The Tahoe Ladies

In the eighth season episode "A Time to Step Down", written by Frank Chase, Joe has to convince his father that old-time wrangler and Ponderosa hand Dan Tolliver (played by Ed Begley, Sr.) is too old to go on the coming trail drive. When a minor accident occurs involving Hoss, Ben reluctantly agrees. Tolliver, however, takes offense at being asked to stay on in a lesser position and quits. He ultimately joins forces with two men who have been fired for drinking on the job and they kidnap Joe. The old wrangler then goes to Ben for the ransom money, full of self-righteous indignation. Ben gives him the money and warns him. When Dan returns to the campsite, a shoot out takes place and Joe is shot by one of the other men but Dan finally comes to his senses and, with his two partners dead, decides that the Cartwrights are indeed his real friends and that he has been foolish.

The following story picks up at this point and includes the last scene but considers the words Ben has stated in no uncertain terms to Tolliver: "…if Joseph is hurt in any way, there isn't anyplace far enough or dark enough that I won't find you." And those words, so clearly, eloquently, and unequivocally spoken, can see him……..



A What Happened Next Story


A Time to Step Down


            With the rising of the sun over the eastern mountains, Ben Cartwright cursed himself again. All through the long night he had silently paced the great room. When that had grown too small to contain his rising fears and anger, he went into the yard. He had given Dan Tolliver just what he wanted: all the money in the safe. And he had been specific with him. "If Joe comes home by morning, the money is all yours. I'll forget this ever happened but if he is hurt in any way," he heard himself saying again, and again felt the rise of black anger in his chest, "there isn't a place on Earth that is far enough or dark enough that I won't find you." And then Tolliver, an old man and a one-time friend, had shouldered the bulging saddlebags and walked out. Now as Ben strode purposefully towards the barn and his horse, his holstered revolver slapping at his thigh, he felt the anger surging through him again. He had felt it when the door had closed behind Tolliver and it had built within him all night long. Now Joe had not returned with morning's first light and Ben cursed himself for having trusted Tolliver.

            He was in the process of pulling Buck's cinch tight when he heard the wagon in the yard. Shoving the horse to one side, Ben ran from the barn.

            There in the center of the yard stood the buckboard and the team Joe had taken into town the day before. Loaded with supplies, Ben was nearly to the seat before he realized that Joe was wedged awkwardly between the front of the wagon and the seat, blood staining his right side. Looking quickly around for help, Ben saw no one in the yard. He pressed a finger against Joe's exposed throat and while he saw the bruises of a fight on his son's face, he also felt a heartbeat. Ben called Joe's name several times but there was no answer and seeing how pale and cold to the touch Joe was, Ben truly hoped that he wouldn't answer, that he would be unconscious and therefore not feel the pain and suffering Ben would have to subject his son to in order to get him down from the wagon alone. One last time, he called for help. Not a soul heard him.

            By the time Ben had pulled his son's body from the wagon, he himself was shaking and breathing hard. Standing Joe up and leaning him against the wagon side, Ben steeled his own nerves, knowing that getting Joe into the house would be just the beginning of his problems. There was no one else to go for the doctor, no one else to help him get Joe into bed; no one else but him. And worse yet, Ben could feel Joe coming back to awareness.

            The breathless "Pa?" that Joe said so softly Ben almost missed.

            "Shh, now son. Let's get you inside. Can you walk a little for me?" Ben begged, knowing without looking that the wound had begun bleeding again. He slipped Joe's left arm over his shoulders and wrapping his arm around Joe's waist, half carried him towards the house. The sharp cry of pain forced from Joe made Ben stop and lower him into the rocking chair on the porch gently. With one hand, Ben swept Joe's hat away so that he could look fully into his son's face.

            Ben would remember everything in clear detail about those next few moments. The sun, having risen fully now, laid a golden slant of light across Joe's face. When Ben touched his face, Joe's eyes fluttered open and for just a moment, there was no sign of pain in their green depths. There was only the realization that he was home and with his father. His lips lifted in the barest smile of recognition but before Joe could say anything, the sun slipped his face into a shadow and he lost his will to stay awake. Ben's heart stopped beating as the breath Joe had been holding slipped out in a long sigh. Then nothing else.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Joe's chest began to rise and fall again beneath Ben's hands.

 His head bowed in prayer, Ben didn't hear Adam and Hoss until they were right there beside he and Joe. Adam was reaching for Joe's throat, feeling for a pulse and willing there to be one. He wasn't completely sure he would find one after he and Hoss had ridden into the yard and found the tableau they had. And when Ben hadn't responded to their calls, it had doubled Adam's panic.

            "He's alive but he's been shot. Adam, ride for Paul Martin and Roy Coffee. Hoss help me get Joe into the house," Ben quickly ordered, his tone fierce and cold, but within him burned a fire of hot anger towards Dan Tolliver, the man he knew was responsible.



            Thankfully Joe hadn't regained full consciousness in the ensuing ordeal of getting him into the house and into bed. There had been only a deep moan escape him when Ben had tried to remove Joe's jacket, so instead, Ben used a pair of shears and cut Joe's bloody clothes off. When Hoss had gone to pull off his brother's boots, Joe again had moaned and Ben had tersely told Hoss not to pull on Joe any further.

            "Don't move him!" Ben had barked and Hoss had flinched at just the sound of his father's voice. Seeing the pained look on Hoss' face, Ben did his best to gentle himself down. Hoss wasn't at fault any more than Joe was, he reminded himself. "There seems to be a clot of some sort that is keeping him from bleeding too much. We move him and I am afraid that it will break loose. If that happens, Joe can bleed to death in no time. So, please, son, just take your knife and cut his boots off."

            "Yes sir," Hoss mumbled and did as his father asked, his sharp knife slicing through the thick leather easily. "Any idea what happened?" Hoss asked then wished he hadn't.

            "I know exactly what happened!" Ben barked sharply. "Dan Tolliver, we had to let him go. He was just too old for riding herd any longer. He didn't take it well, blamed Joe, blamed me, blamed everyone but himself for it. He hooked up with some friends, he called them. They kidnapped Joe and Dan had the gall to come to this house last night and demand the money in the safe. Said Joe wouldn't be hurt!" Ben paused long enough to try and regain his self-control but Hoss could tell his father was about to lose the fight again. "I told him just as plain and simple as I could that if Joe came home this morning, Dan could have the money free and clear! But if Joe was hurt…" and Ben's words came to a heated breathless halt then he stood and began to pace the room like a caged animal. "So help me, Hoss, I never thought Dan would do this. If I had, I would have followed him last night and maybe none of this would have happened. I'll see Dan Tolliver pay for this, so help me God, I will."

            Rather than risk his father's wrath, Hoss stayed silent. He didn't want to tell his father what he and Adam had found just after daybreak not five miles from the house. It was the signs that someone had made camp there the night before. They had found frayed rope and scuffmarks in the dirt that looked like a fight had occurred there recently. And there was fresh blood on the ground but no bodies. The wagon tracks had headed for the ranch and those, he and Adam had followed. Overlapping them had been the tracks of three shod horses, but they soon veered off in the general direction of Virginia City. If Dan Tolliver had been part of this like his father had said, Hoss couldn't understand why he hadn't tried to cover his trail. And who had helped Joe into the wagon? Looking down at his brother, Hoss knew Joe couldn't have done it all on his own.

            "Go downstairs and get some water heating. Paul will need plenty. Start some coffee as well. Then find all the towels and bandages that you can and get them up here."

            With his head nodding at each instruction, Hoss let his father know that he understood them but still he remained at the foot of Joe's bed. When it dawned on Ben that Hoss hadn't left the room, he turned to the big man and stopped pacing and throwing out orders. With a loving hand to the big back hunched over beside him, Ben also studied the paleness of his youngest laid out so much like a corpse, so still and barely moving.

            "I'm not angry with you, son; I'm mad, angry at myself for having trusted someone I shouldn't have. Please, do as I ask."

            "Yes sir," came Hoss' muted reply and reached out one massive hand to gently touch Joe's blanket-covered leg. "Be easy on Pa, Joe, it don't look like he's had much sleep," Hoss teased gently but it fell flat. Again he patted the leg before him and left the room.

            Assuring himself that Joe wasn't bleeding any more than just the faintest of trickles, Ben decided that anything else was best left to Paul Martin's skillful hands. With some of the warm water Hoss brought up, he did try to wash away some of the after-affects of the fight Joe had obviously had. A bruise, dark and spreading, covered one cheek bone and just wiping gently across it made Joe moan deep in his throat and turn his head away from Ben's touch. His hands, Ben thought to himself, look at his knuckles, all skinned. Good for you son, you tried to give as well as you got. But don't worry. Dan Tolliver will pay for this. I'll see to it. As though Joe could hear his father's thought's, he muttered something too soft for Ben to hear as he fought to regain consciousness. In the end, though, it was too much and Joe had dropped back into the well of welcoming darkness.

            Ben wasn't sure how long he sat there beside Joe's bed and waited. At first it seemed to him that he was waiting for Joe to take one breath then another, his chest so slow in rising and falling that Ben was sure that it would stop and not start again. But after a while, Ben realized that a rhythm had developed and that he could look away without fearing that Death would steal his child when he wasn't looking. He tried to block out all feeling but found he couldn't. One stayed with him: anger. It was an anger so real to him, so real that Ben wanted to slap a saddle on it and ride in search of Dan Tolliver.

From the depth of that anger Ben recalled the old wrangler as he had stood before him, a gun drawn, demanding the money from the safe, using Joe as a bartering tool. Joe, who had known Dan all his life. Joe had looked upon Dan as an uncle almost. Dan had taught Joe how to throw a rope. And had crowed just as loudly and as pleased as if he were the father to the smiling little boy who had roped the fence post. Dan Tolliver. Joe had been right when he had said that Dan needed to step down, that it was time for the old man to rest finally. Ben, his hands clenched hard about themselves, remembered the pain in his son's eyes as he had told his father just that. Dan Tolliver hadn't taken it well. Dan Tolliver had put a bullet in his son to show him just what an old man could still do. Dan Tolliver, Dan Tolliver, Dan Tolliver. It became almost a litany as Ben slammed one huge fist into the other, as he became more and more determined to see Dan Tolliver just once more.

            He heard the sound of horses pulling into the yard and heard Adam's voice calling out for Hoss. Ben looked out and saw Paul Martin hurrying into the house and Adam and Hoss still standing in the yard, their heads together, talking. Hoss reared his head up and seemed to say something to Adam that he didn't want to hear. As Ben watched, Adam's face darkened then he swung back into the saddle again and left the yard at a gallop. Hoss followed Paul into the house, his hands fists, and Ben could see the knuckles were white even from his vantage point.

            Once Paul entered Joe's room, Ben was pushed out of the way. Pacing in the hallway did him no good either. Finally, at a loss for anything else to do, he went down the stairs and sat in his chair before the fireplace.

            "Here," Hoss nudged his father's arm, trying to break into the silence that had fallen over his father. Numbly, Ben took the cup of proffered coffee and sipped it without tasting it.

            "Adam said that Roy weren't there. I told him what you said about Dan Tolliver shootin' Joe," Hoss explained, sitting down on the stonework, his back to the now dead fire. "Adam didn't say anything but that he'd be back in a bit."

            That seemed to shatter the silence around Ben and his head shot up and his eyes, now hard black orbs, seemed to imprison Hoss. "Dan Tolliver will be mine to take care of," he said, so ominous and threatening that Hoss was sure his father meant every syllable.

            "You want to tell me what this is all about?" Roy Coffee asked. The lawman had ridden in just moments before. His knock on the door had not been answered so he had pushed the unlatched door on open just in time to hear Ben Cartwright's words.

            Like a rattler striking out at his prey, Ben rose to his feet and pounced on the sheriff. The look in Ben's eyes made even Roy take a step back.

            "Dan Tolliver!" Ben's voice rose like the sound of a furious storm as he told the grizzled sheriff what had happened the night before not ten feet from where they now stood. When he had finished, Ben was literally panting, pacing in long strides that reminded Roy of a caged tiger he had once seen. Roy simply nodded his head, his thumb tracking down his graying mustache.

            "That must be why Dan Tolliver's in my jail cell right now. Scared to death, he is," Roy said evenly.

            Ben rounded on the other, his fists hard knots at his sides, his brows a single flat line across his brow. "He should be scared!"

            Roy held up both hands, seeking to placate or at least slow the Ponderosa's patriarch down. But it was useless.

            "I told him and I meant every word I said. If Joe came home unhurt, Dan could have every last cent that I gave him out of the safe! And I also told him that if Joe," Ben took a deep breath and struggled with his thoughts a moment before he plunged on, raging in Roy Coffee's face. "I told him I would hunt him down if Joe were hurt. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed that Dan would shoot him! But he shot Joe!"

            "No, he didn't," Roy sought for calmness in the face of the rising anger he felt sweeping through his old friend.

            With an arm thrust towards the stairway, Ben's voice dropped to an ominous whisper. "Joseph is upstairs with a bullet in his side. God only knows what has kept him alive this long but you and I both know the chances of a man surviving a gutshot. Don't tell me that Dan Tolliver didn't shoot my son because I know he did. And may God have mercy on that man's soul if my son dies because of it. I won't!"

            "Ben! Settle down!" Roy grasped hold of both of Ben's arms and nearly pulled the distraught father from his feet. "You listen to me and you listen real good! Dan Tolliver rode into Virginia City 'bout an hour after daybreak. He had them two lowlifes Sands and Temple belly down over their saddles. He told me everything that had happened. How they kidnapped Joe, how he came to you for the ransom. He swears he never intended for Joe to be hurt but that there was a fight. Joe had killed Temple but Sands shot Joe. And Dan shot Sands. Then Dan helped Joe into the wagon. Way he tells it, Joe was losing blood pretty badly and he got scared. He said he knew you would come after him and listening to you, I believe the man! Anyway, he said he drove the wagon until they were close enough to the house, then he laid Joe over in the seat and slapped the team and sent 'em on. He went back to the campsite and loaded up Sands and Temple then come into town. He begged me, Ben, begged me, to lock him up because he was afraid. And still is!"

            "Dan Tolliver is still responsible for Joe being shot, Roy," Ben hissed, yanking his arms from Roy's grasp.

            "And probably the reason why Joe is still alive," Paul Martin called from the top of the stairs. "Hoss, I need your help up here."

            Ben started for the stairs and Roy let him go but the doctor stopped him. "Not you Ben. Right now I need someone who's in control and you aren't." Before Ben could protest or say another thing, Hoss passed him, briefly touching his father's shoulder as he went up the stairs.

            "What do you mean?" Ben shouted but Paul Martin pretended not to hear.

            "Way I see it," Roy said so softly Ben almost didn't hear him, "we need to wait until Joe can tell us what happened." He gently pulled at Ben's arm and easily propelled him into the chair by the fireplace. Roy spied the coffee service on the table and poured Ben a cup that he literally had to place in Ben's hands. The cup of coffee was the only warmth in the big room.

            In all my times coming out here, I think this is the first time I have ever seen there not be a fire going, Roy pondered and sat down on the cold stones to wait.



            In the next few hours, Adam returned home. After a brief exchange with Roy, Adam had merely sat beside his father waiting. He didn't tell his father that he had ridden like a man possessed into Virginia City in search of Dan Tolliver. When he had found the old man locked in the county jail, he had lunged through the bars, grasping at the man. He didn't tell his father that if he had gotten his hands on Dan Tolliver, Tolliver wouldn't be alive, but the cell bars had protected Tolliver and Clem Foster had finally made Adam leave. Angry, Adam had told Clem that he would be back and when he did, he wouldn't bother with beating Dan Tolliver to death, he would simply do the same thing Tolliver had done to Joe: shoot him down. But in talking briefly with Roy, Adam had calmed down, praying for the chance for Joe to tell them what had happened. He had been torn as to what to do; wait beside his father or go upstairs to help. He chose to stay with his father. If Paul needed him, only then he would go, sure that his father would want to go with him as well.

            The sun was dropping behind the barn before Paul Martin came down the stairs. He looked tired and he was, but first he knew he had a duty to perform. He had heard the exchange between Ben and Roy and knew he had the one piece of proof other than Joe's own words that would save Dan Tolliver's life that day. Even though it was still damp from the repeated rinsings, he dropped it into Ben's hand.

            "That right there kept Joe from bleeding to death. It was crammed into the bullet hole tight. Like I said, that saved your son's life, Ben. I know it ain't Joe's and I know he couldn't have put it in that wound. You recognize it, Roy?"

            Wordlessly, Ben opened the piece of cotton and let it rest across his palm. It was faded so badly that it was more a gray color and the repeated rinsings hadn't washed away all of the blood on it. A lump rose in Ben's throat that he couldn't get his voice around or he would have said that he knew who it belonged to. Instead, he crumpled it into his fist and squeezed it so tight that his knuckles went white from the pressure.

            "It's Dan Tolliver's, isn't it, Ben?" Paul asked, his voice just a little above a whisper.

            Ben said nothing, his chest constricting in pain as he sat there, the center of attention.

            Roy Coffee spoke up first. "Dan Tolliver saved Joe's life with that neckerchief, Ben."

            Ben remained speechless still.

            "How is Joe?" Adam asked.

            "Lost a lot of blood but all in all, I think he's gonna be all right. He's gonna be slowed down some for a while but if I know Joe, he'll be saying he's fine in a week or so!" Paul scratched his head, trying to put assurance into his tone and not sure he managed. He knew that the young Cartwright would face an uphill battle to recover but he was fairly certain that he would recover.

            "Can I….. can we," Adam's words faltered momentarily, "Can we go up and see him?"

            "He's sleeping so if you don't wake him I don't see any harm in it."

            Adam helped his father to stand and walked behind him as they headed for the stairs. Roy patted the black shirted shoulder as Adam passed and Adam mutely nodded his thanks for the consolation in the touch.



            It didn't take the week Paul Martin had forecasted before Joe Cartwright was pestering and haranguing all within the sound of his voice. He was fine, he told everyone within days of the shooting. As long as they didn't see him switching positions, it was almost believable too. That late morning, his target was his father. But his badgering was  having no effect until Adam stepped into Joe's bedroom and said "Dan Tolliver is downstairs, Pa."

            Both Adam and Joe saw the change wash over Ben. They looked at one another then let their eyes follow their father's form as Ben left the room.

            "Adam, help me get dressed, will you? " Adam, even against his better judgement, did as Joe asked.


            Dan Tolliver stood head down just inside the door. He heard the heavy footfalls coming down the stairs and knew it was Ben but he didn't look up. Even when Ben came to stand nearly toe to toe with him, he didn't look up. He just continued to roll his hat in his hands and try again to find a way to apologize to his old friend.

            "Hello, Dan," Ben cautiously greeted, shoving his hands into his pockets to keep from striking the other.

            "Ben," Dan muttered and looked to one side, ashamed. "I come to see how Joe was doin'."

            Ben shuffled uncomfortably on his feet. The urge was strong in him to lash out at Tolliver even though Joe had confirmed the truth of what had happened. No matter what, Dan had been part and parcel of hurting his son and that Ben couldn't easily get by.

            "Doc Martin says he'll be okay but he's missed the trail drive, of course."

            The battered hat made another few turns in the old man's hands then he finally looked up into Ben's face. What he saw was a carefully held blank expression, something completely out of character for the Ben Cartwright he had known for so many years. He let his eyes meet Ben's and that was when it hit him the hardest for there it couldn't be hidden. Ben Cartwright was beyond angry.

            "I'm sorry, Ben," he whispered, his voice trembling. "I'm real sorry. Joe was right when he told me that all the money in them bags couldn't buy me a friend like you. If I could take it all back, I would, Ben! Never meant for Joe to be shot like that, I swear it!"

            Ben took a deep breath before he replied. "I know. Joe said as much but it doesn't change things, Dan. What you did, what you allowed to happen, nearly cost my son his life. You never had children, Dan, so you don't know how that makes me feel. You can't begin to imagine how it felt to have my son's blood covering my hands. You can't understand how it makes me feel when I see my son in pain. And all because of money?!"

            Tolliver looked again to his feet and he chewed on his lip a moment then spoke softly as he began to slowly pace the room, looking up once at the staircase. "You're right, I never did get hitched and have my own young'uns. But in a way, Ben, I did have sons. All them boys that come through the ranch here over the years that I taught to rope cows, to brand 'em and such. They were like my children to me. So when one of the ones I prized among the rest of them, your boy Joe, when he told me that I was too old, somethin' snapped in me. I'm sorry, Ben, that Joe got shot and I'll stand up and take any punishment the law will lay on me for it. But that can't be worse'n the feeling I had when I saw Joe go down. I thought for sure he was dead right then and all I could think of was how was I gonna live with havin' been part of the bullet that did it. I can imagine how you felt, findin' Joe like you did, seein' him in pain, seein' him bleedin'. I know because I saw it and felt it too. And now, now I see the hurt in you too Ben. And all I can do is say that I am sorry."

            "Dan, saying that you are sorry isn't enough," Ben coldly stated, turning and watching the old man moving around the room. It struck Ben that Dan Tolliver had aged maybe twenty years in the last few days. As he walked, his steps were more like shuffling. He never looked up for more than an instant and his back was bent forward as though carrying a heavy load. In short, there was no spark left in the man Ben knew.

            "But words is all I got left, Ben."

            "That ain't true," came a much younger voice from the top of the stairs. Joe, fully dressed and upright, started slowly down the steps as he spoke. A quick glance over his shoulder and a wink thanked Adam for his help in getting up and to the head of the stairs. Joe knew he couldn't have done it, despite his big claims to the contrary. The fact was that Adam had just stepped away and back into the hallway, making it appear that Joe had done it all by himself and that wouldn't go unacknowledged either. But now Joe was faced with walking down the stairs. Grasping hold of the railing with one firm hand, Joe had slowly and, to all appearances, nonchalantly took the steps, gritting his teeth with every footfall that jarred his right side. When he finally managed to get to the last one, he found Dan Tolliver there to help him to the sofa. His father had been a short step behind Dan.

            "What in the name of ..? Joseph, I heard Paul Martin say nothing about getting out of bed!" blustered Ben, hurrying to make sure that Joe sat on the sofa promptly. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that the only reason Joe had done what he had was that Dan Tolliver had come calling.

            "I 'gree with Ben. Joe, you be needin' the doctor before the day is out for this sort of foolishness! Even a dumb ol' cow knows when to stay put!" Tolliver clucked his tongue and scowled at the younger man.

            Joe let the two men fuss over him for a few moments then he grabbed Dan Tolliver's arm to stop him. "I wanted to thank you, Dan. If you hadn't helped me into the wagon and gotten me home, Doc says I wouldn't have made it on my own. I gotta agree with him there." To emphasize his point, Joe comically grimaced and held his right side. He would let slide the fact that he knew Dan had panicked, leaving him helpless in the wagon when Tolliver had returned to the campsite.

            The old man's face softened and his eyes regained a little of their sparkle. "Joe, like I told your pa.." he started but Joe held up his hand to stop the apology.

            "No, I need to apologize to you. I thought you were a useless old man who didn't know when it was time to step aside and let us younger ones have a crack at the world. You are anything but useless, Dan. I'm sorry I ever thought of you that way." As he spoke, Joe's eyes, as well as his hand, held the old man. When he finished, Joe looked over the other's shoulder and saw his father just standing there. His father's face was still like stone, cold and unyielding and Joe couldn't understand why his father still carried on like that. If I can forgive Dan Tolliver, why can't you?

            "Sometimes, us old folks need to have you youngsters shove us aside. We been holdin' on to the reins for so long, that our hands feel empty otherwise!" Dan Tolliver teased lightly and gently slapped at the knee before him.

            "Well, seeings how they haven't let me do anything around here lately," Joe bantered back and saw his father stiffen slightly, "I thought maybe we could convince you to come back to work for us. But there is only one problem: Hoss has taken the herd and headed to market with 'em, so there ain't a lot of wrangling to be done."

            Dan Tolliver gradually lowered himself to sit on the square table, letting Joe drop back gently to recline on the sofa but staying directly across from him. He knew where young Cartwright was going and he would go there but first there was the little game to be played so that each man could keep his dignity. Tolliver let his chin come to rest on his fist as he appeared to ponder the words.

            "Go on," he urged.

            In all truth, it didn't take that much convincing for Dan Tolliver to return to the Ponderosa payroll. The remains of the herd would need to be taken to the high meadows for grazing before winter set in. The horses would have to be culled as well, the prime animals corralled to be broken and the rest let back out to run another season. With the coming of autumn, there were ranch chores no end to be taken care, and with Hoss gone, Adam tending to the logging operation and Joe laid up, well, could Dan Tolliver see his way into helping them out?

            With a quick wink to his father who now sat back in his favored chair, Joe went on. "After all, a man of Pa's years, he just isn't capable of getting all that done and ride herd over me!"

            Both older men chuckled but Dan Tolliver's was with real mirth. "Ben, if this boy weren't already in such bad shape, I do believe he'd need a good whippin'!"

            "Well, why don't you hang around until I am healed up, and we'll see if you can still give me one!" Joe warmly teased and leaning forward, patted the man on the leg. It was too bad that he couldn't see the pain cross his father's face.



            "Pa," Adam pleaded earnestly. "If Joe can get beyond this, why can't you? This isn't like you at all!" He settled his saddle into its accustomed spot in the corner of the barn then turned to face his father again, taking his father's saddle from him to do the same.

            "I've tried, Adam. I've truly tried. For your brother's sake. For Dan's sake but I just can't. Every time I see Dan Tolliver's face, I see your brother, blood pouring down his side, sitting there in the rocker on the porch. And just for that one moment when I thought he had died-"

            "But Joe is alive because of what Dan Tolliver did!" Adam insisted and turned back to face his father again. The day had been long and hard on both of them and it showed in his father's face. Together with Dan and few others, they had moved a portion of the remaining herd into new pasture. Each man had done his job to perfection but with so few hands, the job had taken longer to complete. The hours in the saddle were nothing to Ben Cartwright. What had tired him quicker was the strain he placed himself under. All the time he was pushing cattle, he was wondering what Joseph was doing back at the house. Giving Joe strict instructions about not leaving the sofa, Ben was sure had been a waste of time. And seeing Dan Tolliver working the cattle beside him as though nothing had ever happened had not improved Ben's mindset either.

            "I know that!" Ben bit off each word sharply and saw Adam flinch at the tone. "But Dan Tolliver did more than just that! He destroyed something it took years to build! With one selfish act, it destroyed 20 years of friendship between us," he continued and not seeing understanding come to Adam, strode, back ramrod stiff, from the barn.

            Adam's brows twitched. It wasn't like his father to hold a grudge against a man. For any reason whatsoever! Always before with his father, once a sincere apology was extended, he would accept it and move on. Now he seemed to be hanging onto the hate, the anger, the fear. With that last thought, Adam paused. Was that what was driving his father more than anything else: fear? Fear of losing a son? Of course, but there seemed to be an even greater fear underlying all of it. Fear of growing into a Dan Tolliver, trying to still do a younger man's job and failing? He shook his head. Adam wasn't sure if it was either one, both or something else all together. He checked on the horses once more and turned down the lantern light in the barn and headed for the house.

            For once, Joe seemed to have followed instructions because he was just where he had been when Adam and Ben had left that morning: ensconced on the sofa with Hop Sing hovering. Once Adam had shed his hat and gunbelt, he playfully smacked at his brother's head before sitting down in his chair by the fire.

            "You get them cattle moved okay?" Joe asked and the other two men could hear plainly the half-whine that said Joe had wanted to be there helping.

            "Of course! What did you do today?" Adam queried, his lips twitching into a smile.

            "Well, I started off with a good nap but Hop Sing woke me up for lunch. I read a little of that book you loaned me, Adam, but I got to tell you that Shakespeare just put me right back asleep!"

            Ben smiled indulgently. Perhaps a day without having to put on a brave face had been good for the boy after all. He knew that every time Joe changed positions, it had hurt, even if Joe tried hard to not show it. Paul Martin had been out two days earlier and seemed pleased with Joe's recovery even if it was a little faster than he had anticipated. That was the way with the young. You could never figure out just how they were going to take things.

            When Hop Sing called that dinner was ready, Joe waved off Adam's offered assistance and got to his feet on his own. Both Ben and Adam tried to not notice how slowly Joe walked to the table or that he half-fell into his chair. After all, Joe figured the sooner he was back to truly being independent and feeling better, the sooner his father would heal as well.

            "You know Joseph, I could use some help on the books," Ben sternly said, purposely not looking at Joe as he filled his own plate.

            "I don't know about that, Pa. You know sitting up in a chair like that and all. Might not be too good for me," Joe ripped back and took the platter of meat from his father's hand.

            Adam laughed aloud. "How do you like that, Pa? He swears he could sit a horse all day but a chair?"

            Ben too chuckled and finally laughed full-throated when Joe's reply that the chair wasn't moving and that would bother him more than a moving horse. Adam laughed and smiled as well, making a mental note to thank Joe later for getting their father to laugh. It had been too long missing. But as quick as it came, it left when Joe asked how Dan Tolliver had done that day. Ben's bitten off word of "fine" sounded hard to both of his sons.

            "Pa if you will just give him a chance-" Joe started and had to stop when his father slapped his hand on the table, demanding that there be no more talk of Dan Tolliver.

            Heads bowed under the onslaught of their father's wrath, Joe and Adam looked at one another sideways. Joe muttered an apology and for the next few moments the only sound in the house came from Hop Sing in the kitchen.

            Ben took a deep breath and looked at the bowed heads around the table. "Hoss should be home in the next couple of days," he said and went back to eating as though nothing had happened. Adam and Joe quickly finished their meal, while Ben kept up a long one sided conversation. Once they finished, Joe put his napkin aside and asked to be excused from the table.

            "Need help, little buddy?" Adam asked, sincere in his asking. Joe nodded succinctly and without another word passing between them, Adam stood and helped Joe to stand. Obvious that Joe was headed upstairs, Adam went with him but Joe waved him off once he got to the stairs. Although Adam doubted his sincerity, he knew sheer guts would get Joe up those stairs and behind closed doors before he would show any weakness. With a solicitous pat on the back, Adam let him go but stood at the foot of the stairs, unsure of what he should do. Finally he turned to his father.

            "What?" Ben asked, seeing the look on his eldest's face.

            "For the first time in my life, I feel like I should chastise my father," Adam said, his lips drawing tight to stop anything else from escaping them. When his father had merely given him a black look, Adam looked up the stairs then back at his father. "Good night, Pa," he almost hissed then took the stairs two at a time.


            In his room, Joe had gotten as far as the chair beside the bed before his strength gave out. Numbly he sat there, confused and hurt by the way his father was acting. For a few moments, he fumbled with the buttons on his shirt then gave up completely. When the door opened behind him, Joe started to straighten in the chair but Adam's firm hand on his shoulder and the soft "don't" kept him where he was.

            "Guess I shouldn't have said anything about Dan Tolliver," Joe groaned. "Adam, what is wrong with Pa? Is he angry with me?"

            "Far from it," Adam replied and sank onto Joe's bed, lacing his fingers together between his knees. "I think Pa is afraid."

            "Pa? Afraid of what?" Joe scoffed and tried again to unbutton his shirt.

            "You don't think Pa could be afraid of anything? He's a man, just like you and me. And I've been afraid of some things in my life. So have you," Adam soothed. "Pa was afraid for you, Joe. Gunshot wounds to the belly aren't the easiest thing to survive, you know."

            Joe shook his head once and let his fumbling tired fingers drop away from the button. "No, this is more than that Adam."

            With a clipped nod that he agreed, Adam stood and pulled his brother up and shifted the younger, slighter built Joe onto the bed with ease. "I'll agree with you but I think it's something else too. I'm not sure what it is but I sure wish he would get over it! You need help?"

            Giving up on the buttons, Joe grabbed his shirttails and pulled the shirt over his head in one smooth move that only made him grunt once as the stomach muscles pulled. He looked at his feet and remembered the fight he had earlier in the day with Hop Sing. He gratefully kicked his slippers off. If they had been his boots like he had wanted, it would have been a whole different scenario. "Naw," Joe sighed, "But I do wish you would figure out what's eating Pa."

            "That's big chore! Good night Joe," and with an affectionate nudge to Joe's shoulder, Adam left the room.

            Once into his own darkened room, Adam didn't bother to light the lamp but striped down quickly and crawled into bed. With a deep sigh, he laced his fingers behind his head and looked out the window into the star-filled sky. He had been joshing with Joe but he had been serious too. Trying to figure out what was eating at his father was a big job and not one he wanted to shoulder. Was it fear the way he had thought and told Joe? Yes, but that was only partly the truth it seemed. There was something there in his father that was bigger than that. And it was making his father excessively moody and down right hard to get along with. Just like Joe when he is feeling guilty about something, Adam thought and smiled. But then his smile fell away. Was that it with his father? But what was it that Ben felt guilty about?



            "This is against my better judgement, young man," Ben scowled. "Just two weeks ago, you weren't strong enough to get out of bed on your own! Now you are fixing to ride out with me-"

            "Pa," Joe interrupted and gingerly stepped into the stirrup and swung aboard his pinto. "I spend another minute in that house and I will go completely stir-crazy. I've got to get out! Besides, Doc Martin said that I could."

            Pulling his hat down firmer on his head, Ben gave his youngest son a hard glare before he too swung into the saddle. "I think Paul had in mind a buggy ride, not you in the saddle."

            In reply, Joe gave his father a saucy wink and pulled Cochise's head around, ready to leave the yard. "Funny. I didn't hear him say anything about how I could get out. Just that I could."

            "You walk that horse, young man. Do you hear me?" and even as Joe walked Cochise out of the yard, behind him he could hear his father's continuing stream of instructions. Joe would only give him part of his attention. It felt so good again to be on a horse, even if he did have to keep the animal at a sedate walk to keep peace in the family. He wondered how long they would ride before his father started hinting that they should be returning.

            Seeing how relaxed Joe was in the saddle, Ben let himself relax as well. The coiled emotions inside him began to slowly unwind and loosen. With the warm sun on their backs and a gentle wind blowing in their faces, it was easy for both father and son to forget the recent past for a while. At one point, Ben had pulled to a halt to just watch Joe move out a little ahead of him. Indeed, Joe rode easy in the saddle. There was no sign of stiffness. No sharp intake of breath that he tried to hide a spasm of pain in. No quick grab to his side either. As Ben watched, all he saw was what he normally saw: a man, his son, more at ease on horseback than on his own feet, the reins held loosely in his hands, one foot half way out of the stirrup.

            Coming out of the trees, they dropped down into a small flat meadow. Joe pointed but Ben had seen it too. At the far end, Dan Tolliver was teaching Cliff Lewis, a young man not twenty years old yet and fresh off the farm. The lanky blonde haired boy sat his horse uneasily and had his head down, paying attention to how he coiled a rope into his hands. Dan's voice carried easily.

            He heard the horses coming and he half turned to see who it was. He didn't like having spectators while he taught his pupils. He had always known that with someone watching, the pupil got more self-conscious and therefore more apt to not be listening to what he was saying. But seeing Ben and Joe, Dan knew he wouldn't, and couldn't, turn them away. But wisely, they stopped a ways from him and didn't interfere.

            "Easy boy," he called again when the boy missed lassoing him by a country mile. "Just let your rope drop easy."

            Dan saw the Cartwrights remained on their mounts, Joe crossing a leg over his saddle horn. He wondered what Ben was thinking. Since it was Friday, and payday to boot, all the men would work a half day. Here it was early afternoon. He had started teaching this young man on his own time and the lessons had stayed that way: not during the hours Ben paid for, not interfering with assigned work. The boy threw the lasso again and missed again.

            "Joe, I swear! This fella here is harder to teach than you were!" Dan called out and saw Joe wave and smile to him so he ambled over to the mounted men. "Say, when I get tired of tryin' to get this boy's rope to go straight, I'm headed to Virginia City. How about you join me and we'll have us a beer together?"

            "I'd like to Dan, but not tonight, okay?" Joe's words were filled with laughter and friendship, pouring over the old man like honey.

            "Sure, son, sure." And for good measure, he patted Joe's leg there in the stirrup beside him. He squinted up at Ben's face as he turned but there was no welcoming smile there. "How about you Ben? I'll even buy the first round for old time's sake."

            "I don't think so either Dan," was all Ben said. Dan tried to smile as he headed back to his student, calling him every thing under the sun but his name.

            "Well, I think you've been out enough, Joseph. Ready to head for home?" Ben didn't wait for an answer but nudged Buck towards the house over the next rise. Joe followed, tipping his hat in Dan's direction but he figured the old man hadn't seen it. He wasn't being the good and obedient son now. A dull ache had begun to creep up his back and every once in a while, a stitch would form in his wounded side. He was ready for his ride to be over.


            Lunch was mercifully short. The ache that had started in Joe's back was now becoming a pounding headache and if he had had to pretend one more minute that he was fine, Joe doubted that he could have. Instead, a small emergency involving a broken fenceline drew his father away from the table in a hurry. Joe sat where he was for long enough to make sure his father wasn't going to come back then he rose, leaning into his right side, his hand pressing there as if to hold the pain at bay. He made it as far as the sofa before his legs just simply refused to go any further. He stretched out, not caring that his boots were muddying the furniture.

            Hop Sing had heard the commotion of Ben leaving and then the sounds that said Joe was leaving the table as well. With a string of short sentences in his native tongue, punctuated by hands waving in the air, he surveyed the half-eaten lunch he had prepared. His sentences grew harsher and shorter yet when he spied Joe sprawled on the sofa in the living room. Fussing grandly, he ended up, his face set in an angry scowl, standing over Joe who obviously wasn't listening.

            "Hop Sing make good lunch. No body eat! Hop Sing clean house. No body care! Leave boots on and get dirt all over! Hrumpf!" Despite his snort and lack of approval, he used a fair amount of care to remove Joe's boots then got a quilt from the upstairs linen closet and covered the sleeping man with it. He harrumphed once more for good measure then returned to his own chores of the day. He had wanted Joe to go with him to pick the wild blueberries that abounded near Tahoe but it looked now as if he would have to go alone. Hop Sing quickly removed the dishes from the table. He figured he had just enough time before Hoss and Adam returned. Now there were people who appreciated Hop Sing's abilities, he thought!


            The broken fence was quickly repaired and the two calves who had made good an escape through the hole were promptly returned by Ben to their mothers. He thanked the men for having taken their free time to help him and told them he would remember to add a little something to their next pay. The men smiled broadly and left.

            It was on the way back to the house that a memory assailed Ben and he slammed his heels into Buck, picking up the pace considerably. It was the last Friday of the month and he had dinner plans to meet with Gary Bowman and discuss Cattlemens Association business before the regular monthly meeting on Monday. What with having to care for Joe and the running of the ranch short-handed, he had forgotten all about it. Once glance into the sky and he figured he had time to get home, get cleaned up some and get into Virginia City but it would be a tight squeeze time-wise.

            He saw Joe was sleeping on the sofa and chuckled softly to himself. Oh, yes, you are just fine, aren't you? That little ride done tuckered you right out, boy! Well, Adam and Hoss will be home later on and you see what you can weasel out of them! Hope Hoss whips you good at checkers for stretching the truth to your old pa!  Rather than stay another moment and enjoy his own private little victory, Ben instead hurried on out the door, tying his tie as he went. If he hurried, he wouldn't be late to dinner.



            "Well, I, for one am glad you are back, Hoss! With our little brother still not able to do chores, that has left more than a little hole in the mess!" Adam slapped Hoss on the back and smiled when dust puffed out. Hoss took off his hat as they crossed the yard towards the house and slapped at his dusty pants with it.

            "I'm glad to be home. Hope Hop Sing has somethin' good cookin' cause I have certainly missed it!"

            "And you look like you have lost what? A pound? Maybe two?" The sound of their boots filled the wide plank entryway and the jostling of the two coming through the doorway should have been enough to bring Hop Sing scurrying from his kitchen.

            "Hey!" Hoss exclaimed when there was no greeting from any one. "Where is ever'body?"

            "Don't know," Adam answered and took the few steps needed to see into the kitchen. It was empty. And uncharacteristically, dirty plates were on the worktable. It was like Hop Sing had left in a big hurry. Scratching his head in wonder, Adam turned to go back into the living room. Hoss was standing there, a funny little smirk on his dusty face, one hand holding up a corner of a quilt.

            "Well I found one of 'em. Ol' Sleepin' Beauty here, all cozy and such. Think I should holler in his ear and wake him up?"

            "Better not," Adam warned and came to stand beside Hoss. "He's had a rough go of it lately." He took the quilt corner from Hoss and started to drop it back over the still unresponsive Joe. That was when he noticed that Joe's face looked a little flushed. Instead of dropping the cover back, Adam moved Hoss aside and laid a cool hand to Joe's face. He inhaled sharply. "He's burning up!"

            The joy of coming home burst like a bubble for Hoss. "Oh lordy, you sure Adam?"

            By now, Adam was kneeling beside the sofa, shaking Joe's shoulder but getting no response. "Of course I'm sure! Get me some water and a rag from the kitchen. Then see if you can find Hop Sing or Pa!"

            There was no one else to be found and Hoss hurried back to inform Adam. He found Adam still beside Joe. Adam's head lifted expectantly when Hoss came barreling through the door.

            "Pa's horse is gone. So's the buckboard. Think Pa went after help?"

            "Don't think he would have left Joe like this. Hoss, help me get Joe upstairs then you ride for Doc Martin."

            Hoss could feel the heat coming in waves off Joe as he easily lifted him. Joe made not a single noise but lay limp, his features flushing deeply. With Adam opening the bedroom door, Hoss got Joe into his room without any problem. He was about to leave when he heard Adam's curse and turning back, saw that Joe's body had gone tight as bowstring, his back arched, his head thrown back.

            "Help me, Hoss! He's having a convulsion!" Adam screamed but what either of them could do was a mystery to both. Frantically, Adam tried to cool Joe's body down and little by little it seemed to help as Joe's body slackened, falling finally into complete relaxation.

            "Adam, I'm riding as far as the first man I find. I'll send him for help then come back," and before Adam could argue, Hoss was gone.

            Willy Turner was the first man Hoss Cartwright came across. Hastily he gave the young cowpoke instructions. To get the doctor was an easy one for the other to remember and to do. But the second one, young Turner would spend time accomplishing. He had no idea where to find Ben Cartwright in Virginia City. Where would a man as important as Mr. Cartwright go? All Willy knew was that Ben Cartwright certainly didn't favor the sorts of places he did. It only occurred to him later in the evening to tell the sheriff and even then, he wasn't sure just what was wrong out to the Ponderosa. Hoss hadn't told him so when he asked the sheriff where he might find Ben, he hadn't said anything other than he needed to find him. Roy had given the man directions to where he thought Ben was having dinner: the home of Gary Bowman and his wife. But Turner spent another fifteen minutes looking at houses and, unable to read the street signs, missed the Bowman house completely. Finally he saw the buckskin horse he usually saw Ben Cartwright ride. It was tied up outside of the International House Hotel and, thankfully, Ben Cartwright stood beside it.

            "Mr. Cartwright!" Turner hailed and skirting a lumbering wagon, hustled across the street.

            "Evening Willy," Ben greeted cordially but then saw that the other was in a near panicked state for some reason. "What can I do for you?"

            Panting and out of breath, Willy told him what Hoss had said to tell him. "You need to get home right away!"

            Ben pressed for more information but Turner couldn't supply it, only adding to his statement that Hoss had told him to get Doc Martin as well.

            The same fear he had felt before came rushing back over Ben. "Is it Joe?" He grabbed the other man's shoulders and demanded attention. "What's happened?"

            "I swear, sir, I don't know! Hoss was in a powerful hurry and he didn't tell me much."

            "But you went to Paul Martin's first?" Ben pleaded, begging for an affirmative.

            "Yes sir, right away like Hoss told me but I have had a time finding you! I looked this whole town…" By that time, he was speaking to no one. Ben Cartwright had thrown himself onto his horse and was a dwindling figure in the twilight.



            When Ben pulled Buck to a lathered halt in the yard, he was beyond fear and into full-blown panic. Every light in the house seemed to be lit, the front door stood wide open as did the kitchen door. Paul Martin's buggy was pulled up to the hitching rail but wasn't secured. Chubb stood to one side, still saddled, but ground tied. But what made Ben's heart pound even harder was Paul's shout for Hoss to help him. It came from upstairs. It came from Joe's room.

            Ben hurried, his feet not carrying him fast enough. He paid no heed to Adam's voice when Adam shouted for his father. He took the stairs two at a time and if Joe's bedroom door hadn't already been open, he would have battered it down. Paul Martin and Hoss blocked his view of what was happening but it appeared that nothing was. He pushed Hoss aside. There on the bed, tangled in wet sheets, Joe laid, his eyes closed and his chest heaving, fighting for breath.

            "Ben," Paul's voice was stern but soft in his ear. "Come out here, into the hall."

            Numbly, Ben shook his head and stayed put. A glance at Hoss gave him no clue what was happening.

            "Ben, Joe has a fever. A really high one right now. He's fighting, fighting hard. As a result, he's been having convulsions. It's not something you want to see happen to your child. No parent does. Please Ben. Go back downstairs. Help Adam. He's been chipping ice, making cold packs for us. That's the only thing that is going to bring Joe's temperature down."

            "What's…. causing …the fever?" Ben's words stumbled. Paul pulled again at his arm but Ben would not be moved and he couldn't pull his eyes from the bed.

            "I think it's that wound. Infection set in after I closed it up. It's tender and under the skin, it's hard but not like muscle tissue. I'm gonna have to open him up again but I can't do that if there is the possibility of another convulsion."

            Ben nodded briefly, understanding and taking it all in finally. "Hoss, go down and help Adam. Bring up the rest of the ice from the spring house."

            Hoss exchanged looks with the doctor. He would have spared his father what he had experienced that evening. The uncontrolled and uncontrollable muscle spasms that made Joe's body stiff, arching his body painfully until something in him shut down and he would fall limply back to the bed; these were hard to deal with. But just as hard had been the ice packs that fought the fever and Joe unconsciously tried to escape from when placed against his flesh. Finally, the decision had been reached and they had tied Joe's hands to the sides of the bed. Now, with his father standing there and telling him to leave, Hoss wanted to go but wanted to stay as well. Only years of discipline made Hoss leave with an ashamed and mumbled "yes sir."

            Paul shook his head slowly. He didn't want Ben here. He didn't want the man to see his youngest son suffering this way. But as Ben shed his jacket, the physician knew there was no way to remove Ben.

            The minutes ticked by slowly. Cautiously, Ben untied Joe's nearest hand and took it in his as he settled beside the bed. Paul touched Joe's forehead, searching for the again rising fever that would precipitate another convulsion. All though it was still uncomfortably warm, it hadn't spiked again. When a half-hour had passed without another onset, Paul Martin began his own preparations. He listened and found Joe's heartbeat, although a bit faint, it was still there. Pushing Ben to the head of the bed, Paul again gently probed the still vivid scar on Joe's lower right side.

            "It's either now or never, Ben," he warned, a hand to Ben's shoulder to gain his full attention.

            Ben blinked twice then nodded, returning his attention to watch his son.

            "I'd rather not do this with you here. If things don't -"

            "What do I need to do?" Ben interrupted. "Tell me and I will do it but I am not leaving Joseph."

            "Fine then but don't get in my way. Here, take this," and Paul handed Ben a cloth he had poured chloroform on to, " and keep it over his nose and mouth. Not tight, just enough pressure to keep it there. When I tell you," and he pressed the bottle into the father's hand, " put a few more drops but not a lot, you understand? He has got to stay still during this. I don't know what I am going to find, Ben. Maybe a bullet fragment I missed, I don't know. It may not be even from the gunshot. But this is going to be the only way to find out. Can you handle that, Ben?"

            "Course I can," Ben replied, a touch of cold heat in his tone.

            Over Ben's head the physician told Hoss he needed more light and for Adam to bring up any more clean towels he could find. And would Hop Sing please bring him some boiling water to clean his instruments? Ben turned and watched as Hoss and Hop Sing quickly disappeared. He had been unaware that they were even there. But Adam, Adam stayed, finally coming into the room when Paul went to one side to sort through his instruments for what he would need.

            "Pa," Adam whispered, "you don't need to do this. I'll -"

            "You'll do as Paul asked. I am not leaving this room until this is over," adamantly Ben seethed. "Why are you all so intent on my not being here?"

            "I don't want to see you hurt, Pa, that's all" came Adam's consoling reply as he finally knelt beside his father. Looking up into his father's dark eyes, Adam wasn't sure but what he wasn't too late.

            "I stay," Ben responded flatly.


            Mercifully, Joe didn't move so much as an eyelash. At first, Ben was captivated by Paul's hands as they moved with such dexterous swiftness. He watched up until the point Paul paused with the scalpel over the reddish scar already on Joe's side. From that point on he couldn't watch. That was his son's flesh being opened, his child's body being pushed into by bloody fingers and cold heartless metal. To Ben, it was as though it were his own. He trembled and looked away, afraid that he would have shouted for Paul to stop otherwise. When instructed, he let the few drops go onto the white cloth covering Joseph's lower face. He fixed his eyes on the widening ring they made, his hand resting on his son's chest. Ben let his own breathing fall into the same rhythm as Joe's. Within his mind he spoke to his son, telling Joe and himself that everything was going to be fine. He mentally spoke a parent's nonsense to a fevered child, letting himself forget for that time that the child was a man grown.

            "Ben," Paul's voice called him back and the doctor's hand, now clean, took away the bottle and the chemical laced cloth. "It's over, Ben. We were right all along. An abscess had formed deep in the wound. I've cleaned it out good."

            Instinctively Ben looked to where Paul had gestured. The once healing wound was now opened yet filled with gauze.

            Before he could ask, the doctor answered Ben's question, "No, I'm not going to sew it closed right now. I have it packed with alcohol soaked gauze to try and draw the rest of the infection out. We'll change that every few hours until the infection is gone. Then I'll close it up. Right now I need your help in helping me get a bandage around this boy to hold all that in place. You help me?"

            "I will," was Adam's prompt reply, not giving his father the opportunity. "You just hang on to him, Pa. We'll take care of this." With his eyes, Adam gestured to his father's hand that had some how wrapped itself around Joe's.


            By dawn, Joe showed virtually no sign of fever. When he finally came awake, he reached for his side instinctively. The burning pain there had disturbed him long before he was able to open his eyes. Only his father's strong hand held his back and the words that were murmured to him, reassuring him, telling him that it was all over, were like a gentle caress that washed across some hidden part of him, letting him know that his father was close by. With a small sigh, he opened his eyes. Without even asking, his father was lifting his head so that he could drink from the glass of water.

            "It's all right now, Joseph. You've had a rough time of it but it's all right now. Go back to sleep. It's all right." Over and over again he heard the calm reassurance in his father's whisper, felt his father's hand brush across his face warmly. Listening and believing, he let himself fall back into a deep sleep.

            "Pa, Roy Coffee is downstairs. Says he wants to talk to you 'bout somethin'," Hoss shyly broke into his father's litany. "You go on and talk to him. I'll stay here with Shortshanks."


            "He went to bed a long time ago and he's still there. Doc Martin's across the hall. Hop Sing has some hot food for you too so you'd best go."

            "If Joe-"

            "Go on, Pa, I've been takin' care of this 'un for a long time too, ya know."

            Reluctantly, Ben gave up his post and looking out the window, saw that it had to be mid-morning at the earliest. He ran a hand over a stubbled chin as he went down the hall and the staircase. Roy was still standing by the door, his hat in his hands.

            "How's Joe?" Roy asked right off. "Hop Sing told me he'd had a bad set-back. He gonna be okay?"

            "Yes, Paul worked another miracle I think. Joe woke up a bit ago but not for long." Ben rubbed his hand over the back of his neck as he spoke, feeling for the first time the effects of a night spent hunched over a bedside.

            "That's good to hear, Ben, it surely is. But I didn't come all the way out here to ask about Joe. I've come on official business Ben."

            Ben quit massaging the back of his neck and came erect, cautious. "Oh?"

            "Ben, did you see Dan Tolliver last night? Did you speak to Dan Tolliver last night?" the sheriff asked, his head dropping a little to one side.

            For a moment, Ben thought back over the events before he had gotten home, before the Turner boy had spoken with him. "Yes I did. Dan wanted me to go have a drink with him but I was on my way to dinner with some other friends."

            "Where were you when you spoke with Dan?"

            "Beside the International House, in the alley to be exact. Why are you asking, Roy?"

            Roy puffed a sad breath into his mustache and studied the floor at his feet before he spoke again. "I was afraid you were gonna say that. I'm sorry Ben but I got to take you back into town with me. Dan Tolliver was found dead this morning. In the alleyway beside the International House. I spoke with Gary Bowman. He said you never showed up for dinner like had been planned."

            "This is ridiculous. I was late getting to Gary's. They had left for the evening. I went back to the International House for dinner! " Then the full realization hit Ben hard. "You think I killed Dan Tolliver, don't you?"

            Roy Coffee had no words for his oldest friend.



            He was floating on a cloud. There was nothing solid around him, only warmth and a feeling of weightless floating. He reached for something to anchor himself but found nothing there for his hand to grasp. From somewhere off in the distance he could hear Adam talking then Hoss responded but Joe was too disoriented to understand what was being said. He tried to call to them but couldn't make his voice be heard outside of his own thoughts. He tried to reach out for them, to get their attention, but he found his arms uselessly numb. It didn't bring panic to him, just the disjointed thought that he couldn't do something. Then there were hands touching his wrist and something cold on his chest. He ghosted a smile. It was Paul Martin, Joe knew it was. He raised his consciousness enough to assure himself that he was right and was about to drop back into the sweet oblivion he had come from when a bolt of hot fire, stinging and burning lanced through his side. Gasping, he tried to writhe from its track but strong hands kept him pinned.

            "Easy Joe," Adam's deep baritone soothed but Joe continued his escape try. "It's all right. It'll be over in a minute, I swear it will." True to Adam's words, the pain did back away and Joe opened his eyes. "Afternoon," his brother greeted and Joe concentrated on his brother's face for the few remaining moments of pain. The burning sensation was gone and he could feel himself being moved. Then a warm quilt dropped back over him, whispering security to him with its presence.

            "Welcome back little buddy," Adam crooned again and smiled for his brother's sake. He was a long ways from feeling like a smile though. He glanced down from his position at Joe's head and noted that Paul Martin was sorting things from his bag over on Joe's dresser top. Hoss was fussing with the covering over Joe and Hop Sing had just scooted from the room, carrying away the fouled gauze and bandages they had all just had a part in changing. "Want something to drink?" offered Adam and without waiting for a reply, took the glass of water laced with painkillers that Paul had prepared before the latest ordeal had begun. Adam lifted Joe's head just enough that he could sip some of the liquid. A few moments before and Adam had wondered where Joe had gotten the strength to arch away from the stinging alcohol Paul was using but now, it seemed to Adam that Joe had no strength at all. Again he lifted Joe's head and forced a little more down his throat, giving him gentle words of encouragement because Paul had said that Joe needed to drink all of it. There was no fight in Joe or Adam knew he would have had a full-scale rebellion on his hands, getting Joe to finally finish the bitter draught.

            "Let me there, Adam," insisted the doctor and Adam gave up his place at Joe's head. "Okay then, young man," Paul addressed Joe, making him concentrate with just the tone he used, "how many fingers do you see?"

            As the drug-induced lazy euphoria swept into Joe, he groggily replied "one" which was correct but Joe couldn't fathom why Doc Martin was asking him about fingers.

            "You remember your name?"

            A smile twitched on Joe's face and he mumbled an answer that was vaguely taunting. "Sure, don't you?"

            The physician shook his head. "Guess you're all right or you will be. I'm gonna have Hop Sing bring you up some broth. I want you to swallow every last drop of it, you hear me? I have to go into town for a while but Adam and Hoss here know what to do. I don't want to hear of you giving them any trouble. Okay?"

            The small smile, brought on by the medication more than anything else, drifted in and out on Joe's face until he seemed to think of something. "Pa?" he whispered, his throat thick and his tongue heavy.

            The other three men in the room looked quickly at one another. There had been a brief discussion since Joe was bound to ask for his father when he awoke. No one wanted to tell Joe that Ben had most reluctantly left that morning with Roy Coffee and when he would return was unknown. Paul Martin had been most adamant: tell him very little. "You tell him that Ben has been taken in for questioning for Dan Tolliver's murder and Joe will come right off that bed. You know he will. Besides, we won't know anything for certain until after I have done an autopsy on Tolliver. Could be the man died of natural causes for all we know."

            The two brothers had shook their heads, not wanting to lie to Joe and, at least as far as Adam was concerned, considering the possibility that their father had gone off half-cocked and done…no, he could believe that. But Adam had had to push hard to get away from the thought of his father killing Tolliver.

            "Pa ain't here right now, Joe." Adam easily moved back into the spot where he had been most of the day. "Don't you trust Hoss and I to take care of you?"

            Joe's eyelids were getting heavy and Adam's voice was drifting away. He couldn't find the strength again to do much more than smile faintly for Adam. The banter and quick comebacks would wait for another time. For now, he would go back to resting on that cloud and feeling nothing. Maybe next time when he woke up, his father would be there.

            "Okay," Doc Martin took a deep breath as he spoke the single word. "Like I said, I want those bandages changed every four hours at least! The infection is about drained out completely but I don't want to take any chances. When he comes around again, get that broth into him. Push fluids into him every opportunity you get. Don't back off on the painkiller, either. It's going to do more to help him stay still and quiet than anything else I know of and he needs that right now. I'll be back just as soon as I can. And Adam, get some sleep. I don't want either one of you as a patient too!"


            The afternoon drug by slowly. At the appointed time Hoss and Adam did as the doctor had instructed: replacing the gauze plug for a fresh one liberally soaked in alcohol then clean bandages wrapped around Joe's waist and firmly secured. When it had brought Joe out of his laudanum-induced coma, they had given him the warm and nourishing beef broth Hop Sing had prepared. He even managed to swallow about half the glass of milk that went with it before he simply dropped away from them like a pebble tossed into Tahoe.

            Wiping away the lingering drop of milk from Joe's lip, Adam said, "Well that went better than I though it would.'

            "Maybe for you," Hoss groused. He hated what they had done, the pain they had caused even though he and Adam had been as gentle as they knew how to be. Hoss hadn't been the one handling the stinging alcohol but just the thought of it had made him wince. Now as he gathered together the soiled bandages and prepared the fresh ones for the next go-around, he couldn't help but feel so overly incompetent.

            Adam's eyebrows twitched. "Well, at least he didn't ask for Pa more than twice."

            "And how long do you think it's gonna be before he doesn't swallow your explanation? What are we gonna do Adam? I feel so, I don't know the right word for it but I guess it would be 'torn'. I want to help Pa but I want to help Joe too and I can't do both at the same time."

            "You heard what Pa said when he left. He was going to get this all straightened out and be back before dark. Pa's a big boy and can take care of himself, Hoss."

            Hoss gestured with his head to where Joe lay sleeping. "In case you missed something, big brother, that one there is a big boy now too and he can't no more take care of his self than the man on the moon could."

            "Joe's different. And if he could take care of himself right now, would he ask for Pa every time he wakes up?" Adam pulled the quilt back up over his brother's chest.

            A big finger thumped Adam's shoulder rather soundly. "You put yourself in his place and I bet the first thing you would do is ask for Pa too. I know it 'cause I've seen it."

            Adam smiled ruefully. Hoss had him dead to rights. Whatever the connection they had as brothers was only exceeded by the one they had as Ben Cartwright's sons. When the world looked at them, it might see four men, independent and strong in their self-assuredness. But their father had lavished enough love and attention on them in private over the years that they had come to depend on him for that. And that is what made them what the world saw. Yes, when the chips were down, their father was there with understanding and love--Adam's thoughts stopped abruptly. A strong feeling of guilt washed over Adam for his behavior towards his father over the past few days.

            "Hoss, sit down a minute and listen to me, will you? I've got something I need to get out in the open."

            The bigger man put the basin he had in his hands down and pulled a chair around to sit, leaning his arms across the back of it. For Adam to make this request had gotten his immediate attention. It wasn't often that Adam said things like this, that he opened up and spoke to Hoss but then again Adam seldom did. Had Hoss known that he was the receiver of the majority of those times, he might have felt a little differently but he merely thought that it was a rare thing for Adam to do. "Shoot."

            "Something has been bugging me about Pa. He's been short tempered, in a black mood," Adam began.

            "You can say that again. Since Joe was shot, he's been so dad-blamed mad at ever'one and ever'thin'," commiserated Hoss when Adam had paused.

            "He's not angry, Hoss. He's been feeling…guilty, I think."

"Guilty? What are you talkin'? Why would Pa feel guilty?"

"Guilty because he just gave Tolliver the money. Guilty that he trusted the man that Joe wouldn't be hurt. Guilty because Joe was hurt and it took so long for him to get to help. Guilty because he wanted Dan Tolliver dead. Guilty because if he and Joe hadn't fired Dan, none of this would have happened." With each utterance of the word 'guilty', Adam had slapped one hand into the other palm, reinforcing the word.

"That's a powerful lot of guilties, Adam. You gonna tell me now that you think Pa really wanted ol' Dan dead?"

Adam swallowed hard before he answered his brother's question. "I did," he admitted and found he could no longer stay seated and still. He rose and began to restlessly pace the room. "When I rode off that afternoon, I went back into town, looking for Tolliver. I'd hoped to find him drinking, gambling with that blood-soaked money. I had it in my head that I would call him out then shoot him down like the dog I knew he was! But instead I find a frightened old man who had locked himself in Roy's jail. But even that didn't change what I wanted, Hoss. If it hadn't been for the bars on that cell, I would have gotten my hands on his neck and broken it with my bare hands. And Joe is my brother. I can't even begin to put myself in Pa's place, seeing what happened to my son."

Hoss nodded. He understood what Adam had spoken of since he had felt that urge rise in him too when his father had told him that Tolliver was responsible. But, unlike Adam, Hoss had not acted on that feeling, that all-consuming urge for revenge. Maybe it was because he had stayed and helped his father; maybe it was because he had heard Joe's explanation first hand but Hoss had let it pass. Surely it was the teachings of his father that had let him forgive Dan Tolliver's actions. It was those same teachings that had let Joe do so and if any one had a reason to feel angry about what had happened, surely it was Joe.

"Adam," Hoss put out a hand and grabbing hold of Adam's arm in passing, stopped his older brother's pacing. "You think Pa killed Dan Tolliver?"

He shook loose Hoss' hand and went to stand at the window overlooking the yard below. The late afternoon sun washed the dirt there into a soft golden color. Adam looked to the cloudless blue sky then closed his eyes for a moment before he spoke. "If Dan Tolliver had turned up dead right after Joe was shot, yes, Pa could have killed him. But now, weeks later? No, I can't believe Pa would have."

"But right now, Joe's in just as bad a shape or maybe worse. Maybe somethin' in Pa just finally pushed him over the edge and he went looking for Dan."

"I could believe that except for one thing, Hoss: Pa wouldn't have left Joe alone if he knew he was that sick. Look at how he acted when he got home! A team of wild horses couldn't have gotten Pa away from Joe!"

Hoss' face pulled to one side as he thought on what Adam was saying. It was true how Pa had acted and it was entirely just like Pa. And Pa's going with the sheriff when requested, however reluctantly, showed Hoss just how much respect his father did have for the law. But Adam hadn't been in the room and seen the look on their father's face. Hoss knew that look. He'd seen it plenty of times, mostly when dealing with a fast-talking wayward little brother who had gotten into trouble again. It was one of resignation.

            "But maybe we are jumping the gun here. Maybe Dan Tolliver died of a heart attack or somethin'. He was an old man," excused Hoss.

            "Dan Tolliver is about the same age as Pa, Hoss. And both of them are, well, were in good health. Both worked hard and I don't believe Dan drank any harder than Pa does! But I'm like you. I hope he died of natural causes."



            Paul Martin walked reluctantly into Roy Coffee's office that early evening. In his hand was the official death certificate and autopsy report for Dan Tolliver. The ink was still a little damp on them. He had hoped to deliver his report much earlier, get a nap and get back out and see how Joe Cartwright was faring but he hadn't been able to. Now, he would wait until morning before he returned to the Ponderosa. He only hoped that he could deliver his findings to Roy in private. He wasn't able to do that either since Ben Cartwright sat across the desk from Roy Coffee.

            "Paul, that the autopsy report?" Roy asked. No one present had to ask whose autopsy.

            "Yep," the doctor couldn't look Ben in the eye. "Hate to say it but cause of death is uncertain."

            Both other men quickly looked to the doctor so he continued. "I can't decide whether it was the blow to the head that killed him or the broken neck. Both happened about the same time and either one would have been fatal."

            "Can you tell what sort of object hit him on the head?" Roy asked, rising to his feet.

            "No I can't. Sorry." The little doctor looked down into Ben Cartwright's eyes, searching for something there, searching for remorse in the very least. The velvet brown eyes were narrowed, as though in caution, Paul thought.

            "You got something else on your mind, Doc?" Roy queried, noting the other man's strange reticence.

            Paul swallowed hard and tossed something round, heavy and brown onto the desk before them all. "I found this clutched in his hand. Looks like its been torn off. I think Dan struggled, reaching and grabbing. I checked his own clothing and it wasn't his. I'd say that it belonged to the last person who saw him alive." The doctor was careful to not say the word 'killer' but only because he couldn't imagine it of one of his oldest and best friends but the proof was there on the desktop before them.

            When it fell from Paul's hand, Ben immediately checked. The motion didn't go unnoticed by the sheriff and he saw what Ben saw: the button on the desk, with its brown threads still clinging to tan fabric, matched the others on Ben Cartwright's jacket. Right down to the spot where one was missing.

            "Ben," Roy sucked in a noisy breath then went on. "I'm sorry but this makes it official. I'm arresting you for the death of Dan Tolliver. Until we can get the judge to set a bail for you, I'm gonna have to lock you up."

            Those final words seemed to bring Ben alive. He stood quickly, his eyes flashing in the light of the kerosene lamps. "No," he sharply said, "You can't do that. I need to be home. Joseph needs me!"

            "I'm sorry Ben but I got to do my duty to the law. Now please, just hand over your gun," Roy urged and prayed that Ben wouldn't fight him but he could already see Ben's hand slowly sweeping back his jacket and reaching for the grip of his revolver. "Ben, don't do somethin' we'll all regret." Roy held out his left hand, just the mere motion begging for sanity and reason to prevail yet his own right hand was resting easily on his own sidearm, just in case.

            Paul Martin watched the scene and stepped forward to Ben's side and easily intercepted the man's hand. He wasn't sure if Ben had been going to pull the gun to shoot Roy Coffee or simply to hand it over. It wasn't his intervention that assured all that there would be no bullets flying that night but his words. "I'll see that Joe is all right, Ben."

            "And I'll have your lawyer over here first thing in the morning. But come on, Ben, if nothing else, you need a good night's sleep and I got to lock you up. Don't want to but I got to." Between he and the doctor, Roy managed to get Ben maneuvered into the cell and sitting on the narrow cot. Roy was more than a little shocked at how lifeless Ben had been but he put it down to all of the events of the last few days. He wouldn't let himself believe that his long-time friend was guilty of another's man's ruthless murder.



            Instead of doing as he wanted, Paul Martin hitched a fresh horse to his buggy and headed for the Ponderosa ranch house. Someone, and he guessed he was as good as anyone, would have to let the family know about Ben's official arrest. To keep himself awake during the long drive, he ran what he knew about Dan Tolliver's death through his mind again. Like he had told Roy, it was either the blow to the head or the broken neck that had killed the old wrangler. He hadn't been there when the body was found so he had no idea what the scene would have been like. It was possible that Dan had hit his head on something there in the alley as he fell following his neck being broken. Or his neck might have broken with the impact of hitting the same something that cracked his skull. He had been relieved to find that there were no bruises on Dan's neck, saying that he had been strangled or the like. What truly bothered him was that if Dan's neck had been broken by someone else, the most logical position for the attacker would have been behind the victim. The button he had pulled from Tolliver's grasp had come from the center of Ben's coat, indicating that they had been face to face. That also meant that Ben couldn't have struck him on the head since that blow had come from behind as well. But there again, who was to say that the button tearing loose hadn't happened prior to the deathblow, say during an argument? Was Dan's death the result of a heated argument? Was it an accident? If so, then why hadn't Ben said so? Too many whys and not enough answers kept Paul Martin awake all the way to the yard of the house. He knew one thing and one thing certain: Ben Cartwright loved his sons enough to kill a man who hurt them. And Dan Tolliver had hurt one of them.

            Even though the house was quiet, there was a light still lit on the table beside the stairs. Doctor Paul Martin hadn't bothered to knock on the door, knowing it would be open to him no matter what the day or time. He slipped into the house, greeted by the warmth of the fire still burning in the fireplace and the deep resonate voice of Adam Cartwright from the shadowy alcove of his father's desk.

            "Dan Tolliver was killed, wasn't he?" There were the sounds of a chair scraping the floor and then nothing until Adam appeared silently in front of the doctor. There was the faint smell of whiskey but it wasn't enough to concern Paul.

            "I thought I told you to get some sleep," Martin gruffly said.

            "Answer me," and the words, so cold yet so hot with recrimination, made the other man flinch.

            "He died from either a broken neck or a blow to the head. Or both. Close as I can tell, they happened simultaneously."

            "And? Where is Pa?"

            The physician looked straight at Adam's dark form. He could see little in the darkness but he didn't need to have light to know what the eldest Cartwright son looked like. And he wouldn't be cowered by that imagined vision.

            "Arrested for it. Dan Tolliver had some rather incriminating evidence."

            The shadowy figure in front of him exploded. "Son of a bitch!" Adam cursed and moved towards the fire, his motions fluid yet strained. He halted, outlined by the fire's glow. Sensing little danger directed at him personally, Paul went closer, ending up standing just an arm's length away.

            "I'm sorry, Adam," was all he could think to say. "How's Joe?"

            Pulling his shoulders taut, Adam seemed to gather himself together. "How do you think he is? Every time he wakes up, he asks for Pa. I keep lying to him, just telling him that Pa isn’t here. What am I going to do when he sees through the lies? You got anything in your little black doctor's bag for him then? When I have to tell him that Pa is accused of killing Dan Tolliver, what's it going to do to him?"

            "No, Adam I don't have anything for that. Hopefully, once Roy can get a judge to set bail, your father can come home. There will be a trial, Adam, and then, and only then, will your father be found guilty or innocent. Don't have him hung before then, son," Paul cautioned, hoping to make the other see some sense.

            "Do you think my father killed Dan Tolliver?" Adam asked, his voice now soft, his venom spent apparently.

            The doctor had to answer him truthfully. "I don't know, Adam, not for certain."

            "But going on what you know, your experience, do you believe Pa did it?" pushed Adam.

            "Yes, all the evidence I know of now points in that direction."

            Again Adam swore and this time shook his head and looked to the floor resignedly.

            "But it may have been an accident, for all we know."

            "Has Pa said that it was?" Adam asked, his voice so low that Paul had to strain to hear his words.

            "No, I didn't hear him say too much of anything. Just that he didn't want Roy to arrest him because he felt he needed to be here for your brother," and looks like you too, the good doctor finished by thinking. "Adam, this is doing neither your father nor Joe any good. Go to bed. Sleep. Tomorrow, go into town. Talk with your father. Talk with your lawyer. Hell, talk with half the town! But first you have to sleep. Come on," Paul grasped the hard black-clad shoulder beside him and using a nominal amount of pressure and force, aimed the oldest Cartwright son up the stairs and down the hallway. When Adam paused at Joe's close doorway, Paul merely pushed on, not letting go until they stood at Adam's bedroom door. "I meant what I said. Get some sleep." He opened the door and made sure a reluctant Adam went into the room. For a few long moments, he waited outside the closed door. Hearing the bed creak, he figured Adam had at least sat down on it and that was close enough. He headed back down the hallway. Pushing open the door to Joe's room, he wasn't surprised to see the hulking shape of Hoss trying to stay in the chair at his brother's bedside. Slipping around the sleeping giant, the doctor checked on his patient. He too was sleeping, with no sign of fever. Lifting the covers, he examined the bandages by the dim light. There was nothing on them to cause alarm or concern so he dropped the cover back down. With the bottle of laudanum held to the lowered lamplight, he could just make out the level. The two brothers had apparently done their job well.

            "Well, doctor," he chuckled softly to himself as he slipped back passed the gently snoring Hoss, "time you took some of your own advice." Paul Martin left the door open to Joe's room and going silently down the hall, found the guestroom prepared for him. Without undressing, he stretched out on the bed and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.




            Again, he awoke slowly, by degrees. One by one, his senses registered life around him and allowed him to experience that life. First he could hear Paul Martin saying something to Hoss and Hoss' voice answering something that he couldn't quite make out. The hands that brushed across his chest and down his belly were those of the doctor, Joe was sure. From some place in the far recesses of his mind, he tried to push them away as he claimed to be feeling fine but could only groan aloud.

            "Mornin' there Shortshanks," Hoss' smile greeted him when he finally opened his eyes.

            Joe merely grunted softly and turned his attention to the doctor instead. The doctor had unbandaged his side and was probing none too gently. When he carefully removed the gauze packing, Joe 's body tensed and would have risen from the bed had Hoss not had a hand on his shoulder, pinning him in place. Sure that what would follow would be burning sting of alcohol, Joe's breathing became ragged and he closed his eyes tight.

            "Here," Hoss offered and Joe sipped the bitter potion offered to him.

            "Looks real good this morning, Joe," the doctor was saying.

            "All the infection gone?" Adam's drawl came from the foot of the bed and Joe wondered where his father was that morning. The world began to spin in slow circles and Joe closed his eyes to make it stop.

            "I think so but I want to make sure. Joe, open your eyes and talk to me," Martin commanded and Joe did as he asked, wary. "I need push on the surrounding area here and I want you to tell me what you feel. Okay?" Joe merely nodded and gritted his teeth. He and Paul Martin locked eyes and wills, neither wanting to nor giving in to other.

            Adam had moved up beside Joe across from Hoss. Seeing the muscles in Joe's jaws tighten, he figured what Paul was doing was painful. He saw the movement right there beside him and slipped his hand under the blanket. Joe had a death grip on the mattress that didn't surprise Adam in the least. Not giving away the secret, he gripped his hand over Joe's. He caught Hoss' attention and looked pointedly at where he knew Joe's other hidden hand was knotted. Hoss nodded succinctly, understanding at once and did the same as Adam had done. Little by little, even though Paul persisted, Joe's grip loosened and his breathing evened out.

            "Nothing besides just hurting?" and Joe shook his head. The doctor laughed easily, relieved. Any lingering pockets of infection would have been pushed into the gaping hole in Joe's side by his manipulations. Nothing but clean blood had pooled there. "Okay then, we're going to stitch you closed. Again. But this time, Joe, you have got to go easy on my handiwork! I don't want to hear that you have gotten out of bed for at least a week. For any reason. Understand?"

            "Did his getting up too soon cause the problem?" Adam asked, smoothing the blanket back down and patting Joe's hand beneath it just once to seal the secret between them all.

            "Don' think so. Hate to admit it, especially in front of him," and Joe smiled, "but it may have been a good thing. Forced the infection into one place, that abscessed area, rather than distributing itself through out your body, Joe. But let's not chance that again, okay?"

            Joe swallowed hard once and gave Paul Martin a faint grin. But the doctor was digging into his black satchel and didn't catch all of his patient's response. He didn't need to. He figured Adam and Hoss could keep Joe in line when Ben couldn't. At that thought, Paul inwardly flinched. Ben, the stern visaged head of family that seemed an immovable rock to outsiders, could be pushed and prodded easily by his sons, the one on the bed in particular. At the same time, Paul knew that what the boy would need in the coming weeks was not his brothers' strict enforcement but his father's fussing and pampering.

            The doctor turned back to his patient, in his hand now clearly seen were the needles and cat-gut thread he would use to close the wound. He wanted to chuckle but didn't when Joe's eyes became to the size of saucers, his face went white, and he swallowed several times in rapid succession.

            "You gonna give me anything for the pain first?" asked Joe, his voice a now shaky whisper. When Paul Martin simply replied that he didn't think it was necessary, he heard Adam's little chuckle.

            Just before Joe slipped back under the influence of the medication Hoss had given him, he managed to untangle a hand from the sheets. He let it drop heavily onto Adam's forearm. Adam murmured that it was all going to be okay and was half way to believing it when Joe asked for their father. He glanced over his shoulder to where Doc Martin was finishing his suturing and again caught Hoss' eye. But this time, Hoss merely looked away, making it clear to his brother what he thought.

            "Pa'll be here soon, little buddy. You wait and see," Adam lied.

            Adam sat still beside his sleeping brother, his face clouded with thought. Paul Martin completed his work and when Hoss stepped forward to help him, together they lightly bandaged the wound. The physician packed his bag as he gave Hoss a running list of instructions that Adam seemed not to hear as he didn't respond to any thing said. Then the other man was gone, leaving the three brothers alone again.

            "I asked when you were going into town, Adam. Three times. Now you either answer me or I am gonna get a hold of ya -" Hoss was saying and it seemed to bring Adam out of his trance.

            "Sorry," Adam automatically apologized and rose from the chair as he did. "I guess I better head into town now. See what's happening. See what I can do."

            "Better have some of Hop Sing's breakfast first. He's about fit to be tied that there ain't no body eatin' regular 'round here. Soon as Joe comes back around, I'll see what I can get into him. Paul said he wouldn't be out long so unless you want in on that battle, I suggest you leave now."


            The first place Adam stopped at in Virginia City was the office of Roy Coffee. There was another man there, complaining about someone making too much noise in the night. Adam didn't recognize the man but did the exasperated look on the sheriff's face. When Roy finally got a word in edgewise that he would send a deputy around to see about it, the man seemed appeased. Another sharp word about the ruffians in town and the man was gone.

            "Morning Adam," Roy finally acknowledged when the little man was finally hustled out the door. "I swear, things are changing in this town faster than I can deal with! Used to be that folks didn't complain about noise from their neighbor's house. Now I get it three, four times a week."

            "Used to be, Roy, you couldn't hear what went on in your neighbor's house because the stamp mills were so noisy!" Adam eased himself over to the sheriff's desk and sat down, a wry smile on his dark features.

            "How's Joe?" Roy asked, brushing aside anything else he might have said.

            "Doc says he's doing okay. His fever is gone but there's still a problem." Adam toyed with the edge of the papers piled on Roy's desk. When the sheriff merely lifted his brows in Adam's direction, he continued dryly. "Same problem Hoss and I both have: we want our father at home, not locked up in a cell for a crime he didn't commit."

            "You know the law as well as I do, Adam Cartwright! I can't just let him walk out of here! This is a murder he's accused of! And, God help me for sayin' it, but he made it pretty clear to me not two weeks ago that he wanted Dan Tolliver dead." Roy steepled his fingers and leaned back in his chair. "Now if you want to go back and see your pa, that's fine with me but until a judge says so, I can't let him go home."

            "Fine," Adam spit the word out as he stood. "Let me go back there and see him. Let me talk to him."

            Roy stood as well and extended his hand to Adam, silently asking for his gun. As a friend it hurt Coffee to suspect that these men would break the law and try anything in his jail. As an officer of the law, he couldn't chance it.

            With a hiss, Adam untied his holster and never letting his eyes leave the lawman's face, unbuckled it, slapping it down with a menacing thud on the desk. "Want to make sure I ain't carrying a hideout gun?" Adam sneered, lifting his arms as though for Roy to search him.

            "Don't act like that, Adam. I'm just doing my job and you know it! Take as long as you need," Roy shot back, ending with the placating remark, hoping to dispel the acid hanging in the air. His gut quivering, he handed Adam the full set of keys to the cells behind him and the wooden door. He had to show Adam that he did trust him.

            Adam was appalled by how his father looked. Unshaven and rumpled was not his father's style. And to Adam it was clear that Ben had not slept at all. All the same, Ben was on his feet and to the cell door before Adam could close the heavy wooden door that separated the office from the holding cells.

            "Is Joe all right?" Ben asked quickly and to Adam, fearfully.

            Adam found the right key and opened his father's cell door. Ben stood there, his whole face a question mark to his eldest son.

            "No, I am not breaking you out of here. Until we can get to a judge, Roy says you have to stay, but at least we can sit down together and talk, Pa, without bars between us."

            Ben wiped his suddenly sweating palms down his trouser legs and stepped back so Adam could step into the cell with him. Adam left the door open, the keys hanging in the lock and proceeded to sit down on the narrow cot there in the cell. After a few uncertain moments, Ben sat beside him.

            "You didn't answer me. Is Joe all right?" Ben let his hands fall between his knees as he spoke.

            Adam smiled and nodded, trying to instill hope in his father. "Joe's fine. The infection seems to have been cleared up but Paul did knock him out again to sew him up. Thought Joe was gonna pass out when Paul held up that cat-gut." Both men dutifully chuckled, knowing how Joe hated the procedure. "But he keeps asking for you, Pa. We didn't tell him anything other than the fact that you weren't there."

            When Ben hadn't said anything for a while, Adam laid his arm over his father's hunched shoulders. "I'm gonna go down and talk with John Nestor," he said, naming the Cartwright's attorney. "We'll get you out of here in no time at all, Pa, you'll see."

            "On bail," Ben mumbled. "Then comes the trial." Suddenly Ben couldn't sit still any longer and he rose quickly. With two paces he was at the other side of the small cell and away from Adam.

            "And once the jury finds you not guilty, this will all be behind us and over."

            His father said nothing, merely nodding his head vaguely. Something about it all began to bother Adam tremendously. Like his father, he rose and took the steps needed to put him beside Ben.

            "I'll go get John but Pa, " Adam hesitated, hating himself for what had sprung full blown into his mind: doubt. He pressed on by asking, "Just tell me that you didn't kill Dan Tolliver for what happened to Joe."

            Ben said nothing as he turned and faced his eldest son. Though his father's face was set into a near-unreadable mask, Adam backed away mentally. "All right," Adam said softly, "I won't ask again."


            In the confines of his cell, Ben Cartwright spent two hours talking with his attorney before Roy Coffee had stuck his head in and said that a coroner's inquest was slated for that afternoon at one o'clock. Nestor, his pudgy hand patting Ben on the shoulder, told Roy they would be ready. Mopping his brow, he told Ben to "buck up. We'll have you home to those boys in no time!" then left. He had a case to prepare for and needed time alone to think.


            The coroner's inquest, while not normally something that half the town turned out for, was well attended. Word had spread like wildfire and everyone who could manage closed shop, slipped away early from work or just took off so they could see the proceedings. The county courthouse was packed but hushed when Adam and Hoss Cartwright entered and sat down just behind the long wooden table that would serve as the desk for the attorneys. Before the whispers could begin again, Roy Coffee entered followed by Ben Cartwright and John Nestor. There had been no time or opportunity for Ben to shave let alone, change into the clean clothes Hoss had brought for him.

            "Dang, but Pa looks bad, Adam," Hoss said softly to his brother. Adam could only nod his agreement.

            The judge, a man of many years on the bench but few to Virginia City and Storey County, banged his gavel once. The room became silent.

            "This is a coroner's inquest into the suspicious death of Daniel Tolliver. It is not a trial but I will insist on quiet in the hall. If you can't be silent, leave now," the judge spoke up, his booming voice filling the room.

Of course no one left.

            "We will handle this quickly. Doctor Paul Martin, have a seat up here please," and Paul Martin rose from his place in the crowd and made his way to sit in the chair beside the table the judge sat behind. He was dutifully sworn in, giving his title of coroner rather than physician when asked his official connection to the proceedings.

            "Like I said, we're going to handle this quick. Doctor Martin, how did Dan Tolliver die?"

            "Cause of death was from either a blow to the head of a broken neck. I can't tell which happened first," Paul answered cleanly.

            "No chance of it being from natural causes?" the judge asked.

            The doctor shook his head no. And just as quickly, the judge dismissed him. The courtroom buzzed. The judge rapped twice with his gavel and the buzzing stopped.

            "Mr. Bradley, you are the acting district attorney, are you not?" the judge called out.

            The man at the other end of the table from Ben and John Nestor stood slowly. It was plain to everyone that he didn't want to be there just by how he acted. They didn't need his "Sadly, I am, your honor."

            "Sadly? Why Mr. Bradley?"

            "Because I have been friends with Ben Cartwright and his family for years, your honor. I would ask to be relieved of this case because of that, your honor." Case Bradley looked across the room to the man he had called friend and while he was appalled at how poorly Ben Cartwright looked that afternoon, tried to not let his emotion show itself. He pitied Ben. As district attorney, and therefore representing the State's case, he had seen the reports. He had heard the evidence. And it was an overpowering shadow of guilt he saw on his friend.

            The judge, a portly man in his fifties, leaned back in his chair before he spoke again. "Considering the fact that this town has only two lawyers, Mr. Bradley, one has to defend the accused and one has to stand up for the State's rights. You want to fill me in on where we can get someone else on short notice? No, Mr. Bradley, I will trust that you will do your duty to the State of Nevada and Justice, herself. Now then, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, Mr. Bradley, you want to tell me what the State has in the way of information about the death of this Daniel Tolliver?"

            With a nod of apology, Case Bradley delivered the evidence he had at that time. Dan Tolliver had been threatened by Ben Cartwright in the presence of others. Tolliver had even sought the shelter of Roy Coffee's jail, fearing for his life. Ben Cartwright had admitted to an officer of the law that he had seen and talked with Dan Tolliver the night of Tolliver's death. And there was evidence of an altercation between the two men.

            Throughout the mercifully short discourse, Bradley didn't look once at the man being accused. He couldn't.

            "Sounds to me like a pretty solid case. Mr. Nestor, you want to say anything in your client's behalf?"

            Nestor stood and leaned on the table, "You mean besides asking when this stopped being a coroner's inquest and suddenly became a trial?" he accused.

            The judge banged on his gavel several times even though the room was quiet.

            "If you're going to stand on formality, then so be it!" Again the gavel rapped out needlessly. "It is the finding of this inquest that Daniel Tolliver was murdered. As such, it is the decision of this court, having heard evidence presented before it, that Ben Cartwright be charged for that wrongful death and held over for trial. How does your client plead Mr. Nestor?"

            Hastily, John Nestor pulled Ben to his feet, willing Ben to come out of his shock and answer for himself. When several frantic heartbeats passed and Ben still remained silent, Nestor spoke clearly and resolutely.

            "Not guilty!"

            Shaking his head the judge muttered, "Could have seen that coming a mile away." Then he raised his voice to be heard clearly. "I suppose you have a recommendation for bail, Mr. Bradley?"

            "Well," Bradley started to rise but the judge waved him down.

            "As I understand it, the accused is a man of means, correct, Mr. Nestor?"

            "Yes he is," Nestor scrambled for a hold on the track the judge was proceeding along. "He is also well known and well liked in the community as a whole, having family and close ties here."

            "I didn't ask you that, Mr. Nestor. If I let your client walk out that door, does he have the money to just keep on going?"

            The room went deathly silent.

            "Mr. Nestor, a response please."

            "You honor, begging your pardon, sir, but whether my client has the means to do so and whether he would leave the area are two different things! Mr. Cartwright has a home and sons here that he wants to be with at this terrible time."

            "Fine!" the judge barked. "They can visit him in jail. There will be no bail. The accused is remanded to the custody of the County jail for the duration. Trial is set to start a week from tomorrow!"

            Although the courtroom erupted in a sea of noise, shouts and exclamations, the three Cartwrights sat in stunned silence.



            "Not right now, please Roy. I need some time, some time to think things through, to try and get a grip on what's happening," Ben pleaded, pacing his small cell and running his hand through his hair and across his unshaven face.

            "Ben, Adam has always had a way of thinking things out real clear like. Talk to him. It's been two days and these boys of yours are getting' a mite antsy. I would too if my pa suddenly didn't want to see me or talk to me."

            "I just can't do it right now Roy. You have to make them understand that!" His words were heated and Roy took a step back from the cell bars.

            "I can't seem to do that. Something about that Cartwright stubbornness! They're gonna break my door down soon if you don't let them talk to you." It was on the tip of Roy Coffee's tongue to say that the way Ben was acting made him all the more suspicious that Ben was indeed guilty.

            Finally Ben stopped his pacing and looked out the tiny window at the clear blue of an early fall afternoon. My sons, he thought, I have to talk to them, make them understand…no I don't want to see them.    

            "Pa?" Hoss' voice broke across his father's shoulders timidly.

            Ben took a deep breath and turned. There Hoss and Adam both stood, shoulder to shoulder, Adam leaning into the cell, his hands clasped just inside the bars. The lines around Adam's eyes were more pronounced, clearly stating that he wasn't sleeping well. Hoss, his forever staunch and strong son, stood slumped, his thumbs tucked into his belt. But, God forgive him, the one son Ben longed to see standing there wasn't. So instead he asked about Joe.

            Adam chewed the inside of his cheek before he answered. "Joe's doing okay. We told him the other day what had happened. He was upset but I think he'll get over it. Eventually," Adam tacked on the last word as an afterthought but didn't really believe it. If his father had been there to see how Joe had reacted to the news that his father was going to be tried for the murder of Dan Tolliver, he probably would have had some harsh words. But then again, if Ben had been there, the discussion wouldn't have come up. How could he tell his father that Joe's rebellion had set his recovery back more than just a little?

            "He wanted to come with us today to see you but Doc Martin said that weren't a good idea," Hoss picked up where Adam left off. "Course then, he's wanted to come ever'day but he just ain't up to it."

            Ben let his gaze drop to the floor, ashamed to meet his sons' eyes. There was condemnation in Adam's and rightfully so, Ben thought. To be saddled once againno, he turned his thoughts away from that track. Adam would handle everything. He always did. But in Hoss' face there was confusion and doubt. All Ben had to do was tell them what had happened and he knew that look would disappear. But he knew he had the strength of will to only tell the story once.

            "No, keep him away from here. I don't want to see him right now. Keep him away from here, town, the trial, all of this."

            "That's going to be difficult to do Pa. He's being called as a witness…by the State." Adam's words, barely above a whisper rocked Ben back with the force of a shout. "We've all been summoned."

            For what seemed like forever, Ben couldn't breathe, couldn't make a sound. His own sons were going to have to testify against him. His heart thudded in his chest and he backed up to the cot and half fell down onto it.

            "Then you shouldn't be in here talking with me, should you?" Ben uttered softly, hopelessly.

            "Mr. Bradley didn't say nuthin' about it and I don't think they coulda kept us from doin' it otherwise. But Pa, we wanna hear your side. Tell us what happened." Hoss begged.

            "No, you'll hear it in court like everyone else. As much as I didn't want to see you boys, I guess I am thankful that you came anyway. Tell Joseph, " Ben's voice caught in his throat and he tried to work his way around the lump that had grown there so swiftly.

            "It's all right, Pa. We will," Hoss spoke up quickly, understanding his father's unspoken need.

            "Time's up, boys!" Roy Coffee hollered, coming through the doorway with his keys in his hand. He hated this part of his job but he had made the deal with Case Bradley. The Cartwright sons could have all the time they wanted with their father as long as no mention was made of the upcoming trial. He had hated to listen like he had at the door but, as he reminded himself over and over, he had the law to uphold. He was just sorry it was against his friends that he held it.


            The beer mugs made wet rings on the surface of the table. Although they had ordered them by instinct, now that they sat in front of Adam and Hoss, neither wanted them. But playing with the wetness at least gave them both something to do. Finally, picking up his mug, Adam took a few swallows. Licking away the traces on his lip he studied Hoss for a moment.

            "Guess we need to be getting home," Adam suggested but neither man made a move.

            "Think we were right at not telling Pa every'thin'?" Hoss took a long swallow of his own beer then set the mug right back down in the same spot.

            "Don't know. I'm not sure that Pa is feeling anything now. He's just shut down. You saw the tray there in the cell. He isn't eating and one look at him and you can tell he isn't sleeping. And you tell me once in the last twenty-some years that Pa has gone without shaving this long! I want to think otherwise but Hoss, Pa isn't acting like an innocent man. He's acting more like a condemned man, like he knows he is going to hang for killing Tolliver."

            With lightning speed, Hoss grabbed a handful of Adam's shirt and if Adam hadn't clamped his own fist down on the meaty wrist, might have been pulled from his chair. Just as quickly, Hoss realized that Adam had only spoken the truth and released his brother.

            "Sorry. I kinda forgot for a second where we were. I'm sorry Adam but please don't say somethin' like that in front of Joe. If Pa is guilty and he does hang, what's it gonna do to Joe?"

            "Eat him up with guilt probably. The only hope we have is that Pa is talking to John Nestor more than he is us. We need a miracle, Hoss. Come on, let's get home. Don't want you late for supper."

            Just as they rode past the International House, Adam pulled up and sat looking down the narrow alleyway. He didn't know what he thought he would see but he had hoped for more than the barren clapboard walls on one side and the brick of the hotel on the other. The alleyway opened up at the end of the buildings and they could see the traffic passing by on the next street. Without saying a word, Adam dismounted and handed Hoss his reins. He crossed into the long shadows of the alleyway, studying the dirt at his feet and walls, barely more than an arm span apart. There was nothing there. He was about to turn and leave when he realized Hoss was with him as well.

            "See anything?" Adam asked but Hoss just shook his head, still paying close attention to the ground. Then he looked up, seeking out the sides of the buildings that made the alleyway so narrow.

            "How tall would you say ol Dan was?" Hoss asked when Adam said that he thought Dan might have come to his shoulder, watched as Hoss went down the brick wall, his hand at that height. At one point he stopped and stepped closer to the wall but then stepped back and continued. Once he got to the end of the block he turned and did the same thing up the wooden wall side.

            "What are you thinking?" Adam asked when Hoss was again in range to hear him.

            "Trying to think that Dan hit one of these walls. I was looking for some sign but there's nothing."

            "I know" Adam sighed and let his hands rest on his hips. "There's nothing here. Nothing."

            "So how did Dan Tolliver die here, with all this nothing?"

            "Okay, work with me a minute here, Hoss. Let's say you're Pa and I'm Dan. We meet here in the alleyway. Pa has said that he met Dan here but that Dan was drunk. He wanted Pa to go have a drink with him but Pa refused. What happens next?"

            Hoss gave it a long thought before he said that he didn't know.

            "What happens next is Dan argues with Pa, maybe tries to drag him. Come on, let's try that."

            "Adam," Hoss snorted his brother's name out. "I am a lot bigger than Pa."

            "And I'm a lot bigger than Dan but just come on, work with me." To further push his brother into the role playing, Adam threw an arm over Hoss' shoulders and tried to drag him down the alleyway. When Hoss didn't budge, Adam wound up having to grab the front of Hoss' vest to stay upright.

            "That's when Dan managed to get the button off Pa's coat, Adam!" exclaimed Hoss.

            "That's one possibility. The other is that they fought one another and Dan, being shoved against this brick wall, batters his head in. Sliding down when Pa turns loose, he grabs and comes up with Pa's button. See Hoss, it isn't how Dan got a hold of that button but when. That makes a big difference."

            "But Adam I looked at them walls. There is no sign of what you're suggestin' happenin'. There's nuthin' at all."

            "Okay, you're right. Let's get on home." Together the two brothers left the alleyway but just before they left it, Adam looked back. It was only the shifting of shadows but he thought for just a moment that he saw someone moving.



            It hurt. Worse than the first time, it hurt. Now, not just when he moved but all the time, it was a dragging, persistent and humiliating ache that kept him pulled to that side. Clenching his jaws tightly closed, Joe again positioned himself, slowly dragging the other leg from under the bedclothes. He had to hang onto the side of the bed to keep from falling and his vision swam with spots of darkness. He swallowed hard and tried to stop his arms from shaking. They were the only things besides stubbornness holding him up and that only by force of will. Concentrating on controlling his own body, Joe paid no attention to Adam's offer of help. It was harder to turn away Hoss' offer as he was directly in front of Joe at the moment. Oh, but it would have been so easy to reach out and latch onto one of those shoulders, letting Hoss help him to sit up and get his legs over the side of the bed. But, no, Joe reminded himself, he couldn't rely on Hoss any more than he could Adam right then. After all, they had lied to him about their father…

            "Joe, this is foolish! We can have Case come up here to talk to-" Adam was proclaiming but Joe's hard glare stopped him in mid-thought. From where he stood at the foot of the bed, he could see the sweat on Joe's pale face. It was like he could feel the pain jabbing at his brother and couldn't fathom why Joe was being such a hardhead about them helping.

            His singsong voice dancing on Joe's ears lightly, Hop Sing moved between Hoss and Joe. In his hands, Joe's shirt hung open, inviting. Carefully Joe lifted one arm and got it through the sleeve. With Hop Sing helping him, Joe figured he could get dressed. His brothers he didn't need or want at that time. Still panting with the effort, Joe let Hop Sing lift one leg then the other for Joe to get his pants on then his shirt buttoned. Standing would take more than Hop Sing and Joe wasn't sure he had the strength to make up the balance.

            Once Joe was dressed, even though he didn't tuck his shirttail in and left half the buttons undone, Hoss wouldn't even listen to the protest but easily pulled a very unsteady Joe to his bare feet. With a good-natured grumbling, he told Adam just to open the doors and stay out of the way. Joe pushed at Hoss' helping hands but Hoss wouldn't relent, holding Joe upright and aimed at the bedroom door.

            Downstairs, sitting on the sofa with his papers spread before him, Case Bradley looked up at the sound on the stairs. He immediately stood and went to the foot of the stairs, concerned by what he saw. Hoss didn't turn loose of Joe, half carrying him down and Joe brushed aside the lawyer's out-stretched hand. Shifting him around, Hoss got Joe seated in their father's chair and for just a moment, Joe closed his eyes and let himself imagine his father there.

            "…and I am not sure whether he will be able to make it into town, Mr. Bradley. Can you get a delay?" Adam was saying when the roaring in Joe's ears let him hear again.

            "No!" Joe would have shouted if he had had the energy left but he didn't so the single word was low and breathy.

            "I hate to say it Adam, but I agree with Joe. We need to get this silly trial business all over with. Get Pa home, back where he belongs. We need to put all of this nonsense behind us," Hoss exclaimed, taking a seat on the stonework, close to Joe in case he needed help. It didn't matter to Hoss whether Joe would ask for it, or accept it; he would get it any way.

            "I am sorry Adam, but I don't think the judge would let me have an extension," Case spoke, his tone truly caring.

            "What you are really saying is that the sooner the trial starts, the sooner you can put a noose around our father's neck!" seethed Joe, his fingers griping the arms of the chair tightly.

            The attorney turned and confronted Joe, never dipping his face nor showing the least bit of annoyance. "What I want is to see justice done. You weren't at the inquest so maybe no one told you, young man. I didn't want this job! I wanted out of it for a ton of reasons but mainly because I think that your father is innocent! I even went to the judge afterwards to ask to be excused, telling him that I doubted whether I could mount a plausible case against Ben. The judge told me that I had to! I had no choice in the matter. And that is exactly the reason why I have subpoenaed the three of you. You know what your father was acting like, what his state of mind was in the days prior to Tolliver's death."

            "Mr. Bradley," Adam drug out the man's name and as he did, went to stand beside Joe and leaned one hand on the soft red leather behind his brother's head. "There is no way you are going to get us to testify against our father. We won't do it."

            Bradley stood, facing the enemy, for that was what he knew they had just become. "You have to. All three of you. That's what those subpoenas mean!"

            Icy silence met his words.

            "If you don't say anything on the stand, I will have to have you declared as hostile witnesses. The law can compel you to talk."

            Again the wall of silence faced him, the only recognition that his words were having an effect was that Joe's eyes narrowed slightly.

            "If you don't testify, I can have you put in jail until you do!"

            "Well, that might be just what we want, Mr. Bradley. That way we can have some time with our father without Roy Coffee listening at the door!" Adam responded, heatedly.

            "All I want to do is sit down here and go over some of the questions I want to ask you on the stand. Please, don't make this job any harder on me than it already is," the attorney showed that he wasn't above pleading.

            "Mr. Bradley, our pa taught us to respect the law," Hoss began then paused, looking at his brothers and knowing the same stubbornness he held they held as well. "But if we go on that stand and tell you what we might know, it might be construed as somethin' else all together different by that jury. We know you got a tough job, sir, but ours is tougher. Adam is right. I'll go to jail for the rest of my days rather than have a hand in hanging our pa."

            "If you don't get on that witness stand and tell what you know, it will help to hang your father! Can't you understand that? Your silence, your refusal to testify will look just as damning as if you stood there and pointed a finger at him! You have got to understand that, all of you!"

            Adam took a deep breath and held it, expanding his chest until the buttons on his shirt strained to hold it closed. Hoss' jaw thrust out and his blue eyes seemed to bore a hole through Bradley. But what made the district attorney finally give up and leave were the quiet words from the youngest son.

            "We'll take our chances, Mr. Bradley."



            "You have to talk to me! You have to tell me what happened, Ben!" John Nestor pleaded again, pacing the cell the last afternoon before the trial would start. "Anything you tell me is covered by client privilege. How can I mount a proper defense for you without information from you? Please Ben!"

            The lawyer watched, hoping for a change of some sort to come over his client. He didn't see one. Over the past six days, he had made those same pleas over and over again  and had met with the same results. Now as he stood in the small cell, he could only note that the Ben Cartwright before him was not the man he thought he knew. This man was unkempt; he hadn't shaved and his clothes were rumpled. Roy Coffee had confided that Ben rarely ate more than the barest minimum to keep himself alive. All day and all night, he had either sat morosely staring at the floor or sleeping, his face to the cell wall.

            "All right then, let me tell you a few things that are going to happen," and again he saw that his words appeared to have no affect on Ben. Nestor didn't want to do it this way but figured this was his last real hope of making the man interested in his own defense. "I went out to the Ponderosa yesterday afternoon after I saw you here. Talked a little with your sons. Seems Case Bradley was out there day before and those boys of yours stonewalled him. Wouldn't talk to him. Told him point blank, he said, that they would rather go to jail for the rest of their lives than have a part in tomorrow's trial." Nestor tucked his thumbs into his vest pockets and rocked back on his heels. "That's right Ben, your sons will go to jail if they don't talk on the witness stand. Now Adam, he's a right smart man. He'll go into that jail cell and sit and think his time away. Hoss? He's one hell of a force to be reckoned with but inside that little cell? Where he can't enjoy a breath of fresh air? See the sky or the moon or whatever? Hoss is liable to get really depressed and maybe more than a little angry. But those older sons of yours will survive. I doubt that Joe would." There it was, the attorney's ace laid face up.

            Ben's head lifted and his eyes narrowed. "What do you mean by that?" he rasped out.

            "Just what I said, Ben. I imagine that your sons have kept you appraised of how Joe is doing, haven't they? They've told you how he's lost weight; how he is in constant pain. Why, he's so weak now that when I was there, he couldn't get out of bed! 'Course Paul is doing what he can for him but…" and Nestor deliberately let his voice trail off into nothing. He took a deep breath then decided to deliver the full speech. "Yes, Ben, that boy is gonna die. And if you hang for Tolliver's murder, sooner rather than later. You may feel guilty about Dan Tolliver's death but Joe is gonna feel guiltier 'cause he'll know he was responsible for yours. That's an awful heavy load and he's gonna cave in under it; I know he will and so do you." John Nestor studied the man before him, realizing that his reasoning may have backfired on him. One last sentence and then he would leave. "And just think Ben, you told Tolliver what you would do to him if Joe was injured. You'll be killing your own son, the one you didn't want Dan to hurt. Think about it Ben. I'll be back early tomorrow morning."



            The new day leeched slowly into the jail cell, bringing no warmth that early fall morning. Ben lifted his head to watch the dust motes dance in the pale light and recalled how a long time ago, he had called them fairies. He smiled at the memory. Joe had been a small child, no more than three or four years old and had wanted his father to capture a little fairy so he could hold it. Ben remembered trying to explain to the baby that you just couldn't do that; those fairies would slip through your fingers. Like the years have, Ben thought. Oh how I wish we could turn back time and relive those simpler days. It was no problem to make my sons happy and content because I was. Promises made then were so much easier to keep. Secrets were innocent things, and so were fears. Now, he sighed and watched again the little dust mote fairies as they danced in the soft golden light, it would be so easy to go into that courtroom today and tell the world a lie. Everyone would believe it because of who you are, Ben Cartwright. But I can't do that; I can't lie but can I tell the truth and not have the same outcome? Secrets aren't so innocent any more. And my own fears curse me silently. And promises will damn me for eternity. Still, I can't allow harm to come to my sons. I have been a fool, I need to talk to John, tell him what happened. He'll make the court understand…and he rose to his feet. For the first time since this debacle had begun, Ben Cartwright knew what he had to do and say.

            Out in the sheriff's office, Clem Foster heard Ben's shout and he swung open the door warily.

            "I need to talk to John Nestor. I've got to talk to him before court!" Ben demanded.

            While he was glad to see the big white haired man come to his senses, the deputy wasn't sure what he could do. Scratching his head, he nodded and said that he would see if he could find the lawyer but he had to wait until the sheriff came in. He couldn't leave the office. He prayed that Ben Cartwright understood the situation.

            "Well, while we're waiting for Roy, do you suppose you could see your way to getting me some hot water. I'd like to clean up some."

            An hour later, washed as best he could under the circumstances and using a razor under the watchful eye of the deputy, shaved off the growth of gray-white whiskers, Ben felt more like himself. When a breakfast tray showed up, Ben cordially thanked Clem and fell to eating ravenously. At nine o'clock, Clem began to pace the floor nervously. Roy Coffee hadn't appeared and he had not done as he promised Ben. And court was to begin at ten sharp. A check into the holding cells showed that Ben was equally as nervous but he hadn't made any more demands.

            "Where you been?" Clem demanded when Roy finally stepped into the office. Clem was aware that his voice carried into the cell area. He wanted it to. Quickly he told the grizzled older man what Ben had asked for and got Roy's dander up when he had to tell him that he hadn't gone for Nestor.

            "Well, go find the man. Now! Prisoner's got the right to talk to his lawyer any time. Go!"

            But Ben Cartwright was not to see John Nestor until Roy Coffee led him, handcuffed into the courtroom. There was no time for them to talk for just as Ben gained his seat, the judge took his place as well.

            There was a brief scuffling of feet and those people sitting in the front row moved from behind Ben. Trying to concentrate, Ben didn't turn until he felt a hand on his shoulder. A quick glance over his shoulder and he smiled for the first time in what felt like weeks. He started to say something but the judge's gavel banged and the man ordered that there be no further contact with the prisoner by the gallery. All the same, Ben couldn't help but feel a weight lift from him. Joe was pale but he was there. The boy must still be weak, since Hoss' hovering so close. But nothing, not in this world nor the next, did for Ben what the small smile and wink from his youngest did that morning.

            "Opening statements, gentlemen?" the judge asked, once the jury was in place.

            Slowly Case Bradley rose. He would present the best case he knew how and prayed that the defense had an ace up their sleeves that he couldn't cover. He had already done as much as he dared in setting the jury. With each one of the twelve men knowing Ben Cartwright and having been dealt fairly with by the defendant in the past, Bradley felt he had given his old friend the best possible outcome short of throwing the whole thing over. Now standing before those same twelve men, he cleared his throat.

            "Gentlemen of the jury," he began. As he addressed the jury, telling them the story of how Dan Tolliver supposedly met his fate at the hands of an angry out of control Ben Cartwright, he paced. He chose his words with care, never venturing into misleading terms, making it all so very cut and dried. But his words also conveyed to the careful listener his own disbelief. He had to do that, or he couldn't have lived with himself. When he finished, there was no instruction to the jury on his part to find the defendant guilty as he normally would have done. Instead, he thanked them and sat down in the hushed room. A glance at the pendulum clock to one side showed he had talked for only ten minutes.

            "Mr. Nestor, you're up!" the judge intoned.

            Tugging on his vest, John Nestor rose and like his friend and sometime colleague Case Bradley, began to address the jury.

            "Some of you on the jury are family men. You have children that you love and would protect with your very lives. Let's say that someone you once trusted with your children…" and he was off. With hands dancing in the air before him, he led the jury into their own hearts and let them see the torment he supposed that his client had gone through the night of Joe Cartwright's abduction. With whirling coat tails, he strode from one side of the jury box to the other, making eye contact with as many jurors as he could as he told the tale of Ben's finding Joe, shot, unconscious and bleeding. He challenged the jurors to look into their own hearts and not want to seek revenge for what had been done to their own flesh and blood. Before he was finished, he intended Joe Cartwright to be looked at as the child they all had, for them to be the parent that Ben Cartwright had been all his life to his boys. He used every eloquent word he possessed and invoked every good, kind emotion found in humanity. But in the end, he wasn't sure he had succeeded.

            "And so, gentlemen of the jury, look to yourselves before you find my client guilty for he is only guilty of being a loving father. Thank you."

            Like Bradley, as he sat he looked at the clock. He had spoken a little over an hour.

            The judge squirmed in his seat then, even though the room was silent, hammered his gavel once. "All right, Mr. Bradley. You have a witness for us?"

            "The State calls Doctor Paul Martin to the stand."

            Once the good doctor was sworn in, Bradley, step by slow methodical step, took them all through what the doctor knew: when the victim had been killed and most importantly how the he had been killed. Satisfied that he had given the jury enough information on the actual cause of death, the prosecutor sat down.

John Nestor stood and with his hands clasped behind his back, walked slowly and apparently deep in thought towards the witness chair.

"Doctor Martin, did your autopsy show anything else?" he asked, coming to a slow stop just to the left of the doctor. That positioned him so any one on the witness chair could see not only Ben Cartwright, but also his sons behind him. It wasn't by accident that the Cartwrights had walked in late. Nor that Joe had reached over and touched his father. Indeed, it had all been planned that way by John Nestor himself that very morning when he had met with them.

"Well, Dan Tolliver hadn't had much solid food the day he died. My autopsy only showed alcohol in his stomach."

"Enough so that the man could be considered drunk?"

"Yes," Martin answered easily.

"Any thing else about the man's body you noticed?'

Paul Martin thought for a moment then answered. "Dan Tolliver wasn't in poor physical shape, if that is what you mean. His heart appeared healthy, as did most of his other internal organs. He had some bruising on his chest and a few on his arms but the man worked as a wrangler so I could safely assume that he had gotten those while in the daily course of his work."

"No sign of a fight?"

Case Bradley jumped to his feet, calling "Objection, your honor. He is leading the witness."

The judge made a face at Nestor who withdrew his question. The lawyer shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on the heels of his boots before he continued.

"Where were you when Dan Tolliver supposedly met his death?"

"Irrelevant!" Bradley rose again and again the judge huffed and glared at the defense lawyer, all but rolling his eyes.

"Your honor, if we are going to establish my client's state of mind, we must know all the facts of this story."

"I'll allow this line of questioning. Go ahead, doctor and answer the question."

Paul took the occasion and rose to met it. "I was trying to save Joseph Cartwright's life."

A subtle murmur went through the courtroom.

"No more questions." Nestor nearly smiled as he said those three words and headed back to his place.

Once Paul Martin left the stand, Roy Coffee took it. Again Bradley asked him to tell what he knew of the kidnapping and subsequent shooting of Joe Cartwright.

"So Tolliver was afraid that Ben Cartwright would come looking for him? So afraid he sought shelter in your jail?"

            "Yes sir he did and when I went out to the Ponderosa, what I saw and heard there made me think that that was the place for the man to be right then."

            "Oh? Explain that please," Bradley pushed gently.

            "Ben Cartwright was fit to be tied. I told him what Dan Tolliver had told me about how the shooting happened but it was like Ben wasn't listenin'."

            "Objection your honor!" John Nestor called loudly. "How can the sheriff know what the defendant was or wasn't hearing?"

            "Overruled. Continue."

            Case Bradley bobbed his head once and Roy Coffee continued, right up to when he had to arrest Ben Cartwright, how Ben had appeared to making a play for his gun. Again the defense councilor objected but was overruled.

            "And since his arrest, would you say that Ben Cartwright has been a model prisoner?"

            Here was his chance, Roy thought, to undo some of the damage his testimony had done. "He's been not a lick of trouble."

            When the defense attorney approached him, Roy shifted uneasily in his chair.

            "Sheriff, you have known the defendant a long time, haven't you?"

            "Objection! He's leading the witness!"

            "Overruled," the judge sighed and for good measure rolled his eyes at the attorney standing before him.

            "All right then, let's try it this way: how long have you known Ben Cartwright?"

            "Many a year. Knew him before Joe was born."

            "So what sort of man would you judge him to be?"

            "He's one of the best men in the whole of Nevada."

            "He ever lose his temper? Hit someone in anger?"

            "Mr. Nestor, let's quit beatin' around the bush here, can we?" Roy said straightening in his chair and before any one could say another word, Roy inadvertently made the State's case that much stronger. "Ben Cartwright is a man of his word! Never heard him make a promise he didn't keep." In the ensuing silence of the courtroom, Roy wished the words unsaid, even though they were the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

            "No more questions, your honor," and John Nestor wanted to cry.

            The witnesses that followed for the State were the men who had found Dan Tolliver's body in the alleyway. One was cross-examined but Nestor couldn't shake him on any of the facts.

            "No sir, like I said before. He was kinda sideways in the alley, on one side. Me and Jimmy couldn't get around him to get by so we started to step over him, figuring he was some drunk just passed out in the alley. That was when we saw that he had his eyes open and he weren't blinking and that his head was at an odd angle. Knew right off he was dead."     

            Without further questioning, Nestor went back to his place at the table but not before he caught the intense look of Adam Cartwright. It was as though Adam was trying to get his attention.

            "Well, it's close enough to noon. Court will take an hour recess and resume at one o'clock." The gavel banged down just once.

            Ben started to turn towards his sons and speak but Roy was there, leading him away. In the noise of the courtroom emptying, any words he would have spoken would have been lost but he tried.





            "John!" Adam Cartwright's voice cut above the babble of people leaving the courtroom. From where the attorney stood, he could barely make out the eldest Cartwright son but by standing his ground, Adam was able to catch up to him.

            "Make it quick, son. I've got to get a handle on things here this afternoon. Right some of the damage that blasted old coot of sheriff caused. If I could get just one -" the little man began to uncharacteristically rant.

            "Fine then. Let's get out of here. We need to show you something! Hoss, help Joe, will you?" Adam called over his shoulder while he grabbed the lawyer's arm and aimed him, now that they were on the walkway, down the street. Adam, nearly dragging the attorney behind him, heard Joe's complaint that he didn't need help but ignored it. They brushed by the rest of the people there and skirted horses in the street until, huffing and puffing, Adam drew the winded Nestor to stand at the entry to the alleyway where Tolliver had died.

            "What do you see?" Adam asked bluntly.

            Nestor shook his head. The alleyway was empty. "I don't understand-" he started.

            "Exactly! There is nothing here in this alleyway! Was it like this the night Dan Tolliver was killed?" Adam pushed, his hands now dropping from the other's arm but landing solidly on his own hips. Slowly, he paced the alley, his boots kicking up little dust devils in the fall breeze.

            "I don't know. There wasn't anything in any of Roy's reports. When I saw it the next afternoon, it was just like this. Adam, what are you getting at?" Nestor hooked his thumbs into his vest pockets and squinted up into Adam's dark eyes.

            "Look at the other alleyways and what do you see? I'll tell you. Barrels and crates. Stacks of boxes and chests. Kegs! But here? Nothing! And yet when those two drifters testified, they said they couldn't get by Dan in the alleyway. Why?"

            "Because there was something here. I'm gonna go talk with the headman at the International. See what he can tell me. You go talk with Jameson here at the mercantile. Hoss," Nestor directed, not giving Hoss even time to stop and talk as he and Joe finally made it to the alley. "Hoss, you go to the next street over. Check with the merchants there. See if they had anything stacked out here in this alley the night Tolliver died."

            "What about me?" queried Joe, taking the breath he needed to talk from what he needed just to stay upright.

            With one look at the young man's pale face, Nestor smiled. "I want you to stay right here."

            Scratching his head up under his hat, Joe shook his head as the other three men disappeared. Slowly, he paced down the length of the alleyway. Adam had briefly shared with Joe and Hoss his suspicions that something was amiss there in alleyway. Now, after they figured out what it was, all they would have to do was prove it. Halfway down, a door opened up and one of the scullery boys from the International House stepped out. Joe nodded to him as a way of greeting him. The young man just glared back at him silently.

            "You work in there? In the kitchen?" Joe paused and leaned against the clapboard wall, one booted foot drawn up against it.

            "Yep! Wha' you wanna know for?" the boy asked, digging into his shirt pocket under his apron. He pulled out the makings for a cigarette: tobacco pouch, and papers.

            "Just killing a little time is all. No reason, really? But I am curious about something. When the restaurant gets supplies in, they come through here?" Joe tried to appear nonchalant but wasn't sure how well he was doing.

            Licking the edge of the paper, the other sealed his smoke and twisted both ends tight. "Sure do." Expertly he struck his match against the bricks behind him and lit his cigarette. "Haul the stuff right off the wagon and right into the cellar."

            "Like that all the time?" Joe asked cautiously.

            "Most of the times. When we get our staples in the first part of each month, sometimes we ain't got enough room in da cellar."

            "What happens then?" Joe wasn't sure whether he was breathing or not as he waited for the answer.

            "Wa'll some of the stuff has to wait out here fer a bit so we can juggle stuff and make it fit inside. Cain't leave nuthin' out here in the alley fer long. Drifters and bums and drunks and the like come through and take stuff. Seed times when we needed to stand guard over it!"

            "Couple of weeks ago, the first of the month, have a big order of staples that you couldn't get all inside?" Joe's heart was in his throat, making it hard for him to think and talk at the same time.

            "Yeah, but it weren't much. Cookie had us get everythin' in b'fer dark but there just weren't room for them two barrels of flour!" He snorted, amused at his own memory. "Said iffen a drunk wanted to steal a barrel of flour, he had to be mighty down on his luck. You know, next morning, one of them barrels was gone!"

            Joe smiled for the young man but his own thoughts were going in a thousand different directions at once and the urge to rattle off questions had to be fought. "Tell me somethin' else," Joe again smiled. "It get pretty dark in this alley at night?"

            The other snorted and flipped his now spent smoke into the center of the dirt between them. "So dark you can't find your fly to take a piss proper!"

            "Hank?" a strident male voice from the restaurant door behind the boy called and with a duck of his head, the boy disappeared back through the doorway.

            For many moments Joe stood just like he had when talking with Hank but closed his eyes and bit down on his lip in thought. He tried to picture in his mind what the alley would have looked like that night. Two barrels off to one side but it would have been too dark to see them. He tried to place his father and Dan Tolliver there in the dark. He had his father angry, towering over Tolliver, threatening. He tried to envision the old wrangler maybe taking offense at Ben, maybe even taking a swing at him. Doc Martin had said that Dan was most likely drunk so it would be logical that Dan wouldn't have connected. Joe did his best to conjure up what would happen next: his father, beyond angry, would have grabbed hold of Dan and hit him. Hard, he would have hit him. Dan would have been pushed back, maybe into the barrels but then again, maybe not. His father would have reached down and……….what? Doc had said that Dan had the back of his skull bashed in. Maybe Dan had tried to run from his father, Joe thought, his breathing now coming in strangled gasps. Was it then that his father had done the unspeakable? Had he struck Dan down, maybe with the butt of his revolver? Joe shook his head, his eyes still tightly closed. Maybe instead Ben had thrown the old man against the brick wall in his anger, grabbing him up when he wilted only to do it again? And again and again? It was as though Joe himself had traded places with Dan Tolliver, feeling rough hands grab hold of his shoulders to slam him repeatedly back into the wall behind him.

            "Joe!" Hoss shouted again, grabbing his brother's shoulders and pressing him back into the wall to keep him from falling. Joe's eyes opened wide and Hoss could see the panic there. Joe pushed Hoss' hands away and stumbling, turned into the wall, fighting himself now, fighting to step back from the conjured up vision. He clung to the wall, his mind reeling and unable to get beyond his own fears.

            "What's happened?" Adam was saying when the roaring in Joe's ears stopped. "I knew this was a mistake! Joe, come on, let me-"

            "No," Joe finally was able to gulp out. Opening his eyes, he found his brothers beside him, anxious expressions on their faces. "I'm all right now." He tried shrugging off Hoss' heavy hand from his shoulder but it stayed latched on tight. "Really. I am."

            "Then you want to tell us what just happened here?" Adam's brow drew together and even in the shadow under his hat brim, Joe could see his eyes were shifting, suspicious, Joe was sure, that he wasn't telling the whole truth.

            Joe turned and again leaned against the wall, this time truly for support. "I talked with a kid from the restaurant kitchen. He said that they don't normally let stuff stay out here overnight 'cause people steal it. Seems not long ago, they left two barrels of flour out one night and one of them disappeared. That and something else he said, Adam. He said it was real dark in this alley at night."

            "Then how-" John Nestor spoke up for the first time then stopped himself short. He had seen Adam hurrying down the alleyway and followed but had hung back, letting the brothers handle things. But what Joe had just said made an impression on him. "How did those drifters see Dan Tolliver laying here? How could they see he wasn't blinking? They would've had to've stumbled on him to know he was here."

            "Unless," Adam took a deep breath and held it.

"Unless they saw who killed Dan Tolliver, they wouldn't have known he was here," Hoss finished Adam's sentence.

"And if they had seen your father kill Dan, one of them would have said so on the witness stand." Nestor finished up for all of them. "This means that they are lying about something. Either they weren't here. Or one of them killed Dan Tolliver. Come on, we have to get back. I need to talk with your father. He said he wanted to see me. Let's hope he's come to his senses."

But the three Cartwright brothers didn't budge from the alleyway when the attorney disappeared around the corner. Instead, the older ones penned the younger one in so tight that Joe felt as though he couldn't blink without hitting one of them with an eyelash.

"I think you need to go check out the hotel room for a while," Adam half-hissed, crossing his arms over his chest. It was plain that he meant for Joe to be the one checking things out. "Go see how soft the mattresses are."

Joe shook his head and kept a keen eye on both Adam and Hoss. "I'm the next one on Case Bradley's list, remember?"

"We'll tell him that you can't make it. Or better yet, we'll have Paul Martin tell him." Hoss took the opportunity to jab a thick finger into Joe's shoulder as he spoke.

"I'm all right," Joe expounded again. "I was just standing here, thinking about how it might have happened and I guess my imagination got the better of me."

"Oh?" Adam's head cocked a little to one side. "How so?"

Joe hung his head. "I guess I figured out that Pa could have done it. Not that he did! Just - you know how mad he can get! I can see him losing his temper."

"If it was you we're talking about, then I would believe it. But Hoss and I can't see him that way. I've only seen him that angry once, Joe, just once, and even then he pulled back. He hesitated. Then when he did lash out, it was in self-defense." Adam spoke softly, trying to reassure his brothers and himself that what he said was true. He purposely left out that it was a man named Sam Wolfe their father had shot and yes, while Wolfe had been pulling a gun on their father, it was really Joe that he was probably concerned about defending. Just like now, Adam thought then banished the thought as quickly as it had surfaced.

"But-" Joe started again only to let his thoughts drop back and remain just that: thoughts. He knew the anger his father would have held for Dan Tolliver. He had seen it plain as day when Dan had come calling after he'd been shot. Adam and Hoss hadn't been there and seen it, but he had. He'd tried to make it something else but more and more, Joe was afraid he was right.

"What ever it is, little brother," Hoss spoke evenly, without a hint of malice or deceit, "Bury it. Bury it real deep. Do you really believe our pa would have killed Dan Tolliver? The day you come home all shot up, yeah, I can see Pa iffen he'd had the chance but he wasn't about to leave you to do it." Hoss' eyes flicked sideways to Adam, the accusation plain over their shared knowledge. "And if he had known you were bad off the night Tolliver died, yeah I can see it happenin' then too! But the whole truth of the matter is that Pa didn't know you were sick when he was in town. And can you see Pa waitin' all that time to kill the old guy? I can't. So let me ask you again, Joe: do you really believe Pa woulda killed Dan?"

Joe simply shook his head. He would do as Hoss asked and bury any suspicions and any doubts he had and he would bury them deep. He again briefly closed his eyes and willed away any aftereffects of his imagination's deceit.

Adam sighed silently. Just by looking at Joe, it was apparent that he was about to collapse under the strain. Even as he stood there in front of them, he was pulled to one side, favoring the wound still.  "Okay then. We need to get back to the courthouse. Sorry you didn't get any lunch Hoss."

            "That's okay," Hoss grumbled. "I figure tonight, Roy Coffee and Storey County are gonna feed me real good." He caught the half-confused and half-amused look on Adam's face. "After all, I go up on that witness stand after Joe and I figure that Mr. Bradley's gonna throw me in jail for not talkin' too. How about it, Joe? Think they'll give us adjoining cells so we can play checkers?"


            "The State calls Joseph Cartwright to the stand."

            Slowly and stiffly, Joe stood and walked to the chair beside the judge's bench. With one arm pressed to his side and the other hand on the Bible, he took the oath solemnly then sat down. He made eye contact once with his father and held it for as long as he could before Case Bradley stepped between them.

            "Would you tell the court what happened on the night of the 15th of last month?" Bradley asked, sounding very casual.

            Joe swallowed hard and began to tell what he remembered happening the day and then the night following his kidnapping. He kept his voice even, almost deadpan flat. He only hesitated at one point: when Dan Tolliver helped him into the wagon.

            "So Dan Tolliver was taking you home to your family, is that correct?" Bradley still stood so Joe couldn't see his father.

            "Yeah," Joe answered but quickly came back with "but when we got within a mile of the house, he panicked and deserted me!"

            "You know this for a fact? You just said that you were bleeding pretty badly. Bad enough that Tolliver used his own bandana to try and stop the flow. Did you lose consciousness at any time?"

            Joe felt like Bradley's hands were at his throat even though the other man stood more than an arm's length away.

            "Your answer, Joe!" Bradley pushed.

            "Yes, I lost consciousness. I don't remember getting home! I don't remember a whole lot that makes sense but I know that if Dan Tolliver and his accomplices hadn't kidnapped me, I wouldn't have been shot in the first place!"

            The judge's gavel banged out a quick one-two and brought Joe up short. One glance at the District attorney and Joe wished he could have kept his promise to himself and never opened his mouth on the witness stand. But now that he had started, he wondered how he could stop himself.

            "But didn't Dan Tolliver actually turn on his accomplices? Didn't he in fact save your life by getting you home, whether you remember it or not?" The imagined hand at Joe's throat tightened.

            Joe glared back at his questioner, keeping silent.

            "Answer me, please, Joe," Bradley begged. He could see the young man's eyes flashing then darkening, easily telegraphing his anger.

            "Objection your honor!" Nestor stood and called out. "Mr. Bradley is badgering the witness! And I don't think the young man is in the best of health to begin with!"

            Bradley half turned to see his opponent and when he did, Joe caught a glimpse of his father's face. But it was all too brief and whatever message Joe could have gotten from Ben was lost in his own inner turmoil.

            "I don't see any badgering going on, Mr. Nestor and the young man is certainly well enough as far as I can see so continue Mr. Bradley." There was an undercurrent of disbelief that went through the court after the judge finished his ruling.

            But instead of even giving the appearance of harassing Joe, Case Bradley took on another line of questioning all together.

            "Dan Tolliver came to the Ponderosa several days after you were shot, did he not?"

            Joe could see no trap so he spoke and said that yes, Dan had. Subconsciously, he rubbed his own hand over his throat, trying to push away the imaginary chokehold the prosecutor had on him.

            "Why? He came to apologize, didn't he?"

            "Objection!" came Nestor's shout. "Leading the witness!"

            Before the judge could make a ruling, Bradley whirled on the bench. "Permission to treat the witness as hostile, your honor!"

            Keeping his eye on the defense table, the judge hissed between his teeth that he would allow it.

            Joe didn't understand all of the law-talk but he understood the tone of voice the prosecutor took when he repeated his question.

            He looked to the floor and refused to speak. He couldn't even breathe easily around the tightening hands of the lawyer.

            "Dan Tolliver went to the Ponderosa to apologize that day, didn't he?" Bradley rephrased his question but still Joe refused to answer, something inside of him shaking in fear. Again the imagined hands flexed around Joe's windpipe

            "He said he was sorry and to show that you forgave him, you gave him a job! Isn't that right, Joe?" By this time, Bradley was nearly shouting, rising up to tower over Joe's seated form. Joe let himself sink further into the witness chair, not lifting his eyes to meet his father's face.

            "But your father didn't share in your forgiveness of his old friend, did he? In fact, as we have heard here today, he threatened to hunt Dan Tolliver down and kill him! Didn't he?"

            His shoulders shaking with the effort to remain silent, Joe refused to answer, knowing that if he spoke at all it would have to be the truth and the truth would cast the pall of guilt on his father. Like he had done in the alley, Joe closed his eyes tight, trying to think of a way to answer the questions being forced on him that wouldn't put a noose around his father's neck. There was none.

            "Answer the questions, young man," the judge urged in the silent courtroom.

            Joe picked his head up but looked away from where he knew his father sat. He could feel the compression in his lungs beginning as they fought for air.

            "You will answer Mr. Bradley's questions, Mr. Cartwright," the judge repeated his admonition, this time a little firmer.

            His jaws clenched tightly closed, Joe could only shake his head and look at the floor, his hands balled into fists between his knees, the back wall…anywhere but at the defense table and his father.

            "Give us an answer or you can go and think about it in Roy Coffee's jail. Which is it, young man?" Now the judge was adamant that he could compel the witness to speak. "Which is it?" he repeated heatedly.

            "Take me to jail," Joe's voice, barely above a whisper seemed to be a defiant shout in the still hush of the room. The hands only thought to be strangling him dropped away in his imagination and he fought the urge to gasp for air. Instead, he let his ragged breathing slow.

            "So be it! Sheriff! Arrest this witness. Hold him until he decides to answer our questions," and the judge rapped the gavel again, hushing the murmurs of disbelief.

            It was only when Roy touched Joe's arm that Joe stood and for the first time, could see his father clearly. In fact, Ben had half-risen from his chair as Roy led Joe passed the defense table. Tugging free from Roy's easy grasp, Joe reached out to touch his father's outstretched hands. Only the sharp shout from the judge to silence the courtroom kept them from speaking to one another. But father and son read each other easily: Joe was relieved that he had fought down his own doubts; Ben was simply afraid, for echoing in his thoughts was the prediction his own lawyer had made about just this happening.



            "The State calls Hoss Cartwright."

            Shifting his big shoulders back straight, Hoss stood and made his way easily to the witness stand, taking the oath to tell the truth with a resounding "I do!"

            Case Bradley finished shifting around his notes on his table and strolled towards the big man who seemed to overflow and threaten the stability of the chair he sat on. But the prosecutor wasn't daunted by the size of the man but by the look of fierce determination he had seen on the man's face. He swallowed hard and pursed his lips as though in thought.

            "Good afternoon, Hoss," Bradley greeted, trying to ease into the coming battle.

            "Might be a good one for you, Mr. Bradley, but it ain't fer me," Hoss rejoined. Over the lawyer's shoulder Hoss caught Adam's all too fleeting smile.

            Clearly he was going to have a fight with this Cartwright son as well so Bradley changed horses in mid-stream. "Okay then, if that is how it is going to go. Your honor, permission to treat this witness as a hostile witness."

            Although Nestor rose and objected, the judge simply waved the defense attorney quiet, nodded his head once at Bradley and allowed the proceedings to continue.

            "Did you hear your father threaten Dan Tolliver's life?" Bradley intoned.

            Nestor's shout of  "Objection" was again waved aside.

            Hoss' lips bunched together, showing white they were so tightly pressed. His eyes bore into the attorney before him. Hoss gave no reply.

            "Well? Did you? Answer the question, please."

            "No sir," came Hoss' blunt reply.

            "You didn't hear your father threaten to kill Tolliver for having a hand in your brother's shooting?" Bradley seemed perplexed and his reiteration of the question plainly showed that he was.

            "That's not what I meant, sir. I said 'no sir' 'cause I ain't gonna answer any of your questions. No matter what I say, you're gonna twist my words around and make them into something else." Hoss held fast to his conviction.

            "All you have to do is tell the court what you know. Let the jury hear your side of the story," Bradley leaned on the railing before Hoss' chair, invading Hoss' sense of space. Putting out his ham-sized hand, Hoss pushed the man back.

            "You want to know what I know? I know my pa didn't kill Dan Tolliver. Now you can talk about all the facts as you know 'em but that is my 'fact', Mr. Bradley."

            "You don't think you father is capable of killing a man?" queried the councilor gently, praying the man wouldn't shut down like his brother had on the stand.

            With one finger jabbing the air between them, Hoss spat out, "That's just what I mean about you twistin' things."

            Bradley backed away, his mind now racing for a foothold, a handhold, hell! at that time, he'd even take a fingernail grip on the proceedings. Even though he had warned the brothers, they seemed determined to follow through on their father's destruction with their own refusal to speak. He shot a quick prayer up that one of them would realize that he, Case Bradley, was not the enemy. Silence, both their's and their father's, would damn him to the gallows quicker and more assuredly than he could ever with their testimony.

            "You were gone when Dan Tolliver came back to the ranch and Joe gave him a job, weren't you? In fact, you didn't return until the night Joseph became very ill -- the night Dan Tolliver died-- isn't that also true?"

            Hoss folded his hands together and let them dangle between his knees, his face a stern set mask.

            "Did you want Tolliver dead because of what had happened?"

            The only outward sign that Hoss had heard the question at all was that his lip twitched angrily.

            "Mr. Bradley," the judge sighed, shaking his head. For the first time he felt real empathy for the prosecutor. "It appears that this Cartwright son has taken the family code of silence as well. Sheriff Coffee? Got another cell over in your jail house for another Cartwright?" Roy simply stood from his position next to the door at the side of the room. "One last chance: Mr. Cartwright, do you have an answer for any of the prosecution's questions? Didn't think so. Sheriff, he's all yours."

            Hoss unfolded himself from the chair and met Roy half way across the room. When Hoss came abreast of the table his father sat at, his big fist connected twice with the wood then he slapped his hat on his head and allowed Roy to escort him from the courtroom.

            With his knees shaking, the prosecuting attorney sank to his chair on his side of the room. He ran his hand across his face, like the men he had questioned on the witness stand that afternoon, was beginning to show definite signs of the strain. Bradley resolutely stood and just before he went to call Adam to the stand, he caught out of the corner of his eye the motion of Adam leaning forward and talking with Nestor. To give them the time he thought they might need, he poured himself a drink of water from his pitcher and slowly drank it. Only when he saw Nestor resume his eyes' front position did Bradley set his glass down.

            "Your next witness, please Mr. Bradley," barked out the judge.

            "Adam Cartwright, please take the stand."

            There was just something about the way that the eldest son stood and crossed into the area before the witness stand. His shoulders wide and his back straight as an arrow, his voice was clear and firm as he took the oath. And the dark eyes that meet the whole courtroom were clear and bright, the jaw lifted. Case Bradley took a moment to collect himself. This was the Cartwright son he would have to battle, he knew. In fact, even before he could phrase his first question, Adam spoke up.

            "Your honor, Mr. Bradley, you may as well go ahead and decide that I am also a hostile witness. But unlike my brothers, I'll answer your questions, Mr. Bradley. You see, I'm not recuperating from a belly shot full of lead like Joe and I don't have Hoss' problems with making myself understood. And if you try and twist my words around into something they aren't, you are going to have to work hard to do it. Some come ahead, Mr. Bradley. This Cartwright is waiting for you."

            "Very well, then," Bradley didn't miss a beat. "What do you know about your brother being shot?"

            "Same thing that has been told in this court. Dan Tolliver found himself in deeper than expected, by my way of thinking. Sure he helped Joe get into the wagon but he didn't take him on home. Instead, from the tracks Hoss and I found that morning and from what others have testified to, Dan Tolliver turned coward. He was afraid to face up to what he allowed to happen. He ran to hide behind the law." The words were succinct and carried over the still of the room clearly, cleanly.

            "When you and Hoss -"

            Adam cut in, not allowing the attorney the luxury of finishing his question.

            "Hoss and I had been out to the herd. When Joe hadn't shown up, we went looking for him. When we found him, I thought he was dead, Mr. Bradley. Pa had gotten him out of the wagon and to the porch rocker. I had to feel for a pulse to make sure he wasn't dead. That's just what he looked like. I rode for the doctor and when I came back, I expected, no-- I prayed that Joe was dead." A collective gasp went around the room but Adam went on. "I've seen a man gutshot like Joe was. It took him the better part of two days to die and there was nothing anyone could do for him. I didn't want that for my brother. So when I found out he was still alive, I was still scared by what might happen." Adam paused to catch his breath.

            "And then?" the prosecutor gently urged. This wasn't the testimony he had hoped for: the solid logical and non-emotional testimony of a thinking man. No, Adam was allowing the jury, the whole courtroom to feel his anger, his pain, his fear. And coming from a man who many knew wasn't the emotional sort just made it all the more powerful.

            "Hoss told me what Pa had said, what Dan Tolliver had done, that he was responsible as far as anyone knew."

            "What did you do then?"

            Adam looked to his father before he spoke. Without shame or remorse, he said, "I went looking for Dan Tolliver. And I found him hiding in Roy Coffee's jail. I wanted to reach in there and break his neck myself. The only thing that kept him alive that day was the fact that Clem Foster was there and he pulled me away, took my gun. I was ready to gut shoot Tolliver and let him die the same way I figured Joe was going to die: slowly, in agony, screaming and begging for the pain to end."

            "But you didn't shoot Dan Tolliver that day or any other day. Why?" Bradley paced slowly to one side of the witness stand.

            "Two reasons: first was that Joe came around later that day and told us what had happened. That Dan had tried to save him, that he hadn't been the one to put a bullet in Joe." Adam stopped before he went on, again making eye contact with his father.

            "And the second reason?" the prosecutor urged him to continue gently.

            "Because my father taught me the difference between right and wrong. And to kill Dan Tolliver would have been wrong."

            "Your father is well known as a tolerant and forgiving man, isn't he?" the lawyer asked softly.

            Adam spread his hands and shook his head slightly. "I don't know what you mean. What are you after? Of course he is, but he is also known as a loving and protective father." Adam saw his father smile just for a brief instant.

            "He had a long-standing friendship with Dan Tolliver. It went back more than twenty years or so, didn't it? I would think a relationship that old would have warranted an extra measure of understanding. Did you see any of that in your father?"

            "You mean any forgiveness for what Dan had done? No, I didn't; but what he had done was to cross the boundaries of friendship. The relationship, as you call it," and Adam put extra emphasis on the word 'relationship', " Dan Tolliver destroyed when he took part in my brother's kidnapping. When he didn't have the courage to face up to my father and just sent the wagon on with Joe unconscious on the seat. He never thought once about what might have happened if the team had spooked and run off. What if the team hadn't gone on to the barn? I'll tell you what would have happened: Joe would have bled to death. Or worse. So did Dan Tolliver deserve my father's forgiveness for what he had done? No, not in my book."

            The silence that hung over the courtroom was heavy. The only thing Adam thought he could hear clearly was the pounding of his own heart. Case Bradley had finally stopped pacing and had his back to Adam so Adam couldn't judge the other man's face.

            "Did you forgive Dan Tolliver?" the lawyer asked the obvious question.

            "After I saw that Joe was going to be all right, I tried to, but then when he got sick because of the infection in the wound, I think I told myself that Dan Tolliver was a dead man when I caught up to him."

            "Did you kill Dan Tolliver, Adam?" and Time stood still in the courtroom with that simple question.

            "No," Adam replied softly and for the first time looked away from the proceedings to study his hands. "When Dan Tolliver was killed, my brother was trying to die too. I was fighting to keep Joe alive with my brother Hoss and Paul Martin."

            "Where was your father?"

            "My father had gone into town but he had no knowledge Joe was as sick as he was. When the man we sent for him finally found him, Pa came straight home. I know for a fact that he never left Joe's side again until Roy Coffee came and told us that Tolliver was dead. My father, angry as he may have been at what Dan Tolliver did, didn't kill the man."

            "You sound pretty certain about this. Why?"

            "Because you don't teach your children one thing and do another. Not if you are Ben Cartwright."

            "But your father taught you to forgive a wrong, didn't he?" Bradley pushed.

            "Yes, he did. But just because my father didn't forgive Dan Tolliver for damn near killing my brother doesn’t mean he killed Dan Tolliver."

            Bradley would let that be the end of his questioning. Adam had done his job to perfection without even realizing he had. There was enough doubt now, enough assurance of the accused's character that the jury would either be a hung jury or they would return with a verdict of not guilty. As Case Bradley sat down, he sighed deeply. If the judge even for one moment considered that he hadn't done his full and complete best in defending the position of the State of Nevada, he could have him disbarred. Absently, Bradley wondered if Ben would hire him on at the Ponderosa if that were to come about. To himself, he chuckled, knowing he would make a lousy cowhand. But then again, Ben would help him. Of that, he was sure.

            John Nestor was nearly falling over himself with glee. Finally, one of the Cartwright's had made it past Case Bradley whole enough for him to question. When the afternoon had started, he had hoped that it would be Joe but having watched the younger son just take the stand, Nestor knew he wouldn't have the opportunity. And Hoss, he had known from the very beginning would not speak a word that could cast aspersions on his father. Now he had Adam and considering how his opponent had opened doors, John Nestor wasn't going to go behind him and slam them shut!

            "Adam," he bobbed his head in the direction of the witness, "would you tell the court what we discovered this afternoon during our break?"

            "We went over to the alley between Jamesons' mercantile and the International House." Adam calmly relayed the information, letting his hands finally come to rest on the railing before him.

            "Go ahead and tell the court what we found."

            "It was simple: we didn't find anything. Unlike other alleys where merchants let stuff set out, where they store some of their wares, neither Jameson nor the International House leave anything in that alley over night. Usually that is. But it seems that the night Dan Tolliver died there, there were two barrels of flour left there because the restaurant didn't have room for them in their pantry."

            "Objection, your honor, how, other than by hearsay-"

            "Your honor," Nestor spoke up briskly, "We are prepared to have the kitchen staff attend us here in this proceeding and testify to these facts, if you so desire."

            The judge appeared to mull it over for a moment. Finally he smacked his lips together and huffed out a long breath. "If we get to that point, yes, I want them to testify. But for right now, just get on with it!"

            "What else did the kitchen help say? Which I must admit, I had come to the same conclusion after a walk back home that way the other night."

            "That it is very dark in that alley way at night. And like you, Mr. Nestor, I've been that way of an evening and hesitated in walking down it for just that reason. But truthfully, I was more afraid of tripping over something in the dark than any thing else." Adam let a little chuckle come to his voice as he spoke. It made it all the more believable, just like John had said it would.

            Smiling broadly, John Nestor shoved his hands under his swallow-tailed coat in back. "No more questions for this witness at this time, your honor."

            The judge banged his gavel just once and asked Case Bradley if he had any other witnesses.

            The prosecutor half rose from his seat, saying, "No, your honor. The prosecution rests."

            "All right then, Mr. Nestor do you want to continue today or take a run at it in the morning?" the judge asked and to a man, everyone in the courthouse paid strict attention.

            "Well, your honor, I only intend to call one witness, so why don't we finish this today?"

            "Good idea," pouted the judge. "Call your witness, Mr. Nestor!"

            It came as no surprise when the defense called only Ben Cartwright to the witness stand on his own behalf.

            "This court has heard you described as a fair and honest man. A good father and more importantly, a man of principles apparently. Do you think of yourself as such, Mr. Cartwright? "

            "I've done my best to live by the Ten Commandments, yes. I've taught my sons the value of being righteous men. And I think that the best way to underscore that teaching is to live it. So to answer your question, yes, I view myself as a fair and honest man." Ben tried his best to speak clearly and succinctly but a tiny part of him feared what would come.

            "It has been testified here that you threatened Dan Tolliver. Did you?" Nestor paced the same way Bradley had, back and forth before the witness stand. But he did it so the whole courtroom, and especially the jury, would be able to see Ben Cartwright sitting  ramrod straight and unafraid. He knew what was coming and hoped that he had prepared Ben well enough in the moments he had once he had known the truth.

            "Yes, I did. Was I prepared to carry out that threat? Yes. Joe came home in pain, bleeding and I was afraid that I would lose my son. What man in this courtroom wouldn't have wanted retribution for an act so heinous? And that is what I would have sought: retribution, justice for my son's death. But did I kill Dan Tolliver for the part he played in Joseph's shooting? No."

            "But you told Roy Coffee that you had seen and talked with Dan Tolliver the evening he was killed. Isn't that right?" Now it comes out, Nestor thought and thanked the Good Lord that Hoss and Joe weren't in the room to hear what was coming, Joe particularly.

            "Yes, that evening I had had a dinner engagement with friends that I had nearly forgotten about. When I left the Ponderosa, Joe was asleep on the settee. We had been for a ride together and I remember thinking that he sure did tire easily. But I had to leave. I thought that Joe would be okay since Hop Sing, our cook, was there and Hoss and Adam would be home soon. I was late getting into town and my dinner companions had gone out for the evening. I went to the International House for supper on my own. When I came out, Dan Tolliver stumbled up to me. He had been drinking heavily. I could smell it on him, it was so bad. He wanted me to come have a drink with him, like he had asked me earlier in the day. I was tired and frustrated and I told Dan 'no' again. But he persisted, grabbing a hold of my arm. I told him that I wouldn't again and went to get on my horse tied right there. I heard him in the dark and it sounded like he had fallen. I didn't want to but I stepped into the alley. Dan grabbed me, staggering like he was and he shoved his face into mine and demanded that we go have a drink together, that he had to make things up to me. I didn't want any part of him and I told him so. He got belligerent and we struggled. Finally I got his hands off of me and I pushed him away. I went back to my horse. That was when the young man approached me and told me there was a problem back at the ranch. I mounted and rode as fast as I could to get home. It wasn't until the next morning when Roy Coffee came to the house that I even thought of Dan Tolliver again."

            "So, the last time you saw Dan Tolliver, he was alive?" Nestor asked carefully.

            "Yes. When I found out he was dead, I was stunned. Then when I was charged with his death, I just couldn't seem to think straight. But yes, the last time I saw Dan Tolliver, he was alive."

            "No more questions. Mr. Bradley?" Nestor invited.

            Case Bradley chewed on the inside of his cheek for a few long heartbeats then he stood and tugging down his vest approached the witness. He dreaded this most of all.

            "You wanted him dead, didn't you?" the prosecutor asked.

            "If Joseph had died, yes, I would have wanted him to pay with his life. There isn't a father in the room who wouldn't have if it had been their son, their youngest child, killed over something as trivial as money. Would I have killed him myself? No, I would have seen that he was tried, the same way you are trying me. Would I have watched as they hung him? Yes, but knowing that nothing, not even his death, would bring my son back to me. But Joseph is still alive."

            For those words, so clearly spoken and so eloquently simple, Case Bradley would not continue to press any cross-examination.

            "No more questions, your honor."

            The expression on the judge's face showed his own surprise. For a bit, he thought about calling the attorneys up to have a short and private discussion concerning their duties to the justice system but looking back quickly over the proceedings, he couldn't fault either man. "Closing arguments, gentlemen?"

With a deep sigh, Case Bradley leaned back in his chair then rose slowly. With measured paces, he went to stand before the jury box. For as long as it took, he let his eyes sweep down the two lines of men, making eye contact with each one. Finally pursing his lips, he began:

            "It is hard to say that a man of Ben Cartwright's long-standing stature in this community is guilty of such a horrible crime, but members of the jury, do not be swayed by that. Look at it this way," and to demonstrate, he held both hands out, palms up, in front of him, almost like a set of scales. "In this hand," he lifted his right a little higher than the left one. " In this hand, we have the Ben Cartwright that is, by his own words spoken in the courtroom, a man who believes in and lives by the Ten Commandments. He believes in justice but the same Book that gives us the Ten Commandments also tells us that it is an 'eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'." The hand he had lifted a little higher, dropped back a smidgen. "And we know that he is a good father. And while we can agree with the old adage about judging a man by the deeds of his sons, remember that Adam Cartwright sat here and freely admitted that he too wanted Dan Tolliver dead and had gone so far as to go after him in the Sheriff's office! I say that it is only a miracle that Dan Tolliver lived as long as he did! So was it Ben's teachings that stopped Adam from doing the deed earlier or was it just happenstance? We'll never know, will we?" He paused, looking to his outstretched hands and allowing his right to rise then fall by the merest of inches. He then solemnly let the right come back to slightly above the left in height, almost as though he were trying hard to balance the scales.

            "Now in this hand," he nodded to his left, "we have the bare facts laid out. Ben Cartwright threatened Dan Tolliver. Told him that if Joseph came home hurt in any way, that there wouldn't be a place too far or too dark for Ben to hunt him down. Those were his words! 'Hurt in any way', he said and what was his intention of doing to Dan when he caught up to him in whatever far dark place it was? If you listen to Ben Cartwright, he would have turned him over to the law for prosecution. But Dan Tolliver didn't think that was what he meant by it. No, he was afraid for his very life!" The left hand adjusted to match the right. "Ben Cartwright met with Dan Tolliver the night Dan died. He admits that they had a shoving match sort of. And if we believe Adam Cartwright and John Nestor, the alleyway would have been too dark to see what was happening so how could Ben Cartwright have known that Dan Tolliver was alive when he left Virginia City?" Now the left hand fell, bringing it slightly below the outstretched right.

            "And finally we have a fact that Roy Coffee reminded us all of: Ben Cartwright keeps his promises. That he is a man of his word. He kept a promise the night Dan Tolliver died." Bradley's left hand now was easily a foot below the right. For a few dramatic moments, he looked from one hand to the other then let his right slowly fall to his side, leaving only the outstretched left one. "Members of the jury, find Ben Cartwright guilty of the death of Dan Tolliver."

When he said the word 'guilty', his left hand closed into a fist.


            John Nestor, for all his years of practicing law, was nervous before he gave every closing argument. It was, he knew, the last he would be allowed to say on the issue unless for some reason or another, there was a mistrial or an appeal. He usually took his time in preparing his words, weighing and judging each and every one for their fullest impact on the jury. But there in that courtroom, there would be no preparation time. He took a last deep breath and steadied himself. As he stood aside to let Case Bradley pass, he couldn't help but notice the beads of sweat on Case's forehead. Nestor almost smiled. Case Bradley rarely sweated when he felt he was winning. But that little quirk the defense attorney would keep to himself. Turning, he saw Adam Cartwright give him the barest of smiles and he returned it. This probably wouldn't go down in his book as the best summation of the facts in a closing argument but he figured he would tweak every emotion he could get out of the twelve men on the jury

            "You've heard the testimony of many a good man in this room today. You've seen sons go to jail rather than risk saying something that could be misconstrued, twisted into something that would hurt their father. Mr. Bradley would have you think they were  trying to keep from damning their father. That they were holding back evidence. Instead I think what we saw were two young men who love their father wholeheartedly. And if he didn't feel the same about them, would they have done it for him? If Ben Cartwright were a lying two-faced scoundrel, the hellfire and damnation sort of man whose law was 'do as I say but not as I do', would we have seen his sons stand against the prosecution? I can tell you from experience! My old man was like that: a strict disciplinarian who never showed me anything but how to cheat and lie to get what I wanted. Guess that's why I became a lawyer." The whole room chuckled but quickly Nestor resumed. "But we didn't see that in his sons did we?" He dramatically paused and took what appeared to be a few thoughtful steps towards the other end of the jury box, his chin buried in one hand. "Yes! A man is often judged, not by his own deeds, but by those of his children. Did we see Ben Cartwright threaten his sons, use his parental authority over them? Not that I saw. I saw one young man in obvious pain and discomfort go out of his way to make physical contact, to show his father his support. The other son stood like a mighty wall and wouldn't allow hurt to come to his father. Then we heard the oldest son, Adam Cartwright, admit that he too wanted to see Dan Tolliver dead but that he hadn't done it because of the teachings of his father. I ask the jury to think on this: wouldn't it have been much easier for these young men to lie to the jury on their father's behalf? Of course it would, but for one thing: it went against what he had taught them."

            "You heard Ben Cartwright freely admit that he had met with Dan Tolliver that evening very close to where Dan Tolliver was later found dead. And you heard him say that a drunken Tolliver had nearly assaulted him, demanding that they drink together. And even though he didn't want any part of Tolliver that evening, when he heard a noise in the alleyway and thought Dan might have fallen, he went to see about him. And Ben Cartwright admitted that they struggled a little there in the dark. If he were guilty, why admit to that?"

            "You heard the testimony of the doctor. He said he had no idea what it was that struck the back of Tolliver's head. Or even if the old man's neck wasn't broken before his head was cracked!  And yet, with nothing in the alleyway, what could have possibly done the damage? The missing flour barrel comes to my mind and maybe we should have sent Roy Coffee hunting for it as a vital piece of evidence!" Again the whole courtroom tittered, the judge included, but Roy took it in stride, just smiling at the grinning defense attorney.

            "No, because the most important piece of evidence is the life Ben Cartwright leads in this community. A fair, honest and just man. A man who values truth and justice. If you find him guilty the only charge he would be guilty of is being a good person, and a good father. And even here in the state of Nevada, we don't hang men for that. No, members of the jury, Ben Cartwright did not kill Dan Tolliver for what happened to his son. Find him innocent of these charges and let him return to those sons."


            Completely wrung out by the day, John Nestor barely listened to the instructions given to the jury. He did watch Bradley and decided the man was one tough nut to crack. They had sparred occasionally but with this case, maybe Bradley would concede perhaps that Nestor had him beat. Or maybe he just wants to be beaten, the defense councilor thought and watched as the jury filed out.


            Adam lingered in the courtroom as the other spectators filed out, watching as Roy Coffee took his father by the arm and led him towards the side door. At the tables in front of him, both lawyers still remained but the judge had been the first to depart.

            "Five minutes," Bradley said to no one in particular.

            John Nestor shook his head. "I'll give 'em ten. They'll have to at least pretend to argue for the sake of formality."

            "Winner buys dinner."

            "Deal" and to seal the deal so quietly made, Nestor gave Bradley his hand to shake across the narrow aisle.

            "No, I'll buy dinner, gentlemen," Adam spoke up and saw both lawyers come to the instant realization that they had been overheard. Adam almost laughed to see the panicked expressions on both men's faces, each a mirror image of his enemy's.

            "Let's wait until the verdict is in then. Adam, I really think you need to be with your family right now," Bradley turned from arranging his papers in his small leather valise.

            "I'm going just as soon as I tell you both that I appreciate what you did here today. Case, you could have crushed Joe but you didn't. And John, with no time to prepare my father-" Adam paused, his head shaking from side to side.

            "You don't need to prepare an innocent man, do you, Case?" John spoke up and with a pudgy fist, nudged the other attorney's shoulder. Together the two attorneys left, walking almost side by side. Adam caught a few words but nothing complete. He shook his head in wonder again.


            Once Roy closed the wooden door that separated the cells from his office, it was everything Ben Cartwright could do not to shout for joy. In the cells there lined against the two walls, two of his sons waited for him. Hoss, seated on the cell cot, had a huge meal spread before him on the small table. A napkin tucked under his chin showed the bits and pieces that had managed to escape had been few. In the cell next to Hoss, Ben could see Joseph lay asleep on his own cot. It concerned him and he had started for that cell door but Roy had firmly grasped his arm and pulled him to his original cell, the one on the other side of Hoss.

            When he looked up at the sound of jangling keys, Hoss expected to see Adam being led through the door. It was on his mind to ask what had taken his brother so long to say nothing! He quickly stood, casting aside his napkin and fried chicken leg, when he saw his father.

            "What a family reunion!" Roy muttered. "If I didn't know better I would think that the lot of you had arranged it this way!"

            "Roy, the case has gone to the jury now. You can let Hoss and Joe out," Ben protested, grasping the cell door bars as Roy locked it.

            The sheriff shook his head slowly. "I'd like to, but the judge didn't say I could so I got to hold them until the verdict comes in. Now you want some dinner? I think we can find you something. That is unless Hoss has got there ahead of you."

            At the mention of his middle son, Ben smiled and glanced in his direction. "Yes, I think my appetite is coming back Roy." And then Roy was gone, truly gone and not just listening at the doorway but leaving father and sons alone for the first time in ages, Ben felt.

            Crossing to the bars that made up their shared wall, Ben couldn't help himself. He reached through them and laid a fatherly hand on his biggest son's arm. "Is Joe all right?" he asked, nodding in the direction of the still young man.

            "He's just pretty tuckered out by it all. I roused him some when Roy brought me in, just to make sure," Hoss answered, his own huge hand finding it's way to his father's shoulder. "It's been kind of hard on us, him maybe 'specially. Did I hear Roy right? The case has gone to the jury?"

            Ben nodded, sternly eyeing Hoss. "Yes, it has and for you and your brothers' courtroom antics, I don't know whether to kick you or kiss you! Fool stunts the lot of you pulled in there!" For emphasis, Ben grasped Hoss at the nape of the next and shook it gently.

            Hoss smiled and hung his head, his demeanor that of a little boy caught with his hands in the cookie jar. "How about you don't do neither one in public?" he joshed with his father. He sobered quickly though. "Pa, how long do you suppose it's gonna be 'fore the jury comes back with a verdict?"

            Sighing and letting go of his son, Ben dropped to the narrow, unmade cot. Before he could answer he looked around at the iron bars holding him. Had there always been that many? For some reason, that evening, they looked far more in number and thicker as well. Perhaps it was because his sons were there, clearly in his sight yet so far away from him. Watching his father, Hoss wished he hadn't asked. It seemed that all the strength went out of Ben right before Hoss' eyes. The idea that his father might very well be found guilty, while detestable, seemed very real. Hoss had difficulty sidestepping that possibility.

            "I hope it doesn't take them long at all," Ben finally rasped out. "Once the verdict is in and the judge lets you and Joe go, I want you to take that young man back to the ranch and the pair of you stay there!"

            "I ain't leavin' here without you too, Pa," warned Hoss, his eyes narrowing.

            "I hope to be able to go too, but Hoss," Ben started to warn as well. He was a realist, an optimistic realist, but he was aware that juries were fickle things while perhaps Hoss was not. Trust Hoss to always look on the bright side things. "You listen to me, young man. Whatever happens, happens. If--" and even Ben couldn't bring himself to say the damning words the jury would use and call himself 'guilty', "--things don't work out, you are not to do anything stupid. Do you understand me? The first lesson I ever taught you boys was to look after one another. That is just what I expect you to do!" John Nestor's words of what might happen to Joe came rushing back at Ben, hitting him with all the force of a dam breaking.

            "Well, well," Adam joked lightly as Roy let him into the cell area. "Some family reunion we got going here. I see they fed you Hoss. Oh, and I saw Clem over at the International House getting you a tray as well, Pa." He leaned to one side and, like his father, saw that Joe was still sound asleep. "Think he was getting something for Joe too but since he's not liable to want it, I'll take care of his." To further underscore the fact that he was staying, Adam drew the lone chair towards his father's cell and, turning the barrel back around, straddled it and rested his arms across the back. "And to set your mind at ease, Pa, John and Case think it won't take the jury long to come back with a verdict."

            "I was telling Hoss, I don't know just what I should do about the three of you. That was a hardheaded and foolish game you boys played in that courtroom!" Ben's voice rose, chastising but without heat.

            "And it was one planned by your own attorney, Pa. He couldn't prepare you because you weren't talking, weren't helping yourself so he was left with us. John knew that Joe's kind of fragile right now. Joe blames himself, you know, for all of it. He hasn't come out and said it but the nightmares do it for him."

            Ben looked quickly to the cell floor, unable to meet Adam's steady gaze and soft words.

            "By Joe staying quiet, John knew that Case would look like a bully trying to get him to talk and everybody hates a bully! And big brother Hoss there, I almost believed you, brother!" For a brief moment the two smiled at one another then Adam went on, "Yep, we had to make the jury see the story in one light and one light only."

            "And since ol' Adam there has got all them fancy words of his stored up from all that fool education, he was just a-itchin' to use them! I can just imagine what that courtroom heard from you, Adam. You gonna tell me now or make me pound it out of you later?"

            Adam's eyebrows rose and he tilted his head to study the man in the other cell. He wondered what Hoss would say if he knew that all of their careful preparation had been for nothing. That all the steady logic and clear thinking had fled when Adam was presented with the truth that afternoon. And the truth had been that without his standing between the world and his father, without letting the world understand what an impact a father's love had on his sons, him in particular, that same father would have been lost. So Adam had thrown away his rehearsed words and simply spoken from his heart. It wasn't until he had sat back down in his gallery seat that Adam had realized how truly vulnerable he had appeared. Now Hoss was asking him to do it again?

            "Your brother made me proud with his testimony," Ben spoke up when Adam hadn't. The father within him knew what was going on behind those dark eyes and would save that son any future pain retelling the testimony would cause.

            With a simple small nod of his head, Adam thanked his father.


            The International House delivered a loaded tray to the Sheriff's office which all the Cartwrights, except the still sleeping Joe, managed to unload with dispatch. Hoss claimed he had missed more than one meal and figured that he was "owed a tetch more" fried chicken. There was no more discussion of the trial but as the evening shadows lengthened into night, the waiting became harder. Finally, just before eight, Roy Coffee let them know that the jury had retired for the night. And that visiting hours were over.

            "Guess I get that suite of rooms all to myself," Adam stood and stretched the kink from his back. A long finger pushed a last black checker into the path of one of Hoss' red ones.

            "Well, you just enjoy it, big brother, 'cause early tomorrow morning when we all head for home, you're gonna do all the chores. That was the bet right?" Hoss teased, jumping Adam's last checker and softly chuckling. He knew Adam had let him win the four games out of seven they had played but as far as Hoss was concerned, a win was a win and a bet was a bet.

            "Good night, son," Ben called, strangely saddened to see the black-shirted back disappear through the doorway. "Roy?" he called out just before the door closed.

            When Roy stuck his head back in and asked what Ben wanted, he had the idea and wasn't really sure if he could and would follow through on the request.

            "Please, Roy, an old friend to an old friend, let me change cells with Hoss. Just for tonight, please?"

            Roy smoothed his mustache down with one thumbnail as he gave the appearance of thinking the request over. If he let Ben and Hoss change cells, it wouldn't matter one bit to the law. But it would matter to a father separated from a son. Keys jangling, he unlocked the cell doors and let the two men switch. When there were no bars between them Ben gave Hoss a fleeting hug in passing. Roy looked away, embarrassed not by what he had seen but for having a hand in causing the separation in the first place. Once the two men were locked up tight again, Roy turned the lantern light down then blew out the light completely. A quick glance behind him as he closed the door showed him that Ben had immediately dropped to the narrow cot and reaching through the bars, had laid a very protective and loving hand on the still slumbering Joe's shoulder.


            Shortly after breakfast the next morning, John Nestor appeared at the jail with good news. The jury was in. He would escort Ben along with Roy Coffee to the courthouse. There was a brief and heated discussion when Hoss and Joe demanded that they also be allowed to go.

            "Sheriff, the jury has made up its mind. There can be no more testimony. It's done! Over with! These two are free to go!" argued the attorney.

            "That ain't the way I read the law, John Nestor. Until the judge says so, I can't let Hoss and Joe go free!"

            "Fine!" Joe spat the word out and shoved his hands through the bars. "Put us in handcuffs, tie us up, hell, put us in chains, but don't leave us here!" Joe cringed when he caught his father's scowl at the use of his language but he stayed firm anyway.

            "You could always claim that you don't have the manpower to -" Adam spoke up, even though he had to step back when Roy shoved past him.

            "All right! Ya'll win! I am so blamed tired of dealin' with you fool Cartwrights -and your lawyer- that I ain't sure which end is up any more. Clem, bring them handcuffs, will ya? " Even though Roy kept up the muttered protests, it was only a formality.

            John Nestor and Ben settled behind the defense table once into the courtroom. Again, Adam sat directly behind his father in the gallery while Roy Coffee rode herd on Hoss and Joe to one side. Throughout the room there was an expectant buzz, a hum that seemed to come from the air itself that early fall morning. The gallery was packed and the spectators overflowed into the hallway beyond it.

            When the judge finally entered and took his place, he eyed the gathering before him, taking special note of the two Cartwrights he had sent to jail the day before for defiling his courtroom with their refusals. With just a stern glare at the sheriff standing there beside them, he questioned their presence.

            "Didn't have enough deputies to guard 'em so I had to bring 'em with me. They's handcuffed, your honor and I don't think they'll make any trouble," Roy answered before the judge could even speak.

            The judge scowled. He had the feeling that the excuse was just that: an excuse but he did see that both of the men wore the required manacles, along with almost smug smiles. A hard glare and at least the smaller of the two let the smile disappear and looked at the floor, cowed enough, the judge thought.

            "Before the jury is brought in I want to say one thing: This is still a trial proceeding and as such, I expect appropriate behavior from all involved. There will be silence in my court. Bring in the jury."

            One by one, the twelve men entered and sat. Then Red Peters, the jury foreman stood.

            "Has the jury reached a verdict?" the judge asked, his voice deepening to show his respect for tradition.

            "We have, your honor."

            Turning to the defense, the judge motioned for them to rise. With little hesitancy, both Ben and John stood, Ben half-turning to face the jury. A collective gasp went through the gallery when Case Bradley also stood. With a rap to his gavel, the judge brought the proceedings back to silence.

            "Mr. Bradley, why are you standing?" the judge asked, full of other questions but only asking the one.

            "I always do, your honor. Out of respect, sir," Bradley asserted but not finishing that his respect was more for the man on trial than the proceedings.

            "All right then. Mr. Foreman, in the case pending before this court, the sole charge against Benjamin Cartwright is murder. How do you find?"

            Red Peters swallowed hard and ran a hand through his thin red hair. Then he opened the small slip of paper he held and read: "We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty!"

            Even the shouting from the judge as he banged his gavel repeatedly couldn't be heard for the hurrahs that went up. Roy Coffee quickly undid Ben's handcuffs then his sons'. Case Bradley rocked back on his heels and tried not to look too happy as he watched the four Cartwrights rejoicing. John Nestor was nearly knocked off his feet when Hoss patted him on the back. Over the continuing babble of voices and the crowd surrounding them, Bradley saw Adam staring at him. Adam put a finger to his hat brim and nodded. Case Bradley winked and quickly returned to packing up his valise.

            Standing with an arm across Joe's shoulders, Ben's voice cut through the hubbub. "I think it's time we went home, boys!"

            No one would argue.


            It was comforting to be home. The meal Hop Sing had prepared had been beyond reproach and a cheerful Ben had thanked the cook for making many of his favorite dishes. Hop Sing had beamed, then scurried back into his kitchen. Dinner over, the four Cartwrights retired to the great room and its warming fire. For a little while there was the commonplace talk of ranch doings, of things that needed doing before winter set in. Then an awkward silence had fallen over them, broken only by the sounds of them drinking their coffee.

            Since they had left the courthouse, a pressure had slowly and steadily built within Adam. That evening, with his father once more in his accustomed red leather chair, Hoss on the settee and Joe perched on the stonework of the fireplace, Adam could almost dismiss the feeling. Almost. Once the burdensome silence settled over them again though, he knew he couldn't. There had to be a release and not just for him but for all of them. Excusing himself, he went to the kitchen and returned moments later.

            "Remember when we used to do this?" he asked, dropping a small handful of Hop Sing's kitchen matches onto the square table. "You used to make us do this when we were fighting with each other, Pa. Pick up a match, say your peace, then throw it into the fire. Then it was supposed to be gone. Over. Done with. Remember?"

            Three heads nodded but Ben's eyes narrowed as he wondered what Adam had on his mind.

            "We need to do it again. We need to clear the air between us. To start again. To burn away the old. Since it's my idea, I'll start." Adam picked up one of the matches and held it before him. "I was disrespectful to you, Pa. I lashed out at you." Turning, Adam threw the match, symbolic of a son's disrespect to his parent, into the fire. Before it was completely consumed, it flashed bright for an instant, then it was gone. "And," Adam picked up another and looked directly at Joe, "I lied to you. When you needed Pa, I lied to you." He flicked the match into fire.

            "But you did it -" Joe started but Ben's hand on his arm stopped him. All Ben did was shake his head. The match was gone; there would be no more discussion, no excuses given, nothing more said or done about it. Like the match and the lie it represented, it was over and gone.

            Hoss leaned forward and picked up a single match. Still seated on the settee, he hunched forward as though in pain. He held up his match but wouldn't look his father in the eye as he spoke. "I thought you were guilty, Pa. I thought you had killed Dan Tolliver." With a short toss, the match arced across the table and lit in the flames.

            Joe waited then stiffly leaned forward and picked up two matches. Like Hoss, he couldn't look at his father. "I was disrespectful too, Pa. I kept thinking that by having Dan around you would finally forgive him." With a quick flick of his wrist, the sulfur found its way into the fireplace and flashed then disappeared. "And, Adam, Hoss, I fought with you, wanting my own way when I knew better." The second match followed the first.

            Ben could feel his sons' eyes on him and knew it was his turn. Long ago when they had started this way of settling things, it had been so easy and so simple. Those things confessed and wiped clean were small transgressions. But tonight, tonight those transgressions were larger, more difficult to deal with but the confessions were just as heartfelt. He battled within himself, balancing his own heart's needs and what he needed his sons to hear. Leaning forward, he set down his coffee cup and picked up several matches. He looked at the small sticks in his hands, then slowly stood.

            "I was angry. Angry with everyone and everything. When you suggested that Dan Tolliver was too old to do the job any more, Joseph, you made me angry because I'm growing old too and I was afraid you were telling me I was too old as well." With a short, hard toss, a match went into the fire beside Joe. Joe dropped his head, ashamed. "I was angry when my sons showed more forgiveness to a man who had tried to kill one of them. And then they tried to make me show him the same. I couldn't." Another match died in the flames. "And I was angry because when Joe was shot, I wanted to kill the man. I had told him I would. Right then, I wanted to see him dead but I couldn't do it myself. I made myself a liar." The last match in Ben's hand went into the fire.

            For the long moments that followed, a heavy silence hung in the warm air of the room. None looked at the others, reaching into their own hearts and consciences for anything lingering. There was no cleansing breeze that blew through the room. No outward sign but all could feel something changing around them.

 Finally Ben spoke up." That's all that will ever be said about this, by any of us in this room. Good night boys."

            One by one, his sons passed him as they slipped up the stairs. Adam gave him a tight smile as he went by. Hoss patted his shoulder. Joe paused beside him and looked up at him. Ben gestured with his head for Joe to go on and looking away, he did. With the last of them gone from the room, Ben stepped to the fireplace and settled a few more logs onto the fire and banked it for the night. He blew out the light next to his chair and the room fell into gentle shadows with only the light on his desk in the study still lit. He glanced down at the small pile of matches then scooped them into his hand. Looking at them laid out in his hand, he paused then chose one and tossed all but it into the fire. Ben watched the flames brighten then die, his remaining match now inside his balled fist. This one, he thought, to remind me forever. Turning, he lightly stepped into his study, sat at his desk and pulled out a sheet of paper. Ben picked up a pen and dipping it into the inkwell, wrote briefly on the paper, blew it dry then folded it. The paper, along with the last match, he slipped into a small envelope and sealed it. With it still in his hand, Ben Cartwright blew out the light and went up the darkened stairs to his own room to sleep.



She picked up the book and opened it. Not a first edition Paradise Lost but the copyright date on it was back in the 1830's so she had paid the junk store man the fifty cents for it and left. Late that night, unable to sleep, she had pulled the book from its shelf and had opened it as though to read. There, in the back, she found the yellowed envelope. Not addressed to anyone, she didn't feel she was invading anyone's privacy if she opened it. It was probably some letter, she thought, maybe from one lover to another since it was hidden away like it was. Carefully she opened the single page she found enclosed, a match that had been folded inside it fell to the floor at her feet but she paid no attention to it.

The writing, not faded by time since it had not seen the light for more than a century, was neat and concise. To her it looked like the writing they had tried to teach in school: the letters perfectly formed and even. She read the words there, flipped the page over, looking for more, looking for a signature at least, but there was nothing more.

Again she read the words:


                                    We fought. He slipped and hit his head.

                       They would have called it an accident.

But I walked away. I never looked back.

                       I lied to my sons. I killed Dan Tolliver.


The end


The Tahoe Ladies

August to October 2002

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