Too Young to Die – Book 1 (jfclover)

Summary:  A WHN for Season 8’s Justice.  Joe is forced to face the unimaginable when he seeks justice after his fiancée is murdered.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:   Western
Rated: G
Word Count:   19,000


 

 You want to believe there is one relationship in life that’s beyond betrayal; a relationship that’s beyond that kind of hurt.  And there isn’t.  —  Caleb Carr

The Territorial Enterprise: January 9, 1867

Special Sunday Edition

~*~*~*~*~

Murder at Midnight

              

Sally Bristol found dead

George Bristol, longtime resident, owner, and president of The Virginia City Bank was devastated to find his daughter had been killed after she’d returned home from a local dance last evening. Twenty-four-year-old Sally Ann Bristol was the banker’s only child and currently worked for her father as one of his bank tellers.  Bristol, being too distraught to discuss the incident with reporters, requested the Enterprise question Deputy Foster about the previous night’s events.

“All we have to go on at this time is that Miss Bristol was killed at approximately midnight in the front parlor of her home.  Doctor Paul Martin identified the bruising to Sally’s neck as an obvious sign of strangulation and from the angle of the handprints, the doctor and I both confirmed the young woman was attacked from behind.

“There was no sign of forced entry and no traces of a violent struggle, which indicates the girl might have been acquainted with her assailant.  No suspects are currently being held in connection with Miss Bristol’s murder, but Sheriff Coffee and I hope to have this case cleared up as soon as possible.”

Deputy Clem Foster

*****                                    

Although I plan to tell you the entire story, I’ll have to backtrack a bit and fill you in on some of the more important details that took place before this special edition of the Enterprise hit the streets on Sunday mornin’.  In fact, I’ll start at the very beginning so you can get the gist of what was happenin’ around the Ponderosa before Miss Sally was murdered.

This is mainly a story about my little brother, but when something like this happens, it affects the whole family.  Me, Pa and Joe all had to come to terms with Sally’s death, but it weren’t me or Pa who was in love with her or plannin’ to marry her come spring.  That was my little brother, Joseph.

So, I’ll start about a month back when a package arrived in the post, and my little brother whooped and hollered like a kid with a brand new toy. Covered in brown paper and tied with string, he ripped through the outer wrapping faster’n a kid on Christmas morning.  I stood behind him, wondering what could possibly have him nearly shakin’ in his boots, until he opened the small black box and held the diamond and ruby ring up for me to see.

“What’d you think, Hoss,” he said.  “Think she’ll like it?”

“Who?”  I teased.

“Who do you think, ya knucklehead.”

I couldn’t help but give the kid grief after all; he was marryin’ the prettiest little gal in town, and he’d asked me to be his best man.  Maybe he would have had both of us stand up with him if Adam hadn’t moved away a couple years back, but I was the only brother Joe had left, and I planned to be the best man a best man could possibly be.  But after seeing that ring, Joseph was as giddy as a flock of chickens at feedin’ time.  He never was one to stand still, and something this important ‘bout sent him over the edge.

“I saw the ring in a catalog down at Ira’s Emporium,” he said, running his index finger over the setting.  “He didn’t have anything like this one in stock so I had to order it special from San Francisco.  Sure hope I ordered the right size.”

“Why don’t you try it on, little brother.  You ain’t a whole lot bigger’n Miss Sally.”  Even though Joe rolled his eyes at my comment, I draped my arm over his shoulder and leaned in for a better look.  I ran my own finger over the diamond and rubies.  “It’s a beauty all right.”

“It is, isn’t it,” he said, pushing my fat fingers away.

“Aw, Joe, I ain’t gonna break it or nothin’,” I said.  “Diamonds don’t break.  You know better’n that.”

“Think I’ll give it to Sally before the dance Saturday night,” Joe said, tilting the box this way and that and holding it up to the light for a closer look. “Then we can tell everybody all at once.”

“Tell ‘em what, Joe?”  This was way too much fun to stop teasin’.  Every time Joe got excited, he became as touchy as an old mama bear protectin’ her young.  No way was I gonna back off now.

“That we’re engaged,” he said, shaking his head.  “That’s what.”

“Oh, oh yeah,” I said.  “Good thinkin’, little brother.”

Although the wedding date hadn’t been confirmed, Joe and I had talked about the changes that would take place after he and Sally were married.  He addressed his concerns over living arrangements and how they might have to stay on at the house until he could build a home of their own.  And Joe, always one to get-my-goat whenever possible, mentioned I’d have to contain my snoring or Sally would probably run out on him before the marriage was even consummated.

Living arrangements weren’t the only thing to consider, and Joe and I both realized how having a woman living in the house would affect our normal routine.  ‘Course we’d had women visitors in the past, but Joe and I was usually relieved when it was time for them to leave.  But this time things would be different.  Pa and I were real fond of Sally Bristol, and she’d be more’n welcome to stay in our house forever.

Sally weren’t no newcomer to town like most of the pretty gals Joe fell head-over-heels over in the past.  In fact, she was Joe’s his first love when they was just young’uns in school.  I even remember a time when Little Joe’s teacher, Miss Jones, sent a note home to Pa, talkin’ ‘bout the disruptive situation in her classroom.  Since Joe sat in the desk behind Sally’s, he would constantly pull her blonde pigtails, which was his ten-year-old way of saying he liked her, liked her more than any other girl in class.

Pa sent a note back to Joe’s teacher with a simple solution to the problem.  Move Joe to another desk in the room.  ‘Course, Pa took action at home, and I doubt my little brother sat down comfortable-like for a week, but discussions over pullin’ pigtails was never an issue again.

So, when Joe left school at sixteen, he and Sally seemed to go their separate ways until they bumped into each other—literally—at Jake’s mercantile.  He told me and Pa that night at supper how sparks flew between ‘em like a summer lightnin’ storm.  Them were Joe’s words, not mine ‘cause sometimes Joe tries to imitate our older brother, Adam, and his fancy words, but somehow it don’t always come out just right.

“I bent down to pick up her packages and our eyes met,” Joe said with that kinda dazed, I’m-in-love look in his eyes.  “It was like magic—like we were meeting for the first time.”  Well, you get the picture.  It weren’t the first time my little brother had fallen in love, and Pa and I knew we’d never hear the end of it until—well, sometimes love don’t always work out the way Joe planned.

‘Course it don’t take much for Joseph to fall in love, but he and Sally went way back, nearly fifteen years, and it seemed that little pigtail incident weren’t totally one-sided.  We found out later, it was Sally’s way of flirtin’ back with her ten-year-old sweetheart ‘cause she’d flip them braids over her shoulder givin’ my little brother easy access.

Even though Sally had been brought up in town with all the hustle and bustle and noise day and night, she had no qualms about living out here in the country and giving up her duties at the bank.  She was a sweet girl and I knew since they was kids in school, not only were they a handsome pair, but they walked the same walk and talked the same talk.  Sally never put on airs; her feet were planted firmly on the ground, and I knew she’d fit in just fine with Joe and me and Pa out here on the Ponderosa.

*****

It was Saturday night and Joe was dressed for the dance.  And though it wasn’t a formal affair, he’d spent half the afternoon bathin’ and primpin’ hisself for the big night where he and Sally would show off her new ring and announce their engagement to all their friends.  I opted to sit this one out.  I didn’t have no steady girl and besides; this was Joe and Sally’s night to shine.

But by dawn the following morning, there was no sign of my little brother.  His bed hadn’t been slept in; he’d never made it home from the dance, and it was difficult to tell whether Pa was mad or just plain worried over Joe’s whereabouts.  It seemed strange to me too.  I didn’t think he and Sally would run off and do something crazy like deprivin’ my Pa of a big Ponderosa wedding but with Joe, you never could tell.

“You stay here, Hoss,” Pa said.  “I’ll ride in and see what’s happened to your younger brother.”  When Joe acted badly, he suddenly became my brother rather than Pa’s son.  It weren’t hard to take notice of that over the years, but I held my tongue.  Although I wanted to argue about bein’ left behind, I let it go this time.  We’d just hired a couple of new men, and someone had to stay home to assign the day’s duties.  I had no choice but to let Pa ride into town alone.

If Mr. Bristol told Pa that Sally never made it home neither, it wouldn’t take much to know what them two had done without considerin’ no one but themselves.  They was both old enough to wake a judge and sign the papers.  The look on Pa’s face couldn’t be matched by anyone if that were the case, but I couldn’t waste all day daydreamin’ when there was work to be done.

Joe and Sally had been inseparable over the past few weeks.  They’d picnicked together and taken long buggy rides on Sunday afternoons.  Joe would slip into town when Sally got off work and surprise her with some little trinket he thought she might like.  Sometimes, he’d bring her out to the house for Sunday dinner, just so she could get used to her future surroundings.

It wasn’t too long ago when Joe yanked me away from my breakfast saying he had something special to show me.  He’d already saddled our horses and before long, we were riding out toward Crescent Falls.  “What could be so dang special all the way out here?” I asked.

“Just wait, brother.

It weren’t but five minutes later when a herd of about thirty mustangs burst their way through the canyon and into a narrow valley.  “See the brown and white paint near the front of the pack?”  Joe pointed to a pony he’d obviously had his eye on for some time.  “See her?”

“Yeah, I see her.”

“I’ve been watching her for about two weeks,” he said, “and I think she’s the one.”

“Is that where you been runnin’ off to?”

“Yep.”

“What’d ya mean she’s the one,” I asked after realizing what Joe had said.

“For Sally—for a wedding present.”

It’s funny how just one word or phrase can trigger some past, long-forgotten memory.  But the memory of a little palomino I’d raised from a foal came to mind like it was only yesterday.  I’d been in love with Margie Owens for what seemed like a lifetime, and I’d finally gotten up the nerve to ask her to marry me.  The little palomino I’d raised would be a wedding gift, just like Joe was plannin’ for Sally.  Although things didn’t work out for Margie and me, Joe and Sally were a sure thing.

“She’s fast, Joe,” I said.  “Think you can catch her?”

“Just watch me.”

With a strong gray stallion leadin’ the herd, Joe held his coiled rope tight to his left thigh as he rode down the hill and into the open valley.  I shook my head in awe; my little brother was a sight to see and if nothing else, Joe’s determination would put a rope over that paint’s head before she even realized he’d mingled hisself in with the herd.

He’d caught her that day, and he’d worked her every day for the past month.  “Think she’ll be ready by the wedding?”  I asked.

“You bet she will.”

Joe walked her inside the corral and she was behaving accordingly.  Forward and back, sidestep and halt—he seemed to have her at his beck and call.

“You name her yet?”

“Nope, that’s up to Sally, but she seems in pretty good shape don’t you think?”

“She and Cochise will sure make a handsome pair, Joe.”

“I think so too.”  Joe’s cocky smile said it all.  He was in love and he was happy; and no one could take away the true feeling of pride he felt at that very moment.

*****

Joe let the paint pony loose a couple days after the funeral.  He wouldn’t let no one else ride out with him.  He led her out of the barn with a simple halter and off they rode back to the open meadow where he’d first seen her.  After all the time he’d spent gentling her, I was sad to see her go, but I didn’t ever say nothin’.  Neither did Pa.  We just watched Joe ride away.

Everyone’s life changed when Sally was killed.  Not just my little brother’s, but somethin’ this tragic and unforeseen upsets all parties involved.  Sally had been murdered, no suspects had been charged, and if Joe hadn’t been sittin’ in Clem’s office, carryin’ on about his wedding plans at midnight last Saturday night, he might have been a suspect hisself.

Sally’s Pa had arranged the funeral, but I didn’t know whether Joe would make it through the service or not. I’d never seen him so bad off as he was that day.  Sally wasn’t the first love my brother had lost; there’d been others along the way, and Joe had grieved them all.  But there was something different about Miss Sally.  I never could put my finger on it, but maybe because Joe was older this time, maybe because he was so sure she was the right girl.  I don’t know; I just know he was awful broken up, and there weren’t nothin’ Pa or I could do or say to make things right.

Maybe none of us were meant to marry.  It sure seemed that way.  Even Adam had loved and lost, and it didn’t seem fair that not one of us could find a woman and settle down to a life like our pa had three times over.  I ain’t saying Pa had it easy by any means.  He’d lost three wives and it’s hard for me to imagine how he survived all them tragic events, but he’d always said it was the three of us that kept him goin’.  I guess everyone survives in their own way, and I hoped Joseph would find his way too.  But when I nearly had to carry him back to our buggy when the service was over, I was beginnin’ to realize just how deeply he’d been in love.

The next few days were rough.  Joe kept to hisself; he couldn’t eat or sleep, but he kept busy.  Idle time was his enemy.  And even though Pa had tried to break through the hardened shell Joe had surrounded hisself with, Pa would return, shaking his head, and I knew nothing good had come of their time together.  Some days, Joe would ride out early and we wouldn’t see him again until nightfall.  Neither of us asked where he’d been; it really didn’t matter. He was hurtin’ and only time would heal the hurt he felt inside.  Pa was awful worried, but I knew Joe would come around when the time was right.

*****

“You better go wake your brother,” Pa said.  “We’ve got a full day ahead of us.”

“He ain’t up there, Pa.”  I’d glanced inside Joe’s room before I came down to breakfast and noticed his bed hadn’t been slept in.  It wasn’t the first time he’d sneaked off during the night; he’d barely slept over the past two weeks, and he’d become agitated and fragile in his thinkin’.  “I’ll check outside,” I said.

“Thank you, son.”

As I closed the front door behind me, I looked up to see Joe rounding the barn on Cochise at a slow, deliberate pace.  “Mornin’,” I said overly cheerful.  I crossed the yard and met my little brother halfway.  “Why don’t you go eat somethin’ and I’ll put up your horse.”

“I can put up my own horse.”

“I know you can,” I replied, “but you look tired, and Pa’s waitin’ for ya—says we got a full day.”

Joe moaned at the prospect of heading out with Pa and me after ridin’ all night, but Pa was only trying to divert my little brother’s attention back to normal ranch work, eliminating any leftover energy so Joe might work up an appetite or fall asleep at night.

“Come on,” I said.  I wrapped my arm around Joe’s shoulders and guided him toward the house.  “Cochise can wait.  Let’s get some food in you.”

Joe nodded his head, but I noticed his chin start to quiver as he bit down on his bottom lip.  He was holdin’ everything inside, and the hurt was eatin’ at him more’n we could ever know.  “Wish I had the right words to say, little brother.”

“I know, Hoss.  I’m fine.”

Joe’s voice told a different story; my brother was far from fine.  “Sure you are,” I said.  I gave his shoulder a little squeeze, but I didn’t know what else to say.

The next couple of days were as close to normal as Pa and I could have hoped for.  Joe still struggled to eat and sleep, but we’d both noticed a change in his attitude and Pa was definitely pleased.  But, to use one of Adam’s fancy words, it was only a façade.  Joe was making plans, and Pa and I had been left unaware.

*****

“Go wake your brother, Hoss.”

“He’s gone, Pa.”

“Gone where?”

“Don’t know,” I said, “but I heard him ride out early this mornin’ while I was gettin’ dressed.”

Pa perched his elbows on the dining room table and his head fell into the palms of his hands.  I held back any comment I could have made over Joe being a big boy, and how he could take care of hisself without us worryin’ about where he went or when he’d return.  Instead, I settled for a couple more pancakes and kept my thoughts to myself.

“The boy worries me, Hoss.”

“I know he does, Pa, but Joe ain’t a little kid no more.”  I finally had to say what was on my mind.  Maybe it weren’t the right words to use on Pa, but I’d been too quiet for too long.  “You can’t keep worryin’ over every little thing he does.  Joe won’t do nothin’ foolish without thinkin’ things through.  You taught all of us better’n that.”  The look on Pa’s face told me I’d wasted my breath.

Pa and I worked until noon before the two of us rode into Virginia City in search of my little brother.  Pa seemed more concerned than usual and I realized now, Joe’s change in attitude over the last couple of days only meant he’d formed some kind of a plan, a way he could finally put an end to his misery.

He’d rattled on to Pa just yesterday about Horace Perkins, the nervous actin’ clerk who worked alongside Sally at her father’s bank.  Pa had noticed the young man, but he’d never given him a second thought until Joe insisted Horace knew something about Sally’s murder.

“You didn’t see him after the dance,” Joe had said to Pa.  “He was fallin’-down drunk, staggering toward Sally and me, and when I tried to help, after he’d tripped and fallen into the Bristol’s front fence, he came at me like some—some crazed animal.  He went for my neck, Pa.  He’d have choked me to death if Sally hadn’t witnessed his little performance from just a few feet away.”  But that weren’t all Joe had to say.  And as their conversation continued, Joe went on to tell Pa he thought Horace had murdered Sally hisself, and that’s what set Pa to worryin’.

I knew without havin’ to be told, the crowd of angry onlookers in front of the Virginia City jailhouse had something to do with my little brother.  And when Pa and I pulled our mounts up close to Roy’s office, the shouting and accusin’ remarks began.

“Heard Joe Cartwright shot the man who killed his fiancée,” one man hollered over the crowd.

“Is it true, Hoss?  Did Joe ride in gunnin’ for that madman?”  I’d known Cliff Watkins for as long as I can remember, and he knew darn well Joe wouldn’t do nothin’ of the sort.  “’Course, not,” I said.  I pushed Cliff out of my way.

A man I barely knew stepped up and faced my father.  “What happens now, Ben Cartwright?  All the money in the world can’t free that boy of yours from a murder charge.”

That was the third and final remark either of us cared to hear.  Pa shoved the man aside.  The anger must have showed on my face because the crowd parted and let the two of us through to Roy’s office.  The sheriff was prepared for our arrival.  He stood from his desk and met Pa and me head on.

“Take it easy, Ben.”

“You have my boy in jail?”

“He is, “Roy said, “and that’s where he’s gonna stay ‘til we sort this mess out.”

I knew Joseph weren’t guilty of outright murder.  Something was missin’ from the picture, and I prayed Joe could explain, that’s if Roy would let us all sit down and talk this thing out.  But Pa didn’t wait for permission from nobody.  He barged through them double doors to the cells in search of my little brother.  ‘Course, I followed right behind.

Each cell in Roy’s jail had an open-barred window, and we could still hear men jawin’ their nasty comments outside the stone walls.  A narrow cot and a wooden bucket were the only two items provided for any wild desperado held over for trial in Storey County.

Joe was lying on his side with his knees pulled halfway to his chest and from the overpowering stench filling the room; it was obvious he’d made use of the bucket.  His hands was palmed together under his head, but he pushed hisself up from the rope-suspension cot after Pa had forced his way back to the cells.

“Son?”

Joe shook his head.  His face was pale, and I could see fear cloudin’ his eyes when his hands gripped tightly to the iron bars keeping him separated from Pa and me.  Pa reached through the narrow space for Joe’s shoulder, which only made my little brother’s breathin’ seize like a hiccup in his throat.

“It wasn’t me, Pa,” Joe said.  His voice was shaky, but his words were clear enough.  “Someone else killed Horace.”

“Horace?”  Pa questioned.  “The bank clerk?”

Joe nodded his head.  “He’s dead, Pa.”

My father’s face looked as pale as Little Joe’s and like my brother, Pa gripped a tight hold of the cell bars too. I stepped up close behind him.  I weren’t sure if he would remain steady on his feet or not ‘cause he almost seemed more shocked at the news than Joe.

“You okay, Pa?”  I asked.

It seemed as though Pa was too busy catchin’ his breath over Joe’s remark than to answer my question.  Maybe ‘cause our little town had witnessed two murders in such a short period of time.  There were always gunfights when men got too drunk in saloons, but Sally and Horace were decent people and decent people, especially people we knew, weren’t s’posed to be killed.

“I—I’m fine, Hoss.”  Pa looked back at Joe as if he was seein’ him for the first time today but almost like he weren’t seein’ him at all.  “I better go talk to Roy.”

I was grateful when the sheriff let me inside the cell with Joe while he and Pa walked to the outer office to talk things through.  Of course, he took my gun with him, but that was Roy Coffee.  Pa would fill me in later but right now; I wanted to hear Joe’s side without interruption from either the sheriff or our pa.  We each took a seat on the saggin’ excuse for a bed.

“I heard all those men shouting at you and Pa when you rode in,” Joe said.  “Seems they’ve already convicted and sentenced me hang without the benefit of a trial, haven’t they?”

“Don’t you worry none ‘bout them, little brother.  There’s always an angry bunch of loudmouth fools in every town.”  I was upset over Joe hearin’ everything that was said, but it couldn’t be helped.  “Why don’t you tell ol’ Hoss what really happened.”

Joe ain’t one for sittin’ still and as soon as I asked him to explain his side of the story he was on his feet, pacing the tiny cell like one of them caged tigers I’d seen when the circus come through town.  Suddenly, he stopped cold, and I began to doubt whether I wanted to hear his side of the story or not.  Was it possible he was hidin’ something—somethin’ he was too ashamed or frightened to talk about?  Like a scared little boy, who couldn’t get a word passed his lips for fear of bein’ scolded, he was pleading with watery eyes, beggin’ me to understand what he was findin’ so difficult to say.

“I don’t remember.”

“Huh?”  Somehow, I found that hard to believe.  “What’s that mean, Little Joe?  You gotta remember somethin’.”

He flopped hisself back down on the bed and he hit with such force, I thought the ropes was gonna bust right through.

“Someone hit me from behind, Hoss.”

“Who?  And where was ya when all this happened?”

Joe must have told the story to Roy because he didn’t seem that keen on havin’ to repeat hisself.

“I rode into town early this morning,” he said.

“Yeah, I know all that.  Go on.”

“Well, I followed Horace Perkins to the livery after he left Mrs. Cutler’s boarding house.  He had a bag packed, and I knew neither Roy nor Clem planned to stop him from leaving town.”

“But why’d ya go and follow him, Joe?”  Suddenly, I was angry, and Joe knew by the look on my face I wasn’t gonna listen to no funny business.  “No one’s ever proved he was the one who—”

“But he is the one who killed Sally, Hoss,” Joe said adamantly.  “No one believes me, but I can feel it.  I know it was Horace.”

“Why?  ‘Cause he got drunk after the dance?  ‘Cause he acted like a fool?  That don’t make him a murderer.”

“You don’t understand.”  Joe was back on his feet, and I nearly got dizzy watchin’ him circle the cell.  “He was in love with Sally.  He saw the ring and—”

“And what?”  I said.  I grabbed Joe’s arm and turned him around to face me.  “You think he killed her ‘cause she loved you ‘stead of him?”

“Yes!”

“Aw, Joe,” I said, letting go of his arm.  “I seen that boy in the bank plenty of times.  He’s no more a killer’n you are.”

Over the years, my little brother had perfected a fierce, penetrating glare—like he was piercin’ the center of your heart with a sharp-edged dagger.  Sometimes, he’d get so mad his nostrils flared, and this was one of them times.  His prolonged look made me feel as though I was the one in question, not him.  I had to fight to keep eye contact when Joe got hisself riled like he was right now.  And when words escaped him, his stare could end a conversation with most people—but not with me.  I sat back down on the bed.

“So what happened at the livery?”  I asked, realizing we’d gotten off track.

Joe took a deep breath and sat back down beside me.  “I told Horace he wasn’t leaving town, and I shoved him away from his horse so he couldn’t ride out without answering my questions.”

“Just shoved?”

“Yeah, just shoved, Hoss, but he just stood there staring back.  He didn’t say a word, just stared like—like when you’ve got a deer in your sights.  He sensed trouble, but he was too scared to run.”

“Yeah, okay, then what happened?”

“I unfastened the loop on my gun and rested my hand over the butt.  I asked him why he killed Sally.”

Joe’s story had taken a bad turn when he mentioned his gun.  Maybe he should have been talking to a lawyer ‘stead of me.  Last thing I wanted was to testify against my own brother in a court of law.  “Maybe I shouldn’t hear no more, Joe.”

“No, Hoss,” he said.  He shook his head and planted his elbows on his knees.  “You got it all wrong, brother.  Horace told me straight out he had nothing to do with Sally’s death.  He started in with this explanation that Sally was his girl, always had been his girl.  He started to sweat; an innocent man wouldn’t sweat, Hoss.  He searched the livery for an escape but I wouldn’t let him go.  He begged me to leave him alone, but I couldn’t, Hoss.  I couldn’t let him leave town without knowing the truth.”

“So you been followin’ him all this time?”

“Yeah.”

“Joe,” I said shakin’ my head.  “You know better.  Why’d ya have to go and follow—”

“Because he killed a girl in Mason City before he killed Sally.”

“He what?”  Now I was really confused.

“I just found out the other day—from Clem, which makes it official, Hoss.”

“Then why ain’t Horace in jail?”

“’Cause he was never convicted, that’s why.”  Joe’s temper was back in full force.  “He’s a murderer, Hoss, and my gut tells me he killed both women.  I wasn’t about to let him go free a second time.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Just calm down.”  We was gettin’ off track again, and Joe had worked hisself up into such a lather, I didn’t know if he could even think straight.  “So what happened next?”

“Well—” Joe’s breathin’ was a might hesitant as he told the rest of the story.  “Horace said it was my fault Sally was dead.  That’s when I tore after him.  I grabbed his shirt collar—had a good chokehold too—but the next thing I remember was a sharp pain in the back of my head and falling sideways to the ground.  I—I must have blacked out because the next thing I knew, I was here.”

A good knock on the head explained why Joe had used the bucket in his cell.  It weren’t that he was just scared; he probably had a concussion, which I’m sure Paul Martin would note and use at the trial.  “Let’s get you looked at.  Has the doc been here to see you?”

“No, and I don’t need—”

“Yes, you do.”  I hollered at Roy to let me out.  I left to find Paul Martin.

*****

Horace was properly laid to rest.  Pa had insisted on a small, engraved headstone; he also insisted I accompany him to the buryin’ since Horace didn’t have no other friends in Virginia City.  Pa said it was the least we could do but standing in a cemetery, buryin’ a man whose untimely death could send my little brother to the gallows, was the last place I cared to be.

Roy and the widow Cutler stood alongside Pa and me as the reverend said a few words over the fresh-dug grave.  And while I thought it was odd to see the widow cryin’ and all choked up over the death of this outsider named Horace Perkins, I remembered somethin’ Joe had mentioned not long after Sally was killed.

“Remember Jimmy Cutler?”  Joe said.  “He was a skinny, blonde kid about my age, and he died not long after we left school.  I think diphtheria killed him; I’m not real sure.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I remember him, but what’s Jimmy Cutler got to do with anything?”

“That’s just it, Hoss.  The widow treats Horace like she would her own son.  Like he was some kind of gift sent from above to replace her boy, Jimmy.”

“Maybe it ain’t all that strange, Joe.  She’s a lonely old lady, and maybe Horace gives her some kinda comfort.”

“I s’pose,” Joe said although I don’t think he was convinced I was right about the widow.  But then he chuckled.  “Sure hope Pa don’t take in some stray to replace Adam.”

I belly-laughed then held my hand over my mouth to muffle the sound.  “I don’t think we gotta worry, little brother unless the stray can quote Shakespeare in his sleep.  Why would Pa go to all that bother when he has you?  You’re enough to keep Pa on his toes from here ‘til eternity.”

*****

Joe’s trial was set.  Pa had hired John Powell as Joe’s defense attorney, but all the facts of the case pointed straight to my little brother committin’ the crime.  Joe was found on the stable floor next to the dead man; his gun was out of its holster and had been fired once.  There were no witnesses to back up Joe’s story of some unknown assailant entering the livery and hittin’ him from behind.  Paul Martin had treated my brother for the lump on the back of his head, but even the doc couldn’t say for certain how Joe’s claimed attack was caused or exactly when it happened.

Like Joe, when stress overrode hunger, I’d lost my appetite too.  My little brother didn’t murder no one, and I was beginnin’ to think it was up to me or Pa to prove otherwise.  Neither Clem nor Roy was askin’ no more questions ‘round town as if the case against Joe was a done deal.

John Powell insisted Joe plead self-defense rather than the hangin’ charge of first-degree murder.  Claiming self-defense would keep my brother’s neck from the noose, but he’d have to serve prison time for somethin’ he didn’t do.  Joseph was my little brother; he was also my best friend, and I weren’t about to let that happen.

Joe and I talked nearly every day inside his cramped, little cell while Pa busied hisself with holdin’ up the ranch and discussin’ strategy with Joe’s attorney.  Although Mr. Powell had tried to set bail, Judge Borman had no intention of honoring the attorney’s request.  “Any murder suspect under my jurisdiction will remain behind bars until tried in a court of law.  No bail.”

And when the judge’s gavel struck with a loud bang, I’d opened my mouth to argue, but Pa gently squeezed my arm and shook his head.  “Not now, Hoss.”

I wasn’t sure what to do.  Who would I question?  Who would have stopped Joe from chokin’ the life outta Horace inside the livery that morning?  And, who would have used my brother’s gun in order to kill the man?  Usually, at times like this, Joe and I thought alike—two heads was better than one—but this time, I was on my own.  As far as I knew, Horace didn’t have no friends.  Mrs. Cutler was the only person in Virginia City who cared about him so I started my questions with her—the widow Cutler.

I knocked on the front door of her boarding house.  She was quick to answer, but she hesitated to welcome me inside when she saw my face—the brother of the man she assumed killed Horace.  I held my hat with both hands.  “Mornin’, ma’am.”  Although she was surprised to find me standing on her stoop, she smiled.  “Wondered if we might talk,” I said, “that’s if I ain’t disturbin’ you none.”

“Come in, Hoss,” she said, backing away from the door.  “I’m not sure what I can tell you that—well, that you don’t already know.”

“I don’t know either, ma’am, but my little brother’s behind bars, fightin’ for his life.”

“Sit down, Hoss,” she said, offering me a chair in her parlor.  “I’ll pour us a cup of coffee.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

When I left the widow’s house, I didn’t stop in to see Joe; I rode straight home to Pa, wanting him to be the first to know what I was thinkin’.

“I tell ya she hidin’ somethin’, Pa,” I said, determined to make him understand what I noticed about the widow.  “She was wringing her hands the whole time we was talkin’.  She knows somethin’ but she ain’t tellin’.”

Pa didn’t seem too keen on my explanation.  His arms was crossed over his chest and he was beginnin’ to shake his head back and forth.  “If Eileen Cutler wasn’t standing inside the livery to act as a witness when Horace was killed, what possible help could she be?”

Pa was buckin’ me and I wasn’t sure why.  Here I’d found out something important, something that might free my brother and Pa was havin’ none of it.  “I don’t know,” I said, strugglin’ with my thinkin’.  “I wish I did, but I ain’t figured it all out yet.”

“As far as I know,” Pa said, “Mrs. Cutler loved that boy like he was her own son.  She’s grieving, and you’re trying to turn her subtle movements into something they’re not.”

“That ain’t it, Pa,” I argued.  “Nope, she knows somethin’.  Maybe she’s the one who killed Horace and she ain’t—”

“Oh, Hoss,” Pa said like I had rocks for brains.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  That old woman wouldn’t kill a soul.”

“I ain’t so sure ‘bout that.”

“Okay,” Pa said, only his eyes took on that same fixed stare my little brother used when all else failed.  “Prove it.”

*****

“Do you remember anything else, Joe?  Anything at all—maybe—maybe a noise or a shadow,” I said, hoping Joe might recall something from that morning.  “Did you hear footsteps?  Did Horace look up when whoever hit you slipped up behind you?”

“I’ve told you before, Hoss.”  Joe was frustrated by my questions, but I had to ask.  “I didn’t hear anyone.  I didn’t see anyone.  Just Horace.  Miguel wasn’t even around when I followed Horace inside the barn.  He must have been out at the corral or sneaking a sip from that flask he keeps in buried his hip pocket.”

“Okay, I just had to know for sure,” I said.  “You just sit tight, little brother.  There’s someone else I gotta see.”

I hollered at Clem to let me out of Joe’s cell, said I’d be back shortly, and I walked down to Doc’s.  Pa might think I’d lost my mind, but I had questions that needed answers and if I rubbed people the wrong way, I didn’t much care.

“Doc—” I hollered, waving my hat over my head when I saw him climbing into his buggy.  “Wait up”

He set his medical bag on the seat and stepped back onto the boardwalk.  “Something wrong, Hoss?”

“No, well, yeah, I don’t know, Doc.”

Paul’s smile was generous after my rather confusing statement.

“I—well, I been thinkin’,” I said, “and I wondered if you could tell how tall the person was who clobbered Little Joe on the back of the head.”

Paul rubbed his fingers across his chin and sighed overloud.  “You’re asking me to guess, Hoss.  The bump looked fresh but there’d been only a small seepage of blood, which makes it hard to diagnose much of anything.”

“I know, Doc, but here’s what I been wonderin’,” I said rather sheepishly.  “Could the person who hit my little brother have been shorter than him and—and maybe hit him from below since the bump was so low on his head?”

“It’s possible,” Paul said.  “Do you have someone in mind?”

“I ain’t sure, Doc, but it seems to me, if’n I hit Joe over the head, the bump would be higher up, like on the top of his head or at least above his ears.”

“Makes sense,” Paul said, “go on.”

“So,” I said.  “If this person was shorter than Joe, they’d have to swing somethin’ like a stick or a pipe or somethin’ hard, and it would come from below Joe’s shoulders rather than from above, right?”

“I don’t know how we’d ever prove the man’s exact height, Hoss.”

“What makes you think it’s a man, Doc?”

Paul looked bewildered.  “You’re saying a woman hit Joe?”

“I don’t know,” I said, but at least I got him thinkin’.  “Dadburnit, Doc, it could be a woman, couldn’t it?”

“I suppose,” Paul said.  “The blow was significant enough to knock Joe out but not hard enough to kill him.”

“Exactly my point.”

“Listen, Hoss, I was just heading out to Ida Mayberry’s.  She’s expecting, you know.  Then I’ll stop in and see Joe when I get back to town.  If it will ease your mind, I’ll take a second look.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“Don’t get your hopes up, son.  I doubt there’s much left to go on.”

*****

Time had run out.  Joe’s trial was set for 9:00 a.m. the following morning.  Doc Martin’s diagnosis of the lump on Joe’s head had proved nothing.  And, with Pa rakin’ me over the coals about the widow, I had nowhere else to turn.  All I could do now was try to see my little brother through the next few days of the trial.

Judge Borman was a no-nonsense judge.  The prosecutor and the defense attorney knew from past experiences their statements had better be direct and to the point or the judge would cut them off mid-sentence and order them back to their seats.  While Pa made one more attempt to discuss the case with John Powell, Joe and I sat together in his cell.  I’d brought a basket of Hop Sing’s fried chicken and Joe’s favorite, chocolate cake, but as much as I pushed, he couldn’t eat nothin’ I dished onto his plate.

All Joe wanted was Pa, and Pa weren’t there to give him the support only he could give.  He’d asked a number of times, “Where’s Pa?”  I felt terrible, but there weren’t nothin’ I could do or say, but it seemed as though our father had distanced himself from this entire situation.  Joe needed him more’n anything, and I was growin’ more upset by the minute.  Pa shoulda been with Joe all along, not just me tryin’ to do the work of both brother and father.

Some things are meant to happen and some things are bound to be, but Joe was my little brother, and this wasn’t the time to give up and call it quits.  Something about Joe’s attitude seemed different since I’d talked to him this mornin’ before church services.  He’d sat inside a cell for nearly two weeks.  His face was pale and his clothes hung on him like they was a size too big.  His eyes were dull, his movements seemed lifeless, and he hadn’t bothered to shave his face.

“What’s got into you, Joe?”  I questioned after I took a seat next to him on the bed.  “You ain’t actin’ yourself at all,”

“I know, Hoss.  I just have a lot on my mind.”

“Did you already talk to the reverend?”

“Yeah,” he said.  “We had a good talk.  He kind of made me see things in a different light.”

Pa had asked Reverend Holmes to come speak to Joe after church while Pa and I stopped for lunch at Miss Daisy’s.  Since Joe had been sinking lower into hisself every day, Pa hoped maybe the reverend could give him the boost he obviously needed to face the upcoming trial.

“You sure you’re okay?”  I asked again.  “Did the reverend say something—I mean is there somethin’ else botherin’ you?  You can tell me anything, Joe.”

“I don’t know.  I guess he helped me see the whole picture, Hoss.  You know, both sides—like two sides of a coin, right versus wrong and good versus evil.  He set me straight on a lot of things I hadn’t thought of before today.”

“I ain’t sure I understand what you’re sayin’.”

“It’s not that important, Hoss.”

Joe seemed distant and he especially didn’t want to discuss the trial or the reverend.  I s’pose everything’s been said that could be said, and I s’pose the reverend filled my little brother with a certain peace of mind to carry with him into the courtroom.  But I’d kinda hoped the reverend would light a fire under him and get them juices runnin’ so he’d be ready to tell his side of the story and make it as believable as possible.  But I weren’t seeing no fire at all.

“Well, here,” I said, handing Joe a small carpetbag.  “I brung you these clean clothes for tomorrow.  You make sure Roy brings in some hot water so you can shave and clean up some, ya hear?  You got a musty smell to ya, boy, and the judge won’t take kindly to you lookin’ the part of some no-account criminal in his courtroom.”

Joe chuckled softly before setting the bag on the foot of the narrow cot.  “Must have been Pa’s idea for me to look my best, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Hoss?  Where’s Pa?”

“He’s down talkin’ to Mr. Powell one last time.  You know Pa.  He don’t wanna be dealt no last minute surprises.  He’ll be here soon enough.”

Joe sat without moving.  He stared at the dusty floor, but his hands was worryin’ in his lap just like the widow Cutler’s were when I’d spoken to her about Horace.  I took my brother’s slow, deliberate movements as a sign he needed his father rather than just big brother although I’d often wondered myself why it was always me visitin’ Joe ‘stead of Pa.

“Tell me what’s really eatin’ at ya, Little Joe?”

Joe stood from the bed and wrapped his fingers around the iron bars.  He pressed his forehead hard against his knuckles, and it weren’t long before he gave way to the misery he’d been holdin’ back all this time.  A cold chill came over me, and I searched for the right words to say.  My brother had lost faith, and I feared he’d lost the fight he’d need for his testimony tomorrow.  No other suspects had been found, and there was no way I could prove the widow had seen or heard somethin’ that would help my little brother outta this mess.

For a brief time, I thought maybe the old lady was the killer.  I’d even tried to run my theory passed the doc, but Pa was probably right all along.  Far as we knew, she loved that boy like a son, which kinda took her off the hook as far as clobberin’ Joe or shootin’ Horace was concerned.  It was a good theory for about five minutes’ time.

When I moved toward the bars, Joe’s mind must have been settled in a far-off place cuz he shivered like a skittish young colt when I laid my hand on his shoulder.  “Easy, Joe.  It’s just ol’ Hoss.”

“Sorry,” he said shakily.  “I was just thinking about you and me and all the good times.”

“What?  Maybe you and me oughta be thinkin’ over what you’re gonna say in court instead.”

“You and me, you know,” he repeated like he hadn’t heard a word I’d said.  “How our lives always revolve around little things, like a game of checkers or a cold beer on a hot afternoon.  Remember when we found that Paiute squaw in the mountains and you delivered her baby?  Remember how we swam out and caught those ducks for supper?  Little things like that will always be a part of you and me and all the good times we’ve had together.”

“Well, if’n I remember correctly, Joseph,” I said sternly, “that ain’t all we’ve done together.  I seem to remember you talkin’ me into enterin’ that flapjack eatin’ contest so you could win a bet with that Trager fella.  And, better’n that was the time you and me robbed the bank when Pa left you in charge.”

Joe chuckled softly.  “Yeah,” he said.  “You and me, brother, we’re quite a pair, aren’t we.”

Me and Joe talked about silly things like bank robbin’ and elephants on the Ponderosa and such, and I was glad to see him smilin’ and laughin’.  I ain’t heard that laugh of his in a long time.  Although I’m not sure what turned the tide, but Joe got real serious again.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out with Regan,” he said.  “I thought you two seemed pretty good together.”

Out of the blue came Regan Miller’s name.  Why now?  Why in tarnation would Joe bring up a woman I fell for nearly three years ago?  What did Regan Miller have to do with anything?

“Aw, Joe.  She’s ancient history,” I said.  Besides, I didn’t want to go down that road.  Even though I’d tried to court other ladies since Regan Miller, she’s the one I compared everyone else to.  She was the cream that settled on top after milkin’.  But then it hit me.  Maybe Sally was Joe’s cream.  Maybe all them other gals he’d known didn’t quite compare.

I’d never seen Joe so low—well, maybe the day of Sally’s funeral, but he was as low as a man could be, and it weren’t my place to make him feel even worse.  I didn’t say nothin’ about Sally, but I was truly thankful when I heard voices in the outer office.  I nudged Joe.  “Ain’t that Pa out there talkin’ to Roy?”  I said.  “I’ll leave you two alone, but I’ll be back first thing in the mornin’.  Stay strong, boy.”

*****

Cartwright was a well-known name in these parts, and the newly built Virginia City courthouse was filled to capacity.  Men and women, who were envious of Pa’s standing in the community, crawled out from under every rock in Storey County to attend the trial of Ben Cartwright’s youngest son.  Joe was on trial for his life, and no one wanted to come by my brother’s verdict secondhand so, dressed in their finest, they all gathered to witness the outcome firsthand.  Not only were the long wooden benches filled, but three of the four walls were also lined with ghoulish-lookin’ spectators who’d come to see the show.

I didn’t know what Pa and Joe had discussed yesterday after I’d left the jail, but Pa had been very closed-mouthed since this whole ordeal began.  And even though I’d promised Joe I’d see him before the trial, we’d run plumb out of time.  Rain had started falling last night making Pa’s and my trip into town miserable and wet.  The roads were muddy and our slickers had barely kept us dry.

The little time Pa and I’d had to talk lately seemed strained.  He’d been busy doin’ the books—said he was so far behind because of Joe’s situation he might never catch up.  So, when we did have a chance to sit together and eat supper, Pa didn’t want to talk nothin’ about the trial.  It bothered me some but I knew how upset Pa must be, and I didn’t push.  All I knew was Joe needed him more than he needed me, and Pa had kept his distance.

Although we’d struggled for seats inside the courtroom, Pa and I pushed our way into the front row and were seated just before Joe and Mr. Powell walked down the center aisle toward the unoccupied table just past the railing separating my little brother from Pa and me.  The prosecutor, Walter Hamilton, had already spread his notes on his own table and smiled wickedly at the defense as though the case against Joe had already been decided before anyone had their say.

We were ordered to stand and remove our hats as Judge Borman entered the court.  With a quick but subtle gesture, Mr. Powell reached for Joe’s elbow and eased my little brother up from his chair.

I knew Joe was scared; anyone would be who was facing the gallows, but something I couldn’t rightly figure had come over my little brother.  He was almost lackadaisical in his movements like he was under some kind of spell.  And though Joe had been reminiscing about better times last night, he would keep the misery he held inside hidden from everyone sitting inside the courtroom.  I turned toward Pa when I felt his eyes burnin’ a hole right through me.

“What’s wrong with Joe?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Pa, but I don’t like it one bit.”

We’d been seated and we were listening to Judge Borman’s instructions to the jury, stating how both sides would present evidence, and how it was their burden as jurors to remain attentive to the facts of the case.  “A man’s life is on trial,” he said sternly, “and I want every one of you to use the brains God gave you before rendering a verdict of guilty or not-guilty.”

No-nonsense judge was right on target.  I just hoped the jurors could see beyond the facts the prosecutor presented and realize there was no eyewitness to Horace’s murder; that no one could say for sure Joe drew his gun and shot the man dead.  I couldn’t see my brother’s face; I couldn’t see into his eyes and know what he was thinkin’.  Did he hear the judge’s words?  Did he know he stood a darn good chance of a full acquittal if he just told the jury straight-out what happened inside that barn?

Pa’d had angry words with John Powell over Joe’s defense.  He seemed awful worried about John insisting Joe claim self-defense when the prosecutor would be pushing the jury to consider motive and opportunity, which, in every sense of the word, my brother’d been saddled with both: motive and opportunity.  The attorney had argued with Pa, saying it was up to his client to decide which way to go with his defense, but that only fueled Pa’s anger toward the whole miserable situation.  Since Joe hadn’t slept, and he was only picking at the meals Roy brought to his cell, Pa had stepped in to fight my brother’s battles for him.

“My boy’s not thinking straight, John,” Pa had said in Joe’s defense.  “The boy’s only a hair’s breath from exhaustion.  Joe’s is either guilty or he’s not, and self-defense is too easy a road for the jury to take.  I don’t think they’ll find him guilty.  Please don’t give them a reason to send my boy to prison.”

“The deck is stacked against Little Joe, Ben,” said Powell.  “I’ll do everything in my power inside that courtroom, but let me warn you.  This is an uphill battle no matter what defense I use.”

*****

And so the battle began.

Both the prosecutor and Joe’s attorney had given their opening statements while Joe sat unmoving, glued to his chair with his chin tucked tightly to his chest.  He made no eye contact with the judge or the jury or anyone else.  The two seemingly qualified men—Hamilton and Powell—rose to the challenge, each presenting his case, each demanding attention from the jury.  While one man hammered out unsubstantiated facts and tore my brother’s character apart, the other fought for damage control, trying his best to contradict the offensive falsehoods.

I listened to both sides, and the gist of their statements boiled down to one man’s opinion over another’s.  The first man to strike a chord in the heart of each juror by using certain words or simple eye contact, not to mention perfect timing, would win the not only the small insignificant battles but the entire war.  It weren’t just a fight for Joe’s life.  It was a battle of wills between two men who were being paid handsomely to argue their point in front of a captive audience, who probably didn’t understand half the words they was sayin’.

Most of their “captive audience” had not been educated in a proper schoolhouse setting, and I wondered how many of the jurors had enough formal education to process them fancy words bein’ thrown back and forth between the two finely-dressed men and their fast-talkin’ speeches.

“Since we have no eyewitness to the shooting,” Hamilton stated, “we will begin with Deputy Foster’s account of the situation on February 8, inside the livery, after finding Horace Perkins’ dead body.  Secondly, we’ll hear Paul Martin’s medical opinion of how and when the victim was murdered.”

Clem took the stand first, and he stated the obvious.  “The murder happened before noon, and the only two people who I found in the livery were Joe Cartwright and Horace Perkins.  Horace was dead,” he said.  “He was shot point-blank in the chest, and Joe Cartwright lay unconscious on the floor a few feet away from the victim.  Joe’s gun was out of its holster and only one shot had been fired.  The only thing I can add, and it seemed odd to me at the time, was finding Joe’s gun—presumably the murder weapon—in one of the empty stalls.”

Clem was released from the stand, and Doc was called to give his testimony but as Paul began talking, my mind began to wander.  I’d known nothing about Joe tossing his gun into some stall, and it made no sense.  Why would he do something like that?  ‘Course, Joe would never shoot Horace at point-blank range either, so someone else had to have killed Horace.  Surely, Mr. Powell had put two and two together and would push for an acquittal.

“ . . . although, in my opinion,” Paul continued, “Joe Cartwright had taken a hard blow to the back of the head, which had left him unconscious and unaware of anything that took place inside the livery stable.”

“So,” Hamilton said.  “In your opinion, Doctor, was Mr. Cartwright hit on the head before or after he shot and killed the shy, frightened bank clerk—”

“Objection, your Honor.”

I dismissed Pa’s heavy sigh ‘cause my eyes was on the back of Joe’s head.  He hadn’t moved a muscle since he’d been brought into court.  His hands lay in his lap and his eyes faced the floor.  Whether his eyes was open or closed, I wasn’t able to tell.

Judge Borman quickly put an end to the prosecutor’s rambling.  “Just keep to the facts, Mr. Hamilton.”

Neither Paul’s stern look at the prosecutor nor the judge’s reprimand affected Walter Hamilton’s concentration or determination to move forward with his questions, but Paul Martin wasn’t leaving the stand until he had his day in court.

“According to my findings—” Paul said.  He looked straight at the jury to make sure they understood what he was about to say.  “I can’t say for certain when Joe Cartwright was attacked or the exact time of Horace Perkins’ death, but I do know it would be terribly difficult for an unconscious man to shoot a gun.”

Some of the onlookers began chuckling in muffled voices, but they were quickly silenced by the judge’s gavel.  “Quiet—all of you—or I’ll empty this courtroom faster’n you can blink an eye.”  The crowd still remained animated over Paul’s statement, but I felt my whole body tense; knowing the people who’d come to watch and listen firsthand didn’t give a hoot about my brother’s welfare; they were only here for a good laugh at my brother’s expense.

The judge banged his gavel once more then asked Mr. Hamilton if he had any more witnesses to call to the stand.  The prosecution rested and now, it was up to Mr. Powell to question the only other witness who had any knowledge of the shootin’ that took place on February 8, a month to the day after Sally Bristol was strangled and left for dead in the parlor of her father’s home.

“I call Joseph Cartwright to the stand.”

Again, John had to ease Joe to a standing position then practically lead him to the witness chair.  My brother unconsciously rubbed his wrists, and I vaguely remembered Roy had, by law, handcuffed Joe before leaving the jail.  “Letter-of-the-law, Coffee,” Pa always said, and I was witnessing the effects of that law on my little brother’s face.

But it weren’t just Joe’s wrists that was botherin’ him.  It was a certain look of defeat and of helplessness that paled his striking features.  His cheeks were gaunt and his eyes were deep-set, dull and lifeless.  He hadn’t shaved nor had he changed into the clean, fresh clothes I’d brought for his appearance in court.  Joe looked younger than his years.  He looked lost and afraid, and he made eye contact with no one.  Where was the fight, the longing to be free and back home with his family?  This was Joe’s only chance to sway the jury, to undermine everything that had been said so far and prove his innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt.  But the boy who’d taken the stand was a sullen shell of a man.  This wasn’t my fiery little brother who could normally sway anyone, includin’ me, to his way of thinkin’.

After adjusting myself on the wooden bench, I sat up taller and stared at Joe, hopin’ he’d see the determination in my eyes and let the anger I felt over this whole mess rub off in his direction.  This was no time to give up and by all accounts, that’s exactly what he had done.  He’d spoken to Reverend Holmes just yesterday, and that seemed to be when this completely new attitude, this self-loathing behavior had come over him.  Although he’d never mentioned what he and the reverend had talked about, I was curious or maybe I was just plain mad.

Mr. Powell stepped in front of Joe and spoke softer than I thought he should.  I’d rather have seen him upset with Hamilton’s stupid remarks about my brother than to have him stand there like a mouse cornered by a barn cat.

“Mr. Cartwright,” he said.  “Will you explain to the court everything you remember concerning you and Horace Perkins on February 8, of this year.”  It was a simple question but somehow, Joe seemed confused.  Mr. Powell was forced to ask his question again.  “Joseph?”  Joe lifted his eyes to the attorney as though Pa had called out his name in anger.  “Will you tell the court exactly what happened after you and Horace met inside the livery?”

Joe nodded, but it took him a minute to sort his thoughts and start talkin’.  “We stood facing each other,” he finally said.

“You and Horace?”

“Yessir.”

“What happened next, son?”

“He tried to get away,” Joe said.  “He was gonna leave town and I had to stop him.”

“Did you pull your gun?”

Joe shook his head.  “No, sir.”

“Did you use force?”

“Yes.”  Joe was rubbin’ his wrists again.  He needed to concentrate, but it was like his mind was off somewhere else.  “I pushed him back against the wall,” he said.  “I held him up by his shirt collar.  I only wanted the truth, but his words were lies, all lies.  He tried to get away, but I held him tight against the barn wall.”

My brother’s eyes looked glazed over as he recounted the details of that morning.  He stared at no one—only straight ahead—as if Horace was standin’ right in front of him inside the courtroom.

“What happened next, Joseph?”

“He started saying stuff about Sally.”

“Go on, son.”

Although Joe needed constant prodding, his fists were balled tightly as he relived his conversation with Horace.  His eyes narrowed when he began the word-for-word conversation.

“Sally like’s me.  She likes me very much,” he said, mimicking Horace’s voice in a sing-song sort of way.

“But she never loved you.”  Joe’s voice changed completely.  He was forceful and direct when he prodded Horace for answers.  “She thought you were funny.”

“She did too love me, and—and if you hadn’t gotten in the way—”

Joe’s eyes were dead-set.  His breathin’ turned shallow and frantic.  “You killed her with your bare hands, didn’t you, Horace.”

“No, I loved her.”

“But she didn’t love you so you killed her, didn’t you?  Didn’t you!”  Joe’s eyes was on fire, his vivid account of their hate-filled conversation left the room as silent as summer air just before a storm.  But after that last statement, when his voice cried out from the pain of them last words, the fire vanished as quickly as it’d come.  From rigid to slack, from angry to despondent, Joe’s eyes dropped toward the floor.

“Joe?”  John Powell saw it too.  Joe had told the jury everything he remembered.  There was nothing more to tell.  “Is that all you remember, son?  Is that when someone hit the back of your head?”

Joe nodded.

“You’ll have to speak up, young man,” ordered Judge Borman.

“Yessir.”

“Thank you, Joe.”

The onlookers seated behind me began whispering quiet-like.  Joe had screamed out his words to Horace and then said nothing.  He’d told everything he could, just like he remembered and as John Powell took his seat, Walter Hamilton stood and walked in front of Joe’s chair.  “I only have a few questions to ask, Mr. Cartwright,” he said to the judge.

Joe met the prosecutor’s eyes.

“Sally Bristol,” he said.  “She was your fiancée?”

“Yessir.”

“You loved her very much.”

Joe’s chin was always the first to go.  That subtle quiver before his emotions met up with his eyes.  “Yessir.”

“Is it safe to say you and Horace Perkins had words that night after the dance?”  Hamilton asked.

“Yes.”

“Were you aware of Horace’s feelings toward your fiancée?”

“Yes, but Sally—”

“A simple yes or no will do, Mr. Cartwright.”

Quickly, Joe glanced at me.  I returned a brief nod before the prosecutor continued his line of questions. “Were you jealous of Horace Perkins?”

I could tell Joe was laughing inside, but he didn’t make no sound on the outside.  “No, sir.”

“Would it be safe to say you considered Horace a rival, Mr. Cartwright?  Was your fiancée aroused when she witnessed another man’s play for her attention—her affections?  Was Sally Bristol secretly in love with Horace Perkins?

“NO!”  Joe said forcefully.  “Sally never loved Horace.”

Hamilton walked toward the jury.  His back was to Joe then suddenly, he turned back around.  “Was your fiancée only after Cartwright money?”

“NO!”  Joe came off his chair; his body stiffened and he glared at Walter Hamilton with the same eyes he must have used on Horace that day inside the livery.

“Are you sure, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Objection.”

“Please take your seat, Mr. Cartwright,” the judge ordered.  “And let’s move on, Mr. Hamilton.”

“All right, your Honor,” he said, not worried at all over Joe’s aggressive words; in fact, he seemed to be smiling.  “On February 8, the day in question, did you follow Horace into the livery stable with the intent to harm the man, who you assumed—without proof of any kind—had killed your fiancée?”

My brother’s face paled and suddenly, his eyes darted through the courtroom in search of someone other than me or Pa.  He knew exactly where we were sitting, and it was obvious he was looking for someone else—but who?  I watched every move he made until his eyes settled on Reverend Holmes standing near a side entrance of the courtroom.

Hamilton cleared his throat.  “I’ll remind you you’re under oath, Mr. Cartwright.”

Joe’s entire body stiffened, and his eyes met mine.  Without speaking a word aloud, Joe’s answer was yes.  He’d followed Horace with intent to do bodily harm if the bank clerk wouldn’t answer his questions.  I knew—my father knew—and so did everyone else inside the courtroom.

“We need an answer, son,” Judge Borman said.

Joe looked up at the judge and back at Mr. Hamilton.  “I just wanted him to tell the truth.”

“That’s not the question I asked, son.  Did you or did you not follow Horace into the barn with the intent to kill the man you thought had murdered your fiancée?”

Hamilton had called my brother son in a real soft voice, and I didn’t like it one bit.  After sayin’ all them nasty things about Sally, now he was Joe’s best friend.  A softer touch so the jury wouldn’t find him to be a complete son-of-a— Well, I wasn’t byin’ it and I prayed the jury was at least as smart as I was.

“No,” Joe said, but he wouldn’t look the prosecutor in the eye.  “I only wanted the truth.  Someone else . . . ”

Nonverbally, Joe had admitted intent to harm, but intent to kill was never established, and I hoped the jury had been listening closely as Hamilton twisted his words.  Joe looked exhausted; there was no fight left in him as though intent proved guilt, and both were two completely different matters.  Someone else had killed Horace.  Who, Joe?  Who was that someone else?  Who else had motive and opportunity?

Final statements were given and, when all was said and done, Roy handcuffed Joe to escort him back to the jail.  Even though Pa and I wanted a quick word, a quick glimpse of Joe’s face, he never looked up.  He’d turned his back to his family and like a man condemned, he walked out of the courthouse with Roy.

Pa and I sat back down, waiting for the courtroom to clear.  I didn’t want to mingle with all them people I didn’t even know so I kept silent, kept my hands in my lap and watched a little gray spider cross the floor next to my right boot.  Some might say I was brooding and maybe I was, but I was all ears when Pa had a few words with Mr. Powell.  “What happens now, John?”

The attorney shook his head as he secured the leather strap around his case.  “I’ll admit it doesn’t look good, but if the jury realizes nobody actually saw Joe shoot Horace—”

Heat flushed my cheeks.  I stood up and stepped in-between Pa and Joe’s attorney.  “Why, Mr. Powell?  Why weren’t them the final words you left with the jury?”  I grabbed the attorney’s fancy lapels with fisted hands.  “My little brother’s innocent, but you never believed a word he said, did you?  You let Walter Hamilton distract the jury with his lies.  Why, Mr. Powell?”

“Hoss!”  Pa shouted.  “Hoss, stop.”

I glared into the attorney’s eyes.  “Intent to harm ain’t the same as murder is it, Mr. Powell?”

“Hoss!  That’s enough.”  Pa struggled to pull my hands free of the lawyer’s tailored suit, but I weren’t finished with him just yet.

“Sorry, Pa, but right now I’m filled clear through to my bones with intent, but that don’t mean I’m gonna take the next step.  Intent don’t always lead to murder.  Think about what you’ve done, Mr. Powell,” I said.  I was so mad maybe murder wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  “Think real hard while they lower a noose over my little brother’s head, and keep on thinkin’ when they stretch Joe’s neck ‘til he’s dead.”  Pa glared at me and I glared back.  I knew exactly what I was sayin’ and for the life of me, I didn’t know how Pa could remain so dadburn calm.

“I’m sorry, John,” Pa said, but it was obvious he was very upset with me.  “I think we’re all a bit on edge—”

“On edge?”  I could barely hold my tongue.  “Pa!  Joe’s gonna hang.  Hang by the neck for somethin’ he didn’t do.”

“Again, John,  I’m sorry my son feels you’re to blame.”

After Pa’s verbal slap in the face, I tore out of the courtroom and headed straight down to the jail.  I didn’t know what to think no more, and Pa’s calm demeanor had really hit me hard.  If he thought for one minute Joe killed Horace, if my father had lost faith in his youngest son, then everything I’d ever been taught had been a lie.

“Let me inside that cell, Clem,” I barked at the deputy.

Clem nearly pulled his gun when I stormed into the office.  “You listen here, Hoss.  Joe’s in my custody ‘til Roy—”

“Now!”  I threw my gun on the sheriff’s desk and hovered close to the deputy until he relented and unlocked my brother’s cell.  “Thanks,” I said soft-like.  “Guess my temper’s running a little thin right now.”  I sure weren’t makin’ many friends today.

“No funny business, Hoss.”

“Don’t you worry, Clem,” I said.  “I ain’t got nothin’ planned, not yet anyway.”

“Well, see that you don’t.”

Still, in handcuffs, Joe sat and stared at Clem and me from inside the cell.  It was obvious he didn’t know what had gotten me all riled up, and I didn’t plan on tellin’ him neither; best if he didn’t have to worry about nothin’ I’d done or said.

“Does he still gotta wear these things?”  I hollered at Clem.

“Sorry, Hoss.  Roy asked me to leave ‘em on ‘til he got back.”  Clem closed the double doors behind him, leavin’ the two of us alone.  I sat down next to Joe on the bed.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” he said before he looked up and asked the obvious question.  Where’s Pa?”

“Damn,” I mumbled under my breath.  I didn’t usually even think them kind of words, but it’s the only one that come to mind.  Where the hell was Pa, and why wasn’t he here with Joe?  “I think he’s still at the courthouse talkin’ to John.”

“What about?”

I shrugged my shoulders.  “Nothin’ worth mentionin’.  Probably just gettin’ John’s opinion on how the trial went.  You know Pa.  He likes to have everything straight in his mind.”

“Hoss?”

“Huh?”

”Why doesn’t Pa come to see me?”

I sighed over loud then wished I hadn’t, but I was thinkin’ the same thing too.  Just how was I supposed to answer Joe’s question without upsettin’ him more than he was already?  Pa hadn’t been hisself for days; maybe since the day Joe had first been arrested, and I couldn’t even think straight no more, ‘cause all them days ran together.  With Joe locked inside this cell, nothin’ seemed normal and nothin’ would ever seem normal again if Joe was found guilty.

I’d often catch Pa standing in front of the fireplace, poking at logs until the fire was so hot, I’d finally have to say something before he and I burned to a crisp.  It was like he hadn’t realized—like he’d been off in another world where he’d distanced hisself from anyone around him.

There were times I’d caught him wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.  I knew they were tears, but he’d brush me off by clearin’ his throat or turnin’ his back.  But I knew he was cryin’ for Joe.

Pa had barely come to visit my little brother and most days, he didn’t have much to say to me either.  Since I was just a little kid, I’d always thought Pa knew best about most everything but lately, he weren’t the same Pa I knew before Joe ended up in jail.  He was moody and distant and he was spendin’ most of his time alone rather than with his family.  Somethin’ was eatin’ at him, somethin’ more than just the trial, and dang if I knew what it was or how to bring him around.

“Ah, Joe,” I said, realizing I’d never answered his question.  “That’s crazy talk.  ‘Course Pa wants to see you, and he’ll be here as soon as he can break away from your attorney.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

“You did good in there, Joe.”

“Ya think?”

“’Course I do.”  I wanted to sound reassuring, and I hoped my voice didn’t betray how I really felt about the whole dadblamed trial.  “You told it like it was Joe.  What more could you do?”

“I told the truth, Hoss, but you saw the jury; you saw how they were all lookin’ at me.”  And with his elbows planted on his knees, Joe leaned forward and took a deep breath before scrubbing his hands over his face.  “They’re gonna hang me, Hoss.”

I slung my arm over my little brother’s shoulders.  Where was Adam when you needed him most?  He always knew exactly what to say, and all I could do was fumble around with a bunch of nonsense words that never came out quite right.  “Hear me out, Joe,” I said.  “All the jury was doin’ was listenin’ to what everyone said—you know, like the judge told ‘em to do.  And if they’ve got any brains at all, they’ll realize no one ever saw you shoot Horace, ain’t I right?”

I almost thought Joe was gonna agree with me, but a throaty soundin’ moan slipped out instead.  There was a gaping stillness between us before he finally broke the silence.

“I’ll miss you, Hoss.”

“Dadburnit, Joe.  Now cut that out.”  One thing was botherin’ me somethin’ awful.  Maybe it was none of my business although I couldn’t stand it no longer, and I had to ask Joe what it all meant.  “Can I ask you somethin’ kinda personal?”

“Might as well,” he said.  “No time like the present, but you better hurry.  Time’s running out.”

This time, I didn’t respond to Joe’s irritatin’ comment, but I did ask my question.  “Reverend Holmes came to see you yesterday, right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Well, I was wonderin’ what you two talked about.”  I’d seen the change in Joe and I couldn’t help thinkin’ it had something to do with their private conversation.

“We talked about a lot of things, Hoss.  Why?”

“Did ya talk about intent?”

“Yeah, that was one of the things,” Joe said.  “Reverend Holmes asked what my intentions were when I went after Horace.”

“Yeah, and what were them intentions, Joe?”

“I told the truth in court, Hoss.  I might have beaten Horace senseless if I had to, but I never would’ve killed him.  I only wanted the truth.”

“I knew it,” I blurted out and stood up from the narrow cot.  “I knew there was somethin’ that changed how you was thinkin’ inside that courtroom.”

“What do you mean?  What changed?”

Joe’s eyes never left me as I paced inside the cell.  Intent was the turning point for the jury.  I knew for a fact, but I didn’t think Joe realized how crucial his silence had been.

“What’s that mean?”  I repeated.  “I ain’t as dumb as I look, Joseph.”  I glared at my little brother.  “That’s when everything inside that courtroom took a turn; that’s when Hamilton hit you below the belt with that question about intent.”

“I don’t understand, Hoss.”  Joe pleaded with me, but it wasn’t gonna help us now, and I weren’t sure how closely the men on the jury had been payin’ attention.  “That’s when you searched the courtroom for the preacher, ain’t it?  You needed some kinda reassurance, but that ain’t what it looked like in court.  Intent, Joe.  When you didn’t answer right off—well, it didn’t look good.  You see what I mean?”

“But I did answer, Hoss.”

“But your answer wasn’t clear, Joseph.  Do you understand my meanin’?”

Joe rubbed his face again.  Maybe he was tryin’ to remember his exact words.  I could have told him ‘cause I knew ‘em by heart, but what good would those words do now?  Did the jury understand the difference in Joe’s thinkin’?  Yes, he would hurt Horace but no, he would not kill the man in order to seek the truth.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I shouldn’t have said all them things.”  I was still fuming over the words I’d had with Pa and Mr. Powell.  Seemed my own father had lost faith in Joe and I was mad—real mad.  What a helluva day this had been.

Joe and I both heard muffled voices in the sheriff’s outer office but quickly, Pa’s distinct baritone emerged above all the rest.  We both turned and stared at the double doors when we heard Roy’s janglin’ keys.

“Sorry it took so long, son.  I stopped and picked you up something to eat,” Pa said, carrying a lunch tray from Daisy’s Café.

I was just starting to feel hungry myself after smellin’ Daisy’s prized roast pork, but just after Roy had unlocked the cell and Pa stepped inside, a messenger boy came racing into the office.  “Judge wants Mr. Cartwright back in the courtroom,” he said clearly out of breath.  “Jury’s in.”

Pa’s face paled after the announcement, and I jumped up to grab the tray before it tumbled to the floor.  “I got it,” I said.  “Go on, Pa.  Take my seat.” Joe was darn near the breaking point after our talk about intent, and Pa was probably still ruffled over my run-in with John Powell ‘cause he never gave me a second look.  I moved toward the cell door and stood guard.  “Not just yet, Roy.  Give ‘em a minute alone.”

“But it’s time to go, Hoss,” Roy said.  “I can’t keep the judge waiting, you know that.”

“Just give ‘em a minute—please, Roy.”

“All right, two minutes, Ben,” he said, straining to see over my shoulder, “then I’m sorry.  We’ll have to go.”

With no time for Daisy’s lunch, I looked behind me and saw my little brother’s half-smile.  I winked, returned a smile of my own then nodded to Roy. “Come on,” I said.  “I’ll treat you to a two-minute lunch.”  We walked to the outer office together.

Not a word I’d said over the past hour mattered now that Pa was holdin’ Joe in his arms.  I saw the look in my brother’s eyes—a look of sadness, the look of a condemned man.  He needed our pa more’n he ever needed me, and I hoped Pa could pass on enough strength for Joe to hold his head high no matter what the outcome.  Judge and jury would see an innocent young man walk through them doors and to his chair in the courtroom; still, I feared the worst.

Roy was chompin’ at the bit; I’d held him off as long as possible with Daisy’s roast pork and a baked potato.  “I’ll get ‘em,” I said.  “You finish your lunch.”  Distractions rarely worked on Roy Coffee, but the lunch tray gave Joe and Pa an extra minute while the sheriff scooped up another fork full of buttery potato.

I couldn’t see Joseph at all.  Pa’s arms was wrapped around my little brother, pullin’ him tight to his chest and rubbin’ his back.  His head was bowed on top of Joe’s and from where I stood; I could hear the faint sound of the two people I loved most in this world, weeping their final tears.

“It’s time, Pa.”

Although I’d witnessed scenes like this before, this time I had to turn my back and look away.

*****

“Please rise.”

Judge Borman entered the courtroom, and along with everyone else in the gallery; Pa and I took our seats.  Next came the jury—twelve men, none familiar to Pa or me—merged into the jury box to our right.

Judge Borman looked straight at Joe.  “Please rise, Mr. Cartwright.”

Joe pushed up from his chair, as did Mr. Powell, and both men faced the jury.  I was proud of my little brother.  He stood tall and straight, even with cuffs still holding his wrists together.  We all faced the jury after the judge spoke again.

“Was the decision unanimous?”

The jury foreman stood to answer.  He held a small slip of paper with both hands.  “Yes, Your Honor.”

You could have heard a pin drop.  I was holding my breath; maybe everyone else was too.  Twelve men had decided my little brother’s fate in less than an hour’s time.  Did they even go over the facts or did Hamilton’s introduction of intent sway their thinkin’ in his favor?  I stared at Joe’s profile as he stood, facing the jury box.  He gave nothing away.  His eyes were clear and his chin was steady and firm.

Pa stood and gripped the wooden railing, separating the two of us from Joe.  His white-knuckled hands trembled; his eyes grew glassy, but he was determined to face the jury along with his youngest son.  I stood up next to my father, fearing his reaction if the verdict was not in Joe’s favor.

Judge Borman cleared his throat.  “What say you?”

The foreman, dressed in denim overalls and a plaid work shirt, read from the slip of paper in his hand.  His mouth was hidden under a long gray beard, and atop his generous nose, set a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles.  “We find the defendant, Joseph Cartwright, guilty of murder in the first degree.”

I couldn’t move.  A sudden rush of voices filled the room, but Joe remained remarkably still, almost distant, and I couldn’t begin to know what he might be thinkin’.  I stared at the judge, knowing he, and only he, could overrule the jury’s decision.  Instead, the gavel hit with decided force to quiet the overly, excited crowd.

After reading the jury’s statement, the judge looked over his glasses at Joe.  “Joseph Cartwright, you have been duly tried and judged by a jury of your peers, and I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow evening.”

The gavel struck again, and I jolted in place.  This weren’t right.  Intent had an entirely different meaning than completin’ the job.  I glared at Walter Hamilton.  He was slowly packing his leather satchel, and I expected to see him smiling after winning such an important case against a man named Cartwright.  But, when he turned to face Pa and me; his eyes appeared apologetic, even ashamed of what his job as a prosecutor had forced him to do and say.

Too much was happenin’ all at once.  After dismissing the jury, Judge Borman pocketed his eyeglasses and picked up his gavel before walking out of the courtroom.  Roy was pullin’ on Joe’s shackled arm while twelve men hung their heads and slowly filed out the side entrance.  The crowd had heard the verdict firsthand and they were pushing their way out through the main front door.  The prosecutor approached Pa and me; Mr. Powell did the same, but listening to either man’s apologies or reasons for the verdict was more than I could stand.  I didn’t have nothin’ to say to either man.  I left to follow Joe and Roy back to the cell.

“No!”  A voice wailed from behind the four of us.  “No, Judge.”

Again, there was dead silence.  Everyone remaining inside the courtroom turned in unison, searching for the woman who had enough nerve to yell at a judge.  Pa pushed Mr. Hamilton aside and bolted through the crowd of people.  Joe had already left the building with Roy, and I was eager to follow until John Powell grabbed hold of my arm.

“Can you see your pa, Hoss?”  John was a short man, shorter than my little brother, and a crowd had gathered around Pa and the woman.

“Nope,” I said.  I was probably the tallest man in the courtroom, but the crowd was too concentrated and I couldn’t see over their heads.  “Can’t tell who she is from here, Mr. Powell.  Fill me in later, will ya?  I’m headin’ down to the jail.”

I was as eager as everyone else to know who’d caused such a ruckus, but I didn’t want Joe to sit alone in his cell.  This trial had been a farce as far as I was concerned, and some woman hollerin’ over the verdict weren’t no concern of mine.  Hell, I felt like hollerin’ too.  I made my way to the side exit where the jury had slipped out and had quickly scattered and disappeared like scared little rabbits.  Pa might worry over my whereabouts but in time, he’d figure out where I’d gone and whom I was with.  I met up with Roy and Joe just outside the sheriff’s office.

“What was all the commotion, Hoss?  Sounded like somebody screamin’ inside the courtroom.”

“You heard right, Roy, but I didn’t wait to find out.”  My baby brother had been condemned to the gallows, and some woman screamin’ had been the least of my worries.  “Pa’ll fill us in later.”

“Hang on, Joe,” I said clicking my fingers together.  “There’s somethin’ I forgot.  You get settled; I’ll be right back.”

Joe’s eyes followed me like a forlorn little pup, and he all but missed the step heading into Roy’s office.  When I saw him stumble, I nearly turned back, but I had something else in mind, and I thought he’d agree my short absence would prove worthwhile.  Inside my saddlebags, I always kept a small, silver flask.  Of course, I’d informed Pa it was for medicinal purposes only, but right or wrong, my little brother needed a couple shots of medicine.  I slipped the container inside my vest pocket and hurried back inside the jail.

“Lemme in there with him, will ya, Roy?”  I said, nodding toward the cell.

The sheriff held out his hand.  “Hand me your gun, Hoss.”

“Aw, sheriff,” I said, almost reluctant to do as he’d asked.  “If you can’t trust me, who can you trust?”

Roy’s hand never wavered.  “You know the law.”

I handed Roy my gun and he locked it in the bottom drawer of his desk.  I nearly rolled my eyes at letter-of-the-law Coffee as we walked back to Joe’s cell.  The cuffs had been removed this time, and Joe lay on his cot, facing the wall.  “Hey, buddy.”  Slowly, Joe rolled his feet to the floor and sat up straight.  This time, I brung  a chair from Roy’s office.  “You don’t mind, do you, Sheriff?”

“No,” he said with a prolonged sigh.  “I don’t mind at all.”  Roy turned to go then, with his key inside the lock of the cell door, he hesitated.  “I wish things had turned out different, Little Joe.”

“Thanks,” Joe answered then added, “me too.”

I pinched my lips together and nodded at the sheriff in appreciation.  Roy was like family; he’d known us for years, as had Paul Martin, who’d helped deliver Joe into this world twenty-some years ago.  They were good people and both men would help see Pa through after the—damn, I couldn’t even think the word much less say the word out loud.

Although Pa had written Adam when Joe was first arrested, there’d been no word so far.  His current address was aboard a merchant steamer called The SS Dresden that sailed out of British waters.  There’d been no way for Adam to return home in time for the trial—or anything else.  I sure coulda used my big brother now.

When Roy was out of sight, I pulled my little secret from my vest pocket.  “Thought you might need this ‘bout now.”

“Why not.”  He reached for the silver flask and took a long draw.  “Think I’m risking a tanning?”  Joe said.  “Between the sheriff and Pa, I may not be able to sit down for a—forever.”

“Aw, come on, Joe,” I said.  “Don’t you worry about nothin’, little brother.  This ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”

Joe chuckled and sipped from the flask again.  “Wish I knew a fat lady, Hoss, but I think the party’s come to an abrupt end.”

“You just sit tight,” I said, reaching out and patting Joe on the leg.  I had until tomorrow evening to work up a plan.  Five in the afternoon was the time hangings took place in Virginia City these days.  Used to be sunrise hangings in the old days, but evenings had won out.  More of a crowd would turn out and, for some ungodly reason; many of Virginia City’s good solid citizens made it a point to attend an evenin’ hangin’.

“Hoss?”  Joe said in that soft, little boy voice he used when he was hurtin’.  “I don’t want you to come tomorrow; I want you and Pa to stay home.  I don’t want either of you anywhere near Virginia City.”

“Stop it, Joe.”  My words were firm, but they didn’t strike home with my little brother.

“Please,” he said.  “I don’t want Pa to see me hang so you gotta promise you’ll keep him—”

“Joseph,” I interrupted.  I glanced toward the double doors, making sure I couldn’t be overheard.  “There ain’t gonna be no hangin’.”  Joe’s eyes flashed larger than the steel Conchos on the band of his hat, and I cupped my hand over his mouth before he blurted out somethin’ Roy might overhear.  “I ain’t makin’ no promises cuz there ain’t gonna be no hangin’,” I said, using my firmest voice.  Cautiously, I removed my hand from Joe’s mouth.  “You listen and listen good.  I’m workin’ out a plan.”

But Joe shook his head.  “No, Hoss.  No.  You can’t do that to Pa.”

“To Pa?  Pa’s the least of my worries right now, Joseph.”

“Listen,” he said.  “You’re the only son Pa has left so don’t mess that up.  Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

“Joe.  I can’t just sit back and let them—”

“I’m serious, Hoss.  I won’t go with you.  We’d be on the run for the rest of our lives.  Think of Pa.  Think what would happen to him if both of us disappeared into thin air, which is exactly what we’d have to do.”  Joe paused, but his eyes held mine.  “It’d kill him, Hoss.  Everything he’s worked for—gone.  Think!  It ain’t worth it.  Promise me you won’t try anything stupid—promise.”

Joe was adamant, and there weren’t nothin’ more I could do or say to change his mind.  “Gimme that damn flask,” I said.  I held it to my lips but the container was dry.  Joe had already drunk every drop.  Everything was a mess.  Our lives were a mess, and I didn’t know none of Adam’s fancy wards or have enough of my father’s wisdom to say what was really on my mind.

“Hoss?”

“Okay, I promise.  I’ll try to keep Pa from—this ain’t gonna be easy, Joe.”

My little brother smiled, and all them fancy words I should have said didn’t matter.  Keeping Pa away from Virginia City was the only thing Joe had asked of me, and I’d be damned if I wouldn’t honor his last request.

“Remember when you caught me daydreaming up by Crescent Falls?”  There was a smile on Joe’s face, and this crazy question came outta nowhere.  “I had my legs flopped over that old dead log, and my feet were dangling in the water.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “‘Course you’ve spent most of your life daydreamin’, little brother, but yeah, I remember that day.”

“I’d just ordered Sally’s ring from the catalog, and Ira said it would probably take a month or more before the package arrived in Virginia City.  A month seemed like an eternity, Hoss.”  Joe lay back on his bed and tucked his hands behind his head.  “I was so anxious to show her the ring, but I kept quiet the whole time I waited.  That was pretty good for me.”

“I’ll say it was,” I said.  “You ain’t never been one for keepin’ secrets.”

“The last time I saw Sally, we’d sat on her porch that night after the dance.  I think her father hung the swing there just for the two of us and as it turned out, that was our favorite place to just sit and talk about nothing and everything, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I know what you mean, Joe.”

My brother tried to smile, but his smile never reached his eyes, and I knew he was holdin’ back all them feelin’s the best he could.  I guess he was rememberin’ the good times so I just sat back, listened, and wondered if this was the last time I’d hear my little brother’s voice.

“Sally wanted lots of kids, and I told her she could have as many as she wanted.  Maybe because she was an only child.”  Joe glanced at me.  “She didn’t know the half of it, did she?”

“Huh?”

“Siblings,” he said.  “The good and the bad.”

“Maybe more good than bad,” I said.”

“Sally was a good person, Hoss.  She was too young to die.”  There was a brief silence ‘cause I couldn’t answer my brother.  There weren’t no words to ease his pain, but Sally wasn’t the only one who was too young to die.  “You ever wish you were a kid again?”  Joe asked in that little boy voice.

“I s’pose everybody does sometimes.  Why ya ask?”

A tinglin’ feeling ran up my spine when Joe covered his face with his hands, and he didn’t say nothin’ else.  Maybe the impact of the trial had finally sunk in and he knew he and I wouldn’t have these conversations no longer.  How would any of us accept the outcome of the trial?

Joe had always been the life of the party.  I’m sure Adam would use different words than me, but that’s what I felt about my little brother.  He gave so much and asked nothing in return.  And even though he had a gift for bringin’ on trouble—I kinda liked trouble.  I guess you could say there was never a dull moment on the Ponderosa after Joe was born.  Even the day of his birth, we all knew he was somethin’ special.  That squirmin’ little baby touched all our hearts, especially mine.  And from that day on, I’d been able to protect Joe from all the bad things life had to offer.  But now, I was helpless to bring my little brother home alive.

Joe pushed hisself up on the narrow cot and sat with his back against the wall and his knees was bent so his boots sat flat against the mattress.  I stood from the chair and sat down on the bed beside him.

Joe reached into his jacket pocket for the small, white bible Sally’s father had given him right after she died.  Inside was a piece of newsprint, and I tried to look on as he unfolded the section he’d saved.  He smoothed the wrinkled paper against his thigh.  I leaned in a little more and from where I was sitting, I recognized the headline:  Murder at Midnight.

Written the day after Sally died, it only made sense Joe had kept the article tucked inside her palm-sized bible and close to his heart.  It wasn’t the fancy wedding announcement he’d anticipated everyone would see, but a few short lines covering his fiancée’s death.

“I miss her so much, Hoss.”  Joe’s eyes filled with tears and his hands was shakin’ as he fumbled with the small piece of newsprint.  “I’ll never hear her laugh again or see her face light up when I lean in for a kiss.  I’ll never hold her in my arms.  I’ll never have the chance to love her or be a father to our children.”

“Come on, Joe,” I said.  “Don’t do this to yourself.”

“Maybe this is what God intended, Hoss.”  Joe’s voice was just above a whisper, but the next thing he said brought our entire conversation down a few notches.  “Maybe this was all a plan so Sally and I could be together, you know—in heaven.”

If I’d known the whiskey woulda freed up all this dadblamed misery, I never woulda brought the flask inside the cell.  Joe was thinkin’ and talkin’ too much about death, and Pa’d have my hide if he knew what I’d done.  Maybe all this talk about Sally, God, and the afterlife was how Joe figured he’d find enough strength to make it through the next twenty-four hours.  Maybe my little brother could picture a future without Pa and me, but I couldn’t picture nothin’ without him, and I didn’t want to hear no more talk about dyin’.

“Do you need anything, Joe?  You want anything?  I can go get whatever—”

“No,” he said, cutting my sentence short before I blabbered my fool head off, but I’d heard just about all I could take.  “Just sit tight, Hoss; stay ‘til Pa comes, okay?”

“’Course I’ll stay.  I just thought maybe— Hey?  You hear somethin’?”  There was some kind of commotion outside the jail; bootheels on boardwalks, comin’ fast, and I didn’t like the sound they was makin’.  Men in a hurry always made me nervous inside.  I stood and looked out the barred window and saw a group of men led by Pa, coming straight toward the jail.  Joe jumped up on the bed so he could see outside too.

“Looks like Pa’s smiling.”

“Sure does, little brother,” I said, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.

When the jailhouse door banged open, Joe and I both turned and crossed the cell.  One thing was certain; Pa’s voice was loud and clear.  “Open that cell, Roy,” he shouted, “and let my boy free.”  Neither of us said nothin’ after hearing Pa’s voice blast like a cannon through the sheriff’s office.

“What’s this all about, Ben?”  Roy hollered nearly as loud as Pa.  “You can’t barge in here tellin’ me what to do.”  I could just picture Roy’s face.  I nearly smiled; he’d probably already pulled his gun on Pa.  “You stay back from that cell or I’ll—”

Joe’s questioning eyes mirrored my own, but I’d distinctly heard Pa say Joe was free.  More voices battled back and forth, some loud, some not so loud, but nothing was loud enough or clear enough for Joe or me to catch hold of what was being said.  The double doors burst open and following our pa was Judge Borman and Roy Coffee.  Joe and I both stood like unbending oak trees in the wind.  Neither of us moved a muscle.  Some might call it shock but for me, it either a sick joke or a miracle.

“What’s this all about, Pa?”  I asked, pullin’ my little brother close to my side.

As soon as Roy extended his set of keys and unlocked the cell, Pa sailed through the iron door nearly knocking me aside as he rushed toward my brother.  He grabbed hold of Joe’s shoulders.  “You’re free, son.  You’re free to go.”

Joe was dumbfounded, and I glanced at Roy for confirmation, but Pa was already filling in the gaps.  “The real killer came forward, son.”

“You’re a lucky man, Joe Cartwright,” said Judge Borman, smilin’ and pattin’ my brother on the back.

I’d never heard truer words in my life but when Joe glanced my way, I shrugged my shoulders before diggin’ my hands deep in my pant’s pockets.  Seems we were the only two people in Virginia City who’d been left out of the loop.

“Eileen Cutler,” the judge continued.  “She came clean after sentencing had been pronounced.  She never thought the jury would convict an innocent man but when they sentenced you to hang, she stepped forward and did the right thing.”

Joe head must have been reeling.  “You mean the widow Cutler’s the one who shot Horace?”  His shaky voice made him sound younger than his years; maybe it was nerves or just plain shock.  After all, he’d been through during the past couple of weeks, rotting inside this cell and then found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit, I bet Joe didn’t know which way to turn or what to believe anymore.

“That’s right, son,” said the judge  “She volunteered everything you couldn’t remember.  She revealed the whole truth to your father and me inside my chambers.”

Joe reached for the back of his head where the blow had knocked him unconscious.  “You mean she’s the one who hit me over the head?”

“That’s right, Joseph,” Pa said, reaching his arm around Joe.  “Apparently, she picked up Miguel’s steel-handled shovel, swung, and knocked you out cold.”  Pa hesitated a minute after seein’ Joe’s face pale and his eyes began blinkin’ repeatedly.  “You with me, son?”  Guess Pa was making sure his words were sinking in all the way.

“Yeah, go on, Pa.”

“Mrs. Cutler had followed Horace to the livery for one last goodbye and when she saw how you’d grabbed Horace by the shirtfront, she assumed the worst, and, well—she couldn’t let that happen.”

“I never heard her come in,” Joe said.  “I never saw her, Pa.”

“I’ll bet Horace saw her,” I said to Joe.  “That’s probably why he kept tellin’ you all them lies about him and Sally bein’ in love.”

Judge Borman continued where Pa left off.  “After she knocked you out, Horace was free to ride out but maybe something you said triggered his next response; I guess we’ll never know.  Anyway, Mrs. Cutler waited patiently for some kind of thank you, but Horace started laughing and saying awful things.  He said she was a stupid old woman who couldn’t see the truth if it was right in front of her face.”

“The truth?”  Joe glanced at Pa and then me.

“Horace moved toward his horse,” said the judge, “but apparently he turned back for one more jab at the only person who’d ever cared anything about him.  He admitted he’d killed Sally—that he’s the one who’d choked her to death inside her father’s house.  But that wasn’t all, Joe.  Horace admitted he’d killed a girl in Mason City and another young woman over near Apache Flats.”

“That’s when the widow took the gun from your holster,” Pa said, glancing at me.  “She shot Horace in the chest and threw your gun unto an empty stall.  She knew no one would ever question her, but one person did, didn’t you Hoss?”

“Yeah, Pa.  I did.”

“Your brother knew all along,” Pa said, “and I never believed him.  In fact, I handled everything about this whole situation wrong, and I’m deeply sorry, son.”

I wasn’t sure if the apology was for me or for Joe.  It didn’t matter now that things was all cleared up, but it sure could have made life easier for my little brother if I hadn’t let Pa change my thinkin’ about the widow.

“I shoulda done more, Joe,” I said regretfully.  “I shoulda gone back and made her admit what she’d done.”

Joe just shook head.  He never even knew I’d talked to Mrs. Cutler, and whether I was forgiven or whether he was just tryin’ to work all this out in his mind, I wasn’t sure.

I could see Pa’s eyes had started misting some, but he was well practiced at keepin’ hisself in control.  Ben Cartwright wasn’t one to go soft in front of a group of outsiders.  “You were right all along about Horace, Joseph, but without proof, and when you started making wild accusations about how you felt about him, I let you down.  I never gave you a chance to explain.”

“You weren’t the only one, Pa.”

“I’m sorry too,” Roy said, “and I’m sure Clem will offer his apologies right soon.  I never would’ve thought that boy was capable of murder,” Roy admitted, “’Course, it was hard for me to believe you was a killer either, Little Joe.”

“Guess I owe Mrs. Cutler my life,” Joe said.

No one seemed to know what to say, but Pa turned toward the judge and shook the man’s hand.  “It’s been quite a day,” he said.  “I’m glad it’s over.”

I started thinkin’ about the day we’d had and how desperate all our lives had become after the judge passed sentence against Joe.  But mostly, my thoughts drifted to Sally Bristol.  Not only had Horace Perkins taken her life, but he’d ruined so many others.  Joe was nearly hanged and now an old woman, who never did an unkind deed in her life, would take Joe’s place at the gallows.

After confessin’ all them things about dyin’ and bein’ with Sally, it seemed my little brother had been handed a double blow.  All in one day, Joe had been given a death sentence and when he’d made his peace, knowing he’d spend eternity with the love of his life; that too was yanked out from under him.

But Joe would always remember his time spent with Sally Ann Bristol.  Their long talks about nothing and everything, Saturday night dances, and buggy rides on Sunday afternoons.  Someday he’d remember her laughter and her gentle ways, and though she would never become his wife, she would never grow old—like a painting—she would always remain young and beautiful.

“Ben,” Roy said, interrupting my thoughts, but maybe that was for the best.  I was nearly teary-eyed myself.  “If you’ll get your boys on out of here, Clem’s gonna need the cell.”

I reached out and shook Judge Borman’s hand.  “Thank you, sir.  What happens now?”

“You’re brother’s free to go, and Eileen Cutler will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

“You mean she’ll be hanged?”

“Hoss,” Pa said, shaking his head slightly.  “Let’s get this brother of yours home.”

~~~ Epilogue ~~~

He knelt down on one knee and rested his hand against the cold, hard granite, which often brought comfort since her death over twenty years ago. And when he removed his hat out of respect for the love he’d once known, the cool mountain breeze lifted the gently trimmed edges of his snow-white hair.  He’d lowered himself to God and to the mother of his youngest son where he would beg each separately for absolution of his sins.

“I’ve always believed our relationship was beyond betrayal,” he softly spoke.  Beyond the hurt I may have caused our son during these last few weeks.  My only prayer is that Joseph will never realize the reservations I held toward his innocence, and I pray he will never be forced to come to terms with what I conceived in my heart to be true.

“Joseph has never lied to me so why did I doubt him this time?  How could I ever consider our son guilty of such a horrific crime?  I turned my back on our boy, Marie.  When he needed me most, I turned away; I forced Hoss to accept the role of father and brother to the boy I’ve always loved with all my heart.

“Can you ever forgive me?

“Is it possible to see past the fool I’ve been, to forgive this narrow-minded old man who nearly destroyed the bond I’ve always shared with Joseph by sensing doubt?  I became callous in my thinking.  I lost faith in the one person who always confides in me and asks for my help in tough situations.

“I never once showed him the love or understanding he deserved before or during the trial.  For days, Joseph tore himself apart, fighting his gut feeling and begging me to understand.  ‘It’s just the way I feel,’ he said.  ‘The way you feel?’  I replied mockingly.  ‘You accuse Horace because of the way you feel?’

“Why did I verbally admonish our son?  Why didn’t I listen to Joseph rather than ridicule and mimic his heartfelt words?  Oh, Marie, you’ll never know how many times I’ve wanted to take back my overzealous clichés over morality and justice when Joseph was hurting so deeply inside.

“Just like you, my darling, our boy has a tender heart, but he’s also strong-willed and I, of all people, judged him and demanded he lean toward my way of thinking.  But he frightened me.  His heart was breaking, and all I could do was throw words concerning right and wrong back in his face.  I was the first to accept his guilt, assuming our quick-tempered son had forgotten all my teachings and had taken the law into his own hands.

“And now I beg your forgiveness, not only for me but for any hurt I may have caused Joseph.  For days, I let him sit inside that cell without lending my strength, my faith, or my love.

“God knows Joe deserves better.  I love that boy, Marie.  I love him so much my heart aches.  Knowing I refused to believe in his innocence is a crime I’ll take to my grave.  How in God’s name could I have ever doubted—

“Joseph—”

His heart pounded; Ben rose to his feet and turned slightly, hiding clear signs that tears had been shed, that confessions had been surrendered over his dead wife’s grave.  How long had the boy stood in silence and listened as he begged for forgiveness?

“Joseph?”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Joe said.  His voice was soft but hesitant.  And when Ben turned toward him, he stepped back.

“Please, son.  Hear me out.”

Ben reached out with both hands, but Joe shook his head and turned in place as though he might walk away.  In desperation, Ben stepped forward, leaving one hand to rest on the tall, upright stone.  But Joseph distanced himself and in within minutes, he was gone.

Moving forward, as though drifting through a heavy fog, Ben’s steps were slow, even halted, as he fought his way up the path, leading to the road that would take him home.  But would Joseph be waiting, and could he ever forgive a father’s ultimate betrayal?

***The End***

A/N:  Cheaux and I challenged each other to write a WHI or WHN for Season 8’s Justice.  This was my version and here is her version.  Eternal Justice

  •      Credit goes to Season 8’s Justice writer Richard Wendley for his words and phrases I used in this story.
  •      A big thank you goes to my beta reader, Cheaux.
  •      Written 6-2014

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