Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
The episode Vendetta was written by Mark Haskell Smith.
Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: Betaed by Marnie.
Buck threw his cards down in disgust.
"He folds," Ezra told the assembled company.
Buck ignored the comment and turned to call for a drink. "Hey, Hank? Hank Connolly?" He looked up at the gaunt looking man.
"Buck Wilmington. I remember you. You still that loudmouth, whore-mongering good-for-nothin'?
"You still as ornery as a mule with a rattler up his backside? I think you are. What are you doing here?"
Hank walked over to Chris. "Got some business with my son-in-law."
Chris didn't look up. "What do you want?"
"I heard you were here. Been riding for days to find you. Chris Larabee... I need your help."
Before he could say anything more JD burst into the saloon, making a bee-line for Buck.
"Hey, Papa, Papa! Come an' see!" He took hold of the Buck's sleeve and began to try and drag him toward the door. "You gotta look at this."
All the adults obediently walked toward the swing doors.
"Look, Mr Ezra! Look at that!" JD was practically bouncing on the spot as the jet-black coach rumbled into town, accompanied by black clad out-riders.
"I don't think they're from around these parts," Nathan commented somewhat superfluously.
"What are those things? The black things on their hats?" JD asked, looking at the young man in their top hats, with black sashes around them.
Ezra knelt down beside the small boy. "Those are called 'weepers'. Proper attire for a period of mourning."
"When people are remembering someone who has died."
JD turned and looked at Ezra. "Am I s'pposed to have one, for momma?"
Ezra smiled, touching JD's little nose gently with the tip of his finger. "No, not every one has to do it, and anyway you only do it just after someone dies, just for a short time - okay?"
JD nodded solemnly.
The rather dumpy woman in black, who had stepped out of the carriage, looked around her with disdain. "What a sewer," she commented.
Hank had hung back, keeping to the dark interior of the saloon.
As the old woman told the young men with her to split up and begin searching, the men wandered back into the saloon, followed by JD.
As Hank began to speak, Chris retook his seat.
"They're after me, they're lookin' to avenge what I did. I found ... the fella... who shot your wife and kid. He murdered...Sarah and Adam. And I shot him with this gun." He put his revolver down on the table in front of Chris.
"I already killed that man," Chris told him darkly, referring to the recent death of Fowler.
"I don't know who you killed, but this fella was behind it. He may have not done it with his own hands, but he was behind it," Hank claimed.
"Who did you kill?" Buck asked. He had this feeling, deep in his gut, the kind of feeling he got when everything was about to go to hell.
"David Nichols. He had his ranch across the valley from Chris Larabee's," Hank told them.
Chris frowned. "David Nichols? I remember him. He didn't strike me as no killer."
"He was from a bad family. And the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, Chris Larabee. And that Nichols fella was from a bunch of cold-blooded killers." Hank looked toward the doors, outside the Nichols boys were searching the town for their brother's killer.
Just then Vin came running in through the doors.
"Is it a circus?" he asked Chris.
"That ain't no circus, boy," Hank told him. "That's the Nichols family. And they're after me on account of I killed one of their kin. And they been chasing me from town to town."
"Wait." Ezra interjected. "The Nichols brothers? The Nichols brothers, from Kansas City?"
"You heard of 'em? " Hanks asked.
Before Ezra could respond. Buck quietly told the boys to go outside and keep a lookout for the men in the black hats. Not only did they need warning if one of the Nichols was headed toward them, but he had a feeling this wasn't a conversation the boys needed to hear.
Once they were out of ear shot Ezra continued. "Oh, who hasn't? Oh, boys, boys, big Jack Nichols was the most infamous racketeer west of the Mississippi. He expired in prison about 10 years ago, but he left behind a brood of notorious cut-throats and reprobates who now have the distinction of running their criminal enterprise in a very business-like manner."
"You brought these people here?" Chris fumed.
"I couldn't lose 'em. They just kept a-comin'."
"You should've come to me. I would've taken care of him."
The others kept out of it as the two men continued to argue. As far as Chris was concerned Hank's troubles were of his own making and he had to live with it, but now he'd brought that trouble to Four Corners, to his town, threatening his new family.
JD's head ducked under the doors "They's coming!"
Buck suggested they hide Hank in the church. Josiah just managed to get him out of the saloon by the back door when two young men in black strode into the saloon.
"Excuse us, Sirs, but can we ask you a question?" one of them asked.
JD giggled. "You just did."
The man turned toward JD and made to grab him by the shoulder.
"You touch that boy and it'll be the last thing you ever do," Buck warned darkly.
The old lady in black had arrived, and it was clear she was in charge. "Oh, there's no need for that, now." She turned to Buck. "I'm sorry to trouble you, son, but have you seen an old, ruddy-faced man around here? He's about 6 feet tall, clean shaven, wears a doe-coloured plainsman."
"Son?" Buck asked incredulously.
"Have you seen him?" she asked again.
"Nope, no one like that," he told her.
"You sure?" one of the men asked.
Ezra looked up at him disdainfully "You heard him."
The old lady, presumably Mrs Nichols, addressed the saloon in general. "I am sorry to trouble you, sirs. You've all heard me describe the old man. I will pay a reward of $100 in gold to anyone who can tell me where he is." No one responded. Mrs Nichols turned to one of her sons. "John... let us go find the church. I need a priest."
Once the lady, whom Vin had taken an instant dislike to, was gone, he ran over to JD. "Are you okay?"
"Uh uh," JD confirmed. "I don't like them," he stated firmly.
"Me neither," Vin agreed. Both boys looked up at Buck expectantly.
"Me neither," he added.
"And I thought my mother was bad," Ezra commented.
"Boy's you stay with Ezra, okay?"
The boys nodded, edging closer to the gambler as Buck crossed to speak to Chris. He wanted to make his friend see that Hank was family, he was hurting, too, but Chris was having none of it. Finally he shouted at Buck.
"You're so concerned, you protect him." With that he walked out of the saloon.
Vin made to follow him, but Ezra's firm hand on his shoulder stopped him.
Buck took a long deep breath. He was upset, angry, and those old feelings of deep grief for his lost 'sister' and 'nephew' had resurfaced. He needed to his keep clear head and not show the boys how worried he was. Finally he crossed back to them, finding both boys standing a little forlornly, pressed up against Ezra's legs. Buck knelt down to be at their level.
"Is Pa alright?" Vin asked tentatively.
"He's remembering Sarah and Adam, you remember I told you about them?" Both boys nodded. "And you remember what I told you about it?"
"We mustn't ever talk to him about them or ask questions," Vin repeated solemnly.
Buck looked over at JD, who nodded sadly. He understood. It made his tummy feel all squirrely if he started to think on his momma too much.
"Mr Connolly was Sarah's Pa and seeing him here makes Chris think on her a lot. So you boys just run on and play, and don't talk to those people, mind. It'll all be okay soon. Okay?" He opened his arms and both boys stepped into the embrace.
JD wrapped his little arms around Buck's neck and hugged him. Vin, trusting in Buck to keep his world safe, also hugged him.
Peter Nichols turned to see a very small boy watching him intently as he started to unload his family's luggage. "Hey, Boy, do you know anyone who can help me with these trunks?"
"I ain't a boy," Casey told him indignantly.
Peter grinned and squatted down in front of her. "Well, well, well. What's a lovely young lady such as yourself doin' in this dusty old town?"
Casey shrugged, "I live here. Do you live here now?"
"No," Peter smiled, "I'm just visiting. I live in Kansas City."
Casey gasped. "Wow that's a big place, my Aunt Nettie tolded me so."
"Yeah, I guess it is."
JD came running around the corner. "Casey were you been? I though we was playing hide and go seek?"
Seeing Nichols, he pulled up short.
"Well, hello there, who are you?" Peter asked.
JD frowned. "I'm not s'pposed to talk to you," he stated sullenly
"Oh, well I guess I'll find out soon enough. Good day, young lady." With that he stood up and went back to unloading the coach, as the two small children scampered back to their game.
Hank watched Ma Nichols walking toward his place of hiding. "There she is, the one that's trying to kill me."
"That old lady?" Josiah asked.
"She's a man-slayer."
While Hank stayed in the back room, Josiah stepped into the church.
With their mother seeking confession in the church, her sons continued to search the town.
"Looks like a flock of circlin' buzzards. Just haven't found the body yet," Nathan commented.
"An apt description, Mr. Jackson. But they are also people of sophistication. Perhaps if I parlay with them, I might uncover their designs."
"What's parlay?" Vin asked. He'd been watching the men with Ezra.
"It means to discuss, to negotiate."
Vin just looked up at him, none the wiser.
"Go parlay, Ezra," Nathan encouraged. He was for anything that might get these people out of town.
Nathan and Vin were still watching Ezra talking with the Nichols boys when Buck joined them.
"Uncle Buck, where's Pa?" Vin asked tentatively.
"Hey there, Cowboy," Buck greeted, ruffling Vin's hair. "Chris rode out to his place, don't you worry, he'll be back."
"Reckon he's none too happy that the hunt's off." Nathan commented.
Buck agreed with him. "I reckon it'll take him a little time to adjust."
"Why won't Pa help Mr Connolly, he's his kin ain't he?" Vin asked
Buck sat down on the step and patted the space beside him. Vin was all too happy to sit down beside him.
"Hank thought Sarah was the sweetest flower on the prairie. She was. And he thought Chris was a no-good, hot-headed Well he, let's just say he didn't think Chris was good enough for his little girl."
"But Chris is the best!" Vin protested.
"Well of course he is, I know that and you know that, but Hank didn't see that. But there was something special between Sarah and Chris. I mean... you could see it. She changed him. When they were together, I've never seen two people...happier in my life. Ol' Hank, he just never saw the good in Chris. After they were married, he never spoke to either one of them again."
"Until today," Vin pointed out.
Josiah sighed. "I can't forgive you for something you haven't done yet," he told Mrs. Nichols.
"It's as good as done," she told him firmly.
"You know, the Navajo believe that the spirit of the dead comes back for revenge."
Despite this comment, Josiah persisted. "Come back as coyotes, whirlwinds. Why don't you let the coyotes bring your son peace?"
"I've heard better preaching coming out the backside of a horse!"
"The bible says forgive as you would be forgiven," Josiah tried, changing tack.
"The bible says an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I won't rest until Hank Connolly's dead." Just then there was a noise from the back room. "Who's here?" Mrs Connolly demanded, starting to walk toward the door.
"Ma! He's out here! Ma! Ma! I got him! I got him! Ma! Ma!" one of her son's shouted from the street.
Before Josiah could stop her, Ma Nichols was out of the house and bearing down on Connolly who was struggling to free himself from John Nichols bear like grasp
"I'm gonna kill ya, Hank Connolly!" Ma Nichols shouted as she strode toward them.
Suddenly out of no where, or so it seemed, Chris came galloping down the street and rode between John and Hank, spinning the black clad man to the ground were he landed heavily, crying out in pain.
Chris wheeled Pony and headed back to Hank. "Grab on!" he yelled, helping Hank up behind him and charging back out of town.
"You and anyone that helps you. So help me, Almighty God!" Ma Nichols shouted after Chris.
Ma Nichols looked on disparagingly as Nathan knelt by her injured son, as he was settled on a chair in the hotel.
"Peter, I sent you for the doctor," she admonished on of her other sons.
"Ma, he is the doctor."
"I'm a healer, Ma'am," Nathan corrected.
"A healer? What is wrong with this town?" she despaired.
John Nichols proved to be a less than stoic patient, as Nathan set his broken arm, not that his mother was at all sympathetic. While their brother drank whisky to deaden the pain, some of his older siblings were terrifying the gunsmith into telling them who the man on the black was and where he lived. While his brothers 'questioned' the shopkeeper Peter kept watch outside.
"Hello again, pretty one," he greeted Casey. "Can you tell me where I might find the sheriff?"
Casey giggled. "We don't have a sheriff here."
"There's umm," She counted on her fingers then grinned. "Five men, they take care of us, Aunt Nettie says they p'tect us. Bet they have a lot of sheriffs in Kansas City, huh?"
"You should come see for yourself. A woman like you come to Kansas City... you'd start a wildfire."
"Me? I'm not allowed to play or go near the fire or touch candles or lanterns or any matches, not ever," Casey told him earnestly.
"No sweetie, I mean you're pretty, pretty as a princess."
"Really, a princess? Me?"
"Well, sure you are."
"Hey, Casey!" JD called as he ran up.
"Who's that?" Peter asked.
"JD, he's my friend."
"He's the one who won't talk to me."
Casey shrugged. "His Pa told him not to. I gotta go now."
"Bye then, little princess."
Casey ran up to JD.
"Why were you talking to him?" JD demanded. "Papa don't like them men."
"He said I was a princess," Casey told him, as if that explained everything.
Nathan eased the young Nichols boy's arm into a sling.
"Your mother seems like she's a real pious woman," Nathan commented once the lady in question had retired upstairs.
"That she is."
"Well, I guess I can't understand why she'd be so bent on killing somebody."
"Mama loves us all, but she loved David the most. He was taken away from us. We got to avenge that."
Nathan nodded his understanding. Just then Buck and Josiah, with Vin in tow came into the hotel.
"Hey," Buck greeted.
Buck peered down at John Nichols and his broken arm. "You set that arm real tight?" he asked.
"So he won't be able to shoot anybody now - right?" Vin asked.
"Well that wasn't my plan, but no he won't be able to hold a gun for a while," Nathan told the boy, ignoring the glare his patient was sending his way.
"The old man is staying with someone named Larabee. We know where he lives. So let's ride," Peter Nichols announced as he strode in.
Instantly John was on his feet and grabbing for his hat. "Thanks, Doc," he called as he made to leave.
"You can't ride until that bone sets," Nathan protested.
"It'll have to wait. I gotta ride."
Nathan shook his head. "Some people never listen."
Buck looked down at Vin. "Son, I want you to find JD and go on over to Mrs Potter's until we come back, okay?"
"I can ride, I can help too," Vin protested.
"Not this time, Cowboy."
They were all heading out as Ezra strode in. "Hold your horses, boys. This building doesn't appear to be on fire," he observed.
"They know where Chris lives," Vin declared worriedly.
"Well, I should hope so. I gave them explicit directions," Ezra told him with a wink.
"You did what?"
Ezra sank down into on of the well stuffed chairs. "If they follow my instructions to the letter, they should reach Juarez by week's end. I believe we have about two hours before my deceit will be uncovered. Of course when they discover that I've sent them on a wild goose chase, I have their firm assurance they would come back to inflict upon me, and I quote, excruciating pain." He winked again at Vin, reassuring him he really wasn't in any danger. The boy didn't need any more worries, even if Ezra himself was more than a little concerned.
"Nathan, you best stay in town. Ezra may need some doctoring. Me and Josiah 'll go warn Chris," Buck announced.
"I want to warn Chris, too," Vin declared.
"Vin, we discussed this." Buck's voice had a clear warning in it. "Go find JD and mind Nathan and Ezra, okay?"
"Yes, Sir," he finally admitted.
Ezra picked up the bottle of whiskey the Nichols boys had abandoned. "On your horses, boys." He took a pull on the whiskey. "My that is good," he commented and took a second drink.
"Go easy on that stuff," Nathan warned, mostly out of habit.
As they settled on chairs outside Chris' shack, Hank began to tell how he came to kill David Nichols. The more he talked, the more Chris got the uneasy feeling Hank's grip on reality had slipped. No matter what Hank said he knew where was no silver on his land or anywhere near it. He'd been there recently; there was no evidence that anyone had been prospecting. Hank said two of his neighbours had sold up just after him, but now he thought on it, he remembered that Frank Davis, whose land bordered his, had consumption. It was no wonder he sold up. People sold up all the time. Ranching and farming was hard work, and not everyone made it.
"What are you doing with them knots?" Chris asked, watching Hank finger his knotted handkerchief.
"So I remember. Remember not to forget. But you know all about that."
Chris sighed "Some things I don't want to remember. Others I don't want to forget."
"Feels pretty strange, don't it? To carry around all that anger all this time. Now you don't know who to be mad at. You can be mad at me if it'll help you out any."
"I already done that. Didn't do any good."
Buck pulled up and dismounted. Bending down he began scrutinising the trail. "They turned around. Headed right to Chris," he declared.
"I reckon somebody straightened them out," Josiah commented.
"Reckon so, let's ride."
"Is that dumplings?" Hank asked, watching Chris stir the stew pot on the stove.
"Sarah teach you how to do that?"
Chris nodded. "She made the best chicken and dumplings I ever ate. Adam wanted them every night. I did, too. But she always said, 'Sunday's the day for dumplings.' I never knew why. Just the way she was."
"Sunday dumplings. She got that peculiarity from her mother. And I don't know why she did it either. But I miss those dumplings."
"There was a place for you, you would have been welcome in our home."
"You didn't have time for the old man."
"Don't give me that. You didn't approve of me and you punished Sarah for that. You cut us out of your life, not the other way around."
"Of course I didn't approve. 'Cause even after you were married, you was still a rogue. Gallivanting out of town with your friends, roostered up, looking for trouble. Trouble came, didn't it, Chris Larabee? Trouble came. Killed my little girl. Where were you?" Hank accused angrily.
"You weren't there neither. Gonna spend the rest of our lives blaming each other? It's not what she would've wanted. Gotta learn to let it go."
"I can't. Maybe I loved her too much."
"Maybe we both did. I lost my wife and my son. I wasted too many years punishing myself for something I didn't do. Now I have a new life and a new family. I'm not going to let you put that in danger."
"I've sort of adopted a boy," Chris admitted, "Buck, too."
"That scrawny boy with the long hair who was hanging around you in town?"
"Vin," Chris confirmed.
"You replaced my grandson with some half-breed whelp?"
Ignoring Hank's erroneous assumptions about Vin's parentage, Chris glared at his former father in law. "I am not replacing Adam. Vin is a great kid, who's had a rough time, he deserves a decent start in life, and I I love him."
"How can you turn your back on my grandson like that?"
"Don't. Don't even try that. I have room in my heart for more than one person, more than one son. Maybe if you did, you'd be at home, David Nichols would still be alive, and my son wouldn't be in danger now!"
The sound of galloping horse outside put an abrupt end to the argument.
Chris pulled up once they were clear of the shack.
"Josiah, you double back, make sure they arent following, then head on into town. Me an' Buck'll take Hank on as far as the Ridge City trail," he instructed.
"Sure thing." Sanchez turned his horse around.
"Watch your back," Chris warned.
The three of them rode on until dusk before they made camp.
"Hank, come first light you head north from here, you'll hit the trail before noon. Head west and it'll take you into Ridge City; you can catch a train from there. We'll slow those city folks down for you," he assured.
"I got nowhere to go," Hank responded.
"Hank, you gotta go. You killed a man," Buck pointed out.
Having lost the trail, the brothers headed back to face their mother. It was dark then they rode into town. She was pacing outside the saloon, Josiah sitting behind her sipping whiskey.
"He tricked us, ma," John told his mother.
"Who tricked you?" she demanded.
"That fancy-talkin' fella."
"There's five of 'em, Ma. They've been protecting Connolly, playing us for fools," Peter told her.
She turned to Josiah. "Is that true? Are there five men protecting Hank Connolly?"
"You should take your boys and leave town, Ma'am," he advised quietly.
"You tell those men I will not be made a fool of. You tell those five men I'm sending them and Connolly straight to the devil!"
"I'll pass that along."
While Hank slept, and a summer storm rumbled above them, Chris and Buck reminisced about the past and the early days of Chris and Sarah's courtship.
After a while the mood changed as Chris admitted he could no longer see Sarah's face in his head. "Can't hear Adam calling me Pa. They're fading away."
"Maybe it's time for that?" Buck suggested. "You've got a new family now, another little boy looking t' you to love him, protect him and teach him to be a man. Maybe it's time to let Sarah and Adam go?"
"I don't know, Buck, I think I need to remember."
Come first light, Chris tried to convince Hank to head to Mexico, he even offered to go with him.
"No, Chris Larabee. You got a home here. Besides, I prefer to keep my own company. Maybe I'll see you around one of these days."
"That would be nice."
"I was wrong about you, Chris."
"Vaya con Dios. We're heading back to town."
With that they parted company.
Buck and Chris made it back to town by mid afternoon, slipping in unnoticed and taking up residence in the saloon again.
"PAPA!" JD shrieked as he followed Nathan in and spied his Pa.
"Hey there, Little Bit!" Buck greeted equally loudly, bending down and swinging JD up into his arms and whirling him around. This elicited ear-splitting cries of delight from JD.
"That child should come with a health warning," Ezra commented.
"Told you to take it easy on that whiskey," Nathan told him.
"Hi, Pa," Vin greeted more quietly, but no less happily.
Chris dropped down onto one knee to greet his son. "Hey there, Cowboy, I missed you."
"Missed you, too. Where's Mr Connolly?"
Chris and Buck had already resolved not to tell the boys where they had advised Hank to go. It would be safer that way. "I don't know, son. He didn't say."
"Oh, okay. Will those people go away now? I don't like them."
"Well, I sure hope so."
The boys stayed with the men in the saloon for a while, Ezra engaged JD in a game of snap, although JD had a tendency to shout 'SNAP!' just for fun every few cards. Eventually he got bored and asked if he could go to the store.
"Okay," Buck agreed. "Here's a penny. Why don't you buy two candy sticks, one for you and one for Vin."
JD bounced up and down. "Yeah! Come on Vin, let's go!"
Vin was playing checkers with Chris. He looked up at JD and then back at Chris.
"It's okay, you can go."
But Vin didn't want to go; he was revelling in the chance to spend time with Chris. "It's okay, JD can chose for me."
"Okay!" With that JD was off and running to the store.
Happy with his candy, JD was making his way back to the saloon, hoping from one plank to the other along the sidewalk. Not looking were he was going, he suddenly bumped into something.
"Watch where you're going," Peter Nichols growled.
"I'm sorry," JD looked up at him, squinting into the sun.
"Oh, so you're talking to me now."
JD frowned. Suddenly one of the other Nichols grabbed him by the arms and lifted him up, the candy falling to the ground, were it lay forgotten.
"Now you listen to me, boy," Peter began, putting his face inches from the terrified JD. "We've been watching... We know your Pa is one of the men in the saloon, one of the men that's been protecting Hank Connolly - you know who that is?"
Shaking with fear, tears rolling unchecked down his cheeks, JD nodded.
"Good, 'cause I've got a message for them, and you're gonna be the messenger."
"I'm not a messenger I'm just a little boy," JD protested.
"Oh, don't worry, being the messenger is a good thing."
"Yeah," growled the brother holding JD. "We don't kill the messenger, so listen good, 'cause if you forget we'll kill you, too!"
In the saloon the others were just commenting that Nichols clan had not yet made good on their threats when JD came running in.
"Papa!" he wailed.
Like the seasoned parent he was fast becoming, Buck abandoned his drink, spun around and dropped to his knees to intercept the clearly distressed boy.
"Hey there, hush, I'm here," he soothed, taking the boy in his arms.
Unfortunately his well meaning and usually welcome hug made the little boy wince in pain.
"What the...? Nathan?"
Jackson was there already and began to roll up one of JD's sleeves. What they found enraged Buck. Angry red marks on JD's little arms, marks in the shape of handprints.
"Who could do that?" Buck asked in a hushed snarl.
"I can't find nothing seriously wrong with him, just these bruises," Nathan assured him.
"Papa?" JD asked looking up worriedly at Buck.
"Hey, it's okay," Buck soothed, wiping away tears with his thumb "Can you tell me who hurt you?"
"The m m ean men in the bl black hats, they told me I's a mess'ger."
Chris knelt beside JD and Buck. "JD, can you tell me what the message was?"
"They they they said you got to s s send Mr Connolly out or they's gonna kill everyone," JD managed to stammer out past his tears. Then he wrapped his arms, bruises forgotten in his distress, around Buck's neck. "Dont let them kill you, please!" he wailed.
Chris turned away as Buck continued to comfort his son, only to find Vin standing there all alone, fear and distress in his eyes.
"It's okay, no one is going to kill us, Mr Connolly's not here any more, remember?" he assured.
"But they hurt JD," Vin countered angrily.
"Yes, they did and we'll make them pay for that. Now I want you to take JD upstairs were he'll be safe."
"No! I wanna help, I can fight, you now I can, I can shoot!" Vin protested angrily.
"Vin, you mind me, I need someone to take JD upstairs and keep him there until it's safe. The rest of us can take care of the Nichols boys."
"Go on now boy."
Once the boys were safely up stairs, the others asked where Hank was.
"He's headed to Mexico," Chris assured them.
"You know, I can't help but wonder if that old lady isn't right. What if her son was innocent?" Josiah asked.
Nathan nodded. "You know I felt the same way. Talking to that one who broke his arm. They all seem so sincere."
"A wise man once said, little sincerity is a dangerous thing. And a great deal of it is absolutely fatal," Ezra muttered."
"Guilty or not, they hurt JD and they have no right to execute a man without a trial," Buck commented darkly.
"We're gonna finish this." With that, Chris took out his gun and began to check it.
"Chris Larabee, I shot him, Chris. I met the man who killed your wife and son."
Chris looked up. What was Hank doing back here? The old man stood there, his eyes wide and wild.
"Hank? What did you say?" Chris asked.
Hank described again how he killed Sarah's murderer, yet the story was different; this time he'd killed a traveller on the road, claiming he wanted Sarah for himself. All the time his eyes stared wildly.
"His mind's gone," Buck stated, voicing what they could all see.
"Shot him three times. Bang. Bang. Bang. Green-eyed monster," Hank continued to mutter.
Even as Buck was persuading the confused old man to sit down, Ma Nichols called to them.
"You, inside. Send out the old man! We know he's in there. You have one minute!"
"We can't send him out there, Chris. They'll kill him," Buck told his old friend.
"No trouble. No trouble at all. That's them, the Nichols. I'm no trouble," Hank was now rambling.
Chris strode out into the sunlit street to meet Mrs Nichols.
"We need to talk. I know your boy was innocent," he told her.
"Then send Hank Connolly out."
"He's sick. He's not right in the head. Doesn't know who he is or where he is."
"There's no excuse for murdering my son."
"You're right. We'll take him back, see he stands trial."
"You'll have your justice. No sense anybody else getting hurt."
"That's not my kind of justice. My justice is the apocalypse." With that she dropped her handkerchief.
Chris only just had time to shout a warning to the others and dive for cover as gunfire erupted all around them!
Vin had just got JD calmed down when the gunfire erupted. Both boys ducked down and crawled under the bed. JD clamped his hands over his ears in a vain attempted to block out the sound of battle and thus block out the fear that he was about to lose his new father. Vin, consumed with his own fears, still did his best to comfort his young friend as they huddled under the bed. Suddenly the gunfire came to an end. Thinking the battle was over, little knowing it was just that everyone was re-loading, the boys emerged. As they peeped over the sill they saw the Nichols huge black coach rumbling into town.
"Is it over?" JD asked.
Before Vin could reply the guns opened up again, splinters flew, glass shattered. The boys, transfixed, remained at the window. As they watched, Ezra sprinted out from the saloon ducked under the horses pulling the wagon. He was carrying a bottle with him. Just as it looked as if he would make it to the coach's roof, the bottle shattered.
"Josiah! Whiskey!" they heard him shout.
"Vin, look!" JD pointed frantically to their left. One of the Nichols had Ezra in his sight and no one but them could see him.
"I ain't got my gun!" Vin despaired.
JD had his sling shot. He kept it in his pocket at all times, the way he saw his father and the other men keep their guns on then at all times. Vin on the other hand saw no such need, to him a sling shot was a just a toy, it wasn't a real weapon, not like his gun, still locked up and useless in the gun rack at the jail. JD pulled out his weapon and shoved it at Vin. "You's a better shot than me!"
"But we got no stones. You got your marbles?"
JD shook his head. Vin looked around the room wildly, then ran to the bed. With sure but frantic hands he unscrewed the big knob on top of the bedpost then ran back carrying the heavy brass sphere. By now Ezra had a new bottle of whiskey. The heavy brass missile only just fitted into the sling, but once in Vin didn't hesitate to aim, draw and fire. His aim was true, hitting the man right between the shoulder blades. He fell as if pole axed.
Just then a fireball erupted from the coach.
"JD, get down!" Vin grabbed the five-year-old and pulled him down.
"I don't like it," JD confessed, once more clamping his hands over his ears.
Vin wrapped his arms around JD and held on to him. Only minutes later the guns fell silent again. This time they could hear voices outside. Vin risked looking down into the street.
"The old lady is talking to Josiah, I reckon it really is over this time."
The boys made their way down to the bar and over to the doors. Peeking out they saw Hank lying in the street.
"Is he dead Vin?" JD asked in hushed tones.
"Reckon so. One of them Nichols must have shot him."
"Is it over now? Fer real?"
JD was all for running out, then and there, but Vin held him back. Josiah turned away from Ma Nichols as Ezra crossed join to Chris, who had been kneeling beside Hank, but now stood up.
"He was a good man, once," Chris told Ezra sadly, still looking down at his former father-in-law.
"I don't doubt it, but there are better men here and some of them are still bleeding."
Chris looked around, seeing Josiah limping toward him. "You okay?" he asked.
"It's just a nick," the big man told him. "Buck's is worse."
"Buck?" Chris looked around.
Even as he did Buck was sliding down the post he'd been leaning against. "Buck!" Nathan shouted as he sprinted to reach him.
"Papa!" JD cried in distress, wriggling free from Vin and charging toward his father.
Thankfully Ezra managed to intercept the small boy before he barrelled into his father's injured shoulder.
"Le' me go!" JD cried.
"Now, Master Dunne, settle down, and let Mr Jackson work," Ezra told him softly, even as he held him.
"Forgot to duck, huh?" Chris commented, mostly to take Buck's mind off what Nathan was doing.
"Weren't the Nichols shot him," Josiah told them.
"What, but who " Chris began to ask. Then he looked over at Hank's body. "Damn, I'm sorry pal."
"Not your fault, not even his, not by then," Buck ground out past gritted teeth.
"I should have realised, at the cabin I had this feeling about him, but "
"You wanted it to be true, what he said about Sarah's killer. You wanted it over?"
Nathan looked over his shoulder. "If you two are done apologising, we need to get Buck up to the clinic, so I can stop this bleeding. And before you even think of going anywhere, Josiah Sanchez, you're coming, too. Vin?"
"Yes, Sir?" Vin answered.
"It's your job to make sure Josiah follows us, don't you let him escape."
Vin's chest filled with pride at the trust Nathan was showing in him. "I won't." He walked up to Josiah and took his hand. "Come on," he encouraged.
Chris leaned against the doorframe of the clinic door. Buck was sleeping on the big bed; his shoulder swathed in a fresh white bandage. JD lay on the bed beside him. He was still awake but by Chris' reckoning he wouldn't last much longer. Nathan came toward him, still drying his hands.
"Well?" Chris asked.
"It's a clean wound, but he lost a lot of blood. He'll need to rest and take it very easy for a few days."
Chris nodded. "Josiah?"
"Nasty gash, but it'll heal."
"Two dead, another two wounded, one shot - painful but not serious - and one with a huge bruise between his shoulders."
"Nothing to keep them in town?" Nathan shook his head. "Good, sooner they're gone the better. Thanks Nathan. Mind if I leave JD here with you for a while?"
"He's no problem."
Outside, Vin was sitting on the bench, listening to the adults talk. Chris sat down beside him. "Pa?" he began.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Mrs Nichols wanted kill Mr Connolly 'cause he killed her son, didn't she?"
"She did, yes."
"So now two more of her sons are dead, is she going to try and kill you now?"
"No, no that was different."
Vin looked across the street to the saloon, now peppered with bullet holes. "'Cause they were shooting at you?"
Vin still didn't understand it. "So why did she start the fight? Two of her boys got killed, so now three of them is dead, not one? I don't understand, didn't she love the other ones?"
Chris put his arm around his Vin. In response Vin let his head come to rest on his father's chest.
"Son, I can't explain it to you, I wish I could. Sometimes grief makes people do things, things that hurt them as much as it hurts others." He looked down at Vin. "Do you understand what I mean?"
Vin thought got a moment then nodded. "I think so, sort of."
Just then Mrs Nichols came out of the small undertakers office across the street. None of her sons followed her, she was all alone.
Vin watched her cross the empty street. He noticed the way the town's people looked at her. "I don't think Mrs Nichols has a friend to help her."
"I think you're right," Chris agreed sadly, grateful he had had a friend to keep him from being consumed by his grief like the lonely woman on the street below. A friend who had kept the madness that had consumed Hank Connolly from consuming him. A friend who helped him to see he had room in his heart for another son.
Next: Interlude: Catching the Easter Bunny