The Grand Prize (by jfclover)

Summary:  An election in Virginia City proves dangerous for Ben Cartwright’s sons.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count: 14,300


                              

Joe

It was an election year in Virginia City, and the entire town was fired-up over the two candidates who were running for Sheriff.  Of course, Pa supported Roy Coffee; in fact, he’d even been so bold as to step up to the plate and become Roy’s campaign manager. Beside the fact, Pa and Roy were good friends and held each other in high regard, the sheriff had done his job well over the years, but there were those who thought Roy was too old to police the rapidly growing mining town.

Over the last several weeks, Virginia City had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere. The city once known as a dirty little hamlet was now boasting nearly 25,000 residents. Nearly all were men and nearly all were potential voters, which needed to be persuaded one way or the other.

The second candidate was Roy’s deputy, a much younger man named Jeff Richards and though I considered him a friend, we were different in many ways.  Unlike me, he’d never been satisfied accepting the role of a rancher’s son.  Jeff always wanted more in life and when he finally became a peace officer, the young rancher turned deputy was on top of the world.

Jeff and I had gone to school together, and we’d never lost touch over the years.  We often had a friendly beer in the saloon and on occasion, he would come out to the ranch and beat the pants off Hoss and me at a game of horseshoes on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Jeff was a good man, quick on the draw, and he knew the law backward and forwards. Although not a patient man, he truly wanted the job of sheriff.  He had major players like William Sharon and other mine owners backing him.  I wasn’t sure how good his chances were this time around but someday, I knew he’d make a darn good sheriff.

Pa had been one of the first to welcome William Sharon to the community, knowing he was just the man Virginia City needed to help struggling mine owners by guaranteeing loans through the Bank of California and virtually overnight, he’d become a key player. By loaning money freely to any business, large or small, he’d been accepted as a valued addition to the community.

While McKay, O’Brien, and Fair, owners of the larger more efficient mines praised Sharon for what he’d achieved on their behalf; men who owned smaller mines found Sharon’s sense of compassion lacking.  He was quick to foreclose, forcing men off their claims if they defaulted on their loans.  There were no second chances, and William Sharon had ready cash available for quick takeovers of their property.  He’d profited greatly and for reasons no one could quite understand, he was essentially strong-arming Roy Coffee out of office and backing my longtime friend, Jeff Richards.

Although the Ponderosa was mainly a cattle ranch, our holdings were diversified and mining was only a small part of our collective investments.  Pa jumped at the chance to do business with Sharon, but quickly backed off when he realized what a cutthroat businessman the highfalutin banker really was.  And now, with this election looming, longtime friends were taking sides and becoming enemies overnight.

*****

Candy and I left Pa and Hoss to run Roy’s campaign while we took off for the rodeo in Placerville.  I was growing weary of listening to campaign talk, and when I’d read a poster in town, announcing the annual event, I was anxious to get away for a few days and see if I still had what it took to bring home a blue ribbon.

The fair in Placerville was a yearly event, and there was a time I used to attend the fair/rodeo with my brothers.  In my younger days, some might say I was a bit of a hothead, and not many days went by that Adam and I weren’t at each other’s throats. Not only was this a vacation for the three of us, a time to put our differences aside, but I’m sure my father savored the peace and quiet while we were away.

The annual event brought out our competitive nature.  While I’d sign up for bronc-bustin’; Hoss, with his massive bulk, would always go in for the steer ropin’ contest. Adam had perfected the barrel racing competition and was quick to show the world how he could maneuver fast and gracefully around short, tight turns.

This year’s grand prize was the meanest, toughest stallion available and the way I saw things, this had to be the finest horse money could buy.  The trick was to ride the bronc, stay on the bronc and bring him to a standstill, not always a simple task, but Candy and I were willing to give it a shot.

When I offered to pay Candy’s entrance fee, he gladly accepted.  Of course, he’d owe me a beer or two and a pat on the back when I won, but that was just a given.  Since neither of us were youngsters anymore, we were still prepared to give the meanest bronc our best effort.  We were up against kids, seventeen and eighteen-year-olds, who looked at the two of us and laughed at the prospect of an easy win.

We were called every name in the book, old geezers, fools, and washouts, but who took home the grand prize?  Who was the best there ever was and remains a superb contender?  I hate to brag, but sometimes modesty isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  It will be years before the name Joe Cartwright fades from those younger men’s minds.

It took the two of us to haul Satan, a black stallion worth his weight in gold, back to the Ponderosa.  By the time we reached the ranch, Candy was joking about finding another job clear across the country and far away from me.  The entire trip home, I’d given him grief over who was the better man, who could still out-ride, out-rope, and out-shoot the best men around.  But all kidding aside, Candy remained on the Ponderosa.  This was his home, and he wasn’t about to pull out anytime soon.

*****

Pa greeted us in the yard as I guided Satan into the corral.  Candy took our mounts to the barn not wanting to hear anything more about my exceptional talent, making me a shoo-in to win.  I probably overdid things a bit, but goading Candy was part of the joy of winning the competition.

“What’s this?”  Pa said, smiling.

“You’re looking at the grand-prize winner,” I boasted.

“Seriously?”  Pa’s surprised voice raised at least an octave.

“You seem shocked, Pa,” I said, forcing a frown.  “Have you lost faith in your youngest son?”  I couldn’t help but chuckle as my father searched for the right words to say.

“Well, no . . . I just . . . I’m proud of you, Joe.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Pa leaned against the top railing and watched as Satan checked out his new surroundings, trotting in circles and bobbing his head as he rounded the inner confines of the corral.  The stallion was far from saddle-broke, but I took the job of gentling a horse quite seriously.  Satin would be trained slow and easy.  This horse had an uncanny spirit and the strength of two horses combined, and I didn’t want him damaged in any way.  I’d gentle him myself without interference from the other wranglers we’d hired on the ranch.

“Hey, where’s Hoss?”  I asked.  I felt like a kid again, and I couldn’t wait to show off my grand prize.

“Oh,” Pa sighed.  “Trouble at one of the mines.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Let’s go inside to talk.  I’m beginning to think we have spies on the Ponderosa.”

*****

Soon after Pa and I took our seats at the dining room table, Candy strolled through the front door.  “Come sit down, Candy.  I want to talk to you both.”

“Sure, Mr. Cartwright under one condition.”

“And what might that be?”

“No more talk about Satan.”

Pa was uncertain about Candy’s request, and he glanced at me for an explanation.  I tried to conceal my laughter, but I wasn’t quite finished harassing our ranch foreman.

“He’s just jealous, Pa.  See, Candy placed second—stayed on a good, long time too—but he’s still feeling the sting of the final outcome.  Of course, if you listen to his side of the story, he didn’t want to take all the glory so of course, he let his boss bring home the grand prize.”

Although Candy and I both enjoyed good competition, sparring with each other made it all worthwhile and given the right situation, Candy would eventually retaliate.  I wouldn’t know where or when, but he’d zing one back at me and catch me off guard if I didn’t stay sharp.  So, when Candy’s annoyance had reached its boiling point; his heated eyes shifted back and forth between my father’s eyes and mine.  “Ain’t that right, partner?”

“That’s not exactly how I remember—”

“All right you two, enough about horses and rodeos,” Pa cut in. “We’ve got bigger problems to contend with.”

“Oh, sorry, Pa,” I said, directing my attention to a more serious format.  “What’s all this about trouble at the mine?”

Pa looked up at Candy.  “As I mentioned to Joe earlier, this conversation stays between the three of us and Hoss.  No one else need know what we discuss inside this house.”

“That serious, huh?”

“Well, I’m not sure but yes, it may be that serious, Candy.”

“So what’s this all about, Pa?”

Candy took a seat and we waited for my father to explain.  Hop Sing brought out pieces of pie and set a pot of coffee on the table.  “Must keep strength for days ahead.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing.”  Pa smiled at our all-knowing cook.  “He may be right you know.”

“So why is Hoss at the mine?”

Pa reached for the coffee pot.  “While you two were out gallivanting all over the countryside, we’ve had a bit more trouble.  Two miners have walked off the job now that Sharon’s offering new incentives for his workers.”

“New incentives?”

“Two dollars a day more than we offer, and a bonus at the end of each month.”

“Whew,” I said.  “Who can afford those kinds of wages?”

“The Bank of California, better known as William Sharon.”

“Sharon?  But why?”

“I wish I knew, Joseph.”

“Anything to do with the election?”

Pa groaned.  “I’d certainly hate to think so but, if I had other things on my mind rather than Roy’s election, how would I possibly have time to register voters or give Roy the time needed to win this campaign?”

“You’ve got a point, but why are these men so set on retiring Roy Coffee?”

“Oh, Joseph.  Out with the old and in with the new is the campaign slogan they’ve chosen for Jeff.  He’s young and fast with a gun, and Sharon and his mine-owning allies consider him the best the man for the job.”

“Jeff Richards is not the lawman Roy Coffee is, Mr. Cartwright.  Sheriff Coffee has ten times the experience.  I don’t understand why they chose to back Jeff.”

“Well, I agree, and so far the town seems to be leaning toward Roy, but money runs a campaign, Candy.  Richards has backers with money to burn, and they’re bound and determined to have him win this election.  My guess is these men are running scams and swindling the small mine owners and with Jeff’s lack of experience, it may be to their advantage to have an unsophisticated young lawman running the town.”

“So where do we come in, Pa?”

“Well, if all goes well, Hoss should be home later this afternoon, and then we’ll see what needs to be done.  If more men leave to work for Sharon’s . . . well, if worse comes to worse, we’ll have to close down our mine.”

Even though silver mining was a smaller portion of ranch income, it was substantial enough to make a difference.  I knew Pa wouldn’t want to lose those profits, but all we could do now was wait for Hoss to return.

*****

With supper behind us, we’d all moved into the great room, but there was still no sign of Hoss.  Pa held a book in his lap although he hadn’t turned a page in over an hour.  I tended to pace back and forth when I was nervous or upset while Candy stood and poked at the fire causing a sizzling blaze to overheat the room

“Candy?”  Pa said.  “Why don’t you and Joe go outside and get some fresh air?”

Candy’s questioning looked faded to subtle laughter when he realized my father’s meaning.  “Oh, sorry, sir,” he said.  Awkwardly, he replaced the poker.

Although Pa was trying to be tactful, I found it hard to control my laughter as I grabbed Candy’s arm and pulled him with me out the front door.  “Let’s see how Satan likes his new home.”

“Your Pa’s awfully worried about . . . isn’t that Chub?”

I followed Candy’s gaze, and next to the barn doors stood my brother’s horse.  “Pa will be glad to know he’s finally home,” I said.  “Odd he’d leave Chub waiting outside, don’t you think?”  We walked part way together, but I stopped by the corral, deciding I’d stable Satan for the night while we listened to what Hoss had to say.

“I’ll see what he’s up to.  Maybe he sneaked a lady-friend up to the loft.”

“Yeah, I bet that’s it.”  I rolled my eyes, trying to picture Hoss sneaking anything up to the loft.  Heck, big brother didn’t have a sneaky bone in his body.  I slipped a halter over Satan’s head and started toward the barn where a sliver of light dusted the ground with a buttery glow.  “Hoss?”  I called.

Candy stood just inside the barn, looking somewhat bewildered.

“Where’s Hoss?”

“He’s not here, Joe.”

Candy had led Chub inside, but he’d dropped the reins to light the lantern we kept hanging just inside the doors.  Candy held a scrap of paper.  “What’s that?”  I said, looking over his shoulder.

“A note of some sort, I guess.”

“You gonna read it?”

Candy leaned in closer to the light.  “Dear Mr. Cartwright,” he said before glancing up at me.  “If you want to see your son again, I suggest you leave elections and politics to those who know best.  Signed, The People of Virginia City vs. Roy Coffee.”

“Kidnapped?  Hoss?”

“Looks that way, buddy.”

I ran my hand through my hair and glanced quickly toward the house.  “I best tell Pa.”

“I’ll take care of the horses.”

“You’d better saddle three more.”

*****

The road to town was well traveled, but night riding proved menacing at best. Moonlight filtered sparingly between the taller pines, shadowing our ride to Roy Coffee’s office.  We rode shoulder to shoulder, none of us speaking but feeling similar apprehension over Hoss’ dilemma: where had they taken him, how long did they plan to keep him and would there be terms for his release?  This election, which began as a competition between two upstanding lawmen, had gathered momentum over the last few days but something like this?  Hoss?  It just didn’t make sense.

“Saddle the horses,” a clipped comment strained by worry was the only remark my father had made so far.  He’d read and reread the scratchy handwriting before slipping the note in his vest pocket.  Now, with our mounts tied at the hitching point outside Roy’s office, Pa flattened the note on the sheriff’s desk.

“Hoss?”  Roy said, his eyebrows rising higher on his forehead.  “Who’d go and do a thing like this, Ben?”

Candy and I flanked my father, knowing Roy was as unsure as we were.  But here we were, standing in front of letter-of-the-law Coffee, asking questions and demanding answers.  What I wasn’t aware of at the time was my father’s steadfast presumption of who wrote the note and why.

“Who do you think is behind this, Roy?  It’s got to be Sharon and his group of thugs.  He’s a piranha; the man wants it all.  He owns mines and forests and mills, and he’s offered my workers—my miners—more than I can begin to pay, and now he’s holding my son hostage over a dad-blamed city election.”

“You’re sure it’s him?  You’re sure there’s not somethin’ else he—”

Pa’s hand slammed Roy’s desk.  “Read the note, Roy.  It’s gotta be him.”

Roy had read the note when Pa first set it on his desk, and he wasn’t about to humor my father by reading it again.  He pulled his pocket watch from his vest and looked down at the time.  “Almost ten o’clock,” he mumbled.  “Okay, let’s take a trip to Sharon’s, but you let me do the talkin’, ya hear.  You’re too riled up, and I should make you sit here while I go, but if you promise—”

“You’re wasting time, Roy.  Let’s go.”

*****

Light shone through first and second story windows as the four of us rode up to the Sharon mansion.  Pa’s statement had been partially correct.  The banker-owned half of Virginia City; and he was out to own everything he could get his hands on, including the Ponderosa if we didn’t fight to keep what was rightfully ours.

Now that we stood here waiting on the front porch, I leaned back against a tall, white column.  Silly, unimportant matters entered my mind.  I wondered if Hoss had been offered anything to eat.  Nothing riled my brother like missing a meal, and since he’d obviously been caught off guard and taken hostage; the whole incident would do nothing but turn him into one angry bear of a man.  I had no idea where they’d taken him or whether Candy and I should be out searching somewhere near the mine rather than standing here with Pa.  But, riding out this late at night would be a total waste of time. Trying to track in the dark was simply out of the question.

Roy stepped forward and banged the silver doorknocker twice then gave Pa a cursory glance.  “You let me do the talkin’, Ben.”

“For now, you’ve got my word, but don’t expect me—“

A splash of soft creamy light flooded the front porch, and I pushed away from the post to a more formal position behind my father.  “May I help you?”  A young servant girl, dressed in a standard black and white uniform stood in the doorway.

“We’d like a word with Mr. Sharon, Miss.”

As she turned to relay the message, Sharon walked up directly behind her.  “You’re excused, Mary.  I’ll take it from here.”

The banker was around my father’s age with graying hair and sported a large mustache with the same salt and pepper coloring.  He wore a cashmere smoking jacket, which hit him mid-thigh.  He was a man of means and it was no surprise to find him still dressed in his formal city-clothes this late at night.

“We’ve got ourselves a serious matter, Mr. Sharon,” Roy said, “and I’ll come straight to the point.  Hoss Cartwright has been kidnapped.  Now, would you have any knowledge about his sudden disappearance?”

Sharon’s velvet cuffed sleeves caught my eye as he pulled his own pocket watch from his vest and looked back at Roy.  “Good Lord, Sheriff.  Have you any idea what time it is?”

“I do, but I also know a man’s life is at stake, and I’m lookin’ for answers.”

“Not tonight, Sheriff.  My wife has taken ill, and I don’t have time to stand around discussing one of Ben Cartwright’s sons.”

“Listen here, Sharon.”  Pa’s voice was firm as he pushed past Roy and took center stage.

“No, you listen, Ben.  I have no idea if your son’s disappeared or not, and frankly, I really don’t care.  Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ll be in my office by 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.  If you care to rattle on about this ridiculous matter, Sheriff, that’s where you’ll find me.  Goodnight, gentlemen.”

The door slammed shut and without facts or proof of any kind, Roy turned back to Pa and shrugged his shoulders in defeat.  “Ain’t nothin’ more we can do tonight, Ben.  I’m sorry.”

I reached for my father’s shoulder, felt the corded tension and gave a gentle squeeze. “Candy and I’ll ride out first thing in the morning, Pa.  Come on, let’s go home.”

*****

Candy saddled the horses at daybreak while I talked nonsense to Satan for a couple of minutes before it was time to leave.  I wanted nothing more than to gentle my new horse, but I reminded myself patience was a virtue, words I’d heard since the day I was born. The horse would still be here, rambunctious as ever after we brought my brother home.

“Where do you wanna start, Joe?”

“Boy, I’m not really sure, but let’s ride up to the mine first and talk to the men.  Maybe someone knows something we don’t.”

The thought of my brother dragging himself home after being kidnapped wasn’t very likely to happen, and although I’d asked Pa to stay home just in case, I knew he’d ride into town soon after Candy and I were on our way.  After last night’s talk with Sharon, I figured Pa would work himself into a lather, and he’d be beating down Roy’s office door, wanting answers to questions the sheriff didn’t have to give.

The Ponderosa’s only working mine was normally only a half-hour ride, but Candy and I had to slow the pace over trails of slippery mud and shale due to heavy rain during the night.  Spring showers were common in this area.  The underbrush would grow like crazy this time of year and then barely remain alive during our dry, hot summers. Mudslides were often a worry although never really a concern on the Ponderosa.  Pa had set a precedent early on that only so many trees would be felled in order to keep the land intact as God intended.

We checked for signs along the way; anything that might look out of place or show the possibility of a struggle, but so far there was nothing to go on.  My brother was a big man, and if he’d been dragged off his horse, we’d know.  “We’ll leave the horses here and walk in,” I said to Candy as we topped the ridge.

The mine was on the backside of the canyon, and I wanted to take a look-see before anyone knew we were close-by.  And so, we climbed until we could see Mike, our longtime foreman, heading out of the tunnel and toward one of the cabins where we housed the men who preferred to stay full-time on the mountain.  Everything seemed in order from our vantage point about thirty feet above; the steady sound of pumping and the hammering of drills was commonplace, and that’s exactly what we were hearing.

“Okay, let’s walk down, but you take the back side, and I’ll head straight in.”

“You expectin’ trouble, Joe?”

“No . . . cautious, I guess.  Let’s just say I like havin’ someone coverin’ my back.”

Candy climbed around the side of the ridge before me.  I gave him a couple of minute’s head start before I approached the foreman and began asking questions. “Hey, Mike,” I called out as I walked up to the small clearing in front of the mine.

With a clipboard in one hand, he turned his head and reached out to shake my hand.  “Mr. Cartwright.  What brings you up the mountain?”

“Oh, just checking things out.”

He started to laugh.  “Your brother was just by here yesterday.  I told him we’d lost a couple men to Sharon’s mines, but we were still holdin’ our own.”

“I guess two’s not the end of the world.  Anymore threatening to leave?”

“Well, most fella’s here don’t like the way Sharon runs his operation.  At times, men threaten to leave for better pay but by the end of the day, their yammerin’ stops.  They stick around cuz of your Pa.  The miners know Sharon might lay ‘em off after a week’s time.  Your Pa ain’t like that.  He’s always been a fair man.”

I nodded.  Mike Gentry was a good man, a fair man, too, and though I never considered he’d have anything to do with Hoss’ disappearance, now I was completely certain.  “What time did my brother leave?”

“Just after lunch, I guess.  Me and the boys talked him into hangin’ around and eatin’ chuck wagon food, and he didn’t seem to mind the offer.  Sat right down with us and ate twice as much as any man here.”

“Sounds like Hoss,” I chuckled.  I hadn’t even thought of what I’d ask Mike before I rode up, and I wasn’t sure where to go from here.  “So there was no trouble, no reason to think Hoss would . . . I don’t know, be upset about anything?”

“Ain’t sure what you’re gettin’ at, Mr. Cartwright.  Like I said, we’re okay for now.  Can’t lose many more men, but your brother seemed satisfied when he left.  Said he’d try and round up a couple more fellers in town.”

I slapped Mike on the shoulder.  “Thanks for the information.”

“Somethin’ wrong, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Plenty wrong, Mike.  Hoss never made it home.”

When I met Candy back by the horses, I told him the miners were clear of any suspicious behavior, and Pa was probably right all along.  It had to be Sharon but to kidnap someone over an election was just plain ludicrous.  There had to be more to the story and one way or the other we’d find the underlying cause although right now I was at a loss.  I didn’t know which way to turn.

“What now?”  Candy asked.

“I don’t know.  I don’t even know where to start looking.  Hoss could be anywhere; hold up in town or in some line shack or . . . where the hell do we begin?”

“Take it easy, buddy.  He’s around somewhere giving someone a whole lotta grief.  Hoss ain’t one to just sit back and give up.  They’ve got their hands full with your brother.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Candy knew the right words to say.  I was anxious and frightened for Hoss and it was beginning to show through the tough exterior I tried to hide behind.  I’d pretty much kept my worry and frustration from getting the best of me, but where to start looking was anyone’s guess.

“There’s a line shack a couple miles from here,” I said.  “Let’s try there first.”

*****

By late afternoon and with no luck whatsoever, Candy and I rode into the yard empty-handed.  We were tired and the horses had given their all, trekking up and down steep mountainsides through endless trails of mud.  But we each pulled up short, and I squinted my eyes at the vision before me.  After glancing at Candy, I returned my focus to the front porch and the rocking chair moving back and forth.

“Hey, Joe, Candy.  What took you so long?”

“What in tarnation?”

I glanced at Candy again and saw the same stunned look reflected back.  Candy pushed his hat back on his head, crossed his hands over his pommel and shrugged.  Hoss stood and walked toward the two of us.  We remained sitting in our saddles, staring in disbelief.

“Guess you’re kinda surprised to see me.”

“You guessed right, brother.”

Pa waltzed out the front door with a smile on his face and came to stand next to Hoss. My oversized brother dug his hands deep in his pockets, the toe of his boot scrapping crossways through the muddy yard.  He looked up at me with a rather sheepish grin.

“What’s this all about?”  I asked.  “Just what am I missing here?”

“Why don’t you two stable your horses and come inside,” Pa said.  “Hop Sing just took a cherry pie out of the oven.”

Hoss’ eyes lit up at the mention of pie as if nothing else in his life mattered.  Still not catching on to this whole charade, Candy and I dismounted and cared for our horses then marched into the house for a much-needed explanation.  It’s as though I was lost in some kind of dream where only yesterday, Hoss was kidnapped and now he was home and unscathed and everything was back to normal.  I tossed my hat on the credenza and didn’t bother with my jacket or gunbelt just yet.  Candy did the same.

“Okay.  Why aren’t you still kidnapped?”

Hoss smiled, and in a deep voice, he spouted out nonsense.  “I was, Joe, but I’m stronger’n I look.”

Candy and I took our usual seats at the table where Hop Sing quickly served coffee and hot cherry pie.  I pushed my plate away.  “I don’t want pie,” I said pointedly,  “I want an explanation.”

Hoss glanced at Pa.  “I already gave you an explanation, little brother, but I guess you want details too, am I right?”

“That’d be nice, that’s if you can spare the time.”

“Well, you see I was kidnapped, but I ain’t no more.”  Hoss was smiling like a Cheshire cat, but Pa saw the look on my face and nodded for him to go on before I tore my brother apart.

“Ya see, Joseph, I was ridin’ home yesterday from the mine when a couple of men, not sure whose men they were, but there was two of ‘em, and one of their horses went lame so they asked if I knew anything about horses.”  Hoss hesitated, and I was clearly ready to choke him for dragging this story out.  “This is where I kinda messed up cuz I let ‘em get the best of me while I was knelt down checkin’ out the mare’s fetlock.”

“Yeah?”  I said.  “Then what?”

“As I said, Joe, they got the best of me.  They pulled their guns, tied me up, and made me ride to one of our line shacks.  Well, weren’t long ‘fore they got bored and said they’d be back sometime later.  I think they was headed to the saloon, but I didn’t wait around to find out.”

“So how’d you get away?”  Candy said, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms loosely over his chest.

“Them guys weren’t the brightest, Candy.  I got the ropes loose, and I found Chubby tied up outside the cabin, and I rode home pretty as you please.”

Hoss picked up his fork, shoved a half a piece of pie in his mouth, and smiled at Candy and me as he cut off the next bite.  Hesitating from gorging himself for only a minute he continued.  “Someone’s gonna be a mite upset when they see I ain’t there, and I ain’t nowhere to be found.  So, as you can plainly see, Joseph, I ain’t kidnapped no more.”

I shook my head and glanced at Candy.  “All that worry for nothin’.”

“Awe, Joe.  Was you really worried about ol’ Hoss?”

“I’ll never tell,” I said, shaking my head.

“Thanks, little brother.  It means a lot to know you care.”

“Fine.  I care.”

“Good.  Now, can I have your piece of pie?”

*****

Days passed and Pa was back on the campaign trail.  The election was less than a week away and even with the sheriff’s numbers climbing ahead of Jeff ‘s, Pa felt it was still necessary to drum up votes for Roy.  No more of our miners had quit to run off to Sharon’s mines and it seemed life, as we knew it, had returned to normal.

I took some time off to work with Satan while Hoss and Candy rode out to check fence in the north pasture.  Hoss never mentioned the kidnapping again.  It was over and done with and though we never found out who was behind it, Pa was hesitant to sweep the whole incident under the rug.  He didn’t say much, but he kept a watchful eye and made frequent trips into town to talk with Roy about Sharon and the other miners who backed Jeff Richards for sheriff.

Satan and I worked together for about an hour before I reached in my pants pocket for some of Hop Sing’s sugar.  I laid my hand out flat for my new stallion.  He was shy at first, but he finally licked my hand clean then bumped his velvety nose against my chest as if asking for more.  “Next time, big fella.  Right now you’re going back in your stall.”  I guided him toward the barn with the new bit I’d tried for the first time today.  He wasn’t happy at first, but the sugar made up for the minor discomfort.

I’d walked straight through the barn, leading Satan to his stall.  It was as I turned to leave, I saw a new note nailed to an upright post.  The handwriting was the same, crude but legible, another missive written out for our benefit.  I tore it down from the wooden beam.

Dear Mr. Cartwright,

Perhaps we picked the wrong son.  You’ve become a nuisance, and we can’t allow you to stand in the way of progress.  Keep your eyes on your youngest son.  He’ll be next in line if you fail to terminate your campaign for Roy Coffee.

Signed, The People of Virginia City vs. Roy Coffee

I reread the note, but I wasn’t about to set Pa to worrying again.  I was their target now, and it wasn’t just Sharon like Pa originally thought.  The note said we, so I had to figure there was a group of men heading up these scare tactics.  I folded the paper and stuffed it into my jacket pocket.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with this time around so if and when they grabbed me like they’d grabbed Hoss, I’d be ready.  I might even get a kick out of watching their faces when I beat them at their own game.

It was too late to meet up with Hoss and Candy so I took pleasure in spending the remainder of the afternoon on the front porch, doing nothing but wondering when my captors to show their faces.  Like Hoss, I rocked back and forth and stared into space just waiting.  Of course, it was highly unlikely to expect these men to ride straight up to the house and haul me off to some mysterious destination, but I was content to bide my time and waste away the remainder of the afternoon.

Pa was in town, and it was nearly five o’clock before Hoss and Candy rode into the yard. Between the warm sun on my face and the lemonade and cookies Hop Sing had brought out an hour or so ago, I was half asleep when I heard their mounts circling the side of the barn.  But, I managed to push myself up from the chair and make my way off the porch to say hello.

“You two finish the fencing?”  I asked as I strolled through the double doors of the barn.

“Sure did, little brother.  While you was nappin’, me and Candy put in a full day’s work.”

“Good.  That’s what I like to hear.”

“Pa home yet?”  Hoss asked as he hefted his saddle off Chub.

“Nope.  I’m sure he and Roy are still hanging posters and talking to everyone they can get their hands on.”

“Yeah,” Hoss said with a chuckle.  “Guess my kidnappin’ didn’t slow ‘em down much, did it?”

“Don’t make light, Hoss,” Candy said.  “You’re Pa was pretty upset after we found that note.”

“Yeah, I know.  Still no word on who done it though is there?”

“Maybe Pa’ll find out something today,” I said.  “He and Roy have all the time in the world to figure this out.”

“Speak of the devil,” Candy whispered.

“Oh, hi, Pa,” I said, turning to greet my father.  “We were just talking about you.”

“I hope you were discussing who’d put my horse up for the night,” Pa said wearily.

“How’d you know?”  I replied.

“Thank you, son,” Pa said, clapping me on the back.  “I hope Hop Sing’s got supper ready.  I’m beat.”

“Yeah, I kinda worked up an appetite myself.”  I pat my stomach.

“How?”  Hoss said.  “Sittin’ on your behind all day?”

“If you must know, I put in a—“

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Do a good job with Buck, little brother,” Hoss said, slapping me on the back as he walked out of the barn.  “We’ll see you inside when you’re done.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  Even Pa knew I’d sloughed off most of the day, which is why I was the only one left with a chore to finish before supper.

I tended to Buck and reached for the last of the sugar in my pocket.  “Here, big fella,” I said, laying my hand out to my new stallion.  Cochise whinnied in the adjoining stall and suddenly, I felt like a traitor, a turncoat, a horrible human being.  I slipped into Cooch’s stall and scratched him hard between the ears.  “You’ll always be my first love, you know that.”  I patted his neck, closed the barn doors and headed toward the house.

The rifle shot sounded distant, but the force of the bullet dropped me to my knees.  My breath hitched through clenched teeth as I tried to rise up and steady one foot under me. Keeping my eyes on the house, the porch, the front door, they all seemed so far away.

As I rose to both feet, the front door flew open.  I felt relief seeing Pa and Hoss on their way.  I breathed in deeply, but before I took a step; a second explosion of gunfire spun me sideways, doubling me in half before my feet went out from under me a second time.  The soft cushion of mud cooled my face as a flood of red-hot fire burned its way across my back, moving with elongated fingers through my body halting any further movement.

I stared at the empty corral; relieved to know Cochise and Satan had been put away for the night.  And when a cool breeze swept across my face, I shivered slightly, but when my father’s hand clenched my shoulder, I flinched and tried to move away.  “Easy, son, I’m right here.”  Words I’d heard before, but a comfort all the same.

The steely, gray sky canopied the earth then dropped its ashen veil to envelop me in darkness.  My eyelids dipped then closed when my brother anchored me against his chest, mumbling nonsense words, healing words.  I was safe now, safe from evil, safe in my brother’s arms.

*****

Ben

“Ride for Paul, Candy, and hurry!  Joe’s been shot twice in the back.”

“On my way, Mr. Cartwright.”

Why wasn’t I watching out; why did I leave him alone?  Why wasn’t one son enough for these people?  “Easy, Hoss, easy now.”

“I got him, Pa.”

When I touched Joe’s shoulder, assuring him I was by his side, his lips moved slightly, though he never made a sound.  “I’ve sent for Paul,” I said.  “You’ll be fine, Joseph.  Just hang on now; your brother’s got you.”

With care, we’d rolled Joe to his back so Hoss could get a better hold, and with one knee pressed to the ground; he scooped Joe up into his arms.  And when Joe’s head seemed unsteady, I rushed to settle him against his brother’s broad chest.

The front door stood open and although I hollered, Hop Sing was two steps ahead of me. He’d started the water boiling on the stove and was carrying a tray of medical supplies upstairs to Joe’s room.  Hoss followed behind, and I felt a keen sense of panic wash over me, knowing my son’s wounds were life-threatening and time was critical.

This wasn’t the first time Joe had been injured nor would it be the last, but my heart ached with that sense of dread only a father could appreciate.  A father’s duty is to protect his children, and I’d failed to protect mine.  The warning had been plain and clear; the warning to back off, but I‘d failed to comply, and I’d carried on with the campaign.  Like a fool, I’d thrown caution to the wind.

Only yesterday, we had joked about the kidnapping, and the only reason joking seemed possible was in the way Hoss retold the story to Joe.  It was Hoss’ way of downplaying what could have been a very grave situation had he not been safe at home to spin a serious yarn into a light-hearted comedy.

We were facing another crisis now.  Joe’s life hung in the balance, and I found myself blinking back tears as Hoss placed my youngest son down on the bed so gently and with such care, I doubt Joe even knew he’d left his brother’s arms.

“What now, Pa?”

Hoss was my rock, my sounding board when I needed him most.  He was here with me now, a blessed comfort during any crisis.  “Let’s . . . try to get him undressed, son.  Careful now . . .”

Through heavy eyelids, Joe fought the tomb of unconsciousness.  My son was in severe pain, and what I had to do next would only add to his misery.  Time was slipping by; we had to stop the flow of blood or we’d lose him before Candy returned with Paul.  Joe’s tongue dragged across his lips, trying to coax words that wouldn’t come.  I leaned over the bed, reassuring him with a single touch, skimming the palm of my hand along his cheek.  “Easy, Joe.  Doctor’s on his way.”  I turned to Hoss when Joe’s head lulled sideways against the pillow.  “Help me with his jacket, son.”

It seemed to take a lifetime before we were able to remove enough clothing and roll Joe onto his belly.  His soft linen sheets were stained a coppery red and for a moment, I had to close my eyes and turn my head before I could begin to tend his wounds.

Hop Sing had set a bowl of warm water on Joe’s nightstand.  I wrung out a cloth and pressed it to the first wound high on my son’s shoulder while Hoss wrung out a second cloth and handed it to me.  I switched to the second wound about five inches lower than the first.

Although deep enough to cause infection, the first slug seemed to skim the surface, a dark, reddened burn across Joe’s tanned skin after working months in the summer sun. My son prided himself is his physique, his muscular torso came at a price, hard earned, some might say.  That slender boy, who couldn’t gain an ounce, now sported a man’s body, wide at the shoulders and narrowing dramatically at his hips.

The second wound was a completely different story.  Torn skin, darkened by the bullet’s entry, radiated heat, and after seeing Joe’s jacket and the amount of blood, I wasn’t sure what Paul would run into as he removed the bullet from my son’s body.

Joseph lay motionless, his body struggling for every shallow breath, fighting to stay alive so someday we could make jokes about . . . “God, where the hell was Paul?  I glanced up at Hoss who’d pushed Joe’s curtain aside and was staring out the window, waiting.

“Doc’s here, Pa.”

*****

Joseph’s recovery was out of my hands.  The outcome was in God’s, and I was only a bystander, only a father who cherished his sons more than land or wealth or power or any political election in Virginia City.  I’d been a fool not to heed the warning.

Paul Martin had done all he could.  He’d surgically removed the bullet, but his face remained grim as he cleaned his instruments and placed them back in his bag.  I needed reassurance more than anything, but when Paul finally spoke, his words were clipped, not at all satisfying, not what a father wanted to hear.

“We’ll just have to wait and see, Ben.”

I’d heard those words before but as always, I hoped for a better prognosis.  “Joe will recover nicely, Ben.  All he needs now is rest and plenty of Hop Sing’s broth.”  But that wasn’t Paul’s prediction this time, and his assessment of the situation was less than encouraging.  My heart ached; I felt numb inside.  “When will he come to?”  I asked.  A silly question, but I was at a loss for words.

“Hard to say, Ben.  The second bullet was deep and . . . let’s just say, Joe will feel a great deal of pain when he wakes so let’s hope he remains sleeping for a while longer.  It’s the best thing for him right now.”

Candy and Hoss overheard our conversation but made no comment of their own.  Each stood just inside Joe’s bedroom door, wanting to be helpful but knowing there was nothing either could say or do to ease the recovery process or reassure a worried father over his youngest son’s outcome.  I glanced toward both men and forced a smile.  “Why don’t you two have Hop Sing fix you something to eat.  I’ll stay here with Joe.”

Reluctantly, they turned to leave.  Paul closed his bag and extended his hand.  I held on tight with both hands and nodded my thanks.  “Thank you, Paul.  I know you’ve done your best.”

Paul features mirrored my own, forced because there was nothing more he could do or say.  All we could do was wait.  “I’ll check back in the morning.  Let’s those boys take over so you can rest, too.”

*****

Evening gave way to night where worry and lack of sleep brought morbid thoughts of various ways a man’s life could slip away before morning’s light.  But I was wide-awake, alert to every subtle movement, every gentle whimper my son made.  The night, which proved to be one of the longest I’d ever spent, checking for fever and staring at a face, shadowed in darkness, brought on outlandish images I fought to control.  I had to rest my eyes; I needed a minute of respite if I was going to make it until morning.

Rain fell softly; black umbrellas crowded together in a semi-circle.  Hoss held tight to my arm; the support needed to keep me from crumbling to the ground.  Dressed in black, the patter of rain had spotted my freshly polished boots.  My hands were folded in front of me as I bowed my head and listened to meaningless words drift across the hillside of Joe’s final resting place.  The service was over, and as friends and neighbors lowered a burnished, mahogany casket deep into unearthed soil . . .

My body jerked awake.  “No!”  I cried.  Scrubbing my hands over my face, I realized I’d drifted off to sleep.  I reached for my son’s arm, dismissing my fragmented state of mind. My heart pounded relentlessly; my breathing erratic as if I’d taken a bullet in the back myself.

Joe remained nearly motionless.  He never cried out in pain although noticeable facial expressions signaled signs of distress.  I had begged off anyone taking my place and had sent Hoss and Candy to bed.  But, by morning’s light, they’d both returned, asking questions though I had no definite answers.

“How is he, Pa?”

I thought back to my dream and quickly, I shook the memory from my mind.  “Holdin’ his own for now, son.”  I tried to sound upbeat, thinking of all the times I’d instructed my sons on keeping a positive attitude.  Hoss laid his hand on my shoulder, and I felt a gentle squeeze before he spoke again.

“Time you got some rest, Pa.”

Hoss was right of course, but how could I leave Joseph?  How could he open his eyes if I wasn’t there beside him?  How could he know I’d prayed all night for him to call my name or to make any sound at all?  How could he know how much I needed him in my life if I slipped away from his bedside and left him alone?  I shook my head, what a foolish old man I’d become.  I stood from the chair slowly, wondering when age had become a factor.  I was stiff and sore, and I casually straightened to full height and stretched out my back and neck.  I smiled at my big, caring son, but I couldn’t honor his request.  “I’m fine,” I said, using Joe’s famous line.  “If you’ll bring me a cup of coffee, I’d be most grateful.”

My boys were older now, and they knew when to argue the point and when to let matters drop.  The latter won out, and Hoss left the room and would return with steaming-hot coffee.  But Candy stepped forward as if he had something on his mind.

“Mr. Cartwright?” he said tentatively.

“Yes?”

“I’m not sure whether this is important or not, but is there any reason Jeff Richards would be riding out this way yesterday?”

I thought for a minute, but a reasonable answer failed me.  “No, I can’t imagine what business he’d have.  Why do you ask?”

“Well, I tried to sort it out on my own but like you, I couldn’t think of a reason either.”

I shrugged my shoulders and tried to come up with a logical explanation as to why Roy’s deputy would be riding across Ponderosa land.  “What exactly are you inferring, Candy?”

“Guess I was just thinking out loud, Mr. Cartwright.  Maybe I’m way off track.”

I glanced down at Joe, still pale and unmoving and tried to make sense of Candy’s rather disturbing statement.  “Did you tell Jeff what happened to Joe?”

“I didn’t exactly talk to him.  I just noticed him up on Sailor’s Ridge when I went for the doc.”

“Did you see Roy when you went for Paul?”

“No, Sir.  I didn’t want to waste time tracking him down, but I’m sure Doc’s filled him in by now, don’t you think?”

“Yes, I’m sure he—“

Candy and I both looked up as Hoss entered the room, surprising us both when Roy Coffee walked in with him.  “Morning, Roy.  I assume you’ve heard about Joseph.”

“I heard all right.  Paul came by my office and told me late last night, but I figgered there weren’t nothin’ I could do till this morning.  How’s Little Joe?”

“Why don’t we move this conversation downstairs.”  It was more of a statement than a question.  “Hoss?  Will you stay with your brother till I get back?”

“Sure, Pa.”

*****

Jeff Richards quickly became my number one suspect even though it seemed highly unlikely he’d have anything to do with Hoss’ kidnapping and especially yesterday’s shooting.  Joe and Jeff were friends, had been for years.  There had to be some logical explanation, but what?  Jeff was a good kid—a man actually—and to even consider he’d take shots at Joe was positively absurd.

“I should let Candy tell you this, Roy, but I’ll go ahead and explain.” Candy stood by the fireplace and when I glanced up, he nodded his head in agreement.  “Did you send your deputy out this way yesterday afternoon?”

“No,” Roy answered.  “But the boy looked kinda sheepish when he come in yesterday mornin’, and I finally asked him if somethin’ was botherin’ him.”

“And?”  I said.

“He said his backers wanted to meet with him in the afternoon to discuss the campaign. Well, you and I’ve spent time workin’ on my campaign durin’ office hours so I thought it was only fair I let the kid talk to them people who’s supportin’ him.  I had no problem with him leavin’.  No one sittin’ in my jail and nothin’ much goin’ on.  I told him to go ahead.  Told him I could handle things ‘round the office for the rest of the day.  So, I ain’t seen him since maybe . . . oh, noon yesterday.  Why ya askin’?”

I never knew anyone like Roy Coffee.  He could turn a simple question into a novel and leave you wondering what your question was in the first place.  “I think he’s the one who shot Joseph,” I said, trying to get Roy back on track.

Roy’s eyes narrowed and his mouth gaped open like a hooked fish when I revealed what Candy and I surmised just minutes ago but had not actually put into words.  I could tell by the look on his face, he was hard-pressed to think his young deputy would be involved in either attempt on my sons’ lives.

“I’m havin’ a hard time believin’ this, Ben.  Jeff’s not the type of man who’d shoot a friend or try a kidnappin’ for any reason, much less to win the title of sheriff.”

“I know, Roy.  I would have thought that too, but now I’m wondering what reason he’d have for riding this far out from town.  His backers all live within the city limits.  It makes no sense.”

“No, but—“

“Then what was your deputy doing on the Ponderosa?”

“There’s got to be an explanation.  I’ll talk to him when I get back to town and straighten all this out.  Far as I knew Jeff and Joe was good friends.  I think you’re way off base here, Ben.”

“Well, if it was Jeff, he had to have help.  There’s no way he could have hauled Hoss to a line—“

“Pa?”  Hoss hollered before racing down the stairs with a paper in his hand.  “Found this in Joe’s jacket pocket.”  He handed me a folded piece of paper.  I read through once then reread it aloud.”

 

“Dear Mr. Cartwright,

Perhaps we picked the wrong son.  You’ve become a nuisance, and we can’t allow you to stand in the way of progress.  Keep your eyes on the youngest Cartwright.  He’ll be the next in line if you fail to terminate your campaign for Roy Coffee.

Signed, The People of Virginia City vs. Roy Coffee”

I handed the paper to Roy and without commenting, Hoss left us alone and headed back upstairs to sit with Joe. Roy shook his head, rereading the message after I’d read it aloud. “Blasted election,” he said, fingering his mustache with his thumb and forefinger. “When did Little Joe get this?”

“It’s the first time I’ve seen it; I honestly don’t know.”  I glanced at Candy, who had remained leaning against the fireplace with his arms crossed in front of his chest but had remained silent during Roy’s and my discussion concerning Jeff.  He dug his hands into his pockets and shrugged his shoulders.

“I don’t know either, Mr. Cartwright.  Joe didn’t say anything to Hoss and me when we rode in yesterday afternoon.”

Roy stood from the settee.  “Well, since I can’t get nothin’ outta Joe this mornin’, I’m gonna see what I can find out about Jeff.  Sheriffin’ is still my job, Ben, and if it’s the last thing I do while I’m sworn to this office, I’ll find out who tried to murder Little Joe.”

*****

Hoss and I traded place.  I returned to sit with Joe as soon as Roy headed back to town, and rather than leaving the house or yard, I asked Hoss and Candy to stick close by in case Joe took a turn for the worse.  “But watch your back . . . both of you.”  It’s not that I couldn’t tend Joe by myself, and there was always enough work to keep an army busy for weeks on end, but I didn’t want either of my sons out of my sight, not until this ridiculous election was over.

Paul drove into the yard only minutes after Roy took off, and the boys told him where to find me.  I had just started bathing Joe’s forehead when the doctor tapped twice on the open door before walking in.  “I see you haven’t moved since last night,” Paul said after placing his black bag on Joe’s table.

“What did you expect?  I should be dancing a jig while my boy refuses to wake up or give any sign of life?”

Paul’s hand slipped across my shoulder.  “It takes time, Ben, but I’ll hold you to that jig when Joe’s well and back to work.”

“Pa . . .”

Joe’s voice was raspy and the word was barely whispered, but I smiled at Paul and silently voiced words of my own.  Thank, God.  “I’m right here, son.”  I slid Joe’s limp hand from the bed and held it firmly between both of mine.  “The doctor’s here too.”

Joe ran his tongue across his lips.  “Thirsty,” he mumbled.

I glanced at Paul, and he reached for the pitcher and a glass.

“Can we move him?”  I asked, almost afraid to touch, to damage my son even more.

“Not much, Ben; let me help.”

We were able to get small sips of water down him although most ended up on the sheets, which remained saturated with my son’s dried blood.  With such a severe injury, Paul suggested we leave well enough alone last night, that Joe was our main concern, not clean linens.  Later, when Joe could be moved, we’d worry about stripping the bed.

But the sight of so much blood and my son’s pale, lifeless body was a testament to how desperately he’d fought to stay alive.  He could have succumbed in the night, but not Joseph, not my boy.  He’d fought his way back and when Paul nodded his head and smiled, I knew the worst was over.  No infection so far and only a slight fever, which was normal.  I thanked God for giving Joe a second chance, a chance to outlive his father.

By noon, he was asking to sit up and with Hoss’ help; we stacked pillows and propped him back against his headboard.  I saw to his needs, private and otherwise, trying not to cause him undue embarrassment and, though we’d been this route before, I prayed this would be the last time my boy would have to be cared for in this fashion. Although his pride was at stake, he chose to look the other way and let me deal with the necessities of life.

“Hoss found the note in your jacket,” I said, thinking Joe might be ready to talk.  “Did you see anyone?  Hear anyone before you were shot?”

“No,” he said softly, but I noticed his hands slowly knotting into fists.  “Just the shots.”

I explained the talk I’d had with Roy, and Joe gave me a surprised look when I mentioned Jeff Richards.  A reserved grin altered his facial expression, and he shook his head.  “I don’t think so, Pa.  You’re just grabbin’ at straws.  There’s no way . . .”

“We have no better explanation for Jeff being on the Ponderosa, son.”

“Jeff?  Come on, Pa, you know Jeff.  Maybe he was fishing for leads about the kidnapping or maybe . . . I don’t know.  Maybe he was fishing for real.  His favorite fishin’ hole’s on the Ponderosa.”

I didn’t say more.  Joe thought highly of Jeff, and this wasn’t the time to burden him with thoughts of betrayal.  They often shared conversation over a beer in the saloon and now, I’d sprung this devastating news on him when he was weak and vulnerable and couldn’t dig up any facts of his own.  I spoke too soon.  I knew that now, and I regretted saying anything at all.

“We may be way off base, son, in fact, I hope we are,” I said, trying to ease Joe’s anxiety. No more was said.  I handed Joe a glass of water, and he drank his fill before settling back down in his bed to rest.  I straightened the covers over his shoulders and waited for him to fall asleep before leaving his room.

I looked a sight; it was time to clean up some and change into a fresh set of clothes.  And then I remembered the dried blood, covering my son’s bed, but I quickly shook those thoughts away . . . tomorrow, hopefully, tomorrow.

It wasn’t until the next morning when Joe was able to move from the bed to the chair so we could have Hop Sing change the soiled linens.  “Burn ‘em,” I said after seeing the magnitude of the coppery stain—life’s blood—that had drained from my son’s body while Hoss and I struggled to care for him the only way we knew how.  The mattress would have to go too but for now, it would be flipped over until I could order a new one from the mercantile.

By day three, barefooted, and with his shirt unbuttoned, hanging loosely over his trousers, Joe made it down the stairs on his own and eased himself onto the settee. While I stood from my desk and offered him a cup of coffee, we talked briefly—ranch business and Hoss and Candy’s whereabouts—but never about Jeff.  I didn’t broach the subject and neither did Joe.  He needed time to sort things out, and that was fine.  I wasn’t going to push.

He remained for only a short time before returning upstairs to lie down.  I wondered if it was simply his injuries, causing him to seek time alone or whether it was lingering thoughts of his longtime friend that plagued his mind.

*****

Roy rode out late that afternoon, and I offered him a seat alongside my desk where I’d been shuffling through papers for the last hour and watching for Joseph to make another appearance at the top of the stairs.  Hop Sing brought fresh coffee, and the Virginia City sheriff explained what we’d all hoped would not be true.

“I hate sayin’ this, Ben, but you were right about my deputy.”  My insides crumbled at Roy’s initial statement.  I didn’t even want to think how Joe would react.  “It was him all right.  He confessed this mornin’ to arrangin’ Hoss’ kidnappin’ and takin’ shots at Joe. Said he’d left them handwritten notes too.”

“Oh, Roy,” I sighed.

“Now I know he and Little Joe was friends and all, and I’m sure Little Joe’s gonna take this hard but if it’s any consolation, Jeff asked me to apologize, and he sent along this note for Joe to read.”

“Why, Roy?  Why go to this extent just to win an election?”

“I don’t know, Ben,” Roy said, resigned to the fact we’d all misjudged Jeff Richards.  He rubbed the back of his neck as if trying to smooth away the tightness brought on by the confession of kidnapping and attempted murder.

“Apologize?  Little late for that, isn’t it?”  I grumbled.

“He ain’t a bad boy, in fact, he’s been a big help to me over the past couple years, maybe the best deputy I ever had.  But, he finally came out and said his backers had pressured him to win the race.  Said he’d been paid by these men, and there’d be more than sheriff’s pay linin’ his pockets if he won the election.”

“Greed, Roy.  Plain and simple.”

“Yeah, but I almost felt sorry for him, Ben.  Them men ruined that boy.  His whole life is ruined.  You know how they are.  You know how they treat their workers, and I s’pose they encouraged Jeff and promised him the world, and you know as well as I how a man’s ego can get him in all kinds of trouble.”

“Yes . . . I know.”  Roy was right; I’d seen this kind of thing happen before.  I’d even seen my son’s battle with their own self-image from time to time.

“I suspect it’s Sharon and McKay, possibly Fair and O’Brien too, but I’ll get proof.  Believe you me.  This ain’t over yet.”

“I appreciate that, Roy.”

“Them’s all underhanded connivers, Ben, and they want everything, includin’ my badge. They wanna own this town, and I believe they thought Jeff Reynolds was their man; their ticket to all them dishonest schemes they been tryin’ to pull with half the citizens of Virginia City.”

“Jeff,” I said, shaking my head after listening to Roy’s explanation.  Even though he’d been the first and only suspect, I was having a hard time digesting the fact.  “I guess that’s how it is with some men, Roy.  The young man let himself get sidetracked and taken in by smooth-talking businessmen out to inflate his ego and promise him that virtual pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”

Roy nodded.  “You know what comes next, don’t you.  You know it’s up to Hoss and Little Joe to press charges.  I’ll hold Jeff in my jail till Joe’s ready, but I can’t hold him forever. How is the boy anyway?”

I smiled when Roy called my son a boy.  Joe was twenty-eight years old, hardly a boy, but a man who had to make a tough decision about a lifelong friend.  “I’ll talk to him this evening and give you an answer tomorrow.  Is that soon enough?”

“That’s fine.  If I should win this election, well, guess I’m kind of a shoo-in now, I’ll have to be lookin’ for a new deputy to take Jeff’s place.”

“Yeah, I guess you will,” I said, clapping Roy on the back as we walked toward the front door.  “Um, what if Joe and Hoss don’t press charges?  What happens then?”

“You know as well as I do, Ben Cartwright.  I’ll have to set him free.”

*****

Joseph, my overly sensitive son, whose heart swells with compassion for people he considers friends, will have a difficult time accepting what I have to say.  Slowly, I climbed the stairs, organizing my thoughts and, quite honestly, fearing Joe’s reaction. Jeff’s fall from grace would hit him hard but pressing charges would be his decision alone.  Whereas Hoss had freed himself from his assailants, I doubt the courts would consider a long sentence, but attempted murder was an entirely different story.

“You’re awake,” I said with a smile.

“Yeah, kinda hungry too.”

“Hop Sing will bring something soon, but I need to talk to you first.”

“Oh?  What’s up?  Hoss tired of doing my chores?”

“No complaints so far.  Although, against my better judgment, I had Hoss and Candy ride out this morning and finish clearing that ditch that’s been plugged up for several days now.  They should be back soon.”

“I’m sure they were thrilled.”

“Yes, I’m sure they were.  Joe—” I said, sitting down on the edge of the bed and folding my hands in my lap.  It didn’t take much for my son to realize what I was about to say. “Roy was here this afternoon and—“

His reaction was instant.  “Was it Jeff?”

I sighed and nodded my head.  “I’m afraid he’s already confessed, and he’s sitting in a cell right now, waiting for you and Hoss to press charges.”

There was no immediate exchange, nor was there an eruption of fury or anger over the senseless event, initiating a significant amount pain and misery over the past couple of days.  One shot might have been considered an accident, but twice in the back proved a man was determined to kill.  What I saw instead was a look of grief, the betrayal of a friend.  Joe’s eyes remained hooded, his body as rigid as stone.  Tears would not be shed in my presence, but tears may come during the night when my son was completely alone.

I felt detached somehow as though the sun’s last rays, casting lengthy shadows throughout Joe’s room, prevented me from reaching out to my son.  Though I wanted to touch, to comfort, to let him know I was behind any decision he made, I held back.  His eyes remained downcast, his features void of emotion as he struggled with his conscience.  When he managed to look up, he met my eyes briefly, and I trusted he’d have no regrets whatever his decision might be.  “I don’t have much choice, Pa.”

I nodded but chose to remain silent.  I waited for a more definite answer.

“I’ll never understand why, but tell Roy . . . tell him to go ahead and press charges.”

“Son—”

“No, Pa.  I know what has to be done.”

“All right, I’ll let Roy know in the morning.  Tomorrow is Election Day . . . or was,” I said, wondering why I’d even brought it up at all.

“Funny,” Joe said, hinting at the first smile I’d seen since he’d been shot.  “Life goes on no matter what happens.”  I gave him a subtle glance.  “Jeff’s life will change forever while Roy Coffee’s remains exactly the same.”

“You’re right, son, but you have to remember—” But Joe kept talking.  He wasn’t ready to listen.

“He wanted it all, Pa.  Virginia City Sheriff, money, a big man in town with a city full of people who respected him.  He didn’t want to be labeled just a rancher’s son.  He always tried hard, too hard, I guess, but he wanted to be somebody special . . . important, you know.  And now . . .”

My son’s voice revealed what was in his heart and when his words trailed off, not wanting to state the obvious, I thought about what Joseph had said.  Jeff’s crucial error in judgment nearly cost my son his life, but Joe had forced the physical pain aside, and his main concern was over what would become of his friend after the trial.

“It’s truly a waste, son, but I will tell you this.  I’m sure Jeff realizes he lost something much more valuable than just the election itself.”  I smiled and reached out to my son.  “He lost the best friend he ever had.”

Joe’s faint smile and a simple nod of his head indicated he understood.  There’d be no more discussions over upcoming trials or elections.  True, a single act of violence would send Jeff to prison, but the act of betrayal had left a gaping hole in Joseph’s heart.

Joe’s recovery was far from over, and he would spend nearly the next two weeks recuperating.  As he’d said earlier, “Life goes on,” but at what cost or should I say, why did the innocent have to pay the price?

*****

Roy rode out to the Ponderosa; I assumed to discuss the trial date.  Waiting for the judge to make room on his calendar was not only wearisome for Roy and my sons, but also costly for the taxpayers of Virginia City.  A temporary deputy had been hired to pitch in when Roy couldn’t be present in his office.

My boys would have to testify on the behalf of the People Vs. Jeff Richards, each separately, each giving their own account of what took place on two separate occasions. There’d been no eyewitnesses but with Jeff’s confession, the trial wouldn’t be much more than a hearing held in front of the judge.  But when Roy dismounted and I met him on the front porch, the look in his eyes told me something, much different was on his mind than relying on a court date.

“Morning, Roy,” I said, welcoming him after the long ride from town.

“The boys here, Ben?  Little Joe ‘specially.”

Hoss and Candy stepped out from the barn when they heard the sheriff ride up.  I waved my hand, motioning them to follow us into the house.  Roy slipped his hat off but kept silent even when I offered him my chair while I remained standing.  Hoss took a seat next to Joe, more to comfort his younger brother than to hear what Roy had to say.  Joe sat up taller on the settee and took his feet off the table.  He, too, sensed something was wrong.  “Mornin’, Sheriff.  You don’t look too happy.  Something wrong?”

“I don’t know ‘xactly how to say this, Little Joe.”  Roy appeared anxious.  He leaned forward in the chair and held his hat between his knees; he fidgeted with the brim.

“Well, Pa always says the beginning is the best place to start.”

“Yeah.  Well, it’s kinda sad news I’m afraid.”  Roy glanced up at me before he went on, still working his hat and still looking for the right words.  “It’s about Jeff Richards, Little Joe.  He . . . um, well he hanged hisself in my jail sometime last night.”

Joe’s reaction mirrored mine.  His face paled instantly, and his hands balled into white-knuckled fists on either side of his lap.  Hoss and Candy were stunned, of course, but I knew Joe would take the news personally as if he were somehow to blame.

Hoss broke the silence.  “How in tarnation’d he do that, Roy?”

“Well, I kinda feel responsible, Hoss.”

“Huh?”

“When Jeff first come to me to confess everything he done, he surrendered his gun, and I locked it in my desk drawer like I always do.   He’d been sittin’ in that cell for goin’ on two weeks, and I should’ve read the signs.  I shoulda known something like this might happen.”

“I still don’t get it, Roy.  How’d he hang hisself in that cell?”

My eyes were glued to Joseph, and this unexpected news had brought my youngest son up silent while Hoss begged for details.  Had Joe been younger, he may have bolted from the room and run up the stairs, but that flighty young man had given way to age and maturity.  He would sit, listen, and then find his own method of sorting through everything that was said before finding solitude in order to think things through.

“Well, this mornin’,” Roy continued, “I walked from my room there in back and out to the main office.  I opened the door to the cells to tell Jeff I was puttin’ on a pot of coffee, and that’s when I found him.“  Roy shifted his eyes from Hoss to Joe.  “I’m sorry, Little Joe, but somehow, he managed to hook the belt from his pants and his gunbelt together and . . . well—“ Roy bit nervously at his bottom lip, and now I understood the uncomfortable feeling he couldn’t quite shake.  He was taking this hard; we all were.

“You couldn’t have known, Roy, and you can’t hold yourself responsible for Jeff’s decision,” I said, trying to give support to a friend who seemed nearly spent with guilt. “No one in this room blames you for the young man’s death.”

“That’s easy for you to say, Ben, but put yourself in my position.  Jeff was a good deputy until this fool election turned his head.”

“Let’s have some coffee, Roy?”  I said, trying to break the tension, settling in heavy layers throughout the room.  “I’ll bet Hop Sing has something fresh-baked we could nibble on.”

“Thanks, Ben, but I told Orson Richards I’d help any way I knew how.”

I hadn’t thought about Jeff’s parents, Orson and Bess, and how this would affect the family, but I wouldn’t presume to know whether a suicide could ever be laid to rest.

“Let me pay for the funeral, Roy.”  Joe suddenly stood from the settee, offering compensation for Jeff’s death.  “Tell Mr. and Mrs. Richards everything’s been taken care of, the best money can buy.”

All eyes shifted to Joe.  He glanced at me, and I dipped my head, agreeing with his decision.

“If that’s what you want, Little Joe.”

“That’s what I want.”

Joe turned to leave.  I knew he wanted to be alone, but Roy stopped him before he could exit the room.  “Little Joe?”  Hesitantly, my son turned back and faced the sheriff.  “This note was left on the bed in Jeff’s cell.  It’s addressed to you.”  Joe glanced at me first then took the letter from Roy before heading upstairs to his room.

“I best get back to town, arrangements and all,” Roy said, then started for the front door. I walked Roy outside and told him again he was not to blame.  They were only words and maybe no comfort at all.  I knew that, but I reminded him anyway.

I wanted to speak with Joe.  I wanted him to know I was proud of him, and even though the funeral was not his responsibility, this simple act of caring, this offer of friendship rather than hate, would make all the difference to a grieving family.

Joe lay on his bed; the letter remained in his hand although the envelope had fallen to the floor.  It’s a parent’s job to make things right, to soothe the soul and do what he can to comfort his child.  I had no way of knowing what Joe was thinking, but a father can often read between the lines and hope he can find a few simple words that might ease the pain.

Joe was taking this hard, and I could see he was hurting.  His eyes were half-open, staring at nothing, not even acknowledging the fact I was standing only two feet away.  “Can I help?”  His head barely moved on the pillow, but he handed me the letter and rolled to his side, facing the wall.  I unfolded the paper in my hands.

 

Joe,

I hope you got my first letter.  I told Sheriff Coffee it was important.

I buckled under the pressure, Joe.  I wanted to be a big man, somebody the people of Virginia City would look up to and respect, and Mr. Sharon offered me that chance.  I tried to avoid the pressure, I tried to keep my head, but I let things get out of hand.  The election became my whole life, and I saw your Pa as the enemy.

You had it all, Joe.  Money, looks, a way with the ladies, and everyone always loved Little Joe Cartwright.  I wanted to be somebody too, but I was always cast in your shadow, a nobody.

Roy tells me you’ll mend, but it doesn’t change what I did.  My life means nothing now. Apologizing means nothing now either, but I wanted to say it anyway.  I’m not offering excuses.  I just want to say I’m sorry, and maybe someday you’ll forgive me and remember the fun times you and me and Hoss used to have.

I hope this letter finds you.  I’m too ashamed to meet you face-to-face, and I can no longer live with the guilt of what I did.

Your friend,

Jeff

I reached for Joe’s shoulder.  He didn’t move farther away, but he didn’t respond either. It would take time, and the words I’d chosen might not be the best right now, but I said them anyway.  “Just remember, Joseph, you’re not to blame.  Jeff saw life differently than you and I.  None of us had any idea this might happen.”

I hoped for a response, but Joe remained silent.  I didn’t blame him really but in the past and, especially with my youngest, it always helped to talk things out.  Whether we agreed was unimportant.  Clearly, this was not the time to discuss matters further.  “I’ll leave you alone, son.  Maybe we’ll talk later.”

But we never did have that talk.  Joe paid for Jeff’s service, but he chose not to attend the funeral.  William Sharon and the more important mine owners opted to steer clear and not advertise their brief association with the young deputy.

Some would say Joe’s failure to attend was due to the fact he was still recovering from bullet wounds the deputy had inflicted.  I knew better.  Joe had been despondent and unfortunately, he felt responsible; he still carried blame.  Hoss and Candy and I, along with Roy and others who were fond of Jeff found ourselves standing alongside grieving parents and younger siblings, listening to the reverend tiptoe around the selfish act of suicide.

*****

On Joe’s first day out of the house, an earlier haze had given way to bright sunshine and a brilliant, blue sky, and the morning air had the crisp chill of autumn.  I almost told Joe to grab his jacket.  Old habits are hard to break and luckily, I caught myself in time. My son was much too old to be told how to dress.

I assumed Joe planned to sit and relax on the porch with his feet propped up, and I anticipated joining him.  But I soon realized my son had totally different plans.  I stood just outside the front door and watched him cross the yard to the barn.  His walk was steady, but there was still a hitch of pain, keeping him from squaring his shoulders and reaching his full height.  His wounds were all but healed, but the scar would always remain, always leave a reminder.

I often wondered about the first letter Jeff had sent Joseph to read; an apology, I suppose, but Joe had never mentioned its contents, nor had he spoken another word about Jeff to anyone as far as I knew.  I wasn’t one to pry, my son was not a boy, and it was not my place to delve into his personal life, but I’ll admit I was often curious.

Halfway across the yard, Joe grabbed Candy’s arm and our foreman fell into stride alongside my son.  Although I watched until they were inside the barn, I was not the invited guest.  Joe had stopped by the kitchen beforehand, and I’d heard Hop Sing admonish him, but it was my son’s tender voice that calmed the irritated cook.  It made me smile.

I remained on the porch when Candy led Joe’s new stallion, Satan, out from the barn and into the nearby corral.  Now, with my curiosity peaked, I strolled casually toward our foreman, but it was Joe who turned and met me halfway.

“What’s this all about?  I hope you’re not planning to ride this beast just yet.”

“Nope,” he said firmly.  “He’s not mine anymore.”

“What?”  My curiosity was definitely peaked.

“He’s Candy’s now.”

“You . . . you gave the stallion to Candy?”  My voice caught in my throat.  This was Joe’s pride and joy, his treasure, the grand prize that proved his worth.  I was completely dumbfounded.

My son didn’t bother answering.  No explanation, no decision to enlighten his old man as to why this came about, so I remained silent too.  We both leaned forward, resting our arms over the corral railing.  Satan was saddled and when Candy let loose of the reins, the horse, with his head held high, paraded his muscular frame in tight circles around the inner edge of the corral.

Candy looked our way and smiled then leaned back against the railing next to Joe.  With arms crossed and his hat tilted back on his head, he too, stood and watched the magnificent animal strut, displaying little restraint as he pawed the ground and bobbed his head up and down.

When Satan finally slowed to a near standstill, Candy adjusted his hat tightly on his forehead and walked toward the stallion.  He ran his hand down the horse’s mane as he took hold of the reins and reached for the protruding horn.  With a quick glance over his shoulder, he winked at Joe.  “Wish me luck,” He mounted the stallion.

Joe’s face was ecstatic; he whooped and hollered as Satan bucked and scrambled to rid the unwanted rider from the unwanted saddle.  Candy held on for dear life but was soon flying to the ground only to spring back to his feet, brush dirt from his backside with the rim of his hat and climb back on.

After three more tries, Candy looked a bit rough around the edges and barely made it to the edge of the corral where Joe clapped his hand against the back of his friend’s neck. Although he was still breathing hard, our foreman was not a quitter and after a hint of a smile and a brief glance toward Joe, I finally understood the connection.

Without having to be told or eavesdrop on private conversations, I understood why my son had given Candy his grand prize.  The unspoken loyalty, the tight bond that had developed between both men was truly a gift.  Unlike Jeff, who valued the election—his grand prize—more than friendship, my son was made of quality material.  He valued Candy’s friendship over anything else.

Without a word, Joe headed back to the barn and this time I followed.  He didn’t realize I stood behind him when he flattened his palm so Cochise could lick the stolen sugar. “He’s got a few good years left,” I said.

Joe turned and smiled.  “Yeah,” he said patting the pinto’s neck.  “He sure does.  Lot a good years, Pa.”

My son did what was expected, according to the law.  If things had turned out different, if a trial had been set, Joe would have struggled to find the necessary words to soften the blow, to reduce Jeff’s sentence, but that wasn’t the case now.

My heart ached for the boy I loved with all my heart.  But, Joe was no longer a boy; he was a man, a man who’d grown into a fine and caring adult.  And though I wanted to take that boy of mine in my arms and tell him so, I wouldn’t embarrass my grown son.

And in the privacy of my bedroom when the lights were turned low, I could dance that jig I’d promised Paul, and no one would be the wiser.  My sons were alive and well, and the election was a thing of the past.  Life would eventually return to normal . . . maybe it already had.

***The End***

6-2013

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