The Tahoe Ladies


Part Two: A Trade for Survival

East of the Sierra Nevadas is a most inhospitable landscape. It is called the Great Basin yet that infers that there is water. There is - some, but not enough to make it worth the time and attention. It is sagebrush country;dry ground swept by dry winds. It is not flat ground. Instead, there passes through it, from north to south, many small mountain chains, ground smooth by the same wind that pulls all moisture from the soil. There are also formidable mountains that soar into the clouds, capturing the rain so that they can become covered with the green of life. This is not the land of the white man, for it is too hard to pull life from this earth while standing in one place. It is the land of the Shoshoni, the Northern Paiute and the Bannocks. Like the land itself, the white man called them and it "poor" and traveled on. The Indians saw the riches and stayed.

Hoss Cartwright had lost track of time. Gone as well was his sense of direction. All he could still lay claim to was his sole remaining purpose: to survive. At first, survival meant ignoring the pain in his body. He could recall much of what had happened to him the night they had taken him to the center of the village. There, to the great amusement of all, he had been beaten by the women, their weapons little more than sticks. But they knew where to strike to cause the most pain: the soles of the feet, behind the knees, the genitals, the buttocks, the elbow, the palms of his hands. Following the women had been the young braves. These were the ones willing to test their bravery against him. They wielded burning brands that once the fire died from their ends were hot pokers thrust into his flesh. He had fought back as best as he was able but his hands were tied together tightly and only a little slack was in the leather binding his ankles. Finally, tired of this sport, they had tied him tighter. Across the dwindling fire they brought a stout horse and secured the lead to Hoss' now bloodied and mangled hands. It was clear what they intended: if he could hold the horse back, he would not be pulled into the hot coals. He held for as long as he could but the horse, whipped and frightened, ultimately became too much and Hoss fell into the coals then was dragged away by the animal. How far, he did not know, only that when he awoke he could barely move. But move he did. Senseless and oblivious to everything but the pain he felt, he followed the horse before him, a heavy weight on his back pressing into the many wounds there, igniting the flames of mind-numbing pain with each step. His hands, now covered in dried blood and festering burns, were tied before him, the lead going to a young brave who had but one eye. The other was an empty socket that continually wept, and it was not for his captive.

Reduced to the barest minimum of thought, Hoss slept when and where he stopped moving. When he came to water, he drank. When something was handed to him to eat, he ate. Devoid of emotion now, he felt nothing except the need to survive. Even as his body healed, his spirit did not, and he became as his captors used him: a simple beast of burden.

Once, as they came to another wild expanse of nothing, the caravan stopped. Numbly, Hoss had watched as his hands were freed from bondage and the rope around his neck removed. For the first time, he was put to other work - building small rough brush shelters with the one-eyed boy his teacher. When the short conical structure was complete, he was told with hand gestures to build another. This time, an old woman, toothless and wrinkled, piled her meager belongings into it when he finished. Hoss just stood there in that vast emptyness, looking out over the desolate landscape. There were no trees and nothing higher than the occasional tumbleweed. He looked to the ground. It was hard packed and scoured by the wind. He watched as the old woman made curious motions with her hands, covering her head and he shook his, trying to tell her that he did not understand her chatter. Did she want him to make another brush enclave?

The wind became all at once a howling demon, picking up the coarse earth and burning it into Hoss' flesh. Then he understood why they had stopped and built these curious shelters. The thick brush would stop some of the dirt while letting the wind through and would not let the structure fall before its blunted force. But Hoss had no shelter and now no time to build one. Lost, he looked around for some shelter but there was none. From the brush pile before him, the old woman extended her hand and tugged at his tattered pant leg. Hoss fell to his knees and crawled into the cramped space. But the old one was no fool. She made him sit so that his back blocked out much of the wind and dirt that managed to get through the brush.

After the dry storm, the old woman seemed to be the one he found himself responsible to. She gave him orders, mostly through hand motions and a few select words that he began to understand. The one-eyed boy would snarl should they meet but otherwise seemed to have passed ownership gladly to the woman. As they neared the base of a mountain range, everyone in the party seemed to have a lift in their spirits, and Hoss found the old woman smiling more often.

Through one ravine after another they trailed, but slower now. Their horses, gaunt and weary like the people who rode them, were often allowed grazing on what little grass there was to be found. The people, stopping for longer periods, took the time to hunt, bringing in rabbits and all manner of small game. These were quickly devoured and their hides stretched on the ground to dry. Hoss was put to scraping the hides, pulling away the last vestiges of flesh and sinew. When the tribe moved on, it was his job to bundle the drying hides together and carry them until they stopped again.

What started out as a trickle of water in one particular canyon became a stream, then a small river. Deep within the confines of the canyon, a pool had formed eons before, fed by the snows of the shouldering mountains. Here the tribe of Shoshoni stopped. It was late summer.

For a few days, the people simply relaxed and did very little. Hoss did the same when he was able and not being worked. The sun had darkened his skin some and while he still showed some of the scars of his ordeal, his body was slowly healing. The old woman had given him a dull knife with which to scrape the hides; he used it to scrape away the irritating beard he grew. By now, his white man's clothing was a thing of the past as well. The remains of his shirt had been torn to make a covering for his head from the hot sun. His trousers, torn and burned also from that night at the gathering, the old woman replaced with loose baggy leggings made from an old blanket. Like the other males of the tribe, he wore a breechclout. The first time he put it on, he smiled to himself, wondering what his family would say about how he looked. He lost his smile quickly. His body, once massive in proportion, was now dwindling away. The full belly he had always known was now a distant memory and with the walking he had done, nearly all of the roundness others associated with Hoss Cartwright was gone too. In its place still stood a big man by anyone's measure, but a second glance would show that it was fading. And moreover, his face showed the loss of another sort, beyond the loss of the family he had loved, he was losing the will to continue in this monotony called survival.

The old woman, who he'd taken to calling "Granny", smacked him on the shoulder, pulling him from his numbed mindlessness as he sat beside the canyon pool one afternoon.

"What you want now?" he complained bitterly. "I done stretched the hides again. I even went and caught a couple of ground squirrels for you to cook. Can't imagine what else you want."

She made a series of motions with her hands, most of them ending with a gesture back to the camp.

"All right," Hoss sighed and, standing reluctantly, followed Granny back to the camp.

What he saw made his blood run cold for a moment. The braves of the camp were helping the women butcher a horse. Hoss recalled the animal clearly: a once sturdy brown mare who had been reduced on their trek here to nothing but skin and bones. Now, it appeared, even those were to be taken from her. For a people whose lives depended on the horse, the scene was one of somber desperation. Up to their elbows in red blood, the braves ate the meat raw. They tossed other smaller and less-choice bits to the women behind them.

Hoss, overcoming his inclination to turn away, lunged forward. He wanted some of the meat as well but a brave caught him before he could put his hand on any of it. With a snarl and an old pistol aimed at him, Hoss backed away. His mouth still watered at the sight of the meat, but it was clear that there was an order as to who would eat when. As the braves finished, the women and older children attacked what remained. By the time everyone else had taken their fill, all that was left was the hide. Scrounging on his hands and knees in the darkness now, he found a bone to break open and suck the marrow from. A little meat still clung to the hide and this he ate without reserve.

Without being told, Hoss gathered the hide and took it to where he had the many rabbit hides stretched on the ground and pegged down. He did the same thing with the horse's hide, working in the bright moonlight. There was little left besides the white membrane to be scraped away but with his blunt knife, he began the process. He stopped only once and that was when he came across where the brand showed through to the underside. There he found the Army's USA brand next to a crossed-out pine tree. For a long moment he let his finger trace over the simplistic pine tree. Then he looked to the west where the moon rode low in the sky.

"Home," he whispered into the night and the word caught in his throat. He could get up from his knees and leave, he knew. The Shoshoni did not seem interested in restraining him any longer. They did nothing for they didn't have to do anything to make him their prisoner. The wild barren landscape did it for them. Still, he could look towards where he thought home was and dream, couldn't he?

Late in the next day, a shout rose up in the small encampment and it drew Hoss' attention from the canyon's pool where he had gone. Thinking perhaps the hunting party had been successful, he did not tarry but hurried towards the noise.

It was the hunting party that had returned but instead of meat, they returned with several others. One Hoss knew immediately was of the Bannock tribe, the clothing of rich leather adorned by intricate beadwork that set them apart from their Shoshoni and Paiute cousins. He appeared to be a brave of middle age, and Hoss dismissed all thought of him at once. What drew and kept his attention was the woman riding with him. She had red hair and her clothing seemed to be a mixture of Bannock and white women's things.

The food the newcomers brought with them was shared, as was the custom of these people. It made what was there in the camp go a little further but it was plain to all that the camp needed more supplies, not more mouths. But no comment was made. It would have been in poor taste both for the visitors as well as the camp inhabitants.

He watched from the shadows. After he had his small portion to eat, he remained, watching and hoping for a chance to take the white woman aside and talk with her. To his surprise she stayed close to the brave, often turning to him and speaking low. It came to Hoss that the man did not understand the language of the Shoshoni and that she was his interpreter. That thought made Hoss look closer at him. When he did, he was shocked for the man was also a white man! He dressed in the manner of the Bannocks and he acted as an Indian but his green eyes gave him away. Curiosity rose strong in Hoss. For the first time since he had been taken captive with his brothers, Hoss let himself hope of going home. Perhaps this man had the knowledge that would set him in the right direction, would tell him to find the resources needed to survive the trek. So through the night he waited and watched.

At dawn the discussion broke up and all the participants crawled into their respective brush-covered hovels to sleep. He tried to approach the man and the red-haired woman but was pushed aside. Heartsick, he did the same as the rest of the people. Let there be time later, he prayed.

He did not have to seek out the green-eyed man and the red-haired woman. They came to him late in the afternoon of the following day.

"You still understand English, boy?" the man asked, his voice harsh now as it spoke the language it had first known.

A smile creased Hoss' face and he held out his hand as though to shake hands with the other. "Sure do. Name's Hoss Cartwright."

"Jim Bridger," the other replied and took Hoss' hand in a firm grip.

The name rocked Hoss back a step. The Jim Bridger he had met as a child would be an old man now and this man appeared to be only in his early thirties. Hoss looked closer at the man to be sure.

"No," the man with green eyes smiled and it reminded Hoss of the face of oily card-sharp. "Not the Jim Bridger but we don't have to tell them that." The jerk of his head over his shoulder indicated the Indians far behind him. He laughed nervously.

"Jim Bridger was a mighty well-known man in this part of the country, mister. I don't know what game you're playing, but the odds are pretty good that these folks knew him. And that means they know you ain't him." Hoss spoke lowly, his voice even. In truth he wanted to throttle the man before him. Here he'd thought the man could help him leave this wide-open prison when in fact he could very well wind up there with Hoss if the Indians suspected a lie. They lacked the white man's tolerance of such and would punish the liar promptly, no matter what the lie.

"Easy, Mister Cartwright," the fake Bridger crooned. "We can help one another here."

"What is it you want?" Hoss spit the words out, instantly ashamed that he was entertaining the idea.

"Simple. These people left the reservation up in the Wind River area of Idaho. If they go back, they can claim their payments - 'annuities' the government calls it." His hands now toyed with the ragged fringe on his leather shirt.

"What's that to you?" demanded Hoss, now leaning into the other's face.

"I'm gonna lead them back -"

"They hardly need a guide!" Hoss interrupted, watching the other man's eyes shift and dart about, as if checking to be sure that they weren't overheard.

"No, but they need safe passage. Lots of soldiers between here and the Wind River, friend. If I can convince them to go with me, that I can make the soldiers not shoot at them, they'll pay me. I figure that their miserable lives are worth half of what the government gives them."

Hoss swallowed hard. "How about if I tell you how you can make twice that amount?"

The imposter grinned into the big man's face, his breath reeking as badly as his clothing did. "How, big man? What's your plan? Should have known you weren't here for the banquets." He laughed sharply, reminding Hoss of a two-bit card-sharp again.

"Over there," he said and gestured with one hand towards the west. "On the California Nevada state line, up near Lake Tahoe, there's a ranch. Big place. Well known, too. It's called the Ponderosa. Ever heard of it?"

Bridger, if that's what he wanted to call himself, scratched an armpit and nodded his head.

Hoss took a deep breath and continued. "Man there who owns it, his name is Ben Cartwright. He's my father. I was taken a while back on a hunting trip not far from there. I want to get back. I got it figured that my pa'd pay the man right well who could help do that. I don't think these Indians would let me just walk away but they might sell me to you. Think about that, Mister Bridger."

"You mean you want me to buy you, then help you get home?" Bridger's eyes were squinted nearly closed. Hoss thought that if his eyes had been opened wider he could have seen the greed in them clearly.

"That's right. I'm bettin' that you'd make more money that way than cheating these folks out of what little they got comin'."

"Actually," Bridger turned to one side and considered the woman with him. "I could trade her for you. That way I would come out way ahead and even have time to come back and make my deal with ol' Nine Toes."

Before Hoss could make any comment at all, the red-haired woman behind Bridger went white beneath the dirt on her face. He watched as she backed away from the two men, her fist crushed to her mouth to silence any fearful protest she might have made. Hoss was tempted to smile and reassure her that he was only jesting but a thought fell into his soul that Bridger wasn't fooling - not on any score. He meant what he had said. He would make the trade and Hoss would be powerless to stop him.

With a calculating chuckle and sneer, Bridger walked away from them, headed towards the camp.

"I didn't mean no harm," Hoss tried explaining but the woman remained as she had when Bridger left: wordlessly, soundlessly screaming in terror. "I know you understand me," he tried again, this time making his voice low, barely above a whisper.

She dropped her hand from her mouth and leveled her gaze upon him, blinking slowly. "Yes," she said, the single word halting and unsure.

"You been with him long?"

The nod she gave was accompanied by a lower lip caught between her teeth.

"Before him, you with the Bannocks?"

Again she nodded.

When the silence stretched itself thin between them and Hoss was about to ask her something else she stepped closer. "Name," she began and followed with an 's' sound drawn out as though she were struggling to remember.

"Susan? Sharon?" he prompted but she shook her head and in the dimming light, he saw pain in her eyes.

"Sis...Sis..Sis...y," she finally stammered out and looked up at him with relief written on her face. "Sissy."

"My name is Hoss, Sissy. Glad to meet you." Even as he spoke brightly and cheerfully, the pain came into her eyes again. He thought he understood where it came from. "I won't let Bridger trade you to these folks, Sissy. It ain't right. Tradin' folks like they's horses."

"He trade then take you." The words were flat, hollow, coming from her.

"That's what he said," Hoss began but Sissy started shaking her head violently. "What is it? What's the matter?"

Her face contorted, she struggled to find words he would understand. Several times she opened and closed her mouth until finally the words came, halting and awkward. "No. He trade. He take. He offer Get what want. He kill."

"You mean that he'd like ransom me back to my own pa then kill me once he had what he wanted?" The idea repulsed him even as he said the words. He wondered if she knew of him having done this before but decided quickly that she must because she seemed so sure of it.

Slowly, she nodded. "Use words don't know but think, yes."

The innermost part of Hoss Cartwright believed in the good of all mankind. People were inherently good as far as he was concerned. True, life had taught him that there were some who were different but he would not easily give up his belief. If given half a chance, folks were decent. When called upon in an hour of need, most would extend a helping hand and not think twice about it. Even now, held captive without bars, Hoss had seen some of the good in his captors. They had shared what they had, both in food and in shelter. The only difference had been in the quantity and quality of both. Once he had learned his position in the tribe's ranking, that as the lowest member, the beatings had all but ceased.

But this man Bridger, and Hoss swallowed hard at just the thought of his name, Bridger was one of the different ones. He would take and use for his own benefit. He would lie while looking into your face and feel no remorse. Bridger would cheat anyone if he thought it would move him ahead. Hadn't he as much as said so when he was talking about helping the tribe get back to the Wind River? He had little regard for other people, offering Sissy against her will. No, Hoss thought as he shook his head. There was no good in this Jim Bridger.

At daybreak, Granny came to the hovel where Hoss slept and with shouts and gestures, made him to understand that he was needed. With a gnarled finger, she kept pointing towards the center of the encampment, yammering. Hoss shook the sleep off and went, Granny trailing him, striking at him with her ever-present switch and fussing at him as if he understood every word she said.

There in the center of the camp, Bridger sat with Sissy at his shoulder, using her to translate as he spoke with the Indian Hoss had figured out was Nine Toes. The Indian was tall for his race, his shoulders wide but age was beginning to stoop them. A while back, Hoss had noted that he walked with a slight limp but had passed it off as nothing special. Now Hoss knew differently for by paying closer attention, he saw that one moccasin was worn oddly. But Nine Toes was talking now, his voice sibilant, pleasing of tone, almost conciliatory in the thin air of a cool morning.

Sissy listened, then spoke softly to Bridger in words Hoss could not understand. He did catch the meaning. They, Bridger and Nine Toes, were bargaining. The white man spoke sharply to her and Hoss saw Sissy flinch as though she had been struck. Hoss understood then that Bridger spoke some Shoshoni but not enough to make himself clear to the tribe.

Nine Toes turned his attention to Hoss and Granny as the crowd parted before them. The hush that settled over them was thick and smothering. He said some words, just a few to the old woman and she returned them tenfold, ranting and protesting. More words followed that Sissy translated into Bridger's ear. Once, she glanced towards Hoss and he could have sworn he saw her almost smile. Then, mindful of her place, her demeanor changed and she continued translating, her face a carefully molded mask of nothing.

Suddenly, all sound ceased and Hoss found himself standing in the center of a growing pool of silence. Every face was turned towards him; every eye gleamed appreciatively.

"What's goin' on here?" he asked even while his heart fell to the dust.

"Little tradin' is all," Bridger snickered and rocked from side to side. He let his eyes travel the height and breadth of the other man before they glazed over. "You gonna bring a fair price, boy."

Sissy spoke up, her words now directed to Hoss. "He," she gestured to Nine Toes, "wants to know if it is true. You have many cat-cat-cattle?"

It was as though a door had opened for Hoss that he hadn't known was even there. But now, with the crack of light around it, he could see it and the way home. Yes, that way was the way back to the Ponderosa. The shell of despair he had worn since that first night began to crack open.

"That's right. I do. I get back to the Ponderosa and there's enough cattle there to feed all you folks through the winter. You wouldn't have to go back to the reservation. Ain't no need for you starve. I'll see to it you get plenty."

Even as she translated his words, Hoss saw the changes washing across the people. And Bridger. Hope came to many but anger to the one. Hoss wanted to laugh in his oily face; wanted him to know he'd been beaten and by his own making to boot.

"No!" Bridger shouted and the gathered crowd quieted once more. "This man lies. What man wouldn't to save his own life? You get him close to the white villages and what will happen to you? He'll call out and you will be killed. One and all simply because you are Shoshoni and have this white man among you!"

The murmur washed through the camp like an ocean's tide. Hoss turned from one to another and saw stony expressions surrounding him. From the one-eyed boy who had first held him captive to Granny to Nine Toes, Hoss saw the distrust come to them. It was the same distrust based on their past history with the white man and had nothing to do with the man they held hostage. He wanted to tell them how many times his father had seen to it that their neighbors, the Paiutes, had made it through long cold winters of little game. How could he convince them that he could do the same for them? He couldn't.

The head Indian spoke, his voice challenging now. When he paused and Bridger began to speak through Sissy once more, his hand slashing down spoke volumes to Hoss. Nine Toes didn't trust Bridger. Or was it that he didn't trust Sissy's translation? The Indian's hands danced in the air in time with his words. Finally, Nine Toes made a dismissive gesture and Granny began pulling on Hoss' arm.

Frantic, Hoss looked back towards Sissy but couldn't find her in the crowd. He called her name and got a clout on his shoulder from the old woman for the effort. Ultimately, he saw her.

Nine Toes was leading her away.

Liar Jim Bridger was smiling.



Darkness fell swiftly and brought with it the first swirl of snowflakes. Winter had come and as Hoss struggled to stay warm under his ragged buffalo robe, he knew that unless he did something soon, it would not be a winter he would survive. Once again he tried to figure out where he was for if he knew that, he might be able to escape on his own. But northern Nevada is a place of cruelty. There one valley looks much like another, held by shouldering look-alike mountains. If you stood atop one mountain, what you saw were many others marching off. Hoss knew if he headed north he might possibly come across the Oregon Trail. Along the trail he might find people who would help him. Yet the reality was that the odds of finding someone along that torturous route in winter would be slim. South of these corrugated mountain ranges lay desert, alkali flats and the Humboldt Sink. A man alone, on foot, with no supplies....

"Come," the whisper demanded. From the depths of his cold sleep, Hoss wondered if perhaps he had dreamed it, but the hand pulling at him was no dream. It was Sissy.

He could barely make her out in the darkness of the night. Only the snow gathered on her head and shoulders made her visible. Again, she demanded that he come.

"What? What's up?" he questioned but even as he did, he rose and pulled the robe up to wrap around his shoulders.

"We leave. Now."



From the edge of camp came the sound of horses. When the clouds parted briefly and the light from the sliver of moon came down, Hoss saw that they were the target. Three horses, all of them belonging to Bridger, stood waiting patiently. He pulled back, determined not to go any further.

"Come," Sissy demanded once more and tugged on his arm.

"I ain't goin' with that scum, Sissy. You yourself said he was up to no good."

"Come," a new voice urged and it came from the direction of the horses. When the hooked nose roan moved to one side, Hoss recognized the speaker. It was Nine Toes.



By the time day broke over the cold landscape, the three were far from the camp Hoss had once thought of as his prison. Nine Toes had pushed relentlessly during the cold night. Hoss considered that it was possible that he feared Bridger would be hot on their heels. While the man might not mind giving up his woman, his horses would be another matter, Hoss was sure. When the theft of his trade was also discovered, Hoss doubted that the white man would dawdle. Like the Indian though, Hoss didn't want to find out if his suppositions were right.

The panorama that greeted the sun that morning was breath-taking in its stark beauty. With the swell of one ridge of mountains behind them, the horses stumbled tiredly fown the skree-covered slope to a broad valley that lay before them. Hoarfrost rimmed the grasses and when the sun first struck it, cast tiny rainbows about freely. Just as quickly as they came, they left; the frosted grasses turning winter brown again. The dirt at the horses' feet, full of mica, glittered for a moment, then, like the grass, became ordinary again.

Nine Toes pulled a water bladder from over his shoulder, drank then handed it to Sissy. She drank as he did, head thrown back and the stream of water jetting through the cold air to her mouth. When she had a mouthful, she handed it to Hoss.

"Some," she cautioned and he understood. This was all they had and they must be careful with it. He took but a mouthful and handed it back.

"You want to tell me what's going on here?" he asked but he got nothing in reply.

With wary eyes, Nine Toes moved out, his horse reluctant to give up the scant grazing it had stolen. Placing Sissy between them in the single file, Hoss followed. Knowing he had made the mistake of not paying attention before, now he watched the countryside carefully. If something happened, he would need this knowledge desperately. Yet there was little to note of permanence. A ripple in the soil might not be there again. The hawk flying high over their heads could not tell him the same thing tomorrow. Little by little, desperation was again chased away by depression in the once big Cartwright.

Only when Nine Toes' horse stumbled for the third time did they stop to rest that day. Hoss understood the orders he gave for he'd heard them many times of late. While Nine Toes made a small fire, Hoss tended to the horses, hobbling them needlessly. Sissy pulled cold meat from a pouch at her waist and laid it beside the fire to warm. They ate without speaking and again shared the water. Unable to stay awake any longer, Hoss rolled into his stolen buffalo robe and in the scarce warmth of a winter sun, fell asleep almost immediately. He slept deeply.

The dream was pleasant. He was home once more. The fire in the hearth blazed, warming him through and through. There was food on the table, coffee in his cup and best of all, his father was there. Pa was smiling but as Hoss reached out to lift a platter of food, his father suggested he wait until all his brothers got to the table. The pleasantness of the dream dissolved and Hoss was catapulted back to the torture he'd endured as a captive. If, by some miracle, Adam had survived, where was he? Had the Indians who had taken him used and abused his brother the same way they had him? Hoss prayed not, knowing his ordeal had only been bested by sheer strength. As for Joe, he was sure of what had happened. In the dream he heard those screams become sobs. His own.

He awoke slowly, his dream, his sadness dragging him down. It was only because Sissy kept tugging at him that he finally opened his eyes to the waning light of day. Over her shoulder he saw Nine Toes, his captor. The Indian was hunched down, peeling the hide off a rabbit and then spitting it over the fire's coals.

"We go soon," she was telling him but Hoss only heard the soft humming sounds of the man across from him. Just the ordinariness of the scene made something snap in him. Shrugging off the woman's hands, he stood then walked over to tower above the other man. Nine Toes didn't look up. For some reason, this angered Hoss even more. He reached down and grabbed up the Indian by the throat.

"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you right here and now," Hoss growled, his face an ugly mask of hatred made strong by the fading dream. For emphasis, he tightened his grip and was strangely pleased by the frightened white-eyed expression of the Indian.

"Because he knows where we go," the woman screamed, yanking at his arms, kicking at him, trying to break his hold on Nine Toes. Over and over, she shouted words he did not understand.

"You don't understand!" he roared and flung her aside. "He killed my brothers! He'd kill me too, like as not!" Like a rabid dog, he shook the other man until the Indian smiled faintly and slumped. Stunned, Hoss dropped him and stepped back, narrowly missing the fire. Unable to move, to speak, to even think, he stood there, watching as Sissy went to the Indian's side and tried to help him. Only when the buckskin-covered chest rose and fell did she look up at Hoss.

"You wrong. Brothers live, you live because of Nine Toes. I know. I listen in camp. They say many things, good things, about you. Other man he go north."

"I had two brothers, Sissy. One of them they took and killed. Tortured him. Do you understand that? The night before they..." His words tumbled to a halt.

Looking up at him with flinty eyes, Nine Toes was smiling. "Brothers both live," he rasped out. "Take back to them."

For Hoss Cartwright, it felt as though someone had hit him in the chest with a ten-pound sledge hammer. His mouth worked but no sounds came out. He shook his head slowly from side to side, disbelief its message. As if suddenly weakened, his knees gave way and he fell to the earth upon them. His brothers were alive, both of them, Nine Toes had said yet Hoss doubted what he heard.

"Both of them? Adam, I can understand. They didn't take him..."he mumbled.

Nine Toes pushed the woman's helping hands aside as he sat up and rubbed his throat. With a curt gesture, he motioned to the rabbit now on the fire's coals. She did as he asked and rolled it over then handed him the water. He drank sparingly but during the whole exchange, never took his eyes off the other man. Something that he didn't understand was happening right before his eyes and he would take no chances.

"You speak English?" a dumbfounded and floundering Hoss asked.

"Better than you Shoshoni," the woman answered as she positioned herself between the two men. She settled her shoulders and Hoss recognized the way she sat: it was how she sat in her role of translator.

"Ask him about the first man," he whispered.

She glared at him for a moment then looked at Nine Toes and, shrugging, said one word.

His response was strained and he repeatedly rubbed at his throat. For many moments he spoke, his inflection barely rising. He finished and Sissy canted her head in his direction and grunted what was clearly a question. He nodded once.

"The first man lives. The man in black lives. He go north and..." Unable to find the right word, she pointed towards where the sun was dipping behind the far mountains. "Gather...stop...because..." She turned and asked a question of the Indian.

"Soldier come."

That answered many of Hoss' unasked questions. The get-together of all those different tribes had been prompted by the increase of pressure from the US Calvary. The capture of Hoss and his brothers had been to keep the gathering a secret. When the army had drawn close enough, it had frightened the Indians into their sudden flight. Only two questions remained and Hoss asked one of them.

"Why didn't they kill us?"

Nine Toes comprehended the query and waving aside Sissy's words, raised his finger and said one word that summed it all up. "Brave."

Hoss nodded then asked his last question. "The first man, the young one. Where is he?"

The raised copper-hued palms answered him. Nine Toes had no idea.



For two days, they headed westerly. On the second day, the bay mare Sissy rode stopped and as she dismounted, fell dead at their feet. Fearing only God-knew-what, they pushed on with the woman riding behind Nine Toes, her arms wrapped about his waist. This puzzled Hoss, this sudden reversal. Hadn't he seen fear on her face when Bridger had first mentioned giving her to Nine Toes? Now she was certainly cozying up to him. When they stopped for the night, he asked her.

"He not have wife," was the explanation and Hoss could get nothing more from her. That night, she curled beside the Indian and rested her head on his shoulder.

It was that night as they rested that it came to him. On the bitterly cold air, Hoss smelled it...pine. Deep within him, the memories rose with the moon, shedding light across his damaged life the same way it did the hilltop. He let those memories take him home. They played out before his eyes and he saw his father's smile, felt his welcome, heard voices calling. Even as he watched the slow lazy spiral of snowflakes, he thrust his vision ahead to what the house would look like. It was there, just beyond his grasp, covered in a winter's coat of snow as smoke curled from the chimney into the darkness.

"Home," he silently called, willing it closer. "I'm coming home, Pa."

Across the way, Nine Toes studied the big white man and saw the hot tears running down his face.

The snow covered the mountainsides, making the going difficult. Still, Hoss pushed, ignoring the trepidation screaming from his two companions. Since that last snowy night, he had started recognizing landmarks. They had crossed onto Ponderosa land, he was sure.

The roan he rode staggered in the snow and Hoss slipped easily from the animal's back. With a groan, the animal sank to its knees then onto its side. Even as it died, Hoss tired to get it back on its feet.

"So close," he cried in frustration, oblivious to the others with him and to the fact that he had ridden the horse to death. He would later justify it to himself that the animal had been half dead when they had left the Indian camp a week before. Then nearly cry because he finished the job without regard to another life.

"How far?" the woman asked from behind Nine Toes.

"'Nother five miles," he answered, shrugging his tattered buffalo robe a little higher onto his shoulders and looking in the direction he knew home to be.

The snow crunched and it drew his attention.

They had turned and were riding away.

"Wait! I told you! I promised you meat for your people! Nine Toes! Sissy!" he shouted and ran after them. He caught them easily. "I promised you and I mean to keep that promise."

"No," the man said and shook his head.

Sissy smiled as she looked down into Hoss' face. "Bridger make promise. Not you."

Confused, all Hoss could say was "I don't understand. There's more cattle here than your people eat in a year, Nine Toes. You're welcome to them. They're your part of the bargain."

"No," Nine Toes repeated then reached behind his leg and patted Sissy's.

"Hoss, how we take cattle back? All that way? One horse? Two people?" asked the woman, a faint smile on her lips.

"I'll get you another horse. I'll find men to help you drive -" He pulled up short, realizing what he was saying, hearing the desperation in his words. "You don't want the cattle?"

"We want no. Her, me, we go away. Far. No live in white man's world. No live in Indian world. Live alone together. Understand?" Nine Toes asked, his broken words a singsong.

He did. "But Sissy, you sure?"

"All life but little live with Bannock, Shoshoni. There I belong. Not with Bridger. Not here. You belong here."

Until the horse became a small dark spot on the white countryside, Hoss stood and watched them. He had said that he understood and perhaps, in time, he would.



"Meant to cut that branch off last summer," groused Ben Cartwright as he listened once more to the scraping sound that came from outside.

"Well, when this storm blows over, we can do just that." From his book and his chair beside the fire, Adam watched his father's pacing and wondered why he was agitated. Sure, this was the first big storm of the year but he thought that it had more to do with the solemn and quiet Christmas they had just celebrated. Every time something came up- like the weather- that stopped Ben from getting into town to check for telegrams, he would get like this. While Adam felt much the same way, he tempered himself with logic. Logic, his mind skittered away from his reading, logic says that neither one - he made himself stop thinking that.

It had felt good to be home. The sumptuous meals Hop Sing had cooked Adam had eaten with relish. The bed, with its mountain of blankets and quilts, had been equally as welcome. The thing that he had luxuriated in most, however, was the hot baths he delighted in. His father had teased him just once then let it go for a strange expression had darted across Adam's face.

From the moment he had reconnected with his father just a few short weeks before, he had put a look of expectancy on that face. The good face he called it. It showed hope that his brothers would come walking in the door. That they would be whole and hearty. That was the good face. It was the one he kept just for his father's sake.

Behind closed doors, in private, Adam's face was entirely different. From the one and only time he'd told his father about Hoss possibly being with the Shoshoni, he had allowed no other thought to be voiced. In secret, he feared the worst; Hoss and Joe were both dead and their bodies would never be found and his father would spend the rest of his life searching for them. Indeed, no word had come from any reliable source as to their fate.

There came again that scraping noise and Adam laid his book aside, preparing to go and find a saw and not wait until the storm was over. Before he could do anything else, a voice outside shouted, begging to be let in. Could it have been the wind playing tricks on them, Adam wondered and he looked over to see his father studying the closed door as well. Then the sound came again and both men moved towards it.

When the door flew open before him, Hoss had reached the end of his strength. He fell, expecting the cold of the wind-blown snow to greet him. What he got instead was his father's arms catching him, holding him, his father's surprised voice saying his name. Just before he lost consciousness he managed a single word.



"This came for you," Adam spoke softly as he handed his brother the battered white envelope. Their eyes met for a heartbeat or two then Hoss took the envelope and opened it. Before he began to read, he looked over the back of the settee to where their father was busy sorting through the mail on his desk. "No," Adam shook his head then sat down, yet leaned towards his brother.

In the weeks that had passed since he had managed to get home, a cautiousness had surrounded Hoss. When presented with that first full meal so lovingly made by a beaming Hop Sing, he had reached for it with eagerness for then suddenly pulled his hands back. A fear had washed over him and, with it in his eyes, he looked at his family. The dream had been real, he thought, and they would make him wait until everyone was at the table before he could eat. Yet the one chair remained empty and he feared it would remain so and he would starve, the food within reach but denied. The big man shook. Even though his father ladled food onto his plate and encouraged him to eat it, Hoss couldn't bring himself to touch his fork. After many long moments, his brother and father began to eat, to talk with one another as though nothing was wrong. Hoss took up his fork and used it to stir his mashed potatoes and gravy together slowly.

He watched his hand and saw small things he wouldn't have seen, or cared about, before. Carefully, he pushed the green beans and potatoes away from the slice of roast pork on his plate, leaving it separated. The memory of the slaughtered horse reared up before him and he touched the meat on his plate reverently, searching and seeing once more the Ponderosa's brand crossed out. The mound of potatoes became the snow-covered mountains Nine Toes and Sissy had disappeared into. The green beans were pieces of wood, gathered to one side and hoarded against a time when there would not be enough.

"Enough," he'd said flatly, softly, and while he sat looking at the plate, let tears trickle down his face and fall onto the table.

Ben watched his son. Since he'd returned home Hoss hadn't spoken of the ordeal that had taken more than half of him, reducing him to mere skin and bone. Paul Martin, summoned immediately, had likewise told them little. There had been even less that he could do for the middle Cartwright son since the many cuts, bruises and burns had healed. He treated him for frostbite and told the waiting family that what Hoss needed was food, warmth and time. At the dinner table that night, Ben longed for the cheerful outgoing son who would dig into the plate before him with relish. Instead, all he got was the fearful young man he'd carried into the house by himself.

"Yes, there's enough, son," the father encouraged. "Try some of these candied yams?"

In the strained silence that followed, Ben had looked to Adam but he'd only shaken his head, confused as well.

"No," whispered Hoss. "There was never enough. And he was going to take half of what there was just because he could."

Bewildered, Ben asked what he meant but Hoss only shook his head and, surprisingly, shoved back from the table.

"Help me, Adam?" he begged and, putting aside his napkin and fork, Adam helped his brother to stand then walk over to settee.

"I can bring your supper-" his older brother began but Hoss waved the words away as he settled there before the hearth, heedless of the tears he still cried.

"No, I need you to help me. I gotta know something, Adam."

Adam took a deep breath and held it then nodded. "Sure, what is it?" Anything, his mind screamed, anything to bring his brother back to them in mind and spirit as well as body. This was harder than having the big man missing, this strange quiet about him, this fear of every small noise, this sadness that had wrapped itself about him

"I need you to help me write a letter."



And now, the answer had come to the letter they had written. As he watched his brother's face, his eyes running over the words written there, Adam saw the first change. For the first time since he'd come home, Hoss smiled.

"What's it say?"

"Dear Mister Cartwright." Hoss read aloud and over at the desk, Adam saw his father raise his head, listening. "In response to your request, I have checked. Yes, Nine Toes' band made it to the Wind River Reservation. They came in of their own accord and were a sorry lot indeed! I asked among them for the man you wrote about but no one seemed to know about at white man by the name of Bridger. When I asked for Nine Toes, I was told that he had not survived the journey, having been killed along the way. Now perhaps the Army will stop hounding these people as Nine Toes was considered a wanted criminal by them. He had stolen food from the Army to feed his people when they were here last but even the Army can't prosecute a dead man. I will use the money you sent to procure some foodstuffs for them but I can do no more. Thank you. Signed, Reverend Geoffrey Alcott."

"Alcott. He's that minister trying to help the Shoshoni, right?" their father asked, coming to stand behind the settee.

Slowly, Hoss folded the paper and tucked it back into the envelope. "Nine Toes and Sissy, they never went back to the tribe."

Ben and Adam traded confused looks but it was Adam who asked, "Sissy?"

As though every word cost him dearly, Hoss told of the white woman. Of how she had feared Nine Toes then come to possibly love him. Or had she just resigned herself to life with the Indians because she had been with them so long?

"I don't understand it, Pa," he ended and sought his father's face. "When Bridger was gonna trade her for me, she was scared. Really scared but then, on the way back here, it was like she and Nine Toes...."

"There's always differences in the way things come about, son." Ben sat down beside his eldest. "With what you've told us, it's the difference in being forced to do something and in doing it on your own. This Bridger fellow, he was forcing her, right?"

"But then, when Nine, Pa, I don't understand it at all. He could've traded me for a whole herd of cattle, right? Yet he didn't. 'Stead, he takes me -"

"He'd made the deal with Bridger by then?" Adam smiled. "He stole you away from Bridger. Then he leaves Bridger to face the tribe on his own. No cows to give them and no way to escape their wrath. That Nine Toes is one crafty fella, Hoss. He got everything he wanted the way he wanted it."

"But he gave up-"

"Hoss, Nine Toes got a woman he probably wanted. Why else would he have taken her with you when you escaped? She got away from Bridger. You got home and his people, without Bridger's meddling, got to their reservation. And thanks to you and Reverend Alcott, they'll eat this winter." To Ben, it all seemed so logical, so clear and so apparent.

Hoss forced himself to smile for his father. The letter, yes, had answered many of his questions but had given rise to others. He doubted that Nine Toes was dead. He didn't want to think of him that way. He wanted to think that the crafty Indian was still riding towards that far canyon village with Sissy holding tight behind him.

And Bridger? Where was Bridger? Hoss hoped he was trying to dicker his way out of Hell.


End ~ Part Two


The story will continue in Part Three, A Trade for Compassion.


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