Slack Reins (by DBird)

Summary: The Cartwrights struggle to come to terms with tragedy.  

Rated: K+ (3,265 words)


Slack Reins


The wind was warm across his face. The whole world smelled like sunshine and horse sweat, and that was exactly how he liked it. Riding so fast. Joe didn’t rely on the reins; he held them loose and leaned in the direction he wanted to go. A little pressure from his heels to the pinto’s flanks, and lo and behold, they were back on course. Would there ever be such a glorious day? Would there ever be a finer horse than this? This was all he’d ever wanted. It was all he’d ever asked for. He’d give everything to live this day again and again.

He rode up the trail alongside a steep boulder-strewn ledge. Chaparral and scrub rustled in the breeze, and Joe leaned back as far as he could, keeping his body loose and easy in the saddle. It was possible to keep a slack rein and still have control because his horse wanted the same things he did. It took trust to let go, but Joe didn’t mind. The pinto was a beauty, but more importantly, he had a good mind. Cochise helped him do the impossible and look good at the same time. Best horse he’d ever thrown a leg over. It was a privilege to know a horse like that once in a lifetime, but Joe was only eighteen and was already luckier than most. He’d had more privileges than most young men his age, but when it came to horses, he knew how to appreciate a good thing when he saw it. Joe wasn’t spoiled, even if he had been called that by many who were envious of the way he lived his life. It was who he was. Little Joe Cartwright. Couldn’t have given up the pleasure of a good horse on a sunny day, any more than he could have cut out his own heart with a pocketknife. Joe was born to sit in a saddle. 

Most cowboys were unsophisticated riders, more concerned with getting the job done than getting to know the heart of a horse. But Joe had been taught to ride by the Paiute boys he’d known as a boy, back when the tribes lived just outside the Ponderosa. Lord bless them, those boys knew how to ride! Adam and Hoss had believed they’d taught him, but everything dangerous, Little Joe learned from his Indian friends. By the time he was ten years old, he’d learned how to catch feral mustangs on the plains. Typically, they caught the wild horses in spring when they were all tuckered out from winter. Wild mustangs were a real pain to catch and even harder to tame. The tall tales told about Indians blowing into a mustang’s nose to gentle it were just that – tall tales. The truth was a whole lot more interesting. Yet, anything worth having was worth working for. His pa had taught him that. As a boy, Joe had spent hours working with those wild horses, and they’d become a part of them. Riding fast was like breathing. He knew he’d never be able to live without it. They’d raced across fields of wild grasses, dotted with morning glories and asters. 

He was leaving the forest, but the wind still carried the drift of cedar and pine. Clouds rolled over the mountains, gathering. He figured they’d hold off until he made it home. Joe Cartwright may have been young, but he knew how to pay attention.

Oh, but he was riding fast! His pinto was anything but feral, but Joe could always perceive the wild in a horse. His brothers said he was still half-wild, himself, and wasn’t that the truth? He was supposed to be a man and had certainly taken on a man’s responsibilities, and yet, he remembered the joy of being a boy. That’s how he wanted to live his life. Thank God he lived in a land without fences.

A tight turn was coming up. Joe leaned into it from the rear and nudged his horse forward into the bridle. Almost immediately, he could feel the pinto give to his hand. They were on a rolling gait that matched the beating of his heart in steady rhythm. It was a perfectly executed turn, but that’s when he saw it. A rattler on the road. Joe was riding so fast, he couldn’t react in time. He tried to turn his horse, but it was too late.

Cochise startled at the rattlesnake. The horse lurched forward, then reared and bucked, coming to a sliding stop, even as the snake slithered away into the scrub. Joe could have stayed on if he’d grabbed for the reins, but he didn’t want to hurt the pinto’s mouth. So he made a grab for the mane instead, but it was no good and he was worked up out of the saddle. Even as he made a final grab to stay on, he was too high and was hurtled clear over the pinto’s head. He landed on the ground so hard, he couldn’t breathe although he could feel blood pooling in his mouth, running into his eyes. The pinto did the best that he could to get out of the way and reared back, but his front hoof stumbled and gauged a rut in Joe’s leg, breaking it at the same time. Almost apologetically, Cochise was calming quickly, and stood nearby, tapping his hoof and blowing. It was over.

But Joe was lying still, raw and bleeding on the stony ground. Geese honked in the distance, and a squirrel scattered from a nearby boulder. Almost idly, Joe wondered if he was broken inside. His entire body was shaking, and he tried to sit up but just couldn’t do it. The pinto didn’t bolt but stayed in place, as if ground-tied.

Joe whispered to his horse, “Good boy. You’re all right, now.”

He found himself closing his eyes, even though he wanted to keep an eye on his horse. It was no good going to sleep when he ought to get home. He’d already been too long gone. Pa would be mad, and his brothers would have to do his chores. He should have been in more pain than he was. He couldn’t think straight. His thoughts were all mixed up in his head. It was looking pretty bad, but it had been worth it. Joe closed his eyes to a fine day. Oh, sweet Lord, he’d had a good ride.


They found him too late or just in time, depending on how you looked at it.

For days, they’d taken turns sitting beside his bed, simply waiting. None of them actually talked about what they were waiting for. Ben stayed during the day when Adam and Hoss went to work, but in the evenings, they all sat together in Joe’s room. Hop Sing brought up their supper on a tray, and they ate beside him. They’d never seen Joe lie so still. He’d always been a boy who needed to keep moving. His brothers wondered privately if he was sleeping or if he really wasn’t there anymore. They would not say anything like that to their pa. 

To pass those long nights, they told stories. This particular night was no exception. First, they shared about their day, peppering the conversation with details they thought Joe might appreciate if he happened to be listening. After a while, Ben talked about his years at sea, and Adam told Hoss stories of crossing the plains in a wagon train. Hoss never got tired of hearing about their journey west, so those stories seemed to go on the longest. 

There was much sadness, cold, and loss on that trip west, including things they never really talked about. Folks said that one out of every seventeen emigrants was buried alongside the Oregon Trail. There were plenty of terrible stories Adam could have told, stories his pa hadn’t been able to protect him from knowing about. Children caught and crushed under wagon wheels. Epidemics. Snake bites and stampedes. Skirmishes with the Indians. The terrible day that Inger died in their pa’s arms. But they didn’t want Joe to overhear those kinds of stories. Who would want to come back to a world where children died from a momentary oversight and mothers didn’t live to nurse their newborns? 

Instead, Adam told Hoss about dramatic prairie storms and fording rivers with the oxen and horses. Adam could remember pretending he was in his pa’s clipper when his own wagon made its successful crossing. Who could have been scared with Ben Cartwright at the helm? He told Hoss about playing games with the other children after supper and about sitting around a campfire, staring at more stars in one night sky than he’d ever seen since. They hadn’t had much, but the food they did have tasted better back then. Dried buffalo meat, beans, and camp-baked bread. They slept together under blankets, all huddled together. They could hear each other breathing all night. It was always cold once the sun went down, even in the middle of the summer. Ben and Adam shivered just talking about it but then remembered the present. It was too sad sitting there in that quiet room, thinking about the cold. So they kept talking.

They talked about Hoss as a baby. He had been a huge and healthy baby, robust and a solid eater. They didn’t bring up the fact that the infant might not have survived the journey if he hadn’t been so strong. Surely, Joe wouldn’t have made it if he’d been the one born on the trail… he had been too small and a poor eater. Adam carried Hoss everywhere, even though his arms ached at the end of the day. After all, he’d only been six years old, himself. Sometimes, he got so tired. Adam recalled the evening he climbed into a neighbor’s wagon with his newborn baby brother and took a nap, curled into the corner. It was so rare for Adam to not be where he supposed to be that the entire party was in a panic searching for the missing children, certain that somehow they’d been lost on the trail.

“We’d thought we lost both of you that day,” Ben mused with a soft smile, his eyes not drifting from Joe’s face. “Looked everywhere.”

“Was that before or after Ma died?” Hoss asked. He was sitting on the edge of his chair, wanting to be as close to his little brother as he could, but not knowing how to do it without hurting him. Cautiously, he rested his hand on Joe’s unbroken knee.

“After,” Ben and Adam chorused. They smiled at each other with some amusement and longstanding regret.

Adam explained. “Inger never let you out of her sight. She kept a pretty good eye on me as well. She’d have known where we were sleeping, even if no one else had even seen us leave the wagon.”

“I reckon that’s how it is with ma’s,” Hoss said, also smiling at the idea.

“Was Marie protective like that?” Adam asked as he finished off the last of his roast pork and gravy. “I don’t remember her following Little Joe around.”

Ben stroked his youngest son’s arm. “Marie knew that Little Joe needed a little more freedom to explore than other little boys. She never could bring herself to keep him under a tight rein. She said it might break his spirit.”

Adam shook his head. “Maybe that’s how it started. I can’t help thinking that this didn’t have to happen.”

“Adam-” Hoss chided, but Ben shook his head.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Say what you mean, Adam.”

Adam looked like he was tamping down something close to anger. Then he leaned against the wall as if trying to control himself. “I don’t know what I mean, Pa. But I just can’t stop thinking about the way Joe rides a horse… I don’t know how he got so hurt, but I do know he was riding too fast. Shouldn’t we have learned something from what happened to Marie? Why didn’t we ever try to stop him? There are so many things we let him get away with…”

Hoss snorted. “You’re just forgettin’ big brother. We did stop him. Plenty of times. We been keepin’ him from getting himself killed every day of his life. We’d have bout as much chance stoppin’ Little Joe from riding a fast horse, as a one-legged man would have in a kicking contest.”

Ben had to laugh at the truth of that, despite the seriousness of the situation, but Adam refused to smile. He stared down at his little brother. Each was well aware of the fact that Little Joe was apt to do what he was going to do, no matter what anyone had to say about it. Adam hadn’t been able to stop thinking of Marie and that terrible day when she died in front of the house, her neck snapped after her horse rolled over on her. Marie had always done as she wanted. Never mind the consequences, Adam thought to himself, even as his own bitterness surprised him. Why did she have to ride so damn fast that day?

“Did you ever try to stop her?” Adam turned to his father. “Marie and the crazy way she used to ride?”

Ben sighed and rubbed his eyes. He was tired. This vigil with Joseph was taking a toll on his body and spirits, and here they were, still waiting on either a miracle or the unthinkable. And yet, Adam was also waiting for an answer. The stories about the wagon train had reminded Ben how much tragedy his oldest son had known as a boy. The things he had seen. Adam’s closest friend on the trail had died of cholera. It had happened only a few days after Inger had been killed in front of them. No wonder Adam was always trying to find a way to control his life. Ben tried to ignore the accusation in his son’s question. His poor boy had never known his own mother, but he’d watched two others die. He couldn’t help but grieve wild-hearted Marie who heedlessly loved to ride a horse as fast as the wind. Ben could hardly begin to remember the terrible day that she died. No wonder Adam was thinking of Marie. It was so tragically similar. 

Ben gazed down at Marie’s son. They’d always looked so much alike, and never so much as in their sleep. Now, there was even more that bound them. Joe’s poor body was a mirror of his mother’s broken body the day they’d brought her in the house. The same violent bruising, the crushed leg, so much blood they didn’t know where it was coming from. Marie’s neck had been broken, but Joseph was still breathing. Marie had never opened her eyes again. Never said goodbye. How they’d both loved to ride fast. Was there something he should have done differently? Could Ben have stopped this from happening, if he’d kept a firmer hold on the reins? 

His older boys were waiting for an answer. Ben rested his head against Joe’s headboard and stroked his son’s cheek with an ache he could hardly hold in. How could he explain? His sons had never been married. They’d never raised children. They didn’t know how little in life a man could control. Ben’s entire life had been a study in taking control and giving it back again, and never more than with this youngest son. Joe had kept him humble, even from the start. Even as he kept his touch light and gentle against Joe’s face, he could swear he could almost see his son’s smile under all that swelling. Ben wondered if his boy was dreaming about riding that blasted horse. Go figure. It was the way Joe lived his life. There was sorrow and pain but there was great exuberance as well. It all came bound up together.

“Keeping Marie from that horse would have been like stopping water from running downhill,” Ben said at last. He hoped that was a good enough answer for Adam. He hoped it was a good enough answer for himself. 

After a quiet moment, Hoss asked, “Pa, do you reckon there’s such a thing as second chances?”

“Of course, I believe in second chances.” Ben regarded his son with real curiosity. “We’ve seen our share of people who’ve made mistakes and then turned their lives around afterward. I’m surprised you would ask that, Hoss.”

Then Ben saw it on Hoss’s face – the grief of a man who had never known guile. Gently, he asked, “What are you really asking me, son?”

Hoss scrunched up his face, staring miserably at his little brother. “I reckon it just don’t make sense. First his ma and then Little Joe both getting hurt in the same way. Don’t you think God owes us a second chance?”

Adam asked, “A second chance for what?”

“Don’t know. Getting it right, I reckon.”

“Saving Joe?” Adam asked.

Hoss shrugged. “Maybe we could have done it different somehow.”

Ben knew exactly what his son meant. Tragedy always carried hard questions. Could I have stopped this? Is there anything I could have done that would have made a difference? If it is possible, let this cup pass from me… 

As always, Adam seemed to be watching him.

“Is it worth it?” Adam’s voice caught on the question. “Having to go through this again and again?”

Ben couldn’t bring himself to answer. Love was always worth it, but the pain it sometimes brought was something else altogether. How many men his age had grown bitter as the losses mounted? Ben had not grown bitter, but all the same, he couldn’t help but cast yet another prayer in Heaven’s direction – for second chances, slack reins, and eighteen-year old boys who didn’t wake up, even after days and days and days of waiting.

It was already late. They began gathering up the dishes to take downstairs when they heard it. A low moan, sheets rustling. Life. Was it possible to hear a second chance? Almost dropping the dishes on the floor, they crowded back to the bed. Joe’s eyes were barely open, but already he had something to say. They all leaned in, touching him where they could and trying to get close enough. Joseph hardly had a voice, but that didn’t matter. They could hear him, loud and clear.

“Is my horse all right?”

It hadn’t been the first time Ben had heard that question from his boy, but he had never been so glad to hear it before. His own voice was thick with what he couldn’t say. “Your horse made it home just fine, son.”

“Knew he would.” Joe was already falling asleep again. He could hardly turn his head, but he managed a smile for Adam. Is it worth it? They had forgotten to choose their words carefully, forgetting that he could be listening. “It’s always worth it, brother,” he mumbled before his eyes started to close of their own accord. “Best ride I ever had…”

The End

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Author: DBird

One of the most prolific of Bonanza fanfic writers, Dbird has 56 of her wonderful stories here in the Brand Library.

10 thoughts on “Slack Reins (by DBird)

  1. Second time of reading this and enjoyed it just as much as the first. A lovely reflective peace that speaks so clearly of the heart of each character. Great job.

  2. I wasn’t sure where this would end, right up until the end. Well done on keeping the tension up and asking some tough questions.

  3. Loved this introspective look into the family, and yes, family is always worth it! 🙂 And it was the best ride, right up until it wasn’t.

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