The Land Dispute
A Bonanza Fanfiction
The fire burning in the hearth was the only sign of life in the living room, which suited Joe Cartwright perfectly. He smiled happily to himself, pulled off his boots and padded through to the kitchen in stockinged feet. Moments of privacy were few and far between on the Ponderosa and he fully intended to make the most of this unexpected boon. Vague sounds travelled through the stone floor: Hop Sing was sorting vegetables in the root cellar. Acting quickly before he was disturbed, Joe set the kettle to boil, squeezed a lemon into a glass and added hot water, some honey, and a good slug of the whiskey he retrieved from its hiding position on the top shelf of the dresser. Back in the living room, he flung himself into a fireside chair, draped his legs over the edge and sipped his drink slowly, enjoying the warmth of the fire and the inner glow from the whiskey.
He woke up with a start, hearing the sound of voices and the clump of boots on the porch. Adam and Hoss burst into the room and surveyed the sleepy figure staring blearily at them from the depths of the large armchair, hair wildly tousled and standing on end.
"Looks like our little brother's been taking a nap."
"Aw, Hoss!" Joe whined automatically, then realised what he had done and clapped his hands over his mouth in almost comical dismay. It was too late. Adam strode across the room and stood before him, arms folded across his chest and generally doing the concerned elder brother act to perfection.
"You don't sound too good there, Joe. Bit hoarse. Are you feeling all right?"
"I'm fine, really!" The protest was automatic and all three knew it. "Just got a bit of a cold, that's all. I've had a hot drink and I'm feeling much better now, honest!"
Adam surveyed him closely, then picked up the glass and sniffed the dregs. A slow smile curved across his face.
"I'll bet you are! In fact, I'd say you're feeling no pain at all!"
After a little more teasing, Adam and Hoss left Joe in peace and went to get washed for dinner and Joe subsided back into his chair, staring dreamily into the flames. From the kitchen came the sounds of chopping, of oven doors opening and closing and then a delicious scent began to drift through into the living room. It smelled awfully like pot roast, Joe thought sleepily.
"Joseph!" For the second time that afternoon Joe awoke with a start. Why couldn't his family leave him alone? They were keen enough to send him up to bed in the evenings, yet when he was actually tired, all they wanted to do was wake him up. Joe cleared his throat carefully before attempting a reply.
"Hi Pa. Had a good day?"
"For heaven's sake boy, take your feet off the furniture. How many times do I have to tell you?" Clearly not expecting a reply, Ben hung up his hat and removed his gunbelt before striding across to the fireplace to warm his hands at the flames. Glancing down, Joe was relieved to see that someone had removed his tell-tale glass with the remains of the toddy in it. That was one less thing to get into trouble about.
Ben looked at Joe, who had swung his legs around and was now sitting in a conventional position in the armchair. The boy had a familiar look on his face, a mixture of guilt and anticipation of richly deserved consequences. It was a look that Ben knew only too well. He sighed and enquired "Well, what mischief have you been up to now?"
Joe jumped up, highly indignant. "Why do you always assume I'm in trouble?"
"Years of experience, perhaps?" a dry, sardonic voice replied from the staircase. Adam continued speaking as he joined his father and brother at the fireplace. "How are you feeling now anyway?"
Joe brushed away the hand Adam reached out towards him. "I told you, I'm fine. It's just a cold!"
Ben suddenly noticed how husky Joe's voice was and regretted his unfair accusation. He perched on the arm of the chair and put his arm around Joe's shoulders, noting how they were hunched up defensively.
"Son, I'm sorry. I didn't realise you were feeling unwell and I'm afraid I jumped to the wrong conclusions."
Joe muttered something that sounded like "S'okay" and reluctantly let his father place a large, cool hand on his forehead.
"A little hot, perhaps, but no real temperature. I think you're right Joe, it's probably just a cold."
Joe gave Adam a triumphant "told you so" look, which his father studiously ignored.
"But you must promise to tell me if you begin to feel any worse, all right?"
Joe agreed reluctantly and was very relieved when Hop Sing announced that dinner was ready. Hoss helped himself to a hearty plateful of food before announcing,
"You'll never guess who I met today in town."
Ben considered this statement carefully. The possibilities were endless and he was really in no mood to play Twenty Questions. Luckily, Hoss continued without the need for further prompting
"It was the Frasers! All of them! They're back!"
Although Ben and Joe looked delighted at this news, Adam merely studied his napkin with interest, carefully stifling a sigh of dismay. He would never forget his first meeting with the Frasers. At the time, they had seemed a perfectly nice, if slightly eccentric family.
"But why can't I have a pony?" Little Joe exclaimed petulantly. Adam was busy concentrating on the road ahead and did not look down, but he had no doubt that the boy was pouting. He sighed and launched once again into a well-rehearsed explanation.
"Well, first of all we have to find the right pony. At the moment, all the ponies round here are too big for you." This was more tactful than saying that Joe was still too small. The boy squirmed around in the saddle to face his brother.
"I'm a real good rider, ain't I? I bet I could ride any pony!"
"Yes, Little Joe, you're a good rider, but you've always ridden with someone else. Riding alone is quite different and that's why your Mama and Papa want to make sure they find the right pony for you."
The child looked immensely sad. "It's 'cos I'm too small, isn't it" he said mournfully, twisting his fingers together.
Adam tried hard to remember what it was like to be four years old, inhabiting a world where everyone else was twice your height. "I wouldn't worry about it, you know. Everything will turn out just fine: you'll grow a bit more and then maybe the right pony will come along. Besides, once you get your own pony you won't want to ride with me and I'll get lonely!"
Joe laughed at this and the journey continued in relative peace until they took the turnoff towards the lake path. There, riding towards them three-abreast came a man on a large bay gelding, accompanied by two small children riding miniature ponies. The children were clearly brother and sister, sharing the same pale blonde hair and dark eyes. Joe squealed in delight as the two groups met.
"Them ponies are the right size!" He started to scramble out of the saddle, heedless of any danger from the horse's hooves. Adam grabbed him quickly and held the child safely as he dismounted.
"I thought you were just telling me what a good rider you are?" he admonished. Little Joe hung his head sheepishly. Adam hugged him briefly and then set him down on the ground and watched him run joyfully towards the nearest pony. The man smiled pleasantly and touched his hat.
"Ah, the exuberance of youth! It's a pleasure to meet you. My name is Andrew Fraser and these are my children, Michael and Alison."
Adam introduced himself and Joe, and the man nodded. "You must be Ben Cartwright's sons then? I've heard some excellent things about your ranch."
Adam flushed with pleasure. "Yes sir. My Pa built the Ponderosa up himself through hard work and we all help out." He looked across at Joe, who was petting a pony, completely unfazed by the baleful look the animal was giving him from under its long forelock. "Well, that's to say, my other brother and I help in the ranch. Joe's still a bit young to be much help yet!"
Andrew Fraser looked down at Little Joe and smiled in a friendly manner. "Would you like a ride on the pony, son?"
Little Joe nodded eagerly. "Can I, Adam? Please?"
"If it's all right with …" For a moment Adam racked his brains and then remembered "Alison."
"It's Allie, really," the child confided, as she scrambled off the pony. "Alison is only ever used when I've been naughty." Joe gave her a sympathetic look. Whenever his father called out "Joseph Francis Cartwright!" it was a sure sign of trouble.
Adam watched as Andrew lifted Little Joe onto the pony and then began to walk up the trail, leading both Shetlands. Adam felt a small, rather sticky hand ease itself into his own and looked down into a pair of deep brown eyes.
"What's your horse called, Mister? Can I pet him?"
"Sure you can. His name's Mistral." Adam swung the child up into his arms and introduced her to the horse. Allie promptly dug a squashed peppermint out of her pocket and offered it to the horse. Mistral smacked his lips and took the sweet, drooling joyfully over Allie's outstretched palm. Adam was attempting to wipe off the worst of the slobber with a pocket handkerchief when Andrew and the boys came back along the trail.
Joe bounced excitedly in the saddle, doing a fair imitation of a rising trot and called out happily "He's called Kelpie and he's from Scotland. And he's just the right size for me."
"So he is, Little Joe. You'll have to tell Mama and Papa when we get home, won't you?"
Joe was grinning from ear to ear, suffused with joy. Adam felt his heart sink. He'd heard of Shetland ponies before, but had never seen one or heard of any breeders in either Nevada or California. Adam cringed at the thought of shattering his little brother's happy dreams. Catching his look, Andrew Fraser handed across a small piece of pasteboard.
"That's my card. If your father would like me to put out any feelers for another Shetland, tell him to get in touch."
Joe talked about nothing else all the way home. "His real name's Michael but he's called Mike - just like I'm called Joe, see?" Adam nodded to indicate that he understood. "And he's the same age as me. And so's Allie, 'cos they're twins, which means they were born together. I never met twins before, did you?" A shake of his brother's head was all the reply Joe needed. "And their Papa got these ponies and they're just right! Do you think I can get one too?"
Adam was relieved to see the Ponderosa in sight at last. He felt exhausted by Joe's constant chatter and never-ending stream of questions. How on earth did Marie cope with this all day long?
"Well, why don't you ask Pa yourself?"
Ben reached up and took the excited child in his arms. Little Joe gave him a rather wet kiss and exclaimed "Papa, me and Adam found a pony that's just right! Can I get one? Can I? Please?"
Ben raised one eyebrow in quizzical fashion, as Joe continued to babble in an over-excited, slightly incoherent way. Adam grinned at his father and said "I'll tell you all about, when I can get a word in edgeways!"
Little Joe literally bounced around the house for the rest of the afternoon, still regaling his family with tales of the wonderful pony and his new friends. By now, everyone was rather fed-up with these topics of conversation, but Joe refused to be distracted. After dinner, he suddenly fell quiet and was soon asleep in his mother's arms.
Marie smiled tenderly at her exhausted child. "I think you should visit Mr. Fraser tomorrow. I don't think any of us can stand this excitement much longer!"