Synopsis: Heroes are found often where you least expect them.
Word Count: 16,042
I have always been amazed by Joe’s propensity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a youngster, you could tell him to stay outside the corral, then you’d turn around and he would’ve climbed under the fence and was on his way to crowd the feet of a nervous horse. Tell him to stay in the buggy to keep his church clothes clean and before you know it he’s found the only mud puddle in Virginia City and has managed to transfer the whole thing to the front of his shirt.
Now that he’s grown, he’s not only kept but honed that talent for always being where he shouldn’t, and like I said, his aptitude for it amazes me.
No. ‘Amaze’ is not the right word, exactly. The way he turns up everywhere except where he should be, or at least where we expect him to be—well, it exasperates, frustrates, infuriates me.
And today it horrifies me.
For the past three minutes—it seems a lot longer, but there’s a clock on the wall opposite me, and, believe me, I know exactly how long it’s been—I’ve been lying on my belly on the plank floor of the bank with my hands clasped behind my head. I’m wedged between Hoss and Pa, who are lying in the same uncomfortable position I am. A few feet away are Mr. Ludlow, the bank president, and Arlen and Jonah, two of the clerks. Beyond Jonah is Mrs. Hayword; my heart goes out to her as she tries to choke back quiet sobs. The poor woman is terrified, but there’s nothing I or anyone else can do for her at the moment.
On Mrs. Hayword’s other side is Ralph Layton, pale and perspiring, his eyes squeezed shut. I make a mental note to myself not to rely on Ralph in case we have to do something drastic. Right now he looks like he’d shatter if somebody whispered ‘boo’ in his ear.
I hope he doesn’t do anything foolish. Not that I don’t understand Ralph’s fear. He has good reason to be afraid. They are amateurs, these men robbing the bank, obviously nervous, looking as if they want to bolt and run as much as we do. It has been my experience that placing a gun in the hands of a nervous man can sometimes be more dangerous than giving one to a flat-out mean one.
Very carefully, I raise my eyes to watch the men holding us at gunpoint. There are five of them—three out here watching us and two behind the counter. The two behind the counter are hastily dumping money into gunny sacks. All of them are shouting at each other, and the way their fingers are twitching against the triggers of their guns unnerves me. They have our guns, and we are at their mercy.
Yes, I understand Ralph Layton’s fear. I’m afraid, too. But I push my fear down and hold it there so that I can think clearly. We’ve got to be careful. You never know what direction a nervous man might leap.
We’re in a sticky situation, all right, but if we all do as we’re told, we might end up living through this. If we all lay still and quiet and keep our heads, chances are these men will take the money and run, and we’ll be left with the chance to get up off the floor and walk away. Later we can work on capturing the robbers and putting them behind bars where they belong, but for now, we need to work on staying alive.
Some might not think lying still is the most heroic action to take, but there’s a time for heroics, and there’s a time for common sense. Right now, heroics would be a pretty sure way for all of us to end up dead. So we lie still on the floor, all of us, praying that they’ll just take the money and go.
The gunmen have drawn the blinds, but one of the windows still has a narrow slit between the blind and the window sill, and the bright afternoon sun manages to find its way through it. A shaft of sunlight streams across the floor in front of my face, and dust motes swim in a nonchalant dance, indifferent to the human concerns around them.
My eyes drift again to the gunmen. I know better than to antagonize these men. And yet, when I realize that one of them is staring back at me, I can’t bring myself to drop my gaze. I look him solidly in the eye, even though I have to crane my neck back to do it. I know I’m inviting trouble, but I can’t help wanting him to know that he’s not going to get away with what he’s doing.
That’s when I hear Joe’s laughing voice out on the sidewalk outside the bank, and everything shifts.
Dear God, he’s coming in. He doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on here inside the bank, and he’s coming in. I hear Hoss groan a soft oath into my right ear. With horrified fascination, I stare at the door along with everyone else. Joe has paused outside the door, and he’s shouting good-naturedly back and forth with someone across the street. Through the curtained glass I can see the silhouette of his head and torso as he gestures in loud and idle conversation even as he sidles closer to the door.
The gunmen’s jitteriness increases tenfold as they watch him. Their attention is swinging back and forth from us to the door, and so are their guns. They are hissing warnings at each other, concerned that their plan is falling to pieces now that someone is coming in from the street, and panic is starting to wash over their faces. For the first time in my life, I find myself wishing that Joe had gone to pass his time in the saloon while he waited for us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Pa furtively unclasp his hands from behind his head. I, too, prepare to move, although I still have no idea what we can do to avoid the catastrophe looming our way. It is happening too quickly, and we are unprepared. We had no intention of having to face death on this fine day. Hoss and I hadn’t even intended to come in, but we had gone to Hubert’s Saddlery to drop off a saddle that needed repair, and when we passed by the bank, we saw that Pa was still inside. We decided to wait for him and went inside, tipping our hats at the small group of men waiting in the lobby.
“Mr. Ludlow will be with you in a few minutes, gentlemen,” Arlen was telling them. But as it turned out, they were no gentlemen, but criminals intent on robbing the bank. We were unsuspecting and unaware at the wrong moment, and these men took advantage of that.
And now they are in control of our very lives as we lie at their feet.
Outside, Joe chuckles at something, and I hear him call a name. Seth.
Keep him out there, Seth. For God’s sake, talk him into having a drink. Anything. Just don’t let him come in.
But although Joe keeps up his good-natured shouting across the street to his friend, he makes no move away from the bank door. Once more Pa shifts, and this time one of the gunmen notices. He instantly places the end of his gun barrel against Pa’s head. All my own thoughts of making a break for it freeze inside my skull.
“One more move and you’re a dead man,” hisses the man holding the gun, and my father stops moving.
“Lewis! Keep fillin’ them bags!” the man at the window orders, but he keeps his eyes on my brother’s sun-rimmed shape. I watch the man’s fingers tighten on his trigger as he aims his gun at the door.
“Just let him come in,” I say quickly. I am immediately ordered to shut my mouth, but I continue on, talking quickly. “He doesn’t know you’re here. Just let him come in, and he’ll lie down on the floor with the rest of us.” Dear God, I hope I know what I’m saying. Joe, reacting with caution rather than leaping into action—it’s a long shot. But he’s coming in, regardless of what anyone can do to stop it. All I can do is try to calm the nerves of these nervous gunmen so that they don’t shoot him out of sheer reflex.
“He won’t give you any trouble,” I insist, and I hope my own doubt does not show on my face.
They look quickly at each other, trying to decide what to do. Their nerves are keeping them balanced on the edge, and I can feel my breath shortening into shallow pants, for I know they can’t be counted on to hold their fire.
Joe calls something else out to whoever it is that he is talking to, and then he reaches for the doorknob. He’s still laughing, and I can see that his head is still turned out toward whoever he has been calling to. I look back at the gunmen; they are tensing, ready to shoot—too ready. I turn my head to stare at the turning doorknob as the whole world slows down into tiny, precise crystals of time, and then I swing my gaze back to Pa. His dark eyes meet mine. Gun aimed at his head or not, he is no more inclined than I am to lie still while my kid brother walks into a barrage of bullets. On my right, I feel Hoss’ big body go rigid, and I know he, too, is going to make a move.
Our choice of lying still and compliant has been taken away from us. Whether we move or not, whether we take action or not, something is about to happen, and it won’t be anything good.
Each fragment of time is magnified and spread out in the oddest way. I become aware of every movement in the room—every tiny flinch of the gunmen’s fingers on their triggers, every drop of sweat trickling down Mr. Ludlow’s face. On the wall across the room, the second hand on the clock moves with infinitely slow precision. At the same time, my sense of hearing seems to be peculiarly distorted. I can hear the robbers yelling at us to stay down, but it’s as if their voices are coming out of a deep tunnel, muted and indistinct. Yet I can hear the tick of the clock; it is inordinately loud, as is the click of the door latch as it opens.
The moment seems to stretch out forever as the door swings open, and Joe’s smiling profile comes clearly into view as the door opens. His face is still turned toward the street as he waves again. One lean leg stretches out into the room; he turns his face toward us and his smile slips into confusion as in a twinkling of time he tries to make sense of what he’s seeing. Beside me I hear Pa shout a warning at him. Then the room explodes as both Pa and Hoss lunge for the two gunmen nearest them.
I move, too. I’m on my feet faster than I thought possible, plowing into the third gunman. I hear the breath rush out of the man as my head thuds into the softness of his belly. He drops his gun; I grab it and ram a knee into his stomach, not waiting to see him fall before I whirl and bring the gun up.
The entire world is one of shouts and screams and gunshots. I have no time to think. My only option is to shoot, and that is what I do. I shoot as fast as I can, even though I know I’ll never be able to get off nearly as many shots as I’ll need.
Joe is staggering back against the door as it swings shut behind him, his eyes huge in his face, his hand whipping his gun from his holster. He screams my name, and I turn to my left just in time to see one of the gunmen raise his gun toward my face.
I’m too late. I know that. Even though I try anyway, I know I can’t get a shot off in time. I wait for the impact of the bullet, and I’m surprised when the gunman suddenly rocks back. Someone else’s gun has found him first. When I look back to my right, I know it was Joe’s. He is already shooting again.
Across the room, Hoss is pounding the daylights out of one of the men. I swing my gun in the direction of a robber who is drawing on Pa, and I pull the trigger. The man goes down. He’s still holding onto his gun, though, and he turns it toward me. I shoot again, but my balance is off, and my aim goes wide. Then something icy hot slices across my left side, and I fall back.
My head spins, and suddenly I’m on the floor again without even being sure how I got here. There are more shots. I raise my gun to fire, but somebody kicks me hard in the hand. The pain is intense; I know right away that my hand is broken, but as my gun goes spinning across the floor away from me I scramble and reach out for it anyway. It is quickly kicked out of my reach.
Another shot, close by me. I look up to see Joe spin and then slam back into the door as if somebody has picked him up and thrown him against it. He looks mildly surprised, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open. His gun slips out of his hand, and he slides slowly down to sit on the floor, leaving a streak of red to mark his trail down the door.
Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God. Everything—everything has gone wrong. I start crawling across the floor toward Joe, but somebody’s boot lands hard in my belly, flipping me over to land on my back. I try to draw in a breath and find I can’t. I can hear roars of outrage coming from Hoss, and then muffled, sickening thuds—and then nothing. Nothing from Pa, either. Are they still there? I want to look, I want to find my family, but I’m lying on my back and the ceiling of the bank is heaving over me like an undulating sea.
I fight against the pain in my hand and belly and side, and I roll over to lie with my cheek pressed against the floor, and I try again to breathe, but it’s as if my lungs have forgotten how to function.
Is Pa gone? My brothers? I wonder whether I should wait for the world to stop spinning, or just hope that it will fade away.
I’m numb. All over, I’m numb. I’m pretty certain I’ve been shot, but I never even felt it. Is that possible? To be shot and not have any pain?
I’m not real straight on anything that just happened.
Up until the last few seconds, though, my memory is pretty clear. I had finished loading the wagon with supplies at the mercantile, so I went to the saddlery to catch up to my brothers. Mr. Hubert said they’d left already, so I knew they were probably at the bank waiting on Pa. Impatient, I headed that direction.
Normally I would’ve been happy as a bedbug to just sit in the saloon and have a couple of beers while they got their business done, but today was different. I’m taking Janie Williams to the dance in town tonight, and I promised her I’d pick her up at seven o’clock, so I’m anxious to get home and get all shined up. It’s taken me weeks to convince her pa to let her go, so I don’t want to mess things up by being late. Adam has been harping on me for years about my habit of being late. He says a lack of punctuality gives people the impression that you don’t care. At least as far as women are concerned, I instinctively know he’s right.
So because I don’t want to be late tonight, I started getting jumpy. I decided to try to hurry my family along.
My buddy Seth had hollered at me as I crossed the street, and we traded some friendly insults as I walked up to the bank. The last thing I yelled at him was that I’d see him at the dance.
I knew things weren’t right as soon as I opened the door to the bank and saw everyone on the floor, but there was no time for it to register on my brain. The shooting started as soon as I stepped inside; seemed like everywhere I turned, there was a gun. I saw someone point a gun at Adam’s head, and I thought I was going to choke on my own fear. I didn’t have time to choke on anything, though—I was too busy shooting the man to keep him from killing Adam.
Then I saw that there were more gunmen back behind the counter—I didn’t know how many. They were shooting, and I was shooting back, and then—and then the back of my skull met the door, and for a minute I thought I was going to black out from the force of it. But I didn’t. Instead, my legs went all rubbery and I just kind of sank to the floor. I wanted to stand back up but I couldn’t. My legs just wouldn’t work right.
I am fast with a gun. It’s something I enjoy working at in my spare time, even though Pa frowns on it. He doesn’t see any reason for a law-abiding man to work at being a fast draw. Says if I’m not careful it will get me into more trouble than it will ever get me out of. But I’ve always enjoyed the feel of the cool weight in my hand, the satisfaction of hitting a target dead-on center. I like practicing, shooting until I can do it faster and faster.
I guess I need more practice, though, because today I wasn’t near fast enough.
I look down now at the right side of my chest and I can see a hole in my jacket. It’s small, no bigger than what I could fit my finger through, but dark red blood is slowly soaking up through the green fabric, and I know it’s true: I’ve been shot, despite the fact that I feel no pain.
I feel so strange. There’s still shooting going on, but I can’t bring myself to care. I hear Hoss shouting, and he’s angry, but I’m not sure why. I want to tell him to simmer down, but I don’t have the energy. I can’t seem to find him, anyway. And then he stops yelling, so I stop looking for him. It’s hard to keep my eyes focused on anything. Then the shooting stops, and all of a sudden I just feel tired; all I can think about is how good it would feel to just close my eyes. I feel myself sagging forward.
But then Adam starts up. I can hear him even over all the racket that’s going on in that bank lobby. He’s yelling—at me, although I can’t imagine what I’ve done wrong, and he sounds so mad that he forces me to straighten up and open my eyes. I can sometimes get away with ignoring Hoss, but anytime I’ve ever tried it with Adam, I’ve only gotten myself into deeper trouble. So I raise my head to try to find him.
And there he is. He’s lying on the floor, and he’s got his arms wrapped around his middle, and there’s blood seeping between the fingers of his left hand. It scares me, all that blood; it looks so much worse than the small amount on the front of my jacket. I stare at it, wondering how bad he’s hurt, but he’s still yelling at me, so I force myself to focus on his face. He’s looking right at me, and he’s yelling my name, over and over.
He’s yelling, but I can’t seem to attach any meaning to his words. I concentrate less on watching him and more on listening to him.
“Look at me, Joe. Joe, look at me!”
I am looking at him—aren’t I? But, no, I guess I’m not, because I realize that my eyes have dropped again to around the vicinity of my legs, which are stretched out in front of me like I’m getting ready to take an afternoon siesta. With an effort, I raise my head until I can look my brother in the face. He looks scared, really scared, and that bothers me; Adam so seldom lets it show when he’s afraid. I wonder how bad off he is, and I start to ask him how bad he’s been hit.
Before I can say anything, one of the gunmen swings the butt of his rifle hard into Adam’s head. I suck in a choked, startled breath as the force of the blow sends Adam rolling over the floor away from me. He ends up with his back to me, and he doesn’t move again.
Anger surges up within me, and I try to get up to help my brother, but my body refuses to cooperate. I come nowhere near standing up. Instead, I end up toppling over. I’m lying on the floor, my back still up against the door, and the back of my shirt feels sticky and warm. I can still see Adam lying on the floor across the room, but he’s fading off into the distance, as if I’m moving away from him.
The last thought I have is that I’m going to be late picking Janie up after all.
My thoughts are in scattered disarray as I come to, but even so, I remember where I am. I continue to lie still, both to calm the hammer pounding in my head and to prevent the gunmen, if they’re still here, from noticing that I’m awake. I’ve got to take stock, to figure out what I can do to get my boys and myself out of this unholy mess.
The bank robbers are still here, all right; they’re arguing loudly amongst themselves about what to do next. I don’t know how long I’ve been out, but it can’t be long. The smell of gunsmoke is still strong in the air, and in the background I can hear poor Mrs. Hayword’s quiet sobs coming in little broken hitches. Arlen is whispering to her, trying to calm her. Heavy boots tread rapidly back and forth across the floorboards.
I do not hear my sons, and it is that which makes me abandon my intention of lying still. I raise my head and open my eyes, and the first thing I see is Hoss’ large bulk lying next to me, his chest moving steadily up and down, and I release a small breath of relief. I can’t help wincing, though, when I see his face. He has been brutally beaten, and the marks on his face indicate pistol stocks, not fists. But he is alive.
Anger rises up strong and bitter within me as I look at him, and then fear immediately takes its place as I remember the rest. I look for my oldest son, and I find him lying just behind Mr. Ludlow’s desk. At first I am afraid he is not alive; the blood in my veins ices over, and it is hard for me to draw in a breath. Adam is lying on his left side, his pale face toward me; he is curled into himself, and his right side is drenched in blood. Then he moves, just the tiniest bit, and lets out a soft moan, and suddenly I am once more among the living myself.
My oldest son is alive, but he is in trouble. The front of his shirt and both his hands are covered in blood.
“Adam.” My boy’s name rushes past my lips of its own volition, and my initial instinct to lie quietly disappears as I struggle to sit up. One of the gunmen immediately screams at me to stay down, and he points his gun in my direction, but his threats are lost on me. When a father sees his son lying helpless and bleeding, the fear for that son consumes him; there is no room for anything else. So I glare at the gunmen and shake my head.
“I’m going to see to my son.”
“The hell you are. You’re going to stay put like I told you, or I’m going to put a hole right through you.”
I shrug my shoulders. “Then do it if you think you have to.” I am not bluffing; I will let him shoot me before I will lie still and watch my child bleed to death. For an instant the man’s face hardens, and I think he is going to pull the trigger. But there must be something in my eyes that causes him to change his mind, because he suddenly snorts in disgust and spits at the floor.
“Go ahead, then. But if you try anything, I’ll cut you in half.”
I ignore the pounding in my head and scramble across the floor to Adam before the man can change his mind, although his attention has already been diverted from me by one of the other gunmen.
“Bartell, people are running down the street toward the bank. All that shootin’…we gotta get outta here!”
The man who had just threatened to shoot me grits his teeth. “Don’t you think I know that? Just stay at the window and shut up.” He looks toward the back of the bank. “Lewis, how’s J.D. doing?”
“He ain’t good. Bleedin’ like a stuck pig. I’m tryin’ to get it stopped.”
Good, I think. At least one of them is down. My thoughts are racing as I fumble with Adam’s shirt, pulling it up to see the damage. The amount of blood sends my heart into the pit of my stomach, but as I wipe at it with my neckerchief, I see that the wound itself appears to be a shallow one. There is a bloody crease across Adam’s side, a furrow a quarter-inch deep that the bullet plowed out as it whipped by him. I shudder, thinking how close my boy came. Still, the bleeding is bad, and he’s not out of the woods yet. None of us are.
“Henry’s gone. The kid got him.”
The kid. Flashes of what happened pass through my mind. I press against the wound in Adam’s side, and I look around for Joe, but I can’t find him. The last time I saw him, he was shooting from the doorway, but my line of vision to the door is blocked by the desk. Did he make it out of the bank? I pray that he did even as I crane my neck, trying to see, but a small noise from Adam gains my attention.
“Pa?” Adam’s voice is hoarse and uncharacteristically squeaky, but I’ve never heard it sound more beautiful. I look into his eyes as they flutter open, and I try to sound unafraid when I speak. One of the first things we learn as parents is that our children’s feelings feed off of our own. Even though my sons are now men, I know that, in times of crisis, they still look to me for reassurance, whether they see fit to admit to it or not. I try hard now to give Adam that reassurance.
“I’m here, son. You’re all right. Just lie still.”
He sounds almost apologetic, and I give him what I hope is a reassuring smile.
“Yes, but we’re going to take care of that.” I look back at Hoss, and I know I need to check on him more closely now that I now Adam is alive. I am torn between my sons, and I know the first thing I must do is to determine which one is in the most immediate danger. I lean down to Adam. “Can you hold my neckerchief against your side for just a moment? I need to see to Hoss.” I take his hand to guide it to the neckerchief, but he flinches hard and sucks in a breath.
“It’s broken,” he gasps, and I see immediately what he’s talking about. His hand is already turning blue and purple, and he pulls it in close to his side as if to protect it. He maneuvers his left hand up to hold the cloth against his wound. “Go to Hoss,” he whispers. “I’m all right. I’m a little winded, but I’m okay.”
‘A little winded’ is a ridiculous understatement, but I have no choice, and Adam knows that. Whether or not my oldest is truly all right, and I don’t think he is, I have other sons who need my help. I nod, and leave him to crawl back to Hoss, who, to my relief, is starting to groan and move around. Gently, I stroke his battered face, and my anger surges back as I look at him. My middle son does not go down easily, and his very strength sometimes works against him by inviting more violent assault than a normal-sized man would draw. He has certainly taken more punishment today than most men could endure.
But he is coming to. The relief of that added to the fact that my oldest is alive means that my blessings, few as they are on a day gone so wrong, have just doubled.
Hoss blinks, and I can see the pain in his expression. “Take it easy, son,” I tell him. “Everything’s all right.”
Clarity comes into his blue eyes along with fear, and he begins to struggle to sit up despite my efforts to keep him from doing so.
“Adam and Joe…“
“Adam’s here. He’s hurt, but I think he’s going to be all right, for now anyway. I still have to find Joe…“
“Joe’s shot, Pa. They shot him.”
The pain in Hoss’ voice has nothing to do with the beating he’s received, and my insides go cold. I was hit on the back of the head and saw nothing of what happened to Joe, but the look on Hoss’ face terrifies me.
I don’t wait for him to say more. Instead, I immediately I get to my feet to find my youngest son.
It is Hank again, standing in front of me, waving his gun in my face. I glare back at him.
Hank throws Adam a quick glance. “You saw to him already,” he says curtly. He nods toward Hoss. “And that one, too. So sit down and shut up.”
“No,” I say, frustrated that I’m having to explain myself, “my third son. He came in later…after you had us lie down on the floor.”
Hank looks surprised. “You mean the kid that waltzed in here and messed everything up?” He laughs, but it is a sound without mirth. “Mister, your boys sure have a way of bringin’ trouble down on their heads.” He shakes his head. “Go ahead, but make it quick. Looks to me like you’re wastin’ your time on him, though.”
He steps to the side and indicates the door, and my knees almost buckle. A streak of red has been smeared down the length of the door, an abhorrent guidepost to where my youngest son lies unmoving on the floor. I’m not even aware of moving, but suddenly I am on my knees in front of him, running my fingers over his white face.
“Joe,” I whisper, but I already know he can’t hear me. Over the humming in my ears, I can’t even hear myself. I slide my hand down his neck and the faint beat of his pulse throbs almost imperceptibly against my cold fingertips. I choke back a groan of relief and turn my attention to the small, bloody hole high up on the right side of his chest. I pull his jacket and shirt apart to see the damage, ripping at the fabric, and then I pause. The wound is deceptively innocent looking, but I look again at the blood streaked across the door and I know that I haven’t seen the worst of it. Sure enough, as I roll Joseph’s body toward mine, I can better see the destruction the bullet has wrought. The exit wound is slightly below and just to the right of his shoulder blade. Blood is still flowing freely from it, and the hole is three times bigger than the one in his chest.
I rip the sleeve from my own shirt and wad it up against the wound, but the fabric is quickly soaked. I close my eyes in dismay, but then I become aware of Hoss arguing loudly with Hank, and I look over my shoulder. Hoss is standing and he’s trying to convince the gunman to allow him to help me with Joe, but Hank is having none of it. He looks like he is ready to end the argument by shooting Hoss point-blank, and I quickly call Hoss down.
“Joe’s alive, Hoss,” I tell him. “Just do what they say, son.” I see that Adam has gotten himself into a sitting position, and I nod warningly at him. “You, too, Adam. Just sit tight.”
My voice sounds so confident and sure. It surprises me. I have never been less sure in my life. I sit here, holding my youngest child’s head in my lap, and I wonder how long he can last. I wonder if any of us will last. But I will fight with my last breath to try to save my sons, and for the moment, that means keeping my oldest two calm.
I look over and for the first time, I see Jonah, the bank clerk, lying on the floor. His eyes are open and vacant, and I know that he is dead. I wonder how his young wife will be able to bear the news. It won’t matter to her that he died bravely, trying to overpower these men who have come into our town, our bank, to take by force money that our friends and neighbors have sweated blood for years to accumulate. All that will matter to her is that Jonah will be dead and cold in his grave, his young life extinguished in seconds by men who decided it was easier to simply take than to work.
I look down at Joseph’s head cradled in my lap and I know that it is very possible that I, too, will be grieving before the day is done. I press harder against the wound in Joe’s back and I begin to pray in earnest.
I’m scared. Real scared. To see the look on Joe’s face when that bullet caught him…well, I don’t have words for the way he looked. It was as if in that tiny little bit of time, he was already gone. Just that quick. The time it takes for a bullet to travel a few feet is more than enough time for a brother to leave for good.
Pa’s sittin’ on the floor over by the door holdin’ him, and I can’t see much around Pa’s back—just the curls on Joe’s head layin’ against the crook of Pa’s right arm, and Joe’s legs stretched out on the other side of him. Seeing Joe’s legs makes me even more scared, because they’re still. Joe’s legs are never still. Whenever he’s been in bed sick, or even when he’s asleep, lots of times his legs will keep shiftin’ around like they know he’s got other places he wants to be.
But not now.
“Pa?” I call. Pa ain’t said anything for a long time, and I got to know.
I got to know.
Pa doesn’t answer. I glance at Adam, still over by Mr. Ludlow’s desk, and I see him look toward Pa and then shut his eyes, like he’s hurtin’ too bad to hold ‘em open. Adam’s hurtin’ all right; I know that. He’s sittin’ up now, although he probably shouldn’t be, and he’s still got his left hand clamped tight against his side, and it don’t look like the pressure is doin’ much to stop the bleedin’. But I don’t think it’s just the pain in his body that’s makin’ him shut his eyes. He saw what happened to Little Joe same as I did.
“Pa,” I call again. My voice hitches a little, and this time Pa slowly raises his head and looks back at me. He knows what I’m askin’ just by calling his name. But the grief written across his face steals my breath from my lungs, and for a moment I believe Joe is already gone. Then Pa manages to put a tiny, sickly sort of smile on his face and he shakes his head at me.
“He’s here. He’s fighting,” he says quietly, and even though the relief of it makes me weak, I am scared because he has nothing more encouraging to tell me. He turns his face from me to stare at Adam. “How are you doing, son?” he asks, and I know already what Adam will say.
“Fine as frog hair, Pa,” Adam says, and I have to admire the way Adam makes it sound true. If it weren’t for my brother’s pale skin and all that blood, I might even be inclined to believe that he really is fine.
“Shut up! If you three don’t quit your yammerin’, I’m gonna shoot the lot of ya right here.” The one they call Bartell is waving his gun at us, and I look up at him, wishin’ I could get a chance to wrap my hand around his throat. He’s the one that shot Little Joe, and I swear to myself that he ain’t gonna get away with it. He motions to the others to watch us, and then he goes to look out the window again. He stands there and I watch him for a long time, wondering if I will ever get a chance to make him pay for what he’s done.
A tiny sound from Adam makes me forget about Bartell for the moment. I look at my brother, and I know I can’t keep sittin’ here. Adam isn’t doin’ good. He looks sick, and his body is wavering back and forth like grass fluttering in the breeze.
I don’t care what Bartell does. I ain’t gonna sit and watch it all just happen. I don’t know what I can do for either of my brothers, but if we’re gonna die today, we ain’t gonna do it scattered across the room from each other.
I stand up and Hank yells at me to sit back down. I act like I can’t hear a word; I start walkin’ toward Adam, and Hank yells again and the other gunmen start yellin’, too. I hear the soft clicks of gun hammers being cocked, and I know there’s a good chance I might be beatin’ Joe and Adam to heaven, but that’s okay. I’m used to clearin’ the way.
I keep movin’.
I’m sick. I don’t know what’s brought it on; the pain, maybe. At any rate, my stomach is churning. My side stings like nobody’s business and my hand is throbbing and my head is spinning, and I know I need to lie down again, but I don’t want to. Pa’s got enough worry on his mind with Joe; he doesn’t need to know how awful I’m beginning to feel.
But Hoss knows. Like always, he knows, and he’s up and striding toward me, his chin jutted out in the way it does whenever he’s decided that enough is enough. The gunmen are snapping to attention and screaming at him, but he keeps coming anyway.
I stiffen; I’ve already noted where the four remaining gunmen are positioned, and I wonder if I have it in me to try to jump at least one of them before they gun my brother down. Something like divine intervention steps in though, because Bartell shouts at them to hold their fire.
“Let him go,” Bartell shouts. “We got bigger fish to fry than worryin’ about them. In fact, get ‘em all up against that wall together. Easier to watch ‘em that way, anyway.”
Hank spits a wad of tobacco at Hoss’ feet. “All right, big man, you heard him. Get your brother here out of the way and then get back over to that wall. The rest of you, get over there.”
While Mr. Ludlow and the others scurry to do what they’re told, Hoss speeds his pace and in seconds he’s beside me, hunkering down next to me.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” I tell him in a low voice, and I sound angry because I am angry. I’m angry because I can’t control what is happening, so I fall back on trying to control what happens to my brothers. It’s a ridiculous reaction, and I know it, but I snap at him anyway. “You know better than to mess around with men like this. They’d think nothing of killing you, especially not at this point.”
But Hoss doesn’t seem to notice that I’m upset with him. He smiles, but the worry in his blue eyes waters the smile down. “Yeah, well, I was getting’ a mite lonely sittin’ over there all by myself. Can you walk?” He lays a big hand gently against my back.
I know Hoss is perfectly capable of carrying me, and I’m feeling bad enough to let him. But then I notice Pa staring hard over his shoulder at me, and I know I’ve got to keep up appearances for his sake. The eldest child in a family carries certain responsibilities that his siblings will never know, and keeping up a facade of strength during times of stress is one of them.
“Yeah, I can walk,” I tell Hoss, and I let him help me to my feet. The floor pitches and I would drop flat on my face, but my brother has a tight hold on me, and I do little more than hang onto his shirt as I stumble across the room. Before I know it, I’m leaning against the wall next to Mr. Ludlow, and then he and Hoss ease me down until I’m sitting on the floor.
“I’ll be right back,” Hoss murmurs, and then he turns and heads toward Pa and Joe.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin’? Just stop right there and get back against the wall,” Bartell growls from the window, and raises his gun.
Hoss stops, but he makes no move to come back. “I’m goin’ to move my brother out of the way of the door,” he says, nodding toward Pa and Joe. Moving Joe probably won’t help him any, but I know why Hoss wants to do it; he wants us all together, where we can protect one another, at least to some extent. The look on Bartell’s face tells me that he’s not going to allow it, but Hoss comes up with the one reason he should.
“There’s two ways outta here—the front door and the back. You’re gonna have to go through one of ‘em, and right now my brother’s body is blocking the front. Seems to me you’d better make sure the coast is clear if you get the chance.” He speaks matter-of-factly, and I am amazed at how calm and collected my brother has remained through all of this.
It is a laughably simple argument and yet a logical one, and Bartell gives a short nod. “Fine. Get him outta the way then. But after that, you pin yourself against the wall and you stay there, you got that?”
Hoss nods brusquely and hurries over to Pa. He bends and picks Joe up as if he weighs nothing at all, and Pa quickly rises to help even though Hoss doesn’t need any. The disparity in my brothers’ appearance has been noted all their lives, but it has never struck me harder than it does at this particular moment. Still and quiet in Hoss’ big arms, Joe looks small and fragile, almost childlike. Hoss’ face has taken on a hard brittleness, as if it wants to crack, and I notice that he refuses to look down at Joe while he crosses the floor back over to us.
I look back at the door as they move away from it, and my stomach rolls again, and this time it’s not just because I’m hurting. I grit my teeth to beat back the nausea. Joe’s blood is already drying on the white-painted wood, an uneven, dark streak snaking down the length of the door, an obscene testament to the violence of a warm summer’s day shattered by a group of men we don’t even know. A small puddle of blood has collected where Joe lay in Pa’s arms; even now it is being tracked across the wooden plank floor by the gunmen as they move from one window to the next. There is something about the sight of my brother’s blood on the bottom of their boots that enrages me so fiercely that I find I can hardly breathe because of it.
I watch as Pa and Hoss lower Joe to the floor in front of me.
“Leave his jacket on, Hoss. He’s shivering.” Pa takes off his own coat and stuffs it under Joe’s head as a pillow. Joe never moves; worse, he doesn’t make a sound. That shakes me more than I’d ever admit, because Joe isn’t one to keep quiet when he’s hurt. When he’s really in pain, he lets out little whimpers and grunts and groans, kind of like a wounded pup.
Not now, though. He lies stretched out on the floor, absolutely still and silent except for that slight, periodic shivering, while Hoss and Pa press bandanas and their bare hands hard against his back, desperately trying to stop the bleeding. Viciously, Hoss rips one of his shirt sleeves off to use in an attempt to stop the blood. He looks up at me and starts to shake his head, but then remembers Pa and catches himself.
No, don’t shake your head, Hoss. Not like that, not with that desperation in your eyes. You look like a drowning man reaching for a hand that’s not there. Only it’s not you that’s drowning; it’s Joe, and we’re all reaching for him, and I don’t know if any of us will be able to save him.
I shudder, and then the sound of tearing cloth draws my attention. Mrs. Hayword is ripping the bottom ruffle from one of her petticoats. She thrusts it at Hoss.
“Here,” she says, “use this as a bandage.”
Hoss nods a quick thanks and reaches beneath Joe’s jacket to press the cloth against his back while Pa holds the boy up on his side. After a few minutes Hoss withdraws the scrap of petticoat again; the pristine white cloth has been soaked through with red, startling in its brilliance, like a hunter’s kill in a field of snow.
I know my own dismay is reflected in the eyes of my father and brother. So much blood. I hear cloth ripping again. Mrs. Hayword tears strip after strip from the creamy froth peeking from beneath her skirts. Hoss keeps taking them, keeps pressing hard against Joe’s back while the rest of us watch. I see my kid brother’s life leaving bit by bit; it gleams on those immaculate petticoat ruffles, as brilliant and dazzling as his short life has been, and in my mind I’m going over everything that happened, wondering what I could’ve done to change things. The day’s events play out again and again in my imagination. I could’ve jumped faster, shot faster, done something…anything.
“Bleedin’s slowed down,” Hoss finally mumbles, and I look up, slightly startled by his words. I realize now that I had not expected to hear them. Pa sighs a heavy breath of relief and nods, and I wonder if it’s true or if they are only trying to convince one another, and perhaps me. But they wrap a strip of petticoat around his torso and bind it tightly so that it holds the makeshift bandage in place, and sure enough, only a small amount of blood insists on seeping through. Pa pulls Joe’s shirt and jacket back into place, and they settle him as comfortably as possible on the floor with his head pillowed on Pa’s coat. Pa’s hand lies gently against his cheek and lingers there for a moment before he scoots back a couple of feet to settle against the wall between me and Mrs. Hayword. I realize, as my father does, that they’ve done what they can for my brother, at least for the moment. Hoss sits against the wall on my other side, and I notice that they are more or less propping me up between them.
And here we sit, helpless, while my kid brother in all likelihood lies dying at our feet. All of our eyes are on him, like we’re afraid he’ll leave if we look away.
I must’ve made some sound, because Pa and Hoss both look sharply at me.
“How are you feeling, Adam?” Pa’s slightly unsteady voice is soft and concerned, and I want to lift some of the worry from his shoulders, but suddenly the effort to put on a front is way too much effort.
“Like hell,” I answer honestly, and for once the lapse into mild profanity doesn’t even cause my father’s brow to rise. He simply pats me on the leg and shifts so that more of my weight is leaning on him.
“Everything is going to be all right,” he promises, just as I’ve heard him promise a thousand times throughout my life. Usually he’s been right, too—but not always. I know it’s nothing good to dwell on, but thoughts of times he’s been wrong crowd into my head. When Hoss’ mother was struck by that arrow, Pa told me everything would be all right—and it wasn’t. The same thing happened in those first moments after Marie fell from her horse—only by then I was old enough to realize that Pa’s words were meant to keep himself from collapse as much as they were to comfort his sons.
And now I look at Joe, and I know as well as Pa does that if we don’t get him into a doctor’s care very soon, he is going to die. Pa can make all the promises he wants, and it’s not going to do a bit of good in the end.
I swear again, and Hoss and Pa look at me, and I can see the worry increase on their faces.
I am suddenly so angry—angry at the robbers, angry at Joe for not waiting for us at the mercantile like he said he would, or at least at the saloon the way we would normally expect him to do, angry that Seth didn’t keep him talking for five more minutes. Dear God, I find I’m even angry at little Janie Williams. Joe mentioned several times earlier today that he was anxious to get back home because of her, and I know that’s why he came to the bank. He wanted us to get a move on so that he wouldn’t be late for the dance.
“He was in a hurry to get out of town because he couldn’t wait to pick Janie up,” I say. “A dance. That’s what he’s dying for. A dance and a girl. I hope she’s worth it.” My voice drips with bitter resentment.
Hoss is surprised and irritated at my outburst. He looks at me as if he thinks I’ve lost my mind. “What are you talkin’ about? This ain’t nobody’s fault except those yahoos with the guns. It ain’t Joe’s fault, and it sure ain’t got nothin’ to do with little Janie.”
I rub my good hand hard over my eyes and leave it there, my anger dissipating as quickly as it surfaced. Hoss is right, of course. I can’t imagine why such an irrational thought ever jumped into my mind, much less out of my mouth. Ridiculous. It’s the pain, I suppose. Has to be the pain. And the worry over Joe, of course. My emotions are running rampant over my good sense, and it occurs to me that my conduct is astonishingly like that of the brother who lies on the floor in front of me.
The thought draws a mirthless chuckle out of me. When I take my hand from over my eyes, Pa and Hoss are still watching me, and I can tell how concerned they are.
I look at Pa, and inexplicably, soft laughter continues to bubble out of my throat. To my dismay, I realize that tears are forming in my eyes, which again is behavior more like Joe’s than my own. I must be worse off than even I realize.
Pa reacts to my odd response by pulling my head gently into his shoulder, and I give a shuddering sigh and go quiet. I lean on Pa and I try to watch the gunmen, but mostly I watch Joe. I feel so very tired; I want to shut my eyes and sleep until this is all over, but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll wake up to find my kid brother gone.
My fear threatens to overwhelm me. Two sons badly wounded, and I have no idea how to get them the help they need. Outside, I hear Roy Coffee calling to the robbers to give themselves up. Bartell answers by shooting through the window at him.
It becomes more obvious every minute that action will have to take place, and it will have be initiated from within the bank; otherwise there is no telling how long we will be holed up here. I look at the terrified customers and bank officials sitting against the wall next to me, though, and I wonder if they are up to doing what must be done.
Against my side, I can feel Adam taking hard, heavy breaths. He is in worse shape than he has led me to believe. We need to take a better look at him. His dark head is still buried in my shoulder; I look over it at Hoss, and give my middle son a pointed nod. Hoss nods back, knowing what I need him to do. He leans away from Adam so that he can get at his side.
“Just gonna check your wound again, older brother,” he says quietly, and lifts Adam’s shirt. If Adam even notices, he gives no indication.
From where I sit on Adam’s right, I can’t see the wound, and I don’t want to disturb Adam my shifting my position, so I watch Hoss’ expression carefully. He leans down and studies Adam’s ribcage as he pushes his shirt up out of the way. His mouth tightens in a grim line, and I know the news is bad even before Hoss looks at me and gives his head a slight shake.
“Bleedin’ again,” he says softly.
“How bad?” I ask, and I’m thankful for now that Adam doesn’t appear to be listening.
“Bad,” he sighs, and holds up a palm wet with red blood.
I mentally kick myself for not noticing the seriousness of the wound earlier. Adam had assured me that he was alright, but still, I should have known. A father should always know, shouldn’t he?
“I thought it was just a crease,” I say to Hoss. “I thought the bullet passed through…“
Hoss nods as he squints at his brother’s side. “It did. I can’t figure out why he’s losing so much blood. Maybe it nicked a vein or somethin’…”
“Quit pokin’ at it, and stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Adam mutters. I would feel relieved that he has entered the conversation except for the fact that he doesn’t lift his head from my shoulder and his voice is slurred. His hand, now swollen and blue, lies limply in his lap, his left arm across it as if to protect it.
Mrs. Donovan, bless her heart, hears our subdued conversation and offers more pieces of petticoat. I shoot her a look of gratitude before I tend to my boy. Her tears have long since dried, and I make a mental note to tell her husband how bravely she behaved during all this. He’s bound to know by now what is going on—the entire town must know—and I can only imagine what he must be going through.
Hoss and I press against the wound, just as we did for Joseph a few minutes ago; I try to keep the panic out of my movements, but it’s hard. Adam’s blood, like that of his youngest brother, is flowing too freely, and I don’t like the ashen tone of his skin.
“Adam, let’s get you lying down,” I say, and I’m not surprised when he tries to refuse. I pay no attention, and we soon have him lying beside Joseph. The two of them suddenly look so young and helpless that a fleeting memory of them both as children passes through my mind. Terror of losing them surges through me, and I shake my head to clear it.
Adam’s prone position seems to help, and Hoss and I eventually get the bleeding slowed to a more manageable level. We use yet another strip of petticoat to fashion a sling to hold his injured hand close to his body. We are careful as we move the hand, and Adam doesn’t complain, but I see him wince, and I know how much he’s hurting, which makes me wince as well.
“It’s all right,” I tell him again, even though of course it isn’t. But what else does a father say when he has nothing else to give?
I look around in desperation. The four remaining gunmen are still agitated; although they’ve stopped paying as much attention to us, one of them, the injured one, stays hovering near and watching us warily, his gun barrel still pointed in our direction. Two of the others are at the windows, taking care to stay out of the sights of the guns now pointed at them from across the street. The fourth man is posted at the back door, dividing his attention between the alley and us.
This standoff could go on all night. We can’t wait. Adam, and Joe in particular, can’t wait. There has to be a way out for us, but I can’t see it. God help me, I can’t see it.
I think about all the years I’ve protected my sons, sheltered them, given them love and advice and tried to make sure they become the sort of men a father and a country can be proud of. I think of the times I’ve nursed them back from both injuries and grief, of the times we laughed together, and the times we cried together. I think about the agonizing loss of their mothers, and how I myself was brought back from the brink of despair by the love and needs of my small sons. I think about nights spent in front of a welcoming fireplace while the winter wind swirls around the house, my sons and I happy and secure in the arms of each others company.
Is it all to end like this, then? Late on a sunny afternoon, with me helplessly watching while two of my sons die on a dusty bank floor?
It ain’t right. I watch my brothers sufferin’, and it’s all I can think—it ain’t right, what these men have done today.
I don’t like to see nothin’ get hurt. Not animals, not people. But right now, with my brothers lyin’ in front of me, I know I won’t hesitate to hurt these men if I can get my hands on them. I stare at the one holdin’ the gun on us, and it’s like he knows what I’m thinkin’. His eyes narrow and he raises his gun up slightly to point it more in my direction.
I glance at Pa beside me, and I see his eyes dart from one gunman to the next; I know he’s tryin’ to think of some way out. If Joe and Adam weren’t hurt, we’d likely bide our time and wait for the right moment to make our move. These men can’t stay on their toes forever. Sooner or later, they’ll make a mistake.
Only we ain’t got that kinda time. My brothers need help, and they need it now.
Little Joe ain’t moved yet, and I wonder if he’ll ever move again. I swallow the sick feelin’ that rises up in my belly, and I push that thought out of my head, and I look at Adam. He’s shifted until he’s lying right up next to Joe, his left shoulder pressed up against Joe’s right. Adam’s eyes are closed, but I know he’s awake. He’s awake, and he’s listenin’, and he’s tryin’ to be ready the best he can if somethin’ happens.
Every so often, the robbers fire a shot out the window. They ain’t listenin’ to Roy, that’s for sure.
I lean closer to Pa and whisper, “Pa, we gotta do somethin’.” It’s a foolish thing to say; I know I’m not tellin’ him anything he doesn’t already know, and I ain’t got no ideas on how to get out of this mess. But Pa looks at me and gives a slight nod, and the flash in his dark eyes lets me know that whatever happens, the Cartwrights won’t go down with a whimper.
We’ll go down fightin’ with everything we got.
Shots fired. Not a volley of shots; just one or two every few minutes. I try to block them out, but I can’t.
I’m waking up, drifting up from a thick bank of fog, and I feel as though I’ve been asleep for a long, long time. My head feels as clogged with cotton as my mouth does, and it’s hard to think. I struggle to clear my head, and I remember the shooting, but not much else. My body is stiff and cold, as if I’ve spent the night laid out on a slab of rock, and I shift to ease the discomfort.
The movement causes new pain to burst through my right shoulder blade, and a groan slips out of my mouth before I can stop it. It’s pain like I’ve never felt before, white-hot and unbearable, and if staying awake means dealing with it, then I’m going back to sleep.
Adam’s voice, soft, questioning. Worried. I turn my head slightly toward the sound of it, but my eyes won’t open the way I want them to, and after the first try, I don’t care if they open or not. The pain in my back intensifies with such raging viciousness that I try again to climb back into the fog.
“Joe.” Adam’s still there, but I’m already turning away from him.
“Pa! He’s trying to wake up.”
No. No, I’m not. I’m not staying here, not like this. Dear God, the pain is threatening to eat me alive….
“Son? Joseph, listen to me. You need to wake up. Joe, come on, it’s important that you open your eyes and look at me.”
No, Pa. What’s important is that I escape whatever it is that’s chewing my back apart. I’ll just sleep for a little longer, Pa, and when I wake up again, it will be better….
Hoss… For pete’s sake, you don’t need to yell, brother. Can’t you see that I’m hurting, that I don’t feel well? I thought I wanted to wake up, but I don’t. It’s too hard…. I’m going back for more shut-eye, but I’ll be back….
“He ain’t breathin’…he ain’t breathin’!”
What the heck are you talking about, Hoss? ‘Course I’m breathing. I’m just needing some more sleep, that’s all. The pain is just so bad…so bad….
More shouting from Pa and my brothers, but I don’t try to make out what they’re saying. I’m drifting away from them, and the pain is better already. Soon it’s gone altogether, and their voices are a distant murmur. ‘Bye, Pa. I’ll see you later, brothers. I got places to go, trails to ride… I see Cochise standing and waiting for me, his head and tail up, his nostrils wide with the anticipation of a flat-out run through open grass. And on his back…on his back is a lovely woman with chestnut hair and green eyes. She’s smiling at me, and she’s holding out her hand as though to beckon me near. I smile back, and I start moving toward her.
I’ve always been a sucker for a pretty face. Just ask my pa and brothers, they’ll tell you. But this woman…I don’t know, there’s something about her…
Not now. Go away, brothers. I’ve got better places to be….
I’m jogging through a field of impossibly green grass toward Cochise and this beautiful woman, and all I can think of is how I want to be close to her… Something hovers just at the edge of my memory, something warm and comforting. I’m jogging now in my hurry to go to her, but she’s shaking her head. She’s smiling, but she’s shaking her head, and she’s turning Cochise and riding away….
No, don’t go! I’m running hard now, trying to catch her, but Cochise is loping through the grass, carrying her away. She looks back over her shoulder at me, and she’s saying something. I can’t hear her voice, and yet I know what words her lips are forming.
Go back, Joseph. Go back.
No. Don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.
I’m still running, stumbling in my hurry to follow, and I’m sobbing, begging her to wait for me, but she’s fading away….
I stumble and my chest hits the ground hard—so hard that it knocks the breath right out of me. My eyes flutter open with the shock of it. And just like that, I’m slammed back into the pain. And I find that it’s not the ground that’s hit me in the chest. It’s Hoss. He’s bent over me, face red, tears streaming down his cheeks…and he’s hitting me. Hitting me, right in the chest! Adam and Pa are trying to pull him off me, and they’ve got tears on their faces, too.
They astonish me, those tears. Something has happened, and I’ve missed it.
Pa and Adam are straining to pull Hoss off of me, although poor old Adam doesn’t look like he’d be able to flick a gnat off a horse’s hind end right now. They’re both telling Hoss to leave me alone, but Hoss isn’t paying them any mind. He’s too busy yelling at me.
“I ain’t gonna let you do this, Little Joe. Do you hear? I ain’t gonna let you!” And he raises up one of those big fists and cocks it back to get ready to whack me again, even though Pa is hanging onto his arm for dear life to keep him from doing it.
And all of a sudden, I get mad. What’s he thinking, this big galoot of a brother, pounding on me when I’m already hurt? I suck in a noisy, shuddering gasp of air and throw up my left arm to keep him from hammering that fist into me one more time—and he stops dead.
The look on his face would make me laugh if I thought I had enough gumption to do it, which I don’t. His mouth drops open, and I swear, if I could gather the energy to reach up and shove him, he’d fall over like a dead tree in a strong wind.
Pa and Adam look much the same. Then they begin to smile the most ridiculous looking smiles, like they want to laugh and cry at the same time. But not me; I don’t feel like smiling. A strange sadness washes over me. I suddenly feel as though I’ve lost something precious, like I’ve left something valuable beyond price back in that dream with the emerald-green grass.
The pain is pushing hard against me, and for just a moment, I consider running away again, back into that gauzy dream, back to the lady with the angel’s face. I can still find her, I know I can. I shut my eyes, ready to hurry back to that green, green field.
“Joseph? Look at me.”
It’s her! My eyes snap open.
But disappointment threatens to overwhelm me. It’s not the lady with the chestnut hair and green eyes. This woman’s eyes are brown and her hair is auburn, and after I blink a few times I realize that it is Mrs. Hayword. I remember getting a brief glimpse of her when the shooting started. She was lying on the floor, screaming….
She smiles at me. I’ve always liked Mrs. Hayword. I hate to disappoint her now, but I have to hurry…I have to go back. My eyelids flutter shut once more.
But Mrs. Hayword is insistent. She taps gloved fingers against my cheek, and I feel obligated to look at her again.
“Joseph, pay attention now. I spoke to Janie Williams this afternoon.”
“She told me all about how you’re taking her to the dance tonight. She’s very excited about it, Joseph. You don’t want to disappoint her, do you?”
No, I don’t. I like Janie very much, and I’ve been waiting for this night for weeks. But it’s obvious that I’m not going to be dancing anytime soon.
“No dancing tonight,” I whisper. “Janie’s not…gonna be happy.”
Mrs. Hayword smiles. “I’m sure she’ll be very understanding, Joseph, but you’re going to have to explain things to her. If a gentleman can’t keep a commitment, it’s up to him to tell a young lady why, isn’t it?”
She’s right. I have to stick around to talk to Janie again. In that instant, I know I can’t just walk away. It wouldn’t be right to leave like this, to leave Janie. To leave Pa and Hoss and Adam.
So I gather my strength and prepare to work through the pain. I know I can do it. My Pa and brothers are close by, and I know when my strength runs out I can lean on theirs.
And when I picture the lady with the chestnut hair again, she’s smiling and nodding and telling me I’ve done the right thing.
She’ll wait for me. She’ll wait as long as it takes.
Hoss is calling me seven kinds of a fool as he’s trying to get my wound to stop bleeding again. My hand is throbbing, and I turn my face away from Hoss so that he won’t see how much it hurts.
Joe is asleep again, but this time it is a natural sleep, disturbed though it is by the pain his injury is causing him. Pa is bent over him, holding his hand and murmuring softly to him. I hope the gunmen don’t order Pa to move back to the wall, because I know he won’t do it. Death itself wouldn’t pull him away…I shiver as the phrase slips through my mind.
“You didn’t have no business movin’ around like that,” Hoss grouches at me, but then he stops and just shakes his head. He knows why I had to move, and he knows, as I do, that it’s something we’ll never be likely be able to talk about.
Joe was gone. We all know it. We watched him take that last, soft, shuddering breath, and then—nothing. We watched his young face change in that vague but unquestionable way that happens when life is no longer present, and then…and then something happened that I simply do not understand.
When Joe stopped breathing, panic and heartache instantly dealt us all a hard, unforgiving blow. While Pa and I sat stunned, Hoss’ grief exploded into something wild and uncontrolled. When he doubled up a fist and started pounding Joe in the chest, we tried to stop him, but there is no stopping Hoss when his emotions overtake him. I myself have been on the receiving end of Hoss’ fists, but I’ve never seen him touch our kid brother like that. I know it was raw anguish that lead him to do it, but my heart broke anyway as it happened, and I know Pa’s did, too. We tried to stop him, we begged, we pleaded, but Hoss is too strong.
And then, the miracle.
I don’t understand it, but it happened, and I know it’s something that I will remember even after I’ve grown to be an old, old man.
Everything is going to be all right. I hear my father’s words again, and I wonder if they are simply a statement of belief in miracles. A faith in Providence stepping in and changing something as abominable as a man’s fist striking his dead brother into a thing of blessed reprieve….
I shiver again and allow Hoss to push me back down onto the floor as he presses new bandages against my side, and I watch Mrs. Hayword tear yet more strips of petticoat from beneath her dress to hand to him. Some women these days choose to go about with a bare minimum of petticoats; thank goodness Mrs. Hayword is a more fashionable type. More of Providence’s work there, I expect. I watch her, and I wonder how she knew just what to say in those few seconds while Joe had that peculiar expression on his face. Though Hoss had inexplicably brought him back, somehow I knew he was hovering between this life and the next, as though he couldn’t make up his mind about where to go.
But when Mrs. Hayword brought up Janie Williams’ name, I watched something shift in my brother’s eyes, and I knew in that moment that the fight was won.
I wonder if Mrs. Hayword’s husband knows what a treasure he has in her.
“You look awful.”
Surprised, I turn my head toward the soft voice. Joe’s eyes are open again, and although they’re glazed with pain they regard me steadily.
I conjure up a smile for him. “You look great,” I say, and my little joke is rewarded by a weak, almost silent version of that cascading chuckle for which my kid brother is famous. He cuts it off short because of the pain it causes, but the sound of it comforts me anyway. I look up at Pa, and the corner of his mouth twitches up at me.
We have much to be thankful for on this treacherous afternoon. We’re here, all of us alive, huddled on the floor and bizarrely insulated from the gunmen by nothing more than a brace of family solidarity and the robbers’ growing concern over their own immediate futures. They still have one man holding a gun on us, but even he is becoming overly preoccupied with what is transpiring outside the bank. He did little more than cast a few glances our way even while Hoss was pounding on Joe’s chest, and his own injury is beginning to wear on him. I watch him for a moment, wondering if this is the weak link that will give us our chance.
Hoss gives the binding around my torso a last tug. Then our attention is drawn by Bartell shooting out the window again.
“That’s what I think about your offer, Sheriff!” he shouts. “A fair trial,” he smirks at his partners. “He must think we’re really stupid.”
“Well, maybe we are,” Hank barks back. “This was supposed to be quick and easy. Get in, get out, that’s what you said. Now we’re stuck in here with a whole damn town waiting to gun us down if we step foot outside.”
Hank glances at us, and ice forms in the pit of my stomach.
“What about them?” he says.
Bartell shakes his head. “What about ‘em?”
Hank shrugs. “Hostages. They ain’t gonna shoot through their own to get to us.”
Bartell stares at us, and then slowly nods. “Yeah, maybe you’re right.”
One of the fears that has been twining through my mind since this all started now takes firm root. In my experience, hostages used as shields have a fairly poor survival rate, especially when nervous men are involved.
“One of these ones that are shot up, then,” J.D. calls to them, his eyes pinned on us. “Less likely to give trouble.”
Bartell grunts an agreement. “Yeah, alright, let’s do it. This ain’t gonna get no better.”
I gather myself, pushing Hoss’ hands away to sit back up again; if they have me or Joe in mind, it is not going to be Joe. The rough handling would be enough to finish him off. I’ll be the one.
But Mrs. Hayword is quicker than I am.
“I’ll go,” she says, and stands up.
Hoss stands, too, as if to shield her. “No. You don’t want no woman slowin’ you down. I’ll go. I won’t give you no trouble.”
Bartell bursts out laughing. “Oh, yeah, right, big man. I ain’t that stupid. No, I think I like the idea of bringin’ a woman along. More sympathy from the posse that way. And I think more than one hostage is an even better idea.”
“Then take me,” Mr. Ludlow says, and I look at him, surprised. He rises to his feet, shoulders back, chin out, and he has never looked like a larger man to me. My father immediately shakes his head, and moves to get up. I know he won’t hesitate to sacrifice himself.
I stare at Mr. Ludlow, still surprised. He’s been so quiet during this entire episode, staying low, trying not to draw attention to himself. It’s a funny thing, how bravery sometimes chooses unexpected moments to make an appearance. It is the most extravagantly generous offer that can be made, one’s own life for that of another, but it’s one I cannot possibly accept. I struggle to get to my feet, despite Pa’s sharp “Adam!” and Hoss’ big hands attempting to gently press me down again.
“All of you, sit down until I say to move!” Bartell roars. “None of you got any say in this, so shut your traps or I’ll shut ‘em permanent-like.”
We all ease back to the floor, but J.D. rolls his eyes and winces as he flexes his bullet-creased arm. “It don’t matter who we take. The woman, the little fella on the floor—it don’t matter. Let’s just do it and get the hell outta here.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Bartell mutters, and fires a last warning shot out the window.
The uncertainty of just who they will use is the last straw for me. If I knew it would be just me, I’d be inclined to try to just go with it, rather than risk more people getting hurt in the gunfire that will be sure to ensue if we try to resist. But that’s just it—there is no way of predicting who they will grab in the end, and I cannot in good conscience sit by while an older man or a woman or perhaps even my kid brother gets pulled into the line of fire while these men try to make a run for it.
I look at Pa, then at Hoss, and their eyes meet mine. They know it’s time. I look down at Joe, whose eyes have grown hard and clear, and he shows me with a nod that he knows, too. He shifts and I see his muscles tense. The kid is hurt so badly, and he’s scared, but he trusts his family to see him through this. I reach out with my good hand to pat him on the shoulder, and I quietly say what I’ve heard Pa say to all of us, over and over, throughout all the hardships in our lives.
“It’ll be all right.”
Such a simple phrase, possibly even meaningless, but Joe’s face shows gratitude for it nonetheless. Pa gives his hand a final squeeze, and then we prepare to move. Hoss nods in the direction of Mrs. Hayword and the others, and they, too, know what is about to happen. Mrs. Hayword raises her hand, and her fingers listlessly stroke the strand of pearls encircling her throat. I watch Mr. Ludlow and Arlen the bank clerk each take a deep breath and sit up straight.
On the other side of Arlen, Ralph Layton blanches, and slowly drops his face down onto his raised knees. I know now, as I knew in the beginning, that he will be no help, but I feel only pity for him. It must be a terrible thing to be so frozen with fear that you can do nothing but wait for death to come for you. It’s coming for us all now, and it may even catch us, but my father didn’t raise his sons to meekly stand and wait for the slaughter. We will rise to meet it, and we will fight it.
Pa is closest to J.D., the one who has been posting watch over us. He gives us one last look, and then he lunges for the man, hitting him in the knees. Bartell and Hank both turn, surprised, and run in our direction, raising their gun barrels as they move. I’m unaware of my own pain as I rush toward Hank. I see Hoss moving toward Bartell, and I can’t see how either one of us are going to make it before they gun us down.
For the second time on this long, long afternoon, time slows down, hanging like a trembling water droplet on the edge of a leaf just before it crashes to earth. Shouts, screams, shots firing, bullets whining, all at an impossibly lingering pace …I see so much, hear so much—and it is a cruel perception, for I also see how hopeless it is. Bartell is drawing a bead on Hoss even as Hoss tries to reach him; Pa is struggling with J.D., and my foolish little brother has managed to scrape himself off the floor and is grappling with Lewis at the back door. And me…the black mouth of Hank’s gun muzzle yawns before me; in another instant, it will devour me whole.
Did Hoss bring Joe back just to have us go before him? Is that how this will all end? So be it, then. Joe never liked being by himself much, and I don’t expect that he would feel any differently about traveling alone to heaven. We’ll go, if that’s how it has to be, and we’ll all go together.
But now I see a flash of buttery yellow skirts out of the corner of my eye. In this oddly slowed passage of time, they furl and ripple around Mrs. Hayword’s trim ankles like the waving of a flag, and I feel a deep regret. Oh, Mrs. Hayword, please get back. Stay down. But she doesn’t. She grabs at the pearls around her neck, and she jerks them loose.
They glimmer and flash in the light as they fly, those pearls, and I watch their journey even as I brace myself against the impact from the guns. Like bullets from angels, the pearls scatter and bounce across the dusty plank floor. It is all I see, because I suddenly slip and go down hard on the floor, the jolt to my broken hand sucking my breath away.
Around me, though, other men fall—Bartell, Hank. Hoss, too. The floor shudders with the weight of their bodies crashing against it. Guns clatter against the wooden planks and go skidding away. It’s ridiculous, really. I’d laugh outright if the situation wasn’t so serious.
Bartell staggers to his feet only to slip and go down again, and Hoss manages to get close enough to grab for his lower legs. The man goes down like a tree. In front of me, Hank is reaching out across the floor for his rifle. I kick out hard, and my boot catches him solidly in the elbow. He yelps and then reaches for the gun once again, but I’ve already got it, awkward though it is in my left hand. I am close enough to him, however, that I could likely hit him regardless of my aim, and he knows it. He backs up, his hands already rising in surrender.
I sit up slowly, panting hard. I’m not going to stand up. I don’t think I’ve got it in me to try. But it’s alright. It’s finished. Off to my right, Mr. Ludlow is helping my father finish off J.D., and at the back door Arlen has a gun digging into Lewis’s ribs. Joe lies slowly writhing on the floor a few feet in front of them, but he looks at me and tries to smile as Pa rushes over to him.
“Layton!” I bark. Ralph still sits against the wall, arms wrapped around his head as if to protect himself. At the sound of his name, he cautiously raises his head.
“Get the door,” I tell him, and I’m appalled at the tremor in my voice. The light in the room is slowly going dim, and I know I’m about to be pretty worthless. “Tell Sheriff Coffee it’s over,” I say. Ralph stares around the room, and then at me. “Go!” I shout, and he scrambles to do as I say.
I hear the sound of metal hitting wood, and I realize it’s the sound of the gun leaving my hand. Suddenly my cheek is resting against the floor, and then Pa is there. One solitary pearl glides past my face as Pa kneels to look into my eyes.
“Just hang on, son,” he says, and rests a quiet hand on the back of my neck. “Everything will be all right.”
And I know he tells the truth.
They’re all shaking our hands and calling us heroes. It’s been three weeks, and the word still makes me as dadburned uncomfortable as it ever did. I watch my brothers’ cheeks redden every time somebody brings it up, and I know it bothers them as much as it does me.
Naw, I don’t think we’re heroes. We only did what we had to do, and we didn’t do it for reasons that had anything to do with heroics or glory. It had to do with saving what’s most precious to us—each other. That’s it. That’s all.
I’m in a hurry. The package we’ve been waitin’ on finally arrived from San Francisco today. I’ve got the little box in my hand, all purtied up with a pink ribbon that Mrs. Schuster down at the mercantile tied on for me. I rush down the street to Doc Martin’s, and everybody looks up when I blow through the door.
“Did you get it?” Adam reaches out and snags the box before I can even answer. I frown at him. For somebody that was never any good using his left hand, he’s sure gotten a lot quicker with it while his right one’s been in a cast. He’s standin’ too close to Joe’s bed, though, and little brother ends up swipin’ it right out of his hand.
“Hey, watch it,” I caution. “You’ll mess up the purty bow on it. Mrs. Schuster worked right hard on wrappin’ it up nice.”
Joe pulls a face, but he holds the box more carefully. “Did you look at it before Mrs. Schuster wrapped it?”
“Yeah, I looked at it…”
Adam grabs the box again and holds it up over his head and squints at it as if he can see through the box. “Did the new ones match the original?”
“What? Yeah, they matched all right…“
“The color? The size?” Adam is lookin’ at me now, and I don’t much like the snappy questions he’s amin’ at me, ‘cause I’m not exactly sure how to answer ‘em.
“Well…yeah, they matched. I think.”
“You think? You think?”
How come Adam can make me sweat with just two little words?
I grab the box out of his hand and push my chest out at him.
“Look, you told me to go get it and I done that. You didn’t tell me I had to stand and stare at it all day.”
He glares at me, and swipes the box back. Joe lunges for it, which makes Doc look up from his paperwork and yell at him.
“I know I said you could go home tomorrow, Little Joe, but that doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind. If this is the kind of shenanigans you intend to pull—”
“You listen to him, Joe,” Mr. Ludlow tells him, and shakes a pudgy finger at him. “You don’t want to pull those stitches, young man.”
“He’s right, Joe,” Arlen adds, and I have to grin. For once, Adam and I have plenty of help in keeping Joe where he’s supposed to be.
“Okay, okay,” Joe mutters, and he lies back obediently, the pout on his face lifting only when Adam grins and hands the box to him. We both know Joe doesn’t want to do anything that might extend his stay—poor kid’s been holed up here at Doc Martin’s ever since the robbery. Doc refused to allow him to be moved, and truth be told, we felt better havin’ him right under the doc’s care. There were a couple of times when we thought we might still lose him. And even after he started gettin’ better, there were times when we caught him starin’ off into the distance, like he was workin’ hard at rememberin’ somethin’ important. It bothered me when he looked like that. Bothered me a lot, and I can’t put my finger on why, exactly.
Adam was in pretty rough shape, too, of course, and Doc Martin kept him under his thumb right alongside Joe. Adam actually stayed on extra days even after Doc gave his okay to go home, just so Joe wouldn’t be by himself. ‘Course, he didn’t let on to Joe about that. Joe woulda seen it as babysittin’, and he never woulda stood for it.
But now they’re both on their way to bein’ mended, although it looks like I’ll be doin’ their chores for a good long bit yet.
The door bursts open again. It’s little Janie Williams, and the excited glow on her cheeks makes her even purtier than she normally is. Yep, I can sure see what Joe sees in that gal.
“They’re coming!” she says breathlessly. “Your pa is walking them down the street right now. Did you get it?”
“Right here.” Joe holds up the box. Janie sails over to the bed and plants a kiss on his cheek. From the look on both their faces, I expect that kiss would be a lot different if me and Adam and the others weren’t around.
“Do the new ones match the original?” Janie asks.
I feel my smile leave my face. “Dadburnit, why does everybody keep askin’ that?”
Janie looks at me, her eyes wide. “But it’s important, Hoss.”
“He thinks they matched,” Adam explains.
“They matched close enough!” I explode. “And anyway, there’s nothin’ we can do about it now. They’re almost here.”
It’s true. Pa and Mr. and Mrs. Hayword are right out front, and now here they come through the door, laughing and talking and shouting hellos. Soon the room is filled with happy noise that makes Doc grumble somethin’ about ‘convalescence’, but nobody pays him any mind. Mrs. Hayword has hugs and kisses for all of us, and when she kisses Joe on the forehead, he brings the little pink-ribboned box out from beneath his blankets.
“This is for you,” he says soberly, and the room goes quiet, although we’re all still smiling.
She’s surprised, I can tell. She looks around the room at all of us, lastly at her husband who looks for all the world like a proud new bridegroom, and she very slowly and carefully begins to undo the ribbon. Beside her, Joe fidgets, and I have to laugh. He was never the sort to unwrap a present any way but fast.
Finally the box is opened, and we all watch her face.
“Oh. Oh, my,” she whispers, and tears well up in her eyes as she pulls a strand of pearls from the box.
Joe is looking anxious. “Pa and Hoss gathered up all the ones they could find in the bank, but some slipped between the cracks in the floor, and Hoss crawled underneath the building and found a couple more in the dust, but the rest—”
“We found as many as we could, but the rest were lost and had to be replaced with new ones,” Pa finished. “I entrusted the job to a jeweler I know in San Francisco. I…I hope it is satisfactory.” Now even Pa is looking anxious. We all know what that necklace meant to Mrs. Hayword. It belonged to her grandmother, and she wore it almost every day before…well, before that day at the bank.
“Satisfactory?” Mrs. Hayword smiles even as a tear slips down her cheek. “Dear Ben, it is beyond satisfactory. It is beautiful. John, would you?” She turns her back to her husband, who gently clasps the necklace around her neck.
Adam clears his throat. “We know it can’t really replace the original, but—”
She shakes her head. “Nonsense. It’s better than the original. Old pearls from my grandmother mixed with new ones from friends I care very much about. I love it. Thank you all so very much. I’ll treasure it forever.”
Dang, that Mrs. Hayword is sure a practical sort of woman. A lot of ladies would’ve mourned the loss of those pearls for a long time, but I reckon she’s the sort that knows what’s really important. I look at Mr. Hayword watching his wife, and I know he knows what’s important, too.
“Looks like a party in here!” It’s Roy Coffee, pokin’ his head in the door and grinnin’. “Well, if this don’t beat all. A room full of heroes, right here in Virginia City.”
There’s that blasted word again. I grimace at Roy, and he winks back at me. He knows how it bothers me to hear it. I reckon that’s why he keeps insistin’ on sayin’ it.
Naw, we ain’t heroes.
Not that there aren’t heroes in this world. I’ve seen ‘em. But they don’t always come in the shape or size you’d expect. Sometimes they wear yellow dresses and pearls and they think of ways to win that no man could come up with.
I remember something Joe’s mother used to tell us. It’s something I’ve held onto all my life, especially during times when I’ve been scared, and I reckon it’s something that Mrs. Hayword knew all along.
“Courage is simply fear that has said its prayers.”