Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belong to MGM, The Hallmark Channel, and other big companies. I make no claim on the characters, except for those that I created, and I intend no copyright infringement.
Characters: Josiah, JD, All Seven
Summary: A stranger on the run brings mysteries, memories, and a whole lot of trouble to the Magnificent Seven. Where's he going? Who's after him? And what does this mean for two of the seven?
Acknowledgments: A huge thanks to my awesome beta readers, Jen and Jules! And to my brother for helping me hash out problematic plot elements. :) Any mistakes are mine and mine alone. Also, I borrowed some horse names in this story. :) Kristen named Ezra's horse Chaucer. Eleanor Tremayne named Chris' horse Job. And Sue B. named Josiah's horse Prophet.
A hint of yellow and green erupted from the bland, brown desert, drawing Josiah's weary eyes to the pool of shadows beneath a nearby rock formation. He squinted against the sun. There, at the base of the red rock, a sprout of brittlebush struggled to survive, stretching its scant branches in all directions.
As his sorrel's plodding steps took him past the outcropping, Josiah sighed. In comparison to the yellow flowers and startling red rock, the world before him seemed dull and lifeless.
Then again, maybe it was just him.
He shrugged away the thought and tried instead to focus on the feel of the reins in his hands, the warm sun on his neck, Prophet's rolling gait. He failed.
He always was in a peculiar mood after a visit to Vista City.
Josiah frowned at a barren tree.
Somewhere below the anger and the cynicism, he'd nourished a hope that his sister would improve with time. That the gentle and protective care of the nuns could eventually bring her mind back. Of course, throughout his many visits he had never seen any sign of improvement, but Josiah was a man of faith. He had to have faith. It was something he worked at every day of his life.
Sometimes it was damn hard. He felt guilty. He'd always felt guilty, frustrated at his inability to help Hannah. He knew that her condition was not his fault, not even his father's fault. But it didn't change things.
The solitude was refreshing. He needed the time to hear himself think, even if he didn't always like the thoughts that came. Another hour and he'd be back among his flock of lost souls.
And then it would be life as usual, trying to atone for sins that could never be forgiven.
Dust assaulted his nostrils, but Josiah inhaled deeply. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind, not even feeling the fleeting beat of insect wings against his cheek.
Twenty miles to the west, Cam Blake fell off his horse.
He scrambled to his knees before the pain in his left leg could deter him, and spat grit from his dry mouth. His apron-faced gelding stopped a few feet away and patiently waited. Forcing his good leg beneath him, Cam limped to the horse, dusting his hands on his thighs. He hung onto the stirrup for a minute, staring back the way he'd come, before swinging into the saddle.
An hour later, Cam hit the dirt again. For several long minutes he stayed down, not wasting the energy to curse, though he had plenty to say on the tip of his tongue. Pebbles bit into his cheek. His slow, deep breaths stirred the dust in front of his face and he coughed. Finally, he rolled himself into a sitting position.
The desert swam crazily before his eyes. Shrubs and mesquite whirled around one another in a bizarre dance, taunting him. The sun shone brutally from a clear sky, its heat cutting through him like a razor.
He swallowed and whistled dryly for Junior to come back. To his relief, the horse flicked an ear, snorted, and trotted back.
"Good boy," Cam rasped. He'd made himself keep on riding for the past two hours without a drink. Water was getting low, only half a canteen left. But right now seemed like a good time to stop and have a sip.
Once Junior was within reach, Cam hitched himself up and lifted the strap of the canteen from around the saddle horn. He sank back down to the ground, unscrewed the cap, and took a long drink.
His hat hung down his back, the strap tight around his neck. Cam pulled it off and slapped it against his hand, eyeing the tan Stetson critically. He poured a little water into the crown and offered it to Junior, leaning against the horse as he drank.
The meager shade Junior offered was welcome, and Cam rested his eyes. He'd meant to camp last night, but of course that hadn't turned out as planned. Instead, he'd spent all night trying not to bleed to death and then almost an hour this morning getting patched up by a myopic barber. He lightly touched the bandage just above his knee and winced.
When the horse finished, Cam placed the hat back on his head. The damp material was heaven against his skin. And, despite the sharp pain in his leg, he remounted Junior, spurred onwards by the images of a blonde-haired girl waiting for him and a ruthless killer trailing behind him.
A large, unkempt man strode into the saloon like he owned the world, smacking open the swinging doors with a flourish. He scanned the room, his mouth a thin line beneath a tobacco-stained mustache, then headed for the bar. Three men, equally trail-worn, followed him in.
At a table on the dais, JD set his fork down and straightened in his chair, wiping his hands on his pant legs. His left hand strayed toward the Colt on his hip. These men were not your typical cowhands looking for a drink. That much was obvious. There was something hard in their faces, something arrogant in the mustached man's swagger.
Nathan glanced up mildly, then returned his attention to his plate. His relaxed posture didn't fool his friends.
As the mustached man reached the bar, one of his companions found a position along the wall, halfway between the bar and the door, and the other two stayed just inside the door. All were watchful. Alert.
Chris didn't look up from the book he was reading, but Buck, who sat at the same table, noticed a small downward twitch of Chris' mouth and a subtle movement of his right hand as he unhooked the thin leather strap from around the butt of his gun.
"What'll it be?" the barkeep, Jones, asked.
"Gimme your best," ordered the newcomer. He pushed his hat back to wipe his brow, revealing a tangled mess of dirt brown hair.
Jones plunked down a clean glass and poured him a drink. He was about to turn away when the customer called to him.
"Where can I find the doctor?"
Jones inclined his head and peered over the man's shoulder at Nathan.
Nathan stood up, instantly scanning the heavy man for any obvious injuries. "You need a doctor?" he asked, crossing half the floor in a few strides.
The man regarded him. "Are you it?"
"The closest thing around."
The stranger picked up his drink and, staring at Nathan, downed it in one gulp. He set the glass down, but Jones made no move to refill it. "I'm lookin' for someone. He might've come in lookin' for a doctor sometime today. He's wounded."
Nathan shook his head. "Sorry, ain't had no patients all day."
A slight rustling sound came from Nathan's right as the man along the wall shifted. He spat on the floor. Chris had closed his book and now focused on the conversation, his posture still relaxed.
The mustached man looked down at his empty glass, at Jones, then at Nathan again. "You sure about that, boy?" he said. The hazy light streaming through the large picture window illuminated his sneer.
Behind Nathan, JD had left his table and now leaned against a support post at the edge of the dais. Several patrons slipped out the back door.
Nathan's gaze narrowed. "I said I ain't seen the man." The fingers of his right hand twitched ever so slightly.
"You heard him," Buck said, his voice deceptively soft.
The man nodded agreeably. "I heard him all right." His expression hardened. "Just ain't sure I believe him."
Surprisingly fast, the man leapt forward and grabbed Nathan, spinning him around and pinning him against the bar with an arm across his throat.
Before his friends' guns could clear leather, Nathan whipped out a wicked, five-inch blade from its sheath on the back of his belt and pressed the deadly point into the flesh above his attacker's left carotid. The man froze instantly but didn't loosen his pressure on Nathan's neck. They stared into each other's eyes, breathing hard, each ready to kill the other.
The clicks of several hammers being thumbed back broke Nathan's stasis, and trusting in his friends to cover him, he brought his knee up sharply into his attacker's gut. The man's eyes widened in pain, and his grip slackened. Nathan easily shoved the obstructing arm away and landed a bone-crunching punch to the man's face. The mustached man crumpled.
"Don't move," Chris ordered, and Nathan looked up to see him on his feet with his .45 aimed at the tall, skinny guy by the wall. Buck and JD covered the other two now standing a few feet from the doorway. One was young and Mexican, the other a little older and definitely a gringo. Both men had taken a step forward when their leader hit the sawdust.
Half a second stuttered by, and the tall, skinny guy, who already had his hand on his weapon, decided he was faster than Chris Larabee. He was wrong. As he slumped to the floor, the Mexican knocked over the nearest table, and the gringo made a flying dive over the bar. Three rounds from Buck's revolver followed him as he skidded across the polished counter.
The next forty seconds were a mess of flying glass, hot lead, and wooden splinters.
From his crouched position on the dais, JD had a partial view of the Mexican behind the overturned table. As the guy let off a few rounds in Buck's direction, JD took aim at an exposed leg. He heard a scream and smiled in satisfaction. But the Mexican kept on shooting.
"Hey, Chris," Buck called. He shot off a round when the man behind the bar dared to raise his head.
"Yeah?" Larabee answered, five feet away.
"You think this is gonna be one of those days?" Buck was grinning.
Chris scowled as a bullet chipped the table next to his head, sending a spray of splinters into his hair. He slapped them away with one hand. "Never can tell," he responded. "Nathan? Whatta you think?" He fired off a couple more shots and started to reload his pistol as Buck laid cover-fire.
Nathan flashed an exasperated glance his way. "Sure wish we could see 'em coming!" He saw the man behind the table start to crawl away, and a flick of Nathan's wrist sent one of his knives deep into the wooden plank a mere inch from the shooter's hand. The hand quickly withdrew behind the table again. "I just might'a' stayed in bed."
The bullet casing clinked as it hit the hardwood floor. JD snatched it up and loaded it into his open cylinder. Both Colts were empty already. Just how long had this shooting been going on? JD only knew that he had the perfect angle to take down the Mexican behind the table, and he wasn't gonna screw it up. And he wasn't going to drop any more Goddang bullets.
Crouching on his heels, he fished another cartridge from his vest pocket and shoved it into place. He snapped the cylinder closed and looked up - just in time to see Mexican pop his head over the edge of his table and take aim at him. JD heard the blast, loud and distinct despite the other sounds in the room, and as he lost balance and tipped backwards, he imagined he could actually see the bullet flying towards his head. He landed on his back with a thud and his hat flew off.
An instant later, the Mexican's grinning head erupted and he crashed to the floor in a puddle of blood.
Wide-eyed, JD scrambled back to his crouch, scanning the room. A flash of blue caught his eye. There was Ezra at the top of the stairs, Remington drawn. JD offered an acknowledging wave and a weak smile, and Ezra's concerned look became a cheery grin.
It was over soon. JD wasn't quite sure who fired the last shot. All he remembered was the heated rush of wind over his face, the slight sting of hot metal passing by.
Startled, JD's gaze snapped up from where it had unconsciously settled on the corpse of his would-be killer. "Yeah?"
"You all right?" Buck asked. He offered a hand and pulled JD to his feet.
"I'm fine." Looking around, JD found his hat a few feet away. He stooped to pick it up. "Is it over?" He stared at the hat.
Buck paused, but JD didn't see the glance he gave Nathan. "Yeah," Buck said. "It's over."
"Good," JD said absently. His attention remained fixed on the bowler hat in his hands and the small, round hole that pierced the crown.
"Heard you had some excitement," Vin said as he entered the jail. He closed the door behind him and strode to the stove in the corner. He rubbed his hands together in front of the open flames and peered into the only occupied cell. "He all that's left?"
"Yep," Larabee replied from behind the single desk. He ground his cigarette beneath his heel, not caring that it left a small, black scorch mark on the floor. "Thought you and Nate were heading to see the Seminoles."
Vin shrugged and pulled up a simple wooden chair in front of the desk. "Figured it can wait." Pointing to the remaining slice of cornbread and fried chicken on Larabee's plate, he asked, "You gonna eat that?" Chris shook his head and Vin pulled the plate nearer.
"Any trouble on patrol?" Chris asked.
"Nope. Things are quiet." Vin ripped off a chunk of cornbread and popped it into his mouth. The food was cold but delicious. He wondered who made it.
Chris stretched his arms out behind him with a crack and a pop and then took a sip of cold coffee.
"But I got a feelin'," Vin added suddenly.
Chris paused with the mug in mid-air, then set it with a quiet thump on the desk and looked at Vin. Across the room, the fire crackled in the stove, warding off the evening chill.
"Things ain't gonna stay quiet for long." Even before he'd learned of the fight in the saloon, Vin had sensed something out there in the evening twilight. Something was building in the air. Damned if he knew what, though.
Vin scooted back his chair and picked up his rifle from where he'd set it by the door. "Thanks for the food, cowboy."
Outside, the street was full of shadows. It was still early, only six o'clock, but fall was sneaking up fast. Lanterns spilled isolated pools of light along the storefronts. The saloon was near busting, despite the earlier excitement. Or perhaps because of it.
Down the street, a flicker of candlelight seeped through the church windows, and Vin started that way. Maybe he'd buy Josiah a drink. The preacher could probably use one after his recent trip.
Before he took more than a few steps, he spotted a lone horse walking slowly up the street, towards him. Vin felt more than saw Buck slip out of the shadows behind him, and they both watched the horse approach. At first it appeared to have no rider, but a rectangle of light revealed that its rider was merely slumped over.
"Reckon you should get Nate," Vin said as he jogged towards the horse. Buck nodded and high-tailed it up the stairs to Nathan's clinic. Vin grabbed hold of the dangling reins, and the horse stopped, offering what sounded like a grateful snort.
"Good boy," a faint voice said.
Vin peered up at the rider in concern. "You okay, mister?"
The rider shifted his head slightly towards Vin. He appeared about to say something, but then he went limp and pitched sideways off his horse.
Buck arrived at that moment with Nathan a step behind, just in time to help Vin lower the unconscious stranger to the ground.
"What's wrong with him?" Vin asked, hunkering down next to them. He took the lantern Nathan offered and held it head-high.
Nathan didn't immediately answer. He pulled the stranger's hat from his head to get a better look at him. From his hat line to his shirt collar, he was beet-red. And warm. His body was overheated. "Sun stroke," he diagnosed.
"That ain't all." Buck pointed to the stranger's left leg, where the trousers just above the knee were shredded and stained a dark garnet color. "That don't look good," he said.
Nathan pulled back the material to get a better look at the bandage and nodded his agreement. "Okay," he said, "let's get him up to my place, quick."
An hour later, Nathan stepped out of his clinic onto the small deck and closed the door softly behind him. He took a deep breath of fresh air and rubbed his throat absently with one hand. Vin and Chris looked up from where they lounged at the bottom of the stairs. Buck, who had been in front of the jail talking with one of the saloon girls, excused himself with a smile. He hitched his gun belt and crossed the street.
"What's the verdict?" Chris asked, straight to the point.
Nathan leaned against the wooden railing and winced when a splinter poked his hand. "He'll be fine with some rest," he said. He pulled the splinter out and flicked the annoyance onto the street below. "He's sunburned bad, a little dehydrated. Took some buckshot in the left leg."
Vin whistled. "Damn."
"He'll live," said Nathan.
"This must be the guy our fella in the pokey was after," Buck said.
Chris nodded grimly. He'd had the same thought. "I want to talk to him," he said.
Nathan shook his head. "He's out good now. Probably will sleep solid for a few hours at least."
"I ain't seen him before," Vin mused quietly. "But if he's involved with the likes of who tore up the saloon... Maybe JD's got him on one of his wanted pictures."
"Good idea," Chris said. He glanced at Buck. "Where is JD anyway?"
Buck paused and tilted his head. A peculiar look crossed his face. "Not sure. I haven't seen him for a while." He scanned the street.
"He okay?" Nathan asked, but Buck didn't have an answer for him.
"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin', Chris?" Vin asked, a slow smile spreading on his lips.
Larabee's eyes crinkled at the corners. "That we should go talk to the prisoner again?"
"That'd be the one."
"Don't do nothin' I wouldn't do," Nathan warned. He pushed himself away from the railing and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
"Not sure we can promise that, Nathan," Vin answered with a regretful shake of his head.
Vin and Chris started off towards the jail, but then Chris stopped and swiveled on one heel. He nodded his head up at the clinic. "Did he say anything at all up there?"
Jackson nodded. "Just some ramblin' words." He thought for a second, then added, "And he said 'Capshaw'. Figured it must be a name."
Vin shrugged. "It's a start."
Chris nodded. "Let me know when he wakes up," he called.
"Sure thing, Chris," Nathan said. He watched as Vin and Chris entered the jail and Buck headed off to the saloon with a hurried step. Nathan's hand was on the doorknob when he heard a sound, and he moved back to the railing.
Near the bottom of the steps, Josiah stood quietly, partially in shadow. He appeared to be deep in thought.
"Hey, Josiah," Nate called down.
Josiah looked up, the angles of his face mingling with the evening gloom. The effect was slightly disturbing.
"You all right?" Nathan asked.
Sanchez climbed several steps, then paused. "Nate," he began slowly, "what was it your patient said?"
Nathan regarded his friend. "He mumbled some words. Hard to understand. Then he said the name Capshaw. Said it more'n once, actually."
"Can I see him?"
Nathan shrugged. "If you want, but like I told Chris, he's sleeping."
"Just want to see him, not talk to him."
A few seconds later, Josiah stood at the foot of the cot. Behind him, Nathan gathered bloody bandages and utensils and shelved unused bottles of medicine.
Neither man spoke, and Josiah used the silence to scrutinize the person in the cot. He was medium height and build, thirty or so years old, with shaggy brown hair and a nose that had been broken at least once. A thick white cream liberally covered the sunburned portions of his face and neck. Josiah had never seen him before in his life. He exhaled slowly.
"So, Josiah," Nathan began. "Haven't seen you since you got back today. You have a good trip?"
"No," Josiah said. Nathan tucked a book into an empty space on a shelf and slid a curious glance his way, but he didn't ask any more questions.
Josiah was about to leave when a sound stopped him. The unconscious man shifted a bit in his sleep and groaned an unintelligible word. "...Capshaw..." he said a second later, in a louder voice this time.
Nathan shrugged and Josiah moved back to the bed. Keeping his gaze locked onto Nathan's, Josiah leaned over the cot.
"Who is Capshaw?" Josiah asked, his voice a quiet rumble.
The man only rolled his head to one side.
"Not sure he can hear ya," Nathan warned.
"Who is Capshaw?" Josiah asked again, more firmly. A tight knot formed in his stomach.
"...Uhhh..." The man groaned again. "No... Capshaw... Gage... gotta move..."
Josiah straightened and closed his eyes. Long-forgotten images sorted through his mind, leaving him feeling slightly disoriented.
"Make any sense of it?" Jackson asked.
Josiah merely shook his head and left. On the deck, he gripped the railing until the blood fled from his knuckles. Suddenly the sky filled with sunlight. The buildings morphed around him, and another street, another town replaced the one below him.
A streak of black drew his attention to a large bird soaring lazily on the warm summer breeze. He watched as the crow settled on the roof of the building across from him. A second, slightly smaller bird flitted into view and alighted next to the first one.
He glanced down to see if the people on the street had noticed them as well, but of course they hadn't. When he looked back up, the birds were gone, the building was gone, the town was gone. He was once again in Four Corners. Cold wind bit at his hands, and Josiah shivered. Suddenly he felt like a very old man.
JD wasn't in the saloon, so Buck stepped back outside and pulled the collar of his coat up. The wind was picking up.
He was worried about JD. The kid had seemed a little dazed after the shootout earlier, though Buck had made damned sure he was physically unharmed. But it was unlike JD to miss out on all the excitement. Buck headed for the boarding house where he, Chris, and JD all rented rooms.
He'd find JD and make sure he was -
A shot cracked the air.
Buck automatically grabbed his Peacemaker and whirled around. The shot had come from the jail. As he ran past the saloon, Ezra ducked between the doors and joined him. Across the way, he saw Josiah quicken his pace.
Buck's feet slammed into the earth, but he slowed when he neared the jail. Ezra nodded at him, then skirted past to take up position by the window. Buck approached the door, tilting his head to try and see what kind of trouble Chris had cooked up now.
Larabee opened the door and strolled outside.
"Chris!" Buck exclaimed. "What the hell are you boys doin' in there?"
Seeing that no danger was immediately present, Ezra holstered his Remington with a roll of his eyes.
Larabee struck a match and lit a cigarette. "Havin' a discussion with our prisoner." He flipped the spent match into the dirt. "But he still ain't talkin'."
"Hell!" Buck spat, resetting the hammer on his firearm. "You sure know how to get a man's heart pumping!"
"Dare I ask what the gunfire was for?" Ezra asked.
"Don't think you wanna know, pard," Vin replied from the doorway.
Ezra smirked. "Did you kill him?"
Josiah walked up. "Chris," he greeted, nodding at the others. "Did he have anything useful to say?"
"Nope," Chris said, answering both questions. He grinned around the cheroot dangling from his lips and shook his head as he walked away. "But it sure was fun."
JD heard the gunshot and tensed. Knew he should go check it out. Maybe the guys needed his help. But he didn't move. Didn't leave his aisle seat on the fourth pew from the front. He listened. There were no more shots.
He let out a sigh of relief and rested his elbows on his knees. Coward, he thought.
The church was dim, quiet, and empty but for JD. Three pale yellow candles on the front altar provided a warm, flickering glow, and several lit sconces along the walls drove away the shadows. But they were still there, lingering in the corners. Waiting to prey on the fears and insecurities of all who entered this place.
He'd wanted peace. From the town, from the people. He'd found that at least. Now if he could only calm his overactive mind.
A gust of wind rattled the windows.
A puddle of blood spread out from behind an overturned table.
JD flinched and shut his eyes.
That could have been him, could've been his brain splattered all over the saloon floor.
His stomach lurched at the thought.
Why couldn't his hands stop shaking? He stared at them, then raised his head and looked around. Why had he even come here? What was he expecting to find?
He answered his own question. He needed to talk to the preacher. He needed to explain to someone... Explain what?
JD ran a hand through his dark hair. He needed to explain to someone that he had almost died today. And that he was terrified.
But he didn't quite know how.
In a corner of the jail near the desk, a soot-covered lamp sat on a small cupboard. Across the room, the stove emitted a mild glow. Rusty springs cried out as the heavy man with the tobacco-stained mustache shifted on his cot.
"You'll be dead by morning," the man said. The left half of his face was swollen and purple from Nathan's powerful punch. The brick wall just above his head was pitted where Larabee's bullet had ricocheted.
"That a fact?" Vin answered. He continued flipping through the stack of posters JD kept in the bottom desk drawer. There were nearly thirty posters, and Vin studied each one carefully. So far he had not found one belonging to the mysterious wounded rider.
"I know he's here," the man continued. "I seen him through the window."
Vin set another page aside. "Glad to hear it," he said. "Shut up."
The man laughed. "I'm just telling ya. You're all in for a shitload of trouble."
"From who?" Vin said, looking up now. "Capshaw?" He was only taunting, but a sudden unease settled in the pit of his stomach.
The man simply looked away, dismissing the conversation.
Vin shook his head and returned to the posters. He scanned a few more, then stopped. Looks like we finally got a name for ya, mister. The grizzled face that stared back at him from the paper belonged to the reticent man in Four Corners' very own jail cell.
A tap on the window brought Vin's head up. It was Ezra. He gestured for Vin to come outside.
"What's up, Ez?" he asked, hunching his shoulders against the chill.
Standish held out a mug of steaming coffee, and Vin accepted it with grateful surprise.
"If you're tired, I'll take over watching our friend in there," Ezra offered, glancing in the window as he spoke. The prisoner hadn't moved.
Vin nodded. "Thanks, but I'm okay. I think I'll stick around."
Ezra raised one Southern eyebrow. "It can't be the stimulating conversation..."
Vin laughed. "Naw." He paused. "But if he ain't involved with this Capshaw, I'll eat my hat."
Ezra did a double take. "Capshaw?"
"Yeah," Vin said. It hadn't occurred to him that Ezra might not have heard that name until now. "Ring a bell?"
Ezra rubbed the back of his neck. "Indeed. If he is the same man I am thinkin' about, and judgin' from today's occurrences I highly suspect he is, then Gage Capshaw is a... well, how shall I put it... the craziest son of a bitch this side of the Mississippi." He wasn't joking. Ezra licked his bottom lip, shook his head. "He is a complete sociopath. The last I heard the man was wreaking havoc down near the border."
"You ever run into him?" Vin asked.
"Once." Seeing Vin's curious glance, Ezra shrugged and looked away. He chuckled. "It looks like Mr. Larabee has been detained."
Vin craned his head to see what he was looking at. Further down the street, in front of the newspaper office, Mary Travis had Larabee cornered. She held a pad of paper in one hand and a pencil in the other.
"Enquirin' minds want to know," Ezra added, and Vin stifled a grin.
Tanner opened his mouth to offer a joke at Larabee's expense, but he never got the chance. A deep boom came from within the jail, followed almost immediately by a larger blast. The large front window exploded. Ezra and Vin dove instinctively to the street amidst a shower of glass.
A woman screamed. People started shouting.
Vin rolled onto his side and blinked in amazement at the jail. The door and windows were gone. Half the roof had started to cave in. The buckling frame was burning rapidly. Shit! he thought. Something warm trickled down his cheek and he frowned. "Ezra, you okay?"
Standish pushed himself into a sitting position as Chris and half the town ran up.
"Get that fire put out!" Chris yelled, and several townspeople ran to obey the order. Chris leaned down. "You two okay?"
"That depends on your definition," Ezra responded dourly. He climbed to his feet, brushing glass from his hair and clothing.
"We're fine," Vin said. A thought struck him, and he took two quick steps towards the burning jail before stopping. "Shit! Randall!"
"Who?" Chris asked.
"The prisoner! Davis Randall."
Nearby, Josiah and Nathan were leading the bucket brigade. Even Mary was helping. Her long blonde hair escaped its bun in wind-blown tendrils. The night was filled with chaos as people shouted questions and orders and struggled to put out the fire before it spread to neighboring buildings.
"What happened?" Buck ran up, staring at the growing blaze.
"The jail blew up," Chris said. Wilmington gave him a 'no shit' look.
The sound of rapid hoof beats reached their ears. Two dark horses raced down the street, heading straight out of town. Vin drew his Mare's Leg, but the targets were quickly out of sight. He headed for the livery at a dead run, slapping Ezra on the back as he passed him. "Let's go!"
Larabee started after them when he heard JD yell. He stopped and turned back. He didn't know where the kid had come from, but JD grabbed a bucket from a passing woman and ran toward the grain store. Part of the roof nearest the jail had ignited. Chris debated his next course of action for one and a half seconds, then ran to help JD. Vin and Ezra could handle themselves.
"JD!" Buck called, trotting up to the young man. He grabbed the empty bucket from JD's hand and tossed it aside. The fire had finally been extinguished, with minimal damage to the grain store. The jail was another story. "Where've you been? I was looking for ya."
JD pushed the hair out of his eyes. "I've been around," he said.
Around them, people drifted away from the jail, going back to their homes. It was getting on close to nine o'clock, and it had been an eventful day. Those who had fought the fire were tired, and many were covered in soot. Inspection of the jail's structural damage would wait 'til morning.
"Could'a' fooled me," Buck retorted. He placed a hand on JD's shoulder and steered him towards the saloon. He dipped his head to get a look at JD's face. "You all right, JD? About today, I mean."
An irritated roll of the eyes accompanied a half-shrug that loosened the hand from JD's shoulder. "I'm fine, Buck," he said flatly. He stopped at the hitching post in front of the saloon, where a large appaloosa was tethered. The horse huffed in pleasure when JD stroked its shoulder.
Buck remained quiet for a moment, regarding his young friend. JD avoided his stare.
"That was good work you did with the fire," Buck finally said, leaning against a support post. All he got was an absent nod. All right, enough is enough. Buck clapped his hands together loudly. "Okay, you know what you need, kid?"
JD half-turned his head, but his profile was still hidden by loose hair. He was listening, at least, and Buck took that as an encouraging sign. "First of all, you need to get cleaned up, get the smell of smoke off of ya. Then, we'll get ya some dinner, a beer or two. I bet Miss Daisy would sit with you for company..."
But JD was already shaking his head long before Buck even got around to Miss Daisy. "No, Buck," he said. He rubbed his cheek. "Thanks but... no thanks." JD gave the horse one last pat and walked off.
Buck watched him go, wishing he knew what was eating at the kid.
Hidden by a light sheet of clouds, the quarter moon just barely illuminated the landscape so that the trees were dark shapes against an even darker backdrop. But it was enough.
Panic and burning buildings were now roughly three miles behind Vin and Ezra. There was only the steady beat of hooves, the creak of the saddle, and the occasional jangle of rigging.
Urging Chaucer onwards, Ezra still managed to unscrew the top of his canteen and wet a handkerchief. Taking care to watch the terrain for any surprises, he carefully dabbed at the specks of blood on his hands and face. Thankfully, his heavy coat had protected him from most of the flying glass, but the few small cuts he'd obtained had been irritating him for the past half hour.
Ezra Standish, what on earth were you thinking? he scolded himself. Since when did he jump at the chance of chasing down common thugs in the dark without a second thought? He cast a glance to his right where Vin and Peso kept pace and decided his insanity was most definitely a result of the company he kept.
Vin winked at him. "Purty night, ain't it?"
Ezra chuckled. "Exquisite." He stuffed the handkerchief in a pocket and secured the canteen. Up ahead, he imagined he saw a cloud of dust that could only be Randall and his accomplice. He pulled his hat down a smidge lower despite the fact that there was no sun, and leaned forward. Chaucer immediately lengthened his stride. Let them run, he thought as the ground sped by beneath him.
Whiskey was a wonderful invention, Josiah mused. It had been his friend for more years than he cared to admit. A burning comfort. A constant in a changing world. Sometimes he could do without it. Sometimes he desperately needed that familiar stability. Now was one of those times. His world was once again falling down around him, and he was helpless to stop it.
"Hey, Josiah," Buck greeted. He clapped Josiah on the back and glanced at the half-empty bottle on the table. "Ah! Just the thing for a hard day's work." He wrinkled his mustache into a smile and moved off to the bar.
By the time Josiah worked up a smile for his friend, Buck was already gone. He poured a drink, listening as the eighty-proof hit the bottom of the glass. The aroma reached his nose, and he closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, he caught his reflection in the sloshing liquid and stared thoughtfully at himself. The whiskey seemed to draw him in, deeper and deeper into its depths. His lined face was replaced by the image of a narrow, dusty street in a tiny little border town...
In the early days, Muerto Bajada claimed a population of over two hundred and fifty people. In the years after the War Between the States, however, that number dwindled to a constantly shifting eighty or ninety. Situated just north of the Rio Grande, it had been settled by Mexican deserters in the early '50s. Now it was a small, safe place for those who didn't want to be found.
The sun beat comfortably on Josiah's bare shoulders as he walked down the side of the quiet street. The day was so warm he wore only a simple undershirt tucked into loose pants. A wide sombrero shaded his eyes.
"Seņor," a woman called out as he passed. She carried a basket full of small, round loaves of bread. Her quick black eyes met his and she indicated the basket.
They were freshly baked. The smell made his mouth water. He held up three fingers. "Tres." She wrapped the loaves in a piece of thin paper, and he handed her a coin. "Gracias, seņora."
He cut through an alley and emerged on the next street over. The door to the tack shop was open, letting the hot air out and the flies in. On the porch sat a man Josiah's age in a rickety wooden chair. He was mending a harness.
"Hard at work as always," Josiah said by way of greeting, climbing up onto the deep veranda.
The man looked up and smiled. He was missing two front teeth. "Josiah!" he set aside the harness and stood, reaching out to pull Sanchez into a brief hug. "Good to see you, padre. When did you get back?" He sat back down and gestured for Josiah to take the only other chair.
Josiah hid a grin at the nickname. He'd known Forrest going on six years and hadn't been able to break him of the habit, no matter how many times he insisted he was no longer a priest. "Early this morning," he answered. He held up his purchase. "I brought food."
Forrest smiled and accepted one of the loaves. "Always welcome around here."
"How are things?" Josiah asked.
There was a slight pause, and then Forrest said, "Good. The shop keeps food in our bellies and a roof over our heads." He raised his dark eyebrows. "Have you found God yet?"
"Not yet," Josiah grinned.
"Where did you go?"
"Down south for a while. Then came back and took a trip around the desert." Josiah bit into his bread and leaned back in his chair. Two young women passed by with baskets of laundry on their hips. The ring of the blacksmith's hammer chimed nearby.
"You are a strange one, Josiah Sanchez."
A gentle breeze brushed against Josiah's face and he sighed. He'd missed this place. He enjoyed the slow, rhythmic life here. Nothing much ever happened, and that was okay. But he knew he could never stay. He was a man in search of something, and not much could be found sitting on a porch all day long sharing small talk, not even with a good friend.
"Gage will be glad to see you," Forrest said. His nimble fingers replaced a ruined buckle on the harness in his lap.
"How is the boy?" Josiah let his eyes drift closed.
"He is growing fast." Forrest paused again. "He misses his mother."
Josiah heard the melancholy note in his friend's voice and opened his eyes. Forrest's hands had stilled. He stared out at the street, at nothing. It had been almost two years since Julia's death.
"And you?" Josiah asked quietly.
Forrest finally looked at him. "It is good that you're here." He returned to his task.
At that moment, a wiry young boy of twelve ran up. He had his mother's blonde hair and fair skin, but his father's brown eyes. "Josiah!" the boy called, and Josiah found himself on the receiving end of another hug.
Josiah clapped Gage on the shoulder. He smiled. "Good to see you again, kiddo. Hey, let me get a look at you. You're almost a man."
Gage stood up tall and smiled proudly. He'd grown a lot in the four months Josiah had been gone.
Forrest watched them with a lopsided smile.
"Come on, Josiah," the boy said, gesturing excitedly. "Me and Ricky have been practicing with Dad's old six shooter. Come watch! I can hit a can from nearly twenty yards."
Josiah allowed himself to be pulled from the chair and led down the street. He waved a see-you-later hand to Forrest, but his friend had vacated his seat and was entering the shop.
It was the last time he saw Forrest alive.
Josiah blinked and the past disappeared. The whiskey once again mirrored only his pained face. He drained the glass and scrubbed both hands over his face, wiping away the last remnants of Muerto Bajada.
"Chris," he heard Nathan say.
Josiah turned. He hadn't even noticed Nathan enter the saloon.
Larabee looked up from his place at the bar as Nathan slipped between the tables.
"He's awake," Nathan said.
Larabee set down his beer. With a suppressed sigh, he pushed himself away from the counter and said, "Well, then let's go have a chat with him."
Nathan nodded and they left.
Josiah pondered the bottle of booze in front of him. Sometimes he desperately needed its comforting burn. And sometimes it showed him things he didn't want to see. He scooted back his chair and followed Chris and Nathan.
"What's your name?" Larabee asked. He had pulled the chair away from Nathan's desk, turning it around so he could sit with one arm draped over the back.
The man in the bed wore a large blue flannel shirt that Chris presumed belonged to Nate. He glanced warily from Nathan to Josiah to Chris. He accepted the glass of water Nathan handed him but didn't say anything.
"Okay," Chris said, jaw tightening a notch. "I'll go first. I'm Chris Larabee. That there is Nathan Jackson. He's the one who patched you up. And this is Josiah Sanchez."
The man's pale blue eyes flitted towards the door, then snapped back to Chris. "You the sheriff?" he rasped.
"Something like that. We all take care of things around here."
Chris and the stranger silently regarded one another for a moment, then Larabee leaned forward slightly and said, "We've had some trouble here on your account. Two of my men could've been killed, so I'd appreciate some talkin'"
"How do you know Capshaw?" Josiah asked from his sentry near the door. "Are you involved with him and his doings?"
"No," the man said a little too quickly.
"You're in some kind of trouble," Nathan said. He reclaimed the water glass and set it on a nearby table. "That much is obvious."
"Why are you running?" Chris asked curtly. His patience was wearing thin.
"My name's Blake, Cam Blake," the man said. "Capshaw's been chasing me since Sommersby, but I swear to God, I don't know why." He saw the plain look of disbelief on Chris' face and hurriedly added, "Honest. I mean, I ran into him at a bar down in Sommersby. I was a little drunk. I said something or other, and the next thing I know I barely get out of there alive." He searched their faces for understanding.
"That's it?" Josiah demanded.
Blake nodded. "All I know is that Capshaw is one crazy bastard, and he'll kill me when he finds me. In fact..." He started to pull the blanket aside. "...I think I should be going."
"Oh, no you don't," Nathan said, his head jerking up. Josiah took a step nearer the door and folded his arms warningly.
"Don't think it'll do ya much good to leave," Chris reasoned. "You won't get far the shape you're in, and Capshaw's already on his way, or will be soon."
"What?" Blake said. He glanced quickly at the door and nervously blinked a few times. "He knows I'm here?"
Chris simply nodded, watching Blake's burned forehead wrinkle painfully as the man debated his options.
"I haven't done anything wrong," Blake finally said, a dejected tone in his voice
Chris leaned forward, waiting for more.
Blake swung his legs over the edge of the bed, finding himself in his short drawers. He didn't seem inclined to get up, just braced himself on the mattress with one hand and examined the clean bandage around his left leg with the other.
"Don't touch that," Nathan ordered.
"And you don't remember what it is that's got Capshaw so riled," Josiah stated. He stared at Blake intently.
Chris glanced over his shoulder, curious at the strained tone in Josiah's voice.
Blake shrugged and dropped his gaze to the floor.
"That how you got shot?" Nathan asked, redirecting the conversation.
Blake nodded. "Thought I'd lost 'em up in Sweetwater, but they caught up with me again last night." He gingerly touched his face, winced at the contact.
There was a moment of silence. Outside, all was still. The town was asleep, except for a few night owls at the saloon, the peacekeepers, and the wind.
"Should we go after Vin and Ezra?" Nathan asked. "They could be headed for some trouble."
Chris shook his head and stood up. "It ain't Vin and Ezra I'm worried about," he said, thinking of the town. He looked at Blake's slouched form; the man had listed forward slightly. "How many you figure Capshaw's got with him?" he asked.
Blake didn't answer. Suddenly he tilted forward even more.
"Whoa there!" Nathan exclaimed, catching him before he crashed headfirst into the floor. He bent to look at Blake's face, then shook his head. "He's out."
Chris rubbed the back of his neck, then returned Nathan's chair to its proper place. "We'll keep watch tonight." He glanced at Josiah and Nathan. "You two get some sleep. I'll go find Buck and JD and fill 'em in. I'll take the first watch." Before he left, he cast one more fleeting look at Blake. "If you can get any more information out of him, come find me. I'll be awake."
A blast of cold air rushed in when Chris opened the door, filling all corners of the small room. On the street, he tilted his head back to view the stars. Wispy clouds shifted rapidly in front of the constellations, and patches of stars were visible and then gone within seconds. The faint blue light touched the ground and buildings in a strangely rhythmic pattern.
Chris shook his head and, ignoring the cold, set off down the street.
Passing by the dark mercantile, JD heard Mrs. Potter's antique clock announce the hour. He absently counted the chimes as he hooked his thumbs over the edge of his gun belt and scanned the street. The last chime faded. Midnight.
The persistent wind had cleared away much of the smoke, but even this far from the jail, JD smelled charred lumber. He stepped down into the street and shook his head, damp hair clinging to his neck. The jail would have to be rebuilt.
He'd heard the explosion from his pew in the church. Had closed his eyes and willed his legs to move. The whole time he'd worked with the others to put out the fire, his mind had been blank. He didn't think, he only acted.
He'd done exactly what Buck had said time and again would get him killed.
Reminded of Buck, JD glanced around but didn't see him. Of course not, he told himself briskly. He's on the other side of town.
The saloon was still open and still colored the boardwalk and street with light. But the noise had dimmed. After the immediate excitement and noise of the explosion, people seemed to realize it would be wiser and safer to stay low tonight.
A noise behind JD made him flinch. His right pistol was nearly out of its holster before he realized it was only Buck.
"Whoa there, son," Buck said, surprised, his hands held up with palms out.
The Colt dropped from JD's limp fingers back into its holster. "Jeez, Buck!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing sneaking around over here?"
Buck gave him a funny look. "Wasn't exactly sneaking around, JD." He gestured towards the saloon. "Was just going to get some coffee before heading on back. Kinda skittish tonight, ain't ya?"
JD scowled. "No," he said. He noticed he had his hands on his hips in a decidedly defensive stance, and he consciously let them drop.
Buck shrugged as if it didn't matter. He stared over JD's head at the dark horizon. "S'okay. I think we're all a little bit on edge tonight." He looked at JD again. "Doin' all right?"
"Yep," JD said with forced brightness, "not a peep until you showed up."
"Right." Buck nodded. "You know where to find me if you need me."
JD watched Buck disappear through the swinging saloon doors, tempted to call him back. Instead, he turned and walked away. Buck wouldn't understand. He was always so bold, ready to jump into a brawl or a gunfight for the heck of it. Never gave a second thought to strapping on his piece to help a friend.
How could JD explain to him that he wasn't sure he was cut out for this type of life, this type of adventure? That he wasn't sure he wanted it anymore...
No, Buck wouldn't understand.
"Well, lookie here," Vin said, pulling on the reins to stop his horse.
"Most interestin'," Ezra agreed.
They had followed Randall's trail diligently west for the past fifteen miles. Now the landscape that had been flat and barren only a short while back gently sloped into hills and small cliffs. Trees and prickly pear interrupted stretches of gleaming yellow grass.
Just up ahead, the land sloped steeply downwards. On either side of the depression, two rocky buttes rose eighty feet or more into the night. Their unique structures spoke of a violent birth. At one point they might have been part of the same formation, but time, earthquakes, and ancient rivers had separated the two like matching puzzle pieces. The resulting canyon was fifty or sixty feet wide and perhaps three hundred yards long. The far ends of the buttes tapered off once more into low hills scattered with Joshua trees.
It was an unusual landmark, one that Vin was familiar with. Even during the day, riders who passed through the canyon put themselves in a dangerously vulnerable position. Only idiots and greenhorns rode through it at night.
Randall's tracks and those of his accomplice appeared to lead directly into the dark canyon mouth.
Vin and Ezra glanced at each other. Vin shrugged.
"Well," Ezra drawled, "it appears they wish us to follow them into the canyon." Chaucer shifted beneath him, and he patted the horse on the neck.
"Yup," Vin said.
"Obviously, that is not a wise course of action."
"Care to share your thoughts on the matter?"
Vin nudged his horse into a walk and Ezra did the same. They approached the canyon cautiously, stopping a safe distance away. Searching first the ground, then the cliff tops, Vin said, "They'd have to be ten kinds of stupid to actually go in there. It'd be black as pitch. Dangerous as hell."
"Exactly the reason they want us to enter," Ezra said.
Vin nodded. "They probably doubled back and wiped their tracks." He withdrew his scope and carefully scanned the tops of the cliff once more. Other than the sway of wind-bent branches, nothing stirred.
"Their ruse can only mean one thing," Ezra mused. "They're somewhere on the top, waiting for us."
"Probably with a rifle or two," Vin added.
"The question is, which side?"
In the distance, a coyote howled.
The horses snorted nervously.
Vin stowed his scope and looked at Ezra. "We'll have to each take a side. If we both went and took the wrong one, hell, we'd be sittin' ducks for them to pick off." In the darkness, he saw Ezra nod his head slowly. Wrapping the worn leather reins around one hand, Vin tilted his head. "Ready for some excitement, pard?"
"You'd think tonight's events would have satiated me," Ezra said thoughtfully, a rakish grin barely visible in the gloom, "but no." He wheeled Chaucer to the right, galloping up the sloping land to the top of the right-hand canyon wall.
Vin urged Peso to the left in a flat out run, a curtain of silvery dust falling gently behind him.
Josiah felt the weight of all his years as he pushed himself to his feet and heard his back pop and his knees creak. He was feeling the effects of his recent trip to Vista City. Crossing to the small stand by the church's only stained glass window, he extinguished with a single breath a half-dozen votives that had been lit earlier by persons unknown.
Bathed in darkness, he moved to the little room at the back of the church and sank into the cot with its lumpy pillow and soft patchwork quilt.
Sleep wouldn't come. He and Nate would take watch in three hours, and he needed the rest, but his mind wouldn't shut down. He stared at the ceiling he couldn't see and thought about Muerto Bajada.
"Stay, Josiah," Forrest's son begged. "Please." The boy was close to tears but stubbornly held them back as he faced his father's friend.
Josiah glanced across the street at the empty tack shop and closed his eyes briefly. The movements of shadows through his eyelids were too similar to those made by Forrest's feet dangling two feet off the floor.
"I'm sorry, Gage," he said, opening his eyes again to the harsh morning sun. "I can't stay." He swallowed the lump in his throat, but it caught in his chest. "Mrs. Morgan will take good care of you. Better than I ever could." Josiah glanced at Georgia Morgan, the mother of Gage's best friend. She nodded reassuringly and placed a comforting arm around Gage's shoulders.
Gage's pale hair fell over his forehead as he took a step away from Mrs. Morgan. "But I want you!" he insisted.
Similar words had been exchanged all morning as Josiah gathered his few belongings and loaded his horse. In another life, Josiah would willingly have settled down and raised his friend's son. He loved the boy and in fact had always felt much like a wandering uncle.
But... he couldn't stay.
"Gage..." Josiah began, kneeling down so he could look him in the eyes. He placed his hands on the boy's lean shoulders. "It wouldn't be right for you or me. A man's got to lay his demons to rest before he can live any sort of decent life." He paused. "Do you understand?"
Any tears were now gone from Gage's eyes. He stared at Josiah and said, "Pa would have wanted you to stay."
The words punched Josiah in the gut. Gage was right. Forrest had probably waited until Josiah returned from his latest travels before doing what he did. So his son would have someone to look after him.
The sun was suddenly too hot, too bright as Josiah stood and turned away. I know, he thought. "You mind Mrs. Morgan, now." No promises that he'd visit soon, that he'd come back and take Gage out of this dead little town. Just a quick wave goodbye, and then Josiah rode away under the watchful gaze of a lost little boy.
Listening to the building settle around him, Josiah wondered if Muerto Bajada still existed. He'd been back only once, ten or eleven years ago. Gage had been sixteen and long gone, out to lay his own demons to rest.
Josiah sighed and pulled the quilt a little closer.
Fourteen, his brain reminded him. Gage Capshaw had killed fourteen people. One woman and thirteen men. Some of them had probably deserved it. Most of them probably hadn't.
Josiah Sanchez regretted a lot of things in his life. Leaving Gage alone in Muerto Bajada was near the top of his list. If I'd stayed, he thought, repeating words he'd often told himself, he'd never have done the things he's done.
Thinking of dead friends, dead towns, and dead dreams, he fell into an uneasy doze.
Twenty or thirty feet from the edge of the cliff, Ezra wove his way through a clump of tall pine trees. He kept Chaucer at a slow, careful walk, wincing at each creak of the saddle or crunch of dried pine needles. He leaned low over Chaucer's neck, one hand holding the reins and the other his revolver.
The scant moonlight couldn't penetrate the trees, and he squeezed his eyes shut briefly to relieve the strain of peering into the blackness. So far, he'd seen no unusual shadows, heard no unusual noises, but Ezra was not comforted. It only meant that Randall and his unknown friend were still somewhere up ahead, lurking, waiting. Any moment, he expected to hear a burst of gunfire from across the canyon. Then what would he do?
Lord, he could have used a drink right about then, but that would require releasing either the gun or the reins. He shook his head. Such a distraction would only get him killed.
A quick snapping sound, too close to have drifted across the canyon but too far away to have been caused by Chaucer, made Ezra jerk to a stop, shoulders tensed, eyes scanning the trees.
A slash of movement to his left, and Ezra kicked free of the stirrups and dove to the right. He heard a shot crack the silence as he hit the ground and rolled toward a small group of bushes gathered near the trunk of a large pine. He lay on his belly on a bed of pine needles and, poking the barrel of his Remington between a tangle of low branches, fired a shot at the place he'd seen movement. Chaucer took off for safer ground, leaving open air between Ezra's bushes and the shooter.
Another bullet burned a path through the air somewhere off to Ezra's left, and he aimed at the originating spark. He managed hope for a few seconds that the bushes might hide his Remington's igniting flash of powder, but the hope was discarded when the next shot came markedly closer to his camouflage.
After another few shots, Ezra could tell that the shooter was moving slightly closer, but not much. Randall or his friend, whoever it was, stayed hidden among the trees. Where was the other man? Ezra tried to listen and scan his surroundings, but the shooter was being persistent and forced Ezra to pay attention.
Suddenly, the retort of another gun filled the air. Vin's rifle. Ezra grinned.
He saw the shape of a man dart from behind one tree to another, no doubt surprised by the new addition to the battle. A spark flared as the shooter returned Vin's hello. Ezra's grin hardened as he gently pushed aside a branch in order to allow a full and accurate discharge of his last bullet. "I've got you now," he whispered. His shot pierced the shadows hiding his opponent, but there was no answering shout or curse, just the continued blasts of Vin's rifle and the hidden man's pistol.
"Damnit!" he muttered, rolling over onto his side to grab his Colt and some extra ammunition for the Remington. His hand froze and he found himself staring up at a looming black shadow not four feet away.
"This here thing's pointed at yer head, so I'd take it nice and easy if I was you," said a low, gravelly voice.
Wonderful, Ezra thought. His eyes flickered left and right as he gently tossed the spent revolver aside. The pine tree two feet to his right effectively blocked any movements in that direction, and if he broke left, he would surely be shot. Recognizing his severely limited options, he looked again at the man with the gun and slowly raised his hands in the air.
Thanks to a dose of laudanum administered by Nathan Jackson before he'd gone off to bed, the pain in Cam's leg had been reduced to a fairly dull throbbing, one which he was able to relegate to the back of his mind. Focusing on other things, Cam drummed his fingers against his chest and stared at the ceiling.
The stairs would be a problem, he decided.
Cam rolled his head to one side and listened intently. There was no sound from the adjacent room where Jackson slept. This was his best chance, with the town asleep and the laudanum keeping the pain at bay. He pulled back the sheet and slowly stood up, testing his balance. He could stand all right, but...
There. By the desk. Cam hobbled over to where a smooth walking stick leaned against the wall. Jackson wouldn't mind if he borrowed it for a little while.
Pausing to listen for any sounds of movement, Cam breathed a sigh of relief and picked up his blood-encrusted trousers from where they'd been draped over a chair. He dressed as quickly as he could. Collecting his hat and his gun, he started for the door, managing the few feet without the walking stick for fear the sound of it against the floor would give him away.
If what Larabee had said was true, then Capshaw knew where he was. Depending how far away he'd camped, he could arrive in town as early as tomorrow. Cam shivered. Hopefully, he'd be far away by then.
Descending the stairs was worse than he'd thought. Bending his left knee to settle his foot on the step below sent his muscles screaming and seemed to tear at the wound. He immediately straightened his leg again. With the aid of the walking stick, he managed to hop from step to step on his good leg, gripping the railing tightly for support.
Cam finally reached the ground and was immensely relieved to find the livery right in front of him. Thank God for small favors, he thought. Glancing around at the deserted street, he lurched his way into the dark livery. A lantern hanging from a hook on a far wall cast just enough light to distinguish the forms of seven or eight horses snoozing in their stalls.
Having no clue which stall Junior occupied, and hoping that this was the only livery in town, Cam made his way down the aisle, peering into each pen. At the second to last on the right hand side, he found his horse.
"Hey, there, fella," Cam whispered.
Junior's head came up, white face gleaming in the darkness. His ears perked in recognition.
Cam eased into the pen, closing the gate behind him. He continued whispering reassuring words to his curious horse as he felt along the walls with one hand. The walking stick bumped into something heavy on the ground in a back corner. Space was limited, and bending at the knees was definitely not going to work. Cam braced a hand on one wall and leaned forward from the waist. Leather met fingertips, and he grunted when the weight of his saddlebags nearly toppled his precarious balance.
Setting aside the walking stick for a moment, Cam leaned heavily against the wall and regarded Junior for a moment. The gelding seemed completely content to stay in his warm, cozy stall and munch on the pile of hay someone had given him. He'd had a hard few weeks.
Know how you feel, Cam thought. That bed upstairs in Jackson's clinic was looking a whole lot more inviting right now.
Shaking his head, Cam said, "We can't stay."
Junior ignored him.
We can't stay, Cam repeated silently, firmly. Reaching his free hand into one of the leather bags, Cam bit his lip at the sudden thought that somebody might have searched them. When he found what he was looking for, however, some of the tension melted away.
A couple of minutes later, Cam had located his saddle on a rack and was about to take a chance and hoist it onto his shoulders when he heard a voice from behind.
The saddle slipped from Cam's grasp and tumbled to the floor. Cam spun around the best he could.
Nathan Jackson leaned against one side of the main entrance, his face partially illuminated by the light from the street.
"Um... no," Cam said lamely. He shrugged and moved one hand casually behind his back, as if scratching an itch. His fingers searched for the heavy wooden walking stick he had set against the nearby wall.
"So you run. Then what?" Jackson asked, shoving away from the doorway and walking closer. "Bleed to death? You're in no condition to ride."
Cam smiled sheepishly. Behind him, his fingers continued to search, straining as far as they could without the movements becoming suspicious. "Kinda stupid, huh? Guess I wasn't thinking," he said. With a wry chuckle, he nudged his saddle with the toe of one boot. "Think you can help me get this back up there?" His fingers closed around the walking stick.
Jackson's posture relaxed, and he smiled. "No problem."
As Jackson bent down and grabbed the saddle, Cam lunged forward and swung the thick, wooden stick down on top of Jackson's head. With a dull thud and a sick groan, the healer slumped unconscious over the saddle.
"Sorry, Doc," Cam whispered. Damn, he really didn't want to do that... He rolled Jackson onto his back, grateful to see the man was still breathing, and then somehow managed to get the saddle in his arms. Saddling and loading Junior was a painful chore, but fear of being caught made Cam hurry.
"Shhh," Cam whispered as he led Junior out into the empty street. In a matter of seconds, he was in the saddle and on his way out of town.
When JD came to wake Josiah, he was already dressed. His attempts at sleep had only been plagued with dreams of Forrest and Gage Capshaw. Josiah shuddered when he remembered the condemnation he'd seen in their ghost-like eyes.
"Any news?" Josiah asked, focusing on the present.
"Nope," JD said. "Chris headed off for some sleep. Buck's going to wake up Nathan."
Josiah nodded as he buckled his gun belt. He glanced at JD in the light of two lanterns and noticed how tired the boy looked. "What about you?" he asked.
JD forced a chuckle and shook his head. "Nah, I couldn't sleep." He turned away and was about to leave when he hesitated. He seemed indecisive for a moment, biting his bottom lip. Then he said, "Can I ask you a question, Josiah?"
Josiah pulled on his coat and started fumbling with the buttons. "You can ask," he said.
"How..." JD paused a moment, then continued with determined force. "How did you decide to be a preacher?"
Josiah looked hard at JD. The kid stared calmly back at him, but there was something hidden in his expression... Josiah squinted in the dim light. Was it desperation?
"I've often asked myself that question," Josiah began, slowly forming his response. He motioned to the nearest pew, and JD sat down. His dark eyes never left Josiah's face.
"I think that part of it was my father's influence. I'd learned so much about theology just by being his son. It seemed the natural thing to do." He looked through his folded hands and into the past. "But something in me... something that was all me, only me... had to know, had to believe... that there was a meaning to be found. I wanted to see if I could really believe in God."
"And did you?" JD asked.
"Yes I did," Josiah answered. He had believed. And then he had stopped believing.
JD seemed to ponder his words for a moment, and then nodded and stood up to leave. At the door, he looked back. "Thanks, Josiah," he said, a serious mask covering his usual smile as he stepped out into the night.
Replaying the conversation in his head, Josiah walked down the street toward Jackson's clinic, wondering at the purpose for JD's question, wondering if his answer had helped him. He stopped when he saw a hurried Buck Wilmington throw open the door to the clinic and come charging down the stairs.
"They're gone," Buck said when he saw Josiah.
"Gone?" Josiah shook his head. "Who's gone?"
"Blake and Nathan."
Josiah scanned the street and boardwalks. He opened his mouth to speak when a sound from the livery beneath the clinic snapped his head around. "Did you hear that?" he asked.
Buck was already moving. He was only a few feet away when Nathan staggered into view and grabbed hold of the doorway with one hand.
"Nathan!" Josiah exclaimed, running forward.
Buck reached him first, shoving a shoulder under Nathan's armpit and pulling his arm around his neck to keep Nathan's knees from buckling. "What happened?" Buck asked.
"It was Blake. I found him saddling his horse, and he knocked me out." Nathan's free hand was clamped against the back of his skull.
"That's gratitude for you," Buck muttered.
"Are you all right, Nathan?" Josiah asked.
With Buck's support, Nathan took a short step on wobbly legs and said, "Yeah... I think so." He peered at them. "Anyone know how long I was out?"
Josiah shook his head. "I was just comin' out to take watch."
"An hour, then, I guess," Nathan mumbled. He suddenly sagged against Buck, who tightened his grip on Nathan's arm. "Kinda dizzy right now. You think you two could help me upstairs?"
As they climbed the stairs, Nathan added, "That Blake ain't goin' to get far. He probably ain't got much water, and he's likely to tear out all his stitches."
"He deserves what he gets," Buck grunted as he angled Nathan through the door.
Lingering a step behind, Josiah wasn't so sure. He wasn't completely sold on Cam Blake's story, but he couldn't simply dismiss it, either. He had no trouble believing that Gage would hunt down someone over a few drunken words. With a sad sigh, Josiah leaned against the balcony for a moment, then descended to the street and headed for the boarding house. Time to wake up Larabee.
The crunch of pine needles announced Randall's arrival. "I got him," he stated, holding his firearm loosely in one hand.
Ezra stared at Randall as if he'd spoken in a foreign language. Got him? Vin... A hot rush of anger nearly choked him. He was half an inch off the ground before the man holding the gun jerked it back into aim and shook his head warningly.
"You sure?" the man asked. He'd allowed Standish to move to a sitting position with his back against the tree trunk, but that was all.
Ezra sank back to the ground and grappled for control over his emotions. He dug his fingers into the loose soil beneath him, balling them into fists.
"Damnit, I said I got him, Walt," snapped Randall. "Took damn long enough." He gestured at Ezra. "What're you waitin' for, shoot him already."
Ezra drew a deep breath of pine-scented air. Walt had taken his weapons, including his derringer, and both men outweighed him by at least forty pounds. There would be no fighting his way out of this.
Walt's gun steadied at a point between Ezra's eyes. Then he hesitated and looked over at Randall. "You think we should?" He saw Randall's scowl and hurriedly added, "I mean, you think the boss would want us to?"
Aha! Ezra latched onto Walt's uncertainty. "Pardon me, gentlemen," he said, drawing one knee up to support an elbow. He pretended to inspect a scratch on the back of his hand. "I hardly think your... boss... would want you killin' somebody who is in a position to help him."
"Yeah, and what can you do?" Randall snorted.
Ezra raised his eyebrows. "Why, get him Blake, of course."
"What do you think, Davis?" Walt asked. It was obvious that Randall was in charge here.
Randall scratched his mustache for half a minute or so, then spat a stream off to one side. He stared at Ezra. "All right," he finally said. "We'll take him back to camp. If the boss wants him dead, well, we can do it just as easily there."
"Oh, I think he'll want to hear what I have to say," Ezra assured them, hiding his relief. At Walt's prodding, he climbed to his feet and brushed the dirt from his jacket. Now I just have to decide what the hell I'm goin' to say.
"That should do it," Buck said as he screwed the top back on the bottle of iodine. He picked up a mirror and held it behind Nathan's head, angling it so that Nathan, who was holding his own mirror, could see the nasty lump just above the base of his skull. "What do you think?" he asked.
Nathan looked carefully. "I think I'll live," he said. The wound had already stopped bleeding. Now it was just an ugly lump of broken skin. "It doesn't look like it needs stitches," he added.
"Whew!" Buck slapped him on the shoulder. "That's good news, 'cause that ain't exactly on the top of my list of things to do right now."
Nathan tried a grin, but the pounding in his head turned it into a grimace. A cup of healing tea would do wonders for that. He pushed himself to his feet and waited a second for the room to readjust itself, then shuffled slowly to the stove in the corner. Slow and easy. No sharp movements. I can do it, he thought.
Buck suddenly grabbed him. "Hey now, whatch'a doin' there, Nate?"
Nate frowned. "Going to make some tea."
Buck steered him back to the chair by the desk. "No, no, no," he said good-naturedly, "you just set down right here. I'll make your tea."
"C'mon, now, Nathan, I'm gonna make your tea." Buck tilted his head forward and tried to look serious. "You don't wanna hurt my feelings now, do ya?"
Nathan rolled his eyes and gave in. Buck smiled.
"Wait, what's that?" Nathan asked when a flash of something metal caught his eye.
"That down there." He pointed.
Buck bent down and looked under the chair. "Huh," he grunted as he reached down and picked up a small nickel-plated key. He held it up. "One of yours?"
Nathan shook his head, then immediately sat down when the room started to spin again. Buck absently patted him on the shoulder with one hand while he held the key up to his face with the other. "Sampson," he said. He noticed Nathan's curious glance. "That's what it says here on the key."
"I wonder where it c..." Nathan trailed off and looked at the cot. Cam Blake's dirt-covered shirt had earlier been draped over the chair. Buck had tossed it onto the cot when he helped Nathan into the chair. "It must have fallen from his clothing," he finished.
Buck nodded in agreement, but he wore a thoughtful expression on his face. "Sampson," he said again, quieter, as if to himself.
"What about it?" Nathan asked, closing his eyes and rolling his head carefully from side to side to loosen his throbbing neck muscles.
"I'm gonna go check somethin' out. I'll be back in a bit," Buck said, a hint of excitement in his voice.
"Wha--?" By the time Nathan opened his eyes, Buck was halfway out the door. "Buck!" he called, but Buck was gone. He looked around the room and sighed. "What about my tea?"
The occasional glimpse of moonlight allowed Chris and Josiah to easily follow Blake's tracks. The fleeing man had made no effort to hide them.
What the hell am I doing out here? Chris sighed to himself. He didn't give a damn about Blake. The man had had trouble written all over his face from the start, now this. Larabee had better things to do with his time.
But Josiah seemed to think it was worth the effort, though his reasoning was a little vague.
"I think we should go after him," Josiah had said after he'd notified Chris of the attack on Nathan.
"What for?" Chris had wanted to know.
"Because if Capshaw finds Blake, and he will find him, he will kill him."
Chris paused, studying Sanchez' face. "You sure about that?"
"You know what kind of trouble you're askin' for? Capshaw ain't no lightweight."
"I know," Josiah said.
Something in the heavy set of his shoulders told Chris that he really did know. "All right," he said. "Just so we're all on the same page."
They were making good time, despite Blake's head start. They didn't push the horses too hard. There was no need to. Blake could only go so fast for so long. Sooner or later, they'd catch up to him.
The wind numbed his cheeks a little, but Chris inhaled deeply, enjoying the scents of leather and crushed grass.
"Think he'll put up a fight?" Chris asked, not really expecting much of an answer. Blake was only one man. And an injured one at that. They could handle him.
Josiah didn't answer. He'd been strangely silent since they left town. Come to think of it, though Josiah'd been around, he'd been pretty quiet all day. He seemed to have something on his mind.
Chris studied him for a long moment, taking in the slumped shoulders and far-off stare. When Sanchez finally noticed the scrutiny, Chris said, "Everything all right, Josiah?"
Josiah pursed his lips into a thin line and looked forward. "Look," he suddenly said.
Following his gaze, Chris spotted a dark shape in the distance. Squinting hard, Chris realized it was a horse. A horse with no rider.
"Let's go!" he yelled, leaning forward as Job gained speed.
"Oliver!" Buck shouted, pounding on the door of a little whitewashed, A-frame house in a quiet corner of town. "I know you're in there. Wake up!"
Finally, he saw a light glowing through the curtains on the window, and the door opened. Oliver Mitchell, a thin man in his thirties, peered at Wilmington with sleep-crusted eyes. He glanced around the empty street and then back at Buck. "What's going on?"
"I need to send a telegraph right now," Buck explained, grabbing hold of Oliver's shoulder and pulling him outside.
"At this time of night?" Buck still had hold of the fabric of his undershirt and was tugging insistently. Surprised, Oliver barely had time to close the door behind him. "Can't it wait?"
"Nope, it can't."
"No buts." Buck quickly hustled him down the street, stalling any further objections. "C'mon, I'll buy you a beer in the mornin'."
At first, Ezra didn't pay much attention to the rustle of leaves around him, thinking it only a combination of the wind and whatever nocturnal creatures inhabited the area. Instead, he focused on the rope that bound his wrists to the horn of his saddle. For the past hour, he'd fiddled with the ropes and wished to high heaven that he'd thought to include his small, silver handled pocketknife with the rest of his armament. Still, the ropes seemed just a tiny bit looser, so he ignored the sting of chafed skin and kept at it. His next task would be the rope around Chaucer's neck that was connected to Walt's saddle rigging.
Nearby, a bird called out to the three passersby.
Working the ropes, Ezra couldn't shake the image of Vin lying dead or wounded back at the canyon. A sudden roll of nausea pushed at his throat, and then just as suddenly it was gone.
Keep it together, Ezra.
He had to help Vin.
The same bird called out again with the same rising chirp. Ezra frowned and continued to pick at the thick knots with the thumb and index finger of one hand. But lack of movement, decreased circulation, and the cool air had turned his fingers to ice, and they refused to cooperate.
When the same stupid bird called out a third time, Ezra looked up in annoyance. Is the damn thing following us? He scanned the surrounding trees, and his eyes were drawn to the right where he thought he saw movement. He stared hard for several long moments, wondering if he'd imagined it.
Ezra glanced up ahead at Randall and Walt, but they seemed oblivious. Randall said something, and Walt chuckled.
Again, Ezra stared at the trees, and this time he saw a dull glint. His eyes widened. It was either a gun or...
The clouds shifted just then, revealing a man on a black horse zigzagging carefully around trees and bushes some two hundred yards away. The man was tucking something into a pocket, then looked up. Vin Tanner smiled and nodded at Ezra, and then the clouds shifted again, and Tanner disappeared into the darkness.
Ezra smiled widely in relief, then glanced at his captors, quickly coming to a decision. Losing the smile, he cleared his throat. "Uh, excuse me, gentlemen."
"What?" Randall barked without turning around.
"Might I request a stop?" Ezra asked, a sincere but urgent tone in his voice. "Nature's call is quite an insistent one."
Walt glanced back at him, then looked over at Randall. He said something that Ezra couldn't hear, but a look of sour frustration crossed Randall's bruised face.
"Shit," Randall muttered. "All right," he said louder, "we'll stop."
Two hundred yards away, Vin loosely tethered Peso to a juniper bush and silently picked his way towards the tiny clearing where the trio had stopped. The barrel of his sawed-off Winchester was cold to the touch. He held it gut-high, loaded and ready, as he crept forward.
Through the trees, he saw dark outlines move as one of the men untied the rope that secured Ezra to his saddle and pulled him to the ground.
"Much obliged," he heard Ezra say.
"Make it quick," Randall snapped.
Shapes and sounds became clearer as Vin circled around Ezra and Walt, who had moved off to an obscure tree ten or so yards from Randall and the horses, and came up twenty feet behind Randall. A few seconds later, he heard the sounds of a struggle.
Randall heard it, too. "Walt?" he called.
"Don't move," Vin ordered as Randall took a step forward and reached for his sidearm. "This range, you'll have a hole in your back the size of an orange."
Randall froze. "Who's that?"
"Just the guy you thought you'd killed. Guess you should actually check before you write someone off as dead."
Angling his head and shifting a few steps to his right, Vin was able to see what was going on.
Ezra had managed to loop his bound wrists around Walt's neck and was pressing one arm firmly against Walt's throat. As Vin watched, Ezra brought up one knee and drove it hard into Walt's lower back. Walt grunted and his knees started to buckle, and Ezra did it again. An elbow glanced off Ezra's ribs but didn't slow him down. Ezra increased the pressure on Walt's throat, and the gun dropped to the ground, followed quickly by its owner. All of this took less than a minute.
"Ah ah ah," Vin said when Randal made a move for his holstered weapon. "Hands up where I can see 'em."
When Ezra walked into view, a little disheveled, but grinning and carrying Walt's gun awkwardly in his hands, Vin couldn't help but smile in relief.
"Mr. Tanner, wonderful to see you again!" Ezra tucked the gun into his waistband.
"Same here, pard." Vin pulled his knife from his belt, deftly flipped it, and handed it hilt-first to Ezra. Ezra fumbled for only a moment, and then the ropes fluttered to the ground.
Keeping most of his attention on Randall, Vin closed his fingers around the hilt of the knife when it was slapped into his palm, but glanced up in surprise when Ezra didn't let go right away.
"I feared the worst," Ezra said quietly, finally releasing the knife. His sharp eyes zeroed in on the dark smear of blood on Vin's shirt collar. "Are you injured?"
Vin grinned and pulled down the bandana wrapped tightly around his neck to reveal an inch-long gash. "This little bitty thing? I cut myself worse shaving."
Ezra frowned. "I should hope not." He approached Randall. "Ah, Mr. Randall. I'm dying to know the source of your extravagant pyrotechnics earlier this evening. Was it dynamite? Black powder?" Randall glared. "No worries, you'll have plenty of time to tell me on the way back to town. Now, I don't think you'll be needing this..." He reached out a hand to pull Randall's gun from its holster.
Just then, a rustle of noise and a blur of shadows snagged Vin's attention. Oh, shit... Walt! "Ezra!" he called out, swinging his Mare's Leg around.
Ezra looked over his shoulder, his body angling slightly as he began to turn. "What's the ma-?"
A shot rang out, muffling the rest of Ezra's words as the Southerner crashed to the ground.
Shit! Vin thought again, automatically releasing a shot in Walt's direction. Walt dodged the bullet and popped back into view.
"Shoot and I'll kill him," Randall said, and Vin's shoulders tightened. His finger paused against the trigger when he saw that Randall had pulled his weapon and was now aiming it at Standish.
Vin's eyes narrowed, and his trigger finger tensed again. "Kill him and I'll drop you where you stand."
"You can only get one of us before the other pulls the trigger," Walt taunted, coming up with a different, smaller gun in his hand. He pointed it at Vin, then Ezra. "Is it worth it?" He reached down and retrieved the gun that Ezra had just moments ago tucked into his waistband, keeping his eyes on Vin the whole time. "You decide."
Swallowing hard, Vin knew he couldn't take the chance. His gaze flitted to Standish, who was lying on his side, breathing heavily. "Ezra... you all right?"
"Divine... thank you for asking," Ezra said through clenched teeth.
Vin's mind raced for a solution, trying to figure out a way to take Randall out without Walt shooting Ezra. But he couldn't ignore the sound of Randall slowly, deliberately pulling back the hammer of his Colt.
"C'mon now," Randall warned. "Don't make me do it."
"You son of a bitch," Vin growled, lowering his gun.
Walt snatched the Winchester from Vin's grasp.
"Now what?" Vin demanded.
Randall thought for a moment. "Now," he said, bringing his Colt around to bear on Vin, "now we shoot you."
"No!" Ezra yelled, swinging up a leg and kicking Randall's arm away. The shot went wild.
Vin ran like hell, duckling and rolling into the absolute blackness beneath a canopy of oak and pine. Behind him, he heard the thud of a boot hitting a body and winced in sympathy. I owe ya one, Ez.
A few more shots followed him, but Vin was moving fast, swerving through the trees and jumping over low-hanging branches.
"Let's go!" he heard Randall shout. "Get him up there!"
Vin stopped, panting, listening to the sounds wafting on the breeze. He wiped his damp palms on the thighs of his trousers. They weren't chasing him. They were leaving. They were taking Ezra and leaving.
Why they didn't shoot Ezra, he didn't know. But there was one thing he did know. He wasn't going to leave Ezra on his own.
Vin barely noticed the branches that tore at his clothes and scratched his hands as he ran back to his horse and his rifle.
"He's breathin'," Chris said when Josiah approached with Blake's horse in tow. He rolled Blake onto his back and removed the gun from the unconscious man's hip. He snapped his fingers a few inches in front of Blake's face, but got no reaction. He hadn't expected one.
"Okay," Chris said, rocking back on his heels and studying their surroundings. The area was open, with few trees, and only some patches of grass and weeds. "We'll stay here for a bit. Maybe get a fire going. See if he'll come around. If we have to, we can throw him on his horse and take him back to town that way."
A few minutes later, the horses were ground-hobbled, and Josiah had gathered a few scarce sticks to make a fire. They worked in silence, Josiah getting the flames started, and Chris pulling out the coffee and small pot from his saddlebag.
In the distance, an owl hooted, the crickets chirped.
Chris settled down on the ground and stretched out his legs. It'd been one hell of a day. And night. He was tired. He glanced at the sky. Only a couple of hours until dawn.
Blake stirred where he lay next to Josiah, but he didn't wake. Chris watched him for a moment. This is why you don't get involved in other people's troubles, he thought. Sooner or later, you end up puttin' your tail on the line or end up playin' babysitter.
"What's with this guy?" Chris said.
Josiah sipped his coffee. "What?"
"He says he's done nothing wrong" - and here Chris snorted, because that story was becoming less and less plausible - "but then he runs off." He clucked his tongue against his teeth. "Looks pretty guilty to me."
"Fear does strange things to a man."
"If all he's guilty of is mouthin' off to somebody, does that account for fear enough to go runnin' all over the West?"
Josiah set his cup down on the ground. "It does when the person you're mouthing off to is Gage Capshaw."
Chris watched him curiously. He'd heard of Capshaw. Knew he was thorn in the side of law enforcers from Kansas to California. But Chris had never run into him. Back in the old days, he might have dragged Buck along and gone off in search of Capshaw, looking for a fight and some fun. Of course, he had been a lot more reckless back then. He tilted his head. "You know something I don't, Josiah?" he asked.
Sanchez's shadowed gaze met his. "Gage is a dangerous man," he said.
Gage? "You on a first name basis with him?"
Josiah licked his lips and looked away, as if he'd said too much already. Chris was about to consider the conversation officially closed when Josiah suddenly looked at him again. "I knew him as a boy. His father was my friend."
Chris just nodded. That's the way it went. People died. People turned bad. Some things you couldn't change. "When was the last time you saw Capshaw?"
"Nearly fifteen years ago."
Fifteen years is a long time, Chris mused. Suddenly pushing to his feet, he asked, "Got any whiskey in your pack?"
Josiah shook his head, and Chris sighed. "Me neither." His eyes landed on Blake's horse, and he smiled slightly. "Well, I'm sure Blake won't mind if we see if he's got any. Seein' as how we're here on account of him."
As he spoke, he walked around the fire to where the horses were clustered a few yards away. His boots sent up little puffs of dust when they hit the ground.
He reached into one saddlebag, but found only some clothing and the usual camping supplies. The other bag had no whiskey either, but Chris' hand brushed against something hard and cold. "What the..." He pulled out a long, narrow metal box, about seven or eight inches wide, three inches tall, and twelve inches long. One end had a hinge attaching the lid to the bottom, and the other end had a lock with a keyhole. Embossed on the lid was the word Sampson.
Hefting the box in both hands, Chris realized there was something inside. He carried it back to Josiah.
"Did you find a key in there, too?" Josiah asked.
Chris shook his head, inspecting the box. The metal was strong, and the lock looked solid. He tilted his chin at Blake. "Maybe he's got it on him."
Blake's eyes snapped open.
"Easy there," Josiah said, drawing back slightly.
Blake looked around wildly, and he saw the box next to Chris. "No!" he said, struggling to sit up. "That's mine!"
Josiah easily pushed him back down with one hand and glanced at Larabee. "Seems he doesn't want us opening his box," he said.
"Looks like," Chris agreed. The frantic look in Blake's eyes made him even more curious. "Got a key?" he asked, the polite little smile on his face daring Blake to refuse.
Blake tried to wrangle Josiah's hand off of his chest and didn't answer.
Finished playing games, Chris stepped back and let the smile drop from his lips. "Stay back." He drew his gun, aimed it at the lock on the little black box, and fired. The bark was loud in his ears, but he saw with satisfaction that his aim was true. The lock was destroyed, a round little tunnel drilled perfectly through the keyhole. The lid sprang open a bit, and Chris hunkered down on his heels to open it all the way.
When he saw what was inside, Chris stopped in surprise, his hands frozen on the lid.
"Chris? What is it?" Josiah asked, seeing the strange look on Larabee's face.
Chris wordlessly spun the box around so that Josiah could see its contents. It was filled with six neat stacks of twenty-dollar bills.
"Sweet Mary and Joseph." Josiah whistled.
Blake had stopped his struggles.
"Josiah," Chris said, snapping the lid shut and standing. "I think it's about time we headed on back."
"I'm with you, Brother."
In a weird sort of way, Ezra was grateful for the ropes that once again secured his wrists to his saddle. Without them, he didn't think he would have stayed upright as long as he had. And - with an all-too-keen sense of the twisted irony - Ezra was even grateful for the rope that connected Chaucer to Walt's horse, despite the fact that it hindered any escape attempts, because it meant he didn't have to concentrate on riding.
Truth be known, he was having a tiny bit of trouble concentrating on anything but the burning pain along his right side. Each quick, jostling step of his horse had Ezra clenching his teeth and tensing his muscles until every nerve in his body was on edge.
Still, even though Ezra felt like he could gladly curl up and die right then and there, he didn't think that he really was dying, so that was good. He thought perhaps the bullet had only skimmed along his ribs.
Of course, Walt's kicks to the ribs sure hadn't helped any.
Ezra was pulled from his musings of vengeance by the realization that the terrain had suddenly changed. They'd left the old foot trail that had taken them through the thickest part of forest and past low rock formations, and were now making their way down a gently sloping embankment to the wide, sandy wash below.
Randall called out a loud "Hello!" as they approached a bend in the ancient riverbed, and then they were face to face with half a dozen six-shooters and a rifle or two.
"Whoa there, boys," Randall said, drawing his horse to a stop.
"Davis," one thick, black-haired man said. He lowered his Springfield, and the other five men lowered their weapons as well. "What took so long?"
Irritated, Randall said, "You gonna let us by, Angus, or keep us waitin' all night?"
Angus shrugged indifferently and stepped aside.
As Walt led Chaucer forward, Ezra kept a cool, blank expression on his face, hiding his discomfort and his unease. But his heart stuttered and started to race.
Thirty or forty feet past the gun-toting welcome committee, a large group of men sat around several fires, eating drinking, gambling, fighting. As one, they all stopped their activities and watched a man stand up and take several unhurried steps forward.
Randall hopped down to the ground. "Hey, Boss," he said.
Compared to the massive Randall, Gage Capshaw wasn't very big, and he wasn't very tall, but the nervous undertone in Randall's voice was unmistakable.
'Randall," Capshaw greeted. He flicked a glance at Walt, then settled his gaze on Ezra. His sun-streaked, sandy hair contrasted starkly with his dark tan and brown eyes. "Who's this?" he asked.
Ezra quickly absorbed the young face, confident posture, and tied down six-shooter, but when his eyes found the six-inch knife in Capshaw's belt, he was forcefully reminded of a night in Kansas City just about four years ago.
The Peachtree Drum, one of Kansas City's seedier taverns, had no lack of business despite its dubious appearance. Located in a less affluent part of town, however, its clientele consisted mostly of scavengers, ruffians, and lowlifes. The tables were wobbly, the whiskey watered down, and the few spittoons black and crusted with dried juices.
It was an unattractive place to be sure, but one had to start somewhere. Especially when one could not yet afford the more upscale establishments with their high-stakes games.
The sound of a throat being cleared snapped Ezra Standish from his daydreams of fine hotels, hot baths, and French cuisine. "My bet?" he asked with a good-old-boy smile. His right-hand neighbor grunted in confirmation, and Ezra tossed ten dollars into the center of the rough table. He took a sip of bastardized bourbon and observed his fellow players as they made their moves.
To his left was a young man with a shock of red hair and a bad temper. He cursed up a storm every time he lost a hand, and yet he always dealt in for the next.
On the other side of the red-haired youth and opposite Ezra was another young man, this one with sandy hair and a hungry look in his eyes. He had an excellent poker face, but he tapped the back of his cards lightly when he had a winning hand. There was something about him - a sense of pent up energy that made Ezra keep a watchful eye on him.
On Ezra's right was the man who had grunted, a tough old geezer who looked like he could've been a miner at one time. He'd said only two words in the past hour.
It was a volatile environment, and Ezra played his game carefully, winning a few hands and then losing one or two. No need to start trouble.
The redhead didn't seem to share the same philosophy.
"What the hell?" the boy shouted as he lost another hand. His eyes bulged and his face flushed. "Did you see that?" he demanded, looking first at Ezra and then the miner. "This son of a bitch pulled a card from the bottom of his deck!" He turned on the sandy-haired man. "You Goddamn son of a bitch. You cheated! You've been doin' it all night."
Ezra wanted to tell the kid to shut up, but he was too busy watching the accused cheater.
The sandy-haired man took the cigar from his mouth and ground it into the tabletop. His dark eyes flashed. "What'd you say?" he asked.
The boy pushed his chair back and leaned over the other man. "You heard me," he shouted. "You're a no good, cheatin' rat bast-Oh..." He paled suddenly and looked down at himself, at the small red stain on his shirt and the knife sticking out from between his ribs.
When the kid dropped back into his chair, Ezra automatically reached out to steady him, shocked at the speed of the attack. He'd barely seen the fatal thrust.
Ezra looked up. "Now see here - !" he began, but the sandy-haired man was on his feet with a .45 in his hand and a dangerous look in his eyes. Ezra swallowed his words as the man reached over and with a rough jerk pulled the knife free. All six inches of it. He wiped the blade on the kid's shirt and stuffed it back into his belt.
The kid was already fading fast. He slumped towards the table.
The saloon had fallen quiet when the shouting started. Now, everyone watched, faces frozen in silent shock, as the sandy-haired man backed out through the main door. No one moved to stop him.
When he was out the door, an explosion of talk filled the air.
"Do you know who that was?" the old miner asked in a low voice.
Ezra glanced at him, surprised to hear the man speak a complete sentence. He shook his head.
"That was Gage Capshaw."
The name was vaguely familiar, but Ezra put it out of his mind. He rose halfway and leaned over the kid, using both hands to sit him upright in his chair. Had somebody already called a doctor?
The kid was dead.
Now, Capshaw still had the same hungry look in his eyes, and the same sense of energy vibrated through the air.
Ezra shivered and told himself it was the cold and loss of blood.
"We found Blake," Randall said. "He rode into a little town not far east earlier tonight." He tossed a nod in Ezra's direction. "This here's one of the lawmen that was chasing us."
"And you decided to bring him along... why?" Capshaw asked.
Randall fell silent. Clearly, he was going to let Walt field this one.
"Uh, we thought you might want to hear what he has to say," Walt said. He fidgeted uneasily under the stares of the entire camp. "He says he can get you Blake."
That interested Capshaw. "Is that so?" He looked at Ezra again, took in his tailored, bloodstained clothing. He stepped close to Chaucer, bringing with him the scents of sweat, smoke, and whiskey.
"Yes," Ezra said carefully, mind racing. He hadn't known what he would say when this moment came, but when he saw Capshaw reach for the knife on his belt, he opened his mouth and the words spilled out. "I believe I have a proposal that you will be hard pressed to turn down. One that will get you Blake."
Capshaw angled the knife in his hands, letting the firelight behind him glint off the blade.
"That is what you want, isn't it?" Ezra asked.
With a single, swift motion, Capshaw swung the knife upwards. Ezra tried his best not to flinch, expecting any second to feel sharp pressure and the rush of hot blood. Instead, he saw the ropes fall away from his hands, and then suddenly he was being pulled to the ground by the collar of his jacket.
The sand cushioned his fall, but still Ezra sucked in his breath at the quick burst of pain. When the pain cleared, he found Capshaw kneeling over him and felt cold steel under his chin.
"And why would I need you to help me get Blake?" Capshaw asked. He looked back at his men and asked, "Does it look like we need any help, boys?" He was rewarded with hoots and laughs. Capshaw turned back to Ezra and smiled, his face deceptively boyish. "See?"
"True," Ezra said, licking his dry lips, "but Blake won't stick around for long. My colleagues can only detain him so long." He dragged in a deep breath and took the plunge. "But, if you were to, say, suggest an exchange..."
"An exchange," Capshaw repeated. He scraped the knife down Ezra's neck, grinning when Ezra stopped mid-swallow.
Ezra refused to let that deter him. He'd already come this far... "Yes, me for Blake." A flick of Capshaw's wrist severed the top button of Ezra's shirt. "I'm an important person in that town," he continued. "They'd do anything to get me back." I hope. "Including trading me for Blake."
"So that means they'd hold onto Blake so he can't run... so you don't have to waste anymore of your, uh, no doubt valuable time chasin' him across all of God's creation." Ezra saw something flicker across Capshaw's face, and he forced himself to breathe evenly. Was Capshaw considering his words, or deciding the most efficient way to eviscerate him?
The camp was silent for a long moment.
Capshaw stood up. He tossed the knife from one hand to the other. "How many deputies you got in that town?" he asked.
"Six," Ezra said, knowing he couldn't lie. Randall had seen them all.
Capshaw never ceased tossing the knife. "Walt," he suddenly said.
Walt jumped. "Yeah, Boss?"
"You're going to ride back to that town and deliver a message for me. Now."
Capshaw looked at Ezra, but continued speaking to Walt. "And be sure to tell them, if they do anything but what I tell them to, their man will be going home in pieces."
Like a striking snake, Capshaw's arm shot out, and the knife dug deep into the earth two inches from Ezra's left ear, sending a spray of sand into his face. Freezing instantly, Ezra stared at the knife from the corner of his eye and forgot to breathe.
The early morning sun was already steaming the chill out of the air when JD stepped out of the saloon and leaned against a post. He sipped a cup of Inez's strong coffee and watched the town wake up. It was only just six o'clock, but the honest folk of Four Corners had another long day ahead of them.
Every few minutes, his gaze wandered down the street. Chris and Josiah had been gone more than three hours. And Vin and Ezra had been gone a whole lot longer. JD chewed his lower lip and hoped they were all right.
Aside from waiting for some or all of them to come back, JD didn't really know what he was supposed to do. It didn't feel right to just stand around, but... He wasn't sure he could handle any more excitement right now.
In fact, he wasn't sure of much right now. Wasn't even sure how he'd come to be here. It seemed a lifetime ago he'd been looking forward to college, starting a career, making a name for himself, maybe having a family. Here, in this wild land, he'd probably be lucky to see his thirtieth birthday.
The faint crash of a breaking dish came from the saloon, followed by a Spanish curse, and JD flinched.
Quit bein' such a baby, JD, he thought. Honest, you're as skittish as a kitten.
It was true. He knew it. Something jittery had latched onto his heart yesterday, putting a pause in his step and doubts in his mind. And he couldn't shake it.
"Hey there, JD."
JD turned. "Nate, you're up!" He smiled and raised his cup in greeting. "How are you feeling?"
Jackson shrugged. "'Side from the non-stop hammerin' going on in my head, I'm okay. How 'bout you?"
"Me? Uh, I'm okay, I guess."
Nathan nodded slightly and leaned against the other side of JD's post. He inhaled deeply, then tilted his head. "You ain't wearin' your guns," he said.
JD flushed. "Yeah, not yet. Was having some coffee first." His guns were sitting on the bureau in his room while he decided whether or not he wanted to wear them again.
Nathan didn't seem to think anything about it. "Just don't see you without 'em much."
"Well, ain't much happening right now. I'm just waiting for the guys to get back," JD explained.
"I'm sure they're fine," Nathan said with a smile.
"Yeah," JD sighed. "But things always get worse."
Nathan just shook his head and punched JD lightly in the shoulder. "Come on," he said, "why don't we go check out the jail? See what needs to be done?"
JD nodded. He glanced down the street one more time, then did a double take. "Nathan, rider comin' in."
They stood there in front of the saloon as a man on a big gray horse galloped down the main street. The man's head swiveled as he scanned the boardwalks, and then he saw JD and Nathan. "You!" he said, reining sharply in front of them.
"What?" JD said, bristling at the man's tone of voice.
"Got a message for ya." The man steadied his prancing horse and tossed something into the dirt at their feet. "Courtesy of Gage Capshaw. Do what the note says or we'll be sending Standish home in twenty different pieces." With that, he wheeled the big gray around and tore off the way he'd come.
JD bent down and picked up the item from the street, holding it carefully in both hands. It was Ezra's finely tooled gun belt. He knew from Nathan's sudden deep breath that he had recognized it as well.
Stuck under the buckle was a small square of white paper. Glancing at Nathan, JD unfolded the paper and they both read it.
"Damn," Nathan whispered.
"Nathan," JD said, staring at the note. "I think things just got worse."
The sun rose at Vin's back as he trailed half a mile behind Capshaw's group. He didn't worry about dropping back so far. There was no way he could lose a group of seventeen men.
They were headed for town, that much was obvious. Randall had told them of Blake's location.
A part of him wanted to whip out his rifle and start shooting, to get Ezra out of there before things got bad. But Capshaw hadn't shot Ezra yet, which meant that the slick Southerner must have come up with some story or other to save his skin.
Vin knew he'd only be starting something he couldn't finish if he provoked Capshaw now.
He spurred Peso onwards.
There might not be much he could do right now, but he knew five men who could probably use his gun.
The first sight that greeted Chris Larabee when he and Josiah returned to town was the charred jail. The acrid smell of smoke lingered by the ruins. They were going to have to tear the whole thing down.
Damn it, Larabee thought. Where the hell am I supposed to drink my morning coffee now?
The next sight that greeted him was that of three anxious faces.
Buck stepped up when Chris dismounted in front of the saloon. "Chris, we've got trouble."
"What is it?" Chris said. Behind him, Josiah dismounted as well and half-helped, half-pulled Cam Blake down from his saddle.
"Capshaw's got Ezra," JD blurted out.
Josiah's head snapped up.
They were drawing too much attention. "Inside," Chris said, grabbing his saddlebags and indicating the saloon. Once there, Chris pushed Blake down into a chair and glanced around. "Out!" he ordered the half-dozen men eating breakfast. Seeing the stormy look on Larabee's face, the customers wisely obeyed.
"Chris!" Inez protested from behind the bar.
"Sorry, Inez," Buck said, pleading for understanding. "This is real important."
"Okay," Chris said, looking each man in the eye. "Tell me."
Nathan nodded. "A rider came in early this mornin'. Dropped off Ezra's gun belt and this." He handed the note to Larabee, who read it silently.
"What's it say, Chris?" Josiah asked.
Chris wordlessly passed it to him and glared at Blake. Blake stared at his shoes.
"'One o'clock by the Red River fork,'" Josiah read aloud. "'An exchange: Blake for Standish. One man only. No negotiations. And don't forget the money.'" He paused. "Signed G.C."
"Sounds pretty definite," Buck said. In the doorway, he saw Oliver Mitchell trying to catch his attention. "Be right back," he said and went to the door.
While Buck spoke quietly with Mitchell, JD suddenly stood up. "They don't have Vin," he said. "Otherwise they would have included him in the note. He... he could still be out there."
Chris frowned. Or dead, he thought. From the grim expressions on the faces around him, he knew the others had had the same thought. JD slowly sat down again.
Buck stormed back to the table and pushed his face in front of Blake's. "You lyin' son of a-" he began, then pursed his lips and continued in a more controlled voice. "Well, I guess you thought you'd just play us all for fools, huh?"
"No," Blake protested, but it was obvious he didn't mean it.
"What is it, Buck?" Chris said.
Buck slapped a small yellow sheet of telegraph paper down on the table. "Last night, Nate and I found a key. Figured it belonged to Blake. I recognized the name stamped on it as the type used by some banks common over in Nevada." Getting back on track, he said, "Anyway, I sent out a bunch of wires last night with a description of our friend here, and this one came back."
Josiah pulled the paper closer, but Buck continued. "It's a response from a sheriff in Reno. Said a man matchin' Blake's description was seen hangin' around with Capshaw and a buncha men just before the bank was robbed. That was two weeks ago."
Chris leaned back in his chair for a moment and pondered the information. Then he reached into his saddlebag, pulled out the long metal box, and set it on the table with a thump. "Guess that explains this," he said. He flipped open the lid and watched in amusement as varying exclamations of surprise and whistles of appreciation filled the air.
"Well I'll be a rich man's uncle," Buck said in quiet awe. He reached over and fingered the money. "There's gotta be, what? Six, seven thousand dollars?"
Five heads swiveled around in surprise. Blake was no longer staring at his shoes. His pale blue eyes met theirs defiantly. "Enough to buy a couple boat tickets, some good horses, and everything needed to start a new life."
No one knew what to say for a moment, and then Josiah spoke up. "You stole this?"
'I didn't rob any bank," Blake said.
"But that sheriff saw you..." JD began.
"I didn't rob any bank," Blake repeated stubbornly. His shoulders were straight, his feet planted flat on the floor, though it must have hurt to bend his injured leg like that.
Chris ran a finger along the rim of the metal box and cut a cold glance at Blake. "Then... Capshaw robbed the bank... and you stole it from Capshaw."
When Blake didn't answer, Buck guffawed. "Boy, are you slow in the head? What the hell would make you steal from a murderin', thievin', bastard like Capshaw?" He didn't see Josiah flinch.
"I did it for me," Blake retorted, then mumbled, "Me and Penny."
"Who's Penny?" Nathan asked.
Blake just shook his head. Seemed he was done talking.
JD reread Capshaw's note. He looked at Chris with worry in his eyes. "What're we gonna do, Chris?" he asked.
Larabee regarded the other four peacekeepers. They were completely focused on the problem at hand. Each was ready to do what was necessary to bring their friend back alive.
He looked at Blake and smiled a tight little smile. "We're going to give him what he wants, JD."
"The hell you are!" Blake said.
Chris didn't move a muscle. He didn't have to. "You'll do as I say if you want to live to see next week. We can make it real easy for Capshaw to find you."
The fear in Blake's eyes was Chris' only answer.
Outside, the midmorning sun shone brightly. Chris passed the clinic, where Nathan had enlisted Buck's help to get Blake upstairs, and headed towards the boarding house.
"Chris." Josiah jogged to catch up to him. "I'd like to be the one to make the exchange."
Chris hesitated. "Josiah..." he said, trying to find the right way to say no.
Josiah's blue eyes were filled with resolve. "I have to do this, Chris." He saw the concern on Larabee's face and added, "I can do this."
For a few silent seconds, Chris considered the ex-preacher. He finally nodded. Every man deserved a chance to slay his demons. Chris was still waiting for his.
Josiah closed his eyes. "Thank you." He set off for the church, a determination in his steps that Chris hadn't seen in a long while.
The door closed behind JD, and he was alone.
He sagged against the frame for a moment. God, he was tired. He hadn't slept at all last night. No time for sleep now, though. Things were happening too quickly.
JD opened his eyes.
And stared at his bed.
Sitting on top of the deep blue coverlet was his bowler hat.
JD approached the hat as if it might spring up and attack him. He had crammed the dreaded thing into a drawer the other day. He hadn't even wanted to look at it.
Now, he reached out a wary hand and picked it up. Who had put it on the bed? He looked around the room, but nothing else was out of place. The hat, though... something was different. JD turned it around and around in his hands, looking for the bullet hole that just yesterday had ventilated the crown.
It was gone.
For the first time, JD noticed the scrap of paper that had been hidden beneath the hat. He picked it up.
Good as new, was written in Buck Wilmington's lazy scrawl.
JD stood there, looking first at the note and then at the hat, and felt a rush of warmth spread through his chest. He couldn't help the goofy smile that came next.
Moving to the mirror above the bureau, JD carefully set the hat on his head and studied his reflection from all angles. Still grinning, he nodded in satisfaction.
The smile faded instantly when JD noticed the twin Colt Lightnings nestled within their holsters on top of the bureau. Pursing his lips, JD drew a deep breath and touched the stylized handle of one Colt.
He looked at himself in the mirror.
"My name is JD Dunne, and I can ride, and I can shoot."
The words rang clearly in his head.
And I can even fly, JD thought.
He strapped on his guns.
At its point of origin, the Red River was a wide, rushing beast. Two miles from Four Corners, where it branched and eventually flowed to the south and west, it was less than three feet deep, thirty feet across, and was quite tame. The gurgling water complemented the sun-dappled ground and the gentle sway of oak leaves.
Despite the river's picture-perfect serenity, the air crackled with tension.
On the western shore, three mounted riders waited a few feet from the water. Five more armed men on horseback fanned out behind them, backed by several rolling hills. To their right and Josiah's left, the river forked, streaming around a wedge of land dotted with trees.
All of this, Josiah observed as he and Cam Blake slowly approached the eastern shore. Josiah didn't know the man very well, but he read the worry in Blake's eyes.
You can make me do this, Blake's gaze said, but I sure as hell don't have to like it. Under the guise of shifting his weight in the saddle, he reached around and felt the gun tucked into the back of his jeans.
Josiah reined Prophet to a stop at the water's edge and studied the three men facing him.
Randall was on the right, looking rather smug.
In the middle, Ezra slouched in his saddle, but his eyes were quick. He nodded at Josiah.
It was the man on the left that caught Josiah's attention, though. His deep tan, his steady movements. His hair had darkened slightly since boyhood, but was still a pale blonde.
Something gripped Josiah's heart and squeezed tightly. "Gage,' he called, his voice hoarser than he'd planned.
A look of curiosity crossed Capshaw's face, followed by one of astonishment. He straightened in his saddle. "Josiah? Is that you, Josiah?"
"It's me," Josiah said.
Capshaw barked an ugly laugh. "Damn! Small world, ain't it?" He seemed about to say something else, but his face suddenly tightened instead. "Well, damn, couldn't have picked a worse time. I'd love to stop and chat, but I got better things to do." He looked at Blake. "Like killing the man who double-crossed me. I'm lookin' forward to slittin' your throat, amigo."
Randall shifted eagerly, as if ready and willing to plunge across the river and do the job for Capshaw.
Josiah swallowed his disappointment at Capshaw's cold indifference. What had he expected?
"Let's do this!" Randall said. Capshaw barely spared him a glance, just signaled his approval with a quick nod.
Randall raised his double-barreled shotgun and aimed it at Ezra's head. Behind them, five hammers were cocked as Capshaw's men took aim at Ezra, Josiah, and Blake.
"Start movin'," Randall ordered. "Nice and easy."
With the muzzle of Randall's shotgun following the back of his neck, Ezra kneed Chaucer forward into the water.
Blake looked at Josiah. Josiah nodded and said, "Go on."
As Blake started to move forward, something caught Josiah's eye on a hill just a hundred yards beyond Capshaw's group. He stifled his surprise when he saw Vin Tanner flat against the top of the hill with his rifle in his hands. Josiah quickly looked away, not wanting to give away Vin's position.
"You'd best have the money on you," Capshaw suddenly said, watching Blake approach the halfway point between both shores.
Before Blake could say anything, Josiah spoke up. "I have it right here."
Capshaw's eyes narrowed. "What game are you playing at, Josiah?"
"No games," Josiah said, pulling a burlap sack filled with sixty-five hundred dollars from his saddlebag. The top of the sack was tied into a knot to prevent spilling any money. "I just wanted to give it to you myself," he added.
"Throw it here," Capshaw said, his hungry eyes locked onto the sack.
Josiah held the bag away from his body, waited until both Ezra and Blake were about to pass each other by, then swung the bag and tossed it into the air.
For a moment, Capshaw and his six men watched the money arc through the air, temporarily forgetting about Ezra, Cam, and even Josiah.
And for a moment, it almost seemed like the money would reach the other side of the river.
From his vantage point on the hill behind Capshaw's group, Vin saw Josiah toss a cloth sack across the river. Everyone was staring so eagerly at it, Vin wondered what the sack contained.
But he didn't waste time wondering too long.
Seizing the opportunity, Vin pointed his rifle at Capshaw's right most flanking man, who had his Smith & Wesson pointed at Josiah. As he pulled back on the trigger, Vin was peripherally aware of Chris and the others breaking out of the trees, of Ezra and Blake veering off up the river, of the splash the sack made when it hit the water.
"No!" Capshaw roared. He wheeled his horse to his right and followed the sack as it bobbed past the fork and down the branch that curved towards the eastern shore.
Vin's Winchester bucked in his hands.
Josiah took off after Capshaw with a loud, "Hyah!"
The right-hand flanking man tumbled off his horse.
Looking up quickly, Vin saw Walt charge his gray horse after Blake and Ezra. He chambered another round and was about to help out Ezra when he saw a gunman get the drop on Buck. Swinging the rifle around, Vin put a hole in the gunman's heart.
The morning's serenity was destroyed with the crack of a rifle. As the echo bounced off the trees, Chris spurred his horse onwards. JD, Buck, and Nathan did the same.
Everything seemed to happen at once. Before he knew what he was doing, JD had steadied Bullet with his knees, drawn both Colts, and was taking a shot at a man on a black horse who protected the fleeing Capshaw. The man's horse reared sharply, but the rider stayed seated.
All around him, JD heard gunfire and men's shouts. The smell of burnt powder rapidly filled the air.
Across the river, a bearded man keeled over, one of Nathan's knives protruding from his chest.
Not far away, a man on a gray horse plowed through the water. His eyes were fixed on Blake, and it looked like he was planning on charging right through Chaucer and Ezra to get at him.
As JD watched, Ezra kicked free of his stirrups and lunged sideways at the man on the gray horse. When both men splashed into the river, JD realized with a start that Ezra's hands were still tied.
Looking around, JD saw that everybody was occupied. Caught in close quarters, Buck smashed his rifle into a nearby outlaw's stomach, followed by a hard punch to the man's jaw. Josiah was gone. Nathan was pinned behind a tree. Chris cleared Job with an easy jump, running in a low crouch for some nearby cover and shooting at the nearest available target.
Meanwhile, Ezra was fighting a losing battle in three feet of water.
The good news was that it looked like his opponent had lost his gun in the fall.
What are you waitin' for, JD? Do something! But what? He'd almost certainly hit Ezra if he tried to fire a shot.
Ezra brought his opponent down with a leg sweep, but lost his balance and fell also. While both men struggled to their feet, JD kicked his heels into Bullet's side. Ducking low, he dodged flying lead and galloped down the riverbank.
"Ezra!" he yelled, spinning one Colt around and gripping it with the handle pointing upwards.
Ezra looked up and saw what JD was going to do. He rammed a shoulder into his opponent, knocking him down once more, and stretched out his bound hands as far as the sodden ropes would allow.
JD was closing in fast. When he was less than fifteen feet away, he wound up his arm and let the weapon fly in a low toss. He held his breath and prayed as the gun sailed through the air. His heart plummeted. It was going to land in the water - Ezra wouldn't be able to catch it. But at the very last moment, Ezra dove to one side and his fingertips skimmed the base of the handle. Somehow, he held on.
Yes! JD triumphed.
He came to a halt and started to turn Bullet around when he heard a shout.
"JD, look out!" Buck yelled from fifty yards away.
JD spun around in his saddle, his remaining gun up and ready.
There was Randall, charging full-tilt at him, the gaping maw of his revolver growing larger and larger in JD's sights.
He heard a shot from close by, saw a patch of red blossom on Randall's shoulder. Randall kept coming.
JD didn't hesitate. He didn't have time.
"My name is JD Dunne."
He sighted a point near Randall's heart.
"And I can shoot."
He pulled the trigger.
Between the two new branches of the Red River, a triangular piece of land stretched outwards. Josiah crossed the shallow water and ducked through a clump of trees. The wind that whipped his cheeks brought with it the small, blue petals of forget-me-nots from the water's edge.
"Gage!" Josiah shouted. "Don't run!"
He received no answer.
Josiah broke through the trees and saw Gage a hundred feet down the river, wading into the water and stretching a hand towards the burlap sack where it was caught up against a rock. He had a pistol in his other hand, and when he saw Josiah, he didn't hesitate to shoot.
Josiah dropped from the saddle into a crouch beside his horse. The bullet missed.
When he peered over Prophet's back, he saw Gage disappear on foot into the trees. The burlap sack had gotten loose of the rock and was drifting downstream.
"Talk to me, Gage!" Josiah called. He left his horse behind and moved quickly from tree to tree, stopping at each one and listening carefully to the sounds around him.
Capshaw wouldn't leave, Josiah knew. Sixty-five hundred dollars was a hell of a lot of money.
The gun in his hand was too heavy. It seemed to weigh his arm down, to slow his movements. But it was only his mind playing games with him because his heart didn't want to have to use the weapon on the boy Josiah had once known.
Josiah pushed away from a tall elm and a bullet almost clipped his ear. He fired off a shot in return, holding his breath as he listened for a telltale scream. He heard nothing. "Gage!" he yelled.
He dashed for the next tree. And found himself facing Capshaw over a distance of only fifty feet.
"What is there to talk about?" Gage demanded, controlled heat in his voice. His revolver was in one hand and his knife in the other. He clutched his weapons so tightly that his knuckles were white. Step by slow step, he came closer. "What is there to really say?"
Trapped by Gage's stare - so much like Forrest's - Josiah searched helplessly for words. "What happened to you, Gage?"
Gage tilted his head. "A lot has happened," he said, emphasizing each word. His eyes flashed. "But you wouldn't know."
"I'm sorry, son." Josiah held his hands outwards in supplication, his Smith & Wesson forgotten. He searched Gage's face for a flicker of the boy he used to be. All he found was a bitter man.
Gage stopped a few paces away, his pistol pointed at Josiah's heart. "I don't need your apologies, old man. What I need is that money. And right now, you're the only one standing in my way." He pressed the barrel of the gun into Josiah's chest.
Josiah didn't flinch. The words that suddenly came to mind were the last ones he would have expected. "'To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him,'" he said.
Gage laughed. "Same old Josiah," he snorted. "Still spouting nonsense."
"Daniel 9:9," Josiah said. Then he rammed his fist into Gage's face and made a grab for the gun.
Gage's eyes exploded with fire. They struggled. Josiah wrapped his fingers around Gage's gun hand, blocking the trigger and twisting Gage's wrist. Gage didn't let go. He slashed the knife upwards, but Josiah deflected the movement with the barrel of his Smith & Wesson and then slammed his elbow against Gage's temple.
Gage stumbled back a step and shook his head. He was much smaller and lighter than Josiah, but he was quick, he was wiry, and he was angry. He butted his head full-force against Josiah's sternum. Josiah still had a grasp on Gage's hand, though, and they both hit the ground at the same time.
Josiah landed flat on his back, with Gage landing on top of him. The wind was knocked from his lungs. In the split second of distraction where Josiah tried to pull in a breath, Gage wrested his hand away and scrambled to one side.
Josiah started to reach for the Smith & Wesson that had fallen only two feet away. But when two hard, cold points materialized against his throat, one digging into the area beneath his chin and the other - the knife - scraping alongside his lower jaw, he stopped.
"You'll die for that," Gage hissed.
Josiah took a deep, slow breath, hoping to calm his rampant heart. "There's been enough bloodshed, Gage. I don't want to fight you." He had never wanted to fight Gage. He had only wanted to talk.
"That much easier for me."
They stared at each other, Gage poised above him and ready to strike, and Josiah knew in his heart that he was facing some sort of cosmic test. Something loosened slightly within, something that had been tightly knotted for the past fifteen years.
"I'm sorry, Gage," Josiah said. Not for the punch but for everything else. For a moment, he thought he saw the ghost of a young boy in the hard eyes staring back at him. "I'm sorry I left." Then the ghost was gone, and Josiah was faced only with hatred.
"Shut up!" Gage ordered. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" He gave the gun a quick shove, forcing Josiah's head back slightly.
Josiah's pulse hiked up a notch. "Your father wouldn't want this." It was a low blow, and he knew it.
Gage scowled. "My father doesn't get a say in things anymore. He was too much a coward. Just like you." There was something in his voice, a hitch, a rasp. Gage leaned forward. "Why did you even come?" he whispered harshly.
Looking into those eyes, Josiah had no real answer. What could he possibly say to erase his mistakes? To make things better for the both of them? So he said nothing. And when he felt the knife start to slice the skin just below his jaw line, Josiah closed his eyes. He didn't fear death. He hadn't in a long time.
A second later, the gun and knife were withdrawn, and with the roar of his heart impossibly loud in his ears, Josiah waited for the kill shot.
Josiah opened his eyes, raised his head.
Gage was gone.
Letting his head fall back to the ground, Josiah drew in a breath that sounded more like a sob. He rolled to his knees and stared at the trees around him. "Forgive me," he whispered to the silent woods and gently swaying branches.
Someone was running, approaching fast. Josiah retrieved his gun and stood up just as Vin appeared.
"Josiah?" Vin scanned the trees. "Where's Capshaw?"
"Gone," Josiah said.
"Gone?" Vin glanced at the gun in Josiah's hand, then saw the blood streaming down Josiah's neck. "You all right?"
Josiah rested a heavy hand on Vin's shoulder. "I don't know yet, Vin."
Chris sighted his Colt at the back of the fleeing rider, but pulled his hand back when man and horse disappeared over the ridge. He reset the hammer and wiped an arm across his forehead. Son of a bitch. All this running around was making him sweat.
Just down the river, JD peered down at Randall's body. The kid looked a little pale and shaky, but seemed unhurt. When he rode up and dismounted, Buck tweaked the brim of JD's hat and gave him a little grin. "That was really somethin', what you did back there."
"Yeah." Buck wagged a finger. "Now, you ever do something like that again, and I'll pound you into the dirt. You hear me?"
JD rolled his eyes. They both knew he was full of shit.
A growled curse reached Chris' ears and he turned around.
Standish was struggling to reach the shore, JD's revolver still clenched in one fist. Unable to use the revolver properly in his one-on-one fight, he'd finally gotten the best of Walt by slamming the gun repeatedly against his head.
Never let it be said you can't use a gun when your hands are tied, Chris thought.
"A little help here... gentlemen... if you don't mind?"
Chris stepped forward and grabbed hold of the rope at Ezra's wrists, helping him climb up the slight embankment. "You okay, Ezra?"
Ezra just collapsed to the ground with a relieved groan, rolling onto his back. He held his arms out straight, waiting for someone to take the hint. Chris obliged and cut the ropes with his knife.
"Damn, Ezra, you look 'bout as sorry as a wet toad's behind," Buck commented, coming closer.
"Go to hell." Ezra clutched at his side, and Chris saw the crusted blood on his shirt.
"Nathan!" he called, but Nathan was already there. "How're they doing?" he asked, meaning Walt and the only other surviving man, whom Vin had shot from the hill.
"They'll live," Nathan said, then ordered, "Now hold still, Ezra, and let me see."
Cam Blake lingered nearby, an unsure look on his face.
"I saw what you did back there," Buck told him quietly. "Shootin' Randall like that. Helpin' JD." His previous distaste for the man was nowhere in sight. "Thanks," he said. He offered Blake a respectful nod, held his gaze for a second longer, then turned away.
More than a little surprised, Blake nodded mutely in return.
"Hey there, cowboy."
Chris glanced over his shoulder. "Now where the hell did you come from?" he asked with a grin as Vin and Josiah stepped clear of the trees.
"I came to help you boys out," Vin drawled, then smirked. "Looks like I was just in time, too."
"Riiight," Chris said, favoring him with a raised eyebrow. He looked at Josiah. "Capshaw?"
Vin shook his head, then patted Josiah on the back. "Come on, let's go join our merry band of wounded," he said.
Buck rested an elbow on Chris' shoulder. "You know, pard," he mused. "We still got problems."
A faint pulsing started behind Chris' eyes, the beginnings of a headache. "What now?' he sighed.
"Well, the money for starters," Buck said. "And then there's the jail. Exactly where're we supposed to stick those two fellas anyhow?"
"Shit," Chris said, letting out a relieved breath. "Is that all?" He grinned and slapped Buck on the back. "You had me worried there for a minute."
Behind them, Ezra suddenly forgot his pain and levered himself up onto his elbows. "Money?" he said, looking from one face to the next. "What money?"
The following night was blessedly calm, but nobody dared to relax. Not with Capshaw still loose.
Just as the morning sun started to light up the sleepy town, JD shared a smile and a word or two with Vin as they passed each other in the street, JD coming in from patrol and Vin taking his place.
When JD came out of the livery, he stretched his arms over his head and took a deep breath. God, that felt good! His body was tired, but his mind was clear. The nervous weight was gone from his heart, substituted by the familiar tug of his Colts on his hips. He traced a fingertip over one ivory handle as he debated his next course of action.
Coming to a decision, he started towards the church.
The talk he'd had with Josiah yesterday had helped more than JD thought it would, especially since he wasn't even sure what he'd been looking for when he asked his question. He figured he ought to let the preacher know.
Was he foolish to stay, to risk getting his head blown off for real next time?
Was he going to let it scare him away?
JD's foot hit the steps outside the church with a force that shattered the question.
There were too many reasons for him to stay.
Suddenly remembering the early hour, JD realized that Josiah might still be asleep. He slowly cracked the door open and stuck his head inside.
Except for the light coming through windows and a fat, flickering candle up front, the church was a mixture of shadows. In a front pew, Josiah sat still as a statue, his back straight, his head facing forward. It looked like he was staring at the flickering flame. Had he even been to bed?
JD opened his mouth to call Josiah's name, but he hesitated. The church was absolutely silent, not yet corrupted by sounds from the street. The air had a heavy solemnity about it. JD pulled back and softly closed the door again. Josiah was lost in thought. It didn't feel right to disturb him.
Across the street, Cam Blake was leading his apron-faced gelding out of the livery.
Larabee and Jackson stood nearby and watched while Blake tightened the cinch and checked the hardware on his saddle. Blake was leaving.
"Chris," JD said, walking up with a puzzled glance at Blake. "You're letting him leave?"
"Ain't got a legal reason to keep him, JD," Chris said. He shrugged. "The sheriff in Reno confirmed Blake wasn't involved in the robbery. And I somehow doubt Capshaw's gonna be pressing any charges."
"Oh," JD said. He said to Blake, "So do you know where you're going?"
"Someplace far away," Blake replied. His eyes drifted to the horizon for a second, then slipped back to JD. "But first I got a stop to make in Pueblo. Got me a girl there." He looked at Chris. "That's what I took it for. To get us married and livin' someplace nice where Capshaw couldn't find us. Maybe London or France." He sighed. "Maybe we can still make it up to Canada."
Larabee's expression was unreadable. He just inclined his head slightly.
"Well, uh, in that case..." JD stuck out his right hand. "I should thank you before you leave. You know, for yesterday."
Blake shook his hand, smiled. "You did pretty well yourself," he said. He climbed into the saddle with a controlled frown, then said to Nathan, "Mr. Jackson... listen, I'm real sorry about the whole... well..." He gestured at his head. "I panicked."
From the look on his face, Nathan wasn't quite ready to forgive and forget, but he shrugged. "No serious harm done," he said.
Blake nodded his appreciation and turned his horse down the road.
When he was gone, JD rubbed his hands together. "Anyone up for some breakfast?"
The saloon was nearly empty. Pots and pans clattered in the kitchen. Ezra sat at a table cluttered with papers. He looked up, gave JD a smile and a nod.
"What're you doin' up so early?" Chris said, heading straight for the towel-wrapped pot of coffee sitting on the bar. Nathan was right behind them, and he would raise hell if he saw Ezra up and about so soon.
A twinkle lit Ezra's eyes. "Mr. Larabee! Just the person I wanted to speak with." He motioned Chris over.
"Well, Mr. Wilmington has informed me that we are missing a sum in excess of six thousand dollars. I've taken the liberty of sketching a number of possible strategies and search patterns for locating the money. And in fact, I think this one here is the best candidate..." He pulled a sheet of paper from beneath half a dozen others and spun it around so Chris could see. "Now, I think we should head out as soon as possible to make best use of time..."
JD laughed and turned towards Buck, who sat at another table with a cup of steaming coffee in his hands and his heels resting on a second chair.
Seeing the grin on JD's face, Buck couldn't resist his own smile. "Well, look who's back!" he exclaimed, dropping his feet to the floor.
"What're you talking about, Buck? I was just on patrol."
Buck raised a knowing eyebrow.
JD just shook his head in amusement and sat down. He flipped his hat off his head and held it in his hands for a moment. A contemplative look replaced his grin. Glancing up, he saw Buck watching him.
"Buck, did I ever tell you why I really came out West?" JD asked.
Buck shook his head, sipped his coffee.
"Well, I... I guess I wanted to believe. I wanted to see if I could believe in myself."
There was a moment's silence, and then Buck softly asked, "And do you?"
JD studied the hat in his hands for a moment, then raised his head and smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, I do."
The flame sputtered and disappeared with a hiss, drowning in a puddle of wax that had formed beneath the wick. Josiah didn't even notice. He was lost in the past, reliving things he spent most of his time trying to forget.
Hannah, Forrest, Gage, they all took turns moving through his thoughts.
Josiah touched the long, thin scab on the side of his neck, and Gage's face flickered into view.
He couldn't help them. He couldn't help any of them. But, God willing, maybe he could help himself.
Bowing his head, he closed his eyes and did something he hadn't done in far too long. Alone in his prison, his sanctuary, Josiah Sanchez prayed.
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Trekkieb would love to hear from you.
HOME | TREKKIEB'S FIC | TITLES | AUTHORS | UNIVERSES
This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
with corrections and additions