Any Horse You Can Ride, I Can Ride Faster (by DJK)

Summary:   A sequel to “To the Victors.”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:   7760


 

“I admit I’m not the best, Joe. Paul can beat me two out of every three times. I know that. Just I like I know that I’m a better rider than you, sugar, at least when it comes to racing.” Helen McNally’s southern accent became more pronounced as she teased the boy across from her.

“As I remember it, we’re even when it comes to racing,” Joe snapped back.

Helen smiled matter-of-factly. “Now, Joe, Cochise is a faster horse than Charger. Since they crossed the finish line together, the better rider must have been on Charger, don’t you agree?” Helen’s eyes held an impish glint. She knew that Joe would either have to admit she was the better rider or disparage his beloved pinto.

Joe Cartwright glared at the girl in front of him. “There’s no sense talking to you,” Joe avoided answering her question. He sprang up and walked back toward the house.

Two months before, both Joe and Helen had participated in the Founder’s Day Race. The race had ended in a tie. Only fifteen years old, they had been the youngest and the best racers that day, but the respect Joe had expected to receive from winning had been negated when the people in Virginia City had discovered that his co-winner Hal McNally was really Helen McNally. Joe had since heard too many barbs about him not being able to outrace a girl. Well, there had been twenty older riders who had not beaten her either which everyone seemed to ignore. Then there was Helen’s calm insistence that not only could her brother Paul outride Joe, but that Helen could too.

Helen’s family had come from Virginia the autumn before and started operating a horse ranch. The Founder’s Day Race had introduced the two families. Even though they were business competitors at times, the families had since become friends. Ben Cartwright and Ephraim McNally had a great deal in common and enjoyed many of the same pursuits. Joe’s older brothers, Adam and Hoss, had developed an enjoyable camaraderie with the McNally brothers. Joe even enjoyed Helen’s company when she was not goading him about who was the better rider or explaining how members of her family were the best at everything related to horses. According to Helen, seventeen-year-old Paul was the champion racer, twenty-year-old Jeff was unbeatable at driving a team, at twenty-four Alex could break and school any horse alive, and her father was the best judge of horseflesh in the country. When Joe had asked about Helen’s oldest brother Daniel, who was a lawyer in Virginia, Helen had laughed. Apparently Daniel took after his mother’s family, though Helen had insisted if Daniel bet on a horse race you would be wise to place your money on the same horse.

Helen quickly rose to follow Joe. Catching up to him she began, “Now, Joe, don’t go getting all sour.” She caught his arm, and he turned his head to look into her face.

There were times when Joe devoutly wished Helen really were Hal McNally.

This was one of those times. If Hal McNally had been standing there, Joe could have punched him in the mouth. As it was, Joe’s hand curled into a fist at his side.

Helen read the fury in Joe’s face, but having four temperamental brothers, she had developed an impervious attitude toward male rage. Besides, Helen and Joe both knew that if he touched her in anger, he would have to answer to three Cartwrights and four McNallys. Helen took Joe’s fist into both her hands and uncurled the fingers. “Listen, sugar, if it upsets you so, I won’t say another word about being a better rider than you.”

“I could ring your neck,” Joe sputtered.

“But you won’t.” Helen released his hand.

“You’re right; I won’t.” Joe shrugged in defeat. “You’re the most exasperating person I know, Helen.”

“Even more than Adam?” Helen inquired with wicked grin.

“The most exasperating female then,” Joe replied returning the grin.

“Joe, if we settled who the best rider really was then you wouldn’t get so upset when I mention it.”

“If we settled who the best rider really was, you wouldn’t mention it ever again.”

Helen shrugged. “Either way, we could stop fussing about it.”

“Just how do you think we could settle it for good? We’ve raced three times Helen. You’ve won, I’ve won, and in the real race we tied. How many times will it take to settle things for good?”

“Two more rides for each of us if we do things the way I plan.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Just what do you have planned?”

“I’ve been thinking about it for a while, Joe. If we race on different horses, who wins depends partly on the horse, and it doesn’t prove who the best rider really is, so we have to ride the same horse.”

“How can we both ride the same horse in a race?”

“It wouldn’t be a head-to-head race, silly. It would be timed trials, I guess you’d say.”

“Timed trials?”

“You see we would lay out a course. One of us would ride the course. Then the other would ride the same horse over the same course. Someone would time us to see who rode the fastest. Of course, the first rider would have an advantage because the horse would be fresher. That’s why we would need to do the same thing again the next day and average the two times to get the definite winner.”

“Whose horse?”

“Well, it couldn’t be Cochise. That wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t be fair if it were a horse I’ve ridden often. It can’t be a horse that’s too newly broken, that we’re unsure of, or that isn’t a good racer. Your pa would never forgive me if you broke your neck.” Helen’s eyes gleamed; she knew that she had Joe on the hook.

“Worry about your own neck,” Joe sputtered.

“I always do, sugar,” Helen laughed.

“Have you decided on the perfect horse?”

“Well, either Thor or Sport would do,” Helen offered and held her breath.

“THOR OR SPORT!” Joe erupted. “Girl, you’re crazy.” Helen had lost her mind. Of that Joe was certain. Thor was Ephraim McNally’s personal mount and was never ridden by anyone else. Adam Cartwright was just as possessive of Sport. Neither man would give permission for Joe or Helen to race his horse. Joe backed away from Helen shaking his head. Helen waited patiently.

“Your pa would let us race on Thor?” Joe asked.

“Joe, Papa can’t know about this no matter what horse we ride,” Helen stated softly. “Can your pa?”

Joe sighed, “No. My brothers neither.”

“Well, you can’t think I’m telling mine.”

“No, well, maybe Paul.”

“He can’t know, Joe. I had too much to do with him being in trouble before. If Papa or Alex found out he let me do something like this so soon after that, well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Jeff can’t know because he would end up telling Papa, and Alex, well,” Helen rolled her eyes, “you can imagine what Alex would do.”

Joe could imagine. He could imagine what his pa would do, not to mention what Adam would do if they borrowed Sport, and the thought of Ephraim McNally catching him on Thor sent a shudder of terror through his body.

“Helen, we can’t. If we got caught…” Joe choked on the thought.

“We can, Joe. We just can’t get caught.”

One thing Joe had come to realize through bitter experience was that a person could always get caught. He shook his head. Helen had never asked him about his punishment after the Founder’s Day Race though she knew he had defied his father to ride. He, in turn, had never asked her what her father had done when he discovered she had dressed as a boy and raced behind his back. Helen was Ephraim McNally’s baby and only girl, so Joe thought it was likely that she had much less to worry about than he did if they got caught. Joe shook his head.

“We don’t have to Joe,” Helen acquiesced, “Just try and accept that I’m the better rider.” She gave him a knowing look and then darted toward the house. Joe watched, and then started to follow. A hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned and saw Alex McNally.

“What’s the problem, Joe?” Alex stared inquiringly at the boy.

“No problem,” Joe answered quickly wondering if Alex could have overheard any of the previous conversation.

“You and my baby sister were fussing, Joe, so what’s the problem?” Alex’s eyes narrowed.

Joe did not think Alex could have heard, but the best deceit usually contained as much truth as possible. “Same thing we usually fuss about.”

Alex shook his head slowly, as Joe watched his brother Adam walk up. Adam stopped, crossed his arms, and arched his eyebrow questioningly.

“They’re fussing again, Adam,” Alex commented to the eldest Cartwright brother and then turned back to the youngest, “Don’t let Helen goad you, Joe. You’re a fine rider, and so is my sister. Just leave it at that.”

Adam could not resist teasing his brother, “Listen to Alex, Joe. Don’t let the fact that his baby sister can ride, well, at least as well as you, hurt your manly pride.”

Joe glared at his brother and swung. Expecting the blow, Adam dodged it easily and laughed. Joe lunged at his brother, but Alex caught him around the waist.

“Easy, boy!” Alex commanded.

“Cool down, Joseph, or we’ll have to cool you down.” Adam spoke calmly and gestured toward the water trough.

Joe stilled, and Alex released him. Joe stood tensed and breathing heavily. Then he stomped off toward the barn. “Tell Pa I went home,” he shouted back at his brother.

Alex turned to Adam with a disapproving look, “Now we’ll have to explain to your father and mine.”

Adam shrugged and gestured toward the McNally home,” Now is as good a time as any.”

*****

Joe was halfway home before he admitted to himself he had made a bad decision. By the time he led Cochise into the barn, he was worrying about the consequences. His pa would see his behavior as rude at best. The McNallys had had the entire Cartwright clan to Sunday dinner, and Joe had to admit that Helen had set a fine table and satisfied eight hungry men. Then Joe had offered to help Helen with the dishes, but first she had taken Joe to see a new stallion the McNallys had just acquired. That was another thing that would anger his pa. Joe had been under orders to give Helen a hand, and he had left without permission and without following that order. Joe talked his troubles over with Cochise as he groomed the pinto. It really was not all his fault. Helen and then Adam had put the burr under his saddle, so who could blame him if he bucked? As Joe walked slowly to his room, he answered his own question. His pa could.

Joe stiffened when he heard the knock on his bedroom door, but Adam not his father walked into the room.

“Joe,” his elder brother said as he walked over and stood looking down at the boy, “I shouldn’t have said what I did. I apologize.”

“I’m sorry I swung at you,” Joe replied. He had not expected an apology from his brother. “How mad is Pa with me?”

“He’s not happy, but Mr. McNally and Alex both said Helen could drive anyone into a temper, and if she lost her helper, it was only what she deserved. He’ll be up to talk with you, I expect. Then, too, I expect my assignment tomorrow will be one of our least pleasant tasks,” Adam said with a woeful expression.

Joe wished that were his only worry.

“Joe, we didn’t mention your swinging at me,” Adam shared with a brotherly smile.

Joe smiled back conspiratorially. “Thanks, elder brother.”

A knock at the door was followed by Ben’s entrance into the room. He looked at his sons inquiringly.

“Everything’s settled, Pa,” stated Adam quickly.

“Then I need to speak with your brother,” Ben replied.

Adam exited, and Joe stood to face his father.

“Would you like to explain your behavior, Joseph?”

Joe wished he had an explanation that would appease his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. I know I shouldn’t have embarrassed you by acting like that, and I had no call to be rude to Mr. McNally. I’ll be apologizing to him as soon as I can.”

“You most certainly will. You know the behavior I expect when you are a guest in anyone’s home. You know I expect you to ask permission before taking off. You had instructions to help, and a temper tantrum will not be used as an excuse to not do a task you find unpleasant. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You will be doing the dinner dishes for Hop Sing each night this week.”

“Yes, sir.” Joe hated doing dishes.

Ben put hand under his son’s chin and raised Joe’s eyes to look directly at his father, “The next time you behave in such a manner, you will receive what you’ve been worrying about, Joseph. Do I need to explain further?”

“No, sir.”

“Get ready for bed.” Ben walked to the door and turned. “You know I love you, son.”

“I love ya too, Pa.”

*****

Joe could not get Helen’s idea out of his head. For three days, he mulled the plan over, repeatedly telling himself they could not do it. Then he saw Helen in the mercantile.

“I’m sorry you got in trouble with your father, Joe,” Helen said softly.

“It wasn’t that much trouble,” Joe grinned. “Helen,” he grabbed her wrist and pulled her into a corner, “it would have to be on Sport not Thor. Adam wouldn’t charge you with horse theft ’cause you’re a girl, and Pa wouldn’t let him have me arrested either. Besides your pa’s less likely to kill you then mine is to kill me.”

“If you say so, Joe,” Helen acquiesced quickly.

“And it has to be when Adam is out of town but not riding Sport.”

“Obviously.”

“That may be awhile.”

“It will be next week.”

“Next week?”

“Adam and Alex are both going to a horse auction in Sacramento. They decided to go together, and Adam is going to ride Apollo. He wants to assess him over a long trip.”

Joe stared at Helen. “Did you know about this on Sunday?”

“Well, I knew they were discussing it.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Who do you plan on being our timer?” Joe realized Helen had a more complete plan ready than he had known.

“Who do you think we can trust never to tell?” Helen answered his question with one of her own.

“Never tell what, baby sister?” Joe and Helen both jumped as a third voice entered the conversation.

“Mind your own business, Paul,” Helen snapped at her brother.

“You are my business.”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Meaning that you don’t want Papa to know.” Paul turned to Joe. “Don’t let her talk you into it, Joe.”

Joe figured that they either had to tell Paul and get him to do the timing or forget the whole thing. “Now, Paul, Helen’s not talking me into anything. We just want to settle something privately and need someone we can trust to help.”

“What do you want to settle?”

Helen lips twisted into a sly smile. “Whether a McNally or a Cartwright is the best rider in the county.”

Paul looked at his sister speculatively. “You and Joe want to race again?” A gleam entered Paul’s eyes. He had not seen the Founder’s Day race and the idea of seeing his sister ride against Joe seized his fancy.

Helen traced a cross on her brother’s chest above his heart as she said, “Promise first, and then we’ll tell you.”

Paul took a deep breath and pushed all the reasons this was a bad idea from his mind. He told himself that the two of them racing was bound to happen, and he should be there to see that they did it safely. “I promise never to tell,” he vowed.

*****

Joe rode slowly into the meadow leading Sport. He looked for Helen and Paul. Spotting them, he rode over and dismounted.

“We’ve gone over every inch, and it should be safe,” Paul stated with assurance, “and I’ve got my papa’s watch. It’s got a second hand.”

Joe looked at Paul and replied, “Good. I’ve got Sport, and he’s raring for some exercise. Remember, Helen, you’ve got to watch his head tossing.” Joe looked at the girl. She was wearing pants since she would not be using a sidesaddle.

“Everything’s ready, so both of you just stop and think. If we do it, we’re risking some serious trouble. Paul, if you don’t want to be involved, say so now, and even if we get caught, we won’t mention you knew anything. I don’t like you getting in trouble for me.” Helen looked at her brother intently.

“Helen, you and Joe have got to be careful.”

“We’ll be careful.”

“Then I’m ready.”

Helen switched her gaze to her opponent, “Joe, you have to be real sure. We won’t tease if you think it’s too big a risk for you.”

Joe thought about the possible consequences especially if his father considered it racing. No, Pa wouldn’t really do that. It would be real bad if they got caught, but Joe just had to prove that he was the better rider even if only Paul and Helen could know that he had.

“If I win, Helen, you agree to admit to everybody that I’m the better rider?”

“I promise,” Helen declared and crossed her heart.

“I’m ready when you are,” Joe said.

“Do you both understand the course?” Paul asked. Helen and Joe both nodded.

“Then we’ll flip for who rides first.” Paul took out a nickel. “Heads Joe rides firsttails Helen does.”

The nickel landed tails, and Helen mounted. Paul gave the signal, and off she raced. The course included changes in surface, turns, and a jump. Helen negotiated it all smoothly and came a stop in front of the boys. Paul did not announce her time but recorded it solemnly on a sheet of paper. They cooled Sport down and gave him a rest. Then Joe mounted his brother’s horse. He had ridden double with Adam on Sport but had never been on the horse alone. He settled into the saddle, and when Paul gave the signal, raced off. Joe made the agreed on circuit with total control and stopped in front of the two McNallys. Paul silently recorded his score, and pocketed the paper. They had agreed to Paul’s keeping the first day’s times secret until all the trails had been run. They cooled Sport down once more while talking quietly.

“I’d better go. Don’t want Pa or Hoss to see Sport with a saddle,” Joe stated nervously. Both McNallys agreed, and the three headed home.

*****

The next day Joe led Sport into the meadow once again. Shortly they would know without a doubt just who was the best rider. Joe spotted Paul and Helen. He joined them.

“You go first this time, Joe,” Helen stated.

“I’m ready when you are,” Joe replied.

“Mount up then,” Paul instructed. For some reason, Paul was more nervous than he had been the day before and very eager to complete the competition.

Joe mounted Sport and waited for Paul’s signal. Paul called go, and Joe dug his heels into Sport’s sides. Joe concentrated on controlling the powerful horse. A feeling of exhilaration filled him. He pressed the horse to greater speed and completed the course with a flourish.

“Beat that!” he called as he swung from the saddle.

Helen grinned. “I certainly will, but let’s give Sport a chance to recover first.”

Paul cooled down Sport. The three teenagers talked and teased, but there was a tense edge to their conversation.

“Well, sister, now is the time to show what a McNally can do.”

“It’s a good thing I trust you, Paul,” Joe chided.

“It might be Helen who needs to worry. If she loses, I’ll never let her hear the end of it.”

“It’s too late not to trust him, so let’s get to it.” Helen mounted Sport and readied herself for the signal.

Joe watched as Helen guided the galloping horse unaware that a third person was observing the girl’s ride. Joe had to admit to himself that Helen was an excellent rider. Then he thanked God that she was. If she or Sport were to be hurt… Joe could not complete the thought.

Joe was intent on watching Helen, and Paul was focused on the second hand of the watch that he held. Neither heard the approach of the third observer. Helen pulled Sport to a stop. Before she could dismount, she was pulled from the saddle.

“Tarnation, girl, what in blazes did you think you were doing?” thundered Hoss Cartwright as he set the girl on the ground keeping a firm grip on her arms.

For a full minute there was total silence. Helen, Joe, and Paul stared at Hoss not even breathing. Hoss glared at the girl before him and then at each of the boys.

Helen broke the silence, “Now, sugar, I was just giving Sport a little exercise. No harm in that, now is there?” She smiled up at Hoss and looked at him contritely from beneath her lashes.

Joe watched his brother waiting for Hoss’s anger to ebb, but it did not. Instead Hoss’s eyes darkened and the frown on his face deepened.

“Don’t even try that,” Hoss snapped. Then shifting his glare to his little brother, he hissed, “Not you either, Joe. Nobody’s sweet-talking their way out of this. Damnation! Didn’t any of ya think what could happen?”

“Nothing happened, Hoss, nothing. We’re fine. Sport’s fine.” Little Joe Cartwright felt his insides turn to jelly. There was something different about his brother’s anger than Joe had ever seen before.

“Nothing’s gonna be fine when Pa and Adam find out what ya done. Nothing at all!” Hoss released his hold on Helen as he focused on his younger brother.

“They don’t have to know, Hoss, if you don’t tell them.” Joe’s voice held a pleading tone that had never failed in the past to persuade his softhearted brother. “Adam will kill me,” Joe continued dramatically, “and you know what Pa will do. Please, brother.”

Hoss shook his head. “Not this time, Joe. You should have thought of that before ya done it.”

Helen and Paul listened silently. Joe shifted his gaze momentarily to Helen. “Cry!” he thought. Joe slid his eyes sideways to glance at Paul. Paul’s gaze was fixed on his sister.

Helen bit her lower lip, dropped her head, and said softly, “Hoss, it’s all my fault. I…I…I’m sorry,” Helen’s voice trembled, and she clutched Hoss’s arm. ”I shouldn’t have done it. I know I shouldn’t have. The boys couldn’t stop me. If you tell, they’ll be in trouble too, and all they wanted was to make sure I wasn’t alone if I got hurt.” Helen buried her face in Hoss’s arm.

Hoss watched his brother’s face. He could read Joe as easily as he read the tracks of a horse across a field of soft earth. Then he studied Paul McNally’s face and knew with certainty that Helen was telling less than the truth.

Hoss looked at his brother. “Is that the way it was, Short Shanks?”

Inside his head Joe hear his father’s voice, “This time I shall not exact that price, but know this: if ever you race again without my express permission, I shall remove temptation by selling Cochise.” Joe did not think his father meant this kind of race, and he hadn’t even ridden Cochise, but he could not risk his beloved horse. “That’s the way it was. Please, Big Brother, don’t tell Pa.”

Hoss felt the lie like a sharp knife. With a flat, hard voice, he ordered, “Don’t lie to me anymore. Get on home. All three of ya just get.” Then he took Sport’s reins, mounted Chubb, and rode off.

Paul looked at Joe. “Will he tell your father?”

“He’s never told Pa anything that could get me in real trouble, but…” Joe pictured his brother’s face as he was leaving,” I just don’t know.”

“He doesn’t know you raced too. He wouldn’t have seen you and then just waited around to see if anyone else had a go. He doesn’t know about yesterday. For heaven’s sake, make sure and keep it that way,” Helen stated firmly.

“We can’t let you take the blame alone,” Joe declared.

Helen rolled her eyes toward the heavens and sighed, “God grant me strength. I’m the only one who can.” Helen spoke slowly and deliberately, “Joe, Hoss saw me riding Sport. There is no way I can be left out of it. Hoss only saw you and Paul watching me. The two of you can at least be in less trouble. The whole truth is no better for me than my version, and my version helps you.” Then she added ruefully, “Maybe you prefer your Pa and brother know all.”

“I can’t hide behind a girl’s skirts,” Joe replied.

“Look closely, Joseph Cartwright. I’m not wearing a skirt.”

“Paul?” Joe said turning toward the older boy.

Paul ran his hands nervously through his hair and then shrugged. “We’d best get home,” was all he said.

*****

Joe led Cochise into the barn. Chubb was in his stall, and Hoss was grooming Sport. Joe watched his brother. Hoss was not only grooming the horse but also examining every inch of the animal. Joe walked Cochise to his stall, unsaddled him, and began grooming his own horse. For a time neither brother spoke.

“Chubb’s gonna be jealous, ” Joe began.

Hoss continued working on Sport and, without looking at Joe, replied, “Sport’s fine.”

“Hoss,” Joe paused.

“Don’t, Joe, don’t say anything unless ya gonna tell me the whole truth.”

Joe swallowed. “Helen and I were racing to decide who’s really the best rider without the horse having anything to do with it. I rode Sport first. Paul was timing us. He really was there mostly ’cause he was worried we might get hurt. That much was true.”

“Ya lied to me, Short Shanks.”

“I was scared.” Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “I was scared, Hoss. I’m sorry, but Pa said if I raced again without his permission, he’d sell Cochise.”

Hoss looked at his little brother with dismay. He understood how much Joe loved his pinto, but part of Hoss felt like he had come in second with his brother to a horse.

Joe walked over and looked up into his big brother’s eyes. “Please forgive me, please,” he pleaded.

Hoss reach out and squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “We always do,” he stated with a sigh, “maybe that’s part of the problem. You realize what it woulda done to our older brother if you or Helen had been hurt? Did you think of that or that it would have always been between you and Adam if Sport had been hurt and had to be put down?”

“None of that happened.”

“I guess that’s because Adam’s right. The Lord does protect children and fools especially foolish children.”

“You gonna tell Pa?” Joe inquired softly.

“Pa’s staying up at the logging camp tonight and tomorrow. I’ve got ’til he gets back to decide. Tell Hop Sing I had to go into town and won’t be back for supper.”

*****

Hoss Cartwright sat alone in the Silver Dollar saloon nursing a slowly warming beer. He looked up at the sound of Jeff McNally’s voice.

“Could you use some company?”

“Sure,” Hoss replied with a slight smile that never reached his eyes.

Jeff liked all the Cartwrights, but he and Hoss seemed to have the most in common. “Got a problem?”

“Just a decision to make.”

“I know you can get plenty of advice from your Pa or Adam.”

“Not about this.”

Then maybe if you talked to me about it.”

Hoss looked at his friend and sighed. “Then you’d have the same decision to make that I do.”

The worried eyes of his younger brother and sister as they ate supper that night came to Jeff’s mind.

“Have the babies been up to some mischief?” Jeff asked. Though Jeff was only three years older than Paul, the two older McNally’s often referred to the two youngest as the babies. They now included Joe Cartwright in the appellation when referring to the three teenagers.

“Sure you want to know?”

“We can decide what to do about it together,” Jeff offered.

“They took Sport up to one of the high meadows. Joe and Helen took turns racing him around while Paul timed them. I happened to see most of Helen’s ride. She could have broken her neck.”

“God on high!” Jeff closed his eyes and slumped back in his chair. “It had to do with who’s the best rider, I suppose.”

“So I gather. If your pa finds out…”

“Heaven preserve the both of them!” Jeff interrupted.

“Will Paul get the worst of it?”

“My father’s a fair man, Hoss, but, yes, it will go worse for Paul even if it was Helen on the horse, maybe because it was Helen on the horse. It’s not just that he’s older or even that Helen’s a girl. Even if Papa treated them exactly the same, it would be worse for Paul. He takes it worse.” Jeff studied his friend’s face to gage if Hoss understood.

“Adam always took it worst of us.”

“I don’t know if there’s anything that can keep Helen and Joe off the road to trouble.”

“Something needs to slow them down a mite, Jeff,” Hoss frowned. “Joe doesn’t think I’ll tell Pa.”

“He’s use to you protecting his behind. Helen knows I can’t keep much from Papa, but, lordy Hoss, my father will go into apoplexy if he hears about this.”

“My pa…” Hoss paused as he thought of the decision his father would have to make if he reveled what Joe had done and shook his head.

Jeff placed his elbow on the table and his hand in his chin. “What would Adam do?”

“He would have already blistered Joe’s behind, not to mention his ears. Then he’d figure he didn’t have to mention it to Pa.”

“Have you considered doing the same?”

“It’s not like that with me and Joe. I ain’t never done more to him for doing wrong then threaten to tell our pa. Even if I did tan Joe, I couldn’t raise a hand to Paul or Helen.”

“I could.” Jeff McNally pondered the options. “Hoss, if your father or even Adam punishes Joe, it will just be what always happens. If you punish Joe, well, do you think it might, well, have more impact? Let him know how serious even you think this is? If I deal with Helen and Paul, I think the shock might just get Helen’s attention.”

Hoss studied Jeff McNally. He was the only one of the three McNally sons who had inherited Ephraim’s height and appearance of granite hardness. That appearance was deceptive as Jeff was the least harsh of all the McNallys. He was just less than a year younger than Hoss. If Jeff could deal with both Helen and Paul, Hoss told himself he should be able to gather the gumption to deal with Little Joe.

*****

Hoss walked into the house and stopped to hang his hat on the peg and place his gun belt on the credenza. He looked to see Joe sitting on the settee staring into the fire. It was now or never. Hoss prayed he was making the right decision.

Hoss walked over and sat on the stone hearth facing his brother. He took a deep breath. “Joe.”

Little Joe Cartwright focused on the figure of his oversized brother. He wanted to see a gapped-toothed grin, but the face before him was filled with concern.

“You’re gonna tell Pa, ain’t ya? Joe bit his lower lip and dropped his eyes to the floor.

“No.”

Joe’s eyes shot back to his brother’s face. “You’re not?”

“No. This time I’m gonna handle it.”

Joe grew puzzled. “What do ya mean, Hoss?”

“What would Adam mean?”

“You don’t mean you’re gonna tan me.” Joe’s eyes widen.

“Why wouldn’t I mean it, baby brother? Don’t ya think I’m big enough?”

“Well, yeah but, well, I don’t know; you never. Hoss, would you really?”

“Unless you’d rather I tell Pa or Adam.”

“Nooo, no, please don’t, Hoss.”

“I told ya all that ya weren’t talking your way out of trouble this time. Ya got to learn, Joe, and I’m old enough now to do some of the teaching.”

“You’re not gonna tan Paul or Helen.”

“I met Jeff McNally tonight, and we talked. He’s gonna see to his family while I see to mine.”

“Jeff,” Joe croaked. Little Joe felt like someone had reached inside his world and turned it inside out. From out of nowhere a memory filled his eyes. Hoss and Jeff working a two-man saw at a barn-raising a month ago. The power of those four arms as the saw slid through a log impressed each person who watched. Joe’s stomach dropped to his feet.

“Best get it over with, Joe. ” Hoss’s tone was firm but not harsh. Joe knew that Hoss had settled his mind, and there would be no changing it.

Joe barely got his next question out of his mouth. “You gonna use your belt?”

Hoss dropped his eyes to his hands and studied them. Looking back at Joe, just the corners of his mouth turned upward. “Don’t ‘spect there’s any need for that. Come here, little brother.”

*****

Hoss had yet to fall asleep even though he had been lying in bed for over an hour. Hoss wanted his father and his older brother much as he had when he was a young child. Then he heard the footsteps coming toward his door. The door opened slowly.

“Hoss, can I come in?” Joe’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

Hoss pulled his body into a sitting position. “Sure, Short Shanks.”

Joe darted over and settled himself on the foot of the bed. Moonlight made the figure of his brother just visible. Hoss had not sounded angry, but Joe could not see his brother’s face. “Ya know I’m sorry I lied to ya, don’t ya, Hoss?”

“Sure I do, Punkin. I forgive ya. I ain’t mad about that no more.”

“Ya sure?”

“I’m sure, but it better not happen ever again.”

“I thought maybe that was why.”

“That hurt me, Joe, but it weren’t why I tanned ya.”

“Then why?” Joe wanted to understand what had changed between himself and his middle brother.

“Don’t guess there was just one reason. Then again maybe there was. Don’t I always end up protecting ya. Most ways ya look at it, I was protecting ya again.”

Joe’s first reaction was that he wished someone had been there to protect him from Hoss.

Hoss read that thought in his brother’s silence and body language. “I was protecting ya from Pa and Adam.”

“Well, yeah,” Joe admitted, “but ya could of done that by just not telling.”

“Couldn’t do that ’cause something had to be done to protect ya from yourself and Helen.”

“Protect me from Helen?”

“Joe, did ya know that Helen’s been trying for a month to wheedle Adam into letting her ride Sport?”

“She has?”

“Joe, ya know I like all the McNallys. They’re fine folk. Helen is a nice little gal but full of sass and smart to boot. She’s spent fifteen years wheedling men folk to get her way. She does it natural as she rides a horse and just as well.”

“You saying that she hooked me and pulled me in?”

“I ‘spect ya didn’t put up much of a fight. Like Pa says, everybody’s got to take responsibility for their own decisions. Brother, ya gonna have to learn. It’s a good thing I didn’t see you racing Sport ’cause my heart about stopped when I saw Helen.”

“Helen and I can both ride well enough to be on Sport, and we already proved we can both race. You even thought I should be able to race on Founder’s Day.” Indignation had crept into Joe’s voice.

“That was different. Would you have known what to do if Helen had been hurt? How long would it have taken to get one of ya to a doctor? If Sport had been hurt, would ya have known if he could be saved or if the only merciful thing to do was put him down? Would you or Paul have fired the shot?”

Joe knew the answer to each of his brother’s questions, but did not want to answer any of them.

“Joe, there’s some danger that can’t be avoided. Living out here, that’s for sure, but there’s more that’s just wrong to court. Since we ain’t born knowing the difference, God gives us folks to teach us.”

“Ya gave me one hard lesson, big brother.” Joe whined trying hard to sound as pitiful as possible. Hoss could hear the pout in his younger brother’s voice.

Hoss let a pleading tone creep into his own voice as he said, “I’m hoping I never have to give ya another one.”

*****

Adam Cartwright stopped and leaned against the doorframe of the barn. He watched as Helen McNally petted Sport and cooed into his ear. Adam wondered if perhaps he should relent and allow the girl to ride Sport. She was an excellent rider and there was really no reason she could not control Sport. If only he was certain the girl would not race off recklessly. Adam walked quietly up behind Helen.

“Planning to steal my horse, girl?”

Helen spun around quickly at the sound of Adam’s voice. Looking down into her eyes, he momentarily saw guilt before Helen tossed back her head and lowered her lashes.

“I know better. They hang horse thieves around here.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. If the horse thief is female and underage, they might let the offended party take other measures, especially if the horse was only stolen temporarily,” Adam teased. Helen spun around to face Sport once more. She reached up to scratch the horse between his ears. Adam could not have explained what he saw in those few seconds that told him Helen had ridden Sport, but suddenly it was quite clear to him that she had. He grasped Helen by the arm and turned her to face him. In a dangerously calm voice he hissed, “When?”

“When what, sugar?”

Adam’s grip tightened. “When did you ride him?”

“Now, sugar, I’d hardly sneak round taking a horse from this barn. Why, the men around here all wear guns,” Helen replied with a laugh.

“I don’t want to have to ask again. When did you ride Sport?”

Helen studied his face and then shook her head. “Can’t tell.”

Adam glared down at the girl and considered the fact that he really could not see Helen sneaking onto the ranch and stealing Sport from the barn. Adam’s eyes narrowed and filled with sparks. His grip dropped from Helen’s arm. “That boy is going to wish he’d never been born!”

Helen grabbed Adam’s arm as he started to walk away. “Adam, wait.”

Adam stopped and looked at the girl. “You’re both going to pay the price for this.”

“We already have.”

“Pa knows?” Adam could not see his father keeping that information from him for the three days since he had return from Sacramento.

“No.”

Helen had Adam’s full attention. “Then who?”

“Jeff and Hoss.”

Adam’s eyes widened, and his mouth opened silently. He watched a familiar glint come into Helen’s eyes.

“Want to know the whole story, sugar?” Helen asked in her softest drawl.

He most certainly did, Adam thought. He also thought it unlikely that he would.

“I’ll make a deal with you, Adam. The whole story for a promise.”

“A promise?”

“You promise not to tell your Pa or mine and not to do anything at all to anybody but me, and I’ll tell you the whole story.”

Adam thought back to Helen’s explanation of the Founder’s Day escapade. He would never be able to pull as much information from either of his brothers as Helen would give away if he just listened. His curiosity drowned his anger. “I promise,” Adam stated with a sardonic grin.

Helen traced a cross on Adam’s chest above his heart. “Cross your heart?”

“You have my word to say nothing to your father or mine nor punish anyone involved but you.”

“Then I’ll tell you.” Helen leaned back against Sport’s stall and looked up at Adam. “I convinced Joe that we couldn’t know who was the better rider unless we both raced the same horse because otherwise it depends on the horse not just the rider, and he agreed that we would both race the same horse over a course and time who did it the fastest, and the winner would be the best rider, and the other would admit it. Then I told him since it couldn’t be Cochise or one of the horses I ride because that wouldn’t be fair. Then I helped him see that either Thor or Sport was the perfect choice, and even Joe has better sense than to ride Thor without my Papa’s permission. Then we made Paul promised not to tell before he really knew what he was promising not to tell and got him to be the person to time us. Since you were gone with Alex and hadn’t ridden Sport, we had our chance, and Joe brought Sport up to one of the high meadows where we had decided on a fair course to ride that really would show Joe that I am a better rider even if he doesn’t want to admit it. We flipped a coin, and I raced first, and then Joe raced, and Paul wrote down the times because we were going to each ride twice and use the average to decide the winner because we really did want to be fair and know for sure without anyone having the excuse that the other person got to ride a fresher horse. Then the second day Joe rode first, and then I did, and we both are good enough riders since you can see for yourself nothing happened to us, and Sport is just fine. In fact, I think he enjoyed himself immensely. Anyway, Hoss was up there. I don’t know why. You’d think that Joe would of paid attention to where Hoss was suppose to be that day. Well, Hoss saw me racing and grabbed me off Sport, and I haven’t ever seen him so mad. I let him think I was the only one that rode just that once and that the boys tried to stop me and were only there in case I got hurt which was, well, basically a lie and when Joe agreed that was the way it was, he lied too, but Hoss didn’t believe us. We thought he would tell your father, but Mr. Cartwright was at the lumber camp. After Hoss got Joe to tell him most of the truth, Hoss went to town, and Jeff went to town that same time, and they must have talked- I wasn’t there for that part- because Jeff found out and they decided not to tell our fathers but to do what you and Alex would have done, and they did. Joe says Hoss wallops harder than you but not as long.” Helen paused and then finished, “Our fathers really don’t know probably because your pa was gone at the lumber camp two days, and my papa was distracted, and we avoided him, and everything is really your fault because you should have just let me ride Sport when I asked.”

Adam had not uttered a sound since Helen began her recitation, and he found himself speechless at its conclusion. He backed up and leaned against the stall behind him, crossed his arms on his chest, and stared at the girl before him. He mentally pictured and sorted what she had told him. Finally he simply said, “Who won?”

Helen shrugged and giggled. “I don’t know, well not officially. I’m sure I won, but nobody’s even remembered to ask Paul, and he hasn’t said. Of course it doesn’t really matter since I am the better rider because I could do it all sidesaddle and Joe can’t.”

Adam started laughing. Helen decided that made it a good time to settle things. “Are you planning to punish me? I can’t tell anybody if you do because then I’d have to tell why.”

“I could you know.”

“I know.”

“Does Jeff wallop as hard as Alex?”

“Paul thinks so.”

Adam let out a deep breath. The girl knew he would never lay a finger on her. “If you ever think of racing Sport again…”

“I won’t,” Helen interrupted,” I promise. A McNally always keeps a promise. He’s a fine horse, Adam.”

Both Adam and Helen looked towards the door as they heard someone enter.

Alex McNally looked at his sister and said, “Papa says it’s time to head home.”

Adam looked at his friend with increased admiration. After all he had to be big brother to the girl everyday. Then a grin spread across Adam’s face as he thought of the loophole in his promise. Helen must have been rattled to have not included her older brother in that promise.

“Alex, could you meet me at the Silver Dollar tomorrow evening? I want to buy you a drink, and there’s a story I want you to hear.”

“Sure, Adam. Come on, Helen, Papa’s waiting,” Alex answered then turned and walked out of the barn.

“Adam!” Helen hissed, “You…”

“Loopholes, little girl. Always beware of the loopholes.” Adam shucked Helen under the chin and followed Alex out of the barn.

***The End***

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