SUMMARY: Part of the story is a prequel and part is in the canon era as what happened many years earlier spurs Ben to an action which then has to be explained to his younger sons.
Rating: T Word Count: 2555
Big Bad John
Parents often had regrets, but the worst ones were when failures in judgment meant your child got hurt. Ben Cartwright was suffering one of those bouts of guilt. He had wanted to fire a hand, but his son had asked him to please not do it because the man was his friend. That had done it because guilt over how his son had been deprived of a home and all its benefits blocked out all those warning signs that the man was trouble. When a man showed you what he was, you were supposed to take him at his word and not assume he was wrong. Ben had made a big mistake with that one forgetting that one rule of management and of life. Big Bad John had that name for a reason.
Doctor Paul Martin walked down the steps with a heavy tread not happy at all with the news he had to deliver. “His hip is broken, Ben. He’s going to be confined to bed for a long time.”
“Will he recover? Is there anything more?” Ben’s heart had sunk at the news. That kind of injury was sometimes fatal in the west. It would be a strain, even on a family as prosperous as theirs already was, to provide the kind of care necessary for a full recovery. If the doctor said there was any risk of other complications then that prognosis was even worse.
“Luckily all the other injuries appear to be simple contusions and abrasions. He’ll be feeling the pain and discomfort, but there should be no complications. Marie is sitting with him now and doing her best to alleviate his discomfort.”
Unable to stop his small smile at that, Ben thought about his sixteen-year-old son and how he would likely be feeling about being fussed over by his stepmother. However perhaps under the circumstances, he wouldn’t mind. Then Paul brought him back to the main issue.
“What about the man who did this?”
With his obsidian eyes and fists clenched at his sides, Ben’s words were cold. “If I could, I’d beat him within an inch of his life for this, but he broke no rule. He broke no law.”
“How can that be? Adam is up in that bed with a broken hip and so many bruises I couldn’t begin to count them.”
“John challenged him to a series of tests that he said were to prove he was a man.”
“I don’t suppose John participated in these tests.”
“Oh, he did. Adam explained all of it while we were waiting for you to arrive. John took part in all the early tests. You see, that was the set-up to make it look legitimate. Then they sprung the trap and Adam fell for it. They gave him a test that none of them ever intended to do but challenged him to do it first to prove himself. That’s when he broke his hip. He’s lucky to be alive.”
“Where’s John now?”
“Across the California line by now if he’s smart enough. I gave him the option to take his gear and leave. If I ever see him again, he won’t be happy with the results.”
Paul had no doubts as to what Ben meant by that. “What if he had stayed in the area?”
“You would have another patient.”
That wasn’t a surprise. Years later, Paul wouldn’t have been surprised, but Hoss and Joe were shocked when Ben walked up to a man in a saloon in Sacramento and hit him knocking him across the room. He followed him then and pulled him up to hit him again despite the man’s protests that he had done nothing wrong. Adam walked over to grab his father’s arm.
“Pa, that’s enough. He’s not worth it.”
Letting the man fall back to the floor, Ben turned to Adam. “No, Big Bad John isn’t much of a man, is he?”
Both looked down at the man cowering on the floor. He was big physically, but his heart and soul were inadequate for a man.
“He never was. As a boy, I didn’t know that, but he taught me something important.”
“Him? What could a worthless piece of trash like that have taught you?”
“He taught me to trust myself and the lessons I learned from a wise man. I knew better after that to stick to my beliefs no matter what others said and no matter how many said it either. That little hitch in my hip whenever I mount up on my horse is a constant reminder of what could happen if I let myself be led by others who are simply louder and more insistent. Logic, facts, and common sense are a stronger hand in any deal.”
With that, Ben understood Adam’s behavior with the Bill Enders’ case and how he had stood against everyone’s doubts including those of his father and of Sheriff Roy Coffee. He wasn’t going to be swayed by the numbers of people who said he was wrong when he had memories of what happened and knowledge that led him to a conclusion different from what others had drawn. Their opinion of him had not affected the stand he had taken. Not many men would have stood against the pressure he had faced, but not many had faced death because they had been pushed into an untenable position by a group when logic and common sense told him he shouldn’t have done it.
There wasn’t much more time to reflect on what had happened. The local law enforcement arrived. Two men with badges burst into the scene noting Big Bad John on the floor. They glared at a tall silver-haired man who stood over the injured man with a dark-haired man at his side. Behind them was a small man and a very large one. They may not have been the guilty parties, but they certainly looked the part.
“What’s been going on here? We heard there was a brawl. You two beat him?”
Ben stepped forward. “I hit him once.”
With the lawmen there, John got enough courage to kneel and then stood. “I did nothing and he come at me.”
One man with a badge looked disdainfully at John. “I know you well enough to know it was likely something.” Looking over at the bartender, he had another question. “Any damages here, Rosco?”
“No, nothing was broken. It was like he said. He only hit him once, but like Big Bad John said, he just up and did it. I didn’t see anything happen to cause it.”
The lawman returned his attention to Ben. “You intend to continue this?”
“No, he’s not worth any more trouble. I paid him the debt I owed him.”
“Twenty dollars then for disturbing the peace, and you leave town. That will settle everything.”
“We have rooms already paid for the night. Can we stay until morning and then leave?”
“I guess that will be all right as long as there aren’t any more fights. You spend the rest of your time here confined to those rooms. Anything else happens, and you’ll spend some time in my jail instead of being able to leave. Fine is payable either way. You disagree, you got the right to sit in jail until the judge makes his circuit.”
Handing over twenty dollars, Ben nodded. “Thank you. You have been more than fair.”
“Hey, is that all you’re gonna do after he attacked me?”
“That’s it unless you want to argue with me, and then I might fine you or even arrest you for interfering with an officer in performance of his duty.”
Big Bad John got the message, pulled his chair back to the table, and sat down again. The two lawmen gestured to the door, and Ben and his sons preceded them out of the saloon. When the four Cartwrights got to the hotel, Hoss and Joe couldn’t hold back any more. Joe asked the first question as Hoss eagerly awaited the answer.
“Pa, who was that man, and why did you hit him?”
“Joe, I promised him I’d beat him within an inch of his life if I ever saw him again. That was nearly twenty years ago, and I’m not nearly as angry now as I was then, but I still had to hit him.”
“Dadburnit, Pa, why’d ya hafta hit him? I remember him working for us a long time ago. Then he got fired when Adam got hurt.”
“Adam wasn’t only hurt. He nearly got Adam killed those twenty years ago.”
“I did it to myself, Pa. I knew better.”
“He pushed you into it, Adam. You know that. He set you up and made it happen because he thought it would be funny or worse.”
“C’mon, Pa, Adam, what happened?” Joe’s curiosity was piqued.
Adam started the story. “Big Bad John was quite a character. He could tell stories better than anyone. He drank like a sponge and charmed the ladies. He was nice to me and taught me all sorts of things. It wasn’t easy for me in those days being the son of the boss and having to give orders but being so young too. Big Bad John helped me through those days. He told the men to do what I said or answer to him too. It wasn’t only Pa they had to worry about.”
“And he broke every rule he could. I wanted to fire him. Adam stood up for him, and he rewarded him by nearly getting him killed.”
“Dadburnit, that’s the part we want to know.”
“All right, I’m getting to that, but I wanted you to understand why I did it even if it was as foolish as Pa says. We did a bunch of stuff by dares one Saturday afternoon after our work was done. We did some Indian wrestling and some knife throwing. It was rough and dangerous but the kind of things men do. I was bruised taking part in those things with men so much bigger and stronger than I was, but I felt like a man doing all those things with the other men and being treated like one of them. Then they dared me to do something I knew was too dangerous. But I couldn’t back down, and Big Bad John knew that. I think he thought the whole thing was funny.”
“What was that?”
“Ride a bull.”
Silence greeted that as Hoss and Joe couldn’t believe that their serious, logical older brother had ever done anything so reckless and foolhardy. There were sideways glances at their brother to check to see if he was grinning or serious. Because he was so good at telling tall tales, they both wondered if this could be one of them.
“Yeah, I know, and I can see by your looks that you know how stupid that was or you’re wondering if I made that up because it seems so preposterous. I’m sorry to have to admit it, but it is true. You have to consider the circumstances. I was just feeling accepted as a man for the first time, and I couldn’t back down and let them laugh at me. They said I couldn’t stay on a bull for ten seconds. It didn’t seem like such a long time when you say it like that especially after all the other things we’d been doing.”
“But up on a bull, that’s an eternity!” Joe was incredulous.
“Not as bad as you might think, I guess. I made it. My teeth were rattling it seemed, and my back already ached. I heard them counting and then cheering when they realized I had made the ten seconds.”
“If you made it, why is Pa so dadblamed mad at that Big Bad John even after twenty years have gone by?”
“You see, there was one major flaw in the plan. They had roped that bull and held him for me to get on and get a good hold so I could stay on. No one had ever considered how I was going to get off. They all thought I’d get bucked off right away. Instead I was a long way off from anyone, and that bull was still bucking. A bull can go a long way in ten seconds. They couldn’t rope him with the bucking and with me on his back nearly bent over his head. So, when I couldn’t hang on anymore, I went flying. That bull was mad though for pestering him like that and came at me too once I was on the ground. And that’s how I ended up in bed for months with a broken hip. It still bothers me when I try to mount up on a horse.”
Grinning, Joe snapped his fingers. “That’s why you mount up like that! I’ve wondered about that for years.”
Ben wasn’t amused. “It wasn’t funny at all. It was a scare for me thinking I might lose a son to a stupid stunt like that.”
“I wonder how you could get off a bull after riding him.”
“Joseph! Don’t you dare even think about that!” Ben regretted Adam telling this story. With Joe’s lack of fear about some things, his impulsivity, and his competitiveness, Ben worried about what he might do next. Adam was very quiet, and Ben was concerned but not too much. Knowing Hoss had stuck with Adam during the telling of the story and that Joe was still there with sympathetic things to say helped.
Hoss noticed how quiet Adam had gotten. He had been so calm while telling what happened, but Hoss wondered what he was thinking now. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find that Adam was remembering the nearly heart-stopping terror, the panic of not knowing what was coming next, and the fear that his life was over. For the first time, he had experienced that sensation of feeling that time was standing still as horrible things were happening. Later he knew it had all happened in less than thirty seconds, but at the time, it had seemed to take far longer. He would never forget that experience, and for years, it had helped guide his behavior. Although he didn’t wish it on his youngest brother, Adam knew it would have a beneficial effect on the impulsivity Joe had. All he said was to tell Joe to listen to their father which got a sneer from Joe. Hoss bumped Joe to the side as they walked to their rooms in the hotel.
“Best you listen to more than what’s said sometimes. Learning by making mistakes is only one way of learning. You can take lessons from what others have done too and paying mind to what they got to say. It can save a lot of wear and tear on a body.”
With all the bluster gone, Joe nodded. “Pa and Adam are full of surprises, aren’t they?”
With a broad grin then, Hoss had to say it. “Pa sure still packs a mean wallop, don’t he?”
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright
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