He crouched in the shadows of the immense pines, camouflaged by their dense boughs. His breathing and movements were controlled so as not to give him away as he watched. He had been observing the routine around the big white house for nearly a week now, and no one seemed to be aware of his presence. Not known as a patient man, this had tried him, but when the situation called for it, he could be the very soul of patience. He preferred keeping his distance from white people, but he had been pushed into desperation. His sharp russet eyes narrowed as the black-haired man left the house as he did every morning, and his breathing slowed to almost nothing. Soon he would act, but it simply wasn’t time yet.
Angelica Cartwright buzzed about the parlor side of the big ell-shaped room, straightening up and singing brightly. She loved her husband dearly, and would do what was needed to please him, but he, like most men, hadn’t quite grasped the concept of neat. She picked up the newspaper where it lay crumpled next to the tall-backed blue chair, his favorite. Her fingertips rubbed over the soft, worn fabric, and she let her mind conjure up the image of him sitting there. One side of her delicate mouth turned, and her voice faded as her fingers crunched the paper. If she had a dollar for every time she had watched him sit here reading in deep concentration – his mouth pulled into its characteristic pucker – she would buy him a million papers to strew about the house wherever he wished.
She swiped at a dark brown tendril that had fallen over her face as she looked around to the bedroom. She thought she had heard movement – however slight – through the cracked door, and her smile broadened. Folding the paper, she placed it on the seat of the chair, and her skirt and petticoats rustled as she went to check on her sons.
The bedroom door pushed open and Angelica stepped into the room, her deep violet eyes going straight to the large cradle. Due to his nervous energy, Addy still had a penchant for beating up on his brothers, and she tried heading him off whenever she could.
As she looked down at them, only two sets of clear blue eyes looked back. Addy was gone, but it wasn’t the first time, so she wasn’t alarmed.
“I see your brother has gone for another one of his walks,” she said, and straightened the quilt over them. “I guess I had better go get him. Mother will be back in a jiffy.”
Maggie O’Shea had just reached the staircase with an armload of clean linens when Angelica left the bedroom. “Is something wrong, mum?” she asked in her hearty Irish brogue.
“Adam has walked off with one of the boys again, Addy this time.”
Maggie grinned, and it touched her nutmeg brown eyes. “How he does love his sons.”
“I know, but I wish he would at least tell me. I’ll be right back.”
“We’ll be just fine until ya do.”
Angelica went out into the hot July morning and stopped at the edge of the expansive front porch. Her eyes scanned the yard, but she saw no sign of her husband and son.
Alphonse Sweet, Fonse to most who knew him, was leading a horse to the stable where the hands’ mounts were kept when a feminine voice caught his attention. He looked around to see the boss’ missus coming toward him, and his breathing staggered. He had been working on ranches since the age of sixteen – some twenty-four years – and he had always kept his distance from the lady of the manor. This time, however, he was cornered. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and tipped the brim of his grimy hat with gloved fingers.
“Have you seen my husband?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. He’s in the barn.”
Her fine brows drew down, and the purple of her eyes became more intense. She thanked him then walked off muttering to herself.
“How many times have I told him not to take the babies into the barn?”
Adam tugged the cinch around Dusty’s belly and looked around at the sound of feet scuffing the dirt floor. When he did, he couldn’t miss how ashen his wife’s face had turned, her gaze searching around her. He had seen her angry before. “What’s wrong?”
“Where did you put Addy? I’ve asked you time and again not to bring them out here.”
“Addy? I haven’t seen the boys since right after breakfast. And after the umpteenth time, it finally sank in. I haven’t brought one of them out here in probably two weeks.”
Now her expression changed to something far more distressing. “Well, if you don’t… If you haven’t got him…, where is he?”
“Where is he? I left him with his brothers.”
Angelica felt as if she had been wrapped in hot burlap. “But he isn’t there. I looked. Little Hi and Benjy are but…” Then the bottom completely fell out of her world, and her hands went to her mouth. “Someone took him.”
Adam’s dark hazel eyes went nearly black, and he dashed to her.
“Oh, Dear God, Adam, someone has taken our baby.”
“We don’t know that,” he said, and took a firm grip of her arms.
“Well, he didn’t walk off, and I’m not in the habit of misplacing our sons.” Her frantic eyes began searching again. “Someone came into our house and…”
He gave her a shake to avert the panic he saw setting in. “Just calm down. We’ll find him. Now let’s go back into the house.”
Maggie had just entered the dining room when the Cartwright’s came in.
“Maggie, would you stay here with Angelica while I look in the bedroom?”
“I course, but…”
His long legged, determined stride took him into the bedroom before she could finish.
Little Hi and Benjy’s observant eyes followed their father as he looked down at them, and then went to the window.
Adam ran his fingers along the sill, and they came away with fresh dirt. He knew it was fresh because Maggie wouldn’t allow it not to be. Then he examined the latch. Someone had apparently slipped the blade of a knife between the frames and lifted it. He fought back the fear and anger waiting to engulf him. How dare someone violate the sanctity of his home and steal his son.
Redoing the latch and checking to make sure his remaining sons were still there, he rushed back out to the parlor.
“Adam?” Angelica said unevenly.
Adam stepped to her and put a gentle, comforting hand against the side of her face and let his eyes do the talking.
Angelica groaned and closed her eyes, and no longer felt Maggie’s arm around her shoulders.
“Stay with her, Maggie. I’ll be right back.”
“You couldn’t blast me away with twenty sticks o’ dynamite.”
“Chris,” Adam said, as he bounded down the front steps.
Chris McCutcheon looked around from his little yellow dun mare. “Yeah, Boss.”
“Come with me,” Adam said and started toward the end of the porch.
Dropping his reins, Chris followed him around to the side of the house. He had seen the boss in a hurry before, but never anything like this. “What’re we looking for?”
“Somebody’s been in the house.” Adam’s voice lowered, and his hands went to fists. “They took Addy.”
Chris stopped dead for a second then continued on behind the Boss. “Why would any…”
“I don’t know, but I fully intend to find out.”
They finally came to the bedroom. Adam examined the window then crouched and ran his fingers lightly over the impressions in the ground.
Chris leaned down and his gaze traced over the patterns in the dirt.
“Moccasin tracks,” Adam said.
“Well, now we know who took your boy.”
“Yes, we do,” Adam said and stood, “but my wife is not to.”
“I won’t tell her, and I’ll make good and sure nobody else does, either.”
Adam turned to him, and at once Chris could see the Boss’ resolve. He couldn’t begin to guess why the oldest Cartwright son had been taken, especially with an Indian. One thing he did know, however, was that Adam Cartwright would go after his son with the relentlessness of a bloodhound, and Heaven help the man he would be tracking.
“Promise me that you won’t go alone,” Angelica said, as she watched her husband finish with his horse.
“I can go faster by myself,” he said, as he jabbed the rifle into the scabbard on the saddle. “I need to move light and fast and…” but the words cut off as a hand touched his arm, and he looked into her devastated face.
“I’m not just asking you, I’m begging you. Please don’t go alone. I want both of you back, so promise me.”
The harshness around his mouth and eyes softened as he cupped her chin in his hands, and all he gave was a nod and half a smile.
When they came out of the barn – Adam leading Dusty and holding his wife’s hand – the men were all gathered there with their horses.
“Ya don’t know how long ya’ll be gone,” Maggie said, as she came to him with two muslin bags. “And there are five cans of condensed milk for the boy.”
“Thank you, Maggie,” he said, as he took them. “I’d forgotten about food.”
“We’re ready, Boss,” Chris said steadily.
“I appreciate that, Chris, from all of you.” His eyes flicked to Angelica. “But I’m only gonna take two men. Juva and Fonse.”
“But, Boss…” Chris began to protest.
“I’ve made my decision. I want the rest of you to stay close to the house until I get back.” He went to Chris and rested a firm hand on his foreman’s shoulder and spoke if a whisper. “Watch after my family, Chris…. And if we don’t come back…”
“You will.” A toothy grin spread.
Adam gave him a pat then returned to his wife. “I’ll bring our son home, and just for good measure, I’ll come with him.”
She looked into that handsome visage and brushed her fingerover the weathered cheek. “In my heart I have to know that you will or I’ll go mad.”
He held her close and hugged her then released her and swung into the saddle, as did Juva Bailey and Fonse Sweet. The men who would be staying behind handed over their freshly filled canteens as extras then stepped back with their mounts.
“All right, let’s go,” Adam said with authority.
Maggie stepped next to Angelica and took her arm as they all watched the three men head around the side of the house.
Angelica felt as if her heart would burst as she watched her beloved Adam ride away from her. She had no idea who had taken their son or why, but inside her head a small voice told her to be very, very frightened. She bit into her lower lip to stop its quivering, and her fingers gnarled in the fabric of her skirt. “Come back, my love,” she said, without realizing there was any volume to it. “Come back with our baby.”
“He will,” Maggie said, and held the young woman closer, “if he hasta to walk barefoot.”
She hoped and prayed that Maggie was right.
The spry chestnut-and-white paint ambled on out in the open; a piece of scrub brush tied to its long tail to wipe out its tracks. Here a man had an unobstructed view if any pursuers should appear. A dense line of trees, however, he kept to his left to quickly disappear into. The cool air from the early morning had heated up, and the crystal blue sky had not a cloud for as far as a bird could see. It was indeed a day to be alive.
Wakashie sat straight as a lance on the back of his trusty Chee, one hand clutching the buckskin reins, the other a wad of mane. His constantly darting russet eyes missed nothing, and his ears were finely tuned to his surroundings. He twisted at the weight of the cradleboard between his shoulder blades and wondered how women could stand to wear these things. One corner of his mouth crimped at the thought of his father seeing his son – the son of a shaman – wearing such a un-warrior-like thing. A faint chortle passed his lips, and he wished it could happen.
Since being whisked silently from his home, young Addy Cartwright hadn’t
made a sound, except for the occasional gurgle always accompanied by bubbles.
So fascinated by the big, wide world he found himself thrust into, he hardly
moved. Sights and sounds and even smells made themselves known to a receptive
young mind. Once a rabbit had been flushed from a clump of scrub growth,
and the baby hadn’t missed it.
As the horse picked his way over the rock strewn ground the complaint of a hungry stomach made its displeasure apparent. Wakashie frowned down at it. He hadn’t eaten since before dawn, and hunger had moved in. As he reached for the leather pemmican bag that hung from his belt, it struck him that the baby hadn’t eaten either, yet he made no sound.
With the nudge of his rider’s knees, Chee headed for the trees. From there Wakashie could take care of what needed taking care of while hidden in their shadows, in case anyone should happen along. If it were only him, he wouldn’t need to stop just yet, but he meant no harm to the infant, and hungry or wet babies cried. So far he had gotten off lucky. He had come close to getting caught by the woman and not had the time to brush away his tracks around the house. They would lead to nothing so he wasn’t worried.
As he rode in among the thick pine boughs he chose a small clear spot just barely large enough for the horse. With a silent signal the animal stopped, and he brought one lean leg over in front of him and slid down, his feet lightly touching the needle carpeted ground. Nimbly he undid the lacings across his chest and carefully brought the cradleboard around from his back to hold in front of him.
Even in the grayness of this place he could see what a fine boy child he held. With his high, prominent cheekbones, dark coloring, and black hair, the child could pass as one of his own. And even if the youngster’s eyes stayed the color of a deep lake a story could be made up to cover it. But he gave this little thought. When he returned, his Kiama would now have a baby to love, and her mourning for their own son would not be so hard.
“You will be my son,” he said in the language of the Shoshone people, his people. He could speak English, but it wasn’t his language so he didn’t if he didn’t have to, and he encouraged Kiama do to the same. “I will raise you to hunt and fish and know the ways of the land, and I will name you Cameahwait, for you do not walk, and someday you will run like the wind.”
The baby’s direct gaze met with this man’s, and he lay perfectly motionless in the cradleboard. Then, a small hand reached out and took hold of a hank of the long, straight raven hair. He didn’t pull, he just held it clenched in his tiny fist.
Wakashie couldn’t help his smile or the way his spirit bounded when this little one smiled back at him. “Now, little hunter, we will find something to eat, and dry clothes if we need them. And then I will take you home to your new mother.”
Adam reined in his horse and leaned closer to the animal’s neck, his eyes straining as they passed over the rough ground for any sign. He had been trailing the one who had taken his son more by instinct than anything, for it looked undisturbed by any recent passage. Without a word, he lightly stepped down for a closer look. Crouching, with the rein clutched in his hand, nothing missed his probing gaze. Then something caught his attention, and he reached out and picked it up.
“What is it, Boss?” Juva asked, as he crossed his arms on the saddle’s horn.
“A piece of broken twig,” Adam said, as he held it to the light, “and it’s recent. And if you’ll notice, some of the rocks have been turned over. This ground has been brushed out.”
“The Boss could track an ant over a smooth rock,” Juva said with undisguised pride. “He’s Paiute trained, and if he says it’s been brushed out, then you can take it to the bank.”
Fonse’s brow wrinkled. He had met men like this though never one who had actually learned from the Indians. His boss of seven months was cool and methodical with the eyes of an eagle, and he believed Juva’s assessment. Of course, he was tracking the one who had taken his son, and that would sharpen any man’s senses.
Adam stood and – throwing the small scrap aside – his eyes ran along the horizon. Then his head turned to the trees and a notion came. “We’ll move closer to those trees. If he needs to stop for anything, that’d be a good place to do it.”
“Well, why don’t he just stay in there while he’s on the move? We’d never see him, but out in the open like this he’d stick out like a bird on a fence.”
“No.” Adam gestured to the dense Ponderosas. “See how close together they are. He couldn’t make good time in there. He wants to move as fast as he can, but it would make a good place to stop for whatever he needed to…. If he stayed still and quiet, we could ride straight past him and never know it.”
“Unless the baby cried,” Fonse said with a cold hardness to his steel gray eyes.
Juva shot him a nasty look as if to say, “Shut up.”
Adam stood perfectly still, and he felt every muscle knot and every bone lock. “Yeah, unless he cries.” He slipped his foot up into the stirrup and swung into the saddle and tried not thinking about it. “All right, let’s go.
The horses moved on toward the trees at an easy, deliberate pace, all eyes alert to everything. Upon reaching their rim, the men reined up again, Adam still in the lead.
“Let’s move along here and see if we can find where he went in.”
They rode on like that for maybe thirty-five or forty feet until Adam stopped the big black and raised his hand in a tight fist. Leaning slightly forward, he took hold of one of the boughs and examined it minutely. “Here,” he said, as his head rose, and he looked beyond the heavy trunks. “This is where they went in.” Adam got down again. “You two wait here.”
“All right, Boss,” Juva said.
Fonse had learned a long time ago not to contradict the man he worked for.
Adam handed his reins to Juva then silently melted in among the trees.
He wove his way through them until he came to a small clearing. The layer
of pine needles hindered had been brushed away, and he stooped for a better
look. “Un-shod pony tracks,” he said to himself. His son had been here,
and judging from the sign, it hadn’t been that long ago. He rose and went
to where the pony had obviously gone out on the other side. Reaching out,
he plucked a hank of horse hair that had been caught in the grasp of one
of the trees and held it into a shaft of light and frowned. He had missed
them this time, but he wouldn’t stop until he had his son, no matter how
long it took. “I’ll bring him home, Angel, I promise.”
Maggie came down the stairs into the parlor, but her step wasn’t as spry as usual. It had been an hour – give-or-take – since Mr. Adam and the two men had left to go after the scalawag who had taken little Addy and work had been the only way for her to keep going. This was a fine family, and she adored them as she would her own. She had known Miss Angelica since she was a baby, and had played a part in raising the girl. Mr. Adam – such a good man – made her feel more like a member of the family than a servant, and then there were the babies. And such splendid boys they were.
With a deep sigh, she stepped to the dormant fireplace and looked down on the ashes and charred logs. Crossing herself, she said a silent prayer then crossed herself again and started toward the dining room. Halfway there, she stopped as it dawned on her that she hadn’t seen Miss Angelica in a bit.
Her nutmeg eyes roved about the room until they came to stop on the closed bedroom door. With soft steps, she crossed over the wooden floor and quietly opened the door. Poking her gray-tipped mahogany head inside, her heart nearly shattered.
Lying on the bed, her back to the window, Angelica held her remaining sons to her bosom – her arms securely around them, and all three were asleep.
Maggie did nothing to stop the tears that trickled down her cheeks. A faint smile barely touched her eyes at the poignant scene then she backed out and quietly closed the door.
The other side of the solid line of trees that Wakashie had left behind him hadn’t been as clear. He had woven his pony around the clusters of huge pines until he came to the rise that would bring him closer to home and Kiama.
Since leaving their comparative safety, a sense of foreboding that raised the hair on the back of his neck had settled into him. Every crack of a dry twig and the faint whispering of the wind kept him alert. He hadn’t seen anyone expect for some of the natural inhabitants of this country, but he felt he was being trailed. He consoled himself with the fact that he was Shoshone, and if it was someone come for the boy, they were white men, and they weren’t a part of the land like his people. And, of the few he had ever met, they were not the trackers that the Shoshone or, for that matter, the Paiute and Bannocks were.
He squinted against the sun that had long since passed its zenith and had begun it descent down the other side of the sky. Tonight a cold camp would be the rule. He couldn’t afford to make a fire that could give him away. In this vastness, the smallest dot of light could be seen for miles, and on a moonlit night, as this would be, even smoke would be noticed.
The little one on his back had begun to get restless again, and it kept him on edge. Another thing that traveled a great distance out here was sound. A crying baby would immediately be heard for what it was, and those who followed would come to it like the great bear to a honey tree. Wakashie didn’t want to stop, but he had to do something to keep the baby from crying and giving him away.
With an urgent nudge in Chee’s sides, the paint’s gate quickened. There was a natural blind just ahead and off to the left. It would be a good place to stop and see to the baby’s needs.
Over the years, the heavy brush had grown to cover the pocket of green grass that backed onto a stone ledge. If a man remained still and quiet, he could go undetected in this place of nature’s concealment. He wished it had been farther along for it would be a good place to set up camp, but it was still too early to stop for the night. He knew they were back there, and he had to keep moving to stay ahead of them. But for now, his new son required tending.
Adam’s mind and body had settled into his tracking mode, and little outside influence affected it. So focused on the task before him and bringing Addy back to his mother was he, that the soft talk behind him didn’t enter. He had become one with the land and the trail he followed. He had, in essence, become Paiute.
“I’ve seen trackers work before, but never anything like this,” Fonse said, as he and Juva rode along behind the big black. “It’s like he don’t even know we’re here.”
“He don’t. I’ve seen the Boss get really focused before, and he’s lost to outsiders. This time, though, he’s really gone.”
“Do you wonder why? Some injun slips into his house and steals one of his sons.”
With the suddenness of the strike of a rattlesnake, Adam sat stopped his horse and sat straight and rigid in the saddle. His head cocked to one side, and no one had to guess what he was doing.
Juva and Fonse had come to a halt behind him and both knew to keep quiet. Juva looked to his companion, and the older man gestured to his ears, and Juva only nodded.
For the longest two minutes he had known since that bastard had taken his Angelica, Adam sat perfectly still, his mind racing like a locomotive. Then, with a heavy breath, his back slumped. “I’ve lost him.”
After her nap with her sons, Angelica had become restless and couldn’t stay put in one place for very long.
“Miss Angelica, why don’t ya get the boys and come into the kitchen with me?” Maggie said, as she watched her mistress stalk to the heavy oak front door and fling it open. “We could give them a bath in that big mixing bowl I used to bathe you in.”
But Angelica only stood with the fingers of her right hand digging into the door facing and looking out across the yard and beyond the clearing.
But Angelica walked out onto the porch as if she hadn’t even heard.
The men had become quiet as they worked, staying close to the big house as the Boss had told them to. As they would pass they would quietly and politely tip their hats to the lady and go on.
The sides of Angelica’s mouth turned faintly as Linc Wilson, the square-framed young man that had been one of the first men Adam had hired, passed for the third time. She watched him until he disappeared into the work shed, and the trace of a smile faded.
Her hands wrung together at her waist as she wondered where her baby was, if he and his father were safe and would they be coming home soon. She couldn’t readily understand why anyone would want to take one of her children away from her. To think that maybe it was an act of revenge as it had been with Roscoe Marnes chilled her blood, and she thrust it away as quickly as it had come.
Then she slowly became aware of a presence next to her, and she looked around. Maggie stood before her with a baby in each arm. The sunshine caught in the bright, observant eyes as they watched their mother, and she felt the tears begin. Reaching out, she took both boys and snuggled them close to her. Would she, when this was all over, have only these two to comfort her for the rest of her life? Would she lose her first-born child and his father and never know why or to whom? She couldn’t, and she simply couldn’t think that.
A reassuring hand took hold of her arm, but she kept her face buried against her sons. “Let’s go back into the house.”
“I’d rather stay here for a little while,” Angelica said, as her saddened violet eyes rose.
“All right, I’ll be right back.”
Maggie glanced behind her once more before hurrying into the house. When she came back out she had a clean, freshly laundered quilt folded into a neat square.
“Come along, me girl,” Maggie said, as she took her arm and began easing her down the steps.
“Where are we going?” Angelica asked tonelessly.
“Just never you mind and come with me.”
Chris McCutcheon, Noah Tyler and Wyatt Donnelly stopped what they were doing and watched as Maggie led the distraught young woman into the shade of the trees.
“Maggie, what are you doing?”
“I think that you need some time outside with the boys,” Maggie said, as she unfolded the blanket and spread it over the ground. “Walls can have a way of closin’ in on a person, and when they do the blue sky and fresh air can be like a tonic. Now give me the wee ones and sit down.”
“Maggie, I know what you’re trying to do, but right now I’m afraid it just won’t work. And there are things I need to do in the house.”
“Like ya have been all mornin’?” She took the boys from their mother. “Now sit down and enjoy the day the Good Lord has give us.”
Angelica just looked at her then conceded and stepped onto the quilt and sat, arranging the full skirt and petticoats over her legs. Maggie knelt and put the boys down.
“I’ll fix some lemonade and be right back.”
Angelica reached out and touched the back of her hand. “Thank you, Maggie.”
A wide smile warmed the housekeeper’s face, and she patted her girl’s cheek then came to her feet.
Linc had just joined the other men when Maggie came to them.
“Would ya keep an eye on her until I come back,” she said secretively.
“She won’t be out of our sight,” Chris said.
Maggie thanked them then bustled off and went back into the house.
Angelica paid little attention to the men standing in a cluster, their eyes affixed right to her. She let her mind center on her boys lest she crumple into a sobbing heap. These two were calmer and less high-strung than their big brother. Her dear, sweat Addy. He always reacted first, and his tension telegraphed to his brothers. And how many times had she caught him flailing them in agitation with his tiny fists? She hoped he would grow out of some of it, if not all. Her gaze roved over the perfect little faces so much like their father’s. She could imagine Adam looking just this way at the same age, and a lump rose into her throat. Her fingertips ached for the touch of him as they ran over the small, downy heads.
“Come home,” she said on a breath as her head fell. “Come home with our baby.”
Her eyes closed, squeezing out the tears that fell onto her skirt, darkening the fabric, and still she didn’t notice the men watching her.
Adam had lost the trail and near panic threatened to choke him as the thought of never seeing his son again gripped him in its icy hand. He had to find it again and failure was not an option. He knew the general direction the abductor was taking, but that could change at any time, and the man could veer off another way. He had learned from some of the best trackers in the country that a good way to throw off any pursuer was to double back on yourself.
Dark hazel eyes scanned the ground in an effort to catch sight of anything that could be a fresh lead. “Let’s spread out,” he said, and looked back at the men. “We’ll be able to cover a might more territory that way.”
“What’re we looking for?”
“Anything that don’t belong or ain’t exactly right,” Fonse spoke up but kept his voice down.
“Like overturned rocks.”
“Among other things. Now let’s get moving.” Adam’s gaze went to the sky. “I’d like to at least find something to follow before nightfall.”
Juva and Fonse simply looked at each other. The advent of darkness wouldn’t be for several hours yet, but they understood the impatience of the man.
“All right, let’s go.” Adam gave Dusty a nudge, and the big black started on again.
Juva and Fonse spread out to either side, putting at least ten feet between them and the Boss. Eyes reached beyond the horses’ feet to catch any sign before it could be trampled out, and every frond of every tree didn’t escape notice. Rocks got particularly close scrutiny, but they rode on for thirty or so minutes without anything, then… “Boss!”
Adam wheeled Dusty and galloped to where Juva had reined his horse to a stop. Fonse held his position but continued to watch them.
“What is it?” Adam asked, as he brought his horse to a stop.
Juva pointed to the ground, and Adam got down and crouched before the object of the man’s attention. He ran his fingers over the imprint, and his excitement bounded like a deer. “An unshod horse track. Good work, Juva. At least we know we’re still headed in the right direction.” Adam stood and gave him a slap on the arm them went back to Dusty.
“Couldn’t it’ve been made by a wild mustang?” Fonse said as his eyes flitted to Juva.
“It’s too deep,” Adam said, as he rose into the saddle. “Somebody was riding this one.” He urged Dusty on and that ended the conversation. The trail had been regained, and Adam had no time for talk.
The animal that darted from the clump of sage shot across the Chee’s path, nearly getting stepped on in its attempt to escape. With a snort, the paint reared, pawing the air as it stood almost straight up. Wakashie hung on for dear life. If he fell, he knew the child could be injured or even killed. He had already lost one son, and he couldn’t allow that to happen before Kiama could hold this one in her arms.
Everything danced and bobbed wonderfully before Addy’s wide eyes. His tiny
heart thumped in the petite chest with the new sensations, and he didn’t
think about crying.
Wakashie had been around horses all his life, and he had learned well how to sooth with a gentle hand and soft voice. Once his pony’s fear had waned, he quickly dismounted and took the cradleboard from his back. The baby’s steady gaze bore into him, and the little one showed no sign of agitation even after being shaken on a frightened horse. He kept finding himself amazed at the calm of this child that he carried. Even his Tahnka had not been so placid. When he had gotten hungry, his cries had reached to the moon as a reminder to the world of his displeasure. Wakashie smiled at the thoughts of his son, gone now since the snow last flew.
Addy and his brothers had learned how to smile and used their new talent every chance they got, and the one he saw now on this unfamiliar face was an open invitation.
Wakashie could see that he had chosen wisely when he had taken this one. He would grow into a fine warrior someday, and make his mother and father very proud. And maybe even his grandfather would allow him into the tribe.
“Kiama will be so happy,” he said, hardly above a whisper. “Now let us go home.”
After rubbing his hand lightly over the baby’s heavy hair, he then carefully fastened the cradleboard to his back and climbed back onto Chee. As the animal started on again, he glanced behind him. He had seen no one, and heard no one, but he knew they were back there. He knew that the baby’s father was back there, as he would be in the same place. The thought troubled him, and he frowned. But he had had only Tahnka and this man had three sons and could afford to give up one to make a grieving mother happy…. But would he?
With a shake of his head, he eased the horse faster. He could think of that after he got back to Kiama.
Adam didn’t care for the threatening appearance the sky had taken on in the past hour. If it rained it could wipe out any trace of the one who had his son, and he didn’t like the idea of Addy being out in it. He could only hope that this man would protect him and watch after him as he would his own.
He fought down the nervous need to hurry as his eyes stayed to the ground and surrounding areas as if drawn by magnets. He couldn’t let anything slip past him, and the men had been told to be ever vigilant.
Juva Bailey had been working for the Boss coming up on two years, and he knew the man as well as any of the others who worked for him, with the exception of Chris McCutcheon. Dark thoughts shrouded his mind as he thought of what life on the Angel would become if young Addy wasn’t found. He could just see the light go out in Mrs. Cartwright’s deep violet eyes, and he had known for some time that the Boss could have a propensity toward somber brooding. This place of happiness that he gladly called home could become a gloomy and cheerless. It scared the wits out of him, and he would do what he could to prevent that.
Fonse Sweet hadn’t known the man he worked for all that long, but he did know that he was not a simple person to figure out or understand. He had seen the gentleness he exuded around his wife and sons, but he also sensed there was a side to the Boss – as the others freely called him, and he seemed to revel in – that only a fool would cross. Tall and muscularly built with keen intelligent eyes, he made Fonse think of a wolf that would kill and, if need be, die to protect his family. And he would be the last one to let fail the trust that the Boss had put in him.
The horses continued on, spread out as before, and with the big black still taking the lead. As they moved through the silent landscape, the sky continued to darken, the swirling of the clouds becoming angrier by the minute.
Adam hoped this would only be a false tantrum on nature’s part and would soon fold in on itself to disappear and amount to nothing. His thoughts went to Angelica and his other two boys, and he wondered what they were doing at this moment. He could still see the growing fear in Angelica’s face as realization came that Addy had been taken, and he knew that the image would live in his mind as long as he did. The idea of someone slithering into his house and making off with one of his sons made his blood simmer and drove his hand to the butt of the big .44 Colt on his hip. No, he thought and pulled his hand away, I can’t start anything Addy could get caught in the middle.
Wyatt Donnelly rounded the side of the barn coiling a rope around his arm but stopped dead at the corner. The foreman stood several feet in front of him as if made of stone.
“Is something wrong, Mr. McCutcheon?” the teenager asked softly, as he stepped next to him.
But when he didn’t get an answer he followed the other man’s teal gaze to the blanket spread on the ground where mother and sons were. She sat with her back against an immense pine while the boys slept near her feet, and it warmed him.
“I don’t like thinking about what might happen,” came as a wave crashing against rocks, and Wyatt looked at him. “I’ve seen few people as devoted to each other as the Boss and his missus,” Chris went on, “and the thought of what could come of this scares the livin’ life right outta me.” He finally turned his doleful eyes to the boy. “I know the Boss won’t stop ‘til gets what he’s after or gets killed in the doin’.” He looked back to Angelica. “And I know way down inside that if that happened, and she lost her son to boot, that she’d never get over it….. We’d wind up losin’ her too, and, Lord help me, I don’t know that that wouldn’t be for the best…. It’s like when they was wed they was really joined as one just like the preacher said…, and the boys makes ‘em whole. Take one and you take away a piece of ‘em, and, if you do that and take him from her, well, it’d be just like cuttin’ the taproot off a tree…. It’d soon just up and die.”
“Maybe we shoulda gone, too.”
“No, the Boss knows what he’s doin’. He’s almost as old as both you and me put together, and you don’t live that long out here if you don’t.”
“I heard Linc and Juva talking the other day about how his almost getting killed brought her to him,” Wyatt said, as he nodded toward Angelica.
“That’s the truth,” Chris said, and looked at him again, a gray shadow casting over his face. “And it came sorta roundabout, but, like they say, the Good Lord has his own way of doin’ things.” The corners of his mouth turned, and some of the gloominess cleared. “I remember the first time they was separated.” He snorted. “You never saw a man so plumb miserable in all your life ‘til you saw the Boss without her.” The gray returned even darker. “And back in January a man come with revenge in his heart against the Boss and took her as bait. They coulda both wound up dead that day, and the boys, too.”
“She was still carrying ‘em then…. Nope, I don’t think one can live without the other, and when the time comes, it’ll be for the best if they go together.” He took his hat off and ruffled his thick caramel-colored hair as he looked back to the young mother. “Because whichever one goes first is gonna leave the other with a broken heart, however long that’s gonna be…,” he sighed heavily, “and I don’t think it’ll be long.”
The first drops splattered with malevolent force on the heels of a deafening thunder clap, and the sky had darkened even more as dusk approached. On the off chance that this would happen slickers had been put on so they weren’t caught foul. The rain that Adam had hoped would hold off until he had his son had decided to hinder his progress. He looked up into the threatening eddies and blinked against it, but he wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t.
“Boss,” Juva shouted above nature’s din, “we can’t go on in this!”
“You two can stop for the night if you want to, but I havta keep going!”
Juva shot a pleading look at Fonse, and the husky man took it as it was meant. He eased his horse forward and came alongside the black. He wasn’t one for going against the wishes of those he had worked for, but he had seen men lightning struck before, and he didn’t relish the idea of becoming one. Sure, he could stop, but in all clear conscience he couldn’t let this man go on alone. “He’s right, Boss, and you know it! Even you can’t track in this and it’ll soon be dark anyway, and what good’ll it do to go straight past ‘em ‘cause we can’t see ‘em?”
“I can’t lose the trail!”
“You’re gonna do that even if you don’t stop! And how’ll it help the boy
to have you killed by a lightning bolt?”
Haunted hazel eyes came around, and Fonse felt his throat squeeze together.
There was a long silence, then… “All right,” Adam said with dull resignation. “We’ll make for one of those rock outcrops and camp there!”
“Sounds good to me!” Fonse said, as he looked over to the craggy ridge off to their right.
The horses were wheeled – though Dusty was lackluster at best – and headed toward shelter.
Wakashie would have continued on had been alone, but he couldn’t risk the child. Chee, his faithful pony for six years, stood next to a large stone face as if glued to it. Huddled beneath the animal’s belly, Wakashie sat with the baby clutched to him, both wrapped in a blanket, yet he could feel the little one shivering. Sickness had taken Tahnka – he wouldn’t let it take Cameahwait. Carefully, he removed his shirt, warmed by his body, and swaddled it around the baby, then held him against his skin and brought the blanket back around them again. Gradually, the tiny tremors ceased, and he could sense the baby go to sleep.
Leaning back against Chee’s forelegs, he closed his eyes and let images of Kiama come. His beautiful Kiama. A man was truly smiled upon by the Great Spirit to have such a wife. He had always wanted her, and it made no difference to him that she had been promised to his older brother. And when he found that she had felt the same for him, he had known what had to be done. When their fathers had refused to listen to reason, he had taken her anyway. Their hearts beat as one, and that he wouldn’t change even if he wanted to. And then came the banishment. He could remember how their mothers had cried when the tribal elders had passed judgment on them. But still it made no matter as long as they were together.
The baby moved slightly and Wakashie looked down at him. Tahnka’s grandparents had never seen him, in fact, they hadn’t even known of his birth. Oh, how proud he had been on that day. After three winters with Kiama, a child had finally come, and it had been a son. How his spirit sang when he had held him that first time. He had seen great promise in the boy, but just as he was learning to sit up the sickness had come and taken him away.
Wakashie snuggled the child into the folds of the blanket and rested the side of his face against the soft head to make sure the boy stayed warm. After Tahnka had been buried, Kiama had taken to weeping as she never had before. Sometimes he would lose her, and he always found her at the side of the small grave. He had tried all that he knew to bring her back to him but none of it had seemed to work. These days she maybe wasn’t so bad, but she continued to grieve as only a mother could for her lost child, as his mother had for his little sister when she too had passed beyond the clouds. It had hurt then as it hurt now, and he knew that he had to do something.
“She will love you, Cameahwait,” he whispered. “We will love you, and Tahnka will be glad.”
Angelica stood before the window in the parlor lit only by the fire in the hearth, looking out into the rain. Behind her, the boys slept in their large cradle with its empty spot where their brother should be. She and Maggie had dragged it from the bedroom since she wouldn’t leave the boys in there alone. Her hands rubbed absentmindedly along the soft sleeves of her nightgown, and her eyes stayed on the outside. She didn’t know why she had put on the garment, since she knew she wouldn’t be going to bed. How could she with her husband and son out on a night like this, and she had no idea where.
“I brought ya some hot milk with nutmeg,” Maggie said softly, as she came to her mistress. “It’ll help ya to sleep.”
“I don’t want to sleep. How could I with them out there?”
“But ya havta get some rest. Mr. Adam wouldn’t want ya doin’ this. And it doesn’t help. So why don’t ya drink your milk like a good girl?”
Angelica’s head snapped around, and her eyes flashed in the faint light. “I’m not a child, Maggie, and I’ll thank you not to treat me like one.”
“I know that, mum, but ya’ll always be me girl.” She held the cup out. “Now won’t ya drink it for me?”
Angelica’s face softened as she looked at the proffered cup, then she took it, and her eyes rose. “I’m sorry, Maggie. I had no call to talk to you that way…. Forgive me?”
“I would…, if there was anything to forgive. Now drink that and go stretch out on the settee. It won’t help a thing to make yourself sick for lack of sleep.”
“Why would anyone want to take our baby? He slipped into our house like a common thief and stole our son…. I’m afraid… I’m afraid that it may have been done out of revenge like it was when Roscoe Marnes took…” She turned back to the window, and her hands squeezed around the warm cup.
“And it could be that someone simply wanted a baby. After all, ya have three and could spare one.”
Angelica looked at her with a hint of burgeoning hope. “Oh, Maggie, if that’s the case, then he’ll take good care of our son. He’ll watch after him like he would his own.”
“That he will, mum. And our Addy has a way of gettin’ next to ya, just like his brothers.”
“Yes, he does.” Angelica felt the tears start after so many hours of holding them back.
“Now ya drink your milk while it’s still hot,” Maggie said, as she placed a hand against Angelica’s cheek.
There was a long moment of silence before Angelica spoke again. “The day after tomorrow is our wedding anniversary…. For one whole year I will have been married to that wonderful man, and I can’t let myself think that we’ve come this far just to…”
“Then don’t. If I know Mr. Adam, he’ll be here for it, and he won’t come alone.”
“I hope and pray you’re right.”
“Then drink your milk and take that to bed with ya. I’ve always found that prayer and faith can work strong miracles.”
Angelica forced a smile and took a sip.
“That’s me girl. Now I’ll be right in the kitchen if ya need me.”
Angelica thanked her then Maggie left her and silently padded through the dining room.
The kitchen was warmed by the big cast iron stove against the rain’s chilled dampness and eased some of the disquiet that Maggie had been careful not to let her girl see. She had thought of other reasons for young Addy’s abduction – most far more ominous – but she had been careful to keep them to herself. She had the utmost confidence in Mr. Adam’s ability and determination, but Chris McCutcheon had confided in her about the moccasin tracks beneath the bedroom window, and it had frightened her beyond words. Back east the pulp novels – of which she was guilty of reading – and the newspapers had told of massacres and scalping and men staked out over anthills, among other grisly things. She knew only too well what the Red Indian was capable of, though she had never seen it first hand, and it filled her with dread.
A bright flash of lightning came through the window, and she pulled the curtains together just as thunder jarred the glass panes. Then, following her own advice, she crossed herself then closed her eyes and lowered her head over clasped hands. For now it would be a simple prayer, but later she would say a rosary and light a candle. They would need their faith to get through this and, as she had told her mistress, it could work miracles.
The men had found a rock outcrop barely high enough for Adam to stand straight under but only if he removed his hat. Surrounding brush and rocks made an effective screen against the blowing rain; though enough mist got in to dampen a man’s hair and face. It had been decided to leave their slickers on. Sleeping in them wasn’t that comfortable, but it was better than sleeping wet.
“A piece of jerky, Boss,” Juva said, as he held out his hand.
Adam turned from the sodden darkness. “Thanks,” he said, as he took the strip of dried meat offered him.
“I wish we coulda built a fire,” Fonse said, as he did the same.
“We couldn’t take the gamble,” Adam said and returned to the edge of the clearing.
Juva and Fonse just looked at each other then the older man went to stand with the Boss.
“Injuns know how to stay dry even while a white man gets soggy boots, and that’s a fact.”
“I know it is.” Adam tore off a bite of the dried venison with his teeth. “I practically grew up with the Paiutes…. Chief Winnemucca’s son was my blood brother.”
“The only blood between me and any injuns is what got spilt.”
Adam’s eyes narrowed on him.
“I don’t go outta my way to kill ‘em,” Fonse went on, “and try my best to just keep my distance. I wouldn’t rightly say I hate ‘em, but I wouldn’t say I love ‘em neither.”
“Do you think for one minute that you’d be here if I thought you did?”
A frown creased Fonse’s weathered brow. “I never give it any thought one way or t’other, but I ‘spose you wouldn’t. Not with your boy at risk.”
Adam heaved a heavy breath. “Too many people are so quick to condemn the Indians and never give any thought to the fact these attacks are usually provoked.”
“Against women and children?”
“There are women and children on both sides…. Have you heard about the Paiute War of ’60?”
“I’ve picked up bits and pieces here and there.”
“Did you pick up that the rape of two Bannock women by three drunken white men is what started it? Or that one of those men escaped Bannock retribution and accused the Paiutes by trying to protect his own neck?”
“No, that I hadn’t heard.”
“What about a white man being taken hostage in an effort to stop the militia from coming after the Paiutes?”
“I did hear something about that…. Did you know him?”
“You might say that.” Adam looked back out into the rain. “It was me.”
Fonse froze solid.
“And they promised my father they would kill me if he didn’t put an end to it,” Adam continued.
“And those are the ones you call friends?”
“That’s right and still do. When you’re forced into a corner you’ll use whatever’s at hand to protect yourself and those you care about.” Adam looked back at him, and his eyes glittered in the moonlight. “When we find the man we’re after you do what I say.”
“I work for you, and I ain’t out to shed no blood.”
“That’s good, because none needs to be if we handle this right.” Adam watched him for a few seconds longer then turned his back to him. “We’ll be leaving early.”
Fonse watched him for a second longer then went back to Juva and squatted next to him. “He’s a hard one to figure.”
“He shouldn’t be,” Juva said, as he took another piece of jerky from a small muslin bag. “Ain’t you ever had somebody you was willing to die or kill for?”
“Once but she ran off and left me for somebody I thought was a friend.”
“Is that why you keep to yourself so much?”
Fonse’s head shot around and his mouth opened.
“Water?” Juva said and held out a tin cup before he could speak.
Fonse thanked him then turned his attention back to the big black-haired man as he took a sip. Of all the men he had worked for over the years, this one was like none before him. He had long heard of the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa, and of what strong men they were. But until he had come to the Angel Ranch and found himself working for one it had only been words. A college educated white man with the ways of an Indian. If ever there was a human puzzle, Adam Cartwright was it, and he hadn’t even begun putting the pieces together and doubted that he ever would.
The ceiling had become an enemy. Angelica couldn’t be sure how long she had been lying there staring at it but it felt like an eternity. The storm continued to lash around the house and only suit to deepen her unrest. She tried not to imagine her husband and baby caught in it, but she couldn’t fight it away. Her fear and agitation had weakened her defenses so she didn’t stand a chance against it.
A loud boom that sounded like being inside a drum shook everything, and she sat straight up. And she wasn’t the only on it had disturbed. Soft whimpers came from the cradle and quickly erupted into full-blown wails. She threw the cover aside and went to her sons.
Bending at the waist, she placed her hands on the warm little bodies and lightly jostled. “Shhh, shhh, it’s only thunder.” The crying did not abate. “Mother’s right here and she won’t let anything hurt you.”
But the babies were not to be placated. They had been awakened violently from a sound sleep – something that never went over well – and the soft, soothing words weren’t working.
She began humming a lullaby and gently rocking the cradle. This could usually calm, but this time it wasn’t, and the boys were in fine voice tonight.
“I don’t blame you,” she said, as her hand went still. “I’d like to cry myself…. You know, I’ve found that food can sometimes help.”
Her fingers began deftly undoing the buttons down the front of her gown. She had done this so many times that it had become second nature, and she could have done it blindfolded.
Maggie came out of the kitchen in her robe and slippers, her hand cupped protectively around the flame of a candle. She had surprised herself by going to sleep, and the crashing of the thunder hadn’t been enough to keep her from it. But the crying had awakened her and brought her out of bed.
“Mum,” she said, as she entered the parlor from the dining room.
“It’s all right, Maggie. The thunder woke them up so we decided on a late snack.”
Maggie moved closer and the candle’s glow cast over the two small, black-capped heads at their mother’s bosom. “Once they get their stomachs filled they should be more inclined to go back to sleep,” she said, and the sides of her mouth turned.
“I don’t like to feed them this late if I can help it…, but they miss their brother, and I thought this might help.” She looked down at her sons. “I had more trouble than usual in getting them to sleep, and I think that’s why.”
“Little ones feel more than most give them credit for.”
“I’m sure of it.” Sad, dark eyes came around and the flame caught purple sparks in them. “I hope they’re dry and safe, wherever they are.”
Maggie knew she could say she was sure they were, but she wasn’t and she knew Miss Angelica would see through it. “I said a rosary and lit a candle for them. The Good Lord will hold them in the palm of his hand.”
“I hope He will.”
“He will, and that I don’t doubt.”
Angelica only nodded and her arms tightened around the babies. “Now you go on back to bed. We’ll be just fine.”
“I think I’ll go into the kitchen and get things ready for breakfast. It’ll be dawn before long.”
“All right…. Maggie?”
“Don’t mention it, mum. I’m glad I’m here.” Then Maggie quietly left.
With a deep sigh, Angelica turned her attention back to her sons who were still getting their fill. It felt good to have them so close, and it softened the edges of her longing for two not there, though only minutely. Leaning her head against the back of the settee she looked into the hearth at the dying flames. Another enormous blast of thunder made the boys flinch, but they were too busy to let it bother them much.
She let her eyelids fall and her lips moved in silent supplication as the morning continued on toward the new day’s first rays of light. “Amen,” she whispered and a tear ran down each side of her face and dripped from her quivering chin.
Nearly an hour before dawn, the fury of the storm blew itself out and the rain stopped as if throwing a switch. The ground had become soggy and would show the imprint of each hoof that made contact with it. For this reason, a man would be easier to track, but for this very same reason, Adam knew that their quarry would probably change his pattern. Now, the potential for losing him for good had become even greater, and Adam knew that he had to be more on the alert then ever. The thought of never seeing his son again pressed that into him better than any red hot poker laid against his back.
The men broken camp hastily and started out as the first shafts of sunlight were streaking the yet stormy sky. The two hands stayed close to the Boss until it brightened enough so that they could spread out some without missing as much. Any tracks they found were given little notice, since they knew that any of interest would have been washed away by the downpour. What they looked for now were other signs that a human being had passed this way.
They hadn’t taken time for breakfast, and Fonse’s stomach got the notion that his throat had been cut. It gurgled and complained as only a hungry belly could, and he felt sure it could be heard for miles. Leaning back, he fumbled around in the left pouch of his saddlebags until he came out with a small cloth sack of parched corn. He popped a handful into his mouth, keeping it closed so that the sound of crunching teeth wouldn’t give them away. He would much rather have some of Gibby’s redeye gravy and fried eggs, always over easy and just right for dipping biscuits in the golden yolk. His nose wrinkled, and he popped another handful into his mouth.
Juva could almost swear that he smelled hot coffee, even though they were miles from home. He wished he could be in the warm, dry cook shack just pulling up to the long table. But at the same time he felt honored and glad that the Boss trusted him enough to choose him to come along. Adam Cartwright and his missus had been good to him and the other men and this would give him a chance to repay their kindness, not that they would want him to. His eyes ran along the line of scrub growth off to his right, and he let his mind wander away from his empty insides.
Adam didn’t have time to feel hunger or the brush of the damp, cool air against his cheeks, nor to dwell on home or Angelica and his other two sons. He kept his mind focused on the trail and finding Addy and would think of them when he got his boy back. His eyes searched for any trace or sign that the Indian pony had come this way. He didn’t know how far ahead they were, and he couldn’t second guess himself and run the risk of making a mistake, too much was at stake.
Once more Addy jounced in the cradleboard, only this time wrapped in a piece of blanket that had been brought over his head to keep him from catching a chill with only his face exposed. His tiny arms were bound close to his body, which he didn’t particularly care for since he was quite accustomed to using them. His bright, dark eyes watched as the scenery unfurled before him, and the rump of the horse held a particular fascination. It made all things not so bad, but he still wanted to move his arms.
This morning the sense that they were being followed was stronger than ever in Wakashie. As he had watched had the house to learn and wait for the right time the carriage of the big man dressed as the night sky had spoken to him of strong will and determination. A brief glimpse that he had gotten of those eyes as the raven-haired man had ridden a mere foot from his hiding place had unsettled him. This was no ordinary white man, and his sharp perception had picked up on it and told him to take nothing for granted. Only his love for Kiama and confidence in his own ability had pushed him on.
Chee moved over the sodden ground, a flat stone replaced the piece of brush that had been tied to his tail. Over the years of belonging to a cunning warrior he had grown accustomed to such ignominious things being perpetrated upon him, and he had learned to take them in stride.
As the sun continued its slow climb toward noon a tiny gurgle crawled over a baby stomach followed quickly by another. Addy didn’t understand what made it do this, but he knew what it called for. More gurgles came and added fuel to his growing fussiness. The features that echoed of his father began to pinch, and the fact that he couldn’t get his arms into a good flailing motion only made matters worse. Then the lid came from the boiling pot, and his squall tore through the silence.
Every muscle in Wakashie’s body went into a knot as he tried seeing the baby on his back, but he didn’t have the head of an owl. He feared that in all this vast space the sound of the child’s shrieks would be carried like a leaf upon a turbulent river. He had picked his path well to help hide any sign of their trail, but it didn’t afford many places to cover oneself from prying eyes or trees or hills to muffle noise. It felt like the passage of three summers until they came to a fair-sized clump of sage that he could stop Chee behind.
As the horse came to a halt, Wakashie slid from the animal’s back and his feet thumped the soggy earth. How he wished he knew how Kiama had always been able to make Tahnka stop crying. Food sometimes worked but not always.
The big black reined in to an abrupt stop, and Adam stood in the saddle as Juva and Fonse stopped on either side of him. “Did you hear that?”
“I didn’t hear nothin’,” Juva said with a puzzled glance at Fonse.
“Wait for it,” Adam said, his heart beating so hard he could barely speak.
In this heavy air sound didn’t carry as well as it would on a clear, dry day, especially a cold one, and for nearly a minute they heard nothing then the murmur of something came.
Juva’s eyes went wide as supper plates. “That’s a baby crying.”
“It sure is,” Adam said breathlessly, and his finely sculpted mouth turned up at the corners. “And unless I miss my guess, they’re headed for Lavender Ridge.”
“Lavender Ridge,” Juva said disbelievingly. “They ain’t nothin’ up there but wild sage, lizards and lots o’ rocks.”
“And just beyond is a fertile valley with plenty of fresh water and game. We’ll head that way.”
“And what if you’re wrong? What if it ain’t even them?” Fonse asked.
Adam went still as a statue. He didn’t like to think of being wrong, but he didn’t believe he was. Still he knew the possibility existed. “Then we’ll start again. But either way, I’ll get my son back.”
With a nudge Dusty headed on again. Juva looked at Fonse, who only shrugged then they started on after their boss, the pace having picked up some.
After getting the boys fed, Angelica and Maggie had gotten them down for their nap. It hadn’t been too hard. They had had a big day so far and it had tired them out. Once they were secure and asleep, Angelica decided to go back outside. Uncertainty and apprehension kept her restless, and the house – much as she loved it – had become far too confining. Work of any kind seemed so distant from what was going on, and she simply couldn’t get at it.
Maggie had just come into the dining room with a bowl of hot soup for her mistress in time to she her go out. Maggie’s heart turned every time she looked at the young woman, or the babies, for that matter. She could still hear the tension in Mr. McCutcheon’s voice as he told her who had taken little Addy. She knew exactly why Mr. Adam hadn’t wanted Angelica to find out, and she agreed with his decision completely.
Her nutmeg eyes lingered on the sturdy oak front door left hanging open for several seconds longer then she shook her head and went back into the kitchen.
Angelica stood on the end of the porch looking off in the direction her husband and the two hands had ridden, her hands clasped at her waist. Her haunted eyes seemed to be searching and it wouldn’t take a scholar to figure out what for. Two of the most precious people in her life were out there, goodness knew where, and it kept her ill at ease. She fought hard to keep dire imaginings from her frantic mind but it was a less than successful battle.
As she stood there – the heavy post obscuring her presence – she became aware of voices drawing closer.
“It sure is a good thing the Boss is such a good tracker.”
“It sure is but goin’ after an Indian ain’t gonna make it easy.”
Angelica nearly strangled on a gasp, and she stepped into the clear.
“Yeah, but you gotta remember who he learned from.”
“It’ll help but…” Noah Tyler’s mouth fell agape as he became aware of her.
Linc Wilson couldn’t miss the blanched expression on his friend’s face then he followed the stark gaze and swallowed a hard breath. Both men stood perfectly still, their eyes locked with the woman’s and the silence between them could have been cut with an axe.
Angelica moved closer to the edge of the porch, her terror stricken stare never leaving them. “Did an Indian take my baby?” she asked lifelessly.
Chris had just come out of the work shed and couldn’t help but hear her question. He felt like a bucket of snow had just been thrown in his face, and his pulse throbbed in his ears. He rushed over to the men and a slow burn started at the base of his head.
Noah looked helplessly at him. “We was just talking to each other. We didn’t know she was there. She musta been behind the post.”
“That ain’t no excuse,” Chris snarled. “You hadta know that out here she could hear. Ain’t’ you paid attention to the fact that she’s had trouble staying inside since the Boss left?”
“Yeah, but we didn’t think…” Noah started in his own defense.
“No, you didn’t.” Some of Chris’ fire extinguished as he moved closer to the porch. “Ma’am, why don’t you go on back in the house?”
“Tell me…. Did an Indian take my baby?”
“Ma’am, it ain’t no good you goin’ on over this, so why don’t you just go back on into the house?”
Angelica could feel the truth closing in around her and stifling her. He wouldn’t answer her, and she knew why. Her fingernails clawed into the fabric of her skirt, and she fought against the shaking that took over her arms and legs. “It’s true then.” Her hands went to her mouth, and her fingertips pressed against her lips.
By this time Wyatt had joined them, and Chris turned to him. “Wyatt,” he said lowly, “you go on in and get Miss O’Shea.”
With a nod, the lad dashed up the steps and into the house. It took less than a minute for Maggie to rush out with him right behind her.
“Miss Angelica, why don’t ya come back in with me?” she said and took hold of the young woman’s arm. “I have a bowl of nice hot soup just waitin’ for ya.” She began to tug gently back.
Eyes like those of a frightened doe turned on Maggie. “An Indian took my baby. Oh, Maggie, why? What will he do to my little boy?” A tremulous whimper left her, and her trembling became more pronounced.
“Now Miss Angelica, don’t go paintin’ no black pictures. It won’t do no good. Now ya come with me.” She continued pulling Angelica toward the door. “That’s a girl. I’m sure Mr. Adam won’t let any harm come to the boy. That’s right.”
Maggie carefully steered her inside and closed the door. At that moment Chris’ wrath turned on Noah and Linc.
“Weren’t either of you listening when I said not to say anything in front of her?”
“We’re sorry, Chris,” Linc put in. “We never thought about her hearing us. We were just talking.”
“You were just careless,” Chris flared. “Don’t you think that poor woman’s got enough to worry about without hearing that an Indian took her baby? She’s from back east, and I know she’s heard all kinda things, and never seen no reason not to believe ‘em. Why do you think the Boss didn’t want her to know?” With sudden ferocity, Chris cursed and slammed his hat to the ground. “Don’t you two have nothin’ better to do than go around gossipin’ like two old women? If you don’t then maybe the work around here ain’t for you.”
Noah and Linc paled even more and looked at each other. They were in imminent danger of losing their jobs, and they knew it.
“It won’t happen again,” Noah said meekly.
“It shouldn’t ‘o happened in the first place.”
“Are you gonna fire us over this?” Linc asked timidly.
“I oughtta,” Chris fumed then went pensive. One could almost see the cogs turning behind his teal eyes. “Get on back to what you was doing.”
“Yes, Boss,” they said in unison then beat a hasty retreat.
Chris was still seething when Wyatt stepped next to him. “They didn’t mean any harm.”
Chris eyes shot to him, and the boy flinched involuntarily. “Tell her that,” he said harshly then snapped his hat off the ground and stomped off toward the bunkhouse.
Wyatt watched him until he disappeared into the barn in a huff. He had never seen the foreman so mad over anything before. Slowly, he looked back at the house. He couldn’t begin to imagine what poor Mrs. Cartwright was going through and he didn’t really want to. With an arduous sigh he jammed his hands into the front pockets of his britches and started off across the yard. At least it hadn’t been him.
Kiama had been cooking for only herself for eleven days now, and she didn’t like eating alone. Her Wakashie had picked up and left without a word of explanation, not that he owed her one. She pushed back a long strand of straight onyx hair and wished her son was there to keep the loneliness away. She had just dipped the bone spoon into the wooden bowl when a horse came into the yard outside. Having lost interest in her food – not that she had much to start with – she looked up toward the door.
The couple minutes felt like a lifetime until her husband came in, and her heartbeat quickened just to know he was back. But instead of coming to her he only stood there watching her. “Wakashie,” she said, as she put the bowl down and came to her feet from the bear skin she had been sitting on. Moving closer to him, the odd expression he wore became more noticeable. “Why are you grinning like an old man in the sun?” Then something else caught her attention. “And why are you wearing a cradleboard?”
His grin broadened then with deliberation he turned his back to her but only enough so that he could watch her over his shoulder.
With a quick intake of air, her hands clasped together, and her bark brown eyes went to the baby. As if afraid to shatter the moment, she moved closer to him. Her slim fingers reached out and caressed the small, dark cheek.
“Hold him,” Wakashie said.
Kiama wasn’t sure if she could after losing Tahnka, but the instincts of a mother were strong. Carefully she unfastened the buckskin ties holding him secure and took him into her arms. He was so warm and soft, and she could feel the life in his petite body. His clear blue eyes locked with hers, and as she looked back it him it struck her. She looked up at her husband. “This is a white baby.”
“But look how dark his skin is and his hair how like the raven’s feather. No one will ever know.”
“Unless his eyes do not change.”
“Those of his father are like the earth that gives life.”
“And his mother?” When he didn’t answer she knew he didn’t know. She glanced back at the baby. She could see trouble, and it made her mouth go dry.
“If his eyes do not turn we will tell him that we found him and raised him as our own. He will be our son.”
“Our son is with those that have gone before us. You stole this one, and we cannot keep him.”
“No, you need a baby.”
“I need a husband who is not a crazy man. Do you not understand what kind of trouble this can bring?”
“I only understand that I cannot watch you grieve for our son any longer.”
“I will always do that because he was my son. Now this one you must take back to where he rightfully belongs.”
“He belongs here,” he snapped then stomped away from her and toward the fire pit.
“Wakashie,” she said, as she went after him, “this is not our baby.” She looked down at the little one watching her so intently and couldn’t help a smile. “Do you not think that his own mother and father will not want him back? He is their son and they will miss him like we miss Tahnka.”
Wakashie – some of his frustration drained away – turned to her. “Sweet Kiama,” he said and touched her silky hair. “Do you not think I have thought of that? I have heard of these people from some of the white traders that come through. Their Great Spirit has blessed them with three sons, and now that I have brought one to you they still have two.”
“Oh, Wakashie, you are thinking like a child. Do you not think that they love this one as much?” She shook her head. “I cannot take this woman’s child. I can know how she feels better than you. It is a pain like no one can imagine who has not felt it.”
“I feel it.”
She shook her head again. “It is different with a woman. I carried him inside me and brought him into the world, and for that reason there is a string that ties a mother to her child. This a man cannot know.” She raised the baby in her arms. “Look at him, Wakashie. What if he were your son? What would you do?”
“He will be.”
She groaned and hugged the baby close. “Oh, you have a head like the hardest of rock.” Then the light of inspiration dawned in her delicate face. “Would you not get Tahnka back if you could?” She could see that this struck home by the spark in her husband’s eyes. “His father will come no matter how long it takes, as you would. Now you must take him back.”
He stood silently for a second then the stubbornness returned with a rebound. “I covered my tracks well. He is a white man, and no white man can follow a Shoshone.”
“There are those that can. And how do you know this one…?”
“That will be enough, woman. He will be our son and nothing more will be said about it.” He sat down in the floor with a thump and crossed his legs. “Is there more soup?”
“Take mine. I am not hungry.”
He picked up the bowl and ladled a spoonful into his mouth. When he got this way there was no reasoning with him. She feared that trouble would come from this no matter how well he thought he had hidden his tracks. She felt a tug on her hair and looked at the baby she held, black spikes sticking out of his small fist. She smiled, and a warm spot grew in her breast as the baby smiled back. He was indeed a fine looking boy, and she wondered if he looked like his father as Tahnka had looked like his. If so, she had no doubt he would be a striking man. Her eyes rose to where her husband was stuffing himself. Even if he was, there was no man like her Wakashie, stubbornness and all.
The hour after Wakashie’s return passed slowly. After seeing to his loyal Chee, he came back inside to be with his wife and new son. He could tell that Kiama was becoming attached to the baby, and it was a joy to watch her. She sat with him and rattled a gourd over him and his eyes would grow wide. With excitement his tiny legs would kick and his arms flay the air. Then she would laugh as he had not heard her since the snow had covered the ground.
But then the joy was cut off by the sound of horses outside. Wakashie’s eyes connected with his wife’s then went to the doorway. She put down the gourd then gathered up the baby and joined her husband as he looked out through a crack. Three white men – one wearing clothes as black as his hair and the horse he rode – had stopped in front of their hut. She looked at the baby then back to him, and no one had to tell her who he was. He had come as she knew he would. And she had been right about him being striking.
Wakashie looked back to her and touched her face then the baby’s head. Without words his eyes told her to stay inside then he went out.
A man stepped out of the twig hut chinked with mud and stopped. Adam guessed him to be Shoshone, but that didn’t concern him at the moment. The time to get his son had come. “Do you speak English?”
“I do. What do you want?”
Adam looked first to Juva then Fonse and back to the man. He had to be careful or Addy could get hurt. “You’re a hard man to track, but that doesn’t matter now.”
“Why would you track me?”
“I think we both know the answer to that.” The man’s russet eyes grew wary and keen, something which didn’t slip past Adam. “You have something that I want.”
“And what could I have that would interest you?”
The pause seemed to be eternal.
Wakashie looked at each of them but kept his wits about him and let nothing betray him. “There is no one else here but my wife. Why would you think I have your son?”
“Like I said, I tracked you.” Adam looked to where the paint pony had been corralled: chestnut and white, just as he knew it would be. “Nice pony.”
“I like him.”
“And the same color as the hair I found caught in the branches of a tree. I guess in your rush to get back home you didn’t realize you had left it behind to be found.”
Wakashie had been right – this was no ordinary white man, in spite of the boasts he had made to Kiama. “There are many horses marked the same.”
The big man in black nodded. “Yeah, but only one led me here.”
“If you think I have your son then maybe you can tell me why I would have him.”
“Because you wanted him almost as much as I do. Maybe it was to give him to your wife. Was she never able to bear children?”
“It was because our son died, and he could not stand to watch me grieve any longer,” said a slender, pretty woman as she stepped outside.
Adam’s sprang from Dusty’s back. She was holding his son.
“Kiama,” the man growled in their language, “get back inside.”
“I have never defied you, husband, but this time I must.” Then she reverted to English so that the white men could understand. “He is not ours and it would be wrong to keep him from those who love him.” A soft smile highlighted the beauty of her face. “I would never be happy with him knowing that another woman grieves as I do because she does not know where her son is…. It is wrong.”
“But they have two others to take his place.”
Kiama’s smile deepened. “The heart does not work that way. And you are only saying that to convince me, but I know. I will not keep another woman’s child from her even if she has twenty more.” Her poignant eyes flicked to the baby’s father then she held the little one out to Wakashie. “He does not belong to us.”
Wakashie just looked at her. Oh, what a woman he had, and he was rightly proud of her. He gently took the baby then turned to the riders. This was more difficult that he had figured it would be. For many days they had been together, and the boy had become like his own child. Maybe, from time-to-time, he could slip in and see how this one would grow through the years. “Good-bye, Cameahwait,” he said in his own language. “You will be a fine man some day.”
He looked back to Kiama, and she nodded encouragement. With a bit of hesitancy, he went to the side of the big black horse and held the child up to his father.
Adam took his son and it sent a rush through him, and he clutched the baby close. Then his attention returned to the man. “Thank you.”
“What will you do to us now?”
“As far as I’m concerned it’s ended, and for my woman I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done the same.” His dark hazel eyes darted to her. “I can see that she’s worth it,” he said softly. “And may you have many sons in the future.”
“Yes,” was all the man said then he stepped back to his wife.
“Let’s go home, Addy,” Adam said and placed a tender kiss on top of the treasured head.
Wakashie clasped his wife’s hand in his as they watched the horses wheel and walk out of the yard.
She leaned her head on his shoulder, and her fingers twined in his. “I will pray tonight to the Great Spirit that he send us a son.”
“And we will name him Cameahwait.”
It wasn’t difficult to see the baby’s fatigue so they made camp earlier than usual. It wouldn’t be dark for another hour yet, but it simply couldn’t be helped.
Adam sat cross-legged with his fussy son in his lap. “Hurry up.”
Juva fished one of the cans of condensed milk from the Boss’ saddle bags and ran over to him. “Got it, Boss,” he said he as stooped. “I’ll just be a minute.” He sat the can on a rock.
“Here ya go,” Fonse said as he handed Juva his knife.
Juva thanked him then placed the tip of the blade against the top of the can close to the rim.
“And don’t make the hole too big or he’ll get too much at once and it’ll strangle him,” Adam admonished.
Juva thumped the end of the knife’s hilt with the heel of his hand a couple times to produce a nice hole. “Give this a try, Boss.” he said, as he handed the can over.
By this time Addy had become downright cranky, and was fighting his father’s efforts to feed him. This wasn’t as easy as Angelica made it look.
“Maybe if he knew what you’ve got there,” Fonse offered.
“That’s not a bad idea. Juva, pour a little on my finger.”
Juva took the can and did as he was told then sat back and watched as it went into the baby’s mouth.
Addy settled right down as he suckled his father’s finger, his eyes set on the familiar face. “Tastes good, huh?” Adam gave a quick glance – accompanied by a broad, satisfied grin – at the men. Carefully he pulled his hand away then took the can and placed the hole in the baby’s mouth before he could fuss again and tipped it slightly.
Fonse crouched next to Juva and rested a hand on his back. The looks of pure satisfaction on the faces of the three men spoke more eloquently than the greatest orator.
Adam had never felt anything like this. He was feeding his son and it made him feel like nothing else could. Addy gripped his father’s thumb and set his gaze on the dark face hovering over him, his eyelids beginning to droop. Adam smiled and thought he noticed one side of the petite mouth crook.
His son was going to sleep, and Adam decided he was finished. He set the can aside and brought the baby to his shoulder and began gently patting the small back. He had seen Angelica do this, too. After several seconds Addy belched loudly and it made the two hands laugh.
“A man ain’t right ‘til he’s done that after a good meal,” Fonse said with a chortle.
Cradling the little fella against his chest, Adam nestled himself in a hollow in the rock. He had spread a couple blankets over it so it wouldn’t be so cold and hard.
“Goodnight, Juva, Fonse.”
The men went to spread out their bedrolls while Adam settled down with his son.
“Kinda nice, ain’t it?” Juva said with a skewed smile.
“It sure is, especially when ya know it was an injun that took ‘im,” Fonse said, as he smoothed his hand over his blanket.
“Yeah, but he meant no harm.” Juva shook his head. “It must be somethin’ to love a woman that much.”
Fonse snorted and nodded. “I never give any thought before to injuns lovin’ anybody.”
“It just goes to show ya.”
“They’re people too.”
Fonse went perfectly still while Juva finished with his bed.
“Now we’d best turn in. The Boss is gonna wantta get an early start.” Juva slid in between his blankets and leaned back against his upturned saddle.
Fonse did the same, but before leaning into his saddle his eyes strayed to father and son. In his life he had never thought much about getting married and raising a family. Truth was he didn’t think he would be so good at it and doubted a woman alive would put up with him. But now, as he watched the Boss with his child, the whole thing took on a different light, and he found himself wondering if it was too late. With a smile that softened his eyes he rested back and brought the blanket over him. One corner of his mouth deepened as he pulled his hat down over his face and crossed his arms over his chest. In the morning they would head out to get that boy back to his mama.
The predawn light had just barely tinted the sky when Juva handed Addy up to his already mounted father, then he and Fonse climbed into their saddles. The beat of the horse’s hooves and the squeak of leather were the only sounds in the early morning quiet as they left the campsite behind and headed for the Angel.
Adam looked down at his son held securely against his chest. He could hardly wait to see Angelica’s reaction when she saw him. She had been so terribly torn up when they left, and he had hated so leaving her that way. But he had to bring his son back. His eyes rose to the distant horizon and tried vainly to see beyond the trees to home.
Addy’s belly was full and the awful warm discomfort was gone from his bottom. The big thing swayed beneath him, and he didn’t notice that this one was not the same as before. So many new things filled his fresh mind and that simply didn’t leave a whole lot of time for crying unless absolutely necessary to get his message across. The deep voice came to him and filled him with another feeling he didn’t understand, but that didn’t matter either.
The two ranch hands rode along behind Dusty in complete silence. They listened in contentment as the Boss talked softly to his son. From time to time they would look at each other and smile but no words came.
Tomorrow they would be home and mother and child would be reunited.
Maggie stood in the doorway of the dining room watching her girl. Angelica sat on the settee, the book she had been trying to read having long ago lost her attention, not that it ever really had it. The boys were asleep in their cradle near the fireplace
Angelica’s mind fought with her as she tried keeping it focused on the blackened logs in the hearth rather than what could be going on with her husband and baby. It had only been four days since Addy had been abducted but it felt more like a hundred lifetimes. And the fact that he had been taken by an Indian only made it worse. She couldn’t begin to understand why, and when she tried to it always came back to something so frightening that it nearly strangled her.
Hiram stirred with a small grunt though he didn’t wake, and no one seemed to notice.
Maggie had turned to go back into the kitchen when the sound of horses coming into the yard stopped her. Her eyes went to the front door and her breath held.
Angelica’s spine stiffened as boots trod heavily up the front steps then the door opened behind her. Her fingers dug into the book’s pages and the paper crinkled as the footfalls approached, and Maggie’s weeping only worsened the effect. Air couldn’t get past her tightening throat. She didn’t look around – she didn’t dare.
“Happy Anniversary,” said the rich baritone then – as if handed down from Heaven – a small, warm bundle was placed in her arms. She looked awestruck at the sweet, black-haired miracle – afraid to blink for fear that he would be gone when she opened her eyes. “My baby,” she murmured.
Adam stooped in front of her and raised her face to him. “I told you I’d bring him home, and I’m not one for going back on my promises.”
“Why? Why would anyone want to…?” But her voice trembled away.
“Let’s just say that it was a man’s misguided love for his wife. When we care so much for somebody that we can’t stand to watch them hurt we sometimes do stupid things in an effort to stop it. But I’ll tell you all about that later. All that matters now is that we have our son back.”
Angelica looked back at her son through a film of tears then leaned down and kissed the diminutive forehead. “Welcome home, sweetheart.”
Addy yawned and stretched as if bored with the whole thing then settled into his mother’s gentle hold.
Maggie blotted her eyes with the end of her apron and tried to stop blubbering as she turned back for the kitchen. Tonight she would say a special prayer of thanks for the safe return of Mr. Adam and the wee one.
Adam sat down on the settee next to Angelica and put an arm around her shoulders and held her to him. Leaning her head against him she closed her eyes, letting his love and the closeness of her son wash away all that had gone before. The family was once more complete, and life could move forward again. She felt his lips against her ear as he whispered into it the kind of words that told her how much he truly loved her, although there had never been any doubt in her mind.
Adam kissed the side of her head as he held part of his riches in his arms. They were home and all together and – as he had said before – nothing else mattered.