Luck of the Day (by Susan)

Synopsis:  It’s a bad day to run a bank errand for Pa.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western,  Drama
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  12,650


 

If Ben Cartwright had it to do over, he would have never gone to Virginia City with his sons on that June day. The tasks they had to do in town that day were trivial – nothing that couldn’t have waited until another time. But for reasons Ben couldn’t remember, he had decided that was the day the Cartwrights were going to take care of all the jobs that needed to be handled in Virginia City. Although realistically Ben understood he could never have known what would happen, he cringed every time he thought about that day. What had happened that day was a matter of luck – both bad and good.

*****

“Pa, would you please hurry and make up your mind?” said Adam Cartwright in a irritated voice. “I want to finish up and get a beer.”

“I’m with Adam,” added Joe Cartwright, his voice sounding as cranky as his brother’s. “We’ve been loading and toting since we got here. Let’s get it done so we can get a cold beer.”

“Maybe we could get that beer now?” suggested Hoss Cartwright in a conciliatory tone. He glanced at his brothers before turning back to his father. “A little break might do us all some good.”

Smiling to himself, Ben stood studying the list in his hand. He knew he was dragging out a simple task but he couldn’t help himself. As much as he loved his sons, Ben couldn’t resist making them wait on him occasionally. It was a subtle reminder to his sons about who was in charge of the Ponderosa. He also took it as a token of his sons’ affection and respect for him that they waited for his decision. It was a good feeling and one he didn’t get to enjoy that often.

Ben glanced at his sons who surrounded him on the sidewalk. Adam was to his right, leaning again a post and looking at ease, but the narrowing of his eyes betrayed his growing irritation. Hoss stood on the street in front of Ben, near a wagon filled with sacks and barrels. His face showed more puzzlement than anything. Joe stood to his father’s left, hands on hips and eyes glowering. Ben almost let his smile escape to his lips. None of his sons were very good at hiding their emotions.

“Pa,” said Adam again through almost clenched teeth. “Any you ready yet?”

Sighing, Ben nodded. He knew he had stretched out the moment as long as he could. “All right,” he said looking up. “Here’s what’s left.” He turned to his oldest son. “Adam, you go down and send a telegram to Ferguson, letting him know we’re agreeing to his terms and will buy his horses. Then go over and pick up the mail.” Ben looked at his middle son. “Hoss, you go down to the livery stable and tell Sam we’re going to need about 100 horseshoes. We’ll pick them up the next time one of us is in town.” Turning to his youngest son, Ben said, “Joe, you go over to the bank and tell Mr. Wilson to make out a draft $500 to send to Ferguson for those horses.”

The faces surrounding Ben immediately broke into smiles, as he knew they would. Adam would spend at least 30 minutes picking up the latest news from the East when he picked up the mail, thought Ben, and Hoss would spend almost as long talking with Sam about his stock. The only one he wasn’t sure about was Joe. The amount of time Joe would spend at the bank depended on whether Sarah Wilson was working today or not.

“And what are you going to be doing?” Adam asked his father in an amused voice.

Smiling, Ben pushed back his hat. “I’m going to be over at the Silver Dollar having a cold beer.” He grinned at the surprised look on his son’s faces. “After all, age does have some privileges.”

“Pa, I never thought you’d ever admit to being older than us,” said Hoss with a grin.

“You watch your tone, young man,” replied Ben in mock anger. “You keep that up and I won’t buy that round of beers like I planned.”

“Just one?” said Joe, pulling his hat down on his forehead a bit. “After all the work we did today, I figure you owe us at least three beers each.”

“And I figure you’d better get going before I change my mind and decide we ought to go straight home,” countered Ben. His tone was serious but his eyes twinkled with amusement.

“Pa, you can be down right mean when you want to,” commented Joe with a grin. His father and brothers joined Joe in a hearty laugh.

“Get going, all of you,” ordered Ben with a smile. “I’ll meet you over at the Silver Dollar.” He watched his sons with affection as they scattered in different directions down the street. Then he turned and walked toward the saloon, feeling that he was a lucky man. It was feeling that wouldn’t last.

*****

Walking into the bank, Joe’s eyes strayed immediately to the teller’s cage to his left. His face showed his disappointment when he saw a thin young man standing behind one set of bars, and a man in his fifties standing behind another. Both tellers were busy – the young man was counting out bills for a well-dressed woman in her forties and the older teller was filling in a paper for a grizzled man who had the look of a prospector.

Searching the bank with his eyes, Joe looked for Sarah, hoping she may have been busy elsewhere. He knew it was a foolish hope. The bank wasn’t all the big and Sarah worked only as a teller. Nevertheless, Joe looked behind the tellers, toward the large bank vault that stood ajar. Seeing nothing but the two men, Joe turned his head toward the back of the bank where Mr. Wilson sat behind a large desk covered with papers. The chair in front of the desk was empty. With a last look, Joe turned his head to the right. Three wooden chairs stood empty against the wall, waiting for customers. A small credenza, decorated with a tablecloth and a vase of flowers, separated the chairs from the desk at the back of the bank. Joe knew the flowers and tablecloths were Sarah’s work. She was always after her father to make the bank look less austere.

Sighing, Joe walked slowly toward the desk at the back of the bank. He tipped his hat at the woman as she turned to leave, and he noted the prospector was collecting some money and also preparing to leave. Not a day of booming business for the bank, Joe decided.

“Hello, Joseph,” said Mr. Wilson, smiling at the young man who walked toward him. He had seen Joe stop inside the door and look around. “My daughter isn’t here today,” he added with amusement.

“So I see,” said Joe, sitting himself down in the chair in front of the desk. “Nothing wrong, I hope.”

“No,” replied Wilson. “Sarah had some shopping to do, and since Billy and Bert aren’t that busy, I told her to go ahead. I’m surprised you didn’t see her on the street. Of course, she’s probably still inside the dress shop.” Wilson shook his head. “I can’t understand why it takes her so long to pick out one dress.”

“All I can say is that it’s worth the time,” said Joe, grinning. “The dress she wore at the dance last Saturday was really pretty.”

“I’m surprised you noticed,” replied Wilson with a twinkle in his eyes. “Seems like every time I looked, you were dancing with a different girl. Since you only danced with Sarah twice, I didn’t think her dress caught your eye.”

“Oh, I noticed,” said Joe, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. He cleared his throat. “Uh, Mr. Wilson, Pa wants a bank draft for $500,” he added, quickly changing the subject.

Still smiling, Wilson reached for a paper from the corner of his desk. “Of course.”

The door of the bank banged against the wall as it was pushed open and four men rushed in holding guns. The four people already in the bank turned toward the door, each of their faces showing a look of surprise. The outlaws fanned out in a straight line across the front of the building. One held a shotgun, another a rifle, and the last two had pistols in their hands. All were rough looking men, with unshaven faces and wearing a thin layer of dust and dirt on their clothes. The two holding pistols had saddlebags thrown over their shoulders. The one with the rifle turned and slammed the door shut.

“This is a hold-up,” said one of the men with a pistol unnecessarily. “Now everyone raise their hands and move real slow toward the back wall.”

The tellers behind cage raised their hands and walked slowly toward the back of the bank. The younger man looked scared – his raised hands trembled in the air. The older man’s hands were steadier, but his eyes were wide with fright.

Twisted in his chair toward the front of the bank, Joe sat for a minute, calculating his odds against four armed men. Wilson saw Joe’s eyes narrow. “Do what they say, Joe,” said Wilson in a low voice. He stood up behind his desk and raised his hands.

Reluctantly, Joe raised his hands and pushed the chair back a bit with his legs. He stood slowly, a frown of anger on his face.

“Hold it!” ordered the man with the rifle, pointing it at Joe. “Take that gun out of your holster and drop it to the floor. And do it real slow.”

Reaching down with one hand, Joe put his thumb and forefinger around the butt of his pistol. He pulled the gun slowly from his holster and held it away from his body for a moment so the man with the rifle could see it. Then he dropped the gun to the floor. The pistol hit the floor barrel first, causing the gun to skid across the floor and under the credenza.

“All right,” said the man, gesturing with the rifle. “Get over there with the others.”

Walking with his hands in the air, Joe moved toward the other three people who standing against the wall. He watched carefully as the men with the saddle bags moved around the end the teller’s cage. “Watch ‘em close,” said one of the men as he shifted the saddlebag off his shoulder and into his free hand. “If any of makes a move, shoot them.”

The two men with the pistols pulled open the door of the bank vault. One began filling his saddlebag with cash. But the other man simply stood looking into the vault, a frown on his face. He studied the inside of the vault for several minutes, then whirled around and stalked toward the people with their hands in the air. The man pushed Joe aside and grabbed Wilson’s jacket, pulling the bank manager toward him. “Where’s the gold?” the outlaw demanded.

“What gold?” asked Wilson in a shaky voice.

“You know what gold,” snarled the robber. “The shipment of gold coins from the Carson mint. Close to $20,000 worth. They were suppose to be delivered here this morning.”

“How did you know that?” asked Wilson in an astonished voice.

“Never mind how I know,” answered the man with the gun. “Where’s the gold?”

“It’s not here,” Wilson stated.

“You’re lying!” shouted the man. He raised the hand holding his gun high. “Unless you want to feel this crack your skull, you’d better tell me where the gold is.”

“It’s not here, I swear,” said Wilson in a terrified voice. “I got a telegram this morning saying the shipment was delayed. It’s coming in on the 5:00 stage. The telegram is on my desk if you don’t believe me.”

“Show me!” the robber ordered. He pushed Wilson toward the desk. The banker hurried over to his desk and quickly sorted through some papers. He pulled out a telegram slip and turned back toward the man with the pistol. “Here it is,” said Wilson, holding the telegram out. His hand was shaking.

Snatching the paper from Wilson, the robber read it slowly. His lips seemed to move as he looked at the words on the paper.

Standing a few feet away, Joe couldn’t resist a jibe. “Want me to read it for you?” he asked.

The man looked up and pointed his pistol at Joe. “Shut your mouth,” he snarled. “Or I’ll shut it for you.” Joe’s eyes narrowed, and his lips pressed together. He had already decided that this wasn’t the smartest gang of bank robbers in the world. Anyone who tried to rob a bank in broad daylight and expected to get away with it hadn’t really thought things through. But at the same time, Joe realized that a lack of intelligence didn’t make the men any less dangerous. If anything, they were more likely to shoot first and think about it later.

The gunman turned to the man who was standing near the vault. “How much did you get?” he asked.

“About $8,000,” answered the robber near the vault.

“$8,000,” said the man with the telegram in his hand. “That’s a long way from $20,000.” He looked up and stared at a clock hanging high on the back wall.

“It’s almost two,” offered Joe helpfully.

The man whirled toward Joe. “Boy, you’re begging to get shot, ain’t you? I can read a clock. Now shut up.”

“What are we going to do, Cal?” asked the man with the shotgun standing near the front of the bank. “We can’t hang around here for three hours.”

“I’m thinking!” shouted Cal. He looked around the bank, as if a solution to his problem could be found among the furniture or on the walls.

“If I were you, I’d take what I could and get out of here,” suggested Joe. “It’s only a matter of time until someone walks through that door.” From the corner of his eye, Joe could see Wilson open his mouth in protest and then quickly close it. Both Joe and the banker knew the sooner the robbers were gone, the sooner they all would be safe. Wilson would miss the $8,000 but the gold shipment arriving later that day would easily cover the loss. Eight thousand dollars was a lot of money but it wasn’t worth someone getting killed over.

“Cal, let’s do what the kid suggests,” said the man standing near the vault. The saddlebags thrown over his shoulder were bulging. “We can have a pretty good time on what we have now.”

“We can have a better time with that gold,” insisted Cal stubbornly. He turned to the two men standing in the front of the building. “Frank, Wade, you two move away from the door so no one sees you.” The man with the rifle and the one with the shotgun moved to the side of the building. “Ed,” said Cal turning back toward the vault. “You keep an eye on these people. If any of them try anything, shoot them.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Ed curiously as he moved toward the end of the teller’s cage.

“I’m going to do some thinking,” replied Cal, with a frown. “I got to figure out away we can get that gold.”

“Look, you’re not going to get that gold,” said Joe in what he hoped was a reasonable voice. “Why don’t you just take what you have and get out of here while you still can. Nobody gets hurt and you get a head start on the posse.”

“Shut up!” shouted Cal in a rage. He turned his gun and pointed it directly at Joe.

*****

Ambling slowly down the sidewalk, Hoss was filled with a sense of disappointment. Sam had been too busy at the livery to do more than make a note of the order for horseshoes and gruffly agree to have them ready in a few days. Hoss had been looking forward to a chatting with Sam, and he felt like he had been denied a promised reward.

As he walked toward the Silver Dollar, Hoss realized he was nearing the bank. A wry smile twitched on Hoss’ lips as he thought of Joe inside the bank, probably talking with Sarah, maybe even holding hands with her. Joe never seemed to be disappointed, thought Hoss, especially when it came to a pretty gal. Hoss began to picture the look on his little brother’s face if he walked into the bank to “help” him with the bank draft. He could see the frustration on Joe’s face and hear him squawking like a mad hen. The more he thought about the idea, the wider the grin grew on Hoss’ face.

The sound of laughter distracted Hoss from his thoughts of Joe. He stopped on the sidewalk and looked toward the source of the noise. He could hear some shouts and laughter coming from the Silver Dollar, which was across the street and down a bit. For a minute, Hoss considered his choices. He could go over to the saloon and see what was causing all the fun. Or he could head into the bank and have a little fun himself at his little brother’s expense.

Hoss stared at the saloon for a minute, trying to make up his mind. Then, with a devilish grin on his face, he turned and walked purposely toward the bank.

*****

Hands in the air, Joe took a step back from the angry Cal. “Easy,” said Joe cautiously. “I was just trying to help.”

“You can help by keeping your mouth shut,” snapped Cal. “I don’t need any advice from you.”

Nodding, Joe took another step back. He had hoped to nudge Cal and his friends into deciding to leave, but Joe realized he had pushed too hard. Cal obviously had a temper, and Joe was sure it wouldn’t take much to set off the man. He decided discretion was the better part of valor in this case, and resolved to keep any further suggestions to himself.

Everyone in the bank was watching the confrontation between Joe and Cal, including the gunmen near the door. No one realized someone was entering the bank until the door began to open. Hearing the rattle of the door, Cal spun around and aimed his gun.

It took Joe less than a second to recognize the big man in the tall white hat who was pushing the door open. He heard a click as Cal cocked his pistol. Without a thought, Joe took two steps and launched himself at the robber.

Joe’s shoulder hit Cal in the side at instant before the gunman pulled the trigger. The force knocked Cal to the ground, but didn’t prevent him from shooting. The sound almost deafened Joe as the bullet exploded from the gun near his ear. But Joe’s tackle spoiled the gunman’s aim. The bullet flew wildly through the air, ending up somewhere in the ceiling.

Startled by the gunshot, Hoss stopped as he came through the door. Almost at once, he felt a gun in his back and heard a voice growl, “Get ‘em up, big man.” Hoss raised his hands with an almost distracted move. He didn’t feel the pistol being pulled from his holster or hear the door being closed behind him. Hoss’ eyes were fixed on the two men struggling on the floor.

Reaching out his left hand, Joe grabbed Cal’s right wrist, just below the gun. He had some vague notion of knocking the gun from Cal’s hand and then grabbing it, somehow using the weapon against the other men. He threw a punch with his right fist at Cal’s face, landing a blow without much force. The punch angered rather than hurt Cal, and the robber returned the blow. His aim with his fist was as bad as his aim with a gun, and Cal’s punch landed in the middle of Joe’s chest.

Rolling to the side, Joe pulled Cal with him. The two men threw ineffectual punches at each other with one hand while they struggled for the gun with the other. Joe managed to get to his knees and pulled hard on Cal’s right wrist. The gunman brought his leg up and pushed at Joe’s stomach with his own knee. Joe fell backwards, but kept his grip on Cal’s arm, dragging the man toward him. Cal landed on top of Joe.

The sound of a shot and the whiz of a bullet landing near his ear startled Joe. He looked up to see Ed pointing his gun at him. The distraction was all Cal needed to pull his wrist free. Cal raised his gun high and then brought it down swiftly, crashing the pistol into Joe’s head.

Joe literally saw stars as he was stunned by the blow. He felt a sharp pain in his temple, and then a warm liquid began to trickle into his eye. Joe raised his hands in a feeble attempt to protect himself. His hands were pushed aside.

The second blow crashed into the side of Joe’s head, this time causing only bruising, not breaking the skin. Joe felt the flat metal hit his head, not knowing or caring what part of the gun was causing his pain.

The third blow hit Joe high on the head. The hammer of the pistol caught Joe’s scalp at the hairline, tearing open the skin and causing another stream of blood to run down his face. But Joe didn’t feel the third blow. By the time the gun landed, he was already unconscious.

*****

Leafing through the envelopes in his hand, Adam was strolling up the street toward the Silver Dollar when he heard the shot. He looked up, turning his head quickly as he tried to figure out from which direction the noise had come. His head snapped toward the bank when he heard the second shot. Adam stuck the envelopes through his belt and began running up the street.

Half a dozen men were running toward the bank from all directions as Adam neared the building. All them skidded to a halt as the blast of a shotgun blew through the bank window. The blast was meant as a warning; the pellets flew harmlessly into the sky. The warning was taken, though. The men in the street rushed to find cover behind buildings and water troughs.

Sitting in the Silver Dollar, Ben never heard the shots. The laughter and shouts from the dozen or so other men in the saloon had drowned them out. Ben was sitting at a table, sipping a beer and grinning as he watched a tipsy cowboy trying to teach one of the girls how to do the Virginia Reel. The cowboy and the girl were laughing almost as hard as the on-lookers as they bumped into each other and the chairs around them.

“Is Sheriff Coffee in here?” shouted a voice from the door. The saloon grew quiet as everyone turned to the man standing by the entrance. “Is the sheriff here?” shouted the man again.

“No,” answered Ben in a loud voice. “What’s wrong?”

“The bank is being robbed,” said the man. “We heard some shots.” He turned and rushed out the door.

Pushing back from the table, Ben ran to the door and out on to the street. He hurried toward the bank, his heart in his throat. The only thought in his mind was that he had sent Joe to that bank.

As Ben neared the bank, he saw a number of men crouched behind buildings and water troughs. All had their guns drawn and pointed toward the bank. Ben saw Adam behind the water trough directly across from the entrance to the bank, and he hurried to join him.

“Adam, what’s going on?” asked Ben as he slid next to his son behind the wooden structure.

“I don’t know for sure, Pa,” answered Adam. “There were a couple of shots from inside the bank. Then somebody from the bank fired a shotgun into the street.”

“Do you know…who’s inside?” asked Ben fearfully.

Shaking his head, Adam answered, “We haven’t seen anybody. I saw a couple of shadows near the window but that’s all.” Adam turned toward his father. “I don’t know if Joe is in there or not,” he added softly.

Another body suddenly knelt next to Ben and Adam behind the trough. Both men turned to see the grim face of Roy Coffee looking at them. “I was way up near the stamp mill,” said Roy. “What’s happening here?”

As Adam repeated what he had told Ben, Roy’s face grew even more serious. “So you don’t know how many there are or who might be inside the bank with them,” said Roy as Adam finished.

“No, we don’t,” admitted Adam. “All we know for sure is that some shots have been fired.”

Gripping Roy’s arm, Ben said to his old friend, “I think Joe is in there. I sent him over a little while ago to get a bank draft.”

Roy patted Ben’s hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry. I aim to get everyone out of there with no one getting hurt. And that includes your son, Ben.”

*****

The confusion on the street was nothing compared to the chaos inside the bank. As the robbers ran to the front of the building, Hoss and the other hostages ran toward Joe.

Hoss had watched in horror as Cal hit Joe with his gun. He had taken a step forward, ready to charge across the room, when he felt the rifle digging deeper into his back. “Don’t try it,” said a voice behind Hoss. “You’ll be dead before you take two steps.” Hoss had hesitated, wanting to help Joe but knowing that getting himself killed wouldn’t accomplish anything. When Cal had hit Joe the second time, Hoss tensed his body. The third blow decided him. He would rather be killed than stand by and watch his brother beaten to death.

As Hoss had started forward, the blast of the shotgun through the bank window froze him as well as everyone else. Cal stopped with his hand poised in the air for another blow. He turned to look toward the front of the building.

“Whooyee!” cried Wade as he looked out the window, the smoking shotgun still in his hand. “You should have seen them scatter. Just like chickens running from a coyote!”

Lowering his hand, Cal slipped his gun back into his holster. He looked down at Joe’s now bloody head and smirked. “Taught you, big mouth,” he said. Then he pushed Joe, rolling him a foot or so until Joe ended face down near the credenza.

Scrambling to his feet, Cal rushed to the front of the building with Ed at his heels. The two men passed Hoss who was hurrying toward the back of the building toward Joe. None of the men paid any attention to each other. Each as intent on reaching their objective.

As Cal and Ed reached the front of the building, they peered cautiously out the window. Frank and Wade also looked toward the street. Wade had broken his shotgun at the barrel and was re-loading the weapon as he looked through the broken glass in front of him. All of the robbers were careful to stay back from the line of fire.

“Why’d you shoot?” demanded Cal angrily.

“Because they was all running toward the bank,” explained Wade. “I figured I’d scare them off before they started sending some bullets in here.”

“There sure are a lot of them out there,” commented Frank as he began to count the gun barrels and bodies half-hidden across the street.

“What are we going to do?” asked Ed in a worried voice. “We try to shoot our way out, we’re dead for sure.”

“We ain’t going to shoot our way out,” Cal said disgustedly. “We have hostages. We just need to figure out how to use them.”

As the bank robbers discussed their next move, Hoss knelt on the floor next to Joe. He had turned Joe on his back as soon as he had reached his brother, frantically feeling for a pulse at Joe’s neck and sighing with relief when he found it. Now Hoss was doing his best to staunch the bleeding from the cuts above Joe’s eye and in his scalp. He pressed the bandanna he had pulled from his pocket against Joe’s head. The cloth was quickly becoming stained with his brother’s blood.

“Here, Hoss, put this under his head,” said a voice to Hoss’ right. Hoss looked up and saw Wilson had removed his suit coat and folded it to make a pillow. Gently lifting Joe’s head, Hoss took the folded coat and put it on the floor. Then he lowered Joe’s head to rest on it.

Pressing the cloth against Joe’s head again, Hoss tried to wake Joe. “Joe,” he said in a loud voice. “Can you hear me, boy?” He repeated the phrase twice, but his efforts were in vain. Joe laid still, his eyes closed.

“That man…he had no call to beat Joe like that,” said Billy, the young teller is a trembling voice.

“Joe saved your life,” Wilson said softly to Hoss. “That fellow Cal was going to shoot you as you walked in. Joe jumped him to stop him.”

“I figured it was something like that,” replied Hoss. He swallowed hard, and closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them again, Hoss reached up and patted Joe lightly on the head. “Come on, Joe,” he said insistently. “Open up your eyes for ol’ Hoss.”

“All of you – get away from him,” snarled a voice from across the room. Everyone crowded around Joe turned to look at the voice. Cal stood in the middle of the room, gun in hand. “Get over here and sit on the floor where I can keep an eye on you,” said Cal, gesturing with his gun. “Move!”

Three of the people standing near Joe turned and walked slowly away. They walked to the back of the building and sat on the floor. Only Hoss remained by Joe. He continued to press the cloth against his brother’s face.

“You too, big man” ordered Cal. “Get over there with the rest of them.”

“My brother needs help,” replied Hoss, not looking at Cal. “I’m staying here with him.”

“Your brother, eh?” said Cal, eyeing Hoss speculatively. “That figures. You got a big mouth, just like him. What’s your name?”

“Cartwright,” answered Hoss shortly.

“Cartwright, like in Ben Cartwright?” asked Cal. “The guy that owns the Ponderosa?”

“That’s right,” replied Hoss. He turned to Cal. “Our Pa is a powerful man. Unless you want a posse the size of an army chasing you for the rest of your life, you’d better get my brother out of here and to a doctor.”

Ignoring Hoss’ comment, Cal rubbed his chin. “Ben Cartwright’s boys,” he said thoughtfully. “This do make things interesting. Not only do I have hostages, but I have hostages they don’t dare shoot at.”

“I wouldn’t count on that if I were you,” warned Hoss.

“Oh, I think I can,” said Cal. His face grew grim again. “Now, leave the kid alone and get over there with the others.”

“I’m staying here,” Hoss replied stubbornly. “I’m not leaving my brother. He’s hurt bad.”

“I can fix it so there ain’t any need for you to worry about him,” said Cal, cocking the hammer of his gun. “I got me one Cartwright as a hostage. I don’t necessarily need two.”

A look of pure fury crossed Hoss’ face as he stood, putting himself between the gunman and his brother. He took a step forward. Cal lifted his pistol and aimed it at Joe. “I wouldn’t,” said Cal in a threatening voice.

Stopping, Hoss stared at the man in front of him. He saw the cold eyes and the lack of even the smallest bit of compassion on his face. Hoss had no doubt he would shoot him. Hoss was less concerned about that than what would happen to Joe if he were shot. He glanced over his shoulder to his brother laying still and unconscious on the floor. Hoss walked slowly to the back of the bank and sat down with the other hostages.

“Good choice,” sneered Cal, uncocking his gun. “Hey, Ed,” Cal called over his shoulder. “Come here and keep an eye on them.”

Ed had been looking out the window at the front of the bank. Hearing Cal’s call, he pulled his gun out of his holster and walked toward the back of the building. He stopped when he reached Cal.

“Keep an eye on them,” Cal repeated to Ed. “If any of them gives you trouble, shoot them. All except the big one. If he gives you any trouble, just shoot the kid on the floor.” Cal turned and walked toward the front of the building. As he walked away, Cal tried to ignore the anger burning in the eyes of the big man at the end of the room.

*****

“How long do you think it’s been?” asked Adam as he sat behind the water trough.

“I don’t know,” answered Ben. “Twenty, maybe thirty minutes.” He looked around him. Almost twenty men were hidden behind crates and in doorways, all holding rifles tensely and all watching the bank. Roy Coffee had been a busy man in the last twenty minutes, recruiting and positioning men to watch the bank. He had even deputized some men to guard either end of the street, keeping curious onlookers and distraught relatives away from the bank. He had been particularly careful to find Sarah Wilson and made sure several women were sitting with the girl over at the hotel.

“Have you seen Hoss?” asked Adam. “He must have heard what was happening.”

“Maybe Roy has him positioned somewhere else,” suggested Ben. He twisted his head, trying to find a familiar shape in the shadows of the men hidden around them.

As Ben looked around, he saw Roy hurrying to him, crouched low. Ben had always had great confidence in his old friend as a lawman, and Roy’s actions in the last twenty minutes had done nothing to shake that confidence. Ben waited anxiously for Roy to reach them, hoping the sheriff had some news for them.

“Anything happening?” asked Roy as he knelt behind the water trough with Ben and Adam.

“No, nothing,” answered Ben.

“What are they waiting for?” asked Adam.

“Maybe they’re waiting for us to make the first move,” replied Roy. “And I believe I’m going to accommodate them right now.” Roy stuck his head up and shouted toward the bank. “You men in the bank! This is the sheriff. Can you hear me?”

Several minutes passed in silence. Roy waited patiently but both Adam and Ben watched the bank nervously. Suddenly a voice called from the bank.

“What do you want?”

“I want to talk,” shouted Roy. “I’m going to come to the middle of the street unarmed. I want one of you to do the same. I promise nothing will happen. Are you agreed?”

Once again, several minutes passed with no reply. Adam and Ben looked at each other and both could see the tension on the other’s face. Just when Ben felt he could stand the silence no longer, a reply came from the bank.

“No, sheriff, we ain’t fools. I’m coming out, but I’m bringing my gun and one of the hostages. Anybody tries something and there’s going to be a dead Cartwright in the street.”

A feeling of both fear and relief surged through Ben. His fear that Joe was in the bank had been confirmed, but if he was coming out with one of the robbers, Ben was sure his son was unharmed.

“All right,” shouted Roy. He undid his gunbelt and slipped it to the ground.

“I’m going with you, Roy,” said Ben, unbuckling his gunbelt also.

Frowning, Roy looked down at Ben. He started to protest but decided that it would be no use. “You can come with me, Ben, “ agreed Roy. “But let me do all the talking.” Ben nodded.

Roy stood and walked around the end of the water trough. He walked slowly, making sure the men in the bank could see he was unarmed. Ben got to his feed and followed Roy. Both men stopped in the middle of the street.

“Who’s that with you?” shouted a voice from the bank.

“Ben Cartwright,” answered Ben. “I just want to make sure my son is all right.”

Standing in the middle of the street, Roy and Ben waited. The minutes passed once more, and Ben began to worry his presence might have upset the men in the bank. He also felt very vulnerable, standing out in the open without a gun, but Ben was determined to stay. He had to talk with his son.

When the door of the bank finally opened, Ben’s eyes grew wide with surprise. He had expected to see Joe walk out the door. Instead, the huge figure of Hoss filled the doorway.

Walking slowly from the bank, Hoss came toward Ben. Cal walked behind Hoss, using his hostage’s bulk as a shield. Cal’s gun was stuck in the middle of Hoss’ back. “That’s close enough,” said Cal when the pair were about five feet from Ben and Roy. Hoss stopped and waited.

“Hoss!” said Ben in astonishment. “What are you doing in there?”

“I went looking for Joe,” explained Hoss. “Just my bad luck, I walked into the middle of a bank robbery.”

“Did they kill anyone?” asked Roy.

“No, not yet,” replied Hoss. He glanced over his shoulder toward Cal. “They keep threatening to, but they ain’t killed anyone yet.” Both Roy and Ben let out a sigh of relief as Hoss spoke.

“Is Joe inside?” asked Ben. Hoss nodded. “Is he all right?” asked Ben.

The look of pain and anger that crossed Hoss’ face told Ben the answer before his son replied. “They pistol-whipped him, Pa,” said Hoss grimly. “He’s in pretty bad shape.” Ben grew pale and swallowed hard.

“All right, enough of this family chitchat,” said Cal from behind Hoss. “What do you want?”

“You’re surrounded,” explained Roy in a calm voice. “No way for you to get out. I want you to put down your guns and walk out with your hands up.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Cal with a laugh. “We’ll just walk out that door and right into your jail.”

“If you don’t give yourselves up, I can’t guarantee you’ll come out of this alive,” said Roy. “My jail is a whole lot better than Boot Hill.”

“We’ve got a bunch of hostages inside,” replied Cal. “I don’t think you want any of them killed. And that’s what’s going to happen if you start shooting. Ask the big man here. He’ll tell you. We ain’t particular about what we do.”

Both Ben and Roy looked at Hoss. Hoss nodded briefly.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” said Cal. “You’re going to bring a wagon around to the front of the bank, all hitched and ready to go. Fill the wagon with some canteens and supplies. At five o’clock, when that stage gets in, you go get the gold shipment from it, and put the gold in the wagon. Then we’ll come out. We’ll bring our ‘friends’ with us. And we’ll all get into the wagon and ride away. Anybody tries to stop us, there’s going to be a bunch of dead hostages in the street.”

“I’ll need to think about that,” replied Roy calmly.

“You do that,” said Cal. “But if that wagon ain’t in front of the bank by five o’clock, we’re going to start shooting. And the first bullets ain’t going to be toward the street.”

“I understand,” Roy said. His eyes narrowed. “Now you understand me. Hoss says nobody’s been killed. We aim to keep things that way. If we hear any shots, we’ll figure you killed a hostage, and we won’t have any reason to stay put. We’ll come at that bank with twenty guns, and I guarantee you that you’ll end up on Boot Hill”.

Frowning, Ben looked at Roy. He couldn’t believe the sheriff meant what he had said. An all-out gun battle would almost insure all the hostages would be killed.

Roy ignored Ben’s look and continued. “You understand me?”

“Yeah, I understand you,” replied Cal. “You just make sure that wagon’s here by five o’clock.” He took a step back and pulled Hoss by the arm.

“Wait!” shouted Ben quickly. “My youngest son is hurt. Will you let us get him out of there and to a doctor?”

Cocking his head, Cal looked at Ben. “No, I don’t think so,” said Cal in a pensive voice. “I need the kid to keep the big man here under control. And having two Cartwrights inside just makes me feel a whole lot safer than having just one.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed and his face grew grim. “You’ve harmed one of my sons already,” said Ben in a voice cold as death itself. “If you harm the other one, or if my youngest son doesn’t recover, you won’t need to worry about a posse. I’ll come after you myself, and swear I’ll make you regret the day you were born.”

“Ben…” warned Roy Coffee.

“You understand me?” asked Ben, ignoring the sheriff.

Seeing the look on Ben’s face and hearing his voice, Cal shivered a bit. He had no doubt the gray-haired man meant what he said. Then Cal’s natural bravado took over. “Sure,” he said grinning at Ben. “I hear you.”

“Just remember what I said,” Ben continued in a flat voice. The lack of emotion in Ben’s voice made it clear that his threat was not an idle one.

“I said I heard you,” Cal spat out angrily. He wasn’t about to let the men in the street see any fear. He grabbed Hoss’ arm and spun the big man toward him. Cal turned and began walking back to the bank. He pulled Hoss after him, keeping his gun in Hoss’ stomach and making sure Hoss shielded him. The two walked a few steps toward the bank. Then Hoss stopped. He looked over his shoulder toward the two men standing in the street. “Don’t worry, Pa,” said Hoss. “I’ll look after Joe.”

Ben and Roy stood in the middle of the street, watching until Cal pulled Hoss into the bank and the door was shut behind them. Then they turned and hurried back to the water trough.

Adam was waiting anxiously for the two men. “What did they say?” he demanded. “And how did Hoss get in there?”

Quickly, Ben told his oldest son what had been said on the street. Adam winced as Ben repeated Hoss’ comment about Joe being pistol whipped. As he finished, his account of the conversation, Ben turned to Roy. “You didn’t mean what you said about rushing the bank, did you?” asked Ben with concern. “They’ll kill the hostages for sure if we do.”

“No, I didn’t mean it,” Roy reassured his friend. “But it’s the best way I could think of to try to keep the hostages alive until we figure out what to do.”

“You can’t seriously be thinking of giving them a wagon,” said Adam in an alarmed tone. “They’ll kill the hostages as soon as they figure they’re safe.”

“I know that, Adam,” agreed Roy. “But I had to find out what was going on and what they wanted. Now we know. We have until 5:00 to figure out some way of getting Hoss and Joe and the others out of there.”

“Any ideas?” asked Ben.

Looking glum, Roy shook his head. “Not a one, Ben,” he said sadly.

*****

Inside the bank, Cal also was reporting on what happened in the street. “Went just like I said it would,” boasted the robber to the other three gang members gathered around him. Hoss stood a few feet away, a look of disgust on his face.

“They’re going to give us the wagon?” said Frank in surprise.

“They will,” replied Cal confidently. “You wait and see. There’ll be a wagon loaded with supplies and the gold in front of the bank by 5:00.”

“I still don’t like the idea of a wagon,” complained Ed. “Why don’t we just get some horses. It’ll be faster that way.”

“I explained it to you, knucklehead,” replied Cal in exasperation. “On horses, they could pick us off. With us in the middle of the wagon and them all around us, they won’t be able to get to us.”

“Yeah, but what are we going to do with them once we’re out of town?” asked Ed in whining voice. “And how are we going to get to Mexico?”

“Once we get away, we’ll dump the wagon and buy some horses,” answered Cal, his voice reflecting his irritation. “We’ll have plenty of money. As for them, we’ll dump them too.”

“Alive?” asked Frank in a laconic voice.

“What do you think?” replied Cal, with an evil smile. He turned to Ed. “Get back there and watch them. I don’t want to take any chances now.”

“Aw, they ain’t going to cause any trouble,” replied Ed. He grinned. “They’re too scared. And the kid is still out cold.”

“Well, you watch them anyway,” ordered Cal.

Walking cautiously, Hoss started to the back of the bank.

“Hey, where you going, big man?” demanded Cal as he saw Hoss moving toward the back.

“I’m going to check on my brother,” replied Hoss, continuing to walk.

“You go sit with them others,” said Cal, gesturing with his gun.

Stopping, Hoss turned to Cal, the anger evident on his face. “I’m checking on my brother,” said Hoss in a stubborn voice. “You remember what my Pa and the sheriff said out there in the street? Anything happens to him or to anyone else in here, you ain’t going to get out of here alive.”

A shiver ran up Cal’s spine as he remembered the look on Ben’s face. “Well, all right,” he said in a reluctant voice. “Check on the kid and then go sit down with the others.” Cal lifted his gun. “And don’t try anything. I’m willing to take my chances and shoot anyone who gives us trouble.”

Nodding his understanding, Hoss hurried over to Joe and knelt next to his brother.

At first, Hoss thought Joe was laying in the same position as before. But as he bent over his brother, Hoss noticed Joe’s arms seemed to be stretched out further and his legs looked spread a little wider. Hoss hoped he wasn’t imagining things. If Joe had moved even a little bit, it was a good sign.

Gently removing the bloody cloth from the side of Joe’s face, Hoss checked the cuts and bruises. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle. Hoss could see where the blood had dried and matted Joe’s hair. But the skin around the cuts and on the side of Joe’s head was swelling, and Hoss could see the purple and black marks forming through the rusty streams of dried blood. Joe’s face looked pale, and a fine sheen of sweat had formed on the uninjured portion of his face. And Joe’s eyes remained closed.

Deciding the cuts were closing, Hoss threw the bloody cloth aside. He put his hand on the top of Joe’s head and shook his brother gently. “Joe,” said Hoss, trying to keep the worry out of his voice, “can you hear me, boy? Wake up, Joe. Please, Joe, open your eyes for me.”

Joe laid still, giving no indication he had heard his brother.

Hoss began to stroke Joe’s head, and his pleas began more urgent. He no longer tried to keep the anxiety out of his voice. “Joe, wake up,” said Hoss. “You got to wake up, Joe. Please, you have to open them eyes.”

Once more, it seemed Hoss’ efforts were in vain. Joe continued to lay still, showing no reaction to Hoss’ voice. Hoss continued to stroke Joe’s head and say his brother’s name, hoping that something would get through to him.

Suddenly, Joe’s eyes snapped open. He stared into Hoss’ face for a few seconds, and his lips twitched as if he were trying to smile. Then Joe firmly closed his eyes again.

Startled, Hoss froze for a minute, almost wondering if he had imagined Joe’s eyes opening. But Hoss knew what he saw. He knew his brother was conscious. Joe just didn’t want anyone else to know.

Quickly, Hoss resumed stroking Joe’s head and calling his brother’s name. He tried to keep the urgency in his voice, although it was difficult. Hoss felt more like cheering. But he knew he had to keep up the pretense. Joe wanted everyone to think he was still unconscious. Hoss wasn’t exactly sure why Joe was playing possum, but he wouldn’t give his brother away.

“That’s enough,” said a voice over Hoss’ shoulder. Hoss turned quickly, and saw Ed standing a few feet away. Hoss chewed on his lip, wondering if the robber had seen Joe open his eyes.

“You ain’t gonna wake him up,” continued Ed. “So get over here with the rest of them, where I can keep an eye on you.”

Relieved that the gunman didn’t know Joe was conscious, Hoss did his best to keep up the pretense. He patted Joe on the head lightly. “Everything is going to be all right, Joe,” said Hoss in a soothing voice. He glanced over his shoulder, then added, “You just do whatever you need to do. I’ll be here to help you.”

Hoping Joe understood his meaning, Hoss pulled himself to his feet. He looked at the figure on the floor for a minute, but Joe laid as still and unmoving as before. Hoss slowly walked away from his brother toward the back of the building. As he sat down next to the other three hostages, Hoss looked at the man standing with the gun. Then his gaze turned resolutely toward the figure on the floor.

*****

“You must have some idea of how to get them out of there,” said Ben in an insistent voice to Roy Coffee. Crouched behind the water trough with the sheriff and Adam, Ben’s fists were clenched tightly, reflecting his tension.

“Well, we could starve them out, I suppose,” replied Roy in a tentative voice.

“That’s no good,” Ben said, shaking his head. “That could take a couple of days. The longer they’re in there, the more likely they are to harm the hostages.” A look of distress cross Ben’s face. “Besides, you heard Hoss. Joe’s hurt. I don’t know how bad. He may not have a couple days.”

Nodding, Roy looked off for a few minutes. He was trying desperately to come up with a plan but none of the ideas that flickered through his mind seemed practical – or safe for the hostages. “Ben, I just don’t know what to do,” admitted Roy.

“What if we gave them the wagon?” suggested Ben.

“You can’t be serious!” replied Roy in astonishment. “They’ll kill those hostages, Ben. Soon as they think they’re safe, those bank robbers won’t want to be slowed down. And they won’t want any witnesses.”

“What I meant is we make it look like we’re giving them the wagon,” explained Ben. “We could have a couple of men hidden in the wagon. When those outlaws come out of the bank, the men in the wagon could pick them off.”

Roy thought about Ben’s idea for a minute, then shook his head. “I don’t know, Ben,” he said doubtfully. “That’s pretty tricky. Those bank robbers could spot the men in the wagon. And even if they didn’t, once the shooting starts, there’s no telling who’s liable to get hurt.”

“Well, then you come up with something!” said Ben angrily. As soon as the words were out, Ben looked down. “I’m sorry, Roy,” he said in a voice full of regret. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just that I’m so worried about Hoss and Joe.”

“I know, Ben, I know,” Roy said in a soothing voice, indicating he hadn’t taken Ben’s outburst seriously. “I’m as worried about those boys as you are.” Roy put his hand on Ben’s arm. “But we have to do this right. I don’t want to do anything that make get someone hurt – especially Hoss and Joe.”

“Why don’t we smoke them out?” suggested a voice over Ben’s shoulder.

Turning, Ben looked at Adam almost in surprise. His oldest son had been so quiet during the discussion that Ben had almost forgotten he was there. But now, looking at the thoughtful expression on Adam’s face, Ben realized his son had been thinking about a rescue plan all the time. He looked at Adam, interest building on his face. Ben knew thinking was one of the things Adam did best. “What do you have in mind, son?” asked Ben.

“We could set fire to some oily rags just outside the front door and windows,” explained Adam. “It would take very long for that thick smoke to drift into the bank. Those outlaws wouldn’t be able to stand it for very long. They’d have to come out.”

“But they might bring the hostages with them,” said Ben.

“I thought of that,” replied Adam. “We’d have some men waiting by the door. Even if they brought the hostages with them, we could grab the robbers as they left the building. The smoke would give us cover. They’d never see us until we were right on top of them.”

“It could work,” said Roy, nodding his agreement.

“What if they start shooting the hostages before they come out?” Ben pushed at Adam’s idea. He like it, but he wanted to be sure they thought of all the possible consequences.

“They might,” Adam admitted. “But the smoke would give the hostages at least some cover. Right now, they’re sitting ducks. Those robbers might not be able to see them if the smoke is thick enough.”

Nodding, Ben didn’t say anything for a minute. He knew Adam’s idea was the best one proposed yet, but there was still one aspect that bothered him. “What about Joe?” Ben finally said in a soft voice. “Hoss said he’s hurt. That smoke won’t help him any.”

A pained expression crossed Adam’s face. “I know,” he said. His face cleared as he continued. “But you and I both know Hoss is doing his best to take care of Joe. If he’s really in bad shape, Hoss has him laying on the floor. The smoke will rise. The air on the floor will be much easier for someone to breathe.” Adam moved closer to his father and the sheriff. “At least it gives them a chance. Right now, they can’t do anything to help themselves.”

*****

Joe’s hand moved a fraction of an inch, a movement so slight that anyone watching couldn’t be sure he had even moved it at all. At least, that’s what Joe hoped. He waited a minute, listening hard for anything that indicated someone had seen him move. He didn’t dare open his eyes or give any other indication he was awake. His only hope was the element of surprise.

As he waited and listened, Joe tried to concentrate. His head throbbed, and his thinking was fuzzy. The side of his face hurt like the devil, and he could still feel a small trickle of blood oozing over his closed eyelid. He was trying desperately to stay awake. He kept pushing back the edges of the darkness he could almost feel around his brain, a darkness he knew would engulf him if he gave into it.

When Joe had first awaken, no one had seemed to hear his soft groans or notice him moving. Everyone had been distracted by something which seemed to be going on outside the bank. Joe had heard the muffled sound of voices shouting at the building. He had opened his eyes only a bit, just enough to see that three of the outlaws where huddled near the front of the building. He had turned his head enough to able to spot the fourth man, standing only a few feet away with a gun in his hand. That’s when Joe decided to let them think he was still unconscious. He had quickly closed his eyes and laid still.

It had taken Joe a long time to work out what to do next. For one thing, his head hurt so bad that he couldn’t really think. He had concentrated on trying to deal with the pain, as well as keeping the nausea that was churning in his stomach from erupting and giving him away. When he finally cleared his head enough to try to form a plan, Joe had no idea what to do to help himself and the others. A vague idea had come to him finally, but even now, he wasn’t sure exactly how it should work.

Hearing the same creaking of boards and shuffling of feet that he had noted for the last few minutes, Joe moved his hand slightly again.

“I’m tired of sitting around awaiting,” complained a voice from the front of the bank. Joe froze, not daring to move. He listened hard to the voices.

“Well, if you want to go outside, go ahead,” another voice answered almost casually. “We’ll be happy to spend your share of the money.”

“Why don’t we just take what we have and get out of here,” suggested the same voice.

“Because I want that gold,” answered the second voice with a tinge of anger. “Now just sit down and shut up.”

Listening hard, Joe tried to figure out where everyone was. He knew a couple of the men were in the front, and he figured one was still a few feet away from him. He could hear the man shuffling his feet. Joe wondered where Hoss and the others were.

“You boys don’t really think you’re going to get away with this,” called Hoss from the back of the bank. “The four of us sitting back here ain’t gonna be enough to stop them fellows outside from catching you. You three fellows up there and the one back here ain’t gonna be able to take on this whole town.”

Joe almost smiled but quickly moved to keep his face impassive. Good old Hoss, he thought. He was telling Joe exactly where everyone was. Hoss had no idea what Joe was planning to do, but he was trying to help. The only problem was, Joe really didn’t have a clear idea about what he was going to do either. But he knew he had to try something.

Once more, Joe moved his hand slightly, then stopped again to listen. With each movement, his hand was getting closer to the credenza. And under the credenza was the gun that everyone except Joe seemed to have forgotten about.

*****

Eight men moved as quietly as possible to the back of the bank. It had taken them quite awhile to get to the bank. They had left their hiding places one at time, just as Roy Coffee had told them to do. They had moved slowly and cautiously, trying not to alert the outlaws that there was any movement on the street. Five of the men had waited patiently at the end of the street, out of view of the bank, for close to ten minutes. Ben, Adam and Roy had finally joined them, their hands full of oily rags. The group had made their way through the back alleys of Virginia City until they had reached the back of the bank.

“Remember what we said,” Roy Coffee told the men in a loud whisper. “No shooting unless you absolutely have to. Our aim is to get everyone out of there in one piece. Just grab whoever comes through the door. We’ll sort out later who is who.” The men around the sheriff nodded their agreement. Then each of them wrapped a bandanna around their nose and mouth.

Sheriff Coffee waited until all the men were ready, then gave a short nod to Ben. Roy and Ben plus two others grabbed half the rags and moved around to the left side of the bank. Adam took the rest of the rags and the men to the right side of the bank. Both groups crouched low against the side of the building.

Ben and Adam were in the front of their respective crew of men. The two Cartwrights looked at each other across the wide porch in front of the bank. Then Ben nodded.

Using a match from his shirt pocket, Adam lit the pile of rags in his hands and threw the bunch of cloths onto the porch near the front door of the bank. Ben threw his flaming cloths under the broken front window. In only a few seconds, thick black smoke blanketed the front of the bank and began drifting into the building.

*****

“Hey! What’s that,” shouted Wade as he saw the smoke billowing up in front of the window. He began to cough as the smoke drifted into the bank through the window. Wade took a few steps back from the window. His coughing increased.

“They’re trying to burn down the building!” yelled Ed in alarm as he rushed from the back of the bank.

“No!” said Cal in a loud voice. He inhaled some smoke and responded with a hacking cough. “They’re trying to smoke us out,” continued Cal as he struggled to breathe.

“They’re doing a good job of it,” replied Frank. He had a bandanna wrapped around his mouth, but his eyes were red and watery. “That stuff burns.”

“Let’s get out of here,” said Ed in a panicky voice. He began to cough and choke on the smoke.

“No, wait!” cried Cal. He tried to say more but a series of coughs cut him off.

“I ain’t waiting,” said Ed. He pulled open the door. “I’m coming out,” he shouted. “Don’t shoot!” He holstered his gun and put his hands in the air. As soon as Ed was outside the door, a pair of hands grabbed him and pulled him aside.

The black smoke seemed to thicken as it continued to pour into the bank. All three outlaws were coughing and gasping for breath. “I’m going too,” said Frank. Without waiting for an answer from his partners, he dropped his rifle and put his hands in the air. As Frank stepped out the door, he also was grabbed and pulled aside.

Wade didn’t bother to say anything. In fact he was coughing so hard, he couldn’t have spoken. He simply dropped his shotgun and put his hands in the air. As he walked through the door, he could hear Cal yelling “Don’t do it!” Wade ignored the shouts. All he wanted was some air to breathe, and if that air was in the Virginia City jail, he would take it. Wade too was grabbed as he walked through the door.

In a rage, Cal turned and ran toward the back of the bank. He stopped in surprise after about ten steps. Even through the thick smoke, he could tell the hostages were gone.

*****

“How many of your gang are still in there?” Roy Coffee demanded of the outlaws who came out of the bank.

“One,” gasped Wade. He was on the ground about 10 feet from the bank, sucking in lungs full of clean air. The other two bank robbers were sitting a few feet away. All were surrounded by men with guns pointed at them.

“What about the hostages?” asked Roy.

“Don’t know,” said Wade. He took a deep breath. “Didn’t look.”

“One left!” shouted Roy as turned back to the bank. He could see Adam and Ben crouched near the door, guns drawn. The rags were beginning to burn into ashes and the smoke was beginning to thin. Roy rushed back to the bank, keeping low until he was crouched next to Adam. “Give it another minute,” Roy advised in a loud voice.

“One minute,” agreed Ben grimly, his voice muffled through the cloth around his face. “Then I’m going in and getting my sons.”

*****

As soon as the smoke had begun to drift into the bank, Hoss realized what was happening, that the men outside were trying to smoke the robbers out of the bank. He wasn’t sure how the outlaws would react, but he recognized he and the other men at the back of the bank had to move quickly to take advantage of the confusion.

“What’s happening?” asked Billy in a trembling voice as he saw the smoke.

Ignoring the question, Hoss turned to the other three men. “Quick,” he hissed at them. “Get behind the teller’s cage. Keep low and get out of sight.” Wilson nodded his understanding and crawled quickly toward the cage. The other two men followed him.

As he got to his feet, Hoss looked to the area where Joe had been laying. He was astonished to see it empty. He peered through the smoke, trying to spot his brother. He finally saw the figure curled into a ball near the end of the credenza. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Hoss smiled. That little brother of mine sure knows how to take care of himself, thought Hoss proudly.

Hoss had taken only a step toward Joe when he saw Cal whirling around toward the back of the bank. He could see the outlaw had his gun ready. Hoss hesitated a moment, realizing he needed cover. He spun around and dove toward the end of the teller’s cage.

Hearing the roar of frustration from Cal as the man realized his hostages were gone, Hoss pulled himself into a crouch at the end of the teller’s cage. He watched Cal, ready to spring at the man if he turned in Joe’s direction. Hoss heard some movement behind him, and glanced over his shoulder. He nodded in satisfaction as he saw Wilson leading the other two men to the door of the bank. Then Hoss turned back to watch Cal.

The robber walked toward the back of the bank, gun poised and head swiveling as he looked for his hostages. Hoss saw him turn toward the credenza. Hoss stood and the movement attracted Cal’s attention.

Hoss’ bulk often stood him in good stead, but this time, his size made him slow. He didn’t have the cat-like quickness of his little brother. As Hoss took a step toward Cal, the outlaw turned the gun on him. Hoss froze.

“Damn you, Cartwright!” shouted Cal. “This is all your fault. You and that Pa of yours. Well, you’re going to pay for it. He’s going to get his precious sons, but he’s going to get them dead.”

“Don’t be a fool,” said Hoss. “You pull that trigger and you’ll hang. Going to prison for bank robbery ain’t fun, but it’s a sure sight better than hanging.”

“If they get me, I’m going to hang,” snarled Cal as he cocked his gun. “I’m already wanted for murder. Another one ain’t going to make any difference. You’re going to die, Cartwright. First you, then that big-mouth brother of yours.”

Curled in a ball to protect himself from the smoke, Joe heard Cal’s threats. He rolled onto his back, the gun he had grabbed from under the credenza in his hand. As he lifted it to shoot, Joe felt a wave of dizziness. He wasn’t sure if it was the smoke or the crack on the head that caused it, but he didn’t care. The room around Joe began to spin.

Knowing he couldn’t wait for the dizziness to pass, Joe pointed the gun in the general direction Cal and his brother. His vision was blurred and he couldn’t seem to keep the gun steady. Joe decided all he could do was shoot in the general direction of the outlaw. At the very least, the noise would distract the man enough for Hoss to jump him. And if Joe got lucky, he might actually hit the man.

Joe tightened his finger on the trigger, surprised as how hard it was to pull. His fingers felt weak and useless, and the gun was heavy in his hand. He put both hands around the gun, and tried again to pull the trigger.

“Goodbye, Cartwright. I wish I could say it was fun, but it wasn’t,” said Cal.

*****

As soon as they heard the shot from inside the bank, Adam and Ben looked at each other, eyes wide with fear. Neither man waited. They both sprang to their feet and ran into the bank.

The smoke inside the building was still thick and, for a minute, neither Cartwright could see a thing. Then they saw something moving toward them through the smoke. Ben and Adam both lifted their guns, preparing to fire.

Suddenly, the smoke seemed to part and the figure came into view. Hoss was walking toward his father and brother, his face and clothes smudged with an oily soot. Hoss had Joe’s right arm wrapped around his neck and his massive hand was wrapped around Joe’s body, just under his brother’s left arm. The side of Joe’s face was covered with dried blood, and the oily soot stained his face and clothes. Hoss was walking slowly, helping his injured brother who was shuffling along on rubbery legs.

“Hoss! Joe!” cried Ben as he rushed forward to help his sons.

“Hi Pa,” said Hoss almost cheerfully. “I think Joe could use a little help.”

Putting his arms around both his sons as best he could, Ben crushed his body against Hoss and Joe. He needed to feel the warmth of both his sons, to reassure himself that he wasn’t imagining things. The hug lasted only a instant. Then Ben slipped Joe’s left arm around his shoulders.

Looking anxiously at his youngest son, Ben could see the cuts and bruises on the side of Joe’s face. But he could also see his son’s eyes were open, and a shaky grin was spread across Joe’s face. “I didn’t get the bank draft,” said Joe in a thick voice.

“Let’s get you to the doctor,” Ben ordered, shifting his son’s weight on his shoulders.

As Ben and Hoss started forward, carrying Joe between them, Adam watched them, the relief evident on his face. Then he frowned. “Where’s the last outlaw?” he asked anxiously, turning to look toward the back of the building.

“Dead,” said Hoss as he passed his brother. “Joe shot him squared in the back.”

*****

“Nothing wrong with him that a few days in bed and a week or two of taking it easy won’t cure,” said Doctor Martin as he finished tying the white bandage wrapped around Joe’s head. “Mild concussion, cuts and bruises, and some loss of blood is about the extent of it. He’ll have a whale of a headache for a day or two, and maybe some dizziness. But both should pass soon.”

Sitting on the examining table in the doctor’s office, Joe waited impatiently for Martin to finish. The soot had been cleaned from his face, but his clothes were stilled stained and smelled of smoke. He couldn’t wait to get out of those clothes. He also couldn’t wait to lay down and take a nap, although he would never admit it. Joe felt tired, and dirty, and a bit dizzy. His head ached, too. He wished the doctor hadn’t been so accurate about how he was going to feel.

“Good thing he’s got a hard head,” said Adam in a dry voice. He was leaning against the wall across from the table, arms folded. His posture made Adam look relaxed, but there was an anxious look about his eyes.

“I always said he was hard headed,” agreed Hoss. He was standing next to Adam. His face also had been washed, but his clothes were still covered with soot. The grin on Hoss’ face was proof of his belief in the doctor’s words that Joe would be fine.

Standing next to the doctor, Ben smiled briefly at his son’s jibes. He was relieved by the doctor’s pronouncement that Joe was going to be all right, and he knew that Adam and Hoss’ wry comments were a sign of their relief also. Despite his sense of relief, Ben continued to peer anxiously at Joe. His son looked unnaturally pale, and Ben could see the droop in his eyelids. “Should we take him home?” Ben asked anxiously.

Stepping back from the table, Doctor Martin considered the question before answering. “I’d get Joe a room at the hotel until tomorrow,” advised the doctor. “Let him sleep until morning. Then he can ride home in a wagon.”

“I’m all right,” said Joe, but even to his ears, his protest sounded feeble. He closed his eyes for a minute, hoping that the room wouldn’t be spinning quite so much when he opened them again. “I can make it home now,” Joe added as he opened his eyes. He was happy to see the room was no longer dancing around him.

Ignoring Joe, Ben turned to Adam. “Get us some rooms at the hotel,” said Ben. Adam nodded and left the room.

“Pa, you don’t need…” started Joe.

“I don’t need to do anything but get you to bed,” interrupted Ben sternly. Then his face soften. “You were lucky, Joe, very lucky.”

“And I was lucky you were there, little brother,” added Hoss in a earnest voice. “You save my life twice.”

“Well, I couldn’t just let them shoot you,” Joe said with a grin on his face. “I’d get stuck doing all your chores.”

“I’d say you were all lucky, “ commented Doctor Martin. He turned to Ben. “Say, did the gold arrive?”

“Yes, it did,” said Ben. “Wilson gave it to Roy Coffee to keep until the bank is put back in order. Right now, the gold is sitting in Roy’s safe about five feet from the men who tried to steal it.” Ben shook his head at the irony of the situation.

“Hey, Joe, did you know Mr. Wilson is going to give you a reward?” asked Hoss. “He said he owed you something for what you did to try to stop them bank robbers.”

“He did?” replied Joe, his face brightening. “How much?”

“I don’t know,” said Hoss, with a grin. “But he did say he was going to let his daughter present it to you.” Hoss gave Joe a sly look. “I hear Sarah is real grateful to you for saving her Pa.”

“She is?” Joe said, his face growing thoughtful. A grin spread across Joe’s face as he pictured Sarah expressing her gratitude. He looked at his father. “You know what Pa, this really is my lucky day.”

Looking at his sons, Ben didn’t answer for a minute. Joe’s head was wrapped by a wide bandage, and the bruises on his face were visible around the edges. Both Hoss’ and Joe’s clothes were badly stained with soot, and neither one of them had managed to get all the oily dirt off their hands. But both were upright and smiling. Both of his sons had been given back to him.

“No, Joseph,” said Ben slowly. “The luck is all mine. Right now, I feel like the luckiest man on earth.”

*****End*****

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