Synopsis: Living life through his son, a father seeks revenge after refusing to accept that his son, who forced the confrontation, was outdrawn and killed.
Word Count: 7,750
Even if the people in Virginia City hadn’t known what happened, the sight of Ben Cartwright and his two older sons riding hard down the main street of the town would have told them that something was wrong. Individuals as well as small knots of people stopped what they were doing and watched with knowing eyes as the three Cartwrights hurried their mounts toward the sheriff’s office.
Pulling his horse to a stop at the hitching post in front of Roy Coffee’s office, Ben quickly dismounted and hurried toward the steps leading up to building. Adam and Hoss imitated their father’s actions, pausing only long enough to wrap the reins of their horses, as well as Ben’s, around the rail.
Ben was half-way up the steps when Sheriff Coffee emerged from the office and stood waiting.
“Where is he, Roy?” Ben demanded as he climbed the steps. “Is he all right?”
Putting his hand up, the sheriff stopped the three men on the stairs. “Joe’s inside, Ben,” Coffee said in a soothing voice. “He’s not hurt but he is pretty shook up.”
“Is he under arrest?” Adam asked with a scowl.
“No, he’s not under arrest,” Coffee replied, still trying to calm the men in front of him. “Under the circumstances, though, I thought it best to bring him over here to my office and let him wait here until you showed up.”
“What happened?” asked Hoss. “All Frank told us was Joe was involved in a shooting and Jimmy Miller is dead.”
Rubbing his chin, Coffee thought for a moment before answering. “Maybe it would be best if Joe told you. He can probably do a better job of it than I can.”
Giving a brief nod, Ben pushed past the sheriff and entered the office. He stopped just inside the door and looked at the young man sitting in the chair across from the sheriff’s desk.
Joe Cartwright was the picture of misery. His head was down and his shoulders were slumped; he was playing with the tan hat in his hands, turning it slowly as if he didn’t recognize what he held. Although Joe had turned 22 a few months ago, he looked much younger to his father right now – an unhappy boy who was lost in a sea of desolation.
“Joe,” said Ben in a quiet voice. He took a step forward. “Joe?”
Turning his face toward the sound, Joe looked his father with sad eyes. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it. Joe swallowed hard and then looked away.
“Joe,” Ben repeated. He walked over to his son and placed his hand lightly on Joe’s shoulder. Ben glanced to his left and saw Adam and Hoss as well as Roy Coffee standing silently in the doorway, watching and waiting. Ben turned back to his youngest boy. “Are you all right, son?” he asked softly.
Still looking away, Joe nodded his head, a movement that was barely perceptible.
“What happened, Joe?” Ben pressed his son. When Joe didn’t answer, Ben tried again. “Tell me what happened, boy.”
At first, Joe sat silently in the chair, looking at the hat in his hands. Then he slowly turned to look up at his father. “It was an accident, Pa,” he said earnestly. “I swear it was. I didn’t mean to kill him.”
“I’m sure it was, son,” Ben agreed. “Just tell me what happened.”
“I…I went over the Silver Dollar to get a beer after ordering the feed at Simmons,” Joe began slowly. “Jimmy…Jimmy Miller was sitting at a table in the back, drinking and sounding off like he usually does.”
Ben nodded his understanding. The nice little boy who had gone to school with Joe and spent Saturdays fishing with his son had grown up into a bully and a braggart. Left motherless at ten, Jimmy was raised by a father appeared to barely notice he had a son. The only time Caleb Miller seemed to acknowledge his son was when Jimmy got into trouble for fighting. When Jimmy won a fight, Caleb praised his son for being the toughest kid in town, but if Jimmy lost, his father berated him as a failure. So Jimmy quickly learned to bully anyone weaker than him and to brag about his accomplishments, knowing that was the only was to get his father’s attention and approval. Joe tried to stay out of Jimmy’s way and Jimmy in turn usually ignored Joe. Ben had never been sure whether it was the memory of their one-time friendship or Jimmy’s uncertainty about the consequences of taking on Joe which kept the two young men apart, but whatever the reason, an unspoken truce had existed between them.
“Jimmy was bragging about being the fastest gun in Virginia City,” Joe continued. “Some of those so-called friends of his started riding him about how he wasn’t as fast as me. I heard them arguing but I just stayed at the bar, drinking my beer. Next thing I knew, Jimmy was standing next to me and challenging me to a gun fight.”
“You could have walked away, Joe,” Ben suggested quietly.
“I did, Pa!” Joe protested. “Honest, I did. I knew Jimmy had been drinking and was just trying to show off. So I told him I wasn’t interested. Jimmy started saying things like I was afraid of him, that I was too yellow to face him. I admit it got to me a bit but I didn’t want a fight and started to walk away. I heard some hooting and name-calling from the back, but I ignored it. Just as I got to the door, Jimmy yelled my name, and when I turned, he was standing there, ready to draw. Before I could say anything, he reached for his gun. I pulled mine and fired before he did. I thought I hit Jimmy in the shoulder, but he must have moved or my aim was bad or something. When I walked over to him, someone said he was dead.”
Turning, Ben arched an eyebrow toward Roy Coffee, silently asking a question.
“I got to saloon right after it happened,” the sheriff said. “But I don’t doubt what Joe says is true. Everybody there said Jimmy drew first. Doc Martin looked at the body. He said Joe’s bullet hit Jimmy high in the shoulder, but it probably ricocheted off a bone into his heart or lung. That’s the best explanation he could give on why Jimmy is dead.”
“Pa, I didn’t mean to kill him, honest,” Joe declared fervently. “I tried to walk away, but when he reached for his gun…”
“Joe, I believe you,” Ben interrupted. He closed his hand gently on Joe’ shoulder, reassuring his son.
“He started it,” said Adam as he took a step into the room. “You had to defend yourself.”
“That’s right, Joe,” Hoss added as he followed his older brother. “You ain’t got nothing to blame yourself for. You didn’t try to kill Jimmy. He was just unlucky that your bullet took a funny bounce after it hit him.”
“Then why do I feel so bad?” asked Joe, turning away.
“Joe, I’d be worried if you didn’t feel bad about killing someone,” Ben told his son. “Taking someone’s life – even if it was an accident – should never be something you can just shrug off.” Ben moved his hand to Joe’s right shoulder, draping his arm around his son’s back, and then pulled Joe toward him. “I know it’s upsetting, especially since you and Jimmy were friends as youngsters, but you only shot in self-defense. Feeling sad about what happened is only right, but don’t feel guilty. You didn’t start the fight and you didn’t try to kill him. Jimmy is dead because he wanted to prove he was a fast gun, because he tried to shoot you.”
A small nod from Joe told Ben his son understood his words, but a look at the misery on Joe’s face told Ben that his son didn’t really believe them.
Looking back over his shoulder, Ben asked, “Roy, does Caleb know about Jimmy?”
“He knows,” Coffee confirmed. “One of the hands from the Miller ranch was in town, and when he heard what happened, he rode out to tell Caleb right away. Caleb came in a little while ago. He’s over at the funeral parlor making arrangements. That’s why I thought it best to keep Joe here until you arrived. I didn’t want Joe to run into Caleb here in town.”
Frowning, Ben looked at the sheriff. “Do you think there’ll be trouble? Will Caleb or his men come after Joe?”
“I don’t know, Ben,” Coffee admitted. “Caleb’s pretty upset, naturally. But I’ll talk to him and try to make him understand that it wasn’t Joe’s fault, that Jimmy drew first and that it was an accident his son is dead.”
“Caleb Miller is a bully and a hothead, just like his son,” Adam stated bluntly. “Do you really think you can calm him down by talking to him?”
“I can try,” replied the sheriff. He turned to face Joe. “Joe, Judge Williams wants to hold an inquest on Jimmy’s death. It’s just a formality. There were six or seven people in the Silver Dollar who confirmed your story. But the inquest might help calm down Caleb. If he hears a judge say that you ain’t responsible for Jimmy’s death, maybe that will end things for him.”
“What if it don’t, Roy?” asked Hoss. “What if Mr. Miller gets it into his head that he wants to get back at Joe for killing Jimmy?”
“I’m going to talk to the judge,” answered Coffee. “I’m sure he’ll do what he can to make Caleb understand it wasn’t Joe’s fault. But in the meantime, I think you boys better take Joe back to the Ponderosa and keep him there. I’ll let you know when the inquest is scheduled to be held.”
“What about those lowlifes that hung around Jimmy?” Adam pressed the sheriff. “Do you think they’ll come after Joe?”
“I doubt it,” Roy replied. “They all took off as soon as they saw Jimmy was dead. He was their meal ticket, and without him, they had no reason to stick around. They ain’t the kind who are real big on loyalty.” The sheriff turned back to Joe. “This will probably all blow over in a couple of days, Joe. You just stay at the Ponderosa until the inquest. I’m sure everything will be fine by then.”
“Thank you, Roy,” said Ben in a quiet voice. He turned to his son. “Come on, Joe, let’s go home.”
For a moment, Joe simply sat in the chair. Then he took a deep breath and slowly got to his feet. Without a word or a glance at the other men in the office, Joe walked to the door. Ben quickly followed his son, as did Adam and Hoss.
All four Cartwrights stopped on the small porch outside the sheriff’s office.
“Where’s your horse, Joe?” Ben asked, putting his hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Down at Simmons,” answered Joe in a flat voice.
“I’ll go get ‘im,” offered Hoss. The big man hurried down the steps from the office and walked quickly across the main street of Virginia City.
“Pa, I didn’t like what Jimmy had become, but I never wanted to kill him,” Joe said in a voice full of regret. He shook his head. “It all happened so fast. Once minute Jimmy was yelling at me and the next minute he was dead.”
A loud voice yelling from the street startled the three men standing outside the sheriff’s office.
“Murderer! Joe Cartwright, you’re a murderer!”
The shout was coming from a heavy-set man dressed in a tan checked shirt and black pants. The man sported a white mustache on his lip, and wore a faded black hat over his white hair. A finely tooled leather holster was belted around his waist, its holster hiding all but the dark handle of a revolver.
“They told me you outdrew my Jimmy,” shouted the man as he approached the sheriff’s office. “I know that could never happen. You shot him, killed him in cold blood.”
“Now Caleb, that’s not true,” Ben called back. “Your boy drew first. Joe shot in self-defense.”
Caleb Miller stopped in the street in front of the office and glared up at the men on the small porch. “Liar!” he yelled in an angry voice.
“It’s true, Mr. Miller,” Joe declared, trying to keep his voice steady. “I never meant to kill Jimmy. I’m…I’m sorry about what happened.”
Glancing to his right, Ben could see the look of misery had returned to Joe’s face. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder to both reassure and steady his son. As he did so, Ben could see from the corner of his eye that Roy Coffee had emerged from the office.
“Caleb, there’s going to be an inquest into Jimmy’s death,” Coffee announced in a loud voice. “But I can tell you right now that all the people in the saloon told me the same story. Jimmy drew first, and Joe shot him in self-defense.”
“Liars! They’re all liars!” Miller spat back at the sheriff. “You’re just protecting the Cartwrights, like you always do.”
“Nobody is protecting anyone,” Adam called to the man. “We’re just telling you what happened.”
“I know what happened,” retorted Miller, shaking his fist at the men on the porch. “Joe Cartwright killed my son, shot him before Jimmy had a chance to draw his gun. It wasn’t a fair fight. It couldn’t have been. You think you can get away with murder? I’m not about to let that happen!”
Caleb Miller lowered his fist and moved his hand toward his gun. But before he could grab the weapon, two massive arms pinned his elbows against his body. As Miller felt himself being pulled into a crushing bear hug, he looked over his shoulder into the face of Hoss Cartwright.
“Let me go!” shouted Miller furiously as he struggled to free himself. “Let me go!”
“Now you just calm down, Mr. Miller,” Hoss ordered as he tightened his grip. “There’s been enough shooting in Virginia City for one day.”
As soon as Hoss wrapped his arms around the angry man, Adam had rushed down the stairs to help. Now the oldest Cartwright brother pulled the gun from Miller’s holster and stuck it in his belt. He nodded at Hoss, and when the big man released his hold, Adam grabbed Miller’s right arm in an iron grip. He didn’t need to look to know Hoss had done the same with the man’s left arm.
“All right, boys, bring him into the office,” called Sheriff Coffee in an almost matter-of-fact tone. He watched as the two Cartwright marched Miller to the steps. When the trio reached the top of the stairs, the sheriff added, “Put him in the first cell.”
“You can’t arrest me!” yelled Miller. “I haven’t done anything!”
“You’re disturbing the peace,” explained Coffee in an even voice. He looked at Adam. “The keys are on the post. Lock him up.”
After Adam and Hoss had dragged Miller away, Ben turned to the sheriff. “You not really going to arrest him, are you, Roy?” he asked with a frown. “Caleb’s upset; he just lost his son. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“No, I’m not going to arrest him,” Coffee reassured his old friend. “I’m just going to keep in a cell for a few hours. That’ll give him time to cool off and give you time to get Joe back to the Ponderosa. It’ll also give me a chance to talk to him, try to make him see reason.”
“And if you can’t…” Ben started.
“You just take Joe home,” declared Roy firmly. “I’ll take care of things here.”
Ben turned to Joe, who had been watching events unfold with a stunned expression on his face “Let’s go home, son,” he said, patting Joe lightly on the back.
For a moment, Joe continued to stare into the office. Then he nodded and murmured, “Yeah, let’s get out of here.”
It took three days of riding fence and chasing strays before Joe came to terms with the death of Jimmy Miller. His father and brothers knew Joe well enough to let him alone while he replayed the scene in the saloon in his head repeatedly and wondered what he could have done to have changed the outcome. They were wise enough to ignore Joe sitting silently at the dinner table while they discussed ranch business. No one on the Ponderosa discussed the death of Jimmy Miller or tried to tell Joe that he shouldn’t feel guilty about shooting a man who drew on him first. Everyone knew that Joe would have to come to that conclusion himself.
At breakfast on the fourth day, Adam noted that the herd on the south pasture needed to be moved to better grazing.
“The grass is pretty thick north of Boulder Creek,” commented Joe as he sliced the breakfast ham on his plate. “I saw it the other day when I was chasing strays. It looks like a good place to move the herd.”
The other three men sitting at the table breathed a silent sigh of relief. They knew if Joe was ready to talk about the ranch, the youngest Cartwright had put aside whatever demons that had been pestering him about Jimmy Miller’s death.
“That’s a good idea,” Ben replied, trying to sound casual. “We can start moving them next week.”
“Did Roy send word about when they’re going to hold the inquest on Jimmy Miller?” Joe asked as he reached for the coffee pot on the table.
“It’s scheduled for tomorrow morning,” answered Ben carefully. “I was going to talk with you about it after breakfast. You’ll need to testify.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe acknowledged with a sigh. “I’m not looking forward to it.”
“It’s just a formality, Joe,” advised Adam. “Roy said the witnesses confirmed what happened.”
“I’m not worried about the inquest,” Joe replied. “It’s just…well, Mr. Miller will be there. You saw how he was the other day. Now I’m going to have tell him again how Jimmy died, and that’s not going to be easy for Mr. Miller to hear. It’s sort of like pouring salt into a wound. I hate the thought of doing that.”
“Any father is going to be devastated by the death of his child, Joe,” Ben agreed. “There’s nothing worse than that. He wonders why it happened, what he could have done to prevent it. Caleb was always pushing Jimmy to be tough, to never back down. Maybe he feels he pushed Jimmy too hard.” Ben shook his head. “Sometimes it’s just easier if you can find someone else to blame for your child’s death. Blaming someone else means you don’t have to take a hard look at yourself.”
“Do you think Mr. Miller will cause trouble at the hearing, Pa?” asked Hoss with a frown.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But perhaps hearing the testimony at the inquest about what happened will help him to stop blaming Joe for Jimmy’s death and realize it was just an accident.”
“Caleb Miller doesn’t strike me as the kind of man to forgive and forget,” stated Adam.
“Don’t worry, Joe,” injected Hoss quickly as he saw the look of concern on his brother’s face. “All you have to do is give your testimony and let the judge rule you weren’t to blame for Jimmy’s death. Then it will all be over.”
“I hope so,” replied Joe wistfully.
The Cartwrights rode into Virginia City on the morning of the hearing looking solemn but also a bit wary. As they stopped their horses at a hitching post near the courthouse, Ben kept a sharp eye out for any sign of Caleb Miller or his men. Adam and Hoss also searched the street with their eyes, looking for any sign of trouble. Only Joe seem unaware of what was going on around them; his eyes were focused on the courthouse and his expression was grim.
The streets of Virginia City seemed deserted. Ben guessed the townspeople were either in the courthouse waiting to see what would happen at the inquest, or staying at home to avoid being caught up in any conflict between the Cartwrights and Caleb Miller. He was surprised to hear his name being called, and even more taken aback when he realized Roy Coffee was the one walking down the street shouting his name.
“Ben, I’m glad I got a chance to see you and the boys before the inquest started,” declared the sheriff when he finally reached the Cartwrights.
“What’s wrong, Roy?” asked Ben with a frown.
“I don’t rightly know, Ben,” admitted Coffee, “but there’s something strange going on. I had lined up Pete Johnson, Fred Taylor and few others to testify today. They were all in the saloon when the shooting happened and they all told me that Jimmy Miller drew first. Yesterday I rode out to make sure Pete knew to come to town this morning and I found his shack empty. It looked like he’d be gone a day, maybe longer. Then when I got to the Taylor place, Fred’s wife told me he was sick – too sick the make the trip to town today.”
“Do you think Miller got to them?” Adam asked, his frown matching his father’s.
“I can’t prove anything,” the sheriff replied. “Pete Johnson’s been known to take off to go hunting whenever he feels like it, and Fred Taylor did look kind of pale and sickly when I talked with him at the saloon. I thought it was because of Jimmy dying right in front of him but it could have been something else.”
“What about the other witnesses?” asked Ben in a concerned voice. “Will they testify?”
“Sam, the bartender at the Silver Dollar, told me yesterday that he’d be at the inquest,” Coffee answered. “But last night there was a fire in the storage shed at the back of the Silver Dollar. It didn’t do much damage but Sam seemed pretty shaken up when he heard about it. I got him to the courthouse this morning but he seemed a bit skittish when we were walking over. The other witness is Toby Green, and you know how much he likes the bottle, Ben. I made sure he was sober this morning, but, well, he ain’t the most reliable fellow around.”
“What should we do, Roy?” Hoss asked as he glanced at his younger brother. Joe was still staring at the courthouse, seemingly impervious to the conversation swirling around him.
“Ain’t nothing to do,” Coffee declared. “I can’t prove Miller scared off Pete and Fred, and both Sam and Toby are inside. So we’ll have to go on with the inquest. I just thought you should know.”
“Thank you, Roy,” said Ben, nodding at his old friend. “We’ll just have to see what happens.” He turned to Joe and patted his son lightly on the back. “Come on, Joe, it’s time to go in.”
Joe seemed almost startled by his father’s touch and voice. He looked around for a moment as if he suddenly realized where he was. Then, without a word, he walked toward the courthouse.
Inside the building, the seats were filled people and the buzz of their conversation filled the air. The room fell silent, however, when the Cartwrights and Sheriff Coffee entered and made their way to the five empty chairs at the front of the room. As the sheriff nodded his thanks to a man who obviously had been shooing people away from the chairs, Ben looked around. He saw Caleb Miller sitting the aisle, in a chair in the middle of the crowd. Miller glared at Ben, who looked back at him with a stony expression.
The Cartwrights and Roy Coffee had barely settled in their seats when a door opened at the front of the room and a man in a dark robe walked out. As everyone in the room stood up, Judge Williams climbed to the chair behind the large judicial bench and sat down. He banged his gavel once and waited for the gathering to be seated.
“This is an inquest into the circumstances surrounding the death of James Miller,” announced the judge in a loud voice. “The purpose is to hear testimony to determine if any further legal action is required. This hearing is informal in the sense that there are no lawyers and I’ll ask the questions of the witnesses. But the rules of evidence still apply. Witnesses will be sworn in and will be obliged to tell the truth. Witnesses may only testify to what they saw and heard themselves. After the testimony has been completed, I’ll make my ruling.” Williams paused and looked around the room, making sure that his words were understood by everyone sitting in front of him. Satisfied, he consulted a paper and then called Joe’s name. Joe rose and slowly walked to the chair in the witness stand.
After being sworn in and at the prompting of the judge, Joe simply repeated what he had told his father in the sheriff’s office – that a drunk and bragging Jimmy Miller, egged on by his friends, had drawn on him and Joe had shot him in self-defense. Judge Williams asked Joe if he was sure Jimmy had drawn first and Joe reiterated that he had. The judge nodded and dismissed Joe from the witness stand.
Consulting the paper in front of him once more, Judge Williams called for the bartender from the Silver Dollar to take the seat in the witness stand. Sam stood up from his chair in the middle of the crowd and looked around, as if unsure what he should do next. Then he eased himself in front of the people sitting next to him and walked to the witness stand.
“Sam,” asked the judge, “can you corroborate the testimony given by Joe Cartwright?
Sam squirmed a bit in the chair and then looked out at the crowded courtroom. His gaze traveled around the room, finally stopping at Caleb Miller. Miller returned the bartender’s look with a hard stare. Sam gulped and then took a deep breath.
“Your honor, I did see the shooting, but I can’t say for sure who drew first,” Sam declared.
A murmur rippled through the spectators; Ben exchanged a look with Adam, both men frowning at each other. Joe sat still as a statue while Hoss glared at the bartender.
“Now, hold on, Sam,” shouted Roy Coffee, jumping to his feet. “That’s not what you told me. You said you saw the whole thing, that Jimmy Miller drew first.”
As the murmur from the crowd erupted into loud buzz, Judge Williams banged his gavel. “Silence!” ordered the judge and the courtroom fell quiet. Williams turned to the man sitting in the witness chair. “Sam, did you tell Roy Coffee something different than what you just said?”
“Well, your honor, I guess I was sort of caught up in everything when the shooting happened,” replied the bartender. “Everyone was saying Jimmy drew first and I just went along with that. But after thinking about it, I decided I hadn’t really seen who drew first. I was busy drawing beers and I didn’t look up until I heard the shot.”
“Did anyone threaten you or influence you in any way to change your statement?” asked Judge Williams with a frown.
Once again, Sam took a deep breath and looked around the courtroom. This time his gaze rested on Caleb Miller for only a moment. Then the bartender shook his head. “No sir, your honor,” Sam stated. “I’m just telling you what I saw, like you said I should. I can’t tell you what I didn’t really see.”
“All right, you’re dismissed,” advised the judge with a sigh. He glanced at the paper for a third time and then called, “Toby Green, please take the stand.”
A small, thin man wearing a dirty tan shirt and stained black pants stood up at the back of the courtroom. As he made his way toward the witness stand, Toby paused for a moment, looked at Caleb Miller and winked. Then he walked confidently toward the front of the courtroom.
“Toby, were you in the Silver Dollar saloon on the day of the shooting?” asked Judge Williams after Toby had made himself comfortable in the witness chair.
“I must have been, your honor,” answered Toby. “I’m there every day. It’s kind of my home away from home, except the saloon is warmer and has whiskey.”
A laugh exploded from the spectators causing the judge to bang his gavel until the room grew quiet.
“Now Toby, do you remember the day when Jimmy Miller was shot?” asked the judge patiently.
“Sort of, your honor,” Toby replied. “The days kind of run together for me. Things get pretty hazy in my mind around the third drink.”
“You told Sheriff Coffee that you saw Jimmy Miller draw his gun before Joe Cartwright. Do you remember that?” Williams pressed the witness.
“No, but if you say I did, I believe you,” Toby answered with a smile. “You’re a judge. You wouldn’t lie.”
The laughter rippled around the courtroom once again as Toby sat beaming proudly in the chair in the witness stand. Judge Williams shook his head in disbelief and told Toby he could leave the stand.
Once the crowd has quieted down, the judge looked at Roy Coffee. “Sheriff, do you have any more witnesses to call?” he asked.
“I have two more witnesses, but neither one of them are here, your honor,” Coffee answered. He turned to stare at Caleb Miller before adding, “One of them has disappeared and the other has suddenly come down sick.”
“Do you have any evidence that the witnesses were influenced or in anyway prevented from testifying?” Judge Williams asked.
“No, your honor,” Coffee admitted, “I don’t.”
“All right,” Williams said. He looked around the courtroom. “Does anyone here have any testimony they wish to give in this matter?”
“I do!” declared a man getting to his feet. He had been sitting in the chair next to Caleb Miller.
“And you are…?” asked the judge.
“I’m Bill Peterson,” replied the man.
“Were you in the Silver Dollar Saloon on the day of the shooting?” asked the judge.
“Well, no,” Peterson admitted, “but I heard…”
A loud bang from the gavel interrupted the man. “Mr. Peterson, if you were not in the saloon at the time of the shooting, you can not give testimony,” declared Judge Williams. “Anything you heard about the shooting is hearsay evidence and inadmissible.”
“But Judge…” protested Peterson.
“Sit down, Mr. Peterson,” Williams ordered. “You can not give testimony in this hearing!” The judge looked around the room. “Is there anyone else who wishes to testify?”
Another man jumped to his feet, a cowboy who had been sitting behind Caleb Miller. “I’ll testify,” declared the man. “I was in the saloon that day.”
“No you weren’t, Sam Bailey,” stated Roy Coffee, getting to his feet. “I know exactly who was in the saloon that day and you weren’t there.”
“Mr. Bailey, you should know that lying in this court is considered perjury,” added the judge. “I have no qualms about sending perjurers to jail.”
Biting his lip, Bailey looked down at the man sitting in front of him. Caleb Miller stared straight ahead, ignoring the cowboy. “Well, maybe I was confused about which day I was in the saloon,” Bailey mumbled before taking his seat again.
“Now then,” said the judge, looking sternly at the gallery. “Is there any other testimony? Testimony from someone who was actually in the saloon and a witness to the shooting?”
The courtroom was silent as the spectators looked at one another. Once again, Ben and Adam exchanged worried looks. Without someone to corroborate what Joe had told the judge, they weren’t sure how Williams would rule.
“I’ll testify,” called a voice suddenly.
Everyone in the courtroom turn to look to the rear. A woman wearing a green dress cut low in the front was standing at the back of the room. Her blonde hair was piled on her head and traces of powder and rouge were visible on her face.
“I’ll testify, judge,” the woman repeated.
“And you are…?” Williams asked.
“My name is Lila Watson. I work at the Silver Dollar Saloon,” replied the woman. “I saw the shooting.”
“Then please come to the witness stand,” the judge ordered.
As Lila walked toward the front of the courtroom, several men admired her swaying hips while a number of women whispered among themselves with scandalized expressions on their faces. Ben leaned back in his chair and gave Roy Coffee a questioning look. The sheriff merely shrugged his shoulders in reply.
The Cartwrights watched carefully as Lila was sworn in and settled into the witness stand. Joe was trying to remember if he had seen Lila at the Silver Dollar that day and where she had been standing. Ben, Adam and Hoss had worried expressions on their faces.
“Please tell us what you know about the death of Jimmy Miller,” ordered the judge after Lila was had made herself comfortable.
For a moment, the woman didn’t answer. She looked at Caleb Miller and then at the Cartwrights. A small smile flickered across her face as her eyes rested on Joe. Then she cleared her throat.
“I was working at the Silver Dollar on the day Jimmy Miller was killed,” Lila began. “It happened just like Joe Cartwright said. Jimmy was drinking and then he challenged Joe to a gunfight. Joe walked away, even though Jimmy was calling him all kinds of names, real bad names. Right as Joe got to the door, Jimmy shouted at him. Joe turned around and Jimmy started to draw. Joe was faster. He shot Jimmy before Jimmy’s gun could clear his holster.”
This time it was Caleb Miller who leaped to his feet among the buzzing crowd. “She’s lying!” yelled Miller. “Joe Cartwright could never outdraw my Jimmy. The Cartwrights paid her to lie!”
“Sit down, Caleb,” commanded the judge as he banged his gavel several times. “Sit down and be quiet or I’ll have you removed from this courtroom.” Miller looked defiantly at the judge for several seconds and then sat down.
“Are you sure about what you saw?” Judge Williams asked Lila.
“I’m sure, Judge,” the woman replied. “I saw the whole thing. Jimmy started for his gun first but Joe outdrew him.” She shook her head. “Lordy, I ain’t never seen anyone draw that fast except for maybe a gunfighter.”
“Thank you,” said the judge politely. “You may leave the stand.”
After getting to her feet, Lila walked toward the back of the courtroom, again drawing both admiring and scandalized looks as she proceeded down the narrow aisle.
“Is there anyone else who wishes to testify?” asked Judge Williams. He looked around the courtroom; no one in the crowd moved. “Fine, then testimony is concluded.” The judge picked up the paper from the desk in front of him, looked it over and then put it down. “Joseph Cartwright has testified that he shot and killed James Miller after Mr. Miller drew his gun with the intention to shoot him,” announced Judge Williams. “That testimony had been corroborated by an independent witness. There has been no testimony to contradict the circumstances of Mr. Miller’s death. Therefore, this court rules that James Miller was killed by Joseph Cartwright in self-defense. No further legal action is deemed appropriate in this matter. This case is closed.” The judge banged his gavel to emphasize the finality of his decision.
In the spectator section, Caleb Miller jumped to his feet, outraged at the judge’s decision. “You mean Joe Cartwright is going to get away with killing my boy?” he shouted. “That’s not right!”
“I’ve made my ruling, Caleb,” replied the judge in a firm voice. “Your son drew first. Joe Cartwright simply fired in self-defense. That’s the end of it.”
“My boy couldn’t have drawn first!” Miller yelled. “He was faster than Joe Cartwright. He was faster than anyone in this town. I know it. Everyone knows it. The only way Joe Cartwright could have killed Jimmy was by shooting him before he had a chance to go for his gun!”
A frown appeared on Ben’s face as he listened the Miller’s ranting, and then his face cleared as if a thought had dawned on him. “Caleb, I’m beginning to understand what this is all about,” announced Ben as he stood and faced the angry man on the other side of the aisle. You’re more upset that Joe outdrew Jimmy than the fact that your son is dead.”
For a moment, Miller’s eyes dropped to stare at the floor. He raised them again, though, and glared back at Ben. “That’s not true,” Miller said in a defiant voice. “I’m sorry my son is dead, real sorry. I just don’t want him going to his grave with a lie hanging over him.”
“It is true,” insisted Ben. “You never cared what Jimmy did as long as he had a reputation – a reputation for being fast with his fist and fast with his gun. You aren’t grieving the loss of your son. You’re grieving the loss of his reputation as the fastest gun in Virginia City.”
“My son was the fastest gun,” countered Miller angrily. “No judge, no lying witness, nobody can tell me anything different.”
“What does it matter who was the fastest?” pressed Ben. “Jimmy is dead. Nothing can change that.”
“I can’t change the fact that my son is dead,” Miller acknowledged. “But I won’t have anyone saying Joe Cartwright was faster on the draw than my boy. It just ain’t true.” The angry man pointed a finger at Joe. “You know you couldn’t out-draw my Jimmy. Admit it!”
With an almost sad expression, Joe rose slowly and stood by his father. “Maybe Jimmy was faster than me,” he agreed. “But that day, he was drunk; maybe that made him a little slower than usual. I thought Jimmy was going to shoot me; maybe that made me a little faster than usual. I don’t know what would have happened if the circumstances would have been different. I do know that I don’t want to be known as the fastest gun in Virginia City. So if you want to bury Jimmy with that title, that’s fine with me.”
“You admit that Jimmy was faster than you?” asked Miller
“Sure,” answered Joe, shrugging a bit. “On any other day, he probably could have out-drawn me. That day, well, maybe I just got lucky. But if you want me to say Jimmy was the fastest gun in Virginia City, I’ll be happy to.”
“You all heard him,” Miller declared in a loud voice. He swept his arm around the room. “You all heard him,” he repeated. “Joe Cartwright admitted my Jimmy was the fastest gun. You remember that.” He placed his hat on his head, then turned and walked out of the courtroom. Miller didn’t look back, so he didn’t see the expressions of the people sitting in the gallery. Some were looking at him with pity but most watched him with disgust.
“Pa, what kind of man cares more about his boy’s reputation than his life?” Hoss asked as he moved to stand by his father and brother.
“I don’t know, Hoss,” Ben admitted, shaking his head.
“Poor Jimmy never had a chance,” observed Adam as he got to his feet. “He was doomed the day his father gave him a gun. The way Caleb pushed Jimmy to show fast he was with a gun, it was only a question of time before someone outdrew him and shot him.”
“Yeah, and I was the one who did it,” said Joe glumly.
Not knowing what to say, Ben simply put his arm around Joe’s shoulders and patted his son gently. Joe looked over at his father and nodded, acknowledging the gesture of comfort and support. After taking a deep breath, Joe closed his eyes for a moment, as if erasing some image from his mind. Then he opened his eyes and straightened his shoulders. Once more he nodded at his father; this time the gesture was sharp and sure.
Ben looked his son in the eye and then turned to Hoss and Adam. “Come on, boys,” he announced, “it’s time to go home.”
Outside the courtroom, Ben saw Lila Watson walking on the boarded sidewalk; he called to the woman, and hurried toward her when she stopped and looked back.
“Miss Watson, I just wanted to thank you for testifying,” Ben said when he reached Lila.
“No thanks needed, Mr. Cartwright,” Lila stated with a smile. “I just told the truth.” She looked over Ben’s shoulder to where Joe and his brothers now stood. “Joe was always nice to me. It wasn’t right that he got blamed for something that wasn’t his fault.”
“You’re easy to be nice to, Lila,” Joe said, flashing his own smile.
“It took some courage to speak up,” Adam declared. “From what we’ve heard, Caleb Miller did his best to make sure none of the witnesses would testify.”
“That’s the advantage of being nothing but a saloon girl, as Jimmy used to call me,” replied Lila. “Nobody really sees you or pays any attention to you. Mr. Miller probably never gave me a second thought.”
“Things ain’t going to be easy for you in Virginia City after this,” Hoss noted. “Miller’s ranch hands might not be real polite around you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lila answered with a shrug. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning for San Francisco. I got a new job waiting for me there.”
“Is there something we can do to help?” offered Ben, reaching for his wallet in the pocket of his vest. “Pay for your stage coach ticket perhaps?”
Lila put her hand on Ben’s arm. “No, that’s not necessary, Mr. Cartwright. I’m fine, really I am.” She shook her head a bit. “Besides, how would it look, me taking money from the Cartwrights? That would just confirm what Mr. Miller said about me being paid off.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Ben agreed, lowering his arm. “If you ever do need anything, though, please let us know. You know how to reach us.”
“I will,” promised Lila, and then smiled. “Next time, you’re in San Francisco, come see me at the Golden Palace. You can buy me a drink.” Giving a small wave, the woman walked away.
As the Cartwrights turned to walk back to their horses, a rider coming down the street pulled his own mount to a halt next to them. The rider was a young man dressed in a gray shirt and black pants; he wore a gunbelt low on his hips.
“Which one of you is Joe Cartwright?” the man asked.
“Who wants to know?” countered Adam, looking suspiciously at the young rider.
“Name’s Will Fleming,” answered the young man. “I’m looking for Joe Cartwright.” Fleming lifted his gun slightly in his holster and then dropped it down again. “I hear Joe Cartwright is the fastest gun in Virginia City. I aim to find out if that’s true.”
“I’m Joe Cartwright,” announced Joe. “But I’m not the fastest gun in Virginia City.”
“That’s not what I hear,” Fleming said with a frown. “But if you ain’t, who is?”
“Jimmy Miller,” replied Joe. “Jimmy Miller is the fastest gun in Virginia City. We just heard that stated for a fact in court.”
The frown on Fleming’s face deepened. “I heard you killed Jimmy Miller. If you did, then that makes you the fastest gun.”
“I killed Jimmy,” Joe admitted. “But like I said in court, he probably would have outdrawn me if he hadn’t been drunk. I was just lucky.”
“Well, if Jimmy Miller is dead and you weren’t really faster than him, then who is the fastest gun in Virginia City?” Fleming asked in a confused voice.
“I guess that would be you,” declared Adam. “Good luck with that.”
The confusion grew on Fielder’s face as the Cartwrights walked away from him.
When the four Cartwrights reached their horses, Ben stopped and turned to face his youngest son. “Joe, I think it would be a wise idea to stay away from town for awhile. There may be a few others like that Fleming kid looking for the fastest gun in town.”
“And just how long do you want me to hide out at the ranch?” demanded Joe, his eyes flashing with anger.
“Well, let’s see,” Adam said in a calm voice. “I figure it will take two or three days to round up all the strays, and probably another four days after that to move the herd.”
“Yeah, and that fence needs fixing up at Boulder Creek before that. I think that would be a real good job for you, little brother,” added Hoss with a chuckle. “I can think of three or four other little chores to keep you busy.”
Joe’s anger cooled as he realized both the wisdom of his father’s suggestion and the work that needed to be done on the ranch. “I suppose you’re going to give me every rotten job there is to do for a while,” he said with a smile.
“That’s the plan, little brother,” Hoss agreed amiably.
“Joe, there’s enough work to keep you busy for two weeks or so,” Ben declared. “That should be long enough for any gunmen who are looking for a fight to get bored and leave town.”
“I have a feeling it’s is going to be a long two weeks,” Joe said with a sigh.
“It probably will be,” agreed Ben with a smile. Then his expression sobered. “Joe, I want you to know that the only reputation I want you to have is that of being a good man. Nothing else is important to me and it shouldn’t be important to you.”
“I agree, Pa,” Joe stated firmly. “I don’t want to be known as the fastest gun or anything like that. If people think that I’m half the man that Ben Cartwright is, then I’m happy. That’s all the reputation I want.”