Summary: Joe’s ready for a cattle drive, but his father has other ideas.
Word Count: 1868
Little Joe Cartwright slumped dejectedly against the corral fence, his arms lying on the top rail, his chin on his hands, and watched the horses milling together. It was only in the last year that he could even reach the top rail, but a growth spurt early in the spring had finally gotten his chin over the top. Now if he could just fill out some, maybe Hoss would quit teasing him about being a twig. Pa said he was just wiry and would fill out soon enough; only it wasn’t soon enough for Joe.
He sighed as he watched his horse, Cochise, move away from the other horses and do a quick trot round the corral. The four-year-old gelding shook his head and let out a squeal, followed by a playful kick at his stable buddy, Chubb, before he whirled and trotted around the corral again. Joe smiled; his horse was fast – fast and smart – and he could turn sharper than any other animal on the place. It was the reason Joe had been so excited when Pa had said the flashy black and white paint pony was for him to work cows with. Joe had known Cochise would be the best cow pony on the Ponderosa – and he was.
Joe had been working with him for over a year now and Cochise had the natural instinct for cattle that made a horse a prime cattle horse. He could tell when a cow was going to bolt or balk or turn even before the cow did, Joe claimed. And when his pa and Hoss watched the lithe pony, they had to agree; not many cows ever got past Cochise and his rider.
“Not that it will do me much good.” Joe grumbled as he thought again on the injustice of it all. Cochise was the best cow pony they had, but it looked like it would be another year before Joe would be able to test him on that real challenge of any cowpony’s mettle – a cattle drive.
“Or more if Adam has his way,” he grumbled again. It was all so unfair, so unjust. But what had he expected? Wasn’t that the way things had gone ever since Adam had come home from college all grown up and responsible. Pa seemed to take his advice on everything and never listened to Joe anymore, and Joe was starting to wish Adam had just stayed at college.
It was all his fault, really; if Adam hadn’t suggested to Pa this evening at supper that he could do the San Francisco cattle drive this year, then Joe would still be going – his very first and Joe had been looking forward to it all summer. But Pa had thought it was a great idea to have Adam go, taking Hoss with him to help out. Joe was pretty excited about it, too, until Pa decided that Adam would have enough to handle just getting the cattle to market and bossing the men around without having to keep his eye on an eleven-year-old, which meant that Adam and Hoss were going and Joe was staying home. It was so unfair!
Joe had pleaded and begged as much as he dared but Pa had been firm. Adam didn’t need the extra responsibility. So Joe had begged Ben to take the drive himself, so that he could still go. He’d used every argument he could think of – both for Ben taking the drive himself and against Adam doing it. Nothing moved his pa.
The sound of the house door opening in the distance quieted his mental tirade as he stiffened. The sound of the steps on the board porch floor were too fast for Pa, too light for Hoss and too long for Hop Sing, which meant it could only be Adam. He waited, holding his breath and willing his brother to turn toward the bunkhouse or back into the house – he didn’t want to talk to him – but the steps carried on off the porch, quieted in the soft dirt of the ranch yard and then gradually getting louder as they came towards him.
He tensed as Adam stopped next to him and mimicked Joe by placing his arms on the top rail, too – though with his height, Adam didn’t put his chin on his hands – then just stood staring out at the horses. Joe didn’t bother to acknowledge his presence, feeling his anger at his older brother rising again.
“Nice horse.” Adam said finally, after standing beside Joe for several minutes. “Pa said he had to do some pretty stiff trading for him.”
Joe remained silent, letting his eyes follow his horse around the corral again, and his sense of the injustice done to him build his anger toward his brother.
“Looks like he’s worth it though.” Adam continued. “It was a good trade.”
Stubbornly, Joe refused to comment; after all, if it weren’t for Adam and his brilliant idea, he would have had a chance to show everyone just how good Cochise was.
The two stood silent, watching the horses. Cochise seemed to know he was being admired and he pranced across the corral with his neck arched, then turned swiftly in a tight circle and pranced back the other direction. Again Joe couldn’t help thinking how unfair it was to both him and his horse; they should be going on that cattle drive. They’d worked hard, they deserved it!
“He’s a looker, all right, and turns on a dime. Pa says he’s made a real good cowpony.”
“Why would you care?” Joe spat out, unable to contain his temper any longer.
Adam turned to Joe, and out of the corner of his eye, Joe could see his brother give him a long look before he spoke. “Because, Little Joe, it’s now my job to choose the men and animals going on this trip. Pa says Cochise has a lot of cow sense and you should know how invaluable that can be on a drive.”
Joe could hardly believe his ears. Did Adam really think he was going to take Cochise on that cattle drive without him? Well if that’s what he thought, he had another think comin’!
“That’s my horse, Adam; you ain’t takin’ him on that cattle drive!” Joe’s voice was defiant and he put every ounce of his frustration and anger into it.
“Is that so?” Adam asked quietly, but there was a look in his eyes that Joe didn’t trust. It almost looked like amusement. Was Adam laughing at him? Maybe he thought that he could just run the whole ranch now, including Joe’s horse. Well, he’d show him. The horse was his, Pa had given him to Joe, and he had the say so. Adam may be able to get Pa to do whatever he wanted now that he was all grown up and educated and so…so… smart, but he couldn’t make him give up Cooch.
“Yeah, that’s so.” Joe stepped away from the fence to turn and stare at his brother, his nostrils flaring, his mouth tight, every fiber in his body tense, and his fists clenched tight by his sides as with his eyes he dared his brother to contradict him.
Adam watched him for a moment his face unreadable. “You really wanted to go on this drive, didn’t you?” Adam finally asked gently.
The question caught Joe by surprise. He’d expected Adam to argue the point about Cochise or at least tell him to watch his mouth.
“What do you care?” Joe replied insolently. “And don’t try to act all sorry to butter me up. Cooch ain’t goin’. Not without me!”
“I see.” Suddenly, Adam pushed away from the fence and crouched down in front of him, looking up into his eyes and placing his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “Little Joe, I’m sorry about what happened.” Adam’s eyes softened and Joe could see the sincerity in them. Adam was sorry, but it didn’t make Joe feel any better. It didn’t change anything. “I wasn’t thinking about the fact that you wouldn’t be able to go if I took over for Pa. I was just thinking that it would make things easier for him. I know he’s had to work extra hard while I was gone and I’m doing everything I can to make it up to him. Taking this drive for him is part of that. But I can understand your disappointment.”
Joe couldn’t look into his brother’s eyes anymore and he dropped his own into the dust. He didn’t want Adam to be sorry; he didn’t want to understand why he’d volunteered to take the drive – he wanted to stay mad at him.
“Joe.” Adam placed a finger under Joe’s chin and raised his head so that Joe had to look at him again. “I talked to Pa.” He smiled. “He’s agreed to let you come with me.”
Little Joe could hardly believe what he’d heard. “What? You mean I can go!” he said. “But…why?”
“Why do you get to go?” Adam looked a little confused.
“No, why did you talk Pa into letting me go?”
Adam grinned at him. “Well, I figured it was the only way I’d be able to have the best cowpony on the ranch along,” he said, and Little Joe knew he was teasing.
“Yeah, right,” Little Joe said sarcastically. “Why really?”
Adam’s voice and face turned serious. “Because I know how much this means to you and…” He paused a minute, and the words came hard for him, Joe could tell. “Because I missed you little brother.” He stopped again as if thinking. His voice was quiet, thoughtful when he continued. “And I know how hard my going away and coming back has been for you. I know it hasn’t been easy for you to adjust to having me around again and all the changes that are taking place. To tell you the truth, it hasn’t been all that easy for me either. You were just a little boy when I left and now you’re almost a man.” He gave Joe a quick smile and a wink. “I’m having a hard time adjusting to that, too. I guess, I thought this would be a good way for us to get used to each other again. Besides…” Here he gave Joe that half smile that told Joe he was going to say something a little embarrassing and Little Joe braced himself. “You’re my kid brother and I… I love you. Is that so hard to understand?”
It was embarrassing but it sent a warm feeling all through him and the last of his anger drained away. Suddenly he launched himself at his brother and hugged him hard almost knocking him backwards. “Whoa, there,” Adam laughed as he caught himself and returned Little Joe’s hug.
“Thank you, Adam.” Joe said, giving him another tight squeeze. Then and there he decided he was very glad Adam was back, and that there was no one in the whole world quite like his older brother.