Summary: The quiet of a lethargic afternoon in town is shattered by gunfire.
Word Count: 1,650
Adam and Joe stood lethargically in the street observing a game of horseshoes. It was a hot dusty day and the glass of beer in their hands was a welcome relief to quench their thirst after a sweat soaked morning repairing fences. The beer was slightly warm but they were unlikely to complain. The opportunities they had had lately to partake in a beer were few and far between and they were just so grateful to have something other than the dank stale water from their canteens to pass their lips.
The air was hot and humid and there was very little activity going on. The game progressed at a slow pace and except for the odd whoop when someone played a good shot, the men around them were not their usual boisterous selves; it just took too much energy on days like this. Those partaking in the game seemed to be going through the motions; no one was really all that interested in the outcome.
No conversation passed between the brothers; they stood in companionable silence, only moving occasionally to wipe the sweat from their brow or to lift their glass the short distance that was needed in order to tilt the warm liquid down their throats. Adam, as usual, concentrated his thoughts on the next job on his list. They had to finish the fences by the end of the week so that he could turn his attention to the lumber contract they had just acquired from the mining company. As for Little Joe, he too was thinking about his next job, but his was a little closer in timescale. Joe was just trying to think of a way to get his oldest brother to agree to them having another beer before they loaded up the supplies in the wagon for Hop Sing. To Joe’s mind, if they held off long enough, Hoss and his Pa would join them and with Hoss helping, Joe was confident that he would not need to expend much of his own energy on loading the wagon.
No one was prepared for what happened next. The doors to the bank burst open and five gunmen spilled out onto the street shooting in all directions. Virginia City’s peaceful sleepy afternoon was turned into a battlefield in seconds and a piercing scream shrilled out from somewhere in the midst of the chaos.
Joe looked at the events as if in slow motion. One moment he was stood next to his brother enjoying the day, the next Adam lunged at him knocking him off his feet. Joe looked through uncomprehending eyes as his beer flew out of his hand and cascaded through the air. He hit the ground with a thud, banging his head off the post behind him and knocking all the wind out of his body.
Joe lay in a daze as the gunfire continued around him. He tried to sit up but his head wouldn’t stop spinning and he fell back to the ground and lay looking up at the sky. It was strange and Joe suddenly felt like laughing. He was lying exposed out in the street looking at this beautiful clear blue sky while a war was being fought around him and somehow he didn’t care.
Joe’s mind began to drift back to another time when he had lain on the ground looking at the sky in just this same way. The memories were hazy but Joe smiled as he recalled the bygone day. He must have been about four years old when he had watched his brothers climb a high tree that grew not far from the lake. An excited Joe had raced forward and tried to follow the older two. Marie had called to Ben and he had been quick to scoop up the toddler and throw him high in the air as he laughingly said,
“You’re far too small to be climbing trees, Little Joe; I think the corral fence is quite high enough for you young man.”
“But Papa, I’m a big boy now; I want to climb the tree with Hoss and Adam.”
“No tree climbing for you, Little Joe” Ben reiterated, but noticing the determined look in his youngest’s eyes, he felt it necessary to reinforce his words with a swat to the child’s small bottom.
To this day, Joe could still remember the excitement he had felt when later that very same afternoon he had managed to get away from his mother’s ever-watchful gaze and slip from the house unnoticed. The tree had not been as easy to climb as he had first thought and when he reached the first branch and looked down the excitement he had felt began to turn to anxiety. Joe’s laughter had turned to screams when he realized how far away the ground was and he had clung to the tree in terror.
Joe’s cries had alerted his family, who were by now looking for the errant toddler, but as they raced towards him his grip on the tree had slipped and he had tumbled to the ground. The wind had been knocked from his body and he had lain on his back trying to catch his breath. All the time Joe lay there gasping he had been unable to take his eyes away from the beautiful blue sky above him. His cries had not started again until his mother’s worried face hovered over him and Joe had finally been able to take a deep breath.
Joe tried hard to concentrate and bring to mind once more his mother’s beautiful face when all of a sudden he was brought back to the present by the insistent gunfire around him. For a while it seemed as if peace would never reign again but eventually the last bullet was fired. The noise died down but it did not stop; people continued to scream and shout in the pandemonium that followed. Joe’s eyes were becoming sleepy and began to close, when he was suddenly startled awake by a booming voice close by.
“He’s been shot.” The words echoed in Joe’s head but somehow they didn’t make sense. Who’s been shot? Why was everyone running round making such a fuss? Adam’s voice sounded far away as he barked out instructions to the men.
“Fetch the doctor and be quick about it.” Why did Adam always have to be such a bossy boots?
The day was beginning to turn cold for Joe; his body began to shake and he felt the panic building in him. Where was Hoss? And where was his Pa? Joe wanted his Pa to come and take control of the situation; not that he didn’t think that Adam could handle it, but when Pa was close by, he felt secure. He didn’t panic when Pa was around. Panic, but why would he panic? What had happened to make him feel like he would panic? Oh yeah, now he remembered, someone had been shot.
“There’s just so much blood, we’ve got to find a way to stop the bleeding” Adam’s voice cried out once more. “For God’s sake someone get help.”
Joe body wouldn’t stop shaking, he wanted to help his brother but he felt useless. His head still felt fuzzy and his limbs seemed to have a mind of their own, because they certainly weren’t doing what Joe was telling them to do. Maybe that blow to the head was harder than he thought. His body still continued to shake and his hands trembled, he just couldn’t control them. Why couldn’t he be like his brothers and take charge in situations like this? He was such a baby. “Come on, Joe” he said to himself, “get a grip, boy; people will think you can’t handle it.” But I can’t handle it, he thought. “Take deep breaths.” That’s what Pa always said to him when he was a kid and he panicked, and sometimes it helped. This time it didn’t. His body still continued to shake and Joe hoped no one else noticed; he felt helpless.
“How is he Adam?” said a worried voice breaking into Joe’s thoughts.
Joe let out a sigh of relief; Pa had arrived; now everything would be all right. Joe wanted to ask his Pa what he should do. How he should help? He also wanted to tell him about his head. But the words just wouldn’t come.
“He’s holding on, Pa, but it’s pretty bad; the doc should be here in a minute.”
“I hope whoever it is doesn’t die,” Joe prayed. “It wasn’t fair that someone should die this way. Somehow violence didn’t sit comfortably on sleepy days like today.”
It seemed to take forever but eventually Doctor Martin arrived.
“Thank God you’re here, Paul; please do what you can,” Ben said, trying hard to stifle a sob.
Joe was confused, why was his Pa crying? Oh no, don’t let it be Hoss; please don’t let it be Hoss.
Doctor Martin’s voice broke through Joe’s thoughts. “Don’t worry, Ben; you know I’ll do what I can.”
“I know you will, Paul, it’s just …….” Ben could not finish the sentence.
Joe wanted to comfort his Pa and he tried to thank Dr Martin for reassuring his father, but the words just wouldn’t come.
It was only when Joe felt his Pa’s hands stroking the errant curls from his face that his heart stopped racing and the panic began to subside. Joe turned his eyes to look into his father’s face. He tried to smile but his mouth just wouldn’t function, he tried to speak, but Ben placed a finger on his lips.
“Don’t try to talk, son, everything’s gonna be OK, just relax and try not to panic. You’ve been shot…………………………”