Summary: A WHN scene for the episode The Trap. Booth is encouraged by Ben to visit Joe, who is still recovering from the gunfight.
Rated K+ (3,065 words)
Trapped in Remorse
As he opened the door of the dimly lit room, Booth could barely make out the form of the injured young man lying on the bed. Standing just inside still cloaked in darkness, he hesitated to move forward, not convinced his presence would be welcomed. The sight was a far cry from the youthful bravado that had challenged him on the street only hours before. Looking at the boy now, Booth still couldn’t believe Joe Cartwright’s determination to take him down, knowing full well he would most likely be killed.
It had only been a few days earlier that Booth had received word that his twin brother had been killed … by accident. Or so they said. Booth hadn’t bought a word of it and was determined to find out what really happened. He was told that his brother was out searching for some rustlers and was accidentally shot by Joe Cartwright. Apparently young Cartwright had fired in self-defense, thinking one of the rustlers was shooting at him. Cartwright claimed that when he shot back, he didn’t know he was shooting at his brother, Burke.
But Booth believed that Joe was guilty. In fact, he had received a letter from his brother accusing Joe of having an affair with his wife. The letter gave Booth the proof that he needed to convince him that Joe had a motive to kill his brother, so he could have his brother’s wife Haley all to himself. Booth was a man of the law and a well-known Sheriff. He saw things in black and white.
After the proper arrangements had been made regarding his brother’s funeral, Booth had set out to smear Joe’s reputation and prove that he was guilty. The situation continued to worsen as Booth aggressively interrogated his brother’s wife, Haley, whose untimely death made finding the truth even more difficult.
Despite the sheriff’s best efforts to diffuse the situation, Booth was still convinced that Joe Cartwright murdered his brother, although now with Haley dead it would be impossible for Booth to prove anything. So instead Booth set out to convince the entire town that the Cartwright boy was guilty, and worse still suspected of having an affair with his brother’s wife. Flyers were printed to help hasten his desired outcome, offering a reward to anyone who had evidence to prove Joe’s guilt.
But now, as he stared at Joe’s still form, Booth was remorseful, knowing he had let his own emotions cloud his judgment. He had been wrong about Joe Cartwright, and after witnessing the desperate act of this young man calling him out onto the street, knowing full well the outcome could be deadly for him, Booth realized just how wrong he had been. At the time he had tried to dissuade Joe, but it only made the situation more intense. And with seemingly no other soloution but to follow Joe out onto the street, Booth again pleaded with Joe.
However it was at this point that Booth realized that Joe was not the killer. And as he shared this revelation with Ben Cartwright, sitting in the waiting room after Joe’s bullet had been removed, Booth was struck by the courage of a young man who believed in honour and was prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to clear his name. No indeed, he thought to himself, no killer would do that.
Quietly moving towards the bed he watched Joe staring out the window at a day not quite done. He could see the pain still evident on his face as the sweat glistened in the evening sun. The broad bandages applied to the boys’s upper torso, although fresh , were growing a troublesome red stain, reminding Booth just how close he had come to committing murder.
Thank God for small mercies, he thought; as he knew his aim was true and not meant to kill.
Clearing his throat deliberately, Booth caught Joe’s attention. He could see fear instantly register on Joe’s face while he frantically looked around the room for his Pa or someone to protect him. Aware of the boy’s confusion, Booth knew immediately what he was thinking and moved closer to the bed to reassure him.
“No.. .no you don’t understand, I’m not here to harm you,” urged Booth. “I’m here to say I’m sorry.”
Still groggy and confused from a mild pain killer, Booth couldn’t help but notice Joe’s tightened grip on the bed sheets, as if bracing himself for the worst. Hoping to calm the boy, he gently rested his hand on Joe’s trembling shoulder, silently cursing himself for letting things get so out of hand. Here was the real victim, he thought – not his brother, nor Haley. Joe Cartwright didn’t deserve any of this.
In hindsight, Booth recalled his visit with Haley, and realized that all his suspicions about Joe Cartwright were ill-founded. Haley was more than capable of seducing whomever she pleased; even he himself had fallen head over heels for her long before her marriage to his brother. Joe was not responsible for his brother’s death, but Booth had been so devastated, and he needed someone to blame. He needed someone to blame for everything, even for the death of Haley and the relationship with her that he never had.
In the dim light, Joe stared at Booth with penetrating honesty.
“I didn’t kill your brother,” he whispered.
“I know that now, Joe,” Booth replied. “I guess I always knew that deep down you were innocent, but just didn’t want to admit it.”
Breathing more freely, Joe allowed himself to relax, while Booth continued to explain how he realized that Joe couldn’t possibly have killed his brother.
“There you stood – steadfast, defending your honour, and so determined to prove your point, despite what it might cost you. The reality of it all hit me instantly, Joe, and in that split second I prayed for my aim to be straight,” Booth explained. “Hitting your shoulder was no accident. I’m just sorry I have caused you so much pain.”
Booth went on and shared his past with Joe including the rivalry he had always felt towards his brother. He could see Joe was tiring, but still patiently listening. It was a testament to Joe’s character, thought Booth and he chided himself again for being so wrong. And although Booth knew he should leave and let the boy rest, he felt oddly compelled to share the many misgivings he had in the past about a brother who always seemed to get the upper hand.
Finally talked out, Booth confessed sadly, “I don’t know how to make it up to you Joe.”
Staring at Booth, Joe recalled the events of the past few days. He always had the gift of taking someone else’s perspective, and this moment was no exception. He thought of the shock it must have been for Booth to hear of his brother’s death. And not just any brother, but a twin brother. He couldn’t imagine how that would feel knowing how much he loved Adam and Hoss. And although he felt the a similar rivalry now and again with his brothers, he knew that his relationship with Hoss and Adam was much different than the deep-seated resentment Booth harboured towards his brother; a resentment that had been festering for years.
Joe also thought of Haley’s death, contemplating now how tragic that would have been as well for Booth. He was aware of the rumors of Booth’s affection for his brother’s wife, but it wasn’t until now that he realized how her death would have distorted the truth.
Love is blind, thought Joe, mildly amused at his own retention of one of his brother’s favourite quotes by Shakespeare.
“It’s alright. I understand. Your brother had been killed and you wanted answers,” Joe said softly. “But I guess I wanted answers, too. And it wasn’t till my Pa showed me the letter your brother wrote that accused me of having an affair with his wife that I fully understood. I knew I couldn’t convince you that I didn’t mean to shoot your brother, but I felt so cornered, backed up against so many lies, that I couldn’t think clearly.”
This time it was Booth’s turn to listen. He knew only too well how much honour meant to a man. And at this young age, it represented a man’s worth. Without it you were nothing. But whether your honour was worth dying for was a question Joe would only learn only time.
Gradually Joe felt the pull of exhaustion as he revealed his real anxiety to Booth. He knew normally such feelings wouldn’t be shared with a stranger, but Joe was as desperate now as he had been in street calling out Booth.
His eyes welled up with an urgency that left Booth riveted to his spot.
“I don’t think my Pa understands,” Joe whispered..
For the man Joe respected the most had hurried from the room shortly after he woke up.
“He’s angry you know.. You should have heard him,” Joe recalled sadly. “He’s never raised his voice to me like that.”
Joe gestured to the empty chair beside the bed. “Normally he would be sitting in that chair right beside you, but he just stormed away. He was just so angry.”
He sighed. “I don’t blame him really. I should know better than to let myself get so worked up. But I wanted it all to be over. The whole town thought that your brother’s death was no accident. Everywhere I went people silently blamed me and questioned my relationship with Haley,” he said. “I just wanted it all to stop.”
With that Joe turned his head hoping to regain some control of his played out emotions. This time looking out the window he noticed the day was indeed done, much like himself. The tears he had fought so hard to control now escaped unchecked as he contemplated his father’s disappointment and felt the absence of the familiar vigil by his bedside.
Sensing it was time to leave, Booth turned to go. But as he moved he sensed the presence of someone standing by the door. At what point Ben Cartwright entered the room Booth didn’t know, but he was certain that although Joe and he had straightened things out, there was still much misunderstood between this young man and his father. It wasn’t his place to remain, so silently slipping behind Ben, Booth left the Doctor’s office, thankful for the opportunity to make amends.
Standing in the same shadow Booth had occupied, Ben also recalled the events of the day. It was a day he wasn’t apt to forget for the rest of his life, where a single shot barked out a father’s worse nightmare.
His heart pumped again with anxiety as he recalled his run up the street …instinctively knowing.
He thought back to that moment arguing with Sheriff Coffee’s over the slanderous flyers that were being posted on every available spot in Virgina City. And then having that moment interrupted with a sound that may as well have pierced his own heart.
Running from a distance, Ben remembered seeing a man face down on the street; a sight he had seen time and time again in this rough mining town. But this time the man with his face down wore a green jacket. His worse fears raced through his mind in those seconds, and it was only when he was carrying Joe in his arms to the doctor’s office did he allow his anger to flourish knowing that Joe was still alive.
Listening to some of Joe’s heartfelt worries, he realized how a parent’s love and anger can be so easily misconstrued.
In hindsight how could he expect Joe to understand those frantic moments where your emotions construct the worse possible outcome. And how, when the dust settles and your child is safe, those very same pent up emotions need to be released. And in Ben’s case they needed to be released out of the room where Joe lay injured.
Although the lantern was turned low, there was enough light for Ben to see the pain and exhaustion on his son’s face. The gentle hitch of his son’s breathing urged Ben forward. Quietly, so as not to startle him, Ben took hold of his hand and without letting go, he slipped down into the welcoming chair.
“I’m not angry, son,” whispered Ben. “And I’m sorry for what I said.”
Squeezing Joe’s hand a little tighter, Ben tried to explain how he found it hard to breathe once the doctor had removed the bullet.
“I guess this time it was just too close for me, and I had to leave. I hope you can understand that,” Ben explained.
Still sensing Joe’s anxiety, Ben attempted again to reassure Joe that it had nothing to do with him.
“I just needed some air, Joe. You know how hot it was out today. And that heat combined with the closeness of this room made me feel like I was suffocating.”
But in truth, Ben knew his need to leave had little to do with the stale air of a treatment room. In fact, Ben knew he couldn’t fully articulate to his son why he needed to flee his son’s bedside for another space that didn’t remind him of an old nightmare; a nightmare that had played over and over again in his head for as long as he could remember in which one of his sons might be sprawled in death on an empty street.
But looking at his son now he could see how Joe was still not convinced.
“I’m here now, boy,” he said quietly. “Make no mistake, it would take five men the size of your brother Hoss to move me from this chair.”
This comment eased Joe’s expression somewhat but Ben knew in his heart that Joe was still needing some reassurance. So slowly Ben eased himself out of the chair that seemed to represent so much to Joe, and carefully sat on the edge of his bed. Joe’s eyes filled with this gesture of closeness.
Tenderly stroking his son’s arm, Ben recalled how often he had witnessed near-death situations with this particular young man. With the doctor always at his side, usually Ben could cope very well. And because of that, he now understood how Joe felt so perplexed by his behavior, for he had never left his bedside in the past, especially if Joe was still awake. But for reasons unknown, Ben couldn’t describe how this time it was different. This time, he needed to be alone.
Perhaps he hadn’t quite recovered from the adrenaline surge that still coursed through his body when he ran from the sheriff’s office into the open street. Seeing your son lying face down with his hands stretched out to a gun that never fired was just too much. He needed time to simmer down; he had already lost his temper and said things he would regret for a long time. He remembered leaving the room, but was unaware of the eyes pleading him to stay. The eyes that needed reassurance and forgiveness for an action that might have been perceived as pure suicide. An action that Joe needed forgiveness for.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe whispered. “I know it was a foolish thing to do, but I was so angry, so desperate for a solution that would make all the accusations stop. I knew in my head I was likely going to be killed, but I just couldn’t seem to stop myself. I felt trapped.”
“And then,” Joe continued. “And then, when those two lowlifes started telling me how the rumours were gettin worse, I just wanted to put an end to it once and for all.”
Straining to sit up, Joe reached for his Pa, who simply shook his head, leaving Joe trembling with disbelief.
He hasn’t forgiven me, thought Joe.
But just as Booth’s gesture of visiting Joe had been misinterpreted, so had Ben’s gesture of shaking his head.
Easing Joe back onto the pillows, Ben tried to explain.
“Everything is alright, Joe,” he said. “I’m the one who is sorry. I didn’t mean to say what I said when you first woke up. I was so scared.”
Ben paused, seeming to search for the right words. “I had forgotten, Joe,” he said. “I had forgotten what it was like to be young with your reputation on the line. Those flyers made me angry, but more because of how they affected me. After all it was my son they were accusing! I didn’t think enough of how all this was affecting you. It was easy for me to tell you to let it go, but I didn’t have my name plastered on wanted posters all over town. All I cared about was you not getting hurt. I knew how good Booth was with a gun.”
Ben looked down at Joe struggling to remain awake and felt remorseful that he had doubted him even for an instant. Reluctant to release his Pa’s hand, Joe allowed the bed sheets to be drawn up over his shoulders, giving warmth from the evening’s breeze. A breeze now that felt heavenly to Ben Cartwright.
Drawing in deep breaths of fresh air, Ben knew Joe would be challenged again where he would have to decide whether his pride was worth risking his life for. He hoped secretly that Joe might have learned something from this ordeal, but he also knew in his heart that only time would tell. And as he gently reclaimed his son’s hand and reclined ever so slightly against the back of the chair, Ben knew that life held no guarantees. Smiling slightly, he thought of his son’s usual response to his endless injuries – “I’m fine.”
Ben would relish in this fact for now, even after being rocked to his core.
And as he gazed upon his sleeping son, the only thing he knew for sure was that the chair he occupied now would be warmed again in the future.
Thank you to my fanfiction friend, Lisamarie, for coming through yet again – and giving me my title!!