Reap the Whirlwind
Notes: The characters are not mine and this little piece is! I've had this idea in my mind for some time and finally was able to write it out. Its inspiration was thinking about the eerie similarities between season 4's Thunder Man episode and season 9's Justice Deferred, and how hard the events of the latter must have hit Little Joe considering the events of the former. I hope he and Hoss sound alright; it's my first attempt writing for the series.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
The pastor spread a handful of freshly dug dirt over the top of the expensive coffin. One by one, Eleanor Eades' family and friends went forward to do the same. Quiet murmurs carried on the wind, whispers of "How tragic; she was so young!" and "That man of hers has learned a hard lesson for his greed!" A third voice chimed in with, "It's a shame he couldn't be here, I suppose. The prosecutor is holding him for lying in court!"
Joseph Cartwright slipped away from the crowd, disappearing amid the rows of graves. This scene was too similar to one from several years earlier, one that was still burned unbearably in his mind and heart. And the physical reminder of it was under a pine tree near the far corner of the cemetery.
He had been to the grave so often that he could picture everything about the marker by heart. Ann had been a close friend of his, killed by a traveling madman while on her way to a party of Joe's. Her only relative, her uncle Fred, whose grave was next to hers, had been another of his victims, in a sense. Perhaps the madman had not actually killed him, but the shock and horror of watching him kill Ann while he had lain paralyzed had surely not helped his condition any.
The church organist Mrs. Gibson had been a third victim, and another who had been outright murdered. Joe blamed herself for her death as well. It had only been after Joe had come by inquiring into a possible clue in the case that everything had fallen apart. Mrs. Gibson had been killed for eventually putting the pieces together and discovering the identity of Ann's murderer.
The madman had been a friend of Joe's too. He had managed to hide it well; Joe had most certainly not had any idea that the explosives expert William Poole had been the terror who had so mercilessly ended Ann's life. He had seemed so friendly, so peaceable . . . so normal. As if the mystery had not already been filled with heartbreaking twists and turns, that had been the final blow.
And that was what made Mel Barnes' recent reign of murder even more difficult for Joe to deal with.
It was frightening, how he was almost the spitting image of William Poole. Poor, ill-fated Frank Scott had looked like Poole too, Joe supposed, but not like Mel Barnes had. And both Barnes and Poole had enjoyed certain rare songs that had eventually led to their downfalls. It was as if the Thunder Man had been reborn to continue his insane and pointless killings.
And as if he was still haunting Joe and laughing at him. Not that Joe believed in ghosts, but sometimes he wondered.
He cast a glance at the opposite corner of the cemetery, where the undesirable people in Virginia City had been buried. Both Poole and Barnes were there. Frank Scott had been, but his widow had insisted on him being reburied in the proper part of it now that his guiltlessness in the matter of one young girl's death was assured.
Joe tried to stay away from that part of the cemetery whenever he could. Most of the townsfolk felt the same. But once or twice he had wandered amid the simple graves, hoping to find some answers to his persistent questions. He had not. And it felt grim and dark over there, so he had not gone in some time.
He started and turned at the sound of Hoss's voice. His older brother was coming towards him, obvious concern written over his features.
"What're you doin' all the way over here?"
Joe sighed, looking to Ann's grave in front of him. "Nothing," he said. "Just thinking."
"About Ann, huh?" Hoss followed Joe's gaze. "It sure was awful about her, too."
Joe nodded. "Did you notice how much Barnes looked like him?" He shook his head. "It was uncanny."
"It was weird, alright," Hoss nodded. "I'm sorry, Little Joe. This whole thing must've turned up bad memories for you somethin' fierce."
Joe was silent. "I'm sorry too, Hoss," he said at last. "I know how hard you tried to get everyone to realize that Frank Scott was innocent and Mel Barnes was Shirley Patrick's killer."
"If it hadn't been for Andy lyin' like that right on the witness stand, we would've had him before he got to Eleanor." Hoss clenched a big fist, but then relaxed it. "I guess I can't be too mad at Andy, though. He's gonna carry this with him all the rest of his life, feelin' responsible for Eleanor's death and all. He'll be mad enough at himself for the both of us."
"Mr. Eades too," Joe said. "He's the one who made Andy feel like he had to lie if he wanted to stay on Eades' good side."
"He was lookin' awful sick today, comin' to his daughter's funeral," Hoss said.
Joe laid a hand atop Ann's marker. "Why did it have to be like this both times?" he wondered. "Why did so many people have to die before Poole and then Barnes were stopped?"
"I don't know, Joe. I really don't." Hoss shook his head. "'Tain't right, I know that much. And we might never know more than that."
"Yeah." Joe stepped away from the pine tree. "We probably won't."
He hesitated. "Sometimes I feel like he's still here. Poole, I mean. That he's taunting me for not being able to stop him sooner. Sometimes he's mad because I shot him."
Hoss thought about that. "Maybe it's more that you're mad at yourself?" he suggested. "One difference between Poole and Barnes was that you and Poole were friends. I never was friends with Barnes. Couldn't stand him the first time I saw him and realized he'd killed Shirley Patrick."
"Maybe that's it," Joe said. "I really thought Poole was a good guy. It felt like a betrayal when I realized the truth. And when I realized that I'd been stupid enough to trust him."
"Everybody trusted him," Hoss protested. "He didn't give anyone any reason not to."
"I know," Joe sighed. "But I still wonder if there were warning signs and I missed them." He shook his head. "When Clem told me he'd even talked to Poole in his investigation, I defended the guy. I said Clem was looking for the murderer in all the wrong places. And then I was the one who turned out to be wrong—after three people were dead."
Hoss placed his hand on a low-hanging branch of the pine tree. "You never really did say much about what happened when you and Poole had your showdown outside Mrs. Gibson's house," he said. He had always wondered, but had not pried. He wondered a bit if his brother would tell him now.
Joe stared into the distance. "Poole was a sick man," he said. "I don't know if anyone could've helped him. He ended up completely unhinged when I tried to ask about the murders. He'd committed more, a lot more. He couldn't even remember how many. It always happened, he said, because he liked the girls' soft hair and skin and they rejected him when he wanted to get close to them. And then he started talking about his explosives and . . ." He shook his head. It still disturbed him all these years later. "He sounded like he thought he was more powerful than God. He said there wasn't any power in Heaven or Earth more powerful than he was, when he had those explosives."
Finally he looked back to Hoss. "Maybe in some way I felt sorry for him, even after everything he'd done. He wasn't in his right mind at all."
"He was different than Barnes," Hoss said. "Barnes must've been crazy too, but in another sort of way. I don't really know how to explain it."
"I think I do," Joe said. "I got the idea that Poole didn't actually want to kill, but it just happened when the girls tried to get away. Barnes wanted to kill. He got some kind of sadistic pleasure out of it."
A deep frown crossed Hoss's features. "That sums it up pretty well, I think. They were both way out there."
"Poole probably deserved death, though," Joe went on. "I'm sure he would've got it if he'd been tried. Maybe it just seemed too good for him to die right there like that and escape everything. I didn't shoot to kill; he's the one who threw one of his explosives and blew himself up."
"He didn't wanna wait for any trial," Hoss said. He sighed, shoving his hands in his pockets. "I've been feelin' some of those ways about Barnes the last few days. Like he's hangin' around me, I mean. And maybe he is and maybe he isn't. Could just be my own guilt. It'll be a long time before I can get Eleanor and Andy out of my head. Shirley Patrick and Frank Scott too."
Joe nodded. "Same here. I don't know if I'll ever completely forgive myself for Ann. Or Mrs. Gibson."
"That wasn't your fault," Hoss objected. "But . . . now I really think I know how you feel. I didn't before."
"I'm sorry you had to find out," Joe said. "This is one burden I never wanted to end up sharing."
"Yeah." Hoss looked to the gradually dispersing congregation. "Funeral's over. Looks like Mr. and Mrs. Eades are stayin' on."
"We should go," Joe said, "and let them have their privacy."
Hoss concurred. "There's Pa," he pointed out. Ben was coming over to them. From his expression, he had an idea of what they had been up to and what they had been discussing.
Joe could tell that as well. He headed in that direction.
He wished he could say that he and Hoss would leave all the ghosts behind in the cemetery. But he had a feeling that several, both good and bad, would haunt them back to the Ponderosa.
With devastating tragedies such as those brought on by Poole and Barnes, it was not just the dead but the living who could not rest in peace.
Maybe in time they could.