A Matter of Intent (by Cheaux)

Summary:  A WHN for A Matter of Circumstance.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG for subject matter
Word Count:  6,840


 

“The only good thing about moving cattle,” Candy said collapsing onto his bedroll, “is that when it’s over, it’s over.”

“Until the next time,” Hoss laughed. “Ya coulda gone to town with the men, ya know.”

“What? And miss another night on the trail listening to you bellyache about Joe’s cushy job playing nursemaid to a bunch a brood mares, sleepin’ in a soft bed, and eating Hop Sing’s fried chicken?”

“Doggone it! Now ya done reminded me it’s fried chicken night,” Hoss grumbled, easing himself cross-legged to the ground by the fire, a full plate in one hand and a mug of coffee in the other. “Ain’t ya gonna eat?”

Candy raised his weary head and opened one eye. “Let me guess. Beans, biscuits, and bacon.”

“Yep.”

“Isn’t this your third helping?”

“Yep.”

“You’re gonna need bicarbonate before the night is over.”

Before Hoss could swallow, a series of loud snorts rippled through the night air not unlike the double-action piston bellows blacksmith Sam Hill used at his forge. The only person who fell asleep faster, slept longer, and awoke ornerier was his younger brother, but at least Joe did not snore!

“Doggone it!”

 

*****

The sun’s rays had barely gained a finger hold on the horizon when another sort of noise broke the stillness.

“Yo, the camp!” the man shouted.

“What in tarnation?” Candy awoke with a start. “Clem? What in thunder are you doing here?”

“One of your drovers told me where you were likely camped.”

“That tells me how you found us, not why.”

“There’s trouble.”

Hoss sat up immediately when he heard the “T” word and started pulling on his boots. “What sort of trouble?”

“That’s the thing, Hoss,” Clem said. “I don’t rightly know for sure, but Hank Caruthers come to town in a panic looking for Doc Martin.”

“Pa?”

“He didn’t mention your Pa.”

“What sort of trouble, Clem?” asked Candy.

“Some ranches have been reporting suspicious activities involving their stock.”

“Rustlin’?”

“Not exactly.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Now don’t get riled at me, Candy. I’m just the messenger, but I do know Donny McGuire from the Pinehurst Ranch over in Washoe got shot stopping an intruder.”

“Joe been shot?”

“Not to my knowledge; Hank would have said something. Hoss, I’m sorry I don’t have more information. I just figured you’d want to know that something was up, that’s all.”

“Sorry, Clem, didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“I know that, Candy. Look, fellas, whatever happened at the Ponderosa the night before last has some people scared and others riled up, but no one knows exactly what is going on. Roy’s been playing this close to his vest. There’s to be a meeting day after tomorrow in Judge Hawthorne’s courtroom at the state capitol.”

“Thanks Clem,” Hoss grunted as he poured cold coffee over the coals and kicked dirt into the fire ring. “I’ll saddle the horses.”

Clem knelt down to help Candy with the bedrolls and whispered. “When Hank come to town, he was covered in blood.”

Candy’s eyes widened and he immediately looked for Hoss, but a hand on his arm and shake of the Deputy’s head stilled him.

“I thought you said Joe wasn’t shot,” Candy

“He wasn’t.”

“Then what the hell is going on?”

*****

After Clem’s surprise visit, Hoss and Candy had high-tailed it to the ranch only to find Ben gone to town to meet with Roy Coffee and Hop Sing carrying on about how Joe was not listening to his elders and generally being “velly, velly bad.”

The cook waived his arms and ranted in Cantonese while Joe said not a word in response but stood stoically by the settee and stared.

Hoss knew that look all too well. The curly chestnut hair might be greying, but the thrusting chin and flared nostrils signaled the same willful intent they had for nearly three decades. Best practice was to go along and do what he could to keep his brother in check.

Between the three of them, they got Joe’s boots on and shirt buttoned. Hop Sing tried one last time to assert some authority over the situation. “Doctor say no ride!”

“Fine!” Joe said and—hindered by restrictive bandages around his ribs and right knee—walked gingerly out the door across the yard past the barn and kept going toward the horse pastures. He figured Hoss and Candy knew more than they were telling, but were also looking to him for answers about what had happened a few nights ago. The truth was . . . what? Nothing he could remember.

One minute he was standing at his bedroom window at midnight, and the next he was in bed bandaged and sore and Pa had brought him a bowl of beef stew for dinner. There was no way he could eat. Something bad, very bad had happened and he needed to know what.

It didn’t take long for Hoss and Candy to catch up to him and he was grateful for their presence. It was more than physical pain he struggled to hide; it was the anticipation of what he would find when they reached the rise above the pastures.

When they did, Hoss took up a position at an angle carefully calculated to provide shade to his hatless brother and Candy closed ranks on Joe’s right. It took only a moment for a zephyr wind’s updraft to hit them full force. And riding the wind was the smell.

It was the coppery scent of blood and guts mingled with decaying flesh. When Joe started to teeter, Candy crouched at his side to provide a shoulder for him to lean on. As Joe’s fingers dug in, Candy let out a slow whistle at the vision before them.

They should have seen mares and foals in the breeding corral. Instead, there were only vultures picking at carrion strewn over churned earth.

It was an unbearable length of time before Joe spoke, his voice as rough as sandpaper.

“How many did we lose?”

Hoss and Candy shared a look and reached an unspoken accord; they would not provide any details, but neither would they lie.

“All but one,” Candy said. “Lightning’s colt.”

Joe’s strangled cry was lost in a gust of wind, but Hoss didn’t need to hear it to feel his brother’s anguish.

“We’re so sorry we weren’t here to help ya when it happened, but Pa and Hank did what was necessary. Lightning didn’t suffer long . . . they didn’t let any of ‘em suffer long.”

Suddenly, Joe bent over, hands on thighs, to wretch. Hoss gripped his elbow to steady him, but there were no words.

Given the lack of food ingested in the last 36 hours, there was little for Joe to regurgitate. After a few minutes, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and straightened up.

“Burn it.”

“What?”

“You heard me, Candy. Take the corral apart. Every post; every pole. Burn everything.”

In his haste to leave and without thinking, Joe pivoted on his right leg, which immediately gave way. Although Hoss and Candy both reached for him, all they grabbed was air, and they watched horror-struck as Joe tumbled backward down the hill.

 

*****

Hoss heard the bedroom door close and waited for the sound of footsteps that would signal Doc Martin had finished his examination. There was only silence. He put down his coffee cup and rose from the settee but stopped when Paul began his descent down the staircase completely lost in thought.

“Doc?”

“Mmm.”

“Doc, is Joe—”

“What? Oh. Well, he didn’t do himself any favors gallivanting around the ranch on foot or flipping through the air like some ancient Olympian, but no new injuries.”

“What about his ribs?”

“Still bruised, but not cracked. He protected them pretty well as he rolled. Maybe he is a gymnast after all,” the doctor huffed. “Nevertheless, he’s set himself back a good month in recovery and you’d better get those crutches out of the attic; he’s going to need them.” Paul rolled his sleeves down and returned his stethoscope to his medical bag. “See that he keeps the leg elevated and wrapped. Ice for fifteen minutes, four or five times a day. Don’t apply heat until the swelling goes down. And eat. He has to eat, Hoss. And water. He needs to drink a glass of water every hour . . .”

“Easier said than done, Doc. You know how he gets.”

Hoss crossed to the front door and held it open.

“Doc?” It was clear that Paul was not paying attention and appeared to be searching for something.

“Where’s Ben?” he asked finally.

“Oh. Well. Pa ain’t been here much. When he learned Joe just had a sprain, he oversaw the cleanup and then went to town to give a stateme—”

“—Poppycock! I have never known Ben Cartwright to abandon an injured son for any reason. Are you telling me he hasn’t been here in two days?”

A short nod and deep sigh from the big man conveyed volumes.

“Why in heaven’s name?”

Hoss shoved his hands in his front pockets and toed the rug.

“He’s avoiding Joe,” the doctor concluded. “Why?”

“Don’t rightly know for sure. I s’pect he feels responsible.”

“I agree it was horrific, Hoss, but your father is not to blame. He thought Joe was in danger.

Hoss arched his eyebrows. “I reckon Pa don’t see it that way,”

“And how does Joe see it?”

“Reckon I don’t know that either. He was mighty fond a that horse.”

 

*****

Paul himself was not overly fond of horses, but they did know the way home, which was a blessing because Paul continued to be preoccupied trying to figure out Ben’s self-imposed exile and its meaning.

There was no need to ask which horse Hoss meant. Though he seldom spoke of it, Ben had held a grudge against the mare Joe had named Lightning.  Two years ago, a storm had frightened the new acquisition. Unaccustomed to her surroundings and terrified of the flashes and thunder, she trampled Joe when he tried to calm her. Injured and alone, he set his broken leg himself, treated a gangrenous arm with poultices of tobacco and tea and, when that appeared to have failed, made the decision to amputate. The days following the discovery of Joe lying on the kitchen floor were some of the darkest the family had ever endured.

Paul remembered being optimistic in his initial assessment. He honestly believed Joe had misjudged the extent of the infection and had relied on an outdated medical text for the drastic cure. In his delirium, Joe repeated over and over passages from the book. “Patient’s only chance lies in amputation . . . or death will surely follow.”

When the organs in his fever-ravaged body began to shut down, Joe sank deeper into unconsciousness until finally, nothing roused him. Maybe it was that chant, so oft repeated, that put Joe in a hopeless frame of mind.

Desperate, Paul began pouring over a stack of medical articles published following the Civil War until he found hope in a single line: “Maggots in a single day would clean a wound much better than any agents we had at our command,” reported a Confederate doctor.

Overcoming the objections of the family, Paul proceeded to introduce maggots into the wound to break down the dead tissue and eat it without disturbing the healthy tissue. Within two days, there was improvement. Although Paul decried the primitive bloodletting practices of the uneducated, it was a fact that leech saliva contained proteins that helped to numb pain, reduce swelling and keep blood flowing, so after each maggot debridement he used leeches to increase circulation.

Before long, Joe regained consciousness. Apparently, the visible improvement in his arm was enough to convince him that death would not follow. Although months of agonizing physical therapy to restore his flexibility and strength lay ahead, the healing process had begun.

With the gangrene abated, Ben focused his attention on the cause for his son’s agony and became intent upon selling the animal. Only Joe’s stubborn belief he could salvage Lightning kept Ben from doing so.  Now the horse was dead and Paul was convinced Ben felt responsible.

By the time Paul arrived home, he decided he would have to help his friend assuage his guilt over putting Lightning down.

 

*****

“That damnable horse!” Ben exclaimed, pounding his fist on the arm of the wing chair in Paul Martin’s library.

The doctor filled a Baccarat 1841 Harcort highball with Glenmorangie and set it on the side table. The way his friend looked, Paul seriously considered handing him the bottle and keeping the glass for himself. Instead, he fetched another glass and settled down in the matching chair.

“I should have put that horse down two years ago.”

“You couldn’t do that, Ben. Joe had his heart set on breeding her to improve your stock. Besides, what happened the other night would have happened anyway whether Lightning was in the corral or not.”

Paul could sense it was going to be a long night. “My housekeeper has gone home for the night, but I can rustle up some steak and eggs.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You’ll eat whatever I fix!” Paul wandered into the kitchen shaking his head. And he wonders where Joe gets it from.

Ben rose stiffly from his chair and went to the window. Paul’s house was nestled in the foothills of Mount Davidson on the south end of B Street near Taylor. Not as opulent as The Castle next door, it was similarly Victorian in style and suitably furnished, affording Paul a comfortable respite from the noise and bustle of North C Street where his office was located near to commerce and industry. Ben arched his back and twisted, audibly satisfied when it cracked. In the distance far out over the high desert a flash of silent lightning seared the night sky.

Lightning.

There was no denying the mare was as fast as lightning, just as Joe knew she would be. Fast as Cochise-perhaps even faster. Ben had noticed a sprinkling of white in the aging paint’s black patches of late. Maybe that was the reason his son wanted so badly to save the horse-as a hedge against the day when Cochise could no longer carry him as fast as he wanted.

“Well, she can’t carry you anywhere now that she’s dead,” Ben whispered, closing his eyes and recalling the statement he’d given Roy Coffee.

I reached the lower corral and saw Joe lying in dirt made muddy by a growing pool of blood, a horse pawing the air above him. I dismounted, pulling my rifle from its scabbard and fired pointblank as I advanced on foot.

When Ben turned away from the window, Paul was sitting in his chair frowning.

“I didn’t realize I was speaking out loud,” Ben said apologetically and not a little embarrassed.

“You haven’t told Joe yet, have you? That’s why you are avoiding him.”

Ben made a guttural sound in his throat and drained his glass before sitting once again. “I lost my mind, is that what you want me to say?”

“It’s not what you did or say you did that concerns me; it’s what you were thinking.”

“What I was thinking!” shouted Ben as he rose again and began pacing. “I wasn’t thinking that’s the whole point. I was blind to reason and common sense.”

“Why? What were you feeling when you rode up to the corral and saw Joe on the ground in imminent danger of being trampled . . . once again?”

Ben stopped pacing and stared at Paul. “I was terrified . . . and enraged. I didn’t want just to kill the horse; I wanted to destroy it. It wasn’t just any rifle I carried; it was a Spencer repeating rifle. I pumped 15 rounds into that horse and I was reloading when Hank stopped me.” Ben collapsed in his chair, holding his head in his hands. “God help me, I was so consumed with rage I forgot Joe was lying there, hurt.”

Paul rose and poured another scotch for both of them. “He’s going to learn about it no matter what you do, my friend. You should tell him before the meeting in Carson. Let him hear it from you, not someone else.”

“Why? So he can hate me?”

“Ben . . . Joe loves you.”

“He loves those horses.”

“That’s the whiskey talking. Tell him the truth Ben. He’ll forgive you.”

Maybe, but Ben wondered if he could ever forgive himself.

 

*****

Joe groaned when he saw the flight of stairs leading up to the second floor of Abe Curry’s Great Basin Hotel in the center of Carson City. Hoss had told him to wait in the lobby while he parked the buggy, but not wishing to be carried like an invalid in front of the capitol’s elite, Joe gritted his teeth and braced for the tortuous climb. Despite the ice and liniment liberally and often applied over the last few days, Joe’s right leg was a swollen black and blue throbbing mass of misery. He was nearing the top when Hoss’s familiar baritone rang out, “Confound it!” and he felt the stairs shake under the weight his brother’s size 15 boots. With renewed effort, Joe double-timed it to the second floor landing, collapsing against the railing where Candy watched with a mix of amazement and concern.

“You are something else, friend,” he said. “Gutsy, stubborn, cantankerous—”

“—and thirsty.” Joe eyed the canteen slung over Candy’s shoulder and accepted it gratefully when it was offered.

“Joseph! What in tarnation do you think you are doing!”

“Just waitin’ on you, older brother. You’re slowin’ down some. Better cut out those extra helpings.” Joe’s bravado wasn’t fooling anyone, but he felt better for trying, especially after it elicited a laugh from Candy.

Hoss just scowled. “Looks like a packed house. We’d better go in.”

Joe took another swig from the canteen and handed it back before adjusting his crutches and hobbling inside the makeshift courtroom. The brothers took the first available seats near the back. Candy quickly scanned the crowd and spotted Ben on the far side of the room near the front. He signaled his destination to Hoss and threaded his way through the clusters of men milling in the aisles and between rows of chairs.

Ben saw him approaching and scowled. “Why is Joe using crutches? Paul said it was just a sprain.”

Candy didn’t figure the injury was ever just a sprain but he wasn’t going to argue with his employer, or get in the middle of a family row. If Ben didn’t know about the torn ligaments, there must have been a good reason the doctor didn’t tell him. “Just a precaution,” he responded. “Joe overdid it a bit yesterday.”

Sheriff Judd Lewis of Carson City thwarted any further inquiry Ben might have made by ringing a bell to call the proceeding to order and introduced Sheriff Roy Coffee of Virginia City.

“Now folks,” Roy began, “even though we’re in a hotel—seeing as the State Capitol is still under construction—this is an official proceeding.”

“What kinda proceeding, Sheriff?” asked a concerned citizen. “We thought this was gonna be a trial. Now it’s just a proceeding? What does that mean?”

“Let me handle this, Roy,” Sheriff Lewis whispered. “Cyrus, that’s a good question and I thank you for asking it. You all read in the Territorial Enterprise about the horses that were maimed or killed on various ranches in these parts and up in Elko. That is a matter of concern to the citizens of Nevada and the Sheriffs in those areas have been coordinating their investigations. Sheriff Coffee has been instrumental in obtaining statements from the affected ranchers and as a result, a suspect was arrested two days ago. So, Cyrus, you’d be correct in expectin’ a trial here today if it weren’t for some new developments which the Judge will explain if you’ll just give him a chance.”

There was murmuring in the gallery, but everyone settled down when Roy started speaking again.

“As I was sayin’, trial or no trial, this here is an official proceeding so I’d appreciate it if you’d remove your hats and take your feet off the furniture to show a little respect to the judge.”

“Thank you. Sheriff Coffee. Let me begin by introducing myself. I am Thomas Watson, District Court Judge for Storey County and Carson City. Seated next to me are two other District Court Judges, Matthew Gilchrest, from Washoe County and Samuel Witherspoon, from Elko. Judge Orin Hawthorne is the presiding judge of this court but he has recused himself from these proceedings.”

“Yeah . . . he oughta step down, it’s his kin what should be on trial!” shouted a man in the gallery.

Amid the outburst of general assent in the courtroom, Judge Watson rapped the gavel repeatedly. “Silence!”

“That’ll be enough out of you, Luther,” said Sheriff Lewis. “This here’s a court of law and don’t you forget it!”

“Actually, Sheriff,” said Judge Gilchrest, “with all due respect, this is not a court of law. It is a court of equity.”

Grumbles rolled across the room like a wave.

“What the hell does that mean?” shouted another citizen above the noise.

“There are no criminal charges currently pending before this court. This proceeding is to determine what damages, if any, are to be awarded to the injured parties. Is that clear?”

“So stealin’ a horse is a hanging offense, but maim or kill one and ya just hafta pay a fine?” asked an incredulous spectator.

“What about trespassing?” shouted another man in the gallery.

“Or assault-look at Joe Cartwright and Donny McGuire-both of ‘em injured! You’re tellin’ me nobody’s gonna pay for that?”

“I heard tell the same thing happened up in Elko last year.”

“They catch the scum?”

“They arrested a fella but they let him go!”

“Who was it?”

“Jeb Hawthorne.”

Again, the courtroom erupted, everyone speaking at once.

“What did I tell ya! Old Thorny pulled strings to get his boy off.”

“Miscreant!”

“Two-faced bastard!”

Judge Watson hammered relentlessly to no avail; only a pistol fired into the floorboards by Sheriff Lewis silenced the crowd.

A pall hung over the quieted room as the Judges looked each man in the eye. Some were defiant, others cowed. A few had the good sense to look ashamed.

The tribunal conferred quietly for a moment before Judge Witherspoon spoke.

“Gentlemen, we commend your interest in seeing that the law is upheld and justice served. In determining the innocence or degree of guilt in a criminal case, the intent of the accused would be under scrutiny. Were the results of his actions malicious and willful or an inadvertent consequence? Was there intent to deprive or defraud the true owner of his property? Did the accused have mental capacity to understand the ramifications of his acts? Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to those questions.

“There will be no trial here today or any day. Jeb Hawthorne signed a written confession . . . before hanging himself last night.”

The panel waited until the whispers and murmurs died out. Judge Watson continued.

“It is unlikely that we will ever know what demons drove the suspect. His family—in particular his father and mother—are devastated by his actions and deeply sorry for the economic losses and personal injury to the ranchers. They have asked us—the three of us judges—to preside over this court to determine a fair and equitable settlement for the losses suffered.

“In view of the hour, we will break for lunch before hearing testimony from the affected property owners and witnesses. Court is in recess until 2 p.m.”

The spectators, many of them disgruntled that they would not hear the salacious testimony they had hoped for, moved slowly to clear the courtroom. It took a while for Candy and Ben to make their way through the crowd over to Joe who remained seated by the rear door. As they approached, Sheriff Coffee was finishing his instructions.

“. . . and there’s a water closet at the end of the corridor on this floor when ya need it, Joe.”

“Thanks, Roy.”

“Joseph.”

“Pa.”

“How are you feeling, son?”

“I’m fine.”

“Candy said you’ve been overdoing it a bit.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw Candy shrug. “A bit,” he said. His father’s distance over the last few days bothered him, though he had not admitted it to anyone. Joe took his presence now as sign that—whatever it was—things were now back to normal.

“Pa, Roy says we need to turn in a cost itemization for our losses.”

“Why don’t you work that out with Candy. I’ll go see about ordering up some lunches so you won’t have to traverse those stairs.”

“But Pa—”

“—it’s your decision, Joe,” Ben snapped. “You’re in charge of the horses. Say whatever you think best.” And with that, he put on his hat and left the room leaving three bewildered men in his wake.

Joe turned to his brother, “What’s that all about?”

“I think Pa’s feelin’ guilty about having to destroy those horses. He knows what they mean to you.”

“You think that’s all it is? There’s nothing else?” Joe looked hopefully into clear blue eyes that couldn’t lie if they tried. There was no assurance in them.

 

*****

Following lunch, representatives of The Ponderosa, Black Arrow, Pinehurst, and Warm Springs ranches took seats in the front of the room near the table reserved for the panel of judges. Sheriffs Coffee and Lewis took up positions by the doors. The spectator gallery was noticeably thinner although it included members of the press.

Overall, sixteen men told their story. The last ranch to be heard from was The Ponderosa.

“State your name for the record.”

“Joe Cartwright.”

“You are the owner of The Ponderosa?”

“No. Yes. I mean,” Joe paused, looking around the room for his Pa. When he didn’t see him, Joe swallowed hard then lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, and spoke in a clear voice. “It’s my father’s ranch . . . Ben Cartwright . . . but my brothers and I share equally in the running of it. The horses are my responsibility.”

“You’ve heard the testimony of the other ranchers. At Warm Springs, one horse was blinded with a poker. At Black Arrow Ranch, two horses had tendons cut and had to be put down. At the Pinehurst Ranch, Donny McGuire interrupted an intruder and was shot by the assailant when he tried to prevent his escape. The event at The Ponderosa happened on July 10, is that correct?”

“July 10 or 11; it was the middle of the night. There was full moon.” Hearing the testimony of the other witnesses, it had all come back to him . . . the sights, the sounds, the terror . . . everything he had tried to forget and he started to shake.

“Are you all right, Mr. Cartwright?” asked Judge Gilchrest.

“May I have some water please?” A glass was shoved into his hand, he didn’t know by whom. When he placed the empty glass on the floor, he noticed a cigarette burn in the carpet and thought he ought to tell Hop Sing’s Number 9 cousin that there was silk weaving work to be had at the hotel.

“Mr. Cartwright?”

“Sorry. I was just thinking.” Joe shuddered, took a deep breath and began. “It was hot so the windows were open. My bedroom faces the pastures where the corrals are. A noise woke me and I could see the horses were agitated. By the time I got outside, I heard them screaming and I ran. I think I may have rung the bell first.”

“The bell?”

“Like a dinner bell, only we don’t use it for that. It’s rung for emergencies to alert the hands. You know, all hands on deck? My Pa was a sailor. It’s the bell from the Wanderer—his ship.”

“So you ran?”

“Yes. Over the rise and down to the lower corrals.”

“And what did you see when you got there?”

“Blood.” Joe’s eyes fixed on the carpet. “Blood. So much blood. Everywhere. The ground was saturated with it. Most of the mares were down; gutted; their unborn foals cut out of them. They were screaming. I . . . I only had six shots. It wasn’t enough; it wasn’t nearly enough. I saw a colt standing in the corner. I picked it up and shoved it through the fence. I tried to get the gate open so I could let the horses that were still alive out but I twisted my knee and kept losing my footing in the muck.”

“Did you see anyone?”

“No.”

“What sort of weapon was used?”

“Weapon?”

“To cause that much damage, it had to have been more than a knife.”

Joe titled his head and thought for a moment. There had been a flash in the moonlight. A large curved blade on a pole.

“A scythe. I saw a man with a scythe. He looked rather like illustrations of Father Time and I remember thinking time had run out. Then I heard shots and everything went black.”

“Were you shot?”

“No.”

“Do you know who fired the shots?”

“No.”

“Ah, your honor?” A man stood up, hat in hand.

“Yes?”

“Hank Caruthers here. I work for the Cartwrights. I heard the bell, saw Joe running. I grabbed a rifle and ran after him. I got to the corrals just after Mr. Cartwright—that’s Ben Cartwright, Joe’s Pa—rode in.”

“Is Ben Cartwright in the room?”

“Yes, your Honor.”

Joe turned to see his Pa walk up the aisle straight toward him. Ben put his hand on the back of Joe’s neck in that familiar way he had as he passed and once again, Joe was reassured.

“Please take a seat Mr. Cartwright and tell us what you saw when you arrived at the corral.”

“It was near midnight. I was returning home from a Cattlemen’s Association meeting in Virginia City when I heard the bell ring. When I got closer to the house and saw the direction Hank was running. I turned my horse and was able to reach the corrals first. As Joseph said, the moon was full. At first, all I saw was my son on the ground, a horse pawing the air above him. I was terrified it was happening again.”

“Again?”

“Two years ago, Joe was trampled by the same horse and nearly lost his arm and his life to gangrene. The recovery was difficult.”

“I’m curious, Mr. Cartwright,” said Judge Witherspoon. “I’m a horse owner and father myself. Why would you keep that animal?”

“I didn’t want to, but Joe never blamed the horse for his injuries. He swore she was not at fault; only that the lightning and thunder frightened her; that he could work with her, gentle her. That’s how she got her name . . . Lightning. And he was right. She turned out to be a good brood mare.”

A quick glance at Joe revealed the pleasure his acknowledgement of the mare’s worth brought to his son. Ben sat up straight, filled his lungs and forged ahead hoping Paul was right about forgiveness.

“But when I saw Lightning rear up over the prone body of my son, I panicked. I pulled my rifle out of its scabbard and began firing and I didn’t stop until the horse dropped to the ground. I couldn’t quite understand why, if Lightning were dead, I was still hearing screams. Then I saw the carnage all around, mares thrashing, squealing and I started firing again, wanting to end their pain but not thinking that we might have saved some if we could get them out of there. At some point—probably just seconds, but it seemed like an eternity—Hank told me to take care of Joe while he saw to the rest of the horses. I dragged my son out of the corral and put him in the horse trough to wash away the mud and blood and excrement so I could see how badly he was hurt.” Ben paused, clearly having difficulty saying what came next. “There weren’t any marks on him at all. There was no justification for what I did.” Ben looked once more at Joe, whose smile had vanished and his heart sank.

“Did you see anyone else in the corral?”

“No.”

“Mr. Caruthers, what about you? Did you see anyone with a scythe? Anyone at all?”

“No.”

“What happened next?” asked Judge Witherspoon.

“I fetched a wagon so we could get Joe back to the house. Like Mr. Cartwright said, we didn’t know how bad he was injured at that point, whether he’d been cut like the mares or trampled. Then I rode for the doctor since the rest of the hands were out moving cattle. It was daylight by the time I returned with the Doc. As soon as Mr. Cartwright knew his son was going to be all right, he come down to the corrals with me and we began the butchering. It was awful work, but there weren’t anyone else. I hope to God never to do it again.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Stillness settled over the room, the only sound the scratching of pens as the judges made notes. Finally, Judge Watson asked, “Joe Cartwright, how many horses were lost in total?”

“Including foals . . . 23. Every mare I had.”

“Just one more question. The other ranches have submitted their cost statement as to the amount of damage suffered. The Ponderosa Ranch has not. May I ask why?”

Joe shook his head slowly. “How do you value an unborn foal and its progeny? What price do you put on a dream?”

 

*****

Judge Watson declared the proceedings in recess for two days to enable the Justices to review the record and render a decision. As the courtroom cleared, Paul located Ben and together they exited the room and found Hoss and Candy in the corridor near the staircase.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked.

“He must be waitin’ for the aisle to clear out so he doesn’t have to fight with them crutches so much,” Hoss said.

“He’s not in there. We were the last to leave.”

“Roy said there was a water closet on this floor. I’ll go ch—”

“—I already looked there, Candy,” Ben said. “I have to face it. He’s gone.”

“Give him time, Ben. He needs to sort out what he’s heard. He’ll turn up.” Paul clapped a hand on Ben’s shoulder.

“Yeah, he’s probably plum tuckered out and thought he’d catch forty winks before dinner. You know he’ll take sleep over food any time. Now me,” Hoss said, rubbing his belly, “I been hankerin’ for some of that Eyetalian grub over at Mama Gucci’s.”

“I tell you what,” said Paul. “Let’s go down to the Magnolia and have a drink while we wait for Joe and then we can all enjoy dinner at Mama Gucci’s.”

They were still waiting on Friday when the court reconvened. Joe was nowhere to be found and Ben was devastated. Candy slid into a seat behind Hoss and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Well?” Hoss whispered, turning his head away from Ben.

“I checked the other hotels.  Nothing. Roy wired Clem and he sent someone out the ranch. No one’s seen hide nor hair of Joe.”

“Dadburnit! How could he just disappear like that?”

Candy shrugged, and sat back in his chair when the gavel sounded. After some prefatory remarks, Judge Gilchrest spoke on behalf of the panel.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has recently concluded that courts have wide discretion to fashion relief in cases of equity. We considered the economic losses and personal injuries received and after reviewing the witness statements and testimony, we make the following awards:

“To the Pinehurst Ranch—we find there was no economic loss and therefore no damages are awarded.

“To Donny McGuire for personal injury sustained at the hands of Jeb Hawthorne, we award the cost of his medical care, compensation for lost wages, plus the sum of $1,000 for pain and suffering.

“To the Broken Arrow Ranch for the loss of two registered thoroughbred horses, we award the cost of their acquisition as substantiated by their bills of sale, plus the actual cost of care and feeding for the period of ownership.

“To Warm Springs Ranch for the blinding of single horse, we award the sum of $500, noting that the horse was a brood mare and is still capable of performing that function.

“The Ponderosa Ranch did not submit a memorandum of costs. Although we acknowledge the exemplary reputation The Ponderosa—and in particular, Joseph Cartwright—has in breeding and training quality stock, we note the horses were wild mustangs whose cost of acquisition was negligible and whose economic value is arbitrary at best.

“By Joe Cartwright’s own admission, his injuries—though not intentionally self-inflicted—were the result of his own actions.

“We find Ben Cartwright’s actions in ending the injured horses’ suffering to be well-intentioned though a bit overzealous. By his own admission, had he been more discriminate in the firing of his rifle, some horses may have been saved. We say, ‘may,’ for what might have been is a matter of speculation and conjecture and we must deal in facts.

“We find Hank Caruther’s actions in putting the remainder of the horses out of their misery both reasonable and humane.

“We were moved by Joe Cartwright’s summation that there is no fair and equitable remedy for the loss of life and the loss of a dream. Nevertheless, thanks to Candy Canaday, foreman of The Ponderosa, we were given copies of the contracts with several U.S. Army Posts. In the event those contracts cannot be filled due to the losses sustained, Judge Hawthorne has agreed to personally indemnify the costs of said breach.

“In conclusion, it is the opinion of this tribunal that the acts we heard described were horrific, unconscionable and criminal in their scope and intent. Sadly, there is no precedent in this state for crimes of this nature. We can only hope that in the future, society will enact laws so that anyone who intentionally harms an animal of any kind will be held accountable for his actions and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Judge Watson was about to bang the gavel to end the proceedings when a man standing in the doorway spoke up.

“Your honor, may I say something on the record?”

Judge Watson sat back in his chair as the other two judges leaned in to whisper their assent.

“Let the record show that Joe Cartwright has permission to address the court.”

All heads turned to watch Joe hobble forward and take the witness chair. After he stowed his crutches and removed his hat, he began.

“The last few days have been hard, not just for me but for . . . others. I have been thinking about all I heard and I kept coming back to one thing. You talked about never knowing why Jeb Hawthorne did what he did. You said intent matters, is that right?”

“Yes. The degree of guilt is determined by intent.”

“Then I want to say . . . I want you to know . . . .” Joe clenched his jaw trying desperately to still a trembling lip.

“Just speak from the heart son,” Justice Witherspoon said, kindly.

“Yes sir.” Joe paused. He liked this judge and found it easier to turn and speak directly to him. “I know my Pa has a hard time with how fast I ride and the risks I take with horses. I am like my mother that way, I guess. And even though my brothers and I—me especially—cause him a lot of grief from time to time, I know he would give his life for us.

“What you don’t know—what you can’t begin to imagine—is what that night was like. It was more than chaos. It was . . . Armageddon. And yet my father didn’t think twice about entering the corral with no regard for his own safety. I believe with my whole heart that his intent was to protect me . . . and that’s what matters to me. I don’t know whether Lightning or any of the horses could have been spared. Like you said, what might have been is speculation and conjecture.”

Joe turned to his father and held his gaze. “What I do know is my Pa is a good man . . . a penitent man. And, whether it matters to the court or not, I just wanted to say on the record . . . that I forgive him.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright.  This court is adjourned.”

The crowd filed out quietly and the judges followed. At the doorway, Justice Witherspoon looked back in time to see father and son embrace.

It matters a great deal.

***The End***

June 2013

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