Ghost Town (by Susan)

Synopsis:  It’s Joe’s turn to make the trip to Hawthorne, as Ben continues to repay a twenty-year old debt.  Unknowingly, Joe encounters more than he bargained.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western, Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  26,240


 

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 wasn’t important to the old man. He was happy simply because he had found the vein. He couldn’t wait to tell those yahoo’s at Bailey’s about his strike. They had laughed at him for years, called him an old fool. He hadn’t minded the old part. He was old and he knew it. But being called a fool had bothered him. Well, he thought smugly, they wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t laugh at old Andy any more.

*****

“It’s time someone made a trip to Hawthorne,” announced Ben Cartwright as he forked a piece of the pancakes from his plate into his mouth.

“Joe’s 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 Cartwright’s 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 it’s your turn, little brother.”

Joe dropped his fork to his plate. “Pa, I can’t go,” said Joe in a slightly desperate voice. “I’ve got too much to do.”

“There’s nothing that can’t 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. We’ve got those fences to fix, and I’ve 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.”

“What’s the matter, Joe?” asked Hoss in an innocent voice. “You scared to ride into Hawthorne? Ain’t nothing there. It’s just an old ghost town.”

“No, I’m not scared to ride to Hawthorne,” replied Joe. “It’s just that I got other things I’d rather do.” Joe turned to Ben. “Pa, why do I have to go?” he asked in an exasperated voice.

“You know why,” answered Ben patiently. “I’ve 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. “We’ve 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,” stated Ben. “That reminds me. Don’t forget to stop at Bailey’s Trading Post on the way back. You know my deal with Bailey. I’ll pay for any whiskey or other items Andy has put on his bill there.”

“But Pa…” Joe started.

“No buts,” interrupted Ben firmly. He relented a bit as he saw the dismay on Joe’s face. “Joe, the vein in Andy’s 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.”

“You’d 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. There’s no one there by him.”

“Andy is convinced that the vein is still in the mine,” said Ben. “He’ll 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.”

“It’s not the supplies,” complained Joe. “I wouldn’t mind taking them if it was just that. But every time I deliver the supplies, I end up having to listen to Andy’s tales. He goes on and on about when Hawthorne was a boom town. He’s told me those stories so many times, I can practically repeat them word for word.”

“You’re lucky you just have to listen to his stories,” countered 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. He’s 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,” Joe remarked. “Look at the way he’s always fixing up those old buildings. He says he wants the town to look good when everyone comes back. He’s 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. He’s 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 you’re not the one who’s going to have to listen to him,” grumbled Joe.

“No I’m 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,” answered Joe in a discouraged voice. Joe shook his head. “Hawthorne,” he muttered. “What a boring trip that’s 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, you’d think he’d 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 Bailey’s to pay Andy’s bill before heading into Hawthorne. He hadn’t realized the road to the Trading Post up in the mountains was in such bad shape. Joe had gotten to Bailey’s 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 Bailey’s, 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 Bailey’s, 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 Andy’s stories didn’t 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 wasn’t the old man’s fault that Joe’s trip had been so miserable.

For a minute, Joe looked down on Hawthorne from the top of the hill. Even in its heyday, Hawthorne hadn’t 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 area, 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.

Chucking the reins, Joe 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. He’d 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.

Reluctantly, 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 couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone else in Hawthorne.

Pushing open the door of the hotel, Joe 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 Joe’s 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 didn’t need to look to know there was someone behind him.

Slowly, 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. Andy’s face was bruised and blood trickled from a cut over his eye. His lip was split and swollen. Andy’s 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 Joe’s left.

“I’m 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.”

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. “I’m 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.

Dragging the chair across the room, the man put it next to Joe. Whoever was behind Joe pushed him down into the chair. “What’ll we tie him up with?” asked the man who had brought the chair over. “We don’t 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 and walked behind Joe. Pulling Joe’s arms back behind the chair, the man began to tie Joe’s hands together.

Briefly, Joe smiled 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. Joe’s hands were being tied with a soft velvet rope. He could almost be comfortable, if the situation didn’t 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?”

“You’re doing this to find Andy’s mine?” asked Joe before Andy could answer. “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble for nothing. That mine is a dead hole. There’s 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. I’ve 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. Where’s the mine?”

Turning his head, Joe looked at Andy in surprise. The old miner looked back at Joe and a small smile appeared on his face. “Yep,” admitted 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, we’ve wasted enough time on this already,” insisted the leader. “We checked out some of the mines around here, and there was nothing in them. Now where is your mine?”

“I ain’t telling and you can’t make me,” said Andy in a defiant voice. “You kill me and you’ll never find that mine. And there ain’t nothing you can do to me to make me talk.”

Andy’s 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. Andy’s head went forward with the first punch, and snapped back when the second one landed.

“Leave him alone!” shouted Joe. “He’s an old man. You’ll kill him if you keep this up.”

“Shut up, kid,” snarled the man standing next to Joe’s chair.

Eyes blazing with anger, Joe looked up at the man, “Oh, you’re real tough, aren’t you. Four of you taking on one old man. That’s 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. Joe’s 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,” he muttered. “Real brave.”

Joe’s comment drew another punch, this one to Joe’s stomach. Joe’s body jerked forward as the man’s 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. Don’t hurt him!” cried Andy as he saw Joe gasping for breath. “He don’t have nothing to do with this.”

The black-shirted man put his fingers to his jaw and rubbed it thoughtfully. “So that’s how it is,” he mused. “I don’t know who this kid is, but he means something to you, doesn’t he, old man.” The man took a step over to Joe and roughly pushed Joe back up in the chair. He pulled a gun from his holster and held the barrel to Joe’s head.

“All right,” said the leader. “Here’s how it is. You’ve got ten seconds to tell us where the mine is. If you don’t, I’m going to pull the trigger and blow the kid’s brains out. He don’t mean nothing to me, and we don’t 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 wasn’t sure what Andy would do. He didn’t know if Andy would give up the silver for which he had searched for over two decades to save him.

“No! Don’t!” shouted Andy in a desperate voice.

“Then you’d better start talking, old man,” threatened the leader. He cocked his gun. “You’ve got about five seconds left.”

Taking a deep breath, Joe 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 wouldn’t find out.

“Two seconds, old man,” cautioned the leader. “Two seconds and then I pull the trigger.”

“All right, all right,” agreed Andy quickly. “I’ll tell you. Just don’t hurt him.”

“That’s more like it,” said the black-shirted man with a smile. He uncocked the gun but left the barrel against Joe’s head. Joe let out a deep sigh and slumped against the chair.

“Now, where’s the mine?” demanded the leader.

Andy took a deep breath, then explained, “You head west out of town and go about half a mile. You’ll see an old sycamore tree that’s shaped like a Y. Turn right and go about a hundred yards. There’s a big clump of bushes against the side of the mountain. Pull back the bushes and you’ll see the entrance to the mine. The silver’s in there, but it’s real deep. You’ve got to go about a mile into the mine to find that vein.”

“Good, very good,” observed the black-shirted man, nodding in satisfaction. He pulled the gun away from Joe’s head. Then he stopped, as if struck by a thought. “You wouldn’t be lying to us, would you, old man?”

“I ain’t lying,” answered Andy in a tired voice. “It’s there.”

“We’ll just go take a look,” said the leader. He turned to the men standing near the chairs. “You two come with me.” He turned again to the man who was still standing near the door. “You stay here and keep an eye on these two. If we don’t find that mine, we’ll come back and ask some more questions.” The man turned once more and looked at Andy and Joe with a nasty grin on his face. “If we don’t find that mine, old man, I’m going to kill the kid,” he promised Andy. “And I’ll make sure he dies screaming in pain.”

Joe swallowed hard. He hoped Andy hadn’t lied.

The leader jerked his head toward the door. “Let’s 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.

Cautiously, 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 Joe’s hands had hung by the window for over twenty years. Time and the sun had caused the cord to begin to decay. Joe couldn’t 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 didn’t notice what he was doing.

“Joe, I’m 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. “What’s going on? Who are these guys?”

“The leader, the one in the black shirt? His name is Phillips,” explained Andy. “I don’t 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 Bailey’s. Figured I’d pay him for all the whiskey and stuff he had given me over the years.”

Nodding, Joe smiled ruefully. After all these years, Andy still didn’t know that Ben Cartwright was paying his bills at the Trading Post. Joe began straining against the cord again.

“I’ll 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 I’d 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, and they heard what I said. They showed up this morning and wanted to know where the mine was.” Andy shook his head. “I wasn’t going to tell them. I didn’t care if they killed me. I wasn’t 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.”

“I couldn’t let them hurt you,” replied Andy, shrugging a bit. “I owe your Pa too much. I couldn’t repay him by letting them hurt you.”

Joe looked away, feeling uncomfortable and not because of the ropes. “We haven’t done that much,” he muttered. “Just brought you some supplies from time to time.”

“Joe, it ain’t the supplies I owe your Pa for,” replied Andy. “Sure, they’ve been helpful, but that’s 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, that’s 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, he’d 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 didn’t know that,” said Joe in amazement.

“Oh, you and Hoss, you usually were playing in the town while we was unloading,” replied Andy. “That’s 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 couldn’t pinpoint when the adventure had turned into a chore.

“And you boys, you were so good to me, too,” added Andy. “You used to listen to my stories. When you was little, you’d 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 Andy’s stories. He did remember that when he was little, he’d 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. “I’m 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, he’s so big and strong. I guess I’ve 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.”

“And you, you were always changing,” continued Andy, looking straight at Joe. “One time, you’d be all moony over some gal, then on the next visit, you’d have forgotten all about her. You’d tell me about some wild horse you’d broke or how good you was getting with a gun. I never know from one visit to the next what you’d be up to. I think I look forward to your visits most of all.”

Amazed, Joe shook his head in almost disbelief. 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 hadn’t 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, he’ll have to get rid of us.”

“Yeah, I know,” agreed 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,” stated Andy in an almost distracted voice. “I swear I ain’t going to let anything happen to you.”

Joe was touched by the old man’s 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.

Careful to keep his hands behind the chair, Joe 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. “Something’s wrong with Andy. I think he’s 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. “What’s the matter with you?” he growled to Andy.

Ignoring the man, Andy continued to moan. As the guard bent forward a bit to check on the old miner, Joe sprang up from the chair and grabbed the man’s arm. Joe spun him around and quickly landed two short jabs in the man’s stomach. Before the man could even react, Joe hit him on the jaw as hard as he could. The man’s 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.

“We’ve got to get out of here before the others get back,” advised 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 and helped the old man to his feet.

Andy’s knees buckled a bit as he tried to stand, and he swayed against Joe. Joe caught the old miner 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.

“I’m all right,” said Andy as he winced in pain. “Just give me a minute.”

“Sure,” agreed 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.

Walking quickly to the man on the floor, Joe knelt down and pulled the pistol from the man’s 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. “Let’s 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.

When he and Andy reached the door, Joe stopped. 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.

As Joe led Andy onto the street, the 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 couldn’t walk any faster. It seemed to Joe that it took an hour to get across the street, instead of just a few minutes. He 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. The prospector 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 couldn’t see much of Andy’s face. A kind of wheezing was escaping from Andy’s lungs as he gasped for air.

“Come on, Andy,” Joe urged in a gentle voice. “We have to get going. We have to get you to a doctor.” Andy didn’t say anything but he nodded his head. Joe slipped his arms around the old man and shifted Andy’s weight from the wagon to himself. Once more, he began to guide Andy slowly around the wagon.

The tall load of boxes and bags blocked Joe’s view of the street as he eased Andy toward the front of the wagon. Joe couldn’t hear much over Andy’s wheezing breaths, either. As a result, Joe wasn’t 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 at him, and Joe saw all three reaching for their guns.

“Andy, get down!” shouted Joe, just as the shots rang out. He 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 hadn’t hit anything but he knew he had distracted them for a minute.

Shoving the pistol back into his holster, Joe turned back to Andy. The old man was laying face down on the ground, not moving. Joe wasn’t sure if Andy had been hit or simply knocked out by the fall. But he didn’t have time to check. Joe reached down and grabbed the prospector under the arms, then 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. Ignoring the bullets, Joe reached back to tighten his hold on Andy. Several shots echoed through the town, and suddenly, Joe felt a searing pain in his right thigh. He cried out in pain and crumpled to the ground on top of Andy.

For a minute, Joe could do nothing but lay on top of the old miner. 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. He 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, then 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. As 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 sound…the sound of horses coming closer. He didn’t bother to look in the direction of the sound. Joe knew he was running out of time. He 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, and 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.

Pulling himself up to a sitting position, Joe rested 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. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think. All he could do was sit there and feel miserable.

Slowly, the pain in Joe’s leg eased to a dull ache. His breathing became more regular and the terrible weariness began to melt away. Joe slowly opened his eyes.

As his vision cleared and focused, 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 Andy’s chest, just below the left collarbone. Blood covered the old man’s chest. Joe felt Andy’s 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 Andy’s eyes slowly fluttered open. He stared at Joe, as if he didn’t recognize him. Hiss 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,” comforted 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 miner in a barely audible voice.

“I’m fine,” Joe lied. “Don’t worry about me.”

Andy nodded. “Good,” he said softly. “I’ll…I’ll protect you.”

“Sure, Andy,” Joe reassured him. “Sure you will.”

“They…won’t….get… my mine,” promised Andy in a fading voice.

“No, no they won’t,” agreed Joe.

Andy nodded again. “Tell your Pa…” said Andy in a barely audible whisper. He suddenly coughed again.

“I’ll tell him,” Joe quickly assured the old man. He lifted Andy’s hand from the floor and held it tightly.

“I…won’t…let…them…” Andy tried to get the words out, but he was too weak. He looked at Joe, a silent message in his eyes. Then Andy’s eyes closed and his body went limp. Joe felt the old man’s neck again. This time he could feel no pulse.

Sadly, Joe lowered his head. He hadn’t 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 Joe’s 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 Andy’s hand across the old man’s chest. Joe could feel the tears stinging his eyes.

The sound of harness jangling pulled Joe abruptly back to the present. He crawled back to the front of the store and eased himself near the window, then 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 Phillips’ men. He looked around the street, trying to spot the other men. He couldn’t see anyone, but he knew they were out there.

Sitting back against the wall, Joe 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.

As he shifted his weight, a stab of pain radiated through Joe’s leg again. He 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 wouldn’t give. He 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, and 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 wasn’t much of a bandage, but it was the best he could do.

Glancing out the window again, Joe saw the wagon disappearing down the street. He knew it was only a question of time before the men outside attacked the store. He 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 wouldn’t 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. That’s what he needed. Someplace to hide where the others couldn’t find him. If they couldn’t 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 wasn’t obvious, someplace that the men outside would never think to look. A smile flickered across Joe’s face. He knew just the place, if he could get to it.

Shaking his head slowly with regret, Joe took one last look at old Andy. He hated leaving the old prospector like this, but he also knew that Phillips and the others couldn’t 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 hadn’t been used in years. Joe wasn’t sure it would open, but the door offered his only escape. He slid across the floor until he was by the door, then reached up and tried to turn the knob. The knob was stiff but it moved in Joe’s hand. He closed his eyes and silently thanked Andy Miller for keeping the town in good repair. Joe turned the knob and pushed against the door. The rusty hinges screeched in protest, but the door opened.

Grabbing the side of the door frame, Joe pulled himself up until he was standing. He leaned against the frame, keeping all of his weight on his uninjured leg. Then 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.

Hearing a small groan behind him, Phillips turned to look. The man Joe had knocked out was slowly getting to his feet, rubbing 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!” cried the man with alarm. “Now what’ll we do?”

“Luckily, they didn’t get very far,” Phillips answered. “They’re holed up in that building across the street. I think both of them are hit, but I’m not sure.”

The would-be guard reached for his gun and was surprised to find his holster empty. “They’ve got my gun.”

Phillips nodded. “Yeah, I know,” he said with a touch of irony. “The kid took some shots at us. But he can’t have too many bullets left. That’ll make it easy for us to take them.”

“I ain’t going up against him or anyone else without a gun,” stated the other man in alarm.

“I’m not asking you to,” replied Phillips. “Jim is moving the wagon down the street to the stable. He’s got the kid’s gun. When he gets back, you can take the kid’s gun from him. Then I want you to sneak out to the side of this building. Billy is already down the street. We’ll 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.”

“I’m not taking any chances, Sam,” replied Phillips. “We saw the mine. It was just where the old man said it would be. And it’s got a vein of silver that’s 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. Let’s 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 weren’t 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.

After reloading his pistol, Phillips 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.

Stopping inside the store, Phillips 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 Joe’s jacket lying in a heap. But there was no sign of Joe.

“Where’s the kid?” asked Sam, the man Joe had punched. “Where’d 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.

“It’s like he just disappeared,” said the one called Billy. He looked around uneasily.

“He didn’t 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,” added Phillips with disgust.

“The old man is dead,” declared Sam as he walked away from Andy’s body.

Phillips nodded, his thoughts distracted. “The kid couldn’t have gotten far,” said Phillips. “He’s bleeding pretty bad.” He suddenly turned and looked out onto the street. “There’s only one way in and out of this town. We’d have seen him if he had tried to leave. That means he’s still here.”

“But where?” asked Jim.

“I don’t know where!” answered Phillips angrily. “But there’s only a dozen buildings in this town. All we have to do is search them. We’ll 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.

“We’re going to search this town building by building,” replied Phillips. “We’ll flush the kid out. And then we’re 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 hadn’t 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.

Inside the old assay office, Joe stood still 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 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.

Laying in the shadows for a moment, Joe rested and gathered 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.

Hearing the sound of footsteps outside, Joe cursed himself for stopping. He should have been hiding by now. He was afraid he wouldn’t 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.

As he reached the end of the bar, Joe 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 wasn’t going to make it, Joe thought as he pulled himself around the end of the bar. He wasn’t going to have enough time to hide before the men entered the saloon.

He only needed another minute, but Joe was convinced he wouldn’t get that minute.

As he clearly heard a voice say “Let’s check the saloon,” Joe 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 didn’t wait. He pulled *himself along the floor until he was behind the bar, then reached down and grabbed at what looked like just a small 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. He 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.

Pushing himself into the crawl space, Joe slowly lowered the trapdoor behind him. Almost as soon as the trapdoor was shut, the wind outside stopped.

A few seconds later, 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 Sam’s comment. “Check behind the bar,” he ordered as his eyes searched the deserted saloon. The saloon was dark, and full of shadows and the dark smear of blood on the floor melted into the shadows. Phillips glanced to the floor, but he didn’t 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,” declared Sam as 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. “He’s got to be around here someplace,” said Phillips in frustration. “That blood we saw led right to the old assay office.”

“But he wasn’t in there,” answered Sam. “And we didn’t 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, let’s 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 ain’t overreacting just a bit to what Bailey told you in Virginia City yesterday?” asked Hoss with a wry grin.

“I probably am,” admitted Ben. “But Bailey seemed so upset and worried about Andy. I’d 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. 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,” he continued. “He said that they seemed unusually interested in Andy’s 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 didn’t 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 he’s been fretting about Andy the whole time.”

“But, Pa, even if they were bothering Andy, don’t you think Joe could handle things?” asked Hoss. “Joe don’t exactly shy away from trouble.”

“Your brother does seem to have a knack for getting involved,” agreed Ben. “And Joe’s 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. I’d like to even the odds if there’s trouble.”

“I still think we’ve made a long ride for nothing,” stated Hoss.

“I hope you’re right,” answered Ben in a worried voice. “Let’s 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 don’t 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,” suggested Hoss. “You know how Andy is about keeping things where they belong.”

“Maybe,” replied Ben. But his voice reflected the fact that he didn’t think so.

“Do you think Joe’s already headed for home?” asked Hoss, trying to ease Ben’s worry. “He could have unloaded the supplies and already headed for Bailey’s.”

“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 Bailey’s place, he’d have found the Trading Post closed, and headed back down the trail. I’m sure we would have seen him.”

Hoss didn’t 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 don’t think so,” answered Ben in a wary voice. “We’re just going to ride in and see Andy Miller.”

“He ain’t there,” stated the man.

“Not there?” said Hoss with a frown. “Old Andy almost never leaves Hawthorne. Where’d he go?”

“Don’t know,” replied the man. “The town’s deserted.”

“What are you doing here?” asked Ben, his concern growing.

The man bit his lip and seemed to be thinking. “I’m, um, I’m just waiting for some friends,” the man told the Cartwrights. “They’re doing some prospecting. I figured it would be more comfortable to wait for them here than camped out in the mountains.

“Well, you don’t mind if we ride in and look around for ourselves, do you?” asked Ben.

The man put his hand on his holster. “Matter of fact, I do mind,” he answered with a hint of menace. “I don’t 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. “We’ll be in and out before you know it.”

“I already told you he wasn’t there,” growled the man, his eyes narrowing. He lowered his hand to his gun. “Now why don’t you just turn around and ride out of here.”

“Listen, mister…” started Hoss in a threatening voice.

“Hoss, he said Andy wasn’t there,” interrupted Ben. “He must be up at Bailey’s. Why don’t we ride up there and look for him.”

“Yeah, that’s where he must be,” agreed the man. He took his hand off his gun. “Why don’t you try Bailey’s.”

“But, Pa!” protested Hoss.

“Let’s ride up to Bailey’s,” 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.

Turn his horse, Ben 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 ain’t right,” said Hoss.

“I know, Hoss,” agreed Ben in a low voice. “But if Andy and Joe are in trouble, starting a gunfight isn’t going to help them. That fellow was ready to shoot to prevent us from going into town.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” stated Hoss. “What are we going to do?”

“Let’s ride to the top of the hill, out of sight,” replied Ben. “We’ll double back on that old trail that comes in from the south.”

“That’s not much of a trail,” said Hoss. “You can barely get a horse down it. Besides, won’t that fellow just stop us again?”

“Not if he doesn’t see us,” observed 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 we’ll do some searching on own.”

“It’s kind of risky,” said Hoss.

“Yes it is,” agreed Ben, his voice suddenly grim. “But it’s a risk we need to take if we want to get to Andy and Joe.”

*****

Phillips walked down the middle of the street until he reached the end of town where Ben and Hoss had been stopped. “You see any sign of the kid?” he asked Jim. Jim shook his head.

“Damn!” swore Phillips. “He’s 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 didn’t 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?”

“Don’t know,” replied Jim indifferently. “Just said they were looking for the old man. I told them he wasn’t here. They must have believed me because they took off toward Bailey’s 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 we’ve got to search all those other buildings, too.”

“Wouldn’t Billy have seen him?” asked Jim.

“Billy,” answered Phillips in disgust. “He’s 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. “I’ll get Sam and we’ll start on the other buildings.” Phillips poked Jim in the chest with his finger. “You keep your eyes peeled, you hear? You see any sign of that kid, you holler out.”

“Sure,” agreed Jim. He cocked his head. “You don’t think the kid got away, do you?”

“No,” said Phillips in a determined voice. “He’s still in that town some place. He’s playing some kind of cat and mouse game with us. Probably moving to one place while we’re searching another. Well, he can play all the games he wants. It won’t 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.

Both 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 Cartwright’s view also. They had no idea where the man was….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 wasn’t 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 Cartwright’s 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.

Grabbing Hoss’ arm, Ben pointed to the open door.

Hoss frowned. He couldn’t think of a single reason why that door should be open. Without being told, Hoss started toward the door and Ben followed him.

When he reached the door, Hoss stopped and peered cautiously inside. He stepped inside the building and then abruptly stopped again. Ben saw his son’s 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 wasn’t as tall as Hoss so he couldn’t 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.

For a minute, Ben merely stared at Andy’s body on the floor, his brain refusing to believe the picture his eyes saw. He just couldn’t 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.

Kneeling next to Andy’s body on the floor, Ben desperately checked for a pulse, even though he knew it was futile. Andy’s 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.

As Hoss watched his father, a pained look crossed 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 father’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said simply.

Nodding, Ben sniffed as he wiped his hand across his face. “Andy was a good friend.”

Hoss looked around the shot-up store. “What do you think happened?” he asked. “Where do you think Joe is?”

Slowly, Ben lifted his head. “I think that man we met and his friends killed Andy, probably because they wanted the silver he found,” he replied. 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.”

As he continued to look around, Hoss didn’t say anything. Suddenly, he turned and walked to the front of the store. He picked up Joe’s discarded jacket from the floor. “Joe was here,” said Hoss, holding the jacket out to Ben.

Once more, Ben’s eyes searched the deserted store. He paled as he saw the pool of dried blood on the floor and the trail of blood smeared across the floor.

Hearing a noise from the street outside, Hoss 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. “There’s two men out there. They came out of the restaurant and went into the hardware store.”

Getting to his feet, Ben 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 hesitated as they turned and went into the next building.

“Looks to me like they’re searching for something,” remarked Hoss. A grim expression crossed his face. “Maybe they’re 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 Hoss’ arm. “We’ve got to find him, Hoss,” said Ben in a worried voice. “We’ve got to get to Joe before they do.”

Hoss nodded in agreement. “Where do we start?” he asked.

“I don’t 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?”

For a moment, Hoss looked thoughtful, 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. “We’ve got to start looking,” he urged. “We’ll search every building, look in every place you boys used to hide. He’s 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 couldn’t believe they had failed to find him.

Anxiously, Billy watched 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 keep his attention on the street. But Billy had quickly lost interest in simply gazing at 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,” answered Billy in a firm voice. “I’ve been watching the street. He ain’t showed his face.”

“He’s got to be here,” Phillips said, his voice full of frustration.

Billy shifted uncomfortably. “Why don’t we just give it up and ride out?” he asked. “We know where the mine is. Who cares about the kid?”

For a moment, Phillips stared at Billy in astonishment. “You pea brain!” he screamed. “If we don’t find that kid, we’ll lose the chance of a lifetime. We’ll 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 can’t sign his claim over to us now.”

Rolling his eyes, Phillips looked at Sam and shook his head in disgust. “I explained this you twice,” he said to Billy. “We don’t need the old man to sign over his claim. The law says if a mine isn’t worked for a month, it’s 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. There’s nobody who can dispute our claim.”

“Except that kid,” commented Sam.

“I don’t like the idea of having to work that mine,” pouted Billy. “I don’t like being underground.”

“We aren’t going to work that mine!” cried Phillips in exasperation. “I swear, if you weren’t my brother, I’d send you packing right now.”

“I was only saying I don’t like mining,” said Billy in a sullen voice.

“Look,” explained Phillips. “We claim the mine and all that silver. Then we turn around and sell it to one of the big mining outfits. They’ll pay us maybe $10,000 each for that mine. And a percentage of the profits. Once we have that claim, we’ll 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 don’t find him, he’ll send the law after us,” agreed Phillips. “We’ll have to high tail it to Mexico or face a rope.”

“So what are you going to do?” asked Billy.

“We’re going to search this town again and we’re going to keep looking until we find him,” answered Phillips. He turned to Sam. “Let’s split up. You take the side where the store is and I’ll take the side with the hotel. We’ll start up at the other end of town and work our way back down here. You check every building and check it good. We’ll flush that kid out.”

“And if we don’t find him?” asked Sam.

“We’ll find him,” promised Phillips. “There’s no way he can get away. He may have given himself a few extra hours to live, but that’s 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 didn’t realize that it was a fever that was causing his body to be drenched with sweat. In the dim light, he couldn’t 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.

As he moved his leg slightly, Joe 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.

Looking cautiously out the window of the assay office, Ben and Hoss had watched the three men talking at the end of the street. They also had 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.

Now Hoss watched the street as Ben searched the saloon. Hoss 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.

“He’s 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.

“Let’s try the next building,” suggested Ben with a sigh.

Silently, 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. “I’ll check the street,” he said, taking a step toward the door.

Suddenly, the floor swayed beneath Hoss’ feet as 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,” answered Ben. “It’s 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. “Underground…” 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.

Puzzled, Ben looked at Hoss. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

Hoss didn’t 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. Ignoring his father’s puzzled expression, 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. He 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 couldn’t seem to find it.

The footsteps seemed to be directly overhead, and Joe’s search became more frantic. He wanted to put a bullet into whoever opened the trapdoor above him. He didn’t 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 didn’t wait for a reply. He reached down and grabbed Joe under the arms. Then he pulled his little brother from beneath the floor.

In stunned silence, Ben watched 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.

Joe’s 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 Joe’s 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 Joe’s eyes and the flush of fever.

Quickly, Hoss pulled Joe up to a sitting position, and rested his brother’s back against the bar. “Little brother, I didn’t think we were ever going to find you,” said Hoss, his voice filled with relief.

Still shocked, Joe looked at Hoss, then turned his head to look at his father. He still couldn’t believe they were really in Hawthorne. “What…what are you doing here?” he asked in a voice filled with surprise.

Before answering, Ben reached over to stroke his son’s head. He could feel the heat of fever and Joe’s hair was damp with sweat. Ben’s eyes searched his son’s face with concern as he answered. “Bailey was in Virginia City. He told us about Andy’s strike. He was worried that those men hanging out at his place would try to steal Andy’s mine. We came over to see what was happening.”

With sorrow in his eyes, Joe fixed his gaze on his father. “Andy’s dead.”

Ben nodded. “I know,” he replied. “We found him over at the store.”

Slowly, Joe lowered his eyes. “Andy didn’t want to tell them about the mine,” explained 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 comforted his son, gently stroking Joe’s head.

“We almost made it,” added Joe in a tired voice. In his fevered state, Joe didn’t 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.”

“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben assured him softly. “You did the best you could. I’m sure Andy knew that.” Ben took his hand from Joe’s head and laid it on his son’s shoulder. “At least you were with Andy when it happened. I’m sure that meant something to him.”

Suddenly, Joe stiffened and winced in pain. Ben frowned with concern, then turned to his other son. “Hoss, check his leg,” ordered Ben in a worried voice.

Bending down, Hoss untied the cloth around Joe’s leg. He tried to be gentle, but Joe groaned as Hoss undid the knot and eased the cloth off his brother’s leg. Hoss pulled open the torn cloth around the bullet wound. His eyes widened, and looked up at Ben. “It’s pretty bad,” he said as softly as he could. “Looks like the bullet is still in there.”

As he leaned back against the bar, Joe closed his eyes. He was breathing rapidly, and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead once more.

Frantically, Ben looked around. “We need something to clean out that wound, and some clean cloth for a bandage.”

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 stated.

Getting to his feet, Hoss took a large step across Joe’s 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.

As he unbent his large body, Hoss 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 with a thoughtful. 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 wasn’t empty. A small amount of brown liquid was visible inside the bottle. It wasn’t 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.

Blowing the dust off the bottle, Hoss returned to Ben and Joe. Ben looked at his son with a question on his face.

“This was mine and Joe’s private stash,” explained Hoss with a small smile. “We found it one day when we were playing in here. We hid it so it wouldn’t 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 sternness. He took the bottle from Hoss and held it up. Less than a half inch of whiskey sloshed around in the bottle. “It’s not much,” added Ben softly.

“It’s all we’ve got,” remarked Hoss as he took a step over Joe’s legs. He looked at Ben with a grim expression as he knelt next to Joe and held out his hand for the bottle. “You’d better hold him,” Hoss suggested as he took the bottle from Ben’s hand.

Laying against the bar with his eyes closed, Joe 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. Joe’s head flopped to the left and rested against the strong arm that held him.

Suddenly, Joe 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 Joe’s leg to hold the first one in place. Joe watched with a sense of detachment, as if it were someone else’s leg being bandaged.

After tying the knot on the last towel tightly, Hoss rubbed his hands against his pants. He looked up at Ben. “That should do for awhile. You can let him go.”

Ben nodded but continued to hold his youngest son. “We’ve got to get him out of here,” said Ben. “He needs a doctor.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss. “Only I’ve got a feeling that those four outside ain’t going to just let us walk out of here.”

“Check the street,” Ben ordered Hoss.

Getting to his feet, Hoss walked over to the door of the saloon. He was careful to stay in the shadows by the door as he peered out onto the street. The street appeared 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.

“There’s a guard on both ends of the street,” said Hoss. “I couldn’t see the other two. The one down by the stable ain’t 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,” he said. He looked around. “Is there a backdoor to this place?”

“No,” answered Hoss with a shake of his head. “At least, Joe and I never found one.”

“If we can just get to the assay office,” commented 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. “We’ve 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. 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 we’re here. They’ll come after you. You’ll never make it back to the horses.”

“I’ll get there somehow,” answered Ben with a shrug. “Don’t worry about me. You just get Joe on a horse and get him out of here.”

“I don’t like it, Pa,” said Hoss with a frown. “I don’t like it one bit.”

“Have you got a better idea?” asked Ben.

Hoss thought for a minute, then shook his head ruefully. “No. But there’s got to be a better way.”

With a meaningful look, Ben glanced at Joe. His son’s face was now a pasty white; the only color in his face were the bright spots of fever. Rivulets of sweat were running down Joe’s face. His eyes were barely open. “We haven’t got time to find another way,” said Ben grimly.

Following his father’s look, Hoss stared at Joe and winced. With a sigh, he nodded his agreement.

“Come on, Joe,” ordered Hoss, slipping Joe’s arm over his shoulder. “We’ve got to get you to the horses.”

Joe’s eyes fluttered opened. “I don’t…I don’t know if I can walk very far,” said Joe in a weak voice.

“Don’t worry, little brother,” replied Hoss in a confident tone. “I’ll get you there.”

As Joe moaned softly, Hoss pulled him to his feet with Ben’s help. Joe didn’t 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 Joe’s ribs and held his brother tightly, then looked at Ben with a grim expression.

After slipping Joe’s other arm over his shoulder, Ben also wrapped his arm around Joe’s ribs. For a second, he held his son 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.

Taking a deep breath, Ben looked at Hoss. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t 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.

“Let’s go,” said Ben softly. He and Hoss started across the saloon, carrying Joe. Joe’s injured leg dragged behind him, and Joe’s 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.

Suddenly, 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 and 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 didn’t care. He only cared that suddenly there was a chance for all three of them out of the saloon unseen. “Let’s go,” he said urgently to Hoss. Hoss instantly understood.

Pushing the saloon doors open, Ben and Hoss 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. Joe’s arm slid off his father’s shoulder. Ben released his son 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.

Moving slowly, 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 Joe’s arm from around his shoulders, and eased his brother down onto the thickly padded piece of furniture. He gently positioned Joe’s head on the higher end of the couch, then lifted his brother’s legs from the floor and placed them on the lower end.

After watching Hoss get Joe settled, 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.”

“Now what?” Hoss asked.

“We’ll 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 Hoss’ face. “Don’t worry,” he added quickly. “I’m not going to let them see me. But I want to watch your back until you get Joe on a horse. We’ve made it this far. I’m not taking any chances that they’ll catch us now.”

*****

Sam had searched the first building on the south side of town without success. He wasn’t surprised he found nothing. Sam was beginning to believe they weren’t 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 he’d give his buildings a thorough search. If they hadn’t found the kid by the time he was done, he was going to ride out of Hawthorne and head south. He’d rather be poor and alive than a hanged man with a silver mine.

As he started to enter the second building, Sam heard a horse snort. He stopped and 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 kid’s horses and wagon down to the stable also. Sam looked around uneasily. He wondered who had ridden another horse into the town.

Cautiously, Sam moved 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 – a buckskin and a big black – 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 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 and nodded in satisfaction at the empty alley. He ducked back into the office. A minute later, he appeared at the door again, this time with Joe.

Once again, Joe’s arm was thrown over his brother’s broad’ shoulders, and Hoss had his arm wrapped tightly around Joe middle. Joe’s head hung down and his eyes were closed; his face was covered with sweat. Air escaped his lungs in ragged breaths.

“It’s only a little further now,” Hoss said to Joe softly. For a moment, Joe had no reaction. Then he nodded his head slightly.

After leading his brother out the door, Hoss started down the alley. He was unaware that one of Joe’s 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 Joe’s moan wasn’t 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!,”ordered 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.

Quickly, Hoss pulled back around the building, and 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.

As he shifted his weight onto his injured leg, Joe grunted in pain. Hoss winced at the sound. He wondered if the man behind the store had heard it. Joe moaned again. Quickly, Hoss reached up and put his hand over Joe’s mouth, muffling his brother’s 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. “We’ll go the other way.” He 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 and onto the street

Hoss heard the sound of the horses moving off. He waited a minute, then dropped his hand from Joe’s face. Hoss peered cautiously around the end of the building. The path was empty.

Quickly, Hoss pulled Joe toward him and led his brother back into the assay office.

As the side door of the office opened, Ben turned in surprise. 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.

“What’s wrong?” asked Ben in alarm as he watched Hoss lead Joe back into the store. Hoss didn’t answer at first. Joe’s 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 his brother onto the couch. Joe’s arms and legs flopped limply on the thick padding.

“What’s wrong?” asked Ben again. “Why didn’t 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.

“What’s the matter?” asked Ben as he saw Hoss’ frown.

Again, Hoss thought about the alley. He decided he had probably tripped and been thrown off-balance because of Joe’s weight. “It’s nothing, Pa,” he answered with a shrug.

Hearing Joe moaning softly on the couch, Hoss turned and knelt next to his brother. Ben hurried across the room to join his sons.

As Ben knelt next to the couch, Hoss put his hand on Joe’s forehead, then glanced over his shoulder at his father. “His fever is real high, I think he’s 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. “There’s nothing here,” added 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, I’m not sure it would help. The water coming out of those pumps was always kind of warm.”

Turning back to Joe, Ben laid his hand on Joe’s arm. “Hang on, son,” said Ben. “We’ll get you out of here soon.”

Laying on the couch with his eyes closed, Joe was breathing hard, and drenched in sweat. He was lost in a mist of pain and fever and couldn’t hear his father’s 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.

“Yeah,” replied Jim, nodding. “They were riding a buckskin and a black, just like these two.”

Looking around uneasily, Sam said, “I wonder where the riders are. I didn’t see any sign of them.”

Jim shrugged his shoulders. “I haven’t seen them. What are you going to do?”

“I’ll let Phillips decide,” Sam stated. 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 Jim’s 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. “They’re probably helping the kid.”

“I didn’t see them,” declared Jim. “I’ve been watching, and I haven’t seen anyone but you two.”

“Same here,” affirmed 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 hadn’t 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 don’t like this place. I want to get out of here.”

“I’m not giving it up,” said Phillips angrily. “I’m not giving up a chance at all that money. And I’m sure not going to let that kid get away, not after all the trouble he’s caused us.”

“Yeah,” agreed Sam, rubbing the bruise on his chin. “I owe that kid something, too.”

Billy shifted his weight uneasily 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. Jim, Billy, get back and keep watch. Sam and I will finish checking all the buildings. If we don’t find the kid and the other two, I’m going to burn this town to the ground. That’ll force them out. They’ll 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 they’re going to keep looking,” remarked Hoss as he watched the men scatter.

“Yes,” replied Ben in a distracted voice. He glanced over to the couch where Joe laid unmoving. “We’ve got to get him out of here, Hoss,” added Ben. “We’ve got to get him to a doctor.”

“Easier said than done,” replied Hoss. “Especially since they have the horses.”

“I know,” agreed Ben. He pursed his lips. “Maybe we could carry Joe out of here,” he suggested. “If we sneak behind the buildings and back down the old trail, they’d never see us. We could head up the trail to Bailey’s.”

“Pa, that ain’t no good and you know it,” stated Hoss. “It’s ten miles to Bailey’s Trading Post, more if we take the old trail. Joe’s about at the end of his rope. Even with us carrying him, he’d never make it that far. Besides, Bailey’s probably still in Virginia City.”

“I know,” said Ben with a sigh. He turned back to watch the street. Suddenly, Ben 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 they’re spreading out to search again,” commented Ben as the man went out of view. He looked over to Joe again and made a decision. “We haven’t got time to wait around any longer. We’re going to have to go after them.”

“There’s four of them, Pa,” said Hoss doubtfully. “That’s not very good odds. And if bullets start flying…well, there’s no telling what might get hit.” He looked over toward the couch. “Joe can’t take much more, Pa,” added Hoss softly.

“I don’t intend to start a gunfight,” replied Ben. “Not if I can help it. We’ll go after them one at a time.”

*****

Sam finished his search of the second building, not surprised that he didn’t find anything. He left the building with a sigh, and started toward the one next door, the old store. Sam hesitate 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 Miller’s 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 man’s 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 couldn’t 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.

Gripping the gun in his hand tightly, Sam 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. Odd 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, but he didn’t 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 Sam’s head against the door frame. Sam was unconscious before he hit the ground.

Rubbing his hands in satisfaction, Hoss stood over the man crumpled in the doorway. He picked up the gun from the ground and stuck it in his belt. Then he reached down, grabbed the man he had hit and dragged him into the store.

It took Hoss several minutes to remove the man’s belt and tie the man’s 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 man’s mouth as a gag. He dragged the unconscious man behind the counter then dropped him to the floor with a thud. Quickly, Hoss turned and slipped out the back door of the store.

After checking the alley, Hoss hurried down it to the side door of the assay office. He pushed the door open and went in.

“One down,” announced Hoss gleefully as he entered the building. He stopped as he looked across the room. Ben was kneeling next to the couch, stroking Joe’s head. “How’s he doing?” asked Hoss as he crossed the room.

Looking over his shoulder, Ben shook his head. “We’re running out of time,” he said softly. Hoss nodded grimly.

After giving Joe’s head a final pat, Ben stood. “We’re both going to have to go this time,” he stated. “You take the one at the east end, and I’ll take the one down by the stable. As soon as you take out your man, sneak down and meet me at the stable. We’ll get the horses and get Joe out of here.”

“What about the fourth one?” asked Hoss.

“He’s still in the hotel,” said Ben. “There’s a lot of rooms for him to search. With any luck, we’ll be out of Hawthorne before he’s done.”

Hoss looked at Joe on the couch. “Pa, we can’t leave Joe here all by himself,” he protested.

“We can’t 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,” argued Hoss. “Joe won’t have a chance if that guy finds him.”

“Don’t you think I’ve thought of that!” said Ben angrily. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell,” he added contritely. “I’m just worried about Joe. His leg is badly swollen and his fever is very high.”

“I know, Pa,” Hoss told his father. “I’m worried, too.”

“There’s only three of them now,” stated 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 doctor….” Ben took a deep breath. “I know we’re 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.

Suddenly, Ben saw the gun sticking out of Hoss’ belt. “Give me the gun,” he said, pointing to pistol. “We’ll leave it with Joe. I doubt if he’ll be able to use it, but at least he’ll have it.”

Quickly, Hoss pulled the gun out of his belt and handed it to Ben, who knelt next to the couch once more. “Joe,” he said, stroking his son’s head. “Joe, can you hear me?” Joe didn’t respond. “Joe, listen to me,” continued Ben. “Hoss and I are going to leave you for a bit. We’re going to the stable to get the horses so we can get you out of here. We’ll 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 Ben’s words.

But Ben continued as if Joe had answered. “I’m going to leave you a gun,” explained Ben. He put the pistol on the couch next to Joe’s left hand. “I don’t think you’ll need it, but you’ll have it just in case.” Joe continued to lay unmoving on the couch. “We’ll be back as soon as we can,” repeated Ben. “You just rest easy. We’ll have you out of here soon.”

Ben gave Joe’s head one last loving stroke, then stood up. He turned abruptly and started toward the side door. “Let’s go,” he ordered Hoss as he walked across the room. 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, then 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.

Cautiously, 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.

Looking down at the rock near his foot, Hoss had an idea. 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 then whirled his arm several times. After giving a quick nod of satisfaction, 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 and 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.

Rushing across the street, Hoss was 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 man’s 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 man’s holster and threw it far away. Then he pulled the man to the side of the building, out of sight. Hoss quickly removed the man’s belt, and tied his guard’s hands behind his back with the belt. As soon as he had finished, Hoss 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.

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw a movement out at the other end of the street. He turned just in time to see the guard crumple to the ground. Turning his head, 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. He quickly walked down the alley to the path, then turned to walk more slowly toward the stable a few buildings away.

As he approached the stable, Ben moved even more cautiously. He didn’t want to betray his presence to the guard before he was ready. Ben didn’t know his caution was unnecessary. Billy was dozing in the warm afternoon sun.

Slowly, Ben moved 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 once he was directly in front of Billy.

With a start, Billy woke and gave a small shriek when he saw the white haired stranger in front of him. That was all he time to do before Ben’s gun crashed into the side of his 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 Billy’s 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 couldn’t stop himself from checking on Joe. He 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 hadn’t moved since they left him. Joe’s 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 Joe’s forehead. “It won’t be long now,” said Hoss softly to his brother. “We’ll be back real soon to get you. I’m going down to the stable and meet Pa.” He 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.

Taking a quick look up and down the street, Hoss noted in satisfaction that it was deserted. His Pa must have gotten the guard down at the stable, and the fourth man was probably still 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.

Just Hoss got to the stable, Phillips came out of the hotel. He caught a glimpse of the big man going into the stable and frowned. Phillips looked up and down the street. Jim and Billy were no where to be seen. He wasn’t surprised about Billy, but Jim was usually a steady hand. Phillips called Sam’s name but didn’t get an answer. A grim expression crossed Phillips’ 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 and 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 ridden 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,” suggested 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 I’ll feel.”

Nodding again, Hoss walked toward the back of the stable and to the end of the wagon.

Quickly, 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. “We’re, er, we’re just after the supplies,” lied Ben. “We didn’t want to get shot by accident, so we, uh, ‘removed’ your men. They’re all right.”

“Just after the supplies, eh?” said Phillips with a cocked eyebrow. “And that’s why you’re 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, you’re the ones looking for the old man,” stated Phillips positively. “I’ll bet you’ve been helping the kid, too. I’ve wasted a whole day looking for him. Now where is he?”

Both Hoss and Ben remained silent.

Phillips lifted his gun a fraction. “That kid has foxed me all day,” remarked Phillips, the anger in his voice evident. “I’m tired of looking for him. And I’m 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.

“I’m not bluffing!” shouted Phillips in a rage. He cocked his gun. “If you don’t tell me where the kid is, I’m going to shoot the big one. Now, you have about ten seconds! Talk!”

*****

Joe stirred on the couch. He wasn’t sure what had waken him. Joe winced. His leg throbbed unmercifully, and his head was aching. His eyes looked around the room as he tried to remember where he was. He couldn’t remember much about what happened after Hoss had pulled him from the crawl space. He remembered seeing the blurry images of faces and hearing words that didn’t seem to make sense.

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 Joe’s brain. He didn’t bother with sorting out the images. He was too tired to even try to remember what happened. He started to drift off to sleep again.

“The stable!”

Joe heard the words in his head. He wasn’t sure where they came from. The voice sounded familiar but Joe’s thinking was too fuzzy to recognize it.

“The stable! You have to go to the stable!”

Once again, Joe heard the words. He wondered who had said them, but really didn’t care.

“Ben and Hoss need you! Go to the stable!”

The words echoed in Joe’s 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.

Moving slowly, 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.

Joe’s 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 stable!”

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.

Pushing open the door of the assay office, Joe looked out onto the empty street. He blinked his eyes, trying to remember where he was going.

“The stable!”

Once more, the voice echoed in Joe’s head. He turned to look at the stable. The old barnd seemed farther away than just a few buildings. Joe didn’t bother to think about it. He simply started limping slowly down the street, dragging his injured leg.

*****

“You pull that trigger and you’ll hang,” Ben warned Phillips.

Phillips laughed. “Mister, I’m already facing a noose,” he said. “Won’t 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 didn’t 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.

“I’ll show you where my son is,” agreed Ben.

“Pa! No!” protested Hoss.

“Your son, eh?” said Phillips. “Ain’t that cozy.” He gestured to Hoss. “The big one is your son, too? You just got lots of family, haven’t you?”

“I’ll take you to my son,” repeated Ben.

Phillips shook his head. “You think I have mush for brains?” he replied. “You show me to some building and then jump me. That’s the plan, isn’t it?” Ben didn’t answer but the expression on his face gave him away. He had been thinking just that.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Phillips stated. “You’re going to tell me where the kid is. I’m going to fix it so you both have to stay here. Then I go take care of the kid. If he isn’t where you tell me, I come back and shoot the big one.”

“Why should we tell you anything?” said Hoss angrily. “You’re 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 and the outlaw 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 Joe’s face, giving him an unnatural look.

Phillips wasn’t sure who or what the apparition was and he didn’t care. He raised his gun, ready to shoot the ghostly figure.

Immediately, 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.

Standing in the doorway, Joe wasn’t sure he had the strength to fire his gun. But he felt his finger squeezing the trigger. It was almost as if someone were pulling the trigger for him. The gun in Joe’s hand fired, sending a bullet directly into Phillips’ 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.

*****

Sitting tensely in the overstuffed chair in the doctors office, Ben stared at the picture on the opposite wall, but really didn’t 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. Martin’s office. If Ben hadn’t realized it, though, the grim look on Paul Martin’s face as the doctor examined Joe would have told Ben his son was in a critical condition.

Uneasily, Ben shifted 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 didn’t make the waiting any easier. And the waiting gave Ben time to fill his head with worry and doubt.

For about the twentieth time, 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 his son, and covered him with three blankets. Since 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.

Almost reverently, Ben had carried Andy Miller’s body out of the store and over to the hotel. He knew he couldn’t 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 hadn’t heard Hoss come into the doctor’s 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,” answered Ben with a shake of his head. “Paul said it could be quite awhile.”

Nodding, Hoss crossed the room and set the tray on a table next to Ben’s chair. “Why don’t you try and eat something,” suggested Hoss. “Mrs. Robinson made up some of those roast beef sandwiches just the way you like them.”

“I’m not hungry,” replied Ben.

“Pa, you haven’t eaten anything all day,” stated Hoss. “You’ll make yourself sick if you don’t eat.”

“Have you eaten anything?” asked Ben with a raised eyebrow.

With a guilty expression, Hoss looked away. “No,” he admitted. “I guess I’m not hungry either.” He turned back to Ben. “He’s going to be all right, Pa,” said Hoss with more conviction than he felt. “You know Joe. He’s tougher than old nails. He’ll come through this all right.”

Ben nodded but didn’t answer.

Settling down in the chair on the other side of the table, Hoss tried to think of something to talk about other than Joe. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his brother. In fact, the opposite was true. But 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 hadn’t 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, there’s 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 he’d find a nice place to bury Andy,” added Hoss. “Someplace pretty on the edge of town. He’ll let us know where.”

“Good,” said Ben. “It’s only right that Andy stay in Hawthorne. That’s 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 wasn’t in town. Maybe up in the mountains.”

Nodding, Hoss 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 remained silent.

For another thirty minutes, Ben and Hoss sat side by side, both silently contemplating what the doctor behind the closed door. Both men jumped to their feet when the examining room door opened, and Doctor Martin walked out.

“He’s not out of the woods yet, but he’s got a good chance,” announced the doctor, answering the unasked question on Ben and Hoss’ face. “I’ve 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. He’s a pretty sick boy.” Doctor Martin saw the stricken look on Ben’s and Hoss’ face. “But Joe is young and strong,” he added quickly. “If I were a betting man, I’d bet on him coming out of this just fine.”

Ben let out a sigh of relief and Hoss’ shoulders relaxed.

“It’s a good thing you got Joe here when you did,” remarked Doctor Martin. “Another few hours and that infection would have been much, much worse. I’m not sure I would have been able to save his leg…or 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 hadn’t been able to get Joe to the doctor sooner.

“Why don’t you two go over to the hotel and get some rest,” said Doctor Martin, knowing full well his suggestion would be ignored.

“We’ll sit with Joe,” answered Ben, surprising no one.

*****

It took less than a day for Joe’s 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 wasn’t 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 son’s face.

“The doctor said we can take you home tomorrow,” Ben announced as he settled himself in the chair next to Joe’s bed.

“Good,” answered Joe in a distracted voice.

Ben looked at his son. “Joe, is something wrong?”

Slowly, Joe shook his head. “No,” he answered. “Not really. It’s 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 sheriff’s visit would have upset Joe. “Roy already got a statement from Hoss and me.” Ben studied Joe. “He’s sure those three will spend the rest of their lives in prison, at the very least, if that’s what’s worrying you.”

“It’s not that,” Joe replied. “It’s just that, well, giving Roy my statement got me thinking about what happened in Hawthorne. It’s 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,” explained 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 hadn’t 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.

“I’m not sure I know myself,” admitted Joe. “It’s 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. “I’m not sure there’s an answer to that one,” he admitted. “There’s a logical explanation for everything that happened. The wind in those mountains have always been kind of funny, blowing up suddenly. And earth tremors aren’t 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 shouldn’t be doing them. I’ve 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. There’s 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. It’s 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 can’t remember a time when he wasn’t 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.”

“That’s human nature, Joe,” replied 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. It’s too bad that we don’t realize it when they are around, and tell them how much we think of them while we have the chance.”

“I guess you’re right,” agreed Joe. He looked at Ben. “By the way, what’s going to happen to Andy’s big strike? Who’s 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?”

“Hoss told Roy Coffee where Andy’s 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. There’s probably a million tons of rock between the entrance and that vein Andy found. I don’t 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 don’t believe in ghosts, but it sure is tough to think that everything that happened was just a coincidence.”

“Look at it this way, Joe,” Ben advised his son. “It’s kind of nice to think that Andy is still watching over us, isn’t it? Whether it’s true or not, that’s a comforting thought.”

“Yeah, yeah, I guess it is,” agreed Joe with a smile.

Ben stood up. “You get some rest,” he ordered. “Doc Martin wants you out of here tomorrow. He told me all your complaining is starting to scare away his patients.”

Grinning, Joe slid down on the bed a bit. Ben watched as his son made himself comfortable, then he pulled the blankets up over Joe’s shoulders, just as he had thousands of times when Joe was a little boy. Ben knew he did that more for himself than for Joe’s 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 started to walk out of the room.

“Pa?” Joe called from the bed.

Ben turned. “Yes?”

“Are you going over to Hawthorne to visit Andy’s grave?” asked Joe.

“Yes, I thought I would,” Ben answered. “I want to make sure it’s fixed up nice, and maybe say a few prayers.” Ben didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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? I don’t think I’m 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 with satisfaction.

*****End*****

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