Summary: Joe can’t help showing off, carrying the mail for the Pony Express. But he’d never do it if Pa were watching….A missing scene for “Ride the Wind.”
Rated: K+ (1,850 words)
A Missing Scene from “Ride the Wind”
Joe loved riding into Virginia City the most.
His heart tripped faster when he heard the cries of “Express Rider coming!” and saw neighbors and friends lining the wooden sidewalks as he raced his pony toward the relay station. He couldn’t help but show off a little, in a professional way, when he made the switch from his spent pony to the fresh mount he would ride for the next ten miles of his route. If the relay station wrangler was savvy, Joe would do a running vault-mount—the smoothest and fastest change of horses, one that any other Express Rider would envy. The stunt was showy, fast, and, given the half-wild racing ponies the Express provided, dangerous. Joe loved doing it, especially if there was a pretty girl standing with the crowd.
He didn’t want his father to see him do it, though. Pa’d had a hard enough time swallowing his objections to Joe signing on to the Pony Express; he’d hate seeing his youngest son risking his neck just to shave seconds off the mail schedule.
And so he’d scan the street as he rode into town. If his father or brothers cheered from their usual spot, between the Mercantile and the Silver Dollar, he would jump off running and put all his skill into tossing the mail pouches—the mochila—onto the new saddle. He’d content himself with a simple swing mount onto the fresh horse standing at the rail, and toss his family a wave as he rode out of town.
If he didn’t see their familiar figures, however, he would whistle to the wrangler to run the fresh horse out into the street. Quick as lightning, he’d grab the running horse, let his feet bounce off the ground, flinging his legs up into a flying vault. All he had to do was hang on, swing his hips at the right moment, and he’d be halfway out of town as his backside dropped solidly into the saddle. He loved hearing the cheers and whoops as he rode out of town. His grin wouldn’t fade for the next two miles.
But he would never try it if Pa was around.
“What happened to you, young fella?” Ben asked curiously, crouching down next to a slender youngster near the International House. The young boy was craning his neck, straining to see down the crowded street as best he could. His gaze was hampered by his bandaged shoulder and arm, which rested in a complicated sling that strapped his arm tight against his chest. He looked to be about twelve years old.
Like everyone else within earshot, Ben had hurried out of the Hotel to watch the Express Rider tear through town. The cry of “Rider coming!” still caused most folks to drop what they were doing and step into the street, even though the Pony Express had been running for several months. Ben always rushed to watch if he was in town, hoping to catch a glimpse of Joe.
The young man shifted his sling disgustedly.
“Oh, I was practicing a pony express vault, and I come off my horse,” he said, kicking at the tie-rail. “Four weeks I have to wear this, the doc says. Four weeks!”
“That’s too bad,” Ben said, eyes twinkling a little. The boy’s sulky pout at the injustice of doctors reminded him of Joe. “What did you say you were practicing?”
“You know, the fancy mount the Express Riders do,” the boy said impatiently. “Only the best riders can do it. They change horses slick as you please, and their feet barely touch the ground. I was trying it with Lightning, that’s my horse, but I must’ve raked him with my spurs, ’cause instead of going into a run he commenced to buckin’ and I never had a chance.”
They could hear the cheering start further down the street. On-lookers pushed forward, and Ben put out a hand to keep the young boy steady as they were jostled by the crowd.
They could all hear the hoof beats now, and in seconds, the rider came into view. With a glad leap of his heart, Ben recognized the rider.
“It’s Joe Cartwright!” the boy next to him exclaimed. “Now you’ll see, mister! Nobody does it like him!”
Ben craned his own neck to get one of the few glimpses he’d had of his youngest son since he left home a few weeks ago. As he leaned forward, he felt Hoss join him, his solid shoulder brushing against his father’s.
“There he is, Pa!” Hoss said in a low voice. “You been missin’ Joe something fierce; now you’ll see he’s all right.”
Hoss hadn’t said it, but his overly-soothing tone made it clear: I’ve been cranky as an old bear, worrying about Joe, Ben realized.
Joe streaked past the Hotel and around the corner, low against his horse’s neck and swift as a swooping hawk. He turned his head toward the Silver Dollar. Ben, standing on the opposite side of the street, raised his hand, but Joe had passed them without seeing them.
“I purely do love to watch that boy ride,” Hoss murmured under his breath. Ben smiled.
As he approached the relay station, Joe let out a piercing whistle, and an expectant murmur ran through the watching crowd. The relay station wrangler grinned and whooped, leading the fresh horse into the middle of the street. The wrangler tossed the reins over its neck and began to run, starting the fractious horse moving. Joe pulled his horse back onto its haunches, its four feet skidding in the dirt. He swung his right leg over, grabbed the mochila with his right hand and hit the ground with both feet before the lathered horse was completely stopped. Then he was running, running to catch the wrangler with his new mount, who began running faster himself.
Joe caught up with the fresh horse easily, slung the mochila over the saddle, grabbed the saddle horn with both hands, and pulled up his bent legs. The wrangler released the fresh horse and jumped back.
The whites of the horse’s eyes showed as it bolted forward and slightly sideways as if to avoid the weight of the rider hanging entirely from the left side of the saddle. The crowd began to whoop, and the horse reached with its powerful legs, settling into an all-out gallop in just a few strides. As soon as the horse’s gait increased and steadied, Joe let his feet drop to the ground. His hands kept his upper body weight on the saddle, his feet hit the ground and bounced up, his body nearly horizontal as he swung into a vault. His legs bent and split and suddenly he was sitting low in the saddle, flashing a grin, and riding out of town before the last cheers died away.
Ben stood stock-still, staring down the street. Hoss, cheering just as loud as anyone, waved his hat with a flourish and turned to his father.
“Pa, wasn’t that just—” but he stopped short at the expression on his father’s face.
The sling-armed youngster bounced up and down at Ben’s side.
“See, mister! I told you! Woohee, if that ain’t the slickest, fastest, purtiest thing I ever did see!” The boy waved his good arm high above his head, and turned back to Ben, eyes sparkling with hero-worship. “Nobody does it like him!” The boy ran out into the street to catch the last sight of the express rider.
Ben glared at his middle son. “How long has Joseph been performing horseback acrobatics?”
“Now Pa, he’s just showin’ off a little,” Hoss said, trying for a calming tone. “It ain’t like he never done it before—”
“When has he ever done that before?” Ben’s voice was very deep, like distant thunderclouds.
“Pa, Little Joe knows what he’s doin’; he’s had lots of practice.” But that statement, meant to placate his father, had the opposite effect.
“What do you mean, he’s had lots of practice?” The thunderclouds rumbled closer.
Hoss laid a sympathetic hand on his father’s shoulder. “Pa, now just calm down. You know as well as I do, about the only thing Little Joe can’t do with a horse is carry it.”
The storm broke. “Hoss, my youngest son just took foolhardy risk, just threw himself through the air on a running horse—a horse he doesn’t even know!—and you want me to calm down?”
Hoss winced. “Now, Pa, you can be as mad as you like at Joe, but he ain’t gonna know about it, and even if he did, he’s got a job to do. He can’t even slow down enough to yell ‘sorry’ his next time through town, so it ain’t gonna do anyone any good you gettin’ so mad about a little showin’ off.”
The convoluted truth of this struck Ben. Joe was doing a job, a job Ben was beginning to hate, if he was truthful with himself. He had taught his sons the importance of keeping commitments, of finishing what they started. “But I never taught them to do their jobs by leaping onto running horses,” he muttered.
“What’s that, Pa?” Hoss said. “I didn’t catch what you said.”
Ben just shook his head. Joe had looked very slight against the powerful flanks of the pony. If he’d made the slightest miscalculation, the least mistake in timing—
“I didn’t like watchin’ it the first time I seen it,” Hoss admitted. “But he’s a professional rider, Pa. And he’s so dad-blamed good at it, I nearly bust my buttons tellin’ everyone ‘that’s my little brother!’”
Ben pulled his eyes away from the dust settling on C Street—the only sign remaining of Joe’s passing.
“Well, I don’t like it!” Ben said. “I will never like it!” He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes for a moment. He thought about the look on Joe’s face when he talked about riding for the Express. “But this is what he wants to do, what he’s committed to do.”
“And you are right, Hoss,” he added, and it was as if the words were being pulled out of him, “he is so very good at it.”
Hoss stepped closer, and placed a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Well, it could be worse, Pa.”
Ben looked at Hoss, startled. “What do you mean, it could be worse?”
“It could be me trying them quick-mounts!” Hoss said. “Think of the vet bills for all them foundered horses! The Express’d go bankrupt in two weeks!”
Ben laughed, grateful for Hoss’ understanding.