Summary: The Ponderosa sets the stage for a kangaroo court that puts Ben on trial and puts a pubescent Joe through a whole lot of trouble.
Word Count: 14,000
A True Cartwright
Little Joe Cartwright would have done just about anything to get his mind off of Muriel Mathers — and not just his mind. Every thought of her … of the sunrise he saw in her blonde hair, the moonrise sparkle of her icy blue eyes, and the milky white mounds rising up over the top of her dress ….
Well, such thoughts filled him with stirrings that made a part of him get to rising, too. Plumb indecent, is what it was; and if Pa knew about it he’d tan Joe’s hide from here to Sunday. Fortunately, Pa wasn’t home. He’d gone to town. Joe’s brothers were gone, too, driving cattle up north, and Hop Sing had gone with them. That left the fourteen-year-old completely on his own to think about whatever he wanted.
Truthfully, he didn’t want to think about Muriel Mathers, but he just couldn’t stop himself. Not even shoveling manure could turn his thoughts.
When he heard horses approaching, he was partly grateful for the distraction and partly mortified at the prospect of being found out. Throwing down the shovel, he hurried over to the mound of hay just outside the barn, and set himself between it and the riders. He figured the hay might hide his own rising problem.
But once the riders came into sight, Joe found he didn’t need the cover after all. The fact that he didn’t recognize the six men riding toward him did what manure couldn’t: It turned his thoughts from indecency to mystery.
“Hello there, young man,” greeted a thin man with a top hat and a narrow, gray mustache. “Would you be so kind as to inform your employer that he has visitors?”
“Where’s Cartwright?” another man said, one whom Joe instantly sized up as a cowboy by his trail-worn clothes and the subtle drawl in his speech.
Joe felt something else start to rise then. His pride. He stood taller, pulling his shoulders back, and then proclaimed, “My name’s Cartwright,” even though he knew perfectly well they were looking for any other Cartwright but him. He sure was fed up with being youngest.
“Ben Cartwright?” The cowboy raised an eyebrow and grinned, making it clear he knew perfectly well Joe was not the man they were looking for.
Joe decided he liked that cowboy. “Oh, that’s my pa!” he answered, relaxing into a grin of his own. “He ain’t here right now, but you can probably catch up with him if you head into Virginia City.”
When the cowboy’s grin slipped into a scowl, Joe’s grin faded, too.
“He’ll be returning soon, I gather?” Mr. Top Hat asked.
Joe shrugged, his eyes dancing from top hat to cowboy and back again before sweeping further afield to the men behind them: a dark-skinned Mexican in leather chaps; an ox of a man with black hair and a thick, black beard; a gray-haired geezer whose dust coated face and white mustache reminded Joe somehow of a polecat; and a scrawny kid who barely fit his loose clothes and the too-big hat that hid his face in shadows. “Not ’til close to supper time,” Joe answered, even as he tried to get a better look at the kid. “It’d be quicker if you—”
“Who else is here? Who’s in charge?”
The cowboy’s gruff question drew Joe’s full attention. “Well … I am, I guess.” At any other time, he would have beamed at such an admission. But right then he really didn’t feel comfortable about it. The strangers were making him uneasy.
“Check around,” the cowboy told the rest of the men. “Make sure the boy ain’t lying.”
“I don’t lie!” Joe shot back angrily. “Besides, I got no reason to lie about that!”
Finally, the cowboy smiled at him again. But it wasn’t a good kind of smile. Instead, it made him look downright cold. “Might have been better if you had.”
They were gonna hurt his pa. Joe just knew they were gonna hurt him. They said they were gonna wait in the house until Joe’s pa got home, and whatever they planned to do after that clearly wasn’t going to be good.
But danged if Joe could do anything to stop it. As soon as those men figured out Joe was the only one home, they trussed him up with rope like some dumb old calf, tying his arms behind him and binding his ankles together — after removing his boots.
Even that wasn’t enough for them; they gagged him with a neckerchief, and then threw him down into the root cellar. He hit the ground so hard it knocked the wind right out of him.
Soon as he got his breath back and his head stopped spinning, Joe tried his dangedest to loosen the knots or to wriggle his hands free. But one of those riders must have been a sailor at some point, because pa always said sailors tied the strongest knots, and the knots securing Joe were as strong as could be.
Of course, that didn’t stop him from trying. He didn’t have any choice. He had to get free to help his pa. No matter how tired and thirsty and cold and hungry he got, no matter the darkness of that windowless, earthen cellar, he kept fighting his ropes. He fought them as hard as he’d ever fought any of the boys at school.
Yeah. Maybe that was how he should think about it. He decided to imagine himself wrestling with Billy Hawse. They were wrestling in the street … in front of the saloon … and Muriel Mathers had come out to watch.
The game of pretend helped Joe to fight with renewed spirit. He gave every last bit of energy he had to the struggle. But he really was on his last bit of energy. He’d already worn himself ragged fighting the strangers in a futile effort to keep them from tying him up; and landing hard on the cellar floor after being thrown from the top of the ladder hadn’t helped him any. Billy was winning. And Hoss wasn’t there to pull the boys apart.
…And Muriel was losing interest … and backing away….
“Where is my son?” Pa’s voice was muffled, but it still sounded like thunder as it boomed its way down to Little Joe, stirring him awake.
“…Ummhh!” Instinct overriding memory, Joe tried to call out to his pa, only to rediscover the gag over his mouth. Then frustration and fear made that instinct of his even stronger. He screamed and shouted loud as he could … or he tried to, anyway. To his own ears, he sounded like a mewling kitten. The thunder would never hear him.
His pa was home. Joe ought to feel relieved about that. But the strangers were gonna hurt Pa and Joe couldn’t so much as shout out a warning. He was as helpless as that imagined mewling kitten of his.
Then something happened to the thunder. It stopped booming. He heard men shouting, but he couldn’t tell what they were saying. And then he heard thuds and cracks that had him imagining a scuffle above him … the worst kind of scuffle, one that put his pa against half a dozen men.
Joe dropped his head back and cried into the earth beneath him.
Think, you idiot! Joe chided himself. He’d thought of past wrestling matches and imagined scuffles. He’d thought about Billy Hawse and Muriel Mathers. Now it was time to think about nothing more than himself and his pa, and about where he was and what he had available to him. It was time to think, not pretend.
“Get the wool out of your head, boy!” Adam would say.
Joe’s oldest brother sure had a way of riling him into proving he could do whatever he set his mind to. Now Joe’s mind was set to getting loose.
Joe thought long and hard about where he was: In the root cellar, where Hop Sing stored food supplies, like vegetables and canned goods.
Canning jars…. Hop Sing always kept empty canning jars. If Joe could find them, he could break one and use the jagged glass to cut the ropes.
But that would be noisy. It might even cause the strangers to check up on him. So far, no one had bothered doing any checking since they’d tossed him down there like a sack of potatoes. Joe might have figured they’d forgot about him, if it hadn’t been for what he’d heard his pa say: Where is my son?
Even so, Joe didn’t want to draw their attention. Was there any other option, besides the jars?
Maybe … Maybe he could use the lids. The edges of the thin metal disks could get jagged. Joe had cut himself with one before. And if it could cut him, he’d lay odds it could also cut through rope.
Yes, Joe would look for the canning lids.
It wasn’t easy with his hands tied behind him and his eyes practically useless in the dark. Not many slivers of sunlight managed to seep through the tiny cracks in the wooden door overhead. But as Pa had said often enough, the most important things worth doing were rarely easy.
Joe dragged himself across the ground on his back, pulling at the ground with his fingers and slithering like an upside-down snake. He aimed for the corner where Hop Sing kept the canning supplies. When his shoulder connected with a wooden crate, he smiled, but only for an instant. His real challenge was yet to come. He would have to leverage himself to his feet and feel behind him for the shelf where he remembered having seen the lids.
As luck would have it — or, rather, not have it — the shelf was too high for a short fourteen-year-old whose hands, tied at his back, couldn’t reach much higher than waist level. Disappointed but still not willing to give up, Joe clumsily turned himself around, positioning his elbows against stacked crates for balance.
A sliver of dusty sunlight showed him that the lids were in a small box at chin level. If Joe could grab the edge of the box with his teeth, he might be able to pull it close enough to allow him to get hold of one of the lids inside the same way.
He cocked his head upward and snagged the box with his upper teeth, then tried to clamp down on it with his lower jaw. But the gag hampered his efforts, and his positioning was awkward. He needed more height. He stopped to catch his breath, then eased himself upward onto his toes, focusing on his balance and wondering whether his boots would have made it easier or harder. He tried once more to clamp onto the box. For a moment, he was thrilled to catch it in his teeth, although the strain on his jaw was fierce as he tried to work around the tight gag. Then he started to pull the box toward him.
The crate he was leaning against shifted.
Losing his precarious balance, Joe fell, taking the small box with him. It smacked him in the face barely a second after he hit the ground, scattering the small, metal plates around his head.
His nose stung; he tasted blood from a split in his lip; and he could feel his right eye starting to swell. But none of that worried him. Instead, all he could think about was the noise he’d made.
The clatter was sure to have alerted the strangers. Joe lay still, breathing in quick, panting swallows of air, taking in just enough to feed his starving lungs without stealing his attention from other sounds around him. He listened for footsteps above, sure that someone would soon open the door, see him in a heap on the ground right where they’d left him — now bloodied from a split lip and scraped nose — and laugh, knowing it was all his own doing.
But no one came. And gradually, as Joe’s breaths slowed and his racing heartbeat calmed, he came to realize no one would. They didn’t care what noise he made. After all, he was a just a fourteen-year-old boy. What could he possibly do?
I’ll show them, Joe promised himself. Even more importantly, that was his promise to his pa.
Joe had to bend his wrists and thumbs at some pretty unnatural angles to saw against the ropes, and the jagged metal lid was cutting into his palm with each attempt. But he could feel his bindings begin to loosen. He was almost … almost….
The thud of heavy footsteps above startled him. He almost dropped the lid, but instead managed to wrap his fingers more tightly around it … as though he could hide it in his palm … as though whoever was coming wouldn’t be alerted to his efforts after seeing the sticky, warm moisture Joe figured had to be blood.
Once again barely daring to breathe, Joe listened. And waited. Even so, he wasn’t ready to hear the door bang open above him. The sudden, loud sound made him jerk, the twitch of his fingers pushing the metal deeper into his flesh. Then the harsh late afternoon sunlight streamed down into the dark cellar.
“Well, boy, ready to show your pa what you been up to?” the ox called out as he started down the ladder.
Did they know? Had they seen? No, they couldn’t have, not yet.
Don’t be scared, Joe told himself as the man approached. Don’t let them see fear. Those men had come to hurt his pa. Joe couldn’t show them his fear. He had to make them fear him, instead.
Maybe Joe should have laughed at the absurdity of such a thought. But he was so angry he couldn’t think clearly enough to know what was absurd and what wasn’t. And when the ox grabbed his right arm, Joe’s left one twitched again, his hand fisting around the lid. If the rope had given way, Joe would have punched the man with that fist. But the rope didn’t give way, not completely. And Joe’s fist hurt no one but himself as it forced the jagged edges of the lid deeper into his palm and fingers.
Despite the sharp sting, he didn’t loosen his grip when the man threw Joe over his shoulder like the potato sack they’d treated him as earlier. Three jolting steps upward brought Joe’s eyes level with the threshold to the kitchen, where he caught sight of a dusty pair of black boots.
“What the devil’d ya’ do to him?” a voice above those boots asked. The geezer.
“Nothin’,” the shoulder beneath Joe vibrated.
“Nothin’? Look at his hands!”
The ox twisted and Joe was thrown to the ground. He landed on his back, forcing the lid deep into his hand, then a boot kicked him to turn him belly down.
“Damnation!” The man who’d carried him spoke in a tone that was a long way from fear but maybe not too far from respect — or at least surprise. “Must’ve done that all on his own.”
Joe tried hard to ignore the pain he was feeling in his hand, and to hide all traces of it from his face. But when someone peeled his fingers away from the metal, he couldn’t hold in that pain any longer. His eyes closed of their own accord and he cried out with a muffled groan through the gag.
“Clean him up,” the geezer ordered. “And bandage that hand. Then get rid of that bloody rope. You can use the one from his ankles. He’s walkin’ out there on his own, but we ain’t settin’ him loose. Kid’s too much of a wildcat.”
“What about the gag?”
“It stays until Miz Hampton says otherwise.”
Joe didn’t know who Miz Hampton was. He’d figured the men were taking orders from the man with the top hat, and he hadn’t seen a woman among the riders. Maybe she’d arrived with his pa.
It didn’t much matter, though. Joe needed to know what had happened to his pa. He needed to find out for himself, since no one seemed all that inclined to tell him. And he needed to get himself free to do it.
After the rope fell away from his ankles, Joe twisted himself around and tried to kick out at the ox. But the man was bigger and stronger than Hoss — or at least stronger than Hoss let on when he was wrestling with Joe. It wasn’t long before the ox threw Joe back onto his belly and knelt right on top of Joe’s legs to keep him still, making Joe feel like a calf at branding time.
Joe’s hands finally came loose from the bindings, but he found himself no less restrained than before while the ox made rough work of bandaging the cuts in his left hand. Then he felt the ropes wrap around his wrists again, so tight this time they started to feel almost as sharp as that danged jar lid.
Joe wasn’t going anywhere. He also wasn’t giving up.
Joe’s feet felt numb after so many hours bound by rope and then enduring the weight of the ox; he did more stumbling than walking when the ox and the geezer led him into the dining room, and from there into the great room. Then he heard one voice utter one word, and he froze, unable to take another step.
“Joe!” his pa called out to him.
Resisting the persistent tug on his arm, Joe stopped to stare at his pa. He was relieved to see that his pa was unhurt. Still, Pa’s shirt was torn, exposing the upper left part of his chest, and there were a few spots of blood staining his collar. Joe wanted to launch himself forward, to wrap his arms around his pa and to feel his pa’s arms enfolding him. But the hand on Joe’s arm was an anchor he couldn’t shed. And Pa faced an even more potent barrier in the form of the cowboy Joe had smiled at earlier. That cowboy was now holding a shotgun on Joe’s pa, wielding it like a staff to prevent Pa from moving forward.
“Are you all right, son?”
Joe responded with a shrug and a hesitant nod. He would be all right once he could stand side-by-side with his pa.
Rather than showing any sort of relief, Pa grew angry. He turned a cold glare toward the one occupied chair among two desk chairs and two red leather wingback chairs that had been set up to face the desk like a row of theater seats. “There’s no need to restrain … or … or to gag him, for Heaven’s sake! I insist that you untie him at once!”
“May I remind you, Mr. Cartwright,” the familiar voice of Mr. Top Hat drew Joe’s attention to where the man was sitting behind Pa’s desk in Pa’s chair, facing the theater seats like the chief actor in a play, “you have no right to insist anything.”
“This is my home,” Pa declared. “You’re the ones who have no rights here!”
“No, Mr. Cartwright, at the moment this is not your home. Until such time as I pronounce my verdict, this house represents my courtroom; and your rights are limited to those of the defendant.”
“A defendant in a mockery of a trial. And what about my son’s rights? For what crime have you imprisoned him? And what right have you to gag him? No prison, however strict, has the right to gag its prisoners!”
“Your son was not imprisoned. He was merely sequestered to enable my deputies to fulfill their duty to me and to the plaintiff.”
“Sequestered? He was bound and gagged and locked away in a root cellar!”
“It was for his protection as well as your own.”
“Protection?” Pa hollered. “Look at his face! You’ve had him beaten!”
“Pardon me,” the ox holding Joe spoke up, “Mr. Cartwright, sir. But it weren’t none of us who did that. He done it to himself. I reckon he was tryin’ to escape.”
“There, now, Mr. Cartwright,” Mr. Top Hat went on. “Do you see? Your son’s antics pose no danger to anyone other than himself.”
Pa’s eye twitched and Joe saw his gaze soften, if only for a moment. “Untie him. I assure you he will do nothing to cause anyone harm … not even himself.” Pa looked at Joe; and Joe didn’t see any anger in him at all. But Mr. Top Hat’s next words pulled Pa’s attention away again and built up a whole lot of anger in his eyes.
“You are in no position to assure anyone of anything at the moment, Mr. Cartwright. We have yet to prove your trustworthiness. Now, bailiff, please return the defendant to the witness stand.”
The cowboy with the shotgun said something to Pa that Joe couldn’t hear. Finally, with a long look of concern aimed at Joe, Pa sat down in a dining room chair that had been moved next to the desk.
“And you, Mr. Draper,” Mr. Top Hat went on, “secure the boy in the holding area.”
“Where’s that?” the ox asked.
“Sit him down in the dining room!” Mr. Top Hat scoffed. “And keep a close eye on him!”
Moments later, Joe was pushed into a chair in his family’s dining room, where he was expected to sit, bound and gagged, and watch the most bizarre play ever imagined, one that parodied a real courtroom trial. And Pa had just been told he had to prove folks could trust him.
Joe had been confused before about how he couldn’t get Muriel Mathers out of his head. Now he was purely dumbfounded; it seemed like the whole world had turned upside down.
Apparently, Mr. Top Hat’s real name was Judge Zebadiah Simmons; and he acted like he was a circuit judge and the Ponderosa was one of his regular stops. He even had a gavel, which he used liberally every time Pa started arguing about the difference between real justice and what he called a “kangaroo court.”
And now the judge was banging his gavel again. “Answer the question, Mr. Cartwright! Do you deny being in Boston Harbor at the time in question?”
“Of course not!” Pa yelled back at him. “I was there! I already told you I was there! Our ship had just returned to port! But I do deny wasting time in that or any other tavern with some … some harlot when I had a woman I loved waiting for me!”
“How dare you!”
Hearing a female voice shocked Joe into forgetting about his cramped jaw and arms, his dry tongue, and the burning sting of his cut hand, if only for a moment. Then the kid in loose clothes jumped up from one of the red leather chairs, and Joe was doubly surprised to discover that’s where the high-toned voice had come from. That cowboy-kid was a woman!
“How dare you say that about my mother!” she hollered.
Pa’s brow rose and his eyes widened. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I had no idea.”
“No, I reckon you didn’t, did you? Because you bedded her and then forgot her, like you’ve probably done a hundred other times with a hundred other women! You’re nothing but a philanderer!” She stabbed the air with an accusatory finger. “You go from one woman to the next,” she added, slashing the air with that same finger. “Like you went from my mother to that Stoddard bitch.”
“Order!” The judge banged his gavel.
Pa rose, his face reddening with anger. Joe sucked in a long breath around the edges of his gag.
“Then,” the woman went on, “instead of doing the right thing by my mother, you married the bitch!”
Joe felt his own face reddening. How dare she accuse his father of such things? And how dare she call Adam’s mother that?
“Order!” Bang, bang, bang.
“But maybe I should be grateful you didn’t marry my mother! She may have had to work her fingers to the bone to raise me, but at least you didn’t kill her like you did the bitch and the other two you married after her!”
Joe felt sick and angry. He found himself rising to his feet without knowing what he expected to be able to do.
“There will be order in this court,” the judge said loudly, “or I will hold you in contempt!”
“Hold me in contempt?” The woman turned her wrath on the judge. “This is my trial, judge, and don’t you forget it! I brought you here to make it all legal and proper. But I’m perfectly happy to hold you in contempt if you don’t help me get my justice.”
The judge shook his head. “Miss Hampton, that is not how justice works.”
“No, not my father’s justice! He buys judges and politicians to get his kind of justice. Well, this trial is one he can’t buy, because I’m running this one.”
“Because you’re the one who’s funding it?” Pa asked coldly.
“With your money, once the verdict finds in my favor. Your assets will be properly distributed among my men.”
“Yes, legally. Judge Simmons is a sworn circuit judge.”
“Not in Washoe County.”
“It doesn’t matter! He assures me he will make it all legal.”
“After he gets his cut.”
“Order!” the judge hollered.
The woman looked at him, her slim shoulders rising and falling with each deep breath, before turning her attention back to Joe’s pa. “I’m going to see to it that I get what’s rightfully mine. And no one will ever be able to call me a thief, because they’ll all come to know that I’m a Cartwright, just like that brat sitting back there.” Her finger stabbed toward Joe. “And I’m even more deserving of this land and all its assets than he is, because I am owed interest on everything that’s been withheld from me until now!”
The judge banged his gavel. “Miss Hampton, you don’t seem to understand the laws of inheritance. Mr. Cartwright’s sons —”
“This isn’t about inheritance, judge. I’m not willing to wait for my father to die to get what’s owed me.”
Joe met his Pa’s eyes and saw more anger and more determination than ever before. That cowboy-looking woman could not possibly be Joe’s sister.
“Order!” the judge hollered out again over his banging gavel. “I demand order!”
“Perhaps, judge,” Pa spat out his words with venom, “it would be wise to call a recess, during which time my son can be excused to his room. He doesn’t need to hear such accusations.”
“Oh, I disagree, father,” the woman answered instead. “In fact, I think my brother should come closer so I can get a good long look at him and see which of our father’s traits we share.”
“You will leave my son out of this!”
That no-good woman met Pa’s eyes glare for glare and wasn’t the least bit flustered. In fact, she reminded Joe of Adam for that.
No, Joe scolded himself silently. She’s nothing like Adam. She’s nothing like any of us, because she’s not our sister!
The woman grabbed Joe’s chin to study him. “He has your jawline.”
“Get your hands off him!” Pa demanded.
A string of greasy chestnut hair licked across Joe’s nose when she turned her head. “I only want to see how he might favor me, father.” Her dark eyes bore into Joe’s once more until he felt as though she were sizing him up as prey. He also felt a sense of hatred unlike any he’d ever known starting to well up inside him. He would have spat in her face if it weren’t for that danged gag — or for the fact that his throat and tongue were both so dadgummed dry.
“I told you to let him go!”
Joe heard a gun being cocked behind him.
“Go ahead,” Pa said, his voice cool and threatening. “Shoot me. It’s the only way you’ll keep me from going to my son. It will also bring an end to this ridiculous trial; and then this woman will never be made to know the truth. And any hope any of you may have harbored to get a share of my assets will be lost.”
The woman gave Joe’s head a quick, jolting shake as she let him go. “I already know the truth. And I don’t much care if you’re still alive when all this is over. But … it would pleasure me a great deal to see this pretty boy’s head get blown off.” She nodded to the ox behind Joe.
“Dear God, no!” Pa cried out in a soft, fearful voice.
The ox released his tight grip on Joe’s arm, allowing Joe to turn slowly until he found himself looking down the barrel of the ox’s gun. Pa was just a few steps away — close, but still too far away to help.
“Judge!” Pa demanded. “Tell that man to holster his gun!”
“Mr. Draper works for Miss Hampton, I’m afraid.”
“You said this was your courtroom. That means if he pulls the trigger, you will be directly responsible for murder.”
There was a heavy sigh from behind Pa’s desk. “Miss Hampton,” the judge said, “if you wish to prove your rights to the Cartwright name, then please allow me to continue. If not, then I shall take my leave.”
“You’re not going anywhere, judge. And neither is the boy. Set him down here, next to me, Mr. Parker. And, Mr. Draper, put away your gun. Judge, go ahead and call for order again. It’s time we introduced the evidence.”
Joe was thirsty. He was so thirsty he couldn’t concentrate on anything other than the pitcher of water sitting on his pa’s desk tauntingly in front of him; he very nearly cried when the judge poured himself a glass and took a long, slow drink.
Pa’s voice shook him back to awareness. “My son needs a drink of water.”
“I don’t like to be interrupted, father.” The woman sounded angry again. “As I was saying, judge, you can clearly see that my mother’s diary is filled with details about her relationship with Mr. Cartwright.”
“Give my son a drink of water!” Pa demanded.
“My brother is fine as he is.”
“My son has had a gag in his mouth for at least the past three hours, and probably much longer than that. He needs a drink of water!”
The woman smiled. “Makes you feel helpless, doesn’t it? I imagine that’s how my mother felt when she saw that I was hungry and thirsty and she could do nothing about it. Now, judge, the diary.”
The judge met Joe’s eyes, but only for an instant. Joe thought perhaps he had seen a trace of compassion in that instant.
“Yes,” the judge said. “Well, the details are compelling, certainly. The Benjamin described in these pages could very well indicate a younger Benjamin Cartwright, physically and, perhaps, chronologically, as well. If we can match the dates recorded here to Mr. Cartwright’s times in port, this could provide us with a substantial bit of evidence. But the fact that no surname is ever mentioned does allow for some measure of doubt.”
“Your honor,” Pa said in a belligerent tone, “if you are so corrupted as to willingly subject a child to such cruelty, then what is the point of this trial?”
“I resent that accusation, Mr. Cartwright. But I can understand the emotions behind it, and therefore I will not hold you to account for it. However, I must warn you to watch your tongue until these proceedings are over and my verdict has been rendered.”
“In that case, your honor, I must ask for a recess so I can see to my son and collect journals of my own, which will provide proof of the dates I spent in port and how I spent those days: with my fiancée!”
“Yes, well, it is getting late and I’m sure we’re all hungry.” The judge banged his gavel. “This court is in recess until tomorrow morning at nine. Miss Hampton, would you be so kind as to prepare a meal for the members of the court?”
“I beg your pardon? Who do you think you’re giving orders to? I brought you here! I own you!”
“No, Miss Hampton; you do not own me. You will pay me for services rendered, but you do not own me. And as the only female present, your services in the kitchen would be appreciated. That is not an order, however. That is simply a request. If you are unwilling to accept that request, then I will ask Mr. Rodriguez to provide us with another of his trail meals, which, while not entirely palatable, provide sufficient nutrition, nonetheless.”
Joe didn’t figure he’d get any of that nutrition. And if that woman was cooking he didn’t figure he wanted any, either.
Joe closed his eyes and nestled up against his pa’s chest, feeling grateful to be free of his bindings. He was also feeling blessed, despite the cold, dark dampness of the root cellar.
“Children should be seen and not heard,” the woman, Miss Hampton, had told Joe’s pa. “This brat of a brother of mine raised a hideous racket with his caterwauling when we arrived. I can only imagine the deplorable way you’ve raised him without my mother’s guiding hand. If you want to endure his mudsill balderdash, then, by all means, father, do what you will to remove that muzzle, but not until he is out of my sight, as well as my range of hearing.”
“Very well,” Pa had answered tersely. “Then tell Mr. Parker to get out of my way, and I will gladly take my son to his room.”
Joe could still see that dark smile of hers when she’d responded. “To his new room, certainly, I will gladly oblige you.”
“What new room?”
“The one that will teach him manners. The one that will give him a sense of what it’s like to grow up wanting.”
Pa had stood up taller than ever, and his eyes went even darker than her smile. “My son will not spend another moment in that root cellar! You will —”
“I will do as I see fit, father. You have no authority over me. You gave up that right when you left my mother! Now … you have a choice to make. You may retire to your room with a plate of Mr. Rodriguez’s supper, or you may escort the brat to his new room, without. I must warn you, however: if you choose the latter, then you will remain with him in that new room until we fetch you both.”
Pa had promptly turned away from her. “Mr. Parker, would you please move aside, so that I may retire for the evening with my son?”
The woman had looked flummoxed. “You would choose the brat over supper and a soft bed?”
“What you have offered involves no choice at all.”
Joe wasn’t alone anymore. And he didn’t have to worry about what was happening to his pa. He wasn’t exactly comfortable, but he was okay. He might even admit to being content. Pa had rustled up a lantern and matches to chase away the worst of the shadows, a roll of burlap to fend off some of the chill, and more food than Joe had the energy to eat. They’d dined on canned beans and pears and raw carrots, and quenched their thirst with apple cider. Pa had even managed to find a bottle of whiskey and some cloth, which he used to clean and then re-bandage Joe’s hand.
They’d done what they could to settle in.
Well, Pa had, anyway. Joe hadn’t done much of anything. He’d been too stiff and sore, and so parched he could hardly think straight. And besides, Pa had kept telling him to sit still and not to worry, because Pa was there to take care of everything, and he was going to make sure they had whatever they needed.
That was all Joe had really needed to hear right then. And now he was content to be able to snuggle closer and soak in his pa’s warmth while Pa massaged the knots and kinks from his shoulders. He was content enough to close his eyes.
“Your stomach’s growling,” Pa said in a soft, soothing voice. “Would you like something more to eat?”
“No, thanks,” Joe mumbled. “Too tired.”
“Yes. You’ve had … a long, rough day.”
Joe opened his eyes again, and craned his neck to look up at his pa. “So have you.”
Pa grunted and crumpled his brow. “I’m sorry, Joe. Sorry I couldn’t help you sooner.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I should never have left you alone here. I could have taken you with me into Virginia City.”
“There was work to be done and you knew I could do it.”
Pa chuckled. “The work, yes. Of course, you could handle the work. But armed strangers….”
Joe thought for a few quiet moments. “Pa?” he said then.
“I don’t think it would have made a difference.”
“What’s that, son?”
“If you’d been here. You and I would have both tried to fight ’em. But there were six of them … or, five men, anyway, and only two of us. And I’m … well, I don’t hardly count.”
Pa’s hand stopped kneading Joe’s shoulder and gripped it tightly, instead. “Of course, you count, Joe. Don’t ever think you don’t!”
“It’s like Hoss says. I’m too scrawny to put up much of a fight.”
Pa smiled warmly. “You may be a bit scrawny yet, but you’re also pretty feisty. You can hold your own.” He sighed. Joe heard the whoosh of air deep in his pa’s chest; it quickened the calming, steady heartbeat beneath Joe’s ear for a brief moment. “I’d like to say if I’d been here you wouldn’t have had to put up any sort of fight at all. But…. At least if I had been here, you wouldn’t have been treated so poorly.”
“No,” Joe argued, feeling awfully sure of himself. “They still would have done what they did. She hates me, Pa. I can see it in her eyes. None of it would’ve gone any different if you’d been here. She wouldn’t hate me any less.”
Pa took in another heavy breath. “She resents you, son. She resents what you have, how you live.”
“I think she thinks she should have been able to grow up here.”
“Yes. I believe that’s exactly what she thinks.”
“I don’t know, son.”
Joe gave himself over to his thoughts once more as he listened to the comforting sound of his pa’s heartbeat. There was so much he just couldn’t understand. “Pa?”
“This trial of theirs, does it count?”
“If you’re asking whether the judge’s verdict will be legally binding, I’ve been asking myself the same question. I don’t see how it could count. For one thing, I’ve been denied the right to an attorney.”
“Do you think she’ll try to move in? To live with us?”
Pa squeezed Joe’s shoulder again. “What I think, young man, is that you need to get some sleep. I’m sure we’ll find all of our questions answered tomorrow.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Don’t worry, Little Joe. This will all be over soon. And no matter what, I promise we will not have to put up with that woman for much longer. And I will not let her harm you, Joe. No matter what, I will never again let her harm you in any way.”
And I won’t let her harm you, either, Joe promised himself. Then, finally, he closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But his thoughts just wouldn’t stop churning. He imagined all kinds of ways to force Miss Hampton and the judge off the Ponderosa. Maybe Joe could grab the ox’s gun, and Pa could get the cowboy’s shotgun. Or maybe Sheriff Coffee would stop by; as soon as he figured out what was going on, he’d arrest the bunch of ’em. Or maybe Adam and Hoss would come home.
“I thought I told you to go to sleep.”
“Do you think Adam and Hoss will figure out something’s wrong and come home?”
“I think you’re thinking too much. We’ll be fine, son. Everything will work out just fine. Now, why don’t you think about that new colt, instead? Hmm? I believe you’re right about him. He’ll make a fine cutting horse.”
“He sure will.” Joe knew his pa didn’t want to talk about colts or cutting horses any more than Joe did, himself. But he figured he ought to play along, if it would ease Pa’s mind enough to let him sleep. Such playing along didn’t last, however. Joe was so tuckered out, he didn’t have to drift far before falling asleep. And then, rather than colts and cutting horses, his dreams were filled with visions of his brothers coming home and chasing away six strangers.
Adam Cartwright knew a thing or two about moving cattle. He knew even more about the sometimes excessively congenial nature of his younger brother. Hoss could be too nice for his own good. While kindness was an admirable quality, Adam had often warned the twenty-year-old that wariness was equally important. Until such warnings were truly tested, however, Adam had no way of knowing how well they had sunk in. So when he caught sight of Hoss talking with a stranger next to a steer that had roamed away from the herd, he felt it more than prudent to intervene. Strangers and strays didn’t bode well.
The stranger was on foot, holding the reins of his horse in one hand and stroking the back of the uncommonly docile steer with the other. Despite his tan duster, gray hat, and trail-worn trousers, he didn’t hold himself as the type for herding cattle. His stance was a bit too rigid, or … polished, perhaps. And although the smile he wore appeared genuine, Adam wasn’t ready to accept it as such. Neither was Hoss, Adam decided as soon as he saw his brother’s narrowed gaze. Hoss was holding his own, even to the point of staying mounted and keeping his hand close to his sidearm.
“Mighty fine animal,” the stranger offered.
“Unless you’re buyin’, mister,” Hoss answered, “you’d better just keep your hands to yourself and get on your way.”
Shaking his head in acquiescence, the stranger gave the steer a gentle pat and then pulled his hand away. “No, sir, I certainly am not in the market for cattle. I prefer my steak already butchered.”
“Why are you here?” Adam asked.
The man bobbed his head in one quick motion. “Directness. I like that in a man. Name’s Brooks.” He extended his hand toward Adam, and then, curling his fingers, pulled back when Adam didn’t take it. “Calvin Brooks. U.S. Marshal.” He eased the lapel of his duster away from his chest to reveal a badge fastened to a leather vest. “Reason I’m here is to find a couple of men.”
Adam’s own wariness grew a hundredfold. “What men? What have they done?”
Marshal Brooks still wore his smile. In fact, it grew wider. “Oh, these fellows haven’t done anything. At least, nothing I know of.”
“Then why are you looking for them?”
That’s when the smile fell away. Brooks sighed. “Truth be told, unless you’re the men I’m lookin’ for, I’m not real inclined to tell you.”
Wariness gave way to irritation. “Look, Marshal, either state your business now, directly, or get out of here. We have a job to do.”
The marshal nodded and glanced out at the herd. “I reckon you do, at that. Looks to me like you’ve got a good crew to handle it, though.”
“They’re good men,” Adam offered, guardedly.
“Could probably finish the job without you.”
A prickle of tension jolted Adam’s spine. “And why would they need to?”
“Mind tellin’ me what outfit you work for?”
“We don’t work for any outfit,” Adam shot back, as riled as he was worried. “These are Cartwright cattle, from the Ponderosa. I’m Adam Cartwright, and this is my brother, Hoss.”
The marshal’s smile returned. He did not look surprised. “That’s what I reckoned, but I had to be sure.”
“Why? What’s this all about?”
“Well, sir, Mr. Cartwright, all I know is a man I’ve been trailin’ since up in northern country said he was headin’ to your Ponderosa a week ago, along with some others, including a territorial judge who is way outta his territory.”
“A judge?” Hoss asked. “What sort’a man were you trailin’?”
“The worst sort.” Marshal Brooks was suddenly all business. “He’s wanted for everything from robbery to murder.”
Adam shared a troubled glance with Hoss. “A wanted man with a judge in his pocket?”
“That’s how it looks to me.”
“And what would bring a man like that to the Ponderosa … with a judge?”
The marshal shrugged. “I can’t rightly say. I wired your Virginia City sheriff about it soon as I reached Reno. He told me where to find the two of you. Said he’d be obliged if I brought you back to the Ponderosa with me. He’s due to meet up with us at noon, tomorrow.”
Joe woke on the floor of the cellar, feeling chilled and cramped, yet confident in his dreams. His brothers were coming. Or the sheriff. Or maybe even all three. Whoever came, and however they managed to get there, someone was coming to help them. Someone had to, because Joe and his pa needed help. That no-good woman couldn’t possibly win, even if Joe didn’t quite know what winning meant. She wasn’t his sister, no matter what that judge might end up deciding.
Realizing his pa was pacing about, Joe craned his neck to get a better look and offered up a heart-felt smile. “Morning, Pa.”
But Pa did not share Joe’s good spirits. His responding smile was small, and overshadowed by a furrowed brow. “Good morning, son.”
Pa looked surprised by the question, and then smiled again. The smile was a little bigger than before, but just as fleeting. “They’ll be coming soon.”
“It’s all right,” Joe offered, aiming to share his confidence. “We’ll be shed of ‘em soon.”
This time, Pa’s smile looked sad. “I hope you’re right. But in the meanwhile, we will need to do things a little differently, today.”
Joe was intrigued and encouraged. His pa had a plan! He climbed to his feet, eager to hear how they were going to get those people out of their house. “What will we do?”
“First, you will stay down here.”
That wasn’t at all what Joe had expected to hear. “But, P—”
“Now don’t argue with me, boy. I know this isn’t a very inviting place to be, but at least you’ll be safe.”
“But we can fight them better together.”
Pa’s brows came down tight, and he gave his head a slow shake. “We can’t fight them at all, son.” He placed a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You’re already hurt, and I refuse to allow them to hurt you anymore.”
His pa was right. Joe’s hand hurt like the blazes, his face stung, and his ribs were awfully sore. He also appreciated what his pa didn’t say: That Joe was too young and too small to do any good in a fight. But now Joe was going to have to sound like a child, because he really did not want to be separated from his pa. His smile gone and his confidence waning, Joe admitted, “I need to be with you.” His voice sounded small and inadequate. Yes, very much like a child. “I can’t be stuck down here again, worried about what they’re doing to you,” he added in as demanding of a tone as he could muster. “You don’t know what it was like for me when you came home and I heard you hollering, and then it sounded like someone hit you.”
“Oh, Joseph.” Ben hugged him close. “And you don’t know what it was like for me, not knowing where you were or what they’d done to you.”
“Then you agree we need to stay together.”
“No, son. I’m sorry.” He pulled away, keeping his hands on Joe’s shoulders and bending his head low to look Joe right in the eye. “But I need to know where you are and that you’re out of their reach. Please, son. Do this for me. It will make me stronger up there today.”
“Yes, son. It most certainly will.”
Little Joe looked around the dreary cellar. He did not want to be stuck down there alone again. He would rather be tied up and gagged, if it meant being close to his pa. But he needed his pa to be at his strongest, at least until help arrived.
Joe took a breath, as deep as he could without aggravating the bruises from where the ox had kicked him. “Okay,” he told his pa, his soft tone making it clear that he was not happy with the idea, even if he was accepting it. “I’ll stay.”
Pa gave his shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Thank you, son. Now, you won’t go hungry. I’ve opened up a can of peaches for you, and a fresh can of beans. There are still plenty of carrots and apple cider.”
Joe locked his eyes on the sack of carrots and nodded absently, until Pa cupped Joe’s chin in his hand and tenderly drew the boy’s gaze back to his own.
“It will be over soon,” Pa told him.
Then Joe remembered his dreams. Someone was coming to help them. Needing to believe it, refusing to think otherwise, he found his smile once more. “I know.”
Moments later, the cellar door banged open and the geezer called down, “Best get on up here, now.”
After one final hug, Pa walked toward the ladder and climbed up and out of sight.
“What about the boy?” the geezer asked.
“He’s staying right where he is.”
The sounds of a scuffle pulled Joe anxiously toward the ladder, but he stepped back again when he saw it wobble. And then it tumbled down near his feet.
“I said, he’s staying in the cellar!” Pa repeated. Then, “Joe? You watch that ladder now. You’re in full control of who comes and goes!”
His heart beating wildly, a new smile spread across Joe’s face. He was in control!
His excitement didn’t last long, though. As soon as Miss Hampton found out, she let out a great big, ear shattering screech, and hollered at Mr. Rodriguez to jump down into the cellar and fetch that ladder — and Little Joe.
She still had all the control she needed.
When Joe saw his pa again, Pa had more bruises on his face, there was more blood splattered on his shirt, and his gaze looked as troubled as Joe had ever seen. But Joe knew his own gaze didn’t look troubled at all, despite the gag and ropes he’d been forced to wear again. Because his brothers were coming. Or the sheriff. Or maybe even all three.
With fresh horses from the remuda and without a herd of cattle to slow them down, the Cartwright brothers and their lawman escort reached the northern edges of the Ponderosa in a quarter of the time it had taken them to ride away from it at the start of their drive. It wasn’t easy leaving a concerned and obviously frustrated Hop Sing behind them, but the cook was needed to finish the drive. Besides, he wasn’t a soldier. And the marshal’s description of the outlaw he’d been tracking, along with some of the others riding with him, convinced Adam that one thing they were certain to find back home was a fight.
Unless, of course, they arrived after the time for fighting was already past. Adam’s gut churned at what that might mean for his father and youngest brother.
“Elijah Parker,” the marshal had told them the first time they’d stopped to rest the horses. “Wanted poster marks him as Eli ‘Wildman’ Parker. You might compare him to a jar of nitroglycerin. He’s calm on the surface. Hell, I’ve even heard him described as a nice, pleasant fellow. But rattle him and he’ll explode. Story is, he killed the men who used to ride with him — every last one of ‘em — when they got greedy and stopped following his orders. Law got hot then, too, so he crossed the border up to Canada. Something brought him back down here, though. It might be he just got bored. Or maybe he caught wind of a haul big enough to risk getting caught.”
Adam was puzzled. “The Ponderosa would hardly represent that kind of ‘haul.’ We don’t keep more than petty cash on hand.”
“Might be they’re lookin’ for something else of value.”
“Hard to say. Might not even be a ‘thing’ at all.”
“What are you implying?”
“Ponderosa’s a mighty big spread. Gives your family a voice in government.”
“You can’t honestly believe this explosive outlaw of yours cares about government.”
“Not him, no. All he wants is money. Payoff, maybe. Remember, he’s got a judge with him. And someone else I haven’t quite figured out, yet.”
“A woman. Whore’s daughter, from back east. Learned how to pick pockets when she was knee high. Been in and outta jail most of her life, but never for anything on the scale of what Eli’s done.”
Throughout the grueling, hard-paced ride, Adam struggled to figure out just what this small band of outlaws — and the judge who was traveling with them — could be after. Kidnapping for ransom, perhaps. Or maybe extortion. Either would require contact with someone outside the ranch house. They would have to send at least one rider to a bank or telegraph office. But when Adam, Hoss, and Marshal Brooks caught up with Sheriff Roy Coffee, they learned that no one had entered or left the house at all.
“Deputy Willard and I have been keepin’ watch on the house since I got your message,” Roy told the marshal after they’d all dismounted to give the horses another rest. “There’s always a guard out front, armed with a sidearm and a rifle. I’ve caught sight of six altogether, coming and going from the front door, but they never move far from the house. And there are six horses in the corral without the Ponderosa brand.”
“What about pa and Joe?”
The sheriff shook his head. “Haven’t seen either of them.”
“Maybe they ain’t even there,” Hoss suggested, hopefully.
“I saw your pa in town, early yesterday. He was ridin’ Buck. I know he made it home, because Buck’s back in his stall, right where he’s supposed to be.”
Adam narrowed his gaze in consideration. “You’ve seen inside the barn, but not the house?”
“That’s right. They’re not guardin’ the barn same as the house. And they’ve closed all the curtains and shutters. I ain’t got any idea what’s goin’ on in there.”
Looking hard at the sheriff, Adam saw something in the man’s gaze that suggested he knew more than he was saying. “But you have seen something,” he said.
“No, Adam. It’s not what I’ve seen. Just what I’ve heard.”
“So, what have you heard?”
“I’ve heard your pa shoutin’ a time or two.”
“What did he say?”
Sheriff Coffee shook his head. “Not much. Just something along the line of … of, well….” The sheriff took a breath and glanced between Hoss and Adam. Whatever he needed to tell them clearly didn’t bode well. Finally accepting that he couldn’t hold back, he cleared his throat. “One thing I heard him say loud and clear was, ‘get your hands off him.’ I’d say he was worried they might harm Little Joe.”
Facing down both of Joe’s clench-jawed, scowling brothers, he added, “I’ll admit, there was a time or two I thought I ought to just bust in there without waiting for you.”
“Why didn’t you?” Hoss asked. “If they were doin’ anything to hurt Joe—”
“I couldn’t risk it, Hoss. You know that. Bustin’ in blind, and without enough men to back me up, why, that sort of nonsense was likely to just make matters worse. As it happened, those shouts I heard from your pa quieted down before too long. I figure he got whatever it was under control.”
“What about Little Joe?” Adam asked then. “Did you hear anything from him?”
“No. I sure didn’t.”
A silent Little Joe bothered Adam a whole lot more than an angry pa. “I’d say it’s time we found out exactly what’s going on in there,” Adam said, determined to end all the guesswork once and for all. “There’s six of them, one of whom is a woman, against five of us. And we have the advantage of surprise. I say we go in from upstairs, through that window Joe uses when he wants to sneak out.”
Roy didn’t look convinced. “I think we need to come at ‘em from more than one angle,” he countered.
“Is there a back door?” the marshal asked.
“There’s a door off the kitchen,” Hoss said.
Sheriff Coffee gave his head one, quick shake. “There’s almost always someone in the kitchen. That much I can tell from the shadows those curtains can’t hide.”
After rubbing his chin in consideration, Marshal Brooks suggested, “We’re best to do a coordinated approach. Two come in from upstairs, two from the kitchen, and one through the front door.”
“The front door is always guarded,” the sheriff argued. “We’d never be able to sneak up on ‘em that way.”
“Who said anything about sneakin’?” The marshal grinned much like he had when Adam had first met him.
Roy Coffee and Hoss looked at Brooks as though he’d gone mad. But when Adam met the marshal’s eye, he was pretty sure he caught sight of what Brooks was thinking.
Nodding slowly, Adam said, “Might just work,” and then mounted up. He was eager to get home and find out from Roy’s deputy whether anything had changed since Roy had left. He was even more eager to find out firsthand what was happening inside his house, and particularly to his father and little brother.
It was nearly dusk by the time they were ready. Hunched down together in the trees behind the house, Adam gave Hoss a telling nod. Whatever the outcome, the decision to move in, with no real knowledge of what that meant, was shared between the brothers. The lawmen with them agreed, but this was the Cartwright’s home, and it was their family that was threatened. Little Joe or Pa, or maybe even both, could pay a heavy price if this action was premature.
At Hoss’s equally silent and determined reply, Adam stepped away to lead the marshal to Joe’s not quite secret upstairs window. They moved quietly, keeping low. Adam knew Sheriff Coffee and his deputy were doing the same in their own approach to the kitchen. Every one of them had to stay alert to any movement from inside that could signal a risk of being seen, as well as to the patrol of the current front door guard, a barrel-chested man with thick black hair and an equally thick beard whose appearance had led Hoss to volunteer for his own, unique role. If that guard reacted violently, Hoss’s similar bulk made him the most well suited to stand up against the man in a fight.
Part of Adam knew that a fight out front could create a perfect diversion to help the rest of them move in for their own assault inside the house. Another part of him felt guilty for even thinking such thoughts. Hoss was barely a grown man, despite appearances. What right had Adam to encourage the overgrown young buck to fight against that older, more experienced and slightly larger guard?
And yet, what choice did he have?
Steeling himself for whatever was to come, Adam reached for the first limb of Joe’s climbing tree.
“It’s all right there!” Ben Cartwright’s voice thundered through the house, even clear up the stairs and into the hallway beyond, where Adam and Marshal Brooks silently crept. The sound, both encouraging and frightening, caused Adam to stumble. At least his pa was alive. And conscious. And still strong enough to shout. But what were those outlaws doing to anger him so fiercely?
“The dates do not match!” Pa went on. “Look there!”
“Shut up!” a woman shouted back.
Adam shared a glance with Brooks as they neared the stairwell.
“Your mother,” Pa continued, “goes on and on about their tryst on October nineteenth. October nineteenth! My own journal clearly places me in England. And here! June twenty—”
“I told you to shut up!”
“I was still at sea! The Benjamin in her journal is not me! What more proof could you possibly need?”
“Shut up, damn you!”
“I will speak as I please in my own home!”
“Order!” a new voice hollered and the sound of hammering was thrown into the melee. “I will have order in this court!”
They were mere inches from the top landing. Still, Adam didn’t dare take a look. Not yet. Not until he was sure every eye down there was drawn to the front door. But he was confused by the implications. Was a trial taking place in his home, presided over by a judge who was well out of his jurisdiction?
“I will have order in my house!” Pa’s voice was nearly loud enough to rattle the rafters. “This is not a courtroom, and I have all the evidence you could possibly need to prove you have no grounds for a trial, not even a mockery of a trial!”
“Order, Mr. Cartwright!” The judge pounded his hammer. “Or I will hold you in contempt!”
“Contempt? How dare you accuse me of contempt when it is you who—”
“Bailiff?” the judge cut in. “Take the boy, and===”
“No!” Pa roared as dread punched Adam in the gut. “He’s done nothing!”
Come on, Hoss, Adam pleaded silently.
“Nothing?” the woman argued. “That brat has lived as I should have! You’ve given him everything, while I had to grovel and steal just to stay alive! You will either give me my share, father—”
“I am not your father!”
“Plus twenty-eight years of interest, or I will take my interest out on him!”
Adam heard a small, muffled grunt that, somehow, he knew had to have come from Little Joe. And then he could wait no longer. Rigid with rage, he poised himself to jump into action.
Brooks gripped his arm. A slow shake of the marshal’s head and the unvoiced, “Wait,” forming on the marshal’s lips were meant to stop Adam, but the distinct slap of flesh against flesh and then a heavy thud, followed by his pa’s bellowed, “Stop it! Leave that boy be!” made further waiting impossible.
Adam launched himself to the top of the stairs with his gun drawn. He heard, as though from a great distance, Hoss calling out, “Ho, the house!” And he knew then that the marshal had been right. He should have waited. Just one more second. He should have waited. But it was too late. He was already committed.
And the room below was already erupting into chaos.
Little Joe was sick of wearing a gag that seemed to have more spittle on it than he had left in his mouth. He felt dry as a bone, and his throat burned with thirst. Just as they’d done the day before, those folks with their outlaw trial kept him tied up and muzzled, and rarely allowed him so much as a swallow of water.
They had to be outlaws, he reckoned. Maybe they didn’t exactly look like outlaws, and Joe had a hard time figuring why an outlaw would want to pose as a judge; but he felt more like a hostage than a witness in this strange trial. He knew he wasn’t a prisoner. It was his pa, not Joe, who was being accused of something, and Sheriff Coffee would never treat one of his prisoners as these folks had been treating Joe.
Nothing about this mess seemed legal. If the words of that stringy-haired woman’s dead ma were considered evidence, then Pa’s journals had to be, too. After Pa showed them how her dates and his didn’t match up, Joe was sure they were going to apologize for their mistake and ride off. Or at least just ride off. Joe didn’t much care if they apologized. The Benjamin her ma wrote about wasn’t Joe’s pa, after all. But they just kept on going. That judge kept banging his gavel, and that woman kept shrieking, and Joe was left to keep wishing he could take a sip from the judge’s water glass and trying to draw strength from his pa’s loud yet comforting voice.
Then that bailiff, Mr. Parker, grabbed Joe’s arm with so much force it felt like he was going to yank it right off. Joe was pulled out of his chair. He couldn’t stifle a grunt of pain from the bailiff’s tight grip. Of course, it didn’t matter that he grunted. His gag did a pretty good job of muffling the sound. Once he was up, Joe’s legs felt wobbly, and, with his hands tied he couldn’t grab for anything to steady himself, but that didn’t matter, either. Parker held him upright, even if he didn’t feel entirely balanced.
Or, it started out that way, anyway. But then that crazy woman slapped Joe across the face so hard the bailiff let go. Joe fell to the floor with his head spinning and his ears ringing.
And then Joe could swear he heard Hoss outside, shouting, “Ho, the house!”
And then everyone started shouting, not just Joe’s pa and the woman.
Joe huddled down on the floor and tried to stay out of the way when the real fighting started. He cringed at the sounds of furniture scratching across and crashing into the floorboards, and punches being thrown. When the chair beside him landed on his back, he tried to shimmy under Pa’s desk for more protection. Then he came eye to eye with the judge.
If there were any of those outlaws Joe hated more than the woman, it was the judge. That man kept saying this was his courtroom. That meant he should be able to tell the rest of his gang to stop doing all the bad things they were doing. But he never did. Instead, the judge kept letting the woman get whatever she wanted; and she’d made it real clear she wanted Joe to stay tied up and gagged and hungry and thirsty and anything else she could think of to make him miserable.
No, he didn’t want to be anywhere near that judge. In fact, he’d rather put himself into the middle of all that fighting rather than hide from it with the judge. Backing away, Joe raised himself to his knees just as the explosion of a single gunshot stopped everyone cold.
And then Joe heard Sheriff Coffee shout, “Hands up and weapons down! Now!”
Joe looked over toward the kitchen and he saw, plain as day, Sheriff Roy Coffee and a deputy aiming their guns at that bailiff, Mr. Parker, and the old geezer. Relief and amazement washed over the boy as he saw, over by the open front door, Hoss and the ox gripping each other, like time froze on them while they were wrestling.
“Best do as he says.” Another voice pulled Joe’s attention toward the stairs, where another stranger had his gun aimed at the Mexican, who was struggling with Adam for control of a shotgun.
It was exactly what he’d prayed for, and just like he’d dreamt it would be. It was God’s answer to the question Joe had asked his pa the night before: “Do you think Adam and Hoss will figure out something’s wrong and come home?”
“You’re all under arrest,” the stranger near Adam said. “That includes you, judge.”
Joe was afraid to breathe, afraid to break the spell and prove it all false, to find out it was nothing more than wishful thinking. He twisted to his right, hoping to see his pa. If Pa told him it was true, he’d believe it and go on breathing again. But the woman was in his way. She was sitting on the floor, leaning on one arm, with her back to Joe. Pa was standing over her. He was breathing hard, like maybe he’d just knocked her down. But Pa wasn’t looking at her, not then. He was watching Adam and the stranger. Pa didn’t see that she was reaching for a dropped sidearm.
Someone had to stop her. But no one else seemed to notice. And Joe couldn’t shout a warning with that blasted gag in his mouth. Frustrated and desperate, Joe did the only thing he could think of: He jumped on top of her.
She screamed and jerked her shoulder around to thrown him off. But when he fell, she did, too. Suddenly she was on top of Joe. Now, rather than him facing her back, he found himself facing her front — far more of her front than a boy Joe’s age should ever come to see. Her loose shirt had come partially unbuttoned, exposing the soft flesh of her milky white bosoms. It might have been better if she were wearing a corset. But she wasn’t. Those things were free to bounce around, willy-nilly, and they were bouncing around right there in front of Little Joe, daring him to touch them.
Refusing to take that dare, he reached his bound hands in between those bouncing, soft, milky white mounds, aiming to push her as far away from him as he could. But just as his hands should have reached their target, she turned. He connected directly with what he’d desperately wanted to avoid: One of those soft, fleshy mounds.
Truth be told, he didn’t want to let go. As much as he hated that woman, he couldn’t deny that she was a woman … or that he was enough of a man to be aroused by the fact that she was a woman.
Just as a certain part of Joe went rigid, she did, too. She stopped moving, maybe even stopped breathing. Then she swiveled back to look at him with eyes wide and white as two full moons. An instant later they narrowed into two crescents.
And Joe knew that she knew he’d been aroused.
“Get this … this masher away from me right now or I swear I will rip his balls off and stuff them down his throat!”
Joe felt heat rising all the way to the top of his head. He wanted to throw up and scream and run as fast and as far as he could. Instead, he waited for his pa and the stranger to peel her off of him. All the while she went on caterwauling about perversion and indecency and the apple not falling far from the tree.
Almost afraid to breathe, Joe listened to her tirade as they pulled her further and further away from him. It wasn’t until he heard that ruckus exit into the front yard that he let himself take the biggest breath he could. Then he sat, numb and dizzy, while Adam pulled off his gag and Hoss untied the rope.
“That was a bold move, Joe,” Adam said.
Joe stared, wide-eyed, up at him, aghast to see his brother’s half smile.
“Sure was!” Hoss added, beaming just like he had last summer when Joe’s pony won the blue ribbon at the fair.
“I didn’t….” Joe’s words died in his dry throat. He was desperate to let them know he’d had no intention of touching her the way he had.
“From what I saw,” Pa said then, his brow raised high and his eyes shining with something that looked an awful lot like pride, “you proved yourself more of a man than that sorry excuse for a judge.”
“You saw?” Still the words wouldn’t come. And the more he tried to force them out, the more he ended up coughing. Even after Pa helped him sip a glass of water, he still couldn’t talk right. And by the time he could, he didn’t think he really could.
It was also too late. The moment had passed. The marshal, the sheriff, and the deputy had herded the whole lot of those outlaws off to jail, and Pa had gotten Joe settled into his bed. And all Joe could think about then was the soft, white mounds of cotton and goose down enveloping him.
Joe could hear his pa calling to him but he just couldn’t summon enough energy to answer.
“Come on, Joe. You need to wake up, now.”
“Tired.” It took everything he had in him just to say that one word. He hoped it would be enough to get his pa to let him sleep a little longer.
“I know, son. But the doctor’s here, and he needs to examine you.”
Joe’s brow crumpled in confusion. It had been a dream, hadn’t it? The cellar, the trial, the milky white mounds…. He curled his fingers into the sheets, expecting the feel of soft flesh. Instead, he rekindled the fiery sting those dangled jar lids had etched into his hand. At any other time, he would have cried out. But as plumb tuckered out as he was, all he managed was a pathetic whimper.
“It’s all right, boy,” Doc Martin said. “That’s why I’m here.”
Someone took hold of Joe’s left wrist.
“Joe?” Pa said. “Look at me, now.”
All he managed was a subtle lifting of his brow. It was too much effort to open his eyes.
“Don’t worry, Ben. He’s obviously exhausted. It’s probably better this way. If he can stay asleep while I clean out these cuts, all the better. And I can already see that some will need stitching.”
“Yes, well…. Joe has every reason to be exhausted after the way those animals treated him. He didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Last night?” Doc Martin said. “Why do I think you mean the night before last?”
“Oh. Yes. I suppose I do.” Pa chuckled softly. “Last night, he slept very well. All the way through, in fact.”
Joe heard his pa’s heavy sigh as he puzzled out how it could be morning already.
Then Pa added, “I can’t help but worry when he sleeps overlong.”
“He is a growing boy, Ben. Sleep is a key part of that.”
“Normally, yes, I suppose. But his exhaustion now is not normal; although the last time he slept was in the root cellar.”
“When was the last time you slept?”
“What? Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’m fine.”
“Hmmm. So I suppose those are just birthmarks on your face. Wonder how I’ve never noticed them before.”
“Come now, I’ve been in fights before, and it’s nothing to what Joe’s been through.”
“Maybe so. But those are some pretty heavy bags you’re wearing under your eyes for being fine.”
“You try sleeping in a root cellar without proper food or medical supplies to treat your son’s wounds, knowing the people responsible are still in your home and likely to cause even more damage come morning!” Pa’s voice grew louder with each word, but Joe couldn’t feel the vibrations of them as he had in the cellar. Yes, Joe’s pa had been his pillow then, hadn’t he? The cellar had not been a dream. And Pa had comforted him enough to allow him to sleep. But Joe hadn’t considered whether his pa had been comfortable.
“Point taken, my friend,” Doc Martin said. “But do remember that you, also, need to catch up on some lost sleep.”
“Pa?” If Joe hadn’t comforted his pa before, he figured he ought to do that now. But he still hadn’t managed to come fully awake; and his attempt to get his pa’s attention was too soft to compete with Adam’s much stronger voice, which at that moment overrode Joe’s.
“Pa? Is anything wrong? I heard shouting.”
“No, Adam. I’m sorry if I alarmed you.”
“How’s Little Joe?”
“Well, I’ve barely begun my examination,” Dr. Martin answered, “but I can see this hand will need some work. I’ll wait until he’s a bit more awake before I check to see if that shiner he’s sporting caused any damage to the eye. Now, Ben, you also mentioned some bruising on his torso?”
“Yes. He complained of soreness around his ribs, on the left side, mostly.” Joe heard a long, weary exhalation, and he could imagine worry lines crossing his pa’s brow. “The things they did to him, and the things he felt he had to do…. It’s just not right. He’s a boy! I should never have left him alone.”
Joe started to force his eyes open. He needed to show his pa that he was all right. He wasn’t just a boy. Not any longer.
“Face it, Pa,” Adam said. “That boy there is well on his way to manhood.”
Appreciating his brother’s words, Joe started to smile, until, “At least, that’s what I saw in him yesterday,” Adam added.
Suddenly fully awake, Joe’s eyes flew open. Adam had seen him? Did Adam know what he’d done when he was … wrestling … with that … that woman? Anxiety made Joe’s muscles tense up, and that caused everything to hurt. But no one noticed, because that’s when the doctor started cleaning his cuts with alcohol. They all figured it was the alcohol that made Joe’s eyes so wide and caused him to breathe so hard.
That is … all of them except, maybe, Adam.
The inviting aroma of chicken and dumplings roused Joe from sleep and caused his stomach to gurgle. He was hungry — hungrier than he could ever remember being. He started to slide out of bed, eager to sate his hunger, then heard the low rumble of voices downstairs; one sounded like Sheriff Coffee.
Curious, Joe struggled to slip into a pair of trousers, which proved a tougher task than expected, thanks to the bandages on his hand and the sharp stings whenever he tried to bend his fingers. Fastening the buttons proved impossible.
“That’s absurd!” Pa shouted. “The woman belongs in a lunatic asylum!”
Growing more interested in the talk than his state of undress, Joe moved out into the hall.
“I happen to agree,” Sheriff Coffee was saying, “but she’s filed a complaint and I got to take it seriously.”
Joe edged closer to the stairs.
“He’s a boy, for heaven’s sake!” Pa’s words caused Joe to stumble.
Then the sheriff’s caused him to stop breathing for a second. “That boy may already be more of a man than you might want to believe, Ben.”
Joe wanted to be proud to hear that statement; and he would have been, if not for the words that followed.
“She said he didn’t just touch her,” the sheriff went on. “He … well, he grabbed her, Ben. She said he even….” The sheriff cleared his throat. ”Fondled her.”
“No!” Joe heard the word almost before he knew he was going to say it. And suddenly he was running down the stairs, desperate to defend himself. “She was going for the gun, Pa! She was gonna shoot you! I had to stop her! I had to!”
He was panting by the time he reached the great room. Then he looked up at his father, who had risen from his red chair by the fireplace and stood rooted in front of it, the look on his face stunned and bewildered. “I tried to push her away from me, but….” And then Joe couldn’t look up anymore. He was too embarrassed to meet his father’s gaze. “They … those ….” Joe swallowed the words he couldn’t say and hunted for ones he could. “Her ….” He lifted his hands in an awkward attempt to mimic the woman’s bosoms. Then he shook his head, sighed, and looked back up at his pa. He was too horrified to see the twitch of his father’s lips, or to notice how it mirrored what his brothers and even the sheriff attempted to hide behind raised hands. “They got in the way!” Joe yelled. “I didn’t mean … I didn’t want…. Pa! She was gonna shoot you!”
In the silence that followed, Joe could swear he heard soft sobs surrounding him, and he could no longer withhold his own tears. “She was gonna shoot you, Pa!”
“I know, son,” Pa said softly, wrapping Joe in his arms. “I know.”
“That was a brave move, Joe,” Adam said. “It’s a good thing you did it.”
“Yeah, punkin, you saved Pa,” Hoss added.
“I’m inclined to agree, Little Joe,” the sheriff said behind him. “Well, Ben, that’s all I needed to hear. There’s not a judge alive who would listen to her, now.”
“Thank you, Roy.”
Stunned, proud, and confused, Joe let his father lead him to the dining room table, where Hop Sing was starting to bring out steaming platters for supper.
“Hoss, fetch your brother a shirt, will you?” Pa said when they reached Joe’s chair. “And Adam, could you, please, take care of these buttons? My hands are a bit stiff this evening.” Pa turned away to clear his throat.
“Sure, Pa.” Adam chuckled softly as he patted Joe on the shoulder. “Heaven forbid a lady should choose this moment to come to call.” He winked when he fastened the last button.
Joe felt his face redden. “She wasn’t a lady,” he whispered.
Adam froze. “What?”
“That woman I touched,” Joe continued as soft as he could, so only Adam could hear. “She wasn’t a lady. She wasn’t even wearing one of those corset things.”
“Yeah,” Adam answered, equally soft. “I know.”
“When I touched it, I felt … I got ….” Joe gazed downward, and shrugged. “You know?”
Adam’s look of surprise eased into a half grin. “I suppose I do.”
“She….” Joe swallowed. “She could tell.”
“She could, eh?”
“Sh-she was on top of me.”
“Well, that explains her choice of words when they took her out of here.”
“I couldn’t help it, Adam!”
“I’m sure that’s true.”
“What if it happens again with someone else? I don’t want to go to prison!”
“What’s this about prison?” Pa’s voice made Joe go redder still.
“The Hampton woman,” Adam answered. “I was telling Joe that’s where she’ll end up.”
“Hrumpf. Good riddance.” Pa took his seat at the table.
Adam squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “Nothing to worry about, little brother. But one day real soon I think you, Hoss, and I need to head down to the lake for an afternoon of fishing and,” he cleared his throat, “brother-to-brother conversation.”
Pa smiled warmly.
Joe nodded. He wasn’t sure whether to be anxious or mortified.
The trial was the talk of the territory. Even the country. Newspapers from as far away as Philadelphia printed almost daily articles. And every day the story grew increasingly absurd. Harriet Hampton was ridiculed, laughed at, and shunned with alacrity. Mothers shielded their children’s eyes when they passed by the jail, in the unlikely event that Jezebel might rise tall enough to peer through the window at the top of her cell, or suddenly appear at the door.
Little Joe got some unwanted attention of his own. Many hailed him a hero. Young men grinned and laughed, and taunted him with lewd humor. Young ladies gave him fervent glances and shy smiles. And other ladies, well … when his family walked with him from the courthouse after the guilty verdict had been read, Muriel Mathers sauntered past, drawing his full attention. She met his eye and smiled in a way that was not the least bit shy, then winked as her shawl slipped to reveal an ivory shoulder.
That’s when Adam’s hand clamped down on Joe’s shoulder. “About that day at the lake I promised you, how does tomorrow sound?”