Buck and JD dismounted, joining Vin, BA and Chris where they were quietly talking over the next part of the plan -- about how they were going to approach Fishman’s camp. Vin looked over at the newcomers, nodding a welcome while BA listened to whatever it was Chris was telling him. The sergeant was nodding.
Vin’s lips curled into an involuntary smile as he saw the state of the purple jacket. JD held up a warning finger.
“Don’t say it,” he hissed. “One word about my looking like something the cat dragged in and I swear….”
“Actually, it was the smell I was going to remark on,” Vin drawled softly.
JD’s eyes widened, then narrowed angrily. “It smells fine!”
Vin’s smile grew, and Chris stopped talking enough to look at JD. The gunslinger grinned, unable to resist, and the kid glared at him.
“I was saving Buck’s life when it happened!” he whispered intently. Chris nodded.
“Oh, of course. Absolutely.” He said it in such a way as to leave no doubt that he didn’t believe a word.
“Yeah, kid,” Vin said, “And if you use that story with Ezra, he might not even break both your legs.”
“Yeah, probably just an arm,” Chris agreed solemnly.
“S’not a story!” JD stated. He nudged Buck, “You tell ‘im!”
Buck had been standing idly by, his hands behind his back, and, at JD’s words, he shrugged. “Actually, kid, I’ve seen Ezra dive off horses, get shot, and survive brawls like the one after Obediah’s trial all without breaking a stitch in that thing….I’m not sure I’m going to be able to explain how you did what you did to that jacket in less than twenty four hours.”
JD’s jaw dropped, and then clamped shut. He hated it when Buck had a point.
“All right, ladies,” Chris said, “as much as I’d love to discuss haberdashery all day, we need to get the rest of the plan in motion. Buck, JD, when you took care of the sheriff, how did the town seem?”
“We locked him up in his own jail. And the town is quiet. Unless someone goes to check on him, we should be fine.”
“What do you need us to do now?” Buck asked.
“Well, first thing I want to do is get that kid Miguel out of there, then we can implement the rest of the plan without the distraction of keeping him safe. I figure Buck and I can offer a diversion long enough to slip the kid out, then we’ll work on the captain.” He looked at JD, and the kid straightened. “Kid,” and he glanced at Buck, “an no offense old dog,” he looked back at JD, “you’re the fastest among us. I….”
“Hell yeah I’m offended,” Buck said. “You think the kid is really faster than me?”
“Kid’s faster than everyone,” Vin admitted. “That new horse of his…what do you call her?”
“Bonnie,” JD answered.
“She’s built for speed, Buck, and you know it.”
“Yeah, but Gray….”
“Is a great horse, but he’s not as fast as Bonnie.”
Buck frowned, but he didn’t argue again. JD was trying not to look smug…it wasn’t difficult when he felt the breeze lift the tattered sleeve of the purple jacket.
“We’ll get the kid out of there, quiet as we can, and you get him down to the convent,” Chris still spoke to JD, who nodded gravely. “Then the rest is up to us,” he looked at Buck and BA, then shifted his gaze to the tracker, “and you.”
Vin nodded and Chris smiled.
“What about getting a horse for Murdock?” Buck asked. “When we get him away, we’ll be slowed down if one of us has to ride double.”
“Not if I take him on Van,” BA stated. “We’ll be fine.”
“Van?” Buck looked at the sergeant. “Look, I’ll agree that your horse is unusually large, but….”
“He’s carried more than that and not lost a step,” BA replied coldly. “He’ll take both me and Murdock and I’ll guarantee we’ll make it back to the convent before you do.”
Buck raised his eyebrows in amusement, and looked at Chris. The gunslinger shrugged back. BA crossed his arms, his confidence unwavering.
“All right then,” Chris said, “If you think Van can do it, we’ll trust you. Now, here’s how this is going to work….”
Murdock was leaning back against the rockface, his eyes partly closed. He was tired. He didn’t know what was happening outside this camp, had no clue how Face was, and with Miguel now sitting next to him, had taken it upon himself to stick himself in anyone’s way that approached both him and the kid. Nearly two days without sleep had taken its toll, and he was beginning to feel himself getting fuzzy around the edges.
“Hey,” Miguel whispered suddenly, nudging the captain with his elbow. “There’s two new guns. That make’s twenty-nine, right?”
Murdock’s eyes opened more, and he blinked, wishing he could wipe them with his hands. He didn’t even want to think what his wrists must look like after two days in bonds. They ached, which was enough to make him worry about how fast he’d be able to move them if and when he had to.
“Two more? Where?”
“Over by the Fishman’s tent. See? Tall guy in black and tall guy with a moustache.”
Murdock’s eyes opened fully, the descriptions familiar, and hope blossomed in his chest.
He had to bit his lip to prevent himself from cheering as he saw Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee staring back at him and the kid. Larabee turned away almost immediately, to talk to Andy Fishman who had walked out to meet them, while Buck walked deeper into the camp…or, rather, swaggered into the camp.
A pebbled dropped onto Murdock’s hat, and the captain looked up to see BA looking down at him. The sergeant put a finger to his lip, then pointed to Miguel and gave a jerking upwards motion with his hand. Murdock nodded. The captain lowered his head again, looking around the camp, and was happy to see that all eyes were on the newcomers.
“Miguel,” the captain leaned close to the kid, “expect…things to happen.”
The boy’s eyes widened, and he stiffened, but he gave a quick nod.
When the throwing knife landed in the dirt between them, the kid didn’t even flinch.
“That’s right,” Chris nodded at Andy, “there’s word you’re hiring guns. My friend and I are two of the best.”
“Word, really? From where,” Andy crossed his arms suspiciously.
“Huh,” Andy arched an eyebrow. “Well…I don’t need any more men.”
“You sure?” Chris looked around the camp, his eyes scanning, flicking over Murdock and the boy, and then to where Buck had wandered to the middle and was “preening” – he’d taken out a large hunting knife on which to clean his fingernails – as he wormed his way around. “Gotta say I wouldn’t call the ones you got much to talk about.” He licked his teeth inside his mouth, sneering as he did so. “Look like a bunch of farmer boys to me.”
The ones in hearing distance stood up automatically. Andy waved them down and frowned.
“Look, Mr…what was your name again?”
“Larabee. Chris Larabee.”
Andy’s eyebrows shot up. “Larabee? Yeah…I heard of you. But I thought you were working for a judge somewhere?”
Chris smiled. It was not a nice smile. “Well, I did work a judge over recently, if that’s your meaning. Tried to hang my friend over there.” He indicated Buck, who was know walking over and looking down on the different groups of gunmen. Whatever he was doing, it clearly rubbed a lot of them the wrong way. The level of hostility in the gathering had definitely started to rise.
“I see,” Andy smiled, still looking at Chris. “And now you want to work for me?”
“Looks that way.”
“How much for your services?”
“Ten bucks a day.”
Andy snorted, “You’re kidding.”
“You want the best? You pay the best.”
Andy licked his lips, the idea of having the infamous Chris Larabee working for him incredibly tempting. Visions of having the gunslinger walking down the main street of Vista City by his side, and the looks on the faces of the townsfolk…he’d own this whole area and never have to spend the money for bullets. No one would challenge someone like Chris Larabee.
The red headed man nodded, “All right. Come inside,” he lifted the tent flap, “let’s talk.”
Chris nodded and glanced at Buck. He heard the tail end of whatever insult the ladies’ man had just dropped on one of the groups…something about “wandering into a meeting of the women’s temperance union.” Three men instantly stood up to face Buck, who chuckled and simply turned his back and walked to another group. Shaking his head, Chris ducked into the tent after the older Fishman.
Jeb, who’d been napping inside, looked up blearily as his brother walked in with a man who, for a strange dreamlike moment, he thought was the shade of Death himself.
Buck, meanwhile, had definitely done his work. Everyone was watching him now, including
Murdock and Miguel, the former with some nervousness. The captain had heard some of the things Buck
had said to the hired gunmen and it reminded him of
“You girls want something?” Buck asked his audience, drawing himself back towards the big tent. He had the nastiest smirk on his face, like someone who knows the punchline to a joke and wasn’t about to share it. He had eight men circling him, while the others watched from the sidelines, theirs hands on their rifles.
BA, Vin and JD hauled Miguel up the rockface, managing to pull the small boy up in just a few jerks. As soon as he was up, JD had the two of them on Bonnie’s back, heading as fast they could down to the convent.
Buck meanwhile, was finally starting to get nervous. His smirk faltered slightly, which he hid by smoothing his moustache. He was at the front of the tent now, aware that he was within just a feet of the remuda where they’d left Gray and Solon. He took another step back…and hit a wall.
Of course, technically, 6 foot 7 inches worth of muscle was not a wall…it was more like a mountain. Buck twisted, saw the expression of the enormous man looking down at him, and gave a weak smile. Buck was 6’3” -- he rarely if ever had to look up at anyone, and, as his eyes lifted upwards, he decided that was a good thing.
“Hiya,” he greeted, “My…you’re a big one, aren’t you? Tell me, how do you find clothes that fit? I mean, you’d need a tent instead of a co..oooooh!” The mountain had twisted him the rest of the way around and had two enormous meaty fists on his lapels, lifting Buck up off the ground. The other gunmen were grinning evilly, enjoying the show.
“You’re a worm-tongue,” the mountain accused, “and I don’t like you.”
“Well,” Buck sucked in a breath, something he was finding pretty hard to do, “I…do like me…so….could you…put…me down…please?”
The mountain smiled, lifted Buck higher, then tossed him away like a sack of feed. The ladies’ man landed in the hands of three men, One of which grabbed him in a headlock while the other two took his arms. The mountain pulled back a meaty fist, still smiling.
“Now…hold him tight boys,” the mountain ordered. Chuckles emanated from the others.
“Gah,” Buck struggled for air, straining to muster enough to gasp: “Wah…wait…wait!”
“Why?” the mountain asked.
“Be…cause …prisoner….es…cape….” Buck’s eyes were watering, and the edge of his vision was getting dark. Mountain looked to his right, as did the rest of the crowd.
BA was helping Murdock to his feet, both men looking as if they were trying to be as quiet as possible. As soon as they realized they’d been spotted, BA lifted a gun to point at the crowd. At almost the same time, the hired gunslingers pulled their own weapons and Buck was dropped, forgotten. The ladies’ man started crawled out of the throng, headed towards his horse, stopping only a moment to suck in a deep breath through his bruised throat and straighten his red bandanna. No one noticed.
“Don’t move!” one of the gunslingers shouted at BA. The sergeant gave a small smile, clearly not intending to…including not dropping his gun.
“Men, drop your weapons!” Andy Fishman’s voice shouted from behind the gunslingers. “Let them go!”
This confused the entire group, until they turned to see Chris Larabee holding Jeb Fishman tight to his chest, the younger brother’s hands tied in front of him and Chris Larabee’s peacemaker pressed against the side of his head. Andrew Fishman had a black-eye and his hands were also tied where he stood next to them. He looked feverishly at his hired men, “I said DROP them!”
The gunslingers looked at each other, then dropped their guns.
“Hands in the air,” Chris ordered quietly. He started backing away, Jeb still in his grip. The younger brother whimpered as he was pulled along. The hired guns raised their hands slowly.
In the background, BA and Murdock disappeared into the forest, heading towards where BA had tethered Van.
Buck had reached Gray, jumping up onto the horse’s back and, grabbing Solon’s reins, pulled the big black over to where Chris and Jeb were standing.
The ladies’ man pulled out his gun and held it on the now unarmed group as Chris turned and pushed Jeb up onto the saddle and then mounted up behind him. Soon, they were riding away around the boulders and trees, heading for the trail down.
As soon as they couldn’t see them anymore, one of the hired guns ran up with a knife to untie Andy Fishman, who’s face was now about the same color as his hair.
“What the hell are you waiting for!” he shouted, nearly apoplectic as his hands came loose. “Get after them! I want them dead! All of them!”
Chris pulled to a stop at the head of the trail down to the convent and dumped Jeb Fishman on the ground. The younger brother moaned but didn’t complain as he watched the black-clad gunslinger spur his horse into a gallop after the moustached man on the gray horse.
He managed to push himself into a sitting position, confused at the fact that they’d left him behind. He’d thought he would be a hostage….
He was still frowning when he heard the gallop of hooves behind him. Turning, he struggled to his feet and smiled as his brother and the rest of the hired guns emerged out of the trees to converge on his position.
Andy jumped off his horse, grabbing a knife from his saddle.
“You all right?” he asked, cutting Jeb’s bonds. The younger brother nodded. “Then come on,” Andy said, grabbing his arm. “We’re going after ‘em, and, this time, I ain’t gonna let any of ‘em go, especially not the lying bastard calling himself Chris Larabee…..”
“Here’s Mr. Dunne,” Ezra muttered to himself, straightening as he saw JD doing his best to run through the mire in the back of the convent with Miguel on his back. He’d tethered Bonnie at the place they’d chosen in advance, a place well outside the range of what was about to happen, all of them knowing better than to try to make the horses cross the mud. The kid’s face was getting red from carrying the boy, stopping once to shift Miguel higher, but he was determined. Carrying the boy was faster than trying to make him run through the mud himself.
Ezra’s eyes narrowed as JD got closer and he could see the state of his purple jacket…was it his imagination, or did it look a little off-color?
Suddenly, JD tripped and fell face down into the muck, unable to catch himself. Ezra winced, watching as Miguel slipped off JD’s back and JD pushed himself up on his arms, shaking his head to loosen the mud out of his face and hair. His entire front looked like an oil slick.
“It’s just mud,” Ezra muttered to himself, trying not to think about his jacket and focus on their safety as JD stood up, picked up Miguel again, and started jogging more cautiously to the back door of the convent. “Just a little mud, it’ll be okay….”
Standing guard at another window, Nathan heard the mantra and had to bite his lip not to say anything.
Murdock was grinning, his arms gripped around BA’s middle, music ringing in his ears. The sergeant was too busy guiding Van to notice, but the captain was humming the theme song he’d made up. The horse, oddly, seemed to be running in time with the music and it almost seemed to spur Van to even greater speed….
Buck had to say he was impressed. He could see BA and Murdock well ahead of him, that huge horse carrying them both as fast…if not faster…than he was moving on Gray. The sergeant’s horse was clearly not a normal horse. Thoughts of Bellerophon and Pegasus came to mind.
Still, it pissed him off. Mythological creature or not, that Van wasn’t faster than his Gray.
“Hyah!” he shouted, standing up in the stirrups and hanging over Gray’s neck. “Come on, boy….you’re not going to let that huge black embarrass you now, are you?”
Chris, not far behind, imitated Buck’s movements, and spurred Solon to greater speed as Buck started to get away from him.
“And here come the rest of them,” Ezra said, standing up straighter as he recognized Murdock and BA run on foot out of the woods. A second later, Buck appeared behind them, turning a few times to look for someone…and then there was Chris. All four men ran as fast as possible across the muck, Chris and Buck both with their guns out. The mud slowed them all considerably, forcing them to an awkward jog.
A noise from behind him had Ezra looking around as a very muddy JD half fell into the room, the boy Miguel right behind him.
“Get him under cover!” Ezra shouted. JD nodded at the order, and pushed Miguel to
one of the cots, telling him to get under it.
Nathan wondered if he should go with them, to check on the captain, though Murdock had looked all right when he was running. He had his answer when he saw the movement of a large group of men riding through the trees in the distance, moving swiftly down the hillside. Pulling back the catch on his rifle, he set the weapon against his shoulder and sighted down the length.
JD ran up to Ezra’s window, then looked at the gambler. “Where do you want me?”
Ezra glanced at him and shut his eyes a moment as he finally had his first real look at the purple jacket. Swallowing bravely, he mastered his emotions enough to gruffly state: “With Josiah…in the other room.”
JD nodded, gave a quick salute, and left.
A shuddering sigh ran the length of the gambler’s frame.
His purple jacket….
He was going to kill him. Slowly.
“Sure thing colonel,” Murdock replied, grabbing one of the rifles, the captain’s eyes sparkling with pumped up adrenaline. “Wrists are torn up some, and I’m running on no sleep, but I’m doing well enough for now.”
“Feel up to roof duty? Bat in the belfry?”
Murdock gave a wicked smile and saluted.
“All fine,” Chris stated. “And your lieutenant?”
“Better, thanks to your Nathan.”
Chris opened his mouth to reply when Ezra’s voice shouted “They’re coming!” from somewhere upstairs. At almost the same time, Hannah released a scream that could have shattered glass, and all five men jumped.
“Calm her down!” Josiah demanded, trying to keep his voice steady.
“I’m trying!” Antonia retorted, gripping Hannah in a tight
hug. Josiah’s sister was trying to pull
away, but Antonia held her close, making soothing noises.
She let out another scream so piercing Antonia thought she’d
go deaf, and
Josiah’s eyes were manic as he knew he couldn’t leave his post. Any minute now, they’d start firing, and what would Hannah do then? He looked over at JD, who was manning another window, and noticed the kid was doing his best to pretend nothing out of the ordinary was happening. He stayed focused on the men who were now hanging just out of site at the edge of the woods on the hill.
The door to the room banged open, and BA and Buck pushed into the room, the ladies’ man joining Josiah at his window, a rifle in his hand. BA glanced at the women as he moved to case another window, and Josiah risked looking away from the trees again at his sister, hoping he wouldn’t have to do something drastic like tie her up.
His mouth dropped as he saw Hannah smiling. She was looking at BA, who was checking his rifle to make sure it was properly loaded.
BA looked up, saw Hannah smiling at him, and gave a half-hearted smile in return. Then he looked at Antonia and Frances.
“Why aren’t the three of you under cover?” he asked.
Antonia was about to answer, when Hannah spoke.
“Do you see?” she asked, looking straight at the sergeant. “Josiah came. I told you he’d come. That’s him there,” she glanced at Josiah, frowned a little, then smiled as she looked at BA again.
BA frowned, but nodded, not looking in the least surprised that she had addressed him directly. Josiah covered up his open mouth with his hand. He hadn’t heard her speak directly to anyone since…since...he couldn’t remember.
“Yes, ma’am,” BA said. “You were right.”
Her smile blossomed into a grin. Then she tilted her head, “Is he helping you?” she asked.
“Yes, but, ma’am, look, some men are about to attack this place,” the sergeant stated. “There will be lots of very loud gunfire and you need to be under cover,” he indicated the beds. Hannah nodded.
“Oh,” she said, looking around, vaguely puzzled, “okay….”
“Hannah,” BA said, “now, please, lie down now.”
“Lie down now,” Hannah repeated. She looked at Antonia and Frances and
smiled. They in turn looked at her like
she’d sprung two heads, but, when Josiah’s sister proceeded to lie down on the
floor, her arms wrapping around a pillow they’d laid down there, they decided
not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Antonia placed herself next to Hannah, resting a hand on the other
woman’s arm while
BA nodded, then turned to look at where JD and Buck were both watching out the windows, rifles resting in the crook of their shoulders. He grimaced when he saw Josiah just staring at him.
“Something the matter, preacher?”
“Yes…no,” Josiah said, swallowing, “I….”
“Can we talk about this later?” Buck interrupted. “We’re about to get company!”
As if on cue, the first rifle fire from the trees bombarded the convent.