Summary: Joe has every intention of keeping his New Year’s resolutions, but you know what they say about good intentions.
Word Count: 945 words
Only two weeks into the New Year and I have already broken my first resolution: Don’t kill anyone.
It’s not that I—Joe Cartwright—am a bounty hunter or range detective or anything. No, sir; but even when I work to avoid it, trouble just seems to find me like that time when a total stranger tried to goad me into drawing on him and I had to convince him that he would have died of a real bad case of the slows had he succeeded.
Trouble—not Francis—is my middle name; just ask my older brothers. They’ve saved my sorry butt often enough. Thing is, they aren’t around anymore and Candy . . . well, Candy’s here today, gone tomorrow. By the clock on the wall, it’s already tomorrow and he’s long since vanished. Can’t say I blame him. I’d be gone, too, if I weren’t locked up in a cell in Purgatory—a backwater hole-in-the-wall on the eastern edge of the salt flats.
The year started full of promise, all shiny and bright like a six-carat diamond ring. How everything went to hell in a hand basket in just under 14 days I’ll never understand. I’ve been over the events in my mind a hundred times but nothing makes sense.
The mild winter meant passable roads and an unexpected opportunity to escape the confines of the ranch for a short vacation. Pa thought we should go to Monterey, but for me the thought of going anywhere near San Francisco recalled those horrific days crisscrossing California searching for my wife’s murderer. Candy sensed my reluctance, so when the subject came up at dinner on New Year’s Day, he offered up an alternative. He’d heard about a new line of cutting horses being bred at the Bar M Ranch near Salt Lake City and suggested he and I go investigate. I figured Pa would resist, wanting us all to be together for a last family outing before Jamie returned to school, but while I stared at my plate he evidently caught Candy’s meaning and agreed we should go.
I gave Pa and Jamie a quick hug at the Overland depot the next morning before they boarded the westbound stage. It never occurred to me it would be the last time I’d see them.
It was an easy ride to Utah. Although cold at night, the days were spectacular. Snow melt had swollen streams and turned the eastern Nevada mesas a verdant green. Candy and I reached the Bar M in under a week and saw enough to our liking to purchase a stallion. We headed home convinced crossing him with Ponderosa stock would make us rich—not unlike the pipe dreams Hoss and I shared over the hair-brained money-making schemes we concocted through the years.
In retrospect, I guess that was what carried me into hell; a hand basket of memories and loose talk of untold wealth. Our excitement and too much whiskey made us oblivious to big ears and sinister looks. We were bushwhacked not five miles from town. Unprepared for the assault, I nevertheless was able to fire several rounds, killing two, before taking a bullet in my shoulder from a third gunman.
I awoke in the Purgatory jail. A Wanted Dead or Alive poster for Little Jim Slade graced the wall. It’s not the first time I’ve been in a cell or mistaken for someone else, but with no identification on me, no witnesses, and no telegraph, I had little hope of proving what happened. Candy was long gone. Within 24 hours, I was tried and convicted by a kangaroo court for the murder of two of the town’s “upstanding” citizens.
The Padre left a short while ago. He came to hear my confession or at least my regrets, which weren’t many because I’ve had a good life and my family knows I love them. I do regret all the things I never had a chance to teach Jamie; things Hoss and Adam taught me; things a big brother is supposed to pass on. I also regret that Cochise will be left behind. The Padre was kind but his eyes held no promise my horse would be returned to the Ponderosa. I spent the next hour wondering what Cooch would miss more . . . me or his morning coffee.
At daybreak my hands were bound roughly behind me for the long walk to the gallows. Although the harsh treatment caused searing waves of pain in my shoulder, I resolved to make no sound. I was a Cartwright, dammit; not a Slade. I would walk tall, jaw firm, head held high the way my Pa taught me. I would not cry.
The hangman offered a blindfold which I refused. The sun was just cresting over the horizon and I wanted to face my last day on earth head on before the trap was sprung.
In that moment, time slowed. I took one last breath and held it as the ice crystals in the air pierced my lungs.
The sharp report of a rifle rang out. Riding hard into the square to bear witness to my identity and prove my innocence was a U.S. Marshal, the owner of the Bar M, and Candy.
I broke another resolution. I cried.
Author Notes: A Writer’s Digest prompt for New Year’s Day 2012: write a story that begins with the sentence provided (in bold above).