Return Of The Prodigal
by Sue Bartholomew
Disclaimer: The characters from the program The Magnificent Seven in this story are not mine and are owned by Trilogy, CBS and MGM. I am making no profit from their use. Honest.
Rating: PG-13 for violence and language-nothing too shocking, though.
Summary: A former resident of Four Corners (last seen in the pilot -- hint!) returns, causing much consternation among the townsfolk and the Seven. He says he's a changed man -- but should they trust him?
Author's Notes: Here's a story I've been toying with for some time -- I mapped out the concept, tried to make it work, left it alone for a while, then came back to it. You guys can tell me if that was a good decision or not!! :)
I'd like to say a big thanks to my sister Sarah, my roommate Carla, my Surf n' Turf pals Joan, Sara and Sue, my wonderful beta NotTasha, and Carolyn for helping me immeasurably with their suggestions and encouragement. Y'all are tops!!!
Feedback is always welcome -- I'm very interested to know your opinions on this story!! Please feel free to drop me a line at the above address.
"...and I would just like to express my thanks to all of you, for coming to the opening of my little store."
The words, wrapped in the heavy tones of Germany, wafted out over the small crowd gathered before the newest shop in the small frontier town of Four Corners. As the throng blinked and clapped in the morning sunlight, the handsome, middle-aged man who addressed them gave a grateful smile, the warm spring breeze slightly stirring the graying blond curls which hung just past his starched collar. In one hand he grasped a mahogany cane with an elaborately carved silver head. He stood in the doorway of the new store, squinting against the glare of the new day behind his round spectacles, while above him hung the newly-painted sign proclaiming the presence of HOFMANN'S JEWELRY AND WATCHES.
As the women of the town waited eagerly for the proud owner to unlock the door, several of the town's hired peacekeepers hung towards the back of the crowd, observing the proceedings with a variety of attitudes.
"Boy, I ain't never seen the women here so excited," remarked one of their number, a young man with thick black hair and quick hazel eyes. He shook his head with a smile and put his hands on his hips, a grin on his boyish face.
"This is an important event, JD," said the handsome blonde woman who stood by his side, writing swiftly in the small notebook held in her hand and glancing at the crowd from time to time, keenly observing everything. "New businesses are proof that the town's growing."
"That may be, Mrs. Travis," sniffed the dark-haired, mustached man who was leaning on a nearby post, his hands hitched casually into his belt, "but all I'm seein' is myself goin' broke. Now all the pretty gals are gonna be wantin' gold earbobs an' diamond bracelets before they'll even let a man court 'em."
JD laughed. "An' we all know Buck'd rather be broke than go without a girl."
"Well, cheer up, my friend," drawled the fourth member of the group, a nattily dressed chestnut-haired man in a bright red coat and flat-topped black hat. He slapped Buck on the shoulder and eyed the new establishment with eager green eyes. "If you need any assistance in choosing baubles for the fair ones of this town, I will be happy to oblige. I happen to be quite knowledgeable in the area of fine jewelry."
Buck snorted. "That don't surprise me, Ezra, you gamblin' men are always bettin' rings an' watches an' such." He glanced at the Southerner's glittering accoutrements. "Hell, I bet you didn't buy half that flashy stuff you wear."
The gambler appeared insulted. "Mr. Wilmington, a skilled gambler can attire himself completely at the expense of others. My percentage, I'll have you know, is at least in the high sixties."
"I'd be happy if I could just get somethin' nice for Casey's birthday," JD sighed, staring at the wares glittering behind the windows. Mr. Hofmann had finished speaking and was holding up the small brass key to the front door, a beaming smile lighting his round face as the crowd cheered.
"I'm sure there's something in there she'd like, JD," Mrs. Travis replied with an understanding smile as she continued to write. "Mr. Hofmann assured me he'll stock a wide variety of goods in all price ranges."
"How 'bout 'free'?" Buck inquired.
"Looks like we're just in time."
The heads of the small group turned to see two more men ambling up the walk towards them, a lean blond man dressed in a blue shirt and black duster, accompanied by a tall black man who was eyeing the festivities with an amused expression.
"I'll say y'are, Chris," Buck declared to the blond man as he stood up and nodded towards the store. "You're witnessin' the end of me as a man with cash."
"If Casey goes in there, that'll be two of us," JD sighed. A shout of expectation swelled through the air as the doors opened and the small assembly of shoppers streamed inside.
Nathan looked at Mary, still smiling. "Sure didn't think this'd happen, Mrs. Travis. Hard t'believe this town was dyin' not too long ago. Now seems we got new shops openin' every week."
Mary made a few last notes and folded up her notebook. "It certainly appears to be a miracle," she sighed, looking with quiet happiness at the small, bustling store. "But you all had a lot to do with it." She gave them all a thankful smile. "You've made it safe for us to have hope again."
Chris studied the new store, his green eyes concerned. "Gettin' bigger can sometimes mean more trouble, Mary," he muttered. "I just hope things don't get too big, too fast."
"But if we are to encounter an increased share of danger, gentlemen, we should at least be well dressed," Ezra suggested, stepping off of the boardwalk. "I believe a new pair of cufflinks will perfectly suit the occasion." With a touch to the brim of his black hat, the gambler sauntered towards the store.
"I better go have a look, too," JD said, tugging his bowler hat against the bright spring sunshine. "Casey's gonna want at least a bracelet or somethin'. Maybe Ezra can help me pick it out."
"If it's Casey you're thinkin' on, mebbe they got some nice Bowie knives," Buck suggested, reflecting on the young girl's tough tomboy nature.
JD considered this, but quickly shook his head. "Nah, that's what I got her for Christmas." He turned and ran across the street.
Mary smiled, then tucked away her notes. "I'd better hurry back to the office if I want to get this story in the Clarion this week."
With a quick round of farewells and nods, she hastened down the boardwalk towards the newspaper office.
"Guess Vin decided not to get himself a gold-plated harmonica, huh?" Buck observed, leaning against the post once more.
Chris sat down on a nearby chair and propped his booted feet before him, crossing his long legs. "Nah, he an' Josiah are still down at the Seminole village. A rockslide dammed their river, they're helpin' 'em clear it away."
Nathan pulled on his coat. "'Sides, you know Vin ain't the kind for fancy rings an' gold stuff. I bet he don't even own a watch."
"Yes, he does," Buck said mournfully. "He won mine off me last--"
A woman's scream split the air, causing all three men to become instantly alert. Chris was on his feet in a second, guns drawn.
Buck stared up the street, alarm clear on his handsome face. "That sounded like--"
There were a few more screams, this time from panicked passersby, and the men began to run towards the commotion. Behind them more footsteps sounded, as Ezra and JD, their weapons also at the ready, followed close behind.
The source of the noise quickly became apparent. The door to the Clarion stood open, and out swirled two figures, locked in a deadly embrace. One was a large, dirty man with a thick black beard and straggling hair topped by a ragged brown hat. In his powerful grip was Mary, struggling mightily against the iron arm clamped around her throat. The man was shouting as he dragged her into the street, the rusty barrel of a gun pressed against her temple.
"You shouldn'ta printed them lies about my brother!" the man was yelling as he tightened his grip. He looked up, saw the gunmen approaching, and shouted, "One more step an' I'll shoot!"
Chris and the others halted, twenty feet away, every available gun pointed right at the assailant.
"Let her go!" Chris cried, not backing down an inch.
"Hell, no!" was the furious reply. "She slandered my brother, I don't take kindly t'uppity women!"
"You're outgunned, now," Nathan cautioned, stepping ever so slowly around him, trying to get a clear shot at the man's back. "You know we ain't gonna let you harm that lady."
A long, anxious silence passed. The five lawmen looked for an opening, any way to take the man down, but he held Mary so that any shot at him could easily be made to strike her.
Finally the dirty man snarled. "Don't care if ya kill me, just so's I can kill her!"
He lifted his arm a little and made to pull the trigger. The five lawmen each did the same, but before any of them could shoot, another party entered the fray with surprising swiftness.
A bystander, whom nobody had noticed before, leapt out of the crowd and slammed the butt of his own gun squarely against the attacker's head before the man could even turn around. Mary gasped and staggered away as the assailant fell, watching him hit the ground with wide blue eyes.
Then her eyes lifted to the man who had saved her, and became even wider.
Chris holstered his gun while Buck, Ezra and JD apprehended the semi-conscious attacker. His rugged face was puzzled as he studied her amazed expression. "Mary? You all right?"
She was panting a little as she glanced at Chris and nodded in a distracted manner before returning her stare to the man who had saved her.
The stranger looked at her, then at everyone else. His own face betrayed little, except for something like embarrassment. "She's fine," he mumbled, in a low voice.
"I don't believe it," Chris heard Nathan say in hushed tones. He turned to look at the healer, and saw Nathan wearing a look he had never seen on his friend's face before: sheer, blazing anger. Before Chris could say anything, Nathan sprang forward and drove his fist solidly across the stranger's jaw, sending him tumbling to the ground.
Ezra and JD looked up, startled. Buck's blue eyes widened.
"Nathan!" Chris exclaimed, grabbing the healer's sleeve.
The former slave ignored him, directing all of his rage to the man who lay sprawled in the dust, nursing a cut lip and looking up at Nathan without surprise.
"You got a lot of nerve comin' back here!" Nathan was yelling. Chris had to hold tightly on his sleeve to prevent him from lunging at the man.
The stranger coughed and sat up, wiping his bleeding lip with the back of one long hand. "I don't blame you for being mad, Jackson."
"It's all right, Nathan," Mary said calmly, although her eyes were full of confusion as she watched the man slowly get up. He was tall and thin, his face long and accented by prominent cheekbones and slightly sunken brown eyes. His hair was thin and dark, combed back against his bony skull.
Nathan shook himself from Chris's grip and stepped back, still staring at the man with open disgust.
"It sure doesn't sound all right, Mary," Chris said sharply, eying the newcomer with bewildered suspicion. "Just who is this guy?"
"I can answer that, Mrs. Travis," the man replied quickly. Chris's confusion grew; this man knew Mary and Nathan.
The stranger panted and looked around, his gaze finally resting on Chris as he put his hat back on.
"My name is Irving Wyatt," he announced in a firm voice. "I'm the sheriff of Four Corners."
Everyone within earshot stared. JD looked at his friends, his mouth open.
"You were the sheriff, Wyatt," Nathan said hotly, his brown eyes snapping. "'Til you an' your deputy rode on outta here an' left me to hang! We oughta arrest you for desertin' you duty right now!"
Chris studied the man closely, then slowly nodded. "I remember you," he said softly, stepping closer until they were only a few feet apart. Wyatt didn't flinch. "Town was gettin' shot up by trail herders, an' you an' your deputy lit out."
Wyatt's mouth twitched a bit. "Don't forget the stolen horse."
Chris frowned and glanced at the others. They were all puzzled.
"Look, " Wyatt said quickly, "I -- I know a lot of folks here got good reasons to be angry at me. I ain't proud of what I did, but I had to come back an' make it right again."
A crowd was forming now, several townspeople staring at Wyatt with amazement. The whispers ran rampant.
"Look, it's our old sheriff!" "I don't believe it -- he came back!" "Man's lookin' to get himself hung..." "I'll get the rope myself! Cowardly bastard."
Mary glanced around. "We'd better get off the street and work this out," she said quietly.
"An excellent suggestion," agreed Ezra as he and JD hauled the attacker to his feet. "May I suggest we repair to the jail, for a start?"
"Better fix up a cell for two," Nathan muttered, still glaring at Wyatt. Chris threw him a warning glance as they all moved off, the crowd staring after them and chattering long and loud.
The rusted door of the old jailhouse cell gave a loud 'clang' as JD pulled it shut and locked it, securing the dirty man inside. His attention, however, was more focused on the small conversation behind him, and as soon as the door was fastened shut, he returned to the small group, his hazel eyes sharply appraising the newly returned sheriff.
Chris was leaning against the desk, still clearly uncomfortable, while the others stood nearby, all wearing a variety of cautious expressions. Nathan's face betrayed a barely suppressed rage which threatened to burst its bonds at any moment. Ezra was at his elbow, his gaze flicking over to the healer occasionally as if judging his comrade's state of control.
Wyatt stood before them, hat in hand, apparently nervous and contrite.
"So where have you been all this time?" Mary was asking. She stood with her arms folded, her features masked with a guarded expression.
"Oh," Wyatt sighed with a shrug, rarely looking up from the battered hat in his hands, "been ridin' all over, Ridge City, Yuma. Never stopped in one place too long, was afraid you'd all sent a posse after me."
"We were sorta busy with other things," Chris remarked in a flat tone, his green eyes hard. "Like doin' your job."
Wyatt's head snapped up, a stricken look shooting across his face. He stared at Chris for a moment, then nodded, dropping his eyes once more.
"Yeah, I -- I bet you were," he stammered. Then, taking a deep breath, he looked up again, as if forcing himself to continue. "Look, I ain't askin' no forgiveness for what I did. It was a damn cowardly thing, an' I'll never get over the shame of it."
"I hope you don't," Nathan snapped, utter contempt written on every line of his body. "You left us all t'get shot up! Mary got kicked to the ground, an' I just about got myself hanged, an' you didn't do nothin' to stop it."
Wyatt winced. "I know, Nathan, I'm just... glad to see you're all right."
"He wouldn't be if Vin an' I hadn't been there," Chris muttered.
The tall man nodded and, after a few attempts, managed to look Chris in the eye. "I'm right grateful for that, Mr. Larabee," he said, then looked around at all of them. "An' I wanna assure you, I ain't lookin' for my ol' job back. I figure I just ain't cut out for lawkeepin'. The Judge appointed you men, an' you're doin' a better job than I ever did, so -- don't worry. I won't cause you one lick of trouble."
"Smart move," Buck said in a low voice.
"Where's your deputy?" Mary inquired.
Wyatt looked back at her, his face falling. "We, uh, had a fallin' out soon after we left here. He rode off south, might be in Mexico. I don't know."
"An' you been wanderin' around this whole time?" JD said, with a faint tone of amazement. "What made you come back here?"
Wyatt shrugged again, bouncing his hat in his hats. "Well, I... heard the town was doin' right well, thought I'd see for myself. I was thinkin' it'd be empty by now, but when I heard folks tell about the railroad comin' by, an' of course you seven men," he scanned each of the men present with a slight smile, "sounded too good t'be true, so I thought I'd come an' see. An' too, I just couldn't keep runnin'. Figured it was time to be face whatever came an' be a man."
Nathan seemed less than convinced. "Wish you'd felt that way when they was stringin' me up."
The door opened, followed quickly by the entrance of a large man with dark graying hair and a slender, long-haired figure in buckskins. The long-haired man stopped when he saw Wyatt, his keen blue eyes narrowing.
Wyatt started as well as he studied the younger man. "Aren't you the young man who worked at Watson's Hardware?"
The other man stared for a few moments, then shook his head. "Damn," he murmured, the single word thick with surprise. He looked at Mary and Nathan. "Ain't he--?"
"Yup," Nathan said with a scowl. "That's him, Vin."
"Is there a problem, Chris?" the older arrival asked, as he and Vin moved inside. He was studying Wyatt too, his blue eyes flickering in recognition.
Chris shook his head. "Don't look like it, Josiah, except there's bound to be lots of folks here who ain't gonna be happy with their old sheriff's return."
"It may be dangerous for him to even put his head out the door," Ezra remarked as he threw a glance out the jail's dust-smeared window. "There appears to be a crowd gathering already."
Wyatt put up his hands, the fingers spread wide. "Look, I don't want to cause any trouble, I just want to let them know how sorry I am. It's the only way I can live with myself."
Mary and Nathan exchanged looks. Mary's was apprehensive, Nathan's openly disapproving.
Before another word could be spoken, the door burst open. A thickset middle-aged man with unruly black hair barged in and went straight to Wyatt.
"There you are, you God-damned horse thief!" he yelled, waving his arms in rage. "I ought to string you up!"
Reluctantly, Chris interposed, as the other men tensed, expecting an ugly scene. Ezra gently took Mary's arm and drew her away.
Wyatt didn't back down, however, and held up his hands once more in an effort to placate his accuser. "Don't worry, Calvert, he's fine, I took real good care of him. He's right over in the livery, an' all yours. Take a look, he's in better shape now than when I... um... borrowed him."
"Borrowed, my ass!" Calvert bellowed, his black eyes full of belligerence. "'Cause of you I've had to walk everywhere for the past year! You better be tellin' the truth, or I'm comin' back with a rope!"
With that, Calvert stormed out, pushing his way past the gathered lawmen.
"I wondered why that guy was always so cranky," JD muttered.
Through the open door they could hear the murmurings of the gathered crowd. Wyatt studied them for a minute, then sighed and put on his hat.
"Reckon I best get this over with," he said, and went to the door.
"Yeah, sooner you do, sooner you can leave," Nathan remarked, mostly to himself, as he followed the others outside.
Almost the whole town was collected in the street; word had flown fast that the old sheriff had returned. Many wore looks of anger; some were curious; a few looked relieved. Wyatt stepped to the edge of the boardwalk as the lawmen lined up behind him, their hands resting lightly on their guns in case of trouble. As soon as they saw he was about to speak, the crowd fell silent.
Wyatt cleared his throat anxiously, his eyes traveling over every face as he spoke in nervous, halting words. "Uh, I -- I don't guess any of you thought you'd ever see me again. I..." He fidgeted and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "I gotta say, I didn't think I'd ever see you again, neither."
"You ran out on us, Wyatt!" came an angry voice from the crowd.
The gaunt man bit his lip and nodded. "Yes, yes I did, sir, and I'll always regret it. That guilt's been eatin' me up for a year, an' it's 'cause of that that I'm here. I -- I just wanted to tell all of you... how sorry I am for desertin' you."
"Hell of a lot of good that does!" another member of the audience replied.
"Oh, let the man talk!" said someone else in the crowd. Several voices agreed.
Wyatt took a deep breath. "I ain't gonna chew your ears off," he promised, "an' I ain't gonna interfere with how things are now. You got seven good men lookin' after you, it's their job now an' I ain't aimin' to change that."
Chris noticed that a few of the onlookers muttered in disappointment.
"I just -- well -- I just wanted t'say my piece to you, an' I've said it," the former sheriff continued. "I pray you'll forgive me, but I won't blame you if you don't. That's all."
He stood for a few moments, unsure what to do next, then took a step back and began to walk away towards the saloon.
"Hey, Irving," called a husky, older man from the crowd as he began to follow Wyatt, "wait up!"
Wyatt stopped, and the two began to talk. Chris watched carefully, along with the others; it seemed civil enough, the older man didn't appear angry. A few more of the townspeople began to approach Wyatt, apparently in forgiveness.
"Looks like he ain't gonna get lynched after all," Vin said, coming up next to Chris.
"Can't believe they're buyin' that talk," Nathan growled, watching as the townsfolk shook Wyatt's hand and smiled at him. "They done forgot what it was like here when he was around."
"Maybe they didn't have it so bad," JD noted as they watched Mr. Conklin, a slender, bespectacled gray-haired resident, approach Wyatt with a wide grin.
"Sure looks like ol' man Conklin's happy," Buck observed as he leaned against a wooden post.
"That should come as no surprise," was Ezra's drawled reply as he withdrew a pack of cards from his pocket and began to shuffle them idly. "He hasn't liked our being here since the moment we set foot inside the town limits."
"I'll telegraph Orin and let him know about this," Mary said, a slight undercurrent of concern in her smooth voice, and she hastened down the street towards the telegraph office.
Calvert reappeared, his attitude now completely changed as he went up to Wyatt and extended one beefy hand. He seemed quite enthusiastic about something, which he eagerly shared with the surrounding townsfolk, and it could only be assumed that he had found his horse in excellent shape, exactly as Wyatt had promised.
"Looks like he's well on the way to redemption," Josiah remarked. "Least he said he won't cause any trouble."
"Yup," Chris said with a sigh, a strange feeling of suspicion twinging in his gut as he watched Wyatt smiling and talking with a growing number of townspeople. "Let's just hope his word's better than it used to be."
Three days passed quietly. The lawmen went about their business, keeping an eye on Wyatt for any signs of mischief. The former sheriff, however, did nothing to indicate that he was interested in doing anything other than making amends. He took a room in the most modest boarding house in town and spent most of his time getting reacquainted with his former charges, his manner remaining almost timid -- at first.
Chris saw him a few times in the streets, talking to old friends, mostly men. Once they were gathered in front of the tobacco store, a small knot of them, and as Chris passed inside to buy some cheroots he noticed that they were all getting along very affably. Wyatt certainly seemed happy, at any rate; all, it seemed, had been forgiven.
"Sure is good t'see Irving back," the tobacconist said with a smiling shake of his head as he tallied Chris's purchase.
"Reckon so," was the muttered reply, as Chris watched Wyatt laughing with the townsmen.
The merchant shrugged as he wrapped up the cheroots in brown paper. "Oh, some are still mighty sore, but y'know, he wasn't so bad. Lot of people here liked him. Seventy-five cents, please."
Chris counted out the money and handed it over. "S'pose it's right Christian the way they've overlooked the fact he ran out on 'em."
"Lot of folks rode outta here that day," was the somewhat testy reply. "Hell, I did. But I came back, an' so did he. You got to admit, he's got grit for facin' up to what he did. Many of us hope he stays for good."
Chris shouldn't have been surprised to hear that, but it still gave him an uncomfortable sensation up his spine. He nodded to the shopkeeper and stepped back outside, past the group of talking men. As he went by, he noticed a distinct lull in the conversation, and he knew instinctively that they were looking at him.
He stopped and turned. Sure enough, every eye in the group was on him, including Wyatt's, and none of them were smiling. They stood for a moment, studying each other with an air of veiled suspicion. Then a few of the men turned back to Wyatt, followed by the others. Chris frowned, then headed for the saloon, but not before overhearing one of the men say, "Look, Irving, are you sure you don't want to be sheriff again?"
Nathan sipped at his morning coffee without appetite, his mood sour despite the bright spring morning just outside the saloon's batwing doors.
He sat alone in the nearly-empty saloon, a plate of barely-touched breakfast before him, his mind full of tumultuous thoughts. He really should stop this, he thought as he set down the cup; it wasn't good for him to keep dwelling on the past and being so angry. If he didn't let go of this soon, it'd eat him up, and there would be no one fit to help the town's sick and injured.
Nathan fidgeted, one hand unconsciously rubbing his neck. Letting go would not be easy; he'd been having nightmares about that day, dark dreams full of fear and anger. He could still feel the tight noose around his neck, the fear at seeing Mary hurt, the near-panic when the world slipped away from beneath his feet and he was hanging there, strangling, consumed by the thought, "I'm about to die."
He sighed and looked down at his coffee, unable to meet anyone's eyes. The pain had been awful, but even worse was the knowledge that there was no one to help him, nobody who cared to stop it even after all he'd done for the town. He'd lived there for years, set bones and stitched cuts, treated bites and breaks and countless illnesses. Yet at the end, not one finger was lifted to save his life. He'd been abandoned, even by the other black folks in the town.
Wyatt could have stopped them, and his deputy. But they were gone. He knew Wyatt had seen the lynching party, knew the sheriff was aware of exactly what was happening, and still, still Wyatt rode away to leave Nathan to hang.
Nathan could forgive a lot. But he couldn't forgive that.
Didn't they remember? he wondered, looking over to where a few of the townsmen were leaning on the bar talking. He could make out the name Wyatt clearly. Didn't they recall the dying town, the shuttered stores, the drunken men running riot in the streets with no one to stop them? Didn't they care that property had been damaged, lives almost lost, because of Wyatt's cowardice?
He sighed and picked the cup back up, mostly so that his hands would be occupied. Maybe they didn't remember, or just didn't care. It wasn't their necks in the noose, or their homes that got shot up. And it probably wouldn't bother them one bit to have Wyatt come back and be sheriff again. Better than seven hired guns, right?
"Nathan? I'm sorry to interrupt your breakfast."
The healer started and looked up to see Mary standing before him. With her was a short, paunchy man of about fifty years, in dusty but well-fitting clothes, his bushy brown hair topped by a fashionable silk hat.
"That's all right, Mrs. Travis," he said quickly, shaking himself from his reverie.
She smiled, but there was a curious air of nervousness behind her pleasant expression. "Nathan Jackson, I'd like you to meet Dr. Benjamin Fredericks."
Oh. Nathan stood a bit and extended his hand, his interest instantly piqued. "Mornin', Dr. Fredericks. Sure am glad t'meet you."
"And I you, Mr. Jackson," the man replied amiably, the lips beneath his large mustache curling into a smile. "Mary tells me you're a healer. Very impressive."
"Thanks," Nathan replied with a nod, sitting down once more. "I'd be mighty anxious t'talk to you, Doctor. Got a lot of questions about real doctorin', if you got the time."
Fredericks sat down opposite Nathan and took off his hat. "Oh, I think I have, Nathan," he said with a laugh. "If the people here approve of me, that is."
Nathan didn't like the sound of that for some reason, and he looked at Mary with questioning eyes.
Before he could utter a sound, she cleared her throat and said in a somewhat reluctant tone, "Dr. Fredericks is moving here. He's bought an office next door to the Clarion."
Nathan felt himself start, and he looked at Fredericks with surprise. Of course, he'd always hoped Four Corners would get a real doctor, but it still came as something of a knock to suddenly have another healer around.
But it'd be good for the town, he quickly reminded himself, and forced a smile onto his face as he nodded. "That's -- that's great," he said, trying to sound convincing. Why wasn't he happier about this? "Hope you don't mind if I come an' look over your shoulder. There's a lot I'm lookin' to learn about healin' folks."
"Not at all," Fredericks replied, his round, pudgy face set in a friendly grin. "I'd like to hear about your experiences in the war. I'm quite astounded that you were a stretcher bearer, that must have taken a lot of courage."
Nathan nodded absently. "Yeah, guess it did."
"Well then," the other man said firmly, standing once more and picking up his hat, "give me a few days to get settled and we'll see about getting together. Perhaps you can help me get acquainted with the people here, I'm afraid it'll take them a while to trust me, being an outsider and all."
"I'll do what I can," Nathan said with a nod, still feeling ill at ease about... what?
"Splendid." Fredericks smiled and nodded to Mary. "Thank you for your help, Mrs. Travis, I'll just go see about having my things delivered. Good day to you both." He gave a quick nod and bustled out of the saloon.
Mary sighed and turned to Nathan. "Well," she said with what sounded like cautious optimism, "first the jewelry store, now a doctor, all in one week. Things are moving fast for us, aren't they?"
"Yep," was the healer's somber reply, as he watched Fredericks walk down the boardwalk through the saloon window, and pondering the strange sensation of disquiet stealing over his heart. "Just hope we can keep up." Something struck his memory, and he looked at Mary. "Heard anything from the Judge?"
Mary made a small, frustrated noise and shook her head. "The telegraph operator said he's out of town until the end of next week and can't be reached. I suppose we'll just have to keep an eye on Wyatt until he gets back."
Nathan leaned forward, staring over his cup of coffee at a scene long past. "You can bet I'll be doin' that," he said in a low voice tinged with anger.
Vin sauntered slowly down the street, now deserted and dusty in the light of the setting sun. Only a few other people were about, and none of them gave the tracker a second glance. Which, of course, was just fine with Vin, who hated being stared at. The day had been long and unseasonably warm for spring; all he wanted now was a drink, and the companionable solitude of the saloon.
He saw a figure standing on the boardwalk up ahead, in front of the grocer's; as he drew closer he could discern Wyatt, leaning against a wooden post and smoking a cheroot. Vin's hackles instantly rose, and he tried not to glare at the returned sheriff as he walked by.
He had no idea why his instincts flared whenever he was around the lean older man, but he did know he had no liking for him. The man abandoned his duty, left his charges in the hands of ruffians, and there was more than enough honor in Vin to feel nothing but contempt for a man who would forsake the helpless to save his own neck.
But there was more to it than that, Vin mused as he lifted his tired blue eyes to look up the street at the saloon looming ahead. Something about Wyatt that he couldn't pin down just rubbed him wrong -- there was an air of unknown danger lurking beneath those pleas of apology and contrition. He reminded Vin of a cagey animal, pretending to be injured to lure in its prey.
Judging by how folks in town had seemed to forgive Wyatt, the ploy seemed to be working.
The gunshot echoed through the empty street like a thunderclap, the bullet slamming into the dust only a few feet from Vin. The few townsmen who were around yelled in alarm and dove for cover as more shots rang out.
The former bounty hunter reacted instantly, his Winchester out and primed as he ducked smoothly behind the nearest shelter, a fully loaded wagon. Another bullet struck the wagon, sending splinters of wood spinning through the air.
Vin waited, his eyes searching, his hands grasping his weapon as he coiled himself to strike. Another gunshot; it struck the wagon again. The gunman was definitely shooting at him. One guy, it seemed, on the roof of the tobacco shop across the street.
He gripped his gun, then sprang up and fired a few shots towards the roof. He could see a lone figure there, watching and waiting. As soon as Vin emerged, the figure got off another round, causing the tracker to seek shelter again.
As Vin waited for another chance, he heard footsteps behind him, and looked up to see Wyatt moving towards him, his own gun drawn.
"See him?" Wyatt asked as he inched over to where Vin was, careful to stay hidden.
Grudgingly, Vin nodded at the roof, galled that he had to accept help from a man whom he so thoroughly distrusted. "He's up on that roof."
Wyatt glanced around at the townspeople who had sought shelter, and were now peering into the street fearfully from behind doors and turned-over tables. "Anybody hit?"
Vin shook his head, his long golden-brown curls dancing with the motion. "Nope. It's me he's after."
"But the civilians could still get hurt," Wyatt insisted.
Vin scowled as he checked his gun. "Hell, Wyatt, I know that! I'm going to--"
He lifted his head to continue, but Wyatt was gone.
"Damn," he muttered, looking around. In the fading sunlight he saw Wyatt approaching the tobacco shop in a crouch, gun lifted, staying close to the sides of the nearest buildings.
Dang fool, gonna get himself killed pullin' some stupid heroic stunt, Vin thought angrily as he scanned the rooftop. Maybe he was trying to redeem himself in the eyes of the townsfolk. Or maybe he was just crazy.
"Wyatt!" he whispered, hoping to call the former sheriff back. Wyatt ignored him as he trotted towards the weathered wooden stairs leading to the tobacco shop's second floor.
"What's goin' on, Vin?" said a familiar voice at the tracker's elbow.
Vin didn't turn around, his blue eyes glued to Wyatt. "Guy on the roof takin' potshots, Josiah," was the muttered reply.
"Huh," Josiah grunted as he stepped next to Vin, squinting into the sunlight. "What's Wyatt doin'?"
Wyatt had now reached the steps and was very slowly climbing them, his gun poised just in case.
"Tryin' t'get himself killed, looks like," Vin said in a quiet, slightly irritated tone.
"Thought that was our job," Josiah noted dryly. Vin shook his head, and together they followed Wyatt over to the tobacco shop.
Wyatt had reached the second floor; on the landing stood a ladder leading up to the flat roof. He began to ascend very slowly as Vin and Josiah came towards him, their own weapons at the ready.
He arrived at the top of the ladder, his head just below the lip of the roof. With extreme caution, he carefully lifted it, peering furtively over the edge. As soon as he did so, he relaxed and turned to the other men.
"He's gone," Wyatt shouted.
Josiah and Vin looked at each other.
"I'll check the street," Josiah offered, and darted off.
Vin nodded. "I'll look 'round back," he returned, and they split up while Wyatt went up to inspect the roof.
Twenty minutes later they met at the front of the tobacco shop, empty-handed.
"Reckon he climbed down the other side an' took off into the desert," Vin said with disappointment as he holstered his Winchester.
"Or just blended in somewhere," Josiah sighed, looking around.
"Well, we do know one thing," Wyatt announced as he came down the steps, a fluttering sheet of weathered paper in his hand. "He was after you, Tanner."
He held up the paper. It was a wanted poster for Vin, dirty and torn but still legible, featuring a reasonable sketch of the tracker, his name and the five hundred dollar bounty for murder in Texas.
"Damn!" Vin spat, his eyes turning stormy. "Some bastard's lookin' to collect on me."
"That won't happen while any of us are around, Vin," Josiah promised, hoping to ease his friend's anger.
"I'm certain Tanner's life is safe in the hands of his comrades, Mr. Sanchez," Wyatt noted, looking at the poster before rolling it up. "I just thank God none of those people were hurt."
Josiah's eyebrows came together as he threw Wyatt a furious look. "It's not Vin's fault he's a marked man, Wyatt," he said in a sharp tone. "Them charges are false, an' everyone here knows it."
A few of the townspeople had remained nearby, and were listening intently.
Wyatt's expression was serious. "I'm sure they are, Sanchez," he said with all sincerity. "But that would hardly matter if an innocent person here lost their life because someone came for Tanner. That much money could easily cause recklessness."
Vin's blue eyes were blazing as he took a step towards Wyatt, heedless of the audience around them. "I'd take a bullet myself before I'd let any of these folks get hurt, Wyatt," he snapped, coming to within a few feet on the former sheriff. "We already saw what you'd do for 'em -- leave 'em to fend for themselves."
Wyatt looked stung. "That was a long time ago, Tanner!" he protested. A few people muttered in agreement.
Vin and Josiah looked at each other. The tracker drew a deep breath, turned back to Wyatt and snatched the wanted poster from his hands, crumpling it to pieces.
"I'm goin' to the saloon," he said in a low voice full of barely restrained anger, and walked away. Josiah gave Wyatt an appraising look and went after his comrade.
"I knew this would happen one day!" a townsman said behind them, loud enough for Vin to hear. "Having a marked man in town is dangerous, even if he is a lawman. I mean, Tanner's all right, but -- well--"
"I'm with you, Jack," another voice chimed in, although the words grew fainter as they walked farther away. "Somebody's gonna get shot."
A third voice, the last he heard, came in. "What do you think, Wyatt?"
"Wasn't your fault, Vin," Josiah consoled him as they strode up the street.
"Hell it ain't, Josiah," was the bitter response as Vin hurled the crumpled wanted poster away. "He was gunnin' for me. I always been afraid this would happen."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, Vin wearing a deeply troubled expression.
"Don't want nobody gettin' hurt 'cause of me bein' here," he finally added quietly.
The other man smiled a bit. "We all know that, Vin. Try not to get too worked up, I reckon we can cover their behinds as well as yours," he said in a reassuring tone. "Now let's see what Inez is servin' up at the Tavern."
Vin nodded, not feeling at all reassured. This opened up a whole new set of problems, ones he hoped he'd never have to face. A drink wouldn't solve them, but he found himself wanting one very badly. Or maybe it was just the company that would go with the drink; Chris would be at the saloon now, and Nathan, and Buck, Ezra and JD. Maybe it was them he wanted to see, to hear their voices and share in their company.
Because the time might come very soon when he could no longer risk their lives to do so.
Another two days went by, remarkable only for their lack of excitement. The town seemed crowded as the farmers came in to buy supplies for the spring planting, and there were a few dustups at the saloon between some hotheaded cattle hands and stubborn farm boys, but that was about all.
On the night of the second day, Buck sat lounging in the jail, idly reading the latest copy of the Clarion and keeping an eye on the large, scruffy miscreant who had attacked Mary.
"Hey, friend, looks like you made the paper," he announced, scanning the inside pages.
The prisoner grunted, glaring with unfriendly eyes at Buck. "That a fact?"
"Sure is," the lawman replied, his eyes still on the paper. "But it ain't somethin' you'll be wantin' to send to your mama, I bet."
The prisoner grunted. "Go to hell, lawman," he spat, and turned away.
Buck grinned to himself and kept reading, until a shout in the street caught his attention.
He was on his feet in an instant, the paper tossed aside. A quick glance at the jail cell assured him that the outlaw was secure, and he dashed out into the street.
A few doors down, a pile of barrels lay blazing next to the undertaker's, thick smoke and flames roaring into the black night air. The hungry flames licked at the wooden building.
"Shit!" Buck yelled, taking a few steps off the porch. Some of the townspeople were running over, their leather fire buckets in hand. Within moments they were dragging them in the nearby horse's trough and tossing the water on the blaze. The barrels were soon doused, but the walls of the undertaker's were smoldering, flames still dangling on the boards and along the edge of the roof.
Buck whirled and dashed inside, intent of finding the fire bucket which was always kept inside the door of the jail. He checked the cell and saw that the prisoner was sleeping on his cot; things seemed secure enough, but he grabbed and pocketed the keys to the cell just in case anyone got ideas about freeing the lawbreaker. Then, grabbing the fire bucket, he ran back outside.
The flames were now snaking up the side of the wall. A ladder was quickly procured, and Buck filled his bucket and climbed it as quickly as he could, heaving the contents onto the smoking roof. A line formed swiftly behind him, full and empty buckets passed up and down the way until the fire was extinguished.
"Whew!" Buck breathed as he climbed down the ladder, exhausted. That had been close; he'd seen how fires could destroy entire towns in a hurry. After mopping his brow, he turned around, and to his surprise ran smack into Irving Wyatt.
"Whoa!" exclaimed Buck as he staggered back a few paces. "Uh, hey there, Wyatt."
"Wilmington," nodded the former sheriff, running one smudged arm over his perspiring forehead. Like Buck, Wyatt was covered with ashes and sweat. "Nice work there."
"Oh, uh, thanks," Buck replied, glancing back at the charred side of the undertaker's. Then he swung his gaze back to Wyatt. "Looks like you were workin' pretty hard yourself."
"You bet he was!" said another of the townsmen as he walked by, dripping bucket in hand. "Didn't you see him, Wilmington? Wyatt here got the line going. It was somethin', you'd have thought it was his own place burnin' down."
"Yeah?" Buck replied, peering closely at Wyatt and wondering why he wasn't more impressed or grateful.
Wyatt merely shrugged. "Well, you know, I wasn't about to let the town burn to the ground."
Buck nodded. "Well... thanks. Best go look in on the prisoner, make sure he didn't slither through the bars or somethin'."
"Right. Well, night," Wyatt said, and wandered off.
Buck watched him go, noticing a few of the townsmen coming up and talking to him as he went towards the saloon. Then he sighed, suddenly feeling very tired, and walked back to the jail.
He entered and slung the bucket into the corner, blinking as he noticed the smoke still hanging in the air from the fire next door. The outlaw, he saw, was still lying perfectly still on his bunk with his face to the wall, and Buck was about to sit back down when he stopped and looked again. Something wasn't right.
"Oh, shit!" he whispered in horror, running across the small room to the outer bars and furiously digging the keys from his pocket. As he quickly unlocked the door, his eyes stayed riveted to the man on the bunk, who remained motionless.
The outer door flew open, and Buck ran to the outlaw's door, but his dread suppositions were turning into certainties the closer he got to the cell. By the time he unlocked the door and yanked it open, he no longer had any questions, and without hesitation he charged inside and grabbed the figure on the cot, violently dragging it to the floor.
Straw and wadded rags flew everywhere as the stuffed clothing was pulled apart. Letting out a furious yell, Buck throttled the headless shirt in his fist for a moment, then dashed it to the floor of the cell and sped out, a million questions running through his mind as he plunged into the street. Obviously he'd gotten out during the fire, but how, if Buck had the only key? Did he pick the lock? Where did the stuffed clothes come from? And most importantly, where the hell did the guy go?
He looked in every direction, his eyes wide with urgency. A few men still stood nearby, including Wyatt.
"Somethin' wrong, Wilmington?" one of the townsmen called.
"The prisoner got out!" he replied in a yell, his gun drawn.
"Aw, damn!" another man gasped. "We'll find 'im, Buck, don't worry."
"Bastard can't have gone too far," the first man observed.
"I'll check down the back alley," Wyatt volunteered, and ran off.
"Be careful!" Buck shouted after them as they dispersed. He gave one more look around and then began his own search, his heart pounding. Chris and Mary were going to kill him, but Buck was more concerned with how the guy got out. He'd had the only key, and that stuffed dummy had to come from somewhere. The man had had help escaping, but from who?
Hoping to find some answers, Buck ran off into the night.
The next morning revealed the full extent the small fire had done to the undertaker's shop. As the townspeople gaped and pointed at the blackened roof and charred pile of splintered wood and twisted metal where the old barrels had been, the seven lawmen worked to find the escaped criminal.
"Looks like this fire was just a diversion," Chris observed as he studied the mess.
JD was standing next to him, his hands on his hips. "I asked all over town, an' nobody saw who set it," the young man sighed. "Sure hope Vin an' Buck find somethin'."
A red-clad figure emerged from the jail, adjusting his flat-crowned black hat against the glare of the morning sun. "It appears our wayward felon also possessed a key to his cell," Ezra announced as he approached JD and Chris. "There are no signs of a pick having been employed."
JD frowned at him. "The only person who had a key was Buck, an' he said he took them when he went to fight the fire."
The three men contemplated this for a moment, but before it could be addressed further, their thoughts were interrupted by Mary's worried voice. "Chris?"
They turned to see the slender blonde woman coming towards them, concern plainly written on her face.
"Mary," Chris replied, tugging at his hat brim. His two comrades did the same.
"Is it true?" she inquired, stopping a few feet from them and scanning their faces with wide blue eyes. "Did the man who attacked me escape last night?"
"Don't you worry, Mrs. Travis, Vin's probably got 'im in tow right now," JD assured her.
"I somehow think that's highly unlikely, Mr. Dunne," announced a new voice.
At this addition to their conversation, the men and Mrs. Travis turned their eyes to the street. Wyatt was trotting up to where they stood, holding a bundle of cloth wadded up before him on his saddle.
"What do you mean, Wyatt?" Mary asked, as soon as the former marshal was close enough.
Wyatt reined in and faced them. "Did a little scouting on my own -- no offense, Mr. Larabee, just didn't like the idea that that skunk had gotten loose."
Chris's mouth twitched but he said nothing beyond, "Find anything?"
Wyatt sighed and crossed his hands on his saddle pommel. "Yep. The prisoner -- or rather, what was left of him." He straightened and held up the cloth. It was a blue shirt, identical to the one the outlaw had been wearing, torn to pieces and soaked with brownish dried blood.
Mary didn't flinch at the gruesome sight; instead, she looked relieved and a little curious. "What happened?"
"Met somethin' meaner than he was, I suppose," Wyatt answered, wadding the cloth back up. "Probably a mountain lion. Not much left of him, but I managed to get this shirt, just to prove he's dead."
"Where's the body?" Chris asked quietly, studying Wyatt with skeptical eyes.
A small grin crossed Wyatt's lips. "A little ghoulish fascination, Larabee? I buried the remains near that outcropping next to the river. He's right by a large dead tree with four branches. If you want, I can take you there, you can see for yourself."
Chris shook his head. "Just in case the law wanted him, that's all. They might need proof he's dead."
Wyatt chuckled and held up the bloody shirt. "Here's all the proof they should need. Now, I'm headed to the bath house. Morning, Mary."
He nodded to Mary and tossed the shirt to Chris before riding off down the street. Chris grabbed the stiff fabric in one fist and stared after the former marshal, his instincts blazing.
JD sighed. "Guess you can stop worryin', Mrs. Travis," he breathed in surprise. "Looks like he met justice after all."
Mary gave an unsteady nod and forced a smile. "Yes, it looks that way. Well," she cleared her throat, "I -- I have to go open the office. I'll see you boys later."
She hurried off with a preoccupied expression on her face, walking through the small crowd of people who were gawking at the burned building.
Chris stood silent for a moment, clutching the bloodied shirt, then without turning his head said, "Keep an eye on things, JD, I'm gonna see if I can find Vin."
As Chris began to walk towards the livery, JD nodded. "Sure, Chris. Where you goin'?"
"To see if this dead man is really dead," was the reply, and Chris was gone.
The warm spring wind whistled past the desolate desert rocks and over the shallow, sparkling river as it made its way east to more attractive climes. It barely paused to linger over the two men who now crouched beside a small open grave, and as it went on its way its arrival and departure failed to attract the slightest bit of their attention.
"What do you think?" Chris asked, his green eyes never moving from the almost indecipherable mass of what was once a human body lying in the rocky pit before them.
Vin shifted on his haunches and scratched at his chin, his face puzzled. Finally he ran one hand through his long brown curls, now dancing restlessly in the breeze. "Ran into a cougar, all right, but hell if I know if that's the feller that got outta our jail. Ain't enough face left, could be anybody." He tilted his head a little, studying the gory remains closely without the barest trace of hesitation or squeamishness. "'Bout the right size, though."
"Clothes are the same, too," his friend observed in a pensive, quiet voice. Finally Chris stood and beats his palms together to wipe off the dust. "Right. Let's head back."
The other man got to his feet as well, pulling his battered wide-brimmed leather hat back onto his head as he continued to stare at the dead man. "We sayin' this is the feller who escaped?"
Chris looked around at the unforgiving landscape, so wide open and yet secretive. "Yep," he said, squinting as his keen green eyes seemed to pick out every cactus and boulder. "But we'll keep our eyes open, just in case this is a trick. Somethin' about this just don't set right."
Vin drew a deep breath and nodded his silent agreement. Without another word, they dumped handfuls of sand and rocks back over the body, then walked back to their horses, mounted up, and trotted back to town, leaving the desert and its secrets behind.
Two days later, Chris found himself sitting in front of the jail, smoking a cheroot and watching the day's activity. Wagons full of seed and manure rolled by, the hitches clattering as they jounced over the uneven dirt streets. Townsfolk, eager to get out in the pleasant weather, promenaded along the boardwalk, taking in every new sight.
The uneasiness over the fire and the prisoner's escape had mostly faded. Everyone seemed to accept that the man had died in the desert and moved on. Questions still haunted Chris, however; he was not completely convinced that the body was that of the criminal, and there was still the mystery of how the prisoner had escaped in the first place.
So Chris sat, kept an eye on things, and thought.
Glancing up the street, Chris noticed many people going into Hoffman's jewelry store, and smiled a little, recalling the article Mary had written about the new store owner in her paper. Hoffman had endured a lot, coming here from Germany, fighting in the War and losing a leg. A widower, he had come West to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. The man had grit, and it was good to see some folks who deserved it doing well.
He was keeping an eye on some uncertain-looking farmers when the thump of bootsteps caught his ear, and a low voice said, "Hey, Chris. Anythin' goin' on this side of town?"
Chris glanced over his shoulder. "Afternoon, Nathan," he muttered around the cheroot as the healer plopped into the chair beside him. "Nope, pretty quiet. 'Course, that might change."
Nathan heaved a sigh and leaned back. "Couldn't be much more dull than the clinic. I ain't had more'n three patients all week."
Chris puffed on the cheroot, a glint of anger on his friend's behalf coming into his green eyes. "That new doctor, huh?"
The other man's mouth twitched and he sat forward, his face contorting as he fought to maintain his composure. "Can't blame folks for wantin' a real doctor 'stead of a healer, but -- sure didn't think they'd drop me that fast."
"Wasn't he gonna let you help him?" the gunslinger inquired, his brows furrowing.
"Well, yeah, an' we've talked a couple times," Nathan admitted. "Seems pretty smart, an' he don't mind helpin' me. But lately when I go over, he says it's a bad time." He frowned. "An' you know what else? Wyatt's been tellin' folks to go to him."
Chris's frown turned into an outright scowl. "They know each other?"
Nathan shook his head. "Not to hear Wyatt tell it, but seems he went to Fredericks with a sprained finger last week an' got fixed up pretty good." he sighed and sat back once more, running one hand over his head. "Guess I can't blame the man for talkin' good about someone who helped him, but..."
"You don't like it," Chris finished for him, giving the healer a keen look.
His comrade stopped, looked at Chris in return and pursed his lips. "No, Chris, no, I don't. An' it ain't like I'm jealous. It's like... there's somethin' wrong here. About Wyatt."
"I know," Chris replied, blowing out another puff of blue smoke as he gazed into the street. "Folks here been takin' a real shinin' to him. Seen 'im mendin' fences, paintin' stores, helpin' to put out that fire. He's a regular citizen again here." He paused, and looked back at Nathan. "An' I don't like it either. My gut tells me he's about as trustworthy as a riled rattler."
Nathan looked down at his hands. "Mine too, but I ain't sure why. He been actin' like a perfect saint since he got here."
Chris glanced at him again. "Maybe that's why."
The healer considered this, and nodded a little. "Could be. He sure wasn't no saint when he was sheriff, seems a little odd to--"
Both men started at the loud, masculine shout and looked out into the street. Twenty feet away stood a young man, barely twenty years old, his slender body clad in dusty, worn clothing denoting the status of a cowhand. His face was long and marked by a prominent mole on his left cheek, his thin lips curled in a sneer. His long, dirty red hair fell straight past his shoulders and stirred feebly in the warm wind. Beneath the shade of his battered cowboy's hat, his small blue eyes studied Chris with an eager, arrogant expression, and his skinny, long-fingered hands danced restlessly above the handles of the two Remingtons he wore on his hips.
Chris knew at once what was happening, and sighed. "Oh, shit."
"Chris Larabee!" the kid cried again, walking forward as some in the surrounding crowd gasped and backed away. Others, curious and excited, gathered closer. "I'm callin' you out, you mangy yella dog!"
Chris didn't move a muscle as he studied his ugly young opponent. "Go home, kid," he muttered in a cross tone and looked away. Nathan kept his eye on the young man, concerned.
"Not 'til you an' me have it out, Larabee!" was the gleeful response; he was only ten feet away now, and the crowd was getting larger. "I come all the way from Tucson lookin' to draw on you."
There was still no movement from the black-clad man on the boardwalk, except a turn of the head as he appraised the enthusiastic newcomer. "An' you'll take your ass back to Tucson, if you know what's good for you," Chris replied in a perfectly relaxed tone. "I ain't drawin' on a kid."
The young man barked out a smug laugh. "What's the matter, ol' man, scared I'll whip ya?"
Chris's eyes began to smolder.
"Look, kid," Nathan said, standing up a little and holding out a cautioning hand. "You best just get now."
The stranger gave Nathan a nasty look. "Shut up, darky, ain't nobody talkin' to you!"
Chris got to his feet, pulling the cheroot from his mouth. "I'm tellin' you, kid--"
Without warning the kid pulled his gun from its holster.
"CHRIS!" Nathan cried, his own hand flying to the gun on his hip.
As Nathan's voice tore the air, Chris's hand whipped to his side, drawing and firing almost in the same second. Two explosions ripped through the quiet street at once. The kid's shot went wide, nicking Chris's arm and shattering the jail window behind Chris with a mighty crash. Chris's bullet met its target, and the kid fell to the street howling in pain and clutching at his wounded gun arm as his weapon toppled harmlessly into the dirt.
The crowd gasped; several cried out in surprise that it happened so quickly. Wyatt came pushing out of the mass of bodies, coming to the kid's side as Nathan and Chris watched, puzzled and angry, Chris's arm bleeding a little.
"You Goddamned bastard, you shot me!" the kid was shrieking, struggling to get out of Wyatt's iron grip and staring at Chris with open hatred.
Chris stared back as he holstered his gun. Dammit, he thought. Dammit! He hated this every time.
"Lucky he didn't kill you, kid," Wyatt said, looking at the wound. "Bullet's still in there."
Nathan stepped forward. "We can get him to my clinic, it's--"
The kid scooted away, his eyes fixed on Nathan as if the healer was a repulsive monster. "You ain't touchin' me, darky! I want me a real doctor!"
"I'll take 'im to Ben's place, Nathan, you can see to Chris's arm," Wyatt offered, hauling the young man none too gently to his feet. "You all better stay here 'til we got him calmed down some."
Chris nodded. "After you patch him up, send word. We got a nice cell waitin' for him."
"Yup." Wyatt pulled the still-protesting youth down the street towards Frederick's office and disappeared into the crowd.
As the people began to dissipate, Nathan checked the crease on Chris's arm. "Don't look too bad, Chris, he just winged you a little. C'mon, let's get a bandage on it."
Chris complied, his eyes still blazing. "Thought those days were over, Nathan," he muttered, his blond hair falling into his eyes as he stared at the kid's blood soaking into the street. "I haven't had anyone call me out in over a year."
"Just some hotheaded kid lookin' to make himself a name," Nathan said with a shake of his head. "Guess he didn't know you ain't a killer no more."
Chris noticed how some of the townsfolk were looking at him with disapproving eyes. A memory dashed across his mind, of the other day at the tobacconist's, when he had also been scrutinized unfavorably by the townsmen.
He gritted his teeth as they walked away. "Not sure the people here know that, either," he said quietly, and nothing more was said as they went their way.
The closer Wyatt and the kid got to Frederick's office, the rougher the former sheriff's grip became. By the time they reached his door, he was practically strangling the kid.
"Dammit, Wyatt!" the young man gasped. "I--"
"Shuttup!" Wyatt hissed back as he pushed open Frederick's door. Inside the doctor was sitting at a table, reading a book, and looked up startled as Wyatt shoved his captive in and closed the door.
"Irving!" Fredericks cried, jumping up. "What the hell happened?"
"That damn Larabee shot me, that's what happened!" the kid replied hotly as Wyatt pushed him onto the examining table.
"I oughta kill you for how you botched that up, Huston!" Wyatt barked, giving the young man a smack on the back of his head and knocking his hat off. "You weren't supposed to shoot him, dammit! You were just supposed to cause a scene!"
Huston rubbed his head and gave Wyatt a hurt look. "But, Wyatt, think how famous I'd get if I killed Chris Larabee!"
Wyatt came up to the boy and stared him straight in the face, his eyes snapping. "This ain't about bein' famous, Huston!" he growled. "It's about gettin' rich, an' I don't need your stupidity ruinin' this plan!"
Huston cowered a little, the first glimmers of contrition showing on his scarred face. "They didn't suspect nothin', Wyatt," he mumbled.
"No, an' they better not," was the icy response. "I didn't work on this idea for seven months to have you undo everything in two seconds!"
"Oh, calm down, for God's sake," Fredericks said as he prepared to mend Huston's arm. "These rubes don't suspect a thing. All the boys know what to do -- look, Roy attacked that Travis lady, and Irish shot at that tracker, and not a soul knew they were both working for you. And they never suspected that dead body in the desert was just some guy we ambushed instead of Roy. And look at me!" He smiled. "Everyone thinks I'm a kindly old country doctor -- they love me here. Soon there won't be a soul goin' to that uppity black any more."
Huston snorted out an ugly laugh. "Yeah, good thing they don't know you been two years in a Kansas jail for killin' that woman patient of your'n."
"You watch it, or else I'll make sure you feel every stitch!" Fredericks commanded crossly before looking back at the former sheriff. "It's all working out, Wyatt, so just relax."
Wyatt harrumphed and glared at Huston. "We're gonna have to let'em jail you, Huston, just to keep up the game. Maybe you can reconsider your decision while you cool your heels for a bit."
Huston's eyes grew round. "Y'ain't gonna leave me there, are ya, Wyatt? I hate sittin' in jails!"
"Oh, stop sniveling!" Wyatt snapped, giving the boy a small slap on his unwounded arm. "Don't worry, after a few days you'll get sprung. Them lawmen are gonna get a phony telegram sayin' you're a wanted man in Jericho."
Fredericks looked up. "Jack's sendin' that, right?"
"Right," Wyatt affirmed with a nod. "I'll volunteer to take you over, then let you go once we've cleared town."
Huston blinked. "That sounds right good, Wyatt, but -- can't ya just spring me, like ya did Roy?"
Wyatt sighed angrily. "Now Huston, two fires set near the jail is gonna look mighty suspicious! They're not stupid, after all, you can bet they won't fall for that again. And I can't give you the extra key I kept when I left town last year, 'cause they'll probably search you. Just leave everything to me an' stop being so damned antsy. You're making me nervous!"
"Relax, Wyatt," Fredericks advised as he worked. "You got no reason to worry. Everyone knows their part in this."
Wyatt began to pace, whipping off his hat and running his hand through his dusty hair. "I know the boys know what to do," he said in an anxious tone. "Hell, we've all been working together since I fell in with you in Purgatory. An' after your boss Willie got gunned down at the border, you've let me lead you to greater riches than even that old bastard could have dreamed of. But this plan means a lot to me, Ben, and I can't tolerate even the slightest chance that it could fail."
He sighed, and went to the window, looking out over the bustling streets as Fredericks continued with his work.
"It's a good plan, Irving," Fredericks assured him as he picked up his probe. "And now that the boys know how rich this place is -- why, they'll do whatever it takes to put you back in power."
Wyatt grunted, still staring out into the street, his eyes greedily appraising the area. "This town wasn't always this way, Ben," he muttered. "When I left, it was a rotting corpse just waiting to fall down. No sane man would've fought to defend it, an' when those cattle drivers started shootin' it up, I said to hell with this an' took off." He chuckled and shook his head. "Sure never thought it'd wind up like this."
"Here, drink this," Fredericks said to Huston, shoving a bottle of whiskey into the young man's good hand. Huston willingly complied as Fredericks began to employ the probe. "Yeah, bet you were real surprised, Irving."
"Huh!" Wyatt huffed, leaning on one elbow against the wall and continuing to look out. "That don't begin to describe it. I thought the place'd die for sure, but then one day I hear from one of the boys that it's not only alive, but thrivin'. Look at all the new stores, an' the railroad comin' right nearby. An' who's reapin' the rewards?" He shook his head slowly. "Seven God-damned hired guns. Sittin' in my place an' takin' what rightfully belongs to me."
He paused, then turned to his comrades, his eyes dark and predatory. "But that's about to change, if we have no more mistakes." He eyed Huston severely. The young man winced and went back to the whiskey. "The sheriff who owns a town this prosperous would be sittin' mighty pretty, if he knows what to do. Since old man Travis appointed those men, I can't make them leave. But if the good people want them gone, and if they don't want to stay, that's a different story." He grinned. "Isn't it?"
"Don't you worry, Wyatt," Fredericks said with an oily smile as he pulled the bullet roughly from Huston's arm. The kid yelped and bit back an obscenity. "By the time we're done, the townsfolk'll be beggin' you to be Sheriff again, an' them seven men won't have nothin' to say about it."
Wyatt smiled, the normally pleasant action rendering his expression more fearsome than friendly. "And then, my friends," he said with anticipatory glee, "the real fun will be just beginning."
JD sighed to himself as he walked slowly by the glittering cases of Hoffman's jewelry store. So many beautiful things, but nothing he could afford.
There were five other people in the small shop on this warm spring morning, but as they bent intently over the gleaming glass cases and whispered questions to the young men who worked as Mr. Hofmann's assistants, JD could tell they were seriously looking to buy something. Feeling slightly awkward, he shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and kept studying the wares before him, hoping to see something that Casey would like for her birthday, and that wouldn't deplete his already meager resources.
Ezra had given him two dollars because Chaucer had almost wrecked his stall after getting into a snapping fight with the horse stabled next to him -- Wyatt's new horse, if JD remembered correctly -- and JD had cleaned up the mess, but even that didn't stretch his money much.
Rings blinked and sparkled from their velvet-lined beds. Bracelets and necklaces twinkled in the morning sunlight. Silver and gold earrings silently shouted their beauty. Gem-encrusted pins of all shapes and descriptions tempted him on all sides. Silver and gold-plated trinkets, from thimbles to tea sets to dainty scissors, seemed to surround him. There was luxury everywhere, all shouting the same message: You couldn't afford me if you lived to be a hundred.
JD sighed again, and decided that shopping for a girl could drive a man crazy.
"Is there anything I can show you, Mr. Dunne?"
The young lawkeeper started a bit and looked up to see Mr. Hofmann watching him from behind the counter. He was smiling pleasantly behind his small spectacles, the morning sun glinting off the silver-gold curls which frothed at the nape of his neck.
"Oh," he said, grinning back and feeling a little embarrassed, "just, uh, seein' if there's anything here for a... friend of mine. Her birthday's comin' up, an' I can't get her a frog gigger again."
Mr. Hofmann smiled, his eyes bright with understanding. "My supply of frog giggers is pretty low anyhow, I'm afraid," he said lightly, his German accent evident in every syllable. "Perhaps I can help you find something she might like even more."
He came out from behind the counter, the silver-headed cane in his hand thumping rhythmically against the polished wooden floor as he led JD towards the back.
"Mary's paper said you were in the War, Mr. Hofmann," JD remembered as they walked along.
"Yes indeed, my young friend!" was the proud reply. "The 107th Ohio. Saw some damn hot fighting, I'll tell you, until the day I lost my leg below the knee to a cannonball."
"I'll bet," JD said, impressed. "But, um, I'm sure sorry you got hurt."
They stopped at a counter laden with gold-plated items, and Hoffman looked at JD, his expression wistful. "I am as well, Mr. Dunne, but for what your country has given me, I consider a limb but small payment. It has been hard work, but worth every moment for me to be able to come here and realize my dream. It is not every man who can do so!"
JD smiled, remembering how excited he was when he came West. "I know just how you feel, Mr. Hofmann."
The older man smiled, clapped JD on the shoulder, then bent over the cases. "Now, my young friend, I will be happy to help you, and I will give you a special discount even, since you are one of those brave men who fight to keep the peace here. All right?"
Flattered, JD shuffled his feet a bit. "Thanks, sir, but... you don't have to do that..."
"'Specially since he ain't gonna be a lawman here much longer."
JD and Mr. Hofmann both looked around, surprised at the softly spoken but clearly heard comment. Not far away stood one of the townsmen, a sullen-looking farmer who was staring at JD. Nearby stood a woman, apparently his wife, looking over some earrings and ignoring the proceedings.
JD felt his cheeks tingle. "How's that, mister?"
The other man grunted and continued to chew the piece of straw in his mouth. "Nothin'," he mumbled, not backing down. "Just sayin' what lots of folks are thinkin'. The real sheriff's back, so we don't need you hired guns no more."
The woman seemed to hear that, and she gave her husband an irritated glance and said, "Oh, Wilbur, for heaven's sake, hush." Then she moved down to the bracelets.
"I'll hear nothing against Mr. Dunne and his friends in my store, sir," Mr. Hofmann said hotly, drawing himself up as if he had been personally insulted. "From what I have seen, they are all brave men."
The farmer shrugged. "Sure they are," he said in a lazy voice without a hint of sincerity in it. "I'm just sayin' they's through. That's all."
"We ain't goin' nowhere 'til the Judge says so," JD insisted, resisting the urge to call the big blowhard out.
The man simply looked JD up and down and nodded. "Well, we got a say, too, kid," he said, "an' there's some of us don't like hired guns runnin' things here. Mite dangerous, y'see. 'Specially when they's a bit loose on the trigger."
He peered keenly at JD when he said this, in a way that made JD shift uncomfortably. The young man drew up to his full height. "Yeah, an' just what's that supposed t'mean?"
The man's sharp eyes never wavered from JD's face. "You know what I mean, sonny. Ain't safe here when they give guns to boys who ain't got the sense to use 'em without killin' innocent folks."
Oh my God, JD thought, his mouth going dry as his suspicions were confirmed. The man was talking about that awful time JD accidentally killed a woman during a bank robbery. He'd prayed everyone had forgotten about that, even though he knew he never would be granted such a blessing. And here it was, flung into his face again. Maybe it was never going to go away...
JD noticed the other patrons in the store were watching now. They were townsfolk as well, except for a tall, sandy-haired young man in rumpled, dusty clothes whom he had never seen before.
JD felt the hot blood rush to his face as he strove to keep his gaze level as he stared at the man. "That was an accident, mister," he whispered, "one I'll be payin' for all my life, but I didn't mean no harm, an' it sure won't happen again."
The stranger narrowed his eyes at the young man. "How do you know? Look, kid, folks are talkin' over how dangerous things been here lately, what with Larabee an' Tanner gettin' shot at. When all that lead starts flyin', how you know you won't get all reckless an' start shootin' folks again, like Annie? You done it before--"
"Sir!" Mr. Hoffman's sharp voice interrupted the onslaught, and its tone offered no avenue for argument. "I tolerate no disorderliness in my store. I must ask you to step outside, and return only when you have regained your manners."
The man flashed an annoyed look at the jeweler. "You takin' his part, mister? He's a killer!"
JD felt his chest starting to burn. "I ain't--"
Mr. Hoffman held up his hand in JD's direction, while never taking his eyes off of the argumentative stranger. "He has said it was an accident, and I have no reason to disbelieve him," he shot back, his German tones becoming thick with anger. "But if you want to punish him for shooting one woman by accident, then you must also direct your anger at me, for I was in the War, and shot many men on purpose. Just as great a tragedy, wouldn't you say?"
The man blinked. "Well -- hell, mister, I was a soldier too, an' I don't think--"
"Ah!" Mr. Hoffman exclaimed. "Then you also are as guilty as this young man of taking a life, perhaps many lives. Maybe you should examine your own sins before speaking out against another's."
The man scowled. "Look, them men in the war, they was soldiers too, they wasn't innocents like Annie!"
Mr. Hofmann's glare never wavered. "Not all who died in the War were soldiers, and many were innocents, sir, I can tell you. So it would seem we all have something to atone for, a matter which is best left to ourselves and God and no one else. Now be good enough to go, before my assistants and I are forced to escort you to the door!"
The farmer gave Hofmann a dark look.
"I think the owner of this business just asked you to leave, mister," JD said in a firm but quiet voice, drawing himself up and putting his hands on his hips. One hand rested lightly on the handle of one of his Colt Lightnings. "You gonna go quietly, or wait until he asks me to throw you in jail for disturbin' the peace of his store?"
The man frowned, but seemed out of wind, so he threw one final glare at JD, turned and walked with his wife out into the street. The other customers gave him a wide berth, muttering among themselves.
"I appreciate your assistance, my boy," Mr. Hofmann said, his tone one of slight annoyance as he glared after the couple.
JD tried to shake off the shaky feeling clutching his heart as he turned back to the counter. He looked up at the older man. "I'm obliged to you too, Mr. Hofmann. I was about ready to call that guy out!"
The jeweler waved it away with a sympathetic smile. "I do not like to hear such talk under my roof. This is a place of beauty, it should remain that way as much as possible."
JD nodded and leaned on the display case with a sigh, folding his arms. "Been hearin' too much of that talk against us lately," he muttered with a shake of his head. "That Wyatt guy's got folks all stirred up. They're thinkin' he's some kind of hero or somethin'."
The other man shrugged. "If he is a good man, then he deserves the praise he gets," he said calmly. "If he is a bad man, this will be discovered, too. It is all in God's good time."
"Yeah, I guess," JD muttered, throwing one last look back at the path the quarrelsome farmer had taken. "Just... sorta wish He'd hurry up a little so I can stop worryin'."
They turned back to the jewelry and fell to discussion on that topic. Neither of them noticed the sandy-haired young man stare at them for a moment, then smirk and walk out of the store, apparently highly amused.
Ezra studied his cards with as much nonchalance as he could muster, but he had to admit to himself that for once, his mind was not on the game.
The saloon was lively this early spring evening; the excitement caused by the attack on Chris the day before had died down, although Ezra could still hear people talking about it. Normally the suave gambler paid no attention to gossip, unless he himself was generating it for financial purposes, but the content of the latest whispers proved too disturbing to ignore.
He had always known that he and his fellow peacekeepers were looked on with some suspicion by certain elements of the town. He had no trouble with this, of course, was in fact quite used to being instantly suspected wherever he went. But never before had these elements spoken in the terms they now employed, in such serious tones.
"It's getting dangerous having these men in town," the whispers said. "First that man shot at Tanner, now Larabee. What if one of our women get hurt? The kids ain't safe here. It's as bad as when the place was full of outlaws. Our old sheriff is back now, we should just tell Travis we want Wyatt." The seven had their defenders, but their voices did not seem as strong as their detractors.
This talk bothered the Southerner more than he thought it would. Despite telling himself that this was just a job, his associates mere business partners, the thought that they might be ousted caused an uncomfortable burning in his gut. The gambler tried to dismiss the uneasy feeling as crass sentimentality, or sadness over the thought of losing his free board. It couldn't be because he had begun to think of this place as home, or because he might be separated from the only men he had ever even come close to trusting. There was no room for such emotions in his hard profession.
But something was making it damn hard to concentrate.
Finally he stirred, and looked at the motley collection of farmers, travelers and saloon residents ringing the table. "Very well, gentlemen," he said, licking his lips. "Time to ante up."
They all tossed in their bets, and Ezra glanced expectantly at the heavy-set businessman to his right.
"I'm in," the man said around his cigar, pitching a chip onto the table. Ezra nodded, and glanced to the next man, a rather ragged-looking farmer.
He was a tall, very thin man, with an air of anxiousness around him. He looked nervously at Ezra and tossed all of his cards into the middle of the table.
"I fold," he said quickly.
Ezra was taken a bit aback at how suddenly the man gave up. "Are you certain, my friend?" he said smoothly.
"Yup," the man said in a clipped voice.
Silence fell, and Ezra had to shrug. He couldn't force the man to play.
The businessman won the hand, and as he raked in the winnings with glee, Ezra shuffled the cards and cursed his luck. He had to focus, and not allow himself to be distracted. Even if they lost their position here, he would just move on, as he always had.
He shook his head, trying to throw off the pain in his gut, and dealt again.
The bids went around, and Ezra noticed that once again the poor farmer folded quickly, during the first round of bidding. This was damned odd, he mused; even the most impoverished players usually put in at least one bid, just to save face.
"Is everything all right, son?" he inquired, eying the man's dwindling resources with mild concern.
The man peered back at him, his gaunt face set and unreadable. "Just gettin' bad hands is all," was the terse reply.
The gambler pursed his lips. "Perhaps you should retire; the good Lady Luck may not be with you today," Ezra suggested, unwilling to see the man lose his last dollars.
The man shook his head with vigor. "Nope, I got to stay in. Deal 'em."
Ezra frowned a little, and decided to see about switching things around a bit, as much out of curiosity than anything else.
Taught to shuffle practically in the cradle, Ezra skillfully manipulated the deck, and as the cards went round he dealt the farmer three of a kind. Surely, he thought, the man would bid on that.
No good; as before, he folded instantly.
"Are you sure?" Ezra inquired, surprised.
"Yup," the farmer replied, and gave the Southerner a keen look. "Why?"
Ezra hesitated; he couldn't very well confess that he knew what cards the farmer held without causing the other players to erupt in outrage. Anything that even smelled like a cheat could have disastrous, possibly fatal, consequences. He had seen fellow gamblers shot for just such a thing many times.
"Oh, nothing at all," he said quietly, and continued to play under a heavy cloud of apprehension.
He dealt the man four of a kind.
The man folded.
Ezra now had little interest in who was winning any more. "My friend," he said to the farmer, as a miner took in the pot, "are you quite sure you know how to play this game?"
"What the hell kinda question is that?" the farmer snarled, glaring at him. "I been gettin' bad cards, is all."
"Your money is almost gone," Ezra pointed out. "I would strongly suggest that you retire--"
"I ain't goin' nowhere," the man replied, his words laced with anger. "A man's got a right to play if he wants to."
"Hell, let him play," the businessman chuckled. "He wants to go broke, that's his business."
"C'mon, deal," groused the miner.
Ezra scowled, shuffling quickly. This was the strangest poker game he'd ever played. Well, second-strangest -- at least in this one, he was wearing his clothes.
In the next hand, he dealt the farmer a full house. The man was down to his last dollar; only a lunatic would fold on the first bidding with a full house in his hand.
The man tossed in his last dollar, went through the first round of bidding, then folded.
"Guess that's it," he sighed, an air of total dejection settling over him. "Got nothin' left to bid with."
"Perhaps you have some valuables?" Ezra urged; he knew the farmer held the winning hand, if he would only stay in. Although Ezra hardly fancied himself a philanthropist, even he couldn't take a poor man's last dollar.
The man shook his head. "Nope." He backed away towards the bar, fixing his eyes on Ezra as he grew more and more distraught. "You've taken everything I had. Every dollar."
Half the saloon was watching now, and Ezra began to feel very ill at lease. "Look, my friend," he said, rising and taking up some of his winnings. "Clearly you were not in your best form today--"
"You took it all," the man cried, his voice breaking as it rose into a shout. "You damn gamblers -- I've got nothin' left--"
Everyone was staring at the man, some in derision, others in sympathy. Ezra frowned and took a few steps forward, holding out the bills in his hand, but before he could say anything, the man pulled out his gun and placed the barrel against his own temple.
Cries of alarm rang through the saloon; some people ducked, others stared. Shocked, Ezra lunged towards the man to stop him, but before he was able to reach him, another man who was closer tackled the suicidal farmer and threw him to the ground, disarming him.
It was Wyatt.
Startled, Ezra stared along with everyone else as Wyatt pulled the man upright.
"Easy there, mister," Wyatt said. "You don't wanna do that, do you?"
"Leave me alone, dammit!" the farmer spat back angrily, struggling a bit. "Got nothin' left to stay for..."
The crowd began to move back and murmur as Wyatt, maintaining a protective grip on the unfortunate farmer, looked up at Ezra. His long face bore an expression of thinly veiled anger.
"You can get out of here now, Standish, you've done enough," Wyatt said in a low voice.
Ezra felt his self-control ebbing as he glared at the former sheriff. "Your assistance is appreciated, Mr. Wyatt," he said in a decidedly unfriendly tone, "but I feel absolved from any guilt in this matter. This man had no business gambling, I tried to stop him several times."
Wyatt grunted as he helped the shaken man to his feet. "Not too hard, obviously," was the contemptuous reply.
"Hey now, Wyatt," said a slender, middle-aged townsman from the back of the saloon. "It's true, Standish tried to get him to back off."
"Then why did he continue to deal him in?" was the former sheriff's indignant response. "And where's his cash? In Standish's pocket?"
The Southerner's green eyes began to blaze as he stepped closer. "Here is every cent of his money," Ezra declared, holding out the small number of bills in his hand. "He can count it himself. I refuse to accept it."
"Sure didn't bother you to take it at the table," Wyatt shot back, as he helped the farmer lean against the counter. The man was silent now, his face in his hands.
"I warned him more than once!" Ezra protested, his voice rising in indignation. "If men insist on losing their money, that is hardly my fault."
Wyatt grunted. "That's what all you gaming men say," he retorted, and snatched the money from Ezra's hand before leading the distressed farmer out of the bar. The crowd looked after them, their voices mingling in a babble of excitement and surprise.
Ezra stood for a moment, bewildered. After a pause he noticed that some of the men were appraising him with less than friendly eyes. A few of them were talking to each other in low and critical tones, studying Ezra as they spoke.
"Saw that happen in Eagle Bend once, man shot himself after a gambler took every cent he had," one whispered.
"Oh, c'mon, Pete, Standish ain't like that," returned another voice.
"How do we know? We sure don't need that kinda reputation here," remarked someone else.
The Southerner pursed his lips in disgust and went back to the table, which was now empty, and sat down, glowering as he mulled over the situation. He gazed idly at the path Wyatt and the farmer had taken out of the saloon.
Then he cocked his head, and the green eyes which a moment before had been clouded with thought slowly narrowed with suspicion.
"So there I was, just standin' at the bar an' mindin' my own business, when this big ol' hooligan comes up, an' pow! Just like that!"
Buck's voice echoed through the old church as he sat in one of the dusty pews, bathed in the morning sunlight. Josiah stood some steps away by the altar, checking the multitude of candles that were burning there and relighting the ones that had burnt out. Plainly visible in the newborn morning's glow was the black eye which now marked Buck's handsome visage.
"Not even an introduction, huh?" Josiah asked with a slight smile as he continued his inspection.
Buck snorted and threw his long arms across the back of the pew. "Not unless you call 'Stop messin' with my sister' an introduction."
Josiah couldn't stop from chuckling. "Best tame them rovin' ways, my friend. Next time it might not be just a black eye."
"Aw, hell, Josiah, I been hit by angry brothers before!" Buck remarked in an agitated tone. "But I got no clue what that feller was talkin' about. I keep thinkin' on it, an' no gal I been with for the past two months had any brothers that came close to lookin' like this guy."
"Maybe you just lost track," said the preacher as he relit one of the votives, its fire springing back to life with a small hiss.
His friend shifted a little and looked embarrassed. "Shucks, Josiah, I ain't been that busy. Then this varmint spends the whole night tellin' everyone in the saloon how no gal is safe with men like me around, an' y'know what? I think some of them fools were listenin' to him!"
Josiah sighed. "Yeah, since Wyatt came back, the spirit of the town seems to have shifted against us. I'm startin' to feel like we're bein' shown the door."
Buck settled down and peered at Josiah. "You used to live around here, Josiah. You remember anything about that guy?"
Josiah shrugged and turned to him. "Not much. Never saw him around when I was in town, I think he mostly stayed in the jail. Got the job done, I guess, but towards the end the place was gettin' pretty lawless."
Buck scratched his mustache. "You think he's really sorry for what he did, ridin' out on the town?"
The preacher drew a long sigh as he took a few steps towards his friend. "Sure would like to think he is. This all reminds me of the parable of the Prodigal Son -- he was a proud and foolish son who was given a fortune by his father, then wasted it and returned home in rags repenting for his sinful ways. He was willin' to be a servant in his father's house if it meant he could be home again. His suffering in poverty had taught him the virtues of humility an' gratitude."
Buck nodded as he sat back in the pew. "You think bein' away has made Wyatt think twice about what he did?"
Josiah's blue eyes were thoughtful for a moment, then he shrugged. "Maybe. Anyway, some of the townsfolk sure seem to think so."
"Yeah, he's got 'em sayin' he's the biggest wonder since the telegraph," Buck stated with a snort, sitting up and fiddling with the hat he held in his hands. His voice became softer as he spoke. "Gotta say, it's got me a little worried."
The preacher walked down to him, wiping off his hands. "Don't let your heart be troubled, Buck," he intoned. "Only the Judge can kick us out, an' he's a smart ol' cuss. Don't figure Wyatt can fool him like he's foolin' some of these townsfolk."
Buck's mouth twitched, and he nodded. "Yeah, I guess, but... seems like everyone's jumpier'n a snake on a hot rock lately. Chris an' Vin ain't said ten words all week." He sighed and gingerly rubbed his swollen eye. "First that dang prisoner escaped on me, now this. Wonder if I done broke a mirror somewhere an' just don't know it."
Josiah's chuckle was interrupted by the sound of the church door opening. Both men turned their gaze to the front of the sanctuary. There, silhouetted against the rays of the sun, stood the slender form of Mr. Sudbury, the town banker.
"Welcome, Mr. Sudbury," Josiah said, stepping down to meet his visitor. His blue eyes were guarded, however; Sudbury never came to the church, and the unusual nature of the situation made him instantly suspect trouble.
Buck said nothing, but scowled openly at the thin, bespectacled man.
"Morning, Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Wilmington," Mr. Sudbury replied in a thin, uncertain voice. His manner normally was one of fussy efficiency, but now as he stood amid the dust in his tailored suit, he seemed nearly undone with nervousness. He was tightly gripping a folded piece of paper in his hands.
Josiah stopped before him and knit his brows. "You all right, sir?"
Mr. Sudbury sighed. "Josiah, you must understand, I had nothing to do with this. I tried to dissuade the man, but it was all perfectly legal."
"What was?" Josiah asked. Buck had risen from his seat and now stood behind the preacher.
"Sudbury, if this is bad news, you best just spit it on out," Buck warned.
The banker took a shaky breath. "A Mr. Shannon, from Ridge City, came to town today. He was looking to purchase property to build his business on, and..." He ran out of words, sputtered for a moment, then shoved the paper at Josiah. "I'm sorry, Josiah, but -- he bought the property the church is on. You have to vacate."
Both men started, amazed.
"Vacate?" Josiah repeated, slightly stunned.
"I'm afraid so," was Sudbury's hesitant answer. "He wants the building empty by tomorrow."
"Now hold on there, Moneybags!" Buck cried, infuriated. "You can't just waltz in here an' kick out Josiah!"
"I'm not enjoying this, Mr. Wilmington!" Sudbury snapped. "But the fact is, Mr. Sanchez has no legal claim to this building. Strictly speaking, he's squatting on abandoned property owned by the town. Nobody cared as long as the bank held the deed -- certainly I have no trouble with it -- but that's changed now. The lot has an owner, and that owner wants this building emptied."
"Who is this Shannon guy?" Josiah asked with a frown.
Sudbury shook his head. "Frankly, he looked like a pretty shabby sort -- not the kind of man you'd think would have money. But he said he liked this lot and wants to tear down the old church and build a business. Put up quite a bit of money for it, too."
"So you just couldn't say 'no', huh?" snarled Buck, his words dripping with rage. Josiah was looking away, one finger to his lips, his face contorted with anxious thought.
Sudbury's patience was running out. "The town needs the funds, Mr. Wilmington, and Shannon has promised to build a new church next door. But he wouldn't hear of allowing Josiah to stay, and I did try." He paused, then brought his small hazel eyes up to Josiah's face. "I... truly do apologize, Josiah. It's business."
A grim smile crossed Josiah's lips. "Just sorry you couldn't find it in your heart t'put God before mammon, Mr. Sudbury," he said in a tone tinged with sadness.
"You know what you can do with that 'business' of yours, Sudbury!" Buck huffed. "Josiah ain't goin' nowhere."
Sudbury straightened, apparently in preparation of ending the conversation. "That's his choice, of course, but as soon as Shannon arrives he'll have Josiah arrested for trespassing." His tone became quick and efficient, all traces of sympathy now gone. "And while Josiah will need a roof over his head, I don't think the jail is the best solution. The best thing to do is accept this and move on. I can't do anything more about it."
With that, he handed the paper to Josiah and walked back out into the bright morning sunlight.
Buck stared angrily after him, then looked at Josiah. The preacher was staring intently at the paper, his eyebrows knit together.
"Now don't you worry, Josiah," Buck said, putting a hand on his comrade's shoulder. "Me an' the boys, we're gonna fight this. You busted your hump on this place, put your soul into it, they can't toss you out like you just been squattin' here."
"Can't go against the law, Buck, even when it's wrong," Josiah reminded him, still looking at the paper. Confusion shrouded his face. "But this all seems mighty strange."
Buck was aghast. "You ain't just gonna roll over an' take this, are ya?"
His friend eyed him, then walked up to the altar and began to gather his belongings. "To every thing there is a time, Buck," he replied lightly, "an' I've had to do a lot of copin' in my life to situations a lot worse than this. But just 'cause I'm not fightin' right now doesn't mean I'm rollin' over, by a long shot."
"Now you're talkin'," Buck said with a grin. "So -- what's your plan?"
"Get my things and take 'em to the boardin' house," Josiah said as he folded his long duster over his arm, "then head over to the tavern an' see if the boys are there. Two heads are better than one, as they say, but I think we're gonna need all seven of ours to figure out just what's going on around here."
Two lone figures galloped through the trees of the mountain forest, taking advantage of the thick underbrush as they avoided the trodden road. Both men had the appearance of outlaws, from their cold eyes to their grim expressions.
In the distance loomed the ruins of a mining town, once prosperous but now abandoned. Only a few structures remained, including the withering shell of the only large house built in the short-lived community. Once it had been the splendid home of the town's richest resident, but it now sheltered an entirely different breed of men.
The riders reined in at the crumbling stable nearby, carefully hiding their horses before proceeding inside. The interior of the house had been gutted of all valuables long ago; the dirty walls were bare, the fireplaces broken and cold. Around the room lounged five rough-hewn men, all loading or cleaning their weapons, eating, or playing cards. Every one of them lifted their heads -- and their guns -- at the sound of the opening doors.
"Don't worry, boys, just us!" bellowed the larger of the two riders.
"Roy!" cried one of the card players, as he slipped his weapon back into his holster and nodded at the second of the two riders. "Tyler an' Wyatt finally got you out, huh?"
"Piece of cake, Jack," was Tyler's smug reply. "Had to lay low in the desert for a while, but other'n that it went just fine."
"They ain't still lookin' for 'im, is they?" asked one of the card players with a worried expression.
Tyler waved him away with a snort. "Nah, we bushwhacked this guy who was about Roy's size, put Roy's ol' duds on 'im an' let the cougars an' wolves gnaw on 'im fer a bit. By the time we buried 'im, his own mother wouldn't know the guy."
The outlaws shared a hearty laugh over this piece of information.
"That was Wyatt's idea, I bet!" Jack exclaimed. "Good thing you had more'n one outfit, Roy."
"Was borin' as hell sittin' in jail, though," Roy announced as he slung his saddlebags into one cobwebbed corner. "How's the plan goin'?"
The other card player chuckled. "Sure wish you coulda seen me with that gambler yesterday, Roy. I had every rube in that bar convinced I was gonna kill myself."
He thought for a moment and his expression changed, an angry gleam coming into his eye. "You know, though, I think that Southern feller was on to me. Got some real good hands there. I think he was tryin' to smoke me out."
"Aw, don't worry about that Reb, Earl," Jack said to his anxious comrade with a wave of his hand. "They can't do nothin' without proof, an' ol' Wyatt's too smart to give anythin' away."
"I'd worry more about Huston," grumbled Tyler as he dropped his saddlebags near Roy's. "Dang kid ain't got the sense of a mealy worm. He better not blab nothin'."
"I got to punch that mustached fella right in the eye," exulted one of the outlaws, a burly dark-haired ruffian.
"You all had all the fun, Walt," complained the third card player as he slapped down a queen. "All I got to do was shoot at that tracker fella. Pretty damn boring, least if I'da kilt him we coulda had that five hundred dollar bounty!"
"If Wyatt's plan works out, Irish, we'll all be seein' lots of excitement and money real soon," Roy said with glee as he helped himself to a nearly-empty bottle of whiskey.
"That plan damn well better work out, Roy!" griped Earl. "We had to use our entire stash to buy that church land so's the preacher would leave."
"Yeah, an' I think that banker feller was mighty suspicious of me," said another of the outlaws, a thin sandy-haired hooligan who was leaning against a windowsill cleaning his gun. "If he'd been any smarter, he might not've agreed to it."
"But he did, Parker, so that's all we gotta worry about," Roy pointed out as he eyed the young man keenly. "You get inside that jewelry store?"
Parker chuckled and nodded, grinning. "Oh yeah. Lot of nice stuff, an' the cases look easy enough t'get into. An' you shoulda heard this fight I saw between some farmer and one of them lawmen. I swear, it ain't gonna take much to get those seven men throwed out of town. Some of them folk hate them hired guns."
"No big surprise there," Jack said in a highly amused voice. "God, can you imagine hiring a hair-trigger gunslinger like Chris Larabee to be a lawman? He's killed more men than all of us put together!"
"Or that colored guy," Irish added, shaking his head. "A darky with a badge -- never thought I'd see that happen! Lord! I bet they'll be beggin' Wyatt to get those men out of town an' be sheriff again by the end of the week."
Parker snapped his gun closed and peered at Roy, his gray eyes restless. "How long we got to wait, anyhow? It's been almost three weeks, an' no word from Wyatt -- it's makin' me nervous. What if Wyatt decides to take that town for himself, an' cut us out? We don't know what he's doin' stuck out here."
Roy grunted as he swallowed a mouthful of whiskey. "Hmph! Relax, Parker. Wyatt ain't that dumb," he said with a shake of his head. "He's been a better leader than old Willie ever was. Guess nobody knows better'n a lawman how to break the law." He chuckled.
"Yeah, but Wyatt's got his whole mind set on gettin' that town back," Jack pointed out. "When he becomes sheriff again, he might get greedy an' take it all."
The others muttered their agreement with this.
Roy sighed and leaned against the cracking mantelpiece, whiskey bottle in one hand. "I got no problem with waitin' a bit longer to see what Wyatt does," he proclaimed, swinging the bottle idly. "But if he does stab us in the back -- Well, then we might have to pay that town another visit... with a plan or two of our own."
Chris sat back and frowned to himself as he watched the afternoon crowd move through the Standish Tavern, his chin cupped in one hand with the index finger touching his lower lip. From his corner table he could sweep the entire saloon with one glance, but no one was paying much attention to him, or the other man at the table. Which was just as well, since his present mood was not one that invited an audience.
Vin did not look any happier as he lounged in his chair, his hat on the table before him, next to his barely-touched mug of beer. His expression was as pensive as that of his comrade, but a good deal less angry.
"I ain't aimin' t'be gone more'n a few days," Vin said, looking up at his friend with grave blue eyes. A gentle current of persuasion ran beneath his words. "Just til I get this whole mess figured out."
Chris didn't move as he studied the tracker with keen green eyes. "Folks here don't blame you for what happened," was his reply.
A snort escaped from Vin as he looked quickly away. "Hell they don't! Well, some of 'em," he shot back, swinging his gaze back to Chris. "But I can live with folks whisperin'. Never bothered me an' it never will. But..." he drew a deep breath and leaned forward. "That guy might come back, Chris. An' if he don't, well, others might follow 'im. If he heard I'm here, other bounty hunters probably know it, too."
He blew out a breath and shook his head, sitting back again. "Won't be too long 'til main street'll look like a shootin' gallery. I ain't scared for myself, but I ain't too keen on some townsperson gettin' hit by some one gunnin' for me." He dropped his gaze to the table and shrugged a little. "So, thought I'd ride on out for a few days, see if I can find his trail, an' do some thinkin'."
Chris took a sip of his whiskey and nodded as he looked out over the crowd. "Fine with me, Vin. After what happened to me the other day, I might be doin' some thinkin' of my own." He absently rubbed his healing arm.
Vin smiled a little and shook his head, plucking at his hat. "Lord, we sure got a talent for attractin' trouble."
"You can say that again!"
Vin and Chris both looked up at the sound of Nathan's voice, startled at the fierce anger it held, and saw the healer coming towards them with Josiah and Buck close behind.
"This the table for wandering vagabonds?" Josiah intoned as he sat down.
"Don't know how you can be so calm 'bout this, Josiah!" Nathan snapped as he took a seat. His brown eyes were fairly blazing with rage.
Chris didn't like the hot burning in his gut as he looked at the three new arrivals. "What happened?"
Buck plopped next to Chris and reached for the whiskey bottle. "Oh, nothin' much," he said, in a voice cold enough to freeze fire. "Josiah just got kicked outta the church, is all."
Vin's eyes flew open wide. "What the hell?"
"Hell might be involved somewhere, for all I know," Josiah remarked, setting down the shoulder bag he'd been carrying. "Just spent an hour wranglin' with ol' Sudbury at the bank, but seems it's all legal."
Chris's face twitched with fury as he sat up. "Hell with legal," he spat, "it ain't right!"
"Legality and righteousness are rarely intertwined, my friend," came a voice from nearby, as Ezra appeared and sat down next to Buck. He glanced at Josiah while setting down his mug of beer. "Did my ears hear correctly, Josiah?"
Josiah sighed. "If they heard about the church, then, yep," he said, sitting back. "When this Shannon guy gets to town he's gonna hear a thing or two from me, though. This isn't over."
"You need a place t'stay, Josiah, I won't be usin' my wagon fer a few days," Vin offered.
The preacher indicated Buck. "Thanks, but brother Buck has offered a spot in his rented room 'til somethin' opens up at the boardin' house. Though by then, I hope to have this whole mess straightened out."
"Where you goin', Vin?" Nathan inquired, leaning forward and crossing his arms.
"Just ridin' out for a bit, see if I can find the varmint who shot at me," Vin answered. "An' do a bit of thinkin'."
Nathan grunted with irritation. "Lemme know if you want any company. I'm startin' t'feel if I stay in this town one more hour, I'm gonna burst."
"This sure has been one lousy coupla weeks," Buck agreed with a firm nod. "One thing after another!" He paused, then cast a look over at Josiah. "We make God mad or somethin'?"
"I would suggest a far more earthbound source of our troubles," Ezra said quietly.
The others looked at him expectantly.
"Got somebody in mind?" Chris asked.
The gambler appeared totally at ease as he looked up from the ever-moving deck of cards in his hands. "Perhaps the good Irving Wyatt?"
Vin grinned a little as he sat back. "Sure you ain't just sore cause his horse keeps pickin' fights with your horse?"
"That is a slander, sir," Ezra admonished him with a glare. "Chaucer is a discriminating fellow and merely has a strong reaction to bad company, humans and fellow equines alike."
Buck chuckled. "The man's a royal pain in the butt, Ezra, but what makes you think he had anythin' to do with this here shiner I got?"
The Southerner offered an elegant shrug. "The evidence is all circumstantial, I'll warrant," he replied, "but I have noticed some very odd things occurring since Wyatt's arrival."
Chris looked sideways at him. "Hell, Ezra, I been called out before."
"This ain't my first black eye, neither," Buck pointed out.
"Both perfectly accurate assessments, I'm sure," was Ezra's answer as he scanned the faces of his friends. "But their timing is, shall we say, quite suspect. Mr. Larabee, when was the last time you were called out before yesterday?"
Chris thought. "That time with Top Hat Bob, 'bout a year ago. Nothin' since."
Ezra nodded and looked at Buck. "And you, Mr. Wilmington. If I recall, you have not been manhandled by any angered males since our arrival in this fair town until the other day, and you swore at the time that you had no idea who your assailant was."
"True enough," Buck said. "Ain't been with any gals that had a brother like that guy. It's been puzzlin' me somethin' fierce."
"And I myself have been confronted with a man who was apparently driven to the brink of suicide by my cruelty," Ezra went on as he continued to shuffle, "despite the fact that he was dealt several excellent hands that any man with even the most rudimentary gaming skills would have won with."
Nathan cocked his head, his expression amused. "Stackin' the deck, Ezra?"
"In the name of justice, sir," Ezra responded. "Only to confirm what I suspected, and now firmly believe. Sirs," he stopped shuffling and placed the deck on the table with a solid thump, "I propose that we are the victims of a very elaborate con."
Josiah frowned. "By Wyatt?"
"None other," Ezra stated. "Our troubles did not begin until he arrived, and have mounted rapidly, always to his benefit. Now, either he has reformed and become a shining exemplar of virtue and morality, or else he is perpetrating a hoax to regain his position." He folded his hands and sat back. "Given human nature, I invite you to speculate on which is the more likely case."
"Sure would explain a few things," Vin said.
"Wouldn't put it past 'im, neither," Nathan added. "but -- you sayin' all these men who've been makin' trouble work for him?"
"Could be," Chris offered, sitting forward. "We don't know where he's been all this time. I've seen some gangs with ten, twelve men, he might've gotten in with one of 'em. Then he'd have all the men he needed."
"He was at the fire when the prisoner broke out," Buck remembered. "An' he was there Vin an' Chris were shot at, too!"
"An' he took the kid to the doctor," Nathan noted. "Maybe Fredericks is crooked, too. They might all be lookin' to cash in here, with Wyatt leadin' 'em."
"You think he let that guy outta the jail?" Buck asked, sitting up.
Ezra peered at him knowingly. "Who else might have a key to our jail cell? He may have absconded with it during his last sojourn out of town."
"But why would he set a fire that might burn down the whole town?" Nathan asked, rubbing his lip with one finger.
"He was also fightin' it, Nate," Buck interjected, "Heard he was workin' hard at it, too. He mighta set it knowin' it'd be put out quick. An' when it was over, he said he wasn't gonna let the town burn to the ground."
"'Cause he wants it back," Vin mused.
"A growin' place like this would prove mighty tempting," Josiah agreed, "'specially to someone who had it an' gave it up."
JD strode up to the table, holding two pieces of paper and looking around at his comrades.
"Have a seat, kid," Buck said, pulling out a chair. "Y'oughta be in on this."
"Thanks," JD said, plopping into the seat and looking at Josiah. "Hey, is it true what I heard about the church, Josiah?"
"Think so, JD," the preacher answered in a cautious tone, "though now I ain't so sure."
Nathan pointed to the gambler. "Ezra thinks Wyatt's behind all this trouble in town lately."
JD frowned and handed a telegram to Chris. "Even this?"
Chris took the paper and read it over. "From Jericho. 'I am asking all lawmen in the surrounding area to be on the lookout for a man who killed my brother two weeks ago, name of John 'Huston' Kingsley. Twenty years old, five feet ten, red hair, very thin, large round mole on his left cheek'."
"Sounds just like the kid who shot you," Nathan observed.
Chris nodded. "Says if we have him to bring him to the Jericho jail."
"Least we can sweep that guy out the door," Buck grunted.
Ezra thought for a moment, then glanced over at the gunslinger. "If I may, Chris, I would like to escort our young guest to his new home. He, too, may be in league with our wandering sheriff, and it may prove useful to interrogate him."
"You cookin' up somethin', Ezra?" Buck asked, studying the gambler with a knowing glint in his eye.
Ezra grinned. "If the lad is, as I've heard, a nervous and rather dull sort, it might not be too difficult to gain information from him that would prove valuable in proving our case, if he is indeed involved in any dubious activities. A few hours alone with him on the trail should be all I need."
"No back-up?" Josiah inquired. "Could be dangerous."
"Your concern is appreciated, my friend," the gambler said sincerely. "However, he may feel more willing to confide to only one pair of ears. I will be fully alert and armed, I promise, and before tomorrow night, we may have all the answers we seek."
"An' if I find out Wyatt's been behind all this," Chris vowed in a voice heavy with dark intentions, "it'll be his turn for troubles."
Mary finished hanging up the last copies of the Clarion to dry and let out a weary sigh as she let her arms drop. Another issue done, she thought as she glanced outside at the morning crowd bustling along the boardwalk just outside her printing office. Usually she allowed herself to relax a bit at this point, but her heart was too anxious to allow any such luxuries today.
The situation between Wyatt and the seven hired gunmen lay far from easy, and she was increasingly worried that the town might become split over the issue. Her father-in-law, circuit judge Orin Travis, had hired the seven men, and only Orin could dismiss them, but she could not turn a blind eye to the fact that the former sheriff was rapidly gaining forgiveness in the small town. Many in the community, led by Mr. Conklin, were becoming actively vocal about their desire to oust the hired gunmen.
As she busied herself cleaning up, a sigh escaped her lips at the thought of Wyatt returning as sheriff. For a long time she had been one of the people unhappy with the idea of using hired guns to protect the town, but they had proven more reliable and courageous than Wyatt had been. She didn't like remembering how they had been left helpless in the face of violence and disorder; did everyone really want those days to return?
The sound of a knock at her open door reached her ears, and raising her blue eyes she saw Mr. Conklin standing in the doorway, a sheet of paper in one hand. He took off his hat and said with a slight smile, "I'm not disturbing you, am I, Mary?"
A small knot of instinctive dread rose in Mary's stomach as she straightened. "Not at all, Mr. Conklin," she said with forced friendliness. "What can I do for you?"
He came to her and handed her the sheet of paper. "If it's possible, I need two dozen copies of this printed up as soon as possible. Sorry for the short notice, but this is something that has to be resolved quick as possible. I'll pay whatever it takes."
Anxiously, Mary read the notice: "ATTENTION! Special town meeting to be held TONIGHT at the Grain Exchange to discuss the issue of our town's current law situation. 8:00. Harry J. Conklin presiding."
Oh no, she moaned to herself. She looked up, incredulous. "Law situation?"
"Oh, you know," he said with a wave of his hand. "Those men the Judge hired. Now that Wyatt's back, a lot of people here think we don't need them anymore. Time to get this out in the open."
"I know a lot of people like Wyatt," Mary replied in a frosty voice, "but a lot of people also think our 'current law situation' is just fine."
Conklin grimaced. "I know that, Mrs. Travis, but... well, it just doesn't seem right for our town to go so long with no real sheriff. I'll bet we're the only place in the whole territory that has to rely on hired guns for protection. It's dangerous."
The young journalist stared at Conklin, aghast. "Dangerous? These men have stood between this town and danger time and again. I don't believe Wyatt can say the same."
"All that's in the past now, Mary!" Conklin assured her. "You've seen how he's been lately. Seems like a whole new man."
"And you don't find that just a little strange?" Mary asked, cocking her head.
"No stranger than putting our town in the hands of a killer like Chris Larabee," the old man retorted. "Think you can get these printed up by, say, one o'clock?"
For a moment, Mary felt strongly tempted to refuse. Then she pursed her lips and nodded.
"I don't agree with this meeting, Mr. Conklin," she said in cold, professional voice, "but I'll print your posters for you. Everyone in town should know about it and be allowed to have their say."
"Good!" Conklin exclaimed, a smug smile spreading over his face.
She produced her receipt book and a pencil and began to write the order. "But you might be surprised at how many supporters Mr. Larabee and his friends have in this town," she noted as she wrote. "If Mr. Wyatt thinks he can just have his old job back without a fight, he's going to find himself sadly mistaken."
"Oh, I'm sure he expects a fight," Conklin returned as he glanced at the cost and began counting out his cash. "But a lot of us think it's a fight he'll win. This town's moving out of the old days, Mary, and it'll be better for everyone when they all decide to move with it."
Mary's lip twitched as she ripped the receipt out of the small book and handed it to him. "They'll be ready by one."
Mr. Conklin grinned as he took the receipt. "Thank you, Mary. Good morning."
He tipped his hat, turned and walked out of the office. Mary watched him go, her heart filling with trepidation. She had to admit he was right -- there were many people who had never accepted the hired guns, and would take any sheriff, even one like Wyatt, if it meant Chris and the others would be released. And at one time she might have agreed with them.
But not any more.
She shook herself and went back to work, sweeping away the mess from the paper in order to begin work on the poster. As she went about her task, her mind sped along, trying to figure out the best way to prepare herself for the fight she'd surely face at the town meeting that evening. She had to convince her fellow townsfolk to continue to trust Chris and the other men. The safety of her home and her friends depended on it.
Conklin smiled to himself as he hurried to his store. It was sure going to be good to get those gunslingers out of town. With a true sheriff in place, Four Corners could once more take its stand as a modern, civilized community.
The voice startled Conklin, and he turned to see Wyatt walking towards him from the street, looking puzzled and a little uneasy.
"Oh, mornin', Irving," Conklin said with a smile. "I was hoping to find you. We're having a town meeting tonight about getting those gunslingers out of here, I think we got a good chance of getting you your old job back. Hope you can make it."
"Of course I'll be there," Wyatt said, but the smile on his face seemed a bit lopsided. "Say, I just went to the jail and the prisoner we arrested the other day is gone, the red-headed kid who shot Larabee."
"Oh, him!" Conklin coughed, scowling. "See, that's why we need you, Wyatt, this town's getting dangerous with all these gunslingers around--"
"Yes, yes," Wyatt cut him off, almost impatiently. "Do you know what happened to him?"
"Who, that kid? Well," Conklin paused and scratched his chin. "Yeah, I saw that gambler, Standish, riding off with him in tow about half an hour ago. Guess he was taking him to another town or something."
Wyatt's expression froze. "The gambler took him out of town?"
The other man frowned a little, bewildered by Wyatt's startled reaction. "Yup -- looks like they were heading West. Everything all right?"
Wyatt paused, thought a moment, then patted his friend's shoulder. "I'm sure it will be now, Harry. I'll see you tonight." He nodded and walked quickly away.
"See you then," Conklin said crisply, his smile returning. With a hopeful heart he went on his way, giving his exchange with Wyatt no more thought. He even had the courage to give Larabee a bold glance as he passed by the saloon. He said nothing to anyone of Wyatt's words, and soon forgot the conversation entirely.
The beautiful morning sunshine did little to dispel the heavy air of sadness hanging over the little old white church. Josiah walked through the dusty sanctuary slowly, reluctantly, his blue eyes traveling over every inch of the room as if memorizing every nail and board. Buck watched him from the doorway, unwilling to interfere with his friend as he said goodbye.
It looks so empty, Josiah thought as he scanned the large chamber. All of his personal things were gone now, and it looked pretty much the same as the day he had first arrived there. Repairs sat half-completed, the doors and windows sanded and waiting for their new coat of paint which might never arrive. The pews sat bare, facing an empty pulpit; all of the candles before the altar sat cold, their light extinguished.
Josiah sighed deeply, fighting to control the overwhelming sorrow building within him. It felt as if he were abandoning a dying friend.
His gaze wandered over the unfinished repairs, the scars that still needed healing. This place, so like his own incomplete, injured soul -- how could he leave it behind? They were going to be healed together. It felt completely against God's plan to continue his journey alone.
A flicker of anger flickered and grew in his heart. He had no intention of letting the old church fall to the hands of strangers without a fight. When this Shannon came to town to collect his land, Josiah would be there to meet him.
But that was yet in the future; for now, he had to leave, and despite his determination, he could not ignore the possibility that he would never set foot in the old church again. His soul ached as he picked up the last of his belongings and cast a final glance about. He could sense God's presence still, whispering and hidden in the shadows but still there, just as in his own troubled heart. He felt rooted to the spot, held by the fragile chains of searching faith which refused to let him stir one foot outside the door.
Buck's sympathetic voice stirred through the musty air as he looked down the street. "Sudbury's comin', Josiah. Looks like he's fixin' to lock 'er up."
Josiah sighed again and settled the box of his possessions in his arms. "Yeah," he muttered in a low voice full of mourning. "I guess we better go."
He turned and walked quickly out, knowing that any further lingering would only sharpen the pain. In a few steps he was on the landing of the staircase, blinking against the bright sunshine.
"Don't you worry, pard, this ain't goodbye," Buck promised as they paused at the top of the stairs.
Josiah nodded as they began their descent. "That's what I'm tellin' myself, brother," he stated, his voice becoming firm with resolve. "Hate leavin', though, even for a few days. Guess I didn't realize how much I'd miss the old place."
Sudbury walked up, key in hand and a very uncomfortable expression on his face. The two men didn't bother with politeness as the banker met them.
"Couldn't wait, huh?" Buck growled, nodding at the key.
Sudbury's small eyes snapped defensively. "I'm no happier about this than you are, gentlemen," he retorted in a cold voice. "I'm merely fulfilling my professional duties."
Josiah gave a short sigh as he clutched his box closer and fixed the banker with a keen look. "Yep," he said shortly, "I believe the Roman soldiers on Calvary said pretty much the same thing."
The two men said nothing further and walked away, neither of them desiring to watch the banker lock up the church. As they made their way towards the boarding house, they failed to notice Dr. Fredericks standing at the door of his office, keeping an interested eye on the banker's actions. As Sudbury secured the doors of the old church and headed back to the bank, the outlaw doctor smiled to himself with satisfaction and went back inside. Wyatt was going to be very pleased.
The mountain road to Jericho lay quiet and deserted, save for the two lone travelers now making their way down its dusty path. The morning had given way to early afternoon, and as Ezra kept a sharp eye on his companion, he ran through a number of plans intended to reveal the truth he sought.
He looked once more at the prisoner, studying him closely. The lad seemed very nervous, and had been ever since Ezra had announced that he would be taking him to the sheriff in Jericho. The announcement that he was being delivered to justice there had not unnerved the outlaw in the slightest; it was only when he realized he would be going with the gambler that his uneasiness began. Ezra noticed this quickly, and made note of it.
For his part, Huston could barely contain his anxiety. Confused, troubled thoughts flew through his mind. Where was Wyatt? Why was this guy taking him to Jericho instead of the former sheriff? Wyatt had promised that he'd take him outside the town and let him go once nobody could see them, but that hadn't happened. Huston was really a wanted man -- in Red Rock, not Jericho, but still they might find it out. Maybe Wyatt had lied to him.
And what would happen once they got to Jericho? Huston began to sweat. That telegram about him being a wanted man there was phony, and Jack was surely back at the hideout by now. When they arrived at the jail and found no one waiting for him, they might start suspecting that it had all been a trick. Then they'd start asking him some very difficult questions, like why he agreed to go to Jericho knowing full well he wasn't a wanted man there. What if they beat him up to get answers? And what if Wyatt stood by and let them do it?
Huston didn't like Wyatt much; he missed old Willie and wished he was still their leader. Willie didn't mind much that Huston was so young and not as bright as the others; all he cared about was whether the kid killed every man he aimed at, and Huston had no trouble with that. All Wyatt did was yell, and if Huston had had anywhere else to go, he would have left. But the gang was all he had, and Wyatt did bring in more money for them than Willie ever had.
But now it looked as if Wyatt had betrayed him. He probably wouldn't even send anyone to get him out of the Jericho jail; he might even tell them himself that Huston was wanted in Red Rock. Huston shivered and hoped the fancy man didn't notice. Huston hated jails, and at that moment wanted nothing more than to kill the gambler and ride away. But he had no weapon.
The longer they rode, the more the prisoner fidgeted. Finally he looked at Ezra and said, "When we gettin' to town?"
The gambler smiled a little. "Anxious to face your accuser, Mr. Kingsley?"
"Uh, no, no," Huston said quickly, in a clumsy attempt to cover his disquiet. "Just wondered, is all." He looked over at Ezra, confused. "You one of them seven lawman?"
Ezra sighed. "Unfortunately."
The red-haired kid blinked. "How come?"
The other man turned his green eyes towards him. "How come what, my articulate friend?"
"How come it's unfortunate?" Huston pronounced the long word with difficulty, as if his tongue was not used to any words longer than a few syllables.
Ezra uttered a bitter laugh. "If you saw what I had to endure for the paltry sum I make, your curiosity would be more than satisfied." He shook his head, then looked around and leaned closer to the young man. "And between us, sir, I must say, congratulations on your bravery. I only wish I had your courage."
Huston stared at him, bewildered. "What I do?" he drawled.
"Why, you took a shot at the great Chris Larabee!" Ezra replied in an amazed voice, as if it were obvious. "Lord, how many times I've wanted to put a bullet in that bastard's heart. I only wish your aim was more true."
Huston was beside himself with surprise. "Don't you work fer Larabee?" he sputtered.
"With him, sir," Ezra stressed, his eyes burning as he looked at his companion. "I work with Larabee. I would never work for that arrogant ass, or for anyone other than myself, despite whatever sad delusions that old Judge Travis may possess. That is what makes this job so detestable." He spat out the last word with great vehemence. "To think someone of my talents should be so misused! I long for release every day, but it only seems to move farther into the distance."
Huston puzzled out the words. "You mean, you wanna quit?"
Ezra gave an angry laugh. "Not an option, I'm afraid -- I would be hunted down like a wild animal. But if there were a way to hasten an end to our servitude, I would wholeheartedly embrace it." He spurred Chaucer along. "Perhaps this Wyatt fellow could be of some assistance."
"Wyatt?" Huston tensed.
"Indeed," was the easy reply. "He's the fellow who stopped you from killing Larabee, a sin I can easily forgive him for if he resumes his former post as sheriff of that wretched town and frees us from our obligations. If the situation does not improve, I may even offer him my services." He sighed and absently scratched his chin, gazing idly at the passing scenery.
Huston bit his lip, thinking hard. Wyatt would want this guy's help, anything to get his old job back. Maybe if he told him what was going on, the gambler would agree to join Wyatt. It seemed pretty obvious that this man didn't like his job, and since he was one of the lawmen he could fix things from the inside. Maybe then Wyatt would be grateful to him and stop yelling at him so much.
But what if he was wrong? Maybe this was a trick. He listened as the gambling fellow went on, describing how much he hated his life as a lawman and wanted to be free. No, he sounded pretty sincere. But if it was a trick, Wyatt would kill him, and Huston didn't want to make a mistake. His heart began to beat faster as he tried to decide what to do. He could tell this guy everything and maybe get him to help them, but if Huston was wrong and this was a trap, Wyatt would kill him for sure. On the other hand, he could tell this man nothing, but then his fate would be to sit in the Jericho jail. What if Wyatt decided to just leave him there?
His breathing became heavy, and he could feel the tiny beads of sweat cooling his forehead. They would be at Jericho soon -- he had to act now.
Then, a third option opened up before him, and he realized he didn't have to choose.
He could simply run.
Ezra was in mid-sentence when suddenly Huston gave his horse a sharp jab of the spurs and sped off in a mad dash, enfolding the gambler in a cloud of dust.
Without wasting breath on a cry of surprise, Ezra urged Chaucer into a gallop and tore after him down the mountain road, cursing himself at his own carelessness. The boy had seemed attentive, and appeared ready to talk any second. Why had he taken flight?
Steep, rocky walls lined the road, and Ezra could see the prisoner up ahead, riding at a breakneck pace. He bent low over Chaucer's neck and urged the beautiful chestnut on; Huston would not be able to go far in this wild, mountainous country, and Chaucer would easily be able to catch up to the lad's less talented mount.
They pounded down the road, and as Ezra suspected, he was soon very close to the frightened prisoner's horse. A few more moments, he thought, and it would be--
The sound was close and loud, and before Ezra could even feel surprise, the pain struck him with blinding force and wrenched him from his saddle. He struck the ground with a cry, sheets of agonizing flame erupting from the deep wound in his side. Good Lord, he thought as one shaking hand clutched the thick stream of blood cascading from the wound. Oh hell, Huston didn't have a gun, what--
It was Huston's voice, and Ezra struggled to lift his head, trying to ignore the agony coursing through his body with every movement. On the second try, he looked up, and saw the prisoner trotting back towards him. Someone was riding carefully down from the rocks above the road, holding a rifle, and Huston met him with a grin of recognition as he reined in only twenty feet from where Ezra lay. It was Wyatt, whose own expression was not as congenial.
Ezra fought to stay conscious and keep his mind clear, straining to hear their every word.
"Trying to get away from our agreement, Huston?" he growled, gripping the rifle in one hand. His horse was moving restlessly, its ears back as it stared at Chaucer. Chaucer flattened his ears against his skull and bobbed his head at the other horse, clearly not happy.
"Aw, hell no, Wyatt!" the kid swore. "Where you been? You was supposed t'take me outta the jail an' let me go."
So they are working together, Ezra realized as the pain lanced through him. Lord...
"Suppose they changed the plans," Wyatt replied, shooting Ezra an angry look. "Good thing that old man Conklin told me about it."
"Not so good fer him," Huston chuckled, following his boss's gaze.
Wyatt studied Ezra as if he were a dying dog. "Well, couldn't let him get you to Jericho, could I? He'd have found out the telegram was fake, and then he'd start getting a little too nosy."
"Sure am glad you's such a good shot," the kid said with a nod, his ugly face splitting into a grin. "Let's get his guns."
"I'll take care of it," Ezra heard Wyatt say. "You get to the hideout, and tell the boys everything's going fine. They're having a town meeting tonight, and I shouldn't have any trouble convincing them to kick out those gunmen. In a few weeks, I'll be back where I belong and Four Corners will be mine again, as it should have been all along."
Ezra's gut twisted at the words. He had never been so sorry to be right in his life.
Huston gave his boss a puzzled look. "Don't you mean it'll be ours, Wyatt? You said the whole gang was gonna get somethin' once you took over that town."
"Oh," Wyatt waved his free hand. "Of course, if everything goes as planned. There's plenty of that place to go around, long as the boys do what they're told."
Ezra blinked and peered at the two men before him, trying desperately to concentrate. He heard a quiet shuffle behind him, and felt a warm, soft nose graze his cheek. Chaucer was standing over him, his large dark eyes worried as he nuzzled his fallen master. Ezra gave a reassuring smile to the animal, but kept his eyes glued to the two outlaws.
"When we gonna move in on the town, Wyatt?" Huston was asking, his voice somewhat anxious. "Been almost a month now, they're gonna want to know--"
"You tell 'em to hold their damn horses 'til I say otherwise!" Wyatt snapped with a scowl. "I've waited a whole year for this, they can damn well wait a few more weeks! They're lucky I let them in on this at all."
The young man grimaced at the outburst and said no more, eyeing his boss with mute fear, and Ezra clearly saw the anger smoldering in Huston's expression.
Wyatt was riding towards Ezra now, the rifle held firmly in one hand. He dismounted, shoving the rifle beneath his saddle. With an easy stride he approached Ezra and reached his side, regarding the injured gambler with a cold eye.
Ezra glared at him and flexed his right arm. The hidden derringer sprang into view, but before he could fire it Wyatt lashed out savagely with his boot, kicking the tiny gun from Ezra's grip. Reaching down, he removed Ezra's Remington from his holster, straightened, then retrieved the derringer, and calmly put them both in his saddlebags before returning to Ezra's side. The two men regarded each other with angry eyes.
"Nice try, Standish," Wyatt snarled, and delivered a swift kick into the Southerner's side. Pain exploded through him in a great irresistible wave, and Ezra had no strength to fight as it swiftly bore him into a deep and dreamless oblivion.
"You gonna blow his head off, Wyatt?" Huston inquired as he watched the former sheriff search the gambler's pockets until he found the key to Huston's handcuffs.
Wyatt palmed the derringer and Remington as he rose and walked back to Huston's horse. "Maybe," he said offhandedly as he slipped the tiny silver key into the lock on the manacles. The cuffs instantly sprang open, and as Huston shook them off, Wyatt continued, his voice becoming sharp. "You get your ass back to the hideout and tell the boys to lay low until I give the word. Anyone who moves before I say so gets cut out, and if they're caught I'll let them hang. Got it?"
Huston gathered up the reins of his horse and nodded, his expression uncertain. "Uh, yeah, Wyatt. Sure."
Wyatt climbed up on his own horse. As he settled in the saddle, he noticed that Huston was still there, and his dull eyes actually looked as if he might be thinking very hard about something. Wyatt scowled. "What's the matter?"
Huston swallowed. "You'd really let 'em hang?"
"Hell, yes!" Wyatt snapped angrily. "Anyone stupid enough to jeopardize this plans is going to get what he deserves. Now let's get the hell out of here, I've got a lot to do before the meeting tonight."
Huston winced a little and nodded, then looked at Ezra. "What about him?"
Wyatt cast an impatient glance back at the place where Ezra lay curled on the ground, motionless. Frowning, he rode over to the gambler, studying him closely. There was blood everywhere, and he didn't seem to be breathing.
Chaucer stood over his master's body and nickered in low, threatening tones, glaring at Wyatt's horse. Wyatt ignored him.
After Wyatt had stared at Ezra a few moments, Chaucer took a step forward, swinging his head at Wyatt's horse, his ears pinned back. Wyatt's horse snorted and backed away, its head bobbing wildly.
"Whoa!" Wyatt muttered, eying Chaucer angrily as he tried to calm his mount. Once separated, both horses seemed to quiet down, but Wyatt never took his wary gaze from the spirited chestnut.
"No need to worry about Standish," Wyatt announced, watching Chaucer as he gripped his reins. "He's dead, and he and his damn horse can rot here. If anyone finds him, they'll just figure you got his guns and shot him."
Huston's eyes grew wide. "Shit, Wyatt, they'll hunt me down fer that!"
"Then you'd better get your ass to the hideout," Wyatt snarled, and took off down the road towards town. Huston watched him ride off, his expression a mixture of uncertainty and fear, then he kicked his horse into a gallop and rode away. Clouds of golden dust rose and swirled in the air, wafting in lazy puffs before settling down once more to earth and over the body lying perfectly still in the dappled sunlight.
Ezra drifted in the darkness for only a few minutes, it seemed, but when he next opened his eyes the sunlight was slanting sharply, indicating that several hours had passed. For a moment his mind was blank, and he stared at the blue sky waiting for memory to return. It did quickly, in a blinding flash. Hell, he thought, Wyatt. That damned two-faced carpetbagger, he really is trying to pull a swindle. As much as he really didn't want to move at the moment, he had to get back to town and tell the others what he'd seen before that meeting was over. They had to know the truth.
He groaned and tried to get up. Pain arced through his body, and several swear words coursed through his mind as he resolutely tried to ignore the searing agony. Damn you, Ezra, he scolded himself, you've been hurt worse than this before. Surely, it's not so large a matter to stand up and get in that saddle. Not with so much at stake.
Very slowly, he pulled himself into a sitting position, gasping with every inch of movement. One hand gingerly explored the wound as he gritted his teeth against the necessary pain. It didn't feel as if the bullet was still there, and the bleeding had slowed. The left side of his clothing was saturated with blood, and for a second he mourned the loss of such hard-to-get finery. Wyatt was going to pay for this, in every way possible, even if he did do Ezra the great favor of not killing him before he left.
He looked up, and met the eyes of Chaucer, who still stood patiently waiting at his side.
"Ah, my old friend," Ezra panted as he struggled to sit up on his elbows, "you must... forgive my rudeness at not rewarding you for your loyalty, but I fear... all of the sugar cubes in my left pocket have been quite thoroughly spoiled."
Chaucer nickered in reply.
After resting for several minutes, Ezra gazed up at the saddle, which seemed a hundred miles away. He knew he had to get himself up there, and felt strong enough to do it, but damn, this was going to hurt.
He took a deep breath. "Very well," he said to himself, and lifted one arm to grasp the stirrup. The muscles in his side shrieked in protest, and he bit back the cry which strove to burst from his mouth. Gasping as the sweat beaded on his forehead, he slowly lifted himself to a sitting position.
The world tilted and spun, and Ezra squeezed his eyes shut, riding out the unpleasant sensation until it subsided. How tempting it was to just stay here, to simply wait until either death or help arrived. But there was no time. Wyatt was dangerous, and the sooner everyone knew that, the better. He only wished there was someone else to deliver the news.
He braced himself and gripped the stirrup, carefully hoisting himself to his knees. If he moved slowly, the pain and dizziness was tolerable. He smiled grimly to himself as he worked; how many towns had he ridden out of in a similar condition, after being attacked by unhappy victims of his cons or cardplaying? This would be the first time he'd ever ridden into a town with a bullet wound in him. Perhaps this job truly had driven him insane.
Ten more minutes passed. He managed to get to his feet, his hands tightly grasping his saddle as he stood. But the worst was far from over; now he had to get into the saddle.
He paused, staring at his objective as his injured side throbbed in anger. It was hurting worse now with all the movement, but there was no help for it. If he didn't act, Wyatt might win, and everything he and the others had worked for would be gone. None of the others had the proof he did that Wyatt was pulling a con.
Lord, he thought angrily, how he hated this. He didn't want others depending on him, he didn't want to be noble and kill himself riding to save the day. He wanted to find a nice, comfortable place to lay down and rest, to do what he had always done -- take care of himself first and foremost, and to hell with everyone else.
He closed his hand around the cool, slick pommel and sighed. The bitter thoughts yielded to a less tangible idea, a feeling more than a solid thought. He was in danger of losing his home, and he could not stand by and let that happen. He had been losing homes all his life, first when his father died, then when his con-woman mother shunted him from relative to relative as she went about her work. But then, he had been powerless to prevent it.
He wasn't powerless now. Damn tired, shaky, and fed up, but not powerless.
These were the thoughts of Ezra's heart, and he recognized the sentiment, even though he could not bring himself to fully admit to it. The thoughts of his head simply said that he had to be strong and find help, to stop Wyatt and give the lying miscreant the sound thrashing he deserved. And, of course, to get back full payment for his ruined clothes.
With all of these resolutions in mind, Ezra gripped the saddle, put one foot firmly in the stirrup, braced himself, and tried to pull himself onto Chaucer.
After straining for a few moments, he stopped, gasping aloud and drenched in sweat. He bowed his head, trying to quiet his fierce trembling. Dammit, he had to do this. He wasn't going to be able to walk back to town.
He tried again. He almost succeeded in getting one leg over Chaucer's back when he had to stop; the pain was becoming stronger and sharper, and he was close to blacking out.
Pausing once more, he closed his eyes and fought back the alluring darkness. Old Travis is going to owe me a raise for this, he thought.
When he felt ready, he dug his fingers into the saddle and made one more attempt, giving himself strength by visualizing all of the horrible things they was going to do to Irving Wyatt once they got their hands on him and his outlaw gang. For attacking Chris and Vin, for taking away Josiah's church, for punching Buck, and for every other sin that would surely be revealed when this was over. And, though he scarcely dared to confess it, for threatening the only halfway-secure home Ezra had had for over twenty years.
With a final, mammoth grunt, Ezra dragged his leg over Chaucer's back, and with great effort kept his balance long enough to settle himself in a more or less upright position. He sat still for a long time, panting and drenched in sweat and waiting until he felt he could move without falling off or throwing up.
"All right, my boy," he whispered at length, still bent over Chaucer's neck as he picked up the reins in one blood-smeared hand, "let's go."
Chaucer turned slowly around, and they carefully began moving back towards town.
While Ezra lay unconscious on the road to Jericho, Wyatt arrived in Four Corners. As he trotted back into town in the early afternoon sunlight, he nodded at every friendly greeting he received, his heart growing more confident with every smile he returned. This was exactly as he'd planned it, he hummed to himself with glee; the townsfolk here were just as sheeplike and stupid as he remembered, and despised the seven gunmen even more than he'd hoped. This was going to be almost absurdly easy.
He passed the church, and felt his mood soar when he saw that it was locked up and deserted. Everything was going perfectly; the preacher was gone, the healer was gone, the tracker and Larabee would be going, that gambler was dead. Surely Wilmington and that kid wouldn't stick around much longer. The boys had certainly done their jobs well.
His eyes fell on the newly-opened stores as he made his way to the hotel, and Wyatt marveled at how prosperous this two-bit town had become. There was a fortune to be made here, by a lawman who knew how to do it. And hadn't he just spent the last year perfecting that knowledge?
The jewelry store loomed on his right, and as he went by it, he studied the wares glittering in the window and pursed his lips. Yes, there was plenty here; but the boys would want their share. Theirs was a large gang; by the time the goods were divided up, the portions wouldn't be very big.
And what if his deputy showed up and wanted a cut? Wyatt vaguely regretted not shooting the skunk when he said he didn't want to be part of a gang and lit out. After all the work he'd done, all the time spent in bitter reflection as he watched other men take his place and reap his rewards -- after all that, the take might still be small.
Unless he simply took it all.
He reined in at the hotel and dismounted, a distant look on his face as he pulled off his saddlebags and his rifle. Perhaps he could figure out a way to ensure his wealth by eliminating those who were looking to share it. All of the men in the gang were wanted somewhere; a telegram to the nearest large city, directing the lawmen there to the hideout -- after Wyatt was sure he was safe and wouldn't need them anymore, of course -- and he could enjoy his new power in peace while Roy and the rest rotted in jail. Or their graves; if Wyatt was lucky, the gang would fight back rather than be captured and he wouldn't have to worry about them any more.
After all, he mused as he shouldered his saddlebags and walked up the hotel's wide front steps, hadn't he really done all the work? And with idiots like Huston in the gang, he'd really be better off without them. And, more importantly, much richer.
The sheriff looked up at the greeting as he entered the lobby to see Mr. Conklin hailing him from a chair near the front desk. Inwardly, Wyatt cringed -- "Stupid old man", he said to himself in annoyance -- but still he managed to plaster a smile on his face as he extended a hand.
"Harry!" he said in a pleased voice as he pumped the other man's hand. "Good to see you! Looking forward to tonight?"
"Am I ever!" Conklin replied with a grin. "Just got done putting up the notices. Irving, you don't know how long many of us have been waitin' to get those gunmen out of here and put some real law and order back in this town."
Wyatt laughed. "Oh, I can well imagine," he said, approaching the front desk. "I have to admit, I surely am hoping you folks wanted me to be your sheriff again."
"Don't you worry about that!" his friend crowed, slapping Wyatt on the shoulder and raising a small cloud of dust. "I'm pretty sure we can swing things our way. In fact, I came over to talk to you about tonight, if you've got the time."
"Sure, sure," Wyatt said with a nod. "Just let me get my bags locked up. Can't take chances with things they way they are, you know."
Conklin gestured for Wyatt to go ahead, and the former sheriff turned to the clerk and plopped his saddlebags down on the counter. They landed with a heavy thud, and Wyatt smiled to himself as he thought of the gambler's guns still concealed inside. They looked to be nice weapons; he'd be able to sell them for a tidy sum when it was safe to do so.
"Put these in the safe again, sir?" the young clerk inquired in a strong Swedish accent, picking up the heavy saddlebags.
"Yup," Wyatt said. "An' I don't want anybody touchin' 'em but me, all right? I've got some valuable papers in there."
The clerk smiled. "Don't worry, sir. Only hotel personnel ever go into the safe. They'll be very secure."
"Good," was the firm reply. Wyatt didn't want anyone finding his stash of money, or Standish's guns, and the hotel locks were too easy to pick. He'd gained the acceptance of the hotel owner, who had no love for the seven gunmen, and felt sure that no one there would disturb his belongings.
"Now, Harry," he continued, turning to the old man with a wide smile on his bruised face, "let's go talk about the meeting. Call me an optimist, but I think it's going to be a very successful night."
The sun was beginning to set as the townsfolk of Four Corners started to file into the Grain Exchange. It was a large crowd, and their animated conversation as they walked up the old wooden steps indicated that this promised to be a lively meeting.
From his place across the street, Chris watched the procession, trying to fight down the heavy sense of uneasiness gnawing at him. For every friend he saw -- Mrs. Potter, Nettie and Casey Wells -- he saw just as many people who had never had much use for any of the hired lawkeepers.
He shifted a little as he leaned on a wooden pillar. Why was he so anxious about the possibility that his duty here might soon end? He'd been a drifter for years, moving on was a way of life he was used to.
But in this case, he wouldn't be drifting. He, and the others, were in danger of being shoved away, by a man whose every action became increasingly suspect the more Chris thought about it. A man who might soon be able to call himself the rightful sheriff of Four Corners.
Chris didn't like that idea at all.
"Looks like quite a crowd, huh?"
The worried voice came from behind him, and Chris turned his head to see JD standing there, hands on his hips as he surveyed the scene before them.
The gunslinger sighed and directed his eyes back to the crowd. "Yup," he said tersely, settling back into his leaning stance. "Buck back yet?"
"Nope, must still be lookin' for Nathan an' Vin," JD answered, walking up to stand next to Chris. "Sure hope he finds 'em. This is lookin' like somethin' we should all be here for. An' Ezra still ain't back yet."
Chris saw Mary ascending the stairs, and their eyes met for a brief moment before she went in. Damn, he thought, she's worried too. Looks like this is gonna be tough.
"It's a long way to Jericho," Chris said aloud. "Should be back soon, though."
The crowd began to thin a bit, and Chris pressed his lips together as if to brace himself.
"Guess it's time to go in, kid," he said in a low tone as he straightened. Josiah appeared, the anxious current in his blue eyes at odds with his calm expression.
"Ready to face the arena, my friends?" the preacher inquired as he regarded his comrades.
JD drew a deep breath. "As I'll ever be, preacher," he said with a swallow. "Sure wish I could stop feelin' nervous."
"Got no cause to worry, JD," Josiah assured his young friend as he clapped a steadying hand on his shoulder. "We've done our duty, now all we can do is hope the good folks here appreciate it."
Wyatt walked up to the base of the wooden stairway, deep in conversation with Mr. Conklin and barely noticing the three gunmen. He was dressed in a clean suit, his hair neatly combed, and gave every appearance of being a perfectly respectable gentleman. After a pause, he glanced over at Chris and the others. No discernible expression crossed his lean face, but the eyes held a cold, smug flicker, and a trace of a smile teased the corners of his thin lips. Conklin followed Wyatt's gaze; his face was composed in a more openly disapproving glower. After scarcely a moment, the two men turned and went up and into the Exchange.
"Might be a long hope, Josiah," Chris said quietly.
The other two men fell silent, considering the gravity of what lay before them as they mounted the stairs and walked into the brightly-lit building.
Roy sat on the ragged porch of the outlaw's hideout, watching the sun go down and impatiently dreaming of the riches that would be theirs when Wyatt had that town in his grasp. In the house behind him, he could hear his fellow gang members pursuing their individual evening pursuits, mostly gambling and drinking.
As the large, black-bearded man idly gazed over the dusty vista before him, he noticed a horseman galloping towards the hideout.
"Hey!" he yelled, jumping up and grabbing for his gun. "Someone's comin'!"
A half-dozen voices inside the house cried "Shit!" There was a general tumult as chairs tipped and crashed and the men scuffled to arm themselves against a possible assault.
Earl, the tall, thin man who had faced Ezra across the poker table, poked his head out of the front doorway. "See 'im, Roy?"
"Looks like just one guy," Roy replied, ready to bolt back into the house should bullets start to fly.
Parker, the sandy-haired young man, looked out of the front window. "Hell, boys, that looks like Huston!"
"Thought Wyatt woulda killed that stupid kid by now," muttered Tyler, squinting out of another window as he tried to see past the long strands of dirty brown hair hanging in his face.
"No such luck," sighed Walt, as the burly outlaw lowered his gun.
"Oh, lay off the kid, least he shoots straight," Roy growled as he holstered his gun and watched Huston as the kid rode up to the house. The young man was covered with dust and sweat, but had enough energy to hop off of his horse.
"Hey, boys," he panted, flipping his mount's reins over its head and leading it to be tethered.
"Howdy, Huston," Roy replied evenly. The other men just watched. "Run into some excitement shootin' Larabee?"
Huston laughed as he tied the horse's reins to a rotting post. "Shit, I coulda killed that ol' man if Wyatt had let me. Everythin' went fine, them folks are all scared as sheep now."
Parker stepped out onto the porch, his eyes burning restlessly. "So when's Wyatt gettin' the town?" he asked.
The young outlaw grunted as he mounted the steps. "Soon enough, I reckon. They's havin' a meetin' tonight t'see about gettin' rid of them seven fellers."
The outlaws relaxed, and exchanged murmurs of anticipation.
"'Bout damn time!" Irish, the outlaw who had shot at Vin, exclaimed. "So we move in tomorrow, right?"
Huston reached the top of the stairs and shoved his hands in his back pockets, his expression becoming uncertain. "Welll... Wyatt said t'tell you all it'll be a few more weeks."
The rejoicing turned to angry dismay.
"What?" cried Tyler. "Shit, we already been sittin' here fer near a month!"
"What's Wyatt waitin' for?" Jack griped.
"We could take that place ourselves in two hours!" exclaimed Irish.
Huston nodded in agreement, clearly unhappy with the turn of events as well. "Yeah, an' I'm startin' to think he ain't gonna give us our share. He was talkin' like the place was gonna be his an' not ours. He said we was lucky he let us in on the deal at all, an' if any of us tried anything now an' got caught, he'd let us hang."
"That double-crossin' bastard!" cried Walt, as his fellow hooligans became more agitated.
"Now hold on!" Roy yelled, holding up one large hand. The others settled into an angry silence and glared at him, waiting.
Roy began to pace back and forth on the porch. "Wyatt's led us to a hell of a lot of money an' good times," he pointed out. "But I'm startin' to think we don't have to wait til he's ready to hand us somethin' we could take for ourselves."
"Damn right!" Earl agreed.
Roy stopped, and looked at Huston. "Town meeting tonight, huh?"
Huston's red head bobbed up and down. "Yup."
"Hmmm." Roy rubbed his thickly bearded chin. "Reckon everyone'll be at that meetin'."
"An' not watchin' their houses an' stores," grinned Jack.
Roy thought for a moment, then straightened and put his ample hands on his gunbelt. "Boys," he announced, "I think after all this time, we should stop waitin' for Wyatt an' do for ourselves, like we always done before. S'pose that's the only way we can be sure to get what's ours."
The others whooped and went to saddle their horses.
"Wyatt sure ain't gonna like this," Huston said, grinning ear to ear anyway.
Roy chuckled. "Well, hell, he can always try to stop us. He's a sheriff, ain't he?"
Rough laughter echoed through the old house as the gang prepared to descend on Four Corners.
"All right then, let's have it quiet."
Mr. Conklin's words rode over the nervous chattering pervading the large hall of the Grain Exchange. Every inhabitant of the town, it seemed, was packed into that room; each chair was filled, as well as every space along the wall and every step of the staircase leading up to the offices on the second floor.
Mary sat with four other town leaders at a cloth-covered table placed at the front of the room, watching Conklin carefully as he presided over the proceedings from a small podium nearby. A gavel was clutched in one of his hands, and he tapped it on the old wooden dais a few times to signal the beginning of the meeting.
Leaning against the wall to one side stood Chris, JD, and Josiah, their expressions somber as they silently waited for the start of the discussions. Wyatt, by contrast, sat in a chair in the front row, very close to the podium and in clear view of everyone in the room. Despite a mysterious bruise marking one side of his face, Wyatt appeared very calm and confident.
Eventually the din subsided, and Conklin cleared his throat as he regarded the tightly packed crowd. "Now," he said in an official voice as he adjusted his spectacles, "we're here to discuss a matter which has been causing some concern lately around here. The town council seated here behind me has asked to hear your opinions on the way we've been handling our lawkeeping. And," he held up one hand as if to stop some imaginary protest, "we all know it's up to Judge Travis who our sheriff is. But should the situation warrant, I have here a telegram which members of the council and I have drafted requesting him to review the current situation."
He held up a scribbled piece of paper. There were some general murmurings; Mary shot a "I had nothing to do with that" look at Chris, who accepted it completely. He knew full well who was behind the telegram, and suspected that regardless of the outcome of tonight's meeting, it would be sent out the next day. He had resolved, however, not to let this go without a fight.
"All right," Conklin continued, putting away the paper, "I'm sure there are many of us here who'd like a chance to speak, so we'd better get started. The question before the town tonight is, should we continue to have seven hired guns keep the peace, or reinstate our former sheriff, Irving Wyatt?"
The way Conklin said the words left little doubt as to his own opinions, particularly the way he directed a smug, subtle nod at Wyatt at the end of his sentence. Chris frowned; Wyatt appeared humble and smiled slightly, looking around and nodding to his friends.
It was going to be a long night.
"Now," Conklin said, looking around, "who'd like to speak first?"
"How's that rabbit comin', Vin?"
The evening stars were just beginning to come out as Nathan sat himself next to the campfire, his eyes studying the meat slowly roasting over the crackling flames. On the other side of the fire, Vin lounged against a rock, fiddling with the silver harmonica in his hands, a thoughtful look on his boyish face.
"Reckon it'll be done soon," the tracker murmured, not looking at his friend.
Nathan nodded and settled down. "Thanks for lettin' me come along, Vin," he said as he got comfortable. "Sure does feel good gettin' outta town for a while."
Vin chuckled a little. "Ain't too far out, it's just a few miles that way," he observed, gesturing towards a spot over his left shoulder with the harmonica.
"If Irving Wyatt ain't close by, that's far enough outta town for me," Nathan assured him in a perturbed tone as he pulled out his canteen.
Silence fell for a bit, broken only by the hissing and popping of the fire. The sky deepened, its vast canvas soon covered with brilliant stars. In the woods to their right they could hear the soft scufflings and screeches of the nocturnal animals beginning their hunts.
"How far out you think you might go, if Wyatt decides t'stick around?" Vin asked at length, still studying the gleaming harmonica.
Nathan sighed and glazed into the dancing fire. "Ain't quite sure," the healer confessed sadly as he drew up his legs and crossed his arms over his knees. "Four Corners has been my home for three years now, an' I ain't too keen on leavin' it. But... with that doctor in town, they don't rightly need me."
"'Less Ezra's right, an' he's pullin' a scam with Wyatt," Vin pointed out, his blue eyes fixing Nathan with a pointed look.
Nathan smiled. "Well, that'd be different," he admitted. "Damn hard to prove, though. But I reckon if anybody could smell a con, it'd be another conman." He paused. "But if he is a real doctor, then... s'pose I'd just stay with Rain's people for a while." His voice became quiet as he gave it more thought. "But Lord, I'd sure hate to leave."
Vin nodded a little, his golden-brown curls shining in the orange glow of the fire.
Nathan looked at him and smiled a little. "How 'bout you?"
His friend couldn't return the smile. "I got to go, Nathan. Ain't got much of a choice."
A sigh blew between Nathan's lips as he studied Vin. "Tascosa?"
"Yup," was the brief response as a grim light began to flicker in Vin's eyes. "Got to clear my name now before someone other than me gets killed."
His comrade nodded a little, understanding in his expression. "Well, maybe you'll have company on that trip, too."
Vin shrugged a bit, but couldn't keep a smile from tugging at the edges of his lips. "Yeah, Chris probably, an' maybe Buck. Have t'admit, I sure wouldn't mind it. Wouldn't seem right to just bust up after all this time."
Nathan poked the fire with a stick, stirring up the embers. "Oh, I'm sure some of 'em got their plans," he mused. "Ezra won't want to get too far from that saloon, an' JD ain't gonna just ride off an' leave Miss Wells behind. Reckon they'll stay, least for a while."
Vin's mouth twitched, and he shook his head. "Can't believe they'd ever make that slippery polecat sheriff again."
The other man regarded his friend with somber eyes. "To a lot of folks, he'd be better'n a bunch of hired guns," he observed.
"Yeah," was the slow, melancholy reply, as Vin looked back into the fire. Quiet reigned again as both men were absorbed by their thoughts.
"Have to say," Vin said softly after several minutes, "for a mess of ornery, muleheaded, whiskey-drinkin' sinners, we sure had a hell of a time."
Nathan smiled a little. "Yep, we did." He sat back a little and bit his lip in thought. "An' you know, just 'cause they got a real sheriff, don't mean we'd have to leave just yet. We could stay just for a while, make sure everything's goin' all right."
Vin considered this, then looked away, his face moving into shadow. "I'd sure feel better goin' to Texas, knowin' you boys were still watchin' the place under Wyatt's nose."
"We could do that," Nathan said with a distant smile as he looked up into the starlit sky and pondered. "You know we'd keep it safe 'til the day you ride back into town a free man."
Vin grinned slightly and looked at his friend, his blue eyes twinkling in the dancing firelight. "Sounds like a good plan there, pard. I reckon ol' Wyatt might not take too kindly to us stayin' in town, though."
His comrade laughed. "That's why I like the idea so much. Now let's get to eatin', this rabbit looks 'bout burnt to cinders."
The tracker chuckled and sat up, and soon the two friends were eating their dinner and silently watching as night gently settled over the landscape, with its whispered promise of quiet and peace.
The stout, dark-haired woman stood before the assembled crowd in the Grain Exchange and fixed them all with her firm, brown eyes. She spoke quietly, but the words were underscored with a current of undeniable conviction.
"I don't have to tell some of you what having these seven men in our town has meant to me and my children," she was saying as she scanned the room, picking out every old friend she could find. "You were here when Lucas James gunned down my husband, George Potter, in cold blood, and you know how Mr. Larabee and his friends fought to bring him to justice, in spite of the danger involved -- and in spite of how some of you felt about it."
Her voice turned slightly cold at the last few words, and she gave an accusatory glance to Mr. Conklin, who flinched just a little. Those who had been in town that day nodded with recognition; the murder of Mr. Potter had caused quite a stir, but the power and ruthlessness of the James family had caused many, especially Conklin, to believe the crime should simply be ignored. It would be safer for the town, they had said. Chris and his friends, however, had felt differently.
"Because of their courage, Lucas James was brought to justice," Mrs. Potter continued, holding her head up as she studied her fellow townsmen. "And my children know that there are men in the world who will fight for what's right, no matter the odds."
There were murmurs of assent mixed with some embarrassed throat-clearing.
"Now, these men may be rough, and not as spit-shined as many of the sheriffs and marshals of this territory," she went on to say, looking over the assembled throng with a cool steady gaze. "But they've proven time and again for this town that their courage shines brighter than any polished badge ever could. Thank you."
She sat down to some applause, and some appreciative, although embarrassed, looks from Chris and his friends.
Conklin approached the podium, a severely chagrined look on his weathered face. "Thank you, Mrs. Potter," he mumbled politely, although the tenor of his voice sounded far from grateful. "Anyone else?"
One of the townsmen stood up, and Chris bit back a disgusted groan. The new speaker was Mr. Pettibone, the prosperous owner of the local grocery. He was a round-faced, stout, middle-aged man, fussily dressed, with the look of an annoyed ferret.
"Ah! Mr. Pettibone," Conklin said with a pleased smile. "The floor's all yours."
"Thank you, Mr. Conklin," Pettibone replied with a slight, fastidious bow. "Now, I won't deny that Larabee and his men have kept order around here most of the time. But speaking as a business owner in this town, I've got to voice my concerns over the retention of Larabee and the others. Since they took over, we've had more gunfights than we ever did under Marshal Wyatt. My workers are afraid to stand by the window for fear they'll get shot!"
"I'm assumin' they got the sense to duck if trouble breaks out," Chris replied quietly, staring at the man.
"Trouble is, Larabee, it's always breaking out with you men in town!" Pettibone retorted with a scowl. "Remember the time you brought that wagonload of working women into our town?"
"Or when Sanchez there got drunk and stole my horse!" cried another male voice from the crowd.
"Hey, Wyatt stole a horse, too!" barked a man from the back of the room.
Calvert stood up. "Yeah, and returned it in even better shape than she was before!" he announced. "Even had new shoes on her! Bet Sanchez can't say that!"
"An' look at all the trouble they've caused lately!" a thickset man in the third row exclaimed, before Josiah could form a reply. "There's guns goin' off at 'em every minute, it's not safe to walk down the street!"
"And what about the times every last one of 'em have gone off an' left us totally defenseless?" Conklin chimed in. "What's the use of havin' seven lawmen if they won't stay where they're needed?"
"Sometimes it's taken all seven of them to keep the peace, Mr. Conklin," Mary reminded him from her seat at the table. "And many of us here owe them dearly for their efforts." She paused and glanced at where Chris and his men were standing. "I know I do."
"That's all very nice, Mrs. Travis," Pettibone said in a somewhat snide tone, "but a town this size shouldn't need to pay seven men to look after it when only one or two will do. No other town in the territory has more'n two lawmen. It makes folks think we're still a dangerous place to live."
"I wouldn't have called it safe when Wyatt was sheriff, either," Mrs. Potter said softly, stabbing the grocer with a sharp glance. "Or have you forgotten, Mr. Pettibone?"
Pettibone fidgeted a little, then straightened. "Lord knows Wyatt's not perfect, and he'll be the first to admit that," Pettibone confessed. "But at least he's mended his ways. These past few weeks, we've all seen him do his part to keep things safe, and I know I'd feel perfectly confident in putting our town in his hands once again."
He nodded and sat down to his own share of applause, followed by a smattering of heated discussion.
"All right, order," Conklin demanded, tapping the podium with his gavel.
But the talk continued, growing even louder and more animated as the opinions flew between the friends of the seven and Wyatt's proponents.
"They've cleaned up this town a sight better'n Wyatt ever did!"
"They're nothin' but hired guns, we need us a real sheriff!"
"The Judge appointed 'em, that makes 'em real enough for me!"
"I don't want my wife or kids gettin' shot by someone gunnin' for Larabee or Tanner--"
Mary sighed and looked out over the squabbling crowd, meeting Chris's somber eyes after a few moments. Both of them were thinking the same thing: Finding a solution to this was not going to be easy.
Amidst the sea of dissension, unnoticed by anyone, Wyatt smiled.
In the hills outside of town, all was quiet. Vin and Nathan lounged beneath the stars, mulling over their own private thoughts and watching the fire dance in the warm spring air. The flames were dying out, and most of the light in the little camp was shining from an old tin lantern perched on a nearby rock.
Vin was idly blowing shapeless tunes on his harmonica and the healer was sitting with his back against a rock, studying the stars, when suddenly they both looked towards the road, instantly alert.
"Rider comin'," Vin announced, smoothly grabbing for his sawed-off Winchester.
Nathan nodded and reached for his own weapon, but before he could grasp it, a familiar voice split the air.
"'Bout dang time I found you two!" said the shadow as it rode up to them.
"Buck!" Nathan exclaimed, holding up the lantern as their comrade trotted into view. He and Vin were on their feet at once.
Buck rode into the small circle of light, dusty and covered with sweat. After reining to a halt, he simply sat on his horse, panting as he regarded both of them and shaking his head. "Here I go ridin' over half the territory tryin' to track you boys down, an' when I finally find ya, you're less'n a mile from town!"
Vin stepped forward, worry creasing his brow. "What's wrong, Buck?"
"Things back there are gettin' all stirred up," Buck answered him, leaning forward in his saddle and crossing his hands over the pommel. "Seems they called a town meetin' for tonight to talk about whether to keep us on."
"Thought that was up to the Judge," Nathan observed, a slight tone of confusion in his voice.
"It is, pard," Buck assured him, sitting back up, "but I figure Conklin an' his bunch think if they yell loud enough, the Judge'll listen to 'em. Chris sent me to find you so we could all be at the meetin', but it's gettin' mighty late now. Likely it's almost over."
"Close as we are, we can be in town in no time," Vin said in a hurried voice, pocketing his harmonica. Nathan was dousing the fire already.
"Bet that ol' snake Wyatt's behind this," the healer mumbled angrily, his expression unmistakable in the dim lantern light.
"Don't worry, he ain't gonna run us out so easy," Vin promised as he walked towards Sire. "I bet Chris--"
From a small distance away in the pitch-black woods, the distinct sound of a loud horse's whinny reached their ears.
All three men stopped and looked into the murky forest, startled.
"You been followed, Buck?" Nathan asked, putting his hand on his gun once more.
"Don't think so," the mustached gunslinger replied, peering into the shadowy woods as he slid off his horse. "But after all the crazy bull of the past month, I sure ain't about to take any chances."
They drew their guns and waited, staring into the darkness. A soft noise came to them, the gentle, rhythmic crunching of a horse's hooves on the dry forest floor, coming slowly towards them.
Silently the three men ducked behind the closest, largest rocks. A large, indistinct shape could be seen among the dark trunks of the trees, accompanied by the snorting and blowing of a horse.
Three guns clicked simultaneously, the small metallic noises echoing in the newborn night.
Vin aimed his weapon at the shadow. "Best show yourself," he said in a loud, warning voice which invited no argument.
The figure moved forward a few more paces, uttered what sounded like a broken groan, and slid off its mount to the ground, landing on the rocky ground with a heavy thud.
Buck, Vin and Nathan rose a little as the dark shape struggled to rise.
"Could be a trick," Vin whispered.
The shape lifted itself up and attempted to stand, but only managed to get to its knees before collapsing again with an even louder cry than before.
At this sound, all three men stood, astonished.
"Ezra!" Nathan cried, grabbing the lantern and dashing around the rock to where the figure now lay motionless.
"Aw, damn!" Vin breathed in anxious surprise as he followed the healer, with Buck on his heels.
Within seconds the horse and rider were fully illuminated by the lantern's dim glow. Its feeble light revealed the prone form of Ezra, lying in a crumpled heap at Chaucer's side, his dusty clothes soaked through with perspiration and blood.
"God'lmighty, he's been shot!" Buck shouted in shock as Nathan knelt beside the wounded gambler and very carefully turned him over.
Ezra's eyelids fluttered open and he peered unsteadily at the men around him. "A... correct if somewhat... obvious observation... Mr. Wilmington," he gasped, the sentence ending with a burst of ragged coughs.
"What the hell happened?" Vin inquired as Nathan ripped open Ezra's shirt to check the wound. Buck was on his knees at Ezra's side, folding up his jacket and hastily shoving it beneath the Southerner's head.
"No, you don't!" the healer interceded as Ezra attempted to answer. "Not one more word outta you 'til we get you fixed up!"
Ezra shook his head and grabbed Nathan's wrist in a faltering grip, halting his examination. "No, wait!" he panted. "You've... got to know -- it was Wyatt--"
"Now why don't that surprise me?" Buck growled. "By God, I'm gonna kill that son of a bitch!"
Nathan's lips pressed together for a moment in pure fury. He bit it back and settled for giving his head a violent shake. "I'm right with ya on that, Buck!"
Ezra coughed again. "You are both welcome... to whatever is left after I am through with him," he muttered, his breath easing as he became more comfortable. "He... attacked me while I was transporting Mr. Huston. My instincts were unfortunately correct, he... has a gang and is behind every misfortune we've suffered in the past month. He plans to... drive us out and regain possession of the town."
Vin produced a canteen and put it to Ezra's lips.
"You mean, that guy that attacked Mary, that shot at Vin -- all of them are workin' for Wyatt?" Nathan asked as the gambler satiated his thirst.
Ezra nodded as Vin pulled the empty canteen away. "He explained it all right in front of me, I... assume because he believed I was breathing my last."
Vin looked at the other two men. "We got to get to that meetin' an tell them folks what's been goin' on!"
"That skunk'll just deny the whole thing," Buck pointed out.
Ezra coughed. "You might... ask him how my guns arrived in his saddlebags. I saw him put them there... before I lost consciousness."
Vin pursed his lips, then gave Ezra a very light slap on the shoulder before standing up. "You rest easy, pard, we'll take it from here."
His friend took a deep breath and nodded, closing his eyes. "My choices... in that regard seem... extremely limited at the moment..."
"You best just hush up now," Nathan chided him gently, then looked up at Buck. "Wyatt ain't gonna go easy about this, Buck. Think you ought to go with Vin an' back him up. I can take care of Ezra myself."
Buck hesitated, just for a moment, studying his friend's pale, slack features. "Is he gonna be all right?"
"Think so," Nathan said, putting a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Bullet went through, an' all that ridin' wore him out, but he'll make it."
Ezra's eyes flickered open again, and he gazed at Buck with muted urgency. "I appreciate your concern, my friend," he whispered, "but I will be even better... once that rascal is behind bars or at the end of a rope, where he belongs."
"An' I wouldn't object to that, neither," Nathan added, staring at Buck with an expression full of bitter anger.
Buck gave a short sigh, his blue eyes lit bright with determination. "Well, all right," he murmured, squeezing Ezra's arm before jumping to his feet. "C'mon, Vin, let's go corral us a rattler."
Vin nodded firmly, then turned and hurried to where Sire stood waiting. In one long, fluid motion, he leapt onto the animal's back and gathered up the reins as Buck rode up beside him, ready to go.
"See you both back home," Vin called out, then he and Buck whirled and tore down the moonlit mountain road towards the glimmering town in the distance.
Nathan watched them go, the turned his full attention to Ezra, who was now staring up at the starlit sky with a strange, distant expression in his green eyes.
"I certainly hope so, Vin," Nathan heard the Southerner murmur in a dream-like whisper, but before he could inquire as to the deep emotion which seemed to fill those softly spoken words, Ezra's eyes blinked closed again and the gambler fell back into unconsciousness.
Dr. Fredericks took another draw from his bottle of whiskey and looked over at the clock ticking quietly on the wooden shelf above the door. He'd snuck out of the meeting for a nip, and was preparing to head back. As he put the bottle back under the table in its usual hiding place, his old face wrinkled into smile; ol' Wyatt sure had these hicks fooled. This was going to be easy.
A quick rapping sounded on his door, but before he could get to his feet it opened, and a slender figure stepped through it.
"Huston!" Fredericks exclaimed, as the kid's pockmarked face showed itself. "What in hell are you doing here? If Wyatt sees you--"
Huston's long face was spread in a wide grin. "All us boys are here, doc, an' we don't give a hang for Wyatt no more. Roy's takin' over, an' we're gonna grab what's ours afore that sidewinder takes it all."
Frederick's small eyes widened. "Really! A mutiny, huh?"
A puzzled light flickered across Huston's eyes. "Well... if that means we ain't followin' Wyatt, then yeah. Roy sent me on ahead to fetch you if'n you wanna join the winnin' side."
Fredericks thought for a moment, then looked Huston in the eye.
"Just let me get my guns."
The crowd in the grain exchange was finally settling down as Conklin rapped the gavel a few more times.
"All right, now," he intoned, as the mutterings simmered to a halt. "It's gettin' late and I think we're all just about talked out. You good folks can go on home now, and the council will decide tomorrow what's to be done."
Wyatt raised his hand. "Mind if I say a few things, Harry?"
A quick smile slid across Conklin's face, his eyes disappearing into cheerful slits behind his glasses. "Not at all, Wyatt, go right ahead."
"Thanks," was the humble reply, and Wyatt stood, facing his audience in as dignified and contrite a manner as he could muster. "Now, I got to say, I'm mighty grateful that you've all found it in your hearts to forgive me," he said in a halting voice as he faced his fellow townsmen. "Even if you don't want me as your sheriff any more, I've decided to stay right here in Four Corners for as long as God gives me to live, tryin' to right that wrong and help you good folks out as much as I can. If you'll let me, of course."
"Aw, hell, Wyatt!" chuckled one of the men in the crowd.
Wyatt let a smile tug at his thin lips, then continued. "Well, I can't ever forgive myself for the wrong I did you people, but no matter what, I'll be workin' to earn back your trust for the rest of my days. I've already had several chances to show you I ain't all talk, thank the Lord, and I'll go on taking those chances as they come, with or without a badge. Now, I... I reckon I'm done talkin'. Thank you."
Several people applauded as Wyatt sat down, Conklin as much as anyone else.
"Great, Wyatt, that was fine," he enthused, palming the gavel. "Well, I suppose that just about--"
Chris took a step forward, his boots thumping loudly against the exchange's old wooden floor. "I'd like to say somethin' too, Mr. Conklin."
"You--?" Conklin seemed a bit thrown and sputtered for a moment. "Uh -- well, yes, I suppose you can, Larabee. Go, uh, go ahead."
Chris walked slowly to the front of the room, his eyes staying on Wyatt with every step. The former sheriff met his gaze and held it, defiance flickering in his hazel eyes, as if daring Chris to say anything against him.
Finally Chris turned and faced the room, his broad-brimmed black hat held firmly in his hands. "Don't have any fancy speech to make to you folks," he confessed with a single shake of his head. "For the past year, the boys an' I have been lettin' our fists an' our blood do the talkin' in defense of this town." He swept them all with his piercing green eyes. "We're not perfect. But long as we got a sworn duty to put ourselves between you folks an' anyone lookin' to harm you, we'll be there."
He paused, dropped his eyes, toyed with his hat a bit, then shrugged. "Should've had Josiah give this talk," he muttered lightly with a self-deprecating smile, shaking his head before lifting it once more. "That's all I have to say."
He gave them all a nod and walked away to applause from their supporters, looking uncomfortable as he rejoined his friends.
"I hated that," he admitted to Josiah.
"But you meant every word, an' they knew it , Chris," the preacher assured him as the applause died down, mingling with the muffled din as people rose to leave. He smiled. "Course, if you'd asked me to do the talkin'--"
Chris grinned and was about to reply when the door to the exchange burst open with a loud bang. The entire crowd gasped and looked up as Vin and Buck appeared, dusty and panting, with anger clearly burning in their eyes.
Vin strode into the room as silence fell, his blue eyes wide and fierce. "We too late?"
"Sorry, Tanner, the meeting's over," Conklin insisted.
"I didn't hear a gavel, did you boys?" Chris asked loudly.
"Not me, Mr. Larabee," JD said in agreement.
"Or me," Josiah added.
"That's right fine," Vin breathed in a tight voice as he marched straight up to Wyatt and looked him in the eye.
Wyatt took a step back. "Here, Tanner, what's this all about?"
"You're a lyin', thievin' rattlesnake, that's what, Wyatt," Vin replied in a deadly whisper, "an' you're through foolin' these folks."
"We know all about your little plan to take over the town," Buck continued, standing just behind Vin with his hands on his hips. "How you been workin' with them outlaws, settin' 'em to shoot at Chris an' Vin an' attack Mary just so's you could look good an' act the hero."
Exclamations of shock ran through the crowd.
"What!" Conklin cried, "Don't be absurd, Wilmington!"
"You been plannin' this whole thing out," Vin said, stepping closer to Wyatt. "You been tryin' to get that badge back so's you can take this town back for yourself. Ezra heard you tell that Huston kid the whole story."
Wyatt laughed as he took one more step back, but it took several moments for him to reply. "Standish? Don't -- don't be ridiculous! These are just the ravings of a wounded man, he was clearly delirious."
Vin eyed him evenly. "How'd you know Ezra was wounded?"
Silence fell as every eye and ear turned towards the former sheriff.
"Yeah, Wyatt," Buck said calmly. "We didn't say nothin' about that."
Conklin looked back and forth between the two men, confused. "Wyatt--?"
Chris came forward, just as calm as Buck and Vin, but there was an undeniable storm brewing behind his eyes. "What's the story, Vin?"
Vin never took his eyes from Wyatt. "Ezra's lyin' by the road just outside of town, with a hole in 'im from Wyatt's gun. Nathan's tendin' to 'im, but he was 'bout dead when he found us."
"Seems the good sheriff here shot Ezra an' let that Huston kid ride off," Buck continued. "He an' the kid were talkin', an' Ezra heard every word. It's all a swindle, Chris. Wyatt's workin' for the bad guys."
The murmurings were growing stronger now as the townspeople looked at each other, confused. Chris looked ready to kill somebody, and from the deadly expression he was leveling at Wyatt, it appeared that the former sheriff was the prime candidate at the moment.
Wyatt looked around angrily. "It's all a lie!" he cried. "They're just trying to save their necks, they know you don't want them here. Don't pay them any mind."
"If'n they're lies, then you won't mind provin' it ain't true," Vin said.
Wyatt straightened. "I'll do whatever is required," he promised in a firm voice.
Vin nodded, allowing a small smile to touch his lips. "Mind if we look in your saddlebags?"
For a brief second, fear flickered across Wyatt's face. "My saddlebags?"
"You heard right, pard," Buck said. "See, accordin' to Ezra, you lifted his guns an' put 'em in your saddlebags. 'Course he was lyin', right? They ain't in your saddlebags, or your hotel room, are they?"
"That's simple enough to prove," proclaimed Mr. Heideger, the Swiss owner of the hotel. He was eyeing the lawmen with an angry expression. "They're in the hotel safe. We can go there right now."
Conklin slapped Wyatt on the shoulder. "Don't worry, Wyatt, we'll get this cleared up. Come on."
The look on Wyatt's face told the hired lawmen all they needed to know, even if no one else there saw it.
"I think they're actually in the livery," Wyatt said as the crowd began to file out in the direction of the hotel.
"No, I checked the safe myself before we came over," Mr. Heideger said in firm Swiss tones. "Nobody has tampered with them, Wyatt, I swear. I will open the safe myself."
The smile that crept over Chris's face as he stared at Wyatt's increasingly sweaty countenance was full of satisfaction. "C'mon, Wyatt," he said softly. "What've you got to lose?"
Before Wyatt could think of a reply, several cries arose from the street outside. A young man pushed through the crowd, appearing in the doorway and waving his hat.
"There's a rough-lookin' gang up the street!" he cried. "One of them looks like the kid who shot at Mr. Larabee -- I think they're tryin' to rob the jewelry store!"
Mr. Hofmann climbed to his feet using his cane and uttered a vehement German oath.
"Don't worry, Mr. Hofmann, we'll take care of it," JD said quickly, as half of the crowd rushed outside and the other half retreated into the safer corners of the Grain Exchange.
Chris shot a look at Wyatt. "This ain't over," he warned as he palmed his gun, then followed his men outside.
Wyatt couldn't show it, but he felt vastly relieved. He had no idea what the hell that fool kid Huston was doing, coming back here, but it appeared his men were giving Wyatt a chance to act the hero once more in front of the whole town. Probably Huston told them about the meeting and wanted to speed things along; well, if he foiled the robbery of old Hofmann's store, that would certainly clinch things, and the saddlebags would be forgotten -- a damn good thing, since Standish's guns were still inside. But if he didn't move fast, Larabee and his men might stop things before Wyatt could. He couldn't have that.
"Hold up, Larabee!" he said aloud, and ran after the gunman.
It was dark in the street, but as Chris and his men began to stride towards the area where the jewelry store stood, they could plainly see several dark shapes moving around its perimeter. Suddenly five horsemen appeared from around the corner next to the store and galloped towards them.
Chris turned and saw Wyatt standing beside him. "Get the hell out of here, Wyatt!"
"Not a chance, Larabee," the former sheriff snapped back. "I want to show this town how much they can trust me." He looked over his shoulder to see a crowd of the curious gathering behind him, Conklin at the fore. Good, Wyatt thought; they'll see everything. Hope the boys have this well planned, we could be in this town by tomorrow.
As the riding figures drew closer and became easier to see, several murmurs ran through the throng of townsfolk.
"Hey -- isn't that the guy Standish gambled with, who almost killed himself?"
"Looks like him -- an' there's the kid who shot Larabee--"
"And that big guy on the horse -- he's the one who attacked Mrs. Travis! Thought he was dead--"
"Hey, Wilmington, there's the guy that gave you that black eye!"
"And -- there's Dr. Fredericks!"
As the confused exclamations rippled through the small throng, Chris studied the tall, black-haired man riding at the front of the outlaw band. It was, indeed, the man who had attacked Mary. He turned to Wyatt. "Thought you said he was dead, Wyatt."
Inside, Wyatt was seething; damn Roy, for showing up like this when he was supposed to say hidden! This blew the whole story. And what the hell was Fredericks doing up there? But he forced himself to remain calm. "Well, obviously we were wrong, Larabee," he growled.
But he had to keep playing the game, if this was all to go the way he wanted. As the five horsemen reined in ten feet away, Wyatt said in a loud voice, "All right, what's the meaning of this?"
Roy chuckled. "Hell, you know the meanin' well as we do, Wyatt."
It was a casually spoken sentence, its familiar tone indicating that Roy had spoken to Wyatt frequently before.
"That sounded right chummy there," Buck observed. "You two fellas know each other?"
The crowd began to stir again, in a way Wyatt didn't like. What the hell was Roy doing? He cleared his throat and shouted in his best authoritative voice, "Only meaning I can see, men, is that you got to drop your guns an' surrender."
"Hell with that, Wyatt!" Roy barked out with a laugh. "We ain't takin' your orders no more."
There was more murmuring behind him, and Wyatt very clearly heard Conklin's bewildered voice stammer out, "What... what's he mean by that, Irving?"
Chris, Vin, Buck, JD and Josiah all turned to Wyatt and looked at him with knowing expectation.
For several long seconds, Wyatt lost the power to answer. He could only stare at the men arrayed before him, his body going cold as he realized that his plan was crashing down around him. Double-crossed, he thought numbly. They were double-crossing him...
Chris turned and waved the townsfolk away. "Get back inside! Now!" he shouted, recognizing what was coming.
Many of them needed no further urging; they were already hurrying away, having no desire to get caught in the crossfire. Many of them stared at Wyatt as they ran off, confused, amazed and angry. Wyatt didn't seem to notice.
"Dammit," the former sheriff whispered, shaking his head as he reached for his guns. "You backstabbin' sons of--"
Chris's eyes widened as he saw what was happening. "Wyatt, NO!"
A second later, the street exploded with gunfire.
As the townsfolk screamed and ran, Chris and his men dove for cover, firing at the same time. Wyatt fell into the dirt, cursing a blue streak and grasping at his bleeding, now-useless gun arm. Another bullet had torn into his left leg, the pants leg turning crimson within moments.
The outlaw's horses reared and cried out as one of the men, the dark-haired one who had punched Buck, fell dead from his saddle, landing in the dust with a heavy thud. Fredericks reeled, clutching at the gaping hole in his shoulder, then whirled and without another word tore off down the street.
Bullets sprayed everywhere. The remaining three outlaws returned fire for a few minutes, splintering the wooden tables and barrels that sheltered the lawkeepers.
"Shit!" Roy suddenly yelled, and whirling spurred his mount up the street towards the jewelry store, blood spattering into the dirt from an unseen wound as he rode off. Huston fire off one more shot at Chris before following his new boss, with the third outlaw close on his heels.
Chris and the others rose from their hiding places, panting and covered with sweat. With a barely suppressed grunt of rage, Chris charged over to where Wyatt lay wounded and collared him, hauling him halfway to his feet.
"Goddamn you, Larabee!" Wyatt choked in pain and rage as he tried to free himself from the gunman's iron grip.
"I think He's gonna have a crack at damning you first, Wyatt," Chris snarled, pulling the former sheriff towards a nearby storage shed. With one shove he pushed Wyatt inside and slammed the door closed, twisting the key and then shoving it into the pocket of his long black duster.
"Guess that'll hold him," Buck said with a firm nod. "We goin' after 'em?"
There was a pause. Chris looked at his men, then behind him, to where a few of the townspeople were peeping at them from the safety of porches and windows. Conklin was peering anxiously from the window of the Grain Exchange, his face gray. Residents who twenty minutes before had been ready to kick the seven out of town were now pleading silently for help.
Chris stared at Conklin, at all of them, his green eyes stormy. It would have been so easy to tell them all to go to hell, that if they didn't want the seven's help, then they weren't going to get it. That would have made more sense than charging once more into danger to spill their blood for the ungrateful.
Chris sighed silently and looked at his men. Their faces wore the same solemn expression; they were thinking the same thing he was, and he could see that they had all reached the same decision.
Without another word they turned and ran up the street towards the jewelry store.
"Hurry it up!"
Tyler's rough voice shot through the air as he stood at Jack's shoulder, watching impatiently as his partner tried to jimmy open the side window of the jewelry store with a crowbar.
"Shut up, dammit!" Jack snapped, not taking his eyes off his work. "It's almost open. Go bother Parker and Irish if you're so damn bored."
Tyler snorted and palmed his gun, looking around nervously. "Hell, they're just robbin' the hardware store. That ain't near half as good as robbin' a jewelry store."
The thunderous pounding of hooves grabbed their attention; someone was riding fast up the street towards them.
Jack threw a look over his shoulder as he dropped the crowbar and reached for his gun. "Shit!"
"It's Fredericks!" Tyler gasped, taking a step forward into the street.
Jack jumped to his feet and gaped along with his comrade. Fredericks was tearing down the street, not seeming to even notice them as he bore down on them.
"Ben!" Jack yelled as the doctor drew near. "What happened? Where'n hell--"
Fredericks did not even slow down. He raced past them, bent low over the neck of his horse, and as he shot past both men could see the blood staining his shirt. Without the slightest pause, the older man galloped up the street and into the blackness of the outlying desert.
"Hey!" Tyler cried, as the dust from Fredericks' horse swirled around them in a tawny cloud.
"Somebody shot him!" Jack exclaimed, grabbing Tyler's sleeve. "Damn, they're onto us!"
"Bet Wyatt ratted on us," Tyler growled, his dirty hands balling into fists. "I'm gonna shoot that--"
There were more hoofbeats behind them, and the turned to see Roy trotting up, followed by Earl and Huston. They were all sweaty and highly agitated, and Roy's clothing was spotted with blood.
"Dang!" Tyler spat in surprise.
"Better move fast, boys, Larabee an' his men are right behind us," Roy said as he dismounted carefully. There was a ragged tear on his left sleeve where a bullet had cut a deep crease through his arm.
"Didja find Wyatt?" Jack inquired as he retrieved the crowbar.
Earl chuckled. "Forget Wyatt, we done put a couple bullets in that skunk's worthless hide."
Huston coughed. "They got Walt, though."
Jack hefted the crowbar, paused to consider his associate's death, then shrugged. "Serves that fool right for not shootin' 'em first," he muttered, then went back to work with his crowbar.
Roy turned to Earl and Huston. "Larabee an' his men are comin'. You boys get Irish an' Parker an' keep them hired guns busy 'til we clean this place out."
"Right," Huston said with a grin, and he and Earl moved off into the shadows.
Roy nodded, glanced at his bloodied arm, then looked at Jack still struggling with the stubborn window.
"Oh, for God's sake, Jack," he said in disgust, and with one thickly gloved hand he shattered the glass with his Remington. As Jack and Tyler jumped back to avoid the spray of broken glass, Roy reached up, unlocked the window and slid the damaged casement upwards.
"Heh," Jack said with a shake of his head as Roy began to climb through the window, "guess that's why you're the boss, Roy."
The sound of shattering glass echoed up the now-empty street as Chris and his men got closer.
"Dang!" JD muttered, dismayed.
"Keep sharp," Josiah said in a low voice as several dark shapes moved across the road in the distance.
"Looks like another tough night on the job," Buck muttered as he checked his gun.
"Saw one of 'em go back down the alley," Vin said, grasping his sawed-off Winchester. "Reckon I'll go round 'im up."
Chris nodded to him. "Watch your back."
Vin's head bobbed once, and he was off as smooth and quiet as a whisper.
Chris looked around, then motioned to the others with his gun, his movements saying: Let's go.
They followed him silently, moving closer to the jewelry store, and the outlaws sheltered within it, with every step.
Wyatt sat up in the dark storage shed and cursed his own stupidity.
Shit! he spat to himself as he blinked against the gloom. Why the hell didn't he just gun down Roy and the others? How could he have been so stupid as to trust any of them? He should've known they'd turn on him, and cut him out before he could cut them. And Standish! Wyatt kicked himself for not blowing the gambler's head off when he had the chance. He could have sworn that damned Reb was dead...
He struggled to a sitting position, his wounds protesting with every movement. He ignored the stabbing pain, too angry to coddle himself. Now the whole damn town knew the truth, they'd look inside the saddlebags, and he'd be arrested and hanged. Maybe they wouldn't even bother to arrest him first.
Hell with that, Wyatt thought as he looked around. Tiny shafts of moonlight were leaking in through the splits in the shed's rough board walls, and there was just enough light for him to see. The shed was empty except for a few bags of seed. Wyatt leaned forward and rummaged around, but there were no sharp tools he could use to break open the door.
He sighed sharply and tried the door. The lock held, and he knew his wounds had sapped the strength he'd need to break it down. He sat back for a moments, his injured arm held tight against his body, thinking.
After a few minutes, he rose to a stoop and began testing the boards of the walls. One of them wobbled a little more than the others; it wasn't much, but it was a start. Bracing himself, he began to try and loosen it even more.
Chris, Buck, Josiah and JD continued to creep slowly towards the jewelry store, hiding their every move as much as they could and making as little noise as possible. As they crept closer, they could hear the thieves rummaging inside, opening cases and emptying drawers.
They came within fifty feet. Chris was just about to move across the street when a gunshot rang out, whizzing just past his face. As he leapt back, another shot rang out, with several more close behind it.
"Guess they decided to break cover," Buck observed, after plunging behind a large barrel. When breaks in the firing permitted it, he popped his head up and studied the situation. "Looks like there's three of 'em, coverin' the ones in the store."
"We gotta stop 'em before they take everything Mr. Hofmann's got!" JD gasped, peering over the trough which was protecting him and firing off a round towards the hidden attackers.
The shots became more sporadic.
"Hey, Larabee!" came a familiar, taunting voice as the firing died down. "You find the guts t'face me yet, ol' man?"
A furious voice hidden somewhere nearby hissed, "Huston! You jackass!"
"For Pete's sake, it's that kid!" JD exclaimed after a pause. All four men looked to see Huston standing up from behind an overturned table, guns in both hands.
Josiah looked over to Chris. "Whattya say, Larabee?"
Chris shrugged. "He wants a fight, I say we give it to 'im."
All four of them aimed at the haughty standing figure and opened fire.
The bullets sprayed at the kid's feet and behind his head, shattering the wooden clapboards of the building at his back. Huston let out a yelp, startled, then stumbled into the street, firing a few shots back at them as he ran.
"Huston! Christ!" shouted an angry voice above the din, from somewhere in the shadows surrounding the jewelry store.
"Oh, let 'im get killed," another one snarled.
Chris put out a hand to his men to stop the gunfire, watching as Huston, now white and wide-eyed with fear, turned and ran up the street.
"I'll go lasso 'im, Chris," Buck offered, preparing to stand.
"Careful, he's as dangerous as he is stupid," Chris warned.
Buck grunted. "Met up with that kind before," he murmured, and ran after the kid, ducking bullets as he ran.
Chris turned his attention back to the store. "Josiah, JD, you take care of the front, I'll go 'round the back," he said. "They gotta come out sometime."
"Godspeed," Josiah said with a nod, and Chris slid away, gun held up and ready as he melted into the shadows.
Huston's heart was pounding in his ears as he ran, ducking into every available shelter he could find. His wounded arm was throbbing terribly, and all he could think of was to get away. Forget the money, forget trying to be the man who killed Chris Larabee.
He could double back, find the others of his gang, but they might kill him as well. He never should have broken cover, never--
"Hey! You there!"
Huston turned and fired blindly before taking to his heels again. That tall black-haired guy was after him; he had to go, now. Stumbling and cursing, Huston dove into the nearest alley, hoping it would take him to a horse he could steal, and freedom.
He had gone one hundred feet down the alley before realizing it was a dead end.
"Aw, hell!" he cried in dismay, stopping in his tracks as he saw a wooden wall rise before him, blocking his exit. He whirled, determined to run back--
--and saw Buck closing in on him, his gun pointed straight at Huston's head.
"Eeerp!" Huston gulped, suddenly unable to move.
"All right now, junior," Buck said in a stern voice as he slowly drew closer. "Toss that pea-shooter into the dirt."
Buck took one more step and gave the kid his best angry glare.
The young man's eyes widened, and suddenly sitting in jail looked a hell of a lot better than being shot to death.
With a quick, jerky motion, Huston threw the gun to the ground and dropped to his knees, jamming his hands high into the air.
"Don't kill me, mister!" he cried, trembling from head to toe. "I'll tell you everything! All of it! Just DON'T SHOOT ME!"
Buck eyed the kid carefully as he retrieved the gun. "All of it, huh?"
Huston nodded eagerly, willing to do anything to lighten the punishment facing him. Maybe they wouldn't even lock him up. "Yeah!"
After making sure the kid had no other weapons, Buck quickly cuffed him and hauled him to his feet by his dirty collar.
"Right, boy," Buck said in his ear, "Let's get you set up all nice an' snug, an' when this is all over, you can start talkin'. Move it!"
Vin padded quietly down the alley, his sharp blue eyes scanning the dimly lit area. He was sure he saw someone come down here--
A slender form darted in front of him, slipping in and out of the shadows. Vin glimpsed him quickly as he ducked against the wall, and recognized the form at once. It was the same man who had taken several shots at him a few weeks back. So he was working for Wyatt, too; no big surprise there.
And now once more, the hunt was on.
Another gunshot erupted in the night, exploding against the wall near to him. As he pulled away, Vin heard quick footsteps clattering down the alley. Gripping his mare's leg tightly, Vin wove into the alleyway, his ears picking up the staccato sounds as they hurried away, then followed them.
As he sped nimbly after his attacker, Vin could make him out just ahead of him, and kept his eyes fixed to the figure as if they had been born for that purpose. The shadow whirled, fired one more shot behind him which went wide, then ducked into the nearest structure.
It was a large, unused barn, once part of the livery but now abandoned; a section of its roof had burned and fallen in long ago, and now it simply sat, a shattered corpse of a building waiting for burial. Vin slowed and stopped, his instincts prickling wildly. The outlaw knew what he was doing; there were a million places to hide in there. Every ounce of caution was needed if he wanted to bring down this prey.
He moved slowly, easing up to the open door of the old barn, and peered inside. Half of the interior was shrouded in gloom, only partly relieved by the slivers of light dribbling in between the loose, rotting boards which comprised the walls. The other half, which lay beneath the gaping hole of the collapsed roof, was bathed in soft moonlight, revealing empty stalls and mounds of trash left by those who saw the building as a massive dumping ground. Piles of wooden boxes, discarded lumber and window frames from torn-down buildings, broken wagon wheels and the tattered scraps of wrecked wagons littered the floor.
Vin's blue eyes drank it all in at a glance, and he entered very slowly, keen for any sound or movement which would give away the intruder. He was still there; Vin's well-trained senses told him that. A familiar thrill went through him as the feel of the hunt pounded through his veins once more; once this had been his life, and even now he could not deny the somewhat intoxicating excitement of the chase.
He took a few more steps into the barn, carefully studying every possible place where the outlaw might be hiding. His supple fingers tightened around the barrel of the sawed-off Winchester, but he felt no fear; he had learned, long ago, how to stifle all anxiousness in favor of a cool head and steady hands.
Suddenly his eyes caught something just to the right. A glint; he looked fast, at a row of stalls at the far end of the barn. Something was flickering at one of the knotholes in the rotting wood--
Quick as a flash, Vin lifted his gun to aim and fire.
He was one second too late.
The wooden walls of the old barn shook with the loud report of the outlaw's rifle as it went off. Vin fired almost at the same time, an instant before a bullet tore through the muscle between his neck and his left shoulder. The force knocked him backwards, and he struck the ground hard, momentarily stunned as the blood began to pour from the wound, his gun tumbling from his hands from the strength of the blow.
Vin grit his teeth, waiting for the world to right itself as wave after wave of agony washed over him. His left arm felt on fire and numb at the same time, and moving it was next to impossible. He groaned, feeling the wound gingerly with his good hand. The blood felt slick and warm against his fingers, but after a moment he could tell the bullet had gone through. But damn, it hurt...
Vin tried to sit up, pushing away the pain and confusion tugging at the edges of his mind. Something moved in the shadows, and Vin saw the outlaw emerge from the stall and swagger slowly into the pool of moonlight towards him, a rifle in one hand and a smug smile on his face.
He was a tall man, with a plain, vicious face and small eyes. As he drew closer, Vin could see his mouth curl into an ugly smile.
"Well," he said in a highly self-satisfied voice as he kicked the mare's leg out of Vin's reach, "Wyatt tol' me not to kill you before, but he can't stop me now, can he?"
"Reckon not," Vin replied in as unfriendly a tone as he could manage, slipping his good hand beneath his jacket.
"Heh," the man chuckled, taking a few steps closer and stopping at Vin's feet. "Sure am lookin' forward to thet five hundred dollars. I'm takin' ya in dead, 'course, but don't worry -- there'll be just enough of yer face left for them t'know it's you."
He began to raise his rifle, but before it touched his cheek Vin's legs shot forward, his ankles twisting around the man's feet and toppling him forward. With a cry of surprise the outlaw fell on top of Vin, the rifle twirling out of his grip as he tried to break his fall. There was a loud thud, a strangled cry, then, for several moments, silence.
With a muffled groan, Vin finally moved, gasping for air as he tried to heave the outlaw off of him. His assailant was no longer moving, and Vin attempted to roll him away, his blood-covered hand still gripping the hilt of his hunting knife which now lay deeply buried in the outlaw's chest.
Finally with one tremendous effort, Vin succeeded in freeing himself from the dead man's weight. As the attacker was pushed to one side, Vin slid his knife from the man's fatal wound. Grateful that he had had enough strength to pull the knife from its scabbard on his belt unnoticed and position it in the right place as the outlaw fell on top of him, Vin kicked the stranger as far away from him as he could, then slumped back to the earth, exhausted and now covered with the outlaw's blood as well as his own.
For hours, it seemed, Vin lay in the dust of the deserted barn, panting and gathering his wits. His shoulder was throbbing horribly, the searing pain ripping through him with every heartbeat. He had to get out of here, Chris might need his help, but God, the slightest movement brought waves of dizziness and nausea so powerful he could hardly bear it. He needed a doctor, but Fredericks was gone and Nathan was out of town looking after Ezra.
Shit, Tanner, he thought as he lay in the dust and stared at the stars shining overhead through the hole in the barn roof. Shit, shit...
Suddenly Buck's face appeared among the stars, and Vin blinked. "Buck?"
"Was just lockin' up that kid an' heard the gunshots -- where'd he get ya, just the shoulder?"
"Yeah," Vin gasped, trying to sit up and grunting from the pain. "Ahh! Bullet went through, though. Most of this blood's from him." He gestured at the dead outlaw.
"You just set tight, pard," Buck cautioned him, putting one restraining hand on Vin's good shoulder. "Reckon you had enough excitement fer now. Looks like ya managed t'take 'im out, even with a bum shoulder."
Vin coughed. "Least he never thought t'see if I had a knife. How... aaah, shit!... how's Chris doin'?"
"Ain't sure just yet," Buck admitted, a tone of worry creeping into his voice. "We'll get you fixed up, then go see, okay?"
Sweat poured down Wyatt's face as he tugged at the loose board. The wounds in his arm and leg were blazing with pain, but he did his best to ignore it, all other distractions becoming secondary to his greatest desire: escape.
There was a muffled crack, and the old whitewashed board came away from the wall with a small shower of splinters. Letting out a small gasp of triumph, Wyatt pushed the board aside and studied the hole now gaping in the side wall of the storage shed. It was narrow, but he was sure he could get through it. But he would have to move fast; someone -- either Larabee or one of his own men -- would doubtless come looking for him soon, to finish him off.
Slipping one arm through the hole, he began to work on getting the rest of him free. It took a few minutes of twisting and grunting, and his injured members did not take kindly to such treatment. But finally Wyatt tumbled out into the dirt on the other side of the wall, damp and sore but, finally, free.
Without pausing to pamper himself with rest, Wyatt got to his feet, looking around. He had to leave town, now, but the livery was on the other side of town by the besieged jewelry store. He'd never get there without being spotted. Peering around the corner, he saw a horse still tethered at the Grain Exchange, left there by an anxious owner who had fled the attack of the outlaws.
Without hesitation, Wyatt slipped over to the animal. His sunken eyes flew over its form; not very young or strong-looking, but it would have to do. He swiftly undid its tether and climbed into the saddle, his mind quickly working out the best route out of town.
"Hey! Wyatt! Hey!"
It was Conklin, stumbling down the stairs of the Grain Exchange and running towards him. Wyatt felt his anger rise as he thought, 'Damn old fool!'
"Outta my way, Harry!" Wyatt cried aloud, sawing the horse around. Conklin grabbed the bridle, his tiny eyes wide and confused.
"Wyatt, what the hell's going on?" he spat angrily. "What Larabee said -- it isn't true, is it?"
Wyatt pursed his lips as his face turned a very interesting shade of red. "Harry, you let go or so help me God I'll break your damn skinny neck with one kick!"
But Harry's fist tightened around the leather bridle, his own face turning purple with rage and confusion. "Wyatt--"
Wyatt lashed out with his good leg, catching Conklin squarely in the middle of his chest. Conklin toppled backwards, his hat and glasses flying off as he hit the ground hard, and his stunned form was soon engulfed in a cloud of moonlit dust as Wyatt careened down the street towards the open desert.
"How you boys doin' in there?" Parker yelled over his shoulder into the jewelry store. He and Earl had spent the last several minutes trading bullets with JD and Josiah, and both were wearying of the work.
"Fine, shut up an' keep them gunmen busy," was Roy's testy response from deep inside the building.
"Huh!" Earl grunted from where he was crouched down behind an overturned bench. "Bet they're stuffin' it all in their own pockets."
Another shot splintered nearby Parker's head. He dropped behind the large barrel he'd been using as shelter, its wooden form now full of bullet holes, and checked his gun. "This is gettin' right borin', Earl," he commented, looking around.
"Beats waitin' for Wyatt all to hell," was the murmured response. "We shoulda done this weeks ago."
"Mm," Parker said, his gaze fixed on something at the end of the street. "Hey! I'm headin' over to that church."
Earl looked up, puzzled, as he reloaded his gun. "Thought you didn't believe in no God, Parker."
Parker's reply was a contemptuous snort. "Ain't got no use fer God," he said, "but them walls looks mighty strong, bet I could pick 'em off easy from there an' they couldn't never touch me."
"Uh huh," Earl grunted as he snapped his weapon closed. "An' just how you gonna get in? You try an' use the crowbar, they'll just shoot you down."
"Earl, ya dang fool," Parker growled as he fished in his pocket, "I bought that place t'other day, remember? That banker done give me the key to it!"
He pulled an old brass key out and held it up for Earl's inspection.
Earl eyed him doubtfully. "Well, you can go if you like, I'm stayin' put. Don't got no desire to be shot down in the street."
His sandy-haired young comrade shrugged as he palmed the key. "Suit yerself," he said lightly, and without any further conversation he crouched low, fired off a few more rounds, then dashed away.
"You all right, JD?" Josiah asked as he peered around the table protecting him. They were both hunkered down on the porch of the boarding house across from Hofmann's store.
JD coughed and nodded, his own eyes glued to the building. Like Josiah, his skin was shiny with sweat, and blood trickled from the cuts of a few very near misses. "Yeah, preacher, I just wish something'd happen -- feels like we been shootin' at 'em for hours, an' I'm almost out of bullets."
"They got to be just about done," Josiah said as he waited for a good time to rise and shoot once more. "That store isn't too--"
His words were drowned out by the thunder of gunfire, and he and JD both ducked back as the wood around them splintered beneath the impact of the bullets.
The instant the noise of the assault died down, JD poked his head up. "Hey! Hey, Josiah, there goes one of 'em!"
As JD shot his Colt Lightning at the fugitive outlaw, Josiah braved a glance into the street. A young, light-haired man was dashing towards the church, dodging bullets as he ran.
"Keep that other guy busy, JD," Josiah said quickly, climbing to his feet and staying low as he followed the outlaw.
JD nodded once, and kept his gun trained on the remaining outlaw while Josiah made his move. To JD's surprise, the last outlaw did little to cover his comrade's escape beyond firing a few shots in Josiah's general direction. After this tepid display of loyalty, he returned his full attention to JD.
The young man sighed to himself and mopped the sweat off of his brow as he regarded his arsenal. Whatever was going to happen, he only hoped it occurred before he was down to his last bullet.
Josiah trotted down the street, his gaze riveted to the scruffy figure jogging towards the church. The man turned a few times and fired at Josiah, who managed to avoid the missiles and return a few of his own.
The figure ran up the stairs and, to Josiah's surprise, quickly slipped into the front door. A key, he realized; that guy had the key to the front door. Then, the preacher reasoned, he must be the one who bought the land, saying he was named Shannon. A slight anger stirred through Josiah's heart; this was the man who had taken the church from him, who had tried to deny the town and Josiah its potential healing power, all for the purpose of greed and sin.
Well, Josiah thought as he raced towards his church, he might have the key to the building, but he doesn't have its soul. And he sure doesn't know as much about that old place as I do.
Like that lock on the side door that never did work right...
Parker gasped for breath as he slammed the front door closed, locking it securely behind him. Whew, he thought, straightening and looking around, made it. Now all I have to do is wait 'til the others come out, and we'll ride out of here nice and rich.
He turned and surveyed his dim surroundings. The church was cold and bare, its half-finished wood dull and bare in the feeble light. A thick, dusty odor hung in the air, mingled with the scent of fresh paint. A muted sense of anticipation pervaded the room, its silent walls seeming to wait patiently for the unfulfilled promise lingering in its interrupted rebirth.
To Parker, however, it was an old, dark, empty room, and he hoped he wouldn't be too bored waiting for the others to finish looting the jewelry store.
One hand still tightly gripping his gun, Parker wandered around a bit, going up to the altar and loudly tipping it into the light to see if anything was hidden inside. Seeing that it was empty, he let it thump back to the ground, disappointed, before making his way over to a few boxes perched on one of the nearby wooden pews. He picked up one, shook it, frowned, and dumped it out onto the dusty wooden floor. Several dozen candle stubs rolled out, clattering to the ground in a spray of dry wax and burned wicks. Grunting, Parker tossed the box away and picked up the second one, hoping to find something at least slightly valuable.
"I'd sure appreciate it if you'd put that down, son."
Shocked, Parker dropped the box and spun around, bringing his gun up with lightning speed. At a door to the side of the sanctuary stood an older man, with salt-and-pepper hair and very serious blue eyes. And a gun, pointed right at Parker's heart.
The sandy-haired outlaw studied him for a minute, then smirked. "You must be that ol' preacher, Sanchez."
"An' you must be Shannon," was the even reply, as Josiah took a step into the room. "Though I have my doubts that's your real name."
"No concern of yours, ol' man," Parker snarled, pushing his gun forward. "How'd you get in, anyway?"
"Oh," the preacher said casually, jerking his head behind his shoulder, "side door. Never did lock right. Now, me an' God would be mighty grateful if you'd respect His house an' drop that gun."
"I don't care what no God wants," was Parker's snide response, "an' this here's my house." He paused, then laughed a little. "Guess you're trespassin' against me, huh? Heh!"
Josiah didn't seem to appreciate the humor. He sighed, his gun hand steady. "I don't want to shed blood in this place, son. Now why don't you just drop that gun?"
Parker grinned a little and said in a jaunty voice, "An' why don't you just go to Hell?"
He lifted his weapon, and the sound of a gunshot rang through the old rafters of the aged church.
Parker cried out as the bullet from Josiah's gun wrenched his weapon from his hand and creased the skin of his fingers. As the young man fell to his knees, grasping his bleeding hand in pain, Josiah was on him in two steps, his huge hand closing around his collar.
"Been to Hell already, son," he grunted in a dark voice as he pulled Parker to his feet, "an' I just hate goin' to the same place twice."
Parker struggled mightily, pulling far enough away to take a swing at Josiah with his uninjured hand. The fist just clipped Josiah's chin; the preacher's head snapped sideways for a moment, then he recovered and gave Parker a glare of such fury that the outlaw could not help but cringe away and regret his rashness.
One instant later, Josiah reared back and sent a crashing blow across Parker's jaw, a blow powered by the memory of the anger, the sorrow, the heartbreak over the loss of his home and possible salvation. The outlaw spun to the floor with a crash and lay there, stunned, while Josiah stood over him, his blue eyes smoldering with rage.
Finally Parker stirred, one hand going to his now-bleeding mouth as he stared at Josiah with amazement and fear.
Josiah's breathing was heavy, his expression still seething. "Now I reckon we'll both have to pray for forgiveness," he said, and pulled the shaken outlaw to his feet.
Parker still struggled, but his efforts were decidedly more feeble. "What kinda preacher hits folks an' shoots at 'em?" he demanded through rapidly swelling lips.
Josiah sighed as he took a length of rope from a nearby pew and began tying Parker's hands. "The sinnin' kind, young man. The kind that needs this ol' place even more than you do. But for now, I'm thinkin' the jail might suit you better. C'mon."
He pulled the young outlaw out towards the side door, and soon the building echoed with the sound of the church being once more closed to the outside world.
"Okay, I think we got plenty!"
Roy's rough voice caught the attention of Tyler and Jack, whose saddlebags were now bulging with the wares of Mr. Hofmann's store.
"Sho-ee, we got enough here t'go down to Mexico in high style!" Jack exulted as he studied the contents of his bag before closing it up.
"We gotta get out of this damned town first," Roy reminded him in a brusque manner, frowning as he tied his saddlebag shut and slung it over his shoulder. "Tyler, you an' Jack go out the front, I'll take the back. It'll be harder for 'em to get us if we're split up. We'll meet outside of town an' head off to Mexico from there."
"What about Fredericks?" Tyler inquired as he pulled out his guns.
Roy snorted. "That old fool had his chance -- the desert or the law can have 'im. Same goes for anyone who ain't with us when we ride out of here."
Jack chuckled. "Sounds great to me, Roy. Just means more for the rest of us!"
"Right," was Roy's stern reply, and after a brief check of their weapons, the three men parted, Jack and Tyler heading out the front door while Roy hastened towards the back.
JD pressed his lips together in concern as he studied the chamber of his Colt Lightning. His ammunition was running low, and the fight was far from over.
The door to the jewelry shop suddenly burst open, and JD's head snapped up as gunfire began pouring in his direction. Two men ran out, saddlebags slung over their shoulders, their weapons fully trained on JD. The third man, who had been hiding nearby, leapt into sight with a whoop and joined them as they began to dash for their horses.
The young man fired back instantly, galvanized by the sight of the thieves carrying away Mr. Hofmann's prized merchandise. One bullet found its mark; the man who had been waiting for his two comrades gave a cry and fell to the ground, blood pouring from a wound in his chest. The other two, however, were already mounting their horses, giving not a moment's glance to their dead colleague.
JD ducked the bullets flying his way as he jumped into the street, determined to stop their flight even if he had to use his last bullet to do it. Suddenly the loud report of a rifle sounded from somewhere above him, in the second story of the boarding house, and JD saw the startled robbers jerk their heads upwards. They fired a few shots in that direction, then grabbed the reins to their mounts and prepared to ride away.
JD had no time to see who was assisting his efforts; he simply aimed and fired, his shots echoed by the marksman behind him. One of the outlaws suddenly choked and slid off the saddle, landing on his face in the dirt.
Seeing this, the last surviving thief sawed his horse around and began tearing down the street. JD jumped into the street, aimed carefully and fired; at the same moment, a shot exploded from the building behind him. The horseman's body jerked violently, slumped to the right, and fell off into a pile of empty barrels, landing with a tremendous crash.
Panting, JD stepped farther into the street, a wave of warm relief flooding through him. He glanced behind him at the boarding house; one of the windows was open, its plain white curtains fluttering in the warm spring evening breeze, but there was no one there.
JD swallowed, suddenly realizing he was very thirsty, and walked quickly over to the two fallen outlaws who lay nearby.
Both of the robbers were dead. As the young man studied their faces, recognition swept over him; he had seen them on posters back at the jail. They were wanted men, both of them, and the one who lay dead up the street probably was, too.
As he stooped to pick up the fallen saddlebag of loot, he heard a familiar, rhythmic thumping behind him, and a voice call out to him, "Mr. Dunne!"
Surprised, JD stood and turned. Mr. Hofmann was coming out of the boarding house towards him, one hand grasping his silver-headed cane which rapped the boardwalk with his every step. In the jeweler's other hand was an 1861 Springfield rifle.
JD's hazel eyes widened a little, and he couldn't suppress a grin of amazement. "So that was you, Mr. Hofmann!"
The older man's handsome face was wreathed in a proud smile, his long golden curls slightly disheveled. He gestured with the rifle towards the boarding house. "I am living here until the second floor of my store is built, and managed to get up to my room without them noticing me," he said in bright German tones. "I doubt these scoundrels knew they would be dealing with you, the best shot in the West, and myself, the best shot in the 107th Ohio!"
"I'll say!" JD agreed with a shake of his head as he rose. A bang came from the back of the jewelry store, and JD's head whipped around.
"Um, Mr. Hofmann, maybe you better go back inside," JD said quickly, not taking his eyes off the store. "I don't think we got 'em all yet."
Without waiting to see if his suggestion was adopted, JD ran off, but he was satisfied to hear the rapid thumping of the merchant's cane on the boardwalk, and the slam of the boarding-house door. Relieved that Mr. Hofmann was safe, JD gripped his Colts and hurried off to see if he and Chris could end this ordeal once and for all.
Roy grinned to himself as he shifted the heavy leather saddlebag slung over his shoulder and reached for the shop's back door. A quick ride out of town, then to Mexico and a life of wealth.
The rapid popping of gunfire reached his ear, and he ducked, his dark eyes turning to the front of the store. Tyler and Jack were getting shot at, and Earl too. Roy paused, listening, and frowned when he realized his men were getting the worst end of the battle. Little sentiment mingled with his thoughts, however; his main objective now was escape, and he knew he stood a better chance of it if the lawmen were occupied elsewhere.
He pulled open the door and hurried into the back alley.
The area behind the store was dusty and vacant, occupied only by small heaps of wooden refuse stacked up against a high fence that ran the length of the alley, facing the store. Roy paused, cursed, then hefted the bag on his shoulder; if he could get to his horse--
Roy's gun came up in a heartbeat, and he skidded to a halt as he looked around for the source of that voice. Chris Larabee stepped out of the shadows, his gun aimed at Roy's head, a slight smile on his face.
Roy took a step back, fully aware of Larabee's reputation as a deadly marksman.
"I don't think that's yours," Larabee continued in a quiet, icy voice, nodding at the bulging saddlebag. "Why don't you drop it an' save me the trouble of drillin' a hole through your skull?"
Roy scowled. "Why don't I drop you instead, Larabee?"
More gunshots sounded from the front of the store; there was the thunder of hoofbeats, followed by another round of fire and a loud crash.
Larabee smiled a little wider. "Wanna see if I can kill you fast as you can kill me? I'm game." He lifted his gun, his trigger finger twitching.
"Now wait!" Roy cried, raising his own gun but unwilling to fire and assure his own death. He swallowed. "Look, Larabee, I'm willing to cut a deal, here."
"No deals," Larabee snarled. "You're breakin' the law."
"Why the hell not?" Roy asked in a tone of exasperation. "What do you care? Bustin' your ass to protect this place... I know what Wyatt wanted to do here, get on everyone's good side an' drive all you hired guns out of town. From what I heard, it worked pretty good, didn't it? Not a whole lot of 'em stood behind you, did they?"
Larabee stared at him and said nothing.
"Okay, look," Roy said quickly, his free hand reaching up and patting the saddlebag. "There's plenty here for both of us, an' it sounds like I got no one else to split it with--" he chuckled a little "--we can both get out of this damn town with what I've got in here. These people don't like you guys, don't trust you. You got no reason to do them any favors."
He paused and regarded Chris closely, an oily smile sliding across his bearded face. "I know you, Larabee, you were like us, not too long ago. None of you were meant to be lawmen, an' this place don't want you. You let me go, an' you won't have to put up with this town's shit for another minute. What d'ya say?"
Several long, silent moments crept by, as Larabee stared down the barrel of his gun into Roy's face. Roy felt encouraged; he'd made pretty good sense. This town had spat in Larabee's face and told him and his men to take a hike -- why would he want to do anything but take what he could and go?
Finally Larabee took a deep breath and pulled back the hammer of his weapon. "I say you got two seconds to drop your gun," he replied.
Roy's eyes widened.
There were two loud gunshots as both men fired, one slightly later than the other. Their thunderous reports rolled and echoed down the alley and into the clear night air.
As JD came running around the corner, he saw Roy fall soundlessly to the ground, blood seeping from the hole shot neatly through his chest. As the outlaw hit the dirt, his saddlebag burst open, its glittering contents spilling out a little into the dust and sparkling in the spring moonlight.
JD paused, then walked up slowly, panting from his run and regarding the dead outlaw. "He the last one?"
"Yup," Chris said, shoving his gun back into its holster.
"Huh." JD took off his bowler, wiped his brow and glanced at Chris. "Hey, Chris, you're hurt. Your shoulder."
Chris looked over at his left shoulder. Roy's bullet had creased the skin there, cutting through his black duster and blue shirt.
"It's all right, JD," he muttered, his voice tired. He looked back at JD. "How're things out front?"
"Oh--" JD waved his hand towards the front of the store. "All taken care of, Mr. Hofmann even helped out. He's a great shot with a rifle."
Chris bent down, scooped the spilled jewelry back into the bag, then stood and handed it to JD with a slight, weary smile. "Guess we better give this back to 'im, then."
Footsteps pounded around the side of the house, and Buck appeared, panting and covered with sweat. His expression was grim.
Chris instantly went on alert. "What is it, Buck?"
"T'start off," Buck gasped, "Vin's down, got shot through the shoulder."
JD's eyes widened, and Chris took a step forward, his green eyes ablaze with a murderous light.
Buck quickly held up a cautioning hand. "He'll be okay. Mrs. Potter's tendin' 'im, an' the guy who done it ain't our problem no more. An Josiah an' me put two of them outlaws in the jail."
Chris sensed more was coming. "What else?"
Buck sighed. "Seems that eel Wyatt's slithered off again. Went to take him off to the jail an' found the shed empty an' a board missin' from the wall."
Chris took a deep breath, spat "Damn!" and shoved the saddlebag into JD's hands before stalking away.
Buck hurried after him, looking at JD as he passed. "Hold down the fort, kid, looks like this ain't over yet." Then he ran after his friend, who was moving with angry strides straight towards the livery.
Nathan leaned on a tree near to the edge of the clearing and stared at the town, his brow creased with a frown as he listened carefully to pops echoing in the distance. It sounded like a gunfight...
"Cause for concern, Nathan?"
The healer turned at the sound of the weak voice. Ezra was sitting nearby, propped up against a rock, his red jacket thrown loosely over his bare shoulders and only partially hiding the bandages wound tightly around his middle. His eyes were half-open, but there was no mistaking the light of concern that shone in their sea-green depths.
Nathan threw one more anxious glance at the town, then hurried back to his patient. "Nothin' to get excited about," he said cautiously as he crouched beside his comrade. "You got to be takin' it easy anyway, you ain't been awake for too long."
Ezra coughed and scowled, throwing Nathan a look of pure annoyance. "I refuse to be coddled at a time like this," he said, trying to sit up more. "There is far too much at stake. Perhaps we should go back to town and assist the others..."
The other man shook his head at once, a smile of surprise on his face. "Dang, Ezra, I just spent an hour fixin' you up! Why you so all-fire to go ridin' into trouble again?"
The gambler hesitated, his expression indicating that his motives were something he'd rather not reveal. "Why... why, merely so we can fulfill our obligation and receive the just rewards, of course."
"Uh huh," Nathan nodded, still smiling. "Nothin' else?"
Ezra frowned, but couldn't stop the corner of his lip from twitching. "Mr. Jackson, a man in my itinerant profession cannot afford to indulge in sentimental notions. Our continued employment is a concern to me for financial reasons only, I assure you."
A slight grin continued to play on the healer's lips as he bent to check on Ezra's bandages. "Yeah, okay, Ezra. Shoulda known money was all you cared about." He didn't sound entirely serious, and his dark eyes darted to study Ezra's face before returning their full attention to his wound.
The Southerner refused to be caught out, although for a moment he seemed genuinely surprised at Nathan's keen insight. "I was unaware you had added mind reader to your list of--"
He stopped and looked up at the town suddenly. Nathan heard it, too, and turned as well, watching the road leading from the town into the desert.
The sound of hoofbeats was becoming increasingly audible, coming from the direction of the town and getting closer every second.
"Here," Nathan said quickly, drawing one of his guns and handing it to Ezra. "Just in case they ain't friendly."
"A wise precaution," Ezra commented, checking the chamber. As he did so, Nathan went to the side of the road and peered as far down it as he could.
A few moments passed, as the hoofbeats pounded closer. Ezra, unable to stand just yet, sat and waited impatiently.
"Why, that--" Nathan suddenly exclaimed, taking a step back and reaching for his gun. "It's Wyatt, an' it looks like he's been shot!"
Ezra sighed and shook his head. "Riding out of town in disgrace again. Apparently he has no compunction against repeating himself."
"He's comin' this way," Nathan continued quickly, hurrying to his horse.
"Shall I--?" Ezra held up the gun.
Nathan shook his head fiercely. "Shootin's too good for him."
The rider was nearly on top of them, and a second later Wyatt burst into view, dusty, sweaty, half-covered with blood. He paused only for a second and squinted into the darkness, perhaps thinking Ezra and Nathan might be strangers who could assist him. Once he recognized them, his eyes grew wide, and he whirled quickly around and viciously spurred his horse away with loud and anxious cries.
"Hey!" Nathan shouted, heaving himself into his saddle and taking off after him. Soon they were both obscured in a cloud of dust.
Nathan had never ridden so fast in his life. He bent low over his horse's neck, concentrating fully on the figure not too far in front of him. Wyatt was riding just as furiously, digging his spurs deep into his mount's side.
But Nathan's horse was stronger and swifter than Wyatt's mount, and Nathan was consumed with determination to bring the fleeing man to justice. He did not know what had happened in town; Chris and the others might be hurt, or dead, innocent people injured -- there was no way, right now, to find out. All the healer knew was that Wyatt had tried to destroy the only peace and justice Four Corners had known for years, and he could not be allowed to escape again.
The two men pounded down the dusty mountain road, Nathan close on Wyatt's heels. As he urged his mount on, he felt the old anger swell through him, strengthening his resolve. Once more he could sense the rough rope around his neck, feel the sickening helplessness as he watched the only man who could aid him ride away. Now Wyatt had endangered not only Nathan's life, but those of his friends, and the future of the town he called his home.
He was not going to ride away this time.
His horse pulled even with the flank of Wyatt's mount. As both horses galloped down the road, Nathan reached out and tried to grab hold of Wyatt's shirt. Wyatt jerked his head around, saw Nathan, and lashed out with his good arm, catching the healer on the temple.
Nathan's head snapped back, and for an instant the world reeled. Quickly he shook it off and resumed the chase, more driven than ever. Once more he overtook Wyatt and managed to latch his hand onto the back of Wyatt's empty gunbelt. Wyatt let out an oath and flailed his arm out, trying to disarm his opponent. As their horses slowed and reared at the commotion, Nathan and Wyatt locked arms and fell, grappling violently, into the dirt.
Punches flew quickly as each man struggled to free himself from the grip of the other. At first Nathan hesitated to use his full strength; his adversary was, after all, wounded, and the healer's instinct was to treat the injured with care. Then Wyatt landed a solid blow across Nathan's jaw. As the healer's head snapped back, he felt the coppery taste of blood fill his mouth and saw Wyatt's hand trying to grab Nathan's remaining gun from its holster.
"Damn darky!" he heard Wyatt muttering over the sounds of their combat, "Too bad you didn't swing--"
Hell with bein' careful, Nathan thought angrily, and rearing back, he punched Wyatt across his face as hard as he could manage.
Wyatt's head flew back, and he let out a choked gurgle, his hand falling away from Nathan's holster. Furious beyond control, Nathan grabbed Wyatt by his lapels and lifted his head and shoulders off the ground, shaking him in rage as he spoke.
"You best worry 'bout yourself swingin', Wyatt!" he said in a loud voice. "You're through hurtin' folks that trusted you! I ain't gonna let you do that no more, understand? Not now that I can put a stop to it!"
Wyatt sneered through the blood on his face as he tried to break from Nathan's iron grip. "Who the hell do you think you are to say that shit to me, Jackson?"
Nathan's face wrenched up in disgust and he climbed to his feet, Wyatt's shirt still held in his clenched fists.
"I'm who you used to be, Wyatt," he said as he labored to catch his breath, his brown eyes locked with Wyatt's. "I'm a lawman of Four Corners, an' you're under arrest."
Ezra had been eyeing the town with concern from his seat against the rock when he heard the sound of approaching horses coming back up the trail from the mountain. He sat up as much as the pain and weakness from his wound would allow, the gun in his hand primed just in case.
Relief flooded through his tired frame when Nathan rode into view, very dusty and rumpled, leading Wyatt's horse. The former sheriff's hands were handcuffed behind him, and several lengths of rope secured his arms even more against his body.
Ezra drew a deep breath as he relaxed against the rock. "I see your pursuit was successful," he observed, a slight smile on his lips. "Are you uninjured?"
"Yup," Nathan replied as he reined in and dismounted, wiping at the dried blood on his mouth with the back of one hand. "Just a sore jaw is all."
"Splendid," Ezra said with a gold-toothed grin as he turned his attention to Wyatt. "Greetings again, Mr. Wyatt. I presume your evening is not going as well as my associate's here."
Wyatt scowled at him. "Go to Hell, Standish."
Ezra's lip twitched in scorn as he lifted the gun in his hand and covered Wyatt with it. "By all means, sir -- you first."
Nathan mopped the sweat from his brow and looked down at Ezra, studying the Southerner closely. "Feel up to goin' back to town an' seein' what happened?"
For a moment Ezra looked as if nothing short of two broken legs would keep him from finding out if the town was safe, but he swiftly hid it beneath a calm demeanor as he said, "I, er, believe that I am capable of such a journey..."
The sound of several approaching horses interrupted his sentence. For a moment Wyatt perked up, hopeful, but an instant later Chris and Buck galloped into view.
"Hey!" Nathan called in greeting as they reined in. "We was just comin' to see if you was still alive."
"Oh, we're still kickin', pard," Buck assured him as he leaned over the pommel of his saddle and crossed his hands. "Can't say the same for most of Wyatt's gang, though."
Wyatt's face fell.
"Still cheatin' death, Ezra?" Chris asked as he regarded the gambler, who was getting to his feet very slowly with Nathan's help.
"Handily, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied in a panting voice as he finally straightened and squared his shoulders. "Would you care to enlighten us as to what has transpired in our fair town?"
Chris paused, then gave Wyatt one of the most deadly looks ever to cross his face. "We'll give you the details later. All that matters is, we're all still alive an' this piece of scum's goin' to jail."
"You'll find it real interestin' there, Wyatt," Buck promised with a grin. "Got a few of your boys in there. That red-headed kid's singin' like a bird about how you was gonna fool everyone into givin' you your job back so's you could get rich off the town."
"That's a lie!" Wyatt snapped in rage.
As Nathan helped Ezra get onto Chaucer's back, Chris steered his horse over to Wyatt until the two men were facing each other.
"Somehow," he said softly, his green eyes drilling into Wyatt's soul, "I don't think even Mr. Conklin will believe you this time, Wyatt."
He turned his horse around and rode away. Wyatt could say nothing, and before long they were moving down the moonlit road towards home.
By the time they rode back into town, most of the townspeople had emerged from their hiding places and were cautiously making their way back to their homes. As Chris trotted by with Wyatt in tow, he met the eyes of every single one of them. Some dropped their gaze in shame for having spoken against the lawmen; others smiled and waved their hats or nodded. A few hurled angry epithets at the former sheriff and loudly expressed their desire to see him hang.
Buck and Ezra stopped at the saloon.
"I'll join ya as soon as I haul Ezra here up the stairs," Buck told the others as he dismounted.
"Much obliged," Ezra muttered in a weary voice as Buck carefully helped the pale gambler off his horse.
The others rode forward and reined in at the jail, and Chris was pulling Wyatt roughly to the ground before the others were even out of their saddles.
"Think this place will look mighty familiar to you," he grunted as he dragged Wyatt inside, heedless of the man's wounds and struggles.
The jail was downright crowded inside. Josiah sat at the desk, feet propped up, watching the occupants of the two cells with mild amusement. JD was standing near the cell, arms crossed, listening with apparent interest to Huston, who was talking rapidly and with great gusto.
"See, Wyatt thought if we killed somebody who kinda looked like Roy an' mangled up the body, you folks'd think it was Roy an' wouldn't try to find 'im--"
"Shut up, Huston, you idiot!" his fellow prisoner was yelling from the adjacent cell.
"Chris!" Josiah exclaimed, sitting up as soon as his friend entered the room. His gaze dropped to Wyatt. "See you caught 'im."
The other two prisoners were watching now as well, each man gripping the bars in amazement.
"This is horseshit!" Wyatt cried, twisting in Chris's grip.
Chris ignored him and studied the two cells. "What do you think, Josiah?"
The preacher looked over to Huston and Parker and thought for a moment. "Better put him with the older guy on the right -- the kid's been downright amusin', I'd hate for Wyatt to kill 'im before he finished spilling his guts. Told us everything about Wyatt's plans."
Wyatt gasped and stared at Huston.
"It's true, Wyatt," Parker said angrily, glaring at Huston. "Tried to stop him, but they know it all now."
"We sure do," JD said, coming up behind Wyatt and reaching into the man's coat pocket. After a second of digging, he pulled out a large, slightly rusty key, tossing it into the air a little before catching it in his hand with a smile. "Always wondered where the extra key to the cells went!"
"That's how he freed the guy who attacked Mary," Josiah explained to Chris. "Guess he took it with him when he left town."
"Figures," Chris grunted, dragging the former sheriff over to the cell as JD unlocked the door. Josiah was behind them, his gun trained on Parker just in case. Parker, however, was staring at Wyatt in murderous fury and did not seem interested in escape.
"This is all a mistake!" Wyatt was yelling as Chris took hold of his collar and shoved him into the cell with Parker.
"Listenin' to you was the mistake, you damn bastard!" Parker cried, leaping onto Wyatt as soon as he was close enough to do so and pummeling him with his fists. Wyatt, still bound, gave his former comrade a kick and began screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs. Safe in the next cell, Huston watched, smirking.
"HEY!" Chris yelled, firing his gun twice into the old wooden ceiling.
The two men ignored him.
"You were gonna cut us out--" Parker was grunting as he began to choke Wyatt.
"You all double crossed me!" Wyatt spat back, trying to twist out of Parker's grip.
"I said STOP IT!" Chris bellowed, and fired his gun into the cell. The bullet spattered in the dirt, inches from the two men.
They stopped and looked up at him.
Chris was still aiming into the cell. "Next one goes into one of you, I don't care which."
They glowered at him, then separated, pushing off into different corners.
"Ain't you at least gonna untie me?" Wyatt coughed, holding up his bound hands.
Chris was walking away. He half-turned to Wyatt and shrugged. "Get your friend to do it -- if you can. We'll have somebody fix your wounds in a while."
He turned again and left the holding area. As JD locked the barred door, Wyatt glanced at Parker.
Parker merely glared, snarled an obscenity at him, and sat down heavily on the bunk, holding his hastily bandaged hand.
Wyatt blinked and looked around, his gaze falling on Huston. His expression turned deadly. "If it weren't for these bars, you stupid little shit, I'd kill you," he growled. "Why the hell did you tell them about the key?"
Huston scowled at Wyatt and leaned on the bars of his cell. "If I'm gonna save my neck sellin' you out, Wyatt, why the hell shouldn't I? You treated me worse'n dirt ever since we met. Never liked that, Wyatt, an' all I ever wanted to do was get away from it. Well, guess prison'll be far away enough, an' seein's as how your plottin' got us here, I reckon it's fair that you get caught out same as Parker an' me."
Wyatt groaned and put his head in his hands as Parker said bitterly, "I always told you to shoot that stupid kid, Wyatt."
"How's Ezra?" Josiah asked Chris as the gunslinger headed for the door. JD stepped up close to hear the answer as well.
"He'll make it," was Chris's reply as he straightened his tousled clothing. "Buck took him up to his room, an' Nathan's at Mrs. Potter's checkin' on Vin. I'm headin' there now."
"Thank the Lord," Josiah said with a nod as he folded his hands. "You go on an' give our best to Mrs. Potter, we'll keep things quiet here."
Chris glanced back at Parker and Wyatt glaring at each other, and Huston, who had started talking to JD again.
"Good luck," he muttered, and hurried out into the dark spring night.
Vin fidgeted impatiently as Mrs. Potter finished tying off the last of the bandages around his shoulder. He shifted on the red damask sofa and looked towards the window, his blue eyes anxious in the yellow light of the parlor lamp.
"Easy, Mr. Tanner," Mrs. Potter advised him as she dipped her blood-speckled hands into a nearby bowl of pinkish water. Her twelve-year old son George stood behind her, and handed her a towel when she was finished. "You'll open that wound right back up again, and then I'll have to explain that to Mr. Larabee."
Vin sighed and tried to settle back. It should be easy, he figured, he felt very weak and in desperate need of rest. Mrs. Potter gave him a stern but gentle warning look as she dried her hands, and he smiled a little.
"Sorry, ma'am," he offered, leaning back. "Just hate bein' outta the fight when y'all need me, an' no word yet from Chris."
Mrs. Potter began rolling down the sleeves of her water and blood-stained blouse in a highly practical manner. "Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Dunne said they'd let you know when your friends returned, and I am sure they will keep their word," she admonished him, brushing a few tendrils of hair out of her eyes.
Vin's lip twitched in chagrin, and he regarded the older woman warmly. "I wanna thank you, Mrs. Potter, for fixin' me up. You an' your boy did a right fine job."
She smiled at her son, then at Vin as she began to put away the red-stained rags which lay in a heap at her feet. "After all you and your friends have done for us, Mr. Tanner, this is nothing. If it--"
Her words were cut short by the sound of feet running up to the front door of the small home. The footsteps reached the stoop, there was a pause, then a short series of respectful but somewhat frantic knocks.
George opened the door, and Nathan stepped in, dusty and out of breath.
"Evenin', ma'am," he said, taking off his hat.
"Nathan!" Vin said as he sat up, his blue eyes wide now. "What's goin' on? You seen Chris?"
Mrs. Potter rose quickly from her stool, and Nathan hastily occupied it, holding out one hand to calm Vin down. "Don't go gettin' riled, everything's over now. Chris is right behind me."
Vin was staring at the bruise on Nathan's temple and the dried blood near his mouth. "You get in a fight?"
"Oh--" Nathan rubbed at the blood absently, a smile drifting across his lips. "Wyatt tried to run off again. Rode right past me an' Ezra, I caught him before he got too far. He didn't take too kindly to bein' arrested by a darky, so I had to do a little persuadin'."
Vin leaned back against the soft sofa, his golden-brown curls spreading behind him. "Bet that felt good," he chuckled.
Nathan nodded, unable to suppress a triumphant smile. "Yup, sure did."
Another knock came at the door, and Chris was admitted. He nodded to Mrs. Potter as he took off his hat, his spurs jangling against the hardwood floor as he stepped into the parlor.
"Evenin'. Mrs. Potter," he said in a weary but respectful voice. "Just wanted to make sure Vin was still breathin'."
Vin snorted, but his blue eyes looked relieved to see Chris still in one piece. "It'll take more'n that sorry varmint to put me in the ground, Larabee," he said in a tone of mock insult. "Heard we won this time."
Chris nodded as he drew one hand through his dusty blond hair. There was no gloating triumph in his eyes, just weary acceptance, as he simply muttered, "Yeah, we did, thanks to so me damn hard fighting."
As the healer lifted the bandages a bit, Vin winced and asked, "Ezra still kickin'?"
"Yep, Buck took him up to his room," Nathan replied as he studied the wound. "He's wore out an' gonna be sore for a while, but he'll be fine."
Vin blew out a breath and shook his head. "Sure took grit for him t'ride all that way with a hole in his side."
"You were all quite heroic," Mrs. Potter observed as she put her arm around her young son. "It appears that we are in your debt once more."
Vin shifted on the sofa and gave her a lopsided grin, his blue eyes twinkling. "Just doin' our jobs, Mrs. Potter." He looked at Nathan, still smiling. "Reckon we got 'em for a while longer yet."
Nathan smiled and nodded, obviously pleased. "S'pose so."
Chris's expression became pensive, as if this fact struck him too deep for words. He simply glanced up at Mrs. Potter, who gave him an understanding smile. They both knew the profound importance of the work the seven had done, and the relief that they would be permitted to continue their duties for as long as they were needed.
Nathan tucked the last of Vin's wrappings back into place. "Them bandages look good, now let's get you on over to my clinic. You need a night's sleep in a real bed, not that ol' wagon."
Vin tried to shrug it off as Nathan and Chris helped him slowly to his feet. "I've slept on desert rocks after gettin' banged up worse'n this, Nate. Ain't nothin' wrong with my wagon."
"Maybe," Nathan replied, putting his hat back on, "but I don't wanna hear you complainin' if you're too wore out to watch Irving Wyatt get his justice."
Vin picked up his shirt, jacket and hat with one stiff arm, his handsome face grim in the dim light. "I wouldn't let nothin' stop me from seein' that. Not after all the harm he's done."
"Then one night at the clinic should suit you just fine," Nathan remarked, turning to Mrs. Potter. "Much obliged for your help, ma'am. You an' your boy go get some rest now."
"Good night, boys," Mrs. Potter said as her son opened the door and the men nodded their good nights to her. "And thank you -- even if it might not seem so, we're all mighty grateful it worked out this way."
Chris looked at her and tugged his hat brim in farewell.
"So are we, ma'am," he said in a rough voice, and he, Vin and Nathan stepped out the door into the darkness of the early morning.
The golden light of dawn saw Four Corners trying to put itself back together after the excitement of the previous evening. News spread quickly of how Wyatt and his men were apprehended or killed, and of the actions of the seven to bring the outlaws to justice. While Ezra and Vin indulged in some much-needed healing sleep, their comrades found themselves dealing with the aftermath of Wyatt's deceitful activities.
JD had to fight his way through a small mob outside of the jail, all of whom were clamoring for Wyatt's blood. The young man threw them an amazed look, glanced at Josiah who was standing watch by the door, shook his head in surprise, and went inside.
Chris was sitting at the desk, glaring keenly at the prisoners, as JD came in. Buck was sitting on a chair by the cells, his gun in plain view, patiently watching the cells and chewing on a toothpick.
"Ain't seen it like this since we had that James guy!" JD exclaimed as he shut the door. He nodded at the prisoners, all of whom were silently watching the lawmen in return. "They say anything?"
"Not a peep, kid," Buck said, regarding them with a wry smile. "The quiet's been right nice."
"Get any replies to those telegrams?" Chris asked, turning his gaze to JD.
"Oh, yeah," the young man responded, dropping his eyes to the yellow pieces of paper he held in one hand. "Once they found out we had the men they were lookin' for, they sent their messages right away. The deputy from Vista City is comin' for Parker, an' the sheriff's brother from Red Rock will be here for Kingsley, just as soon as Wyatt's trial is over."
Huston began to look worried. Parker frowned but showed no other emotion.
"And--" JD read over three more telegrams. "--looks like Wyatt's a wanted man in three different places for robbery."
"Three to choose from, huh?" Buck studied Wyatt and shook his head. "Maybe we'll just have to hang you three times."
Wyatt fumed at him, but stayed silent.
The door to the jail opened, and Josiah poked his head in. "Chris, someone here wants to see Wyatt. I'm thinkin' we should let 'im."
Chris looked at JD and Buck, then shrugged. "Long as they ain't gonna shoot him, fine."
Josiah stepped away from the door, and Mr. Conklin walked in.
Chris sat up, surprised. JD and Buck were just as amazed, regarding the older man with wide eyes, not knowing what to expect. Conklin looked very old and tired, his bluster gone as he looked at the lawmen, his expression chagrined and deeply embarrassed. He said nothing, simply nodding to them.
"Harry!" Wyatt exclaimed, his cry shattering the silence as he jumped to his feet and came forward, grasping the bars. "I'm glad you came by -- you have no idea how terrible I feel about... about, um..."
His voice trailed off as Conklin approached the bars. The old man's face changed drastically, going from embarrassment to blatant fury in a matter of moments. He stared at Wyatt, his small eyes blazing, his pale face almost red with rage.
"Now, Harry," Wyatt said when he could find his voice again; the words were not so sure now, "you know this is all a huge misunderstanding, right? Larabee and his men, they're trying to discredit me. You've got to tell everyone what a mistake this is, Harry. You're my only hope now, you know how this has all been turned around, I'll hang if you don't help me. We've got to stop them, Harry, give this town the law it deserves. We... we..."
Conklin was still glaring silently at him. He plunged his hand into one pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, holding it up for Wyatt to see. It was the telegram he had composed and displayed at the town meeting, asking Judge Orin Travis to replace the seven hired guns with Wyatt.
Without hesitation, Conklin took hold of the paper and tore it to pieces in front of Wyatt's eyes, his hands shaking with fury, his outraged eyes locked with Wyatt's. Finally he balled up the tattered scraps in one hand and flung them to the floor in complete disgust. Giving Wyatt one final angry look, Conklin turned and walked away without a single hesitant step.
He paused at the desk and looked at Chris in a very uncertain manner, his expression embarrassed and ashamed. After looking at the somber gunslinger in silence for a few minutes and trying to speak, Conklin simply shook his head as if admitting his inability to say a single word and walked out into the street.
Buck sighed and folded his arms. "Reckon that's 'bout as close to an apology from ol' Conklin as we're likely to get."
His friend shrugged, apparently unconcerned. "Guess so."
Josiah stepped in, his head turned as he watched Conklin stride away. "Everythin' all right in here?" he said at length, turning to face his friends.
"Yeah, think so, Josiah," Buck replied with a nod, turning his gaze towards the former sheriff's cell. "Reckon our Prodigal Son's finally learned his lesson, even if it did take a while."
They all looked at Wyatt. Huston and Parker were smirking, while Wyatt was staring at the mangled bits of paper in stunned surprise.
"Least he didn't shoot 'im," JD said quietly to Chris.
Chris was closely studying Wyatt's shocked, frightened expression. The former sheriff seemed to be just realizing that there would be no escape this time.
"I think Wyatt's wishing he had," he observed.
The sound of the rapping gavel rang like a gunshot through the silence of the Grain Exchange, and the stern voice of the Honorable Judge Orin Travis followed it in tones which invited no argument as it announced, "This court will now come to order."
His audience obeyed, every ear straining to hear what the venerable judge was about to say. The room was packed this cool, cloudy spring afternoon, even more so than on the evening of the town meeting. But the faces here were more solemn and angry, the atmosphere more subdued, than on that night, as many in the crowd remembered their actions then with something less than pride.
A week had passed since Wyatt's downfall; Huston and Parker were gone to their respective fates, after testifying against Wyatt during the three-day trial. Both men revealed every detail of the plan, perhaps in the hopes of earning leniency, and the anger of the townsfolk mounted with every revelation when they realized how thoroughly they had been duped.
The desert had been combed for Fredericks, but the doctor had vanished with a trace. A search of his office uncovered several whiskey bottles and an assortment of doctor's supplies, but nothing else.
Ezra and Vin, pale and sore but now strong enough to appear in court, had also offered their testimony on what they had seen and heard of Wyatt's activities. They now sat with their comrades, as interested as the rest of the town in the former sheriff's fate. Mary sat by Nathan, taking notes, her expression serious.
Judge Travis cleared his throat and looked over his spectacles at Wyatt, who now stood before him in handcuffs, looking a great deal less cocky than before. "Irving Wyatt," he said in a clear, authoritative vice, "this court has heard a great deal of evidence against you, and precious little in your defense."
Wyatt threw a savage glare at Chris and his men. "Your hired guns got my friends too scared t'talk."
Travis tapped the gavel soundly on the old wooden desk. "That will be enough, Mr. Wyatt. I would urge you to reflect on your actions instead of blaming other people for the consequences of them."
Wyatt returned his gaze to the Judge and said nothing more.
"Now," the Judge continued, consulting a sheaf of papers before him, "the fact that you abandoned your sworn duty as a Federal lawkeeper alone would bring you in for some severe punishment. Your criminal activities since your departure from this town have only added to your sentence."
He sat up, folded his hands and looked Wyatt unflinchingly in the eye. "Irving David Wyatt, it is the decision of this court that you be transported to Yuma Federal Prison, where you will spend the remainder of your life."
The courtroom erupted into shocked murmurs and outright cries of outrage. The undertaker was muttering furiously; after learning that it was Wyatt who set the fire which almost burned down his business, he had been particularly looking forward to putting the former sheriff in the ground.
"Thought for sure he'd swing," Buck muttered to Ezra.
The gambler was watching Wyatt closely. "I believe Wyatt did as well," he observed, "and judging from his expression, he may have preferred it."
"Order!" the Judge commanded, rapping the desk with the gavel.
After looking uncertain for a few moments, Wyatt stepped forward. "You can't put me in Yuma, Judge," he said in a nervous voice. "I sent men there when I was a lawman."
The judge's face was set in stern lines as he regarded Wyatt. "Believe me, Mr. Wyatt, I was strongly tempted to simply send you to the gallows," he replied, "but it occurred to me that a long life behind bars, where you could contemplate the results of your actions, might be more appropriate. If you feel you will be put in a dangerous situation, may I remind you that it is no more dangerous than the situation you left these people in when you rode away from here and left the town at the mercy of lawbreakers, not to mention your more recent and far more nefarious conduct. As my daughter-in-law was one of those you imperiled, you will forgive me if I cannot summon much sympathy for you." He glanced at Josiah and Buck. "You may escort the prisoner to the jail, gentlemen, he'll be taken to Yuma within the hour."
Josiah and Buck bundled Wyatt out the door quickly; many in the crowd had risen in their seats, clearly furious at the trial's outcome.
The gavel rapped again as Travis proclaimed, "This court is adjourned."
The rumbling in the air grew louder as the townsfolk streamed toward the door, many muttering angrily that Wyatt should have hung.
"Guess that's it," Vin said with a soft moan as he stood. His shoulder was still bandaged, and his left arm in a sling.
"Don't think the Judge is gonna be too popular for this," Chris told Mary as the newswoman wrote down a few more words in her notebook.
"Orin has his own reasons for his verdicts, Chris," Mary pointed out, folding the notebook closed and looking up. "He probably feels Wyatt will face more of a punishment this way."
Nathan huffed as he put on his hat. "He shoulda been hung after all he put this town through," he groused.
"I agree, Nathan," Ezra said, climbing to his feet and biting his lip against the protesting pain of his healing wound. "However, we must keep in kind that lawmen are scarcely popular figures in prison. This sentence may not be as lenient as it appears."
"Least he ain't our problem any more," JD remarked with a satisfied nod as he pulled on his bowler.
Judge Travis approached, looking weary but relieved. "Morning, boys, Mary." He pecked his daughter-in-law on the cheek.
"Judge," Chris nodded. "Better watch your step goin' out, I think you got some folks a little riled."
The Judge seemed unimpressed. "If they want to come to a hanging, they can follow me to Vista City for the trail of Wyatt's associate Tom Parker. He's wanted for the murder of a preacher there, and it's a fairly tight case against him."
JD frowned. "Any news on what happened to that Huston kid?"
Orin thought a moment. "Judge in Red Rock sent him to Yuma, too -- ten years for robbing the bank there."
Vin chuckled, shaking his head. "Him an' Wyatt in the same prison -- I give 'em a week before they kill each other."
"Oh, Mr. Sudbury!" The Judge gently grabbed the arm of the banker as he hurried by.
Sudbury appeared concerned, his brows knitting as he stopped. "Yes?"
"I trust you'll see to it that the money Mr. Parker gave you for the church land is turned over to the government as stolen property," the Judge instructed him, "and that the care of the church is returned to Mr. Sanchez at once?"
Sudbury swallowed and looked at Josiah sideways, embarrassed. "Of course, Judge, the minute the bank reopens."
Orin smiled at him. "Make it soon."
The banker turned pale, nodded nervously, and hurried away.
"Thank you, Judge," Nathan said, positively beaming. "You got no idea what that'll mean to Josiah."
"He's earned it, Nathan," Orin replied, then looked at the men around him. "You all have. From what I hear, things were pretty rough for you boys for a while, and not many men would have fought to defend a place that had all but turned its back on them."
Chris eyed him evenly, his face somber. "You hired us to protect the whole town, Judge. That's what we'll do 'til you say otherwise."
Orin nodded proudly and took Mary's hand. "Your jobs are safe until then, boys. In the meantime, I'd suggest we get something to eat."
"The Standish Tavern is right this way, gentlemen," Ezra announced with a wide grin, directing their steps with one sweeping hand.
They stepped outside and walked down the wooden steps into the street. The clouds were breaking up, revealing glimpses of golden sunshine and bright blue sky. Chris led them down the stairs, his mind preoccupied with the events of the past several weeks, and was at the bottom when suddenly he felt Vin whap him on the arm. Startled, he stopped and looked up.
Before them stood several of the townspeople, standing in a small, anxious-looking knot by the base of the stairs. Chris swept them with a glance; they were all people who had spoken against the hired guns, many of them quite loudly. They all wore very awkward, embarrassed expressions; only a few of them dared to look the lawmen in the face.
All of the seven men, and Mary and Judge Travis, had stopped, and now stood waiting.
Finally, one of them stepped forward, with a great deal of throat-clearing. Chris realized it was Pettibone, the grocer.
"Ah, Mr. Larabee?" he said in a small voice, as he finally mustered the nerve to look Chris in the eye.
For an instant, Chris had to fight back the anger as he remembered how Pettibone had urged their dismissal. He reined it in, however, and said in as civil a voice as he could manage, "Yes, sir?"
Pettibone coughed, his face turning red. "Some of us were talking the other, uh, day, and we decided it would be, er, proper to... uh..." He paused, took a deep breath, and straightened, as if resolved to get it all done in one push. He looked at Chris squarely and continued. "We owe a lot to you and your men for backing up this town and getting rid of those outlaws, and... we... want to apologize for speaking against you. A lot of us, we... uh... we thought for sure you'd all just ride on out of here after what happened at the meeting."
Silence fell as the two groups regarded each other. The lawmen seemed genuinely appreciative of the gesture, which did not stop them from feeling a great deal of amused satisfaction at the discomfort of the embarrassed townsfolk.
Chris never broke his gaze as he looked at each one of the men and women standing shamefaced before them. After a few moments, he directed his eyes back at Pettibone and simply nodded in mute acceptance of the apology. Then he moved on past the group as those behind him followed his gesture. There was a round of soft mumbling as the townsfolk nodded in contrition to the lawkeepers, until finally Chris and the others were past the penitents and on their way to the Standish Tavern.
Ezra was the last one to pass by, and as he did so he smiled broadly and patted Mr. Pettibone on the shoulder.
"I admire a man of courage, sir," he informed him, "and I'm sure you will have no argument against expressing your remorse by paying for a round of steak dinners at the hotel."
The grocer grew flustered. "Oh -- uh -- um, sure."
Ezra gave the flabbergasted grocer one more pat on the arm and smiled, his gold tooth flashing, then trotted off to join his comrades.
Nathan smiled at his friends as he glanced back at the small, chagrined group. "Sure never expected 'em to apologize like that. Gotta admit, it felt good, though."
Chris didn't seem overly impressed. "We'll see how they feel in a few weeks when this all blows over," he said as they strode down the dusty street.
There was an agreeing grunt from Vin. "If it stops 'em from trustin' another low-bellied snake like Wyatt, that'll be good enough fer me."
As they began walking towards the Tavern, JD heard a familiar voice call his name, and turning saw Mr. Hofmann coming up beside him as fast as his wooden leg would allow.
"Mr. Hofmann!" JD said, smiling in greeting and slowing his step a bit. "Everything all right at your store now?"
"Things have been put back in even better order than before, due mostly to the efforts of my tireless assistants," Mr. Hofmann replied happily, shaking JD's hand and nodding at the other men, who all returned the gesture. "I wanted to express my thanks to all of you once again. Even in Germany I have never witnessed such devotion to duty."
The men coughed, embarrassed but pleased at the praise.
"Just like to be where we're needed," Nathan said with a grin.
"I am sure it is more than that, my friend, but we do not need to discuss it now," Mr. Hofmann said, smiling. "I have at my disposal a quantity of the finest German beer in the territory, and it would be an honor to me to share it with all of you as a token of my gratitude."
"Real German beer on a fine spring day," Vin said eagerly, looking up at the increasing blue sky. "Sounds right good to me."
"Deliver it to the Standish Tavern, my friend, and I assure you we will be able to handle the situation from there," Ezra said, clapping the jeweler on the shoulder.
Mr. Hofmann nodded. "I will do so at once, and Mr. Dunne?"
JD looked at him. "Hm?"
"If you will come to my store later," the merchant continued, leaning in closer as he walked and speaking in a confidential tone, "I have just received a very nice set of silver spurs which might make this lady friend of yours very happy, if what you have told me of her is true. And I assure you, the price will be very reasonable!"
JD perked up. "Great!"
"I will see to the delivery of the beer immediately," Mr. Hofmann announced in a louder voice, and he hurried away, his silver-headed cane swinging with every step.
"Maybe that'll help wash away the bad taste these past few weeks have caused," Nathan said as they walked to the Tavern.
"Take a while for the town to get right again," Vin mused. "Lot of folks feel mighty foolish for trustin' Wyatt."
"They should," Nathan said, traces of anger still lingering in his voice. "They clean forgot what he really was an' just listened to his lies."
"Well, Wyatt's faced his justice and his gang is broken up for good," Orin said firmly, a satisfied smile on his face as he turned his gaze towards the brightening sky. "So we won't have to hear any more tall tales."
JD laughed a little. "At least until Buck starts drinkin' that beer!"
The morning sun poured through the front doors of the church as Josiah swung them open, the glow filling the sanctuary with a warm and holy light. He walked in slowly, putting down his bag of belongings and savoring the sweet homecoming, a reverent smile on his face as he looked around at the home he had thought lost forever.
Finally he sighed and blinked at the moisture welling in the corners of his eyes.
"Well, old friend," he whispered as he pulled off his coat and began rolling up his sleeves, "seems we both still got a shot at salvation."
He picked up a hammer, smiled at the feeling of its heft in his hand, and walked through the beautiful golden glow to once more return to his work.
At the same time, up the street, Nathan was tending to a farmer who had received a nasty bite from one of his cows. As he wrapped the man's hand and explained how to care for the injury, he noticed someone else lingering just outside his clinic door, a woman and her young son. The boy looked like he had a sprained wrist; the woman was holding his hand and talking to him gently, all the while casting an imploring look at the healer.
Nathan smiled at the boy, then looked at his mother. "Hold on, ma'am, I'll be right there," he said.
He went back to work, shaking a few drops of sweat from his brow. Only morning and it was hot already, he thought, going to be a bad summer, and the day was already busy. Probably have folks lined up outside all day with the spring planting and kids out playing and folks acting crazy with the warm weather. He'd hardly have a chance to relax all day.
Nathan had rarely been happier.
In the saloon, Ezra was enjoying the first day of full health he'd had for quite a while, and was holding court over a full table of enthusiastic poker players. The cigar smoke hung thick in the air as the cards flew, and the talk and laughter filled the Tavern until the rafters rang. As he played, Ezra barely noticed how the cards were running; he was still reveling, privately, in the notion that he was still home, and that home would remain as it was until the good Lady Luck decided otherwise.
In the corner of the Tavern, Buck smiled at his friend's enjoyment, then turned his attention to the pretty young strawberry-blonde woman sitting next to him. They were soon deeply involved in conversation, heedless as the rest of the Tavern's society continued to flow around them.
Out in the street, Vin was riding Sire back from patrol, his long curls shining in the bright sunlight as they streamed from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. Many of the townsfolk nodded to him as he passed, and he returned the gesture, grateful that most of them no longer seemed to fear for their lives while he was around. As for himself, he was resolved that if trouble came to town looking for him, he would meet it squarely, and protect the people in his care to the last drop of his blood.
He went by the Clarion News and could see Mary inside, busily preparing the next edition of the paper. It would carry the latest news, including the arrival in town of two new businesses, an indicator that the prosperity Wyatt coveted so dearly was only just beginning to bloom.
Vin barely had time to nod to JD and Casey as they trotted by on their way out for a ride. JD glanced at his friend, but most of his attention seemed to be focused on the lively young brown-haired girl who galloped beside him, radiant in her worn jeans and boyish shirt. As she passed Vin, laughing and trading youthful insults with JD as to who could ride to the creek the fastest, the tracker caught the flash of silver spurs on her heels.
Vin smiled and shook his head as he rode towards the livery, passing the jail and nodding to the blackclad figure who reclined in front of it. Chris met his glance and nodded back, the same thought reflected in the eyes of both men. Life was back to normal now that the threat was gone, but new threats would soon rise to take its place.
Chris contemplated this as he sat, his legs stretched out before him, enjoying the quiet spring day and watching the customers stream in and out of Hofmann's Jewelry and Watches. Eventually the peace would be broken, and they would be called upon to protect the town once more, to prevent its fragile new life from being extinguished too soon.
Wyatt had seen only the opportunity for gain in its prosperity; but Chris and his men knew how rare and valuable second chances were, and that their worth lay far deeper than the attainment of mere wealth. The payment would be long in coming, possibly too long for any of them to fully see it. But someday it would come, and if at that time, it was remembered that once seven men did their best to preserve the town until that day arrived, that was all the reward they required.
Chris pondered this for a while, then decided to leave the contemplations to another time. For now, he was content to enjoy the momentary peace, to think that he and his friends were once more where they should be, and to simply sit on the boardwalk and wait as the life of the town swirled around him, silently prepared for whatever the bright new day chose to bring.
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