Summary: Circumstantial evidence incriminates Joe Cartwright in his fiance’s murder. This story is a What Happened Instead for the episode “Justice.”
Word Count: 8100
In the episode written by Richard Wendley, Joe is engaged to marry Sally, daughter of Virginia City banker George Bristol. One night while Joe is in the Sheriff’s office talking to Deputy Clem Foster, Sally is murdered. Consumed with bringing her killer to justice, Joe fixates on Horace Perkins as a suspect with no evidence other than “a feeling.” Horrified Ben says to Joe,
“You accuse him because of the way you feel? Do you realize that if you weren’t in the sheriff’s office when this thing happened, you might have been a suspect yourself? You’d have been accused yourself of this thing? On the same kind of circumstantial evidence that you’re trying to put up against Horace? Joseph, that’s why we have laws. The law says a man is innocent until proven guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt. That’s what justice is about.”
This is my version of what happened instead.
Law is not law, if it violates the principles of eternal justice.
Lydia Marie Child, 1861
“Clem, they’re dead!”
When banker George Bristol staggered into my office late Saturday night and said those words, I thought I was hearing things. He obliged by repeating the unimaginable.
“My Sally and Joe Cartwright . . . they’re . . . dead!”
I still could not believe it.
I said no when Tom, the man who cleaned the jail at night, offered to ride out to the Ponderosa. Ben Cartwright was in town for Gould & Curry’s annual stockholders meeting, but I thought better of notifying him until I could verify the truth of Bristol’s statement. Instead, I sent Tom to fetch the undertaker while I grabbed the stunned banker by the elbow and guided him through Saturday night traffic on C Street towards his house.
Unlike many of the well-to-do merchants in Virginia City who moved on up when the bonanza came—Bristol continued to live close to his bank in what is now an older predominantly commercial area of town. It suited him, he often said. A nice solid brick home reassured investors and spoke of the stability of the man they entrusted with their savings. Other houses on the street, like the boarding house nearby, had begun to deteriorate. Of course, in my mind that spoke more about the owner than the location.
A lawman notices those things. From the moment I became Roy Coffee’s deputy, he drummed it in to me: “Notice the little things, Clem. Unpolished shoes on a smooth talking city clicker or old, worn clothes that are clean and pressed on an indigent can tell you more about the wearer than their words alone.” That is why he met every stagecoach each day, making a point to know the people in his town; know where they came from and where they were headed; making small talk and offering directions, but not tolerating any shenanigans.
Some town folk thought Roy had stayed on too long as Sheriff and wanted him out. I admit Roy had his peculiarities, but there was no finer lawman west of Denver and he had his supporters, too . . . the Cartwrights being four of them. For that reason alone, I was glad Roy was out of town.
Sally Bristol lay near the front door but there was something not quite right with the position of the body. She looked almost . . . posed. I settled her father in a chair and turned up the wick on the table lamp to get a better look. There was blood on her gown and in her outstretched hand was a pearl handled Colt .38 revolver. Only one man I knew carried a gun like that . . . Joe Cartwright.
“Careful where you step, Percy,” I said when the undertaker arrived. “I don’t want this area disturbed until I make some notes.”
“Sure thing, Clem. I’ll go fetch a tarp. Just one victim, then? Tom said there were two.”
Damn. Bristol did say “both” . . . they were both dead. In the yellow haze of the kerosene lamp, I could see streaks of blood on the floor leading away from Sally but they stopped short of the doorway. Where in the hell was Joe?
“Just bring one stretcher for now,” I said, focusing for the moment on the body before me. When he left, I removed the gun from Sally’s hand and sniffed; it smelled of gunpowder and there were only five bullets left in the chamber. I tucked the gun in my belt and checked the other rooms on the first floor for signs of a struggle or more blood but found nothing.
“Who’s on duty tonight?” I asked Percy when he returned.
I must have frowned because before I could ask he added, “The Elder.” Not that young Winston wouldn’t someday make an excellent coroner, but given the prominence of the families involved, no one other than the top man would do.
“Tell him we need his findings straight away. Roy will want the inquest scheduled as soon as possible.”
As I helped the undertaker lift Sally onto the tarp, it struck me the crimson bloom on the folds of her yellow dress looked almost like a sunrise. I had a lot of work to do before morning, not the least of which was locating the missing corpse of Joe Cartwright.
Mr. Bristol had been of no help when I attempted to question him. He just kept saying, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” Poor man was near catatonic. Fortunately, Winston showed up not long after I had finished my sketches of the hall, including the position of the body, gun, and blood trail. He immediately administered a sedative and helped the grieving father upstairs to bed. Unfortunately, the news he shared when he came down complicated matters. Sally Bristol died from a broken neck . . . which meant the blood on the floor belonged to someone else. Had Joe left of his own accord or was he abducted? Worse, could he have killed her? Although unthinkable, it was a possibility I would have to explore.
A thorough search of the house revealed nothing and the yard would have to wait until daylight. As I stood on the front porch running through possible scenarios, I noticed a light in the bedroom window of the boarding house across the street.
I stepped back through the threshold and looked up. Sure enough, the porch roof blocked line of sight to the window, but when I moved forward a gust of wind stirred the curtain and I realized the window was open. It was worth a shot.
I knocked several times on the boarding house door before hearing footsteps and a tentative, “Who is it?”
“It’s Clem Foster, Mrs. Cutler. May I come in?”
The door opened just wide enough for me to see she was dressed in a grey colored robe with a white laced nightcap on her head and rose colored slippers on her feet.
“Sorry to have awakened you, ma’am. May I come in?”
“Oh, Deputy Foster, I am so relieved it’s you. Horace and I have been so afraid.”
“Yes, Horace Perkins, my boarder . . . the only one I have at the moment. He’s a very important person at the bank, you know.”
“I see. I noticed a second story window facing the street. Would that be Horace’s room by any chance?”
“Yes, it is.”
“May I speak with him?”
“Why, Deputy, I don’t understand. I sent him to your office to get help after we heard gunshots. Isn’t that why you are here . . . oh no!” she gasped, clutching her throat. “It’s not Horace is it? Has something happened to Horace?”
“No Ma’am, not that I’m aware; I haven’t seen Horace. What time did you hear shooting?”
“Let me think . . . it must have been a little after 10 o’clock. I always lock up at 10 o’clock. I run a respectable boarding house, you know.”
“Horace wasn’t feeling well and I had just locked the front door and gone upstairs with a bicarbonate when we heard noises outside.”
“All of the businesses around here are closed at this time of night. What kind of noise did you hear?”
“I tell you, it sounded like a stampede. And do you know who it was? Little Joe Cartwright, that’s who! I don’t know why that boy’s father doesn’t discipline him. It’s dangerous tearing down streets at breakneck speed like that!”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll speak to Joe—“
“—Speak to him?” She looked confused.
“—the next time I see him. Now, Mrs. Cutler, you said you heard shooting. Was this before or after you saw Joe?”
“Well, let me think . . . it was . . . after . . . yes, definitely after. I saw Little Joe get off his horse, run up the steps and bang on the door. I told Horace it was awfully late to be calling on people!”
“Yes, Ma’am. Then what?”
“Then Little Joe went inside. We heard shouting and a few minutes later, a gunshot.”
“You said ‘gunshots’ before. Was there just one shot or more?”
“Well, now that I think about it, there must have been . . . one. Yes, one shot. What happened, Deputy?”
“Sally Bristol was murdered this evening.”
“Sally? That sweet girl? Oh, poor George. Poor Horace!”
“Yes, he is so fond of her and she of him. This will just devastate Horace.”
“Why is that, Ma’am?”
“Horace was in love with Sally. He was going to marry her.”
Well, that’s a fine kettle of fish! A prosecutor would consider jealousy a motive. I didn’t relish having to tell Ben Cartwright his son is at best a murder suspect and at worst a victim. That was one task I’d just as soon leave to Roy.
The Gould & Curry stockholder’s shindig in the International House ballroom was still going strong when I arrived but it didn’t take long for Ben Cartwright to appear when summoned. From the look of relief on his face as he descended the stairs, I suspected he was grateful for the interruption. That changed, however, the moment he saw my face.
“Clem? What’s wrong?”
“I have some bad news, Ben. Perhaps there is some place more private we could speak? Are you staying in town?”
“Yes, I have a room here. We can talk upstairs.”
Cartwright led the way to his suite on the top floor. I should not have been surprised when he took the stairs two at a time—for all his wealth and position, he was a hard working rancher and the white hair belied his vigor. When the door closed, he wasted no time getting to the point.
“What’s this all about, Clem?”
“I don’t know how to soften this, sir, so I’ll say it straight out. Sally Bristol is dead.” The man paled instantly and I was afraid for a moment I might need to send for a doctor, but he steadied himself and looked me straight in the eye.
“Dead?” Then he asked forcefully, “Was it robbery?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Sally wanted to go to the dance early so she could show off her engagement ring.” Ben leaned heavily against the arm of the chair. “Joe wanted . . . was he with her?”
“Why don’t we sit down?”
“Clem, where is my son?”
“I don’t know Ben. I’ve been looking for him, but I haven’t had any luck. I was hoping you had seen or heard from him.”
“Does he know Sally is dead?”
When I didn’t respond one way or the other, Ben’s eyes narrowed and his face hardened.
“What are you not telling me? What happened, Clem? From the beginning and don’t leave anything unsaid.”
I knew right then there was no way out. I laid my Stetson on the table and faced him straight on.
“George Bristol stumbled into my office about half past ten. He was badly shaken; said Sally and Joe . . . were dead. When I got to the house, the only body was Sally’s. Cochise was still tied to the hitching post, but there was no sign of your son.”
“The blood at the scene wasn’t Sally’s. If it was Joe’s . . . well, we need to find him and quick. Do you have any idea where he might have gone? Where he might have taken refuge?”
“Refuge! You make it sound as though he’s running away! Clem . . . are you saying Joseph is somehow responsible for Sally’s death?”
“You know me better than that, Ben. It doesn’t pay to draw conclusions when there are so many unanswered questions. Right now, the most important thing is to find your boy and see he gets medical attention if he needs it. If he doesn’t, then I’m hoping he can tell me whose blood was on the floor and who fired his gun.”
“Yes, sir. I recognized it right off and the initials JFC are on the butt.”
“If Sally wasn’t shot, then how . . . .”
“Her neck was broken.”
“Dear God! I can’t believe it.”
There was a lot of that going around.
Ben followed me back to the Bristols to collect Cochise only when we got there, the horse had vanished. Had Joe been hiding in the yard just waiting for an opportunity to make his escape? I must have telegraphed my thoughts for Ben immediately contradicted them.
“No! Joe loved Sally! He would never cause her harm. You said there was blood, he must have been wounded trying to protect her. He . . . he’s gone for help, that’s all.”
“Maybe,” was the most I could offer and, after promising to form a search party in the morning, I sent Ben back to the International House to get some sleep.
A cot in the back room of the jail or canopy bed at the plushest hotel in town . . . it was likely neither resting place would produce the desired result for either of us.
Early the next morning there was a tentative knock on the open door to my office.
At the hail, I rocked back in my chair, thankful for the break from the hours spent reviewing wanted posters, warrants, and witness statements. The man before me twisted the brim of the hat clutched in his hands. “Yes?” I yawned.
“My landlady . . . Mrs. Cutler . . . she said you wanted to see me.”
“Horace Perkins?” When he nodded, blond hair fell over his face and covered his wide-set blue eyes. It made him look younger than the mid-twenties I figured him to be. He was of average height and not very muscular but then I suppose banking didn’t require a lot of physical strength. “Have a seat, Horace. Want some coffee?” I asked as I stood to fill my cup from the pot on the stove.
When I returned to my chair, Horace was still standing. Quaking was more like it. The day was already hot and he was shivering. “Feeling better?”
“Mrs. Cutler said you were under the weather last night.”
“No . . . I mean yes . . . I mean . . . I had too much to drink and . . . and I’m afraid I didn’t handle it very well.”
“Happens to the best of us, son. How long have you lived at the boarding house?”
“A few months.”
“And before that?”
“Nice town; quiet. Why did you come here?”
“I saw an ad for a teller. I-I’m good with numbers and the position paid more.”
“More than what?” Horace looked confused, so I asked again. “What did you do in Mason City?”
“I handled the books for a dry goods store.”
“Your bedroom window faces the Bristol residence?” When he nodded, I continued. “What time did you get home from the dance?”
“I’m not sure exactly. Well before 10 p.m. Mrs. Cutler locks up at 10. She runs a respectable boarding house, you know.”
“So I’m told. Anyone see you arrive?”
“No . . . well, wait. Joe Cartwright and Sally Bristol.”
“You saw them together before 10 p.m.?”
“He . . . he hit me. Mrs. Cutler says it was ‘cause Sally likes me.”
Joe did have a powerful left hook and a temper to match. I wouldn’t put it past him to throw a punch, especially if he thought Horace was making a play for his girl. Except for one thing . . . there wasn’t a mark on Horace.
“Where did he hit you?”
“In front of Sally’s house.”
I bit my tongue. Could he really be as thick as he just sounded? I moved on.
“Your window was open. You hear anything unusual?”
Horace began to look green around the gills. I pushed him into a chair and scooted the wastepaper basket closer to him.
“S-sorry,” he stammered. “I’m not use to liquor.” He swallowed hard and fanned himself with his hat. “I-I don’t remember. I must have passed out. Mrs. Cutler . . . she shook me awake and asked me to fetch the Sheriff. I tried, but I got sick half way over here and—“
“—it’s all right, Horace. That’s all for now. Go back to the boarding house and sleep it off.”
At least someone would be getting some shut eye.
Although it was still early, I decided to take a chance George Bristol was rested and able to answer some questions. The man had been too upset to be of much help last night, but I needed information only he could provide.
The walk to the residence cleared my head a bit and when I arrived, he was sitting on the porch swing still in his robe and slippers.
“Mr. Bristol?” I shook his arm. He had a vacant look about him and I suspected the sedative had not worn off yet. “Mr. Bristol, it’s Clem Foster. I need to ask you some questions.”
“Clem? What are you doing here?”
“I need your help.”
“Sally’s gone. My little girl is gone. Why, Clem, why?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what happened so we could find out why. When you came to my office, you said ‘they’re’ dead, do you remember?”
“Yes. I shouted to Sally to find out what all the commotion was all, but she didn’t answer.”
“She was talking to someone, arguing. By the time I came down . . . they were . . . dead.”
“Where did you find them?”
“By the door.”
“Do you hear a gun shot?”
“Gun? No . . . there was no gun.”
“George?” Ben Cartwright, hat in hand, approached the porch. “It’s Ben Cartwright, George, I’m so sorry about Sally. Hoss and I both are.”
“Yessir, Mr. Bristol. I don’t rightly expect there’s anything can be said, except I’m sorry. That, and I promise I’ll do everything I can to find who did this.”
“Thank you, Hoss. You’re a good son,” George said as he shook first Hoss’s hand and then Ben’s. “They were going to marry, you know. Your boy and my girl.”
“Yes, they were,” Ben replied.
“We should bury them together, don’t you think?”
Ben looked sharply at me, and I shook my head to let him know Joe was still missing.
“George, is there something we could do to help? Would you like to come out to the ranch for a few days?”
“Who? Who’d do a thing like this? Who?”
“We’ll find who did it, Mr. Bristol,” I promised. “We’ll find him. You get some rest.”
I sent wires to the law in surrounding towns while search parties, including Ben and Hoss Cartwright, combed Virginia City and Gold Hill canvassing doctors’ offices, apothecaries, barbershops, restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Meanwhile, I began interviewing everyone who had been at the dance.
The Cartwright-Bristol engagement was the talk of the evening and many had admired Sally’s ring. Most seemed genuinely happy for the couple though there were a few snide comments about money marrying money and “that damned Cartwright luck.”
Several mentioned the trouble between Horace Perkins and Cliff Warren. Cliff is a long, tall Texan with rubber legs. When he gets to dancin’ a jig, most folks ‘round these parts know to give him a wide berth ‘cause there’s no telling where those boots will wind up.
The trouble started when one of his wild kicks caught Horace’s arm and the hapless bank clerk spilled punch all over himself. Later, Horace took exception to Cliff’s inviting Sally to dance and threw punch of an altogether different kind at Cliff. According to witnesses, only Joe’s good-natured intercession put an end to it.
Near as folks could remember, Joe and Sally danced a few more reels, then left. Horace, too, disappeared, but Cliff was still carousing around the dance floor solo when the band played “Good Night Ladies,” so he had an alibi.
After interviewing the dance patrons, I moved on to the saloons—all 113 of them. No one had seen Joe on the night of the dance or in the time since. Barney, the bartender at the Rusty Bucket, confirmed Horace had been there and started drinking heavily after one of the saloon girls wouldn’t pay attention to him. He couldn’t hold his liquor, however, and Barney sent him on his way shortly after 9 p.m. and Mrs. Cutler swore he was home in bed when she locked up at 10 p.m.
My feet were killing me and, as it was long past suppertime, I stopped in at Luigi’s for their pasta special. I must have been hobbling because the proprietor brought over not only a nice Chianti but an extra chair to elevate my feet. Both were welcome. What was unwelcome was the news that Joe Cartwright and Sally Bristol had had a fight in the restaurant the night of the dance and were asked to leave. Damn! I added the information including witness names and times to my burgeoning notebook. I suddenly wasn’t as hungry as I thought.
A stack of wires awaited my return to the office. Most were negative but the one from the US Marshal over in Yerington raised hairs on the back of my neck. Several months before, he had questioned Horace Perkins regarding the murder of a young woman in Mason City but there was no evidence to support an arrest. With no further leads, he had no choice but to release Perkins and close the case. The marshal added he would be pleased to hear any information that might give rise to reopening the matter as her parents, owners of the local dry goods store, were good friends of his.
Mmmpf! Aside from blisters, the only thing I’d been able to raise for two days were more questions. Roy was due back on Wednesday and would expect facts, not gossip.
Unfortunately, the good citizens of Virginia City were all too eager to believe the rumors wafting over the Comstock and wasted no time in offering up “facts” to prove their suspicions. Sally and Horace were having an affair behind Joe’s back . . . Joe fought with Horace at the dance . . . George Bristol was nearly bankrupt and sold his daughter into marriage to raise capital . . . Old Man Cartwright killed Sally because she wasn’t good enough for his son. There was no end to the tawdry comments and wild speculations—each of which created a new trail to follow and more questions.
I reviewed my interview notes once again with a growing sense of doom. With each turn of the page, I sank deeper and deeper into a pit of despair so black not even my old Irish granny’s words could brighten it. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist, me boyo, the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”
Shortly before sunrise, hope literally fell from the sky.
I had just stepped off the boardwalk in front of the jail when behind me I heard a thud followed by a curse. I turned ready to draw, then froze.
“Mind if I drop in, Clem, ‘cuz I . . . I’m . . .”
A mess? He was breathing heavy, his arms hugging his left side. “Criminy, Joe! Where the hell have you been?”
“Exactly,” he said before his eyes rolled up and he collapsed at my feet.
Given he was a suspect, I suppose I should have put him in a cell, but it didn’t look like he was going anywhere under his own power any time soon, so I hoisted him over my shoulder with a grunt. For a man with a slight build, it surprised me how muscular Joe was.
He needed medical attention, but the office of the only doctor I trusted not to leak information about Joe’s whereabouts was across town. Instead, I headed over to the residential district hoping anyone who saw me in the street at this hour would think I was returning a drunken husband to hearth and home instead of finding shelter for a fugitive from justice.
The last thing I needed right now was a lynch mob.
“Well?” I asked when the door opened and Paul Martin emerged from an upstairsbedroom in Bristol’s house. I had fetched the doc as soon as I got Joe settled.
“Concussion, dehydration, a sprained ankle and, of course, the bullet wound.”
“No. No vital organs involved, thank goodness. He was lucky; bullet entered through the fleshy part of the back just below the rib cage and exited in front above the pelvis. Wound looks clean; no slug. The blood loss was extensive, although from the condition of his clothes, he likely bled more from the gash on the back of his head than from the hole in his side. They’ll be the devil to pay for shaving his scalp in order to stitch it closed.”
That explained the blood on the floor. But if Joe was shot from behind and laying across Sally as George indicated, why was she holding his gun? I rubbed my hands over my face and heaved a sigh. Yet another answer spawning a new line of questioning and I was running out of time.
“When can I talk to him?”
“I’ll give you five minutes, no more.”
The room was brightly lit when I entered—the better to stitch by no doubt. Although his head and foot were bandaged, the bullet wound had been left open to drain. Joe lay on his right side with the fingers of his hand spread to shield his eyes. His skin appeared gray, clammy and glistened with sweat. He was breathing heavy, but even. I’d seen worse bullet wounds before, but it always amazed me how a little piece of lead could create such a large hole. I turned the lamp down and pulled a chair up next to the bed.
“Thanks,” he whispered.
“I was shot.”
“I can see that.” I was treading on thin ice here. I needed to know what Joe knew without divulging any facts. Oh, who was I kidding? All I had was a mish mash of gossip, innuendo, and wild accusations. What did I have to lose by asking him straight out?
“Where have you been? Your family’s worried sick.”
“Trying to figure out who shot me.”
“What happened to Sally?”
Joe lowered his hand and stared at me with eyes I swear were almost black, then he lost focus. “She’s dead,” he choked.
So he knew.
“You were the last one to see her alive.”
“No. The last person to see her alive was whoever killed her.”
“Who would do such a thing? Shoot, now I was sounding like George Bristol.
“Horace. Horace could have done it.”
“Horace is a mouse . . . a meek, mild-mannered bank clerk and he has an alibi.”
“You didn’t see him that night. He was an animal. He could have gone back to the house.”
“No one saw him, Joe.”
“That’s enough, Clem,” Doc said. “I need to get fluids into him and stabilize his blood pressure. You can talk to him this evening at the earliest; tomorrow would be better.”
“I’m going to have to ask you not to reveal Joe’s presence here . . . to anyone.”
“By ‘anyone,’ you mean his family.”
“Especially his father.”
Doc chuckled as he rolled down his sleeves. “You’re right, of course. Keeping Ben away from an injured son is like keeping a 700 lb. black bear from a beehive full of honey.”
“It’s for Joe’s own good. Everyone liked Sally and sentiments against him are running pretty high right now.”
“What about the other chap? Harry something?”
“Horace. Horace Perkins. No friends to speak of or enemies.”
“Whereas Joe has plenty of both.” Doc nodded as he put his coat on. “I understand your concerns, Clem. If Ben is seen hovering around it would alert those who would just as soon see a Cartwright hang as justice served.”
I nodded. More than you know, Doc, more than you know.
“Nevertheless, I have an ethical obligation to my patient—chief of which is to do no harm. Infection is a very real danger, so are complications from the concussion. Most important, over the years I have repeatedly witnessed how the presence of family and home affects Joe’s ability to recover from injury or illness. It is my medical opinion separating father and son will do more harm than good.”
“I respect your position, Doc, but understand I also took an oath—an oath to uphold the rule of law in the name of justice. Right now, Joe is a suspect as well as a victim. While I have a right to hold him for questioning, I also have an obligation to protect him from vigilantes.”
“Is Joe under arrest?”
“Not yet, but there’s a limit to how long I can avoid asking for a warrant when all evidence—circumstantial though it may be—points to him. I am not asking you to harbor a fugitive, but I need to keep Joe under wraps until I can get the rest of his story.”
Doc Martin understood all too well his precarious position—and mine. I listened as he weighed his words carefully.
“Deputy, it is my opinion that moving my patient prematurely would endanger his life and obstruct your ability to bring Sally Bristol’s murderer to justice. I therefore insist Joe Cartwright remain where he is for the next 48 hours before being incarcerated, if such action in deed becomes necessary.”
As I wove through early morning traffic on C Street on my way back to the jail, it occurred to me the one thing Doc had not promised was to refrain from notifying Joe’s family.
By midday, it didn’t matter.
“Ben Cartwright’s been shot!”
The cry echoed through the streets and reached me before I saw a wagon with Hoss at the reins roll past the jail. The wagon didn’t stop until it reached the corner where Paul Martin’s office was located.
“What happened, Hoss?” I panted, when I finally caught up to him.
“Dang fool Clyde Wilson got trigger happy, that’s what happened. And Pa ain’t been shot, but he was dragged a piece through Rowan Gulch.”
Ben looked banged up all right, but he was conscious.
“I’m fine, Clem,” he said as he tried to sit up.
“Don’t look it to me. You hold still and I’ll go get the Doc.”
“It’s all right, Deputy. I’m right here,” Doc Martin said coming down the steps from his office and climbing into the back of the wagon. “Well, Ben. Let’s see what trouble you’ve gotten yourself into this time.”
“Hoss?” I inquired again.
“Posse spotted Cochise down in Six Mile Canyon and me, Harvey, and Pa were circling to get close enough for a lasso. You know how skittish that mare can be when Joe ain’t around. More so when she smells blood.”
“On the saddle. Lots of it. Pa was wiping it off with his green bandana—“
“—Don’t tell me . . . .” I groaned.
“That’s right. Clyde rode up, saw the black and white paint and something green and started shooting. Pa’s foot was caught in the rope when Cochise spooked and took off.”
“You men,” Doc called to the gawkers standing around the wagon, “grab the blanket under him and lift carefully. Take him inside, please.”
Ben protested, “Hoss, you just turn this wagon around and take me back to the ranch!”
“Out of the question!” Paul countered.
“Pa, the Doc’s right. You know how rough the ride home in a wagon is. What if you’re busted up inside?”
“I’m fine,” Ben was emphatic, but he winced when he said it.
It was then I got me an idea.
“Hoss, didn’t George Bristol take up your invitation to spend a few days on the Ponderosa?”
“Sure did, Clem.”
“Then I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if Ben stayed at his house for—” I turned to Paul with a raised eyebrow, “—how long would you say?”
The spectators murmured at this development no doubt bewildered by the notion that both fathers were still speaking, but Paul understood what I was doing.
“At least 48 hours or until I’m sure there are no internal injuries. Let me grab my bag and I’ll go with you, Hoss, so I can see Ben is settled properly.” At the top of the stoop he turned and spoke loudly. “And, Clyde . . . I want to see you on Friday for an eye exam!”
At that, the crowd laughed and began to disperse.
Things were finally looking up. Joe was already recuperating at Bristol’s and Ben would soon join him. Doc could care for both without raising undue suspicion, which would give me the breathing room I needed to find the answers I’d been seeking.
I should have known better.
By evening, Horace Perkins was dead.
According to witnesses, he’d been shot in the back by an unknown assailant not a block from the boarding house. He called for his kind landlady Mrs. Cutler with his last breath. So sad. Such a nice young man. You know he and Sally Bristol were to be married. May God rest their souls together for all eternity.
Unfortunately, a block from the boarding house also meant a block from where Joe was hold up. I nearly stopped breathing until the coroner set the time of death well after the Cartwrights and the doctor were all together under one roof. Even so, to reveal Joe’s whereabouts before I knew the full story would be the ruination of us all, not to mention what the proximity of a murder suspect to another murder scene would do in the hands of a skilled prosecutor.
As a lawman, I was sworn to deal in facts, not supposition, and certainly not play favorites because I knew the suspect and his family. The Cartwrights were at the center of political, business, and social circles Virginia City and beyond. And although a quick temper and fast gun got Joe into a lot of trouble over the years, he was a Cartwright through and through which meant he was a law abiding citizen who owned up to his mistakes and took responsibility for his actions. I had to give him a chance to clear his name.
Doc Martin didn’t look pleased when I entered the residence after supper that evening. Ben was sleeping upstairs in the same room with Joe while Hoss read in a chair by the door. The doctor and I spoke in whispers in the foyer.
“How is Ben?” I asked.
“Bruised and battered, but he’ll be all right.”
“What about Joe?”
“Improving, but he needs more time before you start badgering him with questions. The concussion is more severe than I first thought; he’s quite nauseous.”
“I’m sorry, Doc, but I am out of time. Horace Perkins is dead.”
“You and I both know Joe was here when it happened, but the rest of the world doesn’t and there’s going to be hell to pay if I don’t get answers.”
“All right. Give me some time to wake them.”
“You’ve got 15 minutes. And Doc,” I warned, “say nothing about Perkins.”
When I returned to the house, everyone had assembled in the downstairs parlor. Joe lay propped up on the chaise lounge, Hoss standing behind him and the window with Ben sitting in a chair at his feet where he could watch over his youngest son. The Doc hovered off to the side, stethoscope, basin, and syringe at the ready.
“Sorry to have to do this, Joe, but I need answers now.” The look Ben and Hoss gave me could have curdled milk. Joe was more receptive.
“I understand,” he said, looking past me to the foyer. The anguish on his face was difficult to witness. Nevertheless, I plunged ahead. “I need to know what happened after you and Sally left the dance.”
He nodded. “We were hungry and stopped for a bite to eat at . . . um . . . the new Italian place near the International House.
“Yeah, that’s right.” Joe shot me a look. “If you knew, why did you ask?”
“Just doing my job, you know that.”
“My son does not lie,” Ben interjected, but I ignored him.
“Folks heard you fighting.”
“It wasn’t a fight, Clem. It was an argument and it wasn’t serious.”
“Musta been serious enough to get thrown out.”
“Joe,” Ben said, “just tell what happened.”
“We argued about china.”
“China?” I exclaimed. “What in heaven’s name does China have to do with anything?”
“Not the country. Dishes. We were arguing about the pattern she picked out. I didn’t like it. We were discussing it. All right, we were discussing it loudly and we were asked to leave. What of it?”
“Where did you go?”
Defiant, Joe shouted, “Nowhere!” then dropped his eyes in submission. “We wandered past the opera house until we ran out of boardwalk. Sally didn’t want to get her new shoes muddy, so we cut over to C Street and decided to stop at the Emporium for an ice cream before heading back to her house. We were sitting on the porch when we saw Horace. I didn’t like the way he talked to her, but Sally insisted he was harmless. She felt sorry for him.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was drunk.”
“He said you struck him. Did you?
“No! He fell and I tried to help him stand but he came at me like a madman . . . he put his hands around my neck so I pushed him away and told him to go home.”
“Clem,” Hoss interrupted, pointing at Joe and raising the lamp so I could see the thumb-shaped bruises on his brother’s throat.
I made a note in my book and proceeded. “What then?”
“Sally and I talked a bit more, then I left.”
“Sally was alive when you left?”
“Yes,” Joe whispered. “I kissed her goodnight and she locked the door behind me.”
“What time was that?”
“I don’t know.”
Joe rubbed his forehead and sighed. “The Emporium closed at 9 o’clock. It’s a 5 or 10 minute walk to her house, another few minutes to deal with Horace. Maybe 9:15 . . . 9:30 max. That’s the best I can do. I don’t carry a watch.”
“What did you do then?”
“I checked Cochise’s cinch, mounted up and rode out.”
“Did you go straight home?”
He shook his head.
Joe had struggled to maintain his composure throughout the interrogation but everyone could see he was losing ground. He dropped his head toward the back of the chaise and threw his arm across his face.
“Son, why did you go back to Sally’s?” Ben asked.
Muffled, but still audible, Joe continued, “I wanted coffee in the worst way and that started me thinking how all my life Hop Sing has served coffee in those dainty red and white teacups. It’s absurd really when you think about it. A household of men—mostly BIG men at that—sipping away like the Queen of England at high tea. I mean . . . forget how silly Hoss looks with those massive hands of his wrapped around essentially a thimble . . . how’s that tiny cup supposed to quench a man’s thirst, ya know?” Joe lowered his arm and held his father’s gaze. “Then it dawned on me . . . the reason we drink coffee out of those tea cups is because mama picked out that china. And I realized it’s just one of those compromises you make when you love someone.”
Ben blinked and a series of twitches softened the hard line of his mouth.
“So I turned around and went back to tell Sally whatever pattern she picked out would be just fine with me.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s leg and squeezed.
I flipped through the pages of my notebook to check the facts. “You were seen entering the Bristol residence shortly after 10 p.m. The witness heard arguing and said you left just before George found Sally dead.”
“That’s a lie.” Joe shouted and started to rise but fell back. Hoss put his hand on Joe’s shoulder as much to steady as restrain him.
“Are you telling me you didn’t return to the Bristol residence?”
“No. I don’t deny returning and I told you why. When I got to the house the door was ajar. I pushed it open and saw Sally lying there. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I got clobbered from behind.”
“Did you see who it was?”
Joe shook his head. “No.”
“What do you remember next?”
Joe put a hand over his mouth and mumbled, “I’m going to be sick.”
A basin appeared but Joe waived it off. “Water. Just some water.”
He took small sips and closed his eyes. Hoss put a cold cloth on his head and Joe lay that way for some time. Eventually, he drew deeper breaths and his respiration evened out. I thought he had fallen asleep when his eyes opened wide.
“Pink,” he whispered.
“Pink shoes. That’s what I remember.”
“Don’t anybody move,” I shouted and ran out the door.
I returned less than 5 minutes later dragging Mrs. Cutler behind me and ignoring her protests.
“Let go of me! Where are you taking me? What is the meaning of this? Why are you in this house?”
When she saw Joe Cartwright flanked by his father and brother, she screamed.
“You! You’re the reason my Horace is dead!”
“Horace is dead?” Everyone exclaimed at once.
Joe sat up straighter, his eyes more focused than they had been all evening. Clearly the news was as much a surprise to him as anyone else. Slowly, he began nodding as if putting the pieces of the puzzle together in his head . . . pieces I wished he would share with the rest of us. I didn’t have long to wait.
Joe had always suspected Horace, but before it was just a feeling. Now, he said it with conviction, “Horace killed Sally.”
“Horace would never harm Sally,” Mrs. Cutler protested. “He loved her. You are the one out of control, Joe Cartwright. Riding wild through the streets! Everyone knows about you! Once you even pulled a gun on your own father, you think I don’t know about that?”
“That was a long time ago. I was young and foolish and I am ashamed of what I did, but not for the reason behind it—then or now—and . . . I never pulled the trigger. I have never shot anyone in cold blood, Mrs. Cutler. Can you say the same?”
“I warned my son Jimmy about you. You were trouble Joe Cartwright. Cocky, fresh . . . a new girl every week. The kind of boy that gave my Jimmy a hard time. You think parents in this town didn’t know about you and warn their daughters away? George Bristol only let you think Sally was interested in order to get your daddy’s money into his bank!”
“Jimmy was my friend. I helped him get over his stuttering and shyness with girls. I set him up with Annamarie, remember that? His first girlfriend. You didn’t like that, did you, Mrs. Cutler? Because that meant Jimmy wouldn’t need you as much. And if he hadn’t died of diphtheria, he would have found another life away from you.”
“It’s not true! My son loved me, he would never leave me!” she cried.
“So when Horace came to Virginia City you made him a substitute for Jimmy. But Horace was going to leave you, too. If not with Sally, then with some other girl.”
“No, no. Horace would never leave me. He needed me. I encouraged Horace to ask Sally to the dance.”
“Sure you did. Because you knew she would say no. She was engaged to me, so she was a safe bet.”
Joe had been focused solely on Mrs. Cutler but now he looked at each of us in turn. “I knew Horace loved Sally; you could tell by the way he looked at her, always fawning, coming to her ‘rescue’ at the dance. I told her as much and we laughed about it.
“You’re right, Mrs. Cutler. Horace loved Sally and wanted to marry her. But when he killed her you knew then he would go away . . .to jail or to the gallows and you would lose him anyway. So you went to the Bristols to remove any evidence. Only I showed up first. You were the one who hit me from behind and when I staggered, you pulled my gun from its holster and shot me.” Joe pointed at the rose-colored slippers on Mrs. Cutler’s feet. “Yours were the pink shoes I saw before I blacked out.”
It all made sense, all of it. I faced Mrs. Cutler and picked up where Joe left off.
“You put the gun in Sally’s hand to make it look like a lover’s quarrel gone wrong before running back to the boarding house. But Joe wasn’t dead, only unconscious and then he disappeared. Is that why you were confused when I mentioned Sally died, but not Joe, Mrs. Cutler? Were you worried he was still alive and could contradict your version of what happened? Is that why you sent Horace to see me? You knew we were looking for both of them and you wanted the search to focus solely on Joe. In fact, you wanted a posse, not a search party. A posse with vengeance in their hearts!”
Hysterical by now, Mrs. Cutler kept screaming, “No, no!” Doc stuck a syringe in her arm and when he got her under control, I turned my attention back to Joe.
“You came to after George left to find me. Where did you go?”
Joe hung his head and it took him a moment to speak, his voice choked with grief. “Her golden hair looked so pretty all fanned out around her shoulders, flowers in her hair. I’d picked them for her that afternoon and she wove them into kind of a crown, you know? I told her she was my fairy tale princess. Only there she was . . . dead and there wasn’t going to be any happily ever after.
“I didn’t know who had murdered Sally and shot me, so I ran. But I also remembered Inspector Foote says the perpetrator always returns to the scene of the crime, so I turned Cochise loose and headed back on foot. By that time there were search parties everywhere and I didn’t know who to trust.”
“That’s why you came to the jail.”
Joe nodded. “I figured it was the last place anyone would look. Only I lost my footing on the roof and fell.”
“Not surprising, son, with no food,” Ben remarked.
“I didn’t need food, Pa. Only justice for Sally.”
In time, Joe’s physical injuries healed, though his soul remained wounded.
A jury viewed Horace’s last words as confirmation of his assailant’s identity and they convicted Mrs. Cutler of murder. She was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane to live out her days. During her trial, she revealed Horace had told her he killed Sally “by mistake” only intending to silence her, not break her neck.
Joe wanted Horace to pay for that mistake. His family and I tried to convince him Horace’s death at the hands of another was divine retribution, but in Joe’s mind, it was not the same as a conviction in a court of law.
“You can’t convict a dead man,” I told him. “Maybe divine retribution is the same as eternal justice and the best we can hope for.”
He looked at me with vacant eyes and whispered, “Sally’s still dead. Where’s the justice in that?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Several months ago jfclover and I challenged each other to write a WHN or WHI for Season 8’s “Justice” written by Richard Wendley. This was my version. Her story is titled “Too Young to Die.” Please give it a read.