Summary: “What Happened Next” for the episode “The Stranger”. My version of what was going on with the boys after Ben rides off with Inspector LeDuque
Word Count: 4500
Ben Cartwright had considered running for governor when Nevada became a state. Little Joe, had been at the office of the “Territorial Enterprise” to check a newspaper story to make sure the editor had the facts of Ben’s life correct in his story. Two strangers entered the newspaper office. The older of the strangers, told Little Joe that he was Inspector Charles LeDuque of the New Orleans Police Department and had come to arrest Ben for the murder of a man named Simon LaRoche. He stated that the murder happened 20 years ago in New Orleans and insinuated that Little Joe’s mother was also involved.
Ben arrived home from Carson City and was informed by Joe about LeDuque and went to Virginia City right away to see the inspector. Ben told him that his lawyer had informed him that he was cleared of that murder charge and that it had been ruled as self defense. Ben had not, however, received a promised letter from his lawyer confirming that. LeDuque claimed that the lawyer was wrong, that Ben had not been cleared, and that he had come to take him back to New Orleans. LeDuque could not legally force Ben to go with him, but threatened that he would find a way.
Adam Cartwright leaned against a post outside the Virginia City Jail and watched his father and Inspector LeDuque ride away. His casual posture was at odds with the hard look in his dark eyes. Beside him, his younger brother, Hoss, stood and fought back the tears that had started to form in his blue ones.
As soon as the two riders were out of sight Adam put a hand on Hoss’s shoulder and turned towards the jail house door. “Let’s go get Joe and get out of here. We have a lot we need to talk about.”
Hoss nodded. “I have a feeling we’re going to have our hands full with our little brother. He’s taking all of this pretty hard.”
Inside the jail, Sheriff Brady sat at his desk waiting for them, a puzzled frown on his face. “That inspector from New Orleans is a strange bird. I’m glad to have him out of my town. First he swears your brother killed his associate, Mr. Cole in cold blood; then he comes in and swears he was mistaken, that it was self defense. If that’s the way things are done in New Orleans, I’ll make sure I stay away from there. What’s this all about anyway?”
“It’s a long story, Sheriff. Maybe our father will tell you about it when he gets back. We’ll be on our way as soon as you let Joe out of there”. Adam looked toward the cell where his youngest brother was being held.
Sheriff Brady glanced uneasily from Adam to Hoss, then back to Adam. “Sorry, I can’t do that. Your father asked me not to let Little Joe out until he was well on his way. I promised him that if that’s what he wanted, that’s what I’ll do.”
“I know why my father wanted you to do that,” retorted Adam. “But he’s not here now, so let the kid out so we can go on home. You have no legal right to hold him here now.”
The sheriff stood and came out from around his desk to stand directly in front of Adam. “I promised Ben that if that’s what he wanted, that’s what I’d do.”
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose in a gesture of frustration. He took a deep breath and continued in a conciliatory tone. “I realize you’re trying to honor your promise to our father. I’ll take responsibility for Joe.”
Hoss Cartwright cut in. “Sheriff Brady, we won’t tell our pa that we made you break your word. He wanted to make sure Little Joe didn’t go off half-cocked and do somethin’ else without thinkin’. We’ll make sure he don’t”.
“All right, boys.” Sheriff Brady shrugged and started towards the cell area. “I’ll take your word for it. Just make sure you explain things to your father when he gets back. Little Joe, you’re free to go. Here’s your gun belt.”
Joe Cartwright sat despondently on the bunk, not making a move to get up and leave. Finally Hoss took Little Joe’s gunbelt from the sheriff, and went into the cell. He lightly touched his brother’s shoulder. “Come on little brother. Let’s go home.”
Joe roused himself from his brooding withdrawal, stood abruptly and walked out of the cell. Without acknowledging his brothers, he pushed past them out the door to the waiting horses.
“Hey, Joe! Wait! Daggone it!”
Adam followed Hoss out of the Sheriff’s office. “What’s wrong?”
“Looks like Joe didn’t want to wait on us.”
“Don’t worry. He’ll be at home waiting for us, or waiting somewhere along the road. You know how he is when he’s upset. Let’s get home.”
As they rode, Adam and Hoss discussed their mutual doubts about LeDuque and his story. Things just didn’t add up. Why wait twenty years to come after their father for the murder of Simon LaRoche? And why insist that he go back to New Orleans with the Inspector alone on horseback? Why hadn’t Pa’s lawyer let him know that he wasn’t officially cleared? There were just too many unanswered questions.
Now they rode silently side-by-side. They would wait until they were home; the three of them together, before speaking more of the situation that hung over their heads, and which could change their lives. The two men had shared many rides in silent companionship during their lifetimes. Today, the silence was a presence hovering between them.
Adam let his thoughts wonder to his conversation with his father that morning: Wait here. Look after the ranch and your brothers till I get back, Pa said. Sorry Pa. Can’t do it your way this time. I can’t carry on here like you’re off on a business trip. My brothers don’t need looking after anymore either, Pa. Hoss is twenty-three; he’s been a grown man for a long time. Joe too, even though a lot of the time we don’t give him credit for being one. He’s the same age I was when Marie died and I had to hold things together.
Hoss’s glanced at his brother: Old Adam’s plannin’ somethin’. He’s got his poker face on. We’re not just gonna go home and do chores and wait for Pa to come home. Wish Adam would have let me try to catch up with Joe. The boy’s bein’ too quiet. There’s gotta be an explosion comin’. Well, maybe Adam’s got the right idea. Let Joe go off ahead of us and ride some of it out of his system.
Joe pulled Cochise to a halt and looked behind him. Satisfied that he was well ahead of his brothers, he let his horse continue at a walk. He had wanted some time alone to try to put his jumbled thoughts into some kind of order before being confronted by Adam and Hoss: Pa said he’d be back soon, but he said it like he was talking to a seven-year-old. Why did I have to go see LeDuque last night? If I had come straight home after visiting my mother’s grave, instead of giving in to the impulse to have it out with the man, Pa would be at home now. Instead, he was on his way to New Orleans, alone with LeDuque and unarmed. If my pa doesn’t come back …….. .
Joe forced his thoughts away from that direction, to what his father had told them of his mother’s past: Those things couldn’t have happened to my mother. What Pa told us was the story of a stranger. My mother was perfect, an angel raised in a convent school. I can still remember sitting cuddled in her lap in front of the fire on a cold winter evening. I can still feel the softness of the shawl wrapped around both of us and the slow back and forth of the rocking chair. I remember her singing to me. I wish I could remember the sound of her voice. Why can I remember her singing, but not the sound of her voice? Damn it! What kind of a son am I? Judging her like that! She had to fend for herself the best way she could before she met Pa. That no-good cousin of hers, Edward Darcy, wanting to marry her off to one of his rich friends. Then him working in cahoots with that old witch of a mother-in-law to wreck her marriage to Jean. Wanted another chance to marry her off to one of those fat old men. How could someone do that to his only living relative? Jean was no better. How could he do that to his wife? No wonder she wanted to forget what life was like before. Yep, Joe, you put yourself right up there with Jean and his mother and Darcy. There I sat last night, beside my mother’s grave. Was I thinking of how much Pa said she loved me? How much I love the memory of her? No, all I could think of was why LaRoche was blackmailing her. Oh God, Pa’s face when he told us. I’ll never forget how desperate he looked, afraid he was breaking my heart. Now wonder Pa didn’t want to tell me. I wasn’t ready to handle it yet. Pa knew that, but I had to force it out of him. I wanted to tell him that this morning. I needed to tell him a lot of things this morning. Especially needed to tell him that none of what he told me about my mother mattered. I don’t love her any less. How could I? She was my mother. She’d love me no matter what. I needed to sit there with my pa’s arm around my shoulder and tell him, but LeDuque hustled him out of there before I had the chance to. I just gotta get the chance to tell Pa.
Joe looped Cochise’s reins around the hitching rail and waited tensely for the two riders he knew were right behind him. He stood fists clenched at his sides and watched his brothers round the corner of the barn. He didn’t wait for them to dismount before turning on them with the outburst that Hoss had been expecting.
“Well, go ahead! Say what you’re both thinking! You’re hot-headed brother had to go off half-cocked as usual. Pa’s in a mess that he might not get out of and it’s all my fault! Well, go ahead! Let’s get this out into the open!”
Hoss swung down from his horse to stand in front of Joe. “That ain’t so. We told you that last night, and we meant it. Nobody blames you but yourself.”
“Hoss is right!” Adam cut in. “I’ll admit that was my first reaction. I’ll also admit that after I cooled off and thought about it, I realized that LeDuque must have been thinking all along of a way to use you to get to Pa. He’s a ruthless man. If that shooting hadn’t happened, he would have come up with something else. After hearing Pa’s story, I was ready to go after LeDuque myself. Besides, Hoss and I should’ve known you’d go to town looking for him. We should’ve followed you, whether you liked it or not. If Cole had been just a little faster, or you a little slower, we’d be burying you today. Pa would face anything that LeDuque wants to throw at him rather than have to face that. And you might not believe it right now, but Hoss and I wouldn’t want to face that either.
“The last thing we need right now is any bickering and bad feelings between us. For the first time in my life, I’m going to go back on my word to Pa. I’m going after him and LeDuque if I have to follow them all the way to New Orleans. I have a feeling, though, that LeDuque doesn’t have any intention of taking Pa there. If you and Hoss want to come with me, that’s up to you. But if you’re going with me, you’re going to have to snap out of this mood you’re in and have your wits about you, and do exactly as you’re told.” Confident of his brothers’ answer, he turned and strode into the house.
Hop Sing scurried around the kitchen making sandwiches while the brothers quickly filled canteens and gathered bedrolls. “There’s only one logical way for them to go.” Adam pointed out. “LeDuque doesn’t know the country and he won’t trust Pa to guide them. They’ll probably follow the stage road. They have a good head start, but if we ride hard we can get fairly close by dark. We don’t want LeDuque to spot us. For now we’re just going to shadow them to make sure that Pa’s all right, but be ready for anything.”
Adam turned to his youngest brother. “Remember what else I said, you do exactly what I say. Pa’s life may depend on it.”
“I’m well aware of that! What do I have to do to have you trust me, anyway?”
“Hold your temper, for one thing! This is just what I was talking about!”
“Just listen here…” Joe’s words were cut off as Hoss shoved his way between the two, a restraining hand on each of their chests.
“Dadburn it, you two! That’s enough! Little Joe, Adam’s right. You got to hold that temper of yours, boy. And Adam, Little Joe’s right too. We got to trust him. Now, I don’t want to hear anymore from either of you! Our pa’s in trouble and all you two can do is argue! Let’s get going, or do I have to just leave you fellows here and take Hop Sing?”
The four rode for hours, speaking very little. They rode a little apart from each other, each brother’s eyes searching the horizon for a glimpse of two men and three horses. For miles in all directions was sun-baked earth, dotted with sagebrush. An occasional tumbleweed bounced past propelled by an errant gust of wind. Granite boulders, some the size of a small house, lay scattered about as though thrown by a giant hand. Nearby, a lizard flicked his tongue at the intruders and scurried for cover under a rock. A small pool of water struggled for existence under the hot Nevada sun. The stage road linking Virginia City with points east meandered through this wasteland towards the stage station at Goat Springs.
“Hey, Hoss! What’s wrong?” Joe reined in his horse and turned to see his brother off of Chubb and intently examining the black’s front right hoof.
Hoss let the horse lower his leg back to the ground. “Loose shoe. Dang!” Hoss shook his head. “We should have seen some sign of them by now.”
Adam, who had been riding slightly ahead, rode back to join his brothers. “We couldn’t have been that wrong. This has to be the way they went.”
Hoss reached into his saddlebag for a nail and small hammer. Chubb snorted and tossed his head. “Easy, boy. Old Hoss has to get your shoe tight again or we’re goin’ to be in a fix.” Hoss patted the horse’s nose.
While Hoss worked on the horseshoe, Adam squinted into the lowering sun then looked around at their surroundings. He dismounted and started to unsaddle Sport. “We’ll camp here tonight. It’s going to be sundown soon, and there’s water. We can fill our canteens before we go on tomorrow. Joe, after you get unsaddled, break out the sandwiches Hop Sing packed.”
“Camp here for the night? What’s wrong with you, Adam? We have to get to Pa!” Joe rounded on his brother.
Adam turned from unsaddling his horse and glared irritability at his brother. “Use your head. We can’t track them in the dark. You know that without me having to tell you.” He shook his head and continued in a milder tone. “Hoss and I want to get to Pa as much as you do. It’s not going to do any good to miss their trail in the dark or even get one of the horses hurt by stumbling along in the dark. We’ll be back in the saddle at first light.”
Joe sighed and rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “You’re right, older brother. It’s just that Pa and LeDuque got a good head start on us. What if he makes his move against Pa before we catch up?” He dismounted and began to unsaddle his own mount.
Adam moved to stand beside his youngest brother. He patted Cochise’s nose as he spoke. “That’s a chance we’re going to have to take. Pa’ll be expecting something and not let his guard down. He’s not going to trust LeDuque. Pa took care of himself for a lot of years before we came along. Come on, get your horse taken care of and let’s get at those sandwiches before Hoss beats us to them. I’ll make the coffee.”
Though dead tired, none of the three men spaced around the low campfire slept soundly. All through the long night, one or the other would toss and turn restlessly in his bedroll or jerk suddenly awake to stare at the star-filled sky. Towards daybreak, one figure arose to prowl quietly about the camp.
All three rolled out of their bedrolls within seconds of each other as the first rays of the sun bounced of the surrounding rocks. No words were needed between them. They made sure their campfire was completely out, saddled their horses, and rode out into the morning. Their only breakfast was the jerky they ate as they rode.
Like the previous day, they rode all morning in silence. Today, however, the silence was different; more easy and companionable. Sometime during his restless prowling of the night before, Joe took a step towards forgiving himself for his unthinking foolishness of falling into LeDuque’s trap. From there, he could take the next step. He could begin to realize that his brothers and his father would forgive him more readily than he forgave himself.
A little past mid-day, they came upon the remains of a campsite. Joe kicked at the ashes of the campfire, studying them as if they would give him some clue as to who had camped there. “It could have been anybody.” He gave the ashes one last disgusted kick.
“It wasn’t just anybody. Come here and look at this set of boot prints.” Adam and Joe rushed to where Hoss was hunkered down, and peered over his shoulder to where he pointed. “Look here. The fella that left these prints was draggin’ his right leg.”
Adam shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun as he looked at the sky. “Well let’s get moving.” He mounted and let the way eastward towards Goat Springs.
“Hey, hold up!” Hoss shouted at his brothers as he reined Chubb to a halt. “Look over there.” He stood in his stirrups and pointed to a dust cloud in the distance. As the dust cloud drew near, a shape within it began to take form. Gradually the shape became recognizable as a horse; a horse with dangling reins and an empty saddle. “That’s Buck!”
The horse stopped running, sniffed the air tentatively, and whinnied loudly as he caught a familiar scent. He tossed his head and galloped towards his stable mates.
“Easy, boy. Good horse.” Joe rode slowly toward the buckskin. He talked softly trying to calm the agitated animal. “Easy, boy. Good horse.” He dismounted and poured water from his canteen into his hat and offered it to the horse. He rubbed the golden neck as the horse drank gratefully. He looked anxiously at his brothers as they dismounted then examined the horse and saddle for a clue as to what had happened to their father. They sought for signs of dried blood, a scratch or nick from a bullet, or anything to explain why the horse had left him afoot in this desolate country.
Hoss patted Buck’s rump and sighed. “I sure do wish you could talk, boy.” As if to answer, the horse nudged the big chest beside him and looked over his shoulder to the others.
Joe swung back into his saddle holding Buck’s reins. He looked expectantly at Adam and gestured toward the direction Buck had come from. “We go that way now? Pa could be lying out there hurt or even dead!”
“I think we should keep going to Goat Springs. There wouldn’t have been any reason for Pa to have gone that way. There’s nothing but more of this.”
“Maybe Pa didn’t have a choice.”
Hoss urged his horse toward the road to Goat Springs. “Come on, little brother. We’re going to the stage station. It’s not that far now, and it’s the likely place for them to be, or to get word about them. If nobody who sounds like it could be them has shown up there, we’ll backtrack and head north. Pa’s bound and determined to get to New Orleans alive. He’s not going to give LeDuque any chances. LeDuque wouldn’t want to get out of sight of the road anyway. He doesn’t know his way around out here. He might be a police inspector, but he’s still a city fella and not used to this kind of country.”
With both older brothers insisting that the best thing was to go on to Goat Springs, Joe had no choice but to fall in behind them, Buck in tow.
Dusk was almost upon them when the three worried, exhausted, dusty riders approached the Goat Springs Stage Station. As they rode up to the small weather-beaten building, one of the occupants of the two shabby rocking chairs on the small porch rose and stepped down to meet them. “Well, what are you three doing here? Didn’t I tell you to stay put?” Ben greeted his sons, the smile on his face and shine in his eyes belying his words.
He was instantly overwhelmed with shaking hands, slapping backs, clasping shoulders, and the voices of his two older sons, both speaking at once: “Pa!” “Are you all right?” “Dang, we were worried!” “Where’s LeDuque?” “What’s going on?” “Why was Buck runnin’ loose?”
One pair of hands and one voice was absent from the greetings. Little Joe was uncharacteristically hanging back. Ordinarily, he would have been the first one to his father. However, he just stood there, clutching Buck’s reins and staring fixedly at the ground.
Ben took the reins from Joe’s hand and turned Buck over to the station keeper for water and feed. He slipped an arm around his youngest’s shoulders and pinned him with a firm gaze until his son looked up and met his eyes. Ben’s quick squeeze was answered with a wry smile. Henry has stew and biscuits ready, boys. You’re probably ready to eat a horse. I’ll explain everything while we eat.”
“Stew and biscuits? Hot diggity! What are we waitin’ for?” Hoss clapped his father on the back and rubbing his hands together, led the way to the cabin.
During supper, Ben told them of the Indians stealing their horses, his and LeDuque’s trek to the stage station, and LeDuque’s confession. “I wanted him to go back to Virginia City with me and have Paul Martin look at his leg. He seemed to have wrenched his knee when his horse spooked. But he claimed it would be fine. He just wanted to get back to New Orleans. He left on this morning’s east-bound stage. I was planning on catching tomorrow’s Virginia City stage.”
Now they sat together on the porch with cups of Henry’s strong coffee, just enjoying being together. Adam stared briefly into his cup, then turned to his father. “What are you going to do about Inspector LeDuque? Is Paul Lloyd still practicing law in New Orleans? You could wire him and have him speak to LeDuque’s superiors.”
“I’d rather just let it go. LeDuque’s career was ruined years ago. He was looking for somewhere to place the blame. It’s only human. He blamed his crippled knee for ruining his career and in turn blamed me for giving him that crippled knee. He also confessed that he was jealous of the fact that I had had a young beautiful wife; in fact, had had three beautiful wives, who gave me three fine sons. He also blamed that on his crippled knee. In his place, I may have harbored a grudge too. We don’t know what we would do put in someone else’s life. He was stunned that I just didn’t leave him out there to die to save myself. I think, and I hope, that his confession helped him rid his soul of some of his bitterness. He still has plenty of years ahead to make a good life for himself. I wish him luck.
“Now, declared Ben, looking mock-sternly at his sons.”I believe that we have the matter of three disobedient sons to discuss. And the first thing I want to say is…” Ben’s visage broke into a smile …. “I am certainly glad you did disobey my wishes in this case. But don’t make a habit of it. Let’s get some shut-eye. We have a long ride home in the morning.”
“Did you have to remind us?” Adam groaned. He slowly rose and rubbed the small of his back. He headed for the barn, Hoss following; the two bantering about who would sleep in the spare stall and who would sleep in the loft. Joe started after his brothers, but Ben caught his arm and held him back.
“Son,” he said softly. “Is there something you need to say to me now that we’re alone? Seems like all evening you’ve been on edge. You haven’t said two words and only picked at your supper.” He turned his son to him and could see the anxiety in his youngest reflected in those green eyes. They were the same eyes as the beloved woman who had been at the center of the turmoil of the past few days. A tear tracked its way silently through the dust on his face and Ben gathered him into his arms. That was all it took for the tear to turn into a flood as Joe sobbed out his feelings of fear and guilt into his father’s broad chest.
Ben gently stroked his son’s hair. “It’s all right now. It’s all over with. I promised you that I’d be home soon, and you know I’ve never broken a promise to any of my sons.”