Summary: Joe has his own way of doing things.
Word Count: 2367
Joe Cartwright sat on the corral fence in the Cartwright barnyard, watching Billy Sims attempt to break his first horse. A young man in his mid-twenties with dark curly hair and a slight but athletic build and the youngest of the three Cartwright brothers of the Ponderosa Ranch, Joe was in charge of raising and breaking horses for the Ponderosa’s vast Nevada Territory empire.
“Stay with her, Billy!” Joe called out to the blond, freckle-faced teenager, urging him on with his voice and rocking as if he also was riding the untrained mustang and helping it see things his way.
Ranch hands stood just outside of the nearby bunk house and barn to watch the boy’s first ride.
The late-spring sky was cloudless, the sun was shining and Billy looked right at home as he rode the bucking horse without a sign of fear.
“You can do it, Billy!” one of the hands called out, and others echoed the sentiment. But the horse let go of its load and Billy quickly moved away to safety. The assembled ranch hands began to disperse as Billy walked toward the corral fence.
“Thought I had it that time, Joe,” Billy said.
“You’re just beginning, Billy. It takes time, but you’ll do it,” Joe encouraged.
“I sure hope so,” Billy said, pushing his brown hat up a bit so he could look Joe in the eye. “Were they watching me?”
“They sure were. Pulling for you, too. You’ll get him next time.”
“I hope so.”
“I do, too,” a deep voice spoke from behind Joe.
“Hi Pa,” Joe greeted Ben Cartwright, the silver-haired rancher with proud bearing who owned the Ponderosa. “Billy got a real good ride out there.”
“You sure did, Billy. Just stay with it and who knows. You may be a better bronc-buster than either Adam or Joe, someday,” Ben said.
“He may even be a better wrangler than I ever was,” Dan Tolliver teased as he joined the Cartwrights at the fence. A balding, stocky man in his early 60s, the remaining red in his hair revealed his temper, but not his many years of loyal service to the Cartwright family as he taught first Ben, then his sons, and now the up-and-coming wranglers what they needed to do during a round-up: get the cattle branded and ready for market.
Joe turned away. My older brother Adam’s miles away, he thought to himself. He’s not here, teaching Billy. He quickly composed himself and turned back to the older men.
“Billy, I know that Hop Sing has some fresh baked cookies in the kitchen. He misses having someone to shoo away from them while they’re cooling,” advised Ben with a smile.
“Pa, he can always shoo Hoss away,” Joe said, an edge of touchiness in his voice. “Billy’s not through with his lesson yet.”
Dan studied Joe and Ben for a minute, as Ben appeared to consider what Joe said. An awkward silence followed. “Those cookies sound mighty good to me, Joe,” Dan said lightly, attempting to ease that silence.
“Even with all of Beth Riley’s cooking?” Joe teased, referring to Dan’s new bride in town, who worked and waited in town while Dan stayed with the rest of the hands in the bunkhouse until the drive started.
“She bakes pies, Joe. You name them, she bakes them. But Hop Sing’s cookies, hm-mmm!” Dan explained.
“Hoss and I say the same thing,” Joe said, laughing heartily.
Ben laughed in agreement, then said “And I think Hop Sing misses having a young fella around to shoo out,” Ben said, winking at Billy. “Joe and I have some business to take care of out here, and we’ll be in shortly.”
“Thanks, Mr. Cartwright,” Billy said as he slid through the fence and trotted off to the Ponderosa kitchen.
“I have some ideas for your next ride, Billy,” Dan called out as he followed the boy into the house. The boy eagerly listened as Dan gave him pointers about riding the next horse.
“Joe, I’m glad to see you encouraging Billy there, but what about the plans for the cattle drive, trail boss?” Ben asked. “We have all the horses we need for the cattle drive, you know.” He smiled proudly, remembering Joe’s own progress from breaking his first horse to becoming the man in charge of leading the upcoming cattle drive into neighboring California, to help former neighbors in a town whose cattle had to be destroyed to stop the spread of disease.
“They’re coming along, Pa. I had some free time this afternoon, and Billy asked me to teach him.”
“How’s the hiring going?” Ben asked.
“I put an ad in the paper and I’ve seen quite a few fellas who want to join us. Hired most of them.”
“Even with the logging operations hiring everyone in town who isn’t working at a mine?”
“These fellas, well, they’re looking for travel, wide open spaces, clean air, and a Cartwright paycheck,” Joe said with a shrug. “After I got shot and missed last year’s drive, you don’t think I’m going to mess up this one, do you?”
“No, Joe, I’m sure you’re doing a very good job,” Ben said. “I’m pleased that you and Dan were able to work together this year.”
“I knew all along that Dan was a good man to have around. You made a good choice in asking him to help train the wranglers for us.”
“Thanks, Pa. We won’t let you down,” Joe said. He and Ben stood for a few minutes, across the corral from a group of ranch hands, and watched a lanky, dark-haired man open the corral gate, walk inside and then mount the horse Billy didn’t break.
After a successful ride, he jumped off the horse and took a little bow before climbing over the corral fence and heading back to the bunk house.
“If that ad brought him to us, it’s a winner,” Ben said.
“It did, Pa. Here, take a look,” Joe said as he pulled the advertisement from his jacket pocket.
Ben looked the ad over and nodded.
The ad read “Needed: Cattle drovers. We offer travel, wide open spaces, and clean air. Experienced drovers only. See Joe Cartwright at the Ponderosa Ranch for details.”
“Well, we can give them those things,” Ben said as he handed the ad back to Joe. “Adam would have gone to town and offered this to them in person, however. You know, set up a table, let everyone know we’re looking to hire.”
Joe bit his lip in thought, “I did that, and there weren’t any takers. He can ride, rope, run cattle, and give us a hand with just about anything that needs doing.”
“Just see that the men show up to help us drive the cattle. Did you find a cook yet?’
“Still looking for one. Why?”
“Wanted to make sure you covered everything.”
“I didn’t promise my cooking in the ad, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Joe said. “I know that Hop Sing will be too busy with work here to go along this time.”
“I’m sure you’ll find one, Joe,” Ben said as he slapped Joe on the back and headed toward the house. “I’ll send Billy back out to you.”
“With a couple of those cookies?” Joe asked with child-like expectancy.
That evening, Ben stood at the same corral fence, gazing at the night sky overhead. It was years since he set sail aboard his first ship from the Eastern seaboard of the United States, but any time he was fortunate enough to have time to gaze at that night sky, whether on the trek West to what became the Ponderosa Ranch, or on cattle drives during the years since he and his two older sons established the ranch, it took him back to those days.
He also recalled evenings under the stars with his third wife, Marie, both before and after their son, Joe, was born. Those memories no longer saddened him as they did in the first years after her death. He still missed her, but was grateful for the time they did have together and the son she left behind.
“Beautiful night, ain’t it?” a voice said from behind him. He turned to see Dan Tolliver a few feet away.
“It sure is,” Ben agreed. “Brings back a lot of memories.”
“Good ones, I hope.”
“Mostly,” Ben admitted. “So much can happen out there, Dan.”
“Don’t I know it!”
“Sickness, carelessness crossing a river, a river overflowing its banks because of a storm…”
“He’ll be back before you know it,” Dan said. “They’ll all come back from the drive safe and sound.”
“Of course he will.”
“You know that, but you’re concerned anyway,” Dan offered.
“I remember when I could protect him, watch over him. His brothers protected him a lot over the years, too.”
‘He hated it then, and I think he would hate it now. He’s not a little boy anymore.”
“Good ol’ Dan, tells it straight,” Ben said with a rueful chuckle. “I know he’s grown, but to me, he’ll always be ‘Little Joe’.”
“But to Billy, he’s ‘Big Joe’,” Dan suggested. “You were a little rough on him today when Billy was taking his lesson.”
“I was?” Ben asked, genuinely not recalling the conversation.
“You told him how Adam would have hired men for the drive, for one thing, where the hands could hear you.”
“That‘s how Adam and I would have hired men for the drive.”
“Joe has some good ideas, too,” Dan continued. “I didn’t agree with him about taking me off the drive last year, but he was right. I needed to take things a little easier.”
“Fortunately for all of us, you decided to take things a little easier right here,” Ben said, pointing a forefinger to the corral fence.
“Remember when Joe took on that logging contract all on his own? Won the contract over the man who was considered a shoo-in, without your or Adam’s help.”
Ben smiled as Dan reminded him of that “quest.” Dan wasn’t a member of the crews for that particular logging contract, but stories about Joe overseeing the project had found their way into the Ponderosa bunkhouse and beyond.
“You told me that Joe fought the foreman he fired off that job, and won the fight,” Dan added. “Sounds like someone who could handle a lot of situations.”
“I’m really proud of the way that boy turned out,” Ben said.
“Have you told him that?”
Ben’s brows knit in thought for a moment, then winced. “Not as often as I should, I suppose.” He looked skyward, and Dan started back to the bunkhouse, knowing that he had given his employer and long-time friend a lot to think about.
The next morning, Joe dashed down the massive wooden stairway in the ranch house. The grandfather clock by the front door rang out the time almost at the same intervals Joe’s boots banged on all but the creaking step, which he skipped out of habit.
“Boy, I could smell that toast and bacon all the way upstairs!” Joe exclaimed as he rushed past the landing in the middle of the staircase toward the breakfast table. His father sat at the head of the table, surrounded by dishes Hop Sing was just now taking out to the kitchen.
Ben’s eyebrow arched before he remembered his conversation with Dan the evening before. Perhaps this is the time to say something like Dan suggested?
“And how are you this morning?” Ben asked.
“Aren’t you going to tell me I’m running late again?”
“No, you know what you need to do.”
Joe said nothing as he grabbed two pieces of toasted bread, three slices of crispy bacon, and dropped them on a red-patterned platter.
“Let’s start the morning again, Joe,” Ben said once Joe was seated at the table. “How are you this morning?”
“I’m fine, Pa. And how are you?” he said, biting into the sandwich he made from the toast and bacon.
“Just fine, son, just fine. From what you told me yesterday, you have plans almost in order for the drive.”
“Yes, I do,” Joe replied.
“You’re doing a good job, Joe.”
Joe stopped chewing mid-bite.
“I said, ‘You’re doing a good job, Joe’,” Ben repeated.
Joe swallowed, then set the sandwich down, apparently considering what to say. “Thank you, Pa. What brought this on?” he asked after a silent moment.
“I was reminded last night that I should have said that more clearly to you yesterday.”
As Ben approached Joe, he saw his youngest as a young boy for a moment. Then he saw him as the man he was now, and that he was starting to cry.
“I didn’t intend to upset you,” Ben said.
“I know, Pa. It’s a relief to hear you say I’m doing a good job,” Joe answered, wiping away a tear. They exchanged smiles and spoke no further as Joe finished the sandwich, some coffee, and a couple of biscuits as Hop Sing cleared the table. Joe then grabbed his green jacket and light brown hat from their pegs on the wall by the front door, buckled his gunbelt and holster around his waist, and left the house.
Ben moved into his study to the far side of the front door and started to work on his bookkeeping chores, somewhat surprised at Joe’s response. I thought he knew I was proud of him.
By the time Joe and his men left for the cattle drive, Ben had opportunity to share more of his pride in Joe than he had for quite awhile. Watching from the barnyard as Joe, the drovers and the chuckwagon cook started on their way with the cattle, he remembered not the dangers that could befall them, but that Joe and the men would handle whatever trouble came up along the trail.
Joe’s way of handling the trouble might not be his father’s or his brother’s, but Joe’s way suited his father just fine.