Summary: The Cartwrights face an unfathomable situation, when Joe pulls a gun on his father. A companion piece for the story, “The Truckee Strip”
Rated: K+ WC 5300
Along the Truckee
A companion piece to the episode, “The Truckee Strip”
He’d pulled a gun on his father.
Joe could feel the handle, cool in his hand, and his finger rested lightly on the trigger. Even so, the situation felt completely unreal. It was hard to believe it was actually happening. So, this was rebellion – a renegade dance partner. He’d always considered himself the defiant one in the family, but in truth, Little Joe Cartwright had been a dutiful son.
This was different. Joe had drawn a line with the barrel of the gun, and he’d stepped over the other side. He was scared, but he wasn’t about to let it show. After all, he’d just finished tying a dead child onto his saddle. The son of the Concho’s head cook, the boy’s body was still warm, and Joe had tried to be gentle. Death was still staking its claim. Joe had wondered if he’d only come a little sooner, maybe it would have made some kind of a difference. Joe wanted to cry, but he didn’t. It had to stop somewhere – all this violence, this killing. Something had to change. Joe was going to return the boy to his pa. It was the right thing to do, and he was going to do it. Nobody was going to stop him. Not this time.
He wasn’t going to back down, but he couldn’t stop looking at his brothers. Joe couldn’t tell if they were angry, shocked, or just disappointed. He’d have preferred their anger. The look on Hoss’s face was almost more than he could stand, and he wanted to tell his big brother that he was sorry. Hoss had come into his room just the other night, asking if he could help, but Joe couldn’t tell him what was wrong. There was too much at stake. His and Amy’s future depended on keeping things quiet, between the two of them. He couldn’t let his brothers know. And of course he could never tell Pa. Joe was sure of it. It was a tenet from his childhood – stay away from the Bishops.
Adam had his fists clenched like he was spoiling for a fight. Even from a distance, Joe could almost see the whites of his brother’s knuckles. If only a punch in the jaw would solve this, he’d be glad to put up a brave fight. Joe desperately wanted his life to be that simple again.
They hadn’t seen this coming. None of them had, not even Joe. He knew his pa was worried. His brothers were worried, mad as hell, and probably everything else in between. Just yesterday, Hoss had complained that Little Joe was as touchy as a teased rattler. Now Hoss was looking at him like he was something else entirely. A mad dog, a touch rabid? Joe reckoned that Hoss would rather share a pair of socks with a baby rattler than this. Joe felt about the same.
He’d pulled a gun on his pa, an event so unlikely it was as if the sun decided to set in the east for a change. Truth be told, Joe had no idea he was going for his gun until it was already out of the holster. Never pull a gun unless you’re planning to use it. That’s what his pa always said, and Joe had always abided by that rule. Every schoolchild in Nevada knew that much. What had changed? What had gone wrong? He couldn’t say. Wasn’t like he’d planned it. The unlikely series of events had unfolded so quickly. As soon as he’d ridden onto the logging camp, Bishop’s man had carried the dead boy out of the tent and Joe had met him. Together they laid the boy’s body down gently on the ground. And Joe heard himself accusing his father as being to blame for the little boy’s death…
Joe sounded bitter; he couldn’t even be sure it was his own voice doing the talking. But the accusations kept coming. He’d asked his father what he was going to do about this, and Ben had replied that he would take Trump into town for the sheriff to handle. Joe looked down at the boy, at all the wrong that had been done, and he felt all the walls he’d been building up, give way.
“You don’t even understand what I mean, do you? None of you. All you care about is there’s been a killing, and somebody has to pay for that killing.” Joe picked up the boy’s body and told them, “I’m taking him back to his pa.”
Ben sounded calm, but Joe knew better. “I can’t let you, Little Joe. I won’t let you do it.”
“I’m taking this boy back home.”
“You mind what I say, Joe.”
“I’m going, Pa.”
“I just can’t let you.”
As his pa stepped towards him, for the first time in his seventeen years of life, Joe didn’t feel like he knew his own father. It was like they were strangers. He and Amy would have to run away together. Joe didn’t think he could live without her, but Amy was right – it would never work out if they stayed. Not if the Bishops and the Cartwrights were bound and determined to hate each other forever and ever. Little Joe had had enough. He wasn’t going to let his pa stop him from doing what he had to. One way or another, he was going to take that boy back home.
The gun was out of its holster so fast that Joe couldn’t even call it an instinct. Somehow, in that same moment, he’d cocked the hammer.
“Oh, now, you just try to stop me…”
He’d pulled a gun on his pa. Who’d have thought it? He’d started out the week as a seventeen-year-old kid looking for a calf in a little ol’ creek that everyone seemed to think was the most important piece of Nevada. He’d been following orders, like he always did. Yes sir, Pa, I’ll take care of it. Never occurred to him to do otherwise. In a way that nobody could have expected, Little Joe Cartwright was coming into his own. Rather than looking angry, his pa was looking at him so compassionately that Joe’s heart broke all over again. He wished his pa were angry. Anger he could understand. All around him, the granite boulders were glinting in the sun like fool’s gold, but he knew better than to be dazzled. He had to stay focused. He needed to keep thinking of Amy and their future together. Think instead of the boy who had been doing little more than his job. Following orders. Just like Joe had always done, his entire life, until now….
So Joe swallowed and tightened his grip on his gun. The dead child would never come into his own. The boy would never make his share of fool mistakes. His short life was over and gone, on this side of eternity at least. It was a murder that made no sense – Trump was brutally efficient. Joe would never even be able to explain it to anyone, and it was no wonder that his pa had no explanation either. Joe had no doubt that his family would have done anything to have stopped Trump from killing the boy. Joe wondered if he would ever know the boy’s name…
That it had come to this – all for a pretty little strip of blood-soaked land that bordered the Truckee. There was no way to make this right, but that didn’t matter. His pa had taught him to do the right thing, even if nobody else cared about truth. A boy had been murdered; the boy’s pa deserved the right to lay him to rest. A father deserved to hear how his son died. Handing the matter over the sheriff was cowardice. Joe couldn’t bring the boy back to life, but he could take him home.
He thought about Amy – her way of looking at him like she’d never seen anything better. Lord help him, Joe loved her. He couldn’t stop thinking of her, her smile, her perfect love for him. Joe couldn’t imagine building a life on anything that would keep her from looking at him that way again. If there was any hope for any of them, it couldn’t start like this.
And Joe was going to bring this boy’s body home, even though he was tempted to give in to his father’s wishes. All it would take was one step forward, and those strong hands would rest on his shoulders, and his life would return to ordinariness again. But he couldn’t do it. Not for the dead boy’s sake, not for Amy’s, and not for his own. So Joe kept his gun hand steady and didn’t blink at the world of hurt he saw in his pa’s eyes.
It came as a surprise that Ben Cartwright was relieved when his youngest boy pulled a gun and aimed it right at his heart. He would never have believed it himself. Yet, he never would have imagined himself in that position in the first place. Not in a thousand bounteous lifetimes. And yet he was relieved. When Joe pulled the gun, it hardly even felt like a surprise. After days of grappling with an opponent he couldn’t see, this fight was finally out in the open. Over the past week, Ben had become convinced of this: he was losing his son, it seemed to be his fault, and he had no idea why.
They’d always been close – a blessing Ben could hang his hat on. Something about the last child, that’s what folks said, and there was truth to that. He had been stricter with Adam and Hoss while they were growing up. Easing up with Joe had always been a little too easy. By the time Joe was born, Ben had come to understand that childhood was over too quickly, and moments had a way of slipping by. Too many times, he’d been tempted to lean back in the saddle and enjoy the ride, and he had to admit he’d made his share of mistakes with Joseph. Perhaps, he should have been more diligent with his discipline…rebuked more, laughed less…. given him less loose rein.
Yet, they’d understood each other. Joe was the emotional one in the family, but that hardly ever caused problems that Ben couldn’t handle. Joe’s temper kindled easily but usually died out before much damage was done. He didn’t hold grudges; Little Joe apologized more generously than anyone Ben had ever known. Much sin begets much forgiveness. That’s how Adam sometimes put it, albeit sarcastically. But Joe’s temper was like the seasons. Joe’s family had always known what was coming and prepared themselves accordingly. This was different. This was no passing storm. Whatever was bothering Joe was eating away at him, and Ben had no idea what it was. Every fatherly instinct told Ben to step up and take the gun. Take control. However, being a father required exerting great control over the first half of a child’s life, and then little by little, giving it all back. Ben liked to humor himself that he still had a little bit of control over his youngest son. Joseph was, after all, only seventeen, but he was almost desperate to know what was wrong. He’d almost been tempted to bribe Adam to pick a fight with Joe, just to get it all out in the open.
Be careful what you wish for.
Ben should have reminded himself of that more often. Things, as they stood, were certainly out in the open. As was he… out in the open sight of his youngest son’s gun. By the grace of God went all of them…
“Put your gun down, Joe.”
Was that calm, voice really his? Ben could hardly recognize it over the beating of his heart. He sounded very much like a father in control, dealing with a casually disobedient son. How he longed for the days when a tanning could restore the balance of power so readily. Ben wasn’t sure what he was doing, but at least he sounded like he did. He took a long look at his son. To anyone who didn’t know him, Joe looked almost bored, holding his gun so offhandedly. Ben had never seen him like this before. Joe had dabbled in defiance, but he’d never once lifted his hand to his father. Not as a rabble-rouser of a child, nor as a twelve year old with a chip on his shoulder the size of Eagle Nest, nor as a young man who often had more nerve than discretion. Joe had always been respectful and decent, no matter how much trouble he was in.
Joe replied, “Pa, I’m sorry but I gotta take this boy back.”
The apology was a note of grace, jarring in the fact that Joe hadn’t lowered his gun. Ben swallowed and squared his shoulders.
Gently he said, “Just tell me why, that’s all I ask.”
For a moment, he saw his son’s finger twitch on the trigger. And Ben told himself to breathe…
How did it come to this? Ben could barely sort out the events that had led to this tragedy… Bishop’s unfathomable decision to kindle the old feud, the fight at the lumber camp, the death screams from the tent… Trump standing over the body of the boy, his eyes crazed and meaningless. Their hired hand had fought them off, willing to kill all of them to avenge his savage need for revenge. Trump was long past distinguishing between Bishops and Cartwrights; his mind had settled into some kind of hell. Hoss had barely gotten control of Trump. That was when Joe rode up.
Joe had been off looking for strays; that’s what he’d told Adam. So many strays in recent days… But then Joe was there at the worst of it. The fighting was already over, the poor child stiffening with death. The Concho’s hired man carried out the body of the boy and handed him over. Joe hunched over the boy’s body, before looking up to glare at his father. On the verge of tears really. Sometimes the storm came before the calm.
Ben felt like he needed to defend himself suddenly, although he couldn’t say why. “Trump killed him before we could stop him.”
Adam interjected, “Nobody wanted this to happen.”
Sadly, Hoss said, “I don’t reckon that’s gonna bring the little boy’s life back, though.”
“No, I don’t guess it will,” Joe said.
Bishop’s hired man said, “The boy’s father does the laundry and cooking on the Concho.”
From there, the nightmare continued. With stunning irrationality, Joe accused his pa of finally getting what he wanted. If his son had wanted to get their attention, he couldn’t have chosen a better way than accusing his pa of being behind the killing. It was a shock, as was the moment when Joe picked up the boy, cradling him almost tenderly, before carefully tying his body to the pinto’s saddle. He was going to take that boy back home. Home to his pa. In his heart, Ben knew it was the decent thing to do, but it couldn’t be more dangerous. He just couldn’t let Joe do it.
And yet, Joe seemed dead set on risking his own life by placing himself in the middle of this blood-slaked feud. Honestly, Ben had never even noticed Joe taking an interest in the dispute over the Truckee strip. Why would he? Up until now, it had been the same old thing: Stay away from the Bishops, you hear? That’s all they ever told Little Joe, and he’d never really asked for more than that. Adam had been involved in the legalities of the dispute; Hoss remembered the violent history and conducted himself accordingly. Joe had been a child when the feud started, and until now, he simply did what he was told.
It was a matter of right and wrong. Every law in the land agreed with Ben’s legal claim to the Truckee Strip. Start giving away land, and soon you’d be left with only the memory that you’d once been a wealthy man. And yet, his prosperity was worth nothing to him if he lost his sons. It appeared that they were losing this one, in every way that mattered.
Ben knew that Joseph would never intentionally harm him. However, the risk of inadvertently pulling the trigger was too great. Ben wasn’t worried for himself. He worried for Joe and what such an accidental tragedy would do to him. What chance would Joe have of recovering? Even worse, what if the law held him responsible for it? And yet nothing worried Ben more than the fact that Joseph would never be able to forgive himself… Ben had essentially forgiven him, the moment the gun came out of its holster.
Ben took the smallest step towards Joseph, who was holding the gun steady, even though his hand was shaking. But then Joe seemed to break, just a little. He looked down at his gun, almost in revulsion.
Joe mumbled, “I guess this killing rubs off on all of us. Here I am, holding a gun on my own father.” And he put the gun back in his holster.
“It’s all right, Joe.”
And in an odd way, it was all right.
“I just can’t tell you Pa, not now.”
Ben took a deep breath and a long last look at this much-loved son. Being a father meant letting go. He could not hold on without losing him forever. The gun was the least of his worries.
Ben said, “All right. You go ahead, do – do what you think you have to.”
And he could feel the rebellion start up, right behind him, this time in his older sons.
“Pa!” Hoss gasped, as Ben Cartwright gave Joe permission to ride into his death.
“Let him go,” Ben said calmly. And Joe gave him one last sad look and mounted behind the boy. Rode away, and then he was gone from them.
Adam had not seen this coming. Honestly, for the past week, he’d been a lot more worried about the precarious financial situation of their recent mining venture than he had about the old feud with his father and Luther Bishop. Adam had never been able to understand the fighting over the land. After all, it was a small and fairly insignificant piece of property, compared with rest of their holdings. If Luther Bishop’s pride weren’t at stake, Adam would have tried to persuade his father to sell the strip at a loss and be done with it. Nothing was worth so much wasted time and trouble, and certainly nothing was worth this bloodshed. This trouble with Trump… Adam had wanted to get rid of the man years ago. Thought he was unstable. But Ben felt beholden for the injuries the man had suffered, fighting for the Cartwrights. The death of the boy was an absolute shock. Adam had never believed the man was capable of such savagery. If only they’d gotten there a few minutes earlier, maybe they’d have been able to keep Trump from murdering that boy…. Joe was right about one thing. Nothing was worth this kind of death. But Adam would be hanged if he let Joe become another victim of this feud.
Adam could not remember being so confused, first by Joe’s actions and then by his father’s. What could Ben be thinking, giving Joe permission to ride onto the Concho with that boy’s body tied to his saddle? But Adam forced himself to remain calm. A measure of calm could hold fast in a tempest. It was his strength, so Adam tried to think clearly about what was at stake. How had it come to this?
Start with pride, Adam thought to himself. The stubborn pride of two stubborn men. That stubbornness had sustained the two men when they were building up their respective kingdoms – the Ponderosa and the Concho. Like the Biblical Jacob, Ben and Luther Bishop had grappled with their dreams until they were handed over a blessing. Now, that obstinacy was no blessing. Bishop would never budge. Adam could only imagine his response to a generous offer to sell the land at a low price. How can you buy something that’s yours already? There was too much blood, real and figurative, between them for any peace that could be purchased. Knowing his father, Adam figured that Ben wouldn’t be easily persuaded either. He was convinced he was right, and the courts had agreed. There was principle at stake.
Principle. It came down to principle, didn’t it? In a strange way, Joe was abiding by his principles, the same ones they’d taken such pains to teach him. When a man makes a mistake, he takes the responsibility for it. The Cartwrights didn’t kill the boy, but it happened on their land with their own hired man as the murderer. Wasn’t it what they’d been taught all their lives? Do the right thing? Yet, if Joe rode onto the Concho, Bishop and his men would cut him down. The boy’s death was a tragedy, but Joe could not be the one to pay the price. Their pa couldn’t be serious in expecting Bishop to do the right thing. Why hadn’t he seen this coming?
Although it pained him to admit it, Adam had no idea how an ordinary day had turned out so badly. He’d been trying to make sense of it. Joe hadn’t been himself – it didn’t take a decent education to come to that conclusion. Hoss had been fretting over Little Joe for days – kept complaining that he wasn’t eating, which for Hoss was a sign of absolute despair. Adam also knew that Pa was worried, but he really hadn’t had much time to give it much thought. Things had been unusually busy in the business of running the Ponderosa lately. The week for Adam had not revolved around the old feud with Bishop or around Joe’s moodiness, but rather around their dwindling stake in the Silver Current, the Ponderosa’s least profitable acquisition, as well as last week’s disaster at the Westlake lumber mill, which could potentially disrupt their contract with the railroad. Adam didn’t fault himself for being busy. Being busy was his job, as was keeping the myriad of operations and contracts running smoothly. Keeping the Ponderosa in Cartwright hands. Adam was doing his job, every bit as much as his father. They were both guarding their territory. Territory. Could this really be all about territory?
Think, he had to think –
Joe was desperate over the feud – that much was apparent. Why he chose this time to be so upset over it was another matter and a mystery. Ben Cartwright and Luther Bishop had been fighting over the same piece of land for so many years that one more dispute hardly seemed worth bothering over. But this time was different. This time, for God only knew what reason, Luther Bishop was going to win. If Joe wandered rode alone onto the Concho with that dead boy’s body, Bishop would win every victory he’d ever dreamed of, and much, much more. Adam wondered if anyone on the Concho would have the decency to bring Little Joe Cartwright’s dead body back to them… He shuddered.
Keep thinking! Joe had been brooding for days: arguing with all of them, impossible to live with, staying in his room, not eating. Hoss told them that Joe hadn’t been worth a barrel of shucks on the range. Adam had laughed, because he’d had absolutely no idea what Hoss meant, but it sounded right, anyway. Typical. What was not typical was that Joe had been working it out on his own. Sometimes it seemed like Joe never had a thought left unsaid. This time, Joe had actually pulled a gun on their pa, and none of them had any idea why. There had to be a reason – there was always was a reason. The death of this boy was a tragedy for sure. Trump had strangled the child as some kind of hellish favor. Only a man, with a sickened mind, could believe such a thing would be what Ben Cartwright would have wanted. Joe knew that. Had to know that. This was a matter for the sheriff, not them. Trump would be hung, as soon as the district judge came to town and could preside over a trial. If Joe tried to take this boy back to his father, not a soul on the Concho would give Little Joe Cartwright a fair trial.
Imagine the pinto making its way onto the stony soil of Bishop land. Adam could picture Bishop and his men gathering on the porch, rifles already raised. Joe would make an easy target, riding carefully like that. Luther Bishop would only have to get Joe in his sights, pull the trigger, and that would be that. An eye for an eye. It was not only Biblical, it was practically Shakespearean.
Adam glared at his father, but overprotective Ben Cartwright was glowering back. He’d made up his mind. He was letting go. It’s one hell of a time to let Joe grow up, Adam thought to himself. But that’s not what he said out loud.
“They’ll shoot him before he can explain,” Adam said.
There was no mistaking the edge to Adam’s cool voice. Hoss stole a sidelong look at his older brother. Sure enough, Adam looked like he was going to ride out after the pinto, no matter what their father said. If Adam did, Hoss would follow. It would be a simple matter of doing what came naturally.
But Ben’s voice was almost harsh, booking no argument from his sons. “I said let him go. Something’s troubling him. We just can’t interfere, he’ll never forgive us if we do.”
Hoss’s knuckles were bleeding and already bruised. He could feel his body ache from the fight to overtake Trump. It had been a long time since Hoss had a fight like that. Usually, he couldn’t afford to get mad because his size wouldn’t let him take anyone on. Trump, on the other hand, had fought like the devil was on his side, and probably he was. When Hoss thought of that poor little boy’s body, his insides tumbled again. And then there was Joe…
“We could trail him,” Hoss suggested. He could still see the dust kicked up by the pinto. The sun was already behind the ridge of pine mountains. His little brother would soon be out of arm’s reach, but it wasn’t too late to follow him to the Concho and back him up, if he needed it.
Ben said firmly, “No that won’t do any good. Hoss, we’ve got to stop treating him like a boy. He’s asking for our trust. Something’s eating away at him deep down inside. Something he’ll have to figure out in his own good time.”
Pa was as straight as an arrow. He’d made up his mind, and there was no changing it. Ben kept staring into the distance, and Hoss tried squinting into the setting sun, but all he could see was shadows. Joe was gone. He was gone for a reason that made sense to no one, and they were letting him go, which didn’t make much sense either. Trying to figure out what was wrong with his little brother was like trying to track a whisper in the wind.
Without another word, Ben hoisted himself into his own saddle, reining towards home. There was a world of worry waiting for him there, and Hoss could wager the same was waiting for the rest of them. They were letting Joe go. It seemed as unlikely as Joe pulling his gun on their pa, but that’s what had happened.
But then Hoss looked hard at his big brother. Were they going to let this happen? Adam looked right back at him. Then he shrugged. It was the kind of gesture that might have passed unnoticed by anyone else, but Hoss knew what it meant. They were brothers.
“Midnight,” Adam said quietly, tipping his hat over his eyes. Then he also mounted and set off in the long shadow of their pa.
Hoss stayed put for another minute, and looked out, down the road towards the Concho.
Little brother, you’ve got until midnight, Hoss thought to himself. Then we’re comin’ after you.
If Joe wasn’t back by midnight, they’d likely be coming after vengeance, not their little brother. But Hoss had always set his sights in his pa knowing what he was doing. It was an act of faith to believe in him now. Hoss felt a tired weariness in his bones that had nothing to do with the lateness of the day. He heaved a final prayer in Heaven’s direction, before turning his horse towards home.
He was almost there. He’d been riding on Concho land for over an hour and could almost see Bishop’s homestead over the next rise. Joe had been taking it slow, out of respect for the dead. His grim undertaking was almost over. No matter what happened next, he’d done the right thing. Joe could find comfort in that. The afternoon’s events were already slipping into memory. He’d pulled a gun on his pa, but the rebellion in him was fading fast. So Joe put it out of mind, and oddly enough, he suspected his pa had done the same. Somehow, Joe knew, even before he rode away, that he’d already been forgiven.
Joe had been remembering that first time by the Truckee. She’d been wading, half-dressed with bare feet, and he should have been embarrassed, but he wasn’t. Instead, he’d helped her button her dress, and he leaned in closer than he should have. Her hair smelled like a cedar-lined hope chest. They were young, and they had their lives before them. The boy who lay across his saddle was even younger, but his life was already over. It was so tragic, Little Joe wanted to cry, but he didn’t. The land they’d been fighting over was dust, and that’s where they were all headed. But Joe felt that he couldn’t waste another minute over that strip along the Truckee. Joe would have cursed it into oblivion, except that he met Amy there. They’d loved there. She’d read sonnets to him along its bank. There was no reason to inherit hate, when they could reclaim that land for something better. They could bury the boy’s body there beside the shallow waters, and it would be a peaceful place to rest. He and Amy would see to it.
Amy had said it could never be – a Cartwright and a Bishop. Joe hadn’t believed her. Couldn’t believe her. Didn’t set much stock in predestination. He was an optimist and came by it honestly. As for Little Joe Cartwright, he was his father’s son.
Other Stories by this Author
- Buried (by DBird)
- Given the Circumstances (by DBird)
- Dying Well (by DBird)
- Moment (by DBird)
- Before Christmas (by DBird)