Prisoner (by Susan G)

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Summary:  Accused of murder, the family appeals the conviction and sets out to prove Joe’s innocence.

Rating:  T   (52,510 words)

Prisoner

 

“Joseph Cartwright, you have been found guilty of the crime of manslaughter,” intoned the judge solemnly. “Do you have anything to say before I pronounce sentence?”

 

Standing in front of the judge’s bench, Joe Cartwright felt as though he had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Even though he had known what the judge was going to say, Joe had had a sense that what was going on around him was unreal, just as he had felt his arrest and trial were some sort of bad dream from which he would momentarily awake. Even when the jury foreman had read the verdict of guilty, Joe hadn’t really grasped what was happening to him. But now, listening to the judge, his situation had suddenly become very real – frighteningly so. Joe’s stomach was churning and he could feel the bile rising in his throat. He looked up at the judge, who was waiting a bit impatiently for him to reply. Joe swallowed hard, trying to keep the fear out of his face and his voice.

 

“Your honor,” said Joe in a voice that quavered a bit, “I’m innocent. I didn’t kill Elizabeth Crowley. I don’t know who killed her, but it wasn’t me. This is all a mistake.”

 

Sighing a bit, the judge looked at the young man standing before him. He hadn’t expected anything but the man’s protestation of innocence. In all his years on the bench, the judge had rarely heard a defendant freely admit to committing a crime, even after the jury had found the individual guilty, as this jury had done.

 

“Nevertheless,” said the judge, looking at the man standing before the bench, “the jury has found you guilty. They have found that you slapped, pushed or did some other action which caused Elizabeth Crowley to fall and hit her head against stone hearth in her room, causing her death. The fact that you ran from the scene, not offering the victim any assistance, only compounds your guilt.”

 

“I didn’t push her,” Joe protested. “I never touched her. When I left Elizabeth, she was alive and well.”

 

“The jury has found otherwise,” the judge said irritably. He didn’t like being interrupted. Looking down at a paper in his hands, the judge read the words briefly, then looked up at the young man standing before him again. “In accordance with the statutes of the Nevada territory, I sentence you to 15 years in the Nevada Territorial Prison.” The judge looked past Joe to the sheriff standing a few feet behind him. “Sheriff Coffee, you will keep the prisoner in your jail until such time as he can be transported to the Nevada Territorial Prison and put in custody of the authorities there.” Reaching for the gavel in front of him, the judge concluded, “This court is adjourned.” He banged the gavel loudly on the wooden disk on the bench, then laid it down and began gathering the papers up in front of him.

 

The sound of the gavel sent another wave of shock through Joe. He flinched at the sound, as if it had been a gunshot. Joe’s eyes were wide and he felt numb. He wasn’t aware of the sudden outburst of chatter from the seats of the packed courtroom behind him. He didn’t sense the three men approaching him, or feel the hand being laid on his shoulder. Joe was only dimly aware of Roy Coffee standing before him, raising his wrists and almost gently closing the handcuffs around them. He heard some words in his ears, and turned in a daze to look at the white-haired man standing next to him.

 

“Joe, this isn’t over,” said Ben Cartwright to his son in an urgent voice. He squeezed Joe’s shoulder gently with the comforting hand he had placed on his son. “We’ll appeal. We’ll find new evidence. Somehow, we’ll prove you’re innocent.”

 

Looking at his father, Joe merely nodded slowly, still too stunned by the judge’s words to answer.

 

“Ben, this isn’t the place to talk,” said Sheriff Coffee quickly. He saw the people in the courtroom watching, some pointing and others merely staring at the small knot of men standing before the now empty judge’s bench. “Give me a chance to get Joe over to the jail. You can talk to him there.”

 

For a moment, Ben didn’t answer. He could see the dazed look on Joe’s face, the fear in his son’s eyes. Ben wanted nothing more than to hug his son to him and tell him things would be all right. But he knew the sheriff was right. Standing in the courtroom with a crowd of gawking people was a poor place to comfort and offer hope to his son.

 

“All right, Roy,” said Ben reluctantly. “The boys and I need to talk to Hiram anyway about the appeal. We’ll meet you over at the jail in about ten minutes.” Ben squeezed Joe’s shoulder again, then turned away.

 

Still feeling numb, Joe didn’t notice the brief pat on the back from his brother Hoss or the quick press on his arm by his oldest brother, Adam. He felt the sheriff tugging his arm, and almost stumbled as he turned to walk slowly from the courtroom with Roy Coffee.

 

In silence, Joe let Sheriff Coffee lead him through a side door from the courtroom and into a small waiting room. Coffee didn’t pause, but rather continued to pull Joe toward a door at the back of the room. Coffee led Joe into an alley behind the courthouse and began walking with him behind several buildings toward a wide street ahead. Joe knew the way; it was a walk he had made every day for the past four days as he had been escorted from the jail to his trial. Somehow, Joe had believed he wouldn’t be making the same trek again. He knew he was innocent, and he had naively believed that the jury would understand that. Even as he had listened to the evidence against him, Joe had believed the jury would set him free.

 

As the pair reached the street, Roy Coffee stopped and looked briefly from side to side. Satisfied that there was no one to threaten his prisoner or to try to take Joe from him, the sheriff tugged on Joe’s arm gently and led the young man across the street. Coffee hadn’t really expected any type of angry mob. Elizabeth Crowley has been a visitor to Virginia City, barely known by anyone except Joe Cartwright. The crowds in the courtroom had come to witness a Cartwright standing trial, and not out of any passionate concern for the victim.

 

The sheriff continued to tug gently on Joe’s arm as he led the young man into his office and toward the block of cells. Joe walked without thought to the second cell, the one that had been his home for the past few weeks while he waited for his trial. As he entered the cell, Joe suddenly stopped, unsure what to do next.

 

Reaching into his pocket, Roy Coffee pulled out a small key and began unlocking the handcuffs from around Joe’s wrists. “I’ll give you a couple of minutes by yourself,” said Roy gently. “Your Pa and brothers will be here soon. You just call out if you need anything.” The sheriff slipped the cuffs off Joe’s wrists, then walked behind him. Roy shut the cell door behind Joe, the metal clanging loudly as the door snapped closed.

 

The clang of the cell door woke Joe from his daze. He looked around the cell, wondering how he had gotten here. He didn’t remember making the short walk from the courthouse. Taking a few steps, Joe stood in front of a small bucket of water. He reached down and pulled the ladle, dripping with water, from the bucket to his mouth. Joe drank the water greedily; his throat felt as dry as a desert. Then he dropped the dipper back into the pail, causing it to plop softly into the water. Joe turned and walked over to the narrow bed on which he had slept for the past few weeks. He sat on the edge of the bed and put his head down into his hands.

 

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

The door of the sheriff’s office burst open and Roy Coffee looked up from his desk, not surprised to see Ben Cartwright and his other two sons striding into the office. “Roy, we want to see Joe,” Ben announced.

 

“Sure,” agreed the sheriff, getting up from the desk and reaching for a ring of keys. “What did Hiram say?” he asked, referring to Hiram Withers, Joe’s lawyer.

 

“Just what you would expect,” answered Adam Cartwright, standing next to his father. “He’s going to appeal the conviction, but right now, he doesn’t have much on which to base an appeal. Unless we can find some new evidence, Hiram doesn’t think an appeal will do any good.”

 

“Roy, we know Joe didn’t kill that gal,” Hoss Cartwright said in a burst of words. “Ain’t there something you could have missed? Something you overlooked?”

 

“Hoss, I checked out every one who even talked to Elizabeth Crowley while she was in Virginia City, and went over all the evidence with a fine tooth comb,” answered Coffee. “There aren’t any other suspects. I couldn’t find anyone who even really knew her, much less would want to kill her.”

 

“Roy, you don’t think Joe’s guilty, do you?” asked Ben in a surprised voice.

 

“No, I don’t,” admitted the sheriff. “But it’s not my job to judge Joe’s guilt or innocence. My job is to gather the evidence, and that’s what I did.” Roy Coffee stood before the Cartwrights and his eyes narrowed. “The judge said Joe is going to prison, and that’s exactly where he’s going. I won’t stand for anyone trying to set him loose. If Joe was facing a hanging, I might feel different, but he ain’t. So, unless the judge tells me otherwise, I’m going to keep Joe in that jail until the prison wagon arrives, and then turn him over to the territory. Is that clear?”

 

Sighing, Ben nodded his head. “We understand, Roy, and we won’t cause you any trouble.” He looked over his shoulder to Adam and Hoss. “Isn’t that right, boys?” Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance, then both nodded slowly in agreement.

 

“Good,” said Roy. He noted none of the Cartwrights were wearing holsters. “I’ll let you in Joe’s cell.” Jangling the ring of keys in hand, Roy turned toward the cell block, followed closely by the three men.

 

Joe was still sitting on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, as the men entered the cell block. He didn’t look up as Roy Coffee put a key into the lock and turned it, then pulled the cell door open. Joe didn’t show any reaction as Ben, Hoss and Adam crowded into the cell. The sheriff saw Joe’s immobile figure sitting on the bed as he shut the cell door behind the Cartwrights. He could see the distress on Ben’s face as the man gazed at his youngest son, and noted the anguish in Hoss’ eyes as well as the worried look on Adam’s face. Shaking his head sadly, Coffee turned away and left the four men in the cell to their shared despair.

 

Walking across the small cell, Ben sat down on the bed next to Joe and put his arm around his son’s shoulders. Joe continued to simply sit, head down and body rigid, the picture of discouragement and misery. “Joe,” said Ben softly, “Hiram is going to start work on the appeal immediately. I’m going to get an appointment with the governor as soon as possible. We’re going to find some way to get you out of this.”

 

For the first time since his father and brothers entered the cell, Joe looked up. “We both know that none of that is going to make any difference,” Joe said to his father in a voice filled with hopelessness. “Without some new evidence, there’s nothing the court or the governor will do.”

 

“Then we’ll find some new evidence,” asserted Hoss from where he standing by the far side of the cell. “We’ll keep looking and digging around until we find out who did the killing. We ask enough questions, we’re bound to find out who the real killer is.”

 

“You think someone is going to admit to killing Elizabeth just because you ask him?” Joe said to Hoss in a bitter voice. Hoss looked down, with an abashed air.

 

Leaning against the cell door, Adam studied his youngest brother. He wanted desperately to do something to help Joe, but was at a loss as to what to do. “Let’s go over it again, Joe,” said Adam. “Tell us exactly what happened.”

 

“What good will that do?” Joe asked, shaking his head. “I’ve already told you and the jury and everyone else what happened. We’ve gone over it a dozen times.”

 

“Then we’ll go over it again,” insisted Adam. “There’s something we missed, something that we didn’t think of. Maybe we’ll see it this time.”

 

For a moment, Joe didn’t say anything, then he shrugged his shoulders. “Might as well, I guess,” he said in a discouraged voice. “I don’t have anything else to do.”

 

“Start with when you first met Elizabeth,” urged Adam.

 

Looking off, Joe said slowly, “First time I saw Elizabeth Crowley, she was in the general store, trying to buy paint. She couldn’t seem to make Harry understand that she wanted the kind of paint that you use for pictures, not the kind you use to paint barns.” Unconsciously, Joe smiled a bit, remembering the look of anger and frustration on Elizabeth’s face as she had tried to explain to the clerk what she wanted. Her blue eyes were blazing and her cheeks were growing rosy. Elizabeth’s long, dark hair shook a bit as she stamped her foot. Joe thought she was the prettiest girl he had seen in a long time.

 

“Do you think she deliberately followed you into the store?” asked Adam.

 

“At the time, I didn’t,” admitted Joe. “She came in right after I did, and walked straight to the counter. I didn’t think she even noticed me. But looking back over everything, I guess maybe she did. When I introduced myself and started talking to her, Elizabeth seemed interested almost immediately. It didn’t take much to convince to join me for lunch that day.”

 

“What happened after that?” Adam pressed his brother.

 

Shrugging a bit, Joe answered, “Well, we just started seeing each other. Rides, picnics, dinners, that sort of thing.” He gave Adam a wry smile. “I thought she was wonderful, and I guess I was feeling pretty good about how much she seemed to like me. She seemed perfect and I started falling in love with her .”

 

“A little too perfect, maybe,” commented Adam. “When did you start suspecting something wasn’t quite right?”

 

Blowing out a small puff of air, Joe shook his head. “I don’t think I ever suspected anything was wrong about her, ” he said. “There were a couple of times when she said she couldn’t see me, but I knew she was painting, working on the pictures for the show she said was going to happen in New York. About the only thing that seemed a little odd was how she insisted on meeting all of you and showing you some of her paintings. I thought she just wanted you to like her, and to be impressed with her work. I couldn’t think of any other reason why she kept asking me to set something up with the rest of the family.”

 

“She was quite charming,” admitted Ben. “After meeting her, I thought she was a lovely girl.”

 

“She was real nice,” agreed Hoss, “and her pictures were really pretty, too.”

 

Looking down, Adam remembered the luncheon Joe had arranged, and viewing the paintings in Elizabeth’s suite at the hotel. He had thought the paintings were above average, but not the quality that would warrant a New York show. But Adam had kept his opinions to himself, both for Joe’s sake and because he understood art was really a matter of individual taste. After all, he could compare the paintings of Lake Tahoe and the mountains to the originals, and the Eastern art crowd didn’t have that advantage. All it took was a critic or two to proclaim the paintings as extraordinary for an artist to become an instant favorite with the wealthy collectors.

 

“Tell us about the dance,” said Adam.

 

“It wasn’t anything special,” replied Joe, “just a Saturday night dance at the town hall. I thought Elizabeth would enjoy it. She seemed to, for awhile at least.”

 

“Until she met Mitch Devlin,” Adam commented.

 

“I guess,” said Joe, with a shrug. “I didn’t connect the two at the time. I had introduced her to a couple of people, including Mitch. When she said she wanted to leave, I thought she was tired or bored. I didn’t think her wanting to leave had anything to do with meeting Mitch. She didn’t seem upset or bothered when I introduced her to him.”

 

“What exactly did Mitch say to her?” asked Adam.

 

Looking off, Joe tried to recall exactly what had happened at the dance. “I introduced her to Mitch,” he said slowly. “I told Elizabeth that he was one of my oldest friends. Mitch shook her hand, and then he stared at her for a minute. He asked Elizabeth if they had met someplace before. He said she looked familiar to him.”

 

“And she denied it,” Adam said.

 

“Well, yes but in kind of a casual way,” answered Joe. “She said something like she would have remembered meeting Mitch before, and she was sure she hadn’t. I remember kidding Mitch, telling him that his line was one of the oldest in the book, and to leave my girl alone. Mitch laughed, but I noticed he kept looking at her, even after we walked away. I guess Elizabeth noticed too, because a few minutes later, she said she wanted to leave.”

 

“Tell us about the night Elizabeth was killed,” said Adam.

 

A pained look crossed Joe’s face and, once more, he lowered his head. His body slumped a bit. “I don’t…do we have to go over that again?” he mumbled.

 

Arching his eyebrows, Adam looked at his father. Ben had been sitting quietly next to Joe, his armed draped around his son, letting Adam ask the questions. But Ben knew he would need to encourage Joe in order to get his youngest son to talk about the night Elizabeth Crowley had been killed. He knew how upset Joe got every time he thought about that night, and how his son had tried to tell everyone what had happened while at the same time hating the thought of reliving that evening over and over. Ben glanced at Adam and gave his oldest son a quick nod. Then Ben turned to Joe.

 

“Joe,” said Ben softly as his arm pulled Joe toward him a bit. “I know it’s difficult to think about that night. But it’s important. It’s the key to finding out who killed Elizabeth. Please, tell us again what happened that night.”

 

Raising his head, Joe stared at Ben. He blinked as he felt his eyes growing damp. Even after all these weeks, Joe’s memory of what Elizabeth had said to him hurt him deeply. He remembered feeling angry, but most of all, he remembered the pain that seemed to cut through his heart. Joe swallowed hard, then nodded his agreement.

 

“Elizabeth and I went to dinner that night,” Joe started in a hesitant voice.

 

“You had dinner late, right?” interrupted Adam.

 

“Right,” agreed Joe. “I met her at the hotel about eight o’clock. Elizabeth had said she wanted to spend the day painting and I had work to do.” Joe looked at Hoss and gave his brother a small smile. “Hoss had been complaining about me not doing my share on the ranch, so I thought I’d had better show up at the branding pen.”

 

“Oh, Joe, I was just funning,” Hoss said in a contrite voice. “I didn’t really mean anything.”

 

“I know you didn’t,” said Joe, his smile widening a bit. “But since Elizabeth said she wanted the day to herself, I figured I might as well put in a token appearance.” Joe’s face suddenly sobered. “After dinner, I walked Elizabeth back up to her suite. When we opened the door, there was a telegram lying on the floor, like someone had pushed it under the door.”

 

“Didn’t you think that was strange?” asked Adam. “Usually, Frank stops people at the desk when they’re coming in and hands them their telegrams, to make sure they get them.”

 

“I didn’t think about that,” admitted Joe. “I guess I just figured that Frank thought it was important and slipped it under the door to make sure Elizabeth got it.”

 

“But how would Frank know what was in the telegram?” argued Adam. “He wouldn’t have opened it.”

 

“I don’t know, Adam,” said Joe in a heated voice. “It doesn’t really make any difference, does it? After all, we know it was a phony.”

 

“You’re right,” Adam said in a soothing voice. “It doesn’t make any difference. I’m sorry. Go on. What happened next?”

 

Taking a deep breath, Joe looked off toward the small window of the cell. His eyes took on a far away look, as if he were mentally returning to that evening. “Elizabeth opened the telegram,” continued Joe in a low voice, “and I could tell right away that it upset her. I asked her what was wrong. That’s when she told me the gallery that had promised to show her paintings was closing. She had been promised an advance from the gallery and was counting on selling some of her paintings through them. With the gallery closing, she said she wouldn’t have enough money to live on, much less continue painting. Elizabeth told me she was going to have to go back to New York right away to see if she could arrange a showing through another gallery. She wasn’t sure how long that would take. She said she could be gone for a long time.”

 

“And that upset you,” commented Adam.

 

“Sure it did,” Joe said almost in anger as he turned back to his oldest brother. “I was in love with her. I didn’t want Elizabeth to leave, not knowing if she would ever come back.”

 

“But she would have had to go to New York anyway,” argued Adam. “She would have had to have been there for the original show.”

 

Joe’s eyes returned to the small window. “Yes,” he replied softly. “But we had talked about that at dinner. Elizabeth told me she was going to arrange to have her paintings shipped to the gallery. They would handle getting them framed and set up, and handle all the publicity about the show. Elizabeth was going to go back for the opening, and stay only as long as she had to get her paintings starting to sell. Then she was going to come back. She said she had fallen in love with the West, and…” There was a catch in Joe’s voice. “And with me.”

 

“And that’s when you offered to give her the money to finance the show,” said Adam.

 

“Yes,” Joe answered. “She refused at first, saying she didn’t want to take money from me. But I insisted. I told her I was sure the rest of the family would agree. I mean, you had seen the paintings, and I knew you really liked Elizabeth. I was sure you would agree to help finance her show.”

 

“That’s why she had been so insistent on meeting us,” commented Ben. “She wanted to be sure we would be on her side, that we wouldn’t try to stop you from giving her the money.”

 

“How much did she ask for?” Adam pressed his brother.

 

“She said she wasn’t sure how much it would take to finance the show,” Joe said. “Probably, at least $5,000, maybe more.” Joe shook his head. “I finally convinced her to take $10,000, to be sure she had enough. Elizabeth didn’t want to take the money, but I was pretty persuasive,” he said in a voice dripping with irony. Joe took another deep breath. “We agreed to meet at the bank the next day at noon. That was suppose to give me enough time to talk things over with the family and get them to agree to the idea.”

 

“And then you left,” Adam said.

 

“Yeah, I left,” agreed Joe. “Elizabeth said she was tired and upset, that she wouldn’t be good company, so I said my goodbyes and left.”

 

“Where did you run into Mitch?” asked Adam.

 

“Right as I was coming out of the hotel,” answered Joe. “He was standing on the porch, waiting for me. As soon as I came out, he grabbed me and told me that we needed to talk. So we headed over to the Silver Dollar.”

 

“He didn’t tell you what he wanted to talk to you about?” Adam asked.

 

“No,” Joe replied, shaking his head, “not then. He just said we needed to talk and suggested we go over and get a beer. Mitch and I went to the Silver Dollar, and got a table and a couple of beers.”

 

“And that’s when he told you about Elizabeth,” said Adam.

 

“Yeah,” agreed Joe. “Mitch told me he had finally remembered where he had seen her before. He met her about a year ago over in Silver City. Mitch said that Jim Broson had introduced her to him. Only her name then wasn’t Elizabeth Crowley.”

 

“Why did it take Mitch so long to remember?” Hoss asked from across the cell.

 

Looking up at his brother, Joe shrugged. “Mitch had met her on the street with Jim. He only talked with her for a minute or so. He remembered her face, and recognized her at the dance. It took him awhile to remember when and where he had seen her before. Mitch told me that the name being different was what confused him.”

 

“You didn’t believe him, of course,” commented Adam.

 

“No, I didn’t,” Joe said, turning to his oldest brother. “I told Mitch he was wrong, that he had her confused with someone else.” Joe looked away. “I was in love with her, Adam. I didn’t want to think that Elizabeth wasn’t who she said she was, that she was playing me for a fool. Even when Mitch told me that he had heard Bronson lost a bundle of money financing some kind of art show that never happened, I didn’t believe him.”

 

“What finally convinced you? Bob Talbert?” asked Adam.

 

“Yeah, I suppose that was it,” Joe said. “When Bob walked in and asked for a beer, I was still arguing with Mitch. Then I heard the bartender ask Bob why he wasn’t over at the telegraph office. Bob told him that he hadn’t much to do there, since the lines had been down for two days and probably wouldn’t be fixed until at least the next day.”

 

“What did you do then?” Adam asked.

 

“I got up from the table and walked over to Bob,” Joe answered, looking off again. “I made him tell me again that the lines were down. When I said a friend had just received a telegram, Bob told me that was impossible, that there hadn’t been a telegram received in Virginia City for a couple of days. Then Mitch walked over. He said he had seen Elizabeth in town earlier that day. She had been buying a ticket at the stage depot. That’s when I knew it was all a swindle.” Joe winced at the memory of the pain he had felt when the truth had become clear to him, when he realized that Elizabeth didn’t really love him. He had given his heart to a girl who’s only interest was getting money from him. The hurt he had felt stabbed him once again.

 

“Then what happened?” asked Adam in a soft voice. He knew Joe was going to have to relive a very painful moment and he hated asking his brother to do that. But it was the only chance they had of coming up with something that would save Joe from spending the next 15 years in prison.

 

“I was mad,” admitted Joe. “When I finally realized that Elizabeth had been lying to me all along, I guess I just lost my temper. I walked out of the saloon and headed back over to the hotel.” Joe stopped and his gaze returned to the window.

 

Watching his brother, Adam knew Joe was reluctant to continue. He waited a minute, hoping Joe would start his story again without any prompting. He didn’t want to push Joe too hard, afraid his brother would simply give up. “Frank, the desk clerk, said he could see the look on your face when you stormed back into the hotel,” Adam commented in a soft voice. “He testified that you looked angry.”

 

Turning to Adam, Joe gave his brother a wry smile. “What Frank said was that I ‘had murder in my eyes’. That didn’t exactly help my case.”

 

“What happened when you got to Elizabeth’s room?” Adam asked, hoping that now Joe had started talking again, his brother would continue.

 

Taking a deep breath, Joe looked down at the floor. “I was angry,” he repeated. “I tried the door and it was locked. Then I started knocking on the door and calling Elizabeth’s name. I yelled for her to let me in. I guess I was pretty loud because even Frank heard me downstairs at the desk.”

 

Knowing that this was the critical part of Joe’s tale, Adam didn’t want Joe to stop. “Elizabeth let you in,” he said.

 

“Yeah, she let me in,” Joe agreed in a low voice. “It took a couple of minutes of me pounding and yelling, but she finally unlocked the door and let me in. She must have seen the look on my face because she suddenly seemed scared. Elizabeth asked me what was wrong. That’s when I told her that I knew the truth – that her name wasn’t Elizabeth Crowley, that the telegram was a fake, and that there wasn’t going to be any show in New York. I told her I knew the whole thing was a swindle.”

 

“What did Elizabeth say?” asked Adam.

 

“She denied it at first,” answered Joe. “Said the whole thing was a mistake, some kind of mix-up. But when I told her what Bob Talbert had said about the telegraph lines being down, she must have guessed the jig was up. Suddenly, she changed. She wasn’t the sweet girl I had known. Her face, it became, well, hard. She laughed at me, and said she was surprised that I had figured it out so soon.”

 

“Then what happened?” Adam prompted softly.

 

Once more, Joe’s gaze returned to the window. “I asked her what her real name was,” he said softly. “Elizabeth just laughed again and said it didn’t matter. She walked over to the desk and pulled open a drawer. There was a whiskey bottle in the desk, and she took it out, along with two glasses. Then she walked over and sat in the chair. She poured herself a glass of whiskey and offered me one. That’s when I walked over, took the glass from her and threw it against the wall.”

 

“What did Elizabeth do then?” Adam asked.

 

“She just laughed some more, like my being angry was funny,” Joe answered. “I told her that I was going to have her arrested, and she asked me what for. She said that I hadn’t given her any money so there was nothing the law could do to her. I guess that’s when I got really mad and started yelling at her. I told her I was going to make sure she got run out of Virginia City, that her picture would be plastered over every newspaper in the West. I threatened all kinds of things, most of which I didn’t know if I could do. I just wanted to let her know that I was going to make sure she knew she wouldn’t be able to pull her little fraud on someone else.”

 

“Mrs. Harris, the lady in the next room, testified she heard the shouting and the glass break,” said Ben. “She said things got quiet after that.”

 

“I guess I ran out of steam,” answered Joe. “Elizabeth just sat in that chair, listening to me rant and sipping whiskey. I could tell what I was saying didn’t bother her. So I turned to leave. I didn’t want to be in the same room with her any more.”

 

“But you didn’t leave,” said Adam.

 

“No, I didn’t,” Joe answered. His voice softened, so that the next words were almost a whisper, barely heard by the other men in the cell. “I told Elizabeth that I had fallen in love with her. I wanted her to know how much she had hurt me; I guess, maybe I wanted to make her feel bad or something.”

 

“What did Elizabeth say to that?” Adam asked in a voice almost as soft as his brother’s.

 

“She didn’t say anything,” Joe continued in a whisper. “She just shrugged, like she didn’t care. That’s when I asked her if she had any feelings for me at all. She….said she didn’t.”

 

As Ben listened to his son, he heard the same words Joe had said at the trial, and to everyone who had asked him – a general statement that Elizabeth had denied any affection for him. Until now, Ben hadn’t pressed Joe to tell him exactly what the girl had said to him. He could tell that Joe had been hurt by the words, and that repeating them would be painful and embarrassing. But Ben felt he couldn’t allow Joe to skip over that part of his story now, not when his son was facing 15 years in prison. He wasn’t sure that the words would offer any clues, but he couldn’t take the chance that they wouldn’t.

 

“Joe, tell us what she said,” Ben said gently. “Tell us exactly what she said to you.”

 

Turning, Joe looked at his father. The pain he felt in remembering Elizabeth’s words were reflected in his eyes. He didn’t want to repeat those words; he didn’t want to even try to remember them. “It’s not important, Pa,” said Joe, shaking his head.

 

“It might be, Joe,” Ben replied. “Just tell us. I know it’s hard, but I promise you that this is the only time we’ll ask. We have to know, Joe, just in case she might have said something that will help you.”

 

Looking down, Joe nodded his head slowly. “When I asked her if she felt anything for me,” Joe said in a voice so low that it could be barely heard, “she looked surprised. Then she laughed. She called me a boy, a country bumpkin. She said she was must have been a better actress than she thought if I believed she cared about me. She asked me how I could even think that she could be happy in such a backwater place as Virginia City. She said she was bored stiff by the place and…and by me. Elizabeth said she knew what it was like to be loved by a real man, someone who knew how to take care of her and give her what she really wanted. She said I…I was just a pathetic boy, pretending to be a man.”

 

Silence filled the cell. Adam and Hoss felt sympathy toward their brother, knowing how much the girl’s words had hurt Joe. But Ben’s reaction was different. He felt a rage building in him as he realized Elizabeth Crowley had deliberately tried to wound his son, how she had used words that she knew would crush Joe. If the girl wasn’t already dead, Ben thought he might have throttled her himself.

 

Clearing his voice to end the uncomfortable silence, Adam said, “We figured she must have had someone who was in on this with her. What Elizabeth said seems to confirm that.”

 

“Maybe,” said Ben cautiously. “The girl only said she had been in love with another man. She didn’t say that she was still with him.”

 

“But, Pa, that had to be it,” insisted Hoss. “We know Joe didn’t kill her, and no one else in Virginia City had a reason to want to hurt her. This fellow must have been with her. He’s the one who killed her.”

 

“It could be,” admitted Ben, “but we don’t have any proof. Right now, what we need is solid evidence, not speculation.”

 

“Joe, what did you do after…after Elizabeth admitted she had no feelings for you?” asked Adam.

 

Joe turned to his brother with a dazed look his eyes. “What did you say?” he asked, confirming that his thoughts had been elsewhere.

 

“What did you do after that?” Adam repeated.

 

Taking a deep breath, Joe said, “I was furious, Adam. I don’t think I’ve ever been that angry in my whole life. I was afraid I might hit her. So I left. I just turned and walked out.”

 

“Mrs. Harris said she didn’t hear you leave,” Ben said softly.

 

“Well, I didn’t close the door behind me,” said Joe. He gave a small, bitter laugh. “The one time in my life I didn’t slam a door behind me, and it’s going to cost me 15 years.”

 

“Are you sure you didn’t raise your voice again?” Adam asked. “Mrs. Harris testified at the trial that she heard shouting a second time.”

 

“I didn’t say a word, Adam, ” Joe asserted. “I just walked out.”

 

“But Mrs. Harris said she heard Elizabeth shouting something like, ‘Joe, don’t, please don’t’. Did you say or do anything that might have made her say that?” Adam pressed his brother.

 

“No, I’m sure I didn’t,” answered Joe, shaking his head.

 

“It’s like Hiram said at the trial,” Ben commented. “Mrs. Harris could have misunderstood. The word she could have heard might have been ‘No’, instead of ‘Joe’.”

 

“She seemed pretty sure about what she heard,” said Joe. “Besides, even if she got it wrong, it didn’t seem to have made any difference to the jury.”

 

“It’s not enough to base an appeal on,” admitted Ben.

 

“Finish the story, Joe,” Adam said. “What happened after you left Elizabeth’s suite.”

 

“Well, I was angry,” said Joe. “I remember running down the stairs to the hotel lobby, and out the door. I walked over to where my horse was standing on the street, and jumped on. I rode out of town as fast as I could and just kept riding. I thought maybe if I rode hard enough and long enough, I would cool down. I rode for maybe a hour, then I came home. When I got there, Roy Coffee was waiting to arrest me.”

 

“And you never did anything that might cause harm to Elizabeth Crowley?” asked Adam.

 

“Adam, I didn’t even know she was dead until Roy told me,” Joe answered in a plaintive voice. “I never touched her. I was angry and upset, but I didn’t kill her.”

 

“We believe you, Joe,” Ben said in a soothing voice. “You don’t have to convince us.”

 

“Frank said when you came down the stairs the second time, you had a strange look on your face,” Adam said in a pensive voice. “He thought you looked – I think he used the disturbed.”

 

“Disturbed is putting it mildly, Adam,” Joe said. “I was mad, infuriated by what Elizabeth had said and what she had none. But I wouldn’t kill her because of it.”

 

“Mitch and Bob Talbert both testified that you walked right by them as you came out of the hotel,” added Adam. “Mitch said he called to you but you kept right on going.”

 

“I never saw or heard Mitch,” Joe said, shaking his head. “I guess I was too mad. All I remember was walking to where Cochise was tied to a post and jumping on him. I just wanted to get away from Elizabeth, and I rode out of town as fast as I could.”

 

“But it does make you look like you were running away,” said Adam.

 

“I wasn’t running away!” said Joe angrily. “How many times do I have to say it! I didn’t kill her, Adam. I didn’t do it.”

 

“I know you didn’t,” Adam answered calmly. “I was just looking at things from the law’s point of view.” He turned to Ben. “How long did Frank say it was after Joe before Mrs. Harris came down to ask him to check on Elizabeth.”

 

“He said it must have been at least twenty minutes,” replied Ben. “Mrs. Harris testified she heard the second round of shouting and then things got quiet again. She got worried and decided someone should check on the girl. But she was afraid to do it herself. So she got dressed and went down to get Frank.”

 

“Twenty minutes,” said Adam speculatively. “That’s a pretty short time for someone to go into Elizabeth’s room, have an argument, kill her and then leave again.”

 

“It must have been someone staying in the hotel,” Ben said. “We already decided that. But we haven’t been able to find anyone who was staying at the hotel that night who had any connection to Elizabeth.”

 

“There’s still those three fellows we haven’t tracked down,” Hoss said. “One of them might have done it.”

 

“One of them probably did,” agreed Ben. “But we’ve tried everything to find them and still haven’t been able to locate them. At this point, the trail is pretty cold.”

 

“One of the thing that has been tough to get around is the time element,” said Adam with a frown .”We had a hard time figuring how someone could have come to the room so quickly. But what if he was already there?”

 

“What do you mean, Adam?” asked Ben with a frown.

 

“Well, Elizabeth admitted to Joe that she had been involved with someone else. Maybe she was still involved,” Adam said, his brow furrowed in thought. “Joe said she pulled two glasses out with the whiskey. Why would she have two glasses if she was the only one there? She must have been still seeing this man. Maybe he was in the suite when Joe came back.”

 

“How could that be?” asked Hoss. “Joe would have seen him.”

 

“Not necessarily,” said Adam. “Remember, it was a suite, so there was another room. Joe said it took Elizabeth a few minutes to open the door after he came back and started pounding on it. Maybe that was because she had to give someone time to hide in another room.”

 

“And if he was in the other room, he would have heard the whole thing,” said Joe, nodding. “If he was in this scheme with Elizabeth, he might have gotten mad that their little swindle was discovered. He could have argued with her and pushed her, accidentally killing her when she hit her head.” Then Joe shook his head. “But that doesn’t help any. We still don’t know who this man was or where he went.”

 

“No, it doesn’t help much,” Adam admitted. “But at least, we know what may have happened.”

 

“That’s not going to be much comfort to me while I’m sitting in a prison cell,” said Joe in a discouraged voice.

 

Suddenly, Roy Coffee walked into the cell block. “You fellows just about finished?” he asked. “It’s getting toward dinner time, and I want to get some to eat, as well as bring back something for Joe.”

 

Ben looked around the cell. He could tell Joe was exhausted, drained by the events of the day and having to repeat his story again. Adam and Hoss looked tired, also. Neither of them had slept very well lately, their nights filled with worry about Joe. Ben decided that it was probably a good idea for all of them to take a break. As much as he hated leaving Joe in the cell, Ben stood and nodded. “We’re ready to leave, Roy.”

 

As the sheriff unlocked the cell door to let out the Cartwrights, Ben turned back to Joe. He put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and said, “We’ll be back tomorrow, Joe. Just try and get some rest. We’ll think of something to get you out of here, I promise.”

 

“Sure,” said Joe in a voice that told his father Joe didn’t believe it.

 

“We’ll see you tomorrow, little brother,” Hoss said in a hearty voice as he walked out of the cell. “You just keep out of trouble, you hear.”

 

Nodding, Joe tried to smile at Hoss’ words. But the smile was a weak effort. Joe knew he was already in more trouble than he had ever been in his life.

 

Joe watched as his father and brothers left the cell, and as Roy Coffee closed the cell door again, locking him in. Then Joe stretched out on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

 

As Ben walked out of the cell block, he turned to Roy. “How much time do we have before the prison wagon gets here?” Ben asked the sheriff.

 

“That’s hard to say,” Roy Coffee replied. “I have to send the prison authorities a telegram, telling them I’ve got a prisoner for them. If the prison wagon is already on the road, they’ll send a wire to the next town, telling the wagon to stop here. Depending on where the wagon is, it could be just a day or two before it shows up.”

 

“A day or two!” exclaimed Ben in alarm. “Roy, that’s not enough time. We need more time to find the evidence to clear Joe.”

 

“Ben, I’ve got no choice,” said the sheriff in a stubborn voice. “I have to let them fellows at the prison know about Joe.” Then Coffee’s face softened. “But maybe the wagon isn’t on the road yet,” he added. “If it ain’t, then it could be a week or more before they show up here.”

 

“A week still not very much time,” said Adam. “Isn’t there some way you can delay them?”

 

“No, I can’t,” Coffee asserted, shaking his head. “I’ve got to do my job.”

 

“Can’t you at least wait until tomorrow to send the telegram?” pleaded Ben. “Give us at least that, won’t you?”

 

Coffee looked as his old friend, trying to make up his mind. The sheriff had a keen sense of duty, but he also had a great deal of affection for the Cartwrights. “All right,” Coffee relented. “I’ll wait until tomorrow to send the telegram. But I’ve got to send it, Ben. You know that.”

 

“I know,” said Ben with a sigh.

 

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

Over the next three days, a pattern formed for the Cartwrights. Each morning, Ben, Adam and Hoss would ride into town and visit briefly with Joe, bringing him a change of clothes or a basket of his favorite foods from Hop Sing. Then the three older Cartwrights would leave the jail to tend to separate tasks that they hoped would lead to Joe’s freedom. Ben spent time with Joe’s lawyer, Hiram Withers, discussing the appeal and legal strategies. He also sent a message to the governor, requesting an appointment as soon as possible. Adam continued to search for the three men who had been in the hotel the night of the killing and had not yet been found. He sent telegrams, talked with stage coach drivers, and looked for anyone who might have rented or sold a buggy or horse to a stranger. Hoss talked with everyone he could find in town, asking them what they might know about Elizabeth and the night she died.

 

In the afternoon, the older Cartwrights would gather again at Joe’s cell, to review what they had learned. Although each man tried to sound positive, all of them, including Joe, knew their efforts so far had been fruitless. Each day, Joe was becoming more withdrawn, merely sitting on the bed and listening in silence as his father and brothers related their activities and tried to make it sound as if some progress was being made. Joe appreciated their efforts, but more and more, he was mentally preparing himself for the trip to the Nevada Territorial Prison.

 

On the fourth afternoon, after another day of searching with no results, Ben and his older sons walked into the sheriff’s office. Giving Roy Coffee a brief nod of greeting, Ben said, “We’d like to see Joe.”

 

Sitting at his desk, Coffee fingered a small piece of paper. He looked down at the paper and then back to the Cartwrights. Sighing, the sheriff stood and walked over to the men standing in his office.

 

“Ben,” Roy Coffee said slowly, “I got a telegram. The prison wagon is going to be here tomorrow morning.”

 

“Tomorrow!” said Ben in dismay. “Can’t you delay them?”

 

“No, I can’t,” said the sheriff, shaking his head. “And even if I could, what good would it do? I know you and the boys have been looking for new evidence and haven’t found anything. Another day or two isn’t going to make much difference.”

 

Looking down, Ben had to agree with Coffee about their lack of results. “I know we haven’t found anything yet, but we could turn up something today or tomorrow, or even next week.”

 

“And if you do, I’ll be the first one to contact the prison authorities to get Joe out of there,” stated Coffee. “But I can’t keep Joe here indefinitely, hoping you’ll find something. The judge ordered him sent to prison and that’s what I have to do.” The sheriff shook his head, and added sadly, “I’m sorry, Ben.”

 

Silence filled the office as Ben swallowed hard, then looked over his shoulder to Adam and Hoss. Their faces looked as stricken as he was sure his did. All of them knew it was possible, even probable, that Joe might go to prison. But facing the reality of it was a crushing blow to the three men.

 

“Does Joe know?” asked Ben softly as turned back to face the sheriff.

 

“Yes, I told him a little while ago,” replied Coffee. Once more, the sheriff shook his head. “He didn’t say a word, Ben. Joe just nodded and then went to look out the window. He’s been standing there ever since.”

 

“Let us in to see him, Roy,” said Ben.

 

Nodding, Coffee led the way to the cell block, keys in hand. As the sheriff had described, Joe stood in the cell with his back to the door, staring out the small window. He didn’t turn as Coffee unlocked the door and let the three men into the cell. Joe showed no reaction as the cell door clanged shut.

 

“Joe,” Ben said softly, “Roy told us the prison wagon will be here tomorrow. I’m sorry, son.”

 

For a moment, Joe didn’t say anything. Then, continuing to stare out the window, he remarked, “You know, it’s funny. I grew up in this town. I should know it by heart. But now, all of a sudden, I can’t remember it like I want. I can’t remember if the dress shop is next to the candy store or the boot maker’s shop. I’ve been staring out this window, trying to see Virginia City, trying to make sure I have it right in my mind. I don’t want to forget what it looks like.”

 

“Joe, you’ll see it again soon enough,” said Hoss, trying to comfort his brother.

 

“Fifteen years is a long time,” said Joe, still not turning around. “A town can change a lot in that time. I probably won’t even recognize it.”

 

“It won’t be fifteen years, son,” stated Ben. “It may be a little while before you see it again, but not fifteen years.”

 

“The Ponderosa probably won’t look the same either,” continued Joe as if he hadn’t heard Ben’s remark. He continued to stare out the window. “I wonder if the lake will look different. The strand of trees we planted last spring will probably be full grown by then.”

 

“Joe, you’ll be home before those trees begin to even sprout,” Ben said firmly.

 

Turning, Joe looked at his father and brothers. “Pa, it’s time to stop pretending,” he said softly. “It’s going to be fifteen years before I see the Ponderosa again. I’ll be 37 years old when I finally get to sleep in my own room again.”

 

Ben, Adam and Hoss stood silently in the cell, unsure what to say. Their continuing assertions that they would find new evidence and free Joe seemed hollow and false right now. None of them wanted to admit to what Joe had seemed to accept – that the youngest Cartwright was going to be taken away from the land and the family he loved.

 

“Joe,” Adam said finally, “you know we’re not going to stop looking for some clue, some evidence that will prove you’re innocent. You have to believe that. We’re not going just forget about it.”

 

“I know, Adam,” Joe said. He swallowed hard. “But it’s time to face the facts. I’m going to prison and there’s nothing you can do about it. You need to go on with your lives.”

 

“Joe..,” Ben started.

 

“Pa, I don’t want you to give up everything for me,” interrupted Joe. “You can’t spend the rest of your lives looking for something that may not exist. Elizabeth Crowley has ruined my life. I don’t want her to ruin yours too.”

 

“You can’t expect us to just pretend like this ain’t happened,” protested Hoss.

 

“We have to keep looking, Joe,” added Adam. “It’s our only hope of finding some new evidence.”

 

“What you have to do is go back and run the ranch, just like always.” Joe blinked several times as he felt his eyes growing damp. “I want to have someplace to come home to.”

 

“Don’t worry, Joe,” said Hoss, his eyes growing moist like his brother’s, “The Ponderosa will be ready and waiting for you. I’ll make sure of that.”

 

“Joe, I have an appointment with the governor next week,” said Ben. “Even if he won’t grant a pardon, maybe I can convince him to reduce your sentence.”

 

Shaking his head, Joe said, “I’m not going to count on it.”

 

“Going to that prison isn’t going to be easy, Joe,” cautioned Adam. He hesitated, then continued. “Even though the Reform Committee brought in a new warden and tried to clean things up, that place is still a hell hole.”

 

“I know, Adam,” agreed Joe. “Roy and I have talked a bit about it. I know it’s no picnic. Going there scares the hell out of me. But I’ll get through it somehow.” He gave Hoss a shaky grin. “Knowing the Ponderosa will still be there, waiting for me, will help.”

 

“Is there anything we can do for you?” asked Adam.

 

“Besides getting me out of here?” Joe answered dryly. “Yeah, there is. Roy has my hat, jacket and gunbelt someplace. I’d appreciate it if you would take them home for me.”

 

“We’ll get ’em, Joe,” Hoss said. “We’ll take your things home and keep them safe for you.”

 

“Thanks,” Joe said. “You’ll need to take care of Cochise for me, too. Make sure he gets plenty of exercise.” A stricken look crossed Joe’s face, as if a thought just struck him. “I guess, in 15 years, Cochise will be…be a really old horse,” Joe said softly. He gave a long look to his father and each brother in turn. “I guess a lot of things could be different in 15 years,” he added in a whisper. Abruptly, Joe turned to look out the window again.

 

Silence filled the cell as Joe’s unsaid fears hung in the air. Each of the older Cartwrights knew this was not a time for platitudes or easy reassurances. But none of them could seem to find words that would ease Joe’s apprehensions. With his back to them, none of them could see that Joe had his eyes tightly closed, or know the look of anguish on his face.

 

Finally, Ben stepped forward wand put his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Joe, you can’t give up hope,” he said. “No matter what happens, you can’t forget that you’ll always have a family that loves you and cares about you. We know you’re innocent, that none of this is your fault. Don’t blame yourself for what’s happened. You’re a victim of someone else’s crime, just as much as Elizabeth Crowley was.”

 

Turning his head, Joe looked up at his father. His eyes were moist and red. Slowly, Joe nodded his head. Then he turned to look out the window again. “I wish I had never seen Elizabeth Crowley,” he said bitterly. “I wish she and her paintings had never come to Virginia City.”

 

At then mentioned of the paintings, a startled look flickered across Adam’s face. His eyes narrowed a bit and his brow furrowed. “Joe,” he asked slowly, “what happened to Elizabeth’s paintings?”

 

Turning, Joe looked at his brother, surprised at the question. “I don’t know,” he said. “I never asked. Maybe Roy knows. It’s not important, is it?”

 

Adam looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head. “No, it’s not important,” he said. But a small frown lingered on his face.

 

The jingling of keys announced Roy Coffee’s entrance into the cell block. “Ben,” the sheriff said, “I think maybe it’s time for you and the boys to leave. The word is out that the prison wagon is coming in the morning. There’s a crowd of people starting to gather outside, waiting to see what you’re going to do. I’m afraid if you stay here much longer, they’re going to think something is happening.”

 

“Let them think what they want,” Ben said angrily to Coffee. “I don’t care.”

 

“No, but I do,” replied the sheriff, not offended by Ben’s tone. “Some of those boys get to drinking and talking, and there could be trouble. I’m not too keen on the idea of shooting at a mob trying to storm my jail. And if bullets do start flying, there’s no telling what could happen. I’m asking you to leave as much to protect Joe as I am anything else.”

 

Looking down, Ben understood Coffee’s concerns and knew the sheriff’s fear were legitimate. He had seen mobs before and knew how quickly things could get out of hand. A drunken mob had been known to take the law into their own hands and mete out their own form of “justice”, only feeling remorse when they sobered up.

 

“If things are going to get ugly, maybe we ought to stay here with Joe,” Hoss suggested.

 

“Things will only get ugly if you do stay,” replied Coffee. “If that crowd sees you get on your horses and ride out of town, they’ll be satisfied. The best thing for everyone is for you to leave.” He looked at the men in the cell. “I’ll give you a little time, but don’t stay too long.” Coffee turned and walked out of the cell block.

 

Putting his hand on Joe’s shoulder, Ben squeezed it reassuringly. “Joe, we’ll come by in the morning before you leave,” said Ben. He tried to smile but it was a poor effort. “We’ll bring you the best breakfast Hop Sing can make. We’ll be here when…when they come for you.”

 

Joe looked at his father, and then to Adam and Hoss. He was silent for a minute, as if trying to make us his mind about something. Then he said, “No, don’t come in the morning. I want to say goodbye now.”

 

“Joe…” started Ben in a surprised voice.

 

“Pa, I don’t want to say goodbye in front of some prison guard or with half of Virginia City watching, ” Joe said firmly. “Let’s say…what we have to now, and get it over with.” Joe didn’t add that he wanted the night to steel himself, to turn himself into a hard, unfeeling human being who would be able to survive the ordeal ahead of him.

 

“If you’re sure that’s what you want…” Ben said doubtfully.

 

“It’s what I want,” said Joe He swallowed hard. “I appreciate everything you’ve tried to do for me,” he added in a choked voice. “But now, it’s time we all faced the truth. I’m going to be taken away in the morning. So let’s say goodbye now.”

 

There was a sudden awkwardness between the men in the cell. No gesture seemed adequate or words seemed sufficient to express the emotions each of them were feeling. None of the them seemed to know what to say or do to convey their feelings. Finally, Adam walked over to Joe and put a hand on each of his brother’s shoulders.

 

“You take care of yourself, Joe,” he said in a soft voice. “Just do what they tell you and don’t cause any trouble.” He grinned. “Don’t try any of your silly tricks. They won’t work on those prison guards any better than they worked on Pa or me.”

 

“You mean, you don’t think they’ll appreciate me dumping a pail of water on them or trying to sneak out to go to town?” answered Joe, giving Adam a small smile.

 

“I mean exactly that,” said Adam, continuing to smile. He moved his right hand to Joe’s neck and rubbed it. “Be careful, Joe,” he said, his voice softening. “We want you home safe and sound. I’ll miss you and your stupid tricks.” Adam cuffed his Joe lightly on the neck. The two men stood for a minute, just looking at each other. Then Adam abruptly turned away and walked to the front of the cell.

 

Hoss glanced at Adam, then strode purposefully across the cell to stand in front of Joe.

“Goodbye, little brother,” he said a voice full of emotion. “Things ain’t going to be the same around the Ponderosa while you’re gone. I’m gonna miss you.”

 

“I’ll miss you too, Hoss,” said Joe. He blinked as he could feel the tears growing in his eyes. “Take care of Cochise for me, and tell Hop Sing I said goodbye. Tell him I’ll probably think of him every time I eat what passes for food at that place.”

 

Nodding, Hoss suddenly reached out and enveloped Joe in his massive arms. As he pulled his brother to him in a hug, Hoss whispered, “Take care, Joe.” He patted his younger brother lightly on the back.

 

The two men hung on to each other for a moment, then separated. Joe sniffed and ran his hand quickly across his nose. “Goodbye, big brother,” he said softly. Hoss nodded and turned away, unable to say anything else. He walked slowly across the cell.

 

Turning expectantly to his father, Joe waited for Ben to walk across the room. Ben stood in the corner of the cell, unable to move. He felt somehow if he didn’t say goodbye, Joe wouldn’t be able to leave him. Ben knew that it was a foolish thought, but he found it almost impossible to make himself move to his youngest son. Finally, Ben took a deep breath and forced himself to walk to Joe.

 

“Son, if there was any way I could take your place, I’d do it,” said Ben. “I’d give anything if I could spare you from this.”

 

“I know, Pa,” said Joe, nodding. “Don’t worry. I’ll be all right.”

 

“I know you will,” agreed Ben. He felt a lump in his throat. “We’ll come see you. I’ll figure out some way to make sure we can get in to visit.” Ben’s voice cracked and he knew it was impossible for him to say anything else. Ben reached out and hugged Joe to him. Joe wrapped his arms around his father in return. The two clung to each other almost desperately.

 

Standing near the front of the cell, Adam and Hoss looked down, unable to watch the emotions overcoming the two men a few feet away. The moment lingered, then Adam raised his head and called out, “Roy, we’re ready to leave.”

 

Ben and Joe were still holding on to each other as Roy walked into the cell block. The sheriff looked at the scene in the cell, then silently bent to unlock the door.

 

As they heard the cell door open, both Ben and Joe knew the moment they had dreaded was finally here. They both were aware that prolonging their goodbye would only be agonizing, but neither seemed to want to let the other go. Ben whispered in his son’s ear, “You’ll always have a family that cares for you, Joe. Don’t ever forget that” He ran his hand over the back of Joe’s head. “I love you, son.”

 

Dropping his arms, Joe pulled back. He could feel the tears on his face but didn’t bother to brush them away. “Goodbye, Pa,” he whispered.

 

“Goodbye, son,” Ben said. He turned slowly and walked to the front of the cell. The door was open; Adam and Hoss were already standing outside the barred room. Ben walked slowly to join his older sons. As Ben exited the cell, Coffee closed the door behind him, snapping the lock shut.

 

Standing in the middle of the cell, Joe simply looked at his father and brothers. He gave them a last reassuring nod, then turned away. Joe raised his head to look at the ceiling as he took a deep breath. He moved to the back of the cell and stared out the small window, not seeing the view on the other side of the bars.

 

The Cartwrights knew it was time to go. They followed Roy Coffee out of the cell block and into his office. No one spoke until they reached the sheriff’s desk. Then Coffee said simply, “I’m sorry, Ben.”

 

“I know you are, Roy, ” answered Ben. “It’s not your fault.”

 

“You know if there was anything I could do inside the law for Joe, I’d do it,” continued Coffee. He shook his head. “There’s just nothing I can do.”

 

“We understand, Roy,” Ben said.

 

“Roy, Joe said you have his jacket and things,” Hoss said. “We’d like to take them home for him.”

 

“Sure, Hoss,” said the sheriff. He walked across the office to a small cabinet and pulled open a drawer. Reaching into the drawer, Coffee pulled out a tan hat, green jacket and brown leather gunbelt. Closing the drawer with his hip, the sheriff turned and held out the items to Hoss. “Here you are.”

 

“Thanks,” said Hoss, walking across the office. He took the hat, jacket and gunbelt from Coffee. For a moment, Hoss stared at the clothing and belt, then sighed.

 

“Roy, what happened to Elizabeth Crowley’s things?” asked Adam as he stood near Roy’s desk.

 

“Her things?” said Roy, surprised by the question. “We put her clothes and other personal belongings in a trunk we found in her room. I’ve got them locked up in the storeroom in the back. I went through them, Adam. I looked at everything. There wasn’t anything in there that might help Joe. Nothing that indicated who she really was or where she was from.”

 

“What about the paintings?” Adam asked. “What happened to them?”

 

Frowning, Roy said, “Now that you mention it, Adam, there weren’t any paintings in the room. I know Joe said she was a painter, but I didn’t find any pictures in her room.”

 

“Do you know if she stored them someplace else?” Adam pressed the sheriff.

 

“I don’t think so,” replied Coffee. “I talked to just about everybody in town. If someone had those pictures or were holding something for her, I’m sure they would have told me.”

 

“What are you getting at, Adam?” asked Ben.

 

Turning to his father, Adam said, “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Joe because it might be nothing. But if the paintings on gone, whoever killed Elizabeth Crowley might have them. He can’t run his little scheme now, and if he needs money, he might try to sell them. If we can find the paintings, we can find the man who was with Elizabeth that night.”

 

“You’re right, Adam,” said Ben in an excited voice. Then suddenly, his voice grew doubtful. “But how do we find them?”

 

“He probably wouldn’t try to sell them around here,” said Adam, looking thoughtful. “Someone might suspect something. And I don’t think the paintings were good enough for a San Francisco gallery. My guess is he would try to sell them to a small shop, or maybe to an individual.”

 

“Well, then we’re back where we started,” Ben said in a discouraged voice. “We can’t check every store and ranch west of the Rockies.”

 

“No, but we can send some telegrams,” said Adam. “We can wire stores in towns like Stockton and Sacramento, and ask them to let us know if someone tries to sell them a painting of Lake Tahoe or the Nevada mountains. We could send letters to some of the bigger ranchers, too. If this man is going to sell the paintings, he won’t bother with anyone who can’t afford to pay him a pretty decent price for them.”

 

“I’ll see if I can get the newspaper to run an article on the missing paintings,” said Ben, his voice rising with excitement again. “I’ll contact my friend who’s the publisher in San Francisco, and ask him to run an article in the paper there. Maybe he can use his contacts to get the story in some other papers.”

 

“I’ll send wires to sheriffs I know in the bigger towns,” added Roy Coffee, getting caught up in Adam’s idea. “Maybe they’ll know of someone who is carrying around some paintings.”

 

“Good idea,” agreed Adam. “The thing to do is to get the word out to as many people as possible. Someone, somewhere is bound to spot the paintings eventually. If we can find them, we can pick up the trail of the man who was in Elizabeth’s room that night.”

 

“Do you think this will work, Adam?” asked Hoss.

 

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted, shaking his head. “But right now, we don’t have anything else to go on. It’s worth a try.”

 

“Let’s get home and make up a list of who to contact,” suggested Ben. “We can start sending telegrams and letters tomorrow. I’ll talk to Charlie Groggins over at the Territorial Enterprise then also.”

 

“You boys coming in the morning to see Joe before he goes?” asked Coffee.

 

Glancing at Adam and Hoss, Ben shook his head. “No, Roy,” Ben answered. “Joe doesn’t want that. We’ve said our goodbyes.”

 

Coffee nodded, suspecting that was the case when he saw the raw emotion exhibited by the men in the cell. “That’s probably a smart idea,” said the sheriff. “Joe will be better off if he doesn’t have to see you as he’s getting to that prison wagon.”

 

Turning away, Ben said, “I suppose.”

 

A sudden realization struck Adam. “Joe won’t see us, but you’ll see him tomorrow, won’t you,” Adam said to his father. “That’s why you said we’ll send the telegrams and letters tomorrow.”

 

Shrugging a bit, Ben simply answered, “There are a lot of places where someone can stand and see this office without necessarily being noticed.”

 

Smiling, Adam said, “Yeah, and I’ll bet you know everyone of them.”

 

“Ben, I don’t want to rush you,” said Coffee, “but that crowd outside is still growing. I think it’s time you boys walked out of here, got on your horses and rode out of town.”

 

“We’ll go,” said Ben reluctantly. He glanced toward the cell block. “Let us know if Joe needs anything.”

 

“I will,” agreed Coffee. “And I’ll get working on the wires to those sheriffs.”

 

In the cell at the back of the sheriff’s office, Joe watched out the window. He had told himself it was time to stop thinking about his family and to start turning himself into the hardened individual he needed to become. But he couldn’t stop watching out the window, keeping his gaze fixed on the narrow bit of the main street he could see from his cell. He watched and waited until he finally saw three familiar horses flash by, riding slowly down the street. Even after the horses were gone from his view, Joe continued to stare out the window, wanting to make sure they didn’t return. Finally, Joe turned away from the window and walked over to the bed. He sat on the edge of the bed, and squeezed his eyes closed, trying to force the pain of separation out of his body. Then he stretched out on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

 

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

Under a bright moon, the cowboy walked from the bunkhouse to the main house of the Ponderosa. The man was nervous, wondering why the Cartwrights had told the foreman they wanted to see him. As he stood in front of the door, the man removed his hat and nervously ran his fingers through his sandy hair, all the while trying to think of anything he might have done wrong or would cause one of his bosses to be upset with him. He had been on the Ponderosa about eight months, and he thought he had been doing a good job. At thirty, the man was young enough to find another ranch on which to work but he didn’t particularly want to leave the Ponderosa. He liked the ranch, the men he worked with, and his bosses. The pay was good, and the Cartwrights never asked their hands to do anything they weren’t willing to do themselves. Unable to come up with anything that might cause him to be in trouble, the cowboy replaced his hat. He took a deep breath, reached for the knocker on the door, and rapped it loudly against the wood.

 

Almost immediately, Adam Cartwright opened the door. “Hello, Ed,” said Adam in a sober voice. “Thanks for coming.” He pulled the door wide, inviting the cowboy into the house. Ed Stevens nodded at Adam and then walked into the main room of the ranch house.

 

Standing nervously just inside the door, Stevens could see Ben Cartwright sitting in a red chair near the fireplace, as well as a bright fire burning in the hearth. Hoss Cartwright was sprawled on the sofa, his large frame taking up about half of the long piece of furniture.

 

“Come on in, Ed,” said Adam, coming up behind Stevens. He gestured toward the fireplace. Stevens walked slowly behind Adam, pulling his hat off his head. He folded the edges of the hat in his hands, still apprehensive about the summons, as he walked to stand next to the sofa. Adam walked over to a blue chair near the stairs and sat down.

 

Turning to look at Stevens, Ben said, “Sit down, Ed. Can I offer you a drink or a cup of coffee?”

 

“No sir, thanks,” replied Stevens, puzzled as to why he was being treated as a guest. Nothing in way the Cartwrights said or acted indicated they were upset with him, but Stevens still couldn’t guess why they had wanted to see him. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’d just as soon stand.”

 

Nodding his agreement. Ben said, “Ed, you’ve been in prison….”

 

“Five years, Mr. Cartwright,” interrupted Stevens. “I told you about it when I signed on. It was stupid, what I did. Some fellows talked me into helping them while they tried to rob a Well Fargo office. All I did was hold the horses, but I got arrested with the rest of them when the sheriff caught them in the middle of trying to open the safe. Judge gave me five years. I served my time, and I ain’t been in trouble since.”

 

“I know all that, Ed,” said Ben in a calming voice. “We’re not accusing you of anything.” Ben turned to look into the flames of the fire for a minute, then turned back to the cowboy. “You’ve heard about what happened to Joe, haven’t you.”

 

“Yes sir,” replied Stevens, a glimmer of why he had been asked to the house starting to come to him. “The boys have been talking about it in the bunkhouse. None of us think he killed that girl.”

 

“We know Joe is innocent,” agreed Ben, “but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to prove it.” He took a deep breath. “The prison wagon is coming to pick up Joe in the morning.”

 

“I’m real sorry to hear that, Mr. Cartwright,” said Stevens in genuine sympathy. He liked Joe, as he did the other men who ran the Ponderosa. And he had seen how close the Cartwrights were as a family. Stevens could guess that Joe Cartwright being hauled off to prison was painful for all of them.

 

“We’ve been talking about what we might be able to do to help Joe until we can get him released,” said Adam from across the room. “Frankly, we’re not sure what might help him. We thought that with your, well, experience, you could tell us what to do, as well as what not to do.”

 

“We’ve heard how bad that prison is,” added Hoss in a grim voice. “We figured there must be something we could do to make things easier for Joe while he’s there.”

 

“It’s pretty bad,” agreed Stevens, understanding fully now why he had been summoned to the house. “The first couple of years I was there, it was hell. The guards would beat you for no reason, the food was rotten and you had to watch your back all the time, to make sure someone didn’t stick a knife in it.”

 

As Stevens spoke, he could see Ben Cartwright wincing. “But things got a lot better the last year I was there,” added Stevens quickly. “They brought in a new warden and he cleaned things up. He got rid of the worst guards, and we started getting some decent food. They made some new rules and anyone who got caught causing trouble ended up in solitary. It weren’t no walk in the sun, but at least a man could figure on doing his time and getting out of there in one piece.”

 

“I know the warden slightly,” said Ben. “I was on the committee that hired him and gave him the direction on improving conditions. I thought maybe I could ask him to give Joe some special consideration, to make things easier for Joe while he’s there.”

 

“Don’t do that, Mr. Cartwright,” advised Stevens in an earnest voice. “That’s the worst thing you could do for Joe.” The cowboy looked down for a minute, struggling to find words which would explain prison life to the Cartwrights.

 

“There’s a kind of pecking order among the prisoners,” said Stevens, looking back to Ben. “The ones that have been there the longest, or who are the toughest, they sort of decide who does what. They get some of the easier work, and first crack at things like new clothes. If the warden were to treat Joe special, he’d end up jumping the line, so to speak. The other prisoners would resent that and, well, they could make it pretty rough for him.”

 

“So Joe would be better off just being one of the crowd,” suggested Adam.

 

“Probably,” said Stevens, nodding. “Joe’s a smart kid. He’ll figure out how things work in there pretty fast.” Stevens gave the Cartwrights a small smile. “I did and I’m not the brightest guy. It’d be better to let Joe work out his own way of handling things.”

 

“Is there anything we should send him?” asked Ben. “Anything that he might need or could use to make his life easier?”

 

Cocking his head, Stevens considered the question. “Getting mail in there is kind of spotty. Even though they got rid of some of bad guards, things still tend to, well, disappear. The first couple of years I was there, nobody got any of their mail. The last year or so, the letters were getting delivered but not much else.” Stevens shook his head. “Not that there were many of us who had somebody who would write to them.”

 

“That’s another thing,” said Ben. “We were trying to decide about what to write to Joe. We were wondering if we should tell him what’s going on at the ranch or in town.” Ben look away. “We don’t want to upset him, though, or make him feel worse about being away.”

 

Again, Stevens hesitated before answering. “There was a fellow in prison when I was there,” he said slowly. “A farmer or something. I forget exactly what he had done. Stole something I think. Anyway, his wife used to write him every day. She’d tell him about their kids, what they were doing in the school, what happened during the day. You know, just kind of ordinary things like that. But she’d write him every day. We used to make fun of the fellow, getting so many letters. But we were a little jealous of him, too, having someone who cared that much about him. The thing is, when he got out, it was like he hadn’t missed much. He knew what had happened with his kids, how his farm was doing, and all about his neighbors. It sure made things easier for him to go back to his old life.”

 

“And the letters didn’t upset him?” asked Ben in surprise.

 

“Well, sometimes they did, like when one of the kids were sick and he couldn’t be with them,” admitted Stevens. “But most of the time, he looked forward to getting them. He said it was like being able to spend a little bit of time at home every day.”

 

Nodding, Ben said, “Yes, I can understand how he might feel that way.” Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. “I think Adam’s idea about one of us writing Joe every day might be the right thing to do.”

 

“I know how much I looked forward to getting letters while I was in Boston,” Adam said.

 

“Will Joe be able to write us back?” Hoss asked Stevens.

 

“When I left, they were letting prisoners send letters once a week,” replied Stevens. “Not too many had anybody to write to, but a few did. Anybody who had a family would write, if they knew how, although there wasn’t much to say. I wouldn’t be too worried if Joe’s letters are pretty short. He’s not going to have a lot to tell you.”

 

“All I want to know is if he’s all right,” said Ben in a grim voice.

 

“There must be some way we can get in to see him,” said Adam. He turned to Stevens. “Did they let the prisoners have any visitors?”

 

“Usually only their lawyer, if they had one who would bother to come see them,” answered Stevens. “Sometimes, some sheriff would come and ask questions. I don’t remember anyone getting to just visit, but they might let you in if you had some legal stuff you had to discuss with Joe.”

 

“We’ll have to work on that one,” said Ben. “Maybe we can find something to do with Joe’s case that we’ll need to cover with him.” Ben looked at Stevens. “Is there anything else you can tell us? Any other advice you might offer that would help us help Joe?”

 

Looking down, Stevens thought for a minute then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” he answered, his voice full of regret. “I can’t think of anything that might help. The men in that prison, they just have to do their time. There’s nothing anyone can do about that.”

 

Getting to his feet, Ben walked over to Stevens and offered the cowboy his hand. “Thank you, Ed,” he said. “We appreciate your talking with us.”

 

Surprised at being offered a hand, Stevens quickly shook it. “I didn’t do much,” he said. “If I think of anything that might help Joe, I’ll let you know.”

 

“We would appreciate that,” said Ben.

 

Stevens turned and took a few steps toward the door, then stopped. He turned back to the Cartwrights. “I wouldn’t worry too much about Joe,” said Stevens in a comforting voice. “He’s a tough kid. He’ll be all right in there.”

 

“I hope so,” said Ben softly.

 

Nodding, Stevens turned and walked back to the door, He slipped his hat back on his head, pulled open the door, and walked out into the night. Ben stood staring at the door as it closed behind the cowboy.

 

“Ed’s right, Pa,” said Adam. “Joe knows how to take care of himself. He can be pretty tough when he needs to be.”

 

“That’s what worries me,” said Ben, still look at the door.

 

“What do you mean by that, Pa?” asked Hoss.

 

Turning slowly, Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. “Everyone keeps saying how tough Joe can be,” he said. “He’ll need to be hard, to be tough everyday in that place to survive. What I’m worried about is that it will become a way of life for him. I’m worried that the Joe we knew might disappear.”

 

“Once we get him home, Joe will revert back to his old self,” Adam assured his father.

 

“Will he, Adam?” asked Ben. He shook his head. “I hope you’re right. But prison can change a man. We all know that. I can’t help wondering what kind of man Joe will be when he gets home.”

 

“You ain’t afraid to have him come home, are you, Pa?” asked Hoss in a worried voice.

 

“Of course not,” answered Ben. He looked off. “But I can’t help worrying about what that place will do to Joe — if it will make him hard, kill his spirit. I worry that the man who killed Elizabeth Crowley also might end up killing the Joe we know.”

 

“We’ll find whoever did it, Pa,” stated Adam. “We’ll find him, and make him confess. Once he does that, we can get Joe back home.”

 

“I hope so, Adam,” said Ben. “And I hope we do it before it’s too late.”

 

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

Standing by the window of his cell, Joe saw the prison wagon roll down the street. He watched the steel-plated wagon pass his narrow view of the street with almost a sense of relief. It was late morning, and Joe had grown tense and edgy waiting for the wagon to arrive. He had been ready for the prison wagon since finishing breakfast. Briefly, Joe thought of the tray filled with bacon, eggs, toast and coffee that Roy Coffee had brought him. The sheriff thoughtfully had brought Joe what might be his last decent meal for awhile, but Joe had had to force the food down. The breakfast had no taste to him, and his churning stomach had found it difficult to accept the food. The hours he had spent waiting after managing to finish most of the breakfast had past with an agonizing slowness.

 

Standing in the middle of his cell, Joe clenched his hands into a fist. His already raw nerves were becoming even more strained as Joe tried to ready himself. He knew the ride to the prison in the steel wagon would be almost has bad as being confined in a cell – maybe even worse. He had been prepared since early morning, and the waiting had been almost torture. Joe just wanted to get it over with. A bitter smile crossed Joe face as the thought flashed through his mind. He had a feeling that was how he was going to think of each day from now on – just get through it and get it over with.

 

The clanging of metal drew Joe’s attention to the door of the cell block. Roy Coffee walked toward the cell with the familiar ring of keys in his hand. Behind the sheriff was a burly, bearded man in a blue uniform, and with a holster strapped around his hips. In the man’s hand were two sets of shackles. Joe needed no one to tell him that this was the guard who was going to take him to the prison.

 

“Wait a minute,” growled the guard as Coffee started to unlock Joe’s cell. “Have him stick his arms through the bars so I can shackle them before you unlock the cell.”

 

“There’s no need for that,” said Roy Coffee with a surprised look. “Joe won’t give you any trouble.”

 

“Procedure,” answered the guard briefly. “Even the quietest prisoner can get crazy when he realizes what’s happening. I’m in no mood to fight someone and hold him down while I shackle him.”

 

Coffee’s mouth closed tightly in disapproval as he looked at the guard. Then the sheriff turned to face the cell. “You heard him, Joe,” said Coffee almost apologetically. “Come here and stick your arms through the bars.”

 

Silently, Joe walked forward and thrust his arms through the bars of the cell. The bars weren’t spaced wide enough for him to get both arms through a single opening; a metal rod separated his arms.

 

Walking past the sheriff, the guard took one set of shackles and closed them tightly around Joe’s wrists, locking each cuff with a small key. “All right,” said the guard as he turned the small key the second time. “You can open the cell now.”

 

Without making a comment, Coffee unlocked the cell and opened it to allow the guard to walk in. The man brushed past Coffee and immediately bent to put the second set of shackles around Joe’s ankles. As soon as the cuffs were locked, the guard stood and walked back outside the cell. He unlocked the cuff around Joe’s right wrist and removed it. “All right, boy,” said the guard to Joe. “Pull your arms back in and take a step back.” Joe obeyed the order with a stoic look on his face. The chain and dangling cuff of the shackle scraped the metal rods as Joe pulled them into the cell with him. The guard walked back into the cell again, and quickly re-attached the cuff around Joe’s right wrist, locking it with the key.

 

“Start walking,” the guard said to Joe. “Take small steps or you’ll trip and end up flat on your face.”

 

Closing his eyes briefly, Joe took a deep breath. Then he took a small step – his first step as a prisoner of the Territory of Nevada.

 

As Joe shuffled out of the cell, Roy Coffee watched with a pained look. “You take care of yourself, Joe, ” the sheriff said softly as Joe passed him. Joe nodded briefly but didn’t look at Coffee. He was concentrating on looking straight ahead, blocking out the sight of everything around him. Joe didn’t want to see anything that was familiar to him, nothing that would offer a painful reminder of how long it would be before he saw it again.

 

With an almost bored expression on his face, the guard followed Joe out of the cell block. He had been a bit surprised at how young the man was, but then, he had transported younger men than this one. He knew a tender age and a baby face could hide a mean streak.

 

As Joe shuffled past the desk in the office, the guard said, “Hold it a minute, boy.” Joe stopped, staring straight ahead at the wall on the far side of the office.

 

Turning to the sheriff, the guard asked Coffee, “You got the papers on him?”

 

Coffee walked over to the desk and picked up a sheet of paper. He handed it to the guard, then asked, “You making any more stops?”

 

“Not unless you have a telegram telling me to pick up someone else,” said the guard. He glanced at the paper in his hand, and then folded it Sticking the paper into a pocket inside his jacket, the guard added, “With this one, we’ve got five prisoners. That’s a lot for us to keep an eye on. We’ll probably ride through the night so we won’t have to make camp.” The guard gave Coffee a crooked smile. “The kid will be at his new home tomorrow.” Joe heard the guard’s words, but didn’t react to them. His gazed remained fixed on the far wall

 

Reaching forward, the guard pushed on Joe’s arm. “All right, start walking,” said the blue-coated man. “The wagon is right outside.” Joe started shuffling forward, never turning his head to look at the men behind him.

 

The arrival of the prison wagon had attracted a crowd in the streets of Virginia City. Knots of people stood in the street or on the sidewalk, watching. As the door to the sheriff’s office opened and Joe shuffled out, several people started whispering and pointing. Joe ignored them, lowering his head to look at the ground.

 

As Joe carefully watched the steps he was descending, he didn’t see the broad-shouldered, gray-haired man watching from the alley across the street, or the man dressed in black standing alone on the corner. His eyes never passed over the big man wearing the tall white hat who was standing by the stable. Joe kept his head down and shuffled quickly to the back of the prison wagon. He stopped and waited while the guard pulled a large key out of the pocket of his jacket. The guard unlocked the door of the wagon and, with an indifferent expression, helped Joe climb into the wagon. Then the guard slammed the door shut.

 

At least three people in the crowd winced at the clang of the metal door being slammed closed.

 

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

Inside the prison wagon, Joe sat stiffly on a wooden bench. He tried not to think about what was happening and where he was going, but as the wagon jerked forward, Joe flinched. He thought he had prepared himself, but a sinking feeling was growing in his stomach as the reality of actually going to prison finally hit him. Joe tried not to think about where he was going. He had decided he no longer had a past or a future. For Joe Cartwright, there was only the present. The only thing that mattered was enduring whatever was facing him at the time. But Joe’s resolve not to think about the future was wavering. He couldn’t stop himself from wondering what his life was going to be like from now on.

 

Trying to dismiss the thoughts of what was ahead of him, Joe looked around. The inside of the wagon was dim and stuffy. Two small windows on either side were the only way that light and air could get into the steel box. Joe looked toward the front of the wagon. Some blankets laid in a messy pile on the floor, and a small barrel with a lid was chained to wall. Joe figured it must be a water barrel because he could see the handle of a dipper sticking out of it. Two long benches ran along the side of the wagon, and Joe turned his attention to the men sitting on them.

 

Four men occupied the wagon with Joe, just as the guard had told Roy Coffee. In the far corner, a man about forty was sprawled on the bench, his back resting against the corner of the wagon. Next to him was a big man with a scruffy beard, looking uncomfortable as he tried to position his big frame on the narrow bench. Next to Joe sat two men who looked like cowhands. Both seemed in their late twenties, and their faces looked pale and tired.

 

“Looks like we got us a new guest at our little party,” said the man sprawled on the bench. “What they get you for?”

 

Turning, Joe faced at the man, trying to give him a cold look. “They said I killed a woman,” Joe answered tersely.

 

“And you didn’t do it,” said the man, giving a small laugh. “Just like I didn’t try to rob no stage, or Brewer here didn’t half beat his boss to death. And them two boys didn’t rustle any cattle.” The man laughed harder. “Ain’t it a shame that nothing but innocent people end up going to prison.”

 

Joe started to protest his innocence, then suddenly realized there was no point to it. It didn’t matter whether the men in the wagon thought he was guilty or not. Shrugging, Joe turned away. But he noticed that the two men sitting next to him edged further down the bench.

 

“What’s your name, boy?” asked the man in the corner of the wagon.

 

“Joe Cartwright,” answered Joe, without looking at the man. “What’s it to you?”

 

“Nothing,” said the man. “I was just curious. I figure as long as we all have to spend some time together, we might as well get to know each other.”

 

“What are you?” Joe said in an irritated voice. “Some kind of social director?”

 

The man in the corner frowned. “Now that ain’t very friendly, boy,” he said in a voice that reflected his displeasure.

 

“I didn’t figure on making any friends here,” Joe said coldly.

 

The man in the corner sat silent for a moment, then laughed. “Oh, you’re a tough one, ain’t you?” he jeered. “Hard as nails, right? Well, we’ll see how tough you when they locked you into that prison cell. I’ve seen men harder than you turn into babbling babies when they realize they ain’t going to get out, at least not for a long time.”

 

Trying to act indifferent, Joe leaned back against the side of the wagon and closed his eyes. He didn’t want the man to see how worried he was that the man might be right.

 

In silence and with his eyes closed, Joe rode in the prison wagon as it rolled and bumped along the road. Despite his detached air, though, Joe listened to the conversation in the wagon. Most of the talking was done by the man in the corner – Joe heard him called Dawson – but the two men sitting next to Joe asked questions from time to time in quivering voices. Dawson was only to happy to tell them some horror stories of prison; of men he knew who had been killed or maimed there, of inhuman conditions that could drive a man insane, and of how few left the prison unchanged by their stay. Joe was sure Dawson was exaggerating and telling tales; he seemed the type who would get a perverse pleasure out of frightening the other men in the wagon. Nevertheless, Joe wanted Dawson to shut up. He had a niggling fear in the back of his mind that some of the things Dawson were describing were true. But Joe kept his silence, and continued to feign indifference. Part of the reason was his decision to appear to be hardened and cold. Joe knew enough to understand that men who were perceived as weak and frightened often became victims of other prisoners. But another part of the reason also was that Joe was afraid if he started to voice his fears and doubts, he would turning into one of those babbling babies Dawson had described.

 

As the wagon rolled on, covering the miles toward the prison, the inside of the box was becoming an oven. The afternoon sun heated the metal, and there was little air to cool the men. Joe smelled the stench of the sweating bodies around him, and he could feel the sweat of his own body. The cuffs around his wrists began to chafe his damp skin. Even though his eyes were still closed, Joe could tell the big man sitting across from him had gotten up twice to get some water. He could hear the man’s movement and the splash of the dipper in the barrel. Joe thought about getting some water for himself, but a lassitude seemed to have taken over him. Getting up for a drink would take more energy than Joe was prepared to spend.

 

At some point, Joe dozed off, lulled to sleep by the heat and the absence of the nervous energy which had built up in him that morning but now was seeping away. He woke with a start, though, when he felt the wagon jolt to a stop. For a moment, Joe wasn’t sure where he was, but the dim light and the stench of the wagon quickly reminded him. Looking around with a frown, Joe wondered why the wagon had stopped. He knew from what the guard had said that it would the prisons would travel through the night to reach the prison, and Joe could see the afternoon sun filtering through the small window.

 

The reason for the wagon’s halt was clear a few minutes later when Joe heard the lock click and saw the guard pulling the metal door open. “You’ve got five minutes to stretch your legs,” the guard announced as he pulled the door wide. “Don’t try anything funny. I ain’t afraid to use this.” The guard showed the prisoners the double barreled shotgun in his hands.

 

Suddenly realizing how cramped his legs felt and smelling the fresh air from outside, Joe hurried to scramble out of the wagon. He shuffled a few feet from the wagon, stretching his muscles while taking deep breaths of the clean air and letting the cool breeze wash over him. Joe could see the wagon had been pulled off the trail and stopped in an open field. If anyone tried to make a run for it – a foolish thought anyway considering the shackles around their legs – the guard would have an clear shot at the man. Joe turned back toward the wagon and watched as the other prisoners climbed out of the wagon. He saw a second guard standing a few feet from the wagon – a tall thin man with a dour expression and also holding a shotgun. Joe figured he was the wagon’s driver.

 

Turning his back on the wagon, Joe shuffled around in a small circle, rolling his shoulders and stretching as much as possible as he walked. Then he walked back toward the wagon, stopping at a large rock near the back of the steel box. Easing himself down, Joe sat on the rock and stretched his legs out as far as possible. He felt the cool breeze on his face, and stared at the green grass spread before him.

 

“It gets pretty cramped in there,” said a deep voice to Joe’s left. Joe looked up, surprised to see Brewer, the big man who had been silently riding across from him.

 

“Yeah, it does,” agreed Joe cautiously.

 

“Did you kill that girl?” the man asked.

 

“Does it make any difference what I say?” replied Joe with a shrug.

 

“To me, it does,” stated Brewer firmly.

 

Giving the man a curious look, Joe wondered why Brewer cared whether Joe was innocent or not. He decided that there was no harm in trying to convince at least one more person that he was innocent.

 

“I didn’t kill her,” Joe said. “I had an argument with her, but she was fine when I left her. The problem is that they can’t seem to find anyone else who had a reason to kill her. I was there, and they found her dead. Next thing I knew, I was in jail, convicted of killing her.”

 

“I thought it might be something like that,” said the big man with a nod. He studied Joe for a minute, then asked, You said your name was Joe Cartwright. Any relation to Hoss Cartwright?”

 

“Hoss is my brother,” answered Joe, his face and voice showing his suspicion at the question.

 

“Don’t get your back up,” said Brewer quickly, noting Joe’s suspicion. “I was just asking because Hoss did me a good turn, and I kind of feel like I owe him.” Seeing Joe’s eyes arched in surprise, Brewer continued. “About two years ago, over in Gold Hill, Hoss kept me from beating up a fellow and going to jail.” Brewer shrugged. “I’m a pretty easy going fellow until I get to drinking. But after a few drinks, I start looking for someone to hit. I had had a few beers in the saloon at Gold Hill and was feeling pretty feisty. I took after this fellow a lot smaller than me for some stupid reason. I probably would have hurt the fellow pretty bad, maybe even killed him.” Brewer looked down, a shamed expression on his face. “Once I get to beating on someone, I have a hard time stopping.”

 

“What did Hoss do?” asked Joe curiously.

 

“Well, he stepped in and pulled the fellow away from me. I got mad and went after him. We pounded each other pretty good until he finally knocked me out,” said Brewer. He gave Joe a small smile. “That brother of yours has a pretty solid right.”

 

“Yeah, he sure does,” agreed Joe with a smile.

 

“Anyway, when I woke up, I was in an alley next to the saloon,” continued Brewer. “Hoss was wiping the blood off my face and trying to clean me up. When I finally got my senses back, that brother of yours read me the riot act about beating up on smaller men. He gave me a real lecture, talking about how men our size had to be careful about losing our tempers and how we could hurt someone without realizing it.”

 

Joe nodded silently. He could hear his father telling the same thing to Hoss when all of them were much younger. The lecture had taken with Hoss, but obviously not with this man.

 

“After he was finished telling me off, Hoss said put me on a horse and told me to stay out of trouble,” Brewer said. “He could have called the sheriff and had me put in jail, but instead, he just tried to straighten me out.” Brewer shook his head in amazement. “After me trying to beat the tar out of him, Hoss just patted me on the back and sent me home.”

 

“That sounds like brother Hoss,” said Joe. He vaguely remembered Hoss coming home from Gold Hill a few years ago with a collection of bruises. Hoss had just shrugged on his family’s questions and merely said he had been in a fight. His big brother had stoically endured a lecture from Pa without explaining further.

 

“I remembered what your brother said, and I kept away from fights for along time after that,” Brewer said. “At least until my boss tried to cheat me out of my pay. I got mad and drunk, and well, here I am.” Brewer shrugged. “I guess it was only a question of time until I ended up here, but I figure your brother helped me put this off for a couple of years.” Brewer suddenly grinned. “Besides, from what I can remember, that was the best fight I ever had.”

 

“I’ll bet it was,” Joe grinned, remember Hoss’ bruised face.

 

“Anyway, I just wanted you to know I figure I owe the Cartwrights,” Brewer finished. “Where we’re going, it’s pretty much every man for himself. It’s hard to find someone to back you up. I just wanted you to know that, well, if there’s anything I can do for you, I’ll do my best to try to repay the favor.” Brewer turned abruptly and shuffled away.

 

Sitting on the rock, Joe’s face grew sober. Brewer’s words about every man for himself hit Joe hard. For the first time, he realized how alone he was, how he had no one he could rely on to help him. No matter how much he had complained about his father and brothers being over-protective sometimes, Joe had always had the comforting knowledge that his family was watching out for him, and would come to his aid if he needed them. Now, though, they couldn’t help him. Joe was on his own. No one would be watching out for him or probably even care if something happened to him. Joe’s shoulders slumped a bit. He had never felt so far away from his family and so alone. It was one more thought to add to his building despair.

 

“All right, back in the wagon,” shouted the bearded guard. “You’ve stretched your legs enough.”

 

Rising slowly, Joe took his time returning to the wagon. As he walked, Joe looked around him, drinking in the sight of the grass and trees. The thought crossed his mind that it would be a long time before he saw something like this again.

 

“Hurry up!” the guard shouted when he saw Joe was taking his time returning. He lowered his shotgun a bit in a threatening gesture. Joe saw the movement and increased his pace a bit.

 

“Boy, you’re going to have to learn that when I say jump, you ask how high,” said the guard when Joe finally reached the wagon. He stood by with a look of displeasure as Joe struggled to climb back into the wagon. This time, Joe got no helpful hand.

 

When Joe was finally inside the metal box, the guard looked in. “Listen up,” said the bearded man. “We’re going to drive straight through to the prison. No stop for a night camp. So make yourselves comfortable. You ain’t getting out again until we reach the prison.”

 

“I’m hungry,” whined Dawson. “Aren’t you going to feed us?”

 

Looking over his shoulder, the guard said something to the man behind him. A minute later, the tall guard came to the back of the steel box and tossed a cloth sack onto the floor.

 

“There’s jerky and hard tack in there,” said the bearded guard. “That’ll keep the hunger away. Should be plenty of water, too, unless you’ve gotten greedy with it. There’s blankets for when it gets cold.” Laughing ironically, the guard added, “All the comforts of home.”

 

Still laughing, the guard turned and began to shut the metal door. Joe took a last quick look at the green grass and blue sky outside. Then the door closed, shutting off his view of the world.

 

***********

The pale light of the morning sun lit the prison wagon as it slowly creaked through the gate of a large structure. Inside the steel box, Joe slept fitfully. He hadn’t thought he would be able to sleep at all, given his keyed up nerves and the uncomfortable bench in the wagon. But the monotony of the journey had eventually lulled him to sleep.

 

As the wagon jolted to a stop, Joe woke. His senses still dulled by sleep, Joe yawned and glanced around the wagon. Dawson was sprawled on the floor, still snoring lightly, and the two cowboys were stretched out on the benches, also still asleep. All three had blankets wrapped around them. Joe looked across the wagon and saw Brewer watching him. The big man nodded a greeting, then slipped a blanket off his shoulders.

 

Taking a cue from Brewer, Joe unwrapped a blanket from around his body. He recalled getting one of the stiff woolen covers for himself as well as for Brewer once the sun had gone down and the heat inside the wagon had been replaced by the cold night air. Other than the brief conversation in the field, Brewer hadn’t said a word to Joe, but somehow, the two had forged a bond as they rode. Not that Brewer would have had a chance to say much. Dawson had done most of the talking during the ride, recounting more horror stories of prisons and attempted jail breaks as the men had nibbled on the jerky and hard tack which

served as their evening meal. But eventually, even Dawson had run out of talk, and the ride had turned into long hours of silent contemplation for each man in the wagon. Despite his resolve to think only of the present, Joe’s mind had turned to images of his family and the life he was leaving behind. As much as those thoughts saddened him, they were better than thinking about what lay ahead. His own imagination, fueled by Dawson’s tales, had painted a grim picture of the future for Joe. He had pushed those thoughts aside, deciding that the reality of prison life would present itself soon enough and that anticipating that life did nothing but sicken him.

 

A fist banged loudly on the metal door of the wagon, and a voice shouted, “Wake up in there!” A minute later, the door opened and the bearded guard peered inside. “Everyone out!” yelled the guard.

 

Glancing over his shoulder, Joe saw Dawson and the two cowboys were just stirring from their sleep. He stood and quickly climbed out of the wagon, figuring he could steal a minute or two to stretch his legs before being marched off to a cell.

 

Standing a few feet from the wagon, Joe arched his back and rolled his shoulders, straining to loosen his stiff muscles. As he stretched, Joe looked around.

 

The wagon was parked in the middle of a yard. All around were stone walls, over twenty feet tall and topped with barbed wire. Spaced evenly around the yard were guard towers, and Joe could see the barrels of gatling guns pointing inward toward the ground below.

 

Turning to his right, Joe saw a large metal door, closed with a crossbar and manned by an armed guard. Near the door, in the corner of the yard, was a building surrounded by a tall wrought iron fence. Joe looked to his left and his eyes grew wide as he saw the buildings that would be his home for the next fifteen years.

 

Three long buildings, one story tall, stood in the middle of the yard, each with a steel door tightly closed against the entrance. The walls of the three structures appeared to be made of a mixture of concrete and stone. Smaller buildings were scattered on either side of the long structures, built of wood and with walls on only three sides. Joe could see a few men, wearing loose gray tunics and pants, working in one of the small buildings while an armed guard stood near them. But it was the long stone buildings that held Joe’s attention. He knew those were the cell blocks. Joe swallowed hard, trying to erase the thought that the buildings resembled a trio of tombs.

 

“They give you any trouble?” said a voice behind Joe.

 

Turning, Joe saw a tall man in blue uniform approaching the wagon. He was followed by three more guards, each holding rifles or shotguns. The tall man had two stripes on his jacket, signifying some sort of rank, but his authoritarian manner would have told Joe that he was in charge even if he hadn’t seen the stripes.

 

“Naw, they were as good as little lambs,” said the bearded guard who had escorted Joe from the Virginia City jail. The man was standing near the back of the wagon, shot gun in hand. Joe noted the other prisoners had emerged from the wagon and were standing near him. The dour driver stood close by, also holding a shotgun.

 

“Good,” replied the guard in charge, nodding.

 

Reaching into his jacket, the bearded man handed over some folded papers to his apparent superior. “Here’s the paper on them,” he said. The bearded man yawned, and added, “I’ll be glad to be rid of them so I can go get some sleep.”

 

Glancing at the papers, the senior guard said, “The warden will be ready for them in about an hour. Get them cleaned up and changed. Better feed them, too.” Jerking his head over his shoulder, the man added, “These three will help you keep an eye on them.”

 

Joe felt a smoldering resentment at being referred to as one of “them”, as if he had no identity or feelings. But he quickly dampened his resentment. Protesting would be fruitless and only cause trouble. Joe figured that would be a poor way to start what he was beginning to think of as his new life. Besides, with a sinking feeling, Joe realized he no longer had an identity, other than being a prisoner of the Territory of Nevada. As he was herded toward a small building with the other prisoners, Joe felt a cloud of despair forming around him. He was no longer Joe Cartwright, son of a respected rancher and well known resident of Virginia City. He was now Joe Cartwright, prisoner.

 

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

In a small anteroom of the fenced house, five men in gray uniforms sat on a bench. All of them looked uncomfortable and ill at ease. None of the them wore shackles, but the three armed guards watching them closely discouraged any of them from making any moves toward the front door of the building.

 

Scratching his arm, Joe felt the rough cloth of the ill-fitting prison uniform he now wore.

The tunic was too big and the pants were a bit snug, but no one seemed to care. As he sat, Joe wondered what further humiliations awaited him. He had been in the prison a little over an hour, and already he felt degraded.

 

With a small shudder, Joe thought about being marched with the other four men to what turned out to be some kind of bathhouse. Once in the bathhouse, Joe’s shackles had been removed. He had been ordered to undress and put his clothes in a cloth bag. The only thing he had been allowed to keep were his boots. Joe had been almost transfixed as he watched the guard tie the bag with his clothes with a piece of twine. A small paper tag was attached to the twine. He could barely say his name when the guard asked, and watched with a fascination as the guard wrote it on the tag. It had seemed to Joe that the removal of his clothes had taken away the last traces of his identity.

 

Joe tried not to think about the “shower” he had endured – the guards spraying water on the prisoners and not seeming to care that the men were half-drowned in the process. The small rough cloth he had been given has a towel was of little use as he had tried to dry himself. Water was still dripping from his hair and body as Joe and the other four men had been led to a closet and told to select some clothes. Joe hadn’t spent a lot of time trying to find the right sizes. He just grabbed anything that looked about right and dressed as quickly as possible.

 

Feeling like one of the steers he used to herd on the Ponderosa, Joe had next been taken to a small, open cookhouse on the other side of the prison yard. A bowl of lumpy oatmeal had been shoved into his hands. The oatmeal tasted as unappetizing as it looked, but Joe had been so hungry that he wolfed down the bland and gritty mixture. The guards had seemed to find the prisoners’ reaction to the food amusing. From the corner of his eye, Joe had seen the armed men grinning as the new prisoners wrinkled their noses in distaste as they ate what was called their breakfast.

 

Sitting in the small waiting room, Joe replayed the last hour in his head once again. In the short time he had been inside the tall walls of the prison, he had been embarrassed, laughed at and generally treated as something less than human. Under any other circumstances, Joe’s famous temper would have shown itself by now. His father and brothers were have been surprised at how meekly Joe had endured his ill-treatment he had received. But Joe had been too confused and intimidated by his surroundings to get angry. All he could think about was how much he hated this place already.

 

A door opened and Joe turned to see the senior guard walking out of a room to Joe’s right. The guard looked at the men sitting on the bench, then frowned. “How come they still have their own boots?” the man asked one of the three guards standing in the middle of the room.

 

One of the guards shrugged. “No boots left,” he said. “Shipment didn’t come in, I guess.”

 

Still frowning, the senior guard said, “This could cause trouble with the other men.”

 

Again, the guard shrugged and said, “You want us to take their boots?”

 

Sighing, the senior man shook his head. “No, I guess not. The warden wouldn’t approve of them walking around barefoot. Just spread the word that they’re going to get standard issue boots as soon as they come in. Don’t let any of the other prisoners think these five are getting any special treatment.”

 

As the senior guard turned away, one of the guards rolled his eyes upward, an obvious expression of exasperation. As Joe watched, he doubted if any of the guards would bother to follow the instructions they had been given.

 

Turning toward the prisoners seated on the bench, the man with the stripes on his blue uniform gave them a stern look. “You men are going to see the warden now. Behave yourselves and listen to what he has to say. Things will be a lot easier for you if you understand the rules and obey them.” The man stared at the prisoners on the bench for another minute, then said, “Get up and follow me.”

 

The five men rose to their feet and followed the senior guard through the door to the right. Joe hung back, suddenly feeling embarrassed to face a man who knew his father. One of the guards gave Joe a shove in the back with the butt of his rifle, and Joe hurried to catch up with the other men walking into the room.

 

As Joe entered the room, he could see it was an office. A desk piled with papers was sitting in the middle, and file cabinets lined the walls. A man in a gray suit, with white hair and wearing wire rimmed glasses, was sitting behind the desk. The man’s face was full, but not fat, and the white hair combed back on his head was thinning. His hands were folded and he looked expectantly at the men crowded into the room.

 

From the back of the room, Joe studied the warden. He thought the man looked more like a professor than a prison warden, although Joe had to admit he didn’t know what a prison warden was suppose to look like. He supposed he had expected a man with cruel eyes and a mean face, not one whose eyes seemed almost sad and whose face looked like one that was used to smiling.

 

“Good morning, gentlemen,” said the warden in a deep voice as he looked at each prisoner. His eyes seemed to linger for a moment on Joe, then quickly moved on. “You are here because each of you have been convicted of a serious crime. You will serve your sentence in this facility. We have almost 300 prisoners here, and we have some very strict rules that each of them must follow. You will listen to the rules and obey them.”

 

“The rules are simple,” continued the warden. “You will each be assigned to a cell. That will be your home for the duration of your sentence. You will spend all your time in your cell except for the time you are on work detail. You also will be released from your cell once a week for bathing. Other than that, you will eat, sleep and spend your time locked up.”

 

Listening to the warden, Joe felt the churning start in his stomach again. The thought of being locked in a small cell for most of the next fifteen years alarmed Joe. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t been free to roam the pastures and mountains around the Ponderosa. He had known in his mind that he would be in a cell but somehow the reality of what that meant hadn’t been clear to him until now.

 

“You and your cells may be searched at any time,” the warden was saying. “If we find anything that even remotely resembles a weapon, or if you cause any kind of trouble, you will spend time in solitary confinement. Believe me, gentlemen, when I tell you that solitary is not something you want to experience.” Swallowing hard, Joe could only agree with the warden.

 

“Any attempt at escape is foolhardy,” the warden continued. “If you are caught trying to escape, you will be confined to solitary and time will be added to your sentence. We’ve not had an escape from this prison since I have been warden, so I caution you not to try.”

 

The warden paused to look at the faces in the men in front of him. He could see that two of the younger men had paled a bit and their eyes were wide. Satisfied that his warning had had an effect on at least some of the new prisoners, the warden looked down at the papers on his desk.

 

“Each of you will have a cellmate,” said the warden as he looked at the papers. “We’ve put the prisoners who are first offenders and convicted of less serious crimes in Block A.

Block B is for repeat offenders and those we consider to be more dangerous criminals.

Block C is for those convicted of the most serious crimes.” The warden looked up and once more his eyes seemed to stray to Joe.

 

“Warden, can me and my brother be in the same cell?” asked one of the men who had been accused of rustling. His voice sounded steadier than someone looking at his pale face would have expected.

 

“No,” answered the warden curtly.

 

“Why not?” asked the rustler in a whining tone.

 

“Young man, you will learn that when you are told something in this prison, you are not to question it or ask for an explanation,” said the warden sternly. Seeing the man blanch at his stinging words, the warden continued in a voice that was a bit gentler. “We don’t allow relatives or men who were convicted of the same crime to share a cell. It offers too much temptation for them to try to plot an escape or cause trouble. You will share a cell with someone who has already been serving time in this facility. Hopefully, that individual will help you understand the rules and keep you from doing anything foolish.”

 

“Yeah, they’re all real helpful,” muttered Dawson in a low voice.

 

Frowning, the warden looked toward Dawson. His face took on a look a resignation when he saw who had made the comment. “Mr. Dawson,” said the warden. “I see you are with us again.”

 

“Yeah, warden,” said Dawson with a sneer. “I liked it so much here that I just couldn’t wait to get back.”

 

Looking at the papers on his desk, the warden replied, “Then you will be happy to know you’re being assigned to Block B, Cell 26.”

 

“Just down the hall from my old cell,” said Dawson, shrugging. “Sort of like coming home.”

 

Ignoring Dawson, the warden continued, “Mr. Brewer, you are being assigned to Block B, Cell 18.” The warden looked up and stared at the big man standing before him. “I understand you have a penchant for fights. Remember what I said about solitary confinement. Fighting is against the rules. Punishment for fighting is three days in solitary. Do you understand?”

 

“Yes sir,” answered Brewer, nodding.

 

“Mr. Ben Calloway, you will be assigned to Block A, cell 36,” said the warden, looking down at the papers again. “Mr. Simon Calloway is assigned to Block A, Cell 12.” The two rustlers looked at each other, and their faces showed both relief at being in the cell block for the least dangerous prisoners..

 

“Mr. Cartwright,” said the warden. He hesitated and looked up. For a moment, the warden stared at the young man at the back of the room. Joe held his breath and waited. “Mr. Cartwright,” repeated the warden, looking down. “You are assigned to Block C, Cell 1.”

 

“Cell 1?” said a guard, his voice filled with surprise.

 

The warden gave the guard a hard look. “Yes, I said Cell 1. Do you have any objections?”

 

“No sir,” replied the guard quickly.

 

Looking down, Joe felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Block C, the one with the worst criminals, was now his home. He wondered briefly about who would be in the cell with him. Someone who had been convicted of murder, he was sure. Joe tried to steel himself, to become as tough and hard as the man in his cell would be. But if the truth were to be told, all Joe really felt was just plain scared.

 

“You men will spend the remainder of today in your cells as well as the next three days,” said the warden. “After that, you will be assigned to a work detail. You’ll be released from your cell as needed for the work. Remember what I said about obeying the rules. Your experience won’t be pleasant, but it will be tolerable if you do what you’re told.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Joe closed his eyes for a moment and tried to calm his nerves. He had been in this cursed place for only a few hours, and already, all he could think about was how much he wanted to get away from it.

 

“Guards, escort the prisoners to their cells,” said the warden, obviously finished with his talk. He picked up a pen and began to write, confirming that he had no further words for the men in front of him.

 

“O’Brien, you take him to C,” ordered the senior guard, nodding toward Joe. One of the guards nodded and stepped forward. Grabbing Joe’s arm roughly, O’Brien pulled him toward the door. Walking slowly, Joe left the room. He didn’t see the frown on the warden’s face as the man watched the guard give Joe a shove toward the front door of the building.

 

As he crossed the prison yard once more, Joe looked at the gray buildings. They appeared more ominous and threatening than when he had first seen them. Joe’s heart was in his throat as the guard guided him toward the nearest building. He stopped in front of the steel door that sealed the building and tried not to show his nervousness as he waited.

 

Pushing past Joe, the guard walked to the door and pounded on it twice with his rifle butt. A small window in the door opened and a face appeared.

 

“Got another for you,” the guard next to Joe said to the face in the window. The window closed. Joe heard a lock turning and saw the heavy door being slowly opened.

 

“Inside,” ordered the guard standing by Joe. But Joe simply stood still, frozen by a reluctance to enter the dark, forbidding building in front of him.

 

“Inside, I said,” ordered the guard again, and he emphasized his order by pushing Joe roughly. Joe stumbled a bit, then walked into the dark opening.

 

Standing inside the building, Joe waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He could see a long corridor in front of him, with cells on either side. Each cell had iron bars on the front, and were separated by thick stone walls. Several lamps hung from the ceiling, but only two were lit – one near the door and another about three quarters of the way down the corridor. At the end of the corridor, Joe could see some iron doors. He counted two on each side of the hall, plus two at the very end. He knew without being told that these were the cells for solitary confinement.

 

“This one goes to Cell 1,” said the guard behind Joe.

 

“Cell 1? You sure?” said another guard standing a few feet away. Joe turned to look at him. This guard stood ramrod straight, giving the impression of a soldier at attention. He was a big man, but not fat. Joe could see hard muscles straining against the cloth of the guard’s uniform, and his hands were large and beefy. Joe guessed he was the type that used his fists more than the pistol strapped his hip.

 

“That’s what the warden said,” replied the guard named O’Brien.

 

The big guard shrugged and walked to a board on the wall near the door. He reached up and pulled a key from the board, then walked a few feet toward a cell to his right. The guard behind Joe shoved him, pushing him in the direction of the cell.

 

Unlocking the cell, the big guard said to the man inside, “Move your stuff, Eddie. You’re getting a roommate.”

 

Joe could see a small man with closely cropped white hair sprawled on the bed to the left side of the cell. The man looked about fifty, and the creased skin of his face showed the years had not been kind to him. The prison uniform he wore was wrinkled and faded. Everything about the man seemed gray, tired and well-worn. The only thing about the man that seemed animated was a pair of lively blue eyes that were staring at the guard.

 

The prisoner in the cell seemed surprised at the guard’s announcement. “Me?” said Eddie. “I’m getting someone in my cell? Who?”

 

“The Queen of Sheba,” answered the guard sarcastically as he pulled the door open. “How do I know who he is? Some fellow who gets the pleasure of your company for the next few years.”

 

“Are you sure the warden said my cell?” asked Eddie a bit anxiously.

 

“He said Cell 1, and this here is Cell 1 by my reckoning,” replied the guard.

 

The guard behind Joe shoved him again, and Joe walked into the cell. He heard the door clang shut behind him, and heard the lock click shut.

 

“Sorry, I wasn’t expecting company,” said Eddie as he reached across to move some pieces of wood and several sheets of sandpaper from the other bed. He held the wood in his hands for a minute, as if unsure what to do with them, then started putting them under the bed.

 

As Eddie moved to clear the other bunk, Joe looked around the cell which was to be his home. The room was small and seemed filled by two beds with thin mattresses pushed up against either wall. A few feet separated the beds from each other as well as the front of the cell. At the back of the cell, high on the wall, was a small, barred window. Under the window was a peg on which a large water sack was hung. The head of the beds were about a foot from the back wall, and Joe could see some other pieces of wood laying in the opening. On the floor next to the wood stood some small statues – a bird with its wings tucked next to its body, a cow with horns, and an angel.

 

“You do those?” Joe said in a surprised voice to the man who was brushing some chips and dirt off the blanket on the bed.

 

Eddie stopped and looked at Joe. “Well, they didn’t just walk in here,” he snorted.

 

“I’m just surprised that they would let you have a carving knife,” answered Joe.

 

“They don’t,” said Eddie, looking at Joe as if he were crazy. “I sand them. Takes a long time, but then, I don’t have anything but time.” The man stuck his hand out to Joe. “Eddie Watson,” he said.

 

“Joe Cartwright,” replied Joe, taking the man’s hand.

 

“Sorry the bed is all messed up,” Eddie apologized briefly. “I ain’t had someone in a cell with me in two or three years. I wasn’t expecting anyone.”

 

His eyes widening a bit, Joe asked, “How come? I mean, how come you’ve had a cell to yourself for so long?”

 

“Well, it ain’t because I killed my last cellmate, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Eddie with a grin. “It’s just that I’ve been here almost 30 years, and the warden, well, I guess he figured I deserved a little privacy.”

 

“Thirty years!” exclaimed Joe. He swallowed hard. “What did you do?”

 

Looking down, Eddie suddenly seemed self-conscious. “Killed my wife,” he mumbled. “Caught her cheating on me with some cheap gambler.” He looked up and gave Joe a calculating look. “Who’d you kill?”

 

“Nobody,” asserted Joe almost angrily.

 

“They don’t send you here for a vacation,” said Eddie sarcastically.

 

Shrugging, Joe answered, “They said I killed a girl, but I didn’t do it.”

 

“Oh, right, you’re an innocent man, wrongly convicted,” said Eddie, shaking his head in disbelief.

 

“I know everyone says that,” Joe stated, “but in my case, it happens to be true.”

 

Squinting a bit, Eddie studied Joe for a minute. “You might be telling the truth,” he admitted. “You sure don’t look like somebody who goes around killing people. I’ve seen a lot of them, so I should know. How long did you get?”

 

“Fifteen years,” answered Joe. As he said the words, his heart sank.

 

“I got life,” said Eddie. “I done thirty years, and I figure I got maybe another twenty or so to go.” He gestured toward the now empty bed. “Make yourself at home.”

 

Walking slowly, Joe moved to sit on the bed across from Eddie. His shoulders slumped a bit as he looked around the small cell. “Yeah, home,” said Joe in a voice filled with discouragement.

 

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

“Pa, I’m back,” boomed Hoss as he walked through the front door of the Ponderosa ranch house. Stopping a minute to unbuckle his gun belt, Hoss looked around the room. The house had seem to have taken on an exceptionally quiet, almost sad, atmosphere lately. As he put his rolled gunbelt and tall white hat on the bureau near the door, Hoss tried not to look at the tan hat hanging on a nearby peg. “Pa!” he said again, in a loud voice.

 

“In here,” answered Ben from behind a desk in the den.

 

Walking toward the den, Hoss could see his father had a pen in his hand and was studying a paper on his desk. Although he suspected he knew the answer, Hoss asked, “What are you doing?”

 

“Writing Joe,” answered Ben, still looking at the paper on his desk.

 

“But he only just got there,” said Hoss. He didn’t need to elaborate on where “there” was.

 

“I know,” replied Ben, with a curt nod. “Which is all the more reason I want to get a letter off to him. About now, Joe must be feeling pretty lost. I want to let him know we’re still thinking of him.” Then Ben sighed. “This letter is harder to write than I thought it would be. I don’t want to sound like I’m ignoring his circumstances, but at the same time, I don’t want to dwell on his being away. It’s hard to find the right tone.”

 

“Just write what you feel, Pa,” counseled Hoss. “That’s what Joe will appreciate.”

 

“I suppose,” said Ben doubtfully.

 

Looking around, Hoss asked, “Where’s Adam?”

 

“In town, mailing some letters and seeing if there’s any answers to the letters and telegrams we already sent,” replied Ben. “He should be back any minute.”

 

As if on cue, the front door opened and Adam strolled in. He saw the expectant look on his father’s and brother’s face as he walked toward the den. “Nothing,” he said, answering their unasked question.

 

“Well, it’s too soon to expect any answers, I guess,” said Ben, shaking his head. “We only sent the first letters and telegrams the day before yesterday. You can check again tomorrow.”

 

“Roy said he send someone out right away if there was any news,” Adam said.

 

“I want you to go to town tomorrow to mail this letter anyway,” said Ben. “You can check again for replies then.”

 

Raising his eyebrows a bit, Adam said, “Another letter?”

 

“This one’s to Joe,” stated Hoss.

 

“Oh, right,” said Adam, looking down.

 

“I’m leaving for Carson City tomorrow to see the governor,” Ben said. “I would appreciate one of you boys writing to Joe tomorrow.”

 

“I’ll do it,” volunteered Hoss immediately. “I want to let Joe know that brown mare had her foal, and he’s the spitting image of his mama.” Hoss suddenly grinned. “I also thought I’d tell him how I got stuck riding up to Sawtooth Canyon today to check those fences. He hates making the riding up there, so he’ll like knowing I had to do it.”

 

“Good, good,” said Ben, nodding with approval. “That’s the kind of thing we should be telling Joe. Just keep him up to date on what’s going on around the ranch.”

 

“I’ll write the day after tomorrow,” Adam offered. “I heard in town that Betty Langdon had a fight with Sam Goodwin and broke off their engagement.”

 

“They did?” said Hoss, surprised. “What was the fight about?”

 

“Seems Sam was drinking with a bunch of his friends at the Silver Dollar when he was suppose to be over at her place,” answered Adam, suddenly grinning. “When he finally did show up, Sam was a bit drunk and Betty got mad. Evidently, she had been milking the cow when he arrived, and she said something like if Sam want to drink, she give him give him a snout full. Then she dumped a pail of fresh milk over his head. While he stood there dripping with milk, Betty told him the engagement was off.”

 

The three men in the den chuckled as each of them pictured the girl dumping a pail of milk over her fiancee. “Joe will get a kick out of hearing that,” said Hoss with a smile.

 

“I hope so,” said Ben, suddenly sobering. He looked down at the sheet of paper on his desk, then back to Adam and Hoss. “I hope we’re doing the right thing by writing him about what must seem like such trivial things when he must be facing some pretty grim circumstances.”

 

“Pa, there’s no point telling Joe how difficult we think things must be for him now,” insisted Adam. “That’s not going to help him. We agreed we should tell him what’s going around here so he feels like he’s still connected, still part of the family.

 

“I know, Adam,” agreed Ben with a sigh. “I just hope it doesn’t make him feel like he’s missing out on things.”

 

“We have to tell Joe something in the letters beyond the fact we miss him and are thinking of him,” Adam pointed out. “We can only say that so many times, and that makes for some pretty short letters. I’m sure he’d much rather hear about things around the ranch or what’s happening in Virginia City. I know I did when I got your letters in Boston.”

 

Before Ben could argue the point further with his oldest son, he heard a loud knock on the front door. “I wonder who that could be,” mused Ben in surprise. He looked at Adam.

“Roy said he would send someone out if there was any news, didn’t he?”

 

Before Adam could reply, Ben stood and walked quickly from his desk toward the door.

Hoss and Adam followed their father slowly, neither of them really expecting the visitor to be bringing a message from town. It was simply too soon to expect any replies to the flurry of letters and telegrams that had been sent.

 

Pulling open the door, Ben saw a middle-aged man wearing a dark suit standing on the porch. The black Stetson hat and boots the stranger wore suggested he was used to the ways of the West, while the string tie and clean white shirt indicated he wasn’t a rancher or farmer.

 

“Mr. Cartwright?” said the man on the porch. “I’m Nathan Green.”

 

“Hello, Mr. Green,” said Ben a bit cautiously. “What can I do for you?”

 

“It’s more like what can I do for you,” replied Green with a hint of a smile. “I understand you’ve been looking for me.”

 

For a moment, Ben was puzzled. He frowned as he tried to recall the man’s name or face. Then Ben’s face cleared as it suddenly occurred to him who the man was.

 

“Mr. Green!” exclaimed Ben. “Of course. You were staying at the hotel the night Elizabeth Crowley was killed.”

 

“Yes, I was,” agreed Green. “I left the next morning to visit some mines up near Gold Hill. I sell mining equipment, and I’ve been traveling to some pretty remote places over the past few weeks. I didn’t know you were looking for me until I returned to Virginia City. When I checked into the hotel earlier today, the clerk told me you had been trying to find me.”

 

“Please, come in,” said Ben, pulling the door open and gesturing with his hand. Green nodded and walked into the house. He looked at Adam and Hoss as he entered.

 

“These are my sons,” explained Ben as he saw Green’s glance. “Adam and Hoss.”

 

“I bet I can guess which one is Hoss,” said Green with a smile as he acknowledged the introductions. “Nice to meet you.” Green turned back to Ben. “How can I help you, Mr. Cartwright?”

 

“Why don’t we sit down,” suggested Ben, as he motioned toward the couch. Green removed his hat and strolled over toward the sofa. He acted like a man who’s curiosity was piqued rather than someone who had something to hide. Ben followed the man and sat down in the red chair as Green eased himself down onto the sofa. Hoss and Adam moved to stand near the fireplace.

 

“Mr. Green,” Ben started, suddenly not quite knowing what to say. “You may have heard my youngest son has been convicted of killing Elizabeth Crowley.”

 

“I heard about it,” said Green with a brief nod. “Even in the small mining towns, the trial was news.”

 

“My son is innocent,” stated Ben. “We’re trying to find some evidence to clear him. We were hoping that you might have seen or heard something that night that could help him.”

 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” said Green apologetically. “I wasn’t even in the hotel when it happened. I was having dinner with a mine owner and didn’t get back until late. I didn’t know Elizabeth Crowley had been killed until I heard the talk about it at breakfast the next morning.”

 

“So you don’t know anything about what happened that night,” said Ben in a disappointed voice.

 

“I’m afraid not,” replied Green.

 

“Did you know Elizabeth Crowley?” asked Adam from across the room.

 

“I saw her a few times,” said Green. “She was a striking girl and I asked the desk clerk who she was. But I never talked with her.”

 

“Did you ever see anyone with her?” asked Ben.

 

“Only the young man who I understand is your son,” replied Green. But as he answered a small frown appeared on Green’s face.

 

“Do you remember something?” asked Adam as he noted Green’s frown.

 

“Well, not exactly,” said Green in a hesitant voice as he scratched the back of his head. “It’s just that one night I was coming back to my room and I saw this fellow in the hall. I had the impression he was coming from the suite at the end of the hall, the one Miss Crowley was staying in.”

 

“Did you see him leaving the suite?” asked Ben eagerly.

 

“No, I didn’t,” said Green. “But when I saw him, he was only a short distance from the door. It appeared as if he had just left the suite, but I couldn’t be sure.”

 

“What did this fellow look like?” asked Adam quickly.

 

“Tall, dark hair, good looking,” answered Green. “He had the kind of smooth manners and easy smile that the women seem to like. A real charmer when he wanted to be, I’d say. Don’t know what he did for a living – if anything.”

 

“Doesn’t sound like you liked him much,” suggested Hoss.

 

“I didn’t really know him,” admitted Green. “Just saw him around the hotel a few times. But he was the kind of man I don’t trust. I saw him talking to a few folks, and he’d have a smiling face while he was with them, then give them a black look as soon as their backs were turned.” Green sighed. “But I could be wrong about him. Maybe it’s just I don’t think much of a man who goes around painting pictures.”

 

“HE was painting pictures!” exclaimed Ben.

 

“Yes, I saw him a few time while I was riding around visiting the mines,” said Green. “He was in a meadow once, and I recall seeing him near the lake. Had an easel set up and was painting away both times I saw him.”

 

“Of course!” Adam burst out. He turned to Ben. “That makes sense. I don’t know why I didn’t see before now.”

 

“See what?” asked Ben in a puzzled voice.

 

“Well, Elizabeth had five paintings she claimed she had done while she was in Virginia City,” explained Adam. “That’s a lot of painting for a girl who spent quite a bit of time with Joe while she was here. She would have had to been painting full time to finish five pictures during the few weeks she was in this area. Elizabeth didn’t paint the pictures. Her accomplice did the painting while she charmed Joe. It also explains why the paintings are missing.”

 

“How do you figure that, Adam?” asked Hoss with a frown.

 

“Well, if this fellow painted the pictures, he wouldn’t have wanted to leave them behind,” said Adam. “Any artist is proud of his work, and if he left without the paintings, there’s no telling what would have happened to them. They could have been stored away or even destroyed. He couldn’t stand to let that happen.”

 

“But if he’s so proud of his paintings, would he try selling them?” asked Ben. “Maybe our search for the paintings is pointless.”

 

“Well, he’s going to need money,” said Adam. “Besides, artists don’t paint to keep pictures hidden away. He’d want his pictures to be seen.”

 

“You’re probably right about him needing to sell the pictures if he needs money,” commented Green. “He didn’t look like the kind of man who was used to hard work. And out here, hard work is the only way to make money. That or maybe robbing a bank.”

 

“Do you have any idea what this man’s name was?” asked Ben anxiously.

 

Green looked to the floor and frowned, obviously trying to remember. “I think I heard his name once,” said Green slowly. He thought for a minute longer. “Johnson,” he said suddenly. “Yes, I’m sure that’s it. I heard one of the waitresses in the dinning room call him Mr. Johnson.”

 

“Johnson, eh. I’m sure that’s his real name,” said Adam dryly.

 

“Well, that’s the name he used,” said Green with a shrug.

 

“Wasn’t that the name of one of the men we couldn’t find?” asked Ben.

 

Nodding, Adam said, “Yes. Fred said he checked out of the hotel very early on the morning after the murder. We traced him as Reno. He had rented a buggy in Virginia City and left it Reno. But we couldn’t find him in Reno. We figured he probably caught a stage from there, but there was no way to tell for sure where he went.”

 

“But Fred would have noticed if he was carrying them pictures when he checked out, wouldn’t he” asked Hoss.

 

“He wouldn’t be carrying them through the hotel,” replied Adam. “That would be too obvious and could make him a suspect. It would have proved he had been in Elizabeth’s suite. He probably stashed them someplace and picked them up after he checked out of the hotel.”

 

“But wouldn’t someone in Reno have noticed a man with paintings?” asked Ben.

 

“They might have, but we never asked,” admitted Adam. “All we did was try to find a fellow named Johnson who had recently come from Virginia City. We didn’t think to ask about a man with paintings then.”

 

“And he probably wasn’t using the name Johnson in Reno,” added Hoss.

 

“I’ll go over to Reno tomorrow and start asking around again,” stated Adam. “Maybe this time, someone will remember a man with five paintings.”

 

“Mr. Green, thank you for your help,” said Ben turning toward the man on the couch. “You may have given us a lead that might help us find the man who killed Elizabeth Crowley.”

 

“Glad I could help,” said Green, getting to his feet. He hesitated, then added, “I cover a lot of territory in Nevada. I visit a number of small mining towns as well as travel through the mountains. I’ll be happy to ask around about this fellow as well as keep my eyes open for him. If I see or hear anything, I’ll let you know.”

 

“We’d appreciate that,” said Ben gratefully. “We’ll be happy to give you a reward for any information you can find.”

 

“No need for that,” said Green with a wave. “I know the Cartwright name. You have a reputation for being good people, and aren’t the kind who go around killing people. I don’t know if your son is really innocent or not, but if he is, I would like to help him. I don’t like to see any innocent man go to prison, especially not a young fellow like your son.”

 

“Thank you,” said Ben again. His heartfelt gratitude was evident in his voice.

 

As Green walked across the room and left the house, Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “This is the first real evidence we have of another man involved with Elizabeth Crowley” he said in an excited voice. “When I see the governor, I’ll tell him about it.”

 

“It still doesn’t prove Joe didn’t kill the girl,” said Adam cautiously. “It just means someone else painted the pictures and probably took them after Elizabeth was killed.”

 

“You’re right, Adam,” agreed Ben with a crestfallen look. “It doesn’t prove anything, does it.”

 

“But it does give us a lead,” Adam said. “I’ll ride over to Reno tomorrow and start asking around.” He hesitated, then said, “I wouldn’t say anything about this to Joe yet. I wouldn’t want to get his hopes up unless we think we’ve picked up this Johnson’s trail. It’s been a long time. We might not be able to find him.”

 

“You’re right,” agreed Ben in a voice that suddenly sounded tired. He looked toward the desk in the den. “I’d better finish the letter to Joe. I can at least tell him we’re thinking of him. I just won’t tell him that the man who really killed Elizabeth Crowley may have disappeared without a trace.”

 

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

“The governor will see you now, Mr. Cartwright,” said a young man in a gray suit as he stood near the door of an office.

 

Rising from one of the plush chairs in an ornately decorated hall, Ben walked toward the

wooden door which seemed plain in contrast to the waiting area. He nodded at the young man as he walked past him and into a large office. Ben heard the door close behind him.

 

Concentrating his attention on the man behind the desk at the back of the office, Ben didn’t pay any attention to the finely made furniture or elegant decorations of the office. He had been in this office before. In the past, his visits had been concerned with issues that Ben had felt were important, but the outcome of his previous visits had never been as critical to Ben as this one.

 

“Ben, come in,” said the man behind the desk. He rose and extended his hand. “Good to see you.”

 

Crossing the room, Ben walked to the desk and shook the hand of a man in his forties with thick dark hair. The governor wasn’t a big man, but he exuded an air of confidence and energy that made him seem to dominate the office. “Thank you for seeing me, governor,” said Ben.

 

“Please sit down,” said the governor, pointing to one of the chairs in front of the desk.

The governor sat as Ben eased himself into the chair. He gave Ben an almost wary look as he added. “What can I do for you?”

 

Knowing the governor was a man who liked direct talk, Ben said bluntly, “I’ve come because my youngest son, Joseph, has been convicted of killing a young woman and sent to the Territorial Prison.”

 

The look grew on the governor’s face grew even more cautious as he nodded briefly. “Yes, I’m aware that, Ben. I’ve followed the trial closely.”

 

“Governor, my son is innocent,” stated Ben. “I’m here to ask you to commute his sentence and allow him to come home while we look for the man who actually did the killing.”

 

“Do you think you know who killed this girl?” asked the governor in surprise.

 

“We have some leads,” said Ben. “We know the paintings the woman supposedly did are missing, and we have a witness who saw a man we believe is the killer. My other sons and I are searching for both the paintings and the man. We feel it’s only a question of time until we find both.”

 

“I see,” said the governor in a non-committal tone .

 

“My son is innocent,” stated Ben again. “With your help, we can get him out of that prison and bring him home where he belongs.”

 

The governor looked across the desk at Ben, silently considering the man who sat in front of him. Suddenly, he rose and walked to one of the windows behind the desk. Ben waited anxiously as the governor stared out the window, obviously giving some thought to his request.

 

“Ben,” said the governor without turning around, “why did you support me for governor?”

 

Startled by the question, Ben said, “Well, because I believe you to be fair and honest, a man people can trust.”

 

Still staring out the window, the governor nodded. He stood silently for another minute, then turned to look at Ben. “I’m well aware that without your support, I probably wouldn’t be in this office,” said the governor. “But I also believe you’re not the kind of man who would expect some kind of payment for that support.”

 

“I didn’t back you because I expected something in return,” said Ben indignantly. “I did it because I thought you were the best man for the job.”

 

“I know that, Ben, and I appreciate it,” said the governor in a calming voice. He walked back to the desk and sat down. “And because I am an honest man, I can’t honor your request to commute your son’s sentence.”

 

While not entirely surprised at the governor’s answer, Ben still felt a keen sense of disappointment. He looked down and simply nodded.

 

“Ben, I followed the trial closely as I said,” continued the governor. “And I’m aware that your son was convicted on mostly circumstantial evidence. I had a feeling you might come to me, and I’ve thought long and hard about what I might be able to do to help. But there’s no legal reason for me to commute Joseph’s sentence. The only reason I would have is to help someone who helped me. An old friend to be sure, but nevertheless, I would be circumventing the law. And I just won’t do that.”

 

“Jim, I wouldn’t be asking you to do this if I didn’t honestly believe Joseph is innocent,” said Ben earnestly. “As you indicated, the evidence is circumstantial. I know my son. He’s not a killer or a liar. He told me he’s innocent and I believe him. All I’m asking is that you allow him to be released from prison until we can prove his innocence and have the conviction overturned.”

 

“I don’t believe your son killed the girl,” the governor agreed. “But, Ben, you don’t have a shred of evidence that points to someone else might have killed her.”

 

“Not yet,” stated Ben firmly. “But we’ll get it.”

 

“And when you do, bring it to me,” said the governor. “As soon as you can show me something, anything that’s proves your son may be innocent, I’ll commute his sentence. But I can’t do it now, not based simply on your belief that Joseph is innocent.”

 

“Then there’s nothing you can do,” said Ben sadly.

 

“I can’t commute the sentence,” said the governor. “But I have been in touch with the warden to let him know I have a special interest in this particular prisoner.”

 

“You haven’t asked him to give Joseph special treatment, have you?” said Ben in alarm.

He remembered Ed Steven’s caution that a prisoner who received special treatment from the warden often suffered at the hands of the other prisoners.

 

“No, I didn’t,” replied the governor to Ben’s relief. “And even if I had, I doubt the warden would have complied with my request. The warden doesn’t believe it’s his role to judge who is guilty or innocent. All he’s concerned about is making sure each man serves the sentence he has been given.” The governor gave Ben a brief smile. ” But he’s a good man, Ben. That’s why your committee appointed him. He truly believes running a prison is a difficult task, but one that should be done with honesty and a sense of compassion. He took on a hard job because he feels men like himself need to get involved in order to insure the job is done correctly.”

 

“I know that,” said Ben. “The committee was impressed with his sense of commitment.”

 

“The warden will follow the rules,” continued the governor. “And he’ll make sure your son does the same. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make your son’s stay in prison – well comfortable probably isn’t the right word – let’s say tolerable.”

 

“I appreciate that,” said Ben.

 

“I know that your son has been assigned to a cell with a man that the warden trusts,” added the governor. “The man is serving a life sentence, but he’s considered to be a model prisoner. The warden believes the man will show Joseph the ropes, as they say, and help him stay as safe as possible in what we all know is a hazardous environment.”

 

Sitting back in the chair, Ben felt a sense of relief. He had been afraid to think about the kind of man with whom Joe might share a cell, not to mention the dangers his son could face from the other prisoners – many of them serving life sentences and feeling they had nothing to lose. The fact that the warden and the governor had taken steps to protect his son as much as possible filled Ben with both gratitude and some comfort.

 

“Thank you,” said Ben, his voice conveying his deep emotions. “And please express my gratitude to the warden.”

 

“It’s not much, Ben, ” admitted the governor. “I wish I could do more.” The governor rose, signifying the meeting was over.

 

“I understand your position,” said Ben as he held out his hand to shake the governor’s hand. “I appreciate what you’ve done.”

 

As Ben turned to leave, the governor said, “Ben, if you find any evidence, you let me know right away. I promise I’ll drop whatever I’m doing and wire the warden immediately.”

 

“Thank you,” said Ben once more. He walked to the door of the office and pulled it open. As Ben left the governor, his thoughts turned to his sons. He wondered what Joe was doing, how his youngest was faring. And he wondered if his oldest son had found anything in Reno that would allow them to bring Joe home.

 

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

Lying on the bed in his cell, Joe wondered if it was possible to go crazy from boredom in just a couple of days. If it was, Joe decided, he was going to be a candidate for the loony bin shortly.

 

He couldn’t remember a time in his life when he had done absolutely nothing and seen practically no one as he had over the past three days. Even when he was in the Virginia City jail, he had at least had his father, brothers and the sheriff to talk to. But in this accursed hole, as Joe had privately begun to call the prison, he only had Eddie.

 

It wasn’t that Joe minded spending time with Eddie. At first, the two men had treated each other warily, like two boxers feeling each other out at the beginning of a fight. But the long hours in the cell together and the sheer boredom of virtually nothing to do had eventually led to both opening up more and more. It hadn’t taken long before the two had exchanged stories on the circumstances that had led to them sharing a cell, and then to discussions on just about everything. Joe had found Eddie to be witty, intelligent and easy to talk to. He also found the man very knowledgeable about the prison. There didn’t seem to be a single thing going on in the prison that Eddie didn’t know about, from who was getting out to which guard had had a fight with his wife.

 

No, Joe didn’t mind talking with Eddie. It was just that Eddie seemed to spend more time out of the cell than in it. He was escorted from the barred room each morning after breakfast and returned just before the evening meal was shoved under the door of the cell. Eddie had managed to get himself assigned to two work details, the result of his long years of good behavior. He spent the mornings in the warden’s office, sorting mail and taking care of other small jobs, and the afternoons in the stables, caring for the horses that pulled the prison wagons and provided the transportation for the guards. Joe was happy for Eddie’s sake that the man had found a way to spend most of his time away from the cell, but he also was a bit jealous. Each time he saw the guard escort Eddie from the cell to the fresh air of the yard and the company of others, Joe felt a pang of envy.

 

The sound of muted voices, a shout or two and the clanging of cell doors reverberated through the hall outside Joe’s cell. He found it a bit eerie to be able to hear the sounds of others around him but never see more than just a glimpse of someone walking past the cell. It was as if a world of activity was going on and Joe had been left out. He felt ignored, as if no one even knew he existed. It was a depressing feeling.

 

Just as Joe was thinking about getting up to pace the cell for the hundredth time to see if there was any possible cranny he had failed to find in the last three days, he heard footsteps approaching. Joe wondered if the relief showed on his face as he saw Eddie standing by the door, patiently waiting for the guard to unlock the cell.

 

“Ah, home sweet home,” said Eddie in an ironic voice as he strolled into the cell. He flopped on the bed across from Joe as the guard locked the door. “I found out some good news today. Henry is out of the infirmary and back to supervising the cooking. We should be getting some decent meals again, starting with dinner.”

 

The poor quality of the food that Joe had eaten over the past few days hadn’t helped his feeling of depression. Eddie had assured Joe that the food was usually better, that a former restaurant chef usually supervised the cooking. The man had burned his arm in a grease fire, but Eddie was sure Joe would like the food much more once the chef was back at work. Joe had listened to Eddie with an air of disbelief. After a lifetime of Hop Sing’s fine meals, Joe doubted anyone’s cooking could satisfy him. He also wondered what the chef had done to end up in prison. Joe hoped it hadn’t been for poisoning his patrons.

 

“I saw Henry over at the cook house,” continued Eddie, “yelling and pounding on pots, just like his old self. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up with one of those fancy stews he makes. Those are real tasty.”

 

“Swell,” said Joe in a disinterested voice. He turned over to lay on his stomach and stared at the back wall of the cell.

 

“Being locked in is finally getting to you, isn’t it,” said Eddie with a chuckle.

 

“That doesn’t even begin to describe it,” complained Joe. “I feel like I’m about one step away from starting to climb the walls.”

 

“The warden always keeps the new men locked up for three days,” said Eddie. “His theory is that if you find out right away how bad it is to be confined, you’ll do anything to avoid it. And that means obeying orders and not causing trouble.”

 

“Well, he’s right about that,” agreed Joe grudgingly. “I’ll do just about anything to avoid having to spend all my time in here. I’d even take running the slop wagon,” said Joe, referring to the cart that came by each day to empty the chamber pots in the cell.

 

“That’s punishment duty,” said Eddie. “You ain’t done anything to deserve that, at least so far.” Eddie studies Joe for a minute before adding. “I checked the duty roster in the office. Starting tomorrow, you’re on stable duty, helping me with the horses.”

 

“I am?” said Joe, sitting up abruptly. “That’s great!” he added in an enthusiastic voice.

 

“Don’t be thinking it’s too great,” cautioned Eddie. “You’re going to be toting water and mucking out stalls. It’s going to be dirty, hard work. It’s not the plum duty you might think it is.”

 

“I don’t care,” said Joe. “At least I’ll get out of this cell and into the yard for awhile. Besides, I grew up cleaning stalls and hauling water. And I know a lot about horses.”

 

“I don’t know how much expertise it takes to clean out a stall,” said Eddie with a grin. “But you have to be better than the last guy who was helping me. Some bank clerk in for embezzlement. He complained about the work the whole time he was doing it, and then did a poor job of it. I think I was counting the days until he was released almost as much as he was.”

 

“I promise you’ll get the cleanest stalls in Nevada,” said Joe solemnly. He shook his head almost in awe. “I’m going to be able to get out of this cell,” he added softly.

 

“It’s only for a couple of hours a day,” said Eddie. “You’ve got to work your way up to more time out.”

 

“A couple of hours is better than nothing,” said Joe. Then he grinned. “Think the guard will think I’m trying to escape if I’m standing at the door when he comes?”

 

“Oh, he’ll probably figure you’re just a bit crazy, like the rest of us,” said Eddie with a smile.

“They’ll come for you right after the noon meal, and I’ll meet you over at the stables. If I’m not there when you get to the stables, you start cleaning out the stalls, you hear?”

 

“Yes sir,” said Joe, giving Eddie a mock salute. “One set of clean stalls coming up.”

 

“I hope you run out of steam quick,” said Eddie with a sigh. “I ain’t up to dodging tornadoes in the stables.”

 

For the next week, Joe could have described himself as almost content. As Eddie had predicted, the food had improved significantly, with meals both varied and appetizing. Given that he was preparing food for almost 300 prisoners, Joe would have described Henry’s cooking as almost a miracle. But the real miracle to Joe was the hours he got to spend at the stables, away from the hated cell and in the familiar company of horses.

 

The work was hard, as Eddie had said it would be, but Joe didn’t mind. He was used to hard work and the chores he did around the stable felt almost routine. Although the stable was merely a line of stalls covered with a roof, Joe could almost imagine he was back in the barn at the Ponderosa as he cleaned stalls, laid down fresh straw, and watered the horses. For a few hours each day, he didn’t have to stare at bars and stone walls.

 

Joe had little contact with the other prisoners, a fact that didn’t bother him at all. He hadn’t come here to make friends, and the hard-looking men he saw around the prison yard were not the type he would want to know well anyway. He had some brief conversations with some prisoners who waited by the well as Joe filled the water barrels, or passed as he rested on the stool outside the stables from time to time. But most of Joe’s time was spent with Eddie. The two men worked alone in the stables, caring for the horses that pulled the wagons or provided transportation for the guards to the nearby town at the end of their shift. Their job isolated them from the other prisoners. Joe didn’t give the situation much thought. If he had, he would have realized that he had been given work designed to keep him from the other prisoners and out of harm’s way, as least as much as possible.

 

Just as Joe was beginning to think he might be able to endure prison life, things got even better. Letters started to arrive.

 

Stretched out on his bed after his stint at the stables, Joe had been surprised to see one of the guards stopping in front of the cell. “Cartwright, you got some mail,” said the man, shoving three letters under the door. The guard didn’t bother to look inside the cell, but quickly moved on.

 

Getting slowly to his feet, Joe stared at the three envelopes on the floor. He walked over to them almost in a daze, then reached down carefully to pick up the letters, as if they were made of spun glass that and would shatter if he held them too tightly. He looked at the return addresses – two letters from his Pa, and one from his brother Hoss. Joe turned to Eddie, who was watching him curiously. “You knew about these?” asked Joe.

 

“I saw them this morning when I was sorting the mail,” said Eddie with a shrug.

 

“Why you didn’t tell me about them?” demanded Joe.

 

“From what you told me about your family, I’m not surprised they’re writing you regularly,” said Eddie with a puzzled look on his face. “I just figured you’d be expecting them.”

 

Staring at the letters in his hands, Joe was almost afraid to open the envelopes. He had deliberately push away any thoughts of his father and brothers. He didn’t want to think about them, to feel the pain of missing them. Somehow, Joe had thought that his family would feel the same way. But the letters in his hands showed Joe how wrong he was. His father and brothers were not only thinking of him, but wanted him to know that they were.

 

“Well, aren’t you going to open them?” asked Eddie as he saw the look of astonishment on Joe’s face. He suddenly realized the young man in the cell with him had felt no one had cared about him. Eddie wondered how Joe could have thought that, given the way he had described his family, and how hard they were working to find some evidence that would free him.

 

Sitting down on the bed, Joe tore open the letters. He scanned each of them, quickly reading the words written in his father’s precise penmanship and Hoss’ scrawl. Then Joe read each letter again slowly, savoring each word and almost memorizing the messages on the paper.

 

“Anything interesting?” Eddie asked, his curiosity piqued by Joe’s concentration on the letters.

 

“Mostly, just things happening around the ranch,” Joe replied. “That mare I bought last spring had her foal. Hoss got stuck with riding fence up on the Sawtooth.” Joe grinned. “And there’s a girl in town who broke up with her fiancee by dumping a pail of milk on him.” Joe read one of the letters again. “Pa’s thinking about bidding on a contract for timber that the railroad has put up. He’s just not sure if the mill can handle the extra work. If he has to contract out to another mill, the profit might not be enough to make the contract worthwhile.”

 

“No news about your case?” asked Eddie.

 

“Not really,” answered Joe, looking at the third letter. “Pa saw the governor, but nothing came of it. He didn’t really expect the governor could help, but he said he had to try.”

 

“Sounds like they’ve been busy,” commented Eddie.

 

“Yeah, they have,” answered Joe. He read the letters once more. Joe didn’t share with Eddie the parts about how much his family missed him, how they were thinking of him, and wished he were home. Joe didn’t think he could read those parts out loud. He was choked up just reading the words.

 

“You’re going to write back to them, aren’t you?” asked Eddie. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. You can asked for materials to write a letter if you want. And since you’re working, the territory will pay for the postage.”

 

“I don’t know,” said Joe in a hesitant voice. “There’s not really a lot to tell them.”

 

“You can tell them about working at the stables,” suggested Eddie. “And how the food’s gotten better. Heck, you can even tell them what a wonderful guy I am.”

 

Grinning, Joe said, “Well, I might mention your name.”

 

“Mostly, they’ll just want to know you’re all right,” said Eddie softly. “You owe them that.”

 

Looking off, Joe said, “Yeah, I guess I do.”

 

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

Covered with a fine layer of dust and beading sweat, Adam guided his horse into the yard of the Ponderosa ranch house. After almost a week in Reno, he was looking forward to sleeping in his own bed and having one of Hop Sing’s meals. As he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post, Adam looked toward the house. In the dusk of early evening, he could see the lights in the window. He knew his father and brother were anxiously waiting for his return. Adam only wished he felt as eager to tell them what he had learned.

 

Taking a deep breath, Adam walked slowly toward the house. His hand had barely lifted the latch on the front door when the door was pulled open. Adam’s father stood just inside the house, giving his oldest son a look of most welcome and inquiry.

 

“Adam, glad you’re back, boy,” said Ben in a voice that was a bit too hearty.

 

Nodding, Adam walked into the house. “I’m glad to be back,” he said as he put his hat on the bureau near the door. Unbuckling his gunbelt, Adam answered the unspoken question that he could see on Ben’s face. “No luck,” he said. “Johnson was in Reno, but I lost him there. I couldn’t find out where he went.”

 

A look of disappointment flashed across Ben’s face, a look which he quickly tried to hide. “I know you tried your best, son,” said Ben.

 

Just then, the door opened and Hoss walked in. “Adam, you’re back,” said Hoss in his booming voice.

 

“Just can’t get anything by you, can I?” replied Adam dryly. He saw the look of inquiry cross Hoss’ face, and added, “No, I didn’t find him.”

 

“I was sure you were going to find something, Adam,” Hoss said in a voice filled with frustration.” This Johnson fellow, he can’t just have disappeared into thin air.”

 

“Well, apparently, he has,” said Adam in a bleak tone.

 

“Sit down and tell us what you did find out,” said Ben, gesturing toward the chairs near the fireplace. Adam nodded wearily and walked slowly to the sofa. As he sat, Ben moved to the red chair near the fireplace while Hoss put his big frame in the blue chair near the stairs.

 

“Johnson was in Reno the day after Elizabeth Crowley died,” said Adam. “The clerk at the hotel remembered him once I asked about a man with paintings. He remembered Johnson because of the package wrapped in oilcloth that he was carrying, along with an easel and a small case. The clerk said he remembered thinking the man was a painter because of the easel. I’m guessing the paintings were wrapped in the oilcloth.”

 

“How long did he stay in Reno?” asked Ben.

 

“About three days,” replied Adam. “The clerk said he never left his room except to eat down in the dining room. And he wanted a copy of the Virginia City newspaper as soon as it came in.”

 

“Probably hiding out,” said Hoss. “He was afraid someone might recognize him.”

 

“Yes,” agreed Adam. “He also was probably trying to figure out what to do. I’m sure he was following the story about Joe’s arrest in the papers, and checking to see if the sheriff was looking for anyone else.”

 

“You’re sure this man is the same one who was in Virginia City?” asked Ben.

 

“I’m sure,” answered Adam with a short nod. “He was using the name Brown, but the clerk described him and the description matched the one we have of Johnson. Besides, how many men around here travel with an easel and paintings?”

 

“Brown, eh,” said Hoss. “He ain’t very creative about names.”

 

“And you’re sure he had the paintings?” Ben pressed Adam. He wanted to insure that they were not wasting their time chasing the wrong man.

 

“He sold one of the paintings to a rancher who lives just outside of Reno,” said Adam. “It was definitely one of the paintings we saw in Elizabeth’s suite.”

 

“He sold a painting?” asked Ben in surprise. “That was a pretty dangerous move. Someone might have recognized it.”

 

“He probably figured no one would see it,” replied Adam. “The only reason I found out about it was the clerk happened to see the rancher carrying it out.”

 

“How’d he find someone to sell the painting to?” asked Hoss. “I mean, he couldn’t just go around asking if someone wanted to buy it.”

 

“Apparently, he overheard a conversation between the rancher and his wife in the dining room,” explained Adam. “They were discussing an anniversary gift for their oldest daughter in Denver. The rancher told me that his wife kept saying she wished she could send the daughter something that would remind the girl of home. That’s when Johnson, or Brown as he was calling himself, came over to the table. He told the couple that he had several paintings of the area, and offered to sell them one as a gift for their daughter. Evidently, he made it sound like he was doing them a favor.”

 

“How much did he sell it for?” asked Ben with a frown. He was trying to calculate how much money Johnson had gotten in order to guess how far he might have traveled.

 

“Johnson asked for $100 but settled for $70,” answered Adam. “He must have needed the money because he didn’t argue much over price.”

 

“How come he would need money?” asked Hoss in a puzzled voice. “Didn’t Mitch say he and the girl pulled the same trick over in Silver City last year?”

 

“He and Elizabeth probably lived off that money during the last year,” answered Adam. “That’s how these things usually work. Con men live high until they’re almost broke, and then they run their scam again. Johnson was probably counting on the money from us, and when he didn’t get it, he found himself getting short on cash.”

 

“And you’re sure the painting he sold was one of the pictures Elizabeth showed us,” said Ben, still wanting to confirm they had the right man.

 

“I saw the painting, Pa,” confirmed Adam. “The rancher hadn’t sent it to his daughter yet. When the clerk told me about the painting, I went out to look at it. It’s definitely one we saw in Elizabeth’s room – the one with Lake Tahoe in it.”

 

“And no one knows where Johnson went after he left Reno?” asked Ben.

 

“No,” answered Adam with a sigh. “As soon as he was paid for the painting, Johnson spent about $50 buying a horse and trap, and left town. No one knows where he went. I couldn’t find anyone who even saw which direction he took when he left Reno.” Adam looked to his father. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he added apologetically.

 

“It’s not your fault, Adam,” said Ben, shaking his head. “We’ll just have to keep looking. I’m going to San Francisco in a week or so to talk to the railroad about the timber contract. I’ll do some checking while I’m there. Maybe I can find something.”

 

“Did you have any luck with the governor?” asked Adam.

 

“No,” Ben answered in a discouraged voice. “He said there wasn’t anything he could do for Joe, at least legally. He did promise to get Joe released if we could show him some hard evidence that someone else might have done the killing.”

 

“The fact that Johnson has the paintings – that’s not evidence enough?” asked Adam.

 

“I talked to Hiram about that,” said Ben, referring to Joe’s lawyer. “He says that it’s not enough. All it proves is that Johnson took the paintings, or maybe that Elizabeth gave them to him. No one knows for sure when he came into possession of the paintings. And no one can prove he was in Elizabeth’s suite the night she died.”

 

“So we’re just about where we started,” said Adam in a disheartened voice. “Joe’s in prison and we’re no closer to getting him out.”

 

“We did get a letter from Joe yesterday,” said Hoss, his face brightening a bit. “He got himself a job working in the stables. And he’s sharing a cell with some fellow that works in the warden’s office, so the guy can’t be too bad.”

 

“That’s our little brother,” said Adam with a smile. “He usually manages to find a way to make life easy for himself.”

 

“In this case, Joe had some help from the warden,” explained Ben, “although I doubt if he realizes it.” Ben sighed. “I’m sure Joe tried to put things in a good light for us. Despite what he wrote, Joe has to be pretty miserable, locked up in that prison.”

 

“He must be wondering why I haven’t written him,” said Adam. “I’ll get a letter off to him tomorrow.”

 

“I told him you were in Reno on ranch business,” Ben said quickly. “I wouldn’t say anything about Johnson, or our lack of success in finding him.”

 

“I won’t,” Adam assured his father. “I’ll just mention some of the other things about the trip, like the hotel or something.”

 

“Good,” said Ben with a nod. He sat back in his chair and turned to stare into the fire. “We’ve got to find a way to bring Joe home.”

 

“All we can do is keep looking, Pa,” said Adam.

 

“Yes, we’ll keep looking,” Ben affirmed, still staring into the fire. “I just wonder how long we’re going to have to look.”

 

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

Ben’s guess that Joe’s letter didn’t reflect the true misery he felt was accurate. Joe had tried to make his brief letter sound upbeat. He didn’t write about how he hated being in the cell, how he was starting to feel the walls were closing in on him. Joe didn’t write about how he longed to jump on Cochise and ride the open spaces of the Ponderosa.

 

Out of sheer boredom, Joe tried his hand at sanding the wood in the evenings as Eddie did, trying to see if he could make something out of the bits of board. But he gave that up after a few tries. Joe found he didn’t have Eddie’s patience or talent for the work, nor did the sanding hold much interest for him.

 

The letters from his family were Joe’s lifeline. He waited eagerly each evening for a letter, feeling a sharp pang of disappointment if one didn’t appear and a sense of elation when the guard slipped one or more letters under the cell door. Joe knew someone in the family wrote him every day, something for which he would be eternally grateful. But the mail reached the prison irregularly, so Joe never knew when the letters would appear. Even though he knew them by heart, Joe read most of the letters again every evening. He dutifully wrote back each Sunday, but his letters seemed too short and almost abrupt in comparison to the ones Joe received. Joe knew exactly how many letters he had written – three. He tried not to think about how many more letters home he might have to write.

 

“Who’s it from today?” asked Eddie with interest as Joe bent to pick up a letter from the floor near the door one evening. The guards no longer bothered to alert Joe to the fact that he had a letter, given the frequency of his mail. The letter was simply slipped into the cell.

 

“Pa,” replied Joe as he looked at the return address. As usual, Joe tore the envelope open and quickly scanned the letter, then settled on the bed to read it slowly, savoring each word.

 

“Does he say whether he’s going to bid on the timber contract from the railroad?” asked Eddie. He was beginning to get caught up in the life around the Ponderosa. Eddie didn’t have any family, and never received letters, so Joe generously shared the news from home with his cell mate. Eddie felt as if Joe was sharing his family with him, and he appreciated it. He often wondered if Joe knew how lucky he was, having a family that took time to write him everyday.

 

“Pa’s decided that the contract will bring in enough to cover the cost of the extra men he has to hire for the mill and still make a profit,” said Joe, reading from the paper in his hand. “He’s going to San Francisco on the 15th to make the bid.”

 

As he quoted the date, Joe looked up and frowned.

 

“That’s the day after tomorrow,” said Eddie, noting the look on Joe’s face. He knew how easy it was to lose track of time in the prison. He made a point of looking at the calendar in the warden’s office everyday, just to remind himself of what month and day it was.

 

Nodding, Joe went back to the letter. “Pa plans to ask around at some of the galleries in San Francisco about the pictures,” he continued. “He’s hoping to pick up a lead on the man who was with Elizabeth.”

 

“Maybe he’ll find something,” suggested Eddie.

 

“Maybe,” replied Joe in a voice that clearly indicated he didn’t believe it. The letters hadn’t said much about his case, only that his family had identified a man named Johnson as having painted the pictures and that they were searching for him. When Joe had read the news that someone else had painted the pictures, he had felt a small pain. It was further evidence of the way Elizabeth had deceived him.

 

“At least they’re still looking,” Eddie said.

 

“Yeah, they’re still looking,” replied Joe in a discouraged voice. He had been able to read between the lines, and understood what the letters didn’t say – that his father and brothers had found nothing that would enable Joe to be freed from his hated cell.

 

“It’s only been a couple of weeks,” Eddie said, trying to encourage Joe. “These things can take time.”

 

“Well, I’ve got plenty of that,” answered Joe in a wry tone. He shook himself a bit, trying to rid himself of the sadness he could feel descending on him. Looking back at the letter, Joe read on. “Pa says Hoss found a stray pup and brought it home. Now Hoss has to find a home for it because Hop Sing is threatening to quit if the dog chases the chickens again. So Hoss is in Virginia City, trying to give the dog to someone.” Joe chuckled at the mental image of Hoss going from place to place in Virginia City with the puppy. He knew his big-hearted brother well enough to know Hoss would only give the dog to what he deemed a good home, and that it would take awhile until Hoss found someone he felt was worthy of the dog.

 

“Didn’t you tell me Hop Sing threatens to quit about once a month?” asked Eddie.

 

“Yeah, he does,” said Joe. “He gets bent out of shape over something, and starts yelling in Chinese. Then he says he’s going to leave, but he never means it.” Suddenly, Joe felt a lump in his throat. He could picture his old friend and surrogate mother banging around in the kitchen. Memories of spending cold winter days in the warm kitchen, eating cookies or making donuts, came flooding back. Joe bit his lip as he finished the letter, reading his father’s words of affection and encouragement. That was the part he never shared with Eddie. He kept those words to himself.

 

As he sanded a piece of wood, Eddie watched Joe out of the corner of his eye. He could tell the boy was feeling low again. He watched as Joe carefully folded the letter and put it back into the envelope. Joe reached under the corner of the mattress and pulled out a bundle of letters tied together with a piece of string. As Joe added the latest letter to the bundle, Eddie could see the look of near despair on Joe’s face. But Eddie said nothing. He knew the feeling; he had had it himself often enough during the first few years he had spent in the prison. There was nothing he could say that would make Joe feel better.

 

After replacing the bundle of letters under the mattress, Joe stretched out on the bed. He stared at the ceiling, lost in thoughts of the Ponderosa and his family. In his mind, he was back on the ranch, making donuts with Hop Sing and teasing Hoss about keeping them all to himself. Joe stared at the ceiling until his eyes grew heavy and he finally fell asleep.

 

The next morning, Joe said little as he toyed with the food on his breakfast plate. Eddie left Joe alone, keeping busy with his own meal and thoughts of the day ahead. Usually, the letters from the Ponderosa lifted Joe’s spirits, but occasionally, a letter would cause Joe to have what Eddie called “the blues”. He had learned to leave the boy alone when Joe was in one of his sour moods. Eddie knew that Joe would be irritable most of the day, until some kind of resignation would settle in with him. Then Joe would finish his work and return to his cell, eagerly looking for a new letter. Eddie hoped for Joe’s sake that a letter would be delivered today.

 

As Eddie greeted Joe at the stables that afternoon, he could tell the young man was still feeling down. Joe’s reply to him was brief, and he went right to work. Eddie didn’t feel slighted. He simply follow Joe’s example and went to work. Eddie wondered how long Joe would be in his sour mood. He like the young man and, most of the time, found him a pleasant companion. But he also knew it could take awhile for Joe to come out of his “blues”, for Eddie had sorted the mail that morning and knew there had been no letter from the Ponderosa.

 

As Joe finished raking out the stalls and putting down new straw, Eddie combed the horses. The two worked in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. “I’m going to get the water,” Joe announced, then picked up two buckets. He left the stables without waiting for Eddie’s reply.

Joe returned about twenty minutes later, having taken his time filling the buckets from the well. He was surprised to see a wagon full of boards standing in the yard, a short distance from the stables. Six prisoners were around the wagon, three of whom were diligently unloading the wagon. The other three seemed simply to be standing by the wagon.

 

“What’s going on there?” asked Joe, cocking his head over his shoulder, when he returned to the stables.

 

“New building going up,” answered Eddie, taking one of the buckets from Joe. “The warden managed to squeeze some money out of the governor. He’s building a library.”

 

“A library?” said Joe in surprise.

 

“That’s what the warden calls it,” said Eddie with a shrug. He began to fill the small troughs in each of the stalls with water. “Mostly, it’s going to be a shed with books. Men can borrow them if they stay on good behavior.”

 

“They should like that,” said Joe, thinking of the long hours of boredom in his cell.

 

“I suppose,” replied Eddie indifferently as he handed the now empty bucket back to Joe and took the second one. “I’m not much of a reader myself, and there’s a lot of fellows in here who can’t read. But I guess a few guys will like it.”

 

“I’ll use it,” declared Joe.

 

“Yeah, I kind of thought you might,” answered Eddie with a grin. “But then, you ain’t the usual kind of guy we get in here.”

 

Looking over his shoulder, Joe said, “They don’t seem to be in any great rush to get the place built. Three of them are just standing around. I don’t even see any guards.”

 

Walking over to Joe, Eddie looked around. “There’s O’Brien and Crenshaw,” he said, pointing at two guards sitting in the shade several feet from the wagon. Eddie shook his head. “That O’Brien, he’s useless,” he said in disgust. “And Crenshaw doesn’t have enough brains to do anything but what O’Brien tells him. The warden would like to get rid of both of them.”

 

“Why doesn’t he fire them?” asked Joe.

 

“Because the prison is short on guards now,” answered Eddie. “The warden fired a bunch of them when he took over. Anyone who was stealing or taking pleasure in tormenting prisoners got the sack. O’Brien’s just lazy, not mean. So the warden let him stay.”

 

“The warden should hire better men,” stated Joe firmly.

 

“He’s trying but it ain’t that easy,” answered Eddie. “The pays not too good, and we ain’t exactly the kind of company a man would like to hang around with. The warden’s pretty particular about who he hires, too. He don’t want anyone who comes here thinking he can take out his miseries on defenseless prisoners. He’s been getting some guards from men who are leaving the Army, but no enough to get rid of the likes of O’Brien.”

 

As Eddie returned to finish his work in the stables, Joe watched the men finish unloading the wagon. Joe saw Brewer among the men who were actually working, and for a moment, it crossed his mind to walk over to the big man. But Joe wasn’t sure what he would say to Brewer. It was pretty pointless to ask the man how he was enjoying his stay or if he liked his accommodations. With a shrug, Joe turned to open a grain sack.

 

“Hey, Eddie,” a voice called. Joe looked up to see one of the men who had been standing by the wagon walking toward the stables. He was a big man, not as large as Brewer or his brother Hoss, but taller and heavier than average. The two men who had been standing next to him at the wagon trailed behind the man. Joe looked to see if the guards were going to make any move to stop the man, but O’Brien and Crenshaw simply sat in the shade, watching with a disinterested look on their faces.

 

Walking up next to Joe, Eddie said in a low voice. “That’s Baker. Watch yourself. He’s a mean one.”

 

“Hey, Eddie,” Baker said again as he near the stalls. “My cells getting pretty cold at night. How about giving me some extra blankets?”

 

“All I have here is saddle blankets,” replied Eddie cautiously.

 

“Now that ain’t true,” said Baker with a sneer. “I know you got a new supply of blankets to keep the horses warm. Seems to me I deserve as much consideration as some old nag. How about letting me have a couple?”

 

Standing silently to the side, Joe waited to see what Eddie would do. He knew about the new blankets that had arrived yesterday. They were thick and warm. Joe had thought briefly about taking one for himself, but quickly forgot the idea. He hadn’t wanted to do anything that might get him in trouble. Trouble meant no trips to the stable and maybe no letters. And those punishments were something Joe was unwilling to risk.

 

“I don’t want to end up on report for giving you some blankets,” said Eddie in a stubborn voice. “If you’re cold, tell the guard.”

 

“They won’t do anything about it,” said Baker. “You know that.” Baker took a step toward Eddie and closed his hands menacingly into fists. “Now you going to get me those blankets or am I going to have to ask you again in a way you ain’t going to like.”

 

Quickly, Eddie took a step back. “All right, all right,” he said, putting his hands up. “Don’t get mad. You wait here. I’ll get them.”

 

A smirk crossed Baker’s face as he watched Eddie scurrying toward the back of the stables. Baker turned to Joe. “You’re the new kid,” he declared. “The one that got this soft job.”

 

“If you consider mucking out stalls and hauling water a soft job,” answered Joe with a shrug. He wasn’t in the mood to take any hectoring from someone he figured was a bully.

 

Looking down, Baker spotted Joe’s boots. “And you got yourself a nice pair of soft boots. I could use a nice pair of boots like that,” said Baker.

 

“They wouldn’t fit you,” snapped Joe.

 

“Why don’t we just see,” said Baker in a confident voice. “You take them off and hand them over to me.”

 

“No,” said Joe shortly. He turned back to the grain sack.

 

Baker’s eyebrows rose at Joe’s reply, then knotted in anger. “Boy, you’d better understand who you’re talking to.”

 

Whirling around, Joe’s face mirrored Baker’s anger. “I know who I’m talking to,” said Joe in an even voice. His brothers’ would have recognized the tone as the one Joe used before he exploded in anger. “Someone who thinks he can push everyone around.” A small, half-smile crossed Joe’s face. “Well, I’m not impressed,” he said. Once more, Joe turned his back on the man.

 

Letting out a roar of anger, Baker grabbed Joe by the shoulder and spun him around. Joe pushed Baker hard in the chest, causing the man to stagger back a step. Regaining his balance, Baker raised his fist and punched Joe in the jaw.

 

“Get him!” shouted one of the men who had followed Baker as he watched Joe fall to the ground. “Stomp him good!”

 

Quickly scrambling to his feet, Joe charged Baker, a move that surprised the big man. He was used to his victims cowering. Joe landed two quick jabs into Baker’s stomach, then quickly danced back from the man. Baker swung wildly but Joe ducked the blow. He rushed forward and landed a punch on the side of Baker’s face. Then Joe quickly retreated again. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Joe was thanking his brother Hoss for teaching how to fight a man much bigger than he was.

 

Kneeling on the ground, Baker looked at Joe with narrowing eyes, then got to his feet. He decided to change his tactics. Rushing forward, Baker grabbed Joe just under the arms. He threw Joe against the corner of the stable, causing Joe to wince in pain as his head and back hit the solid wood. Joe shook his head quickly to clear it. He dodged to his left as he saw Baker coming forward. The big man couldn’t change direction quite as quickly as his smaller opponent, and Joe was able to land a solid blow on Baker’s side, just below the ribs.

 

Seeing that a fight was brewing, men rushed to the stables from all parts of the prison yard. Forming a half circle around the combatants, the prisoners started yelling, encouraging Joe as he continued to land punches. Even O’Brien and Crenshaw roused themselves enough to walk over to the stables to see what the fuss was all about. The guards made no move to break up the fight, though. The two men watched with almost amused looks as Baker and Joe started trading punches.

 

Coming from the back of the stables, Eddie saw the fight. He dropped the blankets he was carrying and ran forward, pushing himself through the crowd of men to stand near the front. “Joe!” he yelled in alarm, then stopped. He wasn’t quite sure what to say next. He could tell there was no way the fight was going to end until one or the other of the men was down on the ground. “Get him, Joe!” Eddie finally called, getting caught up in the frenzy of shouts around him.

 

Ignoring the calls from the men around him, Joe watched Baker carefully. He could feel the trickle of blood on his face and the sore spots on various parts of his body. But he also could see the savage look in Baker’s eyes. Joe knew this was a fight to the finish.

 

Joe kept his eyes on Baker’s arms, getting ready to duck. His brother Adam had taught him how a man’s muscles tensed just before he threw a punch. Joe stayed far enough away from Baker that the man’s long arm couldn’t reach him, forcing Baker to take a step forward each time he wanted to get to Joe. He ducked most of the blows and each time, rushed in before Baker could recover to land a punch or two of his own before dancing back.

 

Seeing that their friend was getting the worse in the fight, the two men with Baker started forward, planning to grab Joe so that the bigger man could beat him to a pulp. Their advancement was immediately blocked by the large body of Brewer. “Let’s keep it a fair fight,” said Brewer in a menacing voice. The two men took one look at Brewer’s powerful body and massive arms. then hurriedly stepped back into the crowd. Brewer stood in front of the throng of prisoners who had gathered, making it clear he would stop anyone from joining the fight. Then he turned to watch the battle in front of the stables.

 

Even though he was landing more blows than he was receiving, Joe knew he couldn’t keep fighting much longer. He was tiring quickly and each punch Baker landed seemed to take more out of him than before. He could feel the blood running down his face, and the bruised spots seemed to cover most of his body now. Joe knew he had to finish the fight quickly, or Baker would do it for him. And Joe had no desire to learn how Baker planned to finish him off.

 

Taking a few steps back, Joe took a deep breath and brought both his fists up to his chest. He waited until Baker came toward him, then charged forward. Using his fists as a battering ram, Joe put all his strength into the charge. He hit Baker square in the stomach, and heard a whoosh of air escape from the man’s lungs. Joe stepped back as Baker doubled over, then threw two swift upper cuts to the man’s jaw. Baker staggered back, reeled a bit, then fell to the ground. Joe stood over him, breathing hard and looking for any sign of movement. But Baker laid on his back unmoving, eyes closed with arms and legs sprawled across the dirt. The fight was over.

 

Bending forward, Joe let his tired arms dangle. He sucked in gulps of air and dropped to his knees. Joe didn’t hear the cheers from the other prisoners watching the fight, or guards shouting for them to go back to work. He barely felt Eddie’s arm wrap around his body.

 

“Joe? You all right?” Eddie asked anxiously.

 

Still bent over and gasping for air, Joe didn’t answer. His face and body hurt and Joe knew the pains would get worse. Trickles of blood and sweat ran down Joe’s face, and drops of both landed on the ground at his feet. Joe didn’t feel as if he had won the fight; he only felt that he had managed to survive it.

 

“All right,” said O’Brien, pushing Eddie away. “It’s three days in solitary for both of you for fighting.”

 

“You can’t put Joe in solitary!” exclaimed Eddie in alarm. “The boy’s hurt. He needs to go to the infirmary.”

 

O’Brien hesitated, then looked to the other guard who was kneeling on the ground next to Baker. “How is he?”

 

“Out cold,” answered Crenshaw. “But looks like he’ll be all right.”

 

“If we take them to the infirmary, there’s liable to be some questions,” said O’Brien, rubbing his chin. “Like what we were doing when the fight broke out and why we didn’t stop it.”

 

“By the time they get out of solitary, their bruises will be fading and everyone will have forgotten about the fight,” suggested Crenshaw. “Might not be any questions then.”

 

“Right,” agreed O’Brien with a nod. He grabbed Joe by the arm. “It’s solitary for you, boy.”

 

“You can’t!” shouted Eddie in a desperate voice. “The boy’s hurt. You put him in solitary, you could kill him.”

 

“Three days never killed anyone,” said O’Brien. He turned to Crenshaw. “You stay with him until I lock up the kid. Then I’ll come back and help you with Baker.” O’Brien pulled Joe up by the arms.

 

“Don’t do it!” screamed Eddie, almost hysterically. “Don’t put him in the hole!” But O’Brien ignored Eddie’s shouts and pleas.

 

In a daze of exhaustion and pain, Joe was unaware of what was happening around him. He felt himself being pulled to his feet, but his legs began to buckle. Someone grabbed him under the arms and began to drag him. Joe winced and grunted in pain as he was dragged across the prison yard.

 

It seemed to Joe like he was dragged for hours. He heard voices but couldn’t understand the words. Metal doors clanged and more voices swirled around him. Joe didn’t bother to try to make sense of what was happening. All he wanted to do was lay down, close his eyes and stop hurting.

 

“In you go, boy,” said a voice near Joe’s ear. Joe opened his eyes a bit and saw what looked like an abyss of blackness before him. A hand pushed him, and Joe fell forward into the blackness. He landed on a dirt floor, grunting again in pain as his sore ribs met the hard earth. Joe heard a clang of metal behind him and then suddenly he was in total darkness.

 

Laying on the ground in the dark, Joe shook his head, trying to clear it. Somewhere in his brain, he understood he was in solitary. As his eyes began to adjust to the lack of light, Joe could see something in the corner, a pile of cloth as near as he could tell. Joe crawled toward the cloth, and found it was a thin blanket. Wrapping himself in the blanket, Joe laid on the floor. The blackness around him was almost complete. The only light was a sliver coming from the bottom of the door. Joe wondered briefly how long he was going to be kept in the dark, dank cell. Then he rolled over and passed out.

 

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

“You get everything you need for San Francisco, Pa?” asked Adam as he strolled into the den.

 

“I have the timber bids,” confirmed Ben as he stuck some papers in a leather case and pulled the flap of the case closed. “I just wish I had something I could take with me to show the gallery owners, something that might help us find this Johnson.”

 

“Don’t get your hopes up,” cautioned Adam. “We already agreed that it’s unlikely he’d try to sell the pictures in San Francisco.”

 

“I know, Adam,” said Ben. “But I have to try. We’ve got to do everything we can to get the evidence we need to clear Joe.”

 

“I know, Pa,” agreed Adam. “That’s why Mitch and I are riding over to Silver City tomorrow to talk with the man Elizabeth pulled her scheme on last year.”

 

“Don’t get your hope up, Adam,” Ben said, echoing his oldest son. “It’s been over a year. And he didn’t suspect anything was wrong until Elizabeth disappeared with his money.”

 

“But he’s had a year to think about it,” insisted Adam. “He might remember something. Elizabeth could have let something slip that meant nothing to him at the time but has significance now that he knows he was conned.”

 

“We’re grasping at straws, Adam,” said Ben with a sigh.

 

“We can’t stop asking questions, Pa,” insisted Adam. “We never know when we might turn over the right rock and find what we need.”

 

“I know,” said Ben, nodding. “I just wish I could write something to Joe that would give him some hope. I hate thinking about him in the place. I worry about him.”

 

“Joe’s doing as well as can be expected,” Adam replied in a soothing voice. “The warden’s done his best to keep him away from the other prisoners, and he’s sharing a cell with someone who will help him steer clear of trouble. It’s the best we can hope for him.”

 

“The best of a bad situation?” said Ben, raising his eyebrows. “That’s not good enough, Adam. I want Joe home, safe and sound.”

 

“We all do, Pa,” Adam said. “But for now, all we can do is try to find the man who can clear him. I’m sure Joe’s all right.”

 

“I hope you’re right, Adam,” said Ben, his voice filled with concern.

 

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

Huddled in the corner of the dark cell, Joe shivered and pulled the thin blanket tighter around him. He knew he was sick, probably had a fever. Not too long ago, he felt hot, burning hot. Joe had been in tough fights before, but never had he not been allowed to clean up after the fight nor had he been thrown into a dirty cell. The cuts on his face and hands throbbed, a sure sign of infection in Joe’s mind. His shoulder hurt and his ribs ached, bruised both in the fight and from being thrown against the stable wall. His face felt stiff from the blood which had tried on it, and his head ached. Twice Joe had tried to stand but both times, he had felt dizzy so he gave up on the idea. Besides, there was no where to walk in the small cell with the iron walls.

 

Licking his dry lips, Joe looked toward the door. He wondered how long it would be before another plate with two pieces of bread and a cup of water was shoved in his cell through the small opening at the bottom. Joe didn’t care about the bread. He had no appetite, and the thought of food made his stomach churn. He had only forced himself to eat the bread because he knew he needed some nourishment. But he was thirsty. Joe would have gladly given anything he had in exchange for a cup of water.

 

When the first plate had arrived, Joe had crawled to the door and grabbed the cup. He had drunk the water in the cup greedily, almost emptying it before realizing he needed to ration the liquid. Joe didn’t know how long it would be before another cup arrived. After what seemed an interminable time, a second plate and cup had been shoved into the cell. Joe had sipped the water from the second cup slowly, but all too soon, that cup had been empty also.

 

Looking toward the door, Joe wondered how long he had been in solitary. He had no way to measure time. He wasn’t sure if the two plates had represented dinner and breakfast, or if he was being fed once a day, meaning two days had passed. Joe hoped it was the latter. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could stand the dark, the silence, and the lack of human contact. If someone had told him a few days ago that Joe would be longing to be back in his cell with Eddie, he would have laughed at them. Now the cell, with its bed, light and plenty of water, seemed like an oasis in his desert of despair.

 

Closing his eyes, Joe tried to doze off. Sleep was his only escape from the pain, the thirst and the loneliness. He knew he had slept a lot since being thrown into the iron cell, some of the sleep caused by the fact that he was hurt too bad to stay conscious. For what it was worth, sleep was the only medicine Joe had to help his injured body. But the sleep no longer came easily. His pain and thirst kept Joe awake.

 

The sound of a lock turning and the creak of the metal door being pulled open startled Joe. Light from outside the door blinded Joe after his hours in darkness, and hurt his eyes. Joe put his hand over his eyes to shield them and squinted toward the door. He could make out the shape of two men standing by the door.

 

“Cartwright, get over here,” demanded a voice.

 

Slowly, Joe slipped off the blanket and untangled his legs. He pushed himself up from the ground, putting his hand on the wall to steady himself. On legs that seemed to weak to support his weight, Joe staggered the few feet to the door.

 

“My God!” exclaimed one of the men as Joe emerged into the light. Joe recognized the voice as Schmidt, the senior guard who had been on duty the day he arrived. To Schmidt, Joe looked like some kind of misshapen monster emerging from the dark. The man could see the dried blood on Joe’s face, his black and swollen eye, and the cuts that looked red and angry. Small bruises dotted Joe’s chin and cheek, and his split lip was swollen. “O’Brien, what were you thinking, putting a man in his condition into solitary?” said the senior guard angrily.

 

“He didn’t look that bad when I put him in there,” whined O’Brien.

 

“What are you, blind or just plain stupid?” said Schmidt in disgust. “You’re lucky the warden asked me to check on the men in solitary. He could have died in there, and you’d be up on murder charges.”

 

“I didn’t know he was really hurt,” protested O’Brien, looking suddenly pale. “Honest.”

 

Swaying a bit, Joe felt his legs beginning to buckle. The light hurt his eyes and his head ached. Joe started to fall forward.

 

“Help me with him,” cried Schmidt, grabbing Joe’s arm and holding him up.

 

Taking Joe’s other arm, O’Brien asked, “Do you want to take him to the infirmary?”

 

“No, it’s too far,” replied the other man. “He’ll never make it. Let’s get him to his cell.”

 

Once again, Joe felt himself being dragged, but this time, more gently and for a much shorter length of time. He heard voices, shouts, and then felt himself being lowered onto a bed. As soon as his head felt the pillow, Joe whispered, “Water. Thirsty.”

 

Standing by the cell door, Eddie watched anxiously as Joe was pulled into the cell and lowered onto the bed. As he heard Joe ask for water, Eddie grabbed a cup and rushed to the water bag hanging on the wall. Filling the cup, he quickly returned to sit on the side of Joe’s bed. Eddie lifted Joe’s head a bit and put the cup against Joe’s swollen lips. Joe drank slowly but continued drinking until the cup was almost empty. As Eddie lowered Joe’s head gently back to the pillow, Joe closed his eyes. His body went limp as he allowed himself to slip into darkness once more, but this time, a darkness of his own.

 

Eddie’s fingers fumbled a bit as he unbuttoned Joe’s tunic and slipped it off. He took in a sharp breath when he saw the dark bruises on Joe’s shoulder, ribs and stomach.

 

“Get over to the infirmary,” Schmidt barked at O’Brien. The senior guard was just as shocked as Eddie when he saw Joe’s torso.

 

“Why?” asked O’Brien in a puzzled voice. “The doc ain’t there. He won’t be there until sometime tomorrow.”

 

“There’s bandages and medicine there,” shouted the senior man. “Use your brain for a change and bring back anything that we can use.” O’Brien nodded and quickly scurried off.

 

Reaching into the pocket of his uniform, Schmidt pulled out a white handkerchief. “Here,” he said softly, handing the cloth to Eddie.

 

Nodding his thanks, Eddie hurried over to the water bag again and wet the cloth. Then he returned to the bed. Joe laid still on the thin mattress, his eyes closed. Eddie couldn’t tell if he was awake. As gently as possible, Eddie began to wipe the dried blood from Joe’s face.

 

“It must have been hard for you to wait to talk to the warden about this,” said Schmidt in a low voice. “He’ll be grateful that you did, though.”

 

Eddie’s hand stopped moving and he turned quickly to look at the man behind him. “You didn’t tell anyone I talked to the warden, did you?” asked Eddie in alarm.

 

“No,” the guard assured him. “You, me and the warden are the only ones who know you talked with him.”

 

“Good,” said Eddie with relief. He started to clean Joe’s face once more. “’Cause if anyone finds out, the other men will think I’m a spy or something, running to the warden every time something happens. I’d get blamed for any punishments that got handed out or for any cells that got searched. It wouldn’t take long before someone decided to make me pay for telling tales to the warden, even if I didn’t do it.”

 

“We waited long enough after you left the office so no one will guess,” said Schmidt. “We even waited until you finished working in the stables. I checked Baker first, just to make it look good.” Looking down at Joe’s battered face and bruised body, the guard added, “If I had known what shape he was in, though, I might not have waited.”

 

“I’m glad you did wait,” said Eddie as he continued to work on Joe. “I nearly went crazy last night, thinking about the boy in that cell and how much he must be hurting. And it was hard to act like nothing was wrong when I walked over to the warden’s office. But waiting to get him out of there will save me a lot of misery.” Eddie looked at Joe. “I’m sorry the boy had to suffer so long, though.”

 

Reappearing at the door of the cell, O’Brien held rolls of bandages and several bottles. “I brought the stuff,” he said.

 

“Here, give them to me,” said Eddie, moving to snatch the bandages and bottles from O’Brien. “I’ll take care of him.”

 

“You sure, Eddie?” asked Schmidt in surprise. “I can get one of the guards to look after him.”

 

“I know what to do, just as much as anyone else around here would,” affirmed Eddie. “You just send the doctor over as soon as he gets here tomorrow.”

 

“All right,” agreed Schmidt. He motioned to O’Brien, and the two men walked out of the cell.

As the senior guard closed the door behind him, he stopped. “You call out if you need help,” he said. “I’ll tell the cell guard to come get me if you need me.”

 

“I’ll manage,” said Eddie, not looking up. He was busy unrolling the bandages.

 

As Eddie heard the lock on the cell door click, he stopped and looked down at the battered figure on the bed. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said in a soft voice. “I’m sorry you had to stay in the hole so long while you were hurt. But I had to protect myself. I don’t have anyone to look out for me, not like you do.”

 

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

Walking down the steep hill of a San Francisco street, Ben carefully checked the addresses on the buildings against a paper in his hand. He had asked the desk clerk to make up a list of art galleries and their addresses while he had been busy with the railroad. When Ben had returned to the hotel, he had been disconcerted to see almost 30 addresses on the paper the clerk had handed to him.

 

Checking the paper in his hand, Ben was dismayed to see that he had checked off only six galleries. It seemed to Ben that he had been walking the streets of San Francisco for hours. His visit to each gallery had been brief. His vague description of Johnson and the paintings had resulted in swift responses of ignorance from the gallery owners. But still, the list in Ben’s hand seem impossibly long. He wondered if he had the energy to visit them all, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. Ben wasn’t about to let his youngest son languish in prison because he had been to tired to check out all the galleries.

 

Ben spotted the window of the next gallery on his list a few feet away. Putting the list in the inside coat pocket of his gray suit coat, Ben stopped. He adjusted the coat a bit and straightened his hat. Ben had learned that the owners were more willing to talk with him if they thought he was a wealthy potential customer.

 

Walking into the showroom, Ben saw the place was almost deserted. A man in a black suit was discussing a painting with a well-dressed man and woman. Ben guessed the black suit belonged to the owner, and that the man was trying to sell the painting to the couple. He decided to wait, sure that he would be better off with the owner’s full attention.

 

The walls of the gallery were filled with paintings, some large but most rather small. Ben wandered around the room, glancing at the pictures. He saw seascapes, portraits, and majestic mountains, but nothing that resembled the area around the Ponderosa. Ben had almost decided that this was another wasted visit when he saw the small portrait hanging in the corner. The girl in the picture looked familiar. Ben walked over to take a closer look at the picture and then stopped dead in his tracks. He was staring at a portrait of Elizabeth Crowley.

 

Elizabeth had been much younger when the painting was done, but there was no mistaking the flowing dark hair and oval face. In the picture, the girl was dressed in a costume of some sort, a Greek gown as near as Ben could tell. His gaze at the picture was so intent that Ben didn’t notice the man in the black suit approaching him.

 

“Are you interested in this picture?” asked the man in a hopeful voice.
“That girl, I think I know her,” answered Ben in a distracted voice.

 

“Elizabeth?” said the owner in surprise. “You know her?”

 

“Her name is Elizabeth?” asked Ben, a bit shocked. He was sure Elizabeth Crowley wasn’t the real name of the girl who had been killed.

 

“Elizabeth Kramer,” confirmed the man standing next to Ben. “Of course, this was painted several years ago, when she was only about 17.”

 

“Do you know who did the painting?” asked Ben anxiously.

 

“Yes,” answered the gallery owner. “Robert Owens. He and Elizabeth were quite an item. She was his model for a number of pictures. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was still involved with him. I always felt that she was in love with Robert, although I’m not entirely sure he returned her feelings.”

 

“Robert Owens,” repeated Ben in a quiet voice. He turned to the man standing next to him. “Do you know where I can find him?” Ben asked.

 

“No,” answered the owner, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen Robert in quite awhile. We were in art school together, but I’ve lost touch with him.” Looking almost sadly at the painting, the man continued. “Robert wanted to be a great artist, the toast of San Francisco. But I’m afraid he had more passion for what art could bring him than for art itself. As you can see, the painting is adequate, but not really very good. I’m afraid Robert has more enthusiasm than talent.”

 

“Are you sure you don’t know where he is?” pressed Ben. “Didn’t he leave you an address where to contact him when you sold the painting?”

 

“I hung this painting three years ago, when I first opened the gallery,” the owner explained. “Mostly as a favor to Robert, although at that time, I needed all the pictures I could get. In three years, I haven’t found anyone even remotely interested in buying the painting. Frankly,

I haven’t made any effort to contact Robert. I’d be embarrassed to tell him how little interest his work has generated. I know none of the other galleries in town have accepted a painting from him.”

 

“Do you have any idea where I might find him or get in touch with him?” pleaded Ben. “It’s extremely important that I contact Robert Owens.”

 

“I’m sorry, but I have no idea where Robert might be found,” said the owner, shaking his head.

 

“How about family, friends, someone who might know where he is?” asked Ben in a desperate voice. “Anyone at all?”

 

Ben’s question caused the gallery owner to pause. He frowned for a moment in concentration. “Robert does have a brother,” said the man slowly. “Richard, I believe. Yes, I’m sure it’s Richard. He runs the family business down in Sacramento. Mining equipment or something like that. I got the impression that Robert wasn’t close with his brother, but Richard might know where he is.”

 

“Thank you,” said Ben gratefully as he grabbed the owner’s hand and shook it. “Thank you very much.”

 

“What about the painting?” asked the man, a note of hope once more creeping into his voice. “Are you interested in buying it?”

 

Turning to the picture on the wall, Ben studied it for a moment, then shook his head. “No, I’m not interested,” said Ben almost bitterly. “One thing I don’t need is a painting to remind me of that girl.”

 

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

“How about I meet you at the stable this afternoon?” said Joe almost casually. “I feel good enough to do some work.”

 

Standing by the door of the cell, Eddie turned to look at Joe. The young man was sitting across his bed, his back against the wall. Joe was wearing the tunic of his uniform, but the coat was open and the white bandages wrapped around Joe’s ribs was clearly visible. So were the cuts and bruises on Joe’s face and hands, although the marks of his fight were beginning to fade.

 

“Are you loco?” said Eddie, with a frown. “It’s only been three days since they hauled you out of solitary. And only about a day since you’ve been able to talk straight. You ain’t fit for wok yet.”

 

“I’m feeling much better,” Joe said. “Really.”

 

“You may be feeling better but you ain’t fit yet,” answered Eddie in a firm voice.

 

“Come on, Eddie, let me go to work,” begged Joe. “I’ll go crazy sitting around this cell all day. Just tell the guard it’s all right for me to head to the stables this afternoon. I promise I won’t do anything foolish. I just want to get out of this cell for awhile. Please.”

 

For a moment, Eddie almost gave him to the pleas and beseeching look on the young man’s face, but he forced himself to be stern. “No,” said Eddie. “The doc said to stay a week in bed, and that’s what you’re going do. He figures it was some kind of miracle that you ain’t got something broken or messed up inside. But those cuts and bruises are bad enough, especially since some of them festered.” Then Eddie grinned. “Besides, Henry is going to send over another bowl of that special soup he made for you. You wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings by not being here to eat it.”

 

“I’m surprised Henry even knows who I am, much less sending over soup for me,” said Joe, shaking his head in amazement.

 

“Everyone in this prison knows Joe Cartwright,” answered Eddie in a dry voice. “The story of you beating up Baker has been the main topic of conversation for days. About half the men consider you some kind of hero. The others are scared to death of you. The way I hear it, the story is going around that you floored Baker with about two punches. Sort of David taking on Goliath all over again.”

 

“What about you, Eddie?” asked Joe with a grin. “Do you think I’m a hero or are you afraid of me.”

 

“What I think is you’re a fool kid who damn near got his head knocked off,” Eddie replied, trying to sound a bit disgusted. The truth was Eddie was proud of Joe, proud of the way the boy fought off Baker and won.

 

Joe’s face grew serious. “I never really thanked you for what you did for me,” he said. “I don’t think I would have made it if you hadn’t gotten me out of the hole and looked after me.”

 

Glancing quickly over his shoulder to see if anyone was listening, Eddie said hastily, “I didn’t get you out of solitary. Schmidt did that, when the warden sent him to check on you. All I did was clean you up and keep an eye on you until the doc got here.”

 

“I know it was more than that,” said Joe. “But don’t worry, I’ll keep it to myself. I just want you to know that I’m grateful.” An impish look came over Joe’s face. “I’d be even more grateful if you’d tell the guard I could come to the stables this afternoon.”

 

“Boy, you sure don’t give up,” said Eddie in an exasperated voice. “The answer is still no. You try getting out of that bed before the week is up and I’m going to take away those boots you’re so proud of.” Even though the shipment of prison boots had arrived, the warden had agreed to allow Joe to keep his boots. The warden knew what the other prisoners were saying about Joe, and he thought the boots would be a visible symbol to anyone who didn’t know who Joe was that the young man was someone they shouldn’t mess with. In the warden’s mind, it was another small protection he could offer. In Joe’s mind, the boots were a badge of honor, an emblem of his victory over a much bigger man.

 

“I could just sit outside the stable and watch you work,” suggested Joe hopefully.

 

“You’re the most stubborn man I’ve ever met,” answered Eddie. “How many times do I have to tell you that your staying right in this cell?”

 

“Well, my family does think I’m a bit stubborn,” Joe said with a grin at his blatant understatement. Then his face grew serious again. “You’ll check to see if there’s any letters, won’t you? I haven’t heard anything from them in days.”

 

“I’m sure they’ll be some letters today,” Eddie replied confidently. “The mail has been running behind lately.” He didn’t tell Joe that there were four letters waiting for him, letters that Eddie had put aside until he felt Joe was up to reading them. Eddie knew there were some parts of the letters Joe preferred to keep to himself. With a swollen eye and fever, Joe couldn’t have read the letters, and having Eddie read the letters to Joe would have made both men uncomfortable. So the older man decided just to hold the mail until Joe was feeling better. Eddie figured Joe’s spirits would get a lift when the guard slipped a handful of envelopes under the door later in the day.

 

“At least some letters would give me something to read,” said Joe. He looked at Eddie. “How long do you think it’s going to be before the library is open?”

 

“Another month, maybe six weeks,” Eddie guessed. “They’re still working on the building, and the warden just ordered the books.” He paused, then added. “Baker got out of solitary yesterday. I saw him working on the building. You stay out of his way, Joe, you hear? He ain’t a man who takes defeat gracefully. He’ll try to get back at you if he can.”

 

“Don’t worry,” said Joe, rubbing his sore ribs. “I don’t have any interest in going another round with him.”

 

“Good,” said Eddie. He turned to the front of the cell as he heard the sound of footsteps and jangling keys.

 

A guard came to the cell and unlocked the door. “Time for work, Eddie,” said the man.

 

Nodding, Eddie started to walk out of the cell, then stopped and turned back to Joe. “You rest and eat Henry’s soup,” he ordered. “And remember what I said about watching out for Baker. The bible says David beat Goliath once, but it don’t say anything about him doing it twice.”

 

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

On tired, sweating horses, Ben and his two older sons rode up to the hotel in Sacramento. As soon as Ben had left the gallery in San Francisco, he returned to his hotel and started packing. He didn’t care about the railroad or the bid for the timber he had submitted. For the first time, Ben had a solid lead on the man who could get his youngest son out of prison.

 

At first, Ben had planned to go directly to Sacramento and find Richard Owens – and hopefully his brother – by himself. But as he had packed his things, Ben thought better of the idea. He needed to return to the Ponderosa, he decided, not only to get a better weapon than the small pistol he carried in San Francisco but also to get Adam and Hoss. Ben wanted his older sons with him in case he needed help finding Robert Owens. He also thought their presence might be useful if some “persuasion” were needed to get to get Richard Owens to tell them where his brother was, or to get Robert to return to Virginia City and confess.

 

After a journey with only brief stops for rest and food, the three men arrived in Sacramento anxious to find one or both of the Owens brothers. Ben brushed the dust off his shirt as he walked into the hotel and directly to the desk. Adam and Hoss hung back a bit, both of them standing near the door with saddlebags slung over their shoulders. “We need a suite,” said Ben, picking up the pen next to the ledger on the desk. “Two bedrooms, two beds in each.”

 

“Of course, Mr….Cartwright,” replied the clerk smoothly as he read Ben’s name in the ledger.

The clerk turned and pulled a key from a pigeonhole in the wooden shelf behind him. “Number five,” continued the clerk as he turned back to Ben and put the key on the counter. “Top of the stairs and to your left.”

 

“We’ll pay in advance,” said Ben reaching into the inside pocket of his vest and pulling out his wallet. “How much?”

 

“Five dollars a day,” replied the clerk a bit surprised. “But there’s no need to pay in advance.”

 

Counting out the five bills, Ben said, “We may need to leave in a hurry and I don’t want to have to worry about settling up the hotel bill. Here’s $25. That should cover things.”

 

“Of course, whatever you wish,” said the clerk, taking the money off the counter.

 

“We’ve got three horses in front, “ Ben said. “Will you have someone take care of them?”

 

“We have a stable behind the hotel,” answered the clerk. “We’ll make sure your horses are fed, watered and groomed.” The clerk hesitated, then added, “That’s an additional dollar a day.”

 

“Fine,” agreed Ben, pulling another bill from his wallet and putting it on the counter. “One more thing. We are looking for a man named Richard Owens. He owns an business in Sacramento – mining equipment, we think.”

 

“Mr. Owens’ company makes boilers,” corrected the clerk. “His boilers are on trains and steamships throughout the country. He’s a fine man, and we’re very proud of his success.” The clerk frowned a bit. “Why do you need to see him?”

 

“We don’t mean him any harm, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Ben. “We just need to get some information from him. Where can we find Mr. Owens?”

 

Reassured, the clerk said, “His office is three blocks down the street, a red brick building with a large sign on it. You can’t miss it.”

 

“Thank you,” said Ben, nodding briefly. He picked up the key to the suite and turned to the door. “Come on, boys, let’s get cleaned up a bit and then we’ll go see Mr. Owens.”

 

Less than half an hour later, with the dust brushed off and their hands and faces cleaned, Ben, Adam and Hoss walked into the building sporting a sign proclaiming it “Owens Foundry.” The front room was filled with men in shirtsleeves sitting at desks, some writing or reading papers while others appeared to be working on designs. Two men were talking at a corner desk, and one stood near a window, holding a large sheet up to the light. Everyone seemed busy and no one showed any interest in the three men who had walked into the building.

 

“Must be a thriving business,” commented Adam in a low voice as he looked around the office.

 

“They’re sure busy as bees,” agreed Hoss.

 

Walking up to a desk, Ben asked the man behind it, “Where might I find Richard Owens?”

 

“In his office,” said the man, looking up and pointing to his right at a door with a glass window. “But Mr. Owens is real busy. He said he wasn’t seeing anyone today.”

 

“I wonder if you might ask him if he could spare a few minutes for me and my sons,” said Ben politely. “It’s very important that we talk with him.”

 

“And who are you that Mr. Owens might want to see you?” asked the man in a voice that bordered on rudeness.

 

“My name is Ben Cartwright,” replied Ben.

 

“Ben Cartwright?” replied the man, his eyes widening. “From Virginia City? The Ponderosa? That Ben Cartwright?”

 

“Yes,” answered Ben. “That Ben Cartwright.”

 

Standing quickly, the man didn’t say anything, but walked rapidly to the office he had indicated. Rapping on the door, the man went inside the office without waiting for an answer. A minute later, the man emerged from the office, followed by another man who looked to be in his thirties. The second man was slipping on a suit coat as he came out of the office.

 

“Mr. Cartwright, I’m Richard Owens,” said the second man who had come out of the office. Owens extended his hand to Ben. “I’m honored to meet you.”

 

“Thank you for seeing us, Mr. Owens,” said Ben, shaking the man’s hand briefly. He turned and introduced Adam and Hoss.

 

“Please, come into my office,” invited Owens with a sweeping arm. He started toward the office, and Ben, Adam, and Hoss followed him.

 

The office was not large and designed more for utility than comfort. A desk and chair were at the back, and a large table with six chairs around it stood to the right of the desk. Both the desk and table were covered with papers and designs. A few pictures hung on the wall and a bookcase filled with thick volumes stood against the left wall. The office looked more like the one used by a manager, rather than the president, of a successful company.

 

“Let’s sit at the table,” Owens invited the Cartwrights. He walked quickly to the table and began clearing it, putting the papers and drawings into a pile.

 

As Owens cleared the table, Ben studied the man. He could see some resemblance to the description they had of the man who had been in Virginia City. Richard Owens was tall, with black hair and broad shoulders. But his face had a serious look to it, rather than sporting the easy smile that had been reported of the man in Virginia City. His hands were stained and a bit callused, evidence of hard work, and not the soft hands of the man the Cartwrights were seeking.

 

“Sit down,” Owens invited the Cartwrights once the table was cleared. Ben and his sons took seats around the table. Owens waited until his guests were settled, then sat down himself. “How may I help you? I wouldn’t have thought that you would have much use for boilers on the Ponderosa.”

 

“We’re here to discuss a personal matter, not a business one,” answered Ben. He saw the look of surprise on Owens face. “We’re trying to find your brother Robert, and we hoped you might be able to tell us where he is.”

 

“Robert?” said Owens, a wary look crossing his face. “Why are you looking for him?”

 

“A girl was killed in Virginia City,” explained Ben. “My youngest son, Joseph, was convicted of the crime, but we’re sure he didn’t do it. We have learned that Robert was staying in the hotel the night the girl was killed. We’re hoping to find him so we can ask him about that night.”

 

“We think he might know something that may help us clear our brother and get him out of prison,” said Adam.

 

“It’s real important we find him,” Hoss added for emphasis.

 

For a minute, Owens said nothing. He studied the men sitting around the table, noting the anxious looks on their faces. “You think Robert might know something?” asked Owens. “Or do you think he might have killed the girl himself?” Seeing the startled look on the Cartwrights’ faces, Owens continued, “I know my brother is a scoundrel, Mr. Cartwright, and I wouldn’t put anything past him. Not even murder. Killing someone and letting another take the blame is just the kind of thing Robert would do.”

 

“Mr. Owens,” Ben began and then stopped. He glanced over his shoulder at Adam, who simply shrugged. “Mr. Owns,” Ben said again, turning back to face the man who sat near him, “we do believe your brother killed the girl. We don’t think he meant to kill her, that he slapped or pushed her during an argument and she hit her head when she fell. Nevertheless, he did kill her and he must be held accountable for his actions. More importantly, my son Joseph is in prison for the crime we believe your brother committed. We need to find Robert in order to free my son.”

 

“Who is it that Robert is suppose to have killed,” asked Owens curiously.

 

“A girl we called Elizabeth Crowley, but who we believe was really Elizabeth Karmer,” replied Ben.

 

“Elizabeth,” said Owens softly. “She was about the only person left in this world who cared for Robert, and now he’s killed even that love.” Owens shook his head. “My brother has never taken responsibility for anything in his life, Mr. Cartwright. I doubt if he’ll freely admit he killed Elizabeth.”

 

“Sounds like you ain’t too fond of your brother,” commented Hoss.

 

Giving Hoss a wry look, Owens answered, “Fond of him? No, I’m not. Let me tell you about Robert. As far back as I can remember, he’s been lazy, shiftless and irresponsible. At 19, I went to work in the foundry, shoveling coal into the ovens. I worked about every job in the company. My father wanted me to learn the business thoroughly. His dream was to allow Robert and I to take over the company and run it when he retired. But when Robert turned 19, he refused to come near the foundry. He looked down at the business, saying he didn’t want to be in ‘trade’. He wanted to be an artist, to paint pictures.”

 

“Well, not everyone is cut out to work in business,” commented Adam. “Different people have different talents and interests.”

 

“I agree,” said Owens. “Only in Robert’s case, I believe he chose an art career because he felt that was the way to get the greatest amount of fame and money with the littlest amount of work. Somehow, he convinced my mother that art was the only career that would make him happy, and she got my father to agree to send him to school in San Francisco. Soon we began hearing rumors about Robert – stories of wild revelries, drinking binges, and scandals with women. My father wrote him a number of times, asking for an explanation, but Robert never answered the letters. Finally, my father went to San Francisco. He found Robert and learned that all the stories we heard – and worse – were true. My father was furious with Robert, and threatened to cut off his money, to disinherit him unless Robert shaped up.”

 

“And did he?” asked Adam.

 

“No,” replied Owens, shaking his head sadly. “Robert laughed at my father. He told my father he didn’t need him or his money. Robert told him that he was going to paint great pictures, and that the people in San Francisco would buy them, giving him all the money he needed. Robert had no intention of changing his life. So my father came home. When he told my mother about Robert, it broke her heart. She died not long after that. The doctor said it was heart failure, but I believe she died of a broken heart.”

 

“Is your father still alive?” asked Ben.

 

“After mother died, father threw himself into his work,” Owens answered. “Nothing else seemed to matter to him. I tried to get him to slow down, but he wouldn’t listen. He spent 10, 12 hours a day here, sometimes longer. One morning, I came to work and found him dead at his desk.” Owens looked down. “So, in a way, you could say Robert killed my mother and father.”

 

“I’m sorry,” said Ben with genuine sympathy.

 

Nodding, Owens continued, “Robert didn’t bother to come home for mother’s funeral, and he showed up after father died only for the reading of the will. I suppose he thought he was going to inherit something. By then, Robert’s art career was floundering and he needed money. But my father was a man of his word. Robert inherited nothing. He was furious when he found out, and he left town. I haven’t seen him since.”

 

“Then you have no idea where he might be,” said Ben, his voice filled with disappointment.

 

“I hear of Robert from time to time,” Owens said. “Usually in connection with some society event in Denver or someone will see him dinning in a fine restaurant in San Francisco. When Robert has money, he lives well. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have money very often. I’ve gotten a number of letters over the years, demanding what he believes he is due from the business. I’ve never answered them.”

 

“Do you know how he get his money?” Adam asked cautiously.

 

Looking off, Owens considered for a minute before answering. “I’ve heard stories,” he replied carefully. He looked at the Cartwrights. “I believe Robert gets his money by cheating people,” he stated flatly. “I don’t know the details, but evidently, he gets someone to put up money for an art show, then simply takes the money and disappears.”

 

“In this case, as well as one other we know about, Elizabeth was the one who tried to get money for the fictional show,” Adam said. “My brother found out about the scheme before she got the money. We believe that’s why Robert got angry and argued with her.”

 

“Yes, I can believe that,” said Owens, nodding. “Even as a child, he would get angry if he didn’t get whatever he wanted. Robert thinks of no one but himself, I’m afraid.”

 

“Can you give us any idea, any clue to where we might find him?” Ben asked in a desperate voice.

 

“As I said, when he has money, Robert lives well,” replied Owens. “He could be anywhere that offers fine food, beautiful women and bright lights.”

 

“But in this case, we believe he’s almost out of money,” Ben stated. “Where would he go if he were hiding, and had no money?”

 

Once again, Owens looked off, this time his face showing him to be deep in thought. “We have a cabin on the Truckee River, a small place my father built as sort of a retreat,” Owens said in a thoughtful voice. “When we were boys, Robert and I used to go there with my father to fish. I don’t use the place very often now, but the last time I was there, there was some evidence that someone had been living there. Leftover food, and beds that had been slept in, that sort of thing. The lock was still closed on the cabin door, though. Robert knew where the key was hidden. He might have been using the place.”

 

A frown crossed Adam’s face. “The man I talked with in Silver City said Elizabeth mentioned something about staying in what she called a hunting lodge,” said Adam slowly. “He had apologized to the girl for not having a fancier home, but she told him she was used to rough living. That’s when she mentioned the hunting lodge.”

 

“I’d hardly call it a hunting lodge,” said Owens with a smile. “But it is a cozy cabin and someone would be able to live there comfortably. There’s some good fishing and quite a bit of game in the area. And the cabin is well stocked with canned food, also. We always kept cards and games like checkers there, also.” Owens looked down for a minute and then nodded. “If Robert is hiding out, he could well be at the cabin.”

 

“Can you tell us where to find the cabin?” asked Ben, an eagerness creeping back into his voice.

 

“Let me draw you a map,” replied Owens. He reached over to grab a paper from the pile on the edge of the desk. Owens looked at the paper briefly, making sure it was nothing important, then turned it over. Picking up a pencil, he began sketching a map. When he was finished, he held the paper out to Ben.

 

“Here’s where you can find the cabin,” said Owens. “If Robert isn’t there, though, I have no idea where he might be.”

 

Looking at the paper, Ben exclaimed, “That’s near the Ponderosa! We’ve been search all over the West for him, and all this time, he might have been right in our own backyard!”

 

Rising, Owens said, “I hope for your son’s sake that Robert is at the cabin. I’ll make some inquiries among the people who have told me in the past that they have seen Robert. If I learn anything about his whereabouts, I’ll let you know.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Owens,” said Ben gratefully, also rising. Adam and Hoss did the same.

 

“Let me show you out,” offered Owens, leading the Cartwrights to the door of the office. Owens stopped, though, just before opening the door. “If Robert is convicted of killing Elizabeth, will they hang him?” he asked.

 

“I doubt it,” answered Ben in what he hoped was a comforting tone. “My son was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Robert would probably get the same.”

 

“That’s too bad,” said Owens. “He deserves to hang.” Seeing the shocked look on the Cartwright’s faces, Owens added, “My brother has done nothing his entire life but cause trouble and misery to others. The world would be a better place without him.”

 

“We want very much to find your brother alive,” said Ben. “His confession is the only thing that can clear my son.”

 

“In that case, I hope you do find him alive and well,” said Owens. “And Mr. Cartwright, you have my blessing to use whatever means you feel necessary to get a confession out of Robert.”

 

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

In the yard of the prison, six men worked, toting boards and nailing them to the building frame. O’Brien and Crenshaw were the two guards for the detail once more, but this time, the two stood near the building, at least appearing to be watching the men a little closer than they had before. A closer look at the guards, however, would have revealed half-closed eyes and inattentive stares.

 

Watching the guards carefully, Baker walked casually to the far side of the half-built structure, to a large tool box. He began sorting through the tools.

 

“What are you looking for?” asked a prisoner who strolled over by Baker. He was one of the men who had been lounging with Baker near the wagon on the day of the fight.

 

“This,” replied Baker, holding an awl in his hand. He quickly unscrewed the thin metal rod with the sharp point from the handle of the awl, and slipped the rod into his boot.

 

“You’ll end up back in the hole if they catch you with that,” warned the man standing next to Baker.

 

“I’m doing life,” said Baker with a shrug. “Don’t make any difference to me whether I do time in a cell or in solitary.”

 

“What are you going to do with it?” the other man asked.

 

Rubbing a bruise on his chin, Baker said, “I’m going to get even. Show that young whelp he can’t mess with me and expect to get off scott free.”

 

“If you kill him, they’ll hang you,” said the other prisoner.

 

“I ain’t going to kill him, at least not intentionally,” said Baker. A nasty grin crossed his face. “A doc once showed me where there’s this nerve or something in your shoulder, and if it gets cut, you can’t use your arm any more. At the time, he was trying to show me how lucky I was that a bullet missed the place, but it was a real useful piece of information.”

 

“How are you going to get to Cartwright?” asked the other man. “He’s never alone. Eddie is always with him or one of the guards.”

 

“I’ll wait,” replied Baker. “I got plenty of time. I’ll figure out a way to get him alone. And then Cartwright will pay for what he did to me.”

 

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

Walking through the woods with a string of fish he had caught, Robert Owens couldn’t have looked more different from the well-bred, refined man who had been in the hotel in Virginia City. Wearing a plaid shirt and denim pants, Owens had grown an unkempt beard and allowed his hair to fall over his collar and ears. Owens hated his appearance, almost as much as he hated staying in the cabin. But he had little choice. He had no money, no friends, and with a man as powerful as Ben Cartwright looking for him, nowhere else to go. Owens knew the Cartwrights were looking for him; he had heard about the search in Reno and seen the ads seeking a man who had been in the hotel on the fateful night in the papers he picked up on his rare trips to a town. Changing his appearance and hiding in the cabin was Owens best chance of avoiding the Cartwrights.

 

Looking down at the fish, Owens sighed. He was tired of fish, and of eating from the tins of food in the cabin. He wanted to taste champagne again, and eat rich food that had been tastefully cooked. He wanted to attend elegant parties and laugh at the sophisticated wit of the people who attended them. Owens wondered how long he had been at the cabin. Weeks? Months? He almost sure enough time had passed that he could leave his rustic hide-out. Owens began making some plans in his mind about how to get money. Selling a picture here and there, to a rancher or business in a small town seemed to be the easiest way to get enough money to travel East.

 

Lost in his thoughts of future plans, Owens paid no attention to the area around the cabin. He hadn’t seen another person up in these woods since he had been there. That’s why he was so surprised when he opened the cabin door and saw three men standing inside.

 

“Good afternoon, Mr. Owens,” said Ben almost politely.

 

Despite the fact that Owens knew exactly who the three men were, he feigned ignorance. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What do you want from me?”

 

“I think you know who we are,” said Adam. “But just so there’s no misunderstanding, I’m Adam Cartwright, and this is my brother Hoss. The man who greeted you is our father, Ben Cartwright. And you’re Robert Owens, the man who killed Elizabeth Crowley.”

 

Moving with a speed that his size belied, Hoss crossed the room. He grabbed Owens by the arm and pulled him into the cabin, shutting the door firmly behind the man. “Why don’t you come in and join us,” suggested Hoss in a voice that made it clear he wasn’t issuing an invitation.

 

Feeling trapped, Owens walked further into the cabin. He slapped the fish on a small table, then turned to look at the three men in the room. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said. “My name is Johnson. And I don’t know any Elizabeth Crowley.”

 

“Johnson, Brown, Owens, the name really doesn’t matter, does it?” said Ben. “You have so many names, I’m surprised you can keep them straight.”

 

“My name is Johnson,” Owens insisted again. “And I don’t know who this Elizabeth is.”

 

“I think you do,” replied Ben.

 

“I don’t,” Owens said adamantly.

 

“Give it up, Owens,” Adam advised. “We’ve got enough evidence to prove you’re the one who killed Elizabeth Crowley.”

 

“And sent our little brother to prison for it,” added Hoss bitterly.

 

“What evidence?” asked Owens, curiously.

 

“A picture you painted of Elizabeth while in San Francisco,” said Ben, ticking off his points with his fingers. “An art dealer who says you knew her well. A man who saw you coming out of her room one night.”

 

“And we found the pictures,” added Adam. “You shouldn’t really leave them out like that.”

 

“All right, I knew her,” admitted Owens. “But that still doesn’t prove I killed her.”

 

“Then how did you get the pictures?” asked Adam.

 

“She gave them to me,” replied Owens. “And you can’t prove otherwise.”

 

“You left the hotel in rather a hurry the morning after Elizabeth was killed,” stated Ben. “I’d say that proves something.”

 

“It proves nothing,” Owens said. “I had…pressing business.”

 

“A woman with whom you had a long-term relationship is killed, and you leave because you had business?” Adam said in an ironic voice. “I don’t think there’s many people who will believe that.”

 

“All right, I left because I was afraid,” Owens stated. “Afraid that you would blame the girl’s death on me to save your son, just like you’re doing now.”

 

“Afraid of us?” Ben said, raising his eyebrows. “It was weeks before we even knew you existed. You’re going to have to do better than that, Mr. Owens.”

 

“I was afraid of your son,” amended Owens. Suddenly, a small smile appeared on Owen’s face, as an idea sprang into his mind. “I believe I could help both of us, Mr. Cartwright. I will testify that I was in Elizabeth’s suite when two armed men broke in. These robbers slapped Elizabeth, causing her to fall and hit her head, which in turned killed her. They threatened to kill me if I said anything, then knocked me out. When I woke up, they were gone and Elizabeth was dead. I took the paintings and left the next morning, afraid these men would change their minds and come after me.”

 

“You’ll say that?” said Ben in astonishment.

 

“Yes,” replied Owens. His smile widened. “As soon as you give me $50,000.

 

“$50,000!” exclaimed Hoss. “Are you crazy?”

 

“You’d admit you were in Elizabeth’s suite?” asked Adam.

 

“Yes,” replied Owens smugly. “For $50,000, I’ll admit it.”

 

“And how will you explain your sudden change of heart and willingness to testify?” asked Ben.

 

“I’ll say that you offered me protection,” replied Owens. “Or better yet, I’ll say I just learned your son went to prison for the crime. Hiding in the woods, I didn’t know about your son until now. I felt I had to testify, despite the dangers to me.” Owens nodded. “Yes, I like that. It will make me sound noble and brave.”

 

“And you think anyone will believe your story?” Adam asked wryly.

 

“It has a few holes in it,” admitted Owens. “This is just sort of spur of the moment. It will sound better once I’ve had a chance to work on it and polish it.” Owens smiled confidently at the Cartwrights. “I can be an excellent witness.”

 

“For $50,000,” said Ben.

 

“Yes,” said Owens. “That amount will get your son out of prison and give me the basis for a fresh start in the East.” He gave Ben an intense look. “Do we have a deal?”

 

For a moment, Ben almost agreed. As much as he detested Owens, the deal would insure Joe’s release. The evidence they had that Owens killed Elizabeth was circumstantial. No one had actually seen the killing and Owens was unlikely to admit it on his own. A judge could very possibly not believe that Owens was the killer. And to Ben, $50,000 was a small price to pay to get Joe out of prison. Ben took a deep breath. Then he shook his head.

 

“No, Mr. Owens, we do not have a deal,” said Ben firmly. He glanced toward Adam and Hoss and was relieved to see both of them nodding their agreement to his statement. “I will not pay you to lie. I wouldn’t take a chance that Joseph’s innocence could come into doubt and his release from prison could be revoked.”

 

“That’s your decision, Mr. Cartwright,” said Owens with a shrug. “However, I’ll testify that I know nothing about the killing. You won’t be able to prove otherwise.”

 

“I think we have enough evidence to show you had motive and opportunity to kill Elizabeth Crowley,” said Ben. “Especially when your brother testifies to your long history of lying, cheating, and dishonest behavior.”

 

“Ah, my dear brother Richard,” said Owens. “You talked with him? But of course you did. How else could you have found me?” Owens moved slowly across the room to a desk. “I admit his testimony could add weight and possibly hurt my chances.” In a quick move, Owens pulled open a desk drawer and pulled out a pistol. He pointed the gun at the Cartwrights. “But fortunately, Richard won’t have that chance. Now drop your guns.”

 

Surprised at Owens’ pulling out the gun, Ben, Adam and Hoss stood frozen.

 

“Drop them,” Owens ordered again. He raised the pistol a bit. “I assure you I am an excellent shot, gentlemen. One of the few legacies I received from my father. I am perfectly capable of shooting all three of you before one of you can make a move toward your gun. Now drop your guns and do it very carefully.”

 

Almost in a simultaneous action, all three Cartwrights reached slowly to the pistol that was in the holster on their hip. They dropped their guns to the floor.

 

“Thank you,” said Owens almost politely. “Now, Mr. Cartwright, you’ll find some rope over by the door. I want you to tie your sons’ hands behind their backs.”

 

“What are you going to do?” asked Ben.

 

“I’m going to tie you up and take whatever money you have,” answered Owens. “It will be enough to get me far enough from here that you’ll never find me. Possibly enough to get to Chicago or St. Louis.”

 

“And then what?” asked Adam. “You’ll run your con game again? Only with yourself as the bait?”

 

“I was the one who originally did the romancing,” explained Owens, “not Elizabeth. I simply grew tired of courting rich widows. I persuaded Elizabeth to take on the role. It worked out nicely. I was able to spend the day painting or doing whatever I liked while she got some gullible fool to fall in love with her. She enjoyed the playacting and was quite good at it.”

 

“You can’t leave us alive,” stated Adam. “You know we’ll come after you again.”

 

“I don’t want to kill you, but I will,” said Owens. “If you give me your word that you’ll give up this quest of yours, I won’t shoot you.”

 

“And you’d believe us?” asked Ben in surprise.

 

“You’re a man of your word, Mr. Cartwright,” replied Owens. “Unlike myself.”

 

“He ain’t got enough guts to kill us, Pa,” said Hoss, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

 

“Oh, but I assure you, I do,” Owens said. “Once you’ve killed, doing it again is much easier.”

 

“So you did kill Elizabeth,” Ben stated.

 

“Yes, I did,” replied Owens. “It was an accident. I didn’t mean to slap her so hard. But she made me angry.” Owens face grew hard. “That stupid cow. If she had kept in character, she could have convinced your son that there had been some mix up someplace. She could have even seduced him, A man will believe almost anything when he’s in the arms of a woman. But instead, she admitted the truth and taunted him about it. I knew your son would make good on his threats to expose our little game. Like you, Mr. Cartwright, Joseph is a man of his word.”

 

“So you got mad at her,” said Adam.

 

“Yes, we both got angry and started shouting,” Owens said nodding. “I’m afraid I lost my temper and hit her. When she fell and hit her head, I knew almost at once she was dead. So I collected the paintings and waited in my room. It wasn’t long before Elizabeth was found and the halls filled with people – including myself When I heard the clerk and the old lady accusing Joseph of the crime to the sheriff, I knew I was in the clear. All I had to do was wait until it was late, go down the backstairs to hide the paintings behind the hotel and return to my room. Then I simply checked out the next morning. It was very easy, actually.”

 

“You ain’t even sorry you killed her,” said Hoss, almost in amazement.

 

“On the contrary, I regret it deeply,” Owens answered. “Elizabeth was useful and a pleasant companion. I doubt if I will find someone of her nature again.”

 

“What if they had threatened to hang my son?” demanded Ben. “Would you have let him hang for a killing you did?”

 

“Of course, I would have,” said Owens, looking at Ben as if the man were stupid. “I wouldn’t have admitted killing Elizabeth under any circumstances.” Owen smiled. “I don’t look good in prison garb, and even worse at the end of the rope. I was more than happy to allow your son to take the blame for what I did.”

 

“I think we’ve heard enough,” said Ben. He turned a bit. “Hoss, take the gun and tie him up.”

 

“Yes sir,” said Hoss starting forward.

 

“Hold it!” shouted Owens. “One more step, and I’ll shoot! I’ll shoot all of you.”

 

Seemingly unconcerned by the threat, Hoss kept walking. Owens pointed the gun at the big man and pulled the trigger.

 

The hammer of the pistol hit the chamber of the gun with a loud click.

 

Frantically, Owens pulled the trigger again, and once more, the gun simply clicked. As Hoss loomed over him, Owens pulled on the trigger rapidly, trying to get the gun to fire. All he got, however, was a series of metallic clicks.

 

Reaching forward, Hoss twisted the gun out of Owens’ hand. Then he put his massive hands on Owens’ arms and pulled the man forward.

 

“You don’t think we were dumb enough to wait here for you without making sure any guns you had were unloaded, do you?” asked Adam as he watched Hoss pull Owens across the room.

 

“I’ll deny everything,” cried Owens, struggling furiously to release himself from Hoss’ iron grip. “You’ll never prove I killed Elizabeth.”

 

“Three people heard you admit it,” said Ben. “That’s proof enough, I’d say.”

 

Suddenly, Owens stopped struggling. He looked at Ben and smirked, “You? A loving father and devoted brothers? Ha! I can convince any judge you’re lying. By the time I’m finished, you’ll be lucky if you aren’t in jail for kidnapping me and trying to frame me. As I said, I can be a very good witness.”

 

“And so can I,” said a voice behind Ben. Owens’ eyes widen as he saw the bedroom door open and Sheriff Roy Coffee walk into the main room of the cabin.

 

“Did you hear everything, Roy?” Ben asked.

 

“I did,” asserted Coffee. “The door was open enough so I could hear clearly. I heard this fellow admit that he killed the girl and let Joe take the blame.”

 

Sagging in Hoss’ arms, Owens said weakly, “You’re a friend of the Cartwrights. I’ll convince them you’re lying too.” But a look of defeat came over Owens face.

 

“Every judge in this territory knows I’d never lie for Ben Cartwright or anyone else,” said Coffee coldly. He walked forward and pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt. “Robert Owens, you are charged with the killing of Elizabeth Crowley.” He glared at the man in front of him. “I believe I saw and heard enough to add attempted blackmail and three counts of attempted murder to that charge.”

 

“No!” gasped Owens. “No! You can’t arrest me.”

 

“Seems like I already have,” answered Roy almost cheerfully.

 

“What happens now, Roy,” Ben asked anxiously. “How do we get Joe home?”

 

“Well, the circuit judge won’t be back in Virginia City for a couple of weeks,” said Roy thoughtfully. “I’ll wire the governor as soon as we get back, and let him know I’ve arrested a man who admitted to the killing. I’ll ask the governor to wire the warden to release Joe immediately, pending an official ruling from the judge. From what you told me, Ben, I’m sure the governor will do it.”

 

“How soon will Joe get home?” asked Hoss, his face creased with concern.

 

“I’m sure the warden will arrange transportation for Joe as soon as possible,” answered the sheriff. “Shouldn’t be more than a few days, a week at the outside.”

 

“A week!” exclaimed Adam in dismay.

 

“Well, the prison isn’t exactly a stage stop, Adam,” said Coffee a bit defensively. “The warden has got to arrange a wagon or something to get Joe home.”

 

“That’s not good enough, Roy,” said Ben grimly. “I don’t want Joe in that prison one minute longer than necessary. You tell the governor to let the warden know we’ll come for Joe. Tell him that we’ll be at the prison tomorrow to take Joe home.”

 

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

Watching Joe walk across the prison yard with two buckets, Baker fumed silently. He hated that kid, he decided for the twentieth time. It wasn’t only the snide remarks and laughs from the other prisoners when they thought Baker couldn’t hear them that irritated him. It was those boots, too. Every time he saw the kid walking in the prison yard wearing those boots, Baker was reminded of how he was beaten by someone half his size. Seeing those boots was like rubbing salt into an open wound.

 

“Hey, Baker, you working today?” asked Brewer as he walked by the burly man. Brewer was carrying a board, one of the last planks needed to finish the building that would house the library. Baker knew the building would be finished by the end of the day, and he would be assigned to a new work detail. The odds were that he wouldn’t be in the yard at the same time as Cartwright after today.

 

“Yeah, I’m working,” Baker said sullenly. He picked up a hammer from the ground. As he did, Baker rubbed his ankle, feeling once more the hard metal of the pick he had taken from the awl inside his boot. The thin rod with the sharp point was another reminder that Baker hadn’t gotten his revenge yet. And despite what he had said, Baker was losing patience. He wanted Cartwright and he was tired of waiting for a chance to make the kid pay for beating him.

 

“Sure is warm today,” commented a prison as he walked by Baker with a hammer and handful of nails. Baker’s answer was to scowl at the man. Then, his face suddenly cleared. An idea formed in Baker’s mind and he almost smiled as he realized his opportunity was at hand.

 

Dropping the hammer, Baker walked over to a bucket with a the handle of a ladle sticking out of it. He looked around quickly, making sure the other prisoners were busy, and then quickly turned the bucket over with his foot. He waited a moment, watching the water run out of the pail and seep into the dirt. Then Baker picked up the bucket.

 

“Hey, O’Brien, we’re out of water,” shouted Baker to the guard. “I’m going over to the well and refill it.” He turned the bucket on it’s side and held it up to the guard.

 

“Be quick about it,” replied O’Brien, giving a lazy wave of permission.

 

“Oh, I’ll be quick,” agreed Baker. As he turned to walk in the direction of the well, Baker muttered, “I’ll be real quick.”

 

A few yards away, Eddie was sitting on the stool outside the stables. He had finished currying the horses and was resting until Joe brought back the water for the animals. Eddie was surprised to see Schmidt, the senior guard, walking toward the stables. Schmidt didn’t guard work details, and he wasn’t the kind to come visit.

 

“Where’s Cartwright?” asked Schmidt as he stopped in front of Eddie.

 

“Over at the well, filling the water buckets,” answered Eddie. “Why?”

 

“Warden wants to see him,” Schmidt said briefly.

 

“The warden?” said Eddie in alarm. “What did Joe do? I’ve been with him. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”

 

“No, he hasn’t done anything wrong,” agreed Schmidt, his face breaking into a smile. “The warden wants to see him because he’s getting out. The warden got a telegram from the governor. They found out Cartwright is innocent.”

 

“Getting out!” exclaimed Eddie. His face broke into a wide grin. “Joe’s family did it! They found the evidence to clear him.”

 

“Apparently, they did,” agreed Schmidt.

 

“I never did believe he killed that girl,” stated Eddie, “especially after that fight with Baker. He had Baker down and could have hurt bad, even finished him. But Joe didn’t do that. He just stopped the fight. Joe doesn’t have it in him to deliberately hurt someone.” Eddie shook his head in amazement. “I can’t believe his Pa and brothers found the evidence to free him, though. From what Joe told me, it sounded almost impossible. That family of his must really be something. Wish I could meet them someday.”

 

“You may have your chance,” Schmidt said. “They’re coming here tomorrow to pick him up and take him home.”

 

“That figures,” said Eddie with a smile.

 

“You said Cartwright was over at the well?” said Schmidt, taking a few steps.

 

“Yeah,” Eddie replied. “Schmidt, can I come with you? I’d kind of like to see the look on Joe’s face when you tell him the good news.”

 

“Sure,” said Schmidt shrugging. “I guess you’ve earned that much, considering how you’ve been looking after Cartwright.”

 

Jumping to his feet, Eddie fell into step with the senior guard. He rubbed his hands gleefully, anticipating the look of joy on his young friend’s face when he learned he was going to be free. Eddie would miss Joe, but he couldn’t think of anything he wanted more than to have Joe reunited with his family. That was another scene Eddie vowed not to miss.

 

Turning the corner of a building, Eddie and Schmidt saw Joe at the well, emptying water from well’s pail into one of the other buckets at his feet. Joe filled the wooden container and turned to lower the pail into the well again. As he did so, a figure came out of the shadows, a large man holding a thin piece of metal in his hand and looking almost eagerly as Joe’s unprotected back.

 

Eddie saw realized the danger to Joe before Schmidt. “Joe, watch out!” Eddie yelled in alarm. “Behind you!”

 

Whirling around, Joe saw Baker just as the big man stabbed the pick at him. The sharp point plunged into the top of Joe’s left shoulder. Giving out a small cry of pain, Joe tried to twist away, but the movement caused the pick to slice his arm, tearing skin and muscle almost to his elbow before Joe could pull away. A white-hot pain seared Joe’s arm, and as he grabbed at the cut with his right hand, Joe sunk to his knees. He looked up and saw Baker bringing the pick down toward him again. Joe raised his right hand, making a weak attempt to defend himself, and the pick sliced open the palm of his hand.

 

Both Joe and Baker heard shouts and running feet, but neither paid any attention to them. Baker was in a frenzy, forgetting his plan to stab Joe when no one would see him. He also forgot about simply injuring Joe. Baker wanted to stab the man crouched below him until the life flowed out of him. Joe, for his part, was concentrating on trying to stay alive.

 

“Baker, drop it!” shouted Schmidt as he saw the big man raise his arm for a third time. He reached for the gun on his hip and pulled it out but was too slow to stop Baker from stabbing at Joe again. Joe saw the pick coming down, and twisted his body. The sharp metal landed on Joe’s back, just under the shoulder blade, and cut a long slice to Joe’s ribs as he continued to twist and pull away. Yet another searing pain wracked Joe’s body, this one so bad it took his breath away. Blood was flowing freely from Joe’s arm and back. Joe swayed, growing faint from the pain and loss of blood, then fell face forward on the ground.

 

Raising his arm once more, Baker was ready to plunge the pick into Joe for what he figured was the last time. But, instead, his mouth opened in surprise and his hand dropped the pick as he felt the thud of two pieces of metal entering his body. Baker never heard the gunfire. He only felt the bullets from Schmidt’s gun for a few brief seconds as they tore into his chest and ribs. Baker turned to give Schmidt a stunned look, then crumpled to the ground.

 

Running to Joe, Eddie crouched next to the fallen boy and turned him over slowly. Blood seemed to be everywhere, covering Joe’s arm, back and hands. Eddie cradled Joe in his arms, ignoring the sticky liquid that was gushing onto him.

 

“Baker’s dead,” said Schmidt as he walked up to Eddie. “How’s Cartwright?”

 

“Bleeding bad,” answered Eddie. “We’ve got to stop it before he bleeds to death.”

 

The shots had brought men and guards running from every corner of the prison yard. Schmidt turned and yelled, “Some of you men, help me get him to the infirmary.”

 

As Schmidt and three prisoners knelt next to him, Joe opened his eyes and looked up at Eddie. “I told you…I wouldn’t…be here…fifteen years,” Joe whispered. Then his eyes closed and his head slumped against Eddie’s chest.

 

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

A guard was waiting outside the gates as Ben, Adam and Hoss rode up to the prison. Seeing the tall stones walls and guard towers, Hoss shuddered a bit. Unlike his father and brother, Hoss hadn’t been to the prison before. He hadn’t participated in the inspections and committee meetings as his Pa and Adam had done. The formidable structure had a menacing look, one that caused Hoss’ stomach to churn a bit. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how terrified his little brother must have felt when Joe saw the prison, knowing he was going to be locked up behind its sinister looking walls.

 

“You the Cartwrights?” asked the guard as the three men rode up to the gate.

 

“Yes, I’m Ben Cartwright, and these are my older sons,” Ben confirmed. He frowned a bit. The guard looked uneasy, almost fearful.

 

“The warden wants to see you right away,” said the guard nervously. “Go right to the house with the fence around it.”

 

“All right,” replied Ben, still puzzled by the guard’s apparent apprehension. But he was too eager to see his youngest son to give much thought to the guard’s demeanor. Ben guided his horse into the prison yard, followed by Adam and Hoss and rode straight to the warden’s house.

 

Another guard, this one with stripes on his uniform, was standing by the fence around the warden’s house. He stood waiting, while Ben and his sons dismounted and tied their horses plus the pinto that Hoss had been leading, to the fence. As Ben came toward him, the guard said, “Mr. Cartwright, if you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the warden.” The senior guard’s face showed no emotion, but his eyes looked away from the Cartwrights.

 

Once more, the frown appeared on Ben’s face. He glanced over his shoulder to Adam and Hoss, and saw that they too seemed to find the guard’s manner unsettling. “Is anything wrong?” Ben asked the guard.

 

“The warden will see you right away,” answered Schmidt, still not looking Ben in the face. He gestured with his hand. “This way.”

 

As Ben walked with the guard toward the door of the house, Hoss grabbed Adam’s arm. “Something’s wrong, Adam,” he said in a low voice, filled with concern. “Real wrong.” Adam nodded his agreement.

 

Schmidt ushered the Cartwrights into the house, and through the waiting room where Joe had spent his first day. The guard knocked twice on the door of the warden’s office, and then opened it as he heard a call of “Come in”. The Cartwrights filed past Schmidt into the office, and the guard quickly closed the door behind them.

 

“Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” said the warden, rising to his feet behind his desk. “We’ve been expecting you.”

 

“Hello, Warden,” replied Ben, nodding his head. “Nice to see you again.” Ben looked around the room. “I expected my son, Joseph, to be here. Didn’t you get the telegram from the governor, authorizing his release?”

 

“Yes, I received it yesterday,” said the warden. He looked down and fingered a paper on his desk.

 

“Then where is Joseph?” demanded Ben, a knot starting to form in his stomach. The odd behavior of the guards and the warden was starting to alarm him.

 

“There was an…incident in the yard yesterday,” answered the warden slowly.

 

“An incident?” said Ben, his voice rising. The knot in his stomach seemed to grow. “What kind of incident?”

 

“One of the prisoners – a man who apparently had a grudge against your son – assaulted Joseph in the yard,” the warden explained, still looking down. “Schmidt, the guard outside, shot and killed the man. But not before the prisoner stabbed your son several times with a pick.”

 

“Stabbed him!” gasped Ben. He swallowed hard. “Is he…is Joe dead?”

 

Looking up, the warden shook his head. “No, he’s alive but in very serious condition. He’s over in the infirmary. The doctor says it’s, well, he’s not sure if your son will pull through.” The warden looked down again. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Cartwright.”

 

“Sorry!” exclaimed Adam. “My brother is stabbed in the middle of a prison and may be dying, and all you can say is you’re sorry! What kind of a place are you running here?”

 

“One with too many prisoners and too few guards,” replied the warden angrily. “One where society dumps their worst members, and forgets about them. I have almost 300 prisoners here, most of them who would rob their own mothers for a dime. We watch them and keep them locked up as much as we can. But there’s no way we can watch them all the time, and certainly, no way to keep them from plotting, scheming and taking out their frustrations on each other.”

 

“Don’t you keep them in their cells all the time?” asked Hoss in a puzzled voice.

 

“They’re human beings, not animals,” replied the warden in a calmer tone. “Keeping these men locked in a small cell all day would only add to their anger and frustration. We allow them out of their cell for several hours each day, to work and to get some needed fresh air. Being kept in your cell is a punishment, and most men try to avoid it. You can ask Joseph how much he hated being in his cell.”

 

“If he lives to tell us,” said Adam in a bitter tone.

 

Looking down once more, the warden merely nodded.

 

“I want to see my son,” Ben said in an anxious voice. “Can you have someone take us to the infirmary?”

 

“I’ll take you there myself, Mr. Cartwright,” said the warden, walking around his desk. He stopped in front of Ben. “I am truly sorry about what happened,” the warden apologized once more. “It’s a terrible thing to happen to Joseph under any circumstances, but given his release order had just arrived, it’s tragic.”

 

“Yes,” said Ben in a distracted tone. “Please, take me to him.”

 

The warden led the Cartwrights out of the office and the house, and across the prison yard. The men were so intent on getting to the infirmary that none of them noticed the other prisoners in the yard. The four men didn’t realize that, as they passed the prisoners, each of them stopped whatever they were doing and stood still with straight backs, almost at attention. Neither the Cartwrights or the warden understood the quiet respect the other prisoners were offering to the family of the young man lying in the infirmary.

 

Opening the door of one-story building that was longer than it was wide, the warden ushered the Cartwrights into the infirmary. The warden walked through the small anteroom, filled with chairs and cabinets, and pushed open a door at the left. Inside this room were six beds, five of them empty. A man in a white coat was bending over a heavily bandaged figure in the first bed.

 

“How is he, doctor,” the warden asked as he walked into the ward, the Cartwrights trailing him anxiously.

 

“About the same,” replied the doctor as he straightened and turned to the warden. “Fever caused by the pain and some infection, and a body too weakened by massive loss of blood to fight it off.”

 

“This is his family,” said the warden, gesturing to the three men behind him.

 

Pushing past the warden and the doctor, Ben walked to the bed and looked down. The knot of fear which had been growing in Ben seemed to double in size as he gazed at his youngest son. After weeks of aching to see Joe, Ben was finally getting his wish. But instead of the elation he had expected to feel, Ben’s first glimpse of his youngest son appalled him.

 

Lying still on the bed with a blanket pulled up to his chest, Joe’s skin was almost as pale as the sheets on which he rested. Joe’s left arm was heavily bandaged from his shoulder to his elbow, and another streak of bandages came over his shoulder from his back to cross his chest. Joe’s right hand, also wrapped in thick layers of gauze, rested on his stomach. Beads of sweat dotted Joe’s face and shoulders. The only color anywhere were the two bright red fever spots on Joe’s cheeks.

 

Crouching down, Ben rested his hand on Joe’s head. Slowly, he stroked Joe’s forehead and the top of his head. “Joe,” said Ben in a gentle voice, “ can you hear me? I’m here, son. Adam and Hoss are here. We’ve come to take you home. You have to get better so we can take you home.”

 

“He’s heavily sedated, Mr. Cartwright,” said the doctor in a kind voice. “I’m trying to give him a chance to recover his strength. Rest and the absence of pain will help.”

 

“What else are you doing for him?” demanded Adam, taking a step forward.

 

“Quinine every three hours for the fever, and his cuts are cleaned and re-bandaged every six hours,” replied the doctor calmly. “I can imagine what you must think about a doctor who works in a prison, but I can assure you I’m an excellent physician. I gave up a thriving practice in Denver because my friend, the warden here, asked me to help him.” The doctor looked at the warden and gave him a wry smile. “He promised me I wouldn’t have many patients and that I would have plenty of time to go fishing. He was wrong on both counts.” The warden ducked his head a bit, having the grace to look a bit embarrassed about his unkept promises.

 

Mollified a bit, Adam stepped back. “Is there anything else we can do?” he asked. “Any other medicine we can get?”

 

“I’m afraid not,” answered the doctor, shaking his head. “He’s lost a lot of blood, maybe too much. All we can do is wait to see if his body will overcome the shock and weakness.” The doctor looked at Adam and added in an encouraging tone, “He’s a strong young man. The odds are in his favor.”

 

Still kneeling by the bed, Ben continued to stroke Joe’s head. “Fight, Joe,” said Ben to his sleeping son. “Fight hard.” Then he stood. Turning to the warden, Ben said, “I want to stay with him.”

 

“Of course,” agreed the warden.

 

“Mr. Cartwright?”

 

For the first time, the Cartwrights noticed a small, wiry man with close cropped white hair sitting on a chair against the far wall. The man’s prison uniform was streaked with rusty brown stains of dried blood, as were his hands.

 

“Mr. Cartwright,” said Eddie once more. “He’s getting stronger. Joe’s breathing easier since last night, and his fever is down a bit.”

 

Turning, Ben gave the warden a questioning look.

 

“This is Eddie Watson,” explained the warden. “He shared Joe’s cell. He helped carry Joe from the yard yesterday. He’s been sitting with Joe ever since.”

 

“Yes, of course, Eddie,” said Ben, nodding. “Joe wrote us about you. I’m Ben Cartwright, Joe’s father. These are his brothers, Adam and Hoss.”

 

“I recognized you all right off,” said Eddie, giving a brief smile. “Joe talks about you all the time, and he reads your letters to me. He sure does like getting those letters.” Eddie’s face grew serious. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. I watched out for Joe as best I could, but I guess I wasn’t very good at it.”

 

“Watching out for Joe ain’t an easy job,” said Hoss, with a small smile. “Adam and me been doing it for years and we still ain’t very good at it.” Eddie smiled his thanks to Hoss.

 

“All right, that’s enough visiting,” said the doctor sternly. “You can stay,” he said pointing at Ben. “The rest of you leave. My patient needs rest and quiet and he won’t get that with a room full of people.”

 

Recognizing the validity of the doctor’s statement, Adam, Hoss and Eddie reluctantly turned to leave the room. The warden followed at a slower pace, then stopped at the door. “Send word if there’s any change,” he said to the doctor. He watched the doctor agree to the request with a nod, then joined the other men in the waiting room.

 

“Eddie, you go over to the bath house and get cleaned up, “ the warden said the prisoner. “Get a clean uniform, too. Then go back to your cell. I’ll have Schmidt go with you.”

 

Taking a deep breath, Eddie nodded. “Yes sir, “ he said. Then he gave the warden a hard look. “You’ll let me know how he does, won’t you.”

 

“I’ll let you know,” agreed the warden. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “Come back with me to the house. I’ll have some food sent over from the cookhouse. You must be tired and hungry.”

 

“Prison food?” said Hoss, wrinkling his nose a bit.

 

“You ain’t tasted any prison food like this,” said Eddie with a laugh. He turned to the warden. “I’ll stop by the cookhouse and tell Henry to send you something real good. He got a supply of fresh fish yesterday. There’s no telling what Henry might be able to make them into.”

 

“Thank you, Eddie,” said the warden.

 

As Eddie started to leave, Adam stopped him. “We appreciate all that you’ve done for Joe,” said Adam.

 

“No thanks needed,” replied Eddie. “Joe’s a good kid and the first real friend I’ve had in a long time. I’m going to miss him.” Seeing the stricken looks on Adam and Hoss’ face, Eddie added quickly, “When he goes home, I mean. Joe is going to be all right, you’ll see. He’ll get better and then he’ll go home with you.”

 

“I hope you’re right,” said Adam fervently.

 

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

Joe saw himself riding across the pasture. He recognized the land as part of the Ponderosa, but the grass had never looked so green. The pasture was dotted with white wild flowers, and the mountains in the background provided a majestic backdrop. Joe kicked his horse and rode, savoring the wind in his face and the freedom of the open land in front of him.

 

Somewhere in his mind, Joe knew he was dreaming, knew the scene wasn’t real. But it didn’t matter. For the first time in months, Joe felt free and almost happy. He didn’t want to leave the beautiful land he saw in his mind.

 

A voice called his name, and Joe recognized his Pa. The words weren’t clear, but Joe recognized the tone. His Pa sounded worried and upset. Joe didn’t want to leave his beautiful dream but he knew he couldn’t ignore his Pa when he sounded like he needed Joe’s help. Taking a last look around, Joe said farewell to the idyllic scene his mind had created. A sadness descended on Joe as his dream started to fade.

 

Sitting by his son’s bed, Ben kept saying Joe’s name over and over. He watched anxiously for some sign, something to indicate Joe was waking. Looking over his shoulder to the doctor, Ben said, “His fever broke two hours ago. Why doesn’t he wake up?”

 

Shrugging a bit, the doctor answered, “Exhaustion, pain, the residual affects of the sedatives, any or all of those could be the cause. He’ll come around. It just might take some time.” The doctor gave Ben a critical look. “Why don’t you get some sleep?” he said. “You haven’t gotten any rest since you arrived yesterday. You can stretch out on one of the beds. There’s still one open.” The doctor looked down the line of beds to where Adam and Hoss were sleeping on the last two. He hadn’t believed them when the two men insisted that there was no place else for them to sleep in the prison, but he hadn’t argued with them much either. The doctor decided there was no harm in letting them stay. Both Adam and Hoss had awaken several times during the night, trying to convince their father to get some rest while one of them relieved him sitting with Joe. But Ben had stubbornly refused. He had spent weeks worrying over his son from a distance. Now he was with his son, but his worry had increased a hundredfold. Ben wasn’t about to leave his son’s side until he heard Joe’s voice once more.

 

“I’ll wait until Joe wakes up,” Ben told the doctor. He turned back to the bed and once more began softly repeating Joe’s name, urging his son to wake up. The doctor watched for a minute, then left to get some breakfast. He shook his head as he walked out of the room.

 

The small movement of Joe’s head surprised Ben. He hadn’t expected Joe to respond so soon. Ben watched carefully as Joe’s head moved again and his son started licking his lips. Ben’s heart leaped with happiness when Joe finally turned his head and opened his eyes.

 

“Pa, what’s wrong?” asked Joe in a weak voice as he started up at his father.

 

“Adam! Hoss!” Ben called across the room. “Joe’s awake!” Instantly, the two figures on the back bed sat up and swung their feet onto the floor. Adam and Hoss were at the foot of Joe’s bed in almost the blink of an eye.

 

“Pa,” repeated Joe in a worried voice. “What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing, Joe,” answered Ben smiling at his son. “Nothing’s wrong. For the first time in months, everything is right.”

 

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

Sitting up in bed, Joe rubbed his left arm. The heavy bandages on his arm and hand had been replaced by light gauze bandages. Nevertheless, Joe’s arm itched. The doctor had told him the itching was a sign of healing, but Joe thought it was just plain irritating.

 

“Hey, Joe, feel like a visitor?”

 

Turning his head to look at the door, Joe’s face broke into a big grin. “Eddie!” he said. “Come in. I was wondering when you’d come see me. I thought maybe you had forgotten all about me.”

 

“Never,” vowed Eddie as he walked to the bed. He carried a canvass sack in his hands. Eddie pulled a chair up next to Joe’s bed and dropped the sack on the floor. “You’ve had so many people coming to see you that I figured I would just get in the way.”

 

“Never,” said Joe, echoing his friend. “I’ve missed you. I wanted to say thanks for what you did in the yard. If you hadn’t yelled the warning, Baker would have killed me for sure.” Joe shook his head. “Seems all I ever do is say thanks to you for saving my skin.”

 

“Well, somebody has to do it,” said Eddie with a shrug. “Evidently, you’re not very good at watching out for yourself.”

 

“I’m usually better at it than I’ve shown the last couple of weeks,” said Joe with a laugh. He looked at Eddie. “I hear Baker is dead.”

 

“Yeah, Schmidt killed him,” Eddie said. “Probably best. Baker was already serving a life sentence so there wasn’t much else they could have done to him. Not unless you died, that is. Then they could have hung him.”

 

“Sorry to be so uncooperative,” commented Joe in a dry voice.

 

” Well, I’m just glad it’s Baker and not you who got buried,” Eddie said. “The warden fired O’Brien. He told O’Brien he was lucky just to get fired and not be facing charges. He should have never let Baker get his hands on that pick.”

 

“That’ll leave the warden even more short-handed,” said Joe with a frown.

 

“Not really,” answered Eddie. “He was going to fire O’Brien at the end of the month anyway. The warden has hired four new guards, men getting out of the Army. I saw them, Joe. They look like pretty decent guys.”

 

“Good,” said Joe, with a nod. “I’m sorry I’ve left you all the work in the stable to do by yourself,” added Joe.

 

“Your brother Hoss has been giving me a hand,” Eddie said. “I think he’s kind of bored. Although he does seem to like Henry’s cooking.”

 

“Hoss likes any cooking,” said Joe, grinning. “But I must admit Henry’s food is pretty good. That’s one of the few things I’ll miss about this place.”

 

“Hoss also ran into this prisoner named Brewer he knows,” added Eddie. “He spent a couple of hours with him yesterday. Appears they have some kind of history with each other.”

 

“Yeah, they do,” said Joe, remembering the story Brewer told him in the prison wagon.

 

Reaching down, Eddie pulled the sack from the floor. “The doc said he was going to let you go home tomorrow. I brought you your clothes. Figured you wouldn’t want to be riding home in a prison uniform.”

 

Taking the sack from Eddie, Joe fingered the tag on the twine. His thoughts drifted back to that awful day when he had arrived at the prison. Joe hadn’t figured he was going to be able to stand this place for fifteen minutes, much less fifteen years. If it hadn’t been for Eddie, he probably would have gone crazy and tried to escape. Eddie had been his salvation.

 

“Thanks,” said Joe, putting the sack aside. He looked at his friend. “Eddie, I’m going to talk to my Pa and ask him to talk to the governor. There must be some way we can get you out of here.”

 

Looking away, Eddie sat silently for a minute. Then he turned back to Joe. “I appreciate the thought, Joe,” he said quietly. “But the governor’s got no reason to let me out of here. I killed my wife, and got a life sentence. The only reason I didn’t hang was because of the ‘special circumstances’ as the judge called it. I caught her cheating on me with another man. I should have just packed up and left. But instead I killed her. That wasn’t right, and I’m paying for what I done.”

 

“Eddie, you save my life twice,” insisted Joe. “You’re not the same man who killed his wife thirty years ago. That ought to mean something to the governor.”

 

“No, I’m not the man I was thirty years ago,” Eddie agreed. “But that don’t make any difference, not to the law, it don’t. I’m serving a life sentence, Joe. I’ll be here until I die.”

 

“You almost sound like you don’t want to leave,” Joe said, raising his eyebrows a bit.

 

“It’s not that I wouldn’t leave,” explained Eddie, “it’s more like I’ve got no compelling reason to go. I got no family, no friends on the outside except you, and nothing waiting for me. I don’t know if I could even find a job.”

 

“You could come to the Ponderosa,” said Joe. “We’d find you work.”

 

“Doing what?” asked Eddie. “I can’t ride or rope, and I don’t know anything about chopping trees. And I’m too old to learn.”

 

“I can’t believe you want to stay here,” said Joe, shaking his head.

 

“It’s not so bad,” answered Eddie with a shrug. “As long as Henry is around, the food’s pretty good. I don’t mind the work. And you never know, the warden might give me another young pup in my cell to look after, like I looked after you.”

 

“There must be something we can do for you,” said Joe, frustration in his voice.

 

“I wouldn’t mind getting a letter from time to time,” answered Eddie. “I kind of liked it when you got mail. I’d enjoy getting a letter once in a while myself. And I’d like hearing about what’s going on at the Ponderosa.” Eddie grinned. “I’m almost as anxious as your Pa to hear whether you got that timber contract from the railroad. And I’m kind of curious if that fellow who got a pail of milk dumped on him ever got his girl back.”

 

“I’ll let you know, Eddie,” Joe promised. “Once a month, regular as clockwork, you’ll get a letter from me, I swear. I’ll tell you everything about what’s going on. But you’ve got to promise to write me back and let me know everything is all right with you.”

 

“It’s a deal,” agreed Eddie, holding out his hand. Joe carefully put his injured right hand next to Eddie’s and the two men shook briefly.

 

“Kind of an odd handshake,” said Eddie with a laugh.

 

“Everything about this place is kind of odd,” said Joe. “I can’t wait to get out of here and get home.”

 

“Tomorrow,” said Eddie, getting his to feet. “By this time tomorrow, you’ll be headed home, and this place will be nothing but a bad dream.”

 

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

Walking a bit stiffly, Joe left the infirmary and started across the prison yard. Ben walked behind Joe, watching carefully to make sure his son didn’t falter. With his attention focused on Joe, Ben didn’t notice the prisoners in the yard once more stopping work and standing to watch. But Joe noticed them, and knew what it meant. As he walked, Joe nodded at the men around the yard, thanking them for their gesture.

 

Approaching the warden’s house, Joe saw Adam and Hoss standing near the four horses tied to the fence. He also saw the warden and Schmidt standing near the fence. And, to his delight, Joe saw Eddie standing a few feet away.

 

Walking up to the warden and senior guard, Joe hesitated, not quite knowing what to say to them. “Thanks,” he said briefly, feeling awkward thanking two of the men who had kept him caged for weeks. The warden and Schmidt just nodded and turned to walk back to the house.

 

Coming up to Eddie, Joe felt no hesitation or sense of awkwardness. He threw his arms around the man. “Thanks for everything, Eddie,” said Joe in a choked voice.

 

“You take care,” Eddie said, his voice as full of emotion as Joe’s. “Remember, I ain’t going to be there to watch your back any more.”

 

As the two men separated, Joe said, “I’ll write, Eddie. I promise. I won’t forget.”

 

“I know you won’t,” Eddie said. He turned and gave a small wave to the other Cartwrights, then said. “I’ve got to get to work. Those stables aren’t going to get cleaned by themselves.” Giving Joe a last pat on the back, Eddie sauntered off toward the stables.

 

“Ready to leave?” asked Ben as Joe stood watching Eddie.

 

Turning to face his father, Joe said, “Pa, I’ve been ready to leave this place since I got here.” He walked over to his pinto, and ran his hand slowly over Cochise’s neck. “It’s been a long time,” he murmured softly.

 

“Let me cinch up your saddle for you, Joe,” said Hoss, coming around the back of the pinto.

 

“Thanks,” said Joe. “It’s kind of hard to do with one hand.” Joe moved to stand by the head of his horse, stroking the pinto’s nose as he watched Hoss tighten his saddle. “What’s going to happen to this guy Owens?” asked Joe. “The one who killed Elizabeth.”

 

“There’ll be a trial,” answer Ben as he also tightened his saddle. “He’ll probably end up taking your place here in prison.”

 

“No,” said Joe, shaking his head. “I don’t want him to take my place. He doesn’t deserve to share a cell with Eddie.” Joe suddenly grinned. “Remind me to write the warden. I can suggest two or three fellows that Owens might share a cell with. One of them refuses to wash. We can smell him coming from across the yard.”

 

“You’re mean when you want to be, little brother,” said Hoss with a laugh.

 

“I thought when you feel up to it, we might have a welcome home party for you,” said Ben.

 

“No, I don’t want a party,” Joe stated, shaking his head. “I just want to go home and have things be normal again.”

 

“Normal?” snorted Adam. “When was the last time anything was normal on the Ponderosa?”

 

Hoss finished with the girth on Joe’s horse, and the four Cartwrights mounted their horses. Ben leaned across his saddle to look at his three sons. He was overjoyed at the sight of having all three of them with him again.

 

“Ready, boys?” Ben asked. When his sons nodded, Ben said, “Let’s go home.”

 

As he turned his horse to follow his father and brothers out of the prison yard, Joe took one last look around. He prayed he’d never see this place again. He vowed to think twice before he did anything, so as to never put himself in the position where he might have to return to this dreadful place.

 

Seeing Joe lagging behind, Adam turned in his saddle. “Coming, Joe?” he asked. “Or maybe you’d rather stay here,” he added in a teasing voice.

 

“No, Adam,” said Joe, kicking his horse lightly. “I don’t want to stay here.” As he rode through the gates and out of the prison, Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The air had a sweet smell to it. It was the smell of freedom.

 

*********End********

 

Author: SusanG

The Bonanza universe lost an ardent fan when Susan Grote passed away unexpectedly on March 2, 2017.   The news caught her family, friends, and fellow writers and readers by surprise as she had not been ill. Susan was a fierce supporter of Bonanza fan fiction, helping many to take their first literary steps.  She never failed to offer support and encouragement to all writers, regardless of fandom. Her family has graciously granted Brand permission to post her stories in our Library so that readers may continue to enjoy them.

2 thoughts on “Prisoner (by Susan G)

  1. Hey !that was really a great one !!the suspense, thriller , emotions, friendship, brotherhood, family relationship,SJS,JPM everything in one go. Thanks God Joe didn’t suffer more in jail due to Eddie bse as such imagining Joe in prison is pretty bad off !!

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