The Medicine Hat Horse (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,309


 

 

“What is it this time?” Adam asked, in resignation, as his younger brother Joe came into the house cradling his right arm.

“Just a bite,” Joe replied, lightly. He tried for a grin, too, but it was just as unsuccessful as his light tone had been.

“Let me see,” Adam demanded, going over to Joe.

With a sigh, Joe turned slightly so that Adam could view the remains of his shirt and the huge, bleeding bite mark on the back of his upper arm. Sighing in his turn, Adam shook his head and drew Joe over to a chair by the dining table, made him sit down, then went to get water to clean it with. “Do I have to guess which horse did this, or do I already know?” he enquired.

“Yeah, it was Patch,” Joe agreed, gloomily. “I swear, Adam that is the most mareish mare I’ve ever met!” He winced as Adam daubed gently at his arm. “What did you put in there? Vinegar?” he complained.

Ignoring the complaint, Adam carried on, wondering if he’d put too much medicinal salt into the water. “What are you going to do about her, Joe?” he asked. “We can’t have a horse like that around the place. So far, we’ve been lucky it’s just been you she’s savaged.”

“Oh, she’s a nice little mare when she’s not being mareish,” Joe defended her. “She can be real sweet.”

“But when she’s not, she’s a nightmare,” Adam reminded him. “Pun intended.”

“You’re worse than Pa,” Joe told him and Adam smiled, enigmatically.

“So?” Adam asked, a few minutes later, as he finished winding the bandage around Joe’s bicep. “What are you going to do? You’ve been sitting there thinking so hard I could almost hear the cogs turning.”

“Yeah, well, the cogs were turning,” Joe retorted. “And I do know what I’m going to do.” He rose, gathering the tattered remnants of his shirt into his hand. “Thanks, Adam.” He began to walk away towards the stairs to get a fresh shirt.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Adam protested. “Tell me!”

Grinning over his shoulder, Joe replied, “I’m going to breed her to Satan, of course.”

*****

When supper time came, Joe and Adam were still at odds. Adam had lost his temper the minute Joe had posited his idea; Joe had shouted back and thereafter neither one had spoken to the other. Ben, arriving back from town as they sat down, diagnosed the atmosphere in seconds and glared at them all disapprovingly until he realized that it was just Adam and Joe who were at odds.

“What is it with you two?” Ben asked in disgust.

“Adam doesn’t approve of a decision I’ve made,” Joe replied, with a scornful glance at Adam. “It’s a decision involving the horses, Pa and I’m in charge of the horses, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” Ben agreed, warily. “What is this decision, son?”

“I’ve decided to breed Patch,” Joe replied. “Perhaps having a foal will settle her down.”

“That’s a good idea,” Ben approved. “Good thinking, son.” He was instantly irritated when Joe flashed Adam a look of pure triumph.

“That’s only half the story!” Adam objected. “Tell him it all!”

“That’s the important bit!” Joe argued back. “The rest doesn’t matter!”

“Yes, it does!” Adam shouted. “Pa, he’s going to breed her to Satan.”

For a moment, Ben had no idea what Adam was talking about. Then he remembered the big skewbald stallion and he could see why Adam was upset. The idea held very little appeal to him, either. However, knowing of Joe’s love for the stallion, he knew this had to be handled carefully.

Too late. Adam was on the attack once more. “Come on, Joe what good is it going to do to breed a vicious mare to a killer stallion?”

It was the wrong tack to take with Joe. “Satan isn’t a killer!” Joe yelled back. “He’s wild and don’t you forget it! None of his get have any kind of temper, and you know it! Patch just needs something to settle her down, and this might be the answer! You always have to interfere in things that don’t concern you, don’t you?”

“That’s enough!” Ben thundered, slamming both hands down on the table top. “I will not have fighting at the table.”

“He started it!” Joe returned sulkily, and Ben was forcibly reminded of a much younger Joe.

“Joseph!” Ben warned and Joe subsided, glaring at Adam.

Drawing in a deep breath, Ben knew that whatever he said, one son was going to get hurt. “I might not think this is the best pairing in the world,” he said to Adam, “but as Joe pointed out, the horses are his responsibility, and I have to accept his judgment. He knows these animals better than I do.”

“But, Pa…” Adam began. When Ben glared at him, he rushed on, regardless. “Patch savaged him again this afternoon.”

“It was just a bite!” Joe retorted, furious all over again. “I’m fine!”

“And who cleaned it up for you?” Adam demanded.

“You,” Joe admitted. “And I said thanks. And if there hadn’t been anyone here, I’d have managed to clean it up myself. What are you implying here, Adam?”

There was a sudden stillness. Hoss raised a miserable face from his plate and looked from one antagonist to the other. There was a quality about Adam’s stillness that Hoss didn’t like. Joe began to rise. “Sit down,” Ben ordered. “This discussion is over. Eat your meal, both of you. I don’t want to hear another word!”

After another scorching exchange of glances, Joe sat down and began to eat mechanically.

*****

Come morning, the atmosphere was still tense. Joe was seldom very forthcoming in the mornings anyway, but his furrowed brow signaled that his temper was still hot. Adam had his usual calm demeanor, but the little glances he shot at Joe spoke volumes. Hoss ate quickly and left the house as soon as he decently could. Ben debated raising the whole topic, or just ignoring it. However, before he could decide which was the worst course of action, Joe had finished eating and left the table.

“I take it you’re not going to forbid Joe to breed that mare to Satan, then?” Adam asked, insolently.

“No, I’m not,” Ben replied, shortly. “The horses are his responsibility, Adam. I said this last night.”

“I heard you,” Adam retorted. “But I just thought that this morning you would have come to your senses and told Joe the answer was no.”

Putting down his cup very deliberately, Ben glared at his oldest son down the length of the table. “What Joe said is true, you know. Satan’s off-spring are not vicious. The horse has caused no problems since Joe set him free. I agree that Patch is unpredictable, but having a foal often settles down a mare, and you know as well as I that some mares make great mothers, but are never worth riding.”

“That’s not the point!” Adam protested.

“You’re right,” Ben agreed, trying hard to be patient. “Its not. The point is that Joe is in charge of the horses, and he has made the decision. There is nothing more to be said.” Rising pointedly, Ben threw his napkin down on his plate and walked away.

Furiously angry, Adam balled his napkin in his hands before throwing it at Joe’s seat. He pushed his chair back with unwarranted energy and followed his father out to work.

*****

Joe might not have thought of breeding Patch if she hadn’t come into season the day before. Catching the mare, he put on a halter and, mounting his horse, led her out of the yard. Behind him, Joe knew that everyone in the house thought he was mad, but he was sure that Patch would be a good mother and he knew for a fact that Satan would be a good sire. The added attraction for Joe was that both dam and sire were pintos. Satan was a skewbald – brown and white – and Patch was tri-colored – black, brown and white. A few of Satan’s foals had been colored, and Joe hoped that with colored blood on both sides, the resulting foal would be a pinto, too. He had a weakness for pintos.

As Joe had expected, the stallion came out to greet them. Cochise snorted and moved uneasily, but Satan knew Cochise’s smell and knew the gelding was no challenge to him. Moreover, Cochise always brought Joe, and Satan mostly respected him.

But this time, Satan didn’t have eyes for anyone except the mare. He walked up to her very deliberately, while the mare danced nervously at the end of the short lead that Joe had her on. Joe smiled, recognizing the first steps to the courtship. As the stallion started to sniff the mare’s hind end, he leaned over and unfastened the halter.

It took a moment for Patch to realize that she was free, but she then fled towards the other mares in Satan’s band, the stallion in hot pursuit, his excitement evident for all to see. “She doesn’t stand a chance, Cooch,” Joe laughed. “Hey, Satan!” he called. “I’m coming back for her in a few days! She’s not yours to keep.” He patted the pinto’s neck and heeled him gently. Cochise began to move obediently. “Do you think he understood me, Cooch?” Joe asked, and laughed aloud as the pinto snorted and shook his head.

*****

Arriving back in the yard, Joe saw that Adam was splitting logs. From the way his brother was swinging the axe, Joe knew that his anger wasn’t appeased. Sighing, Joe took his horse over to the rail and hitched it.

When Adam paused to pick up another log, Joe went across. He knew that Adam knew he was there. “Hey, Adam, I don’t want to quarrel with you,” Joe began.

“You could have fooled me!” Adam retorted. “You were quick enough to lose your temper!”

“You don’t like me interfering with your decisions,” Joe replied, trying to hang on to his temper. “Well, I don’t like you interfering in mine. Is that so hard to believe?”

Dropping the log, Adam slammed the axe into it and spun round to face Joe. “I just know that you always get your own way with Pa because you’re the baby of the family,” he snarled. “You presented your case back to front last night, knowing that Pa would have to agree with you, and once he’d done that, he could hardly back down. That’s contemptible, Joe! If you were that sure of your decision, you wouldn’t have told Pa that way.”

Angry now, Joe retorted, “I wasn’t going to tell Pa at all!”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me!” Adam snapped. “You were going to do it behind his back!”

That was the last straw for Joe. “I don’t tell Pa about every mare I plan to breed!” he yelled. “I just go ahead and breed them! Why the sudden interest in Patch? You have nothing to do with her! I run the horses, Adam, and I run them as I see fit! If that doesn’t suit you, well, tough!” Turning, he stalked away across the yard before he could say something he would regret. In one fluid leap, he was onto Cochise and riding out of the yard at a gallop.

“Damn it, Joe, get back here!” Adam shouted, but he only served to entertain a few passing crows. Joe did not even look back.

*****

When Joe returned that evening, it was clear he had been in town. Although nowhere near drunk, Ben could smell the cheap whiskey on his breath and it worried him. Joe seldom touched the hard stuff, preferring to stick to beer. “Where have you been?” he demanded, going out to meet Joe. “You missed supper.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied. “I just had to go into town to cool off for a while.” He glanced significantly at the house.

“I heard about the row,” Ben told him. “Hop Sing told me. Joe, I don’t really know why Adam is so against what you’re doing. As you said, you are in charge of the horses, and it’s your responsibility. I don’t have time to worry about which mare you are breeding to which stallion. But it’s difficult for both Adam and I to remember that you’re a grown-up all the time. All parents tend to think of their children as needing protection and Adam has often acted in loco parentis to you. Please try and be patient with him, son.”

“All right, Pa,” Joe sighed. Pulling the saddle off his horse’s back, Joe dropped it onto the stand and began to brush down his mount. Ben watched him, seeing how tired and discouraged Joe appeared.

“Supper will be waiting for you when you come in, Joe,” he added, softly. “Don’t be too long.”

“I won’t,” Joe replied. He found a smile for Ben, but when he was alone with Cochise, Joe leant against the horse’s side. He wasn’t looking forward to facing Adam again.

*****

Nothing more was said about the row that Joe and Adam had had. Ben decided to leave things alone, as both his sons were old enough to sort out their problems without him having to order them to do so. It took several days for the atmosphere in the house to calm down, but by the end of the week, a semblance of normality ruled. Joe and Adam were civil to each other, even if they weren’t friendly, like usual.

That day, Joe rode out again to reclaim Patch from Satan. He had told Ben privately where he was going, knowing that if the herd had moved, he might be gone for quite a long time. He knew the mare’s season would be over, and he hoped that she would be carrying a foal. For all that Adam didn’t like Patch, when she was on form, she was a great little mare, quick on her feet and intelligent. Joe was very fond of her.

The herd had indeed moved. Joe followed the tracks through the grass, keeping his eyes open for a sight of the herd, and trusting on Cochise’s instincts to tell him when they were close. The sun was past its zenith when he found them in a secluded little meadow. It was a favorite place of the cattle, as well, when stormy weather was on the way. Joe frowned. It was early in the season and the weather could change dramatically without warning.

Pushing that thought aside, Joe securely hitched Cochise out of the way, gathered up the lasso and halter that he would need, and went to reclaim his mare.

The wild horses snorted and began to move away as they caught Joe’s scent as the wind changed. Satan’s head went up and he neighed his clarion call. Joe whistled, the sound the same one he had always used for the stallion, hoping that this would calm Satan. Unfortunately, he knew that it was just as likely to annoy him.

From behind the stallion, Patch appeared, attracted both by the whistle and the familiar scent of the man. Satan turned his head and nipped at her. Joe continued to walk slowly forward. “Come on, Satan,” he coaxed. “I told you I’d be back for her. You’ve had your turn, now she’s mine again. Easy, boy.”

The big skewbald seemed uneasy, and Joe, glancing momentarily at the herd, saw why. The first spring foals had been dropped. He counted no more than half a dozen, but could see that there were no barren mares in his herd this season. Within a few weeks, all the mares would have a foal at foot.

“I’m not gonna touch your family, Satan,” Joe went on, still speaking in a calm tone. “Not this time. I’m just gonna take Patch here away.” By now, Joe was close enough to touch the horse, but he held back, sensing that this would be too much provocation. Instead, he put his hand out to the mare, which obligingly put her muzzle on his palm.

There was nothing there for her, but Joe had looped the halter over his arm, and it was an easy matter for him to caress her nose with that hand while the other pulled the halter up and into position. Taking a deep breath, Joe stepped between the stallion and the mare and fastened the buckle. He could feel Satan’s hot breath on the back of his neck, but the stallion made no attempt to savage him.

Relieved to have come this far without being bitten by either horse, Joe found his tense muscles were actually tightening, rather than loosening. The trickiest part of this was still to come; he was going to take the mare away. “Come on, girl,” he urged and began to walk forward, the lead rope firmly in his hands.

There was an angry snort from behind him, and Joe risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Satan was clearly torn between trying to get this new mare away from the man, or staying with his bunch of mares. “Go back to your family, Satan,” Joe told him. “She’s mine.” He continued to walk.

Next moment, he heard hooves and half turned, throwing his arm up to protect his face. Satan took a lunge at Joe, but thanks to Joe’s moving, mostly missed. His teeth raked Joe’s left hip, tearing the fabric of his pants, and grazing the skin underneath. Then, his protest registered, Satan wheeled away and trotted back to his herd.

Wincing, but resisting the urge to touch the bite, Joe limped back to Cochise. There, he tied the mare while he cleaned out the bite as best he could before mounting Cochise for the long journey home. “Satan, you always have to have the last word, don’t you?” he muttered under his breath as he heard the stallion’s mocking cry rent the air once more.

*****

“That sounds like hail,” Ben commented to Adam as they became aware of the thundering on the roof. They were sitting in the office alcove, going over branding records. The first calves would be born any time, and Ben wanted to check last year’s numbers to compare to this year’s.

“Well, I hope Hoss is nearly home,” Adam commented, without raising his head.

“And Joe, too, I trust,” Ben remarked, mildly.

“Yes, Joe too,” Adam agreed in a resigned tone. He lifted his head and met Ben’s gaze. He sighed. “Oh, I know, Pa. It was none of my business what Joe decided to do with that mare. But whenever he gets together with that horse, I get a bad feeling in my gut.”

“Patch?” Ben asked, knowing perfectly well this was not the horse Adam was referring to.

“No; Satan,” Adam corrected, grimly. “Tell me you aren’t worried about him going out there alone?”

“Yes, I am,” Ben agreed. As Adam began to look vindicated, Ben added, “But no more worried than I am whenever you boys go off to do something alone. That’s part and parcel of being a parent, Adam. I’ve got to let you grow up, and that means allowing you to make your own decisions. Now, do you think you could make up with your brother when he gets back? Joe will be more than willing to meet you half way.”

Smiling, Adam nodded. “All right, Pa. I’ll apologies to Joe. I just forget sometimes that he is a grown up, because he acts so young!”

“Well, he is still young,” Ben reminded him. “And remember as well that he is not you. You each have a different way of working, because you are different people. That doesn’t necessarily mean one of you is right and the other is wrong.”

“I know,” replied Adam. “And thanks for the gentle reminder. I guess I needed it this time.”

Ben smiled at Adam. “We all need reminders sometimes,” he agreed.

*****

Hoss was soaked to the skin and chilled when he arrived home. “Sure is cold all of a sudden,” he commented as he came in. He went straight over to the fire and held out his frozen hands. “I see Joe ain’t back, yet. I hope he ain’t long, ‘cos it looks like there’s snow on the way.”

“Do you think so?” Ben asked, rising to go over to the door to peer out. He had a great respect for Hoss’ weather sense.

“Reckon so,” Hoss nodded. “I’m gonna git changed afore supper. Don’ worry, Pa, Joe’ll be back afore long.” He headed upstairs.

Putting down his book, Adam looked thoughtfully at his father. From long years of experience, he could see that Ben was worried about Joe. Adam wished that Hoss hadn’t said anything about the weather. Joe could take care of himself, and Ben knew that, but it wouldn’t stop him worrying. “Joe should be back soon,” he offered.

Coming in and closing the door, Ben nodded. “Yes, I’m sure he won’t be long,” he agreed. “But it is getting very cold out there. I think Hoss could be right. There may well be some snow tonight. But at least it won’t lie long at this time of year.”

“You hope,” Adam added, cynically. He wished instantly that he hadn’t said anything. A frown crossed Ben’s face.

“It’s a bad time of year to have this kind of weather,” he worried. “Let’s hope it is just an aberration.”

*****

Supper had been over for some time and still there was no sign of Joe. There was no pretence now of not worrying, for it had been snowing steadily for some time and there was a covering of white on the frozen ground.

“What’re we gonna do?” Hoss asked, at last. “Go out lookin’ fer him?”

“It would be too easy to miss him in this weather,” Ben replied, his tone grim. He wanted nothing more than to look for Joe, but he knew that in weather like this, it was all too easy for the rescuer to become the victim.

There was a sound from outside, and they rose as one and headed towards the door. Peering through the snow, they could see someone limping heavily into the yard, leading two limping horses. “Joe!” Ben cried, and hurried out to him.

“Sorry I’m late,” Joe slurred. He was exhausted, frozen, soaked and filthy; his trembling legs barely able to support him.

“Help me get him inside,” Ben ordered. “And get someone to tend to those horses!”

“I’m all right,” Joe protested. “I can do it.”

“I’ve got it,” Adam replied. He shouted to one of the hands to take the animals from him as he led them into the barn. By the lantern light in there, he saw that the pinto had a swollen fetlock and the mare had a gash on her flank. “Take good care of them,” Adam ordered Fred as he handed over the reins and hurried after his younger brother. He had no idea what had happened, and he wanted to find out.

As he went inside, Ben and Hoss were just lowering Joe onto the sofa. Adam saw Joe’s gun and hat were on the credenza. He went over in time to hear Ben exclaim as he got his first good look at his son’s condition.

The right-hand side of Joe’s upper body and all of his lower body was caked in mud and he was soaking. His hair was plastered to his head, and his boots squelched as he moved his feet. There were no obvious signs of blood, apart from a graze on his left hip. “Get a blanket!” Ben ordered and Hoss hurried away upstairs.

Helping Joe to pull off his filthy jacket, Ben asked, “What happened, Joe?”

“The snow hit us on the way back,” Joe answered, slowly. His words were still slurred, for he was shivering with cold. “The ground was wet, and Cochise slipped. Patch shied, and pulled him further off balance and the next thing I knew, all three of us were on the ground in the biggest mud puddle you ever saw.” Joe tried to laugh, but his teeth were chattering too hard to make the try successful.

“Are you hurt?” Ben asked, anxiously, crouching to pull off Joe’s wet boots and socks. He briskly rubbed Joe’s cold feet between his big, warm hands.

“No,” Joe replied, but a sudden chill shook him and he shuddered violently.

“Get him something warm to drink,” Ben told Adam, who hurried off to the kitchen. Hearing Hoss on the stairs, Ben urged, “Warm the blanket by the fire while I help Joe out of these wet things.”

When Adam came through from the kitchen carrying a mug of hot chocolate, Joe was wrapped warmly in the blanket. He took the mug in both hands, cradling the china so that the heat began to penetrate his cold flesh. He took a tentative sip and continued to shiver. “When you’re a bit warmer, we’ll get you into a bath,” Ben told Joe. “You’re filthy.”

Taking another sip of the warm drink, Joe simply nodded. He had his jaw firmly clenched so that his teeth didn’t chatter. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he had been that cold. He hadn’t told Ben the half of why he was so dirty and the horses were lame. He’d neglected to mention that the mud ‘puddle’ they had fallen into was about 6 feet below the track they had been on at the time! Joe shivered again, and not just from the cold this time. Ben crowded in beside his son, adding his body heat.

After about an hour, Joe’s shivering was practically stopped. Adam went to organize the bath, for as Joe warmed up, the mud dried. “Its ready,” Adam reported, coming back into the room.

Helping Joe to his feet, Ben was worried to see that his son was still limping. “I thought you said you weren’t hurt?” he demanded, worry roughening his tone.

“I’m just stiff,” Joe replied, for he was indeed stiff. But the hip where he had been nipped was sore, too, probably from the mud oozing into it. Joe was feeling incredibly tired now that he was warm again, but he had no intention of telling Ben the full story of his accident. He allowed his father to help him to the bath, and sank gratefully into the warm water.

He had no recollection of doing so, but Joe realized that he must have fallen asleep in the bath when he felt Ben grab his arm. “Come on, son,” Ben urged. “Let me help you get out.”

Groaning, Joe was glad of the help. Glancing down at his now-clean body, Joe saw that there were bruises growing everywhere. Worst, way and by far, was his left hip. Taking the towel Ben offered him, Joe saw that his father was assessing him critically. “I’ve seen enough bites to recognize one when I see it,” he informed Joe, dryly. “Was that a little love-token from Patch or Satan?”

Smiling tiredly, Joe admitted, “Satan. He was jealous that I was taking Patch back.”

“Oh, Joseph!” Ben scolded, but he couldn’t help but smile. “Let’s get you to bed.”

“Sounds good to me,” Joe agreed, yawning widely.

*****

When Joe awoke next morning, he was immediately aware that it was late. The light was very bright, and Joe guessed that the sun was shining. He started to sit up and for a moment, his body rebelled. He groaned, but persevered, and by the time he was sliding out from under the covers, he had loosened up.

As he dressed, Joe wondered where his boots had got to. There was no sign of them in his room, even though he hunted for them. Shrugging, he elected to go downstairs in his socks, and made extra sure that he took his time and held the banister, as he didn’t want to add more bruises to his motley collection.

The big room downstairs was empty as Joe rounded the corner from upstairs and he glanced across at the clock to discover that it was almost 9.30.  But it was only as his eye fell on the view from the dining room window that Joe realized why it was so bright. The snow was still lying, and the sun was glittering on it. It created a stunning vista, but one that was not welcome at that time of the year.

As Joe limped his way across to the table, Ben appeared from the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee. He smiled when he saw Joe. “Well, good morning,” he said, cheerfully. “I thought you had decided to hibernate today!”

“I didn’t realize it was so late,” Joe apologized. “And look at the snow.”

“Yes,” Ben agreed, wryly. “Look at the snow.” He made a face. “Well, the good side is its beginning to melt already. The eaves were dripping when I went out to the barn.” He watched as Joe eased himself into his seat. “How are you feeling this morning? You look a bit sore.”

“It’s just this hip that hurts,” Joe explained. “The rest of me is all right now that I’m up and moving. I’m fine, Pa.” He glanced around as Hop Sing brought in some breakfast for him. “Thanks, Hop Sing. Err, have you seen my boots, Pa?”

“Boots in kitchen, drying out,” Hop Sing told him. “Boy get them later.” He pointed imperiously to the table. “You eat now!”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied, and helped himself. He was hungry, he now realized and his stomach rumbled loudly. Ben laughed.

******

The snow melted away and was soon forgotten as the ranch work swung into full production. Summer was the busy time and they worked steadily through calving, branding, haying and all the myriad jobs that needed to be done on the ranch. Joe and Adam had made up their quarrel and Joe was delighted to discover that Patch was indeed carrying her first foal. He was also vindicated, as the tri-colored mare settled down a tremendous amount and was an absolute pleasure to handle. Both Patch and Cochise recovered from their mishap quickly.

All too soon, summer was drawing to a close and first fall and then winter was upon them. It was a hard winter that year, with blizzard after blizzard sweeping in from the mountains. On the rare occasions they managed to get into town, they heard stories about unwary travelers being caught out by the weather and perishing.

When the next spring rolled around, the Cartwrights were still there, and had suffered less than some of their neighbors. They had had a few losses in the herd, but not much compared to some of the local ranchers. As the weather warmed, they were all caught up in the quickening tempo of nature’s rebirth.

One fine April morning, Joe went into the barn to discover that Patch had foaled through the night. He paused at the edge of the stall and looked at the foal slumbering by its mother’s feet. A thrill went through Joe and it wasn’t just the thrill of seeing new life.

Turning, Joe walked decorously out of the barn, then raced across the yard to the house. “Pa! PA!” He burst in through the door, as Ben hurried towards him, wondering what had got Joe so excited. “Pa, Patch has foaled. Quick, you’ve got to see this! Come on, hurry!”

“Slow down, boy,” Ben chided him gently. “We’ve all seen foals before.”

“Not like this one you haven’t,” Joe told him, practically dragging his father across to the barn. “Come on!” He slowed down once inside the barn and approached Patch cautiously. He knew how protective mares could be of new foals. “Look!” Joe’s voice was shot with triumph. “I told you it would be a great foal!”

Looking at the foal, Ben felt his heartbeat quicken. The foal was white at first glance; it was only when you looked closer that you could see that the ears were dark, and as it stretched out in its sleep, Ben could see that there was a dark pattern on its chest and flanks, too. “A Medicine Hat horse,” he breathed. “Joe, you’ve got a Medicine Hat!”

*****

Medicine Hat horses, prized for their rarity, were born approximately every 10,000 pinto horse births. Ben had seen one once before, a long time ago, and Joe, although he had heard of them, had never seen one. The foal, a colt, had dark eyes, with white skin around them, and was, Ben assured Joe, a War Bonnet Medicine Hat, the rarest of the lot. Medicine Hats were highly prized by some Indian tribes, including the Kiowa, of whom the Shoshone were an off-shoot.

For the first few days, the colt was the wonder of the ranch, but as the season got into full swing, the colt was mostly forgotten about and was treated just like all the other foals on the place. Joe did make a point of going to visit Patch and her foal every day, and soon Joe found that he had named the colt War Bonnet, as it seemed appropriate. He watched the colt grow tall and strong as the summer progressed. His experiment with Patch seemed to have worked, as she had become much nicer. Joe had bred her again after her foaling heat, but this time to the black stallion he kept solely for breeding, and the mare was in foal again.

By the time Patch dropped her second foal, War Bonnet was a yearling, tall and well grown, as many mustangs were by that age. Joe brought all the yearlings in, assessed them and decided which ones would be gelded, which sold, and which turned away for a while longer. War Bonnet, along with another few colts, was turned away. Joe had gelded them all except for War Bonnet. There was something very spectacular about the colt – not unlike his sire, Satan – and Joe hoped that in time, he might breed from him.

The next winter was mild and damp and there were a lot of diseases doing the rounds. The Cartwrights barely left the ranch at all, keeping well clear of the epidemics that swept through Virginia City and the Indian encampments. It was a long, insular time for them, and they were relieved when spring came round once more, and the epidemics died away.

That spring, Joe broke his foot. He had been working with some horses he was training as a team, and one of them, with some heavy horse blood in it, had stepped sharply onto his foot. He was working alone at the time, and it had taken some persuading to make the horse move off his foot. Several times, Joe thought it was on the point of moving, and then it resettled its weight, back onto Joe’s foot. Eventually, he got the horse to move and made his way home. By the time he got there, the foot had swelled and Joe soon found it immobilized in bandages.

Frustrated that he was unable to get about much, he spent a good bit of time with the now two year old colts that were in the home corral. Before long, Joe had them all standing while they were groomed and had their feet picked out, and by the time June was over, he had been able to have them shod. And unbeknownst to anyone else, he had had a bridle on War Bonnet.

As with any stallion, the trick was knowing how to handle them. A stallion is accustomed to fighting to be dominant, and to handle one well, you must be prepared for any eventuality. Joe was accustomed to handling stallions and had soon built up quite a rapport with War Bonnet. By the time Joe’s foot had healed – almost 2 months later – he had the young stallion accustomed to carrying a saddle, too.

Normally, Joe wouldn’t have broken a horse as young as two. He preferred to let them finish growing, as he’d seen too many horses broken down by being ridden too young. But at 2, War Bonnet stood 16hh, more than tall enough for Joe to think that he had done the majority of his growing. He was very strong, too and ready to learn.

The day he first mounted the young stallion, he had an audience, consisting of his father, brothers and most of the hands. For Joe was scorning the usual method of penning the horse in the chute, getting on there and then letting him go. Joe simply took the horse into corral, slipped on the saddle and bridle as he usually did, then slowly climbed onto War Bonnet’s back.

For one instant, the horse tensed and Ben drew in a sharp breath. Then Joe spoke quietly and reassuringly to the horse and touched his side gently with his heel. War Bonnet took a step forward, then another and within a short time, was obeying Joe’s commands.

“Well done, son!” Ben exclaimed as Joe dismounted and handed the horse over to one of the hands. “That was very impressive.”

“That’s a good way to work a horse,” Joe replied, smiling. “Time consuming, but it works.” He glanced proudly over his shoulder at the horse. “He’s really something, Pa.”

“Sure is,” Hoss agreed. Adam just nodded.

“You’ve done a wonderful job with him, Joe,” Ben praised. “I’m very proud of you!”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe replied. “I’d better go and rub him down.”  He headed off to the barn, but his triumph was tinged with disappointment that Adam had said nothing to him about War Bonnet. In fact, Adam mostly behaved as though the horse did not exist.

*****

With haying finally over, and round up still a few weeks ahead, Joe at last had the chance he’d been looking for to do some intensive riding of War Bonnet. Each day, he set out riding longer and longer distances, building up the horse’s stamina. War Bonnet was fast, like his sire and loved to run. He was an exhilarating ride.

*****

“Where are you going, Joe?” Adam asked, coming out of the barn and seeing Joe flinging the saddle onto War Bonnet.

“Wherever the wind takes me,” Joe replied, airily. He grinned at Adam over his shoulder.

“Have you finished your chores?” Adam demanded, ignoring this remark.

“Sure I have!” Joe snapped. “What, did you think I was playing hooky?” He sighed, trying to keep his temper. “You sure don’t trust me, big brother.”

“You spend so much time playing with that horse, that someone has to make sure you do your work first,” Adam snapped back.

“Well, thanks for the support,” grumbled Joe. “You’ve been down on War Bonnet since before he was born, and you’ve barely acknowledged he exists until now. What do you have against him?”

“I’ve got nothing against him, don’t be ridiculous,” replied Adam.

Joe was not put off. “You’re annoyed because my experiment worked, aren’t you?” He studied Adam more closely. “That’s it, isn’t it? You disapproved of what I wanted to do and now that the proof is in front of you, you don’t like it, do you? Well, too bad, big brother. You can’t be right all the time.”

Ignoring this last crack, Adam stalked wordlessly across the yard. Joe’s mocking laughter could be heard behind him. The usually cool and reserved Adam Cartwright slammed the front door behind him as Joe rode away.

*****

It was too warm to let the horse run a lot that day. Joe found himself riding along on a loose rein while both he and the horse enjoyed the sunshine. War Bonnet had settled into a good mount, spirited but good mannered. He was still inclined to be restless if made to stand still too long, but Joe could sympathies with that.

From the hillside above Joe came a war whoop and he glance over his shoulder in surprise as about a dozen Indians appeared from the trees, all racing towards him. Joe clapped his heels into War Bonnet’s side, and the horse broke into a gallop.

Flattening himself out along the horse’s neck as best he could, Joe thought how lucky it was that he hadn’t been racing his horse that day, because it meant that War Bonnet could easily outrun the chasing group.

But Joe hadn’t reckoned on the accuracy of one of the braves. The first arrow struck him in the thigh; the second hit in his shoulder. Joe lurched in the saddle, clutching the saddle horn to prevent himself falling. War Bonnet, confused by his rider’s signals, slowed into a trot, then a standstill. Joe was barely aware of what was going on; he was trying desperately not to lose consciousness. The next thing he knew, he was surrounded by angry Indians.

One of them took the horse’s rein, while another bound Joe’s hands to the saddle horn. A strip of cloth was bound around his eyes and another over his mouth, and then he felt the horse beneath him start to move. Pain flared through his shoulder and thigh before Joe slipped into darkness.

*****

“That’s Little Joe!” Fred exclaimed and drew his gun.

“Don’t be stupid!” Dave snapped at him, grabbing Fred’s arm before he could fire. “How are the two of us gonna git Joe from all them Injuns? Come on, we’d better go tell Mr. Cartwright!”

Together, the two cowboys galloped back to the ranch. As they clattered into the yard at high speed, Adam came out, but the reprimand he was about to give them died on his lips as Dave shouted, “Little Joe has been taken by Injuns!”

“What Indians?” Adam demanded. Fear spiked through his gut.

“Shoshone,” Fred replied, and Dave nodded. “He got hit by an arrow here, and here.” He pointed to the places on his own body. “There weren’t nothin’ we could do, Mr. Adam. There were too many of ‘em.”

“Fire three shots,” Adam told them. “Pa and Hoss have only just left a few minutes ago. I’ll saddle my horse.” He hurried into the barn as Dave fired the three shots that the Cartwrights used as their distress signal.

*****

The ride seemed to go on and on to Joe. He tried very hard to stay in the darkness, where there was no pain, but the constant jogging of the horse brought him back to hellish wakefulness and kept him there. The Indians round him spoke no words that he understood, and blindfolded as he was, Joe had no way to tell where they were going.

Eventually, they arrived at their destination. Joe had been smelling fires and cooking for a while and now he heard murmurs as they drew to a stop. He knew that they had arrived at the camp. Rough hands untied Joe and dragged him carelessly from the saddle. Joe was glad of the gag in his mouth, so that he didn’t cry out in pain.

The blindfold and gag were ripped off abruptly and Joe winced away from the light. When his sight cleared, he was looking directly into the face of the chief of the Shoshone, Running Wolf. Joe swallowed against the dryness in his mouth, fighting not to lick his parched lips. He knew who Running Wolf was, although he did not know the chief. The Cartwrights lived in peace with the Shoshone, but they were not particularly friendly with them. Joe couldn’t imagine what they wanted with him. Why had they shot him? he wondered. And why had they brought him back here, where everyone was looking at him angrily. Had he somehow violated some unknown taboo?

“Where white man get horse?” Running Wolf demanded.

“Horse?” Joe panted. He didn’t understand this at all. “He’s mine.”

“Where you get him?” the chief asked again, and one of the braves shook Joe. He couldn’t prevent a groan from escaping.

“I …I bred him,” Joe gasped. He suddenly remembered that the Shoshone revered Medicine Hat horses.

“The pale face lies,” one of the braves suggested. “He stole horse.”

“He carries my mark,” Joe insisted, gulping for air. The pain was coming in waves now. “He is mine.”

“We will see,” Running Wolf said. He gestured to the braves. “Take him to the medicine man and treat his injuries. Then we will see.”

Joe had no idea what they would see, but he was all for his injuries being treated. He bit his lip as his injured leg dragged over the ground, but the medicine man’s tepee wasn’t far away, and he was dropped unceremoniously on the ground inside.

Looking up, Joe saw a middle-aged man, clearly powerful. He gestured and the braves held down Joe’s arms and legs. He couldn’t stop the yell of pain as the first arrow was pulled brutally from his flesh. As the next one was grasped, Joe passed out.

*****

The group from the Ponderosa followed Fred and Dave as they led the others to where they had last seen Joe. Hoss dismounted and studied the signs on the ground. “They rode off that way,” he told his father, pointing. “An’ there’s some blood on the ground, here.” He indicated the few drops of blood.

“Lead the way,” Ben replied. His face was tight with worry. “Keep alert,” Ben advised the men, “But don’t draw your gun unless I say so. For whatever reason, they have Joe and we don’t want them to kill him.”

There were murmurs of assent from all around. Most of the men knew Joe well. They were almost as worried as Ben was

“I don’t understand why the Shoshone took Joe,” Adam complained to Ben. Adam had been tight-lipped since Joe disappeared. “This is not their land, and the boys said he did nothing to provoke them.”

Biting his lip, Ben hesitated before mentioning his theory. “Could it be the horse?” he asked, tentatively.

“Horse?” Adam repeated.

“Not Cochise,” Ben responded. “You know Joe’s riding War Bonnet. You told me yourself. He’s a Medicine Hat.” Seeing the non-comprehension on his son’s face, he added, “The Indians prize them very highly. They are considered sacred in some tribes. Perhaps they thought he was violating some custom, or maybe they thought he had stolen it.” Ben fought to control the shudder that ran down his spine again. Adam said nothing, digesting this information.

“We’ll have to be very, very careful,” Ben muttered, finally. He sent a silent prayer winging heavenwards as they rode along.

*****

Pain was the first thing Joe became aware of as he regained consciousness. He lay for a few moments with his eyes shut, listening to the sounds around him. He was lying on a soft fur, and there was someone moving around nearby. Although his shoulder and leg still hurt, they were less sore than they had been when he passed out. As Joe tentatively tried to move, he realized that his hands were tightly bound in front of him.

His movement had attracted attention, and as his eyes slit open, the medicine man that he had seen before came into his line of vision. “So you are awake,” he stated, flatly. “You are stronger than you look.” Kneeling beside Joe, he lifted his head and gave him something to drink.

The water was cool, refreshing and more than welcome. “Thank you,” Joe croaked. He glanced down at himself, seeing that his left pant leg had been ripped off, and his shirt and jacket were gone. A rough bandage was round his thigh and another one on his shoulder.

In one smooth movement, and with no warning, the medicine man pulled Joe to his feet and dragged him over to the flap in the tepee. Joe struggled with dizziness and weakness, but managed to stay on his feet. He knew how much the Indians valued stoicism, and guessed that his passing out earlier had reduced their respect for him.

War Bonnet was hitched to a post in the middle of the camp. His saddle and bridle were gone and he wore a halter made of rawhide. His ears pricked as he saw Joe, and a whicker escaped him. “Easy, fella,” Joe crooned, as he was dragged past.

“Do not speak to the great one, pale face,” the medicine man chided him. “You dirty him with your foul speech.”

Not understanding, Joe looked at him. “You speak good English,” he complimented.

Ignoring his captive, the medicine man nodded to two braves. He spoke in his own language and Joe began to struggle as he was manhandled over to another post. One of the braves untied his hands, while the other held a knife to his throat. Joe’s wrists were bound to a peg above his head and the rawhide tied around the post itself. The wound on Joe’s shoulder instantly sprang to agonizing life. His leg was already shaking underneath him. A gag was shoved in his mouth and he was left alone.

*****

Darkness fell, and the Cartwrights were forced to make camp. They had no idea how close they were to finding Joe. There had been no smell of smoke on the air, and they didn’t light a fire themselves. They did not want to alert any scouts to their presence if they could help it.

The night passed undisturbed, but none of the Cartwrights slept for more than a few minutes.

*****

Morning found Joe tied to the post in the middle of the camp once more. He had been left there for most of the previous evening, for reasons he couldn’t comprehend, then cut down and taken to a tepee, where he was tied up and left alone for the night. Exhausted by his ordeal and the blood loss, Joe had fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep. He still felt incredibly shaky and his injuries burned unmercifully, but he was determined to face whatever it was the Indians had in mind.

Running Wolf Came from his tepee and walked slowly over to Joe. He looked for a long time into the white man’s face, and Joe kept his gaze level, never letting his eyes drop, and trying not to appear too challenging. Finally, the chief spoke. “Where did you get sacred horse?” he asked.

“He’s mine,” Joe replied, slowly. “I bred him. He bears my mark.”

The chief nodded. A moment later a whip bit into Joe’s back and a cry escaped his lips.  Panting, he raised his head and looked at the chief. “I bred him,” he repeated. “His sire and his dam belong to me!”

He was braced for the whip-stroke this time, but it didn’t hurt any the less for having his muscles tightened. No cry got past his lips that time, but it took him longer to get his head up. “He’s mine,” Joe repeated. Again the whip bit into his back.

There was no way for Joe to tell how long this went on. After a time, he was no longer able to speak, but he dragged his head up and mouthed ‘mine’. The chief turned away and Joe gratefully leant against the post.

A sudden commotion broke out in the camp and Joe raised his head to peer at the fracas. He was astounded, and judging by the reactions of the people around him, they were astounded, too, for the chief and the medicine man were fighting each other.

The shouting in the camp grew louder as the fight went on, but it seemed to Joe that the medicine man was winning. There was a sudden flash of steel and the chief crumpled to the ground, his hands clutched around a knife that was buried hilt-deep in his stomach. Running Wolf tried to speak, but only a gush of bright red blood came out of his mouth. The light went out of his eyes, and he was gone.

As the tribe gaped in disbelief, the medicine man drew another knife from his clothing and darted to Joe’s side. Dragging the young man’s head back by the hair, he put the knife to Joe’s throat and shouted something. One brave looked like he might object to whatever it was, but after a burning look from the medicine man, he backed down.

Another brave broke from the ranks of the people and went to fetch War Bonnet. The horse pranced nervously, upset by the smell of blood. “Now, white man, you will give the horse to me, or I will cut your throat,” the medicine mad declared.

Unable to see his tormentor, Joe swallowed convulsively. He knew he had no choice. No horse was worth dying for. Yet the words stuck in his throat, the pain blocking them. The Indian nicked his throat with the knife and Joe felt the blood trickle down his neck, to pool in the hollow by his collarbone.

“Take it and be damned!” he whispered.

The knife eased away from his flesh, although Joe’s head was still dragged back at a painful angle. His abused back began to throb again as the more serious threat eased. Joe gulped in a mouthful of air, looking at his horse with deep regret.

Next moment, there was a shot and a band of white men rode into the camp. The braves were for once caught unawares, all their attention focused on the struggle between their chief and medicine man over a horse. War Bonnet reared, pulled the halter rope from the hands of the man holding him, and fled.

With an incoherent cry of rage, the medicine man yanked Joe’s head further back, almost cutting off the youth’s air. The knife came up once more, but this time Joe was not alone. Another shot rang out and the medicine man jerked, then slid slowly to the ground, his fingers still tangled in Joe’s hair. For an agonizing moment, Joe was hauled back by the weight, unable to breathe, then gravity prevailed and the fingers slid free. Joe slumped forward against the post, gasping for breath, his heart hammering erratically.

As his breathing eased, Joe became aware of the fighting around him. Lifting his head, he saw that the Ponderosa men were winning. Ben, Adam and Hoss were all fighting their way towards him. Joe’s knees suddenly felt weak and he hoped he would not fall. His hands were sore enough without adding his bodyweight to them.

A few moments later and the fighting was over. Ben hurried to Joe’s side, Adam and Hoss just a step behind. “Joe, are you all right?” Ben asked, running his hands down his son’s face.

“Pa,” he whispered, unable to lie and say he was all right, for Joe doubted that his legs would hold him for another moment. As Adam sliced through the ropes that bound him to the pole, Joe found himself collapsing to the ground. Ben and Hoss both reached out to catch him and Joe let out a cry of pain before sinking into welcome blackness.

*****

Rising before dawn that morning, Ben, Hoss and Adam had found it difficult to force down their cold rations. They were on the trail the moment the light was good enough and after traveling for less than half an hour, they could all distinctly smell wood smoke. They picked up the pace then, knowing they were close.

Bursting into the camp, they had already been aware of the uproar and were shocked to see the body of the chief lying on the ground. But there had only been one thought in Ben’s mind, and that was to get Joe away from the Indian who had a knife to his throat. When the opportunity presented itself, Ben had fired, hitting the Indian under his arm. It had taken a few more moments for him to reach Joe’s side, but the relief at finding his son alive had quickly turned to fear as Joe collapsed in his arms.

“We’ve got to get him home,” Ben said, urgently. Joe was cradled in his father’s arms, resting on his stomach, so as not to further injure his back. He glanced around. “Find out what went on here, and see if they have a travois we can have. Someone must speak English.” He glanced at the dead Indian lying beside him, then looked away.

A few moments later; Adam came back with a brave that Ben thought he recognized. “I am son of Running Wolf,” he announced, gesturing to the dead chief. “He and Red Feather argued over who should have the sacred horse. The white man said the horse was his. Red Feather killed my father.”

“Where is the horse now?” Adam asked, looking around.

“It ran away,” the brave told him. “Our chief is avenged.” He hunted for the words and found them. “Thank you.”

“Who will be chief now?” Hoss asked.

“I,” the brave replied. “I did not wish this to happen.” He gestured towards Joe, who was now groaning as he approached consciousness again.

“I understand,” Ben told him, realizing that the young man was trying to apologies.

Nodding, seeing that he had been understood and that things were all right between them, he shouted a command and a few minutes later a fur-covered travois appeared, hitched to an Appaloosa pony. As Ben and Hoss lifted Joe onto it, Adam was given his brother’s shirt, jacket and gun belt. Within another few minutes, the Ponderosa crew were mounted and ready to leave.

As the travois pulled out, Ben glanced back at the young brave. “Good luck,” he said, gravely.

“May the Great Spirit be with you,” the brave replied, and they nodded to each other.

*****

It took them all day to get home. Ben sent one of the men off to get the doctor, and since they didn’t have to follow a trail, they were able to cut a lot of time off the return journey. Joe drifted in and out of consciousness throughout. He was running a temperature, and Ben didn’t know if it was the result of the latest abuse his body had suffered, or the start of an infection in the arrow wounds he had received the previous day.

They arrived back at the house as dusk fell. Paul Martin’s buggy was already in the yard and as Adam and Hoss carried Joe inside, he appeared at the top of the stairs and cried, “Up here, boys,” before disappearing from sight again.

A single look at the exhausted family told Paul all he needed to know. “You people go and eat your supper and I’ll be down as soon as I can. Don’t bother arguing with me, because I can see you are all worn out and haven’t eaten all day. Now, go on. Joe and I can manage here.”

There was a tired chuckle from the bed, which did much to reassure the others and they reluctantly left. Paul bent over the bed, feeling the heat coming from Joe, but pleased to see that he was awake and aware. “How are you feeling, Joe?” he asked. “And don’t say fine.”

Again there was the tired chuckle. “Thirsty,” Joe replied, his voice low and hoarse. Smiling, Paul set about remedying that.

After a thorough examination, Paul smiled down at Joe. “You’ve been lucky, young man,” he told him. “Apart from the fact the surgery to remove those arrows was quite crude, there isn’t any infection present, which is good news. The bad news is that leg needs stitches, as does the shoulder. I’m going to put some salve on your back and bandage it up and in a few weeks, you won’t know anything had happened to you.”

“Do it,” Joe murmured. He winced as Paul shot some morphine into his backside, but the drug soon worked and Joe slumbered throughout the time it took to stitch and bandage him up.

Downstairs, Paul accepted a cup of coffee as he assured the others that Joe would be just fine and his fever was nothing to worry about. He got the story of what had happened, as far as they knew. He waited expectantly for a moment as the narrative drew to a close then asked, “What happened to the horse?”

“We haven’t seen hide nor hair of it since it ran off,” Ben replied. “I half expected War Bonnet to appear as we rode home, but there was nothing.”

“It’ll turn up,” Paul assured him. “Horses usually do.” He rose. “Well, I’m off. I don’t expect there to be any problems, but if there are, send for me. Night, everyone.”

As Paul left, Ben rose. “I’m going to sit with Joe,” he told them. “Why don’t you boys get some sleep?”

“I’ll come in later, Pa,” Adam offered. He watched as Ben climbed the stairs, then returned to staring into the fire.

“Spit it out,” Hoss said.

Starting, Adam looked at his brother. “What?”

“I said, spit it out,” Hoss repeated. “I can see there’s somethin’ botherin’ ya, so spit it out.”

“Its something Joe said,” Adam sighed. “Just before he left yesterday. He accused me of being annoyed that his experiment worked. We had words before that, but you know what, Hoss? He was right. I was furious that Joe had been proved right and that Patch and Satan had proved such a good match.”

“We all knew that, Adam,” Hoss informed him, gravely. “Ya never said that horse’s name. Joe was real hurt. He wanted ya ta say ya was proud o’ him, but ya never did. That’s why ya argued.”

“I was proud of him,” Adam replied. “I was, underneath the jealousy. I still am. I would never have thought of pairing those two horses and Joe did and not only was the colt nice, it was a Medicine Hat horse. How could I not be jealous?”

“It ain’t easy,” Hoss remarked, philosophically. “Joe allus seems ta have it all, don’t he? Good looks, charm, and a way with horses. Don’t seem fair, somehow, do it? But look at what he has ta put up with.” Hoss hooked Adam’s dark gaze with his guileless blue eyes. “He sure is accident prone, ain’t he? Cain’t hardly have a season go by, but what Joe hurts hisself. But he don’t complain, none, Adam. I don’ know if’n Joe sees it this way, but I reckons that he jist accepts it as payment for the gifts he’s got.” Nodding, Hoss sighed. “Joe’s real special, seems to me, an’ it’s hard to accept sometimes. But ya know what, Adam?”

“What?” Adam asked.

“Pa loves all o’ us jist the way we is. It don’t matter ta him that we ain’t like each other. I ain’t the beauty o’ the family, but it don’ matter. I know I’m a nice person, an’ that’s what counts. Ya know what ya are, Adam. Ya don’t need ta be jealous o’ Joe. Ya got lots goin’ fer ya, too.”

Regarding his big little brother fondly, Adam smiled. “Hoss, you’re not only a nice person, but you are the wisest man I know, apart from Pa. As always, when I’ve got myself into a corner, you come along and help me out. Thank you.”

Blushing, Hoss replied, “Ah, ya don’ need ta thank me, Adam. I’m yer brother. I love ya whatever ya do, even when ya behave like a jerk.”

Smiling through the tears that sprang to his eyes, for Adam cherished Hoss’ words, he mumbled, “Thanks.”

Grinning back, Hoss saw that he had found the words necessary to prevent Adam eating his heart out over the episode and deciding in the end that it was all his fault. “I’m goin’ ta bed,” he yawned. “Wake me when ya gits tired.”

“I will,” Adam promised, rising to go to bed, too. He felt a lot lighter and knew he would sleep well that night.

*****

Next morning, Joe was looking much better and he filled his family in on the things that had happened to him before they arrived. “I didn’t understand why they kept asking who War Bonnet belonged to,” Joe explained. “Until one of the braves suggested that I stole him.”

“Huh?” Hoss grunted. “What’d he mean?”

“I think he thought I’d killed someone to get him,” Joe replied. “What I never figured out was why Red Feather killed Running Wolf.” Adam had told him the medicine man’s name.

“They both wanted the horse,” Ben told him. “Traditionally, only a great warrior or shaman can ride a Medicine Hat horse. They thought you had killed a chief and stolen him.”

“Where is War Bonnet now?” Joe asked.

“He hasn’t been seen since he ran away from the camp,” Adam told him. Joe frowned. “He’ll probably turn up,” Adam assured him. “Horses usually do.”

*****

Later, when they were alone, Adam turned to Joe. “I’ve got to apologies for the way I behaved over War Bonnet,” he began. “I was down on you and the horse right from the word go. I’m sorry. I should’ve trusted your judgment.”

“That’s all right,” Joe replied, embarrassed.

“No, its not,” Adam went on. “Joe, I’m not sure I can explain this properly, but I’ll try. You see, ever since you found Satan, all those years ago, I’ve been afraid.”

“Afraid? You? Why?” Joe gasped.

“I’ve been afraid for your life, buddy.” Adam shook his head. “I know that you could handle Satan, after a fashion, but I’ve always been afraid that he would turn on you and that this time, you wouldn’t get away. We all know the risks with wild horses, but you had that horse almost tame, and I’ve always feared that one day, the temptation would get too strong and you’d try to ride him again, and this time he’d kill you. And somehow, the fact that you were right about Patch and Satan got all mixed up with the arrival of the foal and the fact that he was a Medicine Hat horse just seemed to rub my nose in it.

“Its just crazy, I guess, but I was jealous of the horse.”

For a moment, Joe just lay there, looking at Adam. “I know that breaking a horse like Satan is a chance you’d never take,” Joe admitted. “But we’re different people, Adam. Sure, we do have the same ideas about some things, but we’re different. I take risks, because that’s the way I am. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I had a more settle childhood than you. Perhaps it’s because we have different mothers; perhaps there isn’t really another reason to find. I guess I knew that you worried about me seeing Satan. I had hoped to get one of his colts that was as special as he was. And I did.” He shook his head. “You have nothing to apologies for. Isn’t that what big brothers do? Look out for their younger brothers?”

Smiling, Adam nodded. “I guess so,” he admitted. He ran his thumb down Joe’s cheek. “And sometimes, the younger ones look out for the older ones, too.”

The apology made, accepted and, in the long run, unnecessary, Adam found that he was no longer upset by Joe’s connection to the big skewbald stallion and Joe found that he understood his brother’s protective urges that caused him to disapprove of actions he thought were too risky.

*****

Joe soon recovered from his ordeal and was back to his usual self, filled with boundless energy and cheeky enough to make his family want to throttle him at least once a day.

*****

They never saw War Bonnet again.

But the Shoshone talked of the big white Sacred Horse that roamed the shores of Lake Tahoe.

***End***

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