The old man shuffled out
of the mine, walking slowly only because his legs refused to move any faster.
If he could have done so, he would have danced with joy as he left the
mine. His face, lined with age and covered with a thick white beard, was
split by a grin as he rubbed his hands in anticipation. After 20 years,
he had finally found the vein of silver he had seeking, a vein that was
wide and deep. He knew it would bring more money than a man could spend
in a lifetime. Certainly more than he could spend in the few years he had
left. But the money wasnít important to the old man. He was happy simply
because he had found the vein. He couldnít wait to tell those yahooís at
Baileyís about his strike. They had laughed at him for years, called him
a old fool. He hadnít minded the old part. He was old and he knew it. But
being called a fool had bothered him. Well, he thought smugly, they wouldnít
be laughing any longer. The old man continued his shuffle toward the buildings
in the distance, his gait a little faster than before. No, thought the
old man gleefully, they wouldnít laugh at old Andy any more.
"Itís time someone made a trip to Hawthorne," said Ben Cartwright as he forked a piece of the pancakes from his plate into his mouth.
"Joeís turn to go," mumbled Hoss Cartwright without looking up. He picked up a piece of bacon from his plate and stuck into his mouth.
Joe Cartwrightís fork froze in mid-air. "My turn!" exclaimed Joe. "How do you figure that?"
"Well," answered Hoss as he continued to chew. "I went last time, Adam went the time before that, and Pa went the time before Adam. So I figure itís your turn, little brother."
Joe dropped his fork to his plate. "Pa, I canít go," said Joe in a slightly desperate voice. "Iíve got too much to do."
"Thereís nothing that canít wait," replied Ben as he continued to eat his breakfast.
"But, Pa," said Joe, the desperation in his voice growing. "With Adam in San Francisco, the work is really piling up. Weíve got those fences to fix, and Iíve got to check the herd in the south pasture. And we really should start cutting the hay."
"All of that can wait a day or two," answered Ben firmly. "Our obligation to Andy Miller takes precedence over everything else."
"Whatís the matter, Joe?" ask Hoss in an innocent voice. "You scared to ride into Hawthorne? Ainít nothing there. Itís just an old ghost town."
"No, Iím not scared to ride to Hawthorne," replied Joe. "Itís just that I got other things
Iíd rather do." Joe turned to Ben. "Pa, why do I have to go?" he asked in an exasperated voice.
"You know why," replied Ben patiently. "Iíve told you the story over and over. When I first arrived in this area, I was in a desperate situation. I got lost in the mountains, and the wagon broke down. I was almost out of supplies, and Adam was sick. Hoss was just a baby. I truly thought we would all die in those mountains until Andy came along. He helped me fix the wagon, then led me into Hawthorne. He bought me a load of supplies and lent me a little money. All he asked in return was that I repay the supplies when he needed them.
"But Pa, that was over 20 years ago!" exclaimed Joe. "Weíve been sending a wagonload of supplies down to Andy as long as I can remember. Surely the debt has been paid by now."
"There was no limit to my debt to Andy," said Ben. "That reminds me. Donít forget to stop at Baileyís Trading Post on the way back. You know my deal with Bailey. Iíll pay for any whiskey or other items Andy has put on his bill there."
"But PaÖ" Joe started.
"No buts," said Ben firmly. He relented a bit as he saw the dismay on Joeís face. "Joe,
the vein in Andyís mine ran out just as the Ponderosa started to turn into a productive ranch. I sent him the supplies he needed so he could continue to work his mine. And I will continue to do so for as long as he needs them."
"Youíd think after 20 years, old Andy would get discouraged and give up," commented Hoss as he finished his breakfast. "Everyone else left Hawthorne years ago. Thereís no one there by him."
"Andy is convinced that the vein is still in the mine," said Ben. "Heíll look for it until he finds it. And we will give him what he needs to continue to look. Besides, a wagonload of supplies every few months is scant payment for what he did for me."
"Itís not the supplies," said Joe. "I wouldnít mind taking them if it was just that. But every time I deliver the supplies, I end up having to listen to Andyís tales. He goes on and on about when Hawthorne was a boom town. Heís told me those stories so many times, I can practically repeat them word for word."
"Youíre lucky you just have to listen to his stories," said Hoss. "Last time I was there, he dragged me into that old mine of his. He made me move some of the heavier rock for him, and then I had to help him hide the entrance. Heís convinced someone is going to try to jump his claim." Hoss shook his head. "As if someone would want that old dead hole of his."
"I think living all alone in that old ghost town has made him loony," said Joe. "Look at the way heís always fixing up those old buildings. He says he wants the town to look good when everyone comes back. Heís sure Hawthorne is going to be a boom town again someday."
"Well, he does act a bit strange sometimes," admitted Ben. "But Andy is an old man. Heís got nothing left except his dream of finding that vein of silver. The least we can do is let him keep his dream."
"Yeah, but youíre not the one whoís going to have to listen to him," grumbled Joe.
"No Iím not," said Ben in a stern voice. "You are. Now listen to me, Joseph. You will go into Virginia City and pick up a wagonload of supplies, and you will deliver those supplies to Andy Miller in Hawthorne. And you will listen to his stories, if he wants to tell them. And you will mind your manners while you listen. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes sir," said Joe in a discouraged voice. Joe shook his head. "Hawthorne," he muttered. "What a boring trip thatís going to be."
Joe bounced on the seat as the wagon hit yet another rut. As much time as old Andy spends fixing up that ghost town, thought Joe, youíd think heíd do something about this road. Joe shook his head, knowing he was just being contrary. He was aggravated about everything on this trip. It had taken him longer than he had planned to get the supplies in Virginia City. The general store had been busy and he had waited over an hour just to begin loading the wagon. Then he had decided to make the trip up to Baileyís to pay Andyís bill before heading into Hawthorne. He hadnít realized the road to the Trading Post up in the mountains was in such bad shape. Joe had gotten to Baileyís only to find the place locked up. A scrawled sign in the window simply said "Gone for Supplies".
There was no telling where Bailey had gone or when he would be back. So Joe would have to make another visit to the Trading Post on his way home.
By the time Joe had guided the wagon up to Baileyís, the day had turned late. Joe had no desire to drive a wagon full of supplies back down the mountain road full of ruts and rocks in the dark. So he had spent the night camping out at Baileyís, sleeping on the cold, hard ground. He had left the Trading Post at dawn, after eating an unappetizing breakfast of beans. When he had left the Trading Post, Joe knew he was in a foul mood.
The thought of having to spend most of the day listening to old Andyís stories didnít improve his mood.
Joe stopped the wagon as he came to the crest of the hill on the road leading down into Hawthorne. He wanted to take a look at the road ahead before starting down with a fully loaded wagon. He also wanted to steel himself for a day with Andy Miller. Joe felt a bit guilty about being so irritated about the trip. He knew that Andy looked forward to the visits from the Cartwrights. It wasnít the old manís fault that Joeís trip had been so miserable.
Joe looked down on Hawthorne from the top of the hill. Even in its heyday, Hawthorne hadnít been much of a town. Twelve buildings, evenly divided and neatly lined up against each other, made up the town. They had been built on just about the only flat piece of land in the mountains, and the back of the buildings pressed up against the mountains that loomed over the town. There was only one way in and out of Hawthorne, and that was on the road which ran through the center of town. Behind each of the buildings was nothing but the solid walls of the mountains.
The buildings were all one-story structures, except for the hotel, which had a second floor. None were very big. Built out of neatly sawed lumber, the buildings had provided the essential needs of the miners in the area. The store, saloon, hotel, assay office, stable and other businesses gave the miners what they needed when they had had to come to town. There were no homes in Hawthorne. None of the miners had wanted to leave their claims for longer than absolutely necessary. As the miners left when the silver ran out, the town was abandoned. Abandoned, that is, by everyone except Andy Miller. He stayed, and in his spare time, he kept all the buildings in good repair. The town was empty but the buildings were was solid as the day they were built. Many of the buildings still had some furniture, fixed up by Andy when he got tired of prospecting for awhile. Hawthorne had everything it needed to flourish. Everything but people.
Joe chucked the reins and guided the wagon slowly down the hill. He kept his eyes glued to the road, making sure he avoided as many of the ruts and rocks as he could. As Joe drove, he was already thinking about how soon he could leave Hawthorne. Heíd unload the supplies and spend an hour or so with old Andy, then think of some excuse to have to leave. Joe sighed as he concentrated on the road. Even an hour with Andy would seem like a long time.
The ground finally began to level out and Joe looked up at the town ahead. He was surprised to see some horses tied to the hitching post outside the hotel. It looked like
Andy had some visitors. Joe smiled. Maybe Andy would be too busy to visit with him. He might be able to leave even sooner than he had planned.
Joe stopped the wagon in front of the general store across from the hotel. He knew Andy had a funny notion of keeping things in their right place. He lived in the hotel, and kept his supplies in the store. He did his cooking and ate in the abandoned restaurant next to the hotel. Andy kept his mule in the stable at the end of the street. Joe shook his head as he climbed down from the wagon. It was an odd life old Andy led.
Joe walked across the wide street to the hotel. As he approached the door, he could hear a voice sounding angry and insistent. Joe frowned. He began to wonder who would be visiting Andy. He couldnít remember ever seeing anyone else in Hawthorne.
Joe pushed open the door of the hotel and stepped in side. He had taken no more than two steps when he felt the gun in his back. Joe instantly raised his hands.
"Smart move, sonny," said a voice to Joeís left. He turned his head slightly and saw a man in a black shirt and dark pants. Two other men were standing near him. Joe didnít need to look to know there was someone behind him.
Joe turned his head to look into the room, and his eyes widened. At the back of the room, Andy Miller sat tied to a chair. His hands were pulled behind him, and two thick ropes wound around his chest. Andyís face was bruised and blood trickled from a cut over his eye. His lip was split and swollen. Andyís shirt was torn, and from the way the old man was leaning forward against the ropes, Joe guessed his stomach and ribs were sore.
"Who are you and what are you doing here?" asked the voice to Joeís left.
"Iím just bringing a load of supplies to Andy," answered Joe slowly, keeping his hands in the air.
"Too bad for you," said the voice again. "Take his gun."
Joe felt his gun being pulled out of the holster on his hip. He could still feel the barrel of the pistol pressed against his back.
"What should I do with him?" said the voice behind Joe.
The man in the black shirt was obviously in charge. Joe heard him giving the orders. "Tie him up next to the old man," said the leader.
Joe felt a hand pushing him roughly forward. He stumbled a bit as he walked across the room toward Andy. He stopped as he reached the old man and felt the gun in his back again. Andy looked up at Joe with sad eyes. "Iím sorry," Andy mumbled apologetically through his swollen lips. Joe nodded understandingly.
One of the men standing near the door grabbed a chair from behind a nearby table. The table was round, and covered by a neat but faded blue cloth. Heavy chairs had been placed around the table, waiting silently for hotel guests who never came.
The man dragged the chair across the room and slid it next to Joe. The man behind Joe pushed him down into the chair. "Whatíll we tie him up with?" asked the man who had brought the chair over. "We donít have any more rope?"
The man in the black shirt looked around. Some thick, decorative cord hung next to the curtains by the window. The man reached up and gave one of the cords a hard yank. It easily pulled off the curtain rod.
"Here, use this," said the man, tossing the cord across the room. The second man caught the cord. He walked behind Joe. Pulling Joeís arms back behind the chair, the man began to tie Joeís hands together.
Joe smiled briefly at the irony of the situation. He was sitting on one of the chairs that Andy had been careful to keep in good repair. The back and seat had thick cushions. Joeís hands were being tied with a soft velvet rope. He could almost be comfortable, if the situation didnít seem so deadly.
The man in the black shirt walked forward and stood in front of Andy. "All right, old man," snarled the leader. "One more time. Where is that mine of yours?"
"Youíre doing this to find Andyís mine?" said Joe before Andy could answer. "Youíve gone to a lot of trouble for nothing. That mine is a dead hole. Thereís nothing in it."
"We know different," said the black-shirted man. He turned to Andy. "I saw that hunk of silver you gave to Bailey a few days ago. Iíve done my share of prospecting and I know what a rock from a rich vein looks like. That silver you gave to Bailey was about as high grade as it comes. So, tell us. Whereís the mine?"
Joe turned and looked at Andy in surprise. Andy looked back at Joe and a small smile appeared on his face. "Yep," said Andy with a tinge of satisfaction in his voice. "I found it, Joe. After twenty years of looking, I finally found the silver."
"Look, old man, weíve wasted enough time on this already," said the leader. "We checked out some of the mines around here, and there was nothing in them. Now where is your mine?"
"I ainít telling and you canít make me," said Andy in a defiant voice. "You kill me and youíll never find that mine. And there ainít nothing you can do to me to make me talk."
Andyís reply seemed to enrage the man in the black shirt. He balled his fist and punched Andy in the stomach, then hit him in the jaw. Andyís head went forward with the first punch, and snapped back when the second one landed.
"Leave him alone!" shouted Joe. "Heís an old man. Youíll kill him if you keep this up."
"Shut up, kid," snarled the man standing next to Joeís chair.
Joe looked up at the man, his eyes blazing with anger. "Oh, youíre real tough, arenít you," said Joe in fury. "Four of you taking on one old man. Thatís real brave of you."
"I said shut up!" shouted the man standing next to Joe. He drew back his arm and hit Joe hard in the mouth. Joeís head snapped to the side. He winced in pain, then slowly raised his head again. Joe could taste the blood coming from his lip. "Like I said," Joe muttered. "Real brave."
Joeís comment drew another punch, this one to Joeís stomach. Joeís body jerked forward as the manís fist landed in his midsection. Joe could feel himself pulling against his tied hands. He also felt the ropes that held him give a bit.
"Stop it. Donít hurt him!" cried Andy as he saw Joe gasping for breath. "He donít have nothing to do with this."
The black-shirted man put his fingers to his jaw and rubbed it thoughtfully. "So thatís how it is," he said. "I donít know who this kid is, but he means something to you, doesnít he, old man." The man took a step over to Joe and roughly pushed Joe up in the chair. He pulled a gun from his holster and held the barrel to Joeís head.
"All right," said the leader. "Hereís how it is. Youíve got ten seconds to tell us where the mine is. If you donít, Iím going to pull the trigger and blow the kidís brains out. He donít mean nothing to me, and we donít need him to find the mine."
Joe froze. He had no doubt the man holding a gun to his head would carry out his threat. Joe wasnít sure what Andy would do. He didnít know if Andy would give up the silver for which he had searched for over two decades to save him.
"No! Donít!" shouted Andy in a desperate voice.
"Then youíd better start talking, old man," said the leader. He cocked his gun. "Youíve got about five seconds left."
Joe took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He had heard that you never actually felt the bullet that killed you. He wondered if it was true. Joe prayed that he wouldnít find out.
"Two seconds, old man," said the leader. "Two seconds and then I pull the trigger."
"All right, all right," said Andy quickly. "Iíll tell you. Just donít hurt him."
"Thatís more like it," said the black-shirted man with a smile. He uncocked the gun but left the barrel against Joeís head. Joe let out a deep sigh and slumped against the chair.
"Now, whereís the mine?" demanded the leader.
Andy took a deep breath, then said, "You head west out of town and go about half a mile. Youíll see an old sycamore tree thatís shaped like a Y. Turn right and go about a hundred yards. Thereís a big clump of bushes against the side of the mountain. Pull back the bushes and youíll see the entrance to the mine. The silverís in there, but itís real deep. Youíve got to go about a mile into the mine to find that vein."
"Good, very good," said the black-shirted man, nodding in satisfaction. He pulled the gun away from Joeís head. Then he stopped, as if struck by a thought. "You wouldnít be lying to us, would you, old man?"
"I ainít lying," answered Andy in a tired voice. "Itís there."
"Weíll just go take a look," said the leader. He turned to the men standing near the chairs. "You two come with me," he said. He turned again to the man who was still standing near the door. "You stay here and keep an eye on these two," said the black-shirted man. "If we donít find that mine, weíll come back and ask some more questions." The man turned once more and looked at Andy and Joe, a nasty grin on his face. "If we donít find that mine, old man, Iím going to kill the kid," he promised Andy. "And Iíll make sure he dies screaming in pain."
Joe swallowed hard. He hoped Andy hadnít lied.
The leader jerked his head toward the door. "Letís go," he ordered. He started walking to the door, and the other two men followed him. The fourth man watched as the other three walked out the door. Then he walked over to the round table. Pulling out one of the chairs, he sat down at the table. He leaned back into the chair and pulled his feet from the floor, settling them on the table. By turning his head to his left, the man could see Andy and Joe. By turning to his right, he could see out the window. The man looked at Andy and Joe for a minute, then turned to stare out the window.
Joe watched the man at the table. When he was convinced their guard had little interest in them, Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He twisted a bit in his chair, and was surprised to feel the ropes around his hands give a bit once more. The cord that had been used to tie Joeís hands had hung by the window for over twenty years. Time and the sun had caused the cord to begin to decay. Joe couldnít snap the cord, but he could feel it loosen a fraction each time he pulled against it. Joe began to pump his wrists back and forth, straining against the cord. If he could loosen the cord enough, he might be able to slip one - or both - hands out of his bonds. He watched the guard carefully as he worked, making sure the man didnít notice what he was doing.
"Joe, Iím sorry," said Andy in a low voice. "I never meant for you to get caught up in this."
Joe paused in his efforts for a moment. "Andy," he answered in an equally low voice. "Whatís going on? Who are these guys?"
"The leader, the one in the black shirt? His name is Phillips," said Andy. "I donít know the others." Andy shook his head. "I was so excited," he continued. "I finally found it, Joe. After twenty years, I finally found that big vein. I just had to tell someone. So I grabbed a chuck of the silver and rode up to Baileyís. Figured Iíd pay him for all the whiskey and stuff he had given me over the years."
Joe nodded and smiled ruefully. After all these years, Andy still didnít know that Ben Cartwright was paying his bills at the Trading Post. Joe began straining against the cord again.
"Iíll admit it," said Andy. "I also wanted to do a bit of bragging. Bailey and some of the other fellows who come by his Trading Post, they never thought Iíd find the vein. They used to laugh when I told them I was getting close. So I wanted to make them eat their words. I threw the silver down on the counter at Bailey, and told him about finding a big vein. Phillips and his friends were there. They heard what I said. They showed up this morning and wanted to know where the mine was." Andy shook his head. "I wasnít going to tell them. I didnít care if they killed me. I wasnít going to give them my mine."
Joe stopped working on the ropes and looked at Andy. "You told them, though," he said softy. "You told them to save me."
Andy shrugged a bit. "I couldnít let them hurt you," replied Andy. "I owe your Pa too much. I couldnít repay him by letting them hurt you."
Joe looked away, feeling uncomfortable and not because of the ropes. "We havenít done that much," he said. "Just brought you some supplies from time to time."
"Joe, it ainít the supplies I owe your Pa for," said Andy. "Sure, theyíve been helpful, but thatís not what I meant. I owe your Pa for his friendship, and for letting me watch you boys grow up."
Joe looked at Andy in surprise.
"Watching you boys grow up, well, thatís meant more to me than almost anything," continued Andy. "I never had a family, so your Pa kind of shared his with me. He made sure he brought you or Hoss or Adam with him every time he came. Most of the time, it was more than one of you. It gave me such pleasure to watch you boys over the years. Your Pa used to tell me all the things you were doing. While we was unloading the supplies, heíd tell me about how you were doing in school, or what girl you was sparking, or whatever. It was kind of like being part of the family."
"I didnít know that," said Joe in amazement.
"Oh, you and Hoss, you usually were playing in the town while we was unloading," said Andy. "Thatís why I always kept things in good repair. I wanted to make sure there was no way you boys could get hurt while you was exploring." Andy chuckled softly. "You two must have spent hours in every building in this town."
Joe nodded. He and Hoss had explored all the buildings and had great fun doing it. They would play games or hide from each other in the various structures. Joe remembered begging to go with his father to Hawthorne and being excited when he was allowed to come along. Joe wondered when things had changed. He couldnít pinpoint when the adventure had turned into a chore.
"And you boys, you were so good to me, too," said Andy. "You used to listen to my stories. When you was little, youíd beg me to tell you stories. I guess you must have heard them stories a hundred times over the years. But it gave me such pleasure to tell them to you."
Joe looked away, feeling ashamed of himself for complaining about Andyís stories. He did remember that when he was little, heíd ask Andy to tell him about the boom times in Hawthorne. Andy obviously had enjoyed telling him the stories. It was such a small thing to listen to the stories for awhile and it gave the old man a lot of happiness. Joe could feel a flush creeping up his neck. "I like your stories," mumbled Joe.
"Bless you, boy," said Andy with a wry grin. "I know you got tired of hearing them. But you always listened." Andy took a deep breath. "Iím right proud of the way you all turned out. Your Pa, he made sure you boys kept coming over to see me even after you was grown, so I could see for myself that you were all right. I used to worry over you boys sometimes. I fretted for a long time after Adam went off that fancy school of his. I was never so happy as when he came over when he got back. It was good to see him home, all safe and sound. And Hoss, heís so big and strong. I guess Iíve thought of dozens of excuses for him to help me out at the mine. I like watching him and knowing how he had grown from a little shaver to such a powerful man."
Andy looked at Joe. "And you, you were always changing," said Andy. "One time, youíd be all moony over some gal, then on the next visit, youíd have forgotten all about her. Youíd tell me about some wild horse youíd broke or how good you was getting with a gun. I never know from one visit to the next what youíd be up to. I think I look forward to your visits most of all."
Joe shook his head in amazement. He never realized that all the small talk he had made with Andy over the years had been so important to the man. He had just been making conversation, doing something to fill up the time during his visits. He hadnít understood until now why his Pa had insisted they each continue to make the trips to Hawthorne.
Andy turned to look at their guard. The man was still staring out the window, ignoring the murmur of conversation from the pair.
"Joe," said Andy softly. "We got to get out of here. Phillips will kill us when he gets back. I told him true about the mine. Now that he knows where it is, heíll have to get rid of us."
"Yeah, I know," said Joe. He began working on the cords again with a renewed purpose. He could feel them stretching and loosening with each tug. Joe began straining his wrists against the cord with all the strength he had.
"I got to figure out a way to protect you," said Andy in an almost distracted voice. "I swear I ainít going to let anything happen to you."
Joe was touched by the old manís concern for him. But he knew there was little Andy Miller could do to, even if he got free. Too many years had passed for the old prospector. Joe knew it was up to him to get them out of danger. He strained against the cords once more, and felt them loosen around his wrists. Joe put his wrists against the back of the chair and slowly rolled the cord up and down. He felt the cord slip on his left hand. Joe rolled his left wrist a bit more, then grabbed the cord with his right hand. He tugged his left hand sharply upward. His hand popped free of the cord.
Joe was careful to keep his hands behind the chair as he pulled the cord off his other wrist. He watched the man across the room, trying to decide how he could jump him. The man had his gun in his holster, but Joe knew he could easily draw and fire if Joe tried to cross the room. He was too far away to get to quickly.
"Andy," Joe hissed. "We need to get him over here."
"Why?" replied Andy with a frown.
"Just do what I say," ordered Joe. "Start moaning like you were sick."
Andy looked at Joe with a quizzical expression, then shrugged. He began moaning softly, then a little louder.
"Hey," shouted Joe. "Somethingís wrong with Andy. I think heís having a heart attack or something."
The man at the table looked over at the captives. Andy was slumped forward, head down. He was moaning and gasping for breath. A worried crossed the face of the guard. He quickly pulled his feet off the table and got up from the chair. He crossed the room and stood over Andy. "Whatís the matter with you?" he said to Andy.
Andy ignored the man and continued to moan. As the guard bent forward a bit to check on Andy, Joe sprang up from the chair and grabbed the manís arm. Joe spun him around and quickly landed two short jabs in the manís stomach. Before the man could even react, Joe hit him on the jaw as hard as he could. The manís head snapped back, and he started to slump toward the floor. Joe hit him once again on the jaw, then let the man crumple to the floor. Joe stood over the fallen guard for a minute, making sure the man was unconscious. Then he turned to Andy.
Andy was grinning. "Pretty slick," he said with a chuckle. "I always figured you had some pretty fast fists."
Joe grinned back at the man, then quickly moved behind Andy and began to untie him.
"Weíve got to get out of here before the others get back," said Joe as he undid the knots on the rope that held Andy to the chair. "The wagon is across the street." As he untied the last knot, Joe pulled the ropes off Andy. He helped the old man to his feet.
Andyís knees buckled a bit as he tried to stand, and he swayed against Joe. Joe caught Andy and helped him stand. Phillips and the others had worked him over pretty good. Joe began to worry about how badly they had hurt old Andy.
"Iím all right," said Andy as he winced in pain. "Just give me a minute."
"Sure," said Joe. He looked at the old man with concern. "Think you can stand by yourself for a minute?" Andy nodded. Joe carefully released him and watched as Andy swayed. But the old prospector stayed on his feet.
Joe turned and walked quickly to the man on the floor. He knelt down and pulled the pistol from the manís holster and stuck the gun in his own holster. Then he rushed back to Andy. "Come on," Joe said, putting his arms gently around the old man. "Letís get out of here." Joe began guiding Andy slowly toward the door. The old man leaned against Joe, and his gait was more of a shuffle than a walk. Joe hurried Andy as much as he could. He knew Phillips and the others would be back soon. He wanted to be out of Hawthorne before they returned.
Joe stopped when he and Andy reached the door. He cautiously eased the door open and stuck his head outside. The street was deserted. Joe looked to the west end of the town, and was pleased to see no sign of horses riding in. Joe turned to Andy and gave a brief nod, then began to guide the old prospector out the door.
Joe led Andy onto the street. The old man was leaning even more on Joe and his breathing sounded labored. Joe tried to hurry him across the street to the wagon, but the old prospector simply couldnít walk any faster. It seemed to Joe that it took an hour to get across the street, instead of just a few minutes. Joe anxiously glanced toward the west end of town as he helped Andy toward the wagon.
As the pair reached the back of the wagon, Andy stopped. "Let me rest a minute," he gasped. Joe nodded and eased Andy against the back of the wagon. Andy stood with his eyes closed, breathing hard. Joe watched the old man with concern. Andy looked pale, although it was hard for Joe to be sure. Between the beard and all the bruises, he couldnít see much of Andyís face. A kind of wheezing was escaping from Andyís lungs as he gasped for air.
"Come on, Andy," Joe said in a gentle voice. "We have to get going. We have to get you to a doctor." Andy didnít say anything but he nodded his head. Joe slipped his arms around the old man and shifted Andyís weight from the wagon to himself. Once more, hebegan to guide Andy slowly around the wagon.
The heavy load of the wagon blocked Joeís view of the street as he eased Andy toward the front of the wagon. Joe couldnít hear much over Andyís wheezing breaths. As a result, Joe wasnít aware of the three riders who had returned to town and now were starting slowly up the street.
Joe was helping Andy to climb up to the drivers seat when he heard the shout. He looked quickly to his left and saw Phillips and the other two men. They had stopped their horses in front of the livery stable, about 40 yards away. One of the men was pointing. Joe saw all three reaching for their guns.
"Andy, get down!" shouted Joe, just as the shots rang out. Joe reached up to pull the old man off the wagon seat. Two bullets zinged into the wood of the wagon, startling the horses. The animals shifted nervously, causing the wagon to roll a few inches. Andy fell back off the wagon, knocking both himself and Joe to the ground. More bullets whizzed around, hitting the wagon and building behind Joe and Andy. Joe scrambled to his feet and pulled the pistol out of his holster. He crouched behind the wagon and fired two shots at the riders, noting with satisfaction that he scattered the three men. Joe was sure he hadnít hit anything but he knew he had distracted them for a minute.
Joe shoved the pistol back into his holster and turned back to Andy. The old man was laying face down on the ground, not moving. Joe wasnít sure if Andy had been hit or simply knocked out by the fall. But he didnít have time to check. Joe reached down and grabbed the old man under the arms. He started dragging Andy toward the door of the store behind them. Joe stopped for a minute to push the door open. As he did, another spray of bullets hit the building. Joe ignored the bullets and reached back toward Andy. Several shots echoed through the town. Suddenly, Joe felt a searing pain in his right thigh. He cried out in pain and crumpled to the ground on top of Andy.
Joe laid on top of the old prospector for a minute. His eyes were tightly closed as he tried to endure the pain that seemed to radiate up his leg. He gasped for air in ragged breaths and fought the nausea that seemed to suddenly well up in his stomach. Joe felt as if someone was sticking a hot poker in his leg. But even through the pain, Joe knew he and
Andy had to get off the street if they wanted to survive. He gritted his teeth, and opened his eyes. He twisted a bit so he could look at his leg.
He could see the blood running down his right leg from the bullet hole in his thigh. Joe tried to get up. He cried out at the pain the movement caused, and spots of blackness seemed to dance in front of his eyes. Joe shook his head, trying to clear it. He knew he had to get moving or he would die.
Then Joe heard another soundÖthe sound of horses coming closer. He didnít bother to look in the direction of the sound. Joe knew he was running out of time. Joe grabbed Andy by the arm and dragged both himself and the old man into the building behind him.
As soon as the two were inside the building, Joe dropped Andy. He dragged himself back to the front of the building and looked out the doorway. He could see the three riders coming toward the building. Joe fired twice. The riders abruptly stopped. Joe fired once more. The three men quickly turned their horses and retreated. Joe eased himself back into the building and firmly shut the door behind him.
Joe pulled himself up to a sitting position, resting his back against the door. He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. The pain in his leg was agonizing, and he could feel the blood trickling down his thigh. Joe shivered, and a feeling of lethargy seemed to creep through him. Joe couldnít move, couldnít think. All he could do was sit there and feel miserable.
Slowly, the pain in Joeís leg eased to a dull ache. His breathing became more regular and the terrible weariness began to melt away. Joe slowly opened his eyes.
Joe saw the counter of the old store across the room, and the shelves lining the wall behind the counter. A few small sacks and cans sat on the shelves. Joe lowered his eyes and saw Andy laying face down, unmoving, in the middle of the floor.
"Andy!" gasped Joe. He threw himself forward and crawled across the floor, dragging his injured leg behind him. Joe reached the old prospector and turned him onto his back. Joe could see the bullet hole in Andyís chest, just below the left collarbone. Blood covered the old manís chest. Joe felt Andyís neck and was relieved to feel the faint throb of a pulse.
"Andy," Joe said again as he gently shook the old man. "Andy, can you hear me?"
At first there was no reaction. Then Andyís eyes slowly fluttered open. He stared at Joe, as if he didnít recognize him. Andyís mouth worked as if he were trying to talk but no sound came out. Suddenly, the old man coughed violently, and a trickle of blood flowed from his mouth.
"Take it easy, Andy," said Joe in a soothing voice. "Take it easy."
Andy closed his eyes for a moment, as if trying to gather strength. He opened them again and looked at Joe. "Are..are you all right?" asked the old prospector in a barely audible voice.
"Iím fine," Joe lied. "Donít worry about me."
Andy nodded. "Good," he said softly. "IíllÖIíll protect you."
"Sure, Andy," said Joe. "Sure you will."
"TheyÖwonítÖ.getÖ my mine," said Andy in a fading voice.
"No, no they wonít," said Joe.
Andy nodded again. "Tell your PaÖ" said Andy in a barely audible whisper. He suddenly coughed again.
"Iíll tell him," Joe quickly assured the old man. He lifted Andyís hand from the floor and held it tightly.
"IÖwonítÖletÖthemÖ" Andy tried to get the words out, but he was too weak. He looked at Joe, a silent message in his eyes. Then Andyís eyes closed and his body went limp. Joe felt the old manís neck again. This time he could feel no pulse.
Joe lowered his head. He hadnít realized until now how much old Andy really meant to him. In the past few years, he had thought of Andy Miller as sort of an eccentric old uncle, someone to be humored and tolerated. But now, Joe knew Andy had been much more than that. Joe had never needed to worry or pretend when he was with the old prospector. Andy had always listened and never judged. The hours of exploring the town and the old stories were happy thoughts woven into the memories of Joeís childhood. Andy had watched over Joe and his brothers, and they had grown into manhood under his protective eyes.
"Thank you," Joe said softly as he gently laid Andyís hand across the old manís chest. Joe could feel the tears stinging his eyes.
The sound of harness jangling pulled Joe abruptly back to the present. Joe crawled back to the front of the store and eased himself near the window. He looked out onto the street. The wagon was no longer in front of the store. Joe could see it moving slowly down the street, the horses probably being led by one of Phillipsí men. Joe looked around the street, trying to spot the other men. He couldnít see anyone, but he knew they were out there.
Joe sat back against the wall and tried to think. The pistol was still in his hand. Joe knew he only had one bullet left, but he checked anyway. He looked up at the shelf across the room, but saw only sacks of flour and sugar, and a few tin cans. There was nothing that even resembled a box of cartridges. Joe knew Andy had never carried a pistol, so there was no need for him to have bullets for a handgun. The prospector had an old rifle around someplace but Joe had no idea where it might be.
Joe shifted his weight and a stab of pain radiated through his leg again. Joe looked down at the wound in his leg. The bleeding had slowed, but a trickle of dark red was still oozing out of his thigh. Joe knew he had to bandage the wound somehow. He stuck the pistol back in his holster. Then he slipped his jacket off his shoulders, and threw it aside. Joe reached up and tugged at the shoulder of his shirt. At first, the cloth wouldnít give. Joe tugged harder, and was rewarded by the sound of tearing cloth. One more sharp pull tore the sleeve away from the rest of his shirt. Joe pulled the sleeve off his arm. He wound the cloth around his thigh, wincing in pain as he did so. Then he tied the cloth as tight as possible. Joe knew the sleeve wasnít much of a bandage, but it was the best he could do.
Joe glanced out the window again, and saw the wagon disappearing down the street. He knew it was only a question of time before the men outside attacked the store. Joe had only one shot to defend himself against the fusillade of bullets he knew would come. Joe looked around the building, trying to come up with a plan. He thought about crouching behind the counter, but that would only delay the inevitable. He wouldnít be able to stop Phillips and the others from breaking into the store, and once they did, there was no place for Joe to hide.
A place to hide. The thought suddenly struck Joe. Thatís what he needed. Someplace to hide where the others couldnít find him. If they couldnít find him, they might give up and go away. Joe knew it was a slim chance, but it was the only chance he had.
Joe thought hard, mentally reviewing all the nooks and crannies he had explored over the years. He needed someplace that wasnít obvious, someplace that the men outside would never think to look. A smile flickered across Joeís face. He knew just the place, if he could get to it.
Joe took one last look at old Andy, and shook his head with regret. He hated leaving the old prospector like this, but he also knew that Phillips and the others couldnít hurt Andy any more. Joe said a silent goodbye to Andy, then began crawling across the floor to the back of the store.
The old store had a back door, a door that probably hadnít been used in years. Joe wasnít sure it would open, but the door offered his only escape. Joe slid across the floor until he was by the door. He reached up and tried to turn the knob. The knob was stiff but it moved in Joeís hand. Joe closed his eyes and once again silently thanked Andy Miller.
Joe turned the knob and pushed against the door. The rusty hinges screeched in protest, but the door opened.
Joe grabbed the side of the door frame and pulled himself up until he was standing. He leaned against the frame, keeping all of his weight on his uninjured leg. Joe looked cautiously out the door.
A small path, no more than a yard wide, separated the back of the store from the mountain of solid rock behind it. Joe looked to be sure there was no one around. Then he eased himself out of the doorway, dragging his injured leg behind him.
Phillips stood in the doorway of the hotel across the street from the store. He was watching the store, looking for some sign of movement. He also was waiting until the other three men were ready to join him. He had no desire to attack the store without help.
Phillips heard a small groan behind him and turned to look. The man Joe had knocked out was slowly getting to his feet. The man rubbed his jaw as he stood. He looked around, confused by the empty room. Then he saw Phillips by the door.
"What happened?" asked the man.
"The old man and kid got away," replied Phillips, his voice tinged with disgust. "Some guard you turned out to be."
"Got away!" said the man with alarm. "Now whatíll we do?"
"Luckily, they didnít get very far," replied Phillips. "Theyíre holed up in that building across the street. I think both of them are hit, but Iím not sure."
The would-be guard reached for his gun and was surprised to find his holster empty.
"Theyíve got my gun," he said.
Phillips nodded. "Yeah, I know," he said with a touch of irony. "The kid took some shots at us. But he canít have too many bullets left. Thatíll make it easy for us to take them."
"I ainít going up against him or anyone else without a gun," said the other man in alarm.
"Iím not asking you to," said Phillips. "Jim is moving the wagon down the street to the stable. Heís got the kidís gun. When he gets back, you can take the kidís gun from him. Then I want you to sneak out to the side of this building. Billy is already down the street. Weíll come at them from three directions. It will be over real quick."
"Not too quick, I hope," said the man, rubbing his chin. "I owe that kid something."
"Iím not taking any chances, Sam," replied Phillips. "We saw the mine. It was just where the old man said it would be. And itís got a vein of silver thatís a mile wide. That mine will be worth a lot of money. But to get it, we need to be sure that old man and kid are dead."
"All right," agreed Sam. He looked out the window. "Here comes Jim. Letís get this over with."
It took only a few minutes for the four men to get into position. Phillips watched the store the whole time, not seeing any movement. He wondered if the two men in the store were already dead. Phillips shrugged to himself. If they werenít dead, they would be soon.
Phillips checked once more to make sure his men were ready. Then he lifted his hand and pointed toward the store across the street. Immediately four guns began firing into the store, smashing window panes and splintering the wooden door. Each man emptied his gun firing into the store. As they stopped to re-load, Phillips watched the store carefully. He still saw no sign that anyone in the store was still alive.
Phillips reloaded his pistol, then started slowly out the door of the hotel. He crouched low, ready to dive to the ground if there were any shots. But no answering fire came from the store. Phillips became bolder as he neared the building, increasing his pace and raising himself almost to his full height. Still, the store was silent. Phillips finally reached the front of the store, his men close behind him. He kicked open the door and rushed in, his gun cocked and ready to fire.
Phillips stopped inside the store and looked around. He saw Andy Miller laying on the floor. He was sure the old man was dead, but motioned to one of the men to check. Phillips looked at the broken glass scattered on the floor and the bullet holes which had pierced the wooden walls. He saw Joeís jacket lying in a heap. But there was no sign of Joe.
"Whereís the kid?" asked Sam, the man Joe had punched. "Whereíd he go?"
"Check behind the counter," ordered Phillips with a frown. The man walked across the room and looked over the counter. He turned back to Phillips and shook his head.
"Itís like he just disappeared," said the one called Billy. He looked around uneasily.
"He didnít disappear," growled Phillips. "He got away again. That kid is as slick as grease." Phillips looked down to the floor again. Now he noticed the spots of blood trailing across the floor. He followed the trail with his eyes, and saw the door at the back of the store, half hidden in shadows. "He went out the back," said Phillips with disgust.
"The old man is dead," said Sam as he walked away from Andyís body.
Phillips nodded, his thoughts distracted. "The kid couldnít have gotten far," said Phillips. "Heís bleeding pretty bad." Phillips suddenly turned and looked out onto the street. "Thereís only one way in and out of this town. Weíd have seen him if he had tried to leave. That means heís still here."
"But where?" asked Jim.
"I donít know where!" answered Phillips in an angry voice. "But thereís only a dozen buildings in this town. All we have to do is search them. Weíll find him." Phillips turned to the two other men. "Billy, you go down to the end of town by the stable. Stay there and keep your eyes peeled. If the kid tries to leave town, shoot him." Phillips turned back to Jim. "You go down to the other end of town and do the same thing."
"What are you two going to do?" asked Jim.
"Weíre going to search this town building by building," replied Phillips. "Weíll flush the kid out. And then weíre going to make him wish he never was born."
Joe had been in the alley behind the store when the volley of shots were fired. He had instinctively crouched against the building, listening to the sound of glass breaking and bullets cracking into wood amid the blasts from the pistols. It hadnít taken much imagination to picture the damage the bullets were causing. Joe shuddered slightly as he thought about almost being trapped in the store with those bullets flying around him.
As soon as the shooting stopped, Joe peered cautiously around the corner of the store. He could see one man walking slowly toward the store, with his gun drawn. As soon as the man was out of sight, Joe began limping across the small alley to the building next door.
The building next to the store was the old assay office. It had no back door because the building was built up against the mountain behind it. But there was a side door facing the alley. Joe hurried to the door as fast as his injured leg would allow him. He turned another stiff but working door knob, and pushed open the door. This time, the door made little sound as it opened. Joe hurried into the assay office, and quietly closed the door behind him.
Joe stood inside the old assay office for a minute. He was breathing hard, and the ache in his leg was getting worse. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. But Joe knew he had no time to lose. He took a deep breath and hurried across the room to the front door of the assay office. He pushed the door open and looked out onto a deserted street. Joe quickly limped out of the assay office and down the street. The building he wanted was the next one, the old saloon.
Joe pushed open one of the swinging doors at the entrance to the saloon and hurried into the building. He had just gotten inside when he heard the sound of footsteps. Joe fell to the floor, gritting his teeth in pain as his wounded leg hit the hard wood. He pulled himself a foot or so into the shadows of the interior of the building and froze.
Joe could see a pair of legs walking by the door of the saloon. He breathed a silent sigh of relief as the legs went past the door.
Joe laid in the shadows for a moment, resting and gathering strength to move on. He felt light headed, and knew he had probably lost a lot of blood. His arms and legs felt as if they were made of jelly. And the bullet wound in his leg throbbed constantly. Joe knew he was losing strength rapidly, but he only had a little further to go. Just rest a minute, he told himself, and then move.
As Joe rested, he looked around the deserted saloon. This had been one of his favorite places, he thought with a touch of nostalgia. He and Hoss had spent hours playing in this place when they were young. They had taught themselves to play poker with a deck of faded old cards, and pretended to serve each other drinks as they played. They had imitated all the things they imagined that a grown up would do in a saloon, things that they would never have been allowed to do at home. And they had enjoyed every minute of it.
Joe heard the sound of footsteps outside. He cursed himself for stopping. He should have been hiding by now. He was afraid he wouldnít reach his safe haven before Phillips and the others came into the saloon. Joe began dragging himself across the floor toward the large oak bar. The bar was only a few feet away, but to Joe, it looked as if the distance was a mile. He tried to hurry, but he was too weak to do more than drag himself slowly across the floor.
Joe had reached the end of the bar when he heard the voices outside the saloon. He could clearly hear two men. They sounded as if they were just about ready to enter the saloon. He wasnít going to make it, Joe thought as he pulled himself around the end of the bar. He wasnít going to have enough time to hide before the men entered the saloon.
He only needed another minute, but Joe was convinced he wouldnít get that minute.
Joe clearly heard a voice say "Letís check the saloon." He tensed his body, waiting for the sound of footsteps and the bullet he was sure was going to be fired into him. Instead, he heard an odd sound. It was the sound of wind, a big wind. The wind caused the saloon doors to swing and creak. A shower of dirt and dust blew against the building. The sign hanging outside the saloon swayed and fell to the ground with a crash.
Joe didnít wait. He pulled himself along the floor until he was behind the bar. He reached down and grabbed at what looked like just a hole in the floor. He pulled on the hole, and a section of the floor lifted up.
Joe and Hoss had found the trapdoor in the saloon floor many years ago. Joe knew there was small crawl space under the trapdoor, seemingly large to a young boy but now just big enough for a grown man. When they had shown the trapdoor to their father, Ben had speculated that it was used to store whiskey and beer close by the bar, so a bartender could easily reach it.
Joe pushed himself into the crawl space and slowly lowered the trapdoor behind him. Almost as soon as the trapdoor was shut, the wind outside stopped.
Phillips and Sam walked into the saloon, brushing the dirt off of themselves as they entered.
"That was a pretty strange wind," commented Sam. "Came out of nowhere. It almost knocked that sign right into us."
Phillips ignored Samís comment. "Check behind the bar," he ordered as his eyes searched the deserted saloon. The saloon was dark, and full of shadows. The dark smear of blood on the floor melted into the shadows. Phillips glanced to the floor, but he didnít see the blood. Sam walked over to the large wooden bar. He peer cautiously over the top, then walked behind the wide counter.
From his hiding place, Joe could hear the men. He peered up through the hole and saw a part of a boot just inches from the trapdoor. Joe held his breath.
"Nothing here," said Sam. He walked away from the bar.
Phillips walked around
the saloon, knocking over chairs and moving tables as he looked into the
shadows. Finally he returned to the doors at the front. "Heís got to be
around here someplace," said Phillips in frustration. "That blood we saw
led right to the old
"But he wasnít in there," answered Sam. "And we didnít see any more blood."
"The dirt that wind blew up probably covered it up," said Phillips. He looked around the empty saloon once more. "Come on, letís try the next one." He turned and walked out of the saloon, followed by Sam.
In his hiding place, Joe heard the men leave. He let out his breath slowly, weak with relief. Joe shifted a bit in the crawl space, trying to find a more comfortable position. He had no intention of leaving his hiding place for awhile. He knew he was safe, at least for the time being. And he was feeling dizzy and tired. Joe pillowed his head on his arm. He knew he should try to stay awake, to listen for his pursuers return. But staying awake took more energy than Joe could muster. His eyelids began to droop, and the feeling of lethargy once more seemed to descend on him. Joe closed his eyes, and in less than a minute, he was asleep.
Ben Cartwright stopped his horse at the crest of the hill on the trail to Hawthorne. He was peering down at the town below as Hoss rode up and pulled his horse to a halt also.
"Looks quiet enough," commented Ben as he gazed at the buildings below him.
"Pa, you sure you ainít over-reacting just a bit to what Bailey told you in Virginia City yesterday?" asked Hoss with a wry grin.
"I probably am," said Ben. "But Bailey seemed so upset and worried about Andy. Iíd just feel better if I saw for myself that everything was all right."
"What exactly did Bailey tell you?" asked Hoss.
Ben sighed. "Just what I told you," answered Ben. "He said Andy Miller showed up at his place a few days ago with a chuck of high grade silver ore. Andy bragged that he had finally found that vein of silver that he had been searching for all these years."
"Good for old Andy," interjected Hoss. "He deserves it after all those years of looking."
Ben nodded. "Bailey said there were four other men in the Trading Post when Andy came in," continued Ben. "He said that they seemed unusually interested in Andyís talk about his big silver strike. Bailey said the four looked like trouble to him. And he knew one of the men, a man called Phillips. Bailey told me he had heard a rumor that Phillips tried to grab some gold claims in California after the original owners mysteriously died. According to what Bailey heard, Phillips left California in a hurry after the law started looking into how those owners died."
"If Bailey was so worried, why didnít he go check on Andy himself?" asked Hoss.
"He was going to but he needed to get some supplies," explained Ben. "Then his horse went lame, and he ended up being stuck in Virginia City for longer than he planned. Bailey told me heís been fretting about Andy the whole time."
"But, Pa, even if they were bothering Andy, donít you think Joe could handle things?" asked Hoss. "Joe donít exactly shy away from trouble."
"Your brother does seem to have a knack for getting involved," agreed Ben. "And Joeís pretty handy with both his gun and his fists. But even so, if those men come after Andy and Joe, the odds are four against two. Iíd like to even the odds if thereís trouble."
"I still think weíve made a long ride for nothing," said Hoss.
"I hope youíre right," answered Ben in a worried voice. "Letís get going." Ben kicked his horse forward and started down the hill. Hoss sighed and followed his father.
As they pair neared the town, Ben looked anxiously toward the street that ran through the town. "I donít see the wagon," said Ben as the two men neared the town.
"It should be parked in front of the store like always."
"Maybe Joe decided to put it in the stable for awhile," said Hoss. "You know how Andy is about keeping things where they belong."
"Maybe," replied Ben. But his voice reflected the fact that he didnít think so.
"Do you think Joeís already headed for home?" asked Hoss, trying to ease Benís worry.
"He could have unloaded the supplies and already headed for Baileyís."
"No, we would have seen some sign of the wagon," answered Ben with a shake of his head. "Bailey is still in Virginia City. If Joe went to Baileyís place, heíd have found the Trading Post closed, and headed back down the trail. Iím sure we would have seen him."
Hoss didnít say anything. He suddenly felt uneasy about the deserted street.
Ben and Hoss rode to the edge of Hawthorne. They both stopped their horses in surprise when they saw someone lounging against the side of the first building of the town. The man hurried forward and blocked their path.
"Can I help you fellows?" asked the man.
"I donít think so," answered Ben in a wary voice. "Weíre just going to ride in and see Andy Miller."
"He ainít there," said the man.
"Not there?" said Hoss with a frown. "Old Andy almost never leaves Hawthorne. Whereíd he go?"
"Donít know," replied the man. "The townís deserted."
"What are you doing here?" asked Ben, his concern growing.
The man bit his lip and seemed to be thinking. "Iím, um, Iím just waiting for some friends," replied the man. "Theyíre doing some prospecting. I figured it would be more comfortable to wait for them here than camped out in the mountains.
"Well, you donít mind if we ride in and look around for ourselves," said Ben.
The man put his hand on his holster. "Matter of fact, I do mind," he said. "I donít want any strangers poking around my gear."
"We just want to ride down to the hotel and take a look around for Andy," said Hoss. "Weíll be in and out before you know it."
"I already told you he wasnít there," said the man, his eyes narrowing. He lowered his hand to his gun. "Now why donít you just turn around and ride out of here."
"Listen, misterÖ" started Hoss in a threatening voice.
"Hoss, he said Andy wasnít there," interrupted Ben. "He must be up at Baileyís. Why donít we ride up there and look for him."
"Yeah, thatís where he must be," agreed the man. He took his hand off his gun. "Why donít you try Baileyís."
"But, Pa!" protested Hoss.
"Letís ride up to Baileyís," said Ben in a firm voice. He turned back to the man in the street. "Sorry to have troubled you." The man just stared at Ben.
Ben turned his horse and started back up the trail. Hoss sat for a minute, frowning at the man standing in front of him. Then he turned his horse and rode up next to Ben.
"Pa, something ainít right," said Hoss.
"I know, Hoss," agreed Ben in a low voice. "But if Andy and Joe are in trouble, starting a gunfight isnít going to help them. That fellow was ready to shoot to prevent us from going into town."
"Yeah, youíre right," agreed Hoss. "What are we going to do?"
"Letís ride to the top of the hill, out of sight," replied Ben. "Weíll double back on that old trail that comes in from the south."
"Thatís not much of a trail," said Hoss. "You can barely get a horse down it. Besides, wonít that fellow just stop us again?"
"Not if he doesnít see us," said Ben. "If we come in from the south, the buildings will block his view. We can hide the horses in that little alley behind the first couple of buildings. And then weíll do some searching on own."
"Itís kind of risky," said Hoss.
"Yes it is," agreed Ben, his voice suddenly grim. "But itís a risk we need to take if we want to get to Andy and Joe."
"Damn!" swore Phillips. "Heís got to be here someplace. We checked all those buildings on the side across from the hotel." He looked at Jim. "Are you sure you didnít see him?" he asked again. "He might of tried sneaking across the street." Phillips eyed the other man suspiciously. "You have been watching the street, right?"
"Sure I have," replied Jim. But his eyes shifted away from Phillips.
"The whole time?" demanded Phillips.
Jim hesitated, then shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I was busy for a couple of minutes," he admitted. "Two fellows rode up. Said they wanted to ride into town and see the old man. I discouraged them."
"Two riders?" said Phillips, a touch of alarm in his voice. "Who were they?"
"Donít know," replied Jim indifferently. "Just said they were looking for the old man. I told them he wasnít here. They must have believed me because they took off toward Baileyís place. They were going to look for the old man there."
Phillips studied the man in front of him with a thoughtful expression. "How long did this little conversation take?" he asked.
"Just a couple of minutes, like I said," replied Jim.
"Long enough for the kid to get across the street," said Phillips. He shook his head. "Now weíve got to search all those other buildings, too."
"Wouldnít Billy have seen him?" asked Jim.
"Billy," said Phillips in disgust. "Heís got no more brains than a bird. I came right up on him before he even noticed me. He was daydreaming. That kid could have walked right by him and Billy would have never seen him." Phillips sighed. "Iíll get Sam and weíll start on the other buildings." Phillips poked Jim in the chest with his finger. "You keep your eyes peeled, you hear?" said Phillips. "You see any sign of that kid, you holler out."
"Sure," agreed Jim. He cocked his head. "You donít think the kid got away, do you?"
"No," said Phillips in a determined voice. "Heís still in that town some place. Heís playing some kind of cat and mouse game with us. Probably moving to one place while weíre searching another. Well, he can play all the games he wants. It wonít do him any good.
This is one cat who is going to catch the mouse."
The sun was starting its afternoon descent by the time Hoss and Ben quietly led their horses to the alley behind the deserted buildings in Hawthorne. It had taken them some time to ride down the old trail. Hoss had been right. The trail was barely passable.
When they neared the town, the two men had dismounted and led their horses. Leading the horses was quieter and made them more difficult to see. But it also added to the time it took to reach the town.
Ben and Hoss had moved cautiously when they reached Hawthorne. The old buildings hid them from the stranger they had met. But the same buildings hid the man from the Cartwrightís view also. They had no idea where the man wasÖ.or if his friends were around. Ben knew that moving slowly was necessary, but he chafed at the time it took to reach the alley. Increasingly, he had the feeling that Andy and Joe were in trouble.
Finally, Ben and Hoss were able to lead their horses down the narrow path behind the buildings. They stopped behind the second building and tied the horses to a small bush growing in the path.
"Pa, what do we do now?" asked Hoss in a whisper.
"Find Andy and Joe," answered Ben in a low but firm voice.
"But how?" asked Hoss. "The hotel is across the street. That fellow will spot us if we try to get over there."
Ben put his hand to his chin and thought. He wasnít sure what to do next. But he knew he had to find his son and his old friend. The question was how to do it.
A sudden gust of wind blew up, spraying dust in the Cartwrightís faces. As Ben turned his head to avoid the dirt, he saw the back door of the old store open and sway slightly in the wind. And just as suddenly as the wind blew up, it died.
Ben grabbed Hossí arm and pointed to the open door. Hoss frowned. He couldnít think of a single reason why that door should be open. Without being told, Hoss started toward the door. Ben followed him.
Hoss stopped when he reached the door, and peered cautiously inside. Hoss stepped inside the building and then suddenly stopped.
Ben saw his sonís body stiffen and knew something was wrong. He pushed past Hoss and went into the store.
Ben saw the broken glass on the floor and the bullet holes in the door, but he only noticed them in passing. What riveted his attention was a pair of legs he could see spread out on the floor. Ben wasnít as tall as Hoss so he couldnít see over the counter as his son could. All Ben could see was a pair of boots and some tan pants. With his heart in his throat, Ben took a few more steps. Then he froze.
Ben stared at Andyís body on the floor, his brain refusing to believe the picture his eyes
saw. For a minute, he just couldnít comprehend that the battered and bloodied body sprawled on the floor was his old friend. When the realization finally sank in, Ben gave a choked cry and hurried forward.
Ben knelt next to Andyís body on the floor and desperately checked for a pulse, even though he knew it was futile. Andyís lifeless body had a pale, bloodless look to it. Once Ben confirmed what he already knew was true, he dropped his hands to his side and lowered his head.
Hoss watched his father with a pained look on his face. He had known Andy Miller was dead almost as soon as he had seen the body. He felt a strong sense of anguish, both for the passing of old Andy and for the grief he knew his father was feeling. Finally, Hoss walked over and put his hand on his fatherís shoulder. "Iím sorry," said Hoss simply.
Ben nodded, then sniffed as he wiped his hand across his face. "Andy was a good friend," said Ben.
Hoss looked around the shot-up store. "What do you think happened?" he asked. "Where do you think Joe is?"
Ben lifted his head. "I think that man we met and his friends killed Andy, probably because they wanted the silver he found," replied Ben. He looked around the room, noting with relief what he had seen earlier. There was no one else in the store. "Joe must have gotten away," said Ben.
Hoss didnít say anything as he continued to look around. Suddenly, he turned and walked to the front of the store. He picked up Joeís discarded jacket from the floor.
"Joe was here," said Hoss, holding the jacket out to Ben.
Benís eyes searched the deserted store again. He paled as he saw the pool of dried blood on the floor and the trail of blood smeared across the floor.
Hoss heard a noise from the street outside. He turned to look out the shattered window.
He saw two men leaving the old restaurant across the street. The men stopped for a minute to talk, then went into the building next to the restaurant.
"Pa," said Hoss as he continued to watch the street. "Thereís two men out there. They came out of the restaurant and went into the hardware store."
Ben stood and came over to the window. He watched the empty street for a minute, then saw the two men come out of the hardware store. Neither hesitate as they turned and went into the next building.
"Looks to me like theyíre searching for something," said Hoss. A grim expression crossed his face. "Maybe theyíre looking for Joe."
"Joe must have gotten away from them," Ben said again. He glanced down to the blood on the floor. He had no way of telling who had left the trail of blood across the floor of the store. Nevertheless, his stomach lurched with fear. He grabbed Hossí arm. "Weíve got to find him, Hoss," said Ben in a worried voice. "Weíve got to get to Joe before they do."
Hoss nodded in agreement. "Where do we start?" he asked.
"I donít know," admitted Ben. He looked at Hoss. "You and Joe explored every inch of this town when you were boys. Where would he go to hide?"
Hoss looked thoughtful for a moment then shook his head. "Pa, there must be a dozen places where Joe could hide," he said in a hopeless voice. "He could be anywhere."
Ben glanced out the window to the still deserted street, then turned back to Hoss. "Weíve got to start looking," he said in an urgent voice. "Weíll search every building, look in every place you boys used to hide. Heís here someplace, Hoss. All we have to do is find him."
Phillips and Sam walked down the empty street. They had searched every building in Hawthorne without finding a trace of the man they were seeking. Phillips felt the frustration and anger growing in him. He knew the kid was hiding someplace in the deserted town. He couldnít believe they had failed to find him.
Billy watched carefully as the two men walked toward him. He knew Phillips had been mad at him earlier for not paying attention, and he had tried to watch the street. But Billy had quickly lost interest in watching the empty street. He wanted to get out of Hawthorne. For some reason, the old ghost town made him uneasy. However, he knew better than to let Phillips know that.
"See anything?" asked Phillips as he came up to Billy.
"No," said Billy in a firm voice. "Iíve been watching the street. He ainít showed his face."
Phillips shook his head. "Heís got to be here," he said, his voice full of frustration.
Billy shifted uncomfortably. "Why donít we just give it up and ride out?" he asked. "We know where the mine is. Who cares about the kid?"
Phillips looked at Billy in astonishment. "You pea brain!" he screamed. "If we donít find that kid, weíll lose the chance of a lifetime. Weíll have the law breathing down our necks."
Billy winced at Phillips angry words. "I was just asking," he mumbled. "Besides, the old man is dead. He canít sign his claim over to us now."
Phillips looked at Sam and rolled his eyes. "I explained this you twice," he said to Billy. "We donít need the old man to sign over his claim. The law says if a mine isnít worked for a month, itís considered to be abandoned. All we have to do is bury the old man and wait a month. Then we ride into Carson City and claim the mine. Thereís nobody who can dispute our claim."
"Except that kid," commented Sam.
"I donít like the idea of having to work that mine," said Billy in a pouting voice. "I donít like being underground."
"We arenít going to work that mine!" said Phillips in exasperation. "I swear, if you werenít my brother, Iíd send you packing right now."
"I was only saying I donít like mining," said Billy in a sullen voice.
"Look," said Phillips. "We claim the mine and all that silver. Then we turn around and sell it to one of the big mining outfits. Theyíll pay us maybe $10,000 each for that mine. And a percentage of the profits. Once we have that claim, weíll be set for life. All we have to do is sit back and watch the money roll in."
"Except that kid knows we killed the old man and stole his mine," said Sam, with a shake of his head.
"And if we donít find him, heíll send the law after us," agreed Phillips. "Weíll have to high tail it to Mexico or face a rope."
"So what are you going to do?" asked Billy.
"Weíre going to search this town again and weíre going to keep looking until we find him," said Phillips. He turned to Sam. "Letís split up," said Phillips. "You take the side where the store is and Iíll take the side with the hotel. Weíll start up at the other end of town and work our way back down here. You check every building and check it good. Weíll flush that kid out."
"And if we donít find him?" asked Sam.
"Weíll find him," said Phillips. "Thereís no way he can get away. He may have given himself a few extra hours to live, but thatís all. That kid will be dead by nightfall."
Under the floorboards in the old saloon, Joe wondered how much longer he could stay hidden. He desperately wanted to leave his underground sanctuary. The ache in his leg was getting worse. He was dirty, tired and thirsty. But the worst was the heat. Joe felt as if he were burning up.
The air was thick in the crawl space and Joe thought that was the reason he felt so warm. He didnít realize that it was a fever that was causing his body to be drenched with sweat. In the dim light, he couldnít see the redness and swelling in his thigh.
Joe knew he had slept, but he had no idea how long he had been asleep. It could have been minutes or it could have been hours. He wondered if Phillips and the other men were still searching for him. He hoped they had been discouraged and left Hawthorne, but he knew that was a faint hope. Phillips knew if Joe managed to elude him, Joe would send the law after the men. Joe thought about Andy Miller. He promised himself that Phillips and the others would hang for killing old Andy.
Joe moved his leg slightly, and winced at the pain. A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead and into his eye. As Joe wiped the salty moisture from his eye, he wondered again how much longer he could stand being in his safe haven.
A noise from the room above froze Joe. He could hear the muffled sound of footsteps, and what seemed to be voices. Joe pulled his gun from his holster. He had one bullet left. He knew if Phillips and the others found him, they would kill him. Joe was determined that at least one of the murderers would die with him.
Ben crossed the floor of the old saloon as Hoss stood watching by the door. They had carefully searched the store and the assay office next door, quietly opening closets and checking every place in which a man could possibly hide. After a fruitless search of the first two buildings, they had cautiously moved on to the saloon.
Ben and Hoss had watched the three men talking at the end of the street. They had also seen the guard at the other end of street sit down to rest, his back turned on the town. When they were convinced that the four men outside were not looking, Ben and Hoss had quickly slipped out of the assay office and into the saloon.
Hoss watched the street as Ben searched the saloon. He saw the two men walking up the street, and whistled softly to his father. Ben quickly crouched down next to the bar, and Hoss pulled himself back into the shadows. The two men walked by the saloon without stopping.
Both Ben and Hoss waited until they were sure the men were gone. Then Ben carefully rose to his feet.
"Heís not here," said Ben. "I thought sure he would be hiding here. This was one of his favorite places to play in when he was little."
Hoss frowned. Something tickled at the back of his mind. He knew there was something he should remember about the saloon. He thought hard, but the memory remained elusive. His recollections of his boyhood explorations of Hawthorne were buried under years of other memories.
"Letís try the next building," said Ben with a sigh.
Hoss looked around the saloon again, trying to find something that would crystallize the nagging flicker in his head into a clear picture. But nothing seemed to help. Hoss shook his head. "Iíll check the street," he said, taking a step toward the door.
Suddenly, the floor swayed beneath Hossí feet. A gentle rumble seemed to come from deep in the earth. An empty bottle fell from the shelf behind the bar and landed on the floor with a crash. Then everything was still.
Hoss looked at Ben in surprise. "What was that?" he asked.
"A mild earthquake, I guess," said Ben. "Itís a good thing this town is built on solid rock.
If there were any basements or underground caverns, the buildings might collapse."
Hoss stared at Ben. "UndergroundÖ" he said slowly. He looked toward the bar, and the shattered bottle on the floor. It had landed only inches from a small hole in the floor. Hoss frowned. The memory he had sought was becoming clearer in his mind.
Ben looked at Hoss with a puzzled expression. "Whatís wrong?" he asked.
Hoss didnít say anything. He cocked his head to the side as he tried to remember. And then, with a rush, it came to him.
"I know where he is!" said Hoss excitedly. He walked rapidly across the floor and knelt down behind the bar. Ben watched with growing confusion. He had looked behind the bar and found nothing.
Hoss reached down and grabbed at the hole in the floor.
Joe heard the footsteps coming nearer. His hand was searching desperately in the dark for the gun. Joe was so weak he had been barely able to grip the gun. The tremor had startled and scared him, and his arm had crashed against the side of the crawl space. The gun had fallen from his weakened fingers and slid down the crawl space. Joe knew the gun was someplace near, but he couldnít seem to find it.
The footsteps seemed to be directly overhead. Joeís search became more frantic. He wanted to put a bullet into whoever opened the trapdoor above him. He didnít want to die without a fight.
Suddenly, the trapdoor opened and light streamed into the crawl space. Joe looked up, trying to hide the fear he felt. The fear quickly turned into astonishment. Joe blinked his eyes and shook his head slightly. He thought he was imagining things. He looked up and stared into the face his brother Hoss.
"Joe!" exclaimed Hoss. Hoss didnít wait for a reply. He reached down and grabbed Joe under the arms. Then he pulled his little brother from beneath the floor.
Ben watched in stunned silence as Hoss pulled Joe from the crawl space. Then he rushed over and knelt next to Joe. He felt almost weak with relief at having found his youngest son. But the knot of fear in his stomach returned as Ben got a good look at Joe.
Joeís face was streaked with dirt, and rivulets of sweat ran down his head and chest. As Hoss pulled him out of the crawl space, Joe had grunted in pain. Ben could see the large, dark stain of blood on Joeís thigh. What seemed to be a dirty rag, also stained with blood, was wrapped around the thigh. Even in the dim light, Ben could see the unnatural brightness in Joeís eyes and the flush of fever.
Hoss pulled Joe up to a sitting position, and rested his brotherís back against the bar. "Little brother, I didnít think we were ever going to find you," said Hoss, his voice filled with relief.
Joe looked at Hoss, then turned his head to look at his father. He still couldnít believe they were really in Hawthorne. "What..what are you doing here?" he asked in a voice filled with surprise.
Ben reached over to stroke his sonís head. He could feel the heat of fever and Joeís hair was damp with sweat. Benís eyes searched his sonís face with concern as he answered.
"Bailey was in Virginia City. He told us about Andyís strike," Ben said. "He was worried that those men hanging out at his place would try to steal Andyís mine. We came over to see what was happening."
Joe looked at Ben with sorrow in his eyes. "Andyís dead," he said.
Ben nodded. "I know," he replied. "We found him over at the store."
Joe lowered his eyes. "Andy didnít want to tell them about the mine," said Joe in a choked voice. "He only did it to save me." Joe shook his head. "He was a good friend, Pa. I never realized how good until now."
"I know, son," Ben said gently, stroking Joeís head.
"We almost made it," said Joe in a tired voice. In his fevered state, Joe didnít realize he was rambling on. "We almost got away. Three of them went to look at the mine. I knocked out the one they left behind. I tried to get Andy out of there. But Phillips came back just as we got to the wagon. I tried to pull Andy down, but it was too late. There were too many bullets. Andy got hit, and so did I. All I could do was watch him die."
"Itís all right, Joe," Ben assured him softly. "You did the best you could. Iím sure Andy knew that." Ben took his hand from Joeís head and laid it on his sonís shoulder. "At least you were with Andy. Iím sure that meant something to him."
Joe suddenly stiffened and winced in pain. Ben frowned with concern, then turned to his other son. "Hoss, check his leg," said Ben in a worried voice.
Hoss bent down and started to untie the cloth around Joeís leg. He tried to be gentle, but Joe groaned as Hoss undid the knot and eased the cloth off Joeís leg. Hoss pulled open the torn cloth around the bullet wound. His eyes widened. He looked up at Ben. "Itís pretty bad," he said as softly as he could. "Looks like the bullet is still in there."
Joe leaned back against the bar and closed his eyes. He was breathing rapidly, and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead once more.
Ben looked around frantically. "We need something to clean out that wound, and some clean cloth for a bandage," he said.
Hoss looked thoughtful for a moment. His memories of exploring the old saloon had come back with a rush when he recalled the trapdoor. He sorted through the memories.
"I know where we can find what we need," Hoss said.
Hoss stood and took a large step across Joeís legs, then walked rapidly to the other end of the bar. Then he bent down and pulled out an old box from under the bar. He blew the thick layer of dust off the top of the box, then pulled the lid off.
The box was filled with towels. The first towel in the box was yellow with age and sprinkled with dust. Hoss ignored the it, and plunged his hand deep into the box. He pulled a handful of towels from the bottom of the box. These towels had a slightly off-white color, but they were free from dust and dirt. Hoss carefully held the towels high as he pushed the wooden box back under the bar.
Hoss stood and looked around. The bottles on the shelf behind the bar were covered with dust and cobwebs. All were empty. Hoss studied the shelf for a minute. Then he stuck the towels under his arm and reached to move two empty bottles aside.
Laying on its side behind the two bottles was another whiskey bottle. Only this one wasnít empty. A small amount of brown liquid was visible inside the bottle. It wasnít very much whiskey, not even enough to reach to the neck of the bottle. Hoss grabbed the bottle and turned to his father with a triumphant smile.
Hoss blew the dust off the bottle, and returned to Ben and Joe. Ben looked a Hoss with a question on his face.
"This was mine and Joeís private stash," explained Hoss with a small smile. "We found it one day when we were playing in here. We hid it so it wouldnít get thrown out. We kept saying we were going to taste it, but neither one of us ever got up enough nerve to do it."
"I would have blistered your backsides if you had," said Ben with mock sterness. He took the bottle from Hoss and held it up. Less than a half inch of whiskey sloshed around in the bottle. "Itís not much," said Ben softly.
"Itís all weíve got," said Hoss as he took a step over Joeís legs. He looked at Ben with a grim expression as he knelt next to Joe and held out his hand for the bottle. "Youíd better hold him," said Hoss as he took the bottle from Benís hand.
Joe laid against the bar with his eyes closed. He felt too weak and tired to care about what his father and brother were doing. He felt someone push him forward a bit and then felt two hands grabbing his shoulders. Joeís head flopped to the left and rested against the strong arm that held him.
Joe suddenly stiffened and gasped in pain as he felt a hot, searing liquid on his leg. The liquid seemed to be burning itself into his thigh. Joe gritted his teeth and tried to squirm away, but the hands on his shoulders held him firmly. For a minute, the pain seemed almost unbearable. Then it began to abate. Joe fell back limply against the arms that held him.
Joe could feel a cloth being pressed against his leg. He opened his eyes and looked down. Hoss had folded one towel and pressed it against the bullet wound. Now he was wrapping the other towels around Joeís leg to hold the first one in place. Joe watched with a sense of detachment, as if it were someone elseís leg being bandaged.
Hoss tied the knot on the last towel tightly, then rubbed his hands against his pants. He looked up at Ben. "That should do for awhile," he said. "You can let him go."
Ben nodded but continued to hold his youngest son. "Weíve got to get him out of here," said Ben. "He needs a doctor."
"Yeah," agreed Hoss. "Only Iíve got a feeling that those four outside ainít going to just let us walk out of here."
"Check the street," Ben ordered Hoss.
Hoss stood and walked over to the door of the saloon. He was careful to stay in the shadows by the door as he looked out onto the street. The street was deserted. Hoss leaned forward and looked to the west. The man standing guard at that end of town was looking out toward the mountains, away from the town. Hoss turned and looked to the east. The guard there was sitting down, but he was staring into the town. Hoss quickly pulled himself back into the shadows. Then he walked back to the bar.
"Thereís a guard on both ends of the street," said Hoss. "I couldnít see the other two.
The one down by the stable ainít paying much attention. But the one we met is watching the town."
Ben looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "If we try to go out the front, that guard will see us," said Ben. He looked around. "Is there a backdoor to this place?"
"No," said Hoss with a shake of his head. "At least, Joe and I never found one."
"If we can just get to the assay office," said Ben, "we can go out the side door there, and down the alley to the horses."
"Yeah, but how are we going to get there?" asked Hoss.
"We need something to distract that guard," said Ben. "Weíve got to get Joe down that alley, past the store and to the horses." He stared off into the dark shadows of the saloon. "The only thing I can think to do is for me to make a dash across the street," said Ben. "While the guard is watching me, you can get Joe out of here and into the assay office next door."
"But Pa," protested Hoss. "Those men will know weíre here. Theyíll come after you. Youíll never make it back to the horses."
"Iíll get there somehow," said Ben with a shrug. "Donít worry about me. You just get Joe on a horse and get him out of here."
"I donít like it, Pa," said Hoss with a frown. "I donít like it one bit."
"Have you got a better idea?" asked Ben.
Hoss thought for a minute, then shook his head ruefully. "No," he said. "But thereís got to be a better way."
Ben glanced at Joe. Joeís face was now a pasty white, the only color in his face were the bright spots of fever. Rivulets of sweat were running down Joeís face. His eyes were barely open.
"We havenít got time to find another way," said Ben grimly.
Hoss looked at Joe and winced. With a sigh, he nodded his agreement.
"Come on, Joe," said Hoss, slipping Joeís arm over his shoulder. "Weíve got to get you to the horses."
Joeís eyes fluttered opened. "I donítÖI donít know if I can walk very far," said Joe in a weak voice.
"Donít worry, little brother," said Hoss in a confident tone. "Iíll get you there."
Joe moaned as Hoss pulled him to his feet with Benís help. Joe didnít even try to put weight on his injured leg. He stood the best he could on one leg and leaned into Hoss. Hoss wrapped his muscular arm around Joeís ribs and held his brother tightly. Hoss looked at Ben with a grim expression.
Ben slipped Joeís other arm over his shoulder and also wrapped his arm around Joeís ribs. For a second, he held Joe tightly to him. Ben knew attracting the four men outside to him was dangerous, might even cost him his life. But he was more than willing to take the risk to save his sons.
Ben took a deep breath and looked at Hoss. He didnít say anything. He didnít have to.
His eyes told Hoss everything he wanted to say. Hoss looked at his father with a pained expression on his face and nodded.
"Letís go," said Ben softly. He and Hoss started across the saloon, carrying Joe. Joeís injured leg dragged behind him, and Joeís head fell forward until his chin was resting on his chest.
Ben and Hoss stopped at the door of the saloon and looked out. The street was still deserted. Ben looked down toward the stable and saw the man there lounging against the building, his attention still fixed on something outside of town. Ben turned to look at the other end of town.
Ben stiffened as he saw a man come out of the first building on the other side of the street. The man said something to the guard. The guard turned to answer him. As the guard started talking to the man, he turned his back to the town.
Ben had no idea where the fourth man might be, but he didnít care. He only cared that suddenly there was a chance for all three of them out of the saloon unseen. "Letís go," he said urgently to Hoss. Hoss instantly understood.
Ben and Hoss pushed the saloon doors open, and dragged Joe out of the building. They hurried to the front door of the assay office next door. The distance was only a few yards, but with each step, both Hoss and Ben expected to hear an outcry from the men at the end of the street. Ben knew they were being rough with Joe. He could hear the soft moans from his son as they dragged him to the assay office. It pained Ben that he was causing his son further misery, but he knew they had no choice.
As soon as they reached the building, Hoss pushed open the door of the assay office with his big shoulder. He pulled Joe inside without stopping. Joeís arm slid off Benís shoulder. Ben released Joe and watched as Hoss dragged him into the office. Ben followed and closed the door quietly behind him.
All three Cartwrights were breathing hard as they stood inside the assay office. It had taken them less than a minute to get from the saloon to the building next door but for Ben and Hoss, those seconds had been filled with the fear of discovery. Hoss looked at his father and gave him a shaky grin. Ben let out a sigh of relief.
Hoss led Joe across the room. Against the wall was an old couch, used by the assayer for catnaps on slow days. The couch was the style without a back or arms, and one end was built up higher than the rest of it. A thick layer of dust cover the couch. But like the rest of the furniture left in Hawthorne, the couch as been kept in good repair by Andy Miller. Hoss slipped Joeís arm from around his shoulders, and eased his brother down onto the couch. He gently positioned Joeís head on the higher end of the couch, then lifted his brotherís legs from the floor and placed them on the couch.
Ben walked to the window of the assay office and looked out. He saw the two men were still talking at the end of town. As he watched, they finished their conversation. One man turned and entered the second building. The guard sat down and stared into the town.
"We just made it," said Ben with relief. "The guard is back watching the town."
Hoss nodded. "Now what?" he asked.
"Weíll give Joe a couple of minutes to rest," replied Ben. "Then you take him to the horses while I keep watch." Ben saw the frown forming on Hossí face. "Donít worry, he said quickly. "Iím not going to let them see me. But I want to watch your back until you get Joe on a horse. Weíve made it this far. Iím not taking any chances that theyíll catch us now."
Sam had searched the first building on the south side of town without success. He wasnít surprised he found nothing. Sam was beginning to believe they werenít going to find the kid. He was getting tired of looking. He also was getting nervous. If the kid had managed to get out of the ghost town, then it was only a question of time until the law showed up. Sam decided heíd give his buildings a thorough search. If they hadnít found the kid by the time he was done, he was going to ride out of Hawthorne and head south. Heíd rather be poor and alive than a hanged man with a silver mine.
Sam started to enter the second building. He stopped when he heard the snort of a horse. Sam frowned. The horse had sounded close, real close. He knew Phillips had put their horses in the old stable at the end of the street. Jim had moved the kidís horses and wagon down to the stable also. Sam looked around uneasily. He wondered who had ridden another horse into the town.
Sam moved cautiously into the narrow alley between the first two buildings. The alley was barely wide enough for him to walk down. He stopped at the end of the building, and looked around to the back.
Two horses Ė a buckskin and a big black Ė were standing behind the building, tied to a bush. The sight of two horses made Sam even more nervous. Two horses meant two riders. And two riders meant double trouble.
Sam looked around but he saw no sign of the riders. He stood hesitantly, unsure what to do. He finally decided that he should show the horses to Phillips. He was sure Phillips would know what to do about them. Sam walked over to the shrub and untied the horses. He looked back at the alley he had come down, and knew it was too narrow for the horses. Sam decided to lead the horses to the alley between the store and the assay office, and then lead them down that alley to the street. Sam pulled on the reins and led the horses forward.
Hoss looked out the side door of the assay office. He nodded in satisfaction at the empty alley. Hoss ducked back into the office. A minute later, he appeared at the door again, this time with Joe.
Joeís arm was once again thrown over Hossí shoulders, and Hoss had his arm wrapped tightly around Joe again. Joeís head hung down and his eyes were closed. His face was covered with sweat. Air escaped his lungs in ragged breaths.
"Itís only a little further now," Hoss said to Joe softly. For a moment, Joe had no reaction. Then he nodded his head slightly.
Hoss led his brother out the door and started down the alley. He was unaware that one of Joeís pursuers was heading toward the alley from the path behind the buildings.
Suddenly, as if an unseen hand had pushed them, Hoss and Joe were thrown against the side of the store. Joe moaned softly as he hit the wooden building and Hoss frowned. But Joeís moan wasnít what caused Hoss to frown.
Hoss heard a voice coming from the path behind the building.
Sam had been leading the horses toward the alley. At first, the horses followed him docilely. Then, for some unknown reason, the horses suddenly became terrified.
The buckskin was rearing up and stomping the ground while the black was trying to pull away from the man leading it. "Whoa!" shouted Sam as he struggled to control the horses. "Hold still, you varmints!"
In the alley, Hoss edged to the end of the wall and looked around the end of the building.
Sam was still struggling to control the two horses. His back was to the alley between the store and the assay office. "Come on!," said Sam sharply as he tried to jerk the animals forward. But neither horse wanted to obey him. They both tugged at the reins in his hand, trying to go backwards. The eyes of both animals were wide with terror.
Hoss quickly pulled back around the building. He tried to decide what to do. He could easily take a shot at the man behind the store, but firing a gun would bring the others.
If he tried to return with to the assay office, the man leading the horses might see them. But if they stayed here, the man also might walk right into them.
Joe grunted in pain as he shifted his weight onto his injured leg. Hoss winced at the sound. He wondered if the man behind the store had heard it. Joe moaned again. Hoss reached up and put his hand over Joeís mouth, muffling his brotherís moans.
On the path behind the store, Sam was having no success in leading the horses. They refused to take another step forward. "All right, you stubborn critters," said Sam in defeat. "Weíll go the other way." Sam took a step forward and the two horses moved aside. He continued walking, leading the horses back toward where he had found them.
He walked with the horses until he reached the first building of the town. Then he led the horses around the building. Hoss heard the sound of the horses moving off. He waited a minute, then dropped his hand from Joeís face. Hoss peered cautiously around the end of the building. The path was empty.
Hoss quickly pulled Joe toward him. He led his brother back into the assay office.
Ben turned in surprise as the side door of the office opened. He was standing at the front window, his gun in his hand, ready to take a shot at anyone who might head in the direction of the alley.
"Whatís wrong?" said Ben in alarm as he watched Hoss lead Joe back into the store. Hoss didnít answer at first. Joeís uninjured leg was buckling, and Hoss was trying to lay Joe on the couch before his brother fell from his grasp. He managed to ease Joe to the couch. Joeís arms and legs flopped limply.
"Whatís wrong?" asked Ben again. "Why didnít you go to the horses?"
"They found the horses, Pa," answered Hoss. "We danged near walked right into one of them fellows. For some reason, the horses got scared. I heard the fellow yelling at them, and stopped just in time."
Ben blew out a breath of air. "That was too close," he said.
"Yeah," agreed Hoss. He frowned as he thought about being shoved up against the building.
"Whatís the matter?" asked Ben as he saw Hossí frown.
Hoss thought about the alley. He decided he had probably tripped and been thrown off-balance because of Joeís weight. "Itís nothing, Pa," he said with a shrug.
Joe moaned softly on the couch. Hoss turned and knelt next to his brother. Ben hurried across the room to the couch.
Hoss had his hand on Joeís forehead as Ben knelt next to Hoss. Hoss glanced over his shoulder at his father. "His fever is real high," said Hoss with concern. "I think heís getting worse."
"We need some water, something to cool him down," said Ben frantically. He quickly looked around the old office, searching for anything that might help Joe. But the office offered only a dusty old desk, a counter made of dark wood, a few chairs, and the couch.
"Thereís nothing here," said Ben in frustration.
"Pa, the only water pumps in this town are in the restaurant and the hotel," advised Hoss. "Even if we could get to them, Iím not sure it would help. The water coming out of those pumps was always kind of warm."
Ben turned back to Joe. He laid his hand on Joeís arm. "Hang on, son," said Ben. "Weíll get you out of here soon."
Joe laid on the couch with his eyes closed. He was breathing hard, and drenched in sweat. Joe was lost in a mist of pain and fever. He couldnít hear his fatherís words.
Sam led the now docile horses around the end of the building and down the main street. Jim saw him come from behind the building, and walked over to Sam with a surprised look on his face.
"Where did you get those horses?" demanded Jim.
"Found them tied behind the buildings," answered Sam. "Why? Do you know something about them?"
Jim studied the horses for a minute. "These look like the horses that those fellows I ran off were riding," replied Jim.
Sam looked startled. "Are you sure," he asked.
Jim nodded. "Yeah," he said. "They were riding a buckskin and a black, just like these two."
Sam looked around uneasily. "I wonder where the riders are," he said. "I didnít see any sign of them."
Jim shrugged his shoulders. "I havenít seen them," said Jim. "What are you going to do?"
"Iíll let Phillips decide," said Sam. He started down the street with the horses in tow. As he walked, he yelled for Phillips. Phillips came out of the old hotel just as Sam was leading the horses past the building.
"Where did you find those horses?" asked Phillips as he came bounded out onto the street. Sam repeated his story and told him of Jimís comment about the horses. Phillips swore, then turned and called to Jim. Billy heard the calls and saw the other three men coming together in front of the hotel. He hurried up the street to join them.
"Those two riders must be hiding someplace in town too," Phillips was saying at Billy walked up. "Theyíre probably helping the kid."
"I didnít see them," said Jim. "Iíve been watching, and I havenít seen anyone but you two."
"Same here," said Billy, trying to conceal the guilt in his voice. In reality, he had been watching some deer grazing in a patch of grass outside of town. The deer hadnít done anything interesting, but they had been less boring to watch than the empty streets of the town.
"What do we do now?" asked Sam.
"Maybe we ought to give it up," suggested Billy. He looked around the empty streets and shivered a bit. "I donít like this place. I want to get out of here."
"Iím not giving it up," said Phillips angrily. "Iím not giving up a chance at all that money. And Iím sure not going to let that kid get away, not after all the trouble heís caused us."
"Yeah," agreed Sam, rubbing the bruise on his chin. "I owe that kid something, too."
Billy shifted his weight and looked down.
"Well, then, what do we do?" asked Jim.
Phillips looked down the empty street for a minute before answering. "Sam, you take those horses down to the stable," said Phillips. "Jim, Billy, get back and keep watch. Sam and I will finish checking all the buildings. If we donít find the kid and the other two, Iím going to burn this town to the ground. Thatíll force them out. Theyíll have to come out to the street where we can get them, or they burn. Once way or the other, those three are dead."
Ben and Hoss watched the meeting in the middle of the street from the window of the assay office. They had heard the shouts, and moved to the window to see what was going on. Neither said anything as the meeting broke up. Two of the men, including the one leading the horses, headed down the street to the west end of the town. One went back to the east end. The fourth went back into the hotel.
"Looks like theyíre going to keep looking," said Hoss as he watched the men scatter.
"Yes," replied Ben in a distracted voice. He glanced over to the couch where Joe laid unmoving. "Weíve got to get him out of here, Hoss," said Ben. "Weíve got to get him to a doctor."
"Easier said than done," replied Hoss. "Especially since they have the horses."
"I know," replied Ben. He pursed his lips. "Maybe we could carry Joe out of here," suggested Ben. "If we sneak behind the buildings and back down the old trail, theyíd never see us. We could head up the trail to Baileyís."
"Pa, that ainít no good and you know it," said Hoss. "Itís ten miles to Baileyís Trading Post, more if we take the old trail. Joeís about at the end of his rope. Even with us carrying him, heíd never make it that far. Besides, Baileyís probably still in Virginia City."
"I know," said Ben with a sigh. He turned back to watch the street. Ben suddenly shrank back into the shadows next to the window. He watch as one of the men walked back up the street. The man paid no attention to the assay office as he strolled past the building.
"It looks like theyíre spreading out to search again," said Ben as the man went out of view. He looked over to Joe again and made a decision. "We havenít got time to wait around any longer," said Ben. "Weíre going to have to go after them.
"Thereís four of them, Pa," said Hoss doubtfully. "Thatís not very good odds. And if bullets start flyingÖwell, thereís no telling what might get hit." He looked over toward the couch. "Joe canít take much more, Pa," said Hoss softly.
"I donít intend to start a gunfight," replied Ben. "Not if I can help it. Weíll go after them one at a time."
Sam finished his search of the second building, not surprised that he didnít find anything. He left the building with a sigh, and started toward the one next door, the old store. Sam hesitated just a moment as he stood in front of the store. The bullet holes in the door reminded him of what was inside. Sam chided himself for worrying about a dead man and pushed the door open.
Andy Millerís body was laying on the floor of the store, just as they had left it. Sam gave the body a cursory look, then started to search the store quickly. For some reason, being in the store with the old manís body made him uneasy. He checked behind the counter, then started looking into the shadows at the other end of the building. He found nothing of interest. Sam turned to walk to the front of the building and then froze.
A rattling noise came from behind Sam. At first, he couldnít tell what the noise was or where it was coming from. Sam pulled his gun and wheeled around, his eyes searching the store. He heard the noise again, and realized it was coming from the door at the back of the store. Sam walked slowly toward the door, then stopped.
The door knob on the back door was turning back and forth.
Sam swallowed hard as he watched the door knob move. It made an odd, creaking noise, then stopped. The door rattled a bit, as if someone were trying to push it open.
Then the door was silent. Once more, the knob became to move back and forth.
Sam gripped the gun in his hand and took a deep breath. He walked slowly across the room to the door. The door knob stopped moving. Sam watched the knob for a few seconds, then cautiously began to reach for it. He stopped, and licked his lips nervously.
Odds things had been happening in Hawthorne all day. Strange winds, earth tremors, and now this.
Sam told himself that he was being silly. He steeled his nerves and reached for the knob. He turned the door knob slowly and pushed on the door.
The old door creaked a bit as it came open. Sam looked out behind the building, but the area behind the building seemed empty. He pushed the door open a bit wider and started to step out.
Suddenly, the door was pushed violently into Sam, knocking him again the door frame. Before Sam could react, the door was jerked away from him. Sam saw something big coming at him from around the door. He didnít have time to register what it was. A massive hand chopped down on his wrist, knocking his gun away. Then the biggest fist Sam had ever seen came toward his face. The fist landed on his jaw with a powerful force, knocking Samís head against the door frame. Sam was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Hoss stood over the man crumpled in the doorway, rubbing his hands in satisfaction. He picked up the gun from the ground and stuck it in his belt. Then he reached down and grabbed the man he had hit. Hoss dragged him into the store.
It took Hoss several minutes to remove the manís belt and tie the manís hands behind his back with it. Hoss searched the unconscious man and pulled a dirty bandanna from his pocket. He quickly wound the cloth around the manís mouth as a gag. He dragged the unconscious man behind the counter. Hoss dropped him to the floor with a thud. Then he turned and slipped out the back door of the store.
Hoss checked the alley and then hurried down it to the side door of the assay office. He pushed the door open and went in.
"One down," announced Hoss as he entered the building. He stopped as he looked across the room. Ben was kneeling next to the couch. Benís hand was stroking Joeís head.
"Howís he doing?" asked Hoss as he crossed the room.
Ben looked over his shoulder, and simply shook his head. "Weíre running out of time," said Ben softly. Hoss nodded grimly.
Ben gave Joeís head a final pat, then stood. "Weíre both going to have to go," said Ben. "You take the one at the east end, and Iíll take the one down by the stable. As soon as you take out your man, sneak down and meet me at the stable. Weíll get the horses and get Joe out of here."
"What about the fourth one?" asked Hoss.
"Heís still in the hotel," said Ben. "Thereís a lot of rooms for him to search. With any luck, weíll be back out of Hawthorne before heís done."
Hoss looked at Joe on the couch. "Pa, we canít leave Joe here all by himself," he protested.
"We canít do anything to help him here," replied Ben. "His best chance is for us to get the horses and come back for him."
"But what if that fellow over at the hotel decides to check this place," said Hoss. "Joe wonít have a chance if that guy finds him."
"Donít you think Iíve thought of that!" said Ben angrily. He shook his head. "Iím sorry. I didnít mean to yell," Ben said contritely. "Iím just worried about Joe. His leg is badly swollen and his fever is very high."
"I know, Pa," said Hoss. "Iím worried, too."
"Thereís only three of them now," said Ben. "If we can get two of the out of the way pretty quickly and get out of here, we can get Joe to Virginia City by dark. The longer it takes for us to get him to a doctorÖ." Ben took a deep breath. "I know weíre risking Joe by leaving him here alone. But we may be taking a bigger risk if we move slowly."
Hoss nodded. "I understand, Pa," he said.
Ben saw the gun sticking out of Hossí belt. "Give me the gun," said Ben, pointing to pistol. "Weíll leave it with Joe. I doubt if heíll be able to use it, but at least heíll have it."
Hoss pulled the gun out of his belt and handed it to Ben. Ben knelt next to the couch once more. "Joe," said Ben, stroking his sonís head. "Joe, can you hear me?" Joe didnít respond. "Joe, listen to me," continued Ben. "Hoss and I are going to leave you for a bit. Weíre going to the stable to get the horses so we can get you out of here. Weíll be back as soon as we can. Do you understand me?"
Joe still made no response. Hoss watched with a grim expression. He doubted if his brother could hear Benís words.
But Ben continued as if Joe had answered. "Iím going to leave you a gun," said Ben. He put the pistol on the couch, next to Joeís left hand. "I donít think youíll need it, but youíll have it just in case." Joe continued to lay unmoving on the couch. "Weíll be back as soon as we can," repeated Ben. "You just rest easy. Weíll have you out of here soon."
Ben gave Joeís head one last loving stroke. Then he stood up. He turned abruptly and started toward the side door. "Letís go," he said to Hoss as he walked past him. Hoss gazed at his brother for a minute. Then he turned and followed his father to the door.
Hoss walked quickly down the path behind the first few buildings. He stopped as he reached the end of the first building and peer around the corner. He could see the guard sitting on the ground across the street, his back against the first building on the other side. The man appeared to be watching the town.
Hoss eased himself around the building, keeping himself as close to the side of the structure as possible. He moved quietly, trying not to attract the attention of the man across the street. His plan was to get to the end of the building, then sprint across the street. He hoped he could reach the guard before the man had time to pull his gun.
As Hoss sidled along the building, his foot kicked a rock. He froze for an instant, wondering if the guard heard the noise. But the man across the street sat as before. Hoss let out a breath.
Hoss looked down at the rock near his foot and an idea came to him. He reached down and picked up the rock. It was round, about the size of his fist. Hoss turned the rock over in his hand, wondering if he could pull off his idea. He gripped the rock. With a nod to himself, he moved to the edge of the building.
Hoss took a step away from the building. He whirled his arm several times. Then he pulled back his arm and took aim. He heaved the rock across the street as hard as he could.
The guard saw the movement across the street out of the corner of his eye. He started to turn to look. He had only moved his head a fraction when the rock smashed into the side of his head. The man fell to the ground instantly.
Hoss rushed across the street, ready to add a knockout punch if needed. But as soon as he reached the guard, he knew the punch was unnecessary. The guard laid in a heap on the ground. The red mark of his head was already beginning to swell into a knot. Hoss knelt and put his fingers on the manís neck, wondering remorsefully if he had killed the man. He let out a small sigh of relief when he felt a steady pulse. Hoss pulled the pistol from the manís holster and threw it far away. Then he pulled the man to the side of the building, out of sight. Hoss quickly removed the manís belt, and tied his guardís hands behind his back with the belt. As soon as Hoss had finished, he took a quick look down the street. Then he hurried back to the other side of the street.
Ben stood at the end of the alley between the store and the assay office, as close to the street as he dared. He felt as if his head was on a swivel as his eyes darted back and forth between the two guards. The guard by the stable was still not paying any attention to the town. Ben prayed that he would continue to be disinterested.
Ben saw a movement out of the corner of his eye at the other end of the street. He turned just in time to see the guard crumple to the ground. Ben took a quick look at the other guard, than ran across the street. He dashed into the narrow alley between the restaurant and hardware store, then stopped to catch his breath.
Ben knew that there was path behind all the buildings on this side of the street. None were built up against the mountain as the assay office was. Ben quickly walked down the alley to the path, then turned to walk more slowly toward the stable a few buildings away.
As Ben approached the stable, he moved even more cautiously. He didnít want to betray his presence to the guard before he was ready. Ben didnít know his caution was unnecessary. Billy was dozing in the warm afternoon sun.
Ben moved slowly toward the guard sitting against the front of the stable. He waited until he was standing directly over the sleeping man before speaking.
"Hey!" Ben yelled when he was directly in front of Billy.
Billy woke with a start and gave a small shriek when he saw the white haired stranger in front of him. That was all he time to do before Benís gun crashed into the side of Billyís head. Billy fell to the ground.
As Hoss had done, Ben quickly dragged the unconscious man into the alley and out of sight. Ben also removed Billyís belt and tied his hands behind him with the leather. Then Ben dusted off his hands and hurried to the door of the stable.
Hoss knew he was suppose to be heading down to the stable to help Ben with the horses. But he couldnít stop himself from checking on Joe. Hoss quickly walked around the back of the buildings and into the side door of the assay office.
Joe laid on the couch as before. As far as Hoss could tell, he hadnít moved since they left him. Joeís face was a pasty white, and the red fever spots seemed brighter than before. A fine sheen of sweat covered Joe. Hoss knelt next to the couch and put his hand on Joeís forehead. "It wonít be long now," said Hoss softly to his brother. "Weíll be back real soon to get you. Iím going down to the stable and meet Pa." Hoss gave Joe a pat on the head, then got to his feet. He hurried to the front of the assay office and out the door.
Hoss took a quick look up and down the street and noted in satisfaction that it was deserted. His Pa must have gotten the guard down at the stable, and the fourth man must still be in the hotel. For the first time in hours, Hoss was feeling that things might turn out all right after all. He hurried down the street toward the stable. The few extra minutes he had spent checking on Joe had made no difference, thought Hoss.
Hoss got to the stable just as Phillips was coming out of the hotel. Phillips glimpsed the big man going into the stable and frowned. He looked up and down the street. Jim and Billy were no where to be seen. He wasnít surprised about Billy, but Jim was usually a steady hand. Phillips called Samís name but didnít get an answer. A grim expression crossed Phillipsí face. He eased his pistol out of his holster and started down the street.
Hoss opened the barn door just wide enough to allow himself to enter, then quickly shut the door behind him. He looked around the stable. Six of the old stalls had horses in them, all still saddled. Hoss was surprised to see a wagon loaded with supplies and horses still harnessed, in the middle of the barn. It took him a minute to realize that this was the wagon that Joe had driven into Hawthorne.
"Pa?" called out Hoss. A dark figure moved from behind the wagon. Hoss reached for his gun, then relaxed when he recognized Ben.
"Hoss," said Ben in a relieved voice. "I was getting worried." Ben cocked his head toward the wagon. "I forgot about this."
"So did I," admitted Hoss frankly.
"You know, it would better and easier on Joe if we could get him out of here in the wagon," said Ben. "Sitting a horse might be pretty hard on him." Hoss nodded his agreement. "Come on and help me empty this wagon," continued Ben. "The sooner we can get Joe out of here and to a doctor, the better Iíll feel."
Hoss didnít bother to answer. He walked toward the back of the stable and to the end of the wagon.
Ben and Hoss started pulling the sacks and boxes out of the wagon, tossing the supplies into a pile on the ground. Both men were concentrating on emptying the wagon as fast as possible. Neither heard the barn door open.
"Hold it!" shouted Phillips, pointing his gun at the two men.
Ben and Hoss froze. Ben had a sack of flour in his hands, and Hoss was holding a small box full of tin cans. They both knew that that the man in the front of the stable could easily shoot them if they tried to drop the goods in their hand and reach for their pistols. No one was fast enough to outdraw someone who had a gun already pointed at them. So Ben and Hoss stood still, watching Phillips warily.
"Who are you two?" asked Phillips. "And where are the rest of my men?"
Ben glanced at Hoss. "Weíre, er, weíre just after the supplies," lied Ben. "We didnít want to get shot by accident, so we, uh, Ďremovedí your men. Theyíre all right."
"Just after the supplies, eh?" said Phillips with a cocked eyebrow. "And thatís why youíre emptying the wagon? I think you need a better story than that." Phillips studied the two men in front of him. "Jim told me two men came riding in a few hours ago looking for the old man. You those two?"
Hoss and Ben looked at each other but neither answered.
"Yeah, youíre the ones looking for the old man," said Phillips positively. "Iíll bet youíve been helping the kid, too. Iíve wasted a whole day looking for him. Now where is he?"
Hoss and Ben remained silent.
Phillips lifted his gun a fraction. "That kid has foxed me all day," said Phillips, the anger in his voice evident. "Iím tired of looking for him. And Iím tired of playing games. Now, one of you better start talking."
Ben and Hoss looked at the man with a steady gaze. Neither said a word.
"Iím not bluffing!" shouted Phillips in a rage. He cocked his gun. "If you donít tell me where the kid is, Iím going to shoot the big one. Now, you have about ten seconds!
Joe was tired and thirsty, and he seemed to ache all over. His leg felt as if it were on fire. Disjointed pictures of being dragged around Hawthorne seemed to flicker in his brain. Joe didnít bother with the images. He was too tired to even try to remember what happened. He started to drift off to sleep again.
Joe heard the words in his head. He wasnít sure where they came from. The voice sounded familiar but Joeís thinking was too fuzzy to recognize it.
"The stable! You have to go to the stable!"
Joe heard the words again. He wondered who had said them, but really didnít care.
"Ben and Hoss need you! Go to the stable!"
The words echoed in Joeís brain with a sense of urgency. This time, the words stirred Joe. His father and brother were in trouble. Joe knew it somehow. He knew he had to help them.
Joe felt the gun by his hand. He grasped the gun, surprised at how heavy it felt. Slowly, he swung his legs off the couch, grunting in pain as he did so. Every time he moved, a wave of agonizing pain seemed to radiate up his leg.
Joe pushed himself up until he was standing, his weight on his good leg. He swayed as he stood, and felt as if he might fall back to the couch. But somehow he managed to stay on his feet. It was almost as if an unseen hand were holding him up.
Joeís eyes were glazed, and barely open. His mouth hung slack, and rivulets of sweat ran down his face and chest. Joe shivered a bit. Then he tried to remember what he was suppose to do.
The voice in his head sounded almost frantic. Joe gripped the gun tighter in his hand and slowly moved across the room, dragging his injured leg. He was too feverish to be amazed that he could actually walk in his condition.
Joe pushed open the door of the assay office and looked out onto the empty street. He blinked his eyes, trying to remember where he was going.
Once more, the voice echoed in Joeís head. He turned to look at the stable. The stable seemed farther away than just a few buildings. Joe didnít bother to think about it. He simply started limping slowly down the street, dragging his injured leg.
"You pull that trigger and youíll hang," Ben warned Phillips.
Phillips laughed. "Mister, Iím already facing a noose," he said. "Wonít bother me one bit to have another dead man to my name."
Ben swallowed hard, trying to decide what to do. He faced an impossible choice. If he didnít tell the gunman about Joe, he would shoot Hoss. But if Ben did tell him where Joe was, the man would kill Joe. Either way, Ben faced loosing a son.
"Iíll show you where my son is," said Ben.
"Pa! No!" protested Hoss.
"Your son, eh?" said Phillips. "Ainít that cozy." He gestured to Hoss. "The big one is your son, too? You just got lots of family, havenít you?"
"Iíll take you to my son," repeated Ben.
Phillips shook his head. "You think I have mush for brains?" he said. "You show me to some building and then jump me. Thatís the plan, isnít it?" Ben didnít answer but the expression on his face gave him away. He had been thinking just that.
"Hereís what weíre going to do," said Phillips. "Youíre going to tell me where the kid is.
Iím going to fix it so you both have to stay here. Then I go take care of the kid. If he isnít where you tell me, I come back and shoot the big one."
"Why should we tell you anything?" said Hoss angrily. "Youíre going to shoot us anyway."
"Yeah, yeah, I am" agreed Phillips. "But this way, you live a little longer. Not much, but a little." Phillips aimed his gun at Hoss. "You ready to die now, big man?"
The stable door behind Phillips creaked open. Phillips whirled at the sound. He gave a small shriek of both surprise and fear as he saw the figure in the door.
Joe stood in the dim light of the doorway, gun raised. The afternoon sun was at his back, bathing him in an eerie light. His skin was ghostly pale. The light glistened off the sweat on Joeís face, giving him an unnatural look.
Phillips wasnít sure who or what the apparition was. He didnít care. He raised his gun, ready to shoot the ghostly figure.
Ben threw the sack in his hands at Phillips. It hit the gunman just as he was pulling the trigger, sending his bullet wide of the figure in front of him.
Joe wasnít sure he had the strength to fire his gun. But he felt his finger squeezing the trigger. It was almost as if someone were squeezing the trigger for him. The gun in Joeís hand fired, sending a bullet directly into Phillipsí heart. Phillips staggered for a step, then fell face forward to the stable floor.
"Joe!" shouted Ben, rushing forward. Hoss dropped the box in his hands and also hurried to the front of the stable.
Joe looked at the two men in front of him with uncomprehending eyes. The gun fell from his hand, landing on the floor with a loud thunk. Joe swayed and his eyes seemed to roll up in his head. Ben caught his son as Joe fell forward.
Ben sat tensely in the overstuffed chair in the doctors office. He was staring at the picture on the opposite wall, but he really didnít see the picture. His mind was full of worry about Joe.
Ben had known Joe was in bad shape when he carried him into Dr. Martinís office. If Ben hadnít realized it, though, the grim look on Paul Martinís face as the doctor examined Joe would have told Ben his son was in a critical condition.
Ben shifted uneasily in the chair. Doctor Martin had sent Ben out of the examining room when he was ready to start working on Joe. Ben had expected he would be sent to wait, but it didnít make the waiting any easier. And the waiting gave Ben time to fill his head with worry and doubt.
Ben wondered if he had done the right thing, racing the wagon to Virginia City with Joe in the back and Hoss following with the horses. Even though he and Hoss had filled the wagon with mattresses and bedding from the hotel, he knew the trip had been hard for Joe. Ben had made the decision that speed was more important than comfort on the trip to Virginia City. He had bounced hard on the drivers seat as the wagon traveled over the rough mountain road. He knew Joe had been bounced around in the back of the wagon also. He only hoped the layer of mattresses had made the trip bearable for his son.
Ben thought about the last thing he had done before racing the wagon out of Hawthorne.
While Hoss had dragged the three surviving gang members into the hardware store, Ben had settled Joe in the wagon. He had forced as much water as possible into Joe, and covered son with three blankets. Joe had seemed a bit more comfortable when Ben had finished is ministrations. Ben felt he could afford a few more minutes before starting for Virginia City. When Hoss had returned to the wagon, Ben had asked him to stay with Joe. Then he had walked down to the old store.
Ben had carried Andy Millerís body out of the store and over to the hotel. He knew he couldnít leave his old friend lying on that dirty floor. Ben had carried Andy to the room the old man had used as his bedroom, and placed the body on the bed. He had made sure Andy looked comfortable on the bed before he covered the body with a sheet. Ben thought about his last look at Andy. The old man had a peaceful expression on his face. Ben hoped that meant his friend had found in death the rewards he had sought but never seemed to find while he lived.
"Pa, any news?"
Ben looked up, startled at the words. He hadnít heard Hoss come into the doctorís office.
Hoss was standing just inside the door, with a tray in his hand. A coffee pot, two coffee cups, and several sandwiches wrapped in napkins were piled on the tray.
"Not yet," said Ben with a shake of his head. "Paul said it could be quite awhile."
Hoss nodded and crossed the room. He set the tray on a table next to Benís chair. "Why donít you try and eat something," suggested Hoss. "Mrs. Robinson made up some of those roast beef sandwiches just the way you like them."
"Iím not hungry," replied Ben.
"Pa, you havenít eaten anything all day," said Hoss. "Youíll make yourself sick if you donít eat."
"Have you eaten anything?" asked Ben with a raised eyebrow.
Hoss looked away. "No," he admitted. "I guess Iím not hungry either." Hoss turned back to Ben. "Heís going to be all right, Pa," said Hoss with more conviction than he felt. "You know Joe. Heís tougher than old nails. Heíll come through this all right."
Ben nodded but didnít answer.
Hoss settled down in the chair on the other side of the table. He tried to think of something to talk about other than Joe. It wasnít that he didnít care about his brother.
In fact, the opposite was true. Talking and thinking about how sick Joe had been when they left Hawthorne tore up Hoss inside. He had tried to distract himself, to ease the nagging pain and worry, by going for food. The trip to the café hadnít helped.
"Do you think those three fellows will still be in Hawthorne when Sheriff Coffee gets there tomorrow with the posse?" asked Hoss.
"They should be," replied Ben with a shrug. "You tied them up pretty good. Even if they get loose, thereís only one door out of the hardware store, and you blocked that."
"Well, at least we know one of them will still be there," said Hoss grimly. Ben answered with a distracted nod.
"Roy said heíd find a nice place to bury Andy," said Hoss. "Someplace pretty on the edge of town. Heíll let us know where."
"Good," said Ben. "Itís only right that Andy stay in Hawthorne. Thatís all he ever wanted, you know. To stay in Hawthorne. Even if he had cashed in that big strike, I doubt if he would have left. Hawthorne was his home."
"That rumble we heard when we left town, do you think that was another earthquake?" asked Hoss.
"Probably," answered Ben. "It sounded like it came from farther away, though. It wasnít in town. Maybe up in the mountains."
Hoss nodded and tried to think of something else to say. His mind was blank, though, filled with nothing other than thoughts of his brother. Hoss stared at his hands in his lap and said nothing.
Ben and Hoss sat silently, side by side, for another thirty minutes. They both jumped to their feet when the examining room door opened, and Doctor Martin walked out.
"Heís not out of the woods yet, but heís got a good chance," said the doctor, answering the unasked question on Ben and Hossí face. "Iíve removed the bullet and as much of the infected tissue as I could find. Luckily, the bullet missed the artery and only grazed the bone."
"When will we know?" asked Ben.
"Soon as his fever breaks," replied the doctor. "My guess is that will take another day or so. Heís a pretty sick boy." Doctor Martin saw the stricken look on Benís and Hossí face. "But Joe is young and strong," he added quickly. "If I were a betting man, Iíd bet on him coming out of this just fine."
Ben let out a sigh of relief. Hossí shoulders relaxed.
"Itís a good thing you got Joe here when you did," added Doctor Martin. "Another few hours and that infection would have been much, much worse. Iím not sure I would have been able to save his legÖor his life. You did the right thing bringing him in as quickly as you did."
Ben nodded his thanks. It helped a little to know his decision to race over the mountain road from Hawthorne had been the right one. He only regretted he hadnít been able to get Joe to the doctor sooner.
"Why donít you two go over to the hotel and get some rest," said Doctor Martin, knowing full well his suggestion would be ignored.
"Weíll sit with Joe," answered Ben, surprising no one.
It took less than a day for Joeís fever to break, and only three days of being in bed before Joe started complaining about being bored. Doctor Martin had commented with heavy sarcasm that Joe had beaten his previous record by at least a day.
The afternoon sunlight was streaming into the bedroom when Ben entered to sit with Joe for awhile. He wasnít surprised to see Joe sitting up in bed, his leg propped up on pillows under the blankets. Ben was surprised, however, to see the pensive frown on his sonís face.
"The doctor said we can take you home tomorrow," Ben announced as he settled himself in the chair next to Joeís bed.
"Good," answered Joe in a distracted voice.
Ben looked at his son. "Joe, is something wrong?" he asked.
Joe shook his head slowly. "No," he answered. "Not really. Itís just that Roy Coffee came by a little while ago to get my statement."
"He told me he was coming by," said Ben, surprised that the sheriffís visit would have upset Joe. "Roy already got a statement from Hoss and me." Ben studied Joe. "Heís sure those three will spend the rest of their lives in prison, at the very least, if thatís whatís worrying you," said Ben.
"Itís not that," said Joe. "Itís just that, well, giving Roy my statement got me thinking about what happened in Hawthorne. Itís got me wondering."
"Wondering?" said Ben "About what?"
"Well, after I gave Roy my statement, he told me some of the things you and Hoss told him," answered Joe. He gave Ben a small smile. "He told me some of the things that I must have slept through." Joe looked at Ben with a confused expression. "Pa, what do you think really happened in Hawthorne?"
"What do you mean?" asked Ben.
"Well, you have to admit some strange things happened," answered Joe. "For example, that wind that came up just as Phillips was coming into the saloon. If it hadnít delayed him for a minute, he would have found me before I could get down that trapdoor. And the wind made the store door bang and that attracted your attention. Then there were the earthquakes and the horses spooking. And that voice I heard. How did I know to go to the stable? And how did I even get there?"
"What are you getting at Joe?" Ben asked.
"Iím not sure I know myself," admitted Joe. "Itís just that I keep thinking about how Andy said he always watched over us, and even when he was dying, Andy said he would protect me." Joe looked at his father. "Do you think old Andy had something to do with all that?"
Ben looked thoughtful. "Iím not sure thereís an answer to that one," said Ben. "Thereís a logical explanation for everything that happened. The wind in those mountains have always been kind of funny, blowing up suddenly. And earth tremors arenít that unusual there, also. As far as the voice, well, Joe, you were delirious. With a fever as high as you had, you could have imagined almost anything. Hoss and I kept telling you that we were going to the stable. That might have stuck with you. Fever does funny things to people. Sometimes a man with a fever will do things without understanding he shouldnít be doing them. Iíve seen men with high fevers wander around for miles, even when no one thought they had the strength to walk.
Joe looked at his father with a skeptical expression. "I guess so," he said, his voice sounding doubtful.
"The point is," continued Ben. "you can believe whatever you want. Thereís no way to prove anything. You can accept that everything that happened had a logical explanation.
Or you can believe that Andy somehow kept his promise to protect you. Itís up to you."
Joe looked thoughtful. "You know, I never realized until he died how much Andy was a part of my life," said Joe. "I canít remember a time when he wasnít around. And all the stuff he did for us, like keeping the town in good shape so we could play in it as kids. I guess I just took it all for granted."
"Thatís human nature, Joe," said Ben. "Most of the time, none of us appreciate the people around us like we should. We only realize what they meant to us when they are gone. Itís too bad that we donít realize it when they are around, and tell them how much we think of them while we have the chance."
"I guess youíre right," said Joe. He looked at Ben. "By the way, whatís going to happen to Andyís big strike? Whoís going to get the silver?"
"I doubt if anyone will ever get that silver," answered Ben.
Joe looked at his father with a puzzled expression. "Why?" he asked.
"Hoss told Roy Coffee where Andyís mine was," explained Ben. "Roy checked it when he went to Hawthorne to pick up those three men. That last earthquake we heard must have been in the mine. It caved in. Roy said it looked like the whole mountain collapsed into the mine. Thereís probably a million tons of rock between the entrance and that vein Andy found. I donít think anyone is ever going to be able to get that silver."
"Andy swore no one would get his mine," said Joe softly. He shook his head. "Pa, I donít believe in ghosts, but it sure is tough to think that everything that happened was just a coincidence."
"Look at it this way, Joe," said Ben. "Itís kind of nice to think that Andy is still watching over us, isnít it? Whether itís true or not, thatís a comforting thought."
"Yeah, yeah, I guess it is," said Joe with a smile.
Ben stood up. "You get some rest," he said. "Doc Martin wants you out of here tomorrow. He told me all your complaining is starting to scare away his patients."
Joe grinned and slid down on the bed a bit. Ben watched as Joe made himself comfortable, then he pulled the blankets up over Joeís shoulders, just as he had thousands of times when Joe was a little boy. Ben knew he did that more for himself than for Joeís comfort. It made him feel better to offer his son this small gesture of protection. He tried not to think about how all his efforts to protect his son in Hawthorne had almost failed. Ben turned to walk out of the room.
"Pa?" Joe called from the bed.
Ben turned. "Yes?" he said.
"Are you going over to Hawthorne to visit Andyís grave?" asked Joe.
Ben nodded. "Yes, I thought I would," he said. "I want to make sure itís fixed up nice, and maybe say a few prayers." Ben didnít add what he thought privately. He needed to say thank you, also.
"Would you mind if I went with you?" asked Joe.
"No," said Ben. "I wouldnít mind. I think Andy would have liked the thought of you visiting his grave."
Joe gave Ben a small smile. "You know how I complained about going to Hawthorne?" said Joe. "I donít think Iím going to mind going this time."
The wind howled through
the deserted town of Hawthorne. As Ben Cartwright had said, the wind in
those mountains was an odd one. As it blew through the ghost town, the
wind made an unusual noise. It almost sounded as if someone was sighing
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