Synopsis: Tragedy strikes on the Ponderosa, leaving Joe brutally attacked and his date killed.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 5,215
The full moon shone down brightly, reflecting itself on the lake and lighting the two young people in the buggy a few yards from the shore. Joe Cartwright had started the evening neatly attired in a crisp new shirt and tie. But now, his black string tie hung undone around his neck and the top three buttons of his white shirt were opened. Carrie Winters, who sat nestled in his arms, was responsible for the disarray, and she didn’t regret it for a minute. Her head rested on Joe’s shoulder and her hands slowly stroked Joe’s neck and chest.
Joe lowered his head and kissed Carrie again. She responded eagerly, pressing her lips tightly against Joe’s mouth.
Joe was a bit surprised at Carrie’s eagerness. He had known her for years, but hadn’t thought much about her in terms of a potential girlfriend. She was just someone who was part of a family that the Cartwrights had known for a long time. But for the last three weeks, Carrie had hinted and suggested and then practically demanded that Joe take her to the dance in Virginia City this Saturday night. Joe was agreeable. He liked Carrie well enough, and thought it would be fun.
Now as they kissed in the carriage, a small part of Joe’s mind was continuing to be surprised. Carrie was the one who wanted to leave the dance early, and had suggested to Joe that they drive down by the lake. She was the one who had initiated the first kiss and had insisted that Joe get “more comfortable.”
As Joe kissed and nuzzled Carrie with his lips, he began to think he might want to explore this relationship further. He wasn’t sure exactly where things were going, but he was more than willing to find out. He liked Carrie, and if both their feelings could be nurtured into something more, that was fine with Joe.
Carrie pulled back from Joe and smiled contentedly. “Ah, Joe,” she said softly. “You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to do this.”
Joe let the surprise cross his face. “Really?” he said. “I mean, I didn’t know you thought of me as anything more than just a friend.”
Carrie sighed. “Oh, Joe,” she said. “Sometimes you can be so slow.” Then she smiled wryly. “Of course, it’s been hard for you to notice me while you were sparking Mary Beth, and Judy and Susan and….”
Joe held up his hands. “All right, all right,” he said with a laugh. “You don’t need to go on.” Joe leaned closer to Carrie. “Maybe I’ve been a little slow,” he said, “but you certainly have my attention now.” Joe leaned closer and kissed Carrie again.
The two lovers were intent on each other. Neither noticed the dark figure standing in the trees a few feet away, hidden in the shadows. The figure gripped the rifle in his hand tightly, his knuckles practically white. He was angry. Angry at the girl who had rebuffed his advances so nonchalantly. And angry at the man who had what he wanted.
Joe pulled back from Carrie and smiled. “Miss Winters, you are not a proper young lady,” he teased. “Your father would come after me with a shotgun if he could see us now.”
Carried smiled back at Joe. “Then let’s not tell him,” she said. Carrie looked toward the lake, with the moonlight shining down on the water. “Oh, Joe, the lake is so lovely. Could we go down by the shore?” she asked.
Joe grinned. “I’d love to go down by the lake,” said Joe, “but walking along the shore isn’t exactly what I have in mind.”
“Neither do I,” replied Carrie with a sly smile.
Joe climbed out of the buggy then turned to help Carrie out. He kissed her again just as her feet settled firmly on the ground. Then he put his arm around her. The pair started walking slowly toward the water. The dark figure in the shadows lifted his rifle. The moonlight barely gave him enough light to see. But it was enough for him.
Joe and Carrie strolled slowly toward the water, oblivious to everything around them. Later, Joe couldn’t remember if he heard the shot. All he remembered was a searing pain in his back. Joe arched his back and grunted in surprise. Then he toppled forward to the ground.
Joe laid face down on the dirt as the pain seemed to radiate through his body. He thought he could hear screaming but he couldn’t be sure. His brain was focused on the pain. The pain was so bad it took his breath away.
Suddenly, the mist of agony seemed to abate for a minute. Joe could hear Carrie screaming. “No! No!” she shouted. “Joe, help me!”
Joe tried to get up but found he couldn’t move. He lifted his head enough that he was able to see the edge of Carrie’s dress as it seemed to be backing away from him. Joe saw a pair of dark boots walk by, slowly moving in Carrie’s direction.
“NO! Don’t!” screamed Carrie in terror. “Get away from me! Help!”
Joe tried once more to get up but the sickening pain came rushing back. The dark mist descended again and Joe slid into an abyss.
The pounding and shouting woke Ben Cartwright from a deep sleep. For a moment, he was confused. He couldn’t figure out who was making all the racket. The pounding and shouting continued, and Ben realized that someone was frantically trying to get through the front door on the floor below.
Shaking the sleep from his eyes, Ben threw back the covers and sat up on the edge of his bed. He reached for the robe on the chair next to the bed, and quickly put it on. Ben rushed from his room and down the stairs. As he descended the stairs, he heard footsteps behind him.
Ben opened the front door. He was surprised to see an angry and upset George Winters standing on the porch. Winters pushed past Ben and stalked into the house.
“Where is he?” Winters demanded angrily. “Where’s that son of yours?”
Ben shook his head, trying to clear a brain still dulled by sleep. “Who?” Ben said in a confused voice. “George, what are you talking about?”
Winters turned and confronted Ben. “I’ll tell you what I’m talking about!” he shouted. “It’s two o’clock in the morning and Carrie’s not home yet. Now where did that boy of yours take her?”
Ben’s face showed surprised. He glanced over George’s shoulder and saw that the clock indeed showed twenty after two. Ben glanced toward the stairs. He saw Adam and Hoss standing on the stairs, obviously routed from their beds as he was. Adam was wearing a pair of dark pants and had closed one of the middle buttons of a dark shirt. He was barefoot and his hair was disheveled. Hoss had a robe around his shoulders, but his bright green and white checked night shirt was clearly visible. He also was barefoot and his hair was in disarray.
“Boys, didn’t Joe come home from the dance with you?” asked Ben, his confusion still evident.
“No,” replied Hoss. “He and Carrie left early.”
“If he’s done something to Carrie, I swear I’ll kill him!” shouted Winters. “Now where is he?”
“Calm down, George, calm down,” Ben said soothingly. He turned back to the stairs. “Adam, check Joe’s room,” he said over his shoulder. Adam nodded and disappeared up the stairs.
“I should have never let Carrie go to the dance with him,” Winters shouted. “I should have insisted she meet him there.”
“George, calm down,” Ben said again sharply. “You’ve known Joe for most of his life. You know he wouldn’t hurt Carrie.”
Before Winters could reply, Adam came rushing down the stairs. “Joe’s not in his room. Doesn’t look like he’s been home yet,” Adam announced.
“See, what did I tell you?” shouted Winters. “Now where is he?”
“George, Joe would never keep Carrie out this late,” Ben said. “Something must have happened.” Ben turned back to his sons. “Do you have any idea where Joe and Carrie were going when they left the dance?”
Hoss wrinkled his nose. “I think I heard Carrie telling Mary Lou something about talking Joe into taking her down by the lake,” he said slowly. “I wasn’t paying much attention, though,” he admitted.
“That’s a lie!” shouted Winters. “You’re making Carrie sound like, like…” Winters’ voice trailed off. He seemed confused as to what it made Carrie sound like. “That’s a lie,” he finally repeated.
Ben laid a hand on Winters’ shoulder. “George, calm down,” Ben said once again. “No one is accusing Carrie of anything. Something must have happened.”
“Something happened all right,” shouted Winters. “Your son enticed my daughter to the lake and, and…” Winters stopped. His eyes started to fill with tears. “Ben, she’s my baby,” he said in a miserable voice.
“I know, I know,” said Ben soothingly. “What I meant was the buggy must have broken down, or the horse may have run off. Something like that. Something must have prevented Joe from bringing Carrie home on time.” Ben turned back to the stairs. “Get dressed,” he said to Hoss and Adam. “We’ll go looking for them.”
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Winters said in a low voice. “I didn’t mean to get so angry. It’s just that I’m so worried.”
Ben nodded understandingly. “I’m worried, too, George,” he said. “Why don’t you go the barn and start saddling the horses. I’ll get dressed. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
Four riders carrying lanterns rode through the night toward the lake. As they rode, Ben quizzed Adam and Hoss about where exactly Joe might have been headed.
“The cove is one of his favorite spots,” said Hoss in answer to Ben’s question. “He might have gone there. Or he could have gone over toward Hunter’s Point. The road runs real close to the lake there.”
“You boys check the cove,” said Ben. “George and I will head toward Hunter’s Point. If you find anything, fire two shots. If you don’t see anything, meet us at the Point and we’ll decide where to go next.”
Once they reached the lake, the riders split up. Ben and George Winters rode toward Hunter’s Point, while Adam and Hoss turned west toward the cove. As they rode, Ben and George Winters held theirs lanterns high and called the names of their children. They stopped occasionally to listen for an answer, but the only reply was the chirping of crickets.
Ben and Winters were nearing Hunter’s Point when Ben heard the snicker of a horse. He stopped and held his lantern high, peering through the dark. Up ahead, he thought he could make out the outline of a buggy sitting in the road. Ben kicked his horse forward, and knew Winters was doing the same.
Ben recognized the buggy as he rode up to it; it was definitely the buggy Joe had used to take Carrie dance. He pulled his horse to a stop and quickly dismounted. He rushed forward, then stopped. A confused look came over his face as he saw the buggy was empty, the horse waiting patiently in front. Ben held the lantern in his hand high over his head and looked around anxiously. “Joe?” called Ben into the night. “Joe? Are you here?”
“Carrie!” echoed Winters. “Carrie, where are you?”
Ben walked around the back of the carriage, heading toward the lake. He hadn’t taken more than a few steps when he saw the dark shape of body laying on the ground ahead of him. Ben rushed forward, his heart in his throat.
“Joe!” Ben cried in anguish as he recognized the body on the ground before him. Ben quickly knelt next to his son and brought the lantern closer. Ben felt the fear growing in his stomach as he saw the large red patch of blood covering his son’s back. “Joe!” cried Ben again in a choked voice.
Ben quickly felt Joe’s neck and almost sobbed with relief when he felt the faint throb of a pulse. He quickly tore open the jagged hole in Joe’s shirt, exposing the bullet wound in his son’s back. As he examined the wound, Ben was barely conscious of George Winters standing behind him, shouting his daughter’s name.
The bullet had struck Joe just under his shoulder blade. In the dark, Ben couldn’t tell how deep the bullet had gone. The bleeding had almost stopped, and he could hear Joe’s faint but steady breathing. Ben guessed the bullet had missed his son’s lung, but he had no idea what other damage it may have caused. Ben quickly reached into the inside pocket of his vest and pulled out a large white handkerchief. He pressed the square cloth firmly against the wound.
“Ben, where’s Carrie?” Ben heard George Winters ask in a frantic voice. “I can’t see her? Where is she?”
Ben ignored Winters as he slowly turned Joe face up and gently lifted his son off the ground. Even in the dim light, Ben could tell Joe looked deathly pale. Joe’s eyes were closed and his jaw was slack Suddenly, a hand reached over Ben’s shoulder and grabbed the front of Joe’s shirt. “Where’s Carrie?” shouted Winters angrily. “What did you do with my daughter?”
Ben pushed Winter’s hand away. “He’s unconscious, barely alive,” Ben said heatedly. Then he took a deep breath. He knew the anguish Winters was feeling. Ben felt it himself. He looked over his shoulder. Winters was looking down at Joe, his face reflecting the fear in both father’s hearts. “Signal for Adam and Hoss,” Ben said quietly.
Winters nodded and pulled his gun from his holster. As Winters fired two shots in the air, Ben looked around quickly. He frowned as he looked toward the lake. “George, it looks like there’s some tracks leading toward the lake,” Ben said. He scarcely got the words out before Winters turned and walked slowly toward the lake.
Ben turned back to Joe. He began stroking Joe’s face and saying his son’s name, trying to rouse him. Suddenly a loud cry sounded through the night air. Ben froze, then closed his eyes.
“NO!” came the cry again from George Winters, his voice filled with grief. “Oh, no, please God, no!” The cry was followed by a loud sob.
Ben took a deep breath. He knew George Winters had found his daughter.
Adam and Hoss turned their horses and raced along the lake as soon as they heard the shots. As soon as they saw the buggy in the road, both men pulled their horses to a stop and dismounted quickly. Adam and Hoss ran toward the figure of the father kneeling on the ground, silhouetted by the lamplight.
“Pa!” said Hoss as he raced toward the figures. He stopped, and felt a strange, choking feeling in his throat as he saw the figure of his younger brother cradled in his father’s arms. “Joe?” Hoss managed to ask in a hoarse whisper.
Ben looked up. “He’s shot in the back,” Ben answered, his face showing his worry. “He’s still alive, but he’s hurt bad.”
Adam looked around. “Where’s George?” he asked. “And Carrie?”
Ben gestured with his head toward the lake. “George is down by the lake with Carrie,” he answered softly. Ben saw the questioning look on his sons’ faces and he shook his head. Both Adam and Hoss looked down.
“Adam, ride to town. Bring the doctor to the house ,” Ben ordered. “And tell Roy Coffee to get out here.” Ben turned to Hoss as Adam raced back to his horse. “I need you to help me get Joe into the buggy. I was afraid to move him by myself. I can’t tell how deep the bullet is in there and I didn’t want to move him without help.”
Hoss nodded and knelt on the ground next to Joe. For a moment, he stared at the pale, unmoving figure in Ben’s arms. He brushed the hair from Joe’s forehead. “Hang in there, little brother,” Hoss said softly. His face took on a grim look as he slid his massive arm behind Joe’s back, just under Ben’s arm. Hoss reached down and slid his other arm under Joe’s knees. He looked up at Ben and nodded. The two men rose together, lifting Joe gently off the ground.
Ben and Hoss walked slowly toward the buggy, carrying the unconscious Joe carefully. Joe’s head flopped to the side, resting against Ben’s arm. When Ben and Hoss reached the buggy, they gently eased Joe into it. Joe sagged in the seat.
Ben put his arm on Hoss’ shoulder. “Hoss, you stay here with George,” said Ben. “Help him if you can.”
“Yes sir,” Hoss said with a nod. Hoss looked at Joe with concern as Ben rushed around the back of the buggy and climbed into the other side. Ben quickly grabbed the reins which were resting in the buggy. He snapped the reins and the horse began to move. Ben turned the buggy and started off into the dark. Hoss stood watching for a minute, then turned and began walking slowly toward the lake.
Dawn was just beginning to break as the riders rode into the yard of the Ponderosa. The faces of Hoss Cartwright, George Winters and Roy Coffee were haggard with fatigue and grief. The three men stopped their horses at the hitching post in front of the house, dismounted, and tied their horses to the post. Then the three walked slowly toward the house, with Hoss in the lead.
Hoss pushed open the front door and looked in anxiously. He saw Adam sitting in the red chair near the fireplace. Adam had a book in his hand, but his gaze was fixed toward the top of the stairs.
“How’s Joe?” asked Hoss, almost dreading the answer.
Adam looked startled, as if he hadn’t heard the front door open. He turned to Hoss with a grim look. “Pa and the doctor are still upstairs,” he answered. Adam shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts. He saw Roy Coffee and George Winters standing behind Hoss, and his face showed surprise.
“George, what are you doing here?” Adam started to say more, then stopped himself. He seemed at a loss for words. Finally, he simply said, “I’m sorry about Carrie.”
Winters nodded. “We were hoping to talk to Joe,” he said in a grim voice. “We were hoping he could tell us what happened.”
Adam looked at Hoss quizzically.
“We’ve been searching the whole area down by the lake,” Hoss explained. “We found some tracks. Looks like somebody was standing the in the trees, then walked toward the lake. The tracks led right to…to Carrie,” Hoss finished lamely. He looked over his shoulder at Winters but Winters stood unmoving as Hoss talked, his face looking as if it had been carved from stone.
“The tracks led away from the lake,” Roy Coffee added, “but then they headed right to the road. That road was covered with hoofprints and buggy marks. No way to tell which way the fella went once he got to the road.”
“George,” said Adam in a sympathetic voice. “Shouldn’t you be home? Katherine will need you.”
Winters shook his head. “I can’t face Katherine,” he said firmly. “Not til I know who…” Winter’s voice broke and he put his head down for a moment. Then he raised his head again. “Not til I know who killed my little girl,” he finished.
Adam’s eyes opened in surprise, and he looked at Hoss.
“Roy told Mrs. Winters,” Hoss said in a quiet voice. “Mrs. Perkins and some other ladies are with her.”
“Adam, Hoss here tells me he didn’t notice anything unusual at the dance,” said Roy Coffee. “How about you? Did you see anything that might tell us who went after Carrie and Joe?”
Adam shook his head. “No, Roy, I didn’t,” he said. “I’ve been going over the whole evening in my mind. I can’t think of anything that might help.”
“Did you see anybody talking with Joe?” pressed Roy. “You know, angry like?”
Adam shook his head again. “No,” he said. “Joe was with Carrie every time I saw him. I didn’t see him talking to anyone but her.”
“How about Carrie?” asked Roy. “Did you see anybody talking to her?”
Adam thought for a minute. “I saw a couple of fellows coming up to her, like they were asking her to dance. She refused all of them.”
“Were they angry about it?” asked the sheriff, his voice hopeful.
“Not that I could see,” answered Adam. “I really didn’t pay much attention, though.”
Coffee turned to Hoss. “Hoss, tell me again what you heard Carrie telling Mary Lou,” he asked.
“I done told you, Roy,” Hoss said, his voice tinged with exasperation. “She came up and told Mary Lou that she thought she had talked Joe into taking her down by the lake. They both kind of giggled, and Mary Lou kind of squeezed Carrie’s arm. And that was it.”
Roy shook his head. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “There don’t seem to be any reason for what happened.”
“It was obviously some sort of madman,” said Winters. “He must have come upon them and…” Winters voice broke again.
Adam walked forward and put his hand on Winter’s shoulder. “George, why don’t you go home?” he said softly.
Winters looked up at Adam. “I’m not leaving until I heard what Joe has to say,” he said angrily. “I have to talk with him.”
“That won’t happen for quite a while,” a voice said from the stairs.
Everyone in the room turned to face the stairs. Doctor Paul Martin was walking slowly down the stairs.
Hoss rushed forward. “Doc, how’s Joe?” he asked in a worried voice.
“That brother of yours is the luckiest man on earth,” answered the doctor. “If that bullet had been an inch higher and to the right…” The doctor shook his head. “The bullet tore up a lot of muscle and tissue but it missed everything important. Joe’s lost a lot of blood, though. He’s very weak. He’s also got a high fever, which isn’t surprising since it appears he was shot several hours ago.”
“But he’s going to be all right, isn’t he?” Adam pressed the doctor.
“He’s got a good chance,” Dr. Martin said cautiously. “I’m going to stay here and keep an eye on him until he’s out of danger.”
“Doc, we need you to take a look at…at Carrie,” said Roy Coffee. He glanced over his shoulder at George Winters, then took a deep breath. “It looks like she was strangled or her neck was broken. I can’t tell for sure.” Roy looked down at the floor and shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Her dress was torn,” Roy said in a quiet voice. “I need to know if…” Roy’s voice trailed off.
“I understand, Roy,” the doctor said quickly. “But my going back to town now isn’t going to help Carrie. My staying here could make the difference for Joe.” Doctor Martin looked
apologetically toward Winters. “I’m sorry, George,” he said. “I know how hard this must be for you and Katherine. I’ll get to town as soon as I can.” The doctor turned toward Roy Coffee. “Did you take the…Carrie to the funeral parlor?” he asked.
Roy nodded. “Yes, but I told them not to do anything until you got there,” Roy answered.
“Walter will know what to do,” said Doctor Martin. He looked again at Winters. “George, why don’t you go home to Katherine?” suggested the doctor. “I’ll let you know when you can start making arrangements.”
Winters had stood silent throughout the whole exchange, his face grim. Now he shook his head. “No, I want to stay here,” he said stubbornly. “I want to talk with Joe as soon as he’s awake.”
“George, that won’t be until tomorrow at the earliest,” said Doctor Martin gently.
“Paul, Joe seems restless,” a voice said from the stairs. Ben walked slowly from the landing of the staircase to the big room below. “He seems to be in some pain,” continued Ben.
“I’ll check on him,” said Dr. Martin. He quickly turned and walked up the stairs.
Ben started to follow the doctor, then stopped. He turned back to the men standing in the room. “Joe hasn’t been able to say anything,” said Ben in a tired voice. “Did you find any clues as to whom might have done this?”
Hoss shook his head. “No, Pa,” he answered. “We found some tracks but they disappeared when the rider got to the road.” Hoss look at his father, his face pinched with worry. “The doctor said he thought Joe was going to make it,” said Hoss, more asking a question then making a statement.
“He’s hurt bad,” replied Ben. “But the doctor said his breathing and pulse are good.” Ben shook his head. “All we can do is wait.”
“Ben, I want to talk with Joe as soon as he’s awake,” said Winters in a firm voice as he walked to Ben. “I want to know who did this.”
“So do I, George,” replied Ben grimly. “But I’m not going to risk my son’s life. You can talk with him as soon as the doctor says so.” Ben looked at Winters firmly. “And not until the doctor says so,” he added.
“Ben, somebody killed my little girl,” said Winters angrily. “Your son’s still alive.” Suddenly, Winters put his head down and let out a small sob. He raised his head and looked at Ben, tears forming in his eyes. “Your son is still alive and my baby is dead,” Winters said again in a choked voice. “I’m sorry, but I’d give anything to it the other way around. God forgive me but I wish it was Joe we were getting ready to bury and Carrie in that room upstairs.” Winters put his head down and began to sob.
Ben walked over and put his hand on Winters’ shoulder. “I know, George,” he said softly.
“Believe me, I know I’d feel the same way if things were different.” Ben looked up at Roy Coffee. “Roy, why don’t you take George home?” said Ben. “I’ll send word to you as soon as the doctor says you can see Joe.”
Roy nodded and walked over to Winters. The sobbing had stopped but Winters still had his head down. Roy gently took Winters by the arm and turned him toward the door. Winters looked up. He walked without protest as Roy Coffee led him across the room and out the front door.
The Cartwrights stood silently in the room. None knew quite what to say. Finally, Adam broke the silence. “Pa,” he asked “are you sure Joe didn’t say anything that might identify who did this?”
“No, Adam,” said Ben wearily. “He hasn’t said anything since we found him.” Ben looked at his other two sons. “But I promise you, we’re going to find whoever did this, and he’s not going to get away with this.” Ben looked toward the front door. “Whoever it is, he’s going to pay for this,” Ben said grimly.
Joe slept through the rest of the day, burning with fever. The painful wound forced Joe to surface from time to time from his exhausted sleep. In a semi-conscious state, all Joe knew was that he was in agony. He heard sounds but nothing made sense to him. He didn’t know the sounds he heard were his own cries of distress.
Joe’s moans of pain quickly resulted in another dose of laudanum from the doctor. The doctor also regularly forced medicine to fight the fever and infection into his patient.
Ben sat in silent vigil by Joe’s bed throughout the day. He ignored Adam and Hoss’ attempts to get him to rest or eat. Ben had an irrational fear that if he left Joe, his son would take a turn for the worst. Ben knew his presence had little or no affect on Joe’s condition, and the doctor kept reassuring him that Joe was doing as well as could be expected. But still Ben refused to leave.
By dusk, Ben was exhausted. His face was drawn from worry and fatigue. He sat slumped in the chair next to Joe’s bed, his eyes barely able to stay open.
Doctor Martin walked into the room, refreshed by a brief nap. He stopped at the door and shook his head as he looked at Ben. Then he took a deep breath and walked to the bed where Joe laid swathed in bandages. Strips of white cloth were visible over Joe’s left shoulder. Joe was laying on his back, his head sunk deep into the pillows. His skin looked pale and pasty, and his breathing was shallow.
“Any change?” asked the doctor.
Ben stirred in the chair. “I’m sorry, Paul,” said Ben in weary voice. “I didn’t hear you come in.” He looked to the bed. “I think his fever is down a bit, and he seems to be resting easier.”
“Ben, you need some rest,” said the doctor with concern.
“Don’t start that again,” answered Ben angrily.
Doctor Martin sighed and turned to his patient. He pulled a stethoscope out of his pocket, and put the tube in his ears. Bending forward, the doctor listened to Joe’s heart. A brief frown crossed his face. The doctor quickly put his hand on Joe’s forehead.
“What’s wrong?” asked Ben in alarm as he noted the doctor’s face.
Doctor Martin said nothing for a minute. Then he turned and smiled. “Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “In fact, everything’s right. Joe’s fever has broken.”
Ben sat back in the chair and let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Paul,” said Ben gratefully.
“Don’t thank me,” replied the doctor with a smile. “Thank that Cartwright constitution.” Doctor Martin’s face turned grim. “And thank the Lord whoever did this was a poor shot.”
Joe moved on the bed, and the movement caused him to let out a small groan. Ben bent forward and gently stroked his son’s arm. “Easy, Joe,” he said in a soothing voice. “Everything’s all right. Just lay still.”
“Pa?” said Joe in a barely audible voice. His eyes flickered as he struggled to open them. “Pa?” he said again.
“I’m here, son,” Ben said quietly. “You just take it easy now.”
Joe felt tired, as tired as he could ever remember. And his back hurt something fierce. But he knew he had to tell his Pa something. Joe tried to wake up. He had to tell his Pa something, but he couldn’t remember what it was. Joe shook his head a bit. He felt groggy, his thinking dull. I have to tell Pa, he thought. Joe shook his head again. What was it he had to tell Pa?
Ben looked up at the doctor anxiously as he saw Joe shaking his head and fighting to open his eyes.
“It’s the medicine,” the doctor reassured his old friend. “It’s making him sleepy. And he’s still pretty weak. He should start to come out of it soon.”
Joe heard the voices and understood some of the words. He fought hard to try to wake up. Finally, making a monumental effort to accomplish a simple task, Joe managed to open his eyes.
At first, everything looked a bit blurry. Joe blinked several times and once again tried to shake his head. Finally, Ben’s face, looking anxious and tired, came into focus.
“You don’t look so good,” Joe said. He tried to smile but it was a poor effort.
“If you think I look bad, you should see yourself,” answered Ben with a grin. Then his face turned serious. “Joe, do you remember what happened?”
Joe frowned as he tried to remember. “Carrie and I were down by the lake,” he said slowly. “We were walking toward the lake.” Joe shook his head. “That’s all I remember.”
Ben glanced up at the doctor.
“It may come back to him once the medicine wears off, “ the doctor said.
Joe looked at his father, his face showing his confusion. “Pa, what happened?” he asked.
“What happened to Carrie? Is she all right?”
Ben looked up at the doctor once again. Paul Martin just shrugged. Ben turned back to Joe who was watching him. Joe’s face showed the confusion and the anxiety he was beginning to feel. Ben chewed on his lip for a minute, as he tried to form the words.
“Joe, we’re really not sure what happened,” said Ben slowly. “We found you down by the lake with a bullet in your back.”
“And Carrie?” Joe asked anxiously.
Adam and Hoss were walking down the corridor toward Joe’s room. They had decided to try one more time to get their father to take a break. They were a few feet from Joe’s door when they heard a sound that send shivers up their spine.
“NO!” said a loud voice. The cry was followed by a moan. “Oh, No, No,” the voice moaned.
Adam and Hoss looked at each other and both men rushed to Joe’s room. They stopped in the doorway, frozen by the scene in front of them.
Joe was lying on the bed, his right hand over his eyes. He was moaning softly. Ben was hunched forward in the chair, his hand stroking Joe’s shoulder. Doctor Martin stood near the bed, his face showing concern.
“Pa, what’s wrong?” Hoss asked from the doorway.
Ben looked over his shoulder at Adam and Hoss. “I told Joe about Carrie,” he answered softly.
Adam and Hoss looked at each other. Hoss swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said.
Joe took his hand from his eyes and looked up. Tears glistened in his eyes. “Why, Hoss?” he asked. “Who would do this?”
Adam looked at his brother. “Joe, do you know who shot you?” he asked.
Joe shook his head. Joe squeezed his eyes shut and his body began to tremble. “I’m sorry, Carrie,” he mumbled. “I’m so sorry.”
“Joe, it wasn’t your fault,” said Ben. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Joe didn’t answer. He merely turned his head away.
“Joe,” Ben tried again, “whoever did this, he’s responsible for Carrie’s death. Not you.
You’re the victim in this, just as much as Carrie.”
Joe didn’t say anything. Suddenly, he felt tired, so tired. Involuntarily, his eyes began to close. He fought the feeling briefly, then gave up the struggle. In a minute, Joe was asleep. Once more, Ben looked up at the doctor.
“He’s so weak, Ben,” explained Doctor Martin. “He’s probably expended what little energy he had. And he’s still feeling the effects of the medicine. He’ll sleep for awhile.
I’m going to leave you some sleeping powders, though. He might need them later.”
Ben nodded and then looked back to his son with concern. “He took the news of Carrie’s death so hard,” Ben said. “I didn’t know he felt so deeply about her.”
“I wouldn’t read too much into that,” cautioned the doctor. “His emotions are pretty raw right now. The pain, the medicine, everything that happened, well, he’s just feeling overwhelmed.”
“Joe’s known Carrie a long time,” said Hoss. “I remember him chasing her around the school yard with a frog.”
Doctor Martin nodded. “Yes, and I’ve seen the way Carrie has been mooning after Joe for the past few weeks,” added the doctor with a smile. “Joe never even noticed.”
Joe stirred slightly on the bed and grunted softly. Then he seemed to settle into a deep sleep.
The doctor walked over the table where a black bag was standing open. He pulled the stethoscope from around his neck and stuck in the bag, then click the stiff leather closed. He picked up his coat, which was draped over the back of a chair and quickly slid into it.
“I’ll be back in the morning to check on him,” said the doctor. “Just let him sleep as much as possible until then.” The doctor looked at Ben. “And you get some rest, Ben” he said in a stern voice.
Ben didn’t look at the doctor. His gaze was fixed on his sleeping son. “In a bit,” answered Ben in a distracted voice.
The doctor looked at Ben and shook his head. He walked across the room to where Hoss and Adam were standing. With a nod of his head, he motioned them into the hall.
“You boys make sure Ben gets some rest,” the doctor said to them as the three stood outside Joe’s door. “One sick Cartwright at a time is about all I can handle.”
“Don’t worry, doc,” Hoss assured him. “We’ll take care of Pa.”
“See that you do,” said the doctor sternly. Then he sighed. “I’d best get to town and take a look at Carrie,” he said. “This is the part of this job I really hate.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to tell us anything that might help?” asked Adam.
“I won’t know for sure until tell I examine her,” said the doctor. “But I doubt it.”
Adam shook his head. “Who could have done this?” he wondered.
“I don’t know, Adam,” said the doctor. “I just don’t know.” The doctor sighed again. “I’ll be back in the morning,” he said. “Probably with Roy Coffee. Send for me if Joe’s fever goes up or there’s any other change. And make sure Ben gets some rest.”
“We will,” repeated Hoss.
Doctor Martin glanced into the bedroom one last time. “Joe was lucky,” he said. “But I don’t think he’s going to feel that way for awhile….for quite awhile.”
Joe slept restlessly through the night. He was too weak and tired to really wake, but the anguish he was feeling – both physical and mental – kept him from resting comfortably.
Hoss and Adam finally forced Ben to get some sleep. It was more the fact that Ben found himself dozing by Joe’s bed than Hoss’ threat of carrying his father to his room that forced Ben to get some rest. Ben wanted to be there when Joe woke again, He was afraid he might not be alert enough to help his son if he didn’t get at least a few hours sleep. So Ben headed to his room after extracting promises from Adam and Hoss to wake him if Joe came around.
Hoss was sitting by Joe’s bed when Adam came in to relieve him. Adam wasn’t sure of the time. He knew it was after midnight. He had slept for a few hours but had come to replace Hoss as soon as he woke.
“How’s he doing?” asked Adam softly as he came into the room.
“He’s sleeping,” answered Hoss with a shake of his head. “But I ain’t sure he’s resting. He keeps trying to move and he’s been mumbling something off and on.”
“Anything that makes sense?” asked Adam.
“No,” said Hoss. “About the only thing I can make out is he keeps saying Carrie’s name.”
Adam nodded. He had seen how upset Joe was when Ben told him about Carrie. Adam knew Joe took things to heart. It was one of the traits that made his little brother so appealing. But as much as Joe enjoyed the good times, he also had a harder time dealing with the bad times. Adam was afraid it was going to be more difficult for Joe to deal with Carrie’s death than his physical wounds.
“Adam, who could have done this?” Hoss asked. He knew Adam didn’t have an answer. It was more of a plea to help him understand something he regarded as an unfathomable act.
“I don’t know, Hoss,” replied Adam. “I want to think it was a stranger, somebody we don’t know. But we can’t be sure.” Adam shook his head. “You just never know about people. I think everyone has some demons hidden in their soul, something they hide from the rest of the world. Most of the time, people can control their demons. But sometimes, something happens and the dark side comes out.”
“That’s not a pretty picture,” said Hoss with a frown. “I guess I just prefer to see only the good side of people. I don’t want to think about them demons.”
Adam smiled and put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I know you do,” said Adam gently. “That’s what makes you who you are. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Joe stirred on the bed. He grunted softly as he felt the stabbing pain in his back. “No,” Joe mumbled. “No. Carrie? No.” Joe laid still and drifted back into sleep.
Adam slapped Hoss lightly on the shoulder. “You go get some rest,” said Adam. “I’ll stay with him.”
Hoss nodded and pulled himself slowly to his feet. He started toward the door then stopped. He turned back to the bed and watched Joe for a minute. Then he looked up at Adam. “You know them demons you were talking about?” he said softly. “I think I know what you mean. Because right now, if I got my hands on the fella that did this, I don’t think there’s nothing that could keep me from squeezing the life out of him.”
Adam nodded understandingly. “Go get some rest,” he said to Hoss.
Joe woke just as the sun was turning the night into dawn. Despite his restless sleep, Joe felt stronger. The pain in his back seemed less intense. The pain he felt about Carrie was another matter.
Joe stirred and slowly opened his eyes. He wasn’t surprised to see his father sitting by his bed. Somehow he knew his Pa would be there.
“Good morning,” Ben said with a smile as he saw Joe’s eyes open. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” said Joe. He frowned slightly. “You been here all night?”
“No,” admitted Ben. “Hoss and Adam took over and made me get some sleep. I have to admit I’m glad they did.”
“I’m glad they did too,” said Joe with a smile. Ben did look more refreshed to Joe, more like the father he was used to seeing. He was relieved. He had enough on his mind without worrying about his Pa.
“Pa, did they find out anything about who…” Joe swallowed hard but forced himself to say the words. “who killed Carrie?”
“I don’t know,” answered Ben. “Sheriff Coffee is coming out with Doctor Martin sometime this morning. Maybe they’ll have some answers for us.”
Joe looked down. “Pa, I never meant for anything to happen to Carrie,” he said in a choked voice.
Ben stroked Joe’s arm. “I know you didn’t, Joe,” said Ben in a comforting tone. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You took a pretty girl for a ride in the moonlight, that’s all.
There was no reason for you to think that something like this might happen.”
Joe nodded and tried to find some solace in his father’s words. But the words were little comfort to him. Joe knew he hadn’t been in love with Carrie, at least not yet. He thought about their last night together, and remembered how he felt about Carrie. He was angry that someone had stolen away his chance to allow his feelings to blossom into something more than just friendship. And Carrie was a friend, someone Joe liked. He felt guilty that he had put her in a position that had allowed someone to take her life.
Ben could see the emotions flickering across Joe’s face. He wished he could say some magic words that would make Joe feel better. But Ben knew there were no such magic words. Joe was going to have to deal with this in his own way. All Ben could do was try to help him the best he could.
Ben cleared his throat. “Think you can eat something?” Ben asked. “Hop Sing has some broth simmering on the stove.”
Joe made a face. “Broth?” he said. “Pa, I think I’d rather have a nice thick steak.”
Ben laughed. “You get the broth down and rest awhile,” he promised. “We’ll get you a steak for lunch if the doctor says it’s all right.”
The clock was striking nine am when Ben heard a carriage and several horses arriving in the yard. Joe had drank the broth obediently and gone back to sleep. Ben had been relieved that Joe seemed to be sleeping easier.
The sound of the arrivals drew Ben to the window. He looked down and saw Doctor Martin’s carriage. Roy Coffee was tying the reins of his horse to the hitching post. Ben also saw George Winters tying up his horse. Ben wasn’t surprised to see George.
He had hoped Winters wouldn’t be with the other two men. He knew that Winter’s presence would make things difficult for Joe. But Ben also knew, if it had been his child that had been killed, nothing could have kept him away.
Ben took a quick look to make sure Joe was still asleep, then left the bedroom. He hurried down the stairs. Hoss had let the visitors into the house, and the men were crossing the room toward the stairs as Ben descended. Ben saw Adam standing by the fireplace as he climbed down the stairs.
“How’s Joe doing this morning?” asked Doctor Martin as Ben stepped off the last step.
“He’s complaining because he had broth for breakfast instead of a steak,” Ben answered with a grin. Then his face sobered. “He was pretty restless during the night.” Ben glanced at George Winters. “I don’t think it was just the pain from the gunshot wound that disturbed him.”
Doctor Martin nodded understandingly. He turned to the other men. “You wait here until I call you,” he ordered them. “I want to change Joe’s bandage and make sure he’s up to talking before you see him.” The doctor turned and walked up the stairs.
“Have you found anything new?” Ben asked Roy Coffee.
The sheriff shook his head. “No, I haven’t,” he said. “I’ve talked to several people who were at the dance, but no one saw anything unusual. All of them were really shocked to hear what had happened.”
Ben wanted to ask Roy some more questions, but he felt uncomfortable about doing so with George Winters standing next to the sheriff. He could see the grief and sorrow reflected on Winter’s face. Ben didn’t want to add to the man’s pain.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Ben invited the sheriff and Winters. Both men moved to sit on the sofa. Hoss walked over to the fireplace to stand next to Adam as Ben sat in his comfortable red leather chair. Roy Coffee relaxed on the sofa, but George Winters sat stiffly.
An awkward silent descended on the room. No one wanted to bring up the subject that was on everyone’s mind, but any other conversation seemed trivial in light of the tragedy.
“Would you like some coffee?” asked Ben, trying to fill the silence.
“No thanks,” answered Roy Coffee. Winters shook his head briefly.
“How is Katherine doing?” asked Ben, tentatively broaching the subject.
“She’s holding up,” answered Winters briefly. “In some ways, she’s much stronger than I am.”
“If there’s anything the boys or I can do to help….” Ben started.
“There’s nothing anyone can do,” interrupted Winters bitterly. “My little girl is dead and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that.”
Once more, an uncomfortable silence filled the room. No one could think of anything to say that didn’t sound trite or condescending. All of them were relieved when Doctor Martin descended the stairs.
The doctor stood on the landing and looked down at the men below him. “Joe is doing about as well as can be expected,” he declared. “But he’s still very weak. You can talk with him, but only for a few minutes.” He looked at the five anxious faces staring up at him. “Hoss, Adam, I want you to stay down here. It’s going to be crowded enough in that room without you two.
Hoss started to protest, but Adam quieted him with an arm on his shoulder. “We’ll wait down here,” agreed Adam.
Ben, Roy Coffee and George Winters rose and quickly climbed the stairs. The doctor led them down the hall to Joe’s room but stopped outside the bedroom. “Remember what I said,” the doctor reminded the men sternly. “Only a few minutes. I’ll chase you out if it looks like he’s getting tired. Is that clear?” The men in the hallway nodded. Satisfied that he had made his point, Doctor Martin pushed open the bedroom door.
Joe was sitting up in bed, propped up by two large pillows. He looked expectantly as the four men walked into the room. George Winters was the last man to enter the room. Joe’s expression changed when Winters came in. A look of sorrow and guilt came over his face.
Winters stopped when he saw Joe and a startled expression came over his face. Joe looked nothing like the vibrant young man who had come by the house to take his daughter to the dance. Joe was pale, and his eyes were ringed with dark circles of fatigue. His shoulder was heavily bandaged, and the white gauze crossed his chest and circled his waist, holding the bandage in place. Joe was leaning heavily against the pillows, as if he couldn’t sit up without their support. Winters saw the expression on Joe’s face as he moved slowly to stand at the end of the bed.
Joe looked at Winters, and wet his lips nervously. “Mr. Winters, I’m so sorry about Carrie,” Joe said in a low voice. “I would never have done anything to hurt her, I swear.”
Joe lowered his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he repeated in a barely audible voice.
Winters nodded as a look of confusion came over his face.
“Joe, we haven’t been able to find any clue as to who did this,” said Roy Coffee without preamble. “Can you tell us what happened that night?”
Joe lifted his eyes and looked at the sheriff. “There’s not much I can tell you,” answered Joe. “Carrie and I left the dance a little after ten. She wanted to ride down by the lake. I stopped the buggy by Hunters Point. We sat for awhile, and then got out to go down to the lake. Next thing I knew, I was here.”
“Did you see anyone else down by the lake?” asked the sheriff.
“No,” said Joe with a shake of his head. “Carrie and I were, uh, talking. I wasn’t paying much attention to anything but her. But I didn’t see anyone around.”
Roy Coffee suspected Joe and Carrie were doing more than talking, but he let it pass.
“Did anything happen at the dance?” he asked. “Anyone get mad at you or Carrie?”
“No,” replied Joe. “We danced, had some punch, and then Carrie wanted to leave.”
“I heard that Carrie refused to dance with anyone but you. Is that right?” asked the sheriff. Joe nodded. “Anyone in particular ask her? Anybody upset that she said no?”
Joe thought for a minute. He remembered how he felt when Carrie turned down everyone else for a dance. He had been both surprised and a bit smug. “Ray Langston asked her,” Joe said slowly. “He seemed pretty disappointed when Carrie turned him down. Carl Peters asked her, too, but he didn’t seem to mind when she said no.” Joe cocked his head a bit. “There was another fellow. I don’t know who he was. He was talking to Carrie while I got the punch. I got the impression he was pretty insistent about wanting a dance. He walked away when I came back.”
“This other fellow, what did he look like?” asked Coffee.
Joe frowned as he tried to remember. He hadn’t paid much attention to the man. “He was big, about six foot or so, and pretty well built. Had sandy hair and a mustache. He was wearing a dark shirt.” Joe shook his head. “That’s all I can remember about him.”
“One more question, and that’s it,” warned Doctor Martin.
Roy nodded. “Joe, are you sure you don’t remember anything about what happened after you were shot?” asked the sheriff. “Anything at all?”
Joe’s frown deepened as he tried to remember. Then his face cleared. He seemed to get even paler. “I remember laying on the ground,” said Joe slowly. “Carrie was screaming. I tried to get up but I couldn’t. I saw the edge of her dress. Then I saw a pair of black boots.” Joe looked at Winters. “I wanted to help her,” Joe said in a pleading voice. “I tried but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t…” Joe’s voice faded as a look of anguish crossed his face. His eyes seemed to glisten, and he swallowed hard.
“It’s all right, Joe,” said Winters in a soothing voice. “I know you would have helped Carrie if you could.” Ben looked at Winters in surprise.
“That’s enough for now,” said Doctor Martin, taking the sheriff by the arm. “You can talk with him again tomorrow.” The doctor gently pushed Roy Coffee toward the door.
George Winters started to follow, then stopped. He turned back to Joe. “You take care of yourself,” he said to Joe. Then he walked out of the room.
Doctor Martin escorted the three men out of the room, then stopped in the doorway. “Why don’t you go downstairs,” he suggested. “I need to check on Joe and then I’ll join you.” Without waiting for an answer, the doctor walked back into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.
“I’m going to talk with Ray Langston and I’m going to see if I can figure out who that stranger is,” declared Roy. Without waiting for a response from the other men, he walked quickly down the hall.
Ben started to follow the sheriff, but Winters grabbed his arm.
“Ben, I’m sorry about Joe; I really am,” said Winters. “I’ve been so wrapped up in my own feelings that I didn’t even think about your son. I forgot for awhile that he almost died out there, too. I didn’t even think about how you must be feeling to almost lose your child, too.” Winters shook his head. “I’ve known Joe almost all his life. I know he wouldn’t do anything to hurt Carrie.” Winters looked at Ben with an earnest expression. “I hope Joe’s going to be all right.”
“Thank you, George,” replied Ben gratefully. “Right now, Joe’s hurting from more than just that wound. He’s taking Carrie’s death pretty hard.”
“The things I said the other night about Joe,” added Winters with an uncomfortable look. “I didn’t mean them. Winters looked down. “I didn’t mean any of them, Ben,” he said.
“I never thought you did,” said Ben with a small smile.
Winters nodded. “The funeral..” Winters stopped and closed his eyes for a minute. “The funeral is tomorrow at noon. Katherine and I would like you to be there, but we’ll understand if you aren’t.”
“We’ll be there,” promised Ben. “Hop Sing can stay with Joe.”
“Thank you,” said Winters. He seemed at a loss as to what to say next.
“Why don’t we go downstairs and get some coffee while we’re waiting for the doctor,” said Ben, putting his arm around Winter’s shoulders. The two men walked slowly down the hall.
Joe was surprised when Doctor Martin came back into the room. He thought the doctor had done all his work before the other three man came to visit him. Doctor Martin helped Joe ease himself back down under the covers, then checked Joe’s pulse and felt his forehead. The doctor conducted his examination with a distracted air.
Doctor Martin stood next to the bed and took a deep breath, as if deciding something. “Joe,” he said solemnly, “I have to ask you a question, and I need a straight answer.”
“Sure, doc,” replied Joe with a puzzled expression.
“I need to know what you and Carrie were doing down by the lake,” said the doctor. “I know you were probably doing something more than just talking. Did you and she just kiss or did you…,” the doctor’s voice trailed off.
“No, we didn’t,” said Joe, suddenly understanding the doctor’s question. “We kissed but that was all. We didn’t do anything more than that.” Joe face turned hard. “Why do you want to know?”
Doctor Martin didn’t answer. He looked out the window by Joe’s bed.
“Why do you want do know?” repeated Joe, his voice more insistent.
Martin turned reluctantly to look at Joe. “Carrie had…relations…with someone the night she died,” he said slowly.
“Oh, God, no!” cried Joe. His face crumpled and he closed his eyes in pain. Joe covered his eyes with his right hand. “No,” he sobbed. “Poor Carrie.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” said the doctor in a sympathetic voice. “I had to ask. When I examined the body and found the…evidence, well, I had to know whether you were involved.”
Joe nodded, his hand still covering his eyes. His body shuddered slightly, and Doctor Martin could hear the soft sobs.
“Joe, I have to ask you to keep this to yourself,” said the doctor. “Roy Coffee and I are the only ones who know about this. There’s no point telling the Winters, at least for now. It would only add to their pain. I’m sorry I had to tell you about this, but I had no choice.”
Joe looked up at the doctor, his eyes glistening with tears. “How did she die?” he asked.
Martin took a deep breath. “Her neck was broken,” he answered. “Probably she struggled against her attacker. I found some skin under her fingernails.”
Joe turned his face away and closed his eyes. His body seemed to have sunk into the bed and his face was the picture of misery. Doctor Martin looked at his patient with concern. He wished he hadn’t had to have this conversation with Joe.
The doctor walked to the small table next to the bed where his black bag sat. He reached into the bag and pulled out a small bottle and a spoon. The doctor uncorked the bottle and shook some white powder onto the spoon. He poured the powder from the spoon into a empty glass on the table. After re-corking the bottle and putting it back in his bag, Doctor Martin reached for the water pitcher on the table. He poured some water into the glass, then stirred the now milky mixture. Then he picked up the glass and turned back to the bed.
“Here, Joe, I want you to drink this,” he said, holding the glass out.
Joe turned his head. “What is it?” he asked.
“It’s something to help you sleep,” replied the doctor. He saw Joe’s body tense and saw the refusal forming on Joe’s lips. “You need to sleep,” said Doctor Martin quickly. Then he looked knowingly at Joe. “It will help you forget for awhile,” he added softly.
Joe didn’t say anything for a minute. Then he nodded and reached for the glass. He drank the mixture quickly, and handed the glass back to the doctor. Then he turned his head away once more.
Doctor Martin put the glass back on the table and closed up his medical bag. He stood watching Joe for a moment. It was hard to tell if the powders were working yet. Joe laid unmoving on the bed, his eyes closed. Finally Doctor Martin decided it didn’t matter if Joe were sleeping yet. If he wasn’t asleep right now, he would be soon. The doctor shook his head, then walked out of the room.
Doctor Martin walked slowly down the hall, and then down the stairs. As he descended into the large room below, the doctor was surprised to see only the Cartwrights sitting there. All three looked anxiously at the doctor as he descended the stairs.
“Is Joe all right?” Ben asked, his concern evident.
“He was pretty upset,” answered Doctor Martin. “I gave him some sleeping powders. He’ll probably sleep for several hours. Do you still have those powders I gave you last night?”
Ben nodded. “Good,” continued the doctor. “He needs lots of rest. I want you to give him some of that sleeping draught if he won’t rest on his own.” Doctor Martin looked around.
“Where are George and Roy?” he asked with a slight frown.
“They’ve left,” replied Ben. “Roy is going to talk with Ray Langston and see if he can find that other fellow Joe described. George went home. He said Katherine needed him.”
“Doc, Pa told us what Joe said,” Hoss said. “We didn’t want to ask why Mr. Winters was here, but did you find anything that might help?”
Doctor Martin thought for a moment before answering. He decided there was nothing to be gained by telling Ben and his sons about the assault. “Carrie had some skin under her nails,” he said slowly. “The man may have some scratches, and maybe some bruises. She fought hard before her neck was broken.”
“Scratches and a pair of black boots,” said Adam in a grim voice. “That’s not much to go on.”
“I know,” said the doctor regretfully. “I wish there was something more. I hate the thought of someone might get away with murder.”
Ben looked toward the top of the stairs. “ He won’t get away,” promised Ben. “I don’t care how long it takes. We’ll find him.”
The bright sun shining through the window woke Joe the next morning. He opened his eyes slowly but laid still on the bed. From the sun’s angle, Joe figured it was mid-morning. He wondered if he could go back to sleep.
Joe had slept almost the entire time since the doctor had left yesterday morning, waking only when his father or brothers brought him something to eat. He had eaten whatever was put in front of him, not tasting any of it. He also willingly drank the sleeping draught that was offered to him. Joe wanted nothing more than to sleep, for he found that Doctor Martin had been right. When he was asleep, he didn’t have to think about Carrie.
Ben had been concerned about Joe’s almost constantly sleeping and his willingness to take the sleeping powders. Such a docile attitude was uncharacteristic of his volatile youngest son. He had insisted that Doctor Martin check Joe carefully when he had come by this morning. The doctor understood Joe’s wanting to escape from the harsh reality around him right now, and he figured a few days rest could only help his patient. So he reassured Ben that Joe was mending, and tried to ease his old friend’s mind.
Joe laid on his side, his back turned to whoever was sitting in the chair in his room. Joe knew someone was there. He sense it as well as heard some slight movement. Joe didn’t want to talk with anyone. He didn’t want to be awake. Because when he was awake, his mind went back to that night. No matter how much he tried not to think about it, his thoughts would return to that moonlit night by the lake and Carrie. Her cries echoed in his head.
Joe finally decided he wasn’t going to be able to go back to sleep. He gave a soft sigh, and turned slowly on his back. He looked to see who was sitting in the chair. He was surprised to see Hop Sing.
“Hop Sing?” Joe said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Mr. Cartwright ask Hop Sing to watch Little Joe,” the Chinese cook explained. “Family all busy.”
Joe nodded his head slightly. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess the work has to be piling up. They must have a lot to do.”
“No work,” said Hop Sing with a slight shake of his head. “No work today. Family go to Virginia City.”
“Virginia City?” repeated Joe in a puzzled expression. “Why?”
“They go to say good-bye to Missie Carrie,” answered Hop Sing.
Ben was standing over his desk, looking at some papers, when he heard Hop Sing shouting. He was waiting for Hoss and Adam to come back into the house, to tell him the horses were saddled and ready. He knew they would have to leave soon to get to the funeral on time.
Ben frowned when he heard Hop Sing shouting. At first the tone was scolding, then it seemed to be alarmed. Ben hurried to the stairs. He had climbed only the first step when Hop Sing came running down, shouting excitedly in Chinese.
“Hop Sing!” exclaimed Ben, grabbing the cook by the arm. “What’s wrong? Is it Joe?”
Hop Sing replied in a spate of excited Chinese, gesturing up the stairs as he spoke.
“Calm down,” said Ben, although his voice was as agitated as the cook’s. “Calm down and tell me in English what’s wrong? Is something wrong with Joe?”
Hop Sing stopped and took a deep breath. “Little Joe not listen to Hop Sing,” said the Chinese cook. “He get out of bed.”
“What!” exclaimed Ben in alarm. “Why would he do that?”
“Little Joe say he go Virginia City,” answered Hop Sing. “He say he go to say good-bye to Missie Carrie.”
Ben pushed past the cook and ran up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, he turned and rushed down the hall to Joe’s room. He stopped as he reached the doorway.
Joe was sitting on the edge of his bed. The covers on the bed were thrown back, and one of the pillows was on the floor. Joe had a pair of tan pants on, and was struggling to get a sock on his foot. He was hunched forward and his left arm dangled at his side. Ben could see the thick bandage covering his bare back.
“Joseph!” shouted Ben in his most authoritative voice. “Get back in that bed. Now!”
Joe stopped the struggle with his sock and looked up. His face grew stony. “No, Pa,” he replied in a soft voice. “I’m going to Carrie’s funeral.”
Ben quickly crossed the room and stood over his son. “Joe, you’re not going anywhere,” he said sternly. “You’re not well enough to get out of bed, much less make the trip to Virginia City.”
“Pa, I’m going,” replied Joe in a stubborn voice. “If you don’t take me with you, I’ll get there on my own.”
“Joe, it’s only been two days since the doctor dug that bullet out of your back,” said Ben. “You’ve been barely able to stay awake since then. What makes you think you’re well enough to get to Virginia City.”
Joe looked to the floor for a minute. Ben could see the pain flickering across his son’s face. Then Joe looked up at his father.
“Pa, please,” he pleaded. “I have to go. I have to tell Carrie how sorry I am. I have to…” Joe’s voice broke and he swallowed hard. “I have to say goodbye,” he finished.
Ben stood over his son, torn with indecision. He understood Joe’s need to be at the funeral. He had buried three wives, and he knew how it important it had been for him to say goodbye to each of them. No matter how painful it had been, Ben had to say his farewells at their burials. He knew it was the first step in easing the grief, in healing the wounds caused by their deaths.
But Ben also knew Joe was far from well. He had almost lost his son on that black night two days ago. He wasn’t willing to do anything to put Joe at risk again.
Joe could see the indecision on Ben’s face. He spoke quickly, pressing his case.. “Pa, I have to go. I owe it to Carrie.” Joe took a deep breath and his face seemed to harden. “You can’t keep me from that funeral,” Joe said in a stubborn voice. “One way or the other, I’m going to be there. Now are you going to help me or not?”
Before Ben could answer, he heard the sound of heavy footsteps in the hall. He turned to the doorway. Adam and Hoss were standing by the door.
“Pa, what’s going on?” asked Hoss. “Hop Sing came running out to the barn. All I could make out was something about Joe.”
Adam looked at his half-dressed brother sitting on the edge of the bed. “Joe, what do you think you’re doing?” asked Adam with a frown. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“No,” Joe answered slowly. “I’m just getting dressed for Carrie’s funeral.” He looked up at Ben, his eyes pleading. “Pa, I have to go that funeral. Will you help me?”
Ben pursed his lips, then made a decision. “All right,” he said, his exasperation evident. “I guess if we don’t take you, you’ll try to get there on your own.” Ben turned back to the doorway. “Hoss, go hitch up the buggy. Adam, you go get some pillows and blankets.”
“But Pa…” protested Hoss.
“Just do it,” ordered Ben. “Please,” he added softly.
Adam and Hoss looked at each other, the doubt evident on their faces. But both men walked slowly away from the door.
“All right,” said Ben, turning back to Joe. “Let’s see what we can do about getting you dressed.”
Joe put his hand on his father’s arm. “Thank you,” he said softly.
Ben shook his head. “ Don’t thank me. I still think this is a bad idea, Joe,” he answered. “A real bad idea. I’m going to catch a lot of grief from Paul Martin when he sees you.”
Twenty minutes later, Ben was helping Joe walk slowly down the stairs. Joe’s left arm was inside his buttoned brown shirt, the shirt acting as a sling. Joe’s right arm was flung over Ben’s shoulders. Joe leaned heavily against his father as he walked.
Ben’s left arm was wrapped tightly around Joe’s ribcage. He held on to the railing for support as he helped Joe down the stairs. He could hear his son’s ragged breathing as they slowly climbed down the stairs. As soon as the pair reached the bottom of the stairs, Ben guided his son to the red leather chair near the fireplace. He eased Joe into the chair, then took a step back.
A fine sheen of sweat covered Joe’s face, and he was breathing hard. Joe’s eyes were half closed, evidence of the pain caused by his descent from his room. His jaws were clenched tightly.
“Joe, let’s call this off,” said Ben in a worried voice. “You’re in no shape to go to Virginia City.”
A stubborn look came across Joe’s face. “I’m going, Pa,” said Joe firmly. He took a deep breath. “I just need a minute to catch my breath.”
“Joe, I know how you feel,” said Ben. “I know how important it is to you to be at Carrie’s funeral. But it’s not worth killing yourself.”
“Pa, I’m not going to argue with you,” replied Joe stubbornly. “Either you help me out to that buggy, or I swear I’ll go out to the barn and saddle a horse.” Joe smiled weakly. “It might take me awhile, but I’ll do it.”
Ben shook his head. “I bet you would, too,” he muttered. He sighed and walked over to the front door. He pulled Joe’s hat and green jacket off a peg near the door and brought them back to his son. He eased Joe’s right arm into the jacket, then pulled it around his son’s back. Then Ben pulled the jacket tightly over Joe’s left shoulder.
Ben heard Joe grunt in pain as he pulled the jacket on, and he looked at his son with concern. Joe quickly looked up at Ben and nodded. “I’m all right,” said Joe.
“No, you’re not,” replied Ben as he put the hat firmly on Joe’s head.
Hoss opened the front door and stuck his head in. “Pa, the buggy’s all ready,” he announced. He looked at Joe with a frown. Joe looked pale, and a faint red spot of exertion was visible on Joe’s cheek. “Are you sure you want to do this, little brother?” he asked.
“I’m sure,” replied Joe in a firm voice.
Ben shook his head once more, then reached down and grabbed Joe’s right arm. He helped Joe up from the chair, and put his son’s right arm over his shoulders again.
Ben and Joe walked slowly across the room as Hoss watched with concern. He also shook his head as Ben helped Joe out the front door.
Adam stood by the buggy, the disapproval clearly evident on his face . He had a gray blanket draped over his arms. Two pillows were on the seat of the buggy behind him. Adam shook his head also as he watched Joe almost stagger out of the house.
Joe ignored his older brother, and continued determinedly toward the buggy. With each step, he leaned a bit more on his father for support.
Hoss followed Ben and Joe out from the house. When the pair stopped by the buggy, Hoss rushed forward. As soon as Ben eased Joe’s arm off his shoulders, Hoss put his huge hands around his brother’s waist. He lifted Joe into the buggy. Joe sank into the seat. The beads of sweat on his face and rapid breaths were evidence of what even that short walk had cost Joe.
“Thanks,” said Joe as he leaned against the pillows in the seat. Ben and Hoss rearranged the pillows, making sure Joe’s injured shoulder and back had support and cushion. Adam handed the blanket to Ben, and watched as Ben spread the cloth over Joe’s knees. “Fool kid,” muttered Adam as he turned to walk to his horse. A small smile of triumph flickered across Joe’s face. Hoss shook his head once more, then followed Adam.
Ben decided to try one last time to talk Joe out of what he considered a foolish act. “Joe,” said Ben softly. “Please, listen to me. Your making yourself sick isn’t going to help Carrie. Please, go back upstairs to bed.”
Joe’s face turned grim. “No,” said Joe, looking straight ahead.
Ben sighed, then climbed into the buggy. He settled himself on the seat next to Joe, then picked up the reins. With one last shake of his head, Ben snapped the reins and the buggy started forward.
The services had already started when Ben pulled the buggy up next to the fence outside the Virginia City cemetery. A tall, thin man wearing the black suit of a preacher was solemnly reading from a bible. The cemetery was crowded. Fifty or more people, many dressed in black, were standing near the open grave. A coffin made of polished oak rested nearby, waiting to be transferred into the ground.
Ben could see George Winters, dressed in a black suit, standing at the front of the crowd. Winters’ head was bowed. A woman in a black dress and black veil stood next to George. Her back was ramrod straight and she looked directly at the preacher. Only the lift of a hand to her eyes gave away her grief. Ben couldn’t see her face, but he knew the woman was Katherine Winters.
Ben parked the buggy near the gate, carefully tying the reins to the front of the buggy so the horse wouldn’t stray. Then he turned to Joe. Joe was as white as a sheet, and his eyes were fixed firmly on the coffin. Ben knew it wasn’t only the long ride to Virginia City that was upsetting his son.
“Joe,” Ben said softly. “I want you to stay in the buggy. You can watch from here. Do you understand me?”
Joe didn’t seem to hear. His eyes remained staring at the scene in front of him.
Adam and Hoss had tied their horses to the fence, and now both were hurrying to the buggy. “Hoss, you stay here with Joe,” said Ben as his two older sons approached the buggy. “Don’t let him get out.” Hoss nodded. Ben climbed out of the buggy and gave Joe another worried look. With a shake of head, he walked around the back of the buggy and into the cemetery. Adam walked slowly behind his father.
The sound of the buggy arriving had attracted several people’s attention. They had turned to look, then gave their attention back to the preacher. One man, however, broke away and started walking toward Ben.
“Ben, what’s Joe doing here?” hissed Doctor Martin in a low, almost angry voice. “He shouldn’t even be out of bed!”
“I know, Paul, I know,” whispered Ben in a weary voice. “But I couldn’t keep him away. He insisted on coming.”
Doctor Martin looked toward the buggy. He could see Joe watching the service, and he noted expression of pain and sorrow on Joe’s face. He also saw the stubborn set to Joe’s shoulders. The doctor pursed his lips, then shook his head. “You get him home as soon as this is over,” said the doctor. Ben nodded.
Ben walked to the edge of the crowd with Doctor Martin and Adam. Ben and Adam removed their hats, and stood silently as the preacher continued to read from the Bible. Ben’s mind wandered a bit as he listened to the drone of the preacher’s voice. He remembered other funerals he had attended, too many in his mind. He knew the pain and grief he had felt at all of them. Sometimes the pain was his, and sometimes it was for others. But he also knew the services had given him a sense of closure. He hoped for Joe’s sake that this particular service would do the same for his youngest son. He was worried about Joe, and not simply because of his son’s physical condition. Ben knew Joe felt responsible for Carrie’s death. The fact that no one knew who had killed Carrie or why only added to Joe’s sense of guilt. Ben closed his eyes and said a prayer for both Carrie and his son.
Ben was startled back to the present when he heard low voices and sensed the people around him moving. The service was over, and the coffin had been lowered into the grave. People were lining up to express their sympathy to the Winters. Ben hurried to join the crowd.
Adam had spent the service studying the people who were there. He saw Ray Langston standing in the middle of the crowd. There were too many people around him for Adam to get a good look at him. Adam’s gaze moved over the crowd. He stopped and stared when he saw a tall man with sandy hair and a mustache standing at the edge of the crowd. Adam kept his eyes firmly on the man. The man must have felt Adam looking at him. He looked around, eyes searching until he saw Adam. The two men exchanged steady gazes for a minute, and then the man looked away.
When the crowd started moving toward the Winters, Adam hurried over toward the stranger. He was standing near the sandy-haired man as the stranger approached the Winters.
“I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am for your loss,” said the stranger to Katherine Winters.
“Thank you, “ replied Katherine is a soft voice. “We appreciate your coming, Mr…..
“Cooper, Arnie Cooper,” supplied the man.
“Thank you, Mr. Cooper,” said Katherine graciously. She noted her husband was staring at the man with a cold expression. “I’m sorry,” said Katherine. “I’m not sure where we’ve met before.”
“Oh, we haven’t met, ma’am,” said Cooper. “I knew Carrie, well, just a little. We sort of bumped into each other a couple of times in town, and I saw her at the dance. She was nice, real nice.” Cooper shook his head. “Darn shame something like this happened to her.”
“Thank you,” Katherine said once again. Cooper nodded and moved off.
Adam had been watching and listening to Cooper. Now he realized Katherine Winters had turned to him. Adam walked forward and expressed his sympathy both sincerely and quickly. Then he went to follow Cooper.
Adam followed Cooper toward the horses. As he got closer to the man, he could see Cooper’s right hand and wrist for the first time. Three deep scratches ran down the side of the man’s hand and wrist. Adam hurried to catch up with Arnie Cooper. “Cooper!” said Adam loudly.
Cooper stopped and looked around, a puzzled expression on his face. He saw Adam approaching. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m Adam Cartwright,” said Adam, introducing himself. Cooper nodded. “I heard you were at the dance the other night talking to Carrie,” said Adam. Cooper nodded again, his expression now wary. “I was just wondering where you got those scratches on your hand,” continued Adam.
Cooper frowned. “Why do you want to know?” he asked.
“Just curious,” replied Adam easily.
Cooper’s eyes darted away for a minute, then returned to Adam’s face. “I scratched myself on some sticker bushes,” he said. “I was trying to chase a stray calf out of the brush. Not that it’s any business of yours.”
“I think Sheriff Coffee is looking for you,” said Adam, his expression growing hard.
“I already talked with the Sheriff,” replied Cooper. “I told him the same thing I’ll tell you. I don’t know anything about what happened to that girl. I left the dance and went for a ride that night. I was never near the lake.”
“Somebody see you on this ride?” asked Adam.
Cooper’s eyes dropped. “No,” he admitted. “I just rode for awhile then headed back to the bunkhouse at the Circle R. That’s the ranch where I’m working.”
Adam nodded. He knew the Circle R, a large spread north of Virginia City.
“What time did you get in?” he asked
“What is this?” bristled Cooper. “You ain’t no lawman. I don’t have to answer your questions.”
“My brother was shot that night, almost killed,” replied Adam. “A young girl was murdered. I want to know who’s responsible.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” replied Cooper angrily. He pushed past Adam and walked rapidly to his horse.
Adam started after the man, then stopped. He had no reason to go after Cooper. The man had talked with Carrie at the dance, and he had some scratches on his hand. Every cowhand Adam knew got scratches. There was no proof Arnie Cooper had shot Joe and killed Carrie. Besides, Adam knew where Cooper was working. He decided to let things ride for now.
Ben had waited as the crowd of people surged forward to express their sympathy to the Winters. Almost everyone else had moved on when Ben approached the couple.
“George, Katherine, I’m so sorry,” Ben said, his voice sincere. “Carrie was a wonderful girl. She’ll be missed.”
George Winters merely nodded his head. But Katherine Winters put her hand on Ben’s arm. “Thank you, Ben,” said Katherine softly.
Ben turned to Winters. “George, would you like me to send some hands over to your place for a few days?” he asked. He knew Winters ran his small spread almost single-handedly, hiring cowboys temporarily only at round-up or other particularly busy times.
George Winters shook his head. “Thank you, Ben,” he said. “But I don’t think that will be necessary.” He looked away. “Keeping busy, well, it helps,” he added.
Ben nodded and turned to Katherine. He could see her face was pale and her eyes were rimmed in red. But her face was composed and she held herself with a dignified air.
“Katherine, if you need anything, anything at all, I hope you’ll let us know,” said Ben sincerely.
“Thank you, Ben,” replied Katherine. “But I’ve shed my tears and I’m getting use to the ache in my heart. Now I’ve got to try to get on with the business of living.” Katherine looked over Ben’s shoulder. With the crowd dispersed, she could see the buggy by the fence for the first time. Katherine frowned. “Ben, what’s Joe doing here?” she asked. “George told me how badly he was hurt. He shouldn’t be here.”
“I know,” agreed Ben. “But he insisted on coming. He wanted to be here for Carrie. Joe’s very upset about what happened. He’s blaming himself. I’m hoping this will help him somehow.”
“It wasn’t Joe’s fault,” replied Katherine. “He shouldn’t feel that way.” Katherine’s maternal instincts began to assert themselves. “I’ll go talk to him,” she said.
Ben looked at Winters as Katherine started walking toward the fence. Winters just shrugged his shoulders. The two men started after Katherine.
Ben had gone only a few feet when he felt a hand grab his arm. Ben stopped and turned to see who was tugging at him. He was surprised to see Ray Langston.
“Mr. Cartwright,” said Langston. “Can I talk with you a minute?” He saw Ben’s hesitation, so Langston quickly continued. “I know this ain’t the time or place, but I need to ask you for a job.”
“A job?” said Ben with a frown. “I thought you were working at Charlie Rutherford’s ranch.”
“I was,” replied Langston. He looked down. “I got fired.” Langston raised his eyes and looked defiantly at Ben. “Rutherford’s foreman, well, he was always riding me, always on my back. I got mad at him and we had a fight. Rutherford fired me.”
Ben considered Langston. He noticed the faint bruises on the man’s face for the first time. Langston’s bandanna was tied wide around the man’s neck. Ben knew Langston’s reputation for a hot temper and quick fists. He also knew Rutherford’s foreman was rather harsh with the men who worked on that ranch. The bruises could have come from such a fight. But the marks could easily been the result of something else, something like a struggle with a young girl.
Langston watched Ben’s face and saw the doubt. “Please, Mr. Cartwright,” Langston pleaded. “I need a job real bad. Nobody will hire me. The word has spread about Sheriff Coffee asking me about Carrie. I didn’t have nothing to do with it, but nobody believes that. Everybody I ask for a job looks at me like I’m a murderer.” Langston looked down again. “I wouldn’t hurt Carrie,” he said. “I’d never hurt her.”
Ben glanced over his shoulder and saw Katherine was almost at the buggy. “Come to the ranch tomorrow,” he said, turning back to Langston. “I’ll see what we have for you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” said Langston gratefully. “Thank you a lot!”
Ben nodded and hurried off to join the Winters.
Joe was sitting in the buggy, still staring into the cemetery. His face reflected the misery he was feeling. The look on Joe’s face discouraged many people who were leaving the cemetery from coming over to him. The few who did approach the buggy to express their sympathy got no reaction from Joe. He didn’t hear or see them. He continued to stare into cemetery. Hoss was standing next to the buggy, and he had noted the vacant look on Joe’s face. Hoss quickly answered the people who came up to Joe, thanking them for their good wishes and telling them Joe wasn’t up to conversation yet. The well-wishers didn’t linger.
Joe wasn’t seeing the scene in the cemetery. His vision was filled with images of Carrie. He saw her as a child, laughing and teasing him in the school yard. He remembered her at her sixteenth birthday party, proudly displaying her new dress and pinned up hair. Joe’s mind was filled with pictures of Carrie – at dances, at parties and at small family gatherings. She was so happy and alive in Joe’s memories, flirting with him and many of the other young men who buzzed around her like bees seeking a queen. But most of all, Joe kept remembering that night by the lake, and Carrie’s screams of terrors.
“Joe?” A voice broke into Joe’s reveries, and a hand on his knee shook him back to reality. Joe slowly looked around. Katherine Winters was standing next to the carriage, looking anxiously into Joe’s face.
The sight of Carrie’s mother sent another stab of pain into Joe. She looked frail to him, and he could see grief in her eyes. Joe lowered his eyes.
“Mrs. Winters,” he said in a choked voice. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry about what happened to Carrie.” Joe swallowed hard. He could feel the tears in his eyes. “I should have never taken her down to the lake,” he said in a barely audible voice.
“Joe, it wasn’t your fault,” said Katherine in an earnest voice. She place her hand on Joe’s chin and gently lifted his face. “Joe, listen to me,” continued Katherine. “You are not to blame for this. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Joe nodded but Katherine could see the disbelief in his eyes.
“Joe, I’m going to tell you a little secret,” said Katherine. “Carrie was plotting and scheming for weeks on how to get you to take her to the lake.” Joe’s eyes widened in surprise. “Carrie decided awhile ago that she wanted you to court her,” Katherine explained. She gave Joe a small smile. “I think it was because you were one of the few fellows who didn’t chase after her. So she was going to get your attention. I heard her and Mary Lou talking, and I heard her say how she had to figure out how to get you alone. It wasn’t your idea to take her to the lake; you only thought it was. And neither of you could have known what was going to happen,” Katherine finished in a firm voice.
“But still..” Joe started.
“But nothing,” Katherine said sharply. She smiled at Joe. “Carrie wouldn’t want you to blame yourself. What she would want is for you to go home and take care of yourself.
She’d want you well and strong, and so do her father and I.”
Joe didn’t say anything for a minute. He seemed to be thinking about Katherine’s words. Then he nodded. “Thank you,” he said. Joe leaned back against the pillows. “Thank you,” he repeated softly.
The horse at the front of the buggy suddenly shook its head sharply, trying to rid itself of an annoying fly. The movement made the harness jingle. Joe heard the noise and frowned. Then he sat up abruptly.
“Joe, what’s wrong?” said Ben, coming up to the side of the buggy. “Are you all right?
Joe nodded, still frowning. His mind was clearly somewhere else. “Something,” he said slowly. “Something I remember. That night, down by the lake, I heard something.” Joe’s frown deepened as he thought harder. Then his face cleared. “The jingle,” he said. “I heard it that night. As the man walked by me. I heard a jingle.”
“What kind of jingle?” Winters asked in an urgent voice.
“It was close to me,” Joe said. He turned his head a bit as he thought. “Spurs!” he exclaimed. “It was spurs jingling.”
“That’s not much help, Joe,” said Hoss. “Lots of fellows wear spurs.”
“Yeah, but this was a different kind of sound,” replied Joe. “Not like a regular spur. It was more like…” he voice trailed off. “It was the sound of those fancy spurs, the kind with the tiny bells on them,” Joe said. “I looked at them in the mercantile a few weeks ago. They had a different sound than a normal spur.”
Winters turned to Ben. “We’ve got to find out who has a set of spurs like that,” George Winters said in an excited voice.
“Calm down, George,” replied Ben. “Just because someone has a set of fancy spurs doesn’t make him a killer.”
“No but it narrows things down,” replied Winters.
Joe sank back against the pillows. He suddenly felt as if his arms and legs were made out of putty. Everything around him seemed to be happening in slow motion and a dark mist seemed to cloud his vision. His face slackened and his eyes started to close. He was breathing a bit harder, and his already pale face seemed to grow even whiter.
Katherine Winters saw Joe sag. “Ben,” she said sharply. “I think you’d better get Joe home.”
Doctor Martin and Adam had been standing a few feet away from the knot of people around the buggy. Now both hurried forward. The doctor edged his way up to the buggy. He grabbed Joe’s wrist and counted silently. Then he put his hand on Joe’s cheek. Joe didn’t seem to notice.
“Ben, Katherine’s right,” said Doctor Martin. “Joe needs to get back to bed right away. He should never have gotten out of bed.”
Ben looked at Joe with alarm. He quickly moved around the buggy and to the other side, then climbed into the seat next to his son. Picking up the reins, he leaned forward a bit. “Adam, go tell Sheriff Coffee what Joe said. Hoss, you come with us. I’ll need you to help me with Joe,” ordered Ben. Adam and Hoss nodded and both hurried to their horses.
“I’ll follow you out to the ranch,” said Doctor Martin. He quickly walked toward a buggy parked a few yards away.
Ben snapped the reins and the horse started to walk. He snapped the reins again, and the buggy picked up speed. Ben quickly guided the buggy toward the road.
The man standing by the trees watched as the buggy sped down the road. He wondered briefly why he had felt compelled to come to the funeral. The question didn’t linger with him. He wasn’t a man given to introspection. He was used to acting on impulse.
He had been so angry that night down by the lake. He had acted without thinking. He hadn’t meant to kill the girl. He only wanted to love her, to possess her. He had lost his temper when she fought him so hard and called him those vile names. He was sorry she had died. But he was glad, in a way, also. Now no one else could possess her either.
The man looked at the fading image of the buggy as it traveled down the road. Cartwright was another matter, he thought. He was still angry at Joe Cartwright. He was angry because Joe Cartwright had gotten what he wanted – Carrie Winters’ love. He also was angry because Joe was still alive while Carrie was dead. In the man’s mind, that was wrong, all wrong. It was something that he would have to make right.
“I don’t care what it takes,” said Doctor Martin as he snapped his medical case shut. “Threats, physical force, whatever. But you keep Joe in that bed for the next two days.”
Ben nodded his head. He stood at the end of the bed, watching Joe anxiously. He was still picturing the harrowing ride home, with Joe sitting as limp as a rag doll in the buggy. When they reached the house, Joe had made a feeble attempt to get out of the buggy, then fell back into the seat. Ben and Hoss had carried Joe into the house, and to his bed. The doctor had arrived in the bedroom just as Ben had finished undressing his son. Ben had watched as Doctor Martin examined Joe, but it didn’t take a doctor to see Joe was exhausted and feverish.
Doctor Martin looked at his old friend as he picked up his bag. “He’s going to be all right, Ben,” said the doctor in a reassuring tone of voice. “There’s no sign of infection or the wound re-opening. He has a fever, but it’s not very high.”
Ben nodded again, but the concern was still evident on his face.
“It was all just too much for him,” continued the doctor. “The ride to Virginia City, the funeral, everything. He’s drained, both physically and emotionally. He’ll sleep for a long time. I doubt if he’ll wake up until morning.”
“I should have never let him go to that funeral,” said Ben, shaking his head.
“Well, from what you said, and knowing Joe, I doubt if you could have stopped him,” replied the doctor. “What he needs now is just rest, plenty of rest. Keep him in bed for the next few days.” Doctor Martin laid his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “He’ll be all right, Ben,” he said again.
Ben took a deep breath and nodded.
“I’ll be back in the morning to check on him,” said the doctor. He gave Ben a reassuring pat on the shoulder and walked out of the room.
Ben stood watching Joe sleep for several minutes. He was upset with himself for letting Joe talk him into what he had known was a foolhardy and potentially risky trip to Virginia City. He had known the funeral would take its toll on Joe. Whatever comfort Joe had found at the cemetery wasn’t worth what it had cost his son to go there.
“Mr. Cartwright?” said a soft voice with a Chinese accent.
Ben turned to see Hop Sing standing in the doorway. “Yes?” replied Ben.
“Mr. Adam home,” said the cook. “He say he need to talk with you. Hop Sing stay with Little Joe.”
Ben nodded and turned to give Joe one last look. Then he left the bedroom.
Adam and Hoss were sitting on the sofa. They looked anxiously at Ben as he descended the stairs. Both were concerned about their father as much as their brother.
“The doc told us Joe was all right,” said Hoss as he watched Ben ease himself into the red leather chair near the fireplace.
Ben nodded and glanced up to the top of the stairs. “Joe just needs plenty of rest,” said Ben. “Rest and time to heal his wounds.” Ben took a deep breath, and turned to Adam.
“Hop Sing said you wanted to talk with me,” Ben said to his oldest son.
“I just wanted to let you know what I found out,” replied Adam. “Roy Coffee and I talked with Frank over at the mercantile. He said he sold three sets of those fancy spurs. Bill Miller over at the Golden Nugget bought one set. Charlie Rutherford bought a set. The third set went to a fellow who left on the stage the morning of the dance.”
“That doesn’t help much,” commented Hoss.
“Frank also said he bought the spurs from a peddler who was selling them to stores all over the territory,” added Adam. “So someone could have a set they bought someplace else.”
“So we’re right back where we started,” said Hoss, shaking his head.
“Do you remember who was wearing spurs like that at the dance?” asked Ben.
“No,” replied Adam with a shake of his head. “I’ve been wracking my brain but I can’t seem to remember. I just wasn’t paying any attention. Roy is going to ask around to see if anyone else can remember seeing someone wearing spurs like that at the dance.”
“I’m not too optimistic about that,” said Ben. “I doubt if anyone else would have noticed either.”
“There’s one more thing,” said Adam. “I stopped by Charlie Rutherford’s place after I left Virginia City, and I asked him about the spurs he bought. He said that his set were missing.”
“Missing!” exclaimed Ben. “Does he know what happened to them?”
“No, not for sure,” replied Adam. “He said they disappeared the day before the dance. He also said that a few other things were missing from the ranch. Nothing big, just things like a new bridle and such.”
“Does Charlie know who took them?” asked Hoss with a frown.
“Charlie isn’t sure,” answered Adam. “But he said his foreman thought it was Ray Langston.”
“Langston?” said Ben. “Why him?”
“There’s no reason, really,” said Adam. “Charlie said his foreman didn’t like Langston, and accused him of stealing. They searched Langston’s things but didn’t find anything. Evidently, Langston and Charlie’s foreman had some words, and then a scuffle. Langston got fired. No one seems to know where he is working now.”
“He might be working here, starting tomorrow,” commented Ben.
“Langston here?” said Hoss.
Ben nodded. “Yes, he came up to me at the funeral and said he needed a job,” said Ben thoughtfully. “He said no one would hire him because Roy Coffee was talking to him about Carrie’s murder. He also told me he had a fight with Charlie’s foreman. He had some bruises on his face.”
“I got the impression that it wasn’t much of a fight between Langston and Charlie’s foreman,” said Adam slowly. “Could Langston have gotten the bruises someplace else?”
“I honestly don’t know,” answered Ben. “The bruises weren’t very bad. They could have come from a scuffle.”
“You’re not going to hire Langston now, are you, Pa?” asked Hoss.
Ben sat back in his chair and stared into the fire for a few minutes. “Yes,” said Ben with a nod of his head. “Yes I am.”
“But Pa!” exclaimed Hoss. “If Langston’s the one who shot Joe….”
“There’s no proof he shot Joe,” said Ben firmly. “There’s no proof he took the spurs or that he got those bruises someplace other than a fight with Charlie Rutherford’s foreman.” Ben saw the doubt on Adam’s and Hoss’ faces. “All we know for sure is he asked Carrie for a dance that night,” continued Ben. “And because of that, no one will hire him. That’s not right. If it was one of you boys, I’d want people to give you the benefit of the doubt. We need to do the same for Ray Langston.”
“Pa, I know you want to be fair,” said Adam slowly. “But don’t you think it’s taking kind of a big chance having him around the ranch?”
“Maybe,” admitted Ben. “But I don’t think Langston is a killer. He seemed genuinely upset at Carrie’s funeral.”
“I still don’t like it, Pa,” said Hoss.
“We’ll keep an eye on him,” promised Ben. “He can work fixing those fences down in the south pasture. And at night, he’ll be in the bunk house with the rest of the hands. There won’t be any reason for him to come near the ranch house.”
“And if he does come near the ranch house?” asked Adam.
“I don’t intend to leave Joe alone,” said Ben. “Not until we catch whoever did this. If Ray Langston comes near the house, he’ll have to deal with me.”
“All right,” agreed Adam reluctantly. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
Doctor Martin’s prediction proved correct. Joe slept the day away and through the night. Ben checked on his youngest son periodically, both concerned and relieved to see him sleeping. He was concerned because Joe was still so obviously ill. His fever was low but it hung on stubbornly. At the same time, Ben felt that Joe being able to sleep was a good sign. The sense of guilt that had troubled Joe’s sleep in previous days seemed to be dissipating.
The sun had been up only an hour when Ben returned the next day to Joe’s room to check on his son. He was surprised to see that Joe was awake. Joe was laying still in the bed, staring at the ceiling. He didn’t seem to hear Ben come in.
“Joe,” said Ben in a soft voice. “How are you feeling, son?”
Joe’s gaze drifted to his father. Joe looked as if he were surprised to see Ben standing next to his bed.
“I’m all right,” said Joe in a distracted voice. “Just a little tired.”
Ben rested his hand on Joe’s forehead for a minute, then nodded in satisfaction as he felt that Joe’s temperature was only slightly higher than usual. “You’re staying in that bed for the next few days, do you understand me?” said Ben sternly. “I’m not letting you talk me into any more foolishness.”
Joe nodded, his distraction still evident.
“Joe,” said Ben in a much kinder voice. “I wish you would stop feeling so guilty about Carrie. No one is blaming you for what happened. You heard what Katherine said yesterday.”
Joe looked at his father with sorrowful eyes. “Yeah, I heard,” replied Joe. He shook his head. “But it’s hard, Pa. I feel so bad about what happened. I keep thinking how it could have been so different. I wish we had never gone near that lake.”
“I know,” said Ben. “But you can’t change what happened. Everyone has done something that they later wished they hadn’t. Sometimes, an event that starts out so usual, so ordinary has tragic results. There’s no way to foresee something like that. And brooding about it isn’t going to change things.”
“If only we hadn’t gone to the lake..” started Joe.
“If you hadn’t gone to the lake, Carrie might still have died,” interjected Ben. Joe looked startled. “Whoever did this probably followed you,” continued Ben. “He could have followed you any place. He could have attacked you on the road or even at the Winters.
Going to the lake didn’t make any difference.”
“It made it easier for him,” argued Joe.
“Yes, yes it did,” admitted Ben. “But that doesn’t mean it still wouldn’t have happened. You had no reason to suspect there was someone following you and Carrie. You would have been caught unaware almost any place.”
Joe looked thoughtful. “Maybe,” he said with a shrug. He looked up at Ben. “Do you know who killed Carrie?”
“No,” said Ben with a shake of his head. “Roy Coffee is checking on those spurs but so far, there’s no hard evidence of who the killer is.”
“Pa, I want him,” said Joe in a grim voice. “I want him bad. I want to see him hang.”
“That won’t bring back Carrie,” answered Ben.
“I know,” said Joe. “But I want him to pay for what he did.”
Ben looked at his son. Joe was still pale and his face reflected both his fatigue and his troubled thoughts. “So do I, Joe,” said Ben softly. “So do I.”
The afternoon sun was dipping in the sky when Arnie Cooper rode into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house two days later. Adam was standing near the corral, talking with Hoss, when Cooper rode in. Adam was surprised to see the cowboy. Hoss noted the look on his brother’s face and turned to see what had startled his brother. Hoss recognized Cooper from both Joe and Adam’s description. He watched the man warily.
Adam took a few steps across the yard and met Cooper as he was reining his horse to a stop. “Can I help you?” Adam asked in an even tone.
“I’m Arnie Cooper,” replied the cowboy. He looked an Adam with an uncomfortable gaze. “We, uh, met the other day at the cemetery.” Adam nodded. “I came over to pick up the bull.”
“The bull?” said Adam with a frown. He thought for a minute, then his face cleared. “The seed bull for the Circle R!” exclaimed Adam. “I forgot all about it.”
Now it was Cooper’s turn to frown. “My boss said he had a deal with Mr. Cartwright,” said Cooper.
“He does,” Adam assured the man. “We promised the Circle R use of the bull for three months. It’s just that with all that’s been happening, I forgot all about it.”
“Well, where is it?” asked Cooper. “I want to get back to the Circle R before it gets too late.”
“The bull is still out in the north pasture,” said Adam. “We’ll need to bring him in. It will take awhile.”
“How long?” asked Cooper.
“Too long for you to start back to the Circle R today,” replied Adam. He looked at Cooper thoughtfully. “Look, why don’t you plan to spend the night in the bunkhouse here,” said Adam. “I’ll send someone out to get the bull and bring it in. You can leave first thing in the morning.”
“Well, I guess that’s all right,” said Cooper, his voice reflecting his unhappiness with the situation. “My boss told me not to come back without the bull.”
“I’ll send somebody after the bull right away,” Adam said. “You can put your horse up in the barn. The bunkhouse is right behind it.”
“Thanks,” said Cooper. He swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted. As he did, his spurs jingled with an almost musical tone. Adam looked at the spurs. A tiny bell was attached to each.
“Those are unusual spurs you’re wearing,” said Adam, trying to sound casual.
Cooper stopped and reddened a bit. “Yeah, they’re pretty fancy,” he admitted. “I bought them over in Carson City about six weeks ago. Kind of wish I hadn’t. The fellows at the Circle R have been kidding me about them ever since I got them.” Cooper turned and led his horse toward the barn.
Hoss walked up to Adam. “You see those spurs?” Hoss asked his brother. Adam nodded.
“What do you think we ought to do?”
Adam didn’t say anything for a minute. “I think we ought to tell Roy Coffee,” he said slowly.
“Is that all?” asked Hoss, obviously surprised.
“What else would you suggest?” asked Adam.
Hoss looked uncomfortable. “I don’t know,” he said. “But he’s wearing spurs like Joe described, and you said he had scratches on his hand. And he was talking with Carrie at the dance.”
“That’s hardly enough evidence to accuse a man of murder,” commented Adam wryly.
“Yeah, but it sure is suspicious,” said Hoss.
“I agree,” said Adam. “That’s why I think we should tell Roy Coffee.”
As the two brothers were talking, Ray Langston rode into the yard. He looked at the Cartwrights, but didn’t say anything as he guided his horse toward the barn.
“You finish the fences in the south pasture already?” Hoss called to Langston as Langston dismounted in front of the barn.
“No, I ran out of nails,” replied Langston. “I figure it’s too late to go back out there today. I’ll load up and head back first thing in the morning.” Langston led his horse into the barn.
Adam watched Langston disappear into the barn, then turned to Hoss. “How is Langston working out?” he asked.
“Well, he ain’t the hardest worker we’ve ever had,” said Hoss. “But he does what he’s told. He hasn’t caused any trouble.”
“Any sign of those spurs that disappeared from Charlie Rutherford’s place?” asked Adam.
Hoss shook his head. “No,” he said. “But one of the hands told me that he spotted Langston out by Cedar Creek yesterday. He said it looked like Langston was burying something. When he asked Langston about it, Langston got mad. Told him to mind his own business.”
“Did you ask him about it?” asked Adam.
“Yeah, I did,” replied Hoss. “He said he found a dead fox. Said he was just burying it to keep the coyotes away.”
“Well, it could be true,” said Adam.
“It could be,” agreed Hoss. “But he sure was acting funny about it.”
Adam sighed and shook his head. “I sure wish we could find something that would definitely identified who killed Carrie Winters,” he said. He shook his head again. “I’m going to get that bull. At least, I can find that.”
Ben had expected to find Joe asleep when he peeked into his son’s room about nine o’clock that night. He was surprised to see the lamp in the room was still lit. Ben was even more surprised to see Joe’s bed was empty. He pushed opened the door and looked in.
Joe was sitting in a chair by the window, staring into the night. He wore a dark robe over his night shirt, and his left arm was resting inside the robe. Joe’s face had a pensive look as he gaze out the window.
“What are you doing out of bed?” demanded Ben as he strode into the room.
Joe turned to face his father. “I’m tired of being in bed,” he replied in an irritated voice.
Ben crossed the room and stood by the window. “Joe, I know you’re getting bored,” he said in an understanding tone. “But you’ve got to follow the doctor’s orders. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself flat on your back again.”
“The doc said two days in bed,” said Joe. “I’ve spent two days in bed. Now I’m ready to get up.” Joe looked out the window. “Somewhere out there is the man who killed Carrie,” said Joe. “I want to find him.”
“We’ll find him, Joe,” promised Ben.
Outside, standing in the trees, the man watched the silhouettes in the window. He liked standing in the trees. It made him feel as if he were invisible. He gazed up at the window again. One of the hands in the bunkhouse had told him that the window was part of Joe Cartwright’s room. The man frowned when he thought of the conversation in the bunkhouse. He had mentioned Joe’s name casually. He had thought the hands would be indifferent about what happened. He was surprised by the concern for Joe and the anger the hands had expressed about the shooting. He found all the hands liked and respected the Cartwrights. Many of the men talked like Joe Cartwright was their friend, not their boss.
The man shook his head. He had never been at a place where the boss was so well liked. Joe Cartwright had it all, he thought angrily. He was rich, good looking, and everyone liked him. Carrie had liked Joe, maybe even loved him. He had had so little to offer Carrie. It was no wonder she spurned him in favor of Joe Cartwright.
It wasn’t fair that Joe had so much and he had so little, thought the man. The man could feel the anger growing inside of him. Without thinking, he pulled his gun from his holster and pointed it toward the window. He was going to make Joe Cartwright pay for taking Carrie away from him. The man saw the silhouettes in the window starting to move. He pulled the trigger.
Ben finally convinced Joe to go back to bed. He was helping Joe out of the chair when the shot came through the window. The bullet smashed the glass and sped into the side of the chair. Splinters of wood flew into the air.
As soon as Ben heard the shot, he pushed Joe to the floor and covered him with his body. He heard Joe grunt as his injured shoulder hit the floor. Ben froze, waiting to see if there was another shot. He heard the sounds of footsteps and yelling in the hall. He also could feel Joe struggling underneath him, trying to get up. Ben firmly but gently pushed his son down to the floor.
Adam and Hoss ran into the rooms, both carrying pistols in their hands. “What happened?” asked Adam anxiously.
“Shot came through the window,” replied Ben. “Get outside and see if you can find anything!” Adam turned and ran out the door.
Hoss started to follow his older brother, then stopped. “Is Joe all right?” he asked.
“I’m all right,” answered a muffled voice from the floor. “Unless Pa smothers me.”
Hoss grinned and rushed out of the bedroom.
Ben heard the sound of Adam’s shouts from outside the house and the babble of voices as others ran into the yard. He was sure whoever had fired the shot wouldn’t be hanging around to face the men outside. He slowly lifted himself off of Joe, then bent to help his youngest son up.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Ben asked Joe as he helped his son to his feet.
“I’m all right,” Joe assured him. “That bullet missed me by a good inch,” he added with a wry smile. Joe lifted his left shoulder a bit, then winced. “I just wish you hadn’t pushed me down on my bad shoulder,” he added. “Next time, try and push me to the right.”
Ben breathed a sigh of relief. If Joe was making wisecracks, he was all right. “If you had stayed in bed like you should have, this wouldn’t have happened,” scolded Ben. He quickly guided Joe away from the window and over to the bed. Ben hadn’t meant to snap at Joe. He was angry and scared. He was angry that someone had the nerve to try to kill his son in his own home, and scared that that someone had almost succeeded.
“I’m all right, Pa,” Joe said once again as he neared the bed. “You can let go now. You’re bruising the only good arm I’ve got.”
Ben looked at Joe a startled expression. He realized he was still holding tightly on to Joe’s arm, unconsciously reassuring himself that his son was safe. Ben quickly released Joe’s arm. “You get in that bed and stay there,” he said sternly to Joe. Then the expression on his face softened. “Please,” added Ben.
Joe eased himself onto the bed just as Adam and Hoss walked back into the room. “Did you find anything?” asked Joe.
Adam shook his head. “No, nothing,” he said. “Nobody saw anything, or heard anything until the shot.”
“Could if have been…” Ben hesitated. “One of the new hands?” he finished awkwardly.
“Don’t know, Pa,” said Hoss. He stared at Ben with a steady gaze. Ben realized Hoss had more to say, but not around Joe.
Turning to Joe, Ben repeated his orders to his son. “You get in that bed and stay there,” said Ben. He turned back to his older sons. “Adam, get something to board up that window. Hoss, why don’t you see if Hop Sing has any coffee. I think we could all use a cup.”
“I don’t know about you, Pa,” said Hoss as he left the room. “But I could use something stronger than coffee.”
An hour later, Ben walked down the stairs to join his older sons. He had stayed with Joe until the window was boarded up and made excuses to linger in the room when Adam was finished. He knew he was probably being overly cautious. Whoever took that shot was not likely to return that night. But Ben was reluctant to leave Joe alone. Finally, Joe grumbled about not being able to sleep with Ben prowling around the room like a caged tiger. Ben smiled wryly, and forced himself to leave.
As he descended the stairs, he saw Adam and Hoss were sitting on the sofa, talking in low voices. He quickly walked over and sat on the low table across from the sofa. “What did you find out?” he asked softly.
“We didn’t find anything exactly, Pa,” Hoss said, struggling to explain. “It’s sort of who wasn’t where they were suppose to be.”
“What Hoss is trying to say,” explained Adam, “is that Ray Langston wasn’t in the bunkhouse when that shot was fired. Arnie Cooper was out of the bunkhouse when the shot was fired, too.” Over dinner, Adam had explained to his father about Cooper staying over, and had also told Ben about the spurs.
“Did you ask Cooper where he was when the shot was fired?” asked Ben.
“I did, Pa,” said Hoss. “He said he was in the barn, taking care of his horse.”
“Ray Langston said he was just out taking a walk,” added Adam. “Seems he does that almost every night.”
“Did anyone see either of them outside the bunkhouse?” asked Ben, his exasperation growing.
“No, they didn’t,” said Hoss. “Both of them were in the yard when we were looking around, but no one saw where they came from. It was dark and pretty confused out there.”
Ben let out a sigh. “So either one of them could have fired that bullet at Joe,” he said.
“Or neither of them,” added Adam. “We don’t know that it’s Langston or Cooper who is the killer. It could be someone else.”
Ben shook his head. “We’re getting no closer to find that killer,” he said. He glanced at the stairs. “But whoever it is, he’s still trying to get to Joe.” Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “We’ve got to find him,” Ben said in an urgent voice. “He’s tried twice to kill Joe. I’m not going to let him try again.”
Over the next few days, Adam and Hoss talked with every hand on the Ponderosa, and everyone they could remember from the dance, looking for any clue that might identify Carrie Winters’ killer. All they got for their efforts was a lot of head shaking and sympathetic comments. No one remembered anything that would help in their quest for the killer.
Adam had ridden to Virginia City the day after the shot was fired into Joe’s room. He told Roy Coffee about the shooting and about Arnie Cooper’s spurs. Roy had promised to continue his search for the killer, also. But the sheriff had no more success than the Cartwrights.
Ben spent the time hovering around Joe like a mother hen protecting a chick. He checked on Joe regularly, using excuses like making sure he was still in bed or giving him medicine. Joe understood why his father was concerned and he tried not to complain too much.
The day after the shooting, Doctor Martin declared Joe fit enough to get dressed and come downstairs. Ben found this declaration to be both good news and bad news. The good news was Joe was recovering. The bad news was Joe was now mobile, and a mobile Joe would be harder to protect.
On the morning of the fourth day after the bullet shattered Joe’s bedroom window, Ben was sitting at his desk, trying futilely to make the accounting books balance. His inability to make the figures come out right was partially caused by his watching Joe out of the corner of his eye.
Joe was sitting in the red leather chair near the fire. He was fully dressed, and his left arm rested in a dark sling. Joe had a book on his lap, but he wasn’t reading. He was staring into the fire, looking for the answer to the same question that had sent Adam and Hoss to Virginia City again this morning. Joe wanted to know who killed Carrie Winters.
Ben had tried to avoid telling Joe about Arnie Cooper and Ray Langston, and their suspicions about both men. He felt Joe had enough on his mind. But Joe could tell his father was keeping something from him. Over breakfast, he had questioned his father, and demanded to know everything. Ben had tried to brush off the questions, without success. Joe had been relentless. Finally, Ben gave in and told Joe everything they knew.
Now Joe sat mulling over the information in his mind. The echoes of Carrie’s screams and Joe’s feelings of guilt over her death were both starting to fade in Joe’s mind, but his determination to find the killer was a strong as ever. Joe kept going over that night by the lake in his mind, trying to think of something that might help him identify Carrie’s killer. But nothing came to him. Joe had no further revelations, no clue about who shot him and killed Carrie.
The sound of a wagon coming speedily toward the house attracted Ben’s attention. He frowned, wondering who was hurrying toward the Ponderosa at this hour of the morning. He put down his pencil, and stood. As he began to walk toward the front door, he heard a frenzied pounding on the door. Ben walked faster. He was surprised when he pulled the door open and saw Katherine Winters standing there.
“Katherine!” exclaimed Ben. He saw the frantic look on her face. “What’s wrong?”
“Ben, you’ve got to help me,” said Katherine in a breathless rush of words. “You’ve got to stop George from doing something I know he’ll regret.”
“Calm down, Katherine,” said Ben, trying to soothe her. “Come in and tell me what this is all about.” Ben pulled the door open a bit wider and Katherine walked into the house. She nodded at Joe, who was watching her with open curiosity. Then she turned to Ben.
“Ben, you’ve got to go after George,” said Katherine. “He’s on his way out to the Circle R. He says he’s going to kill Arnie Cooper.”
“Cooper? Why?” asked Ben.
“Oh, Ben,” replied Katherine, putting her face in her hands. “This is such a mess. It’s all my fault.”
“Katherine, calm down,” said Ben, putting his hands gently on Katherine’s shoulders. “Tell me exactly what happened.”
Katherine Winters lifted her head. She took a deep breath. “I was in Virginia City this morning,” she said. “I ran into Roy Coffee. I asked him – no, I demanded that he tell me what he had learned about who..” Katherine hesitated then squared her shoulders. “who killed my daughter. At first, Roy didn’t want to say anything, but I’m afraid I badgered the poor man. He finally told me about Arnie Cooper having a set of spurs like Joe described. He also told me that Cooper had been questioned in Carson City two months ago about a girl who was murdered there.”
“So Cooper is the killer,” said Joe in a grim voice.
“No, Joe, that’s just the point,” Katherine said. “We don’t know for sure Cooper is a killer. Roy said he was questioned in Carson City, that’s all. And there’s no evidence that proves he killed Carrie.”
“What makes you think George is going after Cooper?” Ben asked.
Katherine turned back to Ben, her agitation evident. “When I got home, I told George what Roy said,” replied Katherine. “He flew into a rage. Said Cooper was the killer, just like Joe. I tried to calm him down, tried to tell him that Roy Coffee was going out to the Circle R this afternoon. But George wouldn’t listen. He said the sheriff wouldn’t do anything. George said it was up to him to avenge Carrie’s death. Then he grabbed his rifle and stormed out of the house. He rode off in the direction of the Circle R.”
Katherine put her head down again. “Ben, you’ve got to go after George and stop him,” Katherine said in a choked voice. “I lost my daughter. I don’t want to lose George too.”
“Katherine, I don’t know…” said Ben in a hesitant voice.
Katherine raised her head and grabbed Ben’s arm. “George will listen to you,” she said in an urgent voice. “He respects you. You’ve got to stop him from murdering Arnie Cooper. George will hang if he kills that man.”
“No jury in Virginia City would find your husband guilty,” Joe said with conviction.
“No!” Katherine said to Joe in a voice that was practically a shout. “Don’t you see? Cooper might not be the killer. George could shoot an innocent man.” Katherine shook her head. “Even if George doesn’t hang, what if Cooper isn’t the killer? If Cooper is dead, they’ll stop looking. The man who killed Carrie could get away.” Tears welled up in Katherine’s eyes. “I want to know who killed Carrie. I have to know. If George kills Cooper, we’ll never know for sure.”
Joe looked down. He wanted Cooper to be the killer, and he wanted George Winters to take his revenge. But he knew Katherine was right. Killing Cooper wouldn’t solve anything. Like Katherine, he felt a need to know for sure who killed Carrie. If it was Cooper, they needed a confession from him. If George killed him before they got that confession, there always would be a seed of doubt in his mind…and in everyone else’s mind.
“Please, Ben, please” begged Katherine as she turned back to Ben. “Go after George. Stop him. Please!”
A pained look crossed Ben’s face. “Katherine, there’s no one here but me,” he said slowly. “The hands are out on the range. Hop Sing is in Virginia City getting supplies. Adam and Hoss are in Virginia City, too.” Ben pursed his lips. “I don’t want to leave Joe alone,” he said in a reluctant voice.
Joe looked up. “I’ll be all right, Pa,” he said in a firm voice. “You go after Mr. Winters.”
“I’ll stay with Joe,” said Katherine. “I’ll look after him.”
“I don’t need looking after,” said Joe. “Go ahead, Pa. Go stop Mr. Winters.”
Ben hesitated. He wanted to go after George, because he fully agreed with Katherine. Killing Arnie Cooper wouldn’t accomplish anything except to ruin George’s life. But Ben also knew that someone had tried to kill his son, had tried twice in fact. He didn’t like the idea of Joe being alone and unprotected.
“Ben, please,” said Katherine again, “please go after George.” Her eyes, full of tears, pleaded with Ben.
There may have been a few men who could have resisted Katherine Winter’s tearful pleas, but Ben Cartwright wasn’t one of them. The look in Katherine’s eyes melted any objections Ben might have had. He nodded his head and turned to walk toward the front door.
“Joe, I want you to stay in the house,” said Ben as he was buckling on his gunbelt. “Don’t go outside, for any reason.”
“I’ll make sure he stays put,” said Katherine, wiping her eyes. “And Ben, thank you. Thank you so much.”
“I haven’t done anything yet,” said Ben as he finished tying the holster around his leg. He reached for his hat and bandanna, both of which were resting on a peg by the door. “I’ll do whatever I can, Katherine,” promised Ben.
Katherine nodded. “It will be enough, I know it will,” said Katherine with a tentative smile.
“I hope so,” said Ben. With a last nod, he turned and rushed out the front door.
Joe pulled himself up out of the chair, and walked over to Katherine. He put his arm on her shoulder. “It’ll be all right,” he said in a gentle voice. “Pa will bring him home.”
Katherine had been staring at the door. Now she turned to Joe. “I hope so,” said Katherine softly. “I know George. If George kills Cooper, it destroy him. He’ll never be able to live with himself.”
“Even if Cooper is the killer?” asked Joe softly.
Katherine looked down. “If I knew for sure Cooper killed Carrie,” she said in a low voice. “I go after him myself.” She raised her head and saw the surprise in Joe’s eyes. “But I don’t know if he killed Carrie. And I have to know, Joe. I have to know for sure.”
She wiped her eyes again, and cleared her voice. She looked at Joe carefully. “You look a lot better than you did a few days ago”, commented Katherine, a weak smile crossing her face.
“I feel better,” Joe replied in a reassuring tone.
“About everything?” asked Katherine.
Joe hesitated. “Yeah, I guess I do,” he admitted. “I still feel bad about what happened, but I guess I’m not blaming myself any more.”
“Good,” said Katherine in a brisk voice. “Now why don’t you go sit down and I’ll go make us both some coffee.” Joe started to protest, but Katherine waved his protests aside. “I told your Pa that I’d look after you.” Katherine glanced over her shoulder toward the door. “Besides, keeping busy will help me from thinking too much,” she added. Joe nodded, and started back toward the chair. Katherine headed toward the kitchen.
Joe was just about to sit down when there was another knock on the door. Joe turned and walked to the front door. He pulled the door open and was surprised to see Ray Langston standing there.
“Hi, Joe,” said Langston with an easy familiarity.
Joe frowned. “Hello, Ray,” said Joe. “What are you doing here?”
“Didn’t your Pa tell you I was working on the Ponderosa?” asked Ray in surprise.
“He did,” said Joe shortly. “What do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk to your Pa or Hoss,” said Langston. “I finished those fences on the south range. I wanted to know what they wanted me to do next.”
Joe’s frown deepened. He had lost track of what work needed to be done on the ranch, and he didn’t know what to tell Langston.
“Could I come in and talk with your Pa?” said Langston again.
“He’s not here,” answered Joe. “Neither is Hoss. Maybe you’d…”
Before he could finish, Katherine walked back into the room. “Joe, I put the coffee on. Oh, hello, Ray,” she said with a smile when she saw Langston at the front door.
Langston looked surprised to see Katherine. “Um, hello, Mrs. Winters,” replied Langston in uncertain voice. “I didn’t know that was your rig out front.”
“Why don’t you come in and have some coffee,” invited Katherine. She looked at Joe. “That’s all right with you, isn’t it, Joe?”
It wasn’t all right with Joe. Even though Joe was becoming convinced Arnie Cooper was the one who killed Carrie, he still didn’t want Ray Langston in the house. He didn’t like Langston and he just as soon not have to make polite conversation with the man. But he couldn’t refuse to let the cowboy in without seeming rude to Katherine. Joe opened the door a bit wider, and Langston walked into the house.
“Thank you, ma’am,” said Ray. He looked around the room, his eyes reflecting his envy. “First time I’ve been in here. This sure is a fine house.”
Joe nodded and walked past the cowboy without saying anything. He sat down in the red leather chair, adjusting his injured arm in the sling as he made himself comfortable.
Katherine sat on the sofa. “I didn’t have a chance to thank you for coming to Carrie’s funeral,” said Katherine. “It was very thoughtful of you.”
Ray walked over and stood near the sofa. “I wanted to come, ma’am,” said Ray. “I liked Carrie. I liked her a lot, even though she didn’t seem to think much of me.” Ray shook his head. “I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he added. “People going around raping and murdering young girls. It’s just terrible.”
Joe’s head went up quickly at Langston’s words. “How did you know Carrie was raped?” he asked. He looked quickly at Katherine. Katherine had turned pale, and put her hand to her mouth. “Nobody knew about that,” added Joe. “No one except Doc Martin, Sheriff Coffee, and me. And the killer.”
“Well, I, um, I just guessed that’s what happened,” said Langston, obviously uncomfortable.
“You guessed?” said Joe, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Or you knew?”
“I didn’t kill Carrie. I didn’t have anything to do with it,” protested Langston.
“I heard that Charlie Rutherford is missing a set of bell spurs,” Joe said. “And that you got fired from Rutherford’s place for stealing. What about it, Ray? Did you take those spurs? Were you wearing them the night Carrie was killed?”
“I don’t have to talk to you,” said Langston, his anger evident. He started toward the door. Joe jumped to his feet and walked quickly across the room. He grabbed Langston’s arm. “You said you like Carrie, but she didn’t think much of you,” said Joe.
“Is that why you killed her? Because she turned you down?”
“No!” said Langston, pushing Joe away. “I didn’t kill her!” He looked Joe with obvious distaste. “You think you have it all, don’t you, Cartwright. You just crook your finger and all the girls come running. You could have had any girl you wanted, but you had to pick the girl I loved.” The expression on Langston’s face grew angrier. “You have it all and I have nothing!” he shouted. “I almost evened things the other night. You would have been the one with nothing, nothing but a bullet in you.” Langston suddenly froze, realizing what he had said. Joe’s face darkened.
Langston started for the door, but Joe grabbed his arm again. Langston spun around and punched Joe hard in the stomach. Joe bent forward as the unexpected blow knocked the wind out of him. Langston threw an uppercut into Joe’s jaw, snapping Joe’s head back. Joe was stunned by the blow. He fell to the floor at Katherine Winter’s feet. Langston pulled his gun out of his holster and aimed it directly at Joe.
“No!” shouted Katherine as she flung herself off the sofa. She crouched over Joe, putting her body directly in front of Langston’s line of fire.
“Get out of the way,” shouted Langston.
“No,” said Katherine again, her voice shaking. “I won’t let you do it. I won’t let you murder him.” She looked Langston straight in the eye. “You killed Carrie, didn’t you?” she said softly.
Langston looked away for a few seconds then turned back to Katherine. “I didn’t mean to,” he said in a voice full of regret. “All I wanted to do was make her love me. I tried to make her love me. But she fought me and she called me some awful names. I got mad. I just her to be quiet, that’s all. I tried to make her shut up, and I guess I squeezed her too hard.”
Langston’s face hardened. “ Every time I want something, somebody seems to have it,” he said in a bitter voice. “I learned a long time ago you have to just take what you want. Otherwise, you’ll never get nothing.”
Joe stirred as his senses started to clear. He heard what Langston said about killing Carrie. He had no doubt that Langston meant to kill him also. Langston had tried it twice already. Joe shook his head, trying to clear it. He knew he was going to have to fight for his life. Joe watched Langston, trying to decide how he could jump the cowboy without getting shot.
“Ray,” said Katherine in a soothing voice. “I know you didn’t mean to kill Carrie. It was just an accident. Why don’t you just give me the gun and we can go to the sheriff together. We’ll explain to him that it was an accident.”
“What do you think I am, a fool?” said Langston in an angry voice. “They’ll hang me.
I’m leaving. I’m going as far away from here as I can. I’ll go someplace where they’ll never find me.”
Langston’s gaze shifted to Joe. “But before I go, I’m going to finish things here,” he said. Langston lifted the gun. “Now, get out of the way. I’m going to kill him. It ain’t right that he’s alive and Carrie’s dead. It wasn’t suppose to be that way. Carrie was suppose to love me. He’s got to pay for taking Carrie away from me.”
“You kill him and you’ll surely hang,” cried Katherine. “Please don’t.”
“They can only hang me once,” said Langston. He reached down and grabbed Katherine’s arm. “Now, get out of the way,” he said, pulling the woman off Joe.
Katherine threw herself at Langston. She pounded his chest with her hands and tried to kick him. Langston was surprised at the fury of her attack. He fell back several steps as he grabbed Katherine’s arms. Langston push Katherine away from him and she fell to the floor with a loud thud.
Joe sprang to his feet and dove at Langston. He hit the cowboy in the knees with his good shoulder, knocking Langston to the floor. The gun flew out of Langston’s hand.
Joe pulled his arm from his sling, and scrambled across the floor on hands and knees. Langston was pulling himself up off the floor as Joe reached him. Kneeling on the floor next to the fallen cowboy, he punched Langston in the face with his left hand. Joe used his left hand by instinct, without thinking. It was the hand that normally packed the most force.
In the heat of battle, Joe had forgotten about his injured shoulder and how little strength he had in his left arm. The punch that landed on Langston was ineffectual, surprising the man rather than hurting him. But the punch did sent a radiating pain through Joe’s shoulder and back. The sharp pain caught Joe by surprise. He stiffened and grabbed at left his shoulder with his right hand. Joe grunted in pain and his eyes closed as his shoulder throbbed. That gave Langston the opening he needed to fight back.
Langston scrambled to his feet, and kicked Joe hard in the ribs. Joe fell back across the floor, curling his body on his side as he gasped in pain. He could hear Langston coming toward him. Joe tried to get up. But he couldn’t seem to get his body to work. He could feel the waves of pain coming from both his shoulder and his ribs. Each wave seemed to sap his strength.
Langston kicked Joe hard in the back, noting with satisfaction how Joe groaned when his foot made contact. Langston raised his leg once more, this time aiming for Joe’s head.
The shot came from behind Langston. The bullet went straight into his back and through his lung. Langston arched his back in surprise. A second shot followed the first, and this time the bullet shattered Langston’s spine. Langston gave out a small cry, both of surprise and pain. Then he crumpled to the floor.
Joe managed to turn his body enough to see who had shot Ray Langston. He wasn’t surprised to see Katherine Winters standing a few feet away with the smoking gun in her hand. What did surprise Joe was the expression on Katherine’s face. He expected to see shock or fright or even sorrow. But the look on Katherine’s face was one of satisfaction, pure satisfaction.
“It’s your move, little brother,” Hoss said. He was sitting on the low table in front of the fireplace. A checkerboard was set up on the table. Joe was sitting in the red leather chair near the fireplace. Supposedly, Joe was playing a checker game with Hoss. But in reality, he was doing nothing but staring anxiously toward the front door.
“Joe, it’s your move,” said Hoss again.
Joe looked startled. “What did you say?” asked Joe.
Hoss gave up the pretense of playing checkers. “Joe, will you relax?” he said. “Pa and Adam will make sure everything gets sorted out with the judge. There ain’t any reason for you to be so worried.”
“I should have gone with them,” said Joe. “I should be there to explain everything to the judge.”
Hoss looked at his brother and shook his head. The bruise on Joe’s jaw had turned a deep purple. Joe’s shirt hid the heavy wrapping around his ribs, but Hoss had seen the signs of bruised and cracked ribs when the doctor patched him up. Joe’s left arm rested once again in a sling.
“Joe, you heard what the doctor said,” replied Hoss. “You ain’t in any shape to go to Virginia City. And this time, Pa wasn’t about to let you talk him into making the trip.”
“But what if the judge doesn’t understand what happened?” asked Joe anxiously. “What if he doesn’t believe Katherine Winters killed Ray Langston to keep him from killing me?”
“Joe, Sheriff Coffee wrote down everything you told him,” said Hoss patiently. “You signed that statement. The judge will believe it.”
“I hope so,” said Joe fervently.
“He will,” said Hoss firmly. “Now it’s your move.”
Joe and Hoss spent the next half hour playing a half-hearted game of checkers Neither concentrated on the game. Joe kept watching the front door anxiously, and Hoss kept watching his brother. No matter how much Hoss tried, he couldn’t reassure Joe that Katherine Winters would be cleared of any charges.
Finally, Joe’s anxious and worried watching was rewarded. The front door opened, and Ben and Adam walked in. Both had smiles on their faces.
“What happened?” demanded Joe as the two Cartwrights entered the house.
“Just what Roy Coffee said would happen,” replied Ben. “The judge ruled justifiable homicide.”
“There was no question that Langston was going to try to kill you,” added Adam. “Your statement and Katherine’s both made that clear to the judge. There won’t be any charges brought against Katherine.”
“How is Miz Winters?” asked Hoss. “She looked awful shook up yesterday when we got back to the house.”
“She’s upset, naturally,” said Ben, removing his hat and gunbelt. He place both on the bureau near the front door. “ She regrets having had to kill Langston. But I think she’s finding some comfort in knowing that she saved Joe’s life. And I think both Katherine and George are relieved to know for sure who killed Carrie.”
Joe didn’t say anything. He remembered the look on Katherine’s face as she held the gun. Saving Joe wasn’t the only thing she had done. No one seemed to realize that Katherine Winters had inflicted the ultimate punishment on the man who had raped and murdered her daughter. Joe wondered if Katherine would find comfort in that fact. He doubted it. Killing Ray Langston didn’t undo what Langston had done. Carrie was still dead. And Katherine Winters would have to live with the memories of both those deaths for the rest of her life.
Ben crossed the room and sat down in the blue chair near the fireplace. “Katherine is a strong woman,” said Ben as he settled into the chair. “But it will take her awhile to get over this. George will be a big help. He loves her and love always helps people get through the tough times. It will take some time, but I think both George and Katherine will be all right.”
“It’s a good think you were able to stop Mr. Winters yesterday,” said Hoss. “He might have killed Arnie Cooper if you hadn’t. And we know Cooper was innocent.”
“We know that now,” said Ben. “Yesterday, I wasn’t so sure. I might not have been able to stop George if you and Adam hadn’t shown up at the Circle R. Showing George those bell spurs that Ray Langston had buried convinced him that Arnie might not be the killer.”
”There was a lot of other stuff in the sack we uncovered,” said Adam as he crossed the room to sit on the sofa. He had removed his hat and gunbelt also. “It looked like Langston had stolen things from just about every place he worked. I was sure that silver belt buckle belonged to the foreman at the Circle R. That’s why Hoss and I rode out there yesterday.”
“I don’t get it, Pa,” said Joe with a puzzled look on his face. “Langston stole all that stuff, but he never did anything with it. I mean, he didn’t sell it, and he only used it when no one else was around. I don’t think he put on those spurs until after he left the dance.”
“I don’t think he stole those things to sell or show,” replied Ben. “I think he stole them just to have them.”
Joe frowned. “Yeah,” he said. “He said something yesterday about taking things just because he wanted them.”
“Langston wasn’t willing to work for the things he wanted,” said Ben. “When he saw something he wanted, he just took it. He didn’t care who it belonged to, or who got hurt.
He thought he deserved to have whatever he wanted.”
“Like Carrie,” said Joe in a sad voice. He shook his head. “I was so sure Arnie Cooper was the killer. I sure was wrong.”
“So was I,” said Ben. “I didn’t believe Ray Langston killed Carrie. If I had, I would have never hired him.” Ben shook his head sadly. “I was so wrong. And my mistake almost cost you your life.”
Joe shifted uncomfortably on the chair. “It wasn’t your fault, Pa,” he said. “You didn’t know. It’s like you told me the other day. Sometimes you do things that seem reasonable and they just turn out bad. There’s no way of knowing in advance.”
“Are you trying to quote my own words to me?” asked Ben with a smile.
Joe smiled back. “Yeah, I guess I am,” said Joe. Joe shifted again on the chair and winced as a stab of pain went through his sore ribs.
Ben saw Joe wince. “I think it’s time we got you up to bed for awhile,” said Ben. “You’ve got to be pretty sore.”
“Aw, Pa, not back to bed,” complained Joe. “I’m sick of that bed.”
“Joseph…” Ben started in a stern voice.
“Pa, I think we ought to keep Joe here where we can keep an eye on him,” said Hoss, with a twinkle in his eye. “He seems to get into a lot of trouble when he leave him on his own.”
“Yeah, Pa,” added Adam with a grin. “I think from now on, Hoss or I should go everywhere with Joe.”
“Oh great,” groaned Joe. “Just what I need. A couple of wet nurses looking after me.”
Ben smiled. “I think Joe can manage to care of himself,” said Ben. Then his face grew serious. “But I do think it’s important that we watch out for each other. There’s a lot of darkness out there.”
“Darkness?” said Joe with a frown.
“The worst kind of darkness,” said Ben. “The darkness of the soul. I hesitate to call it evil. But there are people who do hurt others and do it without remorse. They are concerned only about satisfying their own needs and wants, and don’t care who they hurt in the process.”
“That’s a pretty bleak picture,” commented Hoss, remembering Adam’s comments about the demons in everyone. “I like to think most folks are good. Most folks don’t want to hurt anybody.”
Ben gave Hoss a small smile. “Luckily, the number of good people far outweigh the bad,” he said. “There’s a lot of good people in the world. It’s just that it doesn’t pay to ignore the bad.”
“We’ll watch out for each other,” promised Adam. “We always do.”
“Yeah,” added Joe. “That’s what the Cartwrights do best.”
“I know,” said Ben. “That’s a fact that makes me very happy and very thankful.” He looked around the room. “Very thankful.”