Summary: For Mary, who taught me to love First-Sport best
Word Count: 17,000
Late Spring, 1847
Adam Cartwright was scared. From the top of his soaked flat-crowned hat to the toes of his muddy worn-at-the-heels boots, the seventeen-year-old shook with fear. He gripped his fists to still their trembling and took a deep breath. He held it a long moment, trying to will his hammering heart to be quiet so that he could hear. The eerie howl rose again, floating on the wind as it tore at the branches around him. The rain had stopped an hour ago, and now the moon slipped in and out of the dancing clouds, dropping intermittent shafts of soft white light on the newborn colt that lay against his thigh.
How did I get into this mess? he wondered as he stroked the small animal to stillness again. Pa’s gonna kill me . . . if those wolves don’t get us first.
The chestnut mare tried to get to her feet, heaving desperately, but her first encounter with the wolves had left her with bad gashes on her hind legs. They hadn’t succeeded in hamstringing her, though, which would have signaled the end for her and her unborn foal.
“Shh,” he tried to calm her. She was right to be frightened, though. She’d been in the first stages of labor when he found her in the secluded dell, and he’d arrived barely in time to save her life. One wolf down from his gun, the others had run, but not far. He’d repacked the spent chamber and filled the sixth he usually carried empty under the hammer.
He’d been late getting out of Eagle Station with the supplies; dawdling, Pa would call it, though he’d considered it friendly and necessary conversation with their neighbors. Still, his father would have taken a strip out of his hide for leaving the drive home until after dark. Well, that was nothing to what he’d do now. By the moon, Adam figured it was past midnight.
She wasn’t his mare, but he couldn’t leave her, couldn’t leave the colt. She’d obviously had some contact with humans as, once the wolves left, she had settled at his touch. Then she’d collapsed onto her side with a heavy grunt, and suddenly a milky white sack appeared at the birth entrance, encasing two small, perfect hooves, one pushed slightly ahead of the other.
He watched with amazement as the nose of the baby appeared, the delicate chin resting on spindly front legs, then the rest of the head. The mare grunted, and when Adam rested one hand on her side, he could feel the immense contractions as she pushed new life into the world. A wolf howled nearby and her eyes rolled whitely in the moonlight, but nature wouldn’t be denied and the foal slipped a little farther out. Shoulders, then the long, thin body, and finally hips and hind leg.
The foal struggled against the enclosing sac, and Adam left the mare’s side to pull it open. He unknotted and dragged his kerchief from around his throat and used it to clear the foal’s nostrils. Its first breath pulled deep, but must have tickled because it snorted and twitched its nose.
In spite of the dangerous situation, Adam laughed, a soft breath of sound that the foal echoed with a chuff of air as it flicked its ears and blinked its eyes open. Adam ran his hands along the wet neck, and murmured reassurances until the foal stopped quivering. He smoothed the baby-fine hair along the withers, back and legs, swiping him clean as he hummed a soft lullaby he’d often sung to his youngest brother. At each first stroke, the foal quivered, then, as he repeated the movements, stilled to calm acceptance. A colt, Adam saw, and already with a curious gleam of intelligence in his eyes. His mother had beautiful conformation and seemed to have bequeathed her elegant head to her son. It looked like he’d have chestnut hair like her, and with four white socks and a blaze down his nose, Adam realized the colt would likely grow into a beauty.
The mare whickered deep in her throat and tried to rise, but her back legs wouldn’t support her. Adam shifted her baby closer to her head, and together they finished cleaning him. When he checked the colt’s nose again to make sure it was still clear, it nuzzled at his hand and stuck its tongue out, instinctively seeking its mother’s milk. But as Adam could see life and strength grow in the little one, the mare began to falter. He knew the strain of giving birth might be too much for her, weakened as she was already by blood loss. He’d never seen a foal nurse on a mare that was down, didn’t know if it was possible. Well, he’d have to try it if he couldn’t get her on her feet. If they had the time.
The wolves howled again. Closer. They were downwind and would have smelled the birth.
Adam waited, left hand on the colt’s neck, right hand compulsively loosening his pistol in its holster. The mare flicked her ears and tried again to rise. He crooned to her, stroked her neck, and she made it this time, though she didn’t look very stable.
The colt, as if inspired by his mother, scrabbled at the grass and propped himself upright, legs curled underneath, and looked around at his new world. Adam cleaned leaves and grass from the side that he’d been lying on, and again, the colt quivered at his first touch, then eventually stilled. Protected by the bulk of his mother and the man, he shoved at the ground with his front legs and tried to push himself up. His first try failed, and he fell comically onto his nose, but he just blew out what sounded like an irritated breath and tried again. This time his front legs cooperated, but the back gave out and he fell onto his side.
“He’ll get it, won’t he, girl?” Adam murmured.
The mare whickered, and, undeterred by his past failures, the baby tried again. Adam steadied him, let him get his feet under him. This time he stayed up, legs splayed in all different directions and head swaying side to side to maintain his balance. Adam rose as well, and a memory of watching his youngest brother learn to walk chased through his mind. His father had been encouraging but matter-of-fact with Joe, his third child, but Adam suddenly wondered, Is this how Pa felt when I, his first, was learning to walk? Enthralled, scared, triumphant?
The mare shifted close to her baby – to protect him, Adam thought – but the colt took it as an invitation to nurse and prodded at her udder with his nose. Soon his suckling noises were added to the night’s sounds.
Adam shivered with cold. He was still damp from the late evening rain, and the wind was picking up again. And the symphony of yips and howls was closer. His next shiver had nothing to do with the night air.
He touched the pistol again, then with measured movements, pulled it out and rechecked the loads. He hoped they hadn’t gotten soaked; his life and the lives of the mare and colt would depend on the weapon that weighed heavily in his hand.
The mare stopped nuzzling her colt to raise her head and test the wind. Her ears flicked forward, her nostrils dilated and she drew in the night air. Adam watched her carefully – she knew exactly where the wolves were. She turned her head to her colt, then looked out into the darkness again. She shifted restlessly, ripping her teat from her baby’s mouth. The colt whickered impatiently and stuck his nose under her belly again.
Adam stepped to the mare’s head, his hand trailing along the colt’s body as he moved. Side by side, they searched the darkness. His gut clenched when he saw the movement in the trees. He squinted, prayed for the clouds to shift so he could see better, and raised his gun.
A low growl, a squeal from the mare, and the night was a whirlwind of motion. Large, gray-furred shapes launched themselves forward. Adam fired twice, saw one of the shapes fall onto the muddy ground with a thud, but a snarl from his left drew his attention. High-pitched bleats from the colt distracted him for a moment, and the wolf was on him. He barely got his left arm up in time to keep the jaws from his throat. He felt the pressure squeezing his forearm, but he pushed away enough to get his gun pointed into the animal’s belly. He fired and the wolf dropped. He spun around to see where the colt was in time to see the mare pounding a wolf into the ground with her front hooves, but there was another that was circling around behind, trying to find the colt. He shot once and heard a satisfying yelp, but he didn’t see it run away.
“How many? How many?” he gasped, not even aware of speaking.
The mare squealed with anger, whirled and kicked out with both hind legs, and he saw another gray body go flying. Two pairs of eyes gleamed from the trees in a sudden shaft of moonlight and he pulled the trigger twice, but the gun only fired once. One wet chamber . . . lucky it wasn’t more, he thought to himself, but then fully realized their danger. The mare was limping heavily, his gun was empty, and his spare cylinder was twenty yards away in his jacket on the buckboard. If the wagon’s horses hadn’t panicked and run halfway home by now. He hadn’t heard anything, so hoped they were still there.
He and the mare circled with the colt safely between them. Keeping one eye on the wolves, Adam tried to find at least a heavy stick that he might be able to use to defend himself. Twin growls from either side of the clearing warned him that the remaining wolves had split up. Maybe it was for the best – he knew neither he nor the mare could handle two, though he had his doubts that they’d even be able to handle one.
He saw a branch on the ground, thick as his wrist, and he bent slowly to pick it up. He’d just touched it when he heard the mare’s frantic whinny, and the wolf in front of him jumped.
Good-bye, Pa, he just had time to think as the heavy body slammed into him and knocked him to the ground. A roar of thunder, a burst of light – and he knew nothing more.
Ben Cartwright was a worried man. His eldest should have been home by sunset with the supplies, yet here it was full dark, dinner finished, and his other two boys in bed – and Adam wasn’t back. The family’s Chinese cook, Hop Sing, banged a few last pots into place and approached Ben, dish towel in hand.
“You fear for son,” he said.
Ben took his pipe from his mouth, only now realizing he’d forgotten to light it. He nodded. “It isn’t like Adam to be this late. An hour, yes; but not three.”
Hop Sing wiped his hands dry on the cloth. “You go to town; go see. I stay here with sons. He come home, I send for you.”
No more wishful thinking – he had to know. “He’d better have one darn good reason—” Dread cramped his belly, cutting off his words. He covered his eyes for a moment, rubbed at his face, then took a deep breath and reached for his jacket. “Would you get some medical supplies, just in case.” He headed out the door.
Saddling his horse was the work of only a few minutes, but Hop Sing had a small sack ready for him, along with his good rifle. He slid the weapon into its scabbard, grabbed the bag and tied it to his saddlehorn; then with a wordless nod of thanks, he kicked his horse into a canter.
He wanted to ride at a full gallop, but common sense kept him to a sane pace. It wouldn’t help his son if his horse slipped on the wet path and they went down. He peered into the darkness, thankful the rain had stopped. When the clouds slipped aside and the moon shone, he could see well, but he didn’t know if the lack of recent wagon tracks was due to the rain or Adam simply not having gotten this far. Every now and then he pulled his horse to a stop for a moment to listen, but heard nothing but the wind in the trees and some far off wolves howling.
He was only a half-hour into the trip when he realized the wolves were closer than he’d thought. His horse twitched and sidled, and he settled deeper into the saddle and kept his legs steady on its ribs to give it confidence. Gotta find Adam became a steady beat in his head, echoing the sound of hoofbeats.
Then he heard the shots.
He yanked his horse’s head around and they skidded to a stop. Another shot, off to his right. In the faint light, he saw wheel tracks leaving the path for the woods, headed toward a small meadow he knew from fishing trips with his sons. He pulled his rifle and cocked it even as he booted his horse into a gallop. Another shot. It was insanity to ride full-tilt through the woods, but he knew the shots were coming from Adam’s gun; he recognized the distinctive throaty roar of the dragoon pistol, and he knew only desperation would drive his son to be off the trail and shooting at this time of night.
He heard the full-throated neigh of a terrified horse and the snarl of a wolf moments before he burst into the clearing. The clouds shifted and the moon lit the ground in odd patches. It was enough, though, to show him a wolf springing at his son’s throat. His heart leapt wildly in his chest, he dropped his reins, raised his rifle and fired. The wolf jerked, but still hit his son, and they both went down. Another wolf jumped at the frantic horse, trying for the jugular, but Ben fired again and the wolf ran. Ben vaulted from his saddle and, while he wanted to run to Adam’s side, approached cautiously, rifle ready. He knelt, still not letting go of his weapon, and pushed the wolf carefully to the side. He breathed a sigh of relief when it didn’t move.
Adam was breathing, but his eyes were closed. Ben checked him quickly, appalled at the tearing bites on his son’s left arm, but his imagination supplied the alternative, and he was grateful that seemed to be the extent of his injuries.
“Adam?” He patted his son’s cheek gently and heard a soft moan. “That’s it, son. Wake up now.”
Dark eyes opened in a face turned bloodless by moonlight. At least that’s what Ben hoped it was.
“Pa?” came a breathy whisper.
“That’s right, son. You’ll be okay now. Just got the wind knocked out of you.”
Adam turned his head. “The colt?”
Ben’s head jerked up in surprise. “What colt?”
Just then, a small nose dropped down and whuffled at Adam’s face. His son’s expression was a picture – relieved, delighted, with dimples of laughter appearing.
“Isn’t he a beauty, Pa?” He raised a hand to stroke the colt’s neck. “He’s gonna be one great fella.”
Ben helped his son sit and swallowed. “Yes, he is. He sure is.” But he wasn’t looking at the horse.
Four days later, Ben watched his eldest cavort in the corral with the colt. There was no other word for it – the two were playing. Adam would walk up to the colt, stroke his neck, run his hand down his nose, then whirl and jog away. The colt would jerk his head up in surprise, sweep his little brush of a tail into the air like a banner, then trot after him, their leggy gaits remarkably similar. Then Adam would turn, the little horse moving almost in tandem, and the colt would take the lead. Adam whistled, the colt turned back and trotted right up to him, nuzzling his pockets and whuffling into his hand.
The mare seemed happy to share her baby with Adam, interfering only when a stranger came near or if the colt wanted to nurse. She was happy to accept Adam’s attentions as well, particularly when it involved grain and grooming. He hummed as he stroked her, and found a spot behind her ear that she loved to have scratched. When he tried it on the colt, the little horse shook his head and then leaned into Adam’s hand.
Ben loved to see the two together. Adam was growing taller, but hadn’t yet filled out into the man Ben could see coming. He saw, too, how the colt would grow. Both of them were awkward now, but Ben was experienced enough with boys and horses to see how their long legs would grow into strength and turn gawkiness into grace.
His two younger sons had been reduced to giggles watching them, twelve-year-old Hoss laughing as hard as his little brother, who was not that far removed from babyhood himself. Ben had finally sent them into the house – he wanted to savor a few moments with just his eldest. Adam was due to leave for college in a few short weeks.
“That’s enough,” he called after a half-hour of their giddy nonsense. Adam was only a day out of bed after a fever from the wolf-bites had laid him low. Ben knew he was overprotective, that his son hadn’t really had to lie around for two solid days, but he couldn’t get rid of the haunting image of Adam’s throat in the same condition as his arm.
Adam latched the colt into the corral with the mare, and his cheerful jog over to him told Ben that his son would be fine.
“Will you keep an eye on him while I’m gone?” Adam asked.
Ben felt like he’d been hit in the gut. How could he let his son go when he’d just almost lost him? He swallowed hard. “Of course,” he answered, his voice rough.
Adam could read him, though.
He touched his father on the shoulder, and Ben nearly broke down. He blinked his eyes quickly, willing the tears away.
“Really, I’ll be all right,” Adam said softly.
Ben nodded, then gave in to impulse and grabbed his boy to his chest. Adam curled his body to his father’s as he hadn’t since he was Hoss’s age. Ben ran his hand up and down his son’s back, a soothing touch for both of them. “You’ll grow,” he said, “just like your colt. Both of you’ll be all grown up by the time you get back.”
Adam pulled back and looked straight and strong into his father’s eyes. “But I’ll always need you, Pa. Always.”
“I told you, he’s out here somewhere.” Ten-year-old Joe Cartwright’s earnest green eyes showed his complete belief.
“Joe’s right,” added Hoss. “We saw him just the week before you got home.”
The three brothers were supposedly riding to the lake for swimming and fishing, but whispered consultations from room to room the night before had led them to a different route – up over the Silver Creek ridge and down to a spot Hoss called Heaven’s Meadows, a plateau of the freshest, greenest grass on the Ponderosa. Actually, Ben Cartwright hadn’t been able to purchase the entire meadow, but the ranch included enough of it to run cattle as well as feed the bands of wild horses that ranged through the mountains.
“You never tried to get him back?” Adam asked as his old roan strained to make it over the ridge. Billyboy was a favorite of Adam’s – in fact, the first horse he’d actually owned – but he’d aged while Adam had been in the East. This ride was one of the last long trips Adam intended to inflict upon him. He had come home determined to capture and train the colt he’d rescued from the woods, the colt who’d escaped with his mother just a month after Adam had headed out for college.
He could still remember the letter from Hoss. He’d been angry at first, until he saw that the blotched letters were disfigured not from a poorly mended pen, but from tears. Hoss had been so afraid his big brother wouldn’t trust him any more. In truth, it wasn’t Hoss’s fault – it had been Little Joe who’d left the corral unlatched – but Hoss was responsible for their brother, so took the blame.
Disappointed as he was, Adam couldn’t reproach him. Things happened; few young men his age understood that better. Even so, he’d been thrilled to hear every now and then in a letter that “his” colt had been seen. Not that he would be a colt any longer. As Adam had grown into his long legs, he hoped the horse had grown into his, as well. His father said he had, and Ben was no mean judge of horseflesh. Adam rode to the crest of the ridge with anxious anticipation.
“He’s yours,” answered Hoss. “Won’t let any of us get near him, so we figgered we’d just let you try.”
“Yeah,” piped up Joe. “You catch him; you keep him. That’s the rules, right?”
Adam reached down to the boy on his pony and tipped his hat back on his head. “That’s the rule,” he agreed. “Wild horses, well, if you catch them on your land, they’re yours.”
Joe frowned as they pulled their horses to a stop on the ridge. “What if they ain’t on your land?”
Hoss rode up on the other side of Joe. “Then anyone can try to catch them – if you’re the one to get a rope on ‘em, they’re yours.”
Adam gazed out over the meadow that lay before them. The grass was long and green, right up to the far edge, where it ended in the draws and box canyons of the base of Mount Rose. “And I’m gonna be the one to do the keeping.”
They felt the horses before they heard them – Adam kept an eye on his mount’s ears, so he knew by the way they swiveled to the west where to look – and the herd pounded into the meadow in a swirl of dust that obscured color and form.
Joe rose in his stirrups. “Do you see him? Where is he?”
“Let ‘em settle a bit,” Hoss advised. “No sense in even tryin’ to count ‘em till they stop running all over the place.”
Adam didn’t say anything, just watched. It wasn’t long before a bright copper coat shone from the milling herd. He smiled and nudged Billyboy forward. “Stay here,” he murmured to his brothers. He wanted to be by himself the first time he saw his horse.
It was actually a small herd, he discovered once they’d settled to graze. Four mares, a couple of yearling colts and three foals. And Sport.
So Joe had inadvertently named him, back when the colt was a newborn. Adam had grinned at the noises the little one made, and when he described one of them as an aristocratic snort, five-year-old Joe had tried to repeat the phrase, calling it a “risto-tic sport.” The family had burst out in laughter, but Adam thought the name fit the little colt well.
The stallion tossed his head, his red mane shaking loose and silky, and paced steadily around his family. Adam’s first thought was that he was big for a range horse. He rode slowly closer, then, when Sport stopped in front of the herd, he pulled his horse to a stop as well and slowly dismounted. He paced steadily forward until he was about twenty feet away, where he could see Sport testing the light breeze, his nostrils flaring.
“Easy, boy,” Adam crooned, and started to hum the lullaby he’d sung to him that first night.
Sport’s ears flicked forward. One twisted back toward the herd, but then came forward again.
“That’s it. Remember me? I was there when you were born. We fought off those wolves together, your mama and me, and you stuck closer to her than a burr to a blanket.”
He kept singing as he studied the stallion. Deep in the chest, long in the body but not too much for strength, powerful hindquarters, muscled, straight legs finished with four white socks, head set perfectly on an arched, elegant neck. And yes, those intelligent, liquid soft eyes. Magnificent, proud . . . arrogant. Adam smiled in pure enjoyment.
Sport tossed his head, not sure yet, but he took a step forward, stopped, half-reared.
Adam whistled, low and steady. Sport’s ears flicked around, away, then toward him. Another step. Adam laughed again, then turned quickly and started to jog away. Sport jumped back at the movement, then began to trot toward Adam.
Adam ignored him, but slowed his pace until Sport caught up with him. Then he stopped in place, still facing away. He heard the steady steps, felt the soft, warm breath on his neck, and raised one hand to the side. Sport investigated, snuffling and lipping at it, but when Adam turned to him, he wheeled and galloped back to his band.
Adam grinned in pure enjoyment. He wasn’t fool enough to think he’d tamed the horse, but he knew it was a good beginning. His smile lasted all the way back to his brothers.
“Why’d he do that?” Joe asked again as they rode into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch. “How’d you get so close to him? He runs from everyone – but not from you.”
Adam rubbed at his forehead. He loved his little brother, but the incessant questioning was giving him a headache. “Hoss?” he asked. “You explain this time.”
“Dunno that I can,” his middle brother answered. “I never saw nothin’ like that before.”
The boys dismounted and led their horses into the barn.
“Like what?” asked Ben as he entered behind them.
“You shoulda seen it!” Joe led his pony into its stall. Adam had been impressed by how well the boy took care of his mount. Joe was rightfully proud of himself. “See, Pa, Adam just walked up to Sport and started playin’ with him.”
“You what?” Ben turned on Adam.
He started to explain, but Hoss broke in. “You shoulda seen it. It was like Sport never forgot him, not even in the four years he’s been gone.”
Adam hefted his saddle onto its rack and held up a hand to forestall his father. “I was careful, Pa. He came to me.”
Ben’s gaze raked his boy up and down, looking for any damage.
“Pa,” he groaned. “I’m fine. Hoss and Joe are fine. Sport is fine. You can stop worrying.”
All he got in response was a raised eyebrow.
“How come he didn’t run off?” Joe asked as he ran into his father’s arms. “He’s so pretty, Pa, like a shiny new penny. He bounces when he runs, and his mane and tail are long and they flop all over like my hair when it gets too long.”
Ben harrumphed. Apparently he was finally satisfied that his boys had come to no harm. “I thought you were going fishing.”
“We did,” said Hoss as he finished with his own gear. He held up a string of fish. “After we saw the horses, we went on up to the lake.”
“Adam didn’t catch much,” Joe inserted. He leaned close to his father. “He’s kinda out of practice.”
“I am not!” Adam tossed the currycomb into the gear box with a little extra force.
Hoss grinned. “Reckon I gotta agree with older brother – it wasn’t being out of practice; he just weren’t there.”
Ben’s head whipped around. “What? You let them go fishing alone?”
“Of course not,” Adam answered, glaring at Hoss. “I was sitting right next to them.”
“Uh, Pa, that ain’t what I meant. What I was tryin’ to say is that Adam’s head weren’t there with us – it was back at Heaven’s Meadows with them horses.”
“I see. Better horses than pretty girls, I suppose,” Ben muttered.
“But, Pa!” Joe tugged on his father’s hand. “Nobody’s tellin’ me what I want to know!”
“Not again,” Adam groaned.
“Take those fish in to Hop Sing and go get cleaned up, boys,” said Ben. “It’ll be dinnertime soon.”
Adam left the barn with relief, but he should’ve known that Joe wouldn’t let it go. Anything about horses, the boy just had to know.
“Pa?” Joe asked at dinner.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, son.”
He dutifully swallowed. “How come Sport didn’t run away from Adam? He runs from everybody else.”
“Well, sometimes something special develops between a man and his horse, son. I don’t really know why, but I’ve seen it once or twice before.”
“Cain’t hardly believe he remembers Adam from all that time ago,” said Hoss.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. It was a pretty important time for that colt.”
Hoss spooned more potatoes onto his plate, then put a few more on Adam’s, too. He pointed the spoon at his older brother. “Gotta eat more, if’n you’re gonna be breakin’ horses.” He turned back to his father. “Pa, that was over four years ago. Heck, even Shortshanks here had trouble rememberin’ Adam.”
Adam winced. He had hoped Ben hadn’t noticed the coolness between him and his youngest brother – especially since things seemed to be getting better ever since they started looking for the horse herd.
“It might have been four years ago,” Ben said, “but it was some of the most important moments of that colt’s life. For the first few minutes after he was born, Adam was right there with him, helping him, wiping him off, then keeping him safe, just like his mother was.”
Joe set his fork down and stared at his father. “Y’mean Sport thinks Adam’s his mother?”
“Could be,” Hoss put in. “After all, that’s when they figger out who their mama is, in them first couple minutes. I seen a duckling once, thought a goat was his mama. First thing he saw when he was born, and follered that goat around from then on.”
“But Adam? His mama?” Joe let loose with a peal of giggles.
Ben shrugged. “I didn’t see the two of them together, but it makes as much sense as anything. If, that is,” and he tweaked his little boy’s nose, “we’re getting the straight story from all of you.”
“Oh, it is, Pa, it is,” Joe answered. “That horse likes Adam the best, he really does.” He looked at his big brother.
Adam lifted his eyes to his father’s. “It’s true there’s something – special about him. For me, being there when he was born is a big part of it, him growing up here on our land while I—” He saw in his father’s eyes that Ben could fill in the rest of the sentence, While I grew up out there. He shrugged. “For him, I don’t know. But he came up to me. Curious, I suppose is the best way to put it.”
“Well,” said Ben, “if that horse seems to like you that much . . .”
Adam straightened, wondering, hoping for what would come next.
“Then I guess I’m just going to have to give you some time to work with him.”
“Whoopee!” yelled Hoss. He whacked his brother on the back and nearly knocked him over. “Y’hear that, big brother? You’re gonna get yourself a new horse – a stud horse!”
A stud horse. His sons were all tucked up safely in bed and he had a hot cup of coffee in his hand, but nevertheless, Ben shivered in the cool night air. Somehow he hadn’t thought about that. Stallions were often mercurial, behaving when they felt like it; sometimes mean, sometimes downright vicious. Did he really want his boy riding one? Training one? How would this one behave?
He had no doubts that Adam could handle a stallion well enough for breeding, but to have his son’s daily work – his very safety – depend on an animal who would have half his mind on where the nearest mare was? Just how good a rider was his eldest? Just how much would that horse – would any stallion – care about his rider? Could his twenty-two-year-old son truly master him?
Could he forbid his son to try?
He sighed. No, Adam was old enough to do as he pleased. Ben had given himself a little lecture the day before Adam’s stage was due home, telling himself that his son had been on his own for four years, that he’d be wanting to stand on his own two feet. He’d surely have a lot of cockamamie ideas from his studies that might or might not work out, but they’d have to let him try. Ben had to let Adam be grown, or he knew he’d lose him.
But, oh, Lord, it’s hard.
All he could do was make sure that Adam had backup. He nodded. He’d make Adam take one of his brothers with him. They’d have strict instructions to do exactly as Adam said, but he wanted someone else to be with him who could ride for help. That, at least, he could decree, and Hoss and Joe would be so thrilled that he’d have no trouble enforcing it.
He sipped at the coffee for the warmth, the comfort of the hot, bitter brew. It had gone cold.
And so Adam entered into a period of rare bliss in his life. His father kept his jobs to a minimum, saying that he’d worked hard for four years and was entitled to some time off, and allowed him to spend whatever afternoons he could get free to work with the chestnut stallion who was rapidly becoming an obsession.
Each night the stairs to his room seemed to grow longer and steeper as he worked back into his riding muscles, but hot baths, liniment, and the pure enjoyment of being outdoors soon worked wonders. If he pined sometimes for the intellectual stimulation of the East, for young men of his own age and interests, he kept it to himself. He had only to remember the look of love and relief on his father’s face when he’d stepped from the stage to know that his family had missed him every bit as much as he’d missed them. He was glad to be home.
Over the next week, the herd gradually became accustomed to Adam’s presence as he walked among them, fed them choice bits of grass and played chase with the foals. He walked alongside Sport, one hand on his neck or arm draped over his back, leaning on him now and again. As they rambled, whenever they got close to a rock or a large deadfall, Adam would climb up on it and rest more of his weight on Sport’s back. The first time, Sport twisted his head around as if to question him, but beyond a few snuffles at his hip, didn’t seem to mind and went back to grazing. It was only when he moved off to a new patch that Adam slid back to the ground.
Hoss was happy to sit with his back against a pine tree, watching the wildlife and simply enjoying being outdoors, but Joe hadn’t been able to stay still on his first trip. Adam cut his visit short before the boy alarmed the herd, and then did some serious thinking before the next time he took him out.
He understood what his father was doing and didn’t resent it, knowing his father’s very legitimate fears. It frustrated him, but all Adam had to do was think about Joe someday getting on a skittish wild horse, and he would wonder that his father let him work with the stallion at all. It never occurred to him that Ben might worry he’d go against his wishes.
Contrary to his father’s reservations, Adam’s years on his own had taught him to be willing to listen to more experienced men. He sorted through what they said, decided if it applied to the situation or not and then acted accordingly. His father had been such a strong, guiding light throughout his life that Adam found it hard to imagine a time that he wouldn’t listen to what he had to say. Intellectually, Adam assumed it would one day happen, but he was willing to be guided for a little while longer.
In the end, he settled Joe by bringing along field glasses – that way the boy could sit away from the horses but still see every detail of what happened. It turned out to be a blessing, too, as Joe watched carefully and asked questions on the ride home that led Adam to think in new ways about what he was doing.
One day it was, “When are you gonna ride him, Adam? How come you don’t just snub him to a post and slap a saddle on him like Charlie and them?”
Joe waited patiently while Adam tried to figure out how to answer. “I don’t think that’s the right way to work this particular horse.” Adam held his mount back for a moment so Joe could go ahead of them through a stream. When they’d clambered up the other side, Adam continued. “Sometimes, when you break a horse that way, you do more than teach him manners – you really do break his spirit. If you want a really good horse, you have to figure what’s going to work best for him.”
Joe looked up at his brother. “You don’t wanna break his spirit. Not him.”
“That’s right. I think, if I can just be patient enough, that I can convince him he wants to be partners with me.”
Joe frowned. “What do you think he’d do if you tried to break him?”
Adam cocked his head and looked at his little brother. “What do you think?”
Joe shook his head. “I think he’d fight. I don’t think he’d ever give in, and you’d have to about kill him to make him behave.”
“And what kind of partner would that make?”
“Not good. I think he’d be mad all the time, just waitin’ for you to be off-guard, then he’d either run away or—”
Adam pulled up when Joe didn’t continue. “Or what?”
Joe stopped, too, but wouldn’t look at him.
He reached down to touch his little brother’s arm, and then Joe did look at him.
“I saw a man, once.”
At his pause, Adam made an encouraging noise, but didn’t interrupt.
“Pa didn’t know I saw it. I had a nightmare that night, about that horse stomping the man. Pa didn’t hear me, and I woke myself up. I looked around for you, but then I remembered you were at school. I got up and got in bed with Hoss – he didn’t even know until the next morning.” He stopped again, took a hitching breath, then said, “I never told Pa.”
“What did you see, buddy?” Adam thought he knew, but figured it would be better if Joe said it out loud.
“A man was beating this horse,” he whispered. “He had him tied to a post, his head tied right next to it, so he couldn’t move it at all. He had one of those big, heavy bits Pa won’t let us use, and he was stuffin’ it in the horse’s mouth. It hurt him.” He fell silent again, but the tension didn’t leave his mouth.
Adam reached over and flipped the pony’s reins around his saddlehorn, grabbed his little brother under the arms and shifted him onto his lap.
Enfolded in his big brother’s embrace, Joe burrowed against his chest, his thin arms wrapped around Adam’s waist. “It was terrible. The horse was squealing, the man was shouting and hitting him with his fist – he hit him on the nose, on the neck – and then he caught one of his hind legs up in a loop and tied it up somehow so the horse was only on three legs. It couldn’t move at all. The man laughed and dumped a big saddle on his back. He got it cinched up, but somebody said later the horse blew up his belly, ‘cause it wasn’t on tight.”
Adam rubbed his brother’s back in slow circles.
“Then – then he got on somehow. I dunno how, ‘cause the horse was still on three legs, but then he pulled a rope and the horse was loose. He just stood there, like he was frozen solid, then he—”
Joe shook his head. “It was like he just exploded. He was all over. I could hardly even see what he was doing, he was going so fast. He spun in circles like a whirly top and jumped and hopped around the corral. He raised up on his back legs and I thought he was gonna go straight over on his back, but that man hit him right between the ears and he came back down. And then the saddle got loose and rolled. The man came off, right under the horse’s nose.”
He was silent again.
“What happened,” Adam finally asked, trying to keep his voice low and calm.
Joe took a deep breath. “Pa ran into the corral, and so did a bunch of other men. They tried to get the horse away from him, but Adam, that horse was mad. I don’t mean just mad, but crazy mad. He was bleeding from his mouth and his nose, and he was trying to kill that man. I never heard a horse scream before, but that’s the only thing I can call it. Pa shot him.”
Adam sighed and nudged his horse forward. The pony followed behind. “I wish I could’ve been here to help you, buddy.”
Joe nodded. “I was mad at you for not bein’ here when I needed you, like you always were before, but I couldn’t tell Pa that. He told me that there are times we just have to make it through things on our own. That sometimes we have to decide to do what we have to do, and maybe that was one of those times for me.”
“Yeah, he’s right, but I wish it hadn’t come so early to you.” He grinned suddenly. “Though you seem to have come through it okay.”
The corner of Joe’s mouth quirked up in the start of a grin. “Yeah. I grew up a whole lot that day. Learned a lot about horses, too.”
“Sure sounds like it. So that’s why you think I’m right to go slow and easy with Sport?”
Joe nodded. “I don’t want him turning killer. He could, y’know.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it in his eyes, too. Slow and easy, I think he’ll be a good partner, but if I took a whip to him—”
“You’d be laid up for months like Mr. Tarr,” Joe agreed.
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Jackson Tarr?”
Joe nodded. “You know him?”
Adam’s mouth twisted in a grimace. “I’ve seen him ‘train’ a horse before. Nothing as bad as you, but I can believe it of him.”
“He’s got a scar down the side of his face now where that horse kicked him before he went down. Limps, too. I think he got stepped on.”
“Reaps what he sows,” Adam said.
“From Job, in the Bible: They that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.”
Joe sat silently in his lap for a moment, the only sound that of the clop clopping of their horses’ hooves on the road. “So,” he said, “he planted meanness and got it back.”
“In spades.” Adam shook his head. “He’s lucky to be alive. Is he still training horses?”
“I dunno. Pa won’t let me anywhere near him.”
Adam laughed. “Well, I can’t blame him for that. I don’t think I’d let you anywhere near him either, at least till you’re a bit more grown.”
Joe stiffened. “I’m grown up – or I’m gonna be soon!”
“Joe,” Adam said, “I’ll bet Pa doesn’t think I’m grown up enough to deal with someone like Jackson Tarr!”
His idyll was shattered on the eighth day.
It was just before dawn, Saturday morning, and Adam Cartwright was sneaking out of the house. He laughed at himself – if his father caught him, he’d be likely to think he’d been out all night and was sneaking back in. He’d gotten some suspicious looks last night when he said he was turning in early, but in fact, he was. He wanted to get up and be out on the range by dawn. Today was all his, for himself, and he’d chosen to spend it at Heaven’s Meadows with his horse.
He grinned as he rode out into the brisk morning air. Sport was more and more interested in him, and had even let him take the first steps towards mounting – leaning on his back. He’d run his hands all over the animal’s body time and again, and Sport no longer shivered in reaction. It had taken surprisingly little time. He was reminded of that first night when he’d soothed the foal; now the adult was reacting the same way.
He slowed as he approached the meadow. Sport’s band was getting used to Billyboy, but he didn’t want to take any chances on chasing them away. He knew that, wherever the mares went, Sport would go, too. He’d used to think that a stallion chose where his band lived, but he’d spotted a mare who seemed to be in charge. Oh, she didn’t usually challenge the stallion, but she knew where the water holes were, where the best grass was, and which hillside would protect from the wind yet let the warm sun bake their bodies.
Sport would follow behind, nipping at the heels of any who lagged behind, then would range to one side and the other, watching for predators, making sure all were safe. He wove among the herd like a snake, running easily twice the distance of any of the mares. He was beautiful as he moved effortlessly among the shifting bodies, twisting, flexible, quick to turn, to pivot from one direction instantly to another.
Adam could hardly wait to ride him.
Well, that was what he intended to do today. He hadn’t wanted to stick around the house until someone could come with him; he knew he’d need as much time as he could get. And it wasn’t as if Pa and Hoss and Joe couldn’t figure out where he was and come find him.
The horses were grazing at the meadow, just as he’d hoped, and Sport was outlined on the top of the ridge, watching over them. He hobbled his mount and tied the reins around the saddlehorn so they wouldn’t drag; Billyboy would be able to graze, but wouldn’t wander too far. He then pulled a soft white rope from his saddlebag. It was too pliable to make an effective lariat, but Adam had no intention of startling his horse at this point by trying to lasso him. No, the rope was to make an improvised halter, something he knew how to put on in a few quick twists.
He approached the herd on foot, careful not to crash through the brush, but not silently, either. They would know he was here, but he didn’t want to startle them. Sport tossed his head, then ran down the slight hill until he stood about ten feet in front of Adam, as usual, between him and the herd.
Adam whistled low and soft, and Sport pawed at the ground. He whickered, deep in his throat, a contented sound that also managed to sound somehow curious.
“We’re gonna try to start our partnership today, that’s what,” Adam answered. He raised a few coils of rope into the air and held it there. The horse sniffed the air, then stepped forward slowly until he could stretch out his neck and just reach it. He snuffled at it, but since Adam had taken the precaution of rubbing it against his body so it would have a familiar smell on it, the horse just snorted and shook his head, sending his mane flying.
Adam raised a hand, but didn’t try to touch him. Sport’s ears twitched, pricked to the front, a quick twist back towards the herd, then to the front again. He nuzzled Adam’s hand, shifting his head around so that Adam’s fingers were on what had turned out to be a favorite spot for a rub. Adam obliged, and Sport dropped his eyelids and almost dozed for a moment.
Adam could barely breathe, but he forced the air in and out, in and out. Delight bubbled up from somewhere deep inside, but he kept it pushed down. He had to remain calm.
Left hand rubbing behind Sport’s ear, he ran his right, still holding the rope, down the horse’s neck and along his back. He murmured soft, soothing words, nothing that would have made sense to anyone listening, but a language they both understood. He ran his hand back up to Sport’s head, and prepared to slip the rope over his nose. Sport threw his head up and turned back to the herd, alerted by some noise.
In a heartbeat, without really thinking, Adam dropped the rope and grabbed hold of the thick mane. Sport tensed, and Adam jumped. The horse leaped forward, and Adam went with him, sliding belly down over the withers, then he got one leg over and pulled himself upright. It was a darn-fool move, and Adam knew it, but the stallion was moving full out now, and there was no way to get down. Nor did he want to.
The gallop was smooth, with springy power from his hindquarters that Adam easily adjusted to, even bareback. They were headed back to the herd, and Adam felt as well as heard the clarion call of the stallion. The mares lifted their heads first and began to move, foals bleated their anger at the sudden interruption of their meal but trotted alongside, and the yearlings started circling, looking for whatever threat had gotten their stallion riled.
Sport swerved toward the nearest mare and nipped at her haunches to get her moving faster. He ran to the head of the herd and crowded the lead mare. Head up, she turned into the foothills, aiming towards the canyons.
The stallion circled the group, running faster than Adam would have believed. He leaned forward, keeping his balance with ease, his long legs an iron band around Sport’s girth. He could feel the powerful muscles bunching and releasing, the heat and sweat leaching through his pants, searing his skin.
The mares were galloping, yet Sport ran faster, driving them, pushing them together, snaking his head along the ground to make them go where he wanted. He twisted to the right, to the left, his body never straight. Adam felt like he was riding a wild, plunging river, a torrent that tossed him, battered him, until he hardly knew where he was.
They were headed for an opening in the rocks that led to a canyon, but a foal missed the entrance and dashed to the left. Sport took out after it, nearly unseating Adam, but he had his hands locked with fistfuls of mane and was able to pull himself back. When they reached the foal, Sport slid to a stop on his haunches and Adam was banged against his neck, then nearly slid to the ground. But Sport was in motion again, his jaws nipping at the foal’s heels and driving the youngster back towards the herd. The foal slipped, then got his feet under him and raced toward his mother, and Sport turned again to the back of the herd. Adam hung on with the sure knowledge that if he fell onto the rocks at this speed, he’d never survive. Head whirling, nausea twisting his stomach, he grabbed hold of more mane.
Sport pushed past the herd to take the lead, and plunged down the banks of a small stream. Water splashed in all directions, blessed coolness soaking them and seeming to take the fire from Sport’s eyes. He slowed to a canter, then a jog. Exhausted, Adam lost what was left of his balance and fell off.
He came out of darkness to the squeal of horses and the discovery that he was wet. The sound of hooves thundered by and dust choked him as he tried to drag himself to his feet. He ached all over and he knew he’d feel worse tomorrow, but, oh, God, it had been worth it. He looked around and saw that he’d landed in the stream which, fortunately for him, wasn’t very deep. Horses were milling around, restlessly tossing their heads, snorting, stamping, stirring up dust to the point he couldn’t see more than a few feet. He whistled low and long and heard Sport whinny in answer, but the horse didn’t come to him.
Then he realized he could hear the creak of saddles and the swish of ropes in the air. He looked around wildly and found there were four horsemen surrounding the little herd, one of them, a big man on a buckskin, getting ready to cast a rope toward Sport. Without thinking, he waded out of the stream and stomped over to him.
“Hey!” he called out. “That’s my horse!”
The man jerked, and his lariat fell short. The stallion backed further against the canyon walls and tossed his head.
“He belongs to whoever catches him,” the man yelled, and started to build his loop again.
“I already caught him, him and his band. They’re mine!”
One of the other men laughed. “I don’t see no rope on him. Hey Jackson, this kid thinks he’s got a rope on that horse.”
Jackson! Oh, no, moaned Adam to himself. He couldn’t let these horses, especially Sport, be caught by Jackson Tarr. “I’m telling you, I’ve been working with him for over two weeks, now, and he’s mine.”
Tarr kneed his horse around to face him. “You been workin’ this horse for two weeks, he should be in a corral by now with a saddle on him. I think you’re lying.”
“I’m not lying; I just choose a better way of breaking a horse than you use.”
Tarr rode up to him, then stepped down off his horse. “You’re that snot-nosed Cartwright boy, just back from u-ni-ver-si-tee, ain’t you?”
Adam stood his ground. “And if I am?”
Tarr walked slowly around him, and Adam turned to keep him in sight.
“Seems to me you forgot how things is done out here while you’ve been off gettin’ that fancy ed-u-ca-shun. Seems to me you don’t remember how a horse belongs to the man who catches him.”
“I’ve been training him every day, down by Silver Creek. He’s been living on the Ponderosa, and he belongs to me.”
Tarr took his time and gazed around the canyon. “Well, we ain’t on the Ponderosa now, boy, and you ain’t got a brand on him, so I say that makes him fair game. Since I’m the one with the rope, I’ll be the one takin’ him home.”
Adam stepped forward until there was no more than a foot between them and said through gritted teeth, “No. He’s mine.”
Suddenly he felt a loop drop over his head. He tried to raise his arms, but it tightened around his chest, and then he was yanked off his feet. Even with the wind knocked out of him, he knew he had to get the coil off. It loosened for just for a moment, and he grabbed it and got one arm out. A second yank on the rope spun him off-balance and he fell to one knee but managed to get it off the rest of the way.
A shadow fell over him and he looked up to see Jackson Tarr standing over him.
“Give it up, kid, while you’re ahead.”
“No,” he gasped.
Tarr grabbed his shirt and dragged him to his feet. “Give it up and go home!”
Adam just glared at him. “No.”
Tarr’s fist came out of nowhere, and Adam felt like a rock hit him on the side of the face. Dizzy, he would have fallen if not for Tarr’s grip on him. He swiped at his mouth, felt wetness on his hand. “He’s mine,” he said, and sank a fist in the big man’s gut.
Tarr took him to the ground when he fell. Adam landed hard, but tried to roll away. Jackson still had a fist twined in his shirt, though, and the fabric tore as he broke away. He scrambled to his feet and saw Tarr getting up. He launched himself at him, landing a right and a left in his stomach, but then Tarr broke through his guard and shot one through to his belly that laid him flat on his back. Gasping for air, he saw Sport rising on his hind legs, two ropes around his neck, held between two of Tarr’s riders.
Then he caught a swift glimpse of a boot, tried to jerk away, and his head exploded.
He felt a touch on his shoulder.
Adam, wake up son.
The voice was soft, insistent. He felt a familiar palm rest on his forehead, then slip down to cup his sore cheek. His breath came out a quiet moan.
“That’s it, boy. Time to come back to us.”
He didn’t want to wake up. He ached everywhere and his head was pounding, but it was too late now to slip back into the darkness. He raised a hand to press against his eyes, but his father – he knew him by his touch as much as by his voice – pressed it back down.
“Leave that alone for now. Can you look at me?”
The light was blinding until a shadow moved over him. He pried his eyes open to see his father’s face hovering over him, blotting the sun from view.
“Is he gonna be okay?” he heard Hoss ask.
He tried to swallow, but his throat was parched. His eyes closed themselves against his will – he was so tired.
“Give me the canteen, Hoss, then go get Charlie and have him bring the wagon up. I don’t think your brother is going to be up to riding.”
He felt cool metal at his lips, then water touched them. He opened his mouth, wincing against the soreness, but the water felt so good, cooling his throat, that he didn’t mind the ache.
“That’s it,” Ben murmured. “Just a sip more.”
He opened his eyes again and this time saw his brother’s worried face next to his father’s. “ ’m okay,” he croaked.
“That’s as may be,” said his father with a touch of asperity.
Adam looked at him, saw a faint thread of anger touch his expression before it went back to worry. He struggled to sit up, gasping at his stiff, painful muscles. “What happened?” he asked, head spinning.
“According to Hoss, you must’ve taken a tumble off that horse. He followed you out here and saw you and the herd headed into the canyons. He rode back to get me, afraid something just like this would happen.” His touch was gentle as he helped Adam to his feet, even if his voice was starting to rise. “I warned you about working with a stallion, that they’re dangerous, and yet you went off on your own.”
He was working himself up into a fine fit, not that Adam really blamed him.
“And here you are, bucked off and knocked out and who knows what all else wrong with you!”
“No—” He swayed, grabbed onto his father’s arm. “Not Sport’s fault.”
Ben steadied him over into the shade. “I know, a good horseman doesn’t blame the horse for acting true to his nature. But son, you should have waited until we had him into a corral before you tried to ride him.”
“Didn’t plan it – just happened,” he muttered. He covered his eyes as he settled to the ground. “Should’ve gotten him home somehow. Shouldn’t have left him on the range. . .” He groaned. “Oh, Pa, what am I gonna do?”
“You’re going to sit right there until Charlie gets here with the wagon, then you’re going to lie down in it until we get home. And then you’re going to spend the next couple days in bed until I’m convinced you’re well.”
Adam looked up, aghast. “I can’t, Pa – I gotta find him. Gotta find him and get him back.”
“Back?” Ben thundered. “You’re not to go near that horse again. I won’t hear of it. He nearly killed you, kicking you in the ribs and the head, and you want to try again?”
Adam shook his head slowly. The world was beginning to fade out and he had trouble putting his thoughts together. “You don’t understand,” he murmured. “I gotta— gotta find him– gotta get him back—” His stomach cramped and he balled up around it with a small cry.
“Just rest.” Ben gathered him into his arms, calm again in the face of his son’s distress. “We can talk it over later.”
He tried once more to tell his father what had really happened, but the pain in his heart and all of his body’s aches and bruises finally caught up to him, and he gave in to the darkness.
Adam missed church the next day. That was fine with him, as his murderous mood was completely incompatible with any kind of spiritual communion. He figured God would understand this once, and he could say whatever prayers he wanted from his bed as well as in a pew. His father had taken his brothers only after Adam repeatedly told him that he’d be fine – nothing was broken after all. He assured Ben that he intended to spend the morning sleeping or, at the most, reading; that he wouldn’t try to get dressed and go downstairs until they were home again; and finally, that he had Hop Sing to yell at him if he even tried to get out of bed. He really didn’t need his family to hang around waiting on him.
He breathed a sigh of relief when they finally left. His brothers had pestered him unmercifully, Joe in wide-eyed wonder at Hoss’s description of his ride, both of them wanting more details than his headache could stand. His father was concerned for his health, of course, but Adam could see the upcoming lecture in his eyes. He really was too tired to explain it all right now – he’d suffered beatings before and not been so debilitated, but the ride on Sport had worn him out first.
He remembered the ride with mingled pleasure and pain. The stallion was magnificent. He was fast, powerful, smart, and it seemed he could run forever. He was quick on his feet, too, considering how big he was. Most men who worked with cows wanted a smaller horse, one that could turn on a two-bit piece and give change, but Adam would willingly give up some of that quickness to be able to ride Sport. If he had to do herd cutting, well, most cowboys had more than one horse in their string. The stallion, though, would be a great range horse. Even his growing up in the wild was a benefit – he was wilderness smart in a way that a barn-raised horse could never be.
But these thoughts just led Adam back to a brooding depression. His father thought he ought to leave well enough alone – there were other horses he could have. Ben’s mouth had tightened when Adam had finally told him that Jackson Tarr was responsible for most of his bruises, and he became even more vehement that Adam should forget Sport.
He knew what his father was thinking. Tarr had already beaten Adam once – it was likely he’d have no hesitation in accusing Adam of horse-stealing if he tried to get Sport back.
What can I do? was the refrain that went round and round in Adam’s mind. He simply could not leave the stallion in Tarr’s hands.
He turned onto his side and bunched his pillow so it didn’t press against his sore jaw. And what was his horse suffering even now while he lay here? His father was experienced in the ways of the world, a wise man who’d learned many lessons the hard way. He’d advised his son to move on, to find another horse rather than take on Jackson Tarr and try to rescue what was now likely a brutalized stallion. It would be the wise thing to do.
He wrenched the covers off and pushed himself up to sit on the edge of the bed. His muscles protested and his head swam, but he forced himself not to give in to his weakness. He had to get well, and do it fast. For wise his father’s advice might be, but it was wrong. He couldn’t leave the horse in Tarr’s hands. Even if he had to let Sport go, it would be better than letting him be broken while he sat up here in his room nursing his bruises. He had a moment’s hesitation over his promises to his father. Hadn’t he just been thinking that he was willing to be guided by his father’s wisdom? He knew, though, that this was the right thing to do. What was it Joe had told him Pa said? Sometimes we have to make it through things on our own. He sighed. “Pa will just have to get over it.”
If only it had been that simple. Since he was still too dizzy to get up, he’d lain back down like a good little boy, and even slept for a while. When his family got home, he put up with their coddling and took advantage of every chance to conserve his strength. He shooed them out of his room early that evening, saying he needed to sleep, but instead, he tried to get up again. It was better this time. He was stiff and sore – oh, was he stiff! – but he could get around. He washed and shaved, checked to make sure he had clothes ready for the next morning, then went to bed, well aware that there was nothing else he could do that night.
Dawn found him on the road to Eagle Station, a note to his father left propped on his neatly made bed and a roll from Hop Sing’s kitchen in his pocket. He could live with his sore muscles this morning, but he dearly wished they’d loosen up – he was bouncing around in the saddle like a novice. Billyboy let his irritation be known with head-tossing and snorts.
After a half-hour or so, he’d warmed enough that the knots in his back began to loosen. He settled deeper into the saddle and began to make plans. He’d try town first, ask around to find out if anyone knew where Jackson Tarr was working his horses. He would make sure that everyone he talked with understood that he’d been working with the stallion, and hopefully that would hold off any charges of horse-stealing. He had to make sure he had the important people in town on his side – with no sheriff, they’d be the ones to pronounce judgment.
He stopped at Eagle Station’s only restaurant for breakfast, but didn’t learn anything useful. He started his story going with the owner who was a notorious gossip, then paid his bill and headed for the general store. There were several men already gathered around the stove, drinking coffee, playing cards and telling lies. It was August, that was true, but when the wind blew down off the mountains on a chilly, overcast morning, a hot cup of coffee was always welcome.
Stu Wilson, who’d known the Cartwrights since they arrived in the Carson Valley, told him that Tarr had set up in the corral at the south end of town behind the livery. Wilson was a friendly man who always seemed to know everyone and everything that was going on, but he was also truthful and fair, and the entire town knew it. He gave Adam a troubled look but stayed away from giving advice where he knew it wouldn’t be welcome. Adam was grateful for his reserve, but when he left the store and Wilson and his friends followed, he was glad to have him at his back.
As Adam approached the livery, he heard the furious squeal of a horse. He rounded the building at a run and skidded to a halt at the rails. It was Sport, his head snubbed to the top of a fencepost by a heavy bridle, back weighed by a roping saddle with both girths fastened tight under his belly, one back leg tied up to the girths. As Adam watched, horrified, the horse lost his balance and fell, held only by the bridle. His front hooves raked at the post and the rails, his eyes rolled white in their sockets, and bloody froth spattered from his mouth.
“That’ll teach you,” cried Tarr. He headed for the horse, but Adam was over the fence and on him before he got two steps. He didn’t even bother to try talking to him, just knocked him flat and started hitting. The jaw first, to try to knock him out. He got in two blows before Tarr rolled out from under him, but the bigger man was dazed. He took a swing at Adam but missed, and Adam drove in again with a hard left to the belly followed by another right to the jaw. This time when Tarr went down, he didn’t get up.
Adam turned his back on him and faced the men who stood on the other side of the corral. The cheering died down under his fierce glare. He wiped at the corner of his mouth where it had split open and said, “Get him out of here.”
“But Mister,” said someone he didn’t know, “that’s his horse. He’s got a right to break it how he sees fit.”
The rage built up inside. “That is not his horse! That is my horse that he stole from me, that I’ve been working with out on the range for well over two weeks.” He took a deep breath to calm himself, but his next words still came out bellowed: “Get . . . him . . . out of here . . . now!”
Two men he recognized as riding with Tarr entered the corral and sidled over to their boss. They each grabbed an arm and hauled him to the gate. Someone opened it to let them out, but Adam turned his attention back to his horse.
“Oh, fella,” he whispered. “What did he do to you?”
He took a step forward, but Sport tried to rise up and kick at him. He remembered Joe’s words, I don’t want him turning killer – he could, y’know, and realized the danger he was in. He groaned. “Gotta be done, though, or I may as well shoot him.”
“Might be best, son,” came a voice from behind him.
Adam shook his head. “I have to try, Pa.”
Ben moved in front of him, between him and the horse. He handed him a knife. “Use this – it’s sharp.” He gestured to the rail where Hoss and Joe were standing, mouths open. “I’ll be over there with your brothers, with my rifle.”
Adam looked at Sport, whose eyes were wild with hurt and fear. He swallowed, then nodded. “All right, Pa; that’s fair.”
Ben backed out, leaving the corral empty except for his son and a pain-maddened stallion.
Adam approached the horse slowly, one step at a time, talking in a low voice. He didn’t know if he could calm the horse before getting him released from the ropes, but he had to move as fast as he could. The way Sport was pawing the air with his front legs, he could easily get one caught in the railings and snap it.
Sport twisted wildly and Adam stopped, afraid to take another step, yet afraid not to. He felt the knife, a heavy weight in his right hand, and calculated where he’d cut first. The leg – it had to be. If Sport could get back up on his feet, he’d be reassured. But how to get close enough . . .
“Hey, fella, remember me? We’ve been friends a long time. I’ve never hurt you, and I’m gonna fix you up in no time.”
Sport just rolled his eyes at him and neighed wildly.
Adam moved a step closer, About two more, and I’ll be able to get to him. Gotta be fast, though. Soon as he feels that leg hit the ground, he’s likely to be up and moving.
He moved closer to the horse’s haunches, bunched and sweaty. The flaming chestnut coat was muted to black with wet, even in the cool morning air. He could smell the tang, caught up in the dust that swirled around them. One more step . . .
A quick cut and the leg was down. Adam leaped back and just missed being trampled as Sport jumped to his feet and swung around. Head still snubbed to the post, he couldn’t go far, but his hind legs were long and the hooves were deadly.
The first problem dealt with, Adam faced the next. He climbed out of the corral and walked slowly around to where the horse was tied.
“Best get that saddle off first,” yelled someone, “less’n you’re gonna ride him.”
Adam ignored the man; he’d already intended to deal with the saddle next. The back cinch of a roping saddle was never intended to be drawn tight – it irritated the delicate skin of the belly if it stayed there too long. He’d have to work from outside the corral; there was too much danger that Sport would crush him against the rails if he tried to stand next to him. Adam didn’t believe that Sport would deliberately try to hurt him, but he knew the horse wasn’t really aware of exactly who was around him. Maybe . . .
He started to sing the same lullaby he’d soothed the horse with before. He kept his voice soft on the haunting melody:
Don’t you cry
Go to sleepy, little baby
Sport shifted restlessly over to the rail, and Adam grabbed for the back cinch. He held tight with his left hand while he undid the buckle with his right. It was awkward, but he got it unfastened. Now for the main cinch.
When you wake
You shall have
All the pretty little horses . . .
He got the stirrup hooked over the saddlehorn before Sport moved away. He waited patiently until he shifted back, and got the leather strap pulled free of two loops before losing hold. The saddle was loosening, and the next time Sport came near, he got all but the last loop undone. Sport crow-hopped twice, and the saddle went flying. He shook himself, but neighed in anger at still being tied.
One move. He could cut him loose in one move if he could get close enough. All he had to do was sever the strap that ran behind the ears, and the bridle would fall right off.
Easier said than done, of course.
Blacks and bays,
Dapples and greys,
All the pretty little horses . . .
He climbed up onto the bottom rail. Sport eyed him, and danced to one side. Adam climbed up one more rail and allowed the horse to get used to him. He touched him gently on the nose, but Sport jerked his head back. Fresh blood stained the froth at the side of his mouth. Now or never, Adam thought. He leaned forward, grabbed the head-piece and sawed at the leather. The knife was sharp, as his father promised, and he got most of the way through it when Sport jerked again. The knife fell to the ground, Adam threw himself backwards, and Sport tried to rear. The leather broke, the bit clattered from his teeth, and he was free.
Adam watched from flat on his back as the stallion raced around the corral, snapping at anyone still foolish enough to be hanging over the top rail. The shadows of his father and two brothers fell across his face. Hoss was excited, Joe terrified, Ben a mix of angry and concerned.
Adam scrambled to his knees and opened his arms to his youngest brother. “I’m all right, Joe.”
The boy flung himself into his arms. “I was so scared; I thought you might get hurt like that man did before—”
“What on earth—?” Ben started, then clamped his jaw shut.
Adam nodded, but kept his attention on his brother. “I listened to what you told me, Joe, and so I didn’t get hurt.”
Joe pulled back a little and stared at him. “You—you listened to me?”
“Sure did. You warned me what could happen, so I was careful and now I’m okay.”
A new look came into Joe’s eyes, not just relief that his brother was safe, but something born of the confidence Adam had placed in him.
Adam rose the rest of the way to his feet slowly, his painful muscles reminding him that he wasn’t healed up yet. He kept one hand on his brother’s shoulder, but faced his father. “I’m all right,” he reassured him.
Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We’ll have a talk about all of this, boy, but right now you have another problem.”
Adam rubbed at the back of his neck. The stallion still paced around the corral, restlessly looking for a way out. The rails were high enough that Adam didn’t think he’d try to jump, but you just didn’t know with some horses. The drive for freedom was strong, and when Adam added to that the experiences the horse had just been through, he couldn’t blame him for trying to escape.
Although the men who’d been watching had moved back from the rails, they still hung around, waiting to see what would happen next. They didn’t have to wait long, and a swell of murmuring alerted Adam that something was going on. He soon saw what it was: Jackson Tarr was back.
“You!” The big man stalked over to him, tried to cow him with his bulk, but Adam refused to back down. “You’re tryin’ to take my horse!”
Adam pitched his voice so that it could be heard by everyone. “He’s my horse. Just like I told these folks. I’d been working with him for over two weeks when you rode up and took him. I’m willing to call it an honest mistake and leave it at that, but you’re not getting him back.”
“He was running free with a herd, on free land, so he belongs to whoever got a rope on him first.”
“That would be me, then,” Adam shot back.
“I didn’t see no rope. All I saw was a stallion in a canyon with a herd, and you takin’ a nap in a creek.”
“That’s because I rode him in there to work him.”
Tarr snorted with laughter. “You rode him?” He swept his arm at the crowd. “You folks believe that? That this boy rode that stallion?”
Stu Wilson’s voice called out from the back. “If Adam Cartwright said he rode that horse, I believe him. An’ if he rode it, that means he was trainin’ it, and that makes it his.”
“Well, I say he didn’t ride him. He can’t prove he did, so the horse is mine. I brought him in on the end of a rope, and all of you saw it.”
The crowd murmured, some taking Tarr’s part, others believing Adam.
Wilson bulled his way to the front. “Seems to me we got a simple answer starin’ us in the face,” he said. “If Adam can ride the horse, then that proves he’s been workin’ him.”
Adam held his best poker face, but his stomach was tight with dismay. Would Sport allow himself to be ridden? Especially now, after what had been done to him?
Tarr looked at the stallion, who was still running from one side of the corral to the other, head tossing, eyes wild. The smile that grew on his face was delighted, cruel. “All right, Wilson. But let’s make it interesting. Say, a run out to the hot springs and back, winner takes the horse.”
The men roared their approval, and someone even started taking bets.
Adam gazed at Tarr, sure the man was planning more than a simple race. Not that racing Sport would be simple. He nodded. “All right, under one condition.”
“Ah!” spat Tarr. “Shoulda known Cartwright couldn’t measure up. Whaddaya want, a babysitter to ride alongside?”
Now Adam knew the man was planning something. “No,” he answered easily. “But the horse has had a hard morning. He needs a day’s rest before trying something like this.”
“I don’t got a day! I gotta get them horses on the trail. I got a contract to meet with the Army.”
Ben moved to his son’s side and held him back with a hand on his arm. “Not yet, son,” he murmured. To the group, he said, “Then we’ll do it this afternoon. Four o’clock. That’ll give the horse as much time as possible to rest up, but still meet your deadline.”
Stu looked at Adam. “Agreed?”
He knew it was the best he was going to get. “Agreed.”
They turned to Tarr. He didn’t want the delay, but when he looked to the men around him for support, they were waiting for his answer. He gave in. “Agreed.”
Hoss and Adam had finally gotten Sport to settle a bit by offering a bucket of water and some warm mash that Hoss said would be “easier on his mouth.” It took several passes, but the stallion finally slowed, stopped, then stared at the food. They backed off, and he moved toward it. They were the only ones at the corral for now, and although the horse eyed them every now and then, he seemed to be adjusting to their presence. Ben and Joe had gone off to the restaurant, to eat and get some food to bring back. Adam knew Ben would take as long as he could, though. Sport didn’t need all those people around, and Joe didn’t need to be watching a wild stallion for hours, wondering if the animal was going to kill his oldest brother.
Hoss leaned his chin on his hands where they rested on the top rail and studied him. “I don’t know. Skittish as he is, he’s not gonna want anyone near him, let alone on his back.”
Adam grimaced. “I have to do it, though. If I don’t . . . I don’t even want to think about it. He’s settled a lot, Hoss, but I don’t know what he’ll do when we throw a saddle on him. I never got that far with him.”
Hoss watched the horse lift his dripping muzzle from the bucket of water and stare at them. “He don’t know what he’ll do, either. He ain’t too sure about people right now, but I think he might be willing to give you a chance, if you can remind him who you are.”
“But his mouth is nearly ruined. I can’t use a bit on him this soon. I’d never get him to trust me again.”
“Well, then don’t,” Hoss answered reasonably. “He don’t know what a bridle’s for anyway, so you may as well just use a halter. From what I’ve seen of him, I think he’ll do better readin’ off of your legs and seat, anyway.”
They were quiet for a long while, just leaning on the top rail and thinking. Eventually Adam stood. “What if I didn’t use a saddle either?”
“That’s plumb crazy, brother! How do you expect to stick on him without a saddle?”
“I don’t know, but I think if I put a saddle on him now, he’ll fight it so hard we won’t get out of town, let alone win a race.”
Hoss thought about it. “Yep, I’d say you got it right. Y’know, if you could stick to that animal when he was rounding up his mares, I’d bet you could stick on a straight, flat-out race. You better count on being able to stay with him for a good ten, fifteen minutes, though.”
“Well, it seemed like at least an hour the other day.” He took off his hat, ran his bandana along the inside band and put it back on. “I’m gonna have to try it, but Pa’s sure to have a fit.”
“Won’t be the first time. And there aint’ no other way I can see to make it work.”
“Me, either.” Adam sighed. “Well, I’d better get started. We don’t have all that much time.”
He walked around the outside of the rails to where they’d put out the food, hunkered down and started humming the lullaby that always came to mind when he remembered the little colt he’d first made friends with. He grabbed a batch of grass from outside the corral and held it near the horse’s nose. Sport flicked his ears in his direction. His nostrils drew in the man-scented air, then blew it out with a snort. He lifted his head and shook it, mane tossing wildly. He didn’t back off, though.
Adam just stayed where he was, still as could be. “Do you remember me, boy? Do you remember how we played in the meadow? How you let me walk next to you, rub behind your ear?”
Sport didn’t move, but his eyes watched him.
He rose carefully, walked slowly to the entrance to the corral. He heard the steady clop, clop of hooves behind him. It didn’t sound like the horse was headed for the gate on his own but rather that he was simply following him. “Hoss, unlatch the gate for me, and when I slip through, get it latched again real quick.”
Hoss looked like he wanted to argue, but they both knew it had to be done. If Adam never went into the corral, he’d never get up on the horse’s back, and then Sport would be lost, without even trying. Sport hesitated when he got within a few yards of Hoss, not sure of this stranger.
“Hey, big fella,” Hoss said. “Nothin’ to worry about here. Ol’ Adam’s just gonna come in and say hi to you.”
Sport halted, unsure, but he didn’t back off. When Adam slid through the gate, though, he whirled and raced to the far side of the ring. Adam whistled, long and low, and the horse shook himself all over.
Adam walked to the food and water, in the opposite direction. Sport watched him, his muscles bunched, ready to flee, but when the man didn’t come toward him, he began to relax. Adam hunkered down and pulled some more grass from outside the rails. The sound of tearing attracted Sport, and when Adam dipped his hand in the water and let the drops run freely back into the bucket, the gentle plip-plops made him curious. He walked toward Adam, swishing tail expressing his confusion, and stopped two paces away.
Adam dropped the grass and picked up the bucket, then turned with it, holding it at a convenient height for the horse. Sport stretched out his nose, snuffled, and when nothing moved, he dipped just the end of his nose into the water and drank.
The bucket was heavy, but Adam didn’t dare move until Sport was finished. This was the first test, and it looked like he’d been accepted so far. When Sport drew back, water dripping from his muzzle, Adam slowly set the bucket down, careful not to let it make any clanging noises. Then he stood back up and raised a hand slowly to the animal’s neck. He stroked it once, felt the quivering skin, stroked the same spot again. Then he turned and walked away, to the side of the corral opposite his brother. Sport whickered low and soft in his throat, and followed. Adam headed back to the tub of mash, and Sport walked after him. Adam turned to go back to the middle of the corral, and Sport moved with him.
Adam grinned. It was a slow, quiet version of the game they used to play, but it was a start.
The route of the race had been set informally as starting at the center of town, going to the hot springs and then back, a run of about five miles. The details were left to the participants. Riders went out ahead to make sure that both participants did, indeed, make it to the springs, and Stu Wilson was elected to be starter and finishing judge.
Tarr was already waiting on his big buckskin, mounted and ready to go, when Adam walked up leading Sport, his family following, but not too close.
“You givin’ up before we even start, boy?” He reached out a hand to take the lead rope.
“Nope,” Adam answered. Sport danced away, smelling the man who’d hurt him.
“Well, where’s your saddle and bridle? Ain’t you gonna saddle up?”
“Nope.” He slid the loose end of the lead rope over Sport’s neck and tied it to the other side of the halter, making a loop that would serve for reins. Every move was deliberate, careful, and he made sure to stay in full sight of the horse.
He worried about the hard day the horse had already had, but when he broached his doubts to his father, Ben squeezed his shoulder and said, “Tarr’s mount can’t possibly be in the same condition as Sport, son. And the way he treats his animals, he doesn’t get an ounce of effort that he doesn’t beat out of them.” He watched the chestnut stallion prance around the corral. “I think, if he decides to let you ride him, that horse will run his heart out for you.”
So now he stood at the starting line, facing north out of town, and it all came down to this moment. He’d worked with Sport all afternoon, running his hands over his body until he didn’t shiver any more, putting his weight on the horse’s back until he settled, doing everything short of actually getting on him.
He led the way to the boardwalk on the other side of the street from Tarr. He could have jumped up on the horse’s back, but wanted to do everything as smoothly as possible. The extra six inches made it easy to lean his full weight on Sport, then slide a leg over his back, and he was astride. Hoss gathered the reins under Sport’s chin and led him to the starting line, holding him in place. Adam was grateful for the help – he knew his horse didn’t understand what was happening. He caught a glimpse of his youngest brother, excited, and his father, worried. Ben raised a hand in salute, though, and that simple gesture heartened him.
Stu raised his pistol and shouted out, “Ready, Set, Go!” and Tarr was off with the sound of the shot. Sport, though, went straight up in the air, and Adam would have slid off his back and ended the race right then if he hadn’t taken the precaution of winding his hands in the mane.
He threw his weight forward and Sport came down, then lunged forward off his powerful haunches, almost unseating Adam again. Adam got himself balanced and checked the road in front of them. Tarr was leaving a plume of dust in the air at least fifty yards ahead of them, but Adam had faith that if he could keep Sport pointed in the right direction, he had the speed to overtake the buckskin.
Getting him pointed in the right direction was the next challenge. There was a turn up ahead, and if they didn’t take it, they’d lose precious minutes getting to the hot springs. Experimentally, he took up the slack on the right rein, slid his left leg back just a bit and pressed in while shifting his balance ever so slightly onto his right seat bone. Sport’s body curved naturally to the right, turning them back into the hanging dust from Tarr’s horse that marked the path to the northeast.
Adam resettled his weight to his center and squeezed equally with both legs. Sport stretched out more, though Adam knew from his wild ride to the canyons that he still had more speed. Time enough for that later – they were barely a mile into the race.
The ground was good for running, a hard-packed combination of dirt and salt and sand that made his eyes tear but didn’t bog a horse down. The land undulated slightly, and Tarr periodically appeared and disappeared over small hills and into dips and valleys. It was an advantage to be behind for now, because Adam didn’t really know the terrain. He knew that whatever Tarr did, he could, too, so he just concentrated on trying to close the gap between them and let the wilderness-wise horse decide the best way to maneuver among the rocks and sagebrush.
By the time they approached the hot springs, they’d closed the gap to a few yards. Adam could hear the straining breaths of the buckskin, punctuated by Tarr’s curses. He encouraged his own mount with his legs, his hands and his seat, well aware that he had to remain perfectly balanced or he’d come off. It wasn’t easy to do, bareback. He missed the comfort and stability of a saddle, but he knew from the feelings coming through the reins that the horse was barely able to tolerate his rider as it was.
He guided Sport to the left, again bending the horse’s body and slipping his weight so the horse naturally turned the direction he wanted. They were closer now – Adam wanted to pass Tarr completely and run Sport as fast as he could back into town. He figured Tarr had some idea to help him win, and he wanted to be as far out of range as possible. Sport seemed determined to get as close to the buckskin as possible, though. His head was already at the buckskin’s haunches and he stretched even more. Then, when he’d gotten even with the buckskin’s withers, he laid his ears back and snapped at Tarr’s leg. Only Adam’s yank on the outside rein stopped Sport from ripping into Tarr’s thigh.
Still pounding south toward Eagle Station, Tarr reached out and tried to drive his fist into Sport’s cheek, but the horse pulled back, then went after him again. Adam kicked his horse in the ribs, but a howl of pain told Adam that Sport had succeeded. Adam booted him once more, and they bolted past the startled buckskin.
Adam worked to keep the horse on a straight line and moving forward; he wasn’t sure what would happen if they didn’t keep ahead of Tarr. They were halfway back to town when he felt Sport begin to falter. His breath was coming hard and loud, and his stride started to lose some of its grace. Adam risked a quick look back to find that Tarr was gaining on them. Even from this distance, Adam could see murder in the man’s eyes. He was whipping his horse unmercifully, terrifying the buckskin into a pace he would never be able to maintain.
They had to stay ahead. “Just a bit more, boy,” he begged, but Sport had heard the hoofbeats behind him, too. He wheeled, slid on his haunches in the dirt to face the buckskin straight on, and Adam started to slide. His legs lost their grip and he found himself hanging half off the side of his horse, hands still entwined in the mane, pulling Sport off-balance. He hauled himself back on, swung his right leg over again, but by then, Tarr was on them. Sport reared, screamed, and pawed at the buckskin, getting it in the side. The buckskin sat back onto his hind legs and, ignoring all signals from his rider, broke to the west. Adam wrenched Sport’s head around and kicked him hard, and they jumped back onto the trail again.
Sport was too tired to give Adam much more trouble. His breathing was labored, rough and loud, pounding with every step. Adam’s muscles felt like water, but he pulled together a last bit of strength and rode straight and balanced, trying to make his weight as easy to carry as possible. He could see Tarr and the buckskin from the corner of his eye. Tarr had gotten his horse pointed back in the right direction, and they were headed into town on a different path. Adam’s mind automatically cataloged angles and speed, and he groaned. If the horses kept their pace, they’d meet right at the edge.
So close! But he and Sport had to win! Adam couldn’t bear to have this strong, smart, sensitive animal left in the hands of a man like Jackson Tarr. He felt Sport stumble, catch himself, try to get his stride back.
But was he doing Sport any good himself, driving him to exhaustion like this? Would he end up doing the same as Tarr – in the name of “the right thing” – but with the same result, a broken-down horse?
The angle was closing; Tarr was grinning, a deathmask in a face streaked with white dust.
Adam knew he had to risk it. If Sport never raced again, he would at least have a good, safe home with someone who cared about him.
“We have to, boy,” he said under his breath. “We have to make it.”
And the horse responded. From somewhere deep in his great heart, he gathered himself and in a last burst of speed, beat the buckskin into town by two lengths.
“Oh,” Adam groaned. “I’m never gonna walk again.”
Hoss laughed as he stood at Sport’s side. They were in the middle of the corral again, both horse and rider’s heads hanging. Joe climbed up on the rail to watch. “C’mon, brother,” Hoss said, “just slide on off. I’ll catch you.”
“And who’s gonna catch you?”
“I will,” came the deep voice of their father. “Stu, would you please take the reins and hold Adam’s horse steady.”
My horse, Adam thought with a delighted smile. He really is— “my horse.”
“Not that you’ll be riding him again anytime soon,” Ben advised. “Now slide on off of him and let him get some rest.”
Adam allowed his father and brother to pull him off, and true to his prediction, he found he couldn’t even stand up. His legs were wobbly, and all the bruises and strains from two days before were reminding him that he hadn’t even healed up before adding more. He wouldn’t let them take him away from his horse, though. Worry threading his voice, he asked, “He’s not broken down, is he, Hoss?”
Hoss ran his hands over the exhausted animal. “Mr. Wilson, would you lead him a step or two?”
Stu pulled gently on the reins, and Sport moved with him. They headed for the water bucket while Hoss studied his gait.
“Naw, he’ll be okay after some rest.” He looked his brother up and down. “Looks to me like it’s gonna take you longer to get healed up than him.”
Ben handed his eldest a canteen. Adam tried to pull the stopper, but his hands were so stiff from holding onto the reins and Sport’s mane that he couldn’t get them to work right. Ben pulled it out with a soft snort of exasperation, then handed it back. Adam took a long, sweet drink, then pulled his kerchief from his neck, wet it, and rubbed it all over his face.
Ben shook his head and laughed. “I don’t think that helped much, son – your kerchief is as dusty as you are.”
“Doesn’t matter – feels good.”
He patted him on the shoulder. “How about we go over to the hotel with your little brother and get you a nice hot bath and a meal?”
“Sounds good, Pa, just as soon as Sport is settled.” His horse was lipping at a pile of grass Joe had collected, but didn’t seem too interested.
“Let Stu and Hoss take care of him, get him settled. You need to get some rest.”
“Hoss? Pa, he’s a range stallion!”
“He’s a very tired range stallion. I don’t think they’ll have any trouble with him.” He took his son by the shoulders and tried to turn him toward the gate.
Adam stopped, though, and whistled. Sport’s head came up and he trotted over, his gait looking as stiff and tired as Adam felt. Adam found the itchy spot behind his ears, stroked his neck, ran his hand down his horse’s nose. Sport nuzzled at his pockets, then nickered softly into his hand, and very, very quietly, Adam whispered, “You’re welcome.”