Blood is Thicker than Water (by Susan G)

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Summary:  Little Joe witnesses a murder, committed by a good friend of Adam.

Rating:  T  (7,170 words)

 

Blood is Thicker than Water

 

(Author’s note: this is one of the first stories I wrote. Kindly keep that in mind as you read it!)

 

Virginia City looked deserted as waves of heat shimmered in the street. On such a hot day, most of the town’s citizens found a reason to stay inside, out of the bright sun. However, three men ignored the heat, strolling lazily down the empty street toward the saloon. Adam, Hoss, and Joe Cartwright had spent the afternoon loading a supply wagon and were ready to reward themselves with a cold beer.

“Three beers, Bruno,” Adam called as he and his brothers entered the saloon and settled themselves at a table.

“It sure is hot,” remarked Hoss as he pushed his hat back and arranged his bulk more comfortably in the chair. “I’m mighty glad we’re finished loading those supplies.”

As the bartender placed three beers on the table, Adam began checking items off a list. “All right,” he said, “I got the grain from the feed store, Joe loaded the fencing and Hoss picked up the sugar, flour and salt. I drew the cash at the bank, and Hoss got the mail. Who picked up the keg of nails?” Adam looked at his brothers, who gazed back at him with blank faces as they sipped from their glasses.

“Don’t tell me,” Adam said with a sigh. “Neither of you remembered the nails. Well, I guess one of us will just have to go to the hardware store and pick up the keg.” He stared straight at Joe as he sipped his beer, and Hoss began doing the same. Joe, drinking slowly, suddenly realized his brothers were looking expectantly at him.

“Now, wait a minute,” Joe protested. “How come I always have to do the fetching and carrying in this family? Why don’t one of you do it?”

” ‘Cause you’re the youngest, and one of the disadvantages of being the youngest is your elders get to order you around,” answered Hoss with a grin.

“That’s right,” added Adam, glancing at Joe’s empty holster. “And if you do this right, we might even let you start carrying a gun.”

“Now wait a minute, Adam,” Joe replied heatedly, “you know the gunsmith’s fixing the loose handle on my pistol.”

“Well, if you would pay attention to the important things once in a while, you would have noticed the gun handle was getting loose,” Adam countered in an accusing voice.

Hoss could see his older and younger brothers were heading toward yet another argument; the disagreements were becoming more frequent. Adam didn’t seem to realize Joe was no longer a kid, and Joe resented Adam’s patronizing attitude. “Joe,” Hoss interjected quickly, “it’s too hot to argue. Why don’t you do us a favor and get the nails. It’ll only take a minute, and I’ll buy you a nice cold beer when you get back.”

After taking long drink from his glass, Joe pushed his chair back, and stood up. “I’m going,” he declared grudgingly, “but I expect a cold beer on the table when I get back.” He gave Adam and Hoss an unhappy look and walked out the door, grumbling all the way.

Hoss turned to his brother. “Adam, you shouldn’t ride Joe so hard. He does his share, same as the rest of us.”

“He shouldn’t be so sensitive,” Adam replied. “Every time I try to say something to Joe, he gets his back up. He just won’t listen to anyone. It’s about time he grew up.”

Hoss didn’t answer. He just sat drinking his beer, thinking there was a big difference between “saying” and ordering someone around.

In the heat from the blazing sun, Joe strolled across the empty street to the hardware store. Bert Green, the owner, was sitting in a chair in front of the store, fanning himself with a newspaper. “Howdy, Joe,” drawled Bert, “What can I do for you?”

“I need a keg of nails,” explained Joe.

“Well, there’s three kegs out back…help yourself,” said Bert without moving. “I’ll just add it to your Pa’s bill”.

“Thanks, Bert, you’re such a help,” Joe replied dryly. Shaking his head, Joe walked to the back of the shop and into the alley. He was searching through the crates and barrels stacked by the side of the building when he heard loud voices.

Looking around, Joe saw two men to his right, at the far end of the alley. The men were shouting at each other, and Joe could tell from their angry faces that trouble was brewing. Suddenly, one of the men pulled a knife from his belt and stabbed the other man in the stomach.

“Hey,” yelled a startled Joe, “What do you think you’re doing?” He reached for his gun and realized his holster was empty.

The man with the knife looked up and saw Joe. For a moment, the two just stared at each other. Then the man dropped the knife and pulled his gun from his holster. Joe dove behind a crate just as a bullet whizzed by. A second shot hit the crate, and a third bounced off the wall above Joe’s head. Joe froze, unable to do anything but keep out of the way of the flying bullets. He waited until silence filled the air, then cautiously peered out from the behind the crate. The killer had fled, leaving his victim crumpled in the alley.

People were running toward the alley from all directions as Joe slowly stood up. He walked toward the body just as Bert came hurrying down the narrow passageway.

“What happened?” Bert asked as he looked first at the body and then at Joe. “Who’s this guy?”

Before Joe could answer, half a dozen more people crowded into the alley, including Adam, Hoss and Sheriff Roy Coffee. Sheriff Coffee repeated Bert’s questions.

“Two men were arguing as I came into the alley,” Joe explained. “They were going at it pretty good. This guy lost the argument the hard way.”

Sheriff Coffee looked at the body. “I haven’t seen this one before, leastwise, not that I remember,” he observed. He picked up the knife which was laying next to the dead man. “Joe, do you have any idea who the other fellow was?”

Joe glanced at the sheriff and then looked straight at Adam. “It was Rob Turner,” Joe answered slowly, still staring at Adam.

“What!” Adam exclaimed. “You’ve got to be wrong, Joe. I’ve known Rob for years…he’s one of the best friends. He couldn’t do something like this.”

“I heard his voice, Adam, and saw his face,” Joe stated firmly. “I’m not wrong.”

The sheriff glanced at both Cartwrights. “Seems to me the best thing to do is to go see Rob Turner and find out what he has to say,” he suggested. The sheriff turned to two men standing by the body. “You boys take that fellow to the funeral parlor. Adam, Joe, Hoss, you come with me. The rest of you go about your business,” Coffee ordered.

Trailed by the Cartwrights, Coffee walked out of the alley and down the street, stopping front of a building with a plate glass window painted with the words “Turner Trading”. Peering through the glass into the office, the sheriff commented, “Looks empty.” He took another step and pushed open the front of the door.

A bell over the door tinkled as the four men entered an empty office. Papers were strewn atop the desk in the middle of the room, but otherwise the office was tidy. Books were lined neatly in a floor-to-ceiling case, and visitor chairs were arranged in a semi-circle near the desk.

“Be with you in a minute,” a voice called from a back room.

“Doesn’t sound like man who just committed murder, does he,” Adam commented sarcastically as he glanced at Joe. “I think you have your facts mixed up.”

A stubborn look crossed Joe’s face but he didn’t reply. Instead, he stared at a tall, dark-haired man wearing a white shirt and string tie who came strolling into the office from the back. The man had a smile on his face, and he was wiping his hands on a towel as he walked into the room. “Roy, Adam, boys,” Rob Turner acknowledged the group. “What can I do for you?”

“You can tell us where you were and what you were during the last 30 minutes or so,” Sheriff Coffee replied.

“Why, what’s wrong?” Turner asked with a puzzled look.

“Never mind, just answer the question,” the sheriff demanded.

Shrugging his shoulders, Turner said, “I was in the back checking inventory for the last hour.”

“He’s lying, Roy,” Joe declared in a grim voice. “I saw him in the alley behind the hardware store not ten minutes ago. He was arguing with that cowboy and then he stabbed him.”

“What! Are you crazy, Joe?” Turner exclaimed with a startled look. “I never stabbed anyone. I’ve been here the whole time,”

“Joe, are you sure it was Rob you saw?” asked the sheriff.

“I’m sure,” Joe answered firmly. “I saw his face and I heard his voice.”

“Well, that’s an eyewitness identification, Rob,” Coffee stated. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to lock you up.”

“Wait a minute,” Turner said quickly. “Who was I suppose to have killed and why?”

“We haven’t identified the victim yet,” Coffee admitted. “But Joe here says you killed him during an argument.”

Turner turned to Adam. “You don’t believe this, do you? I hardly ever lose my temper. And I certainly don’t go around killing people. Tell them, Adam. You’re my best friend. Tell them you don’t believe I did it!”

Adam look at Joe and then at Turner. “No,” he admitted, “I don’t believe you killed that man.”

“Joe, you still say Rob Turner killed that fellow?” asked Coffee with a faint expression of skepticism on his face. Joe gave a slow nod in reply. “Then, Rob, you’ll have to come with me,” continued the sheriff. “We’ll let a judge and jury decide.” He turned to the Cartwrights. “Joe, you’ll need to come to the office and make a statement in writing. Hoss, I’d appreciate your help escorting the prisoner.”

Taking Turner by the arm, Coffee started leading him out the door, with the Cartwrights close behind. Turner turned and called over his shoulder, “Adam, get my lawyer, Jim Williams. Tell him what’s happening and ask him to get over to the jail.”

Nodding his agreement, Adam stared at Joe with a solemn expression but his brother returned his look without a waver. Then group slowly trooped out of the office.

*****************

The ride home was an uncomfortable one for all the Cartwrights. Adam and Joe were on horseback, each flanking Hoss who drove the supply wagon. They rode in stony silence and Hoss could almost feel the waves of antagonism flowing between his brothers.

As the trio pulled to a stop in the main yard of the Ponderosa, their father was coming out of the barn. “Well, you’re finally back…” Ben started cheerfully and then stopped. He could tell by his sons’ expressions that something was wrong. “What happened?” he asked.

The Cartwright boys looked at each other and, for a moment, no one said anything. Finally Hoss spoke up. “There was some trouble in town, Pa. A fellow was killed and Joe here was the only witness. He says he saw Rob Turner do it.”

“I don’t just say Turner did it. He did do it,” stated Joe angrily.

“You’re wrong, Joe, but you’re just too stubborn to admit it,” Adam countered with just as much heat.

Seeing an argument brewing, Ben quickly interrupted. “Let’s discuss this later. Adam, you put the horses away. Joe, start unloading the wagon. Hoss, bring the mail inside.”

As the brothers slowly turned to their tasks, Ben walked rapidly to catch up to Hoss and quietly asked him what exactly happened. As Hoss told him the story, Ben shook his head. He knew both of his sons could be stubborn. This was not going to be a pleasant situation.

Dinner was eaten in virtual silence that night. Adam and Joe refused to even look at each other, and neither responded to Hoss’ attempts to make neutral conversation. Ben had talked with his sons separately in attempt to sort out the truth. Joe insisted he saw Rob Turner kill that cowboy. But Adam was equally adamant that Rob couldn’t have done it; there was no proof beyond Joe’s statement. It was a clear case of mistaken identity, his oldest son had claimed. Sipping his coffee at the dinner table, Ben looked at both his sons. The antagonism between them was almost palpable and Ben had no idea what to do about it.

**********

For three days, an angry silence filled the house on the Ponderosa. Each morning, Adam rode into town to visit his friend in jail and the visits made his mood even darker. Joe ignored his oldest brother, and brushed off all of Hoss’ attempts to cool his anger. Ben’s efforts to reconcile his sons had no effect on either of them. Both insisted he was right and the other was wrong.

Dinner on that third night was as uncomfortable as the previous two. Adam’s place was empty and the other three Cartwrights seemed at a loss as to what to say to each other. They were halfway through the meal when Adam walked into the house. He hung his hat on the rack by the door, walked to the dinner table and sat down.

“Roy’s identified the dead man,” Adam said without preamble. “His name was Jess Wilson. No connection to Rob Turner that anyone can establish. Rob didn’t know him, never saw him before. And Rob had no reason to kill him.”

Joe gave his brother a hard look, then turned away.

Shooting a look of concern at Joe, and then at Adam, Ben sighed. “You’d better have something to eat, Adam,” he suggested to his oldest son.

“I’m not hungry,” Adam replied. “Seeing your best friend in jail facing the hangman’s noose takes away your appetite. Knowing your own brother is going to put the noose around his neck doesn’t help.”

“Do you think I’m enjoying this?” Joe demanded angrily. “I wish I hadn’t seen Rob kill that man, but I did.”

“You only think you saw Rob,” declared Adam, a tone of disgust evident in his voice. “It’s clearly a case of mistaken identity but you’re too stubborn to admit it. Why don’t you grow up and just say you made a mistake.”

Joe jumped to his feet. “What makes you always right and me always wrong,” he shouted. “Why don’t you admit you’re wrong about your friend?”

“I’m not wrong about Rob,” Adam insisted in an equally loud voice. “He had no motive, and, unlike some people, he’s not a hot-headed kid who doesn’t think things through.”

“Don’t call me a kid,” Joe yelled, taking a step toward his brother and balling his fist.

“Well, then stop acting like one,” Adam retorted. “If you would use your brain for once, you’d know that the killer was someone who just resembled Rob.”

“That’s enough!” boomed Ben. “I’m tired of this arguing and accusing. You two aren’t even listening to each other anymore. You both think you’re right and that can’t be. So we’ll let the law decide. But I won’t have you two tearing at each other, not in this house. I’m not going to let Rob Turner break this family apart.”

A flush of red crept up both Adam and Joe’s faces as they looked down guiltily. For a moment, neither moved. Finally, Adam said, “I’m sorry, Pa. I think I ought to take a ride and cool off.” He turned abruptly and walked out of the house.

Joe stood silently until he heard the front door bang close, then mumbled, “I’ve got some work to do in the barn.” Without looking at the two men sitting at the table, he too walked out of the house.

Sighing, Ben turned to Hoss, but his middle son could only shake his head. Neither of them knew what to say to each other, or to Ben’s other sons.

**********

On a hill overlooking the ranch house, three men watched silently as Adam rode off and as Joe walked to the barn a few minutes later. They had been watching and waiting for several hours but, even now, they sat without moving for awhile longer. Finally, one gestured to the others to go down the hill. The three moved quietly until they were at the side of the barn. The first man looked cautiously around the empty yard, then motioned the other two on again.

Inside the barn, Joe was soaping his saddle, not really paying attention to his work and still fuming from his confrontation with Adam. He didn’t notice the men until the door to the barn creaked closed. Spinning around, Joe looked at the three standing in front of him with both surprise and anger. “What do you want?” he demanded.

The first man – a big, heavy-set individual – grinned wickedly. “We’re friends of Rob Turner,” he said, “and we’re not happy about you accusing him of murder”.

“That’s right,” added the second man, who was taller and leaner. “We’ve come to persuade you not to testify against him.” The third man said nothing but his eyes narrowed into a menacing look.

If Joe had been thinking clear, he would have understood what “persuade” meant, but his temper was already boiling from his confrontation with Adam. “You can save your breath. I saw Rob Turner commit murder and nothing’s going to stop me from saying that in court,” Joe told the men angrily.

“I guess we’ll just have to convince him, boys,” observed the big man, giving a small wave at the other two. Before Joe could react, the men rushed forward and grabbed Joe, pinning his arms behind him. The big man hit Joe in the jaw and followed with two rapid punches to the younger man’s stomach. Bent forward in pain, Joe tried to catch his breath.

Moving to stand in front of Joe, the tall one hit the youngest Cartwright on the jaw. As Joe reeled from the blow, the third man caught him and hit him again in the face and stomach. Joe fell to his knees, gasping for breath and trying to stop the spinning in his head. Two of the men grabbed his arms and pulled Joe to his feet. The big man put his face inches from Joe’s. “Get the idea?” he asked nastily. “Now, you just tell the sheriff and the judge that you were wrong, that Rob Turner had nothing to do with that killing. Otherwise, we’ll come back and finish the job.”

Desperately, Joe tried to catch his breath and focus his eyes. He looked up at his attacker, and a fire flickered in his eyes. “You can go to blazes,” he gasped.

The words seemed to infuriate the big man. He pummeled Joe with his fists until Joe fell to the ground. Then the tall man pulled Joe up and smacked him back to the ground. For the next few minutes, the trio took turns yanking Joe to his feet and beating him down again. Finally, they let him fall to the floor in a heap.

“That’s enough,” announced the tall man. “The boss said not to kill him. Besides, I don’t think he can feel it anymore.”

The big man looked down at Joe, who was curled on his side on the barn floor. He gave Joe a swift kick in the ribs that sent the young man sprawling on his back. “Yeah,” he said as he nodded with satisfaction, “he’s had it. Let’s go.”

*********************

In the house, Ben was pacing in front of the fireplace, his face creased with worry. Hoss sat on the sofa, pretending to read the newspaper but was really watching his father. Finally, Ben turned to Hoss. “What’s Joe doing out in the barn?”

“Oh, he’s probably just trying to work off some of his mad,” Hoss replied.

“Ask him to come in,” Ben said, “I want to talk with him”.

Nodding, Hoss put the newspaper down and rose to his feet, glancing anxiously at his father as he walked across the room and out the door. In the fading light outside the house, Hoss started yelling Joe’s name as he crossed the yard and neared the barn. He was surprised that he got no answer.

Pulling open the barn door, Hoss started in but stopped abruptly as he saw the unconscious form of his brother lying on the floor. “Joe!” Hoss cried, and rushed to his brother’s side. Kneeling, Hoss gently lifted Joe’s head. His brother’s face was badly bruised and blood was trickling from cuts above his eye, as well as on lip and chin. “Joe!” Hoss said again, “can you hear me?” He got no response. “Joe!” he repeated urgently as he brushed some straw from his brother’s face. Joe’s head merely flopped gently to the side.

Quickly, Hoss lifted his brother off the ground and walked toward the house, carrying Joe in his arms. “Pa!” he yelled as he approached the house. “Pa, come quick.”

Hearing Hoss’ shout inside the house, Ben rushed to the door and yanked it open. He caught his breath as he saw Hoss carrying Joe, obviously unconscious, toward the house. “Put him on the sofa,” Ben ordered his middle son.

Brushing past his father, Hoss carried Joe into the house and gently placed him on the sofa. Ben knelt next to Joe and gently slid a pillow under his head. Without taking his eyes off his youngest son, Ben asked. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, Pa”, Hoss answered grimly. “I just found him in the barn like this. Somebody sure worked him over.”

It was over an hour before Joe softly groaned and showed signs of waking. The blood had been washed off his face, and his cuts and bruises gently daubed with medicine. His shirt had been removed so his injured ribs could be tightly bandaged. After giving a grunt in response to the pain that seemed to pervade his body, Joe slowly opened his eyes and looked into his father’s face.

“Joe, can you see me?” Ben asked anxiously.

Slowly, Joe nodded, then winced with pain. “I can see you, Pa”, he told his father weakly. He looked at the end of the sofa where Hoss was hovering. “I can see Hoss, too,” he added. He tried to take a deep breath, but stopped abruptly and grunted again.

“Easy, Joe,” advised Ben as he stroked his son’s head. “You’ve got some cracked ribs, and cuts and bruises all over. Just lie still.” Ben watched as Joe gritted his teeth against the pain. “Who did this to you, son?” he asked.

“Three men” Joe answered slowly. “They said they were friends of Rob Turner. They didn’t want me to testify at the trial. I guess they got mad when I told them to go to blazes.”

Just then, the front door opened and Adam walked into the house. As first, he just glanced casually around the room, but when his gaze landed on the three figures near the fireplace, Adam cut rapidly across the room to the sofa. He stared down at Joe, then looked at Ben and Hoss. “What happened to him?” he asked in a shocked voice.

“We had some visitors while you were gone,” Hoss explained grimly. “They said they were friends of Rob Turner. They wanted Joe to agree not to testify, and beat him half to death when he said no.”

With a stunned expression on his face, Adam looked back at Joe. “Is that what happened?” he asked. Joe nodded in reply.

“I know most of Rob’s friends and I can’t believe any of them would do something like this,” Adam stated in disbelief. “Did you recognize any of them?”

Slowly, Joe shook his head, then winced. “I think they were hired muscle,” he answered weakly. Joe looked up at Adam. “I’m still going to testify,” he added.

As Joe grimaced in pain once more, Ben frowned. “Let’s get you up to bed,” he said to Joe. “Hoss,” he called over his shoulder, “grab his legs.”

“No,” Joe protested, “I can walk.” He sat up slowly and swung his legs over the side of the sofa. Ben and Hoss each grabbed an arm as Joe tried to rise and didn’t quite make it. They looked at each other over Joe’s head, and with silent agreement, helped him to his feet. Adam watched as his father and brother half-carried Joe up the stairs.

When Ben walked down the stairs a short time later, Adam was standing near the fireplace, staring into the flames. “Did you get Joe settled in all right?” Adam asked.

Ben nodded. “Hoss is going to sit with him for awhile, just to be sure. He’s been pretty badly beaten.”

“I just can’t believe Rob or any of his friends would hire men to do this,” Adam declared, the disbelief still evident in his voice.

“Will you listen to yourself?” Ben demanded. “You can’t believe Rob would kill someone, you can’t believe he would know someone like this Wilson, and you can’t believe Rob would have someone beat up Joe. Seems like there’s an awful lot about Rob Turner you can’t believe. Maybe it’s time you start thinking about you do know about Rob Turner.”

Adam looked his father with a startled expression.

“Every man has his secrets,” Ben continued. “Some men have more secrets than others. You need to realize you may not know everything there is to know about Rob.”

Adam’s face grew thoughtful as Ben walked out of the room.

***********

Adam and Hoss were already at the breakfast table when Ben came down the stairs the next morning. “Is Joe all right?” asked Hoss.

“He’s still asleep, but he’s resting easy and there’s no fever,” Ben answered. He hesitated, then added, “I suppose I better tell Roy Coffee about this.”

“Let me,” offered Adam. Ben and Hoss looked at him in surprise. “I want to see Rob’ face when I tell him about this,” Adam continued. “It may let me in on some of those secrets we were talking about.”

Ben gazed thoughtfully at his oldest son for a moment, and then nodded his head in agreement.

***********

By the time Adam arrived at the Sheriff’s Office, it was mid-morning. He walked into the office with a determined expression on his face, a fact noted by the sheriff sitting behind the desk.

“I’ve got some news, Roy,” Adam announced, “and I’d like Rob to hear about it at the same time you do.”

“Well, that’s all right with me, I guess,” agreed Roy Coffee, who stood and turned toward the cellblock.

Adam stopped the sheriff. “Has Rob had many visitors?” he asked.

“Just you and his lawyer, Williams,” answered the sheriff. Coffee cocked his head a bit to look at Adam. “You know, that Williams, he’s a pretty slick fellow. He’s gotten some mighty shady characters out of jail, and I hear tell that he’s managed to get some pretty big trading contracts for Turner. They’ve both made a good bit of money from that freight business lately. ”

Nodding thoughtfully, Adam followed the sheriff toward the cellblock. Rob Turner stood up in his cell as Adam and Roy Coffee walked toward him.

“I wanted you both to hear this,” Adam stated, looking directly at Turner. “Three men came to the Ponderosa last night to try to persuade Joe not to testify against Rob. When Joe said no, they beat him half to death.”

Sheriff Coffee’s eyes widened in surprise and horror, but Turner’s face stayed impassive. Adam couldn’t tell what the man in the cell was thinking. “They worked Joe over pretty good, but he’s going to be all right,” Adam continued, “He’s still going to testify at the trial.” Something flickered in Turner’s eyes but, again, Adam wasn’t sure what was going through the man’s mind.

“Maybe I ought to send some deputies out to the Ponderosa to keep an eye on Joe,” the sheriff offered.

“Don’t bother,” Adam replied, “We’ll make sure nothing happens to Joe.” He continued to study Turner’s face as he talked.

“Adam, you don’t think I had anything to do with this, do you?” Turner asked in surprise. “I would never threaten anyone like that, especially your brother. Besides, I’ve been in jail for the past four days.”

Standing silently in front the cell, Adam watched his friend’s face. Then he slowly turned and walked away.

******************

Ben was working at his desk when Adam got back to the Ponderosa. “How did it go in town?” he asked pointedly as Adam walked into the room.

“I’m not sure,” Adam admitted. “I need to talk to Joe. Where is he?”

“He’s still in bed,” replied Ben. “He’s a pretty sore young man.” He hesitated, then added, “Go easy on him, Adam. He’s really hurting. And remember, he IS your brother.”

Giving a quick nod, Adam walked away from the desk and headed up the stairs. He walked slowly down the hall and stopped in front of Joe’s room. The door was open, and Adam could see his brother propped up by pillows in the bed, an open book his hands. Joe’s bruises were beginning to turn purple and yellow, and the cuts had ugly scabs forming on them. Adam knocked softly on the door, and asked, “Can I come in?”

Glancing up from his book, Joe was surprised to see his oldest brother was standing in the doorway. With a wary look on his face, Joe closed the book and replied “Sure.”

“That’s quite a shiner you got. How are you feeling?” Adam commented as he sat down on the edge of the bed.

Shifting a bit on the bed, Joe winced. “I’m fine” he answered, “As long as I don’t do anything silly…like try to move.”

Briefly, Adam smiled then turned serious. “I need you to tell me again what happened in the alley.” He put up his hand as Joe started to make an angry protest. “Before, I was listening to your story and trying to find holes in it. Now, I want to listen to it to find out why Rob might have wanted to kill Wilson.”

With a look of astonishment on his face, Joe told Adam what he saw. Adam nodded thoughtfully as Joe talked, then asked, “What exactly did the two men say?”

Leaning back against the pillows, Joe knitted his brows in a thoughtful expression. “Well, the first man, this Wilson, said something like he was tired of waiting for his money. Turner told Wilson that he’d get paid as soon as he had the money. Then Wilson said he’d better get the money soon or he’d make sure everyone knew about Rob’s business. And that’s when Turner stabbed him.”

Patiently, Adam asked his brother to go over every detail again and again until he could see Joe was getting tired. Finally, he stood up. “It’s not much to work with,” Adam admitted, “but it gives me a couple of things to check out.” Joe watched curiously as Adam left the room.

As he descended the stairs, Adam could see Ben was still working at his desk. “Pa, do you think you and Hoss can handle things at the ranch for a few days?” inquired Adam, walking toward the desk. “I need to look into a couple of things.”

“I guess we can manage,” Ben replied with surprise. “Is there anything I can help with?”

“No,” said Adam in a firm voice, “this is something I need to do myself.”

**********

For the next three days, Adam moved mysteriously around Virginia City, talking to store owners and freight drivers. He sent telegrams to various cities, and carefully read the replies. He checked maps, back editions of the newspaper, and even a few wanted posters in Roy Coffee’s. When anyone asked what he was doing, Adam answered vaguely that he was merely checking into a few things.

Ben, Joe and Hoss were sitting at the breakfast table on the morning that Rob Turner’s trial was set to begin.

“Adam still working on his secret project?” asked Hoss as he looked at the empty place at the table.

“Yes, he left early this morning…said he would meet us at the courthouse later,” Ben replied. He looked at Joe who was staring down at his plate and toying with his food. His youngest son’s bruises were fading but still very visible. “Joe, are you feeling up to this?” Ben asked anxiously. “The judge can postpone the trial for a few days if you don’t feel well enough to testify.”

A bit startled, Joe looked up at his father. “No, I’m fine,” he said. “I was just thinking about what Adam said the other day, about how my testimony was going to hang Rob Turner. I’ve been so busy arguing with Adam that I hadn’t thought about what’s going to happen after the trial.”

“Your testimony is not going to hang Rob Turner,” advised Ben in a soothing voice. “You’re just going to tell what you saw. It’s up to the judge and jury to decide what happens after that.” Joe nodded but Ben could see his son was still troubled. “Joe,” Ben continued, “you can’t feel guilty about telling the truth.”

For a moment, Joe sat silently, obviously turning over his father’s words in his head. Then, he abruptly threw his napkin on the table, pushed back his chair and stood. “Let’s get to town and get this over with,” he declared.

************

The courtroom was almost full by the time Ben, Hoss and Joe arrived. The buzz of the crowd grew louder as the Cartwrights walked to the front row and sat down on some empty chairs. Finally, the judge entered the room and court was called to order.

As the jury selection and other preliminary business of the trial took place, Ben watched his youngest son with concern. Joe was staring at the floor, ignoring the activity going on around him. Ben knew Joe was bothered about something but didn’t know what. Even worse, he had no idea how to help his son.

When the prosecutor called Joe Cartwright as the next witness, Joe glanced up quickly, with an almost startled expression on his face. He took a breath, then stood and walked slowly to the witness stand. In answer to the prosecutor’s questions, Joe quietly described what happened in the alley.

Finally, the prosecutor asked Joe if he could identify the man who did the killing. The entire courtroom seemed to hold its breath as Joe looked at the defendant’s table, and then at the jury. Doubt flickered across his face, followed by a determined look. “Rob Turner killed the man in the alley,” Joe stated with conviction.

The judge banged his gavel for quiet as the courtroom suddenly erupted with comments and conversation. Giving a nod of satisfaction, the prosecutor sat down, and Jim Williams, Turner’s defense attorney, stood. Joe watched Williams warily from the witness stand as the man approached him.

For the next twenty minutes, Williams tried to shake Joe’s testimony, accusing him of being drunk or blinded by the sun. Ben watched with concern as Joe firmly repeated his identification of Turner over and over. Ben could tell by Joe’s voice that his son was getting tired and angry. He wondered how long the judge would let this continue, or how long it would be before Joe’s temper exploded on the stand. He knew Williams hoped Joe’s temper would show and give the jury some measure of doubt about his son’s testimony.

For what seemed liked the hundredth time, Joe repeated his identification of Rob Turner as the killer in response to a question. He could feel the frustration and anger building inside him as Williams tried to trip him up. Joe took a deep breath to try to control his anger, then suddenly doubled over as pain from his injured ribs stabbed his side.

“I think we’ve had enough testimony from this witness,” the judge announced as Ben and Hoss rushed to Joe’s side. The two older Cartwrights helped Joe as he gingerly stood and moved slowly from the witness stand back to his chair at the front of the gallery.

“If there’s no more prosecuting witnesses…” the judge began.

“Just a moment, your Honor. I have an additional witness,” a voice called from the back of the courtroom. Everyone turned to look as Adam walked to the front of the room, dragging a big man by the arm.

“That’s one of the men who jumped me!” Joe exclaimed as the pair walked by him.

Adam nodded at his brother, then pushed the big man toward the table behind which an astonished prosecutor sat.

Holding the man firmly by the arm, Adam whispered something to the prosecutor, who replied in a soft voice. After a few moments conversation, Adam turned to the judge. “Your Honor, the prosecution calls Bill Dodge, and I have permission from the prosecuting attorney to conduct the questioning,” he announced in a loud voice.

The big man standing by the table looked sourly at Adam and the rest of the courtroom. “Remember, our little discussion,” Adam said quietly as he shoved the man toward the witness stand. Rob Turner and his attorney simply sat in stunned silence.

“Now, Mr. Dodge,” Adam began, “please tell us your occupation.”

“I work for Rob Turner,” Dodge replied. “He pays me for whatever stuff I can get from robbing homesteads, wagons or other freight lines. A lot of times he would set things up, telling me and some others where and when we could find some good pickings”.

“Did you know Jess Wilson, the murdered man?” Adam asked.

“Yeah, he did the same thing I did,” admitted Dodge. “Sometimes we even worked together. Thing was, Jess was getting tired of giving stuff to Turner and having to wait a week or more for his money. Turner claimed he had to wait until the goods were sold before he could pay us, but Jess figured that Turner was lying. He thought Turner had plenty of money. The last time I saw Jess, he was heading to town to have a showdown with Turner.”

“What else did Turner pay you to do?” Adam asked as the crowded courtroom began buzzing.

“He paid me and two others to beat up your brother. That lawyer fella is the one who actually told us what to do and paid us. He said if we didn’t stop your brother from testifying, our nice little set-up was over.”

Bedlam broke out in the courtroom — Williams, the lawyer, was on his feet, shouting objections while Turner was yelling at Dodge to shut up. Spectators and jurors alike began making loud comments while the judge pounded his gavel and called for order.

The chaos raged for several minutes before the judge finally regained control and the courtroom became quiet again.

“Do you have any other testimony?” the judge asked Dodge.

“No, your honor,” the cowboy replied. “Only that Adam Cartwright said that you might go easier on me if I testified. If I didn’t testify, he said he would see to it that I spent a long time in prison, a real long time. He told me he don’t take kindly to anyone hurting his brother and he’d make sure I paid for it.”

Joe, who had been watching events with a silent fascination, looked at his brother in surprise. Adam turned and gave him a small grin.

With a rapid series of instructions, the judge told Dodge to step down, and ordered him arrested. Roy Coffee was already standing in wait near at the front of the aisle that separated the chairs in the courtroom. He grabbed Dodge by the arm and shoved him into an empty chair as the judge also instructed the sheriff to arrest Williams as soon as the trail was over.

The remainder of the trial was anticlimactically swift. The defense rested its case without calling a witness. Turner’s plan to take the stand and simply claim that Joe Cartwright was mistaken seemed pointless after Dodge’s testimony, and Williams’ closing argument that all the witnesses were lying sounded weak even to the lawyer’s ears. As he returned to his seat at the defense table, Williams saw a glaring Sheriff Coffee hovering nearby. The lawyer swallowed hard, and quickly found the papers on the table of interest.

A brief closing by the prosecutor and even briefer instructions from the judge to the jury ended the trial. Less than ten minutes had passed since Dodge had testified.

The jury found Turner guilty without even leaving the jury box and the judge grimly sentenced him to hang. For several minutes, Roy Coffee was busy putting handcuffs on people and shouting for some men in the crowd to help him with his prisoners. The courtroom began to empty and the sheriff prepared to lead Turner away. As he passed the four Cartwrights, Turner stopped.

“I thought sure you’d back me over your brother,” Turner said to Adam. “I really thought you would believe me, no matter what. I figured you would convince your brother he was wrong, and my men would push him into not testifying”.

“The Cartwrights are a family and we stick by each other,” answered Adam. “I forgot that for awhile. Once I remembered, and started wondering about you, it didn’t take much to put your little scheme together. The pattern of you shipping out big freight orders a week or so after other freighters got robbed stood out like a sore thumb. I did some more checking and I learned Dodge was regularly delivering goods to your office. Then it was only a matter of finding him.”

Turner scowled. “I was sure you’d believe me because we were friends. You’re always complaining about how hot-headed your brother is. I figured you’d never believe him. I guess I was wrong.”

As Turner was led away, Adam turned to his father and brothers. “I forgot Pa’s number one rule: We’re a family, and family comes first. If we don’t trust each other and rely on each other, then nothing else matters. I owe you all an apology.”

Nodding his approval, Ben looked questioningly at Joe. Hoss glanced anxiously at both his brothers.

For a moment, Joe stood silently, studying his oldest brother. Finally, he grinned at Adam. “What you owe me is a beer,” Joe declared.

Smiling, Adam put his arm around Joe’s shoulder. “You’re right. And older brother is buying. Let’s go.”

*****End*****

 

 

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