Summary: A missing scene from Season 12’s “The Night Virginia City Died.”
Word count: 2800
The story so far:
An arsonist is on the loose in Virginia City. Although one suspect has been cleared, there are still no easy answers to the riddle of who is setting the fires. Faced with recall by the town’s citizens, Sheriff Roy Coffee and Deputy Clem enlist the Cartwrights’ help. Although Hoss is laid up with an injury, Joe helps Clem bring another suspect in for questioning and has been on the front lines fighting the fires, while Ben is searching through 10 years’ worth of files looking for a pattern. Meanwhile, Clem has fallen in love with newcomer Janie Carter who came to VC with her wealthy aunt, Mrs. Lund, one of the suspects.
The episode was written by John Hawkins. The first portion of the scene that follows is a recap of what was aired.
It was late when Joe returned to the ranch from Virginia City. Entering through the side door into the kitchen, he brushed past Hop Sing and headed straight for the stove to pour some coffee.
“Little Joe? Where you been? How come you come back so late?” the Chinese cook admonished.
“Fix me something to eat will you?
“I cook dinner, wait for you. You think I cook 24 hour a day just for you?”
“Just fix me something to eat!” Joe shouted angrily.
Hop Sing was stunned; never had Little Joe yelled at him like that. Immediately contrite, Joe put the coffee pot back on the stove and turning, placed his hand on the cook’s shoulder. “Hey, I’m sorry. I’ve had a long night. Just fix me a sandwich or something.”
From the great room, Hoss heard the altercation but kept silent. Joe entered through the dining room, threw his jacket into Ben’s red chair, and sat wearily on the plank table that Hoss had drawn close to the settee to serve as a footstool for his injured ankle. Hoss couldn’t see his brother’s face clearly from that angle, but the slump of Joe’s shoulders and the fact that he hadn’t even removed his hat said enough.
“You look beat.”
“Yeah. I’m tired,” Joe said, swallowing some coffee.
That cinched it as far as Hoss was concerned. Joe rarely acknowledged he was ever in anything but top condition. If he admitted to being “tired,” he was probably plumb exhausted.
“When the doc came out to look at my ankle, he told me about the fire.”
“You can make that plural. Fires. More than one,” Joe said.
“Is that a fact! Do you have any idea who’s behind all this?”
“They’ve got Tim Moss in jail.” Joe hung his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think he did it.”
“Why did Roy arrest him?”
Joe snorted disgustedly, “Pressure. He had to arrest somebody; the whole town is on his back. Moss was the most likely candidate ‘cause he was mixed up in that barn burning over at the Benson’s place a few years ago. But there was a reason for that. He and Benson had an argument. Benson fired him. There was no reason for him to burn the hotel in Virginia City or burn anything else. It doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, arresting him and putting him in jail . . . that ain’t the end of it. They’ve still got to let him stand trial.”
Joe turned toward Hoss. “That’s the part that worries me.”
It only took a second for Hoss to take his meaning. A town afraid of its own shadow could turn ugly at any moment and decide to take the law into its own hands.
“Is that why Pa’s not with you?” he asked.
“No. Roy wanted his help going over the records on past fires . . . see if there was some pattern. I told Clem I was going home.”
Joe removed his hat and flung it into the chair on top of his jacket, then lay back on the table with a groan. Now that Hoss could see his brother more clearly, he was taken aback at his appearance. It wasn’t just exhaustion; it was a deep sorrow that was etched across Joe’s features.
“God, Hoss. It was just awful.”
The grandfather clock by the front door struck the half hour as the eldest Cartwright set foot within the welcoming walls of the house. With a great sigh, Ben leaned against the closed door and threw the bolt, secure in the knowledge that his family was safe. For scores of other families who were rendered homeless by the latest conflagration, the night would be long and cold.
“Yes, Hoss, it’s me.” Ben hung up his hat and coat and removed his gun belt, leaving it on the sideboard. He walked around the corner into the downstairs bedroom where Hoss had been sleeping since slipping on a pencil and spraining his ankle.
“You need anything, son?”
“No, sir. Joe helped me . . . you know . . . before he went up.”
Ben’s lips curled upward. It wasn’t often his youngest was on the giving rather than the receiving end of that sort of “help.”
“Good. I talked to the doctor and you’re not to put any weight on that foot for at least a week.” Ben pulled an extra quilt from the chest of drawers and spread it across the end of the bed. “Just in case you get cold tonight,” he said, smiling.
“Don’t ya worry none, Pa. Being next to the kitchen keeps this room pretty toasty and Hop Sing’ll be up early stoking the stove, so I’ll be fine. ”
“How’s the bed?”
“Not as good as my own, but a sight better than that ol’ settee.”
“Well, you won’t be here for long if you stay off that foot. A sprain can be worse than a break, you know.”
“If you’re sure there’s nothing I can get you, I’m going to turn in.”
“G’nite, Pa. Pa?”
“Check on Joe, will ya?”
“Sure,” Ben yawned, “In the morning—”
“Best tonight, I reckon. He like to bit Hop Sing’s head off earlier; ain’t had a short fuse like that in a few years now . . . and never with Hop Sing.”
“And Pa . . . he told me about Sandy Anderson. Were there others?”
“No. Sandy was the only one . . . this time. There’s nothing anyone could have done.”
“Tell Joe that, would ya?”
Ben made sure the fire in the hearth was banked properly before heading upstairs. Sure enough, there was light coming from under Joe’s door. Nevertheless, he tapped softly before entering.
Joe was slouched at his desk, head resting on the back of the chair, stocking feet propped on the blotter which was littered with papers, books, and a plate of uneaten sandwiches. There was a time Joe would have scrambled to remove his feet from the furniture, but those days were long gone. He was thirty now; it was his room; and tonight he didn’t much care what anyone thought.
“Town quiet?” Joe asked. His voice had a raspy quality from inhaling too much smoke over the last few weeks.
“Was when I left.” Ben pointed at the sandwiches. “Mind if I have one?”
Joe lifted his feet from the desk and offered his father the chair, then sank cross-legged to the floor with his back against the outside wall. Ben picked up a sandwich and looked between the slabs of bread. Liverwurst with pickles? Ben shook his head but—too tired to seek out an alternative—he shrugged and bit tentatively into the sandwich. Surprisingly, it was good and he began to chew with gusto. Joe watched his father eat with a bemused smile.
“Did you and Roy come to any conclusions?”
“No,” Ben said between bites. “But Roy has doubts about Moss being responsible for these fires.”
“Doesn’t make sense to me either.”
“Until last week, the last unexplained fire was seven years ago. The Hardcastle house.”
“Hardcastle?” asked Joe.
“Ross Hardcastle. He was partners with Lucky Lund in the Lucky Strike. Roy says they had a falling out and during an argument Lucky had a heart attack and died. With both of them gone, there were no other heirs and Roberta Lund inherited everything.”
“I thought she took her fortune and moved to Europe.”
“Yes,” Ben said, starting in on another sandwich. “She’s back.”
“And so are the fires. There a connection?”
“No. Roy and I talked to her today at Tucker’s place. She has an ironclad alibi for the other night.”
“What’s she doing at Tucker’s place?”
“She and her niece Janie have a lot of shopping to do since they lost everything in the hotel fire.”
“Yes; Janie Carter. Pretty woman.”
“Yeah, pretty odd if you ask me.”
“I don’t know . . . there’s just something . . . every time I’m around her I feel like someone’s walking on my grave.” Joe shivered involuntarily.
Ben noticed for the first time that the bedroom hearth was stone cold. “Why didn’t you light a fire when you came up?”
Joe shook his head slowly. “Couldn’t. Not . . . not after—”
Ben popped the last bite of sandwich into his mouth and got up to retrieve the quilt off Joe’s bed. “Here; put this around you until I get the fire started.” While draping the counterpane across his son’s shoulders, his fingers rested on Joe’s neck with a father’s practiced touch—not for long, but long enough to be assured there was no fever.
The kindling only took a minute or two to catch. Once it was burning steadily, Ben selected a piece of wood from the forged iron cradle and placed it carefully on the grate, adjusting its position with the poker until he was satisfied the log would burn evenly.
As Ben turned away, a sharp intake of breath escaped his lips. When he had sat at the desk, Joe’s face had been obscured by the long shadows of the kerosene lamp. Now with the fire’s light illuminating the room Ben could see at last what had prompted Hoss’s concern. That Joe appeared haggard was not a surprise; more than that, however, he looked . . . haunted.
Rather than return to the chair, Ben dropped down onto the rug next to Joe. For a good while, father and son sat shoulder to shoulder seduced by the flickering flames. Eventually, Ben felt Joe’s breathing even out and the shivering stopped.
“This was always my favorite part,” Joe said softly.
“Part? Of what?”
“On the trail. Watching the campfire and listening to you and Adam talk. Didn’t matter what you were saying; it was the timbre of your voices . . .crackle of the wood . . .the smell of pine and coffee. It made me feel . . . safe.”
“Mmmm.” Ben remembered, too. “And Hoss’s snoring. Don’t forget that.”
“Like a hibernating bear,” Joe chuckled but sobered quickly. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe around a fire again.”
Ben waited for Joe to continue, but his son remained silent, staring blankly at the floor. Clearly, he had to have patience. Patience. That virtue often eluded him in his youth and the Lord had surely taken delight in blessing him with a mercurial son who tried his patience daily. Over the years he had learned to outwait Joe; to read the signs and pick the “right” moment to rein him in, soothe, or offer advice that would at least be heard—if not followed. But as Joe grew older, the signs became harder to read and Ben had to wait longer for those moments to be revealed.
Ben stole a sideways look at his son. No; it wasn’t so easy now. Strange that the more mature and less volatile Joe became, the more he reminded Ben of his first born who held everything inside—thoughtful, controlled, measured. Although Ben loved that about Adam, he found he was ambivalent that those same traits should surface now in his youngest son.
Joe drew his legs up hugging them to his chest.
Then Ben saw it . . . the telltale sign that signified Joe was ready to talk to about whatever was bothering him.
“I found him,” he whispered.
“Someone said there were people trapped above the ballroom. I started up the stairwell, but didn’t get very far before the south wall caved in and took half of the second floor with it. I lost my balance and fell on top of him. He was as charred as that log,” Joe jerked his chin toward the fireplace. “Thought it was just a beam I stumbled over, but I could hear him scream even above the roar of the fire.” Joe closed his eyes. “I still hear his scream.”
Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze, giving him the courage to go on.
“The fire . . . the fire was so hot his clothes had melted into his flesh. I didn’t know what to grab. I couldn’t see. But the smell . . . and the hiss . . . I never heard such a sound. It was as if the fire was a living thing . . . a purely evil living thing.” As Joe’s voice broke, he pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes and rocked slowly back and forth.
“You did everything you could, son. You got Sandy out of there, gave him a chance to say goodbye to his family. Those few moments were important to him . . . to them.”
“I can’t imagine a more horrible way to die.”
“He’s at peace now, Joe. Let it go.”
“I don’t understand it, Pa. How can anyone do such a thing? I mean, even when Hoad started that brush fire, wanting to purify the land . . . he wasn’t malicious; selfish and stupid, certainly, but not deliberately malicious. Who would start a fire with the sole intent of destroying things—and not just things, but people?
Ben took his time answering. “That question is as old as humanity, son. When someone uses fire to destroy, they become as much consumed by the flames as that which burns.”
“You sound sympathetic to the firebug.”
“No; but I do believe whoever is starting these fires has a sick mind. We need to find them and stop them before any more lives are lost.”
“You may stop whoever is doing this, Pa, but there’ll never be any answer that can justify the pain that’s been afflicted on so many; Sandy’s family, the others, the merchants. And not just on the victims, but on those who are unjustly accused like that night cook the town almost lynched.”
“Joe, go to bed. You’re exhausted; you need to rest. We’re not going to find any answers tonight, but we will, son. I promise you, we will.” Ben rubbed his son’s back reassuringly. “We will.”
Joe acknowledged with a short nod then stood abruptly. “I’m going down to check on Hoss.”
“Joe. He’s fine. Go to bed.”
“Pa—” Joe exclaimed weakly as he pitched forward and only just barely caught himself by grabbing the edge of the desk. Seeing him wobble, Ben arose with the alacrity and grace of a much younger man.
“Sit,” he commanded as he lowered Joe into the desk chair. “Put your head between your knees and breathe.”
“I’m fine,” Joe panted.
“I’m fine. Really, Pa.”
“Come on,” Ben said as he took Joe firmly by the elbow and led him to the bed. “In. Now. No more arguments.”
“Yes, sir,” Joe yawned, fumbling with his belt.
“Here, let me help you.”
The corner of Joe’s mouth twitched. Thirty or not . . . it was good sometimes to be cared for.
Ben tucked the covers around his son tightly then moved to the windows and pulled the drapes shut. “You sleep in tomorrow. I’ll have Charlie and Jim cover morning chores.”
There was no answer; Joe was fast asleep.
Ben tiptoed quietly out of the room and started to close the door. From the hallway, he could hear the snores of their hibernating bear. Smiling, he left the door ajar confident Joe’s subconscious mind would take comfort from the sound.
As he crawled at long last into his own bed, he paused to reflect once again on how fortunate he was not only to have a home still standing but more importantly how blessed he was to have sons who cared more for each other—and others—than they did for themselves. The arsonist—whoever it would turn out to be—must have only had the devil at his side.
Thank you, Lord.