Travesty of Justice (by Doreen)

Summary:  A WHN for the episode “The Quality of Mercy.”   (Disclaimer: My apologies for playing the ‘artistic license’ card with regard to the judicial system in the USA during the 19thCentury. This is purely a work of fiction)
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,000

Joe Cartwright looked up anxiously at the thunder-clouds that had begun to pile up in the eastern sky, high above the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. It was mid-afternoon and he was on the final leg of a journey that had taken him away from home for over a week, checking out, repairing and replenishing all the line shacks in the high country before the onset of winter. Although the work was essential and carried out without fail as autumn approached, it was also a boring, repetitive and lonely task, usually handed out to one of the Ponderosa ranch hands. However, this year, when deciding who would be chosen, Joe had immediately volunteered, much to his family’s surprise. Ben had raised a questioning eyebrow while studying his son closely, but then silently nodded, intuitively realizing his son desired time on his own, with his own thoughts.

As Joe felt the first drops of rain, he urged his mount on, knowing shelter was only a matter of minutes away beyond a rise filled with the Ponderosa pine from which the Cartwright ranch took its name. Skillfully maneuvering Cochise with one hand and pulling the stubborn pack horse with the other, he duly arrived at the last lonely cabin on his list, guiding and then settling in the horses into the roughly made lean-to. Quickly unsaddling the two animals he carried in the provisions to replenish the shack’s meager food supply, finally picking up his own canteen and saddle bag and carrying them towards the fusty smelling cabin, entering just as the downpour began.

Once inside, Joe looked around the small room, familiarizing himself with his surroundings and grateful to be dry as the rain drummed on the timber roof, and the distant sounds of thunder echoed around the mountains.

A single straw-filled mattress was laid out on a rickety wooden bed and placed alongside the back of the one roomed shack. There was a small fireplace and to the side a cupboard was nailed to the wall. A table and two chairs fitted snugly under the only window, and in the corner behind the door was an old cast-iron wood stove and he checked inside, grateful to see kindling already in position. Unbuckling his saddlebag, Joe took out dry matches and quickly lit the sticks of wood, watching the fire ignite before placing a pot of water and coffee beans on top of the stove.

While waiting for it to brew, Joe placed the last of the provisions in the cupboard, unpacked his bedroll and placed his single blanket onto the mattress, finally looking through the dusty window at the deluge of water that poured relentlessly from the darkening sky. Minutes later, Joe poured himself a mug of hot coffee then sat down on the bed, stretching out his weary and aching limbs and supping the hot liquid, grateful for its warming effect on his chilled body as he felt his stomach churn with nervous tension.

Tomorrow he would be back home, and the day after the trial of his old friend Seth Pruitt, charged with the willful murder of Abe Cooper, would begin. Joe continued to allow his mind to wander as he relived the scene over and over of Seth standing by the bloodied body of Abe, realizing with a heavy heart he would be the key witness in the trial, and possibly be the reason Seth would find justice at the end of a rope.

Poor Abe. A hard working man who was widowed shortly after the birth of his beloved daughter Sara, Abe had died a few weeks before following the collapse of wooden support beams and rocks from the roof of his small mine. If it wasn’t for the fact Joe had arrived shortly afterwards, it would have always been thought of as a tragic accident. But with his own eyes Joe had seen Seth standing over the dead man, a large piece of wood in his hand, his friend fervently assuring Joe he had put Abe out of his misery through the insistence of the hapless Abe who had no doubt been in much pain.

At first Joe had believed his old friend and his reasons for the mercy killing, saying nothing, hoping to spare Sara the true details of her father’s death. Close friends since early childhood, there had been a time just over a year ago when Joe and Sara were the talk of the community…surely they would marry! Even Abe had secretly hoped his Sara would eventually become a Cartwright, but Sara had her eyes on another and so unhappily and begrudgingly, Abe Cooper finally accepted his daughter’s choice…Seth Pruitt.

For weeks after Abe’s death, Joe was unwilling to admit to his family what had really happened that day, until eventually, unable to keep silent any longer, he confessed all to his eldest brother. Adam, deeply shocked by his brother’s admission, subsequently insisted he must now go to the Sheriff and tell the truth. Joe agreed and, following a final heated confrontation, Seth confessed to Joe he deliberately killed Abe. The young man admitted he was only interested in the newly discovered seam of silver located in the mine and had been fearful Abe would not allow Sara to marry him after all, thus depriving him of riches he thought were duly his.

Joe now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt it was his duty to turn his old friend in, and both men had fought fiercely until finally Joe managed to overwhelm Seth and hauled him to Virginia City and into the safe custody of the local sheriff. Roy Coffee had listened to Joe’s account of the facts and assured him a trial would be set for the next visit of the Circuit Judge in three weeks time, Seth’s admission of guilt to Joe no doubt providing the Judge and Court with a quick open and shut case.

For Sara, the truth behind her father’s untimely death had proved to be totally devastating for the young woman. Leaving the sale of the mine in the hands of the Cartwrights and not wishing to stay in the area and await the murder trial, she decided to immediately leave and make a new life for herself in San Francisco with her uncle and family. But her friendship with Joe remained as strong as ever even though he had been instrumental in bringing Seth to justice. Promising to visit her in ‘Frisco once the sale had gone through, Joe had seen her off at the stage office, their final emotional parting causing a few raised eyebrows and sad smiles amongst the townsfolk of Virginia City.

As the driving, relentless rain poured down from the heavens, Joe sipped the last of his coffee, the dregs now cold and bitter, and then sank back onto the mattress. He closed his eyes as the pounding on the roof continued, recalling the look of disappointment and shame on his father’s face once Ben knew the truth about Seth, hardly able to believe his youngest son capable of keeping such a vile secret for so long. It was a look Joe did not wish to see again as a feeling of remorse swept over him and he quickly fell into a fitful sleep, bone weary and exhausted both in body and mind.

An hour had passed and the rain was long gone leaving total silence in the cabin when suddenly the loud whinny of Cochise woke Joe with a start, and he sat up slightly confused as another horse answered his pinto. Not expecting company in such a hostile environment, he listened keenly as the muffled sound of a horse’s hooves could be heard walking steadily on the muddy path towards the cabin. Drawing his gun from its holster, Joe moved anxiously to the window, acutely aware of rogue Indians who would think nothing of stealing from and even killing a lone white man, miles from civilization.

Outside the late afternoon light was fading fast, and as Joe looked through the dirty glass pane, a familiar buckskin gelding, his legs covered in mud, slowly came into view, laboriously plodding on the rain soaked ground. Taking a deep breath of relief Joe replaced his gun and with a grin on his face walked out into the fresh clear air, the darkening sky now clear of clouds as the unexpected welcomed figure of his father grew nearer.

“Hi Pa!” said Joe, as a very wet and bedraggled Ben Cartwright pulled up besides his son. “What on earth are you doing up here? There’s nothing wrong is there? Adam, Hoss, they are okay?” he asked, suddenly losing the grin and looking at his father anxiously as he took hold of Buck’s reins and patted the tired horse.

Ben shivered as he dismounted and gave his son a loving smile. “Joe! Good to see you,” he answered, giving his son a hug before removing his hat and shaking the remnants of water from its crown. “Nothing’s wrong and your brothers are fine. I just thought I would have a ride up this way and keep you company on your last night…but I didn’t expect to get wet through! There wasn’t a cloud in sight when I left the house first thing this morning!”

Joe nodded, still slightly mystified by his father’s arrival as he led Buck into the lean-to and unhooked his father’s saddlebag before following Ben into the relative warmth of the cabin. “Coffee?” he asked, placing the bag on the table and filling the coffee pot on the top of the stove with water from his canteen.

Ben nodded. “Thank you, son. Haven’t had anything since breakfast. That rain just came down without ceasing for hours and it wasn’t worth my while making camp so I just kept going,” he admitted, removing his sodden coat and passing it over to Joe, who hung it on a peg behind the door.

“Coffee should take a little while. Just get yourself warm while I tend to Buck, and draw some fresh water,” ordered Joe, as he passed over his dry blanket and Ben drew it close around his shoulders. Leaving his father to pull over a chair and slump down beside the lighted stove, Joe went outside to unsaddle then feed and water his father’s old horse before finally drawing a bucket of water from the well by the side of the lean-to.

Returning to the shack, his chores completed, Ben gazed up at his son’s weary face with concern as Joe entered into the gloom, giving his arm a gentle squeeze. “You’re looking tired, Joe! Has everything been okay with the line shacks?”

As he placed the bucket by the side of the stove Joe gave his father a genuine smile. “No problems Pa. Just been a long trip and I haven’t been sleeping too well. Guess I miss my old mattress too much these days…or maybe I’m just getting too old for trailing around these mountains!”

Ben nodded with a chuckle as Joe picked up the matches and lit a small oil lamp that was stood on top of the cupboard. “Hop Sing packed cooked chicken and fresh bread, Joe. He thought you deserved a treat after a week of dried jerky!” Ben said, pointing over to his saddle bag on the table as Joe turned up the lamp, the flickering flame casting long shadows in the small cabin. Licking his lips in anticipation, Joe opened up a small package from the saturated bag, releasing a delicious smell that suddenly permeated around the room.

“Good old Hop Sing! He is a life saver!” cried Joe as Ben put the blanket back on the bed and then moved his chair to the table. Placing portions of meat and bread onto two plates and with the coffee now boiled, Joe drew off two mugs, passing one over, father and son sitting in comfortable silence as they eagerly consumed their delicious impromptu dinner.

Minutes later, with a deep sigh of satisfaction, Joe leaned back, his plate and mug now empty. “That was delicious. Didn’t realize just how hungry I was!” Ben smiled in agreement as he swallowed the last of the dregs in his mug. Joe rose a little stiffly and walked over to the stove, picking up the hot handle of the coffee jug with an old cloth and returning to the table.

“You sure nothing’s happened at the ranch?” Joe asked suddenly as he poured out fresh coffee and shot his father a side long glance.

Ben’s dark brown eyes stared at his son’s back as Joe returned the jug. “Aren’t you pleased to see me, son? Does there have to be an ulterior motive?”

Joe sank back into his chair, holding his coffee mug tightly in his hands. “Of course I’m pleased to see you. But call me skeptical if you want, I just don’t think you would come all this way, in the rain, just to spend an uncomfortable night in a dirty old line shack with me.”

Ben’s brown eyes twinkled as he suppressed a smile. “Just when did my youngest son become so smart?” he asked, taking a sip from his coffee.

“Always been smart Pa…just like to keep it hidden from view from Adam! It might give him an inferiority complex!”

Ben gave a quiet chuckle then continued to sip his drink as Joe raised his cup and stopped in mid-air, his face turning serious and thoughtful for a moment. “So, why did you come here? There is something wrong, isn’t there?”

Heaving a great sigh Ben put down the steaming mug and nodded. “I wanted to talk to you, Joe, just the two of us, before you returned home.”

Joe looked puzzled then enlightenment dawned. “Is this about the trial?”

Ben looked at his son as he nodded again, a look of understanding passing between them. “Yes Joe. The trial!”

Taking a deep breath, Joe swallowed the last of his coffee then stood up and looked out of the window, briefly before wandering over to the bed and sinking down onto the mattress, laying flat with his hands behind his head. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve had these few days to think everything through and I know I’ve done the right thing and I’m ready to give evidence against Seth, regardless of the consequences.”

“That’s good to hear, Joe,” answered Ben, looking over steadily at his son. “But I think it’s only fair I tell you Roy came over yesterday to tell me Seth has changed his plea to not guilty.”

“Not guilty?” Joe gave out a humorless laugh. “I suppose he thinks pleading it was a mercy killing after all is going to somehow convince a Jury and lessen his sentence.” He took a deep breath and sighed deeply. “Well, Seth is guilty of murder and I’ll testify to that fact, don’t you worry!”

“No, Joe. You don’t understand. When I say, not guilty, I mean just that. His defense now is he never hit Abe on the head at all. He is claiming he just went into the mine after the rock fall and found him there, dead and buried under the pile of rocks and wooden beams.”

“But that’s a lie, Pa!” Joe cried, his eyes widening in surprised horror as he sat up. “He had that piece of wood in his hand…he admitted to me he had finished Abe off!”

Ben nodded then rose, pulling his chair and sitting down in front of his son. “This is why I had to come and talk to you.”

Joe shook his head as his fists tightened into a ball and he banged them onto the mattress in frustration. “He admitted to killing Abe for the silver lode in the mine…knew Abe didn’t want Sara to marry him. I told Roy all this! And now he is saying he did nothing wrong?”

Ben gave his son a look of sympathy. “Yes Joe. Seth says he is completely innocent.”

Staring at his father, a look of bewilderment flooded across Joe’s face. “But that’s rubbish! He knows it…we know it!”

Ben shook his head sadly. “A man is innocent until proven guilty, and as far as the law is concerned, Seth has every right to change his plea and say what he wants in his defense.”

Silence enveloped the room for a few moments as Ben’s words sunk in. “So in other words, it’s going to be his word against mine?” asked Joe, biting his lip nervously.

“Yes, son, that’s how it’s going to be played out.”

A troubled look suddenly appeared on Joe’s face. “I know I wasn’t honest with you at first, but I am telling the truth now about Seth,” he said quietly, looking intently at his father. “You do believe me don’t you?”

“Joseph!” Ben broke in gently, shaking his head in disbelief as he reached out and gripped his son by the shoulders, his fingers tightening in a loving squeeze. “What a question to ask! Of course I believe you.”

“And Adam? Hoss? I know Adam was pretty shook up that I had kept the truth about Seth from you all for so long. He was very disappointed in me….just as you were.”

“Your brothers have never doubted you honesty and are proud of the way you’ve managed to bring Seth to trial. Don’t you ever think otherwise!”

Joe sighed deeply. “Thanks, Pa. Guess I just wanted to hear you say it.”

Ben nodded, but the dark look that remained on his face sent a slight shiver through his son’s body.

“Pa? Is there something else you need to tell me?” Joe asked hesitatingly.

“Yes,” Ben said slowly, taking a deep breath. “There is something else I need to tell you. It’s about Seth’s lawyer.”

Joe frowned, pursing his lips and looking at his father with a quizzical expression. “Who? Sutton?” asked a perplexed Joe, Richard Sutton being one of the best and most respected defense lawyers in the area.

Ben’s brown eyes fixed unblinkingly on his son’s face. “No son. Richard hasn’t been called forward to defend Seth. Apparently a lawyer in Sacramento heard about your involvement and offered to take over the case. He arrived four days ago, has been in discussion with Seth, and has now changed his plea.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed and an edge of suppressed anger became apparent in his voice. “My involvement? What’s that got to do with anything?” he demanded, fighting hard to control his feelings. “It’s a straightforward murder trial so why would it create such interest in Sacramento because I am the main prosecution witness? Who is this lawyer?”

Ben steeled himself for his son’s reaction. He was not to be disappointed. “It’s Wilson Reed, Joe.”

For a few moments there was an uneasy silence in the room. Ben eyed his son with concern, instinctively knowing the memories that now flooded through his mind as Joe took in a sharp intake of breath. “Wilson Reed!” Joe hissed through gritted teeth. “This just gets better and better!”

It had been just over nine months ago.

For once complying with his father’s wishes without argument, Joe had left early one morning in a good mood to visit the barber’s shop in Virginia City Together with a Mexican friend, Carlos Rodriquez, he had awaited his turn and joked with the barber, Frank, as he sat on the barber’s chair. “Don’t cut too much off. I just want to make sure my hat still fits! Don’t get carried away with the scissors!”

It was then a bully by the name of Duke Miller made his presence felt as he arrived with his two henchmen, insisting he take Joe’s place on the barber’s chair, and, holding back his temper Joe had acquiesced. However, during an altercation between them, Joe had been knocked out and minutes later, when he came too, found Carlos shot dead in cold blood by Miller.

Although accused of murder and sent to trial, the defense lawyer, Wilson Reed, managed through a tricky legal maneuver to sway the jury to such an extent, Duke Miller and one of his accomplices was found not guilty, acquitted and allowed to go free.

At the time Joe had longed for vengeance, promising Carlos’ son Paco he would seek revenge for the death of his father. It was then Ben had intervened. He had confronted his son one night, his words laced with sarcasm. “Now evidently all I taught you means nothing….vengeance belongs to Joe Cartwright! Is that what you believe?”

With his father’s heart felt words ringing in his ears, Joe had then backed down from his threat and promise to Paco, eventually returning the young man to his family in Mexico. But Joe had never forgotten the lawyer who had manipulated the law to his own ends on various occasions and managed to have Duke Miller acquitted.

He jumped up, running his hands through his hair as he turned to look down on his father, his temper rising. “I can’t believe he has the nerve to show his face around here again! Just you wait till I see him…”

“This is exactly the reason I came here to tell you, Joseph, before you heard it from someone else!” Ben interrupted sternly. “There will be no personal vendetta against Wilson Reed. He has committed no crime in wanting to take Seth’s case, and you have no right to harass him. You will just have to get used to that fact.”

“But Pa, you know how he works! The truth doesn’t concern Reed! He uses every unscrupulous means and device to get his client off, whether or not they are as guilty as sin!”

“I know Joe…and I agree…his ways have much to be desired. But he only works within the confines of the law, and in the end we have to abide by the decisions of the jury and judge, however much we think they are wrong.”

“So I have to keep my cool, hold my temper, even if the trial may be mockery, a sham like Miller’s trial was? Is that what you’re saying?” cried Joe loudly with indignation, a note of bitterness in his voice.

“Yes Joseph. That’s exactly what I’m saying,” replied Ben with equal ferocity. “No doubt Reed will remember you very nearly ended up in jail yourself for a month because you couldn’t hold that temper of yours in check after Miller’s trial ended! Getting you riled up is the first thing he will try to do.”

Joe stood still, hands on hips as he glared over at his father for a moment, his eyes flashing with anger. Then he took a deep breath and closed his eyes momentarily before heaving a deep, inward sigh. “Sorry Pa. I know you’re right and I’ll do my best,” he replied finally, the rage within him quickly dissipating. “I just hope Daniel knows what he is up against now,” he added, walking over to the window and looking out into the darkness. “He seemed confident of a quick result when we talked last week. But that was when we thought Seth was pleading guilty and hoping for clemency from the court. Now Reed has taken on the case, well….”

Daniel Jenkins, a smart and gifted lawyer, had moved to Virginia City from New York six months before to replace Mathew Albright, who had retired after the Miller trial debacle. Daniel had proved popular and hard-working, soon becoming a successful prosecution lawyer for the State of Nevada. Now in his early forties, he was a thin man with a receding hairline and dark piercing eyes. After Seth had been arrested, Joe had visited his office and they had talked for hours as Joe described all that had happened, Daniel taking notes and asking many questions, keen to make it a water-tight prosecution.

“Remember how you talked me out of taking the law into my own hands and going after Miller?” Joe asked suddenly as he returned to the bed and sat down.

Ben nodded. “Yes, I remember. And it was the right thing to do…even you acknowledged that fact eventually.”

Joe huffed sarcastically. “The right thing to do…but not for the best. Did you know Miller and his gang ended up in Arizona…killed a doctor for no reason in front of his wife? Not even Wilson Reed could of saved them had they gone on trial but they disappeared over into Mexico and safety. Did you know that Pa?”

Ben shook his head sorrowfully. “No Joe. I didn’t know. But you can’t blame Reed for Miller’s subsequent actions.”

Joe gave his father an incredulous stare. “Can’t I? An innocent life ended because Miller was spared the noose due to his lawyer’s clever words and tactics!”

“Joe, that is in the past now. What is done is done. Sometimes we have to just accept what life throws at us, right or wrong. It’s going to be difficult….I know, but you need to concentrate on the present and make sure Reed can’t manipulate the truth again”

Joe shook his head ruefully. “Regardless of the lies he is no doubt going to say?”

“Yes, son. You need to be prepared to bite your tongue and keep that temper of yours under control.”

Joe took a deep breath and shook his head. “Telling the truth will be the easy part….keeping my cool…holding back my temper…well, that’s going to be hard, real hard.”

*****

Two days later the old Virginia City Courthouse was nearly packed to capacity when the Cartwrights arrived on the morning of the trial. Leaving their firearms at the entrance in the safe keeping of Deputy Clem Foster, the four men walked towards the front row where seats had been saved for them by Sheriff Coffee.

Daniel Jenkins turned and gave Joe an encouraging smile, but it was lost on the young man as he sank down into this chair, conscious of many curious glances thrown his way by those already in the Courtroom. Feeling slightly embarrassed, he looked over towards the desk of the defense lawyer as Wilson Reed and his client whispered together, their heads almost touching.

Suddenly Seth laughed and looked behind him, his eyes fixing on his old friend. Joe stared back, momentarily stunned by the look on Seth’s face. The gangly, fair haired young man, carried not a look of guilt or remorse, but his handsome face portrayed the look of a man who was confident of his future and his freedom. Wilson Reed also glanced over, his humorless smile never reaching his eyes as he nodded his head in silent greeting at Joe.

In his late forties, he was a tall and handsome man, his dark curly hair cropped short and a thin moustache on his top lip. Although they had only met at Duke Miller’s trial, Joe’s persistent belligerence had nearly caused Reed to lose the case, and he had never forgotten or forgiven the young Cartwright, eager to get his own back and put him in his place. The trial of Seth Pruitt had proved to be an opportunity too good to miss for the unscrupulous lawyer.

From the side of the court a door suddenly opened and the large figure of Judge Jefferson Woods appeared, the sixty year old with thick gray hair slicked down and parted over his left ear, holding a pair of spectacles tightly in his hand. As the court rose to their feet in unison, Judge Woods walked to his bench, taking a moment to view all those within the court room before he eventually sat down, leaving everyone else within the room to follow suite.

Glancing at the papers in front of him, Judge Woods looked over towards the Clerk of the Court and nodded, leaving the official to select and then swear in the twelve men of the jury.

While the legal preliminaries were taking place, Joe closed his eyes momentarily, his face darkening as he remembered with sadness the time he had last been in a court room; the day the jury decided Duke Miller was innocent of murder. That trial had taken place in Carson City, and he shuddered slightly, inwardly praying the jury of Virginia City would not be so easily fooled by Wilson Reed.

With the jury selected, Judge Woods rapped his gavel on his desk, shaking Joe from his reverie and a silence fell over the courtroom.

“This Court is now in session. Judge George Woods presiding,” declared the Judge, who then sat back and nodded towards the Clerk of the Court who proceeded to read out the charge to the Defendant.

“Seth Pruitt, you are charged with the willful and premeditated murder of Abe Cooper. How do you plead?”

Standing up, his lawyer by his side, Seth cleared his throat. “Not guilty,” he answered, causing a murmur to run around the room as the two men sat back down.

Judge Woods peered over his spectacles and his gavel once more slammed down. “Silence in court. This is a trial, not a social gathering!” he yelled, glaring with disapproval. He looked over at the prosecuting attorney. “Mr. Jenkins. You may make your opening statement to the court.”

Jenkins arose, his voice loud and emphatic as he proceeded to clearly describe the basic details of Abe Cooper’s death, Seth’s involvement and listing the two witnesses he intended to call to the stand. Once the formal account of the facts was completed he sat down and the Judge nodded over towards the defendant’s desk.

“Mr. Reed. Please state your case for the defense.”

Wilson Reed listed the inaccuracies of the prosecution statement, enforcing his belief in his client’s innocence and claiming Seth Pruitt had been wrongly accused of a crime for reasons that would become clearer during the trial.

His statement completed, Reed sat down and turned his head, giving Joe a contemptuous smile that was not missed on the young Cartwright, causing Joe’s stomach to churn uneasily.

“Mr. Jenkins, you may call your first witness,” said the Judge, his voice strong and commanding.

“Thank you Your Honor. The State calls Doctor Paul Martin.”

A chair could be heard scraping back on the wooden floor and Paul Martin walked down the aisle towards the front of the court, sitting down on a chair to the right hand side of the Judge. He pledged his oath on a bible, and then Jenkins walked over, giving him a welcoming smile.

“Doctor Martin. I have been told the body of Mr. Cooper was brought to your office by the defendant and Mr. Joseph Cartwright. Is this correct?”

Paul nodded. “Yes. They brought him in the back of Abe’s…Mr. Cooper’s wagon, on the same morning he died.”

“Could you describe to the court the injuries you found on the deceased?”

Coughing to clear his throat, Paul Martin took out a small notebook and flicked through the pages. “I made a note here,” he indicated, as he took out his glasses and put them on. “Abe Cooper had two broken legs, a broken arm, and a crushed skull. It was not possible to judge if there were any internal injuries, but there was a great deal of bruising on his body.”

“Did Mr. Pruitt or Mr. Cartwright tell you how Mr. Cooper obtained these horrific injuries?”

Leaning forward the doctor looked over at the defense desk and nodded. “Yes. Mr. Pruitt described how a small section of the roof in Mr. Cooper’s mine had crumbled away and fallen onto the deceased.”

“And in your opinion, were these injuries on Mr. Cooper consistent with a roof fall?”

“Yes they were.”

“And could Mr. Cooper have still been alive after the initial roof fall?”

Doctor Martin pondered for a moment. “It is unlikely.”

Daniel raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Unlikely? Is there no chance Mr. Cooper would have survived, if only for a short while?”

The doctor shook his head sorrowfully. “Accounting for all the injuries he had incurred…I would have thought it highly improbable.”

“Tell me Doctor, if we discount the serious injury to the head that Mr. Cooper sustained, do you think he could have survived the rock fall?”

Frowning slightly as he absently stroked his chin, the doctor slowly nodded. “Well…I suppose so. The human body can be very resilient at times and it is not beyond the realms of possibility. Any internal injuries may have proved to be fatal though.”

“But you are unable to confirm to the Court if Mr. Cooper had internal injuries?”

“That’s right,” answered the doctor, looking over directly at the Judge as he explained his actions. “Under the circumstances it was not deemed necessary to do a thorough post-mortem, Your Honor.” He returned his gaze to the Prosecution lawyer. “I couldn’t say for sure which of his organs may have been damaged.”

The Prosecutor stood in situ for a moment, mentally assimilating the information before returning to face his witness. “Tell me about the head wound, Doctor. Was it consistent with a roof fall?”

“Yes. From what I gather from Mr. Pruitt’s explanation, there was a substantial amount of wood and rocks dislodged from the roof. It wouldn’t have taken much to cause his skull to be fractured.”

“Is it possible that Mr. Cooper received the injury to his head after the accident?”

“After?” The Doctor thought for a moment, looking down at his notes. “Well…I suppose it is possible,” he answered finally.

“Let me just go through your statement again, Dr Martin. If Mr. Cooper had survived the roof fall without sustaining any damage to his head, although terribly injured, your opinion is, he could have still been alive?” Jenkins paused as the witness nodded.

“Yes that’s correct,” the doctor answered, removing his glasses and replacing them into his top pocket.

“And if someone had then hit the victim hard on the head, thus causing the fractured skull, that could have been the probable cause of his death? Is that what you are saying?”

Wilson Reed sprang up from his chair. “Objection! Pure speculation on the part of the Prosecution.”

The Judge shook his head slightly. “Objection over-ruled. I would like the Court to hear the Doctor’s opinion. You may answer, Dr Martin.”

“I would have to say…yes, it is possible.”

A faint grin touched the Prosecutor’s lips. “Thank you, Dr Martin. No further questions, Your Honor.” Returning to his desk, Daniel sat down as Judge Wood turned to the defending attorney.

“Your witness Counselor.”

Nodding, Reed rose from his seat. “Dr Martin, let us clarify a point. If all the injuries sustained by Mr. Cooper had happened as a result of the collapse of the roof, do you feel sure death would have been instantaneous?”

“Yes. With such extensive trauma, I feel death must have occurred immediately.”

“And when you examined the body, was there any way of knowing if the head injury was inflicted after the initial accident, or during the accident?”

Dr Martin shook his head emphatically. “No, it was impossible to assess either way when the skull was fractured.”

“Thank you, Dr Martin,” said Reed as he turned away from the bench, halting momentarily before suddenly turning. “One more question, Dr Martin. When the body was brought in by Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Cartwright, did Mr. Cartwright disagree with Mr. Pruitt’s initial statement that the deceased had died purely from a rock fall in his mine?”

“No. Mr. Pruitt explained what had happened and Mr. Cartwright just stayed silent.”

Reed raised his eyebrows, expressing mild perplexity. “So he did not disagree with anything Mr. Pruitt said?”

Dr. Martin shook his head. “No. He did not.”

“So Mr. Cartwright’s silence no doubt assured you of the truth regarding the accident and you had no reason to question the cause of death?”

“That’s right. Joe Cartwright gave me no reason to suspect foul play,” answered the doctor earnestly.

“Thank you, Doctor. No further questions Your Honor.”

Judge Wood gave a nod and turned towards the witness. “You may step down.”

The Doctor returned to his seat as Judge Woods looked over at Daniel Jenkins again. “You may call your next witness, Mr. Jenkins.”

Daniel gave a slight cough as he looked through papers on his desk. “The State calls Mr. Joseph Cartwright to the stand.” Judge Woods sat back in his seat, watching the new witness intently as Joe was called forward and took the oath.

Settling down in the wooden chair, Joe looked over towards Wilson Reed and Seth, the Defense Attorney returning the stare and smiling menacingly. A murmur ran through the courtroom, then again there was a hush as Daniel stood up and walked towards the bench.

“Mr. Cartwright, could you please tell the Court what happened when you first went into the mine.”

Joe straightened in his chair then cleared his throat, looking directly at the defendant as he spoke. “There was a great cloud of dust flying around, but I could see Seth was standing with a piece of wood in his hand. I looked down and Mr. Cooper was lying under a pile of debris…rocks, wood. Practically his whole body was covered.”

“Did you realize Mr. Cooper was dead at this point?”

“Yes, it was pretty obvious. There was a huge gash and blood on the top of his head, and no sign of movement or breathing.”

Daniel turned his gaze towards Seth. “And Mr. Pruitt? What did he say he was doing?”

Joe eyed his old friend for a moment then looked back at the Prosecutor. “He told me he had finished Mr. Cooper off, that he had begged him to do it because he had a broken back and had been in such terrible pain.”

“Did you question Mr. Pruitt about his actions?”

Joe coughed, fighting hard to keep his composure as the memories flooded back. “Yes. He reiterated what he had said…that Mr. Cooper was in agony and dying and had begged him to finish him off.”

“And you had no reason to doubt this explanation?”

“No. Seth has…had been an old friend. I believed him, though I didn’t agree with what he had done,” answered Joe quietly, a pained expression in his eyes.

Daniel nodded sympathetically. “And then what happened?”

“I wanted to report what had happened to the Sheriff, but Seth persuaded me to stay quiet about the mercy killing,” Joe explained. “He made me promise to keep silent, for Sara’s sake. I realized it would have broken her heart, knowing her fiancée had actually ended her father’s life, for whatever reason.”

The Prosecutor nodded his head slowly. “I see. So you kept your promise? You stayed silent?”

“Yes…I did,” answered Joe, hesitatingly. “Although I realize now it was the wrong thing to do.”

“Let us move on four weeks, Mr. Cartwright. Could you explain what happened when you visited the mine again and found Mr. Pruitt there?”

Grim faced, Joe looked over at the defendant. “I found Seth…Mr. Pruitt, digging in the mine. I told him I was going to have to turn him in…my conscience wouldn’t let him go unpunished.”

Joe looked over Daniel’s shoulder towards his elder brother. “It had been pointed out to me by a very wise man that it’s never too late for the truth.” He threw Adam a grateful smile, his brother returning the look with a nod of understanding. “I realized I had no right to keep Seth’s actions a secret, even if it had been a mercy killing,” Joe confessed. “It was then Seth told me what had really happened.”

“And what did he say to you?”

“He said he had found out there was a lode of silver in the mine…he offered to share it with me if I would keep quiet about him killing Abe…Mr. Cooper. I said I wasn’t interested so he began to lose his temper. Confessed he had killed him deliberately…knew Mr. Cooper didn’t want him to marry Sara after all and was scared he wouldn’t get his share of the silver once it was mined. He drew a gun on me but I managed to hit it out of his hand. That’s when we fought and I overpowered him and brought him into Virginia City and the Sheriff’s office. Told Sheriff Coffee what had happened, and he locked Seth up and charged him.”

“And you have no regrets about what you did…considering he was one of your oldest friends?”

With all eyes of the Court staring at him, beads of sweat trickled down his back as Joe took a deep breath, shaking his head as he answered. “No, I have no regrets. Seth is guilty of murder and he deserves to be punished accordingly.”

Reed lifted his head from the notes he was reading and leapt to his feet. “Objection! The witness is pre-empting the findings of the Court. It is up to the jury to decide if the defendant is guilty or not!”

“Sustained!”

The prosecution attorney gave a cool, challenging glance towards the Judge, but thinking better of it, shook his head from side to side. “No further questions Your Honor.”

Daniel Jenkins gave Joe an encouraging smile, mouthing a silent ‘well done’, before turning and returning to his desk. Judge Woods sat back in his chair and chewed on the end of his pencil for a moment, looking thoughtfully at Joe, his mind seemingly far away. He then sat up and gazed over at the defending attorney. “Mr. Reed. Your witness,” he said finally.

Wilson Reed slowly stood up, raising his eyes to meet those of the young Cartwright. He couldn’t have given him an icier stare if he’d tried as he looked Joe in the eye for a moment, then made a theatrical turn and walked over towards the jury, standing in front of them and turning away from the witness.

“Mr. Cartwright. Would you say you were a law-abiding citizen?”

Joe leaned back in his chair, his hands in front of him as he eyed Reed’s back. “I have always been taught to keep within the law, and tried my best to uphold it. But I have been a guest of Sheriff Coffee on occasion after a few drunken run-ins at the saloon…though my father hasn’t always been aware of that fact!” Joe managed a weak grin as he looked over towards his family and Ben raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise.

A ripple of laughter erupted throughout the court, easing the tension that had built up. Judge Woods also openly chuckled, then returned to the serious job in hand and banged the gavel down once again. “Silence in Court.”

A hush once again settled, and an unsmiling Reed continued his questions, his eyes cold and accusing as he turned and stared over at Joe. “If we are to believe your evidence, you claim Mr. Pruitt initially asked you to keep silent about this so called mercy killing and you agreed. Don’t you think your action was unlawful? After all, you were withholding valuable information about the death of Mr. Cooper. Not a very law-abiding thing to do, is it?”

Joe retreated into silence for a moment, shaking his head with regret before giving out a loud sigh. “Looking back I realize I made a big error in judgment. But at the time it never occurred to me I was being unlawful,” Joe said pointedly, slightly on the defensive but wishing to be completely honest. “I just thought I was doing the right thing…for Sara’s sake.”

Ben warmed to his son’s remorseful expression, causing a sob to form in his throat and he gulped nervously, his actions not missed by Adam who was sat next to him. “You okay Pa?” he whispered, leaning over and giving his father a look of concern as Ben answered with a slight nod.

Meanwhile Wilson Reed had turned back to face the Jury. “Oh yes. Miss Cooper. She is an old friend of yours, isn’t she?”

Joe gave a soft smile. “Yes. We have known each other for many years.”

“In fact, just over a year ago, there was much speculation that you and her were very close to marrying. Is that not correct?”

Daniel stood up quickly, giving the defense lawyer a look of disdain. “Objection Your Honor. This questioning is of a personal nature to the witness. It has no relevance whatsoever to the crime committed.”

“Your Honor I can assure you, this questioning is essential to my client’s defense,” retorted Reed.

“Very well. Mr. Reed. Objection over-ruled. The witness will answer the question.”

The ladies in the Courtroom craned their heads forward, eager to hear a morsel of gossip from one of the most eligible bachelors of the State of Nevada. Joe noticed the movement and inwardly cringed, resentful of losing his privacy over such a personal affair. “Sara and I became very close for a few months…shortly after the death of someone I loved very dearly. I was well aware rumors had spread around about the pair of us.” Joe glared into the mass of faces within the Courtroom, pleased to note a few embarrassed female faces looking quickly down onto the floor as he continued. “However, they were completely unfounded. Sara is and has always been just a friend, and she made it very clear she had fallen in love with Seth.”

Reed frowned then lifted his eyebrows in an extravagant gesture. “Are you sure, Mr. Cartwright? My client assures me you confided in him that you had indeed fallen in love with Miss Cooper, but she rejected your advances!”

“Well your client is a liar!” Joe spat back, his green eyes flashing with fury.

The attorney seemingly ignoring Joe’s reply continued as he paced back and forth in front of the bench, banging the first of one hand into the palm of the other. “In fact my client was sure this was the main reason for the resentment on your part towards him! Miss Cooper in love with your best friend! Did this not cause some resentment, Mr. Cartwright? Were you not incensed that you had lost your lady love to Mr. Pruitt?”

Joe gazed over at his father who intuitively sensed the rising anger within his youngest and shook his head slightly, his deep brown eyes conveying a silent message of reassuring calm between father and son. Joe tightened his fingers around the arms of his chair and swallowed hard, taking a deep breath before answering. “I was not! As I just said, she was a very dear friend! Nothing more or less. I was very pleased she was happy.”

“Were you, Mr. Cartwright?” the attorney questioned mockingly as he came to a stop in front of Joe. “Glad to hear it.”

He scratched his chin thoughtfully as he flicked his eyes between his client and witness mischievously. “You remained friends with Mr. Pruitt and Miss Cooper I take it?”

Joe looked directly in the face of Wilson Reed as he answered. “Of course! I had no reason not to. We remained good friends.”

“Mr. Pruitt asked you to visit Miss Cooper, make sure she was all right, when he went away on business. Is that correct?” Reed asked, a faint smile tugging at his lips.

“Yes.”

“But you did more than visit I hear. You invited her to stay on the Ponderosa!”

Joe tightened his lips. “Yes. She was alone in that small ranch house, still grieving for her father. It seemed a kindly thing to do under the circumstances.”

Reed looked over at the Jury, his faint smile once again evident. “Having her staying with you, in such close proximity, and without her fiancée around, it must have been easy to imagine how it might have been, if she fell in love with you instead of Mr. Pruitt?”

Once again Jenkins jumped up from his chair. “Objection, Your Honor. This has nothing to do with the case in hand, and is causing Mr. Cartwright unnecessary distress with these wild accusations!”

“If it pleases Your Honor, I am merely painting a picture for the jury of the reasons why the witness would want to tell such scathing lies about my client. I apologize profusely if Mr. Cartwright is suffering anguish,” retorted Reed with false humility, though making no effort to cover the sarcasm in his tone.

Judge Woods narrowed his eyes for a moment, well aware of the unscrupulous tactics often played by the defense counsel as he thought through his next decision. “Objection over-ruled…but I warn you Mr. Reed. Tread carefully with your cross-examination,” he replied coolly.

Reed nodded respectfully. “While she was your guest, it would have been easy to compare the affluent way of life on the Ponderosa to the poor existence she would have to endure with Seth Pruitt. Was it then you realized you had fallen in love with her, even after all those months of denial? Maybe it was then you became insanely jealous, thinking of ways to finally rid yourself of your rival! Is that not what happened?”

Joe’s eyes widened with contempt. “No!” he shouted, banging his fist onto the side of his chair. “That’s a lie! A dirty, stinking lie and you know it!” he hissed, as the Defense Attorney stepped back. “Your tactics are still as loathsome as when you defended Duke Miller!”

With all eyes of the Court on the witness and Defense Attorney, no one noticed a sudden look of veiled anger that passed over the face of Judge Woods before he regained his composure and banged his gavel down. “Mr. Cartwright! Control your temper and watch your manners in this courtroom!”

Joe took a deep breath, his fists still clenched tight as he nodded towards the Judge but the look he continually directed towards Reed was murderous.

“Mr. Reed!” cried Judge Woods. “You will also refrain from painting a picture for the jury without any substantial evidence! The Jury will disregard Mr. Reed’s last statement!”

“I apologize Your Honor,” replied Reed meekly, though inwardly reveling in the fact he had planted a seed of suspicion in the minds of the twelve good men that would possibly germinate in his favor. Cautiously he walked towards Joe regarding him for a moment. “I will move on to your last visit to the mine Mr. Cartwright. Did you know it had such a rich seam of silver?”

Although his obvious hatred for the lawyer showed up on his face and was impossible to miss, Joe steadied his voice as he answered. “No. Mr. Cooper had been convinced there was one in there, but no one else had believed it possible.”

“So it must have been a great shock to you when my client told you he had found the vein. After all, with wealth now on Mr. Pruitt’s side, you would definitely have no chance in winning Miss Cooper back.”

“Objection Your Honor,” called out Daniel as he pushed his chair back. “This is pure speculation on the part of the Defense Counsel. He is putting words into the witness’ mouth.”

“Sustained! Mr. Reed, please stick to the facts as we know them, not your own personal theories.”

“Of course, Your Honor. I apologize.”

“I hear the silver located in the mine of Mr. Cooper is quite substantial. Is it true Miss Cooper left the sale of the mine in your hands?” Reed asked as he began to slowly pace up and down in front of the bench.

Joe followed him through narrowed, suspicious eyes. “Yes. She asked before she left for San Francisco.”

“In fact, is it not true that your father made a bid for the mine last week? And his offer was accepted?”

Joe raised his chin, eyeing Reed defiantly. “Yes. He went through the correct legal channels and bought the mine, paid more than a fair price. What has this to do with anything?”

“Oh nothing, Mr. Cartwright. It is just very fortuitous that the mine became available for sale due to the arrest of my client and the departure of Miss Cooper. Your father is obviously a very astute business man.”

“Leave my father out of this. He had done nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Of course not…he is a law abiding citizen I am sure!” stated Reed, moving along the length of the Jury, staring at each member eye to eye. “Just like his son! His son who waited four weeks before deciding to turn in his friend for committing a murder! Four weeks!”

There was an edge to his voice that caused Joe to shuffle in his seat nervously as Reed turned and pointed over towards him. “I tell you, gentlemen, there was no crime committed that day in the mine…but jealousy and the thought of a new silver lode to add to the Cartwright Empire, drove this witness to concoct such an unbelievable story about my client.”

“That’s a lie,” Joe returned angrily, standing up quickly and staring up at the Judge. “How can you stand by and let this idiot talk such rubbish?”

Taken aback by the velocity of Joe’s accusation, Judge Woods banged down his gavel hard. “I suggest you calm down, Mr. Cartwright. One more step out of line and you will be jailed for contempt! Do I make myself clear?”

Joe shot the Judge an angry glance, and then obeyed, settling back down as a murmur echoed around the courtroom. The Judge then turned towards the Defending Counsel. “Mr. Reed, you will refrain from throwing your own conclusions to the court before the final address. Any further violations and I will charge you with contempt as well. Do I also make myself clear? Now have you any further questions for this witness?”

Reed nodded his head apologetically as he walked behind his desk and placed his hands on Seth’s shoulders. “Yes Your Honor, just a final point I would like to have cleared up,” he said, giving his client a noticeably sympathetic gaze. “Mr. Cartwright. You say your relationship with Miss Cooper is purely platonic? Just good friends?”

“Yes! I told you we are just very close friends,” Joe shot back.

“Really? I have witnesses who noticed the farewell between yourself and Miss Cooper at the stage office when she left and thought your romantic goodbye could have been the start of a new relationship!”

Joe tightened his mouth into a line, clenching his fists together, the simmering anger in him clear for all to see. “Sara was very upset…what with her leaving her home and friends after all these years, and knowing Seth was in jail, charged with her father’s murder. I was just comforting her as best I could.”

“From what I heard it was hardly the comforting of a mere friend!”

“I told you….I was just comforting her. Hell! When was it a crime to kiss a beautiful woman good bye?”

There was a loud snigger that filtered around the court room, and even Judge Woods tried hard not to smile before hitting his bench hard with his gavel.

“Definitely not a crime, Mr. Cartwright,” Reed echoed dryly as silence prevailed once more. “Is my information correct that you will be visiting Miss Cooper in San Francisco in the near future?”

“Yes. I will be taking her the proceeds from the sale of the mine.”

“I see. Such a long journey when the money could just be transferred bank to bank. How gallant of you to go to so much trouble for just a friend,” Reed quipped, giving the Jury a knowing wink out of sight of the Judge and the rest of the Court, his devious, silent innuendo certainly sending a further ripple of doubt throughout the twelve men. “No further questions Your Honor.”

“Any further questions for the witness, Mr. Jenkins?” Daniel rose and shook his head. “Very well…Mr. Cartwright you may step down.”

Joe stood up, pointedly staring towards Reed before returning to his father’s side, his heart pounding so hard within his chest it felt like it would explode. Relieved to have survived the ordeal of cross examination, he sank down into his chair and blew out his cheeks in a soundless whistle as his father squeezed his arm and gave him a reassuring smile.

Judge Woods leaned back in his chair and adjusted his glasses on his nose. “Mr. Reed you may call your first witness.”

“Thank you, Your Honor. I call the defendant, Seth Pruitt to the stand.”

Seth walked over, taking the bible in his hand as he said the oath, and then sat down.

“Mr. Pruitt. In your own words, tell the Court what happened the day of the mine accident.”

Seth cleared his throat, his nervousness clear to all as he wiped his sweaty hands on his trouser leg. “I was riding towards the mine to give Mr. Cooper a hand. Heard a rumbling and saw a huge dust cloud coming out of the entrance. I raced in, just managed to see Mr. Cooper lying, covered in debris, so I started to pull the wood and rocks off him.”

“Is that when Mr. Cartwright joined you?”

Seth nodded. “Yes. I heard a sound and stood up with some of the wood in my hand, and Joe was there behind me. I yelled for him to help, and we both began to pull all the beams and the rocks off Abe…but once cleared it was obvious he was dead.”

“Did Mr. Cartwright ask you what had happened?”

“No. It was pretty obvious the roof had just caved in…it is one of the hazards of mining. He had no reason to think anything else,” Seth answered, his voice now calm and controlled.

“So no mention was made of the obvious head trauma suffered by Mr. Cooper?” Reed asked, frowning slightly as his voice raised an octave. “It was just assumed it had been a consequence of the accident?”

“Yes,” confirmed Seth. “It was obvious a very heavy object must have hit him on the head during the roof fall.”

Reed stood motionless for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. “Let us move on,” he requested at last. “You had to go away on business and you asked Mr. Cartwright to call in and see Miss Cooper. Were you surprised to find her staying on the Ponderosa when you returned?”

Seth nodded vehemently. “Yes. I only meant for Joe…Mr. Cartwright to make sure Sara was okay, maybe stay for a cup of coffee. I didn’t expect him to invite her to stay on the ranch. In fact I was slightly suspicious of his motives.”

“Suspicious?” echoed Reed, giving the young man a look of surprise. Seth shifted uneasily, scratching the back of his neck as he answered grimly.

“A few months after Joe’s fiancée died, Joe told me he had fallen in love with Sara, but she had not been interested in him…that’s when I asked her out and we started courting. Then, after we set a wedding date, I noticed Joe acting a little strange, trying to demean me in front of Sara and her father, and always trying to show me up in front of our friends.”

“And why do you think he was behaving like this?”

Seth shrugged his shoulders, a perplexed expression on his face. “I just had this constant feeling he was jealous because Sara had chosen me instead of him, especially when we decided to get married. I didn’t say anything though, especially as both Sara and I pitied him.”

“Pitied Mr. Pruitt? Why?”

“Because Miss White…that’s the lady Joe was going to marry…well, she died in Joe’s arms. Sara said something like that must affect the mind for a long time and so we felt sorry for him.”

“I see. And then when you were in the mine four weeks after the initial accident and Joe Cartwright joined you there. What happened?”

“I was excited! I had just found the seam of silver, exactly where Abe had thought it would be. I wanted to go tell Sara. She always believed in her father and I knew it would be a great comfort to her, to know he had been right all along.”

“Was Mr. Cartwright happy for you?”

Seth took a moment or two before replying. “I thought he would have been,” he replied at last, casting a quick sly glance towards his old friend. “But he just started yelling, saying it was all wrong and there would be no chance of winning Sara back if we were going to be rich. He got real mad…said he hated me and if he couldn’t have Sara, then he wouldn’t let me have her either.” He paused, shaking his head sadly. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. He was like a mad man, ranting and raving. Then he attacked me. I had to defend myself, but he was always a better fighter, and he soon knocked me out. The next thing I knew I was locked up in jail, and he was telling the Sheriff that Abe’s death hadn’t been an accident and I had killed him, deliberately.”

“Thank you, Mr. Pruitt. I think the court now has a clear picture. No further questions.”

“Mr. Jenkins? Do you wish to question the defendant?” asked Judge Woods.

Daniel nodded his head and picked up a piece of paper before walking towards the bench. “Mr. Pruitt,” he said, pointing down at the paper in his hand. “After your arrest, it is clearly stated in this report that you were initially intending to plead guilty and throw yourself on the mercy of the Court. You were also to be represented by the local Defense Attorney. If you were innocent as you claim, why did you not plead not guilty from the start?”

“Sheriff Coffee told me that with Joe Cartwright’s evidence I wouldn’t stand a chance. His was a water-tight testimony and I should just throw myself on the mercy of the Court. I mean, who would believe me when up against a Cartwright?”

“So it must have been a great surprise when Mr. Reed suddenly appeared and offered to take over your case, even change your plea. After all, this is a well known and very expensive lawyer. Did you not wonder how you were going to pay for his extremely talented services?” asked Daniel, scornfully.

Shaking his head, Seth looked over towards his attorney. “Mr. Reed said he would only accept the basic state fee. I was not to worry.”

“Mr. Reed is indeed a very generous man,” said Daniel with a mirthless smile. “Did you wonder why he had taken an interest in you?”

“I did ask. He just said my case sounded interesting and he only wished to give me a chance of proving my innocence…especially as Joe Cartwright was the main prosecution witness. He hadn’t been too impressed with Joe’s behavior the last time they had met and thought I was at a disadvantage against such a rich and powerful family.”

“I see. So in other words, Mr. Reed has a personal grudge against Mr. Cartwright?”

Wilson Reed stood up, his face red with indignation. “Objection, Your Honor. My personal reasons for taking on this case are purely my own and not for the Prosecution to speculate about.”

“Objection sustained.”

Daniel Jenkins gave his opposition attorney a look of disdain then walked back to replace the paper on his desk. He turned again, pausing for a moment as he scratched his head. “Mr. Pruitt. You stated you left for a few days on business. Could you inform the Court what business?”

Shuffling uneasily, Seth gave a quick nod. “I needed to take a small sample of silver to the assay office in San Francisco to be tested.”

“I see. In your previous statement you mentioned that you had only found the vein of silver shortly before Joe Cartwright came to the mine to see you, four weeks after Abe Cooper died. So where did this silver sample come from?”

Sweat ran down Seth’s shirt and he wiped his hand across his forehead before running his hand nervously through his hair. “I…I found it a couple of days after the accident. I was helping Sara clear out some of her father’s belongings and it was in one of his saddle bags. I guessed he must have dug it out but decided to keep it a secret until he found the mother lode.”

“So you are only guessing that the silver came from the mine? You actually had no way of knowing where Mr. Cooper obtained the silver?”

“No. I…wasn’t real sure. But it stands to reason…”

“And what was the report on this silver?” Daniel asked without waiting for Seth to finish his sentence.

The young man did not even hesitate when he replied, nodding enthusiastically. “It was good! Top grade silver. It was one of the best samples seen in a long time!”

“Really, Mr. Pruitt? Top grade!” Daniel looked gravely at him, raising his eyebrows. “What a shame Mr. Cooper was not alive to read the report. After all, if it was the mother lode he located, it was on his property! His silver! His fortune! Not yours! What a stroke of luck that the roof fall was to rid you of the one man who stood between you and the riches that were implanted in the walls of the mine,” Daniel suggested sarcastically, giving him a hard stare.

With his shrewd eyes narrowing Daniel turned away from Seth and looked over towards Judge Woods. “No further questions, Your Honor.”

Judge Woods tapped thoughtfully on his bench for a few moments. “Very well,” he said eventually, taking out a small watch on a chain from his top pocket and giving it a quick glance. “In that case I call a short recess of thirty minutes. When we return, Counsel can make their final statements before the Jury retires.”

As Judge Woods disappeared into his private chamber, the standing Courtroom began to shuffle towards the exit, eager to find refreshments after the long morning’s proceedings. Sheriff Coffee and his deputy escorted Seth out of the courthouse to the jail, Wilson Reed making his way to his hotel for a welcomed cup of coffee. Eventually the room was empty save for Daniel Jenkins and the four Cartwrights.

The courtroom echoed in silence for a moment when suddenly Joe gave a hollow laugh. “Pity! He said he pitied me!” The hostility in his eyes and voice was undisguised as Joe looked over towards the empty defense table. “Seth was a good friend when Laura died. He was there for me, as well as Sara. Now he has told all those lies…made up all those lies! How could he?”

Ben shook his head sadly, placing his arm around his son’s shoulders. “He’s a desperate man, Joe, desperate to save his own skin. But you told the truth…that’s what matters, son.”

A flicker of bewilderment crossed over Joe’s face as he stared into his father’s weathered features. “The truth? What does it matter what the truth is, Pa?” he asked flatly pushing back his chair. With his usual spark missing in his gait, and a look of resignation on his face, Joe walked slowly towards the door. “I need some air!” he called over his shoulder as four pairs of eyes stared after his back until he disappeared from view.

“Surely you don’t think the jury will believe what Seth has been saying? They aren’t that gullible, are they?” asked Ben, turning to look over at the Prosecutor.

Daniel shook his head. “I don’t know, Ben. It only needs one seed of doubt in one member of the jury, and who knows what the outcome will be? It wouldn’t take much for them to bring in an acquittal.”

“But that’s insane!” cried Adam. “They can’t believe Joe would have lied about all this?”

“That’s right!” echoed Hoss, giving a deep nod of agreement. “Joe is as honest as the day is long. Everybody knows that!”

Daniel took a sip of water from a glass on his desk, grateful for its coolness on his parched throat. He looked back towards the Cartwrights, his voice showing a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. “Unfortunately, not all the jury does know Joe. Some of those men accepted for jury duty by the Defense have only been around Virginia City for a few weeks. They won’t be aware of the Cartwright reputation for honesty and fair play. All they know about Joe and Seth is what they have heard this morning. And the way Reed has played it…it doesn’t bode well.”

Hoss gave his father a worried stare. “What do you think Joe will do if Seth is acquitted? It was hard enough keeping him from going after Miller. Knowing Seth is still guilty…well he’s going to be as mad as hell!”

Anxiously nodding in agreement, Ben sank down on his chair. “I don’t know, son. I really don’t.”

Minutes passed and the Court began to fill again, sympathetic glances shot towards the Cartwrights by most of those who filed into the room. Sheriff Coffee walked in with Seth, guiding him to his place at the defense desk quickly followed by Wilson Reed, who with a deep smile of satisfaction on his face was obviously a man exuding confidence.

Ben looked towards the door anxiously as the Jury shuffled in from a back room and took their places. Hoss leant over and nudged his father gently. “You want me to go look for Joe, Pa?” he asked, well aware of his father’s concern. Ben was about to nod when a familiar figure walked through the door, grim faced as he made his way to sit next to his father.

Joe leant back in his chair, his fingers tightly holding onto his hat. Aware of his father’s eyes on him, Joe threw him a faint smile of reassurance he was okay then returned his gaze towards Wilson Reed and Seth as a door opened and the Judge made his entrance.

Once settled behind his bench, Judge Woods looked over towards the two attorneys. “Gentlemen, do you wish to call further witnesses?” Both men shook their heads.

“Very well. The Prosecution may make its final statement to the Jury and the Court.”

Making an impassioned speech, Daniel initially gave Seth’s reasons for wanting Abe Cooper dead, and how he would have succeeded in getting away with murder if it were not for the arrival of Joseph Cartwright.

Dismissing Seth’s evidence, Daniel placed all his faith in his main witness for the Prosecution, who, with the evidence he had submitted, had laid himself open to being charged with withholding vital information. Daniel pursed his lips together then stared at the Jury with a grim expression. “Why has Joseph Cartwright admitted his part in the initial cover up of Abe Cooper’s death? Why did he have his friend arrested and charged with murder?” he asked rhetorically as his voice raised in volume. “Because his conscience demanded it of him! He had nothing else to gain, just a desire to have the truth proclaimed in a Court of Law.”

Turning from the Jury, Daniel walked towards the defense desk. “The facts are clear for all to see. Seth Pruitt has repeatedly lied in a vain attempt to thwart punishment,” Daniel declared, looking pointedly at the defendant as his face reddened and the vein in his necked throbbed noticeably. He returned to stand in front of the jury, looking intently into each face. “The possibility that his fiancée would be swayed by her father’s insistence that he was not the man for his daughter was just too much for the defendant. He couldn’t risk losing the vast amount of wealth in that mine, so when the opportunity to end the life of Abe Cooper came about, he didn’t think twice. It was not an act of mercy, but a cold blooded murder, done both with intent and without remorse for the sake of greed! Seth Pruitt is guilty as charged!”

Daniel turned and walked in front of the Judge’s bench, his voice now hoarse. “That concludes the case for the Prosecution, Your Honor,” he said, giving a quick nod of the head before returning to his seat.

Judge Woods turned his eyes towards the Defense. “Mr. Reed. You may make your concluding statement.”

Wilson Reed’s face broke into a grim smile as he neared the seated jury. “Gentlemen,” Reed began. “This case is simple. It is one man’s word against another’s. Let us start with the facts that have been laid before us,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of Doctor Martin. “From the medical evidence given, there is no conclusive evidence that can determine when Mr. Cooper received the blow to his head, which resulted in his fractured skull, and probable death.”

He moved towards the jury, fixing his eyes on each one in turn. “It is my client’s word against that of Joe Cartwright that Abe Cooper did not die solely due to the roof fall that day. Both Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Cartwright removed the deceased man from the mine and took his body into town. Never was it mentioned there had been anything but an accident in the mine. Why? Because that was all that it was. A terrible accident! And why would the Prosecution witness concoct such a malicious lie about the defendant?” Reed added, his voice rising to a crescendo as he pointed his finger at Joe. “Because he seems to have a natural ingenuity and an apparent determination to mislead the Court about the death of Abe Cooper! Who knows what goes on in the warped mind of a man still in love and unable to accept the fact Sara Cooper would soon be marrying Seth Pruitt. It was the one way he could think of to rid him of his rival.”

Reed turned and walked over to his desk, looking down at Seth. “Take pity on this man, members of the jury. For he is guilty of no crime, but has already paid the price of innocence! His reputation besmirched…his fiancée deserting him, having been convinced of his guilt by their so-called old friend, Joe Cartwright.” He walked back to the Jury, his voice pleading. “Gentlemen! Please! Restore my faith in human decency and find my client innocent!”

There was an eerie silence in the courtroom for a moment as Wilson Reed made his way back to his desk and sat down. Judge Woods made a few notes and then put down his pencil, staring over towards the jury, the twelve men moving their heads to gaze at the Judge in unison. Taking a drink of water, the Judge then removed his spectacles and cleared his throat.

“Gentlemen of the jury. The evidence has been laid before you in a concise and eloquent form by both the Prosecution and the Defense. Did Seth Pruitt kill Abe Cooper after the rock fall as claimed by the Prosecution? Or was it an accidental death and Mr. Pruitt was accused falsely by the main witness for the Prosecution, Mr. Cartwright. Two men with different accounts of what took place, but the outcome remains the same. A man is dead. Your duty is plain…to seek out justice. It is up to you, the members of the jury, to decide who is telling the truth from the facts laid before you.”

Judge Woods became silent for a moment, his eyes traveling slowly and penetratingly between each of the twelve men. “I must remind you we are dealing with a man’s life here. There must be no doubt in your minds when reaching a verdict. No doubt at all!”

He nodded towards the clerk. “Please remove the Jury to deliberate the facts of this case,” he asked, sitting back in his chair as the clerk ushered the twelve men into the back room.

Banging his gavel once more on his desk, the Judge announced a recess then stood up and returned to his chambers, leaving Sheriff Coffee to escort Seth back to the jail with Wilson Reed and those standing in the courtroom to make their way outside.

Joe sat impassive, his eyes staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, hearing nothing, in a world of his own. Adam stood up and tapped him gently on the shoulder. “Joe? We had better go. jury could be out for hours,” he stated, as his brother continued to stubbornly remain silent and unmoving, no flicker of a response crossing over his face.

“Come on, Joseph,” requested Ben, gently taking hold of his son. “Let’s go and have something to eat at the hotel.”

Suddenly Joe was released from his trance like state and feeling a hand on his arm pulled away sharply, jumping up from his seat. “I need a drink, a few drinks…but as for eating…I don’t have an appetite,” he spat angrily as he brushed past his father. Ignoring the pleas to calm down and return that followed him, Joe disappeared through the door and into the main thoroughfare of Virginia City.

“Do you think I should go after him, the mood he’s in?” suggested Hoss as he looked over at his father’s ashen face.

Ben slumped down on his chair, shaking his head sorrowfully. “I don’t think Joe wants company at the moment, son. Leave him for a while. Just give him some time by himself.”

Daniel looked over from his desk. “I’m sorry, Ben. I just didn’t think Reed would stoop so low by implying Joe was jealous and still in love with Sara. I never imagined that line of his defense case at all. I did my best.”

“I know, Daniel,” replied Ben wearily. “A man can’t do any better than his best. Now it’s up to the jury to decide. How long do you think they will be out?”

“Difficult to judge, Ben. It is just impossible to say.”

Ben looked up at Adam and Hoss and slowly pushed himself from his chair. “I daresay you two would appreciate some food, unlike your brother?”

Hoss gave a quick smile. “Sounds good, Pa! You going to join us Daniel?” he asked politely.

Daniel gave a quick look of thanks but declined. “Think I will just go back to my office while the jury has retired. Give me time to run through some papers that have been piling up.”

As the four men walked outside into the chilled air, they stopped together on the wooden sidewalk. Ben gave the attorney a quick shake of the hand. “I know he didn’t show his appreciation, but I’m sure Joe would want me to say it for him. Thank you, Daniel. You have worked hard and we are grateful.”

Giving a quick smile of thanks, Daniel departed leaving Ben and his sons to walk over towards the hotel. As they passed the Silver Dollar, Ben could sense Hoss hesitate and hold back as he craned his head to look through the swinging doors into the saloon. Adam could also feel his indecision and slowed down, gently slapping his brother on the back. “Joe will be all right, Hoss. Just leave him for a little while to think things through.”

Hoss continued to look with uncertainty and Ben gave him an encouraging smile. “Adam is right, son. Joe needs to sort it out in his head first. Then he’ll want our company, you mark my words.”

With a sigh of acceptance, the big man nodded his head. “Okay, Pa. If you’re sure,” he answered, torn between his stomach that yearned for nourishment and his heart that only desired his little brother’s companionship.

*****

In the Silver Dollar, Joe sat alone at a small table in the corner, a bottle of whisky in front of him. He eagerly poured out a small glass, but even as he brought it to his mouth his stomach churned with nausea. He replaced the glass still full onto the table, just holding it in his hands as he stared down, his thoughts far away from the noise of the saloon.

Pulling off his hat he yawned and closed his eyes. He was tired and his head throbbed as he slid down on his chair, his mind going over and over everything that had been said in the courtroom, the look of revengeful hatred he had glimpsed in Seth’s eyes, and his contempt for Wilson Reed and his unscrupulous ways of obtaining a favorable verdict tearing him apart inside.

Suddenly he sensed another’s presence and stiffened in his chair before opening his eyes and looking up cautiously. He was slightly surprised and inwardly relieved when the face of his brother beamed a nervous smile down on him. “Joe, may I join you?” asked Hoss as he pulled up a chair.

Nodding Joe pushed the glass of whisky towards his brother. “You want a drink, Hoss? I haven’t got the stomach for it after all,” he stated, sighing deeply.

Hoss shook his head. “No thanks. Just had a meal. You should come over and eat, Joe. You haven’t had anything since breakfast, and even then it was just a couple of pieces of toast!”

Joe gave a short chuckle. “Trust you to notice what everyone else ate! Pa send you to look for me?”

Hoss answered with a short nod. “He’s worried, Joe. Didn’t want you drinking all alone for too long. Just thought we’d give you a short while to calm down,” he answered, giving a cautious side long look. “You are calm now, aren’t you, brother?”

Joe leaned back in his chair and gave a short laugh. “Yes. I am calm, Hoss,” he acknowledged. “And I am sober. Couldn’t force a drop of drink down my throat. Felt like I would have choked.”

Hoss nodded sympathetically. “Why don’t you come back to the hotel with me then, Joe? You need to get some nourishment in that body of yours. You’re looking skinnier than a half starved jack rabbit!”

Joe’s eyes lit up with a mischievous grin. “Compared to you brother, everybody looks skinnier than a half starved jack rabbit!” Joe replied.

Hoss returned the smile. “Are you going to come back with me then? Pa and Adam are still over there, hoping you’d join us.”

Joe shook his head. “I still haven’t got an appetite brother. Don’t think I could keep any food down, not at the moment.”

Hoss sighed deeply. “Sure has turned out to be more complex than we first thought. I can’t believe that cock and bull tale Seth came out with. If that jury has half a nickel’s worth of sense between them, they’d realize it was just a load of lies from start to finish!”

Joe bit at his lip, hiding his hands on his lap as they began to shake. “Wilson Reed sure has a way of making a lie sound truthful, though.”

Hoss put his hand on his brother’s forearm, giving it a gentle squeeze. “What matters is you told the truth, Joe. You know it, we know it and I am sure most of Virginia City knows it.”

“Might not be enough, though. Bad guys can be acquitted…a clever lawyer can make all the difference.”

“Well, I tell you this, little brother. If Seth Pruitt gets off, he won’t be welcome around these parts and that’s a fact!”

“Planning on running him out of town, Hoss? Are you going to be a one man vigilante?” Joe asked with a slight chuckle.

“I won’t be alone, Joe. I’ve been talking to many folk and they believe you without question. Seth Pruitt will definitely be persona non gratis!”

Joe laughed at his big brothers unusually eloquent phraseology. “Someone has been listening to elder brother for too long!” he said before his face darkened again. “But for some reason it don’t give me much comfort knowing folk around here still believe me. Thinking Seth might be allowed to walk free…well…it churns my insides something awful.”

“You don’t plan on doing anything stupid, do you, Joe? No thoughts of taking the law into your own hands? Pa is real worried you’re going to do something you’ll regret later.”

“What? You mean Pa thinks I’m planning on going after Seth?” responded Joe quickly.

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time your temper has got in the way of common sense, and that’s a fact!”

Joe silently swore, running his fingers through his hair as he guiltily recalled thoughts of vengeance that had indeed surged through his mind at times over the years. “Poor Pa. It must have been on the back of his mind all this time, ever since Wilson Reed came onto the scene. Well, don’t worry, Hoss. I’ve had enough time to think on it, and whatever the verdict is, I will accept it peacefully. I give you my word.”

“That’s good to know, Joe. Pa will be mightily relieved.”

A shadow suddenly appeared behind Joe and a young boy of around 12 years of age tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr. Cartwright?” he asked a little nervously. “Mr. Joseph Cartwright?”

Startled, Joe turned around, frowning slightly. “Yes, that’s me. What do you want?”

“I have a message, Mr. Cartwright,” the young boy answered, handing over an envelope. “I was told you would give me five cents for delivering it!” Joe raised his eyebrows and gave out a chuckle before digging out a coin and flicking it over to him, the boy racing out of the saloon with glee. With a look of perplexity, Joe opened the letter and began to read.

“Whose it from, Joe?” asked a curious Hoss as he peered over.

Joe shook his head. “Sorry, brother. Just something private I need to check out,” he answered quickly, placing the paper back in the envelope and stuffing it into his jacket pocket. “I’ve just got to go somewhere. I’ll see you later.” Banging his hat back on his head, Joe departed, leaving Hoss to look after him in puzzlement.

Wonder what that was about?” Hoss mused as he eyed Joe’s full glass of whisky that sat dejectedly in the middle of the table. Licking his lips, Hoss picked it up, downing the amber liquid in one quick swallow before pushing back his chair and exiting the saloon. Glancing up and down the street, Hoss could see no sign of Joe so he turned about and made his way back to the hotel, informing a much relieved father his youngest son was calm, sober and had no intention of seeking retribution should the verdict go Seth’s way.

*****

Two hours later, the jury notified the Court they had finished their deliberations and had reached a verdict and messages were sent throughout Virginia City. There was a threat of rain in the autumnal air as Ben, Adam and Hoss left the hotel, shivering slightly in a chilling breeze as they walked down the street, all looking around keenly for their absent son and brother.

Nearing the courthouse, Joe could be seen walking towards them on the main street, his jacket collar pulled up around his neck, hands in his pocket, and his head bowed down in deep thought, beads of perspiration clearly showing on his forehead.

“Joe? Are you feeling okay, son?” asked Ben as Joe drew nearer. “You face is quite flushed.”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe answered, throwing his father a reassuring smile. “Just been way too much excitement for one day. You’ve heard the jury is ready?”

Ben nodded, eyeing his son with concern. “Maybe it’s a good sign, Joe,” His voice showed false optimism.

“Maybe,” answered his son dispiritedly as Joe averted his eyes from his father and looked over nervously at the Courthouse.

Adam noticed his brother’s despondent air and placed his hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re feeling up to going back over?” he asked anxiously as he felt his younger brother’s body tremble slightly.

For a moment Joe looked into Adam’s eyes, as if searching for an excuse to go in the opposite direction, and then he seemed to shake himself from his inner musing and gave a short nod. “I’ll be okay. Lets get it over with,” he murmured, leading his father and brothers as they walked across the main street, joining the slow moving line of citizens as they made their way into the courtroom, the men once again depositing their guns to a waiting official in the doorway for safe keeping.

As he sat down, Ben glanced at Joe, who was leaning back in his chair, sensing the tension in his son’s body like a coiled spring. He inclined his head slightly. “Soon be over, Joe. Don’t worry,” he whispered as Judge Woods entered the Courtroom and made his way to the bench. Slamming the gavel down, silence immediately prevailed and Ben turned to face the front as the jury slowly made their way to their seats.

Judge Woods sat back in his chair, his usually impassive face showing a slight flush of apprehension. However, with all eyes on the jury, the look on the Judge’s face was lost to those in the Courtroom as the foreman stood up in front of the clerk of the Court.

“Has the Jury reached a verdict?” asked the clerk.

The foreman coughed nervously. “We have, but I must tell the Court it is a majority verdict of 9 to 3. Is this acceptable?” he asked as he looked over at Judge Woods who gave a short nod.

“The defendant will please rise and face the jury,” requested the clerk as Seth and Wilson Reed rose as one.

“How do you find the defendant, Seth Pruitt…guilty or not guilty of the murder of Abe Cooper?”

There was a pause as the Foreman took a deep breath, the silence deafening as all those within the Courtroom strained their ears in expectation. “The jury finds the defendant Not Guilty!”

There was a stunned silence then an almighty eruption of groans, shouting and expletives as the majority of those in the courtroom vented their anger at what they perceived to be a travesty of justice. The defense desk, however, was all smiles and hand shaking, an elated Seth Pruitt grinning from ear to ear with undeniable relief. Judge Woods stood up, banging his gavel down harder and harder to try and attract the attention of the court and to assume some sort of order within his domain.

Many of those in the courtroom were standing as they yelled their protestations, shaking their fists in the air towards Wilson Reed and his client. Ben and his sons sat in silence as order was eventually restored, Judge Woods staring down, his gaze shifting between the defendant and his attorney as the two men looked over at him.

“Mr. Pruitt you have been cleared of the charges laid against you. You are now a free man. But I caution you, Mr. Pruitt. From the reaction to the verdict, I think it would be prudent of you to leave this area, for I feel sure the Sheriff will find it difficult to guarantee your safety.”

Judge Woods then directed his look towards the court. “Let me say this now. Should any harm befall Mr. Pruitt, I will see to it that the perpetrator is hunted out and will pay the ultimate price. Do I make myself clear?” he cried, banging the gavel heavily onto his bench for the last time. “This session is now closed.”

Seth stood up and walked to the end of the desk as the Judge stood up to make his way back to his chamber. It was then Judge Woods was suddenly conscious of a movement in the corner of his eye and in an instant a green jacketed figure raced across the room, pushing Ray Coffee over and at the same time pulling out the Sheriff’s gun from its holster.

Pouncing on Seth, Joe grabbed him by the shirt, forcing the loaded Colt.45 hard against his throat as a woman screamed and silence then enveloped the courtroom. With the anger that had been simmering suddenly boiling over and overwhelming him, Joe tightened his grip on Seth, his back towards the bench as he forced his old friend painfully onto his knees, Seth’s terrified face in full view of the assembled crowd.

Ben looked over, his face drawn into a mixture of astonishment, indignation and horror as he viewed his son. “Joseph! Put that gun down immediately,” he ordered, his booming voice in the silence forcing his son to look over quickly.

As their eyes met, Joe shook his head resolutely. “Not now Pa. Not before this court hears from Mr. Pruitt again. And you are going to give another statement, aren’t you Seth?” he asked sarcastically, pushing the muzzle of his gun harder and harder into his windpipe.

“What do you want me to say?” coughed Seth, fighting hard to take a breath.

“Try telling the truth for a change,” Joe growled. “Otherwise I might be tempted to accidentally shoot you dead!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” choked Seth as all the eyes of the Court fixed on the scene that was unfolding by the Judge’s bench, no one daring to move or make a sound. “The law would have you hanging for sure!”

“Well you wouldn’t be around to worry about me!” Joe answered giving out a blood curling chuckle. “And as for the law, this is how much I care about the judicial system at this moment in time!”

With a quick flick of his wrist, Joe pointed the gun at Judge Woods who was standing, his arms outstretched as he gripped tightly onto his bench, viewing the scene before him. Joe fired, the bullet striking home and the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air as Joe hurriedly returned to push the gun hard into Seth’s throat.

Judge Woods sank back with a moan into his chair, blood seeping through his judicial robes and there was a loud intake of breath from the townsfolk in the Courtroom, totally aghast at the violence they had just witnessed.

“You’ve shot the Judge!” Seth cried, his eyes widening with incredulity.

“Now I think you can see I’m not fooling!” Joe broke in angrily, his look lethal. “So what’s it to be, Seth? The truth or a bullet?” he asked contemptuously.

Seth nodded, totally convinced by Joe’s threat as he listened to the moans of the Judge from behind the bench. “Okay! I’ll tell you the truth!”

“So you admit everything you said was a lie?” Joe persisted.

“Yes! Everything was a lie! I did kill Abe Cooper deliberately! He was still alive when I found him, and he was pleading with me to help him, pull off all the stones and wood he was buried under. It was when I pulled off the first wooden beam I had the idea of killing him…so I did. I hit him hard, two, maybe three times. He died just as you entered the mine. That’s when I thought up the mercy killing plea to keep you quiet.”

Realizing he may well have talked himself into a hangman’s noose, the young man gave out a cry of despair as Joe visibly relaxed, forcefully forcing Seth to lie on the floor before looking over at Wilson Reed.

“So much for your impassioned plea to restore faith in human decency and find your client innocent!” Joe spat with contempt, handing the gun back to a much relieved Sheriff Coffee who held it firmly and pointed it in Joe’s direction.

“Doc Martin, I think you have a patient,” Joe shouted, giving the Judge a quick glance of concern, the two men locking eyes, the Judge’s face contorted with pain as he gave a quick nod towards Joe.

Doctor Martin rushed over, ripping Woods’ sleeve and viewing the injury, sighing with relief. The wound was ugly but only a superficial bullet burn on the forearm, causing a loss of blood that made it look much worse than it was.

The Defense Attorney stared over at Joe, relishing his reckless and impetuous act. “Mr. Cartwright, I think it only fair to tell you that gaining this admission of guilt does not alter the situation with Mr. Pruitt,” he cried scornfully from across the room as he eased himself up from his chair, inwardly jubilant at Joe’s rash behavior. “My client has been found not guilty. He cannot be tried again.”

Seth’s eyes fixed on the attorney, his look of bewilderment not lost on Reed. “Double Jeopardy! Once tried and found not guilty of a crime, a man cannot be re-tried for the same offence. Mr. Pruitt is still a free man. Your little performance has gained you nothing!”

Joe smiled bleakly. “I know all about double jeopardy, Reed,” he hissed. “I did what I did purely to get to the truth, seeing as you managed to hide it from the court, once again.”

As the doctor finished skillfully wrapping a crude bandage around his bleeding arm, the Judge pushed himself up in his seat.

“Mr. Reed,” he called a little weakly, his face visibly pale as he eyed the attorney. “There is a stage back to Sacramento in an hour. I have a feeling it may be in your best interests to be on it, don’t you?” he suggested.

“I will, Your Honor,” Reed agreed.

“I also suggest you take care in choosing your cases in future. I have a feeling the State may not take too kindly to the way you have conducted yourself in obtaining a favorable verdict for this client, considering he has now admitted his guilt.”

Reed nodded, eager to distance himself from Seth as he hurriedly replaced papers into his briefcase then moved out of the Courtroom, taking what little dignity he had with him.

As he disappeared from view, Judge Woods looked down at those in front of his bench. “Sheriff Coffee, I want Joseph Cartwright placed under immediate arrest. There will be no application for bail. Because I am a victim of this outrageous attack, I am unable to hear this case, but I have a meeting in Hardyville in three days time with Judge Richardson, who I feel sure will officiate at short notice. Is this acceptable to you?”

Roy Coffee pondered for a moment, slightly bewildered by the Judge’s request then gave a quick nod of his head. “It is, Your Honor. Although it would mean leaving tomorrow on the stage. Hardyville is quite a distance from here.”

“So be it, Sheriff Coffee. I will requisition the stage to transport myself, and both you and the prisoner.”

Judge Woods then turned his attention to the ex-defendant as Seth slowly rose from the floor, rubbing his sore Adam’s apple. “Mr. Pruitt. Regardless of the fact you have now admitted your guilt, you are still free to go. But I feel sure you would wish to attend the trial of Joseph Cartwright as a witness for the prosecution?”

“You mean I get to give evidence against Joe? He could end up in prison?” Seth asked, almost gleefully. Judge Woods nodded. “In that case, wild horses wouldn’t keep me away,” he smiled.

“Very well,” answered the Judge crisply. “You may accompany us on the stage. I also suggest you take advantage of Sheriff Coffee’s hospitality until you leave tomorrow. I have a feeling you may require somewhere safe to stay until you leave Virginia City and I also advise you to place yourself in the Sheriff’s safe hands until after the trial, just in case…then you may go on your way.”

Judge Woods returned his gaze to Joe. “I must warn you, Mr. Cartwright, Federal law will not overlook the attempted murder of a Circuit Judge! What you have just done carries a mandatory sentence of five years in the State Penitentiary, regardless of your motives.”

Joe, his face flushed and hair sweated thickly on his head, nodded with a bleak smile. “Someone once told me life isn’t supposed to be easy…or fair,” he muttered, glancing over uneasily at his father and brothers who were staring at him, pale faced and disbelieving.

Unable to speak with the shock of what Joe had done, Ben watched impassively as Sheriff Coffee grabbed Joe by the arm, his son giving a weak smile before disappearing with the Sheriff through the door and on to the jail.

Seth looked around him cautiously at the silent crowd that remained in the Courtroom, noticing the angry looks thrown his way, sensing an undercurrent of evil intent against him. Remembering the Judge’s warning, he picked up his hat from the desk and rushed outside, following the sheriff to the jail that had been his prison for the past three weeks, for once grateful to return to within the safety of its walls.

Obviously in some discomfort, Judge Woods continued to look over at Ben as the Courtroom rapidly emptied, the excitement and unexpected conclusion of the trial soon to become the talk of the town.

Ben’s face was grief stricken, not quite able to digest what his youngest son had just done, as Adam sat stony faced and Hoss shook his head in disbelief. Only a short time ago his brother had given his word he would do nothing, regardless of the verdict. For Hoss, it was not only what Joe had done, but the fact his little brother had broken his heart-felt promise to him without a thought that rocked him to the core.

“Mr. Cartwright?” the Judge called over, Ben’s head slowly lifting. “Will you be traveling to Hardyville?”

Ben nodded towards the Judge. “Yes…yes of course. And I must apologize, Your Honor. What Joseph just did was inexcusable and I am deeply sorry.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I can assure you, your son will have a fair trial, regardless of what he just did,” the judge replied and with a slight wince of pain disappeared into hiss chambers, Doctor Martin following behind him.

Daniel Jenkins joined the three Cartwrights, sitting down and shaking his head, bewildered. “Ben! I had no idea Joseph capable of such recklessness! Why would he do such a thing?”

Ben gave a shudder and shook his head. “After all I have taught him about upholding the law…his promise to Hoss…”

Ben’s voice faltered as Adam nodded in agreement. “I realize Joe wanted the truth but I never thought he would do something so foolhardy.”

Hoss stood up, staring over towards the empty bench. “Did you hear what the Judge said, Daniel? Joe could get five years in the penitentiary. Five years!”

“Yes, Hoss. I heard the Judge. But we are all witnesses to what happened. If it had been anyone else, would you suggest they get off free or with a shorter sentence? I don’t think so.”

Hoss stared at the Prosecutor, a spasm of alarm crossing his face. “But what can we do? We can’t let him go to prison!”

Ben stood up, placing a comforting arm across his son’s shoulder. “Daniel is right, Hoss. Much as it grieves me saying it, Joe deserves to be punished for what he just did.”

“Are we going to go over to the jail to speak with him?” asked Adam pensively.

Picking up Joe’s hat which had fallen to the floor, Ben absently fingered it for a moment. “No Adam,” he answered eventually. “I think Joseph needs a few hours to think over what he has done. At the moment, I don’t think I could bear to look at your brother, let alone talk to him.”

*****

Roy looked up from his desk the next morning as Ben and his two sons walked through the door. Seth Pruitt was sat opposite the Sheriff, and he eyed the new arrivals with trepidation, fearing retaliation from the Cartwrights. However, Ben’s thoughts were only for his son languishing in one of the cells behind the connecting door in the jail house.

Roy eased back in his chair, eyeing his old friend. “Morning Ben. I take it you want to see Joe?” Nodding over Ben, Adam and Hoss began to unbuckle their gun belts, totally ignoring Seth.

“There’s no need for that, Ben,” stated Roy. “I don’t think Joe is going to try and pull a gun on his own father or brothers.”

Placing his holster on the table Ben huffed then shook his head sadly. “Maybe not, Roy. But after yesterday’s performance, I don’t think I can trust my son. At least this way you can’t be blamed for anything that might happen.”

Seth gave a malicious chuckle but seeing the look of disgust thrown his way by Adam and Hoss became silent and sloped off to sit in a chair at the far end of the office.

Roy slowly pushed himself up and took out a bunch of keys from the top draw of his desk. “We will be leaving on the stage at noon Ben,” he informed his old friend sympathetically. “The Judge reckons we can get Joe’s trial fixed for the end of the week, leaving you plenty of time to join us down there.”

Ben nodded as Roy gave an apologetic cough. “Ben. I’m sorry, but I think its only right I tell you….”

Three heads turned in unison as father and sons looked at the sheriff inquiringly.

“Yes Roy? What?”

“Well Ben, it’s like this. Seeing as both the Judge and Pruitt here are going to be on the coach with Joe and me….well….”

As the sheriff’s face reddened considerably, Ben gave a half smile towards his old friend. “Come on Roy…what’s this about?”

Taking a deep breath, Coffee looked at Ben nervously. “Well Ben, its not that I think he would try and escape, but Federal law insists Joe has to be chained and shackled while we’re traveling. I don’t want to do it Ben…but I haven’t got any choice.”

“Shackled? You can’t be serious, Roy? Not Joe…it’s not like he’s a murderer!”

Hoss cried, glaring at Seth. “Not like some I could mention!”

A look of panic crossed Seth’s face as Hoss began to move towards him and he looked over at the Sheriff for protection.

However, the calming hand of Adam grabbed his brother by the arm and pulled him back. “No, Hoss. It isn’t worth it,” he said, his own brown eyes conveying a look of contempt towards Seth. Hoss hesitated for a moment then the big man gave a nod of agreement and moved over to a stove in the corner, drawing off a cup of coffee for his little brother.

“Does Joe know about the irons?” asked Ben brusquely.

Roy nodded over. “Yes, Ben, he knows. Just gave one of those wry smiles of his and never said a word. In fact, he’s hardly said a word about anything.”

Taking a deep breath, Ben made his way into the room containing the three cells, his two eldest sons following behind, the jail’s only occupant lying prostrate on a bed facing the wall with a single blanket covering him. Walking towards the cell door, Ben stopped, anger flashing in his eyes yet love still pounding in his heart as he gazed down on his youngest for a moment, Joe’s hat held firmly in his hand.

“Enjoying the view?” a voice suddenly asked bitterly with a hint of mockery in his voice from within the cell.

“Joseph!”

The figure under the blanket visibly tensed as he turned over, viewing his father and brothers with tired eyes. “Sorry, Pa. I thought it was my neighbor,” said Joe quietly, pointing over to an empty cell where Seth Pruitt had no doubt slept. He hauled the blanket off and stood up stiffly, stretching out his arms as Roy unlocked the cell door then tactfully retired to his office, closing the door behind him.

Joe immediately noticed the lack of firearms and gave a grim smile. “Roy not trusts you to bring in your guns?” he asked.

“Actually, I didn’t feel I could trust you, Joseph,” answered Ben coolly as he walked into the cell and placed Joe’s hat on his bed.

Joe froze, the unfamiliar coldness of his father’s voice shaking him and he looked down at the cell floor, biting his lip nervously. Hoss handed over the cup of steaming coffee which Joe accepted gratefully, sipping the liquid as he gazed at his father through lowered eyes. “When you didn’t visit me last night, I did wonder if you would come at all.”

Ben sighed deeply, fighting hard to keep his temper under control. “I thought you deserved some time to think through what you did, Joseph. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I would never have believed it possible of you to do something so cavalier…so stupid, so unlawful!” He hooked both thumbs in his belt and rocked back and forth on his heels studying his son intently. “You do realize the seriousness of yesterday’s outburst, don’t you?” he asked as Adam and Hoss watched the exchange, their own disgust at Joe’s behavior tempered with concern and worry as they noted the anger in their father’s voice.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe murmured then paused, flushing rather guiltily. “But I had to do it.”

“After promising to your brother Hoss you would do nothing!” Ben yelled incredulously. “Never before have I felt such disappointment or shame for one of my sons. Attempted murder of a Judge! Joseph, I just do not understand what got into you!”

Joe looked up quickly. “But I had to do it, Pa!” he repeated defiantly, returning his father’s gaze. “I’m sure it’s going to work out fine.”

Adam, who had remained silent and was looking through the small window on the back wall of the cell suddenly banged his hand hard on the metal bars, the usually stoic man exploding with rage as he squared up in front of Joe. “Fine? You are being delusional brother,” he yelled forcibly. “What on earth were you thinking?”

Joe visibly tensed at his brother’s outburst but stared back unflinching. “I had to do something before Seth left for who knows where! I had to get him to tell the truth…if only to show what an ass the law is sometimes, especially with the likes of Wilson Reed around!” Joe shouted back, stealing a quick glance towards the door as he noticed Seth peering in.

Their raised voices and bitter words were obviously being followed in the other room with interest and Seth gave Joe a mocking grin as he viewed the squabbling siblings before the door closed again.

The tension between the eldest and youngest was almost tangible as they continued to glare at each other, inches apart, and Ben took a deep breath, about to remonstrate with his sons when Hoss moved forward, his big hands gently pushing both his brothers away from each other.

“This isn’t helping,” Hoss said in his quiet way giving them both a warning look. “Don’t force me to bang your thick skulls together…you know Pa don’t like it!”

Adam and Joe gave their big brother a startled questioning look, then noticed his amenable toothy grin and caught the humor of the moment. Witnessing the scene, Ben threw his middle son a thankful nod for his conciliatory action. It was not the first time he had been the calming influence that stilled the stormy waters between Adam and Joe.

With their anger evaporating as quickly as it had appeared, Joe sank down wearily onto the bed, subdued yet still unrepentant as he finished his drink and put the mug down on the floor, and Adam returned to the window, looking up into a cloudy, rain filled sky.

“Will you be coming to my trial, Pa?” Joe asked at last, unable to look his father in the face for fear of what he might see in his eyes.

Still fuming Ben glared down. “Of course, Joseph,” he said sharply, clenching his fists and banging them on his leg in annoyance. “Regardless of what you did, you’ll not be facing this alone. I would of thought the Judge could have sorted out something a little nearer to home though.”

“I’m sure he had his reasons,” said Joe, giving his father a nervous smile and for the first time noticing his weary and red rimmed eyes. He looked down quickly as Ben glared over at him unsmiling, ashamed to have been the reason for his father’s irritation and displeasure.

“I thought about trying to talk to the Judge,” stated Ben, seemingly oblivious to the unhappy look on his youngest son’s face. “He wasn’t badly injured and might have considered being lenient under the circumstances. I even wondered if I should offer to pay Seth to drop any charges…”

“NO!” cried Joe a little too loudly, his voice surprising his father with its resolve as he stood up quickly and threw him a pleading look. “Don’t do anything, Pa…please, just don’t do anything…I am prepared to take my punishment from the Court, whatever it is.”

Ben moved closer, placing his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gazing at him steadily. “I said I thought about it, Joseph! But I decided not to bother,” he snapped icily as Joe stared into cold deep brown eyes that locked into his own, his heart sinking as he saw disgust and disappointment reflected towards him. “This time you have gone too far…there is nothing I can do to help you. You know how I hold great respect for the law…you are going to have to pay for your transgressions!”

Joe flinched, a guilty emptiness spreading in the pit of his stomach as he looked down at the floor. Pursing his lips together, Ben’s face hardened as he gazed down at Joe grimly. “Have you even thought what your reckless disregard of the law means? You’re going to end up in prison for five years at least!”

Joe looked up quickly as if wanting to say something important but decided better of it and stared fixedly at his father’s face, remaining silent.

“Roy says you will be leaving at noon. I expect you to behave…no thought of trying to escape. Is that too much to ask of you?”

“Not much chance with me wearing shackles, Pa!” Joe replied with a half smile before unease crept into his eyes once more as the humorless stare of his father continued to look down on him. “But you have my word, Pa. I will be a model prisoner.”

“I just hope you keep your word this time, Joseph!” Ben replied with a hint of bitterness in his voice. With a heavy heart and plenty on his mind, Ben stepped back. “Although I don’t expect it will help, I have arranged a meeting with Daniel to discuss your case before he leaves for Carson City in an hour,” Ben said, the anxiety and anger he felt more than apparent as he gave his son a final cursory glance and left the cell without another word.

“Pa?” mused Joe half aloud as his eyes followed Ben, his heart sinking down to his boots with misery. His father passed Seth who was stood in the doorway having listened with delight at the exchange between father and son, throwing Joe a look of contempt as he noticed the pained expression on his face before closing the door.

The room stayed awkwardly silent for a moment as Hoss and Adam threw a sympathetic glance at their brother who looked so pitiful and sad. “Pa didn’t mean anything,” Hoss said, apologizing for his father’s abrupt departure. “He’s just got his mind full of worry, you know he has.”

Joe gazed at the closed door for a moment then sat down on the bed, his head in his hands. “I’ve never seen Pa so mad before and he could hardly bear to look at me. I just didn’t think through how this would affect him,” Joe stated almost angrily, causing Adam to turn from the window and view his brother with compassion.

Hoss put his hand on his brother’s shoulder, his own anger now long gone. “He isn’t so much mad, just worried sick. Joe. Don’t think he had a wink of sleep last night…even went out for a ride in the middle of the night.”

Joe looked up. “He did? Where?”

“Where do you think, Joe?” Adam asked, giving his brother a wry smile as he pushed his hat back and brushed his hand across his forehead. Joe gave a deep sigh and nodded. Of course…his mother’s grave. The one place father and son always visited when they needed to talk out their problems, their heartaches.

“You’ve got yourself into some scrapes over the years, but this just about takes the biscuit and….well, for once I just don’t know what to do,” sighed Adam, exhaling deeply.

“That’s okay, Adam,” Joe responded in a dull matter of fact tone. “I’m a big boy now. I got myself into this so I’ll just have to live with the consequences.”

Falling silent, Adam’s expression was thoughtful for a minute. He couldn’t deny although Joe’s method of obtaining the truth was much to be desired, his motive was sincere and genuine, and he grinned awkwardly. “Sorry I shouted, Joe. Maybe one day you’ll learn it’s not wise to act before putting your brain into gear!” he joked.

“Never was a quick learner,” Joe replied without smiling.

Adam made no reply as he walked forward, his gaze on his youngest sibling never faltering. “I had better go and join Pa, calm him down. Maybe I can think of something to help get you out of this fix,” he said, squeezing his brother’s arm affectionately.

Joe nodded guiltily, noticing the unhappy and troubled look in his eyes, but appreciating the tenderness of his touch. “Thanks Adam…for everything,” he murmured as his brother headed to the outer office.

“See you soon, buddy,” Adam called, flicking his right index finger on the brim of his hat in salute before closing the connecting door behind him.

There was an uneasy silence for a few moments as the murmur of voices could be heard in the outer office, then Joe heaved out a loud sigh and looked over at his brother. “Aren’t you going with Pa and Adam?” he asked as Hoss looked around the bleak cell.

“No….I reckon they can get on fine without me. I’ll stay with you for a while.”

Giving his brother a grateful smile Joe also gazed at his stark surroundings, chuckling quietly, eager to lighten the mood. “I never thought those old line shacks were palaces, but compared to this…!”

Hoss nodded with a grin, and then his eyes began to moisten. “I wish I knew why you did it, Joe? After promising me…sometimes, little brother, you are your own worst enemy!”

“I know, Hoss…I know,” Joe answered quickly, sensing the pain in his brother’s voice. “And I’m sorry…real sorry.”

“I suppose we have one thing to be grateful for,” added Hoss, nervously scraping his foot on the dirt floor.

“Yes? What’s that?” asked Joe as he sat back down on the bed.

“Well, if you were aiming to actually kill the Judge, your aim was sure off by a mile, thank the Lord!”

Joe looked up with a start, then began to chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” asked Hoss in all seriousness.

Forcing himself to calm down, Joe shook his head. “I had no intention of actually killing him!”

“Huh? Well, I suppose that’s something in your favor. Just hope the Judge realizes that!”

Joe suppressed another chuckle and closed his eyes momentarily as Hoss wandered over to the window and a steady downpour of rain began to fall. Heaving a great sigh he turned back as Joe sat up, resting on one elbow. “Tell me Joe,” he asked, giving his little brother a quizzical grin. “How is it you always seem to find yourself in messes like this?”

Joe gave a huff and shook his head. “Guess I’ve got a natural ability, brother!” he quipped cheekily, only his returning smile was forced and his eyes betrayed the apprehension and misery he felt.

He thought back to the look he last saw on his father’s face. Not a look of love or concern, but shame, disgust and disappointment. Never before had he felt so alone.

*****

There was an acute and noticeable tension within the close confines of the coach between all the passengers, and conversation was truly at a minimum for most of the time on the long and tiring journey south. However, Seth made scathing and personal remarks towards Joe on the first day, relishing in his tale to Judge Woods and Roy Coffee of the altercation in the jail between father and son that he had listened to through the thin wooden walls. He also joked cruelly about the heavy iron shackles, laughing hysterically when he ‘accidentally’ tripped Joe up during their stop at the relay stations along the way.

Biting his lip and clenching his fists, Joe ignored the provocation and Seth, eventually growing bored at his game, retreated into the corner of the coach, looking out at the countryside, but always with a malicious and leering smile on his face. Joe had glared at his old friend, his eyes half closed, ever thoughtful of his father’s anger but keeping silent, the only sound from his corner of the stage the rattle of the chains when he shifted his position for the sake of comfort.

After nearly three days, the stage duly arrived in the early morning and on time, its four passengers relieved to have completed their bone-shaking journey as they viewed a faded sign on the roof of the livery stable that indicated they had reached the small town of Hardyville.

Alighting, stiff and weary, Judge Woods, his arm in a sling, watched thoughtfully as Joe, Seth and Roy headed across the road to the jail before making his way in the opposite direction towards the hotel and a hot breakfast. Judge Richardson was already in the dining room and the two men soon were in quiet conversation, Judge Woods giving a concise and detailed report on all that had happened in the Virginia City Courtroom days before.

Still shackled, his ankles and wrists aching and chaffed, Joe shuffled slowly, Sheriff Coffee at his side, as they made their way into the domain of Sheriff Virgil Tomms, the long time law enforcement officer of Hardyville. A short man, thick built, with solid strong shoulders and piercing blue eyes, he viewed his new prisoner with interest. Having been primed by Judge Richardson of Joe’s arrival, and the circumstances of his arrest, he gave Roy a cordial greeting before indicating the prison cells at the back of his jail.

As Seth turned to head towards the hotel, Roy reiterated the instructions from Judge Woods that he was to keep him safe until the trial. Ignoring the protestations thrown his way, Roy took Seth by the arm and forcibly hauled him through the front door of the jail, motioned him to sit on a chair at the side of the sheriff’s desk, then turned his attention back to Joe.

Now within the confines of his small, hot and dirty cell, Roy unlocked the shackles, giving the young Cartwright a sympathetic and apologetic gaze as Joe sunk down onto the bed, sighing with relief to have rid of the heavy iron bracelets. “Sorry, Joe. You do know if it had been up to me, you wouldn’t have had to wear those?”

“Of course, Roy. You were just following orders…and the law!” Joe murmured as he gingerly rubbed his sore skin. “Just a shame someone else didn’t have to wear them,” he added, looking through narrowed eyes towards Seth as he viewed him drinking coffee and talking with Sheriff Tomms.

Roy sighed deeply. “I know how you feel, Joe,” he said walking out of the cell with the shackles and locking the cell door behind him. “And believe me, if there was any lawful way I could get Pruitt behind bars for what he’s done, I would do it. But my hands are tied…just like the Courts.”

Joe continued to massage his wrists, his own discomfort clear to see as he winced with pain.

“Joe? Just do one thing for me…for your father?” There was a curious edge to Roy’s voice that made Joe look up, the almost pleading tone in the Sheriff’s voice impossible to miss. “Don’t let the thought of revenge cloud your life forever…what ever happens tomorrow, one day you’ll be free. I’m sure it will give your Pa a load more sleepless nights if he thinks you’re going to go high-tailing after Pruitt the minute you are released.”

“Roy, I can assure you after tomorrow, the thought of vengeance against Seth Pruitt will be the furthest thing on my mind. I promise!”

Sheriff Coffee gave Joe a thoughtful nod of thanks, then left, closing the connecting door behind him and leaving Joe to sink back onto the flea-ridden mattress, his weary body shaking with uneasiness and exhaustion.

Ben and his two sons rode into Hardyville shortly before 10:00 am the following morning. With stubble on their chins, dust on their clothes and feeling saddle sore, they made their way down the street towards a white washed brick built building that bore a crudely lettered sign, ‘Courthouse’ on its wall above the large front entrance.

Although hungry and exhausted they forgo breakfast, immediately tying their horses to the hitching rail and moving towards a stocky figure with a familiar silver badge on his black shirt who eyed them cautiously, a Winchester rifle held tightly across his right arm.

“Sheriff, my name is Ben Cartwright, these are my sons. I assume you have my other son Joseph inside? The trial hasn’t started yet has it?”

Sheriff Tomms, his blue eyes veiled with reserve nodded. “We’ve been expecting you since yesterday, Mr. Cartwright. Trial is due to start in 5 minutes. Sure cutting it fine aren’t you?”

“Yes. My horse threw a shoe and we had to make a diversion to have him re-shod.”

The lawman pointed towards a small table just inside the open door. “No guns allowed inside,” the Sheriff informed them. “I would be grateful if you’d leave your firearms on there before you go in.”

Complying, the three men placed their guns on the table then walked into the gloom of the Courtroom, standing still for a moment, their eyes growing accustomed to the dim light as Sheriff Tomms closed the door behind them, then turned the key in the lock.

The Courtroom of Hardyville was empty of townsfolk as Ben’s eyes immediately locked with those of Joe who was seated behind a table directly to the left of the Judge’s bench, Roy Coffee at his side.

“Everything okay, son?” Ben inquired sternly, his voice echoing in the near empty room as he made his way towards the bench, giving Roy a quick nod of acknowledgement. “Sorry to cut it fine like this, but Buck had a lost a shoe and it really slowed us down.”

“No problems, Pa,” Joe answered, his eyes riveted on the commanding figure of his father that loomed over him. He looked keenly at his dusty, weary face with concern then turned back towards his brothers, throwing them a wave of welcome, the shackles once more evident as they rattled.

Ben’s face noticeably darkened as he viewed angry looking weal marks on his son’s wrists. “Are these still necessary?” he snapped at Roy, his parched throat noticeably hoarse but his voice full of disgust.

“Sorry, Ben,” Roy replied apologetically. “But they have to stay on until the trial is finished.”

Seth was sat at one end of a row of chairs and he looked over, throwing Ben a sneering grin before chuckling loudly. “No need to worry, Mr. Cartwright. With those bracelets on, don’t reckon Joe will be shootin’ himself a Judge today!” he laughed with new found bravado.

Ben suppressed a searing flame of anger within him and totally ignored the remark, returning to sit down next to Judge Woods who greeted him cordially.

“Glad you could make it, Mr. Cartwright,” the Judge said, also giving Adam and Hoss a nod of welcome. A door at the side suddenly opened and Judge Richardson, a man in his late fifties, balding and slightly portly, made his way to the bench, followed by the Clerk of the Court.

“This Court is now in session, Judge Ethan Richardson presiding,” the Judge stated, tapping his gavel down on the well used wooden bench, and then looking intently at the faces that looked towards him.

“Because of the unusual circumstances regarding this trial, I have purposely made it a closed hearing to members of the general public in Hardyville,” he began, speaking softly but with an edge to his voice. “I am sure all those assembled here will soon realize why I have taken this decision.” He looked towards Sheriff Tomms who had remained standing by the locked entrance, his back against the wall and his rifle still held menacingly in his arm. “Do you know what you need to do Sheriff?” he asked quietly but firmly.

“Sure do, Your Honor. No one will be joining us…or leaving us until you say otherwise,” the lawman advised, giving the Judge a knowing smile.

Judge Richardson gave a grateful nod then looked down at Joe. “Mr. Cartwright I see you have pleaded guilty to all charges laid against you. Is this correct?” he asked, fingering a wad of papers in front of him.

Joe stood up slowly, resting the chains between his hands on the table and gave a nervous smile. “Yes, Your Honor. No point denying it as there were plenty of witnesses around,” he said, looking pointedly at Judge Woods and his family before returning to stare at the Judge.

“So you are willing to accept any sentence from this Court without the need for a Defense Counsel or jury?” the Judge persisted, meeting Joe’s gaze squarely on.

“Yes Sir,” Joe answered without hesitation

“Very well, you may sit down, Mr. Cartwright.”

Judge Richardson eyed the faces that stared at him from the courtroom. “It would seem the trial of Joseph Cartwright will be a short affair. However, I still need to follow the correct legal procedures.” He gave a slight cough then looked over and waved Seth to a vacant chair by the side of his bench. “Mr. Pruitt, would you please take the oath,” he requested politely, a hard glint appearing in his eyes as Seth rose and complied, then settled himself down by his side. “Mr. Pruitt. As you have just heard there is no requirement for Defense Counsel or jury for Mr. Cartwright’s trial. Your testimony regarding his actions is therefore not required. I apologize for bringing you all this way for nothing.”

A faint smile creased Seth’s cheeks, and his lip curled unpleasantly. “That’s okay, Judge. It was worth the ride just to see Cartwright in those bracelets!”

Judge Richardson leaned back in his chair, thoughtful for a few seconds, his eyes never straying from Seth. “I have read the report written by Judge Woods regarding your trial, Mr. Pruitt, and it certainly makes for interesting reading. In fact, there are many aspects that are truly amazing and unique. Would you mind answering me a few questions just to keep my records straight?”

Seth raised his eyebrows and gave the Judge a nod. “Sure, Judge! I ain’t got anything to hide,” he chuckled.

Carefully pouring a glass of water from a pitcher on his desk, the Judge took a swallow then flicked through the papers in front of him, visibly marking sections with his pencil. “It clearly states in this report from Judge Woods you openly admitted killing Mr. Abe Cooper after the Jury brought in a ‘not guilty’ verdict. Why?”

“Well, things got a bit rough Judge…Joe Cartwright forcibly held a gun at my neck…I thought he was going to kill me for sure…heck, he’d just shot the Judge!” he cried, gazing over towards Woods quickly.

“So you openly admitted you did commit this murder after all in front of the whole Court?” Judge Richardson pressed. “Were you telling the truth? Had you murdered Mr. Cooper?”

Seth nodded, his eyes glinting insanely as his face displayed neither fear nor remorse. “I had been planning on getting rid of Abe for months, just needed to fix me up a convincing accident. Having that roof fall was a golden opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

“So, just for my records, Mr. Pruitt, having just taken the oath a second time, you now openly admit to this Court your testimony in Virginia City was indeed false, and you were guilty as charged?”

Seth nodded, stretching out his long legs and gazing with insolence into the courtroom. “Yep, I admit it, Judge.” The smirk on his face beamed out at the small audience. “Why not? Reed told me about this double jeopardy rule…ain’t a thing no one can do about it now! I’m not sorry about what I did. I only regret Cartwright didn’t kill the Judge that day. Now that would have been a hanging I’d love to watch!” he added, his evil laugh echoing as he stared over at a stone faced Joe.

“Thank you for your honesty…at last Mr. Pruitt,” commented Judge Richardson. “You may step down.”

As Seth returned to his chair, the Judge made a few notes before lifting his head towards his silent courtroom. “Well, I think I have enough information in front of me now to conclude this irregular Court hearing.” Giving Seth a cursory glance, Judge Richardson looked towards the back of the Court. “Sheriff Tomms, please secure your prisoner,” he commanded.

The Sheriff, already primed by the Judge and knowing the course of action he had to take, gave a slight nod then placed his rifle on the table. For a heavily built man, Sheriff Tomms was deceptively agile as he quickly moved behind Seth, bending over his shoulder then forcibly placing a pair of handcuffs around his wrists with practiced ease, locking them tight before the hapless young man knew what had happened.

Seth, his face a picture of bewilderment and unease spun round in his chair then stood up, viewing the lawman with disdain. “What are you doing? What the hell’s going on?” he cried, the cuffs holding his hands tightly together as he shook them around wildly. Tomms returned to his rifle and carefully pointed it in Seth’s direction, indicating for him to sit down again.

Judge Richardson banged down his gavel, his face grave and serious as Seth turned his head quickly towards the bench. “Seth Pruitt. I have read the account of your trial in Virginia City, and have just heard for myself your admission of guilt on oath. Therefore, having sufficient evidence for a conviction, and with the powers vested in me, I reverse the majority verdict of 9 – 3 as directed by the Jury in Virginia City and hereby find you guilty as charged of the murder of Abe Cooper.”

A loud ‘Yes!’ was heard from Joe, his eyes closed with relief as surprise and anger welled up from Seth Pruitt.

“But you can’t do this!” he exploded. “Double jeopardy…that’s what Reed said! I can’t be tried twice for the same offense!”

Judge Richardson sat forward in his chair. “I am well aware of the rules and law concerning double jeopardy Mr. Pruitt!” he declared, his eyes gleaming. “And Mr. Reed was indeed correct. However, what he failed to tell you was this rule does not apply here in Hardyville.”

Seth gasped, confused by the turn of events, his face visibly pale. “What do you mean?”

“Double jeopardy does indeed apply within the States of the Union as laid down in the Constitution. However, Mr. Pruitt, as you well know, this country is at present in the throes of a Civil War. Unless it has moved considerably to the north and become the State of Nevada, I think you will find Hardyville is just in Arizona.”

The Judge paused, giving a confused Seth time to digest the information. “At the moment, Arizona has sworn its allegiance to the South and became a Territory of the Confederate States of America. It is therefore not liable to accept the judgment of any Court in the North, and as far as double jeopardy is concerned, that ruling is null and void here.”

“I don’t believe this. It’s against the law!” Seth protested loudly.

“I can assure you, Mr. Pruitt, this is indeed the law. My old friend, Judge Woods was aware of this anomaly within the judicial system. That is why he ordered Mr. Cartwright’s trial in Hardyville when you confessed your guilt. That is why you were asked to accompany him here.”

There was a noticeable intake of breath from Seth as he sunk low onto his chair, digesting all he had been told. Suddenly he sat up stiffly as the finger of impending doom pointed towards him. “What’s going to happen to me?” he asked grimly, panic sounding in his voice as he absently rubbed his fingers around his throat.

“Having been found guilty as charged I will now pronounce sentence,” the Judge advised, taking out a pen from his pocket and signing his name at the bottom of a piece of paper. “As you obtained a majority verdict from the Jury and not a unanimous one, I am compelled to give you a custodial sentence. So think yourself lucky, Mr. Pruitt. You have cheated the hangman out of a day’s work!”

“I’m not being hung?” Seth challenged with a look of relief.

“No! But I have a feeling you may wish you had eventually.”

Seth, his handsome face sickly gray, swallowed hard. “What do you mean?” he asked nervously, his eyes now showing fear.

“I hereby sentence you to life imprisonment, Mr. Pruitt…with no recommendation for parole,” the Judge said firmly as Seth flinched in dismay. “I will be arranging for your transportation to a prison that has only been open for a few years. It has wonderful sea views I hear, with no chance of escape. It will be your home until the day you die!”

Seth noticeably tensed. He began to shake, the unpleasant taste of bile making him swallow hard to stop himself being physically sick. He had heard of this new prison, its harsh regime, the solitary confinement for all inmates. It was called Alcatraz! In shock, with his fate now sealed he stared towards Joe, his own predicament momentarily forgotten.

“But what about Cartwright?” Seth cried savagely, as he glared angrily at Joe whose face was expressionless, neither showing triumph nor sorrow. “He has to be sentenced!”

“Ah…yes,” the Judge murmured, returning to scan the report in front of him for a few moments before looking up. “Mr. Cartwright, would you please stand.”

Slowly and painfully, Joe levered himself tiredly out of his chair, hauling the clanking irons around his wrists onto the table top.

“Mr. Cartwright. Although I cannot fully condone your actions in Virginia City, due to certain irregularities, I have decided there is not a case to be made against you. Therefore all charges are now withdrawn. You are free to leave this Court without a blemish on your character.”

With a weary nod, Joe gave a grateful smile and sat down, blowing out his cheeks in a sigh of relief.

Seth stared over towards Judge Richardson uncomprehendingly. “But why? He shot the Judge! Anyone knows that’s enough to put you in jail for years!” he yelled, his face twisted with rage.

“As I have already stated, this is indeed a unique case Mr. Pruitt. Unique in as much Judge Woods instructed Mr. Cartwright to attack you and then shoot him, albeit not seriously, so I can hardly have him charged now, can I? Not for obeying the wishes of a Circuit Judge.”

The young man stared over towards Joe murderously as realization slowly dawned. “He knew, didn’t he?” Seth asked venomously as he stood up and glared over at his old friend. “Joe Cartwright knew about the double jeopardy rule here! Their little charade in the Courtroom was a set up to lure me here to Hardyville!”

The Judge nodded his head. “Yes. Once you admitted your guilt in Virginia City, he knew exactly why you needed to come here,” Judge Richardson answered, giving Joe a grateful smile. “The law required you to confess again in front of me, Mr. Pruitt…and you duly obliged.”

Seth swayed slightly, his young face twisted in disbelief. He sat down again, slumping forward and resting his head in his hands, the faint sound of a sob leaving his throat heard by those in the room.

Judge Richardson watched him from his bench, his hardened features showing no feeling of compassion. “Sheriff Coffee, please take those irons off, Mr. Cartwright…I think we need them for another’s use,” he said as he tidied the papers on his desk.

A slightly bewildered but smiling Sheriff Coffee complied with the Judge’s wishes and unlocked the heavy lock, releasing the chains and irons around Joe’s wrists and ankles which then fell to the floor in a noisy heap.

Joe gave Roy a wry smile and picked them up, walking slowly towards a shocked Seth who sat up and watched his old friend through moistened eyes.

Bending down Joe placed the shackles around Seth’s ankles and then his wrists, turning the key in the lock and handing it over to Sheriff Tomms.

“It isn’t so funny when it’s you wearing the irons, is it?” Joe remarked dryly, but without humor.

“Why Joe?” Seth asked in a dispirited broken voice. “Why couldn’t you just leave well alone? Was it vengeance you were after?”

Joe’s face was somber as he studied Seth, saw the tears in his eyes and heard the despair in his voice. “No, Seth, it wasn’t vengeance,” he replied sadly. “I just wanted justice.”

Leaving a bewildered Seth to be led by the arm by Sheriff Tomms to the jail, Joe gave him a final sympathetic glance before returning to his seat and as the door closed Judge Richardson banged down his gavel for a final time that day.

“This session is now closed!” the Judge said, a smile of satisfaction clearly showing on his face. After having a brief word with the clerk who then disappeared into the Judge’s chamber, he rose and walked over to Judge Woods, the two men shaking hands happily.

Sheriff Coffee sat back in his chair as he watched Joe gently massage his sore wrists. “Well, if that ain’t the strangest trial I’ve ever been at,” he remarked with a grin on his face. “Sorry, Joe. Had no idea all this was a set up.”

Joe gave him a friendly smile. “Had to keep it a secret, Roy, otherwise Seth may have smelled a rat.” Adam and Hoss eyed each other, relieved but bemused then stood up and walked over to Joe, giving him a brotherly hug.

“Good work, little brother,” remarked Adam proudly as Hoss, scratching his head in puzzlement, looked over towards Judge Woods. “I understand most of what just went on, and I commend your actions Judge…but why were you so bothered about getting Seth Pruitt to confess again?”

The Judge gave a nod. “I realize my actions were a little…out of the ordinary! I can assure you I had good reason, though, if you will let me explain?”

Still looking baffled, Hoss nodded his head as he pulled up a chair next to Joe and Roy and Adam perched on the end of the table.

“I take it you all are familiar with the name Duke Miller?” asked Judge Woods.

The three men nodded. “Sure we are…he was the man who murdered Carlos Rodriquez but was acquitted…Joe was a witness for the prosecution,” Hoss replied, giving his brother a sympathetic glance.

Judge Woods nodded. “I was talking to the Judge who presided at Duke Miller’s trial, shortly after it ended. He told me how it was obvious Miller was guilty but had been freed because Wilson Reed had obtained a not guilty verdict using the flimsiest of loop holes in the judicial system. It made me very angry to think the law had been manipulated so despicably, but there was nothing that could be done then.”

Taking a pause, the Judge removed his aching arm from the sling and rubbed it absently while he continued. “A few months later, my brother-in-law was murdered in Tucson. Shot down in cold blood in front of my sister by the same Duke Miller and his gang who had escaped justice in Carson City. They headed over into Mexico and will probably never be brought to account now,” he said with a sniff, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his tear filled eyes. “Then I was told Wilson Reed was coming all the way from Sacramento to take on a seemingly cut and dried murder case I was to hear in Virginia City. The Wilson Reed who had defended Miller, got him acquitted…free to murder again!”

The Judge sighed deeply. “It was soon clear to me Pruitt was indeed guilty, and I could see the way Reed was swaying the jury with his false innuendos and clever speeches. So I decided to take the law that I hold so dear to my heart, into my own hands for once, while I had the opportunity…before I retire. I thought my strategy out and knew I would need some assistance and who better than the one man who knew the truth about Seth Pruitt.”

The Judge smiled over at Joe, the young man acknowledging his gaze with an embarrassed grin.

Adam gave a puzzled frown. “But why did you insist Joe had to shoot you?” he asked, looking fixedly at the Judge’s bandaged arm. “Mite risky wouldn’t you say?”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright. I was well aware of your brother’s prowess with a gun. In fact, Joseph assured me he could shoot an ant from a tree…so I think it was worth the risk just to have a bullet burn, don’t you? We needed Pruitt to admit his guilt in front of the Court…how else could we convince him your brother was serious and would have shot him there and then by having him shoot me first!”

“So why didn’t you just arrest Seth and drag him over here once he had confessed?”

“If we had hog-tied Pruitt and brought him into Hardyville, he would have no doubt denied his guilt, said he was coerced into making his statement when your brother attacked him. He may have got away with it again,” the Judge admitted, shaking his head sorrowfully. “No! We needed him to willingly come here, thinking he was a witness for the prosecution. We had to have him admit his guilt in front of an unbiased witness, my old friend here, Judge Richardson.”

Judge Richardson gave a nod of agreement. “I know it was an unorthodox way of securing a guilty verdict, but if it means being…shall I say…a little unethical for once…then so be it. In this case, I think we can all agree…justice has been done, albeit not in a truly conventional fashion!”

Giving Joe a congratulatory slap on the back, Hoss shook his head in relief. “I do think you could have told us what you were up to, little brother. It would have made life a load more bearable over the past few days. We’ve been worried sick about you!”

“Sorry, Hoss,” Joe answered, slowly getting to his feet. “But if you had known the truth, I don’t think Seth would have been quite so convinced by your reactions to it all.”

Ben, who had remained silent and thoughtful, cleared his throat and stood up as his son moved towards him. “You went out on a limb there, son. So much could have gone wrong but I must admit it was quite a show you put on in the Courtroom. A very convincing show! Well done!”

“Thanks, Pa, but I’ve never felt so scared in my life…especially when I shot the Judge! It was only afterwards it occurred to me had I actually killed him no one else would have known of our so called plan! I would have definitely ended up visiting the gallows!”

“Thank God nothing went wrong then, Joe,” remarked Roy with a chuckle. “I would have hated to end up hanging you!”

Joe gave a shudder at the thought. “Well at least Seth was totally convinced of my performance Roy and confessed! Then when Pa came to visit me in the jail the other morning, he could hardly contain himself. It seemed to give him great pleasure to see Ben Cartwright so disgusted at his son’s behavior!”

Joe paused, looking at his father a little nervously. “In fact, he really thought you were going to bust a gullet when you bawled me out then left with a word of goodbye Pa.”

Ben laughed softly and put an arm around his son. “You really thought I was that angry at you?” he asked.

Joe bit at his lip and nodded. “Things happened so fast I never thought through how it would affect you all. I realize now you must have gone through hell thinking I was going to end up in prison for years, but I couldn’t risk telling you the truth otherwise Seth might have become suspicious. I didn’t expect the reaction I got from you, though…you were so angry it took my breath away! Adam and Hoss tried to make light of it but it shook me so much I nearly admitted the truth there and then!”

Ben gave a quiet chuckle. “It would seem we both are good actors then, son,” Ben conceded, his eyes flashing mischievously. “I think my performance was just as convincing as yours, don’t you?”

“What do you mean, Pa?” Joe asked, slightly puzzled as he continued to look intently at his father.

With the eyes of Adam, Hoss and Roy also gazing at him steadily, Ben’s face flushed slightly. “I mean, everything I said in the jail that morning Joe…it was just a performance for Seth Pruitt’s benefit. I knew exactly why you had acted the way you did in the Courtroom and I also knew Pruitt needed to be kept convinced your trial was legitimate.”

Joe, his mouth open, widened his eyes in surprise. “But how, Pa?”

“The night you were in jail Joe, I went for a ride,” Ben admitted a little sheepishly. He looked over towards Adam and Hoss. “I hinted to your brothers I was visiting your mother’s grave, but I’m afraid that was a white lie…I did in fact come into town to see the Judge. I wanted to try and persuade him to drop the charges.”

“But you’ve always said you would always abide by the decisions of the Court, regardless!” Joe admonished.

Ben patted his son’s arm and smiled. “I know, Joe,” he answered softly. “But when it’s my own son….well, as a father I just couldn’t let you disappear to prison without trying something…anything!” Joe smiled affectionately at his father’s admission.

“It was then Judge Woods told me all about your charade…he could see how distressed I was. To say I was relieved is an understatement and I promised not to betray your secret and would try to help. In fact I think my performance at the jail helped convince Pruitt to go to Hardyville!”

Joe shook his head in amazement. “Well you certainly had me convinced! I just don’t believe it! I used to think I was the sneaky one in our family….but now!”

Ben gave a quiet laugh. “Just where to you think you obtained such a talent?” he quipped, wrapping his hand around Joe’s neck and squeezing it affectionately. As he pulled away, Joe, now totally relaxed, began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Adam asked, walking over to stand by his brother and father.

“I’ve just thought of something, Adam. If I was that convincing I daresay no one back home expects to see me for another five years! Guess that would mean all the young ladies of Virginia City will be in mourning at the moment!”

Chuckling loudly, Joe stabbed his finger gently into his elder brother’s chest. “I would think they’ll all be doubly pleased and relieved to see me back so soon, don’t you?” he concluded with a wink.

“Little brother, there are times I reckon you only got one thing on your mind!” cried Hoss, shaking his head in amazement as he moved towards Joe, a look of foreboding on his face. “Only you would think like that after what you’ve just been through! Don’t you realize there’s something more important to worry about now?” he said, an urgent note of panic sounding in his voice.

The room was suddenly fraught with tension, all eyes on Hoss as Joe’s smile faded. He noticed the dark, serious look thrown his way by his brother and shook his head nervously. “No…what’s that?” he asked hesitatingly, his stomach churning as the big man passed him and made his way to the entrance door.

“We’ve missed breakfast!”

***The End***

 

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