Summary: In a jail cell, Adam Cartwright reflects on the potency of words, for good or for ill.
Word Count: 1200
“I’ll kill him.”
Odd that three such short words could get a man in so much trouble, though you’d think that I, of all people, would have realized the power of words. I’ve studied enough of them: the words of classical scholars in Latin and Greek, the words of great literature in the modern languages, the words of our own founding fathers. How can a man who has studied words as potent as those not realize that words have power? Power to move, power to persuade, power to . . . to land a man in jail if he ignores their power.
Yet, how could I have dreamed my words would be taken seriously? Because I sounded so serious, I suppose. Logic tells me that, so I shouldn’t be surprised to be here, should I? Of course, I should. Logic could never have warned me that someone else would take advantage of my overheard words and harm the man I’d threatened.
Man? Wouldn’t he love to hear me call him that! He’s just a boy, three months short of eighteen, and I would never have harmed him. I . . . love him. Why didn’t I say those three words, instead of “I’ll kill him”? Now I may never get the chance. Oh, God, don’t let him die thinking I did this to him . . . please, don’t let him die, whatever he thinks of me.
Angry words. When will I learn that angry words carry force? And force can lead to action, sometimes unpredictable action. I thought I already knew. I seem to recall lecturing him on the subject of his temper—many, many times. Not that the lectures weren’t merited. Oh, how quick he was to fling angry words into the air, heedless of what he was actually saying! How quick I was to criticize, to condemn his hasty words . . . how slow to check my own.
Angry words. Oh, he deserved that much. He deserved to be chewed up one side and down the other, as my other brother might have phrased it, he of the plain but powerful speech. The scamp had the audacity to take my horse without permission and use him for some wild race with his friends down the center of C Street, dodging whatever pedestrians, freight wagons or stagecoaches happened to lie in their path. Then not only did he lame Sport in that ridiculous undertaking, but he took off, afraid to face me, leaving Hoss to break the news. And when our longsuffering middle brother did, who could blame me for bellowing, “I’ll kill him!”
But who could have known, who could ever have dreamed that someone would actually try to kill the boy? A boy liked—even loved—by all; a boy with no enemies, unless you count a few petty rivals from his schoolyard days. No one had gotten a good look at his assailant, but everyone who saw that man running away gave the same description: tall, dark hair, dressed head-to-toe in black. And every man in the Bucket of Blood reported that a man answering that description—me—had threatened to kill Joe Cartwright.
Me, kill Little Joe? The boy I cradled in my arms within an hour of his birth, the boy I’ve sheltered and protected all his life, the boy I’d give my own life for? Kill him? I’ve never even raised a closed fist to him! Oh, I’ve applied an open palm to the appropriate seat of learning when Pa wasn’t around to do it himself, but never more than that. He’s a boy—a maddening, infuriating pest of a boy—but a boy nonetheless, and I’d never hurt any boy, much less my own baby brother. How could anyone believe that? Yet I fear twelve men, honest and true, might believe exactly that, all because of three short words spoken in anger.
“I’ll kill him.” Someone tried; someone very nearly succeeded. Thank God, the boy’s still breathing, or was when Pa was here last. But it’s two days now since that assault, and Joe still lies there in Doc Martin’s office, unconscious, fighting for every breath, and instead of being with him, I sit here behind bars, charged with assault and battery. If he dies, the charge will be murder. So if he dies, I will, too . . . and what will that do to Pa? And Hoss? Both of them believe me; both have stood by me and will, no matter what. Even Roy doesn’t believe me guilty, but he can’t ignore all those witnesses, so here I sit, when where I want to be is with my family. With my brother. All because of three little words. You’d think a man so noted for self-control could have kept three little words contained.
Commotion in the outer office, the sound of a scuffle, the reverberation of flesh striking flesh, a sound I know well. Sounds have power, too, but I can’t interpret these, except to surmise that I’ll soon have company in this cell block.
The door flings open. A prisoner, one I recognize, wrestles in the grip of Roy Coffee and my brother Hoss. Luke Cameron, my old nemesis. Together, Hoss and Roy wrangle him into the next cell, clang shut the door and lock it.
“Hoss, what . . .”
Hoss grins broadly as Roy unlocks my cell. “He’s awake—and he told us who done it.”
Awake? He’s awake? If three words had power, imagine the impact of those two. He’s awake; he’s alive and . . . suddenly I realize. Luke Cameron. Not my spittin’ image, but roughly my build and coloring. Disguised in dark clothes and seen at a distance, he could be mistaken for me, as he no doubt intended. I rush toward the bars separating me from a man capable of beating a boy he bore no ill will to a bloody pulp and leaving him to die . . . all to punish the man he did hate, the man he wanted to hang for his crime . . . me. As Roy and Hoss pull me back from the bars, I scream out in fury, “I’ll—” But that’s as far as I get.
Three little words. I had almost shouted those same three words, the ones that locked me in this cell. But I’m no fool; I learn from my mistakes; I won’t utter them again. I will my muscles to relax and say, instead, through gritted teeth, “I’ll leave you to the law.” Words not as forceful, but holding the quiet power of promise.
Their power washes through me, freeing me from the rage, so I can focus on more important matters. “I want to see my brother.”
Seeing me in control, once again the Adam Cartwright he knows, Sheriff Coffee nods, and he and Hoss release their hold on my arms. “You’re free to go,” Roy says.
As Hoss and I walk out together, he drapes an arm across my shoulder. I say nothing. Words are not needed between us, and I’m storing up mine, concentrating their potency. The next words I speak will be to Joe. Just three words, as before, but, oh, how much more powerful!