Summary: An unfortunate accident, leaves Joe Cartwright wishing he’d never been born.
Rated: PG (8,300 word)
Beating Death’s Game
Paul Martin motioned for his friend to move out into the hallway with him where he could speak to the worried father quietly without disturbing his patient.
“Well?” Ben said almost demanding to know his son’s condition before the physician had finished closing the bedroom door.
“I’m not going to lie to you Ben, Joe’s condition is worsening…” began Paul as he turned and faced the senior Cartwright.
“But just the other day you said…”
“I know what I said, that Joe was likely to pull through…but that was then and this is now and things have changed…” Paul explained. “He doesn’t want to get better…he isn’t even trying…it’s like he’s…stopped fighting, Ben. He’s simply given up…”
“That’s ridiculous!” stormed Ben, turning his back to the doctor.
He had to hide the fear lest he betray himself. His friend’s assumption was correct, Ben had known it would be…he had seen his son’s deterioration over the last couple of days, but he had been hoping that the skilled physician could do something…anything, to prevent his son’s death. The only thought in Ben’s mind at that moment was the fact that Joe wasn’t the only one giving up…it seemed as if even his best friend, Doctor Paul Martin, had given up as well.
“Look, Ben…” Paul said, gently placing his hand on his long time friend’s shoulder. “I’ve done all I can to help the boy…it isn’t up to me anymore…it’s up to Joseph…and God. Joe has to be made to understand that what happened was not his fault…that it was an accident…”
Ben spun around, his eyes dark with impassioned anger. “He gunned him down…shot him purposely, one bullet at a time, slowly so that he could watch my son suffer. And with each gunshot, that bastard accused him, he blamed him, he broke Joseph down not only physically but that scoundrel played on that boy’s already fragile emotions until he had no desire to live…”
“Ben, I know that…but…”
“He had already just about given up ever being able to forgive himself…I almost had Little Joe convinced and then that man came along and he pushed that boy over the edge, Paul…he might have just as well murdered my son! And now Joseph’s beyond my reach…and yours and most likely even God’s!”
Ben walked back into the room and closed the door, leaving the physician standing alone in the hallway. Paul let the air expel from his lungs, paused and then breathed in deeply as he made his way down the stairs.
Adam and Hoss stood to their feet. They had been waiting downstairs for the doctor’s verdict, though each young man had thoughts of their own on the matter.
Paul saw the expectant looks in the eyes of both men. He knew they feared the worst for their brother and he hated more than anything to be the one to confirm those fears. Lowering his head, unable to look either directly in the eyes, Paul shook his head as he continued towards the door. Hoss glanced quickly at his older brother.
“Doc, wait a minute,” Adam said following Paul across the room.
“I’m sorry, Adam, Hoss…but it’s as I’ve explained to your father…Little Joe has given up…there’s nothing more medically that I can do for him. If he’s going to live, then he has to want to live…”
Hoss scrunched up his face. “What do ya mean by that?”
Paul slipped on his coat and reached for his hat. “Just that I can’t make Little Joe want to live…Hoss, he’s stopped trying, stopped fighting…and now, he’s given up.”
“Ya mean, he wants to die?” stammered Hoss.
Paul’s hand was on the latch. As he pulled the heavy oak door opened, he paused and glanced back at Hoss and nodded his head.
“I’m afraid so, Hoss…I’m afraid so…”
“That don’t make no sense a’tall,” muttered Hoss, staring at the closed door.
“Why not?” Adam asked.
Hoss turned around as Adam moved to the foot of the staircase, resting his hand on the end post.
“It just don’t…that’s why,” Hoss answered. “’Sides Adam, Joe ain’t no quitter.”
“No…not in most cases,” Adam said.
He turned to look eye to eye to his brother.
“But in this case, he blames himself for that young woman dying…he’s consumed with guilt…he’s filled with self-abomination…”
“Adam…it t’weren’t Little Joe’s fault…it was an accident…Joe said as much when he got back into town and explained to Roy and then to us about what happened…”
“I know that,” Adam said. He had started up the steps but stopped on the landing to look back down at Hoss. “And you know that…trouble is, Little Joe knows it, but he doesn’t want to believe it…he can’t see beyond the fact that he holds himself accountable…”
“Adam…” Hoss interrupted, “Joe was only trying to protect himself…and that lady…he didn’t know she was…ere…the woman what got kilt…Joe didn’t mean to do that! She was shoved in front of him…”
Adam continued upward; Hoss followed somberly behind saying nothing more on the matter, for what else could he say? Together they entered the room where Joe lay upon his bed, eyes closed to the world around him and the man who sat solemnly at his side, holding tightly to his cold and clammy hand.
As Adam and Hoss entered the room, Ben barely glanced up. His sons moved to the bed; Hoss pulled up another chair and sat opposite his father.
“Any change?” he whispered, glancing from Joe’s pale, colorless face to his father’s worried, tormented expression.
Glancing again at Hoss, Ben shook his head no.
“I’ve tried talking to him, but…when he’s awake, he just won’t listen to me. He still feels responsible,” Ben muttered.
Adam heard his father make a sobbing sound deep in his throat.
“He said he just wants to die…that he doesn’t deserve to live…”
Ben released his son’s hand and stood, stretched and walked slowly to the window where he pulled back the thick brocade drapes. For several long moments he gazed out the window, watching his son’s pinto in the corral below. His troubled thoughts caused him to wonder if his son would ever again ride the horse that had been a special gift from himself to his youngest son on his sixteenth birthday. The thought that he might never again see the boy swing into the saddle and ride recklessly across the fields caused Ben’s heart to skip a beat. With head lowered and a well of tears blinding his vision, Ben whispered a muted prayer.
“Please, God,” he murmured softly, “I need your help…I need a miracle…”
The hours seemed to drag by, yet Ben refused to leave his son’s side. Several times during the course of the night, Joe had awaken, looked into his father’s ebony, sad eyes but then had closed his own and slipped once more into the dark world of forgetfulness.
Ben sat back in the chair that had been pulled to the bed’s edge and leaned back his head. He knew he should try to rest, but the troubling thoughts that invaded his mind forbid him to do so. Over and over again the sad, heartbreaking incident was played and replayed until Ben felt more as if he had actually been there rather than to have heard the story told by his son when he had brought in the stage carrying the woman and the driver’s bodies.
Eventually, Ben’s eyelids began to grow heavy until at last he was no longer able to keep them open. Almost instantly, the story began to unfold before his mind’s eye……
Ben turned from the ticket window and handed the ticket to Joe, who was standing with his brothers on the boardwalk, waiting for the stage driver to announce that it was time to go.
“Here you go son,” Ben grinned. “You behave yourself,” he teased lightly.
“Yeah…and see if’n ya can stay outta trouble this time,” Hoss said good-naturedly.
A young woman squeezed between the four men, excusing herself as she eased up to the stage. Adam nudged Hoss gently with his elbow and nodded his head at Joe.
“Looks like you’re going to have company,” he said in a whispered voice.
Joe grinned from ear to ear at his family, finally pulling his eyes away from the lovely young woman.
“Hmm…I might not be sorry I drew the shortest match after all,” he said smugly.
“LOAD UP!” the driver called.
“Joseph, you take care now, you hear?” Ben said as he shook his son’s hand.
“Don’t worry, Pa…I’m a big boy now…” Little Joe said with a snicker.
“See ya, Joe,” Hoss said, bidding his brother good-bye.
“Stay out of trouble,” Adam warned.
Joe turned to offer his hand to the lady, who smiled warmly at him as he helped her into the coach. Minutes later, the coach rolled out of town leaving Joe’s family waving goodbye.
The morning past quickly, as Joe and the young woman wiled away the hours as if they had been friends for a very long time. Joe learned the lady’s name was Marge Burton and that she was on her way to Sacramento to meet her husband who had gone before her to start a new job at the newspaper and to find them a place to live.
Marge had even confided with Joe that her husband of four years had recently been released from prison and that they were trying to start over again and put the pieces of their lives back together. Joe had questioned Marge as to why her husband had gone to prison, but the question had left Marge quiet as she stared out the window at the passing scenery.
After a long silence, Marge turned to Joe and quietly explained.
“You see, Mr. Cartwright, Joe…about two years ago, my husband, Allen worked at a bank in St. Louis, as a teller. He had access to great amounts of money, so when I had fallen sick and needed an operation, having no funds of our own, Allen had stolen the money from the bank. Naturally, I knew nothing of this until later…my husband was arrested, tried and convicted and sent to prison…”
“Apparently, he didn’t spent too much time there,” Joe commented.
“No…Mr. Morrison, the banker, pleaded Allen’s case, saying he had been desperate, that the operation was needed or I would have died…and he explained to the judge that basically my husband was an honest man…”
“So the judge was lenient with him?”
“Oh yes…thank God…we have been through so much together…we lost a child about a year after we were married…and then our crops were destroyed in a storm and we were forced to sell the farm…that’s when we moved into town and Allen went to work for the bank. It was only about six months after he started working there that I became sick…and needed an operation. Poor Allen…he was at his wit’s end…we were living in one room at the boarding house with very little money coming in. Prison was very hard on Allen, Joe…it made him a hard man…he isn’t the same sweet, gentle man he once was. Now he’s bitter and seems driven by some inner force…his temper is quick and sometimes…I think if I wasn’t around, he’d go mad…I worry about what might happen to him if I were to die before he does…” Marge sighed deeply and then smiled warmly at Joe.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to rattle on and on about my problems…”
“You don’t need to apologize…everyone needs someone to talk to now and then…” grinned Joe.
Only briefly did Joe wonder about the man that Marge was married to. He could not picture the lovely young woman married to a hardened man, thinking only that the kindness and love in which this woman spoke of her husband, should have been enough to erase any bitterness that Allen Burton might have felt. Joe understood how certain instances in life could change a man, but he was still young enough to believe that the love of a good woman could counteract any such misfortunes. Marge’s husband was a lucky man, Joe determined.
The stage stopped for lunch shortly after the noon hour, giving the two passengers time to eat a quick bite at the way station and time enough to stretch their legs. Soon after, they were on their way again and it was no more than an hour before the pleasant afternoon was interrupted.
The stage suddenly began picking up speed, tossing it’s passengers brutally around in their seats.
“Something’s wrong,” Joe said in a worried voice.
He stuck his head out the window, finding the cause.
“Outlaws,” he muttered, causing the woman to scream.
Joe pulled his head back through the window and gently squeezed the lady’s arm.
“Take it easy…we’ll be alright. You hang on now and stay low, I’m going overhead to help the driver…”
And with that, Joe opened the door and climbed on top, quickly pulling his gun from his holster and began firing at the three masked bandits. It was a futile effort for both the driver and his companion, for minutes later the driver fell forward, shot in the back.
Joe quickly holstered his gun in efforts to grab the reins of the run away team, thus giving the bandits the opportunity to overpower the runaway team and bring the coach to a grinding halt.
Instantly, Joe’s hand went for his pistol.
“Don’t try it, sonny, lessen ya aimin’ on dyin’!” shouted one of the masked men.
Joe, realizing the severity of the situation and thinking of the woman’s safety, quickly put both hands in the air.
“That’s better…now, toss down those guns…”
Joe quickly complied.
“Now the strong box.”
Only briefly did Joe hesitate. Eyeing the man who held a gun pointed directly at him and watching another man who suddenly pulled the young woman from the coach, Joe responded and tossed down the moneybox.
“Climb down from there,” the bandit ordered.
Again, Joe did as instructed, moving to the woman’s side. Marge cringed slightly as the robber who had pulled her from the coach, moved to face her, grabbing her arm. The other two men were busy with the strongbox, stuffing the contents into their pockets and paying little attention to their partner.
“My, my will ya…lookit what we got here,” he snarled, showing his yellowed crooked teeth.
He surprised the woman by grabbing a broach that she wore and ripped it from her lapel. Marge cried out, making the man laugh in her face. When the bandit leaned down and tried to snatch a kiss, Joe felt himself bristle and shoved the man away, causing the would-be robber to drop his pistol.
“Why don’t you leave her alone!” shouted Joe as the man tumbled sideways.
Joe, seeing his own gun lying on the ground, made a sudden dive for the weapon. He grabbed it, rolled over and pointed it at the man who had suddenly regained his footing. As Joe pulled back on the trigger and fired, the man unexpectedly grabbed the woman and shoved her towards Joe.
The shot rang loud in Joe’s ears but not nearly as loud as his pounding heart did when he saw Marge suddenly slump forward and fall to the ground. Stunned, Joe was momentarily distracted, giving the man time to mount his horse, turn to the others and shout a warning.
“Let’s get the hell outta here…the kid done shot that woman!” he roared as he and his two companions fled the scene.
“Oh God!” sputtered Joe as he crawled forward and gathered the dying Marge into his arms.
She was barely breathing as Joe cradled her head in his lap.
“I’m so sorry…” he cried, tears forming in his hazel eyes.
Marge was barely able to clutch Joe’s arm with her long slender fingers. Her glazed eyes focused on his face; her voice was weak as she struggled to get out her words.
“It wasn’t…your…fault…Joe,” Marge breathed. “Tell Allen…I……love….him….”
Marge’s head rolled to the side as the last breath within her lungs expelled forth. A loud cry gargled deep within Joe’s throat and suddenly burst forth in a loud, piercing screech of agony at what he had committed.
Joe moaned softly, causing Ben to forget his thoughts as he leaned down and brushed back a damp, wayward curl from his son’s forehead.
“I’m here, son,” Ben whispered softly.
Joe opened his eyes and gazed up at his father. His expression was haunting and sad. In the troubled hazel eyes, Ben saw the self-hate and the sorrow that had long since become the norm.
“Joseph, please son, you have to fight…”
Almost painfully, Joe moved his head slowly back and forth, hushing his father’s words.
“No…” Joe mumbled, “I…don’t deserve…to live.”
His eyes remained fixed on his father’s face, but tears blinded him to the older man’s features. When he blinked, the tiny beads rolled from the corners of his eyes, downward.
“Oh son…” Ben pleaded, “That was an accident…you didn’t mean to hurt her…”
“Killed her…not…hurt her…”
“Still Joseph, it wasn’t your fault…she was shoved and just happened to stumble into the path of your bullet…listen to me…you can’t blame yourself…”
“Her husband…was right…I shouldn’t have made a…play for my gun…”
“Her husband was a lunatic, son…he was…”
“No…he…loved her…I took her…away from him…I don’t deserve to live…” muttered Joe as he closed his eyes and turned his head away, thus ending the conversation.
Ben disgusted and fearing the self-destruction his son had set for himself, straightened and turned from the bed.
“He’s stuck in his grief and guilt, Pa,” Adam said.
Adam had entered the room just as his brother had made the statement. Concerned for his father, he moved to stand behind him, placing a reassuring hand on the senior Cartwright’s back. Ben’s head was bent low but he slowly turned to face his son.
“I know that…but there has to be a way to make him understand that what happened was an accident…if only that man hadn’t done to Little Joe, what he did…”
“We can’t undo what’s already happened, Pa…”
Ben took a deep breath that caused his chest to swell.
“No, but I’ll tell you what I’d like to do…”
Ben’s eyes grew wide, hate appeared from nowhere, causing Adam to flinch slightly at the intensity of what he read in the dark crystals of his father’s eyes.
“I swear to you, Adam, if Joseph dies, I’ll kill that man…if it’s the last thing I ever do…I’ll kill him…I’ll drag him out of Roy’s jail and I’ll make him suffer, I’ll make him pay for what he’s done!”
“Pa…you can’t be serious…”
“Can’t I? You just watch me…”
Ben moved around his son and returned to the bed where he stood, gazing down at the dying boy.
“I swear on…all three of my wives graves, if Joseph dies, I’ll kill that bastard slowly…I’ll make him suffer every bit as much as he’s made Little Joe suffer…and if I hang for it, then so be it!”
Saying nothing more, Ben stomped from the room. Adam, stunned by his father’s vicious words, stood a moment longer, glanced down at his brother and then followed Ben from the room.
Slowly, Joe’s eyes opened. More tears formed in the hollow depths and then dripped from the corners, onto the white pillowcase beneath his head. His fingers rolled into tight balls, forming fists, his tired, frail body became rigid as he clenched his jaw defiantly.
“No…Pa…please…no,” he murmured, too weak to cry aloud.
Downstairs, Ben had collapsed into the hard folds of the settee. His head was propped on the red pillow beneath his head. One arm was folded over his eyes and forehead. Adam paused to take in the sight saddened by his father’s apparent lack of control over the equally saddened state his younger brother had allowed himself to sink into. It worried Adam that maybe his father, like Little Joe, was giving up.
“Leave me alone, son,” snapped Ben.
Suddenly, Ben moved his forearm away from his face, uncovering his eyes so that he might see into Adam’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Adam…I don’t mean to snap at you…but I have some thinking to do, plans to make…”
Adam moved to the square table and sat down on the edge to that he might be able to speak with his father. A near panic like feeling gripped at his heart.
“Please tell me you aren’t plotting against Allen Burton for what he did to Little Joe?” Adam asked in a near pleading voice.
Ben’s eyes strayed from his son’s face. His voice was tight and low, threatening.
“And if I was?”
“Then I’d have to beg you not to,” Adam stated firmly and without hesitation.
Ben slowly drew his eyes to his son’s face.
“What good would it do to kill the man? For that matter, what good do you think you’d be doing Hoss and I, if you killed the man and hung for it…don’t you think we’d have lost enough, by Joe’s death if he doesn’t snap out of this? Are you so filled with hate that you could seek revenge in such a manner…as to purposely murder a man and then disgrace us by getting yourself hung…”
By this time, Adam, over-wrought with both anger and fear, had stood up, hands shoved deeply into his pockets in an effort to refrain from striking out physically at the man whom had always, until that second, been his hero, the man he most admired and looked up to…and trusted…loved deeply without ever questioning the man’s motives…until now.
Ben swallowed hard as he pushed himself into a sitting position.
“Joseph doesn’t deserve to die,” Ben said lowly as he rose to his feet.
“Neither did that woman, neither does Allen Burton…”
Ben’s eyes grew dark.
“At least not by your hands…he’s going to prison, Pa…for what he’s already done…he’s lost his wife…an accident, but nonetheless, lost her…Joe’s suffering insurmountable guilt and no doubt great shame…don’t you think we’ve all suffered…not just the Burton’s, but ourselves as well…it has to stop somewhere, whether Joe lives or dies…”
Ben stomped passed Adam to stand before the fireplace. His back was to his son. Fragments of the conversation with his youngest son, when he was found shot three times, lying in the stall in his own barn, the barrel of a pistol pressed into his temple, cocked and ready to fire…came pushing their way into his thoughts…….
“Joseph,” Ben said softly, his voice filled with compassion. “You have to stop blaming yourself…it was an accident.”
Ben had sat down next to Joe who had been sitting on the hearth seeming to be brewing and lost in deep thought. His father had no need to ask his son about what, Ben already knew the answer for Joe had been fretting about the accident for nearly two weeks now, ever since it had happened. Ben watched as Joe swiped his hand across the front of his face. It was evident that instead of getting better, Joe seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into a state of depression.
“I just can’t seem to get it out of my mind, Pa…” Joe stated.
His words were broken, as if they were stuck in his throat and he was having a hard time forcing them out.
“I know, son, but you have to try…”
“I have tried, Pa…but the memory won’t go away. Every time I shut my eyes, I see the look on Marge’s face when the bullet…my bullet…struck her.”
Joe buried his face in his hands. Deep from the back of his throat, he made a moaning sound as if his heart were breaking. Ben slipped his arm across the back of the younger man’s shoulders.
“I have to find her husband, Pa…I have to explain to him what happened…”
“Roy’s already sent a wire to him in Sacramento, Joe…he should have been here long before now,” Ben explained.
Joe looked up at last.
“I should have gone there…taken…her body…to him…”
“I think it’s better that he comes here, son. She’s buried in a lovely spot…I’m sure he’ll be grateful…”
Joe shook his head in disgust. When he looked at his father, Ben could see the misery and dread that clouded the usually bright, glowing expression in the deep emeralds of the boy’s eyes. His tone, when he spoke was sarcastic.
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be grateful…”
Joe stood to his feet and walked part way across the room, then stopped and turned around.
“Just how grateful do you think he’ll be when he finds out I gunned down the woman he loved, in cold blood?” growled Joe.
Now it was Ben’s time to stand up and be disgusted. He gave Joe a serious look.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Roy explained in the telegraph that she was killed accidentally during a stage robbery. Surely the man will understand that it wasn’t intentional…”
Ben’s voice softened as he peered at the forlorn look on his son’s face.
“Joseph, I know you wish you could turn back the clock and do things differently…we all wish that at some awful times in our lives, but we can’t do that. What happened…was an accident…that you did not cause. Please, Joe, for me…won’t you try to put all of this behind you?”
Joe sighed deeply, letting the air rush from his lungs. He was so tired, so weary from all of it. Perhaps his father was right, maybe it was time to move on. Marge’s death had been an accident, she had even tried to make him understand that herself, minutes before she had died. Marge had understood…and had forgiven him, shouldn’t he at least try to forgiven himself?
Joe gave his father a small, strained smile.
“Alright, Pa…I’ll try…”
One could see the relief on Ben’s face as he returned the gesture.
“That’s all that I ask, is that you try. I promise you son, it will get better…but it takes time…”
“Time…it’s always time, isn’t it, Pa?” Joe asked. His lips were pinched tightly.
“Time is the healer of all injuries, son…trust me, you’ll see,” smiled Ben…….
Hoss came into the bedroom, bringing a tray with his father’s meal. Carefully, he placed it on the table and then gently nudged his father who had fallen to sleep in the chair next to Joe’s bed.
“Hop Sing sent your supper up, Pa,” he said as Ben opened his eyes.
“Thank you son, but I’m not hungry,” Ben said as he straightened and instantly turned his attention to Joe.
Hoss stood back and watched as his father dampened a cloth in the China bowl and then dapped at his brother’s brow. The colorless appearance of his brother’s face was more than Hoss could bear to look at. He gulped.
“Ain’t he ate no supper, Pa?” Hoss said as he lifted the lid to the tray that had been brought up earlier for his brother. It was obvious by the collection of the think layer of grease on the top of the broth that his brother’s meal had grown cold.
Ben shook his head. “I can’t get him to take one bite…he refuses to eat, Hoss. And he’s growing weaker and weaker…he can’t keep this up much longer,” Ben worried aloud.
“Ain’t there nuthin’ we can do?”
“I’ve done all I know to do, so has the doctor. Paul says it’s up to Joe whether he lives or dies….but there’s one thing I aim on doing…” Ben said.
Hoss noticed the change in his father’s tone and saw the dark eyes deepen as the spark of hate flickered to life.
“I’m going to kill Allen Burton for doing this to my boy,” Ben stated with no hesitation. “So help me God!”
“Pa, you can’t do that…they’ll hang ya if’n ya go gunnin’ for that man…”
Ben returned the cloth to the cool water and rung it out.
“I don’t care…”
His voice sounded strange, so unlike his own, that Hoss felt his body quiver with fear. Something about the way his father spoke the words and the language of his body assured Hoss that his father would do as he had declared, if Joe died. The big man had never seen his father so consumed with ill will and animosity before or to such a degree. He’d best go have a talk with Adam; maybe Adam could get through to their father.
Hoss failed to see his younger brother’s eyes open slightly and stare up at their father. For that matter, Ben, in his anger, also failed to see the shocked expression on the boy’s face. Something from deep down with in the young man’s heart and soul flickered, stirring his conscious but he had grown so weak from lack of nourishment that he could not force the words he longed to speak, to become voiced and be heard. By the time that Ben leaned down again, Joe’s eyes had closed in sleep. Sighing deeply and feeling helpless, Ben returned to collapse once more into the comforts of the chair, lost again in his worries and recollections of what had transpired to bring his son to this low point in his young life……
Joe led his horse slowly from his stable. His father and brothers had left earlier to work the cattle in the north pasture, leaving Joe to come along when he was ready. The boy was unaware of the man who stood in the doorway until he glanced up. The bright light behind the man obscured his vision so that Joe was unable to make out the man’s features enough to know who the man was.
The voice was deep, unfamiliar. Now knowing that the man was a stranger, Joe moved from Cochise’s side, into full view of the visitor.
“Who wants to know?” Joe asked as he slowly moved his hand down to his side where his fingers brushed against his pistol.
Joe squinted his eyes in an effort to see the man’s face. Silently, his fingers unleashed the tiny strap that held his pistol in the holster. Carefully he slipped the gun from its carrying case, feeling a wee bit of uneasiness in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the man moved to his right, into the deep shadows of the barn, concealed from Joe’s vision. Before Joe could react, he heard a loud, piercing blast and felt a sharp stab of pain penetrate his left forearm. The force of the bullet caused Joe’s body to be whipped around thus forcing the weapon from his hand.
As Joe hit the ground, his gun was flung out of his reach. His right hand clung tightly to the bleeding wound in his other arm. He moaned in pain, searching hungrily for his missing weapon. A dark shadow moved over him, stopping his movements. When he looked up, the man’s face was shadowed by the absence of light in the barn.
“MURDER!” screamed the man loudly, causing his voice to echo against the hollow walls of the Cartwright barn. “YOU KILLED HER!” he ranted as he kicked out a Joe with the sharp toe of his boot.
The movement caught Joe in his mid-section and caused him to cry out.
“DID YOU GET A KICK OUT OF WATCHING HER DIE?”
“Who?” shouted Joe, “I haven’t killed anyone!” he proclaimed as he struggled to get up.
Another shrill blast followed by a second piercing jolt of pain to his right arm caused Joe to scream out in agony. His right arm fell away from his other arm, as useless as his left. With his heels, he dug into the hard packed earth; using his shoulders for support, he tried forcing his body to scoot backwards, away from the man who moved slowly along the same path, following in his menacing way.
“I LOVED HER, YOU BASTARD…AND YOU TOOK HER FROM ME! NOW, IT’S YOUR TIME TO FEEL THE PAIN…TO HURT…TO SUFFER…YOUR FAMILY WILL LEARN WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO LOSE SOMEONE THEY LOVED!!”
Joe swallowed hard, pushing the intense throbbing from his mind to try to focus on the man standing over him. The light had changed giving Joe the first glimpse of his attacker’s face. The man was no older than he, but the hardened, distorted expressions on his assailant’s face gave the stranger the appearance of being much older.
“I don’t know who…or what…you’re talking about,” stammered Joe, as he lay bleeding upon the ground.
“MY WIFE…MY BEAUTIFUL, LOVING…WIFE…THAT’S WHO!” the man screamed as he waved his gun under Joe’s nose.
Joe fought against the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as he tried to moved away, but the man grabbed him by the front of the shirt and dragged him deeper into the bowels of the barn where he released him in the furthermost stall where no light gave a hint to the man’s next move. Under him, Joe could feel the fresh hay that had been spread about. The sweet scent as his blood dripped onto the straw was almost sickening. Joe glanced over his head; there was no place to go, no escape. He watched as the man backed up, still waving his gun in a frantic manner.
“IF YOU HADN’T TRIED TO PLAY HERO…MARGE WOULD STILL BE ALIVE…”
Marge! Joe’s thoughts screamed over and over in his head until he thought his head would burst. He looked up, not really seeing the man’s face, but he had no need, he knew that the man who towered over him was Marge’s husband, Allen Burton, bent on revenge!
“You’re gonna die, Cartwright…you don’t deserve to live…she was worth a hundred of you…maybe more! But you took her from me…did you know, Mr. Hero, that she was carrying my child?”
Joe felt as if an arrow had just pierced his heart. Marge, for all that she had shared with him, had not mentioned being with child. He swallowed hard, his throat too thick to speak. In the dark, he shook his head no…he hadn’t known…
“You’re a woman killer, Cartwright…a baby murdered…”
“AUGH!!!” screamed Joe as a third bullet ripped into his body, this time in the upper right thigh.
Joe’s head rolled from side to side as he cried out in anguish. The man’s words had branded themselves on his heart, more cutting and burning hotter than the bullets that had torn his flesh. The image of Marge’s happy, glowing face flickered before his mind’s eyes, revealing her happiness and her excitement of being reunited with her husband.
Joe’s breathing had become labored; his entire body was ablaze with an excruciating fiery sensation. He groaned piteously but the man ignored his pain.
“Scum, lowlife murdering bastard…you aren’t fit to wipe my feet on,” growled the stranger in a deep, ominous voice.
Allen Burton squatted down close to Joe. In the man’s eyes, Joe could see the burning hatred. He had little doubt that the man would soon kill him.
“I…didn’t…mean…to kill…your wife…” Joe sputtered.
The pain was becoming unbearable; he was growing weak from the loss of blood and his world was beginning to spin before him.
“Liar…” chirped Burton.
Allen wiped his hand across his face, removing the dampness that threatened to obscure his vision. He wanted to see the pain in the eyes of his wife’s killer; he drew satisfaction from watching the man’s life’s blood seep slowly from his wounds. He felt elated by watching the young man suffer.
A moment later, Joe’s struggle to stay conscious began to wane. His long lashes fluttered. Allen appeared to become agitated by the fact; he lashed out with the barrel of his pistol, striking Joe across the face and leaving a long red welt in its wake.
“STAY AWAKE, DAMN YOU!!” he screamed at Joe.
Joe struggled to open his eyes.
Allen had his fingers entwined in the chestnut curls as he yanked back on Joe’s head making it impossible for Joe to wrench free. The end of his tormentor’s pistol was now pressed firmly against his temple. Joe’s chin sagged, forcing his mouth open. In his ear he could feel Allen’s hot breath as his words continued to ridicule and degrade him.
“What’s it feel like, murderer…knowing you killed a pregnant woman…?” Allen pulled harder on Joe’s hair, forcing his wife’s killer to moan softly.
“You’re going to go to hell…does that scare you, Cartwright…it should…they say its hot down there…people burn forever and there’s no relief…you long for a cool drop of water but there is none…you’re shaking, Cartwright…?” sneered Burton with an evil, wicked laugh.
Joe’s chin had begun to quiver; tears of pain and guilt filled his eyes, but he refused to allow the crazed man to see him cry.
“Kill me….” Joe practically begged. “Just get it…over…with…”
When Burton cocked the trigger on his pistol, it sounded like a cannon blast to Joe. He cringed, squeezing his eyes tightly shut.
“I hope you burn hotter than the worst of them…because you are the worst…”
Burton moved slightly. Joe flinched and then…….
Suddenly Joe felt his body sag to the ground. The smell of hay seemed to be hovering above his head, over-powering his rationalization and in the distance he could hear someone talking, arguing, muddled and undistinguishable. He tried to focus his attention on those voices, frightened…tormented…but a shot interrupted his concentration, shattering the sounds…hands grabbled at his body. Terrified, dazed and sure that he was dead, Joe screamed in fear of the Devil, as he felt his upper body being tilted forward but the pain that surged throughout his body reeked havoc with his senses. Everything within his world began to spin out of control, including the faces that appeared before him.
Joe strained to stay alert, but the spinning continued until at last Joe succumbed to the blackness that had lured him away from the anguish in his body and the disquieting and horrid truths that had been screamed at him by his attacker. His head lolled to one side, pressing against the broad chest of the man who so tenderly cradled him in his arms.
“He’s fainted…Hoss, help me get him inside. Adam, take that man into town and turn him over to the sheriff, tell him what’s been going on here and send Doc Martin out. Joe’s lost a lot of blood…”
Hoss carefully helped his father lift Joe’s body from the barn floor and carried him to the house. Adam, his gun still aimed at his brother’s attacker, shoved the man toward the door.
“Get moving,” he ordered Allen.
Allen gave the Cartwrights a menacing glare, angered that Joe’s family had unexpectedly returned, but he did as instructed. Slowly, he walked from the barn, shoulders slumped in defeat; not once did he look back at the man whom he had shot and whose heart he had ripped apart, piece by tiny piece. Once Allen Burton had mounted up, Adam tied the man’s hands together in front of him and then tied them a second time to the pommel so that Allen could not make a getaway.
“Hurry, Adam,” Ben called as he disappeared into the house.
The days and nights afterward had begun to blend together. Ben remained at his son’s side, encouraging, prompting and begging his son not to let the words and actions of an angry, grief-stricken man destroy him. But nothing he said could wipe from the young man’s memory nor his heart, the crushing and insulting verbal attack rendered by Allen Burton. Joe deemed it more excruciating than the three bullet wounds that had ripped apart his body.
In the deepest recesses of his mind, Joe could picture the lovely Marge Burton and her happy, carefree expression so doused in love for the man whom she was to be reunited with. And then, the harsh, biting knowledge that Marge had been expecting a baby had taken its toll on the youngest Cartwright, who already suffered with guilt over the unfortunate accident. Ben feared his son was beyond help in that Joe had sunk so deeply into despair that nothing short of a miracle could save his son. Little did the elder Cartwright realize that he had, without his knowing, begun the process of such a miracle…
Ben opened his eyes, for a movement on the bed had awakened him. Joe was tossing his head from side to side, fighting the demons that tormented his thoughts. Quickly, Ben dampened a cloth and applied it to his son’s forehead, wiping the tiny beads of moisture from the young man’s brow.
“No…no…” Joe moaned.
“Joseph?” Ben cooed in his deep, tender voice. “Open your eyes, son…”
“Yes…I’m here, son.”
“No…you…can’t do…it…please, Pa…please,” Joe beseeched as he tried to focus his eyes on his father’s face.
Ben’s expression showed his bewilderment; he drew himself closer to the bed’s edge and leaned nearer to his son.
“I don’t understand, Joe…what is it that you don’t want me to do?”
“Please…no…” Joe breathed, barely making a sound.
At that instant, the door opened and Hoss and Adam entered the room, circling the bed.
“He’s awake?” Hoss asked.
“Not quite…but he’s trying to open his eyes…and he’s trying to tell me something,” Ben said, glancing at the other two men.
“Joseph, come on, son…open your eyes…please…”
All three watched how the youngest member of the family strained to open his eyes but how miserably he failed in his attempt.
“He’s too weak,” muttered Adam. “He needs nourishment,” he declared in a near angry tone. “I’ll be right back.”
Adam hurried from the room while Ben and Hoss continued to encourage Joe to open his eyes. Minutes later, Adam returned carrying a tray containing a bowl of hot broth that he placed on the table next to the bed. He handed the bowl to his father.
“See if you can get him to eat some of this,” Adam suggested.
Hoss propped Joe’s head up a bit, using the pillows behind him. “There.”
Ben moved to sit next to Joe and carefully lifted the spoon toward the boy’s mouth.
“Joseph, open your mouth son…you need to eat something…”
It seemed like forever that the spoon hung in balance against Joe’s lower lip.
“Please…for me, son…open your mouth…”
Slowly, the message seemed to get through and Joe did as requested. The result brought smiles to his brothers and father’s faces.
“Good boy!” beamed Ben, already dipping the spoon into the bowl for another try.
Again Joe complied. This time, his eyes opened slightly, enough so that he could make out the man who was smiling at him. Weakly, Joe pushed the spoon from in front of his face.
“No…more…” he mumbled.
“Just one more bite…” Ben stated hopefully as he raised the spoon again.
“No…please…we…need to…talk…” Joe said, fighting against the weakness that fought to claim him. “I want you…to…make me…a…promise.”
Ben placed the spoon back into the bowl and passed the dish to Hoss who set them on the table.
“What kind of promise, Joseph?” Ben asked curiously.
Joe leaned his weary head back against the pillows, closing his eyes momentarily as if unable to go on with the conversation. Several long silent seconds followed before anyone spoke. Ben glanced over at Adam and then up at Hoss.
“Joseph…” he said, waiting.
Joe forced his eyes opened again, looking directly into his father’s eyes. Ben noted that for the first time in several days, his son seemed to be able to focus more clearly.
“I want you…to promise me…that you won’t…kill him…”
A heavy silence hung thick in the air. No one said a thing as all eyes centered on Ben’s expression. It changed only slightly, but the only one who picked up on the difference was Adam, though he said nothing.
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking, Joe?” Ben said after a long pause.
Suddenly, all the eyes moved to Joe, waiting expectantly for him to explain himself.
“Burton…promise me…Pa…that no matter…what, you…won’t kill…him.”
Joe never wavered from his father’s face.
Ben’s thoughts were racing, wondering how his son knew of the plans he had for the man who had made his son to suffer so.
“What makes you think I’d do such a thing?” Ben asked.
“Promise me, Pa…” Joe’s face wore a stern, troubled, almost pleading expression.
Ben lowered his head, almost as if too ashamed to look his son directly in the eye.
“I can’t make that promise, Joseph…don’t ask me…”
“NO!” Ben blurted out and the quickly swallowed deeply to steady his nerves. “No…I won’t make such a promise…”
“Please…Pa…” Joe begged. “I heard…you swear…to kill…him.”
His eyes had begun to fill with tears.
“I…don’t want you…to hang…and that’s what…will happen…if you…murder…him…”
“He’s right you know, Pa,” Adam said, butting in to add his two cents worth.
Ben glared up at his eldest son.
“You be quite!” he demanded. Again he turned to Joe. “Only you can prevent me from murdering that man!”
“Me?” Joe blurted in a weak voice.
“Yes you! You care little if you live or die…why should I? It’s because of Allen Burton that you quit being a man and started thinking like a little boy again…believing that you could have prevented that woman’s death. You knew nothing of her being with child when you tried to save her life…Allen Burton was a troubled man to begin with…his wife’s death most likely pushed him over the edge, but that wasn’t your fault. Things happen, Little Joe…unpreventable things…to all of us at times, things we’d like to change or wish had never happened, but in most cases, such as this one, we’re useless to do anything about them. But you…look at you…lying there, determine to die, caring nothing of how I feel about it, or how your brothers feel…why should I care if I live or die? Why should I give a hoot how Adam or Hoss feel about me murdering that man or me hanging…you don’t care! What makes it right for you not to care whether you live or die and wrong for me not to care a wit about murdering a man and hanging for it!” growled Ben. “Either way, we’ll both be death!!”
Deep inside he hated himself for the sudden wretchedness he saw on his son’s face, knowing that he had caused it, adding more to the boy’s current misery, but he had to shock the boy back to his senses. He hoped he hadn’t gone too far, but these were drastic times and drastic times called for drastic measures.
Tears slowly filled Joe’s eyes, forcing him to turn away from his father. Tiny beads of water threatened to roll from the corners of both of Joe’s eyes. Tenderly, Ben grasped Joe’s chin in his hand and tilted the boy’s head around and held it so that Joe was obliged to look at his father. In a calm voice that belied the tremors that caused his voice to be filled with passion, Ben spoke.
“I want to tell you something, Joseph, something that I probably haven’t told you in a very long time. Listen closely and understand what I’m going to say…but most of all, believe it with all of your heart. No matter what…no one…absolutely no other person, on the face of this earth…loves you more than I do…never, ever let anyone try to make you believe otherwise because they would only be lying to you. I love you more than I love my own life…so…having said that…I say to you now…if you want me to continue on in good health…and if you love me like you’ve always claimed you have…then you have to choose life. Forget about trying to die, instead Joseph, you have to live with yourself the very best way you know how in order to put what has happened, behind you. I will help you…I will stand by you…I will even hold you while you weep, if you need me to do so. I will stay by your bedside until all the nightmares have vanished and you can sleep peacefully…I will do absolutely anything you ask me to do…except that one thing. I love you that much, Joe…no one else would do as much for you…do you understand what I’m saying, son? It is simply, learn to forgive yourself, so that I can stop hating…because if you do not, not only do you die, but myself and Allen Burton as well…”
Ben’s fingers relaxed so that Joe was free to move his head, but he did not. His eyes, glazed with tears, remained fixed on Ben’s face. Joe raised his arm, clasping his father’s arm with his fingers. Slowly both hands, young and old, slid together until each grasped the other. The younger man nodded his head as the tears spilled over and rolled freely down the front of his face. The crude, harsh words had found its target…Ben had beat death’s game and the prize was his son’s life. It would not be an easy road back, but now Ben knew that Joe was ready for the journey.
“Help me…Pa…please, I’m so sorry…help me…” sobbed Joe as he pulled himself upright and allowed his father’s arms to entwine himself within their reassuring folds.
“I know, son…I know…”
For several long moments, Joe wept and then, still encased in the love that had miraculously brought him back from death’s door, Joe slept. Ben raised his eyes toward heaven as his lips moved in silent thanks for the unexpected miracle that had saved both their lives.