Summary: A What Happened Before story for “The Mill”
Rating: T (3,655 words)
Echo of Hoof Beats
Tears streamed down Joyce Edward’s face. “Tom, please! What’s gotten into you? Ben’s been a good friend and neighbor to both of us. What is bringing on these accusations?”
“Oh, has he been a good friend to both of us? Or has he been a good friend to you?” he flared at his wife. “Is Ben being neighborly when I go on business trips?”
Joyce drew herself up, her back ramrod straight, though she was quaking inside. “I won’t dignify that with an answer. I love you. In our five years of marriage, and before that, during our engagement, I never thought of another man. Ben is our neighbor and our friend. Ours, not just mine. I thought you enjoyed those monthly dinners. Talking hunting and business, having a game of chess or cards. That good Ponderosa beef and Hop Sing’s Yorkshire pudding. As for Ben being neighborly when you’re away, yes, he’s neighborly. He drops by to check on me. And he always has at least one of the boys with him.”
“Please, stay here and clear the air of whatever you think is going on between Ben and me,” Joyce begged. “Tell me where you are getting this ridiculous idea. I promise you, there’s nothing. Why are you going hunting with him if you feel this way?”
Edwards thrust the whiskey bottle into a coat pocket and a handful of rifle shells into another. Ignoring his wife, he stomped out the door to where his horse was tied. He swung into the saddle.
“Tom, come back in the house, please! You’re drunk! Don’t go hunting. Not in the mood you’re in!” Joyce ran towards her husband, only to be almost trampled as he galloped his grey gelding from the yard. Weeping quietly, she slowly walked to the porch and sank into her wicker rocking chair. As she rocked, she absent-mindedly rubbed her hand over the arm of the chair. Several chairs identical to this one had sat on her parents’ veranda in the small town in upstate New York where she was raised. The hours of her childhood spent on that veranda were now a distant memory, as were her parents. Her mother had been killed in the fire that destroyed the house. Her grief-stricken father had taken his young daughter and set out for a new life in San Francisco. He, too, was gone now, after a long illness. She had pointed the chair out to Tom in a shop in Sacramento. He had purchased it and had it shipped over the mountains to her as a surprise for her last birthday. It was almost impossible to reconcile that thoughtful, loving husband with the jealous, resentful, hard-drinking man he had become in the past few months. Ben Cartwright had been their neighbor and friend since they had arrived here as newlyweds five years before. He had never hinted at any improper feelings for her, had never given Tom any reason for this newfound jealousy, and she certainly hadn’t given her husband any reason to doubt her love for him.
Tom even had brought up selling this place, going back to San Francisco and living in the house her father left her. She sighed as she looked around her; the trees shading the house, the grape vines and vegetable garden. She could hear the music from the stream that tumbled down the hillside a short distance away. It would be hard to give this all up, but if it meant that she could have her husband back the way he was, she’d do it in an instant.
Ben Cartwright stopped pacing and peered impatiently down the trail to the Edwards Ranch. His neighbor was at least an hour late. Edwards had insisted they meet at the stream that formed the boundary between the two ranches. Ben was puzzled about the choice of meeting place. Usually, the two men met at the Edwards house before a hunting trip. Ben had been looking forward to a few biscuits covered with Joyce’s grape preserves. Maybe it was just as well, though. Ben thought of the last time he was in their home. There had been a tension in the air that left him feeling uneasy even after he left.
“About time,” Ben muttered to himself as his horse snorted and flicked his ears at the sound of approaching hooves. He mounted Buck and, leading the packhorse, trotted to greet the late-comer. “Tom. Good to see you.” He studied his friend and narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the faint smell of whiskey, but held his tongue.
The two hunters rode single file, their mounts picking their way carefully along the rocks strewn trail. Ben, in the lead, called a halt at the edge of a grassy clearing in the trees. They unsaddled their mounts, unloaded the packhorse and staked the animals out to graze.
While Ben set about gathering firewood, Edwards lounged against a log and pulled the whisky bottle from his pocket. He hoisted it in Ben’s direction.
Ben just shook his head and started making coffee. “The boys claim I make terrible coffee, but none of them can do any better. How about a cup?”
Edwards took the proffered tin cup, and splashed a dollop of whiskey into it. “Join me in a toast, Ben. What shall we toast to? How about friendship? Or my wife?” He raised his cup in a shaking hand. “Here’s to my good friend Ben Cartwright and my lovely wife Joyce.” He lowered his arm and glared at Ben over the cup. “You’re not toasting. Don’t you think my wife is lovely?”
Puzzled by his friend’s hostility, Ben answered hesitantly. “Yes, she is. You’re a lucky man, Tom.”
Edwards rose unsteadily to his feet and tottered across the campsite to where Ben sat on a large rock. “Yes, my wife, Ben. My wife.”
“Tom, I can assure that I’m well aware that Joyce is your wife. As is Joyce, herself. You’re a fool to think that she’d look at another man.” Ben struggled to keep his temper under control. “If you have any concerns about Joyce and me, sober up and we’ll talk about it then.”
Edwards angrily dumped out the contents of his cup. “I thought we came to hunt big horns?” He grabbed up his rifle and stalked out of camp. Taking swigs from his bottle, he mumbled to himself as he clambered unsteadily up the rocky path. “Gotta admit that was a good question my loving wife asked me. Why did I come up here today with Ben? I came to confront him. Why didn’t I back there? Maybe I’m a coward and need more of this under my belt first.” He tipped the bottle to his lips just as he rounded a pile of boulders. Suddenly there was no ground beneath his feet and he was falling. As he fell, he screamed and his fingers tightened on the trigger of the rifle he carried, causing the gun to fire. The bullet careened off the rocks and into Edward’s back.
After watching Edwards leave the camp, Ben poured a cup of coffee and settled wearily back against his saddle. As he sipped the hot brew, he tried to sort out in his mind what had just happened. “Did Tom think that something was going on between Joyce and me? Where would he get a notion like that? Was the hunting trip an excuse to get me alone to have it out?” Startled from his reverie by a man’s scream, followed by the crack of a rifle shot, Ben dropped his cup and scrambled to his feet.
The echoes reverberated off the walls of the small canyon, making it difficult to place the direction from which the sounds had originated. Praying that he was making the right choice, Ben hurried in the direction that Tom had taken earlier. Climbing out of the canyon and rounding a pile of boulders, he stopped to catch his breath and get his bearings. Directly ahead, from where the ground dropped off abruptly, he thought he heard a low moan. Ben judged the bottom to be about twenty feet down, a jumble of protruding boulders, jagged rocks, and dead tree limbs. No one could survive a fall into that rough terrain. The glint of sunlight off metal caught his eye. Lying on his stomach and peering cautiously over the lip of the cliff, Ben could see a small ledge that jutted out of the cliff wall a little less than halfway down. There, on that ledge, lay Edwards, still clutching his rifle, the lower part of the back of his shirt covered with blood.
Ben drew his colt and searched the rocks around him for any sign of a gunman. Nothing. No glint of sun off a gun barrel, no clatter of a carelessly kicked stone, no sound of a horseman riding off. Satisfied that whoever shot his companion was not there any longer, not hiding, ready to put a bullet into his back, also, he returned to the edge of the cliff. “Tom!” Ben shouted down. “Can you hear me? I’m coming! I’m going to get the horses, then I’ll get you out of there!”
With one end of his rope around himself and the other end tied securely to a tree, Ben eased himself over the lip of the cliff. The cliff wall angled inward and there were few footholds in its crumbly surface. Trying not to think of what lay at the bottom of the drop, he inched his way down to the ledge. As his feet touched firm rock, he breathed a sigh of relief. Tom’s body took up much of the space on the small ledge, not giving Ben much room to maneuver. As he took the coiled rope from his shoulder and tied it around and under the arms of the now unconscious man, Ben anxiously scanned the top of the cliff. “I could hurt him worse than he is, hauling him up by myself. There should be one man to steady him while the other mans the rope. But I can’t take a chance on waiting till Adam gets here. It could be nightfall by that time. “
Ben struggled his way back up the rope. As he pulled himself over the edge of the cliff, the earth under him gave way. He clutched the rope desperately as his searching feet found a stable foothold. Finally, grunting and sweating with exertion, he again crawled over the cliff’s edge, this time onto firm ground. Ben laid there for a few seconds to catch his breath, then secured the rope to his saddle. Guiding the rope, while walking Buck, he slowly pulled Tom Edwards up from the precarious ledge. After pulling Edwards over the rim, Ben laid him gently on his stomach to examine the wound. Thankfully, the bullet was right below the surface of the skin and the wound had almost stopped bleeding, although a large area around it was swollen and discolored.
“I’ll get you home to Joyce, Tom, and you’ll be fine in no time…” His words of reassurance were for himself, not the unconscious man. Ben bandaged the wound with his torn-up shirt and made Edwards as comfortable as possible. Then he set to work cutting branches for a travois.
Ben was tying the last knot in the ropes holding the travois together when a sound grabbed his attention. He straightened up, his hand on his pistol, his ears straining to pick up what the sound was and where it came from. There it was again. Boots on rocks, coming from the direction of their camp. “Stop right there! Come here where I can see you, hands in the air!”
“Pa! Mr. Edwards! It’s me, Adam!”
Ben holstered his weapon with a sigh of relief as his oldest son came into view around the surrounding rocks.
Adam looked in alarm from his father, who still had his hand on his holstered pistol, to Tom Edwards, to the travois, and back to his father. “What happened? Are you all right, Pa? Your face is bleeding!” Adam removed his bandana and offered it to his father. “You have a gash on your arm, too!”
“I’m fine, son.” Ben briefly touched Adam’s shoulder. “I must have scraped my face against the rocks. I don’t know what happened, to tell the truth. I’ll tell you everything later.” Ben tore off the sleeve of his shirt. “Here, tie this around my arm for now. We have to get Tom home. I just got this travois finished; let’s get him on it.”
Joyce Edwards’ steps faltered as she reached the bottom of the stairway. She took her handkerchief from the pocket of her dress and wiped the traces of tears from her face, then entered her parlor.
Adam had sent the Edwards’ hired hand for the doctor, then cleaned Ben’s cuts and scrapes. The two men stood as one as they rose from where they had been seated side-by-side on the uncomfortable horsehair sofa waiting for word. “How’s Tom?” Ben asked. Both men’s faces were furrowed with concern. Ben clutched his hat in front of him as he stepped toward Joyce.
“He’s a mass of bruises, but there aren’t any broken bones .The doctor doesn’t know how he avoided that.” She managed a weak smile as she sank into a maple rocker by the sofa. Her hands clenched around the arms of the chair. “But the bullet grazed his spine. His legs may be paralyzed, but Dr. Martin says that we won’t know anything for certain till he regains consciousness.” Joyce turned away from the two men as the silent tears started to stream down her face.
“Joyce!” Ben started toward her, arm outstretched, ready to try to comfort her.
She started to reach longingly for the strong arm being offered her, but settled back into the rocking chair. “I need to be alone to compose myself, then I should go back up with Tom. I’ll send word about how he’s doing.” She didn’t look at either of them as she spoke.
“Let us know if there is anything we can do.” Ben knew it sounded trite, and he hoped Joyce knew that he sincerely meant it. He and Adam turned toward the small foyer that led to the front door.
Joyce didn’t look up from the floral patterned rug till she heard the front door softly close. She pulled herself to her feet and made herself ascend the stairs to the bedroom where her husband lay.
“Mr. Edwards thought that? He should know you better than that! Not to mention, his own wife!” Adam reined in his horse and looked in disbelief at his father. “Why would he think a crazy thing like that?”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know. He was drinking. He’s been drinking heavily, lately. A man can have crazy thoughts when he’s drunk. I’ve been hearing rumors in town that he had a heavy business loss. You know, I never give credence to rumors, but I was told this in confidence by Nate Fairfield. Tom’s been banking with the Bank of San Francisco for years, and Nate’s worried about him. He wouldn’t have said anything to me about it, otherwise.” He rubbed his arm and rotated his shoulder. “Feels like my arm’s stiffening up. I’m going to need some liniment when we get home.”
The sharp clank of the iron door knocker caught the Cartwrights’ attention as they were setting down at the dinner table. Ben looked around at his sons. The two older looked expectantly at their youngest brother. Joe, after years of experience, knew what the look meant. He sighed. “Why is it always me?” Not really expecting an answer, he pushed his chair back and trudged to the front door.
“Sheriff Coffee, Doc Martin, come on in,” Joe welcomed the visitors as he opened the door.
“Evenin’, Joe,” Roy Coffee acknowledged the young man. “Your pa home?”
Ben had risen from the table and advanced on his two friends, hand out in greeting. “What brings you two out here this evening? Have you had dinner yet?”
Roy Coffee fumbled with the hat he held in his hands. “Uh, Ben. This isn’t a social call. I need to ask you a few questions.”
“Of course, Roy. Sit down, gentlemen.” Ben indicated the settee. He settled himself on the plank table in front of where the sheriff and doctor sat, his sons standing protectively behind him. “What’s this about?”
Roy cleared his throat. “Go ahead, Paul; tell Ben what Tom Edwards said after he regained consciousness last night.”
“Ben,” Dr. Martin began uneasily, “Tom told Joyce and me that you were to blame for what happened up there yesterday.”
“What!” Ben sprang to his feet. “That’s ridiculous!”
Adam jumped to his father’s defense. “Pa risked his life to save Mr. Edwards! Doc, you saw how banged up my father was! You both should know my father well enough to know that he wouldn’t do something like that!”
“Now, just calm down!” Sheriff Coffee jumped into the breech. “It’s just like Paul said. When Tom woke up and found out how bad hurt he is, he started insistin’ that everything was Ben Cartwright’s fault. He had his poor wife in tears, and himself worked into such a state that the doc had to give him a sedative powder. Paul was pretty shook up about what Tom was sayin’ and came to me about it. We thought it best to ride out here and get your side of the story, seein’ as how nothin’ Tom was sayin’ made sense.”
Ben raised his hand to halt his sons as all three started to speak at once. “Roy’s right; we should all calm down about this.” He gestured with his head toward the dining room. “Eat your dinner before we have to contend with Hop Sing yelling about going back to China.”
Hoss turned back to the dining room, dragging a reluctant Joe along by the arm. Adam started to follow their father, the sheriff, and the doctor into the office alcove. Ben seated himself behind his desk and looked at his oldest son. “You too, Adam. Go join your brothers.”
“But Pa…” Adam started to protest, but the stern look it earned him convinced him that he really should go eat dinner.
Sheriff Coffee and Doc Martin made themselves comfortable in the leather chairs in the alcove while Ben launched into the story, beginning with Tom Edward’s reluctance to have Ben meet him at his home as he usually did.
Roy smoothed his grey mustache, seemingly deep in thought. “You know, that bullet wound was real shallow. If it hadn’t been right by his spine, it wouldn’t have been much of a wound. The bullet couldn’t have had much force behind it when it hit him. My guess is that when he fell, he pulled the trigger of the rifle and the bullet ricocheted and hit him. What do you think, Paul?”
“I had that same thought. But, unfortunately, we won’t know for sure unless Tom tells us what really happened. Ben, he told Roy and me that crazy notion about Joyce and you. Now, just a minute. Neither of us believe a word of it,” he assured Ben, who had half-risen from his chair.
Ben’s visitors stood to leave. “We’ve interrupted your dinner long enough,” advised Roy, fidgeting nervously with his hat. “I was satisfied all along that it was an accident; I just needed to get your story. Bye, Ben.”
Three pairs of eyes fixed on him when Ben returned to the dinner table. Ben’s only reply to the questioning looks was to dig into the plate of food that Hop Sing silently placed in front of him.
Ben looked up from his ledger as Hop Sing padded to answer the knock at the door. Hearing his cook’s welcoming words –“Missy Edwards! Good to see you.” — he popped the pen into the inkwell and hurried to greet her. “Joyce, Hop Sing’s right; it’s good to see you. Please, sit down. How’s Tom? Is there anything you need? “
Joyce perched on the end of the settee as if poised for flight. “Tom’s as well as can be expected right now. I can’t stay; he’s napping but I have to be there when he wakes up. Mrs. Schaunassey is there helping out for awhile, but he gets upset when I leave. I just wanted to come apologize to you for Tom’s suspicions and innuendoes. And to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye?” Ben sank onto the settee beside her. “Are you and Tom moving to San Francisco to the house your father left you?”
Joyce lightly touched his arm. “I had thought of doing that. It would be better for Tom to be in the city. But, no, we’re not going anywhere. Tom wants to stay here where he can hide from people and feel sorry for himself. I’m telling you goodbye because Tom insists that we sever our friendship. He doesn’t want you or the boys to set foot on our place. And he’d be furious if he knew I was here. No, please Ben, don’t say anything. Let me say what I have to say and leave before I make a fool of myself by breaking down. Hopefully, some day we can all be friends again, but for now, it has to be this way. Tell your boys goodbye for me. Stay here, I’ll see myself out.” She quickly kissed Ben on the cheek and ran out the door.
Ben followed, but by the time he got to the porch, she had disappeared around the corner of the barn, and all that was left was the echo of hoof beats and a lost friendship.