Summary: Adam makes a rash bet on the outcome of a race, but when he is unable to ride, Joe and Hoss aren’t about to stand by and let their brother’s rival win. However, their solution is not quite what anyone expected….
Rated: K+ (14,665 words)
The Founder’s Day Race
“Set up a whiskey, please, Barney,” said Adam, coming in behind Hoss. “I know, I know, he’s only sixteen, but it’s medicinal.”
“Besides that,” Hoss said, “it’s for the pain.”
“That’s what I just-” Adam eyed Hoss’ face. Hoss had insisted that “it ain’t that bad” when Adam suggested sending for Doc Martin. Instead, he had had Adam drive him into town. The long ride in the buckboard and grinding manipulation of his arm and shoulder had taken its toll.
“You’re right, little brother,” Adam said softly. “Even Pa would recommend it.”
“How’d you break it?” Barney said, pouring a finger’s width of whiskey into a shot glass.
“That new horse, that stud we got from the Diamond C,” Adam said. “We were hoping to break him in time for the Founder’s Day race. He’s fast, but unpredictable.” Adam nodded towards Hoss. “As we found out today.”
“Came off him wrong,” Hoss said, his voice hoarse from the burn of the whiskey. “Weren’t Moonshine’s fault. He’s no meaner than any other horse. I just came off him wrong.”
Adam squeezed his brother’s good shoulder in sympathy. “Well, I’ll work him tomorrow, and see how he does. We’ve still got a week before the race to settle him down.”
“You’ll have some competition, if you believe what that fella over there’s been spoutin’,” Barney said, with a nod of his head toward the far side of the room.
Both brothers looked around. Hoss felt Adam stiffen beside him.
“Adam? You know that feller?”
Adam was slow to answer, and when he did speak, he used a flat tone that masked all emotion.
“Yes,” he said. “We attended the same college. His name is Harvey Smythe. And he hates my guts.”
When he tried to explain later, he couldn’t in good conscience blame it on the beer-although he’d had quite a few before they switched to the “sippin’ whiskey.” No, the liquor just accelerated the whole inevitable process. He was well on his way to disaster the second he let Harvey Winthrop Smythe III get under his skin.
Although Smythe was a year younger than Adam, he had attended many of the same courses. Adam hadn’t been rich enough, or idle enough, to move in Harvey’s circle, which consisted mainly of the university fencing team and the associated hangers-on. Harvey Smythe was a flamboyant and talented member of the fencing team. He was mindful of the affect of his own good looks, arrogant enough to expect obstacles to roll away when he smiled, and rich enough so that that was what usually happened.
Adam certainly could not afford the time or the money to take fencing lessons, but he had enjoyed watching the lightening-quick sport. It reminded him of his stepmother and his little brother Joe, and he had gotten in the regular habit of attending fencing matches as a way to deal with homesickness.
A rivalry developed between them, perhaps because they happened to be thrown together so often. Adam’s academic achievements far outshone Harvey’s, but Harvey was more popular and made it a point to denigrate the “country boy” every chance he got. Nine months ago, he and Harvey had exchanged heated words and ultimately punches at a fencing match. Adam had objected to Harvey’s impolite treatment of a young woman attending the match-a young woman who had shown a distinct preference for Adam’s company.
Shortly afterwards, Harvey left school under mysteriously hushed-up circumstances. The official reason was given as “incorrigible negligence.” Adam had briefly wondered what had become of him, but they were not friends and after the initial thought of good riddance, he forgot about Harvey in the hustle of preparing for his own final examinations. In the six months since he had returned home to the Ponderosa, Harvey Winthrop Smythe III had never crossed his mind.
Until today. For there he was, in all his charming and fashionable glory, in the Silver Dollar saloon in Virginia City. Adam briefly wondered what scrape Harvey had gotten into or whom he had killed to be banished from his beloved plantation all the way across the continent to Nevada Territory.
Harvey looked up briefly. He recognized Adam, no doubt about it; the narrowed eyes and sudden exaggerated Virginia drawl confirmed it. Adam nodded briefly but said nothing to interrupt Harvey’s monologue, the gist of which seemed to be a comparison of the amenities of his home to those Virginia City had to offer.
Harvey’s current topic, after noting Adam’s presence, was lack of sport, sportsmen, and sportsman-like challenges for bruising riders like himself. Adam simply ordered himself a beer and stood at the bar with his back to Harvey as he drank it. The cool beverage soothed the dusty feeling from his throat and he drained it in one gulp, signaling the bartender for another. He clinked the glass of his second beer with his brother’s, and they talked quietly about the upcoming Virginia City Founder’s Day celebration. Adam, acutely aware of Harvey’s presence, ordered a third beer. More idle talk followed, and Hoss began to wonder if they were ever going to head home.
“I don’t see how y’all can claim decent sport in a land without fox huntin’,” Harvey was saying. His southern-genteel speech had created enough of a sideshow that he had a rapt audience of idling cowhands, between-shift miners, and star-struck saloon girls. From the looks on their faces, they had never seen anything like Harvey before. Harvey strolled over to the bar, pausing directly beside Adam.
“Innkeeper, a bottle of your best bourbon,” Harvey said, his eyes meeting Adam’s in the mirror behind the bar. Hoss nursed his beer, his eyebrows pinched over his nose.
“We got but one kind,” Barney said, distinctly unimpressed. Bragging young men were the same the world over, in his view, no matter how fancy their clothes.
“A round for the house, then, if you please,” Harvey said and he raised his glass. “From one Virginian to the Virginia City-ans, may you evah strive to improve yourselves, no matter how uphill the battle.”
This was a dig aimed directly at Adam, and both of them knew it. A shot glass appeared before Adam, and it was filled before he had time to protest.
Harvey waited, eyeing Adam over the rim of his own glass. “Surely you will drink with an old classmate, Cartwright?”
“What on earth are you doing here, Smythe?” Adam said. “Why, of all the places you could crawl off to, why are you here?”
“Can’t a fellow make his Grand Tour, seeking out new and uncharted wonders ‘the likes of which I’ve never seen’? At least, I think that’s how you put it. It seems so long ago that you stepped off the hay-wagon to enter the halls of higher learning, that I may have forgotten the exact words.”
Adam sipped his drink through gritted teeth. Hoss bristled at Harvey’s tone, but followed Adam’s lead; he had no idea who this man was, but clearly Adam did. A nod from Smythe had Barney reluctantly filling Adam’s glass again.
“I believe you were speaking of fox hunting,” Adam said, hoping to deflect the topic back to less personal ground. “Fox hunting can’t compare to the wilder pursuit of game or a run for your life during a Bannock attack. Chasing a fox across a civilized countryside, stopping for tea, letting dogs lead the way-that may be all well and good for Virginians“-he drew out the word-“but out here we learn to ride fast across any terrain to save our lives, not as a fashionable show of horsemanship.”
Harvey smiled a charming smile. “If evah I hear of a Westerner who hasn’t outrun Indians with one foot in the stirrup, through a blizzard, while shootin’ at an oncoming grizzly bear, running up hill, in the dark, I will shake his hand!”
Several on-lookers laughed and Adam had to smile too. “I suppose there have been a lot of tall tales spun about the hazards of western life. Having lived in both the East and the West, however, I feel I am in a good position to judge.”
Hoss’ beer froze halfway to his mouth. He had never heard his brother speak in this-this I’m-just-as-good-as-you-are manner before.
“Are you insinuatin’ that a ‘natural-born’ Westerner is a bettah rider than a trained, educated Virginian with the tradition of generations?”
“Yes, I believe I am.” Adam felt Hoss’ nodding agreement.
“Might I remind you that you claim to be New England born yourself, suh? Any claim to being a Westerner therefore rings rather hollow, don’t you think?” Harvey said, and he seemed to take great pleasure in saying it.
Nine months ago he could not resist rising to the bait; it felt no different now. Adam had a grinding need to put the frivolous, idle snob in his place.
“Well, any born-and-raised Western rider can ride better than any fox-hunting Virginian braggart! My little brother could do it!” Adam’s frayed temper was beginning to unravel; he quickly finished the rest of his whiskey. Was it his second or his third? He had a sudden urge to stifle Harvey’s tone and smirking face with his fist.
“Whooee!” One of the nearby cowhands exclaimed, and Adam squinted blearily to see who it was. “You tell ‘im, Adam!”
“Adam,” Hoss said softly beside him. He felt his brother muscles tense and he place a big hand heavily on his shoulder. “You take a minute and simmer down. This argument ain’t worth throwing punches over.”
“Oh, no need to become violent,” Smythe said. “I understand that there is an upcoming celebration that will include a horse race. I’ve brought one of my Richmond-bred hunters with me. If you have an animal you’d care to race, perhaps you would consider a- friendly-wager to prove your words?”
Adam began to laugh. Hoss frowned. By the sound of his brother’s laughter, Adam was feeling the effects of the beer and whiskey.
“You want to prove yourself against my little brother?” Adam said, and then laughed again, unrestrainedly.
“You, your brother, whatever rider and mount you care to enter. I simply wish to see a contest, a race, perhaps, that shows you once and for all that your unsophisticated ways are no match for tradition and form. If I cross the finish line first, I win the bet; if you or your rider beat me in the race, you win the bet.”
“What stakes are you suggesting?” Adam said.
“Oh, let’s keep it friendly,” Smythe replied smoothly, signaling the bartender to refill Adam’s glass. Barney, however, pointedly replaced the cork in the bottle. “Let’s say a thousand dollars?”
Suddenly the only sound was the shrill laugh of one of the ‘percent’ girls in the far corner.
“Adam!” Hoss said, “This has gone far enough! It’s one thing to ride in the race and make a friendly wager. This kind of bettin’ is way above your reach!”
“You heard him, Hoss!” Adam said, and there was a recklessness in his tone that alarmed Hoss. He looked around at the other faces in the room. “He is challenging me to defend the pride and honor of all riders born in the West!” Adam’s elbow slipped off the bar as he turned, and he stumbled forward. He straightened himself, squaring his shoulders. I’ll be damned if I let him push me around in my own town, he thought.
“I’ll take that bet,” Adam said.
A splash of cold water wrenched Adam from a dream of pummeling a Paiute Indian who, strangely, had his classmate Harvey Winthrop Smythe III’s face. He winced as he eased his eyelids open, and was relieved to see Hoss’ worried blue eyes looking back over the top of the now empty pitcher.
“You awake now, Adam?” Hoss said. “Can you hear me?”
Adam groaned and sat up. The lamplight revealed the familiar interior of Roy Coffee’s office. He was in the main part of the office, sitting on the cot that Roy or his deputy used when guarding prisoners overnight. He had no recollection of how he had gotten there.
“What happened?” Adam asked, squinting up at his brother. Hoss’ form seemed to sway in the dim light.
“You mean after the braggin’ and the bettin’? You got to matchin’ drink for drink with that Smythe fellow, and I believe, Older Brother, that you lost.”
Adam held his head in his hands, and groaned. “Why didn’t you stop me?”
“Stop you! How was I supposed to stop you with this?” Hoss raised his slinged arm carefully. “And how on earth was I supposed to stop you from openin’ your mouth and makin’ a dad-blamed fool of yourself?”
Adam winced, and Hoss’ voice softened. “I’m sorry to be shoutin’ when your head is hurtin’. But your mouth is making appointments that I don’t think Little Brother’s hide oughta keep,” Hoss said.
Adam looked up at this. “What do you mean?”
“You mean you don’t remember acceptin’ Mr. High-and-Mighty-My-Family-Founded-Virginia’s challenge to enter the Founder’s Day Race? And proposin’ Little Joe as one of the riders representin’ ‘all the peoples born west of the Mississippi’?”
“What? I never did that!”
“Oh, yes, you did, Big Brother! As the-culminiation, I think you called it-“
“Culmination,” Adam said automatically.
“Yeah, culimiation-of your drinkin’ contest, the two of you even went over to Hiram Muncie’s place, and woke him up so’s you could be first to get your names on the race entry list.”
“I entered the Founder’s Day Race? To ride against Harvey Smythe?” Adam thought for a moment. “Well, that’s not so bad. I had every intention of entering the race anyway.”
“You entered yourself and you entered Joe and three other Ponderosa cowhands who claim to be born west of St. Louis! You probably would’ve entered Hop Sing if you’d thought of it! Turns out, the rules don’t say nothin’ about the age of the rider or who does the enterin’, so Mr. Muncie had to let you do it. Then you passed out cold, and I had a couple of fellers carry you over here. What Pa is gonna say when he hears about it-“
“Well, he doesn’t need to hear about it, now does he?” Adam rubbed his temples, trying to think. “I’ll withdraw Joe’s name tomorrow, and Pa won’t be any the wiser. After I find Harvey and get out of that bet.” With a stifled groan, Adam lurched to his feet, swaying for a moment, before gingerly putting on his hat.
“You bet that Smythe fella a thousand dollars, Adam!” Hoss winced in his agitation, and Adam felt true regret at forgetting his brother had been injured earlier that day. “Everyone in the saloon heard ya! He ain’t gonna let you out of a bet like that!”
“Sit down, Hoss,” Adam said, and helped his brother to take his place on the cot. “Better yet, why don’t you lay down here, and I will go see Smythe. You rest up, and then we’ll head on home.”
Hoss lay down, and sighed in relief as the weight of his arm eased off his shoulder. He closed his eyes, but said, “You fix it Adam, you hear? You fix it.”
“Don’t worry, Hoss,” Adam said, “I won’t let him get the better of me again.”
Adam found Harvey in the International House lobby, and quickly asked to speak with him privately. They went up to Harvey’s room, neither one of them very steady on their feet.
“Harvey,” Adam began, taking the bull by the horns. “I regret that we seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot here. I would like you to reconsider our bet-“
“You might have regrets, suh” Harvey interrupted. “I’m sure we all do. But a wager is a wager.”
“Is there any chance at all you will change your mind?” Adam said, cursing his own pleading tone. Only the thought that the bet would upset his father made him try to appeal to Harvey’s sympathy. “I am happy to participate in the race. It’s just that the bet is a little excessive-“
“You agreed to the stakes in front of many witnesses, including, I understand, your own brother. That makes it a debt of honor. To back out of a debt of honor now would be-well, rather cowardly, don’t you think? Or are things that different here in the West?”
Adam gritted his teeth. “I’m no coward. I’ll meet your terms.”
“I’m so glad,” Harvey said with false warmth. “Now if you don’t mind, I would like to get some sleep-I have a rigorous trainin’ program to start tomorrow.”
The next day, Harvey Smythe’s hangover did not reach the epic proportions of Adam’s, but that was only because he was used to drinking. No, it was only a slight headache and aversion to light, but it was enough to make him seek the darker shadows of the back entrance to the hotel rather than the stark midmorning brightness of C Street. Closing his eye against the glare, he stepped out into the alley, just as a solid whirlwind swerved by.
“Hey Mister, are you OK?”
Harvey heard the voice from behind him; it was a small voice, and wavered a little in pitch. The tightening of his chest reminded him to breathe, and he pulled in a deep gasping breath. The dust-colored pony had missed him by inches, whipping him with its black tail as its rider pulled it to a stop.
He opened his eyes, half expecting to see a wild Indian or maybe a bank robber on horseback. But all he saw was a fidgety pony held in check by a young boy, who sat calmly through its fidgets. He took a steadying breath.
“What on earth do you think you are doing-“
“I’m real sorry, Mister,” the boy said as Harvey started into his indignant protest. “I didn’t see you stepping out of the hotel.”
“Why are you racing a pony through this alley, where you might injure someone?” Harvey’s own voice was a little strained, caused more by having been startled than by true anger. “I’ve a mind to speak to your parents about letting a child run wild in the streets!”
“I ain’t a child! And I ain’t runnin’ wild!” came the hot reply. The boy was not the least cowed by Harvey’s tone. “And you’d better not speak to my Pa like that! He don’t take family advice from strangers who don’t know enough to watch where they’re walking!”
“I’ll speak to whomever I please, and you’d better mind you tongue speaking to me!” Harvey said. “What is your name?”
“What’s your name?” the boy said belligerently.
“I am Harvey Winthrop S-“
“Joe!” came a shout from further down the street. “Come on, we haven’t got all day!”
“Coming, Pa!” the boy shouted in reply. Turning his pony, he paused to look back at Harvey. He took in the well-cut suit and tired, rather sad eyes, and his own expression softened. “I’m real sorry, Mr. Winthrop, I guess I was goin’ a little fast.” He grinned, a charming twinkle in his disarming green eyes. “But sometimes you gotta just let ‘im run a little, ya know? I’m sorry if I scared ya.”
“I was not scared,” Harvey said quickly. But the boy just grinned back.
“Joe! Come on!” The shout was quite a bit louder and more annoyed.
“Oops, he sounds mad,” the boy said. “Gotta go! Nice to meet you Mr. Winthrop!”
“It’s Smythe-” Harvey began, but the boy was already riding away. Harvey straightened his jacket. Shouting to his father, riding wildly through town, a child left to his own devices-My father would have called it a disgrace, Harvey thought. I never was allowed to behave so when I was a child. And I certainly never would have squared up to a complete stranger. He watched as the boy loped his pony down the street, a little secret envy in his gaze.
Adam never got a chance to withdraw Joe’s race entry the next day. He began training Moonshine in earnest, but the hangover caused a nagging headache and roiling stomach that affected his riding. He took a bad fall, landed wrong, and broke his collarbone. Just as Hoss had done the day before.
It was a common enough ranch injury, Doc Martin had commented to Ben. Hoss and Adam had even injured the same shoulder -the left. And like Hoss’ injury, it required painful manipulation and immobilization by the doctor, with expectations of getting his arm out of the sling in about two weeks. But that, Adam thought angrily, is one week too late to ride in the Founder’s Day Race.
“Adam? Are you OK?” Joe’s voice was small and uncertain as he stood in the hall outside Adam’s room.
Adam’s anger had not diminished one bit since taking the fall. He didn’t hear the boy’s voice as he paced barefooted across the rug, finally kicking his boot to the other side of the room in frustration. His left arm in its sling ached with every step, and he was muttering under his breath.
“Joe,” Hoss’s low voice came from behind his little brother. “Adam’s got things on his mind. It’s best not to be botherin’ him right now.”
Another thump indicated the second boot had joined the first. Joe peered around the doorway, but Adam’s back was turned toward the door. As Joe watched, Adam swung around, and spotting him, abruptly closed the door.
“Hoss,” Joe whispered, his voice still uncertain. “Is it my fault he’s mad?”
Hoss knelt beside Joe. “What makes you think it’s your fault he’s mad?” Blues eyes searched the boy’s face. “Do you even know why he’s mad?”
The boy’s head shook vigorously. “No, but I know he is, and he won’t talk to me, so I figured he was mad at me for somethin’.”
Hoss pulled the boy’s arm, guiding him through the hall and down the stairs. He sat Joe up down on the table in front of the fireplace.
“Joe, Adam ain’t mad ’cause of anything you done,” Hoss said. “Adam’s mad at that dad-burned Harvey Smythe, but he’s even more mad at himself, for letting that Smythe feller get to him the way he did. He got carried away, and being a little-well he wasn’t quite feelin’ so good, and he made a bet on the race that he shouldn’t have. Now he’s hurt and he can’t ride and he’ll likely lose the bet. That’s why he’s mad.”
“But all he’d have to do is explain that he hurt his shoulder so he can’t ride. They’d have to call the bet off. Then Adam wouldn’t lose all his money and his friends wouldn’t think he’s a welcher!”
“Joe! Where’d you ever hear a word like that?”
“Andy Sikes said it when-“
“Never you mind, don’t you let Pa hear you use a word like that! You ain’t s’posed to know anything about this race or the bet and I aim to keep it that way.”
“That’s stupid, Hoss, I already know about it, and the bet, too,” Joe said. “Andy told me that that Smythe feller’s been callin’ Adam names in town. The only way for Adam to shut ‘im up is to win the race.”
“Joe, have you been listening to Adam and me talkin?” Hoss said, brows lowered.
“No sir, I heard other folks sayin’ it in town. They’re sayin’ Adam’s no better than a dirty riverboat dealer if he don’t make good on this bet. But how can he, Hoss?” Joe wrung his hands. “How is Adam gonna win the bet if he can’t ride in the race? You can’t ride for him, either. He’ll lose the race by de-fault if he don’t ride. How can he pay off all that money if he loses?”
Hoss looked down at his little brother, then reached over with his good arm and gave him a hug.
“Don’t you worry, Little Joe,” he said softly. “We’ll figure somethin’ out, don’t you worry.”
“Adam!” His father’s shout carried from outside.
“Oh-oh,” said Hoss. “He don’t sound like he’s in a mood for listening to anyone come clean about things.”
“I’ll just tell him the truth,” Adam said in a hearty tone that fooled neither Hoss nor himself. “He’s a reasonable man.”
He had resigned himself to the humbling prospect of resigning from the race, acknowledging Harvey Smythe’s superiority, and generally making a further fool of himself on Founder’s Day. But squaring it with his father was an even more daunting prospect.
“Not when it comes to gamblin’. Not when it comes to bettin’ on Little Joe.”
“What do you mean, Hoss?” Joe said coming in from the kitchen. “Who’s bettin’ on me?”
“Now see what you’ve done,” Adam hissed. “No one, Joe, it’s all a misunderstanding. I’ll clear it up with Pa, and I’d appreciate it, Hoss, if you and Joe would make yourselves scarce for the rest of the afternoon.”
Hoss didn’t need any more incentive than the repeated bellow of “Adam!” from outside.
“Let’s go, Little Joe,” Hoss said, pushing Joe before him back toward the kitchen. “We’d best stay out of Pa’s way for a while, like Adam says.”
“But I haven’t finished my sandwich-“
“Get going, Joe!” Adam said, his tone nearly matching his father’s.
Joe gave up and allowed Hoss to push him from the room.
Hoss timed their departure through the kitchen door to the opening of the front door, hustling the younger boy in front of him.
“Hoss, my milk-” and Hoss sighed and looked down to see the glass in Joe’s hand.
“You finish that up, along with your sandwich, while I get our horses,” Hoss said, feeling more and more urgency to get away from the house. “You stay right here, don’t you go back inside! When you finish that glass, set it on the window sill and get out to the barn.”
Joe nearly grinned, but stopped himself before Hoss could see. If he stood by the open window, he would certainly hear Pa and Adam ‘discuss’ what had Pa so angry.
“Pa, it’s all a mistake. I did make the bet, and enter Joe and I in the race, but-” Joe could just hear Adam’s voice if he leaned in through the open window.
“I don’t care how much you’ve bet, or who’s pride is at stake! Your ten-year-old brother is not going to ride that horse in a race! Do you understand me?”
“Pa, if you’d just listen for a moment-“
Joe went back into the house. This argument had a direct bearing on him; he could no longer stay outside.
“Pa, I could do it-” Joe said, stepping past the dining room table.
“Be quiet young man! This is between Adam and I-go out and finish your chores!”
“But Pa, I could ride Moonshine! I’m a good rider!”
“If you’re worried about the horse bein’ only half-broke, I could ride Dusty-he’s fast, and I ride him all the time-“
“Let me make myself clear,” Ben said with deadly solemnity. “You will not ride Moonshine, or Dusty, or any other horse, in that race! Is that understood?”
“Let’s go, Joe,” Hoss said, dragging his brother back to the kitchen door. Joe shot Adam a sympathetic look as he disappeared through the doorway. He knew what was in store for Adam when his father spoke low and heavy like that. With a yank, Hoss pulled Joe out of his father’s sight.
“Hoss, hold on, stop! We done our chores already, and Adam needs our help!”
“You stay in there a minute longer and you’ll need help right along with him! Don’t you know when to leave well enough alone?”
“I ain’t hankerin’ to get on Pa’s bad side, too.” Hoss cast about his mind for a distraction that would knock the race right out of his nosey little brother’s head. With a sudden glimmer of inspiration, he said “Let’s head on over to the Comstock Mill.”
“What’s so interesting at the Mill, Hoss?” Joe asked. “We been there a hundred times.”
“Oh, there’s something interestin’ to see, and it’ll get us out of the way ’til Pa has a chance to cool down about that race.” Hoss leaned over and winked at Joe. “I guarantee that it’s somethin’ you ain’t never seen before.”
Hoss’ mysterious errand kept Joe’s curiosity peaked and he seemed to forget all about the race as he badgered Hoss about what they would find at the Comstock Mill. Hoss knew just how to string his brother along. He kept an inscrutable smile on his face, revealing nothing during the entire ride toward the mining camps.
To Joe’s surprise, Hoss skirted the main camp road, coming around the back trail behind the Mill, where the pack animals were assembled. As they approached the lean-to and corral, Joe heard the strangest sound-a cross between the bray of a mule and the bellow of a bull. As they came closer, he could see that the Mill’s corral contained large, tawny-brown creatures; it was these animals that were making the sound he heard.
Joe rode straight to the corral and slid down from his pony, his wide eyes staring at the strange creatures. He leaned on the middle rail of the corral, his mouth slightly ajar.
“They’re camels,” Hoss said, delighted with his brother’s reaction. “The army’s been trying them out as pack animals. Old Eli is trying them, too, to pack supplies out of his desert country mine. He bought these five from the army, and hired Mr. Magill here to tend them.”
A man in the corral stopped forking fodder to the beasts and stepped forward at Hoss’ wave.
“Mr. Magill, this here’s my little brother Joe,” Hoss said. “Joe, this is Mr. Magill. He come with the camels all the way from Are-abia.”
“I am Achmed Agah Alil; your countrymen call me Magill,” Mr. Magill said. He made curious sweeping motion down the front of his body before holding out his hand between the corral boards to Joe. “I am most honored to make your acquaintance, young sir. And these lovely creatures are camelus Dromedarius, to be exact.”
“Drama-what?” Joe said. A nudge from Hoss made him remember his manners. “Oh, excuse me, Mr. Magill, nice to meet you. What did you say they were?”
“Dromedary camels. From the faraway dunes of the Arabian desert.”
“Drama-dairy,” Joe said, trying out the unfamiliar word. “Camels? Like the ones the Three Wise Men rode?”
Hoss winked at Mr. Magill. “That’s right, just like the ones the Wise Men rode. What do you think of ’em?”
Joe studied the camels for a moment.
“They look like they been cobbled together from parts of other animals-like God had a bunch of pieces left over when he was done creatin’ and wanted to see what he could make from them.”
Hoss and Mr. Magill laughed.
“Yeah, there’s the neck of a swan – a really BIG swan,” Hoss said, “and the legs of that giraffe we seen that time in San Francisco, and the body of a stretched-out buffalo. And only God knows where that hump came from.”
Joe laughed, too, but eyed his older brother in speculation.
“I see after our earlier discussion, Mr. Hoss, you have taken an interest in my ‘ships of the desert,'” Mr. Magill said. Joe looked up at the short, round man. He was dressed in loose light-colored clothing, and although he had been working in the corral, his clothes were spotless. He spoke with a slight British accent, and he had an exotic air about him that drew Joe’s fascinated eyes.
“Yessir,” said Hoss. “You sure have interestin’ pack animals.”
The man smiled, and bowed slightly in acknowledgement.
“I was just tellin’ Joe how you’re usin’ those camels to haul supplies to Old Eli’s mines.”
“There are no more reliable or hardy animal for desert climates,” Mr. Magill said, and he pushed out his chest as he looked at his little herd. “They can easily carry 600 pounds or more for very long distances; that’s twice as much as your mules can carry. They can go days without water. And the youngest desert child can tell you that there is no more comfortable ride than the gentle swaying gait of a camel.”
“Tell Joe about how they can run,” Hoss said.
“They are capable of such speed for short distances that would astonish you. My desert princess, Mehitabel, has beaten a horse in a half-mile race.” Magill pointed to the nearest camel, the smallest of the five.
“You say they’re faster than a horse?” Joe eyed Mehitabel with increasing respect, and slipped between the corral bars to approach her.
“Can’t imagine a horse toleratin’ being near ‘em,” Joe called back over his shoulder, wrinkling his nose. “Have kind of a strange smell, don’t they?”
Mr. Magill looked around as if trying to spot the scent. “I do not notice any strange smell.”
Hoss and Joe looked at each other, and Joe rolled his eyes. “Yeah, they smell just like a handful of daisies.”
“Joe, daisies ain’t got any smell-“
Joe rolled his eyes again. He drew nearer until he could look up at the camel’s face, her jaw rolling as she chewed placidly. He mind was working on an idea, based on what Mr. Magill had told them. He reached a hand up and idly stroked her side, looking at her long and powerful legs.
“That’s right, Hoss. Some flowers ain’t got a smell. And some races might not be racing horses-“
Hoss tilted his head and turned to face his little brother. Joe had the speculative look on his face that inevitably led to trouble.
“Mr. Magill, do you think I could try ridin’ Mehitabel?”
It was the strangest looking saddle he had ever seen-it had two tall saddle horns, one in front and one in back when Mr. Magill strapped it to the peak of Mehitabel’s hump. Joe looked up and up at the saddle, then at his brother. At sixteen, Hoss already stood six feet tall, and yet Hoss’s head only came up to her shoulder. The saddle was a good foot higher than that, and the stirrups were just even with the tip of Hoss’s shoulder.
The reins and bridle were more familiar; the reins were fastened under the camel’s chin, to a headpiece that resembled a hackamore. The reins were extremely long, though, because they had to reach from Mehitabel’s chin to the first saddle horn.
Joe tried to see Mehitabel as he would any other new horse. He watched her reaction to Mr. Magill; her affection for him was apparent in her attempts to rub her head against his chest. The sounds she made were rather alarming, but he noted that her moans and bellows only happened when she was exerting herself-much like the sounds that Hoss made when he was lifting something heavy. That thought made Joe smile, and Mehitabel began to seem a little less strange.
Mr. Magill had been using a regular barn rake to scratch Mehitabel’s back, and if the sounds she was making indicated enjoyment, the camel was enjoying the raking enormously. Wordlessly, Joe reached out for the rake, and after a moment of hesitation, Mr. Magill handed it over.
Reaching high, Joe began to scratch Mehitabel’s side, paying special attention to the area just behind her long neck. Her sounds continued, and Joe moved forward slightly into her line of sight, wanting the animal to see that he was now the one causing this pleasant sensation. Mehitabel’s head swung towards him; she towered over him and he had to tense all his muscles to stop himself from flinching back.
There was no malice in her gaze, and when he looked at her face he saw the heavily fringed eyelashes, the large brown eyes, the placid chewing motion of her jaw. She reminded him of their milk cow, and even though her head was so far above his own, it was hard to be afraid of a creature with such beautiful, long-lashed eyes.
“How do I get on?” Joe asked.
“Just say hoosh-hoosh,” Mr. Magill replied.
“Not what-what, hoosh-hoosh.”
“And where’ll that get me?”
“So, to do it and find out.”
Joe stepped closer to the placid beast’s head.
“Uh, hoosh-hoosh,” he said in a somewhat self-consciously.
The camel promptly began a long series of bellowing grunts as it bent its front legs and knelt, lowering first its front half, then its rear, to the ground. Joe stared in surprise.
“Huh,” was all he could say.
“Well?” said Mr. Magill. “What do you wait for?”
Joe looked at the camel, then back at Mr. Magill. “Uh, where am I supposed to sit?”
Mr. Magill sighed in exasperation. “Were you not listening? You sit on that saddle, there in top of the hump, and hook your feet into these stirrups.”
Joe walked over to the kneeling camel, and tried to bring his left boot up to the foot strap as he would step into the stirrup of his own horse.
“No, no, step on her knee, then her shoulder, then the stirrup.” Mr. Magill took Joe’s left boot and placed it on the camel’s folded knee.
“Won’t steppin’ on it, um, her, hurt her?” He hopped on one foot reluctant to put any weight on the animal. He could hear Hoss laughing, saying “her hurt her!” under his breath.
“You shut up!” Joe yelled pointing his arm at his brother. At his motion, the camel heaved herself to her feet in alarm, bellowing and snorting. Joe fell back, landing abruptly on his backside.
Hoss doubled over, grasping his stomach with his good arm, laughing and wheezing at the dust the camel stirred up.
“Easy, Beautiful One, Clever One, you have no need to fear this one, this child of jackals, this offspring of desert magpies!” Mr. Magill soothed Mehitabel, glaring at Joe in indignation.
“I thought you were good with horses!” Mr. Magill scolded, keeping his tone even.
“This ain’t a horse!” Joe said, but he kept his voice low, too, stung by this criticism. “I ain’t been around a camel before, it’s gonna take some getting used to, that’s all.”
Mr. Magill looked at Joe for a long moment. “All right,” he said. “You may try once more. But if you frighten her again, I will take her away.”
Joe nodded, wary of making any sudden moves or sounds again.
“Hoosh-hoosh,” Mr. Magill said, and the camel knelt obediently once again. Joe stepped gingerly onto her bent knee, then her shoulder, and finally stepped into the stirrup. He swung his leg high over the rear saddle horn, and plopped into the saddle. Mr. Magill handed him the reins, which were fastened to either side of the nosepiece of the simple rope bridle, and a stick about two feet long.
“Hup-hup,” Mr. Magill said, and Mehitabel arose, rear end rising first, throwing the unprepared Joe forward with a startled ‘oof!” He clutched at the front saddle horn as her rear half rose, and then clutched the back one as she heaved her weight up with her front legs. Joe tired to balance himself, swaying his body weight instinctively with the camel’s rocking movement. Then she was standing, placidly chewing her cud and awaiting the next command.
“Beautiful One,” Mr. Magill breathed, running his hand down her neck. Mehitabel snorted and spit in response. Mr. Magill laughed out loud at this. “She likes you after all,” Mr. Magill said, smiling up at Joe. “She would never stand so still with anyone she did not trust.”
“Hear that Joe?” Hoss said, grinning all over his face. “She’s taken a shine to ya!”
Joe just glared at his brother, not wanting to disturb Mehitabel’s placid mood. “How do I get her to go?”
Mr. Magill stroked the camel’s neck. “Just as with a horse. A light touch of your heels. Use the reins and stick to indicate direction and ‘whoa’ to stop her.”
Joe bent both knees back and tapped Mehitabel, and she took a rolling step forward, then another. Her gait was not unlike the gentle pitch and sway of a watercraft. Joe quickly adjusted to the rhythm.
“Hey, Hoss,” he called. “It’s like riding a rocking chair!”
“So it is, Little Brother. Ain’t all that fast, though.”
Joe tapped his heels back once, twice, and Mehitabel reached forward with a powerful heave of her front legs and began to run, a gallop that looked and felt like the action of a slowly rowed boat-until Joe noticed that her stride was three times as long as any horse he had ever ridden. Her long, rocking lope was eating up the arid ground faster than he ever expected, and he whooped and balanced and leaned into the rocking motion. In no time at all he had left Hoss and Mr. Magill far behind.
Mehitabel proved to be easier to handle than many of the cow ponies Joe was used to; she was responsive, calm, and deceptively fast. If he had any accurate feeling for this animal, he thought she could go on at this pace for a long, long time. As she turned obediently in response to his tug on the reins, he began to work out how he would convince Hoss to help him surprise their older brother.
Ben left for San Francisco three days before the race, reluctantly leaving Adam in charge. His trip was an important one for the ranch, but he did not like to be away with both Adam and Hoss recovering from injuries. On the other hand, the injuries were not serious; a broken collarbone was unlikely to hinder any decision-making Adam needed to do. Ben satisfied his misgivings by delivering another ear-burning lecture on his expectations of his oldest son while he was away.
Adam took his father’s lecture without protest. His father was right. He had had no business involving his ten-year-old brother in a prideful dispute. No matter how good a rider his little brother was, he was wrong to even think of putting him in a situation that was potentially harmful. His judgment had been clouded by too much whiskey and Harvey Smythe’s sneers, but he had immediately seen, when he thought clearly about it, that his foolish pride could never stack up against his little brother’s safety.
He sent Hoss into town to withdraw Joe’s and the three other Ponderosa hands’ race entries.
Fortunately, Adam was very busy in his father’s absence. He knew that Hoss was keeping an eye on Joe, and he was grateful to have one less worry. Hoss and Joe worked with Mr. Magill and Mehitabel each day, whenever they could find the time.
They had decided that the day before the race, they would reveal their surprise to Adam.
“Just think how knocked over you were, the first time you saw Mehitabel,” Hoss insisted. “If Adam don’t see her until just before the race, we might not have time to talk him into it.”
Joe nodded. He could not wait to show Adam the surprise that might keep him from losing all that money.
On the Thursday before the race, they did not run Mehitabel, letting her rest up for the last practice race on Friday and the real thing on Saturday. Joe stopped by to visit her just the same, but merely fed her from Mr. Magill’s store of dried dates and talked to her with nonsense words that seemed to make perfect sense to the both of them.
He had brought his fishing gear with him, and he stopped at the lake on the way home. The fish weren’t biting, however, and he was keyed up thinking about their surprise for Adam. He and Hoss were going to save their brother’s pride, he just knew it. He couldn’t wait to see Adam’s face when he found out.
He paced back and forth as he thought, and his fishing rod somehow became a rapier, and he was a knight, righting the wrongs done to his brothers. He would make the Harvey Smythes of the world sorry they ever tangled with the Cartwright brothers.
He raised his right arm behind him and thrust the fishing rod forward with his left, forcing his invisible opponent back and back, wrenching his fishing rod/blade from beneath the invisible blows just in time. His opponent came close, but not close enough to overcome his expert fencing skills-
The sound of hands clapping startled him out of his play. He whirled around.
The man from town stood there, the one he had almost knocked down when he ran Dusty through the alley near the hotel. What was his name?
“Mr. Winthrop!” Joe said, thoroughly embarrassed to be seen in a make-believe fight. “I was just-“
“You let your opponent get very close, he nearly got under your guard,” Harvey Smythe said, not bothering to correct his name. He had enjoyed watching the boy match ‘swords’ with his invisible opponent. He knew what it was like to lose himself in the joy of his skill. “However, I see that that may have been your plan, giving him a false sense that your guard was weakening, then you strike-“
Joe felt his face flush even redder.
“Uh, well, I was just playin’,” he said, and looked away.
Seeing his face, Harvey regretted that he had drawn attention to himself. I should have left him to his play, he thought.
“If you turn your wrist so,” Harvey said, picking up a stick to illustrate his words. “Your riposte will be quicker.”
“You know about sword-fighting?” Joe said, his curiosity stirred.
“I did some fencing in college,” Harvey said.
“You mean like in a duel?” Joe asked, eyes wide.
Harvey laughed. “No, in a club, in staged competitions. For sport.”
“Oh,” said Joe, disappointed.
“I could show you, if you like,” Harvey heard himself saying. For some reason, he wanted this boy to be impressed with him. He’s the only person in town who does not know who I am, he thought. He’s the only person who does not know I am rich, or that I come from an influential family.
“I’ll use this rapier,” he said, cleaning the extra branches off his stick, so that it better resembled a weapon. “Show me your attack and parry.”
The light returned to Joe’s eyes at the chance to do some real fencing with someone who actually had been in a swordfight.
“En garde,” Harvey said, saluting his opponent.
Joe swept his fishing rod into the answering salute. “En garde,” he replied.
They fought up and down the small stretch of lakeshore sand, Harvey calling directions to Joe, and Joe grinning as he pressed his real-life opponent back and back.
When the sun began to sink lower, Joe reluctantly called a halt.
“I gotta get home,” he said. “I can’t be late for dinner.” He hastily gathered his fishing gear, and tied it to his pony’s saddle. He turned back to Harvey.
“Thanks for the swordfight, Mr. Winthrop,” he said, holding out his hand to shake. “I had fun, and I learned some new moves.”
Stunned, Harvey grasped the boy’s hand and received the solemn shake. The boy swung into the saddle and turned his pony toward the road.
“See you again some time!” he called as he urged his pony to a trot.
Harvey watched him until he went around the turn in the road, out of sight.
Adam had no idea what the two of them were up to, but they had been model brothers all week, getting chores done without prompting, coming home on time, keeping out of his hair when he needed to work. So, on Friday, when the two younger boys insisted he come and see what they had been working on, he reluctantly agreed to meet them at the Mill, regretting not being able to spend much time with them this week.
Adam’s first sight of his brothers’ “surprise” literally stopped him in his tracks.
Joe sat high on the hump of a camel, making chirupping sounds, as Hoss fussed one-handedly with the saddle straps. Joe appeared as comfortable on the beast as he was on his pony. Neither of them spotted Adam right away, and he watched them a few moments in complete astonishment.
“Hold her right there, Joe, and I’ll get Mr. Magill.” Hoss turned and spotted his older brother, frozen in place. “Hey, Adam!”
Joe’s eyes lifted from his mount, and Adam felt the full force of his youngest brother’s proud delight. He closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose as he fought for control. They think they are helping me, he reminded himself. Exasperation gave way to mirth, and he began to laugh. From his brothers’ expressions, this was apparently not the reaction they were hoping for.
“I didn’t realize the circus was in town,” Adam said. “Are you thinking of joining up?”
“Now, Adam, just hold on,” Hoss said. “We’ve got a plan to help you win that bet, and Mehitabel here is just the way to do it.”
Adam looked at their earnest faces. They are serious, he thought, closed his eyes again, and took a deep breath.
“Hoss, Joe, I know you would like to help, but a camel? Besides, Pa expressly forbade Joe from riding in the race. There’s no way around that.”
Joe and Hoss exchanged grins so bright they would rival sunshine.
“That ain’t quite true, Adam,” Joe said, with the air of a gambler about to play the winning card. “Pa said I couldn’t ride any horse in that race. Mehitabel”-he gestured to the camel- “ain’t a horse!”
Adam was rendered speechless in the face of this “Joe-logic.”
Hoss stepped closer to Adam. “I know she ain’t the prettiest thing that ever walked onto a race course, but wait’ll you see her run. Mr. Magill says she’s been known to run faster than a horse, under the right circumstances. And Adam, if we set up the right circumstances-“
“You both know exactly what Pa meant. No logic loophole is going to get you out of a punishment-“
“Pa don’t know how that fella’s been talkin’ about you, Adam,” Hoss said. “We ain’t about to stand by and let him do it.”
“I figure a tannin’s worth it to set that Smythe fella back on his heels,” Joe said.
Warmth flooded through him as he looked into Hoss’ eyes, then Joe’s.
“Look, I know what you are trying to do, but-“
“Think about it, Adam!” Joe piped up. “Showing up on a camel would be like making fun of his challenge, wouldn’t it? Like you don’t take it too serious. Whether I win or not! And what if I won? That’d take him down a peg or two. It’ll be worth whatever punishment Pa comes up with to see that!”
“You’ll be in for more than a warmed backside if you fall off that beast! You must be six feet off the ground!”
“Seven,” Hoss and Joe said.
“We measured,” Hoss added. “But Adam, Mehitabel here is gentler than a sloe-eyed milk cow. Mr. Magill, he’s Mehitabel’s keeper, he says seven-year-old kids take care of camels in Are-abia.”
Adam didn’t reply, but Hoss thought he detected a softening in his expression, and pressed his argument.
“Besides, you said it yourself, Joe’s a better rider than any Virginia fox-chaser!”
“You said that, Adam?” Joe said, his voice high-pitched and high-perched. “You really think so?”
Oh, they’ve trapped me well, my little brothers, he thought. If he stopped Joe from riding, it would be like taking back his earlier claims to Joe’s abilities-claims that Joe clearly cherished from the brother he was just getting reacquainted with after a four-year absence.
Looking up at Joe, he thought Mehitabel’s sloe eyes have nothing on yours, little boy.
“At least let us show you what she can do.” Joe turned the full force of his pleading eyes to his brother. “We been trainin’ with her all week.”
“This is a horse race!” Adam said somewhat desperately, grasping for authority. “You can’t run a camel in a horse race!”
“Ain’t no rule against it,” Hoss said smugly. “I went over the rules with Mr. Muncie myself when you sent me in to withdraw them entries. Nowhere in the rules does it say that the animals racing have got to be horses. And that’s when I knew I couldn’t withdraw Joe’s name.”
Adam stared, bereft of speech.
“It’s called the Founder’s Day Race. Not the Founder’s Day Horse Race. The rules spell out the length of the course and the way to start, and that each entered animal must have one rider, and each rider must use a saddle, and so on, but it never says the animals must be horses!”
Adam thought about his brothers working all week on their scheme, just to let him save face. They must have gotten up early every day to do their chores, keeping quiet about it all so that neither he nor Hop Sing had any inkling that they were up to something. He thought about how he had reconnected with Hoss after his return from college, and his struggle, all summer, to rebuild his relationship with Joe. And now, here were Hoss and Joe, willing to risk a tanning, or worse, to help their older brother save face in town. He suddenly heard his own voice saying: “All right, let’s see her run.”
Joe whooped and the camel startled, turning in a circle away from the line in the sand and trotting jerkily toward the corral. Adam watched, his heart in his throat, but his little brother sat expertly through Mehitabel’s movements, and using his voice and hands, calmed the upset camel. “Sorry, Mehitabel, there’s a pretty girl, sorry, that was just me, Beautiful One, it’s OK-“
In a few years that tone will have the girls eating out of his hand, Adam thought, distracted momentarily by the unconscious charm in Joe’s soothing words to the camel.
Hoss waited until he was sure Joe had the camel under control, and then he moved toward his own horse.
“Hold on, Hoss, you shouldn’t be racing with your bad arm,” Adam said.
“I won’t go too fast, this is just to get Mehitabel used to runnin’ next to a horse,” Hoss said. He stepped up into the stirrup carefully, got himself balanced, then swung himself into the saddle. The look on Hoss’ face was magnified in intensity tenfold on Joe’s-determination, excitement, and sheer, unadulterated fun.
“Take it easy, now Joe, we don’t want to wear her out before the big day,” Hoss called. “Give us one-two-three-go, Adam. And you’d better step back a little,” he added. “Mehitabel’s a little wild on the starts.”
Adam took three hasty steps backwards. His brothers’ excitement was infectious, and he found himself waving his hat and shouting, “One-two-three-GO!”
The ungainly Mehitabel leaned forward, grabbing at the ground as Hoss’ horse leaped past her. With a startling bellow of protest, Mehitabel gathered herself and began her peculiar rocking gait, with Joe yelling encouragement and laying on his heels.
The camel’s stride is deceptive, thought Adam. While she seemed to be loping at a sedate pace, each reach of her forelegs gained more and more ground on the horse. Hoss was decidedly handicapped by his injury; still, his horse was relatively fast. She passed him easily at a hundred yards and never relinquished the lead.
Adam’s mathematical mind considered distances, strides, and the relative speed of the two animals. By the time Joe pulled her up and trotted her back to the corral, he was picturing Harvey’s face when he saw his opponent in the race. By the time Joe had the camel kneeling for his dismount, Adam was planning what he would say when Harvey paid off his bet.
Although he could almost hear his father’s voice starting the inevitable lecture, he knew he could no more stop his brother from racing than he could draw bead on a helpless kitten. After seeing the camel run and his brothers’ hard work, he didn’t even want to stop them.
“Little brothers,” Adam said, throwing all caution to the wind. “We’ve got ourselves a race.”
The sensation that occurred when Mr. Magill lead Mehitabel to the starting line would make Adam grin for years later, each time he remembered this day.
The nine horses entered in the race milled around in various states of readiness, the surrounding crowd buzzing as they assessed their potential chances and placed their bets. Mr. Magill came out from the alley near the livery, dressed in loose desert robes, leading the saddled camel. Joe walked at his side, grinning in anticipation. Mehitabel trumpeted her arrival with her particular bray-bellow, and the crowd fell as silent as if they were in a church service.
“What the Sam Hill is THAT?” someone gasped.
“Gentleman, ladies,” Adam said, stepping forward. “This is the Ponderosa’s entry in today’s race.”
He had his eye on Harvey Smythe’s face as he spoke, and he was not disappointed in his reaction. Harvey Smythe jerked as if struck by a physical blow, then his face reddened into an angry glare. That was worth all the arguments and lectures sure to be coming when Pa returns, he thought with satisfaction. I don’t even care anymore who wins.
The confusion that ensued was immediate and loud. Adam grinned at Hoss, who winked in return, sharing the moment of ludicrous outrage and laughter that followed. Two of the racehorses reared and pulled at their riders’ grasp. Several outraged voices grew louder than the rest, and a more organized appeal was made to Hiram Muncie and the Race Committee by several of the riders. Adam and Hoss and Joe stood patiently near Mr. Magill and the camel, waiting for the first wave of protest to recede.
“Mr. Muncie, you can’t let that-that beast in the race!” the blacksmith hollered.
“This is a race, not a zoo!” someone else shouted.
“Besides that, who’s gonna ride it?” Andy Sikes, one of the race riders, asked. He pointedly eyed Adam and Hoss’ slings. “Neither of you Cartwrights looks like you’re in shape to watch the race, let alone ride in it.”
Hoss and Adam looked at each other, and Adam took a deep breath.
“My youngest brother will ride,” Adam said. “He was entered to ride in the race last week.”
Several voices protested this, and the arguments rose in pitch and heat. Finally, Hiram Muncie, prominently displaying his “Race Official” ribbon, called for silence.
“In the interest of settling the matter of the Ponderosa’s entry, I would like to ask Judge Hobarth, as an impartial observer, to assist in the determination of whether the er- animal and rider proposed may participate.”
Samuel Hobarth, the circuit judge, was in town for the festivities rather than any pressing duties. When Muncie appealed to him, he nodded acceptance, highly amused by the whole thing.
“Thank you, Judge,” Hiram Muncie said. “The Judge’s decision will be final, gentleman. With your permission, Barney, we will confer in your establishment.”
Judge Hobarth, Hiram Muncie, Barney, and about a dozen others repaired to the Silver Dollar. The two older Cartwright brothers followed to present their case.
While the Committee debated, spectators crowded around the curious beast. Mr. Magill, no stranger to the attention his charge generated, held Mehitabel’s headstall, eagerly answering questions. Mr. Magill, center-stage with the race day spectators, was enjoying their attention with all the verve of a natural showman.
Harvey Smythe handed his high-strung hunter over to his man, urging him to walk her somewhere far from the racecourse and its strange participant. Spying Mr. Magill, he edged his way over to the little crowd of curious on-lookers, casually working nearer to the man in the loose-fitting clothes and the camel.
He watched the seemingly clumsy and slow moving camel with narrowed eyes. As a way of ridiculing me, this is extremely effective, he thought. Cartwright is apparently showing his contempt for our bet. Still, Adam Cartwright was no fool. If he read his former classmate correctly, Adam wanted to win this race; therefore he must feel that the camel had a good chance.
“Straight from the exotic desert sands of Arabia, previously owned by the Caliph of Ecuador-” Mr. Magill had no idea where Ecuador was, but he had heard the name once and thought it sounded exotic. Harvey coughed to cover his laugh. This Mr. Magill had no more notion of geography than-well, than any of the other good citizens of Virginia City.
“Gentle as the desert breezes-” Mr. Magill continued.
“Yeah, but is it fast?” one of the more practical cowhands asked, considering the betting possibilities. Harvey leaned forward; it was the question he most wanted to ask himself. Harvey glanced around. Adam was standing inside the saloon doors, talking with his brother, too far away to hear Mr. Magill.
“Once she achieves her racing stride, she is as the lightning in summer storms. And she is steady and true. Only one thing has ever stopped my desert princess once she started running,” Mr. Magill bragged. “That is the sound of the cavalry bugle. My gentle one cannot tolerate the sound. It is why the army let her go to me.”
Harvey stopped, eyebrows raised. He thought for a moment, spoke briefly to his man tending his horse, and sauntered away.
With a few friendly drinks in the Bucket of Blood saloon he learned about a former army corporal named Willis, who still played his bugle occasionally for funerals and the Fourth of July. Harvey’s luck held; he located Willis as he was leaving his job with the county assayer.
Certainly, for a small fee, Willis would be happy to bring his bugle to the race to help cheer on the competitors.
After hearing the arguments, Judge Hobarth asked for a private conference with the Race Committee, and sent all non-committee members outside.
Adam took the opportunity to check on Joe, who was standing near Mr. Magill, tense with suppressed excitement. Adam explained that the decision was still being reviewed, and the boy’s eyes dropped in disappointment.
“Just a little while longer,” Adam said, and he winked at his brother. “We have an airtight case.”
Joe let his eyes wander over the crowd.
“Hey Adam, which one is Mr. Smythe?” Joe asked, curious to see his brother’s enemy.
Adam glanced around. “I don’t see him-oh, there he is, standing next to Jasper Holt.”
“Where?” asked Joe. “I see Mr. Winthrop, but which one is Mr. Smythe?”
“Mr. Winthrop?” Adam asked, puzzled for a moment. “I think we are talking about the same person, Joe. Harvey Winthrop Smythe III. That’s him, in the white shirt.”
Joe stared. The Mr. Winthrop that he had nearly run down, the Mr. Winthrop that he had fenced with on the lakeshore-that same man was the Mr. Smythe who was causing so much trouble for his brother.
He hadn’t seemed to be mean when they were playing, but-Joe shook his head. He sure didn’t know what to think about him, now.
The race participants waited, some walking their horses, all of them keeping a good distance between their mounts and Mehitabel. After thirty minutes of murmured and arm-waving conference, Judge Hobarth stepped up the starting line and gestured for silence. The restive horses were stilled as the racers and on-lookers quieted to hear the ruling.
“Gentleman,” Judge Hobarth said. “I’ve reviewed the arguments, and it all comes down to the law-er, that is to say, rules. As claimed by Mr. Cartwright, nowhere in the rules does it state an age requirement for the race participants.” A few voices were raised in protest, but a Judge Hobarth’s raise hand brought quiet again.
“Furthermore, nowhere in the rules does it state that the animals in the race must be horses. In fact,” he paused for effect, conscious of all eyes on him. “The word ‘horse’ is never used in the rules at all.”
A buzzing murmur started in anticipation of his next words.
“Therefore the camel, with young Joseph Cartwright as jockey,” Judge Hobarth said, “will be allowed to race.”
Protests and cheers threatened to drown each other out. Hoss grinned at Adam, and Adam smiled crookedly at Harvey Smythe. Harvey, however, did not appear the least dismayed. Adam’s brows lowered at Harvey’s nonchalance. What have card have you left to play, Harvey? Adam wondered.
The race participants once again assembled at the starting line. Harvey walked his hunter to the line himself, keeping well clear of the camel. He watched intently for the camel’s rider to mount-the youngest Cartwright brother was to ride, Adam had said. He had never met the youngest brother, but knew that Adam thought so highly of his skills that he had proposed him as a rider to satisfy the bet.
Harvey mounted his nervous hunter, easing into an advantageous position near the official starter. He caught the eye of Willis, who waved his bugle and nodded enthusiastically.
Mr. Magill and the camel created another slight sensation when the camel knelt; front legs first, then back legs, lowering herself to the ground to allow her rider to mount. Harvey noticed Joe, the boy he had had the mock fencing match with, standing near Mr. Magill. He smiled to himself. From what he learned of the boy during their two encounters, he was not surprised to see his spirited acquaintance in the thick of things.
He was not prepared for what happened next, however.
With a flourish and a hammy little bow, Joe stepped on the camel’s knee, climbing lightly into the saddle. Mr. Magill gave another command and the camel lurched forward, lifting her back legs awkwardly, then her front. Joe sat through this maneuver, rocking with the camel’s motion, obviously quite at home on her back.
Harvey stared. The stunning knowledge that his young fencing friend, this child, was Adam Cartwright’s youngest brother, drove every other thought from his head.
Mr. Magill led Mehitabel to the starting line, leaving a generous distance between the camel and the other race participants. The spectators were beginning to acknowledge the unusual fun that might be in store, and the shouts and calls for bets grew louder.
Hoss whooped and hollered from the wooden sidewalk, waving his hat to Joe with his good arm. Joe grinned back, excitement taking over again as the starter called for all riders to get in position.
Standing beside Hoss, Adam rested his sling on the hitching rail and watched his little brother. He adjusted his aching shoulder, and thought about all he had learned about the boy this summer. His own qualms about Joe riding in the race were swept away by Hoss’ confidence in their little brother’s skill; during the saloon debate, Hoss had again assured Adam that Joe was well able to handle the camel. He certainly looks confident, Adam thought. There are very few riders who could adjust so easily to such a dramatically different mount.
“Gentleman, on the count of three, the starting gun will be fired, signaling the start of the race,” Hiram Muncie announced. “The course runs down C Street, out to the edge of town, around the marked cottonwood tree, and back up C Street, finishing where you started. First rider on his horse-er animal, across the finish line, shall be the winner. Any questions?”
Harvey glanced around frantically, but he could no longer see Willis in the crowd.
There were mutters of “get on with it” and “let’s go.”
“All right, then, gentleman, on your mark! One, two, three-” and the gunshot drowned out the rest of Muncie’s voice.
The line of nine horses and one camel leaped forward. Joe had clapped his heels into Mehitabel when Muncie said ‘three’ and Mehitabel’s responding lunge forward occurred just as the starting gun went off. His timing paid off; Mehitabel beat two horses off the mark, leaving the starting line in eighth place.
He held the reins lightly, as Mr. Magill had told him, keeping the stick ready to tap directions to Mehitabel. While they were on the straight part of the course, however, no real signals were needed, so Joe concentrated on sitting as still as possible, letting Mehitabel gain speed and lengthen her stride as they had practiced. He rocked his body with her motion, balancing his slight weight from stride to stride.
He knew the horses would be faster at the very start, but he figured Mehitabel’s longer stride would catch some of them before the turn. Any horse he was ahead of when they came around the tree would never catch him on the straightaway.
It still seemed strange to sit so high, though he had gotten used to the rocking motion through practice riding this week. Mehitabel obediently lengthened her stride at his encouraging “come on Beautiful One!” and Joe leaned further forward. His high perch allowed him a clear view of the seven horses in front of him, and as Mehitabel gained ground on them he was able to pick his path through their midst. He wanted to gain as much as he could before the turn; Mehitabel needed to turn wide and would lose ground as she came around the tree.
He looked ahead; Harvey Smythe was in front of all the riders by about three lengths; no surprise there, but Joe was determined to make the best showing possible. He tapped Mehitabel lightly on the left shoulder and she turned slightly toward the right, leaping forward between a showy sorrel and the blacksmith’s horse. Both horses swerved away, and although they steadied, Mehitabel passed them easily.
Only five in front of him now, and he pressed his heels back again. Mehitabel pushed forward harder, bellowing a little. Joe knew now that that sound indicated excitement, but the horses nearby did not; one of them shied violently and ran right off the course, and another bucked its rider off as they passed. Mehitabel approached the tree in fourth place.
Joe deliberately passed the tree before tapping the signal to turn and Mehitabel swung wide, her toes digging into the sand and her legs shortening her stride. Another tap to the shoulder and she was on the straightaway, near the third place horse’s rump.
“Come on girl!” he shouted, his only remaining strategy to run her as fast as possible.
Harvey Smythe heard Joe’s shout, and chanced a glance behind. The camel was closer than he anticipated; just five lengths back and settling into a long-legged stride that gained her another length as he watched. He laid his spurs into his horse and it responded with a short burst of speed. His horse was tiring, though, and Harvey knew it; the earlier fright and delayed start had taken its cost in stamina.
The third-place rider was Jasper Holt from the Diamond C. He grinned as Joe pulled up even with him, whooping slapping his long reins across his horse’s flank. But Mehitabel still gained ground.
“Go on, boy!’ Holt hollered as Joe passed him. “I got money on you, too!”
As they came back into town, the race was now between three leading riders: Harvey Smythe on his long-legged hunter, Andy Sikes on a tough little mustang, and Joe on Mehitabel. Harvey had lost most of his lead; the three riders were grouped tightly together as they approached the finish line.
C Street was lined with cheering spectators, and the drumming hoof beats, hollering crowd and bellowing camel created a deafening din.
True to his word, Willis, the former cavalry bugler, was ready and waiting. Thinking that Smythe wanted the bugle call to help celebrate the winner, he had positioned himself near the finish line. When the three front riders made the turn and hit the home stretch, he readied his bugle. When they were about a fifty yards out, he raised it to his lips and blew a rusty “Charge.”
Harvey had known that his Virginia hunter was well used to the sound of a hunting horn, but he had not considered the affect the strident bugle tones might have on other horses. Andy Sikes’ horse bolted in fear, but kept on in the same direction, and the fear-induced speed sent him past Harvey to cross the finish line first. Harvey crossed in second place, cursing under his breath. However, as he crossed the finish line, he heard the sound of the crowd change from festive to frantic.
He turned his horse, and saw the reason: the camel was bucking in a frantic, mindless fit of fear, long legs splayed as she leaped again and again. Her saddle was empty.
“Oh God!” He heard the words and realized he had uttered them himself. His stomach twisted and his eyes frantically searched, but the excited crowd kept him from locating the boy. He spotted one of the other Cartwrights, though; Hoss and Mr. Magill had each captured one of the camel’s reins, effectively pulling her head down and stopping the bucking. Hoss handed his rein to Mr. Magill, turning to run back to where the crowd gathered.
Harvey rode closer through the crowd and saw Adam kneeling in the street, bending over a small figure near a water trough. A cry went up for the doctor. Doc Martin pushed his way through the clump of spectators, stopping to send a boy racing away to his office just down the street.
Harvey slid down from his horse, dropping the reins without thinking and walked toward the kneeling men.
“He’s out cold,” he heard Adam say, his voice flat and remote.
“Let me in there, Adam,” Doc Martin said gently. Hoss pulled Adam to his feet, moving him a step or two back.
“I don’t think she kicked him or stepped on him, Adam,” Hoss said. “He hit the ground pretty hard, though-he just must’ve bumped his head a little, that’s all.”
Adam recognized Hoss’ tone and words and knew his brother was trying to reassure him. It worked to some extent; concentrating on his words helped to steady him.
The boy came with the doctor’s bag; Doc Martin continued feeling along Joe’s limbs and around his head.
“Hiram,” he called after a moment. “Would you carry him over to my office? It’s safe to move him now; I’ll complete my examination there. No, Adam, Hoss, you’ve only got two good arms between you. Hiram can carry the boy.”
“I’m real sorry,” Willis was saying over and over, and he pulled on Adam’s arm. “Real sorry! I didn’t know that blowin’ a charge would scare the beast!”
Adam impatiently pulled free of Willis’ grip and turned to help the doctor and Hiram Muncie lift the limp boy. The crow parted enough for Harvey to see the boy’s white face and closed eyes as he lay awkwardly in the dust.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Smythe,” Willis said, changing his grip to Harvey’s arm. “I maybe should’ve done it sooner, or waited until you crossed the finish line.”
Adam looked back at Willis, his eyes hard as flint. He looked at Harvey, and to his dismay, Harvey felt his face flush.
“Gently, Hiram,” Doc Martin said. “He may have injured that shoulder. I’ll hold his head while you stand. Adam, grab my bag will you?”
Adam made no move to pick up the bag; he stood staring at Harvey, every muscle in his body tensed.
Hoss grabbed the bag and nudged his brother with his shoulder. “Come on, Adam,” Hoss said. “You can sort that snake out later. Let’s head over to Doc’s.”
Harvey felt rooted to the street as the little party moved away, Hiram Muncie and the doctor taking care with the still-limp Joe. One of the boy’s legs fell free of Muncie’s grip, the small boot swinging loosely and Adam hastened to gently catch the leg back up to Muncie’s hand. Harvey watched until Hoss and Adam disappeared through the door of Doctor Martin’s office.
He stood for another moment or two, watching the crowd disperse. His body felt hollow, as if all his insides had been taken out.
“I was asked to hand out the race prizes for Mr. Muncie,” a voice said behind him. He turned to see Barney, the bartender. Andy Sikes stood beside him, holding a blue ribbon and a gold cup. Barney held out a red ribbon and a pie, and there was contempt in his gaze. “Here’s your winnin’s for second place.”
Harvey automatically accepted the pie and the ribbon without a word.
“Come on Andy,” Barney said. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
Andy Sikes and Barney headed toward the saloon doors.
An unearthly honking bellow was the only warning Harvey received. A sudden blow to his backside propelled him forward. Because he held the pie, he could not bring his hands up quickly enough to stop his progress. He and his pie tumbled into the water trough.
He turned and sat up, sputtering and gasping, blueberries and piecrust clinging to his shirtfront. He heard laughter and looked up to see Mehitabel’s large face looming over him, her lips working methodically. He shrank back into the trough, fearful of another blow. Abruptly, Mr. Magill appeared and pulled the camel’s head away with a slight tug on her headstall.
“Another thing that is not commonly known about camels,” Mr. Magill said in his precise accent, and he smiled an insincerely apologetic smile. “They are able to kick in almost any direction.”
Harvey went back to the International House and changed his clothes. He found that his hands were shaking as he buttoned a dry shirt.
He looked through his belongings, fingering the items in his kit. He considered simply packing up and running. That is what his father usually had him do when he created another mess-get out and pay others to clean it up. But his mind kept showing him a curly-headed young boy joyfully fencing an invisible opponent on the lakeshore. He couldn’t just go this time. He had to know.
A few minutes later, he hesitantly opened the door to the doctor’s office. The front room was apparently a waiting area; Adam paced the small space like a caged lion. Hoss sat silent on a settee, turning Joe’s hat over and over in his hands.
At the sound of the creaking hinge, both brothers turned to face the newcomer.
With a snarl, Adam leaped at Harvey. Hoss jumped up, throwing his free arm across his brother’s chest, holding him with difficulty as he reached for Harvey.
“Let me go, Hoss!” Adam shouted. “This was no accident! He knew that bugle would drive the camel wild! He hired Willis to blow it!”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve, coming here Mr. Smythe,” Hoss said, panting with effort. “I think it would be best for everyone if you left town as soon as possible. I ain’t gonna be responsible for anything that happens to you once I let my brother go.”
Harvey, for the first time in his life, stood his ground.
“I would like to know how the boy is,” he said quietly.
Adam ground his teeth. “You want to check your handiwork?” he snarled. “Get out!”
“Please,” Harvey said. “I never meant to harm a child. When you said your youngest brother would ride, I didn’t know he was a child.“
“So it would’ve been alright to hurt someone older?” Adam said, shaking free from Hoss’ grip. “It’s nice to know you’ve got some scruples, after all!” He stepped forward, more in control, standing toe-to-toe with Harvey Smythe.
“No!” Harvey said. “I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt! I thought the bugle would simply stop the camel from finishin’ the race! I didn’t know it would react that way!”
“Look,” Adam said through gritted teeth. “If you’re looking for absolution or to salve your conscience, you’ve come to the wrong place. You’ve intentionally hurt my family. I can’t forgive that. If my brother is-if he-” He clenched his fists, his left hand showing white knuckles beyond the edge of the sling.
The door to the examining room opened and Doc Martin appeared.
“Adam, Hoss,” Doc said, with a glance at Harvey. “Joe’s awake. He’s asking for you.”
Both brothers moved into the room beyond without a backwards glance.
Adam came back to the front room a while later to give Hoss a few minutes alone with Joe. To his complete surprise, Harvey was still sitting, waiting.
“Adam.” Harvey’s voice was low. “Was your brother badly hurt?”
“No, no thanks to you.”
Harvey closed his eyes in relief. He had been waiting for over an hour, an hour in which he had imagined the worst.
“I’m glad,” he said, and he found that he meant it.
Adam’s face was tired; his eyes were still hard when he gazed at Harvey, but the burning anger was no longer present.
“You know, I almost believe you,” he said, and sat down heavily on the settee.
Harvey looked down at his boots. He had a sudden need to make Adam understand.
“Some people might think I had everything: connections, money, friends, a career in politics-or so I thought. And I threw it all away with a silly scandal. My friends shunned me, my family sent me away. Suddenly, I had nothing.”
“What about your wagon-load of self-pity?” Adam said ruthlessly.
“Touché,” Harvey murmured.
Adam ran his hand over his face and sighed. “Why are you here, Smythe? What ill-favored star were you following that brought you here?”
Harvey sat silent for a long moment. “I’ll admit, I didn’t come to Nevada by accident, Cartwright,” he said at last.
“Why did you come?” was all Adam could think of to say.
“I never liked you much, but you were the only person I knew out here. So I came through your town on my way to California. Just to see someone I knew I could feel superior to, to get my balance back.” Harvey laughed, but it was a sharp, self-mocking sound. “How pitiful is that? All I wanted in the world was to prove that I was still better than someone else.”
“Well, you got what you wanted,” Adam said bitterly. “You proved your superiority over a ten-year-old boy. I hope you are proud of your accomplishment.”
Harvey stood up quietly. “The bet is off, of course,” he said. “My cheat negates your obligation.”
He walked over to Adam, and held out his hand. “I’d appreciate it if you would give this to your little brother,” he said, and he placed something into Adam’s hand. He walked toward the door, but turned back when he reached it.
“They say you have to hit rock bottom to really know when to reform. I think injuring a child is about as low as someone could go, don’t you?” Harvey said. “I know you won’t believe this, but I cannot go back to what I was. I will not.”
“That almost sounds like a pledge,” Adam said. “But don’t make me any promises. Now that you know Joe will be all right, please leave. And don’t come back.”
He left without another word.
Adam looked down at the small object Harvey had given him. It was a gold pin, showing two crossed swords, and the words “Harvard Fencing League Champion 1852.”
He went back into the exam room and sat watching his little brother sleep, cataloging the pale face, the dark bruise on his forehead, the left shoulder bandaged and left arm strapped to his small chest. Hoss sat beside him, quietly keeping him company.
“This is all my fault, Hoss,” he said at last.
“I was wonderin’ when you would start sayin’ that,” Hoss said conversationally.
“I’m the one that got drunk and agreed to that stupid bet,” Adam persisted. “The result of which was-“
“The result of which was probably the most fun this town’s seen in a long time. The result of which was Joe got to learn to ride a camel, and Joe and me was able to give you one of the most unusual surprises of your life. The result of which,” Hoss’s voice softened, “Joe and me got to help our big brother with somethin’ important-savin’ his pride.”
“My pride!” Adam laughed a harsh, brittle laugh. “My pride isn’t worth this!”
“I think it is, and Joe thinks so, too. He told me to make sure you understand.” Hoss ran his good hand over his face. “Actually, I think a lot of this is my fault. Once I took that boy to see the camels, there was no stoppin’ him from ridin’ one. If I hadn’t tried to distract him from thinkin’ about your di-lemma, he’d never have put two and two together and come up with seventeen.”
Adam laughed again, but the sound held genuine mirth this time. “You might be right. But I don’t think anyone could have anticipated quite this turn of events.”
“Well, there is one thing I can anticipate, and that’s Pa’s reaction when he gets home.”
“Yes.” Adam sighed. “And we all three will deserve every last bit of that ‘reaction.”
The inner door swung open once again. Doc Martin came in and stood looking down at the three brothers. He studied Adam as he adjusted his left arm in his sling, watched Hoss scratching his left arm in his sling, and then looked at Joe with his bandaged left shoulder, and shook his head.
“I’m not sure what Ben is going to say when he comes home and sees that boy,” Doc Martin replied.
“What do you mean?” Adam said sharply. “I thought you said his injuries weren’t serious?”
“No, not serious,” Doc replied, reaching out and patting Adam’s arm. “Just-repetitive.”
“What do you mean, Doc?” Hoss said. Doc’s words had not allayed his fears one bit.
“The three of you will all have matching slings,” Doc said. “In addition to the bump on his head, Joe’s broken his left collarbone, too.”
Author’s Note: Camels were briefly used as pack animals for the silver mines around Virginia City, but the rocky terrain proved too hard on them. Camels had some success as pack animals carrying artillery for the US Cavalry, and proved to be hardy and well suited for the desert terrain of the southwestern US territories, but cavalrymen and horses simply could not warm up to them. Many of them were left to fend for themselves when the cavalry experiment was discontinued.
Ironically, while researching this story, I discovered that Virginia City has held annual camel races as a tourist event since 1960.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Christmas Tableaux (by Harper)
- Not Really (by Harper)
- The Tenderfoot – Part 2 of Series – Easterner, Tenderfoot, Westerner (by Harper)
- A Thousand Little Things (by Harper)
- Rider Coming! (by Harper)