Summary: A tale of wills between a man and a horse
Rated: K Word Count: 7830
When they had first pulled the horses for the Army from the wild herd, there was one stood out in Joe’s mind. It was not the ordinary brown or black that the Army usually went for but a gray horse. Joe considered cutting the animal out and sending him back to the herd but then he got a good look at the beast. The horse, a young stallion, was a light dappled gray, with long black stockinged legs and black mane and tail. His nose was so dark a gray it appeared to be black from a distance and the ears were outlined in the same color. Unlike some of the other horses, this one showed signs of better breeding with the long arched neck and delicate head that spoke of Arabian ancestry not too far back along the bloodlines. And that was what attracted Joe’s interest the most. There was an Army colonel he knew down at Fort Tejon who had a penchant for the unusual in horseflesh and this long legged fellow looked just like the ticket Joe needed to seal all future deals with that colonel. All Joe figured he had to do was break the animal to ride.
With the help of three other young wranglers, Joe had started working his way through the twenty-plus horses. It was physically demanding work so it had to be paced slowly to avoid potential injury to the men but Joe considered himself above it all and pushed himself with his normal intensity. Adam labeled it foolhardy and reckless and had said so again at the breakfast table that morning. But Joe had only a week left before the Army buyer would be there and he had only a dozen horses ready. If he put two of the other hands to smoothing out the rough spots on those, he was left with only himself and another man to break the remainder. He had carefully thought about the talents of the men he had to work with and decided which two would work the green-broke animals. He and his second, a young man by the name of Pete, would finish the breaking.
So for the better part of that week, he and Pete busted horse after horse. Sometimes the animal would gentle down after just a few go-a-rounds with the saddle. Others, more hardheaded, took more effort. Each and every day, though, ended the same way: Joe would try the gray horse and wind up hitting the dirt. Hard. He tried every trick he knew but the big gray was teaching him that there were lots of ways to dump a rider. In the beginning, a simple arch to the back and a bounding lunge would be all it took before Joe ate dirt. Then Joe began to get the rhythm the horse used and managed to stay on a little longer. That is until the horse changed tactics and began to more closely resemble a child’s spinning top when he came out of the chute. Not long after that, the horse began to shake when he went into the air and come down with a bone jarring, teeth rattling thud. And as always, once the rider was off his back, the animal would dance to the side, tossing his head in triumph and eye his victim.
It had become a personal battle of wills and one that Joe would not give in to easily. As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t a horse alive that he couldn’t ride. Unfortunately, he had made the boast once too often and it was coming back to haunt him in the form of an audience every time he went to ride the gray horse. Or perhaps the haunting came when he would land in the corral dirt and watch his adversary gloat. Either way, the outcome would remain the same: Joe was determined to break the horse.
So that early Saturday afternoon found Joe and Pete down in the breaking corral. And the gray horse had just won another round, much to Joe’s chagrin. Slowly, Joe rose from the ground and dusted his backside down for good measure. The men sitting on the top railing of the corrals whooped and hollered. That included his father, Joe noted. But unlike the others, Ben wasn’t smiling and laughing.
“Get a hold of him, Pete,” Joe called, mentally preparing himself for another try. He saw his father beckon to him and years of discipline would not let him ignore his father’s request.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough of this monster?” Ben teased lightly once Joe was close enough to the rail fence to hear him.
“What? And disappoint my audience?” the young Cartwright shot back with a touch more heat than he intended. The look that came to his father’s eyes made him duck his head in at least a semblance of shame.
“There will always be one that you won’t be able to break, Joseph. Let this one go, son,” Ben encouraged, keeping his voice low. He understood the pride behind his son’s boast that there wasn’t an animal he couldn’t ride but he had witnessed the toll being taken on that son over the past two weeks. He had noted, but not made comment on, how Joe seemed to suddenly favor the softer settee for sitting rather than the edge of the fireplace. How Joe had willingly gone to bed earlier and earlier every night until last night he had gone up right after supper. And how after each time he had gotten up from being thrown, he had moved slower and slower. Now Ben had detected just the barest hint of a limp.
“There may be one, Pa, but it ain’t this one. Give him here, Pete!”
Pete readily gave Joe the reins.
The horse took two steps backwards, his ears flicking in annoyance. All it usually took was once a day and the human would give up on him and let him go back to the sweet grass of the pasture. But today it looked like the man had other ideas and the gray horse shifted uneasily, preparing for an unaccustomed second battle. His tongue scraped at the bit in his soft mouth as he was pulled to the small enclosure where once again he felt the man’s weight on his back. Within the small confines, he couldn’t move so he planned his strategy while he waited for the gate to open. When it did, he paused just long enough for the man to make a surprised sound then he exploded into the air: straight up, then coming down hard. He then slued sideways suddenly and felt the weight leave. Blowing hard from his concerted effort, the horse lowered his head and with dark eyes, took in the human sitting in the dirt again. Another man held the bridle and reins but he concentrated on the man he had thrown again. ~
With a weary shake to his head, Joe clambered to his feet slowly. Around the corral, the catcalls and teasings resumed once the hands saw him able to get up. He shook his head slowly then, retrieving his hat from where it had flown, smacked it against his thigh.
“Is there money being bet on this that I don’t know about?” Ben asked cautiously of Adam beside him. He wasn’t sure whether he was relieved or not when Adam drawled out a slow “nope.” Ben glanced beyond Adam’s crossed arms on the railing and caught Hoss’ shake of the head.
“Last I heard the odds were still running in the horse’s favor,” Adam quipped then quickly reassured his father that he was just joking. “No, Pa, ain’t heard of a single dime being wagered on this.”
“Just a fella’s pride at stake,” Hoss added. “And that’s been takin’ a powerful beatin’ this week.”
The two brothers had to hide their joint mirth from their father. They had decided long ago that as to where their youngest one stood, they would let him get just so far out before they reeled him back in for his own good. And this wasn’t anywhere close to that limit in their estimation. So they would let him continue to butt heads with the gray monster that long ago they would have turned back out onto the range. They understood futility and found it humorous that Joe didn’t. After having watched the horse get the better of their baby brother over the past few days, it was getting hard not to cheer for the horse. Adam had laconically commented that it was a toss up as to which one was more stubborn: Joe or the horse. But his money was on the horse. Still, to let that be known to their father would have brought Ben’s protective wrath down around their ears and they would rather keep it between themselves. It was a lot easier on a body’s ears that way.
“Enough,” Ben shouted when he saw Joe head for the horse again. “Last I saw on the calendar, this is pay day. We need to get up to the house and take care of that little matter I do believe!”
Immediately, everyone forgot about the battle inside the corral and with more than a little jostling, all the hands but Pete turned to follow their boss up the hill to the main house. That left only Adam and Hoss with Joe and Pete.
“Go on, Pete, it’s the reason you put up with our little brother. Go get your money. God knows, you’ve earned it,” Adam called out and Pete reddened just a bit as he handed Joe the reins to the now placid horse. “You comin’ Joe?” he asked.
Joe was studying the horse at the other end of the reins he held. He nibbled on his lower lip then upon hearing Adam’s question had looked up to where Adam and Hoss stood.
“Naw, go on. I’m gonna get the gear off this guy,” he answered but didn’t move.
“Joe, don’t you be doin’ anythin’ stupid, ya hear?” Hoss warned and Joe allowed that he wouldn’t. He just continued to study the horse, not even hearing when his brothers left the corral area.
You are one hard nut to crack, aren’t you, he thought, taking measure again of the animal but this time, more of its spirit than its physical body. Well, you done dumped me for the last time. You win! But what have I been doing wrong? As he thought back over the last few days and his ongoing battles with the gray horse, Joe looked to the ground at his feet. As he went over and over each disastrous ride, he let the reins slip back and forth between his gloved fingers. No, we gonna try this again, he said to himself, ignoring his conscience that reminded him that he had just told his brothers he would do nothing of the sort. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, pulling his courage up from somewhere down around his boot tops.
When he looked up, Joe was surprised to see the slack in the reins and the horse’s nose just inches from his hand. It seemed to him, looking out of the corner of his eye, that the horse had lost some of its haughty belligerence. You’re curious, Joe rationalized and nearly laughed aloud at the idea. But then he came up with one of his own. Still holding the reins loosely, he turned his back to the horse and bowed his head. Judging by the amount of slack he felt in the leathers, he had a fair idea of how far the horse was from him. He walked away about half of that distance.
After a few moments, Joe heard then felt the nose of the horse at his back, sniffing. The smile on Joe’s face broadened as again he walked a few paces from the animal. Again and again, the man and the horse repeated the scene until finally Joe was at the corral railing and couldn’t go any further. That time, the horse’s nose touched Joe’s hat, right behind his ear and Joe nearly yelped in surprise.
“Want to see what I’m doin’, don’t cha?” Joe challenged.
The gray-black velvet nose gave a little snort as if to say “Yes.”
Joe half turned away from the fence and continued to pretend to study something in his hands. He kept his face down and his hands still. Joe let the animal snuffle his hands, never moving them.
Stretching his neck, the horse tried to see what the man had in his hands but again the man continued to hide whatever it was. When the man had finally half turned, the horse, determined to discover the secret, had put his nose right into the man’s hands, trying to catch a scent at least. All he smelled was leather, his own sweat and that of the man. He had never come across so curious a behavior in a human and it intrigued him. Finally he decided that there was nothing there to be interested in and backed away. But the man stood his ground. The horse lifted his head and looked around, his ears flicking back and forth, searching for the sounds he had come to associate with this place. But there were none. He was alone with the human. But the human wasn’t acting the way he had been! Cautiously, afraid of being trapped again like he had before, the horse put his nose to the side of the man’s face and sniffed. ~
The long black guard hairs on the dark muzzle tickled Joe’s neck and he fought hard to not laugh aloud. Instead, he stood patiently while the curious horse sniffed first his head then his arm. The equine investigation continued down his leg then came back to his hands again.
“You’re just as curious as an old cat, aren’t you?” Joe murmured.his question. “Well, I wonder just how far that curiosity will take you, hmmm? Curiosity killed the cat, you know.”
As if he understood the words, the horse took a step back and shook his head and neck as if to say “No, not me,” as the black mane flipped from side to side. He blinked twice then stretching his neck again, nibbled at the arm closest to him.~
“Okay, so you still want a piece of me, I see. Let’s see what happens when I do this,” Joe said aloud as he turned to face the horse fully but he did not lift his eyes to look straight into the dark eyes. Instead, Joe continued to fiddle with the reins. Just as he thought, the horse stuck his nose right into his hands. This time, however, Joe stroked the side of the soft muzzle.
Seeming to not care about the man’s touch, the horse moved in closer, sniffing and snuffling all the while. The man let him. The only time the horse felt any panic was when he knocked the man’s hat off to the ground and the motion frightened him. But when the man made no move to pick up the hat, the horse continued his perusal. ~
“You decided I ain’t a danger to you yet, fella? I just want to come to an understanding with you is all,” Joe explained softly all the while stroking the dark nose presented to him. Then he slipped one hand up the jawline. “That better now? Little scratching? Like that? Yeah I can feel the heat under that headstall. Itchy? There you go, fella,” And as he rambled, speaking in muted tones, Joe felt the tension slipping from not just himself but the horse as well.
Once Joe had succeeded in getting the mustang calmed down with his gentle words and petting, he moved to the horse’s neck. He continued to talk to the animal, scratching now at the base of the dark mane then running his fingers through the coarse hair to comb out the tangles. He rubbed the flat of his hand down the dappled gray neck.
“What are we gonna call you? Got to give you a name, ya’ know,” Joe offered then grimaced at the memory of some of the names he had addressed the horse as earlier. “What do you like the sound of? How about Bullet?” Joe asked as he loosened the saddle cinch. The horse groaned but stood still otherwise. “Okay, then, not Bullet. What about- I don’t know- what else is gray?”
He pulled his head around so he could keep an eye on the man. The human had pulled the hated saddle and hot blanket from his back and was slowly rubbing his sweat-streaked hide. At first, he had been tense but had slowly relaxed under the gloved hand, the slow monotonous motion calming jangled nerves. When the left side had been wiped down, the man went to duck under the long neck and it made the horse shy at the sudden movement and he stepped away nervously. The man made a curious crooning noise and held out his hand again to be smelled. It was the same as before and he allowed the man to come to his other side. The murmuring and rubbing began again. ~
“Okay, so for now, you ain’t got a name but we’ll find you one. Can’t keep calling you ‘hey you!’ forever,” Joe chuckled at his own pitiful joke as he wiped a streak of sweat from his own forehead. “I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink of water. Want a drink, big fella? There’s a canteen hanging over there. Let’s go get it and have us a drink, okay?”
When the man began to walk away, the horse was of two minds. The cautious part made him want to stand his ground, unsure of what the human was up to. The curious part wanted to know what the human was up to. So when the man stopped just a few feet away and asked if he were coming, the curious part won even though he had no idea what the man had said. ~
Joe had not tugged on the reins but the horse had followed. Once to the post where the canteen hung, Joe pulled the cork stopper and took a long pull. As an afterthought, he poured some over his head to cool off. Then he poured some into one cupped hand and offered it to the horse. It wasn’t much and the nose came back searching for more. Joe poured more and the horse greedily went for it. All too quickly, the canteen was empty but the horse nudged Joe’s hand as if asking for more.
“More, huh? Well we can do this any number of ways. There’s a trough just over there- outside. If we go over there for a drink, you have to wear the bridle,” Joe explained, feeling more than a little foolish, talking to the horse. “But, if I open that gate over there,” he gestured to the pasture gate, ” there’s a nice cool stream about half a mile from here. If we go there, we can take the bridle off. But, I got news for you, big fella, I ain’t walkin’. You know what that means, don’t ya?”
The big dark liquid eyes rolled and the horse groaned.
“Yep, I’m ridin’ and since we are both headed the same way, guess who I am riding?”
The gray horse pointedly looked at the saddle, which had been left in the middle of the corral on the ground. If he had used words, his intention couldn’t have been any clearer.
“No, we don’t have to use the saddle, I guess, but I am going to ride,” Joe repeated. “Come on then, make up your mind. The trough with its lukewarm water or that nice cool water down in the stream?”
He turned, watching the man’s gestures, first to the trough then to the pasture beyond the corral gate. He weighed his options carefully. He rolled the hard metal bit in his soft mouth then looked again at the saddle. He then looked back at the man. Finally, he looked at the pasture gate and whickered.
“Okay, deal’s a deal. I’ll take the bridle off but you wear a halter, okay?” With deft movements, Joe snagged a rope from the corral fence and fashioned it into a halter with a long lead. He slipped it onto the horse before he removed the bridle with its hated bit. “Better?” he asked and the gray horse snorted once.
Looping the bridle back over the railing by the canteen, Joe led his long legged adversary over to the corral gate. The horse moved behind him without fear or even the slightest hint of orneriness. He slipped the restraining bolt from its hole and allowed the gate to swing free.
There was freedom, after a sort. The wide open space with its rich green grass and cool water called to him, making him eager to be done with this day. He longed to drop down into the dust and roll, scratching his back as he done for years. Having been in this area before, he knew just where there was a tree to put his rump against and have a go at that persistent itch that was at the base of his tail. And if the scent on the breeze was any indication, not too far away was a mare in heat. He danced with the prospect of being free again. ~
“Whoa, there, big fella,” and Joe had to pull down on the rope to halt the swift yet delicate movements of the horse beside him. “We had a deal, remember?” Joe waited for the horse to calm down then screwing up his courage, went to stand, his side to the gray flank and his left hand grasping a handful of mane, ready to swing aboard the broad back beside him. As he gathered his nerves, Joe knew what he was doing was potentially dangerous. How many times had the horse easily dumped him to the corral dirt when he had had the luxury of stirrups and a saddle? So many, Joe had lost count. But here he was, ready to ride bareback without even a bridle and bit to help him control the better than half ton of animal. His heart was pounding so hard, he glanced back up towards the house since he figured they would hear it all the way up there it was so loud. But he could see no one on the porch or in the yard. He blew out all the air in his lungs then swung onto the horse’s back and waited for the explosion of flesh beneath him.
It didn’t come. Sure, the horse moved nervously to one side but with a quick pull of the rope leading to the makeshift halter, he straightened out and stood patiently still. Joe adjusted his weight so he could ride better and felt the broad back tense between his thighs. His heart in his throat again, he tapped his heels to the gray sides, expecting the horse to arch his back and throw him to the stars. Instead, the horse turned his head and looked at the man on his back.
He didn’t understand. This time when the man had landed on his back, there was no heavy thump of weight. Just a soft pressure downwards. When the man shifted, he could feel the tight thighs around him, telling him of the man’s fear. He couldn’t imagine what there was to fear though. There was nothing in his mouth that hurt and the saddle with its confining cinch was still in the corral behind them. Moreover, the man was pointing into the pasture and, once he looked back to make sure the man was going to stay there, the gray horse started walking.
Little by little, Joe started to relax and decided the horse must have picked up on it since he began to move a bit faster. The trot that on other horses was a bone jarring experience was replaced on the gray with a half-rack that made Joe smile. Few horses he knew of outside of his father’s half Tennessee Walker buckskin, possessed that natural gait and Joe reveled in the rocking-chair motion. He nudged the horse with his heels and the gray responded, slipping with ease into a gentle canter, his long legs flashing black over the green of the grass. Joe wondered for a moment what the horse could do with a flat out run but decided against trying it bareback. He was an experienced rider, having ridden most of his life but even that would have been foolhardy in his estimation. Joe pulled back in the rope and the horse settled back easily into a lope that Joe knew could eat miles off a trip and leave the rider and the horse not too much worse for it.
All he wanted was a drink of the fresh water he knew flowed in the small stream just a little over the next rise. But the weight on his back made him conscious of the uneven footing so even though he wanted to run hard to it, he backed down his desires and went slower, afraid of falling. He slowed a little more when he dropped down the slight embankment but then plunged into the belly deep water, heedless of the shouting of the man riding him. ~
The horse stopped so abruptly in the stream that Joe, having grown lax, found himself flying over the gray ears then landing with a splash in the cool stream. He dropped the rope and stood up, water streaming everywhere. The horse, having gotten a drink, extended his neck out towards Joe and whinnied.
“Go ahead and laugh, will you,” Joe warned but there was something about the way the horse had done it all that made Joe want to laugh. At the horse. At the situation. At himself. He had taken it all too seriously, this breaking of the gray. Had taken it on as a personal affront to his pride and dignity. Had made it into a battle. But it was a battle he knew then that he didn’t need to fight.
Joe slogged his way passed the horse and sat on the bank to pull off his boots. They came away with a hard tug and a slosh of water to be poured out. He pulled up the tail of his shirt to wipe the water from his face but he couldn’t get enough free to do the job so he grabbed both sides and pulled it off over his head. He wrung out the excess then used it to dry his face. When he lowered the fabric from before his eyes, all he could see was a gray-black muzzle, the nostrils twitching.
“Go away,” Joe laughed and pushed at the nose but it swung back easily and pushed at Joe’s chest, putting him on his back on the ground. At first Joe was alarmed then realized that once again the horse was simply smelling him, curious again.
What in the world was happening? He had no frame of reference for what he had seen the man do. First he had pulled on his feet and they had come off but not come off. The hard dark leather feet had been replaced by smaller light colored ones. Then, what had happened to the man’s hide? Back up at the corral, it had a coarse feel to it. Now, down here at the stream, the man had pulled it off! He wanted to know what else the man had beneath his hide and so had gone to investigate. It was something that the man obviously didn’t want him to know about so he had shoved him away. But he had to satisfy his curiosity! Once he was finished, he was sure that the man was still just a man. A little wetter than before but everything still basically smelled the same even if it didn’t look the same. He returned to the cool water for another drink. It had been a hot tiring day. ~
When the horse had finally turned back to the stream, Joe sat up and finished drying his chest with his balled up shirt. The breeze blowing from the south teased at his hair, drying it even as he ran his fingers back through it to roughly comb out the tangles. All the while, he watched the big gray horse, wondering what his next move was going to be.
“What am I gonna do with you, fella? You’ve made it pretty clear that you aren’t gonna stand for a saddle and bridle. But I can’t sell you like you are! No body in their right mind would buy a horse they could only ride bareback. I might be able to get you by with a hackmore for a bridle but ride with just a rope halter? I may as well try to sell perfume to a skunk!”
“Joe back up from the corral yet?” Adam asked Hoss, coming across him as the big man wandered into the house through the kitchen door.
Hoss tilted his head in thought. There, behind Adam on the kitchen worktable, was a plate that had donuts on it. Sniffing the air, Hoss just knew they were fresh ones too. All he had to do was get passed Adam and he would have not only a handful of them but the perfect fall guy for the theft should they be discovered missing. He could have cared less where Joe was as long as the boy wasn’t between him and the donuts.
“Naw, ain’t seen ‘im,” Hoss mumbled and tried to get around Adam but Adam was standing pat. Hoss considered physically moving his big brother. Adam may have weighed more than Joe but it wasn’t too much for Hoss to manhandle. At least not when the acquisition of donuts was to be considered.
“You don’t think he’s doin’ something stupid, do you? Like riding that monster again?”
“Now why would he do a thing like that Adam? He’s got more sense than that!” If he could just move Adam a few inches to the left, he’d have it.
Adam rolled his eyes in disbelief and grabbed at Hoss’ outstretched arm to turn him back towards the door. “Which brother are you talking about? Joe’s got more sense than what? Come on, we need to go find him before he does something really stupid. Like steal donuts while Hop Sing is in the kitchen.”
Hoss glanced quickly over his shoulder. There Hop Sing stood, smiling broadly, revealed now from behind Adam. Deciding the best defense was a good offense, Hoss smiled back just as broadly and allowed Adam to steer him out of the kitchen and away from temptation.
Slipping around the corner of the kitchen and sauntering nonchalantly across the yard was easy. Once they had a clear view of the corral down slope from the house, they stopped dead in their tracks. There was something in the dirt off to one side in the corral and it wasn’t moving. It was too far to accurately tell what it was, but both men had an idea that made their throats tighten. Both could also see that the pasture gate hung open.
“Oh God, Hoss. Come on!” Adam ordered and headed out at a dead run for the corral, sure the lump in the dirt was his brother. Halfway there, both men could clearly see that what was there was not a body but the saddle Joe had left carelessly on the ground and they slowed to a trot.
“But why is the gate hangin’ open? Adam, this don’t make no sense.”
Wheezing from the exertion, Adam could only agree as they stood in the corral, looking around. Adam didn’t know whether to be relieved or not, since neither Joe nor the hated gray horse were anywhere to be seen. Just the saddle and the open pasture gate. “Check for prints, will you? Maybe Joe took him out to turn him loose.”
Hoss was already looking at the prints he found next to the gate. “If he did, he was on foot to do it. Weren’t another horse down here. But lookee here,” and he gestured into the churned earth by the gate on the pasture side, “There’s Joe’s boot print then nothin’. Adam, there’s somethin’ funny going on here. That boy didn’t just disappear with that horse.”
Adam stood from where he had been inspecting the saddle cinch. He had been almost certain that he would have found it to be broken but it wasn’t. Dusting his hands off, he moved to where Hoss was studying the ground. “Whatever happened, I think it happened outside this gate. If Joe were gonna turn the horse loose, he would have ridden Cochise to the far side of this pasture, right? Let’s get back up to the house and see if a certain black and white nag is in the barn.”
“Well, what are you sayin’ now?” Hoss asked as he patted the spotted back of his brother’s horse in the barn.
Adam grimaced broadly and turned to where Sport stood in his stall. “I’m saying we need to get saddled up and head out to the pasture. If Joe did take that gray monster out on foot, and I’m not saying he did, mind you, he’s gonna need a ride back.”
“Should we tell Pa somethin’s come up?” and Hoss moved to saddle Chubb.
“Not just yet. I think Joe went under his own steam. After all, how else did the saddle get off the horse without breaking the cinch?”
“Ya gotta a point Adam but I still think we need to hurry.”
They could hear the laughter long before they crested the slight rise that led down to the stream. Relieved at the sound, Adam however, held up his hand and suggested they dismount and see just what was making that distinctive cackle rise so clearly into the afternoon stillness. Tying their horses to the scrub brush, both slipped over the lip of the rise, scrunching down into the scant cover. Hoss almost laughed aloud and Adam chuckled then stretched belly down on the ground, his hands raised to balance his chin on his fists.
Down below their concealed vantage point, Joe splashed water back at the horse. Both stood in the cool water, belly deep on the horse. The stallion turned abruptly, pushing Joe aside gently until the man fell laughing into the water again. Spouting water, Joe resurfaced, treading water. As his brothers watched, Joe dove into the water only to come up on the other side of the horse.
“Oh my God,” Adam whispered, his words slipping out one by one slowly.
“Ain’t that a caution!” Hoss chortled and stretched out next to Adam. “They’s playin’ together! Look at that horse! He’s more like some ol’ dog.”
“Shhh! Don’t let him hear you.”
“Who? Joe or the horse?” but Adam just waved his hand to one side, shushing Hoss with the motion.
For the better part of a half-hour, they watched, sometimes shaking their heads at the boyish antics displayed below them. Other times, they held their collective breaths as Joe would slide onto the horse’s back but the horse never seemed to mind. It came to Adam that the horse was caught up in the game just as much as Joe was. Finally, both of the players seemed to tire and came onto the shore together. The horse dropped and rolled in the grass to dry himself while Joe snagged up his shirt and proceeded to dry his hair with it.
“What do we do now?” murmured Hoss but Adam shrugged his shoulders in response, still watching.
He stood up from his satisfying roll in the grass and shook himself. The water had been cooling and watching the human had been amusing. He had been a bit surprised when he had pushed the man into the water that the man had not seemed to take offense at the motion. Seemed like the human had enjoyed it so the horse tried it again only to find that it had the same curious affect. One on one, mankind didn’t appear too bad to deal with but he didn’t like the concept of more than one at a time.
There was that scent again in the air! A mare was ready for the attentions of a stallion and he could catch no whiff of another stallion nearby. The man all but forgotten now, the stallion called loudly to mare. ~
Joe shook his head and snagged the lead rope still attached to the halter. “Oh no you don’t. Those little fillies already have a lover-boy. And it ain’t you! You go trying to horn in on his territory and he ain’t gonna like it one bit. Come on, now,” Joe cautioned but the big gray still pulled on the rope. Dancing to one side, the gray nose went into the air snorting then the horse neighed shrilly. “I tell you, boy, those ladies got a fella in their lives. You got to accept that and move on. Oh great, here I am trying to give love advice to a horse! Pa hear me he’d think I was cracked for sure.”
Up the hill, the two brothers who lay watching and listening were having a hard time keeping quiet as they listened to their younger sibling talking to the horse, Adam in particular. It seemed that all those lectures Joe had been given over the years concerning his deportment with the fairer sex were being reiterated to the gray, nearly word for word as far as Adam could tell. Finally Hoss could stand it no longer and holding his sides, slipped back over the top of the rise where Adam found him holding on to the side of his horse, tears streaming down his red face.
“Easy there, big fella,” Adam managed to wheeze out.
Hoss wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. “You talkin’ to me or quotin’ Joe?”
That set the two of them off into another fit of laughing. Finally, Adam, completely out of breath, gestured for them to mount up.
“Why? You gonna tell Pa?” Hoss asked, rising into the saddle.
“No. We need to go get Joe. He’s gonna need ride back. He swung up on that blasted critter and headed for the far pasture gate. I’m sure he’s gonna let him go.”
Hoss pulled Chubb up sharply and turned to face Adam. “Joe got on the horse? You mean like riding’ him?”
“I mean like riding him,” Adam repeated and nudged Sport passed Chubb. “Just like the past couple of days were nothing to either one of them. Come on, will you, he’s got a good head start.”
Once Hoss and Adam had ridden to the top of the rise they could see that Joe and the gray horse did indeed have a good head start on them.
“I tell you Adam, if I hadn’t seen it myself I doubt if I would have believed it. He’s bareback on that animal! And look at ’em go.”
Adam pulled his hat brim down to shade his eyes as he looked out over the green pasture that spread like a broad fan out from the rise, empty except for the quickly diminishing form of his brother astride the gray. “Got to admit it, that’s something of beauty the way that horse moves. Come on, we know where they’re headed.”
“What makes you think Joe is gonna turn him loose?” Hoss asked as the two of them pushed their own horses down towards the pasture floor.
“I don’t know why I think that. I just do. Come on.”
Joe was just closing the far pasture gate when Adam and Hoss drew up. He had looked up at the approaching sound and half-grimaced. He’d been caught, and now he needed a good alibi. He had originally intended to rope one of the mares in the adjoining pasture and ride her back up to the back of the barn then turn her back out. But that plan went up in smoke when he saw Adam and Hoss coming towards him.
“Afternoon there brothers,” he greeted, squinting up into the sun.
“Need a ride back to the house?” Adam asked as though it was common to find Joe out on foot this far from the house.
Joe pretended to assess the offer while he coiled the rope in his hands. “Well, if you’re headed that way.”
Chuckling, Adam pulled his foot from the stirrup and extended his arm down. Joe took hold of his arm but didn’t bother with the stirrup as he swung up behind Adam’s back.
“What happened to that gray horse you were working on?” Hoss asked as they turned back.
“He, uh, he got away from me. Bolted out the gate. I chased him all over this pasture but never even got a chance to lasso him. Come on, let’s get home.” Joe lied and even to his ears it sounded weak. He was surprised when Hoss and Adam seemed to buy into it.
“I don’t see him. Do you, Hoss? He ought to be somewhere. Tell you what, Joe, we’ll go back to the house, get Cochise and Pa and some of the men and see if we can’t bring him in for ya.” Adam let his gaze shift sideways to Hoss, aware that behind him Joe had stiffened at the offer.
“No, that’s okay. He’s probably halfway to the mountains by now,” Joe said quickly.
Adam was nearly about to bust out laughing but he held himself in check as he turned in the saddle. “How’d he get out of this pasture? And don’t tell me he jumped the fence.”
Panic at getting caught out rose in Joe and his mind whirled for an answer. Hoss, ever protective supplied it.
“You know, I bet I left that gate open. I was out here this morning checking on the mares and, durn, I bet I forgot to latch it when I come up to the house for lunch!” the big man explained and winked at Joe.
“Hoss, you keep doing that and we are gonna loose some good horses. Like Joe’s gray.”
“Naw he wasn’t a good horse, Adam. Thick headed and no body was gonna be able to ride him. Best thing’d be to let him go back to herd. Let him season out a few years and maybe try him again but I doubt he’d ever work out.” Joe explained and had to fight hard to keep the wistfulness out of his voice. He’d felt the power between his thighs as he had ridden the animal. There was a surefooted grace in the horse as well as spirit that would have made the gray an excellent mount. If only he had allowed a saddle on him.
Adam rolled his tongue into his cheek and admitted that Joe was probably right. Joe relaxed. He’d been believed. For the remainder of the short ride back up to the house, the brothers bantered back and forth between themselves over nothing more innocuous than Hoss wanting the donuts and Adam having to save him from Hop Sing. Once into the yard, Joe slipped from the back of Sport and headed into the house while his brothers tended to their horses.
“Ah, there you are Joseph,” Ben greeted when he heard the light distinctive steps that announced his youngest’s arrival. “Did you take care of that gray?”
“Well you were right on that one, Pa,” Joe appeared to admit, shoulders slumped in mock defeat. “There is a horse I can’t ride,” he elaborated but then continued up the stairs without another word.
Sitting at his desk, all Ben could do was watch as Joe disappeared into the upstairs. He was still sitting there with a puzzled look to his face when Adam and Hoss came in.
“Afternoon, Pa. Hey? You okay?” Hoss asked concerned.
“Just heard the most amazing thing from Joseph. He said I was right and that there was a horse he couldn’t ride. I must admit I don’t know what more astounds me: the fact that he said I was right or his admission that he couldn’t ride that gray horse.” Ben shook his head as though to clear the cobwebs, then went back to his ledgers.
Adam grinned broadly behind his hand. Hoss, likewise, poked Adam in the ribs but remained silent. He and Adam knew the truth: Joe had ridden the gray horse and set him free.
In the dark of the night, Joe awoke from a sound sleep, wondering what had disturbed his much needed slumber. Then he heard it: a gentle whinny down in the yard. Quickly, he rolled out of bed and slipping into his jeans, grabbed a shirt. Avoiding the boards on the stairs that creaked he made his way downstairs and across the main room to the front door. Just as he had expected, there in the yard, in the dim starlight of a near moonless night, stood the dappled gray stallion. And with him was a small brown mare, not much of a horse in anyone’s estimation but there was something about the way she nosed the stallion’s neck that made Joe smile.
“Go on then,” Joe whispered and saw the gray ears flick forward, “Take your lady and go. Just don’t let me catch you sneakin’ off with any of the others, ya hear me?” And the horse flung his head high.
The horse had no idea what the human wanted from him. That afternoon he had set him free and he come that evening to return the favor in the form of a mare he had found wandering aimlessly. The mare smelled of leather and he was sure she belonged to the man. But now the man had made shooing motions with his hands towards both of them. He would go and take the mare with him. Maybe she didn’t belong here after all. ~
Joe turned and went back into the house. Yes, he thought, there is a horse out there he couldn’t ride but it wasn’t that one.
The gray horse stopped at the corner of the barn and looked back over his shoulder. Humans were so curious…………….~
Tags: Family, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright
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- Leaves (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Like Father Like Son (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- July 1898 (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Honor Series # 8 – Romantic Interlude (by the Tahoe Ladies)