Summary: A What Happened In-Between and What Happened Next Story for the episode.
Word Count: 4874
Landing on the floor, Gideon Bates, sheriff of Black River, felt his hand close around his fallen weapon. He swung around, aiming at Joe Cartwright and pulled the trigger without hesitation. His victim stood frozen, unable to get away, waiting for death. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Gideon lowered the gun, gazing at it in disbelief.
On the other side of the shattered room, his wife, Lydia, moaned softly and crossed to crouch beside her husband. She was relieved – more than relieved – that Gideon hadn’t been able to kill Joe. Joe was innocent of any wrong doing. His only crime had been as the sole witness to her murdering her first husband, from whom she had not been divorced.
The door to the small house burst open and Sam, the deputy, came in, closely followed by Ben, Hoss and Luis. They froze, looking in astonishment and disgust at the signs of a struggle. Sheriff Bates sat on the floor; Joe Cartwright leaned against a shelf, sweat beading his face. After a moment, Joe spoke. “The sheriff just tried to kill me,” he declared.
“To protect me,” Lydia inserted.
“She’s the one who killed Harry Loomis,” Joe added.
“He’s telling the truth,” Bates stated.
The deputy looked slightly stunned. He handed Bates a sheet of paper that he took from his vest pocket. “This just came from the Denver police,” he said. “Loomis was wanted – dead or alive.”
Slowly, Gideon took the paper and looked at it. For a moment, it looked like he might burst into hysterical laughter, or break down into tears. Lydia bit her lip. If only this news had come to them the previous day. None of this would have happened. Gideon wouldn’t be facing the ruination of his career and neither of them would be facing prison. But it hadn’t happened that way. They would have to face the future with whatever grace and courage they could muster.
Joe pushed away from the shelf where he was leaning and limped heavily towards his father and brother. The back of his left thigh was stained with blood. Joe knew that he would have to get help and soon. But now, all he wanted to do was get out of the house and put some distance between himself and Bates. He felt Ben put an arm around his waist and Luis grabbed his right arm and looped it over his shoulders. Hoss followed closely behind. It was just as well. Joe barely made six steps away from the house before the adrenalin that had allowed him to fight for his life wore off and his knees gave way. Hoss caught his brother on the way down, hefting him easily into his arms.
“Let’s git him ta a doc,” he suggested.
Coming into the hotel room, Dr Myles stopped for a moment upon seeing his patient’s face. He looked at Luis, the Mexican youth who had summoned him for the second time that day. “I hope he’s going to be more cooperative this time,” he commented gruffly as he laid down his Gladstone bag and removed his jacket. “I didn’t really appreciate being run out of your house at gunpoint.”
“I’m sorry, Senor,” Luis apologized. “Senor Cartwright was not feeling well.”
Smiling, for he was a kindly man at heart, Myles patted the youth on the arm. “It’s all right, Luis.” Turning to Ben and Hoss he introduced himself. “I’m Dr Myles. Luis brought me to his home earlier today to treat Mr. Cartwright.”
“I gather my son was less than welcoming,” Ben remarked.
“Yes.” Myles shook his head. “I quite understand his concern, Mr. Cartwright. There he was, badly injured and being hunted by the sheriff for something he didn’t do. I’m not surprised that he didn’t want to trust me. However, that bullet needs to come out of his leg before it causes blood poisoning.”
“I’m… sorry… doc,” breathed a frail voice from the bed. Joe was conscious again, feeling utterly wretched, but knowing that he was safe now. His father and Hoss were there to protect him. He could afford the luxury of an anesthetic now, whereas the risk was too great earlier in the day.
“Don’t worry about it,” Myles replied. “Let’s have a look and see how you’re doing.” He lifted the covers and began to examine Joe’s leg. He wasn’t happy with the swollen, shiny appearance of the skin and the limb was hot to the touch. The bullet had been in there a lot longer than it should have. If he’d had his way, Joe would have had it removed the previous evening. Of course, there was the slight problem that he hadn’t known about Joe’s injury the previous evening, but that was by the by!
“It’s not good, is it, doc?” Joe asked. He propped himself on his elbows to look down at his leg.
“No, it’s not good,” Myles agreed. “But it could be worse. I’ve got to get that bullet out now, Joe.” He dropped the covers down and rose. “I’ll just get my things ready.”
While Myles went about getting hot water and laying out his instruments, Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. Joe’s face was beaded with sweat and Ben brushed the tangled curls back off his son’s face. “I wish I’d been here,” he told his son.
“I wish you had, too, Pa,” Joe admitted. He forced a smile. “But you’re here now. That’s all that matters.”
“And we’ll be right here when you wake up again, too,” Ben promised.
Nodding Hoss added, “We sure will, little brother.” He smiled, but couldn’t hide his worry. “An’ I thought ya was havin’ a break here ta avoid drivin’ them horses home!”
“I am,” Joe joked, although the humor was as forced as his smile. “I’m taking a rest cure.” He winced as he moved slightly.
“That’s not funny,” Ben admonished Joe. He still hadn’t got over his horror at hearing the story Luis had told them. The thought of Joe being hunted down made his blood run cold and he wasn’t yet prepared to make a joke out of it.
“I’m sorry,” Joe apologized. He glanced apprehensively at Dr Myles, betraying where his thoughts were really lying. Ben patted his arm. He wanted Joe to get better quickly and that involved an operation, which made Ben understandably uneasy. No wonder it made Joe even more apprehensive.
“Rest,” Ben soothed. “Just rest.”
The operation seemed to take forever to Ben, but it was over remarkably quickly. Myles had retrieved the bullet comparatively easily and stitched up the damage. He thought that Joe would eventually have full use of his leg, although he would limp to begin with. Luckily for the young man, his trials and tribulations of the previous day and the fight that morning had not done any further damage to the leg. The least amount of jarring could have sent the bullet deeper into the thigh, or even punctured the femoral artery. Had that happened, Joe would have bled to death in a short time.
But at last, Myles called Ben back into the hotel room. Joe was dozing in a twilight state between unconsciousness and full wakefulness. He was still pale, but looking indefinably better than he had before the operation. The doctor’s relaxed attitude made Ben think that all had gone well and he was right.
”Quite straight forward,” Myles reported as he put away the last of his instruments. He leant over the bed and held Joe’s wrist, taking his pulse. “He should wake up fully within the next hour or so. Let him rest and I’ll be back later to check on him.” He smiled down at the young man in the bed when Joe’s eyes opened slightly, but there was no sign of recognition in the emerald depths and after a moment, Joe’s eyes slid closed again. “Miraculously, there were no major signs of infection. I cut out some bad flesh, but I think he ought to be all right.”
“Thank you, doctor,” Ben said, warmly. He sat down in the chair by Joe’s bed.
Later that day, Joe began to run a temperature. Ben bathed his head in cool water, hoping that would help, but Joe continued to get warmer. Outside, the sun beat down brightly on the street, adding to the already sweltering heat. Hoss opened the window. He didn’t believe that fresh air was harmful to an individual. If air was that bad, then people would get sick all the time. The small breeze that crept its way into the room brought smells of hot dust and a busy town. The everyday noises were somehow more comforting that the silence had been.
But Joe grew hotter. Finally, at dusk, Ben sent for the doctor again. Myles came, frowning and proceeded to examine Joe carefully, looking for something that he might have missed. But there were no other injuries, however minor and nothing else seemed wrong. He sat back and sighed. “I’m going to have to open up that leg again,” he announced. “I must have missed something and it’s causing infection now.”
Wincing, Ben agreed. He hated the thought of Joe going under anesthetic again, for everyone knew how dangerous it was, but if that was going to save Joe’s life, then he would not hesitate. Joe was weakened by his ordeal and in no fit state to fight off a raging infection. Gun shot wounds killed healthy men all the time.
While Myles operated, Hoss insisted that Ben eat something and the two men sat in the hotel dining room, picking at their food. Hoss was aware that they were the centre of all eyes, but Ben seemed oblivious. His whole being was with Joe in the hotel room.
A tall man came over and stood by the table. Ben belatedly realized that he was there and looked up. “Mr. Cartwright?”
“Yes?” Ben had no idea who this imposing stranger was.
“US Marshal Peter Malloy.” He shook hands with Ben before taking a seat – unasked. “I’ve come to look into the reported attempted murder of your son, Joseph Cartwright, by the sheriff of this town, Gideon Bates.”
“Oh, I see.” Ben had known there was a marshal at War Bonnet, the town where he and Hoss had been going to meet Joe. “Can I help you?”
“I hope so,” Malloy replied. “I was wondering when I could speak to your son?”
“I’m not sure,” Ben responded. “Joe’s… quite ill. In fact, the doctor is operating again as we speak.”
“I see.” Malloy looked grim. “That is unfortunate. Would you mind if I came back in the morning to see how he is? A lot of my case rests on his testimony.”
“By all means,” Ben agreed. “But if the doctor says he isn’t fit to talk to you, then I’m afraid I’ll have to agree with him. Joe’s been through a lot.”
“Have ya talked to Luis?” Hoss asked. “He seen it all.”
“Luis?” Malloy raised his eyebrows, successfully conveying his confusion. “Who is Luis?”
“He’s the youth who runs the livery stable,” Ben explained. “He saw Joe get shot and he helped to get Joe to his mother’s house on the edge of town.”
“Thank you, I’ll go looking for him at once,” Malloy replied. “I wonder why Sam, the deputy, didn’t tell me about him.”
“Mebbe ‘cos he’s Mexican,” Hoss offered.
“That might have a bearing if we come to court and your son can’t testify,” Malloy admitted. “But I still need to hear what he has to say. Thank you for your time, gentlemen, and I hope Joseph recovers quickly.”
“Thank you,” Ben replied. He glanced at Hoss after the marshal left. “Let’s get back to Joe,” he suggested.
“The tip of the bullet had come off,” Myles explained. He showed the small, squashed piece of metal. “It was at the other side of Joe’s leg. He was lucky the bullet didn’t shatter his femur.”
“Indeed he was,” Ben murmured.
“His femur?” Hoss asked.
“Thigh bone,” Myles explained. “But the leg looks good and his temperature is already on the way down. I’d keep bathing him with cool water until it settles. I’ll look back in the morning.” He gave Ben a searching look. “Mr. Cartwright, I hesitate to add to your woes, but there is something I feel you ought to know.”
“What is it?” Ben asked, his eyes going automatically to the sleeping man on the bed.
“Mr. Cartwright, there is some bad feeling in the town towards your son,” Myles explained. “They seem to think that it is Joe’s fault that Gideon Bates turned to murder to solve his problems.” He shrugged. “Bates was a strong sheriff and many of them find it impossible to believe that someone like him, a good man, if you will, could resort to murder.”
“Joseph isn’t lying,” Ben thundered, his dark brows drawn down in a ferocious scowl.
“I know that,” Myles responded. “I just thought I ought to tell you what the mood of the town is like. If I were you, I wouldn’t stay here a moment longer than necessary. Take your son home as soon as he can travel.”
“Thank you, I will,” Ben promised.
He saw the doctor out and then glanced out of the window before going to sit by Joe once more. There was a group of men on the boardwalk opposite the hotel, looking up at their window. Ben felt a shudder go down his back.
The knock on the door after dark had fallen had both Ben and Hoss on their feet without conscious volition. Joe gaped at them both in astonishment, especially when Hoss then put his hand on his gun before Ben crossed to stand cautiously by the door. “Who is it?” he asked.
“Luis,” came the reply and both men relaxed. Ben unlocked and opened the hotel room door and the young Mexican youth came in. He looked rather startled to see the wary look on Hoss’ face and the way the big man’s hand rested on his holster. “What is wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Ben replied, not wanting to get into it with Joe right then. “It’s good to see you, Luis. Sit down.”
“I came to see Joe,” Luis explained. “I had the marshal come to see me.”
“What happened?” Joe asked. He was propped up on several pillows, as he had found it impossible to sit up unaided.
Sitting self-consciously by the bed, Luis snatched off his straw hat and twisted it in his hands. He trusted Joe – had trusted Joe since the first moment he met the other man. Joe had seen at once that he was not some ignorant peasant, insisting that Luis stand up straight, wipe the silly grin off his face and put his hat back on. Joe had treated Luis like an equal, for the first time in the youth’s life and he liked the feeling. But it seemed incredibly strange to be in such intimate surroundings with men who were basically strangers to him. A lot of strange things had happened lately, he mused.
“He asked me what happened,” Luis responded. He looked into Joe’s pale face. “He sounded like he believed me, too.”
“I’m sure he did believe you,” Ben assured Luis. “I spoke to him, too. He’s coming to speak to Joe in the morning.”
“What will happen now?” Luis asked. “The people in the town are not happy that El Jefe is in jail. They say it is not right.” And suddenly, Luis understood why Ben and Hoss had seemed so wary. They knew of the unrest.
“I don’t know what happens next,” Ben admitted, hoping to keep Joe from guessing the truth. “But this is bound to have come as a shock for the people of the town.” He smiled and his eyes pleaded with Luis to say no more.
“Of course,” Luis nodded. He smiled at Joe. “How are you feeling? You are looking better.”
“I’m feeling better,” Joe responded. “Just a bit tired.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Ben kept the conversation light during the rest of Luis’ short visit. Ben didn’t want Joe to know that there might be a problem – not until he had to know. If he had to know.
The conversation Joe had with the marshal the next morning turned out to be more of a formality than anything else. Gideon Bates had admitted to his crime and the judge had agreed that a sworn statement by Joe would be enough to satisfy the court. To that end, the statement was taken and Joe signed it. Dr Myles witnessed it.
“Maybe I should make this my new career,” Myles joked. “This is the second statement I’ve witnessed today!”
“Luis?” Joe guessed and the doctor nodded.
“Luis.” Myles rubbed his hands together. “Now then, let’s have a look at this leg.” He spent some time examining the leg, touching it gently here and there to check Joe’s responses, but at length he straightened up and nodded. “It’s looking good.”
“When can I go home?” Joe asked. It was always the same when he was ill – he just wanted to get home to the Ponderosa. He felt safe there but it was more than that. It was familiar – it was home. He wanted to sleep in his own bed and have Hop Sing fuss over him, scolding him, and coaxing his appetite and urging him towards recovery.
“How does tomorrow sound?” Myles asked, shooting a sideways glance at Ben.
“So soon?” Ben asked. He wanted to ask more – to ask if they were in that much danger. Were the townsfolk really that upset?
“I wouldn’t have suggested it if he wasn’t up to the trip,” Myles assured him. “Joe has made a good recovery from the surgeries. His leg looks good and frankly, I’m sure he’d rather be at home than stuck here.” He grinned at Joe, who nodded. “There’ no medical reason Joe can’t travel. He’s weak, but that’s to be expected.”
“Please, Pa?” Joe begged and used his ‘puppy-dog’ eyes on Ben.
It worked. Ben could seldom resist Joe when he looked like that. Besides, he wanted to go home, too. They had been away for a while buying horses and he missed the ranch. And if there was to be some sort of trouble, Ben wanted Joe to be far away from it. “All right,” he agreed. “Tomorrow it is.”
“I’ll need to go and make some arrangements,” Ben told Joe and Hoss when the doctor was gone. “Hoss, you stay here with Joe and I’ll be back soon.” He could see by the look on Hoss’ face that his older son wanted to say something to him, but was constrained by Joe’s presence. “I won’t be too long.”
As the door shut behind Ben, Joe looked at Hoss. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“I dunno what ya mean,” Hoss admitted, thinking furiously for an excuse to divert Joe.
“Yes you do,” Joe accused. “You and Pa are both as jumpy as a hen on a hot girdle. What’s going on?”
For a long moment, Hoss said nothing. He knew how difficult it would be to mislead Joe and he decided in the end that it would be easier and safer to tell his younger sibling the truth. “Seems the townsfolks ain’t too pleased that Bates has been jailed fer tryin’ ta kill ya,” he admitted. “Pa’s jist a mite anxious, is all.”
“Bates had the town in the palm of his hand,” Joe said, quietly. “I can understand why. He seemed like a good sheriff. I suppose it must be hard for them to understand how someone like that could try to murder a man.” Joe shrugged. His understanding façade was costing him in control. “I am a stranger, after all. I could have murdered that man Loomis and just have been accusing Mrs. Bates.”
“Bates has confessed,” Hoss reminded Joe. “None o’ this were yer fault, Joe. Yer innocent.”
“Hoss, do you know how I feel?” Joe cried, gesticulating wildly. “I was being hunted down like a common criminal for something I didn’t do! I had no way to get help; no way to prove my innocence. If they’d caught me, I think they’d have lynched me!” The remembered fear left Joe’s voice and hands shaking. “I’m sorry for the man, Hoss,” Joe went on, slightly calmer now. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry for him. But I hate him, too. I hate him for what he tried to do to me and what he did do to me. Is that wrong?” he pleaded.
“No! No, Shortshanks, it ain’t wrong!” Hoss insisted. He hated to see his brother so distressed.
“He did it for the love of a woman,” Joe whispered. “He knew it was wrong and still did it. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do the wrong thing for love of a woman.” Hoss knew that Joe was referring to Emily McPhail, nee Anderson, who Joe had loved and lost. Emily had come to Virginia City with her husband years later and tried to persuade Joe to run away with her. Joe had refused. Hoss was neither surprised nor sorry. He had known that Joe would not have run away with a married woman and he thought Emily was a scheming minx.
“I reckon we was lucky, Joe,” Hoss told him. Joe looked slightly surprised at that seeming non sequitur, but he was at least listening. “We was taught right from wrong – not jist from a book but by example. Our Pa allus showed us that we had ta do what was right, even though it was real hard. It’s one thing to know right from wrong, but it’s another to live that way.”
“You know, you’re right,” Joe agreed. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He slid down his pillows slightly and started to think about what Hoss had said. Presently, imperceptibly, he drifted into sleep.
It was horribly disconcerting for Ben to return from his errands and find Marshall Malloy parked in the hotel lobby with a rifle in his hands. Feeling his face pale, Ben forced his leaden legs to walk steadily over to the marshal’s side. “Is there something wrong?” he asked, striving to sound nonchalant and failing dismally.
“No, not at the moment,” Malloy replied pleasantly. “But just to be sure.” He patted the gun, but didn’t specify what he wanted to be sure of. All the same, Ben could guess.
“You think there’s going to be trouble tonight?” he enquired.
“Could be,” Malloy responded, his tone still pleasant. “I had to arrest a couple of jackasses who thought they ought to break Bates out of jail. Something about it not being right that the sheriff was locked up in his own jail over some made up story by an outsider that no one knew.”
Sighing wearily, Ben closed his eyes. “I had hoped things would settle down,” he admitted.
“Oh, I expect they will at some point,” Malloy agreed. He still sounded unaccountably cheerful.
“Aren’t you worried?” Ben demanded. “You’re alone.”
“Not for long,” Malloy grinned. He glanced around and saw that they were the centre of attention. He raised his voice to play to the ‘gallery’. “There are three more marshals coming in on this afternoon’s stage. They should be here within the next hour.”
An uncomfortable murmur went around the crowd. Ben, following the movement of people within just the hotel lobby, knew that this news would be all around the town within minutes. Quite possibly, the number of marshals expected would go up drastically, too. Well, no matter. If it meant that Joe would be undisturbed, so much the better. Ben felt a smile creep onto his lips. “I’m very glad to hear that, Marshal,” he said. “Very glad.”
Hoss was standing at the window when Ben went in. Joe was still sleeping. Ben looked him over, but Joe’s color was good and the aura of illness that he had had the previous day was gone. Ben indulged himself and ran a gentle hand over Joe’s shaggy curls. Joe unconsciously nestled into that familiar touch and sank deeper into slumber.
“Things seem quieter down there,” Hoss mentioned, gesturing to the street.
“They are.” Ben quickly related his conversation with the marshal. Hoss was as relieved as Ben. “I spoke to Luis, too,” Ben went on. “I asked him to come and help us get those horses back to the ranch. I don’t think he was sorry to be leaving here and I think he might well be looking for somewhere else to live after this. If he doesn’t want to settle at the ranch, I’m sure we could find him somewhere and he could bring his mother to live with him.”
“Sounds good to me, Pa,” Hoss agreed. “If it hadn’ bin fer Luis, we’d a never have found Joe.”
“I know,” Ben sighed. “A job doesn’t seem enough to thank him, somehow.”
“I’m sure we’ll figger somethin’ out,” Hoss insisted. “After all, we got time while we’re headin’ fer home.”
“You’re sure everything is going to be all right?” Joe persisted. He had awakened, demanding that Ben bring his gun over to the bed so that he could defend himself if necessary. Ben had explained the situation and Joe had slowly relaxed. The thing that had convinced him that everything was all right was the sight of Hoss tucking into a large meal delivered to the room by hotel staff. Joe had been quite pleased to discover that he had regained his own appetite and ate enough to reassure Ben that his youngest son was well on the mend.
Next morning, Hoss helped Joe downstairs and onto the back of a flat-bed wagon. Joe was propped against his saddle and a blanket was tucked around him, although Joe quickly pushed it off. It was far too hot to need a blanket and he wasn’t an invalid for crying out loud!
Hoss mounted Chubb and Ben appeared on Buck. Moments later, Luis appeared leading Cochise, whom he hitched to the back of the wagon. It was then that he told Joe he was going along to help wrangle the horses. Joe was delighted. He had wanted to do something to help Luis, but had been at a loss to know what to offer.
Next on the scene was Dr Myles and Joe apologized once again for refusing treatment the first time around. Myles smiled and waved away the apology. “Just get that leg checked by your own doctor when you get home,” he advised. “Safe journey.”
“Thanks, doc,” Joe replied, as Luis climbed onto the wagon seat and started the team in motion.
As they left the Black River, Joe glanced around. None of the townspeople met his eyes. Joe looked past Ben and Hoss to see the jail. He wondered what would happen now. He was sure Gideon Bates would go to prison. What about Lydia Bates? What would happen to her? Joe was relieved that his sworn statement would be enough to convict Bates, because he wasn’t sure he would be able to return here. The memories were too painful.
A woman stood by the side of the road. Luis drew rein and jumped down from the wagon, hugging the woman. Joe guessed that this was Luis’ mother. Joe knew he had met the woman, but he could find no memory of it. Nevertheless, she came forward and smiled tremulously at Joe. “I am glad to see you better, Senor Cartwright. I feared for you.”
“Thank you,” Joe replied. “And thank you for your help.”
“I did not do enough,” she responded. “But it is I who must thank you for helping Luis. God bless you all.” She quickly turned away before her composure broke, hugged Luis again and hurried away. Slowly, Luis climbed back onto the wagon and drove on.
“Are you all right, Joe?” Ben asked, riding closer.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Joe answered, shaking off the momentary melancholy he had felt. He smiled at Ben. “Let’s go home.”
As they went down the road, Joe saw Luis’ mother come back to stand on the side of the road. Her eyes followed the men as they grew smaller and smaller. She didn’t know how she was going to survive without Luis, but she trusted in God that something good would come out of all this bad.
Watching, Joe knew there was nothing he could do for her. He moved his bad leg, wincing. Suddenly, doing the right thing didn’t seem so wonderful after all. So many lives had been torn apart – like his leg. The scar would be a visible reminder of all that had happened but Joe knew that one thing would haunt his memory, making sure he never forgot what had happened here: the look in a mother’s eyes as she watched her son ride off into a new life and left her behind.