An Innocent Man (by Rona)

Summary:  Joe and a friend are in trouble not of their doing.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  2841


 

They ran down the dark street, panting hard. “We’ve got to find somewhere to hide,” said the older man. “We can’t keep running.”

“I know,” panted the younger man. “I’ll follow you.”

“Down here,” responded the other, and turned abruptly into an alley.

Wheeling quickly to follow, the younger man slipped, twisting his ankle as he fought to keep his feet. From behind, there was a yell, and the young man risked a glance over his shoulder. Further down the street, six men ran into view. “There he is!”

Regaining his footing, Joe Cartwright ran into the alley behind Steve Stevenson. “Steve,” he panted. “They’ve spotted us again.” He glanced down at the gun he held in his hand. “I’m almost out of bullets.”

“Me, too,” Steve responded. “Maybe we can shake ’em off down here.” Hardly were the words out of his mouth when they reached the end of the alley and found a new, high fence blocking their way.

It was Joe who said it. “We’re trapped.”

*****

“Steve, you’re supposed to stay on the horse until it stops bucking, not jump off before the job’s done,” Joe said, teasingly.

“I didn’t notice you offering to ride that hammerhead first,” Steve replied, picking himself up, and grinning at the young man perched on the corral rails.

“Let me at him now,” Joe boasted, and Steve whacked him with his hat. They both laughed.

Steve Stevenson had been working at the Ponderosa ranch for several months now, and he and Joe had become fast friends, despite the age difference. At first, Joe thought the blond cowboy’s nickname was Steve, from his surname, but had discovered that his name actually was Steve. “My pa was an odd man,” he explained. “He thought it was real funny to call his son Steven Stevenson. I’m used to it now, but I hated it when I was a kid!”

“What about your ma?” Joe asked. “What did she think?”

“I dunno,” Steve admitted. “She died when I was born.”

“I’m sorry,” Joe replied, with real empathy. “My Ma died when I was 5.”

“Too bad,” Steve said. “Real tough on everyone. Your Pa lost all his wives, didn’t he? That’s too bad.” Now, he grinned at Joe. “I just wore down that hammerhead,” he complained. “He’s all tuckered out now.”

“Just the way I like them,” Joe joked, but before he could mount the bronc, he heard his name called from the house. He heard Steve groan as he headed over to his father. “What’s up, Pa?” he asked, still grinning from the kidding with Steve.

Looking at his handsome youngest son, Ben wished he always looked as happy as he did at that moment. Joe’s mercurial temperament was often a trial to his father. “Joe, is Steve there with you? Good, there’s a letter for him. Could you give it to him?”

“Sure, Pa. No problem.” Joe accepted the envelope and headed back to the corral, just in time to see Steve being tossed again. He laughed. “Here, let me show you how’s it done while you read your mail.”

Buckling on his chaps, it took Joe a moment to realize that Steve had frozen in place, the letter open in his hand. “Steve? What’s wrong? You’re like your own ghost.”

Swallowing, Steve tore his gaze away from the paper. “Johnny has been let out of prison,” he said, barely audibly.

Confused, Joe frowned. “Who’s Johnny?” he asked.

In the same, quiet tone, Steve said, “My identical twin.”

Joe could only gape at him, not knowing what to say.

Later that afternoon, Steve sat before Ben Cartwright’s desk, telling all of the Cartwrights his story. “Johnny and I are identical twins,” he began. “Six years ago, Johnny robbed a bank in St Louis. He was caught, and sent to prison. But I found I was being blamed for the robbery, too. I was able to prove my innocence, Mr. Cartwright. I was finally forced to move on, but I kept in touch with Johnny. Now he’s been let out, and he wants to join me here.”

“I see,” Ben said, but Steve wasn’t finished.

“Mr. Cartwright, Johnny has always been in trouble, right from when we were children. I don’t want him to come here, and take advantage of your hospitality. When Johnny lets me know he’s arriving in Virginia City, I’ll meet him and we’ll move on.” He twisted his hat in his hands. “I’m real sorry to go, because I like working here.”

“Don’t make any rash decisions,” Ben said, as his sons exchanged sympathetic glances behind Steve’s back. “You’re a good worker, Steve. I’d be sorry to lose you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. I’ll think on it some more, but I reckon I’ve got to move on.” Steve rose and left.

“What a pity,” Ben commented.

“Sure is,” exclaimed Joe, passionately.

“You come eat now,” Hop Sing demanded from the dining area. “Good food get cold. Too much talk talk talk!” He bustled off back into the kitchen to get more food to pile on the table.

Next morning, Roy Coffee, sheriff of Virginia City, rode into the yard. Ben met him at the door. “Good to see you, Roy,” he said, warmly. “What bring you out here today?”

“Business, Ben,” Roy admitted. “I need to speak to Stevenson, your hand. Is he around?”

“Down at the corral with Joe,” Ben replied. “Why? Is something wrong?”

“Fellow fitting his description tried to rob the bank last night. Got away, but I thought I’d come out and talk to him.”

“When last night?” Ben asked.

“Oh, ‘bout 6.30. It was still light, that’s why the witness was so sure it was Stevenson.”

“I don’t like to argue with your witness, Roy, but Stevenson was in here last night at 6.30. We were talking…” Ben’s voice trailed off as he realized what they had been talking about. He looked at Roy. “Stevenson has an identical twin,” he said. “He’s just got out of jail, after serving time for bank robbery. I don’t think Steve was expecting him this soon, but if the witness says it was definitely Steve, I think it might be an idea to look for his twin.”

“Any of the rest of you see Stevenson in here?” Roy asked.

“We were all here,” Ben confirmed.

“Good enough for me,” Roy said, “but I’d better speak to him all the same.”

*****

It wasn’t long before Roy went on his way, satisfied that Steve was innocent. Steve was shaken, though. “This is awful,” he said. “I’ll have to leave here, too.”

“No, you won’t,” Joe protested. “It isn’t your fault Johnny tried to rob the bank!”

“Maybe not,” Steve muttered, but he didn’t look convinced.

That afternoon, Roy’s deputy, Clem, rode out to say Roy had gone to collect a prisoner who fitted Johnny’s description, and could Steve come into town to identify him? Ben nodded his permission. “I’ll go with Steve, and vouch for him,” Joe offered.

“Good idea, son,” Ben approved. “I’ll go and get Adam and Hoss, and we’ll come in a bit later, and add our statements. All right, Clem?”

“Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright,” agreed Clem, and it wasn’t long before he, Steve and Joe were headed back into town.

*****

Sliding down from Cochise’s back, Joe looked round at the saloon down the street. “Hey, Steve, I’ll buy you a beer once we get through here,” he offered.

“Sounds good to me,” Steve responded, but he was understandably downcast. Joe briefly clasped Steve’s shoulder as they went into the sheriff’s office.

By the time Clem was finished taking both Joe and Steve’s statements, it was dusk. “Tell my family we’re in the saloon, would you, Clem?” Joe asked.

Smiling, Clem opened his mouth to respond when a shout came from outside. “What’s that?” he wondered, and opened the door.

Six men burst in, led by Jed Wilson, Roy Coffee’s eyewitness, and chief clerk of the bank. “That’s the man!” he cried, and Joe was close enough to smell the drink on the man’s breath.

“No, its not,” Clem protested, and moved to push Wilson and his cronies back out of the office. Wilson was determined not to go, and a moment later, a wild melee broke out. “Run, Joe!” Clem shouted, and Joe reacted instantly, shoving Steve past the fighting men and out of the door. Behind him, he thought he saw Clem go down under a blow to his head, but he had no time to think about that. “Run,” he shouted, and they headed off down the street.

Behind them the office door opened, and the men spilled out. A shot was fired. Joe fired back, as did Steve, but they both knew they had no hope of hitting anyone. All they wanted was to gain some time.

*****

Looking with horror at the fence blocking their escape, Joe made a fast decision. “Come on,” he panted. “I’ll give you a boost, and you can get over. I’ll hold them off.” His twisted ankle throbbed.

Giving the youngest Cartwright a sharp glance, Steve shook his head. “I can’t leave you alone with them!” he gasped. “They’d as soon lynch you as me!”

“Don’t argue with me,” Joe said. “You’ve got to get away! Now come on! That’s an order!”

“Joe,” Steve began. He was cut off as a shot fired up the alley. Joe let out a cry, whirled and fired wildly back. “Joe!” Steve said again. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Joe gasped, but even in the poor light, Steve could see the younger man had lost color. Joe then gave himself away by clutching his right arm and groaning. A stray bullet had hit Joe.

There was nothing Steve could do for Joe. The men were advancing up the alley, guns drawn, and murder on their minds. “Don’t move, you!” threatened Wilson.

Drawing himself up, Joe stepped calmly in front of Steve, his gun pointed at Wilson. “That’s far enough, Wilson,” he said. “This isn’t the man you’re looking for. He’s innocent.”

“I saw him as plain as day, Joe Cartwright!” Wilson said. “He shot Dawson, and doc thinks he might die!”

“I know you saw him,” Joe said. “But you’ve still got the wrong man. It was his twin brother who tried to rob the bank. Steve was with us in the house at the Ponderosa when it happened.”

“Get out of the way, Joe,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if I have to.”

“Then you’ll have to hurt me,” responded Joe.

“Joe, no! Take your chance and get out of here!” Steve urged. “Bad enough that you got shot!”

“You’re an innocent man,” returned Joe. “I can’t walk away and leave you to a lynch mob!”

The threat of Joe’s gun wasn’t enough to deter the men, whose anger was fuelled by alcohol. They advanced towards them. Joe didn’t really want to start shooting. He had only a couple of bullets left. So he quickly reversed his gun, and stepped forward to meet the men, swinging his gun like a club.

It was hopeless, and Joe knew that as well as Steve. Hampered by the injury to his right arm, and already limping, Joe was soon getting the worst of his exchange. From somewhere nearby, he could hear grunting as Steve fought like a tiger. But he knew they were going to lose the fight. Breaking free of his opponents, he found his gun and fired twice into the air, hoping against hope that it would attract someone’s attention.

Someone else’s gun crashed onto the back of his head, and Joe went down, falling among the feet of the other groups of fighters. One man went down, and Steve, given a brief reprieve, yelled, “Help!” as loudly as he could.

A fist crashed into his stomach, and Steve fell to his knees. But the follow-up blow never came. The air was suddenly filled with shouting and gunfire, and then someone was kneeling by his side, talking to him. Lifting his head slightly, he recognized Hoss Cartwright. “Steve? Are you all right?” Hoss repeated.

“Yes,” Steve croaked, and Hoss patted him gently on the back.

“Stay there,” he advised, and moved away.

Breath gradually returned to Steve’s body, and he straightened up slightly, wincing at the pain. The alley seemed full of people, and Steve soon sorted them into the six men who’d tried to lynch him, Sheriff Coffee, Clem, and the Cartwrights, plus two strange men he’d never seen before. Behind them he saw another shadowy figure, and realized with a start that it was his twin brother.

Staggering to his feet, Steve ignored his brother, and went to see how Joe was. The Cartwrights were all clustered round him, and Steve was just in time to see Joe stir back to consciousness. “Pa?” he said, dazedly, and then groaned.

“Lie still, Joe,” Ben advised. “We’ll get you to the doctor.”

“Steve?” Joe asked.

Steve moved into his friend’s field of vision. “I’m here, Joe,” he said. “I’m fine.”

Casting him a swift glance, Ben said, “Well, fine isn’t the description I’d use! Boys, we’d better get them both to the doc.”

Between them, Adam and Hoss got Joe to his feet and supported him as they walked him out of the alley. Ben, after checking that they would be all right, moved to Steve’s side to help him. Steve nodded his thanks, and they began to walk.

As they drew level with Johnny, Steve looked up at his brother. They looked at each other in silence for a long moment. Steve knew that Johnny would always be in trouble of one kind or another. Although it broke his heart, he knew he had to cut himself off from his brother. “Goodbye, Johnny,” he said, and walked on.

“Steve,” protested Johnny, and Ben found it very eerie that they sounded exactly the same. “Steve, I’m your brother!”

Catching up with his ranch hand, Ben looked at his face, and knew that Steve was well aware of what he’d just done. “Remember, your home is with us,” he commented, quietly, and laid his hand on Steve’s shoulder, keeping it there, lending support, as they walked to the doctor’s office.

*****

“Why can’t you stay?” Joe asked. His right arm was in a sling, his foot propped on the table, and he still bore the bruises from the fight a few days before. He had been lucky. No broken bones, no skull fracture, just a flesh wound, bruises, a sprained ankle and mild concussion.

“I’ll never be accepted round here again,” Steve said. “Not everyone is like your family, Joe. You know that. It’ll be easier all round if I move on. That way, Johnny won’t know where to find me when he gets out of prison.”

“Please don’t go,” Joe begged. “Not yet. Wait a while, and then decide.”

“I can’t do that,” Steve replied. “Goodbye, Joe. Thanks for everything. And especially thanks for fighting for me.” He turned and left, closing the door quietly behind him.

Leaning back on the settee, Joe sighed. He could feel tears in his eyes. Ben appeared silently from the kitchen, where he’d been discreetly eavesdropping. He sat down beside Joe, and stroked the tangled curls. “I wanted him to stay, too,” Ben said.

“Why won’t he?” Joe asked, frustration in his voice.

“I don’t know, exactly,” Ben answered. “But it would be pretty difficult to stay here after all that’s happened. Its hard when you know that people are talking about you.”

Joe gave a troubled sigh. “It must be pretty awful knowing that your brother is a bank robber. Especially if he’s your twin. But Steve is an innocent man! Surely everyone knows that!”

“Joe,” Ben said, “not everyone believes Steve is innocent. It’s a sad fact that some people would always blame him just because of his brother. Perhaps it’s best for Steve if he moves on. We’re his friends, but Johnny is his family, and he doesn’t want to see him again. Perhaps he needs to make a fresh start somewhere new. Somewhere that nobody knows about his brother. Whatever his reasoning, we can’t stop him going. He’s a free man.”

They sat in silence for a while, Joe’s curly head resting against Ben’s shoulder. “Joe,” Ben said, after a time, “I meant to tell you how proud I am of what you did for Steve. Sticking up for him, and protecting him. It was very brave.”

“He’s my friend,” Joe said, bewildered. “I couldn’t just leave him alone!”

Tears prickled in Ben’s eyes. He drew Joe closer to him. “I’m still proud of you, son,” he said, huskily.

Leaning against his father’s shoulder, Joe felt protected and secure. He realized that Steve hadn’t had this feeling for a long time, or maybe never. Joe suddenly felt blessed. “God bless, Steve,” he whispered, and understood when Ben squeezed his shoulder.

***End***

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