Guilty (by Rona)

Summary:  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Joe finds himself facing the ultimate punishment while his brothers race against time to bring the witness who can clear Joe’s name.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9520


 

“Well?” Joe Cartwright looked up anxiously as his father came into the cell area of Virginia City jail. “Any sign of them?”

“No,” Ben replied, hating to crush his son’s hope. He crossed to stand right at the bars, wishing that he could be in the cell with his son, wishing that it was he who was in Joe’s place. “But they’ll come, son. You know they will.”

Rising, Joe began to pace restlessly. “I know Adam and Hoss will try to get here on time, Pa,” he agreed in a low voice. “But what if they don’t?” He swung round to face Ben again. “Pa I’m afraid,” he confessed. “What if they don’t get here on time? I don’t want to hang!”

*****

The knock on the door surprised Ben Cartwright as he sat in front of the fire, sipping a mid-afternoon cup of coffee. He put his cup on the coffee table and hurried over to answer the door, looking blankly for a moment at the tall, thin man standing on the door step. “Oh, Sheriff McGuire! Come in!” He stood back to let the temporary sheriff of Virginia City come in. “What can I do for you?” he asked, cordially. “Coffee?”

“This is not a pleasure jaunt, Mr. Cartwright,” McGuire replied, coldly. “I’m here for your son, Joseph.”

“Joe?” Ben frowned. “He’s out on the range with my other two sons, but they should be back by dark. Why? What’s wrong?”

“If you can tell me exactly where they are, I’ll go and get Joseph myself,” McGuire evaded.

“I don’t know exactly where they are,” Ben replied. “Sheriff, what’s this about? Why do you want Joe?” An uneasy feeling was growing in Ben’s gut.

“All right, Mr. Cartwright, I’ll tell you,” McGuire agreed. “I’ve come to arrest Joseph for the rape and murder of Suzanne Webster.” He looked at Ben’s face with grim satisfaction. “I aim to see that he hangs.”

******

“Th-there must be some mistake,” Ben stuttered. “Joe? You think Joe murdered Suzanne? But – but he wouldn’t.”

“That’s for a court of law to decide,” McGuire replied, sententiously. “I’m here to arrest him. Joseph was the last person to see Suzanne Webster alive. He was seen leaving her house shortly before she was found dead by her neighbor, Mrs. Johnston.”

By now, Ben had got over the shock and was rallying his resources. “When was this?” he asked.

“Suzanne was found dead yesterday by Mrs. Johnston. An eye witness says he saw Joe leaving Miss Webster’s house at three the previous afternoon.”

A feeling of relief swept over Ben. “Then it couldn’t have been Joe!” he declared. “Joe wasn’t even here the day before yesterday!”

“If he wasn’t here, he could easily have been in town raping and murdering Miss Webster,” the sheriff replied, implacably.

“No, you don’t understand,” Ben persisted. “Joe wasn’t on the ranch. He only got back yesterday. He was away on business for me.”

“Was anyone else with him on this ‘trip’?” McGuire asked.

“No,” Ben answered, reluctantly. “He went alone.”

“Then it’s entirely possible that he got back early. In any event, Mr. Cartwright, I am here to place your son under arrest and if you continue to hinder me, I’ll have to place you under arrest too.”

Shocked rigid, for he hadn’t for a moment thought he was impeding an investigation, Ben wasn’t sure what to say. In the silence that fell, he could clearly hear the grandfather clock ticking solemnly and the sound of his own heart beat. And then he realized that he could hear hoofs, too, and knew that his sons were home. McGuire realized, too, and hurried over to the door, drawing his gun as he did so. Ben hurried after him, hoping to avert a disaster.

In the yard, Adam, Hoss and Joe were just dismounting, none of them aware of their visitor. McGuire took advantage of their distraction to cross to stand behind Joe, his gun in Joe’s back. The youngest Cartwright froze. “Joseph Cartwright, I’m arresting you for the rape and murder of Suzanne Webster,” McGuire rapped out. “Stay still and I won’t be forced to shoot you.” He carefully took Joe’s gun from his holster and tucked it into his pants. “Now put your hands behind your back and don’t try anything!” he was warned.

Slowly, Joe did as he was told, his puzzled gaze meeting those of his brothers’. He stiffened as he felt the cold steel of handcuffs fastening around his wrists and he felt a large twinge of anxiety. “What is this?” he asked, hoarsely, as the cuffs closed. “What do you mean? Suzanne is dead?” Joe sounded stunned. He and Suzanne had been going with each other for a couple of months.

“No need to put on an act for me, Cartwright,” McGuire sneered. “I know you killed her.”

“I didn’t!” Joe cried, turning to glare at his accuser. “I haven’t seen Suzanne for several days. I’ve been away.”

Chuckling, McGuire pushed Joe back towards his horse. “Glad to see you an’ your family have got your stories straight, anyway,” he commented. “Get mounted, Cartwright.” He practically pushed Joe into the saddle. “Save the fairy stories for the judge!”

“Wait!” Ben cried, running forward. He couldn’t believe how fast things were spinning out of control. “I’ll come into town and arrange bail.”

“There’s no point,” McGuire told him, mounting his own horse and taking Cochise’s rein. “There won’t be any bail. Not for a murder charge.”

“Pa,” Joe cried, looking frantically at his father. “Pa, I didn’t do it, I swear!”

“I know you didn’t, son,” Ben replied. He took a step closer, but froze as the sheriff’s gun came up.

“That’s close enough, Mr. Cartwright,” he warned. “Any closer and I’ll have to assume that you’re going to try and help the prisoner break free. I’m not Roy Coffee, and I’m not impressed with your money. Justice will be served here, make no mistake.” He put his heel to his horse and they left the yard at a canter, Joe needing all his not-inconsiderable riding skills to stay in the saddle.

Ben, Adam and Hoss were left gazing after them, totally stunned.

*****

The end of the ride couldn’t come soon enough for Joe. He had found it horribly difficult to keep his balance and he hadn’t been happy at the way the sheriff kept a fast pace all the way to town and Cochise had already done a hard day’s work. The pinto was lathered and panting, with his head down, when they came to a stop. Joe was hauled roughly from his horse and pushed up the steps to the jail house, the sheriff’s gun in his back the whole way. Joe didn’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed that the man thought him such a threat.

It wasn’t the first time Joe had been in jail, but each time he fervently hoped it would be the last. And this time was different – it wasn’t Roy Coffee, a family friend, who was in charge. Roy was away with his deputy, Clem Foster, testifying at a trial over in Carson City. They were expected to be away for a month, hence the arrival of McGuire.

“Get in there,” McGuire said, opening the door to a cell.

Obediently, Joe took a step in and stopped. He was surprised when the door clanged shut behind him at once and he whirled around. “What about these?” he demanded holding up his cuffed hands as best he could.

“What about ‘em?” McGuire replied, sneering. Joe was immediately on his guard.

“Aren’t you going to take them off?” he asked, as meekly as he could.

“Hmm, perhaps you do have a point there,” McGuire mused. “I might need them again. But you are a murderer; I have to be careful.”

“I’m not a murderer,” Joe replied, evenly. He could feel his temper rising and vowed to keep it under control.

“All right, I’ll take ‘em off,” McGuire agreed, after a long moment. “I’ll be right back.” He gestured to the bars. “You come and stand here with your back to the bars. If I think you’re to be trusted, I’ll take them off.”

Suspicious, but having no choice, Joe did as he was told and went to stand with his back to the bars. He could feel color rising in his face as he stood there. Calm down, he told himself. Pa will get Hiram and everything will be sorted out by tomorrow. He drew in a calming breath.

Behind him, he heard McGuire coming in, and wondered what the funny clanking noises were. Next moment, something clicked heavily around his wrist above the handcuff. “What…?” he began and started to turn.

Reacting instantly, McGuire pulled on the cuff chain and had Joe pinned helplessly against the bars. “I though you’d try to resist me,” he hissed malevolently in Joe’s ear. I’m glad I was ready.” Keeping Joe close to the bars, he passed something Joe could not see through the bars and fastened it round Joe’s neck. He took off the handcuffs and spun the startled young man around and fastened the other manacle around Joe’s left wrist. Now, Joe’s wrists were shackled to the collar around his neck, and he was unable to straighten his arms. And before he could recover from that indignity, McGuire knelt, pulling Joe over and locked leg irons around his ankles.

“Now let’s get one thing straight,” McGuire said, as he released Joe and stood. “If you behave, I’ll put on ordinary shackles on your wrists later. Make trouble, and you’ll be sorry. Do I make myself clear? You’re a dangerous man, Cartwright. A rapist and a murderer. I can’t afford to take chances with you. Your temper is well known around town.”

“I didn’t hurt Suzanne,” Joe repeated. His grief for the girl’s death had been shoved to one side while he dealt with this situation. “I’m not a danger to you, regardless of what you think. Do you really think I could get out of this cell?”

“No,” McGuire replied. “But you might attack me.” He pulled out his pocket watch. “It’ll be supper in about an hour,” he went on. “If you behave, I’ll think about changing your shackles then.” He turned without a backward glance and went out, shutting and locking the door between the cells and the office.

Distraught, Joe stared at the closed door for several minutes before he shuffled over to the cot and sank down. He was suddenly sure that he was in bigger trouble than he had ever been in before.

*****

“I’m sorry to bother you so late in the day,” Ben apologized to Hiram Wood as he was admitted to his lawyer’s home. “But it’s urgent.”

“Come on in, Ben,” Hiram replied. “What’s wrong?”

Speaking quickly, Ben outlined the story as far as he knew it. Hiram looked grave. “What do you think?” he concluded.

“I think Joe’s in deep trouble,” Hiram replied. “I know of McGuire. He’s got a reputation for being a strong sheriff. That’s why he was hired.”

“What else?” he asked, as Hiram hesitated.

“The circuit judge is due here tomorrow, Ben. And he’s not the usual man, either. He’s ill. This judge, Judge Whittaker, is known for a hanging judge. He has no patience for long, drawn-out trials. He sets a time limit to hear all the evidence and won’t go a minute over if he can avoid it.” Hiram scratched his head. “You say Joe can prove he wasn’t with Suzanne when she was killed. Who is his witness?” When Ben said the name, Hiram smiled. “Well, short of the Lord Jesus Christ himself coming down from heaven to speak for Joe, we couldn’t have a better witness. Can you wire him?”

“Perhaps it would be best if Adam and Hoss went to get him,” Ben suggested. “I don’t know why, but I have such a bad feeling about this, Hiram.”

“All right, I don’t see why not,” Hiram agreed. “Now, let’s go down to the jail. You can see Joe briefly and I’ll tell the sheriff that I want to confer with Joe tomorrow morning. But I don’t see there being a real problem, Ben. Not with the witness you’ve got.”

Rising, Ben fingered his hat nervously. “Except he’s not here yet,” Ben replied.

Ushering Ben out of the door, Hiram was disquieted to find himself being infected with Ben’s misgivings. This case was straight forward. The evidence was all circumstantial, apart from the eye witness who said he had seen Joe. Hiram’s first job was to discover who this witness was and question him.

*****

“I’m not sure I can agree to letting you see the prisoner, Mr. Cartwright,” McGuire murmured.

“Why not?” Ben asked in disbelief. “You’ve already got my gun. What do you think; that I’m going to strangle him with my bare hands in the jail cell?”

“It’s possible,” McGuire agreed. “I don’t know you, Mr. Cartwright. I don’t know what your relationship with your son is.”

Grimacing angrily, Hiram decided it was time to step in before Ben found himself in the cell next to Joe. “I’ll vouch for Mr. Cartwright,” he offered smoothly. “In fact, we could go in at the same time. Come, Sheriff, that’s not unreasonable.”

“All right,” McGuire replied, grudgingly. He patted down both Ben and Hiram before allowing them into the cells.

As the door opened, Joe looked up and relief sped across his face. McGuire had – after supper – put on ordinary wrist shackles and taken off the collar, but Joe was under no illusions that the change was permanent. He guessed that if he looked the wrong way at the sheriff, he would find himself back in the other irons. “Pa!” He stood up, but his initial impulse to rush across the cell was checked by the leg irons.

“Joe!” Ben replied and relief and horror were mingled in his tones. “What is this?” he demanded of McGuire. “Why is Joe in chains?”

“He’s a murder,” McGuire replied, smoothly. “I’m on my own here, so I have to take reasonable precautions.”

“I don’t think this is necessary,” Hiram declared, disapproval heavy in his tones.

“But I do,” McGuire answered. “And I’m the sheriff here.” He folded his arms and regarded the three men levelly. “You’ve got two minutes,” he added.

“Are you all right, Joe?” Ben asked, reaching through the bars to cup Joe’s cheek in his hand.

“I’m all right,” Joe replied, leaning into that familiar warm touch. “And this,” he lifted the irons, “is an improvement over earlier.” He quickly told them about it and Ben looked as though he might pass out. “But I’m fine, Pa, honest,” Joe replied.

“I’ll be back tomorrow to go over things with you, Joe,” Hiram advised him. “In the mean time, don’t say anything, all right? You don’t have to say anything without me here, and that’s what I want you to do, understand?”

“All right,” Joe agreed.

“I’m sending your brothers to bring back Seymour from Carson,” Ben told him. “Seymour will set everything straight.”

“Time’s up,” McGuire announced brusquely.

“Please, couldn’t we have another few minutes?” Ben pleaded.

“It’s all right, Pa,” Joe assured him although he couldn’t quite keep the quiver from his voice. “I’ll be all right.”

Looking deep into Joe’s green eyes, Ben saw the fear lurking in the emerald depths. But he could see the strength there, too. ‘I love you’, he mouthed. Aloud, he said, “Be careful.”

“I will,” Joe replied. He nodded.

As McGuire again shut and locked the door between the office and the cells, he caught Joe’s eye and gave the young man a satisfied smile, Joe felt a shudder run down his spine.

*****

In the side alley, the two men stood invisibly in the shadows. “The other two Cartwright sons are going to Carson to bring back someone called Seymour,” one said. “I want them stopped. I don’t care how.”

“All right,” agreed the other. “Usual rates?”

“Usual rates,” confirmed the first.

Money exchanged hands and then the men went their separate ways.

*****

The night passed – well, it passed. When dawn broke, Joe rolled over and sat up. The mattress on the cot was thin and smelly and the blanket was threadbare. Joe was chilled and tired, the chains having prevented him from sleeping for more than a few minutes at a time. Reluctantly, he used the bucket in the corner of the cell and waited for McGuire to bring his breakfast and start the day.

He finally got his breakfast just a few minutes before Hiram appeared to talk to him about the case. The single hard roll and cup of cold coffee would not have been attractive when fresh first thing that morning, but Joe made no complaints, just forced it down, determined not to get on the sheriff’s bad side.

“Who is your eye witness?” Hiram asked McGuire.

“Todd Turner,” McGuire replied.

“I don’t know him,” Hiram frowned. “Joe, do you know him?”

“I don’t think so,” Joe muttered. “What does he look like?”

“You beat him at cards last Friday night,” McGuire replied. “Sandy-haired fella, taller than you.” He looked Joe up and down with contempt.

“I think I remember him,” Joe agreed. “From out of town, isn’t he?”

“What’s that got to do with it?” McGuire demanded, menacingly.

“I was just checking I had the right man,” Joe snapped back. He saw the frown on the sheriff’s face and wondered what piece of nastiness McGuire would think up to make him pay for that.

“I’ll go and talk to him,” Hiram assured Joe, missing the interplay between his client and the sheriff. “Don’t worry, Joe, everything should go smoothly at the trial.” He rose. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I dare say your father will be in later.”

“Thanks, Hiram,” Joe replied, but his gaze was fixed on the sheriff.

As the man left the cells area, he turned back and gave Joe a smile. Joe shuddered as the door was locked once more. He had seen warmer smiles on the faces of wolves.

*****

“I sure hope Joe’s gonna be all right,” Hoss commented as he and Adam set out for Carson City.

“All the evidence is circumstantial,” Adam reminded Hoss. “And the eye witness is mistaken. Seymour will tell them that. They’ll believe him.”

“Sure enough,” Hoss nodded, trying to comfort himself with this thought. “But still, what Pa said about Joe last night… Adam, I sure hate ta think o’ Joe in chains!”

“So do I,” Adam replied, darkly. “I don’t know what Sheriff McGuire is playing at. There’s no need to put Joe in chains. He’s just a suspect. Its not as though there was an eye witness that saw him kill Suzanne.” Adam wondered briefly how Joe was coping with the news of Suzanne’s death. They had all liked the vivacious blonde girl.

They rode in silence for a while, each pre-occupied with thoughts of Joe and what he was going through. It wasn’t a long ride to Carson City – in fact, in many respects, it was nearer to the ranch than Virginia City – and they anticipated being back later that day.

But the reverie was shattered by gun fire. Bullets bit into the ground beside the surprised brothers, and for a moment, they drew rein. “What…?” Adam started, but Hoss realized that whoever it was, he was shooting at them.

“Come on!” he cried and spurred Chubb onwards. Sport took the hint and galloped after his stable mate. Hoss led them into a thicket, where he jumped down from Chubb and tethered his horse to a tree. Adam copied him and they crept to the edge of the cover, guns drawn. “Ya see him?” Hoss asked.

“No,” Adam replied, tersely. “Do you?”

“No,” Hoss grumbled. “Who’d ya reckon it is?”

“I have no idea,” Adam answered, his eyes still scanning the surrounding area. “But why do I get the feeling this has something to do with Joe?”

“Joe?” Hoss echoed. “How’d ya mean?”

“We’re going to Carson to get Seymour,” Adam reminded his brother. “And why are we getting Seymour? Because his testimony will secure Joe’s release. Someone is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. What I don’t know is who, or why. But I’ll tell you one thing, brother; we need to get Seymour as quickly as we can. I think Joe is in more danger than we originally thought.”

His face somber, Hoss glanced at Adam. “Ya think someone’s set Joe up?”

“Indeed I do. As I said, I don’t know who or why, but I know we’ve got to hurry. Remember what Pa said about the judge that’s coming today? That he doesn’t waste time? I have the nasty feeling that if we don’t get Seymour back to testify today, it’ll be too late!”

“Don’t say that!” Hoss cried and ducked as another shot tore through the foliage above his head.

“We’ve got to face facts,” Adam responded, firing back at the muzzle flash. “We’re the only people who can help Joe.”

“So how’re we gonna git out a here?” Hoss wanted to know.

“I guess we’ll have to kill whoever is shooting at us,” Adam replied, bleakly.

*****

“You aren’t gonna see the prisoner, Mr. Cartwright,” McGuire repeated quietly. “The trial is gonna start in a few minutes, and I’m not taking any chances before then.”

“He’s my son!” Ben objected. “Surely you don’t grudge me five minutes with my son?”

“Can’t do it,” McGuire replied. “I’ve got to get him over to the courthouse.”

“Does Hiram know?” Ben asked, rather shocked to find that the judge had literally just stepped off the stagecoach and was starting the trial less than half an hour later.

“That’s not my problem,” McGuire replied, blandly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, I’ve got to get the prisoner.” He blandly stared Ben down, making it clear he was not going anywhere near Joe while Ben was still there.

Realizing that he was just going to make things worse if he stayed, Ben left to seek out Hiram. It would be a disaster for Joe if Hiram wasn’t in court when the trial started. He wished fervently that he could be in two places at once, for he desperately wanted to see Joe, to make sure that his son was all right.

As soon as Ben was gone, McGuire collected what he would need for moving Joe and went into the cell area. Joe was sitting despondently on the cot, resting his chin on his hands. He looked up warily as McGuire came in and blanched. In his hands, McGuire held a long piece of steel with cuffs on either end. Joe knew at once that he was going to be wearing those within the next few minutes. He felt a quiver of disquiet in his belly, but rose obediently, determined not to make things worse for himself.

Smiling to himself, McGuire took off one of the cuffs Joe was wearing and locked it to the bars. Then he entered the cell, all the time acting as though Joe was in the habit of attacking him. He locked one end of the rigid cuffs to Joe’s free wrist, then forced the younger man against the bars while he freed Joe’s other wrist and then dragged it behind his back to lock into the other cuff. The metal bar held Joe’s hands about a foot apart and McGuire knew that they were desperately uncomfortable when worn behind the back.

“Let’s go,” he suggested and gave Joe a push that almost floored him. Joe barely managed to catch his balance. “Trial’s gonna start in a minute. You wouldn’t want to be late; the judge wouldn’t like that.” He laughed as he saw the touch of fear that crossed Joe’s face.

The walk to the court house was a nightmare for Joe. The rigid cuffs on his wrists forced him to arch his back, which immediately began to ache. The leg irons hampered his stride and McGuire kept pushing him, clearly wanting to see Joe fall all his length. It was only Joe’s natural athleticism and sense of balance that allowed him to keep his feet.

All the way across, Joe could feel the stares of the townsfolk. He could feel his face burning, but kept his head up. He had done nothing wrong, and when Adam and Hoss got back with Seymour, he would be set free. This thought kept him going and when he spied his father and Hiram at the courthouse, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief. He wasn’t alone.

There was no chance to speak to either of them. Joe was hustled into the courtroom and Ben was forced to take a seat in the gallery. Hiram went to Joe’s side and the judge came in. “All rise,” intoned the bailiff.

“Be seated,” Judge Whittaker said.

Awkwardly, Joe perched on the edge of his seat. Hiram shot McGuire an angry look and rose. “You Honor, might I ask on behalf of my client if the unnecessarily cruel restraints he is wearing could be removed?”

At once, McGuire rose. “Your Honor, this man is a suspected murderer. I deemed it safest for everyone concerned to keep him restrained. He is well known in the area for having a temper that frequently gets the better of him. That is why he is restrained.”

“That seems wise, Sheriff,” Whittaker nodded. “The restraints stay, Mr. Wood. The sheriff has the safety of the whole town in his mind.”

There was nothing more Hiram could say and he sat down again, leaning over briefly to whisper, “Sorry,” to Joe. Joe nodded, keeping his face neutral. With his character already on trial, he knew he had to be careful and not let any sign of his temper show. He had a really bad feeling about this.

“Let’s have opening statements and witnesses, please,” Whittaker went on. “I want this trial over by this afternoon. I have a busy calendar.”

*****

“We’ve bin here better’n two hours, Adam,” Hoss commented, glancing over at his older brother.

“You don’t need to tell me,” Adam snapped. “I’m as frustrated as you are.”

“I ain’t got many shells left,” Hoss mentioned. “What’re we gonna do?”

Peering out from the undergrowth, Adam didn’t answer immediately, as he went over the options in his mind. Finally, he glanced at Hoss. “As I see it, we’ve only got one choice,” he decided. “We’ve got to make a run for it.”

“Think that’s wise?” Hoss asked.

“Whoever this is doesn’t really want to kill us,” Adam reasoned. “He’s not making any attempt to come closer; he’s just keeping us pinned down. Every minute we’re here means a minute longer that Joe is in jail. I don’t think we’ve got a choice, Hoss.”

“All right,” Hoss agreed. “Let’s go.”

“Hold on, let’s put down some covering fire, make him think we’ve got to reload,” Adam suggested. “Then let’s get out of here.”

Accordingly, they fired some shots at the man who was shooting at them, then made a dive for their horses. Shots peppered the leaves around them, but none found their targets. Adam found it ironic that the person’s aim was better when the brothers were moving than it had been when they had been still.  He had the distinct feeling that they were being toyed with. It wasn’t going to be easy getting to or from Carson City. He put his heel to his horse and together, he and Hoss galloped out of the thicket and headed towards Carson City again.

*****

The court room was stuffy and Joe could feel sweat trickling down his back. He desperately wanted to turn his head and look at Ben, but he was afraid to draw attention to himself by doing so. Every movement was hampered by the chains he wore. Blinking, and drawing in a deep breath, Joe returned his attention to the proceedings.

At the moment, Todd Turner was on the stand and was singing exactly the tune the prosecutor wanted. “I seen Joe Cartwright comin’ out o’ Miss Webster’s house,” he confirmed. “It were about 3.30 in the afternoon. I thought he looked shifty, kind.”

“Objection,” Hiram said, standing. “That’s the witness’ opinion only and has no basis in fact.”

“Sustained,” the judge agreed. Ben wondered if the man really felt as reluctant as he had just sounded. In fact, Ben wasn’t at all sure that Joe was getting an impartial trial. The judge already seemed to have made up his mind that Joe was guilty. The problem was, Ben didn’t see what he could do.

By now, Hiram was on his feet, questioning the witness.  Turner couldn’t be shaken. He just kept repeating that he had seen Joe coming out of Suzanne’s house and no amount of questioning would change his mind. So Hiram called Joe to the stand.

“Where were you, Joe, at the time that Mr. Turner says he saw you?” Hiram began.

“I was in Carson City, on business,” Joe replied.

“Have you any witnesses that could prove that?” Hiram asked.

“Yes, the person I was with at the time could confirm it,” Joe nodded.

“Your Honor,” Hiram went on, smoothly, “I would like to ask for a recess in the trial until Mr. Cartwright’s eye witness can arrive here to testify on his behalf.”

“And how long is that likely to take?” Whittaker snapped.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Hiram admitted. “But I don’t expect it to be much longer.”

After a pause for thought, the judge nodded. “Prosecution can cross-examine,” he announced. “Then I will wait precisely one hour before expecting the jury to reach a decision. Do I take it, Mr. Wood that your entire defense rests on this witness?”

“Yes, You Honor,” Hiram replied, wishing that he had another answer.

“I see,” Whittaker responded, with a decidedly skeptical tone in his voice.

The prosecution’s questions were brief, but left Joe admitting that he had a temper and he had been known to have a night in the jail cooling off. They tried to imply that Joe and Suzanne’s relationship had been turbulent, but Hiram soon stopped that line. However, they all knew it was already too late – the jury had heard it.

But at last the prosecution rested and Joe and Hiram exchanged a wordless look. If Seymour didn’t arrive on time, Joe was doomed. The prosecution had made much of their eye witness and without Seymour, Joe had nothing to prove his innocence.

“This court is in recess for one hour,” Whittaker declared, banging his gavel. “If your witness has not appeared by then, Mr. Wood, I will tell the jury to come to a decision. Sheriff, take the defendant back to his cell.” He rose and everyone rose with him.

“Come on, Cartwright,” McGuire ordered, looming over Joe. He yanked the helpless young man to his feet and began to drag him away. “Step back, folks,” he told the watching audience. “Don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

As Joe passed him, Ben saw a flash of despair on his son’s face. McGuire was doing everything he could to reinforce the notion of Joe’s guilt in everyone’s mind. He had taken one step in Joe’s wake when Hiram put a hand on his arm. “Ben,” he hissed urgently and drew the patriarch of the Ponderosa to one side so no one could over hear them. “When are Adam and Hoss likely to arrive?” he asked. “It’s looking bad.”

“I thought they’d be here before now,” Ben admitted. “Do you think something’s happened to them?”

“I hope not,” Hiram replied. “Ben, I have to be honest. If Seymour doesn’t get here within the next hour, Joe is not going to win. Already, the jury look convinced of his guilt.”

“But he’s not guilty!” Ben cried.

“I know, but the evidence is against him right now, even if it is circumstantial.” Hiram stroked his beard. “I hope that the judge will be lenient, but Ben, I think its best to prepare yourself – its possible Joe could hang.” He wished he didn’t have to say that, but he felt Ben – and Joe – ought to be prepared for every outcome and right now, it looked bad.

“I – I see,” Ben stuttered. He backed away from his lawyer, muttering something about looking for Adam and Hoss, but he just needed to be alone. He couldn’t believe that his youngest son faced such an ignominious death. How could he let Joe face this, knowing he was innocent?

There was no sign of his older sons and Ben began to despair. Slowly, he walked over to the jail, where he knew he Joe needed him.

*****

“Well?” Joe Cartwright looked up anxiously as his father came into the cell area of Virginia City jail. “Any sign of them?”

“No,” Ben replied, hating to crush his son’s hope. He crossed to stand right at the bars, wishing that he could be in the cell with his son, wishing that it was he who was in Joe’s place. “But they’ll come, son. You know they will.”

Rising, Joe began to pace restlessly. “I know Adam and Hoss will try to get here on time, Pa,” he agreed in a low voice. “But what if they don’t?” He swung round to face Ben again. “Pa I’m afraid,” he confessed. “What if they don’t get here on time? I don’t want to hang!”

“It won’t come to that!” Ben lied desperately. He wanted to have Joe in his arms, soothing the young man’s fears, as he had soothed them when Joe was a child. But his son was a man grown and facing his fears head on.

Stopping his awkward pacing, Joe leant his head against the bars. He was still cruelly shackled and that seemed almost the worst indignity to Ben. He reached through the bars and began to rub Joe’s shoulders. The muscles were tense. “But it might,” he whispered, so low that Ben had to strain to hear him. “I know that this judge thinks I’m guilty and so do a lot of the jury.” He lifted his head and Ben saw tears in Joe’s eyes, but they didn’t fall. “Something’s happened to Adam and Hoss,” he went on. “They aren’t going to get here. Pa, someone is out to kill me, but I don’t know who, or why! I’m going to die for a crime I didn’t commit, Pa, and I’m scared.”

In the face of Joe’s courage, Ben didn’t feel he could lie again. “I’m scared, too,” he admitted. “But don’t give up, Joe. Adam and Hoss will do everything they can to get Seymour here.”

There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. Joe stayed leaning on the bars. Ben’s hands rubbed Joe’s shoulders constantly, the touch comforting them both. Time was their enemy and the big clock in the jail office seemed to be ticking with virulent loudness. Joe knew the ticking marked the last minutes of his life. Somehow, he knew that his brothers wouldn’t get back in time.

For the first time, Joe thought about Suzanne. Snatches of conversations they had had played back in his mind. “Thank you for the posy of flowers,” Suzanne said, as Joe came into the house.

“What posy?” Joe replied. 

“Why, this one,” Suzanne replied, pointing to the little posy of flowers in a vase. “I found them on the porch not an hour ago. I thought you had left them there as a surprise.” 

“I wish I had,” Joe sighed. “But I’ve just arrived in town.”

Lifting his head slightly, Joe frowned. That hadn’t been the only incident in the last week.

“Someone followed me home,” Suzanne confessed, as Joe saw her to her door. “Last night. I was across visiting Lily Thompson’s new baby, and someone followed me. I didn’t see who it was, but I could hear their footsteps behind me” 

“You must have a secret admirer,” Joe responded, trying to take the fear out of the situation for her. “I wonder who it could be.” 

Smiling coquettishly, Suzanne teased, “The new sheriff told me yesterday in the store that I was the most beautiful school teacher he’d ever seen.” 

“I quite agree,” Joe breathed, leaning in to kiss her.

“Pa,” Joe said, but at that moment, McGuire came into the cell area.

“Time to go,” McGuire told them, bluntly. “Please step aside, Mr. Cartwright. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” He unlocked the cell and took Joe’s arm in a bruising grip. “Let’s go, Cartwright, and no nonsense.” Dragging Joe after him, they left the jail.

Stumbling across the street, Joe was still trying to make sense of the snippets of memory. Someone had been following Suzanne. The sheriff had said she was beautiful. It didn’t add up to anything much, but Joe was sure it meant something. But how was he going to find out?

There was no sign of Adam and Hoss and Joe felt his breath shorten as he realized that he was about to discover his fate. He was frightened and he battled to keep the fear from his face. Hiram was waiting for him and the lawyer’s face was grave. Joe didn’t even try to smile. It was taking all his concentration not to scream and beg and cry. He wondered if everyone could see his legs shaking or if they thought he stumbled just because of the chains. He hoped he wouldn’t throw up.

Before Joe could even sit down, Judge Whittaker came in and sat down, banging the gavel. “Has the new witness appeared?” he asked.

“No, You Honor,” Hiram replied. “If we could just have some more time…”

“Your time is up,” Whitaker replied. “You’ve had ample time. Gentlemen of the jury, I want a verdict within the next 15 minutes. I don’t have all day.”

The jury shuffled out and the audience began to murmur. Ben leaned forward to rest a hand on Joe’s shoulder, but his son didn’t turn his head to look at Ben. Joe feared that if he did, he would lose his fragile composure. Joe desperately wanted to pee, to throw up, to climb on his father’s lap and hide from the world. He could do none of those things and he tried to sit still. From across the court room, McGuire smirked at him.

Within five minutes, the jury was back and as Joe rose to hear the verdict, he knew already what it was.

“Guilty,” replied the foreman, although he couldn’t meet Joe’s gaze.

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, you have been found guilty of the rape and murder of Suzanne Webster. Have you anything to say before I pass sentence?”

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied, his voice shaking ever so slightly. He drew in a deep breath. “I am innocent and if I had been allowed more time for my witness to appear, I would have proved it.”

“You were granted ample time,” Whitaker snapped. “Joseph Cartwright, I hereby sentence you to hang from the neck until dead. I want the sentence carried out immediately. You will be allowed five minutes to say goodbye to your family.” He banged the gavel down and immediately left the room. From behind him, Joe heard Ben cry out in protest.

Utterly numb, beyond frightened now, Joe was led from the courthouse back to the jail. There, McGuire forced him to lie flat so he could removed the cuffs that Joe wore, and bound Joe’s hands behind him with rope. He savagely tightened the rough hemp, but Joe was almost beyond caring.

“Joe.” The soft voice drew Joe from his internal vista of hell and Joe realized that his father was sitting on the cot beside him. He fell into those familiar arms and felt his father’s tears falling on him. “Joe, I can’t let this happen,” Ben whispered.

“Pa, don’t do anything,” Joe replied, urgently, shaken out of his reverie. “Please! He’ll put you in jail! Pa, please!” He swallowed. “Pa, listen.” Quickly, Joe told Ben about the things he remembered Suzanne telling him. “I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with McGuire or not, Pa, but please, don’t do anything to make him arrest you. Please!”

“Joe…” Troubled, Ben didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know if could just stand back and allow his innocent son to be hanged.

“Time’s up,” McGuire declared, roughly. He came into the cell and dragged Joe to his feet. “Let’s go, Cartwright.”

The fear rose in Joe’s throat once more. “I love you, Pa,” he croaked.

Outside in the jail yard, McGuire forced Joe to climb the scaffold. He sniggered aloud as Joe tripped on the chains he still wore. At the top, he positioned Joe over the trapdoor and removed the leg irons, binding Joe’s ankles together with another length of rope. The noose was slipped over Joe’s neck and snugged tight under his right ear. “I’m looking forward to this,” he whispered to Joe as he worked. He slipped a gag between Joe’s teeth and ignored Ben’s outraged protests. “I swore I’d make you pay for having Suzanne. She refused me, you know. I raped and killed her, but you’ll hang for it!” He laughed as he stepped away, leaving Joe writhing helplessly in his bonds, now knowing who was behind this and why.

At the bottom of the scaffold, McGuire stepped into position, his hand going to the release lever. He glanced at Ben. “There had better not be trouble from you, Mr. Cartwright,” he warned and all the politeness of the past couple of days had gone from his voice.

Suddenly, from down the street, there came the thunder of horses’ hooves. The crowd murmured interestedly and turned to look.  Joe lifted his head and saw, to his intense relief, Adam, Hoss and Seymour riding down the street at a gallop. “Wait!” Adam cried. “Stop!”

Relief flared through both Ben and Joe. Joe dropped his gaze to look at Ben. At once, McGuire realized the significance of that shout and he pulled the lever. Ben dived towards him – but too late.

For a horrid moment, Ben could see Joe hanging from the rope, but could do nothing. Then the spell broke and he dived for the steps of the scaffold, but McGuire was in his way. “Oh no you don’t!” he grated and swung at Ben.

Furious, terrified, Ben punched back and decked the sheriff. At once, he sprang up the steps, fumbling for the knife he carried in his pockets. Joe was choking, horrid noises coming from behind the gag and Ben could only imagine his son’s pain and fear. Desperately, he began to hack at the rope.

On the ground, confusion reigned. Adam dived off his horse, and shoved through the crowd, trying to reach the sheriff, who had picked himself up and drawn his gun. Before Adam could reach him, McGuire fired, hitting Joe, just as Ben severed the last strands of the rope. Joe plummeted the last few feet to the ground, to lie in a bloody, broken heap as Adam tackled the sheriff, knocking him off his feet.

“What’s the meaning of this?” shouted a voice and Judge Whitaker stormed into the yard.

“We’ve brought your eye witness,” Adam replied, coldly, as Ben hurried to Joe’s side. Adam gestured to Seymour and hauled McGuire to his feet.

“Who are you?” McGuire snarled, trying to shake Adam off, and failing.

Dismounting, Seymour Dawson, Governor of the State of Nevada, walked over to the startled judge. “I’m Seymour Dawson,” he replied. “And Joe Cartwright was sitting in my office at the State Legislature at the time your so-called witness saw him leaving the young lady’s house. Quite a number of my staff also saw Joe and are prepared to testify to that fact.” He glanced over at Ben. “Ben? Is Joe all right?”

“We need the doctor,” Ben replied, not having been aware of the conversation to that point. “Quickly!”

As Hoss raced across the street, Whitaker cleared his throat. “I declare Joe Cartwright not guilty,” he muttered, but Seymour snorted.

“It’s not that easy,” he replied. “Whitaker, you won’t ever be judging anyone again. McGuire, you’re under arrest. Someone find that witness and put him in the jail, too.”

Willing hands took charge of the former sheriff and judge while Adam hurried to kneel at his younger brother’s side. Joe was unconscious and Adam swiftly untied him, wincing at the ugly bruises and rope burns on his wrists. Ben had already removed the noose and the gag and was cradling Joe in his arms. “Please, God, don’t let me lose him now,” he prayed.

*****

Time had ceased to have any meaning for Ben Cartwright. He sat numbly in the doctor’s waiting room, his mind constantly replaying the horrific image of his youngest son dangling from that noose on the scaffold. Had Joe been hanging for too many seconds? Would he survive?

At last, sometime after midnight, the door to the surgery opened and Paul Martin came out. He looked grim and tired. Ben was on his feet instantly, Adam, Hoss and Seymour only slightly after him. “Is he…?” Ben began.

“Joe’s very ill,” Paul replied. “But he’s holding his own right now. His throat is badly swollen and I’m keeping a close eye on his breathing. I managed to take the bullet out of his shoulder without an anesthetic, but it was hard on him. If he had any voice right now, I’m sure he would have screamed the house down.” Paul swallowed. “I don’t know if he’ll ever speak again; I’m afraid we’ll just have to wait and see. There’s nothing more I can do for him. He’s sleeping right now, but why don’t you go in.”

Tears welled in Ben’s eyes and he hurried past Paul. Hoss was right on his heels. Seymour and Adam lingered for another moment. “Is there nothing else you can try?” Adam whispered.

“Nothing,” Paul answered, wishing that there was. “I’m sorry.”

“I won’t go in,” Seymour told Paul. “I’m going over to the hotel in a minute. The US Marshal that arrived some time ago needs to know how Joe is. Do you think…?” Seymour stopped, swallowed and started again. “Paul, I’ve known you a long time. Tell me the truth. Will Joe live?”

“I wish I knew, Seymour,” Paul sighed, sinking into the chair Ben had so recently vacated. “His throat was badly injured and if his windpipe swells any more, I’m going to be forced to do a tracheotomy, but I don’t know if his throat will stand up to that operation. I really won’t know more until tomorrow – or unless Joe dies.”

There was nothing Seymour could say and he left the office quietly. The streets of Virginia City were silent and still and Seymour was glad of the solitude. What had happened to Joe was not his fault, nor was it Adam or Hoss’. They had come as quickly as possible and even then, it had been close. Adam had finally killed the man sniping at them just outside of town. How none of them had been hurt was a miracle. But still, Seymour felt guilty. He could punish the men responsible and he would, but if Joe died, it would not bring him back.

*****

The dark red rope burn on Joe’s neck stood out starkly against his pale skin. Ben sat down wordlessly by the bed, taking Joe’s limp hand in his. There were bandages around both Joe’s wrists and around the wound on his shoulder. His breathing was ragged and shallow. “I’m here, Joe,” he whispered, his voice husky with tears. “We’re all here.”

Leaning in from the other side, Hoss ruffled Joe’s tangled curls. “I’m right here, Punkin,” he added. “Ya hurry an’ git better, ya hear?”

“You’re safe now, Joe,” Adam added.

Paul came back into the room and came over to check on Joe. He felt his patient’s pulse and listened to his heart, then gently felt the swollen, bruised throat. The Cartwrights watched him, riveted, but Paul’s face gave nothing away. He pulled the bandages on Joe’s shoulder aside slightly and Ben winced at the raw wound there. Then Paul continued to check Joe all over and as he reached to tug Joe’s boots off, his face changed.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“I think Joe’s got a broken ankle,” Paul replied. “Adam, grab his leg gently below the knee for me please, while I pull this boot off.” Paul was as gentle as he could be, but Joe still moaned in pain; his eyes stayed shut.

There was no question that the ankle was broken. Paul carefully manipulated it back into place and set about fashioning a plaster cast, which distracted the Cartwrights slightly. Once the ankle was set, Paul checked Joe’s breathing again. “He’s still holding his own,” Paul reported. “And that’s good. But I still don’t know how it’s going to go.” He didn’t suggest that any of them leave. Joe could take a turn for the worse and die before any of them could be summoned back and Paul didn’t want that to happen. He went and sat down, and fell asleep, totally against his will.

*****

Somewhere outside, a little bird was singing its heart out, telling the world that dawn had broken again. Ben envied the bird’s joy in life. His world had narrowed to the rasping in and out of Joe’s breathing. He was vaguely aware of Adam and Hoss sleeping in chairs in the room, and of Paul Martin lost in slumber in another chair, but those were subliminal thoughts. The rest of Ben’s being was centered on willing Joe to live.

And at last, Ben’s prayers were answered. Joe’s eyes opened slightly and he groaned. Ben tightened his grip and leaned forward. “Joe, can you hear me? Don’t try to move; you’ve been hurt.”

Green eyes dulled with pain moved round the room, then fastened back on Ben’s face. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Joe looked astonished, then panicky as he tried again, and still nothing happened.

“Take it easy, Joe,” Ben soothed. “Your throat was hurt and you can’t speak at the moment. Don’t worry; everything will be all right.”

By now, Paul had been roused by Ben’s voice and was leaning over Joe. “You gave us quite a fright,” he commented cheerfully to Joe. “But I think you’re going to be all right, young man.”

Again, Joe opened his mouth to speak and nothing happened. He let go of Ben’s hand and pretended to write. At once, Paul nodded and brought him paper.

McGuire told me he killed Suzanne, Joe wrote. He wanted her and she turned him down.

“Take this over to the marshal at once,” Ben instructed a sleepy Adam.

“With pleasure,” Adam replied, after scanning the note. He hurried out of the door.

Sighing, Joe closed his eyes again. He was exhausted by that small effort. His throat hurt, his shoulder hurt and his foot hurt. He frowned and opened his eyes. Everyone was watching him anxiously and Joe colored slightly. He gestured to his throat, shoulder and down to his foot and opened his eyes wide.

“You remember what happened?” Paul asked. Joe nodded gingerly. “Your throat is sore because of the rope. You suffered partial strangulation and your throat is very swollen and bruised. That’s why you can’t talk. You were shot and the fall broke your ankle.”

Joe reached for the pen againWill I be able to talk again? he wrote.

“I hope so,” Paul replied, as evenly as he could. “But I don’t know. I don’t know how long it will take for the swelling to go down. I’m sorry.”

Nodding, Joe closed his eyes as desolation swept over him. He was glad to be alive, but, weak as he was, he couldn’t take the news that he might never talk again equably. He felt tears burning behind his lids and a few scalding drops seeped out from beneath his lashes and ran sideways down his face into his hair. A hand came to rest on his forehead and Joe didn’t need to open his eyes to know it was Ben. He moved instinctively into his father’s warmth and allowed himself the luxury of a few tears. It hurt to cry, but the tears were cathartic and Joe slid back into sleep.

Leaning back, Ben blinked away tears from his own eyes. For the first time, he faced the prospect that they would have a permanent reminder of Joe’s ordeal and he didn’t know if he was strong enough to face it.

Hoss’ hand came down on his shoulder and squeezed gently. Ben put his own hand up to cover Hoss’ and gained a little measure of comfort, knowing that his family was close.

*****

A couple of days later, Joe was allowed to go home. His breathing was much improved but his throat was still swollen and he was still unable to talk. Roy Coffee was back from Carson City, but he wasn’t to have a full jailhouse for very long. The US marshal was taking McGuire, Whitaker and Turner back with him to stand trial in Carson City. The gunman who had tried so hard to stop Adam and Hoss had been identified as McGuire’s deputy sheriff from his last job, a man called Tobin. Joe had given the marshal a written statement, so that he wouldn’t have to face the ordeal of another trial.

It was frustrating for Joe. He was unable to get around much because of his ankle and he found plenty of time to think. Initially, he was recovering his strength, but as he got better, he found himself grieving for Suzanne for the first time and many nights his sleep was broken by nightmares, where he was choking. Paul finally started giving him sleeping powders, which Ben hid in Joe’s after supper coffee. Joe wasn’t fooled by this, but since the drugged, dreamless, sleep was preferable to the nightmares, he didn’t complain.

In fact, Joe was so subdued that his family was getting worried. It was almost impossible to have a conversation, since Joe had to write anything down and the frustration made Joe withdraw. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but Joe privately thought that he would never regain his ability to speak and he wasn’t sure what his future held for him.

About a month after his ordeal, Joe was slowly making his way down stairs for supper. His shoulder was much better and he was able to use a crutch to get about. He was no more than a step or two from the top when the door opened to admit Ben, Adam and Hoss. He waved and smiled at them, and continued to watch as they called a greeting to him and began to take off their gun belts. Absently, Joe moved the crutch down to the next step, without looking at what he was doing, and missed the step entirely.

With his balance gone, Joe groped wildly for the banister with his other hand and missed. With a shriek, he toppled down the stairs, to land in a crumpled heap on the landing.

“Joe!” Ben leapt across the room and knelt by Joe’s side. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked, seeing blood on his son’s face where he had hit it on the railing of the landing.

He was appalled when Joe began to laugh. Joe laughed so hard that he was soon gasping for air, mopping at the blood running from his nose, coughing and choking.

“Joe?” Ben exchanged wordless glances with his other sons, wondering if Joe had somehow hurt himself very badly.

Still laughing, Joe grasped Ben’s arm. Suddenly, his laughter died and changed into a hiccup, which caught on a sob. “I’m laughing,” he whispered. “I shouted when I fell. I can talk again.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as Joe was helped to his feet and tenderly laid on the settee. Ben repeated Joe’s name over and over again, like a prayer of thankfulness. Joe seemed unable to stop talking, whispering to begin with, but as his voice regained strength, louder and louder. It was as though all the words Joe had wanted to say for the past month were coming flooding out and none of them wanted him to stop.

Eventually, Joe’s voice tired and his voice dropped to a whisper again. They were all tired and no one had even brought water to clean the blood from Joe’s face. It wasn’t until he fell asleep on the couch that it occurred to Ben.

“I don’t care if they do say ‘silence is golden’,” Ben told his boys. “I hope I never hear that kind of silence again.”

***End***

Return to Rona’s Bonanza Home Page

Return to the WWB Author Index

Return to the WWB Library

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.