No one really paid attention to the lean, young cowboy who sat long in the saddle as he reined in beneath a spreading oak. But shrewd dark hazel eyes instantly latched onto the exceptional strawberry roan he led while everyone else focused on the breaking of broncs.
“That’s a good looking piece of horse flesh you’ve got there,” a tall, slim, black-haired man said, as he stepped up and ran an appreciative hand along the animal’s slender neck.
The kid’s amber eyes narrowed as they sized him up. Something about the cut of him and the way he moved said he was a true breaker of horses. “I’m partial to ‘im, and that’s why it clear breaks my heart to havta sell ‘im.”
The man gave the horse’s speckled coat a good, healthy pat. “No need for that if you’re looking for a job. We can always use another good buster, and that way you can stay with him.”
“I didn’t say I was a buster.”
“I’ve been around enough to know the look.”
“So I take it you’re the ramrod.”
“You take it right, son. So if you want the job all you havta do is say so.”
“No, I’m not really looking for a job; I just need to sell a horse.”
Now the hazel eyes narrowed. “I suppose you have a bill of sale for him.”
“He ain’t stole, Mister, if that’s what you’re hintin’ at.”
“I mean no offence, it’s just good business practice, and can go a long way toward keeping your neck out of a noose.”
“I reckon so.” The boy scrounged in his shirt pocket and came out with a crumpled and folded piece of paper. “Here ya go.”
The ramrod pulled off his work gloves with his teeth and tucked them into the waist band of his chaps. He took the paper, opened it out, and his keen eyes scanned over it. “Everything looks in good order, Mr. Gooding.”
The boy became immediately wary. “I never told you my name.”
“It’s on the bill.”
The boy grew sheepish, and the corners of his full mouth drew in. “Oh, yeah. I guess I wasn’t thinkin’ about that.”
The tall man handed back the paper then pumped the kid’s hand. “I’m Adam Cartwright.”
The boy’s eyes went round as silver dollars. He and most every other breaker worth his salt knew of Adam Cartwright. He had the reputation of a first class bronc buster and being no pushover. He knew his horses, and this, in and of itself, gave the cowboy pause. And the same could be said of his two younger brothers, although the one they called Hoss didn’t do any actual breaking. Gooding had heard that he had tried it once and snapped the horse clean in two.
“I suppose you’re asking a lot for him.”
“Twenty dollars. Twenty-five, if I can get it. Just need enough to get me to San Francisco and have some left over for a decent meal or two or three.”
“I would’ve thought more for an animal like this.” Adam’s eyes went sharp. “Tell me what’s wrong with him.”
Gooding sat straighter in the saddle. “They ain’t nothin’ wrong with ‘im. I just gotta sell ‘im is all.”
Adam turned, and his gaze probed through the gathering of men then stopped. “Hoss! Hoss, bring me a saddle!”
Gooding looked like he was about to choke on something. “They ain’t no reason for that.”
“And there’s no reason why I shouldn’t give him a try. I mean, if I’m gonna buy him, I wantta know what I’m getting. I think I’m right in supposing that he isn’t saddle broke.”
“He’s tasted one a few times.”
A mammoth of a man approached them. He lugged a saddle but he made it look like the thing weighed nothing more than a pound of butter. “Tell me where you want this, brother.”
“On that horse’s back.” Adam began to tug his gloves on. “This is my brother Hoss. Hoss, this is Aloysius Gooding.”
The kid went red as a beet. “Most just call me Al.”
“How do, Al,” Hoss said, as he swung the saddle and blanket onto the roan’s back. “This is a right fine lookin’ piece o’ horse you got here.”
“He sure is, and if I didn’t havta sell ‘im, I sure wouldn’t.” Gooding’s eyes flicked away briefly. “But, like I told you brother here, I’m in dire need o’ cash money.”
“Well, we can sure pay it.” Hoss gave the cinch a jerk and caught a biting glare from the roan. “If’n he’s worth it.”
“That’s what I’m gonna determine.” Adam took the halter lead from the boy and started toward the breaking corral with the horse.
“Step down, boy. This oughtta be good.”
Gooding alit and wrapped a rein around a low limb of the tree. Hoss slapped a beefy arm across his shoulders and, they followed off after his brother.
As they stopped along the fence the corral emptied to give the roan plenty of room to do whatever he was going to do. As they watched Adam get aboard while two of the hands held the horse’s head, they were joined by a handsome kid with dark brown curly hair.
“That’s a right fine looking horse,” the young man said, as he crossed his arms on the top of the fence rail. “But I can’t say as I’ve seen him before.”
“You ain’t,” Hoss said. “This here’s my little brother. Joe, this is Al Gooding, an’ that fine lookin’ animal belongs to him. At least, for now he does.”
Joe shook his head, and a frown wrinkled his attractive face. “Well, if he was mine I’d not be parting with him any time soon.”
“You would if’n you needed money like ol’ Al here does.”
Joe looked around his massive brother. “I’d like to know what his name is.”
Gooding tried to gulp down the knot that wanted to strangle him. He’d rather be shot in the foot as to say, so he mumbled something incoherent.
“I didn’t hear that,” Joe said, with a cock of his head.
His mama didn’t raise no liar, so there was no way around this, he was trapped. “Rounder.”
Hoss’ brow puckered. “That’s an odd name for a horse, unless…”
“All right, boys, let ‘im go!” Adam shouted, and braced himself.
The two hands scattered and took to the fence like flushed quail. But haste really wasn’t necessary since the roan only stood there. Adam felt like a child on a hobby horse that didn’t move unless he did so he gave a slight nudge with his knees. Nothing happened. He did it three more times – each harder than the last – and still the horse seemed disinclined to give him any kind of satisfaction. After what seemed an eternity but was probably closer to a minute he looked to his brothers with a helpless shrug.
All of the sudden the horse began to whirl counterclockwise. Caught unawares, Adam almost lost his seat. His legs squeezed on the animal’s sides, and he grabbed a handful of reddish brown mane while his other hand tightened on the halter rope. Dust boiled into the air from the mad action of the horse’s feet. Everything turned into a multicolored blur as they continued to spin. This seemed to go on forever then – just as abruptly – the roan stopped and began to go in the opposite direction.
Men shouted and encouraged their boss from the sidelines, but no one was willing to get in there and stop this whirling dervish.
Adam could feel the contents of his stomach – agitated by the motion – try to rise into his throat. He knew he shouldn’t have eaten that second stack of flapjacks as the taste of them came back to haunt him.
“Hang onto him, Adam!” Joe practically screamed.
“That durn fool horse is gonna screw both of ‘em into the ground if’n he ain’t careful.” Hoss looked around and Gooding stood with his hat pulled down over his face. “You all right, boy?” Gooding mumbled something, but Hoss didn’t have time to figure it out, and turned his attention back to his oldest brother.
Rounder braced his front hooves in the dirt and stopped on a dime. Adam’s body seemed to still rotate even though the horse didn’t move. He thought he was going to be sick. In an effort to clear his reeling head and force his breakfast back were it belonged he took a deep breath.
Looks were exchanged around the perimeter of the corral and low talk carried through the men. The horse just stood there as his sides heaved, and his head dropped. But as men climbed over the fence the animal began his counter rotation again. A clamorous exclamation rose, and they clambered back to the other side.
Not again, tumbled through Adam’s head in a jumble. Why hadn’t he gotten off when he had had the chance? Now he was stuck on the back of this top.
As everyone watched, the roan’s wild gyrations drew him closer to the fence. But then the horse stopped and – as if a switch had been thrown – he started in the opposite direction again.
“I wantta know how to stop that dadburned critter from twistin’ our brother to death,” Hoss said, as his cold blue eyes turned on the cowboy beside him.
Joe’s eyes flashed like wet emeralds. “We could shoot him.”
Gooding took his hat from his face, and his frightened gaze went to Joe. “No need to do that. He’ll stop.”
The words had no sooner left his lips than Rounder came to a complete halt near the center of the corral.
Adam saw his opportunity. He dismounted but was so dizzy that when he tried to take a step he pitched sideways onto the hard packed ground. He managed to raise his head and saw his brothers as they rushed for him. Everything moved as if it had been shaken up in a jar, and he felt like he was still on the back of the horse and caught in its violent vortex.
“You all right, brother?”
Adam was too breathless to answer. He barely could feel the firm grips on his arms that forced him to stand. He thought he had his legs under him, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he took a step. And probably wind up flat of my face, he thought.
“Come on, Adam, let’s git you outta here before ol’ Rounder starts up again.”
Adam turned glazed eyes on Hoss. “That’s not funny.”
“That’s his name,” Hoss said, in self defense.
Adam’s gaze turned toward Gooding where he stood on the other side of the fence. But then Joe blocked his vision as he stepped in front of him.
“Adam, let me give him a try. I know I can stick with him. He caught you off guard, but I know what to expect from him. I’ll make him mind.”
Adam hated the thought of giving his eighteen-year-old kid brother over to the mercy of this diabolical beast. Then he looked deep into those pleading green eyes, and he convinced himself that Joe could handle this fiend.
“All right, Joe, but take some rope and tie yourself onto his back. It’s like riding a cyclone.”
Joe gave his brother’s arm a swat. “Thanks, Adam. Now he’s gonna see some real horsemanship.” Then he dashed off toward the roan.
“Come on, Adam, let’s git someplace where we can watch the fun better.”
Adam managed a feeble snicker. “Yeah.”
As they exited through the gate – Adam still didn’t have his land legs back enough to climb over – and went to stand on either side of Gooding, Joe got himself squarely seated in the saddle.
“All right, give him his head!” Joe yelled.
The two men released their hold on the halter and shot for the fence.
As expected, Rounder simply stood there for maybe a minute. Then, to everyone’s amazement, except for Gooding’s of course, he began to walk as pretty as you please. His stocky, well-shaped legs took elegant strides as he moved around the circumference of the corral as if in a parade. His head rose up and down in a prideful bob, and a slow burn began at the base of Joe’s skull as the taunts started.
“Hang on, Joe!” one of the men shouted. “He’s a bucker, all right!”
“Looks like Adam softened ‘im up fer ya!” another chided.
Then something queer began to happen. As Rounder continued his purposeful gait, his back end began to bump up, and each time his rear feet would kick out behind. Now laughter combined with the heckling.
It was like riding in a buckboard over a rock strewn road, and Joe had never been so humiliated in his life. This blasted horse had blown to dust his chance to show off his prowess. He kicked the animal in the sides in hopes of incurring just one little buck. But Rounder only continued to walk and bounce his behind.
“Hey, Joe, maybe we should oughtta take ‘im back to the house so’s he can rock you to sleep!” Hoss said, between guffaws.
“Doggone your ornery hide,” Joe muttered to himself. “I hope Adam does buy you just so I can shoot you.”
Adam could see the red blossom in his little brother’s cheeks. But he decided not to say or do anything since he felt it would take some of the starch from Joe’s over inflated opinion of himself.
As Rounder kept going, each successive bump was higher than the previous one and his rear legs would kick out just a shade more. His pace moved steadily into a canter, and it got to where his rear hooves were a foot from the ground. And the good natured jibes increased.
“He makes a good rockin’ chair, don’t he?”
“He sure does! Maybe we should call ‘im Rocky!”
A ripple of laughter ran through the men and even Hoss couldn’t resist. And Adam decided it wasn’t such a bad idea either.
As all watched, Rounder’s circling began to close up, and he started to draw toward the center of the corral, and the bumping continued.
Joe felt like he would be jostled to death. This was as bad as a bucker, and too embarrassing for words. He had always wanted to be taken seriously by his family and those who worked for them, but this only succeeded in making him look foolish. It also made him mad enough to spit.
“Just right for puttin’ a baby to sleep!” someone shouted from the fence line.
That did it. Joe had had enough of this. “Come on, you rattle-brained fleabag, buck. Just a little bit.”
As if on cue, Rounder jumped straight up and twisted at the midsection, and his front and back ends went counter to one another. Having been lulled into complacency, Joe lost his tenuous hold and rose into the air. He came down and hit the ground in an unflattering wad. Dust puffed up in a brown cloud that settled right on him and made him cough.
Someone helped Joe to his feet as he tried to shake the buzzing bees from the inside of his head.
“You all right, Joe?”
But Joe’s menacing gaze went to the horse and not his oldest brother. “Somebody find me a gun. I’m gonna shoot that misbegotten nag.”
“Simmer down, Joe,” Adam said, as he brushed his little brother off. “You’ll get over it.”
“But will he? He made me look stupid.”
“You don’t need no help with that.” Hoss chortled.
But Joe wasn’t amused. The horse just stood there and looked at him, innocent as the day it had been born, and it only made Joe’s blood heat up. Then a diabolical gleam entered those vengeful green eyes. “I’ve got it!” He turned back to his brothers. “Let’s put Hoss on him.”
“Ah, come on, Joe, no self respectin’ horse is gonna buck an’ act up with me on its back. An’ if’n’ it tries I’ll break it down.”
Joe’s face went perfectly fiendish. “I know.”
Adam squared his shoulders to confront his little brother. “Joe, we didn’t come out to play around. We’ve still got plenty of work to do.”
“It was your idea in the first place to try him out, older brother.”
Adam thought a second then his eyes narrowed on the horse. Joe wasn’t the only one who had been made to look the fool by that blasted roan. Maybe a little dose of Hoss wasn’t such a bad idea after all. “All right, if Hoss goes along with it.”
Hoss wanted to crawl into a hollow log and jump into a hole and pull it in after him as his brothers’ eyes turned on him. He could see that Joe was begging him to do it, and Adam wasn’t exactly down on the notion. “All right, but if’n’ he makes me look as stupid as he did the both of you…,” he jabbed his finger at them like a pointer. Hoss just shook his head then turned to the horse. “Look at the way he’s starin’ at me.”
“Well, if I thought something like you was gonna get on my back I’d do more ‘n just stare.” Joe giggled.
“I’d bolt, and wouldn’t stop until I hit California.”
Hoss looked first at one brother then the other. “You two give me a pain.”
“We’d better move up on him, easy like,” Adam said, and rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “If he gets wise to what we’re planning, we won’t be able to catch him for the next hundred years.”
Joe tugged his hat down in front. “We can circle around him, and while he’s watching one of us the other can grab his halter.”
Adam agreed with nothing more than a nod, and they started toward the animal.
It wasn’t as difficult as they had expected it to be, and Hoss was soon, albeit with reluctance, in the saddle. Adam and Joe made a split for the fence and practically became airborne as they sailed over the top rail.
At this point, Gooding’s eyes thought to nearly pop. “What’s he doin’? He’ll bow out his legs.”
“I don’t think you have much to worry about,” Adam said, and leaned forward against the fence. “As I’ve learned, much to my chagrin, that horse is smarter ‘n most. Now let’s just watch the fun.”
Not that anyone had expected different, but the roan just stood there. Granted, he had probably never born up under such a load as sat in the saddle now, yet he seemed indifferent to it.
Hoss felt like one of those statues of some general astride his war horse. And this one stood just as still. A flush rose from his boots clear to his hair as he realized that all activity had pretty much ceased. He had become the center of everyone’s attention, and it made him uncomfortable. He gave a tug on the halter rope. “If’n you’re gonna do somethin’ I wish you’d just go a head an’ do it an’ git this over with.” Nothing happened, so he gave another tug.
With a sudden jerk, Rounder’s head came around and nipped into Hoss’ left leg. “Ow!” Then hardly before he could react he found himself bit on the right leg. “Cut that out, you dadblamed knot head!” Then another bite to the left leg. “Oow!” Hoss had sprouted a dozen pairs of hands in an effort to keep the horse from biting him. But as he slapped on one side he would be devoured on the other. “It’s like bein’ in the water with a snappin’ turtle!”
“Get off of ‘im, Hoss, before he eats you alive!” Joe cried, as he began to climb over to his brother’s aid.
Without any thought to anything except escape from being eaten clean up, Hoss bounded from the roan’s back. In his haste, he landed face down in a gritty heap, with a certain part of his anatomy sticking up into dangerous territory.
They must have heard Hoss’ scream all the way to Carson City as the horse’s teeth clamped into the right cheek of his butt. With a mad scramble, he pulled it back in an attempt to avoid another attack. It never came, but not because Rounder didn’t try. Adam and Joe and a couple of the hands were all over him, and had to fight hard to prevent it.
“You all right, Hoss?” Joe asked, as he and Adam helped their brother up.
“Somebody git me a brandin’ iron! I’m gonna bend it over that outlaw’s head!” Hoss rubbed his smarting back side and tried to see behind him to assess the damage. “I ain’t gonna be able to set down for a month.” He rubbed harder. “A month, nothin’! I ain’t gonna be able to set down for the rest o’ the year!” His wrathful blue eyes bore into his little brother like an auger. “An’ it’s all your fault, Joe! This was your bright idea!”
“Well, I didn’t know he was gonna turn into a cannibal.” Joe’s accusing finger aimed straight at his oldest brother. “And Adam’s the one who started this whole thing in the first place.”
“Oh, no, Joe, don’t you blame me for this. I made myself get on him, but you volunteered yourself and Hoss.”
Now the bickering started as each brother tried to lay or dodge blame for this fiasco. But their quarreling halted as Adam grasped his brothers’ arms, and three sets of Cartwright eyes turned as Al Gooding led his horse out of the corral.
Gooding had just taken the saddle from Rounder’s back and hung it on the fence when the brothers joined him. And his moves seemed weighted down and less than enthusiastic. Nobody said anything until he had finished.
Gooding turned disconsolate eyes on Adam, and their color almost appeared to have faded. “I tried to hoodwink you. But then I think you already know that.”
Adam nodded and one side of his mouth quirked. “Not right at first, but it didn’t take me long to figure it out. Nobody will ever ride this one unless he wants them to, and I’m not gonna hold my breath.” He gave Rounder a good pat on the withers. “Who stuck you with him?”
“Oh, I bought ‘im in New Mexico from a couple o’ drunk cowboys a few months back, and I’ve been tryin’ to unload ‘im ever since. But either those I tried sellin’ ‘im to knew about ‘im or, like you, they was just too smart.”
“How much did they cheat you out of, boy?” Hoss asked, with a sympathetic tone.
“Forty-five dollars, everything I had in the world.”
Adam’s lone eyebrow rose. “And the fact that you were drunk, too, made you just that much more gullible.”
“How’d you know I was drunk?”
Adam snickered. “Just a lucky guess.”
“So where’ll you go now?” Joe asked.
“I don’t rightly know.” Gooding snorted. “I guess wherever I might find somebody fool enough buy ol’ Rounder out from under me.”
Adam leaned forward against the roan, and began to stroke the reddish brown mane. “That job offer still goes.”
“After what I tried to do?”
“A man’s gotta eat, don’t he?” Hoss slapped a hand onto his older brother’s back. “An’ ol’ Adam here ain’t the kind to hold it agin’ a man for tryin’ to put food in his belly.”
“Hoss is right. I don’t hold it against any man for looking after himself. And you must admit that it livened things up considerably. So whadaya say? The pay’s not too shoddy, and we have a first class cook. You’ll even have your own bunk and a roof over your head.”
“You really should since we owe you a favor. It’s not every day we get to see a horse try to make a meal outta Hoss?”
Sharp blue eyes turned on his little brother. “That ain’t funny, Joe.”
Joe just giggled.
“Well, I suppose I could give it a try, at least until I got enough of a stake. But I ain’t no charity case.”
“And I don’t do charity work. You’ll work and work hard just like the rest of us. And you’ll be free to leave whenever you want to.”
A frown creased Gooding’s brow. “What about Rounder? I hate myself for it, but I havta admit that I’ve kinda got used to havin’ ‘im around.”
Adam chortled. “He’s welcome to stay, too. And if I know men, there won’t be a new man come along that won’t be tried on him. It’ll become a sorta test, if you will.”
Gooding took his hat off and ran the back of his hand across his sweaty forehead. “Well, I haven’t had a square meal in a week’s worth of Sundays, so I guess I could. And I’ll make sure you ain’t sorry you took me on.”
“Fine.” Adam put an arm around Al’s shoulders and they started off. “Joe and Hoss can take care of your horses while I show you the setup, and you can go straight to work.”
Hoss took hold of Rounder’s lead, and he and Joe started toward the stock corral where the rest of the horses were kept.
“I know that look. What scheme you got hatchin’ in your head this time, Joe?”
“You know how Jayd Hammond is always bragging about how there isn’t a horse alive that he can’t master, and is always betting on it?”
Hoss’ eyes lit up, and he nodded. “And you’re thinkin’ that maybe we just oughtta introduce ‘im to ol’ Rounder here, then plump down a nice fat bet.”
A wicked twinkle filled Joe’s eyes. “Exactly.”