Disclaimer: Don’t own them. Never will. Won’t make any money. Never will. Really wish I could. Never will. Quoth the rav…ahem…crow.
Description: The apothecary is kidnapped, and, as always, that’s just the beginning…. In four parts.
March winds lashed the window frames, slamming the ill-fitted storm windows deeper into their grooves, jolting Buck awake with a strangled cry. White moonlight bathed the shirtless and shivering man, his mind desperately trying to regain a sense of reality. He judged it to be about three in the morning, quiet and deathly. He’d been dreaming again, this one following a now familiar tune. It began, as always, with the gunfight….
The blast of gunshots echoed through the town, cries and screams accompanying them. The feel of wood splintering and glass breaking, the image of Four Corners -- or somewhere very much like it -- and the need to protect it, as he’d always done, enveloped him. A place so familiar, and yet, somehow alien.
Then it was over, the destruction quick and brutal, bodies littering the street, smoke and dust rising to swirl around them. Buck stepped out from behind his cover, a smile on his face and twirling his guns, but when he looked around for the others, he found himself alone. He called out, but no one answered, not even the townsfolk.
A keen wailing surrounded him then, and the brown world took on a much darker hue, almost blue. He would start to shake as all the men he’d killed stood up, blood and dirt marring their pale features, no emotions on their blank faces. Oh, but they remembered how to use their guns, and they knew on whom to use them.
Buck screamed for help, yelling for the others, but he was alone. Deserted. Why had he believed they would stay for him? Why had he stayed at all? He would fire on the dead men, but they just kept coming…and he had no one to help him.
The window continued to slam against the frame in a staccato rhythm, increasing the chills and shivers that ran down the ladies man’s tall frame. Wiping a hand across his sweating face, he staggered out of bed and to the window, almost wanting to smash it open. With a grunt, he threw it up and leaned out, letting the brisk wind dry his face. After a moment, he opened his eyes to look out at the dark street, expecting to find it empty.
He gripped the sill, his eyes widening.
“HEY!” he yelled loudly. “STOP!” On the street below, one of the bandits heard and instantly swung his rifle up. Before Buck could move out the way, the shot rang out, exploding into Buck’s chest. He yelled again as he fell backwards, into oblivion.
Ezra was staring morosely at the drink in his hand, watching drearily as the amber liquid glinted in the firelight. He was sitting in the hotel’s front parlour, a book facedown on his lap, the fire stacked high in the grate.
“Mr. Standish?” Mr. Sykes called from the door, the night manager smiling kindly. “Is there anything else I can get you? A blanket, perhaps? Or another drink?”
Ezra sighed and looked up, his green eyes reflecting the gratitude he felt towards the older man. The gambler had been suffering from insomnia lately, and the noise of the saloon only seemed to worsen the headaches he’d been getting as a result. But even after Inez closed up, he hadn’t wanted to return to his lonely room, nor did he want the manageress to worry. So, for the last three nights, he’d taken up residence in the hotel’s parlour, and Mr. Sykes had been there to welcome him every night.
Mr. Sykes actually liked having the gambler there, though he did worry about the younger man’s health. He actually likened Mr. Standish to a friend, and it didn’t hurt that he felt safer having one of the Seven nearby in case something happened. The hotel manager certainly didn’t mind either, saying that the cost of having the fire burning all night in the parlour was worth if it meant the extra protection.
Ezra just liked it because the parlour was the most comfortable place in the entire town. And Mr. Sykes was kind. He shook his head at the man in the door, a smile on his own face.
“No, thank you, Mr. Sykes. You’ve been more than…”
Buck’s shout of “Hey! Stop!” rang through the room, and Ezra was on his feet instantly. He was at the parlour door when the explosive boom of a rifle shot cut through the room, accompanied by a second yell, this one of pain. The gambler came to an abrupt stop, his eyes widening in shock at the sound, aware that a similar expression had appeared on Mr. Sykes’ face. Then Ezra was off and running out the front doors.
He was nearly bowled over as a rider charged past, ponying another horse behind him. On the back of the second horse, Mr. Greene, the apothecary, was tied down, a gag tied around his mouth and a look of terror on his normally implacable face. Before Ezra could react, two more riders skimmed past after them, the men barely registering Ezra’s appearance on the road in front of them. The gambler stepped back, then narrowed his eyes as a final rider approached rapidly, a man holding a smoking rifle in one hand.
Ezra bellowed and jumped just as the final bandit tried to get past, driving the man from his horse. The black mare swung around with her rider when he didn’t loose his hold on her reins, whinnying as he wrenched her head down. A couple of well placed blows to his head, and the man was out. Swiftly, Ezra grabbed the reins of the terrified horse and swung himself up into the saddle. Moments later he was galloping at breakneck speed after the other bandits and their kidnap victim.
“Buck! Oh my God!” JD hissed, diving into the room to be by the man’s side. Chris stood in the doorframe, his face alive with confusion as he pulled on dark shirt. The kid grabbed the sheet from off the bed and pressed it against the bleeding wound on Buck’s right side, calling his best friend’s name over and over again. Looking up, he saw Chris run over to the window. The gunslinger was just in time to see Ezra sweep the bandit out of his saddle, then take the man’s horse for himself.
“Chris, you have to get Nathan, now!” JD urged, not caring what was happening outside when he could feel the blood seeping through the sheet. Chris took one more look at them, then took off at a run.
Vin had had his rifle up and pointed at the last bandit’s back when he was forced to drop his aim. He couldn’t hide an impressed expression as the bandit went down under Ezra’s attack, and the gambler took the horse. Then the tracker ran forward to take care of the downed man. Gripping him by the collar, he dragged the man to his feet and shoved him towards the jail. His eyes, though, were focused on the men galloping out of town.
Josiah shoved open the doors of the church with his shoulder, his Smith & Wesson in his hand. As he skipped down the steps, he watched mesmerized as the three bandits and Mr. Greene swept past, only the terrified apothecary sparing him a glance. Then the preacher’s own fear registered as he Ezra sped past after them, the gambler’s face tight with determination. The preacher yelled Ezra’s name without thinking, the voice of a worried parent as his child does something too risky.
Up on his balcony, Nathan had also just emerged, sleep still thick in his eyes as he tugged on his second boot. The riders all blurred past him, but the gambler’s red coat was easily discernable taking up the rear. He heard Josiah bellow the younger man’s name from where he stood on the steps, but either Ezra didn’t hear him or he ignored him.
Instantly, Nathan whirled around to run down to the livery.
“NATHAN!” Chris’s voice carried down the street, and the healer spun on his heel. The gunslinger skidded to a halt below him, just as Josiah reached the same spot, the preacher obviously intending to go for his horse. From uptown, Nathan could see Vin sprinting towards them from the direction of the jail.
“Nathan! Buck’s down, shot in the chest,” Chris yelled. “JD needs you at the boarding house, now!” Needing no further urging, the healer ran back inside to get his bag from the clinic.
“They kidnapped Stephen Greene, Chris, and Ezra’s after them,” Josiah said, his fear plain as he pointed in the direction of the bandits. Chris just nodded.
“I know. Get over to the apothecary’s and check on Belinda and the boys,” Chris ordered. Josiah looked as if he’d been slapped.
“No, Chris, I’m going after…”
“Josiah, you have to check on the Greenes. You’re the best one for it, and you know it. Me and Vin’ll go after Ezra.” At that same moment, Vin reached the group, his sharp ears catching the gunslinger’s order. Without stopping, he was throwing open the doors of the livery to gather Peso and Solon. Nathan pounded down the stairs of the clinic and past them, headed for the boarding house at a dead run.
Josiah looked at the man in black, his mouth open as his emotions warred within him. Finally, with a tight swallow, his closed his lips and nodded.
“Bring him back!” the preacher growled, not caring if Chris knew he was referring to Mr. Greene or Ezra.
Chris, of course, knew exactly who Josiah meant. He nodded brusquely in return and turned to help Vin. The preacher shook his head, offered a short prayer to anyone who was listening, then jogged up the street towards the apothecary’s house.
Less than five minutes later, Chris and Vin exploded out of the livery and after the bandits.
Nathan arrived to find JD still trying to get Buck to wake up, tears streaming down the boy’s face. He was pushing down fiercely with the sheet, his breath coming out in shallow pants. Buck’s own breathing, in comparison, was almost non-existent.
The healer got on his knees and nodded at JD to lift the sheet. Buck’s bare chest was smeared with blood, and more welled out of the ugly hole that sat just below his right shoulder. Quickly, the healer started wiping as much of it away as possible with some clean cloths, his brow furrowed in concentration. He glanced angrily about the dark room, lit only by the full moon streaming in through the windows, before turning dark eyes back to his patient.
“JD, I need more light!” he snapped, not looking up. “I have to get this bullet out, now!” JD’s frightened eyes glanced up, and he was instantly on his feet, nearly tripping over the bunched and bloody sheet. On the nightstand he found Buck’s book of matches, and quickly got the oil lamp lit. Then he jumped across the bed to light the one he saw on the dresser.
When he looked up again, he saw Virginia, the landlady, in the doorway, her soft, round face tight with worry. Wordlessly, the old woman handed JD her own oil lamp, which he took with a nod.
“Can you boil some water, and bring us some more lamps, Miss Virginia?” the young man asked, licking his lips nervously.
“Of course, love,” she replied, her Irish lilt softening her tone. She bustled off, her skirts swishing down the dark hallway.
“Bring that lamp over here, JD,” Nathan ordered. JD was back by his side in seconds, turning the wick up to make it as bright as possible. Nathan thanked him with a nod.
“Alright…the bullet’s deep, but I think it missed his lung since it entered at an upward angle. Thank God the man who shot him didn’t have decent aim. I’m going to have to dig it out before we can move him.” He reached behind blindly for his bag, his eyes watching the frightened young man in front of him. “If Buck starts to wake, JD, I need you to talk to him and try to keep him from moving too much. Think you can do that?”
JD bit his lip, not wanting to express his fear that he had thought Buck would never wake again. Trying to take heart in the calm voice of Nathan, he reached forward to touch Buck’s head, absently brushing the man’s thick black hair away from his forehead.
Josiah sighed as he looked at the ruined front door of the apothecary’s shop. The store and the rooms above were dark and deathly quiet, and his chest filled with a heavy sense of foreboding. The best one to deal with this, Chris had said. Damn him. Even if it was true, it was still a horrible job, especially when he so wanted to be somewhere else. Just as he was about to enter, he felt a soft hand on his shoulder.
“Josiah?” Mary’s voice called to him. He turned around to see her wrapped in her shawl, shivering slightly. “What happened? And can I help?”
The preacher’s eyes fell to the ground. “Stephen has been kidnapped, Mary. I’m going to check on Belinda and the boys…I think it best you wait here until I call you.”
Mary’s sharp intake of breath had Josiah looking up, the mantle of his position resting back upon his shoulders. He lifted a hand to her shoulder to calm her, and asked her not to worry. She just nodded, her eyes liquid.
“What about the gunshot?” she asked. “Was anyone…?” she trailed off. Josiah shook his head.
“Buck was shot. I don’t know,” he shrugged, trying not to betray his worry. Mary took in another deep breath, her eyes seeking out the large dark structure of the boarding house. When she returned her gaze to his, they seemed a bit more settled.
“I’ll wait for you to call me, Josiah,” she told him, her voice strong. The preacher smiled slightly and thanked her. Then he turned to head inside.
What the hell am I doing?
This thought had rung through Ezra’s head at least ten times in the last few minutes, but he continued to spur the mare faster. She responded each time, putting on brief stretches of speed before falling back into her normal gallop. She was definitely not as consistent as Chaucer. Luckily, the four horses ahead of him were not much better, and the gray dappled mare carrying Mr. Greene certainly couldn’t move as fast. The bound man was giving it no encouragement, although he also couldn’t doing anything to stop it. The mare was following the lead horse without hesitation.
The gambler shot again with his Remington, knowing full well that, at this speed, he would be lucky to hit the broad side of a barn. The light from the gun blinded him momentarily, its brightness shocking against the blue and black landscape. The backlash of the gunshot echoed in his ears, but the noise was so familiar as to be almost soundless. In response, he would see a few flashes of light, and then hear the accompanying shots, as the three bandits fired vaguely in return.
Like him, the bullets got nowhere near their target.
But he couldn’t stop. Ezra had no idea what these men wanted with Mr. Greene, but he wasn’t about to give them the opportunity to slow down and kill their victim. He just hoped he got lucky and that they stopped to face him of their own accord.
Yeah, he thought wryly to himself, and what, pray tell, would you do then?
He shifted the Remington in his right hand to get a more secure grip, and fired again.
“Shh, shh, Buck, it’s all right, it’s all right,” JD soothed, wiping away the sweat on the gunslinger’s face with a damp cloth. Virginia sat silently on the bed, her old, pale blue eyes watching the young man with worry. Nathan ignored them both, his face screwed up into a tight frown.
Carefully, he probed the wound, trying not to enlarge it too much while he went in to get the bullet. Sweat poured down his own face, and he wished he had someone there to wipe it away. Dragging his left hand across his brow, he sucked in a breath and continued to dig.
Buck groaned louder, and he bucked slightly against the pain radiating through him. JD grabbed his good shoulder and placed another hand on his chest, trying to keep the man still. He glanced up at Nathan.
“How much longer?” he asked quietly, his voice strained.
Nathan just shook his head, as if to say ‘don’t bother me now.’ The healer bit his bottom lip, his mind only aware of what he could feel through his hand from the pliers. Somewhere in there…he had to be close…where the hell was it? Why the hell were bullets always so damn small? And why didn’t they do an equally small amount of damage? No, instead this tiny piece of metal could bring down a man, kill him instantly.
Everything about this was insane. It always was.
Suddenly, the pliers hit something unyielding, and definitely metal. With a sharp breath, he allowed himself a small smile as he got a fix on the bullet. JD saw the look, and some of the tension in his frame let up a little.
Josiah picked up the candle from the front of the shop and lit it, ignoring the strong smell of herbs and spices that drifted through his senses. He hated how quiet it sounded upstairs. Mary stood just inside the door behind him, her shawl wrapped about her tightly. If she saw the strain in his face, she didn’t show any sign. He nodded at her one more time before passing through to the back.
The rooms behind the apothecary were the kitchen, a store room and a small parlour that faced the back garden. Narrow stairs led up from the parlour, and Josiah head towards them unerringly.
“Belinda?” he called lightly. “Jeremy? Wyn? It’s Josiah….” He took the steps slowly until he reached the landing. There were three rooms on this floor: the boys’ room, the master bedroom, and a small guest room. The boys’ room was first.
“Jeremy?” Josiah shone the light inside. Both beds were empty. Swallowing, he left the room and moved down the hall to the master bedroom. Once more, he turned the light into the room, vaguely noticing how brightly the moonlight streamed in through the front facing windows. This room was also empty.
Something shifted inside the closet. Well, maybe not totally empty.
Stepping it a little deeper into the room, he saw the closet was ajar on the far side. Something shifted again.
“Belinda?” He called, stepping up to the door. With a cautious hand, he opened it…and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Belinda Greene was there, bound and gagged, with both of her two little boys cowering behind her. Josiah couldn’t avoid smiling broadly as he knelt down next to her.
“Its all right, Bel,” the preacher soothed. “I’m going to untie you now.” As if he’d opened a floodgate, both little boys screamed in relief and jumped on the preacher before he could do more than pull the gag from her mouth. Between their exuberant hello, and Belinda’s yelling about her husband, somehow Josiah managed to yell for Mary to come upstairs.
Ezra ducked low on the mare’s back, aware that she was tiring. Raising the Remington, he mentally counted how many bullets he’d shot. Five. Okay. One more. He straightened his shoulders slightly, feeling the comforting weight of the still unused colt on his left side.
Sitting up as high as he could off the saddle, he pointed the Remington at the nearest rider, sucked in a breath, and pretended he was as good as Vin. The shot rang out clearly, and he was rewarded by a high pitched yell. With an amazed expression, Ezra watched as the bandit fell from off his horse, the dark gelding screaming as it almost went down with its rider.
The black mare he was on jumped to the left to avoid the downed horse, but Ezra didn’t let her stop. The rider forgotten, he continued on after the other two, spurring the mare again. He shoved the now empty Remington back into its holster on his thigh, switched the reins to his right hand, and pulled out the colt. He grinned slightly. He always was a better shot with his left, anyway.
Chris and Vin heard the crack of the Remington in the distance, and the accompanying yell. The gunslinger glanced over at the tracker, and Vin shot him a raised eyebrow.
About five minutes later, they came across the downed man. They pulled up and let the horses dance around him for a minute, quickly ascertaining that the man was dead. Then they both spurred Peso and Solon forward again.
“The good thing about him not wearing a shirt,” Nathan mumbled as he cleaned the wound, “is that there is less risk of infection. No fibers in there complicating things.” He uncapped the alcohol from his bag and looked at JD.
The kid recognized the look, and placed his hands once more on Buck’s good shoulder and chest. “Hold on Buck,” he whispered.
Nathan poured the liquid over the wound, and Buck’s eyes flew open. The bellow of agony he gave, and the way he strained against JD holding him down was enough to make Virginia shut her eyes and turn away. She’d always hated seeing anyone in pain.
“Buck, Buck, calm down. Its alright. We’re here. We’ve got you,” the kid said, sounding much older than his twenty odd years allowed. “We ain’t never gonna let you go. Now hush. You’ll be all right.”
“JD?” the ladies man managed, his bright eyes seeking out the younger man’s face. JD’s grin grew wide.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s me. Nathan’s here. He’s taking care of you.”
“You left…” Buck said, his eyes closing again. “Why did you leave me? Why did you leave me to die?”
“What? Buck, I…Buck? Damn it, he’s out again.” JD turned dark eyes to watch Nathan. The healer was soaking a rag in some sort of viscous liquid, planning on placing it over Buck’s wound. JD waited patiently him for him to finish, his brow furrowed. When Nathan finally looked up again, JD matched his gaze.
“What did he mean, Nathan?” the kid asked. The healer’s eyes dropped, and he sighed.
“I don’t know, kid. Could be he’s confused about some’ut, maybe a dream….”
“It just happened so quickly. We were…we were sleeping, then all of a sudden someone grabbed me and pulled me out a bed. Next thing I knew, they were tying my hands behind me and ordering Stephen outside. They already had Jeremy and Wyn on the floor of the room, face down, and for a moment I thought…. But they didn’t kill us. They just…gagged me, threatened the boys that they’d kill me if they cried out, then threw us in the closet. They took Stephen…and then I heard that gunshot and.…” Belinda shook her head, and a chill ran through her.
“Do you know why they wanted your husband, Bel?” Josiah asked, sitting across the table from the still shaking woman. He had one hand outstretched and holding hers. Mary was boiling water on the stove for some hot tea, and the two little boys were both sitting near their mother, leaning on her. They watched Josiah with nervous eyes.
“No,” she said, her voice small. “They just took him, telling me and Stephen to keep quiet or they’d kill the boys. But…but I’m guessing they took him as ransom.”
“Ransom?” Mary repeated, her tone curious. “I didn’t think you had enough money to ransom anyone, Bel.”
“Oh, we don’t. It’s not me they’d want to ransom him to. It’d be to his brother, Harold.”
“Harold…?” Mary’s eyes lit up, and her jaw fell open. “Harold Greene? Harold Greene is Stephen’s brother?”
“Who is Harold Greene?” Josiah interposed, his calm voice hiding the fact that he had one fist clenched under the table in worry, his fingernails pressing deep into his palm.
“Surveyor General of the New Mexico Territories, Josiah! My God,” Mary shook her head, her quick mind considering what this all meant. “He’s only had that post, what, three months?”
Bel just nodded, wiping a tired hand across her face.
“Surveyor General,” Josiah repeated softly. “Then this is probably over land.”
“Or statehood,” Mary added.
Bel looked up, her eyes red-rimmed. “My Stephen won’t know anything about that. He doesn’t ever talk to his brother, except when he has to. Harold’s ambitious and…and unpleasant. I don’t know what those men think, but Harold won’t pay…at least, I don’t think he would…I just…Oh God.” She broke down, and Mary was immediately there, hugging the woman’s shoulders. Josiah looked to the boys, and was interested to see the look of maturity in Jeremy’s eyes. The ten year old stood up and patted his mother’s arm.
“It’ll be alright, momma. You’ll see. They’ll bring pa home. Don’t worry.” His voice sounded so old at that moment that Belinda couldn’t ignore it. Looking up, she saw the conviction in her eldest son’s face and couldn’t resist a smile.
“Yes, son, of course. Of course they will.”
The brief moment of exultation that had filled Ezra upon knocking that outlaw off his horse had long since dissipated in the cold night air. It had occurred to him sometime back that he had left his hat at the hotel, and the wind seemed to be taken advantage of the fact by flinging as much debris and dirt into his face as possible. Not to mention the damn bugs.
He kept his head down as much as possible, and he swore he could feel bug carcasses building up in his hair, even though he knew full well that it was just dirt. Still, if there was one thing he hated the most in this world, it was bugs. He hated them. All of them. Who ever had invented mosquitoes, for example, had to have had really sick sense of humor. Or maybe they were just having a really bad day. Bees he could understand. Pollination and all that. Hell, even maggots had their place, decomposing the dead. But mosquitoes? No. No purpose whatsoever. Ezra had come to the conclusion that someone up there had just gotten bored, and decided to torment him personally by creating mosquitoes. The fact that mosquitoes had been on this earth far longer than the young southerner made absolutely no difference to this conclusion.
Realizing that his concentration was drifting, along with his speed, Ezra risked peering out to see if he had made any progress. He gasped in surprise.
They were barely fifteen yards in front of him! Grinning, he lifted up his Colt, taking aim at the closest bandit’s back.
Suddenly the world tilted, and his mare screamed as she lost her footing down a prairie dog hole. Habit was well engrained within the gambler, and he managed to loose his feet from the stirrups just before the mare crashed to the ground. He found himself pitched off to one side, his body trying to roll into the fall.
Someone was screaming, and, agonizingly, he realized it was himself. Pain exploded through his left shoulder as he landed hard, then rolled for several feet. Consciousness fled.
The yell and the screaming horse brought the two remaining kidnappers’ heads around, and one of them, the younger of the two, whooped with joy at seeing the gambler roll off into an unconscious heap. The one ponying Mr. Greene pulled the horses to a halt and steered them around.
“What are you doing, Billy?” the younger outlaw asked, reining in his own steed with a harsh tug.
“I wanna make sure he’s dead, Les,” Billy replied coarsely, roughly pulling at the reins of Greene’s horse. “He killed Jonesy and got Paddy captured. I wanna make sure he’s dead.” With a snarl at the younger man, he headed back towards Ezra. Les sighed and followed.
Billy jogged the exhausted horses back to where Ezra’s mare was trying desperately to stand, but she couldn’t get her twisted leg to move. Les clicked his tongue sadly, and leapt down off his horse to go check on her.
Billy looked at Mr. Greene, his lips curling into a nasty smirk. Mr. Greene’s dark brown eyes were watering, as much from fear as the horrible ride, and his lips trembled around the ugly gag on his mouth. Billy didn’t care. He lifted the rifle from up off his saddle and swung it around to knock Mr. Greene on the side of the head. The apothecary went limp in the saddle.
“Just in case you got any ideas about running off, poisoner,” the outlaw whispered, the nasty smile fading.
“She’s broken her leg, looks like in a couple of places,” Les informed his partner, staring down at the mare and scratching his face with the barrel of his colt peacemaker. Billy frowned at the information and jumped down out of the saddle.
“Then shoot her. I’ll see about our friend over there.”
Les sighed and pulled his Spencer Carbine from off his saddle, holstering his peacemaker at the same time into his cross draw holster. He was checking to make sure the heavy rifle was loaded when Billy moved over to Ezra. The gambler had wound up on his back, left arm outstretched at an odd angle, his head tilted away from Billy. Billy tapped him with his foot.
The ear-deafening gunshot from the Carbine startled the older outlaw for a moment, and he turned to check on Les. His partner was shaking his head and looking down at the now dead horse, a thin trail of smoke wisping up from out of the rifle’s barrels.
Ezra’s eyes flew open at the loud roar of the rifle, but, seeing the distracted Billy standing over him, he quickly shut his eyes again. When Billy looked back down, the gambler looked exactly the same.
Billy pursed his lips and crouched down next to him, poking the gambler in the ribs. When Ezra didn’t respond, that same ugly smirk split the outlaw’s chapped lips.
“He dead?” Les asked casually, moving back to his horse to put his Spencer away.
“Yeah, I think so. Don’t mean I can’t shoot a few extra bullets in him to make sure, eh?” Billy laughed, turning his head once more to look at Les. The younger man didn’t respond, just shrugged his shoulders.
“Whatever. We best get moving quick, though. There’s bound to be more of ‘em coming.”
Billy made a face, and turned back to his prey, only to find a derringer pointed directly at his right eye.
“Tell your friend to drop his gun,” Ezra whispered hoarsely.
Billy’s mouth opened and shut a couple of times. The gambler flexed an eyebrow.
“I have no qualms about killing you sir. However, I’d rather not, as I hate getting blood on my clothes unless absolutely necessary. Now, please, tell your partner to drop his guns, and you do the same, or I will shoot a rather large hole through your skull.”
Billy swallowed harshly and licked his lips, his eyes never leaving the tip of the derringer. “L…Les?”
“I need you to drop your guns,” Billy said.
“My what? What are you…Oh,” Les came around to get a better view, his Spencer still in his hands. He clicked his tongue again, this time in annoyance. “Damn it Billy, I thought you said he was dead.”
“Well, he would been…”
“Drop your guns!” Ezra ordered, his eyes flashing. He was still lying down, but his right arm was rock steady where it held the derringer in Billy’s face. “Now!”
The older outlaw threw his rifle to the side and raised his hands up.
Les pursed his lips and turned tired eyes to check on their prize. Greene was still limp in the saddle, and Les nodded slightly. He was considering which was worth more to him, and, frankly, there wasn’t much of a contest.
“Sorry Billy,” Les smiled lazily, raising and cocking the Spencer. Billy shouted and tried to throw himself backwards out of the way, but Ezra was even quicker. The gambler dropped his arm and aimed at Les, shooting the younger man straight between the eyes before the Spencer even moved. The heavy rifle shot harmlessly, if loudly, into the dirt.
Billy scrambled back and tried to get his own rifle up and cocked, yelling bloody murder at the top of his lungs. Ezra pulled his arm around and shot the last outlaw through the temple, his expression neutral.
And it was over.
The gambler fell back to the ground, staring up at the stars with glazed eyes, and blew out the breath he was holding. For the second time that night, an amazed grin lit his face.
“Ezra!” Vin shouted, hearing the volley of shots clearly. They could see the horses and men ahead, but were still too far away to discern who was standing and who wasn’t. Both lawmen had their guns up and raised as they barreled at full gallop towards the camp, any thoughts about their own safety banished when they realized that no one appeared to be standing. Even Mr. Greene on the back of his dappled gray looked dead from this distance.
Slowly, they saw a moonlit figure push himself up with one arm and stagger a few steps before coming to a halt. Chris sighed a sigh of relief, instantly recognizing the shape of the man’s swallowtail jacket. Vin whooped.
Ezra moved forward to lean against Mr. Greene’s horse, the confused animal watching him warily, and reached up to feel for the apothecary’s pulse. The gambler blew air out through his cheeks when he found it strong and steady, and turned around to await Chris and Vin. He smiled broadly as they pulled up in front of him, tucking his left arm inside the brace from the shoulder holster, and raising his right in greeting.
“You disappoint me, gentleman. I expected you a full five minutes ago,” he chastised, earning him a wry look from Chris.
“What happened?” the gunslinger asked, looking at the mess.
“Oh,” Ezra waved his right hand dismissively about the area, “I saved the day, of course. Through my usual cunning and superior gunmanship, I managed to outwit both miscreants and rescue our hapless apothecary.” He coughed slightly, then the self-satisfied grin was back on his face.
“You mean, you got lucky,” Chris deadpanned, pulling out a knife to sever Mr. Greene’s bonds.
“Hell yes,” the gambler agreed fervently, eyes closing in a short thank you to the capricious goddess. He opened them again when he heard Vin whistle appreciatively as he checked over the two outlaws.
“Damn, Ez. You’re getting better with them guns of yours. You got ‘em both dead center.”
“Certainly dead,” Chris teased, reaching up to tap Mr. Greene’s cheek. Ezra face pinched slightly at Vin’s accolade (and at Chris’s aside).
“It is amazing what one can do with the proper incentive, Mister Tanner, ” he replied. “For, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers….” Sighing, he stepped back to lean heavily against the gray’s flank. Interestingly, the horse didn’t sidestep, proving it to be well trained.
Chris had been watching the apothecary regain his senses, but he looked over at Ezra when he heard the exhaustion leech into the younger man’s tone.
“You all right, Ezra?” he asked softly, all joking aside.
Sensing the concern, the gambler just nodded and shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he found Chris by his side with a firm grip on his right arm. He was stopping the gambler from falling.
“Let’s get you home. Nathan should see to that shoulder of yours.”
“How’s Buck?” Ezra asked, suddenly remembering the ladies man’s yell from the town. Chris’s jaw tensed, answering Ezra’s question.
“Oh hell,” the gambler whispered, looking away.
“That’s it. That’s all I can do,” Nathan concluded, tying off the dressing.
JD was calmer now, his eyes measuring the rise and fall of Buck’s chest. “Do you want to move him to the clinic?”
“No…not until he’s a bit more stable. The wound may not have been mortal, JD, but he has lost a lot of blood. I think it may have clipped the artery going to the arm. I’ve done what I could to staunch the flow, but…,” he grimaced. “He’ll need to stay immobile for a few days, until I’m sure he’ll be alright.”
“It’d be no trouble, Mr. Jackson, fer me to set up a room fer you ‘ere,” Virginia said quietly. She was still in the room, having been the one to fetch clean water when Nathan asked for it. “I know Judge Travis’ll cover the cost, and it’s slow now, being March an’ all.”
Nathan smiled, “That’d be great, Miss Virginia. Thank you.”
She returned the smile. “A pleasure, sir. I’ll go set it up now, then, if you won’t be needing naught else?” When he shook his head to say no, she turned the smile on JD and bustled from the room.
“I was going to give you my room, Nathan, since I don’t plan on leaving this one, but Virginia beat me.”
“She’s a nice lady,” the healer remarked absently, standing up to stretch.
“Yeah.” JD still sat next to Buck, brushing the ladies man’s hair back. Sweat was already beading on the older man’s forehead, though Nathan had promised any fever would be low.
“Let’s move him off the floor, huh?” Nathan said, watching the kid. JD nodded, and stood as well. He blinked as he looked out the still open window, his natural curiosity returning as his fear lessened.
“By the way, where is everybody?” the kid asked.
Josiah was standing in the door to the shop, listening to Mary and Belinda whisper in the background. The two boys were both sitting quietly together, leaning against one of the glass cases in which Mr. Greene kept his wares. Jeremy had his arm around Elwyn’s shoulders, holding on tightly to his younger sibling, protectively.
It reminded Josiah of Hannah, when he used to hold her close to him as children. Shaking his head of those morose thoughts, he tried to stay focused on the present. Instead, he tried to distract himself by naming all the herbs in the window without looking at the labels. He got stuck after naming basil, fennel, mint, lemon balm and marjoram. Fact was, he just didn’t care. Where the hell were they?
Footsteps approached from up the boardwalk, and he straightened up to greet Nathan. The healer just inclined his head. Then they both looked down the road as the faint rumble of horses interrupted the night.
“Buck?” Josiah asked, not looking over.
“Healing,” Nathan replied. “JD’s there.”
The preacher didn’t reply, just narrowed his eyes as the riders approached. A huge sigh of relief escaped his lips when he was able to see who it was.
“Bel,” he announced, looking inside, “they did it.”
Mrs. Greene emitted a happy cry and dashed out front, the boys on her heels. On his horse, her husband raised a tentative hand in greeting, before returning it to his aching head. His family almost pulled him from the gray mare before the beast came to a halt.
Ezra grinned, and Vin laughed. Even Chris offered a small smile before turning to Nathan. Steel blue eyes asked a simple question, which Nathan stepped forward to answer, meeting the gaze evenly.
“He’s alive. Should be all right with rest,” the healer stated. “You should go up there, though. I think he might need you to be there when he wakes up.”
Chris hesitated, confused by the statement. Then he frowned, “Why?”
Nathan pursed his lips, not really sure how to answer. “Something he mumbled while he was delirious, Chris. Just do me a favor and be there when he wakes up.”
“Nathan, if he’s going to be fine, I don’t see…”
“Please, Chris. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”
Chris tensed his haw, then inclined his head. “I’ll go as soon as we finish up here, if that is all right with you, Nathan?” An undercurrent of sarcasm underlined the tone.
Nathan watched him warily, as if testing the statement. Finally, he sighed heavily and shrugged. Chris continued to watch him for a moment, then dismounted. Vin and Ezra were already off their horses, and Vin had taken the black mare’s reins with his own. Reaching out a free hand, he took Solon’s reins as well before heading to the livery.
Chris stepped up to the family and cleared his throat. Mr. Greene looked up, his red eyes wet with tears. Nathan joined them, to make sure that Mr. Greene was alright. Mary helped Bel tell the story of what happened.
Josiah sidled over to stand next to Ezra, who was patiently waiting for Nathan to turn and notice him.
“You alright, son?” the preacher whispered.
Ezra looked up and offered a light smile. “Well enough, Mr. Sanchez. And the name is Ezra, not ‘son,’ if you please. I really wish you would remember that.” There was a distinct edge to his tone, and the smile hardened to accompany it.
Josiah’s eyes narrowed in exasperation, but he didn’t say anything. His hands alternately gripped and loosened for a moment, until he forced himself to calm down. Meanwhile, a couple feet away, Mr. Greene was explaining that none of the bandits had said anything about who they were working for, though Bel’s guess at it being related to his brother was probably correct.
“Surveyor General,” Chris shook his head. “No offense, Mr. Greene, but that is usually one of the most corrupt offices in the territorial government.”
“No offense taken, Mr. Larabee,” Stephen shrugged. “Unfortunately, my brother has always been the type to thrive in such environments.”
Mary cleared her throat, “If it does involve Harold Greene, Chris, then it likely has to do with a land deal or statehood.”
“Or mining rights, Mrs. Travis,” Ezra supplied, his right hand moving up to brush back his hair, “or water rights, or the railroad, or relations with Mexico….Really, it could be anything. Mr. Greene’s brother has the third most powerful position in the territory now, and many interests will be wanting to influence him.”
“Right….” Mary sighed. “Tomorrow I’ll go through the papers, see if there are any large deals going on that might lend themselves to a kidnapping.” She grimaced, her eyes tired as she glanced over at the family. “You should all try to get some sleep now. Why don’t you come and stay with me at the Clarion tonight, so long as you don’t mind sleeping on the floor?”
“Thank you, Mary, that is most kind,” Bel replied, holding tightly onto her husband’s arm. He patted her hand absently.
“Actually, Mrs. Travis, I know Mr. Jackson will undoubtedly force me to stay near him this evening. Why don’t you stay in my room at the saloon? Then at least you’d have a bed, and the boys can use my bedroll,” Ezra grinned. “I’m sure Inez won’t mind.”
Nathan nodded where he was standing next to Ezra now, clearly waiting for the chance to wrench the man’s arm back into place. Ezra had sidestepped him a few times, not wanting to show the Greenes how badly he was hurt. They didn’t deserve that sort of guilt on top of everything else.
Stephen looked at his wife, and she nodded. The saloon was almost directly across from the jail, and, as Chris had already said he was planning on setting up a patrol, not to mention having someone else staying up with their one prisoner, it was probably the safest place in town.
The apothecary slipped out from his family and stepped forward with one hand outstretched to Ezra. “That would be wonderful, Mr. Standish. I really don’t know how to thank you. I already owe you a great deal this night.”
Ezra took the hand warmly, “It was nothing, Mr. Greene.”
“Nothing? I thought they were a goner after you fell off that horse, and when they turned around to make sure….You nearly died trying to save my life, Mr. Standish. Believe me, if there is ever anything I can do for you, please, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Mr. Greene, I…”
“Stephen, please, call me Stephen.”
“Well…Stephen…then I guess you will have to call me Ezra. But, please, I did nothing that my fellow peacekeepers here wouldn’t have done in my position. Now here,” he reached inside his waistcoat pocket and withdrew a pair a keys. “The larger one will let you in the back door of the saloon, and the smaller one is for my room. It’s the first door on the left as you reach the small hallway above the main room. Inez is directly opposite, if you want to wake her to inform her that you’ll be there.”
Stephen took the keys with a relieved smile, then stepped back. Bel took his arm again and flashed the gambler a grateful smile. The two little boys hadn’t moved, except to grasp at their father’s coattails when he was back in range, but they too looked gratefully on the gambler. Ezra nodded at the tableau, then dropped his head, no longer wishing to be the center of attention. Taking their cue, Stephen nodded once more at Chris, and the family headed away to the saloon at a slow pace.
“Nearly died?” Josiah hissed tensely, as if those had been the only words he’d heard. He was watching the family move off.
Ezra smiled tightly where he stared at the ground, his eyes flashing in annoyance.
“Did you lose consciousness when you fell from the horse?” Nathan asked quickly, circling around to look Ezra directly in the eye.
“Damn, Ezra. Can’t you do anything halfway?”
“Then what would be the point?” the gambler replied cheekily. Nathan sighed and steered Ezra away towards the boarding house. Josiah watched them go, his jaw clamped shut so tightly it was beginning to ache.
“He did fine, Josiah,” Chris muttered in the preacher’s ear. “Better than fine. If he had waited for us, we might never have caught up with them.”
“It was a foolish risk. Almost got himself killed.”
“If you had been in his position, would you have done anything differently?”
Josiah didn’t answer, just kept watching as Nathan hooked an arm around Ezra at one point when the gambler started to wilt. Then they were gone inside the darkness of the boarding house.
“You need to ease up, Josiah,” Chris suggested. “You’re driving him crazy.”
“I’m driving him crazy?” Josiah rebounded loudly, turning to glare at the gunslinger in front of him. Chris winced.
“All I’m saying, is that he doesn’t seem to be handling you’re…shall we say, extra attention?…very well. You may want to ease up.”
Josiah narrowed his eyes, frowning deeply at Chris’s knowing gaze. Abruptly he turned away, his blue eyes fixing on the church at the other end of town. Finally, he sighed.
“Is it that obvious?” he whispered. Chris looked to the ground, nodding slowly.
“I think we’ve all picked up on it, Josiah, except maybe Buck and JD.”
The preacher shook his head, looking down at the ground. When he spoke again, his voice sounded exhausted. “I just don’t know where this is coming from,” he began. “Every time I try to quash my feelings for him, I find that they are still there, just hidden. Like tonight. When I saw him riding out like that, it was all I could do not to yell at him to stop. In fact, I think I did yell his name. Then, when I was sure he was fine…I wanted to grab him by his jacket lapels and make him promise me that he would never do something that risky again.” He shook his head and turned wet eyes to stare at the full moon.
“I’m not his father, Chris. Rationally, I know that. But some part of me -- a part thicker and stronger than my reason -- won’t let go of the idea that he’s as close as blood.”
Chris watched him for a moment, then looked over at the boarding house, at the light burning in Buck’s window. Not far beyond, he could see Vin was heading towards them from the livery, wiping his hands on his trousers. The man in black shrugged.
“You don’t decide who it is you’re going to care for Josiah, or how much. You know that as well as I do. I somehow ended up with six men and a town to look after, and it scares me that I find myself unable to…break away. But even then, I find certain people have made an even deeper impression than others.” He paused, watching Vin look up and offer a wave, and took a deep breath. He turned back to fix Josiah with a determined stare. “But when those people don’t want that attention, Josiah, you have to back off. There you do have a choice.”
The preacher shook his head. “Not if I stay here, I don’t.”
Chris looked at him sharply, then inclined his head. “Maybe. Just…try, okay? While he may not want you to…worry about him so much, I also know he would never want you to leave because of him.”
Josiah sighed, then stood up a bit straighter as Vin met them.
“What are we talking about?” the tracker asked lightly.
“Patrol,” Chris replied curtly. “Do you and Josiah mind staying up tonight? One of you should be in the jail, and I want the other walking a short patrol. After Nathan sees to Ezra, I may send him out here with you. You can alternate shifts to help you stay awake.”
Vin nodded, scratching the back of his head. “You going to be at the boarding house?”
The morning dawned brightly, and birds sang in the rafters of the boarding house. Buck’s eyes blinked open, his mind vaguely curious about hearing other people snoring around him. A slight feeling of nausea assailed him for a moment, but it passed and he turned his head to look around.
JD was lying on the bed next to him on top of the covers, his head snuggled deep into a pillow. Spread over him was Chris’s black duster.
Turning his head the other way, Buck saw Chris sleeping in a chair next to the bed, his head on his chest. Must be damn uncomfortable, Buck thought fuzzily.
The ladies man smiled, and a weight he hadn’t realized was there lifted off his chest. Moments later, his clear blue eyes slid closed again.
Nathan yawned fiercely as he tiptoed down the hallway of the boarding house. When he reached the room Virginia had set up for him, he listened for a moment, then slowly turned the doorknob.
As he pushed the door open, he heard the distinctive sound of Ezra’s Remington cocking.
“Whoa! Whoa, it’s me,” Nathan called, opening the door wider to see a blinking Ezra pointing the gun at the door. Upon seeing him, Ezra let the gun fall to his lap and sighed.
“Knock first, Mr. Jackson,” the gambler chastised, his other hand rubbing at his face. He winced slightly as the shoulder twinged.
“First of all, that gun ain’t loaded. Second of all, you should be dead to the world after last night. How is it you’re awake?”
“I…don’t know. Just had trouble doing more than dozing. I keep waking up after half an hour or so.” Ezra threw the Remington to the side with some disgust. “How could you not let me reload it after I went to sleep,” he demanded coarsely.
Nathan chuckled, “So you wouldn’t blow my head off when I came in to check on you.”
Ezra smiled wanly at that, and tried to roll his shoulders to get some feeling back. His left arm felt like lead, which was annoying as he tended to rely on it more than his right.
“Anyway, I just wanted to make sure you were alright,” the healer told him.
“Fine. How are you?”
“Tired. Listen, since you’re up, you want me to get you breakfast?”
Ezra looked up, startled. “You’re offering to get me breakfast?”
Nathan shrugged. “Miss Virginia’s already up making it for some of her other guests. Comes with the room, you know? I was going to get myself some and some for Buck, JD and Chris. No trouble to add another plate to the tray, or get someone to help me.”
Ezra thought on that a moment, then nodded, smiling brightly. “Thank you Mr. Jackson. That would be most kind.”
“Umm hm,” Nathan flexed an eyebrow. “But I warn you, I want to get some sleep of my own afterwards, so plan on sharing soon.”
“Ah,” Ezra frowned slightly. “Tell you what, Mr. Jackson. Why don’t I go and see how Inez is doing with the Greenes? She can feed me, and maybe I can go to my own room now to get some more sleep.”
Nathan frowned, then shrugged. “I don’t really want you moving too much.”
“I’m just bruised a bit, sir, I swear,” the smile seemed to shine even brighter, the gold tooth flashing in the sunlight streaming in between the curtains.
Nathan pursed his lips, then nodded. “All right. But don’t move just yet. You may as well wait for breakfast, and you can come help me check on Buck.”
Ezra saluted with his right hand, palm up, in the English style. “At your service, Sah!” He called gaily in an English accent. “Stiff upper lip, what?”
Nathan just rolled his eyes and shut the door.
“I’m feeling fine, kid, just tired.” Buck struggled to sit more upright, annoyed at the way Nathan had tied his right arm to his side to prevent him from moving it.
“Well, I ain’t leaving until you’re on your feet,” JD retorted angrily. Over by the door, Chris sighed and tapped his fingers on his crossed arms. The ladies man and the kid had been arguing almost since Buck had woken up. Buck wanted JD and Chris to leave and check on the Greenes, but neither one had left.
“Well then Chris should at least get out of here,” Buck stated, looking over at his oldest friend. Chris just shrugged. When he’d crept in last night, he’d heard Buck mumbling in his sleep. JD had been awake then, his eyes tired. The kid told Chris that Buck had called out their names a few times, and though JD had tried to respond, it was clear that the ladies man couldn’t hear him. For some reason, Buck seemed intent on believing that he’d been left alone to face something awful, something about dead men. Chris understood then what Nathan had meant, and now he wasn’t going to leave until Nathan returned.
As if in response to that thought, someone knocked.
“You boys decent in there?” Ezra’s voice called, not hiding his amusement. They could hear Nathan chuckling next to him.
Chris growled and opened the door, “What took you?”
Nathan’s eyes widened, and he held up the tray of food. “Thought you might be hungry,” he smiled. Behind him, Ezra held his own plate in his right hand, his left having been bound to his body by Nathan. Chris stepped back to let them in.
JD bounced off the bed and took the tray from Nathan, setting it at the foot of Buck’s bed. The ladies man curled his legs up to give them space. Ezra wandered lithely over and sat in the chair Chris had slept in, his own plate perched on his lap. He grunted as the plate slipped and he had to catch it awkwardly with one hand.
“We’re twins, Ez,” Buck laughed, indicating the sling, and earning him a wry grin from the gambler.
“How you doing Buck?” the healer asked, moving over to check on the bandage. He was pleased to note that the wound didn’t appear to be bleeding.
“A bit queasy, Nate, but otherwise okay. Be chasing the fillies again before week’s out, I reckon.”
“Or the reprobates who attempted to steal our resident apothecary,” Ezra added.
“Them too, “Buck nodded. “Chris says you knocked the one who got me out of his saddle and charged off like Sir Lancelot. That true?”
“I’d give Chris the role of Lancelot, and myself the role of Sir George, but, yes, there is some truth to the rumor.”
“Well then, thanks. I can’t wait to get my hands on the bastard who took a shot at me.” Buck’s face darkened, and Nathan grimaced.
“You’re not going anywhere for a couple of days, Buck. Not until I know that you’re not going to faint from blood loss or start hemorrhaging on me.”
Buck waved his good hand dismissively at the healer, but he didn’t disagree. He was still feeling too poorly to challenge the order yet.
“Besides,” Nathan said, “Josiah put the fear of God into the man last night. From what I can tell, he’s already told us all he knows.”
“Oh?” Chris had moved to sit on the floor, his plate on his knees, but he looked up when Nathan said that. Putting the plate down he leaned forward to hear what happened. Ezra was also watching, his right hand absently twisting the scrambled eggs about on his plate in a circle.
Nathan sat down on the edge of the bed and looked down at his plate. “Yeah. His name is Paddy Shaw, an Irishman, and he was hired by one of the fellows whom Ezra killed. Someone named Billy.”
“Oops,” Ezra muttered. Chris gave him a look to quiet him, then turned back to Nathan. The healer had just finished putting some food in his mouth, and was taking a hearty swallow from the water than came with it. He wiped his mouth off before continuing.
“Anyway, Paddy said he wasn’t sure what it was all about. They were hired to kidnap Greene and take him to some guy over in Red Rock named Farron. But he did say there were a few odd things about the whole deal. One was that they were given specific directions not to hurt the family.” He paused, letting that sink in. Over on the floor, Chris frowned. Nathan took another bite, then spoke around the food in his mouth.
“The other was that Billy kept calling Mr. Greene ‘poisoner,’” he shrugged.
“Poisoner?” Ezra repeated, tilting his head. “Do you suppose this has something to do with Mr. Greene’s profession somehow?”
“Could just be Billy didn’t like apothecaries, Ezra,” Chris replied. Ezra nodded, seeing the logic.
“Nothing else?” JD asked.
“Nope. That’s all he knows.”
“You sure?” JD asked again. “He could be hiding something.”
Nathan looked at the kid, his eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m sure. When I say Josiah scared him…he really scared him. He even scared me a bit. It was as if he was possessed or something.” His brown eyes flicked over to Ezra for a moment, and the younger man swallowed. Suddenly his appetite was gone.
“I, uh, think I’m going to go home now, Nathan, if that’s alright?” the gambler said, looking down at the still half-full plate.
Nathan frowned, but nodded. “Just don’t take that sling off for a couple of days, okay? Not unless you have to. You’ve dislocated that shoulder twice now…it’s going to take longer to heal this time, and I don’t want you straining it without good reason.”
Ezra nodded, still not looking up.
“And try to sleep,” Nathan added more quietly. “If you want, I can bring you something to help….”
Ezra looked up, his eyes glittering slightly with anger. “No. Thank you, but absolutely not.” The healer’s eyebrows raised, but he didn’t say anything. They each watched as the gambler slowly got to his feet and, with a slight nod to everyone, left the room.
“He ain’t sleeping?” Buck asked.
Nathan just shrugged. Chris sighed and stood up as well. His plate was also unfinished, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m going to go check on the prisoner and relieve Vin and Josiah. JD, I know you want to stay with Buck, but I think he could probably use some rest now that Nathan’s here.”
The kid opened his mouth to argue, but Buck beat him to it.
“Go ahead, JD. Vin and Josiah and Nate are probably beat with having to watch the town all night. I’m not going anywhere for awhile, and I know you’ll be back soon. You’re the only one who can back Chris up right now.”
JD frowned, not happy, but eventually he nodded. “I’ll be back before you know it, Buck,” he stated fervently. “I aim to be by your side as much as possible.”
Buck grinned at that and caught Chris’s eye. “Well, if you’re Lancelot, old buddy, I guess JD here must be Galahad.”
“Galahad?” JD repeated, his eyes open.
“Sir Galahad was a paragon of virtue, JD. Honest, steadfast and incorruptible,” Chris explained.
“Well, that sounds pretty right,” JD smiled, looking back at Buck.
“Yep,” the ladies man smiled, then he lowered his voice conspiratorially. “He was also called Sir Galahad…the Chaste.” He stressed the sibilant in ‘chaste’ and grinned wolfishly.
JD’s mouth fell open and his face reddened, whether from blushing or anger, you couldn’t tell. With a growl he smacked Buck on his good arm and stalked out the door, breakfast in hand, ignoring the laughter that followed in his wake.
Mr. Greene was leaning on a mop in the front of his store, his chin resting on his hands where they were cupped over the top of the handle. Belinda stood in the background, wiping down the glass counters with a rag. Chris and Josiah were both standing in front of him, waiting.
“I’m sorry,” Stephen said finally. “I just don’t know. I’ve never been to Red Rock. I come from Hillsboro originally, and I came here from that way. I’ve never been North.” He frowned, looking at Chris, “Red Rock is north, right?”
“Yes. What about the name Farron?”
Greene grimaced, but shook his head. “Sorry, nothing.”
Chris matched the grimace and turned to Josiah. The preacher was staring blankly at the floor, dark circles under his eyes. Chris looked outside, to where JD was sitting in front of the jail, rifle in hand.
“Well, if you think of anything, let me know.” The gunslinger stated, turning around again. “I’ll go see if Mary’s come up with anything, and then check to see if the Sheriff at Red Rock has telegraphed us back.”
“Is there nothing else you can do to get these men?” Belinda asked, stepping out from behind the counter. She gripped the rag in both hands, her brown eyes wide and imploring. Chris could only shake his head.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Greene. Without more to go on, we’re a bit trapped. But don’t worry, we’ll be patrolling every night from now on.”
Belinda looked away, and Stephen offered them a thank you nod as the two men walked out.
Josiah sighed in the open air, rubbing his forehead tiredly. Chris didn’t say anything, though he wanted to tell the preacher to get some rest. But, while Chris was older than all the others, Josiah had him beat by ten years. After their brief talk of last night, Chris didn’t want to intrude on the older man’s privacy anymore.
JD looked up as they approached. “Anything?” he asked.
Chris shook his head. “I’m going to go talk to Mary. Could you check the telegraph office for me?”
“Sure, if Josiah stays here.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the preacher rumbled, sitting down on the bench next to JD with a heavy thump. JD looked worriedly up at Chris, but didn’t say anything. He’d already seen the mess that the Irishman was in this morning, even after being bandaged by Nathan. He was not about to say anything against Josiah, even if was to tell him to go and get some rest. Chris matched the gaze, his eyes clearly agreeing.
Over by the saloon, Ezra was sitting out front, showing Jeremy and Elwyn all his one-handed card tricks. The children’s laughter floated over the rest of the town.
Chris entered the Clarion quietly and approached the desk. Mary was sleeping, her head resting on her arms where they sat above a pile of papers, her long hair loose on her shoulders. He watched her for a moment, his lips curving into a smile. She looked beautiful asleep.
After a moment, he reached down and gently tapped her arm. She came awake with a start, staring blankly up at the gunslinger. Then she smiled.
“I guess I fell asleep,” she laughed, rubbing her eyes. “What time is it?”
Her mouth fell open. “Oh my God! I forgot to get the paper out!” She jumped up, then tilted slightly as her equilibrium misbalanced. Instantly, Chris caught her arm and she fell on him slightly, letting him hold her up. They stayed like that for a moment, her hand on his chest, looking up at him, feeling his heartbeat. His smile widened, and she blushed.
“I…I’m sorry,” she muttered, stepping back. He wanted to tell her not to apologize, hating the way his throat always seemed to close up on him at moments like this. Instead, he coughed into his hand and waved towards the front of the store.
“I saw the papers stacked by the door this morning when I checked on you,” he replied. “I had JD distribute them for you.”
She glanced to the door as if to verify his words, then she smiled. “Thank you, though I had meant to insert something in them about the kidnapping last night. I suppose it can wait until tomorrow’s issue.” She nodded to herself, then leaned back against the side of the desk.
“How’s Buck?” she asked, crossing her arms.
“Hurting, but he’ll be fine. You find anything out?”
Her shoulders slumped slightly as she turned around to look at the piles of papers. “There’s just too much, Chris. Ezra was right about that. Stephen’s brother just has his hands in too many pots.”
“Well this might help. Does the name Farron mean anything to you?”
Mary turned around, her sharp eyes watching him. Then she nodded. “Yes. I came across that name last night. Wait….”
She started going through the piles on her desk, discarding them into a pile. Finally, she pulled out one and handed it to him. It was an article from the Chatham Chronicle. As he read, she wandered across to the filing cabinet and started looking under “F.”
Farron Brothers Enterprises buys the old Santos Mines.
Michael Farron and his sons, John and Andrew, of Farron Brothers Enterprises, have bought the ten Santos mines that ring this town. He has promised that he will soon have the federal money to open them fully, and has sent out a general call for workers on both sides of the border.
Mayor Castyll has declared the arrival of the Farrons to be a real coup for the town of Chatham. “He brings with him the promise of progress,” said the Mayor in a town meeting yesterday, “and Chatham can only prosper with his presence. Michael Farron and his sons should be welcomed with open arms and happy hearts. He will put Chatham on the map. This coup may even convince the Southern Pacific Railroad to include Chatham in its southwestern expansion.”
Chris put the paper down, only glancing at the date before turning his eyes back to Mary. It was dated two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the newswoman had pulled out a folder and was quickly surveying the contents.
“Sounds like Chatham is lucky to have him,” Chris prompted.
“Not really,” she replied. “Never trust the mayor of a dying town. They’re too easily bought.” She smiled thinly and looked up, “That was a bit flippant, wasn’t it?”
“So what is really going on? Did someone salt the mines? Are they unsafe?”
“Oh no, I’m sure the mines themselves are actual mines, though probably not very profitable. The issue is where the mines are located. Chatham is a border town in the southern hills, Chris. Most of those mines are located in Mexico, and Farron probably paid next to nothing for them because of that. However, if, by some twist of fate, they are suddenly determined to be located in the New Mexico territories….”
“Then they get subsidized,” he finished.
“Yes. Even a mine that would at best break-even can be profitable with the amount of money the federal government pays out to keep them going. And being so close to Mexico, Farron can hire Mexicans and displaced Indian workers at next to nothing, and, if any harm comes to them, the territory can’t do anything because they’re not residents. Even the Chinese workers on the railroads have more rights.” She sighed and leaned against the wall. “The best of both worlds, if he succeeds.”
“But at the moment, they are listed as being in Mexico.”
“Unless the Surveyor General says they’re not.”
Chris snorted, “Ten mines equals a lot of money, thousands of dollars, more than enough to warrant a kidnapping to ensure that that money is received. Well, now we know who, and the why, the only thing we can do is see if Paddy’s word is enough to convince the Judge. I’ll also have Mr. Greene write his brother and tell him what is happening. Is there anything else I should know about this Farron?”
Mary looked down at the folder in her hand, and raised an eyebrow. “Nothing…most of the articles in here are the same. Farron and his sons buy up mines in border towns, turn a quick profit, then leave, all usually within a year. The only other thing in here is some silly article about a family ghost.”
Chris blinked, “An article about what?”
Mary nodded, her eyes sparkling, “A ghost. Supposedly, the Farrons had a little sister who died in an accident when she was ten. The article says that she appears to them when they’re in trouble, saving them…” She trailed off, her lips curving into a smile as she scanned the rest of the ridiculous article.
“Really,” Chris said, clearly not sure how to reply to the odd news. “And that helps me how?”
Mary laughed, “Well, perhaps we should call in some ghost specialists, just in case the little girl shows up here. You never know what havoc a ten year old can wreak. Billy can attest to that fact.”
“Ghosts,” Chris shook his head, “and it’s not even October.” He started to leave when she called him back.
“Here,” she handed him another article, and he realized it contained a sketch portrait. The man looking back at him was smiling, with a long flowing white beard and kind, light-colored eyes. Mary nodded at the picture.
“That’s Michael Farron.”
Chris emitted a short laugh, and met her guileless gaze with an incredulous one. “He looks like Santa Claus,” he explained, shaking his head.
“Hey Ez, how’s the town?”
The gambler pushed back the brim of his hat and blinked owlishly up at the approaching tracker. He’d been sitting on the bench in front of the jail with his feet propped up, reading the latest novel by Charles Dickens called “Our Mutual Friend.” The rings under his eyes had finally faded, the result of his insomnia breaking a few nights ago. For no reason the gambler could fathom, he’d started sleeping again, and it put him in a very good mood. Of course, he hadn’t really understood what had caused the insomnia in the first place.
“All is quiet, my venerable friend, and how is the country?”
Ezra grinned as Vin sat himself next to him and leaned back. Tucking the book away inside his thick waistcoat, he leaned back himself and put his hands behind his head, enjoying the comfortable companionship.
“Stagecoach should be here in a few minutes. Saw it while I was out,” Vin said.
“Hmmm, and how does it look?”
Ezra grinned even wider, his eyes sparkling. At that moment, Josiah wandered across from the saloon, still looking tired. Ezra wondered briefly if his insomnia hadn’t moved on to infect the usually untroubled preacher. Josiah yawned into his hand and wiped a hand across his face.
“Boys,” he said quietly.
“Josiah,” Vin replied.
“Mr. Sanchez,” Ezra greeted warmly, “I haven’t seen you for a few days. Out driving away demons and saving lost souls?”
Josiah offered him a dark look and rolled his eyes, not answering. Instead he turned his head to note the sound of the approaching stagecoach. Ezra bounced up and moved to stand next to him. Vin had not lied. The coach had more than its usual assortment of mail bags and packages, but seemed to be brimming with cases. There was even a horse attached to the side, indicating someone coming to stay.
“More suckers,” Josiah smiled.
“Indeed, Mr. Sanchez.”
The coach came to an agonized stop, horses pawing at the ground, wheels creaking, leather sighing. The driver jumped down and tipped a hat to the men at the jail before jogging around to open the door. His second, meanwhile, had turned to crawl atop the coach to remove the bags and cases.
The first man out of the coach had Ezra standing up a little straighter in anticipation. He was in his mid-thirties, wearing a crisp black bowler and a dark pin-striped suit. He adjusted the hat on his head and smoothed down an oiled moustache that was curled at the ends. With large, unhappy eyes he looked about the town with a distinctly uncomfortable air.
“Banker?” Josiah suggested. Ezra shook his head.
“Clothes are too rich.”
“Businessman,” Vin stated in his other ear. Ezra raised an eyebrow as he considered this, then shook his head again.
“Too uncomfortable. Businessmen that wealthy are masters at adjusting to new situations.”
“Lawyer?” Josiah tried again.
Ezra tilted his head, then shook it again. “Doesn’t look shifty enough.”
“Gentleman of leisure?” Josiah frowned, already knowing the answer.
“Are you joking? In that outfit? Please.”
“Politician,” the gambler decided. “There is an air of corruption around him. Looks like civil service.”
Josiah looked at Vin, and the tracker shook his head; he didn’t agree with Ezra’s assessment. He thought the guy looked like a banker or a businessman. The preacher smiled, and mouthed the words “one dollar.” Vin grinned and assented with a nod.
They continued to watch as several leather cases were handed down, clearly of good quality. Ezra noted they were monogrammed with gold, though he couldn’t make out the letters.
“I take that back,” the gambler said. “He’s higher than civil service. He’s someone in office.”
Josiah looked again at Vin, and the tracker shook his head again. “Two dollars,” the tracker mouthed, sticking up two fingers behind Ezra’s back. The preacher nodded.
“Think he’s a card player, Ez?” Vin asked, just as the newcomer noticed them. The man handed some money off to the driver to have his bags taken to the hotel, then headed over, squinting a bit at the bright sun.
“Oh I certainly hope so,” Ezra replied, greed flavoring the tone. He grinned at the man as he reached them. The newcomer glanced only once at Vin and Josiah before focusing on Ezra.
“Excuse me, uh, gentlemen, but is the sheriff in?” He looked behind them at the jail as if measuring its worth.
Ezra shook his head, “I’m afraid we don’t have a sheriff, Mr.…ah…”
“Greene. Harold Greene. Then could you direct me to the law in this town? I’m attempting to locate my brother, and I understand he is under their protection.” If the newcomer was aware of the surprised looks that crossed the men’s faces in front of him, he gave no sign. Harold Greene looked nothing like his brother.
“Well, Mr. Greene, you are currently standing in front of three of them,” Josiah rumbled. “I am Josiah Sanchez, this is Vin Tanner, and….”
Ezra stuck out his hand, “Ezra Standish, at your service sir, and may I say it is a distinct pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“You’re the law?” Greene clearly did not look pleased, and he ignored the hand. Pretending not to notice, Ezra swept his hand back to indicate down the street towards the apothecary’s shop.
“Yes, we are, and, if you’ll permit me, sir, I’ll walk you to your brother’s shop. May I ask, if it is not too much trouble, what business you have in our small hamlet?” He started walking, and the Surveyor General could do little more than follow.
Harold Greene frowned, eying Ezra suspiciously. “I’m afraid that, at this moment, I do not feel it is proper to explain without talking with my brother first. Perhaps later.”
Ezra nodded, and glanced behind him to see Josiah and Vin following slowly. “By the way, Mr. Tanner,” he called, “I believe you owe Mr. Sanchez two dollars?”
Vin came to an abrupt stop, his mouth open. Josiah started laughing and stuck out his hand to the younger man. With a grumble, the tracker pulled a couple of silver dollars from his pocket and handed them over.
When they reached the apothecary’s, Ezra escorted Harold Greene inside the empty shop, then turned around to step outside, casually leaning against a handy post on the boardwalk. Vin sidled up and whispered something in his ear, then wandered off. Josiah had already headed off back to the jail.
The shop door closed with a faint ‘shush,’ muffling the sounds of the outside including the laughter of the children over in a neighboring alley. Taking its place, Harold heard the sounds of someone moving around in what was undoubtedly a storeroom in the back. The man’s heart began to beat slightly faster as he wondered how his brother and sister-in-law would react upon seeing him again. They had not parted on the best of terms….
He busied himself by looking around the dusty shop, wrinkling his nose at the strong scents assailing his nostrils, his upper lip curling slightly in distaste. He whipped out the handkerchief from its pocket in his suit and brought it to his nose. Most people liked the smell of the apothecary’s shop, especially as Belinda saw fit to stock plenty of lavender, cedar and pine, but the Surveyor General disliked all things that smelled, regardless of what they were. In his mind, he could imagine the odors invading his sensitive nostrils and setting him up for a humongous sneeze. Part of the reason he’d never found a wife is because he couldn’t stand the smell of perfume on skin. He saw a line of perfume jars on one shelf and rolled his eyes.
He was inspecting a jar filled with vanilla bath salts when a creak from behind indicated the shop keep’s reappearance from the back.
“Oh, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t hear you come in…” Stephen stopped, nearly dropping the large jar of mustard seed he was holding, his eyes wide. Then he grinned, “Harry?”
“Hello Stevey,” Harold replied, pulling off his hat. For some reason, his nervousness increased as he saw the way his brother’s face had lit up upon seeing him.
“My God, Harry!” Hastily dropping the jar on the counter, Stephen crossed the floor and enveloped his younger brother in a hug.
The two were an interesting contrast: they were perhaps about the same build, which wasn’t very tall and somewhat thin, but their coloring and facial features were as different as night and day. Harold’s skin was smooth and pale, almost translucent, and his thick hair and fancy moustache were almost black in color. His eyes were large and round, light hazel in color and ringed with shadows, and frown lines marked his pale lips. Stephen, on the other hand, was blond with small dark brown eyes, a pockmarked, ruddy visage, and a ready smile. His hair was thinning, the result of being almost five years older than his brother, and the only hair he wore on his face were a pair of wide Gladstone sideburns that were lined with silver thread. If it hadn’t been for the common last name, most people would have been hard pressed to know that they were related.
Harold returned the hug stiffly, then tried to pull away. Sensing this, his older brother let go.
“Damn Harry, how long has it been? Six, seven years?”
“Something like that,” his brother replied.
Stephen continued to grin foolishly, “Well, what are you doing here? Wait, no, don’t answer that. Let me call Bel first. She’ll be so pleased you’re here,” he turned and yelled for his wife, not seeing the wry look his brother gave him.
A woman’s voice interrupted him, sounding a little tired. “What is it Stephen? I had my hands filled with rushes….” Bel entered the room, wiping green stained hands on her apron. Her jaw fell as she saw who was with her husband.
“Harold,” she breathed.
“Hello Belinda,” Harold said quietly, staring blankly at the floor. “It is nice to see you again.”
She just blinked, then seemed to recover. Smiling tightly, she stepped forward and stood next to Stephen, wrapping a hand around his arm.
“I must admit I’m surprised to see you,” she told him. “But it is also nice to see your face again. Stephen has been most worried about you. Every time he sees an article in the paper about you, he clips it and hangs it on the wall above the icebox.” She continued to smile and squeezed Stephen’s arm. He patted her hand absently.
“Well, I came as soon as you sent me that telegram. I had to make sure you were alright, especially after what happened to Paddy Shaw,” Harold stated.
Stephen’s face darkened, puzzled. “Paddy Shaw? What about him? Our law sent him down to trial at the territorial seat three days ago. And I sent you a letter, Harry, not a telegram. I’m sorry if it gave you the impression that you needed to come up here. Our law here is the best in the territory, and they’ve kept good care of us.”
Harold’s face matched the puzzled look. “No, no, I got the letter too, Stevey….um….” he frowned, and turned to look out the window for Mr. Standish. A slight trickle of fear ran down his spine as he realized the fancy coated man was no longer watching out front. “Where did he go?” he wondered aloud. Both Stephen and Belinda looked outside, then back at Harold.
“What happened to Paddy Shaw, Harold?” Belinda asked, gripping her husband’s arm tighter. Harold was still staring outside, his jaw tensing.
“Apache raid, so they say, though no one actually saw it happen. Killed him en route to the city. Never had a chance to testify. Um, is the gentleman gambler in the red coat really a member of the law here?” He looked back, his large eyes bright with nervousness.
“Sure. That’s Ezra Standish,” Stephen answered, waving his free hand towards the outside, though his dark eyes remained fixed on his brother’s too pale face. “If Shaw is dead, Harry, then there is no one to testify against that Farron man, is there?”
“No. They never even got around to arresting him….Wasn’t on site when the Marshals went to look.” A pregnant silence descended when he finished, and Harold looked once more out the shop windows, his face pinched with worry, hoping to see the lawman in the red coat. Belinda looked up at her husband and shook his arm. The older Greene grimaced.
“Harry,” Stephen’s voice dropped, “What is it you are doing here? You once told me you’d never leave the city again.”
Harold blinked. “What do you mean, why am I here? I came because you….because you said if I didn’t, they would kill your sons,” he replied, his voice taking on the same low quality.
Belinda cried out and raised a hand to her mouth. Stephen just stared at Harold blankly.
“What are you talking about?”
“The telegram, Stevey. You sent a telegram. I came as fast as I could.”
“I never….Bel, go find one of the Seven, and find the boys. Harold, you must get out of here!” Stephen stepped forward, grabbing his brother’s arm in a fierce grip. Harold just stared at him. Stephen grimaced, “I didn’t send a telegram, Harry. You’ve been set up for some reason.” Harold’s eyes grew huge.
A cry from behind him turned Stephen around, and his hold on Harold fell. A tall, stocky old man with salt and pepper hair was holding Belinda, a knife to her throat. Her lips twitched in fear as he pressed it deep enough to cut a small line of blood. Behind him, another younger man appeared from the back to hold a gun on the two brothers.
“Too late, I’m afraid, Mr. Greene,” the old man smiled.
“What is it you want, Farron,” Harold Greene asked, his tone sententious. “Why did you bring me here?” Both his brother and sister-in-law had their hands tied behind their backs, and a young man with light colored hair held a gun to the back of Stephen’s head. They had already learned that this was John Farron, Michael Farron’s son.
“You’re here because I wanted to demonstrate to you how serious I am, my good sir, and to ensure that you would not use distance as an excuse to delay. All I ask is a few little scrawls with a fountain pen, Mr. Surveyor General,” Farron announced coyly. “A small adjustment to the maps and I promise not to kill your family.”
“Where are my sons!” Belinda demanded, trying to step forward. John drew her back with a sharp tug to the long dark braid she wore.
“They are healthy, Mrs. Greene. They are in the capable hands of my youngest son, Andrew, and I’m sure that they have not been harmed. What good would you all be as bargaining chips if I let any harm come to you?” Farron turned soft blue eyes on the woman, and she had to wonder how someone with such a kind face could be so snakelike underneath.
“Let the boys go, please,” Stephen plead, trying to read those same eyes. Farron actually looked ashamed as he shook his head.
“I am sorry, but I’m afraid that they, and you, are simply too useful. Initially, I did try to spare the children and you, Mrs. Greene, of this terrible trouble, but my plans were rudely interrupted by the cavalier lawmen of this…place. Consequently, I was forced to take more drastic measures. Now, Harold, if you please.”
The younger Greene took a deep breath, his eyes narrowed slightly. Corruption he could handle, but this was more than he had bargained for. “Will you let them go after I sign?”
“Let them go?” Farron’s brow furrowed. “Now what would be the point of that?”
“If you don’t, the law in this town will hunt you down!” Belinda challenged, her eyes flashing. “You’re no match for them, you…you nasty man, and they will bring you to justice.”
“Oh yes, the famous Seven. Well, I wouldn’t worry about them, Mrs. Greene. See, they’re looking for a man with a long white beard and about eighty pounds heavier. One of my sons saw that awful picture hanging in their jail near the door, and that likeness is deplorable. I’d already lost the weight, and all I had to do then was shave the beard and add a few streaks to my hair. It’s amazing how different one looks with a clean shave.” He brought a hand to his face, perhaps still not used to the feel of his chin after so many years. He smiled again.
“If you let them go, I promise to do whatever you want from now on. I am no hero, Mr. Farron, and, though I may have been a bit rude to you upon our initial meeting, I am more than happy to make up for it.” Harold held his hand out for the fountain pen, which Farron happily gave up.
“Oh, I am certain that is true, Harold. May I call you Harold?” The smile grew as he drew a handful of documents from out his jacket and unfolded them. “However, I have never been one to rely on the sincerity of strangers, particularly when they are politicians. You rejected my offer of money first time round, Mr. Greene. Oh, I am well aware that you were merely holding out for more, but, frankly, I find this to be a much more economical solution. Besides ensuring your continued compliance, I also gain four fresh workers for my mines.”
Harold’s hand shook as it hovered over the first paper, his quick eyes reading the words thereon. Farron was having him rewrite the borderlines. It was pure perfidy. “If anyone finds out that I have done this,” he whispered, “I will not only lose my job, but I’ll probably be arrested.”
“Well, then, you’ll have to make sure no one finds out. Oh, and, if they do, I’m afraid both your life and that of your family will be forfeit. I really am sorry about that. What is the youngest’s name? Wyn?” Farron leaned over to point at the dotted line on the sheet, ignoring the angry shout from Belinda. “Right there, Mr. Greene. Your signature goes there.”
“What happens after this?” Harold asked. He wondered if he was signing his death warrant.
“We put your brother and his family in the back of the wagon I have sitting around back. It’s covered, of course, to hide us from being caught, and then we simply trundle out of here. You, Mr. Greene, will go outside, go across to the saloon, have a few drinks as if nothing were wrong, and then take the evening coach out of here. And if you wouldn’t mind, please try to keep the law here distracted for a while?” He nodded at Harold, and leaned on the counter.
“They’ll know we’ve gone,” Stephen said. “They’ve kept a very close watch on us lately. Even with Harold still here, they’ll know….”
“They’ll know absolutely nothing, Mr. Greene. I know that the one called Buck is still laid-up from that gunshot wound – infection and blood loss can be such a bother. And the boy sheriff, JD, has barely left his side. I also happen to know that the indomitable Mr. Larabee has gone to take some supplies to his cabin, and that the black healer has left to ride a patrol to the north. Honestly, do they really believe I would be so foolish as to approach from that direction after being described as being in Red Rock?” He shook his head. “As for the other three, frankly, I can’t imagine that they are really as terrible as their reputations allow. I’ve been here for three days, Mr. Greene, and no one has so much as approached me!”
Harold looked at his brother, and was worried to see doubt on the man’s face. Belinda was staring at the floor, visibly shaking, though from anger or fear the younger Greene wasn’t sure. Finally, he turned back to Farron.
“You won’t hurt them?” he whispered.
“Not unless you give me cause, sir,” Farron replied. He glanced pointedly at the paper.
With a sigh, Harold signed it, and the ones accompanying it. Farron grinned, and tucked the papers back inside his jacket.
“Thank you, Surveyor General. You may remain here until we have left. Now, if your brother and his wife would accompany me outside? John?”
Farron’s son nudged Stephen and Belinda in the back with his gun, forcing them to follow the old man. Stephen stole one more glance at his brother, then bowed his head in resignation of his fate. Harold stood in the front of the shop, staring blankly at the glass counter, the pen gripped in his hand. What had he done?
As Farron had described, there was a covered wagon out back, heavy cloths hiding the sides, back and front from view. Farron drew away from the Greenes to stand by the rear, leaning casually on a large wheel. It had the girth and weight of a converted stagecoach, with four steel bound wheels, meaning it could move fairly quickly, especially with four horses leading it.
“In the wagon, please,” he asked politely, drawing aside the cloth. He almost jumped out of his skin when he found a sawed-off Winchester rifle pointed at his head.
“Hi there,” Vin greeted cheerfully. Farron instantly scrambled backwards, but was prevented from running by a heavy hand to his shoulder, and a Smith & Wesson shoved in his back.
John raised his gun at the surprise threat, about to call his father’s name, but found that he too had a gun to his head. A black colt pressed against his temple, and his father’s name died on his lips.
“Drop it,” Chris hissed, pulling back on the hammer. Josiah pushed Farron forward to stand on his own, but kept the Smith & Wesson pointed at his chest. The old man gritted his teeth. Meanwhile, Vin extricated himself from the wagon, his Mare’s Leg now loose in his hands. Holstering it, he smiled at the family and stepped forward to untie their bonds.
Stephen smiled in relief, then the smile fell. “My boys?” he asked worriedly.
“With Ezra at the Potter’s, Mr. Greene. Safe.”
“Thank you,” Belinda said emphatically. She threw her arms around Vin after he loosed her wrists. He blushed deeply and ducked back out of the embrace.
“What have you done with Andrew!” Farron suddenly demanded, looking around for his son. Andrew was supposed to have been with the children.
“I’m here, pop,” a young voice answered. A blond man in his late twenties was shoved from out the dark of the alleyway next to the shop. “I’m sorry. They got the drop on me before I could get to the boys.” He looked darkly back at his captor. Nathan grinned in return, shoving the man forward again with another push.
Harold emerged from the shop, his face slack-jawed as he saw that the Farrons had been captured. Behind him, Buck and JD wandered out, the ladies man still sporting a sling. It didn’t seem to hamper the solid grip he had on the gun in his left hand though.
Farron was shaking his head, his expression clouded. “How did you…how did you know?”
“I am afraid your…disguise…was not as effective as you’d hoped, Mr. Farron,” Chris stated, taking the gun from John’s hand. “We knew who you were the minute you arrived in town. Then we simply followed you as you met up with your sons, and listened to your plan.”
“Wait, you knew he was here?” Belinda asked, her expression incredulous. “You knew what he was planning and you didn’t warn us?”
Chris grimaced, “I am sorry about that, Mrs. Greene. But with Paddy Shaw dead….”
“You knew about Paddy Shaw too? And you didn’t tell us that either?”
“It was necessary, Mrs. Greene. We had to catch the Farrons in the act or else we….”
“You didn’t trust us with the information? What, you thought we would run or something?” She was angry, and she stalked right up to the gunslinger, offering him a glare to rival his own. “We were terrified out of our minds, Mr. Larabee. I thought my children were in mortal danger. Do you know what that is like? And all this time, you knew?!”
Chris’s eyes darkened, and a stony professionalism marked him. “We had to make it believable for the Farrons, Mrs. Greene. Believe me, we never let either one of them with five feet of Jeremy or Elwyn, and we had someone watching through the window at all times.”
“And that is supposed to make me feel better?” She spat.
“Bel, please, try to calm…” Stephen tried, stepping forward to take her arm.
“No!” She whipped around, all her fear and frustration feeding her anger. Part of her was aware that she was being irrational, but, after everything that had happened, she couldn’t let it go. “I will not calm down!”
Bel screamed, falling to the ground with her hands around her ears. Stephen joined her, pulling her to him. Everyone else jumped for cover, all except John and Andrew Farron, who were staring at their father.
Someone had shot old man Farron through the heart. Black blood welled out of the wound.
“PA!” Andrew screamed, his eyes wide. John ran over to his father, pulling the old man off the ground and into his arms.
“Get behind cover!” Chris shouted at them, but neither of the Farron brothers listened.
“Pa?” Andrew looked up at his brother, tears filling in his eyes. John met his younger brother’s eyes and slowly shook his head. Andrew let out an agonized wail and pressed his head down on his father’s chest.
The others had raised their guns, and were trying to figure out where the shot had come from. By the alley still, Nathan picked himself to get across to the old man. Two more shots exploded in the dirt in front of him, forcing him back again. Vin whipped around and fired loudly at the roof of the apothecary shop, catching sight of a hooded and masked figure in black before it disappeared from view.
Sensing an opening, the healer once more tried to check on the old man, but John’s eyes blistered with hatred, warning him off. Looking at the blood, and at the young man’s face, Nathan already knew that there was nothing he could do. Farron had likely died instantly. Chris saw this as well, and ordered his plan accordingly.
“JD, Buck, stay here and watch these people. Josiah, Nathan follow him from the ground. Vin, you’re with me!” Chris ducked inside the shop, planning on heading to the roof. Josiah and Nathan took off down the alley to the front.
JD ushered the Greenes inside as Buck went to cover the Farrons, his eyes half on the roofs above his head. The kid returned and headed across to see John still cradling his father in his arms while Andrew sat on haunches, head in his hands.
“We should get him to the undertakers,” the kid said solemnly. John looked up at him, then at his brother. Then he nodded quietly and stood, dropping his father’s body to the ground.
“You want to get his shoulders?” John asked hoarsely of Andrew. The younger man looked up and blinked. After a moment, he inclined his head. John sighed in response and shifted around Buck as if he would take his father’s feet. Buck watched him warily, keeping his gun level with the older Farron brother’s chest.
Andrew stood as well, but instead of moving to take his father’s upper body, he wrapped his arms around his stomach and started to back away towards the alley. His brother watched him pass, his brow furrowed.
Frowning, JD followed Andrew, his colts both up. “Uh, where are you going?”
Andrew looked at him…and smiled.
“Drop the gun, sonny boy,” old man Farron’s voice croaked from behind him, “or the one armed gunslinger here gets it.”
Vin skirted across the roof, slipping a bit on the loose tiles, remembering with a pang the last time he’d had to be up here. Driving Eli Joe from his mind, he kept one eye on his feet and one on the black clad figure jumping onto the roof of Potter’s mercantile. The mercantile had stairs that ran down the back on the outside, to make more room for the store and storage rooms inside. If the shooter made the stairs, and had a horse waiting, Vin knew he wouldn’t catch him. There was too much of a lead.
Chris skipped along behind him, but he wasn’t as sure footed, and not for the first time the gunslinger wished he had Vin and Ezra’s agility when it came to scaling roofs. He saw Vin jump across to the roof of the hotel and scramble up the steep sides. Grimacing, Chris braced himself to follow, trying not to think about the heights.
On the ground, Josiah kept one eye up, trying to keep the runners in perspective. Looking ahead, he realized that the shooter must be on the roof of the mercantile, maybe trying to get down by the back stairs. Pointing at Nathan to stay in the front of the store in case the shooter jumped onto the roof of the bank, he ran down the alley between the mercantile and the hotel and skidded to a halt around back.
The preacher jumped backwards, feeling something sting his shoulder. The shooter was on the stairs, and in a far better position than he was. Cocking the Smith & Wesson, he leant back against the side of the building, listening.
Still on the stairs, the shooter looked back up to the roof, knowing that the tracker would be there in a moment. Grimacing, the masked figure sucked in a deep breath and started running down the stairs, eyes on the back of the dark sorrel mare tied up at the bottom. One more landing and he could jump on the back of the beast and be gone.
The creaking of the stairs told Josiah exactly where the man was as he made his mad dash, and taking a deep breath, he knew that he would only have one chance at stopping the man from getting to his horse. A wolfish grin crossed his face and he charged out from the alley, his gun up and firing, running straight for the horse. The mare screamed at the sudden explosion of sound, and the shooter reacted instantly by ducking into an eave and bringing his own gun to bear.
Josiah rolled and dived, getting behind and somewhat underneath the horse, amazed that he wasn’t dead yet. Unfortunately, based on the fact that the other man was also still firing, he also knew he had missed.
Ducking down, he grabbed the horse’s reins, trying to stop her from stomping on him as she shifted around. He had to consciously tell his heart to slow down, as it felt about ready to explode out of his chest. On the stairs, the shooter swore loudly, and hastily reloaded.
“Drop it!” Vin yelled from above, trying to get a fix on the shooter, but the roof’s eaves blocked his view. The man on the stairs immediately swung his gun upwards and sent of a hail of shots towards Vin’s position, splintering the roof, noting with glee as a grunt from the tracker indicated one had hit its mark. Swinging the gun around again, the shooter estimated the distance to the ground and swallowed thickly. Uttering a quick oath, the masked man leaped up onto the railing and jumped down.
Josiah had only just finished reloading when the shooter abruptly landed beside him. Surprised, he flipped his gun into position and took a shot, but the man was already rolling. Whoever he was, he was incredibly fast. The shooter fired a few times in Josiah’s direction, forcing the preacher to shift sideways and fall badly on his injured arm.
A red coated blur appeared from nowhere, and the shooter fell backwards under the tackle. Josiah regained his footing to see Ezra wrestling with the shooter, trying to get the gun out of the man’s hand. Quickly, he joined the fight, grabbing the man’s arm and wrenching it back, forcing the fingers to release their grip on the weapon. Ezra grimaced and grabbed the other arm. Together, they pulled the shooter to his feet, and Ezra ripped off the man’s hood.
Light brown hair fell out in a wave, and bright blue eyes glared at the two men. If she hadn’t been so angry, she would have been beautiful.
“A girl?” Vin’s voice called angrily from the roof. He was holding his right arm, a look of pure astonishment on his face. “It took three of us to get a girl?” Chris appeared beside him, also looking down with a surprised expression.
The shooter spat up at him, her lips curled in derision.
“Who are you?” Chris demanded, his eyes fixed on the woman’s face. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t figure out why. Ezra was standing a few feet away, his arms crossed angrily across his chest. He was shooting daggers at Josiah, but the preacher had failed to notice since Nathan was tightly winding a clean cloth around his shoulder. The gambler was filled with an irrational anger, his mind tripping over the image of Josiah’s mad dash to capture the woman’s horse, barely escaping with his life. It was a totally unnecessary risk – they could have chased after the woman had she gotten to the mare first, and, even if Vin was hurt, either he or Chris could have probably taken her down with a well aimed shot. What had Josiah been thinking? And why wasn’t anyone else chastising the preacher for his foolishness? He had expected either Chris or Nathan to say something, but both had been silent, as if it was all right for Josiah to make suicide attempts. With this in mind, he switched his angry gaze to Chris.
“I’m not going to ask again,” Chris was saying, pulling the woman forward with a solid grip to her black shirt. She merely snarled in return, making her appear ugly despite being an obviously attractive woman. Ezra rolled his eyes. My god, was the gunslinger that dense?
“Oh come on, Chris, look at her,” Ezra rejoined darkly. “She’s obviously Farron’s daughter.” He had seen the resemblance immediately, his profession teaching him well how to recognize a daughter when it was necessary. “Though I must admit, she looks pretty healthy for someone who is allegedly dead.”
Chris’s eyes widened slightly, then narrowed. Yes, he could see it now as well. They had the same eyes and the same shape face. She was also quite clearly not ten years old. She matched his narrowed gaze.
Hidden beneath the shadow of the stairs, Vin looked up, unable to hide his interest. Both he and Josiah had been forced to stand aside from the confrontation as Nathan bound their wounds. Josiah had merely been grazed on the shoulder, but she had managed to get lucky and take a sizeable chunk out of Vin’s right arm.
“Why’d she want to shoot her own father?” he asked curiously. Chris raised an eyebrow at the woman, but she remained tightlipped.
Finished, Nathan walked over and picked up her two guns where Chris had tossed them to the ground, turning them over in his hands. Vin got to his feet and went over to stand near Chris, while Ezra returned to staring angrily at Josiah. The preacher caught the caustic look this time, and looked back with a bemused expression. Ezra broke first, turning to stare down the empty alley with a grimace.
Vin tried to read the woman’s eyes, but they were like ice. “We had him in custody you know,” he told her, cradling his hurt arm. “He would have been up for attempted murder and extortion. He’d probably of hanged… Why take the risk of killing him yourself? Did you hate him so much that you would sentence yourself to die with him?”
She raised her eyebrows, but, of course, still didn’t say a word.
Disgusted, Chris grabbed her fiercely by the arm. “Well, whatever the reason, Miss Farron, you are going to jail.” He started to head off that way when he heard Nathan call his name.
“Why would she need two guns?” Nathan suddenly asked. “You only need one to assassinate someone.” Chris felt her arm tense, and he stopped, surprised at her reaction. Dread filled him then, and, handing her off to Vin, walked back to grab the guns from Nathan. With the air of a man well practiced in his art, he checked both weapons, popping open the chambers, then slamming them closed. His eyes glittered with anger as he held up the one on the left.
“This one is filled with blanks. Josiah, watch the boys. Vin, bring her!” He took off running, the others on his heels.
They found JD face down on the ground, unconscious. No sign of the Farrons or Buck anywhere. The wagon was also gone. Nathan tapped the kid’s cheek, trying to wake him up. JD groaned, drawing a shaky hand to his head.
“What…,” he blinked and rolled on his side, staring blearily up at the healer. “Nathan?”
“JD, what happened?” Nathan asked.
“Ungh,” JD pressed his hand to his head, closing his eyes again. “I don’t….” he stopped. Suddenly his eyes popped open to stare at the healer with surprising intensity, his hands grasping the man’s shirt. “Nathan, it was a trick. Michael Farron’s alive. They’ve got the Greenes and Buck!”
Farron’s daughter started to laugh. Vin tightened his grip on her arm.
When he turned to see Michael Farron holding a gun to his head, Buck had frozen. Blood still poured out of the old man’s “wound,” but he stood smiling at the ladies man without awareness of it. Rationally, part of the gunslinger understood that it had been a trick. The blood was fake. A back-up plan if anything went wrong. But the other part of him could only think about that damn nightmare. All he could think of was that it was coming true – the dead were rising and he had been left alone to face it.
“Will they catch her, do you think?” Farron asked, not breaking his gaze from Buck’s.
“They might,” John answered, standing over an unconscious JD. They’d had to knock the boy out when he had tried to prevent Andrew from taking his guns. The older Farron brother was watching the tall gunslinger with interest. The lawmen had barely noticed the altercation when they hurt the boy.
“They won’t catch her,” Andrew asserted confidently. “Maggie’s the best.”
“So are they,” John replied coldly. He looked back at his father, his hazel eyes impassive.
“Then we’d best take some insurance,” Farron replied, amused by the ashen pallor of the gunslinger in front of him. “Andrew, get the Greenes. And, as for you, Mr. Wilmington, if you would be so kind as to get into the back of this wagon? We don’t have much time.”
Buck didn’t move, not until he felt John take him roughly by his good shoulder. It was enough to jolt him awake again, but he quickly realized he wasn’t in a position to fight back. He was still weak, and the scarring on his other shoulder too fresh. He glanced worriedly at JD, then did as he was instructed and climbed into the wagon.
Moments later, both Greene brothers and Belinda were forced in with him, and the wagon started off.
Chris inspected the ground, then looked up at Vin. The tracker was watching him with a petulant gaze. He knew what was coming, and he drew his damaged arm closer to his body.
“Vin, you’ll have to stay here with the Greene’s boys. That arm of your won’t let you shoot, and I don’t want you riding with it either.”
“Chris, my left arm is fine….”
“Last time I checked, Tanner, it takes two hands to fire a rifle, even a sawed off one.”
“You could lend me a….”
“No! Not another word. I do plan to lend you a gun, to protect yourself and those children, but I said I don’t want you riding with that arm and I meant it. You’re bleeding out through the cloth Nathan bound you with already. I want you here, guarding the boys, and that is final.”
Vin tensed his jaw, “You sure you can follow that wagon without me?”
Chris just gave him a look, and Vin bowed his head in defeat. Hell, JD could probably track a wagon carrying seven people. Vin grimaced. Of course JD was going, he thought snidely. Just ‘cause the kid had a knot on the back of his head as bad as the wound on Vin’s arm didn’t mean that the boy had to stay behind. Hell no, just him and Josiah…
Chris broke Vin from his reverie when he drew one of his peacemakers and handed it to the tracker. “Send Josiah to the livery. And, before you say anything,” he held a finger up to stop Vin from arguing unfairness, “He only has a shallow graze. You don’t. Now go.” Vin looked angry enough to spit, but nevertheless took off at a jog.
“Nathan,” Chris said, “you’re in charge of Miss Farron here. She’ll have to come with us. I’m guessing Farron took Buck as a bargaining chip for her life.” The healer nodded grimly, and took the girl’s arm from Chris’s grip.
“Right,” Chris smiled grimly at his motley crew, “let’s go get our people back.”
They had started off slowly, as Chris gauged the direction of the wagon. Soon however, they were moving at a crisp pace, the horses moving in unison with the big black.
Chris lifted himself a little higher off of Solon’s back, urging the horse to move faster. At this rate, they would catch up with the wagon within the next fifteen minutes. He frowned, trying not to think of the implications of that fact. Farron had to know the wagon would be slow, but he took it anyway. It meant Farron knew they were coming, and fast. Chris just hoped that they could handle whatever would be thrown at them.
He also hoped Buck’s dead body wouldn’t be one of them.
He glanced around at the others. JD was by his side, the boy’s face still a little pale, but it was more than compensated for by the determination which lined his features. Chris knew there was nothing to worry about there. To his other side, he caught sight of Nathan ponying Farron’s daughter. She seemed to care not at all about trying to slow them down, and, in fact, was looking almost expectant. Once again, Chris found himself frowning.
Without looking back, he could also hear the rumble of Ezra and Josiah bringing up the rear. Chris had not missed the acid looks the gambler had been shooting the older man, but decided it was something he could do nothing about now. Part of him wondered whether Ezra understood why he was so angry, and he couldn’t resist a small smile. It faded quickly as he turned his thoughts back to the present. He knew Ezra would not let his mood get in the way of what was to come.
He looked ahead at the forest before them, knowing full well that it ended atop Breaker’s Pass, a small but tight canyon with a raging river flowing through it. It was the same river that had claimed the life of the Miller family almost a year ago. This Spring had been no where near as wet as last year, but there had been enough rain and melted snow to make the river dangerous.
Chills ran up Chris’s spine.
Just hold on Buck. We’re coming.
They entered the clearing slowly, knowing full well that it would be useless to hide their approach. The open space was too large, and the canyon rim prevented a back door attack. The powerful river roared down below, its call louder than their own thoughts. As one, the five men stopped, halting the horses about twenty yards from their welcoming party.
As Chris had known, Farron was expecting them. The old man stood, dried fake blood still on his shirt, and raised a hand in welcome. To his right, Andrew held a yellow boy rifle on Stephen and Belinda Greene, the couple standing as shields, clutching each other. On his left, John held a gun on Harold. And in the background….
“Buck…” JD stuttered aloud, his voice betraying the fear they all felt.
They had hung him by his wrists from a branch of an oak tree that stuck out over the edge of the canyon. The rope was pulling harshly on his arms, and Nathan could easily perceive the growing red stain on Buck’s shoulder even from this distance. The scar tissue had torn. The rope that held him from falling to his death was wrapped once around the limb, then traveled down so that the end was tied to the trunk of the oak, right next to where Farron was standing. Not surprisingly, he held a knife to it.
As if that weren't enough, a second rope hung down right next to it, though this one was short and tied only to the limb. The Farrons had knotted into a noose. It was loose about Buck’s neck, but it was clear that it would tighten with only the slightest drop. Even if they could get to Buck and wrap a rope around his waist to pull him away from the edge, the noose would counteract the move by strangling him.
“Nice, huh?” Farron asked, flashing the knife. “I was going to use one of the Greenes originally, but Mr. Wilmington was just so willing.” Glancing at the others, he brightened further upon seeing Nathan’s captive, his eyes catching his daughter’s. “Maggie, my lovely! Are you alright?”
“Hey Pa,” she called back gaily. “Sorry about getting caught. The preacher here was feeling suicidal, and got lucky.” Next to Josiah, Ezra snorted with derision at the description.
Farron continued to smile. “Not a problem, sweet cheeks. These men are good -- not as good as us, of course, but good. Sad I shan’t be able to kill them now, but I suppose news of your existence would have to get out sometime or other.” He shook his head and sighed. “It is always such a shame to have to show the ace up one’s sleeve, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Standish? But even laid on the table, the ace is still the most valuable card.” He smiled again at his daughter, and she grinned back, basking in the compliment.
“I’ve seen Ezra shoot an ace dead center from across the room,” Buck hissed hoarsely from behind Farron, “and he had several pints of rat gut in him at the time. That ace sort of lost its value at that point.” This earned him smiles from the rest of the Seven. Nathan uttered a thank you to the heavens that Buck was awake enough to be sarcastic.
Farron harrumphed, and flashed the knife again. “Regardless, as I am sure you have guessed, Mr. Larabee, I would like to trade. I promise not to cut this rope, and I will happily give you Mr. Harold Greene, in return for my daughter and the promise that you will not come after us.”
“What about Stephen and Belinda?” JD demanded, standing a little straighter in the saddle.
Farron raised his eyebrows, and chuckled. “Surely, Mr. Dunne, you don’t think I would let them go as well? I’m afraid that they are just too valuable a commodity. I already let you keep the children, though I could have easily hired men to steal them while you followed me here. No, no, I’m afraid they will have to come with me. That way I ensure that you and Harold do not tell anyone about our little deal.”
“If you don’t free them, then there won’t be a deal!” Chris hissed.
“Well, okay then,” Farron sighed, and started to press the blade of the knife into the rope. Both boys cocked their weapons, causing the Greenes to flinch.
“Wait! Wait, hold on!” JD looked at Chris, his eyes wild. “We’ll…we’ll give you your daughter, but we can’t promise not to come after you,” the boy begged.
“Of course you can. You original cowboy types always keep your word, am I right?”
Before either JD or Chris could answer, Ezra cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, Mr. Farron, but you are aware of who I am, aren’t you?” An amused smile crossing his face as he indicated his clothing. “I would hardly qualify as an original cowboy type.”
Farron frowned and pursed his lips, his soft blue eyes trailing over the red of Ezra’s jacket. “I admit, I forgot about that particular wrinkle. Professional swindlers as lawmen, what will they think of next? All right. I can’t trust you not to come after us, Mr. Standish, but I think I can trust your friends to stop you. Will you make that oath, gentlemen, to not come after me, and to prevent Mr. Standish from coming after me as well?”
Ezra emitted a short laugh at the idea. Chris glanced at said professional swindler, then up at Buck. He too recalled the shot that had pierced that ace of spades so long ago, but he remembered even more clearly the gambler’s accuracy of a week ago. A plan was hastily forming. Ezra had unwittingly given him an opening.
“Will you, uh, give us a minute to think about this?” the black-clad leader called. Farron chuckled, his expression amused..
“No. Can’t have you coming up with any bright ideas now, can I?”
Chris frowned, then he sighed heavily. “Well, you see, I’m not sure we could stop Ezra should he decide to follow you. He’ll insist that we beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to saving our friends, and he’ll undoubtedly slip from our grasp. I doubt even a rope as stout as the one holding Buck would hold him for long.”
Ezra glanced sharply at Chris, amazed at the quickness of the man’s wit to remember his words from the night of the kidnapping. Farron frowned more deeply.
“I am afraid that I have to agree with Chris, Mr. Farron,” Ezra said slowly, turning his gaze back to Farron. “He knows what I can do with the proper incentive.” Next to him, Chris hid a smile. Farron shook his head at the men, wondering vaguely if he had just missed something.
“I am not sure what you are saying Mr. Larabee.”
“I am saying, Mr. Farron, that perhaps you should reconsider. Ezra can be very determined when he wants to be. He would cut you down without a second though at this point.”
Farron blinked at him, absorbing this. Finally, he laughed. “Well, then, perhaps Mr. Standish should accompany my daughter over here, where John will strip him of his Remington and sleeve gun. You do have a sleeve gun, do you not, Mr. Standish?”
Ezra looked momentarily taken aback. “Um, yes but…”
“Well, does that satisfy you Mr. Larabee? I doubt a gambler would be foolish enough to risk chasing anyone without his guns.”
“It certainly does not satisfy me! I object!” Ezra called, frowning at Chris. But neither Farron nor Chris appeared to care.
Chris’s heart beat wildly when Farron mentioned the sleeve gun, as his plan had revolved in part around Farron not knowing about it. But, though the gambler loved his derringer, the gunslinger hadn’t been sure of its accuracy across a distance. Ezra’s Colt Richards Conversion in his shoulder holster, on the other hand….
“Mr. Larabee?” Farron prompted. “I asked you a question. Is that acceptable?”
“I don’t imagine I have much choice in the matter,” Chris replied finally.
“Chris!” Ezra hissed, frowning deeply at the gunslinger, “This is a bad idea.” Out of view of Maggie, he winked.
“So long as everyone stays still, Ezra, this will work out,” Chris replied, inclining his head. Ezra flexed an eyebrow, then nodded. Mentally, he ordered all the clues Chris had given him together – ‘everyone stay still,’ ‘cut down Farron,’ ‘the rope holding Buck.’
“If you are quite finished,” Farron called. “Okay, this is how this will work. John will release Harold, who will walk over to you. At the same time, Mr. Standish will accompany Maggie to me -- with you on foot, if you please, Mr. Standish. John will then take both of the gambler’s guns, and my family and the Greenes will get in the wagon and leave. Agreed, Mr. Larabee?”
Chris nodded, “Agreed.”
“I have your word you won’t follow?”
“And those of your companions? No need to speak Mr. Standish.”
Josiah, Nathan and JD all looked at Chris, who fixed them each with a calm stare. After a moment’s hesitation, they too individually gave their words.
“Wonderful. I do love the code of the West. It can be so useful! You are just like the knights of ancient England, Mr. Larabee, I commend you. King Arthur would have been proud.”
“We have strong faiths, Mr. Farron,” Josiah agreed quietly.
Farron grinned at him, “Of course, as I will have Stephen and Belinda in my possession, I should warn you, should your chivalry not be as true as Sir Kay, Mr. Sanchez, and you break your words, I will kill them without hesitation.” Warning given, he nodded at John to loose his hold on Harold. The older Farron brother pushed Harold away from him and holstered his gun.
The Surveyor General stared wide eyed at his brother and sister-in-law for a moment, not moving, his lower lip trembling.
“Go on, Harry. He won’t hurt us,” Stephen assured him as calmly as he was able.
“Please Harry. Tell my boys we love them. They’ll need you to look after them now.” Belinda bit her bottom lip to stop herself from crying. Harold just stared at her.
“Go on, Mr. Surveyor. They’ll be just fine, so long as you keep your mouth shut, and those of the Seven. Got that?” Farron’s blue eyes had taken on the quality of steel. Grimacing, Harold looked at the ground and nodded. Slowly, he headed towards where the Seven were still mounted.
Ezra jumped from Chaucer’s back and took Maggie’s reins from Nathan. Together they moved over to Farron. The gambler tipped his hat at Harold as he passed. The younger Greene barely noticed. John stepped forward and met them before they reached the tree, standing slightly in front of his father. He held out his hands to the gambler.
Sighing, Ezra ejected the sleeve gun from his right arm, then pulled the Remington from its holster. He handed them over to the older brother, then stepped around John to be near Andrew, crossing his arms over his chest much in the same way the youngest Farron had done when he’d tricked JD in town. No one paid attention to the fact that his right hand went underneath his red jacket. He shot a glance at Stephen, who was watching him, and shook his head slightly, a subtle hand motion with his left hand accompanying it.
Meanwhile, John reached up and untied his sister’s wrists, and she rubbed them to get the blood circulating. After a moment, she pulled her mare around with a grin and a whoop, then had the horse step across to stand next to the wagon. John followed her, and got up on the driver’s seat.
Andrew nudged Stephen and Belinda towards the wagon with his rifle, but they didn’t move. He shoved a bit harder, but Stephen held his ground. Belinda imitated her husband, though she wondered why he had suddenly decided not to obey their captors.
“Mr. Greene, please,” Farron said, still pressing down on the long rope with his knife. “I assume you also do not wish me to kill Mr. Wilmington.”
“Go on with ya,” Andrew ordered, shoving him again, almost knocking Stephen from his feet. Still the apothecary held his ground.
“Mr. Greene, this is getting tiresome!” Farron snapped, pressing harder on the rope. A couple of threads snapped, and the rope groaned. Stephen shut his eyes, praying to God he had read the gambler’s signal correctly.
“He said MOVE!” Andrew yelled, giving Stephen a mighty shove with the rifle. The apothecary fell heavily to the ground, pulling Bel down with him.
“NOW!” Chris yelled, pulling his gun. He shot at Andrew before the younger Farron could regain his balance. At almost the same instant, Ezra pulled the colt from his shoulder holster and shot Farron. Although not as fast, Josiah, JD and Nathan aimed for John and Maggie, who both ducked for cover.
The old man gurgled slightly as the gambler’s bullet impacted the middle of his chest, just centimeter’s from the fake bullet wound. He looked at Ezra with shocked eyes, then, with his dying breath, he cut the rope.
“NO!” Ezra jumped forward, grabbing the rope with his left hand and wrapping it around his left wrist before it disappeared. The noose of the second rope had instantly caught at Buck’s throat, choking him, but the arrested momentum had stopped the long rope holding his arms up from disappearing more quickly up the tree. Ezra pulled on the rope, dug his feet in, and prayed he was strong enough. A calmness filled him as he raised his right hand to shoot at the noose where it was tied to the limb, trying to ignore the fact that it hung directly next to the one holding up Buck’s arms. If he hit the wrong rope…. No. He would not hit the wrong rope. He took a breath, and pulled the trigger.
A single shot, dead center, perfect. The noose broke, and Buck sucked in a lungful of precious air before fainting dead away.
As the gambler knew it would, the rope holding Buck by his wrists was suddenly forced to take all the ladies man’s weight, and Ezra bellowed in agony as his left arm snapped forward, the not quite healed shoulder popping once more out of place. If he hadn’t bound the rope around his wrist, he would have lost hold as all the nerves in the arm deadened. Ezra dropped the colt and grabbed at the rope with both hands, leaning back, his eyes shut. He just had to hold on for a short while, until the others got to him.
He could feel his feet slipping in the soft dirt. The roar of the white rapids below seemed to grow louder in anticipation. He would not let Buck drop….He would not let that river win. Not again.
Vaguely, the background fight infiltrated his hearing, and he realized that the firing was still going on, as both Maggie and John continued to try and get the upper hand from behind the wagon. To Ezra, it felt like a million miles away. He gasped as the dirt gave way and he abruptly skidded a foot closer to the edge before one of his feet caught a root.
Suddenly, he felt arms around his middle, helping him. Then someone else joined him on his hold on the rope. Cracking an eye open, he saw Belinda Greene holding onto the rope with him, and, if he could see behind him, he knew he would find that it was Stephen who was gripping his waist.
“Hang on Ezra!” Stephen said in his ear.
“I…already…figured that out!” Ezra hissed back. In front of him, Belinda shot him a strained smile.
Suddenly, finally, the firing stopped.
Ezra did not have to turn around to know the good guys had won, in part because he was still alive. Chalk one up for the somewhat tarnished knights of Four Corners.
Chris had looped a spare rope from his saddle around Buck’s foot, and they pulled him in slowly from the edge. Twenty feet below, they could hear the angry roar of the river as it was denied its sacrifice, water spraying up off the rocks high enough to splatter the rescuers. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they had him back on solid ground.
Nathan instantly went to work rebinding Buck’s shoulder and trying to get the ladies man to open his eyes. He was rewarded by a somewhat bleary, blue-eyed stare after a few minutes.
“You get ‘em?” Buck whispered hoarsely, his lips curving into a smile.
“Of course. Did you ever doubt us?” Chris replied, grabbing one of Buck’s hands. JD sat near Buck’s head, his hand resting on the tall man’s hair.
“Never for a minute,” Buck lied, then laughed a little before closing his eyes again. At least, the ladies man thought before drifting back into oblivion, not anymore. Chris smiled up at JD, then released Buck to the kid’s and Nathan’s care.
Over by the wagon, Ezra and Josiah were checking over the Farrons, Josiah discovering with some disappointment that all four members of the family were dead. Even after Andrew and Farron had been killed, John and Maggie had continued firing, not willing to give up. In the end, there had been no choice.
“What a waste,” the preacher muttered emphatically, placing a cloth over Maggie’s head.
“I’m sorry?” Ezra replied, his expression dark. Once again, he had tucked his left arm inside the brace of his shoulder holster, not willing to distract Nathan until absolutely necessary. He was almost getting used to the dull, throbbing pain of a dislocated shoulder. “Did you miss what they did to Buck?”
“Oh, no…I don’t mean that. I’m just saying…Such clever children, how could Farron twist them so much?”
“They had a choice, Josiah.”
“We are all influenced by our parents, Ezra. Your mother, my father….I sometimes wonder what might have happened if my mother had lived. Do you ever think about your….” He trailed off, suddenly aware that he didn’t know what had happened to Ezra’s father. The gambler lowered his head, looking down at John Farron. Josiah waited, silently hoping that Ezra might actually tell him. After a moment, the preacher realized it was a pointless hope. The gambler took a blanket and draped it over the dead man.
“What now?” Josiah asked. “Shall we bury them here? Or take them back to Silace?”
“We’ll let Chris decide. Though we do have a wagon, I suppose.”
“Yes. But I would prefer the Greenes not to have to travel with the dead.”
“No,” the gambler agreed, peering around at camp. He sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead with his hand. Watching him, Josiah took a deep breath and decided to ask the gambler about his attitude back in town.
“Ezra…have I done something to make you angry with me?”
The gambler looked up, startled. “What?”
“Before. You’ve been giving me dirty looks since we first caught Maggie in town. I was wondering why.”
Ezra’s eyes blinked, and he licked his lips. “Oh, that. Um…that was…it was nothing, Josiah. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve had time to think about my reaction since then, and I, uh, I realize it was a little extreme. Silly, really. An aberration. I’m better now. Please, um, please forget about it….” he backed away, looking extremely nervous. “I’m going to go talk to the Greenes now. Make sure they will be all right, and all that. If you’ll excuse me?”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and fled, hastily making his way over to the Greenes. The family was sitting off to the side, on a downed log. Not surprisingly, they still looked a bit shell-shocked. They looked up as Ezra approached, and light smiles graced their faces.
Josiah raised an eyebrow at Ezra’s quick retreat, not sure if he understood what that was all about. Chris moved to stand next to the preacher and laid a hand on his arm.
“He was worried about you,” Chris explained. “You scared him when you went after the daughter’s horse in town, and it made him angry at you afterwards. The same way you had been angry at him for taking off after the kidnappers by himself last week.”
Josiah’s eyes widened, his expression open. Chris smiled at the ground.
“You see, I overheard him whispering angrily to Nathan when we were saddling the horses, spouting off on your, as he put it, ‘insane, suicidal maneuver.’ Apparently, he had seen it from inside Potter’s back door, and was sure that if he hadn’t been there to tackle the woman, you would be dead right now. Nathan didn’t reply to his little tirade; I don’t think he knew how. He was as surprised as I was.”
Josiah leaned back against the wheel of the wagon, unable to believe it. “He was worried about me?”
“Yeah. Of course, you’ll never get him to admit it now that he has had time to think about it. I have a feeling his reaction scared him a little.”
“He was worried about me,” Josiah repeated, still stuck on that idea.
“I wouldn’t put too much stock in it though, Josiah. He still doesn’t want to think of you as a father. He’ll try to avoid you now, you can bet on it.”
“Yeah, but, see, it still means something. It means that it’s not just me. If he was worried about me, maybe…” He trailed off, afraid to hope, and Chris shrugged his shoulders.
“Just be careful Josiah,” Chris finished. “Ezra hates being confused, and I think you’ve managed to confuse him royally.”
Josiah just looked back at Chris, and a wide smile suddenly appeared. “Yeah, but it means I’m not alone.”
Chris smiled crookedly, not wanting to voice his fear that Josiah’s newfound hope might be short-lived once Ezra got his shields back in place. With a sigh, he looked about the camp. Nathan left JD with Buck and walked over to where Ezra was talking to the Greenes. They could see the way the gambler’s expression fell when he saw the healer upon him, but still he allowed himself to be taken aside. The Greenes got up as he left and moved over to join Josiah and Chris.
Belinda jumped as a sharp howl escaped Ezra’s lips, and she turned around to see Nathan asking a slightly doubled over Ezra if he was okay. The gambler was nodding slowly, his mouth twisted in a grimace, but at least he was rotating his left arm.
“Is Ezra going to be okay?” she asked Chris as they reached them.
The gunslinger inclined his head. “Yes. How about you? Are you going to be all right?”
“They will be,” Harold said. “Once I resign my position.”
“What?” Stephen stared at his brother. “Harry, no. This is what you’ve always wanted.”
Harold shook his head, “Not if it means that I’ll constantly be worried about you, Bel and the boys, Stevey. I’d much rather you be safe than come to harm again because of my ambitions.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Harold,” Belinda chastised. “Farron is dead. We’re not in danger anymore.”
“So long as I’m in that position, you will be,” he rejoined. “If it isn’t Farron, it’ll be someone else.”
“Harry, you can’t give up your office. You love the job too much. While I may not agree with how you wield it,” Stephen gave his brother a sheepish grin, “I wouldn’t want you to give it up simply because it might, someday, cause trouble like this again.”
Harold watched his brother, his big eyes searching the blond man’s face. “I don’t know…” he whispered.
Stephen took the younger man by his shoulders and hugged, and this time, Harold didn’t pull out.
“Harold,” Belinda placed a hand on his arm, “we knew the danger of moving out here to the west, of moving to this sort of town. Until Mr. Larabee and his men came, we weren't even sure that we would survive from one day to the next, but now that town is our home, and we have the best law in the territory to protect us. We will be fine, whether you keep your position or not, because we have them to watch over us. Just…just promise to come visit more often.” She smiled, and Harold was amazed to realize that she was sincere.
“You mean that?” he asked.
“I do. I always have. I’m sorry that I haven’t made that plain to you before. Stephen misses you so much Harold. If you visit more often, I promise it will be better from now on.” She reached around and joined the slightly awkward embrace.
Embarrassed, Chris looked away, and Josiah watched the ground.
“Hey!” JD called from Buck’s side. “I hate to break up the moment, but, can we go home now? Buck says he’s hungry!”
“Well then, good folk and knights of the realm, let us away to Camelot,” Ezra intoned, standing next to Chaucer, his right arm raised in a mock salute. “For the fair maiden Guinevere awaits with baited breath for news of our exploits!”
“Is he talking about Vin?” Nathan wondered aloud to Josiah, who immediately started laughing with abandon. Soon, the tired preacher was laughing so hard he had the whole camp joining in, each basking in the relief of yet another chapter finished.