Summary: A combined WHN for The Legacy and Decision at Los Roblos.
Rated: K+ Word Count: 13,508
Reflections Under a Starry Sky
It had been five days since they left Los Roblos and Joe was more than happy to have many miles between that small town and their destination – home. The visit, supposed to only last a day or two had turned into a nightmare of death.
The evil and bullying town boss, John Walker, had been killed by Ben in self-defence, but not before Ben had been shot in the back and seriously injured. A vengeful son, Jed, had tried his best to finish off the job his father had started. It had been left to Joe, unable to initially summon up help from the frightened townsfolk, to keep his father safe and rid the town of the murderous Jed and his men.
How close his father had come to not surviving the bullet in his back was something Joe could not bear to contemplate.
While Joe had been keeping guard in the dimly lit bedroom, he had sat at the table in the sparse room, staring across in the gloom at Ben who laid so still, deep in the throes of a fever that would not leave his body.
He was at a complete loss as to what to do to keep his father alive. He had never been in a situation like this before, and he wished fervently that his brothers could have been there with him. Adam would have assessed the situation, made all the decisions, taken charge, and Hoss would have supported him in any way he could. The three brothers together facing this dangerous situation and winning. But Joe was one, and alone!
He shook his head in despair and could feel one emotion above all others. Fear! Cold and gripping fear of the possible impending death of his father. It was a feeling he had never felt before – or had he? For a fleeting moment, he was transported back nearly seven years, to another time and place when he thought Ben was dead.
Suddenly, Ben thrashed out on the bed uncontrollably, and Joe was shaken out of his reverie; he rushed over to his father’s side, gently holding onto his father’s arms and pushing them down onto the bed until the short spasm ended. Taking a wet cloth, he soothingly bathed his father’s face, wiping away the newly-formed droplets of sweat. Once again Ben settled down into a deep, coma like sleep.
Joe returned to sit by the table and resume his vigil.
It had been at that time he had prayed. Never one to attend church regular, usually leaving that to his father, he nevertheless sought the help of God in his time of crisis. Covering his face with his hands, he prayed for his father’s life to be spared, repeating over and over again in a whispered voice that trembled with emotion. “Please, Lord, let him live. He doesn’t deserve to die. Please, Lord, let him live.”
The night seemed longer than any Joe could remember, but through the grace of God, Ben did survive. With the assistance of Father Xavier, the town doctor and eventual help from a handful of townsfolk, Jed Walker and his men were defeated. Days later, when Ben was recuperated well enough to travel, the two Cartwrights departed.
Joe glanced over at his father by his side, sitting on the wagon with his eyes closed, though not asleep. He was still in some pain through his injury, but made light of it, saying he was fine, causing Joe to inwardly smile. How alike father and son were sometimes.
Conversation was at a minimum as Joe concentrated on guiding the wagon carefully, trying to miss the potholes and rocks on the old road so his father would not be persistently jolted. Their horses, Buck and Cochise, were tied behind, following at the slow pace set by the lone horse pulling the wagon. Ben’s condition had dictated he could not contemplate riding home on Buck, so rather than stay until he was totally recovered, the wagon had been the only other option.
The sun was slowly setting in the west, the horizon now jagged. Mountains! Joe was relieved beyond measure. Mountains meant home would not be far away, the Sierra Nevada snow capped peaks always in view from their beloved Ponderosa. It was now time to set up camp before the darkness of the night fell. Noticing a suitable place slightly off the road, Joe gently pulled the tired horse to a stop, tying the reins and jumping down. He walked around the wagon. “OK Pa, time to make camp. Let me give you a hand.”
Ben opened his eyes and looked down at Joe. He found himself being practically lifted from his seat onto the hard-baked ground. Sometimes he marvelled at the strength of his youngest son.
“Thanks, Joe,” Ben said as he slowly began to walk around, trying to get back the feeling in his legs after sitting for so long.
“I’ll get us a fire going and tend to the stock, Pa. You just take it steady.”
The concern in Joe’s voice still tore at the heart of his father. His son fussed around him like a mother hen, giving him no chance to help in the morning chores on their journey. Likewise at night, it was always the same. Joe would set up camp, provide a meagre meal for them, tend to the horses, and then make his father as comfortable as possible before the onset of the long cool nights.
Ben was more than grateful, knowing his life had been spared due to his son’s actions. However, he had noticed something had changed in Joe’s demeanour ever since they had said their farewells to the helpful priest and the grateful townsfolk. Each day Joe would hardly say a word, his thoughts obviously far away. Then, each night, Joe would look up and stare in silence at the dark night sky illuminated by millions of stars. Ben had noticed a reflective and even pained expression on his son’s face, as if he were recalling unhappy memories from the past. He knew his son’s moods all too well and could read him like a book and was all too aware something was on Joe’s mind. Something serious!
Ben had asked him that first night, “What’s up, Joe? Something wrong?”
Without glancing at his father, Joe had just shaken his head, his eyes still staring up to the heavens. But Ben knew different. There was something gnawing away at his son, and each of the following nights and days had been the same. The continual night-time far-away observer looking into the sky, and the daily quiet, thoughtful companion guiding the wagon.
Ben sighed as he made himself as comfortable as possible while Joe collected firewood and set up the campfire. As he watched his son working so methodically, he wished Joe would open up to him like he used to when he was a young boy. There were no secrets in those days. However, Joe was now nearly 30 years old and far too old to be instructed on what to do by his father.
An hour later, the coffee was steaming in their cups, and both men were lying on the blankets by the side of the fire that warmed them. Joe had completed his chores and began to relax, the thought of reaching their ranch in the next few days giving him a feeling of deep relief.
“Should be back on the Ponderosa day after tomorrow, Pa. Sure will be glad to get into my own bed again.” He rubbed his backside that had grown stiff on the hard ground.
Ben nodded his agreement, but said nothing. For a while they were both quiet, exhausted from the long hot drive that had taken miles off their journey that day. Eventually Joe looked over at his father, noticing his face was slightly flushed. The past days had taken their toll on Ben; he had visibly lost weight, and there was still a slight fever that continued to cling to him.
Taking a cloth and pouring a small amount of water onto it, Joe walked over to his father and gently placed it on his forehead, the soothing effect of the cold material bringing instant relief to the older man.
“How you feeling, Pa?” he asked as he sat next to him and felt his forehead, his voice full of the concern Ben had come to know so well.
With a slight smile, he waved him back to his bedroll. “Feeling better knowing we will soon be home, son,” he answered in a shaky voice.
“Soon as we get back, I’ll get Doc Martin to check you out,” said Joe as he slowly lowered himself back onto the ground and resumed sipping his coffee, sitting with his arms around his knees. There was a comfortable silence, both father and son staring into the glowing embers of the fire, as if mesmerized in a hypnotic trance.
Ben’s instinct had been correct.
Since leaving Los Roblos, something had been troubling Joe that had signalled a subtle change in his behaviour. For once he had followed his elder brother’s example by thinking long and hard about what he had to do, for he knew the cause which had laid dormant for too many years needed to be cleared for his own peace of mind. His stomach had been churning continually, night and day, with the knowledge he may soon be losing the love and respect of his father, but so be it. He had made a deal with the Lord Almighty, and he could not renege on it now.
His decision finally made, he realized he could not wait until reaching the Ponderosa to unburden what was troubling him. With a nervous cough, he continued to look at the flames then stood up and silently crossed over and sat next to Ben.
Ben had been oblivious to his son’s move as he continued to stare into the flickering flames. He was recalling happier times past as a vision of all his sons content in front of the large fire which dominated the downstairs room of the Ponderosa ranch came into his mind. Adam was sitting in his favorite blue leather chair, one long leg hanging over the arm as he played his guitar. Joe was laying full length on the settee reading a dime novel and no doubt awaiting his father’s stern voice to tell him to remove his boots. Hoss was standing by the side of the huge hearth, happily crunching a large juicy apple. All his sons simultaneously under the same roof. How he missed the company of them all, together.
Suddenly he felt a hand on his arm and he was shaken out of his dream as he found Joe was sitting, cross legged in front of him.
Joe sat for a moment looking at his father, unsure what to say, his nervousness plain for his father to see. He then turned his eyes towards the crackling flames of the fire.
“I really thought I was going to lose you at Los Roblos, Pa. Really thought you were going to die,” said Joe without looking up, his voice dropping as the reality of his statement engulfed him.
Ben studied his son, quickly slightly shaken by the sudden revelation. It was something Joe had never mentioned before, had never brought up during the past few days or nights.
Ben wondered if this was what had been troubling his son. Was this the reason for his far away look each evening, and the silence through the days travelling?
“Did you, son? I should have realized what a strain it had been for you.” The concern in his voice was noticeable.
Still without looking up, still staring into the flames, Joe went on. “Did me a load of praying for a time, Pa. Prayed that you would pull through.”
Without waiting for a reply, he continued, as if afraid any interruption would stop him from revealing what he knew had to be said.
“I made a pact with God, you know Pa. Told Him that if he spared you I would pay a forfeit. You ever done anything like that, Pa? Ever promised something to the Lord if He makes things right for you?”
The question caught Ben off guard as it was so unexpected. Joe had never professed to being a great believer, had never attended church regularly, much to Ben’s dismay. With the slight sign of a smile he answered.
“I suppose I must have over the years, Joe. Can’t really remember when, though.”
“Did you always do as you promised then, Pa? Did you do what you said you would do?”
Ben was totally thrown. These questions by Joe were so uncharacteristically serious for his usually happy-go-lucky son. This type of question Ben would of expected from his eldest son, Adam, who had always been keen to engage his father in debates of a theological nature. Since Adam had departed to live in Boston four years ago, Ben had missed their friendly discussions long into the night.
Joe’s voice sounded quiet but troubled, and the smile left Ben’s flushed face as he answered. “I would hope I did, Joe, though for the life of me, I cannot remember.”
Silence ensued for a minute as Joe digested what had been said. “Do you think we would be punished by God if we cancelled the deal?”
The darkness of the night enfolded around the two men, but Ben could see the face of his son in the flicker of the firelight and was shocked at what he saw. His face was gaunt and his eyes staring, unseeing into the flames. A pang of guilt hit Ben as he realized how mentally and physically tired his son looked, and yet he had only just noticed.
“What’s this about, Joe? Is this what’s been gnawing away at you the past few days. This why you been staring up into the sky every night?”
Joe looked up quickly, unaware his father had noticed his preoccupation each evening. “Yeah, guess so,” was all he answered.
“Want to talk about it, Joe?”
His youngest son just shook his head, lying down and staring into the dark abyss above his head.
Ben continued to stare over at his son. He knew from times past that Joe would want to talk through his problem, but only when he decided the time was right. With the strange conversation still swirling in his head, Ben laid back, resting his head on a rolled blanket, silently waiting, hoping his son would speak out.
Without looking, he intuitively knew Joe was staring across at him.
“Pa? You still awake?”
“Yes Joe, still here,” Ben answered.
“I need to tell you what I promised the Lord when I was praying.”
“That’s not necessary, Joe.”
Joe, sitting up again to stare up into the flickering flames of the campfire, then spoke in a soft whisper that Ben could hardly hear, oblivious to his father’s last words. “I told him I would confess to you.”
Unsure he had heard correctly, Ben asked Joe to repeat what he had said. “What do you mean, confess, Joe? Confess to what?”
Ben was now totally bemused. “Can’t think of anything you’ve done that needs a confession!” he said with a slight chuckle “You’ve always been one of the kindest and most decent of men. A son that I could never have been more proud of.”
A sudden cry came from Joe’s direction. “Don’t say that, Pa! I don’t deserve that sort of description. I truly don’t!” yelled Joe, who suddenly sprung up and walked over to the wagon.
The suddenness of his actions and words astonished and confused Ben even further. He stood up, feeling a rush of blood that made him feel slightly dizzy. Walking slowly over to where Joe stood, he placed his arm around his son and turned him round so they were face to face. “Joe. What’s this all about?” his voice almost pleading for an answer.
Joe stood in silence, unable to speak, just looking down and swallowing hard.
Ben put his hand under Joe’s chin and lifted up his face, staring into his deep green eyes. “Son, something is troubling you deep inside. You need to tell me what it is.”
Joe shook his head, lowering his eyes.
“Joseph! You’ve never had trouble talking to me before, telling me your problems,” said Ben, softly stroking his son’s wayward curls from his forehead.
The soothing voice and touch of his father comforted Joe somewhat as for a minute or more the two men stood together in silence. Then Ben felt his legs becoming weak and he grabbed hold of the wagon as he felt the ground beginning to spin about. Wavering slightly, he suddenly felt the strong arm of his son supporting him.
“You alright, Pa?”
“Just feeling a little weak. Maybe I’d better sit back down.”
Joe guided him back to the fire, helping him back onto his bedroll. He sat next to him, his eyes showing the intense concern he felt for his father’s health. “Want another drink?”
“No thanks, Joe. Just talk and tell me what’s bothering you.”
Making sure his father was well settled, Joe sat back and stared again into the fire. “I want to tell you, I really do, but, well, I’m just afraid….” His voice trailed to silence.
“Afraid of what, Joe?”
Taking a deep breath and closing his eyes tightly Joe replied tiredly and with a resigned air, “Afraid you won’t want me as your son anymore.” He barely breathed out. There! It was said at last.
Hanging his head, his eyes still closed, Joe could feel his father staring at him, digesting his words.
Ben was now completely at a loss. He nearly laughed at such a ridiculous statement. “Joseph Cartwright! I can’t believe you said that! You must know nothing would stop me wanting you as my son. Nothing!”
“You sure of that, Pa? Really sure? Cause if I tell you my confession like I promised the Lord I would, then you may change your mind! ”
Taking his son’s hand in his, Ben squeezed it hard, feeling tense inside but trying to convey a calm exterior. “Just tell me, Joe. It’s too late to back out now; just talk to me son. Please!” Ben said firmly but kindly.
“Guess this confession was just the excuse I’d been waiting for all these years to clear my conscience,” replied Joe, with a resigned tone to his voice.
Joe and Ben sat silently for a moment while Joe pondered his father’s words. Tonight would be a long night for the two men, and tired as they were; Joe knew his father was right. He had to talk regardless of the consequences. Too many years had gone by – the time had come.
The campfire burnt low as the ghostly face of 22 year old Joseph Cartwright stared into the glowing embers. The dark night sky shone with a myriad of shiny stars that twinkled in the heavens and the full moon bathed the landscape in an eerie glow of shadows. Joe looked up and stared up into the darkness, his eyes full of tears, and his heart broken.
In the far distance was the sound of a wild coyote calling loudly, its high pitched yowl echoing in the dark night, and further away still, the distant rumblings of thunder which reverberated across the mountain tops of the Sierra Nevada.
Had the circumstances been different, Joe would have glanced at the threatening storm in excitement, having always loved the noise and sights of thunder and lightning as it shot across the dark Nevada sky. As a small child, he would eagerly stare out of his opened bedroom window, never fearful of the arriving storm, following the brilliant shafts of lightening as they danced across the sky. The thunder would rumble in the heavens, rattling the glass in the windows, and Joe would stand, transfixed, overawed at the magnitude of nature’s overture.
The sound of the coyote dog would have made his senses tingle with apprehension, always aware of the dangers of the wild western nights and the creatures that skulked in the darkened shadows, hunting their prey.
However, the sights and sounds went unnoticed as Joe sat, his back resting on his saddle, his tearful eyes focused upwards, and his mind deep in thought. In his hands, he gently caressed a beautifully made rifle, complete with silver engraved C on its butt. His father’s rifle. The rifle Joe had bought and presented to his father only weeks before on the occasion of his birthday. Ben Cartwright had taken the rifle, overwhelmed by the generosity of the gift, knowing it came with a deep love and affection from his youngest son. Pulling his gaze from the stars above, Joe looked down again at the rifle, the flames of the fire reflecting on the silver plate.
His father’s rifle. The father who was now dead!
Drawing his legs up to his chest, he placed his head on his knees and began to cry quietly.
The thought of his father, murdered by the crazed actions of newly released Billy Chapin from Huntsville Prison, made his stomach churn. Three men released, three brothers seeking their father’s killer. Each had followed a suspect and it had been Joe who found his man. After a painful fight, Joe had his father’s rifle pointed at Billy Chapin, but was unable to pull the trigger. Instead, Joe had just handed Billy over to his strict, firm yet honourable father, Colonel Abel Chapin, informing him that his son had admitted to his heinous crime.
The sheriff of Virginia City, Roy Coffee, would be informed by Joe and sent to collect his prisoner in the days that followed. Joe had then left, riding slowly for a few miles in the darkness, and then had decided to stop and make camp until the morning before resuming his journey to Virginia City.
‘Why did you have to die, Pa?’ he thought over and over again in his mind. This man was the most cherished person Joe had ever known, taking the role of both parents since the death of his mother at the age of five. Now he was gone and the thought of living without his father frightened him.
If only he hadn’t left when Ben went to search out the poacher on their land. Over and over in his head he kept repeating the last words he had said as he turned Cochise in the direction of the Ponderosa ranch house. “Watch yourself, Pa.”
He should have stayed with him, should have over-ruled his father’s orders to go. Why, oh why did he leave him? It was all his fault, he thought irrationally. If he had been there, watching over his father, Billy Chapin would not have had the opportunity to kill and Ben would still be alive.
“Oh Pa, Pa” he cried, as he sat under the twinkling stars, the beauty of the starry night lost through his tear filled eyes.
He knew he would now feel lonelier than he had ever done before. True, his two elder brothers would be back at the ranch, no doubt feeling the same despair as they awaited his return, but without Pa there, it just wouldn’t be home anymore.
Home! Home would never be the same now for Joe; now there would be no father to welcome him, cherish him, advise, to care for. Only three brothers united in their joint grief.
Feeling more weary than he had ever thought possible, he remained sitting, tired beyond belief, but unable to sleep. Hour after hour, with his back aching on the hard saddle, he held tightly onto the rifle, feeling utterly alone as he wiped away the constant flow of tears. Hour after hour, his mind dwelled on the past few days, trying to make sense of everything that had happened. Time after time came the same vision of his father’s body lying in some unknown copse.
Eventually, just before the dawn broke and feeling in a state of utter exhaustion, Joe was made aware of the sound of a horse, galloping fast in the distance. It seemed to wake him from his tired trance and he suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to be with Adam and Hoss again.
The early morning sun brought the welcome relief of warm rays as it drifted up over the horizon, creating another day. Joe slowly stood up, feeling utterly stiff and wretched. Not having the strength or compulsion to make even a cup of coffee, he walked over to Cochise, giving him a well deserved pat, and proceeded to saddle up. Still in a state of shock, and feeling a cold chill in his bones, he mounted his horse and holding onto the treasured rifle, turned in the direction of Virginia City.
He had been riding slowly for the first hour, torn between his desire to seek the companionship of his brothers yet not wishing to return to the fatherless ranch house.
Slowly climbing the road that ran up the side of a steep incline, Joe carefully steered Cochise away from the edge that fell a hundred feet down onto a rocky ravine. As he neared the top, he thought he heard the sound of a cry coming from the direction of the deep gully. Pulling up to a stop, he listened. Again, he heard a cry. Cautiously he dismounted, and leaving Cochise tied to a tree on the opposite side of the road, walked over to the edge.
Never a lover of heights, he carefully watched his footing on the crumbling cliff top as he peered over. Far down below, in the early morning light, he saw the body of a horse, obviously dead, its head twisted at an ugly angle. About 30 foot below where he was standing, he could see a small bush that still clung to the side of the ravine, its branches wide and covered in leaves.
Above the bush, slowly climbing was a man, his bare head visible, black hair wet with perspiration. Somehow, he and his horse had fallen over the edge, the horse to its instant death, but the man’s fall being miraculously caught by the bush. Obviously unhurt except for a few cuts and scratches, he had slowly begun to climb, holding onto jagged rocks and thick roots that stuck out of the side of the ravine. Unaware of Joe’s presence, the man was taking it slowly, grabbing hold of the roots to check their sturdiness before taking his weight. Occasionally he would shout an expletive if the root or rock fell away and he had to resume his fingertip search for another hand and foot hold. Slowly and laboriously, he climbed until he was only six feet from his goal – the hatless man completely ignorant of his audience.
He was instantly recognizable to Joe. Billy Chapin!
Here was the man who had murdered his father, but why? Colonel Chapin had promised to keep his son under close supervision to await the arrival of Roy Coffee, yet here he was miles from his home. Billy took a moment to regain his breath and looked up to see how far he had to go. It was then he noticed he was not alone as he saw the profile of a man above his head. In the early morning sunlight the sun was behind Joe, and Billy, blinded by the strong rays, was unable to see just who stood above him.
“Hey, mister, give me a hand will you?” he yelled, exhausted from his exertion and covered in sweat.
Hearing no answer, he kept going, grateful that his Colt 45 was still secure in his holster. He may soon need it to secure the horse that was no doubt only a few yards away.
Pulling himself up another foot, his head was now level with the ground on which Joe was standing. Joe said nothing but continued to stare down at the man. Inside he could feel an anger and fury growing, tearing at his heart and soul. This was the man who had taken his father from him, changed his life forever.
Yesterday Joe could have killed him with his father’s rifle, but had stopped, knowing that was not the Cartwright way. Something from Ben’s life-long teaching still implanted in Joe made him do the right thing. During the past few hours, the only consolation about his father’s death had been the knowledge Billy Chapin would pay for his hideous crime in a court of law. Seeing him now, free, left Joe feeling incensed.
Joseph Francis Cartwright slowly disappeared, leaving only a shell of a man consumed with a hatred which burnt deep within him, over-ruling all other feelings, and taking over his mind and actions.
Billy looked up again. “Here, take my hand will you? I just need help to cover the last few feet!”
Still completely unaware it was Joe who stood above him, he put out his hand, placing it on the ground by Joe’s foot as he lifted half his body and laid down, still holding onto an old root with the other hand inches from the top. Joe bent down on his haunches so his face was only a foot from Billy, still cradling his father’s rifle in his arms. Billy looked up again, and his eyes immediately spied the rifle, the large silver engraved C on its side. The rifle was instantly recognizable and his eyes widened with surprise as realization dawned on the young man.
Time stood still for the two young men as their eyes met.
The pain of his weight pulling on his arms ended the spell between them. Billy swallowed hard. “Ain’t this a coincidence!” he hissed, completely unfazed at the unexpected meeting. “You gonna help me up then, Cartwright?” he said, breathing heavily. “Or have I got to fly up to you?” His voice was full of sarcasm.
He knew there was no where to run. No doubt, once back on firm ground, he would be returned to Virginia City, hog-tied and under the constant line of fire of that rifle. How he wished he had never picked it up when he had shot old man Cartwright; there would have been no evidence then to place him at the scene of the crime. Maybe he could find a way of escaping custody before he ended up in the arms of the sheriff. All Cartwright had to do was pull him up and then he could take him easy he thought, as he formed a plan in his head while awaiting the hand of his ‘good Samaritan’.
While Billy had been quickly formulating his plan of escape, Joe had just stared at him, his eyes filled with a hatred and anger never before felt in such a deep intensity. Slowly he stood up, his head pounding as the specter of revenge shouted louder and louder. Kill him! Kill him!
A vision of Ben, lying dead, a pool of congealed blood covering his body, came into his mind, and all sense of right and wrong taught by his father disappeared. With a careful and precise action, Joe placed his boot onto the hand of Billy Chapin, pushing the bruised and tender flesh into the hard ground. Billy yelled in unexpected pain, unable to pull his hand away, as Joe persisted in his torture, the boot stamped harder and harder, the screams from the other man indicating that the delicate finger bones were breaking, one after another.
For a minute of more, Joe stood still, the high pitched piercing cry of agony echoing around the deep ravine, heard by no-one, except for a pinto and its vengeful master.
With his one hand fixed under Joe’s boot, Billy still clung onto the old root inches from the top of the ravine with his other hand, not able to take his gun from its holster and unable to push his legs over the edge to firm hard ground and safety. He hung there, in limbo, not able to move, the pain in his hand excruciating.
“For God’s sake Cartwright, you’re killing me!” he yelled in terror, as he tried to focus on Joe’s face through tear filled eyes.
His voice seemed to bring Joe back to reality as he focused on what Billy had said. “Killing you Billy? That wasn’t killing you,” he sneered, his voice ever vengeful. “This is killing you!”
With that, Joe stepped back, and with a cry sounding like a man possessed, he struck the prone body of Billy with his other boot, sending the man backwards, over the edge and screaming to the bottom of the ravine. As he landed on the sharp rocks below, his back and neck broken, the screaming came to an abrupt halt and Billy Chapin lay dead.
Joe stood staring down, looking at the body twisted and broken. He had taken his revenge, had avenged his Pa.
Slowly as he began to come to his senses; the real Joe Cartwright began to re-emerge, and as the realization of what he had done became clear, he began to shake uncontrollably. Slumping down onto his knees, he sobbed.
He had killed men before during his young life. Shooting in self-defence, protecting property, and helping to keep law and order was an accepted way of life. However, wilfully killing a defenceless man, purely for vengeance, was different. That was not the Cartwright way.
How his father would have despised him now!
He began to breathe heavily, his face turning pale and a cold sweat covered his face. Taking off his hat to let the cool morning breeze flow through his thick curly hair, his stomach began to churn and a wave of nausea flooded over causing him to throw up. The lack of food over the past day meant there wasn’t much there, but he still heaved, making his sides ache with pain. Eventually he stopped and lay back on the ground exhausted and without energy thinking of what he had just done. With eyes closed, the vision of Billy pleading for his life haunted him.
How easy it was to become a murderer! How easy indeed!
When the sickness subsided, he rose up, taking gulps of fresh morning air, and picked up the rifle that lay on the edge of the ravine. Staring down again at the twisted remains, Joe finally tore his eyes away and moved over to Cochise. Taking his canteen in shaking hands, he took a small drink and washed out the foul taste in his mouth then mounted, the rifle still clasped tightly to his chest. With his mind numb, feeling misery and despair, he resumed his journey towards Virginia City, wondering what to do now.
As his mind cleared, he reasoned he could just pretend it never happened. No one would ever know! He could even say they had fought and it had been self-defence. It would be so easy. Maybe a sympathetic judge would take pity on him, knowing the circumstances for his foul deed. The glimmer of a smile reached the corner of his mouth as he wondered with irony if he could be hung for murdering a murderer!
He shook his head sadly as he inwardly talked to himself.
If nothing else, he was still his dead father’s son, and must accept the consequences of his actions, even if it meant death or jail.
What about his brothers? No doubt they would try and understand why he did what he did, but they would never agree with the action taken by their volatile brother. He would be a great disappointment to them both, losing respect and bringing shame to the Cartwright name.
His father would have never forgiven him had he known his son killed purely for vengeance sake and it would have broken his heart. At least Joe felt strangely comforted his father would now never see what kind of a man he had become.
Virginia City came into view. Joe turned his horse down the main street, walking slowly but with a purpose.
Confess and be dammed! His father was dead, so what the hell! Life just didn’t seem worth living any more!
With a weary heart and his hands shaking he pulled up outside the office of Sheriff Roy Coffee.
Sheriff Coffee was sat at his desk, looking through reports that had just arrived with the mail. As the door opened he looked towards it and saw the figure of Joe, rifle in hand, slowly entering. It was only two days since Joe had been in his office with Adam and Hoss, yet as he stood up he could see the young man now looked close to collapse from exhaustion. “Good to see you, Joe. I see you got your Pa’s rifle.”
“Yeah, I got the rifle,” Joe answered, as he walked over and placed it on the desk.
Joe was visible pale and had the look of a condemned man about him. Unmistakably Roy knew this was Ben Cartwright’s gun as he picked up the rifle, noting its beautiful engraving on the butt and thinking how ironic that, of the three Cartwright brothers, it was the most tempestuous who had recovered it.
Joe took hold of the side of the table, his legs feeling weak, and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. The past days of no sleep, little food and much mayhem had caught up with him at last.
Roy pulled up a chair and indicated Joe to sit in it. He then went over to the stove in the corner and poured a fresh cup of black coffee. Placing the cup in Joe’s trembling hands, he walked back to his own seat and sat down, leaving Joe to drink the hot liquid.
“You look all done in, Joe. Not had much sleep, have you?” he stated, the old sheriff showing concern for the young man.
Joe looked over at Roy and just shook his head.
Roy stared at him for a moment, and then looked back at the rifle. “Who was it, son; who shot your Pa?”
Joe took another gulp of coffee, replying in a quiet and tired voice as he fought hard to stop the trembling he felt throughout his body. “Fella named Billy Chapin; his Pa runs a big ranch up by Kobie, Colonel Abel Chapin.”
Roy pondered for a moment, scratching his head as he tried to recollect the name. “Chapin? Chapin? Yeah! I’ve heard of him. Runs a tight ranch, just like when he was in the Army. Has most of the town under his command as well, I seem to recall.”
Roy looked back at Joe, noticing a far away look in his tired eyes. “Did you shoot him, Joe?”
With a hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth, Joe shook his head. “No, Roy. I didn’t shoot him. Had the chance, mind you. Had Pa’s rifle in my hands pointing at him, but I didn’t shoot him.”
With a sigh of relief, Roy resumed his questioning. “What happened then, Joe?”
“Oh, I took him to his father; he told him the truth; that he had shot Pa.” Joe stopped as his eyes suddenly began to fill at the thought. He took a deep breath. “Told the Colonel you would go and pick him up in a few days. I left.” Taking another deep breath he continued, “Then, later, on the trail….”
Roy smiled, interrupting the young man. “Thank God for that, Joe! I got some good news for you.”
Joe looked up, startled at the interruption to his confession so nearly spoken on his lips. “Have you Roy?” The sight of the sheriff smiling confused him.
“Sure have. Your Pa ain’t dead, Joe. He was shot, but is back on the Ponderosa, recovering. Ain’t that good news!”
Joe sat, his eyes widened in surprise. “Pa is alive?” he choked, feeling shocked beyond belief at the news as he felt tears falling down his cheeks.
“Yes. He’s alive. Was sitting in this very office yesterday. So you just hightail it out of here, and go and see him. I know he’s been worried sick about you.”
In a daze and with all thoughts of his confession temporarily forgotten, Joe found himself standing up, picking up the rifle, and walking out of the office, guided by the kindly sheriff.
“Now, don’t you fret none, Joe. I’ll go and pick up this Billy Chapin, make sure he pays for trying to kill Ben.”
With Roy’s words spinning around in his head and feeling as though he was in a trance, Joe mounted Cochise, and without another word, made his way back to the Ponderosa and his father.
Roy stood by the open door watching as Joe rode away. He was a good friend of the Cartwrights and realized just how much Ben’s death would have affected his boys, none more so than Joe. The youngest Cartwright sure did look like the troubles of the world were on his shoulders and he was more than happy to give him such good news. As he wandered back into his office, he suddenly recalled something Joe had said before he interrupted him,
“Then later, on the trail…”
‘Wonder what he was going to say?’ thought Roy, who sat down and began to finish his paperwork.
During his ride, Joe’s mind was in turmoil. He had been so close to telling Roy the truth. So close! He knew he must own up eventually, but first he had to see his father. Had to make sure the news was true and he was alive.
However, everything was so much more complicated now. Sure, he had killed Billy thinking he was a murderer, but Billy was not a murderer! Now the only murderer was Joe Cartwright! ‘God forgive me’ he thought, ‘Pa forgive me.’
On he rode, exhaustion and trepidation his only companion. He would tell the truth about Billy’s death, but first he needed the reassuring warmth and comfort of his father’s arms around him just once more. Then he could deal with the aftermath of his actions.
He entered the yard of the Ponderosa and pulled Cochise to a stop, tying him to the hitching rail, and as he turned, his father came out of the house, closely followed by his two brothers.
With his rifle in his hand, he stared at Ben, hardly believing his own eyes. Hoss took the rifle from him and looked at it. Since Ben’s right arm was in a sling, Joe gently put his hand on his father’s left arm, feeling the flesh and bone of his father once more.
“Sheriff Coffee told me you were alright. I was afraid to believe it,” Joe said in the stillness and quiet of the yard. “How do you feel?”
“Fine, boy, fine,” answered Ben, all the while his eyes staring at the face of his youngest.
“See you’ve got Pa’s rifle,” said Hoss, as he fingered it gently in his large hands.
“See you got your man,” added Adam.
There was a pause as Ben and Joe continued to stare at each other.
“Yeah, I found him,” said Joe, wanting to reveal all, but unwilling to break the hearts of his father and brothers so quickly.
“Joe?” Ben asked, hardly daring to breathe as he awaited his son’s reply, the inference being Joe had used Ben’s rifle on Billy.
Thinking quickly, refusing to end this meeting with heartache, Joe swallowed hard. He would have to technically lie as he hadn’t shot Billy to death. The truth will out later! “No Pa. I didn’t kill him,” he said. “Nobody deserved killing like he did, but I just couldn’t do it. Had your rifle pointed at him and my finger on the trigger, but I just couldn’t do it.”
At least that part was true, thought Joe as he continued. “Maybe it was because it was your rifle. Took him to his father; he confessed. Sheriff Coffee is going to pick him up sometime tomorrow.”
There, it was said, thought Joe. Truth and untruth blended together in his exhausted state. He just wanted to gaze into his father’s gentle brown eyes, just for a little while more.
Ben breathed a sigh of relief, and noticed just how pale his son looked. Concerned at the trauma of the past few days for his youngest, he looked hard at him. “You look……tired.”
Joe crumpled inside at the words of his father, as his face showed the love and concern that he felt for his youngest son.
Joe dreaded having to tell him how Billy Chapin really died. How soon before all he would see in his Pa’s face was shame and disgust? In a fleeting moment, while Ben and Joe stood together, Joe felt he could reveal his hideous secret; he felt a hidden strength that passed from father to son as he held onto his arm.
Then, suddenly, Ben noticed Mr. Dorman, the old peddler who had saved his life, was climbing onto his wagon, about to leave. He went over to him, leaving Joe to stand alone, and the moment was gone. Adam and Hoss joined him, and as the three brothers watched their father make his farewells, the wagon pulled out of the yard leaving father and sons to walk into the ranch house.
All four men were tired, the past days of sleeplessness and worry etched in all their faces. As soon as they entered, Ben insisted they sit down to a hot substantial meal and then they would rest for the day. No one argued at this plan.
As they sat around the table, Joe kept glancing at his father, still not quite believing he was there, in the flesh. He picked at the meal prepared by Hop Sing, his appetite lost as he thought back to just a few short hours ago. Then he had killed to avenge the father thought to have been murdered, but his father now sat within inches of him. The realization that the hapless Billy had died by his hand needlessly sent waves of remorse flooding though his body.
Hoss and Adam chatted, describing in more detail what had happened to them over the past couple of days. Joe half listened, not really taking in what was said, his mind reliving his last meeting with Billy Chapin and the consequences of that meeting.
Ben looked over at his son, saw the pale, haunted look, the food left on the plate. “You feeling alright, Joe?”
Joe continued to stare into nothing, unaware of his father’s question.
Hoss and Adam looked over at their brother, noticing his paleness.
“Joe” he called again, “You OK?”
Joe looked up, awakened from his trancelike state, and saw three pairs of eyes staring at him. Three faces that looked at him with concern and love. Something he did not deserve. “What? Do I have to have everyone staring at me like that!” His voice was louder than he had meant.
“Pa just asked if you were OK, Joe, that’s all.” said Adam, as he stared at the face of his youngest brother.
“Oh! I’m fine. Just tired.” he answered, feeling guilty at his unreasonable outburst. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed for a while.”
“Ain’t you going to tell us what happened yesterday, Joe? What happened when you first found your man?” enquired Hoss, as he began to devour another piece of bread.
Joe’s lips were drawn tight, and his green eyes narrowed. “What’s there to say, Hoss? I found the rifle, turned the man over to his Pa. End of story.”
“There must be more to it than that, Joe?” Hoss prodded, unaware of the growing tension in Joe.
“I said end of story, Hoss! Now just shut your mouth about it,” Joe snapped. “I don’t want to talk about it!”
“Joseph!” cried Ben, shocked at his son’s sudden explosion of anger. “That’s enough! What’s got into you?”
Joe stared at his family, pursing his lips, breathing heavily.
“Come on, Joe,” Adam asked sternly. “Tell us what’s got you all fired up like this.”
“Nothing!” he yelled, “There’s nothing wrong. Just leave me alone!” He stood up, pushing back his chair and throwing his napkin onto the table then walked quickly towards the stairs. Ben followed him with his eyes, noticing the stooped posture, the tired legs that seemed to haul him up to his room. A door slammed shut, and the three men were left downstairs, hardly knowing what had just happened.
Hoss stared up towards the empty stairs. “What was all that about, I wonder?”
“You know our little brother, hard to read and impossible to predict!” answered Adam.
“Well,” said Ben, “I think we’ll leave him to rest for now. Later we will figure out what’s gotten under his skin.”
“There’s nothing to figure out, Pa.” said Adam. “Joe is just Joe!”
Ben smiled, but could feel something was not quite right with his youngest.
Adam could see the thoughtful look on his father’s face. That look had been seen many times over the years and he instinctively knew its cause. “Don’t worry, Pa. Joe took your disappearance pretty hard, and no doubt finding the man who he thought killed you would have been pretty traumatic for him. He’ll get over it once he’s rested and thought things out.”
Ben looked at him silently for a moment. “Thanks, Adam. I know you’re right.” He nodded; as he felt a wave of tiredness, he began to yawn. “Well, I think I could do with some sleep.” He rose from the table, feeling a dull ache in his chest. “You two make sure you get a rest,” he said, looking at the tired faces of Adam and Hoss.
Both nodded, as nothing seemed more appealing than a few hours sleep at that moment in time.
“Are you all right, Pa?” Adam asked, noticing how pale his father’s face seemed to have turned.
“Yeah Pa,” added Hoss. “You don’t look too good.”
“I’ll be fine, boys, just need a few hours sleep. Doc Martin is coming by in the morning so he’ll be able to check me over. Don’t worry,” he added, noticing the concerned looks that passed between the two men.
As Ben walked behind Adam’s chair, he fleetingly stroked his oldest son’s shoulder with affection.
Adam looked up at him, comforted by his father’s touch. “Good to have you back in one piece, Pa,” Adam said, his voice betraying the strain of the past few days.
“Thanks, son. I’m more than glad to have you three safely under one roof again.” he said, with a tired smile. “Even if the youngest is a mite fractious!”
Ben slowly moved away from the table, gently rubbing his bandaged shoulder, and walked upstairs, making his way to his bedroom. At Joe’s door he stopped and knocked. There was no answer, so he quietly turned the knob and looked inside. Joe was sleeping, fully clothed, his arm resting over his eyes. Ben walked softly to the bed and with his left hand, pulled over a blanket and covered his son. Joe stirred slightly, turning onto his side, and Ben could see his cheeks were streaked with dried tears.
“Oh Joseph!” thought Ben, saddened at the sight, “what’s distressed you so?”
Joe quietly moaned as his loving father gently stroked his son’s hair.
“I love you, son.” He whispered.
With a feeling of unease, Ben left the room.
After leaving the table and hurrying upstairs to his room, Joe laid on the bed, unable to stop shaking as the tears flowed.
What a mess!
Tomorrow Sheriff Coffee would be in Kobie, find his prisoner missing, and no doubt he and the Colonel would go in search of the young man. The thought of Colonel Chapin finding the body of his son, twisted and broken, tore at Joe’s heart. Would his grief be any less in its intensity than Joe’s had been? Probably not, he surmised.
Tomorrow! Yes, tomorrow he would tell his father the whole truth then take himself off to Virginia City and give himself up. No need for Ben to torment himself with the decision of whether or not to hand over his son to the law. Joe knew he could not put him in that position. His father would be heartbroken, unable to forgive him, but he could not fault his desire to admit his guilt and suffer the consequences, regardless. If nothing else, Joe was still a Cartwright.
As he inwardly thought through his plan of action, his eyes grew heavy, and in a moment his body succumbed. He was asleep in seconds.
It was nearly twenty-four hours later that Joe finally awoke. As he opened his eyes, he felt somewhat disorientated. He was still in his clothes, an old blanket covering him, and blue sky was visible outside his window. With a start he surmised, he had been so weary he had been allowed to sleep through the clock.
As he sat up, his mind seemed jumbled, but he soon remembered his task that day. Today he would admit to killing Billy Chapin. Running his hand through his hair, he wondered if this would be the last time he would fall asleep in this room, the last time he would view the mountains from his window. A portrait of his mother stood on the dresser and he gazed at it, wishing her loving arms could hold him close again, make everything better, just as she had done all those years ago.
Lifting his legs over the side of the bed, he walked over to the wash stand, swilling his face in the cold water that filled the basin. Taking a towel, he dried his face then stared in the mirror, quite aghast at the pale, haggard face that looked back.
Taking a deep breath, he turned and opened the bedroom door, making his way downstairs. Walking down, he was surprised to see his father, laid out on the settee. Doc Martin sat by his side, pouring medicine onto a spoon and offering it to Ben. With a rush, Joe sprung down the last few steps and made his way to Ben’s side. “What’s wrong, Pa?” he asked in a worried tone.
“It’s alright, Joe,” answered the doctor. “Your Pa’s shoulder has some infection and he has started a slight fever. Nothing to worry about.”
Joe sat on the large coffee table, watching his father’s flushed face. “You should have woke me up, Pa.” he said, looking down at him.
“You needed your rest, son.” Ben said calmly as he swallowed the medicine. “There would have been nothing you could do anyway.”
Doc Martin stood up, removing a small bottle from his bag, and handing it over to Joe. “Just make sure your Pa takes one of these twice a day, Joe.” he said.
Joe looked at the bottle. “What are these for, Doc?”
“Just something to keep his heart calm, Joe. Make sure he rests and has no more excitement for a while.”
“Something wrong with your heart, Pa?” asked Joe,
Ben could see the worried frown on his son’s face, and was keen to his allay his fears. “Just a little pain that came on yesterday, son. These pills will clear it up and I’ll be fit for a few years longer, I can assure you.”
Doc Martin fastened up his bag, took a final gulp of his coffee and then made for the door. “I’ll be back tomorrow, Ben. Make sure you take it easy,” he called as he went outside.
Joe followed him, anxious to know the truth. As the Doctor unhitched his horse, Joe stood, hands in his pocket. “Is it serious, Doc? Pa’s heart, I mean.”
Looking at the young man’s face, and knowing the strong bond that was between father and son, the doctor smiled sympathetically. “Just make sure he takes the pills and has no unnecessary shocks, Joe. As long as he stays calm for a while, I am sure he will be as right as rain.”
Joe nodded his thanks as the Doctor climbed into his small buggy, and with a wave of his hand moved slowly out of the yard.
Joe sat on the veranda for a moment, wondering what to do. With his father’s heart in the delicate state it was, he would just have to hold out a while until Ben was strong enough, then he could be told Joe’s vile secret. Billy’s murderer would be free a few days longer!
Joe returned to his father’s side, anxious to keep him calm and relaxed. He poured himself a cup of coffee, and then turned to his father. “Sorry about yesterday, Pa. Guess I was just overtired.”
“That’s alright, son.” Ben answered looking up, still aware of Joe’s pale and haggard look. “Let’s just forget it and have a quiet day together. Adam and Hoss are checking the timber and cattle, so you can stay here with me.”
Joe nodded and feeling his stomach aching, disappeared into the kitchen, forcing himself to eat the breakfast that Hop Sing readily made for him.
His meal consumed, Joe returned to sit with his father, something he had never thought possible just a few nights before as he had stared at the star filled sky. His father dozed for most of the day, but Joe was content to just sit back in the leather chair by his side and keep him company.
After a while, he sat forward, burying his face in his hands as his eyes closed and he tried to relax, but each time the face of Billy appeared, silently screaming, crying, yelling for his life to be spared. Joe began to tremble, and he sat back, tightened his hands into a fist and he felt his nails digging painfully into his palms.
He glanced at his father, noticing the flushed face was returning to its normal colour and his breathing was steady. Like a sentinel, Joe sat by his side for the remainder of the day, his eyes never far from his father’s face, making the most of the time left between them.
That was how Adam and Hoss found them when they returned for supper. The two men, dozing in front of the fire, Joe’s hand lying on the shoulder of his father as if unable to risk losing him from his grasp again.
The evening passed quietly and without incident. Adam and Hoss chatted about their days work and did not mention the previous day’s altercation with Joe. Joe in turn did not bring up the subject. Although not his usual exuberant self, he did his best to keep up a happy front for the sake of his father’s health.
Just content to be together, the four men relaxed, comfortable in each others company. Adam was strumming his guitar, Hoss and Joe playing a game of checkers, and Ben lying quietly, just observing, looking at each of his sons and feeling a very lucky man.
Two days later found the Ponderosa slowly resuming a familiar routine.
Adam visited the teams of men who were cutting down the timber for a large and profitable contract he had secured six months before.
Hoss checked over the herd of cattle in preparation for the drive to the rail head that was due in a few weeks.
Ben was regaining his strength, as the pills calmed his heart and the fever retreated. Joe continued to stay by his side, ever watchful and helpful, making the most of this precious time together with his father.
On the third morning, Adam and Hoss were drinking coffee with Ben, while Joe was in the yard, lovingly brushing Cochise’s coat, leaving it shining in the morning sunlight. As he worked, he talked to his horse, quietly murmuring his troubles. Although the feeling of impending dread still consumed him, he had attempted to keep a cheerful countenance for his father’s benefit until he was fully recovered, and to this end, he had succeeded. Ben’s heart was now in full working order once again, so the moment for Joe to confess crept ever nearer.
“You know, Cooch?” he whispered as a chuckle came to his lips, “if you could talk, you’d be the lead witness for the prosecution!”
The joke was lost on Cochise, who just stood, relaxed and with eyes closed, enjoying the gently feel of his master’s touch.
From behind the barn came the sound of a horse and as Joe looked up, he saw the familiar figure of Sheriff Coffee. Joe could feel his heart beating faster as he tried to contain his nervousness at the sight of the law officer. He was well aware why he would be visiting, well aware of the news he was bringing. Taking a long deep breath, he smiled at the sheriff as Roy pulled up next to Cochise.
Slowly dismounting and feeling extremely stiff from his morning’s long ride, Roy tied his horse to the rail then stretched out his arms, yawning loudly. “Morning, Joe,” he said, still yawning. “How’s your Pa doing?”
“Much better thanks, Roy. You want to see him?” answered Joe, inwardly shaking and trying hard to keep his voice steady.
“Actually, I’d like to talk to you all. Are your brothers home?”
Joe nodded, as he put down the brush barely able to stop his hands shaking. “Yes, they’re having a coffee with Pa. Just go straight on in, Roy. I’ve just one more job to do, and then I’ll join you.”
Joe turned from the older man and began to run his hands down the legs of his horse.
Roy looked at the pinto and could see the shining coat, lovingly brushed by Joe. He watched as Joe checked Cochise’s feet, lifting the hooves, checking the shoes. One had twisted slightly, making a noticeable mark when placed on the ground.
Joe noticed the fault. “Looks like I’m going to have to get you some new shoes, Cooch.” he said, forgetting Roy was still stood by his side.
Roy stared at the mark left by the faulty shoe and then, with a thoughtful look on his face, turned and walked to the door of the house. With his hand on the door handle, he looked back again, staring at Joe’s back as he walked Cochise into the barn.
His face impassive, Roy could see in his mind the final piece of jigsaw falling into place. With a quick knock, he opened the oak door, and walked into the large airy room where the three Cartwrights were sat drinking. “Morning Ben, Adam, Hoss. Joe told me to come straight in,” he said, removing his hat and placing it on the credenza.
Three faces looked up at him in pleasant surprise.
“Roy! Good to see you. Come and sit down. Hoss, get Roy a coffee please will you,” Ben asked, pleased to see the lawman.
Roy joined the family, sitting on the settee as Hoss went to the table and poured a coffee for the Sheriff. Hoss handed him a cup and sat down next to him.
“How you feeling Ben?” he asked, genuinely concerned for the health of his friend.
“Much better, Roy. You been over to Kobie?”
Roy took a sip of his drink, and nodded as he swallowed the hot liquid.
At this point the door opened and Joe walked in, looking a little tentative as he made his way over and stood by the side of the fire place, the fire not yet lit. Roy looked up at him, noticed he seemed nervous, but made no comment.
“You bring that Chapin fellow back with you then, Roy?” asked Hoss.
Adam looked over at him. “Didn’t give you any trouble, did he, Roy?”
Roy shook his head. He could see Joe was staring into the empty fireplace, listening intently but not adding to the conversation. “Actually I didn’t get a chance to bring him back.”
Three pairs of eyes looked at him.
“Not bring him back, Roy?” said Hoss, “Why not? He may not have killed Pa, but surely he’s got to stand trial for attempted murder, ain’t he?”
Taking another sip of his drink, Roy signed deeply. “Reason he ain’t here, is, well, he’s dead,” he said, noticing how Ben, Adam and Hoss looked at him with complete surprise and bewilderment.
“Dead?” the three men said in unison, while Roy noticed Joe stood, unmoving, still looking at the dead ashes in the fire, no look of surprise on his face.
Roy returned his gaze to Ben. “Yeah. Got to the Chapin ranch and he had gone. Took some of the ranch hands and men from Kobie, and we went in search of him. Managed to follow a trail that was leading into the foot hills.”
At this point Roy looked over at Joe. “He must have been on the same trail you were on when you returned to Virginia City, Joe. Good job you didn’t meet up with him!”
Joe looked over at him, saying nothing, but nodded slightly. He returned his eyes to the hearth, his heart beating loud in his chest, and his head throbbing.
“About ten miles out we found him, lying at the bottom of a steep ravine. Him and his horse must have gone over in his haste to get away. Broke his neck from what I saw. Left the men from Kobie to retrieve his body and take it back home.”
Suppressing another yawn, Roy continued, looking at Joe the whole time. “Decided there wasn’t much point staying around, so I came straight back here to let you know.”
Joe continued to stare down, poking the toe of his boot into the ashes, biting into his cheek.
Rubbing his shoulder at the memory, Ben sat for a moment remembering the day that had started the whole sorry affair. “If he had only waited a while longer, he would have found out there was no murder charge. With a good lawyer, he would have only gone to prison for a couple of years at the most,” said Ben, shaking his head.
A sudden thought came to Adam. “How did Colonel Chapin take it, you finding his son dead like that?”
Roy saw the pained expression that fleetingly crossed the face of Joe, then turned to Adam.
“That’s the sad part, Adam. Colonel Chapin is also dead. Billy shot him in the back before he escaped from the ranch.”
“What!” cried the three men, as they stared at Roy in horror. Even Joe now turned and stared down at the lawman, his mouth open in astonishment. Though acting with vengeance in his heart, he had killed a murderer after all!
“Seems Billy and his Pa had a big argument. Billy was in no mood to await arrest, and he shot his Pa twice in the back at close range. He also shot dead one of the ranch hands when taking a horse from the barn. Shot him dead while he was grooming his horse. Turned into quite a murderer, did Billy Chapin, and that’s a fact.”
“He shot his own father!” said Hoss, shaking his head, not quite believing what he had heard.
Roy continued to look at Joe, noticing his quiet discomfort and that his face was growing pale.
“You OK, Joe? Hope you ain’t feeling anyway responsible. Leaving Billy with his father was the only option you had at the time. Ain’t no way your fault Billy did what he did.”
Feeling flustered, unsure what to say, Joe just nodded then turned his back and with both hands on the fireplace, rested his head on his hands, relieved a murderer was dead, but still finding little solace.
“Anyway Ben, thought I’d come straight over and let you know. Better get back to town and see what’s been happening in my absence.”
Roy supped the remainder of his drink, and handing the cup to Hoss, slowly rose up.
“Thank you, Roy, for letting us know,” said Ben as he moved to leave his chair.
Roy waved him back down and smiled at his old friend then walked over to collect his hat. He turned and called over to Joe. “Want to see me out, Joe? Need to check some details for my report.”
Taking a deep breath, Joe turned round, following Roy onto the veranda as he unhitched the reins on his horse. Sick of the deceit and with his father’s health stronger, his own overwhelming desire to tell the truth pushed him forward, and Joe moved closer holding onto the bridle.
“Need to tell you something Roy,” he said in a rush. “Wanted to tell you back in your office. About Billy and me, I….”
“You know, Joe, you need to see to that twisted shoe on Cochise. Makes quite a mark on the ground, don’t you think?” said Roy, interrupting.
Joe stared at the older man, and then looked down where Cochise had been standing, the twisted shoe making a distinctive mark on the soft ground. He looked up, unsure what Roy was getting at. Why wouldn’t he listen to what he wanted to say?
“You know, Joe, Billy would have hung, had we caught him. Two murders, one attempted murder, plenty of eye witnesses. Oh he would have hung for sure. Saved me a whole lot of time organizing a posse, trial, and a hanging. Oh yes, there would of definitely been a hanging! Horrible thing, hanging, Joe. Billy dying in that ravine certainly saved a lot of unpleasantness.”
The two men stared at each other, Joe’s face anxious and Roy’s face knowing. Joe let go of the bridle and Roy turned and mounted his horse.
“At least I can now draw a line under this affair, Joe. Don’t have to do much paperwork, thankfully. Did the best we could to find that killer and now we just get on with our lives. You know what I mean? We don’t need to bring this up again. All our consciences are totally clear. You understand me, Joe?”
Joe tried to swallow, but his mouth felt dry. Unable to say a word, he nodded slightly, as Roy turned his horse and slowly walked out of the yard, and back to Virginia City.
Joe felt his legs go weak, and he sat down on the veranda, visibly trembling. All the years he had known Roy Coffee, he had thought of him as conscientious, hard working and honest, but never smart. How wrong he had been!
The wily old lawman had seen the distinctive mark of Cochise’s shoe that morning in the yard, and had seen the selfsame marks at the ravine where Billy had gone over. He knew Joe had been there. Didn’t know for certain what had happened, but guessed Joe and Billy had met before Billy had fallen to his death. Without wanting to know all the details, Roy was just content that the double murderer was dead. For him, justice had been served.
Joe would have to live with his guilty conscience and he would never forget he had killed a defenceless man in an act of vengeance. What he did to Billy would be with him for all time, regardless of what Sheriff Coffee had said. Killing with vengeance in his heart would be the burden of guilt he would carry till the day he died. His father did not need to share that burden.
Maybe, just maybe, he would tell his father one day. But not today!
Rising slowly, feeling as though a great weight had suddenly lifted from him, he returned to the loving embrace of his family and a fresh chapter in his life.
The campfire was almost burnt out as Joe finished his story, and he reached out to place pieces of the remaining wood by his feet onto the glowing embers. For a minute, he stared as he watched the fire take hold creating an instant wave of warmth around the two men.
Ben sat silent. His eyes had never left his son’s face throughout the last hour and he had seen despair, misery and pain displayed with such intensity it had broken his heart.
Joe looked over, unsure and uncertain of his father’s thoughts, awaiting his reaction. With his throat feeling dry and sore, he yearned for a stiff drink but knew all that was available was cold coffee in the pot. He waited, wondering what to do, what to say. The silence was deafening as both father and son sat, emotionally exhausted.
Finally, breaking the silence, Joe smiled sadly, “Well, Pa! Now you know how Billy really died. Still feel proud of your son? ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t!”
Still Ben sat, unmoving, his thoughts recalling the events of several years ago. He remembered sitting all night with Adam, Hoss and Mr. Dorman, wondering what had happened to Joe, and what he may have done. It had been one of the longest nights ever, as the four men sat, awaiting the return of the last Cartwright brother. Mr. Dorman had dozed in the chair for a while, oblivious to all around him, but for Ben and his sons there had been no such relief or escape. He could remember so well Joe’s return, rifle in his grasp, the subsequent days that followed, and the visit by Roy, telling them of Billy’s fate.
Joe took his father’s silence as an indication of disgust and disappointment in his son. “I can understand if you can’t bear to look at me right now, Pa. Please believe me; I never wanted to hurt you. I hated lying to you back then. Hated the deceit, the secrecy, the heartache. If you only knew the number of times I had wanted to say something, admit that I was not the wonderful son you always thought I was. I have been a fraud and failure for too many years.”
Ben looked up and stared at Joe. Holding back a sob in his throat, he slid over to his son, sitting down by his side, and placing his arm around Joe’s shoulder.
The feel of his father’s touch brought out a new sense of hope in Joe as he looked into his father’s moistened eyes. “I’m glad it’s out now, Pa, whatever the outcome. Making that deal with God was the best thing I could have done if it means you now know just what kind of man I became.”
He stopped, his once proud shoulders stooped in a resigned fashion, and his voice trembling with fear of losing the one thing he valued above all else. His father’s love. “I’m so sorry, Pa! So sorry!” he cried. “I don’t expect you to forgive me, just tell me you understand why I did it.”
“Oh Joe! Of course I can forgive you, no matter what.”
Joe pulled away, slightly fazed at his father’s reaction. He had always thought if his father found out, he would be unable to look him in the face without seeing shame and disappointment. However, he felt a rush of relief flood over his body as all he saw was love, sympathy and understanding.
“You mean you still want me, after what I did? I murdered Billy, Pa! Did it with vengeance in my heart, something you have always said you abhorred!”
Ben sighed and just nodded. “Whatever you did doesn’t change who I know you are deep inside, Joe. You are my son, and I love you.” He paused for a moment, swallowing hard, and taking a deep breath. “As for acting with vengeance in your heart… Maybe if I’d known the whole truth seven years, my reactions would have been very different. But since then, well, things have changed, things have happened. Whatever it was that you did that day, I can understand and forgive.”
With a mystified look, Joe studied his father’s face, trying to understand.
“How can you forgive me so easily, Pa? All these years when I wanted to tell you what happened, I just couldn’t open up, knowing how you felt so strongly? What’s so different?”
Ben paused, his tone softening. “I can forgive you, Joe, because I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t. I’m no saint, Joe, believe me.”
Joe looked into his father’s face, saw the reflective look in the deep brown eyes. “What do you meant, Pa? Hypocrite? How come?”
Ben settled back onto his blanket. “Remember Dan Tolliver, Joe?”
“Dan? Yeah, ‘course I do, Pa. After all he did hold me for ransom that time, silly old fool. Why, it must be nearly four years, just after Adam left. But he died last year. What’s he got to do with anything?”
Ben nodded. “Even though he had been a loyal worker, a good friend, when he took you, Joe, and came back to the ranch to demand that ransom, well, I looked at him and said, ‘If he’s hurt, in ANY way, I’ll come after you. There won’t be a place on earth far enough or dark enough to hide you.’ And I meant it, Joe.”
“But you didn’t go through with it, Pa. You didn’t kill Dan.”
“No Joe, but I know I would have done if you had died. So believe me, son, I have no right to condemn you for your actions, as I came so very close to committing the very same act. Guess we are more similar than we thought, eh?” said Ben, as he continued to gaze at his son.
“Guess so, Pa.” replied Joe, but inside he doubted his father’s words. Ben Cartwright, using vengeance as an excuse to kill! Never!
“I’m still not proud of what I did, Pa. That you’ve got to believe. Billy deserved to die, but I regret doing what I did. There was so much anger inside I thought I would explode, though I don’t expect you to understand that feeling.”
Ben just nodded as the two men continued to sit, both reflecting on events from the past.
Joe looked thoughtfully over towards Ben. “Pa?” he asked nervously. “Are you going to tell Hoss about me?”
Ben could see his son’s face look uncomfortable. “Do you want me to, Joe?”
There was a pause, as Joe imagined what his big brother’s reaction would be. “No, Pa. I think it would hurt him beyond measure knowing what his little brother had done, no matter how long ago it happened.”
“I understand, son. Just me and you.”
“Thanks. Pa,” Joe said, as he took a deep breath, visibly relieved.
There was another period of silence and Ben looked over at his boy, could see he was running something else through his mind. “What’s on your mind, Joe?”
Joe looked up, smiling slightly, amazed how his father could always read him, always knew when he wanted to speak out. His voice slightly trembling, he cleared his throat. “You and me, Pa. Now you know everything, are we still alright? Has anything changed between us?”
“Joe,” said Ben tenderly, “I still love you, no matter what and am still proud to call you my son. We’re going to be OK!”
Joe felt a tear trickle down his cheek. “Did I ever tell you I’m proud to have you as my father?”
Ben chuckled, and smiled at his son with affection. “Not enough times, son! Not enough.”
Ben signed, and then stifled a yawn. “It’s been a long night so maybe we should try and get some sleep,” he said finally, as he laid down again, his head resting on the rolled blanket.
“Sure,” answered Joe as he placed another piece of wood on the fire, then lay down, gazing up at the twinkling firmament.
As Ben lay staring up at the stars, he trembled slightly, the feelings he felt four years ago aroused once more in his body. Had anything happened to Joe, Dan Tolliver would have felt a wrath far greater than anything Joe thought Ben capable of, and would have paid for his involvement, however small, with his life!
‘Oh yes, Joe’, thought Ben. ‘As God is my witness; vengeance would have been truly mine. I would have matched your anger, and more so. I definitely understand that feeling only too well!’
With a thankful sigh he closed his eyes, and father and son fell soundly asleep under the dark starry sky.