SOLITARY WITNESS (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  This story is based on a little-known incident in the annals of Virginia City justice.  While I do not know the outcome of the actual case, this is what I think might have happened had Little Joe Cartwright been the Solitary Witness.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9500


 The snowy streets of Virginia City glittered jewel-like under the pale rays of a mid-morning sun as Little Joe Cartwright made his way through back alleys toward an anticipated rendezvous.  Not that specific plans had been made, of course.  It just went without saying that an opportunity like this was not to be missed, especially this near the end of winter.  After all, how many more chances could a boy expect just the right amount of snow to fall?  The side streets were slicker than the more highly trafficked C Street, but Little Joe couldn’t afford to be seen by any of his father’s many friends.  Three, maybe four, times in the last couple of years, Joe had flaunted his father’s wishes in this way, and while he’d never been caught yet, the consequences, if he were, were just too terrible to contemplate.

Teeth gleaming almost as brightly as the glistening snow, the twelve-year-old flashed a brilliant grin as he spotted the cluster of boys at the top of Union Street and trotted to meet them.  He slipped once on the icy surface of the hill, but, lurching forward, caught the pole of a gas lamp and, laughing gleefully at his escape, pulled himself upright.

Arms extended to each side for balance, his friend Seth Pruitt carefully slid across the street, grabbing the same pole to stop his forward momentum.  “Hey, Joe, I’d about give you up!”

“I was beginning to wonder myself,” Joe laughed.  “Never thought I’d have to talk Pa into letting me go to school!”

“Big storm last night,” Seth commented, understanding at once the reason behind Ben Cartwright’s unaccustomed reluctance to send his youngest son to school.  The roads between the Ponderosa and Virginia City could be treacherous after a snowstorm.

“Yeah.  Not as much out our way, though,” Joe said.  “I convinced Pa it probably wasn’t any worse here in town.”

Seth scowled in skepticism.  “And he’s not the least bit suspicious about you actually wanting to go to school?”

“Naw, I just told him that Miss Jones was gonna be reviewing us for a big geography test on Monday,” Joe explained, “and convinced him I really needed to know what to study up for this weekend.  As bad as I’ve been doing lately, he didn’t have any trouble believing that, and I can count on Mitch to let me copy his notes, so I’m covered.”

“Yeah, well, we better get to studying some geography, then,” Seth snickered, laugh lines crinkling at the edges of his blue eyes as he pointed down the hill Joe had just climbed.

Joe grinned back, and the two laughing truants pushed and pulled each other over to join the others.  Joe was met with shouted welcomes and hearty claps on the back, for he was a popular member of the group, whose ages ranged from ten to fourteen.  “How many sleds we got?” Joe asked.

“Just three,” Howie Barton, one of the older boys, replied, “so we’ll have to take turns.”

“We’ve all had a go,” Seth said, “except Joe.  He ought to be next.”  A chorus of agreement met the suggestion, so Little Joe eagerly took the offered sled, balanced buttocks and boot heels atop it and whizzed down the icy hill with Seth and Howie close behind.  Joe threw his head to the sky and laughed with exhilaration as the wind blew curly brown hair back from ruddy cheeks.

Three-fourths of the way down the hill, Joe lowered his head, just in time to see a white-haired Paiute pulling a two-wheeled wooden cart, loaded with knots of piñon pine, start across the street.  At the same moment, the Paiute saw the sled racing toward him and started scrambling forward to avoid the almost inevitable collision.  In his haste the man slipped on the icy street and cried out in terror as the sled sped ever nearer.

Swiftly swerving to the right, Joe managed to miss the fallen man, but the runner of his sled hit hard against one of the cart’s wheels, knocking the vehicle off balance and spilling its load of firewood into the street.  Joe tumbled off the sled among the fallen wood, bruised, but unhurt otherwise.  Seth and Howie, further back, had time to steer clear of the roadblock and skid to a stop when the hill leveled out at C Street.

Dragging his sled, Seth ran to Joe.  “You okay?” he asked as Joe clambered awkwardly to his feet.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Joe said.  “How’s the old man?”

Seth shrugged.  “Okay, I guess.”

Joe frowned at the other boy’s lack of concern and walked over to help the elderly Paiute to his feet.  “You all right?” he asked the man.

Once on his feet, the Paiute pulled away from the white boy, gesticulating angrily at the wood scattered over the street.  “Yeah, it was all my fault.  I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Joe apologized quickly.  “I’ll pick it up for you.”  Then, fearing the old Indian’s grasp of English might be minimal, he pointed to himself and then the wood as he added, “Me help.”

The Indian nodded his understanding and seemed appeased when the white boy started at once to reload the stumps and knots back onto the cart.  Seeing Seth and Howie just staring at him, Little Joe hollered, “Well, come on!  Help me,” he ordered.

“Aw, he can do it himself,” Seth muttered, “and he’s just”——the sparks flaring in Joe’s green-gold eyes warned Seth not to finish a remark sure to infuriate his friend.  Seth, whose parents had been killed in an Indian raid crossing the plains, had no great love for Indians of any variety, but he’d learned long ago that his best friend didn’t see redskins the way he did and could get downright fierce in their defense, if pushed.

“Come on,” Joe urged persuasively, sensing that his friend was torn between his own prejudice and his desire to avoid a quarrel.  “We can’t do any more sledding until the street’s clear.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Seth agreed reluctantly and bent to pick up a gnarled piñon limb.  “Come on, Howie.  Might as well pitch in.”

“Not me.  I ain’t doin’ some mangy Paiute’s work,” Howie snorted.

“Make yourself useful, then, and pull the sleds back up the hill,” Joe snapped.  “Tell the fellows I’ll signal when it’s safe to coast down.”

Howie sneered to demonstrate his disdain of the younger boys, but he gathered up the pull ropes of the three sleds and trudged up the hill, since that was in his best interest, anyway.

Within minutes, the road was clear, and Little Joe waved to his friends at the top of the hill.  The sledding fun recommenced, and for the better part of an hour the boys took turns amiably, cheering the other sledders on with as much gusto as they raced down the hill when it was their turn.

Little Joe had just taken possession of a sled for another run when he felt it snatched out of his hand.  “I’ll show you how it’s done, kid,” a boy several years Joe’s senior, with the build to match his years, snorted as he pushed the smaller boy aside.

As Joe lunged for the sled, he felt his arms grabbed from behind.  “Don’t be an idiot,” Seth hissed in his ear.  “That’s Bear Hoggins, toughest bully on the Comstock, and he’s not alone.  Besides, he’s got a gun.”

Joe noted the holster slung low on Bear Hoggins’ hip, then took a quick glance to the side and saw two other boys, also past school age and similarly armed, confiscating the other sleds.  The cowed youngsters holding them moments before obviously had no intention of struggling for possession of the sleds, and even as feisty a fighter as Little Joe recognized a pointless battle when he saw one.  “Okay, let me go,” Joe muttered.  “We’ll let ‘em have their fun.”

“Yeah, they’ll get bored with it quick,” Seth said, releasing his friend.

Folding frustrated arms, Joe stood back and watched the three bullies go screaming down the hill.  One trip down didn’t satisfy the ruffians, however, and they pulled the sleds back up and slid down again.  As the trio of older boys headed down a third time, Joe turned to his friend.  “Not getting bored very quick, are they?” he grunted sarcastically.

Seth gave a rueful shrug.

Bear Hoggins and his cohorts again climbed to the top of the hill.  “Okay, we’re gonna race this time,” Bear announced.  “First one to the foot of the hill gets treated to all the beer he can drink by the other two, agreed?”

“Sure, Bear,” one of the others said.  “Sounds good.”

“Yeah,” put in the other, “especially since I aim to be the one doin’ all the drinkin’.”

Bear gave a harsh laugh.  “No sir!  Ain’t nothin’ gonna keep me from winnin’ this here contest, not with free beer on the line!”

Anticipating the soon return of their sleds, the younger boys relaxed and crowded together to watch what was sure to be an exciting contest.  The sleds skimmed over the slick ice, first one, then another pulling ahead.

As Bear flew into the lead, Little Joe looked downhill to see how close the racers were to the finish line.  Suddenly, his eyes flared wide as he saw a Chinese laundryman and his wife step into the street.  Joe shouted a warning, but he was too far away for the Oriental couple to hear him.

Bear Hoggins also saw the people in his path and hollered, “Out of the road, you chinks!”  When the startled couple didn’t respond, Bear pulled the revolver from his holster and fired.  The woman shrieked in terror as her husband crumpled to the ground, and Little Joe Cartwright instinctively started running down the hill toward the victim.  Exhaling with exasperation, Seth Pruitt charged after him, while the other boys at the top of the hill scattered in all directions.

Bear swerved slightly to avoid the obstacle in his path and careened onto C Street.  “I won!” he shouted, thrusting his arms victoriously overhead.

“You idiot!  You killed him,” one of his friends yelled.  “There’ll be hell to pay if you’re caught.”

“Come on; we gotta make tracks,” Bear’s other friend shouted, for heads were already beginning to peer from saloon doorways and upstairs windows all along C Street.

Bear took one last look at the slain Oriental and saw a brown-haired boy bending over him.  Then he responded to the urging of his friends and ran.

Little Joe Cartwright knelt at the side of the Chinaman and felt for a pulse.  There was none, and with trembling lips the boy glanced up into the dazed, almond-shaped eyes of the widow.  “I——I’m sorry,” he murmured, not knowing what else to say.

Seth tugged at his friend’s jacket sleeve.  “Joe——Joe, we gotta get out o’ here.”

“They need help,” Joe protested.

“We’ll need help worse than them if we don’t get out o’ here now!” Seth snapped.  “Deputy’s headed this way——on the run!”

“So what?” Joe flared.  “We didn’t do anything.”

Seth jerked his friend around by his collar.  “Nothin’ except play hooky.  Maybe you wanna chance your pa findin’ that out, but my uncle’ll skin me and sell my hide for shoe leather.”

Joe blanched, considering that an accurate, although possibly mild, description of his father’s reaction.  “You’re right; let’s go.”  He stood and took off for the nearest alley with Seth at his heels.

“Hey!  You boys, stop!  Get back here!” the deputy yelled at the fleeing figures, but the demands of the law officer went unheeded as the two truants raced to see which could disappear faster.

*****

Huddled in the darkest corner of a little-used livery stable, Joe Cartwright and Seth Pruitt waited out the long hours they should have spent in school.  Mostly, they sat in silence.  Seth had tried to make conversation earlier, but Little Joe had gotten morosely quiet on him, the way he sometimes did when he had things twisting in his gut.  “Hey, I’ll trade my dinner pail for yours, sight unseen,” Seth finally suggested.  “That Hop Sing always packs a hefty dinner, and I’m gettin’ hungry.”

Joe stared at the other boy, wondering how Seth could have any appetite when he himself couldn’t even think about food without feeling to urge to puke in the stale straw.  “Be my guest,” he said bitterly.

Seth helped himself to the dinner pail, taking out a ham sandwich.  Drawing his knees to his chest, Little Joe twisted his face toward the splintered slats of the stall.  “Aw, come on, Joe,” Seth urged between bites.  “No sense takin’ on so.  There wadn’t nothin’ we could do.”

Joe glanced back, the natural iridescence of his emerald eyes clouded by unassuaged guilt.  “We could’ve stayed.”

“That’s foolishness,” Seth declared, polishing off the sandwich and reaching for a flaky fried apple pie.  “Wouldn’t’ve done the China folks any good and would’ve landed us in a peck of trouble.”

“We could’ve told what we saw,” Joe insisted.

Seth dropped the pie and shoved Joe’s shoulder in disgust.  “Now you’ve gone from foolish to just plain crazy!  Bear Hoggins wouldn’t think any more of putting a bullet in one of us than he did in the yeller.”

“Don’t call him that!” Joe snapped.  “He was a man, same as any other.”

“Yeah, sure,” Seth said.  It didn’t pay to quarrel with Joe when he got on one of his righteous kicks.

“Wish I’d just gone to school today,” Little Joe sighed.

“Yeah,” Seth commiserated, brushing wisps of hay from his salvaged dessert.  “For that matter, I wish I could just go on home——or better yet, go fishin’.”

“Nothin’ stoppin’ you,” Joe said.  “Me, I gotta stick around ‘til school lets out so I can meet Mitch and see what’s gonna be on that geography test.  After the fit I pitched, Pa’s bound to ask.”  Joe sighed again, wondering, as he had many times before, why he couldn’t be as diligent in his duties as his friend Mitch Devlin.  Sure would save a heap of trouble if he’d learn to follow good examples instead of bad, as Pa was always pointing out.

Seth, a year older, didn’t have an upcoming test, and, thus, no real motivation to stay in town.  Nonetheless, he punched Joe on the arm and said, “Aw, I’ll stick by you.  You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?”

For the first time since seeking shelter in the livery, Little Joe smiled.  “Yeah, buddy, I’d do the same for you——and thanks.”

The hours passed slowly and in ill comfort.  The dilapidated stable was cold, dark and acrid.  Joe was so bored he even considered pulling out one of his textbooks and studying, but there wasn’t enough light to see the printed page.  Finally, it was time to collect his horse, meet Mitch and head for home.  Joe Cartwright was never so glad to see an afternoon end.

*****

Saturday morning the two older Cartwright brothers were on either end of a two-man saw, cutting trees into the proper length for the fireplace.  Little Joe’s task was to take the cut logs and pile them against the house, and he was doing the job carefully, without a single complaint.  That in itself was suspicious, but neither Adam nor Hoss commented on their younger brother’s unaccustomed cooperativeness.  They’d all known since supper the night before that something was bothering Little Joe.  He hadn’t touched his meal, and the nightmare screams that roused all the Cartwrights around midnight had been a further confirmation.  Joe, however, had denied that he was feeling unwell or troubled by anything, and, as the entire family knew from experience, when Joe clamed up, there was nothing anyone could do to make him open his shell until he was good and ready.

Little Joe picked up two more logs to carry to the woodpile, then dropped them to stare wide-eyed at the rider who’d just entered the Ponderosa yard.

“Yeow!” yelled Hoss, for one of the logs had landed on his foot.  “Watch what you’re doin’, youngun.”

“Sorry,” Joe muttered softly and bent to retrieve the log.

Adam gave the boy an appraising glance.  “You wouldn’t know why Sheriff Coffee is paying us a visit this morning, would you, Little Joe?”

“Why should I?” Joe replied, keeping his face to the ground to cover the flush he could feel creeping up his neck.

With a sardonic smile, Adam sauntered over and extended a hand to the visitor.  “Roy, good to see you.  What brings you out our way?”

As he shook the eldest Cartwright brother’s hand, Sheriff Roy Coffee flashed a fleeting look at the other boys.  “Business, I’m afraid, Adam,” he replied.  “I need to talk with your pa.”

“Sure.  He’s in the house and will be glad for an excuse to take a break from the books.  I’ll walk you in,” Adam offered.

As Adam and the sheriff went into the house, Hoss laid aside the saw.  “Well, I’m all for takin’ a break, seein’ as how I cain’t work this thing alone, and you ain’t got the muscle for the job.  What do you say we sneak into the kitchen and see what we can pry out of ole Hop Sing for a snack?”

“Naw, you go ahead,” Joe said.  “I got chores in the barn.”  He didn’t think there was any way that deputy had recognized him the day before, so surely Roy Coffee was here for some other reason.  Whatever business brought him here, however, Joe’s guilty heart had absolutely no desire to be under the same roof as the sheriff of Storey County.

Hoss shook his head as his younger brother aimed for the barn.  Skippin’ meals and volunteerin’ to do more chores——yup, sure signs that something was chawin’ on Little Joe’s innards.  Gotta get him to talk to me soon, Hoss concluded, or he’s gonna plumb pine away.

After handing cups of coffee to his father and the sheriff, Adam poured one for himself and settled into the blue chair by the fire across from his father.  Though Ben arched an eyebrow at him, neither he nor Roy Coffee asked the young man to leave, so Adam simply chose to ignore that slight indication of disapproval and kept his seat.  The sheriff’s visit had aroused his curiosity, as well as his suspicion that Roy might be able to explain a certain younger brother’s guilt-ridden behavior of the last half day.

“Well, what is it, Roy?” Ben inquired light-heartedly.  “I’d be worried that one of my boys had torn up a saloon, except I know they haven’t been to town for a couple of weeks——except Joe for school, of course.”

“Little more serious than a busted-up saloon, I’m afraid, Ben,” the sheriff answered soberly.  “I’m investigating a murder.”

Both Ben’s and Adam’s countenances suddenly grew grave.  “Murder?  Who’s been killed?” Adam asked.

“Chinese laundryman name of Ah Toy,” Roy Coffee replied.  “Shot down on the street for no reason at all.”

“Well, that’s tragic, of course,” Ben said, “but I don’t see how we can be of any help.  As I said, none of us has been to town lately.”

“Except for Little Joe,” the sheriff added.

Ben shrugged the comment aside.  “Well, yes.”  Then, catching Coffee’s serious expression, he gasped.  “Surely, you’re not suggesting that Little Joe is involved in a murder.  For the love of mercy, Roy, the boy’s twelve years old!”

Roy raised a palm to arrest further comment.  “Let me tell you what I do know, Ben.  A group of boys evidently played hooky yesterday to go sledding on the Union Street hill.  Now, I try to discourage that kind of thing because C Street is so busy accidents can happen real easy, but I can’t be everywhere at once, and, well, truant schoolboys come kinda low on my list of problems to solve——until yesterday, that is.”

After taking a sip of coffee, the sheriff continued.  “Seems like one of these schoolboys yesterday was toting a gun and when the Chinaman didn’t get out of his way fast enough, the boy up and shot him.  I questioned the widow——had to use an interpreter, which made things tougher——and she gave me a rough description of the boy, but couldn’t identify him.”

“Not likely she could, is it?” Adam inserted.  “An Oriental woman wouldn’t normally have much contact with Virginia City schoolboys.”

“Exactly,” Roy said, nodding in agreement, “so I’m looking for witnesses.”

“The other boys who were sledding,” Ben concluded, his face darkening as he slowly began to comprehend the reason for the sheriff’s appearance at the Ponderosa.  “And you think that Little Joe——”

Roy set his coffee cup on the table before him.  “I talked to Miss Jones and got a list of everyone who was absent yesterday——and Joe’s on it, Ben.”

Adam grinned.  “Well, at least, you’ve solved a mystery for us, Roy.  Now we know why Little Joe begged so persuasively to go to school yesterday.”

Ben’s breath spewed forth in exasperation.  “That little——oh, he’s quite the little actor, that one!”

Despite the seriousness of his visit, Roy Coffee had to chuckle at his friend’s livid face.  “Yeah, he pulled one over on you, Ben, and you got every right to blister his britches over it, but if you could hold off long enough for me to question the boy, I’d appreciate it.”  Sobering, the sheriff added, “I’ve already talked to the other absentees, and so far no one will admit seeing anything.  The only witness I have is the man’s wife, and I can’t use her.  You know the law, Ben.  No Chinese is allowed to testify in court either for or against a white man.”

“A bad law,” Ben grunted, “one I’ve been working to change.”

“I know that,” Roy Coffee acknowledged, “and I hope you succeed, but I can only enforce the laws on the books right now.  I need a witness, Ben, and Little Joe’s my last hope.  Now, I need him to be cooperative, so let me ask my questions before you strike the fear of God in him.”

As Ben nodded, his heart sank.  He took a dim view of deception, as all his sons well knew, but more important was the sudden realization that his youngest son, his baby, had in all probability witnessed a murder and was holding that horrible secret inside.  No wonder the boy hadn’t touched his supper the night before; no wonder he’d awakened screaming in the midst of a nightmare.  All thought of punishing the child fled from his mind as he quietly told Adam to call his brother in.

“Joe, Pa wants to see you,” Adam called into the barn, having learned from Hoss where the boy was.

Though Adam’s voice gave no hint of doom about to descend, Little Joe felt his lower lip start to quiver.  Pa knew.  There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that Pa knew, and Joe’s hands instinctively reached back to cover the place likely to bear the brunt of that knowledge.

“Get goin’,” Adam said firmly, but kindly.

Joe nodded and started to drag across the yard like a prisoner approaching the scaffold.  Adam felt a smile tug at his lips.  Poor kid, hasn’t learned yet that anticipating the pain is nine-tenths of the punishment.

With one eye on his younger brother, Hoss sidestepped over to Adam.  “What’s up?” he asked, and although he would have preferred to observe the interrogation in the house, Adam remained outside to fill Hoss in.

Little Joe closed the front door quietly and stood staring at the two men who had swiveled in their seats to watch him enter.

If Ben had had any doubts before, one glance at his son’s face silenced them.  Joe’s eyes, riveted on the sheriff, were wild with terror, and, seeing that, Ben realized his son knew exactly why the law officer was there.  He stretched a hand toward Joe and beckoned softly, “Come here, son.”

Slowly Joe made his way across the room to his father’s side, giving Roy Coffee a wide berth.

Ben drew the boy to one knee, a perch Joe normally disdained as beneath his twelve-year-old dignity.  Today, however, the youngster snuggled against his father’s arm, casting anxious glances between the faces of his two elders.  “Joseph, the sheriff needs to ask you a few questions,” Ben explained, “and I want you to answer them as honestly as you can, without fear of the consequences.”

Joe started to shiver, but his father drew him close and whispered a word of encouragement in his ear.  “It’ll be all right, son; Pa’s here.”

Joe nodded, although hesitantly, and fixed his attention on the man on the sofa.

“Little Joe, did you play hooky yesterday?” the sheriff began.

Little Joe glanced fearfully into his father’s face, lowered his eyes and murmured, “Yes, sir.”  Then, looking up again, he added, “I’m sorry, Pa.”

Ben kissed the boy’s temple.  “We’ll deal with that later.  Just answer the sheriff.”

“Were you part of a group of boys that went sledding on Union Street, son?” the sheriff pursued.

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied quietly.

“Little Joe, I understand this may be hard to talk about, but I need to know if any of those boys was carrying a gun,” Roy Coffee continued.

“Three of them,” Joe said.  “Bigger boys——they——they come and made us give up the sleds.”

“I see,” the sheriff said.  “But you stuck around, didn’t you, hoping to get those sleds back?”

“Yeah, we did,” Joe said.

“What I need to know, son, is whether you saw any of those bigger boys use a gun.  Anyone shoot one off, Little Joe?”

As the boy began to shake harder, Ben wrapped both arms around him.  “The truth, Little Joe; just tell the sheriff the truth.”

“Y—yes, sir; one of ‘em fired his gun——and——and he hit a Chinese man.  He——he killed him,” Little Joe blurted out, figuring he might as well get it all over with at once.

The sheriff smiled gratefully at the boy.  “That’s what I needed to know, Little Joe.  You’re being real helpful.  Now, there’s just one more question I need to ask you.  Did you recognize the boy who did the shooting?”

Little Joe nodded, then pressed his face to his father’s chest.  Ben stroked the boy’s head soothingly.  “Joe, you need to give the sheriff the boy’s name.  Don’t be afraid.  No one will hurt you.”

Joe looked up, fearful, but trusting.  He knew Pa would never let Bear Hoggins hurt him, nor would Hoss or Adam, so he gave the sheriff the guilty boy’s name.

Roy Coffee stood to leave and patted the boy on his curly head.  “Thank you, son.  Now I know who to arrest, and I’m gonna get a warrant and give Bear Hoggins a personal invite to jail.”  He shook Ben’s hand in farewell.  “I imagine the prosecutor will be in touch with you; he’ll want to question Joe before the trial.”

“I understand,” Ben said quietly.  “You tell him we’ll be at his disposal whenever he chooses.”  Though he would customarily have seen the sheriff out, Ben remained seated, his arms around his son.  Roy Coffee touched his friend’s shoulder sympathetically and left without further farewell.

Little Joe rested a few moments in his father’s embrace, then raised up.  “Pa, what the sheriff said about a trial——I—I gotta tell what I saw there?”

Ben caressed the boy’s cheek with tender fingers.  “Joe, I would never force you to testify, but I am asking you to do what you know is right.”  He explained briefly about the law against Chinese people testifying against white defendants.  “So you see, Joe, Ah Toy’s wife needs witnesses like you if she’s to see justice done,” he concluded.

“But not just me,” Joe pressed.  “The other boys, they gotta testify, too, huh?”

Ben took his son’s face in his hands.  “I don’t know, Joe.  So far, none of the others will admit they were there.  Now, it may be that when they know you’ve come forward, they’ll find the courage to testify, too, but I can’t promise that.  You may be the only witness, Joe, but you won’t be alone.  I’ll be right there with you every minute, and so will Hoss and Adam.”

“I—I guess I can do it then,” Joe murmured.

Ben smiled.  “You make me real proud, son.”

Little Joe bit his lip.  “Uh, Pa?  About me playing hooky.  You——you gonna tan me?”

With effort Ben stilled his twitching lips.  “Well, let’s see:  you lied to me; you skipped school; you engaged in a dangerous activity.  Can you deny that you’ve earned yourself a good, hard tanning, Joseph?”

Joe squirmed, suddenly wanting to be anywhere but Pa’s lap.  “I guess I can’t,” he admitted.

“I agree,” Ben said with feigned severity, then pulled the boy close.  “Seeing as how you’ve got a rough road ahead of you, though, I’m inclined to be lenient.”

Little Joe looked up hopefully.

“Instead of the tanning, I believe I’ll sentence you to spending every spare minute this weekend in your room, studying for that geography test you’re so eager to pass.  Time out for chores and meals, of course, but otherwise I’ll expect to see your nose in your geography text.  Is that clear?”

Joe moaned.  “Couldn’t I just take the licking and get it over with, Pa?” he whimpered.

*****

The weekend of enforced study seemed interminable to Little Joe, and Monday morning brought no reprieve.  Miss Abigail Jones seemed disinclined to show mercy to the boys who had absented themselves from the classroom on Friday, so she kept Joe and the other miscreants confined to their seats during recess with instructions to write “I will not play hooky” one hundred times.   With his attention continually drawn to the window, through which he could see his more dutiful friends enjoying the rewards of right behavior, Joe barely finished the hated sentences in the prescribed time.

The only pleasurable part of the morning, to Joe’s surprise, had been taking the dreaded geography test.  The additional hours of study had paid off, as almost every question covered an area the boy had perused repeatedly that weekend.  When the papers were handed back shortly before noon, Joe was amazed to see that he had missed only one question and earned a grade certain to please his father and even impress his scholarly brother Adam, who frequently chided Joe for his sloppy study habits.

Excited as Joe was by the unexpected sight of an A at the top of his test paper, however, he could scarcely wait for Miss Jones to dismiss the class for lunch.  There were fellows he needed to talk to, and heading the list was the boy he considered one of his best friends.  Grabbing his lunch pail, Joe made a beeline for Seth Pruitt.  “Hey, Seth, wait up!” he called, for Seth seemed determined to avoid the boy with whom he normally shared the noon meal.

Joe’s other habitual meal partners, Mitch Devlin and Aylsworth “Tuck” Tucker, trailed behind him as he caught up to the fourth member of their group.  “Hey, Joe,” Tuck asked urgently.  “Is it true you seen Bear Hoggins shoot a man?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Joe said absently, intent on catching up to the other boy.

“And you’re gonna speak out against him in court?” an awed Tuck pumped.

“Yeah, sure,” Joe replied, waving his shadow off as he hurried forward.  “Seth!” he hollered.  “You get back here right now!”

Reluctantly, Seth turned to face his friend.  “Hi, Joe,” he mumbled weakly.

Tossing his lunch pail down, Joe glared at his friend, arms akimbo.  “Hi, yourself,” he grunted.  “Some reason you don’t want to eat with us today?”  Mitch and Tuck moved to flank Joe and, taking their cue from the group’s leader, stared down the older boy.

Seth raked a nervous hand through his straight, tawny hair.  “Naw, ‘course not.”

“Don’t look that way to me,” Mitch, who considered Seth a rival for Joe’s esteem, accused.

“Mind your own business, Devlin,” Seth snapped.  “Look, if you wanna eat, let’s eat.”  He plopped down next to the schoolhouse and pulled the lid off his lunch pail.

Eyes narrowing, Joe squatted beside his friend.  “My pa says no one but me ‘fessed up to seein’ that shootin’ the other day.  That true?  You lie about it, Seth?”

“Bet Seth’s scared of Bear Hoggins,” Mitch snorted as he, too, sat down and examined the contents of his lunch pail.

“Take it back, Devlin,” Seth demanded, knuckles tightening.  “I ain’t scared of nothin’.”

“Well, I sure would be,” timid Tuck inserted quickly, sensing tempers about to flare.  “I don’t see how either of you can even think about takin’ on someone the size of Bear.”

“My pa and Hoss and Adam’ll see to it he don’t bother me,” Joe advised Tuck confidently, then turned back to Seth.  “They’ll look out for you, too, if that’s really what’s bothering you.”

“I told you I ain’t scared,” Seth protested, “leastways not of Bear, but I can’t cross my uncle, Joe.  He said he’d flail me alive if I took up for a Chinaman over a white man.”

Joe frowned, knowing his friend’s concern to be a valid one.  Elijah Pruitt always took a hard line with the nephew with whose upbringing he’d been saddled after the death of Seth’s parents and had been known to lay a whip across the boy’s back on more than one occasion.  “Doggone,” Joe muttered.  “I was hopin’ we could stick together on this, Seth.”

“Joe, I’m sorry,” Seth said, “but I just can’t.”

“Yeah, okay, I guess,” Joe sighed, standing.

“Ain’t you gonna eat your lunch, Joe?” Mitch queried.

“Naw, I gotta talk to the others that was there,” Joe said.  “Divide it up among yourselves.”  The offer was eagerly accepted, for each member of the group knew any lunch pail packed by Hop Sing was likely to contain culinary treasures.

Joe’s quest to find someone to join him in his stand against Bear Hoggins proved fruitless. All the potential witnesses were either afraid or had parents who felt the way Seth’s uncle did.  In fact, Howie Barton’s adamant declaration that he wasn’t about to face down the bully for the sake of “some dirty yeller chink” led to an exchange of fisticuffs that cost Little Joe his afternoon recess.  When, in addition to making him write one hundred promises not to fight on the school grounds, Miss Jones also handed him a note for his father, Joe feared that not even an unexpected A on a test paper would save him from a painful trip across Pa’s lap.

*****

Once he knew the cause of the fight that precipitated the teacher’s note, Pa had been much more understanding than Little Joe had dared hope.  The seat of the boy’s pants remained cool and his pocket even drooped pleasurably with the nickel with which Pa had rewarded his high mark in geography.  With a smile on his face, Joe headed for the bakery after school on Tuesday to buy a square of gingerbread to nibble on the ride home.

His purchase made, Joe licked the white icing atop the cake as his boot heels clicked briskly along the wooden sidewalk toward the hitching rail where his horse was tethered.  He was blissfully unaware of the pairs of eyes that had watched him enter the bakery and now peered from the shadows of a nearby alley.  As Little Joe passed that alley, four hands grabbed him and jerked him into the narrow passageway.  The gingerbread landed, icing down, in the dirt, and the toe of Joe’s boot smashed through it as he was dragged further from the street.  Joe started to yell, but a hand came across his mouth, silencing him.  With one brawny arm the assailant pinned both of Joe’s slim limbs behind him.

“Shut up, kid,” the boy holding him ordered.

A second aggressor poked Joe in the stomach with his stubby index finger.  “That’s what we’re here to teach you, boy——how to shut your mouth.”

Joe’s eyes widened as he recognized one of the bullies who had confiscated the younger boys’ sleds the previous Friday.  He correctly assumed that the one restraining him was the other who had been with Bear Hoggins that morning.  Joe kicked and squirmed, trying to break free, and his boot made contact with the knee of the boy in front of him.  Maddened by the sharp pain, the ruffian drew back his fist and drove it fiercely into the pit of Joe’s stomach.

Joe gasped in shock at the first blow, then in pain as the bully continued to pummel his midriff.  Again and again Joe felt the fist slam into his gut, and when the fellow pinioning his arms and strangling his cries for help finally released him, he fell breathless to the ground.

A stubby finger wagged in front of his face.  “Keep your mouth shut about Bear, boy, or you’ll hurt worse next time,” his chief assailant threatened.

Joe was slow to rise, but he finally struggled to his feet and stumbled onto busy C Street.  He didn’t recognize the man who caught him as he fell forward, but sensing the man was a good and caring person, he let himself relax in those strong arms as if they had been those of his own father.

*****

The door to Paul Martin’s office flew open and Ben Cartwright burst through.  The doctor, who had been writing at his desk in the reception area, stood at once and laid calming hands on his old friend’s shoulders.  “He’s all right, Ben.”

“All right?”  Ben asked anxiously.  “But Roy’s message said he’d been badly beaten.”

Paul nodded.  “He’s badly bruised, and he’ll be very sore for several days, but I’ve checked him carefully, Ben, and there are no cracked ribs, no internal injuries.”

Ben exhaled slowly.  “Thank God.”

“You’ll want to see him, of course.  He’s in there.”  The doctor gestured toward a door labeled Sick Room.

Ben opened the door and stepped through, his eyes drawn like a magnet to the small figure in the middle bed.

Little Joe turned at the sound of his father’s step, and his slender arms stretched yearningly toward the source of all comfort.  “Pa,” he whimpered softly.

Ben rushed forward, engulfing the boy in his arms.  “Oh, Joe,” he cried, stroking the soft brown curls.  “It’s all right; Pa’s here now.”

Joe nestled into the safety of his father’s embrace as Ben gently stroked his son’s bruised cheek.  Although no fist had struck Joe’s face, the dark imprint of broad fingers declared how tightly he had been held during the abuse.  “It’s all over, Little Joe,” Ben soothed.

“He—he said they’d do it again if I talked about Bear,” Joe said, then with a stubborn set of his jaw added, “but I’m gonna, Pa.  I’m gonna tell what I saw, no matter what they do, ‘cause it just ain’t right not to.”

Ben sat back and looked with amazement at that determined young face, knowing how few grown men would have made as stalwart a statement.  “You’re a very brave boy, Little Joe,” he said, “but don’t you worry about those bullies.  From now until the trial, either one of your brothers or I will see you to school and home again.  They won’t touch you, boy.”

Ordinarily, the idea of being escorted to and from school would have horrified Little Joe, but he simply nodded with a look of relief.  He knew he was no match for the older boys who had threatened him, but just let them try to touch him with Hoss or Adam near at hand!  In fact, just picturing the ruffians’ fate at the hands of Hoss was enough to bring a grin to Joe’s lips as Ben lifted him up to carry him home.

*****

Little Joe hugged his father’s side as they entered the Storey County Courthouse on the day of the trial, though not because he feared that anyone would hurt him.  As promised, his family had faithfully guarded him whenever he was in Virginia City, and they were all with him today to see that no one interfered with his testimony.  It was the thought of giving that testimony, however, that made Joe take comfort in his father’s closeness.  He’d never even been inside a courtroom before, and the idea of sitting in that chair at the front of the room and speaking out before so many people was making him edgy.

Placing a supportive hand on the boy’s shoulder, Ben guided him into a seat in the front row.  Hoss quickly took the chair next to his little brother, and put a protective arm around the boy.  “All over soon,” Hoss whispered.

Nibbling his lower lip, Joe nodded.

Noticing the nervousness, Ben leaned his head to touch Little Joe’s.  “Just answer the questions honestly, son.  There’s nothing to fear if you do that.”

“I—I will, Pa,” Joe promised.

Since he was the only witness for the prosecution, Little Joe soon got his chance to keep that vow.  When his name was called, he walked toward the front of the room.  Bear Hoggins hissed at him as he went past the defendant’s table, but Joe just ignored it, knowing there was nothing Bear could do to him with a roomful of people looking on.

Little Joe placed his hand on the Bible and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Then, with a smile, the county prosecutor walked toward his star witness.  The lawyer had been to the Ponderosa a couple of days before, and the questions he asked were the same ones Joe had answered then, so the boy had no problem answering them again.

As Bear Hoggins’ defense attorney approached, though, Joe felt his stomach churn.  This was a stranger, one determined to make Joe look bad, and Joe couldn’t help feeling a little intimidated.

“Well, well,” the lawyer smirked.  “So you say you were sledding down Union Street hill on the morning in question, were you, boy?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe answered respectfully, as both Pa and Adam had repeatedly told him he must in a court of law.

Unseen by the jury, the lawyer gave the small witness a snide leer. “Not where you were supposed to be, was it, boy?”

Little Joe shook his head, embarrassed at having to admit his misdeed before the whole town.  “No, sir; I was supposed to be in school.”

“And that’s where your father thought you were, correct?”

Joe cast an unhappy look at his father, who smiled back encouragingly.  “Yes, sir, that’s where I told him I’d be.”

A glint of triumph sprang into the lawyer’s eyes.  “Ah ha!  You lied to him, didn’t you, boy?”

Joe’s eyes fell to his lap.  “Yes, sir,” he mumbled.

“Speak up, boy,” the lawyer ordered briskly.  “The jury has a right to hear of your dishonesty.”

“Objection, your honor,” the prosecutor protested, rising from his chair.

“Sustained,” the judge ruled and turned to admonish Hoggins’ lawyer.  “The jury will decide who is being dishonest and who is not, Mr. Sloan.”

“Certainly, your honor,” Mr. Sloan replied smoothly.  “My only concern is that witness speak up so the jury can hear his testimony and be able to make that decision.”

“The witness is instructed to speak loudly enough to be heard,” the judge said, then with a kindly look at Little Joe, added, “Did you understand that, son?”

Little Joe, staring up in awe at the magistrate, could only nod his affirmation.

Mr. Sloan stood before the youthful witness, stroking his pointed goatee in apparent thought.  “Now, you admit lying to your father on the morning in question.  Is that the only time you’ve ever lied to him?”

“No, sir.”  Joe swallowed hard, hoping he wouldn’t be pressed for details.  If there was one crime more likely to bring swift retribution in the Cartwright home than any other, it was lying, and while Pa had an uncanny talent for sniffing out falsehoods, Joe had uttered a few his father had yet to discover.  Joe definitely hoped his interrogator was not about to have him list all the lies he’d ever told.

Lawyer Sloan, however, seemed content simply to establish that Joseph Cartwright had a history of telling untruths.  “Is your father the only person to whom you’ve ever lied?” he next demanded.

Little Joe squirmed uncomfortably.  “Uh, no,” he finally admitted.

“Who else has been a victim of your propensity for falsehood?” Sloan inquired loftily.

Joe’s shoulders rose in a vague shrug.  “My brothers, my teacher——I don’t know who else.”

A look of apparent shock transfixed the lawyer’s face.  “You ‘don’t know who else’?” he asked, spreading his hands in evident amazement.  “You mean, you’ve told so many lies to so many people that you cannot even recall them?”  Leaning so close to the witness that his long, pointed nose was inches from Joe’s small one, he said loudly, “You are, in fact, a habitual liar, are you not, Joseph Cartwright?”

Joe drew back and answered through trembling lips.  “I—I don’t know; I don’t know what that means.”

“Well, since your answers are likely to be based on either lies or ignorance, I see no point in questioning you further,” Sloan announced and, turning his back disdainfully on the boy, strode back to his seat beside his client.

Feeling tears of embarrassment welling up in his eyes, Joe looked toward his family.  Fury flared across Hoss’ features, and Adam had his arm thrown across the big man’s chest, obviously holding him back from tearing Lawyer Sloan to pieces.  Ben’s mouth was set in a taut line, and for a moment Joe thought the anger was directed at him, but his father’s lips suddenly softened as he met Joe’s gaze, and the look in his velvet eyes became one of love and concern.  With a sigh of relief, Joe slipped out of the witness chair.

“Just a moment, Little Joe,” the prosecutor said gently as he walked toward the youngster.  “I have a couple more questions to ask you, my boy.”

Though visibly upset by having to take that hated chair once again, Little Joe did as he was told.

The prosecutor patted the boy’s hand to assure him the ordeal would soon be over.  “I just wanted to ask you why you lied to your father about going sledding that morning, Little Joe.”

The answer to that was so obvious Little Joe couldn’t imagine why anyone would even ask.  “I didn’t want Pa to tan me,” he replied honestly.  A wave of titters rippled through the courtroom.

The prosecutor let the audience see that he shared their appreciation of the little lad’s confession to a common foible of youth.  “And you knew that would happen if he found out you’d played hooky, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir, ‘course I did.”

“These other lies you’ve told on occasion, Little Joe, were they pretty much for the same reason, to stay out of trouble?” the prosecutor pursued.

“Uh huh, sure,” Little Joe responded readily.

The prosecutor turned slightly sideways, so the jury could have a better view of the boy’s guileless face.  “Tell me, Little Joe, have you ever told a lie to get someone else in trouble?”

Little Joe looked astonished.  “No, sir!” he declared adamantly.  “I wouldn’t ever do that!”

“So when you say that you saw Bear Hoggins murder the Chinese laundryman, you’re not trying to get him in trouble.  You’re just telling the truth, aren’t you?”

“I sure am,” Little Joe announced with a determined nod of his head.

“I have no more questions for you, my boy,” the prosecutor stated, favoring the young witness with a broad smile.  “You may go sit with your family now.”

Joe grinned with relief and all but jumped out of the witness box and scuttled over to his father’s welcoming embrace.

After the defense presented a couple of alibi witnesses for Bear Hoggins, each lawyer next addressed the jury, trying to persuade those twelve men to his point of view.  Then after sending the jurors out to deliberate the case, the judge dismissed court until such time as a verdict had been rendered.  As everyone stood, Ben took his youngest son’s hand.  “Ready for some lunch, son?”

Joe, who had for days been described by Hoss as “off his feed,” suddenly felt ravenous.  “I’m half-starved, Pa.”

Pleased to see a more carefree attitude in his little boy, Ben chuckled.  “All right, then, how does the Café de Paris sound?”

Joe beamed as though the sun had just burst through gray clouds.  “Oh, yeah!  Thanks, Pa.”  Eating at a French restaurant always reminded him of his mother, and Joe knew it was a treat Pa saved for special occasions.

Adam, who also enjoyed French cookery, looked pleased, while Hoss just shrugged.  He preferred plain fare personally, but was so happy to see Little Joe’s eagerness for the meal that he didn’t mind putting up with a fancy place for once.  And for once Hoss couldn’t complain about the amount his little brother packed away.  Joe shoveled in food as though he were trying to make up for all lost opportunities of the past, chattering while he chewed in a determined effort to cancel out his unnatural quietness of the past several days.

After eating, the Cartwrights left the Café de Paris and made their way back toward the courthouse.  On entering C Street, they saw a throng of other people headed that direction, too.  “What is it?” Ben asked a man rushing past him.

“Verdict’s in!” the man shouted over his shoulder.

Little Joe looked excited.  “Come on, Hoss,” he shouted, grabbing his brawny brother’s hand.  “Let’s go see Bear get what’s comin’ to him!”  Hoss grinned at his little brother and let himself be pulled toward the courthouse.  Ben and Adam, on the other hand, both frowned as they followed the boys, each fearing that the quick decision indicated the verdict was not the one which they had hoped, and the youngest member of the family obviously believed, would result.

Little Joe sat in silent shock when the foreman of the jury pronounced Bear Hoggins not guilty.  With eyes raised in anguish to his father’s face, he never saw the triumphant sneer Bear directed his way as he left the courtroom a free man.  “But I—I thought he’d go to jail if I told what I saw,” Joe said, his face poignant with disappointment.

“Simple justice is too much to ask of Virginia City’s fine citizens, I suppose,” Adam, standing in the aisle, muttered harshly.

Ben turned a stern gaze on his oldest son.  “If that’s the most helpful comment you can make, get out of here,” he snapped and jerked his head toward the door.

Adam bit his tongue as he acknowledged his father’s rebuke with a nod.  Pa was right.  Cynicism, however justified, was not what his youngest brother needed to hear, not at twelve years innocent.  Tapping Hoss on the arm, he motioned with his head for the door.

“Everything’ll be okay, Little Joe,” Hoss said, tousling his brother’s brown curls.  “That Bear ain’t gonna bother you none.”

“Hoss, come on,” Adam urged softly, realizing his father wanted to talk to Joe alone.

Ben slipped an arm around his youngest son’s shoulders and drew him close.  “Are you worried about retaliation?” he asked after they had sat silently in the now empty courtroom for a few moments.

Joe looked up, puzzled.  “Huh?”

Ben laughed at himself as he realized he’d used a word beyond Joe’s understanding.  “I meant, are you worried about Bear trying to get back at you?”

“Oh.  No,” Joe said.  “It ain’t that.”

“What is it, then?” Ben probed gently.

Joe’s chin started to quiver.  “They didn’t believe me, Pa.  They think I lied, like that lawyer said.”

Ben squeezed the narrow shoulder into his broad side.  “No, Joe,” he soothed.  “They don’t believe that; everyone could see you were telling the truth.”

Joe shook his head in confusion.  “But they said ‘not guilty,’ Pa.  How could they say that if they believed me?”

Ben sighed, wishing with all his heart that his young son could be spared this harsh lesson in reality.  “Because Ah Toy was Chinese, Joseph.  For that reason and none other.”

Joe’s small features screwed up in bewilderment.  “I don’t see what difference that makes, Pa.”

Ben took both his son’s slim arms in his hands and turned the boy to face him.  “No difference, Little Joe, no difference except in men’s hearts.  Some people, like you and I, look at a person like Ah Toy and see the person.  Others, like the men on the jury, can’t see past the color of his skin, and that inability to see the real person is what shaped their verdict.”

Joe’s head drooped.  “Then it didn’t do no good to testify, did it?”

Ben lifted the boy and hugged him tight as he set him on his knee.  “Oh, yes, Little Joe, it did do some good.  There’s always good accomplished when you do the right thing.”  He raised Joe’s chin so he could look directly into his shimmering emerald eyes.  “Listen to me, son.  Prejudice is not a problem that can be overcome in a single day, but each time someone finds the courage to stand against it, it makes it a little easier for the next person to do the same.  Today, Little Joe, everyone in Virginia City saw a twelve-year-old boy exhibit that courage, and I guarantee that the next time a case like this comes to trial, someone will remember that little boy, and his courage will challenge them to do what they know is right.”

A hopeful smile touched the youngster’s lips.  “You really think so, Pa?”

“I do, Joe,” Ben said with conviction.  “It’s like a sculptor who starts with an ugly block of marble and gradually chips away at it with chisel and mallet until a beautiful statue emerges.  You knocked off some of the first chips of prejudice today, Little Joe, and if people keep chipping away at that ugliness, someday acceptance for all people will emerge, and it’ll be a beautiful sight.”

“Real beautiful,” Little Joe whispered.

“Yeah,” Ben agreed as he set Joe on the floor.  He stood to his feet and laid a broad palm on each of his son’s small shoulders.  “Now, you and I are going out on that street, and I want you to hold your head high, ‘cause you’ve got every right to be proud.  I know I am.”

*****

To the rest of his family’s surprise, Little Joe decided to return to school to finish out the afternoon session.  Miss Jones welcomed him and, without making reference to the reason for his absence that morning, calmly told him to take his seat.  As Joe walked toward the back of the room, he felt everyone’s eyes follow him and noted the reactions of his special friends.  Unable to meet Joe’s forthright gaze, Seth kept his eyes glued to his desk, but Mitch smiled and gave a nod of approval.

It was the look on Tuck’s face, though, that made the sharpest impression on Little Joe.  Tuck’s brown eyes were alight with unconcealed hero worship, and he was sitting up straighter than Joe had ever seen the self-effacing boy do before.  As Joe paused in the aisle beside his friend’s desk, both boys were framed in the square of warm sunlight pouring through a nearby window.  Their eyes met in a telegraphed message, and in that instant Joe knew that a new spark of courage had ignited in his shy friend’s heart and that here was a boy to whom he might pass the chisel. He knew now, with certainty, that Pa had been right.  Testifying in court that morning might not have produced the result Joe hoped for, but it had borne fruit, and he had a strong feeling Tuck would not be the only apple to fall from that tree.

***The End***

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