I was a drifter and I liked it. Some men are born to settle and others are meant to roam. Well, I was a roamer; it suited me. An Army brat gets used to moving around, and I guess I just never stopped. So when I met up with the Cartwrights I never intended to stay. Told ‘em that right up front, too. I looked old Ben Cartwright in the eye when he offered me the job and made him a deal. I’d stay until I was ready to move on, but when it was time to go there’d be no questions asked.
I figured I’d last about six months, actually. That’s about how long it usually took for my feet to start itching for the trail. Any longer than that and people start to expect something from you. Loyalty, trust. Things I didn’t really ask for, and didn’t expect to give. Oh, I’m every man’s friend. You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy, even if I do say so myself. But I watch my own back and don’t expect anyone to do it for me. It’s easier that way. No disappointments, I guess.
So that’s how I ended up at the Ponderosa, which was a mighty fine spread from what I could see. I liked it right off the bat. Who wouldn’t? It was beautiful country, wild enough to suit me, but a real treat for the eyes. Sometimes I’d ride up along the ridge and look down over the lake and just watch the changing colors, marveling at the way the sun reflected off it and could turn it into something to make a grown man cry.
The work wasn’t hard. But then I knew it wouldn’t be. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The Cartwrights expect their hands to work, so we did. But it was honest work. The kind that makes a man ache deep in every muscle and sleep like a baby when his head hits the pillow. So when I say it wasn’t hard, that’s not what I mean. Ben Cartwright didn’t ask his men to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. He wasn’t some aristocrat sitting behind a fancy desk giving orders. Can’t tell you how many times we’d look up from clearing a waterhole or mending a line of fence to find him, sleeves rolled up, gloves on, working right there beside us.
I kind of watched my step around his sons too, at first. You never know what a rich man’s brat is going to be like. Hoss looked like a friendly enough sort of fellow at first glance. Not like he’d grown up soft. Big, burly arms, a plain face with a gap-toothed grin. If you didn’t look too close you might even think he was kind of simple, just because of that smile. But he wasn’t. Not Hoss Cartwright. Didn’t take me long to figure out that he couldn’t help but be kind to anyone weaker than him, and that plain face hid a mind that could plot mischief with his little brother better’n most. He knew animals too. People came from all around to ask his advice when they were having problems with their stock. And kids. Kids would bring their pets and beg him to help. Never saw him turn anyone down either. He’d talk to anyone, big old grin on his face, that big white hat pushed back on his head. He could touch the most skittish horse, a scared rabbit, a little girl’s kitten, and the animal would respond.
So was Hoss Cartwright just a simple, kind fool? Just ask Jim Bonner. Or Frank Mercer. Or any number of fellas that ran afoul of the temper he hid behind that smiling face. He couldn’t stand to see someone getting hurt, wouldn’t tolerate disrespect to a lady, and stood between his little brother and all comers. You didn’t want to rile Hoss Cartwright because those gentle hands could be deadly.
Sometimes you could see it coming. Take the time Jim Bonner decided to force Molly Skidwell, the nicest little saloongirl you’d want to meet, to take him upstairs when she’d already said no. I was leaning on the bar beside Hoss, and I saw his grin disappear when Jim grabbed Molly’s arm and twisted it behind her back. She tried to play it off and jolly him out of it, but her face was white and the stuff she used to make her eyes look darker was running down her cheeks in tracks ‘cause of her tears.
When he started dragging her up the stairs, she dug her feet in, or tried to anyway. He must’a wrenched her arm a bit, because she cried out. Hoss moved then. Faster than a cat and just as quiet. Threaded through the tables without disturbing a poker chip. I wouldn’t’ve thought it possible if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.
Funny thing is, he didn’t raise his voice at all. He put one hand on Bonner’s arm and jerked him backwards. Surprised the man into letting go of Molly, I’ll tell you. Bonner just gaped up at him, while Molly scampered off out of reach.
“I b’lieve the lady said no.” Hoss kept it calm, but his blue eyes looked like chips of ice set in a face made of stone.
There was a sudden quiet in the saloon, and then a rush as men pushed back out of the way, poker chips flying, chairs overturning. No one left, of course. They all wanted to see it play out, same as I did. But no one made a move to help either. I eased my gun up a little, in case I needed it, and stood ready to draw. But Hoss didn’t need any help, not really.
“This ain’t your affair, Cartwright,” Bonner snarled, trying to wrench his arm loose. “I aim ta pay the lady, fair and square. It’s what she’s here for after all.”
“She’s got a right to refuse, Bonner. Leave her alone.” Hoss twisted a little harder, and Bonner kinda moaned, clawing at Hoss with his free hand.
But that big man, so gentle with all those animals, had a grip like iron, and he didn’t let go. He kind of lifted Bonner up so he stood on the toes of his boots, and hustled him to the swinging doors. Without even breaking a sweat, he tossed the man out on to the street.
Some men laughed at the sight of Bonner sprawled in the dust, but Hoss swung around and stared ‘em all down, turning back just as Bonner got himself to his feet. “It’s over now, Bonner.” Hoss still didn’t raise his voice. “If ya wanna come back in, I’ll buy the next round and we’ll call it even.”
Bonner dusted off his britches and hesitated. He looked over Hoss’s shoulder and saw the eyes of every man in the place. I watched his face as he silently ran through his options. Even saw the twitch of his hand as he considered pulling his gun. But in the end, he just spat into the dirt and walked off down the street. I’m pretty sure he threw some sort of curse back over his shoulder, but with the whooping and hollering back in the saloon it was hard to tell. Men were slapping Hoss on the back, congratulating him on what he’d done. But he ignored them, just brushed ‘em off like they were flies.
Instead he made a beeline for Molly, still standing in a corner, shaking like a leaf. He pulled out a big white handkerchief, dried her eyes and cleaned the mess off her face. Then he offered it to her, and she blew her nose too. When she hung her head and tried to hand it back to him, he just shook his head. The same hand that had almost broken Bonner’s arm in two now tipped her chin up as gentle as a lamb. “Don’t you cry no more, Miss Molly. He’s gone. Won’t be back tonight either, I’d guess.” He grinned, and she couldn’t help but smile back. “Now, how ‘bout you get me a beer, I’m feeling a mite thirsty after all the fun.”
“Thanks, Hoss,” she whispered. And then she was hustling to the bar to fetch his beer.
I eased my gun back into the holster, looping the thong back over it to hold it in place, hoping Hoss wouldn’t notice the movement. But he saw it. Didn’t say anything, just nodded at me as he eased in beside me against the bar. I got the feeling he knew he hadn’t been alone in the fight, and he appreciated it. But we didn’t need to talk it out. Weren’t any need for that at all.
Joe Cartwright was a different sort of man altogether. I just didn’t know how to take him at first. Friendly enough when he wanted to be, with a laugh like nothing I’d ever heard before on a man. When he cut loose with that cackle of his, you just had to join in. He could charm the birds outta the sky, or the ladies into his arms. He didn’t walk into a room; he strolled in and made it his own.
You’d never know he and Hoss were brothers. Where Hoss was big-boned, Joe was built small. Hoss had trouble finding enough hair to comb across his head, and Joe had enough for two men. The kind of curls that had the girls all swooning. I saw more’n one of the saloon gals in his lap, fingers stroking his hair. Joe had a streak of arrogance in him, something you’d never find in his older brother. Maybe it was those good looks, or the fact that he was good with his gun. Maybe it was because he was the youngest kid in his family and had always had someone watching over him. Whatever it was, Joe felt like he had the world by the tail, and mostly he did.
Joe didn’t do anything by halves. He wasn’t as quick to trust as Hoss, but once given, his faith was unshakable. His temper was fierce and easily provoked, but when it died down he was the first to laugh and offer his hand in apology.
I’ll admit I took my time in sizing him up. I wanted to see him in action with the men before I made up my mind about him. You can’t fool the men you work with every day. They’re gonna see the best and the worst of you. Come to find out that Joe was downright popular with the hands. I’d been in plenty of places where the boss’s son made life miserable for everyone around him. Joe wasn’t like that any more than Hoss was.
I’d come into the bunkhouse and see him playing poker with the boys, or just leaning up against one of the bunks cackling over some joke, his green eyes flashing with laughter. He’d pitch in anywhere he was needed, and didn’t throw his weight around even when he was in charge of a job. Old Ben Cartwright had raised those boys right, that was plain to be seen.
Only problem Joe had, from what I could see, was getting his father and brother to take him seriously. He’d been ‘Little’ Joe for so long it was hard for them to see the man he was when I first met him. Most of the time he put up with their hovering and fussing with good humor, but sometimes he just about turned himself inside out trying to bust loose of them. Not that I blamed him. I couldn’t have been hemmed in by anybody, so why should he want his daddy and brother treating him like he was still a kid?
Joe could more than handle himself in a fight even though he wasn’t a big man. He was fast as lightning and had a quick draw to go along with his skill with his fists. Oh, sure, he occasionally got in over his head, but that’s something all men do. He was the type who’d wade into a fight first and ask questions when it was all done. Maybe he was too dadblamed used to having his back covered, because he never stopped to think about the consequences before he dove into something.
That’s where Frank Mercer came in. He’d signed on to work a Spring Roundup and just never left. The Cartwrights kept him on and put him to work. He was a surly sort, putting a lot of distance between himself and the rest of us. He’d play poker in the bunkhouse, but it never seemed like much fun when he was in the game. Took it too seriously, or something. Like his life depended on winning.
He tangled with Joe right from the start. Didn’t take kindly to taking orders from the boss’s kid, I guess. Joe was probably used to that kind of man. I’m sure Mercer wasn’t the first fella who’d tried to knock him down a peg just because of who he was. But Mercer was careful. Muttered under breath, just low enough that Joe couldn’t be sure he was being insulted, or did his work with just enough of a delay that he couldn’t quite be faulted for not doing his duty. Little things that built up from day to day, ‘til the air fairly crackled when the two of them were anywhere near each other.
Mr. Cartwright and Hoss were aware of what was going on. But I’d guess Joe had warned ‘em to back off. When Mr. Cartwright made the day’s assignments, you could tell he tried to keep Joe working as far away from Mercer as he could. But there were times when that wasn’t possible.
When Joe did work with Mercer, Hoss would find excuses to drift by. Stop and ask a couple of questions, ride on. Just keeping an eye on his little brother. Joe had to know what he was doing. Sometimes he’d just grin at Hoss and punch his arm, then send him on his way with a laugh. Other times, those days when his mood was darker, he’d glare at Hoss, give him a short answer to whatever question he’d been asked and then turn his back, dismissing Hoss without another word.
None of that seemed to bother Hoss. He’d helped Joe grow up and was used to his little brother’s changeable ways. If Joe was in a good mood, Hoss would play along, lingering to joke and share a canteen of cool water. If Joe’s mood was foul, Hoss rode in and out fairly quickly, giving his brother the space he needed.
Mercer wasn’t stupid. He knew what was going on too. In fact, when Joe was out of earshot, and Hoss had ridden off, he’d make some remarks about little boys playing boss who needed their family to protect them. He’d make sure that Hoss didn’t catch him at it though, and he never openly challenged Joe.
But there came a day when something happened to change all that. Mercer had been assigned to work the corral where they were breaking some horses. Hoss was in charge of the fence crews for the day, and Mr. Cartwright was in San Francisco negotiating some timber contracts with the railroad. I was working with Hoss, but I got the details from some of the fellas later.
Joe had one thing in common with Hoss. He couldn’t stand to see someone mistreat an animal. In the little corral, milling about with the rest of the horses being worked that day was a big, evil-tempered brute we’d taken to calling Samson. He was murder to work around. Quick with his teeth, and even faster to kick out with his hoof. He’d been giving Joe fits for days. But that horse had met his equal in sheer stubbornness. Joe was determined he was going to win the contest. Samson was going to be saddle broke if Joe had to kill himself to do it.
Joe was in the corral working another one of the horses. This one was a sweet little mare who didn’t present too many problems. He rode her to a standstill and was rubbing her down afterwards when he heard Samson scream. Every man there jerked around to see Mercer beating Samson with the end of a lariat, while the horse reared and shrieked his defiance. The animal’s eyes were wild and his nostrils flared as he tried his damndest to kill the man who kept flicking the hated lash at him. Mercer would strike out and then dodge back. Move in, flick the lariat so the rawhide end did the most damage and then dance back. He was cursing a blue streak while he did it and paying no attention to anything but the horse.
Joe leaped over the fence and headed for Mercer at a dead run. “Mercer! Stop!” he shouted. “Get away from that horse.”
Mercer ignored him, maybe didn’t even hear him, he was so intent on beating Samson. Joe dodged in under the flailing hooves and shoved Mercer backwards and away. He shouted for someone to grab the horse, and the rest of the men moved to pull the animal away from Joe. Mercer was too far gone to care what he did. All the temper he’d been directing at the horse was now focused on Joe.
“That damned animal deserves everything I was giving him and more,” he snarled, brandishing his arm in Joe’s face. “Damn thing bit me. I’ll kill him for that.”
His sleeve was torn and through the ripped fabric a nasty bite was visible.
Joe wasn’t going to accept that though. “Doesn’t matter, Mercer. He’s an animal. You’re supposed to be a human being. I won’t stand by and watch you hurt a valuable horse that way. Now drop the lariat and get back to the bunkhouse. You can draw your pay tonight and get off this ranch.”
It was open warfare now, and Mercer must have figured he had nothing to lose. “Make me,” he said, and spat on Joe’s boot.
Joe moved then. He wasn’t wearing his gun. His gunbelt was looped on the fence by the corral, but Mercer wasn’t making a move for his own weapon either. He just raised the lariat high and slashed at Joe’s face, leaving a welt down Joe’s cheek. Joe dove under Mercer’s arm as he raised up for another strike, wrapping his arms around the other man’s waist and driving him into the ground. Mercer’s breath left his body in a whoosh, and he struggled to breathe as he lay dazed on the ground.
Joe got off a left hook to his chin. Mercer’s eyes closed, and he lay spent and gasping. Joe figured he was done, so he got up and turned his back on Mercer, dusting off his pants as he moved to examine Samson.
I’d been working with Hoss on the fence line earlier, but he’d been miserable all day. Pacing, standing with his hands on his hips and gazing back towards the horizon in the direction Joe was working. He knew Mercer was in Joe’s workgroup and it bothered him. He’d tried to switch the assignment but Joe had just laughed and told him to quit being an old mother hen. It was obvious we weren’t going to get much out of Hoss until he’d satisfied himself that Joe was doing okay. I sidled on up next to him.
“Say, Hoss,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Why don’t we leave these guys working this fence and go see if Hop Sing has lunch ready to bring out. I feel hungry for some reason.”
Hoss grinned at me, relief evident in his eyes. “Candy, that’s the best idea I’ve heard all day. Let’s go.” He headed for the horses, calling back over his shoulder, “Maybe we can ride by the corral and see if Joe’s ready to break for lunch too.”
I kind of chuckled under my breath. Hoss really was an old mother hen sometimes, but I liked him for it, just the same. I just hoped Joe was having one of his good days, because if he was in a foul mood the sight of Hoss coming over the hill would be enough to put him over the edge.
We rode over the rise, Hoss making some joke about Joe lazing around under the trees, when we saw a frightening scene playing out in the corral. Joe was tending to the big horse, Samson, while the rest of the hands struggled to restrain the animal. Mercer was on his hands and knees behind them, shaking his head as if to clear it.
And then, while we were too far away to even call out, Mercer got and charged Joe, barreling into his unprotected back with his full weight behind him. Joe went down, and stayed down, with Mercer sprawled on top of him. Samson had three men hanging onto him and still he managed to plunge and rear, trying to shake them loose.
Hoss bellowed and urged his horse to a dead run, while I followed as fast as I could. Joe lay within range of those hooves while Mercer rolled free and began lashing out at both the horse and Joe with a lariat he’d picked up from the dirt.
Hoss was off his horse before Chubb even had a chance to stop, moving with an almost impossible speed. As he ran, he yelled for the hands to get the horse away from Joe, and then he was on Mercer.
He yanked the lariat from the other man’s hands and flung it far away. Mercer turned a terrified gaze on the face of Hoss Cartwright gone beserk, then one of those huge fists crashed down on him and he dropped like a stone. Hoss would have gone down after him. I saw him pull his fist back for another blow, but I caught his arm and pulled hard.
“Hoss. It’s okay. See to Joe. I’ll take care of Mercer.” I tried to be calm, to cut through the murderous rage that consumed him, and I was rewarded by a flicker of sanity in his eye. He dropped his fist without a word.
He was at Joe’s side in a flash, gently rolling his brother over onto his back. A bright trace of scarlet trickled from a gash on Joe’s temple, where he’d apparently caught a glancing blow from Samson’s hoof when Mercer knocked him over. The same hand that had hammered Mercer into the ground was now gently examining Joe’s head, as Hoss searched for more damage.
He glared at Tim Wilkes, who was hanging over his shoulder to get a look at Joe. “Get into town and get the doctor. Get him out to the house as fast as you can.” He saw Andy Thompson still working to restrain Samson. “Andy. Turn that horse loose and get over here to help me with Joe.”
Andy gasped. “Turn him loose? Joe’ll have a fit.” He hesitated, uncertain what to do.
Hoss glared, his voice a deep growl. “I said turn him loose. I don’ wanna see him in this corral again.”
Reluctantly, Andy did as he was told, opening the corral gate and slapping the horse to get him moving. Samson took one look at the way to freedom and then he was gone, disappearing so fast it was as if he’d been spirited away.
I’d finished securing Mercer’s hands behind him and approached Hoss, who hovered over Joe as if to ward off another attack. “I’ll get the buckboard and we’ll take him to the house, Hoss. He’ll be fine. Joe’s got a hard head.”
That brought a smile. Joe moaned just then and touched a hand to his head. “What happened?” he asked no one in particular. “How’d I get down here?”
He opened his eyes to see Hoss peering down at him. “What’d ya do, Hoss? Knock me over when I wasn’t looking?” He attempted a smile, but it clearly pained him to move too much.
“I’ll tell ya later, little brother. You were just having your usual fun, is all.” Hoss couldn’t hide his relief, and most likely didn’t particularly want to. He pushed Joe down gently, when his brother tried to sit up. “Lay still, Joe. We’re gonna get you home so the doc can take a look at you.”
“Don’t need the doctor. I’m fine.” Joe batted away Hoss’s hands and levered himself up. Then he clutched at his head. “What happened anyway?”
Seeing that he was going to be persistent, Hoss and I helped him to his feet, where he stood swaying a bit unsteadily. “Your pal Mercer was feeling a mite unfriendly today.” Hoss’s eyes were unreadable and his voice was flat. “I’ll have him draw his pay and get out of here. I won’t have him on the ranch any more.”
“Get in line, brother,” Joe said shakily. “I’ve already fired him.”
Then he grinned. “Hey Candy, don’t look so worried. It’s all part of life on the Ponderosa. You’ll get used to it.”
He couldn’t laugh yet, but he would have if he could’ve. The effect was the same. I couldn’t help but grin back. It did seem to all be part of life here. And to my surprise I found I liked it.
We headed for the buckboard. Hoss on one side of Joe, me on the other. A couple of the other fellows were dragging Mercer onto his feet behind us. It was the beginning of my attachment to these people and this ranch. I didn’t know it then, but my rolling stone way of life had come to an end.
I’d found a home and a
family. I figured I’d stay for a while.
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