Betrayal (by Territell)

Summary:  How will the jury find you innocent when even you believe you’re guilty?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  22,110


 

Joe was awake but feigned sleep when she entered the bedroom. He shivered involuntarily as he felt the covers pulled back and her cold naked body slipped between the sheets. Her arms encircled his waist and she pressed herself up against him knowingly. When she slid her icy feet between his legs for warmth, he could feign sleep no longer and his body jumped with the shock of her cold touch. She smiled to herself, this was so easy; Joe was her puppet and he would perform whenever she pulled the strings. With the practiced skill of a woman of the night, her right hand massaged his smooth chest, before traveling down his body. Joe tried to resist, he did not want this, but his body betrayed him.

Much later, Joe lay on his back staring upwards into the blackness of the night but seeing nothing. Their lovemaking made him feel used and dirty; the very words in themselves were a lie. There was no love in what they had done. It had been animalistic and he was ashamed at how, after all that had gone on between them, she still had the power to bend him to her will.

Christine lay beside him deep in slumber; her shallow breathing filled the stillness of the air with a rhythmic pulse that Joe had come to know so well over the last few months. How many times had he lain awake like this, wondering how she could sleep so soundly, while he tossed and turned as his mind conjured up the images that haunted his dreams at night and filled his thoughts during the day? He couldn’t stay there a moment longer; his emotions were enveloping him and he needed solitude. Pulling back the bedcovers he hesitated for a second as the night chill passed through his skin and penetrated his bones, but he forced himself to leave the warmth of the bed. After all, the warmth it offered was only superficial, for deep inside him an ice mountain was building that was far colder than the night air.

So as not to disturb her, Joe made his way into the next room as silently as he could and closed the bedroom door behind him. In the darkness he used the light from the dying embers of the fire to make his way to the hearth. In the hope of gaining a few more hours of warmth, he threw a couple of logs into the grate. Before long eerie shadows were cast around the room once more as the flickering flames danced to a soundless tune. He sat on the hearth and drew his knees to his chest, at the same time pulling his nightshirt down over his legs and tucking it under his feet. In the quietness of the night, with no one near to witness his shame, Joe let the barriers fall and his emotions escape. The tears started slowly at first, but once the dam was opened a tidal wave was unleashed and Joe cradled his head in his lap as he tried to stifle the sobs that shook his body.

Joe rocked backwards and forwards as his distress took hold of him, the pain deep inside too much to bear and he was desperate to blot out the hurt that engulfed him, if only for a short while. Rising to his feet he made his way to the far end of the room, and with grim resolve lifted up the lid of the desk his father had bought him. Inside he found what he was looking for, a bottle of whisky. Joe was not a whisky drinker; the bottle had stood unopened for months, but tonight it would be his friend and companion. Making his way back towards the fire, he stumbled and cried out in pain, as he stubbed his toe on a small table that stood unseen in the shadows. The table, and the oil lamp that stood on it, crashed noisily to the ground. Joe gazed at the mess for a second, but his throbbing toe was foremost in his mind and he sank gratefully onto the nearest settee.

The first taste of whisky almost made him gag as the rawness of the crude liquid hit the back of his throat, but the warmth it brought as it trickled slowly into his stomach was enough to make him persevere. Several mouthfuls later, Joe was aware of a warm glow spreading over his entire body, and as more and more of the bottle emptied, he at last began to feel calm and sleepy, the pain in his toe long since forgotten. Maybe he should have invited this friend to join him long ago; this friend had the capacity to numb his brain and chase the demons from his head for the first time in months.

Before an hour had passed, Joe was sat slumped in the chair, the bottle of whisky cradled in his arms like a baby, as sleep finally took him. His last conscious thought was one of anguish; “how could she?” He had no proof, there was nothing he could accuse her of, but the unspoken accusations lingered in the air between them and could not be hidden. They had been married for less than nine months, but already Joe was certain. Christine had been unfaithful!

*****

The banging on the door brought Joe out of his drink induced sleep. His brain was befuddled and he was having difficulty remembering where he was and how he got there. Putting the now empty whisky bottle on the floor, Joe limped over to the door and pulled it open. His head, as well as his toe, was throbbing, but with regards to the latter, he could not think why.

Sheriff Roy Coffee and his deputy Clem stood before him. Joe squinted and raised his hand to his eyes in order to block out the brightness of the early morning sun shining down on them from a clear winter sky. The cold air seeped into the room making Joe shudder; he was only wearing his nightshirt and the warmth from the fire had long since died.

“Roy, what you doing here? Joe asked as he tried to think of a reason why the sheriff was at his door this early on a morning. “Has something happened? Is Pa okay?” The pounding in his head was getting worse and he was finding it difficult to concentrate, and on top of that his stomach threatened to expel its contents at any given moment.

“Can we come in, Joe?” asked the sheriff in a somber voice, with not the hint of a smile or friendly gesture.

Joe moved to the side and allowed Roy and Clem to enter. Roy’s eyes mentally noted the upturned table and empty whisky bottle on the floor. He shook his head at the scene in front of him; things did not look good.

With a troubled expression Roy turned to Joe and half apologetically began, “There’s been a complaint made Joe, a complaint about you.”

Joe looked at Roy
quizzically trying to comprehend the meaning behind the words.

“I’m not sure what you’re on about Roy,” he finally responded.

“Apparently yesterday evening Christine spent some time with a friend and she was very distressed.”

“Christine’s friend was very distressed?” asked a bemused Joe.

“No Joe, Christine was distressed. She claims that you and her have been having a few marital problems.”

Joe’s face hardened into an angry mask. “That’s no one’s business but ours Roy. What goes on between a man and his wife has nothing to do with anyone else.”

“Under normal circumstances I would agree with you Joe, but this friend says Christine was afraid to come home last night, she was afraid of what you might do.”

Joe laughed, but there was no humor in the sound, it was as hollow as he felt. The woman was afraid of what he might do! What could he do? He was trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman who was making a fool of him! However, he had made his bed, and as the saying goes, ‘he would have to lie on it’. Joe would never be free again while that woman was still alive.

“This is no laughing matter Joe. Can we see Christine?”

“Oh I’m not laughing Roy, believe me I have nothing to laugh about,” Joe replied. “She’s still sleeping, but I’ll just get her. The fact is I’m as interested as you to learn what other lies she’s been telling.”

Joe crossed the room and pushed open the bedroom door. Time stood still for him as he tried to make sense of the scene before him. This was not real; how could this be happening? “Oh my God,” he uttered eventually before rushing out of the house. Sinking to his knees in the dirt, he leaned forward with his hands on the ground, and began to throw up, over and over again.

Roy and Clem looked at each other with experienced eyes. They had witnessed this scenario time and time again. In the cold light of day, the pleasure alcohol had given the night before fast lost its attraction.

The bedroom door remained open and both men stood outside, somewhat embarrassed, waiting for Christine to emerge. Minutes ticked by and there was still no movement from inside. Roy coughed several times to make sure that Mrs. Cartwright was aware of their presence, but still the silence prevailed. Eventually Roy walked over to the bedroom and, with a somewhat red face, peered inside.

The sight that met his eyes was bloody and violent. Christine lay on the bed, a thin sheet barely covering her naked body. Dried blood pooled around her head and her once beautiful face was destroyed forever by a single bullet. Only her long blonde hair, fanning out over the pillow, made her recognizable as the person she once was. Joe’s gun lay discarded on the floor.

Roy shook his head; how had it come to this? Never in his wildest dreams could he have envisaged the outcome of his visit this morning. Whatever had taken place last night had resulted in the destruction of two young lives, one by a bullet and the other; well he didn’t want to think about that. How on earth would he break the news to Ben?

Going into the yard Roy walked over and stood next to Joe’s still form as he sat transfixed in shock. Roy had to repeat himself several times before Joe even realized that someone was talking to him. Looking up at his father’s oldest friend, Joe stared at him, as if willing him to say it wasn’t true.

“Come on, Joe, you need to get dressed and come into town with me.”

Joe stood up on shaky legs and allowed Roy to walk him back to the house. When they entered, Joe suddenly became alarmed and tried to pull himself from Roy’s grasp, “I can’t go anywhere with you, Roy,” he said frantically, “Christine needs me. She’s bleeding, I must fetch the doctor.”

Roy shook Joe harshly by the shoulders until Joe stopped struggling and focused on him. Once he was sure that he had Joe’s full attention, he said in a quiet voice, “Christine is dead, Joe. And I’m sorry son, but I must take you in.”

It took time for the words to filter through to Joe’s brain.

“Take me in? Take me in where?” he asked.

“I’m sorry Joe, but I’m arresting you for the murder of Christine Cartwright.”

*****

It had all began just under a year ago when Christine Kent had arrived in town on the stage from San Francisco. Her beauty had attracted a lot of attention and in those first few weeks she had many suitors. Christine was a woman of experience. She was almost thirty years old and had finally decided that now was the time to settle down. Her looks wouldn’t last forever and so she must make a good match while she was still young and attractive enough to have her pick of anyone she so desired. And by the end of that second week she desired Joseph Cartwright.

From the outset Christine had very definite ideas of what she wanted in a husband. First and foremost he must be rich. She had very expensive tastes, and it was important that whoever she married was able to keep her in the manner to which she had become accustomed. Secondly, she liked her men young, their youth made them malleable, but then again Christine had yet to meet a man she couldn’t control.

The moment she heard about Joe Cartwright she was intrigued. Christine made it her business to find out everything there was to know about him, and what she found out she liked. Joe was the youngest son of the richest man in Nevada and was the apple of his Pa’s eye.

By her second week in Virginia City, Christine was becoming impatient to meet the youngest Cartwright. She was invited to several social events and tried hard to stifle her disappointment when she found that the Cartwright family was not present. Standing next to Dr Paul Martin at one of these functions, she remarked casually, “I have heard so much about the Cartwrights, but have yet to meet any of them. Don’t they believe in having fun?”

“Oh they like to have fun,” laughed Paul. “Especially Little Joe,” he added.

“They are such prominent people; I would have expected them to take a more active part in City life,” Christine stated, hoping to draw more information out of the good doctor.

“This is a busy time at the ranch and Ben will have the boys on a short leash, but I’m sure you’ll get to meet them this weekend. There’s a dance on Saturday night and I don’t think anything, even his Pa, will keep Joe from dancing.”

The following Saturday, Christine went all out to make an impression. Standing in front of the mirror she surveyed her reflection and smiled with satisfaction. Joseph Cartwright was in for a treat! She was going to give him the full works; she just hoped he was man enough for the job!

*****

All four Cartwrights rode into town together. They were in good spirits and eager to let off a bit of steam and have a few drinks. The last few weeks had been particularly busy and they had arrived home late each evening, with hardly enough energy to eat supper before falling into bed.

As they rode at a steady pace, Ben smiled good-naturedly as he listened to the banter of his sons teasing each other.

“Do you smell somethin’ funny?” Hoss first asked holding his nose between his fingers.

“Now you come to mention it, there is a funny smell,” replied Adam, going along with his brother. Then sniffing in Joe’s direction, he added, “If I didn’t know better, I would swear it was the same perfume that Betty from the saloon uses.”

“Well what ever it is, it’s making Cochise swoon,” Hoss warned. “Let’s hope he doesn’t fall over before we get to town.”

“The only horse that is likely to collapse round here is Chubb,” Joe remarked, with a mischievous smile spreading across his face. “The weight that poor critter has to carry, it’s a wonder he can stand up at all.”

Joe anticipated the swipe that was coming in his direction from his middle brother’s massive hand and had already kicked Cochise into a gallop before the palm could make contact. Looking back over his shoulder he shouted, “You’re gonna have to be quicker than that, Hoss; you’re definitely losing your touch. It must be old age creeping up.”

Joe covered his eyes for a moment as he laughed at Hoss’ expense. While Joe was distracted, Adam couldn’t resist joining in the hi-jinx. Spurring Sport into a run, he caught up to his youngest sibling and knocked Joe’s hat from his head letting it fall to the ground. This had been one of Joe’s favorite games not so many years ago. As Joe bent forward in his saddle to retrieve it, Adam landed a hefty swat on his upturned posterior. Letting out an indignant yell, Joe quickly righted himself.

“Let that be a lesson” Adam admonished. “Never try and get one over on your older and betters.”

Rubbing his smarting rear, Joe shouted to his brother’s retreating back, “Just wait till we get to the dance, Mr. Smarty Pants; then we’ll see who’s better. I’m willing to bet the prettiest gal in the place falls for me.”

Ben raised his eyebrows and in mock sternness said “Pride cometh before a fall, Joseph.”

With a shrug of his shoulders, Joe put on a look of pure innocence and stated, “I can’t help it if I’m irresistible!” Before Ben could reprimand him, Joe winked at Hoss and added, “I must take after you Pa.”

Ben chuckled; this youngest son of his certainly knew how to charm his way out of any situation. As Hoss’ deep belly laugh echoed throughout the night, the Cartwrights rode on, unaware that their lives were about to change forever.

*****

Christine stood watching from a corner of the room as the four men entered, and she knew at once who they were. All four of them were very attractive in their own way and she wondered how the women of Virginia City hadn’t snapped them up before now.

Ben had a certain presence. His steely grey hair and posture gave him a distinguished and austere aura, but his full sensual lips belied a different nature. The man dressed in black had to be Adam, the eldest son. He was certainly a looker and if Christine had only wanted a bed partner, he would be her kind of man for there was something dangerous and unpredictable about Adam Cartwright. He would definitely be worth a dalliance! Hoss was as big and handsome as she had been led to believe. He had an open and honest face and Christine smiled as she thought how easy it would be to have a man like him eating out of her hand.

Finally she turned her attention to the youngest son. He was twenty years old, and was so good looking, that he actually made her heart skip a beat when she first set eyes on him. He was perfect, and it didn’t take Christine long to make up her mind that she would have him. Joe was not only extremely handsome, but he had an energy about him that excited her. Friends had said he had a hot temper and was easily riled. Well she liked a man with a bit of fire; she didn’t like them to comply too easily. He was young; in fact she wondered if she had heard right, for he looked far younger than his twenty years. But age didn’t matter to Christine, twenty or not, she was going to have fun taming Joseph Cartwright, of that she was very sure. The stumbling block would be his father and two elder brothers, but if nothing else, Christine loved a challenge.

Standing at the punchbowl, Joe surveyed the dance floor with an appraising eye. Handing Adam a glass of punch he said, “Well?”

“Well what?” asked Adam, knowing full well to what his brother referred.

“Is it a bet? Which one do you think is the prettiest?”

“You are incorrigible, Joe. Besides, your idea of pretty may be a little young for me.”

It was just at that moment that Joe felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to find his close friend Mitch standing behind him.

“I must be a fool for doing this,” sighed Mitch “but there is a young lady here that is dying to meet you.”

Joe turned round and came face to face with this vision of loveliness. Christine was dressed all in red with the bodice of her dress pulled tight accentuating her tiny waist, and the low neckline doing nothing to hide her ample charms. Her blonde hair cascaded loose across her shoulders and as she turned her head her luxuriant curls bounced from side to side. When Joe looked into her pale blue eyes for the first time he couldn’t look away and those around them witnessing the encounter were embarrassed at the unbridled passion that seemed to ignite between them.

Mitch coughed, and the invisible connection between Christine and Joe was finally broken. “Joe let me introduce you to Miss Christine Kent.”

Extending her hand and smiling demurely, Christine said, “I’ve heard so much about you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Joe, call me Joe,” he replied, grasping her hand and holding on to it. Turning to his side he added, “This here is my brother, Adam.”

Adam took her hand from Joe’s saying, “Nice to meet you, Miss Kent.” Then as he turned to walk away he winked at Joe and said, “Ok, you win.”

That evening Joe danced every dance with Christine and he felt himself to be the luckiest man in the room. Despite their age difference they made a striking couple and everyone’s eyes were drawn to them.

As for Joe, he didn’t stand a chance. Christine used every one of her womanly wiles to snare him and by the end of the evening she had him dangling from her hook with no means of escape.

Joe walked Christine back to her hotel room long after the dance had finished and as they kissed goodnight, she left him in no doubt of the delights to come.

*****

Joe’s relationship with Christine intensified over the next few weeks, but at first his family was unconcerned. A young man needed to sow a few wild oats before he settled down, and Ben viewed Joe’s attraction to Christine in that light. He never expected it to last for long or turn serious.

When Joe failed to return home until the early hours for the second night in a row, Ben decided that something needed to be said. His brothers’ were fed up covering for him and Adam had pointed out, on more than one occasion, that Joe was so tired during the day, he was not only a danger to himself, but others.

When Joe arrived at the breakfast table that morning, long after his brothers had begun their working day, Ben asked to have a word with him. Joe had the good grace to look sheepish; he knew he had not been pulling his weight over the last few weeks. In a futile effort to avoid the inevitable lecture, Joe began, “Guess I slept a little late this morning, Pa. I’m really sorry; it won’t happen again.”

Ben studied Joe’s tired face across the breakfast table and noted the dark circles under the eyes. “It’s not just this morning, Joseph; you’ve hardly been in your bed before midnight for weeks. Now you’re a grown man and what you do in your free time is your business, but when it comes to the ranch, you work here just like any other hand, and that is my business.”

Joe slumped down in his chair and closed his tired eyes; he should have known better. There were some things in life that just couldn’t be avoided and his father’s view on tardiness was legendary. Joe’s disrespectful posture annoyed Ben and the softly. softly approach that he had previously decided to adopt quickly went out of the window as he barked, “Joseph!”

Joe’s eyes shot open and he looked wide-eyed at his Pa, wondering what he could have done to annoy him so quickly. “Yes Pa?”

“Sit up straight when I’m talking to you.”

Joe quickly righted himself and sat ramrod straight in his chair. Ruefully he thought, “I was a ‘grown man’ just a minute ago, but with one word, he manages to make me feel like a little boy again.”

Seeing that he had Joe’s full attention once more, Ben stood up and paced the floor. He wanted to try and keep the conversation as convivial as possible and a sure way to get Joe’s back up was to give him advice about his love life.

“I wanted to talk to you about Christine,” Ben began, casting his eyes in Joe’s direction to try and gauge his reaction. “Don’t you think you’ve been seeing an awful lot of her in the last few weeks?”

“I really like her, Pa,” Joe replied guardedly and already Ben could see the stubborn look appearing on Joe’s face.

“I’m sure you do,” said Ben smiling with all sincerity. Beckoning Joe to join him on the settee, he continued, “Now Joe, I know a young man has to have a bit of fun before settling down, but I really think you should start seeing less of this woman. The gossips in town don’t miss anything and you have been keeping very late hours.”

“I don’t care what people think, Pa. Christine and I are care very much for each other.”

Ben was taken aback. He hadn’t for one moment thought Joe was really serious about this woman. Surely the boy could see what type of person she was? But looking at Joe’s earnest face he realized that he would have to try and spell it out for him.

“Joe, listen to me. Christine is a lot older and more worldly than you.”

It was Joe’s turn to smile. “I seem to remember having this conversation with you once before, Pa. I’m not 17 anymore.”

Ben also remembered the conversation when Joe was enamored with Julia Bulette. He hadn’t handled the situation very well on that occasion and he mentally resolved to try and not make the same mistakes. “Joe, Christine in a very attractive and entertaining young woman, but she is not the sort of person a young man is expected to take seriously.”

The words hit home, but Joe dismissed them immediately. “I don’t know what you are getting at, Pa, but I would advise you not to continue. You are talking about my future wife.”

All of Ben’s resolve to stay calm evaporated in an instant. Christine was not a common saloon girl and, to the unsuspecting, she gave off an air of respectability, but Ben had met women like her on numerous occasions. They were predatory and far more lethal than the women of the night. A saloon girl would take your money and you knew exactly what you were paying for, but women like Christine took everything; your money, your body and soul and left you with nothing. Well, he wasn’t going to allow that to happen to Joe. “Over my dead body,” he shouted. “I will not have that woman in this house. You are not 21, therefore you cannot marry without my consent, and believe me when I say this, Joseph, I am not giving it.”

By this time, Joe was on his feet and squaring up to his father, his own control completely gone. “I’ll be 21 in a few weeks Pa and won’t need your permission. So you might as well get used to the idea, with or without your consent, Christine will become Mrs. Joseph Cartwright.” The words were hardly out of his mouth before he turned from a red faced Ben, picked up his hat and gunbelt and strode out of the house slamming the door behind him.

Ben was still fighting a losing battle in trying to calm down when he heard Joe’s horse ride out of the yard at full gallop.

*****

Just hours later, a despondent Joe sat in Christine’s room lamenting over his father’s refusal to let them marry.

Standing behind him, massaging his stiff and tense shoulders, Christine purred, “Don’t worry, Joe; your father will come round and everything will be fine.”

Christine was taking a big chance. There was always the risk that if Joe went against his father’s wishes, then the upstanding and moralistic Ben may disown him.

This was a chance Christine was willing to take. She had researched the Cartwright family as if they were a history lesson and had come to the conclusion that although Ben was a strict, and in some ways, overbearing patriarch to his sons, he loved them with a passion that was seldom displayed in the harsh and rugged west. When it came to the crunch she was sure that Ben would back down rather than lose his son.

From start to finish it had only taken Christine three weeks to convince Joe he couldn’t live without her. It had been like leading a lamb to the slaughter; she was to become Mrs. Joseph Cartwright and already she was molding him into the man she wanted.

Christine convinced Joe to return home and make amends with his father and for him to remain calm, but firm, and leave his Pa in no doubt that he was a man with a mind of his own. In that way she was sure his father would come round to his way of thinking.

By the time Joe arrived home that evening to comply with Christine’s bidding, Ben had finally calmed down and was sorry for his earlier outburst. He had resolved to approach the subject with sensitivity and, hopefully, over the next few weeks Joe would see the light. If he didn’t, well, Ben had already resigned himself to the fact that he would have to accept Christine begrudgingly into the family.

*****

Adam was not quite as tolerant or patient as Ben. He confronted Joe on several occasions and made it quite clear that he thought his younger brother was making a complete fool of himself! The woman was a scheming witch who would bring Joe nothing but misery. Needless to say the relationship between Joe and Adam, which was precarious at the best of times, deteriorated beyond all repair. Joe refused to work with his brother, and Ben in an effort to keep harmony, assigned them tasks as far away from each other as possible.

Hoss was upset at the discord in his family and tried to remain neutral. He found Christine to be very attractive and charming and couldn’t fail to see how much his younger brother cared for her. Just like his father and older brother, he was concerned at the obvious age difference between the couple, but his inexperience with woman meant that he did not see through her deceptive ways.

As Joe’s twenty-first birthday drew near, Ben could see that he was fighting a losing battle. When it became evident Joe and Christine would definitely marry, with or without his consent, Ben conceded, and in an effort to bring about reconciliation he offered to have the wedding ceremony on the Ponderosa.

With only two days to go before the big event, Adam decided to try one last time to intervene on his brother’s behalf. Resolutely making his way to the International House Hotel, Adam went up to Christine’s room determined he would do whatever it took to get her out of his brother’s life.

When Christine opened her bedroom door she was both surprised and amused to see Adam standing before her, and moving to one side she invited him into her room. Even though it was late afternoon, Christine was dressed in a flimsy negligee and Adam tried hard to avert his eyes from her obvious allure.

“Adam, this is a surprise. To what do I owe the unexpected pleasure?” she asked mockingly.

Adam fought hard to control his temper. “I think we both know why I’m here Christine. Let’s not play games with each other. What will it take for you to go away and leave my brother alone? If it’s only money you’re after, I can give you more than you ever dreamed of.”

Christine did not even try to put up a pretence where Adam was concerned. “Don’t be ridiculous, Adam. When I marry Joe, not only do I become a Cartwright but I will also have a share in the Ponderosa fortune.”

“How much will it take, Christine?”

“More than you could ever afford, Adam. Joe offers me a lifetime of security.”

Seeing his angry face, Christine could not help goading him more by adding, “For as long as I want him, that is.”

Adam was incensed at her boldness and grabbed her by the wrist. Twisting her arm above her head, he said. “You seem to think you have it all worked out, but be warned, if you do anything to hurt my little brother you will have me to answer to.”

From the beginning, Christine had found herself attracted to the eldest Cartwright son and now up close his menacing sexuality intoxicated her. She pressed herself seductively up against him and with her free hand she began to unbutton his shirt.

“That’s not the real reason you are here, is it Adam?” she whispered huskily. “Don’t fight it; we both feel the same way I’m sure. We’re alike, you and I; we know what we want and we go after it. When the wedding is over, there’ll be plenty of opportunity for you and me to be together. The danger of being caught will be all the more exciting, don’t you think?”

Even though Adam had no respect for the woman, he was still taken aback by her words and as Christine cupped the back of his neck and brought her mouth closer to his, he felt impotent to break free. However, before their lips could meet the door opened and Joe entered. Christine was quick to turn the situation around to her own advantage, and the hand that was cupping Adam’s neck a moment before, now slapped him hard across the face.

A bemused Joe looked from one to another trying to comprehend what was happening. Seeing the confusion on his face, Christine immediately changed into the vulnerable and wronged woman and burst into tears. Adam was at a loss for words as he watched the transformation take place.

Not waiting for an explanation, Joe lunged at his brother and with fists flying, he attacked Adam with a ferocity he had not shown before. Adam did not attempt to fight back but instead sought to restrain Joe, contrary to his natural reaction. Under the circumstances, he would have liked to try and knock some sense into his youngest sibling, but he was so angry he was afraid he might not be able to stop. After all, it wasn’t Joe that he was angry with, but Christine!

Pushing Joe roughly away from him, Adam retrieved his hat from the floor and walked out of the room with not a backward glance. With a sigh, Adam reluctantly had to admit that his attempt to rescue Joe had backfired and his brother’s fate was now sealed as Joe glared after him for only a second, before gathering a weeping Christine into his arms.

Christine was right in her summation of the head of the Cartwright family, for two days later the wedding took place with all the Cartwrights in attendance. At Ben’s insistence, the eldest and youngest brother had called an uneasy truce and once the wedding was over, Ben was left with no alternative but to accept Christine as part of the family. With a deep feeling of trepidation Ben commissioned a house to be built on Ponderosa land for the newlyweds and reluctantly invested a large sum of money in a bank account for Joe. Christine’s cunning plan had truly come into fruition.

*****

At first, married life was everything Joe hoped it would be. He enjoyed the novelty of coming home at the end of a long day to find Christine waiting for him with a hot meal on the table. His days were long, but the nights more than made up for it, and Joe was a happy man. As the weeks passed, Joe appeared to be a picture of contentment; his family started to relax and were lulled into thinking that maybe they had misjudged Christine after all.

Even the uneasy relationship between Joe and Adam was beginning to thaw. For the sake of family harmony, they had put their differences behind them and peace reigned once more, keeping their conversations on neutral ground and only discussing matters pertaining to the running of the ranch.

Christine enjoyed the status she was awarded by being part of the Cartwright family. She reveled in her trips to Virginia City and never returned empty handed. Within a few short months, she had spent the huge sum of money Ben had deposited in the bank for Joe as part of his wedding present.

Life for Joe was so busy he was totally unaware of his wife’s spending sprees. He was determined to demonstrate to himself, and his family, that he was now a stable married man with responsibilities and he worked long and hard at proving it. The state of his financial affairs only came to light one day when Joe went into town to get supplies for the ranch and he called in at the bank to make a withdrawal. A very embarrassed bank clerk called for the manager, who took Joe into his office and told him that his account was empty. Joe was speechless. Unlike a lot of men, he had allowed Christine to have full access to his finances without deferring to him. When Joe returned home that day he was furious and he and Christine had their first blazing row.

“What’s the problem?” Christine asked offhandedly. “All you need to do is ask your father for some more.”

This was a side of Christine that Joe had not seen before, or maybe he had allowed himself to be blinded to it in the past. “I won’t be asking my Pa for any more money, Christine. We will just have to live on what we have until pay day.”

Yet again Joe was no match for Christine and in less than twenty-four hours, Joe was stood, hat in hand, asking his father for more money.

This was now the pattern of their life together. Christine said ‘Jump’ and Joe virtually asked ‘how high?’ Such was her power over him. Consequently, married bliss did not last long.

As time passed, Christine became bored playing the little housewife and she needed to look for new excitement. That excitement subsequently came in the guise of Harold Grimes. Harold was a distinguished middle-aged businessman in Virginia City. He was married to a rather mousy woman named Mildred and he couldn’t believe his luck when Christine took an interest in him. Mr. & Mrs. Grimes had a teenage son who attended school back east and, in all ways, they were the very essence of respectability.

Harold’s very respectability was part of the attraction for Christine. She lured him away from his business and his wife at every opportunity and, just like every other man that she had set her sights on; he was powerless to resist her charms.

Joe knew from the outset that there was something wrong, but he didn’t know what it was and how to put it right. In lots of ways, Joe was still very naive and at first it never occurred to him that Christine could be having an affair. Many times he returned to their home to find her gone and when she returned she would give no reasonable explanation as to where she had been.

Joe’s life became a series of ups and downs, which were governed by Christine’s volatile moods. If her day had gone well, Joe would return in the evening to a happy loving wife who would shower him with affection. On the other hand, if Harold had failed to turn up for a clandestine rendezvous, she would make Joe’s life a living hell.

Often when he was growing up Joe would hear his Pa and brothers laughing about a woman’s changeable temperament. Apparently his mother could be as happy as a sunny day one moment and the next they would be running for cover away from the full force of her temper. Unlike the rest of his family, Joe had no experience of living with a woman in the house, and he wondered if maybe Christine’s unpredictable nature could be normal, but who was he to ask?

Christine was well aware of the effect she had on Joe, and she loved the power she had over him. She took great pleasure in making his life a misery one day and then turning the tables and fawning over him the next.

As the weeks grew into months Joe’s family noticed a change in him and began to worry about him once more. A somber, quiet young man, who seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders, replaced the once happy and carefree youth. Ben tried on several occasions to get Joe to talk about his problems, but Joe no longer felt able to confide in him, and Ben felt helpless as to what to do. Any mention of his private life was dismissed and he left his family in no doubt that his marriage was his own affair and no one else’s.

It took a while, but eventually Joe could no longer hide the truth even from himself. The more he thought about it the more obvious it became. Joe had no proof; there was nothing of which he could accuse her, but with each day Joe became more and more certain of his suspicions. Christine was most certainly cheating on him.

*****

It was Friday 13 March, an omen in itself, when Joe had returned to his home to find it empty and Christine gone. As he sat at the dinner table alone, neither eating nor drinking, he decided that that night he would have it out with her. When she returned, as he was certain she would, he would confront her with his suspicions and everything would be brought out into the open.

Hours later, Joe was still sitting at the table alone as the night closed in around him. With a heavy heart he rose and made his way into the bedroom. Disrobing he put on his nightshirt and climbed into bed, his emotions were now too raw to challenge Christine that evening and he decided he would wait until morning. Joe thought that after a night’s sleep his resolve would be better and he was determined that this time he would not let her talk him around.

She was so beautiful and very persuasive and on numerous occasions Joe had accepted her explanations of where she had been without question. Deep inside he knew she was lying, but when you are in love you are often blinkered and see only what you want to see. But those days were now over. Joe’s eyes had been opened and he would no longer be blinded by her lies! The saddest part for Joe was the realization that he loved her no longer and probably never really had for the woman he had thought he had married never really existed.

As for Christine, her evening was not going as she had planned.

“What do you mean it’s over?” she spat at Harold as she walked across the room towards him. “It’s over when I say it’s over and not before.”

Harold cringed inside; he had been dreading this moment. “I’m sorry, Christine,” he began “it’s just Mildred. She’s beginning to get suspicious about all the late nights I’ve been having. I can’t risk a scandal and neither can you.”

“Let me worry about that,” Christine retorted immediately. How dare he have the audacity to tell her that the relationship between them was ended? No man had ever finished with Christine and for that he would have to pay dearly.

“What about Joe?” he wheedled once more. “Surely you don’t want him to find out about us?”

Christine laughed. “I can handle Joe; you have no need to worry on that score.”

Harold remained firm, for people were beginning to comment that he spent an awful lot of evenings working, and he was running out of excuses. He had hoped that Christine would understand and be equally worried that her husband would hear the gossip, but Christine did not seem to care. She would not listen to reason and left Harold in no doubt that she would pay Mildred a visit that very evening and give her a graphic account of how her husband spent his leisure time.

It was very late when Christine finally returned home to the house she shared with Joe. She had malicious fun that evening watching the face of the pathetic Mildred as she gave her the full facts, but she was also concerned about the reaction of Joe’s family if they ever found out about it. Maybe she had been a bit hasty. If she wasn’t careful her hurt pride could possibly cost her the loss of her marriage. Knowing full well she and Joe had not been seeing eye to eye of late, she decided it was time to heal the rift with her husband, before the gap was too large and she lost him and his fortune forever.

The house was in darkness when Christine entered and she stripped naked in front of the still burning fire. Quietly pushing open the bedroom door she looked towards the bed where she could barely make out the still form of her husband. Shivering against the cold, she pulled back the covers, climbed inside and wrapped her cold body around that of Joe. Christine smiled to herself as she expertly overcame Joe’s resistance to her lovemaking; Joe Cartwright was no match for her and she would have him bend to her will as she always did.

Later, as she fell deep into slumber Christine Cartwright was blissfully unaware of the nightmare scenario that was yet to unfold.

*****

Ben’s thoughts were in turmoil as he rode into Virginia City. Adam and Hoss, riding along side of him, did not speak as they too tried to come to terms with what the deputy had told them. Christine was dead and Joe had been charged with her murder.

They all knew that the marriage would never last; it was only a matter of time before Joe admitted to himself the type of woman he had married. But this! Not one of them could have envisaged this. Not in a million years could Ben have seen things turning out this way.

It was with heavy hearts that they stepped into the jailhouse that morning. Roy’s eyes locked with those of his oldest friend and the pain that he saw reflected there made him flinch. What could he say to him? Joe was charged with murder and would almost certainly pay the ultimate penalty.

The three Cartwright men removed their guns and laid them on Roy’s desk. “Can we see him, Roy?” asked Ben.

“Yes of course Ben, but he ain’t saying much.”

As Roy unlocked the cell door, Ben’s eyes were transfixed on the slim figure laid out on the bed. Joe was lying on his back staring at the ceiling. His face was ashen and his lips were just as pale. Seeing Ben’s concerned expression, Roy said “The boy’s in shock, Ben, plus he had quite a skin full last night; I would imagine he has one humdinger of a hangover.”

Sitting down gently on the side of the bed, no words were needed as Ben reached forward and taking hold of his son’s shoulders he pulled him into his arms. Joe did not resist and as he felt his father’s comforting embrace he began to weep.

Ben stroked Joe’s back and ran his hand through the tousled curls. He had missed the closeness he had always shared with his youngest son these past months, but this was not the way he would have wished to rekindle the relationship.

There was a despondency and helplessness in Joe’s cries that pierced Ben’s heart like a knife, “Hush, son, don’t worry, we’ll sort this out. Don’t cry, Joe; believe me we’ll get through this together.”

Joe lifted his head from his father’s shoulder. Unable to look Ben in the eye, he said between sobs, “Christine is dead, Pa, and I must have killed her. You can’t fix this one; no one can. If I killed her, I deserve to hang.”

Ben had no words of comfort to give. He couldn’t believe that Joe could have done such a thing, but what if he had? Ben had raised his sons to live by the law. A country could not grow and prosper without rules, and if a man broke those rules he deserved to be punished, even if that man was Ben Cartwright’s son.

Adam and Hoss stood by helpless. They too wanted to give their young brother words of comfort, but what could they say? Any promises they made would have a hollow ring to them at this point in time. Anxious to do something to help, the brothers went in search of Hiram Wood, the family lawyer; Joe’s life was going to depend on the best representation they could find.

When presented with all the facts from Roy, Ben could still not believe that Joe could have killed his wife. Ben knew his sons, their faults and weaknesses as well as their virtues, and cold-blooded murder was something he didn’t believe his sons were capable of, drunk or sober.

Hiram was difficult to track down and by the time he arrived at the Sheriff’s Office, Joe had fallen into an exhausted sleep. Ben could not see the point in disturbing him; he was going to need all his strength in the days ahead, and so Hiram and the family made their way over to the International Hotel to plan Joe’s defense.

The four men discussed the case long into the night, but the facts of the matter remained. Christine was dead and Joe appeared to be the only possible suspect!

*****

The following morning Hiram sat in the cell with Joe about to go over the circumstances that led up to the murder. Joe was able to tell him very little, as he had no recollection of anything from the time he fell asleep with the whisky bottle in his hand, until Roy banged on his door the following morning.

Ben, Adam and Hoss entered the jailhouse just as Hiram was attempting to get Joe to go into what he had told him in more detail.

“Right, Joe; explain to me again what happened when you arrived home that evening.”

“I’ve already told you once, Hiram; I went home and the house was empty. I sat until it was dark and then I went to bed.”

Roy opened the cell door and allowed Ben to enter. There wasn’t much room inside the cell and Adam and Hoss stood at the other side of the bars. Sitting on the bed next to Joe, Ben placed a comforting hand on his knee. Joe smiled weakly at his father, but the smile never reached his eyes and Ben wished, not for the first time, that he could turn back the clock.

“Did you not think to go and look for Christine when you found she wasn’t at the house?” persisted Hiram.

“Christine was quite often gone when I arrived home. It wasn’t unusual,” replied Joe with a shrug of his shoulders.

Ben glanced at his two eldest sons, but they both shook their heads slightly. Joe had never mentioned Christine’s absences to any of them.

“Where did you think she was Joe?” Hiram asked, but already suspecting the answer.

Joe shifted uncomfortably on the edge of the bed and looked at the floor.

“You have to be honest with me, Joe.”

“She was probably with another man,” Joe replied in almost a whisper.

“That woman was a witch,” exploded Adam banging his fist on the cell bars.

Joe looked up at him and in a distressed voice said, “She’s dead, Adam.”

Adam bit back his retort. He must keep calm for Joe’s sake; his temper would not help things.

“Right, Joe,” Hiram continued. “Just tell me what happened when Christine eventually arrived home.”

“She came to bed,” Joe replied simply.

“Were you asleep? Did you argue? What happened?”

Joe couldn’t look at his family, “I wasn’t asleep and, no, we didn’t argue.”

Hiram was becoming irritated at Joe’s evasive answers. “Look Joe, something must have gone on between you. If I’m to be of any help, I need to know everything.”

Joe stood up from the bed and walked over to face the wall. What he had to say couldn’t be explained, he didn’t understand it himself. Placing his hands on the wall in front of him for support he said,

“We made love and Christine went to sleep. I got out of bed, drank a bottle of whisky and slept on the settee until morning,” Joe swallowed several times before adding, “And somewhere in-between, I must have shot her.”

There didn’t seem any other explanation, not to Hiram, not to the family and certainly not to Joe.

*****

It turned out that the ‘friend’ of Christine’s who had reported Joe’s abuse was none other than Mildred Grimes. Joe and his family had no reason to doubt her story, but they were surprised that the two women were friends. Mildred and Christine could not have been more different.

When Joe was told that Christine had been visiting with Mildred that evening and not with another man, he began to doubt his own sanity. Had he been wrong after all? Was Christine’s indiscretion all in his own mind? What if he had misjudged her and she had been visiting with Mildred on other occasions? Joe began to sink into deep depression, for he had no doubt that he was guilty and he didn’t see any point in denying it. He deserved to die and he would do nothing to prevent it!

In the days that followed, Hiram did his best to prepare a suitable defense, but Joe was not in the least hopeful. Mildred’s testimony could not be questioned. The woman was of impeccable character and the family well known in the community as being respectable and above reproach.

Hiram had tried to get Joe to give more details of his life with Christine. He thought he might get leniency from the court if it could be proved that Christine had driven Joe to act the way he did because of her wanton behavior. Joe would have none of it. Christine was dead and he would not have her name dragged through the mud, and more to the point, what if she was innocent? What if he had imagined the smell of tobacco on her clothes and another man’s cologne lingering in her hair? Joe tortured himself with self-doubt, he was responsible for her death and of that he no longer had any doubt.

Over the next couple of days, Joe found himself alone as his Pa and brothers tried to help Hiram in preparation for the trial. It gave him time to contemplate, not only what fate decreed for him, but also what had led him down that path in the first place.

There was really no point in looking back, but he couldn’t help regretting not going to his Pa earlier and discussing his fears with regards to Christine. What stopped him? Pride probably. He didn’t want to admit to his family that he had failed and that they had been right about Christine all along. Marriage had given him ‘grown up’ status for the first time in his life and he had chosen to bury his head in the sand rather than admit defeat. But what price had pride cost him? Almost certainly his life!

Joe had no recollection whatsoever as to what had taken place that night after he consumed the whisky. That confused him. Why couldn’t he remember? He was not a whisky drinker and he had never been in such a state before, but even that didn’t account for the fact he had no memory of the event. Surely something so violent would have registered somewhere in his befuddled brain? He was not a cruel or callous man and, if anything, he thought the act itself would have given him nightmares for the rest of his days but the nightmares were strangely noticeable by their absence.

Maybe he was trying to excuse himself or maybe it was the only way he could deal with what he had done. Much as he would have liked to convince himself that he was innocent, it didn’t seem possible. He and Christine were alone that night and, after all, had he not wished her dead?

Joe had no doubt he would hang, he had no defense to offer and, no matter what his family said, he would not try to defend his actions. Christine’s behavior towards him had been morally wrong, but that did not give him the right to take her life, and it was only right that he was punished in return.

*****

On the day of the trial Joe sat in court looking pale and ill. He looked much younger than his twenty-one years, and the Judge was quick to instruct the jury not to be swayed in any way by the defendant’s obvious youth and look of innocence.

The prosecution called Mildred Grimes to the stand. Mildred appeared nervous and sat wringing her hands together and pulling at her skirt as the lawyers questioned her. She never once looked at Joe throughout her testimony and Joe was in a world of his own, not listening to a word she said.

The prosecutor was gentle with her and asked her to repeat what happened on the evening of Friday 13 March.

“Well Christine, Mrs. Cartwright, that is, came to visit me in the early evening. She was very distressed and stayed until nearly 11pm.”

“Why was she so distressed?” asked the prosecutor.

Mrs. Grimes looked down in her lap and began twisting her hands once more.

“She said she was afraid of her husband. He had been drinking a lot lately and had become abusive.”

“Did she claim that her husband was violent with her?”

“Yes. She said he drank so much on occasions that he didn’t know what he was doing. That night she stayed with me until very late in the hope that he would have fallen asleep before she went home.”

The prosecutor nodded his head in understanding. “Did she say why her husband was behaving like that?”

“Well she did say that he was very jealous. She said it was probably a mistake marrying him in the first place. He was so immature and thought that every man was after her. That night when she left she feared for her life.”

“So why did you decide to wait until morning before going to see the sheriff?”

Mildred looked at the prosecutor pitifully before saying, “Well it just didn’t seem right getting involved in someone else’s marital affair, but after she left, I just couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking I should have insisted that she stay with us that evening. The next morning, as soon as it was light, I went to see Sheriff Coffee and asked him to check and make sure she was all right.”

At this point, Mildred Grimes began to cry quietly into her handkerchief, and once the Judge ascertained that there were no more questions for her, he said she could step down.

The next person on the stand was Sheriff Coffee. He explained to the Jury how he had gone to Joe Cartwright’s home that morning and what he had found. It pained Roy to describe his movements and findings that day. He was very fond of the Cartwrights, all of them, but he had known Little Joe for most of his life and he just couldn’t bear to think that he was going to be instrumental in bringing about his demise.

“And how did Joe Cartwright seem to you that morning, when you appeared on his doorstep?” the prosecutor asked.

“If anything he seemed bemused by it all. He seemed to think something might have happened to his family, mainly his Pa.”

“Had he been drinking?”

“Yes,” replied Roy in a voice barely audible. “I found an empty bottle of whisky when I went into the house.”

“Did he try to hide his wife’s murder from you?”

“No, he seemed confused as to why we were there at first and then when he saw his wife’s body, he ran out of the house and was violently sick. After that he seemed to be in shock and, quite frankly, I think he seems to have been that way ever since.”

The prosecutor was quick to intervene “I don’t think it is up to you to speculate on the defendant’s state of mind, Sheriff.”

The questions continued throughout the day and finally it was Joe’s turn to take the stand. He did nothing to refute anything that had been said. When asked if he had killed his wife he simply stated “I must have. What other explanation is there?”

Ben, Adam and Hoss felt powerless to do anything to help him. They had no lifeline to offer and no words of comfort to give. In days gone by Joe had been in many scrapes and, on more than one occasion, his family had bailed him out, but this was different. A ‘necessary talk”, words or money couldn’t make it right, not this time.

In summing up, the defense asked for leniency because of his previous good character, but in actual fact there were no grounds for leniency and none were given. The jury returned a ‘guilty’ verdict without need to leave the courtroom.

In his summing up the Judge said that this was a most violent crime against a totally innocent young woman and for a case such as this there was only one punishment; Joe would be hanged at dawn the following day.

*****

Roy led Joe from the Court House and escorted him back to the jailhouse with Hoss in tow. Ben and Adam stayed behind to discuss with Hiram the possibility of an appeal.

Hiram gently pointed out the futility of such an action.

“We have no grounds. I’m sorry, Ben; I can’t tell you how sorry I am, but you are just going to have to accept the verdict. Now why don’t you go and spend the little time you have left with your son instead of wasting time here, ‘cause believe me, Ben, you are wasting your time.”

Back at the jailhouse Hoss was hatching a plan. Joe sat on the bed staring into space trying to come to terms with his fate, when he felt Hoss shake him hard.

“Are you listening to me, Joe?”

“What? Sorry Hoss did you say something?”

“Listen Joe,” Hoss began looking round furtively to make sure there was no one else in hearing distance. “I’m going to get you out of here, but you are going to have to help me.”

It took a minute for Hoss’ words to sink in, but when they did Joe shook his head sadly. “No Hoss, forget it; I’m not going anywhere.”

“There’s no way I’m leaving you here to hang, Joe. Even if I have to hog tie you and carry you out of here myself.”

Joe looked at his brother’s forlorn face and tried to find the right words. “Hoss, I know you mean well and I appreciate what you want to do for me, but the fact of the matter is, I killed someone, and for that I have to be punished.”

“You couldn’t have done it Joe, I just know you c…” Hoss began, but Joe interrupted.

“Hoss, Hoss, what other explanation is there?”

At Joe’s words, the tears began to spill from Hoss’ eyes and Joe felt as if his heart would break. All of his life, Hoss had been his protector and his big brother, but most of all he had been his best friend. The guilt swept over Joe as he once again thought of the grief and shame he had brought upon his family.

“Listen Hoss, I can’t let you sacrifice yourself for me. Even if we did get away, what sort of life would we have, always hiding, always on the run?” Swallowing back his own tears, Joe continued. “I need you to take care of Pa for me. He’s going to need you after tomorrow. Promise me you’ll be strong for him Hoss, promise me that.”

Hoss nodded his head, but couldn’t form the words.

“Now how about a game of checkers? It might be your last time to beat me,” Joe cajoled, but seeing the stricken look on his brother’s face he tried to rescind the tactless comment, “Sorry Hoss, I guess that was a bad joke.”

Shortly after Ben and Adam entered the jailhouse. Both men were lost in their own thoughts. How do they get through the next few hours? How do they say goodbye?

The cell was small and by the time the four men were inside there wasn’t much room to move. As the hours passed conversation was stilted, they had so much they wanted to say to each other, but when it came to it they couldn’t put their thoughts into words and found themselves talking trivia.

After a long period of silence Adam smiled over at Joe and said, “How about I get us a bottle of whiskey? It would help us all relax a little?”

Joe appreciated the offer but returning his brother’s smile he answered, “No thanks, once was enough for me.”

“Once?” asked Adam puzzled “but I thought you had developed quite a taste for the stuff over the last few months?”

“Who me?” asked Joe “No way. That night was my first night of hitting the bottle and believe me it will be my last.”

Silence once again followed as the irony of Joe’s words hit home.

Adam’s mind was ticking over; something just didn’t add up, he had to get to the bottom of this. Walking over to Joe he pulled his brother to his feet and grabbed him in a rare embrace, before shouting to Roy to let him out.

“There’s something I have to do, Joe, but I promise I’ll be back before…. well just hang on, kid; look after Pa and I’ll be back before you know it.”

Ben followed Adam out of the cell. “Where are you going, Adam? Your brother needs you here!”

“I know Pa, but you have to trust me on this. I’ll be back as quick as I can.”

Ben stared at Adam’s retreating back and felt the sadness of his eldest. Maybe Adam couldn’t face what was going to happen to his brother the following morning; none of them could. Over the years they had all depended on Adam’s stalwart nature, but maybe this time they would have to find their own inner strength to get through the time ahead.

*****

It took Adam several hours to arrive at the Grimes’ house and he didn’t expect to find anyone still awake. A single lamp shone through the kitchen window, but he could see no movement from inside.

Adam took a deep breath before walking up to the door and banging loudly. He could be wrong, he very probably was, but his brother’s life was at stake and he was willing to take the chance of eating humble pie.

Harold Grimes opened the door a few inches and peered out at Adam. “What do you want here?”

“I just need to talk to you,” Adam replied, at the same time putting his foot inside the door so that Grimes could not close it in his face.

Grimes stepped back and allowed Adam to enter. Mildred Grimes stood up from the kitchen table. Adam noticed the wary look on her face as she glanced from him to her husband.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she stated defensively. “The law says you aren’t allowed to harass witnesses.”

“The trial’s over now, Mrs. Grimes, and my brother has been convicted, so really that doesn’t apply.”

“In that case, what do you want with us?”

“I want to know why you lied about my brother.” Adam was on shaky ground, but he had to convince them he knew something.

“Lie? Why should I lie?”

“Because your husband was having an affair with my brother’s wife.” That was it; the words were out of Adam’s mouth. It was a long shot; now all he had to do was wait for their reaction.

Harold Grimes’ jaw dropped and his mouth gaped in surprise. Looking away from his wife’s hurt expression, he hung his head in shame. “How did you find out?” he asked.

Adam let out the breath he was holding. So it was true; his hunch was right after all. He somehow couldn’t see Christine and Mrs. Grimes as friends; there had to be more to it and Harold Grimes had to be the connection.

“Well your wife was lying about my brother, so she had to be protecting someone and that someone had to be you.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Cartwright, my wife never knew about Christine and me.”

“She had to know,” Adam persisted, “otherwise why would she lie about Christine coming to visit her?”

“That wasn’t a lie,” Mildred stated simply.

Adam was confused. He knew Mildred was lying, but she would only do that to protect her husband, so why would she feel the need to protect him if she never knew of his affair?

Now that the secret was out, Harold Grimes felt the need to unburden himself.

“I admit I was seeing Christine, but I finished it that night.” He looked to his wife for understanding. “I couldn’t go on deceiving Mildred any longer so I told Christine it was over.”

“What did she do?” asked Adam simply.

“She threatened to tell Mildred. I don’t kid myself that she loved me, or even cared for me. To her I was an amusing distraction, but she liked to be in control. I stayed in town that night; well I’ve stayed in town a lot of nights lately.” He hung his head in shame.

“So that’s why you killed her and got your wife to point the finger at my brother?”

Harold’s head shot up and he looked at Adam in horror. “I never killed her! I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright; I’ve played my part in all of this, but I didn’t kill Christine. Justice has been served on that score.”

“Then why did you lie, Mrs. Grimes?” Adam asked turning towards Mildred.

“Mildred never lied!” cried Harold “Christine did visit her that night. I suppose when it came down to it Christine realized she had more to lose than I did; after all, your brother was her meal ticket for life. I can only think that when she arrived at my house, she thought better of it and decided to pretend to Mildred that she was afraid of Joe.” Harold stopped for breath before going on. “It was only when Mildred came to town the following morning and reported Joe to the sheriff that I realized that Christine had not told her of our affair.”

Adam pondered over what Grimes said. “But if that’s true, why did you lie, Mrs. Grimes?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” she bristled walking over to the other side of the room and turning her back on them so that they could not see her face.

“Well you claimed that Christine complained that Joe was often drunk and abusive, when in actual fact Joe never touched a drop of whisky before that night.”

“Ha, I’m sure that’s what he claimed but it isn’t true,” she retorted.

“My brother has been completely truthful throughout all of this. He had no reason to lie. So why would you say that Christine was worried about Joe’s drinking? Before that night, she would have no reason to be worried.”

Mildred Grimes was becoming very agitated; she walked backwards and forwards across the room.

Turning to Harold, Adam asked, “Did Christine ever complain to you about Joe’s drinking?”

Harold shook his head. “No she never mentioned it. But if I’m truthful, she never discussed Joe at all.”

A realization began to dawn in Adam’s mind. “I’ve got this all wrong, haven’t I? Someone must have gone to the house that night to have seen Joe drunk, and if it wasn’t your husband, Mrs. Grimes, then it must have been you!”

Mildred Grimes stopped her pacing in front of the dresser. Without turning round she said, “That woman did come to see me that night but not to tell me about Joe.” She turned to her husband and in a scathing voice said, “You are pathetic; you allowed yourself to be taken in by that harlot. She told me all about the pair of you. Laughing behind my back, making a fool out of me.”

Adam looked at the woman with pity; Christine had ruined so many lives. “So what did you do when she left, Mrs. Grimes?”

“Well, I thought two can play at that game. See how she would like it. I thought I would go and have a word with her husband and let him know what she was doing behind his back. It was late when I got there and I banged on the door for ages but no one answered. I was so angry; I wasn’t going to leave it there. So I pushed the door open and went in.”

“And what did you find?” Adam asked. Although he was sure, he didn’t want to know the answer. He had thought that Harold Grimes had killed Christine, but as the story was unfolding it was looking more and more as if Joe had killed his wife, and the only reason Mildred Grimes knew about his drinking was because she had been at the house shortly afterwards. So in some ways she had set out to protect her husband, but not from murder, as he had thought, but from the scandal of an affair.

“I found your brother in a drunken stupor on the settee, and then I went into the bedroom.” At this point, Mrs. Grimes had to stop to compose herself and Adam was afraid she wouldn’t be able to continue. The sight that she would have seen that night would be enough to shock anyone. She must have arrived after Joe had killed Christine, but had decided to keep silent in order to protect her husband.

Harold Grimes was looking at his wife in utter disbelief; all of this was news to him. His wife had given him no reason to suspect that she knew the truth.

“Please continue, Mrs. Grimes.” Adam requested.

“Well she was there, lying naked on the bed.”

Adam leaned back against the door; he could see his brother’s life slipping away. He had tried. When he had rode out that evening he was so sure that Harold Grimes must be the guilty one, but he couldn’t have been more wrong, he just had to look at the man’s face to see that he was as shocked as Adam at his wife’s revelations.

“Then she woke up, and she sat there smiling at me, she wasn’t even worried, the idea of me being there seemed to amuse her.”

Adam tried to take in her words, “You mean she wasn’t dead?” he asked, as fresh hope came to him.

“Of course she wasn’t dead,” replied Mildred. “Well she didn’t laugh for long, because when I turned round and saw the gun lying on the top of the chest of drawers, I knew I just had to wipe the smile off her face. And I did.”

“You killed her?” Adam stated incredulously. This was the last thing he had expected.

Harold Grimes looked at his wife in utter disbelief. He just couldn’t take in what he was hearing. “Mildred, tell me it’s not true; tell me you didn’t kill her!”

Mildred turned on her husband and her mouth turned down in scorn. “You weak fool. We had everything and you let that she-devil come between us. She came here crowing and laughing about all the times you spent together.”

Adam diverted her attention back to him. “You were prepared to let my brother die, for something you had done?”

“Your brother is as guilty as her. He brought that woman into the community and allowed her evil to spread.”

Adam shook his head. “No, the only thing my brother is guilty of is his youth, naivety and inexperience. If she was able to corrupt your fine upstanding husband, what chance did my brother have?”

“Well that may be, but now I have another dilemma. You!” Mildred reached into the dresser drawer and when she turned to face them she had a gun held between her two hands. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but I have no choice. I will tell the sheriff that you came here and attacked me for testifying against your brother. He will have no reason not to believe me.”

Harold Grimes was quick to move forward and place himself between Adam and Mildred.

“I can’t let you do this, Mildred. One murder is bad enough, but I won’t stand by and watch you kill again.”

“Get out of my way, Harold; you are just as much to blame for all of this. If you hadn’t been so weak-willed, none of this would have happened.”

Harold moved towards his wife, “Give me the gun, Mildred.”

Mildred tried to push past him and Harold grabbed for the gun. They grappled for several seconds before the gun went off and Harold watched in horror as his wife slid to the floor clutching her stomach.

As his wife died in his arms, Harold sobbed. “Why, Mildred? You didn’t have to do any of this. We could have worked it out somehow.”

Adam did not have time to let the man grieve. “Come on, Grimes. I’m sorry about your wife, but we must get back to town before it’s too late.”

Grimes looked up at Adam; he was still having difficulty comprehending what had just happened. “Too late? Too late for what?”

With just a touch of bitterness Adam replied, “To save my brother from the hangman’s noose.”

*****

Ben persuaded Hoss to return to the hotel to try and get a couple of hours sleep. Hoss was reluctant to leave Joe, but he could see that his father and brother needed a little time alone and so he gave Joe a quick hug and left the cell.

When they were finally alone Ben turned his warm chocolate eyes on his youngest and asked, “Is there anything I can do for you, son?”

Joe looked up into the face of the man who gave him life and in a voice trembling with emotion he answered, “Just hold me. Pa.”

Sitting down on the bed Ben’s arms encircled Joe’s slender body and the smaller man laid his tousled head on his father’s shoulder. Listening to his son’s muffled cries Ben’s heart was breaking, but he would not allow himself to weaken. He would not shed a tear. He needed to remain strong for Joe; there was plenty of time for tears later. Oh yes, he would have a lifetime left for them.

Ben was in emotional turmoil. Deep down he didn’t believe his son had committed murder, yet here he was sitting in this cell waiting for them to come and hang him. What sort of father was he? On the one hand he wanted to break his son out of there and take him to safety, but on the other hand it went against everything he believed in and had taught his sons. If Joe was guilty, Ben had no choice, Joe could not live outside the law; he must be judged as all other men. But what if Joe was innocent? What then? How could he go on living knowing that he had done nothing to save him? There was irony in that thought, because Ben knew that once Joe fell through the trapdoor tomorrow, his own life might as well be ended.

As these thoughts tumbled around his head, Ben sat rubbing his son’s back and stroking his head, much as he had done when Joe was a child. He was only brought out of his reverie when the sound of Joe’s voice finally penetrated his subconscious.

“Pa,” Joe whispered for the third time.

“Yes, son?” Ben answered shaking his head slightly in a futile attempt to clear his thoughts.

Joe pulled free of his father’s arms and sat up. “Pa, I’ve been thinking about everything that happened that night and I can’t remember anything after I passed out. It just seems so terrible that I would do something like that and yet not even recall doing it.”

Ben looked at his son’s troubled face and reaching out he took hold of Joe’s chin and tilted it upwards so he could look into his eyes, “Til the day I die, I won’t believe you did it, Joe. It’s not in you, son, drunk or sober. Dear God, I just wish there was another explanation.”

“But I am guilty, Pa.” Joe said pulling free from Ben’s grasp and turning away.

Ben was confused. “But you just said you had no recollection of that night, Joe.”

“That parts true, Pa, I don’t remember. But there have been so many times over the last few months when I have wished that Christine was dead. There were days I would go to work and pretend she didn’t exist at all and that I was free again. So you see, what I’m trying to say, Pa, is I am guilty. I really do deserve to die.”

Ben struggled to find the right words. “Wishing someone dead and killing them are two different things, Joe. There are lots of reasons why in the heat of the moment you might wish someone dead, but that is not the same as pulling the trigger. Under the law you can’t be punished for having bad thoughts.”

“Then the law is wrong, Pa. Tell me, who you would consider the guilty one? The man who plans to kill someone, but when he carries out his plan, the other person doesn’t die, or the man that lashes out in temper and the other person dies even if he didn’t mean to kill them.”

Ben fell into the trap. “Obviously the person who intended to kill is the guilty one Joe.”

“Not according to the law, Pa. The person who hangs is the person who kills, whether that was their real intention or not. But as you have agreed, Pa, in God’s law, ‘cause really He is the only one who can see inside and know what you are thinking, the guilty person is the one who wanted someone dead. So don’t grieve for me, Pa; I am guilty. I wished Christine dead; whether or not I pulled the trigger is immaterial.”

The more that Ben tried to reason with him, the more Joe closed his mind to his words and in the end the father gave up; there was no point to the discussion, they were going round in circles and Ben didn’t want to argue with Joe, not now, not ever.

Eventually Joe stopped pacing the few feet up and down the cell and sat next to his father on the bed once more. Ben leaned back against the wall and encouraged Joe to lie down and rest. Joe desperately needed the physical contact his father could provide and it wasn’t long before he rested his head in his father’s lap and Ben’s arms wrapped protectively round him.

As the night dragged on Ben sat stiff and uncomfortable in the same position, but he wouldn’t have moved if wild horses had tried to drag him. Joe was quiet but not sleeping and every so often Ben could feel his body shudder involuntarily. Just as Ben started to dose, Joe asked in a voice filled with sadness, “What’s it like to hang Pa?”

Ben squeezed his eyes tight shut, in a vain attempt to blot out the pain. How could he answer such a question? Did Joe even want an answer? Sending up a silent prayer, Ben prayed for the strength to get through the next few hours. After that, he didn’t care, but he needed to be there for his son until the end.

When dawn finally broke, both men stood up from the bed and stretched to get the kinks from their tired and stiff muscles. Sometime during the night Hoss had arrived back at the jailhouse and sat outside the cell keeping silent vigil over his family.

“Would you like a coffee, son?” Ben asked.

Joe shook his head. His stomach was in knots and he was having difficulty keeping his emotions in check.

Roy appeared looking every bit as bad as they felt. He could not look them in the eye. These people were not just friends; they were the nearest thing to family that Roy possessed. When all this was over, Roy had decided to retire. What sort of job required a man to take part in the hanging of his best friend’s son?

Opening the cell door, Roy entered and gave Ben a sympathetic nod. Hoss followed behind and sidled over to his family. Ben looked at him questioningly, but Hoss shook his head; Adam had not returned.

Now that the moment had come Roy just wanted to get it over with, the longer he delayed things the worse it was for all of them. “I’m sorry, son” he said, “but I’m going to have to put the cuffs on.” Ben opened his mouth to protest, but Roy persisted.

“Ben, you know if I had my way it would be different, but I have no choice.”

Joe placed his hands behind his back and allowed Roy to put the cuffs on without fuss. He could see how the man was suffering and he didn’t want to add to his troubles.

As he was led from his cell and into the bitter cold morning air, Joe did not feel the chill, but his body still trembled. His senses were numb to the weather, but the fear building inside of him could not be subdued. With his hands cuffed behind him he had not had time to embrace his father and brother for the last time and the thought panicked him. Joe tried several times to ask Roy to give him a few more minutes, but Roy did not appear to be listening.

A lump formed in Joe’s throat as he looked around and realized his eldest brother was not there to greet him. He didn’t blame Adam; he had no doubt of his brother’s love for him. Perhaps over the years they had expected too much of old granite head and maybe for once this was something he could not bear to face.

Even though it was bitterly cold, the glare of the sun made it hard for Joe to focus. Just before he was led up the steps to the gallows Ben and Hoss stepped forward and grasped him in a desperate hug. Joe so wanted to wrap his arms round his family, but was helpless to do so, and that thought troubled him more than what was to come.

Ben could feel the tremors running through Joe’s body, and even though he wanted to fall to the ground himself and scream out the injustice of it all, his resolve was strong. He looked Joe in the eye and gave a slight smile, “I’ll be with you, son, always; I love you.”

Joe nodded and blinked back his own tears. As long as he could look and focus on those loving eyes he would get through this. His father’s strength passed into him and as he walked up the steps his eyes never left Ben.

The hangman came forward and placed the noose around Joe’s neck, tightening the knot as he did so. Removing a black hood from his belt the man then attempted to put it over Joe’s head, but Joe shook him away. He needed to be able to look into his father’s eyes; he needed his Pa’s strength.

Joe tried to keep his mind blank; he didn’t want to think of what it would be like to hang, to feel the life being choked out of him. All he wanted was to drown in the pools of those chocolate orbs looking at him with pride, compassion and never ending love.

The seconds ticked by and the crowd surrounding the gallows had lapsed into an uneasy silence waiting for the final curtain to fall. Hoss had retreated to the side of the jail for there was no way he could watch his brother’s end. For once, the big man did not have his father’s strength and he did not want his baby brother to see him as he sobbed unashamedly.

Hanging was an exact profession. An experienced hangman would take the weight and height of the intended victim into consideration when planning an execution. He would carefully place the knot of the manila hemp rope just below the left ear in order to facilitate the victim to be rendered unconscious as quickly as possible. This would hopefully be followed by a speedy breaking of the neck.

But John Turner was not an experienced executioner; this was only his third hanging. Joe was not a heavy man, he was slight of stature, and Turner failed to take this into consideration when he commissioned the building of the gallows and so things did not go to plan.

When the trap door was released, a gasp went up from the assembled masses and Ben finally closed his eyes, no longer wishing to see the spectacle before him. This was just as well, because the sight of his youngest son’s body contorting in agony would have been too much for any father to bear.

Once the platform beneath his feet was released and he found himself in mid air, Joe’s brain began to explode. The rope jerked on his neck and slowly began to strangle the life out of him. This was not meant to happen; he had been told that when a man was hanged he became unconscious almost immediately. Joe’s body danced a pathetic jig as he writhed in misery, before the blackness eventually came and he finally dangled limply from the rope. Just before the last breath left his body he vaguely thought he heard his eldest brother’s voice calling out “Stop! He’s innocent!”

*****

Adam Cartwright and Harold Grimes came riding into Virginia City, just after dawn, at a pace that would have been considered extremely reckless. As they turned the corner at the bottom of the street, Adam screamed out in terror as he witnessed the trapdoor below his brother’s feet open.

By the time Adam jumped from his horse and ran up the steps of the gallows his brother’s body, which had been convulsing only a moment before, had gone limp. Cutting him down as quickly as he could he called for the doctor as he pulled the rope from around Joe’s neck and tried in vain to find a pulse. Adam’s hands trembled so much he couldn’t stop them shaking long enough to gauge whether his brother was still living or not.

As Harold Grimes told his story for all to hear, Paul Martin crouched down next to Adam and placed his fingers on Joe’s neck. Several agonizing seconds passed before he said,

“Thank God, he has a pulse, but it’s only very faint. Carry him to my office and, with God’s help, we may prevent another tragedy happening this day.”

A shocked and bemused Ben and Hoss could hardly believe the turn of events. Ben had mentally said goodbye to his son and now here he was lying in front of him barely breathing, but nevertheless alive, and Harold Grimes was shouting to anyone that would listen that Joe was innocent.

Shaken out of his distress, Hoss lifted Joe with ease and carried him to the doctor’s office. The crowd parted in silence to let them through; Joe was a popular young man in Virginia City and the miscarriage of justice hung guiltily over them all.

Hoss laid Joe down on Paul Martin’s table and then stood back to give the doctor access. The doc assessed the situation as best he could, but he didn’t give out much hope for Joe’s chances. He was barely breathing and already his neck was beginning to swell.

“What can we do to help?” asked Ben, needing to do something but not quite knowing what. Paul looked at him with a heavy heart.

“First off we need to get some towels, fill them with ice and hold it on his neck to try to stop the swelling. After that, I really don’t know.”

Adam rushed off to fetch ice and Hoss gathered towels as Paul checked Joe’s vital signs once again. The ice was placed in the towels and gently wrapped round Joe’s neck. They all stood back and waited, not knowing what to expect.

With the initial panic over, Ben was able to stop and look at his young son properly, for the first time since he had been cut down. Even though unconscious, Joe’s handsome face was still contorted in an ugly grimace of pain and his swollen tongue hung from his open mouth. Almost afraid to touch his head in case he did unseen damage, Ben asked the same question once again, “Is he going to be alright?”

“I’m not going to lie to you, Ben,” Paul replied with a shake of his head, “I have heard of instances where men have been wrongly hanged by lynch mobs and the like, and they have been cut down and survived, but in all fairness there are not that many on which I can really base an opinion. There is just so much that can go wrong.”

“What sort of things, Paul?”

“Well mainly respiratory complications. If the swelling continues, it may cut off his air supply and if that happens, there’s really not much I can do.”

Adam interrupted, the desperation showing in his voice, “But I’ve read somewhere about a procedure whereby you can cut into a person’s throat and insert a tube to allow them to breathe that way.”

“That’s right, Adam, there is such a procedure; it’s called a tracheotomy, but I have only ever carried out the operation once. It was on a little girl suffering from diphtheria.”

“What happened to her, Paul?” asked Ben.

“She died,” Paul replied sadly. “Perhaps she would have died whether I did the operation or not, but the fact of the matter is, she died during the procedure.”

Adam looked at his brother lying helpless on the bed and began to feel a sense of dread. What if all his efforts had been in vain and Joe died without ever knowing he was innocent of such a heinous crime?

“What else do we need to watch out for, Paul?” asked Ben once more. He would rather not hear, but at the same time they needed to know what they were facing.

“There are just so many things that could go wrong. In near strangulation, pneumonia is very common and who knows what damage could have been done due to lack of oxygen. I’m sorry Ben, but I’m afraid the list goes on and on.”

Ben swallowed the sob that rose in his throat. He grasped Joe’s hand in his and stroked it lovingly, “So you think there will be permanent damage?”

“Oh Ben, if only I had a crystal ball. All I can tell you is that he is not out of the woods. He may well make a full recovery, but on the other hand he may die within the next hour. I have no way of knowing.”

As they talked in whispers it became apparent that Joe’s breathing was becoming labored.

“Doc, I know you said you don’t want to perform a tracheotomy, but what if Joe stops breathing? What if his throat continues to swell to the point he cannot breath? What will you do then?”

Paul Martin looked at the anxious faces around him and shook his head. “I’m sorry Adam, but that is not a procedure I would like to attempt again. Joe could very easily die.”

Hoss had stood silent up to now but he could contain himself no longer. “But Doc, if Joe stops breathing he’s gonna die anyway, you just gotta try and save him.”

Hoss of course was right, and when Paul glanced at his patient and heard the raspy intermittent breaths he was taking, he knew that he would likely have to face the decision sooner rather than later. Joe’s breathing, or lack of it, was beginning to alarm them all and three pairs of frightened eyes focused on Paul Martin. He needed to act and quickly.

“Okay,” he said, no longer able to avoid the inevitable. “Time is running out; let’s be prepared. First off I need a sharp instrument to make the incision. Adam could you get a scalpel from my tray? And Hoss, prepare some boiling water; I want to make sure that everything is scrupulously clean.”

Adam and Hoss immediately set off to do his bidding. Ben hovered helplessly, still holding onto Joe’s hand as if his life, and that of his son’s, depended on the physical contact. Doc Martin looked round his surgery in search for something that could be used for insertion into Joe’s throat. Paul discarded many items before he came across a small silver tube about four inches long. “Perfect,” he declared.

Less than two minutes had passed and the water hadn’t had time to boil, when all thoughts of sterilization were thrown to one side. Silence filled the room and each of them held their own breath and listened. Joe’s raspy breathing had stopped and when they looked as his face it was turning blue. Paul may have been nervous before, but now that the crisis had arisen, his professional demeanor took over and he took charge of the situation. Pushing Ben to one side he tilted Joe’s head backwards. With steady hands he traced a finger down Joe’s neck to find the indentation between the Adam’s apple and Cricoid cartilage. He paused but a second before inserting the scalpel into the neck and making a half-inch incision about one inch deep. Putting his finger into the wound he opened it enough to allow the tube to be inserted. When the tube was in place the Doc placed his mouth over it and gave two quick breaths. The family watched in morbid fascination as Joe’s chest rose and fell. Paul Martin did this several times and then breathed a sigh of relief as Joe continued to breathe on his own.

Paul felt his energy deplete as the crisis passed. He smiled wanly at Ben and said, “Looks like we’ve won the first round.” The color was beginning to return to Joe’s skin and the slight whooshing sound of the air as it was drawn into the tube was reassuring.

There was not much blood and Doc Martin wiped Joe clean before wrapping bandages round his neck to secure the tracheotomy tube in place. He did not know how long the swelling would take to go down and until that time the tube would need to stay inserted.

Ben tried to thank him but Paul brushed him off saying he was only doing his job.

“Now how about giving me a hand to get him cleaned up and comfortable, Ben,” Paul asked, sensing Ben’s need to be wanted.

Both men lifted Joe gently and stripped him of his soiled clothing. It was a common occurrence in cases of hanging for the victim to lose control of their bowls. They used the water that had been boiled to wash and clean him before wrapping him in warm blankets and laying him back down on the bed.

Just as they were finishing their task Joe began to regain consciousness. The pain of his neck and throat was excruciating and he had to be restrained as he instinctively went to pull the tube away.

Ben’s efforts to soothe him were futile. “Take it easy, Joe; you’re going to be all right. I’m sorry son, but the tube must remain in place in order for you to breathe.”

Joe’s frightened eyes focused on his father, but his mind screamed out in terror. He wasn’t in the doctor’s surgery; he was still dangling from a rope that was slowly strangling the life out of him and he had to get away. A silent scream came from his mouth as he continued to fight his father and the doctor in an attempt to get away from the nightmare. Paul Martin called Hoss and Adam back into the room to help them. Joe was becoming extremely upset and Paul saw no alternative; he would have to administer a sedative or Joe was going to hurt himself further.

It took Ben and his elder sons all their strength to restrain Joe as the doctor plunged the needle into his arm. Seconds later Joe’s body went limp as he spiraled back into oblivion.

*****

Paul advised the family to get some rest; it was going to be a stressful and tiring few days and weeks. He offered to take the first watch and sit with Joe, but he could tell by their reaction that he was wasting his breath.

“Well, you three can sit in those uncomfortable chairs all night if you wish, but I’m off to bed. I will only be upstairs, so if there is a problem, call me.”

Ben, Hoss and Adam settled down as best they could but the hours passed slowly. The brothers worried not only for their young sibling but also for their father. Ben had aged ten years over the last week and the ‘laughter’ lines on his face were now forming deep crevices into his skin.

As morning began to break, Adam persuaded his father and Hoss to go over to the hotel to freshen up and bring back something to eat. Ben had put up a fuss, but as Adam pointed out, if he carried on the way he was he would be in no fit state to take care of Joe in the weeks ahead.

Adam was dozing in the chair once more when he felt as if someone was watching him. He struggled to open his eyes, and when he did so, he saw Joe’s bewildered eyes gazing back at him. Immediately going to Joe’s side he soothed, “It’s okay, Joe; you’re going to be all right.”

Joe blinked and a lone tear ran from his eye and down his face. Adam wiped the tear away gently and wished his father were there. How much should he tell him? Joe’s last conscious thought was that of dangling from a hangman’s noose, it was understandable he would be frightened and confused.

Taking a wet cloth from the basin next to the bed Adam wiped Joe’s face and tried to find the right words. “You never killed Christine, Joe; it was Mildred Grimes.”

Joe’s eyes widened in disbelief and he tried to talk. When he was unable to do so, he reached up to remove the obstruction from his neck. Adam took hold of Joe’s hand and held it tight to prevent him from pulling at the tube. “You couldn’t breathe. Joe,” he began. Then forcing himself to continue, he said “After the hanging, your throat swelled up and the doc had to perform an operation to get air into your lungs. There’s a small tube in your throat and it’s got to stay there until the swelling goes down.”

Joe’s face registered panic and Adam was quick to continue. “It’s only for a little while Joe and then you’ll be breathing on your own. The doc will take the tube out and put in a stitch and within a few days, you’ll be as good as new.”

If Adam could have taken the words back, he would. How could Joe ever be as good as new? He himself would never get over the sight of his brother’s body convulsing at the end of that rope, it would probably give him nightmares for the rest of his life, so what lasting effect was it going to have on Joe?

Before Adam could say anymore, Ben, Hoss and the doctor entered the room. Seeing that Joe was awake, Ben rushed to his side. As his father stroked his head, some of the tension left Joe’s face, and the doctor began to make his examination.

“Well the swelling is going down nicely,” Paul muttered, as he gently felt Joe’s neck and looked into his mouth. “I think we’ll leave the tube in a little while longer, but I’m sure I’ll be able to take it out before the day is out.”

Joe looked at the faces peering at him so earnestly and his eyes sent out a silent message. He wanted an explanation. He needed to know everything.

Unsure whether Joe was physically up to hearing all the facts at this point in time, Ben looked to the doctor for guidance. The doc nodded that he was happy for Ben to continue and upon receiving the go ahead, Ben pulled up a chair and sat down so that his face was level with his son. Taking hold of Joe’s hand, he looked over at Adam to begin the tail; after all, he was the one responsible for saving his brother’s life.

Many times during the telling, the family became concerned for Joe’s welfare as he registered shock and disbelief, especially at being informed of Christine’s indiscretion with Harold Grimes.

Joe would never have guessed that the respectable Mr. Grimes had been the ‘other man’ in Christine’s life. But it was the revelation of Mrs. Grimes as the killer and her own unfortunate demise that caused Joe the most concern. That woman, the same one that he had grown up believing to be the very pillar of society, had stood in court and, by her very own words, had condemned him to death. Why? What had he ever done to her? Joe was shocked to the core, the foundation on which he had been raised was beginning to crumble and, with nothing to replace it, he felt as if he was drowning, but this time there was no one there to save him.

Unable to eat or drink, Joe felt thoroughly miserable as the pain in his throat continued to throb and so the doctor felt it best to keep him sedated for much of that day. It was almost nightfall when Paul Martin began to unwrap the bandages in preparation for removing the tube.

Adam held the lamp as Paul went to work. As the last of the bandages fell to the floor, the family tried hard not to grimace with revulsion as they looked at Joe’s neck. The rope had left severe burn marks that were now blistered and red. The surrounding area was already turning black and blue and it was no surprise to them that Joe was in such dreadful pain. The sick feelings they had were not so much at the sight of his injuries but more the revulsion they felt as to how those injuries had been inflicted.

Hoss placed restraining hands on Joe’s shoulders as Ben stood behind and held his head steady. Whispering soothing words into Joe’s ear, Ben pleaded for him to remain still. Doc Martin slowly began to withdraw the tube, taking care to be as gentle as possible. Joe tried to stay composed, but the memories were all too fresh and as his air supply was cut off, Joe began to struggle and claw at the hands that held him. Ben was no longer able to hold his head still and there was every chance that Joe would hurt himself.

Seeing the situation getting out of hand, the doctor’s powerful voice boomed out above everyone else’s. “Calm down, Joe, and try to breathe normally,” he barked.

The shock of hearing the normally unruffled doctor raise his voice instantly subdued Joe and he took his first normal breath in almost two days. Each breath was extremely painful and it was almost impossible for him to swallow, but he was breathing on his own without aid and the first hill on his road to recovery had been climbed.

Wasting no time, Doc Martin quickly put a stitch into the opening left by the tube and redressed Joe’s injured neck. Paul smiled reassuringly at Ben; he was beginning to feel positive about his patient’s recovery, but he was anxious not to get his friend’s hopes up, it was still too early to tell.

Paul Martin had been right not to be too optimistic, because over the next few days Joe’s life hung in the balance several times. Just when they thought he was making good progress, he would develop an infection that would set him back and the worry would start all over again.

As the days passed, the family soon found they had something else to worry about; Joe’s inability to speak. At first, the doctor put it down to the swelling and bruising to his throat, but as these injuries started to heal, and Joe was still not able to utter a single word, it became obvious that things were more serious than was first thought.

A worried family and doctor congregated in the adjoining room as Joe slept.

“What do you think, Paul? Is he ever likely to get his voice back?” asked Ben, trying hard to whisper so as not to disturb Joe, but only succeeding in deepening his voice even more.

Paul looked around at the expectant faces, wishing, not for the first time, that he had the power to answer their prayers. “I don’t know the answer, Ben. His larynx is damaged and only time will tell if it will fully heal.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged and he looked dejected; he had hoped the doctor would have been able to give him better news. “I suppose it was asking too much for there not to be some lasting damage from the hanging.”

Paul Martin paused for a second; it would be so easy to let his good friend believe that that was the cause. “Actually, Ben, the harm was most likely to have happened when I performed the tracheotomy. As I said at the time, I have only ever done the procedure once before.” Paul Martin looked at the stricken faces before him. “I’m so sorry.”

Ben quickly regained his composure, “You have nothing to be sorry for, Paul. If it were not for you, Joseph would be dead. There is no doubt in any of our minds that performing the tracheotomy saved his life.”

“But at what cost?”

“You can’t put a price on life, Paul. He’s alive and that’s what matters most,” Ben was quick to respond.

“I wonder if Joe will see it that way?” Paul replied looking from one to the other.

An uneasy silence followed. It didn’t take a doctor to tell them that Joe’s spirits were at their lowest ebb. Joe struggled to eat and swallow and was still in constant pain. Unable to express himself vocally he became frustrated with those around him as well as himself and retreated into his own world.

Joe lay in the next room with his eyes closed pretending to sleep. He listened to the whispered voices and knew that he was the topic of their discussion. Everyone was kind and supportive and reassuring him that his voice would return, but he didn’t have their confidence. Any attempt he had made to speak reduced him to a fit of coughing, which left him breathless and in agony.

Ben returned to the room to check on his youngest. Walking over to the bed he gazed down at his son for what seemed an eternity, trying to think of a way to reach him. Joe tried not to move as he felt his father’s fingers trace a path down his face. He longed to sit up and throw himself into his Pa’s open arms and pour out his sorrow, but he couldn’t. The loss of his voice had taken away his ability to communicate and with that he began to withdraw from the outside world in an act of self-preservation. It was easier to bear what had happened to him if he didn’t have to deal with other people. As Joe’s depression was deepening it became easier for him not to try and speak at all and so as the days went by Joe retreated into his silent world.

Adam waited a minute before entering the room. Looking over towards the bed he felt a knot in his stomach as he witnessed the scene before him. Meeting his father’s gaze he raised an eyebrow in question. Ben shook his head and with a heavy sigh, both men left the room. “Is he sleeping?” asked Adam.

“No,” replied Ben. “He’s trying to make me think he is, but I can tell. He’s bottling everything up inside; I just wish he would talk to me.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in then Ben sat down and buried his head in his hands. “I can’t believe I just said that. How am I ever going to get through to him?”

“Just give him time, Pa. If Paul thinks its okay, maybe we should take him home and I’m sure that will aid his recovery.”

“Let’s hope so, son, let’s hope so.”

*****

The following morning Hoss arrived outside the doctor’s office with a buckboard and the family prepared to leave. Although still weak, Joe dressed and walked unaided into the street. Climbing into the buckboard, he made a point of not looking at the faces of the people passing by, but instead fixed his eyes on the road ahead.

Many people over the last week had stopped the family as they went in and out of the doctor’s office to ask how Joe was faring. The whole town was anxious to make amends to the innocent young man who had almost lost his life. Unfortunately, Joe was not in a fit state of mind to accept that people cared. All he could think was that they were now aware of what a fool he had been and he just wished to get back to the Ponderosa as quickly as possible away from their prying eyes.

Joe had been living as a married man for the best part of a year and the failure of his marriage and the murder of his wife dominated his thoughts on the ride home. When they eventually pulled up outside of the ranch house, Joe sat on the buckboard staring straight ahead unable to shake the memories from his mind. In many ways he was back to square one; he would be living in his father’s house and under his rules once more, but his life could never be the same and he wondered if returning home would prove to be a big mistake. He could not turn back the clock and things could never be the same again, but what would his future be now? Unable to speak, he was left with a disability that seemed impossible to overcome.

Over the next few weeks, Joe’s strength returned and he was able to resume most of his normal chores. He even began to take an active part in breaking the horses once more, but the transition back into ranch life was proving a lot more difficult for him than anyone realized. His inability to converse with those around him was making him withdrawn and unresponsive and his depression deepened as each day went by.

Often Ben, unable to sleep himself, went into his son’s room to find him tossing and turning in his slumber. It didn’t take a father’s intuition to comprehend that the horror of being hanged disturbed his son’s dreams at night and left him feeling tired and fretful during the day. In years gone by, Joe’s screams had often broken the silence of the Ponderosa, bringing his Pa and brothers’ rushing to his room, but these days his mouth opened but no sound ever emerged.

Paul Martin still continued to visit his patient but it was more out of friendly compassion than necessity. As far as the doctor was concerned, Joe had healed physically as good as new and it was only Joe’s mental state that was preventing him from speaking.

“Joe, you have to try, boy,” the doctor cajoled. “Your throat is all healed and I’m sure if you at least made some attempt your voice would come back to you. It may be painful at first, but that’s to be expected.”

Doc Martin was wasting his breath; Joe was not listening to him. As Dr Martin continued speaking, Joe sat subdued and subconsciously rubbed his hand over his throat and neck, letting his fingers linger on the small scar caused by his tracheotomy. Life was much easier for him to bear if he didn’t have to deal with the outside world.

Without even indicating his intentions, Joe stood up and walked out of the door as the doctor looked on in exasperation. Ben, Adam and Hoss were just entering the room and he ignored their calls as to what had transpired between him and the doctor.

“How is he, Paul?” asked Ben as he walked over to the fireplace.

“As far as I can tell, he is all healed physically, Ben.”

“Then why can’t he speak?”

“I don’t think it’s that he can’t speak, as much as he doesn’t want to,” Paul replied.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, registering the concern and confusion they were all feeling.

“I don’t think Joe is ready to face all that has happened to him,” Paul began, trying to gauge the family’s reaction. “If he is to recover, he is going to have to face his demons and beat them.”

“How can we help him, Paul?” asked Adam. His patience had run out. He didn’t know how to deal with his younger brother anymore. Much as he sympathized with all that Joe had been through, he wanted things back to normal. He wanted to hear his brother’s voice once again, but most of all he wanted to see Joe laughing, he wanted to hear that high-pitched giggle resounding through the house.

“We’re trying real hard with him, Paul. Just none of us knows what to do,” Hoss added. In many ways he missed his brother’s companionship most of all.

“Maybe that’s the crux of the matter,” the doctor responded. “You are all treading too softly. As long as you keep doing things for him and making it easy for him, he has no need to try.” With those words of wisdom, the doctor bid the family “good day” and returned to Virginia City.

That night the family sat round the table having supper when Adam decided to take matters into his own hands. He tried to catch his father’s eye in order to let him know what he was up to, but Ben’s eyes were focused on Joe. Adam was not known for his tactfulness when dealing with his youngest sibling and so he jumped in with both feet.

“What’s going on with you, Joe? The doc reckons your throat is all healed and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be talking,” Adam began.

Completely ignoring Adam’s words, Joe continued to eat slowly, pushing the food from one part of his plate to another. As Adam made to speak again, Ben shot him a warning look; he didn’t want Joe upset. But Adam was on a mission and decided to ignore his father’s glance.

“Don’t you think this has gone on long enough, Joe? Isn’t it about time you faced up to what happened and got on with your life?”

Joe stopped the pretence of eating and stood up. Adam was satisfied that he was at least getting some response from his brother; if nothing else, it proved he was listening. Adam was not prepared to allow his brother to get away that easily and as Joe took a couple of steps towards the stairs, Adam moved forward and blocked his way, preventing him from leaving the room. “Running away again, Joe? You are still the little boy, aren’t you? Think that if you stop speaking and hide away, you won’t have to deal with real problems.”

Just for a second Joe’s eyes flashed in Adam’s direction. Adam was thrilled to see that he was actually getting through to Joe and he decided to push him as far as he could, after all he couldn’t make things any worse than they were. “No wonder Christine found it necessary to go out and find someone else. What she needed was a real man and you weren’t up to the job.”

Even Adam was not prepared for the speed of Joe’s response. In just a split second Joe’s fist swung out and landed full force in his brother’s face. At the same time a gruff and hoarse voice shouted, “Damn you to hell, Adam!”

Adam was knocked completely off his feet, but before his body had hit the floor, Joe had rushed from the house and slammed the door behind him.

Hoss and Ben stood incredulous as they looked after Joe’s retreating back. Pulling himself onto his feet, Adam rubbed his aching chin. “Boy, that kid can sure pack a powerful punch. I must be an absolute masochist.”

Ben was relieved and grateful to Adam for helping to pull Joe out of his apathy, even if he didn’t fully agree with his methods, but he was still worried about Joe’s state of mind. “I’d better go after him,” he stated simply. The nights were still cold and Ben donned his own jacket and grabbed Joe’s before leaving the house.

Walking into the yard, Ben scanned the area before his eyes rested on his youngest son standing over by the corral. The cold wind bit into him and he stopped for a second to button his jacket before making his way over to Joe.

Joe stood hunched over, breathing rapidly, and it was obvious he was trying to gain control of his emotions. He wanted to smash his brother’s face in. How could Adam say those things? His reaction to his brother’s accusation had been automatic and it was only now that his own angry retaliation echoed in his head. Had he really spoken? With the realization that he had, his spirits lifted and his anger dissolved. Sometimes he could be really dumb, but of course, he should have realized. Adam had planned it all; his smart-ass older brother once again had found the answer to the problem that no one else could. Joe had despaired of ever talking again. He had tried, at first every day he had tried, but as his depression had deepened so had his resolve, and as time passed he had resigned himself to a world of silence. With his own lack of communication had come a disinterest in the conversations taking place around him.

Joe did not realize his father had approached until he felt his jacket been placed around his shoulders. At first he was startled by the intrusion and jumped as his peace was disturbed. Glancing at his father for a second before turning away he said in a slightly husky voice, “I’m sorry about what happened, Pa.”

It had been weeks since Ben had heard his son’s voice and just the sound of it made him catch his breath. It sounded strange and maybe a little rusty but it was still like music to Ben’s ears.

“It’s okay, son. You do know your brother never meant any of those things he said, don’t you?”

“Yeah, Pam I know; well, I do now, but just for a second there, I felt like beating the hell out of him. Sorry, Pa, didn’t mean to cuss,” Joe lowered his eyes before adding, “Guess I’ve been a right pain to live with these last few weeks.”

“Maybe just a little,” Ben replied, unable to wipe the smile from his face.

Once Joe had found his voice again the words flowed from him and father and son stood talking long into the night, shivering slightly as the temperature continued to drop. Joe was still very troubled and was reluctant to return to the house no matter how hard Ben tried to convince him they would be more comfortable. It was easier for Joe to talk in the darkness where his father could not see his face; that way he was better able to hide his shame.

Ben was determined before the night was over he would get his son to unburden himself, as it was still apparent Joe accepted sole responsibility for what happened to Christine. Eventually Ben was able to steer the conversation in the direction Joe was trying to avoid.

“Joe I know you don’t want to talk about it, but you have to realize, none of what happened was your fault. You were the innocent party in all of this; there is no reason to go on punishing yourself.”

Joe turned tortured eyes on his father. “But that’s where you’re wrong, Pa. I am guilty; I know it and you know it.”

Ben tried to make sense of Joe’s words. “How can you be guilty, Joe? It was Christine that had the affair that started all of this and it was Mildred Grimes that committed murder. Where is your guilt?”

Joe turned away and leaned forward on the fence, placing his head on his arms. “You can’t have forgotten the conversation we had in the jail, Pa. You know, the night before the h-h-hanging.” Joe’s voice faltered as the words were finally spoken.

“I remember, son, but I still don’t know why you feel you are to blame?”

“We discussed it and you agreed, Pa. The real guilt lies with the person who intended to kill, not with the person who didn’t.”

“But that is where you are wrong, Joe. I said the real guilt lies with the person who attempted to kill someone, whether they succeeded or not.”

“That’s just what I mean, Pa. I am guilty; I wished Christine dead.”

Ben put a comforting arm over Joe’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. “But the big difference, son, is that you only thought about it. You never, and would never, have put those thoughts into action. If a man was condemned on his thoughts alone, heaven would be a very empty place, because I don’t think there is a man alive that doesn’t have dark thoughts at one time or another.”

Tugging Joe gently, Ben led him over to the relative warmth of the barn and motioned for him to sit down. “No man is perfect, Joe, and if it comes to it then I am probably just as much to blame, because I must have wished Christine dead several times over those last few months.” Ben waited to see if his words were sinking in before he added. “If anyone is guilty in all of this, it’s me.”

Joe looked up in surprise. “I don’t understand, Pa. How can you be guilty?”

Ben looked his son square in the eye. “I failed you, son. All my instincts told me that you could never have killed Christine, that you would never commit murder. And yet I allowed them to hang you.” Ben’s eyes were filled with sorrow and he could look at his son no longer. Dropping his chin onto his chest he whispered. “I allowed my pride and false sense of justice to come before my own son.” The last words were spoken with a sob.

Joe stood up and reaching out he pulled his father towards him. In a reversal of roles Joe held Ben in his arms and stroked the back of his head in an effort to give comfort.

“You could never fail me, Pa. You are the best father a son could ever have.”

“I allowed them to hang you,” Ben persisted.

“You had no choice, Pa, and after all, even I thought I was guilty. In order for our community to survive, we must live by the law like other men. As it was, fate played her hand that day and sent us John Turner.”

Ben was puzzled, “John Turner?”

Joe smiled, “Yes John Turner, the very inept John Turner.”

Ben still looked bemused and Joe enlightened him, “The hangman Pa. If it wasn’t for his inexperience, there’s no doubt I would be dead and that’s for sure.”

“Your brother Adam also played his part, don’t forget.”

“I’ll never forget, Pa. I don’t know how I will ever repay Adam for giving me a second chance at life.”

“There is one way to repay him, Joe. Adam has given you that second chance; just don’t waste it.”

Joe nodded in understanding and with his arm still laid over his father’s shoulder they walked back to the house.

That night Joe lay in bed thinking about his father’s words and when sleep finally overtook his troubled mind he slept the most peaceful sleep he had in months. There were no nightmares to haunt his dreams and the imagined pain in his throat disappeared never to return.

*****

The following morning Joe awoke feeling different. Going to the window, he opened it slightly and drew in a deep breath, as the cold morning air filled his lungs. A breeze circled the room and then floated back out of the window taking with it the dark clouds that had floated above Joe’s head for so long. Looking upwards, he was able to witness the sun rising in the sky once more and he felt a new beginning.

The rest of the family was sitting at the table when Joe descended the stairs. Ben had discussed with Adam and Hoss his conversation of the night before and anxious looks were cast in Joe’s direction.

Joe sat down and looked at his family and smiled. Ben noticed that, for the first time in oh so so long, the smile reached Joe’s eyes and Ben returned his son’s smile with a lightened heart.

“Boy, am I hungry,” Joe said, and then shouting out he called, “hey Hop Sing, what’s a man to do to get fed around here?”

A delighted Hop Sing came bustling into the room carrying a tray full of bacon, pancakes and eggs. “Plenty food for Little Joe,” he declared before sliding the tray onto the table and standing back to beam at number three son.

As the family sat back contentedly watching him eat, Joe finally paused and with a mouth full of pancakes asked, “Well big brother, what’s old granite head got on the agenda for today?”

“Watch you mouth, kid,” Adam was quick to reply.

Old Granite Head looked at the Kid and the Kid looked back. The depth of feeling that passed between them transcended words; they looked deep into each other’s eyes and smiled, then laughed and before long Ben and Hoss joined in. No one really knew what they were laughing at, they didn’t need a reason. The family was whole once more.

***The End***

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