Summary: A Ponderosa ranch hand is convicted of murder and all four Cartwrights must deal with their emotions regarding the situation
Rated: T (9,800 words)
As the words reverberated around the silent courtroom a buzz of noise immediately followed them and the judge banged his gavel on the table in front of him for silence before looking directly at the prisoner standing in front of him and speaking in a clear voice. ‘William Murfitt … you have been found guilty of the murder of Sam O’Brien and I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until dead.’ He looked at Sheriff Roy Coffee. ‘Sheriff … remove the prisoner from the court please.’
Sheriff Coffee stepped forward and pulled William by the arm. ‘Come along son,’ he said. ‘Let’s get this over with.’ He led him through the now silent crowd towards the back door of the court. As they passed the four Cartwrights who were sitting in the front room William hesitated for a moment, looking each of them in the eye before continuing. As the door of the courthouse closed behind the two men the room exploded in a barrage of noise again and Ben Cartwright sat down heavily on his chair and put shook his head in dismay.
‘Pa?’ said Adam quietly, putting his hand on his father’s shoulder. ‘We should get out of here.’
Ben stood up again and nodded at his eldest son. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Hoss? Joe? Come on boys. There’s nothing more we can do here for now. We need to get on back to the ranch.’
Hoss stared at his father, his face a picture of anger and dismay. ‘I just can’t understand it Pa,’ he said. ‘How could they have found him guilty?’ He shook his head. ‘It ain’t like he ….’
Ben put up his hand. ‘Hoss there’ll be time for this at home,’ he said. ‘Let’s get going son.’ He pulled the big man by the arm and Hoss put his head down and followed his father reluctantly. Ben hesitated as he reached the door and looked back over his shoulder. ‘Joe?’ he said. ‘Are you coming son?’ Joe continued to stare at the floor in front of him and didn’t move. ‘Joe?’ said his father again. When the boy still didn’t move Ben walked back to him and placed his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder. ‘We have to go now Joe,’ he said quietly. ‘Come on.’
Joe looked up and stared into his father’s eyes intently for a moment before giving him a small nod. Ben put his arm around the young man and led him quietly from the courtroom. As they left the room the judge stood up and began to collect his papers.
‘I don’t care what that judge said!’ declared Hoss. ‘William ain’t guilty … I’d stake my life on it!’
Adam sighed again. ‘Hoss you heard all the evidence,’ he said. ‘Everything pointed to the fact that he was.’
‘I don’t care!’ declared Hoss again. ‘He ain’t guilty and that’s an end to it! There were no eye witnesses after all.’
‘The evidence all pointed to William,’ explained Adam patiently. ‘And it is an end to it because he’s been convicted. The jury studied all the evidence and made their decision based on it. That’s the way justice works in this country.’
‘Justice!’ declared Hoss with a snort. ‘Some kind of justice! He ain’t guilty I tell ya!’
Adam looked at his father sadly and shook his head. ‘Hoss, your brother is right,’ said Ben quietly. ‘None of us like what happened today son, but the law has been upheld. The judge had no choice but to pronounce the sentence that he did.’
Hoss scowled. ‘I just don’t understand how you can both sit there and not care about this!’ he said angrily.
Adam looked hurt. ‘You have no right to say that Hoss,’ he said. ‘Of course we care! Pa and I are just as fond of William as you. But that doesn’t alter the fact that a decision has been made. You just have to make the best of it now.’
Hoss gave his brother an appalled look. ‘The best of it!’ he said. ‘Try telling William that. Try going in there to that jail and telling a man with only a few days ta live ta make the best of it!’
‘I intend to,’ said Adam quietly. ‘I’m going in to visit him tomorrow if you must know.’ He stood up from the table and threw down his napkin. ‘He’s a friend of mine in case you’ve forgotten brother and this isn’t easy on me either.’ He strode from the room and banged the front door behind him.
Hoss looked at this father. ‘I didn’t mean ….’ His voice trailed away.
Ben put his hand on top of that of his son’s. ‘I know Hoss,’ he said. ‘Your brother understands I’m sure. This has upset everyone and there’s no getting around that.’ He hesitated. ‘Why don’t you go on out there and talk to your brother about it and patch things up?’
Hoss nodded. ‘Sure Pa,’ he said.
Ben watched as his middle son also left the room and then his eyes drifted to Joe who had sat quietly during the entire conversation with his head bowed. ‘Joseph?’ he said. ‘Are you all right son?’
Joe continued to stare at the tablecloth and nodded his head. ‘Yeah,’ he said in a low voice.
Ben gave him a sad look. ‘I know how you are feeling son,’ he said. ‘We all feel for William at the moment.’ There was no response from the youngster so Ben tried again. ‘Would you like to go in and see him tomorrow with Adam?’ he asked gently.
Joe looked up at his father for the first time with tears standing in his eyes. He shook his head firmly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I mean … not yet Pa. I … will.’
Ben patted the young man’s hand. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘When you’re ready to son.’
‘When will … I mean … how long will it be before … before…’
‘It’ll probably take close to a week for the … for arrangements to be made,’ said his father.
Joe nodded and there was silence for a few moments. ‘I think I’ll go on up to bed now Pa,’ he said as he stood up from the table.
‘Good night son,’ said Ben.
Ben watched as Joe walked slowly towards the staircase with his head still bowed. He sighed as he watched the young man walk up the staircase and disappear around the corner and then put his head in his hands as he remembered back to the day when he’d first met William Murfitt.
It had Adam who’d brought the young man home that first day. Ben often thought about how all three of his boys seemed to have inherited his own tendency for looking after strays. Not that it was probably something that could be inherited, but they’d sure seen him do it enough in his life and he supposed that they’d learnt by example. It was something that he was proud that they’d picked up from him. After all, there was no greater way of showing your love for your fellow man than by putting the values he lived by into action. All three of his boys had at one time or another tried to help someone in need and Ben was rightly proud of them for doing so. This time it was Adam who started the ball rolling of course, but the others had soon picked up on it.
He’d liked William right from the start. Adam told him how he’d found the young man in town and how it had struck him right from the start how lost he’d seemed. He’d have expected Hoss or even Joe to have offered the man a job of course, but at the time it had struck him as rather strange that Adam had done so. After all, William had absolutely no experience at ranching and even though he was bound to help the man, Adam usually kept hold of the fact that The Ponderosa was a working ranch and everyone needed to pull their own weight.
He’d looked almost embarrassed as he’d introduced his father to William that day. As if he knew what was in the man’s mind, he hastened to assure his father that William would pick up things quickly. Ben had looked at him with an amused expression.
‘I thought you just met him,’ he said.
Adam avoided looking at his father and studied the cinch on his saddle intently. ‘I did,’ he said. ‘He just strikes me as the sort of guy who’ll be a hard worker that’s all.
Ben tried not to smile. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Well I hope you’re right son. You’d better show him where the bunkhouse is then, don’t you think?’
Adam shot his father a grateful look and then slid down from the saddle. ‘I reckon so,’ he said. Ben watched in amusement as the two men walked towards the bunkhouse together. William seemed like a likeable young man and he was sure that he would work out all right in him time on The Ponderosa. After all, Adam wasn’t often wrong and Ben was fully prepared to take a risk on the young man.
William had proven right from the start that he was indeed willing to learn and was definitely a hard worker. He quickly became a part of the place and what he lacked in skill made up for in sheer hard work. All three of Ben’s sons soon became fond of him and there were many times when he was part of their activities. He and Adam seemed to get on particularly well … probably because there wasn’t a great deal of difference in their ages. Hoss of course got on well with everyone and he and William soon found a friendship that they both valued. Even Joe looked up to the man and listened to his advice … unusual in itself … although it didn’t stop the youngster from trying out his usual tricks on the unsuspecting hand.
In time William Murfitt had become a valued member of The Ponderosa staff, which made today’s events all the more harder to comprehend. Ben just couldn’t for the life of him believe that William was a murderer … the young man just didn’t seem to have it in him. It had been less than a week ago that Roy Coffee had come to the ranch and arrested him for murder. At first Ben had been quite confident that with the right legal help the whole mess would be sorted out and he had made sure that that had been available for the young man, but as the days of the trial had passed it seemed that the evidence against William was just too overpowering to be ignored.
Ben didn’t blame the jury for making the decision that they had for he could see the justification for them doing so, but knowing William as he did he just couldn’t believe that the young man had done it.
Ben shook his head. Wherever the truth lay, one thing was for certain. The young man that they’d all come to know so well was sitting in jail right at this moment with the knowledge that he was under sentence of death and had just a few days to live. All the Cartwrights would have to come to terms with that fact in their own way and that was all there was to it.
Hoss searched the darkness beyond the front porch, trying in vain to see the outline of his brother in his dark clothing.
‘Looking for me?’
He turned sharply as he heard the words behind him and smiled to see Adam sitting on the other end of the porch staring out into the darkness. He walked slowly to him and sat down next to him. ‘I came ta say I’m sorry,’ he said after a moment.
Adam nodded as he continued to stare. ‘I thought you might,’ he said simply. ‘So am I.’
The two brothers sat in silence together for a long time, neither of them feeling the need for words. It was Hoss who finally broke the silence. ‘It’s just so hard Adam,’ he said sadly. ‘William …. well like I said I just can’t believe that he’s guilty.’
Adam nodded again. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But its over and done with now Hoss. Whether we like it or not he’s been found guilty and its up to the law to carry out the sentence.’
Hoss put his face in his hands. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I wonder how he’s taking it.’
Adam looked up at the stars. ‘How do you think?’ he said. ‘How would you be?’
Hoss nodded and there was silence again. ‘Joe’s upset too,’ he said finally. ‘He thought a lot of William ya know.’
‘Yes,’ replied Adam. He gave his brother a sideways glance. ‘Do you realise that we’re talking about him as if he’s already past tense?’ he said sadly. ‘It’s as if he’s already dead.’
‘I wish he were!’ said Hoss fiercely.
Adam looked startled. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Surely you don’t mean that Hoss.’
Hoss nodded. ‘Yep I do,’ he said. ‘Think about it Adam. Think what this next week is gonna be like fer him in there … knowing he’s gonna die … hang …. If it were me I’d rather have it over with, wouldn’t you?’
Adam shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Much and all as it would be so hard … no. There are things in a man’s life that need to be said when he knows he’s going to die Hoss. Things that need to be done before he can make his peace with the world.’ He looked up at the stars again. ‘No … I’d want to have the time to do and say those things if it were me.’
‘I spose so,’ admitted Hoss. ‘I didn’t think about that I guess.’
‘That’s why I’m going in to see him tomorrow,’ explained Adam. ‘To see what I can do to help him.’
Hoss put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. ‘That gonna be a hard thing to do,’ he said.
Adam shrugged. ‘He’s my friend,’ he said simply.
‘Hi Roy,’ said Adam as he entered the Sheriff’s Office.
Roy Coffee looked up. ‘Adam,’ he said. ‘I suppose you’ve come ta see William?’
Adam nodded ‘How is he?’ he asked.
Roy shrugged. ‘About how you’d expect him ta be,’ he said. ‘I don’t enjoy watching a man prepare ta die.’
Adam tried not to make his thoughts clear on his face. ‘When will it be Roy?’ he asked. ‘How long will it take?’
‘Four days,’ replied the sheriff. ‘I got the wire from the hangman earlier today. ‘They started building the gallows early this morning as well.’
Adam nodded. ‘I saw it on the way in,’ he said and gave the sheriff a sad smile. ‘All right if I go in now Roy?’
You’ll haveta leave that pistol out here,’ instructed the lawman and watched as Adam put it on his desk. ‘Take ya time son.’
Adam took a deep breath as he entered the room and closed his eyes momentarily. ‘Hi,’ he said to the man in the cell in as casual voice as he could muster.
William looked up and Adam could see that he’d been crying, although he tried to hide the fact by wiping his eyes quickly on his shirtsleeve. ‘I thought you might come,’ he said simply.
Adam nodded as he pulled up a stool and sat down on the other side of the bars. ‘How are you doing?’ he asked, although he already knew the answer to his question.
William shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. The two young men sat in silence and listened to the sound of hammering outside. ‘Do they have to do that there?’ said William suddenly. ‘It’s bad enough without having them ….’ His words trailed away and he put his head in his hands. ‘Oh God Adam,’ he whispered. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be able to do this! I can’t ….’ He began to sob and Adam bit his lip and looked at his friend with tears in his own eyes.
He put his hand through the bars and placed it on the young man’s shoulder. ‘Do you want … I mean … how about I go get the Reverend for you?’ he suggested.
William shook his head. ‘He’s already been. Started to talk about life after death and all that which I suppose is his job, but …’ he looked up at Adam. ‘It’s not what I need to hear you know?’ Adam waited in silence. ‘I keep thinking about …. Well you know Adam … what it’s gonna be like to … hang.’ He whispered the word so softly that Adam had to strain to hear it. ‘I just don’t …. I mean I don’t know if I can do it Adam. Just the thought of what it might be like make me turn to water inside and I can’t … ‘ He put his head in his hands again. ‘Oh God!’ he said. ‘I can’t do this!’
Adam fought back his own tears as he listened to his friend. ‘I don’t know what to say to you William,’ he said at last. ‘I don’t know how to help you.’
William shook his head ‘There’s nothing you can say,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing anyone can do now. When a man is going to die he has to face it alone I guess.’ He stared out of the small window where the sounds of the hammering were still drifting through. ‘Dying is a lonely thing Adam. A mighty lonely thing.’
Adam sat and watched his friend, trying to come to grips with what he was saying, but feeling totally helpless. William looked at him again and tried to smile. ‘Do you mind if I ask you to go now?’ he said. ‘It’s not that I don’t appreciate you coming Adam, its just that it’s a strain to keep … well you know. I’d rather be alone if you don’t mind.’
Adam stood up. ‘I understand,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back tomorrow if you want me to?’
William nodded. ‘Thanks,’ he said shortly and turned away. Adam could see that his shoulders were shaking as he tried to still his sobbing and he turned abruptly away and left the room.
‘Finished so soon?’ asked Roy Coffee as the young man came into the outer office and picked up his gun. Adam nodded. Roy noticed how upset he looked. ‘It ain’t an easy thing,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen many a man have ta deal with death and it ain’t an easy thing.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘You comin back?’
Adam nodded. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said. ‘I don’t know that I’m doing much good for him though.’
Roy stood up and put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. ‘I reckon ya are,’ he said. ‘More than ya know. It ain’t an easy thing ta deal with death Adam, but it sure ain’t easy ta watch someone do it neither. Take a lot of guts ta stand by a friend when he’s going through it.’
Adam nodded again. ‘Thanks Roy,’ he said sadly. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Roy watched as Adam left the room and then sat down again with a sigh. ‘Ain’t an easy thing,’ he muttered to himself and shook his head.
Ben watched his eldest son as he chased his food around his plate in silence. ‘Adam? Are you all right son?’ Adam nodded and continued to stare at the table.
‘I’ve been thinking bout William. Couldn’t we … I mean couldn’t you send a wire to the Governor and ask for his sentence to be … what’s it called?’
Adam put his head up and stared at his brother. ‘Revoked,’ he said.
‘Yeah .. that’s it revoked.’ Hoss looked at his father hopefully. ‘Could ya Pa?’
Ben sighed. ‘Hoss I’ve already thought of that, but the problem is that I just don’t think it would work. There would have to be a very good reason for the Governor to over rule a judge’s sentence and to be honest I just don’t think that there is in this case.’
‘Yeah but Pa,’ said Hoss pleadingly. ‘It’s worth a try don’t ya think? It’d make things easier fer William maybe if he knew there was a bit of hope.’
Ben hesitated. ‘It doesn’t feel right to get the boy’s hopes up and then dash them again if it doesn’t work,’ he said. He thought for a moment. ‘Of course it’s worth a try I suppose, but I think it might be best if we don’t tell him for now.’
‘I don’t agree Pa,’ interrupted Adam. Ben gave him a puzzled look. ‘You didn’t see him in there today,’ his son continued. ‘He was … well I just think that whatever hope we can give him would help that’s all. Even if it doesn’t work then at least he’d have something to cling to for a while, don’t you think?’ He gave his father a pleading look.
Ben reached over and put his hand on top of his son’s. He could see the despair and frustration in the dark eyes that stared back at him and he wanted more than anything to put some hope in them instead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘How about you and I go in tomorrow and tell him then? I’ll send the wire first thing in the morning.’
Adam nodded and gave his father a brief smile. ‘Thanks Pa,’ he said. ‘I’ll think it’ll really help him … at least I hope so.’
Ben returned the smile and then glanced over at Joe who was listening to their conversation in silence. ‘Joe? Are you all right son?’ Joe nodded and put a forkful of food into his mouth. ‘You’re awfully quiet Joe. Are you sure you’re all right?’ Ben persisted.
‘I’m fine Pa,’ replied his youngest son.
‘How long do ya think the Governor will take ta answer your wire Pa?’ asked Hoss.
Ben dragged his eyes away from Joe. ‘Probably a day or two,’ he said. ‘It will depend on his schedule, of course.
Hoss frowned. ‘I hope it makes it in time,’ he murmured.
‘It will have to,’ muttered Adam as he picked up his fork again and began to fiddle with it.
‘You mean it?’ Adam saw hope in his friend’s eyes for the first time since his sentence had been pronounced and he nodded.
‘Yes,’ said Ben. ‘I sent the wire before we came up here. Now all we have to do is for the Governor’s reply.
William began to pace up and down in the cell. ‘The Governor thinks a lot of you Mr Cartwright,’ he mused. ‘I’ve heard people talk. This just might work, don’t ya think?’ He stopped and looked at the two Cartwrights hopefully.
Ben tried to smile at the young man. ‘I hope so,’ he said. ‘We’ll see.’
William hesitated. ‘You folks have been real good to me,’ he said. ‘I wonder if … well could you ask a favour?’
‘Of course,’ said Ben kindly. ‘Anything at all … you just name it.’
William went pale. ‘I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in here,’ he said. ‘And when … I mean, if it happens … then there are some things I need to get organised. You know what I mean.’ He put his hand into his pocket and drew out some papers. ‘Sheriff Coffee let me do some writing last night,’ he said. ‘Mr Cartwright could you please make sure that this gets to my sister in Pennsylvania? If … I mean … after …’ his voice trailed away.
Ben took the letter from him. ‘Of course I will,’ he said.
‘And then there’s my stuff,’ William’s voice faltered for a moment. ‘My horse and … well … everything. It isn’t much but I’d like ….’
‘William don’t,’ interrupted Adam. ‘You don’t need to do this yet.’
‘I want to,’ his friend replied. ‘I’ve made a list of it all here.’ He thrust it through the bars at Adam. ‘Would you please see that it all goes to the right people Adam? I mean afterwards, of course.’
Adam took the paper and nodded silently.
Ben gave the young man in the cell a small smile. ‘Anything else we can do for you?’ he asked.
William looked deep into his eyes. ‘I was wondering,’ he said. ‘Most people seem to be staying away from me. I don’t blame them mind … they probably don’t know what to say to me and they probably don’t want to look at me now.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true,’ interrupted Ben.
William gave him a slight smile. ‘Oh, it’d be true all right,’ he said. ‘They all believe that I’m guilty you see. After all, that’s what the jury said wasn’t it? I don’t blame them .. it’s just that I’d like the chance to … well, see some of them.’ He looked at Ben beseechingly. ‘Are Hoss and Joe coming in to see me before …. well, just before?’
Ben glanced at Adam. ‘I’ll ask them,’ he said. ‘They’re both upset through all of this.’
William nodded. ‘I can understand that,’ he said. ‘But ask them … please Mr Cartwright? I’d like to say goodbye if I can.’
Adam felt his heart constrict and stopped himself just in time from groaning out loud. ‘We’ll tell them William,’ he said. ‘I’m sure they’ll come.’
Ben gave his son a sharp look, but said nothing. ‘I’d better be going now,’ he said. ‘I’ll let you two to talk for a while. I’ll let you know the minute there’s a reply to my wire William.’
William gave the man another small smile. ‘Thank you sir,’ he said gratefully. ‘I’ll be right here waiting.’
‘I’ll come in with ya tomorrow,’ said Hoss immediately when Adam suggested that evening at supper that they visit William.
Adam looked at Joe expectantly. ‘Joe?’ he said. ‘William would sure like to see you. How about it?’
Ben watched as his youngest son paled and tried his hardest to look casual. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I really have to finish with that batch of horses tomorrow. Maybe later on.’
Adam frowned. ‘Later on?’ he said. ‘William may not have a later on you know! That’s a stupid thing to say!’
‘Adam!’ said Ben sternly. ‘Joseph will make up his own mind whether or not he visits William.’
‘I meant in a few days,’ said Joe in a low voice. ‘I’m not stupid you know older brother. I know he ain’t got much time left.’
Hoss shook his head. ‘That ain’t necessarily true,’ he said confidently. ‘That telegram from the Governor should come soon and then he’ll likely be free.’
‘Hoss don’t be stupid,’ said Adam crossly. ‘Of course he won’t be free! At the best he’ll have to spend years in prison.’
A frown crossed Hoss’ face momentarily and then he shook his head. ‘Mebbe,’ he said. ‘But he sure won’t hang.’
Ben sighed. ‘Hoss, don’t get your hopes up,’ he said. ‘There’s not much of a chance of that, as I’ve said before son.’
Hoss shrugged. ‘I got hope,’ he said. ‘I ain’t gonna think any other way Pa. He’s innocent so stands ta reason that he’ll be okay.’
Adam gave his father a frustrated look. ‘Oh come on Hoss!’ he said. ‘Don’t be stupid. As if …’
‘Adam, that is enough!’ said his father sharply. ‘That’s the third time this evening you’ve called one of your brothers stupid. Please refrain from saying it again.’
Adam set his jaw and gave his father a stubborn look. ‘Well, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Excuse me if I just try to talk some reason into this family.’
‘That will do!’ said Ben crossly. ‘Isn’t it enough that we all need to come to terms with this without bickering amongst ourselves?’
Adam threw his napkin on the table and stood up. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I’m going to my room.’
‘Well shortshanks?’ asked Hoss as Adam left the room. ‘Are ya coming with me tomorrow?’
Joe looked up. ‘Will you stop going on about it?’ he said crossly. ‘I already told you I’m busy! Can’t you get that through your head?’ He also stood up and stormed away from the table in a huff.
‘What did I say?’ asked Hoss.
‘He’s just upset about all this,’ explained his father. ‘I’ll talk to him.’ Ben looked after his son with a worried expression. It wasn’t like Joe to be so quiet about things. Normally when something was troubling the boy he let everyone know about it and made his feelings plain, but this time he was bottling it all up inside and that worried his father more than anything. He sighed. Adam was acting out of character as well. It wasn’t like him to be so short tempered with everyone either. Hoss was the only one who seemed to be himself through all of this and even his even-tempered middle son was showing the strain at times.
As for himself, Ben was more upset then he would have ever imagined he could be. He kept thinking about if it was one of his own sons in that jail cell and what he would be going through if one of them were facing death in a few days and the thought of it scared him witless. He was very fond of William and saw in the young man a reflection of one of his boys in the same situation. He wondered just how he would be living with himself if this were to happen to one of his own.
Much and all as he wanted William to have as much time as possible, a part of him wished that the whole thing were over and done with. Only then would they all be able to pick up their lives again and go on. But a nagging thought kept at him from deep down. William wouldn’t have the opportunity to go on with his life and there was no getting around that fact.
William looked up at the sound of someone entering the room. ‘Hi,’ he said as Hoss sat down on the stool on the other side of the bars. ‘Thanks for coming Hoss.’ He looked over the large man’s shoulder. ‘Did Joe come with you?’
Hoss shook his head ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘He said he might come later on.’ He looked a bit shamefaced. ‘He’s a mite upset.’
William nodded. ‘That’s to be expected,’ he said. ‘I’m glad you came though.’
Hoss leant forward. ‘Did Pa tell ya he sent that wire off?’ he said. ‘Should be a message from the Governor any time now.’
William nodded ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘I’m sure he’ll help, said Hoss. ‘He’s got to.’ William nodded. ‘It’ll be okay,’ Hoss assured him. ‘I know it will.’
‘And if it isn’t?’
Hoss looked confused. ‘What do ya mean? Of course it’ll be okay.’
William shook his head as the hammering sounded outside again. ‘It may not be,’ he said quietly. ‘Face it Hoss, I might only have a couple more days to live.’
Hoss frowned and pounded his fist into the wall beside him. ‘Now don’t ya say that!’ he said. ‘I ain’t gonna let that happen!’
William gave him a bittersweet smile. ‘You’re not going to have much say in it Hoss,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to face the fact that in a couple of days they could take me out of here and … hang me.’
Hoss shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘They can’t do it William. Not ta someone who’s innocent like you are.’
William studied the large man for a moment. ‘You’re a good friend Hoss,’ he said. ‘But I’m afraid you faith in me just isn’t going to be enough.’
‘But we all know you’re innocent!’ declared Hoss.
‘It isn’t enough,’ replied William sadly. ‘It just isn’t enough.’
‘William ya just can’t die!’ said Hoss. ‘Ya just can’t!’ The man put his face in his hands and his shoulders heaved. ‘I won’t let ya!’
A few minutes later when Adam entered the room, he thought about how strange it was that William should be comforting Hoss and not the other way around. For as long as he’d known that young big brother of his, Hoss’ caring nature had ensured that he’d been the one to give comfort to others and there was a lot of tenderness in the large man. Adam supposed that was what was causing his brother’s heart to be breaking now. Sheriff Coffee had sure been right when he’d said that it was hard to stand by and watch someone die and Hoss must be feeling much as Adam was right now. Frustrated and angry with the fact that there was nothing that they could do for William. No wonder his brother’s heart was hurting so badly. He knew how he felt.
Adam put his hand on Hoss’ shoulder and smiled at William. ‘I’ve just been checking at the telegraph office,’ he said and shook his head at their questioning looks. ‘Nothing yet,’ he said.
‘There will be,’ replied Hoss, wiping his eyes. ‘I know it.’ Adam and William exchanged looks. ‘He’ll save ya William,’ continued Hoss. ‘I just know that he will.’
William tried to smile at him. ‘I gave Adam a list of my things yesterday,’ he said. ‘I want you to have my saddle Hoss.
Hoss shook his head. ‘Don’t say that!’ he said angrily. ‘You’re gonna need it yaself William.’
William stood up and walked to the other side of the cell and looked up to the small patch of blue that showed through the tiny window. ‘I hope so,’ he said softly. ‘I’d like just once more to feel the sun on my face as I take a ride. Being in here …’ he turned to face the two Cartwrights. ‘It’s so … well I can’t breathe properly at times you know?’ He turned back to look at the sky again. ‘I’d just like to be able to breathe free again just once you know?’ He hung his head.
‘Ya will,’ Hoss assured him. ‘I’m going down ta check again for that wire.’
Adam sat down as Hoss left the room. ‘He’s taking it hard,’ he said simply.
William nodded. ‘I could see that,’ he said. ‘Joe too?’
Adam nodded. ‘I’ll try and get him here tomorrow to see you,’ he said. There was silence for a few moments.
‘I meant what I said. About breathing free again.’ William looked at his friend hopefully. ‘You and I both know that the wire from the Governor probably won’t be favourable even though Hoss won’t admit it. I don’t have any other chance …’
Adam stared at his friend. ‘What are you saying?’
William leant forward and grabbed hold of the bars firmly. ‘Please Adam?’ he pleaded. ‘I can’t … You’re my only hope. Won’t you help me?’
‘William, you know I can’t!’ Adam stood up and paced up and down the small area. ‘You can’t ask me to help you get out of here. I can’t!’
‘Adam I can’t stand the thought of being hung!’ William stared at his friend pleadingly. ‘All I’m asking is that you think about it. It’d be easy. Sheriff Coffee trusts you. You’d only have to …’
William closed his eyes for a moment. ‘Please …’ he whispered. ‘Please just say that you’ll think about it?’
Adam stared at his friend for a moment and then turned and left the room.
Adam turned sharply to see his father standing behind him. ‘Oh, hi Pa,’ he said. ‘I didn’t see you there.’
‘Are you all right son?’ Ben came and stood next to his son by the corral fence.
Adam nodded his head and stared up into the night sky. ‘I was just thinking about William, Pa,’ he said. ‘Imagining how it must feel to know that you’re going to hang in a couple of days. I don’t know how ….’ His voice trailed away.
Ben put his hand on the young man’s shoulder. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’ve known many men who’ve known they’re going to die Adam and it’s never easy to know what to say to them or how to act.’ He tightened his grip on the youngster’s shoulder. ‘It’s taken a lot of courage for you to go in there watch him day by day and be with him,’ he said. ‘I’m proud of you for doing it.’
Adam hung his head. ‘Don’t be too proud of me,’ he said. He was grateful that his father couldn’t tell what he’d been contemplating today. The thought of helping William wouldn’t leave him and he kept mulling it over in his head. After all, what could they do to him for helping someone to escape from prison? A few months in jail perhaps at the worst … whereas William … William could gain his life. He looked at his father. ‘Pa?’
‘Could I ask you something?’ Ben nodded. ‘How do you know … I mean … if someone really needs your help and you really want to help them… how do you know whether or not to do it, even though in the eyes of other people it might be the wrong thing to do?’
Ben’s eyes narrowed and he thought for a moment. ‘I suppose you just have to look into your heart to know what to do,’ he said. ‘A man has to be guided by his own conscience in all things.’
Adam nodded and rested his chin on the top rung of the corral fence. ‘Yes,’ he said softly. ‘I suppose so.’ He straightened up again. ‘I need to go and talk to Joe. William wants him to come and see him and time’s running out.’
‘Son, leave your brother to me,’ said his father. ‘He’s upset about all of this.’
‘I know that. But William needs to talk to him before … well, just before.’
‘I’ll talk to him,’ said Ben as he turned away. If the truth be known, he’d been wanting to talk to his youngest son for the past few days, but had hoped that the boy would come to first. Joe had always been the sort of youngster who’d needed to talk his problems through and this was the first time that Ben could remember when he hadn’t come to his father to do just that. He’d wanted to give him time to do so, but as Adam hinted … time was running out.
As he entered his youngest son’s bedroom, he found him lying on his bed staring at the ceiling. ‘Joe?’ he said.
Joe looked over at his father ‘Hi Pa,’ he said.
Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. ‘I was just talking to Adam,’ he began. ‘He says that William has asked to see you.’
Joe went back to staring at the ceiling. ‘So he said yesterday,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I heard him then.’
‘Are you going in to see him?’ Joe didn’t answer. ‘Son, there isn’t much time left,’ continued his father. ‘If you’re going to see him then you’ll have to ….’
‘Why do I have to see?’ him?’ interrupted Joe. ‘I don’t see why it’s so important!’
Ben frowned. ‘He wants to see you,’ he explained. ‘I think you might be sorry later if you don’t go in.’
Joe frowned at the ceiling. ‘I don’t see why,’ he muttered. ‘He’s more Adam and Hoss’ friend than mine after all.’
‘He’s very fond of you too,’ said Ben patiently. ‘And I thought that you were close to him as well.’ Joe continued to stare at the ceiling and say nothing. ‘Son?’ asked his father. ‘What is it? What’s bothering you so much?’
‘Nothing. I just don’t see why everyone goes on about it all the time,’ said Joe angrily. ‘He’s going to hang and that’s all there is to it! Me going in there isn’t going to change that fact … I wish he’d just hang and get it over with!’
‘You don’t mean that.’
Joe looked at his father. ‘Yes I do,’ he said. ‘He’s going to hang, so why don’t they just get it over with? Why all this waiting around?’
‘You know why. They have to wait for the gallows to be built and for the ….’
‘Don’t!’ Joe put his arms over his face.
Ben reached out to touch his son. ‘Joe,’ he said. ‘It’s alright to be scared about all of this.’
‘I can’t go and see him Pa,’ said Joe with a sob. ‘I just can’t!’ He took his arm away and Ben saw the tears that were standing in the boy’s eyes. ‘I’ve never … I mean I’ve seen people dead before Pa. I’ve even shot a couple of men you know that. But … but …’
‘But you’ve never known anyone who knows in advance that they’re going to die,’ finished his father.
Joe sat up. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what to say to him Pa. I don’t know that I can face him …. Knowing that … he’s going to die. I can’t!’
‘I understand that son,’ replied Ben gently. ‘But don’t you think that its more important to think about William at this time than yourself?’ Joe stared at his father and didn’t say anything. ‘How would you feel if you were William?’ asked his father.
‘Scared,’ replied Joe.
‘Yes scared. And if it were you, wouldn’t you want your family and friends around you?’ Joe nodded slowly as if in thought. ‘William doesn’t have any family,’ continued Ben. ‘And we’re just about the best friends that he has.’ He looked at the boy to see if he understood. ‘Son, William will understand if you can’t face him at the moment,’ he went on. ‘But you need to think about how you’ll feel in the future. After the hanging, I mean. I don’t want you to always regret not going in. All I ask is that you think about it Joe. If your decision is not to see him then I’ll explain your reason to him.’ Joe nodded. ‘I know it’s hard son,’ said Ben and he stood up. ‘You just have to make the best decision for yourself, that’s all I’m saying.’ He bent over and stroked the back of the youngster’s neck. ‘Night son.’
‘Night Pa,’ said Joe as he lay down again and stared at the ceiling.
Ben hesitated before entering the small room. William looked up and smiled at him before standing and walking over to the bars. ‘Mr Cartwright,’ he said eagerly. ‘Any news?’
Ben nodded slowly. ‘I’m sorry son,’ he said after a moment. ‘But the answer is no. I received the Governor’s wire about an hour ago.’
William nodded and sat down shakily. ‘That’s it then,’ he said. He put his face in his hands and was silent. After a few moments he spoke again. ‘Thank you for trying at least,’ he said softly.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Ben, feeling so helpless and thinking how hollow his words sounded.
‘You did your best.’ There was silence again. ‘The Sheriff says it’s going to be at dawn tomorrow,’ William said finally.
‘Yes.’ There was silence again.
‘I told Adam that I wanted to breathe free again just one more time,’ William said softly. Ben didn’t know what to say, but knew that at times like this it was more of a help just to listen. ‘Guess it won’t be happening though,’ William continued.
‘Is there anything I can do for you?’
‘Adam and Hoss will be in this afternoon.’
‘I don’t know. He’s scared William. He doesn’t mean anything by it.’
‘I know.’ William gave a crooked smile. ‘He’s young … he can’t help feeling that way. I know how he feels.’
The two men sat in silence.
‘William?’ The condemned man looked up to see Adam standing in front of him. He stood up and walked over to him quickly.
‘Adam!’ he said. ‘I was hoping you’d come without Hoss.’ He looked at his friend pleadingly. ‘Have you thought about ….’ He looked over to the doorway. ‘About what we talked about?’
Adam nodded slowly. ‘Yes,’ he said.
Adam sat down. ‘I can’t William. I’m sorry but I can’t.’ He looked up at his friend, willing him to understand.
William slumped and sat down on his narrow buck. ‘You were my last hope Adam,’ he said in a bitter voice. ‘Why? Why can’t you do it? I thought we were friends.’
Adam nodded ‘We are,’ he said. ‘But I just can’t do it. Please understand.’
William stared at him. ‘Understand?’ he said. ‘I’m going to die in a few hours Adam. Did you hear what I said? I’m going to hang!’ He looked at his friend bitterly. ‘And you ask me to understand? No … I don’t understand.’
‘I have to do what I think is the right thing,’ explained Adam. ‘I have to follow my conscience.’
William nodded. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘You follow your conscience Adam. You tell yourself that it’s all right to watch a friend hang. That it’ll be all right as long as your conscience tells you so.’
‘William I …’
‘Save it!’ interrupted the young man bitterly. ‘I don’t want to hear it.’
At that moment Hoss entered the room. ‘William,’ he said. ‘Pa told us bout the Governor’s wire.’
‘Did he?’ said William bitterly.
Hoss shook his head ‘It ain’t right,’ he said.
‘And what are you going to do about it then?’ asked William. ‘Are you willing to get me out of here? Or are you afraid like your brother there?’ He gave Adam a scathing look.
Hoss looked confused. ‘Get ya out of here?’ he asked. ‘If there was a way William then I’d do it. You know that.’
William advanced towards him. ‘There is a way Hoss,’ he said urgently. ‘You could break me out of here if you really wanted to.’ He gave the man a pleading look.
Hoss glanced over at Adam who stared back at him. ‘I … it wouldn’t be right,’ he said finally.
William banged his hands in frustration against the bars. ‘You Cartwrights!’ he yelled. ‘What is wrong with you people! You pretend to be all concerned about me, but when I really need you …. You just won’t help!’
‘William,’ said Hoss pleadingly. ‘Ya know I’d help ya if I could. I’d do anything …’
‘Would you?’ William turned on the man. ‘Anything except help me in the way I need it most? What kind of friend are you then? What use to me are you Hoss? What use are any of you?’
Hoss looked as if he’d been struck. ‘William…’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. It ain’t that I don’t believe you’re innocent and all .. it’s just…’
‘Innocent!’ William turned on him again. ‘What’s being innocent got to do with it? I’m asking for your help! I want to breathe free again Hoss! I want to know that I’m going to live! For God’s sake help me!’
Hoss looked at Adam in despair. Adam stood up and shook his head. ‘You’re not being fair by asking,’ he said quietly.
‘Not fair!’ William turned on him as well. ‘Fair? What’s fair got to do with it? I’m pleading for my life Adam. My life … don’t you understand that? In a few hours I am going to hang! Do you understand how that feels? Do you understand how it feels to know that …’ his hands went to his neck and he stroked it slowly. ‘To know that my breath is going to be … that I’ll never breath free again?’ He began to sob. ‘You have no idea do you? Why don’t you just both go away and leave me?’
Hoss stepped forward. ‘William ….’
‘Go away,’ said the man bitterly. ‘I don’t need you both here. You won’t help me and I don’t need you here.’
‘Yes you do,’ said Adam quietly. ‘No matter what you say, you do need us William. Every man who is facing death needs someone and like it or not we’re staying.’ He glanced at Hoss. ‘At least I am.’
Hoss nodded at his brother. ‘So am I,’ he said firmly.
William looked at the two men in front of him, tears streaming down his face. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
Ben looked at the young man riding beside him in silence. ‘You’re sure you want to do this Joe?’ he asked again.
Joe shook his head. ‘No,’ he said quietly. ‘But I’ve got to. I’ve been thinking bout what you said Pa and you’re right,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to do this, but I know that I have to. William needs friends around him at the moment and that’s what is the most important thing.’
Ben patted the young man on the leg. ‘Yes,’ he agreed.
As they rounded the Main Street the first thing they both noticed was the large gallows that had been set up outside the jail. Joe hesitated for a moment when he first laid eyes on it, but Ben patted him on the shoulder and he nodded at his father before kicking his horse forward again. As they dismounted outside the jail Ben noticed the small crowd that was gathering outside and shook his head. No matter what time of day or night, there would always be people who were drawn to something like this for their own personal needs. He never could come to terms with why anyone could want to witness a hanging. The times he’d done so were times that he wished he could erase from his memory and he’d never do so willingly again if he had a choice.
He put his arm around his son’s shoulder as they mounted the stairs and entered the jail. ‘Hello Roy,’ he said. ‘All right if we see William?’
Roy glanced at the clock. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘But you ain’t got much time Ben.’
Ben nodded. ‘Adam and Hoss still in there?’
‘Yep,’ answered the Sheriff. He glanced at Little Joe. ‘You sure you wanna go in there boy?’ he asked. ‘It ain’t an easy thing ta do.’ Joe nodded at him and entered the inner room to see William sitting on his bunk while Hoss and Adam stood quietly outside the cell. He gave his brothers a quick look and then took a deep breath before walking over towards the bars.
‘William?’ he said quietly.
William looked up. ‘Joe,’ he said. ‘I’m glad you came.’
Joe swallowed. ‘I wanted to come before,’ he said. ‘But I ….’ His voice faltered.
‘I know,’ replied William. ‘You don’t have to say it.’
‘I wanted to see you before ….’ There was silence.
William stood up and walked over to the young man. ‘I wanted to see you too,’ he said. ‘I wanted to thank you for being my friend Joe.’ He looked at all the Cartwrights. ‘For all of you,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry …’
Ben stepped forward. ‘There’s nothing for you to be sorry about,’ he said.
‘Yes there is Mr Cartwright,’ replied William as he looked at first Adam and then Hoss. ‘I’ve not been fair during these past few days and I know it. I … asked things of your sons that I had no right to ask and I’m sorry for it.’
Adam smiled at his friend. ‘Its all right William,’ he said. ‘We understand.’
‘Yeah,’ said Hoss, trying to smile through his tears.
William hesitated. ‘I just want to say thank you to all of you for helping me through this,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what I would have done ….’ His voice faltered and he hung his head.
Ben stepped forward and put his hand through the bars and placed it on the young man’s shoulder. ‘There’s no need to thank us son,’ he said in a low voice.
William looked deep into the man’s eyes. ‘I just wanted you all to know ….’
Roy Coffee entered the room. ‘It’s time,’ he said. ‘You’ll need to say your goodbyes now.’
Joe caught his breath and looked at William anxiously. ‘No!’ he said. ‘It can’t happen!’
Ben put his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder. ‘Joe …’
Joe shook it off. ‘No!’ he said again. ‘It ain’t right! William ain’t guilty just like Hoss says and it ain’t right!’ He looked around at each member of his family. ‘We gotta help him!’
Ben placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder again. ‘Son ….’
‘No Pa!’ Joe looked into his father’s eyes desperately. ‘It ain’t right Pa!’
Roy stepped forward. ‘Ben ….’ he said. ‘I’ve got a job to do. Calm the boy down or get him out of here.’
Ben took Joe by the shoulders and tried to push him to one side. ‘Joseph,’ he said gently. ‘Sheriff Coffee has to …’
‘No!’ Joe drew his gun and pointed it at the sheriff. ‘You ain’t taking him! He’s innocent and he can’t hang!’
‘Joseph!’ Ben stepped forward and Joe looked at him. ‘Put the gun down son. You’re not helping anyone like this.’
Joe began to breathe heavily. ‘No!’ he said and Ben could tell from the sound of his voice that he wasn’t ready to listen to reason. Joe looked at the keys in the sheriff’s hands. ‘Open the door Sheriff,’ he said. ‘Let him outta there.’
Roy gave Ben a shocked look. ‘Ben…’ he said. ‘You gotta get through to the youngster.’
‘No!’ Joe stared at his father again. ‘You don’t understand Pa,’ he said. ‘William …. He can’t …. They can’t hang him for nothing Pa! Please understand…’ He looked at his father pleadingly.
‘Joe!’ William called to the young man from the cell. ‘Listen to your father.’
Joe turned to face William. ‘What?’ he said.
‘Listen to your father Joe,’ said William urgently. ‘He’s right. You can’t do this.’
Joe looked confused. ‘But William …’
‘You can’t save me Joe, so there’s no point trying,’ said the man.
‘But they’re gonna hang you,’ Joe said lamely.
‘Yes,’ said William. ‘They’re going to hang me … and you need to stay out of it.’
‘Don’t you understand?’ asked William with a despairing look in his eye. ‘I deserve to die.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said Hoss. ‘You don’t ….’
‘Yes I do,’ replied the young man bitterly. ‘I do deserve to die. I’m guilty.’
Hoss drew in his breath sharply. ‘What?’ he said.
‘I’m guilty,’ repeated William. ‘I did it. Don’t you understand? I do deserve to die.’ He turned to Joe again. ‘Don’t do this Joe,’ he said. ‘Listen to your father and put down your gun. I’m not worth all this.’
Joe slowly lowered his gun and his father stepped forward and took it from him. Roy Coffee moved forward and spoke quietly to Ben, ‘We’ll say no more about this,’ he said. ‘Just keep that youngster out of my way while I do my job Ben.’
Ben nodded and held onto Joe by the shoulders as Roy opened the cell and handcuffed William. As he was led out of the cell, William stopped next to them and spoke. ‘Thank you Joe,’ he said. ‘Thank you for being my friend until the end.’
Joe looked deep into the man’s eyes and nodded silently, the tears running freely down his cheeks. William smiled at Ben and nodded his head slightly before turning to Hoss. ‘I’m sorry for letting you down Hoss,’ he said. ‘I know that you believed in my innocence and I’m sorry.’
Hoss nodded and put his hand on the other man’s shoulder. William smiled at him and walked out of the room. Adam exchanged one long look at his father and followed, closing the door behind him. The three remaining Cartwrights stood in silence together, their ears straining for any noises outside.
As Roy Coffee led William outside, the small crowd parted around the gallows. William looked around and noticed the Reverend standing next to the structure and he gave him a twisted smile. ‘Come to say some last prayers for me?’ he said bitterly.
Roy Coffee pulled William forward and he stepped towards the gallows slowly. Adam came to stand beside him. ‘You don’t have to stay,’ said William in a low voice. ‘Go back inside with your family.’ He winced as he caught sight of the undertaker’s wagon nearby.
Adam looked deep into his friend’s eyes. ‘I’m staying,’ he said, trying not to let his voice quaver. ‘You’re my friend and I’m staying.’
William closed his eyes momentarily and swallowed. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. ‘Thank you for ….’ His voice gave way.
Adam put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Thank you for what you did in there,’ he said. ‘My little brother was about to make the biggest mistake of his life and without you … well …’ He shrugged his shoulders, not knowing how to finish the sentence.
William nodded at him. ‘That’s what friends are for,’ he said simply and gave Adam a long lingering look. ‘Goodbye friend,’ he said and then allowed himself to be led forward and up the stairs.
Adam watched as the noose was placed around his friend’s neck. He watched as his hands were tied behind his back and the hood placed over his head. He watched as the hangman checked that all was in order and he watched as his friend fell down through the trapdoor and continued to swing backwards and forwards as the life was crushed out of him. He watched as the hangman and the undertaker cut his body down and placed it in the waiting wagon. He watched as the wagon rolled away slowly and the crowd dispersed.
‘Goodbye friend,’ he whispered in a broken voice as he turned away.
Ben looked up as Adam entered the room, one arm around Joe’s shoulders as his youngest son wept quietly and another holding onto Hoss’ arm as he stared out of the window in silence.
‘Well?’ Ben said in a low voice.
‘He’s breathing free again,’ said Adam simply.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Dentist (by JoanS)
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- Time To Let Go (by JoanS)
- A Father’s Love aka A Love Without End (by JoanS)
- Baker’s Legacy (by JoanS)