Summary: A WHN for Season 8’s Justice. Joe is forced to face the unimaginable when he seeks justice after his fiancée is murdered. Rated: PG WC: 30,600
You want to believe there is one relationship in life that’s beyond betrayal; a relationship that’s beyond that kind of hurt. And there isn’t.
The Territorial Enterprise: January 9, 1867
Special Sunday Edition
Murder at Midnight
Sally Bristol found dead
George Bristol, longtime resident, owner, and president of The Virginia City Bank was devastated to find his daughter had been killed after she’d returned home from a local dance last evening. Twenty-four-year-old Sally Ann Bristol was the banker’s only child and currently worked for her father as one of his bank tellers. Bristol, being too distraught to discuss the incident with reporters, requested the Enterprise question Deputy Foster about the previous night’s events.
“All we have to go on at this time is that Miss Bristol was killed at approximately midnight in the front parlor of her home. Doctor Paul Martin identified the bruising to Sally’s neck as an obvious sign of strangulation and from the angle of the handprints, the doctor and I both confirmed the young woman was attacked from behind.
“There was no sign of forced entry and no traces of a violent struggle, which indicates the girl might have been acquainted with her assailant. No suspects are currently being held in connection with Miss Bristol’s murder, but Sheriff Coffee and I hope to have this case cleared up as soon as possible.”
Deputy Clem Foster
Although I plan to tell you the entire story, I’ll have to backtrack a bit and fill you in on some of the more important details that took place before this special edition of the Enterprise hit the streets on Sunday mornin’. In fact, I’ll start at the very beginning so you can get the gist of what was happenin’ around the Ponderosa before Miss Sally was murdered.
This is mainly a story about my little brother, but when something like this happens, it affects the whole family. Me, Pa and Joe all had to come to terms with Sally’s death, but it weren’t me or Pa who was in love with her or plannin’ to marry her come spring. That was my little brother, Joseph.
So, I’ll start about a month back when a package arrived in the post, and my little brother whooped and hollered like a kid with a brand new toy. Covered in brown paper and tied with string, he ripped through the outer wrapping faster’n a kid on Christmas morning. I stood behind him, wondering what could possibly have him nearly shakin’ in his boots, until he opened the small black box and held the diamond and ruby ring up for me to see.
“What’d you think, Hoss,” he said. “Think she’ll like it?”
“Who?” I teased.
“Who do you think, ya knucklehead.”
I couldn’t help but give the kid grief after all; he was marryin’ the prettiest little gal in town, and he’d asked me to be his best man. Maybe he would have had both of us stand up with him if Adam hadn’t moved away a couple years back, but I was the only brother Joe had left, and I planned to be the best man a best man could possibly be. But after seeing that ring, Joseph was as giddy as a flock of chickens at feedin’ time. He never was one to stand still, and something this important ‘bout sent him over the edge.
“I saw the ring in a catalog down at Ira’s Emporium,” he said, running his index finger over the setting. “He didn’t have anything like this one in stock so I had to order it special from San Francisco. Sure hope I ordered the right size.”
“Why don’t you try it on, little brother. You ain’t a whole lot bigger’n Miss Sally.” Even though Joe rolled his eyes at my comment, I draped my arm over his shoulder and leaned in for a better look. I ran my own finger over the diamond and rubies. “It’s a beauty all right.”
“It is, isn’t it,” he said, pushing my fat fingers away.
“Aw, Joe, I ain’t gonna break it or nothin’,” I said. “Diamonds don’t break. You know better’n that.”
“Think I’ll give it to Sally before the dance Saturday night,” Joe said, tilting the box this way and that and holding it up to the light for a closer look. “Then we can tell everybody all at once.”
“Tell ‘em what, Joe?” This was way too much fun to stop teasin’. Every time Joe got excited, he became as touchy as an old mama bear protectin’ her young. No way was I gonna back off now.
“That we’re engaged,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s what.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” I said. “Good thinkin’, little brother.”
Although the wedding date hadn’t been confirmed, Joe and I had talked about the changes that would take place after he and Sally were married. He addressed his concerns over living arrangements and how they might have to stay on at the house until he could build a home of their own. And Joe, always one to get-my-goat whenever possible, mentioned I’d have to contain my snoring or Sally would probably run out on him before the marriage was even consummated.
Living arrangements weren’t the only thing to consider, and Joe and I both realized how having a woman living in the house would affect our normal routine. ‘Course we’d had women visitors in the past, but Joe and I was usually relieved when it was time for them to leave. But this time things would be different. Pa and I were real fond of Sally Bristol, and she’d be more’n welcome to stay in our house forever.
Sally weren’t no newcomer to town like most of the pretty gals Joe fell head-over-heels over in the past. In fact, she was Joe’s his first love when they was just young’uns in school. I even remember a time when Little Joe’s teacher, Miss Jones, sent a note home to Pa, talkin’ ‘bout the disruptive situation in her classroom. Since Joe sat in the desk behind Sally’s, he would constantly pull her blonde pigtails, which was his ten-year-old way of saying he liked her, liked her more than any other girl in class.
Pa sent a note back to Joe’s teacher with a simple solution to the problem. Move Joe to another desk in the room. ‘Course, Pa took action at home, and I doubt my little brother sat down comfortable-like for a week, but discussions over pullin’ pigtails was never an issue again.
So, when Joe left school at sixteen, he and Sally seemed to go their separate ways until they bumped into each other—literally—at Jake’s mercantile. He told me and Pa that night at supper how sparks flew between ‘em like a summer lightnin’ storm. Them were Joe’s words, not mine ‘cause sometimes Joe tries to imitate our older brother, Adam, and his fancy words, but somehow it don’t always come out just right.
“I bent down to pick up her packages and our eyes met,” Joe said with that kinda dazed, I’m-in-love look in his eyes. “It was like magic—like we were meeting for the first time.” Well, you get the picture. It weren’t the first time my little brother had fallen in love, and Pa and I knew we’d never hear the end of it until—well, sometimes love don’t always work out the way Joe planned.
‘Course it don’t take much for Joseph to fall in love, but he and Sally went way back, nearly fifteen years, and it seemed that little pigtail incident weren’t totally one-sided. We found out later, it was Sally’s way of flirtin’ back with her ten-year-old sweetheart ‘cause she’d flip them braids over her shoulder givin’ my little brother easy access.
Even though Sally had been brought up in town with all the hustle and bustle and noise day and night, she had no qualms about living out here in the country and giving up her duties at the bank. She was a sweet girl and I knew since they was kids in school, not only were they a handsome pair, but they walked the same walk and talked the same talk. Sally never put on airs; her feet were planted firmly on the ground, and I knew she’d fit in just fine with Joe and me and Pa out here on the Ponderosa.
It was Saturday night and Joe was dressed for the dance. And though it wasn’t a formal affair, he’d spent half the afternoon bathin’ and primpin’ hisself for the big night where he and Sally would show off her new ring and announce their engagement to all their friends. I opted to sit this one out. I didn’t have no steady girl and besides; this was Joe and Sally’s night to shine.
But by dawn the following morning, there was no sign of my little brother. His bed hadn’t been slept in; he’d never made it home from the dance, and it was difficult to tell whether Pa was mad or just plain worried over Joe’s whereabouts. It seemed strange to me too. I didn’t think he and Sally would run off and do something crazy like deprivin’ my Pa of a big Ponderosa wedding but with Joe, you never could tell.
“You stay here, Hoss,” Pa said. “I’ll ride in and see what’s happened to your younger brother.” When Joe acted badly, he suddenly became my brother rather than Pa’s son. It weren’t hard to take notice of that over the years, but I held my tongue. Although I wanted to argue about bein’ left behind, I let it go this time. We’d just hired a couple of new men, and someone had to stay home to assign the day’s duties. I had no choice but to let Pa ride into town alone.
If Mr. Bristol told Pa that Sally never made it home neither, it wouldn’t take much to know what them two had done without considerin’ no one but themselves. They was both old enough to wake a judge and sign the papers. The look on Pa’s face couldn’t be matched by anyone if that were the case, but I couldn’t waste all day daydreamin’ when there was work to be done.
Joe and Sally had been inseparable over the past few weeks. They’d picnicked together and taken long buggy rides on Sunday afternoons. Joe would slip into town when Sally got off work and surprise her with some little trinket he thought she might like. Sometimes, he’d bring her out to the house for Sunday dinner, just so she could get used to her future surroundings.
It wasn’t too long ago when Joe yanked me away from my breakfast saying he had something special to show me. He’d already saddled our horses and before long, we were riding out toward Crescent Falls. “What could be so dang special all the way out here?” I asked.
“Just wait, brother.
It weren’t but five minutes later when a herd of about thirty mustangs burst their way through the canyon and into a narrow valley. “See the brown and white paint near the front of the pack?” Joe pointed to a pony he’d obviously had his eye on for some time. “See her?”
“Yeah, I see her.”
“I’ve been watching her for about two weeks,” he said, “and I think she’s the one.”
“Is that where you been runnin’ off to?”
“What’d ya mean she’s the one,” I asked after realizing what Joe had said.
“For Sally—for a wedding present.”
It’s funny how just one word or phrase can trigger some past, long-forgotten memory. But the memory of a little palomino I’d raised from a foal came to mind like it was only yesterday. I’d been in love with Margie Owens for what seemed like a lifetime, and I’d finally gotten up the nerve to ask her to marry me. The little palomino I’d raised would be a wedding gift, just like Joe was plannin’ for Sally. Although things didn’t work out for Margie and me, Joe and Sally were a sure thing.
“She’s fast, Joe,” I said. “Think you can catch her?”
“Just watch me.”
With a strong gray stallion leadin’ the herd, Joe held his coiled rope tight to his left thigh as he rode down the hill and into the open valley. I shook my head in awe; my little brother was a sight to see and if nothing else, Joe’s determination would put a rope over that paint’s head before she even realized he’d mingled hisself in with the herd.
He’d caught her that day, and he’d worked her every day for the past month. “Think she’ll be ready for the wedding?” I asked.
“You bet she will.”
Joe walked her inside the corral and she was behaving accordingly. Forward and back, sidestep and halt—he seemed to have her at his beck and call.
“You name her yet?”
“Nope, that’s up to Sally, but she seems in pretty good shape don’t you think?”
“She and Cochise will sure make a handsome pair, Joe.”
“I think so too.” Joe’s cocky smile said it all. He was in love and he was happy, and no one could take away the true feeling of pride he felt at that very moment.
Joe let the paint pony loose a couple days after the funeral. He wouldn’t let no one else ride out with him. He led her out of the barn with a simple halter and off they rode back to the open meadow where he’d first seen her. After all the time he’d spent gentling her, I was sad to see her go, but I didn’t ever say nothin’. Neither did Pa. We just watched Joe ride away.
Everyone’s life changed when Sally was killed. Not just my little brother’s, but somethin’ this tragic and unforeseen upsets all parties involved. Sally had been murdered, no suspects had been charged, and if Joe hadn’t been sittin’ in Clem’s office, carryin’ on about his wedding plans at midnight last Saturday night, he might have been a suspect hisself.
Sally’s Pa had arranged the funeral, but I didn’t know whether Joe would make it through the service or not. I’d never seen him so bad off as he was that day. Sally wasn’t the first love my brother had lost; there’d been others along the way, and Joe had grieved them all. But there was something different about Miss Sally. I never could put my finger on it, but maybe because Joe was older this time, maybe because he was so sure she was the right girl. I don’t know; I just know he was awful broken up, and there weren’t nothin’ Pa or I could do or say to make things right.
Maybe none of us were meant to marry. It sure seemed that way. Even Adam had loved and lost, and it didn’t seem fair that not one of us could find a woman and settle down to a life like our pa had three times over. I ain’t saying Pa had it easy by any means. He’d lost three wives and it’s hard for me to imagine how he survived all them tragic events, but he’d always said it was the three of us that kept him goin’. I guess everyone survives in their own way, and I hoped Joseph would find his way too. But when I nearly had to carry him back to our buggy when the service was over, I was beginnin’ to realize just how deeply he’d been in love.
The next few days were rough. Joe kept to hisself; he couldn’t eat or sleep, but he kept busy. Idle time was his enemy. And even though Pa had tried to break through the hardened shell Joe had surrounded hisself with, Pa would return, shaking his head, and I knew nothing good had come of their time together. Some days, Joe would ride out early and we wouldn’t see him again until nightfall. Neither of us asked where he’d been; it really didn’t matter. He was hurtin’ and only time would heal the hurt he felt inside. Pa was awful worried, but I knew Joe would come around when the time was right.
“You better go wake your brother,” Pa said. “We’ve got a full day ahead of us.”
“He ain’t up there, Pa.” I’d glanced inside Joe’s room before I came down to breakfast and noticed his bed hadn’t been slept in. It wasn’t the first time he’d sneaked off during the night; he’d barely slept over the past two weeks, and he’d become agitated and fragile in his thinkin’. “I’ll check outside,” I said.
“Thank you, son.”
As I closed the front door behind me, I looked up to see Joe rounding the barn on Cochise at a slow, deliberate pace. “Mornin’,” I said overly cheerful. I crossed the yard and met my little brother halfway. “Why don’t you go eat somethin’ and I’ll put up your horse.”
“I can put up my own horse.”
“I know you can,” I replied, “but you look tired, and Pa’s waitin’ for ya—says we got a full day.”
Joe moaned at the prospect of heading out with Pa and me after ridin’ all night, but Pa was only trying to divert my little brother’s attention back to normal ranch work, eliminating any leftover energy so Joe might work up an appetite or fall asleep at night.
“Come on,” I said. I wrapped my arm around Joe’s shoulders and guided him toward the house. “Cochise can wait. Let’s get some food in you.”
Joe nodded his head, but I noticed his chin start to quiver as he bit down on his bottom lip. He was holdin’ everything inside, and the hurt was eatin’ at him more’n we could ever know. “Wish I had the right words to say, little brother.”
“I know, Hoss. I’m fine.”
Joe’s voice told a different story; my brother was far from fine. “Sure you are,” I said. I gave his shoulder a little squeeze, but I didn’t know what else to say.
The next couple of days were as close to normal as Pa and I could have hoped for. Joe still struggled to eat and sleep, but we’d both noticed a change in his attitude and Pa was definitely pleased. But, to use one of Adam’s fancy words, it was only a façade. Joe was making plans, and Pa and I had been left unaware.
“Go wake your brother, Hoss.”
“He’s gone, Pa.”
“Don’t know,” I said, “but I heard him ride out early this mornin’ while I was gettin’ dressed.”
Pa perched his elbows on the dining room table and his head fell into the palms of his hands. I held back any comment I could have made over Joe being a big boy, and how he could take care of hisself without us worryin’ about where he went or when he’d return. Instead, I settled for a couple more pancakes and kept my thoughts to myself.
“The boy worries me, Hoss.”
“I know he does, Pa, but Joe ain’t a little kid no more.” I finally had to say what was on my mind. Maybe it weren’t the right words to use on Pa, but I’d been too quiet for too long. “You can’t keep worryin’ over every little thing he does. Joe won’t do nothin’ foolish without thinkin’ things through. You taught all of us better’n that.” The look on Pa’s face told me I’d wasted my breath.
Pa and I worked until noon before the two of us rode into Virginia City in search of my little brother. Pa seemed more concerned than usual and I realized now, Joe’s change in attitude over the last couple of days only meant he’d formed some kind of a plan, a way he could finally put an end to his misery.
He’d rattled on to Pa just yesterday about Horace Perkins, the nervous actin’ clerk who worked alongside Sally at her father’s bank. Pa had noticed the young man, but he’d never given him a second thought until Joe insisted Horace knew something about Sally’s murder.
“You didn’t see him after the dance,” Joe had said to Pa. “He was fallin’-down drunk, staggering toward Sally and me, and when I tried to help, after he’d tripped and fallen into the Bristol’s front fence, he came at me like some—some crazed animal. He went for my neck, Pa. He’d have choked me to death if Sally hadn’t witnessed his little performance from just a few feet away.” But that weren’t all Joe had to say. And as their conversation continued, Joe went on to tell Pa he thought Horace had murdered Sally hisself, and that’s what set Pa to worryin’.
I knew without havin’ to be told, the crowd of angry onlookers in front of the Virginia City jailhouse had something to do with my little brother. And when Pa and I pulled our mounts up close to Roy’s office, the shouting and accusin’ remarks began.
“Heard Joe Cartwright shot the man who killed his fiancée,” one man hollered over the crowd.
“Is it true, Hoss? Did Joe ride in gunnin’ for that madman?” I’d known Cliff Watkins for as long as I can remember, and he knew darn well Joe wouldn’t do nothin’ of the sort. “’Course, not,” I said. I pushed Cliff out of my way.
A man I barely knew stepped up and faced my father. “What happens now, Ben Cartwright? All the money in the world can’t free that boy of yours from a murder charge.”
That was the third and final remark either of us cared to hear. Pa shoved the man aside. The anger must have showed on my face because the crowd parted and let the two of us through to Roy’s office. The sheriff was prepared for our arrival. He stood from his desk and met Pa and me head on.
“Take it easy, Ben.”
“You have my boy in jail?”
“He is, “Roy said, “and that’s where he’s gonna stay ‘til we sort this mess out.”
I knew Joseph weren’t guilty of outright murder. Something was missin’ from the picture, and I prayed Joe could explain, that’s if Roy would let us all sit down and talk this thing out. But Pa didn’t wait for permission from nobody. He barged through them double doors to the cells in search of my little brother. ‘Course, I followed right behind.
Each cell in Roy’s jail had an open-barred window, and we could still hear men jawin’ their nasty comments outside the stone walls. A narrow cot and a wooden bucket were the only two items provided for any wild desperado held over for trial in Storey County.
Joe was lying on his side with his knees pulled halfway to his chest and from the overpowering stench filling the room; it was obvious he’d made use of the bucket. His hands was palmed together under his head, but he pushed hisself up from the rope-suspension cot after Pa had forced his way back to the cells.
Joe shook his head. His face was pale, and I could see fear cloudin’ his eyes when his hands gripped tightly to the iron bars keeping him separated from Pa and me. Pa reached through the narrow space for Joe’s shoulder, which only made my little brother’s breathin’ seize like a hiccup in his throat.
“It wasn’t me, Pa,” Joe said. His voice was shaky, but his words were clear enough. “Someone else killed Horace.”
“Horace?” Pa questioned. “The bank clerk?”
Joe nodded his head. “He’s dead, Pa.”
My father’s face looked as pale as Little Joe’s and like my brother, Pa gripped a tight hold of the cell bars too. I stepped up close behind him. I weren’t sure if he would remain steady on his feet or not ‘cause he almost seemed more shocked at the news than Joe.
“You okay, Pa?” I asked.
It seemed as though Pa was too busy catchin’ his breath over Joe’s remark than to answer my question. Maybe ‘cause our little town had witnessed two murders in such a short period of time. There were always gunfights when men got too drunk in saloons, but Sally and Horace were decent people and decent people, especially people we knew, weren’t s’posed to be killed.
“I—I’m fine, Hoss.” Pa looked back at Joe as if he was seein’ him for the first time today but almost like he weren’t seein’ him at all. “I better go talk to Roy.”
I was grateful when the sheriff let me inside the cell with Joe while he and Pa walked to the outer office to talk things through. Of course, he took my gun with him, but that was Roy Coffee. Pa would fill me in later but right now; I wanted to hear Joe’s side without interruption from either the sheriff or our pa. We each took a seat on the saggin’ excuse for a bed.
“I heard all those men shouting at you and Pa when you rode in,” Joe said. “Seems they’ve already convicted and sentenced me hang without the benefit of a trial, haven’t they?”
“Don’t you worry none ‘bout them, little brother. There’s always an angry bunch of loudmouth fools in every town.” I was upset over Joe hearin’ everything that was said, but it couldn’t be helped. “Why don’t you tell ol’ Hoss what really happened.”
Joe ain’t one for sittin’ still and as soon as I asked him to explain his side of the story he was on his feet, pacing the tiny cell like one of them caged tigers I’d seen when the circus come through town. Suddenly, he stopped cold, and I began to doubt whether I wanted to hear his side of the story or not. Was it possible he was hidin’ something—somethin’ he was too ashamed or frightened to talk about? Like a scared little boy, who couldn’t get a word passed his lips for fear of bein’ scolded, he was pleading with watery eyes, beggin’ me to understand what he was findin’ so difficult to say.
“I don’t remember.”
“Huh?” Somehow, I found that hard to believe. “What’s that mean, Little Joe? You gotta remember somethin’.”
He flopped hisself back down on the bed and he hit with such force, I thought the ropes was gonna bust right through.
“Someone hit me from behind, Hoss.”
“Who? And where was ya when all this happened?”
Joe must have told the story to Roy because he didn’t seem that keen on havin’ to repeat hisself.
“I rode into town early this morning,” he said.
“Yeah, I know all that. Go on.”
“Well, I followed Horace Perkins to the livery after he left Mrs. Cutler’s boarding house. He had a bag packed, and I knew neither Roy nor Clem planned to stop him from leaving town.”
“But why’d ya go and follow him, Joe?” Suddenly, I was angry, and Joe knew by the look on my face I wasn’t gonna listen to no funny business. “No one’s ever proved he was the one who—”
“But he is the one who killed Sally, Hoss,” Joe said adamantly. “No one believes me, but I can feel it. I know it was Horace.”
“Why? ‘Cause he got drunk after the dance? ‘Cause he acted like a fool? That don’t make him a murderer.”
“You don’t understand.” Joe was back on his feet, and I nearly got dizzy watchin’ him circle the cell. “He was in love with Sally. He saw the ring and—”
“And what?” I said. I grabbed Joe’s arm and turned him around to face me. “You think he killed her ‘cause she loved you ‘stead of him?”
“Aw, Joe,” I said, letting go of his arm. “I seen that boy in the bank plenty of times. He’s no more a killer’n you are.”
Over the years, my little brother had perfected a fierce, penetrating glare—like he was piercin’ the center of your heart with a sharp-edged dagger. Sometimes, he’d get so mad his nostrils flared, and this was one of them times. His prolonged look made me feel as though I was the one in question, not him. I had to fight to keep eye contact when Joe got hisself riled like he was right now. And when words escaped him, his stare could end a conversation with most people—but not with me. I sat back down on the bed.
“So what happened at the livery?” I asked, realizing we’d gotten off track.
Joe took a deep breath and sat back down beside me. “I told Horace he wasn’t leaving town, and I shoved him away from his horse so he couldn’t ride out without answering my questions.”
“Yeah, just shoved, Hoss, but he just stood there staring back. He didn’t say a word, just stared like—like when you’ve got a deer in your sights. He sensed trouble, but he was too scared to run.”
“Yeah, okay, then what happened?”
“I unfastened the loop on my gun and rested my hand over the butt. I asked him why he killed Sally.”
Joe’s story had taken a bad turn when he mentioned his gun. Maybe he should have been talking to a lawyer ‘stead of me. Last thing I wanted was to testify against my own brother in a court of law. “Maybe I shouldn’t hear no more, Joe.”
“No, Hoss,” he said. He shook his head and planted his elbows on his knees. “You got it all wrong, brother. Horace told me straight out he had nothing to do with Sally’s death. He started in with this explanation that Sally was his girl, always had been his girl. He started to sweat; an innocent man wouldn’t sweat, Hoss. He searched the livery for an escape but I wouldn’t let him go. He begged me to leave him alone, but I couldn’t, Hoss. I couldn’t let him leave town without knowing the truth.”
“So you been followin’ him all this time?”
“Joe,” I said shakin’ my head. “You know better. Why’d ya have to go and follow—”
“Because he killed a girl in Mason City before he killed Sally.”
“He what?” Now I was really confused.
“I just found out the other day—from Clem, which makes it official, Hoss.”
“Then why ain’t Horace in jail?”
“’Cause he was never convicted, that’s why.” Joe’s temper was back in full force. “He’s a murderer, Hoss, and my gut tells me he killed both women. I wasn’t about to let him go free a second time.”
“Okay,” I said. “Just calm down.” We was gettin’ off track again, and Joe had worked hisself up into such a lather, I didn’t know if he could even think straight. “So what happened next?”
“Well—” Joe’s breathin’ was a might hesitant as he told the rest of the story. “Horace said it was my fault Sally was dead. That’s when I tore after him. I grabbed his shirt collar—had a good chokehold too—but the next thing I remember was a sharp pain in the back of my head and falling sideways to the ground. I—I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew, I was here.”
A good knock on the head explained why Joe had used the bucket in his cell. It weren’t that he was just scared; he probably had a concussion, which I’m sure Paul Martin would note and use at the trial. “Let’s get you looked at. Has the doc been here to see you?”
“No, and I don’t need—”
“Yes, you do.” I hollered at Roy to let me out. I left to find Paul Martin.
Horace was properly laid to rest. Pa had insisted on a small, engraved headstone; he also insisted I accompany him to the buryin’ since Horace didn’t have no other friends in Virginia City. Pa said it was the least we could do but standing in a cemetery, buryin’ a man whose untimely death could send my little brother to the gallows, was the last place I cared to be.
Roy and the widow Cutler stood alongside Pa and me as the reverend said a few words over the fresh-dug grave. And while I thought it was odd to see the widow cryin’ and all choked up over the death of this outsider named Horace Perkins, I remembered somethin’ Joe had mentioned not long after Sally was killed.
“Remember Jimmy Cutler?” Joe said. “He was a skinny, blonde kid about my age, and he died not long after we left school. I think diphtheria killed him; I’m not real sure.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember him, but what’s Jimmy Cutler got to do with anything?”
“That’s just it, Hoss. The widow treats Horace like she would her own son. Like he was some kind of gift sent from above to replace her boy, Jimmy.”
“Maybe it ain’t all that strange, Joe. She’s a lonely old lady, and maybe Horace gives her some kinda comfort.”
“I s’pose,” Joe said although I don’t think he was convinced I was right about the widow. But then he chuckled. “Sure hope Pa don’t take in some stray to replace Adam.”
I belly-laughed then held my hand over my mouth to muffle the sound. “I don’t think we gotta worry, little brother unless the stray can quote Shakespeare in his sleep. Why would Pa go to all that bother when he has you? You’re enough to keep Pa on his toes from here ‘til eternity.”
Joe’s trial was set. Pa had hired John Powell as Joe’s defense attorney, but all the facts of the case pointed straight to my little brother committin’ the crime. Joe was found on the stable floor next to the dead man; his gun was out of its holster and had been fired once. There were no witnesses to back up Joe’s story of some unknown assailant entering the livery and hittin’ him from behind. Paul Martin had treated my brother for the lump on the back of his head, but even the doc couldn’t say for certain how Joe’s claimed attack was caused or exactly when it happened.
Like Joe, when stress overrode hunger, I’d lost my appetite too. My little brother didn’t murder no one, and I was beginnin’ to think it was up to me or Pa to prove otherwise. Neither Clem nor Roy was askin’ no more questions ‘round town as if the case against Joe was a done deal.
John Powell insisted Joe plead self-defense rather than the hangin’ charge of first-degree murder. Claiming self-defense would keep my brother’s neck from the noose, but he’d have to serve prison time for somethin’ he didn’t do. Joseph was my little brother; he was also my best friend, and I weren’t about to let that happen.
Joe and I talked nearly every day inside his cramped, little cell while Pa busied hisself with holdin’ up the ranch and discussin’ strategy with Joe’s attorney. Although Mr. Powell had tried to set bail, Judge Borman had no intention of honoring the attorney’s request. “Any murder suspect under my jurisdiction will remain behind bars until tried in a court of law. No bail.”
And when the judge’s gavel struck with a loud bang, I’d opened my mouth to argue, but Pa gently squeezed my arm and shook his head. “Not now, Hoss.”
I wasn’t sure what to do. Who would I question? Who would have stopped Joe from chokin’ the life outta Horace inside the livery that morning? And, who would have used my brother’s gun in order to kill the man? Usually, at times like this, Joe and I thought alike—two heads was better than one—but this time, I was on my own. As far as I knew, Horace didn’t have no friends. Mrs. Cutler was the only person in Virginia City who cared about him so I started my questions with her—the widow Cutler.
I knocked on the front door of her boarding house. She was quick to answer, but she hesitated to welcome me inside when she saw my face—the brother of the man she assumed killed Horace. I held my hat with both hands. “Mornin’, ma’am.” Although she was surprised to find me standing on her stoop, she smiled. “Wondered if we might talk,” I said, “that’s if I ain’t disturbin’ you none.”
“Come in, Hoss,” she said, backing away from the door. “I’m not sure what I can tell you that—well, that you don’t already know.”
“I don’t know either, ma’am, but my little brother’s behind bars, fightin’ for his life.”
“Sit down, Hoss,” she said, offering me a chair in her parlor. “I’ll pour us a cup of coffee.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
When I left the widow’s house, I didn’t stop in to see Joe; I rode straight home to Pa, wanting him to be the first to know what I was thinkin’.
“I tell ya she hidin’ somethin’, Pa,” I said, determined to make him understand what I noticed about the widow. “She was wringing her hands the whole time we was talkin’. She knows somethin’ but she ain’t tellin’.”
Pa didn’t seem too keen on my explanation. His arms was crossed over his chest and he was beginnin’ to shake his head back and forth. “If Eileen Cutler wasn’t standing inside the livery to act as a witness when Horace was killed, what possible help could she be?”
Pa was buckin’ me and I wasn’t sure why. Here I’d found out something important, something that might free my brother and Pa was havin’ none of it. “I don’t know,” I said, strugglin’ with my thinkin’. “I wish I did, but I ain’t figured it all out yet.”
“As far as I know,” Pa said, “Mrs. Cutler loved that boy like he was her own son. She’s grieving, and you’re trying to turn her subtle movements into something they’re not.”
“That ain’t it, Pa,” I argued. “Nope, she knows somethin’. Maybe she’s the one who killed Horace and she ain’t—”
“Oh, Hoss,” Pa said like I had rocks for brains. “Don’t be ridiculous. That old woman wouldn’t kill a soul.”
“I ain’t so sure ‘bout that.”
“Okay,” Pa said, only his eyes took on that same fixed stare my little brother used when all else failed. “Prove it.”
“Do you remember anything else, Joe? Anything at all—maybe—maybe a noise or a shadow,” I said, hoping Joe might recall something from that morning. “Did you hear footsteps? Did Horace look up when whoever hit you slipped up behind you?”
“I’ve told you before, Hoss.” Joe was frustrated by my questions, but I had to ask. “I didn’t hear anyone. I didn’t see anyone. Just Horace. Miguel wasn’t even around when I followed Horace inside the barn. He must have been out at the corral or sneaking a sip from that flask he keeps in buried his hip pocket.”
“Okay, I just had to know for sure,” I said. “You just sit tight, little brother. There’s someone else I gotta see.”
I hollered at Clem to let me out of Joe’s cell, said I’d be back shortly, and I walked down to Doc’s. Pa might think I’d lost my mind, but I had questions that needed answers and if I rubbed people the wrong way, I didn’t much care.
“Doc—” I hollered, waving my hat over my head when I saw him climbing into his buggy. “Wait up”
He set his medical bag on the seat and stepped back onto the boardwalk. “Something wrong, Hoss?”
“No, well, yeah, I don’t know, Doc.”
Paul’s smile was generous after my rather confusing statement.
“I—well, I been thinkin’,” I said, “and I wondered if you could tell how tall the person was who clobbered Little Joe on the back of the head.”
Paul rubbed his fingers across his chin and sighed overloud. “You’re asking me to guess, Hoss. The bump looked fresh but there’d been only a small seepage of blood, which makes it hard to diagnose much of anything.”
“I know, Doc, but here’s what I been wonderin’,” I said rather sheepishly. “Could the person who hit my little brother have been shorter than him and—and maybe hit him from below since the bump was so low on his head?”
“It’s possible,” Paul said. “Do you have someone in mind?”
“I ain’t sure, Doc, but it seems to me, if’n I hit Joe over the head, the bump would be higher up, like on the top of his head or at least above his ears.”
“Makes sense,” Paul said, “go on.”
“So,” I said. “If this person was shorter than Joe, they’d have to swing somethin’ like a stick or a pipe or somethin’ hard, and it would come from below Joe’s shoulders rather than from above, right?”
“I don’t know how we’d ever prove the man’s exact height, Hoss.”
“What makes you think it’s a man, Doc?”
Paul looked bewildered. “You’re saying a woman hit Joe?”
“I don’t know,” I said, but at least I got him thinkin’. “Dadburnit, Doc, it could be a woman, couldn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Paul said. “The blow was significant enough to knock Joe out but not hard enough to kill him.”
“Exactly my point.”
“Listen, Hoss, I was just heading out to Ida Mayberry’s. She’s expecting, you know. Then I’ll stop in and see Joe when I get back to town. If it will ease your mind, I’ll take a second look.”
“Don’t get your hopes up, son. I doubt there’s much left to go on.”
Time had run out. Joe’s trial was set for 9:00 a.m. the following morning. Doc Martin’s diagnosis of the lump on Joe’s head had proved nothing. And, with Pa rakin’ me over the coals about the widow, I had nowhere else to turn. All I could do now was try to see my little brother through the next few days of the trial.
Judge Borman was a no-nonsense judge. The prosecutor and the defense attorney knew from past experiences their statements had better be direct and to the point or the judge would cut them off mid-sentence and order them back to their seats. While Pa made one more attempt to discuss the case with John Powell, Joe and I sat together in his cell. I’d brought a basket of Hop Sing’s fried chicken and Joe’s favorite, chocolate cake, but as much as I pushed, he couldn’t eat nothin’ I dished onto his plate.
All Joe wanted was Pa, and Pa weren’t there to give him the support only he could give. He’d asked a number of times, “Where’s Pa?” I felt terrible, but there weren’t nothin’ I could do or say, but it seemed as though our father had distanced himself from this entire situation. Joe needed him more’n anything, and I was growin’ more upset by the minute. Pa shoulda been with Joe all along, not just me tryin’ to do the work of both brother and father.
Some things are meant to happen and some things are bound to be, but Joe was my little brother, and this wasn’t the time to give up and call it quits. Something about Joe’s attitude seemed different since I’d talked to him this mornin’ before church services. He’d sat inside a cell for nearly two weeks. His face was pale and his clothes hung on him like they was a size too big. His eyes were dull, his movements seemed lifeless, and he hadn’t bothered to shave his face.
“What’s got into you, Joe?” I questioned after I took a seat next to him on the bed. “You ain’t actin’ yourself at all,”
“I know, Hoss. I just have a lot on my mind.”
“Did you already talk to the reverend?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We had a good talk. He kind of made me see things in a different light.”
Pa had asked Reverend Holmes to come speak to Joe after church while Pa and I stopped for lunch at Miss Daisy’s. Since Joe had been sinking lower into hisself every day, Pa hoped maybe the reverend could give him the boost he obviously needed to face the upcoming trial.
“You sure you’re okay?” I asked again. “Did the reverend say something—I mean is there somethin’ else botherin’ you? You can tell me anything, Joe.”
“I don’t know. I guess he helped me see the whole picture, Hoss. You know, both sides—like two sides of a coin, right versus wrong and good versus evil. He set me straight on a lot of things I hadn’t thought of before today.”
“I ain’t sure I understand what you’re sayin’.”
“It’s not that important, Hoss.”
Joe seemed distant and he especially didn’t want to discuss the trial or the reverend. I s’pose everything’s been said that could be said, and I s’pose the reverend filled my little brother with a certain peace of mind to carry with him into the courtroom. But I’d kinda hoped the reverend would light a fire under him and get them juices runnin’ so he’d be ready to tell his side of the story and make it as believable as possible. But I weren’t seeing no fire at all.
“Well, here,” I said, handing Joe a small carpetbag. “I brung you these clean clothes for tomorrow. You make sure Roy brings in some hot water so you can shave and clean up some, ya hear? You got a musty smell to ya, boy, and the judge won’t take kindly to you lookin’ the part of some no-account criminal in his courtroom.”
Joe chuckled softly before setting the bag on the foot of the narrow cot. “Must have been Pa’s idea for me to look my best, right?”
“Hoss? Where’s Pa?”
“He’s down talkin’ to Mr. Powell one last time. You know Pa. He don’t wanna be dealt no last minute surprises. He’ll be here soon enough.”
Joe sat without moving. He stared at the dusty floor, but his hands was worryin’ in his lap just like the widow Cutler’s were when I’d spoken to her about Horace. I took my brother’s slow, deliberate movements as a sign he needed his father rather than just big brother although I’d often wondered myself why it was always me visitin’ Joe ‘stead of Pa.
“Tell me what’s really eatin’ at ya, Little Joe?”
Joe stood from the bed and wrapped his fingers around the iron bars. He pressed his forehead hard against his knuckles, and it weren’t long before he gave way to the misery he’d been holdin’ back all this time. A cold chill came over me, and I searched for the right words to say. My brother had lost faith, and I feared he’d lost the fight he’d need for his testimony tomorrow. No other suspects had been found, and there was no way I could prove the widow had seen or heard somethin’ that would help my little brother outta this mess.
For a brief time, I thought maybe the old lady was the killer. I’d even tried to run my theory passed the doc, but Pa was probably right all along. Far as we knew, she loved that boy like a son, which kinda took her off the hook as far as clobberin’ Joe or shootin’ Horace was concerned. It was a good theory for about five minutes’ time.
When I moved toward the bars, Joe’s mind must have been settled in a far-off place cuz he shivered like a skittish young colt when I laid my hand on his shoulder. “Easy, Joe. It’s just ol’ Hoss.”
“Sorry,” he said shakily. “I was just thinking about you and me and all the good times.”
“What? Maybe you and me oughta be thinkin’ over what you’re gonna say in court instead.”
“You and me, you know,” he repeated like he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. “How our lives always revolve around little things, like a game of checkers or a cold beer on a hot afternoon. Remember when we found that Paiute squaw in the mountains and you delivered her baby? Remember how we swam out and caught those ducks for supper? Little things like that will always be a part of you and me and all the good times we’ve had together.”
“Well, if’n I remember correctly, Joseph,” I said sternly, “that ain’t all we’ve done together. I seem to remember you talkin’ me into enterin’ that flapjack eatin’ contest so you could win a bet with that Trager fella. And, better’n that was the time you and me robbed the bank when Pa left you in charge.”
Joe chuckled softly. “Yeah,” he said. “You and me, brother, we’re quite a pair, aren’t we.”
Me and Joe talked about silly things like bank robbin’ and elephants on the Ponderosa and such, and I was glad to see him smilin’ and laughin’. I ain’t heard that laugh of his in a long time. Although I’m not sure what turned the tide, but Joe got real serious again.
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out with Regan,” he said. “I thought you two seemed pretty good together.”
Out of the blue came Regan Miller’s name. Why now? Why in tarnation would Joe bring up a woman I fell for nearly three years ago? What did Regan Miller have to do with anything?
“Aw, Joe. She’s ancient history,” I said. Besides, I didn’t want to go down that road. Even though I’d tried to court other ladies since Regan Miller, she’s the one I compared everyone else to. She was the cream that settled on top after milkin’. But then it hit me. Maybe Sally was Joe’s cream. Maybe all them other gals he’d known didn’t quite compare.
I’d never seen Joe so low—well, maybe the day of Sally’s funeral, but he was as low as a man could be, and it weren’t my place to make him feel even worse. I didn’t say nothin’ about Sally, but I was truly thankful when I heard voices in the outer office. I nudged Joe. “Ain’t that Pa out there talkin’ to Roy?” I said. “I’ll leave you two alone, but I’ll be back first thing in the mornin’. Stay strong, boy.”
Cartwright was a well-known name in these parts, and the newly built Virginia City courthouse was filled to capacity. Men and women, who were envious of Pa’s standing in the community, crawled out from under every rock in Storey County to attend the trial of Ben Cartwright’s youngest son. Joe was on trial for his life, and no one wanted to come by my brother’s verdict secondhand so, dressed in their finest, they all gathered to witness the outcome firsthand. Not only were the long wooden benches filled, but three of the four walls were also lined with ghoulish-lookin’ spectators who’d come to see the show.
I didn’t know what Pa and Joe had discussed yesterday after I’d left the jail, but Pa had been very closed-mouthed since this whole ordeal began. And even though I’d promised Joe I’d see him before the trial, we’d run plumb out of time. Rain had started falling last night making Pa’s and my trip into town miserable and wet. The roads were muddy and our slickers had barely kept us dry.
The little time Pa and I’d had to talk lately seemed strained. He’d been busy doin’ the books—said he was so far behind because of Joe’s situation he might never catch up. So, when we did have a chance to sit together and eat supper, Pa didn’t want to talk nothin’ about the trial. It bothered me some but I knew how upset Pa must be, and I didn’t push. All I knew was Joe needed him more than he needed me, and Pa had kept his distance.
Although we’d struggled for seats inside the courtroom, Pa and I pushed our way into the front row and were seated just before Joe and Mr. Powell walked down the center aisle toward the unoccupied table just past the railing separating my little brother from Pa and me. The prosecutor, Walter Hamilton, had already spread his notes on his own table and smiled wickedly at the defense as though the case against Joe had already been decided before anyone had their say.
We were ordered to stand and remove our hats as Judge Borman entered the court. With a quick but subtle gesture, Mr. Powell reached for Joe’s elbow and eased my little brother up from his chair.
I knew Joe was scared; anyone would be who was facing the gallows, but something I couldn’t rightly figure had come over my little brother. He was almost lackadaisical in his movements like he was under some kind of spell. And though Joe had been reminiscing about better times last night, he would keep the misery he held inside hidden from everyone sitting inside the courtroom. I turned toward Pa when I felt his eyes burnin’ a hole right through me.
“What’s wrong with Joe?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Pa, but I don’t like it one bit.”
We’d been seated and we were listening to Judge Borman’s instructions to the jury, stating how both sides would present evidence, and how it was their burden as jurors to remain attentive to the facts of the case. “A man’s life is on trial,” he said sternly, “and I want every one of you to use the brains God gave you before rendering a verdict of guilty or not-guilty.”
No-nonsense judge was right on target. I just hoped the jurors could see beyond the facts the prosecutor presented and realize there was no eyewitness to Horace’s murder; that no one could say for sure Joe drew his gun and shot the man dead. I couldn’t see my brother’s face; I couldn’t see into his eyes and know what he was thinkin’. Did he hear the judge’s words? Did he know he stood a darn good chance of a full acquittal if he just told the jury straight-out what happened inside that barn?
Pa’d had angry words with John Powell over Joe’s defense. He seemed awful worried about John insisting Joe claim self-defense when the prosecutor would be pushing the jury to consider motive and opportunity, which, in every sense of the word, my brother’d been saddled with both: motive and opportunity. The attorney had argued with Pa, saying it was up to his client to decide which way to go with his defense, but that only fueled Pa’s anger toward the whole miserable situation. Since Joe hadn’t slept, and he was only picking at the meals Roy brought to his cell, Pa had stepped in to fight my brother’s battles for him.
“My boy’s not thinking straight, John,” Pa had said in Joe’s defense. “The boy’s only a hair’s breath from exhaustion. Joe’s is either guilty or he’s not, and self-defense is too easy a road for the jury to take. I don’t think they’ll find him guilty. Please don’t give them a reason to send my boy to prison.”
“The deck is stacked against Little Joe, Ben,” said Powell. “I’ll do everything in my power inside that courtroom, but let me warn you. This is an uphill battle no matter what defense I use.”
And so the battle began.
Both the prosecutor and Joe’s attorney had given their opening statements while Joe sat unmoving, glued to his chair with his chin tucked tightly to his chest. He made no eye contact with the judge or the jury or anyone else. The two seemingly qualified men—Hamilton and Powell—rose to the challenge, each presenting his case, each demanding attention from the jury. While one man hammered out unsubstantiated facts and tore my brother’s character apart, the other fought for damage control, trying his best to contradict the offensive falsehoods.
I listened to both sides, and the gist of their statements boiled down to one man’s opinion over another’s. The first man to strike a chord in the heart of each juror by using certain words or simple eye contact, not to mention perfect timing, would win the not only the small insignificant battles but the entire war. It weren’t just a fight for Joe’s life. It was a battle of wills between two men who were being paid handsomely to argue their point in front of a captive audience, who probably didn’t understand half the words they was sayin’.
Most of their “captive audience” had not been educated in a proper schoolhouse setting, and I wondered how many of the jurors had enough formal education to process them fancy words bein’ thrown back and forth between the two finely-dressed men and their fast-talkin’ speeches.
“Since we have no eyewitness to the shooting,” Hamilton stated, “we will begin with Deputy Foster’s account of the situation on February 8, inside the livery, after finding Horace Perkins’ dead body. Secondly, we’ll hear Paul Martin’s medical opinion of how and when the victim was murdered.”
Clem took the stand first, and he stated the obvious. “The murder happened before noon, and the only two people who I found in the livery were Joe Cartwright and Horace Perkins. Horace was dead,” he said. “He was shot point-blank in the chest, and Joe Cartwright lay unconscious on the floor a few feet away from the victim. Joe’s gun was out of its holster and only one shot had been fired. The only thing I can add, and it seemed odd to me at the time, was finding Joe’s gun—presumably the murder weapon—in one of the empty stalls.”
Clem was released from the stand, and Doc was called to give his testimony but as Paul began talking, my mind began to wander. I’d known nothing about Joe tossing his gun into some stall, and it made no sense. Why would he do something like that? ‘Course, Joe would never shoot Horace at point-blank range either, so someone else had to have killed Horace. Surely, Mr. Powell had put two and two together and would push for an acquittal.
“ . . . although, in my opinion,” Paul continued, “Joe Cartwright had taken a hard blow to the back of the head, which had left him unconscious and unaware of anything that took place inside the livery stable.”
“So,” Hamilton said. “In your opinion, Doctor, was Mr. Cartwright hit on the head before or after he shot and killed the shy, frightened bank clerk—”
“Objection, your Honor.”
I dismissed Pa’s heavy sigh ‘cause my eyes was on the back of Joe’s head. He hadn’t moved a muscle since he’d been brought into court. His hands lay in his lap and his eyes faced the floor. Whether his eyes was open or closed, I wasn’t able to tell.
Judge Borman quickly put an end to the prosecutor’s rambling. “Just keep to the facts, Mr. Hamilton.”
Neither Paul’s stern look at the prosecutor nor the judge’s reprimand affected Walter Hamilton’s concentration or determination to move forward with his questions, but Paul Martin wasn’t leaving the stand until he had his day in court.
“According to my findings—” Paul said. He looked straight at the jury to make sure they understood what he was about to say. “I can’t say for certain when Joe Cartwright was attacked or the exact time of Horace Perkins’ death, but I do know it would be terribly difficult for an unconscious man to shoot a gun.”
Some of the onlookers began chuckling in muffled voices, but they were quickly silenced by the judge’s gavel. “Quiet—all of you—or I’ll empty this courtroom faster’n you can blink an eye.” The crowd still remained animated over Paul’s statement, but I felt my whole body tense; knowing the people who’d come to watch and listen firsthand didn’t give a hoot about my brother’s welfare; they were only here for a good laugh at my brother’s expense.
The judge banged his gavel once more then asked Mr. Hamilton if he had any more witnesses to call to the stand. The prosecution rested and now, it was up to Mr. Powell to question the only other witness who had any knowledge of the shootin’ that took place on February 8, a month to the day after Sally Bristol was strangled and left for dead in the parlor of her father’s home.
“I call Joseph Cartwright to the stand.”
Again, John had to ease Joe to a standing position then practically lead him to the witness chair. My brother unconsciously rubbed his wrists, and I vaguely remembered Roy had, by law, handcuffed Joe before leaving the jail. “Letter-of-the-law, Coffee,” Pa always said, and I was witnessing the effects of that law on my little brother’s face.
But it weren’t just Joe’s wrists that was botherin’ him. It was a certain look of defeat and of helplessness that paled his striking features. His cheeks were gaunt and his eyes were deep-set, dull and lifeless. He hadn’t shaved nor had he changed into the clean, fresh clothes I’d brought for his appearance in court. Joe looked younger than his years. He looked lost and afraid, and he made eye contact with no one. Where was the fight, the longing to be free and back home with his family? This was Joe’s only chance to sway the jury, to undermine everything that had been said so far and prove his innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt. But the boy who’d taken the stand was a sullen shell of a man. This wasn’t my fiery little brother who could normally sway anyone, includin’ me, to his way of thinkin’.
After adjusting myself on the wooden bench, I sat up taller and stared at Joe, hopin’ he’d see the determination in my eyes and let the anger I felt over this whole mess rub off in his direction. This was no time to give up and by all accounts, that’s exactly what he had done. He’d spoken to Reverend Holmes just yesterday, and that seemed to be when this completely new attitude, this self-loathing behavior had come over him. Although he’d never mentioned what he and the reverend had talked about, I was curious or maybe I was just plain mad.
Mr. Powell stepped in front of Joe and spoke softer than I thought he should. I’d rather have seen him upset with Hamilton’s stupid remarks about my brother than to have him stand there like a mouse cornered by a barn cat.
“Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Will you explain to the court everything you remember concerning you and Horace Perkins on February 8, of this year.” It was a simple question but somehow, Joe seemed confused. Mr. Powell was forced to ask his question again. “Joseph?” Joe lifted his eyes to the attorney as though Pa had called out his name in anger. “Will you tell the court exactly what happened after you and Horace met inside the livery?”
Joe nodded, but it took him a minute to sort his thoughts and start talkin’. “We stood facing each other,” he finally said.
“You and Horace?”
“What happened next, son?”
“He tried to get away,” Joe said. “He was gonna leave town and I had to stop him.”
“Did you pull your gun?”
Joe shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Did you use force?”
“Yes.” Joe was rubbin’ his wrists again. He needed to concentrate, but it was like his mind was off somewhere else. “I pushed him back against the wall,” he said. “I held him up by his shirt collar. I only wanted the truth, but his words were lies, all lies. He tried to get away, but I held him tight against the barn wall.”
My brother’s eyes looked glazed over as he recounted the details of that morning. He stared at no one—only straight ahead—as if Horace was standin’ right in front of him inside the courtroom.
“What happened next, Joseph?”
“He started saying stuff about Sally.”
“Go on, son.”
Although Joe needed constant prodding, his fists were balled tightly as he relived his conversation with Horace. His eyes narrowed when he began the word-for-word conversation.
“Sally like’s me. She likes me very much,” he said, mimicking Horace’s voice in a sing-song sort of way.
“But she never loved you.” Joe’s voice changed completely. He was forceful and direct when he prodded Horace for answers. “She thought you were funny.”
“She did too love me, and—and if you hadn’t gotten in the way—”
Joe’s eyes were dead-set. His breathin’ turned shallow and frantic. “You killed her with your bare hands, didn’t you, Horace.”
“No, I loved her.”
“But she didn’t love you so you killed her, didn’t you? Didn’t you!” Joe’s eyes was on fire, his vivid account of their hate-filled conversation left the room as silent as summer air just before a storm. But after that last statement, when his voice cried out from the pain of them last words, the fire vanished as quickly as it’d come. From rigid to slack, from angry to despondent, Joe’s eyes dropped toward the floor.
“Joe?” John Powell saw it too. Joe had told the jury everything he remembered. There was nothing more to tell. “Is that all you remember, son? Is that when someone hit the back of your head?”
“You’ll have to speak up, young man,” ordered Judge Borman.
“Thank you, Joe.”
The onlookers seated behind me began whispering quiet-like. Joe had screamed out his words to Horace and then said nothing. He’d told everything he could, just like he remembered and as John Powell took his seat, Walter Hamilton stood and walked in front of Joe’s chair. “I only have a few questions to ask, Mr. Cartwright,” he said to the judge.
Joe met the prosecutor’s eyes.
“Sally Bristol,” he said. “She was your fiancée?”
“You loved her very much.”
Joe’s chin was always the first to go. That subtle quiver before his emotions met up with his eyes. “Yessir.”
“Is it safe to say you and Horace Perkins had words that night after the dance?” Hamilton asked.
“Were you aware of Horace’s feelings toward your fiancée?”
“Yes, but Sally—”
“A simple yes or no will do, Mr. Cartwright.”
Quickly, Joe glanced at me. I returned a brief nod before the prosecutor continued his line of questions. “Were you jealous of Horace Perkins?”
I could tell Joe was laughing inside, but he didn’t make no sound on the outside. “No, sir.”
“Would it be safe to say you considered Horace a rival, Mr. Cartwright? Was your fiancée aroused when she witnessed another man’s play for her attention—her affections? Was Sally Bristol secretly in love with Horace Perkins?
“NO!” Joe said forcefully. “Sally never loved Horace.”
Hamilton walked toward the jury. His back was to Joe then suddenly, he turned back around. “Was your fiancée only after Cartwright money?”
“NO!” Joe came off his chair; his body stiffened and he glared at Walter Hamilton with the same eyes he must have used on Horace that day inside the livery.
“Are you sure, Mr. Cartwright?”
“Please take your seat, Mr. Cartwright,” the judge ordered. “And let’s move on, Mr. Hamilton.”
“All right, your Honor,” he said, not worried at all over Joe’s aggressive words; in fact, he seemed to be smiling. “On February 8, the day in question, did you follow Horace into the livery stable with the intent to harm the man, who you assumed—without proof of any kind—had killed your fiancée?”
My brother’s face paled and suddenly, his eyes darted through the courtroom in search of someone other than me or Pa. He knew exactly where we were sitting, and it was obvious he was looking for someone else—but who? I watched every move he made until his eyes settled on Reverend Holmes standing near a side entrance of the courtroom.
Hamilton cleared his throat. “I’ll remind you you’re under oath, Mr. Cartwright.”
Joe’s entire body stiffened, and his eyes met mine. Without speaking a word aloud, Joe’s answer was yes. He’d followed Horace with intent to do bodily harm if the bank clerk wouldn’t answer his questions. I knew—my father knew—and so did everyone else inside the courtroom.
“We need an answer, son,” Judge Borman said.
Joe looked up at the judge and back at Mr. Hamilton. “I just wanted him to tell the truth.”
“That’s not the question I asked, son. Did you or did you not follow Horace into the barn with the intent to kill the man you thought had murdered your fiancée?”
Hamilton had called my brother son in a real soft voice, and I didn’t like it one bit. After sayin’ all them nasty things about Sally, now he was Joe’s best friend. A softer touch so the jury wouldn’t find him to be a complete son-of-a— Well, I wasn’t byin’ it and I prayed the jury was at least as smart as I was.
“No,” Joe said, but he wouldn’t look the prosecutor in the eye. “I only wanted the truth. Someone else . . . ”
Nonverbally, Joe had admitted intent to harm, but intent to kill was never established, and I hoped the jury had been listening closely as Hamilton twisted his words. Joe looked exhausted; there was no fight left in him as though intent proved guilt, and both were two completely different matters. Someone else had killed Horace. Who, Joe? Who was that someone else? Who else had motive and opportunity?
Final statements were given and, when all was said and done, Roy handcuffed Joe to escort him back to the jail. Even though Pa and I wanted a quick word, a quick glimpse of Joe’s face, he never looked up. He’d turned his back to his family and like a man condemned, he walked out of the courthouse with Roy.
Pa and I sat back down, waiting for the courtroom to clear. I didn’t want to mingle with all them people I didn’t even know so I kept silent, kept my hands in my lap and watched a little gray spider cross the floor next to my right boot. Some might say I was brooding and maybe I was, but I was all ears when Pa had a few words with Mr. Powell. “What happens now, John?”
The attorney shook his head as he secured the leather strap around his case. “I’ll admit it doesn’t look good, but if the jury realizes nobody actually saw Joe shoot Horace—”
Heat flushed my cheeks. I stood up and stepped in-between Pa and Joe’s attorney. “Why, Mr. Powell? Why weren’t them the final words you left with the jury?” I grabbed the attorney’s fancy lapels with fisted hands. “My little brother’s innocent, but you never believed a word he said, did you? You let Walter Hamilton distract the jury with his lies. Why, Mr. Powell?”
“Hoss!” Pa shouted. “Hoss, stop.”
I glared into the attorney’s eyes. “Intent to harm ain’t the same as murder is it, Mr. Powell?”
“Hoss! That’s enough.” Pa struggled to pull my hands free of the lawyer’s tailored suit, but I weren’t finished with him just yet.
“Sorry, Pa, but right now I’m filled clear through to my bones with intent, but that don’t mean I’m gonna take the next step. Intent don’t always lead to murder. Think about what you’ve done, Mr. Powell,” I said. I was so mad maybe murder wasn’t such a bad idea after all. “Think real hard while they lower a noose over my little brother’s head, and keep on thinkin’ when they stretch Joe’s neck ‘til he’s dead.” Pa glared at me and I glared back. I knew exactly what I was sayin’ and for the life of me, I didn’t know how Pa could remain so dadburn calm.
“I’m sorry, John,” Pa said, but it was obvious he was very upset with me. “I think we’re all a bit on edge—”
“On edge?” I could barely hold my tongue. “Pa! Joe’s gonna hang. Hang by the neck for somethin’ he didn’t do.”
“Again, John, I’m sorry my son feels you’re to blame.”
After Pa’s verbal slap in the face, I tore out of the courtroom and headed straight down to the jail. I didn’t know what to think no more, and Pa’s calm demeanor had really hit me hard. If he thought for one minute Joe killed Horace, if my father had lost faith in his youngest son, then everything I’d ever been taught had been a lie.
“Let me inside that cell, Clem,” I barked at the deputy.
Clem nearly pulled his gun when I stormed into the office. “You listen here, Hoss. Joe’s in my custody ‘til Roy—”
“Now!” I threw my gun on the sheriff’s desk and hovered close to the deputy until he relented and unlocked my brother’s cell. “Thanks,” I said soft-like. “Guess my temper’s running a little thin right now.” I sure weren’t makin’ many friends today.
“No funny business, Hoss.”
“Don’t you worry, Clem,” I said. “I ain’t got nothin’ planned, not yet anyway.”
“Well, see that you don’t.”
Still, in handcuffs, Joe sat and stared at Clem and me from inside the cell. It was obvious he didn’t know what had gotten me all riled up, and I didn’t plan on tellin’ him neither; best if he didn’t have to worry about nothin’ I’d done or said.
“Does he still gotta wear these things?” I hollered at Clem.
“Sorry, Hoss. Roy asked me to leave ‘em on ‘til he got back.” Clem closed the double doors behind him, leavin’ the two of us alone. I sat down next to Joe on the bed. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said before he looked up and asked the obvious question. Where’s Pa?”
“Damn,” I mumbled under my breath. I didn’t usually even think them kind of words, but it’s the only one that come to mind. Where the hell was Pa, and why wasn’t he here with Joe? “I think he’s still at the courthouse talkin’ to John.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Nothin’ worth mentionin’. Probably just gettin’ John’s opinion on how the trial went. You know Pa. He likes to have everything straight in his mind.”
”Why doesn’t Pa come to see me?”
I sighed over loud then wished I hadn’t, but I was thinkin’ the same thing too. Just how was I supposed to answer Joe’s question without upsettin’ him more than he was already? Pa hadn’t been hisself for days; maybe since the day Joe had first been arrested, and I couldn’t even think straight no more, ‘cause all them days ran together. With Joe locked inside this cell, nothin’ seemed normal and nothin’ would ever seem normal again if Joe was found guilty.
I’d often catch Pa standing in front of the fireplace, poking at logs until the fire was so hot, I’d finally have to say something before he and I burned to a crisp. It was like he hadn’t realized—like he’d been off in another world where he’d distanced hisself from anyone around him.
There were times I’d caught him wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. I knew they were tears, but he’d brush me off by clearin’ his throat or turnin’ his back. But I knew he was cryin’ for Joe.
Pa had barely come to visit my little brother and most days, he didn’t have much to say to me either. Since I was just a little kid, I’d always thought Pa knew best about most everything but lately, he weren’t the same Pa I knew before Joe ended up in jail. He was moody and distant and he was spendin’ most of his time alone rather than with his family. Somethin’ was eatin’ at him, somethin’ more than just the trial, and dang if I knew what it was or how to bring him around.
“Ah, Joe,” I said, realizing I’d never answered his question. “That’s crazy talk. ‘Course Pa wants to see you, and he’ll be here as soon as he can break away from your attorney.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”
“You did good in there, Joe.”
“’Course I do.” I wanted to sound reassuring, and I hoped my voice didn’t betray how I really felt about the whole dadblamed trial. “You told it like it was Joe. What more could you do?”
“I told the truth, Hoss, but you saw the jury; you saw how they were all lookin’ at me.” And with his elbows planted on his knees, Joe leaned forward and took a deep breath before scrubbing his hands over his face. “They’re gonna hang me, Hoss.”
I slung my arm over my little brother’s shoulders. Where was Adam when you needed him most? He always knew exactly what to say, and all I could do was fumble around with a bunch of nonsense words that never came out quite right. “Hear me out, Joe,” I said. “All the jury was doin’ was listenin’ to what everyone said—you know, like the judge told ‘em to do. And if they’ve got any brains at all, they’ll realize no one ever saw you shoot Horace, ain’t I right?”
I almost thought Joe was gonna agree with me, but a throaty soundin’ moan slipped out instead. There was a gaping stillness between us before he finally broke the silence.
“I’ll miss you, Hoss.”
“Dadburnit, Joe. Now cut that out.” One thing was botherin’ me somethin’ awful. Maybe it was none of my business although I couldn’t stand it no longer, and I had to ask Joe what it all meant. “Can I ask you somethin’ kinda personal?”
“Might as well,” he said. “No time like the present, but you better hurry. Time’s running out.”
This time, I didn’t respond to Joe’s irritatin’ comment, but I did ask my question. “Reverend Holmes came to see you yesterday, right?”
“Well, I was wonderin’ what you two talked about.” I’d seen the change in Joe and I couldn’t help thinkin’ it had something to do with their private conversation.
“We talked about a lot of things, Hoss. Why?”
“Did ya talk about intent?”
“Yeah, that was one of the things,” Joe said. “Reverend Holmes asked what my intentions were when I went after Horace.”
“Yeah, and what were them intentions, Joe?”
“I told the truth in court, Hoss. I might have beaten Horace senseless if I had to, but I never would’ve killed him. I only wanted the truth.”
“I knew it,” I blurted out and stood up from the narrow cot. “I knew there was somethin’ that changed how you was thinkin’ inside that courtroom.”
“What do you mean? What changed?”
Joe’s eyes never left me as I paced inside the cell. Intent was the turning point for the jury. I knew for a fact, but I didn’t think Joe realized how crucial his silence had been.
“What’s that mean?” I repeated. “I ain’t as dumb as I look, Joseph.” I glared at my little brother. “That’s when everything inside that courtroom took a turn; that’s when Hamilton hit you below the belt with that question about intent.”
“I don’t understand, Hoss.” Joe pleaded with me, but it wasn’t gonna help us now, and I weren’t sure how closely the men on the jury had been payin’ attention. “That’s when you searched the courtroom for the preacher, ain’t it? You needed some kinda reassurance, but that ain’t what it looked like in court. Intent, Joe. When you didn’t answer right off—well, it didn’t look good. You see what I mean?”
“But I did answer, Hoss.”
“But your answer wasn’t clear, Joseph. Do you understand my meanin’?”
Joe rubbed his face again. Maybe he was tryin’ to remember his exact words. I could have told him ‘cause I knew ‘em by heart, but what good would those words do now? Did the jury understand the difference in Joe’s thinkin’? Yes, he would hurt Horace but no, he would not kill the man in order to seek the truth.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said all them things.” I was still fuming over the words I’d had with Pa and Mr. Powell. Seemed my own father had lost faith in Joe and I was mad—real mad. What a helluva day this had been.
Joe and I both heard muffled voices in the sheriff’s outer office but quickly, Pa’s distinct baritone emerged above all the rest. We both turned and stared at the double doors when we heard Roy’s janglin’ keys.
“Sorry it took so long, son. I stopped and picked you up something to eat,” Pa said, carrying a lunch tray from Daisy’s Café.
I was just starting to feel hungry myself after smellin’ Daisy’s prized roast pork, but just after Roy had unlocked the cell and Pa stepped inside, a messenger boy came racing into the office. “Judge wants Mr. Cartwright back in the courtroom,” he said clearly out of breath. “Jury’s in.”
Pa’s face paled after the announcement, and I jumped up to grab the tray before it tumbled to the floor. “I got it,” I said. “Go on, Pa. Take my seat.” Joe was darn near the breaking point after our talk about intent, and Pa was probably still ruffled over my run-in with John Powell ‘cause he never gave me a second look. I moved toward the cell door and stood guard. “Not just yet, Roy. Give ‘em a minute alone.”
“But it’s time to go, Hoss,” Roy said. “I can’t keep the judge waiting, you know that.”
“Just give ‘em a minute—please, Roy.”
“All right, two minutes, Ben,” he said, straining to see over my shoulder, “then I’m sorry. We’ll have to go.”
With no time for Daisy’s lunch, I looked behind me and saw my little brother’s half-smile. I winked, returned a smile of my own then nodded to Roy. “Come on,” I said. “I’ll treat you to a two-minute lunch.” We walked to the outer office together.
Not a word I’d said over the past hour mattered now that Pa was holdin’ Joe in his arms. I saw the look in my brother’s eyes—a look of sadness, the look of a condemned man. He needed our pa more’n he ever needed me, and I hoped Pa could pass on enough strength for Joe to hold his head high no matter what the outcome. Judge and jury would see an innocent young man walk through them doors and to his chair in the courtroom; still, I feared the worst.
Roy was chompin’ at the bit; I’d held him off as long as possible with Daisy’s roast pork and a baked potato. “I’ll get ‘em,” I said. “You finish your lunch.” Distractions rarely worked on Roy Coffee, but the lunch tray gave Joe and Pa an extra minute while the sheriff scooped up another fork full of buttery potato.
I couldn’t see Joseph at all. Pa’s arms was wrapped around my little brother, pullin’ him tight to his chest and rubbin’ his back. His head was bowed on top of Joe’s and from where I stood; I could hear the faint sound of the two people I loved most in this world, weeping their final tears.
“It’s time, Pa.”
Although I’d witnessed scenes like this before, this time I had to turn my back and look away.
Judge Borman entered the courtroom, and along with everyone else in the gallery; Pa and I took our seats. Next came the jury—twelve men, none familiar to Pa or me—merged into the jury box to our right.
Judge Borman looked straight at Joe. “Please rise, Mr. Cartwright.”
Joe pushed up from his chair, as did Mr. Powell, and both men faced the jury. I was proud of my little brother. He stood tall and straight, even with cuffs still holding his wrists together. We all faced the jury after the judge spoke again.
“Was the decision unanimous?”
The jury foreman stood to answer. He held a small slip of paper with both hands. “Yes, Your Honor.”
You could have heard a pin drop. I was holding my breath; maybe everyone else was too. Twelve men had decided my little brother’s fate in less than an hour’s time. Did they even go over the facts or did Hamilton’s introduction of intent sway their thinkin’ in his favor? I stared at Joe’s profile as he stood, facing the jury box. He gave nothing away. His eyes were clear and his chin was steady and firm.
Pa stood and gripped the wooden railing, separating the two of us from Joe. His white-knuckled hands trembled; his eyes grew glassy, but he was determined to face the jury along with his youngest son. I stood up next to my father, fearing his reaction if the verdict was not in Joe’s favor.
Judge Borman cleared his throat. “What say you?”
The foreman, dressed in denim overalls and a plaid work shirt, read from the slip of paper in his hand. His mouth was hidden under a long gray beard, and atop his generous nose, set a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles. “We find the defendant, Joseph Cartwright, guilty of murder in the first degree.”
I couldn’t move. A sudden rush of voices filled the room, but Joe remained remarkably still, almost distant, and I couldn’t begin to know what he might be thinkin’. I stared at the judge, knowing he, and only he, could overrule the jury’s decision. Instead, the gavel hit with decided force to quiet the overly, excited crowd.
After reading the jury’s statement, the judge looked over his glasses at Joe. “Joseph Cartwright, you have been duly tried and judged by a jury of your peers, and I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow evening.”
The gavel struck again, and I jolted in place. This weren’t right. Intent had an entirely different meaning than completin’ the job. I glared at Walter Hamilton. He was slowly packing his leather satchel, and I expected to see him smiling after winning such an important case against a man named Cartwright. But, when he turned to face Pa and me; his eyes appeared apologetic, even ashamed of what his job as a prosecutor had forced him to do and say.
Too much was happenin’ all at once. After dismissing the jury, Judge Borman pocketed his eyeglasses and picked up his gavel before walking out of the courtroom. Roy was pullin’ on Joe’s shackled arm while twelve men hung their heads and slowly filed out the side entrance. The crowd had heard the verdict firsthand and they were pushing their way out through the main front door. The prosecutor approached Pa and me; Mr. Powell did the same, but listening to either man’s apologies or reasons for the verdict was more than I could stand. I didn’t have nothin’ to say to either man. I left to follow Joe and Roy back to the cell.
“No!” A voice wailed from behind the four of us. “No, Judge.”
Again, there was dead silence. Everyone remaining inside the courtroom turned in unison, searching for the woman who had enough nerve to yell at a judge. Pa pushed Mr. Hamilton aside and bolted through the crowd of people. Joe had already left the building with Roy, and I was eager to follow until John Powell grabbed hold of my arm.
“Can you see your pa, Hoss?” John was a short man, shorter than my little brother, and a crowd had gathered around Pa and the woman.
“Nope,” I said. I was probably the tallest man in the courtroom, but the crowd was too concentrated and I couldn’t see over their heads. “Can’t tell who she is from here, Mr. Powell. Fill me in later, will ya? I’m headin’ down to the jail.”
I was as eager as everyone else to know who’d caused such a ruckus, but I didn’t want Joe to sit alone in his cell. This trial had been a farce as far as I was concerned, and some woman hollerin’ over the verdict weren’t no concern of mine. Hell, I felt like hollerin’ too. I made my way to the side exit where the jury had slipped out and had quickly scattered and disappeared like scared little rabbits. Pa might worry over my whereabouts but in time, he’d figure out where I’d gone and whom I was with. I met up with Roy and Joe just outside the sheriff’s office.
“What was all the commotion, Hoss? Sounded like somebody screamin’ inside the courtroom.”
“You heard right, Roy, but I didn’t wait to find out.” My baby brother had been condemned to the gallows, and some woman screamin’ had been the least of my worries. “Pa’ll fill us in later.”
“Hang on, Joe,” I said clicking my fingers together. “There’s somethin’ I forgot. You get settled; I’ll be right back.”
Joe’s eyes followed me like a forlorn little pup, and he all but missed the step heading into Roy’s office. When I saw him stumble, I nearly turned back, but I had something else in mind, and I thought he’d agree my short absence would prove worthwhile. Inside my saddlebags, I always kept a small, silver flask. Of course, I’d informed Pa it was for medicinal purposes only, but right or wrong, my little brother needed a couple shots of medicine. I slipped the container into my vest pocket and hurried back inside the jail.
“Lemme in there with him, will ya, Roy?” I said, nodding toward the cell.
The sheriff held out his hand. “Hand me your gun, Hoss.”
“Aw, sheriff,” I said, almost reluctant to do as he’d asked. “If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?”
Roy’s hand never wavered. “You know the law.”
I handed Roy my gun and he locked it in the bottom drawer of his desk. I nearly rolled my eyes at letter-of-the-law Coffee as we walked back to Joe’s cell. The cuffs had been removed this time, and Joe lay on his cot, facing the wall. “Hey, buddy.” Slowly, Joe rolled his feet to the floor and sat up straight. This time, I brung a chair from Roy’s office. “You don’t mind, do you, Sheriff?”
“No,” he said with a prolonged sigh. “I don’t mind at all.” Roy turned to go then, with his key inside the lock of the cell door, he hesitated. “I wish things had turned out different, Little Joe.”
“Thanks,” Joe answered then added, “me too.”
I pinched my lips together and nodded at the sheriff in appreciation. Roy was like family; he’d known us for years, as had Paul Martin, who’d helped deliver Joe into this world twenty-some years ago. They were good people and both men would help see Pa through after the—damn, I couldn’t even think the word much less say the word out loud.
Although Pa had written Adam when Joe was first arrested, there’d been no word so far. His current address was aboard a merchant steamer called The SS Dresden that sailed out of British waters. There’d been no way for Adam to return home in time for the trial—or anything else. I sure coulda used my big brother now.
When Roy was out of sight, I pulled my little secret from my vest pocket. “Thought you might need this ‘bout now.”
“Why not.” He reached for the silver flask and took a long draw. “Think I’m risking a tanning?” Joe said. “Between the sheriff and Pa, I may not be able to sit down for a—forever.”
“Aw, come on, Joe,” I said. “Don’t you worry about nothin’, little brother. This ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”
Joe chuckled and sipped from the flask again. “Wish I knew a fat lady, Hoss, but I think the party’s come to an abrupt end.”
“You just sit tight,” I said, reaching out and patting Joe on the leg. I had until tomorrow evening to work up a plan. Five in the afternoon was the time hangings took place in Virginia City these days. Used to be sunrise hangings in the old days, but evenings had won out. More of a crowd would turn out and, for some ungodly reason; many of Virginia City’s good solid citizens made it a point to attend an evenin’ hangin’.
“Hoss?” Joe said in that soft, little boy voice he used when he was hurtin’. “I don’t want you to come tomorrow; I want you and Pa to stay home. I don’t want either of you anywhere near Virginia City.”
“Stop it, Joe.” My words were firm, but they didn’t strike home with my little brother.
“Please,” he said. “I don’t want Pa to see me hang so you gotta promise you’ll keep him—”
“Joseph,” I interrupted. I glanced toward the double doors, making sure I couldn’t be overheard. “There ain’t gonna be no hangin’.” Joe’s eyes flashed larger than the steel Conchos on the band of his hat, and I cupped my hand over his mouth before he blurted out somethin’ Roy might overhear. “I ain’t makin’ no promises cuz there ain’t gonna be no hangin’,” I said, using my firmest voice. Cautiously, I removed my hand from Joe’s mouth. “You listen and listen good. I’m workin’ out a plan.”
But Joe shook his head. “No, Hoss. No. You can’t do that to Pa.”
“To Pa? Pa’s the least of my worries right now, Joseph.”
“Listen,” he said. “You’re the only son Pa has left so don’t mess that up. Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
“Joe. I can’t just sit back and let them—”
“I’m serious, Hoss. I won’t go with you. We’d be on the run for the rest of our lives. Think of Pa. Think what would happen to him if both of us disappeared into thin air, which is exactly what we’d have to do.” Joe paused, but his eyes held mine. “It’d kill him, Hoss. Everything he’s worked for—gone. Think! It ain’t worth it. Promise me you won’t try anything stupid—promise.”
Joe was adamant, and there weren’t nothin’ more I could do or say to change his mind. “Gimme that damn flask,” I said. I held it to my lips but the container was dry. Joe had already drunk every drop. Everything was a mess. Our lives were a mess, and I didn’t know none of Adam’s fancy wards or have enough of my father’s wisdom to say what was really on my mind.
“Okay, I promise. I’ll try to keep Pa from—this ain’t gonna be easy, Joe.”
My little brother smiled, and all them fancy words I should have said didn’t matter. Keeping Pa away from Virginia City was the only thing Joe had asked of me, and I’d be damned if I wouldn’t honor his last request.
“Remember when you caught me daydreaming up by Crescent Falls?” There was a smile on Joe’s face, and this crazy question came outta nowhere. “I had my legs flopped over that old dead log, and my feet were dangling in the water.”
“Yeah,” I said. “‘Course you’ve spent most of your life daydreamin’, little brother, but yeah, I remember that day.”
“I’d just ordered Sally’s ring from the catalog, and Ira said it would probably take a month or more before the package arrived in Virginia City. A month seemed like an eternity, Hoss.” Joe lay back on his bed and tucked his hands behind his head. “I was so anxious to show her the ring, but I kept quiet the whole time I waited. That was pretty good for me.”
“I’ll say it was,” I said. “You ain’t never been one for keepin’ secrets.”
“The last time I saw Sally, we’d sat on her porch that night after the dance. I think her father hung the swing there just for the two of us and as it turned out, that was our favorite place to just sit and talk about nothing and everything, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, Joe.”
My brother tried to smile, but his smile never reached his eyes, and I knew he was holdin’ back all them feelin’s the best he could. I guess he was rememberin’ the good times so I just sat back, listened, and wondered if this was the last time I’d hear my little brother’s voice.
“Sally wanted lots of kids, and I told her she could have as many as she wanted. Maybe because she was an only child.” Joe glanced at me. “She didn’t know the half of it, did she?”
“Siblings,” he said. “The good and the bad.”
“Maybe more good than bad,” I said.”
“Sally was a good person, Hoss. She was too young to die.” There was a brief silence ‘cause I couldn’t answer my brother. There weren’t no words to ease his pain, but Sally wasn’t the only one who was too young to die. “You ever wish you were a kid again?” Joe asked in that little boy voice.
“I s’pose everybody does sometimes. Why ya ask?”
A tinglin’ feeling ran up my spine when Joe covered his face with his hands, and he didn’t say nothin’ else. Maybe the impact of the trial had finally sunk in and he knew he and I wouldn’t have these conversations no longer. How would any of us accept the outcome of the trial?
Joe had always been the life of the party. I’m sure Adam would use different words than me, but that’s what I felt about my little brother. He gave so much and asked nothing in return. And even though he had a gift for bringin’ on trouble—I kinda liked trouble. I guess you could say there was never a dull moment on the Ponderosa after Joe was born. Even the day of his birth, we all knew he was somethin’ special. That squirmin’ little baby touched all our hearts, especially mine. And from that day on, I’d been able to protect Joe from all the bad things life had to offer. But now, I was helpless to bring my little brother home alive.
Joe pushed hisself up on the narrow cot and sat with his back against the wall and his knees was bent so his boots sat flat on the mattress. I stood from the chair and sat down on the bed beside him.
Joe reached into his jacket pocket for the small, white bible Sally’s father had given him right after she died. Inside was a piece of newsprint, and I tried to look on as he unfolded the section he’d saved. He smoothed the wrinkled paper against his thigh. I leaned in a little more and from where I was sitting, I recognized the headline: Murder at Midnight.
Written the day after Sally died, it only made sense Joe had kept the article tucked inside her palm-sized bible and close to his heart. It wasn’t the fancy wedding announcement he’d anticipated everyone would see, but a few short lines covering his fiancée’s death.
“I miss her so much, Hoss.” Joe’s eyes filled with tears and his hands was shakin’ as he fumbled with the small piece of newsprint. “I’ll never hear her laugh again or see her face light up when I lean in for a kiss. I’ll never hold her in my arms. I’ll never have the chance to love her or be a father to our children.”
“Come on, Joe,” I said. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“Maybe this is what God intended, Hoss.” Joe’s voice was just above a whisper, but the next thing he said brought our entire conversation down a few notches. “Maybe this was all a plan so Sally and I could be together, you know—in heaven.”
If I’d known the whiskey woulda freed up all this dadblamed misery, I never woulda brought the flask inside the cell. Joe was thinkin’ and talkin’ too much about death, and Pa’d have my hide if he knew what I’d done. Maybe all this talk about Sally, God, and the afterlife was how Joe figured he’d find enough strength to make it through the next twenty-four hours. Maybe my little brother could picture a future without Pa and me, but I couldn’t picture nothin’ without him, and I didn’t want to hear no more talk about dyin’.
“Do you need anything, Joe? You want anything? I can go get whatever—”
“No,” he said, cutting my sentence short before I blabbered my fool head off, but I’d heard just about all I could take. “Just sit tight, Hoss; stay ‘til Pa comes, okay?”
“’Course I’ll stay. I just thought maybe— Hey? You hear somethin’?” There was some kind of commotion outside the jail; bootheels on boardwalks, comin’ fast, and I didn’t like the sound they was makin’. Men in a hurry always made me nervous inside. I stood and looked out the barred window and saw a group of men led by Pa, coming straight toward the jail. Joe jumped up on the bed so he could see outside too.
“Looks like Pa’s smiling.”
“Sure does, little brother,” I said, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.
When the jailhouse door banged open, Joe and I both turned and crossed the cell. One thing was certain; Pa’s voice was loud and clear. “Open that cell, Roy,” he shouted, “and let my boy free.” Neither of us said nothin’ after hearing Pa’s voice blast like a cannon through the sheriff’s office.
“What’s this all about, Ben?” Roy hollered nearly as loud as Pa. “You can’t barge in here tellin’ me what to do.” I could just picture Roy’s face. I nearly smiled; he’d probably already pulled his gun on Pa. “You stay back from that cell or I’ll—”
Joe’s questioning eyes mirrored my own, but I’d distinctly heard Pa say Joe was free. More voices battled back and forth, some loud, some not so loud, but nothing was loud enough or clear enough for Joe or me to catch hold of what was being said. The double doors burst open and following our pa was Judge Borman and Roy Coffee. Joe and I both stood like unbending oak trees in the wind. Neither of us moved a muscle. Some might call it shock but for me, it either a sick joke or a miracle.
“What’s this all about, Pa?” I asked, pullin’ my little brother close to my side.
As soon as Roy extended his set of keys and unlocked the cell, Pa sailed through the iron door nearly knocking me aside as he rushed toward my brother. He grabbed hold of Joe’s shoulders. “You’re free, son. You’re free to go.”
Joe was dumbfounded, and I glanced at Roy for confirmation, but Pa was already filling in the gaps. “The real killer came forward, son.”
“You’re a lucky man, Joe Cartwright,” said Judge Borman, smilin’ and pattin’ my brother on the back.
I’d never heard truer words in my life but when Joe glanced my way, I shrugged my shoulders before diggin’ my hands deep in my pant’s pockets. Seems we were the only two people in Virginia City who’d been left out of the loop.
“Eileen Cutler,” the judge continued. “She came clean after sentencing had been pronounced. She never thought the jury would convict an innocent man but when they sentenced you to hang, she stepped forward and did the right thing.”
Joe head must have been reeling. “You mean the widow Cutler’s the one who shot Horace?” His shaky voice made him sound younger than his years; maybe it was nerves or just plain shock. After all, he’d been through during the past couple of weeks, rotting inside this cell and then found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit, I bet Joe didn’t know which way to turn or what to believe anymore.
“That’s right, son,” said the judge “She volunteered everything you couldn’t remember. She revealed the whole truth to your father and me inside my chambers.”
Joe reached for the back of his head where the blow had knocked him unconscious. “You mean she’s the one who hit me over the head?”
“That’s right, Joseph,” Pa said, reaching his arm around Joe. “Apparently, she picked up Miguel’s steel-handled shovel, swung, and knocked you out cold.” Pa hesitated a minute after seein’ Joe’s face pale and his eyes began blinkin’ repeatedly. “You with me, son?” Guess Pa was making sure his words were sinking in all the way.
“Yeah, go on, Pa.”
“Mrs. Cutler had followed Horace to the livery for one last goodbye and when she saw how you’d grabbed Horace by the shirtfront, she assumed the worst, and, well—she couldn’t let that happen.”
“I never heard her come in,” Joe said. “I never saw her, Pa.”
“I’ll bet Horace saw her,” I said to Joe. “That’s probably why he kept tellin’ you all them lies about him and Sally bein’ in love.”
Judge Borman continued where Pa left off. “After she knocked you out, Horace was free to ride out but maybe something you said triggered his next response; I guess we’ll never know. Anyway, Mrs. Cutler waited patiently for some kind of thank you, but Horace started laughing and saying awful things. He said she was a stupid old woman who couldn’t see the truth if it was right in front of her face.”
“The truth?” Joe glanced at Pa and then me.
“Horace moved toward his horse,” said the judge, “but apparently he turned back for one more jab at the only person who’d ever cared anything about him. He admitted he’d killed Sally—that he’s the one who’d choked her to death inside her father’s house. But that wasn’t all, Joe. Horace admitted he’d killed a girl in Mason City and another young woman over near Apache Flats.”
“That’s when the widow took the gun from your holster,” Pa said, glancing at me. “She shot Horace in the chest and threw your gun unto an empty stall. She knew no one would ever question her, but one person did, didn’t you Hoss?”
“Yeah, Pa. I did.”
“Your brother knew all along,” Pa said, “and I never believed him. In fact, I handled everything about this whole situation wrong, and I’m deeply sorry, son.”
I wasn’t sure if the apology was for me or for Joe. It didn’t matter now that things was all cleared up, but it sure could have made life easier for my little brother if I hadn’t let Pa change my thinkin’ about the widow.
“I shoulda done more, Joe,” I said regretfully. “I shoulda gone back and made her admit what she’d done.”
Joe just shook head. He never even knew I’d talked to Mrs. Cutler, and whether I was forgiven or whether he was just tryin’ to work all this out in his mind, I wasn’t sure.
I could see Pa’s eyes had started misting some, but he was well practiced at keepin’ hisself in control. Ben Cartwright wasn’t one to go soft in front of a group of outsiders. “You were right all along about Horace, Joseph, but without proof, and when you started making wild accusations about how you felt about him, I let you down. I never gave you a chance to explain.”
“You weren’t the only one, Pa.”
“I’m sorry too,” Roy said, “and I’m sure Clem will offer his apologies right soon. I never would’ve thought that boy was capable of murder,” Roy admitted, “’Course, it was hard for me to believe you was a killer either, Little Joe.”
“Guess I owe Mrs. Cutler my life,” Joe said.
No one seemed to know what to say, but Pa turned toward the judge and shook the man’s hand. “It’s been quite a day,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over.”
I started thinkin’ about the day we’d had and how desperate all our lives had become after the judge passed sentence against Joe. But mostly, my thoughts drifted to Sally Bristol. Not only had Horace Perkins taken her life, but he’d ruined so many others. Joe was nearly hanged and now an old woman, who never did an unkind deed in her life, would take Joe’s place at the gallows.
After confessin’ all them things about dyin’ and bein’ with Sally, it seemed my little brother had been handed a double blow. All in one day, Joe had been given a death sentence and when he’d made his peace, knowing he’d spend eternity with the love of his life; that too was yanked out from under him.
But Joe would always remember his time spent with Sally Ann Bristol. Their long talks about nothing and everything, Saturday night dances, and buggy rides on Sunday afternoons. Someday he’d remember her laughter and her gentle ways, and though she would never become his wife, she would never grow old—like a painting—she would always remain young and beautiful.
“Ben,” Roy said, interrupting my thoughts, but maybe that was for the best. I was nearly teary-eyed myself. “If you’ll get your boys on out of here, Clem’s gonna need the cell.”
I reached out and shook Judge Borman’s hand. “Thank you, sir. What happens now?”
“You’re brother’s free to go, and Eileen Cutler will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
“You mean she’ll be hanged?”
“Hoss,” Pa said, shaking his head slightly. “Let’s get this brother of yours home.”
~~~ Epilogue ~~~
He knelt down on one knee and rested his hand against the cold, hard granite, which often brought comfort since her death over twenty years ago. And when he removed his hat out of respect for the love he’d once known, the cool mountain breeze lifted the gently trimmed edges of his snow-white hair. He’d lowered himself to God and to the mother of his youngest son where he would beg each separately for absolution of his sins.
“I’ve always believed our relationship was beyond betrayal,” he softly spoke. Beyond the hurt I may have caused our son during these last few weeks. My only prayer is that Joseph will never realize the reservations I held toward his innocence, and I pray he will never be forced to come to terms with what I conceived in my heart to be true.
“Joseph has never lied to me so why did I doubt him this time? How could I ever consider our son guilty of such a horrific crime? I turned my back on our boy, Marie. When he needed me most, I turned away; I forced Hoss to accept the role of father and brother to the boy I’ve always loved with all my heart.
“Can you ever forgive me?
“Is it possible to see past the fool I’ve been, to forgive this narrow-minded old man who nearly destroyed the bond I’ve always shared with Joseph by sensing doubt? I became callous in my thinking. I lost faith in the one person who always confides in me and asks for my help in tough situations.
“I never once showed him the love or understanding he deserved before or during the trial. For days, Joseph tore himself apart, fighting his gut feeling and begging me to understand. ‘It’s just the way I feel,’ he said. ‘The way you feel?’ I replied mockingly. ‘You accuse Horace because of the way you feel?’
“Why did I verbally admonish our son? Why didn’t I listen to Joseph rather than ridicule and mimic his heartfelt words? Oh, Marie, you’ll never know how many times I’ve wanted to take back my overzealous clichés over morality and justice when Joseph was hurting so deeply inside.
“Just like you, my darling, our boy has a tender heart, but he’s also strong-willed and I, of all people, judged him and demanded he lean toward my way of thinking. But he frightened me. His heart was breaking, and all I could do was throw words concerning right and wrong back in his face. I was the first to accept his guilt, assuming our quick-tempered son had forgotten all my teachings and had taken the law into his own hands.
“And now I beg your forgiveness, not only for me but for any hurt I may have caused Joseph. For days, I let him sit inside that cell without lending my strength, my faith, or my love.
“God knows Joe deserves better. I love that boy, Marie. I love him so much my heart aches. Knowing I refused to believe in his innocence is a crime I’ll take to my grave. How in God’s name could I have ever doubted—
His heart pounded; Ben rose to his feet and turned slightly, hiding clear signs that tears had been shed, that confessions had been surrendered over his dead wife’s grave. How long had the boy stood in silence and listened as he begged for forgiveness?
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Joe said. His voice was soft but hesitant. And when Ben turned toward him, he stepped back.
“Please, son. Hear me out.”
Ben reached out with both hands, but Joe shook his head and turned in place as though he might walk away. In desperation, Ben stepped forward, leaving one hand to rest on the tall, upright stone. But Joseph distanced himself and in within minutes, he was gone.
Moving forward, as though drifting through a heavy fog, Ben’s steps were slow, even halted, as he fought his way up the path, leading to the road that would take him home. But would Joseph be waiting, and could he ever forgive a father’s ultimate betrayal?
Summary: Ben’s graveside confession concerning Joe’s innocence has turned his son’s world upside down, and Joe feels he and his father would both benefit if he made changes in his life. Hoss is caught unaware and is decidedly angered when he discovers the truth behind his brother’s sudden disappearance.
My brothers always said I was a born wrangler. I was light in the saddle but strong enough to handle any mount that needed to be broke. I’d gentled many a horse over the years, and I took pride in my natural ability to sit the most cantankerous mustangs in Nevada.
Over the years the ranch prospered, and we began hiring wranglers for the job but every now and again, I got that certain hankerin’ deep down inside. Just one more, Joe. And so, I stood at the lower corral, watching men do the job I was born to do.
I smiled at Chuck, the most respected wrangler on the ranch when he walked toward me and shook my hand.
“Hi, Chuck. Looks like you got an early start this morning.”
“Yep, you gonna try your hand?”
“Thinkin’ about it.”
“See that bay mare kickin’ up dust for no reason?”
I squinted into the early morning sun. “Yeah.”
“You don’t want her,” he said, shaking his head back and forth, as though he’d already felt her wrath. “She’s been rode before and let me tell you, she’s—“
“Saddle her up. I’ll give her a go.”
“I’m serious, Joe. She’s a mean one.”
“Good. Load her into the chute.”
Sometimes a man does foolish things. His pride overrules his common sense but once the words are out of his mouth, he’s trapped in a sinkhole and there’s no way to climb back out. I thought of my brothers and how they’d always shake their heads and roll their eyes at my decision to ride the most feisty broncs I could find. I had ridden steadily for the past week and I was just beginning to find my rhythm.
I lowered myself onto the saddle. The mare’s sleek body quivered between my thighs as we became one—man and beast. My nerves screamed with excitement. Anticipation sucked the air from my lungs, but I concentrated on each and every breath.
She bobbed her head in a panicked frenzy, a natural instinct to dislodge the heavy burden from her back and, as she began pawing the ground, I tighten my hand around the lead rope leading from the shank of her halter. She wished for another day of freedom, but I’d come to take that away.
To take the lead and to finish the ride in one piece, I had to clear my mind of the endless nightmare that haunted me every waking hour. The ghostlike appearance of my father, dressed in a long flowing robe with a gavel raised over his head.
“The boy is guilty as charged.” Dammit—not now, Joe. Think!
I breathed deep, as I stared down at the clean line of the mare’s neck. There were dangers when staying in the chute too long, and I feared the mare might rear or crush my legs against the sides of the pen.
Deep breath, Joe . . . one more for luck.
“Let her go,” I shouted.
Cheers and whistles rang out, but I focused on the ride ahead. My life was on display, but a Cartwright stepping into stirrups and entertaining other wranglers was the farthest thing from my mind.
The gate swung open and the mare lurched forward, jerking me harder than a tight-fitting noose. Colors spun before my eyes but quickly, they blended to gray, leaving no hint of color at all.
The mare blew her discontent, and my legs tightened as she pounded her hooves from side to side. Dust swirled like a whirlwind when she circled then bolted toward the rails before veering suddenly, pitching me like a rag doll in the saddle.
My eyes stung; I swallowed her dust.
I said a quick prayer when she chucked her back legs high in the air. I flattened my hand against her tangled mane as she dipped her nose to the ground. Though my head nearly collided with her neck, I remained in the saddle.
Again, she leaped forward. Again, I clenched my teeth and held tight as her body arched and remained bent nearly in half. As though she was possessed by the devil, her frantic behavior continued, leaving the earth behind as she turned complete circles inside the tight corral.
Sweat dripped from my forehead; salt mixed with grit blinded my eyes. Rope burned my hand through thick leather gloves until finally, her movements slowed and she came to a final halt. The ride was over. I was the victor today, but I felt fragile and spent.
Wranglers steered her away, and the dust settled. I reached for the wooden railing to steady myself before my trembling legs gave way. I coughed away the dust I’d inadvertently swallowed. Cheers sounded around me, hands clapped my back, and I smiled. It was a good ride.
“Joe ain’t hisself, Pa? He ain’t said two words to either of us all week.”
“I know, son, and I’ll speak to him again after breakfast.”
“He ain’t up there, you know. He already took off this mornin’.”
“The lower corral?” I tried not to look surprised, but in my heart . . .
“I ‘magine so.”
“He’s still hurting, Hoss, what with Sally’s death and then the trial. Joseph needs time. You’ll see. He’ll come around.”
“It ain’t right, Pa. Joe’s gonna end up killin’ hisself. He rides them broncs like there’s no tomorrow, like he don’t care one way or the other if he lives or dies. Fool kid ain’t got the sense God gave ‘im.”
Hoss lowered his fork and hung his head over his unfinished plate of eggs. It wasn’t the first time his little brother had gone off half-crazed, but what could I say without divulging the truth to my middle boy. Hoss was hurting; this tension between Joe and me was affecting the entire family.
“He’s like a wild animal, wild as them horses he’s breakin’, and he’s gonna wind up causin’ hisself a heap of misery. You mark my words, Pa. If one of them broncs don’t kill him . . . “
Hoss’ eyes showed fear for his brother, and I placed my hand on his arm, but I couldn’t tell him the truth, not yet, maybe never.
“I know he’s hurtin’, Pa. We talked a lot inside Roy’s jail after the judge pronounced him guilty, and you know what he said when he thought he was gonna hang for killin’ that miserable little bank clerk?”
“No, tell me, son.”
“He said he was ready to die so he and Sally could be together again. He almost seemed happy he was gonna leave this world and be with her forever. It was bad, Pa, it was real bad. Joe had givin’ up on livin’, and there weren’t nothin’ I could do to turn things around.”
I sighed, but I kept silent. I should have been there; I should have been the one to comfort my youngest son, but I was so wrapped up with worry, I didn’t take time to listen to what Joseph needed to say in those final hours. I remembered an old line I’d used once before. Old fools make poor fathers, and I was the most foolish man I knew.
I’d worked hard with our attorney, night and day, hoping he could prove a guilty man innocent. I never gave Joseph a chance. I condemned him to the gallows early on without proof he’d actually pulled the trigger and killed Horace Perkins.
All my life, I’ve been a law-abiding man. The guilty should be punished; the innocent set free, but this was my son, my Joseph. How had my mind led me down that path? Why had I condemned my boy without proof?
“Did you know Joe keeps her bible in his jacket pocket? You know what he keeps inside? It’s that newspaper clippin’: Murder at Midnight. And he keeps readin’ it over and over like it ain’t real; like it’s some fantasy story a reporter made up and it ain’t nothin’ but lies.”
“I didn’t realize . . .”
I let my words slip away. Hoss wanted answers, and I’d let him believe his brother’s behavior was only natural after Sally’s death. But that wasn’t the only reason; it was Joe’s loss of faith.
The words had been said. The damage had been done during my graveside confession. The mistake I’d made was speaking aloud to Marie never thinking Joseph might overhear that I’d thought him guilty. Yes, I’d thought my boy was guilty of murder and now, the sideways glances Joseph didn’t think I noticed were growing more hateful as time passed. He wouldn’t give me the time of day; he wouldn’t’ accept my apology. The private battle between us had escalated into a full-blown war and Hoss had become collateral damage.
“We need supplies, son, and since your brother already left the house . . . do you mind?”
“I don’t mind,” Hoss said. “Be more fun if Joe came too but knowin’ what kinda mood he’s been in these last few days, it ain’t worth the wait.”
“You go on. Hop Sing has a list. I’ll ride down to the corral and speak to Joe.”
“What’re you gonna say that ain’t been said a hundred times before?”
I smiled at Hoss. “Maybe I’ll find new words this time around.”
“Good luck. Nothin’ I say makes any difference at all.”
“You go on now.”
Hoss was right. What could I possibly say this time that wasn’t a repeat of the numerous apologies I’d tried to give these past few days? It had been almost a week since Joe overheard me confessing my inner doubts over his innocence. Foolish as it was to speak aloud, those words were between us now and the distance was growing so fast I feared the worst. And, after Hoss’ revelation about Joe wanting to join Sally in the hereafter, what did that really mean? Did he still feel that way, or had he only expressed those thoughts when he thought he was going to die—hanged for a crime he’d never commit?
I should’ve had Hoss saddle Buck. When I thought about Joe bustin’ broncs and, if he continued to maintain the attitude he’d had in jail, what might his current intentions be? Though he’d never harm himself intentionally, might risk outweighing common sense? Might an uncalled-for accident be part of his overall plan?
Hoss was just rounding the barn in the buckboard when I walked out the front door. Still buckling my gunbelt, I moved quickly toward the barn, stopped, and smiled. My son had indeed saddled my horse. What would I ever do without that boy? He was the most considerate man on this earth, and I prayed I never had to live a day without him.
I mounted Buck and headed toward the lower corral. I could hear men whoopin’ and hollerin’ before I made it over the last rise. I looked down, hoping it wasn’t Joe riding and was comforted when I saw a man wearing a red, plaid shirt on top of one of the new broncs. Even though Joe was still young enough to gentle the most ornery mustangs, relief washed over me. But, I didn’t see Cochise tied with the other mounts. I rode up to one of our wranglers.
“Hey, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Chuck,” I said, reaching down to shake the man’s hand. “Has Joe been down here this morning?”
“He was earlier. Rode a real wild one then said he couldn’t hang around all day doing the job he was payin’ us to do.”
I smiled at our top wrangler. “Did he say where he was headed?”
“No, sir. I can ask one of the fellas.”
“No, no bother. I’ll find him.”
I hadn’t run into Joseph on the ride down from the house so I turned Buck away from the corral and started toward town, anywhere Joe wouldn’t chance running into me was a safe bet. As I rode down C Street, I scanned every hitch rail looking for a black and white paint, but there was no sign Joe was frequenting any of his usual haunts.
By the time I made it to the mercantile, Hoss was loading the buckboard and hadn’t noticed I’d ridden up. When he took a minute to pull his handkerchief from his back pocket, he looked up, surprised to see Buck and me beside him.
“Pa? Whatcha doin’ in town?” He’d removed his hat and wiped his brow when realization hit. “Oh,” he said, answering his own question. “Joe?”
“Joe,” I answered a bit disheartened. “By the time I rode down to the corral, he’d already left.”
“I ain’t seen him ‘round here.”
“If you’re finished, why don’t we go have a beer.”
“Now you’re talkin’. Give me five minutes to pay up, and I’ll meet you at the Silver Dollar.”
I ordered two beers and found an empty table and chairs. I didn’t know where I’d look next. I hadn’t a clue where Joseph might be, and I only hoped Hoss could enlighten his old man. But as we drank then ordered a second, I realized Hoss knew no more than I. Joseph could be anywhere.
“Joseph Cartwright.” The man’s voice rang out and he smiled as I rode up in his front yard. “What in tarnation’re you doin’ out this way?”
I eased myself from the saddle and held Cooch’s reins. I hadn’t seen Abram Lancaster for a few years, and I wasn’t sure if he’d welcome visitors or not.
“How’re you doin’, Mr. Lancaster?”
“I’m doin’ just fine if my darn lumbago don’t kick in. Takes me down for a day or two at least.”
“I’d heard you were ailin’ some and I thought maybe I could help.”
“Help? Did Ben send you?”
“No, sir. Not this time. I thought maybe we could work out a deal.”
“Yeah, a deal,” I said smiling. “I thought maybe you could use an extra hand on the place.”
“I’d like that, Joe. I’d like that a lot, but I ain’t got enough money to pay for extra help. Just who’d you have in mind?”
“Oh, just a friend who needs work.”
“He a good worker?”
“Yeah, he is.”
Abram rubbed the back of his hand across his whiskered chin. I noticed how he’d aged since I’d seen him last. His hair had thinned and turned from brown to gray, and though he was a tall man, he didn’t carry himself well. He’d begun to stoop, and his clothes were nearly rags hanging from his naturally broad shoulders.
“I can’t pay ‘im Cartwright wages, but I could pay some, I guess. Bunk and beans, of course?”
I held out my hand. “You just hired yourself a good man, Mr. Lancaster.” I turned to my horse.
“Wait—“ he said abruptly. “This friend of yours got a name?”
“Joe—Joe Cartwright. I’ll see you first thing in the morning.” I mounted Cochise. “You won’t be sorry, sir.”
I rode off before Abram Lancaster could ask any questions. He’d wonder why I was looking for work and by tomorrow, I’d come up with an answer. Right now, I hadn’t a clue what I’d tell the man . . . or Pa and Hoss.
After stabling my horse, I walked toward the house though my movements nearly stalled knowing I had to deal with my father. I couldn’t stay on the Ponderosa. I didn’t belong where I couldn’t live up to Pa’s expectations. Doubting my intentions toward Horace carried a lot of weight, a burden I’d carry for the rest of my life, but Pa didn’t see it that way. He thought an apology was a cure-all.
There would always be doubts, and I couldn’t live knowing my father didn’t have faith that I’d do the right thing. His apologies meant nothing; they were only words to cover his real feelings. If I couldn’t live up to the Cartwright name then I wasn’t the right kind of son to remain under my father’s roof. It was time to move on; it was time for a new life.
I knew Pa’d be waiting, but if I could only have five minutes before answering his questions, I’d be a happy man. At least at old man Lancaster’s, I could do my work and not answer to anyone but myself. My off hours would be my own, and that’s what I craved right now. Time alone. Time to consider my future.
“Yeah, Pa,” I answered.
I unbuckled my gunbelt and hung my hat on the peg by the door. I didn’t bother with my jacket; I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying. If Pa tried to repeat his tired-sounding apology, I could leave tonight. I doubt Lancaster would mind if I showed up a few hours early.
My father stood from his desk. “I’d hoped we could talk.”
“I’m busy, Pa. Maybe later.”
I didn’t stop at his desk; I moved steadily forward until I reached my bedroom and closed the door behind me. If I could shut the world out, if I could turn back the clock and erase the past year from my life, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I didn’t want to talk; I didn’t want to see anyone. I just wanted my life back the way it . . . the way it used to be.
I leaned back against the closed door when unexpectedly, tears stung my eyes and my breath caught as if something foreign controlled the air inside my chest. I’d never been at odds with my father—at least nothing like this, nothing that would cause me to leave home so I wouldn’t have to look into his eyes and see what kind of man he thought I’d become. A murderer. A cold-blooded murder. A man without morals. A man with no control over his own wits. Well, I wasn’t that kind of man and if anyone would know, it should have been my father.
Knuckles, rapping aggressively at the door, startled me and I stepped forward, away from the unwanted sound and the unwanted intruder. I dried my eyes and took a deep breath. I wanted to be left alone. Why didn’t anyone understand?
“Joe, please talk to me.”
My father was begging. I knew he was hurting but I was hurting too, and I couldn’t find it in my heart to let him press for a resolution, to smooth things over, to apologize once again. It wasn’t in me to let the words I heard him say over my mother’s grave dissolve as if they were never said at all.
“I—I’m just tired, Pa. I might lay down for a while.”
It wasn’t far from the truth. I was tired, tired of everything and everyone. Tonight, I’d pack my gear and tomorrow I’d be gone.
“What about supper, Joe?”
“I’m not hungry. Apologize to Hop Sing, will you?”
I kicked off my boots and threw my jacket on the chair then reached for my saddlebags. A couple of shirts and pants and a pair of long johns would do for now. My brush and razor I’d grab in the morning. The simple life. No baggage to speak of.
Clouds had moved in and the sky had turned a dusty red as the sun dipped behind the mountains. I stood at my window and looked down at the familiar surroundings. Twenty-five years I’d spent living in this house, my father’s house, and it was time to move on. Most men had left their boyhood home by my age so striking out on my own was nothing but a normal progression in a man’s life.
My father had left home at a young age and Adam, he knew when the time was right and besides, Pa had Hoss—the good son. There’d be no more worries over what I might think or do next. Pa could relax and live a good life after I was gone. It was time I made my way in this world and if I saved a few dollars working for Lancaster, I could move on from there. Maybe I’d have my own spread someday.
Just as I started to turn away from the window, I saw Pa walking toward the corral. I kept watch. He rested his arms on the top rail, but he looked down at the ground. Back and forth, he scuffed the soft dirt with the toe of his boot. The clouds lost their brilliance as the sun lowered farther behind the mountain. The earth became shadowed in darkness, only Pa’s white hair stood out like a beacon in the still of the night. He stood for a long time, unmoving.
I didn’t light the lamp; I turned away from the window, lay down on the bed and clutched a soft quilt around my shoulders. Tomorrow night, I’d have new quarters, a new place to call home. A hired hand working for wages—lower than average wages—but I’d be free to think for myself, have time for myself, and become my own man. Eventually, Pa would understand the move was best for both of us. It would be hard on him but at the end of the day, he’d know my decision had been the right one for both of us.
Although I’d closed my eyes, my mind still reeled with thoughts and sleep wouldn’t come. This move and what I’d tell Pa in the morning kept me awake. I heard my bedroom door click open, but I remained unmoving on the bed. Footsteps sounded then stopped and all was quiet again. I didn’t move; I didn’t turn to see who stood silently inside my room.
Gently, a hand swept across my forehead then rested on my upturned shoulder. It was Pa. I knew the touch, the feel, and the warmth against my skin. I lay still; I gave no response. Soon, the footsteps retreated, the door closed behind him, and I was alone at last.
I held back the tears. Crying like a baby proved nothing, not now, not after the decision had been made to change my life forever. This was for the best. This was what I had to do. Rolling my feet to the floor, I moved to my desk and composed a brief letter. This would be best too. I’d leave it in an envelope on Pa’s desk and be gone before sunrise. No discussion. No confrontation. No agonizing goodbyes.
I woke to an odd-sounding noise. I rolled to the side of my bed and picked up the pocket watch Joseph had given me last Christmas after my old chronometer finally gave out. I appreciated every present my sons had given me over the years but, as it would for any father of three fine sons, this gift held a special place in my heart. This particular watch had taken extra thought and weeks of planning, something Joseph wasn’t always conscious of when it came to gift giving. He thought an inscription would be nice and, I found out from Hoss later that evening, Joe had to ship the timepiece off to San Francisco just to have the words engraved. I held the watch to my heart and recounted the words he’d had written. A son’s love is forever, Joseph.
In the dim moonlight shining through my window, the time read 4:40. Too early for Hoss, and I knew it wouldn’t be Joseph, so I put on my robe and walked out to the hall. Someone was downstairs. An intruder? I walked back into my room and reached for the derringer I kept in the drawer of my nightstand. Though I kept the small gun in my hand, I slipped it into my dressing gown pocket. I stood at the top of the stairs looking down.
A sudden movement caught my eye; I gripped the gun tightly and held it at waist level.
“I have a pistol leveled at your chest,” I said firmly.
“Don’t shoot me, Pa.”
I dropped my gun hand to my side and started down the stairs. Joe remained motionless beside my desk. Darkness loomed, and I could barely make out his form until I stood right in front of him. He was fully dressed and saddlebags hung over his shoulder. He wore his jacket and gunbelt; he held his hat in his hand. My son was leaving the Ponderosa.
“I left you a note,” he said.
I glanced down at the sealed white envelope on my desk.
“That’s it? A note?”
“I have to go.”
I reached for his shoulder. “This isn’t the way, Joseph.”
“It is for me.”
He turned and walked toward the front door and when he hesitated, hope rose inside me . . . then quickly faded when he spoke.
Abram Lancaster’s ranch butted up to the Ponderosa’s southeast border. We’d never found much use for this corner section since it was dry and flat and, if we didn’t have a good amount of snow or rainfall, there wouldn’t be enough green grass for our cattle to graze.
Lancaster had let the place run down after his only son was gunned down during a bank robbery in Carson City. His wife had died giving birth to the boy, but Sonny had become Abram’s pride and joy. The boy was only sixteen years old when he’d ridden into town and never rode home again. Abram never got over his son’s death; he always blamed himself when the boy had been killed.
After a two-hour ride, I pulled Cooch up at the hitch rail in front of the small, clapboard house. Right off, I noticed the roof needed repair and a coat of white paint would bring the old place back to life. I could easily add those chores to my workload—whatever that might be—if Abram was willing.
It was too early to knock on anyone’s front door so I guided Cochise to the barn where I could stable him and feed him some oats. Cooch wasn’t a morning riser either, so this ride had been quite an effort on his part.
“You’re a good boy,” I said, patting his neck before I removed the saddle and blanket. “This is home for now, okay? Sorry about the hour; maybe I’ll bring coffee out later.”
I turned back to the house when I saw a lantern had been lit inside. I probably woke the old man up, and I’d have to apologize before I even started the job. The front door opened and Lancaster stood at the threshold. Dressed in his nightshirt, he held a shotgun across his arm.
“Who’s there?” Abram shouted. “Someone there?”
I started toward the house.
“It me, Mr. Lancaster. Joe Cartwright.”
“Damn, boy, you startled me. A man could get hisself killed sneakin’ around like that.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Sorry for the hour.”
“Then you know what time it is, right?”
“Yes, I do, sir, and I apologize for waking you.”
“You’re prompt. I’ll give you that much.”
I smiled rather sheepishly.
“Come on in. I’ll make coffee and we’ll talk some.”
Slipping off my hat, I followed Lancaster inside the house. The rooms were small. A wooden table and two chairs sat in the center of the largest room. A freestanding stove took up one corner and was already putting out heat while a large chair with a table and lamp set just to the side. This was a one-person room, a lonely room. No book-lined shelves, no mementos, nothing more than everyday necessities.
“You always up and about this early?”
“Well, not exactly, but I wanted to get started, and I didn’t want you to worry about me showing up late on my first day.” Although it wasn’t exactly the truth, it was close enough for now.
“Mind fillin’ the pot?”
I carried the coffee pot outside to the pump and filled it with fresh water. I remembered Hop Sing doing the same before Pa and Adam installed indoor plumbing in the kitchen. That had to be twenty some years ago. I was just small and Mama was still alive. It must have been her idea because I don’t remember Hop Sing complaining about having to go outside for water.
“Here you go, Mr. Lancaster.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Might as well call me Abram if we’s gonna be workin’ together.”
“All right, Abram. I’d like that.”
“Good.” He reached down and picked up a wicker basket. “Might as well fetch some eggs from the henhouse while the coffee’s brewin’.”
“I’ll get ‘em,” I said. “Used to be my job when I was a kid.”
“Sonny’s too before—”
I snatched the basket from Abram’s hand. I wasn’t being paid to listen to sad tales or to comfort an old man’s broken heart. I had problems of my own and adding to the mix didn’t suit my mood this early in the morning.
“I—I’ll be right back.”
Lancaster’s hen house was half the size of ours, but our chickens fed a lot more people and, with Hop Sing’s constant baking, he counted on having good layers.
“Hop Sing? Why do chickens lay eggs?”
“Chickens provide much good food for family.”
“I know all that but where do the eggs come from?”
“Hop Sing very busy. Little Joe ask father. Father know best how explain.”
Shaking memories of a five-year-old boy from my head, I glanced inside the basket—six eggs, plenty for breakfast. I walked back to the house to find Abram dressed in overalls and a plaid shirt and coffee brewing on top of the stove. He poured us each a cup and pointed to one of the wooden chairs.
“Sit down, Joe. Let’s talk.”
I sat the basket on the wooden counter, picked up the tin cup and carried it to the table. There was no offer of cream or sugar and I didn’t ask. Abram sipped from his cup; I let mine sit and cool.
“I’ve known your pa for a lot of years, Joe, and never once did any of his sons come here lookin’ for work. I gotta ask why.”
I’d gripped my tin cup to warm my hands, and I glanced up. I’d been put on the spot and I needed a reasonable response.
“Fair question, Abram, but I’m not sure my answer will suit you.”
“It’s kind of an experiment actually,” I said. I didn’t see the harm in telling a little white lie. “I wanted to see how a smaller spread was run, you know, what the differences might be.”
Lancaster sat back in his chair; he fiddled with the lobe of his ear while he thought over what I’d said. I was surprised the lie came so easily, but I wasn’t about to tell someone I barely knew about my private battle with Pa. My explanation had been forced but sound.
“Seems a bit odd, son, but it’s hard for me to pass up good labor. I know your pa taught you boys well; in fact, Ben’s one of the best men I know. He’s always doin’ for others and he’s been a good pa to you boys, ain’t that right?”
After our initial conversation, we sipped coffee in silence then Abram stood and moved to the stove where he scrambled the eggs I’d brought in just minutes ago. He handed me a plate. No salt for the eggs. Appreciating how different life could be, I realized rather quickly, how good I’d had it at home. Salt and sugar were only minor disappointments and I figured I’d survive.
“I noticed the roof needs repair,” I said casually.
“Yep. I got a long list, Joe. Problem is I ain’t got enough cash to pay for labor and supplies both.”
“Why don’t I pick up the supplies and we’ll deal with the debt later. That roof’s not gonna last through another winter.”
“Nope. Can’t do that. Can’t do with no charity and that’s just what you’re offerin’.”
“I wouldn’t call it charity, Abram. I call it being neighborly.”
“You sound like your Pa. That’s somethin’ he would say, but when it comes right down to it, it’s charity all the same.”
“Then what would you have me do? You hired me on to help, but all I’ve done so far is eat your food and drink your coffee.”
“What’d you think new shingles might cost?”
“I don’t know . . . maybe ten dollars,” I said, hoping I was halfway close. I really didn’t have a clue.
“Okay, let’s get a roof on this old place. I ain’t sure what I can afford after that but if’n I’m gonna live here a few more years, I can’t have water drippin’ on my head.”
“Good. I’ll take the buckboard down to Carson and pick up new shingles. I’ll get started on the roof first thing.”
Nothing Joseph wrote in his letter surprised me. The truth was difficult to face, and when Hoss came bounding down the stairs, I hid the envelope in my vest pocket and smiled at my middle boy as if nothing was amiss.
“I didn’t see Joe in his room,” he said. “He already up’n at ‘em this morning?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Come on, let’s see what Hop Sing’s cooked up for breakfast.”
Maybe it was time for the truth. Joe had left the Ponderosa and Hoss was part of this now. I’d held him off for over a week but he deserved a straight answer. With Joe gone and no inkling whether he’d ever return, I really had no choice but to lay it all on the line, to bear my soul to my middle boy and hope he understood.
I’d been awake since Joe walked out the door. I’d stoked the fire and fell into my chair and before I could wrap my mind around the early morning events, Hop Sing was standing by my side with a cup and saucer and a fresh pot of coffee.
“This help you think what to do now,” he’d said.
I looked up and smiled at the man who knew my thoughts before I’d even put all the pieces together. Had he known all along Joseph would leave this house or had he overheard our conversation just moments ago?
“Thank you, Hop Sing.”
What else could I say? I could ramble on about this and that, but what purpose would it serve to defend myself to Hop Sing? It wouldn’t bring Joseph home so I’d taken the cup and saucer and thanked our cook, and I thought that was the end of the discussion.
“Often time, man finds destiny where he hides to avoid it. Little Joe need time to study life. He good boy. Father not fail Little Joe. Little Joe not fail father.”
His words stung my heart, and my eyes filled with tears so I coughed into my fist to hide my reaction from Hop Sing. But when I looked up, he was gone, vanished like a soundless breeze on a summer’s day.
“We need to talk,” I said after Hoss filled his plate with pancakes and eggs.
“Somethin’ wrong, Pa?”
“Yes and no. Well, yes.”
Hoss chuckled. “You get enough sleep last night. You ain’t makin’ much sense this mornin’.”
Between my lack of sleep and the amount of coffee I’d consumed over the last couple of hours, my mind went back and forth over different ways I could present the situation to Hoss. I cleared my throat.
“It’s about your brother, Joseph.”
“Oh,” he sighed. “What’s he done now?”
As much as I hated to ruin Hoss’ favorite time of day, I pulled the envelope from my vest pocket and handed him the letter. “Look this over first then I’ll explain.”
He set his fork on his plate and began reading. Although Joe didn’t elaborate, words like trust, disappointment, hurt, and change of scenery were easy to. The food grew cold on our plates as I watched for Hoss’ reaction. He read through the letter twice before he looked up.
“You deserve an explanation, son, and I apologize for having withheld this problem between Joe and me all this time. I’ve always asked you boys to be straight with me and this time, I failed to—“
“What in tarnation’s this all about? All this time I thought Joe was tryin’ to put Sally’s death behind him, and then I read this. I don’t get it, Pa? Seems I’ve been wrong all along, but no one thought to tell me the truth, did they?“
“Hoss, you have to realize—“
“This whole thing . . . it ain’t about Sally at all; it’s somethin’ you said outright that’s got Joe so upset. Is that it, Pa?”
“Yes, it’s something I said and I apologize for not—“
Hoss threw his napkin on his plate and shoved his chair back from the table. His eyes narrowed into tiny slits; his hands fisted. Had I been anyone but his father, I think he’d have come at me with a vengeance.
“Hoss? Wait. Where are you going?” I stood and ran after my son who was heading toward the front door.
He began buckling his gunbelt. He was mad and I understood, but I couldn’t let him walk out without a full explanation. I moved in front of him and forced him to listen.
“Your brother found me at his mother’s grave after the trial.” Hoss hesitated and I continued. “I made the mistake of speaking candidly to Marie, and your brother overheard most of what I said.”
“Yeah? That still don’t explain nothin’ Pa.”
“I had doubts, son, doubts about your brother’s innocence when he was on trial.”
“Doubts about Joe?” Hoss studied my face as if I were a stranger. “You mean all through the trial you thought Joseph was guilty of murderin’ Horace?”
“Let’s just say I wasn’t completely convinced your brother was innocent.”
This time, Hoss didn’t know how he felt or how to react. He seemed frozen in place, waiting for my words to sink in. Then, he reached for his hat.
“I’m need to go find Joseph.”
I reached out to touch his arm. “Hoss . . .” I wanted him to think, so slow down before he took off in such a huff, but he pulled away.
“You know what them words done to him, Pa? You know how he feels knowin’ you didn’t have his back when he needed you most?”
“I never understood why you wasn’t sittin’ with Joe in Roy’s jail, but it all comes clear now, don’t it? You thought Joe had murdered that little weasel in cold blood.”
“Hoss, please listen.”
“I ain’t got time, Pa. I’m gonna find my little brother and—”
“I don’t rightly know but first, I gotta find him. And when I do, I’ll have to search real deep inside for the right words to say ‘cause he ain’t gonna come home willingly. I already know that, but I’ll think of somethin’.”
I’d never feared my son before, but when his eyes glazed over and his fists became balls of steel, I wondered if he could hold his temper in check. There’d been times Joe’s eyes shot daggers through to my very soul but never before had Hoss shown such anger. I took a step back. I said nothing more, and I let Hoss leave the house.
When I closed the door behind him, Hop Sing stood next to the credenza. He knew the whole story now. He knew why Joseph had walked away and why Hoss left to find him. I hoped he’d turn and go back to the kitchen without a word. It was seven a.m. and I was already done in. The morning’s conversations—Hop Sing and then Hoss—had taken their toll and I was ready to be left alone to think this whole thing through and figure my next move. But I wasn’t alone, and my voice was gruff when I addressed our cook.
“What is it, Hop Sing?”
“Little Joe love father. Mr. Hoss love father. Words not meant to be heard. Weigh heavy on shoulder and blame self. It human nature to doubt. Mr. Ben not God. Mr. Ben only human man.”
I nodded to my friend when words wouldn’t come . . . and then he was gone. I stood alone in a home built to house three growing sons, but all was quiet. Not the normal sounds of laughter or bootheels racing up stairs too fast. Not the sound of grown men gathered around the dining room table discussing the day ahead. There’d be no light conversation, sitting next to a blazing fire after a long day’s work. No complaints about who was doing what with certain checkers.
This would be a long day. A day of silence—dead, lonely silence—and I would wait, and I would keep my mind from thinking the worst possible scenario. Two boys gone forever, joining up with the third to find their place somewhere besides the Ponderosa.
Their silent goodbyes would haunt me the remainder of my days. Like fathers who’d lost sons to war, who had no reason to live out the dream that was meant for their children to inherit and run as they saw fit. A father’s legacy shattered in a moment’s time.
I collapsed in my chair by the fire. There were chores to be done . . . later.
I saddled Chubby and rode toward Virginia City. Joe had a tendency to drink away his troubles so saloons would be my first stops. It seemed a bit early in the day to pull on a bottle of whiskey, but my brother and I were two different people. Joseph was a tricky sort. He could be madder’n hell one minute and crying his eyes out the next. He was a hard one to read, but I read him better’n most.
I was still burnin’ inside from readin’ that letter he left Pa. No wonder Joe was upset. His whole world had come crashin’ down, as though the air around him was too thick to breathe. Joe thought the world of our pa; he always had. But now, he had nowhere to turn, no one to turn to when he needed his family most.
Joe coulda come to me, but that wasn’t his way. He’d rather sulk on his own than dump his problems on anyone else. He was hurtin’ horrible inside, and he had nowhere to turn so runnin’ away was the alternative he thought best. My little brother ain’t the vindictive type neither. Tellin’ me what went on at his mama’s grave might have seemed as though he was betraying our pa.
There weren’t no sign of Cochise on C Street so I stopped in to see Clem, but he had no satisfyin’ answers, said he hadn’t seen much of Joe lately but he’d keep an eye out. I didn’t want to say too much; I weren’t one to hang out our dirty laundry for everyone to see.
I mounted back up and rode down to the livery. If Joe had stabled Cochise then I’d check the stage lines just in case. If he’d left town on the stage, I feared we’d never see hide or hair of him again.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. Miguel hadn’t seen Joe either and I let out a sigh of relief. I rode back to the Silver Dollar. Maybe someone had overheard a conversation and could tell me where Joe might be. I didn’t know where else to turn.
I loaded the buckboard and started back to Lancaster’s ranch. I’d bought a few other items at the mercantile while I was in town, and I hoped Abram wouldn’t be too upset. After his boy died and Pa tried to help the man out, he was hesitant when friends and neighbors offered their support. I was a couple of years older than Sonny, but I knew both father and son pretty well. Abram wouldn’t take handouts from anyone. Pa said his pride overrode common sense, but I’d do what I could while I was here, maybe even sneak some much-needed work while his back was turned. Abram was a very prideful man.
Pa had sent me to help Mr. Lancaster after Sonny died. He could only spare one son for the job and though I tried my best to persuade him to send one of my brothers instead, I lost the coin toss fair and square.
“We do what we can for our neighbors, Joseph.”
“I tried, Pa, but he won’t let me near the place. He says he don’t want my help.”
“Try again tomorrow.”
“I’m not going back. The man’s—”
“He’s what, son?”
“He’s—he’s mean and he don’t want me there.”
“You’ll figure something out.”
I’ll admit, Pa was right. Abram finally conceded after I gave him an ultimatum.
“Either you let me do the work, Mr. Lancaster, or my pa’s gonna tan my hide.” It was only a little white lie and besides, Pa told me to figure something out, so I did.
“Tan your hide? I find that hard to believe, boy.”
“Listen, Mr. Lancaster. My pa sent me here to do a job and if you send me home again, he’ll know I failed. My pa don’t take to failure, sir, and that’s why he sent me back to your place again today. So, can we work out some kinda deal? I’d rather not go home to a whoopin’.”
“Since you put it that way, Little Joe, why don’t we get busy in the barn.”
Abram let me tend the stock and then sort through a tangled mess of harnesses and bridles he’d piled in the back of the barn. Nothing more than a few menial chores, but they were jobs I’d always been stuck with at home, and I knew what I was doing. I’d laid the tack out on the floor in straight lines. Then, I saddle soaped each one carefully before I hung it back on the wall where it belonged. Halfway through the day, I looked up to see Mr. Lancaster standing at the barn door.
“You’re a good worker, Little Joe.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m about finished here.”
I wasn’t sure how long he’d been watching me and when he walked farther inside the barn, he laid his hands on top of a shiny new saddle.
“That’s sure a nice lookin’ saddle, Mr. Lancaster.”
“It was meant to be a gift.”
“For my boy. He was killed two days before his birthday.“
I wasn’t as smart as Pa or Adam when it came to knowing the right words to say, but I did my best to bring comfort to a broken man. By day’s end, he asked if I’d mind ridin’ by his place every now and then. He said I’d been helpful in more ways than one and he’d miss me when I was gone.
“I’d like that, sir.”
I unloaded the shingles and still had daylight to burn so I figured I’d get started. Abram was pleased but assured me there was no rush to finish the job in one day.
“I’ll at least get the shingles hauled up on the roof and start taking the old ones off,” I said. “There’s plenty of time before supper and besides, I need to earn my keep.”
“It’s your choice, Joe. Ladder’s behind the barn.”
He was a man of few words, but I thanked him before stripping off my jacket and gunbelt and throwing them in the back of the buckboard. An hour later, I had the shingles hauled to the roof and by suppertime, when he insisted I quit for the day, I had half the old boards removed and loaded back into the buckboard so I could carry them away from the house to burn.
“I thank you kindly for the salt and sugar you brung, Joe. Guess I’d learned to live without after Sonny died.” Abram half-smiled. “Even though my boy was as skinny as a post, he never could keep from snitchin’ the sweetenin’.”
“Sounds like my brother, Hoss. I’m not sure he could go a day without sugar but I have to admit Abram, I like a little sugar in my coffee and a little salt in my stew.”
The stew he sat on the table was meatless. Potatoes, carrots and onions—and of course, we both added salt—but I wondered if this was a normal meal for Abram. Meat prices were high and, although we never went without at any meal Hop Sing served, I suppose many families did.
I’d never had call to do without; Pa made sure we were fed and housed properly, and I was just beginning to see how the other half lived. Sonny was always a thin kid but so was I, in fact; I was just now starting to put meat on my bones. Would Sonny have too or was his situation that different from my own? Had he always wanted more but was forced to live without?
“You remind me of my boy, Joe. He was a lot like you.”
I put my thoughts of Sonny aside. He’d been dead seven years and his father still grieved.
“Thank you, Abram,” I said. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“My boy always wanted better; he was never satisfied with the way things were.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“I don’t know if you remember, but we was hog farmers back then—before Sonny was killed.”
“I remember. We always bought from you. Hop Sing used to make a monthly trip out to this place.”
“That’s right, he did.”
I’d nearly forgotten those days. Now we bought from a supplier in town but for years, the Lancaster’s supplied us with bacon and ham and the best pork roast, according to Hoss, in all of Nevada.
“Why’d you give it up, hog farming, that is?”
Abram exhaled slowly. “My boy didn’t want to be a hog farmer. Said the kids at school made fun and called him names. As much as his tales saddened me, what was I to do? That’s how I made a living. That’s how my father before me survived this wilderness we called home for the last thirty-some years.”
I nodded my head. Abram was right. Kids can be mean when they want, and Sonny and his father’s pigs were often the brunt of their jokes.
“We had a fight the night before Sonny rode into Carson and walked right into the middle of a bank holdup. Said he was never comin’ back. Said he was done raisin’ dirty ol’ pigs for a livin’ and he’d find work elsewhere. I pleaded with him not to go away mad, but he was done listenin’ to his old man. He said we’d been over this a hundred times before, and he was old enough to make his own way. He planned to draw out his savin’s and move on to greener pastures, long as there weren’t no hogs livin’ on the land.”
My heart sank. Abram was a good man and Sonny was a good kid. How had they come to this fork in the road when all they had in this world was each other?
“Ben Cartwright might be the perfect father, Joe, but not every father knows how to handle certain situations. Sons expect their Pa’s to be steadfast and all-knowing, but it ain’t always the case. I shoulda listened to my boy; I shoulda heard him out. I shoulda known how much he was hurtin’ inside, but I let my pride stand in the way.”
“Nobody’s perfect, Abram. You did what you could to provide for you and your boy. You had no way of knowing the bank would be robbed that day and Sonny would— well . . .”
“You’re right about most of it, Joe, but I blame myself for my boy’s death and I always will. Sonny would be alive today if I’d listened; if I’d really heard what he was tryin’ to tell me. Even with him gone, I still pray for forgiveness. Does that make sense? No,” he chuckled, “probably not. I loved that boy. Every day that goes by, I ask God to forgive me for not being the kind of father he needed when times got rough. It weren’t his fault we didn’t see eye to eye, but that’s not what mattered. What mattered most was that he left here mad. He never gave me a chance to settle up our differences. I never got to say goodbye.”
I turned my head away. I couldn’t look at Abram. My stew had turned cold and my appetite was gone.
“Excuse me,” I said weakly. “I better check the stock.”
“Joe? Wait! Don’t rush off.”
“I’ll be back.”
The air had cooled and I walked toward the buckboard to retrieve my jacket and hat. Was Pa suffering as much as Abram Lancaster? No, I wasn’t dead but I was as good as, and I’d told him so in the letter. I can’t be your son anymore. I’ll find my own way. The words I wrote had been harsh; I meant them to be harsh, to hurt, to strike back at the one person who’d doubted me—my father. Consider me dead. I won’t be coming back.
The words had come so easily on paper—hurtful words that would hurt my father the same way he’d hurt me. It wasn’t just the trial and Pa believing I could have killed Horace, it started much earlier. We’d had words after Sally’s death. I knew Horace was to blame and I told Pa how I felt about the bank clerk having something to do with her death. I hadn’t forgotten those words either.
“It’s just the way I feel,’ I’d said.
“The way you feel?” Pa repeated my words with sarcasm clear in his voice. “You accuse Horace because of the way you feel?”
Pa hurt me then too. At a point when I was desperate for answers, my father mocked my gut feeling. He forced his own opinions about laws and why we have laws and how justice would be served. He wouldn’t listen; instead, he preached his own brand of wisdom and my mind began shutting down. My grief burned like a raging wildfire and overpowered anything else my father had to say.
When I was arrested for murdering Horace, and because of that brief but bitter conversation, Pa just assumed I’d gone after him, that I’d kill the man because—in my gut—I believed he’d murdered my fiancée. But now, it all made sense. He’d heard my words loud and clear, and considering what I’d said— “It’s just the way I feel.” —Pa rushed to judgment.
I nearly chucked at my newfound discovery. My father was acting more like Joe Cartwright than Ben Cartwright. “Think before you act.” Wasn’t that what he’d preached my entire life? Did Pa’s gut feeling override his own common sense?
That’s why he never came to the jail to visit. That’s why he’d sent Hoss in his stead. He had doubts, and why wouldn’t he? Why wouldn’t anyone with half a brain in his head believe I’d done the unthinkable?
Pa knows my temper. He knows how much I can take before I break and do something I’ll regret. My God. The way I’d phrased my words had been nothing to Pa but a full-blown confession of guilt.
I headed back toward the house. My head was clearer now, and I wasn’t going to end up a casualty like Sonny and have Pa suffer regrets for the rest of his life. I had to make things right.
“There’s something I have to do,” I said to Mr. Lancaster. “I’ll be back later tonight, and I’ll work on that roof first thing in the morning.”
“Was it something I said?”
“No,” I lied then smiled at Abram. “Actually, yes it was.”
I didn’t take time to explain. As Hoss would say, our dirty laundry was our own business. I saddled Cochise, grabbed my gunbelt, and rode north toward the lake where my ma was buried. I had my own confession to make.
By dusk, the wind had picked up and autumn leaves flitted across the road in whirling rushes, spooking Cochise into an uneven gait. As light faded, leaving the sky an inky black, he seemed steadier and more sure of himself, but I kept a tight rein. I adjusted my hat farther down on my forehead and pulled the collar of my jacket tighter together.
Lightning flashed and thunder sounded like canons battling above me. A storm was moving in fast. My mind flashed to the old shingles I’d removed at Lancaster’s place, but it was too late to compensate for my eagerness now. I’d finish the job tomorrow and hope Abram wasn’t dripped on before the night was up.
Cooch snorted his discontent at being out on a night like this; I patted his neck and talked freely until he settled and we continued down the road. The promontory wasn’t much farther. Another bright flash illuminated the sky and, with the next roll of thunder, my father’s voice sounded in my head.
“Joseph, get inside now. Don’t be a fool.”
But I didn’t turn back. I pulled up next to Mama’s grave and tied Cooch to a low-lying scrub. Maybe I had no sense at all, but my mother had been waiting a long time for me to come to my senses. It was time to forgive my father. I knelt down on one knee and placed my hand on top of the smooth granite stone.
“It’s me, Mama,” I said softly. “I’ve certainly made a mess of things. I guess you’re used to hearing me say that, but I really messed up this time and it’s taken me a while to think things through and work it all out in my head.
“All this time, I thought—well, you probably already know, but Pa isn’t the bad guy I made him out to be. I know why he doubted me, and I’m ashamed to say, I ran off—I left the Ponderosa, and I left Pa a letter I never should’ve written.
“I wrote some pretty awful words, and I’ve gotta get home and make things right before—well, if anything happened while Pa and I were at odds, I’d never forgive myself.
“You know how much I loved Sally and I suppose I wasn’t—or I didn’t explain myself to Pa the way I should have but after the trial . . . I carried such a deep hurt inside that I let it build and fester until I couldn’t remain in the same house anymore.
“I’m not sure how I’ll make it up to him. I don’t know what I can say that will convince Pa I don’t blame him for thinking the worst. Help me, Mama. I don’t know what to do?”
“You needn’t do anything but come back home, son.”
The shock of Pa’s voice frightened me and I fell backward, landing flat on my butt. My legs sprawled in front of me, and my hat toppled from my head. My heart beat like a drum and my thoughts scattered like the leaves swirling around me.
“How—how long have you been here?” My voice was shaky and barely above a whisper.
“Long enough, Joseph.”
“Where’s Buck? I didn’t see him when I rode up.”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I guess not.” I stood, reached for my hat, and brushed off the seat of my pants. “Why are you here?”
“I took a chance you’d be here too.”
“You heard everything I said?”
Pa stood on the slope just above me and when I started up the hill, he stepped forward to meet me halfway.
“The letter . . .” I let my voice trail off.
“The letter isn’t important, son.
“But it is, Pa. I never should’ve—“
“I didn’t mean any of it Pa, not really. I was angry and the words came easy, but I never should’ve written any of those things.”
“Let’s just say we all make mistakes.” Pa reached for my shoulder; he gripped tightly. “Do you want to know my biggest fear?”
“A father worries, Joe; a father has fears, and I let mine overrule my common sense. I believed the worst, and that’s where I failed us both. I wasn’t there when you needed me most and for that, there’s no apology to fit the crime.”
This wasn’t right. I’m the one who should have been apologizing, and all I was hearing was my father’s confession, that this string of events had been his fault, not mine.
“You didn’t fail me, Pa; you’ve never failed me.”
“Oh, but I did, son, and I won’t accept your forgiveness until I’m able to forgive myself. I wasn’t the father you needed, and you’ve paid the price every hour of every day because of my shortcomings. I made you feel less a man and you leaving the Ponderosa was inevitable. I only pray that, in time, we can salvage the relationship we once had.”
Guarding my emotions was impossible and I fell into my father’s arms. His warmth surrounded me, and the biting chill I’d felt for so long was quickly removed from my heart. Tears blurred my eyes but I refused to wipe them away. I held tight to my father; I didn’t want to break the hold.
His eyes mirrored mine and it wasn’t long before we both broke the silence with laughter. We’d found what we’d been searching for all this time—forgiveness, and a renewed faith in each other would lead us back where we belonged.
I respected my father like no other, and it was my own doing when I put Pa on a pedestal so high he was bound to fall. No man is perfect, not even Ben Cartwright but from now on, we’d work through the difficult times together. No more running. No more letters written in anger. No avoidance when we should be sorting things out.
“I have a job,” I said. “I need to finish the work I’ve started before I can come home.”
In the darkness, I could barely make out Pa’s features, but I think he nodded his head.
“I’m working for Abram Lancaster. He’ll be expecting me by morning.”
“I’ll let your brother know as soon as he returns home.”
“He’s out looking for you,” he said softly.
“Looking for me?”
“He’s pretty upset with me right now.”
“You told him?”
“I let him read the letter. I had to explain.”
We were both silent until I found the words I needed.
“It’s all my fault, Pa. I overreacted and I—“
“Joseph—” Pa stepped farther down the slope so we were eye to eye. He slipped his hand around the back of my neck and held tight. “It’s over. Nothing more needs to be said.”
I closed my eyes and for a second time tonight, I let Pa’s gentle touch fill my heart and touch my soul. I knew where I belonged; I needed that feeling of home more than I craved a spoonful of sugar or a pinch of salt.
I woke the following morning to find Hoss sitting on Chub in the front yard of Lancaster’s place. I’d taken up residence in the loft, and I rubbed my eyes hard at the site of my big brother waiting for me to emerge from the barn.
“What’re you doin’ here?” I asked.
“Came to help,” he said very matter-of-factly.
“Oh, okay, I guess.”
I scratched my head. I hadn’t had my morning coffee and I was still reeling from the night before. Hoss dismounted and clapped me on the shoulder. Although he was trying to hide a smile, I could tell he and Pa had talked last night and straightened things out between them. Hoss never stayed angry for long, in fact, I usually didn’t either until this time. This time I’d been stepped on and crushed, at least that was my way of thinking until a near stranger pointed me in the right direction. I looked up at Hoss, who was staring at the roof I’d started yesterday.
“Thought we’d get the job done faster if I pitched in to help,” he said.
“That we would,” I replied, happy to have my brother by my side. “But I can’t do a dang thing till I’ve had a cup of coffee.”
“Then what’re we waitin’ for?”
I shook my head and chuckled. There was nothing like a big brother to get the day started in high fashion. “Well, come on. I’ll even let you gather the eggs.”
By lunchtime, new shingles had replaced old, and the old had been burned out behind the barn and, with my brother’s help, the small, two-room house had a fresh coat of paint before the sun set that evening. Not only did Hoss and I take pride in our accomplishments, Abram seemed a different man. He stood back and smiled as his eyes roamed across the shiny white clapboards.
“You boys are hard workers,” he said. “’Course, this is more’n I ever expected for a day’s work.”
“I’m glad you’re pleased, Abram, but my time here is finished. I’ll be movin’ on now.”
“I figgered as much.”
“I did, son. You see, every man needs a break sometime in his life. Sonny needed a break from hog farmin’, and I been takin’ a break ever since my boy rode into Carson City and never rode home. You’ve given me somethin’ back, Joe. You too, Hoss.
“You boys’ve given me my life back. I been mopin’ ‘round this place not caring much about anything. But when I stand back and look at this house, I see how just a little effort can make a world of difference.”
A little effort? Hoss and I worked our tails off.
“What happens now?” I asked Abram.
“I think I’ll buy me a couple of hogs—husband and wife, you know—and go from there.”
“That’s great. Make sure we’re your first customers.”
“I’ll do that, Little Joe. Oh, I almost forgot. I owe you wages.”
I raised my hand. “No, not this time, Mr. Lancaster. You gave me something too, something I needed, and it was worth a lot more than a few coins janglin’ in my pocket.”
“That ain’t fair, Joe. You boys worked too hard to walk off empty handed.”
“Maybe so, but I learned exactly what I needed to know.” Glancing at Hoss, I snapped my fingers when a thought crossed my mind. “How ‘bout we get the first slab of bacon from your smokehouse—free of charge? Deal?”
“You got a deal, Joseph.”
“Good. Then we’ll be on our way. You take care, Mr. Lancaster.”
“You boys do the same.”
“This ain’t gonna be an easy ride, Joseph.”
“Yeah, well, I want to get home tonight.”
“All right, but don’t go flyin’ home like the devil’s on your tail.”
“Trust me, Hoss. You know me better’n that.”
The moon drifted in and out from behind the clouds, and the ride was difficult. It took us twice as long than if we’d ridden during daylight hours, but Pa was expecting us and I wasn’t about to disappoint. With Hoss helping with the shingles and paint, we finished the job twice as fast as I would have alone.
As we rode, I reflected on the events that created another milestone in my life. How often we’re caught unaware, and how often we’re lead down a difficult path. My father meant the world to me and, at some point in my life; I’d convinced myself he could do no wrong. Pa was my hero—all knowing, law-abiding, fearless, confident, and unmatched by any other man I knew. But I was wrong. My father was only human. He wasn’t God; he didn’t pretend to be God. He wasn’t all-knowing. He wasn’t perfect. He’s a man who struggled every day to be the best he could be. The best father, the best employer, and the best citizen the state of Nevada has ever known.
Growing up on the Ponderosa, I had everything I’d ever needed and wanted. Abram Lancaster had nothing in comparison, but what he taught me about life was invaluable. He opened my eyes to the “what ifs” and I didn’t want Pa and me to end up with regrets for the rest of our lives.
As we closed in on home, my forever home, the place where my spirit soared, I could almost smell the coffee drifting through the house while Pa sat in his leather chair pretending to read. The crackling fire would bring him warmth until his sons were home and we were safely together again.
Hoss and I stabled and fed our mounts and walked toward the house where lamps burned bright to welcome us home. As we crossed the yard, my brother’s arm lay heavy on my shoulders until I opened the front door and walked inside.
“Hey, Pa. We’re home.”