A Question of Intent (by DebbieB)

Summary:  Was his intent purely to talk to Billy Walker, or was he actually intending to seek revenge?  When the younger man is killed, and Joe is charged with murder, Joe begins to question his real intent.

Rated:  R for fight scenes and death (19,860 words)

 

 

                           A Question of Intent

 

The door banged against the credenza causing the occupants in the great room to turn and look up at the loud sound. All eyes widened at the sight of the young man as he stumbled through the opened door and into the room.

Instantly, Ben Cartwright was on his feet and racing to the lone figure as his youngest son supported his battered body against the solid piece of furniture.

“Joseph, what in the world happened, son?” Ben cried as he wrapped his arms about the slender shoulders and gently guided the young man toward the settee.

“Hoss, get the medical supplies, hurry,” ordered Ben, glancing up at his middle son.

Adam had joined his father on his younger brother’s opposite side and helped lowered the boy onto the couch.

“What happened Joe, who beat you like this?” the raven headed man demanded.

Joe groaned as they lowered his body to the settee, but he managed to look into their eyes.

“Doesn’t matter,” he mumbled, “it’s nothing.”

“Nothing!” grumbled Ben, brushing the hair back from Joe’s brow.

He sat on the wide boarded table and took the medical supplies from Hoss who had just returned from the kitchen.

“Your lip is busted, you have a black eye…and you call this nothing?” snorted Ben.

“Pa…really…it doesn’t even hurt…much,” Joe said in a small voice.

The boy tried to push his father’s hand away, in an attempt to show them that he wasn’t hurting as much as they thought, but the action only earned him a scowl from his father. Ben took a deep breath.

“Stop it, Joe, let me clean you up,” he ordered. “I want to know who you’ve been fighting with…again.”

Ben stopped his gentle administrations and looked his son directly in the eye. “And I want the truth,” he said sternly.

“Pa,” Joe said weakly, forcing his own eyes to meet his father’s. “I don’t lie…and I’m not lying now…it was nothing, honest. Just some sort of misunderstanding between me and … and…Billy Walker.”

“Billy Walker?” Hoss repeated the name. “Joe, he’s twice your size…what’cha doin’ fightin’ him?”

“I wasn’t fighting him…he was fighting me,” Joe said as he scrunched up his face.

Ben continued to clean away the dried blood, watching the expressions on his son’s face. Adam shook his head and grinned at his brother.

“Joe…when someone’s punching you in the face, it’s alright to hit back…or at least try,” he said with a touch of amusement, for it was clear to all of them now that Joe looked worse than he actually was hurt.

Joe groaned when he smiled and looked up at Adam.

“I didn’t try because he didn’t give me a chance. I came out of the mercantile store and the next thing I knew, I was face down in the dirt. When I got up and tried to ask him what he was doing, he punched me again, someone grabbed me and shoved me towards Billy and before I could say my name, he hit me again. That time I stayed down,” he muttered softly, recalling the feeling he had felt at the time he lay face down in the dirt in front of a small group of his peers that had stopped to see what the fight was about.

“That was probably the best thing,” Ben said. “But he didn’t give you a clue as to why he was fighting you? I thought you said it was a disagreement?”

Joe shook his head slowly from side to side. “Nope, he just mumbled something about him being as good as any Cartwright and how’d I’d better be watching my back. He and his pals took off before I could find out any more.”

“Seems like Billy Walker’s carrying a grudge,” Adam stated.

“Don’t know why, I hardly know the kid,” Joe said, finally succeeding in pushing his father’s hand away from his face. “I’m fine now, Pa…honest,” he said.

“Alright Joe. This lip isn’t as bad as it first appeared, but you sure are going to have a shiner,” Ben said, ruffling the top of Joe’s mass of curls. “Just try to avoid Billy. I’ll have a talk with his father and see if…”

“No Pa! You can’t do that. It’ll look like I’m trying to get him in trouble with his father; and we all know what a hot head Mr. Walker is. Besides, he’s just a boy; he’s more than two years younger than me. That’s another reason I didn’t hit him back. Please Pa, just forget it, I’ll handle it…and I promise, I’ll stay away from him, at least until I know why he’s got it in for me,” Joe said, swinging his legs off the side of the settee and sitting up.

“Joe, Billy Walker might only be seventeen, but he’s mean…and let’s not forget big. Why, that boy’s might as big as me…and…”

Ben turned to his middle son and placed a calming hand on Hoss’ arm.

“Joe’s right you know Hoss…even though Billy Walker is nearly your size, he’s still just a boy, and Joe’s a man. A man shouldn’t make a habit of hitting a kid…”

“Hey, what’s for supper? I’m hungry,” Joe said, easing himself onto his feet and trying to change the subject. The fact that he’d been practically beaten up by a kid…even a big kid, wasn’t doing much for his ego and he decided then and there that it was time to move on.

Ben gently grasped Joe’s arm to help the boy steady himself when he swayed slightly.

“Guess I’m still a bit light headed,” Joe confessed.

“Easy then, let me help you to the table,” Ben offered, guiding Joe toward the dining room table where he pulled out Joe’s chair and lowered Joe into his seat.

Joe glanced up at his father and quickly noted the worried expression on the aged face. He offered his father a tiny smile.

“I’m fine now, Pa…thanks,” he said in a low voice.

Ben, returned the small smile with one of his own, and nodding his head, he moved to his own chair.

It was several days before Joe went back into town. He’d been purposely staying away in hopes of letting the Walker kid, simmer down. His thoughts were that once Billy had time to rethink his actions, Joe planned on having a heart to heart talk with the oversized lad and find out what had possessed the boy to take a swing at him. Joe was in the dark about the reasons and only briefly wondered if it had anything to do with him dancing with Billy’s girl at the last barn dance a week or so ago.

“I’ll wait for you at the saloon,” Joe told Adam as he dismounted and laced the reins over the hitching post.

“I won’t be long,” said Adam, doing the same.

He stepped up on the boardwalk and paused, looking over his shoulder at his younger brother who strolled out, into the street.

“Joe?”

Joe stopped and turned. “Yeah?”

“Stay out of trouble,” grinned Adam as he tipped his hat and moved on down the crowded boardwalk toward the livery where he had business to take care of.

Joe laughed lightly and shook his head. He headed toward the saloon. It was hot and his throat was dry and a cool beer was what he needed most at present time. Joe pushed apart the half swinging doors and entered the bar. He paused, glancing around to see who was there. Might have been simpler just to say who was not present, for being Saturday, it seemed as if every cowhand in the county had ventured in, all for the same reasons as Joe had done, to cool off and chat with a few friends.

Joe edged his way up to the bar and ordered a beer. When the barkeep set the beer down, he grabbed the mug and took a long swig, turning and placing his back against the bar so that he could survey the room for the second time. Not seeing anyone in particular that he wanted to converse with, Joe turned back, catching his reflection in the mirror that hung on the wall behind the bar. He noted his black eye and how dark the bruise had become. The mar on his face brought to mind Billy Walker and he wondered again at the boy’s angry attempt to fight with him.

As if on cue, a loud voice calling his name, jarred to silence the rumble of mixed voices. A hush fell over the room as Joe glanced up into the mirror and saw the crowd behind him part, making way for Billy Walker to walk a narrow path toward him. Joe took a sip of his beer, keeping his eye on the figure in the mirror. When Billy was standing directly behind him, Joe carefully set the mug of ale down and turned slowly around to face the other young man.

“Hey Billy,” Joe said calmly.

“Hey Cartwright,” snarled Billy in an unfriendly tone. “Ya face looks like hell,” laughed Billy.

Automatically, Joe’s hand went to the side of his bruised face and he touched his eye. He forced himself to smile.

“You throw a pretty good punch, Billy,” Joe said. “Um…I was wondering something though…wanna tell me why you hit me? I don’t think I did anything to…”

“I wanted too, and I could…so I just did,” the other man stated. “I don’t like ya, either. I don’t like ya, ya old man, or ya brothers. In fact, I hate you, I hate all you Cartwrights…”

“Why Billy? What did we ever do to you?” Joe asked, eyeing how Billy’s expression had changed and how he was now wearing a look that told Joe to be wary.

“Because ya think ya so much better than anyone else…your whole family does, but ya ain’t. Ya ain’t one bit better’n me…and I can prove it…I can do anything ya can do and do it better…”

“That’s nice Billy, but I don’t care what you can or can’t do, understand? I’ve never presented myself to you or to anyone else, as being better than anyone, and neither has my family. So what’s really eating at you…”

Before Joe could finish his sentence, Billy had doubled up his fist and planted it into Joe’s stomach. Instantly Joe’s body folded over in a protective manner. Billy grabbed Joe by the hair of the head and yanked Joe into an upright position, belting him for a second time. When Billy let go of the chestnut curls, Joe’s knees folded and the youngest Cartwright sank to the floor, moaning. As Joe lay sprawled on the floor, Billy drew back his foot as if to kick at the wounded man, but Joe caught the movement from the corner of his eye and somehow managed to roll away. Once clear of Billy’s sharp pointed boot, Joe struggled to get to his feet. He leaned his weight against the nearest table.

“Now look Billy…” he stammered. “I’m getting just a might tired of this…”

“Then fight me…like a man…”

“You’re just a kid!” shouted Joe, trying to be heard above the hum that had begun buzzing around the room.

“I’m not a kid, hell…look at me…do I look like a fool kid to you? Do I hit like a kid?” Billy shouted back.

“No…you hit like a man…you talk like a man, but you’re still a kid and I can’t fight a kid…”

“Coward!” growled Billy, his dark eyes blazing with anger.

Joe took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. He refused to be goaded into a fight with a young man who was nearly two years younger than himself, even if the ‘boy’ had a fist as hard and solid as a brick wall.

“It won’t work Billy. I’m not about to fight you…”

Billy stood for half a second, his mouth hung open in disbelief and then he turned, smiling at the patrons. He nodded his head, laughing out loud.

“Ya heard’em…he’s admittin’ he’s a coward. The mighty Little Joe Cartwright is afraid of me,” boasted Billy, turning to all those who stood listening and watching.

Billy turned back to Joe, a smirk on his face. He glared at Joe.

“Go home little man…before I hurt you again,” Billy Walker sneered.

It took every ounce of willpower for Joe to walk out of the saloon, especially with the sound of Billy’s boisterous laughter lingering in his ears. As Joe shoved apart the swinging doors, he almost collided with his older brother. Both stopped, staring into the face of the other.

“What happened to you?” Adam said in a low, deep voice.

“Forget it,” snapped Joe, brushing past Adam and crossing the street.

Adam lingered for a moment, glanced into the saloon to see what the ruckus was about and then hurried to mount up, racing down the street to catch up with Little Joe. Had either taken the time to glance back toward the saloon, both would have seen Billy Walker and a small band of younger men, standing in the doorway, watching their departure.

“I’ll get him to fight me yet, ya just wait and see,” piped Billy.

“How?” questioned one young man.

“Not sure, but I’ll think of something…” laughed Billy, returning to the bar and the excitement within.

“And you just walked away?” Ben asked.

He sat behind his massive desk and watched as Joe paced back and forth in front of him.

“I’m proud of you, son.”

“Well, Pa…it was the hardest thing I’ve had to do. Do you have any idea what it felt like, being called a coward in front of all those people…by a kid no less?” Joe stated, pausing to look his father’s way.

“I know you must have wanted to strike back, but I’m glad you didn’t son. You made the right decision, walking away.”

Joe sighed and took a seat in the vacant chair next to the desk. He leaned back, shaking his head.

“I just don’t understand what drives that kid, Pa. I mean, I hardly know him, and all he wants is to fight me. He has something gnawing at him to prove to himself and everyone else that he can take me in a fight. Only thing, I think he’d kill me if he could…”

“Surely not, Joseph…”

“You didn’t see the look in his eyes, Pa. The boy hates me with a passion, and I don’t know why,” Joe explained. “I don’t know what to do about it anymore, it seems like every time I go into town, he’s there, waiting for me. I can’t stay out of town forever, I can’t hide…”

“Of course you can’t, but you can still avoid him…”

“Pa…I’m not running from him anymore.” Joe stood up, moving to the front of the desk where he plopped down on the corner. “One of these days, I’m going to have to fight him. I’m not sure I can take him, but I’ll have to try, or he will never let up on me.”

“Joe’s right Pa. I heard the way that kid was mouthing off after Joe left the saloon. He had everyone cheering him on, taunting him to fight Joe,” Adam said as he rounded the corner and joined his family.

“Maybe I could have a talk…”

“No, Pa…not with Mr. Walker…”

“Joseph, don’t interrupt…I wasn’t going to say Mr. Walker, I meant Roy Coffee; just to see what he thinks you should do,” Ben explained.

“Probably will say the same thing you said, ‘avoid him’, but that isn’t always easy to do,” Joe determined. “I suppose I could ride over to the Walker place and have a talk with both Billy and his Pa.”

“Why don’t you let me do it, Joe? Billy might get defensive if you show up, but as far as I know, he doesn’t have a problem with me…yet,” offered Adam.

“He hates us, Adam, all of us; it won’t be easy…talking to Mr. Walker is about like talking to a tree stump…everyone knows how hard headed he is,” Joe forewarned.

“Well, wouldn’t hurt to give it a try. I’ll just explain to Walker what’s been going on and let him know that you’ve avoided fighting with his son but that if Billy keeps pushing, there’s liable to be a showdown,” Adam explained.

“Yes, Adam, I think it might be good if you were the one to see them. I’d go, but obviously Joe doesn’t want me to do it…”

“Oh Pa…think how it would look…Billy picks a fight with a man at least two years older than he is, and that man’s father runs to Billy’s father to complain that his son is being picked on…shucks…sounds like two schoolboys fighting instead of a man and a boy,” snickered Joe.

“I suppose you’re right Joe, Adam is the right choice. Just be careful Adam…” warned Ben.

“Don’t worry…I think I can handle it, if not…” Adam smiled and turned to his younger brother, “I guess you’ll just have to fight the big galoot.”

Joe giggled and shook his head. “That’s just it Adam, I don’t want to fight him, he’s big…really big! And just between the three of us,” Joe glanced at his father and saw that Ben was smiling, “I’m not so sure I could take him…and I don’t have a hankering to get myself hurt!”

The three men laughed softly, though deep down inside of each one, each was aware of the pending danger that lurked within the heart of Billy Walker.

Joe opened the door and walked out onto the boarded porch where he leaned against the post, staring into the late afternoon sky. He was unaware that behind him, his father had softly approached.

“Wonder how Hoss is making out in Genoa?” Ben said, surprising Joe.

“Oh, hey Pa, I didn’t hear you come up. Guess he’s doing alright. He sure was excited about going to that auction,” Joe said, looking back toward the barn. “Wonder what’s keeping Adam, he should have been home hours ago?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Adam, he can take care of himself,” smiled Ben, placing a reassuring hand on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe glanced up at his father, a crooked grin on his face. “Don’t you think I know that, Pa?” he said. “It’s just that…well…that whole Walker family is strange…and…maybe I should have gone along with him…”

“Joe,” Ben said with a bit of fatherly concern in his voice, “stop worrying, he’ll be home when he gets here. He’s probably gone into town, now come back inside and stop fretting.”

Ben gently guided Joe back toward the door and inside, but not before Joe got one last glimpse of the deepening shadows that had finally begun to consume the last lingering rays of the fading sun.

Joe tried to concentrate on the opened book he held in his hand, but his thoughts continued to remain on his older brother. He glanced up at his father who sat in the red leather chair and who seemed occupied with reading his paper. When Joe could stand no more, he set his book aside and rose to his feet, noting that Ben glanced up and peered over the top of the paper.

“I’m just going to get some air,” Joe said, wishing that he didn’t have to explain himself to his father, who only smiled and returned to his reading.

Once outside, Joe let out a long breath and started toward the barn where a light burned softly. Halfway across the yard, he stopped, hearing the sound of an approaching horse.

Sport moved nervously into the yard and stopped. His rider, slumped over the saddle, slipped to the ground in a heap at the horse’s hooves. Instantly, Joe ran across the yard to his older brother and carefully rolled Adam over, unto his back.

“Adam!” exclaimed Joe when he saw his brother’s battered face. “PA! PA! GET OUT HERE, QUICK!” shouted Joe at the top of his lungs.

“Adam…what happened, who did this?” Joe muttered, carefully taking his brother into his arms.

Joe heard the sound of this father’s footsteps approaching from behind and glanced over his shoulder.

“He’s been pistol whipped!” snarled Joe in an angry tone as Ben knelt beside him and inspected his older son’s injuries for himself.

“Dear God,” muttered Ben. “Let’s get him inside and then send a man for the doctor,” Ben ordered, slipping his hands beneath Adam’s body and helping Joe to lift him.

Together they carried Adam inside and upstairs to his room where they gently lowered him to the bed. Adam moaned softly.

“Adam?” Ben whispered, bending low over his son’s body.

“Pa…”

“I’m here,” Ben assured his son. “What happened, Adam, who beat you?”

“Walker…Billy…he…oh…”

Joe’s eyes widen; a deep scowl branded his forehead and he stood up straight, glaring down at the battered face that hours before had been unmarred and handsome to look upon.

He watched the painful expressions dash across his brother’s face and the guilt he felt for having involved his brother, deepened within. Joe moved back to the bed and squatted down so that he could be closer to Adam.

“Adam…I promise…I’ll make him pay for what he’s done to you,” whispered Joe in a low voice. He touched Adam’s bloodied and bruised face and then stood, ready to leave, an air of urgency about him.

“Joe…no,” mumbled Adam rolling his head from side to side. “Big…too big…don’t…want you…hurt.”

Joe had paused to look back at Adam and then glanced quickly at his father before heading for the door.

“JOSEPH!” Ben called, rising to face his younger son. “Just where do you think you are going, young man?”

Joe spun around to face his father. “Where do you think? To settle this, once and for all,” he snapped at Ben.

Ben crossed the room and grabbed tightly to Joe’s upper arm, a dark warning look on his face.

“Oh no you don’t. You’re staying right here…we’ll let the sheriff handle this!”

Joe’s nostrils were flaring and his breathing was labored as he looked into Ben’s eyes.

“Not this time…Adam’s hurt because of me…this is all my fault, Pa! Billy Walker wanted a fight, I’m going to give him one!” Joe jerked his arm free from Ben’s fingers and rushed from the room before Ben could say another word.

Ben hurried to follow, but stopped at the top of the stairs, calling out to Joe who had stopped to strap on his gun and holster.

“Joseph…please…don’t do something you’ll regret later…”

“Ah Pa…I’m not out to kill anyone! Have a little more faith in me than that!” shouted Joe as he stood at the door long enough to look up at his father. “I’ll send for the doctor…don’t worry Pa…I won’t let anything happen.”

Joe rode Cochise hard, driven by his anger and guilt at what he deemed his fault in letting Adam handle a situation that he now knew, he should have handled. He had no idea what he was going to say to Billy Walker, or do for that matter. He did consider the fact that he might leave the Walker place in much the same shape as his brother had. Joe set it in his mind to remain calm, talk to the boy, and his father if necessary and then take legal actions like his father had suggested. He felt sure that Adam had not initiated the fight but that in all probability, Billy was responsible, for after all, Adam had been pistol-whipped, and the how and why was still a mystery to Joe, one he wanted an answer for. He knew in his heart that Adam would not have struck the boy, if for no other reason, then for the same reasons that he had not fought with the kid.

Jessie Walker was standing on the front porch when Joe pulled Cochise to a stop in front of the hitching post. The big man stood silent, eyeing Joe as he dismounted and tied the reins.

“Evening, Mr. Walker,” Joe said as he turned and faced the man who had moved from the porch to the yard.

“Howdy Little Joe,” Jessie said as he leaned against the post that supported the porch. “What brings ya out this way?”

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I wanted to talk to you…about Billy.”

“Billy? What’s he gone and done this time?” Jessie questioned, straightening his long frame.

“Well…I’m not sure how to say this…but…my brother Adam was by earlier…and it seems that he and Billy…or Billy that is, pistol whipped Adam and…”

“What!” shouted Jessie, tossing the match down that he’d been holding between his teeth. “Why, ya brother Adam’s nearly twice the age my son…Billy’s just a boy…”

“Mr. Walker…let me explain…”

“There’s nothing to explain young man…if your brother came here lookin’ to fight my boy, and ended up gettin’ himself hurt…then I reckon he got what he deserved!” stormed Jessie Walker.

“That’s just it, he didn’t come here looking for a fight, he came here to talk to Billy…just talk, nothing more…and Billy turned on Adam and beat him with a pistol…Adam never took a punch at your boy…”

“You know that for a fact? That Adam didn’t take a swing at my boy?”

“Well…I mean…”

“WELL? Do ya or don’t ya? Did ya brother strike out at Billy?” ranted Jessie.

Joe took another deep breath, suddenly not sure what had transpired and glanced toward the doorway where Billy had silently been standing, listening to the conversation.

“Adam would never hit a kid, even a big kid like Billy…”

“Did so!” Billy said, moving into the light where his father could see him. “He came after me, and I had to protect myself…”

“That’s not true and you know it Billy,” Joe said, facing the boy. Joe’s face was red with anger, for he knew the boy was lying.

“You’ve been trying to start a fight with me for weeks now and Adam just came over here to find out why, that’s all…”

“Liar…”

Joe bristled at the word. His fingers folded into tight fists and he gritted his teeth.

“I don’t lie Billy,” he said in as calm a voice as he could.

Joe turned to Mr. Walker and tried to explain.

“Mr. Walker…for whatever reasons, known only to your son here, Billy’s tried picking a fight with me every time I’ve been in town. He’s even hit me a couple of times…just look at this shiner, but I’ve never hit him back…and neither has my brother. All Adam came here for tonight was to ask your son why he is so set on fighting me…” Joe turned back to Billy. “And I’d like to know why, myself, and I’d like to know why you pistol whipped my brother.”

Jessie Walker moved around in a circle until he stood behind Joe. Joe, using caution, turned his own body sideways where he could keep an eye on both the older man and his son. Their movements and the exchanges they passed between one another, alerted Joe to pending trouble.

“You callin’ my boy a liar, Little Joe?” the older Walker questioned.

“No sir…but…”

“Good thing,” Jessie said. He looked over at his son. “Ya been tryin’ to pick a fight with Cartwright, Billy?”

“No sir Pa…it’s the other way around. Little Joe’s been egging me to fight him, ask anyone in town…”

“That’s right, Mr. Walker…ask anyone…ask the men who were in the saloon Saturday night, they’ll tell you…Billy tried to start something then, and…”

“Ain’t true Pa…he’s lyin’, tryin’ to make me look like it’s me what’s causin’ trouble,” Billy said quickly.

“Well now son, reckon we ought’a settle this thing right here and now,” Jessie said, moving back a couple of paces.

Billy grinned at his pa and stepped down off the porch. Joe moved cautiously backward, distancing himself from both men.

“I didn’t come here to fight Mr. Walker,” Joe said. “Just to…”

“Too late for talkin’ Little Joe…ya here…obviously for what ya think my son did to ya brother. And since Billy’s just a boy, he had every right to defend himself…”

“I know that…if Adam started anything, which he didn’t, but whatever happened, Billy had no right to pistol whip my brother!” argued Joe.

“I didn’t pistol whip anyone,” Billy lied. “Maybe he ran into robbers on his way home…”

“Not likely Billy, Adam told me you used your gun on him…”

As Billy advanced toward him, Joe pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at the boy.

“I’m taking you into the sheriff Billy, until we can get this mess straightened out,” ordered Joe, nodding his head toward the horses. “Get on your horse.”

Joe was so intent on keeping his eyes on Billy that he failed to see Jessie Walker move, ever so slightly to a stack of wood that rested at the steps of the porch. As Billy moved slowly, never turning his back to Joe, toward his horse, Jessie raised the stick of wood high over his head and slammed the piece across the top of Joe’s left hand, forcing the gun from Joe’s fingers.

Joe cried out in pain as he felt the bone in his thumb snap. He instinctively grabbed his broken hand and drew it instantly to his body. Billy laughed loudly, jarring Joe from his momentary stupor as he looked up. Billy Walker’s fist slammed into Joe’s face, spinning the smaller man around in a complete circle and causing Joe to topple over, falling face down in the dirt. Quickly, Joe scrambled to his feet and when Billy approached for the second time, Joe swung out his right fist, putting all the power he could muster into the punch.

Billy stopped, frozen to the spot as Joe’s fist connected with his chin. The massive hunk staggered backward, his arms frayed out to his sides in an attempt to keep from falling. Billy’s body plummeted to the ground, his head banging hard against the wooden step and then bouncing off to one side. The boy lay motionless, his father scrambled to his son’s side, taking the boy’s head in his hands and gently lifting it. Jessie stared in horror at the blood that coated his fingers. He turned, glazing up at Joe.

“He’s dead…you killed my boy!” Jessie squeaked in a low voice.

Jessie lowered Billy’s head onto the ground and rose slowly to his feet, turning to face Joe who had not moved and who looked as if he had seen a ghost.

“MURDERER!” screamed Jessie, flinging his fist out and striking Joe on the side of the face.

Joe teetered back and forth on his heels and then pitched over backwards, his legs flying out over his head as he rolled across the ground. Dazed from the force of the blow, Joe stayed down, shaking his head slowly from side to side attempting to clear the cobwebs. He glanced over his shoulder at Jessie who had returned to his son’s side and who was now cradling the boy’s head in his arms.

Joe staggered to his feet, picking up his gun and slipping it into his holster. He brushed the back of his right hand across his lips to wipe away the blood, swaying as he approached the weeping man and his son.

“Mr. Walker…”

“GET OUT OF HERE!” bellowed the grieving father.

Joe swallowed, he could not believe that the boy was dead, that he had caused Billy to die. The promise he made to his father a short time ago returned to haunt him. Joe felt his body tremble, it had been an accident…hadn’t Jessie Walker attacked him first and forced him to defend himself against both the father and the son?

Joe unlaced Cochise’s reins and swung his body into the saddle. He gripped the saddle horn, glancing down at Jessie, numb to the pain in his left hand

“I’m sorry,” Joe muttered, turning his horse around and kicking gently at his mount’s sides.

Joe was forced to stop twice on his way home. Both times he dismounted and spewed the contents of his stomach onto the ground. His belly churned, fear gripped his heart and the pain in his hand had become nearly unbearable.

When he at last reached home, he glanced up at the window on the second story and saw that the lamp burned lowly. He dismounted and without even securing his mount, stumbled passed the physician’s buggy to the front door. As Joe pushed open the heavy oak door and stepped inside, Ben rounded the corner from the kitchen, a pitcher of water in his hands. He stopped, staring at Joe’s battered face.

“Joseph…what on earth happened?” Ben said, setting the pitcher on the credenza and helping Joe to the settee.

The concerned father sat on the table facing Joe. Ben wore a worried expression on his face as he watched Joe’s chin begin to quiver. Dread of what might have happened washed over him.

“Joe…answer me,” Ben said. “Tell me nothing bad happened….”

Joe raised his head, meeting his father’s gaze with tear filled eyes. His chin quivered uncontrollably.

“He’s…dead…” gulped Joe as the tears floated over the rims of his eyes and dripped slowly down the front of his face.

Ben sat in stunned silence for a long moment before being able to find words with which to speak.

“Tell me what happened, son,” Ben questioned.

He had a sick feeling deep in his gut that something horrible had taken place, something of which he prayed Joe would not regret later on.

He moved to the settee and sat down next to Joe, noticing for the first time how his son cradled his left hand. Tenderly, Ben reached out and took the broken hand into his own.

“How did you break your hand?”

Joe, his eyes filled with tears, swallowed and glanced down at the now bruised hand.

“I didn’t hit him with it…Mr. Walker hit me with a stick of firewood and broke my hand…”

“Mr. Walker?”

Joe nodded.

“Perhaps you’d better start from the beginning.”

“How’s Adam?” Joe asked before telling his father what had transpired.

“Doc Martin’s with him now. He’s pretty well battered, but he’s going to be alright, in time. Now please Joe, tell me about this,” Ben said, holding Joe’s hand carefully upward.

“I went to see Billy, just like I said I was going to…and when I got there, Mr. Walker was outside, so I decided to talk to him first. I tried to tell him about Adam, but he got angry and twisted everything I said around. He made it sound as if Adam came there looking to fight Billy and that Billy was only defending himself. He used the excuse that Billy was just a boy, and Adam, a full grown man,” explained Joe.

“And then?”

“And then Billy came outside and started lying about trying to pick a fight with me, told his pa it was the other way around and then…then…I’m not sure what happened. I mean, Mr. Walker seemed to think Billy and I should settle things right there, that’s when Billy started saying that maybe Adam had run into robbers on the way home and they beat him. I pulled my gun on Billy…” Joe glanced up at his father.

“I was only going to make him come with me to the sheriff’s…until we could sort things out…but then Mr. Walker grabbed the firewood and knocked my gun out of my hand…that’s when my hand got broken,” continued Joe.

“Billy hit me then…by that time, I was mad and I came up fighting.”

Again, Joe looked into his father’s eyes. “I didn’t mean to kill him, Pa…honest,” he sobbed.

“I believe you son…go on…what happened next?”

“When I got up, I took a swing at Billy…I hit him, hard, on the chin and he fell backward. He must have hit his head on the wooden step, cause the back of his head was bleeding and he wasn’t moving. Mr. Walker was bent over the boy, screaming at me that I killed his son. He stood up and knocked me to the ground. I thought he was going to hit me again, but he started calling me a murderer and told me to get out…so I left and…came home,” Joe finished, lowering head.

A lone tear dripped from the end of his chin. “I’m sorry…I never meant for the boy to be hurt…honest,” he said, finally looking up at his father.

Ben could see the remorse in the hazel eyes and the downtrodden expression broke his heart.

“I know you didn’t, Joe…I’m just sorry that it came to this.”

“What am I going to do, Pa?” Joe asked, rising to his feet and moving to the fire. He stared into the low burning embers and then turned around.

“I suppose, come morning, we’ll ride into town and tell the sheriff what happened. Right now, I want you to come upstairs with me and let Paul have a look at your hand.”

Ben moved to his son’s side and placed a caring hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Come on Joe,” Ben said in a soft voice as he gently urged Joe up the steps. His face didn’t show it, but the inner turmoil he felt was causing him to become nauseous.

Adam’s condition, though still grave, had improved overnight. He lay in a drug-induced sleep, giving his body time to begin the healing process. Sitting on the bed next to him, Joe watched the slight movements of his brother’s eyes behind the closed lids. He noted the bruises and the cuts made by the pistol and the deep gash across Adam’s forehead that had been so carefully stitched by the physician’s skilled fingers.

Joe glanced down at his hand, the pain had eased some after taking the pain powers that the doctor had left for him, but the medicine had done nothing to ease his guilty conscience. He felt responsible for all of it, Adam’s battered and bruised body, the death of the young boy, his father’s worries, even his own broken hand.

“I’m sorry I got you mixed up in this, Adam,” Joe whispered, lowering his head in remorse.

“Son?” Ben called from the doorway.

Joe looked up and seeing his father, stood to his feet.

“We should go now,” Ben advised as he entered the room and moved to the side of the bed. “Adam should sleep for several hours, Hop Sing will stay with him until…we get back.”

“You really think Roy will let me come back?” questioned Joe.

“I don’t see why not…from what you’ve told me, son, you were only protecting yourself…”

Joe scrunched up his face and walked to the door. “Mr. Walker didn’t see it that way…he called me a murderer…”

Without another word, Joe moved out of the room. Ben nodded to Hop Sing who had just entered to sit with Adam while Ben and Joe went into town to see the sheriff, and then followed after Joe.

They had just stepped into the morning sun when the sheriff, Jessie Walker and Clem Foster rode into the yard. Beside him, Ben heard Joe sigh. He cast his eyes toward his son and noted the look of dread on Joe’s handsome face. Ben touched his hand to Joe’s arm and turned to greet the sheriff.

“Mornin’ Roy…Jessie…Clem,” greeted Ben.

“Howdy Ben…Joe,” responded Roy Coffee. “I suppose ya know why we’re here?” the sheriff asked as he dismounted.

“Yes…we were just on our way into town to talk to you…”

“ARREST HIM! HE KILLED MY BOY!” stormed Jessie.

Ben felt Joe draw back and he tightened his hold on Joe’s arm. “Easy son,” he muttered.

Roy flashed dark angry eyes at Jessie Walker and waved his finger at the man.

“Ya just sit there and keep ya mouth shut…I’ll handle this!” ordered Roy in a voice that quickly brought order to the situation.

Roy turned to Ben and Joe, a look that spoke silently his dismay at having to do what he was forced, by law, to do.

“I have a warrant for your arrest Little Joe…ya charged with…” Roy gulped, “murder,” he continued. “I gotta take ya in, son.”

Joe’s eyes had taken on a near panic look as he turned to his father.

“I didn’t…”

“I know Joe,” Ben said quickly. Ben squeezed Joe’s arm and nodded his head toward the sheriff. “You go with Roy…we’ll get this sorted out, I promise son.”

“Yessir,” Joe said, glancing at Jessie Walker who stared at him such hate that it caused Joe’s blood to run cold.

“I’ll have to have ya gun, son,” Roy said, holding out his hand.

Joe undid his gunbelt and passed it to his father instead. Ben took the firearm and while he watched his son mount his horse, he rolled the belt up.

“Ain’t ya gonna put the cuffs on’em?” growled Jessie.

“NO!” snapped Roy. “Ya ain’t gonna try anythin’, are ya Joe?” Roy asked as he mounted his horse.

“No…”

Jessie pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at Joe. “Well, just in case ya thinkin’ on it, I’ll be watchin’ ya back…”

“Put that thing away!” Roy shouted. “NOW!”

He waited until Jessie had holstered his gun and then glanced down at Ben.

“Ya comin’, Ben?”

“You bet I am, I’m most anxious to get this matter settled. You go ahead, I’ll catch up,” Ben called as the small band of men rode from the yard.

By the time that Ben reached the sheriff’s office, Joe was safely locked away in the jail cell. He paced back and forth, nervously waiting for his father to bail him out. He had explained to the sheriff what had happened and what had led up to the attack and the final demise of the young Walker boy and he was anxious to be let out. All he wanted right now was to go home to be with Adam.

“I can’t Ben…I just can’t,” explained Roy.

Ben’s eyes narrowed, showing his anger as he paced back and forth in front of the sheriff’s desk. He paused, leaning down over the top of the table and into the sheriff’s face. Ben slammed his fist down, hard, on the desk.

“I want to know why!” he shouted in his deep baritone voice.

“Because it’s the law, Ben…and I have to follow the rules. He’s charged with murder…I can’t post bail…Joe’s just gonna have to stay locked up until a trial…”

“That’s ridiculous!” proclaimed Ben. “Why can’t you release him into my custody…I’ll be responsible for him. Good lord Roy, it’s not like he’s going to run or…”

“He might…he just might, Ben. He’s scared, and he knows he’s guilty and…”

“Guilty? GUILTY! OF WHAT…PROTECTING HIMSELF?” Ben shouted angrily, his eyes wide and nostrils flaring.

“BEN! Calm down…or I’ll have to ask you to leave. Now ya know I don’t like this any better’n you do…I don’t believe Little Joe killed that boy on purpose, but ya gotta look at it another way. He went looking for the Walker boy, he admitted that…he fought with the boy, and now that boy’s dead…Joe admitted all that to me…and, I might add, in front of witnesses. Now under the circumstances, there ain’t one thing I can do but hold the boy until a trial date is set…”

“Alright…alright. But I’m telling you now, Roy…I’ll not stand by and watch my son be railroaded into a sham of a trial and then let him hang for something he’s not responsible for.”

Ben had leaned down across the desk and was shaking his finger under Roy’s nose. Roy pushed back his chair and stood up, facing Ben eye to eye across the expanse of his desk.

“Ben, if that’s a threat…”

“It’s not a threat Roy…it’s a…promise!” stated Ben, taking advantage of getting in the final word.

“I want to see my son…if it’s alright with you,” he said after taking a deep breath to calm himself.

“It’s fine with me…I figured you would,” Roy said, moving to collect the jail key from where it hung on the peg by the door that separated the office from the cells.

Ben started to follow after the sheriff, but stopped when Roy turned back around. “Leave your gun on my desk, Ben.”

Ben glanced at his pistol and then removed it from his holster and placed it on the desk. He then marched through the opened door to Joe’s cell and waited while Roy unlocked the iron door and permitted him to enter the cell with Joe. He waited until Roy had secured the door and left before turning to face his son. The fear and apprehension that appeared on his youngest son’s face broke his heart.

“Hello son,” Ben said, offering a small smile in an attempt to calm his son. “How are you doing?”

“Great…just great Pa…look at me…I’m shaking like a leaf,” Joe said, moving to his cot and sitting down.

Ben sat down next to Joe and slipped his arm about the trembling shoulders.

“It will be alright, son, I promise you…”

Joe glanced sideways at his father, all the doubt he felt showed in his hazel colored eyes.

“Sure it will…I’m gonna hang, Pa…even I know that…”

“That’s enough of that kind of talk Joseph…you are not going to hang…I…promise,” Ben said.

“Promise? Come on Pa…what are going to do if I’m found guilty at that trial? Break me out of jail? Hide me out until you find some way to get me out of the country…come on Pa…that’s not like you at all…”

“I will if it comes to that Joe…I won’t let you hang,” Ben promised again.

Joe sat quietly and looked long into Ben’s face trying to decipher the expressions on his father’s worried face.

“You’re joking, aren’t you Pa?” stammered Joe when he knew in his heart that his father would never allow for a hanging…regardless of the outcome of the trial or of the consequences to himself, should he do as he had suggested he would.

“No…I’m not joking. Now listen son, we need to talk…”

With heads bowed closely together, Ben began whispering out his plan.

The trial had been set for two days from the day that Joe had been taken prisoner. He had all but worn a path around the perimeter of his little cell and his constant pacing had even begun to wear on Roy’s nerves to the point that Roy had started keeping the door closed between the cells and his office. The isolation was most unsettling for Little Joe who was use to being out in the wide-open spaces and found the confining little cell just that, confining.

“Ya got visitors, Little Joe,” Roy called as he opened the door and stood to one side to let Joe’s company enter the jail block.

Joe craned his neck to see who had come for a visit and was surprised to see both his brothers standing before.

“Adam!” smiled Joe.

His eyes sparkled with joy at seeing his older brother.

“You’re up and about…how you feeling?” Joe asked, moving back while Roy unlocked the cell door to admit both Adam and Hoss.

Adam grinned at his kid brother and moved slowly to the cot where he carefully lowered his body.

“Stiff and sore…but I’ll live,” he grinned. “How about you, kid…how are you doing?” Adam asked, taking in the haggard appearance of his little brother.

“Tired of being here…I feel like a trapped animal,” Joe said as he leaned against the bars. “I won’t lie to you either…I’m…scared. That lawyer fellow Pa hired said it didn’t look too good for me…”

“Now don’t go borrowin’ trouble little brother,” Hoss said as he placed his heavy frame on the cot next to Adam. “Pa’s got several witnesses that said they’d tell all about Billy Walker and the way he was always tryin’ to pick a fight with ya.”

“I know…Pa told me…but Hoss…I went looking for Billy. And I was mad…for what he did to Adam. I hit the boy while in a fit of rage…and now that boy’s dead…”

“But it was an accident…you were defending yourself,” Adam said.

“Sure…but who’s gonna believe me? My only witness was the boy’s father…so like the lawyer said, it’s my word against his…” Joe stopped talking and turned to look out the window. “I admit I killed him…but it was an accident…it wasn’t intentional.” He turned back around, a pathetic look on his young face. “I went looking for trouble, and I found plenty,” he whispered, lowering his head.

“That’s no way to talk, Joe. You didn’t go there with the intention of killing the boy…did you?” Adam asked.

Joe jerked his head up and stared in shock at his brother. “Do you really have to ask that?” he said angrily.

“No…I’m sorry Joe, I just had to know,” Adam said as he stood to his feet. He moved across the length of the cell and stopped, standing before his brother.

“Try not to worry Joe…we won’t let anything happen to you,” Adam said in low whisper.

He saw his brother swallow hard and when he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder he could feel the slight tremors that shook the slender body. Adam knew that regardless of their promises, his kid brother was frightened.

Joe swallowed again and nodded his head. “Alright Adam…” he said hesitantly.

Alone in his jail cell and with no to talk to, Joe lay on the cot, looking up at the ceiling. He knew he should try to get some sleep, but the nagging thought of his intent kept him from getting the rest he needed. Time and time again he went over everything that had happened up until the moment that he struck the Walker boy. Joe knew that in town, he had had every right to fight back when Billy had first started taking punches at him, but Joe had not let himself be suckered into the fight, for regardless of how large Billy had been, Billy Walker was still just a boy.

Joe closed his eyes, seeing Adam’s face the night that his older brother had been beaten and had somehow managed to find his way home. Joe saw again the gash over Adam’s right eye, the busted lip and the swollen cheeks where Billy had struck Adam’s face repeatedly with the butt of his pistol. Anger seethed deep within Joe as if he was seeing the battered body of his older brother again, for the first time. He felt himself tremble and opened his eyes, rising upright. Swinging his legs off the side of the cot, Joe stood and walked to the window, gazing out through the bars. Had he intended to kill the boy? Had is heart turned so cold and his anger so deep that he had disregarded his father’s warning not to do anything rash? Had he gone looking for Billy that night, with the intent of evening the score?

Joe lowered his head, resting his forehead on his arm and sighed deeply. “Dear God…help me to know,” he whispered softly.

Joe returned to his cot and sat down. He rubbed gently at the soreness in his broken hand, recalling the sharp pain he had felt as Jessie Walker slammed the stick of firewood down across his outstretched hand, knocking his pistol free of his fingers. It had hurt like blazes and the sudden action of the senior Walker had taken him completely by surprise. And before he could gather his thoughts, Joe had found himself knocked to the ground by the solid punch that Billy had delivered to his jaw. Joe tried to reason that he had done the natural thing, and that was to defend himself. He recalled getting to his feet and taking a swing at the other young man. Joe saw, in his mind, Billy’s body teeter back and forth and then falling heavily to the ground. The sound of Billy’s head hitting the hard wooden step echoed in Joe’s mind.

He scrunched up his face, shutting his eyes to the imaginary sound. When he opened his eyes, Joe brushed his right hand across the front of his face to wipe dry the moisture that had unexpectedly collected there. Restless still, he rose and returned to the barred window and gazed up at the stars wishing he knew positively what had been in his heart that fateful night.

‘I would have died for you Adam, rather than to see you hurt and I would kill to protect you if I had too,’ Joe surmised as he gazed out into the darkened street.

Joe took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. ‘But did I have too…or did I want to?’

The next morning, the sound of Ben’s deep voice out in the office, woke Joe from a fretful sleep. He yawned and as the door separating the office opened, Joe stretched and pushed his body into a sitting position.

“Morning son,” greeted Ben as he entered the cell that Roy unlocked and relocked as soon as Ben had stepped inside.

Ben immediately noted the worn look on his son’s face and moved to the cot where he sat down next to Joe.

“What’s wrong, son?” Ben questioned.

Joe made an attempt to sound light hearted, but his father, knowing him so well, realized what Joe was trying to do.

“I guess I didn’t sleep too well…”

“Bad dreams?” Ben asked, watching the harried expressions on his son’s face.

“I wish they had been dreams…” Joe said with a smirk as he turned to look into Ben’s eyes. “I…I…” Joe gulped.

“You what, Joseph? What’s bothering you?”

Joe stood to his feet, moving to the window where he had spent most of the night staring out into the street and up into heaven.

“I wish I knew…what my intent was…that night,” Joe explained in a small voice.

He glanced at his father who was watching his every move.

“I don’t know, Pa…if I went over to Billy’s with the intent of just talking to him or…or…to even the score…” stammered Joe.

Ben listened while Joe tried to explain his fears, his own fear settling in about the walls of his heart. He rose and went to Joe’s side, placing a firm hand on the young man’s shoulder. The worried father leaned close, practically putting his lips to Joe’s ears as he proclaimed his belief in his son.

“I know that sometimes, you over react to situations, and you tend to be too spontaneous, but never…never will I believe that you would intentionally set out to kill someone…for any reason. I know you too well, Joseph…it is not your nature, nor is murder in your heart. You are not a cold blooded killer…”

When Joe raised his head and looked at his father, Ben could see the tears that glistened in the troubled eyes that gazed back at him. His heart melted and he turned Joe completely around so that they stood eyeball to eyeball. Ben placed his other hand on Joe’s shoulder and pressed his fingers tightly into Joe’s flesh.

“But I…killed him,” Joe mumbled, his chin quivering as he spoke.

“In self-defense,” Ben said in a deep voice. “You were protecting yourself…against two men twice your size. And it was an accident…Billy fell and hit his head on the step. Isn’t that what you said happened?”

Joe nodded his head.

“Then stop blaming yourself son…it was an accident, an unfortunate accident and…”

“What if the jury doesn’t think so? What if they convict me of…murder?” stammered Joe.

Ben let out a long breath of air, surprised that he’d been holding it in.

“I don’t believe that will happen, son. If you tell your story, exactly as it happened…I don’t see how a jury could find you anything but innocent. You went to Billy Walker’s place to speak with Billy…nothing more. Jessie Walker attacked you first…you have the broken hand to prove it…and then his son turned on you…all you did was protect yourself from another beating. Joe…you have to have faith in the system…you have to believe that…”

“I know all of that Pa…it’s just…”

“Just what, Joe?”

“It’s just that if asked what was my intent…I’m not sure what I’ll say…cause I don’t really know.” Joe’s voice faltered and Ben heard a sob catch deep in Joe’s throat.

He pulled his son into an embrace. Joe might think he could kill a man in cold blood, but his father knew better.

“Your intent that night was to talk…nothing more. I’m sorry son; I should have stepped in long before it got so far out of hand. Part of this is my fault…we all share the blame, me, you, Billy, his father and even Adam to some extent. All that happened before hand, led the way to a man accidentally being killed…that’s how the jury will see it, Joe,” Ben assured his son.

Joe drew back from his father, feeling somewhat more at ease. “I hope so, Pa…I hope so.

The next morning, the trial began. Joe was cuffed and made to walk across the street to the courthouse. The street was lined with curiosity seekers and during the humiliating walk between the rows that the onlookers had fashioned for him Joe could hear soft whispers and muted laughter. The curt remarks about his innocence did nothing to help steady the rising fear he felt in the pit of his stomach.

Ben walked to his son’s left, carefully shielding Joe’s body from the throng of people who mumbled in low voices. The sheriff stayed to his prisoner’s right with a firm hold on Joe’s upper arm, while Hoss pushed through the crowd toward the entrance of the courthouse. Adam brought up the rear, keeping a close eye on anyone who might look as if they’d like to take advantage of the fact that Joe Cartwright was handcuffed and unable to protect himself should the need arise.

Once inside, Joe was led to the front of the room where Roy pulled out a chair and ordered him to sit. The cuffs were removed with a deep sigh of relief from Joe. Ben, Adam and Hoss picked the seats directly behind their family member and sat down. As time for the trial drew near, the courtroom began to fill. Within minutes the room was filled to capacity and several persons who could not find a seat were forced to stand along the walls.

Joe’s lawyer, Bryon Miller, sat next to Joe and whispered words of encouragement to his client. Joe would nod his head occasionally in compliance to what his attorney was saying to him.

A hush fell over the courtroom as the crowd suddenly stopped chattering. Joe, who had been listening to what his father had been telling him, fell silent as well. He glanced up, looking into the eyes of Jessie Walker who had stopped next to Joe’s seat. In his eyes, Joe could see a look of pure hate, for the father of the dead boy held nothing back in allowing the youngest Cartwright to see exactly how he felt about matters.

“Ya gonna hang kid…” whispered Jessie in a low voice. He laughed lightly at the look of uncertainty that instantly spread across Joe’s face.

Joe sensed more than saw, his father rise from his seat and stand at his back. Another movement told him that Hoss as well as Adam had also risen to their feet and were all standing protectively over him.

“Sit down,” ordered Roy who had risen to his feet as well and directed his attention to Jessie.

Jessie made a smirk and looked once again at Joe before turning and moving to a seat across from the accused. Jessie’s lawyer took a hold of Walker’s arm and rather abruptly pushed him down into the chair all the while giving his client a determined look.

A door to the side of the room opened and twelve men walked into the courtroom and took their places in the jury box. Each wore a solemn expression on their faces and none turned to look at the alleged. Joe felt his heart leap into his throat as he watched the men march in. Most them he knew, some were even close friends of his father’s and for a fraction of a second he felt sorry for them. For they had been chosen to adhere to a duty that Joe felt sure his father’s friends would have preferred not to have done. Nonetheless, there they sat struggling with whatever emotions they might be facing for having to make a judgment on one of their own.

The judge, a man who looked the part and one Joe had learned was nicknamed, ‘the hanging judge’, came in and sat down behind the high desk at the front of the room. When he picked up his gavel and banged it down, Joe jumped, startled by the loud noise.

“Court is now in session.”

The prosecution made the opening statement, promising the court to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Joe Cartwright was guilty of premeditated murder. They hoped to prove to the court that Joe Cartwright’s intent that night was pure revenge for what he believed to be the beating of his older brother, Adam Cartwright and that Joe’s intent that night was to kill, in cold blood, the seventeen year old son of Jessie Walker, William Walker, known to his friends as Billy.

The defense on the other hand, promised to prove to the court that the killing of Billy Walker was pure accidental, caused by the actions of both, Jessie Walker and his deceased son, Billy. Joe’s attorney hoped to prove that Joe Cartwright was the person attacked, by Jessie Walker, and then again by Billy Walker and that Joe was only acting in self-defense, after first being struck by Billy, then returning the blow, the result of which caused the young Walker boy to fall backwards, hitting his head, thus consequently ending in the boy’s death.

Two men, one in particular, Mr. Cass, being the owner of the mercantile store, testified to the first fight, that took place just outside of his workplace. He explained to the court that Joe had been loading supplies and that Billy appeared out of nowhere and began peppering Joe with solid punches that left the youngest Cartwright dazed and bleeding. Mr. Cass went on to tell the court that after Joe refused to fight the Walker youth, and refused the care of a doctor, he had helped Joe into his wagon and watched as Joe left for home.

Several men who had been patrons in the Silver Dollar Saloon the night that Joe encountered Billy Walker for the second time, all swore under oath that it had been Billy, who had started the second fight between Joe and himself. Each told their side of the story, all swearing that Joe never took a swing at the boy, even after Joe’s face had been battered by the larger, more aggressive young man.

Joe seemed to relax a bit more after the testimonies of each man, glancing occasionally at the men in the jury box and hoping that they were following the chain of events that led to the final confrontation.

Recess was called about noon and everyone filed out of the courthouse in search of a meal. Joe was led back to the jail and locked behind the iron bars. Ben had ordered a meal from the diner and along with Adam and Hoss, Joe’s family kept him company while he ate.

“Everything’s going well, don’t you think Adam?” Ben asked.

“Bryon Miller seems to think it is…so far he’s believing that he’s able to show that Billy was the aggressor and not Joe,” confirmed Adam, leaning back against the wall as he sat on the cot, watching his younger brother picking at his food.
Everythin’s gonna be alright, ya just wait and see,” grinned Hoss, who was also watching Joe, stabbing at the food on his plate.

Joe glanced up from his plate to look at Hoss. His expression was somber as he spoke.

“Sure it is,” he muttered and returned to pushing his food around.

Ben, who had been leaning against the bars, had seen enough of Joe fiddling with his food.

“Joe, you need to eat something, son,” he said at last.

Joe glanced up, his lips in a firm straight line as he shook his head and then pushed back his plate.

“I’m not hungry, Pa,” Joe said, rising and going to the window. “I just want this whole matter settled,” he said turning again to look into his father’s eyes. “I wish I had never heard of Billy Walker…I wish I’d never been born…” he murmured, turning to grasp the bars of the window and lowering his head so that his face was hidden from the prying eyes of his family.

Ben exchanged worried glances with Adam and Hoss who stared at their brother’s back in disbelief.

“Ah…ya don’t mean that, short shanks,” Hoss said.

Joe raised his head enough to peek over his arm at his two brothers who were sharing the cot.

“Yes I do…I killed a boy…a boy, Hoss…you have no idea how that makes me feel…”

“But you didn’t do it on purpose, Joe…” began Adam.

“No…no, I didn’t kill Billy on purpose, but he’s still dead and I’m to blame…I hit him when I was angry and I intended to…”

“Stop!” growled Ben as he moved closer to his son and placed his hand on Joe’s arm. He could feel the tremors that caused his son to tremble. “Talk like that will get you hung, young man…you stick to the facts…just like you told me and the sheriff and Bryon Miller, do you hear me?” Ben said in a stern voice.

He feared that Joe, feeling guilty, might say something damaging to his testimony and the end result would be his undoing. Though Ben had sworn never to let his son hang, the thoughts of stepping outside of the law in order to protective his son’s life, set like solid weight in the pit of his stomach.

“I mean what I say, Joe…you tell the court exactly what happened that led up to you being at the Walker’s the night Billy was killed. And you remember that it was an accident…you went there only to talk, just like Bryon explained to the court, and Jessie attacked you first, and then Billy when you were down. Do you understand me? I don’t want to have to break you out of jail or be the cause for you to be on the run for the rest of your natural life. I don’t want you hunted like an animal and I certainly don’t want a price on your head! What I do want is a not-guilty verdict and I want it fairly and without doubt to your innocence!”

Joe’s chin had begun to quiver as he shook his head in compliance to his father’s words.

“I’m sorry Pa…I guess I was feeling sorry for myself. I only meant that I wish I had listened to you, and let Roy handle it instead. I’m sorry…for everything,” he whispered.

Ben put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and squeezed tightly. “I know you are son, but you have to keep believing in yourself. I told you the other day that I would never believe you could out and out murder anyone for any reason…that belief in you has not changed.”

“That goes for me too, kid,” smiled Adam as he pushed himself up from the cot.

“Yeah…it goes for me as well, Little Joe,” added Hoss.

Joe’s mood seemed to lighten then and gave his family a smile.

“Thanks…all of you.”

Back in court, Adam was called to the stand. When his name was called, he rose slowly, still being somewhat sore from the beating he took, and walked to the witness stand.

“I swear,” he said, his left hand raised and his right hand on the bible.

“State your name.”

“Adam Cartwright.”

“Do you know the accused?”

Adam glanced at Joe and offered a hint of a smile.

“Yes…very well.”

“How…do you know him?”

“Joe? He’s my kid brother.”

“I see,” said Joe’s attorney. “Mr. Cartwright…describe your brother for us, would you please?”

“Describe my brother…hmm…” muttered Adam. “Joe is…in my eyes, a boy. I’ve helped raise him since he was about five…his mother died and…well, my father was under a lot of stress at the time, so I sort of took over caring for him.”

“You became like a second father to him, then, is that correct?”

“Yes…that’s correct.”

“Fine, please…continue.”

“Well, Joe is…just Joe. He was always a good kid, he’s never really been in any serious trouble. Joe is…hard working, loyal, devoted to his family…he’s…”

“You said he was devoted…could you tell us, how devoted? I mean…would he die for you, if he had to?” questioned Miller.

Adam raised his eyes enough that he could look directly at his youngest brother. He said nothing for a long moment as he studied the boy whom he had helped to raise since boyhood and knew without question that, yes, Joe would die for him, his father or Hoss, if it meant saving their life.

“Absolutely,” Adam said, returning his attention to the attorney.

Byron Miller moved back toward his desk and then turned to face the witness again.

“Would your brother…kill…for you, Mr. Cartwright?” he surprised the court by asking.

Ben saw Adam flinch and knew that Adam was struggling with how to answer the question. He had no doubt that Joe would kill to protect any of them, but not like what the lawyer was insinuating. Ben was unaware that he waited with baited breath for Adam’s answer.

Adam took a deep breath and straightened himself.

“If you mean, would he intentionally go looking to kill someone for doing something or hurting one of his family members…or to seek revenge…no. Joe is not cold blooded, he has a great regard for human life, and he’d never intentionally hurt anyone, for any reason.”

“I have just a couple more questions, I can see that you are growing weary. Would you please tell the court what happened to your face?”

“I was beaten, pistol whipped,” said Adam through clinched teeth.

“By whom?” Miller asked as he turned back and faced the jury.

“Billy Walker.”

“THAT’S A LIE!” shouted Jessie from across the room. The irate man jumped to his feet, pointing his finger in Adam’s direction.

The judge banged the gavel against the little wooden plaque, but it did nothing to shut Jessie Walker up.

“LIE…IT’S A LIE! MY SON NEVER…”

“ORDER! ORDER IN THE COURTROOM!” shouted the Judge, trying to be heard over the loud voice of the ranting man and the pounding sound of his own gavel.

Joe glanced over his shoulder at his father but Ben had his eye on Walker. Mort Hamilton and Clem Foster both grabbed Walker by the arm and forced him back down in his chair.

“Don’t get up again,” warned Clem.

“Anymore of these outbursts and I’ll hold you in contempt of court!” the judge told Jessie.

When things had calmed down, Miller turned again to Adam.

“Mr. Cartwright, please explain to the court how you happened to come by your injuries.”

“Well, the afternoon that Billy…died…he and Joe had a confrontation over at the Silver Dollar, just like Pruett and the others testified too. Once Joe and I got home and told our father what happened, it was decided that I would ride over to the Walker place and speak to Billy…and his father, about what had been happening.”

“Why didn’t your father go?”

“Because Joe asked him not too.”

“Why?”

“Because he thought that if our father went, Billy would think Joe was trying to get him in trouble with his own father, and that wasn’t Joe’s intent.”

“What was Joe’s intent?”

“Just to find out why Billy was always trying to provoke a fight between them.”

“And did you speak to them?”

“I spoke with Billy…his father wasn’t there at the time.”

“And what was the conversation that took place between the two of you?”

“Truthfully, there wasn’t much said. I asked Billy why he wanted to fight Joe, and he never got around to saying.”

“Why not?”

“Because he hit me, with his fist, and before I could get up, he hit me a second time and then that’s when he began hitting me with his pistol.”

“And did you hit him at all?”

“No sir, I did not.”

“What happened then?”

“I suppose I was knocked senseless, I don’t remember getting on my horse or going home, but I must have managed somehow, because the next thing I did remember was my brother, Joe, standing over me. I had made it home by then.”

“I see, and you were taken inside?”

“That’s correct.”

“What did your brother do?”

“Joe? He helped carry me upstairs and put me to bed.”

“What did he say?”

“I only remember him saying that he was sorry of getting me involved.”

Adam glanced at Joe but Joe had his head lowered and Adam could not see his brother’s face.

“Did he make any threats?”

“No sir.”

“He wasn’t mad, that Billy Walker had nearly beaten you to death?”

“Well of course he was mad, but he didn’t threaten to kill Billy or anything like that,” explained Adam.

“But he did say he was riding over to talk with Billy, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

Bryon Miller turned to the judge.

“I’ve finished my questioning.” He turned to the prosecution. “Your witness.”

Mort Hamilton rose slowly from his chair and then stood behind his desk, glancing down at the papers in front of him.

“Mr. Cartwright…you described your brother to the court. You’re very fond of the young man, aren’t you?”

Adam’s dark eyes immediately found his brother and he smiled lightly.

“Yes I am.”

Hamilton moved from behind his desk and walked to the witness box where he began bombarding Adam with questions.

“Is your brother a hot head? Does he react violently to certain situations? Is he prone to impulsive decisions that he regrets later? Answer the question sir, now!”

“Which one?” Adam asked in his placid tone of voice.

The room full of observers snickered. The reaction caused Mort Hamilton to cast angry eyes around the room and the judge banged his gavel, eyeing the prosecuting attorney.

“Mr. Hamilton, if you would like answers to your questions, please allow the witness enough time to answer before proceeding…and stop badgering this man, or I’ll hold you in contempt!”

“I’m sorry your honor, I apologize, Mr. Cartwright. Let me rephrase my question. Joe Cartwright has a reputation of being a hot-head, and tends to become violent at times because of his quick temper, is that correct?”

“I object, your Honor. Mr. Hamilton is making assumptions and putting words in the witness’ mouth,” Miller said.

“I agree, please Mr. Hamilton just stick to the facts.”

Hamilton took a deep breath, obviously displeased.

“Mr. Cartwright, you stated that your brother would die for you, is that correct?”

“Yes it is.”

“And you said that he would fight for you, even kill for you…to protect you?”

“Yes.”

“Since you had already taken a beating, and clearly did not need protecting by the time you got home…did your brother…kill Billy Walker to avenge you?”

“No, he did not.”

“What makes you so sure…you only have his word that he went to the Walker home…only to talk. Could he not have provoked a fight…giving himself an excuse to batter the Walker youth?”

“No.”

“Have you ever lie, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Me?” Adam looked puzzled. “Not since I was about ten, I haven’t.”

“Would you lie to save the life of a member of your family?”

“I’m not sure I understand the question, sir.”

“Did you lie about who pistol whipped you?”

“No!”

“Do you have proof that it was in fact, Billy Walker who beat you?”

Adam was thoughtful.

“I suppose not, only my word.”

“How do we know you’re telling the truth?”

“How do you know I’m not telling the truth?”

“I don’t. You didn’t answer my other question. Would you lie to protect the life of a family member?”

“I suppose that would depend on the situation.”

“So, in certain situations, you’d lie, do I understand you correctly?”

“I suppose…”

“You suppose you’d lie?”

“No…I mean…”

“NO? You say you love your brother, yet you wouldn’t lie to keep him from hanging?”

“I didn’t say that!”

“Then you would lie?”

“I didn’t say that either!” Adam was becoming angry, yet only those that knew him so very well, could tell, all others had no clue.

Joe squirmed in his seat, though he tried not too.

“Just what did you say…would you lie, or not…just a simple yes or no answer will suffice, please Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam gazed at his father and brothers without answering the question. He’d do whatever it took to save the life of either brother or his father, even if it meant going against everything his father had tried to teach him. But would he lie…under oath, could he lie under oath? If he said yes…Miller would make him out a liar. And if he said no…Miller would use that against him, trying to convince the court that he cared little for his family…that he really hadn’t meant it when he said he cared deeply for his youngest brother. Either way, he was doomed.

Adam’s eyes sought Joe’s face. Joe was searching his as well, waiting for his answer, wondering just how deeply his older brother cared and not sure just how far that same brother would go to prove his devotion. Adam tried to force his lips into a smile for Joe, but he couldn’t, he was trapped…and Joe was the bait.

Clearing his throat and taking a deep breath, Adam’s eyes remained fixed on his brother’s face.

“I don’t believe in lying…”

“Yes or no, Mr. Cartwright!” shouted Hamilton.

“Under any circumstances…”

“YES OR NO!” Hamilton said loudly.

Adam said nothing, until the judge looked his way.

“Please answer the question, sir,” ordered Judge Woodard.

His eyes still fixed on his brother’s face Adam spoke clearly.

“No…”

A sense of relief poured over Adam when he saw Joe smile at him. He then looked toward the attorney and smiled at him.

“No?” questioned Hamilton.

“No,” confirmed Adam.

Hamilton, suddenly at a loss for words, walked back to his desk.

“I’ve finished with this witness, your honor,” he mumbled.

“Mr. Cartwright, you may be excused,” the Judge said.

Adam left his seat in the witness stand and returned to his seat next to his father. As he passed by Joe, he saw his kid brother wink at him.

“Call your next witness,” ordered the judge to Byron Miller.

“I call Joseph Cartwright to the stand,” Miller said in a clear voice.

A soft stirring of the crowd caused Ben to look up and around at the people who had come to satisfy their curiosity. He saw them staring at Joseph and when he turned to look back at his son, he could see the hesitation in his son’s reaction to the low murmuring.

“Take the stand please, Mr. Cartwright,” ordered the judge in a stern voice.

Joe moved forward and took the stand, holding one hand on the bible and the other in the air as the bailiff swore him in.

Byron Miller stepped forward, looking at Joe with more confidence than Joe had seen at the beginning of the trial.

“State your name, please.”

“Joe…Joseph Cartwright.”

“How old are you son?”

“Twenty, sir.”

“And how tall are you?”

Joe puckered up his lips…he was shorter than anyone else in his family and his shortness always left him feeling just a little dissatisfied with himself. At twenty, he still hoped he would grow some.

“Five, ten,” he muttered barely loud enough to b heard.

“Joseph…just to satisfy the curiosity of the court, how much do you estimate your weight at being?”

“My weight…well, I can’t say for sure. The last time I weighed myself was about a month ago, over at the freight office.”

“And what was your weight, then?”

“I think it was somewhere around 130 or 135 pounds.”

Miller had his back to Joe and was watching the reactions of the jurors.

“What do you estimate Billy Walker’s weight to be?”

“I OBJECT!” shouted Hamilton. “Mr. Walker’s weight is of little significance to this trial, your honor!”

“Well, I happen to think it is, your honor. Even though Billy Walker was only seventeen, almost eighteen, I think the jurors should be made to understand the size difference between my client and the deceased,” proclaimed Bryon Miller.

“I agree,” stated the judge. He turned to Joe. “You may answer the question, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I’ll repeat the question, how much do you estimate Billy Walker’s weight to have been?”

“That’s hard to say, he’s…he was big, almost as big as Hoss. I’d say somewhere around 180-200 pounds.”

“Almost 200 pounds. That’s quite a lot more than yourself, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes sir…”

“..and yet, you are accused of hitting him hard enough to kill him.”

Mr. Miller spun around to look Joe straight in the eye.

“Did you…intend to hit Billy Walker hard enough to kill him?”

“NO! I never intended to hit him at all…I was only going to…”

“To what, Joseph…what was your intent the night that Billy Walker died?”

Joe swallowed hard and glanced at his father. Ben’s eyes were dark, and unknown to his son who scrutinized his face, his heart was pounding rapidly within the walls of his chest.

“I went over to Billy’s just to talk to him. I wanted to find out why he was so set on trying to make me fight with him…that’s all.”

“And did you find out?”

“No sir.”

“Why not?”

“Because he wouldn’t say…”

“What did you do then?”

“I tried reasoning with both Mr. Walker and Billy, but Mr. Walker said that Billy and I should settle the matter right then.”

“You mean Jessie Walker wanted you to fight with his son, right there?”

“Yes sir, he said we should fight.”

“And did you?’

“No, when Billy acted as if he was going to take a swing at me, I pulled my pistol and told him I wasn’t going to fight him, I was taking him into town to the sheriff. I ordered him to mount up.”

“And did he?”

“He started to but before he could, Mr. Walker had picked up a stick of firewood and slammed it down on my hand, knocking my pistol to the ground.”

“Is that how your hand gotten broken?”

“Yes sir.”

“What happened next?”

“Billy hit me. I was knocked to the ground but I managed to get up and then I hit him, with my right fist. That’s when he stumbled backwards and fell. He hit his head on the steps…” Joe swallowed and took a deep breath.

“Mr. Walker bent down and lifted Billy’s head…it was bleeding, that’s when he started shouting at me that I killed his son. He punched me and I fell to the ground, again. I got up and tried to help him, but he started screaming at me, calling me a murderer and told me to go away…so I went home and told my father what happened. The next morning we started into town to tell the sheriff what happened, but he got to the house before we left.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I have to ask one more question and then we’ll be finished.”

Byron Miller walked across the room to stand before the jury, his back was to Joe when he spoke.

“Joseph Cartwright…did you commit premeditated murder the night you went to Billy Walker’s home?”

“NO! I did not…I told you, I only went there to talk to him…not to kill him!” Joe declared in a clear, loud voice.

“Thank you Mr. Cartwright,” said Miller who then turned to the prosecution. “Your witness.”

Mr. Hamilton strolled casually to the front of the judge’s desk and stopped, staring at Joe. The look he gave to the accused was a bit unsettling and though he tried not to, Joe squirmed in his chair.

“Are you nervous, Mr. Cartwright?” he asked with a sly smile.

“Not really,” Joe answered quickly and then forced himself to sit still.

“Did you hate Billy Walker?” Hamilton surprised Joe by asking.

“No…I didn’t know him well enough to hate him.”

“But you certainly didn’t like him, did you?”

“Considering how he felt about me, I wasn’t overly fond of him.”

“ You hated him for what he supposedly did to your brother, fact is, you despised him, didn’t you?”

“I told you, I didn’t…”

“Just answer yes or no, Mr. Cartwright.”

“No, I did not.”

“You were angry when your brother got home and you saw what had been done to him, is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“In fact, you were furious, weren’t you?”

“At first, but…”

“You were so enraged that you left your house before the doctor even got to the Ponderosa to examine and treat your brother, didn’t you?”

“Well…yes…but…”

“You were so angry that you were warned by your father not to leave the house, weren’t you?”

Hamilton was leaning against the witness stand, practically shouting at Joe. Joe glanced into the man’s face and then over at his father who was listening intently to the questioning.

“Isn’t that correct, Mr. Cartwright!” shouted Hamilton, who was very much aware of how Joe’s eyes had sought his father’s face.

Joe took a deep breath and nodded his head, answering in a low voice.

“I’m sorry…we didn’t hear you, please speak up so that the entire courtroom can hear you.”

“I said…that’s correct.”

“Your father is so well aware that you often act irrationally during times of temper that he feared you might do something rash…is that also correct?”

Joe hesitated; he knew the prosecution was trying to make him look as if he went after Billy during a fit of rage with the intent to kill the boy. Joe’s doubt about his intentions was suddenly washed away in that instant.

“My father…”

“Yes or no…answer the question, Mr. Cartwright…didn’t your father fear that you might do something horrific, such as…kill Billy Walker?”

“He was…”

“YES OR NO?”

Hamilton turned to the judge. “Your honor…make this young man answer the question, it only requires a simple yes or no.”

The judge turned to Joe who was looking straight ahead.

“Mr. Cartwright, answer the question, please,” ordered the Judge.

Joe swallowed. “Yes,” he said.

“So you ran out of the house, jumped on your horse and went directly to Billy Walker’s, where you confronted the boy, pulled a gun on him and when he tried to defend himself, you hit him so hard that you killed him…isn’t that correct?”

“No…”

“You didn’t hit him?”

“Yes, but…”

“You didn’t point your pistol at him?”

“Yes, but not…”

“You do admit to striking him, do you not?”

“Yes…but I…”

“And Billy Walker is dead isn’t he?”

“Yes…but?”

“So you did kill him, did you not?”

“Yes…NO…I mean…”

“No more questions, your honor,” Hamilton said with a twist of a smile playing on his lips.

Joe, stunned, sat with mouth opened, fully comprehending that the prosecuting attorney had just tricked him into admitting that he had killed the Walker boy.

“You may step down, now Mr. Cartwright,” ordered the judge.

Joe snapped from his stupor and looked up at the judge.

“But sir…I need to explain…”

“I’m sorry son, the prosecution has ended his questioning. Step down.”

Joe started to rise but paused when his lawyer stepped forward to speak with judge.

“Your honor, if I might ask my client a couple more questions, please?” Byron Miller had risen to his feet and approached the bench.

“Alright, you may re-cross examine the witness.”

“Thank you, your honor,” Miller nodded his head slightly and then approached the witness stand.

“Mr. Cartwright, I believe you have already explained this to the jury, but just to refresh their memory, could you tell us once more, what were your reasons for going to the Walker home the night Billy Walker fell and hit his head on the steps, which resulted in his accidentally being killed?”

Joe straightened himself in the chair.

“I went over to the Walker’s just to talk to the boy. I wanted to know why he was provoking a fight with me and why he beat Adam like he did, that’s all.”

“Then you did not go there with the intentions of killing anyone, did you?”

“Absolutely not!”

“And you never denied the fact that it was because you were defending your own self, that the blow you delivered to Billy Walker’s chin was the result of the young man staggering backwards and falling, isn’t that correct?”

“Yes sir.”

“The fact that when Billy Walker fell and hit his head on the steps, resulting in his death, is purely accidental, isn’t that correct…because how would you have any idea that his head would hit the steps and nothing else?”

“I didn’t know, I hit him with my right hand…I was just as surprised as he was that I hit him at all.”

“An unfortunate accident, that’s all.”

“Yes sir,” agreed Joe.

“Thank you Joseph, that will be all. You may step down now.”

Joe let out a long sigh as he crossed the room and returned to his seat. As soon as he sat down, he felt his father’s hand pressing into his shoulder and turned to glance into the dark eyes, giving a wary smile to his father.

The jury had been out for over two hours and Joe, anxious for the verdict, paced back and forth across the room. His father and two brothers sat silently watching as Joe continued to move from one side to the other.

“Son, please…won’t you sit down?” Ben asked, rising from where he had been sitting on the corner of the desk.

Joe paused to face his father, his face a study of worry and dread.

“Sorry Pa,” he answered. “I just can’t help it…how long’s it been now?”

“Five minutes more than the last time you asked,” responded Adam, also rising.

He clamped his hand down on his brother’s shoulder and smiled. “You’re wearing me out Joe, what with all that pacing. Why don’t you try to relax?”

“I can’t…I just want this thing over wi….”

“Jury’s in!” shouted a man at the back of the room.

The Cartwrights looked up and saw that everyone was returning to find their seats. Ben glanced at Joe and gave him an encouraging smile, hiding the unexpected fear that had suddenly risen from the pit of his stomach.

“Have a seat, Joe,” Bryon Miller stated.

Minutes later the judge had taken his place behind the big desk and all were silent as the jurors marched slowly in. As in the beginning of the trial, not one man looked Joe’s way.

“Will the accused stand,” ordered the Judge.

Joe and his lawyer rose to their feet. Joe stood, his body rigid, his hands folded together in front of him and watched the twelve men who would determine the fate of his life, be seated.

Joe let out a long sigh, fighting the nausea that swelled and rumbled in his belly.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” the Judge asked.

The foreman of the jury rose, quickly glanced at Joe and then nodded his head.

“We have your honor.”

“What is your decision?”

“We, the jury, duly appointed by the laws of the Nevada Territory, find the accused, Joseph Cartwright, not guilty on the charges of murder.”

The crowd burst into a loud roar, for which the judge banged the gavel down on his desk several times before silence was once again in place.

“Is that decision unanimous?”

“It is your honor.”

“Then the jury is dismissed.

The judge turned to Joe, who smiled broadly.

“Mr. Cartwright, congratulations…the charges of murder has been dismissed against you. You are free to go.”

Joe turned to Bryon Miller and grabbed his hand. Ben, Adam and Hoss gathered around Joe and as Joe shook Miller’s hand vigorously, his family slapped his back, whispering words of congratulations to both Joe and his lawyer.

Across the room, a very angry Jessie Walker stomped from the courthouse. He paused on the boardwalk, looking up and down the street. Behind him, the four Cartwrights filed from the building.

“I’m sure glad that’s over with,” Ben said.

“Not half as much as I am,” grinned Joe.

Jessie turned around, glaring at all four men. He stepped up to Joe and snarled.

“I wanted you dead, Cartwright. I don’t care what verdict those idiots brought in, I wanted you dead…and dead you will be!” shrieked Jessie.

Ben and Hoss had stepped to Joe’s side where they stood in a protective fashion around the younger man. Their presence did nothing to defer the anger and hate that had branded the Walker man’s features. He drove his finger deeply into Joe’s chest.

“Watch your back boy…cause there ain’t a place on this earth that you can hide from me…”

“Jessie, I think you’d better go,” Ben said, moving again to place his body between the irate man and his son.

“I’ll go Ben Cartwright…but mark my word…one day soon, you’ll know the pain of seeing one of your sons die. The kid’s a murderer and the only good kind of murderer is a dead one.”

With that, Jessie turned and stormed off down the street.

Ben turned around to find Joe’s face void of color and a look on his young face that told of his inner most fear. Quickly, Ben placed his hand firmly on Joe’s upper arm and squeezed.

“Let’s go home, Joe,” he said as calmly as he could.

Ben, through the years of wisdom he had accumulated, knew that he had best have his family on guard at all times and that Joe would have to remain close to home until this entire matter settled down. He glanced again at Joe who mounted his horse. The boy had said nothing. The expression on his handsome face was the same expression one would expect, had the verdict come in as guilty. Joe’s victory had been short lived, now overshadowed by the threat of a man driven nearly insane by his grief. Ben vowed to keep his son safe, at all cost, even if it meant having to kill Jessie Walker…yes thought Ben…it is MY intent!

For several days Joe remained close to the house. He did his work and tended his chores, but he had withdrawn into himself and often times he was quiet and moody. Other times his temper over rode his usual carefree nature and he would snap and growl at all of them, including Hop Sing. He reminded Ben of a young pup who had been mistreated and was cornered and frightened. Not that Joe was frightened, he was just tired of being confined to home and yearned for his freedom once again.

In town, Ben learned that Jessie Walker had appeared to give up ranching and had instead taken to drinking, most nearly every night. Roy had warned Ben that Jessie had been heard making brags on how he planned on killing the youngest Cartwright but had never given a soul a clue as to when he planned on making his move. Jessie had been warned by the sheriff that he best go home and let the matter alone, for Joe had been tried in a fair trial and found innocent of the murder charges against. But Jessie only laughed in Roy’s face and gone back to drinking. Once he had become so intoxicated and had begun shooting up the saloon, that Roy had been forced to arrest the man and keep him locked up. It had taken two days for the grieving father to sober up.   When the sheriff had finally released him, he had headed straight back to the Silver Dollar and for the remainder of the evening Jessie had nursed a bottle of rock gut whiskey, though he made no mention of what his intentions toward Joe Cartwright might be, and he stayed reasonably sober, thus avoiding going back to jail.

“Pa…please…just let me do it…please,” Joe begged. “I won’t go any further, I promise, but I just need to get away for a while,” Joe argued.

Ben took a deep breath and glanced at Adam who had remained silent during the argument and continued to eat his breakfast.

“What do you think, Adam?” Ben asked.

“What difference does it make what Adam thinks? He isn’t my father; he isn’t the one who makes the decisions…you are! Please…I promise Pa, I’ll mend the fences and come straight back to the house. I NEED to get out of here…for just a while…and with Adam still recovering from that beating and with Hoss gone again, I’m the logical one to do it.”

Ben sighed deeply. He understood his son’s need to get away, to have room to breath, and to have time to himself. Joe had not been himself since the trial and Ben suspected that one of the reasons had to do with the harsh, cruel words that Jessie Walker had shouted at him right after court that day. Joe had begun to feel guilty again for having a part in the death of the young boy. He blamed himself, and nothing that Ben had said to his son, no amount of reasoning had convinced Joe otherwise.

“Alright son…on one condition…you promise me you will mend the fence and come right back here!” Ben finally gave in to the request.

“I said that’s what I’d do, Pa. I won’t be long…no more than a couple of hours, I promise,” smiled Joe as he rushed to strap on his gun and holster.

He grabbed his hat from the peg behind the front door and as he turned to go out the door, he paused, looking back at his father. His smile was genuine and Ben noted that for the first time in weeks, there was a sparkle in the hazel colored eyes.

“Thanks Pa,” Joe muttered.

It only took Joe a matter of minutes to hitch the team to the wagon and toss on the needed supplies that it would take to mend the broken fence. Joe climbed into the seat and slapped the reins down across the wide rumps of the horses.

“Getty up!” he called as the team of chestnut bays labored forward.

Joe glanced up at the sky, suddenly realizing what a beautiful morning it was. He smiled as he urged the horses on faster.

Upon the ridge over looking the main house, another man smiled. He had been watching the house for weeks, ever since the trial. Not once in all that time had he seen Joe Cartwright ride out alone, until this morning. Jessie Walker had almost given up, telling himself that he’d have to think of some way to lure his victim from his home. He had awakened early with a gut feeling that today would be the day, and his hunch had paid off.

Jessie gently nudged his mount into a steady gait and followed a good distance behind the wagon driven by Joe. It was obvious that the boy was on his way to mend the fence in the south pasture. Jessie snickered, it was just by chance that he had come that way just yesterday and had purposely torn down the railings in hopes that Ben Cartwright would be the one to make the repairs, leaving Joe home alone.

Jessie pulled his mount to a stop and watched as Joe stopped the team beneath the shade of a massive oak tree. Joe began pulling the boards from the back of the wagon while Jessie watched, hidden by the thick growth of brush that grew several yards away.

The determined man slid from his horse and crept along through the bushes until he was but a short distance from where Joe was working. He waited, hoping that he could catch Joe just right. Jessie pondered the idea of just shooting Joe outright and leaving his body to bake in the hot sun, but he wanted more than that. He wanted to see Joe’s face; he wanted to see the fear in the young man’s eyes when he realized he was about to die.

Jessie snickered softly. He’d wing the boy first; perhaps shoot him in the shoulder or better, in the leg so that he couldn’t make a break for cover. When Joe pulled his gun from his holster, Jessie determined that he’d shoot the gun from Joe’s hand, maybe even shoot his hand. Jessie laughed, he couldn’t wait to see Joe’s face when he looked up and saw who was shooting at him.

Jessie crouched low, being sure to stay out of sight. Joe had taken off his shirt and moved to toss it into the back of the wagon. His next move surprised Jessie, though it pleased him, thinking how much easier Joe had just made his job. Jessie wondered if Joe realized how vulnerable he had just made himself by removing his sidearm and laying it in the back of the wagon as well.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Joe turned and picked up his canteen. He pulled the cork from the hole and turned the receptacle up to take a long swig. The blast from Jessie’s rifle took Joe by surprise, but the pain that seared through his upper leg, causing him to cry out in pain and drop to the ground, was a much greater shock to him.

Joe grabbed his leg; his body coiled into a tight ball. Before he could recover enough to collect his senses and try to move to cover, he heard a second blast and felt the bullet pierce his left arm. His howl was louder this time as he tried to scoot his wounded body beneath the wagon.

He knew he was in deep trouble, for his gun, his only means by which to protect himself, lay in the back of the wagon bed, above him. His movements were slow and labored as the shock his body encountered fought against the burning pain in both his leg and arm.

Joe raised his head to look around him to see if he could tell from which direction Jessie Walker was firing at him. He knew it was Jessie…it could be no other, of that Joe was sure.

Any doubt he might have had was removed when Joe raised his head a second time. In front of his face was a pair of old dusty boots similar to the ones he knew Jessie wore.

“Come on out, Cartwright…today’s the day ya are gonna die!” laughed Jessie in a tone so cold that it made Joe shiver.

Joe tried to inch his body from beneath the wagon, but he had grown weak from his injuries and his movements were sluggish and dissatisfying to his tormentor.

Jessie bent down and grabbed Joe’s bleeding leg and hauled Joe, groaning from beneath the wagon. Once he had Joe out in the wide open, he allowed Joe’s wounded leg to fall to the ground. Joe groaned again as he stared into the hate filled eyes of Jessie Walker. His ears burned by the hideous sounding laughter that spewed forth from the depths of Jessie’s throat.

“So ya old man finally let ya leave home, did he?” snarled Walker. “I’ve waited a long time for this…”

“My father and brother know I’m here. If you kill me, they’ll come gunning for you!” Joe said, attempting to distract the man.

“Do ya think I care? I’ll just kill them as well; I’ve nothing to loose boy. What with Billy gone, I ain’t got a thing to live for.”

“You’ll hang…”

“Not before I finish with you, I won’t!” laughed the foolhardy man.

“You’re insane!” shouted Joe when Jessie raised his rifle and pointed it at him.

His world spun as the end of the rifle suddenly was swung forward, smashing into his face. Joe was knocked backward by the force of the blow and as he withered in pain, his nose spurting blood, everything went black.

“BEN! BEN!”

Ben rushed from the house to see who had ridden into the yard and was shouting his name. He had been trying to work on the ledgers but his thoughts had continued to wander to Joe and it was getting impossible to stay focused on the long rows of figures.

Roy was just dismounting by the time that Ben had flung opened the thick oak door and stepped outside onto the boarded porch. He was surprised to see the sheriff, his close friend, rushing over to him.

“Ben,” cried Roy, “where’s Joe? Tell me he’s here…with you!”

“Roy…calm down. What’s this all about?” Ben said, leading the sheriff over to the side porch.

Adam had joined his father to see what the commotion was all about.

“Did I hear you say something about Little Joe?” Adam asked, glancing at his father.

“Yes…he’s here isn’t he, like he’s suppose to be?”

He saw the exchange between the father and son and could not suppress a soft groan.

Ben turned to Roy, startled by how pale the sheriff had become. He put his hand on Roy’s shoulder, gripping tightly.

“What’s happened Roy?” he demanded.

“I hate to tell ya this Ben, but it’s Walker…”

“What’s he done?” Adam question with as much authority sounding in his voice as had sounded in his father’s.

“He’s gone after Joe! That’s what he’s gone and done!” proclaimed Roy.

“WHAT!” shouted Ben, turning worried eyes toward Adam. “Have a man saddle our horses, Adam, hurry.”

“Roy…Joe went down to the south pasture to repair fences…”

“Alone?”

“That’s right, he needed to get away…he’s been worse than a caged animal…”

“Good gosh, Ben. We’d better hurry. Willie Thomas…ya remember him, he worked sometimes for Walker, he came into my office this morning and told me that he went by to see Jessie last night and Walker, being drunk agains, let it slip that today would be the day that Joe Cartwright died. He also told Willie that he’d been watching this house every day since the trial, just awaitin’ to catch Joe alone…or leavin’,” explained Roy.

“Dear God! Let’s ride!” Ben shouted as Adam led the horses over to the porch.

Ben, seeing Sport had been saddled as well, turned to Adam.

“Just where do you think you’re going?”

“What do you think? With you of course,” Adam said as he swung into the saddle.

Ben shook his head but didn’t say anything. He kicked at Buck’s sides and together, he and Adam along with the sheriff, galloped out of the yard.

The trio had moved into the clearing before they finally stopped. Across the opened meadow, they could see the wagon and the team tied in the shade, but there was no sign of Joe. Ben’s heart leapt into his throat and he glanced at Adam, seeing the same look of dismay on his son’s face as he knew was on his own.

“Come on,” he ordered as he led the way across the green grass.

The closer they came, the better able they were to see the scene before them. Ben’s heart was pounding in his chest and his breathing was becoming labored. He urged Buck on faster.

Jessie was so absorbed in his prisoner, who had finally awakened from his unconscious state, that he failed to see the three riders approaching him from behind.

From his mount, Ben could see his precious son lying on the ground. Even from that distance, he could see the blood soaked clothing that had stained one leg of Joe’s trousers and the blood that dripped down the side of his son’s left arm.

Jessie towered over Joe, who tried to inch away from the barrel of the rifle. Ben’s ears picked up the sound of Walker’s laughter and when Ben looked straight into Joe’s eyes, he could see the fear etched into every fine line of his young face.

Panic wrapped its cold fingers about Ben’s heart as he raced forward, attempting to save the life of his most audacious son.

The three horses skidded to a stop at almost the exact time. Roy, his gun already pulled from his holster and pointed directly at Jessie Walker’s back, shouted out a warning.

“Drop the gun Walker!”

Jessie spun around, startled to find Ben Cartwright and sheriff standing at his back. Ben had eyes only for Joe who moaned softly and lifted his right hand, stretching his arm outward, toward his father.

“Pa!” he said weakly.

His soft cry caught the attention of his tormentor causing Jessie to look back over his shoulder. His burst of laughter stunned the others as he pointed his rifle at Joe and pulled back on the trigger.

“Don’t come any closer…any of you…or I’ll pull this trigger and you, Ben Cartwright, can watch your boy die, just like I did mine!” warned Jessie.

“Jessie…Jessie…listen to me,” Ben said in a low voice. “You don’t want to kill Little Joe, not really!”

“DON’T I? WELL YA WRONG, BEN…I WANT HIM DEAD…JUST LIKE MY BILLY!”

Jessie’s breathing was becoming irregular. Ben noticed that the man’s hands had begun to shake and he feared that Jessie might put too much pressure on the trigger, and if the gun went off, there would be no saving Joe after the bullet did it’s damage. The distance was too close.

“Jessie, put the down the rifle…let me help you,” Ben said, moving closer.

“STAY PUT!”

Ben froze. Roy, his gun still pointed directly at Jessie moved slightly off to the side. Jessie had paid no attention to Adam who had somehow managed to circle around so that he was practically behind Joe and the wagon. Adam drew his pistol and pointed it at Jessie.

“Jessie…my son didn’t mean to kill your boy, it was an accident. You can’t punish Joe for that…”

“Oh can’t I…well just watch…watch your son die!”

Jessie spun back around to face Joe who had tried to move back under the wagon. Walker raised his rifle slightly.

“WALKER, NO!” shouted Roy who now stood within feet of the crazed man.

Jessie swung his rifle around and when it was pointed directly at Roy, a loud blasting sound ripped through the mid-afternoon quiet of the lush green meadow.

Jessie staggered backward against the broad side of the wagon and then tumbled forward onto the ground. Ben ran to Joe and gathered his son into his arms. Roy, slipping his gun back into his holster, went to Jessie.

Carefully, the sheriff turned Jessie over onto his back. Jessie moaned softly as Roy inspected the wound to the man’s chest. He glanced at Ben and Joe who were now staring in horror at the gaping hole in Jessie’s chest.

“I’m…sorry…”muttered Jessie as Adam, who had joined Roy, lifted the dying man’s head.

“It…was…my…fault…I…was…always comparing…Billy…to…Joe. I…drove Billy…to…hate…your…brother…” Jessie managed to say to Adam.

“Joe…I…don’t…blame…you…knew…all along…t’was…accident…sor…ry,” Jessie’s last words were garbled by the blood that filled his mouth, but the group of men who watched him die, knew what he had tried to say.

Joe leaned heavily against his father’s chest, but he managed to turn tear filled eyes to look into his father’s face.

“Did you hear that, son?” Ben asked. “After all of that…Jessie doesn’t hold you to blame.”

“I heard,” muttered Joe. “I’m glad…oh…my leg, Pa…”

“Easy Joe, let me take care of this and your arm, then we’ll take you into town to the doc’s,” Ben said as he ripped Joe’s trousers and inspected the wound.

He gave Joe a nod, “Looks like the bullet went all the way through,” he explained as he began to dab at the blood. “It’s almost stopped bleeding. Now, let’s take a look at this arm.”

Two days later, Joe was sitting up in bed talking to his father who had come in to keep him company. Both were pleasantly surprised when a loud knock interrupted their conversation. They glanced at the door, their faces breaking into wide smiles as Hoss entered the room.

“Hey Hoss…ya made it back…how was Sacramento?” Joe asked, pleased to see his brother again.

“Howdy Shortshanks,” grinned Hoss as he crossed the room and sat down on the side of the bed.

Adam had filled him in about all that had taken place since he’d been gone and needless to say, the gentle giant was more than pleased to see his kid brother sitting up in bed, able to laugh and talk.

“Dull, obviously not as excitin’ as what’s been happenin’ here,” Hoss said in a cheerful tone.

“Exciting? I wouldn’t call a bullet wound to the leg and one in the arm, exciting!” growled Joe, happy that Hoss had made it home.

“Nonetheless, kid…it’s good to see ya.”

“It’s good to see you too, you big ox!” giggled Joe.

Ben sat back down in his chair and laughed at the way the two brothers toyed with one another. He knew that for the next several days, Hoss would spend his time dotting on his younger brother, and he knew that Joe would play it for all it was worth, until Hoss would tire of the game and by that time, Joe would be ready to get out of bed. Maybe by then, things would get back to normal, Ben concluded.

“Say Pa, why’d you think Mr. Walker was always comparing Billy to me?” Joe asked.

“Probably because he wanted his son to be just like you…not that that is a good thing…sometimes,” teased Ben, “it can be very trying.”

“Ha, ha, ha,” smirked Joe. “Have you ever wished I was more like someone else, or be somebody different than who I am?”

Ben grew serious as the thought about his answer. He shook his head no.

“No Joseph, I’ve always wanted my sons to be…themselves. I don’t compare any of you to anyone else’s sons. I like all of you, just the way you are,” smiled Ben.

“Not necessarily,” said a deep voice from the doorway.

Adam slipped into the room, his fingertips were stuck into his pockets and he smiled mischievously as he strolled casually into the room.

“What do you mean by, ‘not necessarily’?” Joe asked, puzzled by Adam’s statement.

“There was a time that our father wished you something different than what you are,” Adam announced with a gleam in his eye.

“Adam! That’s not so,” stammered Ben, taken back by the remark.

“Sure it is, Pa…I was only eleven at the time, but I never have forgotten something you whispered to Marie one day, right after she found out that she was carrying Joe.”

Joe’s eyes took on a bright shine and Hoss moved around so that he could better hear.

“And just what was that, young man?” Ben demanded to know as he tried to hide the smile that threatened to give him away.

His mind raced, but for the life of him, he could not remember ever having whispered anything to Joe’s expectant mother, in the presence of his oldest son. He glanced at Adam; he seemed so smug; Ben knew that his oldest son must have overheard something for sure meant in private.

“Well, you going to stand there all day or are you going to tell us?” Joe squeaked with excitement.

It was rare that either of them could pull something on their father and from the look on Adam’s face, Joe was sure Pa had no clue.

“I remember it just like it was yesterday,” taunted Adam.

“Remember what?” hummed Hoss.

“Refresh my memory…but I warn you…do it carefully!” instructed Ben.

“Well,” said Adam, dragging out the suspense. “One day…right after Marie learned she was going to have a baby, I heard Pa whisper…”

Adam leaned down nearer to Joe so that only he could hear. He cupped his hands around Joe’s ear, muffling his words. Hoss tried to worm his way between his brothers, but Adam’s body blocked his entrance. Even Ben had gotten to his feet and stood over Adam’s back, trying to hear what was being said.

“WHAT!” Joe shouted at the top of his lungs.

Adam tossed back his head, laughing loudly as he backed away from the bed. Hoss stood with his eyes wide, wondering what in the world he’d missed and why Joe had an angry look on his face. The louder Adam laughed, the more he wondered. He moved inward, glanced at his father and saw that Ben’s expression was void.

“Just what did you tell the boy?” Ben asked of Adam

“Pa…I can’t believe you…A GIRL!” grumbled Ben’s youngest son.

“You hurt my feelings,” he added, puckering up his face and folding his good arm over his wounded arm that lay across his chest.

“Well, I’m sorry…but I have no clue as to why your feelings are hurt…for heaven’s sake, Joseph, stop pouting and tell me what Adam said!”

Ben glanced around for his oldest son, but Adam had managed to slip from the room unnoticed. He’d have to remember to have a private word with his eldest son. He’d give him a long talking to on the subject of eavesdropping…and at thirty-two, Ben would have thought Adam would know better, but then…hadn’t Adam said he was only eleven at the time?

“Adam said you told my mother not to worry, you INTENDED for me to be a…girl! A GIRL! PA…how could you! Do I look like a girl to you…don’t even answer that! Rest assured…I’m no girl…I’m not even a sissy. And I can prove it!” Joe shouted as he reached for the covers and began to kick them free of his half clothed body.

“JOSEPH NO!” shouted Ben, grabbing the blankets and holding them down so that Joe could not kicked them to the floor.

“No…don’t you dare!” whispered Ben lowly, meeting Joe’s eyes with an intense stare.

“I’ve seen…and I know…there’s no doubt, regardless of my intent…you are a boy…ere, man!”

THE END

April 2004

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