Synopsis: A what happened next for The Smiler
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 1,910
The flames seemed alive and hungry as the fire traveled up the walls. Barely conscious, Joe shook his head to try to clear his thinking. He could feel the heat and smell the smoke. In an almost detached manner, he wondered where he was. The last thing he remembered was riding into Clarence Bolling’s camp. Bolling, whom Joe had privately nicknamed The Smiler because of the almost constant grin on the man’s face, had been blaming Joe’s brother Hoss for the death of his own brother, Arthur. Joe thought he might be able to explain the circumstances surrounding Arthur Bolling’s death and why Hoss shouldn’t be held responsible for it. Arthur’s death had been an accident, and Joe wanted The Smiler to understand that. He also wanted to make it clear that if Clarence Bolling did anything to Hoss, Joe would see that he paid dearly for it.
Surprisingly, Joe had found Bolling to be reasonable. With the ever-present smile on his face, Bolling had agreed that Hoss was not responsible for his brother’s death. The Smiler had even offered Joe a cup of coffee while they talked further. Joe recalled taking several sips from the cup, and then nothing more.
Joe shook his head again and his brain finally started to make sense of his surroundings. Joe’s eyes opened wide with fear as he realized he was tied to a chair in the middle of a burning room.
Twisting and turning, Joe tried to free himself from the chair but only succeeded in knocking himself and the piece of furniture sideways onto the floor. Three strands of thick rope wrapped around his chest and arms held him tight again the back of the chair, and his ankles were bound securely to its legs. A sick feeling formed in Joe’s stomach as he came to understand there was no way to free himself.
“Help!” yelled Joe. “Somebody help me! Help!” He listened for an answer but heard nothing except the crackle of the flames. “Help me, please!” he shouted desperately. “Somebody help me!”
Outside the small line shack, the smile on Clarence Bolling’s face widened as he heard the frantic cries from inside the building. He turned toward the big man who was tied to the tree behind him. Bolling slapped Hoss Cartwright’s face twice to wake his captive.
Hoss stirred, grimaced for a moment and then opened his eyes. He looked around until his gaze rested on the man standing over him.
“What’s going on, Bolling?” Hoss asked with a frown. “What are you planning to do?”
“To you, nothing,” replied The Smiler. “I brought you here simply to watch.” Bolling spun around and walked to the burning line shack. The flames were licking up the side of the building and the smoke was seeping through the wooden slats. Bolling kicked open the door of the shack and then took a step back.
The frown on Hoss’ face turned into an expression of horror as he saw his younger brother lying in the middle of the shack, tied to a chair. “Joe,” Hoss said almost in a whisper. With effort, he tore his eyes away from Joe and looked at Bolling. “Get him out of there!” Hoss demanded. “He’ll burn to death!”
“Not for a little while,” The Smiler answered. “I figure it will take another five minutes or so for the building to go up in flames. Of course, he might choke on the smoke first. I’m not an expert on such things but I hear smoke can be deadlier than the flames.”
Twisting and pulling, Hoss tried to free his tied hands from behind the tree. He felt the ropes give a bit, but they stubbornly refused to separate. “Get him out of there, please,” Hoss pleaded. “He don’t have anything to do with what’s between you and me. Put me in there if you want, but get him out.”
“No, Mr. Cartwright,” said Bolling with a smile. “I decided this was the appropriate revenge. You killed my brother, so I’m going to kill yours. The only difference is that you’ll watch your brother die.”
Inside the burning building, Joe coughed and choked as he inhaled some smoke. Unwittingly, he had given himself a few precious moments of reprieve from the thickening haze by throwing himself to the floor where there was still some air to breathe. But it wouldn’t be long before that air was gone.
“Help!” shouted Joe once more. He heard a loud crack as the front door was kicked open, and sagged with relief at the thought of rescue. But his relief turned to dismay as he saw a figure backing away from the door, apparently abandoning him to his fate. “Help me!” Joe yelled. “I’m tied up in here. Get me out!”
Lifting his head, Joe tried to see through the smoke. The billowing darkness parted and he got a clear view of what was just outside the cabin. He was shocked to see his brother Hoss tied to a tree a few feet from the building; Clarence Bolling was standing near Hoss with a wide smile on his face. Joe saw Hoss struggling to free himself but could tell his brother was unsuccessful.
It took only a moment for Joe to understand The Smiler’s fiendish plan. Joe would burn to death in the shack and Hoss would be made to watch.
Straining with effort, Joe tried to drag himself toward the open door. He managed to move only a few inches before realizing the effort was futile. The chair was too heavy to drag, and the air from the open door had fanned the flames into a wall of fire. Even if he could edge his way across the floor, he wouldn’t be able to move through the fire fast enough to prevent the blaze from consuming him.
Laying his head back on the floor, Joe waited for the inevitable. He kept his eyes fixed on Hoss, blinking them occasionally to clear his vision. The smoke was irritating his eyes, causing them to tear -– at least, that’s what Joe told himself. He kept his gaze trained on Hoss. While he regretted his brother was going to watch him die, Joe felt a sense of comfort in the thought that the last thing he would see on this earth was Hoss.
Outside the cabin, Hoss watched in horror as the smoke thickened and the flames grew higher. He struggled against his ropes again, pulling harder and rubbing the strands against the tree bark.
“Don’t exert yourself, Mr. Cartwright,” Bolling advised, the smile still on his face. “I can assure you that you won’t be able to free yourself in time. Better to just sit back and watch the show.”
The Smiler’s words sent a boiling rage through Hoss. Watch the show! His brother dying wasn’t going to be a form of entertainment for this evil man, Hoss told himself angrily.
With a strength even he didn’t know he had, Hoss strained his muscles and pulled against the ropes. The strands held for a moment, unwilling to part, but they were no match for the indomitable force tugging at them. With a snap, the ropes broke.
Hoss jumped to his feet, much to the surprise of Clarence Bolling. The Smiler tried to block Hoss, desperate to continue his plan of revenge. He pushed against the big man, attempting to knock him down.
But the rage within Hoss knew no bounds. He brought up his massive fist and smashed it into Bolling’s jaw. The blow sent The Smiler literally flying across the across the ground. Bolling’s body landed with a loud thump against a fallen log; his head cracked backwards against the piece of timber as the force of the landing snapped the man’s neck.
Ignoring Bolling, Hoss raced into the burning shack. He was vaguely aware of the intense heat and the thick smoke, but they seemed like only minor irritations to the big man. Hoss paused a moment to look down at his younger brother; he smiled and nodded his head at Joe. Relief and almost disbelief surged through Joe’s body as he nodded back at Hoss.
Grabbing Joe by the shoulders, Hoss righted his brother and the chair. He could see at a glance that the knots were tight, and that it would take too much time to untie them. Hoss moved to stand in front of Joe and then reached down to grab the seat of the chair on both sides. Shielding his brother from the fire with his own large frame, Hoss picked up the chair and backed out of the blazing cabin.
Once in the open air, Hoss set the chair down and started to untie his brother. As he worked, Hoss could hear Joe coughing hard, trying to clear his lungs of the smoke.
“Are you all right, little brother?” asked Hoss with concern as he loosened the knots on the rope that held Joe’s body against the chair.
“I swallowed some smoke and got a little singed but otherwise I’m fine,” Joe assured his brother. “How are you?”
For a moment, Hoss didn’t answer. After opening the knots, he unwrapped the rope from around his brother’s chest. “I’m all right,” Hoss answered finally. But there was an element of doubt in his reply.
Still coughing, Joe reached down to untie his ankles. “Are you sure?” he asked as he kicked away the cord.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” Hoss repeated. He looked over to where Clarence Bolling lay. Hoss could see the unnatural angle of the man’s head and suspected he was beyond help. Nevertheless, Hoss walked over to Bolling and checked for a pulse. The Smiler was dead.
“Is he…?” asked Joe, who had crossed the ground to join his brother.
“Yeah, he’s dead,” Hoss replied. He shook his head slowly and then solemnly said the words again. “He’s dead.”
Joe laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Hoss, you didn’t mean to kill him. It was an accident. It was an accident just like the one that killed his brother.”
“I know,” Hoss answered. He pursed his lips for a moment and then turned his gaze to Joe. “Pa always taught me that I had to be careful, that I had to be sure not to use my strength to hurt anyone. Well, I hurt someone. Both Bolling and his brother are dead because I wasn’t careful.”
“Hoss, they’re not dead because you weren’t careful,” countered Joe. “They’re dead because they were selfish, evil men. They’re dead because they had no regard for anyone but themselves.”
“But…” started Hoss.
“But nothing,” interrupted Joe. “Hoss, you use your strength help those who need it.” A smile crossed Joe’s face. “If you hadn’t been as strong as bull, I’d be dead right now. I think that’s a pretty good argument that you use those muscles of yours the right way.”
Hoss looked at his brother. Joe was covered with soot and his clothes were charred in several places. But Joe was alive. Joe was alive because he had been strong enough to break the ropes.
“You know, little brother,” said Hoss with a smile, “sometimes you’re downright smart.” He patted his brother on the shoulder. “Come on, Joe, let’s go home.