Hostage
by
The Tahoe Ladies
 

 

He had waited too long. Logic had failed him, and he had made the fatal error by following it. His sons were men, he'd reasoned repeatedly, grown men who had lived in these same mountains for far too long for the father in him to worry like he had. So he had clamped down on the parental instinct that said his sons were in trouble. For three days, a crucial three days it turned out, he had merely gone about his everyday life. Later, he would look back on that time and, picturing what he had been doing, balance it against what his sons were enduring. Just the recurring thoughts were enough to make the strong man's heart quake.

*****

Part One: A Trade for Peace

The glowing coals made a bright spot of color on the dark mountainside that night. It was as though the men around it had made a beacon for the others to follow and find them. It was not the intention of either party, but a matter of happenstance. The Paiute braves, returning from a raid on the western slopes of the Sierras had come too close to the campfire to check it out. Their movements, cautious though they were, had aroused the men around it. The braves made a quick decision: the three white men around the fire would be taken captive. The skirmish, while hot and fierce, took little time to end. The three whites were bound, thrust onto the horses there and the camp ransacked. The only treasure the braves found were the men, and those they took away with them.

The whites made little trouble in the beginning of the journey. The biggest one was a mountain of a man but, with his hands tied tightly behind him, all he could do was growl at the braves. The man in black sagged in the saddle as he rode, the blood from a head wound making a red track down the side of his face. The smallest of the three whites had to be tied bellydown across the saddle for he was not conscious. For each white man there were two braves, one who led the horse and one who rode behind, his spear ready should their captives try to escape. Wisely, perhaps, they did not try.

When the sun rose over the far peaks the party stopped to rest the horses. The Indians roughly pulled their prisoners from the saddle, thrusting them together. The leader of the raiding party, a brave of twenty summers, directed that they be given water only. One started to cut their bindings to free their hands but he was stopped and told simply to pull the others' heads back and pour the water onto their faces. When the one in black spoke the leader cuffed him hard, sending him sprawling. For good measure, and to make sure that he was not faking, the leader kicked the one who lay unconscious. That one continued to lay still but the one in black again spoke up. It earned him another blow, and this time he apparently understood that silence was demanded and expected. With eyes burning and full of hatred, the whites stayed silent.

After a brief respite the journey continued. Into the high mountains the party rode. At any other time the vistas presented would have been admired but not this trip. The white men, beaten, bruised and bloodied, barely clung to their saddles, dazed. Their captors wished to put more mountains between themselves and the rest of the white man's world. They pushed on hard, not sparing their mounts or the whites.

Just as the sun was setting they dropped down onto a flat plain. Nestled between two high peaks, the space was barely ten acres in size, split in half by a snow-fed stream. Pitched there, however, were more than a hundred teepees. If the white men had cared to study them closely, they would have seen that the camp was not of one tribe but many, for this was the summer gathering where several tribes, Paiute, Shoshoni, Bannocks and others came together. For the space of a half moon old rivalries would be put aside. The wise men of each nation would sit and reason out what should be done with the ever-encroaching whites, the hunting grounds that shrank continually would be apportioned and trades made for guns, bullets, blankets and slaves. There would be games between the younger bucks, games of bravery and skill. Also games of luck and chance with wagers won and lost. Once the time was over each tribe would slip away into the mountains and deserts, back to their own ways.

 

Adam Cartwright couldn't remember a time when he felt so miserable. His head pounded, making his vision swim and his stomach boil. When he was thrown to the ground, his shoulder impacting heavily, he could only roll to his chest. His hands, still bound behind him, were freed but without having any feeling left in them, Adam could do nothing with them. They were pulled to each side and again tied, but this time to wooden pegs pounded deep into the earth.

There was the sound of raucous laughter above him and Adam turned his head in time to see Hoss. For a split second, his heart lifted. Hoss' hands were free! But then he watched as his brother was struck from behind at knee level and he pitched forward. When he hit the ground, Adam could see that he'd been beaten badly. One eye was nearly closed and a trickle of blood from his mouth mixed with the dirt. As he watched helplessly, his brother was tied in the same manner he was: spread-eagled, face down.

Hearing something to the other side of him, he tried to turn his head but an old woman grabbed his thick hair and held him. In her hand, she held a long bladed knife. Her intentions were clear: she intended to take a scalp. A sharp voice above him stopped her and Adam recognized it as that of the brave who had silenced him earlier. The words were strident and the old woman started to argue but the brave overrode her words with more harsh ones of his own and she backed away from Adam, releasing him.

Cautiously, Adam turned his head, searching for Joe. He had been right; the sound next to him had been the Indians staking Joe out beside him. He assessed the situation quickly: Joe was still unconscious and that didn't set well. Out for almost a full day? he pondered. How bad a shape did that make Joe in? He wasn't sure but at least he could see that he still was breathing. Like Hoss, his face was battered enough that Adam knew what it had taken to subdue him. Now relieved that both his brothers were alive and that they were together, Adam let himself fall into a dreamless sleep, the earth beneath him a unwelcome, rocky bed.

The air was growing chilly when the Indians returned to their captives, this time a large group of them led by an old man, hunched over and walking with bowed legs. With a quick gesture, Adam was untied and roughly pulled into a seated position. Before him squatted the old man.

"We have met before," the old man said, his English thick with the sibilance of Paiute.

"Then you know that I am a friend of the Paiute, as are my brothers," Adam replied, his voice cracking from disuse. He started to gesture towards Hoss and Joe but the slight motion brought a lance to his chest. The lance was held by one of the braves who had taken them captive.

The old man pushed the lance aside and said something to the brave. The brave looked to his feet, ashamed. Adam would have smiled if his swollen lips would have let him. It was obvious that the old man had chastised the younger one much the same way his own father would have Adam. But there all similarity ended.

"There are no white men who are friends of the Paiute now. Only enemies," the elder spoke. "You now belong to us, as do your brothers. We are the ones who decide for you. Not you."

"But there was never a time when the Cartwrights rode against the Paiute! You know that! And there were many winters when my father gave you beef so that your children would not go hungry!" Adam argued, his whole body given over to making his point as it leaned towards the old man.

"Silence!" the old shouted and rose to stand over Adam. "Do not look at the past for it is gone. As are many of the children of my people! And you have little time in the future so, if I were you, I would be glad for the breath you draw only now. My son made a mistake when he did not kill you where he found you. By the time the sun has set once again, a decision will be made whether you will die here or somewhere else, but you will die."

Instinctively, Adam started to rise, grabbing at the old man who had turned to walk away from him. With a sudden turn, the young brave beside the elder raised his lance defensively. He thrust it at him, catching Adam in the shoulder with just enough of the point that it broke the skin and drew blood. There the brave held it while the silence drew out ominously.

"As I said," the old one spoke softly, "we decide when and where you die. Not you." Another sharp word and the lance was pulled back but held steady in front of Adam's face. "If you try to run, we will catch you. But you will not want to leave without them." The other gestured offhandedly to Hoss and Joe.

The party drew away towards the center of the encampment, leaving no guards other than the certainty of the old man's words.

 

At daybreak, two young women, flanked by armed braves, came to where the Cartwright brothers sat miserably in the cold dawn light. In the night, Joe had come around and using numbed fingers, Adam had untied both his brothers. The old Indian had been right. He wouldn't have left without them and neither one of them seemed capable of riding. They had come to the same unspoken conclusion: try for more time. The old man, whose name continued to escape Adam, was a leader and as such, perhaps he could be convinced to release them despite his words to the contrary. But first, they had to survive so they took the bowls of cold stew the women offered and ate hungrily.

Once they were finished eating, the nudge from a lance urged them to their feet and they were herded to the small stream. There they dropped to their stomachs and, using their cupped hands, drank the first water they'd had in nearly twenty-four hours. Adam saw Hoss doing the same thing he was: scouring the countryside. It was almost as if he could read Hoss' mind: find an escape route.

"No," he murmured and even that slight sound got him kicked by the closest brave. Still, the message had gotten to Hoss. It was too bad that it hadn't Joe because in a flurry, he'd risen to his feet, quick as a cat, and started across the stream.

In silent horror, Adam and Hoss both watched as he was grabbed by one of their guards. Joe was wrenched from his feet and thrust face down into the cold swift-running stream. Both brothers started to rise to go help, but the remaining guards swiped at them both with their lances, cutting a narrow swath across Hoss' chest. Others, hearing the screams as Joe was lifted and plunged again and again into the water, came to the bank to watch.

How long it would have continued would have been anyone's guess for the brave who held Joe 's life in his hands appeared to want to prolong his sport as long as possible. He would hold his captive's head under the water just long enough for the struggling to begin to subside then he would pull him out, letting his prey gulp for life-sustaining air. Then again, he would plunge him back into the water. As Adam and Hoss watched helplessly from the bank, they could see that each time Joe struggled a little less frantically.

"Enough!" came a shout from the back of the small gathering and the Indians parted, allowing the old man through. His admonition was heeded and the brave hauled Joe back to the bank and dropped him onto the grass at the old man's feet.

Still gulping air wildly, Joe struggled to stand but the old one pushed him back down onto all fours. He would have tried to stand again but the knee against his back stopped Joe. When he looked up, water streaming down his face, he felt the blade of a knife against his throat.

"Move, young one, and I will end your life here." The voice of the old man didn't quiver and Joe felt the knife's blade bite into the side of his throat.

For a few wild moments, Adam feared that Joe would try to out-maneuver the old one but with his chest still heaving, Joe remained as he was. Slowly, the old man backed away, taking the knife and its sure death with him. Adam watched carefully, his mind screaming at Joe to stay put. Beside him, he could feel Hoss' presence and with one hand placed on the brawny arm there, held him back from moving as well.

"The young are foolish some times, are they not?" the elder asked and Adam merely nodded. "Take him, then, and teach him the wisdom you have. But be quick about it for he has not long to practice it. Nor you to teach it."

 

Throughout the remainder of the day, the three Cartwright brothers found themselves tied and guarded once more. This time, however, they were tethered with a strip of rawhide around their throats attached to a four-foot lead pinned to the ground. Their hands were tied to their feet in a painful bent over position even as they sat in the strong sunlight. The guard had only to gesture once when Adam had asked Joe if he were okay for them to get the idea that communication was not allowed. Again and again, Adam ran back over all the names he could remember of the Paiutes he and his father had met and known over the years. No name matched the face of the old man who held their fate in his hands. After a while, he gave up trying. Instead he focused on what could possibly keep himself and his brothers alive another day.

The sun fell quickly there in the high mountains and with the darkness, Adam saw the center of the camp begin to glow. A large fire had been built there and just the thought of what might follow made his mouth dry. He tried to silently speak to his brothers just by looking at them but he wasn't sure what he was trying to say. Hoss seemed to take heart from his prolonged eye contact and smiled tightly in return. Joe, on the other hand, simply looked away, the fleeting glimpse Adam had of his brother's face showed him that Joe thought himself a failure. When he continued to stare, Joe finally turned his face back to his brother's and Adam gave him the same tight smile Hoss had given him. He hoped it gave his youngest brother a little more courage.

Movement along the track that led to them drew their attention. From the torches held aloft, the brothers could see that a great many people were surging towards them, and at the front of the mass was the old man. As the Indians came to them, they made the Cartwrights the center of a pool of silence.

"The sun has set. Your lives are ours now. Have you taught this one?" the old man spoke to Adam and gestured to Joe.

"Your braves have not allowed-" Adam began but the brave standing closest to him grasped his leather collar, choking his words off.

"It does not matter. Take him." Again he gestured to Joe.

Adam tried to lunge for his brother as did Hoss but the braves closest to them held them fast. The lead to his brother's tether was cut, as was the strap that held him bent. Joe was jerked to his feet, his hands still tied before him. He twisted, trying again to escape but the tightening collar slowed him. The brave continued twisting it until he could no longer breathe and he stopped struggling.

"No, he has not learned. But he will now." It seemed to Adam that the words were said with sadness, yet the elder again gestured and, as Adam watched, Joe was half-dragged down into the center of the village. Again and again, he saw his brother's body thrashing and fighting and could only watch until he disappeared from sight.

In the darkness that remained, Adam realized that he and Hoss were alone for the first time that day.

"Hoss," he whispered, afraid to let his voice carry for fear that there was someone close by to silence him again.

A scream split the night. Shrill, it pierced the darkness. It seemed to reverberate from the surrounding mountains.

"Shh," Hoss whispered back and Adam could hear that there were tears in the sound.

Another scream followed. He buried his face in the crook of his arm, begging God silently for mercy. Beside him he could hear his brother's shuddering breath.

Another scream, this one less forceful, was followed by another and another. With each one, Adam leaned harder into himself, curling into his soul, praying that it would end. Yet he knew what that would mean as well. Finally, there was no other sound except for a steady drumbeat from the village center. To Adam, it matched the same throbbing of his heart. He willed it to stop but it kept on long into the night.

 

The next morning was much the same as the morning before. The two brothers were fed a cold stew then taken to the stream to drink. Adam looked around and saw Hoss doing the same: searching for a glimpse of Joe but there was none. Their guards noticed their searching eyes and laughed at them. When they were returned to their places, the guards again tied their hands and feet but left them alone, laying in the dirt.

Once he was sure they were again alone, Adam spoke up softly. "Hoss, listen to me. When they come tonight, I'll fight them. You take the opening and escape."

"How?" Hoss asked, lifting his bound hands slightly. "Joe fought them."

Adam swallowed hard. "Yes, he did. And we did nothing. Tonight, we fight back, just as hard as he did. Harder maybe."

"Adam," Hoss' voice sounded hollow to Adam. "Adam, Joe's dead, ain't he?"

For just those few heartbeats, Adam felt as though he stood on the edge of a dark pit, the edge beneath his feet crumbling. He tried to take a step back but found there was nothing behind him either. Closing his eyes, he took the step forward and felt the nothingness beneath him. "Yes," he hoarsely whispered. "At least I hope he is."

Hoss' "Adam!" was more of a curse that condemned his brother's last words. Adam let it.

"You know what these Paiutes are capable of, Hoss. The torture, the pain. You've seen it the same as I have."

"And he bore it well, did the young one." With those words, both brothers looked up sharply. The speaker, the old man, was haloed by the sun as he stood over them. "Your brother?" He cocked his head to Adam for reassurance that he was right. Adam gave no outward sign so the other went on. "Your brother had much courage. He does not need it now. Do you have his same courage, big man? How well will you die?"

Adam saw Hoss' chest fill, the shirt straining across the widening expanse. Slowly, Hoss stood on his own and seemed to tower over the wizened old man. Yet the old man did not step back, showing his own courage perhaps. Instead, he came forward and gazed up into Hoss' eyes.

"Yes, you have the same courage. But tonight will be soon enough to test it." The Indian smiled as he spoke and placing a moccasined foot behind Hoss', pushed hard and Hoss went down. Adam scrambled to his feet, ready to launch his body into their tormenter's but the old man had nimbly stepped out of reach. "Tonight, I said. Not now."

 

Again, with the coming of darkness, all of the camp came, led again by the old one to circle around the remaining two Cartwrights. Hoss' hands and feet were unbound and the tether cut from its holding pin. Knowing he was not to be taken, Adam threw himself at the braves and cried out for Hoss to get away. Even though he was still tied, Adam struck out at every bit of flesh he could. He bit what he could; he rammed his head into whatever it touched; he used his legs as clubs. In the end, held to the ground by many hands, his fight was futile. He watched as Hoss, his shirt torn nearly from his great chest, was pulled away. To him, Hoss appeared to have been knocked semi-unconscious and Adam secretly prayed that he had.

His captors again tied him spread-eagled and face down into the dirt. He did what he could to resist but there were too many. Ultimately, they left, laughing over the white man's futile and continuing struggle with the rawhide that held him. It didn't matter any more to Adam that the rawhide bit into his wrists, bringing blood to mix with the dirt. As much as he wanted it, the earth would not swallow him up that night and he was forced again to listen to the screams from the village. He told himself that they didn't last as long as the ones he had heard the night before. All he really understood was that he had listened a long time. When they came no more, he still listened but this night, there were no drums to match the beat of his own heart. How could there be? Adam asked himself. He had no heart left.

They came for him the next morning. Hollow-eyed, Adam pushed aside the bowl of cold food the women offered him.

"You must eat for today we travel," one woman said and again pushed the bowl back into his hands.

It took a moment for Adam to comprehend what she had said. When he did, he looked at her questioningly.

She nodded and said "Eat. We break camp and go. Soon." Her hands made a motion of pushing something away.

"But, I thought," Adam began and she shook her head. Once more, she gestured for him to eat. Adam wondered if it was because she understood so little English or because she didn't want to talk to him.

"You eat. We pack up. Go. I come for you." With that, she stood back from him and in a few words of her own language to the brave who had accompanied her, indicated that he was to stay and guard Adam.

Adam watched her as she returned to the tents. True to what she had said, it was apparent now that the camp was breaking up. Teepees were coming down in rapid order. The shouts from the village mingled with the neighing of horses, the barking of dogs and the cheerful calls of children. In the length of time it took Adam to finger the congealing stew into his mouth, the village disappeared into packs on horseback and on travois. Dust rose up as one line of horses moved off towards the east. Adam jumped to his feet when he saw one figure amongst them that he recognized. Stumbling behind a horse and pulling a load himself was Hoss. Adam was sure of it! He recognized that broad back and the white shirt that barely covered it. Forgetting about the guard and his own bonds, he called out. There was too much noise and he wasn't sure if Hoss heard him or not. Still Hoss was alive and with that knowledge, Adam had hope.

His hope was short lived for when the woman returned and took him from where he had been held, it was not in the direction Hoss had traveled. Instead, with his hands tied behind him, Adam was tethered to the woman's horse. They headed north, across the small stream. As long as he could, Adam looked east, hoping for another glimpse of his brother. It didn't happen.

What he did see, there in the center of where the village had been, was a boot. A single boot. On its side in the dust was a white man's boot. Joe's boot.

*****

Ben had awakened in the middle of the night, unsure of what had disturbed his repose. For a while, he had simply stayed in bed and listened to the sounds around him, searching for something out of place. Nothing odd came to him so he rolled over and sought sleep again. But it wouldn't come so he rose. Wrapped in his robe against the chill of the night, he stood at his window.

Below his vantage point, Ben saw again the perfect peace of the small valley that climbed steeply into the mountains. With the full moon riding high overhead, the land lay like a jewel, colors shifting with the passage of a few clouds, but always coming back to its silvery sheen. About to turn back to bed, a motion caught Ben's eye and as he watched, an owl, wings spread and talons extended, snatched up a rabbit from the edge of Hop Sing's garden. As the owl rose into the air with its squirming burden, he was surprised to hear the death squeal of the rabbit, normally a silent animal. Its keening ripped through the night air, making his heart skip a beat for it sounded so human.

****

The days that followed for Adam Cartwright developed into a pattern. Pulled from a nightmare-filled sleep, he would eat with bound hands. If there was fresh water near by, he would be allowed to drink. If not, he would go without. Then his bound and tethered hands would be tied to the horn of the old saddle of the woman. Because of the size of the caravan, most of the time, she walked her horse and Adam was able to keep up, one plodding footstep following another. But she would catch him off guard and kick the horse into a trot, forcing him to run on weary legs or be dragged. After she had done this a few times, Adam determined he would not be caught so. On the third day, his right boot heel broke and in anger that her charge now stumbled, the woman made him remove his boots. That day, the rocks cut his feet as he walked beside her horse but he didn't cry out when they did. Instead, he bit his lip and went on, surviving on courage alone.

The fourth morning, Adam awoke without the usual sharp kick to his ribs. They had traveled late into the night, pushing, Adam'd thought but for what, his pain-fogged mind refused to reason. That sunrise, as he rolled to one side, he saw only more tall mountains. All around them, mountains towered above. Raised in the high Sierras, Adam was accustomed to mountains but these were different. The mountains he knew were not sharp granite upthrusts with steep sides that were nearly vertical. Some of these were, yes, with the trees clinging to the sides as though for their very lives. As he stood, painfully aware of his bloody feet, he caught a glimpse of why they had stopped. Through a parting of the trees, he saw a lake that seemed like his own Lake Tahoe, to rise up from the very mountains around it. However, this lake was not the brilliant turquoise of Tahoe. Just as quickly as his hopes had swelled, they died. Unable to stand any longer, he dropped back to sit on the cold ground.

Her moccasin toes before him made Adam look up. She held out a bowl and for the first time, there was steam rising from it.

"We do not travel today," she said in her clipped and uncertain English.

"Good," he managed to say around the meat he filled his mouth with. A part of him feared that she would change her mind and take away the hot meal.

Instead of leaving as she intended, the woman nudged his feet with her toe. Adam looked up quickly.

For the first time since being taken captive, Adam studied the woman. Her face was unlined but at her temples, there was a hint of gray showing. Her eyes were dark and while she wasn't a pretty woman, she wasn't an ugly one either. There was a stern set to her mouth and down one side of her jaw, Adam saw a faint scar. She wore a long fringed dress over a pair of what Adam took to be leggings that were also fringed. Unlike other women he had seen on this trek, she wore no adornment either on her clothes or in her hair. Then it struck him. He had never seen her beside a man! Other women he had seen had at one time or another walked or rode beside a brave. But not this woman. Likewise she had handled everything herself while at other fires, a brave had done some of the heavier lifting or moving. Seeing her now in this new light, Adam had to give the woman a pinch of respect. She lived in a male dominated society apparently without one.

"When you are done, go there." She pointed towards the lake. She took a long bladed knife from her belt and slit the rawhide that had bound his hands together for so long.

Adam swallowed the last of his meal quickly. "Why?" he asked, standing carefully.

"Because you stink."

 

The water in the lake was cold but as Adam sat on the narrow ledge of rock, he found he could tolerate it in small doses. Cautiously, he had put his feet into the water and they were numbed almost immediately. He pulled them back and using small handfuls of water, rubbed some of the encrusted blood from the many cuts and bruises on them. Then he did the same for his wrists. He splashed some of the water onto his face, running his fingers through the dark beard growing there as he leaned over the rocky edge. Then he simply stretched out on his belly, looking out over the nearly circular lake.

"No," her voice snapped behind him and Adam immediately came into focus at its sound. "Wash all you. Stink."

He raised himself and sat up straight, looking up at her as he did. "Not with you watching," he got out then saw her eyes narrow and feared he had pushed his new-found freedom too far.

He heard her take a deep breath then let it hiss out. "Do you know what we do to slaves who not obey?" she asked, dropping down to squat, her eyes at Adam's level.

"I've heard stories," he replied coolly. It was the truth, the awful truth, of a savagery born of hate.

"Did you believe them?"

He chewed his lip, watching her closely. She didn't flinch or look away from his direct gaze. He swallowed hard, trying to make this person before him into a woman, not something considerably more powerful than himself at the moment. From the corner of his eye he saw her fingers tighten on her knife. Even though she was a woman, she had the power of life and death over him no matter what else he might try to think.

"Yes," he answered. Before his eyes rose the specter of a man he had seen once who had been skinned while still alive and left to die, his only company vultures lured by the smell of fresh blood.

She stood back upright, her hand never leaving the knife's handle. "Good."

Wondering where his courage had fled to that morning, Adam Cartwright striped himself naked on the rock ledge under to cool and calculating gaze of the woman. Self-conscious of his vulnerability, he turned in one smooth motion and dove into the water. When he surfaced and turned back, she still stood there, watching. He swam towards the shore. There, where the water was only a few feet deep, he stopped and used his hands to splash the water onto his body, rubbing at the dirt and sweat there. The niggling thought came to him that he probably did smell ripe since he had not had the occasion to wash for better than a week. Ducking under the water again, he ran his fingers through his stiffened hair, slicking it back as he came back to the surface.

Still she stood there, devoid of emotion unless, Adam decided, smug superiority was an emotion. He swung back onto the rock shelf and stood. Again, he used his hands to brush away the remaining drops of water from his lean frame and push back his hair from his face. When he went to pick up his clothes, she barked out a "no" that seemed to fill the countryside.

"Stink too," she said and made a motion for Adam to proceed her back to the camp.

"I will not walk into that camp, before all those people, naked. Do you hear me? You can do whatever you want to me but that I will not do!" Adam contested and to show his determination, crossed his arms over his chest.

For a few heartbeats, she only looked at him with eyes wide in surprise. Then suddenly and inexplicably, she began to laugh. Not a gentle tee-hee but a bust-a-gut-and-roll-on- the-ground laugh. Flustered, Adam could not understand and his cheeks flamed red in anger. Ultimately, she stopped but wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes as she did then gave another little chuckle.

"Fine, wear smell," she replied and said something in her own tongue that Adam did not understand but made her chuckle again.

"Turn around," Adam called out and made the motion with his hand that said the same thing. The look she gave in response he took to mean that she did not understand his words so he repeated them. Her eyebrows arching high, she turned her back to him but kept one eye on him nevertheless as he pulled on his ragged pants. Again, she said the same words that he did not comprehend and laughed when she said them. When he shrugged into his shirt, she turned as fast as a mountain lion and grabbed the collar. In one fluid motion, she ripped the shirt from him and threw it into the lake. Reacting on instinct, he grabbed her arm. Between them rose her knife, in her hand, the blade pressing into his chest. He let go of her arm.

"To the camp," she ordered, all mirth gone now.

With limping and halting steps, Adam preceded her.

Back at the encampment, she had him sit to the side of one of the tents instead of apart as he had done before. She disappeared for a few moments then returned, holding out to him a pair of leggings and a breechclout. Looking around him, Adam saw that they were very much the same as what the other men in the camp wore. He reached up and took them from her, his fingers shaking a little as he did. Once her hands were empty, she gazed levelly at him then slowly, deliberately, turned her back, saying again the words he couldn't fathom.

It was obvious that she wanted him out of his torn and dirty pants. Reluctantly, he would oblige her but a part of him hated to give up that last tiny symbol of civilization he had worn into these wilds. When he hesitated and she felt the lack of movement behind her, she again fondled the knife at her side. Sighing, Adam shed the black cloth and pulled on first the leggings then stood and put on the breechclout, holding it up with the length of soft leather he found with it. When he was covered again, he tapped her shoulder to get her attention.

Slowly she turned and, walking around him, gave him that same cool gaze that both appraised and condemned. When she had come to stand before him again, she pulled her knife.

"Understand me, white man," she hissed, pressing the knife blade against his chest as she leaned in to him. "You are mine. Your life, I saved in big meeting. You will do as I say or -" she paused as though looking for the right words to make him fully understand.

"Or what?" Adam challenged arrogantly.

With a flash of the blade in one hand, her other hand grabbed his crotch and with one clean downward slice, cut just through the leather covering his privates. Her eyes never left his face.

She had made her point abundantly clear. She would tolerate nothing less than his obedience.

For the next several weeks, Adam was kept under close scrutiny but not tied. Nights, however, his female captor would bind his hands behind his back and place him just inside her teepee at the covered doorway. There she could watch him by the glow of the fire. He tried to talk to her at night, to ask her things but she would only answer him with silence.

But during the daylight hours, he learned much of his keepers. They were a small band of Modoc Indians. This was their summer camping area. Come fall they would drift down from these high mountains into the great basins. There they would join with the other groups of Modocs and winter over. While not a purely nomadic tribe like their distant cousins the Paiutes and Shoshoni, they were also not the sort to stay in any one place. Also, the encroachment of the whites into their traditional grounds had forced them into a different lifestyle. They had signed treaties, Adam knew, but he also knew that his own people had broken the treaties. What happened following that was a repeated history: raids on white settlements which led to white reprisals on any Indian within rifle range, whether they were guilty or not. For the Modocs, many times they were not guilty but dead all the same. So, since the white man was far more adept at killing, the Modocs grew fewer and fewer in number.

As he studied the tribe, Adam also studied the land in which he now lived. Judging by the track of the sun and the amount of time and the direction he had traveled, he figured that he was now somewhere in either northern California or southern Oregon. Between himself and the Ponderosa lay some of the most mountainous and treacherous country known to either white- or red man. He knew that there were white communities interspersed between the high peaks and deep valleys but where was the tough question. If he could escape, he asked himself one afternoon while gathering wood for the night fires, could he make his way back to civilization? The arrogant part of his nature reared its head and claimed that of course he could! He was an intelligent, thinking and educated man! The pragmatic man within him shook his head and whispered "no." Looking out over the rugged terrain, Adam pushed the two sides into a common spot: he would wait until the tribe moved down out of the high country then make his way home.

With just the thought of the word "home", Adam'd drawn a shaking breath. His father was home, waiting for them to return from their camping and hunting trip. What would his father do when they failed to come back? Of course, Ben Cartwright would begin to search for his sons. He would find where they had camped that last fateful night. Although Hoss was the best tracker in the family, Adam knew his father could read sign almost as well. But how much sign would be left when Ben reached that last camp? They had ridden for more than a day before coming to a halt. Would his father find that small valley, split by the stream? Adam prayed that he would, then came to the sudden realization that what his father would find there would be crushing. Somewhere in that pleasant valley, Adam knew, were the remains of his youngest brother. Moreover, since Indians never buried the dead of their enemy, how much of Joe's corpse would remain for their father to find? Enough to identify the body would be enough for his father to---

Adam refused to go on with his thoughts.

When he returned to the camp that afternoon it was in a different frame of mind. For all he knew, some of the braves he walked by had been part of Joe's murder. The children he sometimes smiled at had watched as his brothers had both been tortured and done nothing. The old woman Adam made a special attempt to help stand, did she shout with joy when Joe had finally died? He all but threw the wood into the pile beside the central fire ring.

The suddenness and the implied violence of his act made everyone pause and look at him. Then they looked at the woman who claimed him, reproach in their eyes yet they said nothing to her. Then they simply went on with their chores.

As he stood there, his chest heaving with unleashed emotions and building anger, she calmly approached him.

"Come," she ordered and gestured with a nod of her head to her teepee.

"NO!" he shouted.

Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and looked at Adam. Everyone but the woman, who grasped him about the bicep with the grip of an eagle. Fiercely, she pulled him to the tent. Once inside he whirled on her, striking her across the face with his fist. She fell to one side, blocking the way to door. When he reached down to move her, her knife flashed out, halting with its point pressed into Adam's midsection just enough to draw blood.

"No," she spoke calmly, the single word softly rising from her.

"Kill me or let me go," Adam begged.

"No," she replied in the same tone as before.

"Why not?" he screamed into her face, his breath hot on her yet she held her ground, the knife still pressed to him.

"Because we do not kill those within our circle of tents."

The sincerity and the simplicity of what she said made him step back. As the dark thoughts of his brother's death retreated, Adam looked at the trickle of blood running down his stomach. It would have been so easy for her to simply thrust the knife into him but she hadn't. Bits and pieces of the last weeks flitted before him and he saw that time and again, he had prodded her to anger yet never had she gone for the kill. Even on the journey here, she had ample time and opportunity but all she had ever done was prick him until he bled.

Confused, Adam sat back on the fur-covered floor of the teepee, absently smearing the blood with his hand.

"Why?" he asked, not meaning anything that the woman would understand.

"At the big meeting, there was much talk of death. White men's as well as ours. Few spoke of peace." With her knife now resheathed, she crawled across to Adam.

"Did you, your people, talk of death? War with the whites?" Adam whispered, his mind returning to the nightly throb drums again.

"Our leader, Chief Kintpuash, you call him Captain Jack, he spoke of peace. He said that only a fool kills his prey at the entrance to the prey's lodging. Those there who spoke of the ground running red with the white man's blood were not Modoc." Gently but firmly she pressed him back, making him stretch out so that she could see where her knife had cut. It was bleeding and for a moment, Adam saw fear in her eyes.

"My brother. His blood ran red on the ground that first night. You saw it and though you say you spoke of peace, did you, or any Modoc, try to stop his death?"

"Those of this camp were not there the first night. We were there the next night; the night the big man came into the circle. He lived. The Shoshoni took him when they left, headed into the morning sun." Her hands, now covered with his blood, sought something off to one side.

"Why did you take me away? To be your slave? Or to kill me and leave my body where no white man would ever find it?"

She was pressing something soft onto Adam's stomach but her motions barely registered with him. All he could see and hear was in the past: Joe's face as he was pulled away, his screams as he died, the boot in the dust-clogged road.

"We took you so that you would live."

 

In the days that followed, the people of the tribe stepped away when Adam approached, clearly fearful. But slowly, as the daylight hours shortened and he made no more aggressive moves, the people came to not fear him. They began to call him by the words the woman had first used down at the lake. He wondered what they meant and in his halting and stumbling Modoc, he asked the children. They laughed and ran away, leaving him with no idea whether he had said the words right or that the camp was in on the joke with the woman.

The woman. Adam learned that her name meant something about the sun rising over a tall mountain but hard as he tried, he could not manage to make the sounds fluidly enough that he was understood. Instead, he began simply to call her the common word he heard another brave in the camp use once when he spoke to a squaw. The first time he called her that, she turned in the shadows of the teepee and smiled at him. That night, she did not tie him.

There had come an understanding between Adam and the tribe. When they moved into the great basin for the winter, he would leave them. With his growing usage and skill with their language, he had told stories around the common fire of his family and his home. True, some of the stories were stretched a little in veracity but they were enjoyed for just what they were: stories. But after each telling, especially if he told of something his brothers had done, the woman would hear him in the night, restless and not sleeping. When winter beckoned, his stories and Adam would depart for that home he spoke of. And because he had spoken from his heart, no one would stop him.

In the month of fluttering leaves, as the Modoc figured the time and Adam would have called October, the nights grew chilly. The central fire was banked early each evening and all went to their warm tents. Some times there would be visitors back and forth but just before the fullness of the moon, a change fell over the people.

"Tomorrow," she said, her voice lilting into the darkness. Adam turned under his warm furs and grunted. Across the way, he could see her eyes watching him, glowing and reflecting the small fire between them.

"Tomorrow, we pack and leave." When he made no comment, she continued. "You will take my horse. By heading down the mountains away from the lake, you go. And quickly. We will go another way so that no one will follow you. Or us."

"I had thought that I would go with you as far as the winter camp on the flatlands," Adam countered, wondering why now she spoke with such a strange inflection.

"No, there is talk that Kintpuash will make trouble for you. That he will take you to the blue men and trade you for peace." Adam heard her stumble over the words blue men, knowing that she meant soldiers. US Army soldiers. The enemy.

"I thought the Modoc wanted peace. I would gladly go with him to the soldiers if it would bring you peace."

"Some fear that the blue men would not believe us or you. That they would find a reason to kill us for having kept you. No, I ask that you take my horse at dawn and ride away."

In the silence that followed, Adam could hear her plainly. Even though she turned her face from the fire, he knew she was crying. He called to her softly but she did not respond.

Adam spent the long night thinking. By dawn he had decided that he would not take her horse and ride away like a thief but would meet with Captain Jack. He would go with the Modoc leader under a flag of truce to the nearest fort. He would make the soldiers there believe him and he would make sure that the Modoc's plea for peace would be heard.

But all his plans fell apart that morning when a small party of braves rode into the camp. Adam, his height and full beard marking him instantly as a white man, was spotted at once and he found himself tied again. The camp leader, an old man Adam had grown fond of, pleaded with the braves to wait for all of them but they did not listen to him. Instead, they insisted that Adam go with them. They would not wait for the entire camp.

One brave, the leader of the group, stood broad shouldered in the thin morning light and spat into their fire. "While you have played here in the high mountains, down below, war has ravaged our people! The whites have again broken the treaty and come onto our lands! There is word that they search for a white man taken prisoner. It is this white man they seek and kill for!"

"Fine," Adam shouted in his best Modoc. "Take me to the blue men! I will show them that I come of my own free will. I will tell them that the Modoc did not hurt me!"

Silence fell over the gathering then a whispered undercurrent began, washing back and forth through the people like waves on a distant shore. At his back, Adam could feel the woman as she came up behind him. Her breathing was erratic and he knew that she was afraid but as to why, he had no clue. Then she stepped around him and stood tall before the newcomers.

"You know me and know that I speak only truth. We knew not of the war below. If we had known, we would have brought him down ourselves - long ago! The sounds of battle do not rise to this ancient place. You say that they search for this man and this man alone. I do not believe this. There has been much killing of both red and white. Many captives, red and white, have been taken. Why this one man?" Her final words were shouted.

No one answered her, their fear of her now clear to Adam as they stood in the still cold light. She paced around the men who had come that morning, and as she came face to face with each one, her lips would twitch and she would almost snarl at them. Before her, the men shrank back.

"I will tell you why!" she snarled then finally stopped pacing and whirled to face them, her back to him. "Because he has power. He sees like I do, into the future. He knows what will happen tomorrow and all the tomorrows after that one. Like me, he can see the weakness in all men and it matters not if they are red or white. Yes, he has power and I have joined my power to his so that he may use his power to help us."

A collective gasp went through the people. Adam, straining his knowledge of the language, understood most of what she said. And what she had implied. In a flash, he recalled the look in her eyes last night across the fire. My God, she loves me! he thought but before he could form another thought, she was speaking again. This time to him.

"I will untie you and you will go with these braves. I will come too. Together, we will ride into the blue men's house. You will talk with the blue men and they will leave the Modoc alone."

Solemnly, Adam nodded. What else was there to do? Still, he was confused. Why had she begged him last night to ride away from them? Now she was asking him to do the exact opposite! His confusion must have shown on his face for she gave him a sharp look. He tried to make his face impassive as she untied his hands herself.

The remainder of the morning, Adam felt estranged from the woman and the people he had been with for the past weeks. Before, they had finally come around to joking and teasing with him but that morning and all the other mornings that followed, they seemed to keep an extra step between Adam and themselves. Even though the newly arrived braves protested again that there was not time, the whole camp took down its tents and made up their traveling packs. Within the space of an hour, they were moving slowly past the lake. Adam and the woman, now mounted together on her single horse, led the way.

He spoke softly into her ear as he rode behind her. "What is going on? Earlier you said you didn't want this. Now you do. I don't understand. What is this business about power?"

"Later," she whispered in English and would say no more.

Before dusk, they met with another small band of Modocs and it struck Adam how few in number these people were. Surely, he thought, up ahead they would meet up with the bulk of the tribe. When these two parts came together there were only thirty or so and most of them were old people. Where were the many braves? And the children? In all, he counted maybe five who were less than ten years old!

Finally the procession came to a halt and evening camp was made. No tents were raised even though the wind blew cold. Horses were hobbled and let out to graze on the brown grass. Fires were lit and meat roasted over the flames then passed around. When the meat was gone, the people seemed to melt into their furs and blankets, the earth their beds for the night.

"Come," the woman called to Adam as he sat beside the fire, the last one there. She had spread her many furs off to one side where no one else had theirs and now she was motioning for Adam to join her. Seeing that there was nowhere else for him to go, he went to her.

"Lay close to me as though we were lovers," she whispered softly and he complied. "I will tell you now."

As the stars burst forth again into the black velvet sky above them, she whispered her story to him. She was what the whites would call a medicine woman. She supposedly had the power to see into the future. She had powers that the ordinary Modoc did not and as such, she was different from them. That was why she wore no adornment. That was why she had no man to help her. That was why they looked upon like they did. She was both a blessing and curse to them. No one would dare cross her nor make her displeased with them for fear that she could use her powers to bring disaster on them. At the same time, she was protected from outsiders, the words she used were "hidden in plain sight". Another group of Modocs would come to visit those she lived with and never make mention of her.

To Adam, that explained a great deal but still he wondered aloud why she had changed her mind that morning.

"I didn't change my mind. If it had been just me, I would have tied you to that horse and sent him on his way away from here. But I must think now of my people and what will be best for them. Kintpuash will take you to the blue men's house and trade you for peace. Of this I am sure because it makes sense. But the peace will not last. Of this I am also sure."

Adam chuckled, the sound coming from deep in his chest. Startled at the sound, the woman drew back and, raising herself up on one arm, looked down at him. He smiled and brushed his thick beard down with one hand.

"Your English is getting better than my Modoc," he said lightly.

"My English has always been better than your Modoc," she replied and dropped back beside him.

He sobered then, feeling the warmth of the woman beside him. She had been right, he was sure, when she had said that the peace would not last. But that night, beneath the blanket of stars, he prayed she was also wrong. Not just for the woman herself but for her people.

 

Within two days travel they finally met up with the main group of Modocs. In total, they numbered less than one hundred. Upon their arrival, Adam and the woman went to speak with the chief. As they ducked into the teepee, he was struck by the presence of the Modoc known to the whites as Captain Jack. There was nothing about the man that made Adam think he was important. There was no regal bearing, no chest pounding demand that he be seen as a chief. He wore a gray felt cap with an eagle's feather stuck in it. He was a short man, with features that were gaunt. When he spoke to Adam, his English was rather good if a little strained. Once Adam had settled down beside him and asked a few leading questions, he found it hard not to sympathize with him. With his small band, he had escaped from the reservation where they had slowly been starving to death. Over and over again, Captain Jack had told the blue men that all they wanted was their ancestral land back. If the whites were there, let them pay rent for the use of it. Yet at the same time, within his own ranks grew the infection of dissent. Some of his followers longed for blood. It was as though it were all part of a balance, according to Jack and he, Adam, had become one of the weighing stones placed upon the pan.

"When the sun rises two mornings from now, will you go with me to the blue men's house and help me talk of peace?" Jack asked, taking a draw on his clay pipe and letting the smoke rise into the stillness.

"That is why I have come here," Adam admitted. As he spoke, he watched as the woman's eyes dropped to the floor.

 

The night before it had snowed. As Adam had stepped from the tent that morning, the brightness that greeted his eyes made him squint. Across the circle, he watched as Kintpuash spoke with some of the other elders of the tribe. They seemed to be arguing but he only understood about one word in four. Finally, the other elders threw up their hands in the universal sign of disgust and surrender and stalked away, their moccasins making clear tracks in the snow.

Adam moved to the central fire and scooped up a horn-spoon full of thin watery stew. Kintpuash drew up next to him and did the same.

"Trouble?" Adam asked, noting that the chief's eyes followed the others as they walked away.

"Always," the chief muttered then chortling, scooped up more stew. "I did not know you spoke our language so well."

Now it was Adam's turn to chuckle. "I don't do as good a job with it as you do English," he admitted. He laid the spoon back on the rock where he had first found it then wiped his hands down the front of his leggings.

"Is that how Winema gets away with calling you that?"

"I donít understand. Who is Winema?" Yet he knew. For the first time, Adam knew the woman's true name, that what she had given him before was more akin to a title. He wondered why he had never thought to press her, or someone else even. Now, when they were about to part company, he'd learned her name and realized that it mattered to him that he should know it.

"Never call her that. She hates it but I have known her since she was a child so I can call her by that child's name. She does not fool me. And I am not afraid of her. You must not either."

"Not really," Adam smiled as he thought of her. "But why do you say that?"

"Because of what you call her! Only a lover speaks that word. And usually only under the furs late at night when passions run high. But you, you call her that when all can hear! That means you do not fear what she could do to you. Perhaps it is in retaliation for what she calls you?" The chief finished by looking up at Adam inquisitively.

"I have never figured out what those words mean. Can you make them into English for me?" Adam admitted and then asked, his head cocking to one side.

"I can," the woman interjected as she came to stand between the men. "Remember the first time I called you that? You were beside the round lake and I had told you to wash yourself. Kintpuash, you would not believe how badly - well, never mind that. Any way, he stood there and defied me. Said he would not walk naked back to the camp for all to see. That was when he got his name."

"And?" Adam lingered over the word, using the language they shared instead of his own.

Captain Jack smiled. "It means little sparrow who fights with eagle. In this case, Winema, I think the sparrow has won."

The two Indians laughed while Adam bowed his head and scratched at his jaw. Yes, he decided, they had gotten back at one another. From now on when he thought of her, Adam knew he would not think of her as Winema, nor as "the Modoc woman" but as what he had first called her, whatever it meant.

 

 

Adam was surprised when he was told that they would not ride on horseback to the soldier's fort. "But it will take us longer to walk there!" he exclaimed and saw the ghost of a smile that Captain Jack used often.

"Among the whites, if one man steals another man's horse, the thief will hang. Yes?"

"Yes, but-"

"We do not wish to hang, Sparrow. Besides, the whites will fear us less if we walk into their house. Before us, we have sent a go-between. The blue men wait for us. We will talk long and come to an understanding." With that said, Captain Jack picked up his pack and, leaning on his long lance, started the two day march through the calf-deep snow. Behind him, two others, younger men but men Adam knew to be of importance to their people also shouldered their loads and followed. Behind them, three of the other elders also fell in. The woman Winema did not pick up the pack she had set at her feet but walked by Adam, her stride sure and determined. Adam stood there, watching her move away, then leaned over and slung her pack over his shoulder and followed as well. With a wry smile hidden in his black beard, Adam knew that he was not a free man yet.

When the snow grew deeper they fashioned snowshoes from nearby pine branches, and by lashing them to their heavy winter moccasins went on. By midmorning of the second day, they were passing white settlers' homes. At one, a rider flew in the same direction they were headed. Adam was certain that he took the message to the fort of the small Indian party's existence.

On the small rise above the sturdy stockade not far from the Rouge River, they stopped and to Captain Jack's long lance attached a piece of white fabric. Thrust into the snowpack, it stood stark against the skyline. There they waited, hunched down to make themselves smaller targets for the cold, blowing wind at their backs. Before long, Adam saw the gates swing open and from the fort, two lines of soldiers on horseback snaked out, making twin tracks in the snow. When the soldiers reached the rise, the Indians were quickly encircled.

"Well, Captain, we meet again," a large ruddy faced man wearing the stripes of a sergeant greeted Captain Jack. The man did not dismount nor offer his hand and it struck Adam that the man was rude, even by white standards.

"We meet under a flag of truce," Jack pointed to the fluttering bit of white above him. "And we bring a gift of friendship. Let us go to the house of the blue men and talk with your chief."

Adam heard the comments whispered long before he and Captain Jack stood in the office of the commander of the fort. Before Captain Jack could even finish his greeting, the commander, a man by the name of Canby, exclaimed "My God, he's a white man!"

Immediately, the Modocs were dismissed as so much chaff in the breeze. Adam was offered a chair by the fire, brandy to warm himself and peppered by a dozen questions. Embarrassed by the unfolding of these events, Adam tried to turn back to Captain Jack and the other Modocs, but Brigadier Canby demanded his attention most forcefully. Within the hour, a telegram was sent to far off Virginia City.

As night fell over the fort, Adam asked where his friends were and Canby bluntly informed him that they were in the stables. Under guard.

"They came to talk peace," Adam said smoothly, looking down into the soup bowl on his china plate. There was more meat in that one bowl, he knew, than in the whole pot back at the Modoc camp. The thought made his stomach turn in guilt.

"And we will. We will but first things first, boy. I saw that you came in under your own steam but you can tell me honest: did they torture you? Tie you up? Keep you against your will?" Canby, his breath smelling of old cigars, leaned forward, his wineglass tipping and spilling without notice.

"No. The Modocs saved my life," Adam affirmed. How could he tell this man that what had tortured him had been his own thoughts and memories? That the ties that bound him to those natives were ones of simple existence? Yet most of all, the reason he had lingered so long with them was what he still had to face: admitting to his father that one brother was dead and the other taken by another tribe. How could this man in his overheated cabin, reeking of cigar smoke, uncaring about anything other than his own hide be made to understand?

"No matter, boy. The answer to our telegram came pretty quick. Inside of a week, your pa'll be here and you can head for home with him. You can put this all behind you." Canby slapped Adam's shoulder.

The bed he slept in that night was too soft, the room too warm, the blankets too coarse and scratchy. For most of the night, Adam tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Old memories and new ones warred within his mind and heart. Exhaustion finally won out and before day broke anew, Adam slept. In his dreams he saw her again standing above him there by the lake and heard her call to him but this time her tone was softer, the words mingled with those of love and desire.

The noise of the fort awoke him with a start and in a moment's panic, he couldn't remember where he was nor how he had gotten there. Hastily, he donned the warm Indian clothing, eschewing the stiff and cold cloth garments that Canby had procured for him the day before. Running his fingers through his now shoulder-length dark hair, he quickly made his way to the parade ground. What he saw there surprised him.

Captain Jack, Winema and the others were preparing to leave with an Army escort.

Breathlessly, Adam shouted for them to wait and saw only that the woman turned back at the sound of his voice.

"You're leaving? Already? I thought you were going to have some sort of council. A powwow. What's happened?" he demanded, clutching her arm tightly.

"We have talked. Or the truth is that Canby talked. They have given us passage back to the reservation. They have given us blankets to warm us and meat for our pots. They have also given us time. When we pass by here again, in one moon, will you be here?" Something about the humbled way she spoke made Adam's heart constrict. The proud and defiant woman was gone. But then she smiled at him and he saw her come back for a brief moment.

In a month. He ran the time and distance over in his mind. "No," he said softly. "I will be gone by then. My father has been told and has said that he comes for me even now."

"And what will you tell him? Can you face the truth now?" she asked, her hands pressed against Adam's chest.

He swallowed hard. "Yes," he said, "because I live, I can tell him what he needs to hear. Thank you."

She made a small face and closed her eyes briefly. A shout from one of the elders told her to come on but she stayed where she was.

"The words I called you, I do not mean them now," she confessed and looked to her feet. "You are not a sparrow but an eagle."

"What I called you before, those words I mean now."

Another shout, this time from Captain Jack himself, and the woman looked up into Adam's eyes and stroked his now clean-shaven face with a gentle hand. "No," she sighed as she smiled. "My English is still better than your Modoc. Good-bye, Adam Cartwright." With that, she turned and hurried after the small procession disappearing into the snowy field beyond the fort's gates.

As he stood there, Adam raised his hand in farewell but she never looked back. Softly, he called her as he had before but now with new meaning. He understood perfectly what the word meant and used it on purpose. She was that place that made life come to a man.

****

When the telegram had come that dark November day, Ben Cartwright was a man nearly bereft of hope. For more than three months, he had searched by every means possible to find his sons but it was as if the earth had opened up and swallowed them whole. He had sent letters to every commander of every fort and garrison within three hundred miles of the Ponderosa. Every sheriff and town marshal had been notified, given clear and precise descriptions of his sons and the horses they rode. Ben himself had spent days and weeks in the saddle, following dead-end clues and false reports. Only one single piece of evidence had arisen. Sport, Adam's handsome and spirited chestnut horse, had been found, still saddled but with broken reins, grazing in a farmer's field near the northern California town of Averil. Had he known then how close he was to his eldest son, he might have traveled on north but he had no way of knowing. Leading the horse home, Ben had said many prayers; some were prayers of thanksgiving but most were not.

Now, as winter closed in, this word had come. He could not travel through the mountains, taking a direct route for snow already blocked some passages. Instead he went by stage, at first to Sacramento then north. Each day he filled his thoughts with how he would greet his lost son but each night crept back the memory that there were two others still missing.

When his rented horse and guide finally pulled to a stop in the parade ground of the winter fort, it was all Ben Cartwright could do not to leap down and run calling for his son. While the telegram had been clear and specific, he still guarded against an irrational false hope.

It was needless. At the muffled sound of the horses coming into the stockade, Adam had turned and looked out onto the snow-covered parade ground. Without even seeing the man's face, he knew who it was. He dropped his plate of food to the floor of Canby's dining room and ran, coatless, into the December daylight.

Ben's feet had barely touched the churned snow when he heard Adam's voice calling to him. At first, recalling that his son did not care for public scenes of affection, Ben extended his hand but Adam brushed it aside and wrapped his father in his own arms, all the while calling his name. Heedless of the stares of the emotion-hardened Army men around them, father and son reconnected with joy and tears.

Although his heart was full of gladness, Ben had to know. Taking Adam's face between his hands so that he could look into the dark eyes, he softly said one word. "Hoss?" He saw the pain that flashed there.

"Taken by the Shoshoni. East of here. I've talked with Canby and he has sent word to the forts there."

"And Joseph?" Ben queried.

Adam found he could no longer look into his father's eyes.

 

continued in Hostage, Part Two: A Trade for Survival
 
 
 


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