cheyenne or Sioux in the vicinity. He took the utmost care not to wander in areas that had obvious signs, remembering lessons from of old when an old Pauite had shown them how to identify the position of stones and twigs and such as the lore of the native American. Cochise paused and raised his head and looked at Joe as though surprised to see his master sitting so still,

“Alright, Cochise. Time to move on,” Joe said quietly and walked towards his horse twirling a blade of grass between his fingers. He had his foot in the stirrup when the silence was broken by the sound of gunfire and shrieks from close at hand. Without thought of what dangers awaited him he jumped into the saddle, and drew his rifle from its sheath.

A group of six mounted men were riding fast towards three people. These three had scattered and were running for their lives towards the rocks, their possessions thrown to the ground in order to make their flight faster. It was an uneven situation. The three victims of the chase had no possible chance of escaping their hunters as the gap between them closed with a rapidity that was frightening.

Joe urged his horse forward and fired his rifle over the mens heads. Then he brought Cochise to a rearing standstill between the six men and the three people who had continued to run on, desperate in their search for a place of concealment..

“Stop right there.” he yelled, his rifle in his hands, and the look on his face on of determination. No man there could doubt that the young man would use the weapon.

His only answer was a bullet that took his hat off ,

“I said….stop right there or I shoot the first man who draws any nearer…”

He levelled his rifle and aimed at the leading horseman who took so little notice of him that when the rifle was fired, his horse continued to ride past Joe, although its rider hit the dirt in front of the other five men who reined in their horses immediately.

“Are you crazy?” one of them demanded, dismounting to see just how badly injured the man on the ground happened to be.

“Are you?” Joe said, holding his rifle in readiness.

“How’d you mean, boy?” a greasy sweating man rode his horse closer but a gesture from Joe’s rifle soon stopped him. The man on the ground was moaning and cursing but was able to get to his feet with the help of his companion.

“These hills are bristling with Cheyenne. You’re being watched constantly. Didn’t anyone tell you not to cause trouble here? Do you want to be the first victims to lose their hair in a war?”

“We were only having a bit of fun, boy. Seems to me you’re taking things a mite too serious!”

“The army patrols around here. What do you think they would make of this matter, huh? I doubt if they would think you were having a bit of fun.”

“I ain’t seen no patrols,” the greasy man sneered and he turned his head to look at the man nearest to him “Did you see any patrols?”

“Nope,” came the reply accompanied by a very loud hawking of the throat and a glob of spit hit the ground.

“And I don’t think you realise,” the other man edged his horse nearer to Joe, “that we don’t take kindly to folk who come busting in on our fun.”

“He got me in the arm,” the injured man complained, drawing attention to his injury by waving his bloodstained arm practically under their noses.

Joe edged his horse backwards, towards the rocks. He suddenly realised, now that the heat of the moment had gone, that he had placed himself, as usual, in a very vulnerable situation. Six against one were not good odds, even if one of the six were injured.

“Just move on.” Joe said in the deepest voice he could muster, and he frowned as out of the corner of his eye he saw the flicker of movement, “I think it would be advisable if you moved outa here as quickly as you could.” and without another word he turned Cochise round and yelling, “Y’hah’ urged the horse into a gallop towards the rocks and to where some cover could be attained.

He heard a yell, a voice yelled “Don’t let him get away” and then gun shots. He kept his head low, close to Cochise’s head, once or twice he twisted in the saddle to return a shot, but bullets kept whistling past him, buzzing like so many bees. Cochise took a leap across the track when Joe felt something slap into his leg and looking down he saw the fresh spurt of blood staining his trousers.

“Dadburn it, why don’t I just mind my own business?” he thought to himself as he steered Cochise towards some large boulders and quite slowly slid out of the saddle.
He watched as Cochise continued running while he slid behind some cover, and steadying his aim waited for the other men to appear. The big man with the greasy face suddenly loomed large, swung his gun round, and fired at the same instant that Joe fired from his rifle.

“Shucks!” Joe whispered to himself as he felt his legs turning into water, and the light grew darker and darker as it twirled him round and round and drew him down into the depths of its vortex.

Chapter 5

The sky was still blue. He watched the clouds drifting overhead and thought how pretty the sky looked on a clear day like it was that day. He closed his eyes and sighed. When he opened them again he could see Cochise nodding his head at him. It seemed as though Cochise was following him, but as he was not walking he was not too sure just exactly how the horse could be moving at the same pace as himself. It was too much to think about and he closed his eyes again and allowed himself to sink into the darkness once more.

The next time he opened his eyes he found himself looking straight into the dark eyes of a very pretty young woman.

“Hello.” he said, and promptly felt stupid for saying it. He looked at her and thought that she was the most lovely thing he had ever seen in all his life. She looked at him and smiled and put a finger to his lips.

Looking about him he saw that he had been brought from the rocks and to the interior of a large tepee. He could see smoke rising from a fire up through the gap where the tepees ‘ears’ or ‘flaps’ were open to draw it up. From the articles that were hanging from the walls of the tepee he knew that he was in the home of a warrior. He touched his leg and felt the pain trickle along its nerve endings and warm blood seeped onto his fingers. A gentle hand grasped his wrist and very determinedly moved his hand away from the injury and when he looked it was her, and once again she put a finger to his lips, but this time she also smiled.

He watched her as she moved away, and as she made a powder by pounding it with a pestle in a bowl. This she mixed with another powder and water and then she brought it to him and began to paste the mix upon the wound in his thigh.

“Where’s my pants?” he cried, sitting upright as the realisation struck him “Hey, what are you doing to me?” and he grabbed at her hand, sending the bowl with the poultice flying across the room.

She pulled away from him with fear etched on her face and her eyes wide with terror, clutching at her arm she moved backwards on her haunches, much as a person would inch their way from a crazed animal. Her fingers groped towards the fire and closed over a piece of wood which she picked up and brandished at him.

Joe stared at her for a second or two, and realised that she was truly terrified of him. He, instead of being grateful for the way she had been caring so gently for him, had shown himself to be ignorant and ungracious. He raised his hands and widened his eyes in appeal,

“Sorry, Sorry, I meant no harm.”

The girl did not move but continued crouched with the burning branch in her hand, staring at him with frightened eyes. Joe gestured, opened his arms wider and leaned forward, but the effort of even that small movement caused him to groan in pain and he crumpled back into the bedding upon which he had been placed.

The hours that followed were strange, confused hours for Little Joe. Nightmarish scenes spun through his brain as he writhed in feverish delirium. When he opened his eyes it were as though he were captured in one of the nightmares as a huge twin horned buffalo head with burning bright eyes was thrust before his face. Words of which he knew nothing were chanted to the accompaniment of rattles and bells. Then he would spin away again back into other nightmares of long ago events that he had long hoped to have been buried away but which floated back now to haunt him.

Through the hours of that night and the following day Little Joe battled against the fever and the weakness that his injuries had created. Often he would groan aloud and his fingers would clench into tight fists. He would call for his father, begging him to stay near him, and not to leave him ever again. He entreated Hoss to take care and laugh at some unspoken joke between them. He cried out for his brother Adam and begged him ’not to drown, not to do down with your ship.’

The ramblings were incoherent, meaningless words that were sometimes sobbed from his lips, and throughout the young woman sat by his side, bathing his face, treating his wounds, stroking his hair. Only when the shaman came to chant and perform his healing rites over the youth did she leave the tepee and walk anxiously to tend to the black and white horse that had faithfully followed them as they had taken Joe to the camp on a makeshift travois.

Chapter 6

The room was empty and without its owner there seemed no life, no purpose to it. Ben stood in the doorway, glanced around the room and sighed deeply. Time had ticked along now, and there had been no news from Joseph. Nothing. Days of waiting and all in vain.

He could see that Hop Sing had kept the room clean and well dusted. He knew that were he to open the wardrobe he would find his sons clothes clean, recently laundered, as had been the bed linen. But for what reason? He shook his head, as though to dispel the negative thoughts from his mind. There was no point in dwelling on what may never have happened. He only knew that his expectations may have been too great. Well, he told himself, as he closed the door upon the room, what else was a father supposed to think? Are not all fathers selfish beings really?

He had learned a little more about Fort Cobb and its location. He had pored over the maps with Hoss breathing heavily over his shoulder. Together they had put a neat red cross on where they had speculated the Fort to be situated, and then discussed what route Joe would have taken to return home. Whichever route it would have been ,it would have taken him through Indian Territory. Sioux and Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Shoshone.

He walked the few steps along the landing to another door at which he paused for a moment. He closed his eyes for a brief moment as though willing himself to put his hand on the door handle and to open it upon the room. When was the last time he had stepped into Adam’s room? He sighed deeply, shook his head slightly, and walked on.

As he reached the half landing the door to the big room opened. Hoss stepped inside, and tossed his hat onto the bureau. He glanced up at his father who had paused, motionless, as though to suspend the moment. Hoss smiled, his blue eyes twinkled, and he pulled out a letter from his vest pocket.

“News, Pa.” he cried, “From Adam.”

Ben smiled, his heart lighter and his mind dwelling on the fact that there would be some time spent to enjoy a letter from one of his sons. They would read it and discuss it. Then they would re-read it, just in case they had missed out any bit of importance. They would wonder where he had been when he had written it and how he would have been feeling at the time. Could they read between the lines things intended to be said, but had been missed out? Did the manner in which he wrote indicate good health?

“Nothing from Joe?” he said as he took the letter and looked into Hoss’ face, and Hoss shook his head, the pleasure fading from it. “Huh, I had thought we would have received that letter by now. It’s been two weeks since the cablegram.”

“Yeah, Pa, but it ain’t easy territory for travelling, is it?” Hoss unbuckled his gun belt as he spoke and placed it carefully beside his hat, “Anyhows, what has Adam got to say for hisself?”

They walked side by side to the hearth, and Ben settled into the big red leather chair, while Hoss perched himself on the coffee table.

“Post mark London.” Ben said and smiled slowly as he ripped the envelope open.

“What’s he say, Pa?” Hoss asked, leaning forward as though he did not want to miss a single word that was said. Ben looked at this son, and the eager face and nodded as he unfolded the letter:

“Dear Pa, Hoss and Joe

I was glad to be able to sit down and write this letter. It seems such a long time since I have had any time at all to do so, although that does not mean I have not had you all in my thoughts often.

The last news I had from you is over a year old. I daresay that when I return to base I shall find a whole pile of letters. Perhaps a day will come when someone will devise some means by which correspondence can be carried out over the waves but until then one must be content with what one has. Of course, it does not alleviate the anxiety that arises as time puts more and greater distance between us. I wonder often how you all are, are you well?

Sometimes I dream of home, of the Ponderosa. I see myself at the table with you all, and Hop Sing serving some of his best meals. I wake up with my stomach aching and the taste still in my mouth. I sometimes see myself in the big room, reading a book, Joe and Hoss playing checkers on the coffee table and you, Pa, sitting there reading the news tabloid. I think it a pleasant scene. I always wake up with the longing to see you all making my heart ache.

Well, we are berthed in the docks of London. An old city, England’s capital. We were not meant to be here at all but storms in the Atlantic drove us to take shelter on the far northern islands of Hjaatland (sometimes called Zetland). A bleak and rugged country with far more sheep than people, and not a tree in sight. We had to stay in the harbour for three whole days until the gales blew themselves out and then set sail again.

We had but been at sea one day when the gales blew up again with such force that we had to take refuge at Kirkwall. We were most fortunate to have reached these islands as we were blown well off course. Thankfully with little damage to the ship, but our Captain severely ill.

By the time the gales had blown themselves out other crew members had been taken ill with the same sickness as our Captain. The ships doctor among them. We had no choice but to head for London where we could get the best medical attention for them all.

So, I have been here for three days now. I am well, let me reassure you on that point immediately. Most of the crew have recovered but the Captain is in a sad state of health. He and my fellow officers feel that we should leave London at the end of the week. Hopefully by then he will be in more robust health.

There is little more to tell you, all has gone well apart from this latter part of the journey, but it will not be long before we can begin our voyage home.

I send you all my best wishes, deepest respect, and fondest love…Adam”

They said nothing for a while. Both dwelt on the words and the wording, added to it their interpretation, turned every phrase upside down and inside out, and then looked at one another and smiled.

“London, huh, Pa?” Hoss raised his eyebrows, “He writes mighty high falutin’, don’t he?”

“I went to London once,” Ben said, as he folded the letter and slipped it into its envelope, “I was very young and impressionable. We didn’t get too far, stopped at the first saloon or inn or whatever they’re called there, and got thoroughly drunk.”

“Then what happened?”

“Nothing. That’s all I ever saw of the place, and most of it through a haze.” he leaned back and stared at the ceiling. So Adam had been in London and was sailing back to America. Probably still out there, at sea. Ben Cartwright could envision it all, so clearly. The grey waves with the white horses foaming at their crests and the terrible vastness all around them. Sea and sky, merging, becoming at one with the other. Sea birds soaring overhead, screeching and diving …

“Pa?”

Startled, Ben opened his eyes and saw Hoss looking thoughtfully at him. Ben sighed, and raised a hand to rest it gently upon his son’s shoulder. What, he asked himself, would he do without Hoss?

Chapter 7

One morning Joe opened his eyes and looked about him and realised that something of his nightmares were still before him, and were, in fact, definitely very real. He closed his eyes and struggled to get his brain functioning to work out exactly how he got to where he was. Then he heard movement and slowly opened one eye and glanced to one side. The young woman was putting more wood onto the fire, and had her back turned to him. The curve of her young back with the long black hair prompted the young man to open both eyes to their fullest extent and survey her, and his surroundings, more closely.

She turned then, as though instinctively aware of his consciousness. Once again their eyes met and smiled at one another, and then their lips moved into a warm smile,

“How did I get here?” Joe asked, keeping his voice very calm.

She frowned a little, although her smile never wavered. Quaintly she bent away from him and he watched as she ladled food into a bowl and brought it to his bedside. He shook his head as she sat down on the floor by his side and she shook her head in reply.

“I – I don’t feel hungry,” Joe muttered.

She opened her eyes wide and looked at him in such a reproving manner that it was obvious she did not believe him, and brought the spoon to his lips, but he shook his head again. She smiled and her bright dark eyes twinkled, slowly she brought the spoon to her lips, ate from it, nodded, and smiled again. Then she brought the spoon back to his mouth and taking a deep breath he allowed her to shovel in the food and it was good. In fact it was very good, and he nodded and smiled and would have snatched the bowl from her hands if he could have done so without falling off the litter.

“That was good,” he exclaimed warmly, “Really good.” and he wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve, leaned back, sighed, “Really good.” and he turned to look at her and saw her smiling. He watched as she now filled a cup with water and brought it to him. She held it to his lips and he drank it with his eyes fixed on her face.

Light flooded the interior of the tepee as the entrance was opened, and the girl immediately stepped back into the shadows as a rather stocky man came towards him and looked down at him and smiled,

“Feeling better?”

“Much better thank you.” Joseph watched as the man now sat down, cross legged, by his side. He was an attractive looking man, with the dark hair and classic features of his race, and when he smiled the high cheek bones creased and hid the dark eyes from view. He was smiling now.

“My name’s Joseph Cartwright….”

“I know” came the immediate reply and a broad hand was extended to him, “My name is George Bent. You came to the rescue of my wife and half brother, and the girl here.”

Joe turned to look at the girl and smiled.

“She never left your side all through your illness, Mr Cartwright. She knows that she owes you her life.”

“I would…I didn’t .. I mean…” Joe stuttered and gulped “What I mean to say, Mr Bent, is that anyone would have come to help. It was an unfair situation after all, six men after two women and one man.”

“Six white men and three Cheyenne. Some would see it differently from you.” George Bent replied.

“Well, I guess we’re all different, Mr Bent.” Joe said quietly, and closed his eyes wearily. When he reopened them George was still there, observing him passively.

“I’m glad that you are feeling better, but I’m afraid that it will be some time before you will be able to walk on that leg and your head injury was quite severe. We have to break camp soon and move on to our winter quarters. I hope you don’t mind, but we shall have to take you with us.”

“Am I your prisoner?”

“No, not at all.” George Bent laughed “No, as I said, you have still serious injuries, and need to be cared for, and we shall take good care of you. We owe you our lives, Mr Cartwright.” he frowned now and stood up “But we do have to move on from here, and I don’t think you would survive if we left you deserted and alone, do you?”

Joe glanced over at the girl who was listening intently to what was being said, and he smiled “No, I guess not.”

“The girl does not speak,” George Bent said “she can understand your language though. She wants to take care of you.”

“She can’t speak?” Joe frowned and looked sadly at the girl, who only cast down her eyes in acknowledgement of the fact. He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment and then returned his attention to the man sitting by his side, “Mr Bent, how come you speak such good English?”

“My father built Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River over 30 years ago. He married a Cheyenne girl called Owl Woman. When she died he married her sister Yellow Woman. I speak as my white father taught me.” George smiled, and nodded as though this potted history of his family said it all. Joe knew that the hardships and adventures of a white man settling on the Arkansas River thirty years ago would have filled a book.

But he said no more, and settled back against the bedding to stare up at the hole through which the smoke from the fire drifted. He could hear George Bent moving about in the tepee and voices, a woman and George. Slowly Joe felt himself drifting into sleep, and this time he had no nightmares at all. It was a sleep for healing.

……………..

The speed at which a Cheyenne tribe can decamp from any given location certainly was proof of an organised and disciplined body of people. Joe was supported from the lodge in which he had stayed and helped to the travois. He could not help but marvel at the bustle of people all around him. Everyone knew exactly what they were doing, and where they were going, and what was expected of him or her.

Children performed their own tasks in order to help and by the time the sun had reached the noon time the people began to move.

If they were in a hurry to leave their present location , the speed at which they moved appeared to be in contradiction of the fact. Joe was comfortable, warm and snug on the travois covered with blankets and a thick buffalo hide. They had fitted the travois upon Cochise who had obediently allowed them to do so, eyeing the procedure with stoicism and when the girl had mounted into the saddle the loyal beast merely raised its head proudly and stepped out in line with every thing else that was on the move.

Children ran by playing, pausing to stop and look at him and laugh or gaze wide eyed before running on. Elderly men and women walked by and did not even look at him, not in a disdainful manner but merely because he was there and they could look at him any time. It was just that at that moment in time, they had to walk.

Babies in back cradles peeked at him with sleepy eyes and nodded into blissful slumber, while their mothers strode forwards, chattering and laughing together. Those too old or too infirm were on travois’ like himself. Sometimes they would pass by him, and sometimes he would pass by them, and they would raise a hand and nod, and he would do likewise and smile and after a while he would fall asleep.

“Why are we going so slowly?” he asked one of the warriors whom he knew understood and spoke English. The young man frowned and looked at him in surprise before answering,

“We move at the speed of the weakest, and the oldest.”

Joe nodded and surveyed the sky. He watched the clouds drift lazily overhead. He thought of the girl and of others whom he had met during the previous few days. He smiled in drowsy contentment acknowledging to himself that just at that moment he wouldn’t wish to be anywhere else other than there on that travois, surrounded by the dust from the feet of hundreds of horses and people, enjoying the warmth of the sun. And once again he drifted into a contented sleep.

Chapter 8

The woman was 18 years of age. She was slim and slender, and her dark hair fell down her back like a black mantle. Her face was a perfect oval and her eyes were almond shaped and as dark as sloes. She was tall for a Cheyenne woman, and walked as though she were a queen, as graceful as a deer picking its way through a forest. When she smiled her eyes smiled too, and when she wanted to communicate and signed her words as best she could, every part of her body and every expression of her face, was used to the best of purposes in giving meaning to what she wanted to say.

As the days had sped by Joseph Cartwright found that he was looking forward to her visits more and more. As his wounds healed and he grew stronger, he would find ways of seeking her out in the village, even if he had to use a stick as a crutch to wend his way through the tepees to locate her.

She was always busy. Always doing something. Her little hands never seemed to be still and she fascinated him as he would sit and watch her work. When she looked up and smiled his heart did a double beat, his mouth would go dry and he could only smile and blush in return.

…………….

“George?”

“Yes, Joseph?”

“Tell me about Little Moon?”

George Bent frowned and paused in his task of fixing flights to some arrows. He glanced at Joe and nodded,

“You have grown fond of her then? I happened to notice.” he frowned slightly, his dark eyes darkening and he looked down at his arrows as though suddenly they were of far greater interest than this youth.

“And so? You noticed?” Joe prompted and impatiently waiting for a reply.

”Perhaps you had”, he shrugged, “grown fond of her, that’s all.”

“She’s a beautiful girl.”

George nodded and looked at his companion thoughtfully, and then picked up another arrow and began to fashion the flights for that, very carefully and methodically. Little Joe waited for some moments, cleared his throat, shuffled about on his seat, until George could ignore him no longer. He nodded and put the arrows to one side,

“She was married, but her husband was killed by a sickness some years ago. She had a child, but he was killed at Sand Creek. She saw the lodge of her parents home burning with her child inside. She was no longer able to speak,” he picked up an arrow and held it eye level. He narrowed one eye to check its balance and then looked at Joe “That is all I can say about Little Moon.”

“She is Cheyenne?”

“She is one of the people.” George replied quietly, paused to consider what next to say before he once again looked at his younger friend and smiled “There was a time when the whole world would stop what it was doing to listen to her singing.” he shook his head “ It is a long time since then and she has had little to sing about, even if she could find the words.”

“What about your family, George? Do you have brothers and sisters too?”

“Yes, two brothers and two sisters.” George replied and looked at Joe again “And you?”

“Two brothers, Half brothers.” he frowned and thought of Hoss and Adam, and sadness touched his heart as he realised that he had no idea of what they were doing now. It occurred to him that perhaps they were all worried about him. He closed his eyes, saw Bens face smiling gently down at him, just as he always did when he had been a small boy waiting for Pa to tuck him into bed. “My eldest brother is a seaman.”

George nodded, it didn’t particularly matter to him what Joe’s eldest brother was, and he picked up another arrow and smoothed the flights under his hand very gently.

The two men sat in silence. One carefully worked on his arrows, and the other thought of his family and promised himself that at the end of the following week, when his leg was stronger, he would ride to the nearest Fort and send them news of his whereabouts. They would be concerned and needed to be assured of his safety.

The entrance to the lodge opened and Little Moon stepped inside, accompanied by Georges wife. They stood together in the way women do when they have secrets and surprises. She kept her head down, her hands behind her back, and the beautiful mantle of dark hair swept forwards over her shoulders to cover her face. Mrs George, as Joe was apt to call her, whispered to her, she shook her head, so that the older woman tugged at her sleeve and smiling reassuringly at the two men coaxed the girl forward.

In the language of her people Mrs George explained that Little Moon had a gift for their guest, at which George rolled his eyes and stood up and looked at the young man and smiled,

“I have things to do now” he said quietly and quickly left the lodge so that Little Moon was now alone with Joe.

“What’s wrong?” Joe said, looking at her with that quizzical look on his face that endeared him to so many.

She raised her head, looked at him and knelt down at his feet. From behind her back she produced a pair of moccasins. Now she smiled up at him and offered them up and nodded, and in side her head the words she wanted to say were.

“I made these for you, because you are beautiful and handsome as the young stag. I give you this gift because I love you and although it is only a very small thing, this gift, every moment I spent on it was one thinking of you, and was a moment of joy and happiness in my heart.”

Joe took the moccasins and took her hands in his and nodded,

“Thank you, Little Moon.” and then he smiled and his eyes twinkled. He yanked off his boots and slipped the moccasins onto his feet with a laugh “Hey, would you look at that, a perfect fit, how did you come to know what size my feet were?”

She would have told him that one night she took some soft wet doeskin and wrapped it around his feet, so that the perfect imprint and shape were there, for that was the way a moccasin was made, like a soft protective second skin.
He looked at the design and sighed with pleasure,

“You’ve got the Ponderosa brand, a lonely pine” he murmured, for there it was, each moccasin had the Ponderosa pine worked in bright beads in its centre.

She would have said how she had seen it on his horse and knew it would be the mark of his beast, and so something to identify with them. She would have said, had she been able, that the smile he gave her now made her throat ache with the longing to tell him in real words that she wanted his smiles for her own, and forever.
………………..

Little Joe slept well that night and when he woke up next morning it was to find the sky leaden grey, and torrents of rain pouring down upon the camp. The pathways their feet had created between the lodges became slippery with mud, and gutted with puddles. Lightning flashed and danced thousands of feet from sky to earth, thunder rolled into a crescendo of sound that clapped overhead and send more rain scudding down upon them.

In the tepee Mrs Bent made meals and kept the fire burning and Joe talked with George. In the days while he had been there Joe had learned more about the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux than he could have imagined possible, but his curiosity was not sated. He found that listening to George was like listening to a living book of history.

At that time The People knew their history only by word of mouth. The way the white men wrote down words was not trusted. They remembered how the Cherokee, known as the Sangasi, had learned to write words in books, but still the white men had chased them away from their lands. It was safer, they believed, to keep the words in their mouths, attested to by witnesses over the years, and always to be found true.

“Were you at Sand Creek, George?”

“We all were, my two brothers, myself.” George replied quietly.

“Were any of you injured?”

“I was shot in the leg. I fell in a hole with other men and women and children. Later, we walked to the hunting camp where the warriors had been. I went to the home of my father, Charlie, my elder brother, told me of what had happened. The things I did not see because I was hidden away. He, and his mother, Yellow Woman, and I, we left my fathers home and we shall not go there again.” He stared into the flames of the fire and lowered his head “There were many of the people there, Brule Sioux, Oglala Sioux, Arapaho. More and more came . There were so many lodges camped that they reached to the horizon. But then we had to part. Black Kettle would not fight the white men, he wanted peace. He said there are bad white men, and bad red men. He is right. He took many of the people with him, and my brother and his mother went also.”

“It’s a good thing to want peace, isn’t it?” Joe said quietly, his eyes lowered, and unable to meet the sad eyes of the man seated opposite him.

“Yes, but we were too angry and too sad then.” he glanced over at his wife, Magpie, who was busy making maize bread and he sighed again, “Everything changes.” he said softly. “Your people have killed one another, hated one another. Brother against brother, family against family, and now they are at peace and say there must not be hate anymore. But we know that there will be many who will always hate, don’t we?”

Joe nodded, and chewed his bottom lip, and thought that yes, there had been many changes. The Civil War was ended, Abraham Lincoln had been killed, and there was a new President of the United States of America, President Johnson. But since travelling he had lost touch with the outside world and knew nothing of the changes that had since taken place.

“It will be a long time before our peoples stop hating, but when that time does come, then there will be talking and a time to trust. Do you think, Joseph, there will ever be a time when peoples will trust one another and always have peace?”

Joe frowned and stared at the flames and then looked at his new friend,

“Your father and mother proved that individuals can find love and peace. We are friends, George, aren’t we? We found respect and peace, didn’t we?”

“It happens.” George said quietly and placed his arrows in the quiver before looking intently at Joe, “Black Kettle will never fight the white men, and he will lose the land that has belonged to the people from the beginning of time.”

“But they’ll survive.” And Joe sighed and turned away to the entrance of the lodge and stepped outside.

Still the rain slewed down and with it the first signs of sleet and snow and he shook his head ruefully, knowing that he had already been too long there and that he should think about getting home. He felt a deep longing to be with Hoss and hear his deep throated honest laughter; to listen to Ben’s voice recounting some misadventure to set them laughing, and Adam…oh, Adam, where are you now?

He stepped back into the tepee and took his place beside George, who acted as though he had not even noticed his friend had gone from his side.

“George I shall have to leave tomorrow.” he said quietly “I need to get home to my family.”

“You have a long way to travel, my friend, and it will be snowing soon.”

“That’s why I need to go, before the passes fill and I can’t get through.”

George looked at Joe thoughtfully as though he were weighing up his words very carefully in his mind,

“If it is snowing now, then the passes are already full.” he observed shrewdly.

“You’re no doubt right, in which case I need to get the nearest Fort and send my family word of where I am and that I am safe and well,” he accepted some bread from Magpie and smiled his thanks. “They will be anxious about me.”

George said nothing. The ways of Joe’s family were of no concern to him. If Joe wished to go to the Fort then so be it. He ate his bread slowly and stared into the fire.

Joe took his bread and returned to his bed. He thought over the months of his travels; of what he had seen and experienced, how much he had missed his family and the land he loved so much.

He recalled also the times when events had almost snatched the Ponderosa from their grasp and the way they had, as family, united to fight to keep it. Should he now stand in judgement of a nation of people trying to do exactly the same for their land? He thought over that question in his own mind and knew that he stood in judgement of no one, but that the matter was far beyond him. He smiled a little as a pretty face drifted into his consciousness. He knew that the only reason he had lingered here was because of her, because of Little Moon.

Just thinking of her made his pulses race and his mouth go strangely dry. He closed his eyes and remembered the touch of her hands gently tending to his wounds and the way she would look at him with her large dark eyes lingering on his face, and shyly turning away when their eyes met.

Chapter 9

Cochise’s nostrils flared with pleasure at the sight of his master and he threw his head back and whinneyed a greeting. Joe gave the horse a hug and fondled his ears and told him what a great horse he was all the while putting on his saddle and buckling on the brace and bit.

The rain had at last stopped but the sky was full of the threat of more to come and in the wind was the ice cold messenger of snow. He wasted no time but vaulted into the saddle and turned Cochise around to gallop out of the village and towards the Fort.

The young woman paused as she walked to her lodge with the wood for the fires. She watched as Joe mounted his horse and with horror in her eyes she watched as the horse leapt forwards. She wanted to call out his name and opened her mouth to do so, but there was no sound. She threw down the wood and began to run, her feet sliding in the mud that had been left from the rain, she slid from right to left, waving her hands and her mouth calling soundless words whilst her brain screamed out,

“Come back, come back. You can’t go, you can’t go….”

Joe did not look back. Had she been able to call out his name the wind would have snatched it back from her and he would not have heard it. His one thought was to get to the Fort, send a message to Ben, and then attempt the journey home. Little Moon he already cared about too much, were he to return he felt that their feelings would propel them into a situation far worse than it was already. She had suffered enough and the last thing he wished for her now was to cause her more misery. But even as he was thinking this, he was totally ignorant of the anguish the girl was feeling at seeing him ride away from her.

She paused and stood alone, forlorn and solitary, with her dark eyes filled with tears that she refused to let fall. She raised her hands in a futile gesture of longing and then allowed them to fall to her sides.

“Joseph”. She put a hand to her mouth and felt the movement of her lips against her fingers as she said the word “Joseph”.

Well there, it had been in her head and now it was in her mouth and she said it again, as only one who loved ever could – “Joseph.”

Chapter 10

Nordstrum looked at the young man and frowned, then turned to the Sutler and ordered two cups of strong coffee. As Joe took off his hat and shook himself to be rid of some of the rain that soaked his clothing, he saw the officer beckoning to him and with a relieved smile approached his table,

“What in Pete’s name happened to you?” the Lieutenant asked, pushing the coffee into the younger mans hands. “You look mighty rough, if you don’t mind a fellow saying so.”

“I guess I do. My plans to get home went a bit awry,” he gulped down the coffee and sighed “That sure smells good and tastes even better.” he closed his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair “I got caught up in a skirmish, got wounded.”

“Are you alright now?”

“Yes, almost. My leg still hurts and is a bit weak.” he looked at Nordstrum and frowned “Why? What’s wrong?”

“I think you’re just about to find out.” Nordstrum muttered and nodded in the direction of several soldiers and two men who were talking excitedly together, one of the men was pointing in Joe’s direction.

“Who are they?” Joe said, holding the mug with both hands and enjoying the warmth that trickled through his numb fingers.

“Don’t you know?” came the swift reply, and Nordstrum pushed his chair away from the table slightly, a sure sign of anticipated trouble.

The men strode towards them. Both the civilians looked mean and angry, their eyes narrowed like slits and their mouths working furiously as they spat out invectives.

“I recognised that thar hoss of his’n.” one growled, thrusting out a hand and grabbing at Joe’s jacket “He wuz the one, the one that shot our Billy.”

“I – I- wait –”, Joe put out a hand and pushed aside that of his antagonist, while his eyes looked from one to the other of them.

“Wait? Wait? You didn’t say wait when you took your gun and shot our brother, and then rode off with yur sneaky red friends.”

Nordstrum stood up, his long lean figure pushed between Joe and the other two men, while his eyes sent signals out to several other soldiers who saw only too clearly that there was a fight about to start. If they wanted to join in, the invite was open to all.

“You can’t come on in here accusing people of murdering your brother, now just take yourselves off and leave the kid alone.” Nordstrum said in a cold slightly louder than necessary voice. Various men from around the building began to move slowly from their tables, shove aside their chairs, stir away from the counter.

“That kid shot Billy, we wuz thar, we saw it and thar ain’t no point you tryin’ to pretend it didn’t happen, seein’ how we buried Billy right in this here graveyard of your’n.” one of the men shouted, stabbing his finger into Joe’s chest.

Joe pushed against Nordstrum , hot tempered as ever and peppered up to defend himself. The difficulties of the situation went right over his head, all that mattered to him right there and then was to jump right in and thump a few jaws and crack a few skulls. Oh, if only Hoss were there instead of that lean side of bacon, Lieutenant Nordstrum, who was trying to shove him back with one hand and restrain the other two men with the other.

“Why don’t you tell them what you were doing then,” Joe yelled “If you want a fight, then come on then…come on….”

Nordstrum whirled round on him and hissed. “Shut up!” but before Joe could shut up the other soldiers, now all happy at the thought of a free for all and getting irritated at being restrained, threw themselves upon the two men. Under the weight of the bodies both men fell in a huddle, toppling over the chairs and table at which Joe and Nordstrum had been seated.

Nordstrum grabbed at Joe’s arm and grateful for the opportunity hauled him away from the fight and out of the sutlers stores and into the side alley that ran between the stores and the officers mess.

“Alright, quickly, tell me your version of what happened?” he hissed between clenched teeth.

“What happened? When?”

“Six men left here the day before you, they said they were prospectors although I had my doubts. We warned them that they were putting their lives in danger and that army resources didn’t necessitate our going to their help if they deliberately ignored out warning. A few days later they returned claiming that a young kid on a piebald horse had ridden in on ‘em. After a drink or two, got arguing with them and shot Billy, their younges. They said some Cheyenne rode by and chased them out of the hills, but you didn’t reappear, which meant they either took you prisoner or –.”

“Or?”

“Or perhaps you deliberately went to their camp to cause trouble for the Cheyenne to finish it off?”

“Aw, come on, you don’t believe that do you? If the Cheyenne had wanted to ‘finish it off’ as you call it, they wouldn’t be here now trying to lynch me!”

“Well, that’s exactly what they aim to do, Mr Cartwright. So level with me. What happened?”

“I was riding along minding my own business when I saw these six men on horseback shooting at and chasing two women and a man. Cheyenne. I rode in between them and told them to stop. They started shooting at me and chasing after me. Seeing how the Cheyenne had disappeared from view and I was there like a crow on the fence, I don’t remember anyone being killed because I was shot, twice. I know I fired my gun but I don’t know with what result. The Cheyenne came and took care of me.” Joe slapped his hat onto his head and looked at the officer “That’s the truth.”

“I believe you, but -.” Nordstrum lowered his head and shook it ruefully “Look, Joe, get your horse and ride as fast as you can outa here. Promise me you won’t come back?”

“It’s that serious?”

“Yes.” Nordstrum walked to the corner of the stores and then beckoned to Joe “Go now while they’re still happy wrecking the joint.”

“You do believe me don’t you?”

“I do. Hurry now.” and Nordstrum gave his young friend a shove, as though to emphasise the urgency of his words.

As Joe vaulted into the saddle and turned Cochise towards the way out of the fort, Nordstrum beckoned to two cavalrymen to approach him. The mass of men, entangled in their fight now rolled out of the sutlers stores, the two horsemen rode between their line of vision so that had they had the opportunity to see if Joe were still there, the horsemen would have blocked it entirely from their view.

For Joe it had been a sobering revisit. Winter was upon him and there was no shelter for days on end until he could find the next settlement or Fort. He knew that if he got there he could not be certain of what kind of welcome he could receive, for news of an incident such as the one Billy’s family had reported, tended to travel fast.

Turning Cochise towards the hills, he knew there was only one place where he could go and where he could be safe. Perhaps by springtime things would be far calmer and he could try to get home again.

Chapter 11.

“Dispatches, Captain”

“Thank you, Huntley, leave them on the desk”

“Admirals barge is approaching, sir”

“Yes…thank you”

Captain Adam Cartwright heard the door close behind the midshipman and then walked to his desk and picked up the wallet containing naval despatches, correspondence and the most important items of all, the letters from home and family. His somewhat sombre features relaxed into a gentle smile as he picked up the letters from home and with a sigh put them safely in a drawer, to await his closest attention when he returned.

The USS Redoubt was the first ship under his command, but the second that he had served on, having spent two years on the Defiant as First Lieutenant. Having been deployed on diplomatic missions and only docked that morning, it was his first duty to attend to the Admiral and give him a detailed report of his voyage. He would also take with him the reports of the first and second Lieutenants. Following the interview with the ‘top brass’ he was going to have to endure some kind of torture called a ‘soiree’ and then, upon returning to his ship and the privacy of his cabin, he could retire and spend the evening reading letters from home.

He looked at himself in the mirror and frowned slightly. The past four years had not been easy ones and life at sea had been far more difficult to adjust to then he had imagined. There had been times of adventure, of terrible dangers too, not only from the elements but from some of the inhabitants of the lands they had visited, and even from pirates that still preyed on the European and American ships that sailed into their territories in the mid tropics. There had been the days of tedium and boredom, of quarrelsome crews and tyrannical officers. When he looked into his eyes now he saw a man who was tired, and who had been somewhat disillusioned with the life he had chosen to replace life on the Ponderosa.

There was a slight tap on the door and a Midshipman stepped into the office and snapped a salute, “Admirals barge ready for you now, sir.”

“Thank you,” he picked up his hat which he placed carefully on his dark hair, and left the cabin, closing the door quietly behind him.

It was springtime in the year 1866 and the water was as still as it could be as the barge nosed its way into harbour and docked within five minutes of leaving the Redoubt. It took several minutes to climb the steps to the harbour and climb into a carriage which set straight off for the Admirals quarters. Adam sat in the carriage and watched the people going about their business. His mind drifted back to the time he had reported to the Captain of his first ship and within an hour had longed to be home. He smiled to himself at the memory, it had been worse than the first day at college, and he a full grown man too. But it was such a different world, such a small, self contained, all important world and with so much to learn.

He had been quick to learn, methodical and disciplined. His Captain had liked him and better still, had respected him as well. That had gone a long way to his early promotion.

And now here he was, back on dry land, and after four years he had a slight roll to his stride, a darker skin, and more experiences of human endurance suffered through four years than most men had in a lifetime. Being disillusioned with life at sea, however, did not mean he was not proud of what he had achieved, for he was all of that, and a right to be, but it palled in comparison to his memories of life on the Ponderosa.

……….

Several hours later and Captain Adam Cartwright, immaculate in his dress uniform, was standing amidst a cluster of other naval officers at the soiree arranged by the Admiral and his wife, who had invited a handful of army officers and their wives and daughters.

Adam Cartwright had been away at sea for over a year and within fifteen minutes of being amidst the babbling crowds at this event he was thinking and wishing he were back on board again and in his cabin reading the letters that contained news from home.

He listened to what was being said with close attention and replied only when necessary. He listened to them and thought about his family, and wondered what they were doing and when they would receive his cable.

One of the lieutenants leaned towards him and nudged his arm,

“Have you met the army’s new golden boy yet?” he was asked

“No, who is it this time?”

“Over there? “ came the reply and Adam turned to looked at a young man who was, at the same moment, looking quite seriously over at him, and seeing Adam turn, raised his glass of wine in salute.

He was of average height and slim, with a very keen pair of eyes, narrowed as was natural for someone constantly scanning the horizon against the glare of the sun. He was handsome with golden hair that was long, and with moustaches and goatee neatly trimmed. To continue the rather cavalier appearance he wore a uniform of somewhat extravagent design, with a lot of gold braiding and buttons and wide lapels. He was obviously full of energy for he seemed barely able to stand still for a second, and constantly moving. His wife, standing at his side, was the complete reverse, being dark and petite, pretty and very placid.

She glanced over now in the direction that her husband was looking and observed the young seaman in his attractive dress uniform and thought what a charmingly handsome figure with his height and proud bearing. He had dark eyes and a well shaped mouth, a strong stubborn chin and dark hair that curled over the collar of his jacket.

“He was acting General in Missouri during the war,” the Lieutenant murmured in Adams ear, “Very impressive army record apparently.”

Adam frowned and glanced again at the army officer who was regarding him with a hint of mockery in his large eyes. Once again he acknowledged Adam, only this time with a nod of the head,

“They’ve given him a complete unit of his own. They’ve called it the Seventh Cavalry” the lieutenant smiled slowly “And he’s called George Armstrong Custer.*”

The name meant nothing to Adam, who was already thinking of ways and means to escape back to his cabin and his letters when there came a nudge to his elbow and turning he saw the man, George Custer, standing at his side

“I thought, when I first saw you, that you were a man more used to riding a horse than walking a ships deck. Am I right?” Custer said, and pushed a glass of wine into Adams hand. He was obviously a man who did not believe in the niceties of small talk.

“You may be right,” Adam said quietly, “My names Cartwright, Adam Cartwright” and he extended his hand which the officer took and gripped firmly.

“George, George Custer” and with cool eye he looked Adam up and down and then nodded “I’ve been hearing a lot about you, Captain Cartwright. It’s a pity you won’t consider changing a poop deck for a cavalry charger, I could do with men of your calibre and experience.”

“Really? Now how would four years at sea be of any help to you, Captain Custer?”

“Plenty. You’re used to command for one, and discipline,” he frowned, “Most of the men who make up my unit are a rag tag crew from all over the place, most of them joined up to fight Indians out west to avoid fighting during the war. None of them disciplined to the standards I require of a crack unit. Now, I believe you would know how to handle yourself, as an officer and a gentleman, so why not give it a thought.”

“I already have a command of my own, sir.”

“I told you, Captain, that I’ve heard a lot about you. Now I know that you will be paying off your ships company tomorrow and that your ship will be going into dry dock for repairs and you will be on leave for two months.” Custer smiled but his eyes remained fixed on Adam’s face, narrowed and intense.

“If permitted. I still have to see my superiors about that, they may have another ship ready of which I am to take command.” Adam smiled slowly, but his eyes did not, and he raised the wine to his lips and sipped it casually.

“Well, let me know if you change your mind,” Custer said and shook Adams hand again before returning to his wifes side.

Adam smiled to himself and finished his drink. After spending a very long and boring hour in small talk with several others there, he made his excuses to his host and hostess and made a hasty retreat to his ship.
Chapter 12

There was nothing so wonderful as returning from sea to find a pile of letters from home. Very carefully he arranged them in chronological order and began to read them. Bens were always full of news, advice, anxious fatherly counsel and reminiscences of his seafaring days. Hoss wrote wonderfully detailed letters in which he asked his brothers advice about some problem and solved it himself by the end of the letter. There were anecdotes from many a source and lurid details of their latest adventures. Hoss had the gift of a novelist but did not realise it.

Joe’s letters were always a mixed bag, sometimes humorous and oftentimes written in the style of the dime novels he loved reading so much, so that it was often difficult to separate fact from fiction. Adam often found himself laughing out aloud when reading Joe’s letters and then growing melancholy because they made him miss them all so much.

Joe’s next letter informed him of his desire to leave the Ponderosa and get the itch from his feet. To explore the vast wild lands and swallow up the enormity of it all. He assured his brother that he would be gone for about a year, because he would never want to be far from the Ponderosa for long. He also told Adam that his father was not too happy about another of his sons leaving home. Adam sighed and shook his head and rather anxiously picked up the next letter from his father.

He lost count of the number of times he read “I am really anxious about Joe” in Bens letter. The sadness that poured out of the written page made Adams heart ache and his conscience tear him apart with guilt. Had it been his going to sea that had prompted Joe to spread his wings too? Was he to blame for his brothers restlessness and desire to wander further afield?

Hoss wrote on a more reassuring theme, consoling Adam in assuring his brother that Ben had given Joe his blessing to go. It was such a warm and gentle letter that Adam realised yet again the depths of his big brothers feelings for them all.
It made Adam ache to be home. With such a feeling uppermost in his mind and heart he carefully slit open the penultimate envelope, and smiled in anticipation of his youngest brothers further revelations and antics. His heart sank however when he read what Joseph had penned months earlier .

“Dear Adam October 13th 1865

I seem to have ridden into a hornets nest here. Things are changing at such a rate and it seems to me that there is going to be one huge explosion hereabouts and yours truly could well be caught slap bang in the middle of it.

I don’t know when your next planned leave may be, Adam, but should I not be home when you get there would you remember to take up the middle board under my bed because that is where I have left my Will and Testament.

I have just written to Pa and Hoss, but I had written and sealed my letter by the time I got to talking to Lieutenant Nordstrum, he’s an old friend of Pa’s from Pa’s army days. Adam, tell Hoss I love him with all my heart, oh…can’t write no more, I can’t seem to think straight just now…look, Adam, you know without my having to write the words, don’t you?
Your brother, Joseph.”

Adam let the letter slip back onto his desk and stared at it disbelievingly. October? That was over seven months ago? Anything could have happened by now!

Almost despairingly he picked up the cablegram and checked the date it had been forwarded…April 1866…he swallowed hard and slit it open and read:

“Captain Cartwright…. –saw Joseph today-can’t say much but feel he is in great danger-contact me – ask for me by name- Nordstrum”

Adam chewed his bottom lip for a moment and then picked up Joe’s letter and re-read it, and stared at the words for a long time thereafter, so long in fact that the words began to blur. He knew exactly what he had to do now and with a long, drawn out sigh, he stood up and began to take off his dress uniform.

Chapter

The banging on the door made Hop Sing drop several pan cakes on the floor and Ben burnt his fingers on the match that he had forgotten to put out as he walked hurriedly to the door.

“Tom? Are you alright, man?” he asked in amazement as Tom Riley stepped into the house, pulling his hat from his head so that his hair stood up on end even more so than usual.

“What’s wrong, Tom? You look fer shore like someone with a pretty big problem on his mind!” Hoss murmured, closing the door behind the young man.

Tom opened his mouth and started to speak but nothing came out of his mouth, he twisted his hat round and round in his hands and then dropped it…and then, taking a large gulp of air, he exclaimed,

“I’m mighty sorry about all this, Mr Cartwright, sir…Hoss…” he glanced around the room to make sure that everyone had been duly apologised to, “Fact is, it happened when I took time off a few weeks back.”

“Go on.” Ben prompted impatiently, and with a horrible foreboding in his bones.

“Well, Harvey Penrose took over from me for the week, but for some days he was so busy that he took some short cuts and I never found out until I was clearing out the desk and doing some sorting out because of a lull this morning. I found this…” he pulled out a tattered envelope “I’m real sorry about this. It should have been brought round to you but the message was jest writ out and put in the drawer but when I sees it I jest knew I had to git it here rightaway” and he thrust the offending piece of paper into Bens hands “I am thet sorry, Mr Cartwright.” he mumbled

Ben looked at the cablegram and frowned, then looked at Tom “You’ve had this in your drawer for all these weeks?” he growled.

“OH..I..I know..but as I said…I didn’t see it until this morning. It shouldn’t have been there.“ he turned to Hoss with his eyes wide in appeal “Then the baby was took real bad and you know how it is?”

“It’s alright, Tom. We appreciate that you took the trouble to ride out here to bring it to us this evening, don’t we, Pa?” and he looked at Ben and the rancher scowled and growled and turned to the fire, followed by his son.

Tom Riley decided it was time to go and biding everyone good evening he duly made his departure. “What does it say, Pa?” he heard Hoss ask his father, and poor Tom’s heart sunk at the note of anxiety that he heard in those five words. He was glad to shut the door behind him and cross the yard where his horse was waiting to take him back home.

“It’s from someone I knew years ago when I was in the army. He served as a rookie soldier under Jonathan Fry.” Ben frowned “Nordstrum, he’s a lieutenant now.” his voice trailed off and he looked up at Hoss and saw his anxious face and nodded, “Well, it seems Joe has got into some trouble in Indian territory.”

“Trouble? What kind of trouble?” Hoss asked, reaching for the cable to read the news for himself.

“He doesn’t say.” Ben forced a smile, “ But he feels we should be there” frowned now and the dark eyes dilated until they were near black “this cable being held back by that young idiot in town -.”

“Pa, he didn’t mean it Tom did his best” Hoss murmured.

“Anyway” Ben stood up, “It’ll mean an early start tomorrow. “Joe needs our help.

With a sigh Hoss followed his father to the study where they pulled out the maps and began to unroll them over the desk, moving lamps and other papers out of the way as they did so.

……………….

Mrning dawned with a sky streaked with gold and pink and scarlet tinted clouds that slowly faded away to reveal the blue sky. Ben pulled on his gun belt, picked up his hat and looked around the room. By his side Hoss was pulling on his big coat.

They closed the door behind them,, both wondering as they did so, when they would return to it again, and whether or not they would be bringing Joe with them. Buck and Chubb were already saddled and ready to go, and a pack horse was nodding as though in agreement with the whole arrangement.

At the window Hop Sing watched them go with sorrow in his dark almond eyes. He watched until the two men rounded the corner by the barn and disappeared from his view. He shook his head, looked at the room, and listened to the eeriness of silence as it settled like a blanket around the house.
Chapter

In Joe’s room, Hop Sing placed the newly laundered bed linen. It was a weekly ritual and he had seen no reason to change it merely because the occupant was not occupying the room at that time. Likewise with Adam’s room. Every week the bed linen was replaced with that which had been freshly laundered.

His head was going round and round with anxiety, and ideas. He had grown with this family. He was no mere servant, but friend and aide. He had been the one to whom Little Joe had clung when his mother had died, because Ben, Hoss and Adam had been too steeped in their grief to give the child all the time that he had needed. It was he who had coaxed the boy into going to school, who could tease him into doing what he should do rather than what he wanted to do.

It was Hop Sing who had held Marie’s hand when she went into labour with the boy, and it was he who had promised her not to let anyone hurt her baby.

He sat down on the edge of Adam’s bed and looked around the room. Just as Ben had felt those weeks earlier, so now did he. A room was just a box with things in it when the person who breathed life into it was missing. Only when a person who had a purpose for being there was present, did any of those material things have any meaning.

His dark eyes wandered from one item to the next. Adam’s school books, his maps, the atlas … in the wardrobe would be his black shirts, the special white ones for those occasions when his father had required him to ’look smart’.

Hop Sing shook his head from side to side. It was no good. He couldn’t just stay here, rattling around an empty house. What if Mr Ben and Hoss never returned? What is Mr Adam came back and no one else was here?

He closed the door firmly and hurried down the stairs to his own room. It took little time to pack his carpet bag with his personal necessities. It took a little more time to pack food items into a sack, he may be travelling over rough terrain but he would still need to cook Mr Hoss the things he liked.

He locked the door and slipped the key into it’s hiding place. In the stable he saddled his own horse and led it out into the yard. After that he went to the bunkhouse and gave instructions to the men there on what they were to do until his return.

He left them all wondering just what the dickens was going on?

Chapter 14

Adam Cartwright brought his horse to a halt and looked cautiously about him.
This land was alien to him and he knew little about its trails and pathways. It had not been too difficult to follow the path of previous settlers, prospectors and militia however. The debris that had been cast aside in their passage was easy enough to follow. It was, however, those times when he ventured, in his search for Joe, to go further into Indian Territory. The maps of the area at that time were few and far between, so most of the directions he was given came via word of mouth.

Every so often someone would know of the name Nordstrum, and some times there was even mention of a white man who rode a paint horse with the Cheyenne a long way from there. People had ‘heard’ tales, no one had actually seen either Nordstrum or Joe for themselves. But buoyed up by these scant references the searcher continued on regardless of the difficulties.

But at this precise moment he stopped from going any further. Indian lore was not dissimilar, their patterns of travel known to any tribe who may have ventured from their own territory. Pauite would recognise Sioux markings as easily as they could Mojave. Adam remembering now the education he had received from Winnemucca’s people stopped now and turned his horse back.

He stopped for a moment and took off his hat. Sitting astride the animal with his dark head bared to the still weak sun, he paid his respects to the dead that were not far beyond the boundary markings he had recognised. Had he ventured pass these he would have broken a taboo, ventured onto sacred burial land. It would not have made his journey any easier for he knew around these places there would be watchful eyes scrutinising his every move.

He looked upon the trees in which the bodies had been placed. This was the way of the Sioux and Cheyenne. To wrap the dead in the favoured blanket or buffalo hide, with their best loved items wrapped in the coverings or draped over their bodies. He sighed and turned away, his hat still in his hand, and feeling melancholy as the thought touched him that it had been many months since Joe had written to him, and anything could have happened to him by now. Perhaps even death had swooped down and wrapped its wings about him and carried him off.

He replaced his hat and straightened his back. He had seen too much of death during the past four years. He had thought life in a gold boom town in Nevada bad enough, but life at sea provided no peaceful kindly compensation.

He urged the horse into a gallop. Putting as much distance from the burial ground to his next campsite would, he hoped, dispel the melancholy.

……….

Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors had began to trickle back to the Smoky Hills in small bands.* Some, like George Bent, had rejoined Black Kettle below the Arkansas* but most had chosen to remain where they could still hunt for game. One of those who had ridden back to the Smoky Hills was the great Cheyenne war leader, Roman Nose,* who would die at the siege of Beechers Creek some years later.

It intrigued Roman Nose to see this lone white man riding through the Smoky Hills as though ignorant as to whom they truly belonged. He watched, along with a band of eager young man, from the hills as Adam threaded his way among the rocks and boulders towards a stream which promised a good camp site for the evening.

Adam felt as though he were being watched but kept his eyes fixed ahead. To dwell too long upon the possibility of an Indian behind every rock would be foolishness. There would have been little point in riding out on this venture at all if he were to think of the vast number of negatives involved in the journey.

He finally found a reasonable site for a camp and dismounted. Stiff legged, for he had ridden without pausing for most of the day, he led the horse to where it could be tethered. He walked to the stream and leaned upon one knee, stooping to scoop up the water in one hand. He had the water to his mouth when he saw the reflection of the man standing behind him.

The war club of a Cheyenne could crush a mans skull with one blow, so it was something of a surprise to Adam to open his eyes and find his head in one piece; it did feel as though it was cracked that was for sure. The pain between his eyes was such that he involuntarily closed his eyes again before raising a hand to touch his head.

Roman Nose surveyed him thoughtfully. He sat cross legged only a few feet away from his captive. A fire blazed cheerily between them. When Adam opened his eyes again he could see the shadowy figures of other Indians further away. He looked at Roman Nose who was watching him closely.

“You let me live?” Adam said quietly.

Roman Nose shrugged,

“Why worry about one flea on the back of a dog,” he replied.

Adam shrugged in return. It was hardly a compliment but indicated that the man opposite had a rather wry sense of humour and could converse in English. Adam touched his head again and struggled into a more dignified sitting position.

“Thank you.” he nodded, and looked around him, he could estimate there being at least twenty other men there. “I’m Adam Cartwright.” he extended his hand, but it was ignored.

“I am Roman Nose, a dog soldier of the Cheyenne.” the other replied and he leaned forward as though wanting to put the white man more at ease, his manner was relaxed and open, for he was a good humoured man, in his prime at this time, and although not in agreement with Black Kettle’s policy of peace with the white men, was still open minded enough to tolerate one on his own. “Why are you here in the Smoky Hills?”

“I’m looking for my brother.”

“You have lost your brother then?” Roman Nose pulled a wry face, almost a grimace as though the statement was meant to be humorous.

“I have heard that he rides with the Cheyenne. He is a friend of a man called George Bent.”

There was a pause. Another man came and sat beside Roman Nose. He looked at Adam with colder eyes than the first man, and was less friendly. He spoke quickly with the Cheyenne, who nodded several times although he kept his eyes on Adam.

“Where are you from?” Roman Nose asked, “Are there bluecoats with you? Are you alone?”

“You know that I am alone.” Adam replied quietly, although slightly unnerved by the hostile stance of the second man who was sitting very erect and stiff beside the warrior, he had no doubt at all that he would have been dead by now had he had his say in the matter.

“Yes, we have seen you for a while now. You did well not to break the taboo.”

“My father is a close friend of a great Chief, Winnemucca of the Paiute. I have not forgotten the things he taught me.”

“Paiute? Huh.” Roman Nose nodded, although he didn’t sound very complimentary about the Paiute either. “You are a long way from home.”

“Yes, but I need to find my brother.”

“You know that soon there will be war between the white man and the People? Are you not afraid to ride through these lands alone?”

“What has one flea to worry about?” Adam replied and shrugged.

Roman Nose smiled, the dark eyes were lost in the folds of skin from the high cheekbones.

“Who is your brother?”

“Joseph Cartwright. He rides a black and white horse. I have heard stories that he rides with Cheyenne.”

The two men observed him thoughtfully, then spoke together. Roman Nose dismissed the second man after a while and this Cheyenne walked away, returning with a canteen of water which he handed over to Adam.

“There is a white soldier who once we called Hard Backsides* because he could ride so well for so long. Perhaps we should call you Hard Backsides, you have ridden all day without stopping, you have not faltered from your path.”

Adam said nothing, promotion from flea to this honourable status within minutes. He drank some of the water while wondering if he would be elevated to an even higher status before the interview was over. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, and returned the canteen to the other Indian. Or, perhaps, he would get another clout across the head and just be dead meat.

“The blue coat soldiers crawl all over the Smoky Hills. This is our land. We do not want to be driven from it. Red Cloud fights in the Powder River* and kills many blue coats. We shall do the same here if the blue coat soldiers continue to force us to leave. You must tell that to Pahuska* when you see him.”

“I do not know who you mean? This Pahuska? Who is he?” Adam asked, grateful for the fact that they were not intending to kill him if he were to be a messenger on their behalf.

“The one with Yellow Hair. The one called Custer, whom we knew as Hard Backsides.” Roman Nose leaned forward, “Tell him, if he comes into our sacred hills, he will die. His yellow hair … will be the reward for the one who kills him.”

Adam nodded, and looked at the two men before rubbing the back of his head again,

“So? Have you heard about my brother? About George Bent?”

“George is my brother,” the other man said coldly, “I am Charlie Bent.*”
“Then will you take me to him? To your brother and mine?” Adam asked eagerly.

“No. My brother and I no longer are brothers. He chose the way of Black Kettle, and Black Kettle is like a woman, weak and giving gifts to the white man. Gifts of our land. My brother chose to marry and stay with Black Kettle. The white man of whom you speak, your brother, is with them. It is a long way yet.”

“Would you or one of your men take me there?”

They laughed, a low chuckle as though they found the whole thing quite amusing.

“No, white man, you must find your own way there. It is a long way but it is not hard to find them. Follow the river here, head for the south. You will find them, or they will find you. You are not difficult to find.” Charlie Bent said coldly, although there was a note of laughter in his voice, although not kindly.

Adam nodded. Roman Nose stood up, indicating that the interview between them was over. Adam also rose to his feet, and waited for the other man to speak.

“The Paiute? Are they women too?” he asked, “Do they live at peace with their white neighbours?”

“Yes.” Adam replied, wishing that he could stress that white man and Paiute lived peacefully side by side but knowing that even in Virginia City there were times when the peace was much strained.

“Perhaps there will be peace between the white men and the People one day. But not yet. When the scalp of the yellow hair hangs from my lance, perhaps then.”
Roman Nose looked at Adam as though expecting him to protest, to plead, maybe even to grovel. But when Adam said and did nothing, he shrugged, “I hope you find your brother, white man.”

Chapter 15

The months had rolled along without Little Joe realising just how swiftly. Winter had been spent in a manner much suited to his personal inclinations, with no chores, no having to check the fences after gales and blizzards, nor checking the livestock to make sure they had food, and had survived the worse of the weather, no having to check the water holes. Instead he had spent evenings in good company in warm lodges.

He had heard stories of the past, discussed various theories on the future, sang songs, listened to poetry, gambled and lost, gambled and won. He had met young men frustrated at the ties of loyalty to an old man who longed for peace. He had talked with the old men who spent the evenings walking with their history.

During the spring he had ridden with George Bent and his new found friends on the hunts, and marvelled at the skill of these intrepid men who under the white man’s laws were no longer permitted to use rifles or to hunt. Although Black Kettle had ‘touched the pen’ (unable to write his name the whiteman’s way the Indians would touch the pen and the scribe would write the name by the mark made) on the Agreement many of the Cheyenne knew they would die if they could not get food by way of hunting. It was a risk, but one they had to accept.

The Indian Agent, a man called Wynkoop* was a close friend of the old Chief and tried in vein to get him to persuade the younger men to stop hunting. He warned them repeatedly that the soldiers were mustering and it could only mean trouble. But no one paid any heed, and Joe was glad they didn’t. Time trickled by and even when he knew he could now return home, that the way was clear of snow and any other obstacle, still he remained in the Cheyenne camp below the Arkansas.

Now it was early summer and he was still here. He found himself trapped with his own thoughts, procrastinating at his own decisions. He who was so impulsive was now holding back and he could not understand as to the reason why?

He sat alone by the rivers edge and watched the waters as they continued their endless quest for the sea. Always onwards, surging one way and tumbling another. So much a continuous fluid mass that no one could ever doubt its existence having always been and remaining forever constant. Life, Little Joe thought, was never quite like that for one searches for so much and when one finds it, well, may be one can keep hold of it for an instant before the search pulls one back into its vortex and urges one forwards.

A soft footfall near by and he turned and saw her walking towards him. He sighed and wondered why he tormented himself with thoughts, with questions. The answers to them all were there, now approaching him with a wistful smile on her lips.

“Little Moon?”

“I have come,” she replied and came and sat down by his side. She was tall and slim, and her head was held proudly upon her slender neck and her dark hair fell loose to her waist in a thick blue black mantle.

He took a strand of the dark hair within his fingers and held it to his nose and smelt the freshness of flowers. He smiled and looked up at her and remembered how he had felt when he had ridden back to the village. She had looked at him with her dark eyes with the long velvet lashes and had spoken her first word since Sand Creek and that word was his own name.

He loved her. Quite simply he loved the sight of her, and the smell of her and the very sound of her. His heart beat so fast when he thought of her, and his dreams were turbulent ones of her. Her name he would hear whispering through his brain like a pulse beat that kept him alive. She was the reason he had stayed with the people here. He took her small face in his hands and drew her closer and kissed her mouth. So softly did she return the kiss that he did not know whether the flesh of her lips had even touched his but a mere breath brushed past them.

“I love you, Little Moon,” he said quietly and smiled, wondering if she would guess that his friend, Stalking Horse, had spent most of the morning teaching him to say the words in the dialect of the Southern Cheyenne

She smiled, whispered something in the Lakota tongue, before looking down at the way their fingers were entwined and thinking that if they married, that would be how their lives would become forever.

“I’ll take you with me, to the Ponderosa.” he said softly and raised her fingers to his lips and kissed them again.

“One day?”

“Soon.” he smiled and nodded to affirm his promise. Yes, he would take her home with him. Ben would love her like a daughter, and Hoss would love her as a sister. And when Adam came home he would have one mighty big surprise.

She sighed, raised her dark eyes and looked through the long fringe of her lashes. He melted and felt himself swimming in the dark orbs and took her into his arms, held her close and kissed her again.

She smiled and closed her eyes and kissed him, and kissed him again.

……………….

“Did you tell her?” Stalking Horse asked him later that evening, as they sat in front of the fire and ate their supper

“Yes, I told her,” Joe grinned and pulled meat from the bone and ate it hungrily

“And what did she reply?”

“She said that she loved me too,” Joe licked grease from his fingers and then pulled off some bread which he chewed slowly.

“That’s good” Stalking Horse grinned and nudged him and the two young men laughed and continued to eat in companionable silence.

After some moments had passed Stalking Horse looked thoughtfully at Joe, tossed down the remnant of his meal and with a sigh folded his arms across his chest, and sunk his chin upon his chest,

“There has been talk in the camp today,” he said solemnly.

“What about?” Joe asked, pausing in the act of putting bread to his mouth.

“Some of us want to stay with Black Kettle, but some would rather go with Roman Nose*and play at war with our cousins on the Bozeman .*”

“You would not be playing games, my friend” Joe replied very quietly .

“I know,” Stalking Horse frowned, “But what is to be gained running away all the time?“ Joe thought about the question a little before replying,

“I thought peace was always the prize one ran for the hardest, I never thought of it as running away, but running towards. One day the prize will be won.”

“Little Moon love you but you are a white man, that is something else which she is not sure about.”

That I am a white man?” Joe frowned and felt a niggle of anxiety touch his heart,

“That a white man can love and be loyal. Time alone will prove that I suppose.”

Time alone? He thought about it. It was understandable considering what was happening at that time. Red Clouds war*on the Bozeman had erupted, there were constant rumours in the village and the feeling of impending doom spread like a dark cloud over the usually uninhibited people. He sighed and finished his meal with a cool draught of water and retired to his bed. He closed his eyes and thought of his father and wondered what he would do, and longed to see him again, to see Hoss and Adam. The longing surged through him so strongly that he had to sit up and catch his breath.

All of a sudden it just seemed that he was much too far away from them all.

Chapter 16

Magpie knelt at the water’s edge and filled the gourd carefully. She was happy with her life, having been recently married to George, and she loved this land where they were camped. She sighed contentedly as the water flowed into the gourd, and satisfied that it was full, she inserted the stopper and got to her feet.

She was an attractive looking woman, although no beauty. Were she to live to middle age she would become as wide as she was high. Her contentment with life, and her confidence in herself as a woman, made her the ideal companion for George who had his inner demons to fight, that being his white half battling his Cheyenne half.

She paused now as her eyes fell upon Little Moon. The young girl had not seen her, so Magpie was able to observe her in silence for some minutes, with her head to one side and her dark eyes gentle and wondering. She could remember the sadness that Little Moon had already encountered in her young life. It was hard to bear but made a little easier because there had been so many who had suffered that particular time. It had shattered the lives even of those who had not been personally affected for the confidence they had in themselves as a nation of people had been crushed.

Magpie looked around her once again, at the mountains and the trees, even to the river. All this land was but a tiny speck of what had once been the Peoples. Now Black Kettle was talking about leaving here, rather than fight the white soldiers to keep it. Old Wash-a-kie (Rawhide Rattle) the Shoshone Chief had sworn never to fight the whites, and he had given away land and seen his people pushed into reservations, but he still would not fight to keep what little had been left to them.

She did not want to leave the Smoky Hills. With this in mind she began to walk to her tepee, halting only when she heard her name being called. She turned and looked at Little Moon and smiled,

“You look lovely today, Little Moon. I think something happy has happened for you.” her dark eyes twinkled, and she nodded as though in affirmation of her assumption.

“Sit with me a little while, Magpie.” Little Moon placed a hand flat down on the grass by her side, and Magpie approached and sat by her friend, and smiled into her face.

For a while they said nothing. Two young women sitting side by side with the sun beaming down upon their dark heads and making the colours of the beads around their necks and upon their arms bright and charming.

“What were you thinking about when you came for the water? I saw you looking about you and you looked so deep in thought.” Little Moon asked her friend, hoping to shy away from the subject of her beloved Joseph.

“I was thinking of how much I loved this land. I was thinking that the Great Spirit blessed us richly when he placed our people here.” Magpie replied.

“Does that make you happy?”

“Yes – but now I also feel sad because I know that we may have to leave here. We may never return, perhaps.” she looked slyly at Little Moon, and smiled, “But you, Little Moon, you might be leaving here for some other place, may be? Is that not so?”

Little Moon sighed and wrapped her arms around her knees which she had drawn up close to her chest. She stared far away at the blue sky and it seemed to Magpie that she was looking even beyond there, far away to the far distant future.

“Magpie, I love Joseph.” she whispered shyly, and her long lashes swept over her cheeks as though she were too overwhelmed by this disclosure to look up at her friends face.

“Yes. I know that, but does he love you?”

“He says that he does,” the younger girl sighed, “He said he would take me to his family far away to where the Paiute live.”

“And you will be his wife?”

“Perhaps, one day.”

Magpie said nothing. She knew the difficulties of being married to a man who was half white, but being the wife of a full blooded white … well, that would present problems of quite another sort. She frowned, and like Little Moon, stared out far across to the horizon,

“Are you not happy that he loves you? He is a handsome man, and the young men speak well of him. They say he is brave and has good humour.”

“Yes, he is brave. I love him, Magpie. My whole being is exhausted by this love for him.”

Magpie frowned once again, and looked at her friend anxiously.

“Is it because he is a white man?”

“How can one trust a white man?” Little Moon whispered, “ They lie to us, and steal from us, all the time. Even the ones we have trusted for many years do little to help us keep our land. I love the land of the people, Magpie, how can I leave it?”

“White people are very … difficult to understand” Magpie had paused in her attempt to find the right words, “But we have some good friends who are white. Agent Wynkoop is a good friend.”

“Do you not know that the white men who are friends to us, often disappear?” there was a slightly bitter twist to the sound of Little Moon’s voice and she shook her head, “My Joseph is a good man. He is strong. He loves me.” she shook her head again, “He does love me, doesn’t he, Magpie?”

She looked at her friend then, and Magpie was surprised to see a tear trickling from the beautiful eyes and the full lips were trembling. She put out an arm and held the girl close to her, and sighed,

“If I could look into his heart, Little Moon, I would surely be able to say yes, he loves you. I am sure every beat of his heart bears your name. Look, he is a man after all. What does it matter about the colour of his skin?”

“It matters.” Little Moon moaned softly, “He may not think it does now, but there will come a time when it will matter very much. When he holds our first child, he will see a child who is Cheyenne. What will he think then? What will his people think?”

“They will think how wonderful it is that you found one another and have such lovely children.” Magpie put a smile in her voice, knowing only too well the conflict that such children had within them once they realised they were of mixed race. Sometimes they discovered the reality in cruel ways, and thinking upon this, she gave her friend a hug, drawing her closer into her body.

“Magpie, I don’t know what to do.” Little Moon whispered, and wiped the tears from her cheeks, “I love him and he loves me. There should be nothing to stop us from being happy. But …” she sighed, and closed her eyes.

As the sun shone upon them both, they sat together, one with her arm around the other, close as two friends could be, and with their heads touching. It was a cameo picture that would have delighted an artists eye, a snatch at beauty in tranquillity. Except that in the hearts of them both there was only turmoil.

Chapter 17

Wynkoop, the Indian Agent authorised by the Government to administer to the needs of the Indians, looked at Joseph Cartwright warily, and then he shook his head

“I’m sorry, Mr Cartwright, but I can’t let you use the telegraph. You ain’t authorised to do so by the Government and that’s that, I’m afraid.”

“But you can send a telegram for me, can’t you?” Joe asked, putting on the most distressed expression on his face, which was far more real than pretence, “I’ve not contacted my family for months, and they must be concerned. All I want to do is assure them that I’m still alive and will be coming home.”

Wynkoop looked thoughtfully at the young man and then beckoned to an empty chair upon which Joe sat.

“Look, lad, I would if I could. But one of the rules we have to comply with is the one about the telegraph. I can only use it for Government purposes and in an emergency.” he raised a hand to silence the words that were about to spill from Joe’s mouth, “I can’t do it for you, I really can’t.”

“For goodness sake, Mr Wynkoop, it need only be a few words …”

Wynkoop shook his head again, and his face showed sincere sympathy for Joe as the younger man’s face crumpled. Joe bowed his head and stared down at his hands,

“Mr Cartwright, if you were that concerned about your family why on earth don’t you just ride down to one of the Forts or settlements around here and contact them from there? Or, at worse, you could send a letter.”

Joe sighed heavily and then slowly pulled out a rather thick package, sealed in an oilskin wrapping.

“I’ve written something for almost every day I’ve been away from them. A journal I guess you’d call it.” he raised pleading eyes to Wynkoop, “Could you see to it that it’s sent to my father?”

Wynkoop stretched out a hand and took the package, then looked at Joe thoughtfully,

“I’m trying my best to give these people every chance I can, Mr Cartwright. People watch and notice things, little things. Now, using the telegraph against the rules may seem just a little thing to you, but it could be used against me, you know? That’s how things get messy in my line of business. I can’t risk what little good I can do for these people by breaking a little rule. Do you understand me?”

Joe nodded, and took the mans hand in a firm grip, and sighed again,

“I got into a bit of trouble at one of their Forts. News travels fast, and they seem to have long memories, every time I got near the other settlements they either took pot shots at me, or caused trouble. It just got to be too risky.” he picked up his hat and placed it over his now overlong curls, “More than anything I wanted my Pa to know I was alright here. But it just got more and more difficult.”
“I understand. I’ve heard the rumours about you. The white man on the paint horse, who rides with the Cheyenne. I can understand how difficult it must be for you, lad, but …”

“I know, you can’t bend the rules just on my account.”

“I have to think of more than just the one person,” Wynkoop smiled wistfully, and then picked up Joe’s package, “I’ll make sure this gets sent with the next mail bag. I promise you that.”

“I shall be leaving this territory soon, Mr Wynkoop. I want to go home.” Joe said quietly, “I miss my Pa, and my brothers.”

Wynkoop nodded, he would have liked to have told Joe how much he was missing his family, but again, it was one of those little things that could have been used against him later on. They shook hands once again, shared a brief smile and parted.

As the door closed Wynkoop resumed his seat, and looked at the package. He read the address and thought what a distance it would have to travel to reach The Ponderosa in Nevada. He heard the sound of a horse galloping from the Agency building, listened until it had faded away to nothingness. Well, there was work to do and so he resumed doing it, every now and again glancing at the package on the table, the journal of Joe Cartwright’s life for the past who knew how many months?

With his reports finished and darkness descending upon the building, Wynkoop left the Agency. Joe’s package was placed carefully among the reports and letters that was in a canvas US Mail bag. In the morning it would be collected and begin its journey home.

Chapter 18

Ben Cartwright poked at the fire and watched as the flames shot up the chimney and left red sparks glowing against the soot, he watched them gather together and slowly die away to become mere specks of soot themselves.

Hop Sing paused at the table and looked over at his friend. It had been very hard for Ben to have to admit defeat and turn his horse back home. Only two weeks into the journey and they had been caught in a torrential rain storm. Perhaps Ben had already been ill, but the cold and the constant rain had brought on a chill and a fever. After two days they had been forced to stay in their camp which had been a fortuitous find of a rather dilapidated line shack which leaked and was very cold. And Ben had been too ill to continue So ill in fact that when Hoss and Hop Sing had suggested that he return home with Hop Sing he made no fuss but seemed grateful only that it was they who had made the suggestion and not he himself.

The return journey for both Hop Sing and Ben had taken far longer than they had envisaged. His health had deteriorated to such an extent that by the time they had reached the Ponderosa he had pneumonia. Suffice to say he was too ill to even realise he was home, and for some time raved in fever induced delirium about the journey, about his sons, and about the constant rain.

A whole month before he had been well enough to come downstairs. A month of slow recovery as he railed bitterly against his weakness and confinement. He had been a most difficult time for them both. Hop Sing could do little to prevent the rancher from anxiety and fear for his sons. It did not help when there was such a lack of news which fed the sick mans imagination to a depressing extent.

Spring had slipped into wonderful summer weather. But its beauty seemed lost entirely to Ben as he struggled to regain his health. Each day, each week that slipped by was added frustration. Each day he promised himself and any who happened to be at the Ponderosa at the time, that he would recommence his journey as soon as he possibly could. And each time he said it, Hop Sing would sigh and shake his head, retire to his kitchen and bang saucepans about.

Hop Sing sighed and slowly began to set out the table placing, watching Ben as he slowly sunk back in his chair and groped for his pipe, remembered Dr Martin’s instructions and ground his teeth in anger. He looked over at his friend, and met the dark gaze surveying him

“If I had thought Paul was going to cut me off from my pipe” he growled, a scowl on his brow. “I’d never have had him near the house. A good smoke would clear my lungs.”

Hop Sing forebore to mention that Ben had been totally out of his head with no say in the matter. He nodded, and looked away,

“A good smoke would make you worse. You not argue so much, then get better” he scolded in return, waving a fork at his friend as though mortified at the thought of Ben disobeying Dr Paul’s instructions.

“I’m just annoyed that we had to come back and leave Hoss on his own to find Joe.”

“He find Joe alright, and then they will both come home.” Hop Sing sighed, how often had this conversation been pursued. It would go round and round and round, as always. He shook his head and began muttering to himself beneath his breath.

Ben sat back with his head resting against the back of the big leather chair and he closed his eyes. Yet again he thought of the last sight of Hoss as he and Chubb had ridden away from them, the pack horse keeping pace.

More than once he thanked God for Hop Sing. The patience of the man was a wonder, and his loyalty something that could never be repaid in silver or gold. Only his tender care had saved Ben’s life those days in the line shack, with the rain trickling through the roof, and he raving in feverish delirium on the floor. Thank goodness, he thought once again, that Hop Sing had joined them as he had done. It had meant that when he had been unable to go on, Hoss had been able to continue with the journey, while their loyal friend had brought Ben home.

The flames of the fire flickered, and cast long shadows over the rancher who sat before it. The shadows played games with the light from the flickering flames so that the man looked a mere youth again. But Ben Cartwright felt as though his youth had fled him, there was nothing left only an empty shell. When the boys come home, he sighed, and closed his eyes. When the boys come home …

Chapter 19

Riley passed over the mail and smiled at Ben, before mentioning that there had been a cable arrived for him barely an hour earlier. He passed it across the counter and watched as Ben scanned it quickly and then, with a smile, folded it and placed it in his vest pocket.

“Good news, Mr Cartwright?” Tom asked eagerly and the rancher smiled, nodded,

“Yes, Tom, thank you.” he said but mentioned nothing more, only picked up the rest of the mail and left the depot.

Ben stood on the sidewalk and smiled. There was a lot to do at the Ponderosa. The spring round up had to be organised, as well as the new trees that had been planted before Joe left, they had to be checked out. There was new timber contract and so much more. Thank goodness Paul Martin had not seen fit to stop him from functioning all together.

“Morning, Ben,” Roy Coffee ambled up to him and nodded a greeting, “Any news of the boys?”

“I received a cable from Adam just now,” Ben said and passed the slip of paper over to the sheriff to read. He watched Roy and the thought crossed his mind that neither of them were young anymore, it would not be long before Roy retired.

Roy read the contents of the cable and nodded. He looked at his friend thoughtfully and then passed the cable back.

“You’ve not heard anything from Hoss or Joe?”

“No, nothing.” Ben drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He didn’t like to think too deeply about this prolonged silence. It was like touching a mental rotten tooth. He refused to admit to Roy that it tortured his soul not to have heard from Joe for so long. He could barely reconcile himself to the possibility that his youngest son was dead. He missed what Roy was saying now and had to ask him to repeat himself,

“What about Hoss? Do you think he has reached Montana yet?”

“He should be well on his way.” Ben frowned, and asked himself why the dickens hadn’t Hoss cabled him, there must have been some method of communication, surely? “Those three boys may be half brothers, but they would go through hell and high water for one another, always have done, seems they always will .” It was like a mantra, say it often enough, believe in it long enough, and everything will turn out all right in the end.

He sighed now and shook his head as his eyes misted with tears of nostalgia. He now recalled times past when the three brothers put everything on the line for one another.

How many times? He had long lost count…..

Chapter 20.

Adam Cartwright stretched his arms and yawned. Slowly he slipped off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, before passing his hand over his face. He sighed and rubbed his eyes. There was no doubt about it, he was dog weary. After years of wearing his hair to regulation length, it was now over long, and curled over his collar. His jaw and chin were in need of a good close shave. He longed for a hot bath. Oh glory, glory, for a hot bath. Most of all he longed for a clean bed and lots of sleep.

He dismounted stiffly. This had seemed a good enough place to make camp. Plenty of boulders, some scrubby shrubs, and a small stream. He hobbled his horse and walked to the water, filled his hat and carried it back to the beast. As he stroked the horses neck he thought of Sport, and wondered if the animal would remember his master,

“Well now, old girl,” he said to the horse as it slavered over the water, “You’ve ridden hard and long these past months, you’ve been a good horse. Now, when we get to the Ponderosa we’ll have to find you a place to frolic in, huh? Would you like that? Sure you would…” and he smiled and led her to where the grass grew green and lush by the waters edge.

After checking that she was hobbled securely he made a quick camp for himself, drank water from the stream and because he knew there was nothing left in his saddlebags or pannier to eat, set a snare or two before bringing a blanket before the fire and folding himself into it. He was asleep within minutes.

…………..

Hoss Cartwright pulled some meat from the bone and chewed on it thoughtfully. He nodded to himself in satisfaction and commended himself to himself as a very fine cook indeed. He poured out some coffee and picked up a dry biscuit. The flames from the small fire were deadening down now. The sky was darkening. Nothing like a camp fire supper to fill ones belly before sleeping. He reclined much like a Roman in ancient times, stretched out like an Emperor. He gulped down his coffee, chomped away on the dry biscuit and stuffed his mouth with well cooked rabbit. After a hearty belch, a long stretch to the sky, he moved the coffee pot from the heat of the fire.

He looked up at the sky and his eyes traced the outline of the stars. Far to the east a star slide majestically to earth and he followed its trail until it disappeared. If there ever were a time to wish upon a falling star … he sighed and shook his head slowly from side to side.

It had been an odd time really. All this travelling and no contact with Pa, or Joe. He wondered if somewhere far away out at sea his brother Adam was looking up at the same sky and if he had seen that falling star. Would he, Hoss wondered, have thought of home and the times they had watched stars falling on the Ponderosa and made their child hood wishes.

He got to his feet and walked over to Chubb who was grazing on some dry stubby grass that grew with difficulty through the dry soil. Checking that the horse was safely hobbled and not likely to stray any distance Hoss returned to the fire, his saddle in one hand and a blanket in the other.

He had seen a settlement some distance ahead before night had fallen. By sometime tomorrow he would reach it. He drew the blanket over himself, and looked into the fire. He imagined he could see Ben’s anxious face and that made him feel troubled. He had heard nothing from his father since Hop Sing had decided to take Ben home. Not for the first time the thought came to his mind that his father could be dead now and he had not been there by his side, he had not been there to provide some comfort.

“Don’t let it be so, God.” he whispered, “Don’t let my Pa be dead. Let me find Joe.” he yawned. His eyes grew heavy.

The rumble of his snoring trembled around the camp. Chubb moved as far away as he could before settling down himself and adding his own heavy breathing to that of his masters. The night stars shone down unchanged for thousands of years but as breathtakingly beautiful as the time they were first created.

……….

Joe Cartwright looked up at the stars and then looked at Little Moon. Were there stars in her eyes too? He leaned towards her and kissed her lips. She smelt of the wood from the camp fire, of something sweet and flowery. He touched her face and gently traced the outline of her lips with his fingers.

“When we get home to the Ponderosa, Little Moon, I’ll take you to my favourite place. I’ll write to my brother Adam and tell him to draw out a design for our very own house. We’ll trace out the foundation of it together, just exactly where you would want it to be.”

“Is your Ponderosa as beautiful as here, Joseph?” she asked, and to be honest, not for the first time.

“Yes, every bit as beautiful.” he said, and smiled.

How he longed to get home. It were as though the pull to be there was stronger than any feeling he had felt for a long time, apart from the love that he had for this young woman. He held her hand in his and stroked her long fingers. Why did people have to hate, he pondered. There was so much beauty in diversity. He smiled again, fancy him thinking such a thing as that?

A lot could happen in a year. It bothered him that it had been almost that length of time since he had last contacted his family. What if something terrible had happened? Life was so uncertain on a working ranch. A fall from a horse, or a stampede. Hoss could be dead or Pa … oh no, God, don’t …

He turned to look at her, and she smiled at him. He could see from her face that she was anxious, and he wondered if his thoughts had been obvious on his face for her to be looking so worried. She reached out now and placed her hand upon his heart, as though to feel his heart beat, and to ensure that all was well. He, in turn, reached out and put his arm around her and drew her closer to him.

Someone had once told him that when you fell in love, really in love, it would feel like God had looped a thread of gold around your heart and the other end of the thread would be looped through the heart of your beloved. When you were apart it would tug and pull, when you were together then all was perfect.

Chapter 21

The settlement was a mere huddle of shacks and hastily constructed tarpaulin tents. The military presence however was obvious and Hoss Cartwright rode pass the groups of soldiers with an anxious feeling niggling in the pit of his stomach. That wasn’t the only thing niggling away there, for the big man had been without a decent meal for several days. He glanced around him for some sight of a place where he could eat, remembering that the last time he had eaten was at a similar settlement to this one. That had also been full of militia and upon asking he had been told that they were in the process of establishing a military presence there. He had been assured that in a few weeks time there would be a substantial fort built right around where he was standing.

He eased himself out of the saddle and stroked Chubb’s soft nose gently, before leading the horse by the reins towards the sound of a blacksmiths hammer striking an anvil. It didn’t take him long to locate the man.

“What can I do for you, Mister?” the farrier asked, pausing in his work to wipe his brow on the back of his hand.

“Wondered if you could check my horse over. I gotta feelin’ one of it’s shoes need attention.”

“I’ll do that for you, Mister. Leave your horse over there in the stalls. Do you want it fed?”

“Much obliged,” Hoss smiled, and glanced around the place as he led Chubb to a vacant stall. He found some oats and a nosebag and after taking off the bit and bridle fastened the nosebag for Chubb to eat. He walked back to the farrier who was checking the fire, “Any chance of you having met up with a young man riding a black and white horse?” he asked.

The farrier straightened his back and wiped his brow again. He nodded,

“Heard of guy like that, caused a ruckus at Fort Cobb last year.”

“Whereabouts is that?” Hoss asked, vainly attempting to suppress the excitement he was feeling now.

“It was months ago, before winter set in.” the farrier began to work the bellows to get more life into the fire, his brow was creased so Hoss knew the man was still thinking on the subject. “I don’t know much about it. Just heard from one of the troopers who was there at the time. Doesn’t take much to grab the attention around here. Everyone’s bored to the back teeth with it already.”

“Yeah, so what did this fella have to say?” Hoss asked, not particularly interested in anyone’s back teeth.

“Oh, yeah,” he eased the bellows slightly, and wiped the back of his neck with a soot engrained piece of cloth, “Seems the youngster had been living with some Cheyenne. Black Kettle’s tribe. Came down and caused some trouble. Shot a guy.
They claim he did it when he was riding with some Indians, just came out and ambushed ‘em. But I heard tell that they ambushed him and the Indians cared for him. He’d come to the Fort on his way home.”

Hoss gulped, cleared his throat. The thought that Joe had been on the way home, and they had not met up, could have only one reason. He knew he had to ask, but dreaded the answer.

“Did anything happen to the kid?”

“Nah, one of the Officers saw to that, helped get him out of the place safely. But he moved on too, so you can’t ask him.”

“Where did he go, the kid I mean?”

“Wal, he’s been seen once or twice by army patrols. He’s with them Indians up in the hills. If he intends to go home he should get on and do it soon. This place ain’t gonna be healthy for any white man soon, not unless he’s billeted in a fort. You thinking’ of signing up?” he glanced at Hoss, gave him a long look up and down in approval. “The Army could do with someone like you.”

“Thanks. Reckon I’ll pass up on the invitation. Any place I can eat around here?”

“Over there.” a finger like a pork sausage, well barbequed, indicated a large tent, “Good food, can’t guarantee the quality of the company.” he smiled and returned to his work, “I’ll have your horse ready in about two hours.”

Hoss nodded his thanks and walked over to the eating place. He was stiff all over. Ached from head to foot. As he walked he flexed his muscles and stretched his legs. The smell of food cooking greeted his nostrils long before he had reached the tent, but it was enough to set the juices watering in his mouth.

The food was good. Oh, so good! The woman behind the counter was built with ample proportions which she tried to hide behind a faded US Army coat, but there was no disguising the fact that she was a wonderful cook and enjoyed the meals as much as the men there. She recognised in Hoss a man after her own heart and ladled out a double portion of beef stew, and a hunk of bread equivalent to half a loaf. Hoss was delighted, even more so when the taste was equal to the sight and smell.

He must have dosed off after he had eaten although not quite aware of doing so. One moment he was sitting in the corner on the bench seat, with his head leaning against the window, watching the clouds scud over the mountain tops. The next moment he was drifting in and out of dreams. Talking to Pa, playing checkers with Joe, tossing horseshoes in the yard. All very hazy, shades of light and dark, hearing voices and then barely a murmur. The thing he was most aware of, however, were the voices of some men who were seated behind him.

The bench upon which he was seated were very similar to the old fashioned pews, with a high back, which would provide privacy. Slouched down in slumber the men had not noticed Hoss Cartwright when they had taken their seats. Leaning towards the centre of the table they laid their plans carefully, plotted out their strategy, and congratulated one another on what was going to be a great success.

Hoss woke mid way during their discussions. For a moment or two he thought he was still locked in his dream world for their talk had been a thread murmured throughout his pleasant trip down memory lane. Rubbing his face and grimacing slightly to get his facial muscles working he could not but help overhear the rest of what was being said.

He did not move. Sitting as still as he could he listened to everything. The whispered words, the uttered crudities, the sibilient secrets – nothing was missed by him. When they moved to leave he promptly pretended to be fast asleep again, his hat concealing his face and his arms folded across his chest.

But he took note of who they were, and the fact that four of them wore Army uniform and two were civilians. He watched them through the window as they walked quickly to a group of Indians. Narrowing his eyes he watched them carefully. He had been told that the Army hired Pawnee scouts. The detested ’bad faces*’ as the Southern Cheyenne called them. Pawnee who used the white men to exploit their own hatreds, their own tribal prejudices that had existed for generations.

Hoss looked about him and wondered if there was any one there he could trust. But who would believe him anyway? The whole thing was preposterous and he was half way to convinced that he had dreamt the whole thing. If he felt that way, he told himself, how could he convince anyone else different. He picked up his hat and after paying for the food and coffee, collecting some necessary rations for the journey, he took himself off to collect Chubb.

As he rode out of the settlement he was well aware of the eyes of suspicion that watched him go. They were so obvious that they could have been daggers piercing his flesh. There was nothing more for it, but to find Joe as soon as possible. But it would take a miracle to do so.

As he rode along, Hoss Cartwright offered up a prayer to the Almighty. As his father had always told him, when you were really up against it the best help of all was that of the only person who was invincible.

Chapter 22

Adam Cartwright brushed away a fly that had decided to ride into the Fort with him. He guided his horse slowly through the wide open gates and around the pedestrians walking unheedingly in his path. This Fort was well built already and sturdy in appearance. As he rode along he noted where there were public baths and a barber, a Telegraph Depot, a General Stores. He also noticed the barracks, and the various Army Administration Offices. One in particular bore the legend “Commanding Officer” and he idly wondered who would be the commanding officer of this most prestigious edifice to Military Presence.

He dismounted slowly, and led his horse along to the blacksmith who looked up at him with a scowl,

“What can I do for you, stranger?”

“Check my horse over. Her front leg seems overly hot and swollen. Could I leave her here with you?”

“Tether her to the hitching rail. I’ll see to her soon as I’ve finished here.” he looked at the horse as Adam led her to the rail, “Nice looking animal.”

“Yes, she’s been a good companion.”

“Travelled far?”

“Far enough,” and Adam smiled with warmth, but tethered the horse to the rail. He stroked her nose before turning towards the pubic baths. As he walked to the door of the building he calculated in his mind how long it had been since he had had a proper bath. He had taken advantage of some streams and rivers along the journey, but they were not quite the same as a luxuriating hot water bath.

It was a hot day. So hot that it was uncomfortable to walk about for too long. There was the humidity also that promised a storm in the not too distant future. He paid over his money and took the towel and soap. He wondered how long it would be before he had his next bath.

Perhaps it was the heat of the day, or the heat of the water, but he drifted off to sleep not long after stepping into the tub. It was only when the water had reached his nose that he woke up with a start and a flurry, and got down to the serious business of using the soap.

Emerging from there far cleaner than he had entered, and regretting that he had no clean clothes into which to change, he paused awhile on the boardwalk and looked around him once again.

A convoy of cavalrymen were entering the Fort now and he watched the blue uniformed men canter past with a slight frown. The pennant of the 7th Cavalry fluttered from the midst of the convoy of men, alongside the flag of the United States. He stepped aside as a man came and stood on the porch front of the General Stores to watch the new recruits arrival.

“The Seventh Cavalry,” he muttered, “Long may it last!” and he spat heartily on the hard packed ground.

“Do you have some doubts then?” a thick set trooper asked, a glass of warm beer in his hand, “If you do I’d advise you not to say so too loudly, their officer is a bit of a fire cracker from what I’ve heard.”

“Oh yeah, and what have you heard then, Jackson?”

“You can find out for yourself.“ Jackson grinned and half turned, then noticed the tall slim man standing nearby, “You looking to sign on, if so you had best go to the Adjutants Office over there.” he pointed to the building with the glass still in his hand.

“No.” came the abrupt reply, and the man in the black clothes turned on his heel and walked towards his horse.

He spent an hour enquiring after Lieutenant Charles Nordstrum and soon realised that it had been a futile journey after all. Lieutenant Nordstrum had been sent to another posting so any chance to discuss things with him had gone. Some said he had gone to Boston to take up duties there, but an officer who claimed to have known him personally said he had been sent to serve with Sheridan in Red Clouds territory. It was more than annoying as it meant, were it to be true, that their paths had crossed some weeks earlier.

There was just too much going on in this territory and he wanted to be out of it just as soon as he could, but not without Joe. Wyoming territory had been bristling with bands of Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne and several times he had been hard put to keep a safe distance from them. He had reached Fort Phil Kearney*and realised that there was a state of war in existence between the soldiers there and the Indians but had stopped long enough to cable his father, and eat a substantial meal. During the night he had left the fort, headed onwards, ever conscious that his life depended on caution, discretion and a fleet set of hooves.

George Armstrong Custer dismounted from his horse and looked around at his men, and then at the fort buildings and gave an imperceptible shake of the head. It just was not adequate to his liking and he scowled darkly at his officers who sighed inwardly. Many men had ridden long and hard miles to reach the fort and were exhausted, but not Custer who had already built up such a reputation for being able to ride long distances without tiring that some of the Indians called him Hard Backsides*. Many of his men would ride to the death for him, and with him, and eventually did just that. Many of them called him by names far worse.

Custer looked at the Sutler and sighed. Obviously he was not up to the mark either! He then noticed the civilian who was now standing by his horse, watching them and obviously waiting for his chance to mount up and go. Custer frowned, the man looked familiar and he muttered to his first officer to go and bring the man to his office immediately. For some reason or another the man did not fit in to the general scheme of things, not to his mind anyway.

Adam Cartwright pushed open the door and looked thoughtfully at the man sitting behind the desk and writing down a report in a swift moving hand. Custer did not bother to look up, he wanted the report finished to his satisfaction before talking to any civilian. Adam, having filled in enough reports himself over the past few years, said nothing but observed the room, the papers on the desk, and then the officer.

Apart from the dust that filmed his clothing Custer looked much as he had appeared that night they had met at the Admirals soiree. Adam raised his eyebrows and began to observe the backs of the books that were on the window cill. Eventually he could feel Custer’s eyes boring into his back and he turned to meet the cold blue eyes that swept over his features in swift appraisal.

“I’ve seen you somewhere before.” Custer observed “Are you our scout? If you are may I say that you are quite inappropriately dressed!”

“I am not your scout.” Adam replied slowly “But we did meet some months ago.” and briefly he outlined the time and place and saw the cold features thaw out into an attractive smile and Custer stood up and extended his hand,

“Captain Cartwright my apologies, out of uniform I didn’t recognise you, although I should have done, of course.”

“No reason why you should have done.” Adam replied quietly and sat down in the chair that Custer indicated “We met only briefly.”

“I know, but I was impressed by what your superiors told me about you and by your bearing and history” Custer turned to his adjutant who was standing ‘at ease’ by the door “Gates, arrange for some coffee would you?”

The adjutant glanced at Adam sideways on, snapped a salute to his superior officer and left the office. Custer and Adam were now alone and facing one another across the desk,

“Something tells me, Captain Cartwright, that you are not too pleased at what you see here,” he smiled slowly, the blond moustache barely covering his upper lip, and his shrewd eyes scanning the mans face opposite him.

“I have to admit I am wondering why you are here, not you personally, but the entire US Army. There seem to be Forts strung out on the boundaries of Indian Territory, boundaries, I have to add, that do not seem particularly honoured by either the army or the people they claim to be protecting.”

“I know, the Sioux,” Custer began, and shrugged as though it were a trifling matter and he preferred to move on to more serious subjects for discussion.

“I wasn’t meaning them” Adam said in an unusually gritty voice.

“We are here to protect the Indians from the harassment of white settlers, prospectors and such. It seems they think there’s too much land for grabs around here.” Custer’s eyes grew colder, and the eyebrows lifted as though he could not see why Adam Cartwright should be so interested, after all, he had been away playing with boats for years.

“And, obviously, want a share right here and now.” Adam paused as the door opened and the adjutant returned followed by Custer’s equerry who set down the coffee.

There was a brief pause as coffee was poured and Custer leaned back in his chair to weigh up his antagonist. He smiled slowly as he realised that Adam Cartwright was totally unimpressed by him, his rank, or his reputation. It made him respect the man even more and he resolved to win him over. When Adam began to speak again, Custer held up his hand and politely requested permission to speak.

“Captain, as one officer to another, let us be frank. The Government is experiencing a problem here with certain renegade tribes. They want a line of defence drawn up on the boundaries so that we can protect the innocent tribes and the innocent settlers,” he shrugged “but we can’t be everywhere at once as you can see.”

“What I’ve seen, Captain, makes it hard for me to see what you mean by protection of any of the tribes. If you permit the removal of their markers and allow settlers to move in and start building townships within Indian territory, you know very well what will happen next. The boundary lines are simply re-drawn and the Indian territories shrink.” he frowned darkly and shook his head, “Innocent tribes don’t turn renegade for nothing, Captain.”

“Why are you here exactly, Cartwright? Is it to discuss army policy or what?” Custer asked testily.

“I’m on my way home.” Adams dark eyes bored into Custer, as though challenging him to press any further and he had the satisfaction of seeing Custer turn away with a scowl.

They drank the coffee in silence and when he had replaced his cup onto the saucer, Adam stood up and picked up his hat. For a moment he stood in front of Custer’s desk with the hat balanced between his fingers, while he looked at the Cavalry man thoughtfully.

“May I say something, Captain, as one officer to another?” he asked with a slightly sarcastic twist to the tone of his voice.

It did not go unnoticed, and Custer raised both eyebrows and eyed Adam warily,

“Certainly.” Custer smiled thinly and stood up, his shoulders back and his chin thrust forward, a trifle annoyed to see that the sea captain was several inches taller than himself.

“On the way here I had the unfortunate chance of falling in with some Cheyenne. They wanted you to know that any plans you have of taking their land from them should be forgotten. They won’t let you take any more without a fight.”

“I don’t know of any such plans.” Custer said quietly, keeping his eyes fixed upon the other man’s face.

“I wouldn’t expect you to tell me of them even if you had, but I do need to tell you that should you or any military force try to march into that territory, they won’t come out alive.” Adam frowned, and stopped turning his hat round and round between his fingers to look more deeply into Custer’s face. “You know that they call you Pahuska now? The Long Hair.*”

“I’ll take that as a compliment” Custer growled.

“You should do!” Adam replied quietly, “But as a warning as well.”

“How do you mean?” Custer raised his chin arrogantly, as though to challenge anything that Adam had to say.

Adam paused at the door and turned his head, he then sighed and slipped his hat over his dark hair,

“It means that they have an eye on your scalp.” he murmured as he passed from Custer’s sight.

From the window of his office George Armstrong Custer watched the tall black clad man mount his horse, wheel its head around and gallop swiftly out of the compound. Behind him the large gates to the fort were closed and barred. Custer frowned, returned to his desk and stood for a while staring thoughtfully at the territorial map on the wall. He sighed, sat down and poured out more coffee. He glanced over at Gates and shrugged,

“If you see that man here ever again. I want you to arrest him.”

“Arrest him? What for, sir?” Gates turned his gaze from Custer to the window, where he watched Adam Cartwright mount his horse and gallop towards the fort entrance. Within minutes he was gone from view.

“I don’t know.” Custer replied tersely, “I’ll think of something should the time arise.” and with a frustrated sigh he slouched back in his seat, a scowl on his handsome features, “An eye on my scalp indeed!” he growled and slammed his fist upon the desk.

Chapter 23

Little Moon slept soundly in the tepee she shared with Magpie and her husband, George. In his tepee Joseph slept restlessly. It had been a fraught few days since seeing Wynkoop and he was becoming increasingly frustrated at his plans being constantly thwarted by one thing or another. Once or twice he muttered something in his sleep, and called out for Little Moon. It was certainly a good thing that Stalking Horse was such a sound sleeper.

Outside everywhere was silent. A dog howled mournfully at the moon occasionally, and a horse snuffled and snorted every so often. Everyone slept.

Black Kettle and his wife slept in their lodge with the flag of the Union flying over head. The President had given him the flag and assured him that while it was flying over the Cheyenne Chiefs lodge, they would be safe*, although it had not saved many at Sand Creek*. However the old man flew the flag in respect of another man whom he respected and had trusted, even though that President no longer lived.

Joseph Cartwright woke from a dream and lay still, his eyes closed but his senses alert. His heart was beating fast as though he had been on a marathon run, and he

could feel the sensation of pins and needles down his back. He rubbed his face free from sleep and tried to recall to mind what could have happened to have roused him from sleep in this manner.

He had dreamt of the Ponderosa and of his mother, Marie. He had walked the streets of New Orleans and heard street vendors call out their wares, and seen women pass by in bright coloured garments. He had heard his mothers laughter. Then he had woken up from his dream and found himself far removed, by time, by distance, by culture, from the things he had once known and loved. Now he loved another, and one day he hoped that she would be the one to sleep close to his heart and in his arms.

What would his father think of her? What would Hoss or Adam say? Could he ever take her home and proudly announce “This is Mrs Joseph Cartwright” Would they see her as a beautiful girl, and love her as he did?

“Mrs Joseph Cartwright” he murmured and closed his eyes to conjure up the memory of their last shared kiss.

Of course they would love her, not only because she was so beautiful but because they were too generous of heart, too kindly and too loving in themselves to treat her any differently. He sighed, and reminded himself that in a few days time they would be leaving the Cheyenne camp. Yes, definitely, he would be taking her home. Once back on the Ponderosa he would marry her. Yes, he would marry her when he was home.
Chapter 24

Adam Cartwright put down the telescope and frowned, he shook his head in disbelief at what he had seen and then, a slight smile beginning to appear on his lips, raised the telescope to his eye and sought the object of his attentions once again. The smile broadened now, along with tears in his eyes as, by all things wonderful, he watched his dearest brother Hoss ambling slowly along the trail for all the world as though he were on a trip through the Ponderosa and heading home for supper.

Didn’t he realise that the place was crawling with Indians? Adam asked himself. Couldn’t he feel the danger? Oh Hoss, you wonderful, wonderful idiot. He raised the telescope again and watched as Hoss threaded his way through the bushes and shrubs that grew prolifically around that area.

Adam remembered the last time he had seen Hoss, over three years ago on a very brief leave when the family had travelled to Boston to meet him. His smile broadened, he was about to wave and get his brothers attention when movement to the left of his vision prompted him to sweep the telescope round to see exactly what or whom was trailing behind his brother.

Hoss also paused, drawing Chubb up and twisting sideways on in the saddle to glance over his shoulder. He saw nothing, but instinct told him that he was no longer alone. He very carefully loosened his gun in the holster and leaned forward to draw out his rifle.

Adam trained the telescope on the area closest to Hoss. He swung it in a slow arc and then back again until the movement repeated itself and he could see exactly what was about to happen. After slipping the telescope back into his jacket pocket, he drew out his gun and immediately fired a shot in the air. This removed any element of surprise on the part of the men who were sidling through the rocks and boulders with the obvious intention of attacking the lone traveller. The gunshot caused these men to urge their horses forwards.

Hoss, not sure whether the shot was from friend or foe, urged Chubb into an immediate gallop towards the rocks where he had hopes of finding a suitable place to hide and pick off his attackers should they wish to continue their pursuit. He could hear shrill shrieks and yells now coming from behind him and bent his head down low to Chubbs neck. Every so often he would glance over his shoulder to see how close his pursuers actually were behind him.

Adam’s horse (how he longed for Sport at that moment in time) slithered and slid its way down the scree covered slopes toward the trail that Hoss was taking. His intention was to continued along on that course so that he would actually meet his brother as they came out onto the track. He was also able to see the ambushers quite clearly and when they began to fire off shots and arrows at Hoss, he fired random shots at them. This should have made them realise that the lone horseman was not so alone as they had imagined.

Hoss sensed that help was at hand and began to fire off random shots of his own. He heard a distinct yell of pain above the shrieks and screams of his pursuers and hoped that he had at least winged one of them. He steered Chubb towards the huge boulders in order to shelter there, and as he did so he saw another figure emerging from the scree and shrubs. He was about to aim and fire at this horseman when, in sufficient time, he recognised him.

“Adam!” he yelled, “Hot diggitty. Where the heck did you spring from?” he yelled above the noise of gunfire and the most bloodcurdling shrieks.

“Save your breath for later.” Adam yelled back in return while his face bore the biggest grin Hoss had ever seen .

“Like old times.” Hoss could not resist yelling back before he came to the shelter of the boulders. He drew Chubb up and dismounted, sending the horse to ride free and find shelter for himself.

An arrow pierced his sleeve but did no harm and he pulled it free and tossed it away. As he fired into the group of men bearing down on them, he had the satisfaction of seeing Adam slide from the saddle and begin to run towards him, firing back into the crowd as he did so. It seemed to Hoss that momentarily his brother stumbled. Probably tripped over his own feet, Hoss smirked to himself, as Adam straightened up and ran on towards him. His features were now set in a look of grim determination, that of a man determined to reach his goal.

“Come on, brother, what’s keeping you?” Hoss shouted, standing now to fire off several more shots.

Hoss felt supremely confident now. He had found his brother in the most unexpected place imaginable, so how could anything possibly go wrong now? There was another yell of pain and he saw a body pitch forwards, roll a little way and then lay still. Hoss frowned and was about to say something when his brother finally reached him and fell over a rock and toppled headlong behind a boulder.

“Shucks, Adam, you could do better than that, couldn’t ya? What’s wrong, not got your land feet yet?” Hoss grinned, and fired a few more shots before he realised that he had received no answer.

Chapter 25

“Adam,” Hoss half turned, checked himself as a bullet winged past his ear and ricocheted from a boulder, sending splinters of rock spraying into his face, “Dad burn it, where did that come from?” he hissed, brushing one hand against his cheek and feeling the warmth of blood. He raised his other hand and began to fire into the rocky terrain about him.

He was smouldering with emotions. Adam, his very own dear brother Adam, appearing like some kind of dime novel hero out of nowhere just when he was needed. Slap bang in the kind of set up that had seen them fighting side by side so often in the past. His heart was beating like a gong, drumming in his ears. He turned sideways and grinned,

“We sure got a lot of catching up to do, brother,” he yelled above the sound of the gunfire and the Pawnee war cries, “Dad burn it,” he exclaimed again, “I jest can’t believe you’re here, I jest can’t.” and he wiped his eyes as the emotion brought the tears to his eyes.

“Just concentrate, Hoss,” Adam yelled back, “Take aim. Look to your left. Fire”

Hoss did as he was told, and whooped when a limp body fell and draped itself over a boulder, the rifle in his hands rattling down into the rocks beneath him.

“Fire to the right,” Adam cried, aimed, fired, fired again in hands that were shaking as though he had palsy. He wiped his brow with his sleeve, arched his back as though to relieve the pressure and the pain that was creeping slowly, slowly over his body.

He looked at Hoss who was aiming now at the terrain ahead, his jaw line taut and his eyes narrowed, his lips thinned. There came the jerk of his hand, the slight nod of his head, the brief smile. Adam felt a surge of emotion soar into his innermost feelings as he looked at this dearest of men. In the letters from Hoss throughout the four years of his absence his brother had revealed more of himself to Adam than he would ever know. What love Adam had for this wonderful man had been enhanced by the written word, and now seeing him again, only confirmed, reaffirmed, all that he had ever felt for him.

“Oh Hoss,” he whispered and drew in his breath sharply, bowed his head, and leaned his brow upon his arm.

“Over there -” Hoss yelled, pointing to some small shrubs, “Adam, over to the right of you.”

Spontaneously Adam raised himself up, swung his arm, pointed his gun and fired. There was a yell, the pop of a firearm, and a bullet whistled pass his head. Adam fired again, beside him he could just see Hoss firing to wards the left of them. This time there was silence, and the shrubs no longer swayed. He watched in a rather detached way as a man crawled on his hands and knees out of cover, turned slowly, and then collapsed in a sprawl upon the ground.

“Doggone it, this is getting confusing,” Hoss growled, “I thought it was some Indians that were attacking us, but that’s the second white man I’ve seen. Nope, wrong again … huh, gotcha.” he leaned back as an arrow came close to parting his hair, but he had heard a whoop cut off into a cry of pain.

He checked his gun, and slipped more bullets into the chambers, clicked it into place and then ducked as more arrows and bullets poured towards them. Several Pawnee for some reason best known to themselves, but no doubt emboldened by the realisation that there were only two men defending themselves against them, suddenly made a sprint through the rocks, getting closer.

“They must know there’s just the two of us,” Hoss muttered, “Shucks, I wish I had grabbed my rifle.”

“Here’s mine,” Adam said in a voice thick with pain, “Here, catch.”

Hoss grinned and caught it easily, he was about to say something when a Pawnee rather rashly raised his head about a boulder and let loose with an arrow. The rifle spat out it’s lead, and the Pawnee disappeared.

“This is just like old times, ain’t it?” Hoss cried with relish, and he spat into the palms of his hands and rubbed them together, “Right, let’s get this danged show finished. It’s getting boring being stuck down here.”

“Yeah, remember … remember when Pa came that time, and all you were worried about were some cheese sandwiches?” Adam said, sinking now to his knees, as the warmth of blood slithered down the flesh of his back. He forced himself to stay upright, but his eyes were clouding over, and there was a whirling sensation in his head that seemed like dark probing fingers striving to pull him into the black vortex of nothingness.
Hoss wiped more blood from his cheek. He could see more Pawnee now stealthily creeping through the rocks towards them. Gun shots from higher up confirmed that there was also a large force of men hidden there. He leaned against the rock, held the rifle steady, and waited,

“I reckon they’re gathering themselves up for a full on attack, Adam. Best get ready.”

But from Adam there came no reply. Nothing at all.

Chapter 26

Joe, Stalking Horse and several other Cheyenne heard the sound of gunfire and turned their horses in the direction of the ambush. As they rode out from the woodland and onto the trail they could see exactly the situation that was laid out before them like some fantastic chess game.

Pawnee and, what surprised Joe most of all, white men had a lone man trapped in a narrow enclave in the rocks. Some of the attackers had been injured, one or two possibly dead, so there was no doubt that the man was doing his best to beat them off but it was obviously a very one sided battle.

Stalking Horse glanced at his companions and raised his eyebrows. Slowly they inched their way through the rocks, their horses sure footed and steady. Then Stalking Horse raised his rifle above his head and gave such a blood curdling whoop that even Joe was left shivering in his saddle.

His whoop was echoed by the other Cheyenne who loved nothing better than a skirmish with the Pawnee whom they considered just one step above a skunk for having allied themselves to the white men in order to gain land and privileges from them. Joe kept his mouth shut, grabbed his rifle and urged Cochise forwards, eager to join in the fight.

The Pawnee were already scurrying for their ponies. Joe could see them throwing themselves on the animals and galloping away, among the rocks men were emerging, running, firing backwards in the vain hope of evading the Cheyenne onslaught. Just who the Pawnee and white men were attacking, and why, Joe could not fathom. .

The Cheyenne rode down upon their old time enemy with quite horrendous shrieks and much flaunting of their lances, and rifles. It was a brief melee, with the white men rushing for their horses and heading off before the Pawnee were able to disentangle themselves from the Cheyenne and chase off after their comrades.

Stalking Horse rode up to Joe and shook his head,

“Pawnee are getting soft,” he muttered, “That was hardly any fight at all!”

“They were riding with white men. Isn’t that rather unusual?” Joe said, pulling on Cochise’s reins in order to turn the animal around.

“Everything is unusual at this time.” came the gentle reply and Stalking Horse smiled as though he thought it rather funny for Joe to comment about some white men riding with the Pawnee when he himself, a white man, was riding with the Pawnee’s enemies.

Adam could hear the sounds of gunfire and the silence that heralded the end of the fight. It seemed to come from a great distance away and muffled as though beating in his head through a blanket. He could see where beads of sweat had rolled from his forehead and dripped in wet blobs onto the sun baked ground and even now he watched as a drop of moisture rolled from his brow and slowly fell into the sand.

He needed to think and to remember but everything was getting lost in his mind as the pain racked through him and the numbness trickled through his limbs. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He groaned inaudibly as the pain stabbed through him like a red hot branding iron.

Chapter 27

“Uh-huh,” Hoss grunted, keeping his eyes fixed on the scene that was shifting before his very eyes, “Out of the pan and into the fire!”

He shook his head and thumbed back his hat further upon his head. His hands were perspiring as he gripped tight hold of his rifle.

“I wonder who this lot are?” he muttered, and began to chew on his bottom lip, “I can’t believe that after we’ve met up now we could end up being scalped together by this lot.”

‘This lot’ galloped down through the rocks and boulders. They did represent a rather daunting future for the Messrs Cartwright, as they continued to yip and yowl, flourish their lances and rifles above their heads, and wheel their horses back and forth as though taunting the trapped men into firing upon them. They were sensible enough to keep out of firing range and for some minutes enjoyed their ‘fun’.

Adam forced himself to a kneeling position. Dust and horsemen floated before his eyes as though it were some mystical ballet being performed upon clouds. He lowered his hands which held his gun, and wondered why it felt so heavy. He could hear Hoss talking and tried to turn his head to see what exactly his brother was doing because the words were no longer making any sense.

Joe put up a hand, and with a smile slipped from the saddle. Stalking Horse and his friends backed off, smiling and laughing at the ‘fun’ they had just had in making the Pawnee run off and then scaring the daylights out of the white men in the rocks. Now it was time to see how their friend, Joseph, would get on in his parley with the other white man.

Joe walked towards the rocks with his hands wide away from his hips, indicating that he was not going to use his weapons. Behind him the Cheyenne’s horses danced as though impatient to get back to camp and have the matter over with.

“You’re quite safe now.” Joe yelled, his voice bouncing from the rocks, “These here are Cheyenne. We’re friends. You’ll come to no harm and …”

“JOE!”

Hoss jumped to his feet. His heart was now thumping so hard that he could barely speak and his face went red. Could it really be possible? Not only Adam but JOE as well? He shook his head in disbelief as the younger man paused, stared and stood stock still as though he could not believe his eyes.

“Joe? It’s me, Hoss.”

He was scrambling over the rocks now, yelling something incoherently to Adam, about all three being together again, about miracles and then he had to stop because he wanted to blub. He could feel the tears welling up inside him, choking in his throat.

Joe was moving now. His feet pounded the dirt beneath them as he ran towards Hoss and with a yell that sounded much the same as when he was breaking bronco’s but with a strange sob in it he launched himself from the ground and into Hoss’ arms.

They thumped each other on the back as though only by pummelling each others flesh could they actually believe that they held a brother in their arms. Hoss was now yelling a war whoop of his own, and Joe was laughing while the tears came to his eyes. All he could say was “I can’t believe it,” over and over again.

“Hey, shortshanks, stand still now and let me have a good look at you” Hoss said eventually, and he pushed the younger man to arms length, “Hey, Adam, just look at that, our little brother ain’t grown an inch.” and he gave a shout of laughter and turned his head, “Adam?”

“Adam?” Joe glanced over Hoss’ shoulder, “You mean, Adams here?”

“Yeah, he’s here,” Hoss said, the joy of the moment ebbing slowly away as something triggered a memory in his mind, and he felt his stomach turn over at a sudden fear.

His smile faded as he looked back to the rocks but to all intents and purposes there appeared to be not another living soul in sight. He pushed his brothers arms away and turned, while with panic now rising in his throat he ran towards where Adam lay.

Now he could see the reason for Adams silence and why he had stumbled on his approach to the rocks. Adam was sprawled upon the ground, so still that a fly strolling down his shirt sleeve seemed to be the only moving thing there. Hoss, closely followed by Joe, scrambled over the boulders and ran to wards him. They knelt by his side and it was Hoss who put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Now it was clear as to what had happened as they saw only too clearly the Pawnee arrow that was embedded firmly in Adam’s lower back, staining his clothes scarlet and making them sodden with his blood.

“Adam? Adam?” Hoss whispered, “Adam? What….? I …but…you can’t be hurt….not now…. now we’ve found you again.” he whispered as he gently raised his brothers body up into his arms, his shoulder providing the comfort upon which Adam could rest his head.

Chapter 28

“Give him some water” Joe urged, thrusting a canteen into Hoss’ hands “It’s okay, Hoss, he’s still alive.”

“That arrow,” Hoss touched the slither of wood that projected from Adams back and when he did so Adams whole body shuddered and a deep throated groan issued from the very depths of his throat as the red hot pain streamed through every fibre of his being. Hoss looked at Joe “If I pull it out…”

“No, no..” Joe cried, putting his hand firmly on that of his brothers “You’ll do even more harm if you do that, the arrow heads barbed. It’ll rip his insides and kill him.”

“Then you suggest something?” Hoss suggested with a quaver in his voice.

“Don’t,” Adam raised his head and opened his eyes, and it was obvious to his brothers that he was in dire pain as his eyes were rolling in his head and his voice was very slurred, “Don’t pull it out.” he gasped and with great effort raised his hand which Hoss seized in one of his own.

“It’s alright, Adam, we won’t touch it.” Hoss whispered, beside himself now with grief and disbelief. How could such a wonderfully joyous time turn into such misery?

“Push it….push it through…” Adam’s voice was a mere gutteral series of grunts “Push- it- through.”

Hoss and Joe looked at one another and glanced away. Blood was streaming from the wound and the clothing was already saturated with the crimson gore. Joe shook his head and felt his throat go tight and dry.

A firm hand touched his shoulder and he glanced up to see Stalking Horse looking down at them. The dark eyes of the Cheyenne had seen all that was necessary and he gently pushed Joe to one side then knelt beside the stricken man. He looked at the point of entry of the arrow and ran a hand across Adams abdomen and groin, pressing gently and when he was unable to feel the arrow head he discerned that the arrow would have to be pushed through some distance to actually enable him to pull it out. He looked at Hoss and very gently pushed the big man to one side. He looked at Adam who surveyed him with calm but pain racked eyes and nodded. Adam nodded slowly and then turned to look at Hoss. It was then that he saw Joe and his lips framed the word “Joe?”

“It’s alright, big brother, it’s alright.” Joe whispered, leaning forwards and looking deep into the dark eyes that stared into his face.

Leaning forwards Stalking Horse clasped the arrow in one hand and snapped off the flights with the other, leaving only a few inches of shaft remaining. He looked at Hoss and signed to him to support Adam, then he turned to Joe.

“Take off your belt.” he said softly, holding one hand upwards to receive it.

“What?”

“Leather strap. For him to bite on. Otherwise could bite off tongue.” came the cautionary reply.

Adam could feel through the numbness that was swiftly turning his extremities to putty his brother Hoss take hold of his hands and fold his fingers around his. It seemed that the strangest things had the strongest sensations. Beads of sweat that beaded his brow felt as heavy as lead and rolled down his face with an irritating stealth. Their passage down his skin drove him to despair . His sweat soaked into the clothes he wore and made them feel like rough canvas against his skin. He could feel the blood flowing down his back like warm thick syrup. But it was the pain that racked him worse of all. He closed his eyes and suddenly the whole world exploded into stars and agony. He bit down on the leather strap and his body curved forward into an arc of convulsive pain while his hands tightened their grip on Hoss’ so that even his brother winced in pain.

The arrow head pierced through the skin and as it emerged amid a flow of blood Stalking Horse took hold of it between his forefingers and very gently drew the remainder of the shaft out. Joe shuddered and turned away, fighting the desire to vomit. The sight of the blood soaked arrow shaft being drawn from his brothers body and the gush of scarlet that surged from the wound sent a wave of emotion flooding over him. Hoss was wiping his own brow to free it from perspiration with one hand while trying to stem the flood of blood with Adams shirt.

Chapter 29

Stalking Horse examined the arrow and the shaft and nodded with satisfaction. The blood on the arrow was red and clean, with no gore or flesh or dark shreds of anything internal. It was enough to satisfy him that the weapon had not pierced nor damaged any internal organs and he now gave attention to the white mans deteriorating condition.

There were many questions to ask as well as to answer. How to stop the blood flow and to keep him warm? Whether to move him or not? How to discern whether he was unconscious and beyond pain, or had merely fainted and would suffer greater shock when he came round? All these things the young shaman had to consider as he knelt beside the injured man and his brothers. Joe looked at Stalking Horse and put out his hand,

“Thank you, Stalking Horse, I think you saved his life” he whispered

Stalking Horse looked at Joe and saw the mingling emotions in his white friend’s eyes, the pale face heightened by the flushed cheeks of extreme anxiety,

“He is your good friend?” the young shaman asked as he turned his attention back to Adam, and carefully lifted aside the blood soaked material of the injured man’s shirt.

“He is my brother.” he turned to Hoss and smiled, “This is Hoss, my other brother. Hoss, this is my friend, Stalking Horse.”

Hoss looked at the young Cheyenne and nodded. He was too concerned over Adam to worry about social pleasantries. He held Adam gently in his arms and tried to forget all the times he had been told that such a wound as this was always fatal, that no one ever survived an injury like this. He looked at Little Joe and swallowed hard before speaking,

“In my saddle bags, Joe. We can clean the wound and try and stop the bleeding.”

“Stalking Horse is a shaman , Hoss, he knows what he’s doing.”

“No doubt but-.” Hoss’ voice faded away as he realised that Adam was regaining consciousness and that his elder brothers dark eyes were now struggling to focus on his face. He swallowed hard again, looked down and forced a smile, “Hey, I thought it was you falling over your feet again.” he muttered in an attempt to avoid the obvious for as long as possible.

“Hoss?” Adam’s voice passed through his lips like a sigh. His eyelids closed, opened. The dark eyes fixed upon Hoss’ honest face, “ Just for a moment I thought I had imagined it all.” Adam closed his eyes, groaned, then looked up again, “Joe? Is Joe here? Is that real too?”

“I’m here, Adam. I’m here…” Joe’s voice wobbled somewhat and he forced a rather weak and wavering smile to his lips, “I ….I …what ..what brings you here, Adam? I thought you were still at sea?”

“Still at sea?” Adam frowned and looked up at the sky. His lips moved but there came no sound from them. His eyes were blurring and it was hard to focus on their faces, but he turned to look at them both again until it was too difficult and he had to close his eyes again. How weak he felt now, and how cold, although he could feel sweat prickling down his back and under his armpits, and beading his face “Joe?” he put forward a hand, reaching now for the unseen, and felt, as though more by sensation than an actual physical feeling, his brother grasp hold of it “Joe?”

“I’m here, Adam, I’m here.” Joe cried, struggling to keep his voice strong and firm.

“Am I dying?”

“No. No, don’t even think like that. It’s just a little wound, you lost a bit of blood.”

Joe bit his lip and looked down and shivered as he realised that the amount of blood his brother had lost was so great that he was now kneeling in it and it was seeping into his trousers.

“Joe?”

The pressure of his fingers around those of his brother was so light now that Joe reached out with his other hand and held Adam’s hand firmly between both of his,

“Yes, Adam?”

“How well …how involved are you with these people?” and suddenly Adams eyes were focussing on him with intense clarity.

Joe’s grip tightened momentarily as he had to force his mind back to what had been rather than what was happening now. He glanced at Hoss who had his hand gently on Adams shoulder and whose blue eyes had never left his brothers’ face for an instant.

“I – well – I’ve been living with them for some months.”

“Get them to move on…tell them to move as far from here as they can. Do you hear me, Joe?”

“Yes, but, Adam?”

“Go on, Joe, tell them to move on and get into the hills …three days …I think…I think …” his voice trailed away and he closed his eyes and for an instant it seemed as though he had slipped into unconsciousness again. Then the dark eyes were open once more and the pale lips moved in such a soft voice that it was practically a whisper “Three days. Joe?”

“Yes, Adam?”

“Why didn’t you go home? Pa was mighty worried about you?” he mumbled some other words then took a deep breath “Take Hoss. Go away. Leave me here. I’ll be alright, just leave me here.”

“Don’t be so crazy! Do you honestly think we would leave you here? Do you know what would happen if we did?”

Hoss leaned forward and poured some water onto a cloth and wiped his brothers face very gently with it. He looked at his younger brother and shook his head.

All this time and in total silence Stalking Horse had been busy seeing to the wounds, and although Doc Martin would certainly not have approved of his methods, nor the lack of hygiene involved, he had succeeded in stemming the flow of blood. He now left the brothers to talk and was discussing the matter of transportation with several of the other Cheyenne.

The two dead men had been left where they had fallen, but now they were checked over and carried to the rocks. One was a Pawnee brave and the other a white man.

“Adam?” Hoss looked at the livid face and his mouth trembled and his eyes filled with tears “Adam? You dadburned crazy galoot. Why’d ya have ta go getting yerself hurt like that? Ain’t it bad enough anyhows?”

“Adam?” Joe touched his brothers face and then the pulse at his neck and looked at Hoss and nodded, “Adam? Can you hear me?”

“Still here, Joe?” there was a slight hint of Adam’s sarcasm, a little twist to the finely shaped lips. He sighed heavily, his chest rose and fell, “ I told you, go and take Hoss with you. Get those people away from here or …”

“Or what?”

Adam found he could no longer open his eyes. His eyelids weighed so much. They were intensely heavy and to move his mouth was now an impossibility. He tried to squeeze Joe’s hand but there was no strength left there either. He could no longer hear any sounds except for the whooshing and shunting sounds of his own pulses beating in his ears.

Fancy finding Hoss and Joe like this, he thought, Pa would be so pleased and what a homecoming there would be…

what a homecoming…

Chapter 30

Black Kettle was a tall man, gaunt and haggard in appearance with long black hair that hung heavily down his back. He was wrapped in an army issue blanket which rather detracted from the authority that he so obviously wielded in the camp.

Hoss Cartwright sat astride his horse and looked at the man who had survived Sand Creek and had controlled thousands of Indians since then. He had been awed by the immensity of the camp and had wondered how on earth would it be possible to get so many people on the move to avoid what ever it was that his brother had feared would befall them in three days time.

He turned his head to watch as Stalking Horse and several other men carefully carried Adam’s body into a tepee, the entrance to which was immediately closed. He looked at Joe, as though to ascertain that his brother, their brother, would be safe without them. Joe gave him a taut smile and nodded.

“Hoss, Black Kettle wants to know what has happened. Gall* has told him something of what Adam was saying and he wants to know what’s been going on.”

“Shucks, Joe, as if I know.” Hoss said wistfully, and looked once again at the tepee where Adam had been taken, then looked at the Chief who looked at him with such piercingly dark eyes that he gulped hard, and after taking a deep breath, dismounted. Joe did likewise, sliding from the saddle, and approaching the Chief.

There were other Chiefs now approaching them. Hoss’ first thought was that they were being surrounded and would probably not get out there alive. Black Kettle and the other Cheyenne leaders remained standing while some women came and set down a blanket between them and the Cartwright brothers. Now Black Kettle pointed to the blanket and motioned for them to sit.

Hoss felt his mouth go dry and one again he glanced at Joe who seemed perfectly at ease. When Joe took off his hat, Hoss did likewise.

Black Kettle began to speak, asking them what had taken place, and if they could explain what had caused the Pawnee to attack white travellers on Cheyenne land, and why there had been white men riding with them. Joe replied honestly enough that he had no explanation. Hoss frowned thoughtfully, stroked his chin, and then nudged his brother,

“Hey, Joe, I jest remembered summat,” he muttered, “Not that it means much to me, but could explain some thing of what was going on.”

“What was it?” Joe asked with a note of urgency in his voice, “Try and remember, Hoss, because if you can give a sensible reason as to why they attacked you, then I may be able to persuade the Cheyenne to move out like Adam said, even if I can’t explain to them why.”

Hoss bit his lip and glanced anxiously at the tepee. He looked at Joe and raised his eyebrows questioningly. Black Kettle waited with the patience borne of many years of waiting.

“Wal, it was a few days back. I was at one of the Forts that’s being built up along the borders. I fell asleep but when I woke up some men were talking between themselves. I caught a few words which grabbed my attention and then realised that I had to get outa there quick. I needed to find you, Joe, so that you could warn the Cheyenne that there was trouble brewing.”

“What made you think I could warn the Cheyenne? You didn’t even know where I was,” Joe said in a low voice.

“Shucks, Joe, I knew where you was, you were with the Cheyenne. It was just a case of finding exactly where you was that was the problem. I reckoned if I rode out here into Cheyenne territory they would find me and bring me to you. Joe, fold down in those Forts reckon on you being a renegade Indian lover …” he paused and glanced over at Black Kettle and the other Cheyenne who were regarding him solemnly, “No offence an’ all.” he said hastily.

“Alright, so what were they saying, these men whose conversation you overheard?”

Hoss licked his lips again and frowned, concentrating in order to recall exactly what he had heard, then he nodded as though everything was falling into place,

“Wal, they … these white men … were with the militia. I heard ‘em say that they had to make sure their uniforms weren’t on show, something like that anyhow. They were going to get some of the Pawnee to ride with them and then they were going to attack every white traveller, miner, wagon train, whatever, they came across travelling across Cheyenne territory.”

Joe frowned, and glanced at Black Kettle. One of the men was whispering urgently into the Chiefs ear, translating into the Lakota tongue all that Hoss was saying. Joe swallowed nervously,

“Go on, Hoss, what was going to happen then?”

“Jest that news would trickle through to the Forts about this happening. Folk would blame the Cheyenne and then the Militia would ride in and clear the place of all the Cheyenne camps they could find. They said Custer was riding in with the Cavalry.”

“Custer?” Joe frowned and glanced over at the seated Cheyenne. The name trickled around the assembly, a soft murmur like the breeze passing over a field of wheat.

There was a movement now from behind them, and upon turning they saw Stalking Horse walking towards them. His face was grim as he looked at the brothers, and then looked at Black Kettle, said something to him, and waited.

Black Kettle rose to his feet and followed Stalking Horse to the tepee and stooped low to enter into the interior. By the light of a low fire he saw the white man and approached him,

“Is he dying?” he asked Stalking Horse.

“May be,” came the reply.

“He wishes to speak to me his dying words?”

“He wishes to speak to you, Motovota.”

The Chief approached Adam and looked down at him. He pointed to the wound and looked at Stalking Horse with raised eyebrows

“A Pawnee arrow.”

“Ah!” Black Kettle nodded and sat down by Adam’s side.

Stalking Horse touched Adam gently on the shoulder, and whispered something close to his ear, upon which Adam forced open his eyes.

He had been on board his ship, sailing under blue skies but aware of dark clouds ahead. The sea was turning grey and spray splattered the deck. Everything was going gently up and down, up and down … and now he was confronted by a pair of fierce dark eyes in a swarthy face. He struggled to remember why it was so important to speak to this man who held his attention by sheer determination of his will.

“Speak.” Black Kettle said in a surprisingly gentle and kindly voice, “Speak to me, brother of Joseph.”

Stalking Horse raised Adam up a little higher, and the pain that movement caused him made Adam groan softly, but he succeeded in keeping his consciousness.

“You are Chief of the Cheyenne? Black Kettle?” he gasped, each word coming from his mouth with a gasp, a grunt, a sigh.

“I am Black Kettle.”

“Custer -”

“Yes, he is in the Snowy hills region. We have seen him come to the Fort.”

“You must leave here. Go into the hills.”

“We are not afraid of Custer, young man. We do not want war against him.”

He placed a quite paternal hand upon Adam’s shoulder, and smiled. Adam closed his eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side. Then by an enormous effort of will he opened his eyes again and whispered,

“You must move from here. Custer doesn’t care if you want peace or war. He’s going to attack your camp. Sand Creek all over again.”

Black Kettle started back. His lips thinned and his nostrils flared. He glanced at Stalking Horse and put a hand to his temple as though wanting confirmation that this was not just a feverish rambling of a dying man. Stalking Horse shook his head, and his eyes pleaded with the Chief to listen, pay attention.

“Speak. When will he attack our camp?”

“Three days.” Adam groaned, “Three days.” and then his eyes closed and his head lolled back against Stalking Horse’s arms.

Black Kettle said nothing but looked down at the injured man thoughtfully. He looked at Stalking Horse, then rose to his feet and left the tepee.

Joe and Hoss stood up. It was obvious the time for talk was over. Black Kettle strode over to the Chiefs and said something in a tone that implied urgency. Each one of them got to their feet and hurried to different regions of the camp. Each one, a leader in their own right, was to take control of their own section of the camp.

“What do we do now?” Hoss asked his brother, grabbing at his hat.

“We go and see Adam.” Joe replied. He paused then, then turned to look up at Hoss and smiled, “Shucks, Hoss, I never thought to see you here. Is Pa alright?”

Hoss thought of the last time he had seen their father. How could he tell his little brother that he had no idea of how Ben was right then? He merely put his hand upon Joe’s shoulder and drew him into his chest, and wrapped his arms about him,

“I prayed to God to find you, Joe. It’s been such a long journey.” he said huskily, and then he released him, “Let’s see Adam now?”

Joe felt a terrible weight settle upon his heart. Hoss had not told him about their father. Was it because the news was too terrible? And there was Adam, suffering, and all because of him. All because of him and his wanting to prove that he was as good a man as any of them; that he could travel and see things because he had the right to do so; and all that he had achieved was sheer misery on a large scale.

He slapped his hat against his knee in sheer frustration and misery.

Some unpleasant looking green gunk had been spread over the open wound. Stalking Horse was in the act of binding the wound and a young woman was rubbing some foul smelling grease over Adams body.

She looked up immediately and her eyes locked onto Joe with such intensity that even Hoss, innocent as he was to their relationship, suspected that they were more than ‘good friends’. Such matters were not uppermost on his mind at that time, he stepped past Stalking Horse and knelt beside his brother. His nose wrinkled,

“Are you trying to kill him or summat? What is that stuff?” and he pushed Little Moon’s hand away to prevent her from greasing Adam’s body any further.

“Bear’s grease.” Joe said quietly. “It won’t do him any harm, Hoss.”

Hoss scowled darkly at Stalking Horse, and then at the girl, who had sat back on her haunches, the bowl of grease clutched to her chest and her eyes large in her pretty face.

“You seem to have a lot to say about these folk, Joe, jest how long have you been here anyhow?”

“Since before the winter set in.” Joe replied, looking at Little Moon and thinking how lovely she looked. He smiled at her, but she only lowered her head humbly and waited for instructions from her mentor, Stalking Horse.

“Before winter set in?” Hoss frowned, that was a long time back he surmised, and he bit his bottom lip, inwardly resolving to say nothing. “HOw’s he doing?” he asked Stalking Horse, “Is he going to recover?”

“Yes, he has a strong will. He will fight to recover.” Stalking Horse replied, wishing the big man would go away and let him get on with treating his patient.

“Black Kettle’s moving the tribe from here. Can he travel?” Hoss asked, although he stared down at his brother’s pale face that already seemed to be bearing the pallor of death.

“He does not wish to move from here. He has said to stay.”

“Stay?” Hoss muttered with a bitter twist to his lips, “Stay here? Like that?”

“He wishes it. And,” Stalking Horse shrugged, “he will die if we move him. He needs much sleep to heal. Good for him to stay here. Like this …” and his words held a slight contempt in them, that did not go unnoticed.

“Hoss,” Joe touched his brother on the arm, “We’re not much help here. Let’s leave them be. I want to talk to you anyway.”

Hoss hesitated. After so long apart he had no desire to leave his brother behind, and had no confidence in the kind of doctoring he was receiving. He shook his head, and clasped his hands together.

“Hoss? Please?”

Slowly Hoss got to his feet and turned away, cast a long look at Adam who had not moved a twitch, and followed Joe back into the sunlight. He set his hat onto his head and after taking a deep breath of fresh air turned to his brother,

“Alright, Joe, what do you want to talk to me about?” he said with an edge to his voice that made Joe more nervous than he had been in months.

Chapter 32

Joe took Hoss by the elbow and drew him to a more private spot by the river. All around them the Cheyenne were busy dismantling their camp. Fires were doused and buried over, the tepees were being hauled down, horses were being rounded up. Children ran around collecting their own little bits and pieces, calling to one another, laughing with dark eyes gleaming and teeth flashing white against bronzed skin.

Hoss sighed and sat down. He passed a hand over his face and realised that he was weary, really weary. He looked up at Joe and raised his eyebrows,

“Well, Joe?”

“Tell me first about Pa?” Joe urged, sitting down opposite his brother on a cluster of rocks, “Is he alright?”

“I don’t know, Joe.” Hoss shrugged, “We came looking for you, when we got your letter and the cable from Nordstrom …”

“Nordstrum?” Joe’s eyes widened now, and he shook his head, “Nordstrum did you say?”

“Sure, he wrote to Pa and said you were in some kind of trouble. So we came looking for you. Hop Sing came too.” he paused and bit his lip again at the memory of seeing their dear friend trundling along behind them, and the smile that had enveloped Hop Sings face when he had at last joined them. “Wal, to cut a long story short, we rode into bad weather and Pa took ill. Thankfully Hop Sing being with us was able to help and when Pa was strong enough they made their way home. By that time I was travelling to find you and Pa didn’t want me to turn back. We’d heard from Adam as well. Nordstrum had contacted him too. That was why we felt it was so urgent to find you, Joe.”

“Other men leave their families and travel the world without the whole family getting into a panic and going out wanting to haul them back home.” Joe said rather defensively.

“Sure they do, Joe. That’s why Pa let … I mean … that’s why you went, weren’t it? But a lot of those young men don’t come back, and no one ever knows what happened to ‘em. We’re Cartwrights, Joe, and we look out for one another. We always have, haven’t we?”

Joe nodded, and rubbed the palms of his hands against the knees of his trousers,

“Yeah, sure. I was planning on starting home this week anyway. I only stayed away because I’d been injured and was too weak to travel. It was Stalking Horse that got me through it, and … and Little Moon.”

“The gal in thar with Adam?”

“Yes, and I tried to get messages back to the Ponderosa, Hoss, but every time I rode down to a settlement or Fort they had me ringed as some kind of trouble. It just wasn’t possible.” he looked at Hoss, “I’m sorry, Hoss. Perhaps you should have gone back with Pa.”

“Shucks, Joe, don’t think the thought hadn’t crossed my mind many a time.” Hoss growled, “I’ve been plumb worried sick about him. But I promised him that I would bring you home if you were alive and willing.” he flicked a glance at his brother who still sat with his head bowed, “You are willing, ain‘t ya, Joe?”

“I said just now that I was planning on coming home this week.” Joe replied testily.

“So? What else have you to tell me?” Hoss asked, knowing Joe well enough to suspect that there was still more to come, and Joe glanced up and looked over at the tepee.

Hoss said nothing, but followed his brothers gaze.

Little Moon stood by the entrance of the tepee. Upon seeing Joe looking in her direction she began to walk towards them. The light in her eyes, the slight smile upon her lips, a blush to her cheeks, were sufficient for Hoss to realise that this young girl loved his brother.

He could also see that she was beautiful. Her long black hair fell straight and heavy down her back and swayed slightly as she walked. She wore a soft doeskin shift, embroidered with blue beads upon the shoulders and upon the hem which was fringed. The long fringes parted and swayed at each step she took towards them. In her ears she wore jewellery of gold and lapis lazuli, and in her hair was a small cluster of white blossoms.

Yes, she was beautiful but the thing that Hoss saw most clearly, that made her even more lovely in his eyes, was the fact that she obviously loved Joe very much. Now it is a fact of life that if someone loved is loved by another, then one is either jealous and resentful of this new love, or gracious and joyful at seeing them loved by another. For someone as open hearted and loving as Hoss, the fact that this young woman obviously loved Joe so much won her his heartfelt approval.

Joe stood up and reached out a hand to the girl, drawing her closer to them. She turned to look up at Hoss, with her big eyes grave and solemn.

“Hoss, this is Little Moon. This is the girl I want to marry.”

Hoss opened his mouth, shut it, swallowed. He took off his hat again, and smiled, his eyes smiled, his cheeks went slightly ruddier, and he extended his hand towards her.

“Little Moon, this is my brother, Hoss.” Joe said, and smiled as Hoss took the girls hand in his and squeezed it gently, “The man in the tepee is my eldest brother, Adam.”

She nodded, and then looked from Hoss to Joe, the solemn look remained on her face, her eyes looked deep into Joe’s eyes, and he felt his heart plummet. ‘This is it,’ he told himself, ‘ she’s come to tell me that Adam’s died.”

Chapter 33

Little Moon took Joe’s hand in her own and stood without speaking, although her eyes stayed fixed on his face. It was Hoss who burst out with the question that was racing through both their minds,

“Is it Adam? Is he … is he …?”

“Brother of your flesh is sleeping. Deep in sleep. I speak with Joseph now.” she said so softly that Hoss felt embarrassed by his outburst and looked anxiously at Joe, before mumbling that he had better go and check on his horse.

Joe watched Hoss hurry away before drawing his beloved Little Moon closer to his side. He drew her down so that they sat together on the rocks. For a full moment neither of them spoke.

“What’s wrong, Little Moon? You can tell me, you know.” Joe said softly, and took her hand, gently uncurled her fingers and kissed its palm.

“Stalking Horse say Custer is coming. The people are moving into the hills. Your brother who is sick says he stays here.”

“Yes,” Joe nodded, “Yes, that’s right. You know that Adam can’t be moved?”

“Your brother tell Stalking Horse ‘I stay’. Not because he is sick. He said ‘I stay’.” and she looked deep into Joe’s eyes, “Joseph, if brother stay, you will stay also?”

Joe stared at her while his brain went over what she had said. He had not thought about it, had not contemplated being anywhere without her by his side now. He shook his head,

“I had not thought about it, my dearest. I didn’t realise that Adam had actually said that he was going to stay here.” he held her hand loosely in his lap and her fingers now curled over his, and slowly he folded his own around hers and held them tight.

“I stay here too?”

“What do you mean? To care for Adam?” he smiled, “I want you to be where you will be safe, Little Moon. Where I can find you so that I can take you home to the Ponderosa and marry you.”

“You will stay here with brother?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.” he looked out over the waters of the river.

On the far bank a bear was splashing through the waters catching salmon for his dinner. He watched it without the appreciation that he would have had even a few hours earlier. He could only think and wonder how could one man have so much power over thousands as to push them from their land, to push them back into the hills. How could it happen?

She nestled in closer to him and put her head upon his shoulder. His arm cradled around her body and his cheek rested upon her hair. He could smell the blossoms she had put there, they were sweetly fragrant and helped to disguise the smell of the bear grease she had been using earlier.

“Will Adam live?” he asked her, “Has Stalking Horse said whether he will live?”

“He told you, your brother has a strong will. His will is to live so he will fight to do so. The wound is not good, he lost a lot of blood, but it is not a wound that will kill him if his spirit is strong.”

“Is Stalking Horse going to stay here, with Adam?”

“I do not know. He is shaman. He may stay.”

“I love you, Little Moon.” he whispered into her hair and she could feel the touch of his lips moving there and smiled, closed her eyes and released a sigh,

“I love you, Joseph.”

The sun beams danced on the waters and the spray from the bears fishing exploits glistened like so many diamonds in the sky. Joe thought about love, about past loves, about this true love. There was, he knew now, a difference.

….. …..

“Unfurl the sails. Unfurl them.”

Stalking Horse leaned forward and frowned. The whispered words meant nothing to him. He dipped a cloth into cool water and carefully wiped around Adam’s face and neck. The lips continued to move feverishly and the eyelids fluttered as the injured man relived some nautical nightmare or, perhaps, recaptured an event that he would have preferred forgotten.

“Lower boats. Lower boats for pities sake or these men will die. Can’t you see …?”

Hoss stepped into the tepee and closed the opening. He looked first at Stalking Horse and then at Adam. Although his brother did not move, and was so still, the whispered words dropped from his lips as his will fought against succumbing to death.

In silence Hoss removed his hat, and then sat down by his brother’s side and bowed his head. Side by side the two men kept their vigil.

“How many men dead? Keep to the boats, I say, keep to the boats. Fire at will. Fire …”

Stalking Horse looked at Hoss and raised his eyebrows,

“He fights even when asleep.” he said quietly.

Hoss nodded, wondering whether or not the words were the narrative of a dream or the reliving of a truth. He looked at Stalking Horse,

“Your people are moving out. Are you going with them?”

Stalking Horse looked down at his patient and then at Hoss,

“I shall stay. There are plans Black Kettle has in mind.”

Hoss nodded but declined to ask exactly what plans the chief had in mind, although he hoped that he and his brothers were well out of the firing line whatever the plans happened to be. He looked down at Adam and took hold of the cloth, dipped it into the water and gently bathed his brother’s face.

Chapter 34

Little Moon looked intently into Joe’s face. Her whole heart was given over to this man and she knew that without him her purpose in life would shrivel up and die. She would herself, she knew, have no reason to live.

Such a handsome young man, she thought, even for a white man. So ready to smile, so brave and eager to learn. Generous and strong. But now, she knew, she could see his weakness and his weakness was that one thing which had given him his strength. She glanced over at the tepee and sighed. His brothers were here and it made his love for her weak.

Joe also looked towards the tepee. He knew that there was a decision to be made and yet he was unable to make it. Love or family? Which choice could he make. He shook his head and then smiled down at Little Moon,

“Sweetheart, do you believe me when I say I love you?”

His hazel eyes were lovely. She could see the green flecks in them. She could see herself in miniature in the dark pupil.

“Yes, as I love you.” she replied and placed her fingertips upon his lips, afraid of what he was about to say to her.

“I want you to go with your people here. Go with Magpie. When whatever happens here is over I shall come for you.”

She frowned and looked up at him shyly,

“Joseph, I want to be with you, by your side.”

Now he shook his head and kissed her fingertips, kissed the tip of her nose and stroked back her hair. He plucked a blossom from one of the dark tresses and held it to his nose before tucking it into his shirt pocket,

“When I come for you, Little Moon, in just three days time, I shall marry you. I shall marry you with your people there, and with my brothers. Then I shall take you home to my father. When you see the Ponderosa you will love it. I’ll make you happier than you have ever been in your life, my darling.”

“You will marry me?” two spots of rouge blushed her cheeks and her eyes shone with a lustre only a girl in love could possibly possess, “You will marry me here, among the people?”

“If Black Kettle says I can.” Joe laughed, and hugged her to him, “Now, will you do as I say? Will you go with Magpie?”

“I go now.” she said simply and stood up. “In three days?” she paused, and frowned, “You will come for me?”

“I shall.”

“I shall wait.” she stood now on tiptoe and kissed him, held him close, felt the beat of his heart in tune with her own.

He watched her as she walked away from him. He knew more than ever that this was the woman he would love forever.

A Cheyenne approached the tepee now. After casting one brief look at Joseph he opened the flap door and stepped inside. The smell of herbs and the medical stuffs of the shaman greeted his nostrils and he scowled. An impatient man, he did not like to be reminded of his mortality.

“Stalking Horse, the people are leaving now. Do you stay?”

Hoss looked at the shaman and raised one eyebrow. Well, he thought, nothing like finding out who your friends are before a fight. He turned his attention back to his brother. Odd how after all these years, well, four and a half years, Adam had barely changed. There was the same dark hair and the tanned skin was darker, honed no doubt by the salt and spray and sun of sea voyages far and wide. There were the same finely shaped hands in which there was always so much strength. Hoss lingered over memories of the horse round ups, and the way Adam could throw a lasso. The times they had fought the strength of the beasts together.

Movement made him turn his head once again, and he saw Joe come into the interior. His brother paused and listened to what the two Cheyenne were saying in their urgent whispers, but his knowledge of the Lakota language was still little, and the speed at which they were going made it all a nonsense anyway.

He joined Hoss and sat down beside him.

“How is he?” he asked softly.

“Sleeping. He was delirious for a while, but then went into a deep sleep. Stalking Horse said that this was a healing sleep. He would wake up much stronger from this.” Hoss frowned, “How’s the little girl?”

“I’m going to marry her, Hoss.”

“Yeah?” Hoss opened his eyes wide and nodded, remembering their previous conversation.

“As soon as this is over. I want her to be my wife. Then we can go home.”

“You mean she and you, together? Mr and Mrs, huh?”

“That’s right.”

Hoss nodded. He wondered where they would find a preacher to do the fixing up, and whether they had any of them tucked away here. He decided to say nothing as it was obvious his little brother was as taut as a bow string.

Stalking Horse came and joined them. He took a ladle of water from a bowl and splattered it on some hot stones, creating masses of steam which let off a heavy aromatic aroma. He then looked at Joe

“Your brother Adam sleeps very well. He will wake up much stronger.”

Hoss and Joe both nodded. The heat in the tepee was getting too much and Joe glanced over at the entrance. It would be so good to get out there, find Little Moon and walk for a while longer beside the river. He sighed.

It was Stalking Horse who got to his feet first and indicated that they should follow him. Both Hoss and Joe were more than glad to do so. Upon the palliasse Adam remained in a deep sleep.

There were no tepees any more. The charred remains of camp fires smoked a little still. The marks of many horses could be seen. Hoss watched as the vast crowd of people retreated into a mass of dust created by their own movement. It was like watching cattle on a round up and he felt immensely sorry for the families in the rear. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and watched in silence.

“It’s an exodus.” Joe said softly.

“Is your gal there among ‘em?” Hoss asked

“Yes.” Joe intoned, and his voice was flat.

Hoss looked at him and saw the emptiness on his face. He put his arm around his brother’s shoulders and gave him a hug. Even we, he thought, aren’t enough for him now.

Chapter 35

Stalking Horse came to stand beside them and after a short silence urged them to join him for something to eat.

They sat cross legged in the open. The sky above was blue and an eagle soared overhead. Stalking Horse said that was a good sign. The eagle was the totem of the people. Now there would be a lot of pleasure as they travelled because they would see the eagle and know that all would be well.

Hoss glanced over at Joe. He was not so sure, superstitious clap trap was what he called it. He ate in silence as did Joe.

“Black Kettle has runners in place. There are warriors near by. We are not alone.” Stalking Horse suddenly said, as though he felt it was now necessary to say something more pragmatic to these brothers.

“Where?” Hoss asked, immediately looking around and expecting to see a Cheyenne behind every rock and boulder.

“Well hidden. They will watch what happens. Runners will report to Black Kettle at various times to let him know. All is well.”

He looked up again into the sky and smiled. The eagle screeched out his hunting call. Stalking Horse was at peace. Joe could only push the food around his bowl, and think about what the outcome of the next few days would be. Surely Adam should have had more sense than to stay? Then he remembered that Stalking Horse himself had advised of the danger such a trip would bring to the injured man. With a sigh he put down the bowl and returned to the tepee.

It was stiflingly hot within the confines of the tent. During his time with the Cheyenne Joe had become acquainted with their sweating lodges and this was a close imitation of one. Designed to sweat out impurities and disease from the human body, it could, with the administration of certain drugs and herbs induce hallucinations and visions. Shamen would often resort to the use of such when in need of meditation. Joe was not so sure that it was quite the right treatment for his brother. He approached the bed and looked down at the man he had not seen for four and a half years.

“Adam? Can you hear me?”

There was no answer and to all intents and purposes it could well have been assumed that the man on the bed was already dead. But there was a steady rise and fall of the chest to reassure the onlooker.

Joe squatted down by his brother’s side and gently pulled the blanket more comfortably to his chest. He wiped Adam’s face with a cloth, and then rocked back on his haunches to survey him once more. Perhaps awareness of the scrutiny penetrated the void into which Adam had slipped for he gave a deep sigh and slowly opened his eyes.

It was a world he had not expected to look upon. Instead of the comfortable interior of his cabin was … a place dark, rather evil smelling, and extremely hot.
He sighed again as the thought came to him that there must be a hell after all, and this was it.

“Adam?”

The voice, disembodied as it seemed, drifted through the air and Adam’s lips twitched into a semblance of a smile. It was some comfort to know that if this was hell he was sharing it with someone he knew.

“Adam? Can you hear me? Can you talk?”

Adam licked his lips and tasted salt. His mouth was dry. He whispered ‘Water’ and when it trickled past his lips and down his throat he began to remember what had happened with a quite amazing clarity. He gripped hold of Joe by the wrist and pushed his hand away to observe him as though he had not really believed that it was possible, that Little Joe was actually there with him.

“What’s happened?” he asked in his quick no-nonsense manner.

Briefly Joe told Adam what had occurred and where he was, and why he was there. He explained about the wound from which he was suffering, and about the Cheyenne having left for the hills because he, Adam Cartwright, had told them to go.

“And they have gone?” Adam asked, raising himself upon his elbow but wincing with pain as he did so.

“Yes, they have.” Joe replied, and frowned slightly at the look of relief that flooded over his brother’s face, “You said something about Custer?”

“Yes, that’s right. George Armstrong Custer. He’s in charge of a troop of cavalry. He’s a ruthless ambitious man, Joe.”

“But what has that to do with Black Kettle?”

Adam glanced at his brother and then settled back against the buffalo hides that formed his mattress. He closed his eyes and saw once again the face of the handsome cavalier who had tried to charm him at the Admiral’s soiree all those months ago. Then he looked up and saw Joe, he smiled,

“It’s good to see you again, Joe.” he said softly and raised his hand which Joe clasped in his own.

“And you, Adam. You were the very last person on earth I expected to see here. Second to that was finding Hoss.”

They laughed together, soft and intimate and reconciling.

“Tell me what you’ve been doing here, Joe? How did you get to be with these people?”

So Joe told him about his injuries and the long sorry story of how he had been unable to contact Pa and how Hoss had just told him that Pa was ill. He then looked at Adam as though he now accepted the fact that Adam’s injury was also to be laid at his door. He was the cause of all the trouble after all, wasn’t he?

Adam said nothing to that, there were more serious things to consider. He pulled back the cover and looked down at the bandages, they were clean. That in itself was reassuring.

“What day is it, Joe? Do you know?”

“I’ve lost track of time, calendar time,” Joe admitted.

“How long have I been here, like this?”

“Less than a day. Evenings drawing in now.” Joe replied and stood up, “Do you feel well enough to eat?”

“Yes, thank you.” Adam said although he stared up at the gap in the ‘ears’ of the tepee and appeared to be deep in thought. “Joe?”

“Yes, Adam?”

“Is there a warrior here called Roman Nose?”

“I don’t know. I’ll ask Stalking Horse.”

“Who’s Stalking Horse?”

“The shaman who saw to your wound. I’ll get you something to eat.”

Left on his own in the darkness of the tepee with the rancid smell of bear grease and a multitude of herbs floating on the hot air, Adam closed his eyes and tried to divorce himself, mentally, from the whole situation. The picture of Custer floated towards him. He sighed. The man seemed to be haunting him.

Chapter 36

Hoss turned Chubb round and put the telescope to his eye. He scanned the hills and the woodlands and paused when he saw the flicker of movement. Now he steadied the telescope so that he could view the sight more carefully. With a sigh he lowered the instrument, frowned darkly and glanced over his shoulder at where Stalking Horse and several other Cheyenne were mounted. Hoss beckoned them over to his side and pointed and passed the telescope over to them. One by one they looked, until they had all seen what there was to see. It was Joe who returned the telescope to Hoss.

Without a word two of the Cheyenne wheeled their horses round and galloped away They would ride to where another two Cheyenne waited, and by relays, the message would finally reach Black Kettle at his camp.

“Well?” Joe said softly, looking at his brother.

“They’re coming. Just like Adam said they would.” Hoss murmured.

“Thank goodness we got the camp to shift. At least we have some breathing space.”

“We’d better go and tell Adam.” Hoss said, and together they galloped back to the place by the river where the lone tepee stood.

Stalking Horse remained with several others, watchful and alert. Perhaps in their heart of hearts they had not believed what Adam had warned was about to take place. Perhaps the most sceptical among them, those who had survived Sand Creek had hoped above hope that it was not going to happen. But there it was, a great cloud of dust advancing towards where their camp had once been three days earlier.

Joe had never felt so much misery in all his life. He had ridden, with Stalking Horse, to where Black Kettle had set up a temporary camp. It had been the day after Little Moon had gone and as Adam was more often asleep than awake, and when awake had assured him that nothing was going to happen for another two days, he had seized the chance to see her once again.

Little Moon had seen him riding into the camp and had run towards him, making the others about them pause and look at her, then look at him, and they had laughed good naturedly. Some children had run after them, clapping their hands and laughing. It was such a lovely sight. Joe had felt his spirits soar as he had dismounted from Cochise and he had caught her up in his arms and swung her around.

The whole point of Stalking Horse’s errand was to see if Roman Nose had reached the camp or was still hunting with his men in the Smoky Hills. Adams fear was that Roman Nose would use the situation to start a full scale war before mediation could take place. His explosive temper, pride, arrogance, call it whatever one wished, would be the perfect excuse for Custer to launch into the fight. As Stalking Horse continued on his way to find Black Kettle, Joe took Little Moon by the hand, and walked with her to where a small stream fought its way through the flower strewn ground. It had been an idyllic few hours.

The sun was setting when Stalking Horse returned to track down his friend. He saw the couple from afar, and received Joe’s acknowledgement before walking back to his horse and waiting.

“I have to go now, you do understand, don’t you?” Joe said softly, taking her hands in his own and leading her alongside the stream to where Cochise was grazing.

“I come with you” she said simply and looked at him steadfastly, “Joseph, you are to become my husband so I come with you”

“You’ll be safer here.”

She smiled then, and touched his face with her fingertips and shook her head

“No where is safe, Joseph. We all know that now, after Sand Creek”

“Trust me, darling. Stay with Black Kettle and I’ll come back for you when this is over.”

She gazed at him thoughtfully and walked a few more paces along the bank of the stream, his fingers entwined loosely within her own . Her head was downcast as she looked at the fading flowers, and the grass was already drying under the heat of the summer sun. She stopped then and turned to him

“I love you, Joseph.”

“I love you, don’t ever think I don’t, just because I have to go now.”

“You stay here.” She pulled at his hand and looked at him pleadingly, “Stay with me.”

“I can’t. I explained all that, Little Moon. When the military come I have to be there with Adam and Hoss.”

She only shook her head. A mans thinking, she told herself. Always to be the warrior, the hero.

“You love your brothers, Joseph?”

“Of course. But…”

“I love my people too, and I love you.” She sighed then and turned her head away and looked at the far off hills that looked purple and blue on the horizon “I love you but I have no courage to go with you to your people. I have to stay here, yes?”

“I don’t understand what you mean. Yes, you have to stay here, until I come back for you and then…”

“No.” she whispered “No, there will not be ‘then’” she looked at him with tears in her eyes and shook her head again, “If you go now, you must stay away. You must go home to your father a long way off, and I must stay here with my people. That is the way it must be, Joseph.”

“But, I don’t understand” he took hold of her by the shoulders and held her close to him, and kissed her “Little Moon,” he whispered very softly. “I have to come back for you.”

“I do not want you to come back, Joseph. You are not Cheyenne. I am not white.” she shrugged slightly and looked at him sorrowfully “Your brothers want you to go with them so you must go.”

He shook his head and stared at her as though what she was saying made no sense to him whatsoever, and then he grabbed at her hand and shook his head again.

“No, you are to be my wife, and when I come back,” he took a deep breath and looked into her eyes, “then I shall stay here, with you.”

They stared at one another for a few seconds, their eyes darkening at the intensity of their feelings for one another. When they had kissed all the feelings of love, desire, passion, were there, leaving them breathless. They clung close to one another as though, if one let go of the other, they would fall.

Joe thought back to that moment. He could the desire to be with her again and the fear of losing her fighting as always within him. He sighed heavily as he dismounted form his horse outside Adam’s tepee.

“Are you alright?” Hoss said quietly to Joe, as he dismounted from Chubb.

“Yeah, sure.” came the very quiet reply.

“No, I mean it, Joe. Are you alright?” and he took hold of Joe’s wrist and forced him to stop walking forwards. He looked into his younger brothers face, and Joe’s face crumpled,

“No, not at all.” Joe whispered and then he pushed Hoss’ hand away before striding on towards Adam’s refuge.
Chapter 37

Adam listened attentively to what his brothers told him. He had not left the tepee since he had been carried to it three days earlier but as he listened he cursed the fact that he had been injured at such a vital time. Stalking Horse had worked hard to repair the damage and to build up his energies, and he had relied on his own strengths and determination to be strong enough when the time came to be able to walk out on his own two legs.

There was silence now. Joe and Hoss had nothing left to say. Adam seemed unable to find words, although he sighed once, and clasped his hands together as though offering up an involuntary prayer.

“How did you know?” Hoss asked suddenly, “How did you know they were going to come?”

Adam turned and looked at his brother as though unable to understand what he was saying, and then nodded. With a slight smile he told them how he had met Custer back East. Then they had met again at the Fort.

“We were discussing the matter of the build up of the militia along the borders,” he said with that same whimsical smile on his lips, “Custer said he was not prepared to discuss army procedures with me and I agreed that I did not expect him to do so.”

“But he did?” Joe suggested, prodding the remnants of the fire with a piece of wood in order to rekindle it.

“Well, it’s an odd thing and I don’t know if you have ever noticed it yourselves, but if something important is hidden and someone mentions it, one involuntarily glances at the place where it is hidden. You used to do it all the time, Joe.”

“Oh yeah, so you did.” Hoss guffawed, and nudged Joe who smiled unwillingly.

“Custer did just that, glanced to a side desk where there were papers strewn about, he even moved to cover them, as though they were unimportant, but I had already read what was relevant. I have excellent eye sight and can read anything written upside down. It was quite easy to just find out the exact date from one of the sentries and then to calculate when they would leave the Fort, how long it would take them to get here. It was all written down in his orders.”
“And – what exactly were his orders? You never actually said.” Joe didn’t look at his brother’s face, but acted as though nurturing the embryonic flames was the most important task at that moment.

“No, I didn’t, did I.” Adam straightened his back and raised his chin, “I suppose you read about the burning of Atlanta? Scorch earth policy of General Sherman?”*

“Yes, of course we did.” Joe glanced up and his eyes turned from Adam to Hoss, before he placed a basin of water on the fire to boil.

“The orders to Custer came from Sherman. Well, if Atlanta was what General Sherman could do to his fellow Americans what do you think he intends to do with a bunch of Indians?”

The three men were silent once again. Joe thought of Little Moon, and wondered what future did she have now? He had pledged to go back and marry her, to stay with her people, but now he wondered whether his first intention, to take her home to the Ponderosa, was in fact the wisest and safest.

“So what do you intend to do here?” Hoss said in the silence, “You’re not going to be able to stop them, are you? They represent the Government,” he stopped, and shook his head, “Shucks, this is a mess.”

“Yes,” Adam replied, “It is a mess.”

He pushed himself up now onto his feet, swayed a little, and after taking a deep breath managed to walk to the entrance of the tepee. He nodded, as though to himself, as though berating his weakness, but appreciating his strengths. He bowed his head and then realised that Hoss was right there, by his side. He smiled,

“I’m stronger than you think, Hoss,” he said and put out a hand which rested on his brother’s arm.

He pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows, stooped and stepped out into the daylight. It was good to smell the fresh air again. Good to be alive. He looked around him, and nodded,

“It’s beautiful country, isn’t it?”

They stood together, side by side, the Cartwright brothers. Years before they had stood like that, side by side. They stared out across the river, up to the sky, over to the mountains where the trees grew thick and lush to the waters edge. Joe bowed his head, and remembered how he had taken Little Moon’s hand not so far from that spot. His heart felt as though it were being squeezed by a giant hand.

Chapter 38

“What are they doing now?” Joe asked when Hoss rode back into their makeshift camp.

“They’ve made camp” Hoss muttered, dismounting from Chubb and letting the reins hang loose. He walked towards Joe and took the mug of coffee his brother offered him, “About 400 men I’d say. Four howitzers, and enough rifles and ammunition – if the wagons anything to judge by – to blow anything in its way to smithereens.” Hoss folded away the telescope and looked over to the tepee, “How is he?”

“Shaving.” Joe replied as though having to state the obvious was boring.

“Shaving?” Hoss raised his eyebrows and then grinned, he wrapped his arm around his youngest brother and hugged him in a Hoss type embrace and laughed, “Shucks, Joe, don’t it seem mighty funny the way we three are together agin. I never thought to see the day for a mighty long time yet.”

“Yeah, sure, funny!” Joe frowned and stared at his mug of coffee.

“You thinking of your little gal, huh?”

“I love her so much, Hoss.” Joe replied softly, “She said not to go back, because she’s Cheyenne and I’m white. She said she didn’t have the courage to – to handle it.”

“Wal, guess you have to have the courage for the two of you then.” Hoss replied with a sigh.

“Why do people have to hate and kill all the time,” Joe groaned.

“Because…” Adams voice said gently behind them “Because they’re humans and humans hate and fear what they don’t understand, and because they’re greedy and selfish and if the people you fear have what you want, then you go out and get it by force.”

“Oh thanks,” Joe glanced up and frowned, “You look awful!”

“I know,” Adam sighed and very carefully lowered himself onto a nearby rock, he waved Hoss away when his brother approached him to help “Thanks Hoss, I need to do this for myself.” He took a deep breath and exhaled and closed his eyes for a while before opening them and looking at Joe, “Ecclesiastes chapter 8 v 9 and a wise king referred to the length of time that man has dominated man to his injury…and, here we are, and it still goes on. What have we learned? Only to dominate others more ruthlessly, and more cruelly.”

“You’re not making me feel any better!” Joe sighed and passed his brother a mug of steaming hot coffee.

“I guess not,” Adam took the mug of coffee from his brother and frowned “Look, Joe..over the past few years I’ve been to a lot of places. I’ve seen some wonderful sights, and met wonderful people but…” he gulped down some coffee and spat it out before continuing to speak “where ever I’ve been I’ve seen the way people treat others in just about the basest possible ways. I’ve seen Africans taken captive by other Africans and selling them off to the Dutch and Spanish as slaves. I’ve seen English hate Irish and Irish hate English, and both hate the Scots and vice versa. I’ve seen whole villages in Poland wiped out by Cossacks. It makes me sick!”

“Then you come back and find all this,” Hoss muttered.

“It’s like a giant wheel that’s out of control.” Adam sighed “hatred begets hatred. You can’t talk about peace and love when your children are trained to hate and kill. Religion, colour, tribe…any excuse provides the reason.” he bowed his head “I’ve seen too much killing, I don’t want to see any more.”

“You’ll never stop it” Joe said, squatting on his haunches and pouring himself more coffee, “No one can. We’ve fought to keep the Ponderosa, haven’t we?” he stood up, “And we’ll still fight to keep it.”

“I know, but we can do our best to stop any carnage here…” Adam drained his cup dry and put it down “Right, let’s get ready and go.”

Chapter 39

Earlier in the day Adam had requested that the panniers from his belongings be brought into the tepee. It was into these that, months earlier, he had packed away his naval uniform. He had not expected to wear it again but in this situation he fully realised that Custer would be more respecting of the uniform than he would be, perhaps, of the man wearing it.

He wore the uniform with a dignity that rather daunted Hoss. They had not seen Adam in full uniform before and in all honesty, Hoss would have preferred his brother to have been wearing his usual clothing. The uniform represented an Adam Cartwright of whom he knew very little. With the gold braiding and epaulets, however, Joe thought his brother looked rather dashing. He gave Adam a mock salute and a grin, before turning to extinguish the fire.

They were about to walk towards the horses when Stalking Horse and several other Cheyenne rode up to them, sending a cloud of dust to settle upon them as their entry had been made in haste.

“What’s happened?” Joe asked, thinking immediately of one person only, whereas everyone else there was considering thousands.

“Roman Nose has been seen riding towards the camp.” Stalking Horse slid down from his horse.

He looked rather cautiously at Adam. A white mans uniform represented the oppressor, and he was unsure about this one. He knelt and with his forefinger drew marks in the sand, indicating Custers militia, the river, the hills and their encampment and then, far to the left, the approaching dog soldiers, led by Roman Nose.

“Well,” Adam passed a hand over his newly shaved chin, “One thing for sure we don’t want, and that’s for Roman Nose to get involved in this. Is there no way you can stop him?”

Stalking Horse stood up and looked at Adam. He saw the lustreless eyes sunken in the dark hollows of their sockets, the waxy pallor that made the dark hair almost shockingly black by contrast. He shook his head and pointed towards the smoke that rose from Custers fires,

“Is there no way you can stop him?” he countered.

“That is what this is all about, Stalking Horse,” Adam replied softly, and he put a hand on the mans arm and looked into the black eyes that were smouldering with a fire he had not seen before in this peace loving Cheyenne. “To stop them. But, if we achieve that today, you must do your part and make sure that Roman Nose does not come any further than your own encampment. Do you understand?”

Stalking Horse frowned. He glanced at Hoss and Joe who stood on either side of their brother. The three of them looked so stern that he could only nod, and step to one side.

……..

“Well?” George Custer looked up at the Officer striding towards him. Back East they called him Gorgeous George because he was handsome, and rather flamboyant, with his flowing hair and cavalier appearance. It was an standard which he sought to maintain throughout his campaigns and being vain, he enjoyed the attention he received.

The Officer approaching him was covered in dust and had obviously wiped his brow at some time, leaving a grimy smear. He saluted his Commanding Officer smartly,

“Sir.” he cleared his throat, swallowed grit and dust, “No sign of any hostiles, sir.”

“What do you mean, no hostiles? Of course there aren’t any hostiles. That’s the whole point of our being here, isn’t it?” Custer lounged back in his chair, giving his officers seated at the table a knowing grin, and they in turn gave the obligatory chuckle.

He leaned forward, clasped his hands upon the table top, and raised his eyebrows at the Office standing before him much as a teacher would when about to chastise an errant student.

“If you want to stir things up, you go in with a big stick and give it a good stir. That rule applies to bee hives, hornets nests and Cheyenne. Now, we have our orders. If you can’t find any Cheyenne then we ride in and search them out. When we find them, they’ll know all about it.”

“We saw one tepee,” the Officer reported lamely.

Custer closed his eyes as though weary of the whole matter, weary of the sight of him, and he shook his head, pinched the top of his nose and shook his head,

“One tepee? Do you think I’m really interested in just ONE tepee?”

“No, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“Dismissed. What’s your name again?”

“Scott, sir.”

Custer looked at the wretched man long and hard. A cold stare that terrified the man right down to his boots.

………..

Joe watched as Stalking Horse mounted up and with barely a sound joined the other Cheyenne and appeared to melt into the view beyond. He sighed and walked alongside his brothers to where Cochise was waiting. Hoss walked close to Adam, hovering like a frustrated hen after one of its chicks.

“I’m alright, Hoss,” Adam said with a smile, then he looked over at Joe, then back again to Hoss, “What about Joe? Is he alright, do you think?”

“He’s worried about Little Moon,” Hoss said and glanced over at Joe. His face dropped, and he looked at Adam, “He’s all over in love with the gal.”

Adam nodded and looked thoughtful as he put his foot in the stirrup and mounted up into the saddle. He had to take a deep breath as he settled himself down, pain like red hot needles trickled up and down his back and around his gut. He straightened his back, saw Hoss’ concerned look and smiled.

Joe mounted Cochise and approached them. He looked at Adam, at the sunken eyes, haggard cheeks, and wondered whether or not he would actually survive the ride to the army camp. Adam merely smiled and nodded, turned his horses head and moved to his brothers side to place a gentle but firm hand on Joe’s arm,

“Joe, you can go back to Little Moon if you wish. We’d understand if you wold choose to do so, you know.” and he gave Joe a gentle smile.

Joe bowed his head and sat very still in the saddle as his heart fought a battle within himself, then he looked at his brother again, at the face of a man who was fighting his own battles, and he shook his head.

“No, I’ll come with you, Adam. You said it was important, I think you know best.”

“In some things perhaps” Adam replied very gently “But in affairs of the heart, especially between a man and his betrothed, perhaps not.“

“This is more than an affair of the heart. Its about two different cultures, different people,” Joe bowed his head again and Adam watched as a tear slowly rolled down his brothers cheek which was impatiently brushed aside “I love her so much, Adam. How can I get her to believe me when I said that I’d care for her always? Joe cleared his throat “She sees me as a white man first, and her husband second…and what have the white men ever done to her?” he exclaimed bitterly

“Saved her life from what Stalking Horse told me.” Adam replied very softly, “Perhaps she had forgotten that? Joe, go back to her if that is what you feel is right. Go back now.” Adams dark eyes smouldered as they looked into Joe’s eyes “Look, Joe” he glanced over to where Hoss was waiting as patiently, and as solidly as ever “If I had had the chance of going back to Ruth all those years ago, then I would have done.”

“Yeah, but she was ill, and …”

“I could still have gone with her,” he frowned, and shook his head “I didn’t love her enough, I guess, now when I think back, perhaps I made the wrong choice.”

“You chose to come home to your family, Adam” Joe murmured.

“Joe, family it always there, that’s what family is all about, isn’t it? But women ..and love…” he sighed and shook his head “It’ll be alright, Joe, Little Moon should always come first if she is to be your wife.”

Joe looked earnestly into his brother’s eyes. There would be hard times ahead should he marry Little Moon and stay, as he had promised, with the Cheyenne. But were he to leave her, never to see her again, then there would be no joy in anything anymore. He licked his lips,

“Are you sure, Adam?”

“I’m sure.” Adam took a deep breath, and then gave a lop sided grin, “Hoss and I should be joining you soon anyway. I doubt if this matter will take very long.”

Joe reached out his hand, which Adam took and gripped firmly. He wanted to say ‘Don’t go, stay with us, come back with us.’ but that, he knew, was sentiment, not love. Love allows those loved to be set free from the constraints of duty, and familial obligations. He nodded, and dropped his hand, whereupon Joe rode up to Hoss, hugged him close,

“I’ll see you later.” he whispered and held out his hand which was immediately seized by his brother.

Moments later Joe was galloping towards the Cheyenne camp. The smells of the day had never smelt so fresh and sweet, the blue sky had never been so blue and overhead the eagle called out a keening cry that echoed over the diamond spangled waters of the river. His heart seemed to be singing and its song was that of Little Moon.

Adam and Hoss watched him go. Whatever either of them thought did not matter, they never spoke of it but turned to one another with a smile,

“Come,“ Adam said quietly, “Time for us to move on.”

Chapter 40

They paused at the brow of the ridge overlooking the campsite and looked down at the soldiers and the rows of tents and the ammunition wagons and the weapons, the four howitzers, the stacked rifles….Hoss glanced at Adam

“Well, there it is, what do we do now?”

“Go on down and pay the Commanding Officer a visit” came the cool reply and without another word Adam turned his horse and led the way down the ridges slopes, sending dust and rocks slithering about his horses feet.

Corporal Peter Sands paused in the act of surveying the dust cloud and raised a hand to halt the small group of men who were riding as reconnaissance with him. He was soon able to discern within the dust cloud two riders, one of whom he noticed was built like the side of a mountain. Broad of chest, and big of stature. The other man appeared to be an officer of some kind, and he screwed up his eyes against the sun in an attempt to recognise which unit he would have been attached.

Adam did not slow down his horses gait one instance even though the pain in his gut was becoming unbearable and he had a rather disturbing feeling that the wound was beginning to bleed. He merely raised his hand to straighten the black cravat at his throat, which, with the white shirt and dark blue officers jacket made up part of his officers uniform. He forced his mind to blank out the pain and to concentrate on the matter in hand.

The Corporal waited until the two men had drawn alongside them and, recognising the epaulets of an officer, he saluted. He was about to open his mouth when Adam spoke in a very clipped voice,

“Captain Adam Cartwright sends his compliments to Captain George Custer and asks permission to speak to him on a matter of some urgency.”

Sands returned the salute and was about to speak when he realised that ‘Captain Cartwright’ and his companion, were already riding on towards the camp. He immediately ordered his men about turn and rode in convoy behind them.

At Custer’s bivouac the horsemen halted and dismounted and Sands made a hasty retreat to the officers tent where he announced the arrival of two men who had made a request for an audience. Within minutes Adam and Hoss found themselves ushered into the great mans presence.

Custer turned his ice cold eyes to the two men, smiled and indicated chairs upon which they could sit. At the entrance of the tent stood two sentries and close by his side were his adjutant and his secretary.

“We do seem to meet at the oddest of times and in the strangest of circumstances, Captain Cartwright. May I ask who is your companion?”

As he spoke Gates, remindful of his superior Officers orders in connection to Adam Cartwright, whispered urgently an orders of his own to the soldiers on duty. Within seconds they had turned about face, and were standing behind Adam and Hoss, awaiting instructions from Custer to arrest if not both, at least one of the men.

Two more soldiers appeared and stood at the entrance of the tent as sentries, and in the ’At Attention’ position. Custer acted as though he had seen nothing untoward happening. Hoss felt a bit hot around the collar, and glanced over his shoulder, but Adam, like Custer, chose to ignore it.

“This is my brother, Hoss Cartwright of the Ponderosa.”

“Mr Cartwright, a pleasure to meet you.” Custer extended his hand and briefly shook that of Hoss’, then he smiled over at Adam “As you can see, Captain Cartwright, we are in the middle of having to deal with a small problem.”

“Really?” Adam frowned. “If you don’t mind my saying so, Captain, you seem to armed to the teeth. Just how small a problem is it for you to have such a Military presence here?”

“I don’t think it to be so very large.” Custer flushed, one thing he detested was anyone questioning his reasons for doing anything “I don’t think Cheyenne attacking white men, killing white men, a small matter! I rather think it a particularly offensive problem and one which should be dealt with as soon as possible.” He scowled at them both and then looked at his adjutant and took some papers from him “During the winter, details were sent to the Chiefs of this territory that no one of their tribe were to be in possession of a rifle unless they have written warrants from us.”

“That means they can’t hunt!” Hoss exclaimed with a note of disgust clear in his voice. He flushed red and looked angrily at Adam, as though to say, ‘come on, say something, get something done about this.’

“And due to the bad winter conditions Black Kettle never received any such instructions at his camp.” Adam replied quietly “Also, they have never attacked white men or killed them. Although they would have every right to do so, considering this IS their land, and according to the Treaty last signed at your forts, YOU and your men are supposed to be keeping white men OUT!”

“Then what do you call this?” Custer murmured and tossed down an arrow, which Adam and Hoss looked at without much enthusiasm, “That, sir, is a Cheyenne arrow.”

“So it is too,” Hoss growled, throwing finesse and caution out of the window. He ran his finger along the smooth shaft, “And nice and clean it is too.”

“And,” Adam drew something from his own pocket and tossed it down upon the desk “What do you call this?”

Custer picked it up and examined it and then looked at Adam “An arrow…part of…” he frowned “Painted red?”

“That’s not paint” Hoss growled “It’s blood…..”

Custer dropped it immediately and narrowed his eyes,

“Cheyenne?” he asked.

“Look again, Captain, and learn to tell the difference, your lives could depend on it! That is an arrow from a Pawnee scout.” Hoss said quietly, narrowing HIS eyes.

“What’s going on?” Custer asked quietly, eyeing the arrow and the two men with a hardening look on his face. Behind him several Officers grouped closer together. One rather incautiously placed his hand on his holster.

“You hire Pawnee as scouts, don’t you?” Hoss replied, leaning back and thinking he was doing pretty well as a Diplomat. He casually placed his hand on HIS holster.

“We do!”

“Missed any lately?”

The adjutant stepped forward and muttered something to Custer who glanced up at the two brothers and frowned and nodded slowly,

“What happened?” he asked briefly.

Adam glanced over at his brother and then at Custer,

“Let’s start from the beginning.” he said calmly “You say that the army is here to protect the Cheyenne, and keep white men out. But within Indian territory new townships are being set up already. The fact is that the white men are not being kept out. They get over the border and create trouble by attacking isolated groups of Cheyenne. such an attack occurred last fall and during it our younger brother was injured and a white man was killed.”

“We have a record of that,” the adjutant said “A slightly different version though.”

“No doubt! “ Adam replied icily “My brother here-” he indicated Hoss “was at a trading post recently when he overheard several white men discussing their plans to enter onto Cheyenne territory, ambush any solitary persons they came across and blame any resultant casualties on the Cheyenne. They would then ride to the nearest outpost and put forward their story and the result…..” he swept out a hand to encompass the army site “They left the trading post with several Pawnee. A few days later they attacked my brother. By coincidence I was riding along and saw what happened and rode down to assist him.”

“Getting injured in the meantime.” Hoss growled and picked up the Pawnee arrow in his fist, which he shook in the direction of the Officers, “by this, a Pawnee arrow.”

“During the fight one Pawnee and a white man were killed, by my brother and myself. We found these personal items on them and return them to you. You may be interested to note that both men were hired by the US Army.” and Adam casually tossed some personal belongings onto the desk. These were picked up and examined by the adjutant and another officer.

There was a pause, while one of the men in the tent finished writing out the narrative he was witnessing. This, Adam realised, was a civilian and no doubt a Journalist hired by one of the Eastern papers to report what was going on in the field where Glorious George was so active. In another corner an officer, no doubt acting as secretary was taking down minutes, as though there were an official meeting. Adam was more than pleased by this as he knew everything that was being said was being recorded, in duplicate.

“I would also like to add that we are not making any accusation against the Army, I would hate you to think that we thought the US Army would resort to such contrivances,” he tossed the comment in for good measure, but the cynical twist to his lips indicated to Custer that no one was fooled.

“Then why would anyone go to such lengths?” the adjutant said hastily, gaining a black look from Custer as a result and wilting inwardly with a groan.

“Look around you, sir” Adam said softly “This is beautiful land, and the first ones to claim it, get the choicest chunks.”

“So you’re claiming that white men and Pawnee attacked you?” Custer replied thickly “What about the Cheyenne?”

“Saved my life.” Adam pointed to the arrow “one of those in the back usually means bad news.”

“And it doesn’t usually mean a man goes riding anywhere within a few days either,” Gates scoffed, hoping that this riposte would find approval with his superior officer, and he nodded over to the soldiers standing behind Adam and Hoss, indicating that they could now arrest the men.

Custer, however, raised a finger and the two men stepped back. Hoss, going redder in the face than ever, leaned forwards and stared into Custer’s face,

“Are you calling me and my brother liars, sir?”

“Not necessarily, but I’ll need a darn sight more proof than you’ve given me today.” came the sharp retort back.

“I can prove it,” Adam replied quietly, “an honest man will accept the evidence of his own eyes, surely? Only a fool or a thief will deny it.”

“Then go ahead,” Gates almost shouted, “Give us your proof.”

Adam stared at him blankly for a second or two. He was not a man who indulged in theatricals, but there was only one proof he could offer them and he now could only hope that he was going to be able to provide it without falling flat on his face. He pushed himself away from the desk, and rose to his feet.

It seemed to him to take an age to unfasten the buttons on his jacket. He could feel the trickling of blood down his flesh, and the shirt was adhering to his back.
Slowly he pulled back the jacket to reveal the spread of blood that was beginning to seep through his white shirt.

Custer and his officers started back in amazement and stared at Adam as though he were mad.

“What on earth possessed you to ride down here in that condition?” Custer cried and turned to his adjutant “Get the medic here, right away.”

“Listen here,” Adam said quietly, letting his jacket and the blood stained shirt fall back into place “the reason Hoss and I came here today was to stop you going any further into Cheyenne territory. What you are doing is an act of war. You are taking troops against an innocent people in an act of aggression. If you proceed,” he paused and realised that he was beginning to feel very faint, he took a deep breath and struggled to recall to mind what he was about to say, “You have no legitimate reason for being here, Captain Custer. If you retreat now, all well and good, you could say it was a matter of -” he paused again, groped for the right words, “ a display of strength if you wish. But -.”

“They’ll fight? Attack us?” Custer almost smiled, and crooked an eyebrow as though mocking everything Adam had said.

Adam shook his head, looked at Hoss and raised his eye brows. Hoss stood up slowly, towering over all of them there, he looked at them with scorn filled eyes

“You jest don’t git it, do ya? They won’t fight, they won’t attack or ambush any of you, they don’t want war. They’ll wait and see what you intend to do. Then you’ll do it and those left over will run and try and find another way of walking the peace road with you. Cain’t ya see, Custer? They don’t want to fight!”

In the background the US Army secretary and the journalist were scribbling down the words as fast as they could. For a moment all that could be heard was the scratching of their pencils against the paper.

Chapter 41

“Black Kettle believes in the white men he has met and who have made him promises. Promises of peace and long life for the Cheyenne. He met President Lincoln, who promised him friendship. He believes those words were said with sincere hearts. Whatever bad has happened he believes are the result of bad white men. That it is not the will of ALL white men. He knows there are bad in every race and he’s hanging on to his people, and to the hopes of peace, because of his trust in the GOOD white folk he has met.” Adam sighed, “What has been happening is …” he paused and leaned forward a little, the pain was getting too much to bear and he grimaced, “What has happened is that some unscrupulous men want to provoke war, get you to chase away the Cheyenne, get them to retreat further into their land, then they edge their way in, build up townships. Once the townships get established the borders suddenly change direction again. Do you understand what we’re telling you?”

Custer stared into the dark eyes of the man who was struggling now to form the words he was speaking, he glanced over at Hoss who was biting his bottom lip

“I understand exactly what you’re saying, Captain. It‘s something I‘ve had said to me by every Indian lover in Government from here to Capital Hill. You must have more reason that THAT to risk your life in coming here today. Why not be honest enough to say what it is?”

Adam leaned back in his chair and stared down at the floor. His brother looked first at him, and saw a spent exhausted man. Then Hoss looked at Custer and saw the cruel twist to the lips that indicated the amount of pleasure the man got from riding rough shod over other men. Hoss stood up and was about to speak when Adam beckoned to him to sit down again.

“You’re right, there is another reason why I’m here. It’s personal to me, and to Hoss I suspect.” he put a hand to his mouth and his fingers tapped slowly against his lips as he looked at the view through the opening in the tent.

The secretary who had been writing down the minutes of this meeting, and the journalist who had been scribbling frantically what he could see was a good story, waited with their pencils poised.

“When I and Hoss were small boys our father found some land. It was beautiful. It IS beautiful. We built our home there, and we worked our guts out to make it a prosperous ranch. We brought in cattle, we rounded up wild horses, we cut down trees and replanted new. We have even dug out mines for gold and silver.”

He paused, the secretary and journalist looked up, pencils at the ready, their eyes fixed on the pale face and the near black eyes.

“We had made friends with the original owners of the land. The son of a great chief, Winnemucca, friend of my father, was my friend. We ran races, rode horses, wrestled, did things boys generally do. I never thought that he would think of me as anything other than his friend.

“But, one day, we climbed up Sun Mountain together. He told me how the Spanish conquisadores had come and conquered their land, how bit by bit they were pushed back … so far, and so far, he said, until all they had left was so little that they could meet one another on a journey within a single day. He told me we would no longer be friends. I was white. He was Paiute.

“I had looked down upon the land he had shown me and, I admit, I felt smug and pleased because it was our land, the Ponderosa. As he talked I realised that what he was showing me was what had been their land, Paiute land. I also realised that the more we had prospered, the greater his bitterness until there was nothing left of friendship, only hatred.

“Not so long before I left Nevada, he died. There was fighting, and a lot of people were killed as a result. He, whom I had once thought my friend, was prepared to kill me without a second thought. But he died. Killed by a white man who had lied and connived to cover his own back. A white man who was too much of a coward to own up to the truth of what he had done and as a result others, innocent others, died.

“I guess I just wanted to do something that I could not do for him, or for Winnemucca. I’m as guilty of taking the land from those who first owned it, and I’m probably twice damned because I have no intention of giving it back. In fact, if push comes to shove, I guess I’d fight hard to keep it. It’s Cartwright land now. Time has passed.”

He stopped talking. Hoss nodded as though in agreement with all his brother had said and endorsed it. Custer said nothing, just stared at them, his eyes cold and relentlessly boring into those of the man opposite him.

“Sir, shall I have these men arrested ?” Gates urged, glancing over at the soldiers still standing close behind Hoss and Adam.

“No.” George stood up and clasped his hands behind his back, he looked again at Adam, a frown furrowed his brow, “That makes you a bit of a hypocrite, doesn’t it, Captain Cartwright? You want to stop others getting what you have already got.”

“We don’t want there to be any bloodshed. Black Kettle has already ceded over to the U.S. Government thousands of acres of land. The fight for land from the Paiute took place centuries ago. We never had to fight them for the Ponderosa.”

“No, perhaps not.” Custer shrugged, “Very well. Let’s put this down to, as you suggested, a show of strength. A mere military exercise. We’ll retreat back to the borders – this time.”

A man in uniform carrying a medical bag pushed his way through into the interior of the tent and paused, unsure as to whom he was supposed to be treating. Custer beckoned to him,

“This man is injured. See to his wounds will you.” he extended his hand towards Adam “A pleasure meeting you again, Captain Cartwright. I hope it doesn’t become a habit.”

Gates stepped forward between Custer and the Doctor, and asked whether or not the Cartwrights should now be arrested, to which Custer gave a short, abrupt and rather crude response.

Chapter 42

The bandages were secured tightly around Adam’s wounds, and the Doctor wrote out his report which was duly handed to Custer. The report confirmed that Captain Adam Cartwright had sustained an injury as a result of a projectile weapon entering into his back and exiting through his front. He had concluded, via his examination of the wound, that the projectile in question was an arrow.

Long before the Doctor had even sat down to write out the report Adam and Hoss were riding back to the lone tepee by the river. In the hills, hidden behind rocks and boulders, Cheyenne scouts and runners watched as Custer dismantled the camp and returned in the direction from which he had departed. The runners relayed the action to Black Kettle so that by the time Roman Nose arrived at their camp, there was nothing for him to do but shout the odds and protest their rights.

It was Hoss’ strong arms that helped Adam into the tepee and settled him back down upon the buffalo hides of the bed. He soaked cloths in cold water and wiped around his brothers face and neck, and made him a drink that contained some of the powders the army Doctor had given them.

“Will it make any difference, do you think?” he asked Adam, sitting cross legged on the ground with the fire struggling to come alight, and his brother ill by his side. “Our going down there, will it change things?”

“No.” Adam sighed, “It won’t change a thing, Hoss. It just delays the inevitable. It gives Black Kettle a little space, a little time.”

“Then what was the point?” Hoss said, “Why did you have to go down there and say those things to that mad man?”

“At the end of the day George Custer will say he was only obeying orders. Isn’t that what they all say? Perhaps we’ll read about his military prominence in time to come, and perhaps he’ll even become just another old and cynical Senator in Government, or maybe he’ll get himself killed. We’ll no doubt read all about that as well.”

He closed his eyes. He was tired to the bone, and every bone ached. He wanted to be home, to listen to his Pa talking to him in that deep dark voice. He wanted to see familiar things, and smell the pine trees of the Ponderosa on the breezes that drifted through the house. He wanted to taste Hop Sings food and hear Joe laughing.

“No sign of Joe?” he said quietly.

“No,” Hoss replied, “No sign.”

……… ……….

Joe Cartwright rode through the Cheyenne camp hot on the heels of Stalking Horse and the Cheyenne who had accompanied him. He followed them to where George and Magpie’s tepee stood and slid out of the saddle. With a smile and his eyes bright at the thought of seeing Little Moon, he approached Magpie who was stirring food in a pot over the fire.

“Here I am then, Magpie. I’m back.”

Magpie observed him, said nothing, but nodded.

“Is George here?”

She turned her head, indicating the tepee behind her. Joe smiled, and entered the tepee where he found George Bent busily cleaning a rifle.

“Expecting trouble, George?”

“Always good to expect something. If nothing happens that is good, but if something happens to be ready is good.” George frowned, “I have only one round of ammunition however. I am hoping that nothing happens so that I can use the ammunition for food when I go hunting.”

Joe nodded. He didn’t want to talk about hostilities, about rifles and hunting, he wanted to see Little Moon. He looked about the interior of the tepee,

“George, I have come back for Little Moon.” he met the dark gaze with a solemn stare of his own, and frowned, “I promised her that I would return. I want to marry her.”

“Little Moon is not here. She has gone.”

“What do you mean she isn’t here? She always stays with you and Magpie? Where is she? If she isn’t here, then where is she?”

George Bent shrugged. He put down the rifle and stood up,

“Come and eat. You must be hungry.”

“I don’t want to eat. I want to know where Little Moon has gone.”

“She has gone.” was the only reply he received and every time he asked, that was the reply he got.

It was not only George Bent who seemed totally unknowing or unwilling to let him know where Little Moon had gone. His requests were met with blank looks, a shake of the head, and the three words, “She has gone.”

He was in despair. He walked up to complete strangers in the camp and asked them, he asked children who shook their heads and looked at him in wonderment. He asked warriors, he asked squaws, he even asked Black Kettle who had more than a single girl to worry about, but who took the time to listen to the fevered request of the broken hearted young man.

“She has gone,” Black Kettle said, “When the people came here some of them travelled on towards the hills. She has gone with them.”

“Then why didn’t anyone tell me that before,” Joe cried, the panic inside himself calming a little at the thought that his beloved was probably not so far away after all.

“My son,” Black Kettle said in a strangely soft voice, “Little Moon is gone, she is no more.”

“What do you mean? Do you mean she is dead? If that’s what you mean then why did you say she had gone on with the other part of the tribe?”

Black Kettle looked at the distressed face of the young man, and felt sorrow and pity for him. It was hard, he thought, for the white people to understand what was so clear to the people. He beckoned for Joe to sit down.

“You have great love for this child?”

“With all my heart, I love her.” Joe insisted, clenching his fists and thumping his chest to stress just how much he cared for her.

“And you told her this?”

“Yes, yes, I told her that I would marry her, and live here with her. I promised her that I would come for her.”

“And she is not here?”

“No, she …” Joe’s voice ebbed away, and he felt a wave of some terrible foreboding drift over him. He put a hand to his brow, and pressed the heel of his hand against his eyes. “No, she’s not here.” he whispered.

“She loves you but she is not here. She is gone. What does that tell you?” the old Chief looked at him, and once again felt pity for the young man. He sighed and shook his head at the silence for Joe seemed to have found it impossible to speak.

“I’ll go and look for her. I’ll find her and bring her back here. If I can marry her here, would you let me stay?”

Black Kettle smiled slowly, his heavy lidded eyes were weary with exhaustion for many worries about his people, about war and peace, troubled him and prevented him from sleep. Now here was a one young white man wanting to become a Cheyenne. He nodded,

“You and your brothers are always welcome. But there are going to be many
changes in our lives. The future is one that is going to be very hard for my people. It will be very hard for you.”

Joe could say nothing. It seemed as though even his lips had gone numb. He stumbled to his feet and hurried over to Cochise who was drinking water that someone had kindly provided him. He leaned against the animal, pressing his brow against the saddle, feeling as though something precious had been ripped out from inside him.

Stalking Horse found him in this situation and approached him warily. He stood by Joe’s side and waited for the young man to realise he was there before speaking.

“You are leaving us?” he said quietly

“I’m going to look for Little Moon.” Joe replied, taking the reins in his hand and preparing to mount into the saddle, “Will you come with me?”

“I have to return to see what happened with the Long Hair. Your brother will need me if his injuries are still unhealed.”

“Yes, of course.” Joe replied, his mind already jumping ahead and thinking of only finding her. He was soon in the saddle and galloping out of the camp, his mind in turmoil but hope still buoyant in his heart.

Chapter 43

Hoss and the bear had come to some agreement about the fishing rights on the river. The bear kept to his side and caught plenty of salmon, and Hoss kept to his side and tried to catch whatever he could that was passing.

It amused Stalking Horse to watch the big man who every morning would amble out of the tepee, scratch his chest and stretch, yawn noisily, scratch his head and then look around for his fishing rod. The Cheyenne and his Sioux companion, Young Man Afraid of his Horses *, would stand at the entrance of the tepee and watch the morning ritual with much suppressed laughter, nudging in each other’s ribs, and sly winks.

The fishing rod, which consisted of a twig from a willow tree, a piece of string and a bent pin, was carefully positioned on a rock while Hoss rolled up his trousers and pulled off his boots and socks. He would then sit on the rock and grab the rod and wait. Every so often the cry of ‘Dadburnit’ and ‘Fer Pete’s sake’ would blaze through the silence thus indicating that when it came to catching fish, the bear was winning hands down … or in his instance, paws to the fore.

After a short while either Stalking Horse or Young Man afraid of His Horses would saunter off further upstream and stretch out flat on his belly, and put his cupped hands in the water which would result in some fine fish for their meal. This would bring protests from Hoss that he would do better the next day.

It took three days before Stalking Horse decided it was time to rejoin the people. Adams wounds were healing well and he was regaining his strength. The day after a severely heavy rainfall Stalking Horse told his friends that he would now have to move on.

“Soon the people will move away from the camp they have made,” he said, “I have to be with them.”

“Of course you must,” Adam replied quietly, “We’ll ride in with you.” and he glanced over at his brother who looked up at him, raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.

“If it is your wish to do so,” Stalking Horse said with a slight frown, “I know my people would be grateful knowing that you have spoken to the blue coats, and sent them away.”

“I owe you my life,” Adam reminded him with a slight smile, “And you have given us a lot of time, and, I hope, your friendship.”

Stalking Horse nodded. Friendship with white people he had decided was something that he had no intention of holding as dear to his heart. Upon his return to the encampment he was going to ride with Roman Nose, as was Young Man Afraid of his Horses, who was wanting to return to his own people, the Sioux. Both men realised that their future was a precarious one, but it was one that they wished to pursue as free people, doing as they had always done without any white man’s interference.

Adam watched them as they ate their meal. They spoke little and had grown increasingly withdrawn as the days had passed. If it had not been for his own concerns about Joseph he would have suggested to Hoss that they began their own journey homewards now, but it gnawed at him that his little brother was in trouble. The least they could do was spend a few more days in an effort to find out if he were safe.

He walked to the tepee entrance and looked out over the river and to the hills beyond. Such a wonderful sight. High in the heavens an eagle soared, dipped, and hovered. Across on the other side of the river Mr Bear was fishing, making a noise as though in triumph at his successful catch. Beside him two cubs splashed and sent spray in columns about them. He smiled and glanced over at Hoss,

“Your fishing companions having a fine time over there,” he muttered.

“Dang his hide,” Hoss growled, “If’n I were looking for meat steaks I’d have had his hide by now hanging out to dry.”

Adam raised a shoulder as though in sympathy with his brothers sentiments and was about to turn back into the tepee when he saw something in the water.

“What’s that?” he asked Hoss, and began to walk as fast as he could towards the river.

He was swiftly overtaken by Hoss, and the two Indians who could see only too clearly what it was caught between two rocks. Adam, slow due to his illness, caught up with them just as the three men had got down on their knees to haul their catch upon the river bank.

“What is it?” Adam asked, pressing with one hand against his wound, for it pained it too much if he exerted himself.

“It’s rather a case of who is it,” Hoss replied and stepped back to reveal the body of a man.

Young Man Afraid of his Horses turned the body over gently. The livid face and the staring eyes gazed up at them unseeing now. Adam looked down, scanned the features of the man, and then straightened up.

“Do you recognise him, Hoss?” he asked simply.

“He looks kinda familiar,” Hoss agreed, and fumbled through the mans jacket pockets, then his shirt, then his pants, “There’s nothing here to identify him, Adam.”

“No, I guess there wouldn’t be,” Adam frowned, and looked down at the dead body, “Shot?”

“Yeah, in the back. Twice.”

“Just to make sure, huh?” Adam folded his arms across his chest and looked glumly down at the dead man, “Hoss, do you think you could get the bullets out of him?”

“Huh?” Hoss looked at his brother and wrinkled his nose in disgust, “Me? Shucks, Adam, do I have to?”

“This man was in Custer’s tent when we were with him. He was the journalist, writer or whatever capacity it was. Don’t you remember that there were two men writing down everything that we were saying?”

Hoss frowned, then nodded vaguely as he recalled the two clerks, as he had thought them. He looked down at the dead man again and shook his head,

“Poor fella, I wonder who he was? How’d you think he got himself in this state, Adam?”

Adam shook his head, and passed his hand wearily over his jaw. He looked at Stalking Horse who was watching him with his dark eyes totally inscrutable.

“We need the bullets out of him. Do you understand?” he said and the Cheyenne nodded.

“Why’d we need to have the bullets?” Hoss asked, as they walked together towards the tepee.

“Just an idea I have,” Adam said, but the frown on his brow deepened. If what he suspected had actually happened the only proof he would have would be a dead body, and two bullets. What could he do with them? He put a hand to his brow, and passed it over his face, a sure sign to his brother that he was a very troubled man.
It didn’t take long for Stalking Horse to return to the two brothers and hold out, in the palm of his hand, two bullets.

“Army issue,” Hoss breathed.

“That messes things up a bit,” Adam sighed. He sat down and stared at the two bullets, then placed them in his pocket.

“Shall we bury him?”

“No.” Adam shook his head, “It’s not fair, he didn’t have to die like that, unnamed, unknown.”

Hoss nodded. He looked over at his brother and sat down opposite him. Between them the small fire blazed cheerily, bringing some light and warmth to them. Outside the rain began to fall again.

Hoss thought of the man they had pulled from the river. Not old, but of marriageable age. Perhaps somewhere there were children. They would be waiting to hear from him. A wife and children. May be elderly parents. He swallowed a lump in his throat.

“Dang it, Adam, I sure wish we were home and out of this place.” he exclaimed vehemently, “This whole shenanigans is driving me crazy.”

Chapter 44

The rain drifted away leaving diamonds dripping from the trees, and rainbows painted in the sky. Stalking Horse and Young Man Afraid of his Horses began to pack up the tepee and prepare for their journey to the encampment. They were more sombre than usual and Adam suspected that the dead white man drifting up to their lone tepee may have had something to do with it. A bad omen, perhaps.

It was certainly a matter of contention between the two brothers. The initial intention to travel with the Indians back to Black Kettle’s village to locate Joe seemed to have been put on the back burner as far as Adam was concerned. Hoss, pushed to his limits now, insisted that they continued on.

“Shucks, Adam, I started out this journey with Pa to find Joe and bring him back home. I ain’t going to quit now just because some dead stranger drifts up to my doorstep.”

“I know all that, Hoss.” Adam bit down on his bottom lip, and shook his head. They were standing near to the dead man and he drew Hoss’ attention back to him, “Look at him, Hoss, he was murdered, and we were responsible. We don’t know his name but we know that his murderer’s out there running free, convinced he’s got away with it because he’s an Army man. It’s not right, Hoss.”

“Dang it, Adam, I knows it ain’t right. Fact is though people are getting killed for no reason everywhere we look jest now, so what’s so different about this fella? We don’t know his name, we don’t know why he was killed, and we don’t know who killed him. Well, that goes for a lot of folk but we don’t go forgetting promises on that basis do we?”

Adam looked at his brother with widening eyes. There were times when Hoss stood his ground and totally bewildered his elder brother because most times the big man was so accommodating. Adam shook his head, and knelt beside the corpse. He pointed to the man’s jacket

“Look, what do you see there?”

“I know, I know …” Hoss replied tetchily,

“Bullet holes, but look closer and what else do you see? Scorch marks on his jacket, Hoss, scorch marks. Doesn’t that indicate anything to you?”

“He was shot in the back at close range, probably by someone he knew.”

“Yeah, someone he knew, perhaps someone he trusted. We can’t walk away from it, Hoss. We – I – was responsible for this happening.”

“You can’t know for sure, Adam. He could have been gambling, or gone off with some man’s wife. You can’t assume the blame jest to suit yerself.”

“It isn’t to suit myself,” Adam blazed back, snapping out the words in that clipped off fashion that indicated rage simmering beneath the surface, “It’s -.”

“It’s not right to condone or accept a murders been done, I know that, but I made Pa a promise. I want to find Joe, Adam, and I want to get back home. Fer Pete’s sake I don’t even know if Pa’s alive, I ain’t contacted him for weeks so he don’t know if’n I’m alive, and I need to get back home where I can fish in a stretch of river where I can catch one.”

“Fine, alright, you just go ahead and do that,” Adam snapped back, “But don’t forget this, Hoss Cartwright, there’s every possibility that Joe won’t be going back home with you, and that he won’t want to go home with you. Then what are you going to do, huh?”

“Of course he’ll come home. He wants to see Pa, he misses the Ponderosa, and he wants his little gal to marry and raise kids together there. Of course he’ll be coming home … with ME!” and Hoss prodded his chest with his forefinger by way of emphasis.

Adam opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head. The he turned his back on his brother and folded his arms across his chest, and stared hard at the dead man. He had to think all this out, work out how to go about all this because if the man had been killed as a result of what he had written in his report, then he couldn’t walk away from it. The unnamed deserved some kind of justice.

“I’m sorry, Hoss,” he said quietly, “I guess my world has been so small for so long that I forgot that here there’s always the wider picture. On board the ships company is all we have, and the boat is our world for as long as we’re on it. But it’s different here …”

“Yeah, that’s right, it is different.” Hoss muttered.

“So what shall we do first? Go and find Joe? Or go to the nearest Fort, send a cable to Pa to let him know we’re on our way home, and see if we can find out about this guy? What do you suggest?”

Hoss opened his mouth, closed it again and widened his eyes. The choice was his and he was left, as the expression goes, flat footed. He frowned to consider the choices then realised that Adam was squatting down, once again, beside the corpse.

“He’s got fine shoes, hasn’t he? Comes from back East I guess. Do you remember, Hoss, when we were on the wagon train heading for wherever Pa decided would be home, where Pa would put those little cards with our name on?” Adam smiled slowly and glanced up at the sky, “He used to say that jackets and shirts got torn and ripped, but unless we ended up walking the last hundred miles, our boots would always stay put on our feet. This man has real fine shoes. Reasonably new too …”

“Yeah, but … “ Hoss swallowed, “Adam, you ain’t gonna take off his shoes are you?”

But Adam was, and with much tugging he succeeded in pulling off the shoes and examined each very carefully. He looked, to Hoss’ delight, somewhat crestfallen at first, then smiled and produced, like a conjurer producing a rabbit from a top hat, a small piece of card.

“Well, well, perhaps his Pa travelled a wagon train too once upon a time,” Adam said quietly and looked at the card and read “PAUL PRESCOTT … Freelance Journalist …”

“Alright, so now we have a name, but I reckon we should go and find Joe now.” Hoss muttered, pulling the shoes out of Adam’s hands.

“He’s scribbled something in pencil on the back. Let’s see … care of Mrs Susan Prescott. St Paul. Missouri.”

Hoss shook his head and dropped the shoes next to the body. Adam heard his brother exclaim “Dang it” very loudly, and with a slow smile, looked down at Mr Prescott.

“Mercy seasons justice,” he muttered beneath his breath.

Chapter 45.

The land had changed as Joseph travelled onwards. Great crags and mesa’s appeared, and following the tracks, even of a numerous amount of people, became more difficult. Despite his earlier satisfaction at travelling alone, he now regretted not pressing Stalking Horse, or any other of the tribe, to accompany him.

As day turned to night and a new day dawned he assured himself that he would see the smoke from the camp fires beckoning him onwards, encouraging him with the promise that Little Moon would soon be found, and in his arms again.

Why did he love her? He who loved so easily could not explain it even to himself. The first evening he had camped alone, and found in his pocket the small white flowers that he had taken from her hair. He held them to his nose and inhaled the sweet smell. His throat tightened and his heart pounded. Even her absence was evocative of her in the scent of those poor crushed petals.

Another day had drifted into a difficult nights sleep. Dreams escalated into nightmares from which he awoke calling out in his sleep. Once an owl had hooted back at him and he had pulled the blanket over his head.

There was another day of riding through dry terrain, craggy rocks, blistering sun. And at mid-day he rode out to a clear vista, a wide plain of nothing but desert, wide skies, scorching heat. He turned in his saddle, looked wildly about him, and realised that somewhere he had lost the trail.

He ached by the end of that day. His eyes were sore from scanning the ground, the shrubs. Every bent twig he came across was examined closely, every fallen leaf. He scoured the earth for footprints, for the track of lodge poles, but there was nothing. He began to fear for his sanity at one stage for he had been so scrupulously following some kind of trail, and now the fact that it had disappeared , somehow, seemed nothing short of ludicrous.

He had backtracked upon himself and found the small stream beside which he had camped the previous night. In all his life he had never felt so lonely, so desolate. Thoughts drifted back to the times he had shared with her. When those thoughts became too painful he began to think of his brothers, and then of his father.

“Oh Pa,” he put his hands to his face, covered his eyes, “I wish you were here now.”

……..

Hoss turned in the saddle and scowled, then he shook his head,

“No sign of them,” he muttered.

“No, well, Stalking Horse did say that they would probably not be here.” Adam narrowed his eyes and looked around him, “Here, Hoss, hand me back my telescope would you?”

Hoss complied, and watched as his brother put the instrument to his eye and began to look over the views before him. He looked at the scene of what had been a busy village probably only a day or so earlier, and shook his head.

“Wouldn’t suit me, you know,” he observed to his brother as though he were about to state a startlingly new theory on evolution, “All this up and moving away.”

“Well, they’re nomadic, that’s why.” Adam replied with as much interest in what Hoss had said than if he had declared 2 + 2 = 4. “With all the land they had to roam on, why should they stay in one place all the time? Anyway, they have to go where the buffalo and game are, otherwise they’d starve.”

“Seen anything yet?” Hoss unscrewed his canteen and raised the water to his lips, its coolness was refreshing, and he closed his eyes, relaxed a little, and nodded to himself.

Everything had worked out well enough after all. Once Adam had got the name and information about the journalist he seemed quite happy to fall in with what was most important – trouble was Hoss wasn’t too sure just how long it was going to take. Joe had quite a head start on them, and they couldn’t travel too fast because of Adam’s wounds which still really needed time to completely heal. And all the time it was taking them further and further into Indian territory, away from the Ponderosa and Pa.

He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and screwed the stopped back into the canteen.

“Seen anything?” he asked again.

“Nothing.”

“But there were masses of them. You must be able to see one or two, surely?”

“Here, you try?” Adam retorted and passed the telescope back to his brother.

He sagged a little into the saddle, just a little, enough to ease his back. There could be hundreds of Cheyenne hiding behind those rocks and boulders. They could be watching them and waiting. Waiting for what? Adam shook his head and reminded himself that they were friends, trusted and respected. Black Kettle would ensure their safety, but all the same, it made him feel nervous.

What if Joe didn’t want to come back? He could have found the girl and decided to go Native. He turned in the saddle and looked at Hoss. He allowed a smile to touch his lips. It was so good to be with his brother again. Of all people in the world he had missed Hoss.

“Seen anything?” he asked, the smile in his voice as he spoke and Hoss shook his head.
“Well, you’re the best tracker we have, Hoss, so what do you suggest?”

“Just that it seems to me that they split and went in two directions. That rainfall and the hot spell afterwards messed things up a mite. Can’t even see Stalking Horse’s tracks.”

“So which direction do we take?” Adam asked with a hint of impatience in his voice.

“I ain’t got the faintest idea.” Hoss replied, scratching the back of his neck with a perplexed air, “Adam, I reckon we’ve lost them.”

“How can we lose a whole village full of Cheyenne? There were thousands of them?”

“Yeah, I know,” Hoss moaned, “But they ain’t here now, are they?”

………

Joe found his own tracks after a short while of backward riding. He found other tracks which he followed for some way before realising that they were very ancient. He turned Cochise round and round, looking up at the peaks and the dazzlingly beautiful landscape about him, and could have wept in frustration. His hopes of finding Little Moon were evaporating as swiftly as a handful of snow in front of a fire.

………

Little Moon knelt in the cleft of rocks. From where she was kneeling she could see for miles around her. Already the village was settling into its usual routine after arriving at a new location. It had split three times since she had left Black Kettle’s village. In two weeks time they would meet together again at the Little Rosebud far away. Black Kettle wanted to talk to the Sioux and Arapaho Chiefs there and to tell them about the Long Hair.

Once the parley was over they would have to decide which path they would then walk. To go with Black Kettle and sue for peace with the white man, or with Roman Nose, who, although not a Chief, was a great warrior. Roman Nose wanted to ride along with the Sioux and his cousins of the Northern tribes of Cheyenne*. There would be war, blood spilt.

Little Moon turned her head away and closed her eyes. She was still very young but she had lived through so much hardship that she already felt like an old woman. Perhaps, she told herself, she was already too old to continue living. Her family were dead, her husband was dead, and even the little baby that had been born with such difficulty had died during that terrible massacre at Sand Creek.

The white man, Joseph, had brought some life back into the stone that had been in her breast which some called a heart. He had brought her warmth, hope, pleasure. She knew that she loved him in a way that she had never loved her husband, despite his being so kind, and brave. But this new love, no matter what pleasure it had brought her, could not be allowed to grow. For his sake. Because she loved him.

“I love him,” she whispered and in despair she buried her face in her hands and wept.

Chapter 46

“Let’s camp here for the night?”

“Might as well,” Adam yawned, and looked about him, “This country has swallowed them up, hasn’t it?”

“Yep,” Hoss dismounted and stretched his legs, “It sure has, but then, if you don’t want to be found I guess hereabouts is a good enough place to get yourself lost.”

“If only Joe had thought to leave some clues as to where he was going,” Adam led his horse towards the small stream and stroked its neck as it drank, “The whole village is splitting into small bands, making things more workable for them, and more difficult for us.”

“And Custer,” Hoss reminded him, glowering at the mention of the name. “Do you think they’ll be able to hold out against him, Adam?”

“No chance,” Adam sighed and unscrewed the stopper from his canteen, “We’re just two people, Hoss, but I think next time Custer comes hunting for them in these hills it won’t be with a mere handful of men.” he swallowed several mouthfuls of cool water, and then poured some over his face, it felt good, really good.

“Did we do the right thing then? I mean, it’s been on my mind a lot, but did we achieve anything by going to face Custer?”

Adam passed his canteen to his brother, a habit from long ago, but his mind was on the Commander of the 7th Cavalry. He saw again the set features, the cold eyes, the ruthless ambition in the man. He sighed and shook his head,

“We got them a breathing space. That’s all. And,” he turned to unsaddle his horse, “we lost a friend, if you could ever consider George Custer a friend, that is?”

“Yeah, I gathered that from what’s happened to that poor guy we buried up yonder.”

Back to back the two brothers unsaddled their horses and settled the beasts for the night. It didn’t take long to set up a camp fire and get things ready for a quick meal and sleep. Hoss looked around him in the gathering dark,

“It don’t feel like home, does it?” he muttered, “I know it’s a lovely place but it’s different, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s different,” Adam replied and leaned forward to turn the rabbit over the fire. Grease splattered, hissed and spat. “Different from water everywhere, that’s for sure.” he poured out coffee and passed it to Hoss with a smile, “It’s a strange feeling to be on the deck of a ship, Hoss, and not see any land for days upon days.”

“I wouldn’t want to see it,” Hoss said, and frowned slightly, “I reckon we should just stay put here, Adam. There’s no chance of us meeting up with Joe when there’s six different tracks to follow down and we go down the wrong one. I reckon he’ll come back this way. If we stay put here, reckon on three days, my bet is that he’ll have to ride slap back into this camp. What do you say?” he looked hopefully over at Adam who poured himself some of the hot coffee before replying,

“We could spilt up and take a track each, then return here the day after next?”

Hoss frowned and nodded,

“We could, but I don’t think it’s going to achieve anything doing that.” Hoss leaned forwards towards the roasting carcase and sniffed, “We could miss Joe altogether if we do that.”

Adam shrugged, and said nothing but continued to drink the coffee with his eyes on the fire as it spluttered and spat sparks from the falling grease.

……….

Joe pulled his blanket over his head and stared up at the moon. He had reached a decision now, and chided himself for being so stubborn by not reaching it sooner. Black Kettle had been right, after all, for if Little Moon had gone, despite knowing that he had promised to return for her, then what did that tell him?

A turbulent flood of emotions fought within him. Love, anger, resentment, rejection. No one of them came out the winner, but it left him exhausted. He had never loved with such a passion, never cared with such abandonment. He had never anticipated a time when he would be prepared to forsake his father and brothers and the Ponderosa for a girl.

He closed his eyes and a vision of her came instantly to his mind. A slim lovely girl. He swallowed, clenched his eyes shut tight in an effort to block the vision off. Little Moon, he groaned within himself, I promised to come back for you, why couldn’t you have waited?

After an hour of struggling to get some sleep he sat up, refreshed the fire and put on more coffee to boil. As he sat watching the flames gather strength once more, he remember what George Bent had told him about Sand Creek. The sights, the sounds, the horror of it all. Joe had never experienced those kind of horrors, nightmares that lived before ones very eyes and could not be stopped by waking up.

He remembered being told how Little Moon had had a child, and she had heard its cries from the tepee in which he had been sleeping with her mother. Her father had been killed. Joe struggled to imagine what it would have been like for her, to have been carried away, fighting and kicking and screaming, in the arms of some burly white man who had tossed her into a shell hole and told her to be quiet.

What must it have been like he pondered, with white men killing and mutilating* women and children, and then being saved by a white man*. It had been freezing cold weather, the ground had been frozen solid and it was night time. She had tried to get out of the hole but the soldier had returned, put a hand to his lips and then lowered down another woman, two children, an infant – but not hers.

Joe shivered as he poured out the coffee. George Bent had told him his own story, of how they had escaped and been in fear of their lives. The women who had been hidden had nearly died from the cold, and fear. Wondering if the white men who had saved them from the first agonies of the ambush, were going to come back to torture them with things even worse.

But what could have been worse? As Joe sipped the coffee he tried to put himself in the mind of the girl. This girl he loved, and whom he knew deep in his heart loved him, what would she really be feeling?

…………

Little Moon sat close to the fire in Magpie Bent’s tepee. She watched the flames dance up and down. What was he doing now, she asked herself, was he thinking of her? Did white men think and love the way the Cheyenne would? She hugged her knees to her chest and closed her eyes, and remembered that she had told him she was not strong enough to go to his home. But then she was not strong enough for him to stay with her people either.

Love was a luxury that a girl in her position could not afford, love for a white man was foolishness at a time when it was also a danger – to them both. She bowed her head upon her knees and closed her eyes. This was the end now. She had to shut up her heart again and return it to stone.

Chapter 47

It was evening of the next day when Cochise brought his master into his brothers’ camp. Hoss had been wondering what had got into Chubb for the big black horse was stamping his feet and tossing his head as though preparing to race in a marathon. As Hoss was telling the beast to calm down, and trying to reason with him in his usual chatty manner with his horse, Cochise came into view and a surprised threesome stared at one another, before yelling out each others names and hurrying to hug and slap each other on the back.

“You survived then?” Joe laughed, playfully punching his eldest brother in the ribs.

“Just about. I was more in danger from the stink of the bear grease,” Adam grinned, and he gave Joe a warm hug which quite surprised the young man.

“You didn’t find your little gal then?” Hoss asked, which brought a momentary gloom to the gathering for Joe’s face fell and he shook his head,

“There were so many different tracks to follow. They spilt up into smaller bands, somewhere they’ll all meet up again no doubt.” Joe sighed and shook his head, “No, I didn’t find her. She didn’t even wait the three days.” his voice trailed away.

Adam glanced at Hoss and gave an imperceptible shake of the head, to warn Hoss to say no more. He led the way to the camp fire, and proceeded to tell Joe all about their meeting with Custer as though it was the very thing that Joe was surely busting to know.

Joe listened but without any real attention, he nodded here and there, accepted the mug of coffee that Hoss had poured him and stared into the flames.

“What do we do now?” he suddenly asked, still looking into the fire, “Do we make it for home?”

“Home?” Hoss exclaimed with a grin on his face that would have out done a Cheshire cat had there been one available, “Yeah, Adam and I were planning on doing just that, as soon as you arrived. We’ll start tomorrow morning.”
Adam looked into the younger man’s stricken face, and sighed. He had seen the woman briefly and then through the haze of fever, but she had appeared to be a very lovely girl. Poor Joe. He put out a hand to put on his brother’s shoulder, but Joe moved, as though the gesture was unwelcome.

“We thought we would ride on to the nearest fort and send Pa some news. He must be worried about you both.” Adam said quietly, as though he had not noticed the rebuff.

“Yes, that’s a good idea.” Joe agreed, nodding thoughtfully.

They sat together for some moments without speaking, the excitement and pleasure at being together again muted by the sorrow that seemed to have permeated every ounce of Joe’s being.

“Remember when you were small, Joe? Barely able to walk? You always wanted to crawl or totter towards the fire. I found you one morning, I don’t know how you managed to get down the stairs without any of us hearing you, but you were down standing in front of the hearth, waiting for the flames to come again.” Adam spoke slowly, his deep voice rolling the words out warmly, and both his brothers looked over at him with the same interest they would have shown had they been infants again and he were telling them a bedtime story.

“I don’t remember that…”

“I do. Your face was so sad, so confused. You could barely talk, but your face spoke volumes. You thought the flames were so pretty, so enticing and warm. You never understood the danger of them.”

“Is this supposed to mean something?” Joe asked, looking quizzically at Adam.

“I guess I’m just rambling, just a memory. The thought of going home.” Adam sipped his coffee and stared out into the darkness, “It’s a long time since I was home.”

“I remember,” Joe said very quietly, “The number of times you’ve been there for me, Adam. When I was little you were my hero, my big brother. I remember you telling me stories, wiping away my tears, encouraging me to face my weaknesses. I remember all those things, and now here we are and I guess you’re still being my big brother, trying to remind me that pretty things can sometimes be dangerous too, is that it?”

“Maybe. It was just a memory, Joe. Your face now, reminded me of the expression of that little child standing in front of that dead fire,” he cradled the mug between his hands and turned away “That’s all.” he sighed.

Hoss placed more wood onto the fire and checked on the meat, another rabbit. He wondered if there was going to be enough for three, and went to check his saddle bags to see if they had any more dry biscuit.

“I loved her so much, Adam. I loved her and thought that our love would change the world. When I got back to where they had been I couldn’t believe my eyes seeing her gone.” he held the mug tighter and closer to his chest “There was nothing left of her. Just the tracks of the horses and the lodge poles…and I followed them as far as I could, then they divided up and I thought then ‘She doesn’t want me to find her’.
I remembered what you said about Ruth. You loved her but when it came to the bottom line, you chose to come home. You didn’t love her enough.”

“No, it’s a failing I have I guess. I procrastinate on love.” and Adam smiled wryly, without mirth.

“She said to me that all her blood was Cheyenne and the history of her people was in her blood. She said there were going to be big changes that was going to change that history and it was going to be bad. She wanted ….she wanted…” his lips trembled, he took a gulp of the coffee and shivered, “Adam, she did love me, you know.”

“I know.”

“She said she didn’t have the courage to come with me to live with white people, but she didn’t want me to live with hers. ButI did have the courage, and the love. I would have done, Adam, really, I would have done!” and the tears rolled down his face and splashed onto his shirt.

Adam put his arm protectively across his brothers shoulders and held him close. Just as long ago he had held the little boy in his arms because he had not been able to play with the flames.

Chapter 48

Tom Riley looked up as the door jangled as it opened. His face immediately broke into a wide smile when Ben Cartwright strode up to the counter,

“Mr Cartwright, am I glad to see you this morning. I told Mr Higgins that if you didn’t come in today I was going to ride out to the Ponderosa as soon as my shift here was done.”

Ben looked at Tom from under his dark brows and nodded, but his face didn’t relax into a good humoured smile, instead he just patiently waited, as he had done for many a day now.

“Yes, sir, look what arrived for you …” Tom disappeared into the back room and reappeared with a package. “Special delivery it says on the front there.” he pointed to the slogan on the brown wrapper. “Looks to me like Joe’s writing, Sir.”

Ben nodded, and stared intently at the package, at the writing. Yes, it was Joe’s writing, he would recognise that scrawl anymore, as would Miss Jones who had tried countless ways to get her pupil to tidy it up. He took it from the counter and took a deep breath, as he wondered what on earth his son could have sent him, and, by hickory, whatever it was, it was more than welcome.

“Anything else?” he asked, hoping Tom would not notice the shake in his voice.

“Here you are, Mr Cartwright,” and he smiled as he handed over some more mail. Ben shuffled it all into his pocket and after thanking Tom as usual, he quickly left the building.

His fingers were itching, burning to tear off the brown paper and to see what Joe had sent to him. But where could he do it in any place that was reasonably private? Scanning the buildings along the Main Street he settled on the only practical place he could think of, and that was the Sheriff’s Office. A comfortable cell was all he needed.

Roy looked rather surprised when Ben walked in and asked if there were any vacant cells. It took a little convincing but after a moment or two he showed Ben into one of them, before pausing to look at his ’prisoner’

“Do you want the door open or shut?”

“Open will be fine, Roy.”

“You’re sure it won’t be too draughty for you?”

“It’ll be fine, “ Ben nodded, and began to rip away the brown paper. “Roy? I sure could do with a mug of coffee.”

“Coffee? Right, coffee. Anything else? A cookie for example?”

But Ben was already lost to the journal that he held in his hands. There was Joe’s name, and the dates that the journal covered. He turned the cover, and saw Joe’s scrawled message,

“Leaving for home in two days time, Pa. See you soon. Joe.”

It amazed Ben that his son had actually taken the time to write in the journal at the end of every day. Sometimes it was barely a few sentences strung together, and at other times he would devote a page, may be even more.

Roy came and put the coffee by his side, but he did not notice. The coffee went cold as he read and travelled with Joe and Cochise across the wild lands, across the deserts and into the mountains and the lofty trees and through rivers. He saw in his minds eye the most bleak of places, too barren to sustain life, but where villages of Indians survived. There were amazingly graphic details written down in the journal and once or twice Ben suspected that Joe was more of an author that he had ever realised.

When he reached the section in the book where Joe had been caught up in an ambush, and hurt, Ben had to put it down. He rubbed his eyes, pinched the top of his nose, and then passed his hand over his chin. He resumed his reading, and learned about Stalking Horse, George and Magpie Bent, and he was introduced to a lovely girl, called Little Moon.

Through the scrawled words on the pages Ben was told about Little Moons and her history, and how she could not talk. Joe told his father in concise prose how he had gone to the fort to cable him, but been accused of shooting a white man, but thankfully Nordstrum had helped him to escape. The excitement of finding that Little Moon had discovered her voice due to the fear of losing him leapt from the page.

Ben sighed and lowered the journal onto his knees. Joe, oh Joe, he thought to himself, this is going to lead to trouble and heart ache, I just know that it is. And why isn’t there any mention of Hoss? Or Adam?

The minutes ticked by as he continued to read. Once or twice he had to re-read a section to make sure that he had got it in context. One thing that shone out from the pages was the love this young man had for the little Indian girl. Another thing that was more than obvious was the fact that there was trouble brewing. Big trouble. As Ben closed the book at last, he leaned back against the wall of the cell, and stared out of the barred windows. Joseph Cartwright, he sighed, when are you ever going to learn to avoid trouble.

“Good news, Ben?” Roy stood up from his desk with an eagerness that made Ben realise that the man had no doubt not dared to stir from there in case he missed Ben and thereby missed out on knowing what had happened.

“Well, mixed news really, Roy. Joe’s was fine at the time of writing, but seems to have got involved in rather a wild crowd.” he paused and wondered if that was really the most diplomatic way of putting it. “I mean, not trouble makers, just people who need help and are hoping Joe can provide it, some way.”

“Uh-huh?” Roy nodded, and leaned against the desk, his spectacles swinging as they dangled from his little finger, “So when will he be home?”

“Pretty soon. Any time now.” Ben replied with a warm glow creeping over him.

“What about Adam and Hoss, any news from them?”

“Not for a few weeks now. Adam will not doubt let me know as soon as he has anything to say. Hoss is -,” he paused, the fact was he didn’t know where Hoss was, nor how he was. He nodded, “Anyway, Roy, I’ll see you. Best get back now.”

Roy nodded, and watched the tall rancher leave the premises. The past months had been hard on his friend, Roy surmised, harder than any of them could imagine. As he returned to his seat behind the desk Roy fervently hoped that the three boys would indeed be riding home, very soon.

Chapter 49

The three brothers rode at a canter towards the fort from which fluttered the flag of the United States. The land was dry, arid, and featureless now. The heat drew the moisture from them and seemed to be sucking their bones dry. Overhead in the bluest of skies buzzards cawed, dipped and dived. As Hoss had remarked earlier the birds almost looked cheerful at the thought of the misery they suffered riding through that sun sodden land.

The fort was bigger than any they had yet come upon, in that it was a completed structure. It had its Watchtowers, and huge bulwarks built up to protect the sturdy walls. Soldiers patrolled the walkways erected along the highest point of the walls and reached by steps built in at regular intervals against them. Behind the protective barrier were the buildings that housed civilians, traders, and the militia. It was already like an established township on a smaller scale.

Out side the Fort about fifty Indians had erected their tepees, huddled in close to the walls as though they sought protection but sanctuary within still had to be endorsed by those in authority to provide it. Families were grouped around their camp fires and watched the three men as they rode past them and into the Fort.

One can only imagine how plaintively Joe cast his eyes over the people gathered in those tepees. But the one person he longed to see was not there, and with a sigh he continued on alongside Adam and Hoss.

Everywhere was bustle and movement. The smells of horses sweat and dung fought against the smells of beef stew cooking and dark coffee brewing. Women walked pass them and glanced at them from the corners of their eyes, leaving behind them traces of their own fragrance, lavender and rose water mingled with stale perspiration and the aroma of unwashed clothing.

Hoss dismounted first and tethered Chubb to the hitching rail. He looked about with a smile on his face and raised his nose to the one smell that was the most pungent and pleasant, beef stew. Chubb stuck his nose into the trough and slurped in cool water.

“Can you smell it?” he said, rubbing his hands together, “Sweetest smell this side of the Ponderosa.”

“You lead, we’ll follow,” Adam said with a grin on his own face as he dismounted and led his horse to the trough. He ran a hand down its flanks and once again wished that Sport had been his mount during the past few months.

“This place has been here quite a while,” Joe muttered as he led Cochise to the trough, “Everything looks so well organised and kinda permanent.”

“I guess that’s what they want everyone to think. Won’t be long before there will be thriving town here in a few years time.” Adam glanced anxiously about him, up at the walls where the soldiers paced along the walkways, at the Watchtowers where the sentries kept to their posts.

“Who’d want to live here,” Hoss looked around and then began to walk towards a large building where his nose indicated the smell of cooking originated. He was not disappointed when pushing open the doors he was greeted by the smell and sight of food.

Adam and Joe crowded in behind him, and elbowed their way through the throng of men who were filling the place to bulging. Rows of civilians and soldiers sat on benches at laden trestle tables with their trenchers laden, piles of bread were set out which were seized and torn apart by countless hands. Hoss licked his lips and rubbed his hands again, and arrived, eventually at the counter.

A thin faced woman with a merry smile turned to look at him,

“Well now, handsome, what do you want today?” she asked with a wink of the eye. Hoss looked around to make sure the comment and wink really were for him, and then grinned, but before he could speak she continued to talk,

“You and your friends just grab a seat, I’ll get the girls to bring you a trencher each, what do you want with it, beer or coffee?”

Hoss licked his lips and ordered beer, Adam and Joe asked for coffee. They then made their way to the furthest bench seat and sat down, so that they were able to observe the comings and goings there without too much notice being made of them.

It was obvious the soldiers were the most troublesome of the men there. There were arguments being carried on at every table, and some of the arguments got to a bit of a wrestle where drinks were spilled and food knocked from the plates. But the thin woman seemed to have them well enough under control for as soon as she noticed trouble brewing, she would thump on the counter with a heavy ladle and point to the culprit, often calling out their name. Obviously the fear of being expelled from such a prestigious eating place was sufficient to bring back order.

The hot food was soon provided along with their beer and coffee. Fresh bread, still warm from the ovens, was set down in front of them. Joe looked at his two brothers and raised his eyebrows, before picking up a fork and setting too, closely followed by Hoss and Adam.

It was surprisingly good, and the three of them ate so quickly that their plates were empty far soon than they would have wished. Hoss was about to suggest getting a refill when a soldier approached their table, paused and took a second look at them,

“Hey, you …” he pointed to Joe, “Is that your black and white outside?”

Adam placed a cautionary hand on Joe’s arm, while Hoss slowly stood up, fixing the soldier with a cold glare. Another soldier came and stood beside the first,

“It’s his, I saw him outside with it.” he said, and stepped a pace or two towards them. “You ain’t that no-good renegade that’s been causing all that trouble up in Cheyenne territory are you, boy?”

“There’s more than one black and white horse in these parts,” Adam said quietly, “Why don’t you two men get back to your duties and leave us to get on with our meal.”

“Yeah, why don’t you just go ahead and do that,” Hoss suggested.

“We weren’t talking to you,” the first soldier said, his thin face tightening as facial muscles contracted and his fingers bunched into fists, “We were talking to him.” he pointed to Joe, “What you doing here, boy? Come to cause trouble here too?”

“I don’t want to cause trouble anywhere, and I haven’t caused trouble anywhere, so just leave us alone.” Joe snapped, his mouth tightening while his hazel eyes flashed.

“Hey, the kid has a temper on him, huh?” the first soldier laughed, and leaned forward, his foul breath wafting into Joe’s face, “We don’t like Indian lovers around here, boy, and you smell like them Indians you’ve been running around with so perhaps you should go git on that hoss of yours and git outa here before we run you out.”

“That ain’t friendly, mister,” Hoss muttered.

“It weren’t intended to be,” the soldier replied, “And who are you anyway?”

“I’m his brother,” Hoss said, and stepped back just in time to avoid a well aimed punch that swung his way with such force that more than likely it would have damaged the soldiers fist had it made contact with him.

Hoss seized the man’s wrist and swung him back so that he fell into the other soldier who promptly struck his elbow into the back of the man seated on the bench behind him.

It was now the turn of this man to leap to his feet and after shouting some abuse at the soldiers followed it up with an attempt to thump him.

The ladle was thudding against the counter double time, but above the uproar of the ensuing fight its voice was muted. Men seemed to pile on top of one another. Fists and feet punched and kicked, thumped and beat at one another. Food was thrown recklessly and with abandon at anyone and anything. Through the open door more men piled through and joined in the fight.

Adam had grabbed Joe by the shirt and hauled him under the table. He dodged on blow aimed at his head by aiming a clenched fist at the mans chest, and then he ducked down and joined his brother.

“Where’s Hoss?” Joe gasped as he tried to find a way through the sea of writhing legs and feet. Someone trod on his fingers and he stifled a yell.

“He’s alright, just head for the door,” Adam urged.

“I would if I could see it.” Joe hissed between clenched teeth.

They resurfaced some distance from their original table, and looked about them for Hoss.

“Where is he?” Joe groaned as there appeared to be no sign of their brother, “You don’t think he’s been hurt, do you?”

“Nah, this is a picnic for him. After that beef stew he got under his belt he’ll just love this,” Adam remarked, dodging the leg of a chair that came quite close to striking the side of his head as it flew past him.

“Watch out, Adam, behind you…” Joe cried as an arm hauled at him and pulled him into the thick of the fight and he saw his brother grabbed by a thickset soldier from behind.

Adam attempted to get free, his fist clenched, but found himself in such a tight hold that he could barely move. He stamped down with his foot, hoping that the heel of his boot would cause the assailant sufficient pain for his hold to loosen, but that was no help either.

He could hear the ladle coming crashing down onto the counter and someone shouting for order. He made an attempt to dig his elbows into the man’s ribs, but that achieved nothing as he was pinioned tightly. He could see Joe being tossed over the table, jumping back up onto his feet and launching himself back into the fight. There was, so far as he could see, no sign of Hoss.

Chapter 50

Adam struggled to release himself from the arms that held him fast against a sweating tobacco smelling body. The wound in his body, which had been a constant gnawing ache throughout the day, was now sending out knife sharp warnings that this current situation was not good for his health. He ground his teeth together and strained anew, but the hold on his arms merely tightened.

He could see a clenched fist heading for his face, and twisted aside, attempted to draw up his legs to kick the offender away, but for some reason his legs would not obey the command to move, and pain gnawed ferociously around the area of his injury. He flinched in anticipation of the blow, and was amazed when the hold on him lessened, and a burly fist struck out, knocking his assailant to the ground.

Before he could twist away from his captor, the hold on him now clamped more tightly around his chest and a gruff voice muttered,

“Time to get you outa this mess, Captain.”

…….

Joe scrambled out of reach of the jumble of arms and legs that seemed to be knotting themselves together without any help from him whatsoever. He wriggled under a table and bench and succeeded in getting to his feet in time to see a giant of a man lifting Adam bodily off his feet, strike a man to the ground and then carry Adam bodily from the building.

“Hey, you -,” he shouted and extricating himself from the worse of the fighting he inched his way through the crowd to the door where he saw his brother being released, and turn with clenched fist to strike at the soldier who appeared to be laughing aloud in amusement by it all.

Joe could see that there was no possible chance of Adam inflicting any harm upon this man. He was built in Hoss like proportions and neither he nor Adam had done Hoss any harm with a fist for a long time. With his lips compressed together, his eyes narrowed and grim determination motivating prompt action Joe sprung from the doorway onto the big mans back.

……

The thin woman was thumping at the counter for all she was worth and shouting at the men to get into order. Some of the enthusiasm for the fight was waning now, and men were limping away, some with their arms wrapped around one another, slapping each other on the back and saying it was the best fight in weeks, others bruised and battered, feeling where their aches and pains were, checking that their teeth were still intact, looking for the remnants of their hats.

Hoss Cartwright shook his head from the doorway of the kitchen and continued to chomp on a bowl of stew with a contented look on his face. He had succeeded in disposing of several men, shaking them off like gnats are brushed away by a lion. He saw the cook standing at the counter thumping away with the ladle, and caught her eye. She winked again, and jerked her thumb towards the area behind her.

Not bothering to wonder whether or not the wink was intended for him, Hoss brushed off the men who would have prevented him from leaving the brawl, and headed for the counter, the flap of which opened by ‘magic’ and closed behind him equally swiftly.

He found himself in some kind of parallel paradise, where the contents of pots and pans were bubbling on the stove, and the most pleasant aroma’s greeted his nostrils. He stood in the centre of peace while only feet away there was total bedlam.

“Well, I can’t get them to hear me, so I reckon they‘ll stop when they get tired of beating each other to death. Help yourself, young man, I noticed you only had a tiddly little portion before so eat hearty. I like a man with a good appetite.” and she gave him another one of her winks accompanied by a wide smile.

Hoss ignored the implications of the wink but set to on the invitation to eat hearty. He piled on his plate and grabbed more of the bread before walking over to the door to watch out for Adam and Joe.

“Who did you come in with? Those two men, who were they?”

“My brothers,” Hoss mumbled through a mouthful of stew and bread.

“Oh, well, the young ‘un seems to be getting quite a bashing, but holding his own there.” she pointed with the ladle to where Joe was at that moment being held up against the wall by one man while another aimed a blow, but missed due to someone falling heavily against him. Joe slid down the wall wonderfully well. Hoss grinned,

“He’ll be alright, he’s built up a lot of pressure over the past months so this should be a good way of letting off some steam.” he dug in with his spoon and looked around for Adam who was at that moment about to be grabbed by the big man described earlier. Hoss opened his eyes wide, both in admiration at the size of the man, and in trepidation and concern for Adam,

“Don’t you worry about Cuddles,” the woman said, looking up at him, “He’s my little honeybun. Your brother won’t come to any harm.” she smiled and looked Hoss up and down with a knowing look in her eye, “I like my men big …” she nudged him with her elbow, “and strong.”

Hoss glanced over to Joe and noticed that his brother had now disappeared, Adam was in the process of being hauled away by the soldier, known as Cuddles. Hoss swallowed his last mouthful of stew, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and muttered a thanks to the cook, before putting her to one side and hurrying in the direction that Adam had been taken.

…….

The soldier flexed his shoulders and back in a powerful shrug that sent Joe sliding down to the ground. He laughed. Put his hands on his hips and shook his head,

“It’s me, Captain, Jacob Brown.” he declared just as Adam’s fist made contact against his rib cage.

Chapter 51

Adam stepped back, stared and then his face relaxed into a smile. As Joe scrambled to his feet and wondered what fresh development had taken place, Hoss fell over his own feet as he came through the door all prepared to battle it out with Cuddles.

“Captain, I jest can’t tell you how pleased I was to see you come through that door. I guess that these are your two brothers you were always telling me about?” he turned with a smile to look at Joe and Hoss, nodded, and then looked back at Adam.
“You look as though you could do with somewhere to rest up and where we can talk. Come along with me.”

They said nothing but followed the big man along an alley to a building adjoining the kitchen diner. He pushed open the door and indicated that they entered. All three did so, looking round them apprehensively. Brown closed the door and nodded in approval as he surveyed the three men standing in what amounted to a large store room.

“Pull up a barrel and sit yourselves down. By the way, I’m Jacob Brown, I was serving under Captain Cartwright on the Redoubt, so I’ve heard all about you both.”

“What are you doing here, Jacob? I never thought to set eyes on you again in my life time.” Adam declared, nursing his knuckles against the material of his shirt.

“Well, to tell you the truth, Captain, I didn’t figure I’d be able to stick serving under anyone else once you left the service. Me and several other of the boys left together the day after you. Once I’d spent my pay I looked around for something else to do, and thought I’d sign up for the Army. This is where I ended up.”

Hoss surveyed him thoughtfully and wondered where the lady of the ladle fitted into the arrangement, ‘Cuddles’ as Hoss could not help but think of him, looked at Hoss and grinned,

“When the Captain here told me he had a brother that was a replica of me, I didn’t believe him. Pleased to meet you, Hoss.”

Hoss grinned good naturedly and shook the proffered hand warmly,

“Glad to meet you too, Mister.” and he looked at Joe and winked, as though trying to impart to his brother that he knew something about Brown that would appeal to him.

“Guess you met my Tilly? I told you about her, Captain. Well, made an honest woman out of her at last. She decided to sign up as well, in a manner of speaking. They needed women out here, and being such a good cook I knew she would get on well. She sold up her eating house and packed it away lock, stock and barrel. This land is opening up all over, and being first here she’ll get a reputation before the rest get the chance.”

“And how do you find the life out here, Jacob?” Adam asked, resting a hand against the wound as though to ease some of the pain there.

“As bad as life at sea, Sir.” he grinned, “But with Tilly here as well, it makes it better. No, Sir, to be honest with you, it’s better than at sea. At least so far it is. I reckon it’s going to be a whole lot worse before it ever gets near to being any better.”

He stood up and walked to a door at the back of the storeroom, this he opened and stepped through, they heard him call out for coffee and four mugs, before he appeared among them once again. He pulled out a barrel and sat down,

“It’s the Indians. Now you,” he nodded over to Joe, “seem to have got yourself a bit of a reputation as trouble along the border forts and settlements hereabouts. Don’t for a minute believe you meant to be, according to Nordstrom …”

“You know Lieutenant Nordstrum?” Adam said.

“Yeah, he was my recruiting Officer. I had a lot of time with him travelling here, he told me quite a bit of what was going on, and of course, Mr Cartwright, you were a big story around about then. But the men ain’t got much to amuse themselves and they like to make the most of any story that’s going around. Give ‘em a grain of truth and they’ll manage to stretch it over a desert of lies.”

The door opened and Tilly came in with a tray which she set down on a barrel next to her Cuddles. She pinched his cheek before turning to leave. Hoss flinched back in case she took a fancy to pinching one of his cheeks, but she didn’t. Jacob asked her if everything was in order out there and she said that all was well and getting sorted out.

The tray was laden with cake along with the coffee. Jacob looked proudly at them

“She’s a great one, is Tilly. Mind you, it doesn’t do to be a milk and water kinda lady around here. I don’t know how the C.O’s wife is going to handle it. She’s a fine lady from the East, there’s no doubt of it, and she’s travelled about some with her husband I know, but even so, this is no place for a lady like her.”

“Do you expect much trouble, Mr Brown?” Joe asked, his mouth full of cake and spraying crumbs as a result.

“I do, because our C.O. will make sure that there will be. He don’t like peace and quiet too long, gets bored. He likes to stir things up. A lot of the men here have been convicts, trouble makers, but they’ve been sent out here to fight the Indians. It ain‘t a question of building Forts to protect the Indians from white mans progress, it’s all about opening the country up for white mans domination. This here Fort will develop into a town before too long, and it’s still on the wrong side of the border.”

“How do you mean?” Hoss picked up his coffee and inhaled the delicious aroma of dark roasted coffee beans such as he had not smelt since leaving home.

“This is Cheyenne land. A snub to them for a start. Custer …”

“Custer? Is he your Commanding Officer?” Adam asked sharply, looking up at Brown with his eyes bright and alert as he foresaw the possibility of trouble ahead.

“Yes sir, this is where we’ve been stationed now. Arrived just about a week ago. Tilly was here some months back, got the place set up …” he droned on about the wonderful Mrs Brown for a while, and no one of them really paid much attention as their thoughts were on other things.

Joe’s thoughts were on Little Moon and her people. Just how safe were they going to be now?

Hoss was thinking of Stalking Horse, and of Roman Nose, and wondering if they would be with Red Cloud* now, fighting along the Bozeman trail in order to destroy Fort Phil Kearney* that had been built on Sioux land. If Red Cloud won that war (which he did*) then what would that mean for the soldiers and people living here?

Adam’s thoughts ranged far and wide .. On Custer, on the murdered journalist, and on the ironies of life in general. He wondered what would happen were he and Custer to meet up again now. He looked at Jacob Brown’s honest face and bit his bottom lip regretfully. Jacob was a good man, and Adam had always been more than pleased with the manner of him when they sailed together. He had been a loyal and staunch member of the ships company and now here he was, caught up with a man who had no respect for any other and would lead them to their deaths as surely as milk could churn into cheese.

“You don’t look too happy, Captain?” Jacob said suddenly, “I recognise that look on your face, having seen it often enough over the years.”

Adam nodded, and put down the cup upon the tray,

“Jacob, I’ve met Custer already.” he said.

Brown nodded, and smiled slightly,

“I know, Captain, I know. I saw you ride on in through the camp with your brother there. I got to hear about what was going on in that tent. Talk gets around. You got those Indians a breathing space, but that’s all it was, sir, just a breathing space.”

Chapter 52

“So where is Custer now?” Adam said quietly, leaning slightly forward in an effort to ease the pain that was now gnawing through his body. A sensation like pins and needles was running up and down his legs. At the back of his mind he wondered what damage had been done in the fight but preferred to keep any anxieties at bay, there were more important things to consider.

“On manoeuvres.” Jacob replied, and shrugged, “That could mean anything of course. He’s only been here a few days as you must have realised, but sitting around in the office isn’t something he likes doing. Good thing he isn’t Captain of a ship, it would drive him crazy.”

“Why aren’t you with him?” Hoss asked, getting to his feet to walk around and stretch his legs. It seemed to him that everything was a bit unreal, four men sitting in a storeroom eating cake and drinking coffee. He felt on edge and he knew one of the reasons was because he didn’t know what kind of things Jacob Brown and Adam had shared during their four years on board the Redoubt.

“Because I’m Army, not cavalry.” Jacob replied quietly, “My job is to keep an eye on things up in the Watchtowers or on the lookout points. I’ve not been here long, just a rookie I guess.”

“But you were with Custer’s men when I met him a week or so ago?”

“Yes, that’s right. Custer wanted to show off his man power and took a third of the garrison with him.”

“I guess you got to know some of the men there, with Custer, when I saw him in that tent?”

“Any particular man, Captain? You just name him and I’ll find out what you want. You know I owe you my life, sir, just say what you want me to do, and if I can help in any way, then I’ll do my best. So will Tilly.” he added for good measure.

Adam dismissed the invisible Tilly but seized upon Jacobs offer of help. He ran his tongue over his lips and looked at Jacob,

“There was a civilian there, a journalist. He took notes in a journal of the interview we had with George Custer. Did you know him?”

Jacob frowned and concentrated, then shook his head slightly,

“No, I didn’t know him. Tilly may have done though as if he was here for any time at all. What was his name?”

“Prescott, Paul Prescott.”

Jacob nodded and looked Adam straight in the eyes. Then he got to his feet,

“You need a place to bed down for the night. Would this do? It’s warm and comfortable if you shift some of the barrels, and no one would know you’re here so no questions would be asked. I’ll get Tilly to bring you some food and such.” he pulled out a battered timepiece and observed the hour, “It’s my shift for duty now. I’ll see you when I get back.”

“What about our horses?” Hoss asked, “Any place they can be cared for?”

“Sure, just follow me. Best keep your kid brother here though, if you don’t want reports of him filtering through to the top brass here.”

Hoss and Jacob, looking like a couple of book ends, left the store room, closing the door securely behind them. Adam looked at Joe, and frowned,

“Worried about Little Moon, Joe?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“It’s a big country out there. There’s no reason to think he would find them.”

“Just because we didn’t doesn’t mean to say he won’t, Adam. He has the man power after all, and Pawnee scouts.”

Adam nodded in agreement, there was no point in trying to whitewash the situation just to make Joe feel happy when it wasn’t going to work anyway. He stood up and walked a few paces up and down the store room, then smiled wanly,

“Well, Hoss won’t go hungry in the night, will he?” he observed, “It’s unfortunate that folk hereabouts are so aware of your involvement with the Cheyenne, Joe. You must have riled them some.”

“I never did them any harm, except for those ambushers when I first rode in on ‘em. I never saw a white man after that except for those in the forts.” Joe replied glumly, and he bowed his head and pushed his fingers through his thick mane of hair, “I wish we were home on the Ponderosa, Adam, and all this had never happened. I sure wish I’d never left home.”

“Yeah, I often wished the same thing. But no one can turn back the clock. We have to do the best we can with what we have for now.”

The door opened and Hoss stepped inside. He had the three bedrolls which he set down, before rejoining them.

“This is a major outfit alright. They’re equipped to withstand a major war if they have to.” he glanced over his shoulder, “Someone stopped us and asked Jacob who I was, and what was I doing there, so Jacob introduced me as his cousin. Seemed to go down alright.”

“Yeah, there are some similarities,” Joe smiled, but there was no mirth in his voice and he looked over at his brothers and shrugged, “It’s going to be a long few hours before nightfall if all we can do is sit here.”

“No, it’s you who has to sit here, little brother.” Hoss reminded him gently, “Adam and me, we can go walking about as and when we choose, ain’t that right, Adam?”

Adam nodded. He felt a lot of sympathy for Joe, and no doubt it would have made more sense to have avoided the fort but he had felt such would have been disloyal to Prescott. And, of course, he had not known Custer would be here. At the same time where better? If he wanted to know about Prescott and the connection with Custer and that meeting, then it was obvious that Custer and his unit would have had to be the focus of his attention.

Hoss was sitting on a barrel of crackers, and gazing about him, reading the labels on the various packages and barrels. He looked at Adam as his brother came to sit down,

“It’s a bit of a co-incidence Jacob Brown being here, ain’t it? He has a lot of respect for you.”

“He’s a good man. I always knew I could rely on Brown in a crisis.” Adam replied, “we had some tough times on board ship -.” he stopped there and stared down at the floor, preferring to focus his mind on the cracks in the flooring than to cast his mind back to the past.

“Joe, would you be alright here while Adam and I go and get ourselves a drink? I’m just about parched.”

Joe looked at his brothers rather resentfully, and then nodded. He got up and walked over to his bedroll,

“Bring my saddlebags when you come back, will you? I could write a letter to Pa while I’m here.”

“Sure thing, Joe. And I’ll bring you a beer as well.” Hoss smiled.

“And I’ll scout around for a telegraph office and send Pa a cable, from the three of us.” Adam looked sternly at his youngest brother, “Joe, promise me you won’t stir from here?”

Joe nodded, then he shrugged,

“Where would I go?” he observed rather cynically.

…………

The clerk looked at Adam and Hoss thoughtfully before licking the lead tip of his pencil and leaning on the counter to start writing the message on the form. Adam thought for a moment and then dictated the message in his clipped manner, and the clerk read it back to them and then demanded payment. Once the coins had clinked down on the counter he began to tap out the message.

He had been tapping out a few words when he paused, glanced over at Adam and Hoss, who had reached the door by then, and shook his head,

“Sorry, gents, I can’t send the message right now, seems like the lines are down.”

“What do you mean? There’s been no storms, has there?” Hoss asked, pushing his hat (retrieved by Tilly), to the back of his head.

“No storms. Probably some darn Indians have cut the wires or pulled down some of the poles. Anyhows, you’ll have to wait until they get put right again.”

“How long will that be?” Hoss growled impatiently and was rewarded with a look of amazement from both his brother and the clerk, “So? What did I say wrong?”

“Nothing, Hoss, come on, let’s go and get that drink.” Adam took Hoss’ arm and propelled him from the building.

“Well?” Hoss demanded, scowling slightly at Adam who smiled slowly,

“Who can tell, Hoss. This isn’t like back home. This little problem could well kick off a whole load of problems. A war being the least of them.”

“A war, huh?”

“Something for Custer to get his teeth into, and keeps us stuck here.” Adam frowned, he once again involuntarily put a hand to his wound, held it there as though to ease back the pain.

“Is that wound of yours playing up rough?” Hoss asked.

“Just a bit. I guess that little tussle we had back there didn’t help.” Adam glanced around and then up at the sky, “Come on, Hoss, let’s go and get that drink. You can pay.”

Chapter 53

There were very few men in the makeshift saloon; a few soldiers were playing a game of poker in the far corner and glanced up as Adam and Hoss entered. There was no comment made, nor challenge given as they made their way to the counter and ordered beer which arrived in surprisingly clean glasses. After a sip or two, they glanced around and found a table which was empty. It was slightly rickitty, as was most of the furniture there, evidence of hard travelling and numerous brawls.

“Well, brother, what do you suggest we do?” Hoss asked, as he wiped froth from his upper lip, “Seems we’re stuck here for the duration.”

“It’s a nuisance in more ways than one, Hoss, but no help to it. We could have been worse off out in the open. If anything were to happen out there we could have been caught right in the middle of it.”

“Yeah, and what do you call this then? Stuck here? Joe unable to leave the storeroom?”

“Jacob will see to that, it doesn’t take much for a word dropped here and there in the right quarters to get things to cool down. It’ll be alright, so long as Joe keeps a his head.”

They both swallowed down more beer, nodded at one another in acknowledgement of their enjoyment of a pleasant tasting brew. Hoss leaned forward,

“So, what happened with Jacob? He said you saved his life?”

“Oh, he’s exaggerating. On a ship in the middle of a storm everyone has a favour owed to someone else. We’re all so inter-dependent on each other.” he frowned and drained the glass, “I’ll get another or would you prefer -.” he paused as several soldiers entered and approached the counter.

Two of the men went to join the poker game where there was much hallooing and back slapping as chairs were pulled out and they were made welcome. The other stood at the counter and looked rather lost. He picked up his beer and raised it to his lips then walked off to a table, passing Adam and Hoss as he did so. Adam looked at Hoss and raised his eyebrows, but Hoss only shrugged.

“Hoss, go and get three beers and join us.” Adam whispered before sidling out of his seat and walking over to the lone soldier who glanced up at him with the blank look of surprise and expectancy one has when contemplating a quiet hour to oneself and someone decides to join one at the table.

Adam smiled, a smile not of mirth, nor of pleasant surprise at seeing the soldier, but a smile of satisfaction, as though he had just received something that he knew was not going to make the other party very happy. He pulled out a chair and sat down,

“It’s good to see you again.” Adam said brightly, and extended his hand, “Adam Cartwright, in case you had forgotten.”

“Adam Cartwright?” the soldier creased his brow, but took the hand and shook it, “I’m Sam Maitland.” he glanced up in surprise when Hoss appeared and carefully placed three glasses on the table. This time it seemed the ‘penny dropped’ as recognition of the big man flashed through his memory, he looked again at Adam, “You were in uniform last time I saw you?”

“That’s correct,” Adam replied, taking his glass of beer, “You obviously have a very sharp memory for detail, Lieutenant Maitland.”

“Well, for some things.” Maitland replied, glancing once again at Hoss, “What are you doing here?”

“Just riding through, on the way home.” Adam said, “Hoss, and Joe and I, we thought it was time to get back home, but it seems that there’s some trouble brewing. Good thing we made the detour here.” he raised his glass and swallowed down more beer, “You know, I’m really glad to have met up with you, Maitland. You may be able to help me with a problem.”

“A problem? What kind of problem?” Maitland asked nervously.

“Well, that other guy who was taking down notes of our meeting with Custer…? You know, you and he were scribbling away, taking down every word that was said there…?”

“We were?” Maitland struggled to resume a blank look on his features, but his eyes were wary. He looked at Hoss and Adam and attempted to get to his feet, but Hoss placed a hand on his arm and forced him back down again.

“That’s right, you were. Now, I never forget a face, Maitland, so don’t pretend that you weren’t there unless you have a twin brother around the place.”

Maitland sighed and looked at his half empty glass, and the full one that Hoss had brought over. He picked the one up and emptied it.

“Look, just what do you want from me?” he asked rather peevishly, “So I took down the notes of a meeting, what of it?”

“Nothing at all. I presume that you still have them?”

“Of course not, they were added to the Commanding Officer’s report and filed away.”

Adam looked at Hoss, who raised his eyebrows.

“What about Prescott’s notes. What happened to them?”

“Well, I presume -” Maitland stopped, and lowered his eyes, then he picked up the glass and swallowed more beer.

No one spoke, the soldiers at the poker game were laughing loudly, and there was the sounds of glasses being washed. Maitland looked from one brother to the other,

“I presume he still has them on him.” he said weakly.

“Did you have much to do with him then?” Hoss asked, looking at the Officer and wondering what good he would be in a fight.

“No. He was a freelance reporter. He wanted to write a feature about George Custer, the hero of the west.” there was a sneer evident in his words and Adam leaned forward more closely to hear and observe. “Well, he’d been with us some weeks, so he should have all the material he wants to write down in a book. Whether or not Custer is quite the golden hero Prescott had initially thought him to be is something else altogether.”

“You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of him.” Adam leaned back in the seat and picked up his glass, “Have you served with him very long?”

“Long enough.” Maitland replied, “I -” he stopped himself and sighed. “What did you want to know about Prescott for, if I may ask?”

“Because he’s disappeared, hasn’t he?” Hoss replied.

“He’s on manoeuvres with Custer.” Maitland shrugged, “Eager beaver, that’s what he is.”

“No, no, Prescott disappeared before Custer left here on manoeuvres.” Adam said, shaking his head.

“How do you mean?” Maitland frowned again, and looked from one to the other of them, “What exactly is going on around here?”

“That’s exactly what we’re here to find out.” Adam smiled slowly, and leaned forward, his arms folded on the top of the table, “Prescott’s body was found a long way from here. It had no identification on it, no papers, nothing. Just the clothes he was wearing complete with two bullet holes in the back.”

“Then how did you know it was Paul Prescott? It could have been anyone.”

“Because I have a good memory for faces, and because he did have some identification on him. Do you know where he would have left his notes?”

“No.” Maitland shook his head, “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know nothing about all this. If you don’t mind, I’d like to go now.” he put down the beer glass and rose to his feet, adjusted his rather rumpled jacket and pushed pass Hoss.

“That didn’t go very well, did it?” Hoss muttered gloomily.

“No, not really. The fellow’s frightened though. He knows something, or at least, he suspects something. I wish we could follow him and see where he’s gone or what he does next.”

“Well, he’s not exactly going to get lost around here, is he?” Hoss grumbled.

“No, but he knows more than he told us, Hoss. I’m sure of it.”

“Or he thinks he knows something, and is now scared stiff.” Hoss sighed. “Adam, this place is giving me the jitters. I got itches all over.”

“Probably hives,” Adam replied unsympathetically.

Chapter 54

A soldier accompanied by a rag bag of a man who was standing up only by virtue of having feet to stand upon, approached them just as they were about to leave. He placed a large hand flat upon the table and grinned,

“That was a good fight we had,” he said in a voice that crackled with malice, “back at Tillys.”

“Yep, sure was,” Hoss replied, getting to his feet and drawing himself up to his full height which never failed to impress or put the most considerable fear in a man.

“You’re related to Jacob Brown, ain’t’cha?” the man now leaning heavily upon the soldier observed.

“So he claims,” Hoss nodded.

“He’s related to Jacob Brown, y’know,” the man now informed the soldier who was looking slightly more apprehensive at seeing Hoss towering above them both.

“Is that so? Visiting him, are you?” the soldier asked, looking over Hoss’ shoulder and seeing the dark lean figure of Adam Cartwright standing close by with his hand resting lightly upon the butt of his gun.

“Briefly,” Hoss replied, attempting to look discreet.

“So, what was the fight all about then?” came the next question from the soldier, who had now been joined by two other combatants from the fight.

“Mistaken identity,” Hoss said solemnly, seizing the opportunity to smooth things over for Joe, “Seems some fools around here thought our kid brother was a half wild renegade.”

“Ah, you mean the kid on the paint horse,” one of the newcomers muttered.

“Yeah, that’s the one. Fact is, Joe ain’t no renegade, and he happens to be our brother.” Hoss scowled and leaned forward, clenching his fists as he did so, “just you tell your pals, huh?”

“There was no harm meant,” another soldier laughed, “The boys just wanted an excuse to let off some steam. It gets mighty boring hanging around here waiting for some action, so we just create some action of our own.”

“He’s related to Jacob Brown,” the drunk muttered, sliding down onto the bench now as his legs finally gave out from under him.

“Yeah, you can see that,” one of the soldiers said, “Hey, how about a drink on us?”

“Nah, it’s alright,” Hoss said, with a shrug of the shoulders and a nonchalant air, “P’raps some other time.”

“You as good at arm wrasslin’ as Jacob?” another asked.

“Hmmn,” Adam muttered behind Hoss’ back and rolled his eyes, having experienced both Jacob and Hoss’ expertise at just such a sport. He gave his brother a slight prod in the back and when Hoss turned he gave a slight nod and half smile.

“Yeah, I’m pretty good at it,” Hoss said, flexing his fingers so the crowd could admire his hand span and the power in his fingers.

“I’ll see you later, Hoss,” Adam said, and with a smile walked away from what was becoming a larger crowd around this new found celebrity.

He bought a jug of ale for Joe and walked slowly from the saloon, his brow creased with confused thoughts. This whole situation was not one of the best, it was like sitting on a keg of gun power with a short fuse. His main concern was that they weren’t still sitting on it when the fuse was lit.

Remembering Joe’s request to bring in his saddle bags, he went to the stable and approached the horses. Chubb and Cochise, old stable companions, were obviously deep in horsey conversation, while his horse kept an aloof distance.

He unbuckled the saddlebags and was about to sling them over his shoulder when he heard movement behind him. Turning he saw two soldiers observing him. They did not look the rowdy kind of rookie that seemed to predominate the garrison, but even so they could present a problem. He nodded at them,

“Anything I can do for you?” he asked.

“Who’s horse is that?” one of them, he noticed the stripes now, a Corporal no less, approached him and pointed to Cochise.

“My brothers.” Adam replied, with a slight lift of one shoulder.

They exchanged looks and frowned,

“We’ve been told to look out for a kid on a paint horse who’s been riding rough with the Cheyenne. Seems he shot up some prospectors.”

“Seems you’ve made a mistake.” Adam replied, “Come here.” he jerked his head in the direction of Cochise, and cautiously they approached him, “See this brand? It’s the Ponderosa brand mark, same as this one here -” he pointed to Chubb’s brand. “My brothers and I are the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa. My brother Joe never shot up any prospectors.”

The soldiers looked at one another again, and then at Adam,

“Ain’t I seen you before?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t know.” Adam muttered, leaning forwards to pick up the jug of beer.

“Oh well, it doesn’t matter anyhow.” the corporal shrugged.

“Look here,” Adam said with one eyebrow raised and his voice stern, “There must be more than one paint horse galloping around this flea bitten place. Do you check up on all of them?”

“More or less.”

“Why? What’s so important about a kid who must have got himself into a tight corner at some time?”

The Corporal shrugged but the other soldier answered immediately with the fact that the kid had then gone off riding with renegade Indians for the past year.

“And had he caused any trouble for you at all in that time?” Adam asked, slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder now, and his hand on the jug.

“No, but it’s the principle of the thing,” the soldier scowled.

Adam smiled slowly. They were quite young, impressionable. He squared his shoulders, and started to walk out the stable. Neither of the young men stopped him, but they were both studying the brand marks of the Ponderosa very closely as he looked back to observe them.

Joe looked up at him as he entered the store room, and accepted the jug with a grin,

“Any problems?” he asked as he unscrewed the stopper on the jug and raised it to his mouth.

“No, no problems.” Adam replied, and tossed the saddle bags down onto the floor.

From his own saddlebags he took some of the dried herbs that Stalking Horse had given him. He placed an adequate amount in his hand and looked at them thoughtfully before putting them into his mouth. He chewed them slowly, and watched as his brother drank down the beer with an appreciation borne as a result of long abstinence.

Chapter 55

The herbs Adam had taken soon took effect. He felt an immense weariness as a result of which he put his saddlebags down on the ground to form a pillow, covered them with a blanket and settled down. His eyelids were becoming increasingly heavy and his body became rather pleasantly numb. He was aware of Joe’s voice floating about the room, and must have made some kind of sensible reply before sleep over came him, his eyelids closed and his body relaxed into a soporific slumber.

Joe glanced over at him once or twice but decided that there was no harm in a good sleep when life reached this level of tedium. He rummaged in his saddlebags and found some paper and a pencil with a nib still intact, and began to write to Ben. He daydreamed several times during the course of the writing and eventually put it down when the intercommunicating door opened. Tilly emerged with a tray full of food, and steaming hot coffee.

“Is he alright?” Tilly glanced over at Adam who was now sound asleep, one arm outstretched at his side and the other reclined over his stomach.

“Just tired.” Joe muttered, “Have you seen my brother Hoss at all?”

“No, but I did hear that my Cuddles’ cousin is in the saloon, so I beg to presume that could possibly be him.” she smiled and poured out the coffee for him, “I’ll get the girl to bring in a lamp later, it’s beginning to get dark in here.”

“Thank you,” Joe inhaled the smell of the dark rich coffee and smiled, “This smells good.”

“Don’t suppose you’ve had much of it lately, have you?”

“No, not at all.” Joe admitted, he sighed as memories of evenings sitting over the camp fires drinking some weird concoction drifted into his mind.

“Your brother was wanting to know about a Paul Prescott. Tell him he was here, some few months back. He stayed one evening and slept right where you are sleeping now. Nice young man but intent on following Custer, he wanted to report on how successful the 7th Cavalry were during the Indian wars.”

Joe nodded and said nothing as Paul Prescott was really of little interest to him. He promised to tell Adam what she had said and with a brief smile she rose up and left them.

Joe drank some of the coffee. He teasingly held the cup close to Adam’s nose and said “Coffee, Adam, come and have some coffee.” There was no response so he drank some more and ate some of the food before resuming his letter.

He told Ben about Little Moon “How is it, Pa, that here we all are with two eyes, one nose and two lips but suddenly the conjunction of these set into one face creates so much emotion in the human heart?”

He paused there and reread it. He felt his throat tightening. Little Moon … oh, but Pa would understand what he meant. He’d written something that he didn’t exactly understand but Pa would, yes, he would.

He sat for a moment staring down at the words he had written and then began to write more, to tell Ben about this one person who had brought so much love and joy, heartbreak and misery into his life.

The door opened again and a young woman entered the room and set down a lamp very carefully on a barrel. She smiled over at Joe, but he was too intent on his letter to even have noticed although the light must have been a blessing to him at that time.

Adam stirred. With a sigh he forced open his eyes and looked around him. Joe was still intent on writing, his back arched, and a frown on his face. He looked so much like the child struggling with the homework Miss Jones had set him that Adam smiled at the memory. He sat up and looked around the store room, at the lamp and he smelt the coffee.

“Coffee, Joe?”

Joe started, and looked at Adam in amazement, then smiled rather dreamily, before nodding in agreement. Adam got to his feet and attended to the coffee, wondering as he did so why it was not very hot. Then he looked around the room,

“Where’s Hoss?”

“Probably where you left him” Joe replied, reading through his letter to make sure it really did say all the things he wanted to say to his father.

“In that case -,” Adam stopped speaking as the door opened and his brother emerged. “Where have you been?” he demanded sounding so much like an indignant father that Joe and Hoss exchanged looks and rolled their eyes ceiling wards.

“Where you left me.” Hoss replied, which brought a smirk to Joe’s face, and then he broke into a big smile, he put his hand to his shirt pocket and drew out a thick wad of notes, “I sure did well too. Those men out there are so bored out of their skulls that they’d bet on anything I said. I’ve fixed up a match with Jacob for tomorrow.”

“A match?” Joe frowned, “What are you talking about? Where did you get that money?”

“Arm wrasslin’, Joe, it’s my winnings from the arm wrasslin’.” Hoss replied, looking rather pained that he had not received applause and commendation for his self sacrifice of the past few hours.

“Arm wrestling?” Joe blinked and shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”

……………..

“Are you looking for something, Lieutenant?”

The deep voice from the doorway of the Commanding Officer’s room may have startled Lieutenant Maitland, but he had the self control not to show it. Instead he straightened up from the desk and looked up.

“As a matter of fact, I was looking for something, Grant. What brings you here?” he replied with a coolness that had been lacking in the saloon when he had met Adam and Hoss only hours earlier.

“I saw you through the window,” Grant replied and walked into the room slowly, “You didn’t exactly hide what you were doing.”

“Perhaps because I had nothing to hide,” came the response, and Maitland shrugged slightly and sat down at the desk, slowly and with a casual air, opening a file, which he began to apparently read through, then he looked up, “What? Still here, Grant?”

“Yes, still here. I would have thought the least you could do was show some respect for my rank, Maitland. I deferred to you, didn’t I?”

“I hadn’t noticed.” Maitland resumed his reading, “In my capacity as Captain Custer’s secretary I have every right to be here and to check on certain aspects relating to current affairs here. I was not told that you had the same authority or that you had the right to spy on me.”

“I was not spying on you, Maitland. I just wanted to make sure that everything was in order here. You have to understand …”

“I understand only too well, Lieutenant Grant. You’re very eager, very ambitious, and very naïve. Don’t try using my back as another rung up the ladder to success, sir, because I can tell you now, when Custer falls, he’ll take you with him.”

“Is that a warning?” Grant stepped back, his lips thin and his nostrils pinched white with anger, “Then let me tell you, Maitland, you’ll never succeed here, Custer has no time for weak scribblers like you. You do know that, don’t you?”

The two antagonists faced each other like two men confronting one another in a duel. Maitland, cool and calm and with an air of detachment stared coldly at Grant who was pale, and whose eyes bulged from their sockets with suppressed rage. It was Maitland who stood up, closed the file and put it back into the drawer. It was from his pocket that he took a key and locked it, he smiled slowly as he put the key back.

“As Custer’s private secretary there is very little I don’t know about what happens here, Grant.”

“Are you sure about that?” the other officer sneered, “Do you really think you know so much? You really are the naïve one, Maitland, if you believe that.”

Maitland merely shrugged and walked out of the building. He walked with his back straight, feeling his fellow officer’s eyes boring into his back, like two bullet holes burning through his jacket.

Once he had closed the door to his own room Maitland leaned against it, rather, he sagged against it, while beads of perspiration stood out on his brow. He felt a wave of sickness sweep over him and he pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the moisture away. He had a dignity and a natural strength, but he was not aggressive, not a fighter and any confrontation turned him to jelly. Grant, he knew only too well, was everything that he was not, and was eager to do anything to gain Custer’s favour.

At the current moment, he was not sure in whose favour the dice was loaded.

Chapter 56

Ben Cartwright led Buck towards the chuck wagon and tethered the reins to the posts. It was a beautiful day with the slightest of breezes drifting over the camp site, bringing the smell of the pine trees to mingle with the smoke of the fires, the tingle of burning hide as branding irons melted into the coats of the young calves.

As he pulled off his gloves and stuffed them into his back pocket Sam Chung Lee hurried towards him, a mug of coffee in his hands and a wide smile on his face. This was his first chance of winning the task of chuck wagon cook on the Ponderosa, taking over the role from his Uncle Hop Sing (twice removed from Cousin No 1 but it got too complex after that so Ben gave up trying).

“You want some soup now, Mr Cartwight?”

“Thanks, Sam, I will.” Ben smiled, hoping that Sam’s expertise as cook matched his willingness to be helpful.

As he sipped his coffee Ben cast an eye of the work on hand. His men were skilled at this job, he always hired the same men if possible every year. He hired those he knew and trusted to be both hard working and loyal to the Ponderosa. They in turn knew him as a loyal and reliable employer who paid top wages for a job well done.

A horseman dismounted and after tethering his horse walked towards him, taking from his pocket some letters that he had just collected from town. He smiled at Ben, and took off his hat.

“Here’s your mail, I thought I’d bring it here rather than leave it at the house,” he smiled and glanced over his shoulder at the men, “It’s been a good year for calves.”

“Yes, it has,” Ben replied, knowing from the way that his foreman looked away from him that he knew there was no mail from Ben’s sons, and did not want to see the look of disappointment on his boss and friends face.

“Better than last year,” Candy Canady said, turning now and after a quick glance over at Ben turned to Sam and signalled his request for coffee.

“Yes, it is,” Ben sighed and put the letters aside.

The two men leaned against the tailgate of the wagon and drank their coffee and said nothing. They had worked together now for nearly three years and in some ways Ben’s sons absence from the Ponderosa had brought both men into a closer relationship.

Candy had ridden into the Ponderosa nearly two years after Adam’s departure and had immediately struck a cord with Joe and Hoss. He was dark haired, blue eyed and handsome. Although he had kept his private life as untold as possible Ben knew that there had been considerable heart break for the young man, not only from the woman he had loved and married, but from the tyrannical treatment he had been meted out by Ann’s father. The influence of the man had caused the annulment of the marriage, heartbreak for his daughter and despair for Candy. It had taken some time for Candy to trust Ben, having had his fingers well and truly burned by Ann’s father.

But for all that, he was a loyal, hard working and amusing companion to have around the Ponderosa. He could make Joe laugh, Hoss feel confident in himself and his achievements, and he confirmed Ben’s trust in him as a man worthy of the role as ranch foreman.

He had become one of their closest friends and when Ben had returned from his search for Joe, with his health in tatters, it had been Candy who had, metaphorically speaking, kept the boat from rocking.

“They’ll come home, Sir,” he said now, as though knowing what the man was thinking about, and the assurance he needed to hear, “You know Joe and Hoss well enough to be quite confident on that score.”

“I don’t know, Candy. Sometimes I look about the Ponderosa and wonder why carry on, what is the point if there are no sons to leave this to? Then, another time I think, I have to keep going with this, we built it up and it has to be prospering for when they come home. Life is so uncertain.”

Candy nodded and his clear blue eyes clouded over at the memory that underscored the comment Ben had made, so true, life was so uncertain. He looked over at the men who were branding the calves, setting down branding irons into the red hot embers of the fires, jotting down figures that would be tallied up at the end of the day. The Ponderosa was prospering, there was no doubt of that, and the Cartwright boys would be returning home to that certainty at least.

“You know, I could go and fix up a search party for them, if you wanted me to do so?” he now offered, looking at the older man with a gentle expression on his face, “Some of the boys have already mentioned it to me and would be more than willing to go with me.”

Ben frowned, his dark eyes clouded over and the fine mouth tightened. He shook his head, slowly, from side to side,

“No.” the word was uttered firmly, a note of finality in it that meant he would brook no argument against it, “No, son, thanks anyway, but I need you here. All of you. There’s a lot of work to do before the fall and winter. I can’t spare you.”

“But -”

“I said, I can’t spare you.” Ben looked into the younger mans eyes and raised his dark eyebrows, “Do you understand?”

“Not entirely.” Candy straightened his shoulders and tilted his head, his dark hair fell across his brow, and the blue eyes darkened.

“I’ve seen too many swallowed up by that wilderness.” Ben said slowly, “Do you know, I can remember on the wagon trains coming over from Illinois with Adam and Inger, we would come across graves, or what had been graves, of men, or women, and some children. We would stumble across their bones and wonder who were they, these people? No name, no identity. Perhaps far away families grieving and wondering why they no longer heard from them. We wondered whether, as we travelled on, we would end up the same way, bones mouldering in a far off unknown grave in the wilds, scattered by wild animals, winds, storms. Then Adam and I stood beside one such grave with its pathetic wooden marker and had to ride away from it. I don’t want to think my sons are out there in the wilderness having suffered the same fate, the same miserable end as Inger. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for you riding out there, and never returning back either. At least Joe went where he wanted to go, for the sake of adventure perhaps, or curiosity. And Hoss continued on from where I had to leave off …” Bens voice trailed away, he bowed his head and sighed.

“And Adam?” Candy said, of the one Cartwright he had never met and had wondered at times if he ever would do so.

“Adam? Who knows where he is now. I hope every day that there will be news of some sort, but there never is. I’m proud of him for resigning his commission and putting his brother first, I just wish I knew where he was now.”

He turned his head as he realised Sam had been waiting for him, standing patiently close to his elbow, with the bowl of soup and bread for him. He accepted it slowly, wondering how he was going to get it down his throat which seemed to have cleaved shut for some reason.

……………..

Jacob Brown sat at the long table with the three brothers seated with him. It had been an immense relief to Joe to be assured that he was not going to be attacked, hung drawn or quartered were he to take a walk from the store room. Word had got around the garrison that Joe Cartwright was the brother of Jacob Brown’s cousin who was now reigning arm wrestling champion of the 7th Cavalry. This meant that he and Adam were also cousins of the great Jacob Brown and were to be treated with some respect.

It went a long way to proving what a good reputation the man had succeeded in establishing in such a short time, and not only because of his arm wrestling prowess. At a pinch it may even been helped by Tilly’s skills in the cooking department. Whatever it was it certainly was a great help to the brothers who could now feel free to walk about the Fort without fear .

Perhaps Adam was the only one who had any trepidation still, but even he had his guard lowered as Custer was not in the Fort and unlikely to be so for some time.

“Captain Cartwright?”

Adam paused in eating and turned to look over his shoulder at the man standing behind him. He frowned slightly before nodding an acnowledgment to Maitland.

“Do you want to join us, Maitland?” he said, “There’s room here and food to spare.”

“No, I just wanted to now if I could have some private time with you this evening?”

“Certainly, whenever you wish.”

Maitland glanced up at the clock ticking the hours away above them on the wall, then he looked again at Adam and his companions,

“In half an hour?”

“Certainly. Whereabouts?” Adam replied.

“I don’t think my office is safe. Perhaps …”

“The store room?” Adam glanced over at Jacob who nodded briefly, “Be here in half an hour, Tilly will take you to where I am. My brothers, can they be present too?”

Maitland paused, licked his lips and again looked up at the clock, then he nodded,

“Yes, perhaps it would be better to have some witnesses to what is said this evening. I’ll see you soon.”

They watched him go, straight backed and head high, a man walking on egg shells but with dignity.

Chapter 57

Maitland arrived exactly to the time specified. He looked a little dazed as he surveyed the four men, but Adam approached him and shook his hand warmly and indicated a barrel for him to sit upon.

He looked at them one by one, and his anxiety seemed to concern the fact that Jacob was present more than anyone else. After all, Jacob Brown was a member of the garrison and what he had to say involved something precious to him, Maitland, and that something was his own life.

“If you would rather I leave, Sir,” Jacob said with a directness that was appealing in its honesty, “I shall certainly do so. Although I am sure that Captain Cartwright could certainly vouch for my loyalty being in the right place.”

Maitland looked again at Adam and shrugged,

“You may find your loyalties tested then, Brown.” Maitland replied, “And I would not want to compromise them.”

“You won’t, Sir. My loyalties are to my country and to Captain Cartwright here, for he saved my life on more than one occasion and where he goes, I’ll follow.” he mentally added Tilly but thought better not to mention her.

Maitland once again looked at Adam who nodded,

“Jacob Brown’s a good man, Maitland, and whatever you have to say I am sure he already knows it or has, at least, heard something similar before. I’d better just put the record right here, and tell you now that I am not an Officer at all, I resigned my commission and I’m a mere civilian, like my brothers here.”

Joe looked at Adam with wide eyes for he had not idea that Adam had taken such a step. He looked at Hoss who just glanced away and stared at the ground.

“I thought you were on prolonged leave,” Joe cried, “Does Pa know?”

“I should think so by now. I cabled him …” Adam paused, it seemed like a life time ago.

Jacob stood up now and from behind his seat he produced a bottle of whiskey and five glasses, which he filled.

“Here you are, Lieutenant, something to help wet your whistle,” and he gave a glass of the whiskey to Maitland who accepted it with something of a sigh on his lips and a rather glazed expression on his face,

“You have to understand that what I have to say, if anyone found out, could mean I would be court martialed, dismissed my rank, may be even executed.” he gulped some of the whiskey and raised his eyebrows, discovering that it was a decent drink after all and not the Forts local rot gut.

“We understand that, it’s the same principle at sea, to speak against the Captain or any officer of the ships company could entail the same disciplines.” Adam replied.

“Then you do understand how difficult it is for me to speak like this?”

“Of course,” Adam assured him, and took a large gulp of the whiskey himself.

“It was when you mentioned about Prescott disappearing and how you found him. I just thought he had gone ahead on manoeuvres. He was a very enthusiastic young man. I thought I would check up on my report and then see if … if I could locate his papers and compare them. I just wondered if perhaps my … our … reports would differ, or if, well, anyway,” he took another slug of the whiskey, “You see, back East there is a lot of admiration for Custer, he’s the golden boy, Glorious George and he does cut rather a dashing figure in society, of course.”

He paused again, and seemed lost in thought, his last statement made it seem as though he lamented the fact that he himself cut no such dashing figure, which he regretted. He squared his shoulders,

“But that’s because of all the pamphlets that have been circulated about him, and the newspapers love writing about him. However, the Generals don’t … didn’t know what to do with him. He was rattling around back there causing problems, being as they would term it a disgrace to the Uniform. He’s a man who needs action, and he was constantly at the War Department demanding attention, wanting to be used here, or there, anywhere. He was dissolute in his behaviour, gambling, drinking.” he sighed, “Sherman and Sheridan between them decided to form a new company, the Seventh and put him in charge. They thought sending him here to deal with the Indian problem would suit them all.”

“HOw do you know that?” Hoss asked, swirling his whiskey round and round in his glass, and wondering why Maitland would be so worried about stating what facts seemed to be obvious to him, Hoss, upon his first meeting with Custer.

“I passed out from West Point, we graduates keep contact, and obviously I couldn‘t name my sources but I trust what they say. I‘ve seen enough evidence of it myself.” Maitland replied, and drained his glass dry. “This Fort is on Cheyenne land. It’s a kind of bait, you see? During the winter all the tribes were supposed to have received a written statement of a new law from the Government forbidding them to have rifles, to hunt.* If they wanted to hunt they would have to go to their Agency for permission, for a rifle and adequate ammunition. Of course the winter snows prevented many tribes receiving the paper, and most of those that did can’t read.*”

“Black Kettle never received it,” Joe said quickly.

“No, well, of course not.” Maitland frowned, “Now of course Custer is going up to round up those tribes who have disobeyed the law.* Ignorance being no excuse of course.”

“Where does Prescott fit into all this?” Adam asked, diverting the subject before Joe had time to dwell on it overlong.

“He was an up and coming journalist who wanted to write up Custer’s Indian campaigns. He was quite a devotee of Custer at first, but it has waned. The meeting with you caused him to question what was happening here. He showed Grant …”

“Grant?” Hoss frowned, “Was he the lieutenant that seemed so keen to get us arrested?”

“Yes, he worked his way up the ranks to get his commission, and he’s eager to be noticed by Custer. He claims to be related to Ulysses S. Grant, but if he is, then it is so distant as to be barely noticeable. But he is a dangerous man. I … I rather fear him. Anyway, I went to check on my report of your meeting. There have to be authorised minutes to meetings like that, to explain change of tactics, policy … but it was not there. It was missing. I thought you should know.”

“Your reports missing, Prescott’s missing, and I presume his report is missing too?” Joe muttered, a scowl on his face.

“That goes without saying. I don’t know about his death though.”

“He had two army bullets in his back, from close range. He was murdered.” Adam said matter of factly.

“Well, in that case, you may understand why I was so anxious about this meeting.” Maitland looked thoughtful, slightly distressed, “Two army bullets? Are you sure? Could it have been an accident?”

“I’ve never known two bullets in the back at such close range to be an accident,” Hoss observed coldly, “Not only that you have to remember that all his identification had been removed. If Adam hadn’t remembered an old trick of Pa’s we would no doubt have never known who he was either, not for sure anyhow. We could have thought we had seen his face before but that wouldn’t stand up as evidence, would it?”

“And definitely army bullets?”

Adam nodded, and Maitland looked even more distressed than ever,

“Look, whatever I have told you about the Commanding Officer here doesn’t mean that I believe him to be capable of murder. He has his own version of honour that is true, but he is still honourable in that respect.”

“Even if he wanted to conceal certain facts?” Joe asked, raising his eyebrows and looking Maitland straight in the face but the Officer smiled slowly, and nodded,

“Custer couldn’t care less about facts. That kind of thing goes over his head. He might roar and such at the time, as he did, very volubly when you left, Mr Cartwright, but he would not have thought such things important enough to murder and steal the reports from official observation. No, you have to understand that Captain Custer really believes what the reporters think of him back East. He believes himself to be inviolate, above the law, some kind of demi-god. Scribble on paper as he would call it, wouldn’t matter to him, he’d just deny it and expect everyone to believe his version anyway.”

“Then who do you think would have done it? Could have done it?” Brown asked, leaning forward to pick up the bottle and pour out a refill.

Maitland declined more whiskey, and stood up,

“Did you ever hear the story about a man called Thomas a Becket? He was an Arch bishop in England hundreds of years ago. Well he was always interfering in the Kings business, and one day the King go so annoyed that he cried out ‘WHo will rid me of this interfering priest’.”

“Yeah, and so what happened?” Hoss asked, his blue eyes wide with anticipation.

“Four of his men had heard him and wanted to gain his favour they murdered the the priest.”

“That must have pleased the King, I bet they became Prime Ministers and things like that,” Brown grinned.

“No, on the contrary it appalled the King. He wore a hair shirt beneath his clothes from thereon. But, I doubt it Custer would go that far of course,” he looked at the four men and shook his head, “I don’t know if I have been any help to you or not, but that is all the information I can offer you just now.”

“And are you really that concerned about Grant?” Adam asked, as Maitland turned to leave.

“Yes, he is ambitious, and ruthless. I didn’t mention the anecdote for nothing.” Maitland smiled slowly, “If he thought any action, even murder, would elevate his status with Custer, I don‘t doubt he’d risk it.”

Adam looked at Brown who raised his shoulders in a definite shrug. Maitland dithered a moment before saying

“Now I am wondering on what pretext I can give should I be challenged as to why I am here with you.”

“Say you came to see the arm wrestling champion to find out for sure whether or not to place your bets on him.” Joe grinned.

Maitland laughed but not with mirth, there was a tremor of anxiety there and he looked less than resolute when he left the room.

“Well, poor Maitland.” Joe sighed as he resumed his seat on a barrel of pickles, “He doesn’t seem to know what to do really, does he?”

“He’s not the only one.” Hoss muttered glumly, “I reckon we should just hightail it from here and take our chances. I want to get home.”

“So do I.” Joe sighed, “I’d love to see Pa and the Ponderosa again.”

Adam nodded and looked at Brown,

“I can’t see what good we shall do here, Jacob. I really feel that we shall have to leave the matter entirely to Custer, and history.”

“But what about Prescott, Captain? Someone in this garrison killed that man. He was only doing his job, surely ?”

“When is Custer due to return?” Adam asked after a moment of silence, and ignoring Hoss’ exaggerated groan and Joe’s sigh as they saw their early exit from the Fort fading.

“Very soon, probably tomorrow.”

“Then find out what you can, Jacob. We leave the day after tomorrow if all goes well.”

“And if it don’t?” Hoss said, his brow furrowed and his hands on his hips as though he were about to challenge his elder brothers statement.

“Then we go home as soon as we can afterwards,” Adam smiled and gave his brother a friendly tap on the chest, “Don’t fret, Hoss, we’ll get home.”

Chapter 58

The 7th Cavalry Unit had some moderate success during their manoeuvres. Several skirmishes with Roman Nose’s dog soldiers had resulted in a few minor injuries for them, but several dead Cheyenne. Custer deployed his Pawnee scouts to track back on the survivors in order to locate their villages.

They had also repaired the damaged telegraph wires, the ‘wires that sing’ had been an idea that had pleased the Cheyenne thinking they were dealing a severe blow to their foe, but sadly, it was just a temporary nuisance to them. Custer’s men felt a considerable deal of smug satisfaction as they rode away, opening the territory up for further communication.

Stalking Horse had parted from Young Man Afraid of his Horses* as the young Sioux had decided to return to the Power River region where his father and tribe were then to be located. The young shaman joined with a group of young dog soldiers in defiance of Black Kettle’s warning that their rebellious acts would lead to violent acts of retaliation on the part of the white soldiers. But Roman Nose was an important unifying leader* and drew many bands of young warriors together.

During the year 1866 a new stagecoach line had been opened that ran through the heart of Cheyenne hunting grounds. There were chains of way stations springing up along with the Forts* and the Indians agreed that these would have to be removed. It was due to so much activity on the part of the white settlers and entrepreneurs that Custer felt vindicated to deal with the Cheyenne in the manner that he now chose. To his mind the white men had to be protected, the fact that they were the trespassers abusing the rights of the Cheyenne he dismissed out of hand. To his mind it was only a matter of time before the boundaries would be redrawn and all the stagecoach lines, way stations and Forts would be safely within the boundary line, and the Cheyenne would be the interlopers.

The three brothers enjoyed a late supper with Tilly and Jacob among a convivial company of civilians and soldiers who ate hearty, sang plenty, drank too much. Despite their desire to return home as soon as they could, Joe and Hoss returned to the store room feeling that they could handle life there for another few days. Hoss had decided that Jacob and he were soul mates after all.

“Mr Cartwright?” a voice broke into the darkness as they were about to bed down, and they turned to see the soldier who had been sending out the telegraph messages, “Tilly said I’d find you here. I just wanted you to know that the lines have been repaired, and your message went through. I can’t guarantee that it will reach all the way to Virginia City, that depends on whether or not the lines are in order all that distance along, but at least your message is on its way. Oh, and another thing, Tilly told me to give you this.” he took a slip of paper from his jacket pocket, “She said you were a friend of Prescott’s and would take care of this for him.”

Adam nodded and thanked the trooper, taking the slip of papers from him and slipping it into his shirt pocket.

“I suppose you knew Prescott quite well then,” he said in an off hand manner and the clerk shrugged,

“Not really, I had to send some cables off for him now and again. He wasn’t here for very long before he went off with the C.O. Haven’t seen him since.”

“Really? Didn’t he come back with Custer?”

“I don’t know, sir, I never saw him if he did.”

Adam sighed and nodded a thank you, before closing the door and returning to his bed. He beckoned to Hoss and while his brother was approaching him he unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off,

“Hoss, check out my back, would you?”

Hoss nodded, and carefully removed the padding that was placed against the wound, he looked at it carefully and gave it a gentle prod here and there,

“Looks good and healthy, Adam. Don’t know what Stalking Horse put in that gunk he used but it sure looks fine here. I reckon Dr Martin would be hard put to get a wound like that to heal so well.”

Joe came along and peered at it as well, and like Hoss he gave the area around the wound a prod or two

“Does it hurt at all?” he asked tentatively and when Adam said that it did not he smiled with smug satisfaction, “Stalking Horse is a great shaman. He could teach Dr Martin a thing or two about medicine.”

“I reckon Dr Martin could teach him a thing or two as well, Joe.” Adam replied with a kindly smile. He stretched a little and paused as pain trickled from the wound in his stomach, and he felt gingerly with his fingers along his flesh to how far the pain extended.

“Does that hurt?” Hoss asked anxiously.

“Just a little, but it wasn’t so long ago that I got this wound, Hoss. Can’t expect miracles, no matter how clever a shaman Stalking Horse happens to be.” he smiled at Joe and slapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s bed down and get some sleep. Hopefully Pa will get my cable soon and know we all together and on our way home.”

Hoss gave his brother another anxious look, knowing that the wound had been a severe one and all his old fears about wounds being fatal when in the gut came back to haunt him.

“Here, Adam, let me bandage it for you, I can do it tighter than you.” he offered, and was surprised when his brother permitted him to do so.

Neither spoke. They did not need to for their friendship was one built not only from their blood tie but from life that had been entwined together from the day Hoss was born. When Hoss had completed his task, he gave Adam a gentle slap on the back and retreated to his bedroll.

He pulled off his boots and let them drop with a thud, then he pulled over his blanket and settled down to sleep. The smell of herbs, pickles, crackers and various other homely domestic smells assailed his nostrils. He drifted into sleep and dreams of Hop Sings kitchen and the Ponderosa.

Joe folded his arms behind his head and stared up at the darkening ceiling. The single lamp that Tilly had provided (no more in case of fire in her precious store room) was a golden glow sending out a circle of light shining upon where they slept. He knew that when Adam went to his bedroll the lamp would be extinguished and there would be total darkness. He wanted there to be that darkness so that he could think of Little Moon and conjure her up in his mind so that when he eventually fell asleep his thoughts would trickle into dreams.

Adam took the small pouch of herbs from his saddle bags and dropped a pinch of them into his mouth and chewed them slowly. As he did so he took the slip of paper from his pocket. It was a cable with a very brief message “DARLING HAPPY ANNIVERSARY LOVE SUSAN”

He refolded it and put it into his pocket again. At least now he knew who Susan was, and how to contact her.

He extinguished the flame. The room plunged into black velvet. Joe closed his eyes gratefully his mind conjuring up her face, his fingers touched his pocket where the flowers he had taken from her hair still remained. He fell asleep smiling.

Adam felt the pleasing sensation of numbness trickle over his body. The pain was gone. His breathing steadied and slowly his body drifted into a deep healing sleep.

Chapter 59

Returning to the Fort with not much thought of anything but the comforts of what was contained therein, the cavalrymen were surprised to be told by Pawnee runners that a hunting party of Cheyenne was just ahead of them.

Custer summoned them to him. The evening was drawing in and he had had plans of making camp. It would not take long for them to reach the Fort on the morrow.

“Small camp. Just ahead. Cheyenne not expecting white soldiers. Old men, women only.” Black Face Jack said in his haughty tones and his chin thrust out challengingly.

“Are you sure?” Custer asked, “Can we take them by surprise?”

The Pawnee nodded. He had been among those Pawnee who had suffered defeat at the hands of Sioux and Cheyenne along the Powder River in the fighting for Fort Phil Kearney*, he already had the smell of blood in his nostrils.

As Hoss drifted into sleep and dreamt of the Ponderosa, and Joe dreamed of his sweet Little Moon, Custer and his men mounted their horses, leaving a number of men to make camp. Despite the pleasantness of the summer evening and the fact that they knew they would be riding upon a peaceful village they followed the Pawnee scouts to their destination.

This was the first of the villages Custer would attack in this manner. It would not be long before it would become customary, and orders from ‘Bear Chief Sheridan’ to destroy the villages of the savage Indians would become mandatory. To Sheridan any Indian who resisted when fired upon was a ‘savage’.*

It was indeed a small village of only six tepees. The young men had travelled to hunt and had been the ones given rifles by Tall Chief Wynkoop*. The inhabitants of the village, old men, some women and a few children were preparing to sleep when the thunder of horses approaching their village roused them. The sound of shod horses and military harness that jangled as the horses surged towards them.

The sound of a bugle blowing.

The Pawnee scouts screams that would soon be echoed by the screams of their victims.

A dog barked and a child cried.

Gunshots, horses neighing and screaming in fear as their eyes rolled white in their sockets.

Then there was nothing. Not a sound bar the heavy breathing of horses and riders.

The dead, of course, made no sound. The few still living hardly dared to draw breath.

Chapter 60

The day began early. The noise of horses passing, soldiers drilling, feet thumping on the sidewalk and the smell of bacon frying, bread baking, coffee steaming all combined to rouse the boys from their beds.

Joe spent no time at all in touting for bets on behalf of the Arm Wrestling Champion of all time, Hoss Cartwright, but was rather mortified to discover Tilly doing just the same on behalf of Cuddles, Jacob Brown. He was further mortified to find that she was doing much better than he, due to being the best cook in the territory and he probably being that trouble maker on a paint horse.

Adam groomed his horse and then saw to Chubb and Cochise. It was strenuous work but while Joe was busy shouting the odds, and Hoss was flexing his biceps someone had to do it. The horses appreciated it and looked good for his efforts.

He walked out into the sunlight just as the gates swung open and the convoy rode in. He recognised George Custer immediately, riding at the head of the troop with his chin thrust out, and looking every inch the conquering hero. It was obvious that some conflict had been fought during the manoeuvres as the men’s uniforms were dusty, and some were blood stained with bandages in evidence around heads or as slings. In the middle of the soldiers he saw two women and a child riding Indian ponies.

He hurried along the sidewalk keeping the convoy in sight, anxious to see what was happening as the horses stopped opposite the Commanding Officers quarters. The men were dismounting in unison, their black boots flashing in the sunlight. Then he was able to see more clearly the captives, definitely two women and a child, he assumed it to be a girl.

They looked confused and frightened. There were obvious tear marks streaking the dust on their faces, and the child kept raising her hands to wipe her eyes and nose. Their hands were tied with rope which was tethered to the pommels of the saddles of the soldiers leading their ponies. They sat in silence, struggling to stifle their misery, and their large eyes glancing from left to right in the manner of all wild creatures that are captured and caged.

People were gathering around them, drifting from their quarters, the stores, and other buildings. Adam looked around to see if Hoss or Joe were among them but couldn’t see either of them among the crowd.

Eventually the girls were pulled from their ponies and led away. There was blood on the garment of one of them, and Adam wondered if she were injured. He sighed deeply, half closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Not a pretty sight, is it, Captain?” Jacob murmured behind him.

“No, not pretty at all.” Adam replied, “Where’s Joe and Hoss?”

“Inside the tavern.”

“Keep them there if at all possible, Jacob. I don’t want Joe to know what has happened here.”

“That’ll be difficult, Sir, as no doubt they will be the talk of the barracks.”

“Do your best.” came the curt reply and Jacob nodded, knowing that he would certainly do his best for this man.

Adam stood for some time watching the comings and goings to the Commanding Officer. He saw Maitland with his leather case full of paperwork under his arm go through the door. Less than five minutes later another Officer entered the building, and Adam remembered the sullen features of Lieutenant Grant. He wondered what was going on in the office and decided that perhaps now was an opportune time to make his entry.

“Sorry, Mister, you can’t go in.” the sentry stepped forward, barring his entry with his rifle at angles with the door.

“Then tell Custer that Adam Cartwright wishes to speak to him about a matter of some urgency.” Adam snapped in annoyance, taking off his hat and striking it against his leg in frustration.

The sentry returned and jerked his head towards the door. Permission had been granted. Adam didn’t wait to be told twice, but promptly stepped inside the building. Custer stood up, a smile slowly drifting across his face. He looked like a man who was drunk, his actions were slow, and his eyes appeared somewhat glazed. Grant stood stiff and erect, his lips thin and eyes narrowed as he viewed the newcomer, and Maitland looked like a startled rabbit who was about to have its head decapitated.

“Good day, Captain Cartwright. We meet again. Little did I think we would meet so soon.” Custer extended his hand, “I see you’ve recovered from your injuries? Not so serious after all, huh?”

Adam said nothing, but stood in front of Custer’s desk, his hat in his hands, his legs parted slightly and his head held high, while the dark eyes remained fixed on the Officers face. Then he sighed,

“I wanted to talk to you about something important, Captain.”

“Yes,” Custer frowned, and sat down, “You always do so why am I not surprised? I hope it isn’t going to be something boring. I’ve had a busy time, I’m tired and I need a bath, some good food and some cosseting from my wife.” he smiled a somewhat charming smile “Are you sure my adjutant and secretary can’t be of use?”

“No, it’s you I would rather speak to, thank you.”

“Then I’m flattered,” Custer said, and leaned back in the chair, “Well, man, I haven’t got all day. What exactly is it that you want?”

Chapter 61

Adam looked from one to the other of them, and if his heart sank a little it was hardly to be wondered at for the three of them looked a formidable and strange trio. Custer was obviously drunk with is successes, the foray had been, to his mind, glorious. Power they say can make a man drunk and is the most potent in fooling a man to think himself greater than the reality. Grant, jealous of his position, longing for it to be even greater, waiting for any to step between him and his sun. Maitland, terrified that Adam was about to implicate him in the business that he knew was about to be mentioned.

Adam nodded and drew from his pocket the cable from Susan Prescott which he handed to Custer.

“What’s this?” Custer asked, bemused a little and willing to extend a few more minutes with the man, he unfolded it and read the little message, then frowned, “Prescott?” he glanced up at Adam and his brow furrowed, a strand of yellowing hair fell across his eyes and he brushed it impatiently away, “Prescott? Now, that name sounds familiar.”

“He – he’s the journalist who been writing about your Indian campaign.” Maitland said, using his words carefully.

“Of course. Paul Prescott. I remember him now. A very pleasant man, always asking questions.” Custer sighed and his frown deepened, indicating that some of the questions asked were not always to his liking, “Yes. Well. What about him?”

“I’d like to give him this cable if I may?” Adam asked innocently, hoping that his eyes looked as naïve as Joe’s whenever he was asking a favour.

“Certainly. Maitland? Go and fetch Paul here, will you?” he turned to the secretary who glanced quickly at Adam before scuttling off, “I thought he’d be with us on manoeuvres this time, pity he wasn’t, he missed out.”

“I noticed.” Adam replied with ice in his voice.

“It’s what we’re here for, Cartwright. To make sure life out here is safe for people like you to travel wherever you wish. I see you no longer wear your uniform?”

“That’s right, I no longer wear it.” Adam nodded, his jaw taut and his eyes dark. He looked at Grant who was staring through him, willing him to go away, “Those girls you have brought here …?” he paused and turned as Maitland appeared in the room, looking more anxious than ever.

“Did you find him?”

“No, Captain. It seems Mr Prescott has – has disappeared.” Maitland said, having spent the last five minutes walking up and down the sidewalk frantically trying to recall what few prayers he had ever known.

“Well, that won’t do.” Custer stood up, his sabre rattled against the desk and he unfastened it and laid it upon the desk. “Where’s he gone? Grant, do you know?”

“No, Sir.” Grant replied with a hint of boredom in his voice.

“Then find him. I’ve a lot to tell him about what happened on manoeuvres these past few days. I’m really disappointed in the man. The first real action we had and he wasn’t there to record it. Neither were you, Maitland.”
“No, Sir. But you did ask me to stay behind to make sure Mrs Custer was settled in alright, Sir.”

Custer shook his head and sighed, then looked at Adam,

“I tell you what, Captain Cartwright, why don’t you join me and my wife for dinner this evening. Prescott and you, Grant and Maitland. How about it? You live near Indian territory, don’t you? Well then, you’ll enjoy what I have to tell you. Grant – go and find Prescott.”

Grant flushed rather red, looked intently at Adam, and then saluted before leaving the office. Maitland sat down at his own desk and began to sort through some papers, listening intently to whatever was said, but trying to appear as invisible as possible.

“Captain?” Adam stepped nearer to the desk, “Captain, may I request a favour?”

“Just one?” George Custer smiled and his eyes, usually so cold, had a twinkle in them.

“At the moment,” Adam smiled in return, but his eyes remained aloof and dark, “I’m afraid I misled you just now. I know that Prescott isn’t here, at the Fort -” he paused as Maitland dropped something on the floor, “I know because the man is dead.”

“Dead?” Custer sat down, and shook his head, “I didn’t know he was dead.”

“It seems not many people do know, Sir.”

“Was he ill? Do you want to arrange for his body to be sent back East, to his wife? Some anniversary present that will be, poor woman.” Custer frowned, and looked genuinely sorry.

“He was murdered, shot in the back at close range.”

Maitland closed his eyes tightly. Custer said nothing but stared icily at Adam, his mouth thinned. For a moment no one moved. Outside by the window, Lieutenant Grant pressed himself closer in order not to hear a single word.

“When did this happen? Are you sure of your facts, Captain Cartwright?” Custer asked in a voice that was steady and even, the voice of a man in control of himself and prepared to be in control of the events that followed. He looked over at Maitland, “Take some notes down, Lieutenant. Proceed, Sir.” he nodded over to Adam.

Adam briefly told them about finding the journalists body, his identity, and how he and Hoss had buried him. Custer listened to the narration intently, stroking his beard and moustaches as he contemplated all that was being said.

“So, if you knew all this, why the charade?” he finally asked when Adam had ceased from speaking.

“Because I wanted to see your reaction” came the immediate response, “Prescott was shot in the back with two army bullets. How was I to know that you had not ordered him to be shot?”

Custer shook his head slowly,

“I don’t like the inference there, Captain Cartwright. You seem to think me capable of murder?”

Adam said nothing for a moment. This man had arrived back from manoeuvres in which people had obviously been killed. Was there a difference in ordering one white man to be murdered in comparison to what he had already done? Certainly that intoxicating effect of the ’battle’ had now left him, for his body was as taut as a bow string and his eyes sharp and wary.

“Paul Prescott died for some reason, Captain. He has obviously caused a problem for someone.”

“Well, not for me. Sometimes his questions were a little too intrusive, that’s true. But I felt him to be a good friend, and a loyal man. There are few of them about right now.” Custer growled under his breath.

“Then perhaps you could make an investigation into the matter and find out who killed him. That I think would be the least one could do for a friend.”

“And are you teaching me how to go about my business, Sir?” Custer’s mercurial temper rose, he clenched his fist and thumped it on the desk, “Maitland, find Grant for me. I want a full investigation into this matter immediately. Captain Cartwright, do you have anything else to say before you go?”

“I just wondered about those women, girls, whom you have brought here. Are they captives? Do you have their names?”

“Yes, Captain, they are captives. I don’t have their names. I have them here so that they can act as interpreters* for me whenever I need one. Does that answer your questions?”

It was obvious that the man had exceeded his patience, and Adam was not a man to push so hard so as to lose everything, he merely nodded, glanced over at Maitland and made his exit. As he reached the door he disturbed Grant who jumped away from the wall as though he had been scalded. He nodded curtly at Adam and hurried into the office, leaving Adam to think what he liked and to assume as he pleased – which he did.

Chapter 62

For some moments Adam walked along the boards looking around him at the surroundings, listening to the noises and thinking over what had taken place in Custer’s office. He thought of the three men who had been there, of their reactions to the conversation, and to his own reaction to them.

His instincts were to believe Custer. The man was the living embodiment of the terminology ‘a man of action’. But he was no murderer, he was too confident in himself and his position to stoop so low. Adam found himself agreeing with Maitland, in that Custer had his own code of honour, and to see to the death of a long white man, whom he referred to as a friend, would be stooping too low. He could massacre thousands, maybe even millions, so long as he could say he was obeying orders and justify it at will. Adam shook his head, no, he couldn’t put Prescott’s death at Custer’s door.

Adam glanced over to the tavern where the sounds of much cheering was going on. He smiled, the arm wrestling had obviously begun. He should go over and see how Hoss and Joe were getting on, and Jacob Brown of course. He passed the big gates of the Fort as he crossed the vast court yard. They stood wide open with the sentries at attention. He frowned at the view, something was missing.

His mind returned to Maitland, why was the man such a bag of nerves? He had been calm and collected in the storeroom the previous day, and had given a good account of events. Did he know something? Was he afraid of Custer? Or was it Grant?

Grant. Adam paused and passed his hand over his chin, long fingers tapped at his mouth. Grant? An odd character to be sure. Cold. Aloof. Afraid of something perhaps? Why was he eavesdropping. He must have known Prescott was dead if he hadn’t bothered to go and search for him. Adam tried to remember if he had mentioned Prescott’s death before … but then had he done so Custer would not have ordered him to go and find the man himself. So …?

Adam glanced back at Custer’s office and bit his bottom lip. From the peripherals of his mind came the sound of cheers and laughter. Of course that was Hoss and Jacob. He thought Joe would have made a profit as he always did. He looked over to the gates as they were being swung shut. He knew what was missing there now. The tepees that had been there, the Indians who had been living in the shelter of the fort, were no longer there.

In the office Custer looked at his two Officers. For a full moment he said nothing, but leaned back against the chair, his brow furrowed. Then he looked at Maitland,

“I want to read the report about the meeting with Captain Cartwright that you wrote out, Lieutenant. Prescott was writing one too, so I want his as well.”

Maitland opened his mouth, then closed it again, saw the spark of anger in Custer’s eyes and swallowed,

“The reports have gone, Sir. They’re missing from the files.” he glanced nervously at Grant and then back to Custer, “I took the liberty of going into Prescott’s room to see if his report was there but it had gone as well.”

“Missing? Are you sure?”

“Yes, Sir, I searched everywhere I could but they’ve gone.”

Custer looked at Grant,

“Do you know anything about this?”

Grant shook his head, and shrugged. He looked at Maitland, and then at Custer,

“I’m not your private secretary, Sir.”

“You don’t have to remind me of who or what you are or not, Grant. I want to know where those reports have gone and why. I want to know who would want to kill Prescott, and why. He was a good man.” he stopped and shook his head, “Murdered!” he exclaimed as though the fact had just made some impact, “How can Cartwright be so sure that he was murdered?”

Maitland cleared his throat, and repeated what Adam had divulged to them earlier, there was, he decided, little reason to let Custer, or anyone else, know that he had received the information some time earlier.

“Cartwright found Prescott with two scorch marks in his back where he had been shot at close range, Sir.”

“With army bullets.” Grant added coldly.

“It doesn’t make sense.” Custer sat down in the chair and leaned his elbows on the desk top, joined his hands together and steepled his fingers, which he tapped against his chin, “If Cartwright found Prescott then the man was murdered while we were on Cheyenne territory, before we broke camp. No wonder I never saw him …” his voice trailed away and he looked blankly at the far wall, “He risked his life to come here to cover these campaigns. No one else would do it, but he did. I feel responsible … poor Prescott.”

Maitland and Grant looked at one another, and both sighed for different reasons. Custer shook his head and sat upright,

“Grant, I want you to start enquiries, find out the name of every soldier who was there with us, and interview them all. I want this murderer nailed, judged, hanged. Don’t just stand there, man, get on to it.” he scowled as Grant snapped a salute and left the office, then he turned to Maitland, “And what’s wrong with you, man? You look ill, in fact, you look like a man with a guilty conscience. Is there something you haven’t told me, that you think you should? If so, you had better tell me now and be done with it.”

Maitland shook his head, and stammered something, then cleared his throat,

“I was nervous about how you would react when you found out the reports were missing. I searched everywhere, Sir, and I just can’t work out where they could have gone. But I do think there is a link between them and Prescott’s death.”

“NERVOUS about how I’d react! For heaven’s sake, man, pull yourself together.” he sighed, and pushed his sabre to one side, then rubbed his brow, “Well, has anything else happened while I’ve been away?”

Maitland breathed easy. He nodded, and set down some papers that needed seeing to, the usual routine of a garrisons life, and papers that needed Custer’s signature. Life was back on the comfortable track again, he could breath easy.

A trooper pointed out a billet where Prescott had stayed. He had not been there for long, having left with Custer after only a few days, and, of course, he had spent some time in the store room. Obviously the more favour he had gained with Custer the more comfortable Custer deemed it necessary for him to be… and indeed, the billet was certainly pleasant.

Adam opened the door and looked inside. A clean and orderly room. His eyes roved around, looking at one thing, discarding it and moving on to something else. He walked inside and opened some drawers, pulled them out and ran his hand underneath them, before re-inserting them. He opened the wardrobe doors and stared at the empty interior.

So tidy and neat. The bed was slightly ruffled, but he recalled that Maitland had been in and would have checked the bed. Or would he ? Adam stepped towards it and that was as far as he managed as the world exploded in a shower of sparks and total blackness as some heavy object cracked against his skull.

He fell forwards into the arms of two troopers. As crowds yelled and cheered and clapped, as these sounds trickled over the quiet of the afternoon, Adam was hauled from Prescott’s room and carried over the shoulder of one burly trooper to the cells where he was tossed onto the straw covered floor of one of them. He didn’t hear the key turn in the lock. He was unaware of the sounds of hilarity from the tavern. He didn’t know that he was sharing the cell with three others who were crouched as far away from his body as they could possibly get.

Chapter 63

“THE NEW ARM WRESTLING CHAMPION IS” the name was drowned out by cheers but Joe was jumping up and down with almost hysterical glee as Hoss raised his arms in salute of his admiring audience. He clasped his hands together and gave a full on champion salute by waving his hands above his head and cheering along with the rest of them. Tilly was busy filling glasses and Jacob laughed and cheered along with everyone else.

It had been a wonderful half an hour in comparison to everything else that had happened to them. The two combatants, Hoss and Jacob, along with their ‘Managers’, Joe and Tilly, had arrived at the appointed time and sat facing each other.

Once everyone that could get packed into the tavern had succeeded in doing so, the battle began. There were cheers, ooh’s and aah’s, and ouch and ouef, first Hoss went one way then swung it the other way, then Jacob managed to force Hoss’ hand a little and with bulging veins in both their arms and necks Hoss slammed down Jacobs hand onto the table.

“Best of three.” Jacob reminded Hoss with a grin, and his eyes twinkling.

“Good enough for me,” Hoss replied, spitting into the palms of his hands and rubbing them together, which action Jacob was also carrying out.

Joe slapped his brother on the back and began to mentally tally up the winnings.

The men thronged in closer to see their favoured champion fight it out. Once again there were the grunts and the groans, and not only from the contestants. Tilly did her fair share, and when Jacob looked like he was going to lose again she threw her apron over her face and shrieked.

There were universal cheers and clapping of hands, laughter abounded and much waving of dollar notes which changed hands at an alarming rate. Hoss and Jacob did their spitting and got down to the third attempt. This was the decider. Hoss licked his lips. Jacob was an experienced man at this game, and Hoss was not finding it so easy to get him to fall.

Their hands wavered one way and then the other. Joe chewed on his bottom lip and watched every move like a lion watching his dinner. Sweat beaded on both the men’s brows and slid down their reddening faces. Neck muscles bulged and purpled, the top button of Hoss’s shirt pinged open under the strain of it all. Tilly swayed back and forth in synchronized time to her husband’s arm. Back and forth they went. The audience held their breath, gasped, ooh’ed and gasped again, and then silence…

Down went Jacob’s hand and the winner’s name would have been heard had there not been so much noise. Jacob rubbed his hands together and then shook Hoss’ hand warmly.

“That was a good game,” he said, and slapped his opponent on the back, “Come on, I’ll treat you to a drink.”

“Thanks, Jacob, but let me treat you, after all it’s only fair as we got a good payout.” Hoss wiped sweat from his face with his sleeve, and looked over at Joe, “Are you coming for a drink?”

“Sure, once I find Adam.”

“How’d you mean? He ain’t lost is he?” Hoss frowned, and pouted, “Shucks, d’you mean he wasn’t here to see me win?”

“Doesn’t look like it.” Joe said and looked at Hoss with wide eyes and eyebrows raised.

“Where do you think he’s got to then?” Hoss queried, and he looked around the room, which was emptying at a fast rate as the men returned to duties, “He promised he’d be here.”

“He went to see to the horses, if I remember rightly.” Jacob mentioned thoughtfully, rubbing his hands together and thinking that he must have lost his touch for Hoss to have beaten him so easily.

“I saw your brother going into the Commanding Officer’s quarters not so long ago.” a trooper said as he passed several dollar notes over to Joe who smiled at him and added it to the wad in his hand.

“What time was that?” Joe asked, placing the money carefully in his wallet.

“Oh must have been about an hour ago. May be less.” he walked off, his only concern at the time was that he should have bet on the stranger instead of Jacob.

“Custer’s back then,” Jacob sighed.

“Adam must have gone in to see him about Prescott. I wish he hadn’t bothered..” Joe muttered, picking up his glass and scowling at its contents.

“Why, Joe? Prescott was murdered, don’t forget. Adam and I had to bury him and it weren’t a pretty sight I can tell you.”

Jacob nodded, and drank most of the beer in one glugging swallow, then he put the glass down and surveyed them both,

“Fact is, the Captain ain’t one to let a matter drop. So far as he’s concerned the guy deserves justice of some sort. You should know him by now. Anyhow, Prescott didn’t deserve to be murdered. He was a decent man and out here to earn his living like the rest of us. There ain’t no reason to go around murdering decent people.”

“Custer’s doing it all the time,” Joe grumbled, and shook his head, “But I suppose because he can say he’s only obeying orders it makes it all right. Doesn’t make it all right for the Cheyenne or others he decides to attack. I wonder how many he’s killed on this last jaunt of his …” he put a hand to his brow and leaned upon it, his eyes staring into space as his mind gnawed at the worry that was going to haunt him for a very long time to come.

“He was only scouting about this time round.” Jacob said calmly, “You have to remember, Joe, that should this situation grow into a war we need to be here to protect civilians like yourself.”

“Black Kettle doesn’t want war.” Hoss said in defence of his brother who appeared to have been deaf to anything that Jacob had said.

“May be not, but he has a lot of very angry young men in his camp. They won’t be able to be held back for much longer, not with men like Crazy Horse* …”

“He’s a Sioux.*” Joe muttered sullenly.

“That may be but he and Roman Nose are close friends* and allies. It won’t be long before they both cut up rough, and when that time comes there has to be some defence.”

Joe shook his head, shrugged and got to his feet. He looked at his brother,

“Stay here if you like, I’m going to find Adam.”

“I’ll come too,” Hoss sighed, and finished his drink.

Jacob looked at Tilly, kissed her on the cheek, and picked up his hat,

“I’m on duty now, so had better be going. If I get to hear anything about Prescott I’ll let Adam know. See you boys later.”

They walked out into the compound together, and the sunlight dazzled them for a moment. Jacob gave a wave of his hand and walked in the direction of one of the Watchtowers where he was to stand duty. Joe and Hoss turned in the opposite direction, looked about them, and made their way across the compound towards Custer’s office.

Chapter 64

“Hey, Joe,” Hoss grabbed at his youngest brothers arm and hauled him to a halt, “We can’t just go chargin’ in on the Commanding Officer. We don’t even know if Adam is lost yet. He may be taken ill and gone back to the store room to rest up.”

“Taken ill?” Joe looked at Hoss as though he couldn’t register exactly what his brother was saying, “Don’t be ridiculous, Hoss, why would Adam be taken ill?”

“Shucks, Joe, you’ve seen him take them thar dried up bits of root Stalking Horse gave him, ain’t’cha? That wound of his hasn’t healed up right an’ proper jest yet. He could have just felt he needed to rest up.”

“He wouldn’t’ve missed your arm wrestling, Hoss, he promised and Adam always comes through on his promises, you know that.”

“Yeah, I know that, Joe. That means something stopped him that was too big for him to handle. I reckon we should check out the store room and see if he’s alright first of all,” he looked into Joe’s face with such intensity that Joe’s rebellious fighting spirit quailed and he sighed and nodded,

“Alright, but if he isn’t there, Hoss, then we come back and start asking questions.”

……….

The child was nearly seven years old. She sat huddled as far away from the white man as she possible could be, huddled up into a ball as small as she could possibly make herself, so small that may be no one would notice her. Her sobs were dry now, but shook her little body with their intensity, and her eyes no longer ran with tears but were shut tight to block out the sights around her.

The two women sat together, their arms locked around each other. They were sisters, and young, only fourteen. They sat so close together that they seemed to have intertwined. Like the child they wanted to be invisible, but unlike the child, they watched and listened to everything that was going on around them.

When the white man was thrown into the cell with them they had screamed in fear, in case it had been some kind of trick that would see them violated or killed. They had crouched back into a corner and huddled there for some moments waiting for him to rear up and do something terrible. But after a little while they realised that he was not going to do that, or anything else for quite a while. He lay very still, almost in a foetal position, and blood trickled a dark trail across his face, then dripped slowly upon the straw.

………….

Hoss and Joe looked at one another, their eyes queried the problem, and came up with no solution. They both turned towards the door of the store room when it opened.

“Lieutenant Maitland?” Joe exclaimed, stepped back in surprise, “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see your brother,” Maitland replied, looking at them both suspiciously, “Why do you ask?”

Joe raised himself up, straightened his shoulders and stared at the man, then turned to Hoss who after a slight shake of the head approached the Officer, and closed the door behind him,

“Have you seen my brother to day at all?”

“Of course, he was in the office with us.”

“Us?”

“Captain Custer, Lieutenant Grant and myself. Why? What’s happened?”

“Do you know where he went when he left you?” Joe asked, resting his hand subconsciously upon the butt of his gun, and feeling it reassuringly in the heel of his palm.

“Of course, I saw him pass the window as I went to collect papers from the table. He was crossing the compound to go to the tavern.”

“He never got there.” Hoss replied, “We came back here to see if he had returned but he ain’t here.”

Maitland looked at them both as though he couldn’t quite comprehend what was being said, narrowed his eyes and shook his head, then looked back at the door,

“Have you looked anywhere else?”

“He could have gone back to the stables, I suppose.” Hoss said somewhat doubtfully.

“What about Prescott’s room?” Maitland said suddenly, “That’s why he came to see the Captain, to tell him about Prescott. I wonder if he went to the man’s room to see if he could find out anything there?”

“How long does it take to look around an empty room?” Joe replied coldly, “And what exactly did you come here to tell Adam about Prescott anyway?”

“Only that the Captain has ordered an enquiry into Prescott’s disappearance. Over 400 men to be questioned … can you believe that? He’s taking it really seriously.”

“So he should, murder ain’t something to take lightly,” Hoss muttered, picking up his hat and replacing it upon his head, “Alright then, let’s go and see what we can find in Prescott’s room.”

They left the store room and walked into the compound. The great gates to the fort were closed and the soldiers were pacing back and forth from the Watchtowers. Hoss and Joe followed Maitland to where Prescott’s room was located.

Lieutenant Maitland was a worried man. First Prescott and now Adam Cartwright. His worse fear was that when the door opened to the journalists room Adam’s body would be found sprawled on the floor. As Hoss put his hand to the handle and pushed it open Maitland shuddered, closed his eyes and waited in dread for an horrified exclamation from one or both of the men. Instead he heard Joe’s voice

“Well, that was a waste of time.”

Maitland opened his eyes and peered into the room. He looked at Joe and Hoss,

“It’s empty.”

“Yeah, it’s that alright,” Hoss replied, walking into the room and pacing up and down, and around the bed, “What did you expect to find here, Maitland, you look white as a sheet.”

“I had an awful feeling that it would be your brother’s dead body. I must be getting more nervous about this situation than I thought.” he frowned and looked at Joe and Hoss before shaking his head, “There were only three of us in the office who would know about Prescott. Then there would be the murderer as well. If he thought your brother was making enquiries after assuming that he had got away with things so well, then may be … I just thought that maybe he would be here to make sure your brother didn’t ask too many questions.”

“It’s a bit late for that though, isn’t it?” Joe replied rather testily, “After all, if 400 men are going to be questioned about it it’s hardly going to be a secret now, is it?”

Maitland nodded and admitted he had not thought along those lines. Hoss frowned in concentration, and looked around the empty room again before turning to Joe

“400 men or not, it only takes one man to murder another, and that’s the man we need to find. If he’s already found Adam and wants to get rid of him we could already be too late.”

“Let’s go and see what Custer has to say about this.” Joe growled between clenched teeth, and he turned to leave but was stopped by Maitland who had grabbed at his arm,

“Listen, Mr Cartwright, just follow my advice, don’t go in there all fired up and shooting off questions in all directions, try and employ some tact. Custer may be a soldier but he’s a politicians soldier. You could lose more than you gain by the way you handle him.”

“Adam seemed to handle him well enough,” Joe replied loftily, thrusting out his jaw as though in challenge to the remark.

“Yes,” Maitland nodded slowly, a slight smile played upon his lips, “But you aren’t your brother.”

Chapter 65

Adam Cartwright regained consciousness slowly. He remained unmoving for a few minutes as he tried to get his eyes open, work out in his mind what had happened, and handle the thudding in his head that made his body ache so terribly. Eventually he struggled to life his head, pushing himself up from the straw littered ground by one hand while he held his other hand against the wound in his stomach, an instinctive and protective action to an area still sensitive and painful.

He had to pause to catch his breath and swallow back bile that had surged up from his stomach in response to the pain and fever he was experiencing. He tried to shake his head to clear away the fog and the pain but it seemed that his brain was clanging back and forth in his skull when he did so. He sat upright, swayed, closed his eyes and tried to maintain some balance. Then he very gingerly touched the back of his skull and winced as his fingers touched broken skin and the damp of blood.

He carefully groped around him for a wall to lean against, and finding one he pushed himself back until he was able to feel it there to support him. Then he sighed and tried to open his eyes again.

The three girls remained huddled together now. Even the child was no longer crying as she watched the white man struggling to remain conscious. When Adam put a hand to his face and bowed his head it was the child who crawled towards him, and put her hand upon his.

Adam jumped, and the shock caused him to open his eyes, look and actually see beyond the fog and the pain. He saw the child looking intently up at him, and then further back, holding each other as though for support, were the two girls. He looked from one to the other of them, licked his lips and then looked back at the child,

“Where is this place? Who are you?” he put a hand to the back of his neck and rolled his head a little one way and then the other, to see if that would ease the pain and the stiffness. When he had finished he looked again at the child and smiled, “Hello.” his voice gentled, and he put his hand towards her face .

Like a startled deer however she shrunk back, and hurried over to her two companions who were watching him suspiciously. He remembered now that these were the girls he had seen riding in Custer’s convoy. He tried to get to his feet, a knock on the head was nothing new to him, after all. But his legs weren’t going to comply and he rather ignominiously slid back down and ended back in the straw.

“You are sick?” one of the girls said quietly, “Why are you here, wasicu* (whiteman)?”

“Are you prisoner?” the other girl asked, “Like us? Prisoner?”

“No.” Adam said, and looked about him as though too dazed to truly comprehend what was going on . He noticed then the bars, the padlock, the stark surroundings. From a gap high up in the wall came the sounds of life outside and light gleamed providing them with their only source of brightness. He opened his mouth in startled amazement. How could it be? A prisoner? Why?

“I think you are prisoner.” the seven year old said with a childs ability to see the obvious and to state it.

Adam could say nothing for a while but his mind was buzzing with speculation. Nothing made sense. Surely if he was treading on someone’s toes with his questions and probing, then why didn’t they just kill him. Perhaps, he thought, disposing of the body would have been difficult. There was Joe and Hoss to consider as well. But everything didn’t sit tidily. Someone had obviously panicked. Someone had not thought the whole thing through to a tidy and neat solution.

Why put him in a cell like this? He glanced over at the three girls, children all three of them really. They were staring at him but without hostility. More as though he were some curiosity that aroused their interest but little more than that really. He smiled

“My name is Adam, Adam Cartwright.” he said, looking from one to the other of them, and they nodded and put their dark heads together and whispered among themselves.

“Joseph. You know Joseph?” one of the asked, leaning towards him to scrutinise his face.

“Joseph Cartwright. Yes, my brother. Do you know Stalking Horse? Little Moon?” he also leaned towards them, they had reached a common denominator already, an excellent start to build upon.

“Joseph good friend to Stalking Horse.” one girl said and her face looked suddenly old and pinched, and she turned her head away.

“So? What are your names? Why are you here? Can you tell me what happened? Do you know Stalking Horse? Little Moon?

The child looked from the two girls to Adam and then back again. Her bright little face looked drawn and the big eyes looked too big for the thin oval of her face. She sighed and approached him slowly, then sat by his side looking into his face.

“Joseph my good friend. He tell good story. I am Little Brook.” she smiled, “Is Joseph safe?”

“Yes, he’s safe.” Adam smiled at her, but at the back of his mind he wondered. If he were here like this, then just how safe were his brothers? “At the moment anyway.” he added quickly.

“I am Prairie Fire and this is my sister, Flower of the Prairie. We do not know why we are here, except that we are alive and they found us.”

“Who found you?”

“The soldiers. When they attacked our camp. They burned down the tepees and killed everyone, even the dogs and horses. The Yellow Hair said everything was to be destroyed. He said to kill all things, burn all things. We hid away, but my sister was hurt -” she indicated the blood on the other girls garment, “we could not run far enough away. Our men were away hunting. They will come back and not find us, only find the dead.”

Adam nodded. He understood that a hunting party would have been a smallish camp, nothing bigger than a dozen tepees perhaps, no less than four. He sighed.

“Little Moon was with us.”

He jerked up his head, and felt his heart racing. Little Moon? With them? But where? He tried to keep his voice from faltering as he asked them where was she? Where was Little Moon?

“She is dead. The white soldiers killed her. She was in the tepee with her Uncle, Medicine Bow. He is an old man and she was with him and his wife, and when they ran out of the burning tepee she was shot down. She is dead.”

Dead. Little Moon whom he had seen briefly through a haze of pain but whom Joe loved with such devotion. He shook his head and closed his eyes, leaned back his head and took a deep painful breath. How could he tell Joe? How could he …and then he knew that somehow, he couldn’t.

Chapter 66

Tact! Joe mumbled under his breath as he walked so fast that his feet were practically going into a run as he approached the Commanding Officer’s quarters. Since going to Prescott’s room they had searched throughout the whole barracks, including the stable and back again to the store room. Now Joe felt as though the threads that bound them so closely and had brought them together again were being pulled apart and he was not prepared to let that happen. Tact? What did that matter at a time like this?

He was closely followed by Hoss who was trying to think up some plausible reasons why he and Joe should be crashing into Custer’s office as, it was obvious, Joe had every intention of doing. He called out to Joe once or twice but his little brother was deaf, as usual to any sound but that voice in his head that always seemed to be convincing him that he was right in anything he did.

Joe’s nostrils were white and pinched, his lips were tight over clenched teeth. Hoss knew that tact was going to be the last thing on Joe’s mind right now. Joe did not stop when a sentry stepped forward, his rifle barring the entrance to Custer’s office,

“Sorry, Sir, you can’t come through here.”

“Just clear out of my way -.” Joe growled and pushed forward.

Another sentry appeared from the other side and put his rifle across the door, both crowded in front of the entrance to prevent Joe getting through and physically pushed him back.

“I said – get out of my way.” Joe yelled, clenched his fists and took a swing at the nearest thing to him, which happened to be the first soldiers stomach.

Once again the two men pushed him back, using their rifles like shields to do so.

“Mister, you had better go away right now or we’ll place you under arrest.”

Hoss stepped forward, pushing his sleeves up his arms and clenching his fists. He scowled at them both,

“Move aside and let us through.” Hoss growled, forgetting all about tact himself in the heat of the moment.

“Look, I don’t want to waste a bullet on you, Mister, but you had both better step away from the door…”

The door opened.

George Armstrong Custer, with Lieutenant Grant by his side, stood in the entrance looking at the four men. Both sentries immediately stepped aside and snapped to attention. Joe and Hoss stood rooted to the spot. Such was the effect the man had on them in that Joe lost his heat and Hoss remembered what tact was all about.

“What’s going on? Who are you?” Custer glared at Joe and then at Hoss, paused and narrowed his eyes, “Cartwright, isn’t it? You came to see me in Indian Territory with your brother, Adam?”

“I did, and …”

“Step inside.” Custer nodded to the sentries as Hoss and Joe followed him and Grant into the office, “What’s all the commotion about?”

“Well, Sir, we needed to see you because…” Hoss began, tactfully.

“Because my brother’s gone missing. Something’s happened to Adam, and we want to know where he is, right now.” Joe concluded, tactlessly.

Custer looked at them both, frowned and glanced at Grant before leaning forwards, and looking coldly at Joe,

“Who exactly are you?”

“Joseph Cartwright. My brother Adam …”

“You’re the young man who caused all that ruckus last summer and stayed with the Cheyenne?”

“I did not cause any ruckus. I was ambushed and wounded. The Cheyenne helped me.”
Joe growled, his eyes wide and bright with anger and his words clipped and spoken with a vehemence that made Custer raise his own eyebrows.

“It seems,” Grant said slowly, “that the Cheyenne seem to have developed a penchant for assisting wounded Cartwrights. What exactly were you doing in Indian Territory in the first place, Mr Cartwright?”

“That’s none of your business and I don’t have to explain it to you. I came here to find out where my brother is …”

“Why do you expect us to know where he’s gone?” Custer replied coldly, his eyes becoming as cold as Joe’s were getting brighter. “If he isn’t around then perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want to be found. Perhaps he’s chasing some mystical clue concerning the death of Prescott, he certainly seems to have caused an upheaval for all concerned about that!”

Hoss stepped forward, and put a restraining hand on Joe’s arm, he looked at Grant and Custer and nodded,

“I appreciate that it may have come at the wrong time, but the fact is, sir, that Prescott was killed while in your … company, so to speak,” Hoss frowned, wondering if that was quite the right phrasing, “there ain’t much a man can do but look to you for help in this kind of situation. There ain’t no law officer around, is there?”

“We’re looking into it, Mr Cartwright. I promise you, we’ll find out who killed Prescott and why before too long.” Custer assured him, “As for your brother, I don’t know where he is but as I just said, perhaps he doesn’t want to be found just yet. Who knows?” he shrugged and picked up a pen, “Now, I have a lot to do, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to be able to get on with my job.”

“What about Adam, what about our brother?” Joe yelled, stepping forward and about to thump a fist on the desk, but prevented from doing so by Hoss grabbing his arm and forcing him to step back.

“Mr Cartwright, would you mind taking your brother out of here. If he persists in making a nuisance of himself like this I shall have to have him arrested.”

Hoss nodded, looked at Joe and gave him a slight shake, which had the effect of stopping Joe from erupting further. As they reached the door Joe turned and glared at the two officers. Custer was already writing, his head bent over the papers, but Grant was watching them both with a curious look on his face,

“If anything has happened to Adam, you’ll have me to answer to, believe me, you will.”

Custer did not stop writing and did not look up. Grant only shook his head as though exasperated by the whole matter.

“You didn’t handle that very well,” Hoss muttered as they stood together on the sidewalk outside the office.

“I didn’t handle it very well? What about you, Hoss, what help were you?” Joe snapped. He shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, a sure sign of his frustration and irritation.

“What shall we do now?” Hoss suggested, stepping away from the sentries who were trying to keep straight faces as they listened to every word the brothers uttered.

“I don’t know.” Joe groaned, and put his hands on his hips and looked up and down, left and right, and shook his head, “Ask people if they’ve seen him or anything odd happening.” he looked at Hoss, “What do you suggest?”

“I guess that’s as good as anything.” Hoss replied, with a sigh. He shook his head slowly from side to side, and wondered if they would have achieved more had Joe kept calm. Somehow he doubted it.

Adam had wiped away the traces of blood from his face with the aid of his handkerchief and the water that was in the corner of the cell. The three girls still kept close, watching him and, he felt, seeing whether or not he could be trusted. He appreciated only too well how they must have felt, having seen friends and relatives killed only 12 hours earlier.

They spoke together in the Cheyenne dialect. The meaning of which he knew nothing. Every so often he put a hand to his stomach and tried to ease the pain there. He wondered how he had been brought here, by whichever means it had obviously not done his earlier injuries any good. He wished fervently for a pinch of Stalking Horse’s herbs now, and closed his eyes.

He had to concentrate. He had to try and find a way of getting out, reaching Joe and Hoss, and riding out of the place. He had to find a way to help the children get free from whatever future Custer had in store for them. Translaters? Adam shook his head from side to side, how could children act as translaters?

It all stemmed from his enquiries about Prescott. Whatever he had said had alerted or alarmed someone. Not Custer. Grant? Maitland? Or someone else? He sunk his head into his hands and screwed his eyes up tight. He had to think!

What if it had nothing to do with Grant or Maitland, but was just a private quarrel? Perhaps the man gambled, and was running out of time to pay off debts. He released his breath in a sigh of annoyance. Perhaps the whole thing was going to be a matter that would never be resolved.

He glanced up towards the opening at the top of the wall where the light was shining. If he didn’t get out nothing would be resolved. Nothing at all.

Chapter67

He must have fallen asleep or passed out for the next thing he became aware of was that the light from the opening indicated the drawing in of the day. In the cell he could barely see the girls who, as usual, were huddled in the corner. It was as though with the approach of the darkness their fear of him had been magnified. He wondered what tales of horror had they been told about the white men during their lives then remembered that whatever they had been told would have paled into insignificance with the events they had endured.

His mind drifted back to Little Moon. Could they have been mistaken? Rather tentatively he put his hand to the back of his head and winced as he felt the tender area on his scalp. It was however no longer bleeding.

It now occurred to him the basic need for food and drink. There were other needs too, which prompted him to scramble to his feet and make his way to the bars. Gripping hold of them he gave them a shake. They were as solid as the day they had been put in place, which really was not so long ago, something else that went against him.

Rage and frustration swept over him now. He gripped the bars and shook them. He yelled for attention. He even kicked the bars, missed and nearly fell over. When nothing happened as a result he gave a groan and leaned his fevered brow against one of the bars and closed his eyes.

Someone was tugging at his shirt tail, and he looked down to see the child looking up at him with her dark eyes large in her little face. She gave him a tentative smile and then raised her hand to take hold of his. He glanced over to where the other two girls were sitting and remembered being told that one of them had been hurt. Led by the child he went to them and knelt beside them,

“One of you was hurt? Which one?”

“My sister. Flower of the Prairie. She does not speak when I talk to her. You must help us, brother of Joseph. I am afraid that she is going to die.”

Adam released his breath. The cell was getting darker and he could barely see their faces, even as close as they were now. He reached out a hand and touched the one who was speaking on the shoulder, she flinched slightly, but it could well have been because she had not expected any physical contact from him.

“Where was she hurt?”

“In the shoulder.”

He leaned towards them, and managed to locate the other girl well enough to feel around her neck. He needed to know if she still had a pulse and how strong it was now. Her skin was very hot and he could feel the slickness of sweat upon his fingers. He called her name softly but there was no answer. For a moment he squatted there feeling totally inadequate and impotent. He raised his head once more towards the opening in the wall above them, but now there was no light at all.

Tilly pushed open the door of the store room and looked about her. She saw Joe and Hoss sitting on some barrels, Joe was chewing his nails and Hoss was obviously in the middle of remonstrating with him,

“There’s a soldier wants to talk to you.” she said, “If you come up I’ll serve you u p a decent meal as well. It doesn’t do no good just sitting there fretting.”

“We’re just at a loss as to know what to do for the best, Tilly.” Hoss replied, getting to his feet. “If his horse was missing we could think that perhaps he’s gone riding but -.” he shook his head dismally, “No one can just disappear into thin air.”

“Looks like Adam has,” Joe mumbled as he walked pass his brother, and he picked up his hat as they reached the door.

The soldier was waiting for them at the table, at which Tilly ushered them both then departed to dish up something for them to eat.

“Well, what have you got to tell us?” Joe asked without any enthusiasm in his voice at all.

The soldier, just a rookie on his first assignment, looked at them both and licked his lips nervously.

“It’s about your brother.”

“You’ve seen him?” Hoss asked, his blue eyes widening in his face.

“I saw him after he left the C.O’s office. He was walking towards here, stopped for a moment to look out through the gates. I saw him looking as though puzzled by something. Of course, he might not have been, it was just my impression.”

“Yeah, well, what other kind of impression did you get?” Hoss urged, leaning towards the man who glanced over his shoulder now as though anxious to be off. Tilly came and placed two plates of food on the table before them.

A soldier entered the tavern and walked to the counter. He glanced over at the Cartwright brothers and the rookie, but didn’t seem to see any significance in it. He rapped on the counter for attention from Tilly who hurried over to see to him.

“Just that, well, he disappeared. I saw him looking at the gates, or rather, beyond and looking puzzled. And then the next time I looked he had gone. I just assumed that he had come here to watch the wrestling match, but then happened to glance over and saw two soldiers with a man slung over the shoulder of one of them. A big soldier, hefty enough to take his weight quite easily.”

“Are you sure it was Adam?”

“Not really. I mean, I didn’t see his face, or anything. Just a shape being carried off, and the other soldier was nervous. He kept looking around to make sure he was not being watched.”

“Do you have any idea where they would have taken him?”
“No, sir. I’m sorry I can’t be of any more help than that,” the young man stood up and when Hoss put his hand to his wallet he shook his head, “No need, sir.”

They watched him go, then looked at one another.

“It all sounds rather strange, doesn’t it?” Joe whispered, “Who would want to cart Adam off like that? Unless he was take ill and they were taking him to the medic.”

“Yeah, but then the medic would have come to see us, wouldn’t he?”

“Not if he were told not to say anything.” Joe replied glumly, and looked down at his food, “I can’t eat.”
“You’d better eat, Joe, you need your strength.” and without another word Hoss set to his meal with a gusto that Joe found rather surprising, given the circumstances.

He sighed and looked over at Tilly, he saw from the corner of his eye the soldier at the counter walking way with a tray laden with several dishes of food. But took no notice.

Adam settled the girl down carefully upon the straw. He placed her in as comfortable a position as he could, before going to the bucket of water and wetting his handkerchief in it. He then returned and wiped around her face very gently.

“I can’t do much more for her, Prairie Fire. She’s burning with fever and I don’t want to fumble around in the dark, in case it causes her more distress.” he looked up into the dark shape where the other girl sat, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes. I understand.”

“Tell me something, Prairie Fire. Are you really sure that it was Little Moon you saw. Was it her that …”

“Yes. It was Little Moon. We travelled together. She was sad because she had lost her loved one and would not go back to him. She knew that she would never see him again.”

“Because he was white?”

“Yes, I think so. She did not say. Just that her Joseph was gone forever.”

“And you saw her … as she came out of the tepee?”

“She ran out. The old man and woman were with her. The tepee was burning. She was calling out to them “Stop. Stop. We have no weapons.” The old man was shot first and the old woman screamed and fell to her knees by his side. Little Moon ran to them, and the soldiers shot them. I saw her fall beside them. She was dead.”

She was dead. Adam shook his head. Dead. Just like that, the essence of her being now gone, snuffed out. He sighed and touched the face of the girl at his feet, hoping that somehow she would survive.

The sound of feet and the rattling of keys came to their ears. All of them tensed, drew closer together. The child pressed herself against his legs. A light approached them now and there was the aroma of fresh bread and stew. He could feel the child trembling against him and put his arm around her, drawing her into his side.

Chapter 68

“Move back.”

Adam glanced around him, there was hardly any space further back than they were, but he made the compulsory steps until his back was pressed against the far wall. The child clung to him, her small hands tightly clenching onto his own.

“I want to see Custer.” he said immediately, “We need a doctor here. One of these girls needs medical attention. We need …”

“Shut up.”

He gulped back words and stood still as the soldiers entered the cell. Four men, all armed. One had a tray of food which he placed carefully on the straw close to the door. A big soldier, comparable to Jacob and Hoss but shorter, stood in the centre, his legs apart, tapping a baton of some kind in the palm of his hand. He had a slight smile, for want of a better word, on his face. Adam had an instinctive awareness that he was looking at a man who would stop at nothing; a man who would not blanch at harming a child, a defenceless woman, or an unarmed man.

“We need a doctor for the girl.” Adam said, turning to look at the other men, “Please.”

The baton swung, and Adam moved to avoid it, swinging the child out of the way as he did so, and hearing the thud of the instrument as it hit the wall.

“Be careful,” the soldier grinned, a leering grin that exposed broken teeth, “Next time I won’t miss.” he looked at the girls, “Or it could be one of them gets it. You -” he pointed the truncheon at Adam, “You’d do better to keep a still tongue in your head. Now, we’ve brought some food for you. You’ll need something inside you for the journey.”

“For the journey? What journey?”

“I ain’t going to warn you twice, mister, I said to keep your mouth shut.”

Adam felt the child’s hand tighten on his own, her body was shaking with fear and a little whimper passed her lips. He slid down until he reached her level and took her into his arms, and held her close. The soldier shook his head, sneered at them, and walked out of the cell.

Another soldier locked the door, and a lamp was hung on a hook outside the cell and out of reach. Adam watched them go and heard another door being opened, closed, a key grated in the lock. Then silence.

He carried the tray of food over to the girls. By the light of the lamp he could see them all clearly now. Flower of the Prairie remained unconscious, her eyes closed and her lips parted as though breathing was too difficult.

“I think my sister is not going to live.” Prairie Fire whispered.

“There’s water here, try and get her to drink some.”

Prairie Fire gratefully took the cup of water and held it to her sister’s lips, She turned her head away, her eyes opened briefly, then closed again. Prairie Fire looked at the white man and shook her head. He reached out a hand and took hers, held it for a moment.

“Eat something yourself,” he said gently, “If they’re right, and we’re going on a journey, we need to eat.”

The child was eating as though she had not touched food for a long time. Her eyes were fixed on his face, and her teeth ripped into the bread. Adam smiled at her but his eyes reflected his mood, he was disturbed and anxious by what the soldier had said. What journey? What was going on in this crazy lop sided world?

Jacob Brown walked into the tavern and after seeing Joe and Hoss seated at one of the tables he joined them. It wasn’t long before food was placed before him, and fresh baked rolls which Joe and Hoss both declined.

“Any news?” Hoss asked, pouring out a mug of hot coffee which Tilly had placed at his elbow.

“Some,” Jacob nodded, shoving food into the cavern of his mouth. He smacked his lips and swallowed noisily, “There’s a whisper about that your brother has been jailed.”

“Jailed?” the brothers both repeated the word in disbelief, “Where’s the cells then?” Hoss added.

“No, no, sit down and keep calm. I’m not talking about the usual cells for disobedient rookies. There’s another place that’s been built here for …” he paused in search of the right word, “for people who never get to be seen again.”

“What are you talking about?” Joe said, looking from one to the other of them in disbelief at what he was hearing.

“There’s been an attack on a hunting camp, Cheyenne, further north. They bought in some captives, girls. They’ve been taken there as well.”

“What camp?” Joe asked, his heart racing, “Whereabouts?”

“Just a small camp. The convoy found it quite by accident apparently. Anyway they’ve brought some prisoners here. Custer has this idea that he could get more help from the tribes if he can understand what’s being said and they can understand him. He reckons if he can get girl captives they can be useful.”

“Useful?”

“Yes, taught to act as interpreters.* He’s not stupid, is Custer. It’s a good idea if the girls co-operate.”

“What if they don’t?” Hoss asked.

“They usually do. Custer sends them to a mission house some miles over the border. They get looked after there for a few months,* long enough to learn to speak good English, well, good enough to be useful.”

“Do you know where this place is? No, not the mission house, the jail.” Joe whispered.

“No idea. Odd that, isn’t it? So where do you hide a place around here so well that hardly anyone knows about it, huh?” Jacob shrugged.

“Anything about Prescott?” Hoss asked by way of changing the subject for he knew that his brother was now worrying about Little Moon and the friends he had made among the Cheyenne.

“Custer’s ordered an enquiry, everyone who was there to be questioned…that’s about 400 men.” Jacob shovelled more food into his mouth and began to break some bread, “It’ll take time but there should be something come out of it eventually.”

“I don’t care about Prescott.” Joe cried vehemently, “If it weren’t for him we’d all be riding home by now, instead of stuck here worrying about Adam.”

Tilly came to the table and sat down. She had a tray with a pot of tea, jug of milk and a pretty cup and saucer on it. She pushed back a stray lock of hair and sighed, then poured herself a cup of tea. She obviously was a lady who liked nice things.

“Well, anything at all, dear?” she asked her husband, who reached out and took hold of her hand and smiled, but shook his head.

“He reckons Adams in a place like a jail that no one knows about but whoever gets to be in it, usually disappear.” Joe said, with a slight sneer in his voice. Everything was getting more farcical as the day drew to an end.

Tilly nodded, and leaned across the table to turn up the lamp a little higher.

“I’ve heard of it. The men talk and we get to hear bits and pieces of what’s going on.” she said quietly. “Look, there’s a soldier here, a big man, he came in a while ago, while you were having your supper ….” she looked at them both but they looked blankly at her, “He came, big, lumbering man, just the kind of man who could carry a body over his shoulder without any problem.”

She sipped her tea and frowned,

“You were talking to that soldier earlier who had come to tell you something about Adam. Then this big guy came in and demanded a tray of food for four people. I presumed it was for four because he ordered four bits of bread. Then he took it and left the tavern.”

“Perhaps for Custer and the officers.” Jacob muttered, wiping bread around his plate to gather up the sauce.

“No, don’t be silly, dear, they don’t eat food from here.”

“This is ridiculous.” Joe growled, “Someone must know where this place is.”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying, dear. That big lummox of a soldier who took the tray knows. You just need to find him, and follow him, and you’ll find Adam and whoever else is eating my good stew and bread.”

“Have you seen him before? Would you recognise him again?” Hoss asked.

“Yes, he’s been here before to eat. No doubt he’ll be back.” Tilly smiled and poured herself another cup of tea. “I don’t know his name, but Jacob will no doubt recognise him when he sees him.”

Joe sat back and closed his eyes. He was so tired. People often used the expression that they felt wrung out like a rag, and he now understood exactly what they meant. Emotionally, mentally and physically he felt wrung out.

Chapter 69.

“So what’s the plan?” Jacob leaned towards Joe and Hoss. His eyes scanned their faces and he sighed. It was obvious the youngest Cartwright was distracted, worried sick no doubt about the girl no doubt. Perhaps he should not have mentioned about the captives and he cursed himself for being such an unthinking fool, after all, beneath his rough exterior he knew what it was like to be in love. He looked over at Tilly and again reached out to take her hand in his, and squeezed it affectionately.

Hoss rubbed his chin thoughtfully,

“Perhaps we should split up ..”

“We don’t know what this guy looks like, Hoss.” Joe said immediately, “I think we should stay here and wait. He may come in again for more food.”

“True enough.” Tilly replied brightly, sitting bolt upright in the seat as though she had been struck by lightning, “Obviously he was still on duty when he came for the food, but when his shift changes he will have to come here for his own meal. We can follow him, discreetly, then.”

The men looked at one another and nodded. Tilly rubbed her hands together,

“What if I put something in his dinner? You know, something that knocks him out and …”

“Calm down, Tilly girl, no need to go overboard. Let him eat his meal in peace and we can go … no, you two can go and follow him. I have to get back on duty in ten minutes.”

“Well, I was just thinking that …”

“No, Tilly. We don’t want to risk trouble for you. Now then, behave.” he smiled gently and received a warm smile in return. It made Hoss go a little soft inside seeing how fond the couple were of each other and he smiled at nothing in particular as well.

“I’ll go and make some more coffee. How about something for you two to eat while you’re waiting?”

Hoss nodded. Now that there seemed to be something positive to cling to, a definite hope, he felt energised again, and eating was always first on the agenda for him. Joe said nothing. He now had time to wait, and to think.

Time ticked away slowly. Adam’s eyes flicked to the gap in the wall to the girls and then to the lamp. He measured the distance from the gap to the floor several times over before walking to the wall and stretching as far as he could towards it. He shook his head. There was no chance of reaching it.

“No escape for us?” Prairie Fire whispered, watching him anxiously. She sat in a corner with her sister’s head resting in her lap. Flower of the Prairie seemed barely to be breathing now.

“Not this way there isn’t,” he replied and returned to the bars, he pressed against them, willing them to move.

The lamp light flickered. He looked up at the gap again and then beckoned to the little girl, who approached him now without fear,

“See the gap up there?”

“Yes. It is very high.”

“If I lift you, do you think you could reach it?”

She shook her head and blinked her eyes fearfully. Adam sighed, and then bowed his head. Even if she did reach it what difference would it make anyway. He turned back to stare out beyond the bars but the far wall was in shadow. He tried to work out some other plan. Appealing to their better side for a medic had not moved them so obviously shouting out that they needed help would not gain much either.

Little Brook tugged at his trouser legs,

“If I stand on your shoulders I may be able to reach and see.”

He smiled triumphantly and knelt down to look up into her face, and put a hand on her arm,

“You won’t be frightened, will you?”

“No, perhaps a little yes.”

He smiled again and together they walked to the wall and stood beneath the gap. Then he lifted her up, higher and higher, hands around her waist, moving to her hips. He could feel her feet moving to rest upon his shoulders. Now he held her legs to keep them steady. She was swaying quite considerably, but steadied up enough to just reach the edge of the gap. Her nose and eyes, nothing more. She tried to fumble a hold with her hands, but the movement caused her to lose balance and had Adam not moved quickly enough then she would have fallen. Instead she slid into his arms and he gently let her down onto the floor.

“What did you see?” he asked but she shook her head, disappointment on her face. She blinked and two tears trickled down her cheeks. “It’s alright, Little Brook. At least we tried. We tried …” he sighed and let go of her hand so that she could cuddle in to Priairie Fire and get some comfort from her.

Joe Cartwright rubbed his face to try and put some life into it. Time had been ticking by and nothing had happened apart from boredom setting in. Tilly had passed them a pack of well thumbed cards so that they could play a game between them, but for someone of Joe’s mercurial temperament and nervous energy it really was not enough.

“He isn’t going to come, is he?” he muttered as he dealt out another hand to his brother.

“He might.” Hoss replied, concentrating on the hand he was being dealt.

“Look, Hoss, every soldier here knows how long this tavern stays open for supper. Tilly’s clearing up now, and he hasn’t come. Perhaps we were wrong, he may have been just getting his own meal.”

“For four?”

“Well, he probably doesn’t do sentry duty or whatever on his own; no, he won’t come now. I reckon we should turn in before I die of boredom.” he flung down the cards and stood up, “Are you coming?”

“Nope, I’m going to wait right here.” Hoss replied, gathering up the cards and reshuffling them.

“On your own?”

“Yep.” Hoss began to deal out the cards for a game of patience. He sighed, “I’ll se you later, little brother.”

The sound of a voice singing broke into Adam’s thoughts. A sweet young voice which was broken now and again by sobs, and a child’s tremulous treble accompanying it. He sat upright and by the light of the flickering lamp saw the girl, Prairie Fire, cradling her sister in her arms, rocking her too and fro and singing. The child, Little Brook, held the girls limp hand in her own and was kneeling by her side.

It was a song Adam had never heard before, a song that was sung in the language of the Cheyenne. It talked about how only the mountains and rivers lived forever, only the earth survived, but man and woman had only a short time to live and today, yatahay, was a good day to die. It was the death song or chant of the people.

He lowered his head, and covered his face with his hand. How many others would be singing that song before all this was settled to the satisfaction of all parties, he wondered.

After a few minutes he stood up and quietly went to the bars and leaned against them. How could he get news to Joe and Hoss? So many questions and no one bothering to provide the answers.

She stopped singing after a while. She lay her sister down in the straw and moved away to another corner. The child hurried over with her and cuddled into her. Neither of them looked at Adam for in their grief they were alone, a small symbol of the misery that was to befall their nation.

Adam turned to say something when he heard the sound of a key in the lock. A door slammed open and footsteps tramped their way towards them.

“Move back.”

The big soldier with the baton was there again, slamming the instrument into the open palm of his hand. Three soldiers entered the cell, one collected the food on the tray,

“What’s wrong with her?” the baton was directed at Flower of the Prairie.

“She’s dead.” Adam said in a voice that was thick with a mix of emotions, “I asked you to send a medic, why couldn’t you have done that for her at least?”

“I asked a question, it didn’t warrant you to ask me one, Mister.” he jerked his head to the other two soldiers who walked towards Adam, their rifles at a defensive angle. Both of them flanked him and the one who appeared in charge jerked his head, an indication that they were to follow him.

One of the soldiers prodded Adam in the back to get him moving. He looked at the two girls but they didn’t even look up as he passed them.

“Stop.”

They were outside the cell now. One of the soldiers locked the cell door behind him while they were stationary, then they moved on. Down the corridor and to the other door. Adam was pushed up some steps and into another corridor, the door behind him was locked.

There was a door to the left and this was opened and he was pushed into a long room that was obviously the latrine. The soldier with the baton pointed into it and nodded to Adam,

“Go in and do what you have to do. Hurry up and don’t take too long doing it.”

Adam looked at him, then at the guards and frowned. Was this, he thought, a set up. A way to dispose of him like Prescott? Was Prescott also invited to go about his ablutions and ended up shot in the back. He stepped into the room and looked about him. Was there anything he could use as a weapon here? Would he be able to get out of the place?

Several lamps were alight, water sluiced into the basins, some towels were flung by the side of the basins. He picked one up,

“Get on with it. Hurry up.”

The towel soaked up the water and he wrung it out carefully, wiped his face clean with it, and his neck. Oh, what cool bliss that was to feel the refreshing coolness against his hot skin. He released a sigh of relief and glanced up to see the soldier with the baton approaching him with a look of sadistic glee on his face. He was beating time with the baton, slamming it into his palm, and his feet thudded towards his victim.

Adam drew in his breath and when the baton was raised to come crashing down on his back, he brought the wet towel whipping across the soldiers chest, then his throat, an unexpected desperate attack that caught the soldier totally off guard. The baton fell to the floor with a thud. Adam grabbed hold of it, and brought it down as hard as he could.

The soldier staggered back, reached for his gun but even as he drew it from the holster, Adam brought the baton down upon his wrist. The howl that came from the soldiers throat alerted the two men outside who came in, looked at one to the other in surprise. They may have expected some howls, but not from their leading.

“Just put the rifles down,” Adam hissed, “Put them down or I put a bullet through his head.”

They blinked, looked at one another, dropped their rifles. Adam got to his feet, the gun still pointing to the soldiers head.

“Unbuckle your gun belts and let them drop. Kick them outside.”

The two guardsmen did so. Adam waved the pistol in a slow arc, indicating that they came into the room and stood beside their companion who was writhing on the floor nursing a possibly broken wrist.

“Who ever has the keys, throw them over to me. That’s you, isn’t it?” he indicated a young soldier who nodded nervously, and tossed the keys over to Adam.

“Where were you going to take me?” he asked and they looked at one another, both shook their heads and then looked at the other man who was now hugging his injured wrist to his chest.

“YOU weren’t going to go anywhere,” he hissed, his eyes bulging from pain, “This was going to be your last stop. After …” he stopped, and bowed his head.

“I see. And was this how you got rid of Prescott? Lured him somewhere, did you? Then shot him in the back.”

“We don’t know nothing’ about Prescott.” one of the guards said immediately, “We weren’t in Indian Territory. We only got here last week.”

Adam felt sick, sick to the stomach with them all. He took the keys and stepped back into the corridor. After he’d locked the door he put the gun in his holster and considered his next move. He knew it would be losing time to go back for the girls and although it seemed the immediate thing to do, he knew it was also the riskiest and in the long run would not have helped them. It would be better to wait, to think long term rather than short term, and with this thought in mind he made his way to where he could see the silver and purple hue of a moonlit night. He stepped out into the compound and looked about him. He was free … for the moment.

Chapter 70.

Adam stood for a moment as though unsure in which direction to go. He realised suddenly that he was still holding the keys to the doors through which he had just passed, and promptly dropped them into the horse trough that stood some feet away. Having managed to move a few feet seemed to bring him out of the stupor into which he had slipped.

There was something he remembered being said earlier in the day that seemed relevant now. He walked a few paces forward and stopped, something that he needed to do now but thinking about it made the pain in his skull trickle down his back. He walked again another few paces and then heard the sound of marching feet, heading towards him.

The moon was shy that night and had hidden herself behind fleecy clouds. Not wanting to be discovered Adam moved to the barracks wall and tried to compress himself as far into its shadows as he possibly could. He positively inched along the wall until he came upon the recess of a doorway and into this aperture he eased himself, standing as stiff as one of the boards from which the door was made.

Six soldiers tramped their way towards him. They passed him without a glance in his direction, and continued onwards, pass the entrance from which he had emerged moments earlier from the prison. He stood there for some moments more, while his heart pounded beneath his shirt. Then he stepped out, once more, and began to walk towards the one place he knew he had to be at that moment in time.

The laughter of a woman’s voice stopped, and the chatter and clatter in the room ceased when the sentry stepped forward to announce the arrival of Captain Adam Cartwright.

Custer rose to his feet immediately with a smile on his face, and he looked over at his wife, then he turned to greet his visitor,

“Cartwright, I thought …” he stopped, and stared at the young man as though he couldn’t believe his eyes, while his wife gave a shocked exclamation and rose from the table so quickly that wine was spilled from her glass.

“Mr Cartwright, what happened to you?” she exclaimed, stepping towards him in an impetuous movement to assist him.

“I’m sorry ..” Adam cleared his throat, “I’m sorry I’m late,” he attempted a bow in Mrs Custer’s direction, “I was delayed.”

“By what?” Grant asked, walking towards him and taking his arm, “A runaway horse?”

“Here, Cartwright,” Maitland hurried towards him, a glass of water in his hand, “Drink this, you look just about done in.”

Custer rubbed the back of his neck and shook his head in amazement. He watched as his wife and guests attempted to assist the late visitor who was making some attempt to assure them that he was alright, and that he had to talk to the Captain.

“Sit down first, Cartwright,” Custer said, stepping towards him now and realising that he would have to abandon any thought of getting a hot meal, “I’m sure you have a perfectly good explanation as to why you’re late and have arrived in such a dishevelled state.”

Custer watched as Adam seemed to crumple into a chair, before raising his head to look at him in a way that could only be described as unfathomable. Custer pulled out a chair and sat down, facing his guest, while his wife sat down beside him, with Maitland and Grant standing close by.

“George, I think Captain Cartwright needs some medical attention,” Mrs Custer said softly, “Captain Cartwright, would you mind if I sent for our Doctor?”

“Ma’am, thank you, but I am no longer an Officer. I no longer should be addressed as a Captain, I’m a civilian only.” Adam frowned, and looked at Custer, “When I left you this afternoon, I was apprehended.”

“Apprehended? By whose orders? Ahh, your brothers did come asking me to tell them where you were but I didn’t understand what on earth they were talking about and sent them packing. They’re quite a force to be reckoned with, aren’t they?”

“Try living with them,” Adam said with a wan smile, he looked at Mrs Custer who was still looking flustered, “Mrs Custer, may I appeal to you for a favour?”

“Certainly, Cap … I mean … Mr Cartwright, what can I do to help you?” she smiled, a sweet smile in a pretty face. If Custer allowed her to be so, she would be a perfect complement for him.

“When I was knocked on the head and taken to the cells -”

“What cells?” Grant asked, looking at Maitland and then Custer with raised eyebrows.

“I was taken to some cells, there were three children there, girls. Cheyenne girls.”
He eased himself in his chair a little, and tried to see their faces more clearly. Custer nodded, thus accepting the responsibility for the girls captivity, which forced Adam to struggle with his temper,

“One was injured and has since died from her injuries. Madam, please may I request you to ask your husband for their release?”

“Are they prisoners then?” she asked simply, proving that her naivete was certainly not to be compared with her husbands intelligence, “George, why have we three children locked up in cells?”

“Two children, one has died,” Adam repeated himself, and then sighed and bowed his head. He raised a hand to press against his temples which were thudding in his skull, “I was in the cell with them. They’re frightened children. They’ve just seen their families and friends killed in an attack upon their camp. Two have just seen …”

“It’s war, Mr Cartwright.” Custer stated simply, and he stood up and poured himself out some more wine, then he poured out a glass of wine for Adam, which he passed over to him, Adam however declined it, “Terrible things happen in war. Those children survived and should consider themselves fortunate to have done so. Now they will be taken to a mission home and educated properly, in time they will understand.”

“One of them has just watched her sister die. They are sharing a cell with a dead body. Mrs Custer …”

“George,” she turned to her husband and put a hand gently upon his arm, “Can’t we help them?”

“We are helping them, my dear. Cartwright, can’t you see that in war there are casualties? Not just in the field of battle, as this was, but in other ways as well. Those girls would have died had we left them there, so we brought them here. They’ll be well cared for, fed, and then taken to the mission. I promise you, they’ll come to no harm.” Custer placed a hand upon his wifes and then turned and smiled at her, “They’ll be much better off there than anywhere else.”

Adam rubbed his forehead, he wondered whether or not he had made a mistake in something he had said, not made the matter clear enough. Mrs Custer stood up and approached him, and placed a hand upon his shoulder, then realised that his shirt was still damp, when she removed her hand she saw the red dye of blood and looked, horrified, at her husband,

“George, what is happening here?”

“I don’t know. Maitland, get the sentry to bring the Doctor here immediately. Grant, I want you to go and find out what has been going on, and why Mr Cartwright was taken to the cells in what was obviously an attack upon him.” Custer watched as the two men sprung to obey his commands, and when the door closed upon them he stood in front of Adam and put a hand the man’s shoulder and looked into his face,

“He’s almost unconscious. My dear, get some water and a napkin,” he said softly, and while she did this he pulled his chair closer and sat down to await her return.

Adam felt the cool fresh touch of water upon his burning skin and sighed, he wanted to speak but for some reason he also wanted to just sit there and relax as Mrs Custer gently wiped around his face and neck,

“Here, drink this water,” Custer said, “And then tell me exactly what happened after you left me this earlier today.”

Both man and wife listened to the quiet deep voice as Adam told them what had happened, about the three girls, one a mere seven years old, about the sadist who was going to beat him with the baton perhaps, until he was dead. He paused then, and frowned,

“Could I see my brothers now?” he asked simply.

“As soon as the doctor has seen to your injuries.” Custer replied.

“What about the girls, George?” Mrs Custer said quietly, “I can’t bear to think of them being in that cell. Promise me you will take them out of there?”

“But where shall I put them, my dear? We have to be logical. This is a barracks full of men who have very little contact with women. I don’t want to hurt your more delicate Eastern feelings, my dear, but it is for their own protection, believe me.”

“One of them is only a child of seven.” she protested.

“They’re Cheyenne.” Custer reminded her in a kind voice, as though speaking to a child, “And these are men who think Cheyenne are only one step higher up the ladder from animals. They’re hard men, battle scarred, with no conscience some of them…”

“Don’t,” she put her hands to her ears, “Don’t say anymore, George, I don’t want to hear. Couldn’t Tilly Brown take care of them in her store room?”

“Exchange one cell for another?” Custer laughed, and leaned forward to kiss her cheek, “My dear, what a funny little thing you are.”

Adam once again rubbed his brow, it seemed strange to see Custer acting like a fond husband, but there he was, quite human and quite affectionate. Adam cleared his throat,

“I’m sure Mrs Brown would have no objection.” he said quietly, “And when I leave here, Sir, I would like to take the girls home, to their families, so that the dead girl can be buried according to the custom of here people.”

“Buried?” Custer looked at Adam and shook his head, he stood up and clasped his hands behind his back, “Cartwright, this war has only just began. We have had a few forays with the Indians, merely scratched the surface. Do you know how many burials there will be in the future for those people? Don’t you realise that by sending those girls back to their families, they could be dead in a few months time? Why put them through that ordeal? I wish you could see that I mean them no harm, I only want them to benefit from a decent education, and to understand why these things are happening.”

“How can they understand that when you keep them locked up in a cell?” Mrs Custer blurted out, “How can you get them to trust you, and want to understand if you treat them so badly? Please, George, please listen to Mr Cartwright? Let him take them back when he leaves here?”

“I think,” Custer said very slowly, “That you are both being very short sighted. You want me to condemn them to death? Is that it?”

“You don’t have to fight a war,” Adam said quietly, “You could parley and make peace of sorts.”

“Peace of sorts is not what our Government wants with these people. I have to obey orders, Sir, just as you did when you wore a uniform.”

“Yes, Sir, so I did.” Adam sighed and looked at Mrs Custer. He remembered when he had first seen her, and her husband, at that soiree back East, when Indians meant nothing to her at all, except as odd and eccentric painted statues outside shops that sold tobacco, pipes and cigarettes.

“Your orders are not to hurt little girls though, George, is it? If it is then I am most ashamed.” Mrs Custer bowed her head.

“For heavens sake, can’t I get it through to you? It is no kindness on my part to release those girls back to their people. Properly educated they could be used as Translators when the time comes when there will be peace. They could even be trained as educators. But sent back to their people…” he shook his head and looked at Adam, and was about to speak again when there came a knock on the door.

Maitland stepped into the room, took a hasty look over at Adam and smiled a friendly anxious smile, a friend to a friend. Behind him came the Medic, a tall thin man with kind eyes, and a weary expression on his face. He nodded to Custer, glanced at the laden table and obviously wondered why he had not been invited to the repast, and then looked at Adam,

“Ah,” he said, “Is this my patient?”

Chapter 71

The Medic was a kindly man and gentle in handling his patient whom he insisted on examining in a more private area. He cleaned and sutured the wound, carefully bandaging it, which gave Adam a rather wild appearance but by this time he was much too weary to argue. The doctor also, upon Adam’s request, checked the wound caused by the Pawnee arrow.

“It’s healing very well, but you should have had this wound checked over. The point of entry has healed excellently, but here …” he pressed around the wound where the arrow had exited, “Ah, yes, it is still very inflamed. I shall just put on clean dressings after I have examined it more carefully. There, this should not hurt …” he pressed and probed, and, of course, it did hurt, he shook his head, “This isn’t healing so well, you must have been active far too soon and the wound has reopened slightly.”

He produced lint and wadding, and zinc powder which was liberally applied. Then he bound the wound with fresh bandages. He shook his head,

“You need several days bed rest, Mr Cartwright, and I want you to take this medication. I shall see you again tomorrow. And, another thing, you need a bath. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, as they say, but to be honest with you it is the first procedure to good health.”

Adam gave him a long dark eyed stare, and buttoned up his soiled shirt. He re-entered the room upon which Custer stood up, and looked at him, then the Doctor,

“Well? How is he?”

Adam opened his mouth, closed it again, as the doctor went into his spiel, then after a nod of the head, he picked up his hat and left the room. Custer watched him go and turned to Adam . He smiled and indicated a chair into which Adam sat,

“Feeling better? How about a cup of coffee. My wife has just made one.”

“Thank you.” Adam glanced around, and saw Maitland sitting on the arm of a comfortable chair. It was at this moment that the door opened and Grant returned, looking rather dishevelled. He looked at them all, took off his hat, and smiled politely at Mrs Custer who offered him some coffee. The offer was accepted.

“Well, I found three rather irate soldiers in the latrines,” he said, taking the cup from her, “Corporal Holmes was none too happy I can tell you. I couldn’t possibly repeat what he called you,” he smiled at Adam and looked quite cheerful about it all.

“Did they tell you why they had apprehended Mr Cartwright?”

“Holmes said that he was given orders to arrest Mr Cartwright, who resisted, so they took the necessary steps to calm him down and took him to the cells. In their opinion the fact that Mr Cartwright abused their consideration of his personal needs when they got to the latrines just proved what a dangerous character he was …”

“But didn’t they say who had given them their orders?” Maitland asked, looking rather irritated at his fellow officer and for the first time since Adam had known him, taking some initiative in the conversation.

“They just looked blank, said they assumed the orders came from the Commanding Officer.” and Grant looked at Custer, who looked at Adam.

“They close ranks. Typical. Get Holmes and arrest him for insubordination, Grant.” Custer frowned, “Cartwright, when do you expect to leave here?”

“As soon as I find out who killed Prescott.” Adam said quietly, sipping his coffee and grateful for the warmth it provided him.

“Paul Prescott?” Mrs Custer said, turning towards them, the coffee pot in her hand, “George has been telling me about him. He is a … I mean … he was a very intense young man, wasn’t he? He thought George was quite the hero and wanted to see all the action and record it for posterity. He showed me his notes, and they did make me laugh rather. Such a lot of exaggeration in them but they make George read like St George fighting the dragon.”

“It’s a pity he didn’t manage to give you the last notes he made, when Cartwright and his brother appeared for an interview,” George smiled and put his arm around his wife’s neat little waist.

She laughed then, and pinched his cheek,

“He did, he sent them in a packet with a letter asking me to keep them with the other notes he had made.”

There was a sudden silence. The four men seemed to freeze in their actions and stare at her, and she laughed again,

“How odd you all look, what’s wrong?”

“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” George said, “Don’t you realise how important those papers are? Who brought them to you?”

“A trooper. He delivered them when you all arrived here.”

“And what did he say?” Maitland stood up eagerly, “This trooper, what did he say? Had Prescott given him a message with the packet?”

“Only to keep them safe until he returned to pick them up himself. I did ask the trooper why it was that Prescott had not come back with you all, but he just said he didn’t know.”

“Was there… did he say anything else, my dear?” Custer asked gently.

“Not really. He just said that Prescott seemed a bit preoccupied and just picked him at random.”

“When? Did he mention when Prescott gave it to him?”

“I told you, darling, it was when you were all about to leave. The trooper said he was ready to ride out when Prescott approached him and asked him to put the packet in his saddlebag and then give it to me for safe keeping until he could collect it himself.” she frowned a little crossly, and shook her head as though it was all a fuss about nothing and no way was she going to be the one made to take the blame for it all.

“Then it is only my notes that are missing.” Maitland frowned, “It doesn’t really make much sense, does it?”

“It does to the murderer,” Adam said quietly, “Lieutenant Grant, have you interviewed any of the men yet?”

“It’s going to be a long process, Mr Cartwright,” Grant replied, some of his aloofness having left him, “But we have seen about fifteen men so far. Not one of them knew Mr Prescott. They were all busy with their assigned duties and had not access to the Captain’s tent, or to the area where Prescott would have been.”

Adam looked disappointed and then looked at Mrs Custer, he gave her a smile and his dark eyes gentled somewhat,

“Ma’am, is it possible for us to look at Mr Prescott’s report? He may have put something in there that could tell us something other than what he had seen and heard during our interview.”

She inclined her head and looked at her husband who nodded in agreement. Custer walked to a bureau and took out an engraved box, opened the lid and offered each of them a cigar, Grant was the only one to accept. Striking a match Custer lit his own, and passed the box to Grant.

“You’re taking a lot of interest in our affairs, Mr Cartwright. Prescott’s death, the girls … one wonders what will come next.” he smiled thinly, but his eyes were wary.
He puffed out blue smoke which coiled around his head.

“I hope not to interfere in anything else, Sir. In fact I hope to leave here as soon as I possibly can, and head for home.”

“Of course, your Ponderosa.”

“Yes, my father and the Ponderosa. I have been away far too long.” Adam sighed, and turned his head as Mrs Custer returned with a slim packet which she gave to her husband.

There was little to see really. The closely written notes were almost verbatim what had been seen and heard at the meeting. Custer turned the pages to see if there was some hurriedly scrawled message giving a clue on the back but there was nothing. All four of the men slumped a little, and looked at one another,

“Nothing.” Grant sighed, “I had such hopes … I wish you hadn’t found that body, Mr Cartwright, it’s causing us quite a headache.”

“Believe me, Sir, I wish exactly the same.” Adam said wearily. He got to his feet, wavered slightly, and straightened up, “If you’ll excuse me, I really need to get some sleep. Thank you for your help. Captain Custer, Mrs Custer.” he bowed politely.

“I’ll call a trooper to escort you to your room,” Maitland said with a pleasant smile.

“Really?” Adam laughed, and Maitland had the grace to laugh also,

“If you wish, I’ll come along with you as well.” he said, “Just to make sure you get there safely, without any detours.”

“No, that won’t be necessary,” Adam replied, and slowly made his way to the door.

Maitland left the room, going outside to call a trooper to act as Adam’s escort, then returned with a smile, his mission complete. Custer walked with Adam to the door, then touched his elbow,

“I’ll give that other matter some consideration, Cartwright,” he said, “My wife had more to say about it while the doctor was examining you. I’ll see you in my office in the morning and discuss it further.”

Adam nodded and was about to speak when there was a knock on the door and the trooper stepped in, saying he had come to escort Mr Cartwright to his room. Adam smiled, and as he turned towards the trooper he saw a startled, then confused, expression pass over Maitland’s face. The eyes widened, the mouth went slack, then he turned as though not wanting to expose himself to Adam’s scrutiny further.

Chapter 73

As Adam stepped through the doorway he heard Maitland’s voice behind him,

“Enjoy your cigar, Grant, I’ll go and deal with the matter of Holmes. I should not be too long.” Maitland was saying, and then as he passed Adam he nodded, “See you again, Mr Cartwright,” he said, and touched the brim of his hat as he turned to go towards the cells.

“Well, Captain,” Jacob made a mock salute, “I know two people who will be more than pleased to see you. That’s apart from Tilly and me, of course. Those boys were hopping mad when they couldn’t find you today. Hoss is still pacing up and down, wearing a path through the tavern floor. We just couldn’t fathom out where you had got to. Had you been with the C.O. all this time?”

Adam smiled, and regarded Jacob with some affection, it was good to know Joe and Hoss had been concerned. He walked slowly beside the big man who had been a loyal and good friend ever since he had stepped aboard the Redoubt all those years earlier.

“No, not with Custer at all, Jacob,” he replied, “Not until a few hours ago anyway. Are the boys alright?”

“Yes, and they’ll be feeling even better when they see you walk through the door.” Jacob grinned hugely, “But I can see you’ve been in the wars. That bandage isn’t there for no reason, is it?”

“I was persuaded to allow myself to be arrested,” Adam grinned, “with a blunt instrument.”

“Aye, I can imagine, Holmes is pretty heavy handed with that baton of his,” Jacob pulled a face, and shrugged, “A useful man to have around at times, but he enjoys inflicting pain on people, too much for my liking.”

“Yes, I agree,” Adam said quietly, recalling the way Holmes was slamming the baton into his left hand, the grin on his face, the deliberate way he walked towards his intended victim.

They walked on a few more yards when Adam saw the well. Like most wells it had a built up wall around it, just perfect to sit upon. He nodded over to wards it,

“Let’s sit for a while, Jacob. I’m afraid I’m in a bit of discomfort since the Doctor examined me. I would like to sit and talk for a while,” he sighed and began to walk over to the well, and sat down.

He looked up at the stars, the moon was peeking through here and there now. The hour was quite late.

“Remember the night watches on board ship?” he said softly.

“Aye, I remember them well. There were plenty enough of them.” Jacob grinned, “Many an hour we’ve spent together on the bridge, haven’t we, Captain?”

“Yes. And talked plenty in that time too.”

“We have that, sir.” Jacob nodded in agreement, “I’ve often told Tilly about those times, the things we talked about, could have been lonely times, Captain, but one does what one has to do.”

“Yes, that’s true.” Adam nodded now, as though in agreement. He frowned slightly, “I was surprised that you left the Redoubt, Jacob. You were a first rate seaman, and the new Officer would have appreciated a man of your experience on board.”

“Oh well, he broke up the ships company and took new men on board. He chose quite a few men from his previous company, so can’t blame him for that, many a new captain does the same. Some of us didn’t want to sail with a different captain anyway. Life sometimes calls for adjustments to be made.”

“But you decided to come out west instead of living comfortably with Tilly back East. It was a pleasant surprise to find you here, Jacob.”
“For me also, Sir. I probably would not have thought of coming here if it had not been for my cousin.”

“That’s right, I remember you telling me all about him. One of the few men who could beat you in arm wrestling if I recall rightly.”

“Yes, Sir, that’s right,” Jacob replied, a slight frown on his face, and looking at Adam rather anxiously, “You’ve a good memory.”

“Yes,” Adam sighed, “His name was Holmes, if I recall rightly?”

“You do, Sir,” Jacob replied, standing away from Adam now, and drawing himself upright, and looking rather tense.

“Yes, a big man, strong, with a rather violent disposition. If I remember you told me that he had been in jail for losing his temper and beating a man to death with a cudgel. He only got away with a prison sentence and not a hanging because there were witnesses to prove he was provoked. You were one of them, weren’t you?”

“We were younger then, more impulsive.” Jacob replied, “But, all this talk, it’s wasting time and your brothers’ …”

“So Corporal Holmes is released from prison and signs up to come and fight Indians. Then, hearing of your discharge from the Redoubt, he suggests that you come here and join him. The garrison could do with a good cook, and it would give you some excitement in your old age.”

“That’s right, sir, you’ve hit the nail on the head.” Jacob cleared his throat, “Shall we go now?”

“Both you and your cousin were in Indian Territory a few weeks ago when I saw Custer.”

“Well, you know that …”

“So you must have known Prescott before he left with you all. What did he do, Jacob, to deserve being shot in the back? Was it you or your cousin who so loves violence?” Adam looked up at his old ship mate and saw the man’s face drop.

Jacob Brown stared at Adam as though he couldn’t believe his ears, he shook his head, and looked like a man in a dream. Then his face crumpled and for a moment Adam thought he was going to burst into tears, but that was not the case at all, for Jacob’s whole demeanour changed from affability to black rage as his eyes started from their sockets and his skin colour became mottled with fury,

“It all went wrong when he came here. Strutting in here like a peacock he was, acting as though he were some one important. I recognised him right away, and I knew it was only a matter time before he would see me and know who I was. All these years I’ve hoped never to see him again …”

“So who was he? What harm could he do you?” Adam looked at Jacob, and wondered whether or not the conversation would lead to defusing the situation or aggravating it. He had no weapon with which to defend himself, and had a mental image of Jacob rushing at him and pushing him down the well. He waited, with apparent calm, for Jacob to talk.

“Years ago I married a woman in my home town of Baldwin, who was an Aunt of Prescotts. He was a boy then, so I knew him as he was growing into manhood. She was a bad sort, and life was nothing but misery with her so I upped and left and went to sea.” he smiled, a cruel smile, that bore more than a fleeting resemblance to his cousin, “I never saw her again, never wanted to either. Then I met Tilly and married her.” he paused and shot a glance over at Adam as though to see whether or not he had picked up the relevance of what had been said, “How did you know there was a connection between Prescott and me?”

“I wasn’t sure, Jacob. But I never mentioned Holmes to you, you gave me that information yourself. Once you did I remembered all those conversations we used to have, and those details about your cousin, and of course, he looks enough like you to be related. I didn’t remember the connection until you mentioned his name although I can recall wondering who it was he reminded me of when I first had the pleasure of meeting him. So – you shot Prescott because he can remember that you were still married to his aunt?”

“I didn’t intend to do him any harm. You know me, Sir, I’m easy going by nature, not like Jack. But Jack said if Prescott could prove I was still married to Martha, then I would be arrested for bigamy. Tilly would … no, I couldn’t bear to let Tilly know.” he sighed and turned his back on Adam, his head bowed low, “Prescott did recognise me, he came and asked me how my dear wife Martha was, and laughed. He laughed at me!!
We arranged to meet, and I went, with Holmes, and Prescott told me that Martha was still alive, fit as a flea, cursing the day she had met me, cursing me … “

“Go on, Jacob. Was that when you decided to kill him?”

“I think we had already decided it, but when he said that he was going to tell Martha where I was, and that I had a new wife, I saw red. I shot him.”

“In the back?” Adam sighed, “I would not have thought of you as a back shooter, Jacob.”

“Times change, like I said before, we all have to make adjustments in life. I’d know him as a boy, seen him grow, and there he was, taunting me. He turned, laughing, saying he’d see me some other day and perhaps we could come to some agreement. I shot him. Then we removed all his identification and dumped him in the river. No one saw us.” he looked at Adam then, turning to face him, a gun in his hand, “I’m sorry, Captain. I had to do something about you, you see. I’ve worked along with you for four years and know what you’re like. Stubborn and principled like you are, I knew you would ferret away at this thing with Prescott, no matter how I tried to steer you off of the subject. Holmes suggested a way of removing you and … and so long as he did the business I agreed.”

“Well, thank you for that at least,” Adam replied, getting to his feet and facing his old friend with a slight cynicism on his face, “Why remove the notes from Maitland’s desk?”

“I didn’t. I don’t know anything about those notes. It seemed to be providential that they came up really or rather, disappeared like they did. It was a distraction and I had hoped it would lead you away from me. You wouldn’t have known it was me if I hadn’t made that mistake, would you?”

“Yes, I would have done, Jacob. Holmes you once told me had a loose mouth. Like a lot of bullies he doesn’t like pain himself. He would not have helped you when the going got tough. And I would have remembered him, and eventually, my friend, arrived at you in the end. Perhaps more slowly, but inevitably, it would have happened.”

Jacob nodded, and his face contorted again, as though in pain. Adam could see there were tears in the man’s eyes, and it appeared as though a sob shook the big frame as he stood there, the gun in his hand pointing at the young man.

“I’m sorry, Sir, I’m mighty mighty sorry, but I love Tilly. I can’t let you ruin what little happiness I have in life. I had to get rid of Prescott, and now …” Jacob closed his eyes, “I’m sorry, it’s for love, I promise you, it’s for love.”

Chapter 74

Adam Cartwright sat on the edge of the well and closed his eyes. The last sight he wanted to see was that of his friend firing the gun that would kill him.

He had thought of several ways to avoid the bullet that would wing its way to him. If he flung himself forward and grappled with him it would have achieved nothing, he was too weak from his wounds to even stand at that moment. Apart from which Jacob was built like Hoss and Adam would never had won a fight against Hoss even when in peak condition.

He was weak, and tired. His mind drifted over the events of the day and he knew that he had spent every last ounce of power in his body during the past hours to arrive at this stage of his life. Sitting with those girls in the cell, fighting that gorilla in the latrines were just too much. If anyone had said to him had he given up he would have said not really, not willingly, he was just too tired to care anymore.

He sat and waited, knowing that when the bullet came it would snuff out his life and all that he had achieved, all his feelings and thoughts, they would not matter anymore. Nothing would matter anymore. He was tired and just wished Jacob would hurry up. He had seen the way the facial muscles had bunched up, the jaw line tautened and the time for Jacob to squeeze the trigger was now, so he closed his eyes.

Jacob Brown felt the tears hot on his cheeks and they blurred his eyes, but his aim was steady and true. He knew that he was going to kill his friend, the man who had mattered most in his life, a man who had been friend and advocate and at times protector. He thought of the times they had fought the sea when it raged and foamed and crashed against the ship, sending it plunging down and keening from side to side. Oh they had fought together side by side then, to reef the sails to the masts, to grab at the ropes, to tie down the wheel. He remember the times Adam had literally saved his life, the time the hawser had broken loose and snapped back cutting into his leg and how this friend had knelt beside him, holding the flesh together, forcing the blood from gushing out. He remembered all those times.

If only this man had never ridden into the Fort. If Jacob could have turned back the clock how willingly he would have done so. How much more would he have longed to be fighting those salt waves again, been blinded by the fierceness of wind, rain and sea. Better that than this moment now.

But there was nothing he could do, nothing. He had already killed one man, he would have to kill this one other now. It was for Tilly, and Tilly Brown meant more to him than anyone in the world, even Adam Cartwright.

His eyes blurred, the tears were hot, and saliva filled his mouth as he struggled to suppress his emotion and keep his arm straight. He aimed the gun at his friend who looked at him, and closed his eyes.

Hoss Cartwright stared out at the stars in the sky and a pale moon peeked back at him. He had fretted himself for hours on end and was tired out and longed for his bed. He thought now of Pa and Candy. Perhaps they were in the big room, reading together, sharing a laugh over something. Perhaps they had received Adam’s cable and were talking about when they would be home. Hoss wondered how Adam and Candy would get on. Oh, it would be fine. Adam was not judgemental and was good to get on with, and Candy was so relaxed and laid back. It was going to be good, when they got home.

He took his eyes from the stars and then saw his reflection staring back at him. He saw a worried anxious man. He passed his hand over his chin and frowned. He had lost weight. Shucks, Hop Sing sure would be hopping mad about that for sure. He sighed. Then there was a gun shot.

He paused. Well, he told himself, this was a fort full of soldiers so what would one expect? But then he thought of Adam and a sudden fear surged up into his chest and he began to run towards the door.

Joe Cartwright slept with his head on his saddle and the blanket pulled to his chin. He had spent a long time trying to work out where Adam could have gone, and decided that first thing in the morning he would go to Custer and demand some help in finding his brother, even if it meant taking the whole Fort to pieces. He chided himself for not thinking of that sooner.

Eventually his mind had drifted to Little Moon. He had so loved her, and so desired her for his very own. He even felt envious of Jacob and Tilly when they were together. The loving affection they showed to one another was something that Joe would have loved to have shared with a wife of his own, with Little Moon.

He had gradually drifted into sleep. There were no dreams, he slept soundly. He never heard a single thing.

Matilda, to give her her full name, had enjoyed spending the time with Hoss Cartwright. Once he had stopped pacing the floor they had sat together and talked, drank far too much coffee as well.

She told him how she had met Jacob and married him several years before, although he had made her promise not to tell anyone in case it effected his chances of promotion. Jacob had told her all about his Captain, Adam Cartwright, and Hoss then told her all about the Adam Cartwright that Jacob did not know.

He told her about the boy who had been there by his side and taught him so much. About the youth and all the adventures they had shared together. Hoss had told her how they had once known sheer poverty, but now owned the largest ranch in Nevada. He told her how without Adam in his life, he felt incomplete.

Tilly told him how she felt that same way about Jacob. Until they had met and she had fallen in love with him she had been only half a woman, but once they had met she had become complete, a whole person. If anything happened to him, she told Hoss, her life would be over, for he was her life.

She had gone to prepare some late supper and smiled over at Hoss, she thought over the things they had talked about and felt so light hearted, so sure that everything was going to be alright, when there was that gunshot. She had looked up, and seen Hoss running towards the door. She was not sure why, but she picked up her skirts and began to run as well.

Adam Cartwright wondered what was taking Jacob so long. He sat on the edge of the well with his eyes closed and waited for his friend to kill him.

Chapter 75

There was so much shouting and so he opened his eyes to look upon a scene of total pandemonium.

Jacob had fired the gun, then had turned and was running over the compound towards the stables. Close behind him was Maitland with several troopers in pursuit of Jacob.
Adam stood up, and upon hearing a familiar voice turned towards the tavern where he saw Hoss running towards him, behind Hoss was Tilly.

She was running towards Jacob for the path to the stables cut across the entrance to the tavern. Hoss, unsure of the situation, paused to look around for Adam, but Tilly, her eyes only on Jacob, picked up her skirts and continued to run.

“Jacob, Jacob” she screamed, and on her face a look of such anguish and terror that the strange shadows of night time intensified by the mystery of pale moonlight.

“Don’t let him go,” Maitland yelled at Hoss, “He tried to kill your brother,” and he pulled out a revolver and fired a warning shot over Jacob’s head. “Stop, I order you now, stop.”

But Jacob continued to run. For a big man he could move with deceptive lightness of feet and seeing Tilly, hearing her voice, impelled him to move even faster. Anything than have to see her face, to have to explain, to hear her reproaches. He crashed into a water barrel, which teetered and fell, spewing water into puddles across the track.

Hoss had veered left, and now joined in the pursuit. Unsure of the truth of what had been said, he nevertheless gave chase after Jacob, veered to avoid colliding with the barrel, and hastened on. Another shot ran out, but this time from Jacob, and Hoss felt the red hot sting of a bullet sear across his upper arm.

Maitland and his men were beginning to lessen the gap between Jacob and once again he fired a warning shot above the fleeing man’s head, and shouted the order to halt.

“Stop now or I shoot to bring you down, soldier.”

Jacob turned and fired, and Maitland fell without a sound. Tilly screamed and stopped in her tracks. She looked from the fallen man to her husband who had resumed his flight. Hoss was gaining on him now, and several other soldiers came to join in the pursuit.

Jacob was frantic with feelings he had never experienced before as he continued to run. He knew that were he to reach the stable he would never have time to saddle a horse, and if he could have done, he would never have the time to open the gates and flee into the vast beyond. He knew that he should give up but fear sent logic and good sense out of his head. He only knew that he had to run, just as a fox runs from the hounds during a hunt, always running, nowhere to hide, nowhere to go, the only thought was to escape.

Hoss felt his feet pounding against the ground, his breathing was getting laboured and his chest was tightening. He wondered whether the world had gone mad. Why would Jacob want to shoot Adam? But then, why shoot Maitland? He ran on and then lunged forwards and hurled himself towards Jacob.

Those last few feet and Jacob had faltered long enough for Hoss to make up the distance. He felt the other man’s body crash into him and fell him to the ground. Hoss fingers tightened around his wrist, forcing him to release the gun. For several minutes they grappled together, first one gaining the advantage and then the other. The gun slipped from his fingers and as it did so, Jacob lost the will to fight anymore. He relaxed his hold on Hoss throat and gave no resistance when Hoss’ fist slammed into his face.

Tilly now flung herself onto Hoss’ back, screaming for her husband, and sobbing as she saw him flat out on the ground, with blood streaming from his nose and mouth. Hoss got to his feet and watched as two soldiers came and took her away, and then another two came and hauled Jacob to his feet.

“Jacob, Jacob…” Tilly sobbed stretching her hands out towards him, but he turned his head away as though she were the one that could not be forgiven, she the one who bore the reproach and the shame, and with a heart rending cry she turned and fell into Hoss’ arms, “Oh, Hoss, Hoss, what’s happened? What’s happened?”

“I don’t know, Tilly, I don’t know.” Hoss replied softly, and put his arm around her shoulders and held her close, gently stroking her hair and trying to silence the sobs.

He looked over her shoulder and saw his brother walking slowly towards him. His mouth opened and his lips framed the word “Adam?”

“What’s going on, Adam? What in Pete’s name happened to you? Where’ve you been?” he asked all in a jumble as his brother drew closer.

Adam looked at his brother and then at Tilly. He signalled to Hoss to take the woman into the tavern, so Hoss gently turned her around and steered her, like a poor sick fawn, back into the tavern.

Very carefully he set her down in a chair, then he looked at Adam,

“What in Pete’s name happened? What’s going on, Adam?”

“It’s a long story, Hoss.” Adam replied in a voice that was more clipped than usual, deeper and husky, “Get us something to drink. Tilly needs a brandy.”

Hoss nodded and hastened to do as his brother had asked, while Adam sat down beside his friends wife, and took her by the hand. For a while she did not speak, nor look up, but continued to weep, her free hand covered her face, and continually brushed aside tears. When Hoss returned and pushed the glass of brandy into her hand she was shaking so much that she needed her other hand to hold the glass steady enough to drink from it.

“What’s happened, Mr Cartwright?” she whispered, “What did they say my Jacob had done?”

“Oh ,Tilly,” Adam said softly, “I wish I could spare you this but…”

“Is it about his other wife? Is that it?” she cried, looking with frantic eyes at the other man, and then she turned to Hoss, “Do you know what it’s about, Hoss?”

“No,” Hoss said honestly and looked at Adam “What other wife?”

“Jacob was married before and was never divorced. She’s still alive.” Adam looked at Tilly who was no longer sobbing in that terribly painful manner, but was weeping and wiping her face dry with a corner of her apron, “You knew?”

“Yes, I knew he had been married before, that Prescott, the journalist you were asking about, he told me. He told me everything. He was a horrible man, Mr Cartwright. I pretended that he was nice because I didn’t want you to go asking me questions that would make me have to say about that other woman.”

“You never told Jacob you knew?” Adam whispered, taking hold of her hand again, and looking into the mottled face of a woman who had never had claims to beauty, but had certainly know love, true love, “You never told him?”

“How could I? He had kept it from me all these years because he felt he had to , and I didn’t want to go charging in and accusing him of keeping secrets from me. I … I was afraid I’d lose him.”

Adam shook his head slowly, and reached out a hand to draw her into his arms, and he held her close, telling her that it was alright, it was all alright now. But he knew, and she knew, that nothing was alright at all, nothing would ever be alright for Tilly and Jacob again.

Lieutenant Maitland sat in the Doctor’s office, bleeding copiously from a wound in the chest which the Doctor was excavating vigorously. He looked up as George Custer came into the room but had no strength to do anything but incline his head. The Doctor stood up and turned,

“I don’t know what’s going on, George, but you really should stop having such rowdy parties, you know.” he chided good humouredly.

“Is he going to be alright?” Custer asked, nodding over to Maitland who had now fainted again.

“Yes, he’s going to be fine. I’ve got the bullet out and after a few days rest he’ll be well enough to move back to his own quarters.”

“I’ll come back later to see him. I want the answer to some questions.” and without another word Custer turned and left the building.

Tilly insisted that she was well enough to sleep, she needed to sleep, she took another glass of brandy to make sure that she did sleep and on that understanding the two brothers left her alone to make her own way to her room.

“You don’t look so good, Adam.” Hoss said turning to his brother, “Do you want to tell me about it now?”

Adam frowned, and shook his head. The feeling of exhaustion had swept over him again, he didn’t want to talk, his mouth seemed to have clemmed up, and he felt as though his bones were already asleep.

“In the morning,” he said so softly that Hoss had difficulty hearing him, “I need to sleep.”

Hoss did not insist, he could see for himself that his brother could barely move and so he walked close by his side, just in case his brother needed him to lean upon.

In the store room Joe slept on, the light from the light was a golden globe that illumined his form and both his brothers paused to look down upon him.

“Shall I …?”

“No,” Adam placed a hand on his brother’s arm, “Don’t disturb him, let him sleep. Let him sleep. Let’s hope he has pleasant dreams tonight.” and with a sigh Adam made his way to his own bed, and lay his weary bones down. Tomorrow, he knew, Joe would have to confront his worse fears and would, no doubt, have no more pleasant dreams for a long time to come.

Chapter 76

Joe woke up and stretched. He scratched his head and then his chest. When he noticed the sleeping forms of both his brothers he closed his eyes and raised a simple prayer of thanks before scrambling to his feet.

A rather timid tapping on the door caused him to pause and then when it opened and revealed Tilly he knew for a certainty that something had happened. Poor Tilly. Whether it was the effect of grief, sleeplessness or the contents of the bottle of brandy, Tilly looked decidedly not her usual self.

“Tilly? Good grief, what’s happened?”

Joe’s exclamation brought a sob and a hic cough from Tilly, and she rushed over and flung herself into his arms,

“Didn’t they tell you? Oh, Joe, Oh Joe.”

“What’s happened, Tilly, tell me? Come on, tell me, you’re scaring the life out of me now. What is it?”

He gave her a little shake, gentle but firm, but she just seemed to have developed leech like qualities for she clung to him like one and sobbed, making his shirt decidedly damp.

“What’s going on?” Hoss muttered, opening one eye and then the other, and then closing both before giving them a good rub. He yawned, saw Tilly and Joe clinging together like a barnacle clings to a raft, and with a sigh rolled out of his blanket and got to his feet.

He nodded over to Joe, and was about to speak when Tilly flung herself now at him, sobbing and babbling incoherently. Joe touched his nose and waved his hand in front of his face, which was quite unnecessary as Hoss had an excellent nose of his own and could smell the stale odour of brandy. He patted Tilly on the back and then pushed her away from him.

“Tilly, I think we should eat, have some strong coffee and then go and see Jacob, don’t you?”

“Oh Hoss, Oh Joe.” she sobbed and shook her head sorrowfully, “I don’t think I can.”

“I think you need to go out and sit down. Joe and I can cook something and make coffee. Now, don’t you worry none. Just go and sit down.”

“What’s happened?” Joe hissed, glaring from Tilly to Hoss and then glancing over at Adam’s still incumbent form, “When did Adam get back? Where’s he been?”

“I don’t know the answer to most of your questions, Joe. Just be patient, will ya?”

“What’s the matter with Tilly though? Why didn’t you wake me up? Where’s Jacob?” he looked at Hoss’ arm and frowned, “What happened to you? Did someone shoot you?”

Hoss looked down at his arm, and noticed the torn bloodied sleeve of his shirt, he shook his head, dismissing it as irrelevant.

“I said, be patient, will ya?” Hoss snapped and after looking quickly over at where Adam still slept, he grabbed Joe by the elbow and hauled him through the door and into the tavern.

“Go and sit with Tilly, and hold her hand and be kind,” Hoss muttered, “I’ll see to our breakfast.”

“Hoss?”

“Go on …” Hoss said sternly, and then walked over to the kitchen where he was confronted with ovens and stoves and all the equipment that Hop Sing would have gloried in, but which made his own heart sink.

They left Adam sleeping as a look at his face was sufficient to indicate that sleep was essential for him. The women who helped Tilly cook the meals for the soldiers had arrived and after casting some rather oblique looks at Tilly, began to prepare the breakfast for the first batch of men who would be trooping hungrily into the tavern.

Tilly had drunk sufficient quantities of coffee to energise her and had eaten little. Together the three of them made their way to the cell block, where Jacob had been taken. The soldiers on duty escorted them into the building and then stood on either side of them as they approached Jacob’s cell.

The wretched man sat on his bunk with his head in his hands but when he realised that Tilly was there he glanced up with a look of such misery on his face that Tilly promptly burst into tears again. Hoss and Joe looked at one another over her head and rolled their eyes heavenwards. Tilly in tears was not a pleasant sight.

“I’m so sorry, Jacob.” she blubbed grabbing at his hands which he seized in his own and kissed with a warmth not diminished by the events of the previous evening.

“Forgive me, Tilly. I should have told you but I was too afraid that you would leave me. I’m so sorry.”

Hoss signalled to Joe that it was better for them to leave them to it, and together they left the cell block and walked out into the compound. Lieutenant Grant was approaching them and gave them a tight lipped smile as he reached them,

“Captain’s compliments, he would like to know how Captain Cartwright is this morning?”

“Sleeping.” Hoss replied, then he took hold of Grant’s arm, “What exactly happened here last night, Lieutenant?”

“Don’t you know?” Grant looked at him in surprise and then pointed to Hoss’ own injury, “I thought you did, seeing as you got shot at as well.”

“Aw, it ain’t nothing.” Hoss scowled, “Just a scratch. All I know was that there was a whole heap of men chasing after Jacob, and then he shot Maitland, and shot at me … I jest kinda got the idea that he had to be stopped, that was all. Then Tilly was …” he stopped, wondering if he had any right to mention what Tilly had said about the other wife, in case it had not bearing on the case, “Wal, she was mighty upset about something.”

“No doubt.” Grant said rather pompously, “Well, I’m sure your brother will enlighten you in due course. Once he has recovered himself would you ask him to attend the Captain’s office.”

“How is Maitland?” Joe asked, feeling that he should say something and hope that it would be a sufficient hook for Grant to provide some adequate information.

“He’s recovering well. Still at the Medics, might be a good idea if you paid a visit to the Medic yourself, sir.” he nodded at Hoss’ arm again, and then turned away. They watched him as he made his way back to Custer’s office.

“Let’s do as he says, go to the Medic and get your arm seen to, and see how Maitland is there,” Joe suggested and getting the nod from his brother they looked around for the Doctors, located it on the far side of the compound and began to walk to it, both deep in thought. “Did Adam say where he had been?”

“No, he said he would talk about it later. He didn’t look too good, Joe. Had bandages round his head.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” Joe said kicking a pebble out of the way, “Do you think Jacob did it?”

“Can’t see how, or why. Jacob thinks Adam is – well, he just has a lot of respect for Adam. He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt him. No, I don’t think it has anything to do with Jacob.” he frowned, “Mind you, come to think of it …”

“What?”

“Well, Maitland did shout out about Jacob trying to shoot Adam, but I can’t see how that could be, can you?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. I don’t know anything anymore.” Joe sighed and he looked up at the blue sky and thought of home.

Ben Cartwright took the cable and read each word as though they had been etched in gold. He smiled slowly, the fond smile of a father reading the best news he had seen in years. He fold the cable carefully and slipped it into his vest pocket, then nodded over at Tom, before leaving the Telegraph and Cable office.

“Good news?” Candy smiled at his employer unable to wait for him to speak as it was so obviously good news. There was a buoyancy in Ben’s step that had been missing for too long, and a twinkle in his eye that Candy had thought never to see again.

“The best. The boys are together at Fort Larned* and are on their way home.” he slapped Candy on the arm, and nodded over to the Bucket of Blood saloon, “I’ll treat you to a drink, son, to celebrate.” and he laughed, a deep throated warm chuckle that arose from sheer joy at knowing that his sons would soon be riding home … together.

Maitland looked up at them from the couch where he had slept during the night. He raised a hand and smiled,

“How’s your brother?” he asked.

“Sleeping. How’s yourself?” Hoss asked.

“Doc says I’ll recover after a few days rest. Come to get your arm fixed?”

“Ain’t nothing’ wrong with my arm. Look here, Maitland, mind telling me what’s going on around here? All I know is that I came out of that tavern and everyone was chasing after Jacob as though he’d committed a murder or something.”

“He had. He murdered Prescott.”

Joe and Hoss looked at one another in sheer amazement. No wonder Tilly was crying, Joe thought, and he shook his head, dazed.

“Prescott? Jacob shot Prescott?” Hoss scratched his head, “Why?” and then he remembered what Tilly had said the previous evening, “What did it have to do with Adam?”

Maitland opened his mouth to speak but stopped when the Medic walked into the room and surveyed the three men with a rather appraising glare, then his eyes fell upon Hoss’ bloodied sleeve and he nodded,

“I’d best take a look at that, young man.” he said, “Sit down,” and he gestured to a chair.

“It ain’t nothing” Hoss said, “Just a scratch.”

“In this climate scratches can turn nasty. Let me have a look?” and without more ado he tore off Hoss’ sleeve and examined the track mark of the bullet that Hoss had neglected since the previous evening. He shook his head, “Just a scratch!” he exclaimed in exasperation, “You men and your self diagnosis. Here you …” he looked at Joe, “Bring over that box from the desk. Get me hot water from over there.”

Hoss glanced down at his arm and frowned. The Doctor was right, it was more than a scratch, a lot of bloodied pus had collected around the site of the wound and he gulped. Pa would have been not so pleased if one of his sons rode home minus an arm, Hoss speculated grimly, and he awaited the Doctors ministrations patiently.

“So what did happen last night then?” Joe asked Maitland as he handed the box over to the Doctor.

“Well, when Adam decided to leave us the Captain wanted to make sure he got over to your billet safely and asked us to get an escort. It turned out to Brown. I could kick myself now, of course.”

“Why?” Joe asked, trying to ignore the ouch and ooh’s coming from Hoss as the Doc cleaned out the wound.

“Because I should have remembered when Adam first started asking about Prescott. I should have had the sense to put two and two together but I didn’t. I was too concerned about those notes getting lost and what the Captain would say about it. But when I saw Brown, it was the way he stood and in half shadow, it reminded me of something I had seen. I had to be sure though and went to check on Holmes.”

“Holmes? Who’s he?”

“The Corporal who apprehended your brother.”

“Apprehended my brother?” Joe blinked and looked over at Hoss who stopped ouching and oohing to listen.

“Seeing Holmes – well, everything fell into place. I remembered exactly what had happened. I called to two troopers to come with me. Holmes was already locked up but Brown, well, all I hoped was that your brother would not say or do anything that would make Brown realise the whole thing was over.”

“Yeah?” Joe nodded, hoping he looked as if he understood what Maitland was talking about, “What happened next?”

“We heard them talking, Brown was telling your brother why he had killed Prescott and then, well, that was when everything was obviously going wrong. I moved as fast as I could, didn’t seem as though your brother was going to do anything, he was just sitting there, looked as though he was resigned to die, and Brown sure was going to make sure he did.”

“Yeah?” Hoss gulped,and looked at Joe who looked quite shaken and pale.

“I managed to knock his arm away, and the shot went high, thankfully, otherwise your brother would have been as dead as a skunk and we’d be fishing him out of the well by now. Brown got a shock but he recovered quickly enough and went running off. That was when he shot me, but your brother got him. How’s the arm, Hoss?”

Both brothers just stared at him, mouths open. Then Hoss recollected himself and gave himself a mental shake, he glanced down at the neatly bandaged arm and nodded,

“I reckon I’ll survive.” he muttered and clambered out of the chair, nodded his thanks to the Doctor, and wished Maitland well, before heading for the door. He was closely followed by Joe,

“Did any of that make sense to you?” Joe enquired of his brother who was looking pale and rather startled.

“Some, but not much. Guess Adam’s the only one who can add the missing bits.”

“Hoss, when this is sorted out, do you think we could get going, and head for home?”

Hoss looked at Joe and grinned, he nodded, and Joe gave a little chuckle.

“Do you think they’ll hang him?” Joe asked after a few moments, and resuming some gravity for the thought of going home had made him feel quite light headed.

“Yeah, no doubt about it.” Hoss sighed, “Poor Tilly.”

Chapter 77

Adam woke and for some moments struggled to remember where he was and why. He touched his brow and felt the rough texture of a bandage beneath his fingers and slowly remembered the events of the previous evening. He sat up and sat very still for some moments while he stared at the unkempt blankets that were the evidence of his brothers’ having awoken and left the room some time earlier.

With a sigh he got to his feet and gingerly touched the back of his head. Even through the bandages he felt the sharp edge of pain in his skull. He grimaced. Holmes must have cracked him hard with that baton of his, and the memory of Holmes reminded him of Jacob.

The fact that he had just sat there waiting for Jacob to shoot him left him feeling uncomfortable. Even as he made his way to the tavern he was putting pieces of the evening together, remembering the total weariness he had felt, and the way he had not cared if Jacob had shot him. He would care now though, and his lips twitched into a parody of a smile.

The shirt was stiff and uncomfortable but he ignored it as the desire for coffee and food was more important at that moment than anything else. Some men in the tavern glanced over at him, some acknowledged him but most just put their heads together and whispered. Even the women who served him his meal seemed rather wary. He sat down and sighed, well, he was the man responsible for getting Jacob arrested, or maybe, even killed. He had only the haziest memory of what actually happened between sitting on the wall of the well, and Hoss approaching him.

There was one thing though that he could remember clearly and that was the memory of having to tell Joe about the girls and Little Moon. As he sat with the mug of coffee between his fingers he recalled his previous resolution to tell Joe nothing. It seemed, at the time, the most practical thing to do, and the easiest.
He had truly felt that the least Joe knew the better, then they could all ride on home and he would be none the wiser.

But it wouldn’t be honest. Adam took a deep breath. Honesty was an important part of his make up, it was what Pa said gave a man back bone, because in a rotten corrupt world it took courage to be totally honest. He drank two cups of coffee and ate very little. He felt agitated and miserable. He knew he had to see Custer and get those girls out of that cell. As far as Jacob was concerned, there was only regret that he had been unable to help the man, but the fact was, when a man could aim at a friend confident of killing him, then all obligations towards him ceased.

No, Adam stood up, he had to think of Joe and those girls now. He had to get them all out of there and home. He looked around the tavern, noticed that Tilly was not at her usual place, and once again shook his head.

Maitland greeted him like a long lost friend, and reached out a hand to be shaken warmly by him.

“I’m sorry I didn’t remember earlier,” he said, “It was only when I saw Brown and then Holmes that I really remembered clearly what I had seen. It was just before we were leaving. I saw Prescott talking to a soldier, which must have been when he was giving him the packet to give to Mrs Custer. As I was mounting up to go I saw him talking to Holmes and Brown. There was an air about them that seemed to me at the time, rather menacing. Then I thought it was a bit stupid of me to think that, so ignored it.”

“So what made you put particular relevance on it last night?” Adam asked quietly.

“I never saw Prescott again after that, and there was a time when I saw Holmes and Brown talking together, with that same air of conspiracy and menace. It was just a feeling, I appreciate that, but I’m not a fanciful man, and I can interpret well enough what was going on. Particularly so when you disappeared shortly afterwards.”

Adam nodded, wished the man well and thanked him for saving his life. He then made the journey to Custer’s office.

Captain George Armstrong Custer actually stood up to greet him and extended him his hand, before showing him the chair upon which he could sit.

“Glad you got through the evening, Cartwright.” he smiled, “Quite a turn up for the books.”

“Yes, as you say.” Adam nodded and glanced over at Grant who was seated at the other desk, “Talking about books, Captain, did you …”

“Yes,” Custer fidgeted in his seat and looked thoughtfully at Adam “You are a man who likes all your t’s crossed and I’s dotted, aren’t you?” he smiled but without mirth, “You want to know about Maitland‘s report, don‘t you?”

Adam inclined his head, and looked over at Grant, expecting him to stand up and make some acknowledgement of its whereabouts, but instead Custer caught him by surprise by continuing to speak on the subject himself,

“I read through Maitland’s report and I didn’t like what I read. Perhaps the most difficult thing for a man to be is, well, to be perfectly honest to themselves about themselves. I read that report and felt that I didn’t come out of it very well. I – er – hum – it was I who took Maitland’s report and destroyed it. I was pretty pleased when it came out that Prescott’s report was lost as well, I would have hated that to have been released back East.”

“No doubt, and I’m sure Mrs Custer agrees with you.”

“Oh yes, she does indeed.” Custer smiled, his heavily hooded eyes blinked as he recalled the way he had torn the papers up and thrown them on the fire in front of her and she had not even made a single bleat of protest.

“I want to know what you have decided to do about the girls.”

“What girls? Oh, those girls.” Custer frowned, “Well, I thought long and hard about what you said, Cartwright. I don’t agree with your argument and I honestly do feel that you will be taking them to their early graves, but in view of all that has happened here, I shall release them into your custody as soon as you wish to leave here.”

Adam’s heart fluttered in a way that brought colour to his cheeks. He felt somehow lighter, and as though some kind of equilibrium had been restored to his life. He stood up, and extended his hand,

“Thank you, I appreciate it very much.” he said and Custer smiled as he took the proffered hand and shook it.

“I still think it’s the wrong decision, but at the moment I don’t feel I can deny you what you have requested. Grant, give Captain Cartwright the written order, will you?”

Adam smiled and took the piece of paper duly signed by Custer, which would release the girls from their prison. He drew in a long breath of air and turned to leave.

“Captain Cartwright?”

He paused and half turned, Custer was still standing at his desk,

“When I first met you at the Admiral’s soiree all that time back, I had been told a lot about you. May I say, that you have lived up to every word of that recommendation. I wish you well, Sir, and God speed.” and with that he gave Adam a smart salute.

Adam looked at him thoughtfully, then inclined his head in acceptance of the compliment. Grant also was on his feet and had snapped a salute at him. It was, somehow, quite poignant.

He looked up as he entered the compound. The sun was shining from a brilliantly blue sky and some clouds were forming. He wondered briefly if there would be rain. He glanced around him and saw Joe and Hoss walking towards him, a smile on both their faces. He could see the pleasure there, and he smiled in return. But there was no smile in his eyes. He looked affectionately at Joe, and the joy he had felt moments earlier drifted away. Joe … of course … Adam took in a deep breath again and half closed his eyes. It had to be faced, and it wasn’t going to be easy. He clenched fists as though preparing for battle.

Chapter 78

“How’s your arm, Hoss?”

“How are you, Adam? Are you alright now?”

“Sleep well? How’s the head? Good thing it’s like a rock!”

They spoke all at once, a jumble of words, the reassurance of caring and a touch of hands upon arms to make sure. They smiled at one another. Then laughed.

“Wal,” Hoss said with a guffaw, “My arm was healing up jest fine until that Doctor decided to mess about with it. It’s been itching like crazy ever since.” he suddenly dropped his smile and looked keenly at Adam, “Is everything sorted out now, Adam?”

“Yep, everythings sorted out now, Hoss. I reckon we could start to make plans to go home.” he looked at Joe and saw the delight leap into his eyes, “How does that suit you both?”

“Suits me just fine.” Joe replied earnestly, “The sooner I’m outa here the happier I’ll be, I can’t stand the stinking place.”

“Er..humn,” Adam frowned, “Talking of stinking I know for a fact I need a change of clothes and before I put on clean clothing I want to have a bath. How about it? Suit you two?”

“Wal, I got to get me a new shirt. That Doctor done ripped my sleeve right off.”

“Hoss, it was hanging by a thread anyway.” Joe laughed, relief at knowing he would soon be on his way home paramount in his feelings at that moment.

Having collected their saddlebags which contained some fresh clothing, the brothers
walked together towards the building that had the sign “Baths – Hot Water supplied – Clean Towels upon request”. As happens when walking together it was not long before their steps were quite synchronized, and Joe began to whistle. It smote Adam’s heart to know that the younger man was so happy. It kept churning over and over in his mind how and when he should tell Joe the news about Little Moon, and the errand that he knew had to be fulfilled before they could reach home.

There was a warm pleasantly musty smell as soon as they walked into the bath room. One large room with four tubs. They paid for soap, towels and, oddly enough, hot water. But it made some sense in a way, considering how dry and arid the area was, and the labour involved in filling up the tubs.

“I hate baths,” Hoss grumbled as he pulled off his sweat stained shirt and tossed it into a corner, “Until I get myself into one.” His boots went clanking into a corner followed by his pants, socks and long johns. He grabbed his bar of soap and plunged into his barrel, sending water flowing over the edge. Archimedes principle applied but who ever had filled the tub had not taken it into account where Hoss was concerned.

Joe didn’t bother to waste time on words. His clothes were coming off at a fair rate of knots and being tossed unceremoniously into a heap. He stepped gingerly into the tub though, clutching at his bar of soap which promptly disappeared as he sunk into the water. He ducked down in order to retrieve it and after some groping around to find it bobbed up again, shaking his hair much like a dog shakes himself after plunging into water. He laughed and settled back, resting his head on the wooden slats of the tub.

Adam took off his clothes with some relief. The blood on his shirt had stiffened uncomfortably and he was glad to discard it. He unwound the bandages carefully, and placed it on a chair, and that likewise went for the bandages around his head. It was a relief to get rid of them. Stripped down to the buff he grabbed his soap, and stepped into the water.

Oh it was blissful. The water was just hot enough to create that initial pleasurable shiver before becoming perfect. Like Joe he settled back, realised that the wood would cause some discomfort where the bump to his skull happened to be, and sighed in annoyance. Best to lather up and get on with it.

Hoss was singing. It was a song that he had made up himself years ago and which changed every time he sang it. Sometimes he forgot the words himself and would settle on whistling which would usually prompt Joe to throw something at him.

“Oh this is good,” Joe sighed contentedly, and he began to lather up the soap and wash himself, he rubbed soap into his hair, and ducked down again. Then rubbed the soap into a lather once he had resurfaced.

“When do we get started on going home,, Adam?” Hoss asked, interrupting his song in order to ask, “Only I’m famished.”

“Well, can’t have you wasting away, can we?” Joe laughed, “How about it, Adam? When do we leave?”

“Soon as we can.” Adam replied, dragging his mind away from memories of Tilly and Jacob and wondering what would happen to Tilly – he would have to find out if she were going to be alright before they left. Then there was the matter of Little Brook and Prairie Fire and getting them some horses, of course, the horses they came on, were Indian ponies, so they would be in the stable. No problem there then. But there was the matter of Joe … oh Joe, Joe.

“Oh I’m going home,
Going home to the Ponderosa.
Ain’t no place like it,
No place like home.”

Hoss’ voice boomed joyously through the bathroom, and he rubbed soap all over himself in time to the tune, then Joe started to whistle some oddity of a tune that he thought went along with Hoss’ song but didn’t. Adam closed his eyes and tried not to think anymore. He leaned back against the wooden rim of the tub and tried not to think that soon, and it would have to be soon, he would tell Joe about Little Moon, but not just yet, not while he was so happy.

“Home to Pa and lots to eat
Home to the Ponderosa.
Home is where my heart is
No place like hooooome.”

Joe laughed with the pure joy of living as Hoss warbled the long note to his song. If they wondered why Adam was so quiet they didn’t mention it, after all, they both knew their brother had gone through a rough time. He’d soon cheer up.

Chapter 79

Hoss secured the bandage around Adam’s stomach and once it was fastened up Adam began to dress. He realised that the only things he could change into was his uniform of white shirt, cravat and navy jacket. Joe pulled out a shirt only marginally cleaner than the one he had discarded and pulled that one, whistling happily as he buttoned it up. Hoss was quiet now as he put on a clean shirt. The sombre mood that Adam had remained in had began to catch on.

“Let’s eat,” Adam said now, as his brothers pulled on their boots and picked up their hats, “After that, Hoss, we need to get the pack horse loaded up. We’ve some distance to travel before we reach any town.”

“We will be going after we’ve eaten, won’t we?” Joe asked, feeling suddenly uncertain as he saw Adam’s rather melancholy face. “I don’t want to get indigestion afterwards because you’ve changed your mind.”

“No change of mind, Joe.” Adam flashed him a smile, “I do want to make sure that Tilly is going to be alright, though.”

Joe nodded and settled his hat upon his now gleaming clean hair. They stepped out into the sunlight and headed for the Tavern. Hoss was thinking of all that he would have to purchase from the sutler’s store and worrying about whether or not he would have enough money, while Joe was wondering why Adam was not as exultant about going home as they were, whereas Adam had only one concern now and that was when exactly to tell Joe the last thing on earth he would want to hear.

Tilly was entering the tavern as they approached. She looked at them all sadly, and once they were inside she joined them at the table. She looked at each one of them and after a long drawn out sigh she put a hand on Adam’s arm,

“Are you going to visit Jacob before you leave, Sir?” she asked quietly.

“No,” Adam replied, not coldly, but firmly, “No. I won’t be seeing him, Tilly. My main concern at the moment is for you.” and he put his hand gently over hers and looked into her face, “You know that Jacob has no choice other than to plead guilty, don‘t you?”

“He’s already signed a statement saying that he’s guilty and why. He’s so sorry about … about you, and what he was going to do. He said he couldn’t understand how he could have got to that stage of thinking – I mean, you of all people?”

“Then you know that there is only one thing they can do in this matter, don’t you?” Adam continued, ignoring the reference to Jacob’s decision to shoot him.

“Yes. There will be a short trial and then he and Holmes will hang. There is no other alternative. I know that, and so does he.” she frowned thoughtfully, even as the tears trickled once again from her red swollen eyes, “I was afraid that being here he would be killed by some Indian arrow or tomahawk. I just didn’t think …” she stopped and blew her nose in a most unladylike manner into a piece of cloth.

“What will you do, Tilly?” Hoss asked her, “Will you go back East?”

“Yes, I shall,” she replied, “I didn’t sell my gaff to my sister, I only leased it out so I can go back there. It was running at a good profit so she and I should be able to keep it going. Oh please, Sir,” she turned again to Adam, “Please go and see him? It’s the last wish of a dying man, Sir, for he’ll be hanged within the next few days.”

Adam looked at her and sighed. He wanted to say that had Jacob had his way then he, Adam Cartwright, would have been dead now, and buried too more than likely. He glanced over at Joe who raised his eyebrows,

“I’ll see him before we leave.” he promised her and upon saying that she leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, unable to speak now, and crying once again.

They watched her as she left them, and then looked at one another, Joe leaned forward,

“Are you really going to see him?”

“I said I would.”

“You won’t be seeing anyone else, will you?” Joe asked, his brow creasing anxiously as he saw their departure getting later and later.

“Let’s eat now. It won’t take more than a moment or two to see Jacob.” Adam replied quietly.

“I’ll cable Pa,” Joe said quickly, as though doing so would set the seal on Adam’s promise of an early departure from the Fort, “I’ll let him know that we’re on our way.” he smiled brightly at Hoss and Adam, both of whom nodded and smiled back, “You don’t have to see anyone else, do you? Custer for example?”

“No.” Adam frowned, “Your dinner’s getting cold, Joe.”

Joe sighed and relaxed. It was going to be just fine. He worked out how long it would take to load up the pack horse, to saddle the horses, to say goodbye to Jacob. It wouldn’t take so long. On that thought he tucked into his food with a gusto that did credit to the cooking.

Jacob Brown stood up as Adam stepped towards him. The fact that Adam was wearing his uniform rather rubbed salt into the wounds for the man had served at sea for many years and his respect for the uniform summed up his feelings for his country which was one of pride and love. He swallowed a lump in his throat, and struggled to look Adam in the face, but found that he could not

“I’m grateful for your coming, Captain.” he said

“You’re a fool, Jacob.” Adam replied quietly.

“Aye, I know that, but if Tilly had only told me that she knew, none of it would have happened.”

“No point in blaming Tilly for this. You should have been honest enough right from the beginning, Jacob. It’s been a disaster waiting to happen. You and your temper have always led you into irresponsible and unnecessary danger, and others have had to bear the consequences of it too often.”

“I know. Captain, I’m more than sorry for what I was going to do to you. I don’t know how I even thought I could carry it out. I can only ask you to forgive me, before I die, I want to know that you forgive me.”

Adam could barely get the words out of his mouth, for all the good Jacob had ever done in his life had been negated by his murderous acts during the past few weeks. He managed to utter the words however, and hoped that in time he would come to feel the actual emotion of forgiveness. He left Jacob staring out after him, knowing that his Captain no longer had feelings of affectionate friendship towards him. It was his loss and he had to accept that is was also his fault.

“Joe?”

Joseph Cartwright turned and smiled as Adam entered the stable. Cochise was saddled, as was Chubb and Adam’s mount. Hoss had taken the pack horse to the Sutlers store, and was getting the necessary provisions for the journey.

“I’ve cabled Pa. I told him we were leaving within the hour.” Joe gave his brother a wide grin, his hazel eyes gleamed happily, “I don’t think I’ve felt this happy for a long time, Adam.”

“Don’t say that, Joe.” Adam said, feeling the words like stabs to the heart, “I – I have to tell you something that breaks my heart but …”

Joe frowned, and the light seemed to fade from his eyes,

“What is it? You haven’t done anything stupid, have you? Like enlisted?”

“No, Joe, nothing like that,” Adam frowned and took a deep breath. He placed his hand upon Joe’s elbow and drew his brother into a more private part of the stable. He looked at Joe and licked his lips, perhaps, well, perhaps this was not the right time?

“Go on then, tell me?” Joe prompted, licking his lips as well now, and feeling his heart beat increasing in rapidity, “Tell me? What is it?”

Chapter 80

Adam looked around the stable, they were quite alone now. Some horses moved in their stalls and the straw made the rustling sounds that brought back memories of home. He cleared his throat, looked Joe right in the eyes and took a deep breath.

“Is it Pa? Has something happened to him?” Joe cried, unable to bear the suspense any longer.

“No, no,” Adam replied, a slight frown furrowing his brow, and he passed a hand over his nose and mouth in a familiar gesture that showed his nervousness and concern, “Joe, I have to tell you something that I find -.”

He stopped as a soldier came into the stable whistling. He nodded over to them as he passed them by to go to his horse. Adam bit his bottom lip and shook his head, and almost snorted down his nose in annoyance. But his dark eyes held fast hold of his brothers, and Joe felt his heart hammering against his ribs as though at any moment it would burst through them.

“What is it? For goodness sake, Adam, tell me what it is?” he cried, leaning towards his brother and taking hold of his arm, “Is it -?” he stopped, and licked his lips that had gone suddenly dry.

“Little Moon.” Adam said softly, “Little Moon is dead, Joe.”

Joe stepped back, he shook his head, then he looked steadily at Adam, his eyes were confused and large in a pale face, and his lips seemed to have frozen against his teeth because he could not move them to make a single word. Adam licked his lips now, his throat and mouth had gone dry. He had several times seen Joe stricken with misery over some lost love for such happens in life sadly, but having to bear the news and to see his brother’s soulful reaction made Adam feel physically sick.

“Look, Joe, there are some Cheyenne girls here … Prairie Fire and Little Brook. Do you know them?” he stared into Joe’s face, and then gave him a little shake, “Joe? Do you know them?”

Joe blinked and moved his lips, and his eyes filled with tears,

“Adam? Did you say that Little Moon was dead? Did you?”

“Yes, Joe. That’s what I said. I’m so sorry, Joe.”

“Have you seen her? Have you? How do you know it’s true if you haven’t seen her?” Joe’s voice rose higher, and trembled, he grabbed hold of his brothers’ arm so tightly that Adam winced, “I want to see her.”

“Listen to me,” Adam grabbed him by both arms and gave him a slight shake, “Listen to me, Joe. There are two Cheyenne girls here. Prairie Fire and Little Brook. Little Brook is about seven years old. There was another girl with them, Flower of the Prairie. Do you know them?”

Joe screwed up his eyes, the names were jumbled up in his head, but somehow straightened out and he nodded, slowly,

“Yes, I knew them. Where are they?”

“They’re waiting for us to take them back to their people. I promised them that we would take them back home. I’ve a written permit releasing them.”

“A written permit?” Joe shuddered, and he buried his face in his hands, “Oh, no. Prairie Fire and Little Brook were friends of Little Moon. Did they see her die? Did they?”

“Wait now -”

“Who killed her? Was it the soldiers? Was it Custer? Did he kill her? Adam, Adam,” he pushed his brother aside, stopped, felt his legs go weak beneath him and stumbled. He gripped tightly to Adam’s arm to prevent himself from falling.

The soldier walked pass them again and glanced over at them, he shook his head,

“Bit early for drinking, ain’t it?” he scoffed.

He walked on unaware of how much effort it needed on Adam’s part to restrain his brother from taking a flying leap and knocking the soldier down and beating the life out of him. As it was Hoss came into the stable at that moment and seeing Adam and Joe seemingly wrestling together hurried over to part them.

“What’s going on here? Stop it. Stop it.” he yelled.

“Just hold him back, Hoss. He’s had a shock, and wants to take on the whole of the garrison. Not that I can blame him, but -”

“What are you babbling on about?” Hoss scowled, looking from one to the other of his brothers.

“Little Moon. She was killed in the ambush on the hunting camp the other day.” Adam told him quietly, and he looked at Joe sadly, “I – I didn’t know when was the best time to tell him.”

“There ain’t no best time, is there?” Hoss replied, holding Joe close to him, “Shucks, Joe, I’m so mighty sorry.”

“How could they have found her, when I couldn’t?” Joe sobbed, “I wanted to keep her safe, and bring her to the Ponderosa but she wouldn’t let me. Why did she have to be there? Adam, how can you be sure it’s her?”

“Look, Joe, you can ask them yourself when I bring them here. Hoss, look after him will you?”

Hoss raised his eyes heavenwards and shook his head. He led Joe over to a corner where they sat down together on some bales of straw. Joe pushed Hoss away, and wiped his face dry with an impatient gesture, then he slumped back against the bars of the stall behind him, and closed his eyes. Tears continued to trickle slowly down his cheeks, but he moved away when Hoss reached out towards him.

“Hey, Joe, there ain’t nothing I can do fer yer, is there? Just say and I’ll do anything I can to help?”

“Just find the person who killed her and bring him here, do that, will you?”

“Wal, that’s kinda difficult because I don’t know who it was, I mean, it could have just been a random bullet. They go every which way, don’t they? You can imagine what a lot of firing there was and …”

“I don’t want to imagine. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to know who did it.”

“No one could know, Joe.”

Joe looked at Hoss as though he were mad, and then shook his head, he closed his eyes and then became convulsed by the sobbing that could only come from a broken heart. He buried his face in his hands and arched his back so that his head was between his knees as he sobbed, and sobbed.

Tentatively Hoss reached out and put his hand around his brother’s shoulders. It was a miserable time. It was the bleakest of times and Joe wept until his body ached from tears.

Chapter 81

The tall man in the dark blue jacket of an Officer leaned against the wall of the stable for some moments with his arms folded across his chest while he took deep gulps of air into his lungs. He had been raised from infancy in a harsh environment, and in many ways his upbringing had been a harsh and rough one but he had been blessed with a wise father, and interludes of tender motherly care. Throughout his life of hardship, and the past four to five years had certainly added to them, the thing he found most difficult to bear was the distress of his youngest brother.

Perhaps it had stemmed from the fact that when Joe had been born the family had been cocooned in the warmth of a mother’s love and a baby’s dependence. Joe had been a child who gave unconditional love to all of them, and life had been enriched by the experience. Perhaps it had been enforced by the brutal death of that mother and the anguish of the child had torn at Adam’s heart so much that even now that they were men, Joe’s misery now brought that wringing of the emotions to his eldest brother. Maybe it was because unlike any other wound that could be oiled and bandaged and healed, the broken heart could only be healed by one person, and that was by the sufferer himself.

After some moments Adam left the stables and walked across the compound to the well. The bucket was on the wall, and the dipper beside it. He chose to ignore the dipper but cupped his hands and plunged them into the bucket, then sluiced the water over his face. It was cold and invigorating. He did it twice more before shaking his head, wiping the excess away and straightening his shoulders. There were things to do other than wallow in a misery that could swamp them all if they were not mindful of other things, other people, other dependents.

The soldiers on guard of what Adam thought of as The Pit, stood to attention and allowed him to pass. His uniform had been sufficient authority, although the permit was in his hand. He walked pass the latrines and down to where he had been incarcerated. The dreadful odour of death greeted his nostrils before he had turned the corner and saw the cell.

The two girls were sitting side by side, the child clinging to the older girl. The corpse remained where Adam had last seen it. No one had exercised pity for either the living nor the dead to have removed her. Adam sighed and looked at the sentry,

“Get me a blanket.” he said in a growl of a voice.

“Sorry, Sir, but I can’t do that,” the soldier replied, “it’s against regulations to provide them with garrison provisions.”

“Who exactly do you mean?”

“Er – ‘them’.” he jerked his head towards the girls, “They can only receive blankets and such articles via their Agent.”

Adam felt anger rippling through him, and he bit down hard to keep his mouth shut. He nodded towards the door, thrust the permit at the soldier, and pointed to the lock,

“Unlock this door and fetch me a blanket.”

“But -”

“I said, fetch ME a blanket.” he turned his head and gave the sentry a long dark glare, “Any more insubordination from you and I’ll have you removed from here and in a cell of your own so fast that you won’t know what hit you.”

“Yes, Sir,” the sentry nodded, but looked a bit wary of the other man, who, despite his uniform, was not of the garrison. He read the permit carefully, “You’re Captain Cartwright?”

“Yes.” Adam hissed between clenched teeth.

“I’m to provide you with whatever you require, Sir.” he frowned, “My apologies.”

Adam said nothing but stepped aside for the door to be unlocked, then he gave the sentry a cold look of reproof, which saw the young man hurry away. The girls had looked up and seen only a uniform standing beside another uniform. They had drawn, if possible, even closer together.

“Prairie Flower? Little Brook?” he stepped into the cell, “It’s alright. I’ve come to take you home.”

They said nothing but only looked quickly at him with their dark haunted eyes. He looked at the dead girl now, and then sighed,

“We have to take her back to her people too.”

There was still no response. Prairie Fire turned her head away from him and just stared listlessly up at the gap in the wall, while Little Brook clutched her hands together against her chest.

“Remember Little Moon? You told me she had died? Joseph, the white man who loved her, he’s waiting to see you both. He wants to make sure you get home safely. I want to get you back to your people.”

Prairie Fire looked at him now, her eyes narrowed and she peered closer to him.

“You are the man here before? Joseph’s brother?”

“Yes, Joseph’s brother.” he replied, “Will you trust me, Prairie Fire? Will you let me take you home?”

He heard a noise behind him and turned to see the soldier standing close by with a blanket folded over one arm. He held it out to Adam who took it and approached Flower of the Prairie with it. The sentry had done a good job in selecting a large enough blanket to cover and wrap the body securely, and did not seem to mind giving Adam some help in performing the task.

“Is that all you need, Sir?” he asked politely.

“They arrived on their own ponies. I didn’t see them in the stables earlier, do you know where they are?”

“I asked the Corporal, Sir. He’s arranged to get them for them.” he looked at the two girls and frowned, “I’m sorry, Sir.”

Adam nodded, but said nothing. Ignorance was a good ground for prejudice and hate, and he wondered how long it would take for such ignorance to be wiped out and leave people with some dignified compassion for people of other races and cultures. He shook his head, and looked at the girls, who were now standing near the door, watching him.

“Come, follow me,” he said, and after lifting Flower of the Prairie into his arms, he led the way out of the miserable hole in which they had expected to end their days.

There were three ponies waiting for them when they stepped out of the door into the compound. He secured the body onto one, and then swung the child onto another. The girl, Prairie Fire, mounted her own pony with a slowness that denoted her fear and timidity. She had to trust a man she barely knew, and a white man at that, and she was very afraid for her life and for Little Brook.

Adam took the reins and led them along the dry track to the stables where he could see his brothers and the horses awaiting them. He licked dry lips, and wondered how Joe would respond to seeing the Cheyenne girls now that he had been told about Little Moon. As he walked towards them, Adam wondered yet again whether he had done the right thing. He had thought it was right, because it had been the honest thing to do, but … hearing his brother’s distress had made him wonder whether, perhaps, he should have just kept the whole thing quiet.

Joe and Hoss mounted their horses as they saw Adam walking towards them. It was Joe who approached Adam and the girls, leading Adam’s horse on a leading rein. He held it to his, and looked at the two girls, and then at the body. His face drained of colour and Adam saw the anguish rush into his brother’s face,

“It’s Flower of the Prairie, Joe, it’s Prairie Fire’s sister” he cried immediately, realising that he had not told his brother about the girls, except that there were Cheyenne girls that he had promised to take home. How thoughtless, he chided himself, I should have told him.

“Prairie Fire?” Joe approached the girls and looked into their faces, he put out his hand towards them, “Remember me? Joseph?”

They nodded, Little Brook even smiled up at him, a sweet little smile of an innocent frightened child.

“You saw Little Moon? She was with you?”

Prairie Fire nodded, her dark hair, matted and soiled, fell over her face like a veil of mourning.

“Tell me … did you see her? Did you see Little Moon?”

Again she nodded, and Little Brook reached out her hand, small and dimpled, and touched that of the white mans. Joe looked at her,

“Did you see Little Moon?” he asked her in a voice that was trembling, and she nodded.

“She died.” the child said simply, “She was shot. Fell on the ground.”

All hope, any hope, left his face. It was like the flame of a candle that had been snuffed out. Adam felt his brother draw into himself, and shut himself away from them as he turned Cochise around, and led the way out of the Fort.

“How are we gonner find these Cheyenne, Adam?” Hoss asked, as he followed behind the girls ponies, the reins of the pack horse in his hand.

“You don’t have to worry about it, Hoss. They’ll find us.” Adam replied with a confident nod of the head and he gripped hold of the reins of the pony that bore the dead girls body upon it. He took a deep breath, and nodded again, as though reaffirming the statement .

They passed through the gates, and the sentries saluted him, or, more correctly, the uniform and what it represented. The small convoy rode onwards, over the ground that had lately been the site of tepees and camp fires, over the dry dust of a track defined by the hooves of cavalry horses, cannon and wagons. Onwards towards the vastness of a land that would soon be drenched with the blood of thousands.”

Chapter 82

Joe felt that he was in tight dark box with no room to move, and no room to breath. Even though he had chosen to take the lead of the small party of travellers, he still didn’t feel free from them enough to just allow himself time to think, to remember.

He wanted to have time to dwell on memories, to consider things that could have been. He needed to have the time to wallow in misery if necessary without the obligation of others who could, at any time, ride up and interrupt him and break his chain of thought. Most of all he wanted to know what he was to do now. There was no more chance of hope, no more future dreams, no more fanciful notions. Little Moon was dead. He closed his eyes and a tear trickled down his cheek, followed much too quickly by another.

Hoss rode alongside the girls. He wanted to keep close to them to give them a feeling of security and comfort. The fact that they viewed him as just another white man keeping guard on them was beyond his comprehension. He saw them as two little girls that needed a friend. But as he rode along he kept looking over to where Joe rode ahead of them, alone, lonely and very sad.

On the other flank, riding alongside the girls rode Adam. Hoss could see that his brother was concerned about Joe by the way he was constantly looking over at him, and biting the inside of his cheek.

“Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“Joe will be alright. He’ll get over it in time. That’s all he needs now, is time.”

“Sure, I know.”

“It came as a shock. I don’t think he could believe that she was actually dead. That it could have happened to her.” Hoss frowned, saw that Prairie Fire was looking intently at him, and smiled at her, which prompted her to turn her head away.

“I know that too.” Adam replied slowly.

“Perhaps you should have told him sooner.”

“Sooner? What do you mean? I told him as soon as I could! I was thinking of not telling him at all, but -,” he paused and looked at the girls who appeared not to be taking any notice of them at all, “well, what with having the girls here, I didn’t want him to be finding out from them about Little Moon.”

“Perhaps you should have told him when we were eating.” Hoss suggested, wrinkling his brow as he thought over the events of the day.

“Look, Hoss, we’ve a long journey ahead of us. We needed to eat. Misery doesn’t line many stomachs you know.”

Hoss sighed and nodded his head. He looked at the girls, and Little Brook looked at him. She smiled. He smiled back. Who could resist the gap toothed smile of a child as pretty as Little Brook.

“Did you hear what we were talking about?” he asked her, and she nodded, “I sure wish I could tell my little brother that you were mistaken. Ain’t likely for there to be two Little Moons, are there?” she frowned a little, as though finding the question difficult to understand, “See, if there were two Little Moons, then possibly it was Josephs Little Moon that was safe, and then that would make him happy again. Not happy in that he was having to leave her behind, but happy knowing that she were not dead. Savvy?”

“No savvy?” the girl replied, and gave a little laugh.

“No savvy. Right. Oh well, back to where we started then,” Hoss sighed and looked at Joe riding Cochise ahead of him, and knew from the slope of his shoulders just how miserable he was feeling.

“Prairie Fire?” Adam addressed the older girl, and smiled at her when she turned to look at him, “You do understand what is happening now, don’t you?”

She rose her shoulders in a shrug that indicated nothing. Her eyes slid to where her sister’s body was swaying too and fro on the back of the pony. She returned her gaze to Adam.

“Is your father alive, Prairie Fire?”

“Yes. He was hunting with the younger men. He would come back to the camp and not see us. He would not -” she frowned searching for the right word, “he will seek us out.”

“With the other huntsmen?”

“Others who are with him, yes.”

Adam nodded and ran his tongue around his teeth, he turned to look over his shoulder and realised how far they had come in such a short distance. The Fort was already no longer in sight.

“I want to meet your father, Prairie Fire. He needs to have his daughters returned to him. I want him to know that not all white men are at war with his people. We’re not all cowards who go in and kill innocent girls and women.”

“Yes. He knows that, Black Kettle tell us that all the time. But now, perhaps, my father will not be so sure. One daughter to take home, but another daughter already gone.”

“What about Little Brooks family?” Adam asked, “Won’t they be pleased to have her back, safe and sound?”

She repeated the words beneath her breath, he could see her lips moving without any sound from them. Then she nodded,

“Yes. Little Brook has father and mother. They will be happy.”

“Then,” Adam attempted a smile, it faltered somewhat, “that is good, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she replied, “ that is good.”

They said nothing more and Adam dropped back a little sensing that the body of the young girls’ sister was too poignant a reminder of the recent events, and the future sadness for her own family.

Joe rode onwards wrapped in a blanket of sorrow that covered him as securely as the blanket secured Flower of the Prairie. He sought to remember his beloved’s face, the shape of her brow and nose, the sweetness of her lips and the strength in her stubborn little chin. How he had loved to kiss her and as he thought of those gentle kisses his heart seem to shudder within his breast and cut off the breath from his throat so that he had to gasp and struggle to breathe again.

He put a hand to his eyes to wipe away the tears. He was a man, not a child any longer. He had to remember that, and to remember that he was a long way from home.

They rode some more miles before Hoss suggested that they stopped for a break. The girls, he suggested, needed something to eat and drink, for they had not eaten as well as they had in the tavern.

He dismounted and walked to wards the girls, with the intention of helping them to get down from the ponies, but they eyed him warily and looked over to Joseph.

“I don’t think they like me,” Hoss sighed when he was sitting drinking some water from the canteen, and he looked at Adam, “Is it because I’m white, or because…”

“Because you’re white.” Adam replied quickly, not wanting to give Hoss any more personal reason to feel disliked by them, “Even Little Brook understands that their lives are going to change, she’s already seen an example of what it is going to be like, and she’s frightened.”

“That’s understandable.” Hoss said, and frowned, “I don’t like to think they’re frightened of me, though.”

Adam nodded, and looked at the girls as they sat close together, talking to Joe. It was obvious from the gestures that the conversation was about the day they were attacked by the soldiers.

“It’s not helping Joe, them talking about it all the time.” Hoss grumbled, tapping the stopper into his canteen.

“May be not, but it helps them. They’ve lost people they loved, and so has Joe. They need to talk. Talking may be the only help they have now.”

“And Joe? How’s it going to help him?”

“I don’t know.” Adam looked at Hoss, “I’ve been away a long time, Hoss. Has he changed much? People do change over time.”

“Shucks, I haven’t, have I?” Hoss grinned, his blue eyes twinkled and Adam smiled, and reached out to touch his arm ,

“I guess there’s an exception to every rule, brother.” he smiled and got to his feet, “Let’s go. The sooner we get the girls back to their people, the sooner we can get home. I can’t tell you how much I want to see Pa, and home again.”

“Well, you won’t be disappointed, Adam, not much has changed. Not really. And Joe hasn’t changed much at all. He just needs time.”

Adam nodded. How often had he heard that said. He walked over to Joe, followed by Hoss, and looked at the two girls. He squatted down to their level and looked them in the eyes,

“You know that we are Josephs’ brothers, don’t you?”

They nodded, looked at one another, and clutched at each other’s hands. Adam frowned, that was not really the reaction he had wanted to see, so he glanced up at Hoss, and then Joe.

“We want to help you get to your people, you do understand that, don’t you?”

Prairie Fire pointed to his jacket, her finger touched it, then drew away.

“Soldier?” she shook her head.

“No, not a soldier. Prairie Fire, trust us. Will you?”

“She’s scared of you.” Joe said abruptly, “You’re wearing a uniform. She doesn’t trust white men in uniform. Neither do I, come to that .”

Adam stood up and faced his brother, saw the challenge of the raised chin, and the flash of green in the hazel eyes. He frowned, puzzled,

“Don’t you believe me when I said we were going to take them to their people, Joe?”

“Yes, of course. I just meant that I could understand why she didn’t trust soldiers in uniform, after all, look what they’ve done.”

“I know what they’ve done, Joe. I know what they would have done with them, I don’t know what they intended to do with me exactly, but I can hazard a guess that it wasn’t going to be anything very pleasant had Jacob had his way. Joe, you can’t condemn people outright for what has happened to Little Moon, or for what will happen to these people in the future.”

“Why not? They killed her, killed others, showed no mercy.” Joe snapped out, and he turned away, “They’re frightened of what’s going to happen to them.”

“I know,” Adam replied, and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder in a gesture of comfort, “I know they are, and no doubt, so are a lot of people, on both sides.”

“Hey, Adam,” Hoss’ voice broke into the conversation and they turned to see him walking towards them, “I think they’ve found us.” and they followed the direction of his pointed finger to see a large party of Cheyenne riding towards them.

Chapter 83

“Doggone it,” Hoss breathed, and he took off his hat in awe as the mass of Cheyenne seemed to undulate in a great wave towards them, “Where in Pete’s name did they come from?”

“And where are they headed?” Adam murmured, and he narrowed is eyes to watch the horsemen as they turned in their direction and began to head for them. “Right, I think we could be in for some trouble here.”

Joe glanced at him and widened his eyes,

“You think so, huh?”

Adam glanced at his brother, and then his eyes flicked back to the Cheyenne who didn’t seem to be in any hurry to reach them. It was rather like seeing ants scurrying out of an ant hill that someone had stirred up with a stick. Out of the dust cloud came horsemen, women became discernible, and Adam raised his eyebrows,

“Women and children. This isn’t a war party. We may be able to negotiate.” he turned to Hoss, and nodded tohim, “Pick up Little Brook and hold her in your arms.” he began to slowly unbutton his tunic, and watched, as did his brothers, as the people continued their descent towards them, “Prairie Fire, are these Black Kettle’s people?”

She said nothing, but watched with intense interest. Little Brook did not object when Hoss engulfed her in his arms and lifted her up, and she even gave a sweet little giggle as he began to tell her a little story about a little girl who just happened to be a lot like her. Adam gave him a little smile, and then turned to Prairie Fire,

“Are they?” he asked, and as she continued to watch the advance of the Cheyenne Adam grabbed at Joe’s arm, and pulled him to wards him, so vigorously that Joe was caught by surprise and practically fell against him. Then he took hold of Prairie Fire and moved her so that she was standing in front of Joe, he nodded as though in satisfaction, and gave Joe a dark look as his younger brother opened his mouth in protest, “Just stand still, keep Prairie Fire in front of you. Do you understand, Joe?”

Joe shook his head, his mouth thin in protest, and Prairie Fire looked up at Adam and frowned as though her distrust of white men in uniform had been confirmed,

“They won’t shoot you if you have Prairie Fire standing in front of you, they won’t risk hurting one of their own. Prairie Fire,” he squatted down on his haunches and smiled at her, his dark eyes were warm and gentle, “Trust me, my dear, I know it’s hard, but you must trust me. Do you know anyone there? Can you see your parents? Little Brooks’ parents?”

She turned from him, and looked up at Joe. She smiled up at him, and raised her hand to place it in his, and then she turned to Adam,

“It is not Black Kettle’s people. These ones are following Woquini * (Roman Nose). He is going to ride the war road with the Souix.” she looked up again at Joe, “Joseph is the beloved of Little Moon. He will not be harmed by the people. I shall stand still, and they will know that this is a man to be trusted.”

Adam nodded, a slight frown creased his brow, and he rose to his feet. He looked squarely at Joe, who met his glance with a nod of the head and a sigh. He could hear Hoss still telling the story to Little Brook, who now had her arms around his neck. He sighed again, and turned to face the oncoming tribe. He slowly took off his jacket, and folded it neatly, and put it on the ground. He unbuckled his gun belt and placed it upon the jacket. Then he took several paces forward, and waited.

The movement that had seemed like an undulating wave of ants swarming over the hillside had stopped. Three men rode towards them now. Adam had to narrow his eyes again to see them clearly for the sun was bright overhead.

“It is Woquini” Prairie Fire breathed softly, “He wears no paint. He will talk with you, Adam Cartwright.”

He turned to her, and caught her eyes, there was a flicker of amusement in hers, as though she had enjoyed playing tricks on him. So she knew his name, and she was prepared to protect Joe if things got difficult. He looked at Hoss, and raised his hand in a gesture for silence.

There was hardly a sound. The hooves of the horses the Cheyenne rode were unshod, so there the barest muted sound of their drawing nearer. Feathers fluttered from lances, but not one of the men approaching them wore a full war bonnet. Many of the men chose not to wear them, they were cumbersome and unwieldy, and in their unworldly way of looking at things, thought to be a form of boastfulness. Roman Nose, or Woquini as he was called in the Cheyenne tongue, wore a simple Eagle’s feather. He looked handsome, and his dark eyes surveyed the small group with more curiosity than aggression.

“I am Roman Nose.” he said simply, and made the simple gesture for peace, a hand to the heart and the open palm raised towards them, then he signed his intention to talk.

“I am Adam Cartwright. We have met and talked before, Roman Nose.” Adam said quietly, and he folded his arms across his chest, “These are my brothers whom I was searching for when last we met. My brother Hoss, and my brother Joseph.”

Roman Nose smiled, an arrogant smile to be sure, but then he had the right to be proud, he came from a proud nation of people, and he was not afraid of anything. He believed that his medicine was good* (the rituals he would have performed before undertaking the journey, which would have included prayer).

“I remember.” Roman Nose turned to the other two men who were flanking either side of him, “This is Tonkahaska (Tall Bull*) and Wowinapa who comes from the nation of the Santee Souix.* We are riding to join with our cousins the Northern Cheyenne at the Rosebud in the land of the sacred hills.”

Adam nodded, and acknowledged the two men accordingly. Roman Nose raised his head and looked at the five of them, and then at the pony bearing the blanketed corpse.

“What do young girls from my people have to do with you, Adam Cartwright?” he asked, placing one hand on his thigh, and looking every inch the warrior who would, in a few years time, lose his life in battle against white troopers at a place called Beechers Creek.*

“There was an ambush on the camp some days ago. This is Prairie Fire, and the child is Little Brook. Her sister, Flower of the Prairie, has died from her injuries. My brothers and I are journeying to meet our father in the land of the Paiute faraway, but we wanted to bring these children home to their own fathers. Flower of the Prairie will want to be with her people.”

Roman Nose nodded but said nothing. He looked once again at the children and said something to Tall Bull, who turned his horse around and galloped up the hill, they could hear him shouting something as he rode along. Joe leaned down and asked Prairie Fire what he was saying and she said simply that he was relaying the message to the people that they were there, and looking for their fathers.

No one spoke and no one moved. Only the eagles feathers fluttered still and the long dark hair of the Cheyenne drifted in dark strands across their sallow faces. Little Brook clung tightly to Hoss, her eyes fixed on the mass of people that covered the hillside ahead of them. Joe felt Prairie Fire’s hand tighten around his, and he wondered if she were frightened and knew something that they did not, something that was both terrible and very final.

He put a hand on her shoulder, as though to reassure her that all was well. But inwardly he was frightened. A whole mass of people like this, on the move, going to war. What would stop them from deciding to try out their skills on a few travellers passing through their land.

Among the crowd there was a slight ripple, and several horsemen rode down the hill with Tall Bull. Joe felt the girl tremble, and then tense. In Hoss’ arms Little Brook became still, and stared at the riders as they came closer and closer.

“My father.” Prairie Fire cried, clapping her hands together, and then she burst into tears, and stepped forward as though to run towards him.

“Hold her back,” Adam said to Joe, “Keep her with you.”

Roman Nose may or may not have heard what Adam had said, but he could see that Joe restrained the girl and he narrowed his eyes, and looked keenly at him. Then he looked at Hoss who still held the little girl.

“Are you sure these are not your captives, Adam Cartwright?”

“Roman Nose, you have told me you are taking your people to where there will be war, is not that so?”

“Yes.” Roman Nose nodded, “We shall get rid of the stations where the white men travel through our land, and we shall burn their towns. Yes, we shall do this, but you do not answer my question.”

“It is because I and my brothers wish to see our father once again in the land of the Paiute. There is a long road to travel. We wish to get there safely.”

“I am not at war with you, Adam Cartwright.” Roman Nose gave a shout of laughter, “And I know your brother, Joseph, who is friend of my good friend George Bent.” he looked seriously at them again, “And was I not told that Little Moon was to marry this Joseph Cartwright?”

“Little Moon is dead,” Joe cried, “She died. The soldiers killed her at the camp where they took Prairie Fire and Little Brook.”

Roman Nose bent his head in acknowledgement of what Joe had said, and was about to speak when there was a clamour behind him, and some men rode up and drew their horses to a skidding halt. Even before the horses had stopped the men had dismounted and were running towards them, and there was nothing now that could have restrained Prairie Fire for she squirmed free from Joe and was running towards them, her arms outstretched and her face alight with joy.

Little Brook also wriggled to get free as a tall young man ran towards them, then stopped and called her name, there were tears in his eyes and it was quite obvious that he had spent many long hours broken hearted at the thought of her loss, and was now struggling to balance out his feelings as he saw her now, gently placed on her feet on the ground by Hoss.

Prairie Fire spoke urgently to her father who looked at the three white men with proud eyes, and it was Hoss who walked to the pony where the other child’s body had been secured. He took the reins and led the animal to Prairie Fire’s father, and he assumed, uncle, and held them out. It was the father who took the reins, and without a word, turned from them, with his living daughter walking by his side, her hand in his, while he led the pony away.

She turned and glanced at them over her shoulder. The breeze fluttered around them, and made the feathers and the fringes on their garments shift and waft too and fro. She smiled. Then she turned away.

Roman Nose waited until they were riding up the hill towards the people thronged thereon. He then raised his lance, swung his horse’s head around, and galloped away from them.

Adam, Hoss and Joe stood still, onlookers now of an exodus, and whatever their thoughts were, there was no doubt the fear that they were watching a people riding to their own destruction.

Chapter 84

It took time for the vast convoy of men, women and children to pass from sight. But the three brothers remained standing, close together, to watch until the last of the Cheyenne had gone over the hill and down into the valley beyond. The last sound of their going had been the cry of a baby and that had drifted towards them on the breeze and seemed to snap them out of their silent homage.

Hoss slipped his hat onto his head and looked at his brothers with his eyebrows raised, and then he sighed,

“Wal, I guess that we can get on now, can’t we?”

“It’ll be evening soon, how about if we ride to somewhere more secure than this? I kinda feel exposed here.” Joe muttered, scratching his head before he replaced his hat.

Adam buckled on his gun belt, pulled on his jacket and put on his hat. In silence he mounted his horse, and then followed his brothers up the hill which only recently had been black with the multitude of Cheyenne. Hoss took the pack horse, and when they reached the brow of the hill they all three involuntarily glanced back to view the people who were a moving black speck on the horizon.

“Boy, when they get going they sure do move.” Hoss muttered.

“Only as fast as the weakest, the youngest and the oldest,” Joe said quietly, remembering that long distant time when he had lain upon the travois and watched the sky moving overhead as the village had moved on. That long distant time when he had first met Little Moon and she had been unable to speak. It seemed only moments ago, and yet by some trick of the memory, it seemed as though it had all happened years ago.

“Are you alright, Joe?” Hoss asked, bringing Chubb in closer to Cochise so that he and his brother rode practically knee against knee.

“Sure. I’m alright.” Joe replied, but his Adam’s apple did rather a strange movement in his throat and his voice wobbled, “Hoss, Prairie Fire told me about what happened at that camp.”

“Yeah?” Hoss frowned, and bit on his lips, “I guess it was kinda hurtful, huh?”

“It’s strange the way those soldiers could kill so indiscrimately and then decide to save three of them. Why couldn’t they have saved Little Moon? She was lovely and so – so gentle and kind. Why did they shoot her down like that?”

“I guess because when it happened it was all during the heat of the moment. She may have just run out into their line of fire, Joe. Shucks, at times like that there ain’t no reason a man can give for who lives or who dies. Then, when the madness passes, they saw the other girls and – and couldn’t kill ’em, so took them to the Fort instead.”

“But they could have saved her.” Joe protested, and Hoss sighed and knew that for now that would be the straw Joe would clutch onto until he had exhausted it in his own mind, and moved on to something else.

Adam was deep in his own thoughts and had not heard the exchange between Hoss and Joe, although he could see them talking. Every so often he would turn his head to observe the people who moved across the land like a black cloud of gnats now. By the time Hoss and Joe had found the ideal location for their evening camp there was no longer any sign of the Cheyenne.

It was a sombre beginning to their evening together. Joe was lost in misery, dwelling on Little Moon and the tragic circumstances of her death, and Adam was caught up with so many ideas that he could not find the energy to speak. It was Hoss who every so often would say something to lighten the atmosphere.

A fire was soon burning, and coffee was bubbling in the enamel pot, food was cooking over the flames. The three brothers sat around and watched the flames, and Hoss looked from Adam to Joe, from Joe to Adam, and sighed,

“Wal, sure will be good to see Pa again, won’t it?” he said, “I can’t wait to see the expression on his face when we ride into the yard. Shucks, I sure have missed him.”

His brothers looked at him, and both smiled and nodded.

“I’ve missed him so much,” Joe sighed, “I wish he had met Little Moon, he won’t know who I mean when I – I tell him about her.”

“I’ve missed him,” Adam stared into the flames, “Times when I was at sea, and the water raging and boiling, the ship tossed like a matchstick and waves as high has ten houses stacked on top of each other. I missed him telling me what to do and how to do it. I often went to sleep at time discussing things with him…” he smiled in wry amusement, “Of course, he didn’t say much.”

They all chuckled, soft low chuckles of comradeship, and affection. Hoss was the one to stand up and pour out the coffee,

“Do you think it will take us long to get home, Adam?”

“Well, it depends, doesn’t it,” Adam replied with a gentle smile.

“Oh, I think the weather will hold,” Joe frowned, there was the smallest of breezes drifting through the camp and the air was warm.

“I was thinking of the things that could happen to prevent us getting home in the shortest time. If we avoid getting involved in bank raids, stampedes, hurricanes and floods, we should be there sooner than later.” he sipped his coffee with a smile still on his lips.

“Yeah, and no kissing ladies and falling love and getting all complicated like that… sure adds days to a mans travelling.” Hoss guffawed, and tested the food by prodding it with a stick.

“No fighting Cheyenne, Sioux, Custer or anything else that comes across our path. We just ignore them all. Just ride straight on.” Joe smiled, the first to really bring a sparkle to his eyes.

“Yep, ignore the James Brothers, forget about the 7th Cavalry and a whole host of Indians … ride through the towns, gallop around the ladies, and forget about most things.” Adam gulped down his coffee and held out his mug for another, which Hoss obligingly provided for him.

“Which reminds me,” Hoss said, “Where is the nearest town to here? This is still Indian Territory, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess we could stop by Wynkoops’ place. He’s the Indian Agent around here, and would be happy enough to oblige us with a map of the territory, although its changing all the time.” Joe frowned, “He’s a good friend to the Cheyenne, I doubt if he’ll have been too happy seeing so many leaving for the Powder River territory.”

“That’s what we’ll do then. Find Wynkoop and check out our bearings. Then head for home.” Hoss sighed, and looked up at the stars that were now peeking through the velvet heavens above their heads, “Home. Jest can’t wait to get there.”

Adam looked over at his youngest brother who was now staring rather fixedly at the fire,

“That’s alright by you, isn’t it, Joe?”

“Yes.” Joe nodded, “Yes, I want to get home. There’s nothing for me here now. I did think -”

“Yes?” the enquiry was kindly, and he looked over at his eldest brother anxiously,

“Well, I was thinking, what if she was – was still there. No one to care for her and-”
His voice quavered, and he shivered. “I keep thinking that perhaps – well, I know that Little Brook said, but what if they were wrong?”

“They seemed pretty sure, Joe. They knew her, knew you, there wasn’t any doubt as far as they were concerned in that it was Little Moon.”

“But -” Joe hugged his coffee mug to his chest between his hands, like a man who clings to a life saving rope, “But I keep wondering, if she is still there, lying there, no one to mourn her, bury her.”

“I can put your mind at ease in that regard, Joe.” Adam said quietly, “When I was in the cell with the girls they told me about the ambush, and I asked them the question that is on your mind now. Prairie Fire said that when the men returned to the camp from the hunt they would take the bodies to the village and they would deal with them there. Perhaps, Joe, your friend Wynkoop may know something about it, and be able to tell us.”

Joe said nothing but merely nodded, his eyes fixed upon the flames that were dancing above the logs on the fire. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything more that was said that evening between the brothers, he longed only to sleep for in his dreams Little Moon came to live again, and he could hold her in his arms and tell her he loved her, and remember her sweet face and hear her whisper word so love to him…

Chapter 85

The rain had begun to fall early the following morning. Initially it was a nuisance, but as the rain became heavier the brothers realised that the sooner they reached the Indian Agency the less chance they had of catching their deaths by cold and pneumonia.

The storm broke open in full fury an hour before noon, and the sky seemed to boil under the intensity of the lightning. Great streaks of pure white energy crashed earthwards and scudded hissing and spitting from black clouds that had arisen above the horizon with the suddenness of a volcanic eruption. The noise of the thunder was so loud that it hurt the ears and Adam, already contending with the constant ache from his head wound, found the pain so excruciating that he had to screw up his eyes and tense his body in order to absorb it.

“Over there.” Hoss yelled as loudly as he could and his brothers looked in the direction of the pale flesh dripping with water that happened to be Hoss’ hand.

The building seemed sturdy enough, although the sign that had been erected some time earlier had fallen over with the viciousness of the storm. They urged their mounts forwards and gratefully slid from the saddles. They were somewhat surprised but very thankful when the door opened and two men ran out into the storm to grab at the horses reins, and push them to the entrance where a tall young man stood, holding a lantern in his hand. Such was the ferocity of the storm and the darkness of the clouds that daylight had been obscured, and one would assume it to be night time rather than mid morning.

“Hurry, hurry,” Wynkoop cried, beckoning them to make greater haste through the churned up mud to the Agency building.

The room into which they entered was warm, and pleasantly dry. The glass windows had been shuttered and although they rattled at times against the window frames there was no doubt about their sturdiness. A fire roared up the chimney and to it Wynkoop ushered them.

“You need to dry yourselves, best take off those wet clothes,” he walked to another door while the three brothers looked at one another rather bemused, and then slowly began to pull off their jackets and shirts.

Wynkoop meanwhile had disappeared into another room and emerged moments later with three large blankets in his arms, and these he held out to each of them. It took no time at all before the three of them had stripped to the skin and shivering pulled the blankets around them,

“MOve closer to the fire, you need to keep warm now, I’ve got food cooking. I’m sure you won’t be adverse to some good rabbit stew, and flour dough dumplings.”

“Sounds good to me,” Hoss said, rubbing his hands and then holding them out to the fire.

“It’s good to see you,” Wynkoop nodded at them, “I’m Edward Wynkoop by the way.” he extended his hand and shook their warmly, then smiled at Joe, “Good to see you again, young man. I posted off your journal as you asked.”

“You did?” Joe gave a wide grin of delight, “Thank you, I’m really grateful, sir.”

“It was no problem, and your father wired me that he had received it safely. He sent a message for you-”

“He did?” Joe’s voice quivered, not just because he was cold, but because raw emotion had taken hold of him now. He shook his head as though to throw aside the feelings that had overtaken him, and looked at Wynkoop, “How’d he know I was here?”

“He sent it in the hope that I would see you again.” Wynkoop laughed, “Just to tell you to be careful, and to get home as soon as you could.”

Joe nodded and smiled, holding his blanket tighter and appreciating their warmth, for he felt so far away from his father now that a fear gripped his heart that he would never see that dear man again.

“Our horses – ?” Adam began to speak but Wynkoop raised a hand, and shook his head,

“No need to worry, One Eye* and Eagle Head* have taken care of them for you. They’re alright.”

Adam nodded and shivered in his blanket. Outside the building the thunder grumbled and rumbled overhead, making the place shake and making their confidence in the sturdiness of the place shake along with it.

There was a noise from the other room and then the door opened. A rather plump Cheyenne woman came into the room, and placed upon the table dishes and cutlery, she looked over at them, smiled shyly, and disappeared. When she came back it was with a large bowl of steaming stew. The smell wafted towards them and was delicious. She made several journeys back and forth, placing things down upon the table in the manner of a magician setting down his tricks.

“This is Little Raven. She has been my cook for a few months now. I think you’ll agree that her food is excellent. Would you like some coffee now?” and before they could reply their host had got to his feet, gone into the other room and reappeared with things on a tray which he set down in front of the fire.

It was good to hold the hot mugs of coffee and feel their fingers coming back to life. It may have been summertime still, but when the storms hit the plains then the temperature plummeted and the rain and wind played havoc with anyone caught unawares outside.

“Are you warm enough? Little Raven, I think our guests would like to eat now.”

The brothers looked at one another and nodded in agreement. It wasn’t long before they were seated around the table and plying their plates high with food which they ate with an enthusiasm that Little Raven silently applauded. She positively beamed her approval at them all in much the same manner as Hop Sing had done for years.

Edward Wynkoop was still a relatively young man*, which had surprised Adam as he had expected to find an elderly man in such an assignment. But Wynkoop was just about 30 years old now. His only military experience prior to his years with the Plains Indians was one battle against Texas Confederates in New Mexico.* His experience with the Plains Indians since that time, however, had matured him into a man whose expertise made him the perfect liaison officer between white and red man.

He glanced at his three visitors and smiled,

“We heard about what happened yesterday,” he said quietly, “bringing those girls back to their people spread around the area like wild fire. Getting them out from Custer’s garrison though, that took some doing.”

“Adam did it,” Hoss said, pointing his fork at his elder brother, “He talked Custer into giving them up.”

“Really?” Wynkoop raised his eyebrows, “Well done.”

“I can’t take the credit,” Adam replied, looking down at his plate and realising that he had now lost his appetite, his stomach pained him, he had reached his limits, “I think it was more Mrs Custer’s doing than mine.”

Wynkoop nodded. He then frowned, as though a more serious thought had come to his mind, and after a moment he asked them if Roman Nose had said anything about his future intentions.

“Apart from killing every white soldier he comes across?” Joe replied raising his eye brows.

“I take that for granted,” Wynkoop sighed, “Roman Nose has been a big problem for Black Kettle. He and his dog soldiers* have run fast and loose with their own people for too long, and put them into a lot of danger. At the same time,” he lowered his voice a little, “I can’t blame them for wanting to fight back. The Government’s policy towards them is not a healthy one, and whether they fight back or not, is immaterial to them.”

“Roman Nose was taking nigh on a thousand of them over to the Power River and onto the Black Hills.” Adam told Wynkoop and noticed how the other mans face fell, grave and sad. “Have you been involved with them for long?”

“Since before Sand Creek.” Wynkoop replied. “I was pretty inexperienced then. My orders, the same as every soldiers sent hereabouts, was to kill and destroy all Indians not confined to an assigned reservation. I was the Commanding Officer at Fort Lyon*, and I felt pretty confident of my garrison’s ability to obey those orders. You see -” he paused, and smiled “Could you tell me your first names, please? I feel rather foolish addressing you as Mr. Cartwright, Mr Cartwright and Mr Cartwright?”

Hoss made the introductions, and hands were shaken once again over the now empty bowl of stew. He poured out more coffee for them and signed to them to go back to the fire, which Little Raven had built up. Outside the sky was once again resuming it’s daily hue, the black clouds had done their worse, and the rain was now no more than a drizzle.

“One summer’s day several of my soldiers rode in with two Cheyenne, who bore a letter from Black Kettle*. The letter had been written by George Bent, a friend of yours, Joe.” and he smiled as Joe nodded, “George had been educated at Webster College in St Louis and had written on behalf of the Chief. The letter was actually addressed to Agent Samuel Colley* and informed him that there were four whites needing to be returned to their people in Black Kettle’s camp. Now, Black Kettle didn’t trust Colley, he suspected that he sold the Indian’s allotment of goods for a profit elsewhere, so he sent a copy of the letter to me. Well, my orders were, not to negotiate with Indians, but to hunt them down and kill them. So I was rather concerned as to what to do, seeing how there were white people captive in their camp.”

“So what happened?” Joe asked, always eager to hear a good story, especially one that was true.

“I thought it was a trap. I had just over a hundred men at my disposal and – well – there were over 2000 Cheyenne and Arapahos, plus 200 Sioux from the north. I decided to negotiate. With 127 men I rode out with the Cheyenne messengers to the reservation and I told them that if they had lied, well, at the first sign of any treachery on their part, I would shoot them.”

“That was pretty smart,” Hoss nodded, “I guess I would have done the same. There were the white captives to consider after all.”

“That’s what I reckoned as well. But do you know what they said? They said that if the Cheyenne broke their word, they would not want to live anyway.*” He sighed, and the three brothers swallowed down their coffee as though their mouths had run dry from talking instead of just listening.

Wynkoop poured himself out more coffee, and refilled their mugs. He leaned over to put another log on the fire and at the other end of the room Little Raven cleared away the table. Of course Hoss had lingering hopes of an apple pie being produced but nothing appeared, so he settled down to hear more of Wynkoop’s story.

“I had always thought of these Indians as cruel, treacherous, bloodthirsty, without any feelings of affection for anyone*, but during the five days it took us to march from Fort Lyon to the reservation I changed that opinion into a realisation that these people -” he paused and shook his head, “well, suffice to say, I saw them as they were, human beings caught in an intolerable situation.”

“And did you get the captives? Were they alright?” Joe asked eagerly.

“Yes, they were children. They were not too happy about being returned in fact, it had all been an adventure for them, and they had enjoyed it all immensely. Black Kettle used them to bring me to the reservation to discuss an attack that had been made on a peaceful group of Cheyenne men and women some weeks earlier. He was afraid that his people would be blamed and accused of attacking the white soldiers. He was right. They were.”

They fell silent for a while now. Adam looked about him and then back at Wynkoop. The Army officer looked up and noticed his guest observing him and smiled,

“You can’t condemn Custer too harshly, Adam. When you live with wolves, you become one yourself. Army Officers assigned to fight against the Indians don’t talk about human beings with feelings. They talk about an enemy of the people, about savages, and after a while that’s how you view them yourself. I was in a unique situation of meeting Black Kettle, and other Chiefs who wanted, loved, the idea of peace with the white men. They acknowledged that there were bad red men as well as bad white men, but they also knew that the fight began with the white men and their desire for the Indians land.”

“What happened next?” Adam prompted.

“Well, it was from that meeting that they began to call me Tall Chief Wynkoop, for obvious reasons. I promised to do all I could to negotiate for peace, but I knew, and so did Black Kettle, that I would not be able to achieve much success. But how can one negotiate for peace when Officers only want to see Indians killed. I went to meetings with these Officers and the Indians and there was never a satisfactory outcome.

“I did all that I could to help the Cheyenne and Arapaho while I was in Fort Lyon. But then I was relieved of my duties there and Major Anthony * took over command. It was then, in November of that year, that the massacre took place at Sand Creek.”

The three brothers shifted uneasily in their seats, and unconsciously drew their blankets closer around them. It was as though in their minds they could feel the seeping cold of that ice bound November night when Chivingtons armed force had ridden into Black Kettles camp and slaughtered unarmed men, women and children.

“Colonel, may I ask you something?” Joe turned a pale face to the Officer who smiled and nodded, “The attack on the hunting camp, the one where the girls had been taken captive by Custer a few weeks ago, there was a girl there. Little Moon.”
He paused and wet his lips anxiously, “Did you hear of this attack?”

“I hear just about everything that happens around here, Joe. Yes, I heard about that attack. It took a lot of persuasion to get the Cheyenne not to retaliate. You may have noticed that the Arapaho no longer camped around the Fort? They moved out because they heard that Roman Nose was going to muster his men and attack.”

“Do you know what happened to Little Moon?” Joe asked so earnestly, that Hoss and Adam had no heart to say a word but waited, along with him, to hear Wynkoop’s reply.

“Her body was taken, along with the other dead victims, to Black Kettle’s camp.”

“Is she still there?” JOe cleared his throat nervously, “I mean, I know some of them take their dead with them and put up the scaffolds in the next camp they come to, but she had no one, I mean, there was no one there to take her …”

“No, there was no one else. Little Moon, and some others, are still there. It is sacred ground to the Cheyenne now. No one can go there except the shamen.”

Joe repeated the words to himself, his lips whispered the words and Hoss reached out and put his hand gently on his brother’s back.

There was a movement now and they turned to see Little Raven standing with her hands clasped together. She looked at Wynkoop and said something in her own tongue, and then looked at Joe. Tall Chief Wynkoop also looked at Joe,

“Little Raven has something for you. Your friend, Stalking Horse, took them from Little Moon and asked Little Raven to give them to you, if not to you, then to me so that I could send them to you at the home of your father.” he turned and gestured to Little Raven, so that the woman stepped closer and stood in front of Joe.

“What is it, Little Raven?” Joe asked, his throat dry and his voice rasping like a reed.

She opened her hand and in its palm were a pair of ear rings, lapis lazuli, and very delicately beautiful.

Chapter 86

By late afternoon any evidence of the storm rage had passed. The four men talked amongst themselves, and Wynkoop drew out a route for them to take which would be much quicker than the one Hoss had used to find Joe. When he suggested that they spent the evening and night with him in order to begin the journey early next morning the brothers did not hesitate to agree.

For Adam it meant an opportunity to rest. He had said nothing to his brothers about his wounds, that seemed to be slow in healing but also drained him of his strength. His life style over the past four to five years had been hard and strenuous, and the past few months had done nothing to replenish his spent energies.

For Hoss it meant the opportunity for another good meal, and some apple pie, the aroma of which had been drifting around his nostrils for some time. It had brought him memories of home, Hop Sing, and oddly enough, Tilly Brown. Little Raven had noticed the bandaged arm and in her silent and good natured way had checked it over and smeared on some foul smelling ointment before bandaging it again.

Joe had been the most silent of the four men. No one had minded that, for each one of them could appreciate how he must have felt when Little Raven had dropped the ear rings into the palm of his hand. The misery that had swept over his face, and the way his eyes had moistened were telling enough. His brothers’ hearts were wrung out for him, but he held his emotions in check as he closed his fingers around the little pieces of jewellery and waited for a more private time to dwell once again upon his loss.

Little Raven had shown some concern about Adam’s wound and insisted on seeing what was wrong. She had shaken her head once or twice, and then nodded slowly, before replacing the new bandages taken from the store room. She had then bustled out and got on with her cooking, giving him no indication of her ‘medical opinion’. Later however she had returned and given him hot water into which she dropped some herbs. They were similar to the herbs Stalking Horse had provided him, and he had taken it with a smile but afterwards wished he had not.

He was unable to eat much, his voice slurred, and he began to perspire rather profusely. It occurred to him that he had been poisoned and was going to die in Wynkoop’s Agency building. Joe and Hoss seemed to be fading in and out, at times too big and blurred, and other times small and sharply in focus. But is was difficult to maintain the pretence of normalcy for long and he asked Wynkoop if he could be excused as he needed to sleep.

It was a relief to be taken to the back of the building where it was cooller. He wrapped himself in the blanket upon the trestle bed and closed his eyes. There was a humming in his ears which grew louder and louder, until finally it faded into the blackness into which he eagerly succumbed.

Wynkoop was a pleasant host and in the evening he brought out some good quality whiskey which he offered to his guests. Hoss and Joe were only too pleased to take him up on the offer and sipped it eagerly, “This is like the whiskey Pa gets,” Joe said after a few tentative sips, “Glenfiddich whiskey from Scotland.”

“All the way,” Wynkoop smiled, “A gift from some Scots who were trading at Fort Lyon. I managed to smuggle it away before I was replaced.”

“Colonel Wynkoop, you’ve told us a lot about what has happened to the Indians at the hands of the white men.” Hoss frowned, and pursed his lips a little. He swirled the whiskey round and round in his glass for a little while before raising his blue eyes to look at the Agent, “But you can’t deny the fact that a lot of white people have suffered at the hands of the Indian. What about Julesburg? That was not so long ago, and it was an outright massacre of innocent men and women.”

“Yes,” Wynkoop nodded, “It was and I won’t deny the truth of what you have said. My respect for these people does not make me blind to the facts, Hoss. That’s why I’m so worried about Roman Nose and those other warriors who have ridden out to join the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux. There’s going to be a lot of blood shed.”

“Hoss knows all about innocent victims of an Indian raid, Sir. His Ma was killed in one just after he was born.” Joe emptied his glass, “Pa said that it was caused by some stupidity on the part of a white man, but nevertheless, it was his Ma got killed.”

“I’m sorry about that, Hoss, as I said, a lot of innocent blood has been shed and will be shed in the future too. I wish I could prevent it, but I’m afraid my days are numbered here. I shall be replaced soon and shall probably end my days in an office job back East.”

“Why’s that? I would have thought you the perfect man for this kind of situation.” Hoss looked at Wynkoop with a frown on his face, “Ain’t they being a mite short sighted?”

“Not when army policy is to kill Indians rather than to negotiate with them. And now, of course, I’ve lost over a thousand of my charges from the reservation. My superiors aren’t going to be too happy to learn about that, and no doubt my replacement is being discussed even as we speak.”

There was a momentary silence and then Wynkoop leaned forward and refilled their glasses,

“It’s a shame your brother is missing out on this,” he observed, “do you think he will be well enough to travel tomorrow?”

“If Adam thinks he’s well enough, then he’ll no doubt be saddling up while we’re still eating breakfast.”

“Your father sounds a remarkable man, Joe, Hoss. He must have remarried after your mother died, Hoss, for I presume that Joe is the youngest of the three of you?”

“Yeah, Pa remarried when I was about five years old. Adam was eleven then. The Ponderosa was built and although it was a struggle, and sometimes still is, it was jest about the best place on earth to bring a lady from New Orleans, weren’t it, Joe?”

“Yeah, it sure is, and was. I can’t wait to see Pa again …” Joe’s voice faltered, he looked into his glass and seeing some whiskey there drained the glass dry. He put it down carefully on the table, “I guess I had better join Adam and get some sleep. Thank you, Colonel, for the hospitality.”

“Don’t oversleep, Joe. Little Raven cooks a mean breakfast.” Wynkoop smiled, shook the younger mans hand and watched him go to the back room. “Your brother has taken it hard, hasn’t he? The loss of Little Moon, I mean?”

“Yeah, he has.” Hoss nodded, “He needed some kind of closure on it though, he needed to know that she was really dead, and not – you know what I mean?” he frowned, “He was afraid that she would have been just left there, he couldn’t say it in words, but we knew what he was scared to say. Then at the back of his mind there was the hope that the reports were wrong, that she was still alive, that there was someone else, but now he knows for sure.” he sighed, and leaned back in his chair, “It’s hard to accept the death of someone you love even when it happens right in front of your eyes.”

“You sound like a man talking from experience, Hoss.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” he nodded, and stared out to where the sky was now dark with night time velvet, purple black and smooth, studded with sequin stars. He sighed and looked into the fire.

It was such a homely scene, no one could possibly have imagined that outside so much was going on that would overturn their whole lives. He sat there with a glass, now empty, in his hand, reclining back in an old Windsor chair, lamp light flickering shadows over the walls, the fire crackling and the flames dancing orange and red and yellow. It made him think of home, and the big room, and once again his mind travelled the miles to conjure up a picture of his father and Candy sitting there together, a scene very much like his own, and he smiled dreamily. It would be so good to get back home.

By the light of the lamp Joe opened his hand and stared down at the ear rings. He had seen them in her ears and admired them for they were not Indian by design. She had told him, in her hesitant way of speaking, that some generations back a white woman had been brought to the village. She did not speak the white mans tongue as they knew it now, but a language they called Le Francais. She married a warrior and had three children, and she, Little Moon, was a child of the daughter of this French woman’s youngest son. The ear rings had come from her. She was only known to the people as Margaret Walks Alone.

To a romantic like Joe it had seemed like an omen of good things ahead as he related this French connection with his own mothers predecessors. Dear Joe, he was a weaver of dreams and a man who wanted only to see his dreams come true. He seemed never to realise that sometimes our dearest dreams turn into our worse nightmares.

“Are you alright, Joe?”

“I’m sorry, Adam, didn’t mean to wake you.” he replied hastily, and he wiped his eyes and nose on his sleeve, a childish gesture, but one of the things most endearing about him was his naturalness and the mixture of young and old in him.
“You didn’t wake me,” Adam replied and he sat up, rolled over and positioned himself so that he was sitting on the edge of the trestle bed, facing his brother. “Do you feel alright about travelling on tomorrow?”

“Sure I do, Adam.” he glanced up, his eyes wide, “I can’t go and see her anyway, it’s taboo. Little Raven said that -” he glanced away and sighed, then touched his shirt pocket and fumbled about in it, before looking rather distressed.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” he replied sharply, and he bowed his head with relief, remembering that he had taken off his soiled shirt, put it in his saddle bags, which meant that the sweet smelling flowers he had taken from her hair would still be there, still be safe.

Adam said nothing, but regarded his brother thoughtfully. He put out a hand and touched Joe’s arm, a gentle touch, but one which made Joe jump nonetheless,

“Joe, it’s going to be a long journey home you know. You know you won’t be able to come back, don’t you?”

“Sure, I know that,” he licked his lips, “I was telling Wynknoop about Inger earlier on. How she was killed during an Indian attack.”

He paused and frowned slightly, then looked up at his brother,

“It made me realise, thinking about it, that Pa had leave her there, under the ground somewhere foreign, somewhere he would never see again, and … and get on with life, didn’t he?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Well then, that’s what I have to do, isn’t it? Get on with life. Knowing she’s here…somewhere.”

“Pa wasn’t a man to wallow in self pity, Joe. He got knocked a bit with all the worse things that could happen to a man, but he always got back on his feet and fought his way back. He never let himself get beaten by anything, or anyone.”

“Sure, that’s right. He never did, did he?”

Adam smiled slowly, and the pressure of his hand upon Joe’s arm was firmer, reassuringly so, and Joe sighed, pulled his blanket closer around him, and settled himself down on the trestle bed. He clutched the ear rings in his hand, close to his chest and closed his eyes.

“Perhaps, one day, I’ll remember all this, and it will be just like a dream. I’ll look at the ear rings, and think, what was she like? Was she really as beautiful as I think she was? I knew her for so short a time, Adam, but she turned my world upside down. And yet, one day, I’ll wonder why I loved her so much, won’t I?”

“I doubt it, Joe. You’ll always love her, always remember her. She’ll be part of your life forever.”

“Yes, but memories fade, don’t they?”

“Only if you let them, Joe. Only if you let them …” and Adam sighed, and turned away, he pulled the blanket closer around him, and closed his eyes.

………….

Wynkoop’s promise of an excellent breakfast was not an empty one. Little Raven cooked them a meal that as the Colonel said with a laugh would line their bellies until Kingdom come.

“Did you all sleep well?” was his first words as the three brothers entered the room and were ushered to their seats at the table. His eyes were fixed upon Joseph’s face and a soft look of compassion was so obvious that Joe almost blushed,

“Yes, Sir, we slept fine,” Joe replied for them all and looked down at his plate rather than let the Colonel see the lie in his eyes.

“This could well be the last time we meet, so I would like us to part as friends, rather than host and guests. Remember me as Ned, all my family have called me that since I was a boy. Hoss, help yourself to the ham, there’s plenty. Adam, more coffee?”

“You come from a large family then, Ned?” Adam enquired, anything rather than have further enquiries into their well being, he smiled at Wynkoop who nodded,

“Like Joe I am the youngest brother, born and raised in Denver.” Ned, as we shall now call him, speared some ham upon his fork and dropped it onto his plate.

“Are you married, Ned?” Joe asked, looking at the young man, who seemed to have so much experience under his belt that he looked older than his 32 years, and when he saw the soft look fall over Ned’s face he looked over at Adam and Hoss, wondering if they too had noticed it.

“Indeed I am, to a young lady called Louise.*” he gulped down hot coffee, and frowned a little, then looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling as though from there he would gain some inspiration to say something awe inspiring, he sighed then and smiled slowly, “She’s English, although I believe there’s a piece of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Polish there. I miss her and our children a great deal. In fact, I thought I would seize the bull by the horns and rather than wait for my dismissal, I have resigned my commission. I think I have done all I can here, the damage is too severe for one man to repair it now. It’s time for me to go back home.”

“To Denver?” Hoss asked, eyebrows raised.

“No, to Pennsylvania.” he pushed his plate aside, as though the thought of his family had caused him to lose his appetite, and he looked at the three men seated at his table, “Are either of you married?” he asked, knowing it was unnecessary to ask Joe.

“No, Sir,” Hoss replied, “some near misses though.” and he grinned good humouredly although his blue eyes were looking rather intently at nothing in particular which gave Ned the impression that some or maybe one in particular of those near misses was much regretted.

Adam said nothing but shook his head. He liked Ned Wynkoop a great deal but saw no reason why he had to bare his heart and soul to the man. He ate carefully, drank more coffee than he probably should have done, and looked anxiously over at the clock.

“Time won’t go any faster, Captain.” Ned said quietly, “You keep looking at that clock so often it’s a wonder you haven’t worn the face off of it.”

“I guess I’m impatient to get off,” Adam admitted, “I really appreciate your hospitality, Colonel, I mean, Ned, but without appearing ungracious, we have a long way to travel.”

“I appreciate that fact, Adam, but it will do you and your brothers no harm to linger a while over your meal. You won’t be eating so hearty for some time to come when you leave here.”

With that gentle reproof Adam had to be content. He watched as Hoss ate well and even Joe made up for the previous evenings lack of appetite. Ned watched in some sympathy, knowing himself to be an impatient man, he could well understand the itch that was under Adam’s skin at that moment.

“How long have you been at sea, Adam?”

“Just over four years.”

“Had you always hankered after being a seaman?”

“Our father and my grandfather on my mother’s side were seamen. It’s part of our history, but no, I didn’t always hanker after the sea.” Adam smiled slowly, “My grandfather had a saying that when the sea calls your name you should answer it. I guess that’s what happened … one day I got this urge to leave home and go to sea.”

Little Raven had washed their clothes, even those in the saddle bags. Joe was about to rummage through the contents of his in order to make sure his beloved flowers were safe when he felt her hand slip into his, and with that same shy and timid smile on her face she closed his fingers over them.

“You found them in my pocket?” he said softly.

She said nothing, but smiled only and nodded. Without a word Joe slipped them into his pocket and looked into her eyes. There was no need for words, they understood each other.

They shook hands with Ned as he stood at the door of the Agency which he would soon be leaving, bade farewell to Little Raven, One Eye and Eagle Head. The sun was shining over head, the sky was the most beautiful blue, somewhere out of sight a lark was trilling its song. It was time to go.

Edward Wynkoop watched them ride away, and raised a hand to bid them farewell as they finally rode out of his sight. The sight of the three brothers riding away from him and to their home reminded him of a poem, recently read, and as he closed the door, he murmured it softly under his breath. Somehow, it seemed fitting.

“Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie,
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This is the verse you grave for me:
“Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter, home from the hill”

Chapter 87

As they travelled the vast stark beauty of the land about them struck each of them differently. It made Hoss hanker for the Ponderosa, with its pine clad mountains, and the cool breezes that came whispering through smelling of the trees; it reminded him of Lake Tahoe, and the boulder strewn beaches where he would take himself for his ’fishing expeditions’, and watch the waters sparkling with a myriad diamonds as the fish flashed silver beneath him. The wide open horizons made even he feel small and insignificant.

For Joe the land about him irritated him, it made his impatience with being there and not home already even greater. He longed for something that could have transported him from there to the big room in the Ponderosa, and he smiled as he imagined the surprise on his Pa’s face when he appeared in front of him, oh yes, that would be the day. How wonderful, he thought, if that were ever to happen.

Adam had seen many places of beauty and of sheer ugliness on his travels. Sights and sounds and smells that would, perhaps, haunt his dreams but not his memories. Like Hoss his abiding memory was of the view from his bedroom window. That memory had kept him sane during the past few years.

It surprised him that Ned Wynkoop had asked him about whether or not he had been pleased with his decision to go to sea, and he had been even more surprised that he had actually answered him. He had noticed his brothers’ glance at him and the exchange of looks that had passed between them. He frowned, Wynkoop was obviously a young man with great discernment or, perhaps, he himself having favoured a military life had assumed that a man with Adams experience and of his maturity would have done likewise, rather than a seafaring one.

Some hours had passed and they paused for a water break, dismounting to make sure their horses also had some water which they poured from their canteens into their hats. With the horses thirst somewhat sated they now glugged at their canteens for a while to refresh themselves. Joe filled his cupped hand and wiped the water over his face. Breakfast may have been one of the best they had tasted in years, but its effects were not everlasting. Hoss was embarrassed to hear his stomach rumble almost as soon as the suggestion for lunch had been made.

Chapter 88

At times the days seemed longer than others. The weather stayed statically and boringly the same. They were able to supplement their rations by shooting some jack rabbits. Once they came across a friendly group of Arapaho Indians who exchanged some buffalo meat for coffee. They expressed anxiety about the current situation but reiterated what most of the plains Indians truly believed and that was the trouble could have been prevented by negotiation, but the white men started the fighting.

Several days later they came across the wreckage of two wagons and the remains of the occupants. The contents of the wagons had been strewn far and wide, as though rage and anger vented upon the occupants was not sufficient. There was enough evidence to indicate that the attack had been several days earlier, so there was little likelihood of the marauders returning. Having this in mind the brothers buried three men, two women and three children.

In some ways it broke their hearts as they dug out the graves and placed the sad remains within them. One woman they could bury with the certainty of the child in her arms being her own, but they had no idea to who belonged to whom otherwise, so buried them separately. For Joe, who carried rocks over to the graves to prevent them being disturbed by wild animals or thieves, it broke also his idyll that the Indians really were Les sauvages noblesse.

Adam said a prayer over the graves, stopping occasionally to find his voice which kept catching in his throat. Hoss and Joe wept.

“I guess this is what we should call the work of bad red men, huh?” Adam muttered afterwards as he cast his eyes over the wreckage of the wagons and the sprawled contents.

“I guess it equals things up a bit, doesn’t it?” Joe said hoarsely.

Hoss wiped his face, and shook his head as he placed his hat over his scant hair,

“Ain’t many arrows about, they were killed by bullets from Winchester rifles. The few arrows there are ain’t Cheyenne.” he held one out in the palm of his broad hand and looked at them questioningly.

“Well, we’d best get along.” Adam smoothed his hair back, and put his hat on, and scanned the hills. “Suddenly I feel like there’s a thousand ants crawling over me” and he shivered, and hurried over to his horse.

“Yeah, we might be just a speck in this whole place, but I feel like we’re being watched.” Joe replied, already mounted on Cochise and longing to get away from the site of such murderous savagery.

They made camp that evening in a narrow cleft in the rock. As Adam said it at least provided some protection, although ultimately if attacked they would be well and truly trapped. Both his brothers agreed but felt they’d prefer to know that there was solid rock behind and on either side of them and it would be preferable than being attacked out in the open.

“It was the children,” Hoss said quietly, “It was seeing them like that, and burying them. It jest weren’t right.”

“It was riding on it so unexpectedly,” Joe admitted “We’ve seen enough dead and dying in our lives to be pretty hardened to it by now, but … not like that.” he paused, and looked away, “They all do it, don’t they? Red and white, black … whatever? There just ain’t no restraints, are there?”

“And no limits.” Adam replied, handing some dry biscuit to them both, “It doesn’t matter where you go in this world it’s the same. Hate breeds hate. Let’s change the subject now, because we sure ain’t going to be able to change the world.”

“True enough. We’ve killed in order to protect the Ponderosa from all manner of folk. I guess we kind of justify it when we say that,” Hoss frowned, “Yeah, let’s change the subject. It just makes me feel like I’m a million miles away from Pa, and home, and sense.”

Adam smiled at the apparent contradiction in his brothers comment but refrained from saying anything. They decided that evening that they would take turns to mount a guard. Joe was to have first watch.

“It won’t be long before we get to Biggins. That’s the first town on Ned’s map. Probably where those wagons were headed.” Hoss muttered, frowning slightly as there was the taste of cheese in the biscuits and he didn’t really like cheese.

“Wish we had been able to find some identification on ‘em. There could be folk in town waiting to know of there whereabouts,” Joe sighed, and tried not to think of pathetic remains. He looked down at his biscuit and with a shake of the head tossed it away.

“How’s your arm, Hoss?” Adam asked before they turned in, “Do you need any more of Little Raven’s ointment on it”

“Shucks, no thank you, Adam. It smelt bad enough when she first used it, but now it smells like skunk.”

Adam laughed, a low quiet chuckle and he looked over at his brother affectionately. How he had missed him. May be it was because Jacob Brown had had that same warm personality and good humour as well as build, that had caused him to befriend the man. He shook his head, and rolled into the blanket. He had taken a pinch of Stalking Horse’s herbs, as he did every night, and realised that either they were not so effective or the pain was getting worse. He closed his eyes, and told himself that he had to expect it, after all, digging graves and hauling bodies about wasn’t going to help.

Joe found a place to sit with a blanket around his shoulders and a rifle in his arms. The sky was a brilliant show of colour, purples mingled with fiery red and a quite exotic orange. Then it faded into velvet black and a full moon slide from behind the clouds to bathe everywhere in an quite fairy tale gossamer light.

They breakfasted and carried out their ablutions rapidly. Each one of them had awoken with a sense of urgency to get up and out as quickly as possible. Hoss didn’t exactly complain of his head itching, but he looked extremely apprehensive. They rode out into the heat of another late summers day.

By mid afternoon they could see the outline of the town on the horizon. According to Neds map it was on the border of Indian Territory, but only just. Adam would have said it was disputable either way. Tumbleweed drifted across their path as a slight breeze began to blow, which cooled the riders a little for the sun was unpleasantly hot.

Biggins, so the sign post declared, was a town built only two years earlier. It was a township of 430 people. Each one of the brothers expressed their opinion that all 430 must have been mad for the whole area seemed so inhospitable and arid that they could not but wonder who in their right minds would have wanted to settle there. In all fairness there was a good water source for there was a river that slipped sluggishly through the terrain there and the town was built close enough to be able to enjoy some benefits from it.

“Wal, guess a place has to start somewhere.” Hoss muttered as they rode along the track towards the buildings.

“Yeah, Eagle Station was not much better than this when we first rode into the Washoe,” Adam replied, and he pulled out his handkerchief to mop around his neck, “There must be a storm brewing, it sure is hot.”

“Then lets get into town and hope there’s a decent hotel and some cool beer.” Joe grinned, and winked at Hoss, who nodded with alacrity.

“Is there such a thing?” Adam chuckled, “A cool beer in a place like this?”

Chapter 89

Biggins was a replicate of every mushroom town that was being built throughout the newly developing western states. Tall false fronts made impressive charades of the smaller buildings that faced onto a wide and dusty main street. It were as though every township the boys had ever visited or stayed in were massed altogether to form this very one.

Adam leaned on the pommel of his saddle and looked around, and gave a wink and grin to his brothers,

“Quite home from home,” he muttered.

“So long as there’s some place that can cook a decent meal, I’m hungry.” Hoss grumbled.

“There’s a lot of military around,” Joe observed.

They rode three abreast down the centre of the main street surveying their surroundings. The newness of the buildings was evident by the still well maintained appearance of them, and the gloss that still shone in the sunlight from the paintwork. They looked around them and headed towards the General Store.

“You know,” Adam twisted around to survey the way they had just come, and then turned again to look around him, “There’s something quite eerie about these towns. Haven’t you ever felt that way? Out of nowhere a town appears, complete with curtained windows, neat gardens, stores full of food …”

“Cold beer in root cellars.” Joe chuckled, pushing his hat back.

“It’s as though a slice of some busy township has been cut out and put down right in the middle of a desert, a wilderness.” Adam pulled a grimace, “Neat women passing by without a care in the world,”
“Pretty women passing by with a twinkle in their eye,” Joe chuckled, raising his hat to two such pretty young women who laughed and recognised his gesture with a toss of their heads.

“I smell apple pie.” Hoss said, raising his nose and sniffing hard.

“Weird.” Adam sighed and dismounted, tethering the reins to the hitching rail and looking up and down the street. He tapped Joe on the chest and nodded over to the saloon, “Well, look at that? Just how original can you get?”

“The Silver Dollar saloon,” Joe almost laughed out loud, “Hey, you and me ain’t having the same dream are we?”

“A kind of nostalgic longing for home,” Adam chuckled.

“I ain’t bothered about you and your dreams,” Hoss sighed, “But I reckon I sure could do with a cool drink of something.”

They walked to the saloon and pushed open the batwing doors, and glanced around. No one stopped what they were doing, or rather, the few that were there did not even bother to look up. A weary looking gambler continued to deal his cards to the four men grouped around the table, several cowboys were swapping yarns at another table, and two men were leaning on the counter in deep conversation with the barman.

“If his name’s Sam I’ll eat my hat,” Joe muttered stepping into the dim interior of the saloon and heading for the counter.

“What can I do for you gents?” the barkeep nodded a welcome, leaving his customers to enjoy their drinks, although it was noted that they took a cursory glance at the newcomers.

“Three beers, nice and cool, please.” Joe said, and flipped some money down onto the counter.

“I’ll just go and get some from the root cellar, best place for it in this heat.”

“Hey, what did I tell ya?” Hoss jabbed Adam in the ribs and grinned, then rubbed his hands together, “If you two guys are dreaming this I’m sure glad you invited me along.”

“Travelled far?” one of the men at the counter approached them, while the other watched and listened from where he remained.

“Quite some distance,” Joe replied, “Oh, Joe Cartwright, these are my brothers Hoss and Adam Cartwright.”

“You look as though you’ve travelled some distance, by the look of the dust on your clothes. My names Jed McKenzie, by the way.” he extended his hand to them and smiled in a friendly manner as it was shaken by them in return, “This here is Davy Nicolson.”

“Howdy,” Davy nodded in their direction, but didn’t move closer up the counter to join them.

“Where are you headed? I presume you’re just passing through here?”

“That’s right,” Joe replied, greeting the barkeep with a warm smile as he reappeared, with three glasses full to the brim of the amber liquid. “Excuse me, Sir, first things first.” and he grabbed a glass and after licking his lips, raised it to his lips, half closed his eyes and swallowed.

Beside him his brothers did the same, paused and put their glasses down almost simultaneously, then let out a sigh.

“Best dream I ever had,” Adam said, and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

“Yeah, thanks for inviting me along,” Hoss grinned, picking up his glass again and draining its contents.

“So, where are you headed?” Jed asked, looking at them with a faint smile on his own lips, “If you want a bed for the night I can recommend a place for you.”

Joe looked over at Adam, who shrugged slightly, and Hoss raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

“We’re heading for home, The Ponderosa in Nevada.” Joe replied, “And thanks for the offer of a bed, we may well take you up on it.”

“My wife and I own the hotel. We’re a bit short of guests at the present moment, so you can take your pick of accommodation.” and Jed shook their hands all over again, and then ordered five more beers.

“The Ponderosa, huh?” Davy leaned towards them, “Do you boys know a Candy Canady?”

“Sure, he works for us on the ranch. My Pa employs him as foreman there.” Hoss replied, “He knows his job, couldn’t find a better man for it.”

Davy nodded and smiled,

“I’m glad to hear it,” he took the fresh glass of beer and sipped it thoughtfully, “He and I knew one another years ago, before he got himself married to that Ann. Well, that was a disaster for a start.” he sighed, and pursed his lips, “How is coping nowadays?”

“Haven’t seen him in a while, but I’d say he was shaping up pretty well,” Joe said, rather cagily, “He’s a good friend.” and he picked up his beer and swallowed several mouthfuls as though that signified an end to the subject.

“You’ve quite a lot of military hereabouts,” Adam observed, “Any particular reason?”

“There’s been some Indian trouble hereabouts,” Jed said, “The sheriff called them in for protection.”

Adam nodded, and the three brothers recalled to mind their grisly findings of the previous day. He sighed,

“Yeah, we came across one of the more recent incidents yesterday. I guess we should notify the sheriff before too much longer. Do you have a Telegraph Office here yet?”

“We sure do,” Davy replied, “The Military made sure of that, just in case we need reinforcements.”

“Well, I guess building a town right on the border of Indian Territory does call for some attention from its previous owners.” Adam said, “We had similar problems for a while back in Virginia City, although nothing to the scale of what has been happening here.”

“Well, it’s too bad for them, Mr Cartwright,” Jed said with a genuine note of regret in his voice, “But back East the news is out that there’s gold to be found in the grass roots* of this land, and folk are packing up and flocking out here. There ain’t going to be any stopping them. I tell you, in a years time this town will be twice the size it is now.”

“And there’s talk of a railway running through here. That’s inevitable nowadays anyhow. The number of towns that are springing up everywhere in this territory the railways will be essential for linking them up, supplying goods an’ such. Yes, sir, this is going to be the place to watch alright.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully, and then with a sigh, excused himself and walked out of the saloon and out into the sunshine. After looking up and down the street, he located the Sheriff’s Office and walked towards it, tipping his hat politely to several young ladies, and avoiding an encounter with a buggy that was being driven rather chaotically by its elderly owner.

The sheriff looked up and surveyed the newcomer thoughtfully, before standing up to acknowledge him,

“Adam Cartwright, Sheriff, from the Ponderosa,” Adam extended his hand and had to admit to himself that it felt good, really really good, to be able to say that once again.

“Sheriff Tom Ridley, Mr Cartwright. Welcome to Biggins. What can I do for you?”

“Well, I’ve some bad news I’m afraid. My brothers and I rode upon two wrecked wagons and 7 dead people yesterday. I should be more correct, four adults and three children.”

“Indians?”

“It would appear so.” Adam replied, turning his hat round and round between his fingers and looking thoughtfully at the sheriff, “I – we – didn’t find any identification on them but to be honest we didn’t take the time to look too closely. We figgered that once you knew about it you would form a posse to go and do what’s necessary, and then you’d be able to find the identification. We have buried them. The – er – condition of the bodies did not make it reasonable to bring them into town.”

For a moment Ridley just stared at him, a blank look on his face, and his eyes seemed to have lost their focus. Then he nodded, slowly, and sighed wearily, as though he were too tired to withstand the pressure of such misery much longer.

“I think I know who they were, Mr Cartwright. There were two families expected to join us that we knew of, one of them was related to our Doctor. It’s going to be a severe blow to them all.”

“I can imagine -.”

“It’s been a hard two years, getting this town on its feet. The trouble with these savages ain’t helping it none. But,” he shrugged and picked up his hat, “I doubt if it’ll stop ’em coming. I heard tell that there’s a whole flood of folk heading this way. You can’t stem a flood, no how. They’ll jest keep coming and coming regardless of how many die on the way.”

“Yeah, that’s how it’s been for a long time now, in one place after another,” Adam sighed, and recalled to mind the incident all those years back when he had held Hoss in his arms and watched Inger die in the arms of her husband. He closed his eyes briefly as though to shut out the memory and return to the present.

“I’d best go and tell ’em.” Ridley said, “Thank you kindly for letting me know, sir. I inform the Military as well. They’ll no doubt want to go out and survey what’s happened.”

Adam nodded and seeing that the sheriff was leaving the building, followed him out. As Ridley turned left, Adam turned to his right and made his way to the Telegraph Office.

“Anything I can do for you, Sir?”
It occurred to Adam that this was a mighty obliging town and he smiled, produced some money and put it on the counter.

“I’d like to send a message to Virginia City, Nevada.”

“Yes, sir,” the clerk picked up his pencil and pad, licked the lead tip and looked up, “To whom shall I send it, Sir.”

“Send it to Mr Ben Cartwright …” Adam replied, and he looked up and out of the window, to the blue sky, puffy white clouds, and smiled, “My father.” he said quietly to himself and felt the glow of the significance of those words fill his heart.

Chapter 90

Adam joined his brothers in the hotel immediately after having seen his cable to Ben despatched by the obliging clerk.

The fluffy white clouds had been burned dry by the sun in the meantime, and the thought that a storm just had to break sooner or later reoccurred to his mind as he pushed open the door and found Joe and Hoss in the foyer. Jed was with them, introducing them to a pretty young woman with a sharp look in her eyes, who now turned towards the newcomer,

“Mr Cartwright, this is my wife Sarah.” Jed smiled proudly, much like a little boy proud to display a ship in the bottle and longing to explain how he had ‘done it.’

Adam swept off his hat and acknowledged her with a nod of the head, and taking her hand in his,

“Mr Cartwright, what a pleasure to meet you.” Sarah McKenzie said with a smile that showed just how much pleasure she was feeling at meeting him. Her voice was low and husky, and Adam decided that a young married woman of her young years had no right to so much personal charisma or such a sensual voice. He glanced over her head at Joe and Hoss, and then back at her,

“My pleasure, M’am.” he replied and promptly dropped his hat.

Joe turned his head and stared at one of the painting on the wall. It was called A Stag at Bay and depicted a young stag fighting off a hunting pack of dogs. He couldn’t help feel how appropriate it was at that moment. At least he had managed to keep hold of his hat when Sarah had turned the charm onto him!

Hoss rolled his eyes ceiling wards and began to whistle silently to himself. Then out of the corner of his eye noticed the way Adam straightened his shoulders and pulled his spine upright. He grinned, his ’big’ brother was obviously determining to put up a bold front.

“I’ve reserved the best three rooms in the house,” Sarah purred, and slipped her arm through Adam’s, “Jed, darling, our guests look famished. Let’s take them to the restaurant before they go to their rooms.”

Jed smiled, and led them towards the large room at the back of the hotel. As they entered it Adam noticed the Sheriff talking to a tall, thin young man. During the conversation this latter turned his head and looked with a horror stricken face at them, before turning back to talk to Ridley. Adam sighed, and assumed that he was the Doctor being told the sad news about his family.

He glanced in their direction again and then, with another sigh, he stopped, and requested that they excuse him for a moment. Sarah smiled, and graciously relinquished his arm, taking possession of Hoss’ instead and leading them into the restaurant, although she cast an inquisitive glance over her shoulder to see who could possibly have supplanted her.

Ridley paused in his conversation and turned to Adam, then looked at the other man,

“Doc, this is Adam Cartwright. He’ll be able to tell you more about what you need to know,” he shook his head regretfully, and in silence put out his hand to shake that of the doctors, nodded to Adam and then walked away.

“I’m sorry -,” Adam began, holding his hat firmly, and looking at the sad face of the young doctor, “I really am.”

“Thank you. Ridley says you and your brothers found them?”

“We came across their remains, and the wreckage of their wagons on the way here. Did Ridley tell you that we buried them?”

“Yes. Was – I mean – could you not have put them in the wagons, and brought them here?” the moist laden eyes were wild, large, and he raised a hand to hastily brush the impending tears away.

“No. The wreckage was too great, and the – the bodies had been there some time. I hasten to add, Sir, that it was not Indian brutality that made it impossible, but the effects of the heat, and carrion birds.”

“Oh heavens,” the doctor groaned and bowed his head, put his hand to his face and fought to suppress a sob, “They didn’t deserve to die like that, out there, in that situation.”

“No,” Adam replied, placing a kindly hand on the man’s arm, “I’m very sorry. Do you happen to know who the other couple were? Do they have family here ?”

“No.” the doctor shook his head, and took a deep breath, “Melissa and Tom were the last of my own family, and wanted to join me here. They wanted to make a fresh start in life, all of us, together. The children? Dead?”

“Yes, three children, one was a baby in arms.”

“Ryan. That was his name, I’d not seen him, you know? The other two children I had met. Only last year.” he shivered, and then looked at the man in front of him and frowned, extended his hand, “I’m sorry, I haven’t introduced myself, Matthew Brinkley.”

“Adam Cartwright, from the Ponderosa.”

“Thank you. Thank you for all you did for them. In the times in which we live I dread having to say it, but no doubt, they won’t be the last.”

“Sadly, you’re right. If there is any consolation in saying so … they were not the first.” Adam replied, “The other couple, you said they had no family here?”

“No, they were friends of Tom. John and Margaret Palmer. The four of them were going to set up a newspaper here. John and my brother had been friends in the trade for many years. It seemed such a good idea, a fresh start in a new world.” his lips were trembling again, and he bit down on them hard, “It was my suggestion, you see. I left home a year ago and they said as soon as the baby was born they would come out and join me. I was so eager to see what this was all about, so eager to leave a fusty old hospital behind and strike out as the town’s doctor here. Please excuse me, Mr Cartwright, I must go and tell my wife before rumour reaches her and – and causes her more upset.”

“Certainly, Sir,” Adam nodded and watched the wretched man turn and leave the premises. He shook his head slowly from side to side, and then looked around the room in which he was standing. So plush and so new, all reds and purples, velvets and damask, rich mahogany wood, and gilt glowing everywhere. A new start … he sighed, paid for with blood, every bit of it.

The meal was excellent. Sarah boasted about French cuisine, and how there would come a time when Biggins would be a town everyone would want to visit just for the joy of going to their hotel and restaurant.

“Our cook comes from a French family all the way from Albany.” she said, “Not his family, of course, they come direct from Paris, France.”

“This is the best apple pie I ever tasted,” Hoss sighed, and then went slightly red around the collar, “Jest don’t go telling Hop Sing I said so.”

They laughed a little, except Adam who seemed still lost in the conversation he had just been having with the doctor. Sarah leaned towards him and touched his arm playfully,

“My, Mr Cartwright, you are so quiet. Don’t you know that it’s against the law here in Biggins to be out of sorts?” and she laughed, leaning provocatively towards him, her large eyes flashed a firework display of feelings that Adam found embarrassingly forward. He glanced at her husband who was laughing at something that Joe was saying, and seemed unaware of his wife’s flirtation.

“My apologies, M’am, I was thinking of your Doctor who has had sad news.” he murmured and reached for his glass of wine, only to find her hand resting gently upon his own, “Excuse me,” he said quietly, and gave her a look that made her withdraw her hand, but with a smile, and a lowering of the long lashes that indicated only a postponement of anything she had in mind.

Adam picked up his glass, and felt a sharp kick on the ankle, from Hoss’ direction. He sighed, and sipped his wine. It was good, a delicate flavoured Chardonney. He looked at Jed, and smiled,

“You’ve a good wine celler, Jed?”

“We made sure of getting the best we could. Once the railway comes we’ll be able to get even better stock in.” Jed replied warmly. “It’s Sarah’s idea. She’s the brains behind it all.”

“Well, it sure beats some of the places we’ve stayed at,” Hoss said, taking another slice of pie in anticipation of melting pastry. “Have you had many customers?”

“Enough.” Sarah said rather crisply, “But at the moment, with the trouble that is still simmering about, it is not as much as we could wish. It will come though, with the railway, and the people leaving the East, even coming from the San Francisco and Sacremento. This is the place to be now,” and she raised her head daintily, exposing the whiteness of her throat and the youthful line of her jaw, her ear rings gleamed and flashed as they caught the light.

Adam finished his wine and put down his glass. He glanced at his brothers and raised one eyebrow. Both of them understood immediately what he was indicating, it was time to leave.

“If we could go to our rooms now, M’am, and freshen up.” Hoss said gallantly, and he stood up, a pleasant smile on his face.

Jed and Sarah stood up also, stood away from the table and let their guests pass them by. It was Jed who got their keys from the key board, and led them to their rooms. He opened each door with a smile, placing the key in their hands, and watching them step inside.

“Let us know if there is anything else you require, won’t you?” he said with that same smile on his lips.

No sooner had his footsteps faded when Joe was in Hoss’ room, joined immediately by Adam,

“When do we leave?” Hoss asked, “I sure liked the apple pie but I ain’t so sure about everything else. This place gives me the shivers.”

“We leave first thing in the morning,” Adam replied briskly, “Let’s use this time to freshen up and relax. You’ve got to remember this is all new to them, and she has got a good head on her shoulders. She knows word of mouth brings in good custom. And we’ve a way to travel yet.”

“I agree,” Joe said, and bounced on the bed before shrugging, “She sure was turning on the charm to you, elder brother.”

Adam said nothing to that, he had been wondering whether he had been at sea for too long and forgotten how women would, should and could act.

Cleaned up and feeling better for it, the three brothers made their way back to the saloon. The night air was heavy and hot, and that tingling feeling of a storm in the offing prevailed. The saloon was now packed with people. Several saloon girls drifted from table to table, counter to stairway. Pretty, cheap, and over painted they looked like dolls in their gaudy red and black, gold and orange dresses. There were a number of troopers present, mingling with the townsmen. Each of the brothers looked them over as they passed them to reach the counter. The bar keep leaned towards them,

“Adam Cartwright?” he asked Hoss who jerked his thumb at his brother, and began to fiddle in his vest pocket for some change to pay for the drinks.

“Yes?”

“Officer over there wants to talk with you, sir.” and he jerked his thumb in the direction of a table tucked away in the corner of the room, close to the stairs.

Adam nodded, took his glass of beer, and walked to the table. The Officer stood up, and extended his hand,

“Good evening, Mr Cartwright. I’m Captain Fellowes. I wondered if I could talk with you about something.”

“Certainly.” Adam nodded, and sat down in the empty chair, when Fellowes glanced up he realised that Joe and Hoss had followed him, so made the introductions. They were received with a curt nod of the head.

“What’s this all about, Adam?” Hoss asked, taking his chair and giving the Officer a narrow eyed look.

“I don’t know, Hoss, but I’m sure the Captain is about to let us know.” and Adam raised both eyebrows, “Captain?” he prompted.

Fellowes nodded, and looked from one to the other of them,

“We needed to ask you for your help,” he replied.

The three brothers exchanged looks and sighed. Each one of them shook their heads, picked up their glasses and took a long swig from their drinks.

Chapter 91

Captain Fellowes was a young man, and nervous. When confronted by the three brothers and their silent refusal to be sidetracked from their original plans, he went slightly pale and sweat beaded his brow.

“I think you need a drink,” Adam said in a conciliatory manner, “What would you prefer?”

“I don‘t need a drink.” Fellowes replied, “I need you to do this favour. For the sake of the U.S. Cavalry, and this town.”

“No.” Adam replied, and put down his glass, “Absolutely not.”

“I haven’t even explained what the favour was yet,” Fellowes protested, his eyes widening in sheer panic.

“I’m sorry, Captain Fellowes,” Joe said amicably, as he picked up his glass of beer and raised it to his lips, “But my brother said no, and as far as we are concerned that goes for us as well.”

“Please?” Fellowes looked from one to the other of them, and then his shoulders sagged, “You were our last resort.”

“How can that be?” Adam replied, his deep voice was softening, but firm, “We only rode into town earlier today. You don’t know us, or anything about us, how do you know that we were the men you needed for whatever it was you needed us for?” he looked at Joe who nodded, and Hoss who frowned as he mulled the words over in his mind.

“You’re Cartwrights, from the Ponderosa, aren’t you?” Fellowes replied, “Ben Cartwright’s sons?”

“S’right,” Joe replied and smacked his lips with pleasure, it was a good beer, just how he liked it, and he turned and beckoned for a repeat.

“My Commanding Officer knows your father, and when he heard you were in town he said you would be the ones to ask for help. Look, this town is new, brand spanking new. There’s nothing wrong in that, every town has to start sometime. This territory is new, and soon it will be flooded over with people, which means …” he paused.

“Yeah? Which means?” Adam frowned and leaned forward, “Do you want some help finding the right words, Captain?”

“Perhaps the Captain doesn’t know how to say which means the borders will have to be moved again to accommodate all these new comers to this town.” Joe said acidly.

“You’re putting words into my mouth,” Captain Fellowes said with a sigh, and he leaned back in his chair, “But you’re right. Ridley told us that you found the remains of an Indian attack on some travellers yesterday. People here are a bit jittery after what happened at Julesburg as well. But they want their town to succeed, do you understand? The railway will be coming through here …”

“Captain, all we have heard since we arrived is how new, how wonderful and how the railway is going to come to this town.” Adam sighed, paused as fresh glasses of beer were placed in front of them on the table by one of the girls, and then looked at the Officer again, “My brothers and I have been travelling for a long time. We’ve faced a lot of problems and we have been away from home far too long. We just want to get home. That’s all. Thank you, but no …” he looked at the Captain who opened his mouth to speak, but this time Hoss leaned forward,

“Look, woodpecker, my brothers have just told you NO. And when they are both in agreement about anything, I’d just skedaddle if I were you and not say no more about it.”

The Officer nodded,

“I understand, but it wouldn’t have taken you out of your way at all. I promise you…”

“No.” Adam shook his head, and Joe shook his and Hoss raised his eyebrows.

“Good day to you, gentlemen. I’m sorry to have taken up your time.”

He picked his hat from the table and nodded his head, then walked quickly out of the building. Hoss watched him go, and then turned to his brothers,

“I wonder what it was all about, we didn’t even give the poor fella time to explain.”

“Yeah,” Joe doodled in the spilt beer, “I feel kinda mean saying no, especially as we don’t even know what we said no to.”

“Look, we made ourselves a deal … no women, no nothing that’s going to stop us from getting home,” Adam snapped, he clamped his mouth together and scowled at them both.

“I remember that about women, don’t you, Joe? Don’t seem to be having that kinda problem myself, do you?” Hoss grinned over at Joe whose eyes twinkled as he saw the gleam in his brother’s eye

“Nope. Ain’t me the pretty Sarah has been lolling all over – and her a married woman an’ all.”

Adam passed a hand over his face and shook his head, he was about to speak when a hand clapped him on the shoulder, making him jump and slop beer over his fingers. He looked up angrily and saw Fellowes with another Officer.

“Back again?” he sighed, and Fellowes nodded,

“This is Major Colley* My Commanding Officer.” Fellowes said, “Do you mind if we sit down and talk?”

“Go ahead.” Joe replied, beckoning to the chairs which they were already drawing out from the table.

“I understand that my Officer here didn’t manage to persuade you gentlemen from helping us out on a special assignment,” Colley said quietly, and he glanced about him anxiously, “I’m hoping that you’ll listen to me this time and agree to our request.”

“Look, Sir, you must have hundreds of men at your disposal, all of whom you know well enough by now would carry out any assignment, so called, that you wish. You really do not need us at all.” Adam smiled blandly, and then raised his eyebrows, “Please..”

“No, please, Mr Cartwright, please hear us out. Towns like this are spring up all along the border to Indian Territory as you must have noticed and will notice as you continue your journey to Nevada. They need protecting. You must see that for sure, having seen for yourself what had happened to those people you came across yesterday?”

“Go on,” Hoss said, ignoring Adam’s look of disapproval, and deciding for himself that if he was going to say no to a request for help he needed to know what it was he was turning down.

“Your next stop along the route home will be Calico. Isn’t that right?”

Joe nodded, and looked at Adam who looked resigned to hearing it all now and was staring into his glass of beer mournfully.

“A few miles south of Calico we’re building a new fort. We have to, for the settlers sakes. More settlers, will require more protection. Well, at present the soldiers garrisoned there are waiting for a shipment of arms.”

Adam raised his head and narrowed his eyes, and looked at both Officers coldly. Hoss and Joe sat back, wary and decidedly uncomfortable at the turn of the conversation.

“We have two wagons of guns and ammunition that need to be delivered to the Fort. They need it desperately.”

“Then send a convoy of your soldiers to deliver it. You don’t need us.” Joe said coldly.

“Don’t you understand? Those guns mean the difference between life and death. Hundreds could die needlessly if those guns don’t arrive at the Fort.” Fellowes cried.

“And hundreds will die if they do, just as needlessly.” Joe cried, thinking not of the soldiers and settlers now, but of the innocent Indians and even the not so innocent Indians who would suffer at the hands of the men in that fort.

“You’re right, I could send a convoy of my men to deliver it. But I daren’t. The situation here is far more serious than the people in this town realise. We have to protect it. Thankfully we are well armed and close to a Fort to get reinforcements. I can’t spare a single man from his duties. Do you understand?”

Adam nodded, and looked at his brothers thoughtfully, he could read in their eyes what they were feeling about the matter, so he shook his head,

“No. I’m sorry, but we’re not in the business of gun running.”

“What are you talking about? This isn’t gun running! This is a legitimate delivery of arms to a Fort on behalf of the U.S. Cavalry. They need those weapons!” Colley exclaimed with his face purpling in exasperation.

“Look, I’m not saying that we don’t understand your situation, we do. What we are saying is that – if there were fewer guns used, and more words spoken, you may get yourself a far more peaceable solution all round. Black Kettle wants peace, he isn’t prepared to fight. Other Chiefs feel the same way … all you need do is negotiate.”

“Negotiate? With Indians?” Colley seethed, “Don’t you realise that we don’t negotiate with those red devils? Our orders …”

“Listen here,” Joe cried, “We know all about your orders. If you see an Indian, shoot him down. Isn’t that right? Well, what about the women? What about the children? You don’t stop to just shoot the warriors, do you? It’s all or nothing with you, isn’t it?”

Colley looked at the impassioned young man, whose nostrils were white and pinched, and whose lips were thinned over his teeth in a grimace of pain and misery, but he shook his head and looked away.

“You saw the victims of those murderers yesterday. You saw what they did to women and children. Are you prepared to let them continue to do that to white folk?”

Adam looked once again at Joe, and placed a hand on his brother’s arm in a gesture aimed to calm him for he knew well enough that what Joe was seeing at this moment was Little Moon and her people. He leaned towards the two Officers once again,

“We don’t want to take your guns, Major.”

“You’re leaving our men defenceless. What kind of people are you to turn your backs on us like this?” Fellowes cried.

“We’re just three men passing through this town on the way home. No disrespect to you, but that’s what we would like to continue to do. Now, if you think all it needs is three men to take two wagon loads of arms and ammunition to Calico, then I suggest you find three of your soldiers to do it.” Adam stood up, picked up his hat and was about to slip it over his head when Colley spoke again,

“Do you mean to tell me that you three pacifists will just stand by and let those murderous animals shoot you? You’ve a long way to go before reaching Calico, and there’s a lot of Indians out there prepared to stop you getting there. You’re telling us you won’t shoot back?”

“If it’s obvious we can’t negotiate then of course we’ll shoot back. But I’ll tell you what, Major, we would do the same if it were a bunch of white idiots shooting at us as well.” Adam frowned and put his hat on, and walked away, flanked on either side by his brothers.

“Well, that didn’t work out very well, did it?” Fellowes sighed.

“No. The fools.” Colley hissed, “But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, Fellowes. You mark my words.”

Chapter 92

There was no sign of the delectable Sarah upon their return to the hotel although raised voices could be heard from the couples private quarters. It has to be admitted that all three men more or less scampered up the stairs to their rooms with as much dignity as they show but with much relief when they came face to face with their doors.

Adam paused a moment, and then glanced over at his brothers both of whom were making a great show of putting their keys into the relevant keyholes. He approached Hoss thoughtfully, and raised his eyebrows, rocked slightly back and forth on his feet,

“Yeah? What’s biting you, brother?”

“Nothing. Yet. I hope.” Adam replied, looking at his brothers key with half lidded eyes.

“Yeah? Good. Well, good night, sleep well.” and Hoss pushed open the door.

“Hang on there,” Adam cried hastily as he saw the door slowly closing in on him, “I was just thinking -.”

“Don’t take too long about it then, I’m a weary man and needs muh sleep.” and Hoss yawned for good measure.

“I was – er – just thinking what a good idea it would be if we changed rooms.”

“Changed rooms?” Hoss exclaimed in a loud enough voice to prompt Joe to stick his head out of his room and look at them both with rather a knowing smirk on his face.

“Well, yes,” Adam nodded, trying to look authorities.

“Why?” Hoss jutted out his chin while at the same time slowly peeling off his vest, and then unbuttoning his shirt.

“I know it sounds kind of stupid, but -” Adam swallowed a gulp, “it’s the colour.”

“What’s wrong with the colour?” Hoss demanded, tossing his shirt across the room with quite a flourish.

“Yeah, Adam, what’s wrong with the colour?” Joe asked, leaning against the door post now with his arms crossed over his chest and a smile on his face.

“Pink.” Adam shrugged and pulled a face, “Never liked pink in my life, makes me bilious.”

“Bilious?” both his brothers exclaimed and burst into laughter.

“Well? You gonna help me out here?” Adam asked, looking from one to the other with a helpless look on his face.

“Nope,” Hoss grinned, and tapped his brother gently on the chest, “Now, you just turn yourself around there, big brother, and get yourself into your pretty pink bedroom. Sleep well.” and laughed hugely Hoss closed the door on his hapless brother who heard the key turn in the lock with a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Joe?” Adam turned to his youngest brother, but Joe opened his eyes wide and flashed a smile and then he too whisked into his room, closed the door and locked it before his brother even had time to rattle the handle.

With a sigh Adam returned to his room. He locked the door and stepped back to regard it solemnly. It occurred to him that the owner of a hotel would no doubt have her own keys cut for each room. He pursed his lips and frowned as he looked around the room for a suitable article that could be placed under the door handle and prevent anyone opening the door. The chair looked too flimsy, and was dismissed immediately. But a sturdy chest of drawers looked capable of preventing any intruder and this he dragged across the door. He then looked around the room and checked the window. Satisfied that it was a sheer drop onto the main street he drew across the drapes and began to disrobe.

Each one of them fell to sleep almost as soon as their heads hit their pillows. True, Adam was roused from his sleep sufficiently when he heard the whisper of feet along the hall carpet and the handle of his room rattle. Drifting in and out of sleep he thought he heard a key turn in the lock, but his fears prior to sleep did not appear to affect him sufficiently to wake him entirely for he fell back into a deep slumber.

He awoke to a loud rapping on the door and Hoss calling to him to rouse himself up as breakfast was ready. If there was a slight hint of laughter in Hoss’ voice Adam chose to ignore it as he washed, shaved and dressed quickly enough to join them in the hall.

Joe regarded his brother thoughtfully,

“Hey, Adam, did I just hear the sound of furniture moving?” he asked, looking wide eyed and innocently at Adam who attempted to look back at him equally wide eyed and innocent.

“Yeah, you know something, Joe, thet’s jest what I was thinking. Almost as though our brother here were afraid that someone – uninvited like – might visit his room during the night, huh?”

Adam shook his head as though the conversation was far too trivial for him to bother with, and took the lead down to the restaurant.

Jed approached them, looked at each one of them and smiled a greeting.

“I hope you slept well? All of you?” he said, and gave Adam a rather sharp look which Adam returned with a sharp look of his own.

“Well enough, thank you.” Joe replied, “Although I could have sworn I heard someone close by moving furniture around their room.”

Jed looked at them uncertainly, and Adam smiled with his brown eyes sorrowful, and shook his head,

“Sorry about that, Jed. My little brother has bad dreams. Ignore him.”

There was no sign of a storm brewing that morning. As the three brothers stepped out onto the sidewalk they felt a soft breeze on their faces, and the heaviness of the heat from the previous days was changed to a warmth that seemed to caress them. It was a good start to the day. They exchanged smiles and began to walk towards the livery stables.

Adam glanced across the road as the sign indicating the Doctors surgery swung in the breeze and caught his attention. He pursed his lips, turned his head and then looked again. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps he should just call in and see how the man was now. After all, he had suffered a loss and no doubt suffered the guilt that would go along with it. He unconsciously placed his hand upon his stomach, where the pain from his wound seemed a constant feature of his days.

“I’ll see you there,” he told his brothers, “I’ll just see how the Doc is …”

“Yeah, sure, Adam.” Hoss nodded, and continued to walk on, preferring not to question his brother just in case he was told something he did not want to hear.

Both he and Joe exchanged a look, and then glanced over their shoulders as they watched their long legged brother stroll over to the surgery as though he had not a care in the world. They sighed, Hoss shook his head and Joe chewed on the inside of his cheek. They didn’t speak, neither really knew what to say to the other but knew their concern was the same.

Doctor Brinkley stood up as the door opened and closed. He looked surprised when he saw Adam, but smiled a welcome,

“Mr Cartwright, isn’t it?”

“Adam Cartwright. I – my brothers and I – we’re travelling on now. I just wanted to see how you were handling things, if there was anything at all I could do for you?”

Brinkley again looked surprised, and shook his head with a sad, wistful smile,

“No, no, indeed there’s nothing you can do for me. I thank you for asking though.” he put down the pen he had been twisting in between his fingers as though it was showing this stranger too much of how he was feeling inside, “Is there anything I can do for you, Mr Cartwright? If you’re travelling, to Nevada, isn’t it? You may well need medical supplies.”

Adam nodded, removed his hat and then took a deep breath,

“Actually, Doctor, there is something you could do for me, if you have the time?”

“Certainly.” Brinkley stood up straighter, handling a medical problem was far, far simpler to handle than his own personal one after all.

Hoss and Joe had their horses saddled and bridled, along with the pack horse and were leading them out into the main street when there was a polite ‘ahem’ behind them. Turning around they came face to face with a young woman who stood with hands clasped neatly in the lap of her skirt which was grey, and her matching jacket had a neat white lace collar. She wore a straw bonnet with pale pink ribbons tied in a bow under her chin.

Both men whisked off their hats immediately, and looked first at one another and then once again, at her.

“Did you want us for something, M‘am?” Hoss asked.

“Miss.” she replied, “I’m a Miss.”

They looked at one another again and then smiled at her. A Miss. Well, of course she was, she had that neat crisp look about her that only a certain kind of unmarried woman succeeded in maintaining throughout their spinsterhood and then promptly lost upon marriage.

“Sorry, Miss. Hoss Cartwright – my brother, Joseph.” and they both clasped their hats tightly to their chests as a form of protection.

Not that she was unattractive. Indeed, she was pleasantly pleasing to look upon. Her eyes were grey, and her hair was, what they could see of it, deep chestnut. Her pale skin already had scatterings of freckles over nose and cheeks and her lips were wide and parted in a warm smile. They smiled back.

“Sheriff Ridley said that you were going to Nevada.”

“Yes’m,” Hoss muttered, nodding.

She took a deep breath as though knowing that her next words may well cause problems, she looked from one to the other, and directed her words to Hoss,

“I really need your help.”
“Our help?” Joe answered, narrowing his eyes, “What kind of help?”

“I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself better than this. My name is Mary Anne Hornby. I’m travelling to Calico with my brother, Frank.”

“Yeah?” Hoss bit his bottom lip, Calico? Where had he heard mention of that place before?

“Calico?” Joe asked, obviously remembering exactly where he had heard it previously, “And what help do you want from us, Miss Hornby?”

“I know it’s very short notice. Obviously you’re about due to leave town now. I – we – please could you let us ride along with you? Frank said that we can’t rely on the military to help us as they’re too thinly stretched as it is, and the sheriff is busy getting a posse up to find those wagons and people who were attacked.”

They just looked at her, waiting for more to come, and it did …

“I’m going to be the teacher at the school in Calico. My brother, Frank, is going to be the town’s librarian. We got here just before the beginning of the week and were all prepared to leave this weekend, but then there was talk about the Indians attacking some wagons, and our drivers left us high and dry.”

“Your drivers?” Hoss repeated as though the flow of words spoken at great speed had somehow caused him to be incapable of thinking.

“You want drivers, is that it?” Joe asked sharply.

“Yes. That’s exactly it. Our drivers said they weren’t going to risk driving wagons over to Calico with this Indian trouble on their own doorstep. We need to get there as soon as we can because our contracts start at the beginning of the month.”

“How many wagons have you got?”

“Three.” came the short reply, and she smiled at him very sweetly.

“Three?” Joe frowned and bit his bottom lip.

“It’s not as if you would be going out of your way, is it? Calico is your next stop, isn’t it?”

Joe and Hoss looked at one another. Hoss rolled his eyes and remembered a certain list of things they were meant to avoid, and Joe chewed on his bottom lip and thought of the practicalities involved.

“We’ll pay you, of course. Our drivers were being paid at a good rate, so we would obviously pay you the same. Please, help us, Mr Cartwright?” she looked at them both and blinked her eyes piteously at them.

“Wal, it‘s true we were going to stop over at Calico.” Hoss murmured, twisting his hat round in his hands and looking thoughtfully into space, “And it’s only a few days ride out.”

“We can’t let the lady down, Hoss.” Joe cried, “They could be stuck here and lose their jobs.”

Hoss nodded and was about to open his mouth when a voice behind them asked, in a very polite cold clipped manner

“What’s going on here that you weren’t going to mention to me until it was too late?”

Chapter 93

“Oh hi, Adam,” Hoss blushed red, well aware of the fact that he was breaching one of the rules they had laid down all those evenings ago when they began this journey home, “Er – um – this here is Miss Hornby. She’s a school teacher.”

“Good morning, Miss Hornby. My brothers are a little too old for a school teacher now. Nice to have met you but -”

“Hang on in thar, Adam,” Joe turned round and raised his hand, the one not holding his hat, to placate his brother, “Since when does a Cartwright not stop to help a lady in distress, huh?”

Adam took a deep breath and opened his mouth to speak, when Hoss nodded,

“S’right, Adam. Shucks, Pa would be right ashamed of us should we not stop to help this little lady – and her brother.” he turned to Mary Ann Hornby and smiled gently, “Don’t you worry none about our elder brother, Adam, it just takes him a little more time to adjust to changes.”

Adam pursed his lips and frowned, his dark eyes glanced from Joe, Hoss to Mary Ann who regarded him with stead grey eyes and a look of innocence on her face that Joe at his best could never have bettered.

“So? What’s the problem? You need escorting across the road? Joe can do that, but don’t be surprised if you get hit by a wagon on the way over.”

“Mr Cartwright,” Mary Ann sighed and fluttered her eyelids, “I’ve explained to your brothers our dilemma. My brother and I have to get to Calico …”

“Calico, huh?” Adam’s eyes flashed and he glared at Joe and Hoss as though he couldn’t believe they couldn’t see the danger signs flashing by that statement alone.

“Yes. I’m going to be the school teacher there and my brother, Frank, will be the librarian. We have to get there by the beginning of the month or we break our contract and lose the work. We’ve got a whole library of books in those wagons and -”

“Books?” Adam’s eyes lit up, and widened perceptibly, “What kind of books?”

He was so engrossed he didn’t even notice Joe and Hoss nudge one another and nod in mutual agreement. Big Brother was swallowing the bait … whole.

“Oh, all kinds of books. I’ve got my school equipment too, as well as things for the house.”

“So what help did you require, Miss – er – Hornby?”

“Drivers for our wagons.”

“Wagons?” Adam drew in his bottom lip and frowned doubtfully, he glanced over his shoulder out into the street as though the three wagons would prove their existence by materialising there and then before him.

“Three wagons to be precise. Our drivers refused to take them further than here when they heard of the Indian troubles.” she sighed and bowed her head as though overwhelmed by the burdens thus placed upon her young shoulders.

“Well, perhaps we had better go and see these wagons of yours, huh? Then we can decide between us what to do about it?” Adam smiled charmingly, and placed his arm gently around the girls’ shoulders, shepherding her gently towards the street.

“What was that he said about no kissing the girls, huh? Huh?” Hoss chuckled and winked over at Joe.

Frank Hornby was striding up and down the sidewalk, his head bowed and a glower on his face. He looked like a little bull with his head down and practically snorting down his nostrils in frustration and annoyance. He looked up as his sister approached with the three brothers in tow beside her. Her smile somewhat calmed his mood, for he straightened his shoulders and his face creased into a smile of his own as he acknowledged them with a nod of the head.

“Frank, these gentlemen have agreed to act as our drivers to Calico. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“It sure is, I was worried that our futures were going to go up in a puff of smoke.” he looked so relieved that Adam hadn’t the heart to disillusion him by telling him that no such agreement had actually been made. Frank held out his hand, “Frank Hornby, Sir.”

“Adam Cartwright, my brothers Hoss and Joe.”

“I can’t thank you enough, I truly can’t.”

“I hear you’re going to be the towns librarian? I presume the wagons contain books?” Adam narrowed his eyes and looked at the young man, who nodded eagerly, “Can I take a look?”

“Certainly,” Frank said and led the way to the first wagon.

“Oh, if you don’t mind, I’ll just take a peek at this one here.” Adam said quietly, and pulled back the tarpaulin.

Confronted by pile upon pile of boxes all of which he could see contained books, Adam had to ask himself what he was actually expecting to see. He rubbed his face with one hand and looked at Hoss and Joe who were regarding him as though he were some evil genie popped out of a bottle just to spoil their fun. He picked out one book from one of the boxes, and smiled,

“Aesops Fables.” he murmured, “Haven’t read that since I was a child.”

“One of my favourites,” Mary Ann said quietly, and watched as he replaced it. “Did you want to check the other wagons, Mr Cartwright?”

He didn’t reply but untied the tarpaulin covers on the next wagon and found more books, a stove, and various bits and pieces that made up a home. The clock bonged with a sadly hollow sound and rather guiltily he replaced the cover. The next wagon was much the same, boxes of books, trunk loads of clothes. He nodded, and replaced his hat,

“This is a lot of freight for a school teacher and librarian to bring over. It must have cost you a fortune?”

“Oh, we aren’t paying for the freight. Once the people of Calico knew we were coming and wanting to bring all this they agreed to pay for it themselves. That’s another reason why we must get there on time.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully and chewed on his inner cheek. Joe and Hoss looked at him, then at Mary Ann, and then at Frank, who was beginning to look worried.

“Look, is there a problem here? All we want is some help to get these things to the people of a town a few days ride from here.” he cried, looking bewilderedly at the Cartwrights.

“Oh, don’t fret none, Frank,” Hoss said in a matter of fact voice, “Brother Adam has a tendency to be a bit pernickety at times. Ain’t that so, Joe?”

“Yeah, pernickety is just about the word for it, Hoss.” Joe sighed, and shook his head as though their brother were suffering from some afflication, “It’s not catching or anything like that, and it ain’t hereditary. Our Pa made sure about that – when our brother first started showing signs of pernickittyness.”

Mary Ann smiled, her eyes sparkled and she looked at her brother, Frank, and slipped her arm through his,

“Can we start sometime today?” she said, “We so want to get to our new home.”

The three men took their horses and tethered them to the back of the wagons. Hoss and Joe took the second wagon, Adam was in the rear and Mary Ann sat with her brother in the front. Joe and Hoss were chuckling and nudging each other, not only because they had company on this part of the trip, but because they had pulled one over on their big brother who sat alone, silently anxious, and trying to convince himself that all they were doing was a favour for a young couple who wanted a future out west.

Chapter 94

“Can I sit with you?” Mary Ann looked appealingly up at Joe and smiled, “Frank would sure like to have a conversation with someone other than me. After all, he’s had me chattering away to him all my life long.”

Joe nodded and glanced at Hoss, who shrugged, and continued to eat his bacon and eggs. It was the noon time break on the first day. The weather had continued warm and balmy. There was no hint of rain in the sky nor in the air. Adam was sitting on a rock engrossed in reading, every so often he would raise his eyes and survey the group around the small camp fire, then he would scan the horizon, before settling back to what he was reading.

“Enjoying it?”

Frank smiled as Adam looked up. It was such an invitingly warm smile that Adam smiled in return, and nodded. Taking that as an invitation to sit down and join him, Frank sat on another rock and crossed one leg over the other and observed Adam thoughtfully.

“You sure didn’t want to come along with us, did you? Any reason why?”

“Guess I’m just suspicious by nature,” Adam replied, still smiling. He leafed through the book and stopped at a page, then he looked up at Frank again, “I recall my Pa reading this story to me when I was all of three or four years old.”

“Which one is it?”

“It’s about a man who was out walking and found a snake that appeared to be dead, frozen stiff. Taking pity on the creature he picked it up and placed it in the folds of his garment, close to his heart where he knew his body would thaw out the cold and perhaps bring the poor creature to life again.”

“And did it?”

Adam cast him a quick look, frowned slightly, and nodded.

“Oh yes, and as a reward he sank his fangs into the man’s flesh. He crawled away alive, the man, for his good deed, died.” he closed the book and sighed, “Aesop sure had a way with words. That story stuck in my mind from that day to this, I guess I’ve been suspicious by nature ever since.”

“Of snakes?” Frank laughed rather self consciously.

“Well, the moral of the allegory, or fable, is that which Shakespeare later used ‘Discretion is the better part of valour’.”

“I would have thought it just meant being careful of snakes. Personally I’d have shot the darn thing.”

Adam nodded and smiled. He looked over at his brothers, and once again scanned the horizon. Frank frowned and glanced up over his shoulder, looking at the hilltops and mountain ridges, he then looked again at Adam,

“What are you looking for?”

“Anything.” Adam replied, and stood up. “Thanks for this book. Mind if I have a rummage around for something else when I finish it?”

“Help yourself, but be careful, they aren’t mine remember. Some of them are quite valuable.” Frank replied, a note of caution in his voice and Adam nodded.

“I’m always careful where books are concerned, believe me.” he smiled, a slow smile, one that made Frank shiver.

They doused the fire down and took their seats on the wagons. This time Hoss took the one in the rear, Frank remained in front and Joe sat with Mary Ann in the centre. Adam chose to ride his horse, reading the book, raising his eyes to look around, and just lope along beside whichever wagon he happened to find himself.

“You didn’t mind my asking to sit by you, did you?” Mary Ann asked with a anxious to please kind of smile on her face.

“Oh no, no.” Joe replied and smiled at her, “It’s good to have a change of company at times. Guess that’s why Hoss and I were pleased to help you out really. Company kinda makes the miles pass by quicker. Don’t you think?”

“Certainly,” she nodded, and raised her chin to the breeze, and the ribbon fluttered against her cheeks and a curl drifted over her brow, “I guess you’re pretty anxious to get home to your wife, aren’t you?”

“No, I mean, I don’t have a wife. Fact is, none of us have.”

“You don’t have a wife?” she turned and looked at him in surprise, “Lawks, I would have thought a man with your looks would have been snapped up by now.”

“Well, fact is, I nearly did have a wife.” Joe closed his mouth and sighed, then turned away from looking at her and concentrated on the view between the ears of the horse in front of him instead.

“You did? Was she pretty?”

“Yes. She was more than pretty, she was beautiful.” and he sighed again, his mouth drooped, and the colour rose in his cheeks.

“Did something awful happen to her? Is she dead?” Mary Ann whispered.

“Yes, she’s dead. And it was awful.”

“I’m so very, very sorry, Joe. I didn’t know. I hope I haven’t said anything to hurt your feelings or anything?”

“No, of course not. I mean, of course you didn’t know,” he cleared his throat and wet his lips with the tip of his tongue. The memory of Little Moon drifted into his mind and he longed to be riding beside her, instead of this rather pretty and unappealing young woman. “It was quite recent.”

“Then you must still be hurting quite a bit,” she replied softly, and put her hand upon his arm, “I am so sorry.” she said once again.

They rode along for a while in silence. Frank was whistling a tune to himself and drove with a confidence that surprised even himself. He looked over at Adam who was still reading,

“Found anything else of interest, Professor?”

Adam merely nodded and smiled, but kept his own counsel. He finally put the book aside and rode up to Frank, trotting alongside him for a while,

“You seem to know where you’re headed quite well, Mr Hornby.”

“I studied the map. Anyway, there’s just enough track showing to indicate the way to go. Hopefully it is the right direction.” he looked again at Adam and frowned, “It is, isn’t it?” he asked with a note of panic in his voice, “We can’t afford to get lost or go off the track.”

“I think you’re alright. As you say, the track seems pretty clear ahead.” Adam smiled and rode on, continuing to read his book.

Hoss picked up the tune that Frank was whistling and began to whistle along with it. He was more than pleased to see that the further they travelled the more relaxed Adam became, and whatever suspicions he may have been harbouring had obviously been set aside.

Mary Ann held onto her bonnet as they rode over some bumps in the track and smiled at Joe when he looked to make sure she was alright. She leaned in closer to him,

“Would it help to talk about her?” she said quietly, “I’m a very good listener, you know.”

Joe didn’t reply at once. He was not too sure whether or not he wanted to talk about Little Moon to a relative stranger.

“What was her name?”

He looked back at Mary Ann and frowned, then returned to look ahead. He swallowed and cleared his throat,

“Her name was Little Moon.”

“Little Moon? She was an Indian girl?”

“Cheyenne.”

Mary Ann grew silent, and drew slightly away from him. For some long moments they rode along in silence while she thought about what he had just said. How could a white man love a Cheyenne girl, she asked herself, when there were so many pretty (and she included herself in this analysis) white girls about who would have given their eye teeth to have him look at them. Joe pursed his lips and raised his eye brows. Well, he decided, that was one way to stop a girl’s interest in its tracks and he sighed, mostly from relief.

Adam suddenly appeared at the side of their wagon, took off his hat politely to Mary Ann and made some comment about making camp for the evening in about an hours time. He looked at his brother and wondered whether to ask him if everything was alright then glanced at the girl, and decided that it was better to keep silent. He drew back behind the wagon, and rode alongside Hoss,

“We’ll stop in about an hours time, Hoss. Make camp for the evening.”

“Fine by me, Adam, I was jest beginning to feel a mite hungry.” Hoss smiled down at his brother, “Say, Adam, how was the Doc when you saw him?”

“Fine, coping well.” Adam nodded, as though he could barely remember exactly to whom Hoss was referring.

“And what did he say about you? I mean, did he have anything to say?”

“About what?” Adam replied sharply, narrowing his eyes and his nostrils getting that pinched look that happened when he was anxious.

“That thar wound of your’n, of course.” Hoss raised his eyebrows, “Is it still bothering you some? I noticed you still take Stalking Horse’s herbs.”

“Oh you did, did you?” Adam groaned. He shrugged, “He didn’t have anything to say about it. Just prodded about and said to keep taking the medicine. You know, the kind of thing most doctors say when they don’t want to say anything that makes sense to the patient.”

“Are you concerned about it, Adam?”

“No. Now, jest get on, will you. Keep yammering all day and we’ll get nowhere fast.”

He pulled his horse back a little to let Hoss get ahead of him. The look on his brothers face, one of anxious concern, did little to soften his mood. He shook his head and followed the wagons, picking up his book and following along the page he had just been reading. Then he lowered the book, and looked down at the tracks that wound ahead of him. Books, he told himself, and the amount of books that would be needed for a library, must really weigh a ton and more. The wagon tracks were deep, deeper than any he could recall seeing in a long time.

He glanced up at the rim rock and bit down on his bottom lip. Then he looked behind him. All around him was bare scrub and rock and wide wide vistas. He shrugged, so long as it remained like that, the happier he would be, for now.

Chapter 95

“Finished your book then, Adam?” Frank Hornby asked when he saw Adam walking towards one of the wagons with the closed book in his hand.

Adam nodded but continued walking. Frank put down his plate, and got to his feet,

“Don’t forget, some of those books are really valuable. Don’t go mussing up the boxes, will you?”

“Shucks, Frank, one thing you don’t need to worry about is Adam mussing up any books. I reckon he’d muss us up rather than a book, ain’t that so, Joe?” Hoss glanced over to Joe, who looked up from his plate and nodded,

“That’s right, Frank.”

“Thing is those folk in Calico paid for those books. They ain’t really our property.” Frank explained, looking anxiously at Adam as he pulled back a tarpaulin from one of the wagons.

“Here, Hoss, give me a hand, will you?” Adam beckoned to his brother, who sighed and put down his plate and then got to his feet.

“Doggone it, Adam, you only need a book. Surely you don’t want me to find an itsy bitsy book for ya?”

Hoss wiped his mouth and strolled over to the wagon, then looked at Adam with his face puckered with irritation. Miss Mary Ann was proving to be a good cook, but mean with her servings. Hoss had had to request two helpings so far just to take the edge off his appetite.

“What do you want me to do, Adam?” he asked.

“Take these boxes out of the wagon.”

“What?” Hoss exclaimed.

“What?” Frank cried, hurrying over. “What are you talking about? Those boxes have been packed in a particular order, Mr Cartwright, you ain’t got no right to take them outa there.”

“Go on, Hoss, just do as I say.”

Hoss looked from his brother and then to Frank, who just stood in horror to look at Adam. Joe stood up, and joined them,

“What’s got into you, Adam? You can’t act this way, it ain’t fair on these folk.”

“Just mind your own business, Joe. Hoss, help me get these boxes out of this wagon.” Adam said, pulling one of the boxes towards him.

“Here, if you’re that determined, let me do it.” Hoss muttered, and elbowed his brother out of the way. “How many of ‘em?”

“All of them. Empty the wagon.”

“Empty … ? Wha …? Shucks, Adam, I sure hope you know what you’re doing.” Hoss grumbled and began to pull the box from the wagon and place it carefully onto the ground.

“Why are you doing this, Mr Cartwright?” Mary Ann asked, looking at her brother and then at the wagon in bemusement, “Have you gone mad?”

“Do you want to tell her, Frank?” Adam looked at the young man, who was standing in disbelief watching Hoss remove box after box.

Frank shook his head,

“I don’t know what you mean. What do you want from us, Mr Cartwright?”

“The truth.”

“Frank? What is he talking about?” Mary Ann asked, grabbing at her brother’s arm, and pulling at him for his attention.

Frank did not reply. He shook his head and remained standing as though rooted to the ground. Hoss continued to pull box after box from the wagon, piling them neatly on the ground.

“Wal, that’s it, empty. You satisfied? Now I suppose you want for me to put the lot back, huh?”

Adam said nothing but climbed into the wagon, went down on one knee and tapped on the bottom of the wagon. He nodded and looked at Hoss,

“What does that sound like to you?” he asked.

“Wal, I dunno exactly.” Hoss replied, peering more closely at the boards, “What’m I supposed to hear?”

“Joe? Go get one of those lamps so we can look at this more closely.” Adam said, and he looked at Frank, “Do you want to come up and have a look, Frank? Or do you already know what we’ll find here?”

Frank said nothing, but ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. He watched as Joe carried a lamp to the wagon, which Joe handed over to his brother with a rather bemused look on his face,

“Adam, are you sure of what you’re doing here?” he asked.

“No,” Adam replied, “But I need to put my mind at rest about something.”

“You sure are making a big thing out of it. Weren’t there any other way of doing it than this?”

“Not really.” came the terse reply.

“I suggest you move away from that wagon now, Mister.”

Everyone in the camp froze and then slowly turned in the direction of the voice. Even Frank, after a shudder ran down his spine, turned to look as half a dozen men rode into the camp.

“Well, look at that,” one of them grinned, and indicated the apparently empty wagon, “They done emptied the wagon for us. Ain’t that jest dandy.”

“Alright now,” the first man rode closer towards them, a rifle in one hand and the reins slack in his other hand, “You -” he pointed to Hoss, “since you seem to have got the hang of how to empty out these wagons, take him and him, and empty the other two. Move it.”

“Now, wait on thar, Mister.” Hoss stepped forward, but a bullet from the rifle spat dirt between his feet.

“Hoss, stay where you are.” Joe cried, raising a hand as though to arrest his brother’s movements.

“Now, that’s sensible.” the man with the rifle nodded, and looked about him, “Miss, I see you’ve cooked up a fine meal there. Me and the boys are plumb hungry, and ain’t eaten any victuals for days, hows about you serve us up something nice and tasty, huh?”

Mary Ann looked at her brother who nodded and indicated that she do as she was told.

“Now, you,” he directed the rifle at Frank, “once that first wagon is emptied, take the boxes from the second and third wagon and place them in the first. Hey, big guy, help Frank here to take the boxes over.”

“What boxes?” Hoss asked, wiping his brow on his sleeve, for all the hauling about had raised quite a sweat. “You ain’t collecting books too, are ya?”

“Don’t be so clever. Now, your friend there,” he now swung the rifle over to Adam, “seems to have got a mite suspicious about what we were stowing away in the wagons. How come?”

“I’m intuitive.” Adam said with a slight sneer in his voice, “Apart from which, the wagons ruts were too deep for just boxes of books.”

“Wal, fancy that, intuitive and speculative.” he pulled a cigar from his pocket and stuck it between his teeth, he struck a match and put the flame to the cigar and drew heavily upon it, blowing out a plume of blue smoke after he’d inhaled upon it.

“Hurry up, we ain‘t got all night.” he turned in the saddle, “Jackson, go and give them a hand otherwise we’ll be here forever.”

The base of the two wagons had been raised up, revealing to all of them neatly packed boxes which Jackson and another of the strangers lifted up and carried to the first wagon.

“I suppose you can guess what’s in there?”

“Rifles and ammunition, I should imagine.” Adam replied coldly.

“Amazing, intuitive, speculative and now imaginative as well. Well, well,” he inhaled heavily on the cigar and then blew out the smoke in a near leisurely manner. “So right. Plenty of rifles, and ammunition. Careful there, Jackson. That’s right, get them onto the one wagon. Give them a hand, you …” he swung the rifle in an arc that included Frank.

“Is Colley and Fellowes behind this?” Joe asked, his lips thin, “It’s rather a stupid idea, isn’t it?”

The leader shook his head, and frowned,

“They don’t know nothing about this.” he said thoughtfully. “it’s a private enterprise. Between me and my clients.”

“Who are they? Your clients?” Adam felt a shiver run down his spine, and he looked at the boxes being stacked neatly on top of each other in the lead wagon.

“That doesn’t concern you.” he turned aside and accepted a plate of the stew Mary Ann held up to him, and tossed the cigar carelessly into the fire where it fell creating a shower of sparks.

The tarpaulin was pulled over the boxes and secured down. Each man was given a plateful of stew and a mug of coffee. The Cartwrights, Frank and Mary Ann remained in a group on the other side of the camp, several guns aimed at them ensuring that not one moved .

“I can see that you are just real concerned about what’s going on here,” the leader said, stuffing the last spoonful of stew into his mouth, “Wal, let’s put it like this, we get to hear that a shipment of arms is waiting to be sent to some place – you got that?” he looked at them and smiled, “We see it as a good business opportunity, cutting out the middle man in business terms. Understand what I mean?”

It wasn’t difficult to understand exactly what he meant. The brothers looked at one another and waited. The man was obviously eager to speak, and took his time to drain empty a mug of coffee. He then threw the cup down onto the ground, and observed them with a grim smile,

“It’s just a case then of finding someone stupid enough to use our wagons, specially built to accommodate our merchandise. This here greenhorn was perfect. Now, we ain’t gonna be greedy about this, we’ll leave you two of the wagons for your things to be packed in and taken on to Calico. The Fort will no doubt get in touch with the Military at Biggins to ask them where the guns have got to, but -” he shrugged, “we’ll be long gone by then.”

“What’s it worth?” Adam asked with that cold calmness habitual to him, “What are your clients paying you for all these?”

“Gold, Mister, pure gold. They don’t appreciate the value of the stuff, you see. But they do want those.” he indicated the loaded wagon with his rifle. “Now, then, thank you, little lady, for the food. We’ll leave you to have a good nights sleep and continue on your journey in the morning.”

Joe glanced over at Adam and Hoss. Then he looked at the men mounting the horses, Jackson was harnessing two horses to the wagon,

“You’re letting us go?” he asked.

“Of course, what do you think we are? You’ve all done us a big favour, we ain’t so unfair as to not be grateful. Ready, Jackson?”

“Ready,” came the gruff reply.

“Let’s go.”

They began to move out of the camp, ahead of their leader who remained mounted with the rifle pointed at the brothers, and Hornbys.

“Now then, don’t think about following after us. That won’t do at all, our friends just would take mighty offence at it and probably would not be as generous about sparing your lives as we are . Now you do understand what I’m meaning, don’t you?”

Frank was the one who nodded, and Mary Ann clung to her brother like a limpet. He now turned to look at the Cartwright brothers,

“You did us a good turn refusing to take that shipment to the Fort for Colley. You’d not have got very far had you agreed to it, I can assure you. Now, remember, just stay put here and you can continue your journey safely in the morning.”

He swung his horse around and without a further word followed the men and the wagon out of the campsite and down into the darkening shadows of night. No one moved, except Joe who had impulsively stepped forward to make for Cochise, only to have been held back by Hoss.

“You ain’t going to let them get away, are you?” he hissed between clenched teeth.

“For now.” Hoss muttered, “Take it easy, Joe. He meant what he said and unless you want your hide peppered full of lead you’ll stay right where you are.”

“Oh Frank,” Mary Ann whispered, “I don’t understand -?” and she sunk slowly down until she was sitting down on a boulder, when she put her head in her hands and began to cry.

“There, there, Mary Ann, it’s alright now, it’s alright.” Frank cried, rubbing her hands and almost in tears himself.

“I’m sorry, Hornby,” Adam said quietly, “I thought you were in on it all.” and he extended his hand, “My apologies.”

“It’s alright,” Frank replied and shook the proffered hand, “I can understand why you would think that, I mean, I don’t really know that much about books, even less about wagons. When that man, Jackson, offered me three wagons at a really reasonable rate I didn’t question that there was any other reason that him being generous to a newcomer.”

“Yeah, well, he saw you for a greenhorn, that’s all.” Hoss sighed, and slapped Hornby on the back, “Let’s not waste any sleep over it now. We’ll get an early start in the morning.”

“I don’t feel safe here,” Mary Ann whispered, “I want to go home.”

Chapter 96

It was Hoss who grabbed Joe’s arm and restrained him from rushing over to Cochise,

“Hold on thar, little brother, where’d you think you’re heading off to?”

“After them, of course. What are you waiting for, Hoss? We’ve got to get after them before they get too far ahead.” Joe protested, trying to pull his arm free from Hoss’ grip.

“And jest how far do you reckon on getting?” Hoss pulled Joe closer so that they were practically nose to nose, “We don’t know this terrain, and we can’t track them down in the dark. Do you seriously expect us to ride on outa here now without getting into even more trouble?”

The tension in Joe’s body slackened, he swallowed back further words of protest, and bowed his head. Adam came up behind him and put his hand on his shoulder,

“We’ll see what tomorrow brings.” he said quietly, and then turned to Frank and Mary Ann, “Perhaps it would be a good idea if we had some sleep now. Are you alright, Miss Hornby?”

Mary Ann nodded and looked at Joe,

“Can’t we go back to Biggins now?” she whispered.

“No, we can’t, dear,” Frank replied and took hold of her hands, “We need to get to Calico with these books. We have work there, remember? We’ve promised those people now we can’t let them down.”

“Miss, you’ll feel better after a good nights sleep.” Hoss said, throwing some wood onto the fire to build it up into a good blaze, “You ain’t got nothing to worry about, I promise you. One of us will be on guard throughout the night. Ain’t that right, Adam?”

“That’s right.” Adam nodded, and pulled his rifle from its scabbard, “Just get as much sleep as you can now, then we’ll get an early start in the morning for Calico.”

“Can’t we go back?” Mary Ann looked from one resolute face to the other, “Please?”

“Miss Mary Ann, we’re a whole day away from Biggins now. It doesn’t really matter whether we go back or go on to Calico. The situation is just the same either way.” Hoss paused and wondered if he had actually frightened the girl more by saying that and forced a smile, “You ain’t go nothing to worry about at all. Joe and Adam and me … we’re the best at rifle shooting in Nevada. Now, why not just settle down there by the fire and git yourself some sleep.”

“Frank?” she looked appealingly at her brother and held out her hand to him, which Frank took in his own, “Come with me.”

“I could do a shift too,” Frank said, half turning to them, but he knew from the smiles they gave him that they were not going to take his offer seriously. He sighed, and followed his sister to where they made up their beds for the night.

“Well, that was a close call alright,” Hoss muttered, and he looked at Joe and Adam, “Who do you reckon those men were working for?”

“What Black Kettle would refer to as Bad Indians.” Adam murmured, keeping his voice low in order not to alarm the Hornbys, he scratched the side of his face thoughtfully, “We’ll find out more on the way to Calico I’m sure.”

“Don’t you think it odd that he didn’t just get rid of us all? I mean, we could identify him and his men later on if it ever came to his being caught.” Joe bit his lips and frowned even as he checked his rifle and ammunition.

“I don’t think he expects us to get to Calico, Joe.” Adam replied, “He just didn’t want to do the dirty work himself.”

“What do you mean, Adam? You expecting what I think you’re expecting?” Hoss asked, his blue eyes straying towards the Hornbys.

“Well, we’ll find out, won’t we?” was all Adam said, “I’ll take this watch. Hoss, you can take the middle watch. Joe?” he looked over at Joe who nodded in agreement.

“Right. Well, let’s get this mess cleared up and the coffee pot on.” Hoss grumbled, “Shucks, and they done ate all that thar stew.”

Hoss’ middle watch arrived much sooner than he had hoped for, and he was rather bleary eyed when he approached his brother by the wagons. He looked around him and raised his eyebrows,

“You moved some of the books back, huh?”

“Just a few, I thought if we used the false bottoms it would give sufficient room for everything else to be loaded into the two wagons. It’ll be a close fit though.”

“Hey, I’ve been thinking”, Hoss frowned, “How did they work this all out, huh? Colley and Fellowes weren’t involved, right?”

“That’s what the man said.” Adam replied, pouring coffee into a mug for his brother and handing it to him with a smile.

“But Colley and Fellowes think the Garrison by Calico need those weapons, right?”

“Seems so.” came the rather phlegmatic response.

“So those soldiers are going to be without sufficient arms if there’s an attack on ‘em, ain’t that right?”

“May be,” Adam pursed his lips, “Hoss, I’ve been thinking as well. Do you remember those two wagons we came across on the way to Biggins? We wondered why they were so messed up, and everything as it was …?”

“Sure, I remember. Do you think that these men pulled this stunt before?”

“I think so. It’s just a theory of course, but it would explain why everything was pulled out like it was, they were looking for those guns in the false bottoms.”

“Why shoot them though and not us?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. Could be a number of reasons. Perhaps we’ll never know.”

“Shucks, Adam, I reckon those men are just about the lowest of the low.”

“So do I. Now, I’m going to get some sleep. Don’t forget to wake little brother when it’s his time, Hoss, you’ll need some sleep too. It could be a rough day tomorrow.”

Hoss nodded and took over his brothers seat on the tail board of one of the wagons. He watched as Adam settled down in his blankets, the saddle for his pillow. He sighed after a while and observed the sky. It was clear and bright, and the stars shone wonderfully bright. The moon seemed a long way away and he wondered if his Pa were looking at the sky and whether or not it looked the same on the Ponderosa as it did here.

Ben Cartwright turned the flame up in the lamp beside his bed. He had been disturbed during the night by some noise and sat up, realising that whatever the noise was, or whatever the cause of it happened to be, he was now wide awake and would get no more sleep that night.

He got out of the bed and pulled on his burgundy quilted dressing gown, slipped his feet into his warm slippers, and picked up the lamp to light his way downstairs. The house was so empty now. It had been a good idea for Candy to move into the guest room, but even so, the pervading sense of emptiness at times overwhelmed him.

At his desk he set down the lamp and opened the centre drawer. From this drawer he took out three silver framed pictures which he set upon the desk. He looked at each face within the frames, each one so familiar to him, so beloved.

“Elizabeth – Elizabeth, where is our son now?” he whispered in his deep velvet voice, “Is he safe? It’s been so long since I saw him. I miss him every day, you know. Every day. It’s like an ache in my heart that won’t go away. Oh Elizabeth -” he traced the outline of her face with his finger and shook his head, she was the one who had seen the trees, and the tall sons he would have standing by his side. Elizabeth, the love of his young manhood.

“Inger.” he picked the picture of Inger up and looked at it carefully. He could still see the blue of her eyes, the way she smiled at him, the quiet strength of her and the confidence she had in him, “Inger, I can’t wait for Hoss to walk through that door. This house needs him in it, he’s the only one of us who can fill it with the sunshine you always brought into our lives.”

“Marie. Oh, Marie,” he looked intently at the face of his last wife, and shook his head, “I’d give the world to see Joe here now. Our poor boy, he’s suffering out there, wherever he is, his hearts sorely troubled, and broken. He should never have left here, I should never have permitted it. No, I know, he would have gone anyway and then regretted it, but it would have been too late. My poor impulsive boy … “

After some moments he put the pictures away, and looked around the room. There was dead ash in the hearth, and the lamp by the dining table still burned, as was their custom to keep one alight throughout the night hours.

“I’d give all this away tomorrow to have my boys ride on home now.” he said to the empty room, “May God keep them safe and bring them home to me.”

He bowed his head and whispered his ‘amen’ before walking to the big window at the back of the room. The sky was beginning to lighten but the stars were still bright, twinkling their silent witness to the Great Artist who had created them. He sighed and watched as the moon slid from behind a cloud.

Wherever they were, he mused, perhaps they are looking at the stars and the moon now. Perhaps they are thinking of home, the Ponderosa, and of him. The clock struck the hour. It was 4 in the morning. He smiled, and shook his head, well, perhaps not.

Far away in what was tantamount to a foreign land, Joe yawned and stretched, and began his shift. Hoss Cartwright slipped beneath his blanket and fell immediately asleep. Frank Hornby reached out a furtive hand and took hold of that of his sisters, who stirred lightly in her sleep. There was no sound but that of Joe’s footsteps as he took his seat by the wagon.

Chapter 97

“Hey, Adam, wake up.” Joe accompanied his whispered words with a rough shaking of his brother’s shoulder which brought Adam rearing up and groping for his gun.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled, trying to focus his eyes on his brother and get his mind working, fast.

“I heard something.”

Adam frowned, yawned, strained his ears for some minutes and then gave his brother a long hard look.

“I swear.” Joe said, nodding his head as though in confirmation of what he was saying, “Popping noises.”

“You mean, gunfire?”

“Yeah.”

“What direction?”

“Ahead.”

Adam sighed, and rubbed his face. He could feel stubble rough on his fingers, and glanced up at the lightening sky. He nodded,

“Right. Let’s get the fire going and start the day. Was it a lot of gunfire?” he asked the question even as he rolled out of the blankets and got to his feet. He picked up his gun belt and buckled it around his hips. The leather belt slipped comfortably into its accustomed place and he bent to tie the holster thong around his thigh.

“Not for long. Kind of like a lot of firecrackers going off all together.” Joe chewed his bottom lip, “Another thing -.”

“Go on?” Adam invited, nodding.

“The wagon they took also had the water barrel. The only water we’ve got is what’s in our canteens.”

“Well, no washing and shaving this morning then.” Adam shrugged, “Come on, Joe, get Hoss up and let’s get this morning on its way.”

Hoss was difficult to waken. The middle watch was always the worse one to keep and Hoss did so enjoy his sleep. Knowing one was going to be wakened for a shift meant sleeping light for several hours, so it was not until the shift was over and one rolled into the blankets and closed ones eyes that a decent sleep could be achieved. He yawned, stretched and pulled the blanket higher over his head.

“Get some bacon and beans going. That’ll wake him.” Adam grinned, and strolled over to the horses.

There was little point in rushing around. It was still far earlier than he had intended to rouse up, and the day was going to be long and hard. He mulled over the affair of the gunfire and decided it was not worth dwelling too much upon as wrong conclusions could be drawn and cause weakness of resolve. There were two choices before them. They either returned to Biggins and lose more time in getting home, or continued onwards. He smiled slightly as he wondered what kind of librarian Hornby would turn out to be, after the young man’s confession he doubted that he would be a very proficient one.

He harnessed the horses to the wagons, noticing with gratitude that Hoss had obviously packed all the boxes within them already, and although it meant the tarpaulin no longer covered the entire contents securely, at least everything, including the old clock, was where it should be.

Joe was frying bacon and beans were bubbling in the pan over the fire when he returned from his tasks. The coffee pot was boiling and Hoss was scratching his chest and stretching . The Hornby’s were both still sound asleep.

“It’s going to be hard on them if we come across our friends from last night and their clients, isn’t it?” Joe observed as he squatted by the fire and poured coffee into their mugs. “Hoss, how much water have you got in your canteen?”

“It’s full. Why?”

“The other wagon was the one with the water barrel.” Joe handed his brother his mug, “Just the one cup of coffee to start off the day. We may find some water along the way to Calico. Let’s just hope, huh?”

Hoss ran hand over his bristles and sighed. He looked over to the brother and sister still wrapped in their blankets,

“I don’t reckon the lady will like going without her wash and clean up, do you?” he muttered.

“Too bad. She’ll have to learn to live with it,” Joe replied, turning over the bacon carefully, “Give me your plate?”

Frank was the first to wake up and being told about the water was accepted with a shrug of the shoulders, he took his mug of coffee and plate of food in silence. Then he looked over at his sister,

“Do you think we should return to Biggins today?” he asked.

“I thought you were eager to get to Calico? Did not you have contracts to fulfill? What about all these here books?” Hoss replied, a slight frown on his face, “Ain’t nothing’ changed, Mr Hornby, ’ceptin’ we lost one wagon and some water.”

“And what about those men last night?” Frank cried, “They could be waiting for us out there to shoot us.”

“They could have shot us last night, couldn’t they?” Joe smiled, “Best get your sister up, Frank. We need to get started. The sooner we reach Calico the better we’ll all feel.”

Mary Ann made no comment about the lack of water. She just nodded, and accepted her breakfast with a quiet word of thanks. She sat beside her brother to eat it.

They cleaned the plates and mugs with grass, thus sparing some more of the precious water. Mary Ann combed her hair, and made herself look as presentable as she could, then looked at the four men.

“Are we going back to Biggins?” she asked, her eyes were hopeful but she could read the expressions on their faces and with a sigh muttered, “I thought not.”

She sat beside her brother in the wagon behind the one that Hoss took over. Joe and Adam rode beside them. Each one of them had their rifles at the ready and their guns eased from the holster for quick withdrawal. Even Frank had a rifle, which he assured them he could use, although not expertly.

The journey was without mishap and at mid-day they stopped for a snatched break of dry crackers, water and dried meat. It was something to chew on and left some kind of taste in their mouths. It was shortly before 4 p.m in the afternoon that Joe, who had ridden ahead slightly to scout out the track, returned with his hand signalling to Hoss to stop the wagon.

“What’s wrong?” Adam asked, and glanced over at Frank who had pulled up his wagon behind Hoss’.

“I found out what was the reason for those sounds I heard earlier.” Joe said, “You’d best come and see for yourself.” he looked at Frank, “You had better stay here with your sister, Frank.”

“Why? What’s the matter?” Frank looked bewilderedly at them all, “What’s the hold up for ?”

“We’ll tell you when we get back, Mr Hornby.” Hoss muttered, scrambling down from the wagon seat to follow his brothers along the track.

They could see quite clearly the cause for Joe’s concern. The bodies had not been concealed in any way from anyone passing along. They recognised Jackson right away, and Hoss remembered two of the other men. The boxes that had contained the rifles and ammunition were broken open and smashed.

“Looks like the clients decided to test out the rifles as soon as they got ‘em,” Joe sighed, and looked at his brothers, “No sign of the one who seemed to be the leader.”

“No.” Adam frowned and stood up from having examined one of the bodies, “Two of them were shot in the back. There’s no sign of a fight. They weren’t expecting to be killed like this. Hoss, what do you make of the tracks around here?”

Hoss didn’t reply immediately. He was the best tracker on the Ponderosa, probably in the whole of the Tahoe area. He spent some minutes checking around the area and returned with a shake of the head,

“Lots of unshod horses. Indians.” he replied.

“And did our cigar loving friend go with them?” Adam asked.

“No. The wagon turned up onto the track to Calico. He’s still in the land of the living so far as these signs read anyhow.”

“Shall we bury them?” Joe muttered, casting a sad eye over the remains of the four men sprawled before them.

His brothers nodded, it was, after all, the honourable thing to do even though the graves would be shallow for the ground was rock hard and time was precious.

When Frank was told what had happened he was willing to take a spade and lend a hand while Mary Ann built a fire and prepared some coffee, their first since the morning. She could hear the sound of the spades hitting rock, shifting soil. She wept private tears but resolved that if this was what her life was to be like now, she really had to toughen up. But she kept her swollen eyelids downcast when the four men returned.

“We’ll ride on for a few more hours,” Adam said as he nursed the mug of coffee between his fingers, “We need to make up for lost time.”

“Will we be in Calico by tomorrow then?” Frank asked.

“If all goes well.” Adam smiled at him, and then walked away to drink his coffee and think things over in some privacy.

“There now, Mary Ann, we’ll be in Calico by tomorrow. Isn’t that grand?” Frank cried and gave his sister a hug.

“Did the Indians kill those men?” she asked, and Frank grew silent. He cast a questioning look at Hoss and Joe,

“Ain’t able to say for sure, Miss.” Hoss replied honestly, “It could have been them. But then again, it could have been the one who got away. We won’t know for sure. It was rifles that shot them but I guess you’d have to draw your own conclusions.”

“Does that mean that they’ll come and shoot us?” she asked, drawing her shawl closer around her as though subconsciously seeking protection from something tangible.

“I don’t know, Miss.” Hoss replied and put a gentle hand on her arm, “You know we’ll do all we can to get you to Calico now. Don’t fret none, you’ll get there safely.”

She darted a frightened look at him, one that touched poor Hoss’ heart and he watched her walk away to her wagon with a sad foreboding.

Chapter 98

“Water, just ahead.” Joe looked at Adam and then Hoss, “How are they coping?” he nodded over in the direction of Frank and Mary Ann.

“They’re alright,” Adam replied, having ridden alongside their wagon since leaving the burial ground of the four ambushed men. “How far ahead, Joe?”

“About a mile and a half.”

“No sign of anything ?”

“No. There’s no sign of the other wagons tracks about but then he wouldn’t need to go off the track for water, would he?”

His brothers shook their heads, and Adam turned his horse to follow behind Joe. Likewise behind him Hoss manoeuvred the wagon to follow them. It took them from the very slight track that was visible and would have led them to Calico. Evening was drawing in and finding water was imperative both for them and the horses. It had been a blessing in disguise to have found it at this time of the day.

Hoss scratched his head. He pushed his battered tall hat to the back of his skull and had a good scratch. Narrowing his eyes he looked around him at the bleak bleached landscape and replaced his hat. He was getting as nervy as a kitten he told himself, imagining dangers where none existed. He moved his rifle onto his lap and took a deep breath.

“Calico tomorrow, Mary Ann.” Frank smiled at her, “See, we’ve travelled all day and nothing has happened to us. I told you there was no need to worry.”

“I can’t help but worry, Frank. Those poor men back there…” she shivered and looked about her.

Overhead the sky was purpling into night. Soon the stars would be beaming down upon them and the moon would blossom like a great white and silver rose set in a garden of purple black velvet studded with diamonds. How much blood had it shone down upon over the centuries? How loud the cries of the dead and dying had its cold light ignored?

“Well, we made the whole day through without anything happening.” Joe said, dismounting and leading Cochise to the water, he smiled over at Adam, “Here’s hoping that these Indians go by the rule.”

“What rules that?” Adam smiled in response to his brother’s, and stroked his horses neck, “The one where we’re supposed to believe they won’t fight at night ?”

“Yeah, that’s the one I’m banking on.” Joe looked around him, “How long before we reach Calico?”

“I don’t know, Joe. This territory changes all the time now, and I’m as much a stranger to it as you are. According to what we’ve been told we should get there just after mid-day.”

“Let’s hope it’s as uneventful as today then.”

They talked amongst themselves of ordinary things. Not one of them wanted to admit to the fears that lingered in their minds and seemed to eddy forth like the poisonous fumes of a swamp all around them. Mary Ann dropped the coffee pot once and then got flustered almost into tears, apologising profusely for being so clumsy when it was obvious to them all that she was close to hysteria with nervous tension.

Darkness came and blotted out the bleak arid landscape, but gave their imaginations a whole range of things to fear moving about in the night shadows, drawing ever closer towards them. They built up a large fire, and cooked something to eat, but they all picked at the food, and drank far too much coffee instead.

“Frank, you will sleep close to me, won’t you?” Mary Ann whispered, reaching out for his hand.

“Of course I will, darling. Of course.” and he squeezed her fingers gently, “Sleep close to the fire, my dear, then you’ll be warm and we can see you.”

“Don’t leave me alone, will you?”

He assured her that he would not leave her for a moment and with that assurance she slipped to her bedroll and pulled a blanket over her. Adam and Joe glanced at each other, both with the same thought in their minds, and that was of the foolishness of youth in thinking they could conquer their fears by putting their faith in castles in the air. They agreed that Hoss would take first shift that evening, Adam the middle one, and Joe the last.

The first arrow struck the wagon as Hoss and Adam were changing shifts. In the seconds it took their dumb founded minds to grasp the actuality of what was happening, rifle fire began to ricochet around them. The girls screams echoed through the gunfire, and it was Hoss who scooped her up into his arms and ran with her towards the wagons. Adam had flung himself down behind a boulder and returning fire without any real enthusiasm, he was shooting into the dark and the likelihood of hitting anything or anyone was practically nil.

Joe crawled on his stomach to reach his brother, and then rolled to another rock all the time firing off shots into the dark but with the hope of achieving something, even if it were only the fear of being hit by random firing.

Frank had frozen in fear. He was from the East and had no knowledge nor awareness of Indian fighting. His only information came from the pamphlets that were being handed out to eager Easteners to encourage them to move West. Pamphlets with so much misinformation in them that a high majority of people died before they got two thirds of their journey covered. He groped for the rifle that had been by his side and his fingers touched flesh. The bare flesh of someone’s hand.

He felt himself lifted off his feet, his hair yanked back, he could smell the foul stench of something he had never smelled before in his life. He knew if he did not fight now he would be dead but when he tried to seize hold of the mans arm his fingers flailed against thin air.

He felt something wet running down his chest, but was also aware that he had been dropped onto the ground. Was he now dead? He twisted away, kicked against the body lying across his legs, grabbed his rifle and wriggled towards the wagon where he could just see Mary Ann’s white face and the glint of moonlight on the barrel of Hoss’ rifle.

“In here, quick as you like,” Hoss yelled at the same time firing off a shot that saw another Indian fall to the ground.

He grabbed at Frank’s arm and hauled him the rest of the way under the wagon. He felt Mary Ann hand on his arm, and smiled, rather amazingly, at her,

“I’m alright, sweet heart, don’t be frightened.”

He had never felt like this before, totally unafraid. Adrenalin, seldom used in his easy life back home, was pumping through his veins at such a rate that he felt like a veritable Samson, endomorphines coursed into his nerve endings so that pain from the wound he had sustained was kept at bay. Wound, he would have said, what wound, he felt invincible.

More men were coming into the camp, making themselves easier targets for the small party of travellers. Adam and Joe, vulnerable now in their positions behind the rocks, had moved in towards each other and were now back to back, firing at will and hoping that they could now have some effect to their shooting.

It was ten minutes of frenetic and terrifying action. Hoss cursed aloud a streak of dadburnits and tarnations when he saw Joe fall by Adam’s side. He fired volley after volley at the intruders as sweat rolled in drops down his face and made his clothing stick to his body.

Cordite smells lingered for some time after they had gone. They had turned and retreated. One could not say they had fled, they had achieved what they wanted for the time being. That was all any of them could say. Three dead men lay in the camp, several wounded made their way into the dark perimeters of the camp.

Adam was holding Joe in his arms, his eyes watching for movement beyond the light, and his gun in his hand. Hoss and Frank wriggled from their place under the wagon to join them, with Mary Ann staying there with her hands over her ears and sobbing.

“How is he?” Hoss cried, rushing over to his brothers and taking hold of Joe’s hand.

“He’ll be alright, Hoss. Bullet grazed his temple. How are you both?” Adam looked at Frank and saw the blood streaming from the wound in his neck, “A moment longer and you’d have been as dead as one of them. Well done, Hoss.”

“Yeah, it was Mary Ann saw it, I was busy popping away someplace else, otherwise it would have been too late.”

“Thanks, Hoss.” Frank said, putting out his hand, “Thanks for that,” and he smiled, looked about him and shook his head, “Odd, I never felt any fear. I thought I would be afraid.”

“Yeah, sometimes it gets you like that,” Hoss muttered, “It’s the unknown that git’s a man really skeered.”

Joe opened his eyes, shook his head and groaned. Adam was already placing a wet cloth against the wound and he smiled down at Joe affectionately,

“Well, you can thank your Pa for the fact you inherited such a thick skull.” he said.

“I will do, Adam, if we ever make it home.” Joe pressed the cloth firmly against the wound “What shall we do now?”

Frank Hornby smiled and looked up at the sky. He had always been called a Mummy’s boy, a weak individual who would never amount to much. But this evening, well, this evening he had proven to himself that he did possess courage, he could protect those weaker than himself, he had not been afraid.

He looked now at the wagon and saw Mary Ann. She was so much a child, so timid. How could she possibly survive in a world like this ? He reached out her hand towards her and she came towards him, tears on her face, her mouth open and trembling and calling his name. He was the only family left to her. A frail reed in a swirling morass of a changing terrible world. He nodded, it would be alright, it would all be alright.

Her scream aroused the Cartwrights from their attentions to Joe. They turned, guns poised, hearts beating against their ribs. They turned to hear her scream her brothers name and to see him crumple from the knees down and then collapse full stretch upon the ground.

Chapter 97

“I didn’t realise he was so badly hurt,” Hoss looked up at Adam. They were kneeling beside the body of young Frank Hornby, Adam was feeling his pulse, while Joe comforted Mary Ann. It was Hoss who held the lantern close enough to view Frank’s wounds.

“Well,” Adam frowned, “It’s practically impossible to tell just how badly hurt he is here. Hoss, hold that cloth tightly here -” he pointed to the gaping wound just above Frank’s collar bone.

Had Hoss not acted as quickly as he had done to dispose of Frank’s attacker the main artery would have been severed, Frank would have died instantly. The other wound, a bullet through the leg, was complicated. The bullet was lodged in the upper thigh, lodged among the fatty tissues and inaccessible. They had bound the wound as securely as possible to slow down, and hopefully, prevent the bleeding. Adam rocked back onto his heels and looked over at Mary Ann who was shaking with so many emotions that she was now incoherent with fear and grief.

“This isn’t looking good, Hoss.” he murmured quietly.

“Yeah, I reckon you’re right at that,” Hoss replied, looking down at the waxen face of the young man at his feet.

“We managed to wound quite a number of them, and kill – what – three?” Adam frowned, “Did you get any idea of how many there were?”

They had removed the three bodies from the camp. One of the first things to do was to rid themselves of the sad evidences of death at their hands. It was hardly pleasant but somewhere beyond the camp there would be friends who would creep silently down to retrieve them and take them to friendly climes.

“Shucks, Adam, it just seemed like a mass of arms and legs whirling about out there, how’d you expect me to count ’em?”

Adam nodded, and looked down at Frank again, then with a sigh he stood up and walked over to Joe and Mary Ann,

“How’s the head, Joe?”

“Alright, banging about a bit.” Joe replied, but he looked white faced and dark under the eyes. Adam gave him a reassuring tap on the arm, and then looked at Mary Ann, who was drinking some water from a mug, but as she was shaking so much a lot of it was just slopping over her hand

“We’ll do all we can to get you both out of this, Mary Ann. Try and be brave, huh?”

“I am, Mr Cartwright. But Frank looks so awful. Is he going to die?”

“Not if we can help it.” Adam replied. “Now, get your blankets, get under the wagons and try and get some sleep. I know it may seem impossible, but try.”

He returned to Hoss who had not left Frank’s side, they exchanged looks, and Hoss raised his eyebrows,

“Wal, what do you suggest?” he asked his elder brother who shook his head, “We can’t just leave him here.”

“We can’t risk moving him far, Hoss, let’s just lift him and take him to the other wagon. Get that blanket -”

Hoss grabbed at a blanket and they carefully wrapped Frank in it, then carried him to the other wagon and placed him beside it. Mary Ann immediately left the safety of her own wagon and rushed to his side, neither of the brothers made any attempt to stop her knowing that they would have done the same for one another had it been them.

“Well, Hoss, any suggestions?” Adam asked, as he cradled his rifle in his arms and sat down, leaning his back against the wheel of the wagon.

“Reckon I ain’t able to think of a dad burn thing, Adam. That attack came out of the blue, caught me unawares.”

“Uh, me too. Look, go and stay put with Joe. Try and get him to sleep. Here, give him a pinch of these.” he took Stalking Horse’s pouch of herbs from his pocket and slipped it over to Hoss, “We’ll both have to keep guard here.”

“Do you think they’ll come back?”

“Not tonight. They’ve lost warriors in death. They’ll want to mourn them.” he chewed on his bottom lip and narrowed his eyes, “First thing tomorrow, we move out of here. We need to get to higher ground. Have we plenty of water?”

“Yeah, all the canteens are full.”

“I’ll go and check the horses, if we’ve still got any.” he frowned, one of the first things Indians would do would be to steal their opponent’s horses. This forced their opponent’s to remain in the area they designated and gave them a margin of control.

“Be careful,” Hoss whispered, and with an affectionate nod to his brother, Hoss hurried to rejoin Joe.

Adam found all the horses. They were skittish and spooked but had not strayed. He gathered up their reins, and with Cochise and Chubb following along he led them into the camp. He was more than aware of the fact that he was being observed. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end and he had to force himself to look straight ahead at the dying embers of the unattended camp fire.

He tied the horses securely to the tailgates of the wagons. It was hardly fair if they were going to be ambushed again during the night that the animals would suffer some harm, but he could not trust to the fact that they would still be available for their departure in the morning.

From under one wagon Hoss and Joe kept watch. Joe took a pinch of the herbs, chewed on them for a while and spat them out. Never patient with things he disliked the taste of he decided to do without. He did find himself going rather light headed after a while, and it was not long before his head drooped and he was asleep.

Mary Ann slept close to her brother. So lightly did she sleep that when he shivered she would wake and draw him closer to her. She did not think it possible to sleep but the body has it’s own way of playing tricks on the exhausted and she also sunk, eventually, into a deeper sleep.

Adam had positioned himself beneath the wagon with MaryAnn and Frank. He watched the moon, and with an anxious frown wished for it to move more quickly its night watch so that morning could arrive and they could move out.

Hoss could see Adam very dimly, the lanterns they used had shutters on them so that the light could be shut off when necessary by just drawing the metal piece across the glass. He wondered what his brother was thinking now. He was about to call over to Adam when the sound of chanting broke the silence. The Indians were chanting in mourning for their dead. Hoss sighed. He knew from experience that this could go on for some time but it would not deter them from making another attack when it suited them. He rubbed his eyes and willed himself not to fall asleep.

Adam folded his arms, the rifle cradled within them. Long night watches at sea and his own inner reserves would enable him to maintain his vigil. He listened to the chants and shook his head sadly. What a waste of life, he thought, both for them, the Indians, and, perhaps, themselves.

Chapter 98

“Adam?”

“What the ..? Joe, I almost shot you. What are you doing here?”

“I’ve had an idea. I wanted to talk it over with you first.”

“First?” Adam frowned, “What do you mean ‘first’?”

“Just that you might try and talk me out of it, that’s what I mean.”

Adam glanced around the campsite. The darkness of night had given way to the faintest glimmer of light, that faint glooming at around 2 a.m. in the morning. He looked at his brother who was staring fiercely at him, his mouth set in that look of grim determination that had been a feature of his ever since he realised he could climb onto a stool and reach the cookie jar.

“Go ahead, what’s this idea of yours?” he said resignedly.

“Well, Calico can’t be far from here. It could be closer to us than we even realise …”

“… and further.”

“Yeah, alright, but I was thinking that I should ride out of here to Calico and round us up some help. I could do it in a few hours. It’s only because of having to haul these wagons along that takes up so much time. If I leave here now I could be there by dawn, and then back before mid-day.”

“Thanks, Joe, I’ll tell our Indian friends to delay all fighting until noon, is that it?” Adam sighed and shook his head, “It’s a stupid idea.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“It is.” Adam shrugged and looked sadly at his brother, “I’m sorry, Joe, I can’t let you go.”

“YOU can’t? Who said you were in charge anyhow? You’re not the Captain of a ship’s company anymore, Adam. I told you before that …” he stopped when Adam grabbed him by the arms and gave him a slight shake,

“No, you’re right, I’m not the Captain of a ship’s company anymore, Little Joe. I’m your brother, your eldest brother, and I have missed out on four years of being your brother. Now, I’m not going to let you ride out of here on some dumb fool heroics just to see you get shot down and killed, do you hear me?”

“Then what other chance have we got? You tell me?” Joe hissed between clenched teeth and pushing his brother’s hands away.

“Darn little,” came the quiet reply. “I’ve been racking my brains to think of a way out of this, Joe. We can’t move from here with these wagons, they’re too slow, apart from which we have a wounded man who could die if we move him about too much.”

“Exactly my thinking,” Joe insisted, “So let me go, Adam.”

“And know that you’re alone when they shoot you down? Are you wanting Hoss and I to die here wondering if you’re alive or dead?”

“It’s a chance you wouldn’t have had second doubts about at one time, Adam.” Joe said quietly.

“Perhaps so, but that was when I took for granted all the things I had then, I can’t do that now.” Adam said quietly and he turned away, his head bowed.

“Hoss said you’d not let me go, but I thought that if you really felt we had little chance here, then perhaps you would.”

Adam took a deep breath and surveyed Joe again. The two brothers looked into each other’s faces and saw what the other felt, it was too obvious, and they both looked away once again.

“Mr Cartwright?”

Mary Ann’s voice came softly. She put out a hand to touch Adam’s arm, although she looked at Joe,

“My brother needs you.” she whispered.

Frank Hornby’s face was the colour of a dying mans. The skin glistened with sweat and his body was trembling. He reached out with his hand towards his sister and felt the warmth of her fingers around his own. He had never felt so cold, and yet he had never felt so confident. He looked at the three faces close by, for Hoss had joined his brothers at the mans side,

“Mr Cartwright?” he addressed Adam who leaned towards him.

“Yes, Frank.”

“I have something I have to tell you before I die.”

“What is it?” Adam asked, for there was little point in refuting the obvious.

“Mr Cartwright, I made a deal about the wagons. It was my fault all this business.”

“What deal did you make, boy?” Adam leaned in closer for Franks’ voice was fainter now. Perhaps his resolve to confess was weakening along with his voice.

“Our own wagons were in bad shape. Guess who I got them from realised just what a greenhorn I was and sold me rubbish. I went to get some advice, about repairing them, because I couldn’t afford new ones, and this man came and said how would I like to have some decent wagons for nothing. I said to him that no one gives anything for nothing, there was something he wanted from me, and he said that there was and because it was a special favour to him, and dangerous, he wouldn’t charge me for the wagons.” he groaned here, the pain and perhaps the realisation of death was becoming harder to bear now. He gripped tighter hold of Mary Ann’s hand, and she dampened his mouth with a wet cloth.

Nervously Joe and Hoss looked around them, it seemed as though the shadows were creeping in around them, and the wings of death were brushing against their very sides.

“I wanted some danger. Excitement. Anything that would make life seem worth living, rather than just this dreary day to day existence. I told him I had a precious sister to care for, and I didn’t want her harmed, and he promised me that there would come no harm to her. He told me that he worked at the Fort they were building up at Calico. He put in orders for equipment, munitions, and that there was a need for guns up there but they had to be delivered in private, because there was Indian trouble. He said that if I could deliver them safely I could have the wagons free, and a reward from the Government for helping them out.”

“When did you realise that they were lying to you?” Hoss whispered.

“I kinda suspected something when I heard you talking together about the Army officers who had asked you to help them out. I didn’t want to believe it though …” he licked dry lips and closed his eyes, “I’m cold. Really cold.”

The brothers looked at one another, looked at Mary Ann who sat dumb with grief now, hugging her brothers hand against her chest and tears rolling down her cheeks.

“I knew it was a lie when he rode in with those men and got the guns for himself. He didn’t kill us there because of the promise he made me, I swear that was the reason. But then he must have known that his friends would have done for us, in the end. When I saw the bodies of those men, his own partners, I knew that I had done wrong, I had been an idiot, Mr Cartwright, and put you all in danger.”

“We’d’ve been in danger with or without having them rifles to tote along,” Hoss said, and looked at Adam, “Ain’t that right, Adam?”

“Hoss is right, Frank. These Indians could well have attacked us anyway. Do you know the name of this man who made the deal with you?”

“The cigar smoking man – he’s the one you want to find, Mr Cartwright. His name’s Hunt, Gregory Hunt.”

Adam nodded and looked at Frank sadly, then he indicated to Hoss and Joe that they should leave brother and sister alone, for their time together was going to be short now.

“You do forgive me, don’t you?” the plaintive plea echoed after them but they knew it was more for Mary Ann to forgive than themselves.

“How long do you think he has?” Joe said quietly, looking from one to the other of his brothers, Adam shrugged and Hoss shook his head, “That long, huh?”

“Look, this changes things slightly.” Hoss glanced over his shoulder, and paused to listen to the chanting that still reverberated through the still air, “If’n Frank – you know -” he looked at them and they nodded in understanding of his unspoken words, “then how about we leave the wagons here, get the horses and ride outa here?”

“What about Mary Ann?” Joe frowned, “I mean, do you think she would do that and leave her books and her brother here?”

They were silent for a while, then Adam nodded, and beckoned to his brothers to step further away from the young couple,

“Listen, we won’t have time to bury him … agreed?” they nodded assent, “Then how about if we remove some of the boxes of books from the wagon, enough to place his body within it. Then we leave them here.”

“Couldn’t we take them, I mean, if’n he’s going to be in the wagon, wouldn’t it be the more decent thing to take them?” Hoss argued.

“It’s time, Hoss -, we’d be losing valuable time.” Joe protested.

“Well, let’s leave it to his sister to decide. You two move out the boxes, I’ll stand watch.” Adam suggested, and to this idea the two brothers agreed, as they turned immediately to the wagon behind them and began to untie the tarpaulin.

It was an uncanny and eerie time. The air was so still that the dust from their feet eddied about them and drifted, the moon chose to hide behind clouds that were like mere vapour and would provide no cool rain fall. They all three appreciated that as a blessing, for if they had to move the heavy wagons they would not be bogged down by the treacle of mud that rain would create,

Hoss had placed the last box on the ground when Mary Ann approached them. She looked at the three men there and opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came forth. It was Joe, recently suffering a loss of his own, who moved towards her and took her in his arms to give comfort and consolation.

Adam and Hoss returned to the young man and wrapped blankets around him then carefully carried him to the wagon. Adam thought that at least he had a resting place for a while that was somewhat dignified, among the books. The pulled the tarpaulin over the wagon once more and fastened it securely. Hoss frowned, better this way, he thought, than abandoned hastily amongst the rocks for the animals or Indians to find later, or tied over the saddle of a horse as they made their hurried escape from the camp.

Joe had obviously discussed the matter with her when they returned to them. A slight breeze caused the chanting of the Indians to ebb and flow, bringing cadences that created an eerier atmosphere that previously. She was crying, not sobbing, but crying silently, tears slipping down her cheeks which she kept wiping away with a handkerchief.

“Joe said we were to leave here – now?” a statement, a question, and all in a voice trembling with grief and fear.

“I’m sorry, Mary Ann, I know it’s so immediate, but this just isn’t the time for some of the decencies to be carried out.” Adam explained.

“I don’t want him to be left here.” she whispered “They may find him, and hurt him.”

The brothers looked at one another and wondered how long it would take her to realise that nothing could hurt her brother now.

Chapter 99

“So? What happens now? Any ideas?” Joe asked tersely.

“Saddle the horses. Joe, Mary Ann can have my horse. I’ll have one of the horses from the wagons.” Adam frowned and looked over his shoulder. “How long do we have once they stop their chanting.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, you spent all that time with the Cheyenne, Joe, don’t they have to go through some rituals or other before they can fight again?” Adam’s voice was clipped, impatient, a sign of his anxiety to get off and not to waste time.

“Yeah, that’s right, but it’s different for each individual. Some take only five minutes, others take over an hour.” Joe thought back to the time with Little Moon’s people. Life and death were so closely linked that whenever the people went on buffalo hunts or journeys they would go through some elaborate rituals to protect them in this world, and to keep them safe as they journeyed into the next.

“Well, let’s hope that they all need a lot of time for their little rituals this evening. If you hadn’t noticed already, but the mournings over.”

Adam was right, there was no sound of the chanting now. Only the night sounds wafted along by the early morning breezes. Adams fingers were already fumbling to loosen the horses from the tail boards and to get them bridled and saddled. Mary Ann was protesting that she couldn’t leave Frank behind and wouldn’t go without him. Hoss just clenched his teeth tightly together and vowed to himself that if she was still whining when they had to go he would personally give her a thump on the jaw that would put her to sleep until winter.

Joe was pleading with her to mount the horse, but the more he pleaded the more she refused to go. Frank had to go with them, she insisted.

“There’s no way we can take Frank.” Hoss said, “Now, look, Miss, if you don’t go on that horse now, I’m going to have to deal with you personally, and it won’t be very pleasant.”

Joe looked at Hoss with amazement. That his gentle brother could be threatening a young woman who had just lost her only loved one in death seemed unbelievable. Hoss stepped towards her, and clenched his fist,

“Now, Miss, we could leave you here if you wish to stay by your brother, but I doubt if you would find that very pleasant as these Indians don’t really treat lady captives very nicely, if you know what I mean?” he scowled as though to emphasise what he was implying, “So, what’s it to be?”

She sniffed, and then turned to mount the horse. Joe was already in the saddle on Cochise, and Hoss waited, holding on to Chubb’s reins for Adam to join them. When he did he was leading a rather annoyed animal behind him.

“He ain’t saddled,” Hoss pointed out.

“Well, he wouldn’t be, would he? He’s been pulling a wagon, hasn’t he?” Adam snapped.

Hoss grimaced and nodded, accepting the fact that he had made a stupid comment with his usual good grace. He mounted Chubb, and Adam hauled himself onto the back of the other horse, who looked suitably impressed at being promoted from a carriage horse to a saddle horse.

“Let’s go then,” Joe whispered, “As fast as possible, huh?”

“Keep an eye on Mary Ann.”

“She’ll be alright with me,” Joe promised, and grabbed at the reins of Mary Ann’s horse, so that when Cochise sprung forward, her animal moved into action beside him.

Adam wheeled his horse around and galloped towards the other horses, still clustered together near the wagons. He rode into them and yelled, slapped their rears and even gave a few a kick to get them moving. As they streamed at a gallop down through the camp and across into the area where the Indians had appeared from, he turned the horse around to rejoin his brothers and the girl.

Irregardless of when the Indians were going to attack them, he hoped that the sight of horses trampling through their camp would give them the impression that the white men had made a run for it. Perhaps it would not work and they would not fall for that ploy, but it would, hopefully, buy them some little time, even if it was only while they recovered from the initial confusion.

It was a tactic known as taking the battle to the enemy, and, like most tactics in warfare, was not a guarantee of success, only of time buying.

They rode fast, leaning low, their faces inches from the manes of their horses and making the ultimate use of their animals strengths and speed. Unaware, in the dark, as to their exact course they relied on instinct and Hoss’ unique expertise of guidance to get on the track to Calico. Their only hope was that when dawn broke they would find themselves there. Their only fear was that they had missed the track altogether and had ridden miles out of their way, putting themselves into even greater danger than beforehand.

It was some time later before Joe pulled Cochise to a stop, and turned to face his brothers. They were all breathing hard, the heat of the new day was intense as the new days sun beat down on them and the horses were sweating.

“We’ve got to give the horses a break now, Adam, I don’t want Cochise to die under me.”

Adam glanced behind him. The spectre of war painted Indians close behind him had spurred him on at a pace his horse was unused to travelling at, and it’s chest was heaving. He nodded,

“You’re right, Joe. We’ll give them a break, and ourselves as well. Hoss, are we on the right track, or at least in the right direction?”

Hoss dismounted, stroking Chubb fondly. The horse had been his stalwart companion for years now, and had proven himself strong enough to carry his master over many a distance in the past. It now rolled his eyes and snorted foam from his nostrils. This could be a journey too far, and Hoss longed to promise the creature that it could rest well now, and enjoy some oats and hay.

“We may have only an hours lead ahead of them, Joe,” Adam said quietly, having given his canteen of water to Mary Ann, who was drinking it carefully, “Hows the girl bearing up?”

“Better than I thought she would,” Joe admitted, stroking Cochise’s neck. “Perhaps they won’t bother, Adam. The closer we get to the town and Fort, the less inclined they may be to follow us.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, Joe” Adam looked over at Hoss who was carefully inspecting the ground, “Well, Hoss? Are we on track?”

Hoss pushed back his hat and scratched his head, then he turned and walked back to his brothers and the girl. It was Joe who passed him a canteen of water. He wished he had a huge trough of water for his horse to drink from, but poured a little into his hat for Chubb to nuzzle into, Joe and Adam were doing the same for their horses, and Mary Anns.

“Wal, the bad news is we’re off course. We’ve ridden up higher than we needed to, because I can see the track, just about, from here. We need to ride down to it. It won’t be so bad if we just go at a gentle angle and hit it right on. How long can we rest up?”

“Ten minutes.” Adam replied.
The terrain was boulder strewn and rocky, not the easy kind for galloping through, in fact Joe was amazed that not one of the horses had broken a leg or strained a muscle during their crazy ride earlier. They rode at a gentle trot, allowing the horses the chance to catch their breath, and when, less than an hour later they hit the track each and every one of them breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed.

“How far do you think it is now?” Mary Ann asked, leaning towards the men and looking so frail and vulnerable that each one of them felt pity for her and Hoss even felt ashamed of the fact that he had actually thought of thumping her.

“I don’t know, Mary Ann. Your brother was the only one who seemed to have any idea.” Joe replied, and he reached out and took hold of her hand, “It’ll be alright, we’ll get there soon.”

“If it was anticipated that we’d be there after mid-day with the wagons, perhaps we’ll make it before noon now.” Hoss said with a gentle smile at her, and he was gratified to receive a smile for her in return.

They rode onwards at an easy jog. The three of them held their rifles in their hands, and the loop was off their holsters, making withdrawal of their pistols quicker. All of them hoped that they would not have to use their weapons again and that Calico would be found just ‘around the corner’.

……..

“Here’s the mail for you, Mr Cartwright,” Tom handed over a stack of packets and envelopes. “Some mail come for the boys too, I’ve put it all in with yours, Sir.”

Ben nodded and smiled, holding the bundle in his big hands and sifting through them one by one. He glanced over at Tom,

“No cables from them at all?”

“You’d have had it your hand by now if there were any, Mr Cartwright.” Tom replied.

Ben nodded, yes, of course, Tom knew the procedure well enough by now. He knew how coming to the Telegraph Office almost every day had become more or less a ritual to him now. Any thread, any strand, any connection was a confirmation of hope. Hope, as the bible said, was an anchor, and for Ben that was a fitting illustration, he knew well enough how effective an anchor could be in the roughest of seas.

He smiled his thanks and walked out into the Main Street. There was a soft rain falling. He raised his face and felt it upon his skin. Soft and refreshing. He prayed that wherever his sons were, they were safe.

………

The sounds of the shrieks and whoops of the war painted warriors eddied towards them with the same constancy of a wave rushing towards the shore. Not one of them wasted time to look behind them but they urged their weary beasts into a gallop and prayed that just ahead of them Calico or the Fort would spring before them and swallow them up into the safety of their confines.

But there was only the vast and arid land ahead, and the barely visible track that compelled them to ride onwards.

Chapter 100

If ever prayers were needed to be answered it was precisely NOW! Adam’s horse was the first to show signs of getting the staggers. Spit was foaming around his mouth and his legs were weakening, several times he stumbled as his rider attempted to manouvre him around the track. He was falling miserably behind the others and his inability to stretch out as far and as fast was putting his rider in imminent danger.

It was Hoss who, upon looking back to see if Adam were safe, saw the dark mouth of an opening up in the cliff face and he swung Chubb round in order to climb up the scree. The faithful beast, so used to complying with his masters’ every wish, turned obediently and strained to scrabble over the loose stones and gravel. Joe pulled at Mary Ann’s horses reins, and directed it alongside Cochise who followed Chubb with an eagerness that matched his spirit. The three horses put their hearts into the challenge and scaled the heights even as their strength was visibly waning.

The nearer they were to the split in the rock the more wondrous its discovery. It would provide them with sufficient shelter and protection until, perhaps, help could come. They dismounted in haste, Mary Ann toppling into Joe’s arms in her panic striken attempt to get into some shelter. Joe grabbed at the water bottle on her saddle horn, having seized his own as he slid from Cochise’s saddle seconds earlier. Water and ammunition were the main things to have on hand now.

Adam’s horse struggled to make it up to the cave mouth. It was panting, and Adam could hear the ominous rattle in it’s throat that indicated that were he to force it much further the poor wretched beast would burst its heart and collapse there and then on the spot. He slowed it to a walk, took the water bottle and rifle, and left it. Looking ahead he could see the others already running into the dark slit in the rock.

Behind him he could see the cloud dust within which the Indians were approaching. Their war cries had a renewed shrillness, and several shot were fired, obviously at random, but the spat at the rocks close by him enough to spur him onwards.

It was not such a steep climb and for a man now used to scaling the rigging of a ships sails it was not a venture that would cause him distress. He kept his head down and ran for it. Once or twice his foot missed its moorings and he was down on his knees, but it took seconds to scrabble back up again and to continue onwards.

He had almost reached the top when he felt a strong hand grab at his arm and he looked up and saw Hoss, who smiled at him with blue eyes twinkling,

“Hey, come on, old man, what kept you so long?”

He gave a dry humourless laugh at the comment and passed Hoss his rifle to hold onto, while he followed his brother up to the entrance of what turned out to be not so much a cave as a fissure in the rock face wide enough for them all to stand comfortably, walk about, but it was only a matter of feet deep and the ceiling dipped to meet the floor at its rear.

“Well spotted, Hoss.” Adam said, “Perfect timing too,” he smiled at Joe who nodded over at him, but Mary Ann was too frightened to express any opinion. Her thoughts were obvious from the look on her face – she just wished she were anywhere but there.

“Here they come. How much ammunition do you have, Adam?” Hoss asked, kneeling behind some boulders for protection as he scanned the haggle of Indians now coming into clear view.

“Do you think they would have seen us?” Joe asked hopefully, as he settled down full stretch on his stomach and got his rifle comfortably into position.

“Yeah, they saw us,” Adam sighed, remembering the few shots that had been fired at him as he clambered up to join his brothers. “I’ve not as much ammunition as I’d like, Hoss. How about you?”

“Well, if I’d known this trip was going to turn out like this I would have bought myself some more boxes,” Hoss surveyed what he had, and shook his head, “I guess we’ll just have to make do with what we have.”

“Joe, can you make out what tribe they are from?” Adam asked, “If they are Cheyenne, perhaps we could parley with them?”

“They’re Cheyenne, and Arapaho, Adam. But they’re painted up for war, they aren’t from Black Kettle’s faction. I reckon these are from the Northern Tribes and been fighting for some time now.”

“Hardened warriors then?” Hoss muttered.

“Yeah, you could say that -” Joe replied but whatever else he was going to say was lost in the gun fire that poured towards them. Shards of rock splintered off as the bullets struck the boulders, pieces of flint flew into the air, and several cut across Hoss’ hand and face, causing him to yell “Dadburn it, I ain’t having none of this -” and he shot off a volley of returning fire instinctively.

Adam put a hand on his brother’s arm, looked at him quickly to ensure he was alright, and then nodded,

“Be sparing and careful, make sure every shot counts, we haven’t enough ammunition to fire at random.”

Mary Ann sidled on her hands and knees as far back as she could possibly go. It was not until the floor met the roof that she stopped, and then clapped her hands over her ears.

Arrows hissed like bees and struck idly against the rock face, bullets were fired at them with such reckless abandon that it made their own lack of ammunition appear quite obvious to their attackers in comparison. But they did make their shots count. Several cries of pain, some cut short, indicated that their shots had found their marks.

It took time, far more time than it takes to write about, as the many took on the few. Gun fire echoed and re-echoed in the valley, Indian war cries were shrieked like so many insults to the silent enemy who remained stoically inflexible in rebuffing the attack.

“Adam?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“What do we do about Mary Ann?” Joe glanced over his shoulder at the girl who could be dimly seen at the back of the fissure, “I mean, when the ammunition gets down to nothing. Do I save the last bullet and do the decent thing?”

“Look, Joe, you lived with these people long enough to know whether or not she would be treated humanely. As you have assumed responsibility for her, then it has to be up to your conscience. She’s a human being not a dog, and perhaps she needs to have the chance of making the decision herself.”

Joe nodded, and aimed at some fool Indian who had crept closer than was wise. He promptly disappeared, his body rolling down the slope to come to a halt against a boulder near the track.

“I wonder how far Calico actually is from here.” Hoss muttered

“We may never find out.” Adam replied calmly, picking up his revolver as he no longer had any ammunition left for the rifle, “They’re getting closer now. How much rifle power do we have?”

“I’ve only a few cartridges left,” Joe said, and drew out his revolver from its holster.

“I’m out.” Hoss replied, and he sighed, “Guess we’re down to hand to hand stuff now, huh?”

They waited for their enemy to approach them, creeping from rock to boulder, and boulder to rock, the Indians slowly but unremittingly, advanced towards them.

“Fire!” Joe cried involuntarily and each one of them emptied their guns upon their enemy.

There was a pause now. There had been sufficient injuries and a number of deaths for the Cheyenne and Arapaho to decide to reconsider their tactics. It was time enough for the brothers to drink some cool water from the canteens and refresh themselves, and to reload their guns.

A lull of some moments ensued that strained their nerves as much as the onslaught earlier. They waited, tense as a coiled spring, their hands tense holding their guns ready. Then there was a hissing of arrows, one of which passed through Joe’s sleeve, drawing blood from the furrow it made across the flesh of his arm. Another struck across Adam’s hand, thankfully not is gun hand, but it caused a rent in the skin and blood spewed out. It was Hoss who hastily bound it up with his handkerchief. There was nothing said, no time for words, the Indians were drawing closer, a thick body of men creeping higher and higher, nearer and nearer.

Gunfire rattled in a continuous stream towards them but they kept their heads low, and waited. Then there was a shriek and a war painted figure leapt into the entryway, and whirled his lance aloft, only to meet with Hoss’ rifle as the big man swung it with all his might against the near naked body.

Several others now appeared, they had breached the Cartwrights defences and each one of them knew that it would be only a matter of minutes before the last bullet was fired, and it would be down to hand to hand fighting to decide the victors.

Chapter 101

Towasi was a young man, who from a young age had ridden with the dog soldiers on hunts, and policing the village. He was a handsome man, tall, charming and popular. His charismatic personality made him a natural leader and when his father, a sub chief, broke away from Black Kettle’s policies, Towasi followed, taking numerous young hot heads along with him.

Since they had separated from the main band of Cheyenne and Arapaho, they had engaged the white men on several raids, mainly on small homesteads, wagon trains and stage coaches. His men were convinced that Towasi’s medicine was so powerful that even if bullets struck him they would pass through and leave him unharmed. They followed where he led without fear but in total conviction that they would be victorious. As it happened nothing proved to them the possibility that they could be wrong. They had always been victorious. Even getting the rifles from the white men had been a stroke of genius, as far as they were concerned, on the part of Towasi and his father, Tonkahaska*.

He had seen the girl on the previous raid. Even though she had been crouching beneath the wagon and clearly terrified he had seen her and desired her. Even though the image of her was not clear to the eye he had decided that he would take the woman and bring her to his lodge. He was unmarried but well aware of his attractiveness to the women and therefore did not doubt that a white woman would be as much in thrall to his charms as women of his own race.

Now he ran from rock to rock, his scalping knife in one hand and rifle in the other. Behind him came his warriors and they cried the war cry of the Cheyenne, of the people who belonged to the sacred hoop* of life. He could see them now quite clearly and paused, and drew in a deep gulp of air.

“Dang blast it,” Hoss growled, “That’s my last bullet.” and in dismay he hurled the gun with all his strength at the nearest Indian he could see, and that was a handsome big fellow with red and white war paint who had happened to stand for all to see.

The gun struck Towasi on the temple and he crumpled into a heap, groaned loudly, and with a mighty sigh his body relaxed as though dead.

Adam and Joe stood up, poised with their guns aimed at the next warriors to make an appearance while Hoss grasped his rifle by the barrel in order to use it as a club. They aimed and waited.

Every Indian, except the dead, injured and dying, began to retreat very slowly from the rocks. Inch by inch they stepped back, their faces towards their enemy, their rifles and weapons dipped to the ground.

“What’s happening?” Adam asked Joe, who licked his lips and looked doubtfully at Adam and Hoss, and then at the Indians who silently gained the track and mounted their horses. “Why are they leaving? Will they come back?”

“I don’t know, Adam. Hoss, do you know?”

“Shucks, I ain’t bin living with ‘em for the past year,” Hoss shrugged and scratched his head, “Something must have spooked them.”

“Reckon this place is some kind of sacred taboo land?” Adam checked the chambers of his gun, he had four bullets left.

“No.” Joe shook his head, and pointed to where Towasi was sprawled, “It all seemed to happen when he went down. Do you think he’s dead?”

“Do you think he’s someone important?” Hoss asked, “I remember Pa saying when my Mother was killed it was because someone important had been killed and once they got the guy who killed him, they just rode away.”

“Yeah?” Joe frowned, and looked at Adam with raised eyebrows, “So?”

“Well, what if he’s important and now they’re kinda skeered or something like that.”
“He’s got a point, you know,” Adam nodded, and looked over at Mary Ann who was creeping towards them. “Are you alright, Mary Ann?”

“Are they going to come back? Can we get the horses and go on now?” she cried.

“If we can find the horses we ought to take advantage of the time we’ve got,” Joe replied, stepping out of the cleft in the rocks.

“Look,” she cried, and pointed to Towasi, “He’s alive.”

Towasi reached out a hand, life, he thought, was ebbing away. He reached out for some human contact and knew fear. He had lived solely for life, and now the fear of its going terrified him.

“We have to help him,” Mary Ann whispered.

“We just need to get out of here,” Joe replied, “If his friends arrive back they’re going to be all fired up and ready to take our scalps.”

“But we can’t leave him. He’s not an animal, he’s a human being who is in pain, Joe.”

Joe looked at Hoss and Adam. Then he looked at Mary Ann, and nodded,

“Yeah, you’re right, and I had not right to talk as I did, I’m sorry. Hoss, go and get him.” he nodded over to Hoss who opened his eyes wide in innocent surprise, “Go on, he’s a big guy after all.”

“Go on, Hoss, bring him in here and we’ll see what we can do for him. You never know, we may be able to talk our way out of this.” Adam looked at Mary Ann, “Get one of the water canteens, will you?”

It took Hoss little time to reach Towasi who was once again unconscious. Once he had heaved him over his shoulder Hoss made his way back to the protection of the shelter and with Adam’s help, got Towasi settled down onto the ground.

“Hey, look at this?” Adam said, and pointed to Towasi’s back, “He’s been shot in the back. I thought you’d knocked him out when that gun of yours hit him, but it seems as though he got a bullet in the back from one of his pals.”

“Do you think it was on purpose?” Joe breathed, leaning forward to see for himself.

“Well, no,” Adam shook his head, “No, I doubt it. They were very bunched together if you remember rightly, and excited at the thought of getting to us at last. I think it just happened that the guns were going off and this guy happened to be at the receiving end of one of the bullets. I’ve known it to happen before, it’s more common that you realise.”
“Poor guy, he ain’t gonna like knowing that one of his own people shot him, even if it were by accident,” Hoss grimaced, “Should we try and get it out?”

Adam gently probed around the area and shook his head, then he stood up and wiped his hands,

“Well, I don’t know, Hoss, he’s losing a lot of blood and I don’t think we should risk trying to get the bullet out because -.”

He stopped talking as there came the sound of horses and the three brothers looked at one another resignedly. Hoss bowed his head and sighed,

“Well, I guess this is it.” He said, “Guess we’d better do the best we can now.” he picked up the rifle and prepared himself, then looked at Adam and Joe again, “I love you both.” he said simply.

Adam put a hand on his brother’s shoulder and nodded, and looked at Joe. Joe licked dry lips and then smiled, nodded likewise, shook their hands and then turned to face the enemy. In the shelter Mary Ann sat close to the fallen warrior. At the entrance the three brothers stood side by side and waited.

Chapter 102

Tonkahaska raised a hand to bring a halt to the convoy of warriors that had returned with him to the site of the battle. He raised his eyes to take appraisal of the crag strewn cliff where some of the wounded were beginning to rouse themselves, those too mortally wounded remained groaning where they had fallen. He looked at the two warriors flanking him on either side,

“How many white warriors did you say there were?”

“Three and a woman.” came the instant reply.

Tonkahaska repeated the answer beneath his breath, and shook his head. He raised his eyes higher to search out the split in the rock face, and when he had located it he saw for himself the three men, standing, waiting.

“And my son? Where did he fall?”

“He was about to enter the cave, to lead the men into hand to hand combat, Tonkahaska. But he fell, a brave warrior, fearless, but, sadly not a god.”

“Towasi never claimed to be such a one,” Tonkahaska replied. “I shall talk with these white men. Come!”

Adam, Joe and Hoss watched as the group of silent warriors surveyed them from the track . Joe licked his lips and shook his head,

“Why aren’t they attacking us? They must know they have the upper hand now.”

“Why d’you keep asking us the questions?” Hoss growled, “You’re the one who was with them all that thar time.”

“I think they want to parley.” Adam replied, his gun steady in his hand and aimed at the tall man dismounting from his horse.

They were at that time out of range of pistol shot, had they still had ammunition for the riles they could have used them to some effect although the inclination of the Indians did not seem to be for war, but more for some talk. Joe felt his heart thumping in his breast. Hope fluttered anew, released from the prison of despair, and fluttering so hard that the pulse beat in his ear drums. Hoss licked his lips and gripped his rifle all the tighter. Unsure of what to do, but hopeful. He waited for Adam to tell him what to do now, for he felt too doubtful of events to make a decision for them.

Behind them Mary Ann soaked a cloth – one of the flounces from her underskirt – in water and gently bathed the blood and paint from Towasi’s face. She had rolled a thick wad of the material against his back in an effort to stem the blood that streamed from his wound.

“You’re right, Adam,” Hoss said, lowering his rifle, “It looks as though they do want to talk.”

“Put your rifle down then, Hoss. Joe, put your gun down.” Adam suited action to words by slipping his gun into its holster and then unbuckling his gunbelt. He held it at arms length so that Tonkahaska could see that he was acting in good faith, and then he handed it over to Joe, “If there’s trouble, do the best you can.”

He felt Hoss’ hand on his back, Joe whispered words that he could not hear. He stepped forward several paces and waited.

Tonkahaska approached warily. Seeing Adam disarm himself he handed his lance to one of the men and his knife to the other. He continued upwards until he had reached the level where Adam was standing. They stood a mere few feet apart and looked at one another. Tonkahaska signed the greeting, and the need to talk, Adam nodded.

“I am Tonkahaska,” his near black eyes darted to the left, right, but could see no sign of his only son, “I am a chief of these people.”

“Adam Cartwright from the Ponderosa. My brothers, Hoss and Joseph.”

Tonkahaska nodded. Again he looked about him, and then raised his chin, to look Adam in the face,
“My son fell in battle. He is a war chief of great honour. What have you done with his body?”

“He’s in there,” Adam replied, “Being cared for by a woman. He isn’t dead, Chief Tonkahaska.”

The relief was totally visible on the man’s face, and Adam thought so much for the so called inscrutability they talk about with Indians. When a man is father to a son feelings are just feelings after all. He allowed a slight smile to flick over his own features.

“Tonkahaska, your son was shot by one of his warriors, in the heat of the fighting when there were so many men close together, a bullet fired at us, went into your son’s back. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“It happens, I have known it happen when warriors are like fleas on the back of a dog and in fighting arrows and bullets find unlikely victims.”

“You would like to see your son?” Adam said, his voice softening now as he looked at the proud man, and thought of his own father whose pride was so often gentled by his love for his sons.

“This is not a trick?” the Cheyenne stepped back, and put a hand to his belt, then remembered he had no weapon.

“Chief, there comes a time when a man must trust another. This is one of those times.” Adam replied, his heart thumping in his throat as he turned to retreat into the cave.

Tonkahaska looked behind him, a signal enough for his two watch dogs to hurry up the slope towards him. While the Chief entered behind Adam, the two men stood face to face with Joe and Hoss.

Mary Ann looked up as Adam approached, she quailed rather under the fierce look of the Chief, and shrunk back, clutching the blood stained cloth to her chest. Tonkahaska looked down at his son, and his face softened tenderly as he knelt beside him and took hold of one of his hands,

“My son, Towasi” he whispered, “Speak.”

He looked up at the girl, and then at Adam, and his eyes took note of the cloth in the girls hands and the face of his son, washed clean of blood and sweat and war paint. He nodded, and returned to look at the young man who was now slowly recovering his senses.

There was a gasp of surprise from one and a cry of joy from the other. Their hands clasped tightly, there was no doubting their regard for one another in that one action alone.

Tonkahaska spoke in his one language, asking his son what had happened to him, and the younger man replied with an honesty that did credit to him. The Chief spoke a little more and then released his son’s hand to stand up and face Adam. He drew himself up, dignified and proud.

“White man Adam Cartwright, my son has told me that what you have said is true. He was fighting, coming towards you when he felt a blow to his head, and also a pain in his back. He knows no white man’s magic could make a bullet turn into a circle in order to kill him. It was a bullet from one of our own warriors. It happens. He was in the way. That is – regrettable.” he paused and pulled a downward twist to the mouth, as though he found some amusement in use of the word.

“Your son needs the attention of a doctor, Chief. Do you have a shaman who could help him? He has to get the bullet out of his back as soon as possible before he loses too much blood.”

“Yes. We have a shaman.” Tonkahaska replied. He looked at the woman again and then at Adam, “You saved my son.”

“You can thank the woman for that kindness,” Adam said coolly, “Your people killed her brother last night, but her heart is gentle and forgiving.”

Tonkahaska looked at Mary Ann again, but reserved comment. In his opinion there was only weakness in forgiving. Then he looked once again at his son, and nodded as though he had made up his mind about something.

“We shall take my son back to our camp. We shall not return. Go in peace.”

Chapter 103

Mary Ann felt the young man’s hand grip her wrist and looking up she saw Joe standing over her, a slight but wary smile on his lips,

“Come on, Mary Ann, when he tells us to go, that’s just what we do.” he helped her to her feet, picking up the canteen of water as he did so. As he passed Tonkahuska he spoke to him a few words in the Cheyenne language, which surprised the Chief, for his dark eyes gleamed and he raised his chin proudly, “Towasi fought a strong battle, Chief Tonkahuska, may be be strong and have many children in his lodges.”

“Yatahay,” Tonkahuska replied, and took hold of the young man’s hand, “You too, fought a strong battle. Go while I am able to hold back my warriors.”

Joe nodded, and holding tightly to Mary Ann’s wrist he strode quickly from the protective shield of rock beneath which they had fought and won their battle.

“What do we do now?” Mary Ann asked, falling in step with him and, as he had advised, not looking back.

“We walk. Hopefully we’ll come across our horses eventually and be able to ride into Calico.” he smiled at her, “You did well there, Mary Ann. Well done.”

She said nothing but lowered her head, looking at her feet as step by step she walked away from the place that would haunt her dreams for many years to come. They finally reached the track and she looked at Joe’s face thoughtfully, before speaking once again.

“Joe? I’m sorry that I showed so little understanding before, when you told me about the Cheyenne girl you had loved. I had always thought that I was very fair minded about things, I didn’t realise until then that I was prejudiced and unkind. I am sorry.”

Joe’s mobile and expressive face twisted a little, as though the memory of Little Moon had peeked through the veil of present events and the pain was sharp, strong and yet, somehow sweet.

“Joe? Did you hear me?”
“Yes.” he nodded, and sighed. It was then that he released her hand, and unscrewed the stopper of the canteen, raised it to his lips and gulped down cool water. Somehow the action broke through the memory and restored things back to equilibrium. He offered the canteen to her but she shook her head.

“It was while I was trying to help the man in the cave. He was young, and handsome.” she sighed, “I realised then that life was unfair in so many different levels, cruel too, and just assuming that because people were of different colour, race, religion … it made it too easy to believe the stereotypes, isn’t it? I saw him, he was in pain, perhaps he had a sweetheart, a wife, children … I felt so sorry for him, Joe.”

Joe nodded, he wanted to take hold of her hand again, just to reassure her that everything was alright, but he felt uncomfortable in doing so, instead he screwed the stopper onto the canteen, and walked at her pace alongside her.

“Tell me about her, Joe, will you? How did you meet her? What was she like?”

He looked down at her, and smiled dreamily. He looked ahead and saw Adam and Hoss walking, talking together. The blue skies had clouds in them, clouds that promised rain, which would have been so good now, for the heat was relentless.

So he told her how he had met Little Moon and how sweet and pretty she was, and how kind and generous the Cheyenne people had been to him. Every now and again he would help her over some difficulty in the track, loose shingle, too many rocks, he would take hold of her hand, or put his hands around her waist and lift her up and over, then set her carefully back onto firm ground.

Occasionally Adam or Hoss would glance over their shoulders to see if they were keeping up with them. Seeing them not so far back they would resume their talking, and walking, as though for all the world they were just strolling on a Sunday afternoon picnic.

There was no sign of the horses. After a while Mary Ann began to limp and drop behind. The heat of the day was building up, and eventually she declared that she had to stop, and take off her shoes.

“You won’t be able to get them back on if you do that,” Joe said kindly, and offered her the water to drink.

“Joe, I’m slowing everyone down, I’m sorry.” she raised the canteen to her lips and drank the cool water, then handed back the canteen to him, “Thank you, Joe.”

“Do you want to rest here for a little while?”

“I’m afraid to, in case they come back.”

“They won’t. It’s quite safe now, Mary Ann.” he said softly, and placed his hand gently on her own, “We’ll soon be in Calico.”

She took a deep breath, and took hold of his hand which she did not release, and once again they toiled their way, hand in hand, along the track towards the Calico.

“Will you be able to settle here, Mary Ann?” he asked after a little while.

“I don’t know. I – I wish I could just turn the clock back and go home. Everything was so safe and comfortable, and -” she paused, her own memories returned now, sharp and painful, and, like Joe, she longed to be able to slip back into them, into their once upon a time reality. “My father was a school teacher, and I kept house for him and my brother. Mother died when we were very young.”

“So what prompted you to move here?”

“Oh, Frank wanted adventure in his life, I suppose. Father died last year and we had to leave the house as it was part of the school. There was so much in the newspapers back home about land being available here, great futures for all, homes and – and a great security.” her mouth trembled now, and tears dripped from her eyes, “I just let Frank talk me into it. I can teach, I’ve taught at Fathers school for two years, and Frank, well, he could have turned his hand to anything really, except that he thought if he were the librarian we would have more things to share together.” she smiled wistfully, “He didn’t really enjoy reading, but he could have put up the shelves wonderfully well.”

For some reason it appeared amusing and they laughed together, two young people, laughing in the mid day sun. One would have thought they were just about the happiest people alive.

Hoss scanned the horizon, shading his eyes with his hat, and then shook his head,

“Danged horses, not a sign of them” he grumbled “And suddenly my boots seem too tight.”

“I guess the fighting scared them off.” Adam sighed, wiping his brow on his sleeve. He took a gulp of water from the canteen and handed it over to his brother while he glanced over his shoulder at Joe and Mar Ann, “Looks like the girl’s in trouble, Hoss.”

Hoss swigged some water from the canteen and then turned to look back at the couple who were lagging now some distance behind them. Mary Ann was stumbling along, and Joe had his arm around her waist in an attempt to help her along. Even as they watched the younger man leaned forward to sweep the girl into his arms and carry her towards them.

“She’s exhausted,” Joe said as he reached them, looking quite near to collapse himself, “I thing we need to rest. Over there, under the trees.” he indicated the shady copse of trees and headed towards them, carefully lowering Mary Ann down beneath them.

“Danged horses, they had all the food.” Hoss muttered, sprawling down on the grass, “Much more of this and I’ll be worn down to a shadow.”

“Well, it can’t be much further ahead.” Adam said, and he looked at Mary Ann kindly, “Are you going to be alright for a while longer, Mary Ann?”

“If I could just rest a little bit, Mr Cartwright.” she sighed, and settled back, leaning against a tree trunk and closing her eyes. “Oh, I wish I were home. There’s an ice cream parlour near the school, and Frank and I would go in there when it was a hot day like this.”

“Yeah, I could do with a long cold beer myself,” Hoss waved his hat in front of his face to get some cool air, “I feel like I’m melting.”

They rested for a precious twenty minutes before it was time to move on. This time it was Hoss who gallantly lifted Mary Ann from her feet and cradled her in his arms. They looked ahead and saw the faint tracks to the town wending ahead of them. Determinedly they stepped forwards.

Joe could feel his body drying up, the perspiration that had soaked his shirt was now drying out, his lips were beginning to dry. He raised his canteen to taste the water on his tongue, and it was then that he saw the dust cloud shimmering on the horizon. He lowered the canteen with a groan. It couldn’t be, not again, not now? It crossed his mind that he had six bullets left, Adam had four and Hoss didn’t even possess his gun anymore. The rifles they had known better than to touch so had left them in the cavern.

“Well, well,” he heard Adam’s voice mutter, “Here we go again.”

Chapter 104

Old Jeff Tobin spat out a stream of tobacco juice which hit the dusty track with a splatter. He chewed the wad around and around the stumps of what remained of his blackened teeth. He turned to the man by his side,

“Thar y’are, didn’t I tell ya?” he nodded over at his companion, “Didn’t I?”

“Yep, you sure did, Jeff. You sure did,” Harvey Griswold replied, but he held onto his rifle just in case for these were unsettled times and nothing that appeared innocent often turned out to be so.

They continued to ride on, the old buckboard bouncing over the rocks and boulders, kicking up dust as it went along. Behind them several horsemen, a buggy, and several buck boards followed along. All eyes were on the sight of the three men walking towards them, one of whom was a big fellow carrying a girl in his arms.

Jeff wiped sweat from his brow and felt a wealth of pleasure trickle through his bones. He had found the horses galloping towards the town earlier on, one of them had been so near collapse that he had thought of shooting it there and then. But trying to convince those fools in the town that out yonder there were people needing help had taken up so much time. All so busy with their hammering this and that together, or getting their supplies, or arguing with the military about something. No one wanted to pay any heed to him, just because he lived a little further out of town, and liked his own privacy. Since when did a private man’s requests deserve to be ignored like that? The memory of the way they had spoken to him rankled a little now, and he spat out more tobacco juice as a result.

The men had stopped walking towards them. Jeff narrowed his eyes and watched them warily. They looked like they had walked miles. Their clothes were torn, sweat stains had turned into dark patches with the salt marking them out like chalk lining out patterns on the cloth. Dust coated their faces, as well as their clothes, and there was blood on the sleeve of one of them, while another had his hand wrapped with a dark cloth of some kind. The girl appeared to be asleep, her head resting against the chest of the big man, and one arm swaying to and fro as they had walked, her skirts were torn, dirty and soiled.

Harvey looked at them and then turned to Jeff,

“They look like they’re in a bad way, Jeff. You should have told us sooner what you suspected when you found them horses.”

“Wha-?” Jeff gaped in amazement. Then he shook his head in disbelief, folk were always ready to shift the blame and find a scapegoat. Life just wasn’t fair and bitterness once again corroded the good feeling he had been enjoying moments earlier.

“Let’s get to them,” someone shouted, and as he passed Jeff recognised the doctor in his buckboard, urging his two horses onwards.

It annoyed Jeff, that would mean that Doctor would no doubt get the glory and praise. Wasn’t it he who had saved these people’s lives? He shook his head again, chewing frantically on the tobacco as anger stirred in his bitter narrow little heart.

Chapter 104

Calico was a settlement rather than a township. There were only a handful of clapboard buildings in sight, and a whole mass of sprawling tents that had been pitched on the ‘Lots’ purchased by hopeful town members. The sound of hammering heralded the arrival of the Cartwright long before sight of Calico actually appeared.

The smells of tar and pitch, freshly cut wood and sawdust, mingled with the other smells so associated with the outdoors. There was food cooking on open fires that got Hoss’ mouth watering. A bell began to ring as they appeared and Dr Melbourne turned to Mary Ann with a smile and said it was the school bell, especially cast to be ready for her arrival.

Dr Melbourne was a young man, eager and alert, with fair hair and freckles and intense blue eyes. It would, perhaps, have been impertinent to say he was cast in Frank’s mould, but there was certainly sufficient similarities of character to make Mary Ann feel inclined towards him. She was sitting beside him in the buckboard, having been, in his medical opinion, the one of the four most in need of attention… medical, of course.

“Well, this brings back memories, huh, Hoss?” Adam drawled, looking at the rows of tarpaulin shelters and the neatly laid out lanes and avenues.

“It sure does,” Hoss sighed, and half closed his eyes and took in a deep sniff of the air, “Eagle Station, known before that as The Washoe. It just grew and grew, didn’t it?”

“Yep, it surely did.” Adam smiled, and leaned back against the wooden planks of the wagon in which they had been ushered. It smelt of apples and cabbages. He wondered vaguely where they had got apples and cabbages. He was so tired he could have slept for a week.

“I hope Mary Ann won’t be too disappointed with this,” Joe said with a sigh, “She was not overly impressed with Biggins, and that town was well built and well established.”

“Oh, I think she’ll be alright,” Adam shrugged, “Sometimes the idea of being right at the start of things makes a person hanker on staying in a place.”

“Yeah, and them having that bell all ready for her, shows that they really need her here.” Hoss added.

He bumped his head as the wagon came to an abrupt halt and the driver jumped down,

“Welcome to Calico, gents.”

“Many thanks,” Joe replied, clambering over the side and landing lightly on his feet. He glanced around and saw the buggy with Mary Ann in it still trundling down what was the Main Street.

“Seems like she’s found herself someone to look after her,” Hoss grinned, and pushed back his hat.

“Yeah, it sure does, doesn’t it?” Joe smiled, and looked up at Hoss with a twinkle in his eye, “Do you reckon there’s some place around here that sells beer?”

The wagon driver stepped forward, and pointed to a building that was nearly completed,

“That’s the best place in town,” he said, and chuckled as he walked back to his wagon and clambered onto the seat, “Can’t guarantee how cold the beer is, but it’s wet.”

The building was promising to be a very attractive and elaborate affair. The three brothers stepped in through the doors and stood in the main room and looked about them with pleasurable surprise. It was always a strange feeling to ride into a new town in the process of being ‘born’ and to see the promise it had for the future. They were regarded in return by the other clients there – homesteaders, builders, carpenters, and militia.

“That reminds me,” Adam frowned, “We need to see the Fort and the Commanding Officer.”

“Do we have to?” Hoss frowned, “Last time we decided it was right and proper to poke our noses into Army matters we got ourselves into a real mess. Ain’t there no way we could just ignore all this and just get on our way.”

“I could do with a bath,” Joe scratched his hair, “I’ve a weeks dust and dirt on me.”

“Same here.” Adam ordered their round of drinks, and glanced around the room, “There’s an Officer over there, I’ll just have a quick word with him.”

“Adam?” Hoss cried and grabbed at his brothers arm, “Don’t. Just let it be, huh?”

“How can I, Hoss?”

“Yeah, how can he, Hoss?” Joe shook his head, “You should know it’s impossible for our elder brother not to take a stick and stir up a hornets nest whenever he sees one.”

“Hey now, if anyone did that kind of thing back home, it wasn’t me!” Adam laughed, and made his way towards the officer.

He was having to thread his way through a small group of men when he collided into one man who appeared in a hurry to leave. Beer sloshed over his hand and he moved back to let the man move on, but the stranger had looked back and uttered a crude oath on seeing him.

“Gregory Hunt?” Adam cried, looking at the man’s retreating back, but Hunt was elbowing his way through to the doors, “Hoss! Stop him -.”

Hunt looked back at Adam, then at Hoss and Joe who had stepped forward, and it was Hoss who reached out to grab at him. Gregory Hunt pushed a man out of his way, and pulled out his gun, then turned to back his way out through the doors. He had just placed his hand on the door when he fired off the first shot, a girl screamed and the glass chandelier tinkled in protest as the bullet sliced off several crystals.

Joe was the first to pull out his gun, and yelled a warning to Hunt to put down his gun, but when his only reply was a bullet that whistled pass his ear and embedded itself in the newly carved counter, Joe aimed, and fired back in return.

People were yelling and shouting, another girl screamed and ran for cover behind the counter, but there was now little point in any panic for Hunt had dropped his gun, and was slowly crumpling down onto the floor.

“What’s going on here?” the Officer demanded to know, “Who are you men?”

Adam made the introductions and asked if it were possible to talk to the Commanding Officer, where he could explain exactly what had been going on and why this dramatic conclusion to the life of Mr Hunt. The Officer shook his head thoughtfully, and watched as the townsmen gathered around Hunt, and then had the body taken away.

“At present I’m standing in for the Commanding Officer. He’s out on manoeuvres.”

Adam raised his eyebrows. It seemed strange that a body of militia could be out on manoeuvres and yet had not made themselves available at the time they were most needed. He pulled out a chair,

“In that case, Lieutenant, I need to talk to you.” he said very calmly.

“I think you should, seeing how you’ve just had my Clerk of the Works shot. This township may be in its conception period, Sir, but it is a lawful town and …”

“Lieutenant, if you don’t mind?” Adam raised a hand and was quite surprised when the Officer actually stopped talking. Hoss and Joe joined them now and sat down, flanking the Officer on either side.

“That man, Gregory Hunt, is a gun runner to the hostile Indians in this territory,” Adam said bluntly.

“He’s been responsible for a number of attacks on wagons and homestead for the past few months,” Joe added.

“Yeah, and the reason we shot him, was because he recognised us from when he was doing his last deal. He expected the Cheyenne and Arapaho to get rid of us, and was more than a little bit surprised to see us here.” Hoss concluded.

“He couldn’t be a gun runner without our knowing -” the Officer stammered.

“Oh come now,” Adam leaned on the table and shook his head, “Do you mean to tell us that you actually would have condoned what he was doing, had you known?”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” the reply was snapped out sharply, “But we would have seen invoices, missed shipments, realised that arms were missing that kind of thing. Then we would have looked into what was going on and caught him – but now that you’ve shot him we’re hardly going to get a confession out of him, are we?”

“Why not?” Joe said quietly, raising his glass from the table and looking as though surprised at the man, “We may have shot him, but he ain’t dead. Is he, Hoss?”

“Nope, we don’t make it a practise going round killing folk, Lieutenant.”

“Also,” Adam smiled coldly, “We have the confession of a dying man as evidence, we heard it, and so did his sister – oh, she’s still alive too, by the way.”

The young Officer looked thoughtful, and stared into space for a few moments before nodding. He looked at the three brothers and sighed,

“It wouldn’t be difficult to do. The garrison is at full strength now, and well stocked with arms, but it wouldn’t be difficult for someone in Hunt’s position to invoice the armoury for further shipments and destroy the copies he’d made. Thank you, it won’t be difficult to find the discrepancies.”

“You’d better contact Colonel Colley and Captain Fellowes in Biggins. It’s possible one of Hunt’s invoices did filter through to them as they had a shipment of arms waiting for delivery to Calico.”

The Officer smiled,

“Oh that was actually a bona fide order. Our Commanding Officer has gone to Biggins to collect that shipment and bring it to the garrison here, which will bring us up to full strength.”

“Well, Sir, I hate to tell you this, but we’ve come from Biggins, and we’ve not come across any militia on the way.” Adam raised his eyebrows as though to provoke some thought about the matter. Then he excused himself from the table and with Joe and Hoss by his side returned to the counter.

“Shucks, Adam, what do you reckon happened to those soldiers?” Hoss asked, as he glanced over his shoulder to see the Lieutenant, white faced now, stride from the building.

“I don’t know, Hoss. But so far as we’re concerned our involvement in the matter is over.” Adam put his empty glass down on the counter and raised a hand to get the glasses refilled.

“Over? Hey, hear that, Little Joe? We actually got ourselves uninvolved in something and you know what that means, don’t’cha?”

Joe grinned, picked up his glass and sighed,

“Yeah, it means we can get on home.”

A small man with disgustingly black stumps that passed for his teeth approached them as they left the saloon. Jeff pulled off his hat and surveyed them doubtfully for a moment and then plucked up his courage to call for their attention.

“Hey, Misters?”

They turned and looked at him, Joe smiled and nodded,

“What can we do for you, Mister?”

“I wanted to know what you wanted me to do about your hosses?” Jeff said, looking from one to another of them.

“Our horses? Did you find them?” Hoss asked, his eyes widening in pleasure at the thought of being reunited with Chubb.

“Yeah, well, to be truthful, they found me. Came galloping up when I was on the way here from my homestead. One of them ain’t in a good way at all, but I could nurse him along and see him better if’n you got the time.”

“Which horse was that?” Joe asked, hoping fervently it was not his beloved Cochise.

“The one without a saddle. There’s a piebald, a black un and a roan, they were alright, a bit winded but ain’t nothing a good nights rest and some hay and oats wouldn’t cure.”

“Where are they now?” Hoss asked, digging into his pocket for some money to give to Jeff, “Mister, I sure am pleased to make your acquaintance. Here, take this for your trouble with my thanks.”

“I’ll take you over to where I got them corralled.” Jeff took the money with delight, and when Adam and Joe passed him a dollar as well, he went red with pleasure. “Y’know, we’d’ve been to you much sooner had them lazy galoots taken heed of what I was saying to ‘em. They thought I was spinning a yarn until I got that young Doctor to see the state of those horses. Then they took notice, I can tell you. But it was me that got them to do anything, not the Doc.”

“We can’t thank you enough,” Adam said seriously, realising how important it was to the little man to be recognised as the hero in the rescue.

“Well, there you are,” he nodded over to where the three horses were grazing as casually comfortable as though they were back home on the Ponderosa range. “Ain’t they beauties.”

“Thanks, Mister,” Joe said, and put his hand on the little man’s shoulder, “Thank you.”

Jeff’s chest swelled proudly. Nothing could have made him happier or prouder. His good deed had been acknowledged and he had even been rewarded handsomely for it. He watched as the three men walked to the corral fence and leaned against it to watch the horses, it was a good feeling to feel appreciated.

“Y’know,” Hoss sighed, “I really stink something orful. I need to find a bath.”

Chapter 104

“I wonder if that Lieutenant ever found his Commanding Officer,” Joe Cartwright mused as he sat easy in the saddle, the reins loose in his hands.

“Probably still wondering,” Adam smiled, “Seems a long time ago now, but I daresay it set the pattern for what’s going to happen a lot of times back there.”

“Yeah, and the best thing was that we managed to keep out of it. Couldn’t believe it when he came round the next day and asked if we’d make up a posse and go help him find ‘em. After all we’d been through.”

“Huh, big brother sure got me worried then.” Joe chuckled, “I thought for sure he was going to weaken and agree to ride along with ‘em. I reckon we’d be bones whitening in the wilderness by now if we had.”

“I think you’d be right, Joe,” Adam said sadly, “Still, at least Mary Ann was happy to stay and be the school teacher there. That was one good thing that came out of that little adventure anyway.”

They relapsed into silence for some time, allowing their horses to jog along at their own pace. It was leisurely and gentle, and occasionally Cochise would raise his head and toss it in pleasure, and Chubb would swish his tail, snicker and chomp hard on his bit. Adam’s horse pretended not to notice his companions’ antics, but appreciated that something different was in the air.

They stopped all at the same time. Each one of them pulled up on the reins and stopped.

“Shucks, I reckon I got something in my eye,” Hoss muttered, his voice thick with suppressed emotion.

“Me too,” Joe sniffed, “Reckon it must be the air around here.” he glanced over at Adam,
“You ain’t saying much, big brother?”

Adam shook his head, and stayed silent and still. How many times during the past years had he conjured up the memory of this place. Now, seeing it again, his heart seemed to have filled with so much feeling that he could barely breathe. He took a deep intake of air and half closed his eyes,

“It’s been said before by a man much wiser than I … but look, feast thine eyes upon a piece of heaven on earth. I never thought -” he paused, his voice too choked to say anything for a moment, “I never thought I would ever see it again.”

“Home,” Hoss sighed, “At last.”

Chapter 105

The three brothers rode slowly homewards. Although they had seen the views every day of their lives since childhood, and in Joe’s case since his eyes could comprehend the beauty of what they were looking at, it seemed to them as though they had re-entered Paradise.

In Adam’s case, as he jogged slowly along, with his eyes drinking in everything about him, it brought to mind the number of times his father had read to him Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. It made his heart tighten in his chest and his throat ache with unshed tears to dwell on certain phrases that he had learned by heart, and which his father had told him had always been Elizabeth’s favourite verses.

Hoss looked and remembered that he had caught a beauty of a fish some years back in that particular stretch of the lake, and over there didn’t he get chased by some old mother bear when he was all of 9 years old, and then got home for a tanning from his father. He could remember riding Chubb for the first time over in the shady grove, watched by his father and brothers. He had been so proud. As his mind dwelt on the memory so Hoss’ heart swelled with pride now. This was all his and his family’s, an achievement beyond compare.

Joe ached all over. He was quivering with suppressed energy and excitement. Every so often he would exclaim aloud at some sight, some smell, something that would delight and enthrall and bring back wonderful memories. He would glance away at other times, and swallow hard to stop the tears but did not succeed. He would sniff and wipe his eyes and shake his head. Then he would remember the girl he wanted to bring home to this wonderful country and his heart ached in yet another manner.

And then, there it was … the house, the home, the whole neat package of all they had longed to see. It just needed Pa to open the door.

“HEY. PA. PA.”

Hoss was yelling, Joe had almost tumbled out of the saddle, and Adam had remained seated, just staring. It were as though by staring hard enough he could actually believe it, could actually see the reality and know for sure that it was still there, still home.

He dismounted slowly, tethered his horse to the hitching rail, and then walked towards the house with his eyes looking every which way and noticing the changes, small details that would not matter, just that he had not been there to make them. His hand caressed the timber uprights that supported the porch roof and he smiled at the memory of Pa, Hoss and himself dragging them across the yard.

He paused at the doorway and once again his hand touched gently the wooden supports. Every thing in this house had been the result of love and labour shared between his father, and his brother and himself. Remembering those things had kept him sane at times, when he was in that little cabin far away in a tempest tossed sea.

Joe was bounding up the stairs, calling to his father, just as he would when a child and would run up and down the stairs, in and out of the rooms until his dear Papa would appear and laughing together they would fall into each others arms and Pa would toss him high in the air, and Marie would say, ‘Not so high, Ben dear.’

Hoss had gone into the kitchen. He had not really realised just how much he missed Hop Sings cooking until now because there were smells coming from there that intoxicated him. O joy of joys, he lifted a lid and inhaled. Wonderful, wonderful. A dream come true. He looked about him and his eyes widened. Sugar doughnuts. Shucks, how did Hop Sing know to cook them. He took one and bit into it … closed his eyes and felt his spirit soar.

Adam had managed to get his feet over the threshold and into the big room. Everything as it had always been. No changes. He felt a slight twinge of relief, almost as though by not changing the house had been waiting for him to come back. He shook his head, a childish selfish thought, after all, he had chosen to leave.

Joe approached him and pulled a face,

“No one’s home,” he said sadly, “Do you think they didn’t get our cable from Placerville?”

“The clerk did say they’ve been having trouble with the lines,” Adam replied, hearing his own voice in his ears but speaking as though the words were coming from somewhere else. He shook his head, and looked at Joe, and smiled, “Welcome home, Joe.”

“Welcome -” Joe gulped back the lump in his throat, “Welcome home, Adam. You’ve been gone too long.”

“I know it.” Adam replied.

Hoss came into the room licking his fingers to make sure he got all the sugar from them, and then wiped his hands down his pants, he grinned

“Hop Sing sure made a danged good heap of sugar doughnuts. But there ain’t no sign nor sight of him anywhere. I guess it must be laundry day.”

“Best go to the stables, they may be there.” Joe suggested.

“Nah, I hollered loud enough for the world to know we were back,” Hoss muttered, “But at least we’ll know whether or not they’re around the house if the horses are still there.”

They walked together to the stables and found the stalls empty. Even Sports stall was vacant which made Adam feel a touch uneasy. He looked at Hoss, raised his eyebrows,

“Sports usually grazing someplace,” Hoss said to the unspoken question, “Pa wouldn’t let anyone else ride him. Always said it was your horse and would be pampered until you came back home to get him to work again.” he looked about him, “Dad gumit, ain’t that something?”

“What?”

“They’re not being home, that’s what!” came the disgruntled reply.

……………..

Tom Riley looked at the message on the cable and his eyes popped open with excitement. He ran round the counter, yelled to his work mates that he would be back, and ran into the street, waving the piece of paper over his head.

Roy Coffee saw him and out of interest, and because he was bored stiff, he asked him why he was running around the main street like hooligan waving a piece of paper above his head, did he want to get himself arrested for causing a disturbance of the peace?

Tom was too innocent to pick up on Roy’s rather wry and obscure pun, but took a deep breath and showed Roy the cable.

“Well now, what do y’know?” Roy muttered and tugged at his moustache.

“I have to go and give this to Mr Cartwright. Do you know where he is?”

“Hold on there, Tom,” Roy placed a cautionary hand on the young man’s arm, “Hold on. Let’s not rush things.”

“Not rush things? But, sheriff, Mr Cartwright’s been waiting months for a cable like this to come through? It ain‘t a case of rushing things, it’ …”

“Now look, young Tom, I’m the law around here, and when the law speaks, it’s up to citizens like yourself to stand still and listen. Now, listen here …”

The two men stood in the centre of the main street for some minutes, talking quietly together. It caused a slight traffic jam as Mr Bellamy’s wagon got stuck trying to pass round them, the wagon wheel hooked itself rather fondly to a barrel of apples that was standing a shade too close to the edge of the sidewalk. This in turn caused Mr Mayhew’s buggy to scratch its paintwork on the back of Mr Bellamy’s wagon because Mr Mayhew’s horses had not been able to stop and turn quite in sufficient time, mainly due to Mr Mayhew whispering a load of romantic nonsense into Miss Harriet Mannerings ear. She wasn’t listening either.

Ben Cartwright took his time drinking the cool beer at the Silver Dollar Saloon. Candy had gone to pay off some bills and check on the mail. It was just another day like any other. Yes, just another day. He sighed and looked at the beer in his glass and wondered whether to have another,

“Are you alright, Ben?” Sam asked, and approached one of his most valued customers anxiously.

“Yes, Sam, I’m fine, just fine.” Ben replied, and sighed.

“Heard from the boys at all lately?”

“Well, about a week ago. They were making good progress. Should be home soon I guess.”

“Just not soon enough, huh?” Sam smiled and looked over Ben’s shoulder as Candy walked towards them, “Beer, Candy?”

“That’ll be fine, thanks, Sam.”

Candy put his hat down on the counter and put the packet of mail down by Ben’s hand. He and Sam both watched to see how quickly Ben would grab at it to look through the letters and brochures. They watched his face to see whether or not there was any news from the boys. It was obvious from the way his face dropped, then the mouth went into ‘stiff upper lip’ mode and the chin was raised. Disappointments had to be met with dignity just like anything else in life so it appeared.

Conversation around them ebbed and flowed, whispers trickled here and there, much as it ever was and would always be, and Ben eventually realised he couldn’t stand there any longer, but emptied his glass, picked up the packet of mail and strode out of the saloon, with Candy close on his heels.

“Hi Ben, lovely day, isn’t it?” David Pargeter cried upon almost colliding with him at the doorway, “Heard from those boys of yours yet?”

“No,” Ben grunted, and strode onwards.

“Alright, Ben? Good to see you?” Roy Coffee nodded blandly and carried on walking.

“Some friend he is, asking a question and can’t even be bothered to hang around for an answer,” Ben snorted and his black eyes darkened and the mouth thinned.

“Ben? How are you? Can’t stop, about to deliver twins,” Paul Martin smiled, then paused, “You look a little liverish, Ben. I think it might be a good idea if you called in to see me tomorrow for a check up.”

Ben opened his mouth to speak but the doctor had gone striding down the road with his medical bag slapping against his leg. Ben’s countenance fell even more so, and his scowl grew more pronounced as he strode down towards where Buck was dozing over a hitching rail.

“Are you alright, Mr Cartwright?” Candy asked in a pleasantly mild tone of voice.

“I’m fine, fine,” came the snapped off reply.

Widow Hawkins breezed towards them and her face broke into a wide beam of a smile. Ben groaned and tried to avoid her, ducking behind Candy who, for some odd reason, did not seem to realise that his boss was attempting to avoid the widow and so did a neat side step of his own.

“Ben!” Widow Hawkins exclaimed, “Are you well? What a lovely day it is today, don’t you think so?”

“Not particularly,” Ben growled, “In fact, it’s growing steadily worse by the minute.”

“Oh Ben, you and your little jokes,” she trilled and swept on.

“Interfering old busybody,” Ben grumbled beneath his breath, “Always prattling on about something that is no concern of hers whatsoever. I don’t know what’s happening to this town but -”

“Hi Mr Cartwright?” “Pleasant day, ain’t it?”

Women were smiling and nodding as they passed him by, and men raised their hats and greeted him warmly, as though he were a long lost friend. Even children ran by and called out to him, waving as they went by, and Alfred Doten stepped out of the Territorial Enterprise offices with a notepad and pencil, nodded over to them, and started scribbling something on the paper.

“Fine, just fine, now we’ve become the subject of newspaper gossip,” Ben humped, and strode on towards Buck, with Candy reluctantly following in his wake.

“Hello, Mr Cartwright.”

The childs voice brought Ben to a halt, and he paused to look down at Johnny Holmes, who smiled a gap toothed smile up at him. He bent down and smiled, for he had a soft spot for Johnny Holmes ever since his father had gone off to fight in the Civil War and never returned.

“Hello, Johnny. How are you today?”

“I’m fine, Mr Cartwright. Are you fine?” the thin squeaky voice of the 8 year old asked.

“Yes, Johnny, I’m just fine. Where’s your Ma?”

“She’s in the store, Mr Cartwright.”

“Well, why don’t you go in and spend this on your Ma and yourself, huh?” and Ben produced a dollar, and slipped it into the boys hand.

“Oh thank you, sir.” Johnny stood up and stared at the dollar with wide eyes, “it’s a dollar, isn’t it?”

“Yes, so spend it wisely.”

“Mr Cartwright, can I ask you a question?”

“Of course you can, Johnny, what is it?” Ben smiled and pushed his hat further back.

“Do you believe that wishes do come true?” the child looked up at him, his face trusting and his eyes wide.

Time stopped for a second or two as Ben thought back to all the wishes, dreams, longings and prayers that he had gone through over the past few weeks. He sighed,

“What do you wish for, young man?” he asked quietly

“I wish for my Pa to come back home. My Ma’s real lonely without him.”

“She has you though?” Ben said quietly.

“Yes, sir, but somehow I don’t think me is quite enough.” the seven year old replied with the wisdom of a man of 70.

Ben smiled and ruffled the boys hair and watched him scamper away to the store; John paused, turned and waved,

“Thank you, Mr Cartwright.”

Ben nodded, and then turned to mount Buck. With stooped shoulders and a dark frown furrowing his brow Ben rode slowly out of the town. People called out greetings, there were waves and friendly smiles. He shook his head, and thought the whole world had gone mad.

Why hadn’t they come home? He looked up at the sky and asked the same question over and over. Were they in trouble? So close to home but had something terrible happened? What had Adam said in the last cable he’d sent? Surely they should be home now? Why hadn’t they come home!

Chapter 106

“I’ll get the horses stabled, Mr Cartwright,” Candy said as he dismounted in the yard of the Ponderosa.

He cast an anxious eye over the yard and house and frowned slightly. Nothing seemed any different from when they had ridden out earlier, and he wondered if perhaps the cablegram had perhaps pre-empted the actual arrival of the brothers. He looked over at Ben who had dismounted and sighed in doing so. Candy had lost count of the number of sighs his employed had heaved since leaving town.

As Ben made his way to the house, Candy took the two horses along to the stables and upon opening the doors was actually able to heave a sigh of his own, one of relief as he saw the back ends of three horses, happily swishing their tails as a grateful acknowledgement of oats, a hay bag, fresh water and a warm stall. Candy could not hold back a grin as he greeted each horse with a slap on the rear end and was rewarded with ears pricked forwards and dark brown moist eyes turned towards him. He even convinced himself, as he edged Buck into his stall, that Cochise was in on the joke.

Ben Cartwright walked to the house, sifting through the letters as he did so, and frowning more severely as each letter proved once again to be from other sources than his sons. He pushed the door open and heaved a sigh. Head cast down he began to untie his holster with one hand, taking the hat off with the other and placing it upon the bureau along with the letters.

“Hi, Pa.” Hoss said, a tremor in his voice evidence of the turbulence in his heart at the sight of this dear man, and he rose to his feet away from the table where he and Joe had been engaged in a game of checkers.

“Hi, Pa.” Joe said, and he cleared his throat loudly because it had caused the words to come out rather squeakily but how else could they have been uttered when his throat was full of his heart at the time.

“Hi, Pa.” Adam said in his deep mellow voice that ended with a slight sigh as though even now he could not believe that his eyes actually beheld the sight of his beloved father.

Ben felt a shiver trickle down his spine and his heart did strange things within his chest. He opened his mouth, but no word came forth. His eyes blurred and filled with tears. He reached out with his hands towards them because his feet seemed to have become nailed to the floor.

“My sons, oh, thank God, thank God, you’re home.”

Men they were indeed, but to him, mere boys. And they ran towards and filled his arms, holding him and one another close. Their voices mingled with his own, and became a babble of disharmonious words. Laughter mingled shouts, and shouts intertwined with silences. But he held them close because words were just not enough, not now. How could any word express fully the emotions the father felt now, or even those feelings that his sons were finding so hard to express.

It was Adam who stepped back first, and turned his back upon them for just a moment in order to gain more control over his feelings. Then he turned to regard the man who had been his anchor from the day he was born. He sighed, and smiled and his dark eyes darkened a little at the memory of how many times Ben Cartwright had proven to be the most exemplary of men, of fathers.

“Adam -” Ben caught his sons regard and smiled, “Welcome home, son. It’s been too long.”

Adam nodded, and was about to speak when the door opened, and Candy stepped into the room. He took off his hat and looked at each one of the men in turn, and received from Hoss and Joe warm shakes of the hand, before he approached Adam and put out his hand to him,

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Adam Cartwright,” he said quietly, and his blue eyes twinkled warmly.

“Good to meet you, Candy. I’ve heard good things about you too,” Adam took the proffered hand and shook it.
“Mr Cartwright, I think you oughta come on outside for a moment,” Candy frowned and looked anxious, “It won’t take up much of your time.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Ben asked, looking anxiously at his boys as though the fear that they would evaporate like some desert born mirage should he leave the room was more than he could bear.

“I guess you had all better come out -” Candy said, sounding so urgent that they looked at one another with frowns and raised eyebrows before following behind him

There seemed to be people everywhere. Some of their cowhands, neighbours, some of the townsfolk, Paul Martin’s delivery of twins had obviously been very accurately timed for he was there as was Roy. Buggies were causing a traffic jam by the stables as people were piling out, baskets laden with food were appearing like so many trinkets from Aladdin’s cave.

Ben put his hands on his hips and shook his head, then caught Roy’s eye,

“Did you know about -?” his voice was drowned out by cheers and laughter. Voices raised in welcome and pleasure at seeing the Cartwrights together once again.

Trestle tables were being set up and food baskets emptied out. Hop Sing appeared out of nowhere his face wet with tears as he hurried up to them and shook his head as though in disbelief. He went from one to the other and clasped their hands, babbling a welcome that almost brought Hoss to tears.

“It looks as though the whole neighbourhood has turned up,” Joe laughed.

“It looks as though they’ve decided on staying put for the duration,” Ben growled, but he had laughter in his voice and turned to his sons, “There’s so much to talk about. I wanted to hear all about what’s happened to you and -.” he broke off, unable to say another word as Adam put a hand on his shoulder and nodded, as though he understood so well what his father was wanting to say,

“I know, Pa, but we have all the time in the world to talk together now.”

“Yes,” Ben gripped his son’s hand, “Yes, all the time in the world. Now we’re together again.”

There was now, as the good book tells us, a time to speak, a time to stay silent, a time for tears and a time for rejoicing.

Come, it is time for us to depart.

Next Story in the Captain Cartwright Series:

Captain, Oh My Captain
The Commodore
Invictus
Carpe Diem
A New Command
A Duty to Live
All Those Tomorrows
Written in Stone

 

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Author: Krystyna

6 thoughts on “Captain Cartwright # 2 – To Fly with Eagles (by Krystyna)

  1. The ending gave me such warm fuzzies!! ?

    What a tale. So many plot threads to hold and weave together — I’m truly impressed. When I write, the plot usually sort of invents itself as I go, but there’s no way that would work with this … I’m sure you had to have at least many ‘signposts’ staked out for yourself ahead of time, or something would have been dropped.

    I felt like this story just got better as it went. Adam truly was in charge — not just his usual state, but also I’m sure due to his captaincy and experience in dealing w various types of men and situations. Hoss was just … awesome (of course), as usual. Truly the glue that holds them together. And poor Joe … it’s always something, right? (I knew Little Moon would die, as she made the sad mistake of falling in love w a Cartwright. Don’t do it, girl!) But he sucked it up and did what needed to be done. It was good for him, I think, to remember that Ben had gone through similar trials — to know that things could work themselves out.

    I was sad about Jacob, of course. I thought your complex portrait of Custer was outstanding. (I have been to the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer’s last stand took place. Even at nine years old, it was sobering and — to be honest — chilling. If there are places in the world where there are really ghosts, that might be one…) Such as sad, sad time and situation in my country’s history. You really did a nice job with showing that there was such a lot going on that fed into it…

    So, I’ll be onto the next one soon! Did I pick up some issues in this story waiting to be resolved in the next? Thanks so much for these beautiful long stories — as someone who reads quite fast, it’s nice to fine something that will last me a while!

    1. Thank you hardly seems sufficient after such a lovely review. I am just so very glad you enjoyed it. I spent a lot of time researching various people, facts etc for this story. I forgot to mention that when you see an asterick by a name, event or fact it is to indicate that those are actual people and events.

      Adam will meet with Custer again, several times over, as well as Tom Custer. Did you know that two of Custer’s brothers were killed with him and also a brother in law and nephew? Heart breaking really..

      Thank you…this was my first really long story so I always feel really grateful to those who do read it.

  2. I truly didn’t know what to expect when Joe finally took off on his epic adventure but now, I’m so glad to be home with all the brothers in tow. I agree that the historical feel is beyond awesome. I can’t imagine the amount of time the research took. Well done! I truly felt the pain and frustration of the Indians. And Joe’s pain of his lost love. I was just trying to imagine what life would have been like for them if he had been able to bring her home. Oh the brothers were perfect, apart and together. I know there has to be more about Adam leaving the service but oh, it’s good to have him back home. I’m with Hoss and Joe, don’t let him near anymore officers or they’ll never get home. LOL. But Adam does like to finish with all the lose ends tied up and he will make sure he has done his duty and his level best to get the truth told. His brothers have to have the patience of Job with him. The ending was perfect – no other way to do it. I had to cry tears of joy with all of them. Now on the the next story. Don’t know how long it will take me to get through all of them but I look forward to them. I agree with Miss Kitty, they are like episodes and I’m off to see the next one. Thanks Krystyna for all your hard work and sharing these with us.

    1. Thank you AC1830, just about the loveliest comment for this story and I am grateful. This story was written a while back as a one on it’s own, and then I lost it, but a reader asked me about it and she was the one sent me her copy. She also suggested that I wrote a sequel but I thought a prequel would be better hence Albatross was written, and then others wanted a sequel to that too…and thus the Captain Cartwright series took over my life! But it has been a joy, and I do so hope you enjoy Captain oh my Captain because that was exciting to write with all the research about Alaska etc. Thank again AC1830

  3. Oh, Krystyna, what a historical masterpiece!! And when Ben walked through the door near the end–you brought me to tears. Thank you so very much! I just loved seeing all the brothers together facing the odds and winning naturally! For those reading this comment, this story is a delicious assortment of(deep breath)–ESA, ESB, ESH, quite a bit of ESJ, natural and at ease HAMs, tender JAMs, exquisite SAS scenes and SJS to top it all off!! Let’s just say that this story has something for every Bonanza fan alive!! Besides all that, I have learned A LOT of historical fact from it which is very similar to the actual show.

    1. So glad you enjoyed this story, it was the first story where I did really extensive research and everything came togetherto make up this adventure of the three brothers. I so appreciate your review, Miss Kitty, it”s refreshing and encouraging, thank you SO very much

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