Two Hearts, Seventeen Hands (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  15,791


 

At the sound of approaching horses, both Ben and his youngest son glanced up from their places at the table.

“I bet that’s Hoss now!” squealed the sixteen-year old as he hurried to push back his chair.  The chair nearly toppled over in his haste to get outside and meet his brother.

Ben had to smile to himself, his youngest son’s voice had yet to change completely and when the boy was excited, as he was now, the voice would become high pitched and shrill.  Ben shook his head slightly, wiped his mouth and pushed back his own chair.  Joe had already reached the door and having flung it wide in his excitement, ran to greet his middle brother.

“Hi ya, Hoss,” squeaked Joe, taking Chubb’s reins as Hoss dismounted.

Adam emerged from the barn, the sounds of Joe’s laughter and greeting alerting him to the fact that Hoss had returned home.  “Say Hoss, glad to have you home,” smiled Adam as he joined his father and brothers.

“WOW! Will ya lookit at this horse?” Joe proclaimed while running his hands down the neck and sides of the new stallion that Hoss had brought back with him.  “He sure is something, Hoss.  How much did he cost you?”

“That, little brother, is none of your business,” muttered Hoss, hoping that his father would not ask him the same question.  “Whatever I paid, it was worth it, just look at him,” beamed Hoss, following along with his hands, the same action of his younger brother.

“He is a mighty good looking animal, son,” noted Ben.  “I hope you didn’t over extend yourself,” he stated softly as he watched his son swell with pride.

Hoss paused and turned to face his father, a slight twitching action of his lips told the senior Cartwright that his middle son was trying to find a way around his statement.  Ben noted the glow of happiness in his son’s crystal blue eyes, and laughed.

“It doesn’t matter son, if you figured the horse was worth whatever you paid, and the price was right for you, then so be it.  He is a beauty, though I’m not sure why you wanted to buy an Arabian stallion.”

“Aw Pa, he’s a jumpin’ horse, and…well…just lookit him!” beamed Hoss proudly.

“Can I ride him?  Heh Hoss, can I?” begged Little Joe excitedly as his eyes began to shine in anticipation.

“Whoa…young man,” Ben quickly said, placing a strong hand on his youngest son’s shoulder.  “This here stallion is way too much horse for you!”

“Pa’s right, short shanks…ya best stay clear of’em,” advised Hoss.

“But…who’s gonna exercise him, and if he’s a jumper, who’s gonna jump him?  Ya can’t do it Hoss, not with the size of your…” Joe stopped, suddenly hearing his own words.  He cast wary eyes up at his father and then his two older brothers half expecting his father to reprimand him.

Ben started to laugh and gently slipped his arm across Joe’s shoulder, pulling the young boy closer to him and giving him a hug.   He couldn’t fault the boy for his excitement, but there was no way he was going to allow his rambunctious son to ride the big stallion that Hoss had just brought home, let alone jump the animal.  Even now, the big stallion pranced nervously about, his eyes wide with fright as though given half a chance he would bolt and run. Ben did however consider his son’s question.

“For once, your little brother is right, who is going to be riding that animal, Hoss?”

“I will,” volunteered Adam.  “He sure is a fine animal, Hoss.  I’d be more than happy to have a go at him.  How good is he?”

“One of the best, ya should see’em Adam, Mr. Gilmore had his boy put ole Gilley through his paces and I ain’t never seen a more spectacular sight in all my born days.  It sure ‘nough was somethin’,” Hoss beamed as he led the new horse to the barn, with Adam trailing along behind.

Joe started to follow, but was stopped by his father’s hand pressing down on his shoulder.  “Where do you think you are going, young man?”

Joe looked up, surprised, “I was gonna go with them, why?” he asked.

“Joseph, if I recall, you said something about having to finish some homework, am I correct?” smiled Ben, gently guiding Joe back towards the house.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot, sorry,” he muttered, giving his father a half smile.

“You forgot, why you little scamp, get going!  And remember, if you plan on this being your last year in school, you better make sure that you finish up with good grades, or else!” laughed Ben as he watched Joe scurry off to the house.

“I will Pa, I promise…anything to finally get away from that place, and that old Miss Abigail Jones.”  Joe uttered the last part of his statement to himself, knowing that his father would not approve of his thoughts, should he voice them aloud.

*****

Joe lay awake long after he had retired for the night.  When his father had slipped silently into his room earlier, Joe had faked at being asleep.  His thoughts about the new horse that Hoss had bought had kept him from sleeping.  He couldn’t wait until everyone had fallen to sleep so that he might slip out to the barn and inspect the stallion better, without having to constantly be under the watchful eyes of his father or one or the other of his brothers. As he waited for sleep to claim the others, his thoughts drifted back to earlier in the day.

*****

Joe sighed, when he had at last finished his homework and gone back outside to join his brothers at the corral, he had marveled at the way in which Adam had put the new horse through its paces.  It had been just as Hoss had claimed it to be, spectacular.

“Watch him go, Pa!” Joe exclaimed, proudly watching how Adam moved his body together with the rhythm of the horse’s movements.

“Adam sure looks good up there, doesn’t he son?” commented Ben, pride in his son gleaming in his dark eyes.

Joe glanced sideways at his father and then followed Ben’s gaze back to the horse and rider.  Briefly the smile disappeared from his face.  “I meant the horse Pa, not Adam.  Adam looks just like he always does, uppity and swollen with pride,” Joe sneered, wishing that he could have a chance to show his father how he could handle the animal himself.  Joe glanced again at his father, surprised to see Ben’s angry eyes glaring at him.

“That was uncalled for, young man,” Ben reprimanded sharply.  “Your brother happens to be one of the finest horsemen around.”

Joe pinched his lips together and dropped his head.  “I’m sorry, Pa, I know he is and I didn’t mean to sound so nasty about it.  It’s just that…well…golly, he ain’t the only man who can handle horses you know.  I ain’t no novice.”

“No, you are not, but you are not an expert either.  Adam has been riding all of his life…”

“Well, so have I and Pa, it was Adam who taught me…so…I’ve learned from the best…so…why can’t I just ride him?  Please, Pa…I promise I won’t make him jump anything…please?” begged Joe.

Ben shook his head.  He knew in his heart just how much the boy was aching to ride the big stallion, but Ben’s inner fear, a long ago accident, a death and the sudden vision of his child’s body laying broken on the ground, kept the reluctant father from granting the boy his wish.  “No, absolutely not.”

Joe jumped down from the fence, fighting to control his sudden urge to cry, and marched back to the house.  “Fine, just fine, treat me like I was still a baby.”  Joe turned back to his father, his eyes showing his disappointment, “Don’t think I don’t know why you won’t let me ride that horse.  As always, you’re afraid that the same thing will happen to me that happened to my ma.  Well, it won’t!”  Joe turned and fled from his father, not seeing the stunned looked on the astonished father’s face.

“What was that all about?” questioned Hoss who had caught just the last part of the conversation between his father and little brother.

Ben shook his head, “That boy.  Always thinking he is old enough and big enough to handle everything that the two of you can do.  I don’t know, son, I think maybe I am too hard on the boy.  He tries so hard to be a man, but somehow, I just can’t allow myself to let go and see him as a man.”

Ben turned and smiled at Hoss and Adam who had dismounted and joined them at the fence.  “He’s my baby, he always will be and I can’t help it if I have certain fears for him that I never had with the two of you.  He’s so much like his mother, that it scares me.”

“I know Pa.  I see a lot of Marie in him myself, especially in that temperament of his.  He’s like fire one minute and ice the next.  He can be kind and gentle one second and in a flash, his temper is akin to hot coals…I swear Pa, I don’t see how you’ve managed as well as you have,” laughed Adam.

He watched his father’s face brighten, and he smiled to himself.  Yes, Joe could be temperamental at times, but there was no doubt that the youngest of the Cartwright sons was very much loved by the three men who stood in silent retrospect of the boy with the fiery temper.

*****

Joe pushed back the covers and eased himself out of bed.  He quickly slipped his trousers on beneath his nightshirt and then grabbing his boots from the foot of the bed, tiptoed into the hallway.  Joe paused briefly before closing the door completely and once he was sure that the rest of his family was sleeping soundly, the over zealous boy continued on his way.

Quietly, Joe opened the heavy oak door at the front of the house and stepped out into the cool night air.  He forced his feet into his boots and glancing over his shoulder, made a dash for the barn.  The fact that the door stood slightly ajar, or the fact that a soft glowing lamp burned inside the barn, never occurred to the enthusiastic boy.  Easily, Joe slid between the partially opened doors and over to the stall where Gilley was stabled.

The horse nickered softly and tossed his massive head up and down.  Joe’s smile broadened itself across his face as he spoke softly to the stallion.

“Easy big boy,” whispered Joe, gently rubbing his hand up and down the front of the horse’s face.  “You sure are a beauty,” he cooed.

Gilley lowered his head and nudged his nose against Joe’s chest, causing the boy to laugh softly.  “I like you too, Gilley.  Man, I sure would like to ride you.  I bet you not only jump well, but I bet you can run pretty darn fast as well.  Maybe someday, that ole brother of mine will let me try you on for size.”

“Not any time soon, little brother.”

Gilley tossed his head upward causing Joe to jump back and almost into the arms of his middle brother.  Joe spun around on his heels, glaring at his brother.  “What do ya mean, scaring the life outta me like that?” Joe all but shouted.

Hoss couldn’t help but grin, the look on his little brother’s face was worth a hundred dollars.  “Sorry Joe,” snickered Hoss, “I didn’t mean to scare ya like that.”

Joe gave Hoss a frown and turned his attention back to the horse.  “You didn’t scare me,” he mumbled, “ya only caught me by surprise, that’s all.”

“Sure Joe, whatever ya say,” Hoss laughed again and then stepped up beside the younger boy.  He raised his hand and petted the long silky neck of the chestnut stallion.  “Ya like’em Joe?” he asked, giving his brother a tiny smile.

“Sure, but I’d like’em better if ya was to let me ride him, just once?  Please Hoss?  Ya don’t even have to tell Pa that ya let me. I wouldn’t tell either, will ya Hoss, just once, that’s all and I promise, I won’t ask again.”  Joe put on his most angelic expression, lowered his head just slightly and then turned his eyes upward to glaze longingly into his brother’s eyes.

Hoss seemed to be pondering the idea, he could tell by the look on Joe’s face that the boy was just about to burst at the seams to ride the new horse.  Hoss scrunched up his face and scratched his head, trying to avoid meeting the probing hazel eyes of his younger brother.

“Please?”

He heard the tiny voice implore of him. Hoss glanced down, saw the questioning look in those probing eyes and was just about to give in, when a deep rich voice stopped him.

“I wouldn’t do it if I were you,” stated Adam from the doorway where he had been standing, watching his youngest brother browbeat the other brother into submission.  “You know what Pa said about that stallion being too much horse for the kid.”  His words were directed at Hoss, who stood gazing at him with an opened mouth.

“Aw Adam, why don’t ya mind your own dadburn business?” glared Joe, giving his oldest brother an angry look.

“Adam’s right, Joe.  Pa would have my hide if’n I let ya ride this animal, especially if’n ya was to fall off and get yourself hurt,” Hoss said, thinking it best to agree with Adam’s statement.

“Fall off?  Oh Hoss, come on, what do ya take me for?  Ya know as well as Mr. Noisybody over here, that I can ride as well as either one of you, better in fact!” argued Joe, determined to have his way.

“Joe, you heard what Pa said, he said you were to stay away from this animal…are you going to defy him?”  Adam had stepped up to face his brothers and he glared down at Joe.  “Cause if you do, you know full well what Pa will do to you.  Sixteen or not, he won’t hesitate to give you a good thrashing…he’s adamant about this and…”

“But Adam, just look at this horse,” Joe turned to the horse, his hands gently rubbing the end of the velvety nose and then turned back to Adam.  “It would be worth getting a good thrashing for, just for the chance to ride him one time.”

Adam’s angry glare softened and he glanced in Hoss’ direction and together they smiled at one another.  Both boys understood Joe’s desire, and, admitted Adam to himself, he couldn’t blame his younger brother, Gilley had been everything to him that Joe knew he would be to himself if he just had the chance to find out.

“Look buddy, I’ll talk to Pa in the morning…”

“Really Adam?  Honest, ya ain’t just saying that are ya?” Joe asked, the excitement showing in his happy expression.

“Honest, but you have to understand, if Pa says no, then there’s nothing more that I can do for you, understood?  And…Hoss has to agree with whatever Pa says.”  Adam glanced again at Hoss to confirm the agreement.

Joe turned around to face Hoss, giving his brother a winning smile.  “You’ll let me ride him, right, if Pa agrees?”

Hoss laughed softly and ruffled the thick array of curls that adorned his little brother’s head.  It was hard to refuse the boy anything, and Hoss nodded his agreement but added for good measure, “only if Pa agrees.”

“Aw gee, thanks Hoss, thanks Adam, you guys are the best!”  Joe gave each brother a quick hug and headed for the door.  “Night Adam, night Hoss…and…thanks!”

Adam slowly shook his head and grinned at Hoss.  “Why do I suddenly feel as if we’ve been had?” he asked softly.

“Probably cause we have,” laughed Hoss.  “Come on big brother, let’s go to bed, I’m bushed.”

“So am I.  Debating with that rapscallion is enough to wear a man down to nothing.”

Adam waited until Hoss had extinguished the lantern and secured the barn door before tossing his long arm across his brother’s broad shoulders.  “Life is never dull for a moment with that kid around, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Never.  If’n I live to be a hundred and six, and that boy a hundred, he’d still find a way to sweet talk me.  No matter what he does, I jist cain’t find it in my heart to say no to that boy,” laughed Hoss.

“That’s because you’re a push-over.”

“Oh, and I suppose you’re not?” laughed Hoss.

*****

Joe was at the breakfast table earlier than usual the next morning.  Adam and Hoss came down the stairs together and both were a little more than surprised to find that Joe had beaten them to breakfast.

“Morning Hoss, morning Adam,” Joe gleefully smiled at them both.

“Aren’t you the early bird this morning?” Adam said jokingly.

“What worm are ya plannin’ on catchin’?” laughed Hoss giving Adam a quick wink.

“Who me?” Little Joe tried to sound surprised.

“Who else would they be talking to?” Ben spoke up to ask.  He had seen the silent exchange between his sons and knew enough to know that something was in the making.

No one uttered a word, each of Ben’s sons was well aware of the dark eyes that watched their faces.  Joe glanced at his plate and poked at his eggs with the end of his fork.  Adam busied himself with pouring his cup of coffee into his saucer to cool.  Hoss stuffed his mouth with an overly large bite of ham and chewed very slowly.

“Okay boys, out with it, what’s up?” laughed Ben.

Two pairs of hazel eyes, one slightly darker than the other, and one pair of crystal blue eyes glanced up and as if on cue, turned to face the lone pair of deep brown, chocolate eyes.

Hoss started to mumble something, but Ben held his hand up to stop the boy.  “Please Hoss, not with your mouth full.”

“Hm…sorry,” he tried to say.

Ben glanced at Joe, but Joe had lowered his head and Ben could plainly see that Joe was watching his oldest brother.  Ben stifled a giggle, so, he reasoned, his oldest son had been selected as spokesman.

“Well Adam, why don’t you just spit it out?” Ben couldn’t help but laugh out loud.  “I hope this isn’t going to be serious, because the three of you look as if you’ve all been caught with your hands in the cookie jar.”

“Pa…Hoss and I were talking last night, and Joe…he was there as well…and well…Hoss and I was wondering if you might change your mind about Joe taking a short ride on Gilley?” stammered Adam.  “Of course I’d ride along with him, just in case…”

“Just in case…” repeated Ben, eyeing all three of his sons in one sweep of his eyes.

“Yes sir, we just feel that Joe should have a chance to…”

“You feel?  That Joe should have a chance to…what?  Get himself thrown off, maybe break an arm, leg, or maybe both.  What about if he should get himself killed, then what?”  Ben had stopped laughing, he had thought he had made himself perfectly clear last night that Joseph would not be riding the new stallion.

“Naw…tweren’t that Pa…we jist think…” Hoss stopped talking and took a deep breath, pressing his lips tightly together, he knew it had been foolish to even attempt to change his father’s mind.

“Joseph, did you put your brothers up to this?” demanded Ben, turning dark, angry eyes on his son.

Joe dropped his head without uttering a word.

“Pa, it was my idea, not the boy’s.  All he did was ask Hoss if he could ride the horse if you agreed.  I promised Joe I would ask you and that we would abide by whatever decision you made,” explained Adam.  He wanted his father to know that though Joe had asked them both if he could ride, it had been his idea alone, to ask Ben for permission.

Ben’s eyes swept around the table a second time.  “I thought I had made myself perfectly clear on the matter, yesterday.  Joseph is not to be allowed on that stallion, do I make myself clear on the matter, now?  My answer is the same as yesterday, NO!”

Adam and Hoss both nodded their heads in submission, knowing not to push any harder for Ben to change his mind.  “Good!”  Ben glanced at Joe who had said nothing at all.

“Joseph?” Ben said in a clear deep voice.

Joe raised his head slightly, but enough that Ben could see the defiant look in the eyes.

“No, I don’t understand.  What harm can it do, especially if Adam rides with me?  I think…”

“NO!  You do not think, I said no and I meant no.”  Ben saw the chin begin to quiver ever so slightly and he softened his voice.  “Joe, I know you want to ride that animal in the worst way.  But not now, please son.  Give the animal time to get adjusted to being around us, to get acquainted with its surroundings and then in a month or two…”

“A month or two?  Pa, that ain’t fair!  Why do you always have to treat me like I was still a little boy?”  Joe had pushed back his chair and stood to his feet, glaring at his father.

Ben gritted his teeth to keep from losing what little patience he had remaining.  “Joseph, sit down, please,” he ordered gently.  Ben cast his glance upward and waited with bated breath.

Joe studied his father’s face, noted how Ben struggled to maintain his composure and decided it would be in his best interest to do as instructed.  Meekly he sat back down and taking a deep breath to still his own inner turmoil, looked over at his father.

“I’m sorry Pa, I shouldn’t have raised my voice.  But I still don’t think it’s fair.”

“I know you think I am being too hard on you son.  I just think that for right now, it’s better to wait.  I’ve given you a direct order, and I expect each one of you to obey it.”  Ben looked up at Adam and waited until his oldest son nodded his head.

“Yessir,” Hoss muttered.  “I’m sorry short shanks, I didn’t think my buyin’ that stallion would lead to all of this.”  Hoss’ expression was one of worry and regret and one that reached out to his youngest brother.

“It’s all right Hoss.  I’m glad you bought him, even if I can’t ride him,” he added for his father’s benefit.  “I’ll just be happy watching you and Adam ride him.”  Joe flashed his brother a smile.  There was no use taking away Hoss’ pleasure on his account reasoned Joe.

“Thanks Joe.”  Hoss winked at his brother and the tension around the table eased, the conversation turned to other things.

*****

“You mean your Pa won’t even let you ride him?”  Mitch seemed amazed that Joe had not been allowed to even ride Hoss’ new stallion.

“Nope, he won’t even let me sit on him, guess he’s afraid I’ll get hurt or something.  You know how he is Mitch, always scared that the same thing that happened to my ma will happen to me,” Little Joe sighed deeply, his voice ringing with disgust.

Mitch shrugged his shoulders, “Ya can’t really blame him, Joe…I mean after all…” Mitch didn’t finish his sentence, but instead turned to check his friend’s reaction.

“Yeah I know, Mitch.  But I sure do get tired of being treated like a baby all the time.  All I want is just one short ride on the horse.”  Joe turned to face Mitch.  “You should see him Mitch, he’s beautiful.  He’s chestnut color and he’s got a white blaze all the way down the front of his face and he has three white socks; he’s really something!”

“He sounds super, how old is he?” Mitch questioned.

“I think Hoss said he’s about two years old.  His name is Gilley…guess Mr. Gillmore named him after himself,” laughed Joe.  “Ain’t much of a name for a horse like that.  Hey, did I tell you that Gilley’s just over seventeen hands tall?”

“Wow!  I can’t wait to see him.  Mind if I come over tomorrow after I finish my chores and take a look at him?” Mitch asked.

“Sure, Pa’s going into town, and Adam’s gone up to the lumber camp and won’t be home until Sunday night,” Joe explained.

Mitch stopped suddenly and grabbed Joe’s arm.  “Hey, Little Joe…where’s Hoss gonna be?”  Mitch’s eyes had grown large and dark and he wore a mischievous grin on his face.

Joe stopped along side his friend and studied Mitch’s expression, noting the sly look.  “I don’t know why?  What have you got up your sleeve, Mitch Devlin?”

Mitch rubbed his hands together and smiled broadly at Joe.  “I was just thinking Joe, if your Pa’s gonna be gone for a while, and Adam’s not there, well if Hoss takes off, what’s to keep ya from taking a little ride on the stallion?”

It was Joe’s turn for his eyes to grow wide.  He was silent for several moments, lost in thought.  Suddenly his face broke into a smile.  “Nothing I don’t reckon, but…”

“But what?  Nothing, just like ya said.  Listen, Little Joe, it would be the perfect time.  Who’s to know?  No one, just you and me and what they don’t know won’t hurt them.  What’ll ya say?”

Joe continued on his way toward the schoolhouse with Mitch following slowly behind.  “I can’t Mitch, if I did and Pa found out…there would be hell to pay.  He gave me strict orders that I better stay off that horse.”  Joe shook his head as he walked along.

“Okay, but I think you’re missing a golden opportunity.  I’d do it in a heartbeat.  Golly, Joe, you’re one of the best riders around, I don’t see why your old man won’t let ya, but since he won’t,” Mitch giggled softly, “I’d do it when he wasn’t around to find out.”

They were almost to the doorway, when Joe stopped and turned around to face Mitch.  “You probably would, wouldn’t you?”

“You better believe I would, and any other time, you would too.  I don’t know what’s gotten wrong with you Little Joe, use to be, you’d take a dare and not think twice about it,” grumbled Mitch.

Joe started giggling; “But you didn’t dare me!”

Mitch sobered and studied Joe’s expression.  Did his friend want him to make a dare?  It sounded like it.  “Okay Cartwright, I dare…no, I double dare ya to ride that big stallion the very next time that your Pa and brothers are not around!”

Joe gulped, why had he all but begged his friend to dare him?  Was it because he knew that if Mitch did, he would be forced into taking the dare?  Joe pushed opened the door and together with Mitch, the two friends stepped into the classroom.

“I’ll take that dare,” Joe whispered to Mitch as they parted ways and began moving toward their assigned seats.  Behind him, Joe heard his friend snickering softly.

*****

That night as Joe lay in his bed, his thoughts continued to rehash the conversation that he had had with his best friend, Mitch.  Joe knew that what he was contemplating was wrong, but a driving force from deep within himself begged to prove to his family that he could ride the tall chestnut stallion.  Joe didn’t take into consideration the fact that his father had no desire for his youngest son to have a need to prove anything.  The wrong thought, in Joe’s mind was his own desire to ride the forbidden horse, and that thought would lead to trouble, for which Joe had given no thought to whatsoever, or the consequences of his actions.

Morning came the same time, as always but to Joe, the night seemed to have past far quicker than usual.  With a groan, Joe pulled himself from his warm bed and dressed quickly.  By the time he had arrived at the breakfast table, Ben was wiping the last crumbs from his mouth, Hoss had just snatched the last pancake from the serving platter and Hop Sing had just set down another plate of hot pancakes for the late comer.

“Morning son,” greeted Ben with a bright smile for his youngest son.

“Morning Pa,” Joe returned.  “I sure hope you left something for me to eat,” he growled at Hoss.

Hoss looked up and saw the tiny frown on his brother’s face and pointed to the cakes that Hop Sing had just set down.  “Better grab’em for I do,” he mumbled, as he pointed with the end of his fork to the fresh stack.

Joe laughed and quickly filled his plate before Hoss could make good his threat.  “You leaving already, Pa?” Joe said as he turned to his father.

“Yes, I have to meet with Roy this morning before getting the supplies.  Then I have to ride up to the lumber camp and help Adam get things back on track.  I probably won’t be back until after dark,” Ben explained as he strapped on his sidearm and grabbed his hat from the peg above the credenza.

Ben went back to the table where he placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder.  Joe turned his head upward, waiting for his father to speak as he chewed the food he had just crammed into his mouth.

“You can go fishing son, when you finish with your chores.  I know you and Mitch were planning to go today, just be sure you get everything done before you do,” smiled Ben.

Joe nodded his head and gave his father a smile.  “I will Pa, don’t worry.”  Joe returned the smile, feeling somewhat guilty about what he and Mitch were really planning on doing.

“What are your plans, Hoss?” inquired Ben.

Hoss took a swallow of coffee, wiped his mouth and pushed back his chair, standing to his feet.  “I gotta go over to Genoa this morning, Pa.  Mr. Gillmore told me about a man over that way, what’s got a mare he was wantin’ to breed with an Arabian stallion and I thought I might have a talk with’em about using Gilley as stud.  I should be back before supper time.”

“Well, good luck.  Are you taking the stallion with you?” Ben asked, unaware that his youngest son had suddenly become very interested in the conversation between his brother and his father.

“No, I thought if the man was interested, he could bring the mare here.  Mr. Gillmore advised me not to take the stallion to the mare, but vice-versa.”  Hoss had walked to the door with his father and neither Hoss nor Ben had heard the wind expel from the youngest Cartwright’s lungs.

“Joseph, you behave yourself.  Hop Sing will be here if you should need anything,” called Ben as he followed Hoss out the door.

“I will Pa,” Joe called in return.  The door closed with a slight bang and Joe smiled to himself, unaware of the dark almond eyes that watched his face.

“Boy seem pleased with self,” muttered Hop Sing, startling Joe from his thoughts.  Joe glanced up and saw the piercing look of the little Chinaman.  “Boy best heed father’s words…number three son, mind what papa say and be good boy!”  Hop Sing pitter-pattered back to his kitchen mumbling under his breath with each step he took.

Joe had just finished with his breakfast when the front door flew opened and a loud voice resounded in his ears.  “JOE, YOU UP YET?”

Joe rounded the corner and surprised Mitch who was still standing in the doorway.  “Do you have to rattle the walls like that?” he laughed.

Mitch giggled, “Well, it’s Saturday and you’re rarely up this early, I just wanted you to know I was here, that’s all,” he laughed.  Mitch glanced around the room to be sure that they were alone.  “You ready?”

Joe gulped, not sure if what he was planning to do was the right thing or not.  “I suppose,” he grunted.

“Ya ain’t backin’ out are ya?” Mitch whispered.

Joe grabbed his hat and jacket from the peg and glared at his friend.  “No, I’m not backing out, I’m just not sure it I should do it or not, that’s all.”

“Ya ain’t chicken are ya?” Mitch taunted.

Joe grabbed his friend by the shoulder and spun him around, glaring angrily.  “You know better than that, I ain’t chicken, and I ain’t backin’ out!  Now come on!”

Joe allowed his hand to drop away from his friend’s shoulder and stomped off toward the barn.  Quickly he saddled the tall stallion and led Gilley from the barn.  His eyes briskly scanned the yard to be sure that he was not being watched.

Joe had to jump to make his foot reach the stirrup and then pulled his body up and into the saddle.  He couldn’t help but smile, he felt like a king sitting on the back of the magnificent animal.

“Well, come on,” he ordered Mitch, grinning.

Joe nudged the stallion gently with his knees, urging the horse into a gentle cantor.  Joe glanced back over his shoulder and smiled at Mitch who was trying to catch up with him.  Together the boys rode in companionable silence as they made their way from the house.  For more than half an hour the pair rode until Joe finally reined Gilley to a stop.

“This is about far enough, by the time we get back, it’ll be near lunch and then I’ll have to rub Gilley down and get started on my chores.  I promised Pa I’d have’em finished before he got home,” said Joe, leaning up from the saddle and petting the long silky neck of his stead.

“Aw, all right,” groaned Mitch.  “But I was hopin’ to see ya jump him, just once,” Mitch said, knowing he was tempting his friend.  “There’s that fence over yonder, why don’t ya try one time before we head back?”

Joe glanced in the direction that Mitch had pointed.  The fence wasn’t too high and Joe felt sure, after seeing how high that Adam had forced the animal to jump that Gilley could clear the fence easily.  For several moments he pondered the idea, knowing in his heart that he should not tempt his luck.  He suddenly turned to his friend, throwing all caution to the wind and giving in to his desires, Joe smiled down at Mitch.  “Watch this!”

Joe turned Gilley toward the fence and kicked hard at the stallion’s flanks.  Gilley bolted into action and raced toward his target.  Joe felt the wind whipping at his face; his hat flew from his head as Gilley gained in momentum.  As rider and horse neared the fence, Joe leaned low over the stallion’s neck as he had seen his older brother do.  He heard himself laugh out loud with glee as Gilley’s hooves left the ground.  Joe heehawed as he and Gilley sailed across the fence.  He was jubilant, he was flying and then suddenly he felt the pain pierce his shoulder as he landed with a thud onto the hard packed earth.

Joe groaned as he pulled himself into a sitting position and quickly looked around him.  Gilley was standing just yards from where he had landed, Mitch was no where to be found but when he looked up behind him, he found something he had not expected to find.

Hoss stood over him, his massive shadow blocking the sun from his little brother’s eyes.  His eyes were dark with anger, his lips pressed into a thin straight line as he glowered down into the startled face of his kid brother.

“Just what in thunder do ya think ya was adoin’?” shouted Hoss.

Joe gulped, temporarily forgetting the pain in his shoulder as he staggered to his feet.  “I…I…I…”

“Yeah, I seen what ya did, ya dang fool kid!  Dadburnit Little Joe, don’t ya know Pa will have a fit when he finds out?” shouted Hoss, turning Joe around and dusting the back of his trousers off.

“Ouch!” moaned Joe.

Hoss froze as he stood gazing into the hazel eyes that had suddenly filled with tears.  “Ya hurt short shanks?” Hoss asked with concern.

“I…I…it’s just my shoulder, I must have sprained it.  Hoss…ya ain’t gonna tell Pa what I’ve done, are ya?  Please Hoss…I’m begging ya…please don’t tell him,” pleaded Joe.

The boy was more frightened than hurt, but he wanted to be sure that Hoss would keep his secret.  He had thought that a good thrashing would be worth getting a chance at riding the Arabian stallion, but now, with the throbbing pain in his shoulder, Joe wasn’t too sure anymore.  And he had suddenly begun to regret his decision.

Hoss had pulled Joe’s shirt up and examined the shoulder that Joe said was hurting and sighed in relief that he found nothing more than an ugly bruise forming.  “Doesn’t seemed to be broken, but ya sure gonna have an ugly bruise,” the middle brother commented.

Hoss pulled Joe’s shirt back down and turned the boy around to face him, holding both of his hands on each of Joe’s shoulders.  “I saw what ya was fixin’ to do and I almost shouted at ya to stop, but I was scare to, I didn’t wanna spook Gilley.  Then, when I saw ya fall off, I was scared ya might have kilt your dang self.  Short Shanks, I swear, I oughta tan your hide right this minute.  But I think I’ll let Pa do it instead.”

Joe could do nothing to stop his eyes from filling with tears and when he dropped his head, they ran down his cheeks.  Hoss heard his brother sniff his nose and with his big hand holding Joe’s chin cupped firmly between his fingers, he tipped the boy’s head upward.  He could see the fear in the hazel eyes, and knew that Joe was aware of what would come later.

“I oughta know better than to do this Short Shanks, but if’n ya promise me that you’ll never do a dang fool thing like this again, I won’t tell Pa.  I’ll probably live to regret it, but…well…dadburnit…I know how much ya wanted to try riding ole Gilley and I can’t say that I blame ya none.  But ya gotta swear on your mama’s grave that ya won’t never do it again,” demanded Hoss, already having doubts as to why he was trying to save the boy from a much deserved thrashing.

Joe buried his head into Hoss’ vest and flung his arms around his brother’s middle.  “I promise, Hoss, I promise.  I won’t let ya down, honest…I cross my heart.”  And Joe did just that, the tears now stopped and his face broke open with a wide smile.  “Thanks Hoss, you’re the best!” beamed Joe.

Hoss pressed his lips together and gently bobbed his head.  “Just don’t make me regret it.  And don’t let me down, Little Joe, you understand?”

“I won’t Hoss, you can trust me,” smiled Joe.

Hoss ruffled his brother’s thick mane of dark curls.  “Sure I can…I see how trustworthy you are,” Hoss muttered, shaking his head harder.  “Come on, you might as well ride him home.  Go fetch’em, we’d better get him back to the barn afor Pa finds out what ya dun.”

Joe didn’t have to be told a second time.  He rushed to gather Gilley’s reins and slowly pulled himself up into the saddle.  He pinched his lips tightly to keep from crying out from the pain in his shoulder.  Joe twisted his shoulder just enough to try to work the soreness out, but even that caused the pain to shoot across to his other shoulder and down his back.

Hoss had watched with growing concern as Joe had mounted up and then saw his brother twisting around to try to stabilize the pain.  Hoss eased Chubb along side Gilley.  Gilley danced around, not liking the other horse coming so close.

“Hold him, Joe, don’t let’em get away from you,” ordered Hoss.

“Whoa boy,” Joe said softly, gaining control of his mount.

“Ya sure ya gonna be all right, little brother?  I mean, ya shoulder, does it hurt badly, cause if it does, we might need to go see the doc.”

“NO!  I mean, it’s fine, just sore, honest, Hoss,” Joe was quick to put his brother’s mind at ease.

“Okay, but when we get home, you’re gonna take a good hot bath, it’ll help with the soreness and then I’ll rub some liniment on your back.”  Hoss turned then and urged Chubb toward home.  “Come on, let’s ride,” he called over his shoulder.

*****

For the rest of the weekend, Joe was forced to ignore the constant pain in his right shoulder and to carry on as if nothing were wrong.  Hoss had been true to his word and had not tattled on his brother.  He had even helped Joe with his chores in order that Joe might give his shoulder time to heal properly.  By Monday morning, most of the soreness had faded away and when Joe left for school, none had been the wiser about what had taken place early on Saturday morning.

“I’ll see ya tonight, Pa,” Joe called as he rode out.  “Bye Hoss,” he smiled at his middle brother as Hoss came out of the barn, “thanks again,” he whispered in passing.

Ben had stepped beside of Hoss, thus Hoss had no chance to respond other than to smile and nod his head.

“He seems in an awfully good mood,” commented Ben, smiling at Hoss.

“He should be,” muttered Hoss softly as he turned and walked back into the barn.

Ben stood silently, wondering at his son’s words and then shrugging off the statement, returned to the house, where Adam waited, his head bent over the ledgers and trying to make sense out of his father’s entries.

*****

“Why’d ya run off?” shouted Joe.

“I’m sorry Little Joe, but when I saw Hoss riding up, I guess I just panicked,” offered Mitch, his head bowed low.

“And ya asked me if I was chicken?  Well, old friend, I guess we know who’s chicken now, don’t we!” continued Joe.  “I dang near break my neck, just to satisfy my best friend and then that so-called friend, turns tail and runs, leaving me to face the music all alone.  Some best friend you are!”

Joe turned from the other boy and headed for the schoolhouse, kicking stones with the toe of his boot as he ambled along.  Mitch stood alone, watching as his friend walked away.  When he could stand it no longer, he ran to catch up with his best friend.

“So, did ya get a thrashin’ or not?” he asked, never looking at Joe.

Joe glanced over at Mitch and smiled in spite of himself.  “No, Hoss didn’t tell on me.”

“What?” Mitch all but shouted as he grabbed Joe’s arm, halting their steps.  “You’re jokin’, right?”

“Wrong, he promised not to tell if I promised not to do it again,” smiled Joe as he continued on toward the building.

“You lucky son-of-a-gun,” laughed Mitch, hurrying to catch up to Joe.  “Hey Joe,” said Mitch in a voice so soft that Joe stopped and turned to face him.  “I’m sorry about what I did…runnin’ off I mean.”

Joe slung his arm across his friend’s shoulders and laughed, “Aw…that’s okay, I’d probably would’ve run too, if I had been you.  Forget it,” smiled Joe, never one to stay mad at his best friend for very long.

*****

Later that afternoon, Joe and Mitch sat with a group of their classmates.  Joe couldn’t help but smile as he listened to Mitch singing the praises of the Arabian stallion’s jumping ability.

“It was only a fence railing, Mitch, you make it sound as if we jumped Pike’s Peak or something,” laughed Joe.

“I bet he could have,” Mitch snickered loudly.

“So Cartwright, when ya gonna give the rest of us a chance to see this fine Arabian jumpin’ horse that you’re so proud of?” asked Lucas Tatum, a fellow classmate of Joe’s and not one of his favorite people.

“You can come out to the Ponderosa anytime ya wanna and see him…” started Joe.

“No, I mean, when are ya gonna show us how ya can ride and jump him?” snapped Lucas in a cocky voice.

Joe glanced at Mitch, who was smiling at him and nodding his head.  “He’ll show ya, just name the day and time,” spouted off Mitch.

“Mitch!” shouted Joe.

“What’s wrong Cartwright, ya ain’t been lyin’ to us now have ya?  Ya really do have one of them Arabian jumpin’ horses don’t ya?” taunted Lucas.

“Yeah, Little Joe, you ain’t just funnin’ with us, are you?” asked another of Joe’s friends.

“No, he really does have a bonafied Arabian stallion, a pure-bred jumpin’ horse,” Mitch was quick to defend his best friend, “I seen him jump with my own eyes!”

“Mitch, the horse isn’t exactly mine…”

“Then ya lyin”!” sneered Lucas as his face spread into an evil looking smirk and glanced around at the group of boys, knowingly.

“I’m not lying.  We do have the horse, he ain’t mine though, he belongs to Hoss, my brother.  Hoss bought him a couple of weeks ago from a man somewhere around Genoa, honest,” Joe explained in his own defense.

“Okay, prove it, show us how he jumps!” Lucas Tatum dared.

Joe cast anxious eyes at Mitch, wishing that his friend had not brought the subject of Hoss’ big stallion up in conversation.

“I wish I could, but…I’m not allowed to ride him,” Joe muttered in a low voice, keeping his head lowered and not wishing to look into the blue eyes of his tormentor, Lucas Tatum, who had taunted him since they had started school together, years ago.

“I thought you said you had already ridden him and jumped him,” stated one of the boys in an accusing tone of voice.

Joe glanced at the boy, “I did, but I wasn’t suppose too,” he confessed.

Lucas snickered loudly as he looked from boy to boy and then back to Joe.  “Wonder what you’re pappy would say if’n he were to find out that ya snuck behind his back and rode the ole nag?” laughed Lucas.

Joe’s eyes darkened in anger and he glared at the other boy.  The look went unobserved by Lucas as he continued to taunt the worried, youngest Cartwright.  “Either ya show us how the nag jumps or I tell your pa.”  Lucas turned his eyes to check Joe’s reaction to his threat and couldn’t help but laugh to himself.  It wasn’t often that he had the upper hand on Joe Cartwright, but this time, things were going his way.  He could tell by the anxious look in the hazel eyes, that Joe was taking the threat seriously.

“What’s it gonna be, Little Joe?” Lucas added emphasis to Joe’s nickname.  “What’s gonna happen when that big oaf of a brother of yours finds out that ya been riding and jumpin’ his stallion behind his back?”

“Ya don’t gotta worry about Hoss, he already knows!” snapped Mitch.

Joe groaned, furious at his best friend for not knowing when to keep his mouth shut.  Mitch had just given Lucas more information to use against him.  When he heard Lucas burst into boisterous laughter, Joe spun around and faced him.

“Why don’t you shut up?” snarled Joe to Lucas.

“So, Hoss knows too and covered your butt by not ratting on you?  That’s not bad Little Joe, not bad at all.  Now, either you jump the horse for us, or I tell your old man your secret, plus your brother’s,” smiled Lucas.  “You wouldn’t wanna get your brother in trouble too, now would you?”

Lucas’ eyes seem to glow with pleasure and it took all the will power Joe could muster to keep from wiping the smirk off the other boy’s face.

“I’ve a good mind to pound you into the ground right now,” snapped Joe.

“But ya won’t, will ya?  Cause if’n ya do, you’ll hav’ta explain to your old man why ya was fightin’.  I happen to know, Cartwright, that your father don’t take kindly to his boys takin’ part in a brawl.  So’s, what’s it gonna be?  Ya gonna ride or not?” laughed Lucas.

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  He wasn’t sure how it had happened, but Lucas Tatum had managed to get the best of him this time and as far as Joe could see, there was no other way out but to ride the stallion one more time.  Hoss’ words echoed in his ear along with the promise he had made to his brother.  But Joe shook his head free of the disturbing thoughts, he would take his chances and protect his brother from the lie that they had concocted about his injured shoulder and told to their father.

“All right, Tatum, you win.  But when this is over, just watch your back, cause I aim to beat the crap outta you!” snorted Joe, turning on his heels and stomping back to the classroom.  Lucas’ wicked laughed reached his ears as he flung open the door and turned for one last look at the group of boys, which were quickly following, trying to catch up with him.

The group of boys hounded Joe the entire week to set a date and time that they could watch him put Hoss’ jumper through his paces.  Joe had tried to stall for as long as he could, but when Lucas threatened to go to his father the very next afternoon, Joe set the date.

“Saturday after noon.  Pa and Hoss will be in town; Adam had to go back to the lumber camp so I reckon I’ll meet you over at the old Wilson place.  There’s a good fencing there that we can set up to make the jumps with.  I’ll be there about twelve-thirty,” Joe informed the group on Thursday during the lunch break.

“I been thinkin’ Cartwright,” leered Lucas.  “My old man has a pretty good jumper too.  Oh he ain’t no purebred Arabian jumpin’ horse, but he ain’t bad.  I’ve had a notion of tryin’ him out myself.  I think I’ll ride him over to Wilson’s on Saturday and we can have ourselves a little contest, what’cha say?”

Joe glanced around at his friends who were all nodding their heads.  “Fine by me,” Joe said at last, turning and walking away.  He was totally disgusted with the group of boys, with his best friend, Mitch, and with himself for allowing this so-called contest to take place to start with.  Joe suddenly wished that he had a way to back out, for he knew that he was headed for trouble of his own making.  But the Cartwright pride ran wide and deep within the boy’s heart and soul, and Joe realized that there was no turning back.  Saying no, or the fact that he could, had not entered his mind…until much, much later.

*****

The railings were set in place as Joe sat mounted on the big stallion’s back and tried to hold the nervous animal under control.  Lucas was mounted on his father’s big black gelding and appeared to be having as much, if not more, trouble controlling his horse, as was Joe.  Each time that the gelding inched closer to Gilley, the stallion would snort and toss his massive head, unnerving Joe more each time.

It had not been easy to slip away from the house in time enough to meet with the group of spectators that had been gathering to watch the jumping contest.  Ben and Hoss had been delayed nearly an hour, Adam had shown up unexpectedly and further delayed his departure.  Joe rushed around the barn, pretending to be busy with his chores until finally Ben and Hoss bid him good-bye.  Joe tossed his hand in the air at his departing family members and gave a sigh of relief.  Minutes later, Adam came from the house and mounted Sport.

“See you in a couple of days little buddy.  Stay out of trouble,” he warned in good spirits as he kicked at his horse’s sides and waved bye.

Joe swallowed the lump that had suddenly risen in his throat and wished that he could stay out of trouble, for in the back of his mind, he was very aware of the dark cloud that hung over his head.  Joe waited another half-hour before leading Gilley from the corral and saddling him.  Joe wanted to be sure that Adam had ridden far enough so as not to witness his riding away from the house on Hoss’ horse.

“It’s about time,” mouthed Lucas.  “We was beginnin’ to think you weren’t gonna show up, what kept ya?”

“I had things to do,” snapped Joe, hating himself already for allowing this person to con him into doing what he was about to do.

“Let’s get this over with then,” someone called out.

“I’m ready when Cartwright is,” Lucas called out.

Joe looked around him at the small crowd that had gathered.  He was surprised to see some of his father’s friends there with their sons.  Joe groaned, there was no way that he could pull this jumping contest off now and his father not find out about it.  Suddenly, Joe’s vision was blinded as tears rushed to fill the depths of his eyes.  He brushed them away, willing himself not to cry, but his stomach began to churn, and Joe could taste the bitter hot acid that slowly made its way up his throat and into his mouth.

“Joe, you go first,” called Mudd Taylor.  Mudd was an older classmate of Joe’s who had gotten the nickname, Mudd, years ago after he had stumbled and fell into a grimy, thick puddle and came out covered with the dark wet earth.  Joe couldn’t help but smile at the sudden memory, but just as quickly as it materialized, it vanished.

“You ready Little Joe?  You gotta clear both hurdles and then come back here and wait until Lucas makes his jumps.  Then we’ll raise the bars and you go again.  You gotta keep jumping until one of the horses touches or knocks down  a bar.  The one who jumps the highest without knocking down no bars, wins the contest,” explained Mudd.

Joe nodded his head in understanding and waited until Mudd gave the signal.  Mudd’s arm raised over his head and dropped quickly.  Joe kicked Gilley in the sides and the big stallion leapt forward at a run.  Easily, the stallion cleared both hurdles and returned to the starting point.  Joe glanced over at Lucas and smile.

“That was easy,” sneered Lucas.  “Hell, my old pony could have done that!”

Mudd’s hand came down a second time and Lucas was off.  When he returned he glared at Joe.  “See, ya ain’t got nothin’ special.”

“Just you wait, I’ll show you,” snapped Joe and turned to give the go-ahead to Mudd.

The bars had been raised higher, again Gilley cleared the bars with no problem, followed by Lucas and his father’s big gelding.  The crowd had begun to cheer the boys on and for a while Joe forgot that he was here, when he should have been elsewhere.  The fact that he had disobeyed his father, broken a promise to his brother and was on the verge of disgracing himself, never entered his mind.

Twice more the bars had been raised.  Joe was having to encourage Gilley into a faster pace and lean low over the horse’s neck, but still Gilley jumped each hurdle effortlessly, as if the bars had been laying on the ground.

When the bars had been placed at the highest level, Joe glanced at Lucas.  The other boy had begun to sweat, tiny beads of water had broken out on his forehead and Joe saw Lucas gulp.  Joe knew that Lucas was worried, it showed in his eyes and on his face.  The gelding had nearly faltered on the last jump and Joe, confident that Gilley could clear the bars, smiled at Lucas.

“Now we’ll see whose horse is a true champion.”  Joe could not help from gloating, as he nodded his head at Mudd to give the signal, something his father had said to him years ago, suddenly entered his head.  ‘Pride, cometh before a fall.’

 

Mudd gave the signal, Gilley sprang forth, and from somewhere behind him, Joe heard his name shouted out.

“JOSEPH!”

Lucas, who was not paying attention, pressed his knees into his gelding’s flanks, and the big horse shot forth behind Gilley. The race was on, Lucas tried to pull the fleeing animal under control but the horse had a mind of its own and had set its course of the horse in front of him.

Within seconds, the gelding was running side by side with Gilley.  Together they cleared the first hurdle.  From the corner of his eye, Joe caught of glimpse of Lucas as he struggled to reset himself in his saddle from where he had nearly fallen when he and his mount jumped the first set of bars.

Joe urged Gilley on, the gelding was running neck and neck with Joe and his horse as they approached the next hurdles.  Joe could feel Lucas’ leg brushing against his own, and cut his eyes to the side to glare at the his opponent.

“Pull him over!” shouted Joe.

Lucas ignored Joe’s warning and again Joe felt his leg being crushed against the side of the gelding.  The bars loomed out in front of them.  Lucas’ horse was crushing into his leg as Joe tried to move the big stallion aside but it was too late.  Joe felt Gilley’s body leave the ground and suddenly, it seemed as if the big horse stopped in mid-air.  Joe’s body was flung through the air and crashed to the ground.

Joe groaned, the pain shot through his leg and shoulder, sending trillions of pain filled projectiles throughout his entire body.  Joe barely had time to glance up, his eyes widened in horror, he opened his mouth to scream, and then his world went black.

*****

“Joe, can you hear me son?”

Joe moaned, his pain riddled body arched in agony.

“Joseph, open your eyes, son, please.”

Joe tried to obey the words, but some one must have glued his eyes shut, for he could not open them.

“Pa?”  It was his voice.  He felt the tears sting his eyes and wished more than anything else that he could open them and see the face of the man who held him so tenderly.

“I’m…so…sorry.”  Joe heard himself muttering.  Could his father understand his words, did Pa know what he had done?  Joe could not stop the tears now, he was too weak, he hurt entirely too much to control them.

“Shh…don’t cry son.  We’ll get you home soon.”

Joe felt his body being lifted from the cold, hard ground.  “OH…DON’T…IT HURTS!” he screamed.  Suddenly his eyes popped opened and he tried to focus on the faces that loomed in front of him.

“Please…it hurts,” he sobbed, groping the air for a handhold.

“Set him down,” ordered Ben as he knelt next to his son.  “Joe, you’re going to be okay, son, but we have to get you home so that the doctor can take a look at your shoulder and your leg.”

“Pa…” cried Joe, clinging to the front of his father’s vest.  “I didn’t mean…I’m sorry…Pa…I’m sorry,” wept Joe.

Ben pressed his lips together to keep from showing his pent-up emotions.  “Joe, we’ll talk about it later, right now, we need to get you back to the house.

A sob caught in Joe’s throat as he continued to cling to his father.  “Pa…Gilley…is he okay?”

Ben raised his head and glanced at Adam who knelt with him.  “Pa…please…” Joe tugged on Ben’s vest, drawing his father’s attention back to himself.

“Joe…” hesitated Ben.

“Oh God…Pa no…please tell…me he’s…not hurt…please PA…PLEASE!” sobbed Joe hysterically.

“Joe, calm down, please son, you’re only making matters worse,” whispered Ben as he held his son tenderly.

“Tell…me the…truth,” Joe continued to beg.

Joe tried to free himself from his father’s arms and raise up, but the pain quickly sent his body into spasms and he cried out in agony.

“Let’s get him in one of those wagons, Adam,” instructed Ben as he helped his older son lift Joe’s body for a second time.

Joe fought the urge to scream again.  When he could, he raised his head, biting his lower lip to help from crying out, and quickly glanced around him.  “WAIT!” he shouted.

Ben glanced down at his son, saw the frightened look that had entered the tear filled eyes and followed with his eyes to where Joe had pointed.

“Oh please…Pa…tell me…that’s not…Hoss’ stallion?” cried Joe as he was lowered into the back of the wagon.

Ben quickly jumped into the back with his son and leaned down close to Joe.  “I’m sorry Joe, but we had to…destroy the stallion.  His leg was broken in two places.”

“OH GOD NO!” wailed Joe.  “WHAT HAVE I DONE!”  Joe cried uncontrollably and nothing that his father could say or do could bring a measure of comfort to the distraught boy.  Joe’s crying ended just before they arrived back at the ranch and then only because the pain had become so intense that Joe had passed out.

The night had proved to be a long one.  Doc Martin set the bone that had broken in Joe’s shoulder.  The leg, though badly bruised had not been broken, much to everyone’s relief.  On Joe’s back, both the doctor and Ben had been surprised to see the faded remains of the bruise from the first accident.  Neither could explain the bruise and since Joe was under heavy medication, it was pointless to ask him.

Joe moaned and cried out for first his father, then Hoss and then Adam.  He wept bitter tears of sorrow and pain, he begged for forgiveness and though Ben whispered words of comfort throughout the hours, Joe’s mind refused to allow his body to relax and let him get the rest that his body needed to begin the healing process.

By morning, Ben was drained, Adam wasn’t faring much better, so when Hoss entered the room, neither noticed until the big man had approached the bed.

“Pa,” whispered Hoss softly.

Ben’s head snapped up and he quickly stood to his feet, meeting Hoss halfway across the room.  “Shh…he’s finally resting,” muttered Ben as he backed Hoss away from the bed so that they could talk without waking the sleeping boy.

Adam watched, his eyes focused on his middle brother’s face.  He could read the quiet fear and worry that was evident in his brother’s expression.

“What happened?  Is he all right?” Hoss asked.

Hoss had not returned home after finishing in town the afternoon before when he had gone with his father to purchase supplies.  He had instead gone to the lumber camp to give his older brother a much-needed break, therefore he had not known about the accident, nor what had caused his little brother to be in bed with a broken shoulder.

“Let’s go into the hallway,” urged Ben.

“Hoss…Hoss!”

Hoss stopped and turned back to the bed.  Joe had awakened and had seen his brother as he was stepping from the room.

“I’m…sorry…Hoss…I…I…didn’t mean…for it to…happen…please…I’m sorry.”  Joe’s eyes had filled with tears and he wept softly.

Hoss glanced quickly at his father and then at Adam.  “What’s he talkin’ about?” Hoss questioned.

“Let’s go…” began Ben.

“No Pa, tell me now…what’s happened?” snapped Hoss, sensing that something bad had taken place in his absence and that his father was hesitant to tell him.

“There was an accident, Hoss,” said Adam, standing to his feet and crossing the room.  “Joe had…”

“I’m…sorry…I didn’t…mean…for him…to get…hurt,” Joe muttered from the bed.

Hoss stepped around his brother and made his way to Joe’s bedside where he sat down on the side of the bed.

“Joe, what have you done?” Hoss demanded, fear beginning to creep into this heart.

“Gilley…” Joe’s voice cracked and he began weeping.  “Oh…Hoss…please…say you…forgive me…”

“Gilley?  Dadburnit…someone tell me what’s goin’ on!” Hoss all but shouted.

“Hoss calm down, it was as your brother said, an accident…I admit, Joe shouldn’t have taken the horse…”

“What?  What do ya mean take the horse, not MY horse?” Hoss jumped to his feet and spun around, facing his father and Adam.

“Take it easy son, not in front of the boy…”

“Boy!”  Hoss turned around, his heart pounding in his chest.  “Don’t tell me, you’ve been riding my horse again, Joseph!” growled Hoss.

“I…I’m sorry Hoss…please…don’t be mad…at me!”

“We had to destroy the horse son, I’m sorry,” muttered Ben.

Hoss froze, his blue eyes wide with unspoken anger as they slowly filled with tears.  He gazed down at his brother, whose own eyes were still overflowing with tears of his own.  As if in slow motion, Hoss raised his head and glared at his family.

“What happened?” he said in a voice that belied the smoldering fire burning deep within.

“I’m not sure exactly how or why things happened like they did, but it seems that Joe took the stallion out, after all of us left yesterday.  He met up with some friends over at the old Wilson place and had a little jumping contest.  Somehow Joe and Gilley got themselves tangled up with the other horse and rider and all four of them went down.  The other boy and his horse weren’t hurt, unfortunately Joe suffered a broken shoulder, and Gilley…well…I’m sorry Hoss, but his leg was broken in two places, and we had to put him down.”

Hoss stood as if he were a statue, the tears rolled freely down his cheeks and he said not a word for several moments.

“Hoss…” whimpered Joe, frightened by his brother’s silence.

Hoss jerked his body around and before anyone knew what was happening or could stop the big man, Hoss grabbed Joe by the front of his nightshirt and all but pulled the boy from the bed.

Joe screamed as the pain in his broken shoulder seared his body.

“How could ya!  Ya lied to me, Joe.  Ya broke ya promise and lookit what ya dun!” screamed Hoss.

“Let him go Hoss, now!” shouted Ben as he and Adam pried the big man’s fingers loose from Joe’s nightshirt.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…Hoss…I’m sorry,” sniffled Joe repeatedly.

Hoss released his fingers and Ben helped to ease Joe back into the soft pillows.  Joe’s eyes never left his brother’s face as he watched Hoss’ expression of anger deepen and settle across the fine lines of his brow.  He watched, terrified as Hoss’ tears made a steady stream down his rotund face.

Hoss pointed his finger at Joe, practically waving it under his nose.  “I’ll never trust ya again, Joseph.  Never, ya hear me good, boy, from now on, just stay away from me!”  With that, Hoss spun around and stomped out of the room, never looking back at the boy who screamed his name repeatedly.

Ben had gathered his hysterical son into the folds of his arms and tried to comfort him.  “Shh…please sweetheart, it will be okay…just give him time…”

“No…no…oh God, Pa…I didn’t…mean for this…to happen!  He hates…me!”  Joe freed himself from the arms that held him and in spite of the pain that gnawed at his body, Joe turned his head and buried his face in the pillows and wept, until exhausted, he feel into a troubled sleep.

 *****

The days passed slowly for all of the Cartwrights.  Hoss had made himself scarce, Adam busied himself with doing everyone’s chores, Ben remained by his youngest son’s bedside, and Joe had wrapped himself in his sorrow and pain.  He was sullen and quiet, crying out often in his sleep for the brother, whom had walked out on him, the one that Joe was now convinced hated him.  His brother’s hate embedded itself in the younger boy’s heart and soon Joe began to hate even himself.  He blamed himself, though he realized that he had been totally at fault and admitted as much to his father, his pleadings that Hoss come to him, failed to materialize the middle brother.

“Hoss, please, just let me explain…” began Joe late one afternoon when he had ventured downstairs and found Hoss standing alone in front of the fireplace, carelessly poking at the dying embers.

“What’s there to explain?” Hoss growled.  “Just leave me alone.”  Hoss placed the poker back on its stand and started for the door.

Joe, his arm in a sling, worked his way around the furniture in an effort to catch up with his brother.  “Please, Hoss…I’m sorry, honestly I am…for everything,” Joe cried, fighting to keep his tears from spilling over the rims of his eyes.  Joe was frantic, it had been two weeks now since the accident and though he had tried numerous times, Hoss still would barely speak to him and oft as not, ignored him completely.

“Why can’t you forgive me?  Hoss…I was wrong for taking your horse, God, don’t you think I’ve regretted it a million times?  HOSS, STOP!  PLEASE…JUST TALK TO ME!”

The door slammed loudly and Joe was left standing alone, his heart in his throat as he began to weep.  Almost immediately, the door opened causing Joe to quickly raise his head, hoping that Hoss had somehow found it in his heart to return and to hear him out.  His hopes were dashed for instead of his brother Ben stood in front of him, confused by the tears that he saw rolling from the end of his youngest son’s chin.

“What in the world?  Joseph?” Ben said as he placed his hands on either side of Joe’s trembling shoulders.

It was all that Joe needed, he fell into his father’s arms, weeping and sobbing uncontrollably.  “Oh Pa…he hates me…he hates me…”

Ben wrapped his arms around his son and held him tightly.  “No, no, Hoss doesn’t hate you son, he’s only…”

Joe pushed back from the comforting embrace and raised his tear soaked face upward to look into his father’s eyes.  “He’s only what?  Hurting?  Mad?  What?  I know you’re only trying to make me feel better, but it won’t work, Pa.  Hoss hates me for what I did,” sobbed Joe.

Joe swiped the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes and turned from his father.  “I know what I did was wrong.”  Joe had moved to the table in front of the fireplace and sat down.  Sadly his eyes met his father’s.

“I should never have taken his horse, not the first time or the last time.  It was stupid.  I know that now…I knew it then…but I…” Joe glanced at his father and then quickly dropped his head.  “I couldn’t make myself stop…I was scared…” Joe’s chin had begun to tremble again and he couldn’t go on.

Ben sat on the edge of the table, slightly behind his son and placed his hand on Joe’s good shoulder.  “Scared, of what Joe?  I don’t understand.”

Joe turned slightly toward his father and with eyes that begged for understanding he tried to explain to his father what had prompted his behavior.

“Mitch dared me to ride Gilley, that’s when I took him out the first time.  It was wrong, I know…” Joe cut his eyes up to check his father’s reaction.  Ben was watching his son’s face but said nothing, just nodded his head.

“I only rode him a short distance and then I was going to start back but Mitch wanted to see me jump a fence first.  I did…and that’s when I fell off.”

“Is that how you came to have that bruise on your shoulder?” asked Ben quietly.

Joe nodded, “Yes sir.”

“Go on, please.”

“Well, when I was getting up, I couldn’t find Mitch, he had run off.  But I did find Hoss, and boy was he mad at me, he started yelling and shouting at me.  I thought for sure he was going to thrash me right then and there.”  Joe paused and sniffed his nose.  “I wish now he had of, maybe I wouldn’t have been such a fool the second time,” muttered Joe.

“Anyway, I beg him not to tell you and he said he wouldn’t if I would promise never to do it again, take Gilley out, I mean.  And I did promise, I gave him my word and Pa, honest, I never intended to break my promise, honest I didn’t.  It just happened,” Joe sighed, brushing away the accumulation of tears that had started to gather again.

“Then why did you break your promise?” questioned Ben.

Joe shook his head slightly from side to side.  “It was stupid, just plain stupid.  Mitch and I was eating lunch at school on the Monday after that and Mitch started bragging about what a great jumper Gilley was, you know how Mitch is,” said Joe, giving his father a knowing look.  Ben smiled and urged Joe to continue.

“That darn Lucas Tatum started hounding me then, in front of all my friends, to prove to them what a good jumper the stallion was.  I tried to put him off, but then Mitch let it slip that I had taken Gilley out against your wishes.  Lucas started threatening to tell Hoss but then Mitch opened his mouth again and said that Hoss already knew and hadn’t told on me.  That’s all it took, Lucas said either I showed them how Gilley could jump or he’d tell you that Hoss and I both…” Joe gulped and glanced at his father’s face.  “Lied to you about how I really hurt my shoulder and about the fact that I had sneaked Gilley out while you were away.”

“I see,” Ben said.

Joe positioned himself in front of his father, his head bent low.  Ben gently cupped his son’s chin and tilted the curly head upward.  His eyes were soft with understanding, he knew by rights he should be angry with the boy and should enforce some type of punishment.  Ben studied the sad eyes that fought against meeting his; the boy had suffered enough over the last several days.  No punishment that he could render to the boy could be worse than what his son had inflicted on himself.  With his other hand, Ben brushed back the wild locks of curls that seemed to always be falling onto the boy’s brow.

“Joseph, you know what you did was wrong, don’t you?” Ben asked softly.

“Yessir,” Joe replied, finally meeting the dark probing eyes.  He was surprised to find the depths void of the anger that he believed to be present.  Slowly, Joe began to relax.

“I’m really sorry,” Joe whispered, his eyes beginning to swell with tears once more.

“I know you are son, but that doesn’t change the fact that you lied, not only to me, but to your brother as well and that’s not to mention the fact that Hoss lied to me too.  Joe, I wish that you had come to me, especially after the first accident.  Sure, I would have been angry with you, I might have even seen fit to give you a good thrashing, but…” Ben had to pause and smile at the sudden change of expression on the boy’s face.

“I wish you had of,” muttered Joe.  “It couldn’t have hurt any worse than this.”  The tears released themselves, silently rolling over the rims of Joe’s eyes.

Ben moved his hand from Joe’s quivering chin and slipped his arm about the trembling shoulders.  Joe laid his head against his father.

“Pa…what am I going to do?  Hoss won’t give me the time of day…every time I try to talk to him, he walks away.  Doesn’t he know how that makes me feel?” Joe said.

He voice had begun to crack and when he looked up, he was surprised to see the brother in question, standing behind his father and himself.  Instantly, Joe was on his feet.  Ben turned to see what had prompted Joe’s sudden movement and was as shocked to see Hoss as Joe obviously was.

Hoss’ face was beet red, and Joe could see the anger in his blue eyes.  When the bigger boy took a step forward, Joe backed up.  Ben stood to his feet, placing his body between his two sons.  He too could see the wrath building in his normally soft spoken, gentle natured son.

“Hoss…” Ben said his son’s name in more of a warning, for Ben was not sure what Hoss might do.

Hoss ignored his father and stepped around him.  “You think just saying that you’re sorry, excuses ya for what ya did, Joseph?  Well, ya wrong, it’s only words, there’s no truth to’em,” growled Hoss.

“But I meant it, honest Hoss, I am sorry!” Joe said.

“Are ya?  Or are ya just sorry cause ya got caught?” Hoss shouted.

Joe was shaking his head no.

“Tell me something, Little Joe, what would ya have dun, if’n ya hadn’t fallen and got ya self hurt?  Would ya have owned up to what ya did?  No, ya would’ve acted like nothin’ happened, that’s what ya would’ve dun,” Hoss roared.

Joe was still shaking his head.  Ben had stepped back, allowing his sons time to vent their anger at one another, but kept a watchful eye, just in case one might try taking a swing at the other.

“No, no, please Hoss, honest, I didn’t mean for Gilley to get hurt, honest…”

Hoss took another advancing step, causing Joe to back up into the blue chair and fall into the cushion.  Hoss towered over his brother, placing a hand on each side of the arms of the chair and giving Joe no means by which to escape.  Joe pushed his head back against the headrest; Hoss’ face was inches from his brother’s.

“Ya still don’t get it, do ya boy?  It ain’t about the horse.  I could buy ten Arabian stallions, all seventeen hands high, if’n I’ve amind too.  But it ain’t about the stallion, Joe, it’s about us, you and me.  Ya lied to me Joe, ya out and out told me a lie, and then ya used me, to cover ya own hide.  Ya promised me, short shanks, ya promised on ya mama’s grave that ya would not do it again, and then ya turned right around and betrayed me!  I trusted ya, Joe, plain and simple and ya used that trust to get what ya wanted in the first place.  How do ya think that makes ME feel?”

Hoss had begun to shout and Ben could see Joe scrunching up his face as Hoss spat his words into his brother’s face.  He started toward Hoss, but Hoss swung an arm out to halt his father’s approach.  Hoss turned his head and looked up at Ben.

“Let me have my say, Pa.  He wanted to know why I can’t forgive’em, I’m gonna tell’em,” snapped Hoss and then directed his attention back to his brother who still cowered in the chair.

“Ya hurt me Joe, like no one ever hurt me before.  Right here, in my heart, ya done broke my heart, Joe!  Saying I’m sorry don’t cut it, not anymore, not with me it don’t.”

Joe had fought against the tears for as long as he could.  His heart was shattered, he could not believe what he was hearing, his brother, his best friend, his confidant, was refusing to forgive him.

“Hoss…please, tell me what I can do?  I…I’m sorry…I wasn’t thinking…I didn’t mean to break my…promise…it…it…just happened cause…”

“CAUSE?” ranted Hoss.  “Ya always got a CAUSE, don’t ya kid?  Well, not this time!”  Hoss pushed himself upright and glared at Joe.  “Don’t bother tryin’ to explain, ya ain’t got nothin’ I wanna hear.  Just stay away from me, Joe.  I’ve washed my hands of ya.”

Hoss spun around on his heels and marched out the door.  Joe’s chin dropped to his chest, he was beyond crying and he had resigned himself to his fate.  Hoss hated him, he had said as much when he had told Joe that he had washed his hands of his kid brother.  Ben moved closer to Joe and sat on the edge of the table while gently raising Joe’s chin with his hand.

Ben was startled at the hollow, empty look in the eyes of his youngest son.  Joe met his father’s gaze.

“I told ya he hated me, now maybe you’ll believe me,” whispered Joe, his tone void of any emotion.

*****

“Pa?”

Ben looked up from his desk where he had been working on the ledgers, surprised to see his youngest son standing on the landing, mid way of the staircase.

“Joseph, I thought you were asleep. Come on down and join me,” smiled Ben.

It had been nearly another week since the incident between his two younger sons and Ben had grown more worried with each passing day.  He had tried talking to Hoss, but Hoss had turned a deaf ear to his pleadings and seemed bound and determined that he would not allow himself to forgive his younger brother.

Ben had watched as the perplexing emotions ran their course over Hoss’ face.  Ben had seen the longing in the blue eyes that told his father that Hoss was aching to have peace of mind and silently Ben prayed that somehow his sons would find their way back to each other.

“Couldn’t you sleep?” Ben asked, motioning for Joe to have a seat.

Joe shook his head no and lowered himself into the chair in front of the desk.  He could barely bring himself to meet his father’s eyes.

“Something on your mind, son?” questioned Ben.  He saw Joe gulp and nod his head slightly.

“You know how you and Adam are…always telling me that…I should stay in school…get a good education?”  Joe glanced sideways at his father.

Ben studied his son closely, wondering where this conversation was headed.  It was no secret that Joe hated school and had begged for the last year to be allowed to drop out.  Ben had finally conceded and promised Joe that if he finished this year with high marks, he would allow his son to drop out and begin working full time on the ranch with his brothers and himself.

“Yes, I vaguely remember Adam and I both telling you that, why?”  Suddenly Ben felt his heart jump into his throat.

“Well, I was thinking…that maybe you and Adam were right…and that I…should…stay in school I mean.  So I was wondering…perhaps I might do like Adam…and go away…to college.  I could study engineering or may architecture, like Adam…”

Ben stood to his feet and moved around his desk so that he stood in front of his son.  Ben knelt down, but it was still hard to see his son’s face, for Joe had lowered his head.  Gently, Ben cupped the quivering chin and raised Joe’s head so that he might see into his son’s face.

“Joseph…I never thought you would be the one to want to go away…especially to school.  If I believed for one minute that you were serious, I would be thrilled with the idea of you wanting to further your education, but son…are you positive that this is what you want to do…or are you running away?” Ben questioned in a soft voice.

Instantly, Joe’s eyes filled with water.  “Please…Pa…let me go…I wanna do this…”

“Joseph?” Ben muttered, “you can’t mean that.”

“Pa…I can’t stand it here…not like this…” Joe began to weep; his voice shattered and became broken.  “Oh Pa…I wish I’d broken my neck in that fall, at least that way, I could have died quickly.  I wouldn’t have to die so slowly…and painfully…cause that’s what’s happening to me…this is killing me…I can’t stand it anymore…please Pa…I gotta go…I can’t face…him another day…”

Ben, with growing fear in his heart for his youngest son, gathered the boy into his arms.  Joe wrapped his around his father and buried his face into the fold of Ben’s neck.  Neither was aware of the big man standing at the top of the stairs with tears rolling gently down his face.  Hoss turned and retraced his steps to his room, his little brother’s words still ringing in his ears and searing into his heart, as he closed the door softly.

*****

The next morning, Ben sat alone at the table.  Adam had remained at the longing camp and Hoss had eaten an early breakfast and disappeared to the barn.  Joe slipped quietly into his seat, glanced swiftly at his father and began to serve himself.

“Morning Pa,” he half muttered when he saw Ben watching him.

“Good morning, son,” smiled Ben.

Joe poked at his food with his fork and scooted it around his plate.  He wasn’t really hungry and just the thoughts of having to eat made him nauseous.

“Pa, can I be excused?  I have chores to do,” asked Joe, placing his fork on the plate in front of him.

“You’ve hardly eaten a bite…”

“I ain’t hungry…please…can I be excused?” Joe asked again in a soft voice, not looking up to see the worried look in his father’s eyes.

“All right, son.”

Joe scooted back his chair and stood up.  “Pa…” he began meekly.  “About last night…what I said about wishing I was dead…well…I don’t want ya to worry about me…I mean…I wouldn’t do…” Joe stopped, glancing at his father.

Ben forced his lips into a smile.  “I know you wouldn’t son,” he said in a low voice.  God, he prayed, he hoped his young son would not even consider doing something so foolish.

“I just wanted ya to know, that’s all…”

Joe rushed from the house.  He wondered what his father would think of him if he had known that his son, had, before last night, had those very ideas in his head.  His father had no inkling of how very much his heart ached with the sorrow of knowing how badly he had hurt his middle brother and how that middle brother’s hatred of him, had destroyed his world.

Joe brushed the sleeve of his shirt across the front of his face and ran to the barn, totally unaware of the barn’s occupant.  He shoved back the door and slipped inside the dimly lit enclosure.  Cochise nickered lightly at his master and Joe stopped to scratch the velvety tip of the pinto’s nose.

“Hey old friend,” whispered Joe softly, unaware of the troubled blue eyes that watched him from the dark corner of the barn.  “You’re just about the last friend I have left in the whole world,” he muttered.  “Did ya that ole Hoss hates me, hmm…did ya know that?  Well, it’s true, he does.  I can’t say that I blame him, hell, he can’t hate me any more than I hate myself and ya wanna know why?  Cause I was stupid, that’s why Cooch, just plain stupid.  I let myself get suckered into something I didn’t know how to get myself out of…and all on account of a stupid dare.  Wanna know something else?  I didn’t even win the dare, I lost…I lost a lot too,” Joe began to sniffle.  “I lost my brother Cooch, I lost Hoss.”

Joe leaned his head against his horse’s head and fighting to control his emotions, whispered, “it hurts Cooch…you’ll never know how much that dare cost me…it’s almost worse than when my mama died.”  Joe lost the battle with his emotions and began to cry softly.  “God, Cooch, I wish I could just go away somewhere, some place where they couldn’t find me, and just die…I wanna die Cooch, but…I’m afraid of what it might do to…Pa.”

Hoss dabbed at his own tears.  He hadn’t really known, until the night before, just how much he had hurt his brother.  The knowledge that the boy wished he were dead had haunted his dreams.   Last night he had spent the entire night tossing and turning, unable to will away the terrifying scenes that his mind conjured up of his brother lying dead in some remote place where no one but God knew where he was.  Hoss slipped silently from his hiding place and in behind his younger brother.  Joe had no idea that Hoss stood behind him, had he known, he might have run.

Hoss placed both of his massive hands down on Joe’s shoulders and forced the boy to turn and face him.  Joe’s eyes widened in shock at seeing Hoss.  He tried to wrench his body free from Hoss’ grip, but Hoss held firmly.

“Stop it Joe,” Hoss ordered, his voice thick with emotion.  “Don’t fight against me.  It’s over Short Shanks.”

Joe stopped struggling and immediately felt Hoss’ fingers ease their hold, but he made no move to pull away from his older brother.  He was watching Hoss’ face and the tears that had filled the depths of his brother’s blue eyes.  Hoss was crying, Joe had never really witnessed his brother crying before and the sight held him spellbound.

“I’m sorry Joe…I never meant to make ya wish ya was dead, never,” whispered Hoss.  “I was hurt…real hurt by what ya dun, and I reckon I wanted ya to hurt like I was adoin’, but I swear, I didn’t mean for it to go this far.  And then last night, I heard ya tellin’ Pa that ya wanted to go away, cause of me…well, it hit me right then, what I’d dun to ya.  I was wrong short shanks, I don’t ya to go away, and I sure don’t want ya wishin’ ya could die, can ya ever forgive me?” pleaded Hoss at last looking down into Joe’s face.

Joe’s throat had grown thick with emotion as well and he found it impossible to speak.  He nodded his head and when Hoss pulled him into a bear hug, Joe automatically wrapped his arms around his brother’s thick middle and began to cry.

“I’m sorry too, Hoss…I’m sorry,” he wept.

“No, it was all my fault, Joe, I should have never brung that stallion home,” Hoss declared.

“No, it was my fault, Hoss, really.  I should have known better than to take the horse anyway, Pa already warned me to stay off him,” countered Joe.

Hoss raised Joe’s chin and then shook his head.  “No, Short Shanks, it was my fault, I should’ve told Pa the truth to start with….”

“I shouldn’t have asked you to lie for me in the first place, it was my fault…”stammered Joe

“None of it would have happened if Mr. Gillmore hadn’t of sold me that horse.”

“Hoss…” Joe suddenly smiled, his eyes began to twinkle and he looked up into his brother’s eyes.  “Then it was Mr. Gillmore’s fault!” he said wiping the tears dry that had lingered on his face.

Hoss started laughing loudly and gently slapping Joe on the back.  “You’re right, Short Shanks, it wasn’t your fault, or mine, it was Arty Gillmore’s fault!”

Hoss and Joe both began laughing so hard that the tears of regret were quickly replaced with tears of joy.  Neither brother realized that they now had an audience.

“Now that the two of you have stopped arguing about whose fault this entire mess was, do you think that you could possibly find time to get some work done around here?  This is a working ranch, or have the two of you forgotten that?” smiled Ben from the doorway where he had been watching the debate between his middle and youngest son.

“Sorry Pa,” the brothers said in unison and then began laughing again.

“Oh, what’s the use, I can see right now, I’ll not get a nickel’s worth of work between the two of you.  Why don’t you boys take the day off and just go fishing?”  Ben tossed his arms up in mock frustration and walked out of the barn.  The look of complete relief that he wore on his face would never be seen by the pair of happy brothers who were already tearing apart the barn in search of their fishing poles.

Ben cast one last glance over his shoulder toward the barn, as he reached the front door and sighed happily.  Hoss and Joe were just coming from the barn, the looks of misery that had been on their young faces for far too many days, was gone now.  In misery’s place were joy and happiness and the gift of brotherly love.

“Thank you Lord, for letting my sons find their back to each other, and for restoring harmony to our lives,” whispered Ben as he shut the door to his home.

***End***

 

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