Summary: Joe sets his heart on capturing a skewbald stallion, and breaking him. Will giving his heart so recklessly to the horse cause it to break instead?
Rated: T (8,746 words)
The Mustang Series:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
As the herd of wild horses thundered across the meadow below them, Joe Cartwright headed his pinto after them. The hands knew what they were doing, but Joe was in charge, and he was desperate to ensure that the stallion didn’t escape this time. He spied the skewbald at the front of the bunch, and urged his black and white horse to a faster pace.
This was Joe’s third attempt to bring in this stallion. The last two times, the stallion had proved too wily, and had escaped with most of his band still intact. But Joe had a contract to fulfill with the Army, and he needed these horses. With relief, he saw the hand at the front of the herd turn them into the open gate of the breaking corral.
But the stallion had other ideas. It stopped sharply, leaving gouges on the shining grass, and reared, his clarion call sounding clearly above the galloping hooves. Joe urged Cochise to greater speed, and unshipped the big whip he carried. Even as the stallion turned to break free, Joe cracked the whip in front of his nose. Startled, the stallion reared, and Joe cracked the whip again. The stallion turned, and the herd were safely into the corral. The hands were shutting the gates.
Joe dismounted and climbed to the top of the corral, looking with satisfaction on the herd. The foals were ready for weaning, and Joe planned to cut them from the herd first, and put them into another corral. They would provide horses for selling or for the ranch in another year or so. Most of the mares would be broken and sold on to the army. And the stallion? Joe wanted it for himself.
Joe had been in charge of the horse side of the ranch for a year or two. At 24, he hardly looked older than he had in his teens, being very slim and good looking. He was the best rider of his family, and one of the best broncobusters in the business. He had seen the stallion from a distance the previous fall, and had spent a good deal of time plotting to catch him. The striking chestnut and white horse had a very similar conformation to Joe’s beloved pinto, Cochise. Cochise was the pick of the Cartwright horses, as far as Joe was concerned, and he longed to breed some like him. This stallion offered him the chance. His foals were very like him in shape, if not all in colouring.
Joe had a weakness for coloured horses. Most people scorned them, as the Indians liked to ride pintos. To Joe, that just showed that the Indians weren’t as savage and stupid as some white folks thought. These thoughts swirled through his head in just an instant. He beckoned to the nearest hand. “Jeb, let’s get started cutting these foals out.”
Jeb nodded, and turned away, shouting to the others. Joe jumped down from the top rail of the corral, and retrieved his lasso from his saddle, patting Cochise and stroking his soft nose.
Cutting the foals out proved easier said than done. The mares had them bunched into the middle of the herd, and the stallion seemed to be everywhere as the men roped the young animals, and pulled them, neighing miserably, out of the smaller gate. As the foals were taken away, and fewer remained to be protected, the stallion made their lives even more miserable. Several times, hands barely escaped the raking teeth and hooves of the furious stallion.
The final foal proved the most difficult of all. “I’ll rope the stallion, and you guys deal with the mares,” Joe ordered. “Then we’ll give them the night to settle down, and we can get the stallion away from the mares tomorrow, and make a start on breaking them.”
Lassoing the stallion took Joe no more than one try, but holding him was another matter. Joe, for all his slimness, was wiry and strong, but even his normal tricks for dealing with a wild horse weren’t working very well. The rope burned through the thin gloves he wore to protect his hands, and several times, he had to make a run for it as the horse turned on him.
By the time the last foal was out, Joe was covered with dust and sweat, and he still had to release the rope from the stallion. For the moment, the horse was standing still, his wild eyes fixed on Joe. Joe gradually loosened the knot and prepared to slide the rope over the horse’s head. He gathered the end of the rope into a coil in his free hand, working with slow movements, so he didn’t startle the horse.
The mares were all gathered in the far corner of the corral, and Joe was alone with the stallion. The hands watched from the safety of the corral rails. Joe was only slightly aware of them. All his attention was on the wild horse in front of him. He spoke soothingly in a low voice. The animal’s ears pricked forward slightly.
Joe finally slipped the lasso over the horse’s head, and the beast snorted and reared slightly. Joe pulled the rope towards him, and began to back slowly towards the side of the corral, still coiling the rope.
The stallion snorted again, and lunged towards Joe with lightning speed! Joe snatched up the last of the rope, and dived sideways. The horse turned on a sixpence and followed. Joe hadn’t paused; he scrabbled headlong towards safety. The men on the corral were shouting, but Joe didn’t listen to the words.
He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the horse was practically on top of him. As he dodged again, the horse’s leg hit him in the back, and he went sprawling into the dust. Instinct kept Joe moving. If it hadn’t, he might have been killed. As it was, the hoof only struck a glancing blow to Joe’s calf.
Even a glancing blow was incredibly painful. Joe’s leg was numb after the first burst of pain. He kept going, dragging himself towards the fence, wondering what was taking everyone else so long to help him.
A corral pole appeared in his vision, and he grasped it, pulling himself upright, and ready to climb – numb leg or not – to the top. The shouting intensified, but Joe still couldn’t make out any words. He was too intent on getting out of there. Then something hit his shoulder and hung on.
For a second, Joe didn’t know what it was, then there was a crunching sound, and Joe screamed with pain as the stallion bit firmly into his shoulder. He lost his hold on the corral, and slipped to his knees. The stallion lost its grip, but as it tried to bite again, Joe was falling, and its teeth ripped down the young man’s back from shoulder to hip.
If Joe had been alone, he’d have likely died there in the corral. But the hands were there, and although their reactions seemed slow, they did what they could and forced the stallion away from their injured boss. They dragged Joe out of the corral, and slammed the gate shut.
Joe realised he was safe, and tried to block out the pain. It came in waves, but he gradually got his breathing under control, and finally sat up. Every movement was agony, but Joe was determined not to show it. “Thanks,” was about all he could manage, but it seemed enough.
“Boss, you need to get your back seen to,” Jeb said. The other men nodded agreement.
“I was going to suggest that myself,” Joe agreed. He looked at his left shoulder, and saw the blood soaking into the sleeve of his white shirt. “We’ll call it a day,” he went on, trying to control his voice. “See you tomorrow. Jeb, could you bring Cochise over please?”
Joe sat where he was as the men swung themselves up into their saddles and headed off. Jeb, who’d known Joe a long time, brought Cochise over, and gently helped his young boss to mount. “Will you be okay gettin’ back to the big house?” he asked.
“Fine,” Joe assured him, although he felt anything but fine. He turned Cochise and urged the horse towards home.
Ben Cartwright took his place at the head of the table and looked at Joe’s empty place. “Have either of you seen Joseph?” he asked.
Adam and Hoss, Joe’s two older brothers, exchanged a glance and shook their heads. “I ain’t seen him since breakfast,” Hoss offered. “Weren’t he roundin’ up mustangs today?”
“I haven’t seen him at all,” Adam said, and his tone clearly said that he’d been long gone when Joe had finally surfaced this morning. Ben frowned slightly, because he knew things were often strained between his oldest and youngest sons. Adam thought Joe was spoiled by both Ben and Hoss, not realising that he, too, looked out for Joe.
“I expected him back a while ago,” Ben said, deciding to ignore whatever was wrong between Adam and Joe this time. They would sort it out, as they always did. Adam and Joe were the most physically alike of the three brothers, having similar dark colouring. But Adam was taller, broader, darker and more controlled than the mercurial Joe, with his flashing green eyes and chestnut curls. Hoss, with his Scandinavian ancestry, was the odd one out – the fair one in a dark family. For all that Ben’s hair was now fully white, his black brows showed that his hair had once been as dark as Adam’s.
“He’ll turn up,” Adam said, indifferently. Joe was frequently late for meals.
Ben frowned again, but sat down. He was just reaching for the bowl of mashed potatoes when he heard a horse come into the yard. “Is that Joe?” he asked. “It doesn’t sound like him. I wonder who it could be?” He pushed his chair back and went to the door.
For a second, Ben couldn’t fathom what he was seeing. Then he recognised the figure slumped over Cochise’s neck. “Joe!” he exclaimed, and hurried forward.
Joe was clinging to the saddle horn, barely conscious. He knew he’d reached home, but he couldn’t decide how to get off his horse. His leg was afire with pain, as was his back, both hands and one wrist. His bitten shoulder competed with his other hurts, and won hands down. “Pa,” he croaked, and tried to smile. But it wasn’t his usual charming grin. At one point, he’d bitten into his lip, and it was torn and bleeding.
“Adam! Hoss! Quickly!” Ben shouted, putting out his arms to catch Joe, who decided at that point to faint.
The other brothers came quickly, and Adam took the horse, and Hoss helped Ben lift Joe carefully into the house. Ben took an inventory of his son’s injuries and made a decision. “We need the doctor. Send one of the hands!”
Hoss nodded and hurried out of the door. Ben shouted to Hop Sing to bring towels, and swiftly wadded one under his son’s shoulder, which still bled sluggishly. He stripped what was left of Joe’s shirt from his back, wincing as it came away from the edges of the wounds. He pulled off Joe’s gloves, realising that the palms were worn through, and saw the rope burns, faint but unmistakable, on his son’s hands. Joe’s left wrist was swollen. The right leg of Joe’s pants was ripped, and a large bruise was forming on the leg beneath.
Joe moaned, and opened his eyes. “Pa,” he said.
“I’m here, son,” Ben said, softly, running his hand over Joe’s head. “Just lie still, we’ve sent for the doctor. What happened, Joe?”
Joe sighed. “That stallion. He’s clever. Went for me.”
Ben understood. “Why did you ride home alone? Couldn’t one of the hands have come with you?”
“Told them I was…. fine.” Joe moved slightly, obviously uncomfortable, and winced. Ben wanted to hold one of Joe’s hands tightly, but was afraid he’d hurt his son. He glanced up as Adam and Hoss came back in together.
“Help me get him upstairs,” he ordered, and between them, the brothers helped their younger sibling upstairs to his room. Once there, Hoss, gentle for all his huge size, helped Joe undress, while Adam made up a fire.
When Paul Martin, the doctor arrived, he went straight up to Joe’s room, knowing from past experience that he’d find all the Cartwrights in the room. He wasn’t wrong. Adam stood by the door. Hoss and Ben crouched on either side of the bed, where Joe lay face down.
Adam and Hoss sat waiting downstairs while Paul tended to their brother. Adam pretended to read a book, while Hoss alternated between pacing and perching on the fireside. “Dagburn it, Adam, what’s takin’ so long?” he demanded, worriedly.
“Its only been a half hour,” Adam replied, soothingly. He read the same paragraph of his book for about the tenth time, and it still didn’t make sense. He abandoned his pretence and put his book aside.
It might have been a cue, as footsteps sounded above them, and Paul and Ben appeared round the corner of the stairs. Both the Cartwright sons were on their feet without realising. “Well?” Hoss said.
“His injuries are mostly superficial,” Paul said, sitting down on the settee. “None of them are life threatening, but put together, they add up to a lot of misery. The worst is that bite on his shoulder. The edge of his collarbone is a little chewed, but he’ll be okay in a week or so.”
“What about his back?” Hoss asked.
Paul shrugged. “Its just a graze, Hoss. Because it was done by an animal, you’ll need to watch it for infection, but it’ll heal without leaving a mark, and probably quicker than everything else. His leg is deeply bruised, and will likely cause Joe to limp for a bit. The rope burns are minor, and you can take the dressing off in a few days. His sprained wrist should come right shortly.” He smiled at the family. “Really, compared to some of Joe’s scrapes, this one is minor. Don’t worry. This time next week, he’ll hardly know anything happened to him.”
“Thank you, Paul,” Ben said, gratefully.
“No problem, Ben. I wish you the best of luck keeping him in bed tomorrow, but don’t worry too much if you fail. A little exercise won’t hurt.” Paul retrieved his hat and bid the family goodnight before heading back to the city.
Ben went back upstairs, with his other sons following. Supper had stood uneaten on the table, and was stone cold. Hop Sing, having just realised this, was clearing the table, muttering in Chinese. But he wasn’t as angry as he might have been, as he had been helping his ‘little boy’, who’s well being was more important to Hop Sing than food at that moment. He set about making a cold meal for the family.
Joe had been dozing, but wakened when his family entered the room. He found a smile for them, as the small dose of laudanum Paul had given him was doing its job nicely.
“Hey, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, relieved to see Joe’s grin in evidence. “Guess you’ve finally found a horse that’s too smart for you, huh?”
Joe smiled. “No way, brother! That is the smart horse who’s gonna improve our stock!”
“With a temper like that?” Adam queried. “What if he passes it on?” Adam intercepted a look from his father, and softened his tone a bit. “After all, we don’t want this happening to everyone who tries to break his get.”
Joe just shook his head. “Come on, Adam,” he protested. “Use those famous brains of yours. This boy has been out there running wild for about 8 years. Of course he’s wild. But trust me, he’ll make a great sire. His colts are real fine. Shaped like Cochise, and some are coloured, too.”
Adam opened his mouth to say something else, but Ben forestalled him. “Right, this young man needs his sleep, and we need our supper.” He ushered his older sons out, and bent to stroke Joe’s tangled curls. “Sleep well, son,” he said, his tone warm and loving. “Call me if you need anything.”
“Night, Pa,” Joe said, sleepily, his mind still fixed on the skewbald stallion.
Joe was incredibly stiff next morning, and didn’t object to Hoss offering to help him rise and dress. But after breakfast, watching his brothers ride off to their chores, Joe’s natural restlessness kicked in, and he was soon pacing about the living room, despite his sore leg.
Ben, who was trying to work at his desk, eyed him with displeasure. “Joseph, you’ll wear a hole in the carpet,” he chided. “Sit down and rest for pity’s sake.”
Joe sat into the chair by the fire, and Ben gauged his soreness by the fact that Joe sat, instead of throwing himself into the chair. Ben sighed, and shook his head, and went back to his figuring.
But it wasn’t long before Joe was again on his feet. Exasperated, Ben threw down his pen. “You’re like a cat on hot coals. You’re supposed to be resting!”
“I can’t help it, Pa,” Joe replied. “I feel like I’m wasting time. I was planning to cut that stallion out today, and get begun on those mares. But I’m stuck here.” He ran his hand through his hair, and one curl flopped forward onto his forehead. He looked very like his mother at that moment.
“What do you want to do?” Ben asked.
Joe’s face lit up. “I could ride across on Cochise and supervise,” he said, far too readily, and Ben guessed he’d been trying to think of a way to persuade his father to let him do just that.
“Could you sit a horse?” Ben asked.
Joe nodded. “I’d stay on once I was I was mounted. I know it’ll be difficult getting up with this leg, and my wrist,” and he looked ruefully at the swollen, bandaged, limb. “But Coochie would look after me, and I promise not to help.”
Ben sighed, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Very well,” he said, finally. “But if I hear of you trying to help out, I’ll skin you alive, young man, and you’ll be confined to bed until everything is healed up, is that clear?”
Joe’s face was alight with happiness. “Yes, Pa. I did promise.”
Ben nodded. “I’ll saddle your horse, since I don’t suppose you can manage.” And Ben went to do it quickly, before he changed his mind.
Joe healed quickly, despite his daily trips to the corral to supervise the breaking. In a little over a week, he was back doing the breaking himself. Separating the stallion had been complicated, but had been accomplished eventually. Joe had christened him Satan, after the number of comments about how devilish the horse was. Joe spent some time every day near the horse, talking to it, giving it fresh hay, and a very little grain, just letting the horse become accustomed to his presence.
Breaking the mares for the army took priority, but it wasn’t long before Joe had finished, and had a good string of green broke horses for army remounts. He was ahead of the time specified by the contract, and knew that would bode well for future contracts. The day after he delivered the string, he was going to start breaking Satan.
Of course, life on a ranch never quite ran smoothly. The day after delivering the string of horses, Joe found himself riding fence with Hoss and Adam. Ben had concocted the trip as a chance for his boys to have a day or two to relax after the hard work all three had been putting in recently. For Adam and Hoss, it proved to be everything their father had intended, but Joe chafed under the delay. For more than a month, he’d dreamed of riding Satan. Even his beloved Cochise was temporarily shoved into second place.
Around the campfire that night, Adam eyed Joe carefully before bringing up the topic of the stallion. All the family had seen the animal by then, and agreed that he was an incredibly handsome animal. But no one but Joe had been able to get very close to him, and Joe himself had barely managed to lay one finger on him. So Adam chose to tread carefully. “So when do you start breaking Satan?” he asked.
Startled out of his daydream, Joe shot Adam a searching glance. “Just as soon as we get back,” he said. “After all, we can’t have him eating his head off, and doing no work.”
“When are you gonna introduce him to all them pretty little fillies?” Hoss asked.
Joe grinned. Unlike Adam, Hoss didn’t have a hidden agenda. He simply wanted to know. “Probably about the time that they come into season,” Joe replied, cheekily. “I doubt if he’d be much interested in them before that.”
Hoss grabbed his tall white hat off his head, and swiped at Joe with it. Joe ducked, laughing. “Well, you asked,” he chortled. Hoss guffawed heartily. Adam smiled, but continued his serious questioning.
“Do you think he’ll make a good cow pony?”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Adam, do you ever let up?” he complained, but Adam just hooked him with that dark, smooth gaze, and Joe wriggled. “I don’t see why he shouldn’t,” he said, giving in to his older brother’s authority. “He’s quick and clever, and he’s a good shape. Like Cochise,” he added, loyally, as the pinto stood drowsing by Joe’s shoulder. The horse snorted and tossed his head, before re-settling to sleep.
“Well, that says it all,” Hoss joked. “If’n he’s like Cochise, why, all our problems are solved.”
Joe grinned again. “Glad you see that, big brother. Maybe you’ll want one of his foals to replace Chubb there.”
Hoss turned to eye the dark shape of his large black horse. Chubb was the biggest horse on the Ponderosa, with a placid temperament and huge feet. “Naw,” he said. “I could carry that horse as easy as he could carry me.”
The mental picture this generated caused all three brothers to roar with laughter. If Ben had seen them, he’d have been well pleased. His ploy to get them to relax had worked.
Breaking Satan proved to be heart breakingly difficult. He had to be penned into the chute before they could get a saddle anywhere near him. Fastening the cinch involved risking losing fingers, but eventually it was done.
Joe eased himself down on to the stallion’s back, feeling the animal tensing beneath him. He settled in the saddle carefully, making sure his feet were secure in the stirrups, and taking the rope from the halter carefully into his hand. He jammed his hat down firmly over his eyes and nodded. “Okay boys,” he said, and they opened the gate of the chute.
For several long seconds, Satan didn’t move, then he shot out of the chute with terrifying speed. He began to buck wildly, and Joe hung on for grim death. He relaxed his body to go with horse’s movement, and waited for the moment that the horse capitulated to the rider. As the twisting and bucking went on and on, the horse broke into a lather. Joe could feel the sweat soaking into the chaps he wore. His hands were sweating, too, and he felt the rope slip slightly.
On and on, Satan bucked, and Joe wondered how much longer he could hold on. The men, who’d been shouting encouragement, began to fall silent, each wondering if the horse would go on till it died, wondering if Joe could take much more.
Then Satan stopped stock-still. His head was down by his knees, and his ribs were heaving. Joe felt much the same. He was panting from the pounding, but began to think he’d won. Then Satan changed the rules and reared up and up. Higher and higher he reached, his forelegs punching the air.
Joe threw his weight forward, hoping to push the horse back to the earth. But this was one time when his slimness worked against him. Satan wasn’t fazed by the weight on his back. He simply wanted it off, and when weapon number one hadn’t worked, he tried weapon number two.
Joe felt the saddle sliding slightly, and had to adjust his seat. His balance went and he grabbed the long mane in front of him. Satan, though it hardly seemed possible, threw his head further back, and cracked Joe neatly on the nose. Blood immediately began to gush from Joe’s nose, and his head was jerked back.
The combination of those three things shifted the balance of the battle in Satan’s favour, and Joe slid backwards from the saddle. He twisted desperately at the last minute, and managed to land on one shoulder and roll on landing. Instantly, the two mounted hands rode to catch Satan, but he had other ideas.
Instantly realising that the hated weight was gone from his back, he turned to make an end to it. Joe saw the horse coming, and scrabbled to his feet. He had a horrid sense of déjà vu as he dodged the stallion’s teeth. Then a lariat fell over Satan’s neck, and he was pulled off balance, and Joe climbed to safety.
The hands clustered around Joe as he stood wiping the blood from his nose. He didn’t think his nose was broken, but it bled freely. He exchanged cracks with the men, who were passing joking remarks in place of praise. Finally, the bleeding stopped, and Joe washed up at the trough. Satan stood, sides still heaving, in the middle of the corral, held by the lariat around his neck. “Get him back in the chute,” Joe said.
The men all looked at Joe, but no one said anything. He was the boss, and they all knew that a tired horse might give in more quickly. But this was no ordinary horse. Still, they had him back in the chute, and cinch tightened, within a few minutes.
Joe looked at the blood spattered on his shirt, and knew that there would likely be more. His nose had stopped bleeding, but the bouncing around might well start it again. He could probably have quit there and then, and nobody would have said a word. But Joe knew that if he stopped now, he might never ride Satan.
Once again, he eased down onto the horse’s back, and smoothed his hand down the silky neck in front of him, and spoke soothing words of nonsense. Satan’s ears were screwed back, and he showed no signs of being soothed. He stamped a foot beneath him. “Okay, open the gate.”
This time, Satan jumped from the chute like a cork from a bottle. There was no bucking this time. He simply ran across the corral and tried to wipe Joe from the saddle against the poles. Joe leaned over, shouting, but he couldn’t prevent his left leg being dragged along the poles. The chaps he wore saved him from serious injury, but his leg was burning as the horse swiftly changed direction, and charged back to the chute. Joe hauled wildly on the rope to the halter, trying to turn the horse.
At the last possible moment, Satan changed direction, but the opposite way to the way Joe wanted him, and dragged Joe off his back across the corner of the chute. The wooden poles caught Joe across the shoulder and knee, and he was swept backwards. He landed heavily on his back, totally winded, and unable to escape should Satan turn on him.
Luckily, the hands had already been riding to Joe’s rescue, and they caught the stallion, and hauled him away. The other men jumped into the corral and ran to Joe’s side.
Joe was conscious, but in a great deal of pain. He was sure his shoulder was dislocated, if not broken, and the pain radiating from his knee made him feel sick. He lay still, trying to control his breathing. His nose had begun to bleed again, and Joe knew he would choke on the blood if he lay much longer. Finally, he allowed Jeb to help him sit up, and was immediately overcome with nausea.
There was no pretending he was fine this time. Joe eyed the exhausted stallion across the corral. “Next time, I’m gonna bridle him,” he said, and one of the men laughed. Joe sat in the dust, Jeb supporting him, as one of the others harnessed the team to the buckboard. With gentle roughness, the men awkwardly helped Joe onto the back of the buckboard, hitched Cochise to the back and Jeb took the youngest Cartwright slowly home.
Joe had been right about his dislocated shoulder, and his knee swelled to incredible proportions in a remarkably short time. Paul Martin was summoned again, and looked decidedly grimmer than the last time he’d been there.
“I’ve put the shoulder back into place,” he told Ben, “But the muscles are all damaged, and it’ll take a while to heal. I’ve strapped his arm across his chest, and that’s the way I want it to remain for at least two weeks. No riding out to supervise anything this time.” He glanced down at the young man asleep in the bed. “His knee isn’t broken, fortunately, but its had one hell of a knock. Time is the only healer for it. I can’t begin to guess how long it’ll take. But while its swollen at all, Joe must stay off it. If he walks about on it, the damage may be permanent.”
Ben nodded, grimly, his face sombre. “That horse,” he muttered.
Paul pricked up his ears. “Which horse? The same one that savaged him last time?”
Ben nodded. “Joe is obsessed about it. He’s talked about little else for weeks now. I admit it’s a handsome beast, but I don’t see what’s so special about it. But Joe… Well, I put him in charge of the horses, and I respect his judgement. If he says the horse is special, I believe him.” Ben restrained an urge to touch his son. “I just wish it was taking to the saddle a little easier.”
Paul eased Ben towards the door. “Joe is young and strong,” he assured Ben. “And stubborn, too. I don’t doubt he’ll tame this beast in the end.” But to himself, he wondered if Joe was really willing to pay the price it might cost.
Joe spent the next week in bed, watched over by anyone who could be spared. By then, the swelling in his knee was down, but it was still tender to walk on. He was reliant on his father or brothers to cut his food for him, as he could only use one hand – and that wasn’t his dominant one. Time was heavy on his hands during the day, as the family had to see to Joe’s chores as well as their own.
After two weeks, Paul came out to check Joe’s shoulder, and wasn’t happy with the speed it was healing, so Joe had to endure another week of one handedness. Finally, after three weeks, Paul allowed Joe to use his arm, but the muscles were slightly wasted, and he had to spend many days doing exercises to build them up again. However, as he began to pick up his normal activities, strength and movement returned to him quickly.
It was 6 weeks after his accident before Paul passed him fit to break horses again. “Keep away from fences this time,” he warned Joe, cheerfully.
“Sure, doc,” Joe mumbled, but Paul’s joking remark had given him an idea. Next day, he went down to the corral, and with Jeb’s help, put the stallion into the chute. Satan was a little calmer. The weeks he’d spent around the ranch had shown him that other horses carried riders, and he had become accustomed to the men going around.
Joe let Jeb put the saddle on, and he bridled the horse. Satan shook his head furiously at the feeling of the hard metal bit in his mouth, but Joe had done this before, and he swiftly tightened the bridle straps so that the horse couldn’t drop the bit.
Joe climbed the side of the chute, then looked at Jeb. “Once I’m on, open the corral gate, and then open the chute.”
“What?” Jeb gasped, before hastily saying, “yes, boss.”
“Saddle up, and come after me. I aim to ride this horse till he’s broke!” Joe nodded, and climbed down into the chute. Jeb watched him uncertainly, then went to do as he was told.
What followed was the most terrifying, exhilarating ride that Joe had ever had. He made no attempt to steer the horse, just let him run where he would. And run Satan did. He galloped flat out across the meadow, turning up the draw, which led to the high pastures where he had roamed free.
Joe was like a limpet on his back. Jeb was soon left far behind as Satan raced to escape from the hated man on his back. Joe stretched out along the stallion’s neck as he swept under a stand of young trees, but he was in no danger of coming off.
Eventually, as Joe had known would happen, the horse tired, and the mad gallop slowed until it was little more than a weary lope. Joe pulled gently on the reins, and gradually, Satan came to a stop. Joe petted the wet, steaming neck before him, excited by the strength, speed and grace of this wild horse. Then he heeled Satan gently, until the horse began to walk, and Joe turned his head towards home.
It was a long ride back, but Joe felt that Satan respected him by the end of it. He had talked away to the horse, as he did with Cochise, and the stallion’s ears flickered backwards and forwards uncertainly, but he was at least listening. Joe met up with Jeb, and they finished the journey together, but Satan showed he was still not totally tame by trying to savage Jeb’s horse.
Back at the corral, Joe led Satan into the barn, and unharnessed him, and brushed him down, removing the dried sweat from his coat. He gave the horse grain and hay, and patted his neck before leaving. He couldn’t keep the smile from his face. He had finally broken Satan.
Or so he thought.
Every day was a new battle to ride the stallion. Joe had thought that he could turn the rest of Satan’s training to the hands, but he swiftly discovered that he was the only person who could handle the stallion at all.
Satan hated the barn, hated other horses. Joe turned him out every day, but insisted that he be groomed every day, and so found himself with a new chore. He could never relax round the skewbald, for he never knew when the horse would decide to take a chunk out of him. Joe suffered any number of bites and nips.
It was impossible to shoe the horse, too. Satan would let no one pick up his feet for more than a few seconds, and Joe soon gave up trying to accustom the stallion to having his feet handled.
With signs that an early winter was on the way, Joe moved Satan to the corral by the house, so allowing himself more time for his normal chores, since he didn’t have to ride out to tend to Satan. Once or twice, Joe used Satan to help herd the cattle down from the high pastures. The horse was certainly fast, but his tendency to savage the other mounts meant he would never be really suitable as a cow pony.
Ever mercurial by nature, Joe’s mood swung through every shade from hope to despair. The family never knew if they would find him jubilant or depressed. Tensions between Joe and Adam, often high anyway, reached new heights when Adam couldn’t keep from making a jibe when Joe came home bleeding from another nip. Only Ben’s presence, and the fact that he separated the brothers as much as possible, ensured that there wasn’t blood letting between them. Even Hoss caught the rough side of Joe’s tongue.
Throughout it all, Ben was his youngest son’s confidante. He was grateful that Joe felt he could come to him, as Joe often seemed bound and determined to do everything himself, even when he didn’t have to. Joe told his father many things – his delight with Satan when things went well, the niggling doubts that he would ever persuade the horse to accept another rider. Ben was proud of Joe. Even in his darkest moments, and there were many that winter, he never once lamented catching Satan.
Spring came in generous abundance that year. It had been a long, hard winter, but spring burst forth, and warmed towards summer, without its usual capricious flirtation with winter. As the mares dropped their spring foals and came back into season, Joe had no problems introducing Satan to his new line of work. Indeed, it was work that he knew better than any other. For a while, he was more tractable than he’d ever been, and Joe’s hopes took flight anew.
But once the season was over, Satan returned to his moody ways. Joe’s temper mirrored the horse’s to a frightening degree. All that glorious late spring, Joe rode through the landscape of the Ponderosa, and never saw any of it. He did everything that was expected of him, but spent increasingly long nights in Virginia City. He was never drunk when he came home, but there were several days when he began work without ever going to bed.
It was following a night like that that Joe was left in charge of the Ponderosa, while Ben, Adam and Hoss took a small herd of barren cows to an auction. Joe had been scheduled to go with them, but Ben was disgusted with his youngest son’s behaviour, and had chewed him out, then ordered him to stay home. Joe, exhausted, had shouted back that he hadn’t wanted to go anyway. Next thing he knew, there’d been a full-scale row going on, with him the focus of all eyes.
Joe had, of course, apologised to Ben, but for once his father wasn’t totally mollified by those green eyes, and had left still annoyed. Adam had been coldly silent, but Joe was too angry to care. Adam had made one too many remarks about the ‘wonder horse’ for Joe to worry about Adam’s anger. Hoss had tried to smooth things over, but Joe had avoided his eyes, and so Hoss had dropped it. He hoped that by the time they got back, Joe would have worked things out for himself.
Joe ate a silent supper alone, and then went out to the corral to take Satan in. As the barn was empty apart from Cochise, Joe hoped to keep the stallion in overnight. Satan, as any sensitive animal would, could sense Joe’s mood, and stood to be caught. Joe took him in and fastened his halter crosswise in the stall. Crossties allowed Joe more control, although Satan really hated them.
For a while, Satan stood patiently while Joe groomed him. As always, Joe talked to the horse, occasionally throwing the odd word to Cochise, across the barn. The work calmed Joe slightly, and he found the sweeping rhythm of the brush strokes soporific. By the time he had worked out his anger, he was drowsy from the warmth of the horse’s body, and he didn’t notice that Satan was furious.
Cochise picked up on the other horse’s anger, and began to fidget nervously in his stall. Joe noticed, and put down the brush. “Hey, easy, Coochie,” he called. “You gettin’ jealous over there? Don’t worry, I’ll be over to give you a little pampering soon.”
Cochise let out a nervous whinny, and Joe frowned. He patted Satan. “Be right back,” he said, and squeezed out between the horse and the stall.
That was too much for Satan. As Joe walked away, Satan kicked out with his hind legs, and caught Joe square on the behind. Joe was totally unprepared, and actually left the ground. He catapulted across the barn, and hit the partition of Cochise’s stall hard. Winded, he collapsed to the ground, and barely avoided Cochise’s frightened kick.
Satan had gone mad, bucking and rearing, screaming loudly. As Joe scraped himself off the barn floor, he realised that even crossties weren’t going to control Satan, and he hastily released Cochise and urged his pinto out of the barn. Cochise went willingly. Joe turned back to Satan, unaware that the barn door had gently swung shut behind him.
With a crash, Satan’s front leg splintered the side of the stall, and suddenly he was free! With another ringing scream, he shook his head to try and rid himself of the ropes, which still hung from his halter. Then his rolling eye fell on Joe, and he lunged for his master.
Joe had been talking a mile a minute, trying to calm his horse, but as soon as he saw the whites of Satan’s eyes, he knew that his voice wouldn’t help him now. When Satan made a move, Joe was ready for him. He dodged behind another stall partition, and swung himself neatly over it, and behind Satan, gaining himself some manoeuvring space.
There was nothing in the barn that he could use to protect himself. No handy pitchforks, as they were rather too handy for standing on. No whips, as the Cartwrights rarely used them and they were kept locked away. No convenient bales of hay to shelter behind, as they were waiting for a hay delivery in the morning. Joe had only his own cunning and strength to rely on here.
As Joe fought for his life against the wild mustang that night, he realised that he had two choices. He could kill Satan – or he could set him free; returning him to the wilderness, which was his home. And Joe’s heart was breaking, because either choice would rob him of a companion such as he’d never had before.
Joe shook his head, as a close pass from Satan slammed him against the wall. He couldn’t afford to black out. If he were knocked out, Satan would trample him, there was no question. Joe dived towards the door, only for Satan to lunge at him, teeth bared. Joe heard cloth ripping as he dodged sideways, and felt a burst of hot pain where Satan had, literally, taken a chunk out of him.
Bleeding, dazed, Joe knew it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out. At that moment, his eye fell on the seldom-used door that opened straight into the corral. Joe had to get it open, and perhaps he had a chance of survival. But Joe was exhausted, and Satan still had a killing rage burning in his veins. The odds against Joe reaching the door were astronomical. He gambled, anyway.
Miraculously, Joe reached the door without receiving another bite. He fumbled with the door, his fingers shaking with fatigue, and his hands slick with sweat. Satan was coming. His squealing grew nearer, and Joe could feel the hot breath on his back.
Just as Satan struck, the door fell open and Joe, clutching it more by accident than design, swung into the corral. Satan’s hoof crashed down on his back, breaking the skin. Joe let out a scream of agony.
Still holding onto the door, he turned his head, and blearily saw the horse charging at him. Joe pushed the door away from him, and it hit the stallion on the head. Just for a moment, the clarion call died, and the horse paused.
Barely aware of what he was doing, Joe grabbed the halter and hung on grimly. Satan wasn’t stunned for long, and reared up. Joe dangled helplessly from the halter. If he let go now, he would fall under the flashing hooves. Satan crashed to the ground again, Joe’s weight too much for him to bear.
In those few seconds before the horse gathered itself to go for him again, Joe released the halter, and it fell from his fingers to the ground. Joe landed hard, his knees buckled, and he fell forward to the ground, his strength gone. Satan, not realising what Joe had done for him, pawed at the fallen human before him, breaking Joe’s right arm.
For a long time, Joe lay unconscious as the stallion, exulting in his freedom and victory, galloped round and round the corral. Gradually, it came to a stop, sides heaving, and trotted over to where Joe lay, prostrate. It sniffed at the human, shying away from the smell of blood. After a while, when the human didn’t move, Satan went to the fence, and stood, as he often did, gazing longingly at the hills where he belonged.
When Joe regained consciousness, he lay for several moments, just feeling battered. Moving was pain almost beyond endurance, but the sight of the halter, lying just beyond his broken arm, forced him into action. Joe knew, without being told, that if his family came home and found him like this, with Satan still in the corral, they would shoot Satan. Joe loved the horse, and couldn’t bear to see him lying dead. No, better that the horse returned to the high ranges, found himself another band and Joe rounded up his colts. Then, he would still get the odd glimpse of Satan, and the horse would be doing what he was born to do – be a range stallion.
Lying there, Joe faced a hard truth. He had known, almost from the beginning, that Satan would never settle and become a reliable cow pony that anyone could ride. But stubborn Little Joe Cartwright had fought against that truth, closing his eyes to the signs of unhappiness in the horse.
Tears welled up, as he realised that this knowledge was at the back of his behaviour towards his family. Joe felt shame pierce him. He had let Hoss and Adam ride away with hard words between them, simply because he was unable to face a truth that everyone else knew about. At that moment, Joe would gladly have died of shame. He sobbed his anguish into his sleeve.
As the tears stopped, Joe scrubbed his face with his hand, and looked at Satan as he stood proudly across the corral. Joe knew what he had to do, and somehow dragged himself to his feet. The world tilted alarmingly, and Joe grabbed the door to steady himself, desperately swallowing against the sickness he felt welling in his throat. Somehow, he had to open the gate. It looked as far away as the moon.
But Joe took it one agonising step at a time. When his hand finally fell on the gate bars, he was grey and sweating. Satan pranced nervously behind Joe, snorting every now and then. “Yeah, yeah, I’m gettin’ there,” he muttered. He fumbled with the catch of the gate. “I’m lettin’ you go, Satan,” he whispered. “Be safe. Be happy.” He had to stop, as tears rose in his voice.
There, the gate was finally open. Joe pushed on it, and it began to swing out. Satan saw it, and hesitated for a second, before heading out, free at last. But Satan’s impatience caused his young master one last hurt. He brushed against Joe as he squeezed through the partially open gate, and Joe was thrown against it, banging his head hard. He sank down, blood pouring from a gash on his forehead, and allowed the darkness to swallow him. Somewhere on the meadow, there came a clarion call of freedom, but Joe didn’t hear it.
As dawn’s rosy fingers reached over the hills, Ben Cartwright finally approached the Ponderosa house. Buck, his buckskin horse, had gone lame, only a couple of hours into the drive, and Ben opted to turn for home. Adam and Hoss had plenty of help, and he didn’t want Buck coming to any harm. It had been a long walk for Ben, and he was tired, and looking forward to a bath and then bed.
Looking at the house, he was surprised to see the corral gate standing open. Joe wasn’t an early riser at the best of times, but with no father and brothers to rouse him, he was unlikely to be up and away already. Ben frowned as a prickle of unease ran down his spine. There was something lying by the open gate.
At this distance, and in the uncertain light, Ben couldn’t make out what it was, but some instinct prodded him to hurry his step, and he shortly found himself gazing down on the battered and broken body of his youngest son.
Ben could never remember, afterwards, how events had unfolded, but somehow he found himself in the house, with Joe lying unconscious, and barely breathing, it seemed, on his bed, with Paul Martin coming in the door, unable to contain a gasp of horror. But Ben never forgot how he helped Paul set the badly broken arm, and tenderly held Joe’s bruised, gashed head, while Paul put stitches in it. When finally there were no more bits of Joe to stitch or bandage, Paul poured them both a stiff brandy, and forced Ben to drink it.
Joe had lain unmoving through it all, and Ben’s anxiety spiralled higher with every passing minute. So it was with great relief that he finally saw Joe stirring later that morning. “Pa,” Joe said, and Ben wept with relief.
“Don’t try to move, Son,” Ben cautioned him. “You’ve taken quite a beating.”
“Satan. Doesn’t know his own strength.” Joe felt for his father’s hand. “Set him free, Pa. He was…pining. Set him free.”
“Oh, Joe,” Ben said, helplessly, watching as the tears broke free and poured down Joe’s face. He carefully gathered his son into his embrace, and Joe sobbed out his heartbreak against his father’s warm, broad chest. As the tears subsided, Ben eased Joe back down. “I’m so proud of you, Joe,” he said.
Joe, sleepy now, after the catharsis of tears, opened his eyes wider at that. “Proud? But…. I messed up.”
“Joe, show me a man somewhere who has never made a mistake, and I’ll show you a liar. But you faced up to your mistake, and put it right. And that takes courage, son, a lot of courage. Especially because that horse meant so much to you. Almost as much as Cochise. I knew that you would do the right thing.” He smiled, and stroked the curls poking out from the bandage on Joe’s head. “Yes, I’m proud of you.”
Adam and Hoss found Joe still bedridden when they returned from the auction, but they found a happier Joe than the one they’d left; one who was willing to apologise for being so grumpy.
Both brothers accepted the apology, feeling kind of guilty that they hadn’t been around to help their brother in his hour of need. They were glad that Joe had survived, and spent as much time with him as they could spare.
As Joe recovered, he was often pensive, but much of his moodiness was gone for the time being. Ben watched him covertly, knowing that Joe was absorbing the lesson he’d learned that terrible night. A lesson that comes to everyone with maturity.
If you love something enough, you have to let it go. And sometimes, that something never returns.
Next Story in the The Mustang Series:
Other Stories by this Author
- For the Love of a Horse (by Rona)
- The Medicine Hat Horse (by Rona)
- The Breaking Game (by Rona)
- Silence in the Storm (by Rona)
- When Love and Hate Collide (by Rona)