Standing on Principles (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,239


 

It wasn’t something that he had to do, not really; he could let the incident go unnoticed, but if he did that, could he live with himself?  He reckoned not…besides, could the boy live with himself either, for that matter?  Again, he reckoned not.  It would be hard, turning in his own brother…his best friend, but the man knew he had no other choice; his pa had raised him to be honest, respectable and principled.  It would be difficult, going against everything he ever believed in, even if it meant that his younger brother would no doubt end up hating him, but Hoss Cartwright reckoned that was a chance he’d just have to take.  And once making that choice, he’d have to stand firm on his convictions and beliefs and pray that the boy in question would someday be able to forgive him.

With a heavy heart and weak stomach, Hoss walked slowly toward the old cabin, Little Joe’s hideout.  He paused at the door, taking a deep breath of the cool mountain air, and then pushed opened the door.

Inside, Joe spun around, pistol drawn and pointed directly at his brother’s middle.  After a brief moment, his eyes seemed to clear and he recognized the intruder as his brother.  Casting the big man a wary smile, Joe slipped his gun back into his holster and returned to his packing.

“Hoss,” Joe said in a trembling voice, “you big ox, that’s a good way to get yourself shot, bursting in on a man like that!” he reprimanded the gentle giant.  “What are you doing here…and say, how did you find me?”

Joe stopped what he was doing and turned, facing his brother, instantly noting the sour scowl on his brother’s face. “Hoss…what’s wrong?”

“I trailed ya, Joe…ya didn’t do much of a job coverin’ ya tracks…any fool could of followed ya,” Hoss explained, moving closer to the table and peeking into Joe’s saddlebags to see what his brother was packing.

“Goin’ somewhere?” he asked, looking down at the younger man.

“What do you think?” snapped Joe, grabbing a can of peaches and shoving it into the bag.

“I can’t let ya do that, Shortshanks…”

Joe jerked his head up to stare at the expression on Hoss’ face. “What do you mean…you can’t let me…surely you aren’t planning on stopping me?” Joe asked in an astonished tone.

“Yep…I aim on doin’ just that.  Now hand over ya gun, Joe,” Hoss said sternly, holding out his hand, waiting for Joe to place his pistol into his massive hands.

Joe snickered.  “You can’t mean that…you’d turn in your own brother?”

“I don’t wanna, Joe…but I gotta…you’re a wanted man…and…”

“For God’s sake, Hoss…I’m your brother…your best friend…or so I thought!” barked Joe, taking a step backward, out of Hoss’ reach. Slowly he let his left hand drop to his side, his fingers brushed at the pistol in the holster.

“Don’t try it, Joe…it won’t work,” Hoss ordered, seeing the slow movement.

Joe pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at Hoss.  His hand trembled slightly, unbelieving that he was actually holding a loaded gun on his own brother.

“Aw…doggoneit, Little Joe, put that thing down.  No matter what they say ya done, ya ain’t gonna shoot me…”

“I don’t want to, Hoss,” stammered Joe. He could see that it wasn’t a joke; his own brother was going to try to take him back…back to town, to jail…where over half the town’s folk said he belonged.

“But I can’t let you take me back…I’m innocent…”

“Don’t ya think I know that?”

“Then why?”

“Joe…ya oughta know by now, it don’t do no good to run…the only way to prove ya innocent, is to stand trial…let a jury decide.  That’s the way Pa would want it…”

“Pa ain’t here, Hoss…neither is Adam…it’s just me and you…and it’s my word against the girl’s…who do you think they’re going to believe…me or her?  I can’t take that chance Hoss, I never touched that girl…never…understand?” Joe shouted. He backed up several paces, grabbing his saddlebags from the table as he made his way backwards to the door. “Don’t follow me, Hoss…please…”

“JOE!” Hoss shouted as his brother slipped through the opened door, shutting it as he exited into the sunlight.

Quickly, Joe holstered his gun and spun around, startled to be facing half a dozen men, all with guns pointed right at him.  A swift movement in an attempt to draw his gun sent an array of bullets in his direction.

Before Joe could even touch his weapon, his body slumped to the wooden porch.  The shooting stopped as the door to the old cabin burst opened.  Hoss almost stumbled over the body of his brother that now lay, bleeding profusely from the bullet wounds that riddled his body.

“JOE!” cried Hoss, dropping to his knees and gathering Joe into his arms.

Tears welled in the blue eyes as Hoss tenderly brushed his fingers along his younger brother’s face.

“JOE…I didn’t know…they were here…I swear to ya…they were suppose to wait…at the bottom of the hill!” wept Hoss as he watched the boy struggling to breathe and to keep his eyes from closing.

“Hoss…I can’t…believe…you…did this…to me,” muttered Joe.

“No…no, little buddy…I didn’t mean for this to happen…honest,” whimpered Hoss.

The young man’s body arched in pain, Joe moaned; his eyes closed and his head rolled limply to one side, against his brother’s broad chest.

Hoss’ lips were pinched tightly together, his eyes squinted shut and with his head tilted backward, he roared out his misery.

The men in the group stood silent, letting the middle Cartwright son rid his heart of the ache that had taken up residence.  After a short period, one man stepped forward, resting his hand on Hoss’ trembling shoulder. “Hoss…let’s take the boy home…”

Hoss sniffed his nose, shoved the man’s hand away and glanced down at the boy in his arms.  Suddenly, Hoss’ eyes widened, beneath his hand he could feel a faint heartbeat. “He ain’t dead!” he shouted, looking up at the man who had stood over him.

“Roy…he ain’t dead!” Hoss repeated.

Everything after that was a blur.  Hoss remembered later, hearing Roy Coffee, Virginia City’s sheriff, shouting out orders at the men and the men scattering in all different directions to do his bidding.  Minutes later, the blood had been squelched, Hoss never did remember Doc Martin being in the group that had hunted down and practically killed his brother, but the physician was there now, trying to save the boy’s life.

A wagon hitched to a team of horses seemed to appear out of nowhere and before Hoss could collect his senses, Joe was lying on a pile of soft hay, heading home…where he belonged.

It seemed as if he lived in a haze, all his thoughts were covered in a thick fog and it was only when he opened his eyes and found himself in his own bed, a new morning dawning, did the big man recollect the events of the passed day.

Quickly, Hoss swung his long legs over the side of the bed and stood up.  He spied his trousers lying at the foot of the bed and just as quickly grabbed them and slipped them on.  Hopping on one foot down the long hallway, trying to fasten his pants, Hoss opened the door to his brother’s room and peeked inside.

The physician was bending over the bed as Hoss entered and moved to stand behind the doctor. Paul Martin looked over his shoulder and smiled. “He’s resting, Hoss…he had a rough night, but he’s a little better this morning.  If he keeps improving, he should be fine…in time…he took three direct hits.  Luckily nothing vital was damaged…”

Paul moved so that Hoss could be closer to the head of the bed.  Hoss bent down, touching his hand to Joe’s brow.  He swallowed hard, seeing the pale face, the dark circles under the boy’s deep-set eyes, was more than he could stand.  A sob caught in the back of his throat.

The doctor placed a gentle hand on Hoss’ shoulder and then softly excused himself from the room, leaving the two brothers alone.

“I’m sorry, Shortshanks,” Hoss whispered when he heard the door shut behind him.  “I never meant for ya to get hurt like this…never thought about them fellas followerin’ me.”

Hoss swallowed again.  He got down on his knees and leaned closer, picking up Joe’s hand that lay atop the blanket and holding it tightly in his own, larger hand.  He felt the sticky coolness of his brother’s flesh and it sent a shiver of fear racing down his spine.  It was hard for him to talk; his throat was tight with emotion.

Joe moaned softly, but his eyes, heavy with sleep, induced by the painkillers that the doctor had given him, remained closed and unresponsive to the soft words and the tender touch.

*****

The days passed slowly for the weary man.  Hoss stayed by his brother’s bedside day and night, unable to leave the boy who struggled to live.  An infection had set up in one of the wounds and it had taken both the physician and Hoss working around the clock to keep Joe’s fever from raging out of control.  With special care, Paul Martin had managed to ward off a serious problem, but the added stress on the already weakened man had taken its toll on the youngest Cartwright.

“When’s Pa suppose to be here?” Hoss anxiously asked the sheriff, “and Adam, he’s comin’ back too, ain’t he?”

“Yes, Hoss, yes…they’re both on their way.  Ben should be here day after tomorrow, and Adam should arrive tomorrow on the afternoon stage…”

Hoss swiped his hand down the front of his face and peeked into the room.  He could see his brother, lying on the bed, his head turned toward the wall.  Joe had been as such since waking up late last night.  He had refused to speak to Hoss, even refused to go so far as to look at his brother, and his actions had broken the big man’s heart and had instilled in him, his worst dread, Joe blamed him for getting shot…and for the guard that Roy had posted outside his bedroom door.

“I can’t take much more of him not payin’ me no mind,” Hoss muttered softly.

“Aw…Hoss, don’t let it get to ya…Joe will come to his senses…” Roy started to say.

“Yeah…when Roy, when they put the noose around his neck?” stormed Hoss as he marched away, disappearing down the stairs.

Roy sighed deeply and entered the room, stopping next to the bed. “Joe?”

Slowly, almost painfully, Joe turned his head and looked up at the officer. “I don’t think ya realize son, what’cha doin’ to Hoss…”

“What I’m doing to him? Ha…what about what he did to me?” growled Joe, turning back to face the wall.

“He only did what he believed was right…what you know is right…”

Joe turned again, glaring at the sheriff. “What I know is right?  I would have never turned in my own brother, especially if I believed him to be innocent of something that some crazy girl claims he did…I wouldn’t have led HIM to the slaughter!”

Paul stopped packing his medical bag and looked over at the sheriff.  His face was grim. “Joe Cartwright…how can you say that about your own brother?” he said, moving to the side of the bed and looking down at his best friend’s youngest, and most assuredly troubled son.

“Easy, it’s the truth…”

“Joe, that boy had no way of knowing that we were waiting outside.  When he went in to talk to you, we were down in the gully.  We waited until he was completely inside before we moved in…AND I might add, my men were not suppose to open fire on ya like they done…”

“Well, look at me…they damn near killed me, didn’t they?  I haven’t even gotten a trial yet and they pronounced me guilty…and how did they find me…my brother led them right to the door…” Joe moved slowly, turning onto his side and putting his back to the two men in the room.  His intention was clear, he was finished talking.

“Ya had no business running away, Little Joe…ya Pa wouldn’t have let ya do it…he’d a made ya turn yaself in…”

“I ran away to keep from getting lynched…but I damn near got killed anyway, no thanks to the big galoot of a brother of mine.”

Paul went back to putting his instruments away.  Roy walked to the door, pausing. “Ya Pa will be here in a day or so, Adam should arrive on the afternoon stage…”

“Fine,” muttered Joe.

*****

The kindly physician found Hoss sitting alone downstairs in his father’s red chair.  Hoss barely looked up when the doctor descended the stairs and moved close to the fire, setting his black bag down on the table.

“Hoss,” Paul began, “Joe doesn’t mean…”

“Yes he does…” Hoss said, glancing up.  He sat with hands folded together, looking as if he’d lost his best friend, which according to the way he was feeling, and all the guilt he carried for his brother being in the shape he was in, he had lost his best friend.

“He hates me,” stammered Hoss.  “With a passion…the boy hates me.  He thinks I betrayed him, that…Oh…what’s the use,” Hoss said, standing.

When the troubled man looked at the family doctor, Paul noticed the deep sadness in the blue eyes that seemed to cease glimmering.

“As soon as Pa gets here…and I tell him what happened…I’m leavin’.”

“Hoss…you don’t mean that?” Paul asked in bewilderment.

“Sure ‘nough…I can’t stand the way that boy looks at me…or rather, refuses to look at me,” Hoss said.

“Hoss, don’t you know that your brother needs you…”

“Needs me?”

“Yes, he was very nearly killed…he was seriously ill, Hoss.  He was frightened, he still is…he’s going to jail soon…possibly even prison for a very long time, if the jury believes that girl…”

Hoss’ chest swelled as he sucked in a gulp of air and turned to face the doctor. “Joe swears he never touched that girl, Doc…and I believe him…”

“So do I, Hoss, honestly, but the facts don’t lie…I examined the girl and she was…well you know, and she swears that it was Little Joe that did it…”

“It’s a lie…”

“Then Little Joe had better be able to prove where he was and who he was with, when he goes to trial,” Roy said from the bottom of the stairs. He had just come down and caught the last of the conversation that had been taking place between Hoss and Doc Martin.  Both men turned their attention to what the sheriff was saying.

“And he’s refusing to say…that ain’t gonna go good for the boy…”

“What do you mean, he’s not sayin’?” Hoss asked.

“Just what I said, Hoss.  I asked the boy where he was the night Carly Willford claims she was attacked, and Little Joe says to me, ‘its none of your dang business’…That kind of talk could earn him a life sentence if’n he ain’t careful.”

Hoss scratched his head, puzzled as to why his brother refused to say where he had been.  He turned to both men. “Maybe when Pa gets home, he can talk some sense into the boy.”

*****

“Adam, it ain’t that easy,” Hoss said shortly after greeting his brother who had arrived on the afternoon stage.  “Joe won’t say…not that he says anythin’ to me anymore…but he won’t say where he was that night, nor who he was with…he refuses to tell Roy anythin’ atall.”

Adam shook his head in disgust.  “Doesn’t he know he could go to prison for a very long time?  He could hang…depending on what mood the jury might be in.”

“Yep, he knows, but he says it don’t matter…Adam…it does matter…he could be safe right now, if’n it hadn’t been for me…”

The brothers rode side by side in the wagon that Hoss had driven into town.  He was there to pick up his brother and to gather the week’s supplies.

“Hoss, you can’t blame yourself…you only did what you knew was the right thing to do…what Pa taught us was right…”

“Ya don’t understand, Adam…first off, I believe Joe when he says he didn’t touch that girl…”

“Well, for heaven’s sake, Hoss…so do I…”

“Yeah…but I led the posse right up to the front door of that cabin…cause I figured I could make Joe do what was right, and turn himself in…but he wouldn’t listen to reason, he pulled a gun on me and ran out the door…”

“That’s when Roy’s men opened fire on him?” Adam asked. He cringed inwardly trying to picture the scene in his mind.  The mental image made him shiver.

“Yeah…I reckon they thought he was gonna get away…and some of those men, especially Mr. Willford, was awfully mad about that girl getting hurt like she was, and they believed Joe responsible.  They opened fire on the boy before Roy or Doc had a chance to do anythin’…and now Joe blames me for gettin’ shot, going to jail, and no doubt if they send him to prison, he’ll blame me for that as well…”

Adam’s frown had grown dark as he glanced over at his brother and noted the unhappy expression on the rotund face. “For what it’s worth, Hoss, I don’t blame you…and neither should Joe.  If he was some place else and with someone, anyone, he needs to say…”

“But he won’t, that’s just it, Adam…it’s like, like…he’s protectin’ someone…”

Adam’s eyes widened slightly and he cast a sideways glance in Hoss’ direction. “But who…and why?  Why would he want to protect someone badly enough that he’d be willing to go to prison for something he didn’t do?” Adam said more to himself than to Hoss.

“I don’t know, Adam…I just wish I hadn’t tried to interfere.  If’n Joe had a plan…I ruined it…”

“You couldn’t let him run away, Hoss…you know that.  You were only trying to do the right thing, you were standing on principles that Pa taught you; you were just trying to make Joe see the right and wrong in what he was doing…”

For a long time the pair rode along in silence.  It was as they were pulling into the yard that Hoss finally spoke again.

“I’ll see to the horses, Adam; ya go in and have a word with Joe…he’ll want to see ya…he ain’t got no hankerin’ to see me,” Hoss said sadly as he jumped down from the wagon.

“Clem,” Adam greeted the guard that remained in the hallway, outside of Joe’s bedroom.

“Afternoon, Adam,” the deputy answered.  “He’s been waiting for you,” Clem said with a scowl.  “He ain’t in the best of moods; best tread lightly,” he warned.

“Don’t worry, I’m used to his bad moods,” Adam said with a twitching grin. He did not bother to knock; instead he opened the door and walked right in, closing the door behind him.  Joe lay on the bed, his eyes were closed but with the shutting of the door, they sprung opened.  A small grin turned Joe’s sullen face into a more pleasant feature.

“Adam,” Joe called as he tried to pull himself upright in the bed.

“Joe,” Adam greeted his brother, holding out his hand.

Joe placed his hand in Adam’s and gave his brother a small shake.  Adam was surprised at the lack of strength in his brother’s grasp.  As he sat down, pulling the chair close to the bed, he noted the dark circles under the hazel eyes and the pale color to the boy’s face.  Joe looked like someone who had been sick for a very long time and his appearance worried his older brother.

“How are you feeling, kid?  I mean, really?” Adam asked.

“I’ll be alright…Adam…you know what happened, don’t you?”

The smile was gone and now replaced with a sad, hurt expression. “Hoss told me…everything, Joe…”

“Even how he tried to get me killed?” Joe spat in a hateful tone.

“Now, Joe…he did no such thing and you know it,” Adam proclaimed in his middle brother’s defense.  “He was only trying…”

“I know what he was trying to do; you don’t have to tell me. Hell, everyone’s saying the same thing…he just wanted me to do the right thing…well, I was trying to…”

“By running away?” Adam demanded, his tone gruff.

Joe sighed deeply, puckering up his lips in disgust. “I wasn’t running away…how many times do I have to repeat it!”

“Then what do you call it, Joe?” Adam asked.

Joe turned his head away, refusing to look at Adam.  He felt his heart rate begin to pick up and he leaned his head back against the pillows, closing his eyes.

“Joe…look at me…please,” Adam pleaded softly.

Slowly, Joe re-opened his eyes and turned his head in Adam’s direction.

“What are you hiding?” Adam asked in a whispered voice.

“What makes you think I’m hiding anything?” Joe said, his voice quivering.

“Because I know you…that’s how.  Joe, you are in serious trouble, don’t you realize that…don’t you even care?”

“I know…and I care, Adam…don’t you think I’ve thought about it…don’t you know I’m scared…” Joe paused, swallowing hard.

“Then explain to me…what’s going on…”

“Nothing is going on…”

“Joe…”

“Drop it Adam…just forget about it…please.”

“I can’t Joe…you could hang if you’re convicted.  What do you think that will do to Pa?  How do you think he’s going to feel, knowing that you were hanged for something so horrid and knowing that you are innocent…it will kill him, Joe…he’s lost too much in his lifetime to lose you…”

Joe took a deep breath, blowing it out fast. “I know, Adam, I’ve thought about all of that…but it has to be…”

Adam looked perplexed.  “Has to be?  Why, Joe…you aren’t telling me everything.  Where were you that night…and who were you with?”

“I wasn’t with anyone…”

“Then where were you?”

“None of your business, Adam.  Look, I didn’t touch that girl…that’s the truth.  But where I was and who I was with…is no one’s business…”

Adam’s eyes widened slightly.  “Then you were with someone…”

Joe’s eyes narrowed and he glared at his brother.  “I didn’t say that…”

Adam pulled his chair closer and leaned down near Joe. “If you’re in some other kind of trouble, Joe…let me help you…”

“I’m not in any trouble…just this mess…and you can’t help me…err…I mean, I don’t need your help…I’m tired; I’d like to take a nap now if you don’t mind.”

Adam leaned back, studying his brother’s face.  If he’d had any doubt before, he didn’t now.  He was positive that his younger brother was hiding something that he wasn’t about to talk about.  What or who and certainly why he was taking the risk of going to prison was way beyond his reasoning, but he was sure that Joe must have a damn good reason to do whatever he was up too.  Adam decided that the minute his father arrived home…they’d both best be having a serious talk with the young man who was now feigning sleep.

*****

It was early evening when Hop Sing brought Joe’s tray to him.  He set it on the side table and uncovered the main dish, glancing over at the young man in the bed.

“Lit’le Joe eat now,” Hop Sing said, moving the tray and placing it across Joe’s lap.

“I’m not hungry,” grumbled Joe, waving the tray away.

“But Lit’le Joe need…”

“I don’t need anything,” Joe snapped, giving the servant scowl.  “Please, Hop Sing, just take it away.”

Hop Sing frowned but placed the tray back on the table, covered the dish and carried it to the door.

“Father be home tomorrow…he make obnoxious little boy eat…” grumbled Hop Sing as he scooted silently out of the room.

In the hallway, he encountered Adam, on his way to visit his brother.  Adam stopped, lifting the lid. “He’s not eating?”

“No…refuse to do as Hop Sing say…very troubled young man, Mr. Adam.  Hop Sing be happy when Mr. Cart’light come home and take boy in tow…” Hop Sing padded on down the hall.

Adam tapped softly on the door and pushed it opened without waiting for an invitation.  He was stunned to see Little Joe crawling from the bed, trying to stand on his own two feet and slip on his trousers.

“Oh no you don’t,” Adam said, grabbing the pants from his brother’s hand.

Joe’s eyes were red balls of fire. “Give ’em to me, Adam…”

“Not until you tell me just what in blazes you are trying to do?”

Joe swayed, forcing himself to sit down on the side of the bed.  His head lowered and Adam heard the boy sigh. “There’s something I have to do…please,” he begged, holding out his hand for the pants.  “Give me my pants…”

“No…there isn’t a thing you have to do, except stay in that bed…you’re hardly strong enough to stand by yourself, let alone try to escape…”

Joe’s head popped upward and he glared at his brother. “Are you saying I’m a prisoner in my own house?”

“Well, that guard out side the door isn’t exactly what I’d call a friendly visitor, little brother,” explained Adam.

Adam moved to the bed, pulling back the covers and waited until Joe crawled back in.  Once Joe was covered, Adam sat down on the edge, next to Joe. “Joe…what’s going on?”

“Nothing…”

“I hate to call you a liar, but you are, Joe…now tell me…who are you protecting and why?” pressed Adam.

Joe had lowered his head to keep from looking at his brother, or to keep Adam from seeing the truth in his troubled eyes.  Adam saw his brother struggling with himself to keep the truth from being told.

He pressed ahead with his questioning. “Joe…I don’t want to see my kid brother hung for something that I know beyond a doubt that he isn’t capable of doing.  I don’t want to see our father suffer needless hours, days, weeks, even years of remorse…years of ridicule from his friends, all believing that Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was guilty of molesting a young woman, or worse…”

Joe swallowed and glanced up at his brother.  The truth shown in the passion that reflected back from Adam’s deep, dark hazel eyes. “I’m not a rapist…”

“I know that…but everyone in town thinks you are, Joe…even Roy is beginning to have some doubts…because you refuse to co-operate with him.”

Adam gave Joe time to consider his words and then pushed on. “Joe, you’ve been laid up for over a week now.  Pa’s coming home tomorrow…and it won’t be much longer before Doc deems you well enough to stand trial.  Let me help you before it’s too late…please,” Adam said softly.

Joe pinched his eyes tightly closed.  He wanted nothing more than to explain to his brother what was going on, but if he shared his secret, it could cost the lives of two very prominent people, and Joe wasn’t sure just yet if he was willing to make that sacrifice…and hadn’t he given his word, when he swore an oath?

Joe looked up, into his brother’s eyes and for a long moment, studied Adam’s face.  He knew his brother was ready to help him, at all costs…so unlike Hoss; the thought whizzed through his mind.

“I can’t Adam…there’s too much at stake,” Joe said at last.

Adam sighed in a way that Joe considered a relief.  His eyes fixed on his brother’s expression.

“Then there is more to this than what you are willing to tell?” Adam dared.

“Yes…I wish I could, but, Adam, if I tell you…people could be killed…I could be killed…”

“No one is going to kill you, Joe…I give you my word on that…”

“You don’t know that for sure, Adam.  Oh, I know you’d try to keep me safe…but you can’t hold my hand twenty four hours a day, now can you?” Joe said, almost with a smile.

“No…but with Hoss and Pa both here…”

“No…not Hoss…”

“Joe…”

“Forget it, Adam…”

Adam blew a puff or air from his lungs.  No need to press the issue at this point he decided. “Alright Joe, I’ll forget about Hoss…for now…but one day, very soon, you and he will have to sit down and work out your problems…hush…” he ordered gently before Joe could protest. “Alright, let’s get this straight…you’re working with someone…keeping someone from getting killed…I want to know who and why, and I’ll not take no for an answer,” Adam said sternly. He could see that his brother was growing weary and could only pray that Joe would trust him before it was too late.  He continued to push the boy for an answer. “If you are trying to protect someone…and you’ve been laid up for over a week…what do you think has happened to that person, or persons?”

Joe pursed his lips firmly together.

“Joe…it might already be too late!”

“Then let me go, Adam…let me go find out…”

“Not without me, you aren’t strong enough to travel, Joe…tell me who you’re protecting and I’ll go see that they are alright…”

“I can’t, Adam,” Joe said in a trembling voice.  “I gave my word…I swore an oath…”

“Did you promise to die for them, too, Joe?  Is whomever it is, so important, that you’d risk prison or hanging to protect them??  TELL ME, DAMNIT!”

“Oh…” whined Joe, rubbing his forehead with his fingers.  “My head is pounding,” he complained.

“I’m sorry, Joe…I don’t mean to add to your current misery…”

“Adam, if I tell ya…will you swear on your mother’s grave, not to tell anyone…even Pa?” Joe said with sorrow showing in his eyes.

“I swear not to tell anyone…but if it is something that I feel Pa needs to know about…I’ll have to tell him, Joe…”

Joe leaned his head back against the pillows for what seemed a long time to his brother who waited for an answer to the puzzling behavior of his kid brother. “I took, an oath, over in Carson City, about two weeks ago…I was in the Judge’s chambers.”

“What kind of oath, Joe?”

“An oath to protect someone…someone important…who is meeting with the newly appointed governor next week, in Carson City.”

Adam’s eyes widened. “Governor James W. Nye?” he asked, astonished that Joe could even be involved with the governor.

“Yeah,” Joe muttered.  “The person I’m supposed to be guarding has some documents that he is giving to the Governor…to take back to Washington…”

“Joe…who is that someone…what are the documents?” Adam said, pulling his chair closer, if possible to the bed, in order that he and Joe could talk in low voices.

Joe looked into Adam’s eyes, seeing the anxious way that his brother studied him. “Isaac Roop,” Joe whispered.  “He has papers for Nye…legal papers that some men don’t want to arrive safely in Washington.  They are papers outlining the growth of the territory…things like that, you know, about railroads, and such…’

“I knew there were those out there that want to stop the railroad…the advancement of prosperity…”

“Well, I have to make sure that Roop is safe, at least until Nye reaches Carson City…”

“Where is he now, Joe?” Adam inquired, a plan already forming in his mind.

“After we rode out from Carson City, I took him to Oblivion. I figured there would be no one around, being this time of year; the old shack wouldn’t be in use.  I was on my way there, to take him supplies when Hoss showed up and everything went crazy…”

Adam eyed his brother, a serious look played across his face. “Hoss had no way of knowing, Joe.”

“He could have trusted me,” countered Joe.

“Perhaps…but tell me something…how does Carly Willford fit into all of this?”

“I don’t know, Adam…honest.  I don’t even know the girl, I’ve never even seen her be…wait a minute, Adam.” Joe’s eyes grew wide. “The night I was in Carson City, in the judge’s chambers…she was there…”

“In the office with you?” Adam declared in surprise.

“No…no, outside, at the receptionist’s desk…she was his secretary…” Joe cried.  “She must have heard everything that the judge and I talked about…”

“Which means that she’s working with someone…”

“Her father, maybe?”

“Perhaps…but why, Joe…think…”

Joe seemed to be thinking hard, but his head was pounding so fiercely that he couldn’t think straight. “I don’t know, Adam…my head hurts…maybe there’s something in those papers that Carly’s father doesn’t want the government to see…I don’t know…”

Adam rested his hand on his brother’s arm. “If that’s so, Joe…then they had to come up with a plan to get you out of the way…so they could find Roop before he passed on the papers,” Adam said, thinking aloud.

“So she accused me of molesting her!” Joe said with disgust.  “And I bet it was her father who pushed Roy into following Hoss…”

“And those men who started shooting at you…probably worked for Willford!” Adam said, sure now that they had discovered the reason why Joe was being blamed for something he didn’t do.

“He wanted me dead…out of the way…” murmured Joe, shivering at the thought of just how close Willford had come to ending his life.

“Joe…I have to go to Oblivion.  I have to make sure that Roop is safe…when is he suppose to meet Nye in Carson City?” Adam asked.

“Wednesday.”

“That gives me two days…it’ll be hard, but I have to do it.”

Adam rose from the bed and collected a paper and pencil from Joe’s desk. “Here,” he said, handing the writing supplies to his brother.  “Write a note to Roop, explaining what happened and that I’m your brother and say that he can trust me.  I’ll leave right away.  I should get there by morning and then I’ll take Roop to Carson City, myself.”

Joe nodded his head and began scribbling out the required note.  When he finished, he handed it to Adam. “What about me?  Roy is going to take me to jail…”

“I’m sorry about that Joe…you’ll just have to go along with him when Doc says you’re ready.  I’ll explain everything to Hoss…he can tell Pa…and together they can try to get a hold on the trial.  Without Roop’s word, we have nothing to link Carly Willford and her father to this mess you’re in…and we need that, unless you want to go to prison?”

“No…I don’t want to do that…besides…they say the food’s horrible,” Joe said with a slight grin.

Adam shook his head gently from side to side, but smiled down at the boy. “I don’t know about you sometimes, Joe.  You sure do manage to get yourself into some tough messes…all of which I’m always bailing you out!” teased Adam.

Adam folded the note and tucked it into his pocket. “You stay in that bed…I’ll talk to Hoss and send him up here,” Adam said, turning toward the door. He paused and turned back to Joe. “Try to consider Hoss’ feelings, Joe…he had no way of knowing…he was only standing on the principles that Pa taught us…the truth is always best…don’t fault him for that.”

Joe lowered his head, suddenly ashamed of the way in which he had treated his middle brother.  Of course Adam was right, Hoss had no way of knowing what he’d been involved in and thus had done only what he had been taught to do…and that was, the right thing.

“I’ll apologize to him, I promise, Adam,” Joe said.

“Good, I’ll see you in a couple of days…remember what I said, stay in bed…fake a headache or pain in your side, anything to keep Roy from taking you out of this house, it isn’t safe for you yet…”

“I will…I think I feel a pain coming on now,” smiled Joe, groaning softly as he clutched his mid-section.

*****

Half an hour later, Hoss and Adam were making their way toward the house.  They were stopped before reaching the door by the sound of an approaching buggy.  Both turned around.

“Howdy Adam, Hoss,” greeted Roy Coffee as he swung down from the saddle.

“Evening Roy, Paul,” Adam returned the greeting and offered one to the doctor who stepped down from his buggy.

“How’s my patient, tonight?” Paul said with a hint of a smile.  “Staying in bed, I hope,” he added.

Adam cast a hurried glance at his brother.  “Hoss, why don’t you go up…and…see if Joe’s awake? He was complaining of a headache earlier,” suggest Adam with a slight narrowing of his eyes.

“Headache?” blabbered Hoss.  “Oh yeah…you mentioned that a while ago.  I’ll go tell him the doc’s here…” hurried Hoss, slipping quickly into the house, where he ran up stairs.

“Headache?” Paul pondered aloud.

“Yes,” said Adam, “he isn’t feeling as well today as he was yesterday.  Says his head is a constant pounding and too, he hasn’t eaten very well…you can ask Hop Sing, I’m afraid the little man was quite put out with Joe…”

“That doesn’t sound good. I was hoping that he’d be well enough to…well…feeling much better,” Doc Martin babbled as he rushed off to tend to his patient.

“I say, Adam, tis a shame that Joe’s feeling poorly,” Roy said.

“Well, I know you want to see this matter between Joe and that girl cleared up, but honestly, Roy, I doubt if the boy’s in any shape to be moved to the jail, let alone strong enough to stand trial…”

“I suppose another day or two won’t matter no how,” Roy explained.  “Say, you’re pa’s comin’ home tomorrow, ain’t he?”

“Yes sir, he’s supposed to be on the noon stage.  I was wondering, Roy, if you’d do me a favor?” Adam said as he and Roy walked slowly toward the barn.

Adam had purposely led Roy away from the house, wanting to give Joe time enough to convince the doctor that he wasn’t yet feeling well enough to be moved into town. “Sure, Adam, if’n I can.”

“Well, I have a couple of important matters that I need to tend to, and Hoss is needed here, to stay with Joe.  I was wondering if you could meet the stage, and bring Pa home?  That way you’d have time enough to fill him in on what all has been going on,” Adam explained.

“I don’t see why not…sure, Adam, I’ll meet ya Pa…and I’ll fill him in on everything.  You know he ain’t gonna be too happy…”

“I know…but he’ll know better what to do about matters.  Joe’s going to need a lawyer…I’ll leave that to Pa. Just tell him, not to worry; I’ll explain everything to him when I get back…”

“Explain what, son?” Roy inquired, looking a bit baffled by Adam’s choice of words.

Adam took a deep breath.  He had known Roy Coffee for most of his life and knew that he could trust the man explicitly, so he decided in that instant to confer with the sheriff…to a point. “Roy, I can prove that Joe was no where around when the Willford girl claimed that she was molested…”

“WHAT!”

“That’s right…but you have to trust me, Roy…you have to let me bring the proof to you…”

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, son…what proof and why didn’t Joe tell me this himself?”

“Because he made a promise…look Roy, I don’t have the time to explain…just do what you can to keep that trial from starting anyway that you can…please,” Adam said, practically begging.

Roy rubbed his hand down his face and looked hard at Adam. “I don’t know, Adam, you’re asking me to do something that is…”

“I know, Roy…but you don’t honestly believe that Joe’s guilty of harming that gal, do you?”

“Of course not, but that girl claims…”

“She’s lying, Roy…and I can prove it!”

The thoughts, in Adam’s mind, were tumbling about as if being blown by a strong north wind.  He was making claims that even he wasn’t sure he could prove, but he did believe Joe and if Joe thought the girl and her father might be involved in some way, then he, Adam, had to do what he could to prove his brother, innocent…and right.

“Twenty-four hours Adam, no more…understand?”

Adam grinned and squeezed the sheriff’s shoulder. “Thanks Roy…you’ll not regret this…”

“I’d better not…” Roy said, turning away.  “I’m going back to town…tell Paul I’ll see him there…I need to be ready to have a long talk with your father.”

Adam walked with the sheriff back to where his horse was tied and waited until the sheriff had mounted up.  Roy turned to the elder Cartwright son and pointed his finger, waving it gently at Adam. “Twenty-four hours, Adam…and then I’m taking Little Joe in…regardless of his condition.  Ole Doc can treat a headache in my jail cell as well as he can out here, on the Ponderosa.”

With that, the sheriff turned and rode out of sight.  Adam glanced up toward the window and then hurried back to the barn.  As it were, he’d have to ride all night long in order to reach Oblivion by daybreak.

*****

“Forget it, Joe,” Hoss said, pulling the chair close to the bed. He sat down heavily, his eyes still bore the hurt that he felt in his heart, but he forced a tiny smile for his brother.

“I’m sorry, Hoss…” Joe said, swallowing and looking a bit down trodden.  “I know…now…that you were only doing what you thought was right.  I was mad,” Joe said, glancing up, “’cause I thought you didn’t believe me…”

“I believed ya, Joe…but I also knew that it t’weren’t right for ya to take off…I didn’t know about…well…what Adam told me…”

“I know.  I couldn’t tell you, Hoss, I had given my word…”

Hoss lowered his head, his lips twitched nervously and he glanced sideways at his brother. “But you told Adam…why couldn’t ya trust me enough to tell me?” Hoss said in a whispered voice.

Joe watched the way that the gentle giant fought to understand and the sad look that crossed the big man’s face made him feel worse than he already felt. “I…didn’t really have time, Hoss…I was trying to get away to make sure Roop was safe and you were trying to make me turn myself in…I had no other choice but to…walk out that door…”

“Darn near got ya kilt, that’s what I done,” muttered Hoss.

“It wasn’t your fault, Hoss…look, let’s not argue about it, alright?” Joe said, grinning slightly.  “I have to make sure that Doc don’t think I’m well enough to be moved into town…”

“Shh, lay back, Joe,” whispered Hoss, jumping to his feet and pressing his hand against Joe’s brow.  “Moan…”

“Oh…” groaned Joe as the door opened.

“Easy shortshanks,” Hoss muttered, glancing up at the doctor.

“Not feeling well?” Paul questioned as he moved to place his hand on his patient’s brow.

“Head…pounding,” Joe said, squinting up his eyes and making a face.

“Hmm…you don’t seem to have a temperature,” Paul said, checking Joe’s pulse and then laying the slender hand down on the bed.  “Let’s see about these wounds.”

After enduring several moments of being probed and jabbed, Joe lay exhausted with his head pressed deeply into the pillows.  He had no need to fake his discomfort; it was real.

“I’ll give you something for the headache, Joe. Hoss,” Paul said, turning to the elder Cartwright.  “You stay with him and make sure he stays in bed.”  Paul turned back to Joe and handed him the glass of water that he had mixed the powder into. “Drink this, son; it will help you rest.  I’ll be back tomorrow, when your father gets home.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said in a whispered voice. He watched as Hoss walked to the door with the physician, turning back and grinning slyly at his brother.

“Hoss,” Paul said, once in the hallway and out of hearing range.  “I’m glad to see that you and Joe have come to an understanding…”

“Yeah…we’re alright, now…thanks Doc…I’ll see after him, til tomorrow,” Hoss said, anxious to get back into the room.

“Good, I’ll see myself out…good night, Hoss.”

“Night, Doc.”

*****

The sun was just cresting the rise when Adam pulled Sport to a stop in front of the old cabin.  He looked cautiously around before dismounting and then slid silently down.  There seemed to be an eerie silence all about him, and for a moment, Adam hesitated.  He had his back to the door, but without having to look, he knew he was being watched and decided that he best make his presence known before the man inside panicked and put a bullet into his back.

Adam turned toward the house.  It was then that he saw the long barrel of a rifle sticking out the partially opened door.

“Mr. Roop?  Issac Roop?” Adam called out, waiting and keeping a sharp eye on the barrel of the gun. “My name is Adam Cartwright, sir; I’m Joe Cartwright’s brother…”

“Don’t come in any closer, Mister…” the voice behind the door shouted.

“You have nothing to fear…my brother, Joe…he’s been hurt…shot really.  He told me about the papers you have for Governor Nye…”

“I don’t believe you…young Cartwright swore not to…”

“He was almost killed, sir…it’s a long story, if you will just put down that weapon and let me explain…” Adam answered.  “I have a note from Little Joe…”

The door squeaked softly and Adam watched in relief as the door opened slowly, revealing the man. “Hand it to me, and then step back…don’t make any sudden moves, I’m not the best at handling a gun,” Roop warned.

Adam smiled slightly to himself; he could see the gun shaking in the man’s trembling hand.  Easing his way onto the porch, he placed the note that Joe had written, into Roop’s outstretched hand.

Once the note was handed over, Adam backed down off the porch and waited patiently while the man quickly scanned the note.

“How do I know this is for real?  You could have written it yourself,” Roop dared to question.

“Look at the backward slant of the writing, what does that tell you?” Adam said.

“That the author was left handed,” responded Roop, eyeing Adam cautiously.

“I happen to be right-handed, as you can see by my sidearm.  My little brother, if you noticed is definitely left-handed.”

Adam saw the man hesitate briefly and then lower the rifle.

“Alright, step inside, but don’t try anything,” Roop warned again, this time, stepping aside and letting Adam enter the cabin.

Once inside, Adam sighed in relief to find that the man had been making out for himself while left unguarded.

“I hate to hear about the boy…you’re sure he’ll be alright?” Roop inquired of Adam after pouring a cup of coffee for each.

“Yes, but he’s not out of the woods yet…there’s still this assault charge against him,” explained Adam.

“A young woman and an older man? Hmm,” pondered Roop.  “You say she claims that Joe attacked her?”

“That’s right.”

“Wonder why she’d make up such a story?  Joe was with me the entire time…”

“Joe remembers seeing her in the judge’s office in Carson City.  He seems to think that perhaps she and the older man wanted to get him out of the way…you know, prevent him from helping you to deliver those papers to Governor Nye,” Adam said.

“But how would they know about that?”

“Joe said she was the judge’s secretary and must have eavesdropped on the conversation between you, the judge and himself,” Adam explained.

Roop, a tall skinny man about the same age as Ben Cartwright, paced the tiny interior of the old cabin.  He appeared to be deep in thought and for several long, silent moments, he walked in circles about Adam, who sat and watched from his seat at the table. At last, he sat down, staring over his cup at the man opposite him. “There are things, Adam…important things and names in those papers. I am positive that certain individuals would rather not have the Governor see them. I am also certain that your young brother is correct in his assumption. It is in Joseph’s best interest that we get these papers to Carson City immediately and then I shall return with you to Virginia City to testify on your brother’s behalf, that young man is not a man who goes around assaulting young women!”

“I agree with you, on both accounts,” smiled Adam.  “I think we should leave as soon as possible; Joe cannot put off much longer. He’s faking a headache to stay out of jail.  And once he’s jailed, there will be a trial…after that…no telling what might happen,” Adam declared as he pushed back his chair and stood.

“I can be ready to leave in half an hour, Adam,” Mr. Roop said.

“Good, I’ll get the horses ready.”

Issac Roop was waiting on the porch when Adam brought the horses around.  In his hands, he held his gear and slung across his shoulder was a thick leather saddlebag that he handed to Adam.

“You’d better hang on to this, just in case,” Roop said, moving toward his horse.

“What’s in it?”

“Papers for the Governor, Adam.  I’m an easy target, if there is someone out to stop me from delivering them to Governor Nye, they wouldn’t think that you would have the papers,” the older gentleman grinned.

“Good thinking,” Adam said as he tied the saddlebags to the back of his saddle.  “Ready?” he asked as he mounted up.

“I’m ready,” Roop answered as he settled himself in the leather seat.  “But we’re not going to Carson City, Adam.”

Adam spun his head around and stared in shock at the man. “What do you mean?” he asked with a worried frown.

“The way I see it, your brother needs me more at the moment than Nye needs these papers.  I figure we can ride back to Virginia City, clear Joe’s name and then deliver these papers to the Governor,” Roop explained in a serious tone.

“But Nye will be expecting you…”

“Adam, there’s something you don’t know about all of this, and neither does Joe…but you should,” Roop said.

“What?” questioned Adam, eyeing the other man with suspicion.

“Your father is working with me…that is the reason for him being in Reno.  He was to meet Nye there and accompany him to Carson City…”

Adam looked worried as the pair rode along.

“And with Joe getting shot, Pa coming home…who’s to accompany Nye now?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know, Adam, but I do know that it is too dangerous for the Governor to be traveling without men to protect him.”

“Then we best hurry.  The sooner we clear Joe’s name, the sooner we can get that taken care of, the sooner we can get you safely to Carson City.”

Adam nudged his mount in the sides and the horse broke into a gallop.  Issac Roop did the same as both men rode toward the Ponderosa.

*****

“I can find no reason why Joe can’t go with the sheriff, Hoss.  He’s well enough to sit in a jail cell,” Paul Martin explained to Hoss.  “I’m sorry, son,” the physician turned to his patient, “my hands are tied.”

Joe smiled weakly at the doctor and then glanced up at his brother. “Don’t worry, Hoss…Pa should be home soon, maybe then we can get this mess cleared up,” Joe said.

“Yeah…but I don’t the like the ideay of you sittin’ in a jail cell, either, not with that woman claimin’ ya did what she said ya did…I’m comin’ with ya…” Hoss declared as he grabbed his hat. “That is,” he said, turning to the sheriff who waited for Joe to slip on his jacket, “if’n it’s alright with you, Roy?”

“I don’t see why not,” the sheriff agreed.  “What with ya pa not arriving on the stage yesterday, I figure he should be in this afternoon…it’ll save him a trip back into town to see Joe.”

The four men had started out the door but Joe held back, grabbing Hoss by the arm and forcing the bigger man to stop and look back at him.

“Hoss,” Joe said in a low tone.

Hoss’ expression was one of confusion.

“I want to tell you that…I’m sorry for the things I said to you…” Joe shook his head back and forth and his handsome young face wore a look of remorse.  “I shouldn’t have said them…they were uncalled for.”

Hoss pinched up his lips and grinned slightly at his younger brother.

“Forget it, Little Joe…I didn’t reckon ya meant them no how,” Hoss said.

“Just the same, Hoss…I want you to know that I don’t blame you for what happened, honest,” Joe apologized.

“I know ya didn’t…come on,” smiled Hoss, his blue eyes twinkling, “let’s get to town and get this mess straightened out.”

*****

By the time that the four men, Joe, Hoss, Doc Martin and the sheriff, rode into town, the stage was just arriving.  Ben disembarked from the coach, offering his hand to a young woman, and then turned, surprised to see his two younger sons, the doctor and the sheriff, coming down the street to greet him.

“Joseph!” Ben said, relief showing all over his weathered, but handsome face.

“Hi ya, Pa,” grinned Joe.

Ben’s arms engulfed his youngest son and for several long moments, Ben held the boy whom he had feared would be dead before he had been able to reach home.

“I sure am happy to see you, boy…how do you feel?  Let me look at you!” Ben said, taking in every inch of his son.  “You look tired, Joe…”

“I’m fine, Pa, but I am sort of tired,” Joe answered.

“He’s doing quite well, Ben, considering,” Paul explained.  “He’s made a remarkable recovery…so much so that I had no choice but allow Roy to bring him in…”

“Oh yes,” Ben said, glancing around at the small group.  “That ridiculous charge that woman made,” he muttered in a low tone.

“Let’s go over to my office, gentlemen,” Roy ordered, “there is plenty we need to be discussin’.”

“I agree,” Ben said, turning to Joe.  “You look as if you need to rest, come on son…say, where’s Adam?” Ben inquired, looking around for his elder son.

“We’ll explain all that once we get to Roy’s office, Pa,” said Joe.  “There are lots you need to know.”

“There’s some important things I need to tell the two of you as well,” Ben informed his sons as he walked with Joe and Hoss toward the jail.

They had just reached the sheriff’s office when the young woman who had made the accusations against Joe, and her father appeared on the boardwalk. “Well!” she practically shouted at the men, “it’s about time you brought this…this…monster to jail!”

“Now, Missy, ya know as well as I do, that we had to wait until the doctor said he could be moved…”

“It’s about time!” she spat at the group.

The young woman gave Joe a nasty, go-to-hell look and then turned her head in disgust.  Her father put his arm about his daughter’s shoulder and glared at Joe. “I’ll see to it that you hang for hurting my little girl!”

“I never touched your daughter…”

“LIAR!” Carly screamed and then slapped Joe across the face.

Instantly Ben and Hoss placed themselves between the man and woman, shielding Joe from any further attacks.

“THAT WILL BE ENOUGH OF THAT!” demanded Roy in a loud voice. Quickly he pushed opened his office door and stood aside, allowing for Ben to enter in front of Joe who was followed by Hoss.  Roy stepped through the doorway and started to shut the door, but the young woman and her father pushed their way inside.

Roy grunted in disgust and moved to his desk, opening the top drawer.

“Aren’t you going to lock him up!” the woman demanded.

All eyes turned to look at her, making her squirm uncomfortably.

Roy removed the cell keys from the drawer and straightened up, giving the lady a scowl. “If you would just give me time, Ma’am, that’s exactly what I planned on doin’.”

Roy glanced up at Joe.  “Sorry, son, it’s the law. This way,” he pointed.

“It’s alright, Roy; I know you’re just doing your job,” Joe said in compliance as he followed the sheriff into the cell.

Ben and Hoss followed along behind, lingering to speak in private to Joe while Roy stepped back into the office, closing the door that separated the main room from the jail cells.

Ben waited until he was sure that they could not be heard and then turned to Joe, who had taken a seat on the cot. “Son…what in tarnation is going on here?”

Joe’s lips twisted up into a frown and he shook his head. “You’d better get a chair, Pa…it’s a long story.”

*****

An hour later, Ben rose from the chair that Roy had provided.  He gave his sons a lopsided grin.

“It seems as if you and I have been working toward the same goal, son,” Ben said to Joe.

“Working together and not even knowing it,” Joe said with a slight laugh.

The boy looked tired, and frail, thought Ben.  His son had been through quite a bit in the last few days and it seemed that the days ahead might not be much better for the boy.  He wanted Joe to rest and said so. “I want you to lie down, son, and rest.  You looked bushed,” ordered the concerned father.

Ben pointed to the cot.  “I’ll have Hoss go over to the International House and bring you back a decent supper. Now lie down, Joseph.”

Joe grinned and did as instructed.  He closed his eyes and before his father and brother could open the door that separated the cells from the office, Joe was asleep.

When they entered the main room of the sheriff’s office, Roy looked up from his work. “I got some bad news, Ben,” he said reluctantly.

“Oh?” Ben said aloud, casting a wary look in Hoss’ direction.

“Yep, whilst you were talkin’ to the boy, that Willford fella and that daughter of his’n was talkin’ to the judge.  Joe’s trial is to start day after tomorrow….”

“Day after tomorrow!  Roy, that’s absurd!  I haven’t even hired a lawyer!” shouted Ben.

“I can’t help it, Ben…Judge Whitmore said Wednesday morning, so ya best find one, and quick,” Roy suggested.

“What about bail, Roy?  Joe’s in no condition to stay back there, he’s…”

“I asked the judge, he refused.”

Ben groaned angrily.

“I’m sorry, Ben, but if it relives your mind, I’ll keep a close eye on the boy, and have the doc drop by…just to check in on him,” Roy said with a touch of regret for his friend.

“No need; I won’t be going home,” Ben said. He turned to Hoss and nodded toward the door with his head. “Go fetch Joe’s supper; we’re staying here for the night.  I don’t trust Willford. If what Joe suspects is true, then his life could still be in danger.”

“Alrighty Pa, I won’t be long,” Hoss said. The big man picked up his hat and plopped it on his head. “I’ll get your supper too; Little Joe might like the company,” he said, smiling and revealing the tiny gap between his front teeth.

“Thank you son, I appreciate that.”

*****

Ben was true to his word. He stayed with Joe for the remainder of the night and by the time that the clock in Roy’s office struck 8 AM, Ben was walking down the boardwalk on his way to the lawyer’s office.  He knew it was short notice, and could only silently pray that Hiram Wood, a long time friend of the family’s, would take Joseph’s case in the matter of the assault charge that the strange young woman had brought against his son.

“Ben, you’re out and about rather early,” greeted Hiram as he offered Ben his hand.

“I suppose you’ve heard…”

“Oh yes, Ben, who hasn’t heard.  I suppose that’s the reason you’re here?” Hiram asked, pulling out a chair and offering Ben a seat across from him.

“As a matter of fact, it is, Hiram.  The charge, of course, is false,” Ben went on to assure the lawyer.

“Well, according to your son, it’s false, but from what I’ve heard, the young woman has made some mighty serious charges…attempted rape?”

Ben stood up and began pacing the floor, agitated. “Lies, all lies…Hiram,” Ben said, moving back to the desk and leaning down close to the attorney, “you’ve known my son all his life, you don’t believe he’s capable of…practically raping that woman, do you?”

Hiram pinched his lips tightly together and looked into Ben’s dark, worried eyes. “Of course not, but the court isn’t concerned with what I think, only with the facts.  Now, why don’t we go over to the jail and I’ll have a long talk with Little Joe?” Hiram suggested as he pushed back his own chair and stood. “How’s the boy feeling, Ben?  I know he was seriously wounded.”

“Much better according to the doctor, but Joe is easily tired and he looks as if he’s been sick.”

“He had a close call from what I’ve been told,” Hiram said, opening the door.

“Too close,” Ben said, sighing in relief.  “Thank God he’s going to be alright…I just hope this trial and all isn’t too hard on him.”

“Hopefully we can avoid a trial and get to the bottom of this pretty quick.  By the way, Ben, I haven’t seen Adam around in a couple of days. I would have thought he’d be here with you and Hoss when Joe went to trial,” Hiram hinted.

Again, Ben sighed; this whole matter with Joe being accused of practically raping this woman and then getting shot…all the while trying to do his civic duty by aiding the state government in protecting and helping Issac Roop deliver important papers to the Governor in Carson City, had begun to take it’s toll on, not only himself, but his entire family.

“Adam is tending to some important business, Hiram. Hopefully he will get back here in time for Joe’s trial…here we are,” Ben said, pausing at the doorway of the sheriff’s office and allowing the attorney to enter in front of him.

“More important than his brother’s trial?” Hiram asked, confused by his friend’s statement.

“Of course not, Hiram,” Ben said with a touch of sarcasm in his voice.  “Look, perhaps Joe and I had better explain…”

“You mean there’s more to all of this than what you’ve already told me?”

“Much more,” Ben said, as they entered the jail.  “Roy,” Ben said, turning to the sheriff who was just coming from the cell where Joe was housed, “we’d like to speak with Joe.”

“Go on in, Hoss is waiting for the boy to finish his breakfast,” Roy said with a nod of his head toward the opened door.

Ben and Hiram moved quickly into the cell block where they found Joe sitting on the side of his cot, doing as Roy had implied, finishing his breakfast.  Hoss was seated in the chair just outside the iron bars that separated him from his brother.

“Morning, Hoss,” greeted Hiram, “Joe?”

“Mornin’ Mister Wood,” Hoss said, standing and taking the man’s outstretched hand.

Joe nodded his head in welcome, his mouth too full of ham and eggs to speak outright, politely.

Ben stepped back into Roy’s office and gathered a couple more chairs and then he and the lawyer sat down, ready to discuss more in depth, the events that had led up to Joe’s being gun down and his current imprisonment.

It was more than two hours later that both Ben and Hiram stood to their feet.  Hiram scratched his head, deep in thought. “Ben,” he said, turning to the worried father, “it would appear to me, that we need Issac Roop here…to verify Little Joe’s story…”

“But that’s impossible. Adam has gone all the way up to Oblivion to fetch Roop and escort him safely to Carson City.  Governor Nye is in desperate need of those papers that Roop has in his possession,” Ben explained.

“I understand that, Ben, but if Roop can testify to the fact that Joe was in his company at the time that Carly Willford claims she was molested, it could save the boy from going to prison for a number of years,” Hiram insisted.

“Too bad they pushed for such an early trial date,” muttered Joe, who had finished eating and was now propped against the bars, staring out at the small group of men.

“Yes,” Hiram nodded, “if Roop had time to deliver those papers and then hightail it back here…”

“But someone is gunning for him,” Joe said, “it wouldn’t be safe for him; he could be killed.”  Joe glanced over at this father and brother. “It’s a chance I’ll have to take, I suppose I’ll just have to risk a prison term until those papers are delivered and Roop is safe…Adam will see to that,” Joe said.

The boy’s voice re-sounded a touch of worry and when Ben studied his son’s face, the worry was evident in the boy’s expression.  He reached through the bars and tenderly placed his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Try not to worry, son,” Ben said reassuring the young man.

Joe forced a grin.  “You know me, Pa…worry is my middle name.”

*****

The next morning, Joe sat with Hiram and his father facing the Judge’s desk, and listening to the lies that Carly Willford let spew past her lips.

“What happened after that, Miss Willford?” the other attorney asked his client.

Carly Willford took a deep breath, all the while dabbing at her eyes.  Once she glanced in Joe Cartwright’s direction. “That’s when, that man over there,” she said, pointing to indicate Joe, “slapped me across the face and shoved me down on the bed,” she said, making a sobbing sound as she lowered her head.

“How many times did he,” the lawyer turned to glare at Little Joe, “hit you?”

“I don’t know, two, maybe three times.”

“And then?”

Carly made sure that everyone close enough to see her saw her swallow. “He began tearing at my clothing…trying to rip my dress off,” she stammered.

Hiram Wood had been making notes but paused to look up and then glanced at Joe.  Joe, his eyes large and round, had fear shining bright in his hazel eyes.  His attorney leaned over to whisper in his ear.  Ben, who sat directly behind his son, saw Joe shake his head no.

“Miss Willford…I know this is hard for you, and embarrassing, but could you tell us what happened next?”

Carly gulped and continued.  “I was fighting him…and then suddenly he was pulled off of me…my father,” Carly turned and smiled at Mr. Willford, “had come into the room, grabbed Joe from behind and slung him against the wall.”

“And Mr. Cartwright…did what after that?  Did he try to fight with your father?”

“No…he seemed…surprised.  He turned and ran from the room,” Carly explained.

“What did you and your father do after your attacker disappeared?”

“My father ran out into the hallway, but Mr. Cartwright had already gotten away, so Father came back and we went straight to the sheriff’s office and made a report.”

Carly’s lawyer turned around, facing the jury. “Miss Willford, I have to ask you this…are you 100% positive that Joe Cartwright, that man over there, is the very same man who attacked you, beat you, and tried to rape you?”

There was a long pause; all eyes were on the lovely young woman in the witness box.

“Absolutely…there is no mistake, it was Joe Cartwright.”

The lawyer smiled, sure that he had won his case.  He turned back to the woman and smiled. “I have no further questions.”

It was Hiram Wood’s turn to question the witness.  He rose from his seat, next to Joe and walked to the front of the courtroom. “Miss Will ford…have you ever been in Carson City?”

“No.”

“Where you in the courthouse, pretending to be the Judge’s secretary on the day that my client claims he was in a conference with the Judge?”

“No.”

“Think again, my dear…you…and your father were seen that day in Carson City.”

“No, that’s not true…we were never there…”

“Do you own a yellow dress with tiny blue flowers?”

Carly seemed to be thinking, but she glanced toward the man who claimed to be her father, but Mr. Willford was staring at the Cartwrights, leaving Carly to become flustered.

“Umm…I…own several dresses,” she stammered.

“But do you own a yellow dress with blue flowers?” Hiram insisted.

“Oh dear,” mumbled Carly as she twisted the hankie she held in her hands.

“Please answer the question.”

“I’m not sure…” she babbled.

Hiram turned to the jury box and scanned each face.  In a calm, almost reserved voice he spoke to Carly, his eyes never leaving the twelve men in front of him. “Miss Willford, please remember that you are under oath.  Mr. Cartwright claims, under oath, that the day he was in Carson City, you were wearing a yellow dress with small blue flowers.  Are you denying the fact that you own a dress like that?”

“Yes…I mean…no…I do own a dress like that…but…but…he must have seen it on me the night he attacked me…that’s it, I was wearing the dress that night…”

“How can that be?” snapped Hiram, spinning around and stomping back to the box where the woman was practically in tears.  “The sheriff and the physician who tended you both swore under oath that the night you claimed you were attacked by my client, you were wearing a dark dress, a brown dress…are you lying, my dear?”

“NO!” Carly shouted; her own eyes were wide with fright now.  She rose to her feet, visibly trembling.  Tears rolled softly down her face. “I’m not lying anymore!” she shouting, looking toward her father.  She pointed a long slender, finely manicured finger in his direction.  “He made me do it…he planned this…he wanted Joe Cartwright out of the way!” she shouted.

“Why? Why did your father…”

“He’s not my father…he beat me that night, not Joe…he and some other men were planning on killing Issac Roop, to steal the papers he was taking to the Governor…but the Cartwrights got involved in trying to keep Roop safe, so he…James Gregory…tried to get Joe Cartwright killed, to get to Roop before he could deliver the papers…”

“SHUT UP YOU IDIOT!” the man who had once portrayed Carly’s father, shouted from the back of the courtroom.

“ORDER! ORDER!” the Judge proclaimed, hammering his gavel down on his desk.

“IT’S LIES!!!  SHE’S LYING!” bellowed Gregory, shoving his way through the crowd toward the woman.

Just as James stepped into the isle, the wide, double doors were flung opened and Adam appeared,  Roop was following behind.  Instantly Adam flung himself at the man, who had now dared to show a weapon, pointed directly at the young woman.

As Adam knocked the man to the ground, a blast rip through the courtroom, a woman screamed; a struggle between the man and Adam ended with another blast from the man’s gun.  James Gregory — known to the Cartwrights as Wilford — slumped slowly to the floor.

Ben and Hoss pushed their way through the crowd, bending low over the man who was fading from this life into the next.

“Why Willford…” Ben asked, cradling the man’s head in his arms.  “Who wanted Roop dead…and what is so important about those papers?”

Wilford moaned; his eyes strained to remain opened and fixed on Ben’s face. “Facts and figures…concerning a new railhead…some men wanted it stopped and had made false bids…their names were…on those papers. That’s why they tried to stop Roop…then your boy hid Roop away…” Willford gasped for air and forced himself to confess. “My partners wanted those…papers…enough so that they were…willing to kill…to get them.  Carly didn’t…do anything…she only lied for…us…blamed your boy…for something he didn’t…do,” muttered the dying man.

“Who were the other men?” Roop asked, bending down next to Ben.

The dying man swallowed, making a gurgling sound deep in the back of his throat. “Raymond Meadows…”

Ben’s eyes flashed black as he raised his head and looked at the court clerk who suddenly began backing toward the rear door.

“Judge Whitmore…he was going to fine your…boy…guilty and…send him to prison…” Wilford whispered.

“Judge Whitmore!” Ben muttered under his breath.  “Are you sure?”

The man’s body arched in pain, his eyes clouded and his final word was barely audible. “Pos…itive.”

Wilford’s head lolled to the side, his eyelids drooped closed.  The man had died.  Gently Ben laid the man’s head on the floor, glancing up to see what the fracas in the front of the courtroom was.  Hoss and Joe, and several other men had the Judge and his aide backed up in the furthermost corner of the room.

“I just can’t believe this!” sputtered Roy, moving through the crowd toward the Judge.

“Judge Whitmore…I’m placing you under arrest for attempted murder, conspiracy and I’m sure I can think of something else!” Roy announced as he led the pair from the courtroom.  “You too, Missy,” Roy ordered the young woman.

“What about me?” Little Joe asked, grinning when the sheriff turned around.

“Go home…” Roy called over his shoulder.

“And go to bed until I tell you otherwise,” laughed Paul Martin who had been attending court.

Joe grinned at his brother.  Hoss slipped his arm about the slender shoulders as together the brothers moved toward their father.  Ben grinned, gently slapping his son’s back.

“Thank goodness, this mess is cleared up!” laughed Ben.

“Yes…now all we have to do is to get these papers to Governor Nye,” Roop announced.

He turned to Adam, grinning.  “Are you ready to ride to Carson City, Adam?”

Before Adam could speak up, Hoss jumped into the conversation. “Why don’t ya let me ride with’em, Adam?  I know you’re bushed…and since everyone in the family has had a hand in helpin’ the Governor, I’d sure like to do my part.  How about it?” Hoss said, practically begging his brother to be a part.

Adam seemed to be thinking, but he looked into the waiting blue eyes and smiled. “Sure…you just make sure that Mr. Roop…and those papers, get to Carson City by in the morning…you best be going…it’s a long ride.”

“Mornin’?” Hoss stammered.

“That’s right, Governor Nye will be waiting…it’s vital that he has these papers by then…what’s wrong, Hoss, change your mind?” snickered Adam.

Hoss puckered up his mouth and swallowed hard. “Naw, I ain’t changed my mind, but it’s already past lunch…ain’t I got time to eat?” he murmured.  “I ain’t so sure I can ride that far on an empty stomach.”

Behind him, Ben and Joe were snickering.  Joe winked at Adam. “We’ve all made sacrifices, Big Brother…now it’s your turn…I’m sure the Governor will buy you supper, once he has the papers,” laughed Joe.  “At least he promised to buy me supper when I got there…at the finest restaurant in town.”

Hoss’ eyes took on a hopeful glow as he nodded his head.  “Well, if’n that’s the case, I reckon I can wait a while longer to eat…but it’s gonna cost ’em!” he declared.

“In that case, shall we go?” Roop suggested. He turned to Joe, offering his hand. “Thank you young man…for everything.”

Joe shook hands with the friendly man. “It was nothing,” smiled Joe.

“Nothing?  You were practically killed…you came close to going to prison…and you call that nothing?” the man stammered.

“I was only doing what any law-abiding man would do…besides, it was the principle of the thing, those men needed to be stopped…”

“Principles…hmm,” muttered Hoss, “I ain’t so sure about them sometimes, Shortshanks…they could get ya killed…”

“Hoss…I said I was sorry for doubting you…”

“Aw shucks, kid,” laughed Hoss, “I know that, it’s just…just…”

“Principles…a man has to live by the principles he was taught to believe in, and that’s exactly what you were doing,” Joe said, slipping his arm about the bigger man’s shoulders.

“Yeah, just like Pa taught us to do…”

“Just promise me one thing though, will ya?” laughed Joe, trying to look serious.  “Next time I’m on the run, come alone…”

“Aw…dadburnit, Little Joe…”

The men behind them laughed, though in the days that had passed, Joe’s being gun down had been anything but funny.  Ben glanced around at his boys, silently thanking his Maker that all three had weathered the storm and had emerged better men.

***End***

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