Never Start What You Can’t Finish (by Debbie B.)

Summary:   (Sequel to the story “Two Painted Ponies, One Tender Heart”)

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  10,147


 

It had been over a year and Joe Cartwright had thought he’d never lay eyes on Ty Hutchins again, but there he was, riding smack dap down the middle of the street, larger than life. The youngest Cartwright had just come out of the mercantile where he’d been gathering supplies and loading them into the back of the family wagon. It was only by chance that Joe had looked up when he did, his mind was on the work that lay ahead of him, once he got back to the Ponderosa. His two older brother’s had returned late last night from the open range above Virginia City with a new herd of mustangs, and Ben Cartwright had promised his son the job of selecting the best of the bunch for gentling. The horses would be saddle broke first, a job that the youngest Cartwright loved; so naturally the young man was most anxious to get home and begin breaking the horses. But seeing Ty riding into Virginia City had instantly brought back to life the horrible incident that had happen the week before Joe was to turn sixteen.

For whatever reasons, still unbeknown to the youngest Cartwright, Ty Hutchins had taken a dislike to Little Joe and had from that moment, deemed it his ambition in life to make the younger boy’s life a pure hell. Ty had almost succeeded too. He had prompted and tempted and taunted Joe nearly everyday. Ty would do just about anything for the simple pleasure of causing a scene, picking a fight, calling Joe names and poking fun at the boy. It had gone on for days and then the days had turned into weeks and by the time a month or more had come and gone, Joe Cartwright was seen round about with more black eyes, more bruises and scrapes than nearly all the other boys put together. It had practically become an everyday occurrence, seeing the Cartwright kid without his dark discoloration was less common than seeing him with them…until that fateful day.

Joe had been riding home from school, not really paying attention when he was suddenly pounced upon by Ty and three more of his bully buddies. Joe had been quickly overcome; even had his hands tied behind his back, after taking several punches in the face and gut by the Hutchins kid. Joe was dared to fight, but having promised his father he’d not raise a hand against the other boy, Joe refused again. Ty wasn’t to be put off this time, he ordered two more of the lads to mount up and together, the three had driven Joe’s old pinto pony, Paint, over the edge of the ravine, right before the frightened boy’s very eyes. Needless to say, the old pony lay dying, too many old fragile bones broken to ever mend. Joe had been scared half out of his wits, not knowing what to do with the pony, how to end the animal’s misery. He had gotten free of his bounds and had managed to break Ty’s nose before he scooted to the bottom of the deep ravine to give what small comfort he could to his fallen comrade.

Joe had been sickened by what had happened, consumed with guilt, blaming himself and believing that had he only fought the other boy, his horse would not have had to die, and in such a horrid manner. Joe had long been begging his father for a younger, more spirited horse of his own, so with the death of Paint, all the tormented emotions he’d suffered, Joe had worked himself up into such a feeble state of mind that by his birthday, just a week later, he had been so miserable he’d not been able to take full advantage of the surprise his father had given to him. Ben had traded with the Paiute chief, Winnemucca, for a beautiful, young and spirited pinto, whom Joe later named Cochise.

It was weeks later before Joe had fully come to appreciate the new horse, only after Ben had been injured in a logging accident and Joe had been called upon to ride into town to fetch the doctor home to save his beloved father’s life. In the beginning, Joe and Cochise had problems of their own. Thinking back, Joe often laughed at their early days, he demanding certain things of the horse and Cochise not delivering them as well as Joe thought the animal should so it had come to the boy’s surprise after the long run into Virginia City, that Joe learned that Cochise did not understand a word of what the boy was saying to him…the pinto had been captured and gentled by a Paiute brave who did not speak the white man’s language. It had caused quite a stir within the Cartwright household. Though Little Joe had thoughts of his own over the matter and wasn’t quite sure that Cochise wasn’t more aware to what was being said than not. It was never proven however either way and the problem such as it had been, had finally worked itself out, a year later Cochise and his young master seemed to understand one another better than any man and his horse ever could, thus a deep abiding relationship between the boy and his horse had been established.

As Joe watched Ty slide from his horse and disappear into the Bucket of Blood Saloon, all thoughts of the bottomless well of mixed emotions came hurdling themselves back at him. He tossed the last sack of grain into the back of the buggy, dusted off his hands and made his way slowly across the street toward the barroom.

Ty was standing with his back to the door at the bar when Joe stepped inside. For a moment he stood there, letting his eyes adjust to the lighting and then moved to the end of the bar where he stood, watching Ty as the other boy downed his frothy ale. Ty plopped his glass down on the counter, laughing at something the man next to him had said.

The reverberation of his laughter left Joe with a sick feeling in his gut. It hadn’t changed from the wicked sound he’d heard a year ago as his beloved pony was forced over the edge of the ravine. Ty had laughed then too and the echo of that laughter had haunted Joe’s nightmares for weeks following the incident. The old hate that had thought to be laid to rest suddenly was reborn. Joe’s jaw was clamped tightly; his fingers were curled into his palms, forming rock solid fists.

Ty ordered another beer. As he reached for it, his eyes swept the room, stopping when he met the dark emerald eyes at the end of the counter staring intensely back at him. Ty took a long swig of his beer and set the mug on the counter.

“Well…what’da know, if it ain’t Little Joe Cartwright!” sneered Ty.

Joe felt his body tense as he took a step forward. He was suddenly stopped from proceeding any further by the weight of a heavy hand pressing hard on his left shoulder.

“I’ve been looking for you…Pa needs you back at the ranch,” said the deep baritone voice of Joe’s oldest brother, Adam.

“I’ll leave when I’m ready…there’s something I have to do first…”

“No…you’ll leave right now, Joe,” Adam said in a low, almost threatening tone.

Joe turned his head around and with dark, angry eyes, looked into his brother’s own fierce eyes. “I have unfinished business…”

“Joe,” Adam said with such intensity that Joe flinched. “Let it be, come home with me before you get into something you can’t handle…please.”

Joe hesitated briefly, glanced back at Ty who still watched what was going on, and then relented. “Alright, Adam…but I promise you…one of these days, I’m going to make him pay for what he did…”

“Just remember what Pa always says: never start anything you can’t finish…”

Together the brothers walked through the swinging doors, missing the soft sigh of relief slipping through the lips of the young man at the bar.

**********

Adam allowed his horse to trot along side the wagon driven by his younger brother. He was keenly aware of the fixed stare Joe had on the road before him and he sensed the anger and hate that brewed just below the surface of the younger man.

Once they were home, Joe jumped quickly down from his seat on the wagon and moved to begin the unloading of the supplies. Ben came from the house, smiling in his usual genteel manner as he greeted both his sons.

Adam accepted his father’s welcome with a warm smile, though his eyes swiftly moved from his father’s to his younger brother’s almost indignant expression.

“What’s the manner with Joe?” Ben asked, eyeing his youngest son closely.

“Ty Hutchins is back in town,” Adam stated as he loosened the cinch on his saddle.

“Joe didn’t do anything foolish, I hope,” muttered the worried father.

“No…but I think he was aiming to. I caught up with him as he was going into the saloon; Ty was already at the bar. Fortunately, Joe came along peaceably,” Adam explained.

Ben sighed. “Good…I sure don’t want a repeat of what went on a year ago…”

Ben moved across the yard then, to greet Joe. “Well, I see you made it back without any problems,” Ben smiled.

Joe stopped, a sack of grain in his hands, to look up at his father. For a moment, he said nothing, then glanced at Adam, sure that his brother had already informed their father of the unwanted presence of his former enemy. “Naturally,” he said sarcastically as he turned and toted the sack into the barn.

Ben waited until Joe had emerged from the barn. “I hear Ty Hutchins is back in town.”

Joe cast a quick glance at his brother and then looked up quickly at his father. “Adam doesn’t waste much time, does he?” he asked with a smirk as he hoisted another heavy sack over his shoulder and headed for the barn.

This time, Ben followed. He stood in the doorway until Joe had set the sack down and turned. He barred Joe’s exit. “Your brother thought I should know…”

“It isn’t any of his business,” Joe growled as he tried to slip by.

“It’s all our business. Your brother knows very well how you feel toward Ty…he didn’t want you to do something foolish…”

Joe, his lips pressed tightly, glared at his father. Ben glared back. The expression on Joe’s face softened slightly under the piercing eyes of his father. “I wasn’t going to start anything,” he muttered, lowering his head.

“Then why did you follow him into the saloon?” Ben asked softly.

Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno…”

“You don’t know?”

Joe swallowed and looked up. The look in his emerald eyes was one of enormous sorrow. “I’m sorry, Pa…but honestly, I’m not sure why I followed him. I suppose I just wanted to get a good look at him…or let him get a good look at me…”

“Why?”

Again Joe shrugged. “Maybe to let him know…I’m still around…still angry…”

“I see.”

Ben smiled warmly and placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I know what happened back then, hurt you greatly, son…I know that for a long time you felt guilty about what happened…I was sort of hoping that by now, you’d put all those feelings behind you…”

“I had…until today…Pa…just seeing him again, well, it brought back all the old hurts…I couldn’t see clearly…I was only seeing Paint laying at the bottom of that ravine, his body all broken up, his suffering. I couldn’t understand how anybody could do such a thing to an old pony…and laugh about it…I still don’t understand how anyone could be so cruel…”

“Cruelty is…just that, cruel. I’m not sure I can understand what was going on in the minds of those young men…hatred maybe…though I’m not sure what reason they’d have for hating you…and taking it out on an old pony. Sometimes, Joe…there are no clear answers…those kind of men are to be pitied…”

“Pitied? I’d don’t pity Ty Hutchins…I…hate him…” sneered Joe as he managed to slip past his father.

He’d only gone a few steps before stopping and turning back around to face his father. “You don’t have to worry, Pa…I’m not going to start anything…but I’ll tell you this much…if HE starts anything…I’m not turning the other cheek…not this time!”

*****

“I’m worried about that boy,” Ben announced the next morning while sipping coffee at the table.

Hoss glanced up from his plate to swiftly glance at his father and then Adam.

“Perhaps you should send him over to Placerville instead of me,” Adam suggested with a wink at Hoss.

His father wanted him to make the trip to Placerville to settle up some last minute details for a long awaited lumber contract made with the Jaffey Lumber Company there. Adam hadn’t been keen on the idea of going, he and Hoss had just returned from rounding up an entire herd of mustangs and had been hoping for a little reprieve from the physical work he’d been doing for the last several days.

Ben’s fork stopped mid-way to his mouth as he stared at his eldest son. “I promised Joe he could start breaking those mustangs…hmm…I’d hate to go back on my word, it’s something he really enjoys doing,” Ben said with a look of concentration on his face. His thoughts whispered that it wasn’t such a bad idea…but still…could he disappoint the boy? “I don’t know Adam…”

“Well…it was just a thought,” Adam said as he wiped his mouth and laid aside his napkin. “For sure it would keep him from having a run-in with the Hutchins kid.”

“That’s true,” muttered his father.

“Yeah…but Pa…keepin’ Little Joe busy with those mustangs will work just as well,” Hoss snickered. “As many times as he’s gonna get his rear end tossed into the dust, he’ll be too tuckered out to even think about fightin’ with anyone…”

Ben snickered along with his two sons. His mind’s eye cast a vision of his youngest son sprawled in the dirt, sore but happy, doing what he loved to do most…taming wild mustangs!

*****

When Ben, Adam and Hoss finally reached the corral, Joe was already hard at work. The trio stood at the fence and watched at Joe tried to stay on the bucking animal. Adam climbed onto the fence and straddled the top railing, cheering his younger on.

“RIDE ‘IM, JOE!” he shouted.

The words, meant to encourage his brother, were no sooner out of his mouth than Adam watched Little Joe tossed high into the air and land with a hard thud onto the dusty ground. For a moment, the younger Cartwright did not move. Adam jumped from the fence railing into the corral and ran toward his brother. Ben and Hoss hurried over the fence close on Adam’s heels.

As Adam approached his kid brother, he stopped short, seeing the wide grin that had spread across the youngster’s handsome though somewhat dirty face.

“Are you alright?” Adam inquired, offering his hand to his brother.

Joe giggled. “Sure I am…” he laughed, accepting his brother’s help.

Joe was quickly hauled to his feet and began dusting off his chaps.

“Joseph?”

“I’m alright, Pa…” Joe said with a slight frown. “Stop worrying, it’ll take more than that old nag to keep me down…BRING HIM BACK OVER HERE!” he shouted to the wranglers.

“You ain’t gonna ride ‘im again, are ya?” Hoss asked as he circled his younger brother, checking for himself that Joe was indeed alright.

“Sure I am…lessen you wanna give it a try!” Joe dared with a grin.

Hoss’ blue eyes widened and he grinned. “No…no thank ya…I’d just as soon watch you get your butt busted as to have mine busted!”

The three older Cartwrights took their places on the fence railing and for the next hour watched the youngest member of the family attempt to ride one wild horse after another, always ending up in the dirt…with a wide happy smile splattered across his glowing face.

Up on the ridge, a young, angry cowpoke watched the proceedings along with three of his sidekicks. Ty Hutchins leaned forward, propping himself on his horse’s long slender neck. “Look at ‘im…don’t he think he’s something?” he grumbled. “Any fool can eat dirt…”

“I don’t see you eatin’ dirt,” Moose laughed.

Ty gave his over-sized friend a daring look. “I can out ride Little Joe Cartwright any day of the week…in fact, I can out ride, out shoot, and out smart that little bastard. He ain’t nuthin’…got that?” Ty growled, angered by his friend’s off handed remark.

Moose groaned as he straightened up. “Yeah…I got that…”

“Why don’t ya prove it?” Gus Anderson dared.

“Why…I don’t have to prove myself to that little weasel…”

“You chicken?” smirked Mark, the fourth young man to make up the group.

“Hell no…I ain’t chicken…I dun told ya…I can do anything that Cartwright brat can do and I can do it better…”

“Then prove it…go down there and show him how it’s done…make a bet with him…”

“Sure…me go down there and talk to Little Joe…do you think I’m stupid…he hasn’t forgotten what I did to him a year ago…” Unconsciously, Ty rubbed his nose…sub-consciously recalling that same day in which Joe Cartwright had broken his nose.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do…he’s bound to go into town tonight…being as how it’s Saturday…he’ll come into the saloon…I’ll fix him then…” Ty snickered. His pals could see that their friend was forming a plan in his mind.

“Then what?” Moose dared to ask.

“I’ll make a bet with him…and I’ll win…”

“What’cha goin’ ta bet him…money?”

“Nope…you’ll see….” Ty said as he gathered up his reins and turned his horse around. “If he thinks what I did to that stupid old painted pony was something…wait until he sees what I’m gonna do to that pinto he’s so proud of!”

*****

Joe was leading the way when he and his brothers entered the saloon. He was walking a bit stiffly, having landed on his backside more times than he cared to admit, but he was pleased with the way the day had gone; somehow he had managed to saddle break three of the wild mustangs that had been captured. Joe laughed again as he rubbed his backside. “I’m glad you can’t see all my bruises,” he snickered.

“Don’t unless ya plannin’ on droppin’ drawers!” heehawed Hoss as the three elbowed their way up to the bar.

“I don’t plan on it…besides, I’m not so sure I could if I had the chance…I’m so sore I need a cushion to sit on!” Little Joe whispered. “Three beers, Cosmo…”

Joe turned to scan the room, taking in all the customers. He failed to see the four sitting in the darkest corner out of view. By the time the foursome got up and slipped through the door, Joe was engaged in conversation with Betty, the pretty dark haired barmaid.

“Get that pinto,” Ty ordered as he carefully scanned the boardwalk, assuring himself that he and his cohorts were the only ones on the street.

“You mean…Cartwright’s horse?” Moose stammered.

“No stupid…Jack-in-the-bean-stalk’s horse…Yes…I mean Cartwright’s horse…get him and let’s get out of here!”

Moose glanced nervously over his shoulder. Relieved to be able to see Little Joe through the opened doorway talking to one of the barmaids, he quickly untied Cochise’s reins from around the hitching post and hurried to follow Ty and the others into the dark alley along side the saloon. For several minutes the friends hurried through the darkness to the far end, stopping just behind the livery.

“Let’s get our horses and get outta here,” Ty ordered. “Moose, you wait here with me…Mark, you and Gus get our horses…hurry up before someone spots this pinto…he’s pretty well known around here…”

As soon as Mark and Gus brought the four horses out into the darkness, the men mounted up and raced into the blackness of night, Cochise being led along the way as they made their way into the hills where safely tucked into the rocks, stood a lone, one room cabin that the men called home.

*****

It was almost midnight when the Cartwrights stood up to leave. Joe stretched his back, twisting from side to side in hopes of reliving some of the weariness that had settled in his bones. Adam tossed some coins onto the table while Hoss collected his hat.

“I’m ready for bed,” Joe muttered.

“It’s a long ride home…” Adam suggested.

“Yeah I know, but Cochise’s gait is like rocking in Pa’s old rocker…”

The trio eased out the door. Joe shivered. “Sure has gotten cool…hey…” he blabbered, stopping dead in his tracks. Hoss bumped into him as Adam slammed into Hoss’ back.

“Joseph…get a move on,” Hoss said gruffly as he gently shoved Joe to the side and headed for his horse. Adam glanced disgustedly at his youngest brother.

“What the blazes is wrong with you!”

“My…my…horse,” stammered Joe, pointing to the hitching rail where Sport and Chubb stood alone. “Cochise is gone!”

Hoss looked around; he wore a surprised expression on his rotund face, noticing for the first time that his brother’s pinto was indeed missing.

“Well, what’da ya know…he sure ‘nough is,” Hoss said and then grinned at Adam. Both men snickered.

“It ain’t funny!” growled Joe. “Somebody…stole my horse!” he said angrily.

“Aw shucks, Shortshanks, ya don’t know that for a fact…”

“Well then, Mister Smarty Pants…just where in tarnation is he?” Joe grumbled fiercely.

“Joe, he probably just pulled loose and…” Adam said before being interrupted.

“AND WHAT!”

“And moseyed on home,” Hoss finished, still grinning.

Joe stood with his hands on his hips; his jaw was tight as he stared with disgust written all over his face. “Fine,” he snapped. “Now how am I supposed to get home…walk…”

“Might work some of the soreness outta your bones,” Adam said, fighting back the laughter that threatened to spill over.

Joe made a face at his brother. “Funny…”

At that, Adam laughed softly and offered his hand to his brother. “Come on, you can ride with me…maybe he’ll be munching hay by the time we get home.”

Joe took Adam’s hand and with ease, swung onto Sport’s back behind Adam. “He’d better be…I’m gonna have a long talk with that crazy Indian pony…going off and leaving me on foot…”

Hoss and Adam could no longer contain their laughter. Hoss heehawed the loudest and then turned to look back at Joe riding double with Adam. “Joe…won’t do ya no good to talk to that nag…ya know’s as well as we do, Cochise don’t understand English….hahahahaa!”

“He’ll understand the whip!” Joe grumbled, tired of the teasing and disappointed that his horse would just walk away and leave him.

Hoss laughed louder. “Liar…you know good and well you’d never take a whip to that pony…”

Joe seemed to calm down. He even smiled at his brother who now was riding along side.

“I know…and you two know it…but that knuckle-headed horse of mine don’t know it!!”

Joe was once again disappointed when they walked into the darkened barn and found it empty. “Dangit…he’s not here…”

“Don’t worry, kid…he’ll come home when he gets hungry…” Adam said in an attempt to put his brother’s worry to rest.

“Sure he will, punkin…ain’t he always? Come on now, it’s really late and there’s work aplenty to do in the morning. Ya gotta get some sleep…”

Hoss clamped his beefy hand down on Joe’s slender shoulder and gently forced the boy to walk with him to the house.

“Hoss?” Joe said, stopping short of the porch.

“Yeah, Joe?”

“What if he don’t come home…you gonna help me look for him?”

Hoss could see the unsettled doubts shining in the emerald eyes. His heart softened for he knew just how much his brother’s pinto meant to him. “You know I will, Little Joe…try not to worry, we’ll find ‘im…”

*****

“You mean to tell me that Joe’s horse just walked off and no one saw him do it?” Ben said between mouthfuls.

“Yep…and Joe was more’n just a little upset…ya know how he feels about that pinto of his!” Hoss answered. “I promised the boy I’d help ‘im look for Cochise if’n he ain’t back in the barn…”

As if in response to his question, the front door burst opened and a very disappointed young man appeared at the table. All eyes turned to look up at the boy.

“I take it from your expression, Cochise didn’t come home last night?” his father asked with concern.

Joe shook his head no as he slipped into his place at the table. He glanced sadly around at his family. “I still think someone stole him…”

“What makes you think that, son?”

“Cause…even if Cooch did wander off, he’d come home by now…he knows the way…and he knows I’d be…well, he knows,” Joe finished softly, lowering his head.

Ben could feel the sadness coming from his youngest son. He knew how much the painted horse meant to Little Joe…he, himself had given the horse to his son on his sixteenth birthday, just over a year ago. Ben also recalled the rocky beginning his son and the horse had…Joe being burdened down with guilt over losing his life-long friend, Paint, who had been his own pony nearly from the day the boy had learned to walk…in fact recalled Ben, Joe had been riding the pony even before he learned to walk…with their help and supervision. Losing the old pony in the manner in which it had died, had served the boy a heaping of remorse and a parcel of guilty emotions, so much so that Joe had been unable to bond with the new horse. Cochise hadn’t fared any better, coming to a strange home with strangers caring for him, and not understanding the white man’s language…his son and his new horse oft as not butted heads more than once or twice. Ben almost smiled at the memory.

“I’m going to go look for him…you coming with me, Hoss?”

Joe’s words interrupted his father’s thoughts. Ben glanced at Joe who had pushed back his chair and stood up. “Sit down Joe…”

“But…”

“You will eat first…then you may be excused to go look for Cochise…”

“But…”

“Joseph…it could take a good while to find your horse; I don’t want you fainting dead from lack of food…please sit down and eat first,” Ben ordered gently.

Joe grinned at his father but did as requested. “I ain’t never fainted and you know it,” he said in a teasing tone.

“There’s always a first time,” muttered Adam who had until that moment remained silent.

Joe shot his brother a dark look.

“I’ll help you if you eat…”

Joe’s expression softened as the words sank into his brain. Adam smiled at his brother, causing Joe’s lips to curl upward in a return gesture.

“Thanks,” Joe muttered as he filled his plate with ham and eggs. “But what about that trip to Placerville?”

“Oh…I guess I forgot to tell you — that’s why I was in town the other day…those papers Pa needed came in the mail…I was there to pick them up…so I don’t have to go…thank goodness,” laughed Adam with a quick glance in his father’s direction.

*****

Joe pulled the little sorrel he was riding to a stop. In one sweep of his hand, he removed his hat and swiped the sweat from his brow.

“We’ve looked everywhere, Hoss…that dadburn nag ain’t nowhere to be found,” Joe grumbled as he pushed his hat back down on his head and reached for his canteen. “I still think someone stole him…Cooch would have come home by now…”

“Maybe he has, Joe…let’s go see… ‘sides, it’s nigh onto suppertime and I’m starvin’ plum near to death,” Hoss mumbled.

Joe snickered softly, his brooding mood lifted for a brief moment. “Yeah…you look like you’re wasting away quickly,” he teased. “Maybe you’re right, Hoss, perhaps Cooch has come home, or perhaps Adam’s had better luck than us…I…hope so,” the younger man added. “I…sort of miss that pony.”

Hoss watched his brother’s worried expressions and then smiled at the boy. “I know ya do, Joe…the two of you sorta got off to a bad start, didn’t ya?”

Thinking back to the time, over a year ago, that he’d received the pinto as a birthday gift from his father, Joe smiled at the not-so-pleasant memory. “We sure did…it’s almost funny now…thinking about all the fuming I did, not knowing that Cochise didn’t even understand a word I was saying to him…”

“Yeah, we all got a good laugh about that,” Hoss grinned as he turned his own horse toward home. “But the two of you got things worked out just fine, didn’t ya?”

“Yep…but I’m not so sure Cooch was as ignorant to what I was saying to him as he’d like us to think he was…”

“Aw Joe…that painted pony ain’t that dadburn smart!”

Joe’s eyes widened at the comment. He had the smartest horse around…in his mind.

“Sure he was…and still is…”

“No he ain’t…”

“What makes you think he’s not?”

“Cause, little brother, if’n that horse was that galldarn smart, he’d be home by now…he’s probably lost and can’t even find his own way…”

“He is not!”

“Yes he is…”

“NO he’s not…”

“YES…”

“Alright…forget it Hoss, just pretend I never said anything. Come on, I’m hungry,” Joe fussed as he kicked his heels into the little sorrel’s sides and took off at a full gallop toward home.

*****

In the dilapidated old shed, tethered tightly, his head pulled high and in a strain, front legs hobbled, his hind legs bound so that he could not move and stretched behind him, Cochise nickered softly. The undo pressure on his back from the heavy bundles placed there by his tormentors was beginning to break the spirit of the black and white prized treasure of his young master. Eyes wide with fright, the pinto nickered again the longing in his burdened heart cried out to the only one he knew could help him, ‘Little Joe, oh Little Joe…where are you…’

*****

“Joseph, I know you want to find him, but we have a corral full of wild mustangs that needs breaking…we have to have them ready in less than two weeks…and must I remind you, you were the one who was so set on seeing that this job was…”

Joe, who had his back to his father because he did not want the angry look disclosed, spun around, betraying his emotions. “I know,” he said quickly. “And I’m sorry I’m not doing my part…but I have to find him…Pa…please…you don’t understand…I have to!”

Ben, seeing the despairing look in his young son’s hazel eyes, relented in a softer tone.

“I know, son…I do understand how you feel.”

Joe dared to smile. “Does that mean…you’ll let me continue searching?”

Ben saw the sudden emission of hope that sprang into the boy’s eyes. He laughed in his fatherly manner as he nodded his head. “Yes, it means exactly that…”

“Oh Pa…thanks!” Joe practically shouted. Almost instantly, he was at the door, pushing his hat down on his head. He stopped long enough to look back, seeing his father smiling at him, his two brothers standing off to the side watching the exchange. “I promise, once I find Cochise…I’ll break every mustang in the corral if need be…thanks, Pa…”

Joe reached for the door, surprised to find their foreman standing on the opposite side.

“Hank…you dang near scared me to death!” Joe said light-heartedly.

Ben quickly moved to the door and stood beside Joe. He greeted his foreman. “Hank, come on in…”

Hank moved into the house and paused.

“See you later, Pa…” Joe said as he started out the door.

“Little Joe…wait,” Hank called.

Pausing, Joe turned back. “You want me for something?”

Hank nodded his head and reached with his hand, into his vest pocket. “Yeah…some cowpoke rode in a few minutes ago and asked me to give you this,” he said, withdrawing a folded slip of paper and holding it out to Joe.

Joe glanced at the paper, then at his family who had all gathered around the foreman and himself. He took the paper and slowly began to unfold it. Looking up once into the curious faces, he quickly scanned the note. Suddenly, his face paled.

“Joseph?” Ben said. “What’s wrong, son?”

“You look plum sick, Shortshanks…”

By this time, Adam stood to one side of his brother and Ben on the other, both trying to read the note that had turned Joe’s face a sickly white color. Ben took the paper from his son, noticing how the youngster’s hand trembled. He looked down at the scribbling and began to read.

 

If you want to see your painted pony alive…you’ll meet me tonight at the old millhouse just beyond Rainbow Canyon. Come alone…or the nag dies.

 

Silence filled the room for a long moment. Joe’s eyes sought his father’s. “I told you someone stole him…” he muttered.

Joe turned to the foreman almost with an angry glare. “Did you know the man who brought you this note?”

“Sorry, Little Joe…I don’t know his name…”

“Have you ever seen him before?” Ben asked as he watched Joe begin to pace.

The foreman seemed to be thinking. Suddenly he smiled. “Yeah…I’ve seen him before, but not lately.”

“When?” Adam demanded.

“Let’s see now…it’s been a while…hmm…maybe a year ago, give or take a month or two…I seen him about town. He was always with two…no…three other young fellas. He’s a big boy…about your age Little Joe…maybe a bit older…”

“Big…how big?” Joe asked suddenly as if he, himself were remembering a certain fellow.

Hank glanced at Hoss, pointing at the middle Cartwright with his finger. “Near as big as you, Hoss…’cept younger…”

“Moose Claymore…Eddie…that’s his real name…” Joe said as he spun around.

Joe headed straight for the door but was stopped when Ben pressed his hand down on the slender shoulder. “Where are you going?” he asked gruffly.

“To get my horse…Ty Hutchins is behind all this…he should never start something he can’t finish…but I aim on finishing it!”

Joe reached for the latch but paused to respond to his father’s next words.

“Joseph, you can’t go alone, I won’t let you!”

“Pa…I have to go, if I don’t he’ll kill Cochise, just like he did Paint…I can’t…and I won’t, let that happen!”

“Joe, I realize that son…but we’re going with you…”

“No, Pa…the note said to come alone…I have to go alone or else…please Pa, don’t follow me!”

Joe wasted no time in leaving as he rushed from the house and across the yard, mounting the little sorrel he’d been riding since Cochise had been taken. Before Ben and the others could get out of the house, Joe was gone. Ben stopped short in the middle of the yard.

“We aren’t going to let him do this alone, are we?” Adam asked his father.

“We have too…he asked us not to follow…”

“But Pa…” Hoss stammered with a worried frown.

“Hush, son…hush…” Ben said in a gentle voice. “Hank, saddle our horses, please.”

Ben turned back toward the house, followed by a puzzled Adam and Hoss.

“You’ve got a plan…wanna share it with us?” Adam quizzed.

Ben turned, smiled secretly at his sons and then explained in part. “You don’t really think I’d let him go alone…do you?”

Hoss glanced over at his older brother and grinned.

*****

Joe rode cautiously into the yard surrounding the old millhouse. It was quiet and he saw no one as he dismounted and laced his horse’s reins over an old hitching post that was on the verge of crumbling. Glancing around, the fingers on his left hand gently brushed against the butt of his pearl handled .45.

It was just beginning to grow dark and the long shadows of the old trees and broken down buildings took on an eerie sensation for the young man. He stood quietly beside the little sorrel, looking through the growing shadows for some sign that Moose was there.

“Hello…” he said and hoped that his voice sounded normal, for within, his gut was beginning to rumble and felt queasy. Not that he was afraid of Moose, or the big fellow’s companions, but the not knowing and the building suspense were putting his nerves on edge.

“Over here,” came a voice from the shadows.

Joe spun around expecting to see Moose, but if he were there, he certainly was being cautious.

“Drop your gun holster,” the voice ordered.

Taking a deep breath, Joe hesitated. “Show yourself…I know it’s you, Moose,” Joe dared the unseen fathom.

“Do as you’re told…or the pinto dies instantly…”

Without another word, fearing for the life of his prized horse, Joe quickly unbuckled his holster and allowed his weapon to slip to the ground.

“Now move away…this way…”

Again, Joe complied. Before he realized what was happening, a silent form emerged from the shadows behind him and grabbed up his gun and holster, quickly moving up behind Joe. Joe turned quickly, sensing the presence behind him. He wasn’t one bit surprised to see Mark, one of Ty Hutchins cohorts, standing behind him. Little Joe glared at the man. “I figured as much,” he snarled.

The remark made the other young man laugh. He jabbed his gun into Joe’s ribs as he nodded with a move of his head toward the old shed. “Get movin’…there’s somethin’ the boss wants ya to see.”

Reluctantly, Joe moved forward. As they neared the old shed a light was lit from within bringing a bright glow into the dreary, decrepit old building. Joe paused just outside the doorway.

“Come in, Cartwright.”

Joe felt his body stiffen. The voice was familiar, one that he’d heard time and time again both in his nightmares and in his waking hours, months after their first encounter. Slowly, Joe moved into the light, totally unprepared for what he saw. There, before him stood Cochise, tied in a cruel and strenuous way and bearing the weight of a heavy burden. Joe gasped loudly. Cochise’s front legs were hobbled; his hind legs were stretched out and hobbled in such a manner as to prevent the animal from moving. Even in the dimness of the lighting, Joe could see the muscles in the weary animal’s entire body quivering. Lather had formed and dripped from the pinto’s neck, soaking the fine hide in its pilgrimage into the dusty ground beneath the horse’s hooves.

Joe felt sick to his stomach. Anger boiled within as hate’s seed burst forth and spewed into his words and actions. He turned and charged the man who laughed, driving his head into Ty’s mid-section with such force as to ram the other man into the wall behind them. A cry of pain screeched through the supernatural stillness inside the old shed as Ty’s body slammed hard against the boards. He groaned loudly as he brought his arms up to protect himself from the onslaught of fists that bombarded his body.

Almost as quickly as it had begun, it ended. Gus, who had remained in the shadows stepped up and walloped the butt of his rifle down across the shoulder of his friend’s attacker. Joe immediately slumped to the ground at Ty’s feet, unconscious. Ty pushed himself from against the wall, breathing deeply as he wiped blood from his lip.

“Tie him up…”

It didn’t take Gus and Mark long to do as ordered. Minutes later Joe’s hands and ankles were wrapped tightly with a rope in equally secured knots. He was propped against a post facing his horse.

“Now wake him up…”

Moose grabbed a bucket, dipped it into the trough just outside the door and tossed the water into Joe’s face. Sputtering, Joe slowly opened his eyes, moaning softly at the sharp pain in his shoulder. When he looked up, Ty stood between him and his horse but Joe could see Cochise’s eyes as the pinto strained to look at him. The pleading he saw there ripped his heart in two. The horse was plainly suffering and in dire need of his help. Joe tugged at his ropes in a futile effort to free himself. His struggles only served to enlighten the others to his predicament. Anger, bright red, dotted Joe’s cheekbones as he glared up at the other man. “Dam you…” he cursed. “I’ll kill you for what you’re doing…”

Ty and the others laughed.

“I should have killed you a year ago…”

“But you didn’t…and you won’t kill me now…it ain’t in you, Cartwright…”

Joe swallowed hard…given enough motive, any man could be made to kill…isn’t that what his father and older brother, Adam, had often told him? Well, he had enough motive for sure…and enough hate… “Cut me loose…I’ll show you…” he dared his tormentor, as he looked the other man dead in the eye.

Ty flinched slightly…seeing the hate that showed so freely in his captive’s eyes. He watched for several seconds as Joe strained against his ropes. Behind him, Cochise nickered. When Joe looked up, he gasped loudly as he watched his horse’s hind legs buckle beneath the heavy burden on his back. Cochise whinnied in distress as the rope attached to his halter held his head upright in a punishing manner. Joe could easily see the fear and pain in his animal’s eyes.

He jerked and pulled on the ropes that bound him. He, himself was close to panic as he watched his beloved horse struggling to stay alive.

“CUT ME LOOSE…YOU’RE GONNA KILL HIM!” Joe bellowed at the others.

Ty only laughed. Mark, who was nearest the horse, frowned at the expression in the animal’s eyes…he covered his ears, unable to listen to the piteous sounds coming from the frightened animal. “Ty,” he said, moving away from Cochise. “Let’s forget this…Joe’s right…you’re gonna kill that horse…”

Infuriated, Ty turned on the boy. “Shut up you coward…you knew what was going to happen when you agreed to help me…”

“Yeah…but I didn’t think you meant it…”

Ty’s eyes rounded and grew large as he glared at Mark. “Did you think I was makin’ light of this? You idiot…”

Mark was growing more nervous by the minute. He fidgeted his fingers, lowering his hand to his side where his pistol rested on his hip. Suddenly his hand went for the gun, but Ty, ever conscious of those around him, saw the movement and quickly beat the other man to the draw.

“Don’t even think about it, Mark…” he cautioned his friend.

Mark swallowed and moved his hand away from his side. Slowly, he backed toward the door. “I’ve had enough of this,” he said, looking over at Gus and Moose. “You two can stay here if you wanna, but I’m getting outta here…”

He turned his back, which was a mistake.

“Stop Mark, or I’ll shoot you down…”

Mark paused but failed to turn around. “You ain’t got the guts, Hutchins…”

He took only one step before Ty made good his threat and fired, hitting the boy in the back. Mark’s body was spun around, his eyes wide as death claimed his startled soul. The dying boy dropped to the ground, dead.

Gus and Moose stood in shocked and frightened silence, seeing their comrade lying dead at their feet, unable to move they exchanged glances.

“I warned him,” Ty said with an anomalous coldness in his voice. He looked at the remaining two. “Either one of you got any notions of running out on me?”

Both shook their heads no…

“Untie me,” Joe demanded, squirming to be free.

Gus and Moose glanced at Ty. The leader nodded his head and as the two bent down to free Joe of his ropes, he holstered his gun. Joe flung the ropes away and stood up, sizing up the man in front of him. It would be hard to take the larger man, but driven by the need to set his horse free, and with nothing else on his mind but sheer determination, Joe drove himself into his opponent with every ounce of his being.

From behind him, Joe could hear the combination of the other two boy’s shouts and the frantic whinnying of his horse. For several minutes the boys fought one another, each hitting the other with doubled up fists. It wasn’t long before blood dripped from Ty’s nose and from a large gash over Joe’s left eye. Both were determined to become the victor.

A solid right sent the Cartwright youth stumbling backward into the dirt. For a brief moment, winded, Joe lay where he had fallen, trying to catch his second wind. When he heard the distinct sound of the cocking of a gun, he raised his head and looked upward. Standing over him, blood running down his face, gun ready to fire and pointed directly at him, Ty stood laughing. Looking wicked almost beyond being recognizable, he waved his pistol in the air and then placed it in Cochise’s ear. “The nag’s gonna die, Cartwright…”

The words were barely out of his mouth when Joe, in a daring move to save his horse, rolled quickly on the ground to beneath his tormentor’s feet, knocking the young man’s feet out from under him and causing Ty to topple over backwards. Joe spun around attempting to grab the pistol that had been knocked from Ty’s hands. At the same moment, Ty spied the gun just inches from where he lay and made his own attempt at retrieving his weapon.

By chance, Ty Hutchins reached the loaded gun before Joe, grabbed it and jumped to his feet. He pointed the pistol once again at his enemy, snarling.

“Idiot…now you’re gonna have ta die first…then I’ll kill the nag…”

Joe dared not move…there was nowhere to go. Anxiously he glanced around, startled to see that Gus, who was standing behind his leader, had his own pistol drawn and pointed at Ty’s back. Fear clouded the third man’s eyes.

“Don’t do it Ty…”

Ty moved slightly so that he could see his friends and still keep an eye on Joe.

“We didn’t come here to kill anyone…not even that pinto…you lied to us, Ty…and we ain’t gonna be party to no murder…ya done killed Mark…”

“Stupid fools…” Ty sputtered and raised his gun, pointing it at Gus.

Before he could pull the trigger, Gus fired his gun. The bullet melted into Ty’s chest, burying itself deeply beneath the ripped and torn flesh. Ty staggered backwards against the pole that had earlier held Joe Cartwright against his will. For a fraction of a second, Ty’s body rested its weight against the pole and then slowly crumbled to the ground as Joe watched in horror.

Moose shouted at Gus, drawing Joe’s attention from the body. The two boys exchanged frightened looks and then ran from the barn into the black of night. Joe seemed frozen to his spot on the ground, until a weak and frightened neigh broke through his trance.

Joe’s eyes moved quickly to his horse. With tears that blinded his eyes, Joe scrambled to Cochise’s side where he quickly untied the rope holding the magnificent head too high for two many hours. The weakened horse collapsed onto the hard packed earth.

“NO…no…please Cooch…don’t give up,” cried Joe as he knelt beside the suffering animal. He quickly removed the hobbles from the pinto’s front and hind legs and returned to stroke the long silky neck.

Joe leaned down, unashamed of the tears that overflowed and dripped onto the lather soaked hide. “Don’t die…please Cooch…” babbled Joe, unaware that behind him, Gus and Moose had returned to the barn.

“Joseph?”

At the sound of his name, Joe spun around, startled to see his father and two brothers entering the shed behind Gus and Moose.

“Pa?”

“We found these two about a quarter of a mile up the road…what on earth happened here?” Ben declared upon seeing the two bodies. He rushed to his son’s side, kneeling down.

“It’s a long story, Pa…Cooch…he’s…dying…” stammered Joe. “Hoss…can you help him?” he asked in a near pleading tone.

Hoss instantly moved to his brother’s side while keeping a close watch on the other two. Hoss examined Joe’s pinto. His eyes were doubtful but he forced a smile for his brother.

“I don’t know, Shortshanks…but we’ll sure give it a try…see if’n ya can find me some blankets…and some warm water.”

Before Joe could stand up, Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You stay with your horse and help Hoss; I’ll find the blankets and get the water.”

“Thanks Pa,” Joe said in a low voice, already helping Hoss by quieting his pinto.

He turned to Adam. “Can you take these two young fellas into town…while I get what Hoss needs…then I’ll help you load these bodies…the sheriff is likely to want to talk to Joe about all this, tell Roy he’ll be into town once we know something about this horse,” Ben said.

“Sure Pa…come on you two…you can wrap up your friends over here and tie them to their horses…”

*****

“He refused to come inside, Pa. Said he wanted to stay with Cochise…just in case. Poor things might tore up about that horse of his’n,” Hoss was explaining to his father.

They had been forced to stay the night at the old mill house. What with Joe’s horse being down and the likelihood that Cochise might not pull through, Ben had decided that they’d stay…until they knew something for sure of the pinto’s fate. Adam had taken the two survivors and the two bodies into town, turned Gus and Moose over to Sheriff Coffee and then returned to the mill to wait with his father and brothers.

“He should be in bed himself,” Ben fussed. “Kid’s been beat badly and should…”

“He don’t feel nuthin’, Pa…only pain he’s got is in his heart,” Hoss announced. “He’s mighty scared of losing that painted pony ya gave him…”

Ben’s smile was soft and tender as he nodded his head in agreement. “I know…I think I’ll go out and sit with him for a spell. You two boys get some rest, I have an idea that tomorrow will be another long day, especially if Cochise…well, you know what I mean.”

*****

Ben paused at the door of the shed and took a deep breath. As he reached for the latch, he stopped completely, hearing the soft murmuring inside. Concerned, he peeked in seeing laying on the ground next to the horse, his youngest son. Joe’s arm was stretched across the animal’s neck and Joe was speaking in soft, low tones to his horse.

“I’m sorry Cooch…I never meant for this to happen to you…I shouldn’t have let it…it was my fault, I should have killed that scoundrel a year ago…”

Ben took a step inside, ready to speak out, but once more he fell silent and listened instead.

“Crazy fool horse…why’d you let ’em lead ya off like that anyway? I thought ya knew better, you loco nag…”

Ben heard the tremors in his son’s voice but failed to notice the quivering chin.

“I think you just went off with that sorry bunch on purpose…and I know why…just ’cause I wouldn’t let ya get friendly with that little mare last week…”

Surprised by the statement, Ben covered his mouth to smother any sounds that might give his presence away.

“You shouldn’t think about things like that, you know it…she…wasn’t right for you,” Joe muttered.

Cochise snorted and tried to raise his head.

“Now you just lay still…don’t argue with me…I’ll find you a nice little filly…when the times right. Right now you just need to get back on your feet…”

Joe arranged the warm blankets he’d placed over the horse, by gently tucking them in around Cooch’s frame.

“Dang fool…I tried to teach ya to stay put…”

Cochise moved his head away from Joe and acted as if he might get up. Joe pushed himself away from his horse to give the animal more room. But the attempt failed and Cochise laid his head back down. Joe choked back his tears and settled in next to the hard breathing horse.

“That was a good try, boy…but you need to rest a bit more first…and then we’ll try it again later.”

There was a long silence that followed, but from his hiding place near the door, Ben continued to watch as Joe bowed his head. The words were soft and muted and Ben couldn’t clearly make out what his son was saying, but he knew that Joe was praying. He felt a flutter in his heart as he backed out the door, leaving Joe alone to talk to his Lord. Ben felt a lump in his own throat as he walked back to the mill house. Outside the door of the building, he paused, looked up at the trillions of stars that lit the sky and whispered a pray of his own.

*****

It was an hour before dawn. Ben had slept little throughout the night and what time he did sleep was spent propped in a chair. In between time, he and Adam had discussed the recent events concerning Joe and the men who had caused so much unhappiness for their family. Adam had returned late into the night from delivering Gus and Moose to the sheriff and the two bodies to the undertaker. Gus and Moose would be made to stand trial for their part in the killings and would most likely end up serving some time as well. The news was satisfactory to all the Cartwrights, including Joe who had suffered the most at the hands of the foursome.

Ben had awakened minutes before and had stoked the fire, bringing warmth into the run down building. Stretching, he stood with his back to the pot bellied stove, lost in thoughts of the boy and his horse when he heard what he believed to be shouting. He raised his head, listening. There it was again… unmistakable shouts for help that clearly came from outside. “ADAM, HOSS…” he yelled as he ran for the door, pausing just long enough to grab his pistol from its holster.

“Heh?” stammered Hoss, barely awake.

“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked, responding quickly to his father’s frantic shouts. He grabbed his gun as well and followed his father outside.

“PA…PA…COME QUICKLY!”

“Joseph! In the shed,” Ben shouted over his shoulder to Adam and Hoss.

Ben raced toward the shed, slowing his steps as he neared the door. Not knowing what to expect, the trio used caution as they eased opened the door.

“PA!” Joe shouted again without bothering to look up.

Ben yanked opened the door, expecting the worst, but stopped short when he saw the boy and his horse, standing side by side.

“Joe?” Ben said softly, smiling at all his sons as he moved slowly toward Cochise.

Joe turned around, grinning happily. His hand rested on his horse’s neck while his other tenderly rubbed the velvety nose. “Lookit, Pa…he’s standing…he’s gonna be alright…Hoss…see?” babbled Joe merrily.

“I see,” smiled Ben moving closer and petting Cochise on the forehead.

“Well, what’ll you know!” heehawed Hoss loudly. “Will ya lookit that…”

“Joe…looks like you did it…you saved him,” Adam said with a touch of pride in his voice as he too reached out and petted the pinto.

“Yeah…I guess I did, didn’t I?” grinned Joe. “With a little help,” he added, looking happily at his middle brother.

Cochise tossed his head and then nosed the boy next to him, pushing Joe against the wall.

“Hey…you cut that out…or I won’t keep that promise I made to you!” Joe said in a whimsical tone.

“Promise?” Adam asked with curiosity glimmering in his dark eyes.

 “What promise?” Their father asked, eyeing his youngest son closely.

“Umm…well, you see, Pa…it’s like this…I sorta made Cooch a promise…sorta…” stammered Joe slightly embarrassed.

Ben folded his arms across his chest and stood looking deeply into his son’s eyes.

“What sort of promise?” Hoss asked, pushing for an answer. He was curious as to what a boy could promise a horse that would influence a dying animal with enough will power to snap back as quickly as Cochise had done.

Joe blushed, lowering his head. “I…promised him a…filly…” he said lowly.

“A what!” the three older Cartwrights practically shouted at the same time.

They burst into laughter and laughed until tears filled their eyes. Joe stood watching, a frown etched across his face. After several moments he could take no more. “Gonna tell me what’s so funny?” he demanded, stroking Cochise’s nose.

“Joseph,” snickered Ben, “Cochise can’t…well…you know…he’s a…”

Joe turned from his horse to stare up at his father and brothers.

“He’s a what?” the boy grumbled.

Hoss wiped the tears from his eyes with the cuff of his shirt and placed a heavy hand on his younger brother’s shoulder.

“Gelding…Shortshanks, your pinto is a gelding…not a stallion…” he snickered.

“He can’t…well, you know, Joe…” Adam reinforced his brother’s statement, though he continued to giggle.

“Well shoot…” Joe practically shouted, “Don’t you think I’m smart enough to know that!” he declared as he turned and walked away.

“Hey, wait just a minute,” Adam called out. “If you knew that…then why make such a promise?”

Joe stopped at the door and spun around. His hands were on his hips and he looked very much like his father might have looked years before, and who, by the way, had remained silent through the exchange. “What do you take me for, a fool? Look, I know that, but HE doesn’t know that!” Joe stated as he pointed at his horse.

The remark caused another round of laughter; even Little Joe got caught up in the moment and began to giggle.

“Well, he doesn’t…” he said, moving back to stand beside his prized horse. “You don’t understand a word of this…do you?” Joe laughed.

Cochise raised his proud head high and tossed in up and down.

“Son…I wouldn’t be too sure of that…”

“Yeah, Joe…I wouldn’t be making promises I couldn’t keep either,” smirked Adam.

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” sighed Joe. “He’s just a horse…smart…but not that smart…”

The words were barely out of his mouth before Cooch pushed his nose into Joe’s back. Caught off guard, the boy was sent sprawling, face down into the dirt. Laughter filled the barn as Joe flipped over unto his back. Cochise’s lips were pulled back; he tossed his head up and down, mockingly as if laughing at his young master.

“Okay,” groaned Joe as he stood and dusted off his trousers, “you’re smarter than I give you credit for…alright?”

“WHEEEEEEEE…………..”

Did he or did he not really understand…you decide.

***End***

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