Word Count: 8270
“Mitch, that was entirely too easy,” Joe Cartwright laughed as he threw down his winning hand of cards.
Across the table from Joe, Mitch Devlin put his hand over his faced and groaned theatrically. “Joe, you said you’d be nice to me and let me win,” Mitch complained. “And I still lost!”
Rolling his eyes, Joe replied, “Mitch, I was nice to you! It’s not my fault that I’m the best card player in town!” They both laughed and Joe stretched out to collect his fifty cents winnings. “Tell you what, I’ll treat you to a beer on the money I’ve won.” He ducked, laughing, as his best friend swung a mock punch at him.
“If you’re the best card player in town, then I’ll play you, boy,” a quiet voice declared from behind Joe.
Not turning, Joe shook his head. “No thanks, mister. I’m not playing any more hands tonight. I don’t want to wear my luck out.” He and Mitch both laughed again, then Mitch glanced at the man standing behind Joe and the smile ran away from his face. There was something about the stranger that made his blood run cold.
“I’m not askin’, boy,” the stranger added. Joe suddenly felt something sharp pricking into the back of his shoulder and knew that he was in trouble. A hand lifted his gun from his holster and Joe, looking across the table at Mitch’s white face, heard the sudden silence in the saloon behind him. “You will play cards with me, boy.” The pressure on the knife blade relented and Joe sighed slightly in relief, while tensing his muscles to make a break for it.
Suddenly, the knife appeared against his throat and Mitch rose from his seat to allow the stranger to sit down. Very slowly, Joe turned his head to see who was holding the knife. The man standing behind him gave Joe a wolfish smile. He was so similar in looks to the stranger now sitting across from Joe that Joe knew they were brothers. Two other men stood leaning against the bar, guns dangling in their hands. The few patrons who had been in the saloon had gone. The only other person there, apart from Mitch, was Cosmo the bar tender.
“These are the stakes, boy,” the stranger announced, dragging Joe’s attention back to him. “We’ll play cards and if you win, I’ll let your friends go. If you win again, I’ll let you go. But if you lose…” He grinned unpleasantly. “You’ll all die.”
Gazing at the stranger sitting across the table from him, Joe wondered how a harmless afternoon of fun with his friend could have gone so wrong. It was a mid-week afternoon, when the saloon was usually quieter, and Joe and Mitch could have their fun game of cards without bothering the men who wanted to play seriously. Yet suddenly, a careless, throwaway remark, made in jest, had his life, and the lives of two other people, hanging in the balance.
Swallowing, Joe forced himself to meet the man’s eyes with confidence. Joe had his share of luck with the cards, but he was in no way a card sharp. He didn’t keep track of which cards appeared and when he won, it was sheer luck. Mitch was a dreadful card player and the only person he would play against was Joe, knowing perfectly well that he was going to lose, even before the first card was dealt from the pack.
“Get your money on the table, boy,” the stranger ordered.
“I don’t have much money,” Joe protested, truthfully. He had about five dollars in total and he knew that this man would want to play for than just their lives. In fact, Joe was absolutely sure that they would all die regardless of whether he won or lost at cards. His agile mind raced to try and find some way out of their predicament, but he couldn’t see any hope.
“Put it on the table,” the stranger growled and the knife, which had moved away from Joe’s throat, moved back and the point eased into his skin. The sharp pain reminded Joe that he was helpless and he slowly reached into his jacket to bring out the few coins that he had.
“Is that it?” the other demanded and Joe nodded cautiously, for the knife still rested against his neck.
“I said I didn’t have much money,” Joe reminded him.
The backhand slap came out of the blue. Joe caught his breath and narrowed his eyes as he looked at the other man. “What was that for?” he demanded, angrily.
“I don’t need cheek from a young pup like you,” the man growled. “My name is Lou Ballinger. Heard of me?”
Slowly, Joe nodded. He knew they were in real trouble now. The Ballinger brothers were notorious gamblers and gunslingers. They were wanted in a number of places. Joe shot a quick look at Mitch and saw that his friend had recognized the name, too.
“I’m not the best card player in town,” Joe admitted. He could feel color rising in his face as he spoke. “That was a joke between me and my friend.”
Shrugging, Ballinger raised an eyebrow. “So the joke’s on you, sonny,” he retorted. “Seems like your big mouth’s got you into trouble.”
“What if I refuse to play?” Joe asked. The next moment, he got his answer as the brother who stood behind him wrapped an arm around his neck. The knife bit into Joe’s skin once more and he couldn’t hide the wince. A trickle of warm blood began to ooze down his skin.
“Kid, let’s get something straight,” Ballinger said. “You are going to play cards with me, whatever happens. Right now, my brother has his knife at your throat, but it would only take the blink of an eye for him to cut your friend’s throat. Which is it to be?”
Mitch’s scared blue eyes clashed with Joe’s. Joe tried to send his friend a reassuring look. He couldn’t offer anyone’s life up to this man. “Leave him alone,” Joe replied. “He hasn’t done anything to you.”
“I take it that means you’re going to play cards with me then,” Ballinger commented, grinning evilly.
Left with no choice, Joe nodded.
Looking around, Mitch saw the two other men were watching all the goings on carefully. Mitch had heard of the Ballinger brothers. The gang was quite notorious, and Mitch’s mother had followed their nefarious career in the newspapers with shameless interest. He wondered how she would deal with the news that he had been held prisoner of that self-same gang. Not well, he suspected. His mother was fond of stories about outlaws, imagining them to be romantic, but she was unable to deal with the nasty realities of life. With a pang, he wondered if he would ever see his mother again.
“Let’s play,” Lou declared and began to shuffle the cards.
“I can’t play if he’s standing behind me,” Joe objected. Dick Ballinger had stepped back, but was still just behind Joe. “That’s cheating.”
Gasping in a mixture of fear and admiration at his friend’s daring, Mitch felt sure that Joe had just signed their death warrants. Did Joe really think that Ballinger played honestly? He shot a glance at Cosmo, and saw that the bar tender was gaping open mouthed Joe, seemingly unable to believe what he was hearing.
But Joe’s audacity had amused the outlaw. “You got a point, kid,” he acknowledged. There weren’t many men who would have challenged him on this, especially with the blood still tricking down their necks. “Dick, step back so you don’t see the kid’s cards.” He gave a wolfish smile. “I wouldn’t like for him to think I was cheating.”
Swallowing against the dryness in his mouth, Joe tried to still the shaking of his hands. He knew he had just taken a huge chance, but he couldn’t stop himself. If they played fairly, there was always a chance that he might win Mitch and Cosmo’s freedom. There had been a few occasions when he had won at poker.
The cards went down in front of him, and Joe picked them up, shielding them with his body as he looked at them. The hand seemed to be all right and he glanced at Ballinger to see what the next move would be. It hardly seemed worth the other man’s efforts to play against someone who only carried a few dollars. Ballinger threw a dollar into the middle of the table. He raised his eyes to meet Joe, who read the message there clearly – bet or you’re dead. He threw in his dollar, too.
“Is Joe gonna be back fer supper?” Hoss asked, as he sat down heavily on the sofa. He was feeling particularly tired and had refused his younger brother’s offer of a trip to town. Hoss had stayed at home and cleaned some of the saddles. He felt like he had just run a marathon. He wondered if he was coming down with something.
“I don’t know,” Ben replied, distractedly. He frowned at the dinner table, which was set for three. “You can never tell when Joe meets Mitch.” Unbidden, his thoughts drifted back to the time when Joe and Mitch had had a major falling out. For a time, Ben had feared that their friendship was ruined, but eventually, they had managed to make up and still met regularly in town. “Hop Sing seems to be expecting him home.”
“I’m right glad Joe an’ Mitch made up agin,” Hoss commented, as though he had read Ben’s mind. But then, that was hardly surprising. Joe had moped about so much after that fight and they all knew the cause. It was hard to lose a life-long friend, especially when it was entirely your own fault. Joe was lucky that Mitch had a forgiving nature.
“So am I,” Ben agreed. “Although sometimes, the trouble they can get into together…” Ben didn’t need to elaborate. Hoss knew only too well how quickly Joe could get into trouble and Mitch seemed to be quite willing to go along with him.
“Don’ think about it,” Hoss advised him, as they sat down at the table.
“Good advice,” Ben nodded and helped himself to potatoes.
“Three of a kind,” Joe said, laying his hand down. A trickle of cold sweat ran down his back. Ballinger only had a pair. Joe had won the first hand. Mitch and Cosmo were safe.
Meeting his opponent’s cold grey eyes, Joe summoned all his courage. “I won – let Mitch and Cosmo go. That’s what we agreed.”
“We’re playing by my rules, kid,” Ballinger reminded him softly. “What I says goes.”
“You’ve got to let them go!” Joe cried, suddenly furious. He started to rise and the knife blade suddenly pricked him on the back of the neck. Joe froze, half standing.
“I’ll decide,” Ballinger reiterated. He was amused by Joe’s anger and by the young man’s obvious concern for the others. That was what made this game so interesting. However, Ballinger was a shrewd judge of character and he could see that Joe’s temper was about to get the better of him. “But since you ask so nicely, I’ll let the fat man go.”
Relief warred with disappointment as Joe met Mitch’s eyes again. Mitch was sitting bonelessly in a chair near the bar. Cosmo was aimlessly polishing the same stretch of mahogany over and over again. “Get fatty out of here,” Ballinger ordered one of his brothers and Cosmo was prodded towards the door.
Turning his attention back to the table, Ballinger sorted out Joe’s winnings. “I’m taking the money you owe me off your winnings, boy,” he told Joe, who had been forced to sign several IOU’s. “But look, you still have some cash to carry on with.” He slid the money across to Joe, who looked at it, not touching it. “Pick it up, boy, or your friend gets it.”
Glaring across the green baize, Joe drew the money towards him. He could see Mitch from the corner of his eye; see the gun that was resting on his temple. Joe swallowed again. His throat was aching and his mouth dry. “Could I get a drink of water?” he asked, trying to make it sound unimportant.
“Water?” scoffed Ballinger. “You can have a real drink.” He gestured. “Bring the whiskey over,” he ordered.
The bottle of whiskey, barely touched, was placed in front of Joe. He dragged his gaze away from it and met Ballinger’s eyes once more. His stomach contracted as he guessed what he was expected to do. Grinning, Ballinger gestured towards the bottle. “Go on, drink,” he urged.
“There’s no glass,” Joe replied.
Next instant, Joe’s head was drawn savagely backwards and a hand grabbed the bottle and placed it against Joe’s lips. Whiskey poured down his chin as well as into his mouth and he choked on the strong liquor. Coughing, he was relieved when Dick Ballinger let go of him. He clutched the edge of the table until he had his breathing back under control, then he looked up once more.
He was reeking of whiskey and his shirt front, jacket and pants were soaked in it. Joe wiped a hand across his mouth. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. “Drink it,” Ballinger ordered. “Or Dick will make you.”
With a shaking hand, Joe picked the bottle up.
He didn’t know how much he had drunk, but he felt sick. The whiskey was coarse and raw and Joe wasn’t a whiskey drinker at the best of times. His hands were shaking as he dealt the cards. Joe knew that the liquor was affecting him; he hadn’t eaten in several hours and he was feeling remarkably tipsy already.
Picking up his hand, Joe drew in a deep breath before looking at them. They were good – much better than he could have hoped for. Joe felt his spirits lift slightly. If he could win this hand, then Mitch was safe. After that, it didn’t matter. Joe hoped that before that, Cosmo would have alerted the sheriff and something would happen to save them. He couldn’t imagine what…
Turning his attention back to the cards, Joe schooled his face to neutrality. He could feel the whiskey filtering through his system and it was a sensation that he didn’t like. His fingers fumbled the pasteboard as he sorted the cards and he almost dropped one. Joe drew in a deep breath, but it didn’t help; he still felt drunk.
Sitting by the bar, Mitch felt his heart drop into his boots. Joe was clearly being overwhelmed by the amount of liquor he had been forced to drink and Mitch knew that hope was fading fast. He hoped Cosmo would bring help, but he wasn’t sure exactly what Sheriff Roy Coffee would be able to do against four armed men with two hostages. He kept his gaze fixed on Joe, as though that would somehow lend his friend the necessary strength to carry on.
“The Ballinger brothers?” Roy echoed. He glanced at Clem, his deputy, in disbelief. “In the Silver Dollar right now?”
“I told you,” Cosmo panted. “They have Mitch an’ Joe an’ they’re makin’ Joe play cards. If’n he loses, they’re gonna kill Mitch.”
Another worried glance passed between the sheriff and his deputy. The Ballingers were known gunslingers and neither Clem nor Roy was more than average with a gun. If it came down to a shoot out, then there was a fair chance that both the hostages would die and Clem and Roy along with them.
“Send someone out to the Ponderosa to bring Ben into town,” Roy ordered soberly. “One way or another, we’re gonna need him.” He drew himself up and checked his gun. “Let’s go,” he suggested and he and Clem quietly left the office, their faces grim.
The game went on and Joe found it harder and harder to concentrate. He blinked, bringing his cards back into focus. He had bet all his money and signed a further IOU. Ballinger was eyeing him, trying to decide if Joe had a good hand or not. He was holding a full house. It seemed unlikely that the young man sitting opposite him had a better hand than that.
Grinning slightly in anticipation, Ballinger spread his cards on the table. “Full house,” he declared and reached for the pot.
He was astounded when Joe reached out and stopped him. “Don’t you want to see my hand?” Joe enquired, his words slurring ever so slightly. He laid the cards down. “Royal flush.” Joe couldn’t keep the triumph from his voice. He had never had a royal flush in his life before. A grin spread over Joe’s face at the look of outrage on the outlaw’s face. “This is mine, I believe,” he added, dragging the money towards him.
The crash of Ballinger’s hand hitting the table made them all jump. Lou was on his feet, looming over Joe and Dick had his hand entwined in Joe’s curls, the knife at his throat. “You think you’re so clever, don’t you, boy,” Lou growled.
“Let Mitch go,” Joe replied. His head was pulled back at a painful angle and he was still reeling from the sudden movement. How he wished that folklore was true – that a sudden shock would sober a man. If anything, he felt drunker than he had a few minutes ago. “I won, let Mitch go,” he added, gathering his drifting thoughts.
“You forget – we’re playing by my rules,” Ballinger corrected Joe. “I’ll say when he gets to go.”
“You’re a sore loser!” Joe cried, his temper fuelled by the drink. “You promised he could go!” Joe knew he shouldn’t be shouting at this man who held all their lives in his hands, but he couldn’t seem to control himself. Furious, Joe smashed his elbow back into Dick’s midriff and as the man let go of his hair with a surprised grunt, Joe lunged for Lou.
For an instant, Joe had the advantage as Lou was unprepared for the attack, but the older man soon rallied. He threw Joe off and scrambled to his feet, evading Joe’s next lunge with a quick sidestep and both fists crashing down on Joe’s back. Joe went down and then Dick was there, too. Joe tried to break free, but he had no chance.
Suddenly, there was a shot and Lou straightened. Joe pushed uselessly at Dick’s hand, which was slowly throttling the life out of him. “Nobody move!” ordered Roy Coffee’s voice. “You there, leave that boy alone!”
Darkness was eating at the edges of Joe’s vision as the pressure on his throat increased. Why wasn’t anyone doing anything? he wondered. Then the pressure disappeared and Joe felt himself dragged to his feet. He gulped in air and blinked, trying to focus.
Standing by the entrance to the saloon were Roy and Clem. Both of them had their guns drawn and aimed at Joe and the Ballingers. Mitch was crumpled in a heap by the bar, but his eyes were open and he appeared to be unhurt. The other two Ballinger brothers were nowhere in sight.
“Looks like we’ve got us a situation, sheriff,” Lou commented as Dick eased his knife under Joe’s ear. His other arm was wrapped around Joe’s neck. “You want us to let this boy go and I want you to let my brothers go. Who do you think is going to win this stand off?”
That was a question that Roy didn’t have an answer to. He knew that if he turned the Ballingers lose, Joe would die. But if he didn’t turn them loose, Joe would die. He had no idea what to do. “That’s up to you,” Roy replied, as steadily as he could. “But we ain’t gonna let ya walk out a here with Joe.”
“Joe,” Lou repeated. “Is that your name, kid? I never asked. Doesn’t matter to me anyway.” He laughed. “I tell you what’s going to happen here, old man. You’re going to let my brothers go, or Dick will start carving pieces off Joe. We’ll start with a finger, shall we?” Lou grabbed Joe’s left hand and held it by the wrist. Dick moved the knife down to Joe’s hand, grinning. Joe began to struggle anew.
There was no more time to think; Roy had to act. He fired at Lou, catching the oldest Ballinger brother high in the chest. For an instant, Lou stood there looking surprised and then he crumpled soundlessly to the floor.
“Lou?” Dick gasped. He sounded lost. “Lou?” He swung his head around and glared at Roy. “You killed my brother!” he cried and changed his grip on the still-struggling Joe. “This kid is gonna pay for that!” The knife sliced across Joe’s palm before digging sharply into his throat.
The pain was intense and Joe gasped. Blood dripped from his hand onto the floor. He knew he was going to die there in the saloon. He continued to struggle as hard as he could, but the alcohol was racing through his bloodstream and he was finding it increasingly difficult to coordinate his efforts.
“Do something!” Mitch shouted, distracting Dick for a second.
In that second, Clem acted, shooting at Dick, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t hit Joe. In the same instant, Roy fired. Dick sensed their movements and stabbed Joe in the chest as he threw him down, and went for his gun.
He didn’t have a chance. Clem’s aim was true and the bullet knocked Dick from his feet. Roy wasn’t as lucky. His bullet bit into Joe’s left shoulder and knocked him over. Joe went down and was still. Dick crashed over the table where Joe and Lou had been playing cards and he lay in a heap, groaning.
For another long second, they all were frozen in place, shaken by the sudden violence. Then Mitch moved, scrambling across the floor to kneel by Joe, horrified by all the blood. As Roy and Clem moved to take charge of their prisoners, Mitch lifted his head. “Someone get the doc!” he shouted.
“I think I might have an early night, Pa,” Hoss mumbled and yawned once more.
“It certainly sounds as though you need it,” Ben remarked. “Are you feeling all right, Hoss?”
“I’m jist tired, I think,” Hoss replied. He smothered another yawn. “Perhaps I’m growin’ again?” he suggested playfully.
“Heaven forbid!” Ben exclaimed, holding his hands out in front of him as though fending the suggestion off. “We’d never get a horse tall enough to carry you if you grew again!” He grinned at Hoss, who grinned back.
“We could get one o’ them hairy-footed horses Joe was on about,” Hoss suggested. “What was they called again?”
“Mmm, Clydesdales or Shires,” Ben recalled. “I still can’t remember which kind is which, despite Joe telling me several times.”
“It don’ really matter,” Hoss replied. “They both do the same job. An’ if’n we got one, Joe would keep us right anyhow.”
“That’s true,” Ben smiled. “Well, good night, son. Sleep well.”
“I don’ think I’ll have a problem doin’ that,” Hoss replied. “I could sleep fer a week.” He turned and started to climb the stairs. Ben resumed reading.
So they were both startled when there was a knock at the door. Hoss paused at the top of the stairs and exchanged a glance with Ben, who rose to answer it. He was only half way across the floor when the knock was repeated again. Frowning, Hoss turned round and retraced his steps.
The man on the doorstep was someone that Ben knew only by sight. “Mr. Cartwright, Sheriff Coffee sent me ta bring ya inta town real quick like.” His lathered horse stood, head down, in the yard, a testimony to the speed at which he had traveled.
“What’s wrong?” Ben asked. “Is it Joe?”
As a relative newcomer to the town, the man knew who the Cartwrights were, but wondered how on earth Ben knew that there was something wrong with Joe. “Joe’s in the saloon with the Ballinger brothers,” he panted, relishing the chance to pass along the news. It was only when Ben’s face blanched that he realised that this wasn’t the way to tell him the bad news.
“Come on, Hoss,” Ben cried, snatching up his hat and gun belt. “Saddle the horses.” He paused only long enough to thank the man and then he hurried after Hoss. They had the horses saddled in minutes and rode out of the yard like all the demons in hell were after them.
“Joe, can you hear me?” The voice seemed to be coming from a long distance away and Joe wished that whoever it was would go away and leave him alone. Waking up hurt. Even breathing seemed to be very difficult. He groaned and tried to turn away, but there were hands there, holding him still, preventing him from moving. “Joe, can you hear me?” the voice repeated and this time Joe recognized it.
“Doc?” he whispered, forcing his eyes to open. The room seemed very blurry and Joe had to blink several times to bring things into focus. “Where…?” he started.
“You’re in my surgery,” Paul Martin replied. “Don’t try to move, Joe. Just stay still. Do you remember what happened?”
Allowing his eyes to drift shut, Joe frowned as he tried to remember. “Cards,” he whispered at last, wondering why his mind was so sluggish. Then his eyes opened wide as another memory hit home and he cried, “Mitch!”
“Easy, easy!” Paul soothed. “Joe, you’ve got to stay still. Mitch is all right, I promise. Joe, listen to me. Did you have a drink this afternoon?”
That was it, Joe thought. “Yeah,” he breathed. The pain in his chest was terrible. “Hurts,” he added.
“I know it hurts,” Paul sympathized. “But, Joe, this is important. How much did you have to drink?”
“Dunno… ezzacly,” Joe panted. “Drank out… bottle. Made to.”
“All right,” Paul replied. “You rest now, Joe.” He exchanged a worried glance with Roy Coffee who was standing near by. His nurse, Mrs. Benson, was holding Joe’s head still.
But there was one thing Joe needed to know before he rested. “Pa?” he asked.
“He’s on the way, Joe,” Paul soothed. He watched as Joe’s eyes drifted shut once more, then rose and beckoned Roy quietly out of earshot. “I can’t wait any longer, Roy,” he told his friend. “I’m going to have to operate.”
“What difference do the drinks make?” Roy wanted to know.
“If you have alcohol in your bloodstream, you bleed more easily,” Paul replied. “Joe has lost a lot of blood as it is. The operation could be tricky; I don’t really want him to lose more blood if I can help it.” He drew in a deep breath and straightened his spine. “Still, I know what I’m facing now.” He put a hand on Roy’s shoulder. “When Ben gets here, don’t let him in, all right?”
“I’ll do my best,” Roy agreed. “But no promises.”
They exchanged a bleak smile and then Paul went back into the surgery to prepare to remove the knife from Joe’s chest.
Terror ate at Ben all the journey to town. Hoss rode silently at his side, his fatigue long forgotten. They drew rein in front of the Silver Dollar and were astounded to see that it was in darkness. Wide-eyed, Ben looked at Hoss, not sure where to go next. What did the deserted saloon mean?
“Roy’ll know,” Hoss replied to the unspoken question.
“Roy,” Ben agreed and urged Buck down the street. He jumped down from the saddle and wrapped his rein around the hitching post without being aware of either action. Hoss was on his heels as he crossed the sidewalk and opened the door to the jail.
Looking up from the desk, Clem rose. “Ben, Roy’s over at Doc Martin’s,” he offered.
“Joe?” Ben asked, his heart skipping a beat.
“He was alive last I saw,” Clem replied.
The words weren’t any comfort. “He was hurt?” Ben whispered, the color draining from his face.
“I’m afraid so,” Clem answered. “I’m sorry, Ben.”
Not waiting to ask any further questions that the deputy wouldn’t be able to answer, Ben simply turned on his heel and hurried out of the door, heading over to Doc Martin’s. Hoss met Clem’s eyes for a moment and the two men communed silently, one offering sympathy, the other thanking the first for everything he had done to help, whatever it was that had been done. Then Hoss was hurrying after Ben, swallowing down his fear as best he could.
Roy almost wasn’t quick enough to prevent Ben from bursting into the surgery. “Don’t, Ben,” he urged, catching his friend by the shoulders. “Paul said you had to wait here. Ben!”
If Hoss hadn’t been there, Roy would never have prevailed. Ben simply brushed the smaller man aside and Roy stumbled slightly as he grabbed for Ben’s arm. But it was Hoss who stopped him. “Pa, ya cain’t go in there,” he declared, putting his body between Ben and the door. “The doc wants ya ta wait here an’ there’ll be a good reason fer that. Come on, Pa, sit down an’ wait.”
“Joe…” Ben muttered.
“I know, Pa, but sit down, huh?” Hoss coaxed his father into a chair. “Roy, what can ya tell us?” he asked and Ben’s attention fastened on Roy.
“Joe an’ Mitch were in the saloon playin’ cards,” Roy began. “The Ballinger brothers came in an’ made Joe play Lou Ballinger at poker. If Joe won, Cosmo and Mitch would live. If he lost…” Roy didn’t need to complete the sentence. Ben’s dark eyes were riveted on the sheriff’s face. “Joe won the first hand an’ Cosmo was let go. He came ta git us. When we got there, it seemed that Joe had won again, an’ Lou didn’ take too kindly ta it. We got two o’ the brothers out, but Lou an’ Dick had Joe as a hostage. We shot Lou, but his brother Dick managed ta… ta stab Joe afore Clem shot him.” Roy looked shame-faced. “My bullet hit Joe. I’m real sorry, Ben.”
It was too soon for Ben to offer absolution to Roy. “How bad is he?” he demanded.
“He’s not good,” Roy admitted. “Doc’s operatin’.” He swallowed. “The knife went in real deep, Ben. Lou had made Joe drink some whiskey straight from the bottle. Paul was a mite worried about that,” he added, trying to play it down.
“How long has he been operating on Joe?” Ben asked, his eyes going to the clock. The time – 8.30pm – meant nothing to him.
“About an hour,” Roy admitted.
“An hour…” Ben repeated, numbly.
“He’s bin with Joe an hour,” Hoss corrected him. “That don’t mean he’s bin operatin’ all this time, Pa. It jist means he’s tendin’ ta Joe.” Hoss wasn’t sure that he believed his own argument, but if it gave Ben a moment of peace, it was worth it.
“Of course, I never thought of that,” Ben agreed. “I’m sorry, Roy, I didn’t mean to jump all over you.”
“I unnerstand, Ben,” Roy replied, relieved that Hoss had stepped in once more. The waiting was torture for him – how much worse must it be for Ben and Hoss?
Another half hour passed before the inner door opened and Paul Martin came out. He didn’t look surprised to see Ben and Hoss waiting. “Better come in,” he told them and Ben’s heart faltered. He rose and followed the physician.
Joe lay on the bed, the cover drawn up to his chin and his face was almost as white as the sheet. Ben hurried to his side, touching Joe to reassure himself that his son was alive and simply asleep. “Joe?” he whispered, but there was no movement from the figure on the bed. He glanced up at Paul. “How is he?”
“He’s weak, but I think he’ll be all right,” Paul replied. “He has lost a tremendous amount of blood and I just hope infection hasn’t set in.” He sat down heavily and Ben became aware of how tired Paul looked. “Joe was stabbed in his right upper chest,” Paul began. He drew back the blanket slightly to let Ben see the bandages swathing Joe’s chest. “His lung wasn’t affected, luckily. The knife went in at an oblique angle. Joe lost a lot of blood when I removed the knife, but the damage could have been worse. The bullet that hit him shattered his collar bone and I had to remove some fragments of bone along with the bullet. Again, Joe bled a lot, but he is stable at the moment.”
“Why did he bleed so much?” Ben asked, his eyes drawn back to the still figure lying before him.
“Did Roy tell you that Lou made him drink from a bottle of whiskey?” Paul asked. “When people are drunk, they bleed more. He also had a deep knife wound on the palm of his left hand which required stitches.”
“Will he be all right?” Ben asked.
Hesitating for a moment, Paul finally nodded. “I hope so,” he answered, cautiously.
“When will we know?” Ben asked. If he knew the risks, he could prepare to fight the odds.
“By morning, most likely,” Paul replied. “If infection is going to set in, it most probably will have by then.”
“What can I do for him?” Ben wanted to know.
“Let him sleep,” Paul replied. “If he starts to run a temperature, keep him cool.” He gave his friend a sharp look. “Ben, I can look after Joe…”
“I’m not leaving,” Ben declared determinedly.
“Nor me,” Hoss added.
“No surprise there then,” Paul remarked, a smile softening his tired face. “In that case, I’m going to catch a few hours sleep. If you need me for any reason, shout.”
“I will,” Ben replied, once more bending over Joe. He stroked the hair back off his son’s pale forehead and he could have sworn that Joe nestled into the touch of his father’s hand. “I’m here, son,” he whispered. “Everything will be all right.”
Stirring slightly, Joe wondered why he hurt so much. His mind felt fuzzy and his head was throbbing. His stomach wasn’t too comfortable, either, he thought queasily. In fact… Joe opened his eyes and squinted against the low light coming from a nearby lamp. He didn’t immediately recognize the room he was in, but that was of no importance at that moment. He saw his father sitting by the bed, dozing. “Pa,” he gasped, hoarsely.
Jolted out of the light doze he had been in, Ben opened his eyes and saw Joe looking at him anxiously. He smiled, leaning closer to touch Joe’s face with a reassuring hand. “Joe. How are you feeling, son?”
“Gonna be…sick,” Joe mumbled, trying not to open his mouth too far. He hoped Pa would hurry, because if he didn’t Joe wasn’t sure he could hold on any longer.
But Ben was prepared. He snatched up the basin lying at his feet and helped Joe lean over as his son vomited helplessly. At last, the spasms were over and Joe lay down, feeling Ben wiping his face with a cool, damp cloth. He felt dreadful and his chest hurt so much. What was wrong with him? He forced his eyes open once more and was met with the reassuring warm gaze from Ben’s brown eyes. “I don’t feel too good,” he offered.
“I’m not surprised,” Ben remarked, sounding cheerful. Joe was a bit sweaty, but that was as a result of throwing up, not of fever. “Do you remember what happened, son?”
Closing his eyes again for a moment, Joe thought about it. “The saloon,” he whispered. His mouth was horribly dry. “I’m thirsty.” He opened his eyes again to see Hoss handing Ben a glass of water. “Hi, Hoss.”
“Hi yourself,” Hoss replied, smiling gently at his injured brother.
Lifting Joe’s head, Ben helped him to drink. The cool water was soothing and comforting and for a few minutes, Joe felt a bit better, but then his headache started throbbing again. He tried to move to a more comfortable position, but his body hurt too much to allow him to complete the movement. He couldn’t repress a groan.
“Take it easy,” Ben soothed. “You were hurt, Joe. Plus, I expect you’ve got a hangover.”
“The whiskey,” Joe groaned. “I hate whiskey.” He snagged Ben’s gaze. “Pa, is Mitch all right?” he demanded.
“Mitch is just fine,” Ben replied at once and Joe relaxed.
“What happened to me?” Joe asked. “Why am I so sore?” Again he tried to move and another groan escaped.
Bodily lifting Joe, Ben helped him settle in a different position and turned the pillow over so that Joe was resting on the cool side. “Better?” he asked and Joe nodded. “You were stabbed by Dick Ballinger,” Ben explained.
“I remember that – sort of,” Joe recalled. He tried to glance down at himself, but the movement caused his head to spin and a shaft of pain shot through his broken collar bone.
“When Roy and Clem were saving you, Roy accidentally shot you,” Ben went on. Now that he knew Joe was going to be all right, Ben felt desperately sorry for his friend. The shooting was an accident. He would have to talk to Roy the next day. “The bullet shattered your collar bone.”
“Guess that explains it,” Joe murmured.
“I guess it does,” Ben smiled. “Are you in a lot of pain, Joe?”
“A bit,” Joe admitted. “You were right about the hangover, Pa.” His eyes squeezed shut again. “My mouth tastes like Hoss’ socks smell.”
There was an indignant splutter from Hoss, but Ben couldn’t repress a smile. Joe might be feeling bad, but that piece of cheek was more telling than any medical diagnosis that his youngest son’s life wasn’t in danger. “That bad?” he asked, sounding shocked and exchanged a grin with Hoss.
“That bad,” Joe agreed, suddenly exhausted. He sighed, his injuries paining him.
“Drink this, Joe,” Ben told him, lifting his head and offering the painkiller that Paul had left in case Joe should need it.
Making a face at the first taste, Joe nevertheless drank it down and gradually slipped into sleep as the pain faded away. Ben held his hand until he was sure Joe was sleeping again. He raised his eyes and met Hoss’ and they smiled at each other. It looked as though Joe was going to be just fine.
Over the next 24 hours, Joe steadily improved, although he slept a good deal of the time. He was very weak from loss of blood and made no noises about getting home to his own bed. Hoss returned to the ranch to keep things ticking over and Ben booked into the hotel. He was just sitting down to a meal when Roy Coffee appeared in the hotel dining room and came over to join him.
“I wanted to see you,” Ben said, before Roy had even opened his mouth. “Roy, I’m sorry, I didn’t say anything last night, but I know that you didn’t mean to shoot Joe intentionally. I know it was an accident and I’m sorry I didn’t say so last night.”
That was probably the most incoherent speech Roy had ever heard Ben make, but he was so pleased by the content that he barely noticed. “That’s all right, Ben,” he replied, waving the apology away. “Ya had a lot on yer mind. How’s Little Joe?”
“He’s going to be just fine,” Ben smiled. “He’s weak right now, but he managed to give Hoss some cheek earlier when he was awake.”
“That’s good news,” Roy agreed. “Thing is, Ben, the circuit judge has just wired me that he intends ta be in town tomorra to hold the trial of the Ballingers. We got Mitch’s testimony, o’ course, but the judge wants ta ask Joe some questions. Will he be up ta comin’ ta the court house?”
“No,” Ben replied, definitely enough. “The judge can come to Joe if he wants to talk to him. I still don’t know when Joe’s going to get home. There’s no way he could be subjected to a trial, Roy.”
“That’s what I figured,” Roy acknowledged. “Like I said, it shouldn’t be a problem. Mitch was an eye witness, too.”
“If the judge wants to talk to Joe, he can come to the doc’s,” Ben reiterated. “How many of the Ballingers have you got?” he asked. “Doc said something about one of them being shot.”
“Lou’s dead,” Roy reported. “Dick was shot, but he’s all right. Them other two, Dave and John, were captured without gun play.”
“Quite a coup,” Ben nodded. “The Ballingers have been wanted for a long time, haven’t they?”
“A long time,” Roy agreed. “I’d better go back. I left Clem alone with them. See ya later, Ben.”
They managed to get Joe on his feet for a short while the next day, but he was very shaky and relieved to lie down again. His left arm was encased in a sling to ease the pressure on his collarbone and Joe found it was easier when he held his right arm across his body, too. “I’m wearing more bandages than a mummy,” he complained as Paul gently bound up his chest again. He had been checking his handiwork and was pleased with the way the knife wound was healing.
“You must be getting better,” Paul remarked. “You’re complaining.”
Smiling, Joe met the doctor’s laughing gaze. “But I’m obviously not complaining enough,” he retorted. “You still won’t let me go home.”
“You’ve got that right,” Paul agreed. “You’re not well enough for that. Give it another few days and you should be up to the trip to the ranch.”
“It’s only been two days, Joe,” Ben chided him gently.
“I know,” Joe sighed. “I just want to go home.” He tried very hard not to sound as if he was whining.
“Soon,” Paul replied.
There was a knock on the surgery door as Paul eased Joe back onto a pile of pillows. Ben went to answer it as Joe laid his head down for a moment. It was the judge. “Come in,” Ben offered. He hadn’t been expecting the man quite so soon.
But they hadn’t been expecting the man who trailed Roy Coffee into the room – Dick Ballinger. Joe gaped at him, fear clenching his insides, even though Ballinger was in handcuffs.
“What’s he doing here?” Ben demanded.
“I brought him,” Judge Whittaker replied imperiously. “Joe, do you recognize this man?”
“Yes,” Joe whispered. “Dick Ballinger.”
“How do you know him?” Whittaker persisted.
“He held me hostage in the Silver Dollar,” Joe replied, his voice stronger. “He held a knife to my throat.” The cuts on Joe’s throat had been superficial, no worse than if he’d cut himself shaving. “He tried to kill me.”
“That’s all I needed to know,” Whittaker nodded. “Thank you, Joe.” He turned and led the way out of the door.
Ballinger paused, looking down at Joe. He gave the familiar, wolfish grin. “You’re in some state, boy,” he commented. Roy, annoyed, tugged on his arm and the bigger man simply tugged his arm free and before anyone could move, he was over by Joe, dragging the injured man up by the throat. “Nobody do anything stupid,” he ordered.
“Let him go!” Whittaker ordered, his calm voice belying the fear that gripped his belly. “You’re not doing yourself any favors with this display.”
“If it gets me out of here, its doing me enough,” Ballinger replied. “Sheriff, get the handcuffs off me.”
For a moment, Roy hesitated and Ballinger began to squeeze. Joe choked. Whittaker nodded and Roy walked forwards, fumbling for the keys. His hands shook as he unlocked the handcuffs and removed them. Ballinger was grinning again. “Now, put them on the boy here.”
“That’s cruelty!” Paul thundered. “Joe is injured!”
“Do it!” Ballinger ordered, squeezing again. Roy swallowed and did as he was told. When he was finished, Ballinger removed one large hand from Joe’s throat and shoved Roy to the floor. “Now get out of my way, ‘cos I’m leaving here.”
“No!” Ben protested and made a move towards Ballinger, who simply pushed him out of the way. He dragged Joe to his feet, looking momentarily surprised when Joe sagged, but not allowing that to stop him. He wrapped one arm around Joe’s neck and began to drag the injured, handcuffed young man after him as he backed towards the door.
“I’m leaving and if nobody moves, I might leave this boy outside. Anyone follows me and I’ll take him apart bit by bit. Is that clear?” He shook Joe slightly and Joe groaned. Everyone froze in place, watching in horror.
As Ballinger backed away, Ben became aware of someone in the outer office behind the outlaw. He bit his tongue, not knowing who it was and afraid of doing something that would put Joe’s life in more jeopardy. And then the person moved slightly and Ben realized that he knew who it was; Hoss!
There was no time to formulate a plan, no time to wonder what he ought to do, if he ought to try and help Hoss somehow. Hoss simply put his hands on Ballinger’s shoulders, wrenching his arm from around Joe’s throat and whirled the man around. With two efficient punches, he laid the outlaw on the floor.
For a moment, the group in the office was kept frozen, unable to believe what they had just witnessed. Then Ben moved. “Joe!” He dived forward to kneel beside his son, who was lying on the floor groaning in pain. Seconds later, Paul Martin was by his side, urging Joe to lie still while he checked him over. “Get those handcuffs off him!” Ben cried and Roy hurried over, the keys in his hands once more.
As Roy put the handcuffs back on Ballinger, Hoss hurried over to look down anxiously at Joe. “Joe, are ya all right?” he cried.
Opening his eyes, Joe tried to smile. “Thanks to you,” he panted. The pain radiating through his chest and shoulders was taking his breath away.
“Hoss, you help Roy get Ballinger back to the jail,” Ben suggested. “Paul and I will take care of your brother.” He barely spared a glance for Judge Whittaker.
“I’m sorry about what happened, Ben,” Whittaker said, when Joe was once more on the bed and Paul was tending to him. “I never dreamed anything like this would happen.”
Although the temptation to lay all the blame on Whittaker was strong, Ben resisted. “It wasn’t your fault,” he replied. “None of us were expecting him to do something like that. I don’t expect that he’ll be walking away from this, will he?”
“No,” Whittaker agreed. “He’s killed enough people to warrant a hanging and any pleas for clemency will not be accepted.”
“I’m pleased to hear that,” Ben replied, with a barely controlled savagery. He nodded to the judge and went to bend over Joe.
There was indeed no doubt about the verdict. The Ballinger brothers were hanged at sunset, while Joe drifted in a drug-induced slumber. He had been lucky, and none of his injuries had been aggravated by his rough treatment. He had some more bruises and his throat was sore, but essentially, he was no worse off.
By the next afternoon, Joe had rallied and was once more trying to persuade Paul to let him go home. He was still weak, but beginning to regain his strength. He had managed to stay awake for a good portion of the day and had enjoyed a short visit from Mitch.
“All right!” Paul laughed, putting his hands up. “If you’re feeling all right tomorrow, I’ll let you go home. Anything to stop you complaining!”
Grinning broadly, Joe turned to look at Ben. “Did you hear that, Pa? I can go home tomorrow!”
“Are you sure, Paul?” Ben asked.
“There’s nothing more I can do for him here,” Paul replied. “He just needs time now – time to heal. Give him a couple of months, and he’ll never know there was anything wrong with him.”
As Paul went off to do some other things, Ben sat down by Joe’s bed. “Well, that is good news, isn’t it, son?” he commented, his hand straying, unbidden, to brush the hair back off Joe’s forehead.
“Sure is,” Joe agreed, sleepily. “You know, Pa, I think it’ll be a long time before I want to play poker again, even if it’s just with Mitch.”
“I can understand that,” Ben replied. He continued to stroke Joe’s hair, watching as his son’s eyelids dropped sleepily.
“D’you know what?” Joe murmured, just remembering. “I had a royal flush.” He forced his eyes open and was gratified to see the look on Ben’s face. “I never had one of those before.”
“I guess it was just the luck of the draw,” Ben replied. He thought that it was the luck of the draw that had saved Joe’s life. He shuddered to think that his son’s life had depended upon the turn of a card.
How lucky they all had been.