Summary: Joe encounters Satan again, and then finds his life depends on the unpredictable stallion.
Rated: T (10,195 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.
For the Love of a Horse
The hot summer sun beat through the thin material of Joe Cartwright’s shirt as he laboured to mend the fence on the far South Range of his father’s ranch, the Ponderosa. Joe had been at this task for several days now, sleeping out each night as he continued his patrolling of the fence line. It was a task that needed doing every few months, and Joe had found quite a few places where the fence was broken down.
As he worked, he threw the occasional word to the black and white pinto horse that stood nearby. Cochise, the pinto, would snort and bob his head up and down in response, and it gave the impression of a two-way conversation being carried on. Joe loved and cherished the pinto, and the feeling seemed to be mutual.
That section of fence secure again, Joe took a long drink from his canteen, and remounted. They ambled off, Joe’s eyes skimming the fence, but with very little conscious thought behind it. Fence riding was a chore he had done all his life, and he was on autopilot on this trip.
Cochise suddenly stopped, and snorted. Joe, alert for danger, found his hand near his gun. He looked all around, then back at the horse to see where Cochise was looking. The black and white ears flickered back and forth, and finally pricked so hard that they touched. Joe smoothed his hand down Cochise’s neck, and the gelding whinnied.
There was an answering call, and Joe smiled. “Found a buddy, huh, Cochise?”
The horse bobbed his head, and took a few small sideways steps. “Okay, let’s go see who you’ve found,” Joe said, amused. He assumed that one of Cochise’s stable mates was nearby, and urged the horse forward. They rounded the small stand of trees, and there before Joe was a herd of wild horses.
Now, Joe understood. It wasn’t Sport, Buck or Chubb that Cochise had smelt. It
Turning Cochise, Joe rode him back a little way and dismounted, tethering him to a tree. Giving the horse a pat, Joe headed back on foot to view the herd. Two years before, Joe had managed to corral Satan, a magnificent brown and white pinto stallion. Breaking the stallion had almost cost Joe his life, and in the end, Joe had let the stallion loose. In the intervening two years, Joe had had glimpses of Satan, but never up this close. He approached slowly, so that he didn’t spook the herd.
Satan watched Joe emerge from the trees. Joe had been the only human being Satan had tolerated in the months he had lived in the corral. Even so, he had frequently bitten and kicked, reminding Joe that he wasn’t tame. Now, the familiar scent brought back memories to the skewbald stallion, and he snorted uneasily. He had had a love/hate relationship with Joe, and was unsure what to make of the human’s appearance.
Watching the stallion, Joe was well aware of his conflict. Satan’s ears flickered back and forth, and he pawed the ground nervously. “Satan,” he called, gently.
For a moment, there was no response, then the stallion took one pace forward. Joe felt in his pants pocket for the little bit of liquorice he had there for Cochise. He knew that Satan had a weakness for the sticky black sweet. Joe held his hand out, and took a small step towards Satan and stopped again.
Taking another step forward, Satan’s nostrils twitched as the smell of the liquorice reached him. He snorted. “Come on, fella,” Joe coaxed, his voice pitched softly. Satan moved closer.
It took nearly ten minutes for man and horse to close the gap between them. Joe could hardly breathe with excitement. He kept his voice soft and calm, and held the liquorice out. His arm ached from the strain, but he didn’t dare swap hands, in case he startled the horse. Finally, he felt Satan’s soft lips moving over his hand, and the liquorice was gone.
“Satan,” Joe said, and moved his arm slowly up to stroke the velvet nose. Satan stood still, sniffing at Joe’s shirtfront. “How’ve you been, boy?” he asked, looking the horse over.
There was a new scar on his shoulder, and it didn’t look very old. But apart from that Satan was in prime condition, and Joe could see how muscular he was. “Its good to see you, Satan,” he said, and put his hand up to the side of Satan’s face.
Satan didn’t like his face stroked, and Joe had forgotten. In a movement so quick it was a blur, Satan sank his teeth into Joe’s left biceps, placed so temptingly close to his mouth. Joe let out a yell, and Satan, startled, reared, ripping the shirtsleeve, and the skin underneath. Joe was knocked to the ground by the stallion’s hoof, but luckily, he was too close for it to be a heavy blow. Still, Joe was in danger, as the stallion crashed to the ground, only inches from Joe’s prone body. With a scream, Satan turned and fled back to his herd. Within moments, the whole herd was galloping off in a cloud of dust, leaving Joe groaning on the ground.
Stumbling back to Cochise, Joe could hardly believe that the reunion had gone so wrong. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to him; he knew horses had only two weapons – teeth and hooves. Still, he should have been more careful. The bite on his arm was deep and bleeding. He was glad that Hop Sing had put a roll of bandage into his saddlebags.
It was awkward tying up his own arm, especially as it was his left, but he finally got the bandage secure. Having another drink of water, Joe debated returning to the ranch, but decided against it. There weren’t that many miles of fence left to check, and the job had to be done. Joe looked ruefully at the tattered remnants of his shirt, but he hadn’t brought a change of clothes. He shrugged, and mounted Cochise.
There was more purpose in the pace Joe rode at now, as he really didn’t want to spend another night out on the range with a sore arm. He stopped to water Cochise, and refill his canteens at the stream, and rode on. Fortunately, the fence seemed to be in very good order.
It wasn’t until he reached the last segment of fence that he found more damage. Dismounting, he examined the fence closely, and decided that it had been chopped with an axe. No way could a steer make that kind of straight, even, cut. Joe was immediately furious. They were always on their guard against poachers, and this was a sign that poachers were back.
Resolutely, Joe set about repairing the damage. There weren’t any cattle in that area of the ranch at that time, so they at least wouldn’t have to go looking for strays, or rustled cattle. Still, Joe knew that it was an area they would have to keep an eye on. So engrossed was he in these thoughts, that he didn’t hear someone behind him until a gun barrel pressed hard against the back of his neck.
Joe froze. He could see from the shadow on the grass that it was a man, wearing a stetson. “Just what do you think you’re doin’ there, boy?” he asked, with a distinctive Southern drawl.
“I’m mending our fence,” Joe replied, as evenly as he could. “What does it have to do with you?”
“Don’t get cocky, boy,” the man returned. “I’m the one holdin’ the gun, remember?”
Joe drew in a deep breath, trying to hold on to the embers of his temper. If there was one thing he hated, it was being called ‘kid’ or ‘boy’. Joe started to turn his head, but froze again when the hammer clicked back.
“Now, I think you ought to just leave that there fence be, boy,” the man went on. “See, me and my friends, we’re gonna be runnin’ some horses through here later, and I’d hate to have to knock it all down again.”
“The only horses on this land belong to the Ponderosa,” Joe returned, hotly. The horses were his special area of interest on the ranch.
“Shoot, you sure are all fired up fer a ranch hand,” the man said, sounding amused.
Biting his lip, Joe resisted the urge to tell this man that he was a Cartwright. Joe frequently spoke first and thought after, but he wasn’t stupid, and so far this man hadn’t recognised him. The only chance he had of getting out of this mess was to carry on pretending he was just a hand. He shrugged instead.
“Lie down, boy,” instructed his captor. “Put your hands behind your back, and don’t try nothin’ fancy with that there gun of yourn.”
With the gun resting on his neck, Joe had no choice but to obey. His left arm was stiff and sore, and he had trouble getting it behind his back. He felt a lasso being slipped over his wrists. It was drawn tight, and the gun finally moved away from his neck.
Grabbing his chance, Joe kicked out at his captor, and caught the man by surprise. He sat down abruptly, and the rope loosened slightly. Joe forced himself up to his knees, struggling against the restraint on his wrists. He had a glimpse of a lean face, lined and browned by the sun. Then the man was on him again, and Joe still didn’t have his hands free. He threw himself at the man, head butting him in the stomach, and rolling away. He hadn’t made it to his feet when the rope was yanked hard, and Joe tumbled backwards to the ground.
But Joe wasn’t beaten yet. He swung his legs over and kicked the man in the groin. Using the momentum he’d gained, Joe rolled himself to his feet, and turned to face his opponent, still struggling against the lasso. His gun had fallen from his holster, and Joe was desperate to get it out of the other’s reach. He lunged for the gun, and managed to kick it towards Cochise. Of course, it didn’t go far enough, but it was out of immediate grasp.
The stranger had recovered from Joe’s kick, and was advancing on him again, his hand reaching for the rope, which trailed between them. Joe danced backwards, trying to keep it out of reach, but failed. The rope tightened cruelly, and Joe could feel blood on his wrists. He was jerked towards the man, who threw several quick punches to Joe’s belly and face. Helpless to defend himself, Joe was soon bleeding on the ground.
The lasso was wound round Joe’s wrists again, and then bound round his arms and body. Joe fought as best he could, but it was hopeless. Finally satisfied, the man straightened up, panting. “You’re really lucky, boy,” he said, standing over Joe. “’Cause I’m gonna send you back to the Ponderosa, ‘stead of killin’ you. But make no mistake. If’n I ever see your sorry hide round here again, I’m gonna kill you. Understand?”
It was all Joe could do to nod. Pain came in waves from his abused body. The stranger dragged Joe to his feet, and punched him a couple more times to make his point extra clear, then pushed him to Cochise. Joe was thrown over the saddle like a sack of meal. Then he felt the weight of his gun drop back into his holster. “Don’t say I ain’t good to you,” the man said, laughing, then slapped Cochise on the rump, and sent him running for home.
Cochise trotted into the yard shortly after darkness fell that night. After some time had passed, Ben Cartwright crossed to the door and looked out, to see what was keeping Joe. He let out a cry, for Cochise’s saddle was empty. Adam and Hoss, Joe’s older brothers, came to the door to see what was wrong. They were immediately concerned, and began to saddle up horses, and hitch the team to the buckboard, without any instruction.
They set out at once, having summoned a hand to tend to the lathered pinto, and putting him on stand-by to fetch the doctor. Hoss led the way, following Cochise’s tracks using a lantern. It was painfully slow going. For each of Joe’s family, the desire to gallop to Joe’s rescue was almost overwhelming, but since they had no idea where Joe was, they had to go slow. They had only gone a couple of miles when they came across Joe lying unconscious on the ground.
Gasps of horror came from the family as they saw the state Joe was in. Adam used his knife to cut away the ropes binding Joe’s hands and body, and they gently lifted him into the buckboard. Adam galloped off towards home, to send for the doctor, and alert Hop Sing. Hoss tethered Chubb to the buckboard and took the reins, and Ben sat with Joe in the back.
“He’s going to be fine,” Paul Martin said, coming down the stairs. “No major damage, aside from that bump on the head. He must have landed with quite some force, but there doesn’t appear to be a fracture, and he’s quite coherent. Just keep him in bed tomorrow, and on light work for a week, allowing those muscles and bruises to heal.”
With a sigh of relief that he didn’t attempt to hide, Ben said, ”Thank you, Paul.” He made for the stairs, hearing Adam offering Paul coffee, brandy and a bed for the night. Laughing, Paul refused all three. He bid the family a cheery goodnight, and let himself out, freeing them all to go up to see Joe.
Lying securely between the blankets, Joe was dozing when his father and brothers entered. He opened his eyes with a great effort, and produced a slightly battered smile. “Pa,” he whispered.
Blinking back tears of relief, Ben sat on the bed beside his youngest son. “Can you tell us what happened, Joe?” he asked, gently.
Briefly closing his eyes, Joe nodded, and told the story, from his encounter with Satan, to his nightmare journey home. When he was finished, he sank back against the pillows. Hoss offered him some water, and he sipped gratefully. He looked at the three dear faces around him, and saw anger on each one.
“Tomorrow, Adam,” Ben said, his hand stroking Joe’s curls gently, “I want you to take some men and ride up to that fence, and repair it. I want guards left there. Hoss, I want you to ride into town and tell Roy Coffee what has happened. Everyone has to be on the lookout for these men.”
“What about me?” Joe asked.
Exchanging an amused glance with his sons, Ben said, sternly, “You’re going to stay right there in that bed tomorrow, Joseph. Paul says you may get up the day after, but you stay put tomorrow.”
“Aw, Pa,” Joe protested, and Ben laughed.
“No arguments, young man,” he said. “Good night, now.”
“Night,” Joe answered, and was asleep within moments.
Arriving in Virginia City next morning, Hoss discovered that Roy Coffee wasn’t in his office. Hitching Chubb to the rail outside, Hoss set off to try and track the sheriff down. However, his luck was out, as nobody seemed to have seen Roy that morning. Hoss even tried his house, to no avail. Discouraged, Hoss crossed to the Bucket of Blood saloon to get a beer while he waited.
The saloon was quiet, as it was still early. There were one or two men sitting around, but the only face Hoss knew was that of Sam, the barman. “Morning, Hoss,” he said, surprised. “Don’t often see you in here this early. On your own?”
“Sam,” Hoss replied. “I’ll have a beer. I’m looking for Sheriff Coffee. You ain’t seen him have you?”
“Not this morning,” Sam replied, getting Hoss’s beer. “What d’you need the sheriff for?”
Hoss took a swallow of his beer before answering. “Someone beat up Little Joe real bad last night. Pa sent me to tell Roy.”
“Too bad,” Sam exclaimed. “Is Joe okay?”
“Yeah, he’ll be okay,” Hoss said. “He’s a bit sore today, but I’m sure he’ll be back to normal tomorrow. He ain’t no stranger to fights, after all.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Sam agreed. He glanced across the street and saw Roy Coffee dismounting outside his office. “Hey, Hoss, looks like Roy’s back.”
“Thanks, Sam,” Hoss said, and downed the rest of his beer in a single gulp, and left.
Sitting alone, close to the bar, a tall, thin man, with a lined, sun-browned face had been listening. He knew it was too much of a coincidence that another man had been beaten up last night, and obviously not in town. He decided it would pay to find out more. He rose and crossed to the bar.
“Another beer,” he said, putting his money down. “That’s one big fella,” he commented, nodding at Hoss’s disappearing back.
“Sure is,” Sam agreed. “That’s Hoss Cartwright. You know, Cartwright, as in the Ponderosa?”
“Sure, I’ve heard of it,” the man nodded. “But I only got into town yesterday.”
That was all the invitation that Sam needed. “Ben Cartwright owns the biggest spread in the area. He has three sons. That was Hoss, the middle boy.”
“Impressive, three sons all that size,” the thin man remarked.
“Mister..” Sam paused. “What’s your name?”
“Jake Masterson,” the thin man replied, and they shook hands.
“Jake, the boys aren’t all Hoss’s size. Adam the oldest one, he’s tall, well built, too, but not as big as Hoss. Ben, the father, is tall, too. But Joe is shorter than all the others.”
“Who’s Joe?” Masterson asked.
“Joe’s the youngest boy. They don’t look much alike, the Cartwrights. Adam is dark, and usually wears black. Hoss you’ve just seen. Joe is slim, with curly hair and green eyes. Usually, if you see one, you see them all.” Sam looked out the window. “But I only see one horse today.”
“You know their horses?” Masterson asked.
“Sure,” Sam exclaimed. “Ben, he rides a buckskin. Hoss has that big black. Adam rides a chestnut, and Joe has this real flashy black and white pinto.”
“Some family,” Masterson said, knowing now that he had beaten up Joe Cartwright last night. “They own the biggest spread round here you say? How big?”
“Jake, you sure are new here!” Sam said, laughing. “The Ponderosa covers about 1000 square miles. The Cartwrights are rich.”
“Well, what d’you know,” Masterson said, and continued to drink his beer. His mind was racing. If he’d only known who Joe was the night before, he could’ve had a good ransom, was well as the money for the horses. Well, he and his mates could keep an eye out for these Cartwrights. Any one of the sons would do for ransoming. It had been a most productive morning in town.
At supper a few nights later, Adam said, “Pa, we can’t afford to leave those hands watching that fence any longer. We need them back with the herd. The others are working double shifts.”
“Yes, I agree,” Ben said. “There hasn’t been any sign of trouble up there. We must make sure we keep an eye open in that direction, but call the men back. Do we have any horses running up there?” this last question was directed at Joe.
Swallowing down a mouthful of food, Joe said, “Just Satan and his band, I think.”
Adam snorted. “Joe,” he said, caustically, “that horse isn’t one of ours!”
“Well that’s where you’re wrong, big brother,” Joe retorted. “Satan carries our brand. That makes him our horse!”
“Since when has he carried our brand?” Ben asked, quietly.
Drawing a deep breath, Joe looked his father in the eye. “Since not long after we corralled him, Pa. I had intended to keep him, and I just got him cornered, and branded him.” Joe blushed, remembering. “That was when he took that chunk out of my backside.”
There was a great guffaw of laughter from Hoss, and Adam swiftly followed his example. Joe looked at Ben, hoping for some sympathy, and saw his father’s lips twitching, too. Under Joe’s accusing glare, Ben could hold his mirth in no longer. Joe sat, glaring at his family, until his lips began to twitch, too. Shortly, the whole family were wiping tears of glee from their faces.
“That is what I call fitting revenge,” Adam finally gasped. “I wish I’d been there to see it!”
“Well, thanks for the sympathy,” Joe said, mock sourly. “As I recall, you laughed then, as well.”
This set Hoss off again, as he remembered Joe hobbling into the yard, leading Cochise, as he was far too sore to sit down. It had been a very nasty bite, but its placement had entertained the family for several days.
Regaining control of himself, Ben said, “Well, then I suppose we have some horses in that area. Do you think this man was after them?”
“He said horses, Pa,” Joe answered. He frowned. “I must admit, I was surprised, because surely they would make more money rustling cows?”
“You would think so,” Ben replied, frowning also. “I wonder why he wants them. There aren’t any more army contracts due out for a while.”
“I might know, Pa,” Adam said, suddenly. “When I was in town last week, I heard someone talking about some big rodeo that they’re planning to hold in town. What was it again?” Adam closed his eyes, thinking hard. ”I’ve got it,” he declared, opening his eyes again. “Mary Ellen told me that old man Peterson had decided to hold a rodeo on his land. The only thing is, he didn’t have any wild horses, and was talking about hiring someone to get some for him.”
“I heard about that, too,” Hoss agreed. “But the way I heard it, anyone who could bring enough horses would get $2000.”
Shaking his head, Ben said “Peterson has gone mad since he came into that money.” Peterson had lived around Virginia City for years, but had inherited a lot of money from a relative. He’d bought himself a ranch, and was trying to prove to everyone that he was the equal of the Cartwrights. It had apparently escaped his notice that the Cartwrights never held rodeos on their land.
“Look, Pa,” Joe said, tentatively, “we need to keep an eye on Satan and his band, but we can’t spare the men. Well, I’m on light duties right now. I could do it.”
The look on Ben’s face didn’t come as a surprise to Joe. He’d seen it any number of times in his life when he proposed something risky. “Joe,” Ben started.
“Pa, I wouldn’t go alone. I’m not completely crazy,” Joe pleaded, drawing a snort from Adam. Joe ignored his big brother, his attention fixed on Ben. “If I go up there with one other hand, we could take turns watching. After all, if something does happen involving Satan, how many of us can handle him?”
“None of us,” Adam said, pointedly, looking at Joe’s arm.
The glare Joe threw Adam ought to have fried him on the spot. However, Adam just looked calmly back, a tactic that was guaranteed to inflame Joe’s temper. Ben broke in before the debate could become heated. “Yes, all right, you can sort of handle Satan. But one other hand?”
“Okay, two, then” Joe returned, still glaring at Adam, who appeared oblivious of his brother’s displeasure. “That should be enough. We’re only watching, after all.”
“Two hands?” Adam asked. “Which two did you have in mind?”
His sarcasm passed over Joe’s head completely. “Well, Walt isn’t up to riding herd all the time, but he’s fit enough to keep watch. And maybe Charlie?” he addressed this last question at his father.
Thinking it over, Ben was impressed with Joe’s thinking. Walt and Charlie were two of the older hands on the ranch. They could still put in a hard day’s work, but the constant riding herd, and sleeping on the ground, took its toll on them very quickly. Joe’s solution would provide them with necessary work, but work that wouldn’t tax them too much. The only down side was that they wouldn’t be much use in a fistfight, if it came to that. He couldn’t think of another solution. “All right, son,” he agreed. “But don’t try to tackle these men alone! No horse is worth getting killed for.”
“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said. He disagreed with his father. He would cheerfully lay down his life for Cochise, and for the wild stallion that had captured his heart.
The first thing Joe did when he reached the south Range was to scout for Satan and his band. Walt and Charlie set up camp while he did that. Joe liked both the hands that were with him, but they were both old enough to be his grandfather, and he sometimes felt uncomfortable giving them orders, especially as they had known him when he was barely out of diapers.
It took Joe a lot less time than he had expected to find Satan. The big pinto wasn’t all that far away from where Joe had last seen him. Once again, Joe dismounted, and left Cochise a short distance away, and approached on foot.
This time, Satan was too wary to come within touching distance of Joe. He stood nervously about 10 feet away from Joe, his ears flickering back and forwards, betraying his mixed feelings. Joe sat down on the grass, and let his eye rove over the stallion’s band. Most of the mares had a foal at foot, and they were a good-looking bunch. In a year or so, Joe would be rounding them up, ready to break. He had already got a few of Satan’s get in the corrals, and had sold one or two onto the army. For all that Satan was intractable, his offspring were excellent mounts.
After a couple of hours, Joe abandoned his vigil, and set off back towards camp. Walt and Charlie had everything set up, and they were in a good place to watch the fence. The fire was set behind a small rocky outcropping, which shielded it from casual observation. They had already got a meal under way. That was a plus Joe hadn’t mentioned to his father. Walt was a good cook.
As the sunset spread gold and pink streamers across the sky, Satan and his band appeared in the meadow where Joe, Walt and Charlie were camped out. Joe rose to his feet, and moved a few steps away from the fire. Satan ignored him, settling his family into the new grazing.
“He’s some horse,” Charlie said, admiration in his voice. “It’s a real pity you never could get him clear broke.”
“Sure is,” Joe agreed, wistfully. Charlie had witnessed many of Joe’s battles with the horse. “But that’s the way it goes.”
Feeling a little melancholy, Joe went over to Cochise, and petted him, but his eyes were still on Satan. Cochise was his first love, but Satan had taken a large piece of his heart when Joe had set him free. Satisfied that Cochise and the other horses wouldn’t get loose, Joe walked away into the growing darkness, taking another close look at the fence. After a few minutes, he felt soft lips on the back of his neck. Turning slowly, he stroked Satan’s nose gently.
Later, Joe had no idea how long he spent just talking to Satan, and gently petting his nose. There were no mistakes this time; Joe didn’t touch his face. When, finally, the stallion had had enough, he snorted once, and trotted away, taking up his duties again. It was a bittersweet moment for Joe. Satan had shown Joe some love, and now had withdrawn it again, as he had done all those months when Joe had battled to tame him. Joe knew he had to take the stallion on Satan’s terms, or not at all, but it didn’t make the moment any less poignant.
Back at camp, Joe took the first watch. He was unusually quiet, and the others left him alone. They had seen him on the meadow with Satan, but neither knew what to say. Some time after midnight, Joe woke Walt, and fell into his bedroll, exhausted from his emotions.
They fell into a pattern in the next few days. They watched in shifts, both day and night, prepared to ride for help, or defend the Ponderosa against attack. Joe spent most of his off time in the meadow with Satan. The horse would graze close by, sometimes coming up to nuzzle Joe, leaving grass stains on his shirt, other times watching the human. Walt and Charlie were perplexed. They knew the horse had the potential to be a killer. After all, Joe had nearly died just before setting Satan free. Yet, here was the same horse, behaving not unlike Cochise. It wasn’t what they were expecting at all.
As each day passed, Joe itched more and more to ride Satan. He curbed himself fiercely, because he feared driving Satan away for good. Joe became quieter as he wrestled with himself. To relieve his feelings, he would sometimes take Cochise for a gallop. But since they were on watch, they stayed hidden as much as possible.
At the end of the week, Walt rode back to the ranch to collect fresh supplies. Joe and Charlie remained behind. Satan and his band seemed content to stay in the meadow, which allowed Joe the chance to keep a close eye on him.
Charlie was sleeping, and Joe was keeping watch from within the shade of a large tree. The sun was beating down relentlessly, and Joe checked that Cochise and the other horse were still sheltered. As was becoming customary, Satan was grazing fairly close to Joe, keeping a weather eye on his family, and the human. Suddenly, he lifted his head, and gazed over his shoulder, ears pricked. Joe looked in that direction, too, but saw nothing.
“What is it, boy?” he asked.
Satan flicked an ear towards Joe, but didn’t look at him. He lifted his top lip, scenting the air. His stance suddenly conveyed tension, although he didn’t move. Joe sat up, loosening the gun in his holster. He strained his eyes, peering off into the heat haze, but he still couldn’t see anything. Glancing at Cochise, he saw the pinto was also looking in the same direction as Satan.
Rising slowly, he stared into the distance. Still nothing. Satan let out a snort, and stamped a rear hoof. Immediately, the mares began to bunch together, with the foals in the middle of the bunch. It was accomplished without a single mare lifting her head from grazing. It was something Joe had seen before, but it never failed to amaze him. But it convinced him that whatever Satan heard or smelt, it was dangerous. Satan turned around, so he was now facing the opposite way, head on to the danger he scented.
Deciding he’d better waken Charlie, Joe turned his head, in preparation to move away, and saw movement. Horsemen! Joe felt a sudden surge of adrenalin. Just when they were one hand down! Joe slowly sank down, knowing that sudden movement was more noticeable at a distance, and headed back to camp.
It wasn’t far to go, and Joe roused Charlie with a single touch. “Get mounted up, and go back to the ranch. We need help here. There are horsemen coming in. Looks like six all together.”
“What about you?” Charlie asked.
“Don’t worry,” Joe assured him. “I’ll be fine. You just get help.”
Within moments, Charlie had his horse saddled, and was gone. Joe crept back to his spot under the tree, and watched. The men weren’t in a hurry. They rode slowly towards the band of horses, and four of them moved round, getting between Satan and freedom. The other two men went to work on the fence. Joe clenched his jaw till it ached, trying to control his temper. He was one against six, and stood no chance. But he hated to see anyone attack the Ponderosa; he and his brothers had been brought up to defend the place.
Time passed. Joe watched as the men kept the band of horses penned up in the meadow. Satan was getting restless, pacing round and round his band, his ears pinned back against his head. When he passed, Joe would whisper his name, hoping to calm the horse, but it wasn’t working. The two men working on the fence already had it broken down, and were clearing away the broken spars of timber. Joe wracked his brain to think of what lay behind the fence. As far as he could remember, it led to a dead end canyon. With a little work, it would be perfect to keep horses in, but not a lot of use for taking them to Peterson’s place. Then Joe remembered the little, covered trail that led from there down to the valley where Peterson’s ranch lay. It was treacherous on foot, suicidal on horseback, but if the men were new to the area, and had been told about the trail, maybe they didn’t know how dangerous it was.
Completing another circuit of his mares, Satan stopped so close to Joe that he could have reached out to touch the sweating hide. “Easy, fella,” he whispered. “Easy, now.” Satan snorted, twitching his tail irritably. Joe watched him uneasily. In this mood, Satan could turn on him without warning.
The thought had barely passed through his mind when Satan lunged at him! Joe scrambled hastily back, hardly escaping the raking teeth. Forgetting about staying hidden, he leapt to his feet, and began to back away. Satan stalked him, one step at a time. Joe kept backing off, and the sudden warmth of the sun on his head surprised him, after the shade of the trees.
From further down the meadow, there was a shout. Joe didn’t have the time to spare to look. His whole attention was focused on the angry animal in front of him. “Easy, Satan,” he kept repeating, striving to keep the fear out of his voice. “Easy now.”
The sound of a galloping horse reached Joe’s ears, and distracted Satan. The killing rage went out of the horse between one heartbeat and the next. Joe realised that he was safe – for now. Too late, he became aware of the men riding towards him, and a lasso fell over his shoulders, tightening round his arms. Helpless, Joe still tried to fight, but it was useless. He was trussed up within a very short time. Satan, the cause of his discovery, had fled when the lasso fell.
A tall, thin man with a lined, sun-browned face dismounted from a raw-boned buckskin. “Why, Mr Joe Cartwright. We meet again.”
Eyeing the man with undisguised disgust, Joe said, “You told me you’d kill me if we met again.” He was pleased that his voice didn’t waver at all.
Smiling, the thin man shook his head. “Are you so eager to die? Well, it doesn’t matter. I was a little hasty the last time we met. I didn’t know who you were. But now I do know, and I won’t kill you quite yet.”
“You aren’t going to get away with this,” Joe said, angrily. “I sent one of our men for help.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about help, “ the thin man said. “We spotted your man leaving, and one of my comrades took care of him. I am sorry, but he won’t be fetching help here after all.”
Joe looked at the thin man, barely able to believe what he was being told. Charlie couldn’t be dead? Joe hadn’t heard any shots. Joe’s face was an easy one to read. “Show him,” said the man.
“Yes, Mr Masterson,” replied another man, and a few moments later, a horse came into view with Charlie’s body hanging from the saddle. He was quite clearly dead. Joe swallowed convulsively, struggling to hold back the tears. He’d known Charlie almost all his life.
Yanking Joe to his feet, Masterson pushed him across to Cochise, and hoisted the youth onto the pinto’s back. Nodding to another man, Masterson watched as Joe’s saddle and bridle were picked up, and the traces of the camp efficiently removed. Then Masterson untied Cochise’s tether, and Joe made his move.
He dug his heels into the pinto’s sides, and Cochise, used to more delicate instructions from his master, shot off at high speed, pulling the tether from Masterson’s hand. Joe dug his knees into the pinto’s side, trying to maintain his tenuous grip. Joe was an excellent rider, but he knew there was no way he could stay on, not with his hands bound behind him. Already, he was slipping, and he knew a moment of horror at the thought of a fall at such a high speed. “Go home, Cochise,” he yelled. “Go home!”
The fall was quite a cruncher. Joe rolled as best he could, but still bounced painfully across the rock hard ground. Winded, he lay still, watching his horse’s black tail streaming out behind him as he galloped for home. Joe knew he had no chance of escape, and he was right. Masterson was beside him in a moment.
Walt had been away for too many hours, he knew. But the chance to catch up on the gossip of the ranch had been too much for him, and he had lingered until it was nearly suppertime. Ben Cartwright caught him as he walked across to the barn to get his horse saddled and ready to go. “Still here, Walt?” Ben asked. “Is there a problem?”
“No, Sir,” Walt replied, sheepishly. “Just had one or two things to catch up on. You know how it is.”
Concealing a smile, Ben said, gravely, “Yes, I do know how it is. Well, ride carefully, Walt. I wouldn’t want you boys to go hungry out there.”
Unsure of the correct response, Walt tried another smile, and edged away. Ben stood, his hands on his hips, watching him go. The house had been quiet without Joe, although he and the boys had been too tired to do much more than sleep, and the prolonged hot spell had made even sleep a rare commodity.
Turning back to the house, Ben heard a horse galloping into the yard. Frowning, he prepared to give the unfortunate rider a piece of his mind. But the horse had no rider, and wore no saddle or bridle. It was Cochise.
“Walt!” Ben shouted. “Rouse the hands!” He called to Cochise, who came willingly. The pinto was well lathered, blowing hard. Ben soothed his neck. “Adam! Hoss!”
It didn’t take that long to get the men mounted and ready to go, but it seemed an age to Ben. He sent someone to alert Roy Coffee, and then led the men towards the place where Joe, Walt and Charlie had been camped.
Darkness fell, but Ben still pushed on. Walt knew the exact location of the campsite, and led the way. Luckily, it was a moonlit night, the full moon shining down and reflecting off Lake Tahoe. Even though the light was quite good, they didn’t dare risk galloping. The slow pace began to tell on the nerves of the Cartwright family.
The first faint streaks of dawn were visible in the east when they finally neared the place where Joe should be waiting. There was no sign of the herd of horses that Walt had told them was in the meadow. There was little trace of the camp, and almost no tracks. Hoss guessed that they had been deliberately erased. The only thing they found was Charlie’s body, still draped over the back of his horse. Ben and Adam went to look more closely, and saw that his neck was broken. “Get him buried,” Ben ordered, his voice husky with emotion and fatigue.
As the light grew, they could plainly see the broken down fence. “What’s behind there?” Ben asked.
“Jus’ that little draw that leads to Dead Man’s Trail,” Hoss replied. His eyes widened. “They wouldn’ try ’n’ take them horses down Dead Man’s Trail, would they?”
“Anything’s possible,” Adam replied, tersely. “Especially if they don’t know the area that well.” He exchanged a concerned glance with Ben. “Its really easy to defend that draw,” he said, reluctantly voicing his concern.
“I know,” Ben agreed. “Let’s go.”
They mounted up and rode towards the fence.
Sitting with his back to the rock wall of the draw, Joe surreptitiously rubbed the ropes that bound his hands against the rock. It was slow, painful work, because he had to stop each time someone looked at him. He wasn’t sure how far he was getting, as the ropes still seemed as tight as ever. But stubbornly set on trying to free himself, Joe persevered.
Satan and his band were in the draw, too, and Satan was boiling mad. Joe was quite glad that Masterson’s men were between him and the stallion, as he was sure Satan would blame this on him. The only captivity Satan had ever known had been at Joe’s hands. Still, Joe was sure it wouldn’t take him long to give Satan back his freedom, if he could only get loose. The fence Masterson and his men had built was crude, and probably wouldn’t take much to knock it down.
Suddenly, the man on lookout gave a shout. Masterson scrambled over beside him, gun drawn. Then Joe heard another voice. “I’m Ben Cartwright. Those are my horses you’ve got there.”
“Ah, Mr Cartwright. They were your horses, but they’re mine now. And just so you’ll not do anything stupid, I should mention that I have your son Joe here.” Masterson flashed a grin over his shoulder at his captive. “I’d hate to see harm come to him.”
“You’re out numbered,” Ben said. “Give up, and I’ll let you ride away.”
Masterson gestured to one of his men, who dragged Joe to his feet, and pushed him across to Masterson. “I don’t think you understand, Cartwright,” Masterson said, his voice now menacing. “I need these horses, and I’ve got your son. Now, if you give me $10,000, I’ll let him go free. But if you don’t back off, he’ll die.” Masterson grabbed Joe’s collar, and pulled him into view, placing his gun against Joe’s head.
“Joe,” Ben breathed, in mingled relief and fear.
“I’m okay, Pa,” Joe called, and winced as Masterson kicked him.
“$10,000,” Masterson called, “and I’ll let him live. Now, back off, before I change my mind!” He cocked his gun.
Given no choice, Ben backed off. Concealed further back, Adam and Hoss waited for their father. “What are we going to do?” Adam asked.
“We have to get the money,” Ben replied, bleakly.
“Do you really think you’re going to get away with this?” Joe asked, bitterly, as Masterson pushed him back to the ground. “You’ll be hunted till the day you die.”
“Is that meant to frighten me, boy?” Masterson asked, with a laugh. “They’ve got to catch me first.”
“It shouldn’t be much of a problem,” Joe retorted, hotly. “They need only wait for you to try and deliver the horses to Peterson.”
Masterson looked at Joe, the laughter gone. Joe glared back, defiantly. “Did you think we didn’t know?” he taunted. “But these aren’t ordinary wild horses. The stallion belongs to the Ponderosa. He’s got our brand. Did you think nobody would notice? It’s the best known brand in the territory.”
Without changing expression, Masterson backhanded Joe across the face. “What I can’t figure is how you’ve lived this long, boy,” he commented, calmly, looking at the blood streaming from Joe’s nose and mouth. “Or why your Pa out there would pay to get you back.”
“I don’t tend to break the law,” Joe replied, spitting blood. “And since you rule by fear, I can see why you don’t understand love.”
“Love,” Masterson sneered. “Love’s a fairy tale!”
Slowly, Joe shook his head. “You poor fool,” he commented softly. He moved as though to walk away, and Masterson was suddenly furious. Joe somehow had the upper hand, and Masterson wasn’t sure how he’d accomplished it. But if he was to maintain control of his men, he had to get back on top. Grabbing Joe’s jacket, Masterson swung him around and buried his fist in Joe’s face.
The unexpected punch drove Joe to his knees. He gasped from the shock, trying to catch his breath. Masterson hit him again, and again. Joe tried to avoid the blows, but failed. He slowly crumpled to the ground, barely aware of his surroundings. After a while, he realised the beating had stopped. His head throbbed and he swallowed desperately against a wave of nausea, which threatened to overwhelm him. Finally finding his voice, he said, “Do your men know what you’ve done? How you’ve got them cornered here?”
“Shut up!” Masterson screamed, kicking Joe heavily in the ribs.
Curled in a ball, fighting the pain, Joe raised his voice. “Do they know the only way out is too dangerous for men on horses? Do they know that they won’t get paid, because you can’t make a horse go down that trail?”
By this time, Joe had the attention of Masterson’s men. He took the next kick on his hip. “That stallion’s a killer,” Joe said, his voice almost hysterical in his desire to plant doubt in the minds of the men.
“SHUT UP!” Masterson yelled, and grabbing his rifle, he swung the butt towards Joe’s face. Joe, sensing the blow, half turned, trying to get up, and took the blow on his shoulder. He heard the crack as the rifle struck his collarbone, and the bone, under pressure already, snapped. Joe screamed, and passed out.
It was past sunset before Ben returned with the money. Faint pink streaks were still visible in the luminous pale blue sky as he reined in his tired horse. Adam and Hoss were waiting for him, and in the feeble light from the nearest lantern, Ben could see the strain that the waiting had put them under. “Any word?” he asked, anxiously.
“No,” Adam said, briefly, avoiding his father’s eyes.
“What is it, son?” Ben asked. He looked at Hoss, who was also having problems making eye contact. “Hoss?” Ben was beginning to be angry. “Whatever has happened, tell me. Joe isn’t…?” He couldn’t bring himself to finish.
“No,” Adam said, too quickly, and Ben snagged his gaze this time. “No, its just… Well, we heard Joe cry out, and then there was this scream….”
In the poor light, Adam saw his father’s face go ashen. “We went to check,” he hurried on. “And they said Joe was still alive.”
It was Hoss who added the unbearable bit. “But they wouldn’t let us see him.”
In the outlaws’ camp, Joe lay on his side, and cradled his injured arm. Masterson had untied his hands while he was unconscious, reasoning that Joe’s injury was too painful to allow him to escape. So far, he had been proved correct. Joe ached all down his left side. His ribs were sore, his hip was sore, his collarbone was broken. But Joe was determined that his father wasn’t going to have to pay $10,000 for him.
Sometime during the night, Joe thought he must have slept. Now, he marshalled his strength, and slowly eased to a sitting position. Moving was excruciating. He hung his head until the world stopped whirling, and wondered how on earth he could escape, when simply sitting up took everything out of him.
A shadow moved out of the pre-dawn gloom. Joe knew instantly that it was Satan. The stallion, in one of his quirky mood changes, had stood guard over Joe, snapping at anyone who came too close. An idea began to form in Joe’s brain, and his eyes grew wide at the audacity of the plan. He had no idea if it would work, but what did he have to lose? Pa would hand over $10,000, and Joe would still be killed. They all knew that. This way, he might have a chance.
Bracing himself, Joe got unsteadily to his feet. He would have to signal to his family somehow, and the usual gunshots were out of the question. He hadn’t seen his gun since he was captured. “Satan,” he whispered, and the horse came over to him. “I need your help, buddy,” he went on. “Just this once.”
And in the biggest gamble of his life, he grasped Satan’s mane, and jumped onto his back.
The outlaw camp woke to the sound of the stallion’s clarion call, and they looked around blearily, to find the horse riding down on them, with their prisoner on its back! Leaping to their feet, more than one man unshipped his gun, and began to fire wildly into the air. Satan swerved, but Joe relentlessly drove him on, knowing that if Satan turned back, he was doomed.
On the other side of the draw, Ben, Adam and Hoss were already approaching, ready to make the exchange. As the firing began, they started to run, knowing that their chance had come, if they could only take it. They charged to the edges of the outlaw camp, where total chaos reigned.
Men were diving for cover as the panicked herd of horses milled around, whinnying and churning up clouds of dust. Satan was herding his mares towards the crude fence that lay between him and freedom. Thanks to Joe’s direction of the big horse, part of the fence lay on the ground where Satan had crashed into it. A couple of the men were firing at the horses, and Ben quickly yelled, “Get them!”
A wild melee broke out between the Cartwrights and the outlaws. The ranch hands had come at Ben’s back, and swiftly joined in. Several fistfights broke out, but Ben had only one objective – Joe! He didn’t realise that Joe was on Satan’s back, hanging on for grim death, trying to control the rolling waves of nausea crashing in his stomach. Joe’s injured left arm was tucked inside his jacket, and his right hand was wrapped in the long, coarse mane in front of him. If he fell off now, he would be trampled.
As the Ponderosa men gained the upper hand in the fight, Adam realised how close they were to having a stampede. “Break that fence down!” he shouted above the noise. He ran over to the fence, and applied his broad shoulder to it. It gave at once, and he had no trouble knocking it flat. Other hands followed his example, and within a very short time, the fence was down.
It wasn’t any too soon. Satan had had enough, and drove his band back towards the meadows they lived on. Twenty some horses in one small space can create a lot of dust and noise. The men all flattened themselves against the walls of the draw, and watched the horses gallop out to freedom. Then the Ponderosa men tied up the outlaws, and prepared to take them into town.
Grimly, Ben took charge of Masterson. “Where’s my son?” he grated.
Flicking his eyes, Masterson didn’t answer. Ben shook him, angrily, and glanced over his shoulder at Hoss. “Perhaps you could make this man tell us where Joe is,” he suggested, although he knew Hoss was the gentlest of men, for all his size.
Of course, Masterson didn’t know this. Adam stepped forward, and said, “Don’t kill him, yet, Hoss,” in a tone that suggested that Hoss routinely killed people.
Nodding grimly, Hoss flexed his huge hands, and cracked his knuckles for good effect. Masterson was now chalk white. “He’s over there,” he yelled, terror in his voice. “That big pinto wouldn’t let us near him.”
Exchanging appalled glances, Ben threw Masterson at the nearest hand. “Get him to Virginia City.” He turned away. “Come on, boys.”
Though they searched diligently, there was no sign of Joe anywhere in the draw. Hoss even checked Dead Man’s Trail, but there were no fresh prints. Perplexed and concerned, they retraced their steps back to their own camp, back on Ponderosa land.
The horse herd were milling about in the meadow there, but they seemed to be calming down. Instinctively, they looked for the stallion, and found him standing like a rock on the outskirts of the herd. Whenever a mare or foal came too close, he snapped at them, but he didn’t move.
Dawn had broken without any of the men noticing. Now, they realised that daylight was growing stronger, and with the better light, they all saw something lying on the ground by the stallion’s feet. Drawing closer, they realised with a shock that it was Joe!
The herd moved away warily as Ben, Adam and Hoss approached. Satan gave ground slowly, watching the Cartwrights all the time. Only when Ben knelt down by Joe, and touched him, did Satan snort, and lead his family away, deeper into Ponderosa territory.
Joe was filthy, his face battered and bruised, and caked in dried blood. In his right hand, he clutched a handful of long brown and white hair that he wouldn’t let go of. As Ben gently turned him over, Joe groaned, and his eyes flew open. For a moment, those startled green eyes looked at his father without recognition. “Oh, Pa,” he said, and passed out again.
Without exchanging a word, Adam and Hoss began to make the necessary preparations to take Joe home. As soon as a travois was made, Hoss mounted up, and rode towards town to fetch the doctor. Adam had tidied up the camp, and arranged the bedrolls to keep Joe warm and still during the long ride back to the house.
It was a long ride. Joe had woken several times on the way back, and twice he’d been sick. Ben had tenderly held his youngest son as he’d thrown up, trying to make Joe’s ordeal easier for him. Joe had said only three more words. The first had been ‘Pa’; the second was ‘Cochise’; and the third was ‘Satan’. Each time, Ben said “Its all right, Joe.” Joe had then fallen back to sleep.
Roy Coffee and Paul Martin were both at the ranch before Ben arrived. Paul did a swift examination before they moved Joe off the travois, and upstairs to his room. Once Joe was settled, he ordered Ben and Adam to go and eat something, while Hop Sing helped him tend to Joe.
When Ben was finally allowed back upstairs, Joe was resting comfortably, thanks to a small dose of laudanum. His shoulders were wrapped in a figure eight bandage, to protect his broke collarbone, and his arm was in a sling. The many cuts and bruises he bore had been cleaned. His ribs were wrapped, although none were broken. There was a vast bruise spreading across his hip. But Joe’s biggest problem was that every muscle in his body froze when he tried to move. Paul had explained that it was a sign of severe damage, and that Joe mustn’t try and move on any account.
“What caused such damage?” Ben asked, frowning.
Drawing in a breath, it seemed to Ben that Paul was trying not to smile. “I’ll let Joe tell you that,” he answered. “But don’t worry, it will sort itself out. The freezing is just the body’s way of protecting itself against more harm. Joe will have no choice but to remain bedridden until his body is capable of movement again.”
More confused than ever, Ben sat down on the edge of Joe’s bed. “Joe? Can you hear me?”
Slowly, Joe’s eyes opened. The green depths were sleep-hazed, giving the impression of a wayward angel. “Pa,” he breathed. “Masterson?”
“In jail,” Ben assured him. “Cochise got home safe and sound.”
A smile tugged the corners of Joe’s mouth. “Adam. Hoss.” He swallowed with difficulty, and Ben helped him to drink. “They come up?”
“Of course,” Ben responded, and went to the door to call his others sons. They arrived so quickly, that Ben decided they must have been listening at the door.
With all his family there, Joe smiled and said, “Satan okay?”
“Yes, Satan is fine,” Ben assured him.
“He saved me,” Joe whispered. “Stood guard over me.” His weary eyes flickered to Adam. “Don’t laugh, Adam. He did.”
“I believe you, fella,” Adam said.
“Really?” Joe questioned, and seemed relieved when Adam nodded. “I rode him, Pa.”
“You rode Satan? When?” Ben wondered if Joe was dreaming it.
A vivid smile lit Joe’s face. It was a beautiful smile, conveying a sense of wonder and awe. “Rode him when he was rounding up his mares.” The awe was in Joe’s tired voice, too. “I got on him, and rode him towards the men. We knocked down a bit of the fence. Satan knew it meant freedom.” Joe paused, and Ben offered him more water. ”He got his mares together. I was still on his back. Didn’t dare fall.” There was a wobble in his voice, and each man knew exactly what was in Joe’s mind at that moment. They had all had similar moments. “I rode him.”
Silence fell for a moment. Joe’s eyelids dipped, and his long lashes brushed across his cheek. With an effort, he opened them again. His eyes were luminous. “Ever watch a stallion rounding up?” he asked. The others nodded. “He’s never still. He twists this way and that, worse than a bronco. I had no saddle, nothing.” Ben thought of the hair in Joe’s fist then, and looked down, but Joe’s hand was empty. “There,” Joe whispered, pointing. Lying beside the picture of his mother was a long twist of horsehair.
“Joe, that’s incredible,” Ben said, at last. “When we found you, Satan was standing over you, stopping the other horses from trampling you.”
Tears suddenly drowned the green eyes, reinforcing the impression of an angel. “Remember how you told me that if you love something, you let it go? “ Ben nodded. “I think that Satan maybe just came back to me.”
A rush of tears threatened to overwhelm Ben. “Joe,” he said, but couldn’t find any words.
With a sigh, Joe closed his eyes. “Paul says that’s why I can’t move. Too much strain on my muscles.” He dragged his eyelids open once more. “Satan will never be my horse like Cochise is my horse,” he said, so quietly, that all three listeners had to lean closer to hear. “But he does love me a little.”
It was nearly a month before Joe was able to sit a horse again. It had been a frustrating month, especially at the beginning, when he was barely able to move. But his injuries did finally heal. When he was able to escape from the house, he saddled Cochise, and rode out, looking for Satan. Somehow, it didn’t come as a surprise to find him grazing fairly close to the house.
Joe dismounted from Cochise, and tethered him to a tree. He moved away from the herd, and sat down. After a while, Satan came over, but today he was wild and wary, and wouldn’t come close enough to touch. “I’ve got to thank you, Satan,” Joe said. “You saved my life, and I’m so grateful. You gave me an experience I’ll never forget.”
With a snort, Satan shook his head, and turned away. Joe watched as he gradually moved the herd of mares away. Somehow, he knew he would see Satan again, and would get to touch him. His heart sang for the love of a horse like this – a horse wild and free. A horse that loved Joe, but only on his own terms.
Rising to his feet, Joe threw a salute after the retreating herd. He walked back to Cochise, who welcomed him with a nicker. Joe ran an affectionate hand down the pinto’s neck. For the love of a horse like this, he had tried to make another horse into his image. Now, he knew he had to love each one as they were, loving the differences, as well as the similarities.
Swinging into the saddle, Joe patted the pinto once more. “Let’s go home, Cochise,” he said.
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