SUMMARY: An expansion of a pinecone challenge from Bonanza Brand, this is the story of a boy who makes a terrible choice and has to live with the consequences, but he isn’t the only one.
Rating = T Word count = 1941
And Johnny Got His Gun
Again? It couldn’t be again.
Adam heard Hoss talking to the boy, and he knew. The pain in his back told him the truth of it. When he had heard the shouted warning from across the street and looked across the wagon into those hazel eyes of his younger brother seeing real fear, he knew he was in great danger. There hadn’t been time to do anything. The words came too late.
“Johnny got his gun!”
There hadn’t been enough time to react; not even enough time to turn around. A searing pain in his back and the loud retort of a pistol were simultaneous. It was a horrific memory replayed in the street in Virginia City. Only months earlier, he remembered being with a posse tracking outlaws who had murdered a teller before fleeing with money from the bank. With the ugly mood of the men who were with them, he and his brothers knew it would be difficult to get those men back for a trial. As it turned out, he was part of the reason a man was lynched. Getting close to where one of the outlaws was hiding, he was shot in the back. The posse grabbed the outlaw and lynched him in minutes. Hoss and Joe couldn’t stop them because they were trying to stop the bleeding from the wound in Adam’s back. The irony was that he had no idea he was close to the man. If he had done nothing, he might have been able to get away. His fear had led to his own death. Now Adam was once again his victim but by a more indirect means.
As he lay there again wounded in the same way, he heard Hoss talking as Joe called for someone to get the doctor. Now that told him the wound was far worse than the last one and might be mortal. If they weren’t carrying him to the doctor’s office, he better start saying his last prayers.
“He shot my Pa in the back. I heard that song other children sing all the time.”
“No, Johnny. When they say ‘That dirty coward shot him in the back.’, boy, they’re talking ’bout your pa. He shot Adam in the back. That’s why they lynched him. Yeah, that’s how your pa died. It’s a hard truth, boy, but after what you jest done, you gotta hear it.”
“My Pa wasn’t no back-shooter!”
“The posse lynched him?”
“He was a murderer and a thief, and back-shot my brother trying to get away.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Believe it. Look around at these folks. Any of them telling you what I said ain’t the truth? Look at ’em! Now, what about you? What are you?”
With Hoss’ iron grip on his arm, Johnny stared at the hard faces glaring at him. He knew it then. Hoss had told him the truth, and he had shown everyone that he was his father’s son. Looking back at Hoss, he could barely get out the words but had to say them.
Hoss released him then. Johnny hoped it was forgiveness, but soon realized it was because Sheriff Roy Coffee was there to take control of him. Hoss handed the pistol to Roy who didn’t say much.
“It’s a sorry business, Hoss. I’ll take him off your hands. You see to your brother. I’ll send a man out to the ranch to get your father.”
With a nod, Hoss acknowledged all of that, knelt by Adam’s side, and put a hand on his shoulder as they waited for the doctor. When Doctor Paul Martin got there, he did a quick examination. His grim expression left little doubt as to what the prognosis was, but he didn’t give up hope. He had them carry Adam on a door to his office. Hours later when Ben Cartwright arrived, Paul was still in the surgery working on Adam. When he finally emerged, Ben was standing in the middle of the room waiting for words that would give him some hope. Paul had removed his bloody apron knowing what seeing a son’s blood could do to a father. What he couldn’t remove was what he was feeling or the diagnosis he had to deliver.
“He’ll live, I think.”
Ben was buoyed by those words as were his two younger sons, but Paul’s dour look made them question what the doctor had said.
“It will be difficult for the next few days, but if there’s no major infection and he can survive the blood loss, he will live.”
“Then why do you still look like you gave us bad news?”
“Ben, he may not want to live with the state he’ll be in when he wakes up.”
“By every measure I know, he’s paralyzed. Now, it could be temporary, but he’s had a major back injury before when he fell from that roof, and he had that bullet that hit his shoulder blade only a few months ago. The back can only take so much.”
All of them knew that Adam Cartwright paralyzed would not be the same man or not even be the anything like the same man. Everything he did revolved around being vibrant and strong. When Adam woke and began to recover, Doctor Martin’s worst predictions proved to be correct except there was feeling in his extremities.
“I think he will eventually recover. It will be a long process. He will need to exercise and rebuild those muscles once the swelling goes down and the nerves have a chance to regenerate. It will take a long time. He may not get full use of his arms and legs, but at this point, I’m hopeful he will.” When he talked to Adam about it, there was one major question the others hadn’t asked.
“Adam, I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Nerves take a long time. Yours have been severely damaged. I’d say six months or more before you’re out of that bed. Then perhaps another six months of therapy before you’re back on your feet able to do most normal things.”
“I don’t want to be a burden to my family for a year!”
“Son, you’re not a burden. None of this was your fault.”
Ben had been standing and listening and did what he could to be supportive. Hoss and Joe agreed with their father, but all three knew how difficult life would be with an invalid in the house needing as much care as Adam was going to need. They had a ranch to run yet, but somehow they would manage. They began to anticipate the need to hire some help for Adam during his long recuperation. In the meantime, Adam was in Paul’s care until the wound was properly healed so for the first month, they didn’t have to worry about that.
It was at the end of that month that Johnny got a chance to answer the question Hoss had asked him: “What are you?”. The judge was having a difficult time determining what kind of sentence to give to a ten-year-old boy who had committed attempted murder. The trial had been delayed while they waited to see if Adam Cartwright would live or die. On the day of the sentencing, Adam had himself wheeled into the courtroom and asked if he could speak. He was tied into a wheelchair that was well padded and he was reclining in it. Clearly, he was incapacitated, and those who hadn’t yet heard details of his condition were shocked by what they saw. He was thin, pale, and clearly unable to move.
Adam was the reason the sentencing hearing had been delayed so long because he had asked that he be present for it. The judge had considered the request and granted it partially because he wanted time to determine what to do with a boy who had committed such a serious offense. Now Ben pushed Adam’s wheelchair to the front and turned it around so Adam could speak. His voice was weak but clear. It might have been difficult to hear in a normal setting, but this was no normal setting as everyone there was as silent as they were in church straining to hear each word he said.
It was unusual for Adam Cartwright to tell anyone what was on his mind especially to admit weakness, but there was no denying what had happened. He had to face it, and he had never been a coward. Like he had faced every other challenge in his life, he grabbed hold of it and decided to fight even at the price of his pride, dignity, and privacy.
“Right now, I can’t do anything for myself. I can’t shave. I can’t dress. I can’t even feed myself or take a drink of water. I need care around the clock. It seems I’ve been sentenced to at least a year of this although things will gradually improve. Doctor Martin estimates that it may be at least that long until I recover adequately to take care of myself and resume a more normal life. I’m going to be punished although I did nothing wrong. My sentence cannot be commuted nor set aside. Sentence him to take care of me. His sentence can be as long as my sentence is.”
Looking at Johnny, the judge wasn’t sure.
Johnny looked up and met Adam’s gaze directly and couldn’t turn away as those hazel eyes held his. He had tears in his eyes before he turned to his lawyer, nodded, and then stood to address the judge.
“I’ll do it. It’s what’s right.”
Over a year later, Hoss and Joe sat at the dinner table with Ben after Adam had walked outside with Johnny. Some of what had been said at dinner had left the two younger brothers with the distinct impression that Adam was planning to leave.
“Pa, Adam is finally getting back to himself, but it sounds like he’s planning to leave. Is that about right?”
“I think you’re right, Hoss, although Adam hasn’t told me that directly yet. Yes, I’ve gotten the same impression from things he has said.”
“Pa, why would he go. Things are finally getting back to normal. We could be a happy family and everything could work out again.”
“Joe, Adam can walk, write, and do many things again, but you know as well as we do, that there are many things he may never do again. He’s not suited to ranch work at this time. He knows that, so this may be the moment for him to pursue other ideas he has.”
“Yeah, you know, Joe, we’ve talked about this before how Adam’s told us how he might leave some day. I ain’t as worried as I’ve been before when I thought he might go though.”
“Hoss, why aren’t you as worried?” Ben was surprised at first but then had an idea of what Hoss might say that was confirmed by his son’s words.
“Pa, when he heads out, I think he ain’t gonna be alone. After Johnny’s ma got herself another husband and told Johnny he ain’t welcome with her and her new baby, well, I figure he’s gonna stay with Adam. They need each other. I reckon they both know it.”
“Son, I rather figured it the same way.”
Joe added one more point. “At least he won’t have to hear that song any more about his father and the last verse that starts with And Johnny got his gun.”
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