Summary: This story is my version of the missing scenes in the episode Bushwhacked. It picks up the story as Ben and Hoss are standing in Joe’s room after the Hoss has tossed the bad guy who tried to smother Joe out the window.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 7000
Despite Hoss’ assurances that Joe was all right, Ben hurried over to his son’s bed and put his hand on Joe’s chest. Ben could feel the heat of Joe’s fever, but he also could feel the steady rise and fall of his son’s chest, as well as the strong beat of Joe’s heart.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Ben turned back to Hoss. “You stay with him. Don’t let anyone into this room except me or the doctor. We don’t know how many more may be involved. I’m going to round up the two we caught.”
“Yes sir,” answer Hoss with a grim expression. “Don’t worry. Ain’t nobody gonna get at Joe again.”
Giving his middle son a quick nod, Ben hurried out of the room. He rushed across the kitchen and out the door to the wide porch which surrounded the house. Walking rapidly, Ben reached the back of the house where the man who had tried to smother Joe was laying unconscious on the porch, surrounded by shards of broken glass. Blood was trickling down the unconscious man’s face from several small cuts, and a large cut on the would-be killer’s shoulder was oozing more red liquid.
Ben pulled his gun from his holster before reaching down and snatching the pistol out of unconscious man’s holster. He placed the attempted assassin’s gun in his own holster, then roughly shook the arm of the man lying on the porch. The man groaned and began to stir.
“On your feet,” Ben ordered in a harsh voice as he pulled the man up by the arm.
The would-be killer lurched to his feet and staggered forward a step. He put his head in his hands for a moment then looked up to see Ben standing in front of him, holding a gun pointed in his direction. The forbidding expression Ben’s face told the man that any show of resistance would likely result in a bullet being fired.
“All right, start walking,” said Ben, his tone reflecting the hard look on his face.
“I’m bleeding,” complained the would-be killer.
“So you are,” Ben answered unsympathetically. “Now move!”
Walking slowly around the house, Ben and his prisoner approached the door which led to the Griswold’s kitchen. Ben saw Ern, the Griswold’s young ranch hand, holding a gun on the partner of the man in front of him. The pair were standing just outside the corral in which the other rustler had been shot. He could see the rustler was holding his shoulder.
“Bring him into the house,” Ben called to the young ranch hand.
Nodding to indicate he had heard Ben, Ern motioned with his gun and watched as the wounded man started shuffling toward the house.
“Inside,” Ben ordered the man in front of him, and the pair walked into the kitchen. “Sit down,” commanded Ben as he motioned to one of the kitchen chairs with his gun. The man walked over to the table and pulled out a chair. As he seated himself, the would-be killer stared at Ben with a sullen expression.
Hearing the sound of footsteps, Ben glanced over his shoulder and saw the other rustler walking into the kitchen followed closely by Ern. He could see blood trickling through the fingers that the rustler held against his right shoulder. The sight evoked no sympathy from Ben. “Sit down next to your partner,” Ben commanded the man.
As the second man eased himself down onto a chair, more footsteps clatter across the kitchen floor. Once more, Ben looked to see who was entering the room. This time it was Pat Griswold and her daughter Julia who came into the kitchen.
“Orv Pettus and Jim Fenton!” exclaimed Mrs. Griswold. “What on earth have you been up to?”
“These two have been stealing your cattle,” Ben explained quickly. “Joe kept saying the words wagon wheel and tepee over and over. Your husband and I finally figured out that these two have been changing your tepee brand to their wagon wheel brand on your cattle. Joe must have caught them at it and they tried to kill him. When they heard Joe was still alive, they tried again.”
“Rustling our cattle!” Mrs. Griswold said in surprise. Then her eyes narrowed and her face took on a hard look. “After all we did to help you, you steal from us. You ought to be horsewhipped!”
“Ma, they’re bleeding,” Julie declared in a frightened voice.
“They can bleed to death, for all I care,” replied Mrs. Griswold unsympathetically. Then she took a deep breath. “Well, I suppose we can’t let them ruin our kitchen floor with their blood. Julia, go get the bandages.”
The sound of hoof beats and baying dogs echoed through the night air as Tom Griswold and Sheriff Bob Trussell rode up to the Griswold ranch house. The Sheriff was holding a rope which was attached to the collar of the four hounds he had planned to use to track the men who had attempted to kill Joe. He had been decidedly unhappy when he arrived at the area where Joe had been found only to be told by Griswold that the dog were unnecessary, as Griswold and Ben had figured out who had attacked Joe. Not only was the sheriff skeptical of the two men’s conclusions, he also was irritated because he had been forced to get the dogs and was now told they were not needed. His annoyance had deepened when Griswold insisted they return to the ranch in case Pettus and Fenton tried to get to Joe again. Sheriff Trussell was a man who liked to do his job with as little effort as possible, and all the riding he already done today was more work than he cared for. He had only agreed to ride back to the Griswold ranch because of the look of disgust on Tom Griswold’s face when he had initially resisted the idea.
With a scowl on his face, Trussell dismounted and tied both his reins and the rope leash for the dogs to the hitching post in front of the Griswold ranch house. “This is a lot of nonsense,” the sheriff muttered.
Ignoring the sheriff’s comment, Griswold hurried up the steps and into his house. He stopped just inside the doorway to the kitchen, surprised at the scene in front of him. Orv Pettus was sitting on a chair by the kitchen table, his shoulder neatly wrapped in white bandages. Jim Fenton was in the chair next to Pettus with his hands tied behind his back. Griswold’s wife, Pat, was dabbing some cuts on Fenton’s face with alcohol and not being gentle as she did so.
“What’s going on?” asked Griswold in a stunned voice.
“Tom!” exclaimed Mrs. Griswold. “I’m so glad you’re here”. She threw the cloth she had been using to treat Fenton’s cuts on the table and rushed over to her husband.
Standing behind Griswold in the doorway, Sheriff Trussell peered into the room and his scowl deepened. He pushed his way into the kitchen, and turned his glare on Ben. “What’s going on, Cartwright?” he demanded. “What happened to these men?”
“They’re the ones who tried to kill Joe,” answered Ben in an even voice. “They tried to do it again tonight.” Turning to face Griswold, Ben quickly explained about the fire in the shed which had been used to lure everyone away from the house, how Pettus had shot at him when he rode in, and how Hoss had found Fenton trying to smother Joe with a pillow.
As the sheriff listened to Ben’s story, his look of displeasure shifted toward the two men sitting at the table. “Have they admitted the rustling?” growled Trussell.
“They haven’t said anything,” Ben replied. “But we caught them red-handed trying to kill Joe, as well as burning down the shed. That should be enough to hold them until Joe is well enough to talk. I’m sure Joe will tell us he caught them rustling and that they tried to kill him.”
“You two made me look bad, and I don’t like being made to look bad,” the sheriff told the men as he glared at them.
The sound of footsteps on the porch signaled the arrival of yet another individual at the Griswold ranch. This time it was the doctor who walked into the kitchen. Like Tom Griswold, the doctor stopped just inside the kitchen door and surveyed the scene in front of him with surprise.
“Doctor, I’m glad you’re here,” Ben said. “You need to check on Joe.” Once again, he quickly explained the events of the evening.
“I’ll check on Joe right away,” declared the doctor as Ben finished. He started toward the bedroom.
“What about me?” whined Pettus. “I’ve been shot.”
The doctor stopped and turned toward the pair sitting at the table. He gave them a perfunctory examination with his eyes. “You’ll live,” he said in an even voice. “I’ll take a look at you after I’ve had a chance to tend to my real patient.”
After watching the doctor walk into the bedroom, followed closely by Ben, Tom Griswold turned to his wife. “Are you and Julia all right?” he asked anxiously.
“We’re fine,” Pat Griswold assured her husband. “We’re going to need a new storage shed, though.”
“I’ll take care of that as soon as I get home from the cattle drive,” Griswold told his wife with a smile.
“You’d better be getting out to the drive camp,” Mrs. Griswold suggested. “The others will be wondering what happened to you.”
“Yeah,” Griswold agreed. “They’re sure going to be surprised to hear about Orv and Jim.” He looked at the pair sitting at the table, and frowned. “There’s no telling how many of our cattle they changed the brands on. We’re going to have to cut all of their steers out of the herd and check them.”
“Well, Tom, my guess is these two ain’t gonna be around to collect their cut of the herd,” Sheriff Trussell commented. “It seems to me if you took their share, that’d be ample compensation for the damage they did to your ranch. It’d save you the trouble of cutting out their steers and checking on them.”
“Do you think that would be all right?” Griswold asked a bit anxiously.
“I’m sure the other ranchers will agree,” declared Mrs. Griswold.
“I’ll fix it with the judge,” Trussell said, nodding, “just to make sure there’s no problem.”
“Well, thanks, Bob, I appreciate that,” Griswold replied. He turned to his wife and gave her a hug, followed by a kiss on the forehead. “I should be going.” Take a few steps to his left, Griswold put his arms around Julia, who had been standing in the back of the room watching with a fascinated expression on her face. He hugged and kissed his daughter, then turned back to his wife. “You two take care of yourself. I’ll be back in about six weeks.”
“We’ll be fine, don’t worry,” Mrs. Griswold assured her husband.
Turning his gaze toward Ern, who was lounging against the kitchen wall with his gun still held loosely in his hand, Griswold said, “Ern, you take care of things here while I’m gone.” When the young ranch hand nodded, Griswold added, “Oh, by the way, there’s a pack of dogs outside. Put them in the barn for tonight, and then take them back to Howie in the morning.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Griswold,” said Ern. “You have a good trip.”
Giving his daughter a squeeze, Griswold headed for the door. He stopped long enough to give his wife another peck on the check, and then walked out the door.
Inside the bedroom of the Griswold ranch house, Ben and Hoss watched anxiously as the doctor examined Joe. After checking Joe’s pulse and breathing, the doctor turned the youngest Cartwright on his side and pulled back the bandages which covered his wound. He nodded to himself as he looked at the wound, then slowly eased Joe onto his back once again. Pulling down the covers, the doctor also inspected Joe’s leg wound.
Unable to stand quietly by any longer, Ben asked, “How is he, doctor?”
“As well as can be expected,” replied the doctor, pulling the covers up to Joe’s chest once more. “His fever is down a bit, and the wound in his back isn’t showing any further signs of infection. He’s not out of the woods yet, but I’d say he has a good chance.”
Giving out a sigh of relief, Ben glanced toward Hoss. He could see his middle son’s face reflected his own feeling of hope.
“The best thing for him now is plenty of rest,” the doctor continued. “Once his fever breaks, he should begin to recover quickly.”
“How long will it be until his fever breaks?” Hoss asked.
“There’s no way of telling,” admitted the doctor. “I would guess a day, maybe two, but I can’t be sure.”
“Fenton didn’t do him any more harm, did he?” Ben pressed the doctor.
“Not that I can see,” the doctor replied. “It looks like your son there got to him in time.”
Reaching over, Ben placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “Thank you.”
“Aw, Pa,” answered Hoss, clearly embarrassed. “I didn’t do nothing. I couldn’t let that yahoo hurt Joe. Besides, I’m really good at throwing out trash, and that’s exactly what I threw through that window.”
Smiling, Ben patted Hoss’ shoulder. “You’re right about that,” he agreed. Then his face sobered. “We came much too close to losing Joe. We can’t let that happen again.”
“I’ll take a look at those two out in the kitchen,” the doctor declared. “Then I’ll come back and stay with Joe. You two look like you could use some rest. Go get some sleep. Doctor’s orders.”
As the doctor predicted, another day passed before Joe’s fever broke. He slept peacefully for several hours, then began to stir. Hoss, sitting near his brother’s bed, watched Joe carefully for a few minutes. Once he was convinced Joe was about to wake, Hoss stood and walked to the door of the bedroom.
“Pa! Joe’s coming around,” Hoss called. Without waiting for an answer, Hoss took a step back into the room and waited. Only a few seconds passed before his father hurried into the bedroom and rushed over to Joe.
“Joe, Joe, can you hear me?” Ben asked softly, putting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Joe, open your eyes.”
In the recess of darkness in which his mind had huddled for the past few days, Joe heard his father’s voice. At first, he resisted the call, sure that he was having another one of those bizarre dreams which had plagued him. But then he felt Ben’s hand on his shoulder and heard the tone of concern in his father’s voice. Joe knew this wasn’t a dream.
With what felt like a herculean effort, Joe pushed his eyes open. At first, all he saw was a blur. He blinked once, then twice, and a room came into focus. It was a strange room, one he didn’t recognize. The furniture, the boarded-up window, the patterned wallpaper – all were items he hadn’t seen before. Joe wondered where he was, and then as he winced at the pain in his leg and his back, he wondered what had happened to him.
“Joe?” a voice said softly in Joe’s ear.
It seemed to Joe that it took a lot of energy to turn his head to look at the voice. But when he saw his father looking down at him anxiously, he was glad he had made the effort.
“Hi Pa,” mumbled Joe. Those two words were all he could manage to get out his from his dry mouth. He licked his lips, and tried again. “Thirsty.”
“Here you go, little brother, drink this.” Hoss put a glass half filled with water to Joe’s lips and held it steady as Joe drank from it slowly.
“Thanks,” Joe said softly after drinking his fill and pulling his head back a bit. As Hoss took the glass away from him, Joe turned again toward Ben. “What happened?”
“You were shot, Joe,” Ben explained. “Once in the back, and once in the leg. You were a pretty sick boy for awhile, but the doctor says you’ll be all right now.”
Frowning a bit, Joe thought about what his father had told him. He remembered the odd images in his dreams – the two men by the fire who had seemed friendly until he had spotted the running iron. He recalled seeing two calves, one branded with a teepee and another with a wagon wheel. It hadn’t taken Joe long to figure out the men were changing brands. Joe remembered the bullet that pierced his leg, causing him to fall from his horse. After that, the images were all jumbled up in his mind. His desperate attempt to run to safety, a sharp pain in his back knocking him to the ground, wagon wheels, teepees, heat of burning fires, and a darkness that seemed to be pulling at him – all were confused pictures which seemed to make no sense.
But one thing Joe did know. He had seen the men who were changing brands and they had tried to kill him.
“Pa, there were two of them,” Joe started to explain in a voice filled with urgency. “They were changing brands….”
“Shh. Don’t try to talk, Joe,” Ben told his son as he patted Joe lightly on the shoulder. “We know all about the men who tried to kill you. You told us all about them.”
“I did?” Joe responded in a confused voice.
“Well, you told us enough that we finally figured it out,” admitted Ben. “It took us awhile, but we got the two men who did this to you. You’re safe now, Joe. Those men won’t be bothering you again.”
Nodding slowly, Joe accepted his father’s words. He didn’t quite understand everything that had happened but he was too tired to try to make sense of things now. His eyelids grew heavy, and, suddenly, staying awake was taking a lot of effort.
“You go to sleep, Joe,” Ben crooned softly. “We’ll tell you all about it later. You go to sleep.”
As he closed his eyes, the thought crossed Joe’s mind that there were many things that needed to be explained, but only a few that his father and brother would be able to tell him about.
Over the next ten days, Joe’s condition improved significantly. At first, he was a model patient, accepting the medicine, broth and soft food, and the changing of his bandages without complaint. The truth was that Joe was too tired, too weak to do more than obediently open his mouth when told, and to stay still as the doctor worked on him. He slept for long periods of time, silently grateful that his rest was no longer interrupted by perplexing scenes in fevered dreams. When he was awake, Joe often found Hoss or Ben sitting by his bedside. Mostly he just listened as his father and brother talked, filling in the details of what had happened to him as well as the men who had tried to kill him, or telling him about the work they were doing around the Griswold ranch to help out the family to whom they owed so much. In the beginning, Joe didn’t have the energy to contribute more than a few words here and there to these conversations, but no one minded. Ben and Hoss were just happy to see Joe alert and listening, and Joe liked the reassuring sound of his father’s and brother’s voices.
But as his strength grew, Joe became less compliant and more impatient. He was fed up with doing nothing but lying bed, bored by his forced inactivity, and he wasn’t shy about making his feelings known.
When Hoss brought the new pane of glass into the bedroom, Joe looked up from the piece of leather he was working on as a present for Julia. “What do you have there?” he asked in an interested voice.
“It’s a wonderful new thing called glass,” Hoss answered dryly. “See, you put it into a frame and it makes a window.”
“About time you replaced that broken window,” Joe grumbled. “I could use seeing a little sunshine.”
“We’ve had a few other things to do,” Hoss said, sounding more than a bit testy. “Clearing away that burnt wood, rebuilding the shed, taking care of the stock… Making sure you had some sunshine wasn’t very high on the list. Besides, you’ve been sleeping more than staying awake.”
“Maybe I’m sleeping a lot because it’s always dark in here,” countered Joe in a grumpy voice.
Before Hoss could say anything more, Julia walked into the room with a small bottle and spoon in her hand. Happy that Joe had someone else to complain to, Hoss turned to pulling the boards off the window.
“Mr. Cartwright, Ma said it was time for you to take your medicine,” Julia announced as she approached the bed. “She told me to give you a spoonful of this.”
Putting his hand lightly on Julia’s wrist, Joe smiled at the girl. “Julia, you are the prettiest nurse a man could ask for.”
Looking down, Julia blushed a bit. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” she murmured.
“And I appreciate everything you’ve done for me,” Joe continued. “But I really don’t need to take any more of that medicine.”
“But Ma said…” Julia started to protest.
“I’m sure your Ma is doing only what the doctor told her,” acknowledged Joe. “But I really don’t need any more of that medicine. I’m feeling fine.”
“Julia, honey, don’t you listen to him,” declared Hoss as he walked from the window toward the bed. “Joe has been complaining about taking his medicine for as long as I can remember. Why, when he was just a little shaver, we used to have to hold him down and force his mouth open just to get a spoonful inside him.”
“Really?” exclaimed Julia, her eyes wide.
“Don’t listen to him,” Joe retorted with a frown. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He can’t even put a window in the right way.”
“Now just how do you figure that, little brother?” Hoss asked, returning Joe’s frown.
“Well, I just know,” replied Joe, sounding a bit less sure of himself. “I’ve put in more windows than you have and I just know you’re going to mess this up.”
“You’ve broken more windows than I have, that’s for sure,” Hoss noted. “But it seems to me that you’re a whole lot better at breaking windows than putting them in.” He held his hand up as Joe began to protest. “Now don’t think you’re going to sidetrack me, Joe. I’m here to tell you that you’re going to take your medicine and you’re going to do it now.” He took the bottle and spoon from Julia, and after taking the stopper out of the bottle, poured some medicine onto the spoon. “Now, open up, little brother. Otherwise, I’m going to have to force this down your throat.”
“You and what…” began Joe. But before he could say another word, Hoss stuck the spoon into Joe’s mouth and dumped the contents.
“See, now wasn’t so hard was it?” said Hoss with a grin.
“Why you big…you tricked me!” sputtered Joe.
“Yep,” agreed Hoss, as he handed the spoon and bottle back to Julia. “And it weren’t hard either. Now why don’t you just lay down and take a nap while I finish working on that window.”
As Hoss walked back to pick up the pane of glass, Joe called after him. “I’m going to watch every move you make, just to be sure you do it right.”
Standing by the bed, Julia’s head swiveled back and forth between the two brothers; she had a bewildered look on her face. “I’d better go help Ma,” she mumbled and turned to leave the room. As she left the bedroom, she could still hear the voices behind her.
“See what you did? That’s all wrong.”
“What I did? I didn’t do nothing, little brother!”
As Julia entered the kitchen, she was glad to see Mr. Ben (as she privately called him in order to keep the Cartwrights straight in her mind) sitting at the table with her mother. “Mr. Cartwright,” Julia said, clearly distressed, “your sons…they’re arguing something fierce.”
“They are?” replied Ben. His face brightened, which confused Julia even more.
“Yes sir,” Julia confirmed. “They’re arguing over putting in the window and…well, just everything.”
Laughing a bit, Ben nodded his head. “Julia, when Joe and Hoss start arguing, that means that Joe is getting better. It’s when they’re quiet that I start getting worried.”
“Julia, you go out and feed the chickens,” Mrs. Griswold told her daughter. “Mr. Cartwright and I have some talking to do.”
“Yes, Ma,” Julia said obediently. She put the medicine bottle and spoon on the table and hurried out the door.
Turning back to Ben, Mrs. Griswold continued their interrupted conversation. “So Orv and Jim have decided to plead guilty.”
“That’s what Hoss said,” Ben confirmed. “He talked with Sheriff Trussell when he went into town to pick up the window pane and the other supplies.”
“Well, I hope the judge throws the book at those two,” declared Mrs. Griswold. “They ought to be locked up until they’re old and gray.”
“I feel the same way,” Ben admitted. “The hearing and sentencing is tomorrow. I plan to be in the courtroom to hear what the judge has to say.”
“Good,” said Mrs. Griswold. “You make sure that judge understands what they did.”
“I will,” Ben promised. He hesitated a moment, then continued. “I’m also going to pick up some clothes for Joe. The doctor said he’d be well enough to travel in a few more days. It’s time we were heading home.”
“You’re going to need a wagon to get him there,” Mrs. Griswold pointed out.
“I know,” agreed Ben. “I thought I’d see about renting one when I was in town.”
“Don’t be silly. Take ours,” declared Mrs. Griswold. “We’re not going to need it for awhile. Julia and I aren’t going any place until Tom gets back.”
“But you’ll need it to pick up supplies, won’t you?” Ben asked a bit anxiously.
“We won’t need much, since it will just be Julia, Ern and me once you’ve left,” noted Mrs. Griswold. “The buckboard will be plenty big for what we’ll need to carry.”
“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully. He smiled. “Seems I’m always saying ‘thank you’ to you.”
“It goes both ways, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Griswold replied.
Taking a seat in the courtroom, Ben wasn’t surprised to see he was the only one there. Pettus and Fenton’s crimes had been a one-day wonder in the town, commented on and gossiped about for a short time before everyone had returned to the routine of their lives. What little interest that had continued to circulate quickly died once the word had spread the two men were pleading guilty. A trial might have been a diversion — something to watch as a form of entertainment — but a sentencing was a rather boring legal procedure. Boring, that is, to everyone except the father of the man they had tried to kill.
Sitting in the deserted gallery, Ben waited and watched. He saw two men wearing suits enter the courtroom, obviously the lawyers. One went to the table on the left side of the room, and one went to the table on the right. Pettus and Fenton entered next, handcuffed and followed by the sheriff who was holding a shotgun. Both men walked to the table on the left and began talking in low voices to their lawyer. The lawyer nodded, then said something to Sheriff Trussell. Sighing, the sheriff reached into his pocket, pulled out a key, and took the handcuffs off his prisoners. As Fenton and Pettus sat down at the table, Trussell moved to the side of the courtroom. He watched the two men with a scowl on his face…and with the shotgun in his arms.
Only another minute passed before a small white-haired man wearing a black robe entered the courtroom from a side door. The judge sat down behind the bench and looked expectantly at the prosecuting attorney.
Ben sat patiently as the prosecutor read the list of crimes which Fenton and Pettus had committed, and listen carefully when both men said “guilty” in response to the judge’s question about their plea. He leaned forward, though, when the judge asked the men if they had any statement to make before sentencing.
“I’ll speak on behalf of my clients,” the defense lawyer announced as he got to his feet and walked to stand before the judge.
“Your Honor, my clients are truly ashamed of what they’ve done,” the lawyer stated. “But you need to understand their circumstances. These two men were trying to build up their ranch. They faced some hard times, and things weren’t going well. They decided to take a few cattle from one of their neighbors. It was a bad decision on their part, no question, but they only meant to take a few head to help them make ends meet. Unfortunately, Joseph Cartwright came across them as they were changing the brands, and my clients panicked. They shot the man without thinking. Afraid that they would be found out, they tried to cover up their crime when they learned Mr. Cartwright was still alive. My clients started out only to take a few cattle and the situation got totally out of hand. They never meant to harm anyone. They simply became frightened when they were discovered with a running iron and acted without thinking. They understand what they did was wrong and are sorry for their actions. I ask the court’s mercy.”
A frown grew on Ben’s face as he listened to the defense lawyer’s statement. He glanced up at the judge and saw the man was listening carefully. Whether the judge was sympathetic or not was hard to determine. Ben decided not to take a chance.
“Your Honor, I’d like to make a statement before you pronounce sentence,” Ben announced, getting to his feet.
“Who are you?” the judge asked, glaring at Ben.
“I’m Ben Cartwright,” explained Ben. “The man these two tried to kill is my son.”
“Oh, I see,” the judge said, his face clearing. “Well, in that case, I think it’s appropriate I hear what you have to say.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” Ben responded. He walked forward and stopped in front of the judge’s bench. Ben took a moment to collect his thoughts and then began speaking. “Your Honor has heard one interpretation of the events surrounding the attempted murder of my son Joseph. Pettus and Fenton’s lawyer says they are merely two men who got caught up in circumstances. I disagree. I say these are two vicious, hardened men who didn’t care who they hurt.”
After taking a deep breath, Ben went on. “We don’t know how many head of the Griswold’s cattle these men stole by changing the brand. But the truth is, the number doesn’t matter. Pettus and Fenton stole from their neighbors. I can tell you from my own knowledge that the Griswold’s are fine people, people who would do anything to help a total stranger. If they would do that for someone they didn’t know, just imagine what they would do for a neighbor, for friends. But these two didn’t care about that. They repaid the Griswolds’ friendship by stealing from them. They changed the brand on the cattle from the Griswolds’ teepee brand to their own wagon wheel brand so they could claim those steers as their own.”
“My son Joseph caught them changing the brands,” Ben told the judge. “He didn’t threaten or confront these men; he just rode off, planning on reporting what he had seen to the sheriff. But Pettus and Fenton couldn’t let him do that, so they shot my son. They shot him twice –- once in the back — and then they rode off, leaving my son to die.”
The judge turned to look at the two men sitting at the table; his eyes narrowed and his face hardened.
“But my son didn’t die, Your Honor,” Ben continued. “He fought to stay alive, and was found by Mr. Griswold. Griswold took Joseph into his home, got a doctor for him, and his wife and daughter nursed him. When Pettus and Fenton heard about this, they didn’t panic. While Joe was hovering between life and death, these two schemed and planned. They waited until the Griswold ranch was almost deserted and then they went after Joseph again. They started a fire as a diversion, not caring what damage that fire might cause, and then they tried to kill my son once more.”
The emotion was evident in Ben’s voice as he spoke. “My son Joseph was lying sick and helpless in his bed, fighting for his life, when Fenton broke into his room. Fenton tried to smother my son; he put a pillow over Joe’s face and held it down. If my other son hadn’t stopped him, Fenton would have murdered my son. And while this was happening, Pettus was shooting at me, trying to kill me because I also was trying to save my son’s life.”
Again, Ben took a deep breath. The emotion was gone from his voice, replaced by a tone that was both determined and unwavering. “Pettus and Fenton are not men caught up in circumstances. They are men who knowingly stole from their neighbor, men who shot a man in the back and left him to die, and men who would have killed a sick, helpless man if my other son and I hadn’t intervened. Your Honor, I ask that you show them no mercy. In fact, I ask that you give them the harshest penalty you can.” Ben pressed his lips together, forming a hard line. Then he simply added, “Thank you, Your Honor.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” the judge responded quietly. As Ben turned to walk back to his seat, the judge suddenly called out, “Mr. Cartwright!”
Stopping, Ben looked back at the judge. “Yes, Your Honor?”
“Mr. Cartwright, will you son recover fully?” asked the judge.
“Yes, Your Honor, he will,” Ben answered. “Through the grace of God and the skill of a dedicated doctor, Joseph will be fine.”
“Thank you,” the judge said once more, and looked down at the papers in front of him.
Returning to sit in the gallery, Ben wondered what the judge was thinking. Would the fact that Joe would recover make a difference to the judge? Had his impassioned plea fell on the deaf ears? Ben waited anxiously for the judge to pronounce the sentence.
“Mr. Pettus and Mr. Fenton, please stand,” ordered the judge. When the two men were on their feet, the judge looked at them for a long moment, then continued. “You have pled guilty to cattle rustling and two counts of attempted murder. Frankly, from what I’ve heard today, arson and assault could have been added to those charges, but they weren’t, so I will have to ignore those facts. I’ve listened to your lawyer’s explanation on your behalf and I’ve listened to Mr. Cartwright. Now I am ready to impose sentence.”
Out in the gallery, Ben held his breath.
“I am agreeing with Mr. Cartwright’s view of the facts,” announced the judge. “I can think of no more despicable acts than to steal from your neighbors, shoot a man in the back, and then try to kill that man as he lies in his sickbed.” The judge’s face grew hard. “I am sentencing you to five years for the rustling, and ten years for each of the attempted murder charges. The sentences will run consecutively. You will spend the next twenty-five years of your life in prison.”
“No!” shouted Fenton. “You can’t do that!
“We said we were sorry, judge,” whined Pettus. “You can’t send us away for twenty-five years. That ain’t fair.”
“Be quiet or I will add contempt to your sentences,” ordered the judge harshly. “You are lucky that Mr. Cartwright’s son is still alive. If he wasn’t, I would have happily sentenced you to hang. As it is, all I can do is impose the maximum sentences allowed. Sheriff, take these two away.”
As Trussell walked over to place the handcuffs on the two now sullen men, Ben let out his breath. Twenty-five years in prison was more than he expected, but less than he felt Pettus and Fenton deserved. If it had been up to him, they would have spent the rest of their lives in prison.
Picking up his hat from the chair next to him, Ben stood and looked at Pettus and Fenton for a moment. Then he deliberately turned his back on them and walked out of the courtroom.
Fully dressed for the first time in weeks, Joe laid on the covers atop the bed waiting impatiently for Hoss to finish tugging the boots on to his foot. While he was grateful for the care and attention he had received from the Griswolds, Joe was eager to get home. He couldn’t wait to sleep in his own bed, to wake up in a room where everything was familiar. He had listened with only half an ear to the doctor’s admonishments yesterday. His attention had strayed the minute the doctor said he was fit to travel back to the Ponderosa.
“There you go, little brother,” declared Hoss, stepping back from the bed. “You’re all set.”
“Thanks,” Joe muttered. He sat up and then swung his legs off the bed. A feeling of lightheadedness suddenly came over him, and Joe gripped the edge of the mattress. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then opened his eyes to see Hoss watching him with a concerned frown on his face.
“You all right, Joe?” asked Hoss anxiously.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Joe assured his brother. “Just moved too fast.”
Pushing himself up, Joe stood carefully. He winced a bit at the pain the movement caused. He felt a pain in his back, as if someone had poked him with a dull stick, and a twinge in his leg.
“You sure you can walk, Joe?” Hoss pressed his brother. “I can carry you out to the wagon, you know.”
“I can walk,” Joe answered in a tight voice. He took a tentative step forward, making sure his sore leg would hold his weight. The muscles in his lower limb responded with a dull pain of protest but did their job. Joe took another step forward, then stopped. He stood still for a moment, making sure he kept his balance. Then he took a small step forward once more. The pain in his leg didn’t seem any worse, only more persistent.
Turning to his brother, Joe smiled ruefully at Hoss. “I can walk but I guess I could use a little help,” he admitted. “At this rate, it’s going to take me all day just to get to the door.”
With a smile on his face, Hoss moved next to Joe. “You just lean on me, little brother,” he told Joe. “I’ll have you out to that wagon in no time.” Hoss wrapped his arm around his brother’s waist as Joe placed his right arm across his shoulders. “Ready?” Hoss asked.
“Ready,” Joe answered. He took a deep breath. “Boy, am I ever ready to go home.”
Joe set the pace as the two men walked slowly across the room. Hoss shortened his stride and tried to match Joe’s slow and tentative gait. The pair lurched a bit until they got into a rhythm, then began moving easily across the room.
As Joe and Hoss entered the Griswold’s kitchen, Ben watched his two sons anxiously. He trusted the doctor’s judgment that Joe was ready to go home, but nevertheless, he couldn’t help worrying that Joe was trying to do too much too soon. “You all right, Joe?” he asked as Hoss helped his brother cross the room.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Joe assured his father. “Just got to keep moving. Once I stop, I don’t think I’m going to want to do this again for awhile.”
“Only a little further, Joe,” Hoss said in an encouraging voice. “The steps are going to be the tricky part. Just take it slow and we’ll get there.”
Ben followed his sons as they moved across the room and out the door. His hands were extended a bit, ready to help Joe if he faltered. But Joe kept moving steadily, if slowly, out of the house and across the porch.
At the top of the steps which led from the porch to the ground below, Hoss stopped. “One step at a time, Joe,” he advised his brother.
“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “That’s what I’m doing. Taking things one step at a time.”
A smile broke out on Ben’s face as he watched Hoss and Joe maneuver down the steps and across the dirt toward the waiting wagon. Somehow, he suddenly knew everything was going to be all right. They would go home to the Ponderosa and Joe would recover. It would take awhile but Joe would be fine. All they had to do was take it one step at a time.