Summary: My contribution to the Chaps and Spurs July Challenge using the words bucket, ignite, extinguish, pump and muster. A WHN to the episode ‘A Matter Of Circumstance’.
Word Count: 2486 Rated: K
A Friend In Need
“Joe? Would you mind checking the herd in the lower pasture for me this afternoon? I would go myself but I really need to go to the Bank and see about those clauses in the timber contract which need verifying before the end of the month and post that letter to Adam which has been lying on my desk for over a week.”
Stretched out on the settee and having clearly been deep in thought and miles away, Joe’s head jerked sharply at the sound of his father’s voice as Ben walked out of the kitchen with a cup of coffee in his hand. Silently deliberating the request for a moment Joe groped for a plausible and feasible response knowing it would be a lie he was about to utter. But even though remorse filled him he had to say it…couldn’t stop himself from saying it. So drawing in a deep breath Joe blurted out the words before he lost his nerve.
“I wish I could help Pa but I really don’t think I’m up to working around the ranch just yet. My leg’s still pretty painful and stiff so I reckon its best if I wait a while longer before I do any riding.”
Ben eased down into his armchair, his forehead creased with bewilderment. “But I don’t understand Joe. When Paul checked you over yesterday he was more than happy for you to start work again immediately.”
“Well the Doc doesn’t know what he’s talking about for once,” Joe answered curtly. “I’m the one who got busted up by 1400 pounds of crazed horseflesh that day, not him! So I reckon that gives me the right to decide when I feel good and ready to get back in the saddle and I’m telling you the time ain’t right yet!”
Slightly taken aback by his brusque manner Ben took a long sip while watching his son closely over the rim of his coffee cup. Joe’s response just didn’t sit right to his way of thinking.
He’d noticed his youngest being a little distracted and quiet lately and put it down to his enforced recuperation after being left seriously injured by an over-excitable stallion in the barn. For since being a young child Joe had never been one for sitting patiently around the house no matter how badly hurt or sick he’d been. So for Joe to now dismiss the doctor’s positive diagnosis out of hand was completely out of character and Ben frowned questioningly.
“But I’d have thought you’d be more than happy for any excuse to get out of the house after only having these four walls to stare at for several weeks. And I’m sure Cochise would appreciate some attention and a good gallop seeing as you haven’t been near him since the accident.”
Under his father’s gaze a curious expression of apprehension seemed to flash across Joe’s face at the mention of his horse’s name. However the look of anxiety was so fleeting Ben wondered if he’d just imagined it so decided not to comment and continued. “Then of course we’ve got Hoss, Candy and most of the men helping up at the mine all week so we’re a little shorthanded around here at the moment. And as I said before I really need to go into town today so…. ”
“So you think it’s time I stopped lounging around and start earning my keep,” Joe unfairly insinuated more loudly and sharply than he’d intended. With his simmering irritation mounting he pushed himself up from the settee and stared at his father with eyes blazing. “For once I’m using a little common sense and not pushing myself too soon but still you’re not satisfied! No matter what I do it seems I can’t do right for doing wrong around here these days Pa!”
Father and son stared at each other for a few moments and then in an attempt to defuse the volatile situation which was threatening to ignite into a full blown argument Ben just gave over a kindly smile and answered in a consolatory tone. “Of course you’re right Joe. If you say you’re not ready then that’s the end of the matter. Just take as long as you need and I’m sure we’ll manage.”
A niggle of unease nipped at Joe’s conscience at his unwarranted outburst and running a hand through his unusually lengthy locks he looked over apologetically, his anger seemingly extinguished as quickly as it had formed. “I’m sorry Pa. I didn’t mean to snap at you like that. I’m sure I’ll be up to pulling my weight around the ranch pretty soon but I just don’t want to be rushed until my leg feels as good as new. You can see the sense of that, can’t you?”
Without further comment Ben nodded understandingly. Joe quickly looked away unable to keep eye contact and sitting back down stared distractedly into the hearth. After a short while Ben noticed him chewing absently at his lower lip, a long recognised sign he had something praying on his mind. “Is anything wrong son? Can I help in any way?”
Joe silently groaned. How could he admit he was haunted by a ridiculous sense of dread, as bizarre as the fear of heights he’d suddenly experienced over five years ago. Then he’d managed to exorcise his terror with the assistance of his father. But this time he couldn’t….wouldn’t accept help from him. For the sake of preserving his manly pride he would sort out this latest irrational phobia in his own way without anyone’s assistance.
Shaking his head and summoning up all the nonchalance he could muster Joe gave a self-mocking little laugh. “Thanks for the offer but I’m afraid you can’t come to my rescue this time Pa,” he answered without further explanation. “I reckon this is something I’m going to have to work out for myself.”
Although bemused by his response Ben knew there was no point trying to pump Joe to elaborate. Sometimes he had to tread lightly with his son and he could sense this was one of those occasions. Instead he just put down his empty coffee cup and looked over at the impressive long-based clock stood by the door. He gave a start of surprise. “I didn’t realise it was getting so late. If I’m to make that meeting in town I’d better be going. You sure you’re going to be okay Joe? With Hop Sing in San Francisco this will be your first time alone since….”
The horror of what happened to him that day during a violent lightning storm made Joe visibly shiver at the recollection and caused Ben to stop in mid sentence and view him with concern. Quickly shaking off the darkness of remembrance Joe nodded reassuringly. “I’ll be fine Pa, really I will,” he answered and keen to diffuse a tense situation added with a wry grin. “Don’t plan on trying to cut off my arm again…at least not for a while.”
Ben smiled at his black humour then an appealing thought came to him. “Say why don’t we take the wagon and go to town together Joe? Sitting behind the team shouldn’t affect your leg in any way and we could have dinner over at the hotel after I finish my business at the bank.”
Joe could feel his stomach knot with unease at the suggestion and waving a dismissive hand shook his head and gave an exaggerated loud yawn. “No thanks Pa. I’m feeling a little tired so reckon I’ll have me an afternoon nap if it’s all right with you.”
Hiding his disappointment Ben nodded his agreement and as if keen to end the conversation Joe gave a quick farewell wave and walked speedily towards the stairs, soon disappearing from sight and with no sign of a limp or discomfort hindering his progress.
Ben watched his hurried flight and sat thoughtfully for several minutes as a frown settled on his brow. It was obvious there was nothing wrong with Joe’s leg and his fatherly intuition could sense he was worried about something, though for the life of him he couldn’t think what it could be.
Making his way to the desk Ben picked up the bulky envelope addressed to his eldest. He clutched it firmly in his hand and gave the empty stairs a final glance. After all these years there were times when he still didn’t understand his youngest son at all, and letting out a heavy sigh took hold of his coat and hat, opened the front door and slipped outside.
Joe stood by the window and his eyes rested on his father as Ben led old Buck out of the barn then mounted and urged him into an easy lope in the direction of Virginia City.
Collapsing down full stretch on the invitingly restful mattress Joe closed his eyes. If only he could allow himself to fall into a restful doze for the next few hours he silently wished. But with a sigh he knew it couldn’t be. He was now alone on the ranch and there was something he had to do. He quickly pushed up from his bed and taking a deep breath made his way back downstairs.
Minutes later standing in the open doorway of the barn Joe’s eyes adjusted to the dimness of the interior and for a moment visualised in his mind’s eye what happened the last time he’d set foot inside; a scene so vivid it had haunted his dreams and turned them into nightmares night after night ever since.
Screams of agony reverberated loud in his head; his screams, his agony as hardened hoof slammed repeatedly down onto unprotected arm and leg bone. The memory made him sway slightly as beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and ran down his cheeks. ‘Get a hold of yourself Cartwright,’ he thought to himself and wiped a sleeve across his face.
The only occupant of the barn turned its head towards the movement and immediately let out a loud whinny of recognition. But as if suddenly remembering the length of time he’d been ignored Cochise gave a contemptuous snort and lowered his head into a bucket, crunching a mouthful of grain and paying no further attention to the man in the doorway as if he weren’t there.
Joe knew his horse well after several years together and could sense the Indian pony was justifiably aggrieved after being stabled for so long and having received no visit from him in all that time. At the realisation Joe couldn’t help but give the briefest of smiles. “Guess that’s your way of saying I’m in your bad books, eh boy?” he whispered croakily.
As if punishing him further the paint still refused to look over and just bobbed his head up and down, apparently in agreement as he swished his tail furiously and his breath came in short, angry snorts.
Silently cursing himself for not being stronger Joe felt a surge of apprehension and his heart began beating so fast he almost expected it to burst out of his chest. He swallowed back the panic but the pounding continued as tentatively and almost painfully he took one step forward then another until man and beast were barely a pace apart.
Joe licked his dry lips. “Haven’t told anyone this….not Pa…Hoss…anyone,” he murmured shakily towards his equine confidant. “But since I got trampled by that spooked stallion I’ve been left scared Cooch…scared witless…of going anywhere near you or any horse for that matter. Too frightened to ride…can’t even bring myself to hitch up a wagon.”
Delicate ears pricked forward and a pair of intelligent brown eyes looked over curiously and gazed at Joe as if he were crazy.
“I know you won’t hurt me…I know I can do this,” Joe continued as he tried to lift a patting arm towards the black and white hindquarters. But to his horror instead he just froze, for as if to make matters worse he was suddenly transported back in time as the same feeling of panic and fear he’d felt at Eagles Nest cruelly manifested itself again in his mind.
It left him in an overwrought and dazed stupor, rooted to the spot and unable to move neither forward nor back; just as he’d been when clinging onto the sheer rocky outcrop all those years ago. Only this time there was no fatherly intervention to help him overcome his fear and lead him to safety. This time he was alone…there was no one.
Joe closed his eyes tight as his whole body began shaking uncontrollably and a low moan of unadulterated panic escaped from his lips.
Cochise shook his head with unease. This was the man with whom he’d shared a deep bond of companionship and closeness over the years. His voice was usually soothing and gentle, his manner trusting and fearless. But he sounded and acted different now as suddenly for the first time ever the horse could smell fear in Joe’s trembling.
A minute passed, then two, and eventually realising he was in no imminent danger from the stricken figure Cochise quietened in his stall. And as if sensing his master needed his help and he was the key to the problem turned slowly and moved forward until his tethering rope was stretched to its full length.
Only inches separated them and as though searching for a titbit the horse began cautiously sniffing at Joe, then gently nudging at his chest he softly pushed his nose into his shoulder and nuzzled a velvet muzzle into Joe’s neck.
For several long moments there was no response then as if Joe had suddenly been made aware of the warm breath on his skin without thinking his arm raised and fingers twisted unconsciously in the black and white mane. And as each second passed it was as if he was drawing strength from his mount as Joe’s trembling slowly ceased and his hand unhurriedly and automatically patted the silky-smooth neck; the pinto giving over quiet whinnies of pleasure at every stroke.
Joe could feel every tense line in his body relaxing as he realised what he was doing, and the debilitating and devastating fear that had consumed him all those weeks lifted like an early morning mist and disappeared away into the ether. At last he felt in control; he wasn’t afraid any more.
Joe opened his eyes wide and gazed at the horse standing so close. He smiled with deep affection and gratitude and ran a hand up and down the black and white face. “Guess I’ve got a lot to thank you for,” he murmured as they stood together; the solid bond of companionship between them both re-established once more. “Thank you Cooch. You’re a friend indeed.”
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