Showdown At The Bar Of Justice (by Puchi Ann)

Summary: A What Happened Next for “Showdown.”  Little Joe is determined to win the lightest sentence possible for Sam Kirby, but first he and Sam must manage to stay alive.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  14,400


As he rode between his two older sons, Ben Cartwright’s face was as bleak as their sun-singed surroundings.   The sage was sere and yellow at this time of year, when the Ponderosa was at her worst, but ordinarily he could sense a sort of savage beauty in this land he was proud to call home.  Not this morning.  This Monday morning he felt only the vast emptiness that stretched from horizon to horizon . . . and from edge to edge of his soul.  A piece of his soul was missing.  Ben had felt it slipping away with his first realization last night that Little Joe was overdue—long overdue—in returning from that ill-fated birthday party for the banker’s daughter.  And his soul would not be whole again until he found that missing piece.  He was glad that his other two sons rode with him today.  At a time like this a man needed to keep the remaining pieces of his shattered soul within sight . . . within reach . . . close as his own breath.

While Ben’s face was bleak, that of his oldest son was grim, for Adam was wrestling not only with his concern for Little Joe, but with a heavy load of guilt, as well.  He’d misjudged the boy, failed to listen to his honest doubts about Sam Kirby, twitted him endlessly about being jealous of the new hand’s ability with horses, and all along Joe had been right.  He should have known.  He should have remembered that Little Joe—and Hoss, too, for that matter—had more intuitive insight into the hearts of men than he did.  He prided himself on his logic, his ability to analyze facts and come to correct conclusions.  It stood him in good stead most times, usually yielding better results than Joe’s wild emotional reactions.  This time, though—this crucial time—he’d been wrong and Joe had been right.  It had taken a hard thump on the head from Sam Kirby’s saddlebags to knock logic from its throne and make him see that.  He saw it clearly now, though, and if his baby brother paid the ultimate price for his failure to see it sooner, Adam didn’t think he’d ever forgive himself.

The third man looked neither bleak nor grim.  Hope died hard in a man with as optimistic an outlook on life as Hoss Cartwright.  He was sure they’d find his little brother safe and sound, because that was the way it had to be, the way it was meant to be: the four Cartwrights, always together.  He did, however, look confused.  He couldn’t match what Adam had told him about Sam Kirby with the way he felt about the man.  Adam wouldn’t lie, so Hoss knew Sam had hit his brother on the head and lit out, just at the hint that Sheriff Coffee suspected him of Thursday night’s bank robbery.  But that might have been plain fear of iron bars from a man once locked behind them, ‘cause there’d been a goodness in Sam, too; Hoss had felt it, and it just didn’t fit with the idea of him bein’ a bank robber.  ‘Course, it didn’t much fit with Sam killin’ his step-pa, either, and Sam had admitted that much.  He’d had cause, though, as the welts on his back proved, and he’d been just a kid when it happened.  The sheriff had called it premeditated murder, but the way Sam told it had sounded more like self-defense to Hoss.  No, Sam wasn’t really a killer, and Hoss didn’t think he was a thief at heart, either.  But Little Joe was missing, and if Sam had anything to do with that, the middle Cartwright brother was going to find it hard to trust his heart where Kirby was concerned . . . or his hands not to strangle ole Sam’s scrawny neck.

The trail had been easy to follow.  For a man on the run, Kirby hadn’t gone to much bother to hide his tracks.  Hoss hadn’t once had to get off his horse to examine them more closely.  The path led straight into the hills, near where he and Sam had looked for the outlaws that day when Joe had thought he’d seen the new hand draw down on his brother.  Had Joe been right?  It looked that way, and now that Hoss thought about it, Sam’s story about an Indian breaking off that deer brush for his fire didn’t make much sense.  Why would an Indian break off deer brush for a fire and then just toss it down without using it?  No, it looked more and more like Sam Kirby had been trying to keep them away from this area . . . but now he was leading them straight to it.  Just plain didn’t make sense.

Then Adam spotted something that made all Hoss’s questions dissolve into meaninglessness and all his own guilt evaporate.  “Up there!” he cried.

Ben followed the direction of Adam’s pointing finger, and at the sight of his youngest son, leading a column of four men, he felt the broken shards of his soul meld together again.  He spurred his big bay forward, and both Adam and Hoss galloped hard behind him.

The two older Cartwright brothers pulled up behind Ben when he stopped abruptly.  Little Joe and the others were picking their way carefully down a steep hill, and much as Ben wanted to hug that boy to his heart, he knew it was better, given the uneven terrain, to let Joe come to them.

Adam noticed the two men riding behind his youngest brother, their hands roped tight to the saddle horn, and this time his well touted logic formed the right conclusion.  “Looks like Little Joe couldn’t wait for the cavalry.”

Hoss focused on the man riding at the back of the pack.  “Hey, looks like he’s got Sam with him,” he said, his face bright with the light of trust restored.  “Looks like we were wrong about Sam, Pa.”

Ben’s smile broadened.  “Yeah.  Looks like we were all wrong about Sam Kirby.”  The smile faded, however, when the riders reached level land and he got a closer look at his son’s face.  He dismounted and, leading Buck, moved quickly forward.

Little Joe, ginning with satisfaction and in relief at seeing his family, swung off his pinto.  “Hey, Pa.”

Ben reached out to touch the cut on his son’s face.  “Joe, you’re hurt.”

Joe wiped the corner of his mouth, but the blood had dried and his hand came away virtually clean.  “Naw, not much.”

Dismounting, Adam strode over to grasp Joe’s chin and turn his face toward him for examination.  Then he cocked a hard glance at Sam Kirby.  “Your work?”

“Aw, Adam, come on,” Hoss protested as he walked Chubby up beside his brother.  “You can see ole Sam ain’t with them.”  He waved a hand at the two bound men seated on horses between Joe and Sam.  Sam’s hands were free and held a rifle.

“It’s Pardo’s work,” Joe said hastily.  “He was the leader of the gang, Pa, but he’s dead now, him and another man.  He was tryin’ to make me tell ‘em which way the cavalry was comin’ in, but then Sam here showed up and we—uh—well, we turned the tables on ‘em, I guess you’d say.  The bodies are still up there at their camp, ‘cause me and Sam figured it was more important to get these two rounded up before they got away—and we got the bank’s money back!”  He gave his bulging saddlebags a proud pat.

“All of it?” Ben asked, countenance brightening.  A complete recovery could mean the difference between survival and bankruptcy to the smaller ranchers who had trusted Banker Tom McClure with their life savings.

Joe scratched beneath his hat.  “Guess you’ll have to ask Mr. McClure about that.  Don’t know how much was took and didn’t stop to count what’s here.  It’s a lot, though—probably most, if not all.”

Adam arched a suspicious eyebrow.  “And just how did Sam happen to find you with these banditos, little brother?”

Joe shrugged, although a discerning eye would have noticed the slight hesitation before he did.  “Tracked me, I guess.  We ain’t had time to discuss it.”

Sam rode forward and slowly got off his horse.  “It won’t work, Joe.  Adam knows now, don’t you, Adam?”

“I think so,” Adam said softly.  “You did rob that bank, didn’t you, Sam?”

Hoss shook his head, still not wanting to believe he’d been wrong about Sam, but Kirby nodded soberly and said, “Yeah.”

Adam twirled the reins in his hand.  “You know we’ll have to take you in.”

“No!” Joe protested.  “He ain’t one of them, not really.”  He turned toward his father, expressive eyes begging him to intervene.  “He saved my life, Pa.  Pardo would have killed me if Sam hadn’t turned on him.  That oughta count for something.”

“But not everything,” Adam said with blunt honesty.

Joe rounded on his oldest brother.  “Why don’t you just keep your long New England nose out of it, huh?  Nobody has to know if you just—”

“Don’t be a fool, boy,” Adam snorted.  He jerked his chin toward the two captured bandits.  “You think they’d keep quiet, take all the blame alone when they can spread it around?  Not on your life!”

Sam laid a hand on Little Joe’s shoulder.  “He’s right, Joe.  I was part of the gang; I did do wrong, and I reckon I got some debt to society, same as them.  I want a fresh start, wish I could make it right now, but I think I’d better turn myself over to the law.”

“I think that’s best, son,” Ben said, his expression grave.

“Pa, I promised we’d stand by Sam,” Joe insisted.  To symbolize his own intention, he placed himself at Kirby’s side.

“And we will,” Ben promised.  “We’ll start by letting him turn himself in.  That’ll be a point in his favor when he stands before the bar of justice.”

Hoss leaned down from his saddle to clap Sam on the back.  “And we’ll all be there, front and center, when you do.  Having four Cartwrights behind you can’t help but carry some weight.”

Little Joe relaxed for a moment, but then he caught a glimpse of Adam’s face, and though he was no mind reader, he knew just what his brother was thinking.  Having four Cartwrights in a man’s corner could either help or hinder him.  It all depended on who was on the jury.

*****

The Cartwrights shared an abnormally quiet breakfast on the morning of the Pardo gang’s trial.  Lost in foreboding thought, Little Joe idly swirled his fork through the liquid yolk of the fried egg on his plate, while the others watched with wordless concern.  The youngest Cartwright had been all but impossible to live with the last few days.  He’d worn their ears out during the day with all the reasons Sam Kirby should go free, and the nights hadn’t brought them much more peace.  Thankfully, there hadn’t been any nightmares to deal with, but Joe had been restless, unable to settle his mind enough for relaxed rest, prowling the house at all hours.  The resulting exhaustion just made him all the touchier each following day.

Finally, Hoss could bear the silence no longer.  “Don’t see what you’re gettin’ yourself so fretted up over,” he said.

Joe looked across the table at him with narrowed gaze.  “You don’t have to testify,” he accused brusquely.

Hoss nodded with chagrin.  He understood how being on a witness stand could unnerve a man, especially one that wasn’t much more than a boy.  He’d sat in that chair himself, when he was older than Joe was now, and knew it wasn’t an easeful place to be.  “All you got to do is tell the truth, Joe,” he offered as solace, “same as you told it to us.”

Joe shook his head.  “I got to tell it in a way that convinces that judge that Sam isn’t the same as Pardo’s men.”  Sam was in Sheriff Coffee’s jail, of course, along with Ramos and Andy, the only remaining members of John Pardo’s gang, and he, too, would face judgment today.  Sam planned to plead guilty, however, and had promised to testify against the other two, so for his protection he was kept in a separate cell from the one occupied by Ramos and Andy, with an empty one between him and them.  “I got to see to it Sam goes free,” Joe emphasized.

“That is not your responsibility,” Adam stated sharply.  He deliberately took the edge off his voice as he added with perception, “Nor is it your fault if the judge doesn’t see the case the way you want him to.”

“He’s right, son.”  Ben circled consoling fingers around Little Joe’s limp wrist.

“Ain’t he always?”  Joe’s upper lip curled disdainfully.

Ben pulled his hand away.  “I see no reason for rudeness, Joseph.”

Staring uncomfortably down at his plate, Joe twiddled with his fork.  “No, sir,” he said finally.  He looked up at his oldest brother.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  It ain’t you.”

“I understand,” Adam said.  With a wry smile, he added, “At the risk of getting my head bitten off again, I will offer you a piece of advice, youngster: don’t try too hard to sway the jury—or in Sam’s case, the judge—one way or the other.  Men resent manipulation, however well intended.  Just tell it straight and let the facts speak for themselves.”

“Sounds like right good advice,” Hoss put in with a persuasive bob of his head.

“Yeah,” Joe admitted, lips slowly curving up.  He chuckled ruefully.  “Not sure I can do a good job of following it, but I’ll try.  Thanks, Adam.”

*****

As he sat in the crowded courtroom, waiting for the trial to begin, Little Joe felt even less sure that he could follow Adam’s advice.  Sam wouldn’t have a trial of his own, just a sentencing, so the only chance Joe would have to put in a good word for him would be during his testimony in the case against Ramos and Andy.  He had to make it clear that Sam was cut from different cloth than them, that he was a man worth giving another chance.  Hoss had told him what Sam had shared about his background, and Joe felt that if any man deserved a second chance at life, it was Sam Kirby.  He’d said the same to the family lawyer, Hiram Wood, and the prosecutor, but neither had promised anything, except that Sam’s sentencing would be delayed until after the trial.  Even that was dependent on the judge going along with it, but the prosecutor had assured him there’d be no problem.  “Judge Whitcomb’s strict, but reasonable,” he’d said, and Hiram Wood had confirmed that opinion.  Sam and Joe would both have their chance to tell what had happened in the outlaw camp, and they both hoped it would be enough to spark some mercy in the heart of the “strict, but reasonable” judge.

Little Joe still squirmed in his seat, though, shifting around so much that Hoss finally asked if he had ants in his pants.  “No,” Joe muttered irritably.

“Then sit still,” Hoss grunted.  “You’d think you was the one on trial.”

In a way, Joe felt he was, but he gripped the arms of his chair and tried to hold himself rigid.  He fooled no one, not Hoss and certainly not Adam, seated on his other side.  Ben, who’d been having a word with Tom McClure, slid into the aisle seat just as the judge entered.

Judge Whitcomb rapped his gavel for attention and had the charges against the defendants read.  “How do you plead?” he asked perfunctorily.  He sighed when first Ramos and then Andy pleaded not guilty, but he sat up straighter when Sam Kirby stood and said exactly the opposite.  “Guilty, you say?” the judge asked.

Sam stood erect with his shoulders back, not from pride, but determination.  “Yes, sir,” he said.  “I robbed that bank.”

“All right, then,” the judge said, looking pleased.  “Glad one of you’s got the sense to save the court the time and expense of a trial.”

Surprisingly agile for a man of his bulk, the lawyer defending the rest of the Pardo gang leaped to his feet.  “Your Honor,” he protested, “my clients are innocent until proven guilty.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the judge said with a derisive snuffle of his nose.  “That’s the law, and we do follow the law in my court, Mr. Hartwood.”  Secretly, he thought Hartwood had been wise to insist on a jury trial for his clients, for he knew these men had been found in possession of the stolen money, and if it had been in his power, he’d have sent them all straight to prison.  Whitcomb didn’t think Pardo’s men had much chance of finding twelve men gullible enough to believe otherwise, but he couldn’t blame Hartwood for trying.  He’d cultivated a reputation as a no-nonsense judge with a tendency to award maximum sentences to hardened criminals like these, and there were idiots aplenty in any town; Hartwood and his clients might draw a lucky hand.

He should have known Hiram Wood had more class, though, and he smiled his approval at the lawyer of the lone man who’d had the gumption to admit his guilt.  That kind of gumption deserved its reward, too, and Kirby was young, something else to take into consideration.  “Well, Mr. Kirby,” he began, “what do you say we get your sentencing out of the way first and then—”

Hiram Wood stepped forward.  “Your Honor, the defense would request that Mr. Kirby’s sentencing be delayed.  He has pertinent information to present in the trial of these other men, and what he has to say may have some bearing on the degree of his complicity.”

“He plans to testify?” the judge asked.  When Hiram agreed, Whitcomb nodded.  “Fair enough.  Let’s see what the boy has to say before I sentence him.”

“Your Honor, I object,” Hartwood said.  “If this man thinks he has something to gain by what he says, that can’t help but color his testimony.  I say sentence him first; so he has no motive to, shall we say, varnish the truth.”

“If you see evidence of that, you can bring it out in cross-examination,” the judge growled.   “I want to hear what this boy has to say, Hartwood.”  After a jury of twelve men had been selected, he turned to the prosecutor.  “Mr. Riley, make your opening statement, if you have one.”

Cornelius Riley, a lean stick of a man, was considerably less than eloquent in his opening presentation, which lasted no more than five minutes and was little more than a list of witnesses he intended to call.  Elias Hartwood’s opening remarks took three times as long, but offered nothing of substance, just a wild—to the Cartwrights’ ears, at least—theory that his two clients had been framed, by none other than Sam Kirby, who had robbed the bank all by himself.

Adam Cartwright displayed his disdain with an elaborate and vocalized yawn.  Sam was supposed to have framed the others, just so he could turn around and plead guilty himself?  Oh, yeah, that one made a ton of sense.  More like a gram.  Or less.

Ben leaned forward to eye him sternly, while Hoss gave him an appreciative grin, both of them figuring that the gesture had been subtle enough that Adam would get away with it.

Ignoring the byplay around him, Little Joe knit his eyebrows together.  “Think they’ll buy it?” he whispered to his oldest brother.

Adam moved his head from side to side, just enough to answer Joe without drawing the attention of anyone else.  As the defense attorney droned on, he leaned close to his younger brother’s ear and said softly, “Take a look at the jury.”

Little Joe let his eyes scan down the double row of men behind the rail, and he soon saw what Adam meant.  He knew them all.  None were close friends, but neither were any of them men who held a grudge against the Cartwrights.  They were decent men, fair men, men likely to know the truth when they heard it.  For the first time since he and Sam had ridden out of the hills, Little Joe relaxed.  Just tell it straight and let the facts speak for themselves, he reminded himself.

To begin his case, the prosecutor called Tom McClure, the banker, to the stand.  Mr. McClure testified to what he’d found when he opened the bank the Friday morning after it had been robbed.  He described seeing the door to the vault lying in the floor, along with the residue of explosives.  “The vault was empty.”  He hesitated.  “Well, not entirely empty.  They left the coins and some bars of silver.  Didn’t want the weight slowing them down, I suppose.”

Elias Hartwood rose to his feet.  “Objection.  The witness is speculating.”

The prosecutor stood, as well, and asked with a wry smile, “In mining stocks, perhaps?”

A rumble of laughter rolled over the courtroom, for most of the men there had, at one time or another, been guilty of speculating in the silver mines beneath Virginia City.

“No levity, Mr. Riley,” Judge Whitcomb warned, though he had to restrain the twitching of his own lips.  “The objection is sustained.  Just state what was missing, Mr. McClure.”

“Forty-five thousand dollars, in bills of various denominations,” McClure said.

“And was that amount subsequently returned to your bank?” Riley asked.

With a grateful nod at the sheriff, Tom McClure said, “Yes, the full amount.”  He answered loudly and emphatically, for that was information he wanted his depositors to hear.  His bank had some work to do to restore confidence, and this public forum seemed an ideal place to begin.

Hartwood spent little time cross-examining the first witness.  He did, however, elicit an admission that nothing had been left behind that might identify the robbers and that the money had been unmarked.  “So you couldn’t say, for sure, if the bills returned to you were the same ones removed from your vault.”

“They were in bags marked with the bank’s name,” Mr. McClure said dryly, and titters again rippled through the rows of spectators.

Hartwood wisely let the matter drop and excused the witness.

The shoe was on the other foot with the second witness.   By the time the telegrapher Rudy had been questioned by both lawyers, Hartwood was smiling in glee and Cornelius Riley was asking himself why he’d ever called the man to the stand in the first place.  Rudy identified the two men on trial, as well as Sam Kirby, as men he’d seen in town the night the bank was robbed, but on cross-examination he admitted, just as he had to Joe outside the sheriff’s office, that it had been dark that night and, maybe, he wasn’t so sure, after all, that Ramos and Andy had been there.  Hartwood let Rudy’s identification of Sam stand unchallenged; it suited his purpose.

Little Joe shook his head in disgust and resolved that he wouldn’t let Hartwood turn him into mincemeat for pie, the way Rudy had.

Sheriff Coffee, the next witness, exhibited the cool demeanor of an experienced professional as he answered questions about the posse’s search for the thieves and the subsequent arrest of three members of the Pardo gang.

“But you did not yourself bring them in, did you, Sheriff Coffee?” Hartwood demanded when it was his turn to question the lawman.

Roy answered warily, for the lawyer sounded like he was hinting that the sheriff had failed in his duty.  “No, they were brought in by men I’d assigned to help in the search, not by me personally.”

Hartwood favored the lawman with an oily smile.  “Those men wouldn’t be named Cartwright, would they?”

“That’s right,” Roy replied gruffly.  “I asked Ben and his boys to cover the Ponderosa.  They’ve always been good, solid posse members, anytime I’ve used ‘em, so I left it to ‘em, and they found the outlaws on their land.”

“On the Ponderosa?”

“Yeah.”

“The outlaws were hiding on land owned by Ben Cartwright?”

“Just said that, didn’t I?”  Irritation edged Roy’s voice.

“Isn’t it true, Sheriff Coffee, that the one man who has admitted robbing the Virginia City bank was actually employed by Ben Cartwright?”

Roy shifted to one side, easing the weight off an arthritic hip.  “If you mean Sam Kirby, he did hire on at the Ponderosa the morning after the bank was robbed.”

Hartwood leaned toward the lawman.  “Don’t you find that suspicious, Sheriff?”

“Well, yeah, I did,” Roy admitted, “but Ben said the boy had been sent by Ed Lempe, a man who used to live hereabouts.”

The lawyer sneered with poorly veiled contempt.  “And because your friend Ben Cartwright vouched for this man, you just dropped your investigation of Sam Kirby.”

Roy reared up and gripped the rail of the witness box.  “I did no such a thing!  I sent a wire to Ed Lempe, down in Arizona, and when I found out”—the sheriff fell back in his chair, realizing that he was volunteering information he had not been asked.

Hartwood feigned surprise, although the particulars were nothing new to him; Ramos had already filled him in on Kirby’s background.  “Found out what, Sheriff?”

Roy shifted in the chair, not, this time, to keep his joints from stiffening.  “The wire I got back said that Kirby had been fired from the Bar B”—he paused and added, somewhat reluctantly, “because of his prison record in Texas.”  His opinion of Sam Kirby had changed over the last few days, and he hated to see the boy’s past held against him when it came time for sentencing, but facts were facts, and he’d sworn to tell the truth.

Hartwood cocked his head, as if absorbing information he was hearing for the first time.  “Oh?  For what crime, Sheriff?  A previous bank robbery, perhaps?”

Roy took a deep breath.  “No.  The wire said he was convicted of murder.”

Gasps echoed throughout the courtroom.  Ellie McClure, seated beside her father, stared wide-eyed at Kirby and shook her head in disbelief.  Sam had seemed so nice that day at the picnic.  She’d never dreamed she was talking to a thief, much less a murderer.

Little Joe moaned softly, though no one but his brothers heard it over the buzz of conversation that erupted in the room.  Knowing Sam had killed a man and gone to prison for it wasn’t likely to make the judge lean toward mercy.  Maybe it was inevitable that that would come out, but Joe felt a heavier weight drop onto his shoulders.  Now his testimony had to be all the more convincing, if Sam was to get the new start in life he wanted—and in Joe’s mind, had earned.

The judge pounded his gavel for order, and Hartwood, pleased with the effect of the shocking revelation on the crowd and, especially, the jury, continued his cross-examination.  “Didn’t that further arouse your suspicions?” he asked.

Roy nodded.  “It did.  That’s why I rode out to talk to Ben about it.”

Hartwood folded his arms.  “Are you in the habit of asking Ben Cartwright’s opinion of suspected criminals, Sheriff?”  Those in the courtroom who envied the Cartwrights’ position in the community murmured.

“No, I ain’t!” Roy answered hotly.  It was a charge he’d heard before and found particularly offensive.  He’d proven more than once that friendship didn’t influence the way he did his job, and he resented how often those accusations came up in reference to his relationship with Ben and his boys.  “I rode out to warn Ben what kind of man he had working for him and to see if the boy could account for his whereabouts Thursday night.”

“And could he?”

“No,” the sheriff replied gruffly.

“Then why didn’t you arrest him?”

Roy took a moment, for he saw where this line of questioning was headed and didn’t want to travel that road.  He wasn’t in the habit of hedging the truth, though, so he finally said, “Ben wouldn’t agree to me takin’ the boy off the ranch, not without real cause.”

“Because Ben Cartwright wouldn’t let you,” Hartwood summarized.  He jabbed an accusing finger at the sheriff.  “You let a convicted murderer and a self-confessed bank robber run free because Ben Cartwright told you to.”

“No.”  Coffee scowled at the lawyer.  “Not because Ben said so, but because even though I had my suspicions, I didn’t have enough evidence for a warrant.”

“Still, you warned Mr. Cartwright about the character of the man he had hired the very morning after the bank was robbed?  You told him your suspicions?”

“I did.  He didn’t listen.”  Roy glanced over at Ben.  “Still think he should have, for safety’s sake.”

“But he didn’t,” the lawyer pressed.  “He, instead, chose to protect a convicted murderer, giving him a place to hide out in plain sight, as it were, until it was safe to collect the money he’d hidden . . . where?  Oh, yes.  On the land of the man providing him safe haven.”

At the veiled hint that his father had something to do with that stolen money, Little Joe almost came out of his seat, but Hoss, who had sensed the steam building up next to him, threw an arm across his younger brother’s chest and held him back.  “Keep still,” Adam hissed in his ear.  “Treat it like the nonsense it is.”

Little Joe hitched in a heated breath, let it out in an exasperated gust and settled back with a nod at his older brother.  Hoss left his arm right where it was ‘til he felt Joe’s breathing slow down and his taut chest muscles slacken.

Roy eyed the lawyer with suspicion.  “What are you suggesting?”

Hartwood spread his hands in apparent innocence as he walked away from the witness box.  “Why, I suggest nothing, Sheriff, at least at present.  I’m merely gathering all available information in an attempt to fix blame where it rightfully belongs.”  His gaze lingered for a moment on the face of Sam Kirby before it drifted across the room to the row where the four Cartwrights were seated.  “No further questions, Sheriff,” he said and sat down without looking at the witness.

“No redirect, Your Honor,” the prosecutor said.

Joe leaned toward Adam.  “No redirect!  Shouldn’t he clear up what that jerk was saying about Pa?” he whispered.

Adam shook his head.  “Best way to do that is to move on to stronger witnesses: Sam”—one side of his mouth quirked teasingly upward—“and you.”

Grimacing, Little Joe drew back.  Stronger witness?  Him?  Was Adam crazy?  Just the thought of climbing into that witness box had kept his appetite puny for days, even when he’d only had Sam’s future to worry about.  Now he was supposed to rescue his father’s reputation, too?  A jolt of queasiness hit Joe right in the pit of his near-empty stomach.

Sam was on the stand now, and he looked as nervous as Joe felt.  Maybe more, Joe decided, and with good reason.  A lot rode on what Sam had to say for himself in the next few minutes, and some of what he’d probably have to say wouldn’t come easy.

At least, the prosecutor had the sense to get the worst of it out of the way first.  “Mr. Kirby,” Cornelius Riley began, “I believe it’s only fair for the jury to have some knowledge of the type of man they’re listening to, so I’d like to explore your background a little.”

Sam nodded.  Though he would have liked to keep his past secret from the good folks of Virginia City, especially the banker’s pretty daughter, Hiram Wood had warned him that it might come out.  “If it does, trust Mr. Riley to handle it,” Mr. Wood had said.  “Just answer his questions, straight and to the point, and for mercy’s sake, boy, don’t let that bitterness you feel for your stepfather show on the witness stand.”  From the moment Roy Coffee had testified that he’d been convicted of murder, Sam had known this moment would come, and he was determined to do just as his lawyer had advised.

“Is it true, as the wire to Sheriff Coffee alleged, that you served time in prison for murder?”

Sam flicked one regretful glance at Ellie McClure and then forced himself to look away.  Much as he wanted to see her reaction, he couldn’t afford the distraction right now.  “Yes, sir, it’s true.  I served eight years.”

“And were you guilty?”

Sam nodded reluctantly.  “Yes, sir.  I’m afraid I was.”

“Who did you kill, son?”   The prosecutor’s voice fairly dripped with compassion.

“I killed my stepfather, sir.”  Several high-pitched cries met this announcement, and fearing one them might have come from Ellie, Sam winced.

“What were the circumstances under which you killed this man?” Riley asked.

“Your Honor, I object,” Hartwood protested.  “That crime has already been tried and adjudicated.  We need not waste the court’s time by going into its particulars here.”

“I disagree, Your Honor,” Riley argued.  “I did not bring this witness’s prior record into issue; defense counsel did, presumably to discredit his testimony.  Since the circumstances of that killing reflect on the character of my witness, I feel I should have the right to present the facts.  I will be brief, Your Honor.”

“See that you are, Counselor,” Judge Whitcomb warned.  “Objection overruled.  That means you can answer the question, boy.”

“Yes, sir,” Sam said.  “The circumstances?” he asked the prosecutor, looking a little puzzled.  “Well, I knew he’d be coming for me, so I waited for him, and—and I took him.”

“You knew he’d be coming for you, you say?” Riley probed.  “To harm you?”

“To give me a beatin’,” Sam acknowledged.

“Why did you believe your stepfather intended to beat you?  Had you done something to deserve a beating?”

Sam shrugged.  “Just bein’ born, I guess.  He never seemed to need no other reason.”

The prosecutor made certain the jury could see his sympathetic expression.  “He’d beaten you before?  Often?”

Sam tried to stay calm, like Hiram Wood had advised, but the old bitterness crept into his voice as he said, “‘Most every night, starting right after we came back from buryin’ my ma.  I was six then.”

“How old were you when he came for you that last time, my boy?”

“Fourteen.  Big enough to stop him—finally.”

Riley smiled encouragingly.  “And that was why you killed him, to stop him from inflicting yet another beating on you.  Evidently, the judge who sentenced you took the circumstances and your age into consideration, for he only sentenced you to . . . eight years, I believe you said?”

“Sentenced to ten,” Sam corrected.  “I served eight.”

“And were paroled?”

“Pardoned.”

Riley could see that Sam’s age and the pardon had made an impact on those in the courtroom.  “Thank you, Mr. Kirby.  I believe the jury now has sufficient information to evaluate the nature of your ‘crime.’”  He emphasized the final word.  “Let’s proceed with the facts of this current case now, and I’m sure you will be equally forthright.”

“I’ll try, sir,” Sam promised, clearly relieved that the discussion of his past was over.  Not that his recent activities were anything to brag about, either.

“You’ve admitted that you robbed the Virginia City bank.  Did you act alone?”

“Oh, no, sir.  There were five of us altogether.”

“Can you identify the other perpetrators?”

“Perpe . . .” Sam, whose stepfather had fervently believed the only education the boy would ever need was schooling in hard work and obedience, was unfamiliar with the word.

Riley realized his mistake at once.  “The other robbers, I meant.”

“Oh, sure.”  Sam pointed toward the defense table.  “Those men there, they were both in on it.  There were two others, Link and Pardo, but they’re dead now.  Pardo was the leader.”

Riley led Sam through a detailed explanation of how the robbery had been planned and executed.  “So, on Pardo’s instruction, you hired on at the Ponderosa the following morning?” he asked after Sam had described what happened at the bank.  “Was anyone there aware of what you’d done the night before?”

“The Cartwrights?” Sam shook his head.  “Naw, I had ‘em all fooled . . . well, except Little Joe, I guess.”  Fearing someone might read that wrong after the way that fool defense lawyer had been acting, he quickly added, “He didn’t know for sure, but he was the only one who asked me where I was Thursday night.  Later, after the sheriff had been out to the ranch and I figured it wasn’t safe to hang around any longer, Adam Cartwright came in on me while I was getting my gear together and asked if Joe had been right all along.  Didn’t know whether he was joshin’ me or had finally figured it out, but I couldn’t take the chance.  I hit him over the head and lit out.”

“Lit out where?”

“Back to Pardo’s camp.  I’d been there before, to report in, tell what I knew about where posses were, that kind of thing.”

Riley waved a hand toward the defense table.  “And these are the men who were in that camp?”

Sam nodded.  “Them and Link and Pardo—and Little Joe.  He’d tracked me there earlier, and they—we—were holdin’ him, so’s he couldn’t give us away.”

Riley came closer and rested an arm companionably on the rail between him and the witness.  “At some point, Mr. Kirby, you decided to break forces with the other members of the Pardo gang, did you not?”

“Counselor is leading the witness, Your Honor,” Hartwood complained, fanning his face with a loose paper.  The temperature inside the packed courtroom was beginning to rise.

Riley spread his hands.  “His confession indicates that much, Your Honor.”

“I agree.  Don’t waste the court’s time, Mr. Hartwood,” the judge said grumpily.  It was 11:30 and his stomach was beginning to pinch.  “Objection overruled.”

“Answer the question, son,” the prosecutor said, adopting a relaxed stance again.

“Well, yeah, I guess.”  Sam shrugged one shoulder.  “Didn’t really feel like a decision, Mr. Riley, just something I had to do, without much time to think about it.  Pardo wanted to kill Little Joe, and all of a sudden I knew I couldn’t let that happen.  I mean, I know I’d killed a man myself, so maybe you’d think that killin’ came easy to me, but it didn’t.  I’d always told myself my stepfather was a man who needed killin’.”

He saw his own lawyer frown and hurried on.  “Reckon that’s not the right way to feel about any man, but it was a feelin’ I hadn’t been able to shake.  Joe was different, though.  Even though he’d been suspicious of me all along, he’d treated me fair; he wasn’t a man who needed killin’.  And the rest of the family done even better by me.  Adam Cartwright gave me the vest off his own back, and even when he knew my record, Ben Cartwright told me I had a home on the Ponderosa for as long as I wanted it.”  Sam smiled pensively.  “Well, a home was something I’d never had, not since my ma died, but those few days on the Ponderosa had shown me what one was like.  They’re close, those Cartwrights, and I knew it would kill the rest of them if anything happened to Little Joe.”

“How did you prevent it, Mr. Kirby?”

“Well, first I convinced Pardo to use Joe as a hostage, instead of killing him, to buy us time,” Sam explained, “and then when Link went into the cave to get the money bags, we took Pardo—me and Joe.”  Sam was uncomfortable reciting details that made him look like some sort of hero; that wasn’t how he felt about himself, so he kept his answer as short as possible.

The prosecutor didn’t press for more.  While he’d agreed, in negotiations with Hiram Wood, to ask certain questions that put this witness in a more favorable light, he’d done it more to establish credibility than to earn the boy a lighter sentence.  His own concern was to win a conviction against the two defendants, so his final questions merely reestablished that those were the men with whom Sam had robbed the bank, that the money was in their possession the entire time thereafter and that, with the help of Little Joe Cartwright, he had brought those men in to the sheriff and returned the money.

Elias Hartwood went on the attack from the moment he left his chair to begin his cross-examination.  “What have you been promised for testifying against these honest men?” he asked with a sweeping gesture toward his clients.

“Honest?  Them?”  Sam almost hooted, but then, remembering that he was in a court of law, he managed to hold in his scorn.  “Nobody promised me nothin’.”

The lawyer sneered.  “Oh, but you do hope to curry favor with this court by your testimony against them, don’t you?”

Sam flicked a glance at the judge.  “Well, yeah,” he said with reluctant honesty.  “I hope it’ll be a mark in my favor that I owned up to what I did and helped bring back that money and gave evidence here.”  He chanced another look at the judge.  “That’s up to His Honor, I guess, but nobody promised me it would help; I’m just hopin’.”

“Let’s leave hopes for now and look at facts, shall we, Mr. Kirby?”

“Sure,” Sam agreed.  The facts weren’t all pretty, but he was comfortable with them.  The really ugly ones had already been dealt with.

“After robbing the bank you decided to hide out on the Ponderosa?”

Sam had seen enough of this oily lawyer that he answered guardedly.  “I hired on there, yeah, but that was Pardo’s idea.”

“Oh.  Pardo’s idea.  Of course,” Hartwood snorted.  “You’d like to blame Mr. Pardo, a man who can no longer speak for himself, for just about everything, wouldn’t you, Mr. Kirby?”

“Not really,” Sam said, sounding almost apologetic.  “I had nothing against Pardo; he always treated me fair.  But I did swear to tell the truth, so when he was to blame, I got to say so.”

“Because you’re such a fine, upstanding citizen, I suppose?”

“Your Honor,” the prosecutor protested.  “Is this sarcasm to be tolerated?”

“Counselor has a right to question the witness’s character and credibility, Mr. Riley,” the judge reminded him.  He leaned over the desk and fixed an unyielding eye on the defense lawyer.  “I would advise Mr. Hartwood, however, to watch his tone.  Sarcasm may be tolerated, but it is not welcomed.”

“Duly noted, Your Honor,” Hartwood responded slickly.  He turned back to Sam.  “All right, so your plan—or Pardo’s, if we’re to believe your unsupported word—was to hire on at the Ponderosa.  What made you think a prominent man like Ben Cartwright would hire a jailbird like yourself?”

Sam chuckled.  “Well, I didn’t plan to tell him that.  I had worked for a man who knew Mr. Cartwright and planned to use his name.  Wasn’t sure it would work, but it did.”

“No one so much as questioned your assertion?”

“My . . .”  Sam looked puzzled for a minute and then figured out what the lawyer must be asking.  “Adam Cartwright asked if Ed Lempe had sent a letter with me.  I said it was packed away in my saddlebags, and then Hoss spoke up and said he believed me.”  He flashed a little grin at the middle Cartwright brother.  “You shouldn’t oughta be quite so trusting, Hoss.”

“You direct your answers to me and no one else, boy!” the lawyer snapped.

Sam sat up straighter and faced Hartwood again.  “Uh—yes, sir.  Sorry.”

“So, by your own testimony, you successfully fooled Ben, Adam and Hoss Cartwright, but young Joseph knew what you really were?”

Sam leaned forward, face intent.  “No, sir!  I said he was suspicious, not that he knew.  He didn’t.”

Hartwood spread his hands to indicate the inevitability of his conclusion.  “He must have, at some time, since the two of you ‘captured’ the so-called outlaws together.”

“Okay, yeah, he found out Sunday,” Sam admitted, “when he trailed me to the camp and got hisself caught.”

“And then you selflessly saved his life by turning on the man you say had always treated you well.  Is that what really happened, Mr. Kirby?”

“Yes, sir, it is, ‘cept I reckon Joe saved my life as much as I saved his.”

“Enough of this balderdash!”  Hartwood strode away from the witness box.  “Let me tell you what I think actually happened, Mr. Kirby.”  He began to pace slowly back and forth in front of the jury.  “Young Joseph Cartwright did have his suspicions about you, early on, and he did, indeed, follow you into the hills, where you had gone to retrieve the money you’d hidden in a cave there.  He found you—and you alone—with the money, forty-five thousand dollars.  The Cartwrights are a wealthy family, but I doubt that young Joseph had ever held that much in his own hands.  Taking advantage of his youth and inexperience, you offered to share it with him, in exchange for his silence, didn’t you?”

Little Joe leaped to his feet.  “That’s a filthy lie!”

“Sit . . . down,” Ben Cartwright said firmly, even before the judge banged his gavel.

“Take your seat, young man,” Judge Whitcomb ordered.  “You’re on the witness list; you’ll get your chance to tell your side of this story.”

Influenced more by his father’s glowering countenance than the judge’s admonition, Little Joe sat down gingerly on the edge of his seat, heels tapping frenetically on the floorboards.

Hoss, very gently, pushed him back in the chair.  “Take it easy, youngun.  That temper ain’t gonna convince nobody you’re tellin’ the truth.”

“That’s right,” Adam hissed, “so rein it in.”

“And then,” Hartwood continued, as if there had been no interruption, “you convinced this naive young man that the two of you would never be safe, so long as the posse continued to search for the culprits.  That was when you came up with the idea of framing Mr. Pardo and three other men, innocent drifters who happened to be camped in the same hills.”

“That is a filthy lie,” Sam declared.  “Joe knew nothing, and like you said, Pardo knew everything.  He planned it, every detail, and he oversaw everything, start to finish.  Link, Ramos, Andy and me—we carried it out, no one else.”

“So you say,” the lawyer said with a deprecating smile.  “We’ll leave it to the jury to decide how much stock to take in the word of a convicted murderer and confessed bank robber.  I have no further questions of this witness.”  He returned to the defense table with an air of consummate self-satisfaction.

“The State calls Joseph Cartwright,” Cornelius Riley announced loudly.

Fire in his eyes, Little Joe sprang to his feet.

Adam gave his brother’s backside a swat of encouragement.  “Go get ‘em, buddy.”  But Joe no longer needed encouragement.  For days he had dreaded testifying, but now the nerves were gone.  Hartwood’s accusations had made him mad, and he couldn’t wait to get on that stand and show the whole world just how ridiculous they were.

Joe climbed over Hoss and then Pa, who grasped his hand as he passed.  “Calm down, son,” he advised.  “You’ll do fine.”

Joe took a deep breath and nodded.  Pa was right.  He had important work to do, and he couldn’t afford to let his emotions get the better of him, whether they arose from garden-variety nerves or trigger-happy temper.

The signs of heightened emotion must have still remained, however, for the prosecutor began by conversationally saying, “Good morning, Joseph” and waiting for him to reply with the same greeting.  “How are you feeling this morning, my boy?”

Joe quickly said, “Fine.”

“A bit anxious for dinner, perhaps?”

“I’m fine,” Joe said tersely.

Feeling that the witness was as calm as he was likely to get and that any further delay would backfire on him, Riley smiled.  “Let’s get down to business, then.  You have heard Mr. Sam Kirby state that you were the only member of the Cartwright family not taken in by his claim to have been sent to you by Ed Lempe of the Bar B in Arizona.  Is that correct?”

Little Joe was uncomfortable with the description of his family as “taken in,” but he agreed.  Pa, Adam and Hoss could live with people in Virginia City thinking they were easily hoodwinked; some of them already thought worse, anyway.  Bolstering Sam’s testimony in the eyes of the judge and jury was what mattered most right now.

“Yet you are the youngest member of the family,” Riley said.  “How is that you suspected Mr. Kirby when your elders did not?”

Little Joe fired a quick glance in Adam’s direction.  If big brother thought he was going to repeat that nonsense about being jealous of Sam’s way with horses, he’d better think again!  He shrugged one shoulder.  “I’m not sure.  I didn’t think anything about it ‘til the sheriff asked us to be on the lookout for drifters.  I all of a sudden realized we’d just hired one, and then when we were out looking for the robbers, I thought I saw Sam drawing down on my brother Hoss.  Then, later, Rudy told me he thought he saw Sam and two other men in town the night the bank was robbed.”

“So you added these signs together and came up with the right conclusion?”

Joe grinned slightly, for that kind of calculation sounded more like his brother Adam than him.  “No, I wouldn’t say that.  It was more like a feelin’ I had, and those things wouldn’t let me talk myself out of it.”

“And because you couldn’t talk yourself out of your suspicions, you kept an eye on Sam Kirby, and when he left Miss Ellie McClure’s birthday party on Sunday afternoon, you followed him.”

Joe shook his head.  “That’s not quite the way it was, Mr. Riley.  I’d finally asked Sam, straight out, where he’d been Thursday night, and we got into a fight over it.”  He looked out into the courtroom and met Ellie’s eyes in a silent apology for spoiling her party.

Ellie smiled back.  She’d been upset with Little Joe that afternoon, but her irritation had vanished, once Joe brought back the missing money and she learned that Sam really had robbed the bank.

“When I told my family my suspicions after the fight,” Joe continued, “Pa pointed out that I didn’t have any real evidence.  I realized he was right, so I rode out after Sam to apologize.  It was only when I saw that he’d turned off from the road back to the ranch that I started trailing him.”

The prosecutor, both hands resting on the rail of the witness box, leaned forward in anticipation.  “And where did that trail lead?”

“Up into the hills,” Joe replied matter-of-factly.

“Into the robbers’ camp?”

“Objection, Your Honor,” Hartwood protested.  “Counsel is leading the witness again.”

“Objection sustained,” the judge concurred.  “Restate your question, Mr. Riley.”

“Yes, sir.”  The prosecutor curbed his eagerness to get to the crucial identification and asked, “Can you be more specific about where the trail led, Joseph?”

“I guess it did lead to the Pardo gang’s camp,” Joe said, “but I didn’t follow it that far.”  He looked somewhat chagrinned as he added, “I got ambushed by two men first.”  He pointed at Ramos.  “He was one of them; I heard Sam call the other one Link.  They took my gun and brought me into the camp.”

“You didn’t see this man in the camp?”  Riley pointed at Andy.

“Not then,” Joe replied.  “He came in later for some grub and went out on watch again.”

“Then you’re certain that both of these men were part of the Pardo gang?”

“Yes, sir, I’m sure.”

The prosecutor gave the witness a sympathetic smile.  “How long were you held captive by these outlaws, my boy?”

Joe shrugged off what Riley was clearly hoping to paint as an ordeal.  “Just overnight.  Sam came back early the next morning, and between us we either killed or captured the Pardo gang and brought back the bank’s money.”

That was all the information the prosecutor actually needed for his case, but his agreement with Hiram Wood called for him to ask a few more questions to build up Sam’s chances for clemency.  Since a full recitation of what had happened at the Pardo camp would also enhance his major witnesses’ credibility, Riley had no objection.  “Exactly how did you and Mr. Sam Kirby capture these ruthless criminals?” he asked.

While Sam’s innate modesty had kept him from going into detail, Little Joe had every reason to elaborate on what Sam had done for him, for he felt that he owed Sam his life.  “When Sam came back, Pardo was in the act of beating me,” he said.  “He wanted to know which way the cavalry was coming in.  I knew, but I wasn’t about to tell him.”  Wanting to be sure that everyone, especially the judge, heard him, Joe raised his voice.  “Sam stopped them.  Pardo told him to beat the information out of me himself, but Sam refused, said he knew I wouldn’t talk.  Then Pardo wanted to kill me, but Sam stopped him again.  He told Pardo they could use me as a hostage.  I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I know now that Sam did that to save my life.”

“Objection.  The witness is drawing conclusions,” Hartwood said, scratching the heat-prickled skin beneath his collar.

“Sustained.  Just stick to the facts, young man,” Judge Whitcomb admonished.

Joe winced.  The same advice Adam had given him, and just like he’d feared, he wasn’t doing much of a job of following it.  Doggone it, though, that judge needed to hear how much Sam had risked for him.

“Did Pardo agree to Mr. Kirby’s plan, Joseph?” Riley asked.

“To use me as a hostage?  Yeah, he did.”

“What happened next?”

“Pardo told Ramos there to go get Andy and saddle the horses.  Sam sent Link into the cave, to get the money, and once he was gone, Sam pulled a gun on Pardo.”  Joe couldn’t resist the temptation to add, “That’s when I knew—for sure—that Sam meant to help me.”  He boldly looked straight at the judge, who frowned slightly, but said nothing.  Neither did the defendants’ lawyer, who was pouring water down his gullet at the time.

“Please continue, Joseph,” Riley urged.

“Pardo spun around real fast,” Joe said, “and knocked the gun out of Sam’s hand.  It flew over near me, thank goodness, ‘cause then he drew down on Sam, ready to kill him.  I dove for the gun and fired it before Pardo could get a shot off.  He . . . never moved after that.  Link heard the noise and came running out of the cave with his gun already drawn.  He fired at me, but his aim was off because Sam got to him in time to push him away.”  He chanced another glance up at the judge.  “He tackled an armed man to save my life—and him without a gun!”

“I heard you the first six times, young man,” Whitcomb said dryly.

Joe gulped.  The judge’s arithmetic was off, but Joe wasn’t about to correct him.  “Yeah.  Well, I fired back at Link, right after he fired at me and . . . killed him.  Then me and Sam rounded up those two”—he pointed again to the defendants—“and headed back toward town.  We ran into my pa and brothers and they helped us get them to the sheriff’s office, where Sam turned himself in—voluntarily.”  Knowing that he was toeing a narrow line, he didn’t risk looking directly at the judge this time.

“It is your testimony, then, that both John Pardo and his cohort in crime, Link, were killed by you and not by Mr. Sam Kirby?” Riley probed.

“Sam didn’t even have a gun when they were shot,” Joe said plainly, “but he did his part and—”

This time the judge’s gavel banged on his desk.  “Mr. Cartwright,” he said, a tinge of acid in his tone, “we get the message.”

Joe slid down in his chair.  “Yes, sir.  Sorry, Your Honor.”

“Just answer the questions, young man.  You have any more for him, Mr. Riley?”

“One or two, Your Honor,” Riley replied.  “You killed both of these men in self defense, Joseph?”

Suitably subdued, Joe kept his answer direct.  “Yes, sir.  They were shooting at me when I fired back.”

“And the sheriff so ruled when you brought these facts to his attention?”

“Yes, sir, he did.”

“I have no further questions, then.  Your witness, Counselor.”

Elias Hartwood bounded forward, like a vulture ready to rip his prey to shreds.  The prosecutor’s business-like direct examination, however, had banked some of Joe’s fire, and the young man faced the defense lawyer with clear-headed determination to do right by Sam Kirby.  “Well, well, Mr. Cartwright,” Hartwood smirked, “there is apparently more to you than meets the eye.  I had you pegged as an innocent lad, led astray by a hardened criminal; now I find that you and Sam Kirby are birds of a feather—both cold-blooded killers!”

“Cold-bl—are you crazy?”   Eyes wide with disbelief, Joe stared at him.  “I shot in self-defense.”

“So you say.”

“Your Honor, I protest,” the prosecutor shouted.  “Mr. Cartwright’s actions have already been judged to have been in self-defense.  He is not on trial here.”

“Objection sustained.  Watch your step, Mr. Hartwood,” the judge warned.

“Am I not allowed to question the credibility of a Cartwright?” Hartwood sneered.

“You can question the credibility of any witness,” Whitcomb barked, “so long as your questions are based on fact or reasonable supposition.  You’re dangerously close to stepping outside those bounds—and dangerously close to being cited for contempt.  I repeat: watch your step.”

“Yes, Your Honor.”  Hartwood still sounded contemptuous, but he moderated his tone as he demanded, “Who but you witnessed the killing of John Pardo and Link?”

Joe lifted his chin defiantly.  “Sam Kirby.”

“Ah, yes, your only proof that you shot in self-defense, then, is the word of a confessed bank robber and killer?”

Joe’s jaw hardened.  “Yeah, but if you ask me, that killing of Sam’s was more self-defense than murder.”

“I am not interested in your opinion, Mr. Cartwright!” Hartwood bellowed.  “Just answer the questions put to you.”

“Yes, sir!” Little Joe snapped back.

“Calm down, calm down, calm down,” Adam muttered.

Joe couldn’t hear him, of course, but he reacted almost as if he had.  He was, in fact, remembering Adam’s earlier advice, and he could feel his father’s fierce eyes boring into his head.  Joe realized that he needed to get hold of his temper and managed, barely, to do so, but he was still simmering inside.

“When did you and Kirby hatch this plan to frame John Pardo and his traveling companions, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Never,” Joe said tersely.  “We had no such plan.”

The lawyer spread his hands and stared with apparent amazement.  “The two of you—with only one gun between you—were able to subdue four men, is that what you expect this jury to believe, young man?”

“We only had to subdue two of them at a time, which makes even odds,” Joe grunted.  He gestured toward Ramos and Andy.  “And by the time we took those two on, we were both armed, better than even odds in my book.”

Hartwood thrust his head into the witness box.  “You were both armed, start to finish, weren’t you, boy?”

Joe leaned forward ‘til he was nose-to-nose with the lawyer.  “No,” he said, voice soft, but eyes ominous.

Hartwood took a step back, but pounded the rail between him and Little Joe.  “You came upon four unsuspecting, and probably unarmed, cattle punchers and gunned two of them down before these two surrendered, in fear for their lives.”

“No,” Joe said again, his voice rising.

“Did you and Kirby come up with this plan alone . . . or with the help of your father?”

“No!” Joe yelled, the accusation against his father breaking his tenuous hold on his temper.  “That is the biggest cock-and-bull pile of horse manure that I ever—”

“Joseph!” Ben Cartwright shouted, springing from his seat in the first row.

The judge’s gavel struck wood forcefully.  “Sit down, Mr. Cartwright,” he ordered.  He turned toward Little Joe.  “And as for you, young Mr. Cartwright, this is your final warning: you will not express another opinion in this courtroom . . . no matter how accurate it might be!”

“Your Honor!” Hartwood protested.  “I vigorously object to—”

“Sustained!” the judge snapped.  He dropped the gavel, and his fingers snatched at his ear-length gray hair.  “The jury will ignore the opinion expressed by young Mr. Cartwright . . . and by myself.”  He leaned over the desk.  “And Mr. Hartwood will move on to another line of questioning if he has an ounce of sense.”

Mr. Hartwood was possessed of an ounce—and many in the courtroom would have said not a drop more—of sense.  He stood there for a moment, eyes traveling back and forth between the judge and the witness.  Finally, he said, “If I cannot so much as suggest that a Cartwright might be lying, I have no more questions.”

As Little Joe was making his way back to his family, Cornelius Riley said that the State’s case was concluded and suggested breaking for dinner.  Joe paused at his father’s side, waiting to hear the judge’s response.  No reason to crawl over two men if they were about to leave.

“We’ll reconvene in two hours,” Judge Whitcomb decreed.

Ben Cartwright stood up and grasped his youngest son’s arm.  “We are going to have a very pertinent discussion over dinner, young man.”

Joe gave his father a strained half-smile.  “Yes, sir, I had a feeling we might.”

People near the back of the courtroom began filing out.  Meanwhile, Roy Coffee and his deputy moved to the defendants, intending to handcuff them and take them out a side door and back to the jail.  Ramos, though, kneed the sheriff in the groin.  When Roy doubled up, Ramos grabbed the sheriff’s gun from his holster.  Following his partner’s lead, Andy disarmed the deputy.  “All right, everybody move back from the door,” Ramos ordered.  A couple of people close to the doorway started through it, but a single shot into the lintel froze everyone in place.

“Mr. Ramos, please,” Elias Hartwood pleaded.  “You’re giving up all hope of being found innocent if you do this.”

Ramos spat on the lawyer’s highly polished shoes.  “Beginning to look like I lost all hope of that when I picked an ass for a lawyer.  Any more of that tripe you’re dishin’ up, and you’ll have me and Andy danglin’ from a rope!”

“Yeah, Cartwright kid pegged it right,” Andy snorted.  “You plopped down the biggest cock-and-bull—”

“Forget that,” Ramos growled.  “Like I said, clear that doorway.”

People began backing up toward the side walls, leaving the path to the door free.  Little Joe hesitated, but Ben, who was still holding him by the upper arm, pulled him back.  No one in that courtroom had guns, except the lawmen, and those two weapons were now in the hands of the remaining two members of Pardo’s gang.

“You’ll never get away,” Cornelius Riley warned them.  “Listen to reason, men, and give up while you have the chance.”

A grin slowly spread across Ramos’ face.  “Oh, I think we’ll get away just fine, mister lawyer, and you can thank ole Sam Kirby for showin’ us how.”  Baring his yellowed teeth, he cackled.  “All we need is a hostage or two—and I know just the two.  Get over here, Sam.  You got a little payback comin’, boy.”

Hiram Wood tried to hold his client back, but Sam knew better than to argue with two guns, if the lawyer didn’t.  He slowly made his way toward his former cohorts.

“You, too, pretty boy,” Ramos snorted, waving his gun muzzle at Little Joe.  “I got a score to settle with you, too.”

Ben’s grip instinctively tightened on his son’s arm.

“Pa, I got to,” Joe said.  “Too many people in here to risk a showdown.”  Ben’s fingers slowly loosened, and Joe moved out into the aisle, next to Sam.

“Hold it right there,” Andy ordered.  Still keeping a gun pointed at the two young men, he turned his face halfway toward his partner.  “Ramos, we ain’t gonna get far without travelin’ money.”  He thrust his chin toward a portly man on the left side of the room.  “And there stands the banker man to open the vault for us.”

Ramos laughed, an ugly, menacing sound.  “And that pretty little gal of his, too.  Both of you, into the aisle with ole Sam and pretty boy here.”

Ellie’s hand flew to her mouth as she tried to stifle her cry of fear.  “Not my daughter,” Tom McClure pleaded.  “She’s of no value to you.”

Ramos let his leering gaze linger on the girl’s scooped neckline.  “Oh, I don’t know, mister banker; she might be more valuable than the rest of you put together.”

“Let her go,” Sam said.  “Think it through, Ramos: two men, four hostages; you’re outnumbered.”

Andy cackled.  “If you and pretty boy can handle odds like that, I don’t reckon me and Ramos got much to worry about.”  He pointed his gun at the banker’s daughter.  “Into the aisle or your little gal won’t be of no value to nobody ever again.”

Tom McClure put his arm around his daughter and, doing his best to shield her with his own body, drew her into the aisle after him.

“All right . . . out the door, nice and slow,” Ramos ordered.  “No funny stuff, Sam, or one of these good citizens is gonna pay the price.”  He knew how tough Sam could be in a fight, but had little regard for the other three.  The baby-faced Cartwright wasn’t much more than a kid, and the middle-aged banker and the woman were even less likely to cause trouble.

With Andy walking backwards ahead of them, the quartet of hostages moved out the door, into the anteroom.  Ramos paused in the doorway.  “Any face I see outside this door in the next fifteen minutes gets blasted to kingdom come.”  He backed out the door and flung it shut with a bang.  He spun around to face his hostages.  “Outside now, and stop as soon as you hit the street.”

The hostages did as they were told.  When they arrived on the street, Ramos lined them up in two rows, Tom McClure and his daughter in front, with Sam behind the banker and Little Joe behind Ellie, far enough apart than none had any contact with the others.  “Now, we’re gonna take a nice little walk down to the bank, so papa here can open up the vault,” Ramos said.  “Andy ‘n’ me’ll be right behind you, so don’t try nothin’.”  He positioned himself behind Sam and motioned Andy to get behind Little Joe.

Inside the courtroom, Roy Coffee was taking charge.  “Everyone, stay in here,” he said.  “Let the law handle this.”  He and his deputy gave the outlaws time to clear the anteroom, and then they entered cautiously.  As they were unlocking the cabinet that held the spectators’ guns, to arm themselves, Ben and his two older sons burst in.  “Ben, this ain’t your job,” the sheriff said.

“They’ve got my boy, Roy,” Ben said.  “That makes it my job.”

“All right, then,” Roy agreed, knowing it would be pointless to argue.  “We’re goin’ down the hall and out the side door into the alley.  Move slow and quiet; don’t let ‘em see you.”

Sam and Joe, walking down the dusty street beside each other, about six feet apart, glanced cautiously at one another.  Though no words passed between them, their eyes communicated a clear message: if they kept on obeying orders, it was likely none of them would get out of this alive.  The outlaws held a grudge against both of them; Ramos had already hinted that he had unsavory plans for Ellie, and neither young man considered it likely that the banker would be left alive to testify against the fugitives.  The glance they exchanged plainly told each of them to keep an eye on the other, look for an opportunity and be ready to act at a moment’s notice.

As they passed a half-full water trough, Sam nodded almost imperceptibly.  Then he seemed to stumble, and as he fought to regain his balance, he put both palms against Mr. McClure’s back and pushed.  The banker pitched forward, sprawled flat on the ground.  “Stay down!” Sam yelled as he bolted upright and swung around to knock the gun from Ramos’ hand, employing the same move Pardo had used to disarm him.  The maneuver wasn’t entirely successful, though, for Ramos had a tight grip on that gun, and the two men were soon locked in a fierce struggle for control of the weapon.

Meanwhile, Joe’s first concern was to get Ellie to safety.  He stayed behind her, his back to the fracas, as he hurried her toward the water trough.  Once he had her behind it, safe from any stray bullets, he could help Sam.  But as Little Joe guided the girl around the end of the trough, she caught her high heel, twisted her ankle and collapsed with a cry of pain.  Since he was holding tight to her, Joe fell, too, a perfect, stationary target for the bullet that plowed into his back.  He slumped on top of Ellie, motionless.  She screamed.

Another shot exploded, and Ramos dropped to the ground, his hand still clutching the weapon, his finger still on the trigger.  Sam dove for the gun, but he couldn’t reach it in time. Andy turned his own smoking weapon toward the former gang member and would have fired had not shots suddenly rung out from across the street.  Andy took cover behind the water trough, but both lawmen and the three Cartwrights fanned out and came at him from all sides.  Sam bent over Mr. McClure’s prone figure and urged him to crawl forward.  “Come on; we gotta get you out of the line of fire!”

“Ellie,” McClure gasped.  “My little girl.”

Sam had expected Joe to be doing the same thing for Ellie that he was doing for her pa, but a darting glance showed him that Joe wasn’t moving.  “Keep goin’,” he told the banker.  “I’ll get her.”  He rose into a low crouch and turned toward the water trough, beside which Ellie wriggled beneath Little Joe’s inert body.  Andy saw Sam move, though, and raised his gun to take careful aim at the man he blamed for everything that had gone wrong since that Thursday night when everything had looked so promising.  He took too long, however, and when a bullet found the all-too-prominent target, Andy toppled into the water.

Hoss Cartwright, smoke still drifting from his six-shooter, rushed forward and pulled the man out of the water.  “He’s dead,” he called and dropped him into the street.  Swiftly he moved around the trough to gently lift his little brother off of Ellie.  “Joe!  Joe, boy,” he cried as he turned his brother over.

Ellie sat up, screaming and scooting away on her bustle when she saw the crimson stain spreading over Joe’s shirt.  Sam hurried over to put an arm around her.  “It’s all right, Miss Ellie,” he soothed.  “Everything’s all right now.”  Though he sounded calm, his heart was pounding . . . with fear for his newfound friend.

Ben skidded to his son’s side only seconds later, though he’d had to come from across the street.  “Joseph . . . son.”  He smoothed tousled curls back from the boy’s still face.

“Pa,” Joe murmured, and then his fluttering eyelids closed.

“We need to get him down to the doc, Pa,” Adam urged.

Nodding in agreement, Ben started to slide his arms under Joe, but Hoss stopped him.  “Let me have him, Pa,” he said.  “I can manage this better than you.”

Ben found it hard to turn loose, but after a moment’s hesitation he moved back to allow Hoss to lift his brother.  Side by side, the Cartwrights started down the street.

“I’ll go ahead, warn the doc you’re comin’,” Roy offered.  He motioned his deputy forward.  “Sanders, I guess you’d better take Sam back to jail . . . unless you need the doc, too, son.”

Sam shook his head.  “I’m okay, Sheriff.”  As Ellie’s head fell to his shoulder, he smiled.  “In fact, I’m right as rain.”

*****

Wiping his hands on a towel, Dr. Martin came into the waiting room, where the three older Cartwrights sat.  “Bullet’s out,” he said, “and he’s just come around.”

Relieved smiles met the announcement.  “How is he?” Ben asked anxiously.

“He’s weak,” the doctor said.  “He lost a lot of blood, Ben, but he was lucky.  No vital organs damaged.  You’ll need to keep an eye on him for a few days, as a precaution.  Plenty of rest and good care, and he’ll be fine.”

Ben stood.  “May I see him?”

Paul Martin chuckled.  “I’ll have a mutiny on my hands if I don’t let you in.  You boys can go in, too, briefly.  Then I’d suggest you book a hotel room because your little brother is not traveling home tonight.”

The three Cartwrights trooped into the examining room, where Joe lay on a narrow, padded table.  “Hey, Pa,” he said.

Ben took the hand his son was stretching toward him.  “Hey yourself, Joe.”

“Hey, kid,” Adam said, placing his hand on Joe’s forehead.  No fever.  Too soon, perhaps, but so far, so good.

“How you doin’, Shortshanks?” Hoss asked as he gave Joe’s foot a waggle.

“I’m doin’ okay,” Joe said, though each word seemed to exhaust him.  “Wh-where’s Sam?” he asked.  “He hurt?”

Ben ran a soothing hand up his son’s arm.  “No, son.  Sam’s fine.  He’s back at the jail.”

“Jail?”  Joe looked disturbed.  “How long?”

At first no one understood what he was asking; then Adam bent over his brother.  “We don’t know yet, Joe.  Roy told us the judge dismissed court ‘til tomorrow morning.  He’ll sentence Sam then.”

“I . . . want . . . be there.”

“No,” Ben said firmly.  “You will be keeping to your bed for some time, young man.”

Color rose in Joe’s pale cheeks.  “I . . . will . . . be there.”

“You will not,” Ben said, his voice stronger.  “Don’t take that tone with me, boy.”

Joe’s lower lip pushed out ever so slightly, and his eyes were those of a sad puppy.  “Pa . . . please . . . very . . . important . . . to me.”

Ben arched a silver eyebrow.  “Don’t take that tone, either,” he said, but his voice had lost some of its vigor and determination.

Adam straightened.  “Pa, I think Hoss and I had better get that room at the hotel the doc recommended.”

“What?”  Ben blinked at his eldest son.  “Oh, yes, yes, of course.  The sooner the better.”  He patted Joe’s good shoulder.  “This young man needs his rest.”

“Right,” Adam agreed.  “We’ll be back soon.”

“Rest good,” Hoss admonished as Adam hooked his elbow and dragged him away.

As soon as they had exited the doctor’s office, Adam turned right.

“Hey, what you headin’ that way for?” Hoss asked.  He hooked a thumb in the opposite direction.  “Hotel’s down here.”

“First things first,” Adam said, continuing to walk in long, easy strides in the direction he’d started.  “Is there any doubt in your mind how that little showdown is going to turn out?”

With a look back at the door to the doctor’s office, Hoss grinned.  “Nope.  Nary a one.”

“Then let’s get down to the mercantile and buy our little brother a new shirt, or I guarantee he’ll turn up in court without one.”  Adam tossed a roguish grin at his brother.  “And much as that might thrill the ladies, I think Virginia City’s seen enough excitement for one week!”

*****

Smartly dressed in a crisp, new white shirt and black string tie to match the sling on his right arm, Little Joe leaned heavily on his father as they laboriously moved up the aisle of the courtroom.  Beads of sweat stood on his brow, and his face seemed washed of color.  Adam and Hoss followed closely, ready to grab their brother at the first sign of collapse.

Ben eased his youngest son into the second chair from the end on their left and laid a solicitous hand against the boy’s cheek.  He shook his head on detecting a touch of fever.  “I knew this was a bad idea,” he chided, himself as much the target of the scolding as Little Joe.  “No more than two blocks from the hotel, and you’re exhausted.”   He slid into the seat on the aisle, next to Joe.

“ Pa, I’m okay,” Joe insisted.  “Don’t hover.”

“I’ll hover all I please, young man,” his father replied testily, but he did, with apparent effort, settle back in his own chair.  “Why do I let him talk me into these things,” he muttered in self-disgust.

Hoss squeezed past them to take the seat next to his little brother, and with a shake of his head, Adam clambered over all three to sit beside Hoss.  Did it never occur to anyone other than him that it made more sense for the first person to take the fourth seat from the aisle, instead of the first?  Well, maybe Joe couldn’t have made it that far, judging by the clammy pallor of his countenance.  He did look exhausted, and Adam had a feeling that Pa would have more than a few pertinent words to say to his oldest son for providing the shirt that had made this ill-advised outing possible.

“Wish I could’ve seen Sam first,” Joe grumbled.

“It’s quite enough that you’re here at all, Joseph, without adding a trip to the jail,” Ben said with a show of severity that wasn’t remotely convincing.  “Dr. Martin will have a fit if he finds out you’re out of bed this soon.”

“I can handle Doc Martin,” Joe said with a maddening—and thoroughly beguiling—smile.

Sheriff Coffee and Deputy Sanders brought in Sam Kirby, who sat down at the defense table with Hiram Wood.

Little Joe started to rise.  “Maybe I could just—”

“No, Joseph, you could not,” Ben said, and this time he sounded like he meant it.

Looking disgruntled, Joe slumped back in his chair.

Ellie McClure, seated with her father in the first row behind the defense table, leaned across the rail to speak to Sam, but had little time to do more than greet him before the judge entered.

After a few preliminaries Judge Whitcomb called for Sam Kirby to stand before him to receive his sentence.

Little Joe struggled to his feet before Ben or Hoss noticed what he was doing.  “Your Honor,” he said, grasping the chair in front of him to steady himself, “could I say something?”

“No, young man, you could not,” Whitcomb said tartly.  “You said more than enough during the trial, I assure you.  So, sit down—before you fall down.”  Though Joe didn’t see it, there was a twinkle in the judge’s eye.

Hoss reached up and gently pulled his brother down.  “Now, you stay put, little brother, else I’ll have to sit on you,” he cautioned.

Joe scowled, but he stayed put, even though he did move to the edge of his seat.

“I’ve given careful consideration to the sentence you deserve for the crime you committed, young man,” the judge told Sam.  “Taking into consideration your assistance in recovering the money and bringing in the others who participated in the bank robbery, I feel a sentence of one year in the Territorial prison would be justified.”

“No,” Joe moaned.  A whole year behind bars?  Sam didn’t deserve that.  Somehow he’d failed to make the judge understand, or, maybe, it was like Adam had warned him, he’d pushed too hard and made things worse for Sam.

Sam looked shaken at the prospect, but he nodded.  “Yes, Your Honor, that’s fair.”

Judge Whitcomb smiled.  “It would be fair if there were not other mitigating circumstances.  In light of your actions yesterday, Mr. Kirby, in protecting three citizens of Virginia City and preventing a second bank robbery, I am inclined to reduce even that sentence, because you have shown yourself to be a man who genuinely wants to walk a different road from the one that brought him here.”

Little Joe and Sam both looked up in hope.

“I hereby sentence you to sixty days in the county jail,” the judge decreed and with a nod to Sheriff Coffee, added, “You can subtract the time Mr. Kirby has already been a resident of the county from that total, Sheriff.”

“Glad to hear it, Your Honor,” Roy said.  “I think that boy’s got a hollow leg.”

“Well, fill it, then,” the judge said with a chuckle.  “Boy looks like he could use some fattening up.”

He stood, and just before he descended from the bench, he turned toward the right side of the courtroom.  “That satisfy you, young Mr. Cartwright?”

Little Joe flashed a sparkling smile.  “Well,” he said, drawing the word out slowly, “thirty days would be better, don’t you think?”

Ben Cartwright winced.  No one but Joseph would think he could get away with talking like that to a judge.  And no one was as likely to get away with it as Joe, that irrepressible charmer.

The judge rolled his eyes and gave a good-natured grunt.  “Incorrigible,” he was heard to mutter as he came down to shake Sam’s hand and wish him well.

Her ankle still painful, Ellie limped around the rail to engulf Sam in an exuberant hug.  “Oh, Sam, sixty days,” she commiserated.

“Aw, Miss Ellie, sixty days is nothin’,” he said.  “I can do that standin’ on my head.”

“Well, at least, it’ll give me a chance to do something about the judge’s order to fatten you up,” Ellie said with a coquettish cock of her head.  “I’m going home right now to bake a whole pie, just for you, Sam.  What kind’s your favorite?”

“My favorite?”  It had been so long since Sam had eaten a fresh-baked pie that he couldn’t remember whether he even had a favorite kind.  “Seems like my ma used to bake a mighty fine rhubarb,” he said tentatively.

“Rhubarb!”  Little Joe, who had just made his way across the room, hovering father in tow, clucked his tongue.  “You don’t know any more about pie than you do picnics, Sam, if that’s your best choice.  Now, me, I favor a nice apple pie, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, bubbling fresh from the oven.”  He took Ellie’s hand and lifted it to his lips for a gentle kiss.  “And these sweet hands bake the best apple pie in town.”

“Little Joe Cartwright, do you expect me to believe you haven’t said that to every girl in town,” Ellie teased.

With a puckish wink, Joe kissed her hand again.  “Let’s just say you’re the only girl I’d say it to now.”  He gave her his best pitiful puppy-dog look as he gingerly stroked the arm in a sling.  “And one of your apple pies would probably build up my strength better than Doc Martin’s best potion.”

Seeing straight through that puppy plea, Ellie laughed.  “Oh, you’ll get your apple pie, Little Joe.  The least I owe you for protecting me yesterday.”  With a perky flounce of her red-cold curls, she turned toward Sam.  “But for you, Mr. Sam Kirby, there’ll be a fresh pie every day—apple, rhubarb, any kind you want.”

“Might have to bribe the law with a piece or two to get them into his cell,” Roy Coffee suggested with a lopsided grin.  “Now, much I want to encourage pie deliveries to the jail, I got to get this prisoner back there.”

“Just one minute more, please, Sheriff,” Tom McClure said, leaning across the rail between him and the others.  “I want to shake this young man’s hand.”  He reached toward Sam, who accepted his hand readily.  “And I want to tell him that if he needs a job after he serves his sixty days, there’ll be one waiting at my bank.”

“I appreciate that, sir,” Sam said earnestly.  He looked warmly at Ben, then.  “But I think I got a job waiting—and a home.”  He glanced back at Ellie’s father.  “I got no experience at banking, Mr. McClure”—he grinned provokingly at Little Joe—“but I have accidentally managed to break a horse or two in my time.”

“Oh, will you shut up about that?”  Joe rose to the bait as the rest of his family broke into laughter.  “If you don’t, so help me, I’ll—I’ll steal your pie!”

“So long as you don’t steal my girl.”  Sam slipped an arm around Ellie’s waist.

“I got sixty days to try,” Little Joe hinted with what he intended to be a sly smile.  He was teasing, though, and had a feeling everyone, especially Sam and Ellie, knew it.  Everyone probably also knew, as Joe did, that someday in the not-too-distant future, they’d be sharing wedding cake, instead of apple pie.

***The End***

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