Josh watched the last of the kids go into the schoolhouse, and he envied them a bit. Gene and Marnie had offered to send him, but he couldn't accept. He was only an odd jobs boy, they fed him and gave him a place to sleep and some of Joseph's old clothes, to wear.
He even occasionally got a couple of pennies to buy some candy. He couldn't let them send him to school as well.
It was ironic in a way, the work he did for them only took up four or five hours a day, and since he was usually up by six at the latest, he would always be finished by noon. Marnie had made him promise not to take any other jobs, except for the occasional help to Widow Larson. If he'd worked a few more hours a day to earn his keep, he would have felt he'd earned the right to go to school, but then he wouldn't have been able to because he'd be working too long during school hours.
At least he'd learned how to read and write. Well a little. He could write his name, though not very well, and he was pretty good at adding and subtracting. Today, he'd spent almost two hours at the Vinson's doing some of his chores around the house, cutting wood and collecting the eggs from the chicken coop and things like that, and now he was going to Gene's store to clean up.
Gene only opened the store at eight, but he liked to do his work early, before he opened. Not that he worked on guns that were loaded or on loading ammo while kids were around, but there was always a chance that he'd be working on a jammed gun with a bullet stuck in the barrel and he didn't like having Josh or Joseph around at that time. Since he never knew when something like that would be necessary, he'd banned them from showing up until after he opened.
Josh noticed Cal Turner standing outside the bank. He used to work for the ranch that Joseph had inherited from his grandfather. His uncle, well really his great uncle Gene Vinson, had appointed Dave Schmidt as foreman, and the first thing Dave had done, was to fire Cal Turner. He never gave a reason, but since Cal Turner hadn't protested, obviously he must have deserved it.
Personally, Josh agreed with Dave a hundred percent.
He couldn't stand the man, and he started to cross the street to avoid having to walk in front of him. Three masked men ran out of the bank, guns in hand. Josh stood there his eyes wide, his survival instincts deserting him. He saw Cal Turner draw his gun and he expected him to turn it on the bank robbers, but when it started to turn his way, he realized that Turner must have been the lookout.
But Turner wasn't a very good shot and he almost missed. Almost. He hit Josh in the upper right arm, luckily missing the bone, but it felt like a red hot poker going through his flesh, and Josh went to his knees with a cry of pain, tears streaming done his face.
Josh, through the waves of pain, heard, "What the hell, do you think you're doing?"
"The kid knows me." Turner yelled.
"Well, take him with us. We'll decide what to do with him later." Josh felt a hand grab the collar of his shirt, and he was jerked upright and thrown belly down in front of one of the three men who had already mounted. The pain drove him into darkness like a hammer on a nail.
Josh woke up slowly, and he could hear low voices talking. He inadvertently moved his right arm and a loud hiss of pain escaped from him as he did so. One of the men got up from the small fire and walked over to Josh. Shoving back his hat, he said, "Ironic, ain't it kid, we take you because you know who Turner was and he ends up getting hisself killed."
He had a big grin and apparent good humor on his face, but Josh didn't like his eyes. They were mean eyes that didn't go with the face at all. "Well at least that means we don't have to share with him," yelled one of the other man, and the man looking down at Josh said, "There is that. Now I hate to tell you this, kid, but I don't think you'd make a very good hostage. A little kid like you, not in school after the school bell rings, that tells me you're too poor to go to school. That means you'd just take up food and water, that we could use."
Josh felt a sinking feeling inside his belly, at the way the man was talking, and wasn't surprised when he drew his gun. But when he heard a gun being cocked it wasn't from the man standing over him, but from near the fire. "Put your gun away, Emery, I draw the line at killing kids, in cold blood."
Emery no longer had a grin on his face, but Josh could tell he wasn't afraid either. "What da ya wanta bet that I can turn fast enough to get you, Lake."
"Probably, but I'll put at least one bullet in you, and Richmond will finish the job. That's the trouble when you work with people you can't trust, there's always a good chance that you'll get a bullet in the back." said Lake. "We've got Turner's horse, we split up the money tonight and I take the kid and head for the border in the morning."
"What, you're not going to take the kid back to his mommy?" said Emery.
"I may not want to kill a kid in cold blood, but that clerk you hit on the head might not wake up. No, I ain't going back, he'll just have to take his chances, that we find a ranch or something on the way."
In cold blood were the key words, Josh realized as he rode after the hard-eyed man on the bay horse in front of him. In a sense, he was worse than the man named Emery was. He wouldn't pull the trigger, but if Josh fell off the horse, right now, the man wouldn't even bother to turn around. They'd only done a little first aid on his wound, which was throbbing constantly, and he knew he wouldn't last very long.
Unused to riding horses, Josh moved his legs again, trying to get a little more comfortable, his butt was already aching, and they'd only been traveling for an hour. This time when he moved he felt something hard inside the saddle, where there shouldn't have been anything. Curiously, he felt the area with his left hand, and after a few moments, he felt a pocket in the saddle.
It was in a seam and unless you were looking for it, you wouldn't even have noticed it. But it was made so a man could get his hand in it, and Josh's small hand fit into it easily.
He recognized the shape that his hand felt. It was a derringer, and feeling carefully, he realized that it was four barreled.
He felt somewhat amused despite his predicament. Obviously Cal Turner hadn't trusted his partners or was planning a double cross. Getting it out of the pocket, he slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. He hoped it was loaded. He wasn't going to be able to check. "Mister, I'm hot, can I have a drink."
Lake had the canteen, so he kicked his horse forward. Lake grudgingly reached for the canteen. He had it in both hands ready to undo it from the saddle horn, when Josh let his horse sidle away, so the man couldn't reach him, and pulled out the derringer and cocked it. "I'm sorry about this Mister, even though you saved my life, I know if I fell off you wouldn't even care. The man I work for is a gunsmith, and I've fired guns quite often in the last three months, and I'm a pretty good shot with a derringer, at this distance."
Lake made a really stupid move, then. Josh had just intended to tell him to go on his way and leave him behind, He dropped the canteen and went for his gun.
Josh had been telling the truth when he said he had gotten to be a pretty good shot, and he shot Lake between the eyes. There was sadness in his eyes, as he watched the man fall from his horse.
He reached for the bridle of Lake's horse before it could take off. It had the food, the canteen, a pair of binoculars, and one-third of the money which had been stolen from the bank.
He was in no shape to bury Lake, or even to pile rocks on top of him, so after tying the horses to a bush he looked for a sturdy stick and sticking it into the ground, tied Lake's handkerchief around the top. He had heard that would scare the buzzards and animals away.
After he had done so, Josh saw some dust headed his way and taking the binoculars, he saw Emery, leading a horse. Obviously he had killed his partner and was following Lake to get the rest of the money.
His eyes were bleak, but he wasn't ready to give up, he pulled out the derringer and cocked it and held it by his side, and turned slightly away from Emery, standing so the man wouldn't see the metal of the barrel as he rode up. If he came close enough to gloat, and got careless, Josh might have time for one shot. It would probably be well beyond any range at which he could hope to make a fatal hit, maybe beyond any possibility of a hit. But he would take it.
Incredibly the man rode right up to within ten feet of him, and grinned down at him. "I don't know how you did it kid, but you took care of one and I took care of the other, now I've just got to take care of you."
Josh looked at him stoically. If the man took his eyes away for a fraction of a second or if he began to draw his gun, Josh would make his try. He heard the crash of the rifle and the sound of the shot as it whistled over their heads, but he was the embodiment of concentration. It hadn't come from Emery so it wasn't important. What was important was that Emery jerked his head to look behind him, and Josh brought the derringer up. He didn't try for a heart shot, the caliber of the derringer was too small, a fraction of an inch miss and the man would have time to get two or three shots off.
Also, with his head twisted round the bullet could hit at a bad angle if he tried for a head shot. He took a chance at the only spot that could get him out of this alive. The neck, and he made it, the shot severing the jugular vein, and Emery was too concerned with grabbing at his neck as his life blood spurted out, to go for his gun. He stared with disbelief, as he toppled from his horse, dead.
Suddenly he was very weary, and the throbbing of his arm, which had been thrust to the back of his mind resurfaced, and he had to sit down. He looked down at the derringer. In a way, he felt loathing, but at the same time it had saved his life, and it was only a tool after all, he was the one who had pulled the trigger. He felt sad for what he had needed to do, and he began to cry.
He heard the horses pounding up to him but he paid no attention, he recognized Gene as he was lifted into strong arms, and he rested his head on the man's shoulders, and closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift into sleep.
Marnie asked him, "Are you proud of what you did?"
"No," said Josh. "I'd do it again exactly the same way if it happened again, but I'm not proud of it."
She brushed his hair back from his forehead.
"Good, to fight to stay alive is admirable, be proud of that. Sometimes to survive it's necessary to kill, never be proud of that, just accept that it's a fact, and you'll get on fine."
"How much longer do I got to stay in bed?" Josh asked.
"The doctor said at least a week, and if you got a fever it could be much longer. You've only had three and a half days. You don't really feel like getting up do you?"
Josh had to admit that he didn't. "Well go back to sleep, I'll wake you for supper."
"Wake up Josh, you've got some visitors," he heard Marnie say. He yawned and then opened his eyes. He saw Gene and with him, was the sheriff and the bank owner, and he could see Joseph standing wide eyed in the door.
The bank owner spoke first, "Ned Avery was a good friend, and when he was killed I offered a reward of a thousand dollars to the one who brought in the killers and recovered the money. Well it seems that you did both, so the money is yours, Josh."
The sheriff, "Josh, there was a total of two thousand dollars reward money on those three outlaws, though nothing on Turner. That's yours as well."
Josh was too shy to speak, in front of people he hardly knew, so he beckoned Marnie and whispered in her ear. "Josh says that he'll accept the money from the bank, but he won't take the reward money for the outlaws. If you absolutely have to give it to someone, give it to Ned's widow and children."
Gene grinned and said, "Pay up, gentlemen." and they each handed him a five dollar gold coin, and neither of them looked very upset about it.
"What was that all about?" asked Marnie, bewildered.
"I told them, when they mentioned the reward money for the outlaws, that Josh wouldn't take it. They said if he didn't they'd each give him five dollars."
Joseph said, "Could I talk to you for a minute, Uncle Gene."
"Surely, Joseph, lets go into the kitchen."
When they came back, Gene was keeping his face carefully solemn, but Joseph was grinning widely. "Joseph made a suggestion. Since you've suddenly come into a little money, he wonders if you would like to pay five hundred dollars to become an apprentice gunsmith."
"He knows that you didn't like what you had to do with a gun, but he also knows that despite that, you still like guns and are aware that they are still needed out here. This would be contingent on you attending school full time, and Joseph said he would share the chores around the house with you." The wide grin on Josh's face was answer enough, but this was quickly followed by another yawn.
"I think I'd better feed your little apprentice and let him get back to sleep." said Marnie.
"Well another hurdle crossed, Marnie. Do you think if I hold onto the money, he'd take it back when he gets older." Gene said.
"No, but we can give him a really expensive wedding gift when he gets married." Marnie said. "He'll accept it that way."