The Cow (by LizK)

 

Summary:   Joe has his work cut out for him.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  G
Word Count:  5861


 

The cow was stuck in the mud, and stuck fast. She laid belly deep, the heavy encrustation of dried mud on her sides evidence that she had been there for some time and had been trying unsuccessfully to free herself. Her attempts had only managed to mire her deeper in the thick black muck surrounding the pond.

She hadn’t meant to get stuck. She had awoken in the soft light of the new dawn, arisen and followed the other members of her herd, single file toward the water hole, her month-old calf tucked close to her side. The heavy spring rains had filled the pond, causing the overflow to run over its banks and seep into the ground along the edges, leaving a wide band of swampy, pockmarked mud all around. Lowing softly to her calf, making him stay at the edge of the pool, she had stepped gingerly toward the water through the muddy craters left by the animals who had watered before her.

She had seen an area less disturbed by the others, and thinking perhaps it would provide easier going, had made her way towards it. It had been her undoing; if she had followed in the others’ tracks, perhaps she would have been fine and that final step wouldn’t have caught her. The ground was boggy, water seeping up into every deep hoof print she left behind. Her hooves made a sucking sound after each step, the muck trying to grab her, but she slogged forward to the water. All was well as she drank, then turned. She took a step forward and felt her back leg slide from beneath her. She had stepped quickly to the side to regain her balance, and her front leg had sunk to the knee, after that it was only a matter of time before she was hopelessly caught.

Her calf, waiting for her at the edge of the pool, bawled nervously at her. She tried comforting it as best she could, while struggling to find a firm footing in the slick mess around her. There was nothing, nowhere to find purchase for her flailing hooves, no firm ground to stand on, her struggles continued to ensnare her further until with a hopeless grunt she crumpled into the mire and gave up. The calf stepped forward, wanting to join its mother; her low moo should have kept it back, but he was too determined to reach her. His tiny, sharp hooves cut into the mud, and it grabbed him sooner than it had his mother. In moments he was stuck as firmly as she was. They called to one another, as the other members of their herd traveled slowly away, leaving them alone. Their plaintive calls to one another became the only comfort there was for the poor beasts, as they waited for someone to come to their rescue.

*****

The early morning was beautiful, and Little Joe Cartwright’s heart was light as he slowly cantered along the trail to town. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, a cool breeze gently caressed his face, playing with his hair where it peeked out from beneath his new brown hat, and he was on his way to Virginia City for the first time in weeks. Life was good. Today was payday, his pockets were full, he was headed by himself into town, and he had on a brand new outfit that was absolutely certain to impress all those VC gals, especially one in particular, if Joe worked things right.

“Life just doesn’t get any better than this, Cochise.” he commented to the horse, pushing his hat back and drawing in a deep breath of fragrant spring air, before giving Cochise a pat.

He’d been downright pleased when Hoss had come back from town earlier in the week with the new jacket and hat he had ordered. The bright blue of the jacket, along with a new bright white shirt underneath, brought out the dark tan he had newly reacquired after the pastiness of the winter. The hours spent in the sun, fixing fences broken down from winter snows, riding bog, clearing streams choked with debris from spring runoff, and checking on new calves and their mothers darkened up a man faster than anything else Joe could think of. It was one of the few benefits of the plain hard work Spring brought to the Ponderosa every year, and he knew it made him look good.

A new dark brown hat, and new grey slacks completed the outfit, and Joe couldn’t believe his luck when Pa had announced over breakfast that he was giving Joe and his brothers the day off. A new outfit and the day off; it was a perfect combination. Joe’s first thought was of Virginia City, and a certain young lady he’d had his eye on for some time.

He hadn‘t wasted any time in getting his father‘s permission to head on into town, and when his brothers had informed him they would have to meet him later, as Adam had to pay the men, and Hoss had decided to stay and ride into town with him, he had felt that things just couldn’t get any better. Not that he didn’t love his brothers or enjoy their company; there were just times when a man wanted some time to himself. Especially when a lovely, young lady was concerned. The thought brought another smile to his face. Yes, sir, this day was turning out just grand.

He heard the sound for some minutes before it registered what it was he was hearing. Little Joe stopped Cochise, and listened carefully for a moment. It came again, the low bawling of a calf, and the answering moo of its mother. A man who works around cattle all his life gets to know the differing sounds they make, and Joe’s heart sank; he knew this pair was in trouble. The calf wanted its mother, and the cow was trying to comfort it as best she could.

Looking longingly down the road toward Virginia City, Joe debated with himself. Pa had given him the day off. Surely, he wouldn’t expect him to help a cow on his day off and in his new outfit? Surely… but Joe knew he was just kidding himself. Cows were the Ponderosa’s bread and butter, and the first priority of any man on the place was to keep them well and happy. Well, perhaps the two had just gotten separated somehow; it happened sometimes when a curious calf ended up on one side of a fence and the cow on the other. All he would need to do is get the calf back on the right side of the fence, and he’d be on his way.

“Well, Cochise, you know as well as I do that Pa would have my hide if he knew I’d heard a cow in trouble and left it to itself. We’d best go check it out at least.” He smooched to the horse and headed toward where he could hear the cow and calf calling to one another.

*****

 Joe sighed. This just wasn’t his day. The cow was stuck, stuck belly deep in thick, black muck, a good ten feet from solid ground; her calf was stuck also, closer to the shore, yes, but stuck nevertheless. Joe groaned; he had a job on his hands, and he knew it. He thought wistfully of Virginia City, and briefly considered the fact that his brothers would be by soon. No doubt they would hear the cow and calf as well and they could have the cow out in no time at all. But, once again, Joe knew he was just kidding himself. It could be several hours before Adam and Hoss came along. Pa would have his hide and then some if he ever found out that Joe had left a cow stuck in the mud without even attempting to free her. Nor would Joe be able to live with himself if he did; it just went against his grain to leave his brothers to do a job he was perfectly capable of doing himself. Joe sighed again. Sometimes, pride and upbringing could be a pain. Well, there was nothing for it; he’d have to get the cow out himself. Suddenly, he grinned to himself; so he WOULD get the cow out and he’d do it BEFORE Adam and Hoss came along. Just to prove he could.

He gave his pinto a slap on the neck. “Cooch, looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us, all right.”

Little Joe shook out a loop of his rope, and with an expert toss, he had it around the neck of the bawling calf. A quick dally around the saddle horn, and a pull on the reins that set Cochise backing slowly, and the calf was out. Slick as anything. It gave him hope; maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. He took another look at the trapped cow; then again…

Joe dismounted and walked to the struggling calf. With a practiced jerk, he had the calf thrown and secured with a knee. Quickly he shook out a piece of thin leather string and soon had a front and back leg tied together and the calf was secure, and safe from getting trapped again. With the calf out of the way, Joe could turn his attention to the more daunting task of getting its mother out.

Joe studied the animal for a moment, his enthusiasm waning slightly. Why couldn’t it have been one of those shorthorn breeds Adam had convinced Pa to try? No, this was one of the Texas Longhorns Pa favored. They were hardy and tough, and mean as anything. They could be ornery, and never seemed to realize when a man was trying to help them, and were just as likely as not to gouge a chunk out of you the minute you got close. They were intelligent and seemed to have a lot more sense than the shorthorns, and it wasn’t often one got stuck in a bog. He’d pulled out one Longhorn to every ten shorthorns this spring. It was just his luck that this had to be the one.

Joe lifted his hat and gave his head a scratch, studying the situation. The cow looked up at him, the whites of her eyes shining at him, her six-foot horns spreading out to either side of her, sharp and menacing. The tiny calf, lying on its side, gave a low bawl, wanting its mother. The cow answered the calf’s fears with an angry bellow of her own.

With a huff, a tightening of his lips, and a shake of his head at the cow, Joe returned to Cochise and mounted up. He gathered his rope and shook out a nice big loop, wide enough to lay over those horns. With a whirl and a flip of the wrist, the rope sailed out and settled perfectly. Now, with any luck, Cochise would give the cow the extra pull she needed to reach firmer ground and she could get herself out.

He chirruped to Cochise who obediently started backing. The cow shook her head as the rope pulled on her. Joe encouraged his horse as Cochise slowly backed. He watched as the cow’s neck stretched farther and farther. She shook her head violently, and tried to pull a leg up to step forward, but the gummy mud refused to let go. Joe felt his saddle move forward with the strain, and he could feel Cochise tense and almost lay on his haunches as he threw his weight into the tug-of-war with the mud. The poor cow bellowed loudly as its neck continued to stretch until Joe was afraid it would pop off its body. Joe stopped Cochise, and the horse stepped forward, releasing the tension on the rope, and the cow’s head flopped into the muck.

Joe sighed; this just wasn’t his day. With a scowl, he dismounted once again. He only had one option now and he definitely wasn’t looking forward to it. The cow would need some leverage to boost her to solid ground. The only way to do that would be to get in there behind her himself and give her a good push. With Cooch pulling on the other end, it would hopefully give her the leverage she needed.

Quickly Joe removed his brand new jacket, carefully folded it and laid it on a nearby rock. His thoughts ran rapidly, plotting out the best course of action, as he placed his hat gently on top of the jacket, then began rolling up his shirtsleeves. He stopped and looked again at the black mud surrounding the now still cow. He glanced down at his shirt. Its startling whiteness and crisp newness made him pause. Another glance at the mire, and with an impatient gesture, he quickly unbuttoned and shucked the shirt as well. There was no way he was ruining his brand new shirt before the girls in town even got a chance to see it. He tossed the shirt on the hat, then swiftly unbuckled his gun belt, and added it to the growing pile. He contemplated the new grey slacks, but with a frown he realized he was just going to have to let them go. He sure didn’t want his brothers coming along and catching him in his long johns. It would be bad enough if they found him covered up to his neck in mud. But with any luck, he’d have the animal out before they showed up.

The breeze hit his bare torso and Joe shivered as he sat in the grass to pull his boots off. The cool wind that had been just perfect with the jacket on was now down right chilly, but he didn’t let it bother him; he knew he’d be warm enough shortly. He stood and gave Cochise another fond pat.

“All right, Cochise, slow and easy. And pay attention!” Joe instructed the horse, who looked back at him, as if admonishing Joe for telling him his job. Cochise knew exactly what to do with a bogged cow. “Yeah, I know, fella, we’ve both done this before, huh?” Joe looked back at the cow, “Well, it ain’t gettin’ done standin’ around here. Wish me luck, Cooch.” With another pat for the horse, and a look on his face that was half dread and half determination, Joe stalked toward the water hole.

Cochise had the rope taut again, and Joe followed along it as he gingerly stepped onto the slippery mire at the edge of the pool. He was glad of something to hold onto as his feet threatened to slide out from under him at every step. Cochise, good cowpony that he was, stood sturdy, keeping the rope taut between himself and the cow at the other end.

As he moved closer to the cow, Joe began to speak softly to her, hoping to keep her calm. A thrashing cow would only make his job that much harder. The cow’s only response was to shake her horns menacingly at him.

“Hey, lady, I’m not gonna hurt ya. Just be still and we’ll get ya out of here,” he said soothingly. A swipe of her horns was the only answer she gave him. Joe jumped back quickly and slipped in the muck, landing on his backside. Score one for the cow, he thought ruefully, as he shook the mud from his now black hands. He grabbed the rope again, and pulled himself up. He paused again to consider his course of action. She wasn’t going to let him approach her, blasted Longhorn; he was going to have to leave the safety of the rope in order to get around to her back.

Joe let go of the rope and carefully made his way through the pockmarked mud, keeping a good distance between himself and the cow’s horns. Her eyes followed him as he moved around her, and Joe kept his front towards her as he slipped and slid his way by. Once she tried to charge him, but the mud and Cochise kept her from getting far. Joe jumped back anyway, not wanting the point of a horn in his ribcage.

“Hold her, Cooch,” he called nervously to the horse. Cochise ignored him, having already taken care of the matter as far as he was concerned.

Slowly he continued around, still talking to the cow, who merely rolled her eyes and glared at him. As he neared where the water and mire merged, he found himself sinking slowly. Briefly the thought crossed his mind that he could very well get stuck in this bog, himself if he wasn’t careful. Now wouldn’t that be jolly, he thought grimly, and wouldn’t Adam and Hoss have a hay day with that! Joe smiled to himself. He wouldn’t blame them either if they did; he would do the same if he found one of them in like predicament. Still, he didn’t care for the idea of providing amusement for his older brothers, and he moved with even greater care.

He waded out into the pool, the cold water against his legs making him shiver again, and he was thankful for the warm sun against his back. The mud at the bottom of the pond gushing through his toes made him wince. It was an unpleasant feeling. Slowly he moved around so as to come at the cow from directly behind. It was the safest place to be around a longhorn; she wouldn’t be able to turn her head far enough to reach him.

Angling himself, he came up slowly behind the cow, his voice soothing and calm. “Whoa, there bossy, I ain’t gonna hurt ya, easy now, that’s a girl.” He gently laid a hand on the cow’s brindled back. She turned her head and stared at him with wild eyes, and mooed. “Yeah, well, I ain’t too happy about this neither, so lets just get you out of here, okay?”

The cow’s answer was a swift kick backwards that caught Joe in the shin. He gasped and his hazel eyes widened in shock. He sucked his breath in, and gritted his teeth waiting for the wave of pain to pass. He’d have a bruise there for sure. “Do that again, cow, and I’ll just leave you here,” he threatened. “Now let’s get you out of here.”

The cow was stuck at the edge of the water, which meant Joe found himself standing knee deep in cold, wet, muddy water, and calf deep in cold, wet, sticky mud, as he placed his hands against the cow’s hind quarters and shoved.

He grunted as he scrambled to get a purchase against the bottom of the pond. He felt the cow move forward, and pushed harder, every muscle straining. He could feel the cow struggling, pulling against the grip of the mud. He continued to shove against her until every muscle in his body ached from the strain. He repositioned himself and shoved again. Then, gasping for breath, he paused and glanced up to see Cochise had backed a step or two. They had made precious little progress, but it was better than nothing.

“All right, cow, a little further this time,” he growled as he gritted his teeth and pushed again. He groaned with the effort and his muscles bulged once again. Another pause and another push, but this time there was no forward movement. The cow bellowed and struggled, lifting her front feet high, and floundering with her back feet, searching for some solid ground but finding none. “Pull, Cooch!” Joe yelled through clenched teeth, as he pushed against the cow.

The sun slowly crept higher in the sky as Joe, Cochise and the cow struggled together against the mud. He could feel the sweat beading across his forehead and trickling down his back, and his muscles began to scream in protest. Their forward progress was small, and almost unnoticeable, but the cow was able to raise herself higher. He felt a surge of hope as she pulled one hoof completely out of the mud and tried to step forward. He pushed harder against the brindled rump, and his feet scrambled for a better foot hold. The cow struggled a few more inches forward, and he felt his excitement building, when suddenly his feet lost their hold and he slipped, falling face first in the muck.

It took him a moment to realize what had happened, then he pushed himself up, spitting mud from his teeth. He wiped at his eyes and face, and grimaced when his hands left as much mud as they wiped off. He looked at the cow and groaned. The cow was closer to solid ground, but somehow in the struggle she had turned her head sideways and one horn had gouged out a hole next to her and stuck. She stared at him balefully with one eye, her head twisted grotesquely.

“Now, isn’t that just great,” he muttered, disgust coloring every word. Turning his back on the cow, he waded once again into the pool. He splashed the water onto his face and chest washing off the worst of the mud, gasping from the cold as he did so. When he was as clean as he was going to get at the moment, he sloshed his way to firm ground, and sank down into the clean grass. He lay back and closed his eyes, letting the sun’s rays soak into his body and warm him. Every muscle ached and he wanted nothing more than to lay there and soak up the sun. The sun — it was now half way to its zenith, and Joe knew Adam and Hoss would be along anytime.

Groaning, he sat up and cast a withering glance at the cow. She looked ridiculous with her head twisted to the side like that, the horn sunk halfway into the mud. A low wicker from Cochise turned his attention to the horse. He was watching Joe, a questioning look in his eyes.

“Yeah, I know; I’m not getting her out sitting here, but just let me catch my breath, okay?” He looked again at the sun. Adam and Hoss would be on their way soon, and he briefly considered just waiting until they arrived. Together the three of them would have the longhorn out in no time. Joe felt his stomach tighten at the thought. He just couldn’t do it. An innate stubbornness, partly his Cartwright inheritance, his place as the youngest of the family and pride wouldn’t let him wait and be bailed out by his older brothers.

Joe’s mouth tensed and his eyes glittered. No, he wasn’t going to wait for his brothers; he’d get that cow out himself if it were the last thing he did. He struggled up right and walked to Cochise. The first order of business was to get that horn out of the mud. He took hold of Cochise’s bridle just below the bit and placed the other hand against the horse’s shoulder.

“All right, Cooch, let’s try this again.” He smooched to the horse and pushed gently against the bit; Cochise obediently began backing. A step and then two, Joe watched the cow as she got one leg up out of the muck and moved it forward, but her neck was twisted where the stuck horn refused to budge. Cochise snorted as the weight on the rope pulled his saddle forward, and the horse leaned back on his haunches. Joe heard the cow bellow and looking back saw her head turned completely sideways as the rope pulled one side of her head forward, and the weight of the jammed horn prevented the other side from following. Joe stopped; it wasn’t going to work; he’d have to free the horn himself.

Joe felt his temper rising and he waited a moment, lips tense. All he’d wanted was to spend the day in Virginia City, show off his new clothes and enjoy himself with a pretty girl. Now the morning was half gone, his new pants were in shambles, and he was a mess. He’d definitely need a bath, and that cow was stuck worse now than when he’d started hours ago. Joe stood, hands on his hips, glaring at the cow.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to ease his anger and frustration. He knew he would have to get in close to the cow to free the horn and he was going to need a cool head. Being angry was the quickest way to make a mistake, and if he wasn’t careful, that longhorn would take a gouge out of him that would put played to any rescue effort, and no doubt have him laid up in bed for a month, if it didn’t kill him.

“Cow, you weren’t in my plans, now quit makin’ this so difficult,” he growled, unable to help venting his frustration just a little. His voice wasn’t loud but there was an edge to it that his brothers would have easily recognized; Joe was losing his patience. At that moment, the cow let out another moo, this time soft and almost pleading; it was all it took for Joe’s anger to melt away. He sighed and shook his head. It wasn’t the cow’s fault; he was sure she hadn’t meant to get stuck, and she was having it just as bad as he was.

He grimaced wryly at her. “Yeah, I know, ya didn’t do it on purpose.” He gave Cochise a slap. “Okay, Cooch, just hold her there, while I get that horn free, and then we’ll go from there.”

Once more Joe followed the rope towards the cow. She slid her free hoof toward him as he got closer and her eyes rolled. Her head was stuck, though, and she couldn’t move it. The weight of the horn and the mud holding her head as firmly as Cochise’s rope.

Again Joe began his soothing ramble, his voice low and calm, belying the frustration he was feeling. He slid to his knees beside the cow’s head and laid a hand between her eyes. “Easy there, lady, we’re almost there, just don’t take a piece out of me when I get this horn free, okay, and I’ll get you out of here.” He could feel the cow’s weariness through his hand; he looked into her deep brown eyes and a wave of pity swept over him.

He moved sideways running his hand along the smooth length of the horn. Crouching so he could leap out of the way as soon as she was free, he placed one hand underneath the horn, and used the other to sweep the mud off the foot or so of horn buried in the mud. Then he placed both hands under and lifted. The cow jerked her head upward and the horn was free. Joe jumped back quickly as the cow gave another toss of her head, but not quickly enough and she caught him with the tip of her horn. Beads of blood appeared across his chest, and he grimaced. It wasn’t deep – she had barely scratched him – but it stung.

The cow was struggling once again, and she had managed to pull both front hooves out. Joe held his breath as she labored against the mud clutching at her; just a little further and she’d have it. “Cooch! Pull!! Joe yelled excitedly at the horse as he turned and scrambled toward solid ground. The cow bellowed and heaved herself once more. “Pull, Cooch!” Joe yelled again. The good cowpony was backing, pulling with his back legs well under him. The cow had one back leg up under her and then the other; she slipped down to one knee, but the rope held her steady, and she rose again.

Joe ran to his horse, and stood with his hand on one shoulder, as Cochise continued to pull. “You’re doing it, Cooch!!” His voice rang with excitement as he watched the cow take another stumbling step toward solid ground. “She’s almost there.” Joe ran to take hold of the rope himself, pulling along with Cochise. The cow went down knee deep in another mud pocket, but with another heave and a pull from both Joe and Cooch, she got her feet under her again. Joe could hardly contain his exhilaration as the cow continued to make her unsteady progress toward safety.

“Almost there, good cow, come on,” he encouraged with a grunt as he heaved on the rope, his muscles straining and the sweat sparkling on his bare, mud-streaked skin. “Almost there…” Suddenly Joe lost hold of the rope and fell backwards as the weight of the cow seemed to disappear. Joe looked up to realize the cow was free!

Without paying attention to either Joe or Cochise, she stumbled hurriedly to her bawling calf, lowing over it and licking it.

Joe laughed triumphantly from his place on the ground. “So that’s the thanks we get, huh? Look at that, Cooch, not even a thank you!”

“Do you often make a habit of talking to your horse, Younger Brother?” an amused voice broke in.

Joe looked up into the smiling face of Adam, who was looking down at him with his arms crossed over the pommel of his saddle. Hoss sat his own horse next to him, his hat pushed back, his blue eyes sparkling and a wide grin spread across his face.

Joe grinned back at his brothers. “Yep, he’s the most intelligent thing around here.” he quipped. Jubilation and pride surged through him over his success.

Adam’s smile blossomed into a full-blown grin, and he laughed.

Joe turned his head to look at Hoss. “Hey, there, Big Brother, you coulda got here a little sooner!”

“Don’t know why. Looks like ya took care of it all by your lonesome!” Hoss answered, his voice proud. He dismounted quickly and held out a hand to Joe.

Joe took it and sprang up. He glanced over at the cow still standing over her now struggling calf. “Yeah, I guess you’re right at that.” There was deep satisfaction in his voice. He watched as Hoss stepped over to the longhorn. The cow placed herself protectively between Hoss and the calf. She shook her horns at him and the whites of her eyes glared balefully at him.

“Watch out for her, Hoss, she’s a bit grumpy.” Joe cautioned.

“Yeah, thanks, Joe, I kinda figured that out.”

Joe laughed and walked to Cochise. He wrapped his arms around the horse’s head. “You did a good job, Cooch,” he said, laying his cheek against Cochise‘s.

“Looks like that cow was in deep,” Adam observed from his perch on Sport’s back. “Have any trouble getting her out?”

Joe threw Adam a cocky smile. “Na, no trouble at all; she came out slick as anything.”

Adam glanced over his brother, and the corners of his mouth twitched. Joe was barefoot, his pants were wet and slick with muck. His bare chest was caked with mud and sweat, and a ribbon of dried blood curved its way across his rib cage from side to side. His gaze made its way to Joe’s beaming, mud streaked face, and he raised one disbelieving eyebrow at his younger brother. “Slick as anything, huh?” he repeated skeptically.

“Yep, not a problem.” Joe rubbed Cochise’s muzzle. “Right, Cooch.” The horse snorted and Joe and Adam both laughed.

“Uh, huh, that’s what I thought, Cochise,” Adam agreed.

A yelp from Hoss turned their attention to where Hoss was trying to get close enough to free the still tied calf. The longhorn had taken a swipe at him.

“Hey, tighten up that rope, will ya, so I can get ta the calf,” Hoss instructed, with a wave of his hand, never taking his eyes off the irate cow.

Joe obediently swung up onto Cochise, and moved the longhorn away from the calf long enough for Hoss to set the calf free.

“All right, now give me the rope, and I’ll see to the cow,” Hoss added.

Joe unslung his rope and tossed the end to Hoss; he watched amused as Hoss performed the tricky operation of getting the rope off the cow’s horns. It didn’t matter to him that Hoss had taken over. Hoss was good with animals, and he’d have the rope off and the cow and calf on their way soon. He felt his grin widen, and a sense of accomplishment swept over him. It didn’t matter at all because he’d done the hard part; he’d been the one to get the cow out of the mud. He sat grinning to himself savoring the feeling, until Adam cleared his throat gently beside him.

“You, uh, going to go into Virginia City like that?” Adam asked his eyes twinkling at him.

Joe looked down at himself, then grinned up at his brother. “Why, don’t think the ladies will appreciate it?”

“Well, to be honest, little brother,” Adam pulled his ear, “no. Besides I think there just might be an ordinance against trotting down the main Street all dishabille.”

Joe raised an eyebrow at him. “Huh?”

“In a state of undress,” Adam answered, laughing.

Joe laughed. “Yeah, I know. I wasn’t planning on it.” He dismounted and shook his head ruefully at his new clothes before gathering them up. He set the gun belt and hat aside, then carefully placed the shirt and jacket in his saddlebags. He looked up at Adam. “I’ll ride home and get cleaned up again, and meet you and Hoss in town later.” He buckled on the gun belt and slapped his hat on his head. “At least I’ll still be able to enjoy the evening.” He vaulted into the saddle again and gathered his reins, just as Hoss walked up, coiling his rope and then handed it to Joe.

“There ya go, Joe, and ol’ bossy’s on her way again,” Hoss said, mounting Chubb and nodding after the cow and calf, trotting away down the cattle track.

“Thanks, Hoss. Well, I’ll see you ladies in town!” Tipping his hat, Joe plunged his heals into Cochise’s side. The pinto leaped forward, and with a whoop, Joe was gone.

Adam and Hoss smiled at each other in admiration of their irrepressible brother, and turned their own horses towards Virginia City.

*****

The cow ambled slowly down the trail, her calf close to her side. The noonday sun was warm against her brindled hide, and she rejoiced in the feel of it after the cold of the slick mud she’d laid in all morning. Now she was free, and with thankful heart, she made her way back to the other members of her herd, there to rest in the shade of the pines, and graze on the lush green grass of the meadow. Life was good.

***The End***

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