Word Count: 15,399
Ben was watching from the porch as his youngest son rode slowly into the yard and dismounted from his old painted pony. He scrunched up his brow, knowing by the looks of his boy that once again, Little Joe had been fighting. Ben could only wonder at the reasons behind his son’s disheveled appearance.
Slowly, almost deliberately, Little Joe Cartwright sauntered over to his father. His head was bent low to hide the bruises on his young face. He stopped short of the porch, sighing deeply as he waited for the lecture he knew would be forthcoming.
Ben extended his hand, placed his gentle fingers under the boy’s chin and carefully tilted Joe’s head upward so that he could observe the markings that marred the sun bronzed flesh of the boy’s cheeks. Slowly, Ben moved his son’s face from side to side. “What was it about this time?”
Joe puckered up his lips. His eyes rose enough that he could look up at his father. He shrugged his shoulders.
“What does that mean?” Ben asked. “Was it Ty Hutchins again?”
The young boy nodded his head up and down.
“He hates me,” Joe muttered.
Ben’s eyes narrowed somewhat as he studied the boy’s face. “Why?”
Joe let the air expel from his lungs as he pushed away his father’s hand and turned, moving across the porch to the rocker where he sat down. Joe’s eyes sought his father’s face. “How should I know…that basta…I mean…Ty hates everyone for one reason or another…”
Ben moved slowly toward the rocker. “That doesn’t make any sense…”
The expression on Joe’s face was one of confusion. “I know that, but Pa…honestly…Ty Hutchins is the meanest, nastiest, low-life cuss I’ve ever met. I ain’t never done nothing to him, yet he hates me…calls me names, makes fun of me in front of everyone and does his darnedest to make me fight him…”
“And you’ve obviously tangled with him again…after you promised me you wouldn’t let him goad you into another fight…”
Joe jumped to his feet, almost glaring at his father. “I wasn’t fighting him…”
“Oh…so what do you call these?” Ben asked, tenderly touching Joe’s bruised face with his fingertips.
Joe jerked back his head. Tears had begun to fill his eyes. Ben noted the quivering chin.
“He was fighting me. I never hit him…I never even took a swing at him, he just jumped me and started pounding on me!” the boy stammered.
Joe stomped across the porch, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill over and to keep his father from seeing how upset he was.
“For no reason?”
“Yeah, for no reason!” snarled Joe. “And his stupid friends just stood back and watched…I could hear them laughing…cheering Ty on…like I was nothing but a…mangy ol’ dog…” Joe spun around, no longer able to hide the tiny beads of water that had over flowed and ran slowly down his dirtied face. “Not that it was much of a fight…Ty happens to be twice my size…and nearly two years older…”
“Joe…the boy isn’t that big…”
“Pa…you ain’t seen him lately…he’s took what you’d call…a growing surge…he’s nearly as big as Hoss…”
Ben fought to contain the smile that threatened to arise and moved to his son’s side. He placed his hands on the boy’s shoulder and drew his son to him. “I suppose Ty has grown…”
“I’m just a runt…just like Adam and Hoss are always telling me…”
Ben could do nothing to stop the snicker that escaped his lips. “Son, your brothers were only teasing you…don’t you worry, you’ll grow…”
Joe, who had allowed himself the comfort of resting his head against his father’s breast, looked up. “I sure could use some of that growing now…” he said and then saw the twinkle in his father’s eyes. “ I’d like to be able to wipe that smirk off Ty’s face without getting another black eye!”
Ben laughed for real this time and hugged Joe to him. “I’m sure your day will come…but remember son, never start anything you can’t finish. For now, let’s get you inside and cleaned up…”
Ben turned Joe toward the door and together, with their arms about the other, father and son went inside, closing the door for the time being to the woes on the world outside.
Ty moved slowly out of the alley and back into the street. He was followed by three of his friends as he made his way toward his horse. When he paused at the hitching post where his black gelding was tied, he turned to his companions. “I guess I showed him…” he muttered.
Gus Anderson shook his head in disgust. “Just what do you think you proved, Ty…Cartwright’s just a kid…he didn’t even put up a fight,” the tall lanky youth said objectively.
“Yeah,” agreed Mark, another of Ty’s close buddies. “What was there to prove by shoving around a kid…compared to you, Little Joe Cartwright is just a runt…a little boy. Why, you probably out weigh him by fifty pounds and you’re a good foot and half taller than he is…”
“Not to mention the fact that’s he not yet sixteen and you’re practically eighteen. What ya got against the little runt anyway…besides the fact that he’s better lookin’ than you are!” taunted Moose, whose name justified his size.
His statement caused the others to start snickering. Ty glared at his friends from over the top of his saddle.
“Cartwright is a smart mouthed little rich kid, his pappy’s place is the biggest in the territory, and Little Joe thinks he’s something special, better’n the rest of us…but he ain’t…hell, he can’t even fight…” growled Ty as he swung onto his horse. “But I’ll change that, I’ll find a way to make him fight me…”
“Why? It ain’t his fault that his daddy’s rich…”
“Shut up, Gus…” snapped Ty with a warning look. “I have my reasons…being rich ain’t all there is to this…”
“No…half the girls in school is sweet on Cartwright, including Lori…”
“Lori?” Moose practically shouted as the four rode side by side down the main street of town, heading home. “I thought Lori McKay was your girl, Ty?”
“You big idiot,” laughed Mark. “Lori McKay ain’t no body’s girl…’ceptin’ she’d like to be Little Joe’s girlfriend…but Ty over there wants her for himself…ain’t that right, Ty?”
Ty pulled his horse to a stop and turned to face his pals, still wearing the dark frown on his face. “Lori will be my girl…once she sees what a coward the kid is…”
“But he won’t fight ya, Ty. You heard what he said today; he won’t fight ya…”
“Yes he will…I’ll make him fight me. You just wait and see!” Ty gouged his heels into his mount’s sides and rode off, leaving the other three staring at his back.
The three exchanged quick glances.
“Sounds like ole Ty has a plan…”
“Come on, let’s find out what he has up his sleeve!”
“Come on, Paint…let’s get you settled in,” Joe groaned as he led his aging pinto into the barn.
Adam looked up from his work to watch his younger brother walking his mount into the stable where Paint was housed.
“He looks beat,” Adam commented to his brother.
Joe pulled his saddle from the horse’s back and tossed it across the saddle holder.
“He’s old, what do you expect?” Joe answered.
“He’s not that old,” Adam said with a grin. “He’s still got life left in him.”
“I suppose,” Joe said as he began rubbing down his pony. “But I’m still hoping Pa will find me a good horse…”
“A good horse? Paint’s been a good horse…and a good friend…”
Joe looked up long enough to catch the slight frown on his brother’s face. “I know that, Adam…but he’s…not much good for anything anymore…I mean…he’s slowing down…”
“Well, if you didn’t try to force him into running like the wind…he’d last a bit longer…”
“But I like riding fast…I like the feel of the wind in my face…and the rush I get when I’m riding fast. I just like a fast horse, Adam…”
“Pa doesn’t want you to ride like the wind…he doesn’t relish you having that rush you’re talking about and Joe…a fast horse is what killed your mother…Pa’s never forgotten that and he fears for your life when he sees you riding like the devil was on you’re tail…”
Joe tossed the brush down on the shelf and walked over nearer his brother. “I know Pa worries, Adam…I ain’t forgotten…
“Haven’t forgotten…”Adam corrected.
Joe grinned. “Haven’t forgotten…I haven’t forgotten how my mother died, but…I’m…young, I’m a man now…”
“Almost then…and I want a horse more suited for my needs. Paint’s been a good pony…and he still is, if I were still a kid…”
Adam set his rake against the wall and grinned down at his little brother. He understood how the boy felt; he’d felt the same way once…a long time ago. Adam tussled the boy’s thick curls. “I’ll talk to Pa about it and see if I can help you out some…but until then…you’ll have to be satisfied with the ole man over there…”
Joe’s bruised face cracked with a wide grin. His emerald eyes danced with excitement. “You’d do that for me? Talk to Pa about finding me a fast horse…”
“A good horse, Joe…one more suited to you, but not so fast…I won’t even bring up the subject of riding like the wind or the rush you get when the wind whips at your face…”
Adam’s eyes took on a faraway look as the pair walked from the barn. Joe knew without having to be told that Adam was remembering another time, a time when he, as Joe, was wanting a better, faster and more suiting mount.
“Thanks, Adam,” Joe muttered.
From the barn, Paint whinnied causing Joe to pause and turn around. The old pony was watching from his stall. Something deep within Joe’s heart stirred and for a fraction of a second, he felt a twang of guilt and a sense of having betrayed an old friend. With a deep sigh, Joe turned his head and rushed ahead to catch up with Adam.
“So…what’cha gonna do to make the kid fight ya, Ty?” Mark asked as the foursome sat around the sparsely furnished room.
“I have a plan…but I’ll need your help, and yours too, Gus…and especially you, Moose,” Ty explained as he downed a long swig from the whiskey bottle he’d found hidden in his uncle’s cabinet.
“Sure…long as ya ain’t plannin’ on killin’ no one,” Moose babbled. His words were slightly slurred from the affects of the booze he’d been sharing with his pals. “I’ll do most anything for ya, Ty…you know that, but I won’t help ya kill anybody…not even that Cartwright kid,” he proclaimed.
“Aw…I ain’t gonna kill him!” smirked Ty.
“I don’t like the way ya say that,” Gus complained.
“Me either…sounds like your planning on killing someone…just not the kid,” Mark added.
“Naw…I’m ain’t gonna kill no body…hell, I’m smarter than that…but I am planning on making the kid think I am gonna kill…something…something he sort of favors…and when he gets riled enough, he’ll fight me…you just wait and see!” Ty laughed wickedly.
The other three swapped glances but then started laughing. “What’cha gonna do?” they asked.
Ty passed the bottle on to the young man on his right and motioned for them all to move closer. When their heads were all together, Ty whispered, “Here’s what I aim on doing,” he said in a low voice. “Tomorrow after school when Little Joe starts home…he always rides home along the rim rock…well, we’ll be waitin’ and when he gets to the twin rocks, we’re going to………..”
“Pa…I dun promised you, I won’t fight with Ty Hutchins…that ain’t saying he won’t fight me…” Little Joe said as he mounted Paint.
“Well, just try to avoid him, son…”
“That ain’t always easy to do, Pa…but I’ll do my best, I promise,” Joe said and then gave his father a cheeky grin. “I’m getting’ used to havin’ these bruises…sort of helps to get the girls to notice me….”
Ben sighed deeply and rolled his eyes. “Joseph…please, you are far too young to even think about getting a girl to notice you…”
Joe responded by giggling and then turned his old pony around. “I’ll see ya this afternoon, Pa…” he laughed as he nudged Paint in the sides.
The pony responded by groaning and moved in the appointed direction. Adam, who stood in the doorway of the barn watching, moved to stand beside his father. “That boy needs a faster horse…” he muttered under his breath.
Ben looked questioningly at his eldest son. “He needs no such a thing…and you certainly do not need to be encouraging him on the matter.”
Adam glanced at his father and instantly noted the somewhat worried expression. “I haven’t encouraged him at all…but look, Pa…ol’ Paint is getting on in age. He deserves to live out the remainder of his days just lounging around. He’s been a good pony for Joe…but Joe isn’t a little kid anymore either, in case you haven’t noticed…he’s a young man, and he needs a horse more suited…”
“Not a fast horse…”
“Of course not, but not a plow horse either, Pa…just a bigger…and younger gelding, something that can at least get the boy to school on time…without being a race horse, naturally…” Adam added.
Ben’s lips puckered for a brief moment but when he looked at Adam, he smiled. “For your information, I’ve been shopping around. In fact,” he said almost secretively, “I found the perfect pinto for him…”
“Oh…I wasn’t aware you’d been to any horse auctions lately.”
“I haven’t…but I have been talking with Chief Winnemucca…and we’ve just about come to an agreement…I was thinking on giving the horse to your brother on his birthday. You know it’s next week…”
Riding home, Joe’s mind wasn’t as much on where he was going or the homework assignment that Miss Jones’ had given to the class as it was on trying to make his old pinto pony move a little faster. He nudged the horse in the ribs once again.
“Come on Paint, I know you can move a little faster,” Joe urged as he moved his upper body in a rocking motion as if that would force the horse into moving faster.
Paint only tossed his head and continued to maintain the same gait.
“Dadburnit!” cussed Little Joe, using one of his older brother’s favorite slang words.
The boy felt more like using a real cuss word, but knew better. If his father ever heard him using foul language, Joe knew he’d get a very serious ‘talking to’. So he sighed instead and refrained.
“You sure ain’t much good for nuthin’no more!” the frustrated boy grumbled to the old stead. “You’ll be sorry one of these days, you ol’ sowbelly! I’ll have myself a fine new horse, a faster one…one that ain’t scared to move…and you’ll just end up standing at the fence wishing it was you I was riding instead of my new horse!”
Paint seemed to be paying only slight attention to his master’s voice. He’d heard it all before, so the threats weren’t new to him. The old pinto tossed his head and moved into a trot. If speed were what the boy wanted, then he’d give it to him. He grunted again and started to run. Joe squealed in joy, but his pleasure was only short lived; Paint soon tired and slowed suddenly after only a few hundred yards and once again picked up his regular pace.
“Damn!” cussed Joe and then quickly glanced around as if he half expected his father to appear.
Nearing the rim rock, Joe glanced down into the canyon as he rode along. “Sure is a long way down that ravine,” he said aloud, glad for once that old Paint wasn’t moving so fast and gladder still that his old pony was as sure-footed as ever.
They had just passed between the twin rocks when suddenly he was pounced upon from behind and knocked to the ground. He hit hard, the wind knocked from his lungs by the force of his fall. Before Joe could gather his addled senses, he felt his body hauled from the ground and spun around. A smashing blow to his face sent him reeling backwards. Sounds of laughter and high-pitched giggles resounded in his ears. The battered youth lay face down on the ground, gasping for air to fill his burning lungs.
“You ready to fight, Cartwright?”
Joe heard himself groan as he turned over and rose up on one elbow. Ty Hutchins, wasn’t it just his luck? He heaved a sigh as he got to his feet and dusted off his new britches. Pa’s gonna be angry, he thought, seeing the hole in the knee of his pants. Why he thought of that, he wasn’t sure.
“I’ve told you before, Ty,” Joe said, glancing about at the others. “I’m not going to fight you…not now, not later…not ever. Just what is it that you have against me anyhow?” He asked, grabbing his hat from where it lay in the dust at his feet.
The small band of young men had formed a circle around him and Joe suddenly felt trapped.
“I don’t like you…”
“Why…what have I ever done to you?” Joe demanded.
Mark, Gus and Moose turned to Ty, waiting for his explanation.
“I have my reasons…” Ty made a fist and swung at Joe, but Joe, having seen the movement, managed to step back and avoid being punched.
The others laughed as they moved in a circle around the two who now stood in the center facing one another.
“I’m going to make you fight me, Cartwright…take him Moose!” Ty shouted.
Joe barely had time to turn around before the over-sized boy grabbed him and pinned his arms down to his side. Joe struggled to free himself, but it was impossible to break free of the vise-like grip of the older boy. Moose was almost as large in stature as Hoss and struggling, the smaller lad only served to force Moose into tightening his hold on the squirming boy. The others laughed at Joe’s angry expression as Moose held Joe inches above the ground.
“Now ya might as well stop struggling, kid,” Ty said mockingly. “I’m gonna ask ya one last time…are ya ready to fight me?”
“NO!” shouted Joe angrily. “And nothing you can say or do can make me…understand?”
Ty shook his head as if sorely disappointed. “Too bad,” he muttered as he turned to Mark. “Get our horses…Gus get a rope.”
The other two boys quickly did their friend’s bidding. Seconds later Gus was back with the rope and handed it to Ty. Mark had fetched the horses; all, that is, except Joe’s old pinto.
Ty tossed the rope to Moose. “Tie his hands,” he ordered, which Moose complied. “Make sure he doesn’t get away; Mark, you and Gus come with me.”
Moose forced Joe back a few steps and watched at the trio mounted up. Ty made a circle around Joe and Moose and then stopped in front of Joe. He leaned down and snarled at the youngest Cartwright. “Watch what you’re makin’ me do, Cartwright…in a few minutes, you’ll be wishin’ ya was fightin’ me…”
Ty left no time for Joe to make a reply. He jerked his horse around, nodded for Mark and Gus to follow and then began screaming and shouting. He pulled his pistol from his holster and began firing bullets into the air. Paint, startled by the loud commotion, bolted and began running in the opposite direction.
Ty gouged his horse in the ribs and raced ahead of the old pony, forcing Paint to turn sharply and head back in the other direction.
“HEAD HIM OFF!” Ty shouted.
Mark and Gus spun their mounts around and raced toward the fleeing, frightened pony. Meanwhile, Joe watched from the sidelines, fearing for his old horse’s safety as he watched the trio of troublemakers, shouting and shooting head the pinto toward the edge of the rim rock. It didn’t take Joe but a second to figure out what the scoundrels were up to. Fear pierced his heart as he watched Paint run hell-bent toward the edge of the ravine and suddenly turn to race along the rim.
“TURN HIM IN!” bellowed Ty who was only yards behind the exhausted, puffing pony.
Mark turned his own horse around and charged toward Paint. Startled at the suddenness of the oncoming rider, Paint spun too sharply to his left and disappeared over the cliff’s edge.
“NO!” screamed Joe at the top of his lungs as he broke into a run, making his way to the edge of the ravine.
The riders had stopped short of going over the side themselves. Their horses’ sides where heaving and one sorrel was snorting frightfully as he watched the pony tumbling downward across the jagged rocks.
Joe, sweat dotting his brow and tears stinging his eyes stopped short at the rim and looked down. Far below lay his old painted pony, broken and bleeding. Joe struggled to free his hands of the ropes that bound them behind his back. Anger and hate were like black darts spewing from his moss colored eyes. His teeth were clenched tightly, his jaw twitched nervously as he fought the ropes. “UNTIE ME!” he demanded in a deep, emotional voice filled with venom.
Moose, who had rushed over to the group, looked up at Ty who was dismounting his horse. When Ty nodded, Moose cut the rope which held Joe’s hands behind his back with his knife. Joe shoved the big man aside as if he were a mere kid and leapt at Ty, catching the other boy off balance. Driven by anger and grief at the loss of his horse, Joe drove his fists repeatedly into Ty’s face. The larger boy squealed in pain when a solid left broke his nose.
“GET HIM OFF, GET HIM OFF!” wailed Ty as he struggled to keep the fury of fists from doing more damage to his already bruising face.
It took all three, Mark, Gus and even Moose, to pull Joe from atop Ty, who quickly scurried to his feet. His hands covered his bloodied nose; tears dripped from his eyes due to the throbbing pain in his face.
“You little bastard, you broke my nose!” blubbered Ty as he swiped at the blood running freely from his nose.
Moose was once again restraining Joe who still struggled to hit the other lad.
“I’d kill you if I could!” shouted Joe. Angry tears shone in his eyes, but he refused to be reduced to them in front of the foursome. “You had no right to do what ya did…”
A soft whinny from the bottom of the ravine caused all five young men to stop arguing and look down. Paint had raised his head just enough to look upward at the group of boys and then suddenly lowered his head.
Joe shoved Moose aside and hurried over the side of the cliff. He slipped halfway down and tumbled along, finally grabbing a fallen branch and righting himself before continuing to his fallen friend. When he reached his horse, he dropped to his knees, sickened by what he was seeing.
Joe extended his hand, gently running it along the silky neck. The tears that had formed from anger, now rolled down the front of his dirty face in empathy for his lifelong companion.
“Oh Paint!” sobbed Joe, “Look at what I’ve done to you!”
The pony nickered softly. His breathing was labored as he tried to nuzzle his nose against Joe’s head that was now pressed against the softness of the horse’s neck.
“I’m so sorry…” the boy cried. “I didn’t mean all those nasty things I said to you…”
Joe’s chin quivered. The pony was dying slowly and there was nothing that he could do to help the animal that had served him so faithfully. Raising his head, he knew what had to be done. “Toss down your gun,” he called up to the foursome.
When he received no reply, Joe looked up only to find that the four had gone, leaving him alone with his dying friend. A fresh wave of anger consumed him. “DAMN YOU!!!!” he screeched at the top of his lungs, caring little that he cursed aloud.
He waved a fist into the air, meant for Ty and his murdering companions. His thoughts were fueled with the burning hate that had suddenly taken root. How was he to help the gentle pony…how was he to end the suffering…how could he be merciful when he had nothing in which to use to put an end to the agony that he knew the old horse must surely be enduring.
Joe lovingly petted the pony again and forced himself to stand. “I’m sorry, Paint,” he cried, wiping the moisture from his face. “I’ll be back…I promise…”
With that, Joe began the climb up the side of the ravine. It took several minutes and many attempts before he reached the rim rock. Already winded from the climb and the fight, he took off running toward home. He ran until his legs almost gave out. Sweat dripped from his brow, leaving tiny white tracks through the dirt that smudged when he wiped his shirtsleeve across his face.
“PA! ADAM! HOSS!” he began shouting even before he entered the yard.
Adam hurried from the barn; Ben opened the front door to see what the commotion was all about. When he saw his youngest son drop to his knees, Ben burst from the house and across the yard, followed by Hoss who come from behind.
Before Ben reached the boy, Adam was already helping his brother up. “What’s wrong, Joe…”
“Paint…Paint,” panted Joe, pointing back across his shoulder.
“Paint?” Ben echoed. “What about your pony…
“Where is he?” Hoss asked as all three gathered around the sobbing boy.
Joe, winded and unable to speak coherently, sagged against his father. Puzzled, Ben encircled the boy with his strong arms as he looked into the faces of his equally confused sons.
“Joe, tell us what happened…where’s your horse and for heaven’s sake, what happened to you?”
“Ty…” gasped Joe. “He…and…the…others…Paint…went…over…the rim…rock…bottom…of the…ravine …”
“WHAT!” the trio shouted.
“Gotta…hurry…suffering…OH PA!!” Joe’s reserve broke then as he turned his face into his father’s breast and cried.
Ben, eyes troubled, glanced up at Adam and Hoss and without uttering a word, motioned for them to go. Knowing what they must do, the two brothers slipped silently away to find the wounded pony and to end its suffering. Ben gathered the distraught boy into his arms and carried Joe into the house.
Joe walked slowly down the stairs and to the table where his family had already gathered for breakfast. The expression in the hollow of his eyes had not changed. For nearly a week now the sadness had clouded the happy, carefree sparkle that was the norm for Little Joe’s energetic persona. Ben hoped that today of all days, that would change for today was his son’s birthday and he had what he hoped was a wonderful surprise for the boy. When Joe sat down, his father smiled. “Good morning…and happy birthday.”
Joe returned the smile, though somewhat strained. “Good morning…and thank you,” he said solemnly.
“Hey…that’s right, it is your birthday…happy birthday, Shortshanks,” grinned Hoss.
“Thanks,” Joe said softly.
“Happy birthday, pal,” Adam said, noting the downcast expression on his little brother’s face.
Joe reached for the platter of pancakes and helped himself, limiting his serving to only three. He refused the bacon and the eggs that were offered to him. The lad said nothing, only shaking his head.
“Well,” began Ben, hoping to spark a conversation. “Tonight’s the night…”
“Yeah…a real party…we ain’t had a party in months,” Hoss said excitedly. “You ready, little brother?”
Joe swallowed what was in his mouth and looked up from his plate. “I suppose,” he muttered.
“Suppose?” Ben said. “I thought you’d be excited.”
Joe laid his fork to the side of his plate and slowly turned to his father. He knew his father meant well, but he wasn’t too sure he was up to a party. Fighting to control the quivering in his voice, he asked his father, “Do we…really have…to have a…party?”
For a moment, Ben studied his son’s face. He looked deeply into the troubled eyes that refused to meet his. “I thought you wanted a party.”
“But now?” Ben asked softly as he chanced a glance around the table. All eyes had focused on the youngest member of the family.
Joe shrugged his shoulders.
“I…” Joe finally looked up at his father. He swallowed hard. “I don’t think I can face a bunch of people…not yet…not after…I mean…not so…soon…” His chin began to quiver. “I don’t think I could stand…answering a passel of questions.”
Understanding his son’s sensitivity on the subject of his old pony, Ben nodded his head. “I don’t suppose it would be easy. Son…if you’re sure…it’s not too late to call it off.”
Joe’s eyes brightened just a little. “Would you…be mad at me? I know you’ve all gone to a lot of trouble…but…”
Ben reached his hand across the table and placed it on top of Joe’s, squeezing gently. “Of course not, son. I understand how you might feel…though I do believe our friends wouldn’t be so rude as to push you for an explanation on the matter. The news has been around town for a week, so most folks probably already know why those boys suddenly dropped out of sight,” Ben assured the boy. “But if you’d rather not have a party…that’s fine…we could have a private dinner, with cake of course, just the four of us…and Hop Sing, if you prefer.”
“I do…I mean…that would be…nice…just us…no one else?”
“Alright, it’s settled then. Hoss, you and Adam pass the word around that the party has been…canceled.”
“Yes sir…but…what if the folks wanna know why?” Hoss dared to question.
“Just tell them that we have decided on a family only gathering…that should be sufficient,” Ben advised.
Hoss pushed himself away from the table and stood up, looking a bit troubled toward his younger brother. When Joe looked up at him, Hoss smiled kindly. “Sixteen…I can’t believe it…time sure ‘nough has slipped up on us, ain’t it, Pa? He’s might near a man now…and a darn good one, too…”
Hoss and Adam moved from the table to the credenza where they gathered their things and left to let the neighbors know that the birthday party had been called off.
Joe, feeling a bit of relief that he was not going to have to face a houseful of people, sighed deeply and reached for the platter of bacon and eggs, suddenly developing an appetite. Ben smiled to himself, relieved to see his son eating again.
“You not like cake?” Hop Sing asked as he frowned slightly.
Joe laid aside his fork and looked up at the family cook. “It was very good, Hop Sing, thank you…but I’m not real hungry,” Joe tried to explain. He glanced at his father and then his brothers who all sat watching him. Joe felt as if his family were reading his mind, seeing the troubled and guilty thoughts that had been plaguing his days and nights ever since the horrible incident. It worried him what they might be thinking of him, knowing how cruelly he had spoken to his old horse and how he’d been wishing for weeks even months that he had a bigger, faster and better horse than the aged, slow pinto who to Joe, seemed to be lacking in all the finer qualities that he desired most in a younger, stronger more lively horse. Truth was, he felt not only guilty but he actually found himself missing his old comrade. The boy’s thinking was so sundry that he believed himself incapable of ever being able to give his full attention or heart to another horse, no matter how magnificent the animal might be. Little did the unhappy youth know that those very emotions would soon be tested?
“Thanks Adam, for the new saddlebags,” Joe said after a long silence.
“You’re welcomed, Joe…I thought since you’d be going with us on the round-ups from now on, you might need them,” Adam answered.
“I know I will…and Hoss, I’m sure I’ll be needing that new canteen and that rifle scabbard, thanks.”
“Aw shucks, Shortshanks, t’weren’t nothing…”
“Sure it was…they’s good presents, Hoss …”
“Well, now,” Ben said with a smile as he stood up. “I have something for you as well,” he said as he rounded the table, stopping behind Joe and resting his hand on his shoulder.
“Would you come over here, please Joseph?”
Ben led the way into the living room, stopping at a large bundle on the table behind the settee. He turned to Joe, smiling. “Happy birthday, son.”
Joe walked slowly over to the bundle and when his father nodded his head, pulled the covering off, revealing a shiny new saddle. Joe gasped loudly, quickly running his hands over the fine leather. “Pa,” he stammered. “It’s beautiful…” Joe paused, suddenly remembering that he no longer had a horse that might wear the saddle, though this saddle looked too large for Paint, had the pony still been alive.
“Thank you,” Joe said a bit timidly. “But Pa…I…I don’t think I can use this…” Joe turned suddenly toward his brothers. “In fact…I don’t believe I have much use…for any of your gifts…I don’t even have a…horse…”
Joe lowered his head, fighting back the tears that unexpectedly welled in his eyes.
“Joe, there’s all sorts of horses on this ranch…” Adam injected.
“Sure there is…why just this mornin’, I seen a right pretty little palomino runnin’ with the herd up in the north pasture. Why, if’n ya wanted to, me and you could ride out there in the mornin’ and see about catchin’ him…if ya wanted to…” Hoss said hoping to spark the boy’s interest. He hadn’t mentioned to his family, but he sure was worried about his youngest brother, Joe seemed to be taking the entire incident with his pony mighty hard. And the gentle giant feared that the boy was sinking into a deep depression and he was willing to do just about anything to bring a smile to his little brother’s face.
Joe shook in head in response to his brother’s statement. “No thanks Hoss…a palomino’s not my type of horse.”
“I have an idea what is,” Ben said, glancing quickly about at the others. He pressed his hand down on Joe’s shoulder. “Come with me.”
Ben guided his son to the door and opened it, walking with Joe into the crisp evening air.
“Where we going?” Joe asked.
“To the barn, there’s something I want you to see,” Ben answered.
At the door, Hoss pulled it wide, leaving his father to guide Little Joe into the semi-darkness. Adam hurried to light a lamp. A soft glow filtered into the air, lighting the barn.
Joe gasped aloud. The others stood silently watching his reactions. In the center of the room stood a young black and white pinto. The horse, watching the foursome, bobbed his head up and down as if in greeting.
“Well?” Ben asked. “Do you like him?”
Joe swallowed hard. What was there not to like? The pinto was beautiful, young, obviously strong and spirited…and it flashed through the boy’s mind that he bet the horse could run…run like the wind…
Joe took a step forward and reached out his hand. The pinto extended his neck and sniffed at the stranger with his silky soft nose. He surprised the boy why lowering his head and gently pushing it against Joe’s chest.
“Hey,” Joe murmured lowly.
“I think he likes ya, Little Joe,” Hoss said, smiling.
“Seems to,” the boy responded and then quickly withdrew his hand.
Slowly Joe turned around to face his father. “Thank you, Pa.,” he said in a thick voice. “He’s…nice…but…” Joe found his words stuck in the back of his throat and unable to voice them.
How could he explain to his father that, though the horse was everything he’d ever wanted, he just couldn’t accept the gift…not now…after the way he’d treated Paint…not after the way he’d been so stubborn that it had led the old horse into becoming a victim in a game of ‘do I or don’t I’…no, Joe decided right then and there…he’d never allow himself the pleasure of this animal…or any other horse that he might be tempted to become fond of.
“What do you mean…but? Don’t you like him, son? Isn’t he exactly what you’ve been saying you wanted? I traded with Chief Winnemucca for this pinto…he’s already been gentled to bridle and saddle…” Ben asked, confused by his son’s reaction to his gift.
Joe raised his head somewhat, unable to look his father directly in the eyes. I…appreciate the thought…honest Pa…but…”
Joe’s chin began to quiver, though he willed himself not to cry. He’d never be able to make his father understand. “But…I…don’t deserve a horse that fine…I…just don’t!” he babbled as he ran from the barn.
Ben, Adam and Hoss stood in shock and watched as Joe raced across the yard and into the house.
“Well…what do you make of that? I thought for sure the boy would be please,” muttered Ben more to himself than to his sons. His eyes betrayed his concern for his son.
“Oh…I don’t think this is about liking or not liking the pinto, Pa. Quite the contrary, I think Joe was very pleased with the horse…”
“I don’t get it…then why didn’t he act like he was? I only meant to make him happy…he’s been so…troubled since this thing with his pony and those boys running off…and getting away scott free…”
“That’s just it, Pa…Joe’s feeling guilty about what happened to his pony. He blames himself…therefore, he won’t let himself enjoy this special gift,” Adam tried to explain.
“Adam’s right, Pa…I know Joe feels like he’s responsible for his horse dying. He said as much to me…said if he’d fought that boy…Ty…his ol’ pony would still be alive…”
Ben’s expression bordered on anger, though not directed at his younger son, but instead at the situation. “That’s ridiculous, that wasn’t Joe’s fault at all…”
“We know that, Pa,” Adam insisted, “but Joe believes it’s his fault.”
“Then it’s up to us to make him see it differently,” Ben groaned. He turned back to look at the new pinto, yet unnamed. The senior Cartwright surprised his two older sons by smiling. As he moved to the horse, he glanced back at the house while petting the horse on the neck. “I think I have a way of forcing that boy to see things differently…Hoss, would you mind stabling this animal…put him in Paint’s stall, that’ll be his now.”
“Sure thing, Pa,” said Hoss, glancing questioningly at his older brother.
Both watched as their father walked out into the night and toward the house.
“I wonder what he has up his sleeve?” Adam muttered.
Hoss shrugged his shoulders and led the pinto into the designated stall.
“Why can’t I go? I can ride in the wagon with you,” Joe asked in an almost demanding voice.
“Because, I’ve already explained it to you, that pinto needs working…”
“Why can’t Hoss do it?” Joe grumbled.
Exhausted with arguing with the boy, Ben pushed back his chair and stood up, laying his papers on his desk. He had made a gift of the pinto to his youngest son over a week ago and as yet, Joe had not so much as taken a brush to the animal, let alone ride him and Ben was quickly running out of ways of trying to bring the two together. “The pinto isn’t Hoss’ horse; he’s yours. And until you accept the fact, you’ll not be going anywhere…unless you walk!”
Joe groaned, silently wishing that he’d never asked his father for a better horse. The pinto stabled in the barn was quickly becoming a thorn in his side; how he longed for his buddy, Paint…and how he’d wished a million times that he had not been so verbal to the dear old animal.
“Then I guess I won’t be going…” Joe smirked, thinking he was one up on his father. He turned to go, but Ben’s strong fingers on his slender shoulders brought his retreat to an abrupt halt.
“You won’t be going to the social with us, but you will be going to the barn. I want it cleaned, I want the stalls mucked, I want fresh straw spread, that pile of hay moved and I want that pinto brushed and exercised by the time we get back, and I don’t mean simply turned into the padlock to trot around in a circle. I want that animal exercised well; do you understand me? Now get moving,” Ben ordered.
His plan was simply to force Joe to interact with his new horse. He understood how his son felt about the death of his pony and the causes behind it, but Ben was determined that Joe move beyond what happened, after all, it hadn’t been the boy’s fault.
Joe looked up, anger shining in his eyes. “Why do I have to do all the work? Why can’t Adam and Hoss do their share? I’m being punished…but I don’t know why…”
“You are not being punished, Joseph…”
Joe stomped off a ways and then spun around, tears glistening. “Yes I am…all because I’m the youngest and because I don’t care a whit about that stupid horse you’re trying to force on me…I wish I’d never laid eyes on the beast…I hate him…and I DON’T WANT HIM…I WANT PAINT!!” screeched Joe as he bolted for the door.
“JOSEPH, YOU COME BACK HERE!” shouted Ben as he followed the boy to the door.
But it was too late, Joe was gone and already out of sight. Adam and Hoss were on the porch when Ben stepped through the door.
“What on earth was that all about?” Adam asked.
Ben wore a deep, creasing frown and stood shaking his head. “I guess I was wrong in trying to force Joe to get involved with that pinto. He doesn’t want anything to do with him, even said as much…in fact, the boy said he hated the horse…”
“Aw Pa…you know Joe don’t mean no such a thing. He’s just feeling bad about his other horse…give ‘im time; he’ll get over it…you’ll see…” said Hoss, the family’s self-appointed peacemaker.
Joe stormed into the barn, flinging the door closed. At the first glance around the interior, he sighed a big sigh of relief that his brothers’ horses and the wagon had already been made ready for the journey into town for the social.
“At least they won’t be bothering me,” Joe grumbled to himself as he picked up the rake and began mucking the first empty stall.
Minutes later, he heard the others outside. Fearing that his father might come to the barn, Joe hurried to peek outside, relieved when he saw Adam and Hoss mounted and Ben climbing into the wagon. For another moment, he watched as they rode out of the yard and then went back to his work.
The pinto nickered softly. Joe ignored the horse. All through his work, he had the eerie feeling that he was being watched and every time he turned to look, the pinto was indeed watching him. The scrutinizing horse was beginning to wear of Joe’s already frayed nerves. He stopped, tossing the rake against the wall, causing the pinto to pull nervously at his rope.
“What are you looking at, you stupid bag of bones?” growled Joe. “Why don’t you stop watching me, and for heaven’s sake, stop looking at me with those big sad eyes of yours…you certainly aren’t succeeding in winning my attention!” he continued to mouth.
At last, Joe finished with the work assigned to him and then turned again to the pinto. “Well, I guess now I have to tend to you,” he said in a not-so-friendly manner.
Joe slipped into the stall and released the short tether rope and ordered the pinto to back up. At first, the pinto tried shying away from the boy.
“Just back up, you old nag…all we’re going to do is get some sunshine and a bit of exercise, you’re getting fat just standing around and eating all day…”
The horse finally backed out of the stall and allowed Joe to lead him from the barn. Once outside, Joe tied the pinto to the fence railing and returned to the barn, emerging with his saddle and blanket.
Nervously, the pinto watched the young boy. The boy eyed the horse just as closely; obviously neither was looking forward to what lay ahead.
Joe tried to toss the saddle blanket over the horse’s back, but the animal moved away. Mumbling under his breath, Joe tried a second time, again the pinto side stepped the boy.
“Dadburnit, you stand still,” Joe fussed.
A third attempt proved as unsuccessful as the first two. Joe grabbed the horse’s bridle to keep the animal from moving away. He leaned his mouth close to the pinto’s ear.
“Now you listen here…I don’t want to ride you anymore than you want me to ride you…but my Pa says you’re to be exercised and exercised you’re gonna be. Do you understand me?” Joe snarled. “Now you stand still, damn it!”
Joe glanced around to be sure none of the ranch hands were close by and might have heard him cussing. He sure wasn’t up to getting his backside warmed by his father, but he wasn’t up to riding this stubborn bag of bones either.
The next attempt at tossing the blanket onto the horse’s back was successful. Joe sighed in relief he’d already been nearly fifteen minutes just getting the blanket in place. He turned to the fence and grabbed his saddle. As he turned around, he glared at the horse.
“Now don’t you move!” he said as he slung the saddle into the air, aiming for the back of the horse. “HEY!” he shouted, angry that the pinto had moved to the side thus avoiding the saddle.
Joe grabbed his saddle from the ground where it had landed in the dust. The pinto snorted as the boy approached for the second time.
“STOP IT!” fumed the exasperated boy. “THIS ISN’T FUNNY, YOU KNOW!”
The horse tossed his head from side to side as if agreeing with the boy whom the horse eyed closely.
“Now,” said Joe, taking a deep breath to calm him self. “You stand still and let me put this galldang saddle on you…or I’m gonna…gonna…well, just you never mind, you be still, hear me?”
The pinto nickered softly, causing Joe to look twice at the animal. “I have a feeling you’re mocking me!” Joe said as he stood before the horse, saddle in hand. “You best cut it out!”
Joe slung the saddle over the horse’s back, but before he could reach under the horse’s belly for the strap, the pinto jerked his head high and swerved to the side, sending the saddle sliding off and into the dirt.
Fully beleaguered by the new horse’s actions, Joe stomped his foot in anger and frustration. “DADBURN YOU!” he screeched. “I OUGHTA TAKE A WHIP TO YOUR CANTANKEROUS HIDE!”
The boy, using both hands grabbed the halter on either side of the horse’s face and held the massive head low so that he looked eye to eye with the creature.
“I don’t like you…I didn’t want you in the first place…you’re about as stubborn as an old Indian chief…and about as useless as a two day old kitten. Now, understand this you sorry nag, I’m gonna put this saddle on you…and you’re gonna stand still until I’m finished. And then, whether you like it or not, and regardless that I don’t even want to be bothered with you…we’re gonna go for a good long ride…now STAND STILL!”
Joe moved, with saddle in hand, to the horse’s side. He paused just before tossing the saddle onto the gelding’s back and looked at the horse. The pinto had his head turned and was watching the boy.
“Don’t you even think about moving,” muttered Joe between gritted teeth. The pinto’s ears moved, twitching. Joe saw the animal’s flesh quiver. The horse swung his long thick tail about as if swatting flies. His eyes seemed to grow wide as he stood motionless.
Carefully, but quickly, Joe tossed the saddle up. It landed in place on the gelding’s back. The animal stood perfectly still as Joe hurried to finish cinching the saddle in place. Once finished, Joe let the air blow from his lungs. He turned to the horse, reaching for the reins and turning the horse about. “That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”
The unnamed animal bobbed his head up and down. Joe almost giggled. “No it wasn’t, you big faker.”
He put his foot into the stirrup, but his mounted moved sideways. Hopping along, one foot still in the stirrup, Joe tried again to mount, but once more the horse moved, disallowing the boy to climb onto his back. Joe gritted his teeth, frowning; he’d wasted another thirty minutes just trying to saddle his new horse…
“Look here…I’m getting tired of your foolishness. I’m gonna send you back to the Indians and let them feed you to the dogs if’n you don’t stop this right now!”
Joe swung his leg over the pinto’s back, landing in the saddle. “Finally,” he said seconds before the pinto reared up catching his rider off guard and sending the boy off backwards into the dust. Joe landed with a thud on his backside, startled. For several seconds he sat in the dirt and looked sadly at the horse. The gelding walked a few paces off and then stopped and turned around. The horse nickered loudly, tossing his head up and down in the air, mocking the boy who was so close to tears.
Joe shook his fist at the horse as he got to his feet and dusted off his trousers. “This isn’t the least bit funny, you know! You’re a sorry ass, to say the least. You’ll never amount to nothing…you’ll never be half the horse Paint was…and he was the best,” Joe added in a soft, low voice as a wave of grief washed over him.
The tears that suddenly and unexpectedly clouded his eyes as he walked over to the horse and reached up to grip the pommel surprised the boy. Carefully he put his foot into the stirrup and pulled himself up.
“Don’t try anything funny; I’m getting tired and we haven’t even left the yard yet,” Joe threatened.
Once in the saddle, Joe sat for a long moment and then gently nudged the pinto in the sides. The horse stepped forward one step and then stopped.
“Oh good grief,” muttered Joe under his breath. He kicked a bit harder but still the horse refused to move. “What the heck is wrong with you?” he growled. Angry, Joe kicked a little harder.
The horse turned to look back at the boy who sat lopsided over the side to look back at the horse. The animal seemed to being thinking of an answer to his rider’s question. But he gave none, just continued looking back at the boy.
“Don’t you know what this means?” the boy asked, kicking hard.
The pinto bolted forward in such a rush that Joe was tossed to the ground. He laid face up, the wind knocked from his lungs. Struggling to fill his empty chest, Joe gasped, sucking hard to fill his deflated lungs.
“You’re…not…even…close…to being…funny, you sorry, galldarn, mulish, son-of-biscuit eater!” panted the windless boy.
The entire afternoon had passed; the pinto was practically lathered from his on-going refusal to do what the frazzled, sweaty boy demanded of him. It had become a battle of wills…and the pinto was winning by a landslide.
Joe was grumbling and mumbling under his breath, spewing his building hatred at the willful horse, when his father and two brothers rode into the yard. Startled, Joe spun around suddenly wondering where the time had gone. The afternoon seemed to have melted away and all he’d accomplished was getting the saddle on the pinto and being thrown to the ground more times than he could remember.
Ben jumped from the wagon as Hoss and Adam tied their horses to the hitching post. Ben was smiling as he walked over to his youngest son. He glanced at the lathered horse and the dirty face of the lad.
“Well, looks as if you and this pinto had a good run. How’d he do? I bet he rode as easily as if you’d been in a rocking chair. I’m glad you finally accepted him, son; did you decide on a name?” rattled Ben.
“Umm…well, you see, Pa…I…” stammered Joe, not quite sure how to tell his father that what he saw wasn’t actually what he thought he was seeing. Sure the horse was lathered and he, himself sweaty as if both had raced through the open fields for hours…but Joe knew that wasn’t so…how was he to explain his current predicament to his father?
“You look beat, son, why don’t you cool your horse down and clean him up…then clean yourself up…Hop Sing should have supper ready soon,” Ben said, never giving his son time to explain himself.
Ben ruffled Joe’s thick curls and hearing Hoss calling for him, smiled at Joe and then hurried to the house, leaving Joe alone with his horse. Joe puckered up his lips in disgust and glared at the horse.
“If Pa finds out what really took place here today, he’ll tan my hide good. He’ll think I’ve lied to him…and it’ll all be your fault!” he said in a fury as he led the pinto back into the barn and into his stable.
Joe filled the feeding bin with feed for the horse and pulled off the saddle and blanket. Quickly he began rubbing down the horse, cursing softly under his breath with every swipe of the drying towel he took. The horse flinched occasionally but stood as still as he could, letting the boy do all the work while he enjoyed his dinner.
When Joe finished, the pinto turned and nudged the boy in the back with his nose. Joe spun around, glaring. The horse nickered softly and nudged Joe again. The boy, forgetting his present anger and frustration, rubbed the velvety nose gently, until the pinto pulled his head up. “I still don’t like you…and I still think you’re a sorry sack of bones…and pigheaded too.”
Joe pointed his finger at the horse and continued. “You might think you’ve won the first battle…being that you acted as ornery as a mule today…but come tomorrow, I’ll show you who’s boss…don’t you think for one minute I can’t use a whip!”
Joe spun around and walked out of the stall, knowing fully well that he’d never take a whip to a horse…any horse…even one he hated, such as the obstinate pinto. But he wasn’t about to let the obnoxious horse know that!
The next afternoon, while Ben and Joe’s brothers made their usual weekly trip into town, Joe was left home with orders to continue the exercise routine with the pinto. The boy was less than enthusiastic about the ordeal, remembering that the day before, it had taken him all afternoon just to saddle the pinto and stay on the horse’s back. He had thought it not such a good idea to own up to his father the fact that neither he nor the stubborn animal had moved any further from the yard than from the barn to the watering trough.
Joe sighed deeply, already dreading the task. He stood in the doorway of the barn letting his eyes adjust to the dim light within. When he moved to the pinto’s stall, the animal turned to look at the boy. Joe thought he noticed a sudden gleam in the horse’s eyes.
“Whatever you’re thinking, you dim-witted beast, forget it!” he growled warningly as he backed the horse from his stall and turned him around. “Today, you and I are going for a ride, and believe me when I tell you, by the time I’m finished with you, you’ll be wishing you…”
Joe was moving to the other side of the horse when the animal swished his long tail, slapping Joe in the face. Joe’s words were cut short as he sputtered trying to push the tail from in front of his face.
“YOU STOP THAT!” he shouted at the pinto.
The pinto lifted his head, turned and eyed the boy. He pushed back his lips, nickering at Joe as if laughing at the boy’s instant displeasure. Joe grabbed the blanket from the rung where it lay.
“Oh…so you think it’s funny, do you? You did that on purpose…damn…I wish I’d never laid eyes on you…you are the most obnoxious beast I’ve ever seen,” he fumed as he laid the blanket across the horse’s back.
When he turned to reach for the saddle, the pinto turned his head and using his teeth, grabbed the corner of the blanket and pulled it from his back. By the time Joe had his saddle in hand and turned back around, the horse was standing in perfect form as if nothing out of the ordinary had taken place. Joe’s eyes widened when he saw the horse blanket lying on the ground between the pinto’s feet.
“Hey…did you do that?” Joe demanded, glaring at his mount.
The pinto looked with large sad looking eyes at the youth and then turned away, ignoring the fuming boy. Joe put his saddle back on the rack and turned around to pick up the blanket.
He glared his horse. “I’m going to do this one more time…and it better stay where I put it…got it?”
Joe slung the blanket across the horse’s back. As he turned to fetch his saddle, he kept his eye on the horse, which continued to ignore his newest master.
“That’s better…now you best get it in that head of yours, I’m the master…I tell you what to do…not the other way around!”
Joe slung his saddle over the horse and quickly finished cinching it up. Satisfied that he had managed to do that much without too many problems, he led the pinto from the barn. Once outside, the pinto perked up, surprising Joe when he pulled away and began bucking.
”HEY!” shouted Joe as he tried to grab the reins.
The pinto darted away, continuing his antics while keeping his eyes on the frustrated boy.
“YOU SORRY, NO GOOD SON-OF-A—,” Joe looked around as if expecting his father to be nearby. “BISCUIT-EATER…YOU STOP THAT…RIGHT NOW!” he shouted as he made a dive for the dangling reins.
He almost had his fingers on the long strips of leather, but the animal was quicker and shied away. The horse stopped bucking and stood facing the lad. Joe got to his feet, dusted off his pants and picked up his hat, placing it on his head. As he swiped his hand across his face to remove the sweat beads, dirt smudged his brow and down the front of his nose. “Easy now,” he whispered softly as he crept closer to the horse.
The animal lowered his head, eyeing the boy, watching his every move. Using one foot, he pawed at the earth.
“All I want to do is go for a little ride,” Joe murmured. Under his breath he muttered to himself. “I’m gonna make you wish you’d never been born, you mindless nag……….”
Making another dive for the reins, Joe managed to grasp them this time, surprising the horse. The big pinto pulled up his head, practically jerking Joe from the ground and onto his feet. The horse tugged and moved backwards, dragging Joe along with him.
The animal whinnied loudly and turned and began moving quickly out of the yard. Joe dug his heels into the earth and hung on for dear life, refusing to let the animal get away from him.
“Oh no you don’t; you come back here………..”
Three hours later, a very tired boy and an equally exhausted pinto came walking into the yard. The boy was covered in dirt and dust. His hat lay lopsided on his curly head. The shirt he wore was ripped and torn, his trousers’ knees were no longer visible and the boots he had worn that morning were no longer bright and shining, having spent the better part of the evening before making them look like new.
The horse looked to be faring no better. His saddle was twisted to one side, a stirrup was missing and the beast walked with his nose practically touching the ground. Mud covered his hooves and even dotted his wide spotted breast. The pair was less than admirable looking to those who might have been watching, had anyone been at home.
Joe quickly glanced around, relieved to see that his family had not yet returned from town. He’d have just enough time, if he hurried, to rub down his horse, clean himself up and greet his father when he arrived home. Joe swore to himself that he’d not tell his father of the experience this afternoon nor of the fact that as of yet, he had still not been able to actually ride the horse given to him for his birthday. A day in which Joe suddenly wished he’d never been born.
He led his horse into the barn and into the stable.
“You know,” he said grouchily, “the only thing you’ve got going for you are your looks. Not that, that should count for much right now, not after you dragging me along behind you through that mud puddle…”
Joe surprised himself by giggling, drawing the horse’s attention. “I bet we were a sight,” he said half-laughing.
The pinto bobbed his head up and down slowly.
“Oh…shut up!” Joe mumbled as he went about cleaning up his horse.
“Well, you hurry along, son; we’ll meet up with you at the forks…don’t take too long,” Ben said to Little Joe as he grabbed his hat and headed out the door.
“Don’t you two keep us waiting; there’s work aplenty,” Adam added as he followed his father out the door.
“I won’t…” Joe said.
“I’m comin’,” Hoss groaned.
Joe watched his father and eldest brother as they exited the house. Only he and Hoss remained at the table. Hoss quickly stuffed the last of his breakfast into his mouth and quickly stood up, glancing at his young brother.
“Ya best hurry, Little Joe…”
Joe’s face was drawn together in a frown. He said nary a word nor did he look up at his brother. Hoss paused as he came around the table and stood over Joe.
“Something eatin’ at ya, Joe?” He asked.
Joe hesitated before looking up, but when he did, Hoss instantly noted the sudden tears.
“Hoss…if I tell you something…will promise not to tell…Pa?”
Hoss wrinkled his face in contemplation. “I won’t lessen it’s something that needs tellin’,” Hoss promised.
“It’s about the pinto…”
“The pinto?” stammered Hoss. “Something wrong with ‘im?”
“Looky, little brother, I ain’t got much time and you ain’t makin’ much sense…”
“Well, Hoss…it’s like this…Pa thinks I’ve been riding that pinto…and I haven’t…”
Hoss’ face scrunched in a barrel of wrinkles. He scratched his head. “Ya ain’t…but I thought…”
“That’s just it Hoss…everyone thinks I have…”
“But ya ain’t?”
“No,” Joe stated firmly.
“Then how’s come ya always…look like ya been ridin’?”
“That’s just it Hoss…I look like I have cause that’s the most stubborn, mule-headed, ornery varmit, obnoxious, double-crossing, conniving bag of bones…”
“Now you wait just a dang minute…I thought ya liked that new horse, Pa sure as blazes went to a lot of trouble to get that little pinto for you, just for ya birthday!”
“I know…and I feel bad about it…I…I…wish I had ol’ Paint…”
“Aw…Joe, ya still ain’t blamin’ yourself for what happened to that old pony, are ya?” Hoss asked in sympathy.
Joe nodded his head slowly up and down. “Some…but Hoss,” Joe, his eyes heavy with unshed tears looked up at his brother. “That stubborn nag in the barn doesn’t like me…”
Hoss snickered softly. “Now that’s about the dumbest thing I heard ya say in a long time, Joe.”
“Well, it’s true…you should see him, he won’t even let me put a saddle blanket on him without fighting me over it. And just try to saddle him…did you know it took me half a day the first time…and that’s not all…he won’t let me get on…well, I did the first day, but only until the pig-headed thing bucked me off. We never even left the yard. When you and Pa and Adam rode in…and Pa thought we’d been out riding…hahaha Hoss, I hadn’t even gotten that pile of horse flesh outta the yard…”
Hoss couldn’t help snickering. “You mean to tell me…ya let Pa just think you’ve ridden that horse? What about yesterday…you did ride him…didn’t you?”
“No…I got him saddled but once in the yard, he started bucking and tried to run away. I grabbed the reins but he dragged me half way to town and back…”
Hoss was hee-hawing by that time. He doubled over holding his belly and continued to picture the scene his brother had just described.
“It ain’t funny, Hoss…that dadburn idiot dam near drowned me in a mud puddle!” Joe practically shouted.
Just then the front door opened and Adam stuck his head inside, seeing his bigger brother doubled up in laughter.
“I don’t know what’s so funny, but you two better get a move on; Pa’s waiting!” he said as he looked again at the pair and then closed the door.
Hoss clamped his hand down on Joe’s shoulders. Tears of laughter had filled his eyes forcing him to wipe them away.
“I don’t know what you’re gonna do, Shortshanks, but ya better think of somethin’ fast, Pa needs both of us up at the loggin’ camp…”
“But I can’t ride him!” Joe said between gritted teeth. “And there’s no another horse…besides, if I came riding in to the camp on any horse except old Butthead…then Pa would start asking a passel of questions…that I can’t answer…What am I going to do?”
Hoss swallowed his laughter, noted the worried expression on his kid brother’s face and shook his head. “I dunno, Joe. I’ll go ahead with Pa and Adam; you linger behind, I’ll make up some excuse why you were delayed and you try to saddle that little pinto and ride on up to the camp…”
Hoss left then, pausing at the door as he strapped on his gun and holster. “Just do the best ya can…”
The door slammed, leaving Joe alone in his gloom. As he stood, he tossed his napkin on the table and when he turned, it fell, unnoticed to the floor. Biding his time as Hoss suggested, he moved slowly through the room, coming at last to stand before the massive fireplace. For several long moments, Joe stood before the open hearth and gazed into the smoldering embers that still lingered from the night fire. He’d have to go to the barn soon and attempt to saddle the pinto. The boy shook his head slowly from side to side. Tears welled in his eyes and over-flowed.
“Oh Paint…why’d ya have to die? I sure could use a friend right now…and I miss you ole buddy…” Joe wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt and turned toward the door, still muttering. “That stubborn-headed Indian pony ain’t good for nothing…’cept eatin’ and makin’ my life a livin’ hell! He’s as mean and nasty as that evil chief…what’s his name…Cochise…yeah, that’s him…………” he grumbled sorely.
At the credenza, Joe grabbed his hat and plopped it onto his head. He jerked the heavy door opened and walked out into the morning light.
“That’s what your name should be, you mule-headed varmint…Cochise…just for the hell of it, I think that’s what I’ll call you!”
In the barn, Joe paused long enough to suck in a chest full of air, letting it out slowly. He walked into the stall where the painted horse stood, watching with narrowed eyes, the boy beside him.
Joe untied the short rope and forced the massive head around so that he could look into the pinto’s eyes. “I’ve picked a name for you…it should be something like Butthead, or Ornery, or Obnoxious cause you’re all of those. You’re one stubborn cuss, just like that old Indian Chief everyone talks about, Cochise…so…that’s what I’m gonna call you…Cochise.”
Joe swallowed; it was hard looking into the soft brown eyes that looked so trustingly back at him. It was getting harder and harder to hate the animal, especially when Cochise was nudging his nose against his chest and nibbling at the buttons on his shirt.
“Stop that…don’t you think you’ve ruined enough of my clothes this week? Now back up, I’m going to put a saddle on you, and you’re going to stand still while I do it…got that?”
Joe slipped the bridle on easily enough and grabbing his saddle and blanket, led the pinto out into the bright morning sun.
“You’re going to let me ride you this morning too…I mean it Cochise…I’m the boss…not you…”
Joe moved to toss the blanket across the horse’s back, but Cochise moved sideways to avoid it. “Dadburnit, you painted devil…don’t start with your blasted shenanigans!”
Cochise shook his head from side to side. Joe glared with dark angry eyes back at his horse. “I hate you…I’ve tried not too, but you make me so blasted mad…I ain’t never seen a creature as nasty tempered as you…”
The horse nodded his head up and down and then moved slowly forward until he was able to press the front of his face against the boy’s chest. He pushed gently, forcing Joe to take a step backwards.
Again Cochise pushed against the boy. Once more Joe was forced back.
“I said stop it!”
Cochise nudged his master again, a little harder. Another step back and Joe lost his balance, falling backward into the watering trough.
“AAAGHHH!” bellowed Joe in surprise.
The horse bobbed his head up and down as he watched Joe floundering in the water. The boy was furious, madder than he’d been in his entire life. He scrambled from the trough, fists folded as he approached the pinto.
“I should take a whip to you!”
Cochise shook his head. Joe grabbed his hat from the water and emptied it of the contents. As he pulled it down over his thick curls, a shout from beyond the barn drew his attention from the horse.
Hop Sing came running into the yard, winded and puffing.
“MIS’TA JOE, MIS’TA JOE!” he cried, sinking to his knees as he struggled to fill his lungs.
Forgetting the horse, Joe raced across the yard and dropped down in front of the family cook.
“Hop Sing…what’s wrong…what’s happened…why are you on foot……”
“Pa?” Joe asked. An arrow of fear suddenly pierced his heart. Hop Sing was near breathless, shaking his head in response.
“What about Pa? HOP SING…WHAT ABOUT PA!!” the boy yelled.
Joe had his hands on the servant’s shoulders. His fingers squeezed into the man’s flesh.
A look of panic filled the boy’s eyes. “Pa’s been hurt…where…when…what happened?”
“Mis’ta Adam say, you ride, fetch doctor. Hop Sing get wagon to bring Mis’ta Ben home. Mis’ta Adam say, hurry…tell Lit’le Joe, hurry, go town, bring back…doctor…”
“Adam wants me to ride into town and fetch the doctor?” Joe repeated the question and then glanced over at the pinto. “On what?” he muttered, unaware that he had spoken aloud.
Hop Sing stood to his feet. His breath had nearly returned to normal. His eyes followed Little Joe’s. “You ride painted pony…he good horse…run hard…”
“No,” Joe whispered glaring at the stubborn pinto.
Hop Sing placed his hand down on the boy’s shoulder, and gently pressed his fingers tighter. “Tell him…important…must save father’s life…he run…”
“Save Pa’s life…Hop Sing…is Pa hurt that badly?”
“Hurt very badly…hurry, ride like the wind….I get wagon ready…”
Hop Sing disappeared into the house, leaving Joe alone in the yard with just the pinto. He hurried to the horse, picked up the blanket and grabbed the reins.
“Now you listen here…this is important…Pa needs me…us…if we don’t get to town and bring the doctor back…Pa’s just liable to…to…” Joe swallowed hard.
He leaned his head against the soft neck, rubbing his hands gently over the horse all the while fighting back the fear that threatened to cause him to become unglued.
“Please Cochise…Pa’s life is in danger…please,” he begged.
His voice trailed off into a whisper as he tossed the blanket across the horse’s back. When Cochise refused to move, Joe quickly added the saddle and cinched it tightly.
Joe stepped in front of the horse and grabbed the halter, holding Cochise’s head still.
“You have to let me ride ya, Cochise…” Joe’s voice cracked. “Please…” he whispered as he moved to the side and quickly bolted into the saddle.
Joe nudged his heels into Cochise’s side. The horse refused to move. The discouraged boy held on tightly, fearing a repeat of the day before.
“Come on, Cochise…you gotta do this for me…I promise not to call you names again…I’ll…even try to like you…and I won’t take the whip to ya…honest…I don’t want my Pa to…die…”
He pressed his heels again into his mount’s side. “Giddy-up!”
Joe was practically tossed over the rump of his horse when Cochise suddenly burst into action and raced out of the yard. Joe leaned low over the horse’s neck as the wind whipped at his face. At one point, his hat was blown from his head. It seemed that the animal had run for miles, his pace never slowing, amazing the boy with his agility and willingness to please his rider.
Cochise’s strides where long and smooth, and had the errand not been one of such importance, the boy riding would have relished the race, for that was what they were doing, racing against time. The boy and his horse moved as one, as if the pair had been joined together. No one would ever suspect that this was their first time out.
Halfway to town, Joe pulled his mount to a halt, giving the huffing animal a moment to rest and catch his breath. The boy leaned down and petted the long silky, now foamy neck of his horse.
“I guess ya ain’t so bad…Cooch…” Joe murmured softly.
Minutes later, the pair was off at a run, tearing into town and down the main street of Virginia City as if the devil himself were chasing them. People crossing, scattered, some shouted obscenities at the boy and his horse, but Joe ignored them, his father’s life lay in the balance and his getting to the doctor’s office depended on which way the scales leaned.
Joe burst into Paul Martin’s office in a fury of words and exclamations. “Doc….Doc!! Pa’s been hurt…badly,” he sputtered. “Come…quick…Adam and…Hoss are…talking him home…hurry, Doc…hurry!”
Paul grabbed his bag, quickly stuffing articles of importance into the leather satchel.
Paul snapped the satchel closed and reached for his coat. “Easy, Little Joe…I’m hurrying…now tell me…what happened?”
“I don’t know…I was home…Hop Sing ran in…told me Pa was hurt…didn’t say how, just…told me to get you…quick like…please, Doc, can ya hurry it up a little faster?” panted the frightened boy.
The gentle-mannered physician petted the boy’s shoulder. “I’m ready…my buggy’s outside, let’s go,” he said as he headed for the door.
Outside on the boardwalk, Roy Coffee, Ben’s trusted friend and the local sheriff, stopped the pair.
“What’s goin’ on here…folks complainin’ about the way ya tore into town, Little Joe!” he said gruffly.
“Ben Cartwright’s been hurt,” Paul Martin answered, supplying the sheriff’s need to know. “Little Joe was told to fetch me out to the Ponderosa…now, if you don’t mind, my services are needed…” the doctor said gently as he brushed by the sheriff.
“You coming, Little Joe?” he asked as he climbed into his buggy.
“You bet,” responded the lad as he swung into the saddle and turned his sweaty horse around.
Less than halfway back, the physician pulled his own horse and buggy to a stop.
“What’s wrong, Doc?” Joe said, doing the same.
“Look son, that pinto of yours is foaming pretty badly…and huffing and puffing, if you don’t slow him down and cool him off, you’re going to lose him. I’ll go on ahead and see to your pa; you take care of your horse…”
“No buts, Joseph,” Paul reprimanded, sounding much like Ben himself. “Your pa would want you to tend to your mount…the proper way. Now you do it; I’ll take care of your father.”
Paul saw the boy’s hesitancy and smiled, knowing that the boy feared for his father’s life. “Joe…I promise…I won’t anything happen to your father, if I can prevent it. Now do as I ask, please,” he said gently but with stressing his point.
Joe swallowed hard and nodded in agreement. He knew that what the doctor was saying was exactly what his father would expect him to do. And, Cochise had run hard, practically had run his heart out for the boy.
“Alright sir,” Joe agreed. “But, please, you hurry…”
“I will,” promised the compromising physician. He clicked to his horse and the buggy moved along, heading quickly for the Ponderosa and the emergency that waited for him there.
Joe slipped from the saddle and moved around to face the horse. He rubbed gently on the velvety nose. Cochise nudged at the boy’s hand.
“I wish I had a lump of sugar for you,” Joe said. His eyes suddenly welled with tears but he quickly brushed them away, slightly embarrassed even in front of his new horse.
“Come on, let’s walk for awhile and give you time to cool down. When we get home, I’ll give you the best rub down ya ever had…and an extra scoop of oats for being so…so…” Joe came to a halt and turned around to eye the horse, thinking about his words for a second. Suddenly he smiled at the pinto. “Obliging…” he said and then snickered as he turned and walked on.
Cochise pushed his nose into the boy’s back, causing Joe’s steps to falter slightly. Joe ignored the painted horse until Cochise did it twice more.
“You’re not going to make me mad…not this time…” he said without even bothering to look back. “I can be just as pig-headed and stubborn and ornery as you can be, you old jack-ass!”
Cochise made a snorting sound and came to an unexpected halt in the middle of the path. Joe, taken by surprise stumbled and fell on his backside. For a long silent moment, he sat in the dust. Out of the blue, he began laughing softly, his laughing growing in volume until he was finally laughing aloud.
The horse stood over the boy. When Joe looked up, he was grinning, tiny tears caused by all the mixed emotions he’d experienced over the last few hours had finally reached an all time high. His relief came through in his nervous laugher.
“Okay, so maybe I’m not as stubborn and bull-headed as you can be…my family might not agree, but you’re still a bigger jack-ass…”
Joe got to his feet and scratched the end of Cochise’s nose. “Let’s ride for awhile…” As he turned to mount up, Cochise moved to the side. Undaunted by the pinto’s attitude, he tried a second time, but the horse sidestepped him again.
Joe pressed his brow into the side of his saddle and groaned softly. “You’re determined to make me beg, aren’t you?”
He knew it was a foolish question, until the horse bobbed his head up and down as if in response to the question. Joe giggled.
“Alright, you win…this time…but will you please just let me ride you?” With that, Joe easily swung himself into the saddle. He kicked gently at the horse’s side, but the pinto stood firmly; Joe sighed softly to himself, “good grief.” A bit louder he said, “Thank you…” Cochise trotted gently on his way. “Oh brother,” muttered the boy to himself, shaking his head in disbelief.
Once home, Joe dismounted and sprinted to the house. Carelessly, he flung the door opened, only to find the massive room empty of any occupants. Taking a deep breath, Joe ran up the stairs, bursting excitedly into his father’s room without so much as knocking.
All heads, bent over the bed, turned to stare at the boy who had just made a sudden intrusion. Joe stopped dead in his tracks, stunned to see everyone looking so strangely at him, but more surprised to see his father sitting up propped against an array of soft pillows.
Ben at last smiled weakly at the boy. “Joe?”
“Pa…you’re…alive,” the young man stammered as he moved almost cautiously toward the bed.
“Well, I certainly hope so…” Ben answered with a soft laugh. “I see you made it back from town…”
“They…said you were hurt bad…”
“Badly,” his father gently corrected. “But no, son; at first they thought I might be…but I’ll be fine in a couple of days…” Ben snickered again, “Or so it would seem, according to the doc over there.”
Joe, who stood next to his father at the bedside, glanced over at the physician, who complied by nodding his head. “Just a day or two in bed and then your father will be up and around,” Paul Martin assured the lad and thus relieving the worry he saw in the emerald eyes.
“Sit by me,” Ben said to Joe, patting the side of the bed. “I want to talk to you…”
Joe looked a bit nervous, unsure as to what his father wanted to talk about, but he willingly obeyed the gentle demand.
“I’ve got chores to do,” Adam said as he walked with the doctor to the door. “I’ll see you out, Doc…”
“I’ll tend to your horse for ya, little brother…Doc told us what a fine job he done…gettin’ ya to town and all, helpin’ to save Pa’s life and such…” Hoss grinned down at the boy and quickly, with a nod to his father, made his way from the room.
“Are ya sure you’re gonna be alright, Pa?” Joe asked, sounding a bit worried.
Ben nodded, “I’m sure…it was only a knock on the head…it might have been worse, had your brother Adam not shouted out a warning to me.”
“Oh…I wasn’t paying any mind…”
“Sort of like me?” grinned Joe?
“Sort of like you,” snickered Ben. “A tree was fixing to fall, I ignored the warning call and the tree came down on my head…or almost…Adam shouted a warning and I looked up. I was able to get out of the way of the main trunk, but a big branch got me…right here,” Ben said lightly, pointing to the bandage on his head.
“It’s not so bad…I’ll have this headache for a while no doubt, but I’ll be fine…don’t you worry…” Ben smiled.
“I’m glad…” Joe said quietly. “I sure was scared…I mean…I…wasn’t sure what to do.”
“What do you mean? I thought Hop Sing got here in time to have you ride into town to fetch back the doctor?”
“He did…but…I was still worried…about you, I mean,” Joe said.
Ben studied his young son’s face for several long moments. “Is…that all you were worried about, Joe?”
Joe glanced up to see his father’s dark eyes scrutinizing his face. “What do you mean?” he stammered.
“Well, I thought perhaps you may have been worried about how you would…get into town…” Ben smiled warmly. “Hoss told me about the problems you’ve been having with that new horse I gave you.”
“Cochise? So you finally named him.”
“Yessir, but I’ve had a lot of other names in mind for him,” Joe said timidly and then smiled when he looked up to see his father grinning at him. “You should have seen him, Pa…once the ornery devil let me ride him…he ran like the wind. He ran his heart out for me…all I had to do was to say…please…and beg a little…I even made him a couple of promises.”
Ben burst into laughter at the expressions of his youngest son and then grabbed his head, moaning softly. “Oh Joseph…I’m sorry…”
“Sorry…for what, Pa? You didn’t do anything…”
Ben was having a hard time containing his amusement. “Yes I did…” he snickered.
“No you didn’t…..Pa…for heaven’s sake…what is so funny?” Joe insisted.
Ben, still holding his head, looked into his son’s eyes. Tears of laughter had filled his own dark ones. “Joseph, I plum forgot to tell you…”
“Tell me what?” Joe asked, getting a little flustered by his father’s continual snickering.
Ben took a deep breath to steady his words, but the wide grin remained steadfastly spread across his broad face.
“Joseph, I plum forgot to tell you…that painted Indian pony of yours…doesn’t understand English!”
When Joe’s eyes widened as far as they could and his chin sagged leaving his mouth opened and the boy gaping at him, Ben burst into another round of laughter so loud that it brought Adam and Hoss running into the room.
“What’s wrong?” Adam shouted as he looked from the man in the bed to the boy sitting next to him.
Ben had laid his strong hand over Joe’s. Joe glanced behind him at his brothers and then down at his father. His laughter began as a soft murmur, quickly building in volume as he tried to explain to the two young men behind him that his horse was ignorant to the English language.
Minutes later, after both father and son had regained their composure, Hoss was still looking a bit unsure. The gentle giant scratched his head. “Let me get this straight, what’cha mean little brother, is that your painted horse…Butthead…”
“Cochise,” Joe quickly corrected with a quick worried glance at his father.
“Cochise, then…doesn’t understand our language…only Paiute?” Hoss sneered.
“You see, Hoss,” Ben began explaining, “Chief Winnemucca and his braves, capture and train all their ponies themselves, few of the men speak our language. It just so happens that the brave that caught and gentled Joe’s horse, spoke only Paiute…so naturally the horse didn’t understand what Joe was trying to get him to do…thus causing your younger brother all those…..” he snickered again, “inconveniences.”
This brought another round of laughter from the family of men.
“Alright now…we’ve all had a good laugh…at Joe’s expense,” Ben said kindly looking up at the boy. “I need to rest now…if you don’t mind,” Ben hinted.
“Sure Pa…come on, you two…let’s give Pa a break,” Adam insisted as he rose from the bed.
“Good night, Hoss.”
“Night Pa,” smiled Joe. “I think I’ll go check on…Cochise…maybe I teach him some English,” he giggled.
Ben snickered. “Good night, Joseph…and good luck…”
Joe eased quietly into the barn and moved toward the pinto. Cochise looked up and nickered at the boy. Smiling, Joe squeezed into the stall with his horse and began brushing the animal gently.
“Seems we’ve had a language problem…heh, pal?” Joe said, talking low. “We’ll have to work on that…now that we’re…friends. You know what…I still have this notion about you. Pa say’s you don’t understand what I’m saying, ‘cause you were trained by a Paiute, but my gut tells me, you’ve understood every word I’ve been saying to you…”
For several long moments, Joe worked in silence as he continued to groom the pinto. At last he laid aside the brush and moved to face his horse. They stared into one another’s eyes.
“I don’t really hate you…you’ve started to grow on me…a little…for an Injun pony…you ain’t so bad, but you’ve still got a ways to go yet before ya’ll be as good as ole Paint was…”
Cochise nudged his nose against Joe’s hand. The boy dug into his pocket for a sugar cube and offered it to the horse.
“Thanks, Cooch…for helping me save my Pa’s life…and for…for…being my friend.”
Joe swallowed, dislodging the thickness that had attempted to close his throat and smother his words.
“We are…friends now…aren’t we?”
Cochise raised his beautiful head and looked directly at the boy. Joe knew the answer to his question even before the horse nodded his head; the answer was in the soft, gentle way that the ominous brown eyes looked at him.
“You big faker…you understand me perfectly…don’t you?”
The new pinto refused to answer and went back to munching on his oats and grains.