SHADOW ON THE MOUNTAIN

 



Dedicated, with respect, to the North American Indian.

 

Shadow on the Mountain

By

Jenny Guttridge

 

A tale of captivity and compassion.

 

Fore-tale

Joe Cartwright wound the reins of his cutting pony around the hitching rail and strode for the house. It was the tail end of a very long, hard day in the saddle. The sun was sliding down the sky towards the mountains in the west, and shadows were lengthening across the yard. Spring was turning rapidly into summer, and Joe had been roping and branding calves since daybreak; he was hot, dirty and tired. His clothes were filthy, clotted with sweat and dirt; his face was so coated with grime that it felt like a mask that would split if he smiled. Right then, Joe didnít feel much like smiling.

He remembered, but only just in time, to stop and bang the worst of the dust out of his clothing before he slammed inside. Indoors, the house was dimmer and cooler but airless. The large and comfortable living area was neat, tidy and devoid of anyone on whom Joe could vent his temper. Frustrated, he threw his hat down on the sideboard and ran his hand through his dusty curls. He brushed himself off some more while he scanned the familiar room. The furnishings were an odd mixture of sturdy, locally built pieces: the long sideboard and the timber built table before the fireplace, and imported, French elegance. All of it was well used. There were woven rugs on the polished wooden floors, and across the room where the staircase lifted and turned and lifted again to the upper storey, a bright, Indian blanket had been draped over the banister. A tall, ornate clock ticked solemnly, and a pine-log fire burned in the hearth despite the heat of the day.

The room wasnít entirely deserted. As he turned, Joe caught a movement in the corner of his eye.

"Hi, Joe." Adam Cartwright, Joeís older brother by some ten or twelve years, strolled out of the office area. He looked cool and casual, with a saucer in one hand and a cup, half raised to his lips, in the other. "Had a good day?"

Irrationally, it irritated Joe that his brother preferred to drink tonsil scorching, unbelievably strong, black coffee even on days when the sun dragged the sweat right out of a manís skin. What annoyed him even more was Adamís nonchalant air of calm. His temper hanging by a thin and remarkably fragile thread, Joe rounded on him. "A good day? Shall I tell you what sort of day Iíve had?" Slim and light boned, Joe had to raise his head a little to look his taller, broader and altogether more muscular brother in the face. He was undaunted. "Iíve had one hell of a day!"

"Joseph!" The voice raised in reproach was not Adamís but that of their father. Ben emerged from behind his leather-topped desk. There was a frown on his face, and his dark eyes were angry. "Youíll mind your language and your manners in this house."

Ben Cartwright was of a height with Adam and was built on a similar, substantial scale. Joe found himself looking up to both of them. The thread on his temper snapped. "He asked me what sort of day Iíve had, and Iím damn well going to tell him!" His voice had risen to a shout; his eyes, hazel brown and flecked liberally with green, were bright with fury. They blazed into his brotherís face.

Again it was Ben and not Adam who responded, and his voice boomed, "I told you to put a curb on your tongue!"

Adam sipped his coffee, savoured it and looked at Joe quizzically. "Whatís biting you?"

Joeís hands went to his hips in a typical Cartwright attitude of defiance. "Iíll tell you whatís biting me! Iíve been workiní my guts out in the dirt and the heat, ropiní tyiní aní brandiní! I was doiní it yesterday, aní I was doiní it the day before. You were supposed to be cominí out ta help. So where were you, huh?" Joe was leaning into his brotherís space, shouting.

"Joseph," Ben said again, in a lower tone that brooked no further disagreement or dissension, "I think thatís enough."

Setting his cup down in its saucer, Adam held up a placating hand. "No, Pa." He looked at Joe with a curious expression on his darkly handsome, evenly featured face. "This has been brewing a while. Itís about time it was out in the open; heís got a devil riding his tail. Let the boy talk."

Joe was a young man, young enough that his Pa still called him Ďboyí when he got mad. He wouldnít accept the term gladly from anyone else. And it was the way Adam said it in that educated, eastern accent of his and with that smug, patronizing look on his face that really rattled Joe. With an angry, upward gesture Joe knocked cup, saucer and coffee out of his brotherís hand and sent it flying across the room. Cup and saucer shattered where it landed. Adam looked after it, considering the resultant mess, and then looked back at his brotherís face with that same, questioning expression.

Ben looked from one to the other of them as they faced up to one another. These two were Ė had always been Ė about as different from one another as a pair of brothers could be. Descended on his motherís side from blue-blooded, New England aristocracy, Adam had been, since childhood, the serious, studious one: a product of his hard, early years. He was the one who had insisted on getting himself an education. He had rare abilities of creativity, organization and leadership and the intelligence to make use of them. He was also a stickler for getting a job done, and done properly, for a man pulling his weight and for standing up for what he believed to be right no matter what the cost. Joe, son of a French, New Orleans courtesan, was equally steadfast and hardworking, but he had a lighter and more carefree outlook on life. Often, the two rubbed each other raw, and quarrels were frequent. This level of animosity, however, was rare. Joe would flare quickly to anger while Adam burned long and slow. One thing the two of them did have in common was a particular breed of mule headed stubbornness. He could see it in both of their faces right now.

Adam tucked his hands safely out of the way in his back pants pockets; his brother was obviously spoiling for a fight, and Adam had no intention of obliging him. Not right there and then, anyway. He sat on his temper and pulled a long breath. "Why donít you just tell me what this is all about, Joe?" The very reasonableness in his voice raised Joe to rage.

"This week itís the branding. Last week it was bustiní broom tails for the army, and before that we were chasiní mavericks out oí the brush. And where have you been?"

"Your brother has been working here with me," Ben interrupted sternly. "Weíve been working on the supply quotas for the army, the tenders for next yearís timber contracts and our investment portfolio."

Adam glanced at his father; his dark-topaz eyes were troubled, but they held the faintest glimmer of amusement Ė just enough to raise Joe to new heights of fury. "I donít think he wants to hear it, Pa."

"Youíre damned right I donít want to hear it!" Anger made Joeís youthful face ugly. "It seems to me, older brother, that these days you just donít want to dirty your lily-white hands with the real work around here!"

It was an old argument. Ben had been hearing variations of it for years. "Joseph, youíre not being fair," he said. "You have to understand that the management aspects are just as important to the running of this ranch as the physical work."

Joe flared furiously at his father, "Now youíre starting to sound just like him!" Joe was starting to feel light-headed and a bit sick. His brother was refusing to react with aggression, and Joeís initial adrenaline rush was wearing off. What made it worse, he knew his father was right.

Adam allowed his gaze to drop. He let his breath out in a sigh and drew another. When he looked up again, the amusement was gone. "Iím sorry I let you down, Joe. I fully intended to come out this afternoon and give you a hand with the branding. The bookwork took longer than we expected. Iíll ride with you tomorrow and help you finish off with the yearlings."

It annoyed Joe that his brother could even apologize gracefully. He heard himself snap back. "Iíve got this far without you! I can finish the job!" He knew he was being petulant and unreasonable and couldnít help himself.

Ben took a hand in the argument. "Iíve heard enough of this. We all have important work to do."

"Thatís just it. Itís all work!" In his anger, Joe reacted before he thought. "Work is all we ever do around here. We never do anything together anymore!" His words were directed right at Adam; he couldnít stop them tumbling out one after the other. "We never go fishing, or hunting, or swimming up at the lake."

He saw the shadow of pain cross his brotherís face and knew that he had awakened ancient memories. Abruptly, he felt about six years old. He turned away and bit his lip before he made it worse than it already was.

There was an extended silence in the big room while each man wrestled with his own thoughts. They all knew that the last time Joe and Adam had gone hunting together, chasing a renegade wolf into the high country, it had been a disaster for both of them. Joe had got in the way of a bullet intended for the wolf. The ball had lodged deep under his collarbone and had proved difficult to remove. He had almost died of the infection, and it had taken him a long time to recover. For Adam, the accident had been more traumatic still. He had fired the shot that had almost killed his brother. His paroxysm of self-recrimination had all but destroyed him. Only his innate rationality had saved him from the black pit of despair. The legacy of the incident had been a marked reluctance on Adamís part to be involved in any similar undertaking that threw him together with Joe. Joe had grown to resent it.

Ben said, finally, "I think we should put this aside, boys."

"No, Pa." Adam surprised both his father and his brother by shaking his head. He drew a long breath and worked his jaw. He had fought this battle with himself through the small dark hours of many a night. He had known for a long time how his brother felt, how much he yearned to rekindle that special relationship that a stray bullet had almost destroyed. Perhaps it was time that he confronted his own, personal demon. He risked taking one hand out of his pants pocket to pinch the bridge of his nose. He wanted to explain to his father and brother how it was Ė how the emotions churned inside him until sometimes he felt sick Ė but the words wouldnít untangle themselves into coherent sentences. Instead, he said,

"It was a long hard winter, and the work has just kept coming at us all spring. Perhaps itís time we took a little break." He lifted his eyes to look at Joe. "How about a little hunting trip, compadre, up in the hills west of Pyramid Lake?"

Joe stared at him. For a moment his brotherís words didnít quite sink in. Then his anger soaked away like autumn rain down a sink hole in the desert; a smile spread across his face, sunlight after the storm. It was followed by a wave of uncertainty. "Hey, Adam, that would be really great Ė do you mean it?"

Adamís amber eyes sparkled. He cracked a reluctant grin of his own and then laughed ruefully. "I mean it Joe. Though the good Lord knows what Iím letting myself in for."

The beaming smile returned to Joeís face. He stuck out a hand, and Adam shook it. Ben stepped forward and clapped a hand on both menís shoulders. It was a relief for him to see his sons friends again. "When do you boys figure on leaving?"

Adam looked at his brother. "That depends on just how many of those yearlings there are left to brand. If younger brother here had been working as hard as he claims, we should have all the loose ends tied up inside a week."

Joe aimed a soft, roundhouse punch at his brotherís jaw, and Adam swayed easily out of the way. Ben smiled benevolently at them both. Adam reached out as if to ruffle Joeís hair. Joe ducked, and Adam laughed. "Letís go and wash up for supper."

 

 

One

High, high above the wooded foothills of the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains, the eagle soared on outstretched wings. Below her, the whole of her world lay shrouded in velvet darkness. The valleys were filled with Stygian shadows, and the hills loomed against a paling sky. Only the tops of the tallest trees were yet touched with the golden light of day. It was early; the eagle was not yet hunting. The warm, uplifting currents had not started to rise from the land, and it took much effort to stay aloft. The almighty sun god, known variously to the histories of man as Inti, Helios, Mithras and Ra, had barely lifted his bright face above the far horizon. The eagle had no name for her deity, or even one for herself. Still she flew in worship, rising and gliding in glorious celebration of another new day.

Below, on the ground, something caught her eye. Something was moving, slowly and laboriously beneath the canopy of the trees. It was far too large to be prey. The eagle took only rodents and rabbits and an occasional new-born deer. Still, her natural curiosity was piqued. She was alert to everything that lived and moved in her domain, in the heavens or on the earth. She angled her pinions into the wind and altered the sweep of her wings. The fine feathers ruffled across her back as the airflow changed. Looking down, her bright eyes espied more clearly. Crawling slowly against the earth were two of the man things, riding their horses and leading another. Queen of the skies, airborne mistress of all she surveyed from the top of her highest mountain eerie, the eagle was not frightened of men. They were interlopers, passers through; there was nothing for them here. They came, and soon they would be gone, leaving no sign to mark their passing, not even a fading memory in the avianís mind. Her attention shifted. She lifted her wing and slipped away through the air towards that bare hilltop where the first thermal would form. As the light strengthened and spread the new day grew apace; it was time to seek for her meal.

Joe Cartwright, still sometimes known affectionately by friends and family as ĎLittle Joeí though he had long since outgrown the name, was about as content as a man could be. Riding his favourite pinto mare in the wake of his brotherís horse, he couldnít do anything to prevent the grin of pure delight that still stole, from time to time, across his face. His much longed-for hunting trip was finally under way. Although Adam had estimated a week to finish the essential chores at the ranch, it had taken three times that long. That was the way of life on the sprawling vastness of range land and forest that formed the hub of the Cartwrightís ever expanding business empire; one job followed right on the tail of another. It was all vitally important work, and Joe had started to wonder if, despite his brotherís promise, they would ever manage to get away. The grin came again as Joe recollected the moment when Adam had finally brooked no further delays; he had simply stepped into his saddle and ridden away.

That had been a full week ago. Now, they were riding the high hills close to the ill-defined line that separated what was about to become Nevada territory from the State of California. Here in the north it was still early summer. The nights were cold enough to make a manís breath steam, although the days were comfortably warm. The hills were clothed with spruce and fir, tall trees that fragranced the air with the heady scent of resin. On the lower slopes were birch and larch and dark leafed holly and stands of fire oak in fresh, summer-green. Down in the valleys, where they sometimes found water, grew ash and aspen and alder.

Ahead of him, a vague shape in the early light, Adam sat relaxed in the saddle; his supple body swayed easily with the motion of his big, dark-coloured mare. Here in the virgin forest where there were no paths to speak of, he let her pick her own way up the hill.

It was still night among the trees though the sky was lightening apace. Adam sat at the highest point and waited for his brother to come up alongside. He didnít need to use words, merely gestured with his hand. The expression on his face said everything. Side by side, the brothers sat and watched the glory of the dawn as it spread light and colour across the landscape. The sky glowed in the east with an orange fire, growing ever brighter even as they watched. Huge and unbearably bright, the edge of the sun arose from behind the rim of the hills. The treetops were touched with gold.

Joe drew a long breath. No matter how many times he saw it, sunrise was a sight that never failed to stir his soul. The shallow valley quickly filled with sunlight and a thousand shades of green. A chorus of birdsong filled the air, and the brand-new day was suddenly alive with sound and shifting shadows. Joeís breath sighed out.

"Ainít that the prettiest country you ever seen, Adam?"

Adam smiled his slow smile. He was not immune to a little soul stirring himself, and, caught up in the magic of the moment, he was prepared to agree. "It surely is, Joe. Itís hard to believe the not far north and east of here, these hills run out into desert country."

"Is that a fact?" Joe straightened up and lifted his gaze to the hilltops, seeking for the land that his brother spoke of. "You ever been there?"

"Once or twice." Adamís face clouded. "Itís real rattle snake and scorpion country. Cold at night, hot in the day, as dry as all-get-out. Hard place even for a jack-rabbit to make a living."

"But weíre not headed that way, are we?"

Adam eased his butt in the saddle, his eyes moving over the contours of the land; he was already planning their route. "I figure to stick to these hills a while longer, then angle across the state line and work our way back down to the Sacramento Valley. Iíve got a real good friend we could visit with a while before we head for home."

"You mean that fella you went to school with? The one with the fancy horse ranch?"

"He does a whole lot more than breed horses, Joe. Some of the schemes heís got will make your eyes pop!" Adam couldnít help but sound a little wistful. It was a note that Joe missed entirely, his thoughts being centred on something else.

"I sure could use some breakfast, Adam. How come we had to ride out oí that place so all-fired early?"

Adam thought back to the bedraggled little collection of log-covered dugouts, lined with stones, dirty and infested with bugs. They were no more than holes in the ground where an extended family scraped out a meagre existence. Nevertheless, they had been offered hospitality, and it would have been churlish to refuse. The men-folk had gone without eating to feed their guests, and even then there had not been much: a thin porridge with vegetables and very little meat. It seemed that game, in this part of the woods, was scarce. The children had been without shoes.

"You saw how little they had, Joe. I didnít want them obligated to give us breakfast as well." Adam had insisted on riding away while the sky was still dark and spangled with stars Ė long before anyone else was astir. He had left two silver dollars on the sacking pillow he had been loaned, the most he figured pride would allow their hosts to accept. Nonetheless, he understood his brotherís sentiments. There was a hollow somewhere behind his own belt-buckle that could do with filling, and, he rubbed a hand across his chin, he could do with a shave. "If we ride down into this valley real quiet like, I reckon we might take us a deer. We can boil up some coffee and take a bath in the brook while the liver cooks."

Joeís face broke into a smile. "You still got any of those onions Hop Sing gave us?"

"Iím sure I have." Adam reached down and loosened the saddle gun in the scabbard under his knee. Hunting had been unexpectedly sparse, and it had been some days since theyíd had fresh meat. He winked at his brother and nudged the mare into motion. Hauling on the lead rope of the packhorse, Joe fell into line behind.

In the seven days they had been in the saddle the brothers had just about talked each other out, but the silence they rode in now was more than companionable. They were hungry, and they were hunting in earnest. Eyes and ears were keenly alert. They sat still in their saddles to avoid creaking leather and communicated only with signs.

It took an hour to ride to the valley bottom, following a vague animal trail; by then, the day was well under way. The trees grew closer here, the undergrowth was thicker; leafy bushes and bracken covered the bare earth between the trunks. Surprisingly, they had startled no game out of the cover, and the prospect of fresh liver and onions for breakfast was beginning to look remote. It was as if all the wild things had taken a sudden leave of absence. The valley was curiously devoid of any life except for the birds and the smallest animals. Everything was lying low.

The Cartwrights didnít understand it. Joe urged his horse up alongside Adamís and was about to voice his concerns aloud when Adam drew rein and held up his hand in an abrupt gesture for silence. Adam had seen something move among the willow trees ahead. He was expecting a deer to come bounding out into the open, frightened into a desperate dash by the sharp and singular scent of man. He started to reach for his rifle, then froze. It was not a deer than he saw moving down at the waterís edge. Holding a breath he listened and heard menís voices.

He straightened very slowly, his attention focused ahead. There were three Ėno, four horsemen among the trees and two more men in the stream, drinking and washing their faces in the icy water. They were olive skinned men on small horses; men dressed in deerskin, men with feathers in their hair.

Joe watched a strange look appear on his brotherís face. It was an expression of shock, of horror and of fear. Joe looked where Adam looked; he saw what Adam had seen: brown horsemen on painted ponies down among the trees. A smile spread across Joeís face. "Hey, Adam, you donít have to worry. Theyíre only Pauite." Joe had a number of friends among the vagrant bands of Pauite Indians that often stopped by the ranch. Once a proud and noble people, they were now mostly broken and cowed - what the white folks called Ďtamedí - living on handouts and what they could scavenge. Joe liked them and had sympathy for them; certainly he had no fear of them.

Adamís breath hissed out through his teeth. "Shush! Theyíre not Pauite, Joe. Theyíre Shoshoni, and thatís war paint on their ponies. Now back off slow." He kept his voice low, and Joe could hear the tension in his tone. His alarm communicated itself directly to his brother. Pulling back on his reins, Joe made his mare step back and then turned her around. The packhorse, confused, got in his way.

Adam was watching the Indians like a hawk. They hadnít spotted the brothers yet; they were still busy at the bank of the stream filling their water skins. That wouldnít last. He knew he had only seconds to spare. His first fear was for his brother. He had to get the boy away from here, out of danger. Only then could he afford to think of himself. His mouth was dry, his belly crawling with fear. He leaned close to Joeís ear. "When I give you the word, turn the packhorse loose. Ride like the devil out of here. Donít stop and donít look back."

His face pale and his eyes wide, Joe reacted with growing alarm. "What about you?"

"Donít you worry about me, buddy. Iím gonna be right behind you!"

There was no more time for discussion. Joe dropped the rope to the packhorseís halter. Looking back over his shoulder, he started the pinto mare up the trail at a walk. Adam was struggling to get his horse turned around. She could feel the sudden tension in the grip of his legs, and it frightened her. She balked and tried to sit down. An expert horseman with the added strength of desperation, Adam fought her with the bridle. The packhorse, backing off, snorted loudly.

Down at the stream heads turned, faces came up. A shout arose and then another, a whole confusion of raised voices. The men in the river ran for their horses; those already in the saddle turned his way. Adam yelled at his brother, "Ride, Joe! Ride!"

He saw Joe lash at the pinto mare with the ends of his reins, driving with hands and heels and shouting encouragement into the horseís ears. Finally, he got his own mount facing the way he wanted to go. The mare threw up her head and rolled her eyes. She squatted down on her haunches. Adam let out the reins and she leapt and lunged, colliding with the loose packhorse and bowling him over with her shoulder. He went down with a squeal. Somewhere behind Adam, someone had got his wits together enough to fire off a couple of shots. Adam never knew where the bullets went. Aware that his back made one hell of a target, he leaned low on the mareís neck and kicked hard. His only instinct, now, was to get away

The horse fiddled her feet for one second longer and then hit her stride. She climbed the hill in great, leaping bounds with Adam merely clinging to the saddle. He didnít look back to see if the Indians followed; he knew that they would. Up ahead, Joe had almost reached the sheltering trees. With her longer stride, Adamís mare was catching up the pinto fast.

There were no more shots, but silent death whipped past his cheek so close that he felt the wind of its passing. The arrow lost itself in the bushes. Another buried itself point first in the ground and stood there, quivering, as they galloped past. Adam yelled at the mare to run faster. A willing beast, she laid back her ears. The sweat already lay in patches on her neck, white where the reins frothed it into foam. Two more arrows whipped past them. Adam didnít see where they went. Now he was entering the trees himself; the trunks would make shooting difficult. He saw a flash of white up ahead Ė the pinto mare, still running. He had no idea of how far he was ahead of his pursuers. He doubted it was far enough.

He heard a dull thud, stone into flesh, and felt the mare falter. He knew that she was hit, somewhere in the quarters aft of the saddle. Gamely, she recovered her stride and kept climbing. The trail was steepening now.

Adam had almost caught up with his brother. He could see the white, frightened face looking back. He had no breath left to shout. He didnít hear the arrow go past him, Ďthough it must have passed him in its flight. He saw it suddenly appear, a feathered shaft sprouting from the back of Joeís right thigh. Joe clutched at his leg; his face twisted in pain. For a moment, the pinto lost all momentum. Joe leaned in the saddle, looking for a moment as if he would fall. Barely, he managed to cling on. He caught the loose, flying rein and got the mare galloping again before she had properly broken her stride. Joe swayed wildly. Great horseman that he was, Adam knew he couldnít stay on the horseís back for long.

Adam chanced a glance behind. The trees had closed in on them and for a moment, the pursuit was out of sight. The pinto mare was losing momentum now, as Joe reacted to the shock and the pain.

Ahead, the bushes grew thicker and taller, covering the ground with several levels of green. It was the only place there was to hide. Adam pulled his horse alongside Joeís as the pinto came to a shuddering stop. Sliding out of the saddle, he ran to his brothers side and pulled him, none too gently, from the horseís back. Joe yelped and clung to him. Adam dumped him unceremoniously beside the path. He looped the pintoís reins about the saddle horn and slapped her hard on the rump, then did the same to the bay. The two horses disappeared up the trail. Adam hoped they would keep going long enough to lead the Indians away. He could hear them coming now, their ponies pounding up the hill.

With scant seconds to spare, he grabbed his brother up and pitched him bodily in among the bushes. He threw himself down alongside him and allowed the greenery to close over them. They didnít have time to offer a prayer. Adam just hoped that the Indianís sharp eyes would miss the disturbance heíd left on the ground. The first of the Indian ponies pounded past close enough for the brothers to hear the huff of its breath in its lungs.

The Shoshoni rode silently, urging their ponies with hands and heels. Their dark eyes and their hawk-like faces strained ahead for a sight of the hated white men. They failed, in that moment, at the speed they were riding, to see the faint sign where the horses had stopped, then gone on, unridden.

Adam lay on top of Joe, covering him with his own body for what little good that might do. They kept absolutely still. Their faces were mere inches apart. The breathed each otherís breath and smelled the sour sweat of each otherís fear. Adamís hand was clamped hard against Joeís mouth, insurance against any outcry of pain. His teeth were gritted, edge to edge, and his eyes were turned towards the horsemen passing, unseen, only feet away. Silently, he counted them: two and three and four. Then there was quiet. Adam felt Joe move, starting to struggle against the harshness of his grip. The young manís eyes were fixed on his face, so wide with fright that the whites were showing. Adamís hand was hurting his mouth, crushing his lips against his teeth. He could barely breathe. Adam gave an infinitesimal shake of the head. Keep still, keep silent; Adam knew he had counted six.

At close range they looked into each otherís eyes, both of them wondering if this was a good day to die. They listened to the silence; the forest was absolutely still. Even the birds had ceased to sing. The sweat grew cold on their skins. Joe was in agony. The whole of his leg, and the right side of his body burned with pain. Adam wouldnít let him up, wouldnít let him move. He held him weighted down with his body. Adam knew there were six.

Sure enough, in a minute more two more horsemen came up the path, riding slowly, walking their horses. It was an old trick but an effective one, designed to trap the unwary and the inexperienced. One or two men riding quietly behind the chase, waiting and watching for grounded quarry to poke up their heads. They were hunting men. Adam inched his hand towards the butt of his gun. He was afraid of the upturned leaf, the newly broken sprig still oozing sap, the glimpse of his yellow coat. His mouth was painfully dry.

The Indians didnít stop. Without speaking, or pausing, they rode on. Adam didnít move. He maintained his relentless grip on his brother. There was a stone digging into his knee and all his weight was bearing down on it. It hurt like hell, but his pain was nothing compared to Joeís. By now, the young manís face was sheet-white, and he was shaking. Adam could see the anguish in his eyes. Even now, Adam wouldnít let either of them move. It was another old trick to ride silently back over the same trail in case the quarry was still hiding out. He didnít stir until a thrush in a tree across the way gave a short spurt of birdsong, and something small and unafraid rustled the bracken. Only then did he let out the long breath heíd been holding and eased his grip on his brotherís face.

Adam lifted a cautious head and took a long and careful look Ďround. The woods were empty and peaceful and bright with filtered sunlight. He got up quickly now. He knew that the Shoshoni braves wouldnít give up easily. As soon as they found they were chasing empty saddles they would be back. Adam didnít expect to be overlooked a second time. He took a quick glance at Joeís leg. The shaft of the arrow had snapped off short to leave an ugly and jagged stump. The wound itself was bleeding, but not much. The dark stain was spreading only slowly through the cloth of Joeís pants.

He looked at Joeís face, and his eyes were bleak. "Weíre gonna have to move out of here and move quickly."

"I canít walk, Adam! Hell, I canít even stand up!" Now that the immediate danger had passed, Joe was reacting violently to the shock of his injury. Confused by what had happened, and the speed at which it had happened he was both angry and very close to tears. One moment he had been riding through the forest with nothing more pressing than breakfast in mind - minutes later he was on the ground, bleeding and in pain Ė in very real danger of his life.

Adam sucked a deep breath. "We donít have time to argue about it, Joe." Reaching down, he hooked a hand under Joeís armpit and hoisted him bodily on to his feet. Joe barely stifled a scream by chewing at the inside of his mouth. The tears sprang from his eyes. Anger and fear boiled over into rage, and he found himself struggling against Adamís grip with a sudden resurgence of strength.

Adam held on to him and shook him hard. He spoke earnestly into his brotherís face. "Listen to me, Joe, and listen good. They were Shoshoni braves, and they were on the warpath. They must be a renegade band raiding out of the desert. They know that we saw them, and theyíre going to come back looking for us. When they do, weíd better be somewhere else."

The urgency in Adamís low tone, if not his actual words, penetrated the curtain of terror and bewilderment that encircled Joeís mind. He stood swaying on one leg and clinging to Adamís arms. His face was still bloodless, and he was sweating up a storm, but the burgeoning panic, which had been about to send him reeling and crashing through the trees, was, for the moment, averted. "Where are we gonna go?"

That was a question that Adamís active mind had been working on for a while. So far, he had not come up with any reasonable solution. He wasnít about to explain that to Joe. With a nod of the head, he indicated the denser trees further along the valley, away from the path that the Indians had taken. "This way."

It was immediately apparent that Joe had been right when he said that he couldnít walk. The very first step made him chew at his lip to keep himself from crying out aloud. This pain was razor sharp, the worst heíd ever had - much more severe than the agony of a bullet. Adamís only thought was to get away from the path, the way the Indians would surely ride back. Adam put Joeís arm across his shoulder, taking most of his weight. Joe tried another step, and his injured leg folded under him. Both men almost fell.

With urgency as a spur, they made the best speed that they could, but it was slow and laborious progress. The terrain was difficult, steep and uneven, and thickened underbrush hampered every step. Every few yards, Adam threw a long, searching look back over his shoulder. He saw nothing but the bushes and trees, now darkly menacing shapes against the sky, but he knew that didnít count for anything. He was well aware that a Shoshoni brave could be standing right alongside him, and the chances were, he wouldnít know a thing about it until a tomahawk parted his hair. They were leaving behind them a trail a blind child might follow, but there and then, he could think of no way to avoid it.

With every staggering step that he took, a fresh grunt of pain was torn from Joeís lips.

His strength was leaking away with the blood that now flowed more freely from the wound. Before very long, he was hanging, dead weight, from his brotherís shoulders and could hardly move his legs at all.

Anxious to make ground more quickly, Adam scooped Joe up into his arms and carried him as if he were a child.

Though only lightly framed, Joe was still a full a full-grown man and a considerable burden. His weight ensured that Adam could not carry him far. Before very long, the big muscles of his arms were burning, poisoned by fatigue. His back and legs were aching from the strain, and he was staggering as his knees turned into jelly. He found a small grassy patch in amongst a denser clump of trees, a spot where sunlight filtered in dusty shafts through high branches. He lowered Joe to the ground. On one knee, he knelt to catch his breath and gather his wits. His lungs were heaving. In something like three hours they had barely covered two miles from the place where Joe had been hurt. Adam didnít fool himself: theyíd not be going anywhere else for quite some time.

The colour of Joeís face had changed from pasty-white to doughy-grey as he succumbed further to the shock. His skin was cold and clammy to the touch. He was clinging to consciousness with grim determination, but he wasnít finding it easy. The pain of his wound had become a bone deep throb of raw agony. His lips and the inside of his mouth were sore and bleeding where he had bitten them. He rolled his head against the ground, seeking his brotherís face.

Adam was studying their back-trail with considerable anxiety. Then he turned and found Joe looking at him. He cleared the concern from his face, but Joe had already seen it, and the worry still lingered on in the depths of his eyes. He touched his brother on the shoulder. "Itís going to be all right, Joe. Just take it easy."

It was a lie and both of them knew it. If heíd had the strength, Joe would have been angry. He ground his teeth together. "Whatíre we gonna do, Adam?"

Adam took another long look through the trees before he responded. He was expecting unwelcome guests at any moment; he had a feeling deep in the gut that neither he, nor his brother, was going to survive the encounter. He stripped off his coat and bundled it into a rough pillow to put underneath Joeís head. "The first thing Iím going to do is take a look at that leg."

Joeís pants were soaked with his blood. Adam pulled the long knife from where it resided in the sheath beneath his shirt, and slit the seam from knee to hip. The wound was an ugly one. The barbed head of the arrow was deeply embedded in the fleshy muscle of Joeís thigh. A stump of the shaft was still attached and jutted out at an obscene angle. It jerked and moved as Joe struggled against the pain. The flesh was already an angry purple and showing signs of swelling. Joe needed medical attention, and he needed it fast. Even the nearest hedge doctor was fifty miles out of reach. Adam wiped the gritty sweat from his mouth with the back of his hand. The arrowhead had to come out, and he was the only man there to do the job. It was not a prospect that he viewed with relish. He had no water to wash the wound, or even his hands, and the only tool he had was the eight-inch, Bowie knife.

The smooth curve that led to the point of the double-edged tip was honed razor sharp. That, at least was a mercy.

Joe was craning around, trying to get a look at the wound that was causing his so much pain. He was sweating again and starting to shake. Adam pushed him down with the flat of his hand. "Lie down, Joe. This is going to hurt, and youíll have to hold realí still while I do it."

Joeís eyes widened as he grasped his brotherís meaning. "Adam?"

Adam shushed him. He sought about for a bit of broken branch about as thick as his finger. He snapped off a short length and wrapped it in a twist of his handkerchief. He pushed it in to Joeís mouth before the younger man had too much time to think about what he was going to do. "Bite down hard on this. Donít yell or youíll have the red-skins down on our necks."

His teeth clamped tight and his fingers already digging holes in the dirt, Joeís eyes were fixed on Adamís face. They were the mirrors of his soul. They reflected his pain and his fear, his bewilderment and his growing anger. Adam wouldnít look at him. He knew that if he looked into Joeís eyes, he wouldnít be able to do what had to be done.

Adam shifted his position, kneeling alongside the wound. There was no point in delaying. Thinking about it would only serve to make matters a whole lot worse for both of them. And Joe was bleeding to death right in front of his eyes. Wedging Joeís leg into position and holding it there with his own knee, he took a firm grip of the shaft with his left hand and cut deep with the knife in his right.

Joe was expecting pain, but nothing like the continuing wave of agony that rolled through him. It seared his nerves and stole his breath and brought the tears springing to his eyes. The cutting, it seemed, went on forever. He bit down hard on the finger of wood and strangled his scream into a bubbling yelp of pain. Somewhere amidst the fearful agony, his body forgot to breathe. He was still trying not to cry out when he ran out of breath. The black edges of his vision closed in around him and awareness slipped away.

Adam was sincerely thankful when his brother lost consciousness; his body relaxed and stopped fighting him. Heíd had to cut deeper and pull harder than he had anticipated; there was more blood than he had ever imagined. There was just so much blood!

The shaft and the arrowhead came out in one piece, which was a blessing Adam was far too busy to count. At least it saved the necessity of further cutting. He leaned down hard on the hole that heíd made and was glad when the blood flow slowed.

The wound needed stitching, but Adam had neither needle, nor gut. Ripping the long tail from his own shirt, he used Joeís slightly cleaner handkerchief as a pad and wrapped his brotherís leg as tightly as he dared. His breath hissed out through his teeth. He had done all he could. He only hoped it was enough.

Concerned as he was for his brother, Adam had other things to worry about as well. Even as he cleaned his hands on the grass, his eyes were searching for movement among the trees. Always a practical man, he didnít try to fool himself for a moment. He knew that the Shoshoni band would be coming after them; he knew it to the very core of his soul.

The presence of warring Shoshoni in these woods had him more than a little anxious. Like Joe, Adam was well used to the small groups of Pauites that lived in the Comstock Valley and the surrounding hills. They were the remnants of a powerful nation, the pitiful families of once-proud warriors scratching a living in the dirt or begging at the side of the road. Adam had heard that, these days, they were even moving into town.

And then there were the Bannocks. The Bannocks were the truly wild Indians of romantic legend: illusive, unpredictable and sometimes savage. They were solitary and rarely seen. Occasionally he encountered an individual or a group of two or three, passing through as they journeyed from the unknowable here to the unguessable there. Such meetings were increasingly rare. There had been a lot more Bannock about when Adam had been a boy.

The Shoshoni were an altogether different matter. They were a desert dwelling tribe, and these braves were a very long way from home. Their chieftains had reached an agreement with Brigham Young, the once governor of Utah territory. The Mormon had worked hard for years to make friends with the various hostile bands. True to his own ideals, he had tried to induce them to live in peace and, eventually, to convert them to civilized living and his own particular brand of Christianity. Adam didnít know how much success the old hellfire-and-brimstone preacher man had achieved. He did know that numerous groups of renegade braves had split off from the main tribal groups in defiance of their chiefs.

Hundreds of miles of desert separated these High Sierra hills from the dry lands of eastern Utah and the Great Salt Lake. Adam feared that this little band of Indians might be a part of a much larger war party somewhere out in the badlands, raiding across the border into California, looting and burning and killing. If that were the case, Adam didnít give much for his chances Ė or for Joeís.

Both of them were armed, as always when they travelled. Adam carried his favoured Colt.44 strapped to his hip. He had one exchange cylinder ready loaded and packed with grease in the pocket of his coat. That gave him just ten shots Ė like most working cowboys, he always carried an empty chamber under the hammer, sensible insurance against a hole in the leg. He figured that Joe would have about the same. Their saddle guns were gone with their horses, and all their other belongings: clothes, food and spare ammunition, were lost when the packhorse went down.

To sum it all up Joe was badly hurt and in desperate need of a doctor; they were hunted like animals and in immediate danger of their lives; afoot and miles from anywhere, they had only the clothes that they stood up in.

Adam made Joe as comfortable as he could, Ďthough in truth, there wasnít a whole lot more that he could do. Joeís breathing was normal enough, but his lips were pale, and his eyes, beneath the closed lids, had sunken back in their sockets. His eyelashes lay lightly drawn and unmoving against the pale skin of his cheek. At least, while he was insensible, he wasnít in pain any more.

Adam looked at the sky. Hours had passed; already, the sun had arched overhead. Adam allowed himself a small thread of hope. If they hadnít been found yet, perhaps the Shoshoni had missed their trail; perhaps they had had ridden on without even looking for them at all. Hungry Ė he hadnít eaten since the evening before and then only poorly Ė he settled himself alongside Joe. If they could keep themselves hidden, keep themselves quiet here, among the trees, it might be that death would yet pass them by. In the morning, if they were still alive, he would think of a way to get them both home.

Adam didnít mean to sleep, but, perhaps, he did. Suddenly chilled, he woke up with a start. The sun had moved behind the trees, and their grassy place was shadowed and cold. All about them the woods were dark and eerily silent as evening approached on soft-shod feet. Unaware of what had awakened him, Adam looked at Joe. The younger man seemed to be sleeping. At least he was still breathing.

From behind him, Adam detected the faintest whisper of movement in the air. His mouth was abruptly dry. The short-cropped hairs on the back of his neck all stood up on end. His long, lean hand crept slowly towards the butt of his gun. He turned his head. The black maw of a long-gun was inches from his face. Lifting his gaze, he looked directly into the painted face and the savage eyes of a tall, Shoshoni brave.

 

 

Two

Joe Cartwright surfaced slowly from a long and frightening nightmare. He had been in fear of his life, running through a forest. All around him, the forest had been ablaze. The flames had been chasing him, and there was something wrong with his legs Ė his right leg in particular. It wouldnít work properly, and it hurt like hellfire. Fast as he ran, or tried to run, the fire moved more quickly, leaping from tree to tree, closing in on him from either side, cutting him off from the clear air and the free blue sky ahead. He could feel the fierce breath of it scorching his neck; the fingers of flame snatching at his heels. Joe fell, sprawling, with his face in the dirt. The fire was on him in an instant. Joe was burning, burning! He drew a long breath to scream.

Joeís yell turned into a loud gasp, and he opened his eyes. He found that he was lying flat on his back looking straight up into the pre-natural light of an early dawn sky. The heavens were silver, and the bright points of the stars were just starting to fade.

The ground underneath him was hard, uncushioned by even a blanket, and it was very cold. He didnít have the strength to shiver. Something was very wrong. His legs wouldnít move at all, and his hands were bound together in front of him so tightly that his wrists hurt. He drew breath to cry out a second time, louder than before. The air that filled his lungs was chill and damp Ė it gave him a coughing fit.

There was movement beside him, someone of bulk stirring, struggling, moving only with hardship and some pain. The figure loomed over him, dark against the sky. "Joe? Joe donít yell!" The voice was Adamís, low, urgent and intense. Panting against pain and panic, Joe screwed up his eyes as he tried to make out his brotherís face. It seemed to him that Adamís familiar, darkly handsome features bore several marks that Joe didnít recall seeing there before, a selection of cuts and bruises that had no accountable cause. And more than that, Adam was moving only with difficulty, as if his whole body hurt.

Joe let his breath out as no more than a sigh. The terror of his dream was fading even as its details merged into forgetfulness, but oddly, his legs still burned with pain. He tried to sit up to find out what was wrong with them, and discovered that they were bound together as well and attached by a rope to his wrists. For some reason he couldnít guess at, he was all trussed up like a chicken for Sunday lunch. He looked at Adam again, the panic overwhelming him. Another cry was bubbling into his throat. Adamís head was turned away as he looked over his shoulder at something behind him. In the slowly strengthening light, Joe saw more traces of violence on his brotherís face. Dark trails of blood had run from a wound by his ear into the collar of his shirt. Adamís face was tight with tension, pale beneath his tan; it was smeared with blood and dirt and darkened by the stubble of an unshaven beard. Joe caught the gleam of light in his brotherís eye. The expression he wore was one that Joe had seen only rarely on his older brotherís face Ė it was a look of naked fear. Joe tried to speak, but his mouth was too dry.

Joe couldnít understand it at all. He didnít know where he was, how he had come to be there, why he was all tied up, or why he hurt so much. The last thing he could remember was riding into the valley in the tracks of his brotherís horse. Theyíd had nothing more important than the prospect of breakfast in mind. Now it seemed to be a whole day later, and he was cold and in pain, and Adam was afraid. He managed some sort of gurgling noise, deep inside his throat. Adam turned back to him. "Itís okay, buddy. Just keep quiet." The strain in Adamís voice and the look on his face told Joe that he lied and that things were very far from all right; and it was years since Adam had called him Ďbuddyí.

Adam moved again, awkwardly. He seemed to be shielding Joeís body with his own from whatever was behind him. It was then that Joe noticed that Adamís hands and legs were bound as well.

Adam looked at his brother. In the faint light of the early morning, the young manís face was deathly pale with a livid, pink spot on either cheek. His eyes were wide with alarm and confusion, bright with pain and incipient fear. Adam lifted his hands, tightly tied together at the wrist with strips of rawhide, to feel Joeís brow. As he had suspected, the skin was already tight and dry and very warm as the inevitable fever started to rage through his body. Adam feared that the wound to Joeís leg would become infected. The pain, already severe, would increase immeasurably as the limb filled up with poison, and his blood began to sour. Joe needed that doctor, and he needed food and a warm place to lie and half a hundred other things that Adam couldnít provide. He knew that his brother could die of his injury; he seen it happen before. But, right then, he had serious doubts that either of them would live to see the sun come up.

Behind him, over by the tiny, well-shielded fire that the Indians had built for themselves, the Shoshoni braves were arguing again. Their voices carried to Adam in a series of low pitched and almost guttural grunts. He knew that they spoke an elegant and sophisticated language; he was unable to understand a single word of it. He had no doubt at all that they were discussing their captiveís fate.

"Adam, whatís going on?" Joe rolled his head against the ground. He was still trying to make sense of what had happened to them. "Where are we?"

There was little comfort Adam could offer. He found it easiest to answer the question quite literally. "Weíre still in the woods, Joe, but a whole lot closer to the desert."

It was a mercy that Joe had no recollection of the events that had followed their capture. Adam would have much preferred to forget them himself. Beaten and bound, he had been force-marched as gunpoint, several miles across rough country. Joe, still unconscious, had been half carried, half dragged, along the ground behind him. Adam had been unable to help him, or to help himself. It was a miracle, nothing less, that Joeís leg wound hadnít broken open again. Adam didnít know, and he couldnít guess, why they hadnít been killed outright. He didnít like to let his imagination dwell on the possibilities. He had expected to die, at once, on the spot. By now, both he and Joe should be cold and starting to rot. What he feared most of all was that the real horror was only about to begin. He looked over his shoulder again.

At the fireside, the heated discussion was over and the war band was breaking up. The Indians were gathering their few possessions and some of them were already heading towards their horses. Two of them were coming in his direction. In the few seconds that he had, Adam felt the knot of fear tighten in his belly. He wished that there were something he could do to protect his brother and knew, in the same instant, that there was not. He saw his fatherís face.

Joe saw the Shoshoni coming. Tall, savage red-men with painted faces, feathers in their hair and blood lust in their eyes. He still had only vague memories of yesterday, but he could see the fear in Adams face and feel his own instinctive terror. He knew that they were in deep, deep trouble. It dawned on him that he was about to die. He got an elbow under him and started to edge away. His bound legs were dead weight, and he had to drag them. He got nowhere at all. The first Shoshoni brave, he with the fearful scar that ran from temple to chin and another that crossed his cheek, stepped past Adam and put the broad blade of his knife against Joeís jugular vein. It effectively halted Joeís retreat. He cringed from the razor sharp edge of the steel.

The taller warrior stood over Adam. His black eyes glowed with an implacable hatred. His face was painted in broad, zigzag smears of red, white and black. The paint had run in his sweat and followed the deep creases of his face to create a bizarre mask. His lips rolled back to reveal square teeth that appeared grey in the light. He leaned close and Adam could smell the strength of his breath and the rancid grease in his braids. The brave reached out a massive hand and powerful fingers twisted themselves in Adamís hair. Relentlessly, Adamís head was forced up and back, exposing his vulnerable throat to the edge of the Indianís knife. Adam raised his hands in an unconscious and unavoidable gesture of supplication and gritted his teeth. He was resigned to death; he feared another beating. These Shoshoni knew how to inflict ferocious pain and could keep a man conscious throughout. Adam had already experienced it once, and he didnít want to go through it again. He felt the sweat burst out of his skin. His mouth was dry with fear.

It was the scar-faced brave with the knife at Joeís throat that spoke. His eyes were on Adam. Sharply intelligent, he had worked out the relationship between the two men. "My cousin would kill you now, White, for what you have seen and for what you know." He spoke good English in a low, level tone that was tense with dislike, but controlled.

Adamís breath hissed. He didnít know why he wasnít dead already. It was an oversight that he expected to be rectified at any moment. The Indian over him snarled in his face, and Adam smelled his hot, nutty breath again.

"You hear me, White?" the knife-man demanded.

Adam managed a nod Ďthough it yanked at the roots of his hair. "I hear you. What do you want me to say?"

The scarred face jerked in a parody of a grin. It pulled the thick lips of the mouth sideways. "You are foolish not to be afraid."

"It takes a brave warrior to cut a bound manís throat." Adam said it with a snarl and looked the Indian full in the face. He pulled a long breath that shook in his lungs. "If your cousin wants me dead, why doesnít he kill me?" He was pushing his luck, but he knew that he had nothing to lose. He wasnít about to let these red-men see how deeply afraid he was; he had a feeling that they would delight in his terror, and that would only make matters worse.

Again came that jerk of the face. "I do not share in my brotherís thought. It may be that you would serve us better alive. And my cousinís brother named me chief."

The eyes so close to Adamís face glittered with rage. "I take it," said Adam, carefully, "That it wasnít a popular decision." Both savage faces worked. He knew he had touched on a sore spot. Even in the face of imminent death his agile mind was working on a way to turn dissent between cousins into a tool for his advantage, a way to save Joeís life, if he could.

Scar-face tightened his grip on his knife. The edge slipped out of sight below the line of Joeís jaw. "My cousinís brother will decide your fate, if you survive the desert. You will come with us, or you die now. Chose now, White. Chose for both." The blade pressed hard against Joeís neck.

Adam knew what it was that he was being offered; between inhale and exhale he had to decide. Many of the tribes took captives, usually women and small children as slaves to help with the soul-destroying work of subsisting in a harsh and unforgiving environment. It was rare for men to be taken alive. The experience wasnít likely to be a pleasant one, and there would be little or no opportunity for escape.

He could see the terror written plainly on Joeís face. His eyes were open so wide that the whites were showing all the way Ďround. His body was starting to shake. Adam felt the grip of fear in his own gut: a hard, balled up fist of dread. It was the fear of the unknown, the fear of pain, the primordial terror of death. He touched his lips with the point of his tongue. He hoped that Joe would forgive him for the decision he had to make. "I chose life."

The face above him smiled a thin, cruel smile. Adam felt the edge of the steel, cold and keen against his neck.

The scar-face said, "You know you make a bargain, white-man?"

"I know it." Adamís breathing was shallow. The blood buzzed in his head.

The painted Shoshoni tightened his grip in Adamís hair. He hissed into Adamís face. "I would see the colour of your blood, white man." The knife moved, and fresh blood flowed from the wound below Adamís ear.

The Shoshoni moved quickly and they travelled light. They carried barely more than their weapons and the clothes they stood up in. As the edge of the sun broke the eastern skyline, they were already crossing the strip of sparse grassland that separated the last of the woods from the place where the desert began. They had put Joe up on a horse Ė Adam was grateful for that Ė and they tied him securely to the ponyís back. His hands still bound before him, at the end of a rope, Adam was made to walk. He knew that being on foot, as a helpless captive while others rode, was designed to humiliate him and, eventually, to weaken him. In Adamís mind there was no doubt that it would accomplish both.

Somewhere along the way, he had lost his coat and his hat. He knew that before the next day dawned, he would have serious need of them. At least he had been left his clothes and, most important of all, his boots.

Before the sun had fully risen, the war band was heading into dry country. Aminotek was war chief. He led the way, riding out in front on his painted, grey pony. He wore no paint on his face; he bore his hideous scarring as a badge of his courage. He headed due east, into the dawn, and he went at a steady pace.

Immediately behind him on a big, black, mean-mannered gelding rode his cousin, Kalikasi, medicine chief, he of the painted and deeply folded face Ė the man who wanted Adam dead. He had taken the lead rope to Adamís hands himself, and he made sure that he kept it tight. After them, in single file, rode the other Shoshoni braves. One of them led Joeís pony by the rein and another the two spare horses the party possessed.

They rode, not together in a bunch, but widely spread across the landscape, each man following his own path. It made their trail obscure and hard to follow and their numbers difficult to count.

Dawn, in the desert, was a beautiful thing to behold. The sky was banded with green and gold and apricot shades as the high, silver clouds reflected the God-given light. The brush-land, still cold, was grey and green, clothed knee-high to a horse in mist. Visibly creeping, as the sun climbed higher, the shadows of single, sentinel trees, the last guardians against the encroaching wilderness, fell over the land. They pointed and beckoned, the dark fingers of fate.

The air was cool and damp with the mist. It smelled of peppery dust, and it tickled the nose. As the morning drew on, that self-same air would become searing hot, scorching the throat and the lungs and pulling the last drop of moisture from the pores of a manís skin. Above all, the desert was silent: nothing moved, no birds called, not even a cricket buzzed to break the stillness. The Indians rode quietly, each man alone. Even the ponies moved without sound; there was no jingle of harness or clink of iron shod hooves on the stony ground. The figures drifted like ghosts into the brightening, morning light.

Adam stumbled and tripped. Not for the first time, he fell, landing heavily on elbows and knees that were already raw and bleeding from repeated contact with the unforgiving earth. The impact drew an involuntary grunt of pain that was quickly stifled. His pride wouldnít let them see that he was hurt. He knew that was what they wanted most. This time, he stayed on his knees for a while to recover his breath. He had learned that he got no reward for getting right back up on his feet.

Kalikasi stopped the black horse and waited for him without looking at him. He considered the white man beneath his contempt and would not lower himself to show his impatience.

Taking a moment to look about him, Adam searched for Joe. All the other riders had disappeared into the desolation. He began to understand how they could come and go like wraiths on the wind, no one seeing them, no one knowing that they were even there. They merged so perfectly with their environment that it was impossible to locate them. He could only hope that Joe was all right.

Because he knew that he had to, he climbed back to his feet. He was thirsty, and his back and legs were aching. It was difficult to walk with his hands fastened in front of him, and his feet were hurting. High-heeled riding boots were not designed for long treks in harsh country. Kalikasi moved off at once, jerking on the rope and making Adam stumble again.

Gradually, the dry range gave way to saw grass and scrub and the soil to sand and stone.

Still facing east, Adam was walking right in to the sun. The glare hurt his eyes, and the details of the landscape were lost in the dazzle. As the morning wore on, the temperature climbed steadily. He felt as if the gates of hell had opened before him and he had walked right in. Unbelievably dry and soaked in his own sweat, his head was starting to spin. He was becoming confused and disorientated, lurching from side to side on legs that no longer obeyed the dictates of his mind. Now, the rope was pulling him along. Every step was a renewal of agony. He staggered and stumbled repeatedly against the ground.

Inevitably, he fell again. Kalikasi allowed his horse to walk on several paces, dragging Adam behind. This time, it took him a whole lot longer to get up. It was a warning, and Adam heeded it. His face cut and scraped, he had learned not to fall over.

The water hole was little more than a mud-patch at the very edge of the desert. Surrounded by rocks and vegetation no less sparse than the surrounding wilderness, it was sunk low down in the ground and did little to advertize its presence. From every direction it was invisible. The Shoshoni knew where it was and found it unerringly. There was only one way down into the basin, a narrow path that switched back and forth between frost-shattered boulders. The nights out here were ferociously cold.

Driven by desperate need, Adam would have used the last of his strength in a frantic dash for the water. Kalikasi held him back, snubbed tight against the side of his horse by the rope on his hands. Adamís tongue had swollen to fill his mouth; his dry lips had split and bled and dried again. The salt of his sweat stung in his wounds. Breathless, panting in the merciless heat, Adam looked into the medicine chiefís painted face. In Kalikasiís deep-set eyes he saw implacable hatred and contempt for his weakness.

The Shoshoni had water bags on their horses, the still-hairy skins of small animals tied off at the neck. They were not thirsty. They were content to hang back, waiting and watching, as silent and still as the land that contained them. It was as if they expected a trap. Allowed to stand still, just for that moment, and to rest his weight against the horse, Adamís head began to clear.

Bit by bit, he puzzled it out. He figured his first guess had been about right. The Shoshoni had spare ponies with them that must once have had riders. This group had to be part of a larger war-band that had dispersed into the hills and the desert. Without doubt they were being pursued. It was the brotherís bad luck that they had ridden right into them. It occurred to Adam again, how slender the thread was by which their lives hung.

It was more than an hour before the Shoshoni braves were content that they were alone in the landscape. To Adam, it was a fair slice of eternity. At a given signal that he didnít see, they emerged all at once from the sun-bright wilderness. By then, Adam was on the point of collapse. He was barely clinging to awareness. Spots danced in front of his eyes, and his legs had turned into jelly.

Kalikasi grunted and jerked cruelly on the rope, but he allowed Adam to lean on the horse as they went down the rocky path. At the bottom he pushed him away with his foot and sent him sprawling headlong onto the hot earth. Adam crawled to the water on his knees and his elbows. It was muddy and warm and thick with scum. He plunged in his face and drank like an animal. It was the sweetest of nectars, and he never wanted to stop.

Aminotek stood over him, legs astride, and twisted his hands in his hair. He yanked him up and away from the water. Adam fought him insanely with his bound hands, trying to get back to drink some more. Aminotek knocked him down and hit him hard alongside the head with the end of the rope. "Fool of a white man," he snarled in to Adamís face. "Would you drown in your own blood?"

Adam came slowly to his senses. He remembered what he had forgotten: that a man starved of water mustnít drink too much all at once. At best he would make himself sick; at worst heíd burst his gut and die a lingering death. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth.

"I guess I wasnít thinking straight. What about my brother? He needs water as well."

Aminotek looked across at Joe, still tied to the back of the horse. White-faced, the young man was slumped forward against the animalís neck. He might have been unconscious Ė or dead. The black-eyed gaze switched back to Adamís face. The white man still had the light of madness in his eyes. Aminotek looped Adamís tether twice around a rock. It would be enough to keep him away from the water. "Your brother will have what he needs," he said curtly, and he stepped over Adamís legs and walked away.

Adam watched him go. His breathing was steadying and he was starting to think more clearly. He looked around him. The Indians, who had been watching him with varying degrees of scorn, and some small amusement, had returned to their tasks, filling their water-skins and allowing their ponies to drink, generally preparing themselves for a long hard trek. One of them, on Aminotekís instruction, had gone to Joe and lifted his head by the hair. He was pouring small amounts of water into the young manís mouth. Adam was, apparently, being ignored.

Left to his own devices, Adam contemplated escape. The black horse stood not far away, its reins trailing on the ground. It wore no saddle, only a faded blanket and daubs of red paint on its sweating hide.

The animal turned its head towards Adam and snorted as if it could read his mind. Adam thought about it some more. If he could get his sore and bruised body as far as the horse and get himself on to its back, there was just a chance that he could get out of here, dodging the arrows and whatever bullets the Indians had. Riding hell for leather across the desert he might just be able to find some help Ė and to get it back here in timeÖ

The black horse shook its head in negation, and Adam had to agree. It might be his last chance of freedom, but he would have to go without Joe. The Shoshoni could travel much faster without captives; if he made good an escape, or died in the attempt, his brother wouldnít live out the hour. He turned his head and found Aminotekís eyes on him. The war-chiefís face was inscrutable, but Adam had the feeling his mind had been read. He had been allowed to think exactly what he had thought and to reach the conclusion that he had reached. Adam couldnít run away, hell, he couldnít even walk! And he couldnít leave Joe behind.

They encouraged him to relieve himself in the rocks well away from the water Ė they wouldnít be stopping again before nightfall Ė and before they set out they allowed him to drink again, but sparingly. This time they put him up on a horse, which was as well because his legs had failed and he couldnít walk any more. They tied his wrists to the ponyís neck and passed a loop under its belly to secure his legs. By mid-afternoon the little party of horses and men were moving out into the blazing heat of the desert.

Still thirsty and hungry and exposed to the heat, Adamís suffering could only increase. An expert horseman for twenty years he had no trouble staying on the horseís back, even without the help of a saddle. The appaloosa was a gelding and relatively well behaved. He also had a backbone like a saw-bladeís edge and a slightly erratic gait. These two, combined with the rough terrain, threatened to cut Adam in half.

The Indians rode as before, widely spread across the country. One of the braves led Adamís pony, and another, Joeís. Kalikasi rode alone. The desert was desolation incarnate, a hellish expanse of naked stone. The rocks heaved and swelled like the waves of an ocean, frozen in time. Heat waves shimmered and dust devils danced on the flats. The sky was an unturned, burning bronze bowl, and the air held the breath of hell.

One by one the riders faded away into the shivering distance, lost in the haze of sand and sun like wraiths on a misty night. On the rocks where they passed, there was no sign at all, nothing to show that they had ever beenÖ

 

 

Three

Hat in hand, Hoss Cartwright took the two steps down from the stoop into the yard. A huge and powerful man, he drew a long breath that filled his lungs to capacity. His mighty chest swelled until the fine, white linen of his shirt strained against the buttons that held it together. Self effacing and modest to a fault, Hoss hated wearing his best, Sunday go-to-meeting suit and the tight fitting, highly polished brown-leather boots that went with it, with a heart-felt sincerity. On this particular afternoon of early summer he wasnít minding it one bit. He no longer noticed the black ribbon at his throat that had cost half an hour of painstaking effort to manipulate into an elaborate bow, or the constriction of the caramel-coloured broadcloth across his shoulders, or the pinch of the boots. He might have been walking on air.

He took the time to savour the moment. He knew that this was going to be one of those pivotal moments that he would carry with him, in memory, for the rest of his life.

The afternoon was sliding slowly and surely into evening. The dome of the sky was a deep, true blue with the sunlight slanting steeply down from the west. It lit the little farmstead with a soft, golden light.

The Fletchers had worked long and hard to resurrect the ramshackle property from the wilderness it had become when Nathan Boxer and his sons had been running the place. Hoss and his brothers had helped out whenever they could. Now, at last, it was beginning to show some return for all their efforts. Fletcher had built a brand new house on the site of the old, sway-backed shack, and his wife had planted roses to climb over the porch to the roof. Already the plants were showing new growth Ė a promise of continued prosperity to come.

The previous autumn, before the first snows, the Cartwrights had raised a new barn Ė a gift from family to family Ė and Adam, Hossís elder brother, had designed one of those fancy bath-houses he was so all-fired fond of all of a sudden, and that was to be built this year.

Beyond the barn there was a new corral and a long row of fence posts that followed the curve of the road to the belt of cottonwood trees that marked the edge of the farm. The fields were planted with long rows of corn, softly green and yellow and white in the afternoon light. A dozen head of cattle grazed in the meadow beside the stream. Two milk cows and four horses occupied the corral, and a whole clutch of golden-brown chickens scratched about in the yard. Altogether, it was an achievement of which the family could be justly proud.

Hoss let the breath out in a long and satisfied sigh. Life was good. Everything he had hoped for had come about, and he was a happy man. Right across the yard from where he stood, a diminutive figure waited beside the corral fence. A small, faired-haired woman in her blue, best dress, she was gazing out across the fields towards the trees beyond. Hoss recalled, abruptly, why he was here, all dressed up like a turkey at a Thanksgiving feast, and what he was going to do. A big smile spread over his broad, bluff face. As far as he was concerned, the worst part of his ordeal was already over; now, he just had to ask Mary Fletcher one simple question, and he was already pretty sure of the answer.

All his senses were pre-naturally sharp as he crossed the short distance between them. In a flutter of bronzed feathers, the chickens scattered in front of his feet. He both heard and felt the crunch of earth beneath the soles of his boots. Crickets buzzed in the uncut grass beside the well. A cow flicked her tail and tossed her head, bothered by a long-tailed fly. Somewhere over the meadow a red-breasted thrush lifted its voice in an evening song. In a final glimmer of glory, the sun set behind the shoulder of the mountain, and the sky in the east grew dark.

In the fast fading warmth of the afternoon, Hoss felt the cool brush of the mountainís breath in the breeze against his cheek. The air smelled of summer grass and distant pine.

The light fell softly on Mary Fletcherís face. Her skin was delicate, flawless, almost white. The pale column of her neck rose to a jaw-line a trifle sharp. Her nose was narrow and finely tipped; her mouth seemed to Hoss to be ever on the verge of a smile. He loved the sound of her ready, bubbling laughter. Pale, golden hair swept back from her face into a loose bun at the back of her head. A thick tendril had artfully escaped the pins and coiled itself against her cheek. Hoss found the urge to take that curl of hair and coil it Ďround his thick fingers all but impossible to resist. Maryís cornflower-blue eyes, just two shades darker than the dress she wore, were wistful as she looked towards the meadow where the mists were starting to gather in profusion down by the stream.

She sensed Hoss standing behind her, felt something of the heat radiating from his big body. A tender smile touched her lips. "Isnít it beautiful, Hoss?"

Hoss lifted his eyes from the woman he loved to look at the darkening landscape. He had to agree. "It sure is, Miss Mary." He reached out and placed a hand on the top rail of the fence, half encompassing her in his arms. "I donít reckon as I ever seen anythiní half so pretty in my whole life." He wasnít referring to the scenery and Mary Fletcher knew it. A flush of colour rose into her throat.

Suddenly, she stiffened. "Oh, look Hoss! Look! A shooting star!"

Just in time, Hoss looked east to see the single streak of brilliance fade across the darkest third of the sky.

"Hoss, do you think itís an omen, just for us?" Mary wrapped her arms Ďround herself. Her eyes were aglow. "Iíd like to think itís a sign sent by God especially for us. A sign that no one else in the whole wide world can see."

Hoss was a little uncertain of how to handle this romantic sort of talk. "Well, Maíam, iffen thatís what you want ta think, then thatís what weíll say it was: a sign Ďspecially for us."

Mary laughed lightly, but the sound was a trifle forced. She was feeling just as anxious as he was. She turned to face him, her big, gentle giant of a man. Hoss stepped back to give her space. Bashfully he turned the rim of his high-crowned hat Ďround and Ďround in his hands. He was a nervous as a schoolboy on recital day. His belly was all filled with ladybug wings, and his legs belonged to somebody else. He found it hard to look into the ladyís face.

"Mary, I bin a-talkiní ta yore Pa." The words came out all in a rush, and Hoss clamped his jaws tight shut to stop the rest of them tumbling right on out behind them. Heíd had hours of patient coaching on how to do this from his brothers: firstly from Joe and later, more usefully, from Adam. Adam had taught him to breathe. Hoss pulled a deep breath.

Mary prompted gently. "And what did my Pa have to say?"

The big smile started to creep back onto Hossís face. "Your Pa sayís itís just fine by him iffen I ask you, only I gotta ask you." Hoss frowned. He wasnít at all sure that he understood all the convoluted proprieties of this, even though Adam and his Pa had explained it quite carefully, several times. He remembered what Adam had said and breathed.

Somewhat uncertainly, he began again. "Mary, I know I ainít nothiní special ta look at, but Iím big, aní Iím strong, aní I sure know how ta work hard."

Mary reached out to touch his face. "Hoss, youíre kind and generous and as handsome a man as any woman could ever want to meet."

"Heck, Mary, I sure ainít no oil paintiní." Hossís cheeks flared pink.

Mary watched his face. It was plain that the big man was having difficulty. "What was it you wanted to ask me?"

Hoss gazed at her. All the fancy words and phrases that Adam had carefully taught him had flown clean out of his head. He guessed that he would just have to get it said in his own way after all. He flushed furiously. Bashful, he looked at his boots, then lifted his eyes to her face again. They were the palest blue, bright and hopeful. "Mary," Hoss drew a breath. Heíd remembered that much at least. "Iíd kinda like fer you ta be my wife."

"Oh, Hoss!" Mary was so relieved; she had thought he would never pluck up the courage. "Yes! Of course Iíll marry you!"

His hands went round her instinctively as she moved in close against his chest. She closed her eyes as he lowered his face, and felt the first touch of his lips.

Hoss was bouncing home in the wagon in the very last of the light. He figured that he was about as happy as a man had any right to be this side of that Paradise place his Pa was always talking about. Little Mary Fletcher had said yes!

Hoss had big plans. He was going to build a fine house up in the high country. He had a spot already picked out in his mind: a place where the view of the lake was truly superb, a place where there was fresh, running water, unspoiled stands of magnificent timber and pastureland with good grazing. He and Mary would raise pedigree bulls and fine horses and a whole big passel of kids. He couldnít wait to tell his Pa all about it and to see the look of his brotherís faces just as soon as they got home from their trip.

The Ponderosa, on a summerís evening, was a beautiful place to be. The grasslands, devoid of animals now that that the cattle had been moved to high grazing, lay empty under the wide, open sky. The tussocky grass that had fed the winter herds was starting to re-grow; the scent of its growing was a heady aroma on the cooling evening air. The hills beyond were already in darkness, and the sky was changing from silver to velvet black.

Hoss let the cantering horses run through the ford of the stream without even slowing them down. Water sprayed out in great fans from the wheels, and Hoss laughed aloud with the sheer joy of being alive.

He was almost home and anticipating supper: hot coffee and a great slab of fresh apple pie, when he caught sight of the horses. They were grazing alongside the road quite close to the house, where no oneís horses had any right to be. A slight frown clouding his generous features, Hoss hauled on the thick, strap reins and brought the running team to a halt.

Sitting quiet and motionless on the high seat of the wagon, he listened and searched the trees with his eyes. Except for the fidget of the horses and the jingle of harness, the night was utterly silent and still. Hoss would have sworn there was no one about.

Hoss set the brake and wound the reins around the lever. He climbed down over the wheel. The nearest horse, a large, dark coloured mare, eyed him warily as he approached. Hoss held out a hand. The mare threw up her head and danced away from him. He saw her eye gleam in the light of the rising moon. He caught up the trailing rein.

"Easy now girl, easy." Hoss spoke gently and unselfconsciously to the horse and after a few, calming words she gradually quieted. Hoss stroked her nose and breathed into her nostrils. He felt her hide quiver. "What you doiní out here all be yore-self, huh?"

By way of an answer, the mare snorted and nuzzled his hand. Although she was skittish, she was missing human company, her stall in the barn and a generous measure of oats. Hoss looked Ďround suspiciously at the nearby patch of woodland. There was still no one about. With the skill of an accomplished expert, he checked the horse over. Apart from a few scuff marks and a missing shoe, she appeared to be undamaged. She shivered and snorted, shaking her head. Hoss spoke to her again: soft, soothing words. He looked at the saddle on her back.

The scowl that had settled onto his face deepened. No one had ridden the mare for a very long time. The leather seat of the saddle was dirty and bits of the harness were broken. Hoss went over it bit by bit, moving more and more slowly, until he came to the stock of the long saddle gun. His lips set into a thin, tight line as he pulled the rifle out from under the saddle skirts. The gun was achingly familiar; there was no doubt at all that it belonged to his elder brother. Hoss looked at the other horse, now standing in the full light of the moon. It was Joe Cartwrightís pinto mare.

His scowl ever deepening, Hoss worked his way backwards over the mareís dark hide. When he got near her rump she flinched away from him and tried to step on his foot.

"Easy girl. Easy." The big man murmured soft endearments. "Itís gonna be all right. Olí Hoss is gonna take real good care oí you."

A long way behind the saddle, in the fleshiest part of the muscle, he found an ugly wound all clotted up with blood and dirt. Out of the festering mess stuck the broken-off stump of an arrow. Hoss ground his teeth together. There was no surer sign that his brothers were in all sorts of trouble.

Ben Cartwright rode home that night with a smile on his handsome, if ageing, face. Altogether, it had been a successful day. It had started before first light with a new foal born in the barn: a fine dark colt with all of Monarchís good looks and the promise of speed from his motherís side. Often as he had seen it over the years, that miracle of birth always left him amazed and rejoicing. And then, in the morning light, he had taken the long ride up to John Parkinsonís holding, up beyond Painterís Ridge

Parkinson had been a neighbour and a cordial, if not close, acquaintance for a good long time. Now, the years had taken their toll, and old John and his wife Helen had decided to sell up and move away to spend their retirement years somewhere out by the ocean. It had taken a whole dayís wrangling on Ben's part Ė Parkinson was ever the man to drive a hard bargain Ė but he had bought the place, lock, stock and barrel, for a fair and reasonable price. The Parkinson place lay in a valley deep in a fold in the hills. It had timber and water and some pretty fine pasture. The house was well built and plenty large enough for a small family, and there was space alongside to expand. On his way home, Ben had got to thinking that the little ranch would make a handsome wedding gift for a marrying son.

The trail topped the rise and he stopped to let his horse blow. From where he sat he could see the home ranges laid out before him like a darkling map in the moonlight. The pine forests were black, and the lake, a silver mirror that reflected the sky. Set in amongst its surrounding barns and outhouses and the web-work of fences that formed the corrals, the big house was all lit up like a beacon. It was blazing light into the night at an hour long after everyone should have been safely in bed. It was then that Ben felt the very first inklings of concern. He kicked his horse into a weary canter and rode swiftly down the road that led home.

This time, for once, Paul Martinís distinctive buggy was not parked in front of the house. Ben heaved a massive sigh of relief as he stepped down from the saddle. The family doctor was also a personal friend, but in recent months he had been required to make all too many professional calls on the Cartwrights for Benís peace of mind. All through the house, the lamps still burned. Perhaps Hoss was simply too excited to sleep; perhaps a small celebration was already in progress. The smile returned to Benís face as he approached his own front door.

Hoss had been pacing the floor for hours, wearing a path in the floor in front of the hearth. He had the unmistakable feeling that he ought to be doing something, but right there and then in the middle of the night, he wasnít at all sure what. He was never so glad as when he heard his País horse pull up in the yard outside.

Ben came in through the door in a rush. The big smile and the ready words of congratulation died unspoken on his lips. One long look at the expression on Hossís face was enough to tell him that something, somewhere, had gone seriously awry. His first thought was that Mary Fletcher had turned his big son down. Instinct alone told him that this wasnít the case; the two were perfectly suited and very much in love. Ben dumped hat and gloves on the sideboard and strode across the room. He took that long, last moment of not knowing to pull a steadying breath.

"What is it, son?"

Hoss gave him an unhappy look. "Itís Joe aní Adam, Pa. I reckon somethiní awful badís happened to them out there in the hills."

Ben let the breath out carefully, suppressing the sudden feeling of dread. Time enough for that later when he had discovered all the facts. "What makes you think that?"

In short, terse sentences, Hoss told him. "I found their horses on the road home tonight, grazing in the north quarter. Critters hadnít been ridden in quite a long stretch. No sign of Adam or Joe, but all their gear was still on their saddles."

Benís mouth was suddenly dry. All thoughts of celebrations and weddings were dashed out of his head. He searched desperately for a plausible explanation. "Did you check the horses over? Was there any sign that there had been a fight?"

Hossís face took on a look Ben had seen only once before Ė that day long ago when he had come down the staircase to tell his father that Adam had been shot in the belly. "There werenít no blood on the saddles, Pa, but you know that donít mean nothiní. Adamís horse had an arrow stuck in her butt. Itís been in there one hell of a time, aní them critters have come through some pretty rough country all by themselves. Their legs is all cut, and they sure were hungry."

Ben stared at his son, and Hoss saw the dawning horror in his fatherís dark eyes. He knew very well the effect this news was having, and it was news that he hated to give.

Ben swallowed hard. There was great lump in his throat that wouldnít go down and a hard knot of dread in his belly. "I been hearing about Indians raiding up North and across the line into California, but nowhere near where Adam and Joe were going."

Hoss stood in front of the fire with his back to the flames. His shoulders were hunched, and his hands were thrust deep into his front pants pockets. His broad features were creased up into that deeply perplexed expression that he wore when he was struggling with problems inside his head. "They sure as heck run into Indian trouble, Pa. Lookís like they were runniní, didnít get no chance ta fight back. Their saddle guns were still on their horses, aní all their other gear as well."

Ben insisted on going over to the barn and, with painstaking care, looking over both of the horses himself. As Hoss had said, there were no injuries on Joeís horse Ė just the signs that she had been living rough for some time as she made her way home. Adamís horse was a whole different story. Hoss had cut out the arrowhead and done what he could to clean up the wound, but there was a massive infection and the animal was seriously lame. Ben wondered if it wouldnít be kindest to put her down, but he just couldnít do it; somehow she was a last link with Adam, and Hoss seemed convinced that he could get her walking again. He decided to give her a chance to recover.

The conclusion he came to was inevitable. Whichever way he looked at it, resourceful as they might be, two of his sons were in serious need of help. He looked at Hoss across the back of Adamís horse.

"We wonít be able to do any backtracking. The trailís too old, and itís been raining up in the hills. But we know which way Adam was planning to go, north through the hills as far as Pyramid Lake and then a long swing west and south, stopping off to visit with that friend of his in the Sacramento Valley."

"Thatís one awful big country out there, Pa, even if Adam didnít change his mind along the way and go someplace else. You reckon we got a catís chance oí findiní them?" Hoss was unhappily dubious of their chance of success, and he had to add, reluctantly, "Even if they are still alive."

Benís dark eyebrows clashed together. "What do you mean, still alive?"

Hoss was increasingly uncomfortable. He found it more and more difficult to look his father in the face. "Pa, I reckon you just gotta face it. Adam aní Joe have run into some pretty serious trouble out there. Somethiní Ė something awful might oí happened to Ďem."

Angrily, Benís voice started to rise. "What would you have me do? Sit at home by the fire and wait and see if your brothers ever manage to find their way back home?"

Hoss sighed heavily. "You know I didnít mean nothiní like that, Pa. Itís just thereís an awful lot oí places they could be. Weíre gonna be a long time a-lookiní."

"Then weíll look Ďtil we find them!" Ben wasnít prepared, right there and then, to admit to any more sinister possibilities than that his sons were lost and afoot in the hills.

"Yes, Sir." Hoss scuffed his boots in the dirt. He looked about as miserable as Ben had ever seen him, and he felt much that way as well. He gazed at the horrid wound on the horseís rump. It was indisputable evidence that his brothers had run into more than a little trouble. He guessed his Pa just wasnít going to be able to see it that way for quite some time. Hoss feared the worst, and he hoped to heaven that he was wrong.

Benís anger abated as rapidly as it had come. He came out of the mareís stall, running a hand over her rump as he passed. He felt empty, drained, and sick to his stomach. He put his hand on Hossís shoulder. "Letís go and get some rest. Weíll start out first thing in the morning Ė follow the route they would have taken and see what we can find out."

Side by side, walking close together for comfort and companionship, the two men made their way back across the yard to the house. They put out most of the lamps, leaving a solitary light burning on the porch over the door, and, eventually, they retired to their beds. There was little sleep to be had for either of them that night.

*******

The heat leeched quickly from the barren lands as the solar orb slid into the west. The days were hot in the desert, with the sun beating down without mercy and little water to be had. The nights were bright and starlit and bitingly cold. There had been no fires lit and no hot food prepared. The little party of Shoshoni warriors and their two, bound captives had existed solely on stale-tasting water, dried meat and little cakes of hard, gritty bread.

For days uncounted, they had been riding steadily north and then west into these dry, brown hills. They rode, for the most part, silently, one behind the other. The unshod hooves of the ponies made little noise on the stony path, and each horse stepped, almost exactly, into the tracks of the one in front. For Adam Cartwright, the razor-backed appaloosa pony had become his own, personal instrument of torture. With his head hung down almost to his knees, the animal followed the horse in front on a long, loose lead line. He walked lazily and often stumbled, which added to Adamís agony.

Adam had begun to despair. He had been separated from his own kind, removed from any semblance of civilization, mistreated and abused. What made it worse, he couldnít see any way back. Physical pain had become a way of life. Every evening, Adam had provided the Indians with their principle source of entertainment. He couldnít count the beatings heíd taken, and his body was covered in bruises and blood. It was a tribute to the skill of his abusers that no bones were broken, and he still had all his teeth.

Adam was hungry and thirsty, and he couldnít remember a time when it hadnít been so. He hurt in more places than he could begin to think about. Added to his anguish was his concern for Joe. Several horses behind him, his brother lay slumped across his ponyís neck like a man already dead. Any attempt to look for him earned Adam another blow.

Evening was fast approaching when the path, barely discernible as it switched back and forth among the rocks, took a final turn and delivered them into the heart of the Shoshoni encampment. The settlement was so well concealed among the surrounding rocks and scrub that it would be all but unnoticeable unless a man stumbled right into it. Their arrival did not come as an unannounced surprise. Far-flung watchers had seen them approaching, and word had been carried ahead. There was no rapturous welcome, merely a quiet acceptance of their coming.

With a single slash of a sharp-edged blade, Adam was cut free from the horse. His hands still bound, he allowed himself to slide gratefully from its back. He felt as if its saw edged spine had all but cut him in half. The relief of not having to sit astride was an exquisite agony all of its own. His legs were all of a tremble, and he couldnít stand unaided. He stood clinging to the animalís neck with his fingers entangled in its stringy mane. Without breaking his stride, Kalikasi walked past and cuffed him along-side the head.

Adam went down hard and stayed down. He had learned the long way Ďround that getting right back onto his feet was an open invitation to anyone with the inclination to knock him down again, and his audacity could earn him another beating. From his vantage point, close to the ground, he took the opportunity to look around.

Upon close examination, the settlement proved to be a village of considerable sophistication. As an engineer, Adam was impressed. The shelters were large and well constructed, each one providing living space for several people. Built out of materials gleaned from the surrounding area, and incorporating the natural rocks into their structure, they all but disappeared into the background. Animal hides were draped across doorways and window openings, and the roofs were thickly thatched with scrub and bundles of desert grasses. The whole place had an air of semi-permanence, and Adam got the impression it had been here, hidden among the hills, for some time.

Outside each shelter, a small cooking fire burned, but little smoke escaped into the still sky of evening. Adam smelled the wood-smoke and the aroma of cooking food. His pinched and empty stomach clenched with hunger, and thick fluids flooded his mouth.

The still-functioning, carefully calculating part of his mind observed the people. He counted thirty or so Shoshoni braves and, perhaps, a dozen women. They moved quietly and effectively about their business, taking no notice at all of a lowly, beaten-down captive. They were all adults, young or in early middle age. He saw no old people and very few children, and, listening, he could not hear the pipe of childrenís voices. More and more he became convinced that this was a splinter group, split off from the main tribes across the desert, used to moving fast when they had to and melting away into the landscape. His fear re-established itself.

Their clothes were of leather, mostly well worn, and were the all the shades of the earth. Here and there was a flash of brighter colours, of blue and of red, a blanket, a necklace, a bit of bright quill-work woven into a shirt. He saw fringed skirts on a woman, a rabbit-skin cloak on a man. There were hides stretched out on wooden frames to dry and elaborate baskets, beautifully made, some only half complete.

A brave shouted something incomprehensible at him and made an angry gesture. Adam knew it was time to get up, unless he fancied taking another kicking. He got his feet under him, but his knees buckled as he straightened up, dumping him unceremoniously back in the dirt. It hurt, but Adam wouldnít let the pain show. He gritted his teeth. He made another try, and, this time, he got as far as his knees. The brave yelled at him again, full in the face, and grabbed him by the elbow. Another pair of hands on the other side helped haul him up onto unwilling legs. Adam staggered. As he was led unsteadily away, he caught a fleeting glimpse of his brother. Two of the Shoshoni half lifted, half carried him into one of the shelters. It seemed that he must still be alive.

Adam wasnít given the chance to look back. He was marched and, when he stumbled, dragged, to a shelter at the end of the village where a larger fire burned within a circle of smooth, rounded stones. Adam was thrown, or, more nearly, dropped, on the ground. He landed with enough force to break open the dried-up cuts of his knees. He choked off the gasp of pain before it reached his lips. Through a blur of tears he saw a kaleidoscope of faces turn slowly about him. He saw Kalikasiís deeply creased features, now all but devoid of paint, and Aminotekís deep-scarred cheeks. Adam saw nothing noble about the savage faces; he saw naked hatred in some, impassiveness in others.

His senses wavered. He had been many days in the sun without his hat, and he was afraid that the heat of the desert might just have cooked his brain. Still on his knees, he straightened his back and filled up his lungs. He clung desperately to his awareness. He couldnít afford to pass out now. Instinctively, he knew that whatever fate he had been riding towards was about to confront him. If he was to survive, he was going to need his wits about him.

The spotted hide that covered the doorway of the shelter lifted, and another Indian stepped out of the dimness within. A tall man of immense strength and stature, he stood tall and straight against the sky. Adam, still gasping for his breath, had to lean back on his heels to look up at him.

Like the others, he wore a deerskin shirt, tough hide trousers with a breechcloth over the front, and loose fitting leather boots. Around his neck were several necklaces of seashells and assorted beads and, at his belt, a broad bladed knife in an elaborate sheath.

He was the oldest of the Shoshoni that Adam had yet seen, although his hair, worn long and loose, with only a plain band of rawhide around his forehead to keep it in place, was still a glossy raven-black. His deeply bronzed face was smooth skinned and severely handsome with wide features and a narrow nose; his eyelids had a slight epicanthic fold, and his mouth was a thin, straight line. He looked at Adam out of black eyes that burned; it was as if he could see through into his very soul. Adam met his gaze squarely, refusing to flinch.

It was not Adam to whom the Indian addressed himself Ė it was to the surrounding crowd which must, by then, have included every Shoshoni in the camp. He spoke a few words, short and sharp, and a furious conversation erupted over Adams head. Held entirely in their own language, it was beyond Adamís comprehension, but he was in no doubt at all that it concerned his life.

Many braves spoke; each seemed to have the right. Each man stepped into the circle of stones to express his opinion and was allowed to speak for as long as he wished. The evening grew long, and Adamís senses began to swim again. The principle argument was between Aminotek and Kalikasi, as it had been all along. One saw a use for Adamís life; the other wanted him dead. Both had his say in the circle of stones, and the handsome Shoshoni listened carefully to both sides. Adam reasoned that this had to be Kalikasiís brother, the leader of the band and the man who had the final say of life and death. He tried to think of some way to sway the ultimate decision - and came up empty.

Eventually, the discussion became circular. The chieftain called a halt to it. He said one sharp word, and the argument ceased. The chief spoke several short, clipped sentences. Kalikasi dissented angrily. The chief spoke again, and his brother fell silent, glowering; his face was furious and dark with blood.

The tall chieftain gazed round at the gathering, his dark eyes challenging. It had grown dark while the men had talked, and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Adam, who had been broiling in his own sweat all day, was now shivery cold. The sea of bronze faces glowed gold in the firelight; the flickering light of the flames danced on their skins. No one else offered opposition to his will.

The chieftain loomed over Adam. His expression was remote, aloof, his physical presence imposing. "I am Washatak, chief of these people" The voice was stern, the words spoken in perfect, cultured English. "You are now my captive, white man, the property of the niwini, the people, and less than a man. Do you understand me?"

Adam met the chiefís gaze squarely. He pulled a breath. "I understand that I have been taken from my people and brought here against my will." He held out his bound hands to prove his point. "My brother and I have done nothing to harm the niwini, nothing to deserve this." He allowed his anger and his defiance to show in his eyes; in truth, there was little he could do to hide them.

Kalikasi snarled at him angrily. "Are you not a white man? Was it not the white man who drove our peoples out of the east, across the mountains and into the desert?" He encompassed the whole of the surrounding, arid hills with a sweep of the arm.

"Am I responsible for the doing of all my people?" Adam retorted. "Can one man stand against the wind what blows from the desert?"

Washatak said something in his own language, and Kalikasi subsided again, Ďthough his eyes still burned with rage. Washatak reached out and took a brand from the fire. He held the burning end close to Adamís face. Adam smelled the smell of singeing hair and knew it was his own. He felt the heat of the flame on his cheek and feared for his eye, but he would not cringe or move away. Washatak held out his other hand, open, palm up. Adam saw the deeply etched lifeline, forked and broken twice. He looked into the Indians eyes.

"Know that I hold your life in my hand, white man. Remember that you are mine." Washatak closed the hand into a fist. Adam felt the strong fingers about his heart. The flame moved closer, a tiny fraction. Still, he would not flinch.

"If I free you," Washatak said, "do you give me you word you will not run away?"

"The word of a white man!" Kalikasi spat and turned his face away. Washatak ignored him. He watched Adamís face.

"Do you make a bargain, white man?"

Adam gazed directly into the obsidian-dark eyes. The flame burning so close to his face reflected in their depths. He saw cruelty there, hard and bright, and courage, and something else Ė something akin to curiosity. His lips were dry. He touched them with his tongue. "I would not leave without my brother at my side."

The eyes narrowed just a fraction. Adam held them evenly with his own. The burning brand held steady. Without speaking further, two men from different worlds reached some glimmer of understanding.

Washatak tossed the brand back into the fire and made a sharp gesture to one of the watching warriors. Impassive, the brave stepped forward with a sharp edged blade and, with two swift strokes, sliced away the leather throngs that bound Adamís wrists.

Adamís hands had been bound so tightly, and for so long, that they were useless. Still on his knees, he tucked them under his armpits. Gently, he rocked back and forth, trying to ease the pain as the blood flowed freely through his fingers once more. He was careful not to let the anguish show on his face.

Kalikasi stepped into the circle of stones and confronted his brother. "You do not listen to my warnings, Washatak, but I will tell you, as I told Aminotek, if this one stays alive, the blood of our people will run red into the sand. I am medicine chief. I have seen it written in the clouds of the morning; I have heard it whispered by the wind in the night." He spoke proudly and with the authority of his office. The movements of his body betrayed the emotions he felt. There was no doubt at all that he meant every word that he said. There was an edge to his voice, barely concealed within his anger. Adam wondered what it might be.

Washatak gazed at Kalikasi, a bleak expression on his high boned face. "I hear your words, brother."

Kalikasi snarled, "But you do not listen!"

The chieftain held up his hand for peace. Kalikasi stiffened, still fuming with anger, and stepped out of the circle. Washatak looked down at Adam. The firelight danced across his high-boned features, touching his inscrutable face with gold. "Remember your promise, white man. We have a bargain."

Adam lifted his head and spoke boldly; having lived this long, he figured he had nothing to lose. "Washatak, my brother is dying."

The Shoshoni chief had already dismissed him from mind and turned away. Now, he turned back; for a moment, Adam had his attention. "If my brother dies, our bargain dies with him." Adam held the chiefís dark gaze, and his tone was uncompromising.

Washatakís eyes burned; an angry muscle twitched in his cheek. He gave Adam a long, hard look. Then he barked a command and made a swift gesture with his hand before he walked away.

A burly brave seized Adam by either elbow and lifted him onto his feet. They marched him forcibly back through the village. His legs were still unresponsive, and he found it difficult to walk. He supposed he was fortunate that they didnít make him crawl. For a moment resisting his captors, he looked back over his shoulder; the chieftain and the council fire were already out of sight.

The moonless night was velvet black, the small cook-fires bright pools of light in the darkness. Dark eyes in fire-gilded faces turned to watch him pass. Adamís thoughts were becoming confused. He fought his way through a pain filled nightmare and couldnít wake himself up.

Before he reached his destination, his legs collapsed completely, and he was dragged the last few yards. They lifted up the flap of a shelter and dumped him unceremoniously inside.

Adam found himself on his face on a hard earth floor. He concentrated, first of all, purely on breathing, in and out, His lungs hurt; every last inch of him hurt. He was hungry, thirsty, and he was in pain. His wrists were raw where the rawhide had bitten into his flesh; his face smarted where the flame had seared his cheek. His ribs hurt where he had been kicked, and his back hurt from the beatings. Adam didnít know why he was still alive. He doubted it was through any altruistic feeling on the Shoshoniís part. They had some use for him that he hadnít yet fathomed. He knew that it was a state of affairs that could be reversed at any time. At last he got his hands under him and pushed himself onto his knees.

He listened to the darkness. Far off he could hear men talking Ė the low rumble of his captorís voices as they sat outside by the fires. Inside the shelter was the sound of breathing: his own, harsh and rasping as his body struggled for some measure of recovery, slowing, steadying as it was achieved. But not all the breathing was his. There was someone else breathing, lighter and faster, like an animal.

The shelter was not entirely dark. The flap at the entrance had not fallen completely into place, and the light of the fire outside filtered in through the gap. As Adamís eyes gradually adjusted to the gloom, he took a long took Ďround. He discovered that he was in the same shelter as Little Joe. His brother lay flat on his back on a woven rug on the ground. A rough blanket covered his legs. It looked as if he thrown it off in his fever. On hands and knees, Adam crawled to his side.

"Joe, Joe!" Adamís voice was harsh from lack of water and from the hardships he had endured. "Joe, can you hear me?" He put a hand on Joeís arm and felt the heat of his fevered flesh burning through his shirt. Joe didnít respond to his voice, didnít seem to hear him. This skin of his face was hot, tight and dry. It was a marvel to Adam that, after all he had been through, Joe was alive at all.

Adam looked towards the doorway. He was frantic for help, on the verge of panic, but he knew very well that if he stuck his head outside neither he nor Joe would live to see morning. He had no doubt at all that his brother was dying, and there was nothing he could think of to do to prevent it. Adam closed his eyes, just for a moment, then climbed unsteadily to his feet. He had to do something Ė get someone Ė no matter what it cost him. Hands clenched, he turned to the door.

Four

Adam didnít make it quite as far as the world outside. Before he reached the draped hide that closed off the entrance it was lifted aside, and he found himself confronted by two Shoshoni braves coming the other way. They were both huge men; between them they filled the doorway. Their backs were to the light, which meant that Adam couldnít see their features. He did see the steely glint in their eyes, and he knew that they meant business. One of them said something to him in the Shoshoni language Ė gave him a curt order. Hands spread, Adam took a long step backwards, positioning himself squarely between them and his brother. The brave who had spoken backhanded him roughly on the sore side of his face. In a blaze of pain, Adam went sprawling. He scrambled on hands and knees to protect Joe, but both the braves were as big and as strong as he was - and there were two of them. They moved in on him threateningly.

Adam was at a considerable disadvantage, and pretty soon he found himself back on the ground with a muscular arm locked tight around his throat, and a razor edged blade at his throat. A trickle of blood ran from a newly split lip. His breath hissed, but he had the sense to stop struggling.

A woman moved the curtain aside and followed the braves into the shelter. She carried a lamp, a faint flame in a small bowl of oil. Lit from below, her face was young with a blunt narrow chin and the wide flaring cheekbones common among her people. She had huge dark eyes that glanced only once in Adamís direction to make sure that he was subdued. The rest of her features: nose and mouth, were small, which made her eyes seem even larger. Her hair was darker than midnight and worn in two thick braids tied with brightly coloured threads. Her form was slim and lithe but fully mature, encased in an elaborately beaded, but well worn, deer skin dress. Distracted by his concern for his brother and by the harshness with which his captors held him, Adam noticed none of these things. He saw her only as a threat to Joe.

A second woman followed the first, older and thicker set. She carried a variety of pots and dishes on a woven tray. She didnít look at Adam at all.

The lamp was set down close to Joeís head but safely out of the way. The light that it shed was dim but even and steady, enough for the women to work by.

The two women knelt by Joeís side, the tray on the ground between them. Adam didnít like it one bit. He made another brave bid for his freedom and came up hard against the sharp edge of the blade at his throat. The other brave punched him hard on the side of the head. Stunned, Adam came to the inevitable conclusion that he would end up with his throat cut, or else beaten into a pulp. He couldnít do Joe any good at all. He could only lean against the arm that held him and watch while the women did their work.

Between them, they rolled Joe onto his side. The younger woman pulled a knife from the sheath that she wore on her leg above the knee: a double edged, flat bladed knife. Adam snatched at his breath, and his muscles tensed. He felt the warning tightening of the warriorís arm.

Wielding the knife deftly, the woman cut away Adamís makeshift dressing, now many days old. Adam winced at the sight of his brotherís leg. It was purpled and swollen from groin to well below the knee. The skin was tight and shone in the light of the flame. It was little wonder that Joe was so ill.

The Indian woman was undismayed though the injury must have stunk. Her face remained impassive. Adam licked dry lips and watched as she used the edge of the knife to lift the blood crust and let the poison out.

Adamís senses reeled, but Joe didnít seem to notice. His face didnít flinch and his breathing stayed quick and shallow. Adam made himself relax and tapped the warriors arm. "Okay, you big lummox. You can let me go."

Whether the man understood him or not, Adam didnít know, but the brave recognized the surrender. He grunted acceptance and loosened his grip, straightening to stand over Adam with the knife still poised in his hand.

Joeís ugly wound was cleansed with water, then dressed with a thick, herbal ointment and packed with a fist-sized wad of desiccated moss. Adam knew that many of the western tribes used washed, dried moss to dress open wounds. Heíd been unaware that the desert Shoshoni knew the trick too. He had heard that the results were often good, although he had no idea why.

The women wrapped Joeís leg, moss and all, in a clean strip of cloth. Rolling Joe onto his back, they opened his shirt to the waist and spread his chest with a pungent salve. Adam assumed it was to make Joe breathe; it made him gasp from across the room. Together, the women lifted Joe and poured something into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow. Joe didnít wake up but he gulped the draught down like a man. The young woman covered him up with an ancient and moulting buffalo robe.

The two women gathered their things together, and the younger one spoke sharply to the two braves who were guarding Adam. One of them answered her; the other merely grunted. Neither of them was very happy at what she said. She gestured them away impatiently. Kneeling down at Adamís side, she reached out to touch his face, her fingers probing the ugly scorch mark on his cheek. He bore the pain without flinching, meeting her dark eyes with a steady gaze of his own. With her fingertips, she smeared thick salve onto the burn. Then she was gone, following the other woman and taking the braves, and the lamplight, with her. She left Adam in the absolute dark.

Feeling his way, Adam crawled to Joeís side. "Joe, are you all right?"

If he heard at all, Joe couldnít answer, but Adam would have sworn that his breathing was easier. Adam stretched himself out beside him, partly for warmth and partly for the comfort of familiarity. All they had left in the world was each other. Very shortly afterwards, exhausted, he slept.

*********

A lifetime of waking in the first, grey light had embedded the habit deep in Adamís bones. He opened his eyes as the first touch of morning silvered the eastern sky. It was utterly dark in the shelter, and for the space of three, slow heartbeats, Adam didnít know where he was. Then he remembered. He held his breath, listening. Joe was still alive. Adam could hear the burble and whistle of the air that moved his lungs.

Adam reached out in the dark to touch his brotherís face. Joeís dry fever had broken during the night, but now he was sweating; his clothes were damp, and his face and hair were wet. Adam spoke to him softly,

"Hey, Joe. Little Joe? Youíre gonna be all right."

Joe mumbled something through swollen lips: something about water and horses and there not being enough of either. Adam couldnít make out the rest.

"Itís okay, little brother. Iím gonna get you a drink.

Adam brushed the hair back from Joeís sweating face in an automatic gesture of affection. Little Joe, at his best, could be a real pain to a man, infuriating and irresponsible. He was as dear to Adam as another human being could be. Refusing to dwell on grim possibilities, Adam got to his feet.

His own body had made a remarkable recovery, calling on extra reserves. He still had stiffness and sore spots all over, but his legs would obey him, and his back straightened easily. He felt so well he was almost light headed. He lifted the hide from the doorway and stepped outside.

The village was not yet astir. No lights showed anywhere, and the shelters were darknessess deep in the shadows. His guards, if he had any, were not in evidence. Across the way from where he stood a rangy black dog scratched idly for fleas. The fire had burned down to ashes; there was scarcely a glow. Adam fed the glow twigs and blew on it gently. Soon, he had a bright blaze going, enough to give a little warmth on a chill desert morning and just enough light to see by. He took another, long look around.

He found several baskets filled with pine nuts, a much worn blanket and several discarded scraps of cloth, and he discovered a water-skin, partially filled, hanging from a pole. He left the pine nuts and gathered the rest, taking it with him into the shelter. With the flap folded back, enough of the pre-dawn light filtered in for him to see what he was doing. He gave Joe a drink, lifting his head and pressing the opening of the water skin against his lips. The water came out with a rush and got both of them wet. Joe coughed and spluttered but at least he swallowed and got some inside him.

Adam took a mouthful himself, a small one. The water was stale and flat and tasted of hide. It was the sweetest drink he had ever had. He resisted the urge to swallow it all and gave some more to Joe.

With a scrap of rag soaked in water he bathed Joeís hands and face, talking to him quietly, trying to elicit some response. Joeís face was grey and drawn with pain, making him appear older than his years. His lips were bloodless and his eyelids almost transparent, veined in blue. He tossed his head, trying to escape from Adamís ministrations as he struggled to some semblance of awareness. Then, at last, he opened his eyes.

Joe was delirious, or, perhaps, he was dreaming. He muttered something incoherent, cried out abruptly and tried to focus pain bright eyes on Adamís face. Feebly, he moved his arms and legs. He looked as if he was trying to swim through warm molasses and not making much headway.

"Adam? I hurt!" Joe mumbled his words as if his lips and tongue were numb and not responding properly to the thoughts he tried to express. He struggled to make his words intelligible. "My leg hurts so much! Where are we? Whatís goiní on? Why is it so dark in here?"

Adam didnít know what to tell him, how much his brother could cope with or what he would understand. Clearly he didnít remember anything about their capture, or their painful journey north. That, maybe, was a mercy, but it put the burden of information squarely on Adamís shoulders. He drew a deep breath Ė there was no point in trying to hide the truth. He tried to keep it simple.

"Weíre in a Shoshoni village, Joe, held captive."

Joe stared at him. "Canít be! Canít be, Adam." He shook his head against the ground. "Ainít no Shoshonis this side oí the desert."

Adam glanced towards the doorway. The daylight was steadily strengthening. Outside, beyond the walls of hide and wattle, he could hear movement and voices. He turned back to find Joe watching him, disbelief and worry on his face. "I think theyíre renegades, raiding across the border, hiding out in these hills."

Joeís skepticism turned into fear; Adam watched it happen. "Theyíre gonna kill us, Adam! How we gonna get out oí here?" Frantic, Joe tried to get some coordinated response from his body. He floundered on his back like a stranded turtle. Adam dabbed the sweat from his face and tried to calm him. "Hey, you concentrate on getting better and leave the worrying to me. Iíll find a way to get us both out of here." It was a promise that came easily to Adamís lips Ė the need to comfort was strong. He had no idea if it would be possible to keep his word. He hadnít figured out yet why they were still alive.

Adam could see that Joeís attention was drifting away again. His eyelids drooped and fluttered and closed as sleep and fever claimed him again. Adam pulled the blanket over him and then the buffalo robe. In these northern desert lands, nights and mornings were cold. Joe couldnít afford to take a chill.

Adam returned the water skin to the pole where heíd found it, hanging it up by its braided cord. It was a basic form of good manners that heíd learned in a Pauite camp. In the early light of the morning, the village was coming to life. The women were tending the cook fires with the youngest of the children clinging to their skirts. The nearest child gazed at Adam with huge and curious eyes. A dog barked until someone kicked it, and somewhere a baby cried and was quickly quieted, put to a womanís breast. It was a scene of quiet and industrious bustle

A small group of older children, perhaps about a dozen and all of them boys, walked purposefully by. Dressed in buckskins and leather like miniature versions of their fathers, they carried sticks and slings and bows and arrows, weapons Adam knew they could wield with fearful accuracy. The little group had an air of determination and suppressed excitement; clearly, they were off on a hunt.

One of the older women finally gave Adam some food. Without speaking, she handed him, of all possible things, a blue, enamelled plate and a hall marked silver spoon that had come, at one time, all the way from England. She ladled out porridge from a pot that had sat all night by her fire: several spoonfuls of hot, brown mush. It was thick with seeds and wild grains and distinctively flavoured with pinion nuts. It was the first square meal that Adam had eaten in a long, long time. He tried to eat slowly, pacing himself, but less than half the food was inside him when his shrunken stomach clenched and went into spasm. He had to fight to keep the meal down.

It was a battle that he had to win, and win it he did, but at a cost. The fight left him exhausted and shaking. He knew he couldnít eat any more. Thinking to take what was left to his brother, he started towards the shelter.

The woman spoke to him sharply and pointed away. Adam didnít understand the Shoshoni, but he took her to mean that she would tend to Joe. Hands spread, he backed off. He had no other choice.

Adam got no chance to rest his bruised muscles or tend to his numerous sore spots. He was put in the charge of the women and set to do womenís work. For the most part, the men-folk ignored him. It was beneath the dignity of a warrior to notice a slave. Adam was left in no doubt that was exactly what he had become. He was soon made to understand that his value was less than that of a decent horse, something more than a dogís.

Although they pretended indifference to his presence, they were clearly aware of the physical threat he represented. There were always one or two braves within sight, rifles cradled in their arms. Adam wondered again why, if he were such a danger, they were keeping him alive.

The women equipped themselves with long, whippy sticks to beat him with, and some of them took a delight in using them. Adam took the abuse stoically and without complaint; he didnít allow the pain of it to show on his face or reveal the fury he felt inside. By midmorning, the novelty of ill-treating him had worn off; the women drifted away to tasks of their own. The children were more of a problem. There were more of them than he had first thought, and a hoard the younger ones followed him about. They taunted him and threw sharp stones and chanted incomprehensible songs at which everybody laughed except for Adam, who did not understand.

The village was more extensive than he had imagined, spreading over several hillsides and the valleys in between. The shelters, of hide and canvas and woven willow-wands, were in little clusters amongst the rocks. Some of them were in social groups, probably families living together; some of them were clustered about a single hearth, while some had a fireplace all of their own.

The water supply, and the villageís principle reason for being where it was, was a spring that cascaded, fresh and clear, from beneath a shelf of hard, grey rock. It filled a series of natural stone basins as it cascaded down the hill, petering out in a pool in a shallow valley where it evaporated entirely away in the heat. The horse herd was kept in a fold of the hills well away from the dwellings, confined in corrals made of brushwood. Every day they were driven up to drink at the lowest watering hole. Adam was made to understand that he was allowed nowhere near the horses.

Most of his work on that first morning involved hauling water, carrying it from the topmost pool in tightly woven baskets sealed with pitch. He used the opportunity to learn his way about. He was aware that knowledge would be the key if he and Joe were to survive, and his sharp eyes missed nothing. In the afternoon he walked with several women and a lame, piebald pony to the nearest good stand of trees, several miles away.

Watched over by a mounted brave, they gathered firewood, sticks and brush, anything that would burn. Looking about him, Adam could see that there was precious little left to gather. These woods were all but exhausted, and the Shoshoni women would soon have to forage further afield to find this, the most basic of necessities. In any event, the village would soon have to move. The winter supplies were almost used up, and game was scarce in these desert fringes. In order to stay alive, the Shoshoni band would have to trek north and west, into the denser forests where game was abundant, or south towards the ranches and the spreading settlements of the white man. That portended a conflict that Adam found too terrible to contemplate.

Adam drifted away from the group, gathering up an armful of kindling as he went. The woods consisted, for the most part, of live oak with their eternally green foliage and their distinctive, rounded shapes, interspersed with sycamore and the silver-branched digger pine.

From the top of the hill, he could see the next valley. The woodlands continued quite some way looking, deceptively, almost like parkland, before giving way, once more, to the dry, stony hills of the desert. The distance was shrouded in dusty haze. Here and there Adam saw indications that other springs of water might break the surface, following the ancient fault line north. If he were right, and he thought that he was, then there might be a highway across the desolation after all. Two men on foot, travelling slowly from watering point to watering point, could work their way towards civilization. If Joe could walk. If Adam could steal food and blankets Ė he balked at a horse. If they could escape the Shoshoni encampment and evade the men that would come after them.

Adam heaved a mighty sigh. It was a tall order; there were one hell of a lot of Ďifsí. Adam was counting on skill and luck and patience. Slavery was not a life he was prepared to accept for himself, or for his brother. Already, a small part of his crafty mind was fixed on escape and planning accordingly.

A sound came from behind him: a horseís hoof on stone. Adam turned. The stern faced brave on the spotted horse was close by and watching narrowly. He carried a rifle in his hand and a bow on his shoulder. Adam doubted heíd hesitate to use either. The warrior said a sharp word and gestured with his long gun. His message was clear: no further! Collecting sticks as he went, Adam made his way back through the trees.

By the time the work was done, and both people and the limping horse were heavily laden with firewood and headed back towards the village, it was late afternoon. The sun was sliding into the west towards the mountains, now, in these northern parts, out of sight around the curve of the world. The sky turned a rare shade of apricot only seen over desert hills.

The wood was distributed amongst the cook-fires and Adam, released for the day. He was near to exhaustion, so tired he could barely walk. Stumbling, he made his way to the upper pool and dropped to his knees at the waterís edge. It was deep evening, and the sun was setting. He raised his eyes to heaven but found he couldnít pray. His fatherís god had abandoned him. He felt very much alone.

The reflection in the water was a face he didnít know. His cheeks were hollow, bruised and scrapped and darkened with a beard he hadnít known heíd grown. His eyes were sunken into his head, and they stared right back at him, filled with the horrors heíd seen. For a long, drawn-out moment, he stared at himself, trying to see the man that heíd been Ė the man that he thought that he was. For an instant he glimpsed someone he recognized, but then the dark water rippled and swirled and swept that person away.

In a gesture of fury Adam smashed his fist into the water, shattering the strangerís image into fragments and releasing his pent up despair. He couldnít afford anger, couldnít afford grief, couldnít afford any outward display of resistance. It would make him appear too dangerous to keep alive. He was mad at himself for getting into this mess in the first place, mad at himself for endangering Joe, worried and angry that he couldnít see any immediate way to get them both out of it.

Whatever the Shoshoniís reasons for keeping them alive, he had to play along until an opportunity to escape presented itself. Once Joe was healed, they could slip away north and west, following the route that he had planned. For the first time Adam seriously contemplated regaining his freedom. His eyes glittered, and his face became sly. He knew that it was essential to keep such thoughts to himself. He drew long breaths and calmed himself, banished the anger from his eyes.

Cupping water in his hands, he bathed his face and neck, and, then, he drank, a carefully measured amount. In a low, well-balanced crouch he rested his hands on his knees and looked to the west, squinting into the sunset. The dry, rolling hills were burnt orange and black, stark against the cinnamon sky. A stand of dry brush grew high on the ridge, and a single tree, half of it long dead and skeletal, the other half very much alive, verdant and green, stood sentinel at the crest. It was a landmark that Adam set in his mind.

A warm wind blew up off the desert. Adam breathed deep and listened to the evening quiet. A mile away, close to the desertís edge, a corncrake gave vent to its rattling cry, while closer, unseen on the hillside, a pair of partridge fluttered and settled. The horse herd stirred in the valley below, while in the village behind him the cook fires began to glow against the gathering darkness. Shoshoni children laughed as they played, and, somewhere below him, away to the left, a woman was singing.

A narrow path led down through the rocks, tracing the channel where the water flowed from one pool down to the next. Straightening, Adam followed it. The last of the light danced on the water, gilding the ripples as they spread. A woman knelt at the waterís edge, rinsing some small garment. It was she that sang: a low, slow chant that held the rhythm of the Earth. Adam moved closer, looking about him. No one moved to stop him. It seemed that the braves had tired of watching. With his brother held captive, they were sure that he wouldnít escape.

Stepping with care, all but silently among the stones, Adam came up beside her. The woman looked up with a start. Finding the tall white-man standing so close, she snatched at her breath, her lips slightly parted, her liquid eyes dark; her song was quite forgotten. He was unguarded and she, unprotected. For a moment her face was afraid.

Spreading his hands, palms out, Adam lowered himself to a crouch. "Itís okay. Iím not going to hurt you. I donít mean you any harm."

The woman found his tone reassuring. She sat back on her heels and looked at his face. Adam recognized her now. She was the same woman who had come into the shelter the night before, the one who had tried to help Joe. Adam gazed at her. There was no denying that she was lovely; he could see that now: a classic beauty of her type. She had the rose-brown skin and oval face of the pure Shoshoni - not a girl but a full-blown woman with interesting curves in all the right places. Adam estimated her age at about twenty-five; old enough to be both a wife and a mother, yet she wore the braids and the beaded armbands that said she was still a maid. He felt the need to speak to her but didnít know how much she would understand.

"I want to thank you for what you did for my brother - and for this." He indicated the side of his face with a curtailed sweep of the hand. The woman followed the gesture with her eyes. The burn on his cheek was healing quickly, the redness already starting to fade. Adam held out his hands in what he hoped was a gesture of friendship. "Without what you did, my brother would surely have died."

The woman looked at him boldly. "Your brother is young, and the spirit is strong in him. He would not willingly ride the dark horse of death." She spoke flawless English, but slowly. It was a language she rarely used.

Adam smiled. The expression lightened his face. "I guess youíre right at that. Never the less, I am in your debt."

Her expression became seasoned with scorn. Evidently, the gratitude of a white slave was worth less than nothing. Adam spread his hands again. "I have nothing to give you."

"I did as my brother bid me. He would have both alive.

Adamís mind worked furiously. This woman, a healer, was sister to Washatak, and also to Killikasi, the medicine chief. He might find a way to use that relationship to his advantage - and to Joeís. It crossed his mind, but only briefly, to take her captive and hold her against the release of his brother. He was bigger and stronger and could take her easily. Adam believed in respecting women, but he was not above using them when the occasion arose. The moment passed. He would only be bluffing and the Shoshoni would kill Joe instantly, right in front of his eyes. Right then, Adam found himself more in need of an ally. Carefully, he asked the question that pressed him. "Would you know why you brother wants us alive?"

Her face unreadable in the darkness, she gazed at him without speaking. If she knew, she wouldnít tell him; he could see it in the set of her jaw. He made a helpless gesture. "For whatever itís worth, you have my gratitude."

The scrap of cloth that she had been laundering had drifted away towards the centre of the pool. Both of them noticed it at once and made a simultaneous grab. The water splashed, and their fingers brushed beneath the silken surface; his were warm and hers were cool. Both of them laughed at the unexpected encounter.

Sobering first, the woman drew back. She lowered her eyes, then looked at him directly. Adam found her gaze somewhat disconcerting, and then experienced a pleasant feeling deep inside, a sensation that he couldnít immediately identify. He smiled at her, and she smiled back. He rescued her laundry and offered it to her, a small sodden scrap. She took it as if it were a gift, wrung out the water and folded it neatly, adding it to the basket at her side. Adam stood up and offered her his hand.

From beyond the rocks, Killakasi watched as Adam lifted the woman onto her feet. He saw her smile and heard him chuckle as they exchanged a quiet word. The medicine chiefís deeply folded face was without expression, but his black eyes burned with bitter hatred as he watched them walk away toward the village and the warmth of the fires. Heíd seen all too clearly the smiles on their faces and the looks in their eyes.

The childrenís hunt had been successful; meat was roasting at every hearth. There was a mixture of birds and lizards and small animals, whatever they had been able to catch or bring down with their primitive weapons. Adam didnít look too closely at the portion he was given; he ate it ravenously and washed it down with a hot, herbal tea. This time his stomach offered no rebellion, and the food settled comfortably. Replete and aching with exhaustion, he moved towards the shelter, and, this time, he was allowed to go.

A tiny fire had been lit inside. Aromatic twigs were charring slowly, filling the air with fragrant smoke. It made the eyes smart but it seemed to help Joeís breathing. A small lamp with an open wick stood close beside his head. By the faint and uncertain light, Adam could see that his brother was awake.

Joeís face was drawn; his skin was ashen white, stark against the darkness of his curls and drawn as tight as parchment over the fine bones of his face. Adam put out a hand and touched him with his fingertips. His body was warm but no longer burned so furiously with fever. "Hello, Joe. How are you feeling?" Adam even managed a smile.

Joe rolled his head towards him. "Adam, whereíve you been."

"Iíve just been out doing some work, little brother. Something you wouldnít know much about." With a heartfelt sigh, Adam lowered himself down beside Joe, stealing just a little of the shabby blanket to cover his legs with.

"I thought theyíd killed you!" Joe grabbed at him. "I thought you were dead."

"Not yet, Joe. Not quite yet." Adamís eyelids were already drooping. Carefully, wary of over-strained muscles, he stretched himself out flat.

"Adam?" Joe shook him as hard as he could. "How we gonna get out of this, Adam? How we gonna get home?"

Adam might have offered platitudes, encouragement and hope; he might have counseled patience and caution; he might even have laid intricate plans, plotting their escape, but Adamís breathing slowed and steadied. Dark eyelashes settled against his cheek, and he was already deeply asleep.

Five

Ben Cartwright shivered and subsided further into the fleece lined folds of his coat. As long as he had lived in this country Ė and he had lived here a very long time Ė it never ceased to amaze him how the land could burn like the anti-room of hell in the daytime, yet be so bitterly cold in the night. In the light of the early morning, his breath turned white, puffing into steam the moment it left his mouth. Worn and grey with exhaustion, Benís countenance was as bleak as the landscape he surveyed from the back of his horse.

Spread before him was an endless vista of sand and naked rock and frost-splintered shale with very little vegetation, just sparse scrub and brush. There were no trees and no bushes and only coarse desert grasses growing where their roots found shelter in cracks and crevices. The only creatures heíd found alive in four days were a nest of diamond-backs heíd come across by accident. It was a harsh and unforgiving country; any man who made a mistake out there wouldnít get a second chance. That was a thought that made him shudder again and, this time, with something other than the cold. In this first, faint light there was very little colour, only tones of black and grey. Everything was lightless, lifeless, a desolation as chilled and as stony as old Benís heart.

His dark eyes, heavily shadowed and sunken deep into his head, held sorrow and despair as a stone-built well holds water, but a grim determination lighted them from within. It was this remorseless gaze that he turned upon his son as the big, bulky man, bundled into his coat, came walking slowly back towards him along the fringes of the desert.

Hossís face was crumpled and folded into an expression of abject misery that had become permanently fixed in these last few days; the big manís sunny spirit was noticeably and understandably absent. Not only was he having to deal with the loss of his brothers, but his País foul temper as well. He trailed his horse behind him on a long, slack rein. "I canít find no trace oí nothiní on these here rocks, Pa. You could run a whole herd oí steers right over this country and never leave a sign." Hoss had learned from recent experience not to look directly at his fatherís face. The expression off loss and anguish and anger was more than he could bear. Instead, he looked out over the desert towards the lightening sky. The rising sun, still below the horizon, had burnished the threadlike clouds with gold.

Hunched over in his saddle, Ben didnít turn his head. "We found traces of horses back by that waterhole," he intoned. "They must have come this way."

"Heck, Pa, them signs were three, four weeks old. I canít even say fer sure they was Indian ponies. Aní even if they was, there ainít nothiní ta say Adam aní Joe was with Ďem." Hoss took off his hat and ran a hand through his thinning hair. Theyíd been trailing back and forth through these woods and up and down this line of desert for days without reckoning, from well before dawn until it was too dark to see. In all that time theyíd scarcely met a living soul. It seemed to Hoss that they were not one inch closer to finding his brothers, and the relentless search was taking a heavy toll on his father. He hated to see it, but he was helpless to act. Ben was ruthless in his determination and relentless, driving himself, his son and their horses to the brink of total exhaustion. If Hoss tried to argue, he encountered his fatherís wrath. Ben wouldnít rest, even for a day; Hoss was afraid that he would drive himself into an early grave.

Ben pulled himself more erect. "Those people living back there in the woods told us Adam and Joe were still riding north when they left their place."

"I know they did Pa. Aní they ainít gonna fergit, not after Adam give Ďem all that money." Hoss set his hat squarely back on his head. Hands on his hips, he leaned on his heels and watched the sun come up. The God given glory of dawn failed to move him. "But I reckon as that was a long time ago." He said it mostly to himself, but his father heard him. The dark eyes turned on him sharply.

"What are you saying, boy?"

Hoss had the grace to look sheepish. He scuffed his boots in the sand. "Heck, Pa, I donít hardly know what I mean. Itís just that weíve spent weeks wanderiní Ďround in these hills, and we ainít found no sign of Adam or Joe."

Ben glared. A muscle ticked in his cheek. "Are you suggesting that we give up?" His voice was rising, starting to boom.

With a sigh, Hoss shook his head. "You know I wouldnít never suggest nothiní like that, but we ainít even got no clear idea of which way they went. If Adam aní Joe got clear oí them Indians they might oí high-tailed it north, or turned west, into Californy. Adam might be soakiní in that fancy bath-house that friend oí his built right this very minute, drinking beer aní swappiní stories."

Ben thought about it. He consulted with the empty void in his heart. He knew that he could depend on Adamís cool head to think his way out of trouble, and Adam could take care of Little Joe. Sense told Ben that they would have gone west, crossed the State line and sought help from the settlements in California. But there was a whole heap of wild country between where he sat and the nearest township in any direction. Something deep down inside him, call it a fatherís instinct, told him that, whatever the sense of it, his sons hadnít gone that way. He looked again at the desert.

The sun was now above the horizon, a molten ball of gold. Already, he could feel the first brush of its fiery breath against his face. The shadows were creeping, gradually shortening; it was time to be on their way. He gathered up his reins. They needed to get some miles behind them before the heat of the day arrived in full force.

"Weíll keep riding north along this line," he said decisively. "If Adam came this way he would have left a sign, something to show us which way he went."

"Yes, sir." Hoss sighed.

Both of them knew that Adam wouldnít have gone into the desert of his own accord; if he had come this way, it wouldnít have been because he had a choice. It was unlikely that Adam had been capable of marking a trail.

Impatiently, Ben waited while Hoss turned to his horse and lifted himself into the saddle. Their backs might be aching and their backsides starting to feel the strain, but neither one of them was prepared to stop looking. Even as Hoss lowered himself carefully into the leather, Ben was already on the move, nudging his gelding along the rough line off herbage that marked the desertís edge. Hoss picked up the lead-rope of the packhorseís bridle and followed on behind.

The air grew steadily hotter as the morning drew on. Waves of heat beat up off the desert; dust devils danced on the shale and the warm wind, the devilís exhalation, began to blow out of the wilderness. The glare of the sun had no mercy; it sucked the sweat right out of the skin, and men and horses began to suffer. The shadows shortened to almost nothing, and there was nowhere to hide.

It was almost noon, and the sun was standing directly overhead when Ben climbed down from the saddle to take a closer look at the ground. It was rock and shale and unyielding earth; as Hoss had said, there was no sign that anyone had ever passed that way. It might have been virgin territory, untouched since the dawn of creation by the foot of beast or man. Straightening up, he looked at his son.

"Weíd better have something to eat and rest the horses. Then weíll turn west again, take another turn through the hills." It was a decision drawn from him reluctantly. Ben still had a feeling that, against all rhyme and reason, Adam and Joe had gone into the desert.

"Yes, sir." Hossís face was compressed in that same, perpetual frown. He kicked his feet free of the stirrups and lifted himself to step down. Then he froze into stillness. A look of intense concentration settled on his broad features as he gazed into the distance. "Say, Pa, looks like someoneís coming."

Ben turned, staring hard in the direction Hoss indicated. A huge plume of dust hung over the middle distance Ė dust kicked up by men on horses travelling the dry country, fast. The riders were still more than two miles distance, tiny figures that defied identification. Mindful of what he had heard about raiding parties, and the arrow in Adamís horse, Ben moved closer to his saddle gun. "Can you make out who they are?"

Still on the back of his horse, Hoss had a higher vantage-point. He squinted his eyes half shut against the glare of sun on stone. "I donít reckon themís Indians, Pa. Indians wouldnít kick up that much dust."

Ben hoped that his son was right. The two of them were very vulnerable out here on the edge of the desert. There was little cover and nowhere to ride to for help, and the column of riders was turning their way. Clearly, they had been seen. If they were Indians, then they were in serious trouble. He tried to imagine who else might be riding in this hot, dry country, and riding out in force.

Then Hoss relaxed in the saddle, and the breath sighed out of him. He pulled a huge spotted bandanna out of his pocket and mopped the sweat from his brow. "Ainít nothiní ta worry about, Pa. That thereís the army."

"The army?" Ben was incredulous.

"Itís a whole gold-darned column of pony-soldiers. Whoo-ee!" Hoss whooped and took off his hat, waving it in the air to attract attention Ė a completely unnecessary device. Even Benís somber face broke into a grin.

Plainly recognizable against the grey and green and gold of the landscape, a double file of soldiers emerged from the dust. There were some twenty or more, rough, tough men, as hard as the army could make them and dressed in cavalry-blue. Every one of them was covered from hat to boots in a substantial layer of sweat and dirt, evidence that they had been riding hard for a very long way. The man out in front held up his hand and the column slowed, pulling up in an uneven line of sweat stained horses and jingling harness twenty yards away. The officer walked his horse forward and threw Ben a smart salute.

"Lieutenant Christian Henry Harwell, sir, of the Second Battalion California Volunteers."

Ben stepped forward to shake the offered hand. "Iím mighty glad to see you lieutenant. My nameís Ben Cartwright, and this is my son, Hoss." Hoss and the soldier exchanged polite nods of acknowledgement. Ben went on, "We certainly didnít expect to run across the United States Cavalry out here in the middle of this wilderness."

"And I didnít think to find white men, either, Mister Cartwright; not live ones anyway." Leaving Ben wondering at this cryptic remark, Harwell turned to the next man in line. "Sergeant OíToole, tell the men to climb down and rest their butts. Weíll spell the horses a while."

"Yes, sir!"

The word to dismount went swiftly down the line, and tired men swung down from weary horses. Grateful for the chance to stretch their legs and relieve their bladders, they men broke ranks. Harwell stepped out of his saddle and joined Ben on the ground. He brought his canteen with him and cordially offered water.

Ben sipped politely and passed the canteen to Hoss. The amenities taken care off, Ben said, "I didnít know the army was posted this far east."

"A temporary unit only, though weíve been here nine months already. Weíre riding out of Prion, Mister Cartwright, chasing Indians."

"Bannocks?" Ben scowled.

"Shoshoni."

"I thought the Northern Shoshoni were a peaceful people."

"Indeed they are." Harwell retrieved his canteen and took a drink himself. "Especially since theyíve moved beyond the Warner Mountains and into Oregon. The Indians weíre chasing are renegades, savages from way across the desert."

Ben looked at him askance. "Savages?" In his book it was a word not to be bandied lightly.

"Thatís what I called them, and thatís what they are." Harwellís eyes were diamond hard and his tone equally unyielding. "Theyíve been raiding back and forth across the border, killing, looting, burning. They always ride back this way, melting into the desert, impossible to trace." Harwell turned and squinted into the glare as if he knew his quarry was there, hiding just out of sight. Ben took the moment to look the soldier over.

What he saw was a well built man of military bearing, trimmed and hardened by years in the saddle until all that as left was pure soldier Ė a man who had spent his entire adult life in the army and was now well past middle age.

Without turning, Harwell asked, "And what brings you and your boy all the way out here into Godís abandonment?"

Benís expression turned grim. "Iím looking for two other sons. They were hunting through these hills. Their horses came home without them."

Harwell banged his hat against the gold-striped leg of his pants, knocking a little of the dust out of both. "Iím very much afraid, Mister Cartwright, that if your boys have been afoot in this country very long - well, to be blunt, I donít give much for their chances." He looked at Ben squarely. "And if they ran into those hostiles, youíd better hope they died fast."

Benís face set into a hard, grey mask. His hat in his hand, he watched Harwell walk away to check on his men. He wouldnít believe it. It couldnít be true. Adam and Joe couldnít be dead. Surely heíd have felt their passing as they died. The world would be a dark and empty place without their presence in it: their laughter, their everlasting bickering, their sometimes-fierce disagreements and their abiding love. And yet here was the world: bathed in bright sunshine, full of colour, men going about their business, talking, eating and drinking and tending to their horses, their lives going on. How could the world still be turning without Adam on it? Ben just didnít know.

He became aware of Hoss standing behind him, a big, brooding presence with a scowl on his face. Hossís very attitude echoed Benís thought.

Ben strode after Harwell. "Lieutenant, can I ask you a favour?"

Harwell looked him up and down thoughtfully. "You can ask, Mister Cartwright. Whatís on your mind?"

"Youíre heading out into the desert after these Indians. Can we ride along with you, my son and I?"

"And why would you want to do that?"

Ben made a helpless gesture. "Itís just a gut feeling I have. I think my sons went that way, but it would be suicide for the two of us to ride out into that desert alone. If we could ride along with your party Ė well, we might just come across some sign."

"Well, I think youíre clutchiní at straws." Harwell hung his canteen back on his saddle horn. "Youíre welcome to come along, but Iíll tell you now, I donít intend to go very far out: just a few miles. My men have been riding hard for a week, and theyíre tired, and theyíre saddle sore, and the horses are just about done."

"I understand." Ben was genuinely grateful. "I appreciate it." He walked back to where Hoss was watering their horses. He didnít catch the sympathetic look in Harwellís eyes or see him shake his head.

The column of soldiers formed up in twos, and Harwell gave the signal to move out. Ben and Hoss, with their packhorse in tow, fell in at the end of the line. The desert was a terrible place, surely hell on Earth. The sunlight, direct from above and bouncing back with a dazzling intensity from off the white rock, was enough to sear a manís eyes. The heat burned through his shirt and sucked the moisture right out of his body. The land was as dry as a desiccated bone.

Harwell set out at a smart, spanking pace, but it couldnít be maintained. Soon, the rate of progress had been reduced to a shambling walk, the horses strung out, one behind the other, all across the landscape. The animals stumbled often and walked with their heads hung down. The men sat slumped in their saddles. It was an appalling defensive formation; if the Indians had chosen that time to attack, the soldiers would have been wiped out in minutes.

An hour passed and then another. If he had not known it before, Ben began to understand the futility of the task he had set himself. The desert wilderness was just too vast, too inimically hostile and too cruel for him ever to stand a chance of finding his missing sons. He came to realize that, even if Adam and Joe had come this way, following this same path, the most he could hope to find of them were dry and shrivelled corpses.

From somewhere up ahead someone raised a shout. Benís thoughts snapped back into focus. Ahead of him, horses and men were milling about in some confusion. Men were pointing to the sky and yelling to one another in excitement. Hoss rode up alongside his father. "Hey, Pa, will ya look at that?"

Ben lifted his head and looked where Hoss pointed. Against the pale glare of the desert sky, sinister shapes were circling on outstretched wings. Carrion birds. Ben counted four, and then another joined them.

Sergeant OíToole bellowed an order and the soldiers came to attention like the grizzled veterans they were. Aches and pains and grumbles forgotten, they closed their ranks, reforming their double column. Ben and Hoss cantered their horses along the line, one on either side. Harwell was sitting at the front, his gaze still fixed on the sky.

Filled with fear, Ben pulled up beside him. "What is it? Is it my sons?"

Harwell mopped his face with a large, red handkerchief. "I donít reckon, Mister Cartwright. Take a look for yourself."

From the place where they sat at the top of the ridge the ground fell steeply away to the floor of an ancient sea. A long way down and a long way out the reason for the birdís interest was apparent. Two covered wagons stood in the midst of an ocean of sand, looking for all the world like a childís broken-backed toys. There was no sign of life, but the bloating carcass of an ox lay sprawled on its side, together with other unidentifiable but ominously familiar forms. Ben traded looks with Hoss "They look like settlerís wagons."

"Sure do, Pa."

Ben turned to Harwell. "Arenít you going down?"

"All in good time. Mister Cartwright." Harwell gave and order to OíToole, who organized the men. The word passed swiftly along the line, and the cavalrymen drew their long guns from beneath the leather skirts of their saddles. Now fully alert and riding close together in a tightly knit fighting unit, the soldiers started forward. The trail, if such it was, was steep and stony; it flattened out as it reached the basin floor. The men had to go down it in single file, each protecting the man in frontís back. Nothing occurred to interrupt their progress, and it soon became apparent that the attack had taken place several hours before.

The closer the riders came to the wagons, the more obvious it became that they were confronted by a human disaster. The canvas of one wagon had been split open all along its length, and the detritus of human lives spilled over the sides and onto the strangely crystalline sands. The canvas flapped lazily in the Devilís Breath wind; that and the carrion eaters were the only things that moved. The landscape was littered with the remnants of packed up homes and dead menís dreams. The contents of both wagons had been spread far and wide. Without speaking, the grim faced soldiers rode among the scattered possessions: a womanís purple dress - silk, doubtless her Sunday best, all slashed into ribbons, a shattered dinner service of blue and white china, a childís doll without its head and spilling sawdust stuffing, a broken music box and the bloody body of a dog.

The second wagon had lost two of its wheels; they lay in shattered ruin. The wagon leaned at a crazy angle. A once loved upright piano had tipped out of the back and reclined upturned in the dirt. The keys, white and black, grinned up at the sky.

Beyond the wagons, one of the carrion eaters, disturbed in its feeding, flapped its way heavily into the air. In amongst the clothes and the other belongings lay the bodies of the people: two men and two women, three girl children and one boy who had almost, but not quite, grown into a man. They had died quickly in the heat of the battle, but the manner of their dying did not make pleasant viewing.

Grim-faced, the soldiers dismounted and tended to their horses. Stoic to a man, no one showed outward emotion, but their feelings was clearly expressed in their hushed and gruff voices and the shadowy looks in their eyes. Only the steady flap of the canvas and the jingle of harness broke the profound silence of the afternoon.

Ben stepped down from his saddle. The harsh crunch of the sand beneath his heel was loud to his ears. Looking about him, he saw that horror that he felt himself reflected in every manís face. He handed his reins to Hoss and went to join Harwell and OíToole. They looked at him curiously but didnít object. Ben was old enough to have seen death before in all its many guises. Together, they carried out the unpleasant business of checking the bodies. It didnít take long. None of them expected to find anyone alive, and they encountered no surprises.

They walked slowly back towards the wagons. Harwell pulled out his red handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his neck. He glanced fleetingly at Ben, as if reluctant to look him full in the face. "Indians, Mister Cartwright. Shoshoni without a doubt. Probably the same bunch of renegades that weíve been chasing."

Ben fingered the remains of a broken arrow, gazing at the feathered shaft. "But this is senseless slaughter!"

"Itís slaughter all right." Harwell laughed harshly and without mirth. "And in more ways than one. Theyíve not only run off the livestock. Theyíve taken every gun and round of ammunition that they could find."

Hoss had heard the tail end of the conversation. His face contorted as the weight of concern added itself to the anguish of what heíd seen. The fate of the settlers, especially the children, had hit the big man hard. He shook his great head. "Injuns with guns. Thatís real bad, Pa."

"Yes, son. It is."

As both the Cartwrights were well aware, it was illegal in many parts of the west to sell or supply Indians with firearms Ė and with reason; white settlers wanted the upper hand in any conflict. The red-men stole and often killed for what guns they had.

Ben looked again at Harwell. "Isnít it kind of unusual to find settlers all the way out here in the desert?"

"It can happen from time to time. Thereís still good land to be had for the taking in Oregon and Northern California. Folks sometimes decide to take a shortcut across these badlands; it can cut a month or more off their travel time if they make it. A lot of them donít get this far."

Ben gazed around at the scene of devastation. "And this is what they get for their trouble."

"Sometimes it happens this way. Sometimes they run out of water, or their stock dies on Ďem. Sometimes they just seem to give up."

"It makes you wonder what a manís dreams are worth."

Harwell and OíToole efficiently organized a burial detail. Clearly, it was an unpleasant duty that they had carried out before, and many times more than once. It was impossible to dig deep in the stony soil. Instead, they scrapped out a shallow trench a short way from the wagons and put the bodies there. Unable to tell which children belonged to which adults, they laid them all together and piled rocks on top until everything was hidden and, hopefully, safe from the night prowlers of the desert. It took most of the afternoon, and by the time the job was done the sun was tumbling down the sky towards the west. Soon it would start getting dark, but none of the men wanted to stay the night at the site of the massacre.

They all stood with their hats in their hands and paid due attention while Harwell spoke some high sounding words about resurrection and eternal life. He read out a short verse from the bible he carried in his saddlebag and said the last word, "Amen." It didnít take long, and it didnít seem much of a memorial to mark the passing of so many lives.

In the hot and breathless evening, the soldiers prepared to ride out. They packed the shovels back onto the baggage animals with the weary resignation of men who knew that they would need them again before too long.

Ben lingered a while beside the grave, his silver head bowed. His thoughts were all in confusion. Somehow, the words spoken seemed inadequate; the passage read from the Book in which he placed his trust was hollow, without meaning. Without any doubt, he stood now in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Ben was very much afraid. He wished that he could pray, but for once the words eluded him. There was no peace for him on earth, or in thoughts of Godís heaven.

A footfall behind him alerted him to the looming presence of his son at his shoulder. Ben knew that Hoss understood him well enough to know the feelings that roiled inside him, if not the exact thoughts in his head. Hoss fiddled awkwardly with the brim of his hat. "Pa, I reckon itís time to get our selves out oí here. The lieutenant seems to think we can put two, three miles behind us afore itís too dark ta see. We sure donít want ta sleep with all these dead folks."

Ben drew a long breath that shuddered. "Of course, youíre right." He set his hat on his head and strode to where Harwell talked with OíToole. Hoss remained behind beside the mass grave, his head bowed in thought.

Harwell interrupted his conversation and turned as Ben approached. His face was carefully reserved. If youíre ready, Mister Cartwright, weíll start back now. Thereís still a good hour of daylight leftÖ"

Ben pulled up in surprise. This wasnít at all what heíd been expecting and he was little short of dumbfounded. "Start back? But the tracks lead off north/ Arenít you going after them?"

"Not this trip." Harwell shook his head at the very idea. "I figure this is as far as we go."

"But theyíll get away!" Ben couldnít help the tome of indignation or keep the expression off of his face.

Harwell turned to OíToole. "Sergeant, explain to Mister Cartwright how short we are of food and other supplies."

"Enough hard tack and beans to last us three days," OíToole said promptly. "And not enough grain for the horses for two."

"Thatís quite apart from the water situation, "Harwell added. "If we ride for an hour before sunset, by mid-day tomorrow we can be out of these badlands and into the hills. We need to kill us some game, get some fresh meat."

Benís face was stricken. "But my sons! Thos Indians might know what happened to them Ė might know where they are!"

Harwell looked at him squarely at last, and his face was filled with regret. "Youíve seen what happened here, but in case you donít understand, let me spell it out for you, clear and simple. If your sons ran into one of these raiding parties, then your sons are certainly dead. Iím not chasing these Indians any further into the desert. Look about you! The horses are beaten and so are the man."

Hoss came up beside his father, leading their horses by the rein. "Reckon what he says is about right, Pa. Our critters canít go much further neither. Theyíre gonna founder fer sure."

Furiously, Ben rounded on him. "So weíre back to that, are we? Youíre trying to tell me your brothers are dead as well!"

Hossís uncomfortable expression became agonized. "I wouldnít never tell you nothiní

Like that, Pa. Not lessen I had their bodies laid out right in front oí me."

Ben drew a long breath but before he could speak, Harwell interrupted. "Youíre a civilian, Cartwright. Itís not my place to order you around, but I suggest that you ride into Prion with us. Rest up a while, get yourself some fresh horses, and then, if you want to ride out and look for your boys some more, well, thatís entirely up to you."

Ben noticed that Harwell was talking across him, addressing himself to Hoss, as much as to himself Ė somehow, he didnít have the strength to be angry.

His big son was nodding reluctant agreement. "Heís makiní good sense, Pa. We need fresh horses and supplies."

Hoss might have been thinking that a couple of square meals might come in handy as well, but he wasnít about to say so out loud Ė not where Ben could hear him, anyway.

Abruptly, the weight of Benís years descended onto his shoulders. He looked from Hoss to Harwell. For a moment it seemed they were conspiring against him, but, then, good sense prevailed. "I suppose youíre right," he said with a sigh.

For a long anguished moment he stared into the haze and the lengthening shadows. He felt as if he was turning his back on Joe and Adam, as if he were walking away and leaving them behind. His lips tightened grimly as he set that thought firmly aside. He wouldnít contemplate any such proposal, even in the privacy of his own mind. Once heíd obtained supplies and fresh horses, he would be back; silently, he promised his missing sons that.

OíToole gave an order and the soldiers mounted their horses. Turning again, Ben took his reins from Hossís hand and lifted himself onto his own saddle. As the troopers moved away, he took a last lingering look to the hills in the north, fixing their contours in his mind. Then, he fell in at the end of the line. Leaving the sad remains of the wagons behind them, the column of men rode slowly, but steadily, into the west, out of the desert and into the setting sun.

*******

In the late, afternoon light Adam made his way to the pool. Hunkering down on his haunches, he studied his reflection in the dark, flowing water. The eyes that gazed back at him were still haunted, but they were calmer now, the eyes of a man in control. They were his own eyes, dark, misted amber and no longer those of a stranger.

He sat back on his heels and opened the razor. Until very recently it had belonged to the somewhat taciturn woman who was mainly responsible for giving him food. She had refused outright when heíd first asked her for it, driving him away with angry gestures and words he had not understood. It had taken long hours of patient persuasion, spread over several days, to convince her that he wanted it, not to do himself harm or to fight his way free, but only for the purpose for which it had first been made.

The blade was old and uncared for, spotted and pitted with rust. Adam cleaned it as well as he was able with a mixture of water and gritty soil, then honed the edge sharp on the side of his boot. He wetted his face and, with the aid of a fragment of mirror, carefully scraped away his beard. It was a long and painful operation that left his skin sore and inflamed. He considered the results to be well worth the cost. For the first time in a long time he felt clean again, and something approaching a man. The face that gazed up at him out of the water was instantly recognizable. He had lost a great deal of weight; his cheeks were hollow and the skin stretched tightly over the fine bones of his face, but friends and family would have recognized him without hesitation.

Adam stood up, straightening easily, his body a well-oiled machine. He was as lean and as fit as he had ever been in his life. Hardship and work and a Spartan diet had honed him as fine as the razorís edge. Heíd tightened his belt by a couple of notches, and the well-defined muscles of his back and shoulders strained the cloth of his shirt.

Folding the razor and tucking it safely into the back of his belt, he stood quite still and listened intently in the way he had learned to listen. He heard, first of all, the beat of his heart and the pulse of his blood, then the trickle of water over the stones and the breath of the wind from the desert, a cricket, a bird, the rustle of some small mammal and, further away, the everyday sounds of the village. Plain and distinct came the babble of voices, of men and woman and children at play, the yap of a dog, the cry of a babe and somewhere, as always, the singing. Adamís lips twitched in the slightest of smiles; he knew well the song, and he knew the singer.

Moving with silent and feline grace, a skill he had recently brought to perfection, he went down the path to the lower pool.

The woman came daily, always at the same time and always to the same place. Adam contrived to be there as well, whenever his duties would allow, and she had come to look for him. She came to wash small items of clothing, to rinse the bunches of herbs from which she concocted her medicines, or merely to freshen her face after a hot and dusty day. Always, she sang the same, haunting song. It was like the call of the wild, the summons of that distant lake in the High Sierra, the whisper of the winter wind.

Adam crouched down beside her, and she looked up at him; her dark eyes smiled. "Greetings, Willomenka," he said in Shoshoni. "Has the day gone well for you?"

The practiced words came fluently now, although the gesture of hands and fingers that were a part of the language were still stiff and awkward, stilting his meaning like a heavy accent.

The woman responded, speaking clearly and slowly so that he could follow the form of the words. "Greetings. The day has been long and hot, but the fires still burn brightly in the lodges of the people. The wife of Rianomott has been delivered of her child, a small brave whose father is well pleased. Mioma is recovering well from her fever, so one had been born, and no one has died. All is well, and the sun will arise in the morning."

Adam formed a gesture with his hand. "I am pleased that the people prosperÖ" He stumbled badly over the personal pronoun.

Willomenka giggled at his clumsiness and rearranged his fingers. "It pleases meÖ"

Adam repeated it after. He had to learn the formal language before the everyday speech would come easily.

She reached out a hand and touched his face. The blade had snagged the last of his scabs, and bright blood beaded there. She had never seen him before without the facial hair; the strength of character she saw there fascinated her. Her fingertips traced his lips and the contour of his jaw.

The sound of some commotion in the valley below distracted them from each other. Menís voices were raised in excitement, something rarely heard among the Shoshoni. Rising quickly, Adam and Willomenka got to their feet and went to the one place from where they could see the cause of the disturbance.

A dozen young braves had ridden their painted ponies right into the valley, driving a bunch of broad-backed cattle in front of them. Willomenka raised her arms and waved with pure delight. She and several other women set up a ululation. The braves in the valley responded with whoops and yells and brandished their long guns in the air. Adam felt the long disused muscles in his cheeks begin to ache as his face broke in to an unaccustomed smile. Tonight, and for many nights to come, there would be fresh meat in the lodges of the Shoshoni.

Adam walked back through the gathering twilight to the shelter he shared with Joe. The hides had been tied back to the supporting posts to provide the bedridden man with fresh air and a view of the outside world. Joe lifted himself on an elbow as his brother ducked inside. As always, he was pleased to see him. "Hey Adam, whatís all the excitement?" Joe had seen people running and heard some of the shouting, but he had no idea of what it was all about. Unlike Adam, Joe had steadfastly refused to learn Shoshoni and was often isolated among the women, who spoke nothing else.

Adam gave him a sudden, lightening fast grin that brightened his face like a ray of sunshine. "It looks like we get beef tonight, Joe. They just brought some cattle in."

"Beef? Thatís great!" Both Cartwright brothers were heartily sick and tired of the dubious gleanings of the desert. Any variation in the diet would be welcome and beef, a luxury.

Joe struggled to sit up, and Adam bent down to give him a helping hand, lifting him easily into a sitting position and propping him up against the bundled-up buffalo robe. Joe ran a hand along his thigh, rubbing away some of the pain. His leg still hurt him most of the time. "Iíll sure be glad when I can get up and about again. Iím agettiní sore just lyiní here."

Adam looked at him closely as he rearranged the blankets. Joe had lost weight as well. His face was a whole lot thinner, but since his fever had finally broken, heíd regained a lot of his strength and some of his zest for living. He was starting to get restless, and Adam knew that was a problem heíd have to deal with before very long. "Youíre gonna be as fine as a frogís hair." He fussed with the bedding some more.

Easing himself back against the makeshift pillow, Joe cracked a wry grin at Adamís familiar reassurance. "As soon as this damn leg heals, I want ta dance right on out oí here."

"Sure you do Joe, and you will. Youíve just got to give it time." Adamís voice held a hint of reservation, and Joe looked at him sharply.

"You are planniní on gettingí us away from here, arenít you, Adam?"

Adam looked into his brotherís face and saw the bright anxiety in the hazel, green-flecked eyes. As always, Joe was trusting him, relying on him, and there was no way he could let him down. He glanced quickly all around to make sure they werenít overheard and hunkered down at Joeís side.

"Of course weíre gonna get out of here. But donít make the mistake of thinking itís going to be easy. Itís going to take a while, and it might involve a lot of walking. First of all you have to get up on your feet and get your strength back."

Joe did not look reassured. He gazed earnestly at his brother, as if trying to see the truth in his face. Adam had learned only too well down the years to conceal the way he was feeling. He saw Joeís shoulders slump with the weight of his disappointment. "I canít live with these people, Adam. I canít stand their way of life. If we stay here, one way or another, Iím gonna die."

Adam put a hand on his shoulder; he had an uneasy felling that, somehow, Joe might just have the truth of it. "Iím going to get you away from here. Donít worry, we are going home."

The smell of roasting meat drifted through the village, enriching the evening air. The Shoshoni made no distinction between man or woman, warrior or captive when it came to distributing food. Everyone who needed it got a share. Joe and Adam ate roast beef that evening until their bellies bulged.

The village was filled with a rare excitement; there was an air of celebration that Adam didnít quite understand. People were running everywhere, shouting and calling; children played in the open long past the usual hour. There was an overwhelming sense of expectation and occasion.

Adam was lowering the hide walls of the shelter back into place when Willomenka arrived. She brought with her, as always, the draught of the medicine she insisted that Joe take each evening. Joe pulled a face but swallowed the sour stuff down. Like his elder brother, he had learned that resistance was futile. Willomenka settled the young man down for the night, and then she turned to Adam. "I have come to fetch you." She told him in much improved English.

Adam stopped what he was doing. "Fetch me for what?"

"It is a night of true darkness and there is to be a gathering at the council fire. Washatak had said that all shall come."

Adam hesitated, holding back. He didnít believe a blanket invitation would really include him or that if it did, that any good would come of it. "Willow, whatís going on?"

Willomenka laughed at his look of concern. "It is to be a rejoicing. What you would call a party? To welcome the new child now that has been purified and to thank the spirits for the gifts they have given. There will be natik- winappi."

"Natik- winappi? Whatís that?"

Willomenka corrected his pronunciation and added, "A telling of stories."

"But my brotherÖ" Adam didnít like the idea of leaving Joe alone in the night.

Willomenka misunderstood his hesitation. "You brother is still among the unwell Ė he will not be expected."

Joe was already dozing, drifting into sleep. The dose that he had been given was a powerful soporific. Adam knew that he would sleep without stirring for hours. While he slept, he healed. Adam couched down at his brotherís side. "Joe, Iím just stepping out for a while."

Joe peered at him blearily - in his dream, he was already somewhere else. "Sure, Adam. You have a good time, now."

Willomenka took Adam by the arm and steered him through the village. Everyone else was going the same way, chatting and laughing and carrying torches. A large, low fire had been kindled within the ring of stones. It threw up a tall, glowing column of heat and light that challenged the dark of the moonless sky. Already, the people had started to gather: the men, the women and the children of the Shoshoni band. A group of the women did a shuffling dance of celebration, singing a rhythmic chant that kept them in step. The men of the tribe seated themselves cross-legged on the ground in a wide circle, their chieftains in their midst. The firelight gilded their features with highlights of dancing gold; it reflected from the dark depths of their eyes and shone on the handsome ornaments that adorned their bodies.

The brand-new father and mother, together with their child, were decked out in robes of feathers and given a special place of honour. Adam recognized many faces that he knew: Washatak and Aminotek and perhaps a dozen more. There was a general hum of excitement and expectant conversation, little bursts of music and singing, talking and laughing on every side.

Adam, as no more than a captive, sat outside the circle among the women in their beads and bright head-clothes, and the smaller children. Still, he was close enough to see and hear everything that happened and to feel the heat of the fire on his face.

Kalikasi, medicine chief, dressed in his full regalia of spotted pony hide with a ramís horns on his head, ran out of the darkness and leapt into the fire-lit ring of stones. His deeply folded face was freshly painted with chevrons of black and red. On his chest was an elaborately patterned breastplate of coloured quills and beads. Several ornate necklaces hung about his neck made of amber beads, tightly coiled seashells and yellowed-ivory teeth.

In his hand he carried a rattle, a dried and painted gourd with the seeds still inside it, mounted on a carved and feathered stick.

To the sound of a slowly beating drum and the shaking of the rattle, Kalikasi began to dance. He strutted and postured with his body and gestured with his hands; soft booted feet shuffled ritual patterns in the dust. Slowly but surely he circled the fire while the drummer raised his voice in a high, wailing chant. The audience stilled and listened and watched, and even the children were quieted.

The scene took on a mystical quality: the fire, the dance and the beat of the drum. Adam found himself bemused and bewitched by the magic as he caught his first glimpse of his captorís spiritual life. His face became rapt with wonder.

The tempo of the drumming increased and Kalikasi danced faster and wilder. Whirling and twirling with fringes flying, he twisted and turned in the firelight. He crouched and leapt and spun about, cavorting like a dervish. His feet flashed in the light of the flames and his skin shone with the sweat of his exertion. It was amazing to Adam that such a big man could move so quickly and with such intrinsic grace.

The singing stopped; the drumming ceased. Kalikasi planted both feet firmly and turned from the waist in a circle. Holding the rattle at full arm's length and shaking it softly, he started to tell a story in a high-pitched singsong monotone.

The tale he told was the first tale of the Shoshoni people: the story of coyote who fetched the niwini out of the underworld, carrying them in a great basket given him by the spirit people. Coyote, being a curious sort, opened the basket, though the spirits had bidden him not to, and, just a few at a time, the tribal peoples had made their escape.

With gesture and facial expression, the story was told in the ritual language. Adamís limited Shoshoni was barely equal to the task. He was glad that Willomenka was close at hand to lend him a word or two.

As soon as the first story was told, Kalikasi danced again, Ďround and Ďround in the fire-lit circle, shaking his rattle and pointing, first at one man and then at another until, apparently at random, he made his choice. He thrust the rattle into the chosen braveís hands and that man, hook-nosed and unsmiling but seemingly pleased with the honour, took his place inside the ring of stones.

And so another tale was told, in a different style and at a different tempo. Adam found himself fascinated, all but entranced by the legends that unfolded as the tellings went on all through the evening. Some tales were happy, some were sad, the recountings of heroic deeds and magnificent adventures through the worlds, both real and imagined, of the Shoshoni people. Each one was old, and yet each one was new, made fresh and vibrant with the retelling. It was the way in which the history of the niwini was handed down through the generations, a manner steeped in tradition; the way the tribe remembered who they were and where they came from.

The telling went on long into the night. In between each story Kalikasi, master of ceremonies for the evening, would dance as before and then select another brave, handing him the carved rattle, the totem Willomenka called, in her own tongue, The Story-Stick.

At one point, late into the night, fresh wood was piled onto the fire. Flame leaped again towards the sky and scattered glowing, golden sparks among the observant, eternal stars. New waves of heat beat outwards onto the faces of the watchers. Liquid refreshment was passed hand to hand - first a weak and watery beer brewed from the locally growing grains. It lulled Adamís senses with its mildness. Then he was handed a shallow bowl that contained fermented mareís milk. An altogether more potent draught, it burned its way into Adamís nose and made him splutter, much to the amusement of the women. The Shoshoni drank it with impunity, but the fumes went straight to Adamís head.

Kalikasi danced again, circling the fire as before, his form silhouetted by the flames. When he stopped, his head turned slowly as he scanned the faces in front of him. He singled out Adam. A muscle twitched at the side of his mouth. Stepping through the circle of braves, he pushed the Story-Stick into the white manís face.

Adam was taken by surprise, shocked into immobility. He met the medicine chiefís dark and glittering eyes and found them filled with hatred and hostility. A murmur went through the assembled crowd: anticipation and uncertainty. Adamís palms were suddenly moist. He knew very well that whatever Kalikasiís plans might be, they were not likely to be good for his health. "What do you want me to do?"

Kalikasi didnít speak. Instead, he shook the rattle under Adamís nose. Willomenka leaned towards Adam. "You must take up the challenge. To refuse would be shameful."

Kalikasiís intention was clear: he wanted to embarrass Adam as much as possible in front of the assembled village. Adam knew that it was essential not to lose face. As a mere slave, his status was lowly enough as it was, and besides, his pride was at stake. Taking the rattle from Kalikasiís hand, he got to his feet and stepped into the ring of stones.

Adam was sweating. The heat of the fire was fierce on his back. He turned a full circle, looking at the burnished faces. The muttering died away into a silence broken only by the crackle of burning wood. All of the dark, Shoshoni eyes were upon him; there was an air of expectancy as everyone waited to see what the white man would do. Adam sought and found the faces that were important to him, Kalikasiís, watchful and crafty, Willomenkaís, full of encouragement and eagerness, and that of Washatak. The chieftain was leaning forward, his face intent. He was curious to see how the white man would conduct himself.

Adam wished that he taken a bigger slug of the mareís mild drink. His mouth was a dry as a bone. He thought back swiftly over his recent reading, searching his mind for something suitable. What he came up with was the Alamo.

It was twenty-four years since the Alamo had fallen to the Mexican, Antonio Santa Anna. Already the names of some that had died were passing into legend, those of Houston, Bowie and Davy Crockett. Haltingly speaking the Shoshoni language, Adam told it the way heíd heard it himself, without embellishment or exaggeration. It wasnít a story that needed any. A handful of men had held out for twelve days before the entire might of the Mexican army. One hundred and eighty-two men had died, and only one, an indentured servant, had survived the massacre at the Texan mission. The significance of that fact was not lost on his audience. A ripple of comment spread through the crowd.

Snarling with rage, Kalikasi leapt at him. Adam saw firelight glint on the blade of a knife. He took a long step backwards but couldnít retreat any further; the fire was right at his back, and he could feel its heat on his spine. By now the entire assembly was up on its feet, gesticulating and arguing wildly. Adam had had many enemies in the village who hated him simply because he was white. It dawned on him, then, that he had friends as well.

Quivering with unconfined fury, the medicine chief screamed an accusation Adam did not understand and brandished the knife in his face. Adam had only the rattle to defend himself with. He prepared to do battle.

A single voice raised itself above the commotion. "It is enough!" Washatak stepped into the ring of stones. Under his fierce and unrelenting glare the tribe began to settle.

Kalikasi turned on his brother.

"This white dog uses the sacred rituals to threaten the tribe!"

Washatak made a dismissive gesture "The white man has answered the challenge that you laid before him."

Whichever way this was going to go, Adam wished they would make up their minds. His butt was starting to burn.

Kalikasi turned around, scanning the faces of the assembled warriors, judging the mood of the crowd with an expert eye. "I have had a vision!" he declared loudly. All faces turned towards him. "I have seen that this white man will bring death and destruction down on the heads of the people. The village will be no more! Now he has offended the spirits. They demand that he pay with his blood!"

The crowd muttered darkly. Washatak glanced around. He too was a leader of men, could taste in the air what his people required. "If the spirits demand the white manís blood then they shall have it."

Kalikasi crouched, his arms spread wide. His face split into an evil smile. Adam braced himself. The only plan he could think of was to step smartly aside and let the medicine chief plunge directly into the fire. "But three drops only," Washatak said "No more."

Kalikasiís smile turned into a snarl. He changed his grip on the knife. Adam stood firm as the knife came close. He knew there was no escape. He felt the blade nick the side of his face.

Satisfied, Washatak turned away and the incident was over. The crowd began to disperse. Kalikasi snatched the Story-Stick from Adamís hand and tossed it into the fire.

Six

It was a depressed and exhausted column of men that straggled into Prion. Bone weary men rode on weary horses through thick, yellow mud that came half way to the horseís knees. It had been a much lengthier patrol than had ever been intended. Their supplies had long since been exhausted, and men and horses alike had been foraging off the land. On this side of the hills the rain had fallen steadily for six days out of seven. The incessant drizzle had made camping unpleasant and travelling difficult and uncomfortable. Having covered no more than twenty-five miles in the last three days, every one of the soldiers was glad to be home.

The township, perched on the rim of the Sacramento valley, was a small but growing community of just over a thousand souls. As neither gold, nor silver, had been discovered in the vicinity, its prosperity depended on the richness and the depth of its soil and on the abundance of trees that grew in the surrounding forests. A typically wide, straight main-street ran through the centre of town

with false fronted structures built entirely of wood lining the covered boardwalks on either side. Any number of side streets led into a maze of less pretentious buildings interspersed with alleyways, stables and yards. Big Hoss Cartwright had seen the like of it a hundred times before.

He picked out the impressive, two-story building half way along the street, the one with the recently touched up paint-work and the big gilded sign that proclaimed ĎThe Premier Hotelí, and reined his tired horse in to the rail. With a fancy name like that, Hoss figured the place had a better chance than most of having clean sheets on the beds. His father pulled in alongside him. The fact that he hadnít disputed his sonís choice of stopping place made Hoss look at him sharply. Ben had been strangely quiet all day, and Hoss was starting to worry about the state of his health.

Hoss stepped down from the back of his horse and went around to offer his father a hand. Ben was quite grey with exhaustion, but his eyes, as dark the night, burned fiercely with determination; Ben Cartwright still had his pride. He climbed down from the saddle without any assistance, even if he did hold on to the saddle horn for one moment longer than might have been expected. He filled his lungs with the damp, cold air and gathered himself up to his full height. All the men were hungry, cold and tired and soaked right through to the skin, Ben no less so than any of the others, but he wasnít about to ask for help from anyone. He favoured him son with a withering stare.

"If youíre going to stand there in the rain, would you mind moving aside and letting me up on the boardwalk?" he said gruffly. It was his first attempt at humour in a very long time.

Hoss stepped back, highly embarrassed; he became aware that rainwater was sluicing from the brim of his hat. Feeling rather foolish, he gave a wry and dutiful grin. "Yes, sir."

First Lieutenant Christian Henry Harwell rode up beside them and stepped smartly out of the saddle. He joined the two Cartwrights on the boardwalk outside the hotel. Hoss and his father took a moment to look around them. Hoss pulled a face.

"Hey, where are all the folks in this town?"

From where they stood they could survey the dismal spectacle the town presented in a state of relative comfort. For the time of day Ė about three thirty in the afternoon Ė there werenít a great many people about. The persistent rain had served effectively to keep all but the most determined townsfolk indoors. Three bonneted ladies stood close together in the doorway of the general store, heads bobbing, tongues wagging, deep in conversation. A canvas-covered wagon with a driver hunched against the rain and a pair of mealy-nosed mules up front trundled slowly past, doubtlessly headed for home. Neither man nor animals were in much of a hurry; they couldnít get a whole lot wetter than they already were. Outside the saloon a line of saddle horses, tethered hip to hip, gave away the place where most of the men-folk had retreated to escape the weather. The discordant notes of a tinny piano could be heard from across the street. Grey clouds hung low over the rooftops, cold water dripped relentlessly from the edge of the awnings. Here and there along main-street, lamplight started to glimmer in several of the stores, pushing back the encroaching gloom and inviting any passing patrons to step in out of the cold.

Harwell, mopping his face with his already damp handkerchief, chuckled wryly. "It always rains this side of the mountains. You should see this place when the sun comes out. Itís not such a bad little town."

"Pa," Hoss turned to his father. "why donít you go on inta the hotel? Book us a room aní order us up somethiní ta eat. Iíll go find a stable aní take care oí these horses."

Ben looked at him as if he were about to put up a fight, then acquiesced. " Arrange to get us fresh horses while youíre there. I want to ride back as soon as weíre able." He turned his attention to Harwell. "Iíd like to thank you lieutenant, for letting us ride along with you. I appreciate all youíve done. If youíd be so good as to carry my compliments to your commanding officer and tell him that Iíd like to call on him first thing in the morning. Iíd like to organise a search for my sons."

Harwell touched the brim of his hat and shook Ben Cartwrightís hand. "Iíll be sure and do that, but I donít hold out much hope that heíll be able to oblige."

"You just tell him," Ben said grimly. A trace of the old authority rang in his voice.

Hoss and Harwell watched him disappear inside the hotel. Harwell glanced regretfully at Hoss and quickly looked away. "Iíve told you this before, Cartwright, but you donít have one chance in hell of finding those brothers of yours. Not alive, anyway. And if he finds them dead - well, I hate to think what a thing like that could do to a man like your father.

Hoss heaved a sigh. "I know what youíre sayiní, lieutenant, aní I sure know you mean well. I guess we just ainít ready ta stop looking yet."

Harwell looked even more regretful. "The armyís camped just on the other side of town in a bunch of disused buildings the town council, sort of, gifted us. When your Pa wants to talk to the Major, you just point him in that direction." Harwell turned towards his horse.

"Iíll be sure aní do that. LieutenantÖ" Hoss called him back. "You got telegraph wires strung from here to Sacramento?"

"Sure have. Telegraph Office is three blocks down on the left."

A frown settled on Hossís broad features. "Think I might just send a wire ta that friend oí my brothers. Check aní see if Adam aní Joe made it that far."

"I guess itís worth a try." Harwell stepped into his saddle. "I wish you luck." He touched his hat and Hoss watched him ride off the way the other soldiers had gone.

"Reckon Iím sure gonna need it." He muttered under his breath, and turned in the other direction.

Following Harwellís directions, Hoss found the telegraph office easily enough. He borrowed the counter clerkís stub of a pencil and spent a good half an hour laboriously composing suitable words, paying a dollar to have them sent south down the wire to Sacramento. He knew his brotherís friend spent a good deal of time there and would soon pick the message up. Then he crossed over the street, dodging raindrops, and working his way back along the boardwalk on the other side. He called in at the general store and made several purchases, mostly of clothing, and then at the saloon for a much needed beer.

Then he did as heíd said he would do and led the footsore horses to a livery stable that lay back behind the taller buildings, arranging with the owner for stalls with straw and grain for all three, all for the princely sum of a dollar a day. By the time he was back on Main Street, darkness was settling over the town. Now, the lamplight shone from every window, and lanterns lit below the awnings cast a welcome glow. Although rain was still falling, it was finer and lighter; the heavy black clouds were breaking up and finally drifting away as if they had done their worst and were now off to bother some other poor souls. The good townsfolk of Prion were taking advantage of the break in the weather; there were more people about on the boardwalks, more horses and more mules in the street. Across the way, the saloon was getting noisy: the piano played louder and whoops and hollers echoed from inside. Hoss was tempted to go over for another beer but determinedly turned away. Touching his hat politely to a posse of ladies, he made his way in to The Premier Hotel.

In marked contrast to the street, the lobby was warm and dry and comfortable. It was filled with yellow lamplight and the gleam of polished wood. Red brocade curtains, old but of good quality, muffled the sounds from outside and dominated the room. There was a pair at each of the windows and at every doorway too, tied back with braided, purple cord. Along the wall to Hossís right was a massive, ebony counter with a bright brass rail around the base, a bell, a large, leather-bound book and, on the wall behind, a row of labeled keys. Beyond the draped curtains at the end of the room, a wooden staircase ascended to the bedrooms on the upper floor. A short passageway and a wide, open doorway gave onto the dining room. Hoss stood for a moment, his hat and two rifles in his hands, and dripped on the floor. He sniffed with sincere appreciation at the aromas that drifted tantalizingly from that direction. It was a very long time since he had eaten a properly cooked, square meal.

His rang the bell on the counter. There was a shuffling in the back room and a small, bespectacled clerk in an ill fitting, rusty-black suit emerged behind the desk. He bustled about in a business like manner, straightening pens and peering as Hoss over the golden rims of his glasses. He spoke with a mid-western twang. "Something I can do for you, mister?"

"I guess so that there is." Hoss leaned on the counter. "My Pa came in here a while ago and booked a room fer the two of us. A big built, grey-haired man, name oí Ben Cartwright."

"Ben Cartwright?" The clerk consulted the hide-bound ledger. "Ah yes."

Reading the book upside down, Hoss followed the pointing finger with his eye. Instead of the familiar, copperplate hand, his fatherís name was scrawled untidily on the page. Hoss felt a thrill of foreboding.

"Room seven." The desk clerk said. "Top of the stairs, turn left, the room at the end of the hall."

"Thank you kindly." Hoss nodded his head and turned to the staircase. Then the smell of good cooking caught his attention again. "Say, what time díyou folks serve up dinner around here?"

"Seven sharp," the clerk said, brightly. "Today weíre having roast pork and sweet potatoes with gravy and sour apple sauce."

The big manís face broke into a grin. "Hey, now, you make it sound just like home."

"Er, Mister Cartwright, about your fatherÖ" Hoss turned back. The clerk looked uncertain, concerned. "He didnít look so well to me."

Hoss thought for a moment, then slowly shook his head. "Reckon heís probably just tired. Weíve bin a long time in the saddle." Once again, he turned to the stairs.

The door of room seven stood open, though Ben hadnít yet lit the lamp. In the light that spilled in from the hallway, Hoss could see his father sitting on the edge of the bed.

Hoss went in to the room. "Hey, Pa, what you sittiní here in the dark fer?" He dumped the two guns on the second bed and unloaded both sets of saddlebags from off his shoulder. He hung his tall hat on the bedpost and struck a match for the lamp.

Ben looked up as the pale light strengthened and filled the room. He appeared to gather his thoughts and return, in his mind, from a very long distance. "Is it dark already? Hoss, youíve been a long time." His voice held the faintest hint of complaint.

"I went along aní got us some store-bought clothes, Pa. Reckon as them we got could do with a visit to whatever laundry they got in this here town." Hoss shrugged out of his coat and then fetched out the packages heíd bought at the store. He was somewhat relieved to see that his father had taken off his own wet coat and draped it over the chair, but Ben was still sitting in his other damp clothes. "Here, I got you a shirt an a vest. You git changed, aní weíll go get us some dinner. The little bell-hop at the desk downstairs, the one wií the gold rimmed glasses, he says theyíre serviní roast port aní sweet potatoes and all the trimminís down in the dininí hall in just about half an hour."

Hoss had stripped off his own damp and dirty clothing, washed his torso in cold water from the jug and towelled himself off while he was talking. He contemplated his face in the mirror and decided that shaving would be taking things just a tad too far. Ben still hadnít moved from the bed. "Címon, Pa, ainít you hungry?"

"Hungry?" Ben looked at him vaguely. "Well, I guess that I am. Roast pork, you say?" He pulled himself together and untied the string on his parcel.

Hoss reached for the shirt he had bought for himself: a striped silk affair in two shades of blue, tightly woven to keep out the cold. It was the only one the store had kept in his size.

Ben dressed slowly but resolutely in the green shirt that Hoss had bought him, but hesitated over the black-leather vest. He fingered the fringes and silver trimmings. Hoss knew too well what his father was thinking Ė that the vest was too much like Adamís to bear. He took the garment out of Benís hands. "Let me help you here, Pa." He held the vest open for his father to slide his arms inside, and, disgruntled, Ben did as he wished. Hoss arranged the vest on his shoulders. "There. That looks just fine."

For a small, provincial hotel, the dining room had a luxurious and imposing atmosphere. White linen graced every table, together with matching china and sparkling glassware. Lamplight shone from every corner, and a crystal chandelier hung overhead. Two pretty waitresses, alike enough to be sisters, were serving the food. The whole was bathed in a warm, golden glow and the murmur of conversation.

A manservant in shirtsleeves, black shoes and cravat showed the Cartwright men to a table. Ben called a waitress over and ordered a bottle of wine from the small, but attractive, selection. Hoss asked for pork and potatoes for two. "Aní make my portion a great big one," he said with a cheeky grin. "Aní cherry pie fer dessert."

The girl, blonde and blue eyed, returned his look with a bright, saucy smile. Hoss followed her hungrily with his eye. He was beginning to feel more human: more like a proper man. He shook out his napkin in anticipation while Ben poured out the wine. "Hey, Pa, ainít she jist a pretty little thing?"

"Hm?" Ben looked up distractedly then turned to look the way his son was looking. "Well, I suppose that she is. But you keep your mind on your business. Remember the reason weíre here." The gravely tone and the bite in Benís voice made him sound almost normal again. With a steady hand, he filled the glasses to the brim. "A toast," he said sternly. "To Adam and Little Joe. Wherever they might be."

"Adam aní Little Joe," Hoss echoed, far from happy. He knew that his father was stubbornly refusing to face the facts. Hoss had been talking to the cavalrymen, and he knew how unlikely it was that his brothers had survived afoot in the wilderness, even if they hadnít encountered the Indians.

"Pa, I got somethiní ta tell you."

"Tell me? Whatís that?"

Hoss looked up as the food arrived. The pretty waitress smiled as she put loaded plates in front of the men, and Hoss found himself smiling back. The roast pork smelled delicious and there was a big piece of crackling with both meals. Hoss licked his lips and picked up his fork. The meat simply melted away in his mouth.

"You said you had something to tell me."

"Oh, yeah. Thatís right." Hoss chewed and swallowed and refilled his mouth. "While I was out I called in the telegraph office they got here in town. Figured Iíd send a wire down the line ta that friend oí Adamís that he talks about so much: that fella that breeds fancy horses."

"Brett Hansen?" Ben supplied, frowning. "You cabled Brett Hansen?" He didnít sound too pleased by the idea.

"Reckon I did." Hoss forked more pork into his mouth. He was hungrier than he could ever remember. "I wired him ta see if Adam aní Joe mightíve made it over the hills ta his place in the Sacramento Valley."

Ben put down his fork. His meal was almost untouched. "Well, I guess you did the right thing there." His tone belied his words of approval. "If Adam crossed over the border then Iím sure he would have headed for Hansenís ranch."

Hoss realized that his father had been clinging to that fragile hope. If Hansen wired back that Adam wasnít there, that hope would be dashed beyond all repair. Perhaps sending that cable hadnít been such a good idea after all Ė but done was done.

Ben pushed his plate away. Hoss pulled a face. "Hey Pa, ainít you gonna eat more Ďn that?"

"I donít think so. Iím not as hungry as I thought I was. I think Iíll go up to bed." Ben got to his feet. "What are you going to do?"

Hoss still ached from weeks in the saddle. He knew just what he needed to put matters right. Still chewing he said, " I figured I go use that fancy bath-house they got alongside the bank."

"Then Iíll see you later."

Hoss watched his father walk away. Benís face had turned grey again. He looked very tired, and, Hoss had to admit it, he looked old. His sure stride was weary, and his back was bowed. Hoss knew very well, deep down inside, that if his brothers were dead, if they never rode back out of that all-engulfing wilderness, then Ben Cartwright would never get over it. The atmosphere in the room had grown suddenly colder. He found that his appetite had faded completely away.

Hoss made use of the bathhouse just as heíd planned. He felt the need to be by himself. He needed some time to think, and the privacy of the high-backed, brassbound bathtub was as good a place as any. Hoss washed his hair and soaped himself down and settled back into the hot water for a soak.

He didnít know what to believe. The last thing in the world that he wanted to think was that his brothers were dead, but a man had to be realistic. Adam was as resourceful and as clever as they came, and he knew better than most how to live on his wits Ė and, Hoss remembered fondly, he had all that fancy education to back him up. Joe was young and hot-headed, and, sometimes, he didnít think things through, but he was quick-witted and clever; most of all, he was just plain lucky Ė the ultimate survivor. None of those things would do either of them much good with a Shoshoni arrow stuck in his back. Hoss thought grimly of the bloody stump heíd cut out of Adamís horse.

And the big man had other things to think about as well. There was his fatherís health to be considered. No longer a young man, Ben Cartwright was making himself ill with worry and privation. It was Hossís responsibility to see that he got home.

Responsibility. Now there was a word to conjure with. It was a concept that began to weigh heavily on the big manís shoulders. There was the great, sprawling ranch that was the Ponderosa, the heart and home-place of the growing financial and business empire that Hoss, with his home-loving and easy going nature, found difficult to understand. Adam had been the driving force behind it all: Adam, with his razor sharp intellect, his patient persistence and his intuitive grasp of commerce and economics. If Adam and Joe didnít come back, the responsibility for all of that would fall to Hoss as well. Ben Cartwright had left the family business in capable hands, but it wouldnít fend for itself forever. Sooner or later they would have to go back, and a Cartwright would have to pick up the reins, if only for the sake of his fatherís wife and his own, beloved, baby brother.

His own marriage to Mary Fletcher was something heíd have to put on hold. He couldnít imagine his life without her, but he was going to be a busy man as he struggled to fill his brotherís shoes. It wasnít the kind of life heíd envisioned with Mary; he wondered what she would make of it all.

The bath had grown cold. Rather than order more water heated, he rinsed himself down with what remained in the jug. He rubbed himself down with the rough cotton towel and clambered back into his clothes. Outside the night was dark, chilly and damp. Making his way along the boardwalk to the saloon, he ordered another drink. A shot of good rye whiskey warmed its way to his belly, and he chased it down with another. Then he said goodnight to the new friends that heíd made, some soldiers and a couple of cowboys from out of town, and crossed the street to the hotel.

The lamp in the room was turned very low. Ben Cartwright was asleep. He was wrapped in his blankets and breathing deeply; his clothes lay scattered on the floor. Hoss picked up the green silk shirt and ran it through his fingers before he draped it over the chair. A frown on his face, he sat down on his bed and contemplated the dark hump of his fatherís sleeping form. It wasnít going to be easy to convince him to give up the search. Benís family had always been his reason for living. With two sons gone, especially Little Joe, Hoss was afraid that the old man might simply fade away.

Hoss sighed. Ben had always tried to be even handed, to hand out praise and rebuke to his sons in equal measure, as they deserved. None the less, it was an ill kept, if unacknowledged, secret that Joe had always been his favourite. Leastwise, Hoss had always suspected it, and he knew that Adam had thought so too. Undressing quietly, he turned out the lamp and slipped beneath the sheets.

Sometime towards dawn, he must have slept; the good Lord knew he was tired enough. By the time he woke up, daylight was spilling in beneath the curtains.

Hoss sat up quickly and scrubbed his face with his hands. He had slept in far later than was his custom; his eyes were sticky and the taste of the rye was still in his mouth. Clad in his undershirt and long, drawstring drawers, he got out of bed and went to the window.

Looking out on an alley, the room had a deeply angled view of the street. Hoss could see that there were already plenty of people about in the bright, early sunlight. The street was drying, steaming gently, and indication that it was growing warm. Having done their worst, the rainclouds had moved away to the south. Hoss yawned and stretched and scratched where it itched.

"Hey, Pa, looks like we overslept. Iffen we donít shift out britches weíre sure gonna miss breakfast."

Ben didnít answer. Hoss looked Ďround. His father lay much as he had the night before, all wound up in his blankets as if heíd tossed and turned a good long while before heíd finally drifted off into sleep. His face was as pale as the pillow he laid on; his lips were an unhealthy grey.

"Pa?" Hoss went over and shook his shoulder. "Pa, are you okay?"

Ben stirred and muttered fretfully, but he didnít wake up. His skin was warm and dry to the touch, as if he were running a fever. Hoss scrambled quickly into his pants and rushed for the door.

The little clerk with the gold rimmed glasses had just come on duty behind the desk. He looked up in amazement as the big man thundered down the stairs in his vest and his socks and just enough in between them to keep himself decent. Hoss bellowed at the top of his lungs. "Hey Mister, you folks got a doctor in this here town?"

The clerk gaped. Hoss reached over the counter and lifted him by the shirt. "You got a doctor, I asked you!"

"Sure we got a doctor," the little man stammered. "We got Tom Cowery. He does all the doctoriní we need."

"You send someone ta fetch him real quick. My País took sick in our room."

Dressed more respectably in shirt, pants and boots, Hoss paced back and forth in the hallway outside the door. The doctor, who looked more like a middle-aged store clerk than a medical man to Hossís untutored eyed, had been with Ben for sometime. The door to the room was firmly shut.

From time to time, Hoss thought he heard voices, but he couldnít make out the words. He couldnít work out what was taking so long. He hesitated in front of the door, a huge and brooding presence. He had a good mind to go right in there and find out for himself what was going on. His hand hovered over the knob. Then he thought better of it. His face worked. He turned on his heel and paced away, wearing a track in the long, red rug.

Ten minutes later the bedroom door opened and Tom Cowery stepped out. A tall, lean and greying man, he carried him hat and his bag in one hand and closed the door behind him with the other as Hoss bounded up.

Hossís blue eyes burned into his face. "Well, Mister Cowery, what can you tell me?"

In a professional manner, Cowery drew Hoss away from the door. "Your fatherís running a fever, Mister Cartwright."

Hossís scowl deepened. "Heck, Iím the one who told you that. Whatís causiní the fever? How long is he gonna be sick?"

"No easy way to answer that last one, and I canít say for sure what the problem is. Thereís no indication of disease Ė just a general malaise and an overwhelming feeling of tiredness."

Hoss regarded him with disgust. "Well, you sure ainít much of a doctor."

Cowery wasnít insulted. "Iím all there is, Mister Cartwright, unless you want to call the army in. Keep your father in bed Ďtil that fever breaks, then feed him up as much as you can. Thatís about all you can do"

Hoss heaved a sigh. "Reckon thatís easier said than done. You just donít know my Pa. Can I see him?"

"Sure thing. He was awake when I left him. You can go in. Iíll leave my bill with the clerk."

Cowery disappeared down the hallway. Hoss knew it wouldnít be easy to do as the doctor ordered. Ben Cartwright was a notoriously difficult patient; as soon as he began to feel the least bit better he be out of bed and back in the saddle whether Hoss liked it or not. Composing his face, he turned to the bedroom door.

The sun had moved in the course of the morning and no longer shone directly in through the window. The room, with its simple furnishings: two beds, the chair, a tall, mirrored dresser, already smelled of sickness and fever. The colours: pink and green and grey, were strangely muted. Ben lay flat on his back in the bed. His face was still pale, but his dark eyes burned.

"Hoss? That you, boy?" His voice, a mere echo of itself, cracked on the question. "Come over here."

"Yes, sir. I reckon itís me." Hoss closed the door, and, positioning himself where his father could see him in the light from the window, he settled himself on the edge of the bed. Ben struggled to sit up. Hoss put out a hand to prevent him. "You didnít ought ta do that, Pa. That doctor fella says you gotta rest."

Ben scoffed at the very idea. "Ha! Heís no doctor. Heís admitted as much himself. Knows more about horses than he does about people." Not making much headway against the weight of the blankets, he glared at his son. "Help me sit up."

Hoss was reluctant but dutifully arranged the pillows behind his fatherís back. "You ought ta be sleepingÖ"

"Sleep!" Benís anger was rising: rage at the whims of fate and at his own weakness. Hoss was an available target. His voice grew stronger. "I donít have time to sleep! I have to get out of this bed and go see that army Major. Do something about organizing a search for you brothers."

Hoss felt his face crumple. He hoped that it didnít show. "You just ainít well enough ta do none oí them things. You gotta rest up aní get some food inside o ya. Heck, you canít even get outta that bed!"

Ben had arrived at the same conclusion. He pawed at the crumpled sheet. Hoss fetched a damp towel from the dresser and cooled his fatherís face. "You just lie quiet now aní get some sleep. Iíll go aní speak ta this Major fella. See what he reckon we cín do." He was very careful to keep every trace of doubt out of his voice.

Reaching out, Ben covered his hand with his own. "You do that, son. You get him to order some sort of search, you hear?"

"I hear you, Pa." Hoss could tell that his father was drifting away.

"Hoss?" Ben made a final effort before sleep claimed him again. "Donít you ever give up on your brothers."

"No, sir." Hoss looked mournful as he made the promise. "I sure ainít about ta do that."

Ben was asleep. Hoss pulled the covers up around his shoulders, then reached for his gunbelt and his tall, felt hat. With a last look towards the bed, he stepped out into the hallway and closed the door quietly behind him.

With the consent of the Prion town council, the army had taken temporary possession of some disused buildings on the south side of town. The business had once belonged to a local freight haulier and general merchant but had been defunct for some time Ė taken over, and then closed down by a larger operator based in Sacramento. Hoss remembered that Adam had once explained how it often happened that way: large corporate concerns swallowing up smaller operations until only the big companies were left. It was the way of the modern world, so Adam had said. It was the principle reason why such pains had been taken to diversify the Cartwright family interests away from the core of cattle and timber and silver mining, to make it immune from hostile take-overs. Now they had shares in railroads and shipping companies and property spread right across the country, investments in art and fashion houses in Europe and development corporations in places Hoss couldnít even find on the map. He had thought at the time that his big brother was just spouting Ė now, he wished he had paid more attention.

The timber-frame buildings had fallen into dereliction, but the army had made some repairs. The warehouses that had once stored sacks of corn and piles of half cured hides, coils of rope, carpets and pots and pans and all the other paraphernalia a growing community needed, ranged along two sides of a square. They now provided living accommodation for the rank and file of the men. Army horses and army mules filled the rebuilt corrals on the third side. Various outbuildings had been demolished and the timber reused to form part of a defensive stockade. The rest of it was still under construction.

The officers had taken up residence and set up their headquarters in the long, low building that had once been the company offices. These, with the smithy and the cookhouse made up the fourth side of the square. A flag fluttered from the corner of the roof; smoke drifted across the yard from a shattered stump of chimney, and the sound of the blacksmithís hammer rang in the air. Underfoot, the ground was still unpleasantly sticky, churned into mud by the constant passage of horses and men and broad-wheeled supply wagons. The air smelled of mud and of horses and hot iron from the forge, and the savoury aroma of stew wafted from the cookhouse door.

Hoss Cartwright rode the horse he had hired across the middle of the square and drew rein beside the board that declared in large, chalked letters, ĎCompany Officesí. He climbed down from the saddle and stood in the mud, absorbing the details: pink underwear hanging like pennants from washing lines, a squad of men drilling on the far side of the square where the ground was less wet, the shrill squeal of a fractious horse. Somewhere someone was singing in a rich, baritone voice.

He gathered his determination. Looping his reins around the rail he stepped up onto the porch. The frosted glass doors still bore the legend Ď MacEnroy Storage and Haulageí in chipped, golden letters. He turned the knob and went inside.

When heíd spent some time waiting, the sergeant on duty showed him into a cramped office space that was both bedroom and workroom to the man within. A modestly sized and neatly made bed filled one corner, with a jug and basin on a dresser close by. A huge, wooden desk, three chairs and a trunk took up most of the rest of the room. Dusty sunlight spilled in through the window and the air smelled of leather, whiskey and ten-cent cigars. The man sitting behind the desk looked up from the paperwork that threatened to sweep down off the desk and engulf him. He got to his feet and held out his hand.

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Mister Cartwright. My nameís Granger, Sydney Granger. Iím officer commanding. I must confess I was expecting an older man."

"Thatís quite all right, Major Granger."

Hoss took the seat he was offered and used the moment to look the man over. Granger was solidly built in a typically military manner, broad in the shoulder and deep in the chest. He looked like heíd once been a horseman, but his hips were beginning to spread; too much time spent riding the chair at the back of that desk was what Hoss guessed at as the probable cause. His grey hair was thinning, showing pink scalp underneath, and he wore long side-whiskers as if to compensate. His grey-eyed gaze was direct.

"Thatíd be because you were expectiní my Pa," Hoss said. "but he couldnít make it. Heís took sick over at the hotel."

"Iím very sorry to hear that." Granger settled back into his chair and made a steeple out of his fingers. "Nothing serious, I hope."

Hoss wriggled uncomfortably in the seat that was really too small for him. "That fella Coweryís been ta see him. Says heís just plumb tuckered out. Pa had the typhoid fever a few months back. His health ainít never bin quite the same since."

"That can happen to a man." Granger contrived to look suitably sympathetic. "It can take a very long time for a man to get over the typhoid, and riding around in those hills for so long canít have done him any good. Coweryís a good enough man - meanís well and all that - but heís got no real medical qualifications. Tell you what Iíll do. Iíll send the Divisional Medical Officer along to check your father over, just to be sure."

"Well, Iíd appreciate that, Major. Itís realí kin oí you. But thatís not the thing thatís botheriní my Pa."

Sitting back, Granger clasped his hands together over the mound of forms and reports. "Lieutenant Harwell told me about your brothers. A bad business, that. White men running headlong into Shoshonis." Sadly, he shook his head.

Hoss was unhappy. He knew he was asking a difficult thing. "My Pa wants you ta send out some patrols, see if you can find Ďem. He just ainít gonna rest easy Ďtil he knows fer sure what happened to Adam aní Little Joe."

Grangerís eyes searched his face. "It might be a mercy if he never knows. In any event, I canít send out parties to search for just two men. Until they finally get around to building that new fort they keep talking about, out by the Great Salt Lake, Iím hard pressed to find enough men to go around as it is. Weíve got an escalating situation here. The Indian raids are becoming more frequent and more daring all the time. Weíre being hard pressed to protect the local farmers and ranchers. Already people from the outlying settlements are pulling up stakes and moving into town, bags and baggage and all their stock. The place is filling up fast."

Hoss twiddled the brim of his hat, turning it Ďround and Ďround in his lap. In the silence that suddenly dwelt in the room he could hear the bellow of the drill sergeant from all the way across the yard and the tick of the Majorís ebony-cased clock from the dresser shelf. The hammering from the forge had stopped.

"So what do you propose to do?" Major Granger asked quietly.

Hoss drew a long breath. In his own mind he could see well what the major was saying, but he knew how his father would feel. "I guess weíll go on lookiní. Just as soon as my Pa can ride."

Granger leaned over the desk. "Now see here, CartwrightÖ"

"It ainít no use you tryiní ta talk me out of it. I promised my Pa. Iffen we donít find out what happened ta Adam aní Little JoeÖ" He concluded the sentence with a sad shake of the head. Granger looked equally sombre.

"You and your father are civilians. I canít order you to stay out of the hills. We donít have a state of martial law here Ė not yet, anyway. But I would suggest that you take your father back to the rest of his family. Thereís not a lot of good he can do here, you know - after all this time itís unlikely youíll find any trace of your brothers."

"I appreciate what your sayiní major." Hoss heaved a mighty sigh. The consensus of opinion was that Adam and Joe were dead Ė and he had to admit it certainly started to look that way. "But I reckon weíll just keep on lookiní a little longer."

"All right, all right!" Granger held up his hands in surrender. "Iíve done what I can to dissuade you, but if youíre absolutely determined, Iíll tell you what Iíll do: I have a regular patrol riding out early next week. If the doctor says you fatherís up to it, the two of you can ride along with them.

Hoss expression lightened a little. At least he would have some good news to carry back. "Thatís mighty good of you, major." He got to his feet, and Granger stood up too.

"Donít thank me. Iím not doing you any favours - just protecting my own back. If the pair of you rode out and ran into a Shoshoni raiding party Ė well, Iíd feel responsible for what happened to you."

Hoss decided that the Major was a good and honest man; he was doing his best to be helpful but his hands were tied by circumstances. "Iíll thank you anyway aní so will my Pa."

Outside, the sudden jangle of the bell at the cookhouse door summoned the soldiers to table. "Let me offer you lunch," Granger suggested with a smile. "The officers eat the same as the men Ė just off better plates, but the foodís not bad if you donít mind stew."

Hoss managed to smile at the joke. "That sounds just fine, but Iíd better be gettingí back. My Pa will be wantiní ta know whatís goin on."

Walking outside with him, Granger watched as he got on his horse. "Be sure and convey my respects to my father. Iíll send the doctor along this afternoon."

Hoss touched the brim of his hat. Reining his horse away from the rail he walked him back across the square and rode slowly back into town. He knew that his father wasnít going to like what he had arranged, but it was the best he could do.

*******

Adam looked at the ring of rapt faces. A sea of dark eyes was fixed on his face. Since the night of the natik-winappi his reputation as a teller of tales had steadily increased. Each afternoon, quite late in the day, a circle of children gathered around him. At first, it had only been small ones and some older girls, demanding that the white man tell them stories. Reluctant at first, eventually he had bowed to their wishes and related the fairy tales heís heard as a boy, adapting them in his increasingly fluent Shoshoni into terms that they understood. They had been captivated and entranced by the images he created, and, quickly, the word had spread. Now there were boys in the circle: proud young braves, and many of the women had gathered to listen to the magic of the white manís tongue. Adam had extended his repertoire. He found his young audience to be particularly enchanted by the tales of the Arabian Nights, of the tales of the brothers Grimm and the old Germanic legends: the stories of Odin the mighty and Thor with his hammer and the mischievous god Loki, who lay bound by a magical chain to a rock at the heart of the world. That was the one that they never tired of, but however much he embellished the telling, they liked the ending to be the same. When he was sure that he had their attention, he went ahead and finished the tale. Then, as always, the children went quietly away.

Willomenka came towards him through the press of dispersing children. She held out her hands to him, touching him briefly. Adamís flesh chilled. He smelled the scent of her skin and of her hair: the scent of a woman. His body tightened; for Adam, it had been a very long time. Carefully, he drew away.

The womanís eyes sparkled with delight. "You speak so well to the young ones," she said in Shoshoni.

"Iíve had practice." He replied, smiling.

"You have a family?"

"Three brothers, my father, my fatherís wife." Adamís face became wistful as he thought of the home and the people he missed.

"And do you tell stories in the lodge of your father?"

"Sometimes, to the young one. But, mostly, I read."

"Read?" Willomenka frowned at the unfamiliar word. "What is Ďreadí?"

Not finding the Shoshoni he needed, Adam lapsed into English. "From books, with covers and pages." He mimicked the action of opening a book. "The language of my people is written down."

Willomenka copied the gesture. "Can you teach me this Ė read?"

"Of course I can teach you." Adam was glad to agree.

"When? When will you begin?" The woman was filled with excitement.

Looked beyond her, distracted, Adam said, "Soon. Iíll teach you soon." Two Shoshoni braves had stepped into the clearing among the rocks that Adam used as his story-telling arena. One of them was Aminotek, the scars on his face livid in the angled, afternoon light. He fixed Adam with an iron hard stare. "You, white man, will come."

Willomenka turned. "What is this?" she demanded, her eyes angry. "What do you want with this man?"

Aminotek stood with his arms folded, a long barrelled rifle cradled against his chest. Adam didnít doubt for a moment his readiness to use it. Behind him, some way back, the second warrior was equally unsmiling and similarly armed. Both of them focused their fierce attention solely on Adam. Aminotek did not repeat his command. Willomenka became anxious. She stepped between her cousin and Adam as if she would defend him. "Why do you want him?"

Aminotek made no reply, merely waited. Adam pulled a breath. Against the two of them, he could offer no resistance, and he didnít want the woman involved in a scuffle; it was not in his nature to hide behind any womanís skirts. Firmly, he moved her aside. "Itís all right. Iíll go with them."

Willomenka looked from man to man. Her face was afraid. Adam stepped past her and started down the path towards the village. He didnít look at Aminotek, but he was aware that the tall brave fell in close behind him.

He was apprehensive. Once before he had been called to account for some minor misdemeanour and had been severely beaten. He could take the punishment without flinching Ė it was something he had steeled himself to Ė but it wasnít a prospect he viewed with delight. He looked back over his shoulder. "Would you mind telling me where weíre going?" Aminotek merely grunted and pointed. Adam wasnít reassured. He found himself delivered to the ring of stones that encircled the council fire. Without ceremony, Aminotek gave him a shove in the back that sent him to all fours in the dirt. It was an attitude of obeisance he was becoming rather tired of. He prepared himself for the inevitable kick or a blow with the butt of the gun. They didnít come. Instead, Aminotek gave him a look of unveiled contempt, turned on his heel and walked away.

Adam gathered himself and got to his feet. He was very much aware of eyes upon him. Everyone who passed looked him over; no one stopped and no one spoke. He wiped his palms on his thighs.

The doorway of the chieftainís shelter was draped with the hide of a spotted pony. Washatak lifted it aside and stepped out into the reddening light. It was the first time that Adam had seen him close-to since the night of the story telling. The chiefís handsome face was stern. Legs wide apart to steady himself, Adam straightened his back and lifted his head, he knew that any overt display of apprehension would be met with contempt and might even cost him his life. Above all things, the Shoshoni valued a manís personal courage, and he had learned to contain any fear that he felt. He met the chiefís eyes with a look of his own that didnít, quite, amount to defiance. Washatak folded his arms and looked him over, head to toe and back. The two men were much the same height, broad of the shoulder and lean in the hip. Washatak was older, heavier, darker eyed. The full mouth twisted in a sardonic smile. "You conduct yourself with decorum, white man. You have not tried to escape."

Dryly, Adam confessed, "I wouldnít have got very far."

"Never the less, you have kept your word."

Adam resisted the urge to shrug. It was a gesture the Shoshoni did not use and regarded with suspicion. He kept his voice even. "We have a bargain. My brother lives."

"And soon he will walk again, my sister tells me." Washatak paused; a frown creased his handsome face. "The women speak well of you; my sister goes so far as to call you a friend."

Adam wondered where all this was going. "I am proud to be the friend of Willomenka.

The two big men eyed each other warily in a silent battle of wills that Adam couldnít afford to win and didnít want to lose. Washatak said, abruptly, "You have a name." It was a statement as much as a question.

Adam bristled. Among white men, names were given, not asked for. Besides, the Shoshoni did not name horses or dogs; to steal a manís name, as Adamís had been stolen from him, was to deny his humanity. He had gotten used to thinking of himself in similar terms; to surrender his name to Washatak was like handing over a part of his secret identity. He swallowed his pride. Drawing a long careful breath he forced himself to relax. "My name is Adam Cartwright."

Pondering, Washatak said, in English "This means Ďfirst maní, does it not? And the name of your fatherís clan? Together they make the name of a warrior. Adam Cartwright, I give you back your name." Washatak made a gesture. "Sit."

Setting his own example he sat down, crossed-legged beside the fire and looked at Adam expectantly. Adam lowered himself cautiously and crossed his ankles. It was a position of vulnerability he was not altogether comfortable with. Adam understood that this was a concession of considerable significance. He had spent many weeks as a lowly and much despised servant; now his status had suddenly changed, and the chief himself was making overtures. Adam was suspicious of his motives, but that was just one more thing he determined to keep to himself.

Washatak summoned a woman who poured bowls of hot tea from a battered old kettle that sat in the flames. Adam sipped and grimaced. The brew was a strong, herbal concoction, and he could feel the tingle of its narcotic properties on his tongue. He resolved not to drink too much of it. Washatak saw the look on his face, and his eyes glinted with amusement.

Adam gazed at the Indian chief over the rim of his bowl. "What is it you want?" he asked quietly. "Why do you keep me alive?"

"Perhaps only for your company." Washatak sipped his drink and smacked his lips in appreciation. "If I had wanted you dead, I would have killed you a long time ago." Adam acknowledged that fact with a slow nod of the head. "You are an intelligent and educated man."

"Iím sure you donít value me for my education or my intelligence."

Without any readable expression in his dark eyes, Washatak continued to gaze at him. "That may be a part of it. Do you object?"

"Iím hardly in a position to offer an objection."

Around him the village was slowing into its evening rhythm. The smell of wood-smoke and roasting meat drifted on the air. He was acutely aware of the murmur of voices: talking, laughing, singing. He and the chief were alone on an isolated island in a sea of warm humanity.

Still watching, Washatak drank again. "I also am an educated man, Adam Cartwright. I once went to the white manís school, and I am wise in the ways of my people, as you are wise in yours."

Setting his bowl aside, Adam inquired again, this time more guardedly, "What do you want of me?"

"Your company. Your conversation."

"And what else?"

The full lips quirked. "I would have you listen to the ancient tales and learn the ways of the people. You will remember in the way of the white man. You will write them down." Washatak gestured with thumb and forefinger, mimicking the holding of a pen.

"Why would you want me to do that?" Adam didnít believe for a moment that was all there was to it. There were deeper, darker things involved, convoluted purposes that he could not, for the moment, discern. For his own sake, and for Joeís, he was prepared to play along.

Washatak's eyes hardened to ebony in a face carved from granite. "Long ago, the white man drove the Indian peoples away from the shores of the ocean onto the plains, and from there into the deserts where nothing grows and little can live. Now, we can go no further west. Beyond these hills are still more white men with their fences and their cities. The time of the red man is over. There is nowhere left for us to go."

Adam could hear the hollowness in the other manís voice, the faint tones of resentment carefully restrained, the pain and, beneath it all, the anger. He felt compassion stir in his soul. "It doesnít have to be that way."

With an air of greater wisdom, Washatak shook his head. The beaded braids swayed from side to side. "I have had visions. I have seen the future in my dreams. Once, the tribes of the red man darkened the landscape with their numbers: the Apache, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho. But we are like the shadow on the mountain. The wind blows. The clouds move from the face of the sun. The shadow melts away in the light of the morning. Soon, we will be gone from the face of the land, and no trace will be left of our passing."

Instinct and stone-cold intelligence told Adam that what the chieftain told him was essentially the truth. It was a fact that since the enactment of the Indian removal act of eighteen-thirty, the same year that Adam had been born, the tribal peoples had been moved ever westward. They had witnessed the wanton destruction of their sources of food, the grazing of their animals and their hunting grounds taken over by vast herds of cattle, or torn up by the plough as more and more white settlers flowed in an endless river to California and to Oregon. Attempts had been made by some few to reconcile two opposing ways of life Ė most notably the Mormonís experiments in communal living. Mostly, the white man had killed and burned everything that stood in his way, massacring women and children and driving the Indians before them as he swept across the continent. It was not a history Adam was personally proud of, and he was not surprised that the Indians had answered in kind. He searched for something to say.

"Iíve heard talk of reservations: places set aside where the tribal peoples can live in isolation and follow their own way of life." He chose not to add that heíd also heard of the Trail of Tears along which the whole Cherokee nation had been forcibly removed from their south-eastern homelands to reservations in the west and the sorry story of what had become of them there.

"And do you believe this, Adam Cartwright?" Washatak asked softly. His eyes were fixed on Adamís face.

Sitting there in the quiet of the evening with the dome of bright stars lighting the sky above his head and the warmth of the fire on his face, Adam thought about it. Considering again all that he knew, he wasnít prepared to offer that assurance.

Washatak took his silence for an answer. A look that resembled grim amusement came into his face. "We will talk often, you and I. When you return to your own people, you will do as I have asked."

Adam hesitated Ė then inclined his head. "Iíll do it."

The woman came round with the kettle again, and Adam held out his bowl for a second serving. He was convinced that he hadnít heard all of it yet by a long, long way, but for the moment he considered the mere suggestion that one-day he might go free worthy of a small celebration.

Seven

The Cartwright men, father and son, reined their horses to the side of the trail and eased themselves in their saddles. It had been a long, hard, up-hill climb; the animals needed a chance to blow, and it was sweet relief for the men to take the weight off their seat bones. Ben pulled out a large handkerchief and mopped at the sweat on his face and neck. The morning sun was already halfway up the sky and burning hot and bright in his face as he looked towards the eastern limit of the hills. Sunlight glistened off the dense canopy of foliage that filled the valley below and turned the sky from blue into molten gold.

Ben Cartwright looked, and felt, much better than he had a week before. Several days of enforced, if much resented, bed-rest had made a whole new man of him. To be sure, he had lost some weight: his barrel chest still filled out his shirt but his hips and thighs were lean and his pants hung baggily around his seat. His face was a lot less grey and his eyes were fierce and alert; his determination to find his missing sons remained unabated and he was filled with a restless, if fragile, energy. At his side, Hoss, a looming and brooding presence, offered silent support.

Along the path, rapidly drying now after the over-night rain, the ragged line of soldiers straggled by on their mud-spattered horses. To the untutored eye they might have appeared a slovenly, even a careless body of men. Ben Cartwright had learned differently. They might slump and sway in the saddle, but these were seasoned and experienced men, veterans of many campaigns against the Apache in the south and the Comanchee and the Cherokee in the east. They knew very well how to preserve their energies without ever relaxing their alertness.

Henry Harwell rode up alongside Ben and pulled his horse to a halt. He had already loosened his tunic; now, he took off his hat and wiped his red handkerchief over his balding pate. "Hot day, Mister Cartwright. Looks like summerís finally gettingí started."

Ben sat back down in the saddle and rested his hands on the horn. You certainly have a different climate this side of the mountains. Back home on the Ponderosa itíll be hot enough to make a rock sweat and so dry a man would be glad of the moisture."

Harwell chuckled. "You must admit, this is one beautiful country."

Ben lifted his head and looked. "It certainly is." From where he sat at the top of the trail, he could see for fifty miles. This part of northern California was heavily forested with fir and Jeffreyís Pine, interspersed with the occasional, almost black, blotch of a misplaced specimen of spreading Sierra Juniper. Noticeably missing, from Benís point of view, was the familiar, yellow pine; the towering, scab-barked tree for which he had named his own land failed to grow this side of the border.

The trees were widely spaced, allowing for a substantial undergrowth, mainly grey-green buck-brush and tangled Manzantia that, in autumn, would bear an abundance of sweet berries and provide forage for birds and all manner of wildlife. The hills rolled into the purple mists of distance, their forested appearance broken only where settlers had cleared the land. It was truly a God-given country, and Ben tried hard to rejoice, but when he looked into his heart he found it empty, devoid of the love of the Lord.

"Thereís a clearing up ahead," Harwell said, quite oblivious to Benís inner conflict. "Water and grass for the horses. Weíll call a halt there, rest the men."

A frown appeared on Ben Cartwrightís face, but he tried to contain his impatience. The nearer he got to the eastern desert the more urgently he felt the need to go on. He gathered up his reins. "You lead the way lieutenant. Weíll follow on behind."

Harwell replaced his hat and turned the gesture into a makeshift salute. He kicked his horse into motion and cantered after OíToole. Ben and Hoss sat and waited until the last of the men had ridden past, then fell in at the end of the line.

Harwell knew the area well, and he has been had been right about the clearing. Twenty minutes further on down the trail they came to a place where the trees opened out and let the sunlight through to the ground. The hillside was too steep by far for a man to build himself a house, but the grass grew lush and knee high to a horse and was sweetened with the last of the seasonís flowers. A crystal-clear stream ran down though the meadow, and the air was filled with the music of water and the sound of birdsong. The men stepped down from their saddles and loosened the cinches, allowing their horses to graze.

Just a few minutes later, the soldiers had several fires alight, spread out along the banks of the stream, and lots of water put on to boil. Ben had discovered, early on, that the army ran on hot coffee: black, strong and sweetened with blackstrap molasses added direct to the pot.

Hoss held out his hand for his fatherís canteen. "Here, Pa, let me fill that for you."

"Thank you, son." Ben handed over the battered container, and while Hoss hunkered down beside the stream, he went to speak to Harwell. "Iím thinking, lieutenant, my son and I might leave you this afternoon; push on east at a faster pace, work our way back towards the desert.

Harwell scowled. "I wouldnít advise that, Mister Cartwright. The Shoshoni are raiding all through these woods. No telling where they are or when they might strike next. Two men alone, I wouldnít give much for your chances."

"Iím not going to find my sons this far west," Ben said, grimly.

Harwell looked at him candidly. "Mister Cartwright, youíre not going to find your sons at all." It was an argument that had gone back and forth several times in the last few days. The two men were no closer to reaching an agreement than they had been at the outset.

Ben cleared his throat, but before he could make his usual, indignant response, OíTooleís shout rang through the clearing. "Riders coming in, lieutenant! Riders coming in!" Ben and Harwell turned to look, and Hoss straightened up from the stream. Two men were riding up the trail from the valley below.

At first, they were just vague figures obscured by distance. As they came closer it was clear that they were both big men, heavy set, dressed in tough, well-worn clothing and bundled into thick woolen coats despite the heat of the day. Both were bearded and longhaired, evidence that they had been a long time away from civilization, and both rode a solid, dark coloured horse and led another, loaded with gear. They splashed through the stream and came to a halt as Harwell stepped forward and held up his hand.

"Good morning to you, gentlemen."

The man on the lead horse, dark haired, his beard streaked with grey, took off his hat to reveal a bronzed and balding scalp that shone like gold in the sun. His face, brown and creased like old leather, split in a ready smile. Surprisingly, in amongst all that mass of beard he had a perfect set of white, even teeth. "íMorniní lieutenant. My name is Argyle, and this is my partner, Sefton McShea."

"Step on down an set awhile." Harwell invited cordially.

Argyle glanced around at the cavalrymen. The white teeth flashed again. "Donít mind if we do, just for a moment. That coffee sure smells good." He and McShea swung out of their saddles. "Weíre headed out west and south. Plan to spend some time in the city while you boys in blue clean the savages out of these hills." Argyle squatted down beside the fire and accepted a mug of the strong, dark brew. "Thought we might treat ourselves to some girls and some likker."

Ben looked over the packs on the horses. There were hides and horns and canvas wrapped bundles, pots and pans that had seen better days, shovels and guns and a two-headed axe. The harness and gear was all well worn but serviceable, the equipment of men used to fending for themselves for long periods in wild country. He hunkered down beside Argyle who gave him a friendly grin. "My nameís Ben Cartwright. This is my son Hoss."

Argyle nodded and shook Hossís hand, looking the big man over. "Pleased ta meet you."

"You bin huntiní these hills long?" Hoss asked him gruffly. Hossís guarded expression said that he didnít like this man a lot Ė perhaps it was because he smiled too much.

"Since early spring."

Anxiously, Ben asked, "Have you seen two men, probably afoot. Oneís tall and dark, a big man, much like yourself but some years younger. The other has a mop of brown curls.

Argyle sipped his coffee before answering, careful not to burn his lip. "Mister Cartwright, we ainít seen nothiní in these hills but vermin. Aní afoot sure ainít a good place ta be." He nodded to McShea who got up and went to their horses, rummaging about in the packs.

"Youíve seen what itís like." Harwell joined in, addressing himself to Ben "Every homestead weíve passed has been abandoned. Men have taken their stock and their families and every danged thing that they could carry and headed for the towns. Who can blame them? I tell you, youíd be a fool to go on alone."

McShea came back and dumped a sacking wrapped bundle on the ground. Ben smelled the sharp stink of decay.

Argyle opened the bundle. "Like I said, all weíve seen lately is two-legged vermin. Found one or two strays and picked up some headpieces. Thought the army might be payiní a bonus." He looked hopefully at Harwell.

All eyes were fixed on the grizzly trophies: four or five half-cured scalps had fallen from the bag onto the stones of the riverbank.

"Not yet, weíre not." Harwell said heavily. "But that might come."

Argyle shrugged good-naturedly. "Guess weíll just hang on ta these fer a while then. Genuine Injun. Have ta be worth somethiní" He stuffed the hanks of hair back into the sack. "Thank you kindly, gentlemen, for your hospitality." Finishing off his coffee, he stood and stretched and then turned to his horse. Swinging into the saddle he gathered his reins and with a nod and last smile kicked on up the trail. Ben and Hoss Cartwright stood either side of Harwell and watched until Argyle and his silent partner had ridden out of sight.

Ben found that his hands had wound into tight knuckled fists. His soul burned with hot indignation. "Thatís the sort of men the west could well do without," he said grimly. "Men who kill and butcher human beings for the sake of a profit."

Harwell gave him a quizzical look. "Human beings, Cartwright? Youíve witnessed first hand what those Shoshoni raiding parties can do. They murder women and children and torture their men. How can you call that human?"

Eyes ablaze with righteous fury, Ben turned his anger on him. "That doesnít make it right, Goddamn it! Canít you see itís a vicious circle? We kill them and they kill us. If someone doesnít put a stop to it, itíll never end!"

"Oh. Weíll put a stop to it," Harwell assured him with vehemence. "Just as soon as we find out where those Indians are holding out, weíll send out a full detachment and wipe them off the face of the land."

"Hey, Pa." Ben felt Hossís hand on his elbow. There ainít no point in you getting all excited. It ainít gonna do you no good."

Ben looked at his son and saw the concern n his eyes. He knew that Hoss still worried about the state of his health and swallowed his anger. He looked up the now-empty trail. "Youíre right, son. Thereís no point at all. What we have to do is find out what happened to Joe and Adam."

"Yes, sir." Hoss responded unhappily. "Thatís what weíre gonna do."

Harwell looked from one to the other. "You look tired Cartwright."

"Iím all right," Ben said shortly. He wondered how much Harwell had been discussing him with Hoss. "How long before we reach the desert?"

"Several days at least Ė if we get that far. Iíve got some friends that live right in the next valley. I thought weíd stop there for a day or two, give the horses a chance to rest. Itíll do you good to sleep in a bed for a change."

Ben bristled, then gulped down his pride. He knew the lieutenant meant well, and, to be truthful, heíd not be sorry for a good nightís sleep. Every night since they had left Prion had been spent on ground that was hard, cold and damp. His back and his belly ached, and he found it hard to consume the amount of water that he knew his body needed. He had taken to the saddle a whole lot sooner than the army doctor advised, driving himself with an evangelistic fervour, and now he was paying the price for his audacity. Exhaustion, the medic had called it, a blanket term that included a multitude of otherwise minor ailments that normally wouldnít mean very much, but added to the weakness left over from his bout of typhoid, had combined to make him a very sick man. The lecture had been interspersed with a number of terms Ben didnít much like, such as, ĎA man of you ageí, and, ĎTaking it easierí.

The doctor had spoken to Hoss as well, the two of them talking in low voices outside the bedroom door. Ben could imagine what had been said. He was well aware of Hossís constant, concerned observation and the resident look of worry on his face.

Once the fires were extinguished and the coffeepots packed, the soldiers climbed back into their saddles and formed a rough column. OíToole gave an order and waved his hand in the air; two by two, they started down the trail that led into the valley. At this time of year, this side of the hills, it rained almost every day. Today proved to be the exception; the sky remained bright and clear. With the amount of moisture that was already down on the ground, the woods became hot and steamy as the day wore on and filled with midges and flies. The men sweated and swotted and got sore where the leather rubbed. It made an uncomfortable ride.

Harwell called another brief halt beside the swift and turbulent stream that ran through the valley bottom. Then they pushed on along a well-worn pathway that ran by the waterís edge for some distance before turning up among the trees and climbing to the shoulder of the next hill. Here, the trees were noticeably thinner, due to someoneís use of an axe. The stumps were obvious, some of them new, and there were clear paths were the logs had been dragged out.

Long before they reached the top of the rise, they all knew that something was wrong. The woods were very quiet, much too quiet Ė all the wildlife had gone Ė and the smell of charred timber sharpened the afternoon air. No one spoke. Grim faced and silent, all the men rose to the ridge. Below them in the flat-bottomed valley was a scene of absolute devastation. The homestead had burned to the ground. Of the neatly built house and the box-like barn nothing remained but blackened ruins that still smouldered long after the flames had gone out. Drifts of dark, acrid smoke still drifted across the ground. His face set like stone, Harwell lifted his hands and rode on down the path. Singly, or in twos, the troopers followed, each man in his own good time.

From close at hand, it was very clear what had happened. The attack had come suddenly, sweeping down from the trees that fringed the valley rim. The fences were broken and the stock driven off; the planted ground had been trampled. Only the outhouse stood undamaged, a solidly build and macabre monument to civilized living.

The woman had died of a gunshot wound. She lay in the yard, still sprawled where sheíd fallen, midway between the house and the well. Her skirt was a vibrant splash of colour, brilliant blue among the grey and the brown. Not far away was an upturned bucket, the mute witness of her final errand. Harwell stepped down from his horse and crouched at her side, reaching out a hand to brush the cold flesh of her neck. Ben joined him, handing his reins to Hoss. Gently, he turned the woman over. Bright blue eyes stared sightlessly at the sky.

Harwell said, tonelessly, "Her name was Margie. Sheís been married to Michael for seven years. They had three little girls." His voice broke on the word.

Ben released a long pent breath. He knew that Harwell needed time to collect himself. "Donít worry. Weíll find them." He stood up and gazed around at the ruins. The soldiers were stunned by the horror, picking sluggishly among the remains, not really knowing where to begin. Someone had to take charge. He called to Hoss and OíToole. "Letís get these men organized. Hoss, see about getting the horses tended. Sergeant OíToole, I guess youíd better break out those shovels again. It looks like weíre going to need them."

It didnít take a great deal of searching to find the rest of the family. The man and his children had taken shelter inside the house. They found them huddled together among the ashes and buried them in a neat row of graves. This time it was Ben who read the service and spoke the empty words. Afterwards, Harwell stopped by his shoulder.

"I want to thank you, Cartwright Ė for everything youíve done."

Ben nodded brief acknowledgement. "Think nothing of it. Were these people good friends of yours?"

"Iíd known them quite a while," Harwell answered sadly. Then, visibly, he shrugged back into the military persona. "Best get the men fed and then start back."

"Start back?" Ben caught at his arm. "Arenít you going after the Ė the renegades that did this?"

Harwell turned back, looked at him and sighed. "Thereíd be no point in it. Look about you." He made a wide, sweeping gesture with his hat. "These ashes are almost cold. They have to be two - three days ahead of us. Weíd never catch up."

"We can try!"

"And get ourselves massacred like these poor folks?" Harwell planted his hands on his hips. "Weíre fighting a war here. This is just another skirmish that weíve lost. When the final battle comes, we want to be in a position were we can be assured of winning. I know that youíre still hoping to find some trace of your sons. If I were you, I wouldnít consider going on alone. For the sake of the rest of your family, you ought to go home." Ben watched him walk away.

Standing just behind his father, Hoss fiddled with something held in his hands. His broad face worked as he struggled with the words he needed to say. "Pa, I gotta tell ya; I reckon that army fellaís right."

For Ben, the world stopped in its tracks. He still felt the heat of the sun on his face and smelled the smoke in the air; distantly he heard the troopers talking, tending the animals, cooking their food. None of it had any meaning. The colours, the greens and the golds and the blue of the sky all faded away into grey. His mouth was filled with the taste of ashes.

"Did I hear you right, boy?" he asked in a voice that rasped in his throat.

Reluctantly, Hoss lifted his eyes and looked him full in the face. "Yes, sir. I reckon you did."

"Are you telling be that you think your brothers are dead?"

"No. I ainít sayiní that." Hoss kept his voice low, refusing to match his fatherís rising anger. "But we sure ainít gonna find Ďem riding Ďround and Ďround in these hills, aní it ainít gonna do either one oí then no good iffen we get ourselves killed."

Ben drew a long breath, steadying himself. His nails were hurting the palms of his hands. "So what are you proposing? Letís have it out in the open."

Hoss lowered his eyes and fiddled some more with the long, straight stick. "I reckon as we should go back to Prion with these soldier boys, aní then we should think about goiní on home."

"And give up the search?" Benís heart had turned to stone in his chest.

Hoss held up the stick so that Ben could see it clearly. It was the feathered shaft of an arrow. "If theyíre still alive, Pa, I reckon theyíll find their own way home." He threw the arrow down in the dirt and slowly walked away. A big man, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, he didnít want his father to see the tears that ran down his face.

*******

Pain was a thing Joe had learned to live with, a constant, nagging companion that dwelt inside him, a parasite that drained his strength and his resolution and kept him an unwilling prisoner in the close confines of the shelter and the space immediately around it. Joe hated the pain, and, in a way, he had come to love it Ė it sharpened his edge, and it was something on which he could vent his anger. Joe was a very angry young man.

It was true that over the course of time the pain had changed in its nature. When he had first been wounded, and Adam had cut the arrow out of his leg, it had burned like the all-consuming fires of hell. As the weeks had passed by, it had become a chameleon serpent, twisting and turning and changing its face, every day presenting a different aspect. Tonight it was dormant, a low-level throb in his hip and his thigh and an ache in the back of his knee.

Joe was determined to walk again; he didnít care how much it cost him in pain and sweat and tears. It was the single goal towards which he could direct all his pent up energies, all his rage and frustration, all his burgeoning despair. Balancing carefully on his one good leg, he tucked the makeshift crutch under his arm and took a tentative step.

The fiery serpent tightened its coils, and a fresh blaze of agony seared through his ravaged back. Joe bit down hard on a yelp of pain, but this time, for once, the leg didnít buckle under him and pitch him face first into the dirt. The shelter, just high enough for a man to stand up in, afforded four long, lame steps in one direction and four back the other. Joe made the most of it. Chewing his lip and with tears in his eyes he hobbled back and forth for nearly an hour.

He was still hard at work, although almost exhausted, when Adam came home, ducking in lithely under the flap. Surprised to find Joe up on his feet, he pulled up short. His face was unreadable. Carefully, he lowered the hide back into place and stood with his hands on his hips. "Well, itís sure good to see you up and about. Howís the leg holding out?" His low voice held the old, familiar drawl: slightly mocking, mildly amused, the tone that told Joe he was still very much the younger sibling.

Joe looked at his brother over his shoulder; his face was full of resentment. "Itís no thanks to you that Iím upon my feet. Where in hell have you been?"

The faint smile faded from Adamís face. "Iíve been out earning us a living."

Turning awkwardly on the crutch, Joe confronted him. "Youíve been out with your Indian friends!" His voice rang loud with accusation, and his eyes were burning with rage.

Adam took a long step forward. "You donít have the faintest idea what youíre talking about."

"Donít I?" Joe glared. "Do you deny it? Weíre supposed to be getting out of here Ė or is that something youíve conveniently forgotten?"

Adam looked swiftly over his shoulder, afraid that they might be overheard. His voice was a hiss. "For the love of the Lord, Joe, keep your voice down."

Ignoring the warning, Joe continued to shout. "So just what plans have you made for getting us away from here?"

Adam moved swiftly with panther-like grace, closing in on Joe and clamping a hard and unyielding hand over his mouth. Surprised, Joe was knocked completely off balance. Losing his grip on the crutch he staggered. His wounded leg collapsed under him in a blaze of pain, and Adam managed to catch him just in time to break his fall. Adam eyes glittered, flicking to the doorway in alarm as he listened for any indication that Joeís outburst might have been overheard. All remained quiet, but he kept his hand locked firmly across his brotherís face, cutting off both his voice and his air supply until Joe began clawing frantically at his fingers. Only gradually did he relax and release his ferocious grip, allowing the younger man to grab a breath of air as he was lowered with gentle strength on to the bed of furs.

Adam straightened slowly. He stood over Joe, his own breath coming in great heaving gasps. The lamplight gleamed in the dark of his eye and the bulk of him loomed with menace. "If you donít keep quiet weíll both end up with our throats cut." He took a moment to steady himself. "Iíll decide when itís time to make a break for it, and that wonít be Ďtil you can walk five miles without a limp."

"Thatíll take forever!" Joe put a hand to his mouth. He could still feel the pain where Adamís strong fingers had bitten deeply into his flesh. He worked at his jaw, then rubbed at the pain in his leg. He looked up at his brother. In the light of the lamp he saw him clearly for the first time in a very long while. Adam was lean and remarkably fit. Where Joe had sawed at his curls with the edge of a knife to keep them under control, Adam had let his black hair grow, capturing it on to the nap of his neck with a finely braided strip of leather. His face and the skin of his arms were burned brown by the sun and the harsh desert winds. He had taken to wearing his shirt unbuttoned; the only thing that distinguished him from his Shoshoni captors was the dark hair that curled on his exposed chest.

Joe lifted his lip in a sneer of contempt. "Just take a look at yourself, Adam. Take a good, long look. You look more like and Indian than you do a white man. Next thing you know, youíll be braiding your hair and taking that squaw for a wife."

Adamís hands clenched into white knuckled fists, and, for a moment, Joe thought that he would strike him. His face was that of a stranger, and Joe wondered how close he was to the truth. Then, very gradually, Adam relaxed. He turned away so that his face was hidden in shadow, and Joe couldnít see his expression. "Iím not going to hit you, Joe." His voice sounded strained and hollow. "You just donít understand."

"Then why donít you explain it to me, elder brother?" Joeís anger was burning white-hot. "Why donít you tell me exactly what youíre planning?"

Adam looked at him then. His dark face was wary. "I donít have time for this right now."

"Donít have time," Joe repeated. "It seems to me you donít ever have time. Youíre too busy with your brand new friends!"

Declining to answer, Adam headed abruptly for the doorway. Joe called him back. "Adam, why donít you trust me? Perhaps I can help."

Adam stopped, his hand on the hide. He looked over his shoulder, then turned and walked slowly back into the light. He crouched at Joeís side and punched lightly at his cheek with his fist. "Itís not that I donít trust you, Joe. The Lord knows, youíre my brother."

Joe sat up, gathering his sore leg under him. "Then what can I do?"

Hesitating, Adam chewed at his lip. Then, quietly, he said, "The least I tell you the better, Joe. You just concentrate on getting your strength back. When we leave here, weíll be traveling hard and fast."

Joeís eyes glittered with rekindled hope. "Then you are planning something. Youíre getting out of here, and youíre taking me with you"

Amusement lit Adamís face. "Díyou think Pa would ever let me hear the last of it if I went home without you?"

Joe grinned. He held out his hand, and Adam clasped it warmly.

Night was falling as Adam made his way through the Shoshoni village, threading his way among the rocks and the scattered shelters, following the now familiar path. The valley was already shrouded in darkness. The hill, with its skeletal tree, was silhouetted against the fading light. The heat of a hot, summerís day in the desert was leeching away into the clear, evening sky. Already, the air smelled cleaner and fresher, and soon, as the stars came out, it would become quite cool. Families had gathered at their firesides, talking quietly and playing with their children, using the flames to light their work. The Indian women were always busy, weaving baskets and blankets, working with hides, picking over the grains that theyíd gleaned from the desert grasses. Men worked exclusively on their weapons, cleaning guns and making bows and arrows. An expert stoneworker could fashion a perfect arrowhead in less than half an hour. It was a skill that Adam admired. Voices called to him out of the gloom, some of them greeting him by name. There were even some men who acknowledged him now: a curt nod of the head or a shift of the eyes.

Adam was careful to acknowledge each salutation Ė he couldnít afford to offend anyone Ė but the greater part of his mind was reliving the argument with Joe. He could understand how his brother felt. Joe was young and always impatient. He was eager to be well again, anxious to be free, and, most of all, he wanted to go home. It was an ambition that Adam fully intended to facilitate, and, indeed, he shared it himself. He had come to respect and to admire the Shoshoni people; he knew of their dreams and had shared in their lives. He had no wish to become one of them. He missed his home and his family and his own, carefully constructed life.

So far he had stolen nothing, hidden nothing away Ė to do so would be to invite discovery and ultimate disaster. Instead he had observed, without really seeming to do so, all that went on. He had watched and learned where certain items were stored and planned how he might obtain them quickly and easily when the moment arrived. Things he knew would be essential if he and Joe were to survive in the desert: water skins and dried food and blankets and even a weapon, a rifle that a careless brave kept just inside the door of his shelter. Taking it would be a chancy business. Adam was still debating with himself the wisdom of taking the risk. At the same time, he had made himself a familiar figure about the camp, maintaining his role as servant and slave. The Shoshoni had accepted him as part of their society; he could go anywhere, do anything, and hardly be noticed. It was all a part of his master plan, his carefully contrived preparations. Joe had asked for his trust, but Adam didnít even trust himself. He lay awake in the night, afraid that he might betray himself in the depths of his dreams and be overheard.

Adam hurried his steps to Washatakís shelter. He was expected, and, already, he was late. The two men had developed a healthy, if guarded, respect for each other, and it had become their habit to sit late into the night discussing their differing histories, their dreams and, sometimes, their fears, and drinking the strong, herbal tea. Products of two, vastly different cultures, both were men of intelligence with a keen drive to learn from each other. Despite his private reservations, Adam looked forward to their conversations; he had always been one to enjoy an honest exchange of views. Tonight, however, he simply wasnít in the mood. The row with Joe had disconcerted him more than he cared to admit.

The council fire burned brighter than usual, golden flames licking against the night, and there were many more people about. Men moved silently among the shelters: half seen forms in the darkness. Lost as he was in his own concerns, Adam walked into trouble before he knew it. Figures moved up close behind him, cutting off his retreat. Adam turned, his senses suddenly alerted, but it was too late; he was already surrounded. Barely managing to retain his balance, he was jostled roughly into the circle of stones.

Washatak was there already together with the members of his council. Adam knew their faces, among them the scarred countenance of Aminotek and that of Kalikasi, freshly painted in stripes of black and red. The medicine chief wore feathers in his hair and a necklace of shells and amber beads that glowed blood red in the firelight. He watched Adam with open animosity. Washatak too, was unsmiling, his handsome features gilded by the flames. Adam sensed danger. The air was thick with it. He could see it in the Shoshoni faces and read it in their eyes.

Adam raised his face and looked Washatak in the eye. He spoke boldly, knowing that reticence would gain him nothing among these people. "I wasnít expecting an audience." Normally their discussions were more or less private with just the two of them present and sometimes an interested spectator or two.

His face unmoving and without expression, Washatak said, "The time for talk is over. Now you will show your worth to the people."

Teeth clenched together, Adam drew a long, careful breath. He cursed himself for all sorts of a fool. He had allowed himself to become comfortable and complacent. Plainly, he was not the only one who had a hidden agenda. Keeping his voice low and under control he asked the fateful question. "What is it you have in mind?"

Kalikasi pointed a crooked finger. Teeth clenched, he snarled. "Do not trust him, Washatak. As surely as the snow hides the mountain in winter, this one will surely betray you."

Washatak made a curt, angry gesture that cut his brotherís tirade short. He held Adamís eye with his own. "As youíve seen for yourself, there is little food left in these hills: there are no deer for the hunters, little grain for the women to gather; there is no firewood and no shelter from the winter storms. Shoshoni bellies are empty and the children cry. The time has come for the people to leave this place."

Adam touched his tongue to dry lips. All these things had been obvious a long time, he was being told them for a purpose; he was afraid to find out what that purpose might be. "But where will you go?"

Eyes shifted in fire-lit faces as glances were exchanged among the braves. Washatak answered for all. "Some will go north into the forests of the land you call Oregon with the women and the children. They will prepare a place for the winter and gather food. The rest of the warriors will ride south and west."

Adam was astounded and very much afraid; he shook his head in negation. "Thatíll take you right into the Sacramento Valley. There nothing there but farms and ranches, white menís towns with children and schools."

Drawing himself to his full height, Washatak folded his arms across his chest. "The land is rich and fertile there. We will make it our land again."

Adam answered quickly, "The ranchers and farmers will fight for their homes. You wonít be able to drive them out."

"We have tested the strength of the white man. They run before us and hide in their towns and their cities. They will not stand and fight."

"Thatís not the way itíll be," Adam said firmly. "Theyíll call the army in."

Kalikasiís smirked with amusement, and Aminotekís scarred lips twitched. Adam realized that they knew something that he didnít. He was afraid to find out what it was. Washatak eyed him with speculation. "You know of a white manís town called Prion?"

"Iíve heard of it," Adam admitted with caution. "You canít be planning to attack Prion. There are over a thousand people there. Lots of men with lots of guns. All of you will be killed."

Washatak smiled a wintry smile. "For more than six seasons the white manís army has been in Prion. Many blue-coated soldiers living behind their high, wooden walls. They hunt us through the hills as if we were animals."

To his alarm, Adam found that his body was shaking. He made an effort to steady himself. This information was new to him: something that he hadnít known. "Thatís all the more reason to stay away from there. The army will wipe you out to a man."

"The war party will ride towards Prion," Washatak stated implacably. "You will ride with them. You will go into Prion and talk to the army major. You will convince him to lead the soldiers out of their fortress to a place that my cousin will show you. The warriors will be waiting, and they will kill all the blue-coats." He made it sound simple.

Adam could imagine the slaughter; it made his blood run cold. Appalled, he started forward, intending to do he didnít know what. He found himself seized by the arms from behind. "You canít expect me to do that! I canít betray my own people!"

Washatak leaned back against his heels. "Then you will watch your brother die." The words fell between them, as hard and as cold as stone. Adam struggled to quell the unruly thumping of his heart, to clear his head of the senseless buzzing of his blood. He needed to use his intelligence to think his way out.

Kalikasiís eyes gleamed in the unsteady light; a smile of malice split his face. Adam knew just how much the medicine chief would enjoy hurting Joe, and he had no doubt at all that he himself would be next on the bill of fare. The heat of the fire burned on his face, but the sweat on his skin was cold. He had grossly underestimated the guile of the Shoshoni, and, now, he had to pay the price.

Back in control, he shrugged off the hands that held him. He sought furiously for a solution. "You donít need to do any of this. I have a ranch away to the south. I can bring cattle to feed the people: as many as you need."

Kalikasi leaned towards him, closer than his brother, close enough for Adam to smell his breath and the bear grease in his hair. His face wore a savage sneer. "And can you give back the hunting grounds that your people have stolen? Can you heal the earth that has been broken by the white manís plough? Or replant the Pinion Pine cut down to build the white manís houses?"

Adam drew back. He had no answer to give. He had to play the cards that fate dealt him. He had to be cunning if he was to survive. He turned his eyes to Washatak. "When do you plan to do this thing?"

"All is prepared," Washatak said. "You will leave tonight."

Looking beyond the circle of firelight, Adam could see the movement of horses and men, the glint of weapons and the gleam of war paint on Indian faces. He prayed the Shoshoni were not good at reading expressions for he knew his own face was sly. "What happens to my brother?"

Washatak, watching him closely through narrowed eyes, seemed to see directly into his soul. "For as long as you play your part, Adam Cartwright, your brother will live. He will be hostage against your betrayal."

Adam wiped damp palms against his legs. It was all he dared ask for. "I donít have a great deal of choice in the matter."

They brought him a horse, a wall-eyed black with an ugly scar across his face and a manner as mean as his looks, and they gave him a coat that had seen better days and an ancient, much-battered hat. The gun and the gunbelt fetched out from Washatakís shelter were undeniably his own. It would rouse suspicion for a white man to ride into Prion unarmed.

Adam settled the holster on his hip with an air of resolution and tightened the cinch on the well-worn saddle. He exchanged long looks with Washatak as the Indians mustered about him on their painted ponies. They understood each otherís motives, and they knew each otherís minds. Both were fighting for a cause that they believed in: Adam for his brother, the Shoshoni chieftain for his peopleís way of life. In a way they were fighting with each other, white man against red man. It was a battle Adam had to find a way to win. It was in that fleeting moment that a fragile friendship died.

Adam climbed into the saddle and gathered up the reins. With a long, last look behind him, he kicked the black horse into motion and joined the eerily silent procession as it rode towards the hills.

Eight

The lamps beneath the boardwalk-awnings had been lit and were glowing brightly in the gathering gloom as Ben and Hoss Cartwright trailed in to Prion at the rear of the column of soldiers. If the town had been busy before, now it had the air of a boom-town. Seeking shelter from the increasingly frequent Indian attacks, all the settlers from the surrounding area had moved, with their families and their stock, into safety. With the army in residence and offering protection, Prion was proving a popular place to be. The wide street was filled with horses and wagons, oxen and strings of pack-mules. The boardwalks were thronged with people, and all the stores were open and doing a thriving trade. Beneath the horsesí hooves the road was still sticky, although it had not rained for several days. Soon the surface would dry to a rock hard consistency and begin to turn into dust. Overhead the moon already rode high in the sky, pale faced and almost full above the scudding clouds. Both men were hungry, dirty and tired, but, by mutual consent, they reined their horses in at the rail outside the saloon. There would be lots of time later for a meal at the hotel, a visit to the bathhouse and a good, long sleep. Right now, they were both in serious need of a drink.

It was a relief to climb out of the saddle. They stood for a moment in the cool of the evening, filling their lungs with the damp, fragrant air and stretching the kinks out of much-abused muscles. Then, in unspoken agreement, they stepped up on to the boardwalk and pushed through the batwing doors.

If the town was doing good business, then the saloon had attracted its share of the trade. All the tables were taken; men sat drinking and playing cards and stood, hip to hip, at the long and battle-scarred bar. The air was dense with the smell of coffee, of whiskey and food and cigar smoke, menís stale sweat and the cheap, heady perfume favoured by the good-time girls. There was a general buzz of conversation, the occasional sharp bark of laughter and shouted curse; the noise flowed back and forth. A frock-coated player tortured a tune from an ancient upright piano. There was no room to dance.

In amongst the brightness and sparkle, Ben Cartwrightís mood was bleak. He pushed his way bullishly through the crush to the bar. Amongst the faces in the painted mirror, he caught a glimpse of his own: older, greyer, haggard, unshaven, the face of a man who had loved too often and lost too much. His dark eyes were empty; his soul ached with pain. He put a coin on the counter and ordered two tall, foaming glasses of beer. One he passed silently to Hoss and both men drank, washing the grit and the grime and the arid taste of frustration and failure out of their throats.

Since leaving the burned-out homestead, their relationship had changed. Outwardly they were still father and dutiful, obedient son, but both of them knew that a subtle alteration had taken place. Hossís personality had finally come to the fore: patient, serene and self assured with the ability to make swift, but carefully considered, decisions and a stubborn insistence on doing what he knew to be right. They hadnít done a great deal of talking in the last several days; each was concerned with his own somber and introverted thoughts. For the most part, they had been content to draw whatever comfort they could from merely being in each otherís company.

Hoss drank from his glass, almost draining it dry in a draught. "This sure is good beer, Pa."

Ben knew that Hoss wasnít sure where he stood: how his father felt about his outright refusal to pursue the search on their own. Ben wasnít sure how he felt himself. Stunned by his grief and his sense of loss and still, at times, feeling unwell, he was prepared, for the moment, to rely on his big, dependable son. Drawing a long breath past the constriction that had taken up permanent residence in his chest, Ben looked down at the beer in his glass. The fluid was a rich, dark amber, the exact same colour as Adamís eyes. "Yes Ė the beerís just fine."

"Reckon as when weíve finished this we ought ta go on over and see if they got any rooms left at the hotel," Hoss suggested.

Ben was about to answer in the affirmative when a strong, polished voice challenged him from behind. "Mister Ben Cartwright?"

Ben and Hoss turned together. A figure was coming towards them through the press of people that crowded close to the bar. A big man, tall and broad, he had dark brown eyes and neatly trimmed sable-brown hair just visible beneath a southern-style hat. His clothes, dark brown in colour both above and below the belt, were expensive and cut with style, but dirty and travel worn, as if their wearer had ridden a long way in a hurry and hadnít had time to clean up. He swung a lame leg from the hip in a very heavy limp, and he had the air of a man who expected recognition.

The stranger stuck out his hand. "My nameís Brett Hansen."

"Brett Hansen?" Mentally fumbling for the face or the name, Ben took the hand and shook it. "Youíre Adamís friend Ė the one with the big spread in the Sacramento Valley. My son has spoken of you often."

"Adam and I got to know each other in college. Weíve been friends for a very long time." Hansen looked at Ben oddly, as if trying to match the mortal man before him with a paragon heíd only heard tales about. "When I got your cable saying he was missing, I rode up from Sacramento to help look for him. I found out when I got here that the two of you had ridden out with the army patrol. Did you find any trace of Adam and his brother?"

Gazing miserably into what was left of his beer, Hoss answered in his fatherís place. "No, Mister Hansen, I donít reckon as we did."

Scowling, Ben listened as Hoss went on to relate, briefly, the entire tragic story of how his brothersí horses had arrived home without them, and how he and his father had searched in vain for them ever since, scouring the hills and deserts and all the land that lay in between. Hansenís earnest, evenly featured face settled into lines of deeper concern. Ben could see at once how Adam had been drawn to this man; both westerners in the strange and sometimes threatening environment of the far-away, east-coast school, a sense of mutual support and protection would have pulled them together. Added to which, they looked to be two of a kind. Both had the same, educated accent and both had the same, dark good looks, although Hansenís face was a fraction narrower in the cheek and the chin, and he stood and inch or so taller. Both were born horsemen: long in the back and lean in the hip - wide-shouldered, deep chested men who could work all day and play most of the night and still have energy left over for more. Ben recalled Adam saying, sometime in a letter, that Hansen was older by more than a year, but that they shared many interests together and not only inside the classroom.

Watching Hansenís face as he listened to Hossís story, Ben saw shadows of Adamís expressions: his studious look of intense concentration when something just had to be right, his brow creasing frown, even the wickedly impish grin that could emerge so suddenly and startleÖ Ben gave his head a sharp shake and brought himself back to the present. Remembering his manners, he offered to buy Hansen a drink.

"Donít mind if I do. Bourbon, if you will." Hansen stepped up to the bar.

Ben gestured to the bartender who produced a bottle and glass from somewhere below the level of the counter and proceeded to pour two dark fingers of liquor from one to the other. "A southerners drink," Ben observed.

Generous lips twitched in a sudden, fleeting smile. "My mother was from Atlanta," Hansen said by way of explanation. He sipped and savored. "Mister Cartwright, when I got your cable I didnít realize how serious this might be. I have to confess; it doesnít look good, but I know Adam as well as I know my own brother. Heís clever and resourceful, and, when the occasion arises, he can be downright devious. It thereís any way out of a fix, you can rely on Adam to find it."

Ben was taken aback. ĎDeviousí was not a word he would normally associate with his eldest son. Hansen raised his glass, then paused and looked at him with sympathy. "What do you plan to do next?"

Benís beer glass was now empty. With a weary sigh, he put it back on the bar. "Itís something my son and I havenít yet discussed, Mister Hansen."

Hoss cleared his throat. With a long and doubtful look at his fatherís face, he said, "We appreciate you coming all this was to help us out, Mister Hansen, we surely doÖ"

The quick, friendly smile came and went. "Call me Brett."

"But it kinda looks like somethiní awful might oí happened to Adam aní Liíle Joe."

Now, Hoss carefully avoided encountering Benís stony stare. These were words that he hated to utter; catching his fatherís eye would have made them impossible. "Leastwise, thatís what the folks round here tell us. To tell you the truth, Pa and I havenít rightly decided what we ought ta do."

A muscle twitched at the side of Brett Hansenís jaw. "I wouldnít want to intrude, and I certainly hope that youíre wrong about that. Whatever you decide, believe me, Iím willing to do anything I can to help find out what happened to Adam and his brother. Iím only sorry we couldnít have met in happier circumstances, gentlemen."

"So am I, Mister Hansen," Ben said. "So am I."

Hansen touched his hat and nodded Ė first to Ben and then to Hoss Ė before turning and limping away.

Into the unquiet silence that he left between father and son, Hoss said, wistfully, "That Brett Hansen seems like a realí nice fella, Pa. Heck, he even talks like Adam. Heís just the sort of man that heíd have for a friend."

Ben looked after Hansenís retreating back. He swallowed down the anger that had risen, at Hossís intervention, like bitter gall into the back of his throat. For all he knew, Hoss might just have called it right. He had to agree with his big sonís appraisal. "He certainly is."

"I sure wish Adam had been here to introduce us proper-like." Hoss looked as unhappy as Ben had ever seen him.

Ben thought about Hansen. He didnít remember Adam ever mentioning that his friend was crippled. He reflected it was just like his son to disregard such a thing as a minor matter when enumerating other virtues. He clapped Hoss solidly on the shoulder. "Letís get over to the hotel and see about getting ourselves somewhere to sleep."

"Sure thing, Pa." Hoss finished the last of his beer.

As they stepped away from the bar, heading for the hotel, there was a minor stampede as men rushed to take their placesÖ

*******

The room, which had once been the front office of MacEnroy Storage and Haulage, was filled with creeping night-shadows. A single lamp hung above the duty sergeantís desk. It cast a pool of dusky yellow light over the scatter of papers that lay on the table, the gravy stained plate that was all that remained of the sergeantís last meal and the whisky bottle that was providing his eveningís entertainment. The graveyard-shift that tended to be very quiet and didnít provide a great deal to do. The light glanced off the top of his head and turned his grey hair to tarnished silver; it fell over the edge of the table into a pool of gold on the floor. With half of the whiskey already secreted inside him, the sergeant was more than a little drunk.

Adam leaned his hands on the table and glared furiously into the bleary grey eyes. "I said, I need to see the man in charge," he repeated with as much insistence as he could muster without actually raising his voice. The sergeant blinked owlishly back at him. Adam knew what the soldier was seeing: a dirty and ragged white man with a deeply tanned face and torso and unkempt hair tied in a bunch behind his head. His face was further darkened by several daysí worth of unshaven beard, and his eyes burned with an irrational fervour. He couldnít blame the man if he thought him mad.

The sergeant shook his head, but slowly and carefully, as if it were made of porcelain, and he was afraid that a sudden movement might make it fall off. His faded and teary grey eyes focused on Adamís face. "íFraid you canít do that, Mister."

Exasperated beyond belief, Adam allowed his breath to hiss out through his teeth. This manís obstinacy and his inebriated condition were as much as he could cope with. "Look, I know itís late, but this is important."

"Then why donít you tell me all about it?" Remembering something of his duty, the sergeant searched among the litter for a clean piece of paper and a short, blunt pencil. Finding them both, he wetted the lead on his tongue, "What díyou say your name was agíin?"

Adam told him, and, laboriously, printing the letters in a big, bold hand, the sergeant wrote it down. Adam resisted the urge to pick the man up by his blue-tunic collar and shake him until his teeth dropped out. He steeled himself to patience. "I know where the Shoshoni encampment is. Youíve been looking for it too far to the south. You have to go into the desert. Itís hidden much further north and east, in a range of dry, rolling hills with a single tree, half alive and half dead, standing alone on the top."

The sergeant scribbled a few more notes, then stopped and peered myopically at what he had written as if he couldnít quite make it out.

Adam sighed. With as much forbearance as he could muster, he said, "Just wake up the major, will you. Let me tell it to him."

"Canít do that." The sergeant shook his head with a little more certainty, then looked as if he instantly regretted his daring. "Just canít do that."

"I told you itís important! I can take you right to their camp." Adamís voice was rising as he started to lose his temper. Somehow, he had to make this drunken fool understand the urgency of the situation Ė to make him listen! Little Joe was depending on him.

"Aní I heard you," the sergeant said testily. "Aní I tolí you I canít wake him up. Thatíll be Ďcause he ainít sleepiní."

Carefully, Adam breathed in and out, grabbing his anger by the tail, twisting it down and hog-tying it with fierce determination. He ground his teeth together and leaned forward onto the desk. Tightly, he said, "Then let me talk to him."

"Canít do that neither." The sergeant gave him a look of triumph. "íCause he ainít here!"

It was unlikely that the duty sergeant ever knew how close he came to having his teeth broken there and then. He chose to chuckle at his own, poor joke.

Adamís long, brown hands wound themselves slowly into fists. "Then tell me where I can find him."

The sergeant looked at him shrewdly. Then, all of a sudden, he was not nearly so drunk as he had been before. "The majorís dining out tonight with the mayor and his daughter and some very important people in town. I donít think itíd be a realí good plan fer you ta go interruptiní their meal, MisterÖ" he consulted the piece of paper. "Cartwright?" He frowned for a moment over the name as if it stirred a memory somewhere deep down inside. Wasnít somebody looking for someone called Cartwright? The memory shifted and wriggled away. He looked Adam full in the face. "Why donít you come back in the morniní, when youíve had a chance ta clean up some?"

Adam straightened up slowly, a tall, dark and impressive man despite the layers of dirt and the tattered clothing. He was becoming more and more desperate. "The Shoshoni are holding my brother. His life is at stake!"

Half rising, the sergeant jabbed a stiff finger into his burnished chest. "Iffen the Injuns have got your brother, donít reckon as you got no brother no more."

"My brotherís alive!"

Thinking about it, the sergeant subsided. "Then thatís a real pity, Mister. A white man in the hands oí those murderiní savagesÖ I feel sorry fer him, I surely do." He reached for the bottle.

Adam acknowledged that it was hopeless. He looked at his hands and found that they were shaking. He let loose the pent up breath heíd been holding. "The major will be here first thing in the morning?"

"Sure will." The sergeant poured whiskey into his glass with a very steady hand. "Canít say as he wonít be hung over, though." He vouchsafed Adam a wink.

"Iíll be here." Adam uttered it as a threat.

The sergeant nodded agreement. He would agree to anything. By morning his watch would be over, and he would be asleep in his bed. He watched as the lean, long-haired stranger headed out of the door and breathed a sigh of relief. Then he frowned. "Cartwright," he muttered. There was something about that name. Heíd heard it recently and he just couldnít place it, nor the face either; he hadnít seen it about in the town. He sighed and settled back in the chair; he guessed that it must take all sorts to make up a world. Sipping his drink, he put his feet on the table, kicking the papers aside.

Adam stood on the veranda and raised his face to the sky. The breeze was blowing stiffly out of the northeast, driving the clouds before it across the face of the moon. After the blast-furnace heat of the desert it was nothing short of pure pleasure to feel the cool, damp wind on his skin and to smell all the scents of the forest; each type of tree had a different aroma. He drew a long breath; his finely tuned senses tested the air. He smelled the far off rain, falling, now, on someone elseís patch of the woods, the scent of pine resin and alder flower, the freshly dropped scat of a deer. When the wind veered around, more into the north, it carried with it the, stronger, harsher odours of the town: the sharp smell of wood-smoke and closely packed animals and altogether too many men. If he listened hard he could hear them, even from here: a general low buzz of conversation, high, pealing laughter and the loud, discordant music of a piano Ė all the trappings of a form of humanity he thought he had left behind.

Looking at the sun-brightened face of the moon, haloed in silver light, Adam couldnít stop himself thinking about Joe. He wondered what his brother might be doing right now: whether he was eating properly, if he was in pain. He, too, might be looking up into the night sky and thinking of home. Adam experienced a pang deep in his heart. He felt more than a little guilty about leaving his brother behind without even a word, although heíd been given no choice in the matter. Washatak had sworn that Joe would be safe, but how far could he trust the Indianís word?

Abruptly, Adam needed a drink. He searched through the pockets of the old, battered coat and came up with several small, silver coins. It wasnít a great deal of money, not enough for a meal and a bed, but sufficient, perhaps, for several glasses of cheap, rotgut whisky. Adam knew, without a shadow of doubt, that the coatís owner would not be asking for his money back. If a man could drown his sorrows Ďtil the sun came upÖ He buttoned his shirt over his chest and cantered the ill-tempered black into town.

There was no room for his horse outside the saloon, so he rode to a hitching rail across the street and tied the gelding up there. Although it was almost midnight, the tavern was more raucous than ever: noise and light spilled into the street, and a wave of animal heat hit him full in the face as he pushed through the bat wing doors.

The barroom swirled with brightness and colour; men pushed and shoved and talked too loudly. They laughed and shouted, and a group of them scuffled around the piano: a half-hearted fight between friends. Two or three poker games were still in progress: earnest faces over white fans of card. The lamplight glittered on the coins on the tables.

Several brightly-clad ladies worked through the crowd, swapping one lap for another with gay abandon as the whiskey and the money flowed. Their painted faces were harsh and artificial to Adamís unaccustomed eye. After the ordered peace and decorum of the Shoshoni village, he was disorientated and slightly confused by it all.

He found a place at the bar and ordered himself a bottle; the coins just about covered the price. The first drink burned its way down and lay like a pool of molten fire in his belly. It made him snatch at his breath and tighten his grip on the glass as the fumes burned in the back of his nose and made his eyes water. He resisted the urge to cough. The raw whiskey made him feel real again: part of the world that he truly belonged to.

Dirty and dishevelled as he was, he was no more so than many of those around him, and he smelled almost as sweet. Not everyone had the price, or the inclination, to make use of the bathhouse next to the bank. For the most part, his neighbours at the bar barely spared him a glance. He was just another unhappy refugee from the Indian troubles, taking shelter in the town and buying himself a quiet, late-night drink.

Pouring another glassful, this time, he sipped it slowly. He savoured a bite of it on his tongue. The scalding fury under his heart subsided into a comfortable glow that spread itself slowly through his body and took the edge off his pain. Gradually, as his unease faded, and he started to relax, old habits reasserted themselves; he began to see the faces in the back-of-the-bar mirror, to watch menís eyes and the expressions that betrayed their thinking. It was a skill that a man learned early if he was to stay alive. His sharpened ears picked up snatches of conversation, his awareness switching from one to another as his interest waxed and waned.

One manís voice, lifted above the others, captured his attention. Adam shifted his position until he could see the speakerís face in the mirror. A balding, bearded trapper-type in leathers and furs held court at a table just a few feet away. His voice was not especially loud, but it had that peculiar, penetrating quality that carried it, clarion clear, half way across the room. Adam found himself part of an attentive audience as Corrigan

Argyle, hunter, trapper, woodsman and general scavenger related his recent adventures.

Argyle was a man who held his liquor well. Although he had consumed the best part of a bottle of the local liquid fire, he wasnít drunk. He was expansive and bright-eyed and sweating profusely as he gestured to the crowd. "Me aní McShea, here, we was headed fer Sacramento; figured weíd spend some time in the company of some lovely ladies while the boyos in blue clean the Injuns out oí these hills." Looking at the surrounding, flushed faces, he could see that this thought was appreciated. He flashed a wolfish grin that displayed his perfect, white teeth. "But now, I think, we might just have changed our minds."

"What you gonna do then?" another man at the table inquired - an unshaven soldier with a hollow diamond atop the three, golden stripes on his arm.

Argyle sat forward into his seat and sloshed more whiskey into his glass; he almost emptied the bottle. His smile faded a little as he sobered himself but didnít quite die. With an air of theatrical confidentiality, he said, "Well, Iíll tell you, friends, thereís money ta be made out oí those renegade savagesÖ a whole heap!"

"Aní how díyou reckon that out, Argyle?" a lanky cowboy in an oversized hat made the inquiry. He sat at the next-door table, leaning back in his chair and looking over his shoulder.

"Donít hardly seem decent," an older man said, "making hard cash out oí other folkís sufferiní. Heck, some oí those people were neighbours oí mine. Amid the general jostling and muttering, he found himself pushed to the front.

Argyle gazed up at him in a friendly manner. "What goodís it gonna do Ďem iffen you-all stay poor?" He made a wide gesture, drawing men closer - a big man, larger than life. He said, with an air of secrecy belied by the sheer volume of his voice, "Gather round me, now, friends, aní Iím gonna tell ya all how itís done. In factÖ" He winked at McShea who drank on, silently, unperturbed, "Iím gonna show you."

He made a great show of unhitching the little canvas bag that hung at his belt. Still watching in the mirror, Adam found himself with a close up view as Argyle tipped his small pile of grisly trophies out onto the table. He didnít turn round, didnít dare face Argyle directly. It wasnít the whiskey that burned in his belly now; it was rage. He knew only too well what the greasy hanks were; they might once have belonged to men he had known. His breath came short and his hand clenched so tight Ďround the glass, for a moment it seemed he might crush it.

A ripple of comment went Ďround the room as men shuffled backward and forward, some craning their necks for a better look, while others recoiled from the stench of death and decay. The older man, who had raised the objection, stumbled back into the press of men behind.

"But there ainít no price on Injun hair," the lanky cowboy objected.

Knowingly, Argyle smiled. "I reckon thatís all about ta change. Ainít that so, sergeant?" he winked at the soldier.

"Thereís sure been talk about it." The sergeant looked uncomfortable. "The price I heard mentioned is twenty dollars a piece."

"There you are, friends." Triumphant, Argyle made another generous gesture. "Twenty dollars a head! Ainít that worth a little ride to the desert?"

"As long as it ainít your hair thatís lifted," the cowboy observed. "Ridiní out after them Shoshoniís nothiní short oí suicide, I reckon."

"Not if you ride along with the army," Argyle said, smugly. He looked at the sergeant. "You tell me the Majorís got reinforcements?"

Slowly, his gaze still fixed on the hair, the soldier nodded. "Another eighty men. They rode in this morning."

Argyle looked around, victorious. "There you are then! Itís only a matter of time Ďtil the army finds out where them Injuns is hidiní. Sure as the cock crows in the morniní theyíll ride out aní get em, aní we can ride with Ďem. All a man has to do is clean up a few stragglers ta make himself a nice little nest egg."

A ripple of excited agreement ran through the crowd. The noise level increased as small groups of men broke away to discuss and to argue. Some pressed closer to the table to get a better look. Torn between the need for prudence and the desire to shut Argyleís mouth for good, Adam felt his stomach sour. He knew where the Indians were lying in wait, but they were expecting a much smaller force; and he had directed the army around the ambush, giving them vital directions for finding the Indian camp - always assuming that drunken sergeant remembered what he had told him. There was going to be a battle of monumental proportions and whatever happened, whichever side won, a lot of men on both sides were going to die.

And somewhere, caught in the middle, was Little Joe.

Wheels were already turning. Adam couldnít stop the army, and he couldnít stop the Shoshoni raids, but he knew, that whatever it cost him, he had to try to save his brother. Throwing back the last of his drink, he headed for his horse.

*******

It was half past midnight, and, outside, the moon was sliding down the sky into the western hills. Within the cavernous depths of the livery stable, a single, shuttered lantern still burned, Ďthough its flame was turned low. Hung from a nail at one end of a stall, it had been carefully angled to cast its steady, if insubstantial light over the broad back of the stallion that stood haltered and close-snubbed to the wall. Brett Hansen, standing close to the horseís head, wiped a film of perspiration onto a muscular, dark-haired forearm. At least, it was honest sweat. Hansen was a man with a passion for horses; he bred then and reared them and broke them himself. He had a reputation for producing fine, honest stock, and that reputation meant a lot to him. He wasnít about to let any run-of-the-mill livery-stable hostler take care of his favourite. Instead, he did it himself.

As he had worked, Hansen had sung: a wordless, almost tuneless hum that calmed the animal and gave a rhythm to the strokes of the brush. It had taken an hour to clean the sweat and the trail dirt from the stallionís skin and polish the dappled-grey coat. Now it was finished, it gleamed in the lamplight like watered, silver silk. The horse had his ancestry deep in the blue-grass country, with a generous dash of Arabian in his blood. He was tall in the shoulder and wide in the chest, and he had a bottomless heart.

Satisfied with the job he had done, Hansen laid the brush and the polishing-cloth aside. He gave the stallion a pat on the neck and whispered a final goodnight. Then, he slacked off the halter-rope just enough for the animal to reach his feed bucket - but not enough to entangle his legs Ė and gathered up his coat. The bobbing of the lamp marked his uneven passage as he made his way to the front of the barn. The light slid like liquid over the ranked rumps of the horses, occasionally catching the glint of a harness buckle or the gleam in an animalís eye.

The big barn doors stood open for ventilation. Hansen hung up the lamp, leaving it burning, and shrugged his wide shoulders into the coat. The night had grown colder and his breath was starting to steam. And it was darker; one by one, the street lamps had been allowed to go out. Hansen was tired. It had been a long day, and the damp of these northern forests made his crippled leg ache abominably. His limp, as he made his way back to Main Street, was about as bad as it got.

Main Street was quieter. With the hour so late, the stores were all closed and in darkness, and the wagons and pack mules were gone. Only the saloon was still busy, a long row of tethered horses waiting patiently at the rail outside. Hansen considered a night-cap, and then decided against it. He still had to find his way to the back-street boarding house where he had managed to hire a room. He took a lame step in that direction, then stopped, a frown marring his handsome face. Something had caught his attention; a man had come out of the saloon and was heading across the street.

There was nothing unusual in that, of course. He was a man whoíd had enough to drink and was heading home to his bed. But he was in one hell of a hurry, and there was something about the way he movedÖ Hansen abruptly changed his own plans and direction. Despite the lame leg, he could put on a turn of speed when he had to, and thatís what he did right now.

Rounding the corner, he saw the fugitive figure disappear into the mouth of a gloomy alley. Hansen followed, slowing his step. The alley was very dark, and he sensed danger. His quarry was there. He had lifted the stirrup and was tightening the cinches of a dark, ill-made gelding. Hansen hesitated, but he was sure. He knew this man; he knew him very well indeed. Still, he was careful. He knew the risk he was running. He moved very slowly, making sure that the light from the street still fell on the side of his face. Hooking his thumbs on the edge of his belt, he said, very softly,

"Adam Cartwright? They told me you were dead."

Adam spun on his heel, dropping into a gunmanís crouch as he turned. As if by magic, his big, black Colt appeared in his hand, and Hansen heard the distinctive, double click of the hammer going all the way back. Hansen had always wondered at just how fast Adam was with that gun; there was only one man he knew who could beat him, and that was himself. He was glad that they were the best of friends, or, in all probability, both of them would be dead.

A shard of vagrant light reflected from the cold, dark metal. Hansen saw Adamís chest rise as he drew a long breath. A strange menagerie of emotions flowed over his face: fear, hatred and anger among them. Hansen waited them out and then smiled his winning smile.

"I knew it was you the moment I saw you. Thereís no other man in the world with that same, hip-sore lurch in his walk." He looked at the gun, still held rock-steady, aimed at his middle. "Are you going to use that thing or you going to put it away?"

Adam sighed and straightened slowly out of the crouch. The gun lowered. "Brett Hansen. What in hell are you doing here?"

Hansen kept smiling. He maintained his casual, hip-shot stance, a position he knew his friend found familiar. He could tell that Adam was wound up tight as a spring; he was right on the edge of precipitate action. Hansen didnít want to push him over. Out of control, Adam Cartwright would be a very dangerous man. He said, carefully, "I could ask you the self-same thing. I heard the Shoshoni took you - probably killed you. I came to find out if it was true."

Adam hesitated, then responded shortly, "I was taken." He eased back the hammer and slid the Colt back into his holster. Turning again to the horse, he fiddled some more with the harness; he looked like he was planning a long, hard ride. His back was stiff with tension. His whole attitude spoke of scarcely contained rage.

Hansen took a step closer, moving around so that he could see Adamís face. He looked his friend over, top to toe. Beneath the worn and dirty clothing, hardly his usual garb, Adamís powerful frame was lean to the point of emaciation, but corded with muscle and sinew - evidence of relentless hard work on a barely adequate diet. It was Adamís face to be sure, but not the face of the laughing young rake that had taken New England by storm, not that of the suave ladyís-man of Sacramento City and San Francisco, or even the charming but hard-headed business man who could trade a horse for a barrel of nails and get the best of the bargain. Thin and sharply angled, pale beneath a deep, golden tan, the familiar features were drawn and etched with pain.

It was the eyes that trapped the attention. Hansen knew them to be a dark, tawny gold, eyes capable of expressing profound emotion: the windows to Adam Cartwrightís soul. Now, they were sunk deep in their sockets and filled to the brim with fear.

Quietly, so as not to spook him, Hansen asked, "Then what are you doing here?"

Still busy with the saddle, Adam didnít look at him. "They sent me to lead the army into a trap, but I canít do it, Brett. Theyíll all be killed."

"I hear the army has been reinforced: nearly a hundred extra men."

Adamís hands stilled, and, now, he looked at Hansen. The sunken eyes were haunted. He was angry and scared and uncertain. The muscles worked in his jaw. "Then the Shoshoni will be killed."

Hansen stepped closer. He could feel the fierce energy boiling off Adamís body, blasting through his clothes in waves of radiant heat. "I donít understand you, Adam. Which side are you on?"

Adam stared at him for an endless moment of time while he thought about it. Very slightly, he shook his head. "Lord help me, Brett; Iím damned if I know."

Snatching his rein from the hitching rail, he swung himself into the saddle. Cruelly, he pulled the blackís head around. Stepping back quickly, Hansen got out of the way.

"Where do you think youíre going?"

Lips parted, eyes bright, Adam looked down at him from the back of the dancing horse. "I have to save my brother!"

Kicking hard, Adam let the reins slip through his fingers and the gelding leapt away: a standing start to a flat-bellied run in a single, lop-sided stride.

"Adam Ė Adam!" Hansen yelled after him, limping into the street. "Your Pa and your brother are here!"

Above the drumming of the horseís hooves and the thunder of the heart in his chest, Adam couldnít have heard him. He didnít turn back. Hansen could do nothing else but watch him ride away.

*******

 

Ben Cartwright sat down on the edge of the narrow, slat-sprung bed and tugged off his boots. His body language and his facial expression spoke whole volumes of what he thought of the accommodation. It seemed that being wealthy and influential in Western Utah was one thing, while in north eastern California it amounted to not very much at all. To give enterprise itsí due, the hotel had come up with a roof and a bed. With the sudden influx of refugees into town, it had been quite overrun with customers, and all of the guestrooms were filled. The best that they had been able to offer, as a special concession to a much-valued client, they said, was this hastily converted storeroom at the back.

It resembled a gaol cell more than a bedroom, with a door in place of the bars. There was a single small window Ė set too high up in the wall for even a tall man to look through Ė and not enough floor space for even a table or chair. Just the two, small beds had been squeezed inside, one against either wall. A jug and a basin perched on a stool in between them, and a lantern hung on the wall. The price for all this excessive luxury was a princely dollar a day.

Hoss sat down on the other bed, knee to knee with his father. Both men would rather have paced up and down and avoided the need to look directly into each otherís eyes, but there simply wasnít the room. They knew very well that there were one or two things that they had to get sorted out between them, if only to clear the air. Hoss clasped his big hands together between his knees and stared at them, a scowl on his face.

"Pa, I hope youíre not still mad at me for not backing you up when you wanted ta go chasiní in ta the desert after that Injun raidiní party."

Ben dropped the second boot on the floor with a clatter. He shot his son a dark glance from beneath lowered brows and proceeded to massage the toes of his stockinged foot. "No, son," he said with a sigh. "Iím not still mad at you. ĎThough I was for a while there."

"Well, Iím sure glad about that." Hoss entwined his fingers and made them into a catís cradle. "That you ainít still mad, I mean."

Lowering his foot to the floor, Ben assumed a position similar to that of his son, elbows on thighs, hands clasped together. "I feel I owe you an apology, Hoss. No, I mean it!" He held up his hand as Hoss started to protest. "I think Iíve treated you rather badly over all this. I just canít bring myself to believe that your brothers are Ė gone." Even now, he couldnít bring himself to say the fatal word. "Not like this; not simply vanished into thin air and not ever coming back. Itís just too much Ė too much to bear." His deep voice cracked, and he had to blink back a tear.

"I know what you mean, Pa, really I do." His eyes still lowered, Hossís face crumpled a little more. "But I reckon we just gotta face facts."

Ben couldnít help himself. "And what facts are those?" The angry bite was back in his voice, and he instantly regretted it.

Hoss shifted uncomfortably on the bed. "Pa, I reckon you aní I gotta decide what weíre gonna do next."

"Now that Adamís friend is hereÖ" Ben brightened perceptibly.

Hoss knew what his father was going to say. "It just ainít gonna do no good, Pa!" His cry was anguished. "Two men or three men ainít gonna make no difference! If we run in ta that Shoshoni war party, every one of us íll end up dead!"

Ben stood up and turned, trying to pace. There wasnít the space for it, so he turned again, feeling foolish. He tucked his hands into his front pants pockets. He tried to be reasonable, to think clearly, but his emotions kept getting in the way. He knew how Hoss must have been feeling. It was hard for a man to be pulled in different directions by different kinds of right. It was time for the big man to have his say. "So what are you proposing."

Hossís shoulders lifted in a heaving shrug. "I guess I think we ought ta go home."

"Go home." Ben echoed, bleakly. He thought about it and for a long time silence lay between them. Home without Adam and Little Joe wouldnít be home at all, just a house filled with memories and the echoes of laughter, whispers of words spoken in jest and in anger, shimmering ripples in the fabric of time. He wondered if he could live with it. He supposed that he had to. He sighed and sat down again, finally resigned. "Yes, I suppose youíre right. I guess weíd better go home. Weíll leave first thing in the morning."

The decision made, there didnít seem anything left to be said. Both men sat with the light of the oil lamp bathing the backs of their bowed heads. Each was so lost in his own, deep, dark thoughts that neither reacted when the hammering came at their door. Only when the noise was repeated did Ben get up and slip back the latch. He was surprised to find Brett Hansen on the threshold, his hat in his hand and a very curious look on his face.

Ben remembered his manners and stepped aside. "Mister Hansen, come in. Youíre up and about very late."

"Just my usual habit." Hansen smiled crookedly. "Iím sorry if Iíve disturbed you." He looked around at the confined space. "It took me a while to track you down."

Hoss stood up and shook his hand. With three, big men inside, the tiny room became even smaller. Hansen stood awkwardly between Ben and his son.

"Iím sorry we canít offer you anything in the way of hospitality," Ben told him, ever mindful of his duties as host. "As you can see our quarters are somewhat restricted. Iím glad that youíve come by. I have to tell you that Hoss and I have decided to start for home in the morning."

"Mister Cartwright," Hansen said quietly, "Iíve just seen Adam."

Ben simply stared at him, stunned, not comprehending. It was Hoss who recovered first. "Did I hear you right? Did you say that you seen Adam?"

Hansen was smiling. "Iíve seen him all right. I spoke to him. Hell, I even smelled him. Iím telling you, heís alive, and so is his brother."

Abruptly, Ben sat down on the bed. "Adam and Joe are alive?" It seemed ironic that when he had given up hope and was at his moment of deepest despair, fate sent a ray of sunlight shafting into the gloom. He looked up at Hansen, his eyes bright with tears. "My sons? Where are my sons?" He made to get up, to start for the door in his stockings. Hansen held up his hand.

"Heís gone Ė back to the Shoshoni camp to rescue his brother."

Ben ground his teeth while Hoss managed a laugh. "Hey Pa, donít that sound just like my big brother?"

Hansen told them the story as Adam had told it to him. Then he looked from one to other, waiting while they digested the new information. "Now tell me again what youíre going to do tomorrow."

It was Hoss who responded instantly, with a fierce burst of determination. "Weíre gonna find my brothers, aní weíre gonna get them out oí there!"

"Hoss," Ben said with a deep, heartfelt sigh, "we donít even know where the Shoshoni encampment is."

Brett Hansen laughed out loud. "Thatís not likely to cause a problem. I could track that three legged pony Adam was riding through the red-hot coals of hell and out the other side. Iíll lead you right to him."

Despite his anxiety and the urge to get moving, Ben insisted that everyone get two hourís rest, each in a bed with his boots off. None of them got a wink of sleep. By the time the first, exploratory tendrils of dawn crept into the sky, all three men were up and dressed and out in Main Street with their saddle horses and two, laden pack animals. It had occurred to Ben that Adam and Joe would need horses to ride, and with Brett Hansenís help he had selected the packhorses accordingly. It would be the work of moment to cut the bundles away and leave the two rescued men with serviceable animals to ride.

It was cold and all the men were wearing their coats. They were tense with expectation and anxious to be on their way. Hansen was still insistent that he could follow Adamís horse. "The mudís still very stiff up in those forests," he maintained, "and that black gelding was throwing his hind leg out wide. By the time we hit the dry country, and I canít see the tracks any more, weíll know for certain which way heís headed."

None of them were expecting an interruption, but they got one anyway.

Hoss was tying the last of the bundles in place when he saw the rider approaching. He touched Ben on the shoulder. "Hey, Pa, ainít that lieutenant Harwell cominí?"

Ben turned and looked. "It certainly is."

Harwell cantered his horse down the centre of Main Street in the early, pre-dawn chill. He tightened his reins and stepped out of the saddle as the gelding came to a stop. Ben went forward to meet him and Harwell touched the brim of his hat. He nodded to Hansen and Hoss.

"I see youíre planning to leave, Mister Cartwright." He cast an experienced eye over the patiently waiting horses. "A private expedition?"

Ben answered, cautiously, "Itís no secret. Iím going to look for my sons."

"And to find them, perhaps?" Harwell smiled a knowing smile. "We had a visitor last night, over at the stockade: your son, Adam Cartwright. He left detailed instructions of how to find the Indian camp. The duty sergeant wrote them down. I know very well the place your son mentioned: the place with a half-dead sentinel tree." His eyes danced from one face to another, reading their expressions. He said, "Weíre riding out this morning with every man we can muster. Weíre going to deal with those savages once and for all. Major Granger sends his complements, sir, and asks if youíd care to ride with us."

From the tone of his voice it wasnít and invitation they were expected to turn down. With meaningful looks as each other, the men climbed into their saddles and rode alongside the lieutenant, heading out of town.

Nine

With his hands bound tightly behind his back, Adam could do nothing to save himself. Aminotekís shove in the back sent him sprawling into the dirt. Only by wrenching back his neck and twisting his head to the side did he manage to avoid inflicting still more damaged on his already bruised and battered face. Several braves, in passing, took the opportunity to kick him while he was down.

He used the moment to take stock of his physical condition. Nothing was broken Ė he was fairly certain of that, although he had been beaten with sticks and rifle butts and kicked on so many occasions that every inch of his body screamed with pain. His ribs were sore, and every breath that he drew seared his lungs with raw, bright agony. His legs, when he was allowed to use them to stand on without someone knocking him down, or to walk without being dragged at the end of a rope, were relatively undamaged - but then, Adam thought, in his present circumstances, everything was relative. Except for the encircling bands of fire where rawhide bit into his wrists, he couldnít feel his hands at all. There was grit in his mouth and dust in his eyes. Over his cheekbone, the long, deep gash had opened again for the umpteenth time and was bleeding. He could feel the tickle of fresh blood flowing and see carmine spots appearing, as if by magic, in the dirt just inches away from his face. It crossed his mind, in a dry and distant quirk of humour, that the wound would need stitches if it wasnít to leave a nasty scar.

The fall had winded him, but he knew, from experience, that it wouldnít be wise to stay too long where he was. Moving warily, but otherwise ignoring the pain from a dozen torn and twisted muscles, he gathered himself and got his legs under him, raising himself to his knees.

In the circle of stones surrounding the council fire, he was surrounded by silent, watchful faces: those of the war party who had waited vainly for the column of soldiers to ride out of Prion to the pre-arranged killing fields, and those who had remained behind. Contrary to what most white men believed, the Indian faces were not without expression: far from it. Adam had learned to read the shielded emotions that hid behind their eyes and to hear, without the need for words, the feelings of anger that dictated their rigid postures, the hatred and the contempt. He couldnít find it in himself to blame them. He felt the tension in the air, like a rogue summer storm come down from the foothills: dry-lightening fit to strike down at a man out of a clear, blue sky and leave nothing behind but burned bones and his boots. Most of the faces, he recognized; some of the men, he knew. He tried to face up to them squarely, but his eyes kept sliding away.

Washatak ducked out of the shelter, a tall and imposing figure. He wore feathers in his hair, and his face was daubed with war paint: red and blue stripes on either cheek and a white chevron on his forehead. His clothing was formal: a blue and white quilled breastplate over his buckskin shirt; strings of jade and jet and amber beads hung about his neck and reflected splinters of afternoon sunlight into Adamís eyes. To Adam, confused by the pain of the mistreatment he had endured, he was a darker blur against a copper sky.

Washatak looked at Adam and then at Aminotek, over Adamís head. "Is the battle over? Why did you not send word?"

Expressively, Aminotek spat into the dust. "There has been no battle. The white man betrayed us. He came back without the soldiers!"

Washatakís stern gaze fell on Adam, and it was a heavy burden to bear. "I do not doubt the word of my cousin, white man. What have you to say?"

Adam found it difficult to say anything at all. His lips had been smashed against his teeth, and they were cut and bruised. His mouth was dry and swollen; for more than twenty-four hours he had been denied water. The heat and dehydration made it hard to concentrate on the words. "There are many more soldiers in Prion than you thought. More than twice your number. If you had fought with them, all of you would have been killed."

Aminotek made an angry gesture. "The white man takes us for fools! We have counted the numbers of the soldiers many times."

Carefully, so as not to bruise his brain any more, Adam shook his head. "Thatís not right," he mumbled, his senses swimming. "Armyís been reinforced. More men."

Snarling, Aminotek accused him, "Now he calls us cowards!"

Washatak stared into Adamís face. His eyes were implacable, blank faced mirrors of darkness. "Why did you return?"

Adamís chin dropped onto his chest. He struggled to organize his thoughts into some coherent pattern, but, it seemed, his mind was running slow. Heíd had such a crystal-clear plan in his head. All heíd needed to do was to ride to where the Shoshoni lay in ambush, explain to them than an attack on the soldiers would be worse than useless: would be suicidal! Then the braves would go north with the women and children, into the forests where food was abundant and they could avoid contact with the white man for half a generation or more. Heíd wanted to explain to them how men of different cultures could get along together if they would only talk to each other and each would listen while the other man spoke. But they hadnít heard him out. Instead, theyíd pulled him from the back of the horse and beaten him until he was senseless. Confused by pain and injury, he didnít understand where it had all gone awry. Somehow, he still had to make them understand Ė lives depended upon it: their lives and his life and Joeís. But he was so weary, and it hurt so much to think. In the end, he put his reasons onto their simplest form. "I came back for my brother."

Aminotek sneered. He looked at the chief. "He is our enemy as much as the blue coats. Have you not said that if the white man was a traitor, then he would die?"

Washatak stood, arms folded, and gazed impassively at the distant, desolate tree "I have said it."

Aminotek raised his rifle high in the air. "It was I who saved this oneís life! Now I claim it!" Around him the mutterings of general agreement rose to a roar as braves raised their voices in angry shouts of acclaim.

Washatak said nothing. He continued to look away. Aminotek jabbed at Adam with the butt of his rifle, hitting him in the face. Adam reeled. He tasted his blood, hot and coppery in his mouth and wondered vaguely how much new damage was done. Aminotek hit him again, hard on the side of the head. The blow to the temple stunned him. Adam went down, and, this time, he stayed there. The rifle butt lifted once more, this time for the killing blow.

*******

A long line of soldiers, strung out through the hills, with all their attendant mule trains and wagons could, of necessity, move only slowly. While Ben appreciated the logistics of moving so many men over such a distance and such difficult terrain, and still maintaining something that resembled a military formation, he found the snailís-pace endlessly frustrating. Something deep in his gut was driving him to hurry. Somewhere up ahead on this very long trail, Joe and Adam were needed him. With a fatherís instinct, long sharpened and tested, he knew that the sand in their hourglass was running low.

Looking back over the broad spread of his horseís rump, he could see the faces of the men riding behind him: men of experience, men he could trust, men who knew exactly what they were doing - if only they got there in time. He wished that he could feel as confident about all the men who rode with him. Trailing along at the end of the line, was a little contingent of civilians: Corrigan Argyle and his partner, Sefton McShea, and another half a dozen or so others from Prion had tagged themselves on for the ride. Ben didnít know their motives or their reasons for coming, but just them being there made him feel distinctly uneasy. He was experiencing that itch that Adam sometimes mentioned, right in the middle of his back - and he didnít know why.

Kicking the big bay hard in the ribs, he cantered on to catch up with Hoss who was riding ahead with Hansen. One thing Ben was grateful for, Hansen and Hoss had become firm friends in the two or three days since theyíd met: two men drawn together by their desire to find Adam and an overwhelming affection for horses. They were deep in conversation, leaning out of their saddles with their heads close together, when Ben pulled up beside Hoss. His big son looked at him, his face screwing up into a frown, as he saw the expression that still graced the older manís countenance.

"Hey, Pa, what you scowling at?"

"Scowling? I didnít realise I was." Ben made an effort to clear his face, but, despite it, the grim look remained.

Hoss glanced at Hansen who was watching the exchange with fascination. Hoss merely waited. He knew if he left it a while then Ben would say more. They rode for in silence until Ben looked over his shoulder again as that itch reasserted itself. When he turned back, the frown was still there and as deeply entrenched as ever.

"I donít know why Granger let those men ride along," he said in the end, fretfully.

"Argyle and McShea?" Hoss knew whom his father was talking about: this was a conversation that theyíd had before.

Hoss shifted uncomfortably in his saddle as if he too had the Cartwright itch. "Guess there wasnít a whole lot the Major could do Ďbout it. ĎSides, reckon itís best ta have them fellas ridiní up alongside us. Wouldnít want Ďem trailing two, three miles behind."

Brett Hansen, sitting tall on his silver-grey stallion, agreed. "Hoss is right, Mister Cartwright. Whatever mischief they might be up to, at least we can keep an eye on them: nip the trouble right in the bud."

"Mischief?" Ben suppressed a shudder and the urge to look back yet again. "I think itís more than mischief they have in mind. I never thought Iíd say it about any man, but Iíve got a gut feeling that those two, Argyle and McShea, are just plain evil."

Surprise appeared on Hoss Cartwrightís face. He shot his father a rapid glance, then hastily looked away. Ben felt ashamed. He was a pious and God-fearing man, and his sons were unaccustomed to hearing him utter such sweeping condemnation. He couldnít help himself; he couldnít withdraw the words. The past months had wrought changes in both of them that were hard to understand. He sucked in a breath, squinting up at the sun and the sky, estimating their rate of progress. "I just wish we could get there more quickly."

"What worries me," Hansen said, unexpectedly, "is what the Shoshoni will do when they see the army coming."

"Huh?" Hoss looked at him sudden alarm. "What you gettiní at, Brett?"

Hansen swivelled in his seat and surveyed the slowly snaking line of men and animals as it descended, at a snails-pace, out of the high country and into the dry lands that bordered on the desert. They were starting to kick up a fine cloud of dust. "Those Indians are going to see this column coming half a dayís travel away. They might just take it into their heads to murder Joe and Adam before we can get anywhere near them."

Ben pulled up his horse with a jerk on the reins that made the gelding toss his head in protest. While it hadnít occurred to him before, now that it was spelled out in plain language the possibility was blindingly obvious. His sons might be dead when he found them.

Hoss had seen it as well in a vision of blinding clarity. "We gotta do somethiní Pa!"

"Iím going to do something." Ben gathered his reins. "Iím going to talk to that army Major."

"Hold hard, Mister Cartwright." Brett Hansen nudged his stallion over until the horses stood close together. The three men looked for all the world as if they were sitting at the side of the trail to let the animals blow. With hooded eyes and carefully shuttered faces, they watched as the soldiers plodded by. "It wonít do any good to talk to the Major," Hansen went on, speaking quietly. "His hands are tied. He has all the rules and regulations written down for him, and I donít think heís a man to step over the line. Besides, how would you hide this many men?"

Ben looked around him at the long lines of soldiers, the teams and the wagons, the mule train trailing behind. There was no way they were about to sneak up on anyone let alone a band of wary and ever watchful Shoshoni. "What do you suggest?"

"Well," Hansen scratched thoughtfully at his stubbled chin. "One or two men could slip out quietly after the camp settles down for the night. If they rode across the desert as fast as they could, heading north an east, they might be able to sneak past the Indians and grab Adam and Joe out from under their noses before the shooting show starts."

Ben weighed up the risks. "We know more or less where the Shoshoni encampment is. Adam made it plenty plain, a half-living sentinel tree on the top of a hill. Should be visible for miles."

I reckon you aní me could find that place easy enough, Pa," Hoss said with determined reassurance. "We cín get Adam aní Little Joe out oí there. I jist know we can!"

Frowning, Ben glanced over at Hansen. "It a shame you didnít get to talk to Adam: find out what his plans were."

Hansen fiddled with the reins of his fancy bridle, turning the plaited strands over and over in his square, work-hardened hands. He avoided looking at Ben Cartwrightís face. "I got a good look at Adamís eyes, Mister Cartwright," he said, softly. He remembered the eyes. They had been wild, almost insane. "To tell you the Lordís honest truth, I donít reckon he was thinking too straight. He set out to rescue his brother, but I donít imagine he was any too clear in his mind about the way he was going do it."

Benís frown deepened. "All the more reason to get the two of them out of there as quickly as we can." He looked at Hansen. "What will you do?"

A lazy smile split Brett Hansenís face. "I guess Iíll ride along with these pony-soldiers. See if I canít arrange for them to be there in time to do you gentlemen some good when you need it."

Resolutely, Ben pulled himself straight in the saddle. "Thatís settled then. Thatís what weíll do. Hoss and I will leave as soon as thereís moonlight enough to light the way."

*******

"Stop!" Kalikasi leapt into the circle.

The medicine chief was half unclothed. He wore only a buckskin loincloth and a coil of brilliantly striped fabric wound around his hips. His horned head-dress was set on his head and there were soft leather boots on his feet. Black hair tightly braided and his face devoid of paint, his torso was completely hairless and slick with sweat; it glowed red-gold in the increasingly reddish light of the sun. There were strings of bright beads about his neck and scarlet feathers in a bunch at his waist. Strips of leather about each knee were adorned with hollow seed heads that rattled with each shuffling step. In his hand he carried a totem stick, carved with the emblem of coyote, anointed with oils and deeply endowed with magic: the potent symbol of his office.

Chanting in a sing-song voice, he made a slow circuit, arm outstretched, his fingers pointed at every face. Deferring, albeit reluctantly, to his authority, the braves gave way before him; even Aminotek, his face a mask of incandescent rage, stepped back. An open space appeared around Adamís prone body.

Arms folded across his chest, Washatak waited with patience until the chant was ended. "What do you say to me, Brother?"

Kalikasi turned his head quickly, and, more slowly, his body followed. His face was alive with raw emotion; his eyes burned bright with an inner fire. "I am the Puhagan," he announced, "I am possessed of the power. I have fasted. I have bathed in the sacred water. I have purified my body and my soul." Turning again, he went Ďround the circle. He made contact with every manís eye. Each one, in turn, looked away. He held out the totem stick so that all of them knew his authority. "I have burned my blood in the flame of a new kindled fire and watched the drift of the smoke through the stars. I have sprinkled the ashes on a bowl of still water."

"And what have these things shown you?" Washatak asked. Alone of all the warriors, he seemed unimpressed by the medicine chiefís display of his power.

Kalikasi spun again, fur and feathers flying. "The spirits have whispered into the silence," he said with a sibilant hiss. I have heard the echoes of the past, seen the shadows of what is to come. I have seen fires consuming empty lodges. I have heard the wails of women and children. I have smelled the death of Shoshoni men carried on the evening wind. This oneÖ" He pointed down at Adam. "has betrayed the trust of my brother and of the people."

At his feet, Adam stirred. He was fighting back against the black tide of unconsciousness that threatened to sweep him away. Seeing him move, Aminotek gestured angrily with the gun.

"Then tell me, Wise One," he said with contempt, "why this one should not die now."

Kalikasi looked at him with grim satisfaction. "He will die, cousin, but this death comes too easily. Our chieftain has said that first, he shall witness the death of his brother."

A murmur of comment ran through the assembled Shoshoni. Dark heads nodded agreement, approval.

Adam, half aware, half hearing what was said and only half understanding, tried to object - tried one more time to make them listen. He had to make them understand that the army was coming, that the soldiers would be following him, that the Shoshoni had to get away. It was the reason he had come back, that, and to save his brother. Something wasnít working right; his mouth was unconnected to his brain, and the words came out in a jumble. Squinting against the glare of the sky, he made out Kalikasiís face. Struggling desperately to maintain that fragile grip on his senses, he blinked, groggily. Unwisely, perhaps, he shook his head in an effort to clear it. The men, the faces, the world itself progressed around him in a slow and stately dance.

Leaning down from a towering height, the medicine chief took his head by the hair, lifting it cruelly and turning it so that he could look directly into Adamís face. Adam mumbled something incoherent. Kalikasi smiled. "Do not thank me, white man. Tonight, when the moon rides over the desert, you will die a thousand times."

Ignoring Adam as if he had already ceased to exist, Washatak issued several, curt orders before he turned away. All Adam saw of him were the fringed legs of his trousers as he stalked away. He tried to call out to him, to plead, to beg if he had to, at least for Little Joeís life. Despite the clamour that raged in his head, his voice emerged as a croak.

Two big braves lifted him onto his feet. Unable to stand unaided, unable to walk, the most he could do was stumble between them through a village rapidly filling with twilight. He was aware, in an unreal manner, of the faces that watched as he was led away. There was harsh accusation in all of their eyes. Half of him felt the need to explain, to tell them it wasnít the way that it seemed; the other part, so tired and full of pain, didnít care any more.

There were far fewer people than he remembered. No children called, and no dogs barked. Where he recalled shelters, there was nothing but discarded sticks and tumbled stone. Perhaps, he decided, with all the punishment he had taken, he was remembering wrong.

This evening, no Devilís Breath wind blew in from the desert; everything was quiet and abnormally still. As the sun set behind the western mountains, the sky turned from gold into silver, silhouetting the half-living tree on the hill.

Tripping, Adam would have fallen without the man on either side. They dragged him the rest of the way on the toes of his boots and dumped him, without ceremony, on the ground inside an all-too-familiar shelter.

"Adam!" Joe threw his crutch away and crossed the shelter in two limping strides.

Adamís long hair had broken loose from its bindings and was lying in wild disarray. Crouching, Joe clawed the dark strands away from his face. "Adam." Joeís voice broke. He brushed his brotherís swollen and discoloured features with the tips of his fingers, as if his touch might somehow heal the lacerations and take away the pain. "Adam, what have they done to you?"

To his surprise, Adam answered: something profound about having the hell beaten out of him. Looking at him, Joe had to agree about that. It was just like the Adam he knew to fight his way back from the dead. Through sudden tears, he managed to smile.

Adam flinched away from his brotherís touch, then rolled his head. He struggled to focus recalcitrant eyes on Joeís face.

"Joe? You got any water?"

"Huh? Sure thing, sure thing!" Stretching out, Joe reached across the floor and hooked the canteen by its plaited strap, pulling it to him. It was less than half full. The contents sloshed emptily as he lifted it to Adamís crushed lips.

Adam drank and coughed and paused to catch his breath, and then he drank again. Joe helped him hold up his head. The water, warm and stale after spending all day in the heat of the shelter, lay like a cool pool in his belly. It revived him amazingly. He rolled on his side. His senses were still reeling. Lit by the tiny flame, the shelter and its contents revolved slowly but started to settle down. "Help me sit up, Joe. Get me out oí this, will you?"

Joe realized that his brother was bound. Supporting his head against his chest, he struggled with the rawhide that tied Adamís wrists. The thin, leather strips had been applied wet, and had tightened as they had dried. Adamís handís were dark-blue and bloated with congested blood. Joe worked at the knots, tearing his nails in the process, until he got them to loosen. Adam sat up and flexed his fingers. The joints moved stiffly, and they hurt like the devil, but, as fresh blood flushed through them, their colour changed quickly from black, to blue, to a fiery red. Joe soaked a cloth in water and dabbed at his brotherís face.

"Ouch!" Adam winced. Taking the cloth, he applied it himself to his various cuts and abrasions.

Joe sat back and studied his brother, rubbing at the ache in his own leg as he did so. "Yíknow Adam," he said with a glint in his eye, "ainít gonna be no use you chasiní them gals fer a while. Lookiní like that, youíll scare Ďem half way ta death."

Adam tried to smile but it came out a grimace. His laughter was forced, hollow, laced with his pain. A bead of blood appeared on his lip, and Adam dabbed at it with the cloth.

"They told me where you went," Joe said, his voice low and level. "And they told me what you went to do. I didnít believe it."

Adam met his eyes evenly. "Go on not believing, little brother. I couldnít go through with it."

"I knew you couldnít." Joe grinned, but his eyes were afraid. "What you come back for? Why didnít you just keep on going? You could have gotten clean away."

Adam gave vent to a deep, throaty chuckle. This time, it sounded normal, just like the Adam that Joe knew so well. "I guess I had some unfinished business ta take care of back here."

Joeís face coloured. Now he was embarrassed and angry and pleased all at once. "You shouldnít have come back for me. Yíknow that? Now weíre both in this same awful fix."

Adam smiled ruefully and fingered his jaw. "You could be right about that. I thought theyíd listen to me: at least hear what I had to say. But white men or red men, they only hear what they want to hear. Reckon Iíve made a real mess oí things."

Swallowing hard, Joe choked back the lump that formed in his throat. "Iím realí glad you came back for me, Adam, but you shouldnít have done it."

Adamís smile died. "Donít thank me too soon. Theyíre planning to shave the hides of both of us before morning."

Joe simply stared at him. His chest heaved as he absorbed the full horror of what his brother had said. "You mean weíre gonna die?"

"I wouldnít expect to live through it." Adam said soberly. He dabbed at his face again and inspected the resulting stains on the cloth. Satisfied that the bleeding had stopped, he put the rag aside. "I guess we have to get out of here - tonight - right now. You up to walkiní that five miles?"

Joe rubbed at his leg; entirely honest, he said, "Hell, Adam, I doubt if I cín manage fifty yards. How Ďbout you?"

Adam sighed. "I donít reckon either of us have a whole lot of choice."

He sought for, and found, an inner reserve: enough strength, he hoped, to get the both of them out of there. Gathering himself, he climbed stiffly onto his feet and probed his sore ribs with his fingers. At least his hands were working again, and their colour had returned to normal. The pain was receding, Ďthough his wrists were still raw from the bite of the rawhide. Looking around the inside of the shelter, he took a rapid inventory. There wasnít a great deal that they could carry away with them: the blanket, the buffalo hide, the canteen, which was now almost empty. There was no food and no weapons, and, somehow, they had to get out of the shelter. He had no doubt at all that there were armed Shoshoni not too far away from that door. Moving very gingerly, he began to make up their bundles.

*******

Limping slightly, and favouring a certain stiffness in the small of his back, Major Sydney Granger came back from the wagon carrying a box of cigars. As Hoss had once suspected, a long period of duty riding a chair behind an office desk had left him unused to the back of a horse, and, now, he was paying the price. Nevertheless, Granger was as tough as they came, the veteran of a long and distinguished career. He was a man who liked his creature comforts, but he also knew his duty, and he wasnít about to allow a little transient soreness to get in his way. Opening the lid of the box, he offered cigars to his guests.

Ben Cartwright took one, cut the end with a silver trimmer and leaned forward to puff it alight from the long match held for him by lieutenant Harwell.

"Thank you, Major. That was a wonderful meal." And the truth of it was, it had been. As Granger was fond of saying, he ate from the same pot as the rest of the men, but the stew, while not exactly a ĎHop Sing specialí, wasnít bad. Eating from china bowls with spoons made of silver had turned it into a gourmet feast for hungry men. There had been a good brandy served in crystal goblets to wash it down, and now Havana cigars of excellent quality completed the feast. Ben retreated, apparently contented, behind a wall of smoke.

The cigar box passed on to Hoss. "No thank you, Major, sir." The big man held up his hand. "Now if you got a little chewiní tobaccoÖ"

Granger straightened up, easing his back. "Iím sure lieutenant Harwell can oblige."

Harwell dutifully produced a pack and handed it over. Granger lit a cigar of his own and returned his attention to the elder Cartwright. "Iím glad you felt able to join me, Ben."

"It was good of you to ask us. I certainly didnít expect all this Ė out here." Ben gestured with his free hand at the table, set with white linen, at which they had eaten: the dining-chairs, the wine, the cigars. If he were honest, he was somewhat confused by it all. Granger travelled with all the comforts of home conveyed in a wagon; rumour had it, among the rank and file of the men, that he even slept in a bed. "I must confess, I find it Ė rather surprising." Ben wondered, with one part of his mind, if Adam and Joe had gotten enough to eat.

Granger chuckled and blew a perfect smoke ring. He watched as it rose slowly, shivering, into the sky. "I see no reason at all to live without the basic trappings of civilization, even in this back end of the woods." He chuckled with good-humoured bon-homie.

Ben looked around him. It certainly did seem incongruous, this elegant dining suit set down in the last stand of trees before the infernal wilderness of the desert. "Itís always a pleasure to enjoy civilized company, wherever you find it - which is why I wonder that you allowed Corrigan Argyle and his cronies to ride along with us."

"Why I put a bounty on Indian scalps, you mean?" Granger examined the glowing tip of his cigar. "Strategy, Ben. Strategy. Feeling was running high in the town. Men wanted to play their part: to help with what we were going to do. This way I have the volatile elements riding with me where I can keep my eye on them; I can keep them under some sort of control."

Privately, Ben was doubtful. "You really believe those men will obey your orders?"

"It doesnít really matter if they do or not." Granger shrugged his shoulder. "As long as we wipe out this band of renegade Shoshoni, just about anything goes."

Benís voice was like gravel. "At this point, Iím only interested in rescuing my sons."

Granger gazed at him thoughtfully. "I understand your position, Ben, and as an objective, thatís very noble indeed. If itís possible to get your boys out, then thatís what weíll do, but you have to see it from my point of view. The lives and the livelihoods of men and women depend of us driving out this nest of renegades and making sure that they never come back. I canít endanger the success of this mission for the lives of any two men."

Ben and Hoss exchanged troubled glances. Later, the diner-party over, they walked back through the trees towards the army encampment. The night was very dark, the moon not yet arisen. A band of glorious silver stars arrayed themselves across a midnight-black sky. Below, in poor imitation, the watch fires of the soldiers speckled the plain. Off to the left, in amongst the trees, the long tethered rows of horses and mules shifted restlessly at their ropes, disturbed by the drifting scent of smoke and the aura of pre-battle tension in the air. The two men could feel it themselves, hear it in the lowered tones of the conversations, see it in the stark, tense faces that lifted to watch them as they passed. These were men prepared to fight and die for what they believed in.

Without speaking, Ben touched Hoss on the shoulder. Silently, the two of them stepped off the path into the total darkness beneath the canopy of live-oak leaves. Both of them held their breath. No one had noticed them going; the nightlife of the camp went on undisturbed. Men slept in their bedrolls, feet to the fires. Men sat on their saddles, smoking and talking, some of them playing cards. The sound of a mouth organ played very quietly drifted through the encampment and then was quickly hushed. No one looked in their direction. Ben touched Hossís arm again and they melted into the darkness.

Brett Hansen had saddled four horses, the fittest and freshest that he could find. He was waiting with them on the other side of the trees. After ten or twelve minutes of stumbling about in absolute darkness, stubbing their toes and stifling their curses, Ben and Hoss came across him. He greeted them with his usual grin.

"Follow this fold in the land due north until youíre out of sight of these army fires, then head east and angle away to the north. That should put you right on track for that range of hills that Adam mentioned." He pointed out the long straight furrow, ploughed by Godís hand, in the earth.

Ben offered his hand. "Iíd like to thank you, Mister Hansen."

"Just give my best wishes to Adam. Tell him Iíll catch up with him very soon."

"Iíll tell him."

They led the horses to the edge of the trees. Hansen held up his hand for quiet. Not far away, two men were talking. A cigar butt glowed briefly in the dark. The army had sentries all around the encampment. These two had found a comfortable place to settle. They sat on a log with their backs to the trees. One of them had a bottle, and they passed it back and forth. Neither of them was drinking in earnest, just sipping judiciously to keep the chill from their bones. They looked like theyíd settled in for a long, cold watch.

Hansen eased the leaves back into place. His bright smile flashed in the darkness. From a deep, inner pocket he produced a pack of red-backed pasteboards and mimed the motions of making a deal. Ben nodded his understanding. Hansen handed him the reins of the horse he led and, silently, slipped away.

A few minutes later, whistling, he strolled down the path and greeted the sentries with a hearty "Halloo!"

The soldiers eyed him with suspicion. They got to their feet and brought their rifles to the fore. Hansen smiled and spread his hands. "Gentlemen, gentlemen, hold your fire. Itís only me, Brett Hansen, taking my evening constitutional."

Before very long, he had them engaged in conversation. They laughed at something he said, sotto-voice, and passed the bottle around. Hansen produced his pack of cards and soon the three of them had a game going, the log, a table between them.

Ben and Hoss Cartwright led the horses around them; the dark bulk of the animals moved almost silently though the trees. Although the going was difficult Ė the fold in the land was filled with brush and tumbled debris Ė they stayed out of sight until they were well beyond the light of the army fires. Then they swung into their saddles, each of them astride one horse, with another on a long leading rein.. Ben looked around him and gathered his reins. They were not far from the edge of the desert - a few miles of scrub-brush and then the desolation began. The moon, full-faced and glorious, was rising over the rim of the world; her radiance illuminated their way. Ben pointed out their direction. "If you want to save you brothersí lives, ride like the wind!"

*******

A murmured conversation beyond the walls of the shelter made Adam instantly alert to danger. He motioned Joe swiftly to silence, and, with a speed the belied his injuries, he took up a position alongside the doorway. The exchange of voices came again, this time louder, becoming heated as someone argued a point. Adam failed to make out the words.

There was shuffling footfall just outside. Adam stiffened and braced himself, a wary and battle-scarred predator prepared to do battle. The flap pushed aside, and Willomenka ducked under it. In her arms, she carried a large, fur-wrapped bundle. Startled, she shied away from his looming, dark presence, then recoiled from the sight of his face. Adam relaxed, letting the breath hiss out through his teeth. His first concern was for the woman. His hand on her arm, he moved her into the centre of the shelter, away from the door. "You shouldnít have come here."

She looked at him with a strange expression: a mixture of sorrow and fear and suspicion mingled together with something softer. "I was told that you had returned. I had to see you one last time, Adam Cartwright."

Adam breathed carefully in and out, lifting his mighty chest. "I didnít betray your people, Willow. You have to believe me."

Willomenkaís eyes remained cold. "It no longer matters what I believe. You were once a friend to me. I would not be happy to watch you die." She un-slung a small water-skin from over her shoulder and pushed her bundle into Adamís hands. It was a full-sized robe made of rabbit skins, carefully stitched together. Concealed within it soft, furry folds were their gunbelts, his own and Joeís, together with their guns and Adamís Bowie knife.

Willomenka cast a furtive glance towards the entrance. "You must go quickly Ė both of you! The moon is rising. Already Kalikasi is heating his knives in the fire. Soon he will come for you, and, then, there will be no escape."

As if to underline her words, beyond the shelter, out in the night, a drum began to beat: an ancient, primal rhythm that pulsed through the darkness and chilled the blood.

Adam took her by the arm. None of this was working out the way he had intended. "You have to leave as well: you and all your people. What Kalikasi has seen in his visions might prove to be true. I left instructions for the army, and I came back to warn you. Theyíll be following me here. If you donít leave now, thereíll be no escape for any of you."

Willomenka gazed at him a long, wordless time, searching his face for the truth. Finally she found it. Her hard eyes softened. "The children and most of the women are already gone, northwards and west, into the forests. Only the men remain to fight."

"All the better. The men can ride swiftly. They can get away. There are many soldiers to ride out of Prion. A whole lot more than Washatak thinks. If your braves try to fight the army, all will be killed."

Silence filled the shelter, throbbing with the drumbeat. The two of them, the man and the woman of different cultures, struggled with each otherís concepts of honesty and trust.

"I will give my brother your words." Willomenka said at last.

Adamís mouth was dry. He was tempted to stay; he felt, still, deep down inside that he could make the Shoshoni understand; he could earn their respect with a display of raw courage, perhaps under torture, and win back their friendship in the fullness of time. In a single moment he saw himself as a go-between Ė an intermediary between the Indians and the white settlers, working to win them a better life. There had to be a place for their culture alongside that of the white man. Surely, in the world that his fatherís God had created, there was room enough for both.

And then there was the woman. He stood close enough to feel the heat beating from her body; her heartbeat was the throb of the drum. If he closed his eyes, the honeyed smell of her filled his head. Her flesh was firm and infinitely inviting; he longed to draw her hard against him and taste, just once, the sweetness of her lips. She had intelligence, charm and beauty and a boundless measure of courage. He felt his need for her burn in his blood. Then the fleeting moment was over; once again he was Adam Cartwright, dutiful son and brother and, most of all, a white man. She belonged to her world, and he must return, if he could, to his. He let his hand fall away.

Joe was looking from one to the other in complete bewilderment. The entire exchange had been in Shoshoni and he hadnít understood a word. "Adam, what did she say?"

"She said we have to get out of here." Adam passed him his gunbelt. "Put this on and get your stuff together. Weíre leaving Ė now!" He turned to Willomenka. "Washatak will know you have done this."

"I know." She lifted her chin. "Do not be concerned for me, Adam. He will be angry, but he will not harm me."

"Youíre sure?"

"I am sure."

Adam resisted the urge to touch her again, afraid that if he did, he might never let go. He looked at her face. "In another worldÖ" he said softly, wishing it could be.

Reaching up, Willomenka traced the line of his lips, brushing them only lightly with her fingertips, careful not to hurt him. Then, she spun away, and, with a quick step, she was gone. Adam stood and looked after her. His mind echoed his words.

Adam exchanged the buffalo robe for the rabbit skins Ė they were warmer and softer and lighter to carry Ė and he filled the canteen and gave it to Joe. The tattered blanket and the water skin, he slung over his own shoulder. That way, he figured, if they were separated, both would have water and something to keep out the cold.

The Bowie knife slit through the hide at the back of the shelter, and Adam stuck his head outside for a look. The night was dark but tinged with silver as the full moon climbed into the sky. He could hear the thrum of the single drum and many male voices murmuring a low, steady chant. Whatever ceremony the Shoshoni had planned, the ritual was already well underway. Closer by far, at the front of the shelter, he heard an intake of breath and the soft creak of leather as someone shifted his weight. Clearly, their guards were still in attendance.

He cut the hide further, all the way down, and stepped through from the light to the dark. In a moment of time, Joe was beside him. Liberation had been a long time in coming, and the younger man was anxious to be on his way. Adam couldnít blame him. After a great deal of deliberation, they had decided to leave the much-hated crutch behind.

Adam straightened and peered cautiously around the side of the shelter. There was only one brave in sight, his face turned away towards the glow of the council fire. His arms folded, he carried a long-gun hugged close to his chest. Adam would have given a lot for that rifle, but he didnít dare risk the noise of a scuffle. He knew that the guard would not be alone. Touching Joe on the shoulder, he pointed the way to go.

They followed the escape route that Adam had mapped out in his mind at least half a lifetime ago. Everything looked different in the dark, and Joe was soon lost. Adam led the way. He moved silently down the hill, skirted the village and kept well in the shadows. He knew that the horses were always well guarded and took pains to stay well away from the valley where they were kept.. As they slipped away into the desert, the drumbeat faded into profound silence. Only the glow from the fire reminded them of the fate that threatened, and that too, grew fainter.

The moon was two hours into the sky; they had covered a mile and a half. Adam began to look over his shoulder. He knew their escape was surely discovered. He also knew that they had to rest. It had become apparent, very quickly, that privation had taken its toll. Repeated beatings had left Adam stiff and sore and with residual pains in his back and his belly that hinted of lingering injuries that he didnít like to think about. Joe had tired quickly, and his limp slowed them down. Gamely, he didnít make any complaint. Adam set his sights on a place up ahead where three rocks leaned together.

Joe slumped to the ground, his back to the rock. Adam took a careful look Ďround, then lowered the water skin to the ground before he joined him. For a time, only the rasp of their breathing filled the depths of the silence.

"Díyou think theyíll come after us?" Joe asked, at last.

"Theyíll come." Adam was sure of it. What he couldnít make out was why they hadnít been overtaken already.

"Theyíll kill us if they catch us." Joe sounded young and very afraid.

Adam swept back in time a thousand years: the loft in the barn on a hot summerís day, Little Joeís reed-thin voice piping out of the hay at the back. "Donít let Pa find me, Adam. Heíll kill me when he knows what I done!" This time, it was harder to give reassurance.

"Weíve got guns, Joe we can fight." He looked his brother in the eyes, his expression full of meaning. If it came to a fight, both of them knew the sheer numbers against them would overwhelm them. To save themselves from a long, painful death, each of them would have to save his last bullet for himself. Joe nodded acceptance. He understood. Adam got up and offered his hand. "Letís get going."

Joe rubbed at the agony that burned in his leg. "Donít think I can. Donít think I can walk any more."

Adam grabbed him by the arm and lifted him bodily onto his feet. Now, he was angry; he heard his blood sing. "You think I came back for you just to leave you behind?"

"Why did you come back?" Joeís voice was bitter. "You never did make it plain."

A long drawn-in breath cooled Adamís temper. "Remind me to explain it to you one day."

The moon-bright night grew steadily colder as the heat of the land leeched into the sky. The men didnít feel the chill. ĎThough their breath puffed to steam in front of their faces, the heat of their exertions was more than sufficient to keep them warm.

Adamís back itched, dead-square centre, just below the line of his shoulder blades. It was a sign he had learned to pay heed to a very long time ago. Some sense finer than hearing or sight had picked up an indication that they were being followed. Someone was trailing them, warily, silently, gradually closing in. Looking back, he couldnít see anything: only the desert of shale, brush and stone, silvered white and velvet black beneath the canopy of stars. He wasnít surprised. Turning, he hurried to catch up with Joe.

Adam stumbled. Something was wrong. He must have been weaker than heíd imagined. He couldnít see properly any more. Around him, the moonlight was darkening, turning red, the colour of blood defused in water. He wiped a hand across his eyes in an effort to clear his vision. Battered and bruised as he already was, he couldnít afford another fall.

"Hey, Adam, whatís happening?" Joe had noticed it too.

Adam stopped and looked at the sky. A line was moving over the face of the moon, as if someone unseen drew a curtain of fine, scarlet silk across her glowing countenance.

Little Joe turned to him. "What is it?"

"It might just be our salvation." Adam let out a long breath. "Itís a lunar eclipse."

"An eclipse? I though they only happened in day time."

"Itís the Earthís shadow moving across the moon. Letís hope the Shoshoni think itís an omen. It might hold them up for a while, give us time to find some cover."

They were being followed, they were sure of it now. The sound had come clearly over the desert, the tinkle of metal scraping on stone. An unlikely accident or a deliberate warning - Adam didnít know.

Joe was exhausted; he couldnít go on. Adam knew he wasnít in much better shape himself. He pulled up by some rocks. "Joe, you rest here a while."

Joe simply stared at him, mouth open, gasping for breath. His face was pale in the crimson light. "It that a good idea?"

Adam put down his pack. "Thereís someone in back of us. Just one man, I think."

Joe pulled out his gun, his bright eyes searching the darkness. Adam put out a hand. "Put that thing away, will you? One shotíll have the whole Shoshoni nation boiling down on our necks. Iíll go back and see to it. You wait for me here."

He slipped down the trail with silent, rapid steps. The route he had chosen, such a long time ago, lay right through this valley of tumbled stone, heading for higher country studded with trees. A hellfire furnace in the heat of the day, by night it was a place of distorted distances, twisted rock formations and inky black shadows. The eclipse made it darker than ever before.

The trail that they followed was natural, or made so long ago that its makers were forgotten by all but the wind. There were lots of dark hiding places along the way. Adam slipped into shadow and waited.

A whisper of sound, not so much as a footfall, just the faintest movement of air, warned him that the hunter was coming. A figure moved by, so smoothly and lightly that he seemed to glide over the ground: a dark form in the deeper darkness, tall and lithe in feathers and fur, a glint of red light on polished, bronzed skin. Adam recognized Kalikasi. He should have known. The medicine chief, alone, had intimate knowledge of the stars in their courses; he would have known about the eclipse, might even have planned to use it in his ceremony of death. Thwarted, he had come after them, apparently alone.

The Indianís attention was centred on Joe, clearly visible at the turn of the trail. Apparently dozing, his exhaustion had over taken him. Unknowing, he was the bait in Adamís trap.

Stalking the stalker, more silent than the Shoshoni himself, Adam crept closer. Kalikasi hesitated Ė had he heard? Adam could see him plainly now. He had taken off his beads and bells and his horned head-dress. He wore just the loincloth and the soft leather boots. The war paint was smeared in the sweat on his face. In his hand he carried a stone tomahawk.

He took a step, hesitated. His own sixth sense was prickling. The time for stealth was over. Adam moved swiftly out of the concealing shadows. Kalikasi spun round, the tomahawk rising in his hand. A savage snarl contorted his painted face.

Adam crouched. He came in fast and low. The Bowie knife moved in an easy, upward arc. Of its own volition, with just the least impulsion from Adamís hand, it slipped between the lowest ribs, still angled upwards, and cut through the heart. Kalikasi stiffened, struggled briefly. Blood, hot and black in the blood red moonlight, gouted from the hideous wound and smothered them both. It had the smell of hot iron, like steam from a blacksmithís forge. The medicine chief relaxed, very slowly, and died in Adamís arms.

Adam lowered the body onto the ground and crouched over it. He listened: his eyes, ever watchful, caught the bloody light while his breath steadied to a normal rhythm. Nothing untoward disturbed the peace of the night. Joe came limping up. The rasp of his breathing was loud Ė it helped restore Adamís sense of reality. He looked down at the dead man. Kalikasiís eyes were open, reflecting back the blackness of the sky. Beneath him, an inky stain soaked into the soil.

Ben and Hoss rode over the ridge and sat, just below the skyline, to let their horses blow. The lunar eclipse was all but over, and with it, their nightmare ride through the desert. They had found the hills, any number of them, but not the Shoshoni village.

Hoss pushed his tall hat to the back of his head. "Yíknow, Pa, I reckon we missed that sentinel tree some place in the dark. Reckon we rode right on by it."

Ben frowned, deepening the lines of weariness etched into his face. Reluctant though he was, he had to admit it. "Could be that we did."

Below them, a stony valley between the dry hills was flooding with fresh, new moonlight. Hoss sighed. "Supposiní we take a swing ta the south and thenÖ" He stopped, staring. Sitting forward in the saddle, he leaned over his horseís neck and screwed up his eyes. "Hey, Pa, lookee there!" He raised his hand and pointed his finger.

Two black motes crawled through a monotone landscape.

Hoss looked at his father. "Díyou reckon..?" He didnít dare hope.

Ben stared, not really believing, and then with a dawning certainty. A smile split his face. "I surely do!" He kicked his horse into motion.

Hoss took off his hat and waved it above his head. "Hey, there! Hey, Adam! Hey, Little Joe! Yahoo!"

Down in the valley, the shouts seemed to echo. Adam, with Joeís weight slung by an arm from his shoulder, was confused. He heard the whoop and the holler but couldnít fix the direction. He thought it was the Shoshoni. Setting Joe down on a rock, he turned to face the attack.

"Hey, Adam! Adam!"

He knew the voice, and he knew the bulk of the men riding towards him, trailing spare horses. They were achingly familiar. "Pa?"

Ben all but fell from the saddle.

There was a time of fervent reunion: backslaps and hugs and handshakes galore. Faces smiled until face muscles ached. Ben took a good long look at his sons. They both looked thin and sick. Joe walked with a savage limp, and Adamís face needed stitching. It took some time to reassure them that the blood soaking Adamís tattered shirt was not his own. At last, Ben slapped them both on the shoulder. "Come on, boys. Letís get you home to a doctor."

Adam looked at him. His eyes were shadowed with concern. "Just one problem, Pa. Thereís the best part of fifty Shoshoni warriors right over that hill. I killed their medicine man. They might not be happy to let me go."

Ben didnít get time to consider. Hoss tapped him urgently on the arm. "Looks like we got company." A barrage of shots followed his words, reverberating Ďround the valley. The Cartwrightís four horses threw up their heads and bolted. "Dad-burn-it!" Hoss let rip with an oath. "There goes our transport home."

Ben took stock of the situation. Looking about him, he found nowhere to hide, no defensible position. "Come on, boys, up the hill. Letís get into some cover." Their momentary confusion over, they started off in a shambling run.

It was a narrow path that went up through the rocks; just one man at a time could climb it. Joe went first, limping heavily but with a remarkable turn of speed. Fear of recapture, torture and death added wings to the heels of the young manís feet. Hoss went after him, huffing and puffing, lurching like a grizzly bear, prepared to give Joe a push should he need it.

Ben looked at his eldest sonís face. "Are you all right, son?"

Despite his bruises, Adam managed a grin. "All right, Pa. You go ahead."

Ben hesitated. Something tickled his intuition. A momentís doubt flickered on his face, but there wasnít the time to argue. The Shoshoni were streaming up the valley in a tide of painted bodies. He started up the path, following Hoss.

Adam drew deep on his inner reserve. A fresh burst of adrenaline surged through his body; the fatigue poisons washed away. He felt fine, if a little light headed, as if he could run forever and never slow down. With a final look over his shoulder, he started to climb.

The pathway was steep, and it switched back and forth among the rocks. Sometimes, it was barely a path at all. The Cartwrights climbed it in single file; there was no other way. By the same token, the Shoshoni could only follow one man at a time Ė until they found another way up.

Because of the twists and the turns on the trail, guns were useless: bullets merely ricocheted from the rocks. Arrows were another matter. Shot high in the air, they dropped from above onto the fleeing men: an unholy rain of razor-tipped shafts.

At the rear of the group, Adam began to fall behind. His legs faltered. For some reason he didnít understand, they felt numb and responded only sluggishly to the commands his brain gave them. Weaving wildly, he stumbled and almost fell. He shed the blanket and the water skin, seeking to lighten the load that he carried. It didnít make any difference. His knees weakened His eyes lost their focus. He started to fall. Something hit him hard in the back.

There was intermittent gunfire from below and a fresh scatter of arrows falling as the Shoshoni came within range. The braves were coming after them, swarming up the hillside by a dozen different paths. Ben urged his sons to hurry. Looking back, he saw his first-born fall.

Adam landed face down in the dirt and didnít move. Obscene in the moonlight, the white, feathered shaft of a Shoshoni arrow jutted out of his back.

Ben started back, then stopped, horror on his face.

Looking back over his shoulder, Hoss saw what had happened. "Adam!" He came back down the path "Iíll get him, Pa!"

Ben put himself in the way. "You canít go down there!"

"But, Pa! Thatís Adam! Get out of my way!"

Ben looked at his fallen son; considered the angle of the arrow. It was the hardest decision he had ever made. "Thereís nothing you can do for your brother."

Still, Hoss tried to get by him. Ben wouldnít let him go. "If you go back, youíll be killed as well. Do you think I could bear to lose both of you?" With the whole of his strength he manhandled Hoss up the trail. By the time he looked back again, the place where Adam had fallen, and his body were already out of sight.

Ten

The narrow entrance of the cave was merely a hole in the hillside: an inauspicious opening half concealed by a jumble of shattered stone. Stumbling in the darkness, confused and disorientated by the sudden and tragic turn of events, the Cartwrights, the father and two of his sons, were lucky to find it.

It was Hoss who had taken command. The big manís face had crumpled in on itself, but his jaw was set firm against the insupportable grief that threatened to overwhelm him. The loss of his brother had stunned him. He couldnít believe that Adam had gone. As yet, the pain hadnít started. He was numb, unable to think about it clearly. He had taken his sorrow and his anger and his memory of Adam falling, packaged them neatly and filed them away in his mind. There would be time, perhaps, to deal with them later.

He sweated and strained to clear several large stones from in front of the entrance. The hard, physical work helped clear his head. With the air of a hunted and wounded animal going to ground, he shepherded Joe and his father inside.

Revealed by the uncertain and transient light of a match, the cave was the product of a one-time landslip. In shape, a rough-hewn teardrop formed out of tumbled boulders and compacted dirt, there was a roughly circular chamber and a short, narrowing passage at the rear. The sometime haunt of scavenging animals, there was a scatter of bones on the floor and a foetid, feral stench. The only natural light was a vagrant moonbeam that spilled in through the door. Hoss checked the place quickly for rattlesnakes and found nothing. For what it was worth, they had the place to themselves.

Ben sat on a rock that had once been a part of the ceiling and stared at the floor at his feet. He was inconsolable. His eyes were dark wells of despair, and he felt a hundred years old. Hoss returned from a reconnoitre at the back of the cave and sat down beside him. "There ainít no other way out oí here. Just the door we come in by." He looked at the opening, delineated by a patch of pale sky. "I guess that could be a good thing. At least them Injuns can only come at us one at a time."

Ben raised his head and gazed at him. He travelled back, in his mind, from a place a long way away. "Indians?" he inquired vaguely. He looked from Hoss to the entrance. "Yes. I suppose that youíre right." The horror was still on his face. He pulled a long breath. "I was thinking about Adam when he was a little boyÖ"

Hoss saw the black pit of despondency yawn open before him. This was neither the time nor the place. "PaÖ"

Ben was looking beyond him. "Iím the one to blame. I knew he was right at the end of his strength. I should have done something about it. If Iíd made him go on ahead of meÖ" Öthen Iíd be the one that was dead. The unspoken sentence hung in the air between them.

"Pa, it ainít no use you blaminí yourself. You know it was never no good arguiní with Adam. With that smart mouth oí his, he always did get the last word."

Benís look was bleak. "He certainly has it this time." He gave himself a firm mental shake. This wasnít the frame of mind that had buried three wives and brought him across a continent. "If weíre going to put up any sort of a fight, weíd better get ourselves organized."

It was cold in the cave but not as cold as it was outside in the desert. Joe was the one who suffered the most. Seeing him shiver, Ben insisted he wrap himself in the rabbit skin robe and try to get some rest. Dry-eyed, still not quite comprehending the enormity of what had happened, Joe complied. As he warmed, he became drowsy. Later he slept. Watching the pale, pinched oval of his sleeping sonís face, Ben found the grace in his heart to give thanks for the return of this one, precious gift.

They had one canteen of water - the one that Adam had filled from the water skin and given to Joe to carry. The remainder of their supplies, the dried rations in their saddlebags Ė enough for several days - their rifles and ammunition, were gone with their stampeded horses. All they had was a meagre handful of rounds for their handguns that Ben and Hoss happened to have in their coat pockets. Ben estimated, conservatively, that when the Shoshoni attacked in earnest, they would last about ten minutes.

The night wore on towards morning. Ben and Hoss took it in turns to watch the narrow opening while the other man pretended to doze. Once, Joe stirred in his restless sleep and half awoke, crying out sharply: sure evidence that his dreams were salted with nightmare. Once, Hoss heard the scrape of a stone outside. He tensed and held his breath, but no dark form appeared to block the bright flow of moonlight.

At one point, Hoss inquired, thoughtfully, "It that right, Pa, what they say? That Injuns donít like ta attack folk at night?"

"Not that Iíd noticed." Ben said shortly and ended the conversation.

In was inconceivable that the Shoshoni were unaware of the cave, close as it was to their village. They had to know where the white men were hidden. They had to be biding their time. Moonset heralded daybreak. Beyond the stone portal, the silver sky became gold. Still the Shoshoni didnít come. Hoss found that the waiting got on his nerves.

"Why the heck donít they attack?"

Ben wiped a hand across his mouth. They had decided to ration the water, and, like the others, he was thirsty. "I guess they know that theyíve got us pinned down."

"Well, I donít like it." The big manís face took on a belligerent cast. "Iím goiní out ta get me a look."

"Hoss!" Ben snatched at his sleeve, but Hoss had already gone by him. All he could add was, "Be careful."

Hoss climbed into the opening. Morning, in the desert was a beautiful, God-given thing. Every colour was clear. Every angle was sharply defined. Long, dark shadows crept from every rock and crevice. The sky was bright - blue turning to gold.

The sun was already above the horizon. His face was too bright to look at, and Hoss could feel the heat of him drawing the sweat from his skin. From where he sat at the mouth of the cave, he could see the head of the trail and a narrow slice of the valley below. There was nothing moving, nothing alive to be seen except for a yellow, black-eyed lizard warming himself on a rock and, far away to the west, the soaring shape of an eagle searching the ground with a bright, hunterís eye. Hoss went back inside.

"I donít see Ďem no place, Pa. Reckon theyíre hidiní out in the rocks. A couple oí men sitting in the mouth oí the cave cín pick Ďem off as pretty as you please as they come up the trail." He tried to sound optimistic. He didnít add that they had only twenty-eight bullets between them. He didnít have to.

Little Joe was awake now. He claimed to feel better Ďthough he still looked pale and drawn. He insisted on playing a part. Turn and turn about, throughout the morning, they sat in the mouth of the cave and kept watch on the path. No one came up it. Nothing moved in the valley. No sound broke the sunny silence except the creak and crackle of slowly heating rock. The lizard was gone now, and the eagle, her hunting successful, had gone to her rest. Just about at midday, when the sun was at its highest, Hoss stepped inside to get a mouthful of water.

"I donít get it. It donít hardly seem like thereís no one out there at all."

Ben was doubtful. "I donít think we can afford to take chances. You saw what happened to AdamÖ" He stopped short. Neither of them needed to be reminded.

The words were not out of his mouth when Joe let out a yell. "Somethinís goiní on out here!"

Ben and Hoss exchanged looks of alarm and scrambled for the opening. Hoss beat his father to it, his big body getting in Benís way as he squeezed outside. Ben scrambled out after him.

Joe had wriggled on his belly as far as the top of the trail. Hoss got down on all fours and went after him, and Ben followed, rather more sedately, behind.

There were horsemen down in the valley; small dark figures rode back and forth in apparent disorganization. Their shouts carried distantly to the Cartwrights, and there was sporadic gunfire: white puffs of smoke rose suddenly and, seconds later, the sharp report echoed down the valley. Ben slapped his sons on their backs. "Looks like weíre rescued, boys. Thatís Major Grangerís army!"

Brett Hansen was easy to find: a big man sitting tall on a silver horse that blazed like a beacon in the sunlight. He saw the Cartwrights, afoot in the valley, threading their way among the rocks as they made their way towards him. He rode the horse over. With a smile on his face, he stepped down beside them. Ben introduced him to Joe, and Hansen shook hands all Ďround.

The amenities over, Hansen said, "Sorry I was late getting here. Guess my timingís a little off. That lunar eclipse last night kinda caught me out. So, what did you do with the Shoshoni?"

Ben stared at him. "Arenít you fighting them now?"

"Hell, no!" Hansen looked over his shoulder. The troopers were milling about, whooping and firing their guns. "We picked off two or three stragglers, old folks, I guess, left behind to put up some sort of rear-guard action, but the village is empty; the Indians are gone. The Major and the lieutenant are over there now trying to make sense of it. These troopers are just shooting at shadows, letting off steam."

Ben looked at Hoss, who was equally bewildered. "Then where are the Shoshoni? There were fifty of them here last night, thickerín fleas on a hound dogís hide."

"I guess you mustíve frightened Ďem off," Hansen chuckled. "Adam always told his family were pretty good with their guns." He looked all around him. "Bye the way, where is Adam?"

Hoss put a hand on his shoulder and looked far away. "Brett, Adam didnít make it."

Hansen found them some horses, and, together, they rode over the shoulder of the hill to the Shoshoni encampment. Joe was amazed that what had been such a very long way a few hours ago in the dark, was just a short distance, and covered so quickly, on the back of an army-issue horse.

The soldiers were moving from shelter to shelter, looting everything they could find that might be of value and setting fire to the rest. Empty shelters were already aflame, and an acrid smell of burning thickened the air. Ben came across Harwell halfway up the hill. The lieutenant stood beside his horse and observed the systematic destruction of other menís homes with a small smile of satisfaction on his face. It was an expression Ben didnít much care for. The lieutenant turned as Ben stepped down from his horse.

"Ah! Mister Cartwright, Iím glad you decided to rejoin us. I think the Major would like a word with you."

Ben had the grace to look sheepish. He glared from beneath his eyebrows. "I guess I have some explaining to do."

With Hansen, Hoss and Joe walking behind them, leading the horses, they went up the hill.

Several of the fires were taking hold, now. A pall of smoke hung over the encampment. The soldiers were laughing and feeding the flames with anything they couldnít carry away. Two men galloped by, whooping and dragging the side of a shelter. The wickerwork panel banged and crashed and broke into fragments. Another man, dressed in abandoned Shoshoni clothing, danced a parody of an Indian war dance to the music of a mouth organ and riotous applause from his friends. There was no doubt about it at all, Ben figured, the army knew how to enjoy itself. He felt his stomach sicken with disgust.

The area around the council fire, the focal point of the village, was a site of absolute devastation. The fire had burned right down to cold ashes; the chieftainís shelter lay in ruins. Two bodies lay sprawled at the side of the clearing: the old men that Hansen had mentioned. They were the final defenders who had remained behind to delay the armyís progress while the rest of the tribe got away. Their arms and legs were spread akimbo in the abandoned attitude of death. Another lay close to the council fire, within the circle of stones. This one was wrapped up carefully in a buffalo robe, as if to protect it from the encroaching cold. A furtive figure moved between them.

Harwell spoke a few words to the Major, who finally turned to face Ben.

"Well, your methods are nothing if not unorthodox; I have to give you that. Not at all by the book," Granger harrumphed. "Iím not saying that I approve of what you did Ė but Iím glad you saved one of your sons." He shook hands with Joe. "Itís a shame that the savages got away. Looks like they just melted into the desertÖ"

Hansen listened to the continuing conversation with only half an ear. Something was bothering him. He looked Ďround the clearing with a growing sense of unease. The Shoshoni hadnít been given a chance to carry away their dead; that was understandable, but why had they left one wrapped up in blankets? It didnít strike Hansen as right.

Corrigan Argyle was making his rounds. The pickings werenít nearly as rich as he had envisioned, but with twenty dollars the price for a hank of Indian hair, he wasnít about to leave anything behind. Two fresh trophies already hung from one hand; his broad bladed skinning knife was clasped in the other. In a crouch, he moved from one corpse to the other, doing his grizzly work.

Hansen watched him with an expression of undisguised disgust. He had to admit, despite himself, the man was, at least, efficient: two quick, clean strokes of the razor-edged blade and the trophies numbered three.

Argyle moved again to the last of the bodies, the one that lay by the fire. He reached for a handful of the long, lank hair. Hansen had a sudden flash of intuition. "Argyle! Stop!"

Argyle looked up from under his eyebrows. His eyes glittered. His white teeth showed in a snarl. "Youíre not going to stop me, Hansen. This bountyís mine!"

Hansen clenched his teeth. "Donít be a fool! Why do think that manís all wound up in a blanket? Thatís Adam Cartwright, and heís still alive!"

"Adam!" Ben started forward. Harwell grabbed him and held him.

Argyleís hand tightened. "Hair looks black enough ta me."

Brett Hansen shot him. The ball smashed through his rib cage and went out through his spine. Argyle sat down hard on his butt. His face filled up with surprise. He said, "You killed me!" Blood ran out of his mouth and splashed on to his chest. He fell on his back and died.

*******

The army doctor closed his bag and stood up, dusting off the knees of his gold-striped pants. "Your sonís been lucky, Mister Cartwright. Heís taken a flesh wound, deep and nasty, but the arrow glanced off a bone. It the angle had been different Ė half an inch either wayÖ"

Ben hesitated over the hanging end of the sentence. He didnít much care for the dubious expression on the doctorís face. "Do you think that heíll be all right?"

"With time and care, I should think heíll recover." The doctor still sounded doubtful. "He comes from tough stock, after all. Someoneís done a good job of fixing him up, I must admit - stopped the bleeding, closed the wound, left him wrapped up here for you to find. Iíve put a few stitches into his face. Wouldnít want a scar to spoil his looks for the ladies. But heís taken one hell of a beating Ė several, in fact. Iíd say heís about at the end of his strength. Right now he needs food and rest and, above all, reassurance." He looked at Ben squarely. "I take it youíre the one to give him that?"

"Indeed." Ben looked past him at his sonís blanket wrapped form. Iíll take him home to his family. Can I speak to him?"

"Just for a second. Iíve given him something to help with his journey. In a minute or two, heíll go to sleep. If you ask him nicely, the Major might let him borrow his bed."

Ben crouched down at Adamís side. "Adam, son, do you hear me?"

Adam rolled his head against the ground. The doctor had stitched his face very neatly, and some of the lesser bruises were starting to fade. He looked vague and disorientated, barely aware. "What happened? I donít remember too much. I guess I ran out of steam."

"I guess you did." Despite himself, Ben managed a smile.

Still troubled, still fretting at a problem that had worried him for a very long time, Adam demanded to know, "Joe? Is Joe all right?"

"Joeís going to be just fine. The doctorís taken a look at his leg. He says exercise and time will strengthen the muscles. With luck, he might not even limp. Donít worry about anything. Youíre both going to be well again."

Adam looked around him, his eyes struggling to focus beyond his fatherís face. His head was throbbing and his vision was blurry; the whole of his body hurt. His voice, never strong, grew weaker. "Pa, the Shoshoni?"

Ben put a hand to his shoulder to calm him. "Itís all right. The Shoshoni are gone."

Adam mumbled something and turned his head away. The world was turning about him, drifting, fadingÖ His eyelashes lowered onto his cheek, and his breathing slowed.

Hoss looked at his father, frowning. "Whatíd he say, Pa?"

"Something about Ė a shadow on the mountain."

"Whatís that mean?"

"Iím damned if I know." Ben struggled to pull himself together. "Perhaps heíll explain it to us one day. Come on, give me a hand to get you brothers home."

*******

Joe sat in the elegantly shaped, solidly constructed armchair in the downstairs lobby of the hotel. To a man who had sat on little else but the ground for a period of months, it was acutely uncomfortable. The overstuffed back was altogether the wrong shape to support his spine, and the wooden bar across the front dug deep into the backs of his thighs. Joe twisted and wriggled and writhed in a vain attempt to make himself comfortable. He fiddled with the band on his brand new hat, chewed at a hangnail and picked at the seam of his pants. What he really wanted to do was to get out of the chair and pace back and forth, but, of course, his leg wouldnít let him do that.

"Get lots of rest." The doctor had told him. "and lots of exercise too." But he wasnít to overdo it. If he was diligent with his exercises, and patient and careful and lucky, he might end up just a little lame.

The bespectacled desk clerk bustled about, lighting the lamps with a long waxed spill and pulling closed the drapes. The gentle lamplight spread through the room; it brushed warmly against crimson velvet and gleamed on gilt. Outside the sky was already dark and the lanterns were lit on the boardwalks. Hoss turned away from the window. The frown of concern that had taken up permanent residence across his broad features was still firmly in place, but now that concern was directed at Joe.

"Joe, why canít you sit still? Is that leg oí yours still paininí you?"

"Itís not paininí me much," Joe lied automatically. The doctor had said that the ache would fade but it would probably return whenever it rained or the wind blew cold from the north. He squirmed about some more in his seat and rubbed at his thigh in a gesture that was to become an unconscious habit.

"Then what is it with you, wriggliní round like you sat down on a red-ant nest?" Hoss sat down and settled himself in another of the big, wing-backed chairs. He studied Joeís face. It was as plain as could be that something was eating away inside of his younger brother. "You got somethiní botheriní you?"

Joe sat well forward in the upholstered seat. He rested his forearms across his knees and turned the new hat around and around by the brim. He cast a lightening-fast glance at his brotherís face and quickly looked away. Finally, he admitted his problem. "Itís Adam."

"Adam?" Hoss took a moment to think about it. "You heard what the Doc. said. Adamíll likely be all right, once heís rested up some aní gotten over that bang ta the head."

"I heard what the doctor said," Joe sighed. "Iím realí glad about that. Thatís not what bothers me."

"Then what?"

"Iíve got a feeling nothingís ever going to be right between us again." Joe chewed at his lip. Hoss sat silently and waited. He had the insight to know that this was something Joe needed to get off his chest. Joe began again. "The whole reason we went on that hunting trip in the first place was so we could get to know one another again. After I stopped that stray slug Adam meant for that cougar, I Ė I guess he sort of, didnít trust himself any more. And now this had to happen." He rubbed at his leg again. "He went through hell itself to get me out of there: in one side and out of the other. You didnít see the half of what they did to him: the beatings, the humiliation. He worked himself near to death. And then he came back for me. I havenít even said a proper Ďthank youí."

Both of them thought for a while about the long and uncomfortable journey across untracked desert and rough forest trails that had brought them back to Prion. Adam had ridden the whole of the way in the Majorís bed in the back of the wagon; most of the time heíd been so deeply asleep that not even the jolts had woken him up. Joe, riding up front with the driver, had found little opportunity to speak with him.

"Why donít you tell him now?" Hoss suggested, mildly.

Joe looked at him in surprise. "Tell him? How can I tell him? I donít suppose heíd understand. Besides, after all heís been through because of me, Iíll be surprised if he ever speaks to me again."

"Joe, you know Adam ainít like that," said Hoss, with assertion. "Aní the way you tell him Ė well Ė you just walk in aní tell him, thatís all. The way you just told me. I understood it alright, aní Adamís a whole lot brighter than me."

Still uncertain, Joe looked at him. "You think heíd be willing to listen?"

"Iíll bet heís just waitiní ta hear it."

Joe produced a grin from somewhere deep down inside. "Then thatís what Iíll do." He looked towards the head of the stair. Now that the army had cleaned out the hills, Prionís surplus population had disappeared as if by magic. Farmers and homesteaders were flooding back to their homes. The Cartwrights had gotten back their old room in the hotel. "País been with him a hell of a time. More than an hour now."

"Aw you donít want ta read nothiní inta that. Theyíre just getting re-aquainted. País had a realí rough time of it too."

Ben took the half-empty water glass from Adamís hand and put it down on the dresser. Turning back, he smiled at his son. "Youíre beginning to look better. You know that?" It was true. Adamís cheek was healing well, and, beneath its tan, his face had lost its deathly pallor. His eyes were haunted with shadows.

He shifted his long body in the bed. "I think Iím starting to feel a little better." It wasnít altogether a lie. He still had deep soreness under his ribs and stabbing pains in his back, but his head throbbed just a little less, and the room didnít spin any more.

"Well, thatís good." Ben sat down on the side of the bed. Adam gave him a smile, albeit a crooked one somewhat distorted by the pain that was still in the side of his face.

"Adam," Ben said, softly, "Iíve some idea what it cost you Ė to lead the army to the Shoshoni camp. You must have felt you were betraying your friends for the sake of you family."

Adamís jaw worked, but he said nothing. Ben got the impression that he was burying his feelings deep down inside. It was so typical of Adam. He covered his sonís hand briefly with his own. "Iím glad the Shoshoni got away."

"So am I, Pa," Adam said softly. "So am I." He drew a breath in the silence that fell between them. "Thank you for coming after us. Without you and Hoss, we would never have made it."

"Do you think I could have done otherwise?"

A light tap came on the wood of the bedroom door. Both men looked up. The handle turned, and Brett Hansen stuck his head inside the room "Is it all right to interrupt you two?"

With a laugh, Ben got up from the bed. "Sure thing, Brett. Come on in. I was about to go see if I can find a barber to come along and cut this young manís hair."

Brett Hansen came into the room, and Ben, with a last smile back at his son, went out. The two friends shook hands warmly, and Hansen pulled up a chair. Adam eased his sore spots in the bed. "Pa tells me itís you I have to thank that I have any hair left to cut."

Hansen shrugged and gave a dismissive shake of the head. "Put it down as one that you owe me. One of these days I might collect."

"Iíll remember that."

"I brought you a present." Hansen reached inside his coat and brought out a leather bound book. "A little reading material. Something I think youíll appreciate."

Adam read out the title, " ĎPoetical Worksí by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Truly, a man of our times. Thank you, Brett." He fanned through the pages. His expression told of his pleasure.

Hansen sat back in the chair and crossed one knee over the other. The two men were comfortable in one anotherís company. Theirs was a long-standing friendship based on mutual respect and a genuine admiration for each otherís values. Looking at his friend, Adam said, "I guess youíll be leaving now, heading down south to that fancy spread of yours."

"Not quite yet." Hansen smiled his easy smile. "Iíll wait around a while, see you safely on your way to Virginia City. I might even ride with you a way"

"Pa tells me heís arranged something with the army."

"So I heard tell. Heís a formidable man, you father."

Adam laughed gently. "You can say that again."

They sat for a while in companionable silence. Then, Hansen said, "As soon as youíre back on your feet you must come visit Ė you and that brother of yours. Iíve got some fancy horses thatíll make his eyes pop."

"Iíll be sure and do that. Joeís very fond of horses."

"And Iíve got a bathhouse you wouldnít believe. You can sit and soak in the hot tub all day. Take the ache right out of your bones." Hansen rubbed a hand along his own aching thigh. He knew from his own experience how therapeutic hot water could be. "Itíll do you both the world of good."

Painfully, Adam eased himself again. "Right now, Brett, thatís just what I need."

********

Very quietly, Joe closed the door. His Pa and his brother and Adamís friend were all downstairs in the hotel lobby talking and enjoying a late-night pot of coffee. Adam was supposed to be resting. Joe looked around the room. The lamp was turned low, and the shadows lay thick in the corners of the room. The brass-faced clock on top of the dresser reckoned the hour at shortly before eleven.

If he listened carefully, above and beyond the tick of the clock, he could hear the noise from the saloon across the street: the piano music and raucous singing, the ring of a womanís laugh. It was all muffled and diffused by the glass and the curtains. Joe looked at his brother. Adam appeared to be asleep. Joe could see the rise and fall of his chest and hear the soft sigh of his breath.

A book lay closed beneath his hand, his long, brown fingers resting lightly on the cover. Joeís lips quirked in the ghost of a smile. He should have known that big-brother Adam would quickly resort to the ultimate refuge of the civilized mind Ė the written word. Then the smile died. Plain to see on Adamís wrists, below the sleeve of his nightshirt, were the scars of the rawhide bindings. A semi-permanent reminder of what they had been through, they would take a very long time to fade. Not wanting to disturb him, Joe turned to slip out of the room as silently as heíd come in. Adamís rich voice, muted by drowsiness, summoned him back.

"Joe? Come and sit by me."

Joe hesitated, then walked over, lame footed, and settled onto the edge of the bed. "I thought you were asleep."

"Just resting my eyes. The lampsí turned too low for reading." Adam pulled himself up in the bed. "I think Iíve had my fill of sleep for a while."

The two men looked at each other. Joe studied his brotherís face. "So how are you feeling?"

"I guess Iíve been better." Adam laughed ruefully. "Iím sore in places Iíd forgotten I had. And you?"

"The doctor says I might walk with a bit of a limp, but Iím gonna be alright. I guess Iíll have a scar to show the ladies." He gave a quick grin, and Adam chuckled.

"Adam, what happened to you after the Indians took you? We all thought you were dead. Do you remember anything at all?"

"Not very much." Adam shifted his position. "Willow convinced them that the eclipse was a sign from their spirits. She persuaded them to let me live."

"And the medicine man? The one that you killed?"

Adam hazarded a shrug. That was a thing he didnít want to talk about, or even to think about. Not quite yet.

Joe picked up the book, reading the title and fanning through the pages. Adam watched his face and waited. "Adam," Joe said at last. "Thereís something I have to tell you. I said some things to you a while ago: things I shouldnít have said." He turned the book over in his hands and rubbed his thumb on the binding.

"Just forget it, Joe," Adam said quietly.

Mutely, Joe shook his head. The words were engraved on his heart and not so easily forgotten. "I kinda figured that with that fancy education, you helping Pa all the time with the books and dealing with the cattle buyers and them mine owners and all, youíd got to thinking that you were better than the rest of us - that you didnít want to get your hands dirty."

"Joe," Adam interrupted. "You donít have to do this."

"Yes, I do." Joe blinked back a tear. "I have to tell you that I got it wrong. Iíve learned better now. I want to thank you for what you did for me."

Adam drew a long breath and let it out in a sigh through his teeth. "I guess Iíve learned something too." He looked at Joe from under his eyebrows. "Not to underestimate my younger brother."

Joe lifted his eyes to his brotherís face. Adam smiled at him lazily. The angry, driven stranger that had worn his mask for so long was gone. The phantoms in his eyes had departed. Joe held out his hand, and Adam clasped it warmly.

His irrepressible self again, Joe grinned. "Hey brother, as soon as weíre both back on our feet, how about we go on another hunting trip, well away from Indian country?"

Adam lay back on his pillows and thought about it a good long while. Finally, he sighed and chuckled and said, "Joe, I think, in future, Iíll just take you fishing."

For a minute, the room rang with two menís laughter.

 

 

Source Material:

"The Shoshoni" by Kim Dramer.

"Cassellís Dictionary of Modern American History" by Peter Thompson.

"America" by Tindall Shi.

"A History of the Indians of the United States" by Angie Debb.

"The High Sierra" Time-Life Books.

"Encyclopaedia Britannica"

Potters Bar 2001.

 

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