Summary: SJS for Devonshire: When I was asked to participate in this special project, I hadn’t written any Bonanza since 2007 except for finishing a piece when Mr. Roberts died. I hope she and others enjoy this new story.
(Editor’s note: The first 18 lines of this story were given to the author as a writer’s challenge. Everything after those lines is the original work of the author).
Word Count: 4000
Pa, I’ll be fine.”
It was the last thing Joe had said to him, his voice edged with irritation as he’d hurriedly fastened his gun belt and plucked his hat from the sideboard. He’d been eager to leave, even more so than usual thanks to the hovering attention of a concerned father.
Yet Ben couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in his gut he’d felt from the moment he had awakened that morning. A feeling that something was off, or wrong, or something was going to happen, and that it would surely involve his youngest.
The morning passed without incident, and soon logic reared its head and effectively stifled the nervousness to a mere hum, easily ignored as Ben busied himself with his daily tasks. There was nothing to worry about, after all. Joe was just going into town for the mail, something he’d done a hundred times before. Nothing to worry about.
Yet a father’s instinct is a stubborn thing, and Ben found himself surrendering to the feeling of unease as the day progressed. Adam later came upon him pacing the floor and glancing anxiously at the clock. He didn’t need to be told why his father was so agitated.
“How late is he?” Adam asked quietly.
“Late,” Ben replied. “He should have been back two, three hours ago.”
“Pa, he’ll be fine,” Adam admonished. “Joe’s not a little kid anymore. You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”
Ben forced a smile. “I know. Old habits die hard, don’t they?”
Adam sighed. “I think I’ll head out and see if Hoss needs any help in the barn,” he said, clearly in a hurry to rid himself of the company of an over-anxious parent.
Ben picked up the newspaper and tried to concentrate on the words in front of him. Adam was right; of course he was right. It was perfectly fine for a parent to worry, but not so fine to be consumed by it. Ben knew he could go on and on, listing the numerous perils that could befall his son – both real and imagined – and he couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurd direction of his thoughts. He’d have to tell Joe later how silly he’d been.
His amusement, however, was abruptly extinguished at the sound of the slamming door, and Adam’s urgent voice on its heels.
“Pa! PA! Come quick!”
Ben followed Adam out the door where he was greeted by the sight of a sweaty and blowing bay gelding. The animal’s head hung low as he fought to pull in the needed air.
“Who’d do this—who’d ride this poor creature near to death?” Ben’s shouts followed Adam into the barn. There he saw both of his sons holding up young Jim Hanlon, one of their new hands.
“Say it again now, Jim, only slower this time.” Hoss tried to hold back his own panic as he encouraged the young rider.
Ben approached the boy, swallowing his own fear. “What is it, son? What’s happened?”
“There was a fight, sir, in the Silver Dollar. I don’t rightly know what exactly happened but all hell broke loose and Joe was in the middle of it.” He stopped.
Hoss tore Hanson out of Adam’s grasp. “What are you talkin’ about, boy?
The young man trembled before Hoss’ anger. “The Robinson brothers,” he stuttered. “It was the Robinsons.”
A sharp pain struck Adam as he tried to breathe. His mind reeled. He knew whatever story this boy had to tell, it would not end well. But just as quickly, he recovered and eased the hand from Hoss’ grasp. “Start from the beginning.”
“Joe and me was at the Silver Dollar havin’ a beer. The Robinson brothers came in and shoved their way between us. Joe took exception to it and Tom Robinson told Joe to go home to his rich, old man.” The boy ducked his head and looked at his boss. “Beggin’ yer pardon, Sir.”
Adam pulled Hanson’s attention back to his questions. “Tell us what happened then.”
“What’s wrong with you, Tom? Can’t you let folks have a quiet beer without trying to start a fight?” Joe turned away from the two brothers.
Jim gave Joe a nervous glance that told him the boy didn’t know what to do next. “Finish your beer, Jim, and we’ll go on home. We need to start moving the herd in the south meadow up into the foothills.”
Tom Robinson backed away from the bar, pushing his coattail behind his gun as he moved. “You runnin’ away, Cartwright? `Fraid to face a man?”
Joe drained his beer and smiled at the bartender. “Thanks, Sam. See you soon.” Joe dropped enough coins on the bar to cover their drinks.
“Tom…hey Tom, why don’t we go home too?” It was the younger of the Robinson brothers who spoke up. His hands shook as he held onto the bar rail.
“Shut up, boy, when yer elders are talkin’!” Fueled by ignorance and alcohol, Tom Robinson continued to goad the youngest Cartwright into a fight. He turned back to Joe. “You gonna crawl away, Cartwright?”
Joe stood with his back to his tormentor. His hands balled into tight fists and his shoulder’s stiffened. He could feel his face flushing with anger but he held on to his quickly rising temper. I promised, Pa. I told him I’d be fine. Without another word, he walked toward the batwing doors that Hanson had just pushed open.
Funny, he remembered the screams the most. First, Robinson yelling coward, then he heard Sam’s shout of “No!” echoing through the high-pitched cries from the saloon girls. But the sounds didn’t last long. They faded as that heavy punch he felt in his back began to explode into a pain that radiated outward from its center.
Joe was able to turn around long enough to stare into the now panicked eyes of his attacker. Why? was the only word he could push out before his legs betrayed him. He finally fell in a jumble of collapsing limbs, no longer aware of the cries surrounding him.
Joe promised me he’d be fine. Now he’s lying on a dirty saloon floor, God knows if he’s alive or dead. Ben leaned further over Buck’s neck, urging the gelding on. Suddenly, the picture of Jim Hanson’s horse sprung into his mind. I’m sorry Buck, I’m sorry. Oh, Joseph…
Adam let Sport have his head and the long-legged chestnut surged ahead of the others. Why wouldn’t the Robinsons have run? Why would they let everybody out but Joe then barricade themselves inside the Silver Dollar? It didn’t make any sense. None of it made any sense. He tightened his legs around his mount’s barrel and Sport responded.
Chubb’s steady gait never faltered but beat a steady rhythm against the hardened trail. What’ve you got yerself into this time, little brother? Can’t you even go get the mail without trouble following you? Hoss took a deep breath and swiped the back of his hand across his sweat streaked face. Hang on, Little Joe—hang on. We’re comin’.
“Shut up, boy, just shut up!” Tom Robinson paced back and forth in front of the bar. “I can’t think with you yappin’ in my ear.” Sweat beaded and fell from the end of Robinson’s nose and chin.
“They’ll be comin’, Tom. Them Cartwrights is probably on their way right now.” Jeb Robinson was frightened. Afraid of the Cartwrights, afraid as he looked at Joe’s still body spread out on the floor, but most of all, he was afraid of his oldest brother.
Tom had taken over their small, rock-infested farm after their Pa died. There was just him and Tom and their middle brother, Ruf. He couldn’t hardly remember his Ma but he’d seen an old tintype once of his Ma and Pa when they was young. Tom said Pa was never the same after Ma died. Just tried to drown himself in the nearest bottle. Then one day, he died too.
Tom grabbed Jeb’s shirt and brought him close. “We’re gonna get out of here and with some extra money in our pocket. Old man Cartwright’ll pay dear to get sonny boy back.”
Jeb tried to back away. “Why would he give us money for a dead man, Tom?”
“You are stupid, little brother,” Tom smirked as he answered. “His old man don’t know the kid is dead. And we ain’t gonna tell him.” He let go of Jeb’s shirt and walked back to the bar, poured a drink and downed it in one swallow. “All we got to do is get the money we ask for and ride out. Then Cartwright can have his kid, for all the good it’ll do him.”
Their conversation ended with a shout from outside. “You in the saloon — Tom Robinson — throw your gun out and come out with your hands in plain sight.” Roy Coffee’s strong voice carried easily across the street and into the Silver Dollar.
The brothers moved to either side of the doors and peered out. “It’s the sheriff, Tom.” A tremor shook Jeb’s feeble voice.
“I hear y0u, sheriff and if you want Joe Cartwright alive, you best get his old man here so I can talk to him.”
“You never mind that. You and Jeb come out here or we’ll have to come in there.”
“You come ahead, Sheriff, if you want me to put another bullet in the kid. But I don’t think his Daddy would be too happy about that.”
The sheriff and several townspeople had set up barrels and boxes for cover across the street. The bartender of the Silver Dollar crouched next to Roy.
“Sam, you saw Joe go down. Do you think he might still be alive?” asked the sheriff.
Sam shook his head. “I don’t really know. Robinson shot him in the back for no reason. Joe turned around and said something to Tom but I couldn’t hear it. I didn’t see him move after he fell.”
Before Roy could say anything else, the sound of horses racing toward the main street silenced any more questions.
Sweat flew from the blowing horses as the Cartwrights dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office. Roy called to them from behind his makeshift shelter. “Ben—Ben, get down. The Robinsons are in the saloon.” Before the last words echoed across the street, a shot splintered the porch post next to Ben’s head. The three men dropped behind the merchandise set out in from of the general store.
“Cartwright—Ben Cartwright! You want your kid alive, you’ll git some money outta that bank and bring it in here. And you better do it right quick. The kid ain’t lookin’ too good.”
Ben started to stand up but Hoss pulled him back down. “Pa, you can’t go out there.” There was a desperate plea in his voice. In his heart, Hoss couldn’t conceive of his little brother being dead, but if he were, he couldn’t lose his father too.
Ben’s eyes narrowed as he pulled his son’s hand away from his arm. “That’s your brother in that saloon. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead but I’m not about to wait while he may be bleeding to death.” Ben didn’t move. “I’d do no less for any of my sons.”
Hoss’ clear blue eyes held his father’s for a moment, than he dropped his head. “Just be careful, Pa.”
Ben reached out and touched his middle son’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine, son.” As soon as he said it, Ben was stuck by the irony of his own words. Hadn’t Joe said the very same thing this morning? I’ll be fine, Pa.
Adam watched the interchange in silence. He had no doubt that Ben would comply with the Robinson’s request. He held his father’s eyes for a moment than nodded his head.
Ben stepped into the street. “I’m here, Robinson. What do you want?”
“Money, Cartwright—what else is there? And you got plenty to spare.”
“I’ll give you whatever you want. Just let me get my son to a doctor.” Ben stepped forward, hoping Tom would let him go to Joe.
“Stay where you are. I want $$10,000 — no, no, you get $25,000. Yeah, that’s what I want, $25,000.” Robinson stumbled over his own words. “And you’d better hurry… Joe ain’t lookin’ too good.”
Hoss stood up when he heard what Robinson said. Adam grabbed him just before a volley of shots sprayed the barrels that were protecting them. Adam’s fear for his brother’s life erupted. “You damned fool. Are you trying to get yourself killed? That’s just what Pa needs —someone else to worry about.”
“That’s Joe in there! You gonna wait all day?”
“No but I’m gonna try not to get Pa or you or me killed in the mean time.” Adam looked out into the street. Ben was just picking himself up off the ground.
Hoss’ shoulders slumped. “I just got ta know.”
“I’ve got an idea. While Pa is getting the money…”
All Joe could do was open his eyes. The pain in his back wouldn’t allow for anything more. He tried to remember what happened. He lifted his head toward the voice that floated in through the open doors. Struggling, Joe tried to call out but in the end, he was the only one who heard the whispered plea…Pa.
Crawling on his belly, Adam slipped into the mercantile. Hoss was right; the longer they waited the more likely… He wouldn’t let himself finish the thought. Far enough in so that he couldn’t be seen, he stood up and slipped out the back door.
The back alleys of Virginia City were quiet during the day. Adam knew there was a side staircase on the Silver Dollar that led to the upstairs bedrooms. These steps had led to long evenings filled with learning when he was a youth, and long nights of earthly delights as a man but now all he could think of was his brother. The footfalls were silent as he moved up the stairs.
“I’ll need to go to the bank for the money. Please let the doctor in to see my son.”
“Shut up, Cartwright and just get the money!” Tom’s nerve was beginning to crumble. “You got 15 minutes to get it in here or your kid gets another bullet. You understand me, old man?”
Tom backed away from the doors and went to the bar. Jeb stood and watched the retreating figure of Ben Cartwright as he walked toward the bank. “Looks like he’s gone to get the money, Tom.”
“’Course he has. He ain’t got no choice.” Most of the liquor Robinson tried to pour spilled down the side of the glass. He decided it was easier drinking from the bottle.
Jeb joined his brother. The heavy stench of alcohol began to choke him. “What makes you think they’re just gonna let us ride out of here? Roy Coffee’ll just be waitin` for us to walk out.”
Tom’s brain cleared long enough to make sense of what his brother said. “Maybe you ain’t as stupid as you look, little brother. We’ll just have to take old Ben with us for a spell so nobody gets the bright idea to follow us.” He took another drink. “Yeah, that’s what we’ll do. They ain’t about to shoot at us with old man Cartwright ridin’ along.”
Ben’s gut twisted with fear as he waited for John Stewart to stuff the last of the bills into two cloth bags. The banker finished and handed them over. “I don’t know what to say, Ben; just be careful.”
“I will, John, thank you.” Ben turned and hurried back into the street. He stopped just outside of the Silver Dollar.
“I have the money, Robinson. I’m coming in.” With a bag in each hand, Ben held them out for the brothers to see, then slowly walked through the batwing doors.
Coming into the shaded room from the bright sunlight blinded Ben for a moment. Frantic to see his son, he dropped the bags and scrubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. A sharp intake of breath froze in his throat as he saw his boy sprawled face down on the floor. The red stain had seeped into the green of Joe’s jacket painting an obscene picture across the surface.
Ben moved toward his son.
“Just stay right where you are, Cartwright. Jeb, you go pick up them bags and put `em on the bar,” Tom ordered.
“You have the money. Now let me go to my son.” Ben moved forward once more.
The bullet lodged in the floor by Ben’s feet. “I told you to stay put. Jeb, pick up them bags.” Tom took a long, slow drink from the bottle in front of him. “Now then, Ben— you and me and Jeb here are goin’ for a little ride. I don’t trust old Sheriff Coffee or yer sons not to cut us down when we step outside. So you can come with us for awhile `til we’re sure no one is following.”
A movement on the balcony above the stairs caught Tom’s eye. He swung around and brought his gun up. Before he could fire, a single bullet put an end to his dreams of money and his life. Walking down the staircase, Adam pointed his gun at the younger Robinson, who fumbled with his own weapon. “Don’t do it, kid. Don’t make me kill you.” Jeb dropped his gun on the bar.
Ben was barely aware of the Sheriff and the others when they came into the saloon. What he heard was the plea repeated over and over again in his mind— please, please don’t take my son.
Hoss had never noticed before how cramped Doc Martin’s surgery was until now. With the four of them in there, it seemed as if the walls were slowly closing in. Doc Martin hadn’t been in town and now they waited while a rider searched for him.
They had laid Joe down after taking off his jacket and shirt. Ben carefully washed the blood away and covered the offending wound with soft bandages. He found a quilt that he tucked in around Joe’s still body. A picture of the young Little Joe flashed through his mind. His youngest had always been a restless sleeper and many a night Ben had gone in after the boy was asleep and tucked the blankets in around his sleeping son. Why couldn’t those innocent times have lasted?
Adam leaned against the window ledge. He watched his father as Ben once more sat at the bedside of a critically wounded son. He wondered what there was inside the man that allowed him to be felled again and again by seemingly random acts of fate and still be able to rise again. He doubted that he would ever have that kind of strength and hoped he would never be tested. His reverie was broken by the rattle of the front door.
Paul Martin didn’t speak when he entered but went right to his patient. Scowling at the wound, he asked the Cartwright men to wait in the outside room.
“Paul, I should be here,” Ben said.
“No, Ben— not now. Boys, take your father in the other room.” Paul turned away to ready what he needed, ending the conversation.
Hoss took his father’s arm, pulling him up from his chair. “Come on, Pa, we got to let Doc Martin work.” The look on Ben’s face was one of helplessness, a look that Hoss had never seen before. Quietly, he tried to reassure his father. “It’s gonna be ok. Let’s go wait outside.” He held on to his unsteady father and led him from the room.
Adam pushed himself away from the window. His eyes held the doctor’s gaze for a moment but neither spoke. Paul shook his head as Adam left. He’d known the eldest Cartwright son for years but he had never seen tears—until tonight.
It was deep in the night before Doctor Martin emerged from the tiny surgery. He asked Ben to follow him while Adam and Hoss remained in the other room.
Ben sat down and once more tucked the loosened quilt in around his son. He absently stroked Joe’s check with the back of one finger. “Tell me, Paul.”
“I’m afraid there isn’t much I can tell you yet, Ben. The bullet’s out but I won’t know what kind of damage we’re talking about until he wakes up and starts to move.”
Ben sighed. “…or doesn’t.”
“You don’t know that—don’t buy trouble.”
“My boy didn’t want trouble— just a simple trip to town to get the mail.”
“I’ll go make some coffee.” Paul took one last look at his patient, than left.
Adam wandered out into the night, happy for the cool breeze that that touch his face. Hoss soon followed him. “You been quiet tonight, even for you, Adam.”
“I’ve been thinking about what motivates a man like Tom Robinson to just randomly shoot someone in the back. What made him that way or was he just born no good?””
“You havin’ second thoughts about killing him? ‘Cause he coulda killed Pa or you.”
Adam looked up into the starry sky. “No. Maybe I’m wondering what kind of man I am because I’m glad I killed him.” He looked back at Hoss. “Come on, maybe we can see Joe now.”
“Joe, Joe you can wake up now.” Ben waited for a response, any kind of a response. He watched the even breaths rise and fall. “Please…”
Joe blinked his eyes against the brightness of the lamp. He saw his father with his head in his hands. “I got that mail, Pa.”
“Joe, Joseph- thank God.” Ben uncovered Joe’s hand and squeezed it.
“My legs feel like they’re on fire.” Joe grunted with the pain it took for him to move one foot, than the other.
Doctor Martin, Adam and Hoss all appeared at the same time. Paul ran a thumbnail along the bottoms of Joe’s feet, getting the reaction he wanted each time. “Good, that’s good, Joe. Now, I’m going to give you something for pain and I want you to rest.” He looked at Ben. “I’d try to get your father to leave but I know it’ll never happen.” He looked at Adam and Hoss. “But you two should go get a room at the hotel and get some sleep yourselves.”
After assuring themselves that Joe was doing alright, the two older Cartwright brothers left father and son alone. Ben dozed off and on through much of the night, only waking when Joe moved.
As morning broke, Joe watched the sunlight climb in over the window sill. Tired of being in one position, he tried to shift his hips but it brought with it a cry of pain. He grabbed his father’s hand.
“Joe—what is it?”
“It’s ok—just tried to move too quick.”
“I’ll get Paul to give you something.”
“No, wait a minute, Pa.” Again, Joe grimaced as he shifted his weight. “I’m sorry you had to go through this.” Joe waited a moment. “How did you know?”
Ben sat down again. “I wish there was a way for me to explain. I’m not sure I understand myself.”
“You mean I won’t know until I have kids of my own.”
Ben smiled. “Probably not, but the good thing is, it’ll be my turn to sit back and watch. And I’m going to enjoy watching you raise your own Little Joe.”