The Beltane Fires
A Bonanza Fanfiction
If there was ever a boring job, it was checking line shacks, thought Joe. He'd been riding around the eastern boundary of the Ponderosa all day, checking the shelters were wind and water tight and taking an inventory of stores. It was not a particularly demanding job and Joe suspected that he had been delegated this task to keep him out of trouble. For some reason, his father and brothers insisted on treating him like a child, despite the fact he was sixteen and would leave school in a few months time.
Although he enjoyed occasional periods of solitude, Joe was gregarious by nature and enjoyed a challenge. The routine nature of this job and the lack of company was rather depressing and consequently, he was delighted to close up the last shack and begin to head for home. Singing softly under his breath to alleviate his boredom, he leapt lightly onto Cochise's back and began to ride westwards, looking forward to a hot meal. Joe's culinary skills were rudimentary, to say the least and two days of his own cooking was more than enough.
Debating on the various merits of roast beef versus fried chicken, he began to make his way down the thickly wooded ridge. Overhead, the thick canopy of pine trees excluded most of the sky, so he did not notice the storm clouds forming in the east. Joe only realised that bad weather was on its way when rain began fall in large droplets, quickly soaking the forest floor and making the deep layer of pine needles slippery and treacherous underfoot.
Joe had been full of good intentions for this trip and had fully intended to pack carefully. However, a late night in Virginia City, combined with a bad habit of lying in bed until the very last possible moment, had effectively put paid to that notion. He had only time to grab a meager breakfast and to pick up the bare essentials before riding out at full speed. He could visualise his oiled riding coat hanging on a peg in the stables and wished he had brought it with him. Vowing to be a little more prepared next time, Joe turned up his jacket collar and surveyed the scene ahead.
The next part of trail was fairly steep and he dismounted, reasoning that it would easier if man and horse tackled this section under their own power. Holding the reins loosely in his left hand, Joe was picking his way gingerly down the slope, when his feet slipped out from underneath him. For a moment he teetered, waving his arms wildly in an attempt to keep his balance and then gravity took over and he began to slide down the slope. Joe tried to slow down his progress by digging his boot heels into the ground, but the pine needles made any sort of purchase impossible. All he succeeded in doing was to crash down painfully onto his butt and career down the slope at ever increasing speed. At last, Joe reached the bottom of the slope, which unfortunately terminated in a small, fast flowing creek. He landed in the water with a loud splash and a disgusted expression on his face.
"This has been a really great trip" he thought. "So far I've been bored, lonely and hungry. Now I'm cold, wet and covered in mud. Excellent."
He stood up slowly, wincing slightly and tenderly rubbing his backside. With his luck, it would be black and blue tomorrow. His hat had come off at some point during his mad slide and was nowhere to be seen. Looking at his pants, Joe saw the seat was almost out of them and the legs were pretty well shredded. Oh well, at least he wasn't likely to meet anyone else out here.
The one positive thing was that Cochise had made it down safely down off the ridge, picking his way with considerably more success than his master. Joe was delighted to see his horse was safe, but he did not relish the prospect of a long ride home. It would probably be best not to try anything faster than a walk, he thought.
The elder Cartwrights were busy checking the timber stands nearest the ranch house when they noticed signs of an impending storm. They decided to ride for home at once and arrived just as the storm began. Safely indoors, Ben looked anxiously out of the window, watching the rain bounce off the ground.
"I hope Joseph won't be too long. It's no weather to be out in. Still, he's got that new oiled coat, which should keep out most of the rain."
Privately, Hoss thought back to Joe running out of the house in his normal heedless fashion. He thought it was extremely unlikely that Joe would have remembered to take the coat. However, it was best not to say anything, he thought. Pa worried enough about Joe as it was and there was no sense in adding to his concerns.
It was dusk when a bedraggled Joe rode wearily into the yard. He was slumped forward on Cochise, his hair plastered to his head, soaked to the skin and aching all over. The lamps were already lit inside the house and the cast a welcome glow on the yard. Joe was beginning to slowly dismount when the door opened and Hoss came running out to meet him.
"I'll put Cochise away for you, Little Joe," Hoss said, helpfully dragging Joe down off the horse and setting him on his rather unsteady feet. "You go on into the house and get dried up before Pa sees you."
Joe gave a rather pale imitation of his normal grin and walked stiffly into the warmth of the house. Adam was sitting cosily by the fire and looked up as his brother squelched soggily across the polished wood floor.
"Take your boots off!" he called and then surveyed his Joe more closely. "Don't tell me. You had another unfortunate accident?"
The sarcastic query riled Joe, but he was really too tired to be bothered with a quarrel, so he merely replied "You could say that," and limped towards the stairs.
Adam felt a bit guilty; the kid was shivering and obviously had taken a bad tumble somewhere along the line, so he caught Joe gently by the arm as he walked past and asked
"What happened? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. I just lost my footing and slid down into Stone Creek Gully on my butt and landed in the creek. Cochise is fine though."
"Right down the Gully? On your butt? Poor kid, I wonder you can walk at all!" Adam started to laugh at the mental picture this conjured up. "You'd better let me check you out," he gasped between sniggers.
"It's not funny! And if you think I'm letting you look at my butt, you've got another think coming, so let go of me!" Joe retorted heatedly and tried to pull away from his aggravating elder brother.
Adam began to get annoyed. "Stop behaving like a silly brat! You might have really hurt yourself and I just want to make sure you're all right. Anyway, it's nothing new. I've seen it all before, remember! Don't forget who changed your diapers and gave you baths, little brother."
If there was one thing Joe hated, it was being reminded that he was the youngest and smallest of the Cartwright's. He could not hear the genuine concern in Adam's voice, and viewed the exchange as yet another example of Adam playing "I'm the eldest and I know best".
"Well, that was a long time ago, when I was too young to know any better. So let go off me right now or I'll …"
"Or you'll what?" Adam's voice was low and silky smooth with repressed anger. It had been a long day and he was in no mood for one of Joe's moods. He tightened his hold on Joe's arm, pursed his lips into a thin line and said menacingly "Don't threaten me, baby brother. You'll regret it if you do." Almost as soon as the words had left his mouth, Adam regretted them, realising they would stoke the fires of Joe's already precarious temper.
Joe's eyes flashed with anger, effectively signaling his next move and allowing Adam to duck safely under a rather wild punch. He leapt to his feet and grabbed Joe by his jacket lapels, dragging him uncomfortably close.
"I've warned you already, Joe. Don't you ever threaten me again. Just go and get into some dry clothes." Then, for some inexplicable reason, he added "Go on, get changed like a good little boy."
Joe sprang into action, pulling free and launching into a wild attack, fists and feet flying. At first, Adam tried to fend him off, but he soon realised he had goaded his brother beyond reasonable thought. He had to stop this nonsense before someone was seriously hurt. Adam was considerably larger and taller than his brother and was planning to deliver a carefully judged blow to Joe's shoulder, when the boy lunged forward again.
Adam tried to pull his punch, but it was too late. It was almost as if time slowed down, as if he was watching someone else's fist connect solidly with Joe's chin. The force of the blow jerked Joe's head back sharply, propelling him back backwards, until his feet stumbled against the hearth and his head cracked audibly off the rough-hewn stone fireplace.
For a moment, Joe seemed to stand to lean against the fireplace. He stood upright, his hands relaxed, by his sides and looked as almost as if he was resting before rejoining the fight. Then Joe's knees began to buckle and he slid slowly down until he was sitting on the hearth, resting his bowed head on his knees. Joe sat so still and unmoving that at first Adam thought he was pretending, until he saw the patch of dark blood running slowly and stickily from a sharp lump of stone that protruded from the fireplace.
"What in the name of tarnation is going on down there?" boomed a familiar voice, as Ben Cartwright appeared at the top of the staircase. He paused for a second, taking in the scene below him: his one son stood nursing the knuckles of his right hand, looking up at him in shock, while the other sat still and unmoving in a sodden, crumpled heap on the hearth.
Swallowing an another exclamation, Ben ran quickly down the stairs and knelt down before Joe. He cupped his hand under Joe's chin and gently raised his head. A pair of rather dazed green eyes opened slowly and looked back at him, trying desperately to focus. The attempt was not entirely successful and Joe squinted slightly, then gave up the effort and shut his eyes again.