Synopsis: The family assists Roy Coffee to search for a small group of bank robbers, one of whom happens to be a friend of Joe’s.
Word Count: 9,740
Raising his hand to signal the posse behind him to halt, Sheriff Roy Coffee searched the rugged hills before him with his eyes. The sheriff looked at the land around him, seeking any sign of the three bank robbers the posse was chasing. Thick stands of firs dotted the bottom of the rocky foothills, but only a few hardy plants grew toward the top, petering out about half-way up the harden mounds of rock and solid earth.
“Ben, I do believe we’re going to have to split up,” Coffee declared with a sigh. “This ground’s too hard to find a trail, and they could be hiding anywhere in them trees.”
Swiveling his head, Ben Cartwright also scanned the area. “I guess you’re right, Roy,” agreed Ben reluctantly. He turned a bit in his saddle to look back at the rest of the posse. “Joe, you’ve hunted this area with Johnny Thornton. Any idea which way he might go?”
Ben’s youngest son chewed his lip for a moment, then shrugged. “He could have gone anywhere,” replied Joe. “Johnny knows this whole area. Besides, we don’t know he’s leading them. Those other two might not ask Johnny which way to go.”
“Johnny is leading them,” Adam Cartwright, Joe’s oldest brother, stated with conviction. “That’s why they got Johnny to throw in with them. We would have caught up with them by now if Johnny wasn’t showing them all the back trails.”
“I sure never would have figured Johnny for a bank robber,” observed Hoss Cartwright. “He always seemed like such a hard-working kid.”
“He is a hard-working kid,” Joe argued. “Johnny worked hard to build up that horse ranch. It wasn’t his fault that bear killed his best stock and the rest of his herd disappeared into the hills.”
“No, it wasn’t his fault,” agreed Adam, “but he’s not the only man who ever had a setback. It happens to a lot of people. The difference is they don’t go around robbing banks to fix their problems.”
“He could have come to us,” Hoss added. “We would have helped him out.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Joe glumly. “I told Johnny that. But he said he didn’t want to ask us for money. He told me he was going to figure out something else to do.”
“Something like robbing a bank,” commented Adam dryly.
“He was probably desperate,” replied Joe defensively. “He did something stupid but Johnny’s a good guy. He just made a mistake.”
Sitting at the front of the posse, Ben listened to his youngest son with sympathy. At 22, Joe was still young enough to think of things in black and white. People were either good or bad, and his son expected their actions would reflect that. Now Joe’s view of the world had been shaken, his moral imperative proven untrue. It was a hard lesson for a young man to learn.
Turning back to Sheriff Coffee, Ben declared, “Roy, I don’t think we have any choice but to split up. There’s a meadow on the other side of that ridge. That’s probably as good a place as any to meet.”
“All right, Ben,” agreed Coffee. He turned his horse to face the six men behind him. “Now listen up. We’re going to split up into pairs of two, then gather again at the meadow on the other side of the ridge up ahead. If anyone finds them bank robbers, or finds their trail, one man keeps an eye on things while the other one comes back and gets the rest of us. If you don’t find anything, head back to the meadow. We’ll meet up in three hours.”
“Why don’t we just take care of them ourselves if we find them,” suggested a heavy-set man in the middle of the posse, lifting his pistol meaningfully out of his holster. “There’s a reward for them, ain’t there?”
“Bronson, they ain’t wanted dead or alive,” Coffee answered sharply. “We’ll fight them if we have to but the idea is bring them back for trial. And I’m going to make sure no one gets a reward for shooting someone in the back.”
“You calling me a back-shooter?” Bronson said with a scowl.
“You’re known to be right handy with a gun and not too particular about your targets,” Coffee retorted.
“Now look,” Ben interjected quickly, “we know there are at least three of them, and they’re quick to shoot. The bullet they put in Bill Kendall’s shoulder proves that. If you try to take them on your own, you’re liable to end up like Bill or worse. So just do what Roy says. It’s for your own protection.”
“Well, I guess when you put it that way…” agreed Bronson grudgingly.
After giving Ben a nod of thanks, Coffee studied the men in the posse for a moment. He knew he could trust the Cartwrights, but he wasn’t sure about the other three men. “Bronson, why don’t you and Ben cover the area to the north. Adam, you take Sanders there and head east. Joe and Hoss, you go west. Williams, you’ll ride with me. We’ll check out the trees at the bottom of the foothills. We’ll all meet back at that meadow in three hours. And remember what I said. No one tries anything on their own.”
After riding for an hour, Joe and Hoss had covered only about two miles. Their horses moved cautiously through the thick brush, and their progress was slowed even more by Hoss periodically stopping to check the ground for tracks. As the pair emerged from the thick growth onto a stretch of hard-packed rocky ground, Hoss once more pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted.
“Nothing,” reported Hoss with a shake of his head after studying the ground for a moment. “No tracks, no signs of horses, just nothing.” Looking up, he was surprised to see Joe staring off into the distance. “You see something, little brother?”
“No,” replied Joe in a preoccupied voice. “I was just thinking.”
“Thinking about what?” asked Hoss.
For a moment, Joe continued to stare silently. Then he turned to his brother. “About two years ago, Johnny and I were up this way hunting a mountain lion. We found a trail that went right up the hill and over to the other side. It kind of split the foothills. The beginning of the trail was hard to find, and once you were on it, you were pretty hidden by the trees and boulders until you got to the top.”
“You think Johnny and his friends might have gone that way?” Hoss probed his brother.
“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “The trail would be tough on the horses. It’s pretty steep and there’s all kinds of rocks and debris scattered on it. We had to go real slow and ended up resting the horses about half-way to the top. If you’re on the run from a posse, I’m not sure that’s the trail you would take. It’s too slow.”
“But you might take it if you wanted to get up and over the foothills without anyone seeing you,” countered Hoss.
“Yeah, maybe,” Joe agreed but his voice was tinged with uncertainty. He scratched his head behind his left ear as he thought. “Hoss, why don’t you head on over to Miller’s Pass and check out that area. I’ll go take a look at that trail through the foothills.”
“I don’t know, Joe,” Hoss replied doubtfully. “Remember what Roy said about not splitting up. What if one of us finds them yahoos? We ain’t got nobody to keep an eye on them while the other one goes for the posse.”
“Look, Hoss, if we both go check out that trail, we might miss them going through Miller’s Pass,” argued Joe. “The odds of them taking that trail are pretty slim but it’s worth a look. And both the Pass and the trail through the hills end up in Redwood Valley, so if they’ve taken either one, we know where they’re going.”
“I guess,” agreed Hoss reluctantly. He pursed his lips, then gave his younger brother a fierce look. “Now listen, Joe. You find any sign of them bank robbers, you turn around and head for the meadow, you hear? I ain’t kidding about this. Don’t try to take them bank robbers all by yourself.”
“Don’t worry, Hoss, I’m no hero,” Joe reassured his brother with a smile. “Besides, I’m probably going to be making a long ride for nothing. If they came this way, Johnny and those two men are sure to head for Miller’s Pass.”
“All right,” replied Hoss, sounding somewhat mollified. “I’ll meet you back at the meadow. Be careful, will ya? I don’t want to end up having to do your chores just ‘cause you got careless.”
“I’ll be careful,” Joe promised. “I don’t think Johnny would hurt me, though. We’ve been too good friends for that to happen.”
“Yeah, but Johnny ain’t alone,” Hoss reminded his brother.
Stopping his horse near a clump of bushes, Joe dismounted and walked a few feet to his left. He remembered the start of the trail as being partially hidden by some shrubbery, so Joe was surprised he found the beginning of the pathway without difficulty. The branches of the undergrowth concealing the trail had been broken away. Kneeling, Joe picked up one of the small branches lying nearby and bent it a bit. The twig was still flexible, which meant that it had been broken off only a short time before.
As he stood, Joe stared at the trail in front of him. He couldn’t see any hoof prints but the ground was so hard that a horse might not leave a mark. Besides, anything could have broken the branches heading up the trail – some deer, a bear, maybe even a mountain lion. Joe hated the thought of leading the posse up the track only to find a herd of deer grazing at the top.
Searching the trail with his eyes, Joe looked in vain for some sign of movement, for some trace of who or what had gone up the path. He knew he needed something more than broken branches to prove that Johnny and the two outlaws had come this way. He recalled the spot where he and Johnny had rested their horses – an unexpected side path that led to a small pool of water and some clumps of grass. If the three men had ridden up the trail, they would have surely stopped there to rest the horses. Joe was positive he’d find some evidence of their presence near the pool.
The three bank robbers also might be there right now, Joe reminded himself. If so, he’d be an easy target coming up the trail on horseback. But on foot, darting among the rocks and bushes, he’d be hard to see. It’d be a tough climb, but worth the effort if he found some signs of three horses by the pool.
Once more, Joe’s eyes searched the trail in front of him. The path was narrow and dotted with clumps of scrub brush and boulders. He felt confident he could climb the trail without being seen. Taking a deep breath, Joe started up the hill.
High above, at the beginning of the passageway to the pool, a man with a rifle sat behind a boulder watching the trail below. He frowned then turned to call over his shoulder. “Hey, Waco, kid, come over here! I thought I saw something moving on the trail.”
Two men hurried from the pool toward the boulder. One was a man in his 40’s, lean but solidly built, with a face as long and hard as his body. The other man was young, in his early twenties. Tufts of blonde hair sprouted from under his hat, and his soft, round face was crinkled with lines from a ready smile.
“What’s up, Bailey?” asked Waco, the older man.
“I saw something moving down there, near the bottom of the trail,” answered Bailey, a man in his mid-30’s whose face was covered by a thick black mustache and beard.
The three men stared down the hill for almost a minute, seeing no movement. Then suddenly, a figure darted out from behind a rock, climbed a few feet up the trail, and then disappeared into some bushes.
“Little Joe,” whispered Johnny Thornton, the youngest of the trio.
“I thought you said no one else knew about this trail,” growled Waco.
“I said only a few people knew about it,” Johnny corrected the man. “Joe Cartwright is one of them.”
“Cartwright, eh?” commented Bailey. “That’s them folks that have the big ranch outside of Virginia City, right?”
“Right,” confirmed Johnny. “He must be riding with the posse that’s chasing us.”
“Well, we’ll just reduce the posse by one,” Bailey said, lifting his rifle to his shoulder. “When he comes out of those bushes, I’ll have a clear shot.”
“No!” exclaimed Johnny. He reached over and pushed the barrel of Bailey’s rifle down.
“What’s wrong with you, kid?” asked Waco with a scowl. “Going soft on us?”
“No, no,” Johnny answered hurriedly. “It’s just that…well, if you shoot, you’ll liable to bring the rest of the posse here. I know the Cartwrights well enough to know that if one of them is with the posse, the rest of them are too. And they won’t be far behind Little Joe.”
Stroking his chin, Waco looked thoughtful. “The kid’s got a point,” he conceded. “We sure don’t want the posse knowing exactly where we are.”
“But we can’t just let him climb up here,” argued Bailey. “Soon as he spots us, he’ll turn around get the rest of the posse.”
“We could just ride out,” Johnny suggested. “By the time Joe gets down the hill and gets the rest of the posse, we’ll be long gone.”
“And the posse will know exactly which way we’re headed,” Waco snapped. He shook his head. “No, we’ve got to get rid of him, or at least slow him down.”
“What are you going to do?” asked Johnny with a trace of fear in his voice.
Ignoring Johnny’s question, Waco looked around. He spotted some knee-high rocks near the edge of the trail, laying by a fallen log. Nodding to himself, the outlaw walked over to the debris and studied it carefully. “Bailey, get over here,” he called.
“What are you going to do?” Johnny asked once again.
“We’re going to send a surprise down the trail,” answered Waco. He turned to the man standing beside him. “When I give the word, you push that log down the trail. Then come back here and help me push these rocks down after it.”
“There’s all kinds of loose stuff on that trail,” Johnny said nervously. “You’re liable to start a landslide.”
“If we’re lucky,” agreed Waco. From the corner of his eye, the bank robber saw some movement on the trail. He quickly turned his head and watched as Joe emerged from the bushes and started to climb toward a trio of small trees on the opposite side of the trail.
“Now Bailey!” shouted Waco.
Joe was about three feet from the small trees when he heard the faint rumble coming from above. Pausing to take a look, Joe’s eyes opened wide with fear as he saw a log rolling down the trail, sweeping stones and branches along with it as it descended the path. Joe’s brain noted a large rock following the tree limb, although the image never formed a conscious thought in his mind. He was too busy trying to scramble out of the way of the shower of the debris that seemed to be coming right at him.
The steep trail prevented Joe from actually running, but his legs pumped hard as the youngest Cartwright tried to reach the safety of the trees on the far side of the trail. He had almost reached them when the log rolled into his ankle, knocking Joe’s feet out from under him. As he felt himself starting to slide down the trail, Joe desperately grabbed for some type of handhold – a rock, a bush, anything that he could hang on to in order to stop his fall. He felt the stones and small branches knocking against his body, bruising his skin. The rough trail beneath him tore at his legs and arms, scraping both his clothing and the skin underneath them. Joe’s hand closed around a tuft of grass but the force of his slide pulled him downward, causing him to yank the blades from the ground.
Feeling rather than actually seeing the boulder that was heading down the trail, Joe twisted his body just enough to allow the large rock to rumble by without hitting him. But another shower of pebbles, twigs and loose dirt followed in the rock’s path, pelting Joe in the face and shoulders.
Just when Joe thought he was going to slide to the bottom of the trail, his feet hit a solid mass and his momentum was abruptly stopped. Dazed, Joe bent his body and looked with dull eyes at the small mound of rocks in the middle of the trail which had halted his fall. His boots were pressed firmly against the granite, preventing him from sliding further down the trail.
Hearing the sound of more debris coming down the trail, Joe glanced over his shoulder. A stream of stones, small branches and gravel was flowing down the hill toward him. Quickly Joe curled his body and tucked his head under his arms, hoping to protect himself at least a bit from the onslaught of the landslide. He felt sharp pricks against his legs and back as the debris tumbled into him. Dust and dirt swirled around and found its way into Joe’s lung as he tried to breathe. He coughed and then inhaled, taking in more dust which caused him to cough again.
A stone pelted Joe in the head, causing a momentary wave of black flecked with pricks of light to float across his eyes.
After what felt like an hour but in reality was only a few minutes, the landslide seemed to have ended. Joe lifted his head to look up the trail with eyes blurred by dust. He could see nothing else falling in his direction, at least, not now. Joe tried to will his battered body to move, tried to get his legs to take him from the middle of the trail to the safety of bushes on the side. But his body felt like a mass of putty, unable to do anything but simply lay there. His head hurt and what seem like a thousand cuts and bruises began to sting and throb. Joe made one more attempt to move but when this was unsuccessful, he simply closed his eyes and shut out the world.
Standing in the middle of the trail high above where Joe laid curled against the rocks, Waco studied the figure below him.
“What do you think, Waco? Did we kill him?” Bailey asked with only the mildest of interest.
“No, I don’t think so,” admitted Waco. “But we gave him a pretty good licking. He won’t be going anywhere for awhile.”
Emerging from behind the bushes, Johnny stared at the sight of Joe lying unmoving below him. He swallowed hard, trying to ease the sickening knot that was forming in his stomach. “Is he dead?” Johnny asked almost in a whisper.
“No, not yet,” Waco replied. “If he ends up staying there all night, though, he probably will be.” The outlaw shrugged and turned to Bailey. “Get the horses. They should be plenty rested by now. It’s time to move out.”
“You’re just going to leave him there?” said Johnny, sounding stunned at the prospect of riding away from the young man on the trail below.
“That was the idea,” Waco answered with a frown. “We didn’t send him falling down that trail just so we would have to stick around and look after him. By the time the rest of the posse finds him – if they find him – we’ll be so far away that nobody will be able to catch up with us.”
As Waco and Bailey walked toward the horses, Johnny looked down the trail again. The young man below continued to lie still, curled against the rock. Johnny bit his lip as he thought about what he should do. Then he took a deep breath and turned to the other men.
“I want my share of the money now,” Johnny announced.
Spinning around, Waco eyed the blonde cowboy suspiciously. “Why?” he asked bluntly.
Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly before replying. “I’m staying here. You two don’t need me any more. You can follow the trail into Redwood Valley and from there, you can go wherever you want.”
“You’re going to help that kid, aren’t you,” Bailey said, his eyes narrowing.
“Yeah, I’m going to help him,” admitted Johnny. “Joe’s a friend, a good friend. I can’t just leave him there.” Seeing the look of mistrust on his partners’ faces, he added hastily, “Look, it’s going to take me a while to patch him up and send him on his way. You’ll be in the Valley by then. I’ll ride to Miller’s Pass from here. If the posse shows up, they’ll probably follow my tracks. That’ll give you even more time to get away. And if they catch me, I can’t tell them which way you went because I won’t know.”
“If they catch you, they’ll liable to shoot you rather than ask questions,” observed Bailey.
“I’ll take my chances,” Johnny replied. “Now, give me my cut.”
For a moment, Waco studied the young man in front of him, weighing Johnny’s words. Then he shrugged. “It’s your funeral,” the outlaw said indifferently. He walked with long strides to his horse, reached into his saddlebag and pulled out three bundles of money.
“That’s about three thousand dollars,” Waco stated, handing the bundles to Johnny. “I haven’t stopped to count what we took, but I figure that’s a fair share.” Johnny nodded in agreement.
“C’mon, Bailey, let’s get out of here,” ordered Waco. He and the other bandit mounted their horses. “Good luck, kid,” Waco called over his shoulder as he guided his horse toward trail.
Still holding the money, Johnny watched the two men ride up the trail. He waited until his partners were well up the hill before walking toward his own horse. After sticking the bundles of cash into his saddle bag, Johnny grabbed the reins of his horse and started walking toward the trail.
A gray fog seemed to surround Joe, and he was grateful for its presence. If he could stay in that netherworld between being awake and unconscious, he would be able to hear the sound of any further debris coming down the trail without fully feeling the pains of what seemed like a hundred cuts and scrapes over his body. He wondered how long he could stay in this state, but couldn’t seem to muster any great interest in thinking about it. For now, he was happy to simply lie in the dirt and let the mist swirl around him.
A faint sound reach his ears – a sort of a crunching noise – and Joe briefly wondered if he was going to get bombarded with debris once more. But this noise had a steady pace to it, and was approaching slowly. Joe decided that whatever was coming down the trail wasn’t dangerous enough for him to consider moving.
“Joe? Joe, can you hear me? Joe, answer me!”
The words penetrated the fog around Joe. For a moment, they were just sounds, but then Joe made sense of the noise and understood. “Yeah, I can hear you,” Joe mumbled softly.
A pair of hands turned Joe gently on to his back.
“Boy, you sure are a mess. Let me see if anything’s broken.”
As a hand gently felt his arms and legs, Joe looked up at the blurred figure kneeling over him. He tried to blink away the grit from his eyes, tried to focus his vision. He blinked and squinted for a bit and finally the blurred image sharpened into a face. “Johnny?” Joe murmured.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Johnny answered almost reluctantly. “Lay still until I figure out how bad you’re hurt.” As his fingers felt and probed his friend’s arms and side, Johnny tried not to look at the blood trickling from cuts on Joe’s left cheek and chin, as well as the large abrasion on Joe’s chest. The bottom of Joe’s left palm and his wrist were red also, showing another place where the skin had been scraped. When Johnny moved to check for any breaks in Joe’s legs, he couldn’t avoid seeing the large gash just above Joe’s left knee from which blood was seeping. Pulling a large white handkerchief out his back pocked, Johnny tied the cloth tightly around Joe’s leg, covering the cut.
“I don’t think anything’s broken,” Johnny announced in a voice tinged with relief. “You scraped off a lot of skin, though, and I’m guessing you got bruises in more places than I can count. You think you can sit up?”
“I’ll try,” Joe answered in a weak voice. As he started to push himself up, Joe felt a hand on his back helping him upward. Once he was in a sitting position, Joe closed his eyes, hoping to block out sight of the land spinning around him.
“You get hit in the head?” Johnny asked with concern. When Joe didn’t answer, the young man gently felt his friend’s head. “Yeah, you got a knot all right. It isn’t very big and it isn’t bleeding, but I’m guessing you’re going to have a whale of a headache pretty soon.”
“I don’t have to wait,” Joe mumbled in reply, putting his hands on either side of his forehead.
Twisting around, Johnny reached for the canteen tied to his saddle. “Here, drink some of this,” he said as he uncorked the container and held it to Joe’s lips. “I just filled it at that pool up above, so it’s nice and cool.”
After swallowing three mouthfuls of water, Joe handed the canteen back to Johnny. “Thanks,” he murmured.
As he re-corked the canteen, Johnny looked thoughtful. “Let’s get you down the trail,” he decided. “I’ll get you all cleaned up and settled down there before I take off.” Without waiting for a reply, he reached down and grabbed Joe under the arms, then pulled his friend to his feet. Joe began to reel a bit but Johnny held him tightly.
“My horse is right over here,” Johnny told his friend. “Just take a couple of steps forward.”
Still feeling dazed, Joe had no energy with which to argue about the command. He took a step forward. Immediately, his left leg buckled underneath him. “My ankle hurts,” he mumbled.
“It’s all right; I’ll help you,” Johnny advised, tightening his grip around Joe’s body. “Just kind of shuffle your feet and I’ll get you there.”
Once again, Joe simply obeyed the words he heard and began moving his feet. Johnny pushed and tugged at him until Joe was standing next to the horse.
“All right, Joe, now you’ve got to get on the horse,” Johnny told his friend. “Do you understand me? Pull yourself up.”
With a blank look on his face, Joe merely nodded. He reached up and gripped the horn of the saddle. As Joe strained to pull himself upward, Johnny grabbed his friend’s belt and lifted. Joe threw his right leg over the saddle, and settled onto the leather seat. With his shoulders slumped forward and his head hanging down, Joe sat on the horse, waiting for someone to tell him what to do next.
Gathering the reins in his hand, Johnny started his mount down the trail at a slow walk. “Hang on, Joe,” he advised, “this is a pretty steep trail.” He received no reaction from his friend other than seeing Joe wrap his hand tightly around the saddle horn.
As he led the horse down the path, Johnny shook his head. “How did I ever get us both into such a mess?” he muttered.
Almost an hour passed before Johnny was satisfied he had done everything he could to help Joe. He had sacrificed most of his spare shirt to make a bandage for his friend’s leg and used the rest of the cloth to clean the cuts and scrapes. Most of the water in his canteen had been depleted by washing out Joe’s injuries, so Johnny made a quick trip up to the pool to replenish it. Now, as he covered Joe with a blanket from his friend’s bedroll, Johnny felt there was nothing more he could do.
“Well, that’s the best I can do for you, Joe,” Johnny admitted to his friend. “How are you feeling?”
Lying on the ground with his eyes only half opened, Joe forced himself to answer. “I’m fine as long as I don’t try to move or sit up,” he said, trying to add a smile that was only partially successful. “Thanks.”
“Your horse is tied up over by that bush, and I put your rifle and canteen where you can reach it,” Johnny noted. “You should be all right until Hoss or somebody finds you.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed half-heartedly. He knew it could take some time for help to arrive. No one knew exactly where he was.
“I’ll fire off some shots before I leave,” promised Johnny. “Somebody will hear them. They’ll find you.”
“Sure,” Joe agreed again, trying to sound more positive than he felt. He gave his friend a long look, then added, “Why did you do it, Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t have to ask Joe what he meant. He merely shrugged and answered, “I needed the money.”
“You didn’t need to rob a bank. My Pa would have lent you the money,” Joe insisted.
“He wouldn’t have lent me money for what I want to do with it,” Johnny replied. Seeing the puzzled look on Joe’s face, he continued, “I want the money to get as far away from here as I can. I want the money so I can drink and gamble, and chase a few women. I don’t think your Pa would have given me money for that.”
“But I thought…I mean, you worked so hard on building up that place,” said Joe in a confused voice.
“I worked hard,” Johnny agreed, “and I’m tired of it. Joe, I’m sick of that ranch. I’m sick of having to look after stock every single day, in the rain, in the cold, and in the heat. I’m tired of never being able to leave that place for longer than a day because the horses need to be seen to. I hate that every penny I make has to be spent on paying something on the mortgage or buying feed or paying vet bills. I’m tired of never having any money, never having any time for myself. I want to see something beyond Virginia City, and have some fun doing it. That bear did me a favor by killing and running off my stock. Let the bank take the ranch. I don’t want it any more.”
“You’re tired of working and you want a little fun, so you rob a bank,” Joe commented, sounding more than little sarcastic. “That makes a lot of sense.”
“I wasn’t planning on robbing that bank,” insisted Johnny. “But then I met Waco in the Silver Dollar and, well, one thing led to another. It seemed like a good way to get a lot of money quick, and I signed on.”
“And you didn’t care who you hurt. As long as you got some money so you could have some fun, that’s all that mattered,” Joe stated bitterly.
“No one was supposed to get hurt,” declared Johnny. “We were just going to take the money. Waco shot that teller ‘cause he looked like he was going for a gun. But he didn’t kill him.”
“And that makes it all right,” Joe retorted. “What about all the money you took? What about the people who lost their savings or can’t get a loan they need because of what you took?”
“The bank will figure out how to cover the loss,” Johnny stated confidently. “They always do.” Then he grinned. “In the meantime, I’m going to San Francisco. I’ve got $3,000 in that saddlebag. I mean to live the good life for awhile.”
“How long do you think that money is going to last you in San Francisco?” argued Joe. “You’ll be broke within a year, maybe sooner if you run into a card shark or some pretty gal cons you out of it. Then what are you going to do? Rob another bank?”
“No, I ain’t going to rob another bank,” Johnny stated firmly. “That was a one-time thing. I have to admit I didn’t much care for the way I felt while I was doing it, or while that posse was after us.” He shrugged his shoulders. “When the money runs out, I’ll get me a job. Maybe I’ll sign on to one of those clipper ships and go to China. I hear China is an interesting place.”
“You think the law in San Francisco isn’t going to hear about a cowboy with lots of money and start checking on you?” Joe asked skeptically. “You’re going to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, watching for the law or, worse, a bounty hunter. That’s no way to live, Johnny.”
Biting his lip, Johnny considered Joe’s words. Then he shook his head. “The law in San Francisco isn’t going to be worried about me. They won’t even know I’m there.”
“Johnny, let me help you,” Joe pleaded. “Go back with me, turn yourself in. You’ll get some jail time, but not much. And then you can start fresh. I’ll help you. My Pa and brothers will help you. Don’t start running. Because if you do, you’ll never stop.”
Once more, Johnny thought about what Joe had said. And again, he shook his head. “Joe, you’re my friend and I trust you,” he stated. “But I can’t go back. I can’t give up my one chance to live a little. I just can’t.”
“Johnny, that money will never make you happy,” declared Joe. “Every time you spend a dollar, you’ll remember what you did to get it. Every time a lawman even looks in your direction, you’ll wonder if he’s going to arrest you. Every time you make a friend, you’ll never know whether he likes you for yourself or for your money. That’s no way to live.”
“You’re wrong, Joe,” Johnny replied in a defensive tone. “This money is my ticket to the good life. I’m going to spend it and enjoy every minute doing it.”
Suddenly, Joe’s body went limp and his eyes began to droop. “You do whatever you want, Johnny,” he mumbled. “I can’t stop you.”
A frown crossed Johnny’s face as he looked at his friend with concern. “You all right, Joe?”
“Yeah, just need some rest,” Joe answered in a tired voice. He forced his eyes open. “You better get going,” he added.
Nodding, Johnny got to his feet. He pulled his pistol out of his holster and shot three times into the air. Then he turned to Joe. “Somebody will be here soon,” he declared. “You just rest. Somebody will hear those shots.”
“Yeah, sure they will,” Joe agreed but his voice made it clear that he didn’t really believe it. He looked up at Johnny. “Stay away from Miller’s Pass. Hoss is over that way. And the rest of the posse is meeting up in the meadow on the other side of Pine Ridge. Don’t go there.”
“Thanks, Joe,” replied Johnny, sounding surprised. “I didn’t expect you to…” He swallowed hard, and then continued. “Thanks.”
“Good luck,” Joe added as his eyes closed. He heard the sound of Johnny walking away and then the sound of hoof beats. “We’re both going to need it,” he mumbled to himself. Then he allowed himself to fall into a deep sleep.
“Joe! Joe! Come on, Joe. Wake up!” The voice that accompanied the hand shaking Joe’s shoulder had an urgent ring to it.
“Go away,” mumbled Joe. “Let me sleep.”
“Wake up, Joe, or I swear I’m going to dump this whole canteen on your head,” the voice threatened.
Reluctantly, Joe forced one eye open and looked up at blurry figure standing over him. “Go away,” he mumbled again, and then closed the eye.
A stream of water poured down on Joe’s face.
Sputtering and shaking his head, Joe quickly sat up and opened his eyes. He instantly regretted the move as a wave of pain seemed to pierce his head. Joe winced and put his hand over his face until the pain receded into a dull ache. Then he slowly lowered himself back onto the ground. Finally, he looked up at the figure kneeling over him.
“Johnny?” Joe asked in bewilderment.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Johnny answered, sounding almost sorry to have to admit the fact.
“What…what are you doing here?” asked Joe.
“I came back to get you,” Johnny explained with a shrug. “I got up to the top of the trail and spotted a cougar prowling around in the rocks. If that ol’ cat got a whiff of the blood and saw you just laying there…well, I couldn’t just leave you here to be cougar bait. I’ve got to get you on your horse and get you out of here.”
“I’ll be all right,” Joe protested weakly. “Hoss or somebody will be here soon. You better get out of here before they show up.”
“Well, they ain’t here yet, and I don’t want to take a chance they’ll get here before that cat does,” Johnny countered. “Come on, let’s get you up.” Slipping his arm under Joe’s shoulder, he pulled his friend to a sitting position.
A groan escaped from Joe’s mouth as he winced with pain. Putting his hand on his forehead, Joe rubbed his temples. The move eased the pain in his head a bit but did little to help sting from the cuts or the soreness of stiff muscles.
“You’ve got to get to your feet, Joe,” Johnny urged. He leaned forward, moving his hands under Joe’s arms.
Suddenly, Joe grabbed Johnny’s shirt to stop him. “Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“I figure I owe you,” Johnny replied almost nonchalantly.
“For all the times you helped me round up some wild horses and all the falls you took when you helped me break them,” answered Johnny. “For all the beers you bought and for all the laughs we had together.”
“That doesn’t seem enough to risk getting caught,” Joe said with a frown.
“It is to me,” Johnny stated. “I haven’t got that many friends that I can take a chance on losing one. Now let’s get you up.”
Once more, Johnny went through the arduous process of pulling Joe to his feet, dragging him over to the pinto standing nearby and getting the injured man onto the horse. Once Joe was in the saddle, Johnny went back and collected the rifle and canteen lying on the ground. Walking back to the pinto, he put the rifle into the scabbard tied to the saddle, and looped the strap of the canteen around the saddle horn.
“I found this on the trail,” Johnny advised as he reached down to his belt and pulled out a pearl-handled revolver. “You must have lost it when you fell.”
Reaching down, Joe took the pistol Johnny offered and stuck it in his holster. “Thanks,” he said in a tired voice. “What happens now?”
“Now I get you going in the right direction,” Johnny answered. “I’ll get you close enough to the meadow that you can get there on your own. Then I’m heading for San Francisco.”
Two horses slowly followed the rough trail toward the meadow. Johnny kept his mount at a measured pace as he led the pinto behind him. The young man kept looking over his shoulder at the figure slumped in saddle behind him, and with each glance, his worry increased.
Joe was trying hard to stay upright in the saddle, but the task was increasing difficult. His head hurt and his body ached. Trickles of sweat ran down his face and chest, caused by both the warmth of the afternoon sun as well as from the fever that was building inside him. The sweat and movement produced a stinging pain from all the cuts and abrasions scattered across his body. His bruises and stiff muscles ached in protest at the movement also. Blood was seeping through the bandage on his leg, and his sore ankle throbbed. Joe’s breathing was labored, interrupted from time to time by small grunts of pain.
“Hang on, Joe,” Johnny called to his friend. “It’s not far now. We’re almost there.”
Joe’s answer was a slight nod. He was hurting too much to talk.
Suddenly, Joe’s horse stopped. Johnny had dropped the reins of the pinto and ridden back to Joe’s side.
“You’re getting worse,” Johnny stated. He put his hand on Joe’s forehead. “You’re starting to fever. I guess I didn’t clean out those cuts as good as I thought I did.”
Forcing himself to sit up a bit, Joe looked at Johnny. “Where are we?” he asked in a flat, toneless voice.
The dazed expression on Joe’s face and the vacant look in his eyes disturbed Johnny. He could see Joe was hanging on to consciousness by the slimmest of threads. “The meadow is just up ahead,” he explained slowly, hoping Joe would understand. “Just past that stand of trees.”
Lifting his head, Joe stared down the trail. At first, everything was a blur; his vision was clouded by sweat and pain. Joe blinked a few times and the trail came into focus. He could make out the group of trees about a hundred yards ahead. “Let’s…get…going,” he gasped. Then he lowered his head.
Grabbing the reins of the pinto once more, Johnny slowly led Joe’s horse down the trail. Although it didn’t take him long to reach the trees, Johnny felt as if the ride had taken forever. He was anxious to get help for Joe but knew he couldn’t speed up the pace of the horses without hurting his friend. As soon as he passed the trees and led the horses to the edge of the meadow, Johnny sighed with relief.
“We’re here, Joe,” Johnny announced. “We’re at the meadow.”
Joe roused himself enough to raise his head and look around. He nodded briefly when he saw the wide expanse of grass in front of him. Joe could feel the movement of his horse underneath him as Johnny led him deeper into the field.
“Look!” called Johnny suddenly as he pointed to the far end of the meadow. “See those riders coming this way? That must be your Pa and brothers and the rest of the posse.”
Once again, Joe merely nodded.
Turning his horse so he could face Joe, Johnny thrust the reins of the pinto into Joe’s hand. “Listen, Joe,” he said quickly, “I’m going to swat your horse and send you on to your pa. I’ve got to get out of here before the posse spots me. Now you hang on tight, you hear?”
“I hear,” Joe mumbled. He stared at Johnny for a moment and then added, “Thanks, Johnny. Thanks for everything.”
“Yeah, well, you’re welcome,” Johnny replied with a shrug. “I wish…well, I wish things had turned out differently.”
“You be careful,” cautioned Joe.
“Don’t worry about me,” Johnny answered with a grin. “I can take care of myself. Now hang on tight.” Reaching down, he whacked the backside of the pinto, causing the horse to start forward at a trot.
Anxious to be sure Joe would be all right, Johnny turned his horse to watch his friend bouncing lightly in the saddle as the pinto trotted across the field. But Johnny’s anxiety turned to dismay when he saw Joe’s horse suddenly veer to the left toward a clump of tall bushes. Hungry, thirsty and without direction from his rider, the pinto decided that a small pool of water surrounded by thick grass near the bushes looked inviting.
“No, no,” Johnny said softly as he saw the pinto stop to drink and chew on the grass by the tall shrubbery. He knew the men riding across the meadow would never see Joe.
Cursing the pinto under his breath, Johnny kicked his horse forward and started toward the bushes. But he stopped abruptly when he heard the sound of a shout coming from the other end of the meadow. He looked in the direction of the riders and saw two men pointing toward him. Johnny hesitated, glanced over his shoulder at Joe, and then wheeled his horse around. Kicking the animal furiously, Johnny started his horse at a run back toward the edge of the meadow. The posse also started galloping their horses, and one man fired a shot at the fleeing rider.
As he sat atop his horse, Joe heard the shouting and gunfire. It took a moment for his befuddled brain to work out what was happening, but finally he realized that the men in the meadow were going after Johnny and ignoring him. Vaguely aware that the he was hidden behind the tall shrubs, Joe pulled on the reins in his hands and tapped his horse with his foot. The pinto raised its head and began walking.
Once he was past the bushes, Joe turned his horse to face the middle of the meadow. He could see seven riders racing across the grass, one of whom had a pistol in his hand and was shooting toward the stand of trees from which Joe and Johnny had emerged a few minutes earlier.
“Hey!” Joe shouted as he waved his hand in the air. But his voice was weak and his hand barely moved. The riders could neither see nor hear him.
Reaching down, Joe pulled his pistol out of his holster. The gun felt as if it weighed a ton and the trigger seemed much too stiff to be pulled. Nevertheless, Joe managed to raised the gun into the air and use what little strength he had to fire the revolver.
At the sound of the shot, the posse pulled their horses abruptly to a stop. The seven men milled around for a moment, looking for the source of the gunfire. Suddenly a big man wearing a tall white hat pointed in Joe’s direction. Three riders split off from the posse, riding hard toward Joe. The other four men stayed in the middle of the meadow, apparently discussing what to do next. After a minute or so, the men began galloping their horses toward the edge of the meadow, once again chasing Johnny Thornton.
Still holding the gun, Joe let his hand fall to his side. He didn’t have the energy to put the pistol back in his holster; in fact, he didn’t have enough energy to do anything but sit and wait. With his eyes half closed, Joe heard rather than saw the three horses ride up to him and come to a halt. Hearing a familiar voice calling his name, Joe made what seemed to be a monumental effort to open his eyes and look down at the figures standing next to his horse.
“Joe! Joe, what happened to you?” Ben asked in an anxious voice.
“I fell,” Joe simply replied. He didn’t have the strength to say anything more.
“How did you get here?” asked Adam with a frown. “What was Johnny Thornton doing here?”
“Joe, you hurt bad?” Hoss added with concern. “You don’t look too good.”
“I fell,” repeated Joe, saying the only words he could seem to get out. He looked down at his father, closed his eyes, and tumbled out of the saddle into Ben’s arms.
It took a lot of effort for Joe to fight his way out of the cloud of darkness in which he found himself, but somehow he knew he had to do it. Maybe it was the gentle touch of the damp cloth on his face and head, or maybe it was the indistinct sounds he heard from a familiar voice which spurred him on. Regardless, Joe knew he had to leave the comfort of black, unfeeling place where there was no pain, no dizziness, and no sense of weakness. He took a deep breath and forced open his eyes.
Joe was laying flat on his back, in the shade provided by a tall tree. A blanket covered him, and a still-tied bedroll acted as a pillow under his head.
It was no surprise to Joe that he saw his father kneeling over him, cloth in hand, and looking at him with an expression of concern. “Hi,” Joe said, trying to form the stiff muscles in his face into a smile.
“Hi yourself,” Ben replied, doing a poor job of keeping the relief out of his voice.
“How long have I been out?” asked Joe.
“About two hours,” Ben answered. “You gave us quite a scare.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Joe. He closed his eyes and grit his teeth as the now familiar feeling of pain washed over him.
“Take it easy, son,” Ben counseled, putting his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Just lie still. Hoss has gone for a wagon, and Doc Martin should be waiting at the Ponderosa by the time we get you home.”
Nodding, Joe took a deep breath and tried to will away the pain. The throbbing and stinging finally receded to the point that he could endure their presence. Then he opened his eyes again.
“I’ve refilled the canteen,” declared Adam as he knelt next to Ben and offered the container to his father. Seeing Joe’s eyes were open, he smiled. “Well, it seems you are back among the living, little brother. How are you feeling?”
“I hurt in places I didn’t know you could hurt,” Joe admitted. He looked at his father. “Can I have some of that water?”
“Of course,” Ben replied, putting the canteen to Joe’s mouth. He waited until his son had satisfied his thirst, and then pulled the container away. The he put his hand on Joe’s forehead. “Your fever is down. I cleaned and bandaged your cuts and scrapes. That plus the long sleep you had must have helped.
“Yeah, I feel better,” Joe agreed. “Everything hurts but not quite as bad.”
“Can you tell us what happened?” Ben asked.
“Well, I was heading up the trail on foot,” Joe replied slowly, trying to recall the exact sequence of events. “I wanted to see if I could find any sign of Johnny and the other two before I came back for the posse. There was a landslide or something, and I got knocked down the trail. The rocks and stuff clobbered me pretty good. Johnny found me, patched me up and brought me back to the meadow. He took off when he saw the posse.”
“Maybe Johnny is the one who started that landslide,” observed Adam.
“I don’t think so, Adam,” Joe said, shaking his head a bit. “I mean, why would he try to help me if he had tried to hurt me in the first place?”
“He took a pretty big risk bringing you back to the meadow,” Ben noted.
“Yeah, he did,” agreed Joe. “He could have just left me out there, but he didn’t. He’s a good friend, Pa.” He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering what Johnny had said about wanting to have a little fun in his life. “He just got on the wrong track,” Joe added. “He didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. Johnny just wanted to see what life was like outside of Virginia City.”
“And he robbed a bank to finance it,” Adam remarked in a wry voice. “I’d say he really got on the wrong track.”
Not knowing how to defend Johnny’s actions, Joe merely shrugged. “What happened to Johnny?” he asked. “Did he get away?”
“He got away,” stated a voice to Joe’s left as a shadow suddenly fell over the youngest Cartwright.
Looking up, Joe saw Roy Coffee and the man he remembered was named Bronson standing over him.
“He got away,” the sheriff repeated. “We lost sight of him and had to track him. He got up into the hard rock country and we lost his trail. There’s no telling where he is now.”
“We could have caught him if you hadn’t fired that shot,” Bronson added with a scowl. “You held us up long enough for your good friend to get away.”
“I didn’t…” Joe started but then he stopped. Had he fired that shot to distract the posse and allow Johnny to get away? He wasn’t sure. His thinking had been so muddled at the time that he wasn’t sure why he had done it. “I’m sorry,” Joe finished, trying to sound apologetic.
“We would have ridden right by you if you hadn’t fired that shot, Joe,” Ben stated. “There’s no telling how long it would have been before we found you. I for one am glad you did shoot.” He reached out his hand to stroke Joe’s head. “I’d rather lose a bank robber than a son,” Ben added in a voice full of emotion.
“Did Johnny say anything about what direction he was headed? Where he was going?” asked Coffee.
Taking a deep breath, Joe thought hard. He didn’t want to lie, but he knew if he told the sheriff that Johnny was headed to San Francisco, Roy Coffee would alert the lawmen in every town along the way as well as the lawmen in that city. Joe felt he owed Johnny for saving his life; he owed Johnny a chance to get to San Francisco and have his wild spree. “He said he was heading for a big city,” Joe answered truthfully. “Someplace where he could have some fun and live it up for awhile.”
“That could be any place – San Francisco, Denver, Sacramento – almost anywhere,” Coffee mused. The sheriff shook his head. “No telling which way he went. He could be anywhere by now.”
“Or he could be standing on the edge of this camp,” Adam declared, looking past Roy Coffee.
The five men under the tree turned to look, and saw a figure standing next to his horse, nervously playing with the reins in his hand. Johnny dropped the reins and put his hands into the air. “I’m giving myself up,” he called as he began walking forward.
Immediately, Roy Coffee pulled out his gun and rushed toward the young man. “Johnny Thornton, you’re under arrest for bank robbery and assault,” the sheriff announced. He grabbed the pistol out of Johnny’s holster. “Don’t try anything,” warned Coffee.
“I won’t, sheriff,” Johnny promised. He looked over the lawman’s shoulder toward Joe. “You all right?” he asked.
“I will be,” Joe answered. “Thanks to you.” He cocked his head and look at Johnny with a curious expression. “Why did you come back?”
Looking down, Johnny pushed the dirt around with his toe for a minute before answering. Then he raised his head and said, “A couple of reasons, I guess. I couldn’t stop myself from worrying about you, about whether your pa and brothers found you. I also couldn’t stop thinking about what you said, about how the money wasn’t going to make me happy. The harder I rode, the more I started thinking I was making a mistake. So I turned around and came back.”
“I’m glad, Johnny,” Joe told his friend, then shifted his gaze to the sheriff. “Roy, I want to talk to the judge in Virginia City. I want to tell the judge what Johnny did for me, how he saved my life even though he risked getting caught.”
“Well, the fact that he did that as well as gave himself up should carry some weight with the judge,” the sheriff admitted. “But he’s still going to be in jail for a stretch.”
“Don’t let the judge decided anything until I talk to him,” pleaded Joe. “I just need a day or two…”
“You can talk to the judge once you’re feeling better,” Ben interrupted in a firm voice. “And that’s going to take longer than a day or two, young man.” He pulled the blanket covering Joe up a bit. “I’ll make sure the judge waits to hear what you have to say. In the meantime, you need to get some rest. Hoss will be back soon with the wagon, and then we’re going to get you home.”
“Joe, thanks for talking me out of making the biggest mistake in my life,” Johnny declared. “I figure I can use the time in jail to think about what I want to do when I get out.”
“I’ll be there to help you with whatever you decide,” Joe promised. “And thanks for saving my life.”
A grin broke out on Johnny’s face. “Seems all we’ve been doing lately is saying thanks to each other,” he remarked.
“That’s what friends do – look out for each other and help each other when they need it,” Joe replied. “And you’re my friend, Johnny.”
“That’s enough talking for now,” Ben declared. “Joe, you get some sleep. We’ll wake you when Hoss gets here with the wagon.”
“All right,” Joe agreed as he shifted his body to a more comfortable position. He closed his eyes, suddenly feeling grateful for the chance to sleep. Joe knew he’d be home soon, and he wanted to get well, to get back on his feet as soon as possible. He wanted to be able to stand by his friend, both literally and figuratively. As Johnny had said, most people don’t have that many true friends that they can afford to lose one. Johnny Thornton was one friend Joe was going to make sure he never lost.