Summary: After being cleared for shooting Zach Crenshaw in self-defense, Joe tried to square things with Zach’s father. While he thought he was helping Amos Crenshaw to dig a well, Amos had other plans for that hole. A WHI for “The Wormwood Cup.”
Word Count: 9,689 Rating: T
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
The Cup of Bitterness
The story so far: Joe was exonerated for shooting Zach Crenshaw in self-defense after witnesses stated that Zach had drawn first. Zach’s father, Amos told Joe he blamed him and wished he was dead, but then a stranger showed up in town putting up posters everywhere, offering $1000 to anybody who killed Joe Cartwright in a fair fight. The person responsible was Linda Roberts whose brother had been gunned down in Carson City. Joe was initially questioned, but then allowed to go after an eyewitness said it wasn’t him. Linda came to Virginia City seeking her own brand of justice, while Joe was busy trying to settle things with Amos Crenshaw.
Two grieving people, hellbent on revenge, both setting their sights on Joe!
Amos Crenshaw paused and leaned on the shovel. His back ached from the untold hours of digging and he slowly flexed his shoulders as if he could make the ache shift. It was nothing in comparison to the ache that had settled in his chest and refused to move. It was an empty hole where his heart had been ripped from his chest the day Roy Coffee had told him that Joe Cartwright had gunned down his boy. It would never be whole again. The fact they’d both been robbed of justice burned like a fierce forest fire and he struggled to keep it in check.
“Zach … I promise you, boy … he’ll pay for it. I promise you!” Amos muttered the oath he had spoken so many times he’d lost count. Once again he hefted the shovel into his hands and resumed digging. The well was almost deep enough to drop that murdering whelp into. Six feet wasn’t anywhere near enough for Joe Cartwright.
Once he was done, he’d claim the other five hundred dollars he was promised and he’d think about what to do next. The land he’d worked for so many years held nothing for him anymore. A thousand dollars was no kind of compensation for Zach’s life, but it would be something to start over with. It would take him far from the bitterness of Virginia City and its corrupt coroner’s jury and sheriff. The same coroner who said the evidence showed Little Joe had killed his boy in self-defense. As his rage began to well up again, Amos felt his arms mechanically hefting more dirt into the bucket. Evidence, be damned! Joe Cartwright had wriggled out of a murder charge again because his pa had the clout to make folks look the other way. Just like had happened over in Carson City where he’d gunned down Linda Roberts’ brother and gotten away with that one too.
Amos’ fingers clenched around the handle of the shovel as he forced down the bile once more. Justice might have failed at the hands of those who claimed to uphold the law, but it wouldn’t fail a third time.
Yes, Joe Cartwright would be buried so deep that nobody would ever find him. Maybe then, Ben Cartwright would have some idea of how it felt for him. Of course, he had a gravesite to visit. Ben Cartwright would be left waiting and wondering for the rest of his life just where his boy had gotten to. It seemed like a fit punishment for the man who had sheltered his son from justice. The man who had paid money to protect the guilty, just because he was wealthy enough to do so. Well money wasn’t going to do him any good in the end. His son would be just as dead as Zach. Only where Zach’s grave was dug just six feet down, Joe Cartwright’s final resting place would be at the bottom of a deep, dark well shaft. It seemed a fitting ending for someone so high and mighty to fall so far.
An eye for an eye. That was justice.
The never-ending rage fueled his arms as he continued digging. It was a bitter kind of triumph, but he would come out on top or die trying.
Joe stared at the words on the paper, his mind turning in three directions at once. He felt his father’s calming presence beside him and didn’t need to look up to know his pa’s eyes were on him. Exoneration had been slow in coming, but at least now Clem could do something direct to publicly clear his name, once and for all. The evidence presented at the inquest had been enough for the coroner, but clearly not for some of the townsfolk, but this left no doubt as to his innocence.
He glanced up to see Miss Roberts staring at him. Her face was an open mixture of regret and something else. As he watched her for a moment, it became clearer what it was.
He couldn’t tell if it was fear for him or fear of the cost to herself over her own actions. Joe smiled automatically at her in a vain attempt to wipe that look away. Truth be told, he carried the same fear in his gut. Not that he would admit it, but a thousand dollars was a lot of money to any man and Miss Roberts had been very open and vocal about her willingness to pay it. Despite his angry responses to his family about keeping him out of sight and away from stupid young men willing to collect on his death, he’d carried that nagging fear with him for days.
Joe startled as he realized that Clem was speaking again and he’d missed it.
“We’ve been to the newspaper and told them to print an update, but it won’t be out until tomorrow and it’ll take a few days for the news to filter out. So stay put, Joe, for a few more days.” Clem watched him closely, knowing just how much Joe had rankled at being confined.
“Joe?” His father nudged his arm and he looked up again to see a round of expectant faces.
“Huh? Yeah, sure … a coupla days.”
Ben looked closer at his youngest boy and frowned. Joe was clearly not with them in the room.
Miss Roberts was trying to apologize once again and Ben watched as his son moved towards her and spoke words of grace and forgiveness. His son’s easy smile didn’t fool him one bit even as their guest finally relaxed a little.
It wasn’t until Clem said he’d ride out and let Amos know about the wire that Ben understood where his son’s thoughts really were. His gut clenched as Joe said he’d ride out with the news himself. He couldn’t explain why, but he’d been uneasy about Joe going out each day to help Amos with his well. The first day he’d almost rushed into the yard when he heard Joe’s horse returning. The fact it had gone so smoothly finally allowed him to put aside his misgivings and agree that Joe’s approach had been the right one. If Amos Crenshaw was ever going to heal and forgive his son, they needed time to work it through.
Long after Clem had left with Miss Roberts in tow and Joe had ridden off to the Crenshaw ranch, Ben sat staring into the fire. What would he do if one of his sons had been gunned down by a friend’s son? Could he forgive the boy? Or would he allow bitterness to take over?
Ben leaned back in the chair and rubbed a tired hand over his eyes. What would he do if one his sons murdered another person? It was such a preposterous idea and yet he could not shake it. Another day, not so many years ago, arose in his mind. He’d sat out the night watch with a virtual stranger as he waited for his three boys to return. First Adam and then Hoss had walked through the door, with a tale to tell of how they had tracked a man they believed had murdered their father. Neither of his sons had broken the law in their pursuit, but his youngest had not returned straight away. Ben closed his eyes and squeezed the arm of the chair as he recalled his first sight of his youngest boy arriving with the dawn. Joe carried his father’s rifle and ugly doubt had burned in his heart. Had Joe taken an innocent life, albeit under mistaken beliefs?
That moment still tormented him in his dreams from time to time with the nagging fear of Joe being sent to the gallows for murder. It was an image he still struggled to cleanse from his thoughts and it churned his stomach every time he awoke breathing wildly, hands clenching the sheets into knots. What bothered him most of all was his apparent lack of faith in his youngest boy. He had never discussed it with anyone, but he knew that both Adam and Hoss had seen it. Or sensed it, maybe. He’d been rattled to find himself asking just how much he knew about his youngest son. When Joe had been accused of murdering Zach Crenshaw and vehemently denied it, he had leapt to his son’s defense. He had believed Joe’s explanation without question. So why had he harbored doubts when Joe had been slow to return that long, dark night?
Ben pushed forward in the chair and slowly headed towards the cabinet. He poured himself a glass of brandy and slowly pushed the stopper back into the decanter. It had been an anniversary gift from Marie. She had ordered it months in advance to be shipped out from the East to the wilds of Nevada where men slugged whiskey and warm beers. Brandy was a genteel drink. Something to remind him there was more to life than the harshness of a frontier life in a wild part of the land. He smiled as he recalled Marie presenting him with the gift and her radiant smile as he opened it. Each time he poured a drink from the beautiful crystal he could not help but be reminded of the woman who had given it to him. The fact her son had been the cause of many of his drinks was not lost on him.
“Joseph!” Ben whispered to himself as he lowered himself back into the chair and raised the glass to his lips. He was oblivious to the sound of the door opening and heavy booted feet moving across the room towards him.
“Pa? You okay there?”
Hoss settled himself on the table, across from his father and waited to see if he would respond.
Ben looked up, almost surprised to see his son sitting so close.
“Sorry, Hoss. I was just thinking.”
“Worryin’ more like it.” Hoss chewed at his lower lip as he watched his father’s face. The glass of brandy was almost empty and he wondered if he should offer to refill it.
“No … not worrying.” It was almost the truth and Ben glanced down at the floor, unable to meet his son’s gaze. “Just wondering.”
Ben looked up again, seeing the face of his middle son with the firelight playing over it. Hoss was the most honest and straight up man he knew. It never occurred to the boy to deceive others. It was a side of his son’s character that had left him gullible at times to others’ deceptions, including Little Joe’s when the boys were younger and Joe had taken great delight in playing tricks on Hoss. Adam had often just rolled his eyes as Hoss was left covered in flour, or holding the heavy object that Joe was supposed to be helping him with. Or worse still, left trying to cover for his younger brother to keep Joe out of trouble. Those were the ones that grated most as his honest nature went to war with his protective instincts.
“About what kind of man Joseph has grown into.”
“What’s to wonder about, Pa? He’s still just as annoyin’ as he’s been since he was knee high to a grasshopper!”
It was meant to elicit a smile and Ben ‘s mouth twitched at the corners.
“Pa?” Hoss’ smile had disappeared as he stared at his father’s tense features again. “Joe’s gonna be okay. That newspaper article’ll clear things right up and pretty soon the Virginia City gossips’ll have somethin’ else to waggle their tongues over.”
“You’re right, Son.” Ben smiled at Hoss once again and nodded in agreement. How could he share his fear with his son when he couldn’t even really define it for himself?
Hop Sing chose that moment to call from the corner of the dining room that dinner was almost ready and the opportunity slipped away. As the two of them sat down to eat, the empty chair on his right was like a bugle call in the wind, alerting him to danger, but telling him nothing of substance. As Hoss talked about something to do with stocking line shacks, Ben nodded and commented as needed while his thoughts rode along a dusty track to a ranch where a brokenhearted father would be hearing the news his youngest son had to deliver. He just prayed that Amos Crenshaw had the ears to hear it.
Joe tugged on the reins, even though there was no real need, as Cochise knew the way around into the yard even without his lead. It was more of a way to keep his thoughts from running away and keep them focused on something mundane more than anything else. It was almost mechanical as he slid down from the saddle and wrapped the reins around his hand. The next twenty minutes disappeared as he unsaddled his horse and began to brush him down. By the time Ben stepped into the barn looking for him, Joe was still lost in thought. He had expected his son back hours ago and had almost been ready to go looking for him.
“Joseph. Are you alright?”
Joe’s elbows rested against the stall railing as he absently rubbed at Cochise’s nose.
Ben watched as his son startled at the sound of his voice.
“Sorry, Pa. Just gettin’ Cooch bedded down for the night.” He reached for his hat that was planted on top of a corner post and grinned at his father as he walked towards the door.
“Joe … how did it go?”
“Oh … fine, Pa! Just fine.”
Ben caught himself from commenting about how “fine” was Joe’s answer to everything, especially when he didn’t want to talk about something. It was clear that everything was not fine, but his son was a grown man who would speak when he was ready and not before.
“Well, Hop Sing has kept some supper warm for you.”
“Sounds good, Pa. I’m starved!”
Ben chuckled as the comment was more like Hoss than Joe. By the time Joe had settled himself at the table with a plate before him, Ben was barely holding himself from pacing. He wanted, no needed, to know what had happened. He needed to know that Amos had taken Joe’s word as truth and there was no more need to worry for his son’s safety. When it was obvious that Joe wasn’t going to volunteer anything, it was Hoss who came to his rescue.
“So … how’d Amos take the news?”
Ben held his breath at the directness of the question, knowing Joe could go either way. He slowly let it out when it appeared his son was actually going to talk and not clam up.
“Hard to tell.” Joe paused with a forkful of potato half way to his mouth. A faint frown crept across his face as he recalled Amos’ strange demeanor. He shoveled the food into his mouth and chewed slowly, as if giving himself time to think.
“But he believed you, right?”
“Yeah, Pa. He believed me.”
The tone behind the comment wasn’t lost on either of the two men and Hoss glanced across at his father.
“But? What ain’t you tellin’ us Joe?”
Joe shoved the plate away from his as he simultaneously pushed himself up from the chair.
“It doesn’t make his son any less dead!”
Ben rose and followed his son across the room, before placing a calming hand on his shoulder.
“Joe, we all know that what you did was self-defense. If you hadn’t fired, Zach would have killed you!”
And I’d be in Amos Crenshaw’s boots instead!
“I know that, Pa. I guess I’m just tired. I’m gonna call it a night.”Long after Joe had made his way upstairs, Ben sat and stared into the fire. Something more had happened and whatever it was, it had rattled his youngest son.
Joe stared at the face that reflected back at him in the mirror. He tried to see himself as Amos Crenshaw saw him. He pulled back from the mirror and sat down heavily on the bed instead.
He’d arrived at the ranch the day before and found Amos sitting at the table with two places laid out and a loaf of bread and coffee pot on the table. He’d heard a voice as he stepped up onto the verandah and glanced around for another horse. Surely if Amos had a visitor, there’d be a horse. Maybe it was in the barn instead. It was enough to make him pause as he didn’t want to be delivering his news while Amos had a guest. Then again, it was news that wouldn’t wait.
When he discovered that Amos was in fact alone, he’d been surprised and more than a little unsettled. He glanced around the small cabin, noting some of Zach’s things about the place.
“Take a seat, son. Just made a pot of coffee for us.”
Joe edged into the seat, wondering at the strange comment. Amos had no way to know he was even coming, let alone make a pot of coffee for him. He brushed it aside and tried to focus on why he was there.
The piece of paper in his pocket carried his exoneration, but would a grieving father see it that way?
As he sat on the bed and stared at the floor, Joe heard somebody hammering on the front door. It was enough to jolt him out of his thoughts and he hastily pulled on his boots. It was far too early for a social call and anything else usually meant trouble. Hadn’t he had enough trouble for one month?
Hoss tugged the front door open and was surprised to see Clem standing there. He’d promised he’d get things sorted with the newspaper and when Joe agreed to stay out of town for a few days, they didn’t expect to see him again so soon. The look on his face didn’t bode well either.
“Hoss, is Joe in?”
“Ahh yeah, he’s just up … ”
“I’m right here. What’s wrong?”
Joe stood at the top of the stairs, looking like he hadn’t slept a wink the night before. He made his way down the rest of the way, never taking his eyes off the lawman. He noted his father had come out of the kitchen and all three men moved together and stood like some kind of barrier against whatever was coming.
Clem tugged his hat off and began to slowly circle it through his fingers. The look on his face spoke volumes.
“Joe, I’m sorry to do this, but I need to know where you were yesterday, after I left here.”
“What’s this about, Clem?” Ben edged closer, as if sensing trouble before knowing what it was.
Clem held up a hand and pointed towards Joe. “I need an answer, before I can tell you that. Where were you Joe?”
“I went out to see Amos Crenshaw, like I told you I would. Why?”
“And did you go into town at all?”
“No! You told me to stay out of Virginia City until you got things settled.”
“What’s this about, Clem?” Ben’s voice had an edge to it that Clem knew only too well. He ignored it and stayed focused where he needed to be.
“What time did you get back, Joe?”
“Late. I wasn’t watching the time, but it was late.”
Clem glanced across at his father and brother. “Either of you two know what time Joe got home?’
“It was after ten. Pa was gettin’ worried and we …” Hoss trailed away as he saw Clem shake his head.
“Joe, I was here before noon yesterday. Can you explain why you were gone over ten hours?”
“What is this? An interrogation! I told you I went to see Amos Crenshaw.”
“It’s about a half hour ride from here, Joe. You tellin’ me you spent eight or nine hours out there with Amos?”
Ben laid a hand on his son’s shoulder, warning him to keep his temper in check. “All right, Clem. Joe told you where he went. Now …. what’s this about?”
“Linda Roberts was murdered last night. Her neck was broken.” Clem allowed that to sink in before continuing. “There’s more than a few folk in town pointing the finger your way, since you’re the only person with an obvious reason to kill her.”
“What!” Joe shrugged off his father’s hand and took a step closer before pointing a finger at Clem. “You were here yesterday. We squared things! Why would I kill her now when it’s all been sorted?”
“Now Joe, I ain’t saying I agree with them, but you have to admit, it’s a fair assumption. Now, care to tell me again what happened yesterday?”
Joe seemed to wilt before their eyes. Ben grasped at his elbow and gently steered him towards the sofa. He had a bad feeling that whatever Joe had kept from them yesterday was about to come out. He hated feeling unprepared, especially when he was going to be needed to defend his son against yet another unfounded accusation.
“Like I said, I went to see Amos Crenshaw. He was acting … well … strange!”
“What do you mean by strange?”
Joe looked up at the lawman, knowing that anything he said was being noted.
“Strange! I heard somebody talking when I got to the front door and figured he had a visitor. Turns out he was just talkin’ to himself.”
“Lots of folks do that. Don’t mean nothin’.” Hoss settled on the table across from his brother.
“It was more than that. He had a second place set at the table and when I came in he thought I was Zach.”
“The man’s still grieving. Maybe he was just confused for a moment.” Ben watched his son closely as he grew more agitated.
“No, Pa! It was more than that. I can’t explain it.”
“Try, Son. It’s important.”
“He got real mad at me. I showed him the telegram from the sheriff at Carson City and he told me I’d murdered Zach and was making up stories to make him look like a killer. He said that other folks knew that now too because Linda Roberts had made sure everybody knew.”
Ben felt his anger rising as the young woman’s misguided attempt at achieving justice was causing his son a world of grief.
“I told him Linda had retracted her offer of a thousand dollars because the sheriff at Carson had proved I was innocent. I told him it’d be in tomorrow’s paper.”
“And what did he say to all that?” Clem was taking careful note of the story as it tumbled out.
“He collapsed. Dropped into the chair like a sack o’ potatoes. I thought I was gonna need to go for the doc, but he insisted he was fine and didn’t need no doctor.”
“Does he still think you murdered Zach?” Ben reached a hand for his son’s arm, half afraid of the answer.
“No.” Joe shook his head slowly as if considering the answer. “He said the sheriff at Carson must have known what he was doing and Miss Roberts got it all wrong after all.”
“Joe, that still doesn’t explain why you were gone for so long yesterday.” Clem waited patiently, looking for the final piece of the story to make sense.
Joe scrubbed a hand across his face. He hadn’t let on just how rattled he’d been by the whole mess and he needed time to think. He’d promised his father he’d stay on the ranch so he’d gone to the one place he could. The lake. Time up there always calmed his nerves as he talked out his fears in private.
“I … well I wanted to make sure he understood things. I offered to help him with some chores and chopped some wood and stuff.”
He carefully left out the part where Amos had called him Zach another time or two. The old man’s behavior was odd and he’d needed time to clear his head before coming home. Maybe he’d talk to his pa about it once Clem was gone.
By the time Ben ushered Clem out the door and stood by the man’s horse, the unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach had not gone away. A father was still grieving the pointless loss of a son and a young woman had been needlessly murdered. Since not even Linda Roberts knew the identity of the man who had taken the first five hundred dollars from her, Clem had his work cut out for him figuring out who had murdered her. What he hadn’t told Joe was that there was no sign of any money in Miss Roberts’ room. Even if he’d had the slightest inclination to believe that Joe had killed her, the money going missing seemed to prove otherwise.
“Ben, this isn’t over yet. You need to keep Joe out of Virginia City. And watch out for strangers until I get this thing sorted out.”
“What aren’t you telling me, Clem?”
“Whoever killed Miss Roberts took the rest of the money. Now it could have been simply an opportunistic theft, but it could mean that …”
“That Joe is still in danger!” Ben felt his anger rising once more.
Small spits of rain began to fall from the sky as both men realized the morning had darkened while they’d been inside. Black clouds scudded across the sky from the west and Ben frowned as he looked up. At least bad weather might keep his youngest son from straying too far.
“I’d better get moving before this rain hits.” Clem pulled his hat down a little lower as he nudged his horse forward. “I’ll keep you posted, Ben.”
It had been many years since his sons had needed their father to protect them, but it did not stop a father worrying. As he glanced upwards again, he felt the heavens reflected his own mood.
Ben had been saved the argument that he knew would have ensued when the thunderstorm rolled in and hovered over the Ponderosa and surrounds for two days. It kept them all close to the house as only the most urgent jobs were taken care of. The bulk of the herd was in an upper pasture and would simply have to take shelter as best they could. By the time the last of the storm had blown itself out, the damage was obvious. Trees had come down and the yard was turned to mud. There was no telling how bad the damage would be elsewhere and each man was dispatched to check and either repair what they could or report back what was needed. Ben deliberately made sure that Joe was assigned an area that was deep within the Ponderosa boundary and if his son noticed, he kept it to himself.
Amos sat at the table with a stone cold coffee pot, staring at the far wall. His eyes didn’t register the rough-hewn timbers or the play of sunlight against the window. His fingers clenched around a wad of notes.
That stupid girl had been sucked in by the Cartwrights and their lies, but he hadn’t been fooled. She might have retracted her story, but he knew better. Ben Cartwright had simply paid her enough to shut her up. He felt his fingers flexing against the paper and he choked back a sob. Mere money would not do anything to erase his loss, but his plan still stood. It was just a matter of time before that no-good murderer showed up again, trying to assuage his own guilt by helping him dig a well and chop his wood for him.
Amos closed his eyes as if he could blot out his anguish. This house had been his life for so long and now it meant nothing. It had once rung with laughter and life and now a shroud of death hung over it. Unbidden memories danced before his eyes and he reached for the whiskey bottle on the shelf. Sarah had never liked liquor in the house and he groaned as her face played before him. She was laughing as he took her in his arms and tried out a waltz across the kitchen. He had two left feet, but she never seemed to mind. She was a good woman who’d been taken from him too soon. The promised blessing of a second child had turned to a nightmare when first his tiny newborn daughter and then his wife had lost the fight to live. Zach was the last of her he had and now that had been taken from him too. He groaned again as the pain caught in his chest. A swig from the bottle did nothing to ease it so he took another. And another.
Joe rubbed his hand across his brow before replacing his hat on his head. He’d had enough of riding fence for one day. The storm had wrought some heavy damage in the lower pastures where rivers of water had gushed through fences, dragging loose branches and debris with them. He’d pulled enough fence posts into line as far as he could without tools and noted where he needed to return to tomorrow.
As he sat astride Cochise and surveyed the valley below, he wondered again how the Crenshaw ranch had made out. It was lower set than most of the Ponderosa and there was a sizeable creek at the top end. If it had burst in the storm, it could have done some serious damage.
Amos Crenshaw had left him spooked the last time he’d seen him, but as Joe considered all that had been said, he felt a nagging need to go and check on the man. After all, Pa was right. The man was grieving and confused. That was all.
It was over an hour later that Joe dropped from his horse and tied Cochise’s reins to the railing outside Amos’ door. The yard was a mud pit, much as the Ponderosa looked. Hop Sing had been hard-pressed keeping the floors free of mud and had loudly threatened in both English and Chinese that he was going back to China if they didn’t stop making work for him. Joe chuckled as he thought of the man and carefully picked his way across to Amos’ door.
When he got no answer to his knocking, he became concerned and nudged the door open.
“Mister Crenshaw? You in here?”
Amos raised a hand to ward off the sunlight that streamed through the door. He blinked several times and saw his son silhouetted against the doorframe.
Joe stopped at the threshold and shook his head.
“No, sir. It’s me, Joe Cartwright.”
Amos felt the bitterness rising up from the pit of his stomach and he lurched forward from the chair. The almost empty whiskey bottle tumbled from his fingers and smashed on the floor. The preacher had once said something about the bitter taste of wormwood and he knew just what the man meant. Death brought bitterness. Injustice brought bitterness. The only thing that could erase the taste was what he had been planning for weeks.
The light behind him gave Joe an other-worldliness and Amos frowned in disgust. The boy always did have the air of an angel about him. Got away with murder, he did! Just because he could smile and charm the boots off everyone. Well his halo was about to slip right off and fall in the mud where it would never polish up again.
“Ain’t nothin’ ever gonna fix that again,” he muttered to himself.
Joe felt the tension in the room, but it was too late to back up now. Something was very wrong as he’d never seen any sign of the man drinking before and yet he was clearly drunk. Before he could think what to say next, Amos had shuffled towards the table and grasped at his handgun.
“You thought you were so smart! You thought that your looks and your money would save you from the noose!”
Joe froze as the gun wavered in his direction and he tried to gauge if he could make it to the door or not. Amos’s aim was unpredictable, but even a lucky shot could kill a man.
“Well maybe you were right about that! Maybe justice only comes to those who can’t afford to pay off people.”
Joe bit his lip as objections arose in his mind. Winding the man up would do no good while ever he held that gun.
“Now drop that gun of yours, nice and slow on the floor.” Joe felt his fingers itching to grab hold of the gun and fire, but he would not take down a drunken, broken down old man. There had to be another way to stop him before it came to that.
“Linda Roberts knew what you are and she at least had the gumption to do something about it. I took her money. Not because I wanted the money, but I wanted to be the one who brought you down.”
Joe stared across the table at the broken father and saw the truth in his eyes. He’d taken the blood money and plotted his revenge.
“You killed her?” The words were little more than a whisper.
“Didn’t mean to, but she was gonna scream and I couldn’t have her ruining things. Not when I was so close. Don’t matter now, because I got you right where I want you. All the time we’ve been diggin’ that hole out there, you had no idea it weren’t no well. It was your grave!”
Joe flinched at the venom in the man’s voice as the final piece of the puzzle dropped into place. His pa had been right to worry and he’d missed what was right under his nose.
“Now move, boy!”
Joe stared back as Amos waved his gun towards the door.
“I said, move!”
Joe slowly stepped back outside, his mind racing. Cochise snorted as he passed by. There was nowhere to hide and the ground was too sodden to run. Amos pressed the barrel of the gun into the back of his head and pushed him forward across the muddy yard.
“You don’t want to do this. It won’t bring Zach back.”
“No, but it’ll make me feel better.”
As he neared the edge of the well, Joe saw that several pieces of boarding had pulled loose. He knew it must have been the storm and that water had flowed into the hole. He had no idea how much or how deep it was, but it wasn’t going to make much difference if he had a bullet in his head.
Joe could smell the sour stench of whiskey on the man’s breath as he paused at the edge. The hand that held the gun was shaking and he held his breath, praying that something just might turn in his favour.
“This is for you, Zach.” The words tumbled out in a rush and Amos reached forward to push Joe’s shoulder. He didn’t count on younger, sober reflexes and Joe grasped at his wrist as he turned back towards him. Amos pulled his hand back while still trying to take aim, but suddenly found he had no traction in the mud. With nothing to lose and possibly everything to gain, Joe pushed against the older man, trying to dislodge the gun in his hand. The muddy sides gave way beneath their feet and they both stumbled on the slick ground. If Amos hadn’t been so intent on following through on his plan, Joe might have managed to stay upright. Instead, he felt Amos grasp at him again and the gun fired as the two of them tumbled together into the hole.
Hoss watched as his father paced the length of the room once again. Normally he’d be offering excuses of where his wayward little brother could be, but he held his tongue. His father’s worry was no more than his own and he couldn’t believe that Joe would keep either of them waiting while he slipped into town for a beer or some such nonsense. He knew Joe was champing at the bit to be allowed off the Ponderosa, but his brother wasn’t stupid either. Until Clem said otherwise, the threat was still there, hanging over all of them.
“He was goin’ up to the northern fence line again today.”
Ben stopped pacing and looked at his middle son.
“I’ll saddle some horses.”
Ben nodded as he saw his own worry reflected back at him.
“We’ll find him, Pa. Don’t you worry.”
Ben shook his head as he reached for his gun belt. It was a father’s job to worry and with Joseph in mind … well worry just seemed to go hand in hand with his youngest son.
Sensation was slow in coming back. He wasn’t sure where he was at first. The water that covered his legs smelled like damp clay and something else. It took a few minutes for his thoughts to catch up with his senses. All around him it was dark. And wet. He shivered as he looked around before finally looking up. A square patch above him twinkled with distant starlight and he frowned at the strange image. Sitting together beneath a starry sky was supposed to be a romantic thing, at least as far as Becky had told him. He struggled to recall when that had been. Last week? The week before? Whatever the case, it wasn’t romantic now. The stars looked different and he shook his head in a vain attempt to make things make sense. Now the stars seemed to dance around him instead.
Finally, Joe remembered where he was. Sitting at the bottom of a half-dug well. He reached up with his hand to rub his face and was rewarded with a shooting pain up the length of his arm. As he sank back into oblivion, he vaguely remembered that someone else had been with him. He just couldn’t remember who that was.
“We can’t track in the dark, Pa.”
It was an obvious statement, but Hoss wasn’t sure his father was listening.
“We’ll be back out at first light. We’ll find him, Ben.”
“Just like you found who murdered Miss Roberts?”
It was an unfair question and Clem bit back his immediate response. He’d told this family he’d keep Joe safe if they just kept him on the Ponderosa. Well Ben had done his part, but Joe had still gone missing. It was possible somebody had snatched him from right under their noses. The question still remained – who would gain anything from such a thing? Linda Roberts’ retraction had been printed and gossiped about far and wide. There was no money left to gain from the bounty on Joe’s head. Had her challenge stirred up something that couldn’t be stopped and somebody had gone after the young man anyway?
Hoss stepped closer to his father and tried to defuse the anger in the man’s stance. Clem wasn’t the enemy. The problem was, he didn’t know who was.
“Pa, we’ve got men ready to ride and Clem’s gonna pull together a posse in Virginia City.”
It was logical and organised and made perfect sense and yet Ben could not shake the sense he was missing something. He nodded as he looked at his son’s worried face. Hoss couldn’t hide anything if he tried and Ben patted his shoulder as if they could somehow draw comfort from each other.
“You’re right. First light.”
“We’ll find him.” Clem tipped his finger against his hat as he made for the door. The problem was, he wasn’t half as confident as he sounded.
The first streaks of dawn turned the sky a faint pink. Joe struggled to open his eyes and shivered against the cold. His legs felt like they were no longer attached to him and he glanced down to see he was sitting waist-deep in muddy water. Across from him, Amos Crenshaw was huddled against the side of the well. His eyes were closed and Joe couldn’t tell if he was even breathing.
It took far longer than he would have expected to pull himself upright against the wooden planking that shored up the side of the well. His left arm was clearly broken and he sucked in a groan of pain as he gingerly tucked his wrist in between the buttons of his shirt. It wasn’t much of a sling, but it would have to do.
“Mister Crenshaw.” He pushed against the older man’s shoulder, hoping for some kind of sign of life. His own fingers had very little feeling in them, but he pushed a hand in under Amos’ neck. Before he could find a pulse, the man stirred and lifted his face upwards.
“Zach? What are you doing?” Amos looked up at the young man’s muddied face in confusion. “Did something happen?”
Joe stared at him for a moment and only then realised that Amos’ other shoulder was covered in blood.
“Let me take a look at that.”
Amos frowned at him as Joe peeled back his worn work shirt and inspected the bullet wound. He eased the man forward to see if there was any sign of an exit wound and barely held back a comment when he saw smooth skin.
“We’ve gotta get you out of here.”
Joe’s legs buckled under him as he went to step back and he tumbled backwards into the muddy water. On instinct, he went to break his fall with his arms and he screamed as his left arm made contact with the mud beneath him.
“Zach! What’s wrong, boy?”
Amos scrambled across the space between them and reached a hand out to Joe’s face. The tenderness in the touch reminded Joe of his own father’s hand and he bit back what he had intended to say. If Amos believed he was Zach, then maybe he’d be more co-operative.
“Broke my arm when I fell.”
“Zach, what are we doin’ down here?”
Joe studied the man’s face and saw confusion in the older man’s eyes as he looked all around their muddy prison.
“It was an accident. But it’s okay. I’ve just gotta climb up that shoring and we’ll both be getting outta here real soon.”
Joe reached for the wooden structure and felt it shift against his hand. The rain had loosened the sides of the well and nothing was guaranteed to still be anchored. Still, nobody knew where they were and neither of them could afford to stay put. As he reached out a hand and tried to figure out a one-handed climbing technique, Amos pulled him back from the wall.
“Now Zach, it’s clear as day that your arm ain’t gonna hold up to that. Let me get up there, Son and I’ll get us a rope to get you out too.”
Joe couldn’t be sure if the man who’d threatened his life would change his mind once he got to the top or if the confused father would do as he said. Either way, he was right. Joe was in no shape to be climbing.
Amos had barely made it much more than six feet up the rickety bracing when it gave way. He toppled backwards and Joe had nowhere to go in the cramped space. As Amos crashed into him, Joe was forced into the water face first. He tried to push off the bottom of the well and gulped a mouthful of foul water. His arm was on fire as he crawled back up against the wall and tried to stop himself from vomiting. It took a moment to realize that Amos had fallen and not gotten back up again. His head was turned side on and Joe scrambled to pull him upright out of the water. The older man made no sound as Joe tugged him up against his chest and tried to check he was still breathing.
“Come on … you can’t quit on me now, you old buzzard!”
“You sure he went to the northern fence line, Ben?”
“He was up there the day before yesterday and said there was still a swathe of fence he needed to check on. It’s where he said he was going and when we rode up that way yesterday, we could see where he’d been working. He was there, Clem!”
“Well hopefully we’ll pick up some tracks from there. The ground is still soft from all the rain and Hoss should be able to find something.”
It had been over an hour since that conversation and not much had been said since as riders covered the ground, looking for clues.
“This way!” A shout from Hoss had them all moving towards a rocky outcrop from all directions. Ben reined in beside his son, trying to see what Hoss was pointing out.
“There, Pa. There’s a track leading down that way. There ain’t no other tracks up this way and I’d bet that’s where Joe went.
Before anyone could comment, Hoss nudged his horse forward with Ben following closely behind. It made no sense that Joe would have headed away from home as he had clearly been working on the fence line.
After some time of trailing along in silence, Clem pulled his horse alongside Ben.
“How far is it from here to the Crenshaw ranch?”
Ben’s eyes narrowed at the question. “Well over an hour’s ride at this pace.”
“What are you gettin’ at Clem?” Hoss turned back in the saddle towards the two men.
The lawman had worked under Roy Coffee for long enough to know that hunches often were worth listening to. “I don’t know for sure. But Joe clearly didn’t head for home and there’s no other tracks that Hoss has found.”
“You reckon Joe mighta gone to check on Mister Crenshaw after the storm?”
“It’s certainly possible.” Ben knew his son felt somehow responsible for ensuring the man was managing after losing his son. “But that doesn’t explain why Joe didn’t come home last night!”
“Well, from what Joe said, Amos Crenshaw isn’t exactly a full bottle at the moment.”
“And he told Joe outside the courthouse that he wished he was dead.” Hoss had struggled to keep his fists to himself that day.
Ben felt his fear etching up another notch and he hastened to quiet it down again.
“That was weeks ago! Amos stopped those two new hands we hired from collecting on the bounty on Joe. He’s a grieving father who said some things in anger, sure. But if he really wanted to harm Joe, why would he have saved him from those two? Surely he would have left them to it.”
“I guess you’re right, Ben. I’m just trying to figure where Joe could have gone and I’m just putting the pieces together as they seem to fit.”
Hoss swallowed down the nagging voice that told him he could be trading a tangible trail for an unknown. “Pa, it makes more sense than anything else so far.”
Ben hesitated for only a moment before digging his heels into his horse’s flanks. He didn’t stop to look behind him, but he could hear the pounding of hooves behind him as raced towards the Crenshaw ranch.
Joe was beyond cold. The water had taken away any sense he had left in his legs. He’d tried several times to pull himself up the wooden shoring, but each time either his strength or the wood had given out, sending him plummeting back into the water. Finally he’d been forced to concede defeat and he’d settled down to wait. While it was true that nobody had known where he’d gone, he figured that sooner or later somebody would think to try the Crenshaw’s. He just prayed it was sooner rather than later.
Amos had awoken a few times and each time he was no more coherent than the previous time. Joe had given up on reminding him that he was not Zach and allowed the man to think he was leaning up against his son. Beneath the smear of mud across the old man’s face, he could make out skin that looked almost grey. He wasn’t sure if it was from blood loss or the cold, but either way, Amos wasn’t looking good.
The morning sun had shifted into the sky, bringing a little warmth into the darkened hole and Joe jolted awake. He’d been dozing on and off with no real idea of how much time had passed.
Ben pulled up his horse alongside Cochise and almost fell from the saddle. It was clear the horse was unharmed and he prayed his son would be in the same condition.
“Joseph! Where are you?” He shouted as he ran for the door and pushed it open. He had no use for manners and wouldn’t wait for Amos to open the door. The room was empty and cold and the fire had long since burned out in the hearth. “Joseph!”
Hoss clambered down from his horse and stood in the empty yard, surveying the churned up mud. His father raced back out on the verandah and hollered again.
“Joseph! Where are you?”
Clem already had men spreading out to search the outer buildings as Hoss held up a hand. “Quiet down!”
It took another moment of silence for them to hear it.
Joe had wondered if he was dreaming when he heard his pa’s angry morning bellow rousing him out of bed. It hadn’t been that long since he’d gone to bed and he really …
The chill surrounding him caught his voice in his throat, but he tried again.
“Pa! We’re down here.”
A moment later, the square of light above him grew darker as multiple heads appeared at the edges.
“Joseph! Hold on, Son. We’ll have you out of there very soon.”
Joe couldn’t muster a reply so he nodded instead. Somebody was coming to take care of things and he could let go.
Hoss had volunteered to be lowered down into the hole, but it was decided he was needed to help haul the two men up instead. One of the hands, who was not much heavier than Joe, looped the rope around his boot and allowed himself to be lowered into the darkness. As he dropped into the knee-deep water, he was surprised at just how cold it was. Joe was watching him, but seemed sluggish in his movements. A man he’d never seen before, but assumed was Amos Crenshaw was leaning against Joe’s shoulder.
“Take him up first.” Joe tried to help pass the second rope around the man’s torso, but his hands seemed to cramp up.
“It’s alright, Joe. I got him.”
Matt watched as those above hauled on the rope and the limp body rose from the mud. He wasn’t a doctor, but he didn’t see any real sign of life in the man. Minutes later the rope descended again and Matt reached behind Joe to secure it around his chest. He tugged on the rope and helped ease Joe to his feet as the rope went taut.
By the time he was hauled up from the well, he could see the two men had been taken inside. Smoke curled from the chimney as somebody hastened to get a fire going and he knew enough from being down in that cold hole for less than twenty minutes that both men were in dire trouble.
“Pa?” Joe was shivering so hard inside the blanket he could barely form the words his mind was searching for. “Is he … is …”
The man laid out on the floor and wrapped in layers of blankets looked dead. His cheeks were so pale against the mud spatter and he hadn’t so much as twitched.
“He’s alive, Son.” Ben held back any further comment, afraid he’d lose control if he said anything more about the man who had tried to kill his boy. “Now let’s get you both warmed up.”
Joe pushed at the heavy log with the iron poker and watched a shower of sparks rise up the chimney. He’d tried sleeping, but had given up on that idea. It was the same most nights. Every time he closed his eyes, he found himself falling down an endless black tunnel.
He jumped as his father moved up alongside him. He’d been so lost in thought that he’d been oblivious to the footsteps on the stairs.
“Would a brandy help?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders and nodded anyway as his father made his way across the room to the decanter. Whiskey hadn’t helped Amos Crenshaw deal with his demons.
He slid back down onto the table and accepted the glass being held out to him. It still felt strange using his right hand, but it would be a few weeks yet before he could take off the splint on his left arm. He looked down at his arm and frowned. A broken arm and a bruised head was all he had to show for what Amos had done. Sure it had been days before he truly felt warm again, but it seemed so little on the outside against what was going on inside. He’d kept that part buried. Nobody needed to know about that part.
Joe jolted as he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Clearly he’d missed something.
“Joe, talking might help.”
“What’s there to talk about? Zach is dead. Linda Roberts is dead. Mister Crenshaw is dead. Nothin’s gonna change that!”
Ben had seen the money strewn across the table and his son’s gun lying on the floor. It didn’t take a genius to put the pieces together and see what had transpired in that room. For all his words of peace towards Joe, it was clear that Amos had just been biding his time and plotting to kill his son after all. The fact he’d died less than an hour after being hauled out of that well had meant he’d never be held to account for his crimes. Perhaps that was just as well because he didn’t think Joe could withstand another inquest so soon after the whole saga with Zach.
Ben slipped an arm across his son’s shoulder and pulled him closer. “Son, none of that is your fault.”
“It was my idea to stick my nose into things at their ranch. I said I’d help dig that well. I shoulda just stayed away like you said.”
Ben tried to find the right words. Something that would shift the impasse for his son. Regret could hold a man captive just as surely as prison bars could.
“Joe … grief is a strange beast. It can twist a man’s mind and make a sane man, crazed. Amos had more than his fair share of grief. His son had drifted and was making choices that cost them both dearly. He couldn’t see past that grief.”
Joe twisted on the table and looked up at his father’s face. “But you’ve known grief too. And you’ve never done anything crazy!”
Ben turned away to stare at the fire, deciding whether sharing would help or hinder his son.
“I’ve come closer than you think.”
“Joe … when your mother died … I wanted to die too. I was so broken that I couldn’t see past the thought of a day without her.”
Joe felt his father’s body stiffen as if he was willing himself to stay strong.
“One day … one very black day … I was out in the barn with my gun in my hand. It would have been so simple to end the pain.”
Joe stared at his father, tears welling in his eyes as he heard the story for the first time.
“What stopped you?”
“You boys.” Ben rubbed a hand across his face as he tried to pull his emotions together. “You all walked into the barn and you ran up to me, chattering about something. It was enough to jolt me back to my senses and realize I had so much more to live for.”
Joe swallowed hard as he took in what his father was saying.
“He had nothing left to live for.”
“Not that he could see.”
“He thought I was Zach. He was confused and he kept calling me Zach.”
Ben laid his hand on his son’s shoulder once more. “Then in a way, you brought him comfort at the end.”
Father and son sat in silence for some time, each lost in their own thoughts. Decisions, once made, could have a lifetime impact.
The look of shock on Adam’s face as he took in the scene that day in the barn was something Ben would never forget. He’d almost made a decision that could have destroyed them all. The home that rang with life and laughter, that celebrated the festive season and other special days with gusto, could well have been destroyed in one fatal decision.
He’d thanked God many times over for pulling him out of the mire of grief and setting him on solid ground again. As he watched the firelight dance across his son’s face, he knew that healing wasn’t yet done, but it would come. Just as surely as day follows night, his son would come out of the darkness and his cup would turn sweet once more.
Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
The words/phrases dealt to me were:
beneath a starry sky