Synopsis: Living up to the responsibility of being a Cartwright, places Joe’s life in jeopardy, more than once.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 22,430
“Three queens,” said the young cowboy, slapping his cards down on the table. Steve Rutledge began to reach for the pile of chips in the middle of the table. The man sitting to the cowboy’s right grabbed the young man’s arm.
“Hold it,” cautioned the man. He laid his cards on the table. “Three kings,” declared the man. “I win.”
“Damn!” exclaimed Rutledge as he sat back in his chair. He shook his head. “I’ve been just short of winning the pot all day.”
“Well, maybe you’ll win the next hand,” suggested one of the men sitting across the table.
“No,” answered the cowboy, shaking his head again. “I’m cleaned out.”
“Cleaned out?” said the winner in surprise. “I thought the Rutledge ranch was a big spread. I heard that, except for the Ponderosa, it was one of the biggest ranches around here.”
“It is,” replied Rutledge. “But it’s my father’s ranch. I just work on it.” Rutledge looked around the Golden Nugget saloon, trying to find someone he could convince to lend him some money. He recognized most of the men in the saloon, but didn’t know any of them well enough to ask for some money. Rutledge turned back to the men at the table. “I’m out,” he said in a discouraged voice. Without waiting for a reply, he pushed the chair from the table and stood up.
The frown on Rutledge’s face turned into a smile as he saw the saloon doors swing open. A young man in a green jacket and tan pants strolled into the saloon.
“Give me a beer, Bruno,” said Joe Cartwright, throwing a coin on the bar.
“Hey, Joe!” yelled Rutledge, walking over to the bar. “Good to see you, friend.”
Joe turned to look at who called his name. “Hi Steve,” he replied pleasantly.
Rutledge put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “How about buying me a beer?” he asked.
“Sure,” replied Joe. He nodded at the bartender and reached into his pocket for another coin.
“What brings you to town?” Rutledge asked Joe.
“Oh, just picking up supplies and the mail,” answered Joe as he sipped his beer. “What about you?”
“My Pa’s in Reno so I kind of took the day off,” explained Rutledge with grin. He reached for his beer. “He’s going to be madder than a hornet when comes home and finds out I didn’t finish the fencing.”
“Steve, why do you do that?” said Joe with a shake of his head. “You know your Pa is going to get mad and you take off anyway.”
Rutledge sipped his beer. “I know I shouldn’t do it,” he admitted. “But I just get so bored out at that ranch. All I do all day is fix fences or chase cattle or something.”
“And what would you rather be doing?” asked Joe with a smile.
“Anything but that,” Rutledge answered. “I want to go to San Francisco, or St. Louis, or someplace like that. I want to dance with some pretty girls, and play a little poker. I’d like to sleep late and eat in those fancy restaurants. I want to have some fun.”
“Wouldn’t we all like that,” agreed Joe with a wry grin. “But it takes a lot of money to live that kind of life.”
“Yeah, don’t I know it,” said Rutledge. He looked at Joe. “Say, Joe, you got any money on you?”
“A couple of dollars,” answered Joe as he continued to sip his beer. “Why?”
“I was hoping you’d stake me in that poker game.”
“Stake you?” said Joe. “Why would I do that? You’re even a worse poker player than I am.”
“I’m getting better,” Rutledge replied defensively. Then he shook his head. “But I guess I’m not good enough yet.”
“You lose all your money playing poker?” asked Joe with a wry smile.
“Yeah,” answered Rutledge. “A month’s wages and then some. I was trying to win enough to get out of this two-bit town. I figured if I won enough I could go some place and live it up for awhile.”
“And instead, you lost all your money,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “Steve, you’ll never learn.”
Rutledge eyed Joe thoughtfully. “Hey, Joe, let me ask you a question. Your Pa pay you wages to work on your ranch?”
“Sure,” said Joe with a frown. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, it just don’t seem right to me,” Rutledge answered. “I mean, I work as hard as my Pa on that ranch.” He saw Joe’s skeptical look. “Well, most of the time I do,” Rutledge added. “I’m out chasing cattle in the freezing rain, and fixing fences in the broiling sun. I’ve cleaned out the barn more times than I can count. And chopped hay out of the pasture until my hands were raw. And what do I get for it? $60 a month.”
“Well, you do get room and board too,” said Joe with a ironic smile. “What’s your point?”
“The point is, that ranch is as much mine as it is my Pa’s,” Rutledge continued. “I ought to get more than $60 a month. I ought to get a part of whatever profit my Pa makes from that ranch. Don’t you agree?”
“No,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “I don’t.”
“You don’t?” Rutledge said in surprise. “Don’t you think you deserve some of the profit from the Ponderosa? You work just as hard your Pa and brothers on that place. Don’t you think you deserve more than just whatever your Pa wants to pay you?”
“I do get more,” answered Joe. “I get good meals, clean clothes, and a fine horse. I get to live with my family in a pretty nice place. And I get to help build up the ranch.”
“That’s not what I mean,” said Rutledge in exasperation. “I mean, don’t you think you deserve some of the money.”
“Look, Steve, my Pa built the Ponderosa,” explained Joe. “He worked and sweated 15 hours a day, sometimes more, building his dream. He put his whole life into building the ranch, just like your Pa has done. All I did was get born. I don’t figure that entitles me to anything more than what I earn.”
“You just don’t understand,” Rutledge muttered, shaking his head.
“I understand,” said Joe patiently. “I just don’t agree. You figure just because your Pa has worked hard and made a little money, you deserve that money so you have some fun. Well, it doesn’t work that way. You have to earn what you want out of life. Nothing gets handed to you.”
“You sound like some preacher,” mumbled Rutledge. He drained his beer glass.
“How about lending me some money, Joe?” asked Rutledge. “Just enough to get me back into that game. I’ll win enough to pay you back, I promise.”
Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out some bills. “All I have is about $15,” he said, handing the bills to Rutledge.
“That’ll be enough,” replied Rutledge confidently, taking the money. “I’ll pay you back, Joe.”
“Yeah, sure,” replied Joe. He finished his beer. “I’ve got to go pick up the mail.”
“Thanks, Joe”, said Rutledge. He was already walking back toward table where four men were playing cards.
Joe watched for a minute as Rutledge sat down at the table. Then he shook his head and walked out of the saloon.
The other Cartwrights were already at the dinner table when Joe walked into the house. He hurriedly removed his gunbelt and put the rolled leather belt on the bureau near the door. Joe slipped off his hat and jacket, and hung them on the peg near the door. He rubbed his hands on his pants, figuring that would clean them enough for dinner. Then he hurried into the dinning room.
“Sorry I’m late, Pa,” apologized Joe as he slid into his chair at the table. “It took me longer than I thought to unload the grain.”
Ben Cartwright nodded at his son. “Any mail?” he asked.
“No,” Joe answered, reaching for a bowl of mashed potatoes that was sitting in the middle of the table. “The stage from Carson City was late. I waited almost an hour but it never did show up. I figured I’d better head for home or I’d be in town all night.”
Ben nodded again, satisfied with Joe’s explanation. But Joe’s brothers couldn’t let the opportunity to give him a hard time pass so easily.
“You mean, you passed up the chance to spend a couple of hours in Virginia City?” asked Hoss Cartwright as he forked a piece of fried pork chop into his mouth. “Joe, you feeling all right?”
“All the girls must have left town for the day,” added Adam Cartwright with a grin from the end of the table.
Joe plopped a spoonful of potatoes on his plate, and put the bowl back in the center of the table. “I thought I’d better get home before you two managed to burn down the ranch or something,” answered Joe as he reached for the platter of pork chops.
“Now there’s a switch,” Adam commented. “Him worrying about us causing problems. Usually it’s the other away around.”
“Well, somebody has to look after you, older brother,” said Joe with a grin. “At your age, you start to forget things.”
Adam threw his napkin at Joe while Hoss roared with laugher.
“All right, that’s enough,” Ben chided his sons in a mild tone. He was used to his sons’ ribbing each other, and truth be known, he enjoyed it. He wanted his sons to feel close to each other, and the jokes simply confirmed that they did. “Save the horseplay for after dinner,” added Ben.
“Pa, I want to ride over to Frank Rutledge’s place tomorrow,” said Adam, as he retrieved his crumpled napkin from the floor. “He bought a breeding bull from that outfit down in Arizona. I want to find out if their stock is as good as they claim.”
“Mr. Rutledge is in Reno,” Joe offered before Ben could reply.
“How did you know that, little brother?” asked Hoss. “You developing some special powers or something?”
“It would be nice if I did,” replied Joe. “Then I could figure out how to get to the dinner table before you. No, I ran into Steve Rutledge in town. He told me his father was in Reno.”
“If his father is in Reno, what was Steve doing in town?” asked Adam. “Shouldn’t he have been taking care of things at the ranch?”
“You know Steve,” said Joe, with a shake of head. “He’d rather be in town having a good time than working on the ranch.”
“Yeah, I know,” Adam agreed. “All Frank has to do is turn his back, and Steve takes off.”
“I thought he would have grown out of that by now,” said Ben. “He’s old enough to know better.”
“Steve never means any harm,” Joe explained. “He just doesn’t think past what he’s doing at the time. When we were kids, he was always getting in trouble for missing school. He’d be off fishing because he figured it was too nice to be inside. He never thought about what would happen if he skipped school.”
“Seems to me he managed to talk you into a couple of those fishing trips,” said Hoss.
“Yeah, he did,” replied Joe. He glanced at his father. “But I learned real fast what happened when I skipped school.”
“Yes you did,” said Ben with a grin. “I recall several times when you spent days chopping woods and cleaning stalls as punishment. For awhile there, we had the cleanest stalls in Nevada.”
“What was Steve doing in town?” asked Adam.
“He was playing poker,” answered Joe as he began to eat his dinner. “He was trying to win enough money so he could go some place and live high on the hog for awhile. Only, instead, he lost all his money.”
“That boy is going to drive Frank Rutledge crazy,” said Ben with a shake of his head. “He never knows what Steve is going to do next. One of these days, Steve is going to get into real trouble.”
“Steve’s a good guy,” insisted Joe. “He just likes having a good time.”
“Yes, but someone who doesn’t think about the consequences of his actions can cause a lot of grief,” pointed out Adam. “I’d stay away from him, Joe, or you’re liable to be caught up in something he started.”
“Steve is an old friend,” Joe replied a bit heatedly. “We’ve known each other since we were kids. I think I know him well enough to keep us both out of trouble.”
“Keeping out of trouble ain’t exactly your strong suit, little brother,” said Hoss with a smile.
Joe smiled back at Hoss, not realizing that he would have bristled at a similar remark from Adam. Joe easily accepted Hoss’ teasing but found Adam’s comments often irritated him. Joe never really thought much about his different reaction to his brothers. He just knew that there was a special bond between Hoss and him. One that, for some reason, he could never share with Adam.
“Don’t worry, Hoss,” Joe assured his brother with a grin. “If I get into trouble, I’ll make sure I’ll come to you to bail me out.”
Joe guided his pinto through the narrow trail in the Big Horn Canyon, his eyes searching the rocks for stray cattle. It had been a week since he had seen Steve Rutledge in Virginia City, and he had been too busy to give his friend more than a passing thought. But now as he rode through the canyon, he found he was thinking about Steve and wondering about his friend.
Adam had visited the Rutledge ranch the day before, and returned with good reports about the bull. But Adam also had told the other Cartwrights about a heated argument he had witnessed between Steve and Frank Rutledge. Once again, Steve had wandered away from the ranch, leaving his work undone. Steve hadn’t understood why his father was so upset, and Frank Rutledge couldn’t understand his son’s lack of concern.
Joe shook his head as he rode. He liked Steve, and when they had been young boys, the two had shared a lot of good times. Steve had talked Joe into a few “adventures” that had gotten them both in trouble with their fathers. But while Joe had been punished for these escapades, Steve usually got off with a lecture when he promised never to do something like that again. Except Steve seemed to forget this promise the minute he gave it.
Both boys had loved the freedom of growing up on a ranch. But Joe knew the responsibilities of running a ranch and, as he grew older, he had accepted his share those responsibilities. Steve, on the other hand, seemed determined to remain in his carefree childhood, no matter how old he got.
A distant rumble shook Joe out of his reverie. He looked to the sky, thinking the sound was the thunder of an approaching storm. But the sky was blue and cloudless. Joe reined in his horse and looked around, trying to figure out what had caused the noise. He heard the rumble again, this time closer. He looked up the hill to his right just in time to see a shower of rocks cascading down the stony bluff above him.
Immediately, Joe kicked his pinto forward, hoping to outrun the rock slide. But his reaction was too slow. The horse began to move just as the rocks hit a ledge. The rocks ricocheted off the lip of the ledge and began flying in all directions. Joe felt something hard hit his shoulder. Almost instantly, another rock hit him in the back. Joe arched his back at the blow, pulling up on the reins in his hands as he did so. Cochise, his horse, stopped at the pull in his mouth, as he had been taught. But the flying rocks also frightened the horse. He reared suddenly, pawing the air with his front legs. Joe struggled to keep his seat, but another rock crashed into him, throwing him off balance. Joe slid from the saddle and hit the ground with a thud. He was dimly aware of the hard stones rolling over him before one hit him in the head. Joe felt a sharp pain, and then the curtain of blackness descended.
“Joe! Joe, can you hear me?”
Joe heard a voice. It seemed to be both close and far away at the same time. He felt a hand on his chin, and the hand was shaking his head not too gently.
“Joe! Come on! Wake up! Do you hear me? Wake up!”
Again, Joe heard the voice and struggled to open his eyes. He groaned as he felt a sharp pain in his temples. Joe blinked and tried to open his eyes. He could feel something sticky trickling down into his left eye. Joe blinked again and this time he succeed in opening his eyes.
A face, blurred and fuzzy, seemed to be only inches away. Joe blinked once more and the face started to come into focus.
“You had me worried there for a minute,” said Steve Rutledge as looked down at Joe. His voice was filled with relief. “Are you all right?”
Joe tried to answer but found it hard to talk. “Um, I…I don’t know,” mumbled Joe. He winced again as the pain in his head seemed to grow sharper. “What happened?”
“Looks like you got caught in a rock slide” answered Steve. He grinned down at his friend. “Good thing I spotted that green jacket of yours among all those rocks. I almost rode right past you.”
“What…what are you doing up here?” Joe asked in a slurred voice. He shook his head, trying to clear it, and instantly regretted the action. The pain in his forehead seemed to spread to the top of his skull. A new stream of sticky fluid trickled into his eye.
“I was just riding around up here,” replied Steve vaguely. “I found your horse down the trail a bit and figured I’d better come looking for you.”
Something in what Steve said didn’t seem right to Joe, but his head hurt too much for him to think about it. Joe just nodded, moving his head as little as possible.
“I checked you over and I don’t think you broke anything,” said Steve in a reassuring voice. “But you have some pretty nasty cuts. Probably some pretty good bruises, too. I cleaned you up the best I could. We’d better get you home. Do you think you can sit a horse?”
Joe looked up at Steve. “I don’t know,” he admitted in a shaky voice.
“Well, let’s find out,” said Steve. Before Joe could answer, Steve pulled him to his feet. Joe groaned as he felt the pain almost explode in his head. His arms and back ached, and his legs felt like they were made out of putty. Joe felt his knees buckle.
“No,” muttered Joe. “I can’t do it.”
Steve looked around anxiously. “Yes, you can,” he said to Joe in a firm voice. “You can’t stay here. Come on, Joe,” urged Steve as he grabbed Joe under the arms. Steve began to drag Joe across the rocky ground. Joe tried to walk, but he was having trouble making his legs work properly. Blood began flowing faster down Joe’s face.
Steve seemed to be oblivious to his friend’s distress. He dragged Joe a few feet to the pinto standing at the side of the trail. The horse eyed Joe nervously, confused by the smell of blood mixed with the familiar smell of his rider. Steve gabbed the reins and held the pinto in place, then pushed Joe up against the side of the horse.
Slowly, Joe reached up and grabbed the saddle horn with his left hand. He hung against the saddle, too weak to do anything else.
“Come on, Joe,” urged Steve once more. “We’ve got to get you on this horse.”
Joe looked at his friend through half-opened eyes. “I don’t think I can,” admitted Joe in a barely audible voice.
“I’ll get you on,” said Steve. He grabbed Joe’s collar with one hand, and Joe’s belt with the other. He lifted Joe as if his friend were a bale of hay, and threw Joe up to the saddle.
Joe’s leg hit the back of the saddle, then slid over to the far side. He groaned as he landed on the leather, every inch of his body seeming to be jarred by the landing. Joe fell forward, his head resting on the neck of his horse.
“You grab that saddle horn and hang on,” Steve ordered. Joe lifted his head slightly, and nodded, then grabbed the saddle horn under his chest with his left hand.
Walking the animal slowly, Steve led Joe’s horse forward a few feet to where a big bay horse was standing. Still holding the reins of Joe’s horse, Steve climbed onto the bay. He looked back at Joe, and shook his head. “We’d better get you to my place,” Steve announced. “It’s closer than the Ponderosa.”
Joe didn’t answer. He was already beginning to drift into a fog, neither really awake or unconscious. Joe felt the horse beneath him move forward and he clung tightly to the saddle horn. He was only dimly aware that the horse was moving down the trail.
Joe woke to find himself in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. The wallpaper in the room was a pale blue and dotted with white flowers. The wood trimming the door and walls was painted white as was the door across the room. A cheerful picture of children playing hung on the wall. The room obviously had a woman’s touch in the decorating.
Shifting on the bed, Joe grunted in pain. His shoulders and back were sore and every muscle in his body seemed to ache. He felt the pain of a dull headache, and his face seemed stiff. Joe pulled himself up a bit on the bed, and realized he was naked under the covers. He turned to rub his sore shoulder and wasn’t surprised to see a large bruise. Joe figured he had bruises everywhere. Joe lifted the covers and confirmed his suspicions. Splotches of dark black and blue covered his chest and ribs.
Joe quickly dropped the covers as the door on the other side of the room opened and a woman with white hair and wearing a print dress walked in. “I thought I heard you moving around in here,” she said with a smile.
With a jerk, Joe pulled the covers on the bed up to his shoulders. “Mrs. Rutledge!” he exclaimed both in surprise and in embarrassment. “What are you doing here?” Joe looked around the room. “Where am I?”
“You’re at our ranch,” replied Jane Rutledge. “Steve brought you in yesterday. Don’t you remember?”
Joe frowned a bit as he thought. He remembered the rock slide, and some of the ride down the mountain. He also remembered being poked and prodded, as well as someone shaking him awake from time to time.
“I kind of remember,” said Joe slowly.
“Well, I’m not surprised you don’t remember what happened,” replied Mrs. Rutledge with a smile. “Doctor Martin said you have a concussion in addition to all those cuts and bruises. You’re lucky nothing was broken. A few days in bed, and you’ll be fine.”
“Did anyone tell my family where I am?” asked Joe in a worried voice.
“They know,” Mrs. Rutledge assured him. “Adam and Hoss were here until the doctor assured them you were going to be fine. Your Pa stayed until almost midnight. Frank finally convinced him to go home and get some sleep. I expect he’ll be back here any time now.”
Joe relaxed against the pillows. “I’m sorry to have caused you so much trouble,” he said apologetically.
“Don’t be silly, Joe,” replied Mrs. Rutledge in a brisk tone. “You’re Steve’s friend. Practically one of the family. I’m just happy Steve found you. Now how about some breakfast?”
“Breakfast would be great,” said Joe. He shifted on the bed a bit and the blankets slide down to his waist. Quickly, Joe pulled the covers up to his chest again. “Only, um, well, um…” Joe blushed and seemed unable to find the right words to say. He pulled the blankets up a bit higher and he suddenly seemed unable to meet Mrs. Rutledge’s eyes.
Jane Rutledge tried to hide her smile. “I’ll have Steve bring you a nightshirt and robe while I’m fixing you something to eat,” she offered. “I expect you’ll be a bit more comfortable with some clothes on.”
“Yeah, thanks, I will,” said Joe, gratefully.
“You just rest,” advised Mrs. Rutledge as she turned to leave the room. “I’ll send Steve in.”
Joe laid back on the bed, happy to let his sore body relax against the soft mattress. He didn’t realize he had dozed off until he felt a hand shaking him gently.
“Joe, hey, Joe, wake up,” said Steve.
Joe woke with a start. He looked up and saw Steve standing over him, a nightshirt and robe draped over his arm. Joe started to sit up, and winced as his aching muscles protested.
“How are you feeling?” asked Steve, his voice tinged with concern.
“Like I got run over in a stampede,” Joe replied as he eased himself up on the bed.
“Ma sent me in to help you get dressed,” said Steve with a grin. “She figured you might be pretty sore.”
“Thanks,” Joe said, smiling back at him. He reached for the nightshirt in Steve’s hand. Joe lifted his arms to slide the nightshirt on and then abruptly stopped. He groaned as he tried to lift his arms again.
“Here, let me help you,” offered Steve. He pulled the night shirt from Joe’s hands and guided his friend’s arm’s into the sleeves. Then Steve lift the shirt over Joe’s head and slid the shirt on. Steve also helped Joe into the robe he had brought.
“Thanks,” said Joe gratefully, as he eased himself back into the bed. Joe looked up at Steve. “Thanks for saving my life.”
“I didn’t do anything,” answered Steve with a wave of his hand. “All I did was pull some rocks off you and plop you on your horse.”
“It was a little more than that,” Joe insisted. “I’m grateful.”
“Do you remember what happened?” Steve asked. He tried to make the question seem casual, but his eyes had a wary look.
Joe shook his head. “No, “ Joe replied. “All I remember was riding in the canyon, and the next thing I knew those rocks were all over me.” Joe looked at Steve. “I might have died if you hadn’t helped me. I owe you, Steve, and I won’t forget it.”
Steve looked at Joe thoughtfully for a minute. “I do have a favor to ask,” he admitted.
“Name it,” said Joe.
“Well, if my Pa should ask, tell him I found you in Pine Cone Canyon, all right?” said Steve.
“Pine Cone Canyon?” Joe replied in surprise. “That’s a good ten miles from where you found me.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Steve. “But see, that’s where I was suppose to be, hunting strays.”
Joe looked at Steve suspiciously. “So, what were you doing in Big Horn Canyon?” he asked.
“I was just cutting through there,” said Steve with a shrug of his shoulders. “I was coming back from meeting some pals of mine up on Willow Crest.”
Joe shook his head. “Steve, you’ll never change, will you? Always running off when you’re suppose to be working.”
“I was just gone a little while,” Steve protested. “Pa don’t like these fellows much, and he always gives me grief when he sees me with them. So I figured it would be easier to meet them up there. Besides, there ain’t enough strays in Pine Cone Canyon to bother about.”
“That’s not the point,” said Joe. “You were suppose to be out chasing strays, not riding up on Willow Crest.”
“Well, you ought to be grateful that I wasn’t chasing strays,” retorted Steve angrily. “Otherwise, you’d be still laying out in Big Horn Canyon.”
Joe sighed. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said. “I do owe you my life.” Joe shook his head. “I just don’t like the idea of lying.”
“Shoot, Joe, probably nobody will ask,” advised Steve with a grin. “It ain’t lying if you just don’t say anything.” Then Steve’s face grew serious. “Look, Joe, these friends of mine, well, they ain’t plan on hanging around Virginia City much longer. I’m trying to convince to let me go with them when they leave.”
“Where would you go?” Joe asked in an astonished voice.
Steve shrugged. “Don’t matter much,” he answered. “Any place where’s some good times. These fellows seem to have some plans, although I don’t know much about them yet. They’re kind of secretive. That’s why I kind of hustled you out of the canyon when I found you. I didn’t want them to see you with me. They might think I was telling you about them.”
Joe frowned. “These friends of yours sound kind of suspicious. Do you think it’s a good idea to be hanging around with them? Sounds like you might get yourself into some trouble.”
“Trouble and me are old friends,” said Steve with a smile. “Seems like everything I do causes trouble.” He looked at Joe intently. “What about it, Joe?” Steve asked. “Will you go along with me on this? Nobody has to know I wasn’t in Pine Cone Canyon.”
“All right,” Joe agreed in resignation. “I’ll cover for you. I won’t say anything about you being up in Big Horn Canyon.”
“Thanks, Joe,” said Steve. “I knew I could count on you.” Steve turned and walked out of the room.
Joe laid back against the pillows and sighed again. He hoped nobody would ask about where Steve had found him. If they did, Joe figured he could say he didn’t remember for sure. Steve was right, thought Joe. It’s not exactly lying if you don’t say anything. There was no harm in just keeping quiet.
Ben drove the wagon into the yard in front of the gray house and pulled it to a stop. As he climbed down from the wagon, he heard a voice calling his name. Ben turned to see a white-haired man walking toward him from the side of the house. The man was wearing a plaid shirt and dark pants, and his hand was raised in greeting.
“Hi, Frank,” Ben called in return to the greeting he had received. “Hope I’m not too early. I wanted to take Joe off your hands and get him home before he causes you any more trouble.”
“Ben, you’ve spent enough time here during the past three days to know you’re not too early,” Frank Rutledge replied with a smile. “And having Joe here hasn’t been any trouble. In fact, it’s been kind of a blessing. Steve has been staying close to home, keeping an eye on Joe, rather than hanging around with those no accounts in Virginia City.”
Ben leaned back against the wagon. “I can’t thank you and Jane enough for looking after Joe for the past few days,” said Ben gratefully.
“Oh, we didn’t do much,” replied Frank, dismissing Ben’s thanks with a shrug of his shoulders. “We couldn’t send Joe home after the doctor said it was best he wasn’t moved for a few days. Besides, you’ve been here most of the time helping out. It hasn’t been any trouble at all.”
“Is Steve around?” asked Ben looking around the yard. “I wanted to thank him again for bringing Joe in.”
“He’s up in Pine Cone Canyon, looking for strays,” Frank answered. “At least, that’s where he’s suppose to be. With Steve, I never know for sure.” Frank shook his head.
“Steve’s a good boy,” commented Ben. “He just gets…distracted. And I am grateful to him for saving Joe’s life.”
“Yeah, he did do that,” agreed Frank. “And I’m right proud of him for doing it.” Frank looked at Ben with sorrowful eyes. “You know, that’s all I ever wanted,” he added. “I just want to be proud of my son, the way you’re proud of your boys. Only Steve, he hasn’t done much that I can boast about. Most of the time, when somebody mentions Steve, I cringe and wait to hear what trouble he’s gotten himself into.”
“Well, it just takes some boys a bit longer to grow up than others,” Ben advised. He slapped Frank lightly on the shoulder. “Steve will turn out all right, you’ll see.”
“I hope so,” said Frank.
Ben straightened and took a step toward the house. “Well, at least I can take my troublesome son off your hands,” Ben stated with a smile. “Is he up yet?”
“Last I saw, Jane was fussing over him and trying to get him to eat more breakfast,” answered Frank with a grin. “I think it’s going to be a chore getting Joe away from her. She’s been like a mother hen for the past three days, and now you’re going to take her chick away.”
Ben laughed and took another step toward the house. “Maybe I’d better get in there,” said Ben. “It sounds like Joe needs some more rescuing.”
Frank’s prediction proved accurate. Before Jane Rutledge would let Joe leave, she checked his bruises and made sure his cuts were healing. She also insisted that Ben take a blanket with him in case Joe got cold on the ride to the Ponderosa. When Ben left the house to carry the blanket to the wagon, Jane started looking around the room, muttering about pillows. Finally, Frank grabbed his wife by the arm and held her still.
“Tarnation, woman,” said Frank in exasperation. “You’d think Ben was taking the boy to St. Louis. It isn’t more than a twenty minute ride to the Ponderosa. And the doctor said Joe is as fit as he can be after three days in bed.”
“You men never take these things seriously,” Jane replied with a sniff. “I just want to make sure Joe’s all right.”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Rutledge, really,” said Joe with a grin as he stood by the door. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
“Now you rest if you start feeling tired,” instructed Mrs. Rutledge. “And be sure to eat everything Hop Sing fixes for you. I swear, you didn’t eat enough in the past few days to put any meat on your bones.”
“I promise,” said Joe, raising his hand solemnly. But the twinkle in his eye belied his serious tone of voice.
“Jane, that’s enough!” exclaimed Frank, his exasperation growing. “Ben’s managed to raise the boy for the last twenty years or so. I think he knows enough to get him home safe.”
“Oh, all right,” said Jane with resignation. She looked at Joe fondly. “You take care of yourself, Joe.”
“I will,” Joe promised. He crossed the room and offered his hand to Frank Rutledge. “Thank you again for everything,” said Joe.
“My pleasure, boy,” replied Frank, shaking Joe’s hand.
Joe turned to Jane Rutledge. “Thank you,” he said softly. Joe kissed Jane lightly on the forehead.
Jane blushed, and tried not to show how pleased she was at Joe’s show of affection. “Go on, get out of here,” she ordered brusquely. “Your Pa is going to get tired of waiting for you.”
Giving a brief nod, Joe turned to leave. He was about half-way across the room when a thought seemed to strike him. Joe stopped and turned back to the Rutledges. “Tell Steve thanks for me, too,” Joe added. “I promise I won’t forget what he did for me.”
Frank Rutledge nodded. He seemed to stand a bit straighter and his chest puffed out a bit a Joe’s words.
Moving slowly, Joe walked out of the house and across the yard to the wagon. Ben stood near the wagon, waiting to help Joe climb into the seat. He knew his son well enough not be fooled by Joe’s pretense of being well. Ben could see the scabs on the cuts over Joe’s eye, and Joe’s stiff walk was proof that his muscles were still sore.
“I see Jane Rutledge finally let you go,” said Ben with a smile as Joe approached the wagon. “You ready to head home?”
Joe nodded. “Pa, you have no idea how ready I am to go home,” replied Joe with a grin.
“A little too much tender loving care?” suggested Ben, arching his eyebrow and smiling.
“Well, let’s just say I’m not used to being fussed over that much,” admitted Joe. He looked around. “I’m sorry Steve’s not around,” he added, looking at the empty yard. “I wanted to thank him, too. I really do owe him my life. I feel like I ought to pay him back somehow.”
“I’m sure Steve knows how you feel,” said Ben. “You can think about a way to repay him later. Right now, we need to get you home. Hop Sing is anxious to do a little fussing of his own.”
Joe groaned and rolled his eyes. “I’m not sure which is worse. Getting hurt, or getting tended to.”
Ben laughed as he helped Joe climb into the wagon seat, then walked around the wagon to the other side. He climbed into the seat next to Joe and picked up the reins. As Ben chucked the horses forward, Joe looked around the Rutledge ranch again. The thought struck him that Steve Rutledge didn’t appreciate all he had. And then another thought came to Joe. He wondered where Steve Rutledge really was.
The next three weeks were so ordinary that Joe never really could remember them. Whenever Joe thought back to that unremarkable period, he only remembered a blur of usual chores. Vague images of chasing strays, fixing fences, and tending the stock were all Joe could recall when he tried to think about those weeks.
He did remember coming home from the Rutledge ranch. As Ben had predicted, Hop Sing did his own fussing over Joe once the younger Cartwright was back at the Ponderosa. The Chinese cook may not have been as sympathetic as Jane Rutledge, but in his own way, he was just as much a mother hen. He made Joe’s favorite meals, and stood over Joe, arms folded and a scowl on his face, until Joe ate as much as Hop Sing thought he should. The cook checked Joe’s cuts every morning and insisted on rubbing the soothing ointment on Joe’s bruises each night. Joe tried to be tolerant and appreciative of Hop Sing’s efforts, but it was a chore. He disliked being fussed over, and it took a major effort on Joe’s part not to ask Hop Sing to just leave him alone.
Joe also remembered the relief he felt when Doctor Martin declared him fit to go back to work after four days of Hop Sing’s ministrations. Adam and Hoss both watched with unconcealed amusement as Joe made sure he was up on time and the first one out of the house each morning, eager to escape Hop Sing’s watchful eyes. They had loudly speculated on how long it would take for Joe to fall back into his old habits of sleeping as late as possible.
But most of all, Joe remembered the day his father had asked him to ride to Virginia City to arrange a wire transfer from the bank. It was a day Joe would never forget – no matter how hard he tried.
The sun was already setting as Joe rode his pinto into Virginia City. The street was almost deserted. Most of the population of Virginia City were busy with dinner. Joe’s own stomach rumbled a bit as he stopped his horse at the hitching post in front of the bank. He promised himself a good dinner at the hotel after he finished his chore at the bank.
Turning the handle of the door of the Virginia City bank, Joe was not surprised to find it locked. He knew Wilbur Stone closed the bank at precisely 4:30 every day, and Joe figured the time was about 5:00 or so. But he also knew Mr. Stone worked in the bank for several hours after closing each day.
Joe knocked hard on the door of the bank. He waited a few minutes, then rapped on the door again. A muffled voice called back to him that the bank was closed.
“Mr. Stone, it’s Joe Cartwright,” called Joe through the door. “My Pa needs to transfer some money to an outfit in Arizona right away. They need some earnest money for some stock he wants to buy.”
“Come back tomorrow,” called the voice. “We’re closed.”
“Pa needs the money transferred today,” said Joe. “It’s important.”
Joe waited patiently on the other side of the locked door for a minute, and his patience was rewarded with the sound of a bolt sliding open. The bank door opened.
“I wouldn’t do this for anyone but Ben Cartwright,” grumbled Wilbur Stone with a scowl on his face. The bank manager sighed. “Come on in, Joe. Let’s get this taken care of.”
“Thanks, Mr. Stone,” said Joe with a smile as he stepped into the bank. “I know Pa will really appreciate this.”
“He’d better,” replied Stone. He closed the door behind Joe. “Now, how much do you need transferred and where?”
Before Joe could answer, the sound of shouting distracted him. Joe heard several frantic voices from the street. He turned and opened the door behind him, then stepped out of the bank.
Several men were rushing down the middle of the street in front of the bank. Joe could hear one of them yelling “Fire!” as he ran.
“What’s going on?” yelled Joe as the man rushed past him. The man stopped and turned to Joe.
“Fire!” shouted the man. “The old warehouse at the end of town is on fire. It’s going good. We’ve got to get it out before it spreads.” Without waiting for a reply, the man started running down the street again.
Quickly, Joe took a step toward the street, but Wilbur Stone grabbed his arm. “Just where do you think you’re going?” asked Stone.
“I’m going down to help fight the fire,” Joe answered with a puzzled expression.
“Oh no you’re not,” said Stone firmly. “You’ve got some business to take care of for your Pa, and I haven’t got all night to wait around for you.”
“But Mr. Stone, there’s a fire,” replied Joe in an urgent voice. “I should go down and help.”
“I’m sure they have more than enough help,” said Stone in a tart voice. “Everybody in town will be down there. You’ve got business here. Let’s get it handled.”
“But…” Joe started in protest.
“But nothing,” interrupted Stone. “Either we take care of this right now, or you wait until tomorrow to make that transfer of funds. It’s up to you.”
Undecided, Joe turned and looked down the street. He could see the smoke billowing in dark clouds at the far end of town. He also could see more men rushing down the street toward the blaze. Wilbur Stone was right. Every man in town seemed to heading toward the fire.
Joe sighed. “All right,” he said reluctantly. “Pa wants that money transferred today. I guess we’d better get it done.” With a last regretful look toward the smoke, Joe turned and re-entered the bank.
Stone nodded in satisfaction and closed the door behind Joe once more. As Joe walked across the bank toward Stone’s desk, Stone threw the bolt on the door.
Joe stopped and watched Stone lock the door, a look of surprise on his face. “Why the lock?” asked Joe.
“We’ve got $20,000 in newly minted gold coins in the vault,” explained Stone as he walked past Joe toward his desk. “We’re holding them until a special detail from the Army picks them up tomorrow.” Stone sat down behind his desk. “Now, exactly how much do you need transferred and where does it need to go?” he asked briskly.
Walking over to the desk, Joe sat down in the chair across from Stone. He pulled a piece of paper from the pocket of his jacket. “Pa wants you to transfer $1,000 from his account to this address,” said Joe, handing the paper to Stone. Stone took the paper and looked at it briefly. With a nod, he pulled open a drawer in his desk and took out a piece of paper.
“Let’s do the paperwork,” said Stone, slamming the drawer shut. He put the paper on his desk and reached for a pen. Suddenly, there was a pounding sound from the door of the bank. A voice shouted for Mr. Stone.
“Now what?” said Stone in exasperation. “Doesn’t anyone in this town believe in closing time?” Stone stood and walked around the desk. He walked quickly to the door of the bank. “We’re closed,” yelled Stone through the door. “Come back tomorrow.”
“It’s Steve Rutledge,” a muffled voice called through the door. “I’ve got some important business for my Pa.”
Stone rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Come back tomorrow,” called Stone again.
“It can’t wait, Mr. Stone,” called Steve.
Sighing, Stone reached for the bolt on the door. “God save me from my biggest depositors,” muttered Stone. Joe grinned as he watched the banker unbolt the door and pull it open. But the grin on Joe’s face quickly faded as Steve Rutledge pushed the door open abruptly, knocking Stone back. Joe saw his friend had a gun in his hand. Three men followed Steve into the bank, guns also drawn.
“What…what’s going on?” asked Stone in a voice that combined both surprise and fear.
“What do you think?” growled one of the men as he slammed the door shut behind him. “We’re robbing the bank.”
Joe jumped to his feet. “Steve, what are you doing?” he asked in astonishment.
One of the men pointed his gun at Joe. “Get your hands up!” the man ordered. “You make a move for that pistol you’re wearing and you’re dead.” Joe slowly raised his hands.
“I thought you said Stone would be here alone,” said another of the men.
Steve stared at Joe before answering. “I thought he would be,” replied Steve. He frowned. “Joe, what are you doing here?”
Joe didn’t bother to answer. “Steve, you must be crazy, thinking you can get away with something like this,” said Joe.
“Shut up!” ordered one of the men. He turned to Stone, who was standing nervously near the door. “Now, all we want is them gold coins you’re holding for the Army. You get them and give them to us. You don’t do anything foolish, and no one will get hurt.”
Stone looked at the four men standing in front of him with guns in their hands. Without a word, he turned and walked toward the vault behind the teller’s cage. Stone knelt next to the vault and began working the dials. Two of the robbers followed him and stood over the bank manager, watching carefully.
“So this is the big plans you were talking about,” said Joe to Steve.
Steve looked away from Joe. “This is my chance to get some money and get out of this town,” he answered in a low voice.
“Steve, don’t do it,” pleaded Joe. “They’ll catch you. You’ll never get a chance to spend that money. You’ll go to jail.”
“They won’t catch us,” Steve stated, but his voice betrayed a trace of doubt.
“That’s right,” said the robber standing next to Steve. “They won’t catch us. We got it all figured out.”
“They’ll catch you,” declared Joe. He looked at the man and his eyes narrowed. “The whole town will be after you.”
“The whole town is down at that fire we set,” replied the man with a laugh. “They’ll be so busy trying to put out that fire that they won’t even know the bank has been robbed until we’re long gone.”
The creak of the vault door told Joe that Stone had opened the safe. Joe watched at the two men pushed Stone aside and reached into the vault. They pulled out two canvas sacks. “What about the rest of the money that’s in here?” asked one of them.
“Just take anything that looks like old bills,” said the man standing next to Steve.
“I don’t want anything that can be traced.”
The robber reached into the vault and pulled a stack of money. The bills looked faded and worn. He looked around and saw a small leather sack on the counter. The man grabbed the sack and pushed the bills into it. Then he swung the door of the safe shut.
Slowly, Stone eased himself away from the vault and cautiously worked himself around the end of the counter. He was only a few feet from Joe when the man near the door shouted.
“Hold it!” shouted the man in an angry voice. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Stone froze and didn’t answer. He raised his hands and watched the men with a frightened expression.
“Now what, Steve?” asked Joe in an angry voice. “You going to murder us?”
Steve looked surprised at Joe’s question. “No, no,” he replied quickly. “We’re just going to tie you up. By the time anyone finds you, we’ll be out of the territory.” Steve looked at the man standing next to him. “Right?”
“Yeah, sure, that’s right, kid,” said the man. “Go tie them up.”
Holstering his gun, Steve pulled some rawhide strips from his belt. He looked at Joe, and an expression of guilt crossed his face. Steve started to walk slowly across the floor.
“Please, please don’t hurt me,” begged Stone in a quivering voice as Steve approached.
“We’re not going to hurt you, Mr. Stone,” Steve assured him
It was at that moment Joe saw the man standing behind Steve cock his pistol. Suddenly, Joe realized the robbers had no intention of leaving any witnesses behind. He turned and dove at Stone, knocking the banker to the ground just as the man by the door fired his gun.
The bullet passed over the heads of Joe and Wilbur Stone, splintering the wood in far wall. Steve Rutledge stopped and turned back toward the door, his face a picture of shock. Steve took a step back, trying to get out of the line of fire.
Joe didn’t wait to see what Steve would do. He rolled off Stone, pulling his gun from his holster as he slid across the floor. Joe got one shot off, hitting the man holding the canvas sacks. The man crumpled to the floor.
But one shot was all Joe could manage before a volley of bullets came back across the bank. Joe felt something strike him hard in the chest, knocking him on his back. He heard a shriek of pain from his right, and another voice shouting “No!” Joe didn’t see Steve Rutledge fall to his knees and cover his head in terror. Nor did he see the man by door coldly point his gun at Steve. Joe did hear two more shots, and then all was quiet.
Joe felt a searing pain in his chest. He gasped for air and the pain seemed to get worse. He laid on his back, eyes closed, paralyzed by the pain. Joe tried to take another breath, and felt an agonizing stab radiating through his chest. He coughed and tasted blood. He put his hand to his chest. Joe felt a sticky liquid on his chest, and knew that he was feeling his own blood seeping out of him.
Weakly, Joe tried to push himself up, determined not to simply lay on the floor of the bank and bleed to death. He managed to prop himself up a few inches off the floor with his elbow. Through the smoke of the gunfire, Joe could see a body near the door. He knew it was the robber he had shot, apparently abandoned by his partners. Joe turned his head slightly, and saw Wilbur Stone writhing on the floor in agony. The bank manager had a bullet hole in the leg and another in the chest. Both wounds were bleeding freely.
Suddenly, Joe coughed again and moaned at the agony of pain that followed the cough. His chest felt on fire. Dark spots danced before his eyes, and he collapsed back to the floor. Joe clenched his teeth, trying to will the pain to stop. He was finding it hard to breathe, and he could feel his blood oozing down his chest.
Joe could feel himself weakening and knew he had to get help. He tried again to push himself from the floor, but this time he only was able to roll himself to the right a bit. Joe stared across the floor of the bank, trying to get a brain dulled by pain and shock to work properly. Another spasm of coughing sent splinters of pain across his chest, and again, Joe collapse to the floor on his back. Joe could feel himself drifting into unconsciousness and didn’t try to fight it. He didn’t have the strength to fight against the agonizing pain any longer. As he sank into darkness, Joe’s brain recorded the last image he had seen. It was the image of Steve Rutledge sprawled face down on the floor.
Sheriff Roy Coffee was in the lead as the crowd started up the street of Virginia City and away from the burned out shell of the old warehouse. The fire had quickly the destroyed the old building, but Roy had organized a bucket brigade to save the buildings standing dangerously near the flames. It hadn’t taken long for the empty building to burn, and once it had collapsed on itself, the danger to the other buildings had lessened. Roy stationed several men around the smoldering ruins, giving them orders to continue to douse the what was left of the warehouse with water.
Now that the excitement of the fire was over, the crowd was starting to drift away. Roy assured himself that the fire was under control then hurried up the street. For some reason, he felt a need to check the town he had sworn to protect.
As Roy walked rapidly up the street, he saw a man waving frantically. Roy recognized the man as Bill Peterson, the telegrapher from the Western Union office. Bill began running toward Roy.
“Sheriff! Sheriff!” shouted Peterson. “Come quick! There’s something wrong at the bank!”
“What’s wrong?” Roy asked with a frown as Peterson ran up to him.
“I don’t know,” replied Peterson. “I went over to slip a telegram under the door for Wilbur Stone. The door of the bank was open. It shouldn’t be open. Not this time of day.”
“Did you go in?” asked Roy.
Peterson shook his head. “No,” he admitted. He looked down. “I was afraid to go in.”
Shaking his head in disgust, Roy brushed past Peterson. As he hurried up the street, several people started to follow him, the hint of new excitement attracting their attention. Peterson watch the crowd pass him, then turned to follow. As much as he didn’t want to go into the bank, he couldn’t stop himself from finding out what had happened.
Roy walked down the street in rapid strides, quickening his pace as he neared the bank. He stopped for a moment when he saw the door of the bank was ajar. Roy moved cautiously toward the door, and pushed the door open slowly.
Standing in the doorway of the bank, Roy was shocked at the scene in front of him. Four bodies laid on the floor of the bank, blood oozing from all of them. Roy’s eyes quickly surveyed the bodies. Two were face down on the floor. Roy looked past the two and saw Wilbur Stone, laying on his side. Roy’s eyes grew wide as he looked to the fourth body. He swallowed hard as he recognized Joe Cartwright laying on the floor.
“Somebody get the doc!” shouted Roy as he hurried into the building. He stopped and bent to check the first body laying near the door. He quickly determined the man was dead and didn’t waste any more time on him. Roy rushed forward, and turned over the body in the middle of the floor. Roy felt sick as he recognized Steve Rutledge. He saw the two bullet holes in Steve’s side, one in the middle of the rib cage and one just below the ribs. Roy quickly put a hand to Steve’s neck and shook his head. Steve Rutledge was dead.
Roy stood and glanced at the two remaining people. He hesitated for a moment, then rushed to the boy in the familiar green jacket laying face up on the floor.
With trepidation, Roy reached down and put his hand on Joe’s chest. Roy could see the bullet hole on the right side of Joe’s chest, and the dark streaks running from Joe’s chest to the puddle of blood on the floor. Roy sagged with relief when he felt the beat of a heart and the faint rise and fall of the chest beneath his hand.
“Joe’s alive!” shouted Roy to no one in particular. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. Roy knelt on the floor and pressed the cloth against the bleeding wound on Joe’s chest. He could hear the raspy breathing and slight gurgling as Joe struggled for air. Roy pulled Joe into a sitting position, resting Joe’s back against his chest. The sheriff had seen enough gunshot wounds in his time to know that the bullet had hit Joe’s lung. He also knew that sitting the boy up would help his breathing. Roy pressed the now bloody cloth even harder against Joe’s chest. He turned to the crowd of people standing in shocked silence near the door of the bank. “Tell Doc Martin to get here fast!” Roy shouted. He saw several people hurry away from the door.
Roy turned back to Joe. Joe’s eyes were closed and his jaw was slack. The young man’s head had fallen limply against Roy’s shoulder. Roy saw how pale Joe looked and heard his raspy breathing. “Don’t you die on me, Joe Cartwright,” Roy said in a grim voice. “Your Pa would never forgive me if I had to tell him you were dead.”
A shadow crossed Roy’s face and he looked up. His deputy, Clem, was standing over him, a look of shock and concern on his face. Roy gestured with his head to the right. “Check on Wilbur Stone,” Roy ordered Clem.
With a nod, Clem walked a few steps to where Wilbur Stone laid curled on the floor. Clem knelt down and put his hand on Stone’s neck. “He’s alive!” said Clem in astonishment.
“Don’t just sit there!” yelled Roy. “Help him!”
Once more, Clem nodded. He pulled a cloth from his pocket and pressed it against the wound on Stone’s chest. Imitating Roy, Clem pulled Stone up to a sitting position. He almost dropped the bank manager back to the floor in surprise when he heard Stone groan. Clem was even more surprised when he saw Stone’s eyes flutter open.
“Wilbur! Who did this?” asked Roy from across the room. He had seen Stone’s eyes open. Stone stared back at the sheriff with glassy eyes.
“Wilbur!” repeated the sheriff. “What happened?”
Stone coughed and gasped for air. He stared at the figures on the floor a few feet away. “Joe..” whispered Stone.
“He’s alive,” said Roy. Just barely, thought Roy, but he’s alive. He pressed even harder against Joe’s chest. He felt Joe shudder slightly. Roy turned his attention to the boy in his arms, propping him up a bit higher.
Stone’s head turned slightly. “Steve…” gasped Stone.
Clem glanced at Roy but Roy’s attention was fixed on Joe. Clem looked down at Stone. “Rutledge is dead,” said Clem gently. “Wilbur, who did this?” continued Clem. “Do you know who did this?”
With glassy eyes, Stone looked up at Clem. “Steve…” Stone coughed and winced with pain. His head dropped down, and Stone’s gaze shifted to the figures crouched a few feet away. “Tried to save me…” said Stone whispered, looking at Joe. “Tried to stop them.” Stone coughed once more. Suddenly, his eyes rolled back in his head. A loud raspy breath escaped from his lungs. Then his eyes closed and his body fell slack.
Clem reached down and felt Stone’s neck. “He’s dead,” said Clem, shaking his head sadly. He gently laid Wilbur Stone back on the floor.
“Let me through!” a voice shouted from the doorway.
Both Clem and Roy Coffee looked up. Doctor Martin was pushing his way through the crowd. The doctor was in shirtsleeves, and he had a black bag clutched in his hand.
“Joe’s alive. The rest are dead,” said Roy as the doctor knelt next to him. “I think Joe got hit in the lung.”
Doctor Martin nodded, and pulled a stethoscope from his bag. He stuck the tubes in his ears, and put the metal end of the device on Joe’s chest. He listened for a moment, then moved the stethoscope around on Joe’s chest. “His right lung is definitely injured,” said the doctor, pulling the stethoscope from his ears. “I can’t tell how bad.” He pushed Roy’s hand and bloody handkerchief gently aside and tore Joe’s shirt open. Roy blanched as he saw the ugly hole in Joe’s chest.
Quickly, Doctor Martin reached into his bag and pulled out a thick white cloth which he pressed against the wound. With his hand still on Joe’s chest, he turned slightly toward the door. “I need four or five of you to help me get Joe to my office,” said the doctor over his shoulder. Several men walked forward.
Silently, Roy watched as the men lifted Joe from his arms and carried him out of the bank. Doctor Martin walked with the men, keeping his hand firmly pressed against Joe’s chest.
Roy’s shoulders slumped for a moment, and his eyes closed. Then the sheriff took a deep breath and got to his feet. He saw Clem was watching him.
For a moment, Roy simply looked down at Wilbur Stone’s now lifeless body. His gaze then turned to Steve Rutledge’s body a few feet away. “Wilbur didn’t have any family,” said Roy softly. He shook his head. “I hate having to tell Frank and Jane about Steve.”
“At least Steve died a hero,” Clem offered.
“What?” asked Roy with a frown. “What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you hear what Stone said?” answered Clem. “Right before he died. He said Steve tried to save him, tried to stop the robbers.”
“Is that what he said?” Roy said. “I guess I didn’t hear him.”
“He said it,” Clem assured Roy. “I heard him.”
Roy shook his head. “That don’t seem like Steve,” Roy admitted. “He was always kind of a wild kid. He never seemed to think of anyone but himself.” Roy shook his head again. “Maybe it will be some comfort to Frank and Jane Rutledge that he died trying to save Wilbur. At least the boy finally did something good with his life, even if it killed him.”
Clem nodded. “Do you want me to ride out to the Ponderosa and tell the Cartwrights about Joe?” he asked.
For a minute, Roy didn’t answer. He stared at the door to the bank, his mind obviously picturing something else. “Yes,” Roy said finally. “You’d better do that. And Clem? Ride fast.”
The three riders raced down the main street of Virginia City at a gallop. No one was surprised to see the Cartwrights charging down the street. The news of the bank robbery and murders had spread quickly through the town. Once it became common knowledge that Joe Cartwright had survived the shooting and was now fighting for his life at the doctor’s office, the only question was how soon Ben and his other two sons would arrive in down.
Small knots of people lined the street, sharing their rumors and speculations about the crime. They turned and looked when they heard the sound of running horses, and saw a grim-faced Ben Cartwright urging his horse to greater speed. Adam and Hoss followed their father through the town in the fading twilight. Most people simply nodded their approval and understanding, and then went back to their conversation.
Pulling his horse to a halt in front of the doctor’s office, Ben jumped off the animal. He wrapped the reins carelessly around the hitching post, barely stopping before racing to the door of the office. Adam and Hoss followed suit.
Ben burst into the waiting room of the doctor’s office, then halted. He looked around the seemingly empty room, unsure what to do. Adam and Hoss pushed past him into the office, their faces also showing worry and confusion.
“The doctor’s still working on him, Ben,” said a voice. Ben turned toward the sound and saw Roy Coffee sitting quietly in a chair in the corner of the room.
“How is he?” asked Ben. His voice was laced with fear.
“I don’t know,” answered Roy with a shake of his head. “Doc Martin has been in there with him for over an hour.”
“What happened, Roy?” asked Hoss with a frown. “Clem said there was bank robbery, and that Joe was shot. He also said Wilbur Stone and Steve Rutledge were killed.”
“That’s all we know,” Roy admitted. “There was a fire at the other end of the town. The whole town was down there. We didn’t even know the bank was robbed until Bill Peterson came running to get me.”
“Do you think the bank robbers started the fire?” asked Adam.
“Yes, yes I do,” answered Roy.
“We’ll ride with the posse,” Hoss stated. “When are you leaving?”
“I’m not sending out a posse, at least not yet,” answered Roy.
“Not sending out a posse? What not?” demanded Adam angrily. “I want the men who shot my brother caught.”
“So do I, Adam,” Roy agreed in an even tone. “But I have no idea who they are. I don’t know if there was one man, or three or six. I don’t even know which way they headed.”
“You mean, you have no idea who did this?” said Hoss. “Didn’t anybody see anything?”
“Nobody saw a thing,” replied Roy. “Everyone was down at the fire.” He shook his head. “Whoever did this planned it carefully. Probably the only thing they didn’t count on was Joe and Steve Rutledge being in the bank.”
Ben had been standing still, staring at the door to the surgery. But at the sound of Steve Rutledge’s name, he turned his head. “Has anyone told Frank and Jane yet?” Ben asked softly.
“The minister is headed out there,” Roy answered. “I thought I’d better stay here just in case….” He stopped abruptly. “Anyway, the minister will tell them. He’ll do his best to soften the news, although I don’t know how.” Roy cocked his head. “Steve died trying to save Wilbur Stone’s life. Maybe that will bring some comfort to the Rutledges.”
Nodding, Ben turned to stare at the door to the surgery once more. His eyes seemed to burn as he fixed an intense look on the door. Almost as if Ben had willed it to happen, the door opened.
Doctor Martin walked out of the room, drying his hands on a towel as he approached the Cartwrights. No one said anything. Everyone knew the question that was foremost in each of their minds. But no one asked the question. The Cartwrights and Roy Coffee simply watched the doctor. Each of them held their breath, and waited with a combination of dread and hope for the doctor to speak.
“He’s in very serious shape, but he’s alive,” announced the doctor as he dried his hands.
A collective sigh of relief came from the men in the room. The tension seemed to melt from all their faces. Ben closed his eyes for a minute and his mouth moved in silent prayer. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the doctor. “How bad is it?” he asked.
“The bullet hit him in the side of the chest,” explained Doctor Martin. “It nicked his lung. I’ve repaired the damage as best I could.” The doctor shook his head. “The only question is whether the patching I’ve done will hold together long enough for his lung to heal.”
“You mean it might not?” asked Hoss with a frown.
“I mean that I’ve had to sew up an organ that’s constantly expanding and contracting,” answered the doctor. “We’re going to have to keep him as still and quiet as possible. Any sudden movement, any deep breathing, and those stitches could tear.” Doctor Martin looked directly at Ben Cartwright. “He’s lost a lot of blood, Ben,” added the doctor in a soft voice. “He could never stand another operation. It would kill him.”
As Ben paled and swayed a bit, Adam put his hand on his father’s arm and steadied him. Ben took a deep breath and swallowed hard. “What can we do?” he asked in a choked voice.
“I’ve got him heavily sedated,” replied the doctor. “And I want to keep him that way for awhile. The more he sleeps, the more likely his breathing will be steady. And the steadier his breathing, the less likely the stitches will tear. Someone is going to have to be with him all the time. We’ve got to keep him quiet.”
“Doc, any chance I’ll be able to talk to him?” asked Roy.
“Not for quite a while,” answered Doctor Martin with a shake of his head. “Talking is the worst thing for him. My guess is that it will be at least a week before he’ll be able to tell you anything.”
“In a week, the trail will be stone cold,” said Roy. “We’ll never catch those bank robbers.”
“I’m sorry, Roy,” replied the doctor. “But catching those robbers isn’t my concern. Keeping Joe alive is.”
“Can we see him?” asked Ben.
“Yes,” said the doctor. “In fact, I want all of you to help me move him to a bed.” The doctor looked around the room. “And you might as well stable your horses. I’m going to need all of you to help me for the next few days.”
Joe felt as if he were floating, as if he were flying among the clouds. He had never felt so relaxed, so unconcerned about what has happening around him. He knew he slept a lot, but even when he was awake – or at least thought he was awake – nothing seemed important.
From time to time, Joe saw faces, but they were merely images. He couldn’t seem to recognize the faces but that fact didn’t bother him. He simply saw the images and accepted them, just as he docilely accepted the liquid from the glass pressed to his lips and the food spooned into his mouth. No one seemed to talk to him but that was fine with Joe. He had no inclination to talk. He couldn’t think of anything to say even if he had wanted to talk.
Joe spent three days in his drug-induced stupor, blithely unaware and unconcerned about all that was happening around him. Occasionally, he would feel a sharp pain in his chest. But each grunt of pain would result in a glass being quickly brought to his mouth, and Joe would drink a bitter-tasting liquid. The pain would quickly disappear, and Joe would once again feel himself floating.
In his dream-like state, Joe was unaware of the anxiety and worry he was causing the men who sat by his bed. Ben was with his son almost constantly, leaving only when he was too exhausted to stay awake. Adam and Hoss took their turns, often one staying with Joe while the other forced Ben to eat and rest. But Joe’s brothers were alone with him only for brief periods. Ben never was gone for long. As soon as he would awaken from his exhausted sleep, Ben would hurry to be with his son again.
Ben wasn’t sure what worried him the most — the long hours when Joe simply slept, or the glassy, unknowing look in Joe’s eyes when his son was awake. The hardest part was not talking to his son. The doctor was afraid any conversation would induce Joe to answer, and talking would put a strain on Joe’s fragile lung. Ben knew in his head that Doctor Martin was right, but knowing that fact didn’t prevent Ben’s heart from aching for the sound of his son’s voice.
When Doctor Martin climbed down the stairs from his living quarters on the fourth morning after the shooting, he went immediately to check on his patient. The doctor wasn’t surprised to see Ben sitting by Joe’s bed. It seemed every time the doctor entered the room, Ben was there. Doctor Martin stood in the doorway for a moment and watched. He saw Ben reach out and stroke Joe’s head lightly, a gesture the doctor has seen many times over the past few days. Ben Cartwright may not have been able to talk with his son, but he knew how to communicate his feelings in other ways. No one could have watched Ben and not known how he felt about his son.
Dr. Martin cleared his throat softly. “Morning, Ben,” said the doctor as he walked into the room. “How is Joe doing?”
“He seemed to be in some pain a few hours ago,” replied Ben. “I gave him another dose of the medicine, just like you said.”
Dr. Martin nodded, and reached for the stethoscope on the table by Joe’s bed. He spent the next few minutes examining his patient as Ben watched both of them anxiously.
“His lung sounds good,” said the doctor, as he removed the stethoscope and placed it on the table. “I think we’re out of the woods.”
For a minute, Ben didn’t say anything . Then he looked up at the doctor, his eyes glistening. “Thank you,” he said in a choked voice.
Doctor Martin merely nodded. “He’s going to be pretty groggy for the next day or so,” said the doctor. “It’s going to take a little while for that sedative to leave his system. I’d also like to keep him as quiet as possible for awhile, just to be sure.” The doctor smiled at Ben. “With Joe, that’s going to be quite a challenge.”
“I know what you mean,” agreed Ben said with a grin. He looked down at his sleeping son, then reached out and stroked Joe’s head lightly. “But you know what?” said Ben softly. “I can’t wait to tell him to be quiet.”
Joe stirred on the bed and tried to force himself out of the fog that seemed to be surrounding him. His chest felt tight, and he felt a twinge as he took a deep breath. He knew he had been shot. He remembered the bank robbery clearly. What he didn’t know was how long ago it had happened.
Bits and pieces of the past few days surfaced in his memory. Joe recalled waking to see his father sitting anxiously by his bed, and he remembered the look of relief on his father’s face when he had called his name. Joe also remembered Adam talking to him, although he couldn’t seem to remember exactly what his brother had said. Other images — of the doctor bending over him and of Hoss spooning food into him – appeared in his mind. It seemed to Joe that he had been in a fog for several days, breaking through the mist for brief periods only to sink back into it. Joe was tired of being in the fog. This time he was determined to break through it for good.
Stirring again, Joe slowly opened his eyes. He smiled at the figure sitting next to the bed. Hoss was reading a newspaper, seemingly engrossed in the whatever was printed there. The picture was so unusual that, for a minute, Joe wondered if he was dreaming.
“Hoss?” Joe said in a voice that was barely a whisper.
Hoss looked up, surprised. He quickly dropped the newspaper to the floor. “Hey, little brother,” said Hoss with a smile. “You’re awake.”
“Yeah,” replied Joe softly. He looked around the room. “Where am I?”
“You’re at Doc Martin’s place,” explained Hoss. “You’ve been here for almost a week.” Suddenly, a thought seemed to occur to Hoss. “The doctor said you were to stay quiet,” he added with a frown. “He don’t want you talking unless you have to.”
“Where is..” Joe started to say.
“Joe, didn’t you hear me?” Hoss interrupted. “I just said you were not suppose to talk.”
Joe looked at Hoss with astonishment. “I’m fine,” he said.
“You ain’t fine,” stated Hoss firmly. “You will be, but it’s going to take awhile. So just lay there and be quiet.” Hoss looked at Joe thoughtfully. “Now what was it you were going to ask?” he wondered. “Where is everyone?”
Joe nodded his head.
“Well, Pa’s getting some sleep,” Hoss told his brother. “Adam had to practically drag him over to the hotel. Doc Martin is out delivering a baby. And I’m here with you,” finished Hoss triumphantly.
Joe grinned at his brother.
Suddenly, Joe heard the tolling of a bell. The bell rang in slow cadence, tolling a death knell. Joe looked to the window, and then at Hoss, his face showing his puzzlement.
“That’s from the church,” explained Hoss. “They’re having a memorial for Steve Rutledge. Adam was going over to represent the Cartwrights after he got Pa to the hotel.”
At the mentioned of Steve’s name, Joe’s expression changed. He lowered his eyes, and felt a stab of pain, but the pain wasn’t physical.
“Steve’s dead,” said Joe, making a statement more than asking a question.
“Yeah, he is,” answered Hoss. “His folks took his death pretty hard. They buried Steve on the ranch, kept the burial real private. But the minister told everyone how much Steve’s folks were grieving. So the town figured having a memorial service to honor him might help them.”
“Honor him?” said Joe in astonishment.
“Yeah,” replied Hoss. “With Steve dying trying to save Mr. Stone and all, well, a lot of people feel like he was a hero.” Hoss reached down and picked up the newspaper off the floor. “There’s a big article about him in the paper.” Hoss showed Joe the paper. . The headline over the article read in big letters: “The Death of a Hero”.
Hoss took the paper back. “I’ll read you the story,” he said.
As Joe listened to his brother reading the newspaper article, his astonishment grew. Joe heard about Stone’s dying words, and how Steve was considered a hero. He heard the speculation from the reporter that Steve had thrown himself in front of Stone in a vain attempt to save the bank manager. Hoss also read the quote from Steve’s father, a line or two about how proud Frank was that his son gave his life trying to save another man.
Joe looked up at Hoss. “This isn’t true,” he whispered.
“Yeah, I figured it wasn’t,” agreed Hoss. “That reporter fellow mostly guessed what happened since no one could tell for sure. But it don’t really matter how it happened. It’s just a comfort to his folks to know he tried to save you and Mr. Stone.”
Joe stared at Hoss, his confusion growing. It was obvious to Joe that no one knew Steve had been part of the gang that robbed the bank. Everyone thought Steve had tried to prevent the robbery.
“No,” Joe said. He sat up in the bed, wanting to explain to Hoss what had happened. “No,” said Joe again. Then he winced as he felt a stab of pain. Joe closed his eye briefly. He opened them and looked at his brother. “Hoss..” Joe started to say.
“Now, Joe, you got to be quiet,” interrupted Hoss in a firm voice. “The doctor said you shouldn’t be talking. Now you just lay there and shut up.”
“But Hoss…” Joe tried once more.
“Joseph, you’re getting me riled,” said Hoss in a threatening voice. “Now if you don’t stop talking, I’m going to come over there and gag you.”
Joe laid back on the bed, his mind churning. He wanted to tell Hoss that Steve wasn’t a hero, that Steve had tried to rob the bank. But even as he thought that, another thought occurred to Joe. Hoss had said that Mr. and Mrs. Rutledge were finding some comfort in the fact that their son had died a hero. If Joe told the truth about how Steve really had died, the Rutledges would have to face the fact that their son died as an outlaw.
Looking up at the ceiling, Joe tried to decide what to do. As he struggled with his dilemma, Joe heard the bedroom door open. He looked toward the door, and his mouth dropped. Standing in the doorway was Jane Rutledge.
“Hello, Joe,” said Mrs. Rutledge. “I heard you were feeling better.”
Still surprised, Joe stared at the woman in the doorway. Jane Rutledge was dressed in black, an outward sign of mourning. But Joe wouldn’t have needed to the black dress to know Mrs. Rutledge was grieving. Her eyes were rimmed with red, and her face looked pale and drawn. The smile Joe remembered was missing from her lips. Instead, her mouth had a tight, pinched look.
“I wanted to stop by and see how you were doing,” said Mrs. Rutledge. “We were in town for…” she stopped and seemed to choke back a sob. “Adam told me you were feeling better,” she finished.
“I’m sorry about Steve,” said Joe in a quiet voice.
“Thank you,” replied Mrs. Rutledge. Her eyes seemed to well with tears. “I’m going to miss him.” Mrs. Rutledge wiped her eyes. “I know you’ll miss him, also,” she added. “A lot of people will. It was so nice at the memorial. The church was practically filled. So many people came. And so many told me what a fine boy my son was.” Mrs. Rutledge turned her head and a small sob escaped her.
Joe and Hoss looked at each other, neither of them sure what to do. Both men felt helpless and uncomfortable at the sight of Mrs. Rutledge’s grief.
Mrs. Rutledge sniffed and wiped her eyes again. She took a deep breath and seemed to get herself under control. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to do that. I really did come to check on you.” Mrs. Rutledge managed a small smile. “After all that patching up I did on you at my place, I wanted to make sure the doctor didn’t spoil my handiwork.”
Joe smiled reassuringly at Mrs. Rutledge. “I’m all right.” .
“Ma’am, I don’t want to be rude or nothing,” interrupted Hoss. “But the doctor said Joe wasn’t to do any talking unless he had to. He needs a lot of rest and quiet right now.”
“Oh, of course,” said Jane Rutledge. “How stupid of me. Joe, you just lay back there and take care of yourself. Don’t say another word.” Mrs. Rutledge smiled at Joe. “You get well,” she ordered softly. Then she turned and walked out of the room.
Joe watched the door close, and thought of another unfamiliar bedroom in which he had laid. He thought about Steve Rutledge saving his life, and how Mr. and Mrs. Rutledge had looked after him. And he remembered something else. He remember how Steve Rutledge said it wasn’t lying if you just didn’t say anything.
“Joe, I’m afraid that we probably won’t ever catch those bank robbers,” sad Roy Coffee, shaking his head sadly. “But anything you can tell me will help. You never know what might lead us to them.”
Joe nodded. He had be aware that Roy Coffee wanted to talk with him about the bank robbery, and he had been nervously anticipating the conversation all day. Joe had been unusually quiet during the day, debating what to tell Roy about Steve’s involvement in the robbery. No one seemed to have noticed how quiet Joe had been. They simply thought that Joe, for once, was following doctor’s orders.
But Joe had spent hours staring at the ceiling, trying to decide what to do. He rationalized that no harm would be done by not telling anyone about Steve’s true involvement in the bank robbery, and his omission would spare Steve’s parents further grief. But at the same time, Joe felt uncomfortable about not telling Roy Coffee everything.
Joe still hadn’t decided what to do when Roy Coffee entered his room in the late afternoon. Ben had replaced Hoss in the chair next to the bed. Ben’s presence didn’t help Joe. If anything, it made him even more uncomfortable. Joe knew how much stock his father put in always telling the truth.
“Joe, we found one of the robbers dead in the bank,” said Roy as he stood at the end of Joe’s bed. “Can you tell me how many got away?”
“Two,” replied Joe. “They took the sacks of coins and a smaller pile of bills with them. The bills were in a leather sack.” Joe frowned as he thought. “I think the sack had the name of the bank on it, but I’m not sure.”
“Did you recognize any of the bank robbers?” asked Roy.
“I’ve never seen the two who got away,” Joe answered carefully. “What about the one I…about the one who was killed? Do you know who he was?”
“No,” said Roy with a shake of his head. “He didn’t have any identification on him. A couple of people said they saw him around town a time or two, but no one seems to know who he is.” He looked at Joe with a hopeful expression. “Can you describe the two that got away?”
Frowning in concentration, Joe described the two men he had seen in the bank as best he could. He had made up his mind not to lie to Roy. But he also didn’t feel a need to tell Roy anything that the sheriff didn’t specifically ask. He just hoped Roy wouldn’t ask any questions about Steve.
“Any idea where they were heading?” asked Roy. “Did they say anything about which direction they might go?”
“No,” answered Joe, shaking his head.
Roy sighed. “That’s not much,” he said. “I’ll wire the descriptions to as many towns as I can. But I doubt if it will do any good.” Roy turned to leave the room.
Nodding his understanding, Joe relaxed on the bed. But he tensed again when Roy stopped and turned back to the bed. “Say, Joe, can you tell me about Steve Rutledge?” asked Roy. “Did he say why he came by the bank that day?”
“He said he was there on business for his Pa,” answered Joe cautiously.
“That’s odd,” said Roy with a puzzled expression. “His Pa thought he was working on some fences. He didn’t even know Steve was in Virginia City until the minister told him what happened.”
“Well, Steve had a habit of not being where he was supposed to be,” Ben commented. “That boy was always running to town instead of working. He probably was going to ask Wilbur Stone for some money from his father’s account.”
“I believe you’re right, Ben,” agreed Roy with a nod. “I saw Steve playing poker over at the saloon more times than I can count. And he usually was losing.” Roy turned to Joe again. “Joe, did you see how Steve got shot?”
Joe looked at the ceiling, thinking hard about how he should answer. Ben watched his son anxiously. Ben could see Joe was upset by Roy’s question.
“I don’t know exactly what happened to Steve,” answered Joe truthfully. “It must have happened after I was hit.”
Quickly, Ben laid a comforting hand on Joe’s arm. He could understand how reliving the bank robbery and his friend’s death might cause Joe distress. “It’s all right, Joe,” said Ben, stroking Joe’s arm. Ben turned to Roy. “I think that’s enough for now.”
Roy nodded his agreement. “It really doesn’t matter exactly how Steve Rutledge died,” said Roy. “Clem heard what Wilbur Stone said just before Wilbur died. That’s probably comfort enough for his folks. Knowing all the details won’t help anyone.”
Joe let out a sigh of relief and relaxed.
“Joe, if you think of anything else I should know, you send for me,” ordered Roy. Without waiting for a reply, Roy turned and walked out of the room.
Frowning in concern, Ben turned to Joe. “Son, I know how hard it must be to think about Steve’s death,” said Ben. “But sometimes, keeping things bottled up only makes them worse. If you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.”
Joe looked at his father and wondered if he should tell Ben the truth. Joe licked his lips nervously. He wanted to share his secret, but he also knew his father. If he told Ben the truth about Steve, Ben would insist on telling Roy. And the Rutledges would learn their son died as a bank robber, not a hero. “Pa…,” said Joe in a hesitant voice. Then he stopped and shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it, Pa,” said Joe. He took a deep breath, and winced at the ache in his chest. “I think I want to rest for awhile.”
“All right, Joe,” said Ben in an understanding voice. “You rest. We can talk about this later, if you want.”
“Yeah, maybe later,” Joe replied. But he knew he wouldn’t be sharing his secret with Ben or anyone else.
It took a week of Joe’s complaining and badgering before Doctor Martin finally agreed to let him go home. Joe half-listened to the list of instructions the doctor gave him about resting and taking it easy for a few weeks. He agreed to follow doctor’s orders. Joe would agreed to anything if it would have gotten him out of Virginia City and back to the Ponderosa.
Ben was helping Joe into the seat of the buckboard when a familiar voice called Joe’s name. Joe closed his eyes briefly and steeled himself . Then he turned and looked at Frank Rutledge coming down the street.
“Hello, Frank,” said Ben, his voice full of sympathy. “How are you?”
Frank Rutledge looked down at the street for a moment. “As well as can be expected, I guess,” he mumbled. Frank swallowed and then raised his eyes. “The important question is how is Joe? Looks like you’re going to be all right, son.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” answered Joe, nodding. “The doc is finally letting me go home.”
“I’m glad,” said Frank. “I’m real glad. I’m sorry I haven’t come by to see you. It’s just been hard…everything seems to remind me of Steve, you know.”
“We understand, Frank,” Ben told the rancher, his voice full of sympathy.
“I’m sorry you weren’t well enough to come to the memorial service, Joe,” said Frank. “I know Steve would have wanted you to be there. We would have liked you to be there too. So many people said nice things about Steve. I know you would have wanted to say something, too.”
Joe looked down, avoiding Frank Rutledge’s eyes. He thought about having to talk at the memorial service and was glad he missed it. He knew he couldn’t have stood up and sang the praises of the man who had been involved in Wilbur Stone’s death and his own injuries. The outlaws would have never made into the bank without Steve’s help. He may not have pulled the trigger, but Steve was as much responsible for what happened as the men who did.
Once again, Joe felt the tug of war going on in his conscience. He was unhappy about the idea of Steve being hailed as a hero. Joe knew Steve was anything but a hero during that robbery. But at the same time, Joe felt he owed something to the people who had saved his life.
Joe could feel Frank’s eyes on him and knew he had to say something. “I’m…I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” mumbled Joe.
Ben frowned at Joe’s reaction. He wondered why Joe seemed to become uncomfortable every time Steve’s name was mentioned. He knew Joe was upset by Steve’s death. But he also knew Joe wasn’t grieving for his friend. There was some other emotion involved. Ben just wasn’t sure what it was.
“You take care of yourself, Joe,” said Frank in a concerned voice. “And when you’re feeling better, if you want to come by the ranch, we’d like that.”
Joe nodded numbly. He knew he wouldn’t be visiting the Rutledges. He knew he couldn’t face them, knowing the truth about how Steve died.
“Pa, we’d better get going,” Joe said to Ben, a slightly desperate look in his eyes.
Ben understood that Joe wanted to be away from Frank for some reason. He wasn’t sure why, but Ben knew this wasn’t the time or place to question his son. He nodded and walked around to the other side of the buckboard. Ben glanced at Joe as he climbed up onto the seat next to his son. Joe’s eyes were down, as if Joe were determined not to look at Frank Rutledge. Ben shook his head in puzzlement as he picked up the reins.
“Take care, Joe. You come see us soon,” called Frank as Ben chucked the horses forward and guided the buckboard down the street.
Joe looked up, but he didn’t answer.
For the second time in less than two months, Joe found he had to tolerate Hop Sing’s brand of nursing. The cook hovered around Joe, insisting that he eat and rest. Joe dozed in the red chair by the fire several afternoons, and each time, he woke to find Hop Sing standing near the chair, watching him anxiously. Joe couldn’t convince the cook that it was a big meal and the warmth of the fire that caused him to grow drowsy. Hop Sing was sure Joe needed even more of his attention. Joe chafed at all the attention he was getting now.
Joe had been home for little over a week. Joe had spent the week deliberately not thinking about Steve Rutledge. He was sure, in time, Steve and his supposedly heroic death would fade to a minor footnote in everyone’s minds. Joe told himself that all he had to do was wait.
As Joe sat at the dinner table with his father and brothers, his mind was not on Steve Rutledge. His attention was drawn to the huge slice of apple pie that Hop Sing had just put in front of him. The cook had already checked to make sure Joe had eaten a good portion of everything he had cooked for dinner.
“This must be Hoss’ plate,” said Joe, handing the plate back to the cook.
Hop Sing pushed the plate down on the table. “Not Mr. Hoss pie,” he answered firmly. “Little Joe pie. You eat all. You get well.
“Hop Sing, I can’t eat all this,” insisted Joe. “I’ll explode if I try.”
“You eat,” replied Hop Sing in a firm voice. He stood watching until Joe picked up a fork and ate a piece of the pie. Hop Sing grunted in satisfaction, and turned to walk back to his kitchen. Joe watched him out of the corner of his eye. As soon as the cook was gone, Joe picked up the plate and handed it to Hoss.
“Quick, Hoss,” said Joe in a low voice. “Trade plates with me.”
“You know, Joe, if Hop Sing finds out, he’s just going to bring out another slice of pie for you,” advised Ben in an amused voice.
“Don’t tell him, Pa,” pleaded Joe. “I just can’t face any more food.”
“Well, little brother,” said Hoss, as he took the plate. “I’ll help you out. Just as a kindness.” Hoss handed Joe his plate, one containing a much smaller piece of pie.
Adam grinned as he watched his brothers. Then he turned to Ben. “Pa, when I was in Virginia City today, I ran into Frank Rutledge,” he said casually.
Joe froze, not sure he wanted to hear what Adam had to say.
“How is Frank?” replied Ben as he began to eat his own portion of the pie.
“Well, Frank has decided he wants to make sure Steve’s not forgotten,” replied Adam as he also started to eat. “So he’s going to build an orphan’s home in Virginia City and name it for Steve.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Hoss. “You know, we’ve been trying to get some place for those kids for years. Seems like every year, there’s more that need a place to live.”
“Pa’s been trying to get something organized for years,” Adam agreed. “But up until now, nobody seemed interested. Frank has talked to a number of mine owners and they’re all going to contribute. So is the new bank manager and several of the other big ranchers in the area. None of them had the heart to turn down Frank when he told them the reason why he wanted to build it.”
“It’s a shame that it took Steve’s death to get it built,” commented Ben. “Where is Frank going to build this place?”
“Right on the edge of town,” answered Adam. “Near the road, so everyone riding into Virginia City can see it. He’s talking about putting a statue of Steve or something out front.”
Joe looked down at his plate. He had lost his appetite. In fact, his stomach felt queasy. The thought of having to look at a statue of Steve every time he rode into Virginia City made Joe feel decidedly ill.
“Joe,” said Adam turning to his brother. “I think Mr. Rutledge is going to want you to speak at the dedication when the place is ready.”
Joe looked at Adam and swallowed. “I..I don’t think I want to do that,” Joe replied.
Adam looked puzzled. “Why not?” he asked. “I thought Steve was your friend.”
“I just don’t want to,” answered Joe in angry voice to Adam. “Isn’t that enough for you?”
Adam put his hand up. “Whoa, don’t get mad at me,” said Adam. “I was just asking. You don’t have to explain to me. But I’m sure Mr. Rutledge is going to ask you. You’ll have to explain it to him.”
Taking a deep breath, Joe looked down at his plate. How could he explain to Steve’s father, he wondered. How could he tell Mr. Rutledge that he didn’t have the stomach to honor a would-be bank robber?
“Joe, are you all right?” asked Ben with concern. He noticed that Joe had gone pale.
Joe looked up at Ben. “I…I’m not very hungry,” Joe answered. He gave his father a shaky smile. “I guess all those big meals Hop Sing has been forcing on me have caught up with me. May I be excused?” Without waiting for an answer, Joe stood and walked away from the table.
Ben watched Joe with concern as his son climbed the stairs to his room. “What brought that on?” asked Ben
Hoss glanced toward the stairs. “Aw, Pa, Joe’s just getting restless,” offered Hoss. “Hop Sing has been chasing him around the house for a week now.”
“I think it’s more than that,” Ben said with a frown. “Every time Steve Rutledge is mentioned, Joe seems to turn away. Something about Steve is really bothering him.”
“Pa, it’s only natural that Steve’s name would upset him,” Adam told his father with a shrug. “Every time Steve is mentioned, it must bring back what happened in the bank. I imagine the memories are still pretty painful.”
“I suppose,” said Ben. But he wasn’t convinced.
Joe rode slowly beside his brother Hoss. For the first time in weeks, he was being allowed to do something besides sit around the house. Granted, all he was being allowed to do was ride down to the south pasture and check on the fences with Hoss, but at least it was something.
As Joe rode, his thoughts were full of Steve Rutledge. Adam had brought more news about the proposed orphan home, and how everyone seemed to want to contribute to it to honor the fallen hero. Joe felt sick every time he thought about it. But he also didn’t know what to do.
Joe kept telling himself that no harm was being done by the honors being paid to Steve Rutledge. His parents were finding comfort from it, and the town was getting an orphanage that it desperately needed. But Joe couldn’t convince himself. Deep down, he knew all this was wrong. But he also knew that speaking up and telling the truth now – weeks after the robbery – was impossible. What excuse could he give for keeping quiet? And what would he accomplish except to hurt and upset a number of people, including the Rutledges who had save his life.
“Joe, are you all right?” Hoss asked with concern.
Joe looked up, startled at his brother’s comment. He had been so deep in thought that he had forgotten Hoss was riding next to him. “Yeah, I’m fine,” said Joe.
“Are you sure?” asked Hoss. “You look like you were about a million miles away.”
Joe smiled briefly at Hoss. “I’m fine,” he said again. “I just have something on my mind.” Joe studied Hoss for a minute. “Hoss, let me ask you something,” added Joe in a hesitant voice.
“Fire away, little brother,” replied Hoss in a confident tone.
“Hoss, what if you knew something about somebody, something that no one else knew,” said Joe, struggling to find the words. “And what if telling what you knew really wouldn’t change anything. I mean, it really wouldn’t make any difference to
anyone except to make them think worse of the individual. Would you say anything or just keep quiet?”
Hoss frowned. The convoluted question that Joe posed was hard for him to follow. “You mean, like if I knew something about someone’s past?” asked Hoss trying to clarify the question.
“Yeah, something like that,” said Joe. “I mean, if the guy couldn’t go to jail or anything, and telling would just let everyone know what he had done, would you say anything?”
Hoss thought for a minute. “No,” he answered with a shake of his head. “I’d probably keep quiet. I mean, what good would it do to stir up something like that? It wouldn’t make any difference now.”
Joe took a deep breath and nodded. He thought Hoss’ advice would help. He was surprised that he didn’t feel any better.
“Joe, why did you ask?” said Hoss, his curiosity piqued.
Joe looked at Hoss. For a minute, he was tempted to tell his trusted older brother the truth about Steve Rutledge. But Joe didn’t. He knew he couldn’t share his secret. Instead, Joe just shrugged his shoulders. “No reason,” he answered. “Just something I was thinking about.”
Hoss looked at Joe, then shook his head. “Little brother, you better watch yourself,” said Hoss. “You’re beginning to sound like Adam.”
Two days later, Joe was sitting on the porch, mending some reins. Fixing the leather straps qualified as the “light work” he was being allowed to do. Joe couldn’t wait to get back to a full schedule of work. The “light work” was giving him too much time to think.
Joe looked curiously down the road as he saw a rider approaching. His stomach lurched a bit when he recognized the rider as Roy Coffee. He wondered what possible reason the sheriff could have to visit the Ponderosa.
As Joe watched Roy ride up to the house, he tried to tell himself that Roy and his father were old friends, that there could be a hundred reasons why the sheriff was visiting, none of which had anything to do with the bank robbery and Steve Rutledge. But for some reason, Joe knew he was wrong.
“Hello, Joe,” called Roy in greeting as he rode into the yard. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, Roy,” answered Joe, trying to smile. He had a feeling his smile was less than convincing. He watched warily as Roy dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post. “What brings you out to the Ponderosa?” asked Joe.
Before Roy could answer, the front door to the house opened, and Ben strode out into the yard. “Hello, Roy,” Ben greeted his friend heartily. “Good to see you. Want to come for a cup of coffee?’
“No, thanks, Ben,” answered Roy with a smile. “I can only stay a minute. I just came out to talk to Joe.”
“What about?” asked Joe cautiously.
“Well, I wanted to ask you to come to Virginia City day after tomorrow,” said Roy. “The sheriff down in Branden thinks he caught one of those bank robbers. I sent Clem down to fetch him. They ought to be back late tomorrow. I want you to come take a look at the fellow and tell me if he’s one of the fellows you saw in the bank.”
“What makes you think he’s one of the robbers?” asked Joe, his heart sinking.
“He fits the description you gave me of one of those fellows,” answered Roy. “And he had a stack of newly minted gold coins. He also had some cash. The sheriff in Branden said he saw him pull the bills out of a leather sack when the fellow was playing poker at the saloon. The sack had the Virginia City Bank stamped on it.”
“It sure sounds like one of the robbers,” said Ben excitedly. He turned to Joe. “That’s good news, isn’t it, Joe,” he said to his son.
“Yeah, sure, Pa,” answered Joe. “It’s good news.” But Joe’s reply was decidedly less than enthusiastic.
Joe rode into Virginia City two days later with his father. He had spent the last two days trying to think of some way to avoid identifying the bank robber. He didn’t want to face one of the men who had shot him. More importantly, he was afraid of what the man would say to Roy Coffee about the robbery.
Joe thought briefly about faking a relapse. But he knew that would only postpone what he had to do. Besides, he knew if he feigned illness, Hop Sing would go back watching after him again. Joe didn’t think he could face another round of Hop Sing’s playing nursemaid.
So Joe said nothing and rode into Virginia City, his heart in his throat. As he pulled his horse to a halt in front of the sheriff’s office, he swallowed hard. After he dismounted, Joe took an long time tying his horse to the hitching post. When he was finally done, he looked up to see Ben watching him with a curious expression. Joe gave his father a shaky grin, and took a deep breath. He walked slowly up the stairs to the sheriff’s office, feeling like someone who was climbing the stairs to a gallows.
Roy greeted Ben and Joe with a smile as they entered his office. “Hello, boys,” he said. “Right on time. Thanks for coming.”
“Hello, Roy,” Ben replied with a returning smile. “Clem get back all right?”
“Yes, he sure did,” said Roy. He turned to Joe who stood silently in the middle of the office. “The fellow is in the cell inside, Joe. I want you to take a look at him.”
“Did he…did he admit to the robbery,” asked Joe nervously.
“No, he didn’t,” said Roy. “He says he didn’t have anything to do with it. He claims he won that sack of money in a card game.” Roy shook his head. “But you’d hardly expect him to admit to robbery and murder. A fellow like him, he’ll do anything to avoid being convicted.” Roy turned and picked up a ring of keys from his desk. He walked across the room and unlocked the door to the cell block.
Joe stood in the middle of the room, not making any move toward the cell. Ben watched his son with concern. He knew Joe was reluctant to face one of the men who had shot him. Ben patted Joe lightly on the back, urging him forward. Joe walked across the room, practically dragging his feet.
Standing inside the door of the cell block, Roy pointed to the first cell. A man stood in the cell, looking out from behind the bars. Joe recognized the man immediately. It was the robber who had stood near the door during the robbery, the one who had fired the first shots.
“Joe, can you tell me if you recognize this fellow?” asked Roy.
Joe licked his lips, trying to decide how to answer.
The man in the cell looked at Joe. “I ain’t never seen this fellow before,” stated the man. “I told you I won that money. I wasn’t involved in any bank robbery.” The man stared at Joe and added pointedly. “I heard there was some fellow killed in that robbery. They’re calling the fellow a hero. It’d been a shame if you had to have a trial. A trial would bring up all kinds of things about that robbery. Things that maybe his folks wouldn’t want to hear.”
Joe swallowed hard and looked away.
Ben watched Joe, and was puzzled by his son’s reaction. “Joe,” he said softly. “I know you think it would be hard on Jane and Frank Rutledge to hear how Steve died. But you can’t let that bother you. I know that they would want to know the truth about what happened.”
Joe closed his eyes. His father had no idea what the truth was.
“Joe?” asked Roy. “Is this one of the fellows?”
Joe opened his eyes and stared at the man. In his mind, he saw the man standing near the door. He pictured again the man cocking his gun and deliberately pointing it at Wilbur Stone.
Another image flashed briefly through Joe’s mind. It was the image of Jane Rutledge dressed in black, grieving over her son.
Joe knew this was the moment of truth. If he refused to identify the bank robber,
Roy Coffee would have to let the man go. But if he did identify the man as being
one of the outlaws, he would tell the truth about Steve’s involvement in the robbery. Joe saw his father and the sheriff watching him, anxious to hear what he had to say. Joe licked his lips nervously.
Joe looked at the man in the cell, then at Ben and Roy Coffee. He knew what he had to do. He took a deep breath.
“Yes,” Joe said in a barely audible voice. “He’s one of them.”
“You’re wrong!” the man in the cell shouted. “You’re dead wrong. You think again, boy. You tell them you’re mistaken. You don’t want me to go to trial. You tell them you’re wrong! I go to trial and I’ll tell them everything. You hear me? Everything!”
Joe looked away. He felt sick.
“You be quiet!” Roy ordered the man. Roy turned to Ben and Joe, and with a nod of his head, urged them back into the office. Ben and Joe quickly left the cell block. Roy carefully locked the door to the cell block behind them.
Joe stood in the middle of the office, eyes firmly fixed on the floor.
“That’s all I need from you for now, Joe,” Roy said, walking over to his desk. “I’ll talk to the judge and the prosecutor. I’ll let you know when the trial is going to be.”
Nodding, Joe walked to the door without saying a word. He opened the door and quickly walked out of the office.
Ben watched his son, his confusion growing. He turned to Roy. “What did that fellow mean in there about telling everything at the trial?” Ben asked Roy.
Roy shrugged. “Who knows?” he said. “When a man is facing the gallows, he’ll say anything. I’ve heard stories and lies that you wouldn’t think anyone would have the nerve to tell. The judge and jury will handle everything at the trial. Don’t you worry, Ben. That fellow is going to hang. We’ve got Joe as an eye witness. There’s nothing that fellow can say that will change that.”
Ben looked to the door through which Joe had exited the office. “I hope you’re right, Roy,” said Ben.
Ben hadn’t said anything to Joe on the ride home. He knew his son was upset and troubled, and he waited patiently for Joe to tell him what was bothering him. Ben knew his son well enough to know that he would have to wait for Joe to come to him.
But Joe said nothing on the ride home, and he was silent as he stabled the horses. As soon as the horses were taken care of, he mumbled something about being tired and went to his room.
Laying on his bed, Joe stared at the ceiling. He simply didn’t know what to do. If he didn’t testify at the trial, a murderer would go free. But if he did testify, the whole town would know the truth about Steve Rutledge and Joe’s deception. On the surface, it seemed an easy decision. Joe couldn’t let a murderer go free. But the thought of what the truth would do to Steve’s parents, as well as what the town would think about Joe hiding the truth, made Joe feel physically ill.
Joe was still staring at the ceiling, his mind in turmoil, when there was knock on his bedroom door. He looked at the door, and saw his father walk into the bedroom.
“Joe, are you all right?” asked Ben with concern.
Joe looked back at the ceiling. “Yeah, I’m all right,” said Joe.
Ben hesitated. “Are you sure?” he pressed. “You didn’t say a word all the way from town, and you looked kind of pale. If you’re not feeling well, I can get the doctor out here to check on you.”
“I don’t need the doctor,” replied Joe.
“All right,” said Ben. He watched his son for a minute longer, then turned toward the door. His face showed the worry he was feeling.
Just as Ben reached the door, Joe made a decision. “Pa?” he said quickly, sitting up on the bed. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Ben’s shoulders sagged with relief. He had been waiting anxiously for Joe to say exactly those words. He turned back to Joe. “Of course,” he agreed with a brief smile. “What’s on your mind?”
Joe chewed his lip, wondering how to begin. Now that he had made the decision to tell his father the truth about the robbery, he felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He just was having a hard time finding the right words.
“It’s about the robbery,” said Joe. “And Steve Rutledge.” Joe looked at Ben, his eyes full of misery. “Steve was in on the robbery. He was the one who got Mr. Stone to open the door and let them in.”
“What?” said Ben in astonishment. “Joe, what are you saying?”
Now that he had finally started to unburden himself, Joe couldn’t wait to tell the whole story. “Steve got Mr. Stone to open the door,” explained Joe in a rush of words. “He told Mr. Stone he had some business for his Pa. When Mr. Stone opened the door, Steve and the others pushed their way in. Steve held a gun on me while the others got Stone to open the safe. He was going to tie us up when the shooting started.”
“What happened?” asked Ben. “How did Steve get killed?”
“I’m not sure,” Joe admitted. “He was standing there in the middle of the bank when the shooting started. I managed to get one of the bank robbers, and then I was hit. There bullets flying everywhere. I heard some yelling but I couldn’t see exactly what happened. That bullet knocked me flat. When I finally managed to look around, Steve was laying on the floor, and so way Mr. Stone. The other two were gone. I figured Steve must have gotten hit by accident or something.” Joe shook his head. “Those other outlaws, they were pretty cold blooded. They might have decided they didn’t want to share their loot with Steve.”
Joe looked at Ben and saw the puzzled look on his father’s face. “All I know for sure is Steve isn’t any hero,” Joe stated. “I must have thought about what happened a hundred times, going over everything in my mind. Steve jumped out of the way when the shooting started. Steve didn’t try to save Mr. Stone. He tried to save himself.”
“Joe, why didn’t you say something about this sooner?” asked Ben.
Joe looked down at the floor, his face a picture of misery. “I didn’t know much about anything for a week or so. By the time I heard what was going on, everyone was calling Steve a hero,” Joe answered. “His folks, well, the only thing that seemed to comfort them about Steve’s death was that he died a hero. I couldn’t tell them the truth about him being in on the robbery. I just couldn’t do it.”
“But Clem heard Wilbur say Steve tried to save him,” said Ben in a puzzled voice.
“Yeah, I know,” replied Joe. He shook his head. “I don’t know. Maybe Clem misunderstood Mr. Stone. I just don’t know. But I do know that those outlaws wouldn’t have gotten into the bank and Mr. Stone wouldn’t have died if Steve hadn’t helped them.”
“So that’s what that fellow in the jail was talking about,” said Ben. “He was threatening to tell the truth about Steve’s involvement at the trial.
Joe nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. Then Joe looked down at the floor again. “For a minute there, I almost was going to say that he wasn’t one of the robbers.”
“Joe!” exclaimed Ben. “Why?”
Slowly, Joe raised his head. “Steve saved my life and his parents took care of me after I got hurt in that rock slide,” said Joe. “And Steve’s father is building that orphan’s home that’s needed. I knew if I identified that fellow as one of the outlaws, he’d tell everyone that Steve was part of the robbery.”
Ben laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, I know you’re grateful to Steve and his parents. But you can’t let some misguided loyalty make you lie about what happened. And you can’t let that man go free. He has to pay for what he’s done.”
“I know,” agreed Joe reluctantly. “I know. That’s why I told Roy the truth about who he was.” Joe looked away, unwilling to meet his father’s eyes. “I didn’t think they’d ever catch one of those outlaws. I knew how much pain Steve’s death caused the Rutledges. And I kept hearing everyone say how much it meant to Steve’s parents that at least he died a hero. I didn’t want to hurt them any more by telling them Steve was killed trying to rob a bank so he could get away from the ranch. It was easier not to say anything.” Joe turned to his father with a pleading look. “I really didn’t lie,” he said. “I just didn’t say anything.”
“It was a lie of omission, Joe,” Ben counseled his son. “That’s still a lie. And by not saying anything, you’ve made things even more difficult for everyone.”
“I know that now,” said Joe in voice full of misery.
“You’re going to have to tell Roy the whole truth,” advised Ben. “And Frank and Jane will have to know. We can’t have them learning the truth about Steve at the trial.”
Joe looked down. “Pa, I can’t tell them,” said Joe in anguish. “I can’t.”
“You have to, Joe,” Ben insisted. “You said you owed them for taking care of you. You can repay them by letting them know the truth about Steve before the trial. It’s the only way. You can’t let them find out about this in a courtroom.”
Joe nodded again, his eyes still downcast. “I’ll tell them,” said Joe in a voice that could barely be heard.
Ben and Joe rode into the yard in front of the Rutledge ranch house. As Ben dismounted, Joe sat on his horse, staring at the house. He wasn’t sure which was churning more – his brain or his stomach.
Joe thought briefly about dinner the evening before. He had told Adam and Hoss the truth about the bank robbery over the meal. Adam has whistled his surprise and Hoss had looked stunned. Neither asked Joe many questions. They could tell by the look on Joe’s face that talking about the robbery was painful for him, for a lot of reasons. Joe had left the table early, barely touching his food. He had gone straight to bed, and then spent the rest of the night tossing and turning, unable to rest as he thought about having to tell the Rutledges about their son.
Joe looked down and saw Ben standing next to his horse, waiting for him. Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post.
Ben put his arm lightly over Joe’s shoulders as they walked toward the house. Joe had offered to visit the Rutledges alone, but Ben had insisted on accompanying him. He knew how hard this was going to be for Joe. Ben wanted to be along to help and support his son anyway he could.
Now, as Joe stood on the porch in front of the door, Ben was happy he came with his youngest son to the Rutledge ranch. Joe stood staring at the door, reluctant to announce his arrival. Ben patted Joe lightly on the shoulder. Joe looked up at his father, his eyes full of misery and Ben nodded understandingly at Joe. Then Ben reached out and rapped on the door.
“Why, Ben! Joe! What a surprise!” said Jane Rutledge as she opened the door. She saw on the look on Joe’s face. “Is something wrong?” she asked with concern.
Joe took a deep breath. “Mrs. Rutledge, I need to talk with you,” Joe stated firmly.
“Certainly, Joe,” replied Jane. Her face reflected her puzzlement. She pulled the door open wider. “Come on in.”
Ben and Joe walked into the house. Both men were surprised to see Frank Rutledge coming out of the kitchen, coffee cup in hand. They had supposed they would need to find Frank after they had visited with Mrs. Rutledge.
“Hello, boys,” Frank greeted the Cartwrights.
“Frank, I’m surprised to find you home at this hour,” said Ben in surprise.
“I know I should be out working,” Frank answered. He looked away. “It’s just hard to keep working these days. I built this ranch for Steve. I wanted to give it to him someday. Now, well, there doesn’t see much point in worrying whether the fences are fixed or the cattle are straying.”
His misery mounting, Joe looked at the floor.
Jane looked at all three men with a growing conviction that something was wrong. “Ben, Joe, why don’t you sit down,” she offered graciously.
Silently, Ben and Joe walked over to a sofa at the far end of the room. Both removed their hats. Joe held his hat in his hand, and he played with it nervously as Frank settled himself into an overstuffed chair and Jane sat in a rocker.
“Can I get you something?” asked Jane. “Some coffee?”
“No,” said Joe quickly. He looked into Jane’s face and then into Frank’s. “I have to tell you both something,” Joe added slowly. “I wanted you to hear it from me. It’s about Steve.”
“What about Steve?” asked Frank warily.
Joe glanced at Ben, then swallowed hard. “Steve…Steve wasn’t in that bank by accident the day he was killed,” explained Joe. “He was part of the gang that robbed the bank.”
“What!” exploded Frank. “What are you saying!” His wife sat still, looking stunned.
“Steve was part of the gang that robbed the bank,” Joe repeated. “He got Mr. Stone to open the door, and he held a gun on both of us while the rest of the gang came in. He didn’t try to stop the robbery. Steve helped them to rob the bank.”
“No!” shouted Frank, jumping to his feet. “You’re lying! It’s not true.”
“It’s true, Mr. Rutledge,” stated Joe, his voice full of sorrow. “I know I should have told you sooner, but I didn’t want to hurt you. I thought if I just kept quiet about what Steve did, maybe no one would ever have to know.”
“No!” said Frank again. “Why are you lying about this? Steve was a hero. He died trying to save Wilbur Stone. What you’re saying…it’s not true!”
“It’s true, Mr. Rutledge,” insisted Joe. “Steve said he wanted the money so he could take off someplace and have a good time. After Steve died, I didn’t want to say anything. But then they caught one of the robbers.” Joe looked at Ben, his eyes pleading for help.
“The fellow they caught is going to testify at his trial,” Ben added quickly. “He’s going to tell the whole story, including Steve’s involvement in the robbery. Joe wanted you to know the truth before you heard it in the courtroom.”
“No!” shouted Frank once more. “It’s a lie!”
“No, Frank, it’s not a lie,” said Jane Rutledge in a quiet voice.
All three men looked at her in surprise.
“I knew something wasn’t right about what happened,” Jane continued, her eyes full of tears. “Steve was my son and I love him. But I also know him. He was selfish and thoughtless.” She looked at Frank. “A few days ago, Clem brought Steve’s horse out to the ranch. You were out working. When I put the horse in the barn, I saw there was a full bedroll tied to the saddle. The saddlebags were full, stuffed with clothes, food, and a few things I know were important to Steve.”
Jane looked at Ben and Joe. “I knew then that Steve had been planning to leave,” she explained. “He was just going to leave. Not say goodbye or anything to his father or me. He never even gave a thought to our feelings. That was the kind of boy that Steve was. When I heard the story about him dying to save Mr. Stone, I found it hard to believe. I guess I wanted to believe it, though. I wanted to believe that Steve had done something good before he died.”
“He did something good,” Joe insisted. “He saved my life. He pulled me from that rock slide.”
“Steve started that rock slide,” replied Jane quietly.
“What!” exclaimed Joe.
“He told me about it,” said Jane. “When you were still unconscious, before the doctor told us you were going to be all right, he told me about it. I think he was afraid you were going to die, and he wanted me to help him. He was riding on the ridge above you, and he thought it would be funny to kick down a few rocks to scare you. Except the rocks he kicked knocked into some others, and before he knew it, it seemed like half the hill was sliding down. Steve was afraid you had seem him on the ridge. He told me because he wanted me to help him figure out how to cover it up. Then the doctor said you would be all right, and that you probably wouldn’t remember what happened.”
“He still could have just left me there,” said Joe.
“He was afraid someone else would find you, or that you’d manage to get home on your own,” replied Jane. “Steve was afraid you’d come after him. So he brought you here, hoping you’d be grateful. And you were.”
Jane shook her head sadly. “Steve always thought of only himself,” she said. “Whatever he did, he did it because it pleased him or because it was to his advantage. That’s why I thought the story about what Steve did in the bank was so odd. I knew Steve would never put himself in harm’s way to save someone else. Steve was never a hero.”
Joe shook his head in disbelief. He had been trying to save Steve Rutledge’s good name because of what Steve had done for him. And all the time, Steve had caused the rock slide that could have killed him. In fact, Steve Rutledge had almost caused Joe’s death twice, once in the canyon and again in the bank. Joe wondered why he ever thought Steve was his friend.
Jane looked up at Frank. “You know in your heart what Joe is saying is true,” she said to her husband.
Frank didn’t answer for a minute. Then he nodded slowly. “Yes,” he agreed with a sigh. “I know. All I ever wanted was for Steve to have a good life, to be a son I could be proud of. I let him get by with a lot when he was young, thinking he could learn about responsibility when he was older. Only he never did.”
Frank looked down at the floor. “Maybe I gave him too much freedom when he was young,” he added a choked voice. “I thought I was teaching him how to enjoy life. I guess I never taught him about consequences. Maybe I never really taught him how to care. I guess all I ever taught him was how to take.
The four people in the room were silent, none knowing what to say next. Finally, Ben cleared his throat.
“Frank, Jane, we have to go see Roy Coffee,” Ben stated. He stood and Joe got to his feet also.
“I’m sorry,” said Joe. He started to say something else, then stopped, realizing there was nothing else to say. Joe put his hat on his head and walked to the door, with Ben close behind.
Joe and Ben walked silently to the horses. As they untied the reins, Joe looked at Ben. His eyes mirrored his confusion. “Pa, I thought Steve was my friend,” said Joe. “I kept quiet because I felt I owed him something. Now it turns out everything that happened was Steve’s fault.” Joe shook his head. “I guess I was pretty dumb.”
“Joe, you did what you did because you cared about Steve and his parents,” Ben replied. “That’s the difference. You cared. Steve didn’t.”
Joe looked back to the house. “What about the Rutledges?” he asked. “They’re good people, Pa, they really are.”
“I know they are, son,” agreed Ben. “It will be hard for them for awhile, but the truth is always better than a lie. Deep down, I think they both knew the truth about Steve. They’ll learn to live with that truth.”
Joe looked down. “But I still made a mess of things,” said Joe. “Everyone in Virginia City will know I kept quiet about Steve being part of the robbery. That orphan’s home probably won’t get built now.”
“Well, I think the people in Virginia City will understand why you kept quiet,” replied Ben. “And as far as the orphan’s home goes, I think we can keep the project going. Especially when we tell everyone that we’re going to name it after Wilbur Stone. Wilbur grew up as an orphan. I think he’d like it if his name was put on the home.”
“I don’t know, Pa,” said Joe doubtfully. “Everyone seemed to want Steve to be a hero. They’re not going to like when they find out they were wrong about him.”
“That’s true,” admitted Ben. “People like heroes. They like knowing there are good people in the world, people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. The problem is, most people are looking the wrong place for heroes.”
“What do you mean?” said Joe with a frown.
“There are a lot of heroes in the world, Joe,” explained Ben. “People, like Roy Coffee, who put their life on the line every day to protect others. They’re true heroes. But there’s also people who work hard, and sacrifice, so their families can have a better life. There are people who give up their own comforts and dedicate their lives to helping others. There are families who take children who have no one and make them part of their lives, just because they want to help. And doctors and nurses who spend incredible amounts of time and energy, working to save the lives of people they barely know. Those people are heroes just as much as the men who win medals.”
Joe looked thoughtful. “Yeah, I guess they are,” agreed Joe. He looked at Ben, his eyes shining with admiration. “I guess you could call someone a hero who raised three sons by himself while trying to build a ranch in the middle of nowhere. And someone who is willing to stand by those sons and help them, no matter what stupid things they do.”
Ben flushed. “I don’t know about that,” he said.
“I do,” stated Joe firmly. “I don’t have to look far to find a hero.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he said softly. Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder. Then he cleared his voice. “We’d better get to town,” he said abruptly. “We’ll need to tell Roy the truth about Steve. Roy is probably going to ask us to talk to the judge, too.” Ben turned to mount his horse.
Joe nodded and moved to do the same. As he climbed on his pinto, Joe looked at Ben again and smiled. “Let’s go, Pa,” said Joe as he settled on his saddle. “I’ve got some real heroes to talk to.”