Summary: A WHN for “The Gamble.” As events unfold subsequent to their being exonerated of robbery and murder charges, Adam fears more was at stake in Alkalai than the Cartwrights knew.
Word Count: 3,570
Previously: In the town of Alkalai, the Cartwrights are arrested for bank robbery and the evidence—though fraudulent—is damning. They are tried, convicted, and sentenced to die at dawn, but when chaos erupts at the drop of the gavel, Joe escapes out the window leaving his family behind. While Ben, Adam, and Hoss await their date with the hangman, Joe tears madly around the countryside from town-to-town and ranch-to-ranch rounding up anyone he can find to help him stop the executions. Ultimately successful in his quest, the real bank robbers are revealed, the Cartwrights are freed, and the Sheriff makes a full confession regarding his complicity in the events that transpired.
This is what happened next.
Our belongings were returned to us and we mounted up eager to put as much distance as possible between us and Alkalai. Younger brother Hoss was even willing to forego breakfast in favor of a speedy exit, so I was surprised when he stopped to gaze up at the three ropes dangling from the crossbeam.
“Ugly looking things, ain’t they?”
“Depends on where you’re standing,” I said.
Pa drawled, “Well, they don’t look so bad from down here.”
But it was Joe, a manic laugh barely contained, who made us all groan. “I don’t know about you fellas, but I don’t wanna hang around here.”
After a last look at the gallows, we turned our horses and headed out of town but when we rounded the corner at the end of the street, our leave-taking was once again stopped by a group of armed citizens, one of whom was sporting a newly-polished badge.
“Hold it right there.”
“What’s the problem now?” Pa asked the lawman.
“You’re coming with us.”
“Now just a minute,” Pa said. “You have your money and your murderer and you all heard Sheriff Gains say we were free to go.”
“You maybe,” the man waived his rifle at Pa, Hoss, and me. “Not him,” he said, letting the barrel’s sites settle squarely on Joe.
Now, I know that on any given day Joe’s reflexes are sharper than a razor, but even I was surprised at how fast he reacted to this pronouncement. Before the word “him” had even registered with us, Joe flew through the air straight at the hapless fellow, knocked him to the ground, and proceeded to pummel the man with his fists.
“JOSEPH!” Pa yelled, dismounting a shade slower than I did.
By then, Hoss—already on the ground—had pulled Joe back and had his arms securely pinned. I stepped between Joe and the lawman serving as an added barrier, but never taking my eyes off Joe. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my kid brother as angry and . . . terrified . . . as he was at that moment. Pa saw it, too, but trusted Hoss and me to handle Joe while he negotiated with the posse.
“Now let’s just everybody calm down. What is this all about?”
The new Sheriff spit out blood and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before pointing at Joe and saying “He’s under arrest.”
“For what? We—all of us—were proved innocent of robbery and murder by your predecessor’s confession. On what charge can you possibly hold my son?”
“Jailbreak, kidnapping, conspiracy, and—” rubbing his jaw, “assaulting an officer of the law!”
Joe lunged at that moment and had I not been blocking his path, I don’t believe even Hoss could have held him. Eyes black with fury, the boy was in full attack mode looking everywhere for the enemy; fear becoming the lens through which he saw the world—but not my wind-up.
I cold-cocked him and he went down like a rock.
Pa, Hoss, and I moved quickly to form a circle around Joe who lay inert on the ground. We still hadn’t drawn our guns and Pa had his hands up in supplication.
“And if my son hadn’t done those things, you . . . this whole town . . . would have been guilty of murder! Thanks to him, the bank has its money back and you have the man who killed the bank teller and your deputy.”
Before anyone could respond, shouting shattered the tension in the air.
“Willy! Wil . . . I mean Sheriff!”
“What is it now?” the lawman spit again, clearly annoyed at this interruption.
“I got telegrams for ya, Sheriff.”
“Not just one, there’s thr—”
“Just READ! I’m not taking my eyes off this bunch for one second.”
“This one’s from Genoa: ‘By the power invested in me as the Governor of Nevada Territory, I hereby order, decree, and adjudge the immediate stay of execution of Benjamin Cartwright, Adam Cartwright, Eric Cartwright and Joseph Cartwright pending the appeal of their conviction for bank robbery and murder,’ signed James Warren Nye, Governor.
“This one’s from Carson City: ‘Custody of the prisoners, Benj—”
“We know who they are; get on with it,” the Sheriff growled.
“—is hereby remanded to David Bayles, U.S. Marshal, Nevada Territory.
“And the last one is from Gordon Newell Mott, Associate Justice Supreme Court of Nevada Territory. It says the appeal will be placed on calendar for Monday hence—”
I started laughing.
Everyone—including Pa and Hoss—looked at me like I was deranged, but I didn’t care.
“Didn’t I say that if Little Joe were going to do anything, he would have to do it in view of the whole town? Well, leave it to the kid to not only gamble, but to raise the ante . . . the Marshal, the Governor, and the Supreme Court . . . that’s high stakes! Alkalai is sure going to make a name for itself, Willy, I mean, Sheriff Willy—that is if you get to keep that badge after all is said and done.”
Whether it was the legalities involved or the thought of relinquishing his newly-gained status as sheriff, we’ll never know. Willy apparently decided discretion was the better part of valor and moved us all—including Joe who was by now semi-conscious—over to the saloon. The judge who had presided over the kangaroo court that convicted us reconvened the proceedings, declared a mistrial, and vacated our sentences.
“That still leaves the matter of the charges against my son, your Honor,” said Pa, standing behind Joe who slumped in the chair between Hoss and me.
Judge Jackson stroked his chin thoughtfully no doubt weighing the consequences of increased scrutiny of his cases by the Supreme Court.
“In light of Joseph Cartwright’s contribution to seeing that the real murderer was apprehended and the money restored to the bank, I will dismiss the charges associated with jail breaking, kidnapping, and conspiracy—“
“Thank you, your Honor.”
“—but that still leaves the matter of assault on an officer of the law and interference with the performance of his duties,” the judge intoned ominously.
Joe chose this moment to not only regain consciousness, but to rise fully-enraged and mad as a bear with a sore head.
“Keep your mouth shut,” Pa whispered between clenched teeth as he pushed Joe back into the chair forcefully with both hands. Hoss and I each grabbed an arm and I could feel the kid’s muscles ripple beneath my hand. He was sweating and his breath was coming in short pants. As added insurance, I placed a foot on top of Joe’s boot; Hoss did the same. Joe jerked his head and looked wildly, first at me, then at Hoss.
“Easy,” Hoss said quietly.
“Steady,” I added.
Joe closed his eyes and lowered his chin to his chest. Neither Hoss nor I released our grip having been fooled one too many times by our brother’s feigning surrender.
“Your Honor, if I may address the court,” Pa said, maintaining the downward pressure on Joe’s shoulders.
“My son acted irrationally, but without malice. His only thought was to protect his family from what he perceived was a threat to our safety. If he had wanted to kill the officer, he could have. He did not. In fact, he did not even draw his weapon.”
“What his thoughts were is hearsay, Mr. Cartwright. You don’t know what he was thinking.”
“I know my son.”
“Undoubtedly you do . . . it’s taking three of you to restrain him right now.”
Pa lifted his hands from Joe’s shoulders and stepped back. Hoss and I took the cue and released our grip on Joe’s arms. For his part, Joe took a deep breath, raised his head and looked straight at the judge unflinching, but without rancor. Good boy.
Minutes passed like hours. I don’t think Joe blinked once; I know I didn’t breathe.
“Joseph Cartwright, please rise.”
We all stood shoulder to shoulder beside him.
“I find you guilty of assaulting an officer of the law and interfering with his duties.”
Hoss and I leaned in heavily against Joe.
“Fine is set at $100; sentence reduced to time served.”
“Thank you, your Honor,” Pa managed.
“Pay the Sheriff on your way out.”
We couldn’t get away from Alkalai fast enough, though if I’d known then what I know now, I might have insisted we take it a little easier.
We started out four abreast but soon drifted into our normal two-by-two pattern this time with Pa and Joe in the lead and Hoss and I riding drag. At the edge of town Joe let out a whoop! and took off at a gallop. We all followed suit. It was a beautiful day—the kind Hoss had talked about in jail and we luxuriated in the warm sun and were exhilarated by the freedom of riding like the wind.
The first sign of trouble appeared when Pa slowed to a trot in order to give Buck a rest. Hoss and I did likewise but Joe kept going, hell bent on what exactly I wasn’t sure but I presumed it was to get home. Of any of us, Joe’s tie to the Ponderosa is palpable.
Sport is more suited to long-distance endurance rides than Chubb or Buck, so I took off after Joe, leaving Pa and Hoss to catch up when they were able.
As I rode, it dawned on me that my brother had made this trip more than once in the last 48 hours. In fact, to make it to Virginia City, then to the ranch and back to Alkalai, soliciting friends and neighbors along the way, I calculated that he’d been on horseback more than half—make it two-thirds—of the last two days. When had he eaten or slept? Never; that was the answer—and the explanation. He was nothing but a bundle of raw nerves, operating on pure animal instinct. Damn! Why hadn’t I seen that?
I spurred Sport on and when I crested the next hill Cochise was up ahead. Poor horse was giving it his all, but tiring quickly and unable to continue despite the reins Joe was slapping across his flank. That action alone was enough to convince me that Joe was no longer capable of rational thought for in his right mind he would never treat any horse that way, let alone his beloved paint.
It didn’t take me long to reach them. I manuevered Sport in front of Cochise and brought the horses to a stop. Both animals were heavily lathered and needed to cool down. I wondered how I was going to tend to them when Joe vaulted from his saddle and knocked me off my horse. We wrestled on the ground a bit, Joe cursing a blue streak. I hated to do it, but the only remedy was to sucker punch him right below the rib cage. Having the wind knocked out of him not only shut him up but forced him to be still for a few minutes.
By the time he brought his breathing under control, I had loosed the cinches on the horses, but we needed to get them moving again before their muscles tightened up.
“Come on, brother. Let’s get you on your feet and walk off some of this excess energy.”
“Go to hell.”
“Think of Cochise. He needs to be walked . . . now!”
Joe groaned and rolled over, but slowly got to his feet and grabbed the reins from my hand.
“There’s a stream over by those cottonwoods.” I pointed up the road about half a mile. “Let’s go.”
We put our hats back on and walked side by side at a leisurely pace. Joe stumbled a couple of times, but I caught him by the elbow. The first time he shrugged me off and pulled away. The second time he mumbled thanks and said,
“I’m sorry, Adam.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve never felt like this before.”
“You’re just overworked, that’s all. Like Cochise here. You’ve been rode hard and put away wet. Let’s get you cooled down and fed and you’ll feel a whole lot better.”
I smiled. He sounded just like he had when he was five. Promise me, Adam. Promise me it will be all better in the morning. I promise, Little Joe. Everything will be better tomorrow. You’ll see.
“I promise, Joe.”
Pa and Hoss caught up to us just as the rabbits were finished cooking.
“I knew it!” Hoss said, dismounting. “I smelled them hares a roastin’ five miles back.”
“There’s beans in the pot as well.”
“And coffee?” asked Pa.
“Not unless you have some,” I said.
“I do, and I have some apples, too. Come help me.”
I knew a pretense when I heard one. Sure enough, as Pa pulled the apples out of his saddle bags he looked across Buck’s haunches to where Joe was sitting and asked,
“Everything all right?”
“Will be when he gets some sleep.”
“Should we let him rest?”
I watched Joe pick at his food, then start to eat—slowly at first and then with purpose.
“No. He’ll be okay now that he’s getting some nourishment.” Pa looked at me questioningly. “I’ll explain later.”
When I came down the stairs after checking on Joe who’d been asleep for nearly 20 hours, Pa was staring out the dining room window. There was a slump to his shoulders akin to the posture he’d adopted in the cell in Alkalai. I wondered what he was thinking, but for the moment thought better of asking. Sometimes with Pa it’s best to wait until he’s ready to talk. Funny. He’s a lot like Joe in that regard. Some might say Joe takes after him rather than the reverse, but I know better. Pa wasn’t like that before Joe was born. He talked to me all the time about everything when there was just the two of us. After Joe came along . . . well, things changed. Losing three wives can temper a man’s thoughts.
I sat down at the table and poured a cup of coffee. Hop Sing had set out fried chicken and fixin’s for lunch and I smiled involuntarily; it wouldn’t be long before Hoss would show up rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Pa’s voice startled me.
“Is he awake?”
“No, but he’s starting to stir. He’s good for another hour or two at least.” Maybe now is the time. I decided to chance it.
“You spent a lot of time in jail looking out the window; you’re doing the same thing now. What is it that you see?”
“It’s more a question I keep asking myself.”
“I remember thinking, ‘if only I knew Joe was all right.’” Pa turned from the window and looked at straight at me. “Is he? All right I mean?”
“He’ll be fine, Pa. Rest and food and he’ll be his old self.”
“Oh, Adam . . . if it were only that simple,” Pa sighed and sat down at the table, but made no move to eat.
“You don’t think it is? We can get the doctor out if you believe there is something more seriously wrong.”
“No, it’s not that. I think you’re right. He was overwrought, rung out, worn down with worry. He’ll be fine in a few days.”
“What is it then? What are you afraid of?”
“What if we’d been executed? What if he had to come home to this house without us? How would he have managed?”
“He’d have Hop Sing, Pa. He wouldn’t be alone.”
“Maybe. But what of the ranch? Is he capable of running it by himself? All of it? How much does he know about the operations, the finances, what’s in the bank, what’s owed, what obligations we have? He’s not ready,” Pa stood up and turned to look out the window again as if the answers to all his questions and doubts could be found on the horizon. “I haven’t prepared him at all. There’s so much I haven’t taught him.”
I didn’t know what to say. It’s true; although Little Joe works as hard as any man on the ranch and offers his opinion on larger issues, we’ve sheltered him a great deal from the day-to-day decisions that are essential to the smooth running of a ranch the size of the Ponderosa. Would he be able to carry on alone? I doubt it.
“I keep thinking back to what he said a few months ago just before he took that job in Rubicon.”
“What was that?” I asked.
Pa sat down again and leaned forward, elbows on the table clasping his hands before him. “Joe said, ‘I want a chance to do something by myself. I’m tired of being Little Joe, of being the little brother.”
“And you told us that Joe had to learn to handle his own troubles. He did that in Rubicon; he did a good job without our help. He was resourceful and creative in resolving that problem.”
“Yes, but what have we done since then to encourage him? He said then that you and Hoss treated him like a baby; that everything he did was a big joke to you. Has that changed?”
“You’d have to ask Joe that. I guess I haven’t given it much thought.”
“Given what much thought?” Hoss asked as the front door closed behind him. “Hot diggity . . . fried chicken! Pass me the taters Adam. Now, what are we supposed to be thinkin’ about?”
“How we’re treating Little Joe,” I answered.
“That answers it right there, doesn’t it?” Pa said. “You called him ‘Little’ Joe.”
Over lunch I filled Hoss in on my suspicions about what had happened to Joe physically and Pa reiterated his misgivings about how much he’d been able to teach Joe.
“The stakes are high,” Pa said. “This is the future of the Ponderosa, but more than that, this is Joe’s future we’re talking about. If we’re not here, if the ranch is gone, I need to know that Joe will be all right. That he has confidence in himself and in his ability to build a life without us. I need to believe that Joe won’t be afraid.”
“Aw, Little Joe ain’t afraid of nothin’,” Hoss said.
“He was terrified, Hoss. You saw it,” I said.
“Not of dying; he gambled everything to save us,” Hoss retorted.
“He’s never been afraid to die; but he was afraid to live . . . to go on living without us. That’s why he was willing to go all in,” Pa said.
I began to see Pa’s point.
“We have to fix that,” I said finally. The unspoken question hung in the air: How?
“To start, we have to help him learn everything there is to know about the ranch. Allow him to run projects himself; to succeed . . . or fail . . . on his own. No more sheltering, agreed?” Pa said.
Both Hoss and I nodded. “Agreed.”
“And we have to help him understand that we’ll always be with him,” I said. Hoss looked confused.
“Don’t you see? We’ll always be with him because he is us . . . all of us. He’s the best and the worst of each of us. His moral compass, his love of the land, and his dogged determination came from Pa; his passion for horses and life from Marie, as well that fiery temper; his compassion and forgiveness from you, Hoss.”
“And what has he gotten from you, Adam?” asked Pa.
“Aside from my Yankee granite-head stubbornness, you mean?” I smiled. “I don’t know . . . reason maybe and an appreciation for the world beyond the boundaries of the Ponderosa. Whether or not he’ll ever live anywhere else, at least I’ve exposed him to geography, music, art, and history.”
“And literature,” Hoss said.
I raised my eyebrow at that, but Hoss went on.
“In spite of those dime novels he’s so fond of, he reads the same books you do, Adam, when you’re not lookin’.”
We sat quietly for a while, digesting not only our lunch but what had been said. Pa broke the silence at last.
“That night before we were to hang, the Sheriff said we shouldn’t waste the time that was left to us. Let’s make the most of what time we have left with Joe.”
No matter how high the stakes, we were all in.