Word count: 11,082
“Oh Little Joe, you are such a kidder,” giggled the girl who peeped out from behind the tree that separated her from the youngest Cartwright.
“I wasn’t kidding,” smiled the seventeen-year old young man as he made to reach for the girl’s hand.
Grace watched as Joe’s hand moved slowly toward her own hand and waited until the boy was just about to place his over hers when she quickly moved away, giggling softly.
“Ah…come on, Gracie,” pouted Little Joe.
“Gracie…I meant what I said. You are beautiful; any man would have to be blind not to see for himself,” smiled Joe who had moved around the opposite side of the tree and had managed to take hold of Grace’s small, petite hand. “I think you are the prettiest girl in these parts…” he whispered, lowering his head slightly, hoping to get a kiss.
Joe stared into the shining eyes that mocked him, losing himself in the essence of her beauty. He lowered his head a bit closer, closing his eyes slightly.
“Is that why you fought with Lou Perkins the other day, because he tried to steal a kiss from me?” the girl gently taunted Joe.
Joe’s eyes popped open as unbridled anger of the incident suddenly washed over him. The desire to kiss his girl vanished and he was forced to swallow, looking in another direction. “I punched Lou Perkins because he put his filthy hands on you…”
“Why, Joe Cartwright, I do believe you’re jealous!” Grace said, lowering her head to hide the pleased expression she was trying to keep her beau from seeing.
The fact that Joe Cartwright liked her enough that he became jealous of the other boys attention they gave her, pleased her, for in truth, she like Joe best. But she wasn’t about to admit it to him, not yet any way.
Joe let go of the young woman’s hands and moved away. He too was trying to hide his emotions from the beautiful young woman whom had so unexpectedly captured his heart. When he could control his emotions, he turned back to face the girl.
“I told you why I fought with Lou. He’s mean, Gracie…he could hurt you…not just physically, but…but…your feelings. Stay away from him; he’s trouble!” cautioned Joe.
“WHAT?” Gracie practically shouted, quickly forgetting how fond she had become of the youngest and most handsome, in her opinion, Cartwright. Her expression darkened as the smile she’d been wearing moments ago changed to a scowl. “How dare you tell me whom I can see and whom I may not!” she rattled. “You don’t own me!”
Joe, taken back by Gracie’s sudden outburst, rushed forward, trying to calm the girl. His hands gripped her shoulders.
“Grace…please, I wasn’t trying to tell you whom you could or couldn’t see…honest…I was just…” stammered Joe until he was interrupted.
Gracie stomped her foot in a childish manner. “Take your hands off me. You’re hurting me.” She turned her back to Joe the instant she felt him release her shoulders. “I know what you were trying to do,” she muttered, turning to face the startled Joe. “Don’t even try denying it, either…”
She turned to go, but Joe grabbed her arm and spun Gracie around. His expression was a mixture of fear and hurt.
“I was just trying to warn you, Gracie. I…I…like you a lot, and I don’t want to see you hurt, that’s all,” Joe murmured in a low voice.
Joe lowered his lips to hers and kissed the young woman. Gracie pushed Joe away and slapped his face, stunning Little Joe into complete silence. “How dare you!” she stormed at him again.
She made to slap his face for a second time, but this time, Joe grabbed her arm seconds before her palm made contact with his face. “Gracie…I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…”
The sound of an approaching horse stopped all further arguing between the two as they turned to see who it was that approached them. Joe’s body stiffened and he cautiously placed himself between the girl and the unexpected visitor as he watched the rider come nearer.
“Howdy, Grace,” the handsome young man on the horse said when he’d pulled his horse to an abrupt halt in front of Joe and the pretty girl.
The young man was a bit older than Joe, taller and thicker built. He dismounted, wearing a lopsided grin on his face when he turned to Joe. He noticed the girl give Joe a look of warning as she moved from behind her would-be protector to smile up at him.
“Why hello, Lou,” Gracie said in a voice that dripped with honey.
Lou smiled and touched his hand to his hat. He grinned at Joe.
“Hello, Cartwright,” Lou Perkins sneered, noting the red handprint on Joe’s cheek.
Both Lou and Gracie heard Joe sigh deeply.
“Hello yourself, Perkins,” Joe answered with a disgusted look at the unbidden intruder. He moved to Gracie’s side, as if to shield her from harm, but Gracie, still aggravated with Joe for his seemingly possessiveness moved away, closer to Lou. Lou looked down at the girl with a questioning look in his sky blue eyes. He smiled, sensing the tension between the young couple.
“Is something the matter, Grace?” Lou asked, glancing sideways at Little Joe. “Is Cartwright here, giving you trouble?”
“Trouble?” Gracie said with a look that was as close to a pout as she could muster. “Not exactly; he’s just being a bit too possessive of me, that’s all,” she said as the pout turned to a smile.
“Oh really?” Lou said as he turned to look at Joe. “And why is that?” he questioned Gracie, though his eyes still watched the anger that quickly began to show on Joe’s young face.
Lou also noted the faint pink tint of Joe’s cheeks and he stifled a laugh. He realized then that he had interrupted a lover’s squabble and he couldn’t help but wonder what or who it was about.
“He thinks I’m his girl and he thinks that gives him the right to tell me who to see and who not to see,” explained Gracie with a smug look on her face as she watched Joe’s reaction to her proclamation. “Would you mind taking me home, Lou?”
Joe’s face drained of color and, for a brief moment, he was at a loss for words. He quickly glanced away to hide the hurt that Gracie’s words caused him. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he turned back to the pair, quickly noticing that Lou Perkins had taken Gracie’s hand in his. Joe also noticed the strange look that came over Lou’s face when the boy’s eyes swept Gracie’s body in a swift motion.
Lou looked down at Joe, smiling in a wicked way.
“Well, Little Joe,” sneered Lou, “I take it that this pretty little thing has stolen your heart but does not return the sentiment, am I right?” laughed Lou.
Joe glanced toward Gracie, watching as she ran her hand up and down Lou’s muscular arm. He felt his heart begin to flutter, his anger soared, and without hesitation, he swung out, clipping the end of the other boy’s chin and sending Lou Perkins stumbling backwards into the dirt until he landed on his backside.
“JOE CARTWRIGHT!” shouted Gracie in shock as she hurried to Lou’s side, where she squatted on the ground next to the fallen boy.
Joe could hardly believe his eyes. Gracie had taken Lou’s arm and was helping him to his feet. Lou wiped his lips, noticed the blood that seeped from the split that Joe’s punch had caused and with a brush of his arm to push Gracie out of the way, Lou charged at Joe.
Joe was ready and met the charging man as Lou plowed into Joe’s mid-section. Both boys staggered backwards, their arms locked about one another. One pushed the other until both fell to the ground. Joe managed to swing out in an attempt to hit Lou, but Lou grabbed Joe’s arms and pinned Joe to the ground.
Lou somehow had gotten a tight hold on Joe’s wrist and forced both arms over his head. His fingers locked about both of the slimmer wrists in a vise like grip that Joe could not break, and with his free hand, Lou folded his fingers into a tight fist and began hammering away at the handsome, young face beneath him.
Blow after blow smashed into Joe’s face. Blood spurted from Joe’s nose. He tasted blood where he had bitten the inside of his jaw caused from the steady rain of punches that Lou delivered to his face.
His head began to swim, his senses dulled to the pain and Joe felt himself sinking into a world of oblivion knowing that at any second his world would turn black. The blows to the side of his face ended after what seemed like a lifetime to the befuddled young man. His head spun as he fought to raise it. His swollen eyes searched for the girl. Joe’s blurred vision conjured up an image of Gracie, her dress hanging in shreds. Lou’s back was facing him, and the other boy’s hands were about the girl’s neck.
Joe struggled to make sense of what he was seeing, but his mind remained cloudy as if a dense fog had settled over his thoughts, and blinding his eyes to actuality. From somewhere far, far away, he heard Gracie’s screams and just before he succumbed to total blackness, he saw Gracie fall to the ground into a heap of dress and petticoats.
“BEN! BEN CARTWRIGHT!”
Ben raised his head from the newspaper he’d been reading and quickly glanced from Hoss to Adam, a look of surprise on his face.
“I wonder who in the world…”
“BEN CARTWRIGHT…GET OUT HERE, QUICK!”
Hearing the urgency in the caller’s voice, Ben tossed down his paper and rose to his feet, hurrying toward the door. Adam laid aside the book he had been reading and Hoss dropped the bridle he had brought in from the barn and had been repairing. The two followed their father out into the early evening light.
Ben was just in time to see his neighbor, Jim Claiborne, removing Joe from his pinto. Ben needed no prompting to know that his youngest son was hurt and unresponsive. He was immediately at the boy’s side, a look of shock and horror on his face as he gazed down into the battered and bruised face of his son.
“Dear God,” proclaimed Ben, taking the unconscious body into his own arms. He glanced up at his friend. “What happened?” he demanded to know.
“I don’t know, Ben; I found him like this, about four miles out, on the road from the Hawkins place,” explained the neighbor.
Ben swallowed hard; it was difficult to look into his son’s face. He felt his heart begin to pound, deep within his chest, and suddenly his knees felt weak. “Hoss, help me take him inside,” he said in a trembling voice.
Hoss rushed to take his brother from his father’s arms and once he held the boy securely, hurried to the house. Adam moved ahead so that he could open the door for Hoss.
“Thank you for bringing him home, Jim; I owe you,” Ben said.
“You owe me nothing, Ben. Look, I’m on my way into town so I’ll stop by Doc Martin’s and tell him he’s needed here. It will save your boys a trip.”
Ben pinched his lips tightly and placed a heavy hand down on the other man’s hand, giving him a stiff handshake. Jim could see the worry in his friend’s eyes.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” stammered Ben.
“No thanks needed, just get inside and take care of that boy. I’ll tell the doctor to hurry; the boy’s in a bad way, Ben,” Jim offered.
“Yes…I can’t imagine who would want to hurt him in such a way…”
“PA!” shouted Adam from the window.
Ben turned in the direction from which he’d heard his name called out. He could see Adam’s head sticking out from Joe’s bedroom window.
“Pa…Joe’s asking for you,” Adam informed his father.
“Coming!” shouted Ben as he turned toward the house. He paused midway, seeing his neighbor mounting up. “You will tell Paul to hurry?”
“Yes, Ben, I’ll tell him,” Jim confirmed as he rode off.
Ben raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time. At the top, he nearly collided with Hop Sing, who was running to the kitchen for clean cloths and fresh water.
Inside, Hoss and Adam had already removed the boy’s soiled clothing and were bending over the bed, examining their brother’s wounds. Joe had opened his eyes, though the swelling made it difficult for the boy to make out anything but blurred forms standing over him.
“Pa?” whimpered Joe in a tiny voice.
Ben elbowed his way between his older sons and sat down on the side of the bed. “I’m here, son,” he said in a comforting voice.
Ben watched, with a sick feeling in his stomach as Joe’s swollen eyes sought his face. When Joe reached out his hand in search of a familiar touch, Ben was quick to respond to the unspoken request.
“Pa’s got you, son,” Ben whispered, glancing quickly at his two older sons who had remained close by.
“Joe, can you tell me who beat you like this?” Ben questioned. “Who was it?”
There was a touch of insistence in his voice that did not go unnoticed by Adam or Hoss. They exchanged looks, both knowing what the other was thinking, that once they had a name, they would look the perpetrator up and take action of their own.
Joe’s head lolled from side to side; his expression spoke loudly of the pain he had to endure. When his eyes closed and his movements ceased, Ben released the boy’s hand, laying it gently down on the bed.
“He’s fainted. Hand me the medical supplies and let’s see if we can get him cleaned up some before the doctor arrives,” Ben said in a strained voice.
It was nearly two hours later before Paul Martin put in an appearance at the Ponderosa ranch house. Hoss hurried down the stairs to open the door for the physician and usher the doctor to Joe’s bedroom.
Ben was sitting next to the bed, Adam had found another chair and was reading a book, which he laid aside as soon as Doc Martin entered the room. Standing to shake hands with his old friend, Ben nodded toward the bed.
“He’s been in and out of consciousness ever since he was brought in,” explained Ben, stepping aside to allow the doctor to examine his patient.
Paul Martin felt Joe’s brow for fever and sighed slightly in relief when he found none. After checking his patient’s pulse and carefully laying Joe’s hand aside, Paul turned to Ben and the boys.
“If you don’t mind, Ben, you and the boys wait for me downstairs. This shouldn’t take too long. When I’m finished, I’ll be down and talk with you,” Paul suggested.
Ben had a reluctant look on his face and for a moment, the doctor thought that the worried father might protest. But then Ben took a deep breath, and let it out slowly as he turned and, without a word, walked from the room.
Adam moved to follow, but paused to speak with the physician. “You will call him, if Joe should happen to ask for him, won’t you?”
Paul glanced up from his work and gave Adam a small smile. “Need you ask?”
“No…I’m sorry, I should have known better. It’s just that Pa’s so worried about the kid,” Adam said, explaining himself.
“I know…it’s his nature to worry about his son…all of his sons,” smiled Paul.
Time seemed to have stopped for the fretting father as Ben paced back and forth in front of the massive fireplace. Hoss glanced over at Adam and noted that his older sibling was watching his father, as he was.
“Pa…can I get ya somethin’ to eat? Ya ain’t even had ya supper…”
“No thank you, Hoss…I’m fine,” Ben said, finally calling a halt to his pacing. He looked up toward the top of the stairs, a longing in his dark eyes. “I wonder what’s taking so long?” he said, more to himself than to his sons.
Adam stood to his feet and moved to his father’s side where he placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder. He wasn’t surprised to feel the tension beneath his fingers. “Paul’s just…”
Before Adam could finish, the sound of an upstairs door being closed caused the three senior Cartwrights to turn their attention to the staircase. Moments later, Paul Martin appeared at the top and began his downward descent. He smiled at the three who had quickly gathered about the last step, each anxious to hear what he had to say about their loved one.
“Well?” Ben said.
“He’s battered and bruised…the boy has one cracked rib that I could tell, a few stitches over his eye, but he’ll be fine, Ben, just fine,” Paul explained.
The sighs of relief filled the room.
“He needs bed rest for a few days, and then when he feels up to it, he can get up, but I don’t want him doing anything too strenuous until that rib heals properly. And certainly no fighting,” grinned the doctor. “He woke up just before I was finished and asked for you, Ben…he’s waiting. Best hurry before the pain medicine I gave him puts him to sleep.”
“Thank you Paul, for everything,” Ben said with relief. “I’ll go up now; Adam, please settle up with the doctor and Hoss, get his horse and buggy, please,” instructed Ben as he made his way upstairs.
At the door to his youngest son’s room, Ben paused, taking a deep breath to steady himself before seeing the boy. As he entered, he noted that the lamp had been turned down and that Joe had been fully covered. It appeared that the boy had fallen to sleep, so Ben quietly pulled the chair along side the bed and sat down. “Joe?” he called in a whispered voice, just in case Joe was already asleep.
Joe’s eyelids fluttered and then he opened the less swollen of the two. “Pa?”
“I’m here,” Ben said, making a smile.
“Hurts,” muttered the boy.
“I know, but the doctor says you’re going to be fine in a few days…and he’s given you something for the pain. It should be working very soon,” assured Ben.
“Gracie…is…she…alright?” murmured Joe.
“Gracie? Son, what does the girl have to do with this?” Ben asked, puzzled by his son’s statement.
He moved to sit on the side of the bed. It was obvious that Joe was getting drowsy and that in minutes he would be sleeping.
“Perkins…Lou Perkins…he…hurt her,” whispered Joe.
“Hurt her? How son…how did he hurt her?” prompted Ben.
“Don’t know…heard her screaming…just before I…blacked out...”
It was too late to find out more, Joe’s voice had faded and he slipped into the drug-induced sleep that the doctor had said he would. Ben, his lips pinched tightly in worry, straightened the covers about the boy’s body and quietly slipped from the room.
“Hoss, has the doctor left?”
“Yessir,” answered Hoss. He stood to meet his father. “Why, somethin’ wrong? I’ll fetch him back…”
Ben placed his hand on Hoss’ shoulder and shook his head. “No…no, Joe’s sleeping.” He turned to Adam. “I wonder if you’d do something for me, son?”
“Sure Pa, what’s up?”
“Adam, I need you to ride over to George Hawkins’ place for me, and find out if Gracie is alright…”
“The girl? Pa…” began Adam.
Ben held his hand up for silence. “Joe and she have been…well…seeing one another. He was supposed to be with her tonight. I don’t have the entire story, but something must have happened because Joe said that just before he blacked out, he heard the girl screaming, and he mentioned Lou Perkins’ name,” Ben explained, running his fingers through his silver hair. “I have no idea how this Perkins kid is mixed up in all of this but right now I’m more concerned about the girl.”
“Pa…didn’t Joe have a fight with that kid just last week?” Adam asked.
“Yes…that’s another reason this entire thing has me worried. Joe told me that Lou was trying to cause problems between he and Gracie and when things got out of hand, he and this Perkins fella started fighting. I’m wondering if perhaps the same thing happened, only this time, Joe got the worst end of it.” Ben looked bothered by the thought. “Please son, hurry a bit, will you?”
Adam was already grabbing his hat and gun holster. “I’ll get right to it, Pa. Don’t you think someone ought to have a word with Lou Perkins?”
“I’ll do it, Pa,” offered Hoss. “And if’n he had anythin’ to do with Joe being hurt, I’ll take care of that too,” Hoss affirmed in a threatening voice.
“NO HOSS! You just find Roy and tell him what has happened and that I need to speak with him as soon as possible,” ordered Ben.
“Alright, Pa,” Hoss conceded as he moved to grab his hat. “But if’n that kid hurt my baby brother…”
“You’ll let the sheriff handle it, won’t you?” Ben said with stern tone.
Hoss drew his lips tight and lowered his head. “Umm…that’s what I was just fixin’ to say,” he stammered.
Ben couldn’t help but smile at the look on his middle son’s face. Hoss was as easy to read as an open book and he knew that the love that was between his middle and youngest sons was a love that was boundless. All of his sons shared a special type of relationship with one another, far different than from most brothers, and Ben was acutely aware that if need be, one would die for the others or vice-versa. There was no limit as to what they would do for each other and sometimes that notion worried Ben.
“Come on Hoss…let’s get a move on,” Adam said, breaking the silence that had suddenly fallen upon the three.
The two brothers marched out the door, leaving Ben standing in the doorway watching. When the pair entered the barn to saddle their horses, and were lost to their father’s sight, Ben closed the door and returned to sit by Joe’s bedside.
“Roy, that cain’t be…it’s impossible!” Hoss shouted. “I’ll not ever believe such a thing; Joe was crazy about that girl!”
“Well it’s true, Hoss. I was just afixin’ to ride out and see ya Pa and Little Joe,” Roy said as he pushed open the door.
“But Roy, Joe’s ailin’, bad too, from the beatin’…”
“Maybe so, and that’s too bad, but that Perkins boy done come in here and told me the whole story. I couldn’t hardly believe my ears, him sayin’ that he happened upon Joe and the Hawkins girl and sayin’ that Joe and she was afightin’ and that the poor girl’s clothes was practically ripped off her body…”
“Now Hoss…let me finish. The Perkins boy told me he had to fight Joe offen that girl and then practically had to fight for his own life. He said Joe was like a mad man. He said when he finally knocked Joe out, he tried to help the girl, but she was already dead…her neck was broken. The Perkins kid was so shaken up that I sent him over so that Doc could have a look at him…Joe did a pretty good job of bustin’ up the kid’s face.”
“Ya don’t really believe that Joe killed that girl, do ya, Roy?” Hoss asked as he stood face to face with the sheriff.
“I don’t know, Hoss…I’d never dreamed that Joe could be capable of such a thing, but when a young man is…well…you know…wantin’ something from a girl that she ain’t willin’ to give…sometimes a man can get overly…Hoss…I don’t know…I just don’t know. All I have is what Lou Perkins told me, and if what he says is the truth…well, it ain’t gonna go too good for your brother.”
Roy turned away from Hoss, unable to bear looking at the hurt that flickered in the young man’s blue eyes. He’d rather take a beating right now, as to have to do what he was obliged by law to do. Ben Cartwright would be outraged to say the least, once he learned that his youngest son was going to be arrested and charged with assault and murder. He had an eyewitness; that left little hope for the youngest Cartwright to be found innocent, should this mess come to trial. Nope, his best friend would be beside himself.
“Get out of here, Cartwright. Hasn’t your family done enough as it is?” stormed George Hawkins.
Adam had just ridden into the yard, surprised by the number of buggies and rider-less horses in the front yard. He had just been about to dismount, when Hawkins’ oldest son, Todd, emerged from the house and pointed a long barrel shotgun up at him. Moments later, the senior Hawkins appeared and began shouting at him to leave.
“Mr. Hawkins, sir, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I just came to ask about your daughter, Gracie. She and my kid brother…”
“Kid brother! Don’t you mean killer? He killed my little Gracie…now get the hell out of here before I let my son blow you to kingdom come!” screamed the Hawkins man.
Todd lifted the rifle and sighted Adam down the long barrel. Adam was stunned; he had no idea what the ranting man was meaning, but as soon as he heard the cocking of the trigger, he turned Sport around and headed home. He needed to talk with his father. Something bad had happened and apparently Joe was being held to blame.
“Roy…the boy’s knocked out. The doctor gave him something to make him sleep; you can’t talk to him now…” growled Ben.
He was having trouble trying to sort everything. The fact that he was worn to a frazzle, worried sick, and now this…his son being accused of murdering a girl he was suppose to be in love with…was more than the distraught father could comprehend.
“Alright Ben, just calm down. I’ll come back tomorrow, but mind ya…I need to talk to the boy just as soon as he wakes up. I want this mess cleared up just as quickly as ya do,” Roy assured his friend. He had known Ben would be upset, but seeing the haggard look on the tired face told him that Ben was more troubled than he had first suspected. He looked as if he might drop at any moment, and Roy had no notion of adding to his friend’s stress. “Ya just go back upstairs and take care of that young’n, Ben…try not to worry; we’ll get this mess straightened out.”
Roy glanced at Hoss who had stood in silence since coming inside. He noted that Hoss had seen Ben’s deteriorated state as well and watched how slowly Ben moved up the stairs.
“Try to get him to rest, Hoss; he looks about ready to drop,” cautioned the sheriff.
“Yessir, I will,” promised Hoss.
Adam burst into the house, his face flushed with mixed emotions. “Roy!” he said, not very surprised at finding the sheriff in his home.
“Adam,” greeted Roy.
“Where’s Pa?” Adam demanded, looking over at Hoss.
“Upstairs with Joe, why?” Hoss responded.
Adam flung his hat onto the credenza and spun around facing the sheriff who was just about ready to leave. His eyes were dark with anger. “I’ve just come from the Hawkins place, was just about shot by that hot-headed boy of his, and then yelled at for being kin to a killer. George was ranting and raving about Joe having killed his daughter…would someone mind tell me what in blazes is going on?” demanded Adam.
“I’ll tell ya, brother. Roy is here to question Little Joe about his involvement in Gracie Hawkins’ murder and…”
“Murder? Then she is dead? How for heaven’s sake?” Adam could hardly believe his ears. Realizing how drastic the situation had become, and how the outcome could affect his younger brother and his entire family, he felt as if he’d been hit in the face with a cast iron skillet.
“Joe was with the girl earlier this evening, Adam,” began Roy. “From what the eye-witness says, Joe must have been tryin’ to force himself on the girl and…”
“Oh for Pete’s sake, Roy…you know Little Joe better than that!” scowled Adam.
“I thought so, but I do have an eye-witness and he swears that Joe and the girl were arguing and that Joe appeared to be fighting with her. He stopped when Lou Perkins rode up…but Lou said the girl fell to the ground and when he went to see about her, Joe attack him. They fought; he knocked Joe out and went back to the girl. She was dead, her neck had been broken,” finished Roy. “So’s I got no other choice than to take Little Joe back into town with me and lock him up, until the judge can set a trial date.”
“You’re not taking my son anywhere, Roy.”
Everyone turned to see Ben standing at the top of the stairs. They watched in silence as the elder Cartwright made his way down and stopped in front of them.
“The boy is battered, nearly beaten senseless and until the doctor says you can speak with you, you will just have to wait. Do I make myself clear?” Ben said in a gruff voice.
“Sure Ben, I understand that, but it’s my duty and I’m only doing what I’m obliged by law to do,” Roy said in a calm tone.
“I’m sorry, Roy, of course you are. Joe’s sleeping; can’t you come back in the morning, perhaps by then…”
“Of course…if you all will excuse me, I’d better get back into town. Tempers are running a might high tonight, Ben.” Roy glanced at Adam and Hoss. “You two boys stay out of town, just in case there’s trouble, ya hear?”
“We will,” agreed Adam.
“We won’t be leavin’ Pa or Joe, but Roy, remember this,” Hoss said with a look of warning on his rotund face. “That Perkins kid is lyin’, and once Little Joe comes around enough to tell his side of the story, Lou Perkins will have some tall explainin’ to do, and I’m just the one to help him do it…”
“That’s enough, Hoss. Please, would you go sit with Joe for bit, while I show Roy out?” asked Ben.
The knock at the front door drew everyone’s attention away from their breakfast. Hop Sing paused what he was doing and set the dish he was holding down on the table. “I get door, you eat,” he instructed the three oldest Cartwrights.
Hop Sing padded along, his soft-soled shoes barely making a sound on the hard wooden floor as he hurried to see who the early morning visitor might be.
“Oh…good morning, Mis’ter Sheriff…come in. Family having breakfast,” greeted Hop Sing.
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” returned Roy as he entered and removed his hat.
Ben had wiped his mouth and was now moving to greet the sheriff. “Roy.”
“Mornin’ Ben, Hoss, Adam,” Roy acknowledged each of them. He turned back to Ben.
“No thanks, Ben. How’s Little Joe?” he inquired.
“He managed to sleep through the night. He should wake soon,” explained Ben.
“Then he hasn’t been able to tell ya anything?” Roy asked.
“Nothing that amounts to anything, Roy. I haven’t even had the chance to tell him about the girl’s death…”
“I would think he’d already know about that?” Roy said with a doubtful look.
“What do you mean by that?” Adam questioned, rising from his seat and joining his father and the sheriff. “Just how would Joe know the girl was dead…unless he knew he’d…”
“Killed her?” snapped Roy, forgetting for a moment to whom he was speaking.
“He didn’t kill her!” growled Ben. “How dare you Roy…”
Adam placed his hand on his father’s shoulder and felt the tightened muscles beneath his fingertips. “My brother knows nothing of the murder, or Gracie’s death. When he wakes up and Pa tells him, I want you there to see the boy’s reaction…that should remove any doubts you might have,” Adam said in an unnatural tone. “He’s innocent, isn’t he, until proven guilty?”
Roy took in a deep breath, filling his lungs and then let it out slowly in a long sigh. “Yes he is Adam. I’m sorry. I know that all of you want to believe the boy’s not guilty, and so do I, for your sakes. But the fact remains, I have an eye-witness and he says…”
All heads turned upward surprised to see Joe standing at the top of the stairs. He looked every bit as bad as he felt and he staggered slightly while clinging to the railing. Ben snapped into action and raced up the stairs to wrap his arms gently about the boy’s body in an effort to keep Joe from falling and doing further damage to an already battered body.
“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” Ben whispered.
“I heard shouting…” Joe muttered as he leaned heavily against Ben.
Joe paused and looked up at his father. Crystal clear tears formed in his eyes and one lone tear streamed down his battered and bruised face. “Gracie’s dead…isn’t that what the sheriff just said?” he muttered.
Ben gulped. “Yes, son. She was murdered.”
Ben forced Joe to turn back toward his room. “Let’s get you back to bed and then we can talk about it.”
It took only minutes to get Joe situated back in the bed. The short excursion cost Joe in the way of strength and endurance and the affect showed on his face. Joe could not stifle his moans of discomfort when Ben helped him into bed, nor could he stop the tears from collecting in his blackened eyes.
“How Pa…how’d she die?” wept Joe, his head resting back against the pillows that had been piled behind him.
“Don’t you know, son?” Ben asked quietly, glancing at the others who had followed him into the room.
“No…no…” cried Joe, covering his face with one hand. “The last thing I remembered was…” he paused and looked up at his father.
“What Joe…what do you remember?” Ben said in a near pleading voice. “Tell us what you remember.”
“We were having a nice time…and then I said something…it made her angry and then…”
“What did you say? Did you fight with her; did you strike her? Is that how her dress got torn?” Roy blurted out.
“ROY!” shouted Ben.
“Pa…what’s he talking about? I’d never hit a girl, and no we didn’t fight, we had an argument…but…”
“About what?” Roy ventured, though his tone had softened some.
“I…don’t know, exactly.”
Joe, his eyes full of unshed tears, looked to his father for comfort.
“Pa…why can’t I remember?” he sobbed.
Ben sat down on the bed and took his son in his arms, holding him close.
“It’s alright, son. You try to rest. Perhaps after you’ve rested you can remember…”
Joe raised his head. “How did she die, Pa…please, I have to know,” begged Joe.
It took Ben a moment to collect his thoughts, unsure as to how much he should tell the boy about what happened. He realized that it would be better for his son to remember what he could on his own without any prompting from him.
“Her neck was broken,” explained Ben.
“Brok…en?” stammered Joe in disbelief.
He leaned his head back into the pillows and shut his eyes. When he did, Ben and the others noted the tears that seeped from beneath the lowered lashes and rolled freely down the sides of the young man’s face.
“Joe…” Ben cooed softly.
“Pa…” said Joe, opening his eyes and looking up, “did I kill her?”
“You don’t know?” Adam moved closer to the bed. “Joe…try to remember…it’s important.”
“Ya can do it, little buddy, I know ya can,” Hoss said, adding his support.
“I am, Hoss…I am trying, Adam,” stammered Joe.
He pinched his eyes tightly.
“I warned her about…Lou Perkins,” said Joe.
He opened his eyes as wide as possible and looked at the group. “Lou was always trying to butt into our…business. Gracie liked to tease me about him, liked to try and make me jealous…”
“What happened then, after you warned her?” Roy asked.
Joe looked up at the sheriff. “She got mad and said that I didn’t own her…and then I tried to explain that I was just worried about her when he was around cause he…he’s trouble. And then the next thing I remember is…Lou showing up…and…and…hitting me.”
Joe paused, thoughtful for several long moments.
“He said you attack him, Little Joe. Is that the truth?” questioned Roy.
Joe remained thoughtful for a moment longer and then, looking up at the sheriff, he nodded his head yes.
“I suppose I did,” he muttered.
“Why, son?” Ben wanted to know. “It’s not like you to strike first, unless provoked.”
This time, Joe lowered his head. When he looked up at his father, Ben saw his son swallow hard.
“What is it, son?”
“I hit him because…I…was…” Joe gulped, “jealous.”
Silence filled the room for a moment before anyone spoke.
“It was wrong of me, I know that,” whispered Joe.
“What happened after you hit him?”
“I…suppose we fought, I can’t remember much.” Joe said, closing his eyes once more. “I’m tired,” he murmured, “and my head is starting to hurt.”
Ben quickly arranged the blankets about Joe and stood to his feet, facing the others. Joe’s eyes remained closed as Ben ushered the small gathering out of the room.
“Let him sleep some, Roy. I give you my word, Joe will answer all your questions when he’s able,” assured the protective father.
“I know he will. Thanks, for now. I’ll be back later this afternoon. The Hawkins girl’s funeral is after lunch…ya goin’?” Roy asked.
“I would like to pay my condolences, but I don’t think any of us would be welcomed, and I’d rather not stir up any more hard feelings than what there already are,” Ben explained as he walked with his friend down the stairs.
“I understand, Ben. Well, take care; I’ll be back after the buryin’,” Roy said, donning his hat and walking toward the door.
Ben returned to the sickroom to sit with Joe while he slept. A fear that had settled in the pit of his stomach made it hard for him to believe that this nasty matter would be settled quickly. As it stood, things didn’t look too good for his son and Ben feared that it might get worse if Joe’s innocence was not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. It was with a heavy heart and aching stomach that he lowered himself into the chair and rested his head against the back of it. Soon, Ben was sleeping.
“Pa!” Joe cried in a strangled voice.
Painfully he raised his head and searched the room for his father. He could see Ben in the chair dozing, and had the vision he had just seen not been so real; he would have let his father continue dozing. But the vision had shaken him from his sleep and even now, Little Joe could feel his body trembling.
“PA! Please, wake up…I remember,” Joe called out in a louder voice.
This time, Joe’s voice broke through the deep ravine of sleep that Ben had fallen into and Ben woke with a start. At first he thought he had just imagined that his son had called out to him, but once the thin layer of fog cleared from his eyes, he could see Joe trying to crawl from his bed.
“Joseph,” Ben said instantly, seeing the blankets being tossed aside, “you stay in that bed, young man,” he ordered as he hurried to ease Joe back down against the soft bedding.
Joe allowed his father to press into his shoulders and lower him, but he grabbed Ben’s arm and with weak fingers, gently squeezed the flesh beneath his fingertips.
Ben could feel the trembling in his son’s body, and his eyes filled with worry for the boy. “Joseph, what’s wrong, son?”
“I remember, Pa…I remember!” Joe cried excitedly.
“Son, that’s wonderful…can you tell me what happened?” Ben said, taking Joe’s hand in his and sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Lou and I were fighting, and I caught a glimpse of Gracie rushing forward. I remember she grabbed Lou’s arm, trying to drag him off me, but he punched me again. That’s when I felt like I was about to black out. He let me go and turned on Gracie; I saw him grab her and pull her to him, like he was trying to hug her, but she fought him off just long enough to slap him. That’s when he turned on her and grabbed her throat. I heard her scream and then the last thing I remember seeing was her falling to the ground. I tried to get to her, but I blacked out. The next thing I remember was waking up here…with you,” explained Joe. The depths of his hazel eyes filled with tears and as he blinked, the tears overflowed and washed down his cheeks. “Lou killed her, Pa…I saw it…he killed her.”
Joe’s voice trailed off softly and he lowered his head, shielding his grief from his father. When Ben heard him sniff his nose, he tenderly pulled Joe upright and wrapped his arms about the quivering body and held his son close, as he ran his fingers through the mass of thick curls.
“I’m so sorry, son. I wish I could say something to ease your pain,” whispered Ben.
“Why, Pa? She was such a sweet girl. Why would anyone want to kill her?” whimpered Joe.
“I don’t know, Joseph, I just don’t know,” replied Ben.
“Well I do,” a deep voice from behind them said.
Both turned and watched as the sheriff and the local doctor entered the room. Ben allowed Joe to lie back against the pillows and then rose from the bed to greet the pair.
“Roy, Paul…what do you mean?” inquired Ben, standing between the pair, shielding his son in a protective manner, from their view.
“I mean…someone had good reason to kill the girl,” the sheriff commented.
“I don’t understand,” Joe stated, trying to see around his father.
“Neither do I, Roy…what are you talking about?” Ben asked as he stepped aside.
They all heard Roy sigh. The sheriff moved to the side of the bed to speak with Joe.
“Son, how well did you know Gracie Hawkins?” Roy asked.
“I’m not sure I understand,” Joe told them.
“I mean…how…well, did you know her? What did you know about her? Had you and she ever…you know?” Roy’s face turned a faint shade of pink and he braved a quick glance at Ben Cartwright.
“NO!” snapped Joe, who also looked at his father.
Ben could see the shocked expression on his son’s face and returned to the bed. Joe looked up at his father, with a look of desperation in his eyes.
“Honest, Pa…Gracie and I…we never…honest, she wasn’t that type of girl…she was…” stammered Joe, close to returning to tears.
“It’s alright Joe, I believe you,” Ben assured his son.
“Roy…Paul…what’s the meaning of this? Can’t you see the boy’s been through enough?” blared Ben.
“Calm down, Ben and let me explain,” began Roy.
“Maybe I’d better do the explaining, if you don’t mind, Roy,” offered the physician.
Roy nodded his head as Paul eased over to the opposite side of the bed and sat down, facing Joe.
“Joe…this isn’t going to be easy to say, and it certainly isn’t going to be easy for you to understand right away, but Gracie…was…” his voice faltered slightly but the kind doctor forced himself to go on. “Gracie was…raped,” he said softly.
“WHAT!” shouted Joe, his chest swelled as he inhaled a deep breath. His face paled and for a moment everyone in the room thought that the boy in bed, might faint.
Paul quickly took Joe’s hand and felt for a pulse. It was no surprise to the doctor, to find his patient’s heart racing.
“It can’t be…who…why…WHEN!” Joe blurted out.
“Joe, you need to lay still, please,” Paul said. “I don’t want to be forced to give you something to calm you down,” advised the physician.
“But it can’t be,” Joe exclaimed. “She was fine until Lou Perkins showed up and then…why that sorry low down dog!” shouted Joe. He looked first at his father and then the others. Surprising the men in the room with him, Joe tossed back the blankets and attempted to crawl from the bed.
“He raped her,” snarled Joe, “I’ll bash his head in!” he cried, pushing his father aside with what little strength he could muster.
In his attempt to vacate the bed, Joe stumbled and had it not been for his father’s quick reaction, he would have fallen face down onto the floor.
Ben held the boy firmly in his arms as Joe’s reserve shattered and he began to weep.
“Let me go, Pa…please…oh God, Pa…why…why?” he sobbed.
Ben, glancing at the doctor and the sheriff, nodded his head toward the door, silently asking that he be left alone with his distraught son. His friends complied with his unspoken wish and immediately left the pair alone.
“Shh…” soothed Ben as he helped Joe back to bed. “It’s going to be alright now. son. I think Roy sees that you had no part in hurting the girl. I’m sure he’ll have this matter cleared up soon,” Ben tried assuring his son.
“I didn’t hurt her…I…loved her, Pa. I don’t understand Lou Perkins. Why…why would he want to hurt her…kill her?” Joe babbled.
“Because some men are just vicious, son. Because there are those that when they cannot get what they want, they take it…” began Ben.
“But rape? That’s brutal, Pa…it’s savage…”
Joe buried his face into his father’s breast and cried softly.
“I know, son…I know…”
Ben held Joe within the folds of his arms until the younger Cartwright had fallen to sleep. After carefully making Joe comfortable, Ben slipped from the room and joined the others downstairs. He was surprised to see that the sheriff had left and that Paul Martin was the only one waiting for him.
“Roy went back to town, Ben,” Paul explained. “Said he had some unfinished business. How’s Joe?”
“Sleeping, for now. Where’s Adam and Hoss?” Ben said, moving to his chair and flopping down within the soft fold of the leather cushions.
“They went out to do the chores.”
“Good…they should keep busy. I’m afraid one of them might go off half-cocked if they didn’t have something to keep their minds off what’s happened,” Ben said, expressing his fear to his friend.
“They’re sensible young men, Ben; I don’t really think you should worry,” Paul stated. “Roy has gone to have a talk with Lou Perkins…”
“Then he believes Joe?” Ben asked, raising his head and looking at the doctor.
“He always has, Ben. He’s known from the start that Little Joe isn’t capable of murder and rape, but he has to do his job…”
“I suppose you’re right,” Ben said wearily. “Guess we’ll just have to wait until he comes back to find out what he learned.”
Roy did come back, several hours later. When the rapping on the door was answered, by the worried father, Roy greeted his old friend with a wide grin.
“Roy, come in,” offered Ben, stepping aside to admit the sheriff.
Roy removed his hat and stood twisting it in his hands. “Got some good news, for ya, Ben.”
“Good, I need to hear something encouraging. Won’t you have a seat? Hop Sing! Bring some coffee, please,” Ben ordered as Roy took a seat on the settee.
“Roy, please…what did you find out?” begged Ben, anxious to find out the news.
“I went to have a word with Lou Perkins. I told him that Little Joe told a totally different story and that he remembered seeing Lou trying to choke Gracie. Lou suddenly got the urge to run, but he didn’t get far,” Roy smiled.
“Unbeknown to me, and to you, your two boys had ventured into town themselves and when Lou took off, Hoss managed to catch the kid. After Hoss threatened to beat the hound out of him, Lou started babbling and told everything.” Roy smiled again. “Little Joe was tellin’ the truth all along, Ben…Lou confessed to killing…and then raping the girl.”
“Dear God,” murmured Ben.
“He’s gonna be sent away for this, Ben, most likely for the rest of his life. There’ll be a trial first, but it shouldn’t be a long one, not with his confession and all, and Adam and Hoss were there to hear every word of it.”
Roy swallowed the last drop of coffee from his cup and stood to his feet. “Reckon I best be on my way,” he said, placing his hat in the proper place.
“Ya tell Little Joe that I’m sorry for doggin’em, Ben, won’t ya?” asked Roy.
“Sure Roy, he’ll understand that you were only doing your job,” Ben assured the sheriff.
Roy had just left and Ben was half way up the stairs when the door opened and Hoss and Adam filed in. Ben paused and turned around, returning to the main room.
The pair had guilty expressions on their faces and neither spoke, until Ben spoke first. It was with a happy smile that the father addressed his two older sons. “Don’t the two of you have chores to do?”
The solemn expressions changed instantly and they returned the smile their father gave them.
“Then ya ain’t mad at us?” Hoss asked timidly.
“For helping your brother?” smiled Ben, “never.”
Ben slapped both hands down on their shoulders and laughed out loud. “Go do your chores!”
Several days passed before Roy returned to the Ponderosa, but when he arrived, Joe was sitting outside on the side porch with his father. Ben stood to greet his friend, gently patting Joe on the shoulder as he moved into the yard.
“Mornin’ Ben, Little Joe,” called Roy.
“Sheriff,” Joe called, rising slowly.
“Care for lemonade, Roy?” Ben asked as he and the sheriff returned to the table.
“No thanks, I can’t stay. I just wanted to ride out and tell ya that Lou Perkins is on his way to the territorial prison. He’s gonna spend the rest of his life there; the judge decided on life rather than hangin’, cause of the boy’s age. Judge Hancock decided on leniency…beats me,” Roy explained.
He turned to face Joe. “Your name’s been cleared, Little Joe,” Roy said. “Ain’t no one in town or hereabouts blames ya for none of this,” he offered, hoping to ease the boy’s apparent worry that others might still consider him as the reason that the beautiful young girl was murdered.
Joe nodded his head, unable to speak. He glanced at his father and then turned to go into the house as Roy and Ben watched silently.
“I thought he’d be pleased,” Roy said to Ben.
“Oh, I’m sure he’s relieved, Roy; it’s just that he’s still grieving over the girl’s death. He holds himself somewhat responsible for being unable to help her…and the fact that she was raped, after she was killed, has haunted the boy’s sleep.”
“Ya mean he’s havin’ nightmares?” inquired Roy.
“Yes, almost nightly, and it is beginning to affect him deeply, I’m afraid.”
Ben turned to sit back down in his chair. He poured himself another glass of lemonade, holding the pitcher up to Roy.
“No thanks, Ben,” refused Roy, taking the chair that Joe had vacated.
“I wish I knew what to say to him, or how to help him. But I’ve been at a complete loss for words. Oh, I tried to make him see that none of this was his fault, but he’s so stubborn, he blames himself,” Ben explained with a deep sigh.
“Give him time. He’ll see.”
By the end of the next week, it was obvious to all that looked into the young man’s face, that murder, rape and the beating he’d taken, the lack of sleep and the guilt he carried, had begun to show in the boy’s deteriorated state of well being. Joe had dark circles under his eyes that had quickly replaced the bruises that had formed and hence vanished. He rarely ate and when he did, it was only a bite or two at a time, which worried his father to no end. The aftermath of what he suffered showed not only in his physical being but in his temperament and personality as well. He was short tempered, snapping at his family when they asked the simplest of questions; his tongue was sharp and his tone biting as the others walked around him as if they were stepping on eggshells.
On this particular day, Joe had taken about all he could stand, and with a huff, he stormed from the house.
“Well, I’ll be darn,” Hoss mused, staring at the door that had just been slammed shut.
“Want me to go after him?” Adam volunteered, rising from the blue chair and looking directly at his father. “I could try to reason with him.”
Ben, who had remained seated, only shook his head. “No…leave him be…for now. He needs time alone, time to try to come to terms with what happened. I’ve talked until I’m blue in the face but nothing I say to him, seems to help. He’ll just have to find a way to work through this himself,” Ben explained, picking up his pipe and filling it with his fine Virginia blend tobacco.
“Wonder where he’s headed?” Hoss said, returning from the door where he had gone and peeked out, watching as Joe had ridden from the yard.
“Who knows, but where ever it is, perhaps the ride will help clear his head,” commented Ben, taking a long puff on the pipe he held tightly between his teeth. “If he isn’t home by dark, you may go look for him, Adam.”
“I have an idea he’ll ride up to the lake, he usually does when he’s troubled with something,” Adam advised.
“You’re probably right,” Ben told him.
Joe had taken a ride up to the lake to visit his mother’s grave. It always seemed to help to raise his spirits and give him new hope when he was troubled and in need of a silent comfort. It was something that he had done since he had been old enough to be allowed to venture that far from the main house by himself. It was something that even now had brought him a measure of relief from the grief and self-abomination that he was feeling. The troubled youth had no doubts now as to what he should do, and he set about doing it.
Joe could feel his heart, pounding deep within his chest as he slid slowly from his mount and moved to stand before the newly formed grave. He felt the sting of tears that clouded his eyes as he kneeled down on one knee and carefully placed the small bouquet of wild flowers that he had stopped to pick along the way. “I’m sorry,” he whispered in a thick, emotion filled voice.
A sob caught in his throat.
“I wish I could have stopped him, Gracie…this should never have happened to you,” he continued. “You were so young…and sweet, so…so…innocent,” Joe cried, lowering his head into his hands as he wept softly. “Forgive…me…please!”
The grief-stricken lad was unaware of the man and woman who stood behind him, listening to his shattered heart beseeching the dead young woman for forgiveness. He still had not become aware of their presence until he stood, wiped his dampened face and turned.
A mixture of shock and fear covered his expression. Joe, being at a lost for words and not fully sure of what he should do, stood as if he had become a pillar of salt. He felt his body tremble, his heart fluttered wildly and he found it difficult to breathe. It was the first time since the girl’s death that he had come face to face with Gracie’s parents, and the doubts suddenly became larger than life to him.
“Little Joe,” Mr. Hawkins said in his deep baritone voice.
“Sir,” Joe managed to say. “I…I…”
Joe felt his eyes brimming with tears and he willed himself not to cry, not in front of this man and woman whose lives had suddenly been changed, because of him.
Joe lowered his head, attempting to hide the tears from the pair, unable to bear seeing the hatred that he knew they surely must have been feeling towards him. He couldn’t blame them for their hate; didn’t he hate himself?
Joe was startled when he felt the gentle pressure of the big hands that gripped his shoulders. His head raised quickly as his eyes sought the other man’s face. Joe was amazed that the expression of hate was not to be found in the man’s deep-set eyes. Instead, Mr. Hawkins’ own eyes had filled with tears and the look he gave to the younger man, told Joe that he had been forgiven.
“Mr. Hawkins,” Joe whispered.
“Shh…boy…no need for words. We know the truth now, and Inez and I need to tell you that we’re the ones to say we’re sorry,” the gentle man stated. “We were wrong to hold you to blame. I, of all people, knowing your father as I have for so many years, should have known that no son of his would do to another human being what was done to our little girl. We said bad things about you, Little Joe, mean, nasty things for which we are so very sorry. We hurt you when you were already hurt, and that was wrong. Joe, we should have sought you out to help you, not hurt you. Can you ever forgive us?” Mr. Hawkins begged, still gripping Joe’s shoulders in a firm handhold.
“Please, Little Joe…can you find it in your heart?” Mrs. Hawkins had stepped up to them, joining her husband who stood before Joe. “If you can’t, we understand…”
“No!…I mean, yes…I mean…”
Mrs. Hawkins smiled faintly and placed her hand tenderly on Joe’s cheek. “I know what you mean, son…and we thank you. We know that you did everything you could to help our daughter; you almost died from your efforts…”
“I wish I could have done more, ma’am,” Joe said.
“You did enough,” assured the man. “Now…it’s getting late, boy, and I’m almost certain that your father is probably worried about you. You best be getting’ home, son.”
Joe smiled, a real smile, for the first time in weeks. His spirit left like soaring and the guilt that he’d been carrying around was suddenly gone. He turned to mount his horse but stopped when Gracie’s mother called out to him.
“You will stop by now and then, won’t you, please?” she asked.
“Why, sure…if you really want me too,” Joe smiled.
“Alright then…I’ll ask my Pa about it…bye,” Joe called as he mounted Cochise and rode off, through the woods.
Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins smiled softly at one another and then turned to the grave that was a stark reminder of what they had so recently lost.
“How could we have been so wrong about that boy?” Inez questioned her husband.
Hawkins looked sadly at his wife and shook his head. “I think, rather, we should ask ourselves how could we have been so wrong about Lou Perkins?”
“I don’t know, my dear husband. I only hope that Joe Cartwright was being honest when he said that he forgave us.”
When Joe burst through the door, all three family members stopped whatever they were doing to stare in wonder at the change that had come over the youngest member of the clan. Joe tossed his hat on the credenza and walked, smiling towards his father. Ben glanced at Adam and Hoss to check their reactions.
“Joseph?” Ben questioned, placing his hands on Joe’s arm.
He could feel that the tension had disappeared. When Joe looked up at him and smiled, Ben felt himself relax somewhat. “What’s happened to you, boy?” he said softly. Ben noted that the shine had returned to the hazel eyes that looked into his face.
“I went up to Ma’s grave, just to sit and think. I realized that I had to go see Gracie, so I rode over to the Hawkins place and put some flowers on her grave. While I was there, her folks showed up.”
Joe swallowed and glanced at his brothers before continuing. “I wasn’t sure what Mr. Hawkins would do to me. I was afraid he might…make good his threat to kill me when he got his hands on me,” Joe said with a touch of fear that lingered. “But…he apologized to me…”
“He what?” Adam spoke up to ask.
Joe turned to his brother. “Yeah…he said that he and his wife were sorry for all the nasty things they said about me and…asked me to forgive them!”
“Well, I’ll be,” muttered Hoss. “What’cha reckon came over ’em, Pa?”
“The truth most likely.” Ben smiled and slipped an arm about Joe. “They realized that you weren’t to blame for their daughter’s death and…”
“You’re right, Pa. That’s what they said…that they didn’t hold any blame towards me…” Joe smiled. “Sure made me feel better about things…I just wish…”
Ben gently turned his son around until Joe was facing him. “Joseph, don’t try wishing for what could or might have been. Things worked out as they did for a reason. Oh, we might not understand the reasoning right away, but for now, be satisfied that your name has been cleared and that if Gracie’s parents have been able to accept things as such, so should you,” advised Ben.
“Pa’s right, you know, Joe. It takes a big man to say I’m sorry and to admit that he was wrong. And under the circumstances, with his daughter gone, it must have taken a great deal for a man like George Hawkins to say those words. His daughter is dead, he’s lost someone whom he loved dearly, yet he was humble enough to ask forgiveness for misjudging you,” Adam said.
“I know…Adam. I told them I was sorry too, for not being able to do more to protect Gracie, but they said that they knew I did all I could, but…” stammered Joe.
“Joe, answer a question for me, son.”
“What, Pa?” Joe said meekly.
“Did you…do everything within your power to protect Gracie from harm’s way?” Ben asked softly.
“Of course, but…”
“Then, no buts…you’ve answered your own question. You need not feel as if you could have done more. Destiny that day was fulfilled, whether what happened suited our liking or not…do you understand, son? That you played your part by doing what you could and that, in the end, what would have been, was,” Ben explained.
“I reckon I understand some of it…what’s meant to be, will be.”
“That’s right, son. We can change the course of our lives, but eventually, our destinies will catch up to us. What you did for that girl, you did in the name of love, because you cared for her. What happened to her was done by someone who had no meaning to what love really is, and now he must pay for what he’s done. It won’t bring Gracie back, but she didn’t die for naught, either,” Ben went on to say.
“No…but maybe knowing that her killer is being punished for the rest of his natural life will ease her folks suffering some. I sure hope so,” Joe said.
“And what about your suffering, Little Joe?” Adam inquired.
Joe raised his head and gave them each a smile. “I’ll never forget her. She was…special to me. And I know that I have…each one of you…to help me when I get down. Thanks, Pa…Adam, Hoss…I…love you,” smiled Joe as he gave each one a hug. “I’ll always remember that it’s important to tell those that you love, that you love them…I told Gracie several times; I hope she believed me.”
“Aw…Little Joe…sure she did,” grinned Hoss, “otherwise, she’d never have nuthin’ to do with ya.”
“For once, Hoss is right, little buddy. If a girl doesn’t like you, she’s not going to be wasting her time with you, and from what I saw, Gracie was plenty willing to spent time with you…” Adam squeezed his brother’s shoulder. “Never doubt it, Joe; she knew.”