Night Callers (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   10,208


 

It was cold and rainy, mixed with snow outside and Ben was soaked to the skin.  He couldn’t wait to get home and dry out.  The warm, blazing fire that he knew would be burning in the massive fireplace in the great room, seemed to beckon to him to hurry.  Ben shivered from the dampness that had settled in his weary body as he pulled his rain-slicker closer and tugged at his hat so that it would be lower over his brow, thus letting the cold drops of rainwater drip from the brim.

It was an hour later before the weary traveler finally rode into the yard and directed his big buckskin horse toward the barn.  He glanced casually at the house, surprised that no light shown from the windows.

“Guess Joe gave up on me and went on to bed,” he told Buck as he dismounted and led his horse into the barn.  “Probably thought I found a place to take shelter in this blasted storm,” he continued with the one-sided conversation.  “Can’t say that I blame him,” snickered Ben while he tended to his mount, “this rain sure makes for some good sleeping…for which I cannot wait to get into bed and enjoy for myself!  The ground’s likely to be covered in snow before morning.”

When he was finished bedding down his tired horse, Ben hurried to secure the barn door and then rushed across the yard toward the house.  He paused on the porch to stomp the mud from his feet and to remove his wet slicker before entering.  Ben stretched out his hand, ready to open the heavy oak door, when he suddenly noticed that the door was ajar.

He stopped to remove his pistol from its holster before touching his hand to the door.  All sorts of thoughts rambled through his mind.  Was there an intruder in the house…or had Joe just forgotten to close the door tightly?  No sense in taking any chances, he’d proceed with caution…just in case.

Silently, Ben opened the door just enough to let himself in and stepped just inside the room.  All was silent…the fire burned, as expected, warm and inviting.  Being as quiet as a mouse, he peeked around the corner into the dining room.  It was emptied, as was the great room.

Feeling as if something wasn’t as it should be, Ben inched cautiously toward the kitchen and looked around the corner; it too, stood vacant.  He glanced toward the staircase, wishing that Joe were there to greet him.  Where was his youngest son?  Adam and Hoss, he knew was in San Francisco…Joe was suppose to be here…at home.  The boy was just recuperating from a severe cold and Ben had not allowed his youngest son to accompany his brothers on their annual trek to the city to do some shopping before the upcoming holidays.  It had been the doctor’s orders, not his, and though Ben remembered seeing the disappointment in the younger man’s eyes, Joe had not complained.  Probably because he knew he wasn’t quite well enough for the long journey.  Ben could still recall the paleness in the boy’s face and in his mind could still hear the hacking cough.  The concerned father had been glad that Joe had not put up any resistance to the physician’s orders that he remain at home…and in the bed.  And now with onslaught of the sudden storm, Ben was more relieved than ever that Joe had stayed behind.

Again, Ben glanced toward the stairs…he would check the boy’s room; Joe was most likely asleep.  Perhaps it had only been the wind that had forced the door opened, after his son had forgotten to close it tightly.

With his doubts lessening, Ben holstered his gun and tossing his hat on the credenza, shut and secured the door before heading up the stairs.  At the head of the stairs, he noticed that Joe’s door was closed.  Not wanting to disturb his son, least Joe be sleeping, he eased opened the door and peered inside.  He could barely make out Joe’s form lying in the bed.  Ben tiptoed across the room for a better look.  Joe was on his side, but had the covers pulled over his head.  Smothering a giggle at the way his son slept, Ben reached down, grasped the blanket in one hand and gently pulled it back, gasping loudly at the sight of his son.

“Joseph!”

Joe’s eyes were opened and wide with fear.  A tight gag had been tied around his mouth, preventing the boy from speaking.  When Ben jerked the covers down to the foot of the bed, he was startled to find that his son had been bound tightly; both hands and feet were tied with ropes that had burned into his son’s flesh.  Joe’s legs had been tied at the knees as well and again around the upper thighs and were bent so that the ropes were attached to the one around his wrists.

“Who on earth?” muttered Ben as he reached down to remove the ropes, attempting to free his son’s limbs.

Joe grunted loudly; his eyes were wildly looking around, as if trying to tell his father something.  Ben’s eyes sought his son’s face.  He noticed that Joe glanced over the top of his head, as if seeing someone behind his father.  Ben spun around, barely catching a glimpse of a man before being struck on the side of his head and falling, unconscious to the floor.  Joe tried to jerk his body free from his restraints as he fought against the ropes and growled at the man from behind his gag.

“Aww…shut up, kid, don’t make me hurt ya…I ain’t got plans for that,” growled the stranger as he grabbed the blankets and tossed them over Joe’s head, preventing the young man from seeing what was happening to his father.

**********

It was much later when Ben finally woke from his unconscious state.  The first thing that registered in his mind was the music of the rain as it pelted the roof.  The sound had a soft sort of soothing affect and for a few brief moments, Ben had forgotten finding his son bound and gagged.  It was as if he’d been sleeping and he felt as if he’d just awakened from a dream.  When he squeezed his eyes and tried to move, Ben found that his hands were tied behind his back.  Realization waited on no man and within a flash, it all came rushing back to him, the opened door, the strange silence…the emptiness and then the shock of finding his son as he had.  Joe! His mind screamed.  Who had done such a thing…who could the night caller be and what did he want?  Where was the man now…was Joseph alright?  Ben craned his neck trying to see over his shoulder.  He knew he was in his own bed, the door was closed tightly…he found himself in much the same shape as he had found his son, and just as helpless to do anything about it.  The one thing that was different, he wasn’t gagged.

“JOSEPH!  JOSEPH!” Ben shouted at the top of his lungs.

He knew it was senseless, calling out the boy.  It was most likely that his son was still tied and gagged and unable to respond…but the night caller might.

“HEY!” Ben shouted, hoping that the intruder would respond to his shouts.

Ben could hear heavy footsteps on the stairs and knew where in the hallway the man walked.  The boards creaked as the stranger made his way slowly towards Ben’s bedroom door.  Waiting with baited breath, straining through the darkness trying to see the door when it opened, Ben watched for the man’s arrival.  His wait was rewarded in due time.  Even the door squeaked when it was opened.  The dark silhouette of the tall-uninvited guest who now stood in the doorway muted the light from the hall.

“Well, it’s about time you woke up,” the man said as he crossed the room and jerked the covers off Ben’s body.  “How’s the head, Sol said he clobbered you?”

Ben studied the man’s face.  Something about the man seemed vaguely familiar.

“Hurts,” Ben answered after a moment.

“Well, let’s see what we can do about that,” the stranger said as he began untying Ben’s legs and helping Ben to sit on the side of the bed.  The stranger left Ben’s hands tied behind his back.

“Who are you…and what do you want…and what have you done with my son?” Ben demanded, squinting his eyes to look up at the man.

“Name’s Gilchrist, that’s all you need to know…and as for what I want, me and some friends of mine…well…we need a place to hide out for awhile.”

“And my son?”

“He’s still tied up in his room, don’t worry none, Mr. Cartwright…we didn’t hurt him, if’n that’s what you’re worried about,” the stranger stated.

“You know me?” Ben asked.

“Who doesn’t,” the stranger laughed.  “Everyone’s heard of the Cartwrights…and the Ponderosa,” Gilchrist snickered.  “Come on, the boss wants to see you downstairs,” Gilchrist said as he slipped his arm through Ben’s and pulled him to his feet.  “Can you walk?”

“I think so,” Ben said, allowing the stranger to help him into the hallway.

There, just outside his son’s room, Ben could hear Joe struggling to cough.

“My son’s been sick…that cough sounds as if it’s getting worse again…mind if we just check on him?” Ben asked, hopefully.

Gilchrist hesitated briefly and then nodded his head.  He reached for the door and pushed it opened, peeking inside.  Joe was still restrained and lying on the bed, but he had managed to move the covers off his head.  The intruder allowed Ben to enter his son’s room and then stood to one side as Ben neared the bed.

Ben could see that Joe was in distress.  Tiny beads of perspiration dotted the boy’s brow and Joe’s face was flushed, probably running a fever again.  He spied his father and tried to speak, but the hacking cough, muted by the gag, prevented him from forming the words he wanted to say.  Ben turned to the night caller. “He needs water…please, untie me so that I can help him…”

“Sorry, Mr. Cartwright, I can’t do that…but…if you’ll step aside, I’ll give him a drink,” offered the stranger.

Ben did not question the man’s motives, but quickly did as instructed.  Gilchrist hurried to pour a glass with cool water and returned to Joe’s bed where he removed the gag that was still in place and held the sweat dampened head upright while offering the glass with the other hand.

Joe drank hungrily from the glass until his thirst had been quenched. “Thanks,” he said after clearing his throat.  He turned his attention to his father.  “Pa…are you alright…someone hit you over the head…”

“I’m fine, son,” Ben said as he neared the bed again.  “What about you?”

“Just hot…and cold…guess I’ve spiked another fever,” Joe admitted as he eyed the man standing behind his father. “Pa…there’s several of them,” he said, nodding his head in the stranger’s direction.

“I know, son…just do as they ask…”

“Who are they…what do they want?”

“Never mind who we are, boy…just you lie still and behave yourself.  We’ll be outta here come mornin’ and you and your pa will be just fine…lessen you give us any trouble,” warned Gilchrist.

“HEY, JOHN…HURRY IT UP!” shouted one of the men from the landing on the stairs.

Gilchrist placed his hand on Ben’s arm and tugged on it. “Come on, Mr. Cartwright, the boss wants to talk to you,” he said.

Joe’s eyes widened slightly, but only his father could read the disquiet expression in the hazel depths.

“Don’t worry, son…I’ll be fine,” Ben said, hoping to assure his son.

Joe watched as his father was led from the room.  Gilchrist closed the door, leaving Joe alone and in the dark.  Frantically, he struggled with his ropes, but to no avail.  He sighed deeply, resigning himself to his fate.  The young man had no other choice but to do as instructed and just wait it out.  Joe knew that if he continued to struggle with his ropes and get too hot or overexert himself, he would start coughing again.  His throat hurt as it was from the excessive coughing and he feared making it worse.

*****

Ben made his way carefully down the stairs, surprised to see four more men sitting around his living room.  One man was stretched out on the settee, obviously suffering from a bullet wound to his right shoulder.

When he reached the last step, one man came forward.  The stranger was enjoying one of Ben’s prized cigars that had been a gift from an old friend who had stopped by on his way to San Francisco for a short visit.

“Howdy, Mr. Cartwright,” the stranger greeted his host.

Ben said nothing, but sized the man up, making mental notes.

“My name is Jack Davis…A.J. Davis…known to my friends as “Big Jack”, feel free to call me Big Jack, if you’d like,” Davis offered.

Big Jack took a long drag on the cigar and blew the smoke upward from his mouth and over Ben’s head. “Mighty fine,” he smiled at Ben, holding the cigar out, away from his face.  “Care for one?”

“No thank you,” Ben said in a tone that spoke volumes of his disfavor at the intrusion into his home.  “What do you want…why have you pushed your way into my home?” he demanded, glancing from one man to another, expecting an answer.

Davis turned to glance over his shoulder at the wounded man on the settee and then turned back to Ben. “As you can plainly see, my friend over there has managed to get himself hurt…he obviously needs some sort of care before we can continue on our way…” Davis explained.

Ben moved cautiously toward the couch, glancing at the hurt man.  He spoke to Davis in a grave voice. “The man’s lost a lot of blood.”

“Yes…he needs a doctor…and that’s another reason why we’re here,” Davis informed his host.

Ben glanced again at the group of strangers.  Two men were playing poker at the dining room table while another had made himself comfortable in the red leather chair.  Davis noticed Ben eyeing his men.

“That’s Parsons,” Davis said, pointing to a man that Ben suddenly remembered seeing playing poker in the saloon just the day before when he’d stopped in for a cool beer.

“And that’s John Chapman,” Davis explained, indicating the man playing poker with Parsons.

“You’ve met Gilchrist…Sol…Sol Jones’ the man that hit you over the head, he and two more of my men are guarding the place…just in case…” Davis informed Ben.

Ben’s lips were pressed tightly together as he took in his plight.

“Obviously you expect something of me…” Ben stated.

“You’re right, Mr. Cartwright…I expect you to ride into town and fetch back the doctor…or else…”

Ben’s eyes grew dark, he had figured that this man was the leader and expected something…

“Or else what?” Ben dared to ask.

Davis took another long drag from his cigar and blew the smoke directly into Ben’s face. “Or else…the kid upstairs gets hurt…”

Ben dared not show his wrath, he dared not put his son in danger, any more so than what he already was in. “The boy isn’t well…”

“I know…I’ve heard him…sounds like the beginnings of pneumonia,” Davis said matter-of-factly.  “I’d sure hate for him to get stuck outside in this storm…this time of year …he’d most likely die quick like…it’s already been snowing on the other side of the mountain.”

Ben sighed deeply.  “You don’t have to threaten me, Davis…I’ll fetch the doctor for you, on one condition,” dared Ben.

“I don’t think you’re in a position to make conditions, Mr. Cartwright…but just for the sake of being fair…what’s the condition?” Davis asked, curious to know.

“Only that you release my son…untie him…he won’t try anything…he’s too weak for that.  He needs to move around, just a bit…to keep the congestion broken up,” Ben said.

Davis appeared to be thinking on the matter.  After a long moment, he nodded his head.

“Alright, but if he tries anything…I’ll have him stripped down to the skin and tie him to the hitching post and let him freeze to death…you hear me?” Davis demanded in a gruff tone.  “I wasn’t planning on killing either of you…but if you double cross me…so help me God, I’ll see the boy die!”

“I won’t double cross you…” Ben promised.  “Let me speak with my son first, and then I’ll be on my way…once you untie my hands.”

“Untie him, Chapman. Gilchrist…go get the boy,” ordered Davis.

John Chapman rose from his chair and moved to stand behind Ben.  He took his own sweet time in releasing the tightly knotted ropes from around Ben’s wrists.

At the sound of footsteps on the landing, Ben looked up to see his son being led down.  Joe’s hands remained tied behind his back.  When he reached the main room, Ben walked over to his son.  Immediately, he noted how pale and tired the boy appeared.

“I’m going into town to get the doctor for that man over there, Joe…you’re to stay here.  Please, do as they tell you…don’t give them any trouble.  I won’t be long, and when Doc Martin in finished getting the bullet out of that man’s shoulder…I’ll have him take a look at you,” Ben instructed his son.

“Who are they?” Joe asked.

“Just some men who…apparently did something that got one of them shot,” Ben offered.  “Please, Joseph…behave yourself…”

Joe’s lips twisted into a weak smile as he nodded his head. “I will…I promise…you be careful, Pa…”

“I will.”

“Alright, Cartwright…time to get moving,” instructed Davis.  “Eb…tell Sol to saddle Cartwright’s horse.”

“Sure thing, Big Jack,” EB Parsons said as he headed for the door.

Davis turned back to Ben.  “Remember Cartwright…the doctor is the only man you had better bring back with you.  You stop at the sheriff’s and your boy over there…well, I done told you what would happen if you double crossed me…”

“You just remember this, Davis…if you or one of your men, put so much as put a scratch on my boy…I’ll kill you…I’ll hunt you down myself and I’ll kill you…”

Ben gave one last quick glance at his son and then went out the door.  On the settee, Chat Roberts groaned in pain.  Davis went to his friend. “Hang on Chat, old buddy, that doctor will be here in a couple of hours…he’ll fix you up just fine…and then we’ll get the hell out of here.”

“Gil…you and Parsons go relieve Sol and Squires.  Tell them to come inside and get dried out.  There’s plenty to eat in the kitchen…the Chinaman made some sandwiches and brewed some coffee a little while ago,” Davis explained.

Joe started to cough, drawing Davis’ attention. Big Jack eyed the boy and then went to Ben’s liquor cabinet.  He poured a brandy and moved to the blue chair where Joe sat, hacking and coughing. “Sip this, it’ll help,” he said, tipping the goblet to Joe’s lips.

Joe sipped the brandy until it was gone and then turned to the man, wondering at the kindness of his act.

“Thanks,” Joe muttered, leaning his head back.

Davis studied his prisoner, deciding that he liked the kid.  He even smiled. “I wasn’t always such a rogue,” he said softly to Joe.  “But things happened…”

“What did you do…I mean…did you kill someone…”

Big Jack shook his head no.

“Robbed the bank?”

Big Jack snickered.  “No…not hardly…we robbed the train…”

Surprised, Joe gasped.  “What?”

“Yep…”

“Not the one coming from Oakland to Virginia City?”

“The very same…we hit it over near Verdi early last night…that’s when Chat over there got shot,” Davis explained.

“No wonder,” muttered Joe.  “How many Wells Fargo men did you kill?”

“None,” grinned Davis.  “We didn’t set out to kill anyone…only steal the gold, which we did,” he said, laughing lightly.

“You know they’ll send you all to prison, don’t you?”

“They have to catch us first, kid,” another man who had not yet been identified spoke up to explain.

“Tilt’s right, kid…oh, that’s Tilt Cockerill, he’s been keeping an eye on your cook,” Big Jack offered.

“Well…they won’t stop until you’re caught…you haven’t much of a chance…not with one man shot up,” Joe informed Davis and the new-comer.

“That all depends on your old man, boy.  I explained to him, that the sooner he gets back with the doc, the sooner we’ll be out of here,” Big Jack Davis explained to Joe.

*****

“Ben…those men robbed the train…do you hear me…the train!” proclaimed Paul Martin, Virginia City’s only physician.

“I don’t care what they robbed, Paul…I want them out of my house.  Little Joe is getting sick all over again…his cough sounds bad.  Please, just get your bag and come along…” Ben said in a near pleading tone.

“We have to tell Roy…”

“NO!  We can’t do that; if anyone comes back with me, other than you, they said they’d kill Joe…I won’t risk that, Paul,” Ben said sternly.

Paul shook his head in doubt.  He grabbed his bag, pausing at the door to study his friend’s face. “Ben…it’s a first ever…the train robbery…it happened over near Verdi, sometime in the middle of night…yesterday.  They stole the gold shipment that was on its way here from Oakland, California,” the doctor explained as he closed the door behind him. “We can’t just let them ride away without warning the authorities.”

“Oh yes I can…when my son’s life hangs in the balance, I’d do anything, if it means keeping the boy alive,” Ben growled. He was tired and he was worried.  His thoughts continued to remain on his youngest son, knowing that the boy’s health was beginning to make a turn for the worst.  Ben and the physician were just about to mount up when the local sheriff who appeared out of the shadows stopped them.

“Doc, where ya headed?” Roy called as he stepped into the soft glow of the street lamp.  “Oh, howdy, Ben…I didn’t see ya.  Say…something wrong?”

“No,” Ben responded quickly.

“Yes,” the doctor answered at the same moment.

Roy looked from one to the other, suspiciously.

“I mean…no, nothing serious is wrong,” stammered Ben, trying to cover the first blundering response.

“It’s Little Joe, Roy,” Doc hurried to add.  “He’s not feeling well and Ben just thought I should ride out and take a look at him.”

“In this mess, I mean…it’s startin’ to snow?” Roy stated.

“Well, hmm…he’s been coughing pretty hard and…hmm…his chest sounds like it’s getting all congested up again, that’s why I want Paul to check him over,” Ben explained as he turned and mounted his horse.

“Oh, Ben…hold on just a minute,” Roy called, stepping to the edge of the covered boardwalk.  “You be careful, you and Joe. I got a wire earlier this evening about a gang of thugs who robbed the train…you know, the one coming from California carrying the gold shipment,” Roy cautioned as he shook his head.  “First time ever…ain’t never heard of a train being robbed,” he mused, more to himself than to his friends.

“Don’t worry, Roy, I’ll keep an eye opened,” Ben said. He turned toward the physician who was seated in his buggy and nodded his head, signaling that they should be on their way.

“You do that, Ben…and send word if ya see anything ‘spicious like.”

“I’ll do that. Come on, Paul; we need to be on our way,” Ben said in a stressed tone.

He was anxious to get back to the ranch and his son.  In his mind, he feared that Joe, though he felt horrible, might still try to deter the group of men who had invaded his home.  The gang was desperate to be on their way and if the wounded man had died, Ben feared what the remainder of the group might do before making their escape.

With Joe foremost in his thoughts, Ben kicked his heels into his mount’s sides to hurry the pace.  Paul Martin, following behind in his buggy, slapped the reins down on his mare’s broad backside and hurried to catch up with his worried friend.

*****

“Your friend over there doesn’t seem to be doing too well at the moment,” Joe said in a raspy voice, referring to Chat Roberts who’s moaning had gotten a bit louder and more piteous sounding.

Joe cleared his throat of the gunk that seemed to be collecting in the back of his throat…a throat that burned like blazes.

Big Jack had gone upstairs to lie down.  John Chapman had gone outside to check on the two men standing watch, John Gilchrist and the gambler, EB Parsons.  Another man named John, John Squires who Joe had learned was a stagecoach highway man and had robbed several stagecoaches in the past, was in the kitchen with Hop Sing.

Only Tilt Cockerill and Sol Jones remained in the great room with Joe and the wounded man.  Tilt glanced at Sol and then again at Joe. Joe noted that the man looked a little more than worried.  He saw Tilt swallow hard and knew he had found a weak spot.

“He might even die…he’s lost a lot of blood,” Joe continued.

Sol, who had been standing by the fire, moved to the couch and bent over Roberts to examine the bullet wound.  Carefully pulling back on the victim’s torn and soiled shirt, Joe heard Sol gasp loudly and then motion for his friend to have a look. Tilt glanced at the wound and then moved to stand before his young prisoner.

“You better hope that your old man gets back pretty soon with that doctor. If Chat dies, I’m going to kill your father…”

“Why…he didn’t do anything…you can’t hold him responsible for your man getting shot…”

“I can hold him responsible for not getting the doctor here in time,” growled Tilt.

“The doc might have been out on a call…”

“Not likely, not in this weather…he’s stalling…” Tilt laughed.  “If he thinks the boss was foolin’ when he said he’d kill you…he might be surprised to know, it wouldn’t be the first time Big Jack has killed a man,” snickered Tilt.

“Only in self-defense,” Big Jack Davis said from the landing on the staircase.

Every eye in the room turned to the man who walked slowly down the remainder of the stairs.  He stopped in front of Joe but looked at Tilt.

“Why don’t you go outside and see to the horses?” Davis snapped.

“They’ve been looked after,” Tilt contradicted.

Joe saw Davis’ eyes narrow.  “Do it anyway!” Davis ordered in a deep, commanding tone.

Tilt hesitated only briefly and then without another word, left the house.  Davis turned back to his prisoner.  He noted the beads of sweat that dotted Joe brow.  Joe was surprised and drew back his head when Davis’ hand reached out toward him.

“I’m not going to hurt you, son,” Big Jack said.  He pressed his large, bony hand to Joe’s forehead.  “You’ve got a pretty good fever, kid…do you want to go upstairs and lie down?”

“No,” Joe said softly.  “I’d just as soon wait for my father, right here.”

“Suit yourself,” Davis said, standing and stretching.

The intruder moved to the fire where he leaned over and rubbed his hands together to warm them.

“Your father sure is taking his time,” Big Jack said as he left the fire and moved to the settee where he sat down on the wide boarded table near his friend on the couch.

“Doc Martin might have been on a call…or the snow could have slowed them down.  Don’t worry, Pa will be here,” Joe said, confident that his father would keep his word.

Davis glanced again at his friend on the settee.  “You better hope he does.”

*****

Roy had wondered at his two friend’s behavior and without telling them, decided to trail along behind to see what was really going on out at the ranch.  The wire from Verdi had mentioned that they believed at least one man had been shot and wounded.  From years of experience and then with the added benefit of knowing his friends so well, Roy had it in the back of his mind that it was more than just Little Joe’s cough that had lured the pair out on such a rainy, cold and now snowy night.

He had left word with Clem to be on stand-by and had taken another deputy along with him, just in case he needed to send word back to town for Clem to herd the posse out to the Ponderosa.  If his suspicions proved to be true, he feared that not only Little Joe, but also Ben and Paul, would be in a heap of trouble.  The train robbers were desperate men at this point and the Ponderosa would make the perfect hideout, what with all of the men gone for the week and Hoss and Adam off enjoying a shopping spree in San Francisco before the upcoming holidays.

Roy pulled his hat further down on his head and leaned low over his horse’s neck to keep the sharp, biting wind and rain and snow from hitting him square in the face.

*****

Ben waited while the doctor climbed down from his buggy.  They were surrounded by four of Davis’ men, two of which escorted them into the house.  Big Jack was sitting on the table near the wounded man but stood up instantly as the heavy oak door was pushed open to reveal the rancher and the physician.

“It’s about time,” Big Jack snarled. His mood had turned nasty after watching his friend’s decline.

Ben looked straight way toward the chair where he had last seen his son.  Joe was slumped over in the chair, his eyes closed.  Instantly Ben went to his son’s side, gently moving Joe into a more upright position.

“Joseph,” muttered Ben softly. Beneath his fingers, Ben could feel the heat penetrating from his son’s brow.

“He’s burning up,” Ben said with distaste, “he should have been in the bed!”

Joe was only semi-conscious and barely aware that his father had returned.  He shivered.  Ben grabbed the blanket from the stair railing and wrapped it around the quivering form.

“Let me look at him,” Paul said as he moved across the room toward Ben’s young son.

His wet slicker and hat he had tossed on the credenza; his black bag he still clung too.

“Oh no you don’t; get over here and tend to my man…then, you can see about the kid,” snapped Big Jack.

Paul seemed caught between the two.  He wanted desperately to check on Joe, but from the sound of the stranger giving the orders, his common sense told him it would be wiser to see about the injured man first.

“Go ahead,” Ben said softly.  “I’ll tend to Joe,” he said, rising and going to the table.

“Hold it right there,” Chapman, who had come into the house when Ben and Paul arrived, pointed his gun at his ungracious host.

“I was just going to get the boy some brandy,” Ben explained.

Chapman glanced at the unconscious lad. “He don’t need anything; he’s out cold.  Now move over to that chair, I’m going to tie you up,” Chapman ordered.

“Ohh…Pa,” muttered Joe.

Ben turned toward his son, anxious to tend to him.  He looked at Chapman and the gun he held in his hand.  The man would most likely shoot him if he defied him, but Joe was calling for him.

Joe sputtered and coughed, a deep rasping sound that was forceful and turned his face red.

Chapman’s face twisted into a frown.  It was obvious that the hacking sound Joe was making was disgusting to the night caller.  Chapman motioned with his gun for Ben to see about the boy.

“Go ahead…just make him stop that horrible hacking…it turns my stomach,” snapped Chapman.

Ben did not need to be told a second time, he hurried to get the brandy and then helped Joe take a swallow.  But the boy continued to cough and sputter.

After several minutes, Chapman walked over to the blue chair. “If you can’t get him to stop, take him upstairs and put him in bed,” he insisted.  He glanced over his shoulder to Gilchrist who had been relieved of guard duty and motioned for him to give Ben a hand with the sick young man. “Stay with him…watch him like a hawk, if he tries anything, shoot him…no…shoot the kid,” Chapman ordered.

Ben’s eyes narrowed as he stood with Joe leaning heavily against him.  He had no doubt that the man would do just that.

“Don’t worry…all I want…is for the bunch of you to get out of my house,” Ben growled as he walked Joe up the first few steps.

“I’ll send the doctor up to look after your boy, when he’s finished with Chat,” called Big Jack as he watched the pair help Joe to his room.

Once Ben had Joe sitting on the bed, he untied the boy’s hands and laid Joe back against the cool sheets, covering him with a light blanket.  He then poured water into the china basin and set about washing Joe’s face in order to try to cool him off.

“Here’s more water, Mr. Cartwright,” John Gilchrist said, offering fresh water to Ben.

“Thank you,” Ben said, glancing up at the stranger who by now had moved to the other side of the bed.

Ben watch silently as the man picked up a cloth and wet it, rung the water from it and then gently, as if he actually cared for the sick boy, pulled back the covers and opened Joe’s shirt.  Only then did Gilchrist glance across the bed at Ben, not totally surprised to find the worried father watching him.

“My father used to bathe me in cool water when I was boy…and was sick like this.  I remember how much better I felt when he did,” Gilchrist said softly.

Ben forced a small smile and nodded his thanks.  After several minutes, he glanced again at the stranger across from him.

“What made you turn to robbery for a living?” Ben surprised the man by asking.

Gilchrist’s eyes drifted from his work to his host. “Hard times I suppose.  There ain’t much money to be made, working down in the mines.  I had a family…they got sick…I couldn’t afford medical care for ‘em.”

John Gilchrist sighed deeply.  “When my wife and son died, I swore I’d never be poor again…”

“And so you thought robbing a train would make you rich?” Ben asked quietly as he worked behind Gilchrist at drying the places on Joe’s body that the intruder had cooled with his cloth.

“Yeah…I didn’t reckon on all this mess.”  He glanced up at Ben then.  “We don’t aim on killing no one, Mr. Cartwright…”

“But you didn’t aim on one of you getting shot either, did you?”

“No sir…Chapman had it all figured out…or so’s we thought.  Chat, he’s just a kid, not much older’n this boy here…and he might well die tonight…”

“He’s not going to die,” Paul Martin said from the doorway.

The physician pushed his way into the room and to the bedside.  He felt Joe’s brow for fever and then glanced at Ben. “He’s not too hot now, Ben.”

Paul looked at the china bowl and the rags and knew that his friend had been busy trying to cool his son’s body.  He noticed the damp cloth in Gilchrist’s hands.

“You and your companions downstairs sure are a strange lot,” the doctor muttered.

“How’s that?” John Gilchrist asked.

Paul pinched his lips tightly and shook his head as if thinking. “Train robbers…the likes of you…yet here you are helping your hostage try and save the life of his son…his son whom your boss downstairs has already said he’d kill if Ben here double crossed him,” Paul proclaimed.

“I’ve never killed a man in my life…what didn’t need killing,” Big Jack said from the door.

The men in the room spun around, surprised to see the big man baring the doorway.  He flashed his gun at Ben’s middle, waving him out of the room.

“You too, doc,” Big Jack said.

Ben could tell that the man was angry; his eyes were narrow and dark and his deep voice gave away the secret. He had only seconds to wonder at the man’s sudden wrath.

“Downstairs, both of you.  John, stay with the boy; he don’t look like’s about to go anywhere,” Davis proclaimed.  “When I give the word…kill ‘im!”

Ben’s eyes widened with fresh fear as he led the way from the room.  He caught a glimpse of Gilchrist just before Davis closed the room.  Their eyes met briefly.

“What’s wrong?” Ben demanded as he was forced down the stairs.

“Did my patient die?” stammered Paul, not sure where he stood in the midst of all the hullabaloo that was going on in the great room.

Ben stopped suddenly as he reached the last step, stunned to see the sheriff’s body being held upright by Sol Jones and John Squires.

“Dear God,” muttered Ben.

Davis shoved Ben out of the way. “I told you to fetch the doctor…ONLY the doctor…but you double crossed me, Cartwright!” shouted the angry train robber.

“I didn’t know the sheriff followed us!  Honest!” Ben proclaimed, shocked at the change in circumstances.

“LIAR!” stormed Davis as he lashed out at Ben, striking him across his face.

Ben stumbled backwards, his hand pressed against his jaw as he fell against the sofa.  Chat Roberts groaned softly and raised his head.  Ben glanced down at the man.

“I didn’t lie to you,” Ben tried to explain.

“We didn’t tell the sheriff, or anyone else for that matter, that you were here,” Paul Martin spoke up in Ben’s defense.  “I wanted to…but Ben wouldn’t let me…he knew you’d kill his son if he did…so he only told Roy that Little Joe needed me…”

“Makes no difference now,” John Chapman said as he joined the group.

He glanced at Big Jack. “Squires and Cockerill’s got the horses saddled and ready to ride,” he offered.  “It’s almost daybreak; we better get a move on…or there’s liable to be a posse following along after the sheriff.”

“Good…Sol, you and EB tie these three men up…the cook’s locked in the cellar, he won’t be no trouble,” ordered Big Jack.

Ben and Paul were shoved over to the hearth where Sol Jones and E.B. Parsons made sure that their hands were tied tightly behind their backs and then tied ropes around their ankles as well.  Roy was pushed into a chair and both his hands and feet were tied firmly.

When Big Jack Davis was sure that the three men were secured, he turned to his friends.

“Get Chat on his horse, I’ll be out in a minute,” he ordered Sol and EB.

The two men gathered their wounded comrade up and practically dragged him from the house.  Only John E. Chapman, mastermind of the first train robbery ever, and A.J. ‘Big Jack’ Davis, the gang’s leader, were left in the great room with the three hostages.  He stood over Ben.

“I almost hate to have the boy killed, Cartwright.  I sort of liked him.  He’s a good kid…”

“Then don’t kill him…” Ben said in a near pleading voice.  “He hasn’t done you any harm.”

“No…you double-crossed me…you lied…you put the boy’s life on the line…”

“I did no such thing!” Ben said, his voice rising to a higher pitch.

“Hurry up, Jack…tell Gil to kill the boy and lets get the hell out of here before a posse comes looking for that sheriff!” grumbled Chapman.

Davis sighed and looked away from his prisoner.  He wasn’t lying about hating to have the boy killed…but he had to prove his point, in spite of his concerns.

“GILCHRIST…” Davis shouted as he stood at the foot of the steps.

“YEAH, BOSS?”

Big Jack Davis gulped when he glanced at Ben and saw the fear and horror in the man’s eyes.  He hesitated.

“YOU CALLED ME, BOSS?” Gilchrist shouted from the hallway upstairs.

“KILL THE BOY!”

“NO! NO!” screamed Ben to the backs of Davis and Chapman as they exited the house.

Moments later the loud blast of a bullet being fired rang throughout the house.  Ben’s heart shattered a second later.  His life was over, his youngest son had been murdered and for what reason, none that he could determine.  He sat speechless, drenched in his grief on the hearth next to his two best friends.  The grief stricken father was so lost to the happenings around him that he failed to notice when John Gilchrist descended the stairs, paused to glance at him and then rushed, hell-bent for the door.

Paul could hear the shouts and then the pounding of horses hooves as the gang of eight men raced from the yard of the Ponderosa, anxious to put as much distance between themselves and the posse that they feared would soon be hot on their trails.

Big Jack Davis led the way. Trailing behind the others was John Gilchrist.  He slowed his mount just before cresting the last ridge that would block his view of the majestic log home and looked back. A small twisted smile graced his face and then just as suddenly as it had appeared, it vanished. He kicked his mount hard in the side and then turned to look back no more.  The gang was gone…free…and rich…but their victory would soon prove to be short lived.

They had left behind a broken hearted father. A man suddenly so filled with hate and a desire for revenge that when once they met again, they would barely recognize him for who he had once been. Hate was like that…it changed a good man into something he thought he could never be. It was like a disease that ate away at your insides, killing a man bit by bit…slowly…yet unnoticeable, until it was too late.

*****

“Ben…Ben…” urged Paul in a stiff voice.

The physician tugged at his ropes, but they refused to give in to his attempts to get free.  All the while, the doctor’s eyes stayed focused on Ben’s distraught face.  He feared the man might go into shock…and upstairs…well, he needed to get the blasted ropes off and see about his best friend’s son.

“Roy!” Paul called.

Roy was just coming out of his darkened world where he’d been for the last several minutes after being captured and bonked on the head.

“Huh…what…ohh…my head,” groaned the sheriff.

“Roy…can you get free?  They’ve shot Little Joe!” Paul explained, still fighting with his bindings.

“What?” muttered Roy, “shot Little Joe…who shot Little Joe?”

“Those murdering bastards,” Ben said, looking up at last with a haunted expression on his face.  “I swear before man and God…if it’s the last thing I ever do…I’ll hunt them down and kill them myself…with my bare hands………”

“Pa…”

Silence filled the room.  Three stunned men looked toward the staircase, disbelieving what or whom they were seeing.  Joe moved slowly down two more steps.

Tears filled his father’s eyes as Ben managed to stand to his feet. “Joseph,” he murmured.

Joe managed to get to the last step, stumbled slightly as he made his way toward his father, using the furniture to keep him from falling.

Ben’s hungry eyes roved over his son’s body, expecting to see blood gushing from an opened wound, but there was none that he could see. “Son,” he cried, “are you hurt?”

Joe swallowed the thickness from his throat and shook his head.  When he reached his father, he leaned against Ben, slipping his arms about his father’s neck.

Ben, longed to return the gesture, but with his hands still tied tightly behind, he was unable to do so.  He allowed Joe to remain as such for several long moments, aware of the trembling going on within his son. “Joe…untie me, son,” he said softly.

Joe leaned away from his father and managed to get the knots loose enough that Ben could pull his hands free.  Forgetting his ankles for a moment, he pulled Joe into an embrace and allowed himself the pure joy of holding his son in his arms. Relief flooded into his soul and converged on his heart.  The hate had vanished; the revenge was lost to his happiness.  After several more enduring moments, he released his son, ordered him to sit down before he fell and then freed his lower limbs, his two friends and hurried back to squat before his son.

“What happened up there, Joe…Gilchrist was suppose to kill you…we heard a shot…I…I…thought for sure…”

Joe was forced to clear his throat.  He looked directly into his father’s eyes, noting that the expression had softened.

“He couldn’t do it,” Joe said between coughs.  “He fired the gun…to make the others think he killed me.  He told me to stay put until I heard them ride away…and then wait five more minutes…I’m sorry, Pa…I know what you must have been thinking.  But I couldn’t risk them coming back in and finding me downstairs…”

“Oh Joseph…I know…son…I understand.  Thank God…the man had a heart!” Ben cried, on the verge of tears.

Still squatting in front of his son, his hands resting on Joe’s knees, Ben lowered his head.  The events of the night had just reached a peak within his soul.  The tears flowed freely.

Joe moved his hand to rest upon the silver head.  He choked back his own tears, unwilling to give in to the temptation.  One weeping Cartwright was aplenty! Gentle hands took him by the shoulders and pulled him to his feet.  Ben’s eyes barely strayed from the boy’s face as the kind physician drew his worn friend away from the chair.

“Ben…let’s get Joe back to bed…and then I want you to do the same.  You’re worn to a frazzle and need to get some rest…both of you,” Paul encouraged.

Ben seemed to come to his senses then and turned to look down at Joe.  The boy was nearly asleep in the chair. “You’re right, of course.  Come on, son…let’s get you back to bed and let the doctor take over,” Ben said as he helped Joe to his feet.

It took both his father and the doctor to get Joe up the stairs and into bed.  Roy had left, saying he had to get back to town and wire the sheriff in Verdi to explain what had happened during the long night.

*****

It was several days later that Roy returned, along with Paul Martin, to the Ponderosa.  The sheriff had news to share with the Cartwrights, including Hoss and Adam who had heard of the great train robbery and had returned home.  Paul Martin was there to tend to his patient, who by now was back on the proper road to recovery, having spent the last few days confined to bed, sipping a hot brew concocted by Hop Sing and ordered by Paul, himself.

“Roy…Paul, come in,” smiled Ben, who looked himself to be much improved after getting several hours of much needed sleep.

“I got some news for ya,” Roy grinned.

“I take it they captured those train robbers?” Joe laughed.

Roy nodded his head.

“I knew it…just by the look on your face!” Joe giggled. He sat on the settee next to his brother, Hoss.  They had been in the middle of a game of checkers when the knock on the door had interrupted them.

“Well for heaven’s sake, sit down and tell us about it!” implored Ben who motioned the pair into the room.

“We’re most anxious to know about this ‘first time ever’ great train robbery!” Adam insisted.

“Start from the beginnin’,” Hoss prompted.

“Well, alright,” Roy said, taking a seat in the red chair.

Everyone gathered around, including Hop Sing.  Each was anxious and curious to learn what had happened to the eight night callers and the outcome of their ill-fated adventure.

Roy took a deep breath and began his story.

“It took about four days,” Roy said, “but the deputy sheriff, James Kinkead from over at Washoe City finally rounded up the eight men.  He said that they had committed the first train robbery in the Western United States.”

“Wow,” muttered Joe, “no wonder they were in such a hurry to get out of here!”

“Hush, Joe,” Ben reprimanded gently.  “Go on, Roy.”

“Well, Kinkead said that he wouldn’t have been able to find the men, if it hadn’t been for the snow that weather left behind the night the crime was committed,” explained Roy.

“The train heist was thought be perfectly fabricated,” he continued.  “A.J. “Big Jack” Davis and his seven-man crew had gathered at a ranch over in Reno just a few weeks before to plan the robbery.  Charlie Pegg, the sheriff in Washoe City told me that himself,” Roy went on to explain.

“Anyway, the eight men decided on the desperate scheme to rob a train because of the initiatives that Wells Fargo & Co. took to supply armed escorts to protect vulnerable stagecoaches.  John Squires, the stagecoach highwayman with the gang, and John E. Chapman who was the criminal mastermind of the group, came up with the blueprint to the larceny.’

“They must have given it great thought, that’s for sure,” Ben added.

“Yeah, sure did,” Roy said, shaking his head.

“Well, go on,” insisted Adam, “this is quite interesting, considering.”

“The men, E.B. Parsons, he was a gambler…”

“I remembered seeing him in the saloon several nights before the incident,” Ben said.

“Yeah, well, Chat Roberts, the guy that was wounded…turned out he was the station manager over at Antelope Stage Station.  James Gilchrist…the man who was supposed to kill you, Little Joe… was nothing more than a miner whose luck had turned sour.  Tilt Cockerill and Sol Jones…don’t know what they actually did for a living, if anything; they were both from Reno.

Chapman, who had been in San Francisco monitoring Wells Fargo’s shipments and the movements of the Central Pacific’s pay cars, sent a coded telegram that set the plan into motion,” Roy explained as he pulled a slip of paper from his vest pocket and unfolded it.

“It said, ‘send me $60 tonight and charge to my account,’ it was signed, ‘J. Enrique’,” Roy read from the paper and then stuck it back into his pocket.

“What was that suppose to mean?” Hoss questioned.

“It was their code, Hoss,” said Roy.  “The telegram, which Jones received in Reno a few hours before midnight on the night of November 4th, meant that $60,000 was coming down the Pacific Slope and the conspirators should rob this train.  Well, earlier that morning, Central Pacific’s No. 1, the Overland Express, left Oakland in a billow of smoke headed to Ogden, Utah, with a stop over in Reno.  With it was an express car filled with $41,800 in gold coins, about $8,800 in silver bars and greenbacks.  The bullion was intended for the Comstock mines and deposits for Nevada banks,” said Roy, who paused to sip from the cup of hot coffee that Hop Sing had placed on the table in front of him.

“Golly,” exclaimed Joe, “those men sure had there stuff together…”

“Yes, well…not everything went according to plan, Little Joe,” Roy informed the young man.

“Oh…why not?” asked Joe who sat with his arms folded across his chest.

“Due to a freight wreck, Central Pacific’s No.1 was delayed in Truckee, which left the bandits, hiding in an abandoned mineshaft…needless to say, they weren’t happy.”

“I guess not,” surmised Ben, “it was colder than whizzes out there!”

“Just when the men began to doubt their plan, the cydoptic lantern of Central Pacific’s No.1 began to shine through the bitter cold of the swirling snow.  At 1:30 A.M., the train made a stop in Verdi to load the tender with timber and top off the water tanks.  As the train crawled out of the station, five masked men with linen dusters, masks and six-shooters seized the train.  Davis and another man crawled over the woodpile, dropped down into the engine compartment and covered Small and the fireman with their revolvers while the three others secured the express car.

The train then continued down the tracks about a half-mile east, when Davis ordered the engineer to whistle the down brakes.  This signaled the three men on the express car to cut the bell rope and pull the coupling-pin, setting the rest of the train adrift.

Once they reached the barricade, Davis took Small down to the express car to knock on the door.  The man inside, Frank Minchell was the guard, asked who was there and Small…who by the way was the engineer gave his name.  When Minchell opened the door, he was confronted with two double-barrel, sawed-off shotguns.  Catching the guards by surprise, the robbers looted the vault.  They tossed the sacks of gold coins out the side door into the sagebrush, Davis then thanked Small, Minchell and the fireman for their cooperation and then boldly stated that he was glad that they hadn’t had to kill anybody,” Roy said with a smirk.

“Davis told me they didn’t harm anyone,” Joe added to the conversation.  “Guess it was a good thing.”

“I suppose, anyway,” Roy went on, “Davis locked the three men into the express car.  The men then mounted up and rode off into the night.  News of the robbery was telegraphed to Wells Fargo agent, C. C. Pendergast, here in Virginia City, that morning.  I think Pendergast said it was around 8 A.M. the morning of the robbery.  Pegg and his deputy, Kinkead, who were in Washoe City, received information from the agent that the men had headed southwest.  The two lawmen saddled up and headed for the mountains through the Truckee route to head off the gang of bandits; over in Reno a posse of about 14 men began to search the Reno area.

Wells Fargo, Central Pacific Railroad and the state of Nevada put up a bounty of $40,000 for the bandits, by the way.  The two sheriffs couldn’t find no tracks to indicate the gang had ridden through the area; guess that’s when the gang showed up here, Ben,” Roy said.

“Afterwards, when they left here, Kinkead got word that they had been seen heading toward Truckee, so he took the trail into California, there he found and arrested Gilchrist who was alone in the Parsons Hotel in Sardine Valley.  Gilchrist decided to turn state’s evidence and gave up his partners, told Kinkead their whereabouts and most of the money’s location.

The trial was highly publicized, according to Attorney General Robert M. Clarke who was present during the trail to assist District Attorney W.M. Boardman,” Roy added.

“Wells Fargo & Co. agreed to give Kinkead the bulk of the bounty money,” Roy snickered softly.  “He’s plannin’ to open a bankin’ business in Reno with it.”

The four Cartwrights snickered along with the sheriff.

“Was any more of the money found, Roy?” Ben asked.

“Only about $38,000 of the treasure was recovered.  The Washoe City sheriffs believe 150 gold coins are still buried deep in the Peavine Mountains or somewhere along the Tuckee River.”

“Dang,” sighed Hoss, glancing at Joe with a sly grin on his face.

“Oh no you don’t, Hoss,” chided Ben who stood and pointed his finger at his middle son.  “Don’t you and your little brother over there go getting any fool notions in your head!”

“Who…us?” giggled Joe, already scheming as to how he and Hoss might search for the hidden treasure.

“YES, YOU!  ESPECIALLY YOU!” shouted Ben, who then started to laugh along with the others.

“Say…what happened with the men…I mean, did they go to prison?” Adam asked when the laughter died down.

“Sure,” Roy explained, “Gilchrist and Chat Roberts, the wounded man, got to go free on account of their testimonies.”

Joe glanced at his father and smiled.  He was glad that Gilchrist was turned loose…after all, had it not been for the kindness of the man’s heart, Joe might very well have ended up murdered on that cold, snowy night of November 5th.

“What about the others?” Hoss insisted.

“Well, let’s see…John Squires was sent away for 23 years, John E. Chapman got 20 years, E.B. Parson, 18, Big Jack Davis 10, and Sol Jones only got 6 years, Hoss,” Roy explained.

“Why the light sentences?” Ben wanted to know.

“Seems like Jack Davis and John Squires had been so successful in the robbery business that each time they went to trail, they managed to prove a reasonable doubt, thus they avoided being sent to prison before now.  Until they came up with this idea of robbing the train, that is.  As for Gilchrist and Roberts, well, they were just getting into the business and when they told all…” Roy sort of snickered, “guess they just weren’t needed anymore, so the judge went easy on them.”

“I guess that sums it all up, Ben,” Roy concluded as he rose to his feet.  “I’d best get back to town.”

Ben was quick to his feet, and walked with the sheriff to the door.  Paul lingered behind to listen to Joe’s chest to be sure that his patient was on the mend and then followed Ben and Roy out side.

Joe, who straightened himself out on the settee, turned to his two brothers.  His lopsided grin was enough to forewarn his brothers that the young man’s thoughts were swirling around in his head.  Hoss quickly glanced at Adam and then smiled at Joe.

Adam’s eyes were dark as he shook his head from side to side. “No Joe…no way am I going to allow you to talk me into something I know will most likely end the three of us up in trouble…or worse…jail!”

“Why Adam…whatever are you talking about?” giggled Joe.

Hoss, who was standing before the fire, scratched his head in doubt.  He turned to face his older brother. “Yeah, Adam…what are you talking about?”

Adam sighed deeply, making his way to the door where he paused long enough to grab his jacket and hat from the peg behind the door. “As if the two of you didn’t know!” he buzzed as he hurried from the house, banging the door shut behind him.

Outside, he could hear the giggles of his two younger siblings.  His dark, expressive eyes rolled upward as Adam tilted his head backward, shaking it gently from side to side.

Only time would reveal what those two inside might be conjuring up now!  Adam pulled his coat tightly about his chest and tromped through the snow to the barn. “Maybe I’ll be safe in there…the less I know, the less trouble I’m likely to find my self in,” he sighed, smiling to himself.

***End***

On November 5, 1870, the first acknowledged train robbery took place in Verdi as explained in this transcription.  The bandits are real and the sheriffs and the train personnel, as are the events leading up to the train robbery, the arrests and the sentences of each individual involved in the event.  Information was gathered from the Nevada Historical society and no infringements were intended.  

Chat Roberts’ injuries were fictional as were the events related to the Cartwrights. No one was actually injured, shot or killed during the heist. 

I did not state a year for this story, but preferred to pretend that it took place much earlier, thus keeping Adam still at home, and Joe of course, being much younger than he would have been in the year, 1870.  Enjoy.

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