Just as Molly remembered, Four Corners was dusty and dry. As she rode down the street she glanced at the Clarion office, no longer Stephen’s, but hopefully still Mary’s. The last she had heard Mary was still here. Please let her still be here. But Mary could wait. Saloon first, then Nathan--Molly’s vision was blurred, but not her priorities.
Dismounting carefully, Molly entered the saloon and stepped to the right, just inside the batwing doors. It was a custom born of necessity, it allowed her eyes time to adjust to the dim interior, while avoiding being silhouetted in the doorway. In her line of work, saloons were exceedingly dangerous places.
When her gaze met Vin Tanner’s, it stopped long enough for them both to be certain of what they saw. Molly sighed...Wrong place, wrong time, Vin. The man sharing his table gave her pause, he had gunman written all over him. He seemed friendly enough with Vin, however, and Molly trusted Vin’s judgement more than she did that of most people. Satisfied she would likely live to reach her drink, she headed to the bar. The bartender was an old friend. Dan even held a bottle in reserve for Molly’s infrequent visits.
Chris Larabee looked up from his drink as the woman entered the saloon. What the hell... She bristled with weaponry and was dressed much as he was—men’s clothing, and most of it black. She carried a Winchester in her hand, a coach gun peeked out of a scabbard on her back, a wicked knife graced her left hip, and a revolver her right. A braid of brown hair bordered the scabbard, but the only true indications of her gender were her face and the barely visible curves beneath her rough clothing. Chris glanced at his drinking partner and caught Vin’s expression.
"You know her?"
Vin smiled slowly. "Used to. Molly Thompson."
"’Mostly Dead’ Thompson?" Chris looked surprised. "I didn’t think those stories were true."
"A woman bounty hunter...." Chris watched as Molly crossed the room, heading for the bar. "You don’t seem too worried."
"Molly’s not after me," Vin said softly.
"You sure ‘bout that?" Chris gave her arsenal another scrutiny.
"Yep. Molly is kinda choosy about who she hunts. I’m not her type."
"Glad to hear it." Chris refilled their glasses, his eyes staying on the woman. So why is she here?
"Dan." Molly motioned the barkeep over, forestalling any greeting with a raised hand. "I’ve heard about some hired guns watching over the town these days—would Vin Tanner be one of them?"
The bartender looked towards Vin. "He would be. That fella with him, too. That’s Chris Larabee."
Chris Larabee...it gets better and better.... "How many guns altogether?"
"Seven. Them two, Nathan Jackson, and some boys you likely wouldn’t know."
"Seven? And Nathan’s one of them?" Molly started to hope, for the first time in months. She gingerly touched her head, wondering if there was still blood visible on her face, or it the dust masked it. She needed to get to Nathan. "Thanks, Dan." She turned to leave, but felt her legs buckle as blackness engulfed her.
Vin and Chris both rushed to the fallen woman’s side, quickly checking for injuries. It was Vin who found the wound on the left side of her brow, but her blood-matted hair made it impossible to tell how serious it was.
"Let’s get her to Nathan." Scooping the injured woman up in his arms, Larabee stood and carried her from the saloon. Vin followed, bringing her hat and rifle and noticing, for the first time, the blood on both. They crossed the street and mounted the stairs to Nathan Jackson’s clinic.
Jackson was the closest thing Four Corners had to a physician. He received his medical training, such as it was, while serving as a stretcher-bearer during the War Between the States. Nathan's ability to heal was bolstered by both natural talent and keen intellect. The former slave had another calling as well, for Nathan was, as the bartender had said, one of Four Corners resident gunmen.
Nathan greeted them at the door. "What happened?" He was already assessing Molly’s condition as Chris laid her on the bed.
"She’s hurt," Vin said simply.
Taking note of the blood at her temple, Nathan began carefully probing around the edges of an ugly wound. "Bullet did this." He glanced at Vin and Chris, adding hastily, "It don’t look too bad—just a graze."
Chris stared down at the woman as Nathan continued his inspection. "Recent?"
Realizing what Chris meant, Nathan replied, "Yeah. No more’n a day at most." He began to clean and dress the wound. Should heal clean.
Before he could be asked, Vin stood and headed for the door. Never hurts to keep a lookout. Whoever done this might think she’s dead, then again, might not. Best to be safe.
Chris continued to watch Nathan work, Vin’s departure barely registering in his mind. This was going to be trouble, and it felt like it was going to be big trouble. He wished to hell he knew what had brought her here.
Finished his examination, Nathan looked over at Chris. "She’s gonna be OK, other than her head wound, there’s just some cuts and bruises. And Molly’s got a thick skull."
Eyes widening at the mention of Molly’s name, Chris regarded the healer. "You know her?" He was beginning to wonder if he was the only one in town who didn’t know Molly Thompson.
Surprise showed on Nathan's face. "You do know who this is, don't you? Chris, she’s Molly Travis--the Judge's daughter."
Chris stared dumbfounded. "Vin called her Thompson."
"That’s the name she uses to keep folks from knowin' 'bout the Judge. She don’t want him hurt by what she does. 'Round here, she’s Molly Travis." Nathan glanced down at the still form. "But she don't come 'round much lately. Not since her brother was killed. Last time was a few weeks after the funeral."
Chris pursed his lips, trying to decide how worried he should be at her arrival. "I’ll get Mary, and until we know why she’s here, and how that," he gestured at the completed bandage, "happened, I’m posting a guard. I don’t like this."
Nathan watched his friend leave. Chris Larabee had an uncanny knack of sensing storms on the horizon, and he looked like he could feel one now. Nathan rose and began to inventory his medical supplies.
Voices. She heard voices. Molly tried to comprehend what she was hearing. "Judge Travis..." "Vin is..." "...knows her." She fought her way to consciousness, wary of the unknown voices surrounding her. Her eyes finally opened to see Nathan bending over her, concern on his face.
"She’s awake." Nathan sighed with relief. Head wounds always made him uneasy.
"Nathan." Molly looked beyond her friend, to the two men staring down at her from the foot of the bed. She recognized Chris Larabee from the saloon, but the other….
"Molly, just rest now. You’re gonna be fine. The bullet just grazed you, that’s all." The smile on Nathan’s face was all the reassurance she required. Nathan didn’t sweeten the truth for his patients--if he said she’d be fine, she’d be fine.
"Good to hear." Her voice sounded far away. Her head hurt abominably, but if she focused hard enough, she could get beyond the pain. "You’re Chris Larabee." It wasn’t a question.
Nodding slowly, the black-clad gunman stared down at her, his face devoid of expression..
"Buck Wilmington, ma’am." Buck spoke up as her gaze shifted to him.
"Mary?" Molly turned back to Nathan. "Is Mary still in town?"
"She’s been with you most the day," he reassured her. "I sent her to get somethin’ to eat. No sense both you being ill."
"Most of the day? How long was I out?"
"Since this mornin’, ‘bout ten hours or so." Nathan informed her.
She looked around for her clothes, belatedly realizing that she was wearing a nightgown, undoubtedly one of Mary’s. "I need to leave. I never should have come here--it was a mistake."
"And why is that?" Larabee asked. His tone was casual, but his eyes were hard and challenging.
"Not your concern." Molly met his gaze unflinchingly.
Chris nodded, he knew when to strategically withdraw. Molly Travis had her reasons, but they were her reasons, and not subject to public examination. When, and if, she were ready, she would tell them what had led her here.
"Vin’s out looking for whoever it was that shot you." Chris volunteered.
"Good for Vin. He’ll have found him by now. Dead."
"You always this agreeable?" Chris was starting to become irritated.
"Usually less so. Must be the wound." Molly gingerly touched the bandage around her head. "Nathan, you’re an angel. I don’t know what I’d have done without you."
An uneasy smile crossed Nathan Jackson’s face. Molly was in some kind of trouble, that much was clear. She didn’t want to ask for help, that much was even clearer. She needed help, that was clearest of all.
"Ma’am, forgive my surprise, but I didn’t know Judge Travis had a daughter." Buck was trying to reconcile the woman before him with the somewhat stuffy, dignified Judge.
"I suspect he doesn’t advertise the fact." Molly smiled ruefully. "Somehow I doubt he’d acknowledge me, unless pressed."
"Just why is that?" Buck ignored both Chris’ and Nathan’s warning glances.
"You always this nosy?" Molly mimicked Chris’ irritated tone.
"Sorry. Just trying to figure out why someone would try to kill you. Any ideas on who’d want you dead?" Buck looked at Chris briefly, but couldn’t read his friends expression.
"No idea at all. I do know that this man is the third to try in the last four months.
Whoever is paying the bills really wants me dead. That’s why I need to leave. Mary is in danger..."
Chris cut her off. "We’ll protect Mary. Stay as long as you need...or want."
Molly looked closely at the man. Larabee seemed emotionless, except for his eyes--his eyes held the kind of pain that could only be lessened, never erased. She saw something of herself in those eyes, and it wasn’t a comfortable feeling.
Chris sent Buck to locate Ezra and Josiah, and to post both to stand guard over Mary and Billy. He turned at the sound of cursing. "What is it?"
"I didn’t think Billy was here. He’d been staying with the Judge. If anything happens to that boy because of me..." Molly’s eyes closed in anger. "I’m leaving in the morning."
"If that’s what you want. But you’d be better off staying." Chris’ face grew thoughtful. "Can you tell me why you’re so sure these men all were hired by the same person? I’d imagine you’ve collected your share of enemies by now."
"I don’t suppose my saddlebags are around here somewhere?" Nathan handed them over. Molly removed a small cloth bag from inside and emptied the contents onto the blanket covering her legs. "Because of these."
Chris paled. After a long moment he raised his eyes to meet Molly’s--searching for something--he didn’t know what. Answers, maybe. He turned and left the clinic.
Molly watched him go. She scooped up the bag’s contents--four silver coins, each stamped with the same design --and clenched them in her fist. Larabee’s reaction had scared the hell out of her. He was involved somehow, and that could be fatal. She didn’t know Chris Larabee, but she knew she didn’t want to kill him, or to be killed by him. She reached for her pants...
"Whoa, Molly. You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Leastways, not tonight. I’ll tie you down if I have to," Nathan warned. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, but it wasn’t good. Chris only got that look about him when his private hell was brought to the surface, and Molly never looked that scared. His earlier fears were coming true, a storm was gathering.
Lying back against the pillow, Molly realized she wasn’t fit to travel yet, at least not any great distance. She’d been riding hard for days, with little food or water. It was exhaustion, more than the injury, that was laying her up. Molly changed her tack. "Alright. I’m staying the night. Now, where’s my gun?" She smiled sweetly up at Nathan.
Chris Larabee closed the door to his room behind him, slowly crossing to the dresser and retrieving the wooden box he kept in the top right drawer. He forced himself to open it and look inside. A lock of Sarah’s hair that she’d given him on their wedding night. One of Adams toys—a wooden horse Chris had carved, like the one he had carved for Billy Travis. There were a few more momentos, and there was the item he’d come to get. A silver coin.
As his fingers closed over the smooth metal, Chris became icy cold inside, and then icy hot. He had another chance. Molly Travis was connected somehow, and if he could find the connection, he would find his man.
Her Colt resting on the bedclothes, Molly patiently waited for Larabee’s return. Depending on why he had bolted out the clinic door, she might or might nothave a use for her gun. She didn’t have to wait long.
Without pausing to knock, Chris strode into the room and showed Molly his coin. Her gun came up and the triple click of her cocking the hammer back brought down an eerie silence. Neither Chris nor Molly seemed willing to break the impasse.
"’Scuse me. Would you two like to talk this out? Molly, there’s no need for that gun o’ yours. Chris ain’t gonna hurt you." Nathan watched the tension start to drain from both their faces, and let out a breath as Molly raised her revolver, slowly lowering the hammer.
"Where." Molly ground out. "Where did you get that?"
"From the saddlebags of the man who killed my wife and son. Cletus Fowler. Heard of him?" Chris eyes were glittering. The few seconds it took for Molly to answer seemed agonizingly long.
"Never. What’s the connection? Why was your family killed?"
"I was the one he was after. He tried again a few months back, but he won’t be trying again. I never was able to learn who hired him." Chris looked closer at the coin, examining the pattern—it appeared to be a family crest. "Any ideas what these are?"
"As a matter of fact. I’ve watched them used to get food and rooms in about a half dozen towns. Just walk up to the proprietor, shown him the coin, and you get unlimited credit. Food, drinks, entertainment, supplies—you name it. Whoever is behind this has more gold than Croesus." Molly paused, trying to read Chris’ expression. "He’s going to be hard to get to. Harder to kill."
Frowning in thought, Chris suddenly realized something. "You said three men came after you? You have four coins."
Molly had wondered when he’d notice. "The forth one was found near my brother’s body. Mary didn’t recognize it, and I thought it might be a clue to who murdered him. Wasn’t Stephen’s killer caught about four months ago?"
"Right about the time the attacks started on you." Chris said slowly. "Can’t be a coincidence. No wonder you’re worried about Mary and Billy." He leaned heavily against the wall, suddenly very tired. What the hell is this about? "Nathan, how soon can she be moved?""
Nathan sighed. "If it’s just a short way, right now. No long rides or nothin’ like that for a day or so. Molly?" He glared warningly at his patient.
"Yes, Nathan. I’ll be good." She smiled up at him, again.
"Damn, I hate when you do that." Still, he smiled back.
Chris decided it would be best if Molly occupied his room at the boarding house. It was a corner room--easy to defend--and it had a good view of the town below. He’d bunk in an empty room a few doors down. He watched as Molly did a quick inspection of both room and view.
"Yours?" It wasn’t really a question, and he knew it. He nodded, continuing to observe her as she surveyed the street. "Thank you."
"I’ll be in number four, if you need me." Chris started to take his leave.
"Larabee." Chris turned as Molly’s voice stopped him. "When we find whoever’s behind all this, I don’t care which of us takes him, so long as it’s done."
Chris nodded, knowing what she had just offered him. He stared for a moment longer, trying to decipher Molly Travis. Nathan had been unwilling to shed any light on why the daughter of a federal judge would take up hunting men for a profession. Maybe, if they both lived long enough, he would find out.
As Chris closed the door behind him, Molly stared at the place he had stood. Try as she might, she couldn’t decide if she liked Larabee, or if she was just putting her dislike on hold until the current situation resolved itself. At the moment, it didn't matter which.
Turning her thoughts elsewhere, Molly began mentally listing possible safe havens for Mary and Billy. Her parents would also need to be protected, at least until the reason for the murders became known.
She’d narrowed the list to three when she saw Vin Tanner riding back into town, leading a horse with a body slung over the saddle. Molly sighed. She’d killed her share of men, but it was always out of self-defense, and she could never get used to it—nor did she want to.
Grabbing her hat, she headed out to meet Vin. She was still weak, but the dizziness had subsided, and her aches had become more an annoyance than an encumbrance.
They met in front of the Sheriff’s Office. Vin looked at her appraisingly. "Shotgun. Both barrels."
Molly grimaced. "Yeah. Dropped my pistol when I got this." She tapped her bandage. "Shotgun was handy, and I sure as hell didn’t want to miss. You backtracked me?"
"Weren't hard. That mare of yours needs to be re-shod. That back left is all worn out, and the others ain't so good neither."
"I know." Molly smiled crookedly at her old friend. "It’s good to see you again, Vin."
"You too." A smile slowly crept across his face. "How’s the head?" They had met when Molly had found him lying unconscious from a similar injury. He still had the scar, hidden by his long hair.
Before she could respond, J.D. Dunne joined them on the boardwalk. "Vin. What the...?" He looked back and forth between Vin, Molly, and the laden horse. Confusion fought, and won, for control of his face.
"It’s the feller who shot Molly. Leastways it was the feller." Vin corrected himself. "Take my word on it, J.D., he’s dead."
J.D. swallowed, understanding the meaning behind Vin’s words. "I’ll take him.". Vin handed over the reins, and J.D. led the horse and its burden down the street to the undertaker’s.
"What's the connection?" Molly worked one of the silver coins between nervous fingers. She hadn't slept since first waking in Nathan's clinic two days earlier, and it took an effort to concentrate.
"There is no connection. We've gone over it a dozen times." Chris drained his whiskey glass. "There's no damned connection." He rose and left the saloon.
Molly looked at the two men who still shared her table. Buck stared at his beer, lost in thought. Vin was watching Chris' exit.
As the batwing doors grew quiet once more, Vin spoke up. "You done any huntin' down Eagle Bend way?"
"No. You think that's where this is coming from?"
Buck answered. "Whoever's behind all this wants you dead, but was willin' to settle for Chris leavin' the area. Seems like you're the bigger threat to him."
"What about Stephen? Mary's going through the old issues of the Clarion for the six months before he died. If there's a story that mentions Larabee or Eagle Bend, or me, she'll find it."
Vin nodded. "Ezra and Josiah are checkin' the land records here and wirin' to Eagle Bend to try and get the names of the bigger landowners 'round there."
Buck finished his beer and climbed to his feet. "I'm gonna go find out where Chris got off to." He flashed them a quick grin and headed out the door.
"That man smiles more than any person I've ever met. I hope to hell it's not contagious." Molly finished her whiskey and poured another.
Vin broke out in a grin.
"Shit…." Molly downed the drink in one swallow and rose to leave. "I'm going to go see if Mary can use some help."
"…me to move in with him and your mother, but I wanted to stay here. I'd like to think it's what Stephen would have wanted." Mary Travis moved the stack of papers aside and glanced up as the Clarion's front door opened.
"Ladies." Buck Wilmington entered with Larabee close on his heels.
Chris walked past the bigger man, coming to a halt at Mary's elbow. "Anything?"
"Helpful? I don't think so. Stephen didn't ruffle as many feathers as some editors do. There are a few references to Eagle Bend, but none concern land ownership. Molly was never mentioned, although that's easily understood." Mary threw a smile at the older woman. "Your name, Chris, shows up several times. Stephen apparently followed your…career."
"I didn't find anything that would help, though." Mary sighed. "I'm about to start going though Stephen's things. I can't think of what else to do. Any word about the land deeds?"
"Ezra and Josiah are still workin' on them. I figured Ezra would know what to look for, turns out Josiah does, too. If there's anything to find, those two'll find it." Chris tuned his attention back to Mary's efforts. She'd emptied the contents of a small box onto the middle of her writing desk and was methodically sorting them.
"His journal. I'll read it again tonight, but I don't remember anything that would be of use in it." Mary smirked. "Your name shows up there too, Chris.'
Chris' mouth dropped open. "In his journal?"
"Apparently, he witnessed you killing a man. He'd never seen anyone shot before then, much less killed. It made an impression." Mary's expression darkened as memories of her husband continued to surface. "Stephen didn't believe in violence."
As she sifted through the remainder of Stephen's belongings, Mary began to realize that she no longer mourned his death. She still missed him, she still loved him, but at some point she had moved on.
"What's are those?" Chris reached around Mary to pull several photographs loose from beneath a stack of letters.
"Our wedding picture, the Judge and his former law partners, Molly, and one of Stephen, Billy, and I together. I think there's one of Oren and Evie, too." Mary tapped the top photograph. "This one."
Chris glanced at each image before handing them to Buck, who elbowed Molly when he was handed the picture of her wearing a very proper dress.
"Hell, Molly. This damn near makes me believe all them stories about you being a woman. This gal looks like you a little." Buck reached for the next picture just as Chris snatched it back.
All eyes snapped to the deathly still gunman.
"Chris?" Buck felt a familiar tingle run through his body. It wouldn't be long now until hell broke loose.
"Mary?" Chris handed the picture back to the blonde newswoman. "Who are these men with the Judge? Their names. Do you know?" His voice was soft, but his eyes had gone hard.
Clearing her throat, Mary began to provide the names. "The man on the left, his name is Richard Arlington, standing to the left of the Judge is Joseph Grant, and on the right…I think his name is Jacob Thorn, no Thornton. Jacob Thornton. I believe he's dead." She looked up into eyes she had never seen before. "Why?"
"Because I always like knowin' who it is I'm gonna kill. Joseph Grant is a dead man."
Chris turned and left the room, slamming the Clarion's door shut behind him.
Buck turned to see Molly shaking with anger. "Molly?"
Ignoring Buck, Molly turned to Mary. "The Judge never told you what happened to the partnership?"
Mary shook her head, her confusion evident. "He told me that Jacob Thornton had died just before it was dissolved, but he never said anything about Joseph Grant. Stephen didn't either. Not even in his journal."
"Stephen wouldn't." Molly sighed. "He was a very loyal son and brother." Molly sat on a corner of Mary's desk, suddenly feeling very old. "Joseph Grant betrayed his partners, and disappeared from the face of the earth. The Judge assumed he'd either fled the country or made his way to California, which would amount to the same thing, in some ways."
"Betrayed how?" Buck asked.
"Grant had been making a fortune forging land deeds and providing legal advice to some of the less honorable of Denver's citizens. Only the wealthiest ones, of course. The Judge and Jacob found out about his…ventures. Jacob made the mistake of going to see Grant, to talk to him. He was shot. Died a week later." Molly's eyes darkened at the memory. "My father considered Joseph to be his best friend in those days, and when the truth came out, he didn't take it too well. He blamed himself for Jacob's murder." Molly stared at the photograph Mary still held in her hand. "I was nineteen at the time."
"But why kill Stephen?" Mary's eyes threatened to spill tears.
"Grant left a note behind, promising that one day he'd have his revenge for the Judge ruining his plans. Killing the Judge might not be revenge enough. Maybe killing his children has to come first. You and Billy are in danger, Mary."
"J.D. and Nathan are with Billy now. He's safe." She thought for a moment. "Molly, you aren't…" Mary began.
"Going to kill him?" Molly smiled. "If I can get Larabee to move aside long enough, I'm going to send Grant straight to hell. He killed Stephen, Mary. I'd have thought you'd want him dead."
"Not this way. Let the law take care of him. Molly, please!"
"I can't promise, but I've never killed anyone who wasn't trying to kill me. I'm not sure I could." Looking again at the picture of the four men, Molly continued. "Much as I might want to."
Mary noticed the other woman's gaze had wandered back to the photograph again, and she held it out to her. "Keep it. And if you ever want to tell me the rest of the story, I'll be happy to listen."
Molly nodded as she accepted the picture. "I didn't leave out anything that needed to be said." She tucked the picture safely away in a coat pocket and left the Clarion.
Buck stared after her thoughtfully.
Chris had fled to the saloon after leaving Mary's office. His mind tried to reconcile the new knowledge with the old. Joseph Grant. A new name, but the same face. The murders of Sarah and Adam made perfect sense now. Why he was still alive made sense, and soon he'd hear from Mary or Molly why this man wanted to kill the children of his former partner, but the connection between the murders was now clear. It all made sense. He closed his eyes and remembered.
"Chris, it will be alright. I promise." Joseph Larabee tried to reassure his son.
"Alright how? Are you an' ma just gonna start over? It's all gone. Every damned penny you had is in Uncle Carl's pocket, headed God-only-knows-where." Chris slumped back against the wall. "Your brother ruined you, pa. Ruined everything. If I ever find him, I'm gonna kill him."
"You don't mean that, son."
"What are we gonna do?" Chris had put away money of his own, planning to use it to go east and get an education. Now that money would have to go to keep his parents from losing their farm.
"We'll make do. This isn't the first time I've had to start over." The elder Larabee tried to keep his concern out of his voice.
"Yes it is." Chris glared at his father. "You chose to start over before, this time you were forced. It ain't the same."
Joseph Larabee nodded slightly. "True, it's not the same thing. But we'll get by. When you visit during school breaks…."
"No. There won't be any school." Chris dug into his coat pocket, pulling out an envelope.
"It's yours an' ma's. I won't be needin' it anymore. Come tomorrow I start work at the mill, that should help some."
"Chris, I cannot let you…."
"Pa, I want to do this." Turning his back to his father, sixteen-year-old Chris Larabee added, "And I meant what I said about Uncle Carl."
"Ezra." Josiah rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. "Come look at this."
"You've found something?"
"Could be." Sanchez looked up as Ezra came to stand next to him. "Do you remember the design on those silver coins? Looked somethin' like this" Josiah tapped a finger onto the document in front of him. "didn't it?"
A grin split the gambler's face. "So it did. I believe we should locate Mr. Larabee."
Once Nathan and J.D. arrived at the Clarion, with Billy Travis in tow, Buck all but flew out the office door.
"Whoa there, Buck. Slow down." Vin Tanner had been about to enter the building when the larger man nearly knocked him back into the street.
"You seen Chris?" Buck asked.
"I thought I'd find him here."
"I'm thinkin' saloon. Vin, he knows who killed his family now. An' that ain't the worst of it." Buck started to explain but Tanner had already begun to walk away. "Where're you going?"
"To get Josiah and Ezra. Save Chris havin' to tell the story more'n once. Get me a beer, would ya?" The tracker headed down the boardwalk.
Vin was no longer in the saloon when Molly returned, but Larabee sat along the back wall, staring at something only he could see. She headed for the bar.
"Molly." Dan set her up, fetching her private stock from behind the bar. Tennessee whiskey. The local substitute always made her want to shoot some one, and she did enough of that as it was.
"Thanks, Dan. He drinking?" She jerked her head toward the shadow along the wall.
"Shoot, gal. That man's always drinkin'. But today he's drinkin' a lot less than usual." Dan shot Chris a worried glance before continuing. "Somethin' I should know about, Molly?"
Laughing softly, Molly patted the barman's hand. "Don't worry, Dan. I'll let you know if the bullets are about to start flying." She drained her whiskey and reached for the bottle. "I could use another glass."
"Chris?" Molly sat down across from the blond gunman, pouring them each a drink.
"Joseph Grant ain't his real name." Chris took a sip, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
"Damn, where'd this come from?"
"Private stock." Molly smirked.
"I can see I'm gonna have to have a talk with ol' Dan." He stared at the amber fluid. "Grant's real name is Larabee. Carl Larabee. He's my uncle."
Christ. Molly tried to read his expression.
"Twenty years ago I swore I'd kill him if I ever laid eyes on him again." Chris looked her squarely in the eyes. His disbelief had begun to fade. "My uncle, my uncle, killed my wife and child."
Molly leaned back in her chair. "He wants to kill the Judge. He killed Stephen to hurt him, he wants to kill me to hurt him some more. When he's finished killing everyone my father cares about, he'll kill the Judge himself. That's what I think." She added softly, "He also killed one of his law partners."
Chris drained his glass and watched as Molly refilled it. "He hadn't killed anybody the last I saw him." He frowned and amended his statement. "That I know of. I guess I'm not surprised."
"But you hated him."
"He always talked big. Big plans, big man. My pa had a farm in Indiana. Nothin' special, but we did all right. Uncle Carl'd visit a couple times a year, showin' off his fancy clothes and tellin' tall stories…I loved it." Chris shook his head in disgust. "I loved it. His last visit, he stole everything my pa owned. All his money. Anything he could carry away in the night." He smiled bitterly. "I'd won a rifle in a shootin' contest the year before an' he even stole that. Pa ended up sellin' his land and movin' into town. I worked a couple of jobs, my ma and sisters worked. Pa worked harder than anyone. He died 'bout six months after movin' us to town. Ma moved back in with her family and took my sisters with her.
I never saw any of 'em again. Hell, I don't even know what happened to any of 'em."
Chris sipped his whiskey. "That reason enough to want to kill him?"
Molly nodded. "So let's find the bastard and do it."
"Any ideas on how we do that? Find him?"
"Maybe. Just maybe." It was Molly's turn to smile. "And if you'd think about it for a minute or two, so would you."
Chris glared accusingly at her, but Molly saw the moment he realized what she was getting at. "Eagle Bend."
"Eagle Bend." Molly agreed.
"We need a plan." Larabee looked regretfully at the whiskey bottle sitting between them. "And a pot of coffee."
"Our efforts were for naught? Is this what I am hearing? Mr. Sanchez, have you heard the news? We have labored in vain, hours of…" Ezra Standish broke off as he entered the hotel dining room and caught sight of the weary faces of his friends.
"Found 'em." Vin drawled as he passed by Ezra to claim an empty chair across from Chris. Buck was already seated at the table.
Ezra quietly approached and handed Chris the letter he had discovered earlier, pointing out the family crest near the top. While not properly a deed, the paper attested to one Marcus Gerard having sold the hotel property to Wheeler, the partner of the man who had shot and killed Stephen Travis.
"Marcus Gerard. He's usin' a new name. Again." Chris read the contents of the letter, and one item jumped out at him. "An' he's livin' near Eagle Bend. Shouldn't be too hard to find out if he's got land 'round there. I'm bettin' he does."
"I'm thinkin' we might want to go for a ride down that way." Buck was remembering the last visit they had paid to Eagle Bend. It had started with a bartender's murder and had ended with Fowler's death.
"Soon as Mary an' Billy are safe." Chris agreed. "They're gonna be on the mornin' stage to Ridge City. Vin, you an' Nathan meet up with 'em 'round Sawyer's Pass, take 'em to the stay with the Seminoles 'til this is over. No one but us will know where they are."
"You wire the Judge's wife?" Buck asked.
Chris shook his head. "Molly did. She also sent wires to some friends of the Judge, asked them to keep an eye on her. The Judge is in Benson. She wired him to stay put."
Vin laughed at that. "You think Judge Travis is gonna listen? How long 'fore court lets out in Benson?"
"A couple of days. He's got one more town, and then Four Corners. I'm figurin' he'll be at least a week yet. Maybe more." Chris snorted. "Hell, any luck and Gerard will be dead by then."
Ezra waited for silence to descend before speaking up. "It occurs to me, gentlemen, that the fine residents of Eagle Bend will not be particularly helpful to us, what with the memory of our last visit so fresh in their minds." As all eyes turned to him, he smiled and laid out his plan.
In the predawn hours, Rafe Mosely left Four Corners headed east. Rafe had grown close to the Four Corners guardians after the young man's father had been imprisoned for murder. The victim had been the boy's sister and the tragedy had left him forever changed. Whereas before he had been reckless, he was now serious and deliberate. He had become intent on a career as a lawman and had made it clear to all concerned that he wanted to help in any way possible. At Ezra's urging, Chris granted Rafe his wish and sent him to Eagle Bend
Two hours after sunrise, and a hearty breakfast, Buck and Ezra left town along the same road. Another hour passed before Vin and Nathan rode to the south. Mary and Billy Travis left on the eastbound noon stage. Anyone watching would have difficulty connecting the departures, or so it was hoped.
Chris and J.D. watched the stage's departure from the boardwalk fronting the jail. J.D. tugged nervously at his guns. He didn't like being left behind.
"J.D., head on over to Nettie's and let her know what's going on. It could be we'll need to hide some folks a while, ask her if she's willin' to help out." Chris started to walk to the saloon, pausing to add. "And you might want to tell Casey to stay at home for few days."
"I will." J.D. headed for the livery as if the Devil himself were on his heels.
Chris entered the saloon, his eyes automatically sweeping the room, looking for possible threats. He moved to join Josiah and Molly at a rear table. As he sat down, Josiah poured him a drink.
"The stage has left, I take it." The grizzled preacher's eyes lacked their usual warmth and humor. He found nothing amusing about the current state of affairs.
Nodding his head, Chris agreed. "And now we wait."
"Not an easy thing to do, even in the best of times." Josiah suggested.
Molly snorted. "It's an acquired skill." She rose from the table. "I'll be back in a minute."
Watching her departure, the two men sipped their drinks in silence. Everything that could be done had been done. In two days time they would either have the needed information or they would not. No amount of worrying would change the outcome.
"J.D.?" Josiah was the first to speak.
"Sent him out to Nettie's." A smile tugged at Chris' lips. "Figured he might want to see Casey."
"I suspect he might at that." Josiah's smile was as big as the man himself.
Chris turned serious. "Josiah, I got no right to…"
"Ask us to fight with you?" Josiah smile faded, but not completely. "No…you don't. But as I remember it, you didn't ask."
Downing the whiskey, Larabee stared straight ahead. "I might just get you all killed."
"You might. But you aren't the only one your Uncle has hurt, Chris. He killed Stephen Travis, he tried to kill Molly, and he wants to kill the Judge. The way I see it, you're only one part of this." Josiah refilled Larabee's glass.
Neither man spoke again until Molly returned to the saloon, heading for the bar rather than their table.
"You two do much talking?" Josiah asked as he watched the woman talking with Dan.
Chris glanced at the preacher. "'Bout what?"
Before Josiah could answer, Molly turned and headed their way with a fresh bottle in hand.
"Thought we finished off your stock?" Chris warily eyed her burden.
"We did. This is Ezra's." Molly grinned and set the whiskey on the table. Taking her seat, she uncorked the bottle. "Your gambler friend has excellent taste."
"So he tells us." Josiah emptied his glass and held it out for Molly to fill.
The stage slowed and came to a halt as Vin and Nathan approached.
"Howdy boys." Carl Ackerman called down from his perch. His partner, Cassidy, nodded and spit tobacco juice onto the dirt alongside the stage. In the year they had known the shotgun, Vin and Nathan had yet to hear him speak.
"Carl. Cassidy. We're here to collect Missus Travis and her boy." Vin dismounted and walked up as Mary was opening the door to the stage.
"Larabee told us, and that's as far as it goes, yessir. We ain't seen ya. We don't rightly recall how we came to lose the lady and her youngin'. Don't you worry none." Ackerman grinned, exposing two rows of yellowed teeth. As Mary walked into view, Carl tipped his hat in respect. "Ma'am."
Cassidy handed down Mary's satchel and the stage drove off. The Travises had been the only passengers. Only the stage driver and shotgun would know about the unscheduled stop.
Nathan led the extra horse they'd picked up at Nettie's over to where Mary stood with Billy. Vin was busy packing the satchel contents into saddlebags, and tying the nearly empty bag to the rear of his horse's saddle. Nathan helped Mary into the saddle and lifted Billy up to ride in front of her.
"We'd best be goin'. The village is a ways from here." Nathan hauled himself into his own saddle, and watched as Vin followed suit. The small group turned back the way the stage had come, an hour ride would bring then to the Seminole camp.
The hours dragged by in the saloon as Chris, Josiah, and Molly finished off Ezra's reserve and were forced to return to the house whiskey. At some point in their conversation, it was tacitly agreed that they would use Carl Larabee's current name--Marcus Gerard--when discussing the man.
Chris and Molly both grew quiet, lost in their respective memories, and Josiah eventually lost the battle with his curiosity. "How old were you when Gerard was found out?" He sipped his drink as he watched Molly pull herself back to the present.
"And when you started bounty-hunting?"
"Twenty-two." Molly frowned.
"You know, J.D. actually asked. He came right out and asked why I do it."
"Can't say as I'm surprised. J.D. doesn't yet understand that a person's business is private." Josiah took another sip, eyeing the woman sitting opposite.
"You're wondering if Jacob meant something more to me than just my father's partner?" Molly smiled sadly. "It's not what you're thinking. He was married to my closest friend less than a year before he died. Elizabeth's father had her committed to an asylum before Jacob had been dead a year. She was diagnosed with melancholia. As far as I know, she's still a patient. In some ways, Gerard killed her along with Jacob."
"So you took up man-hunting hopin' to find him. To get revenge for your friend and your father." Chris tilted his head and looked at the woman.
"Hell, I figured the bastard was long gone. But I was hoping if I could bring in some of the other scum out there, maybe I could sleep nights." Molly laughed softly. "Still can't."
Chris thought back to the aftermath of Fowler's death, to the empty feeling that had followed. "I can understand that. It's not the same as getting Gerard."
"No. It's not." Molly concurred.
"After Marcus Gerard is caught, what will you do then?" Josiah asked.
Molly and Chris stared at Josiah. Neither one had an answer.
"You couldn't start a fire to save your miserable ass." Buck fumed.
"Pardon me for assuming that you had brought matches. I should have realized it would be the one thing you would most certainly forget." Ezra pulled the blanket tighter about his shoulders.
"Right. Blame me." Buck furiously rubbed two sticks together, trying to remember the last time he had seen someone successfully start a fire with the ancient technique.
"Have no fear on that account."
"Bet Rafe's got a nice little fire goin'." Giving up his effort, Buck leaned back against his saddle, placing his hat over his face to keep the cold at bay.
"Indeed." Frowning at the thought, Ezra opened his mouth to make a suggestion, only to have the comment cut off by Buck rolling to his feet.
"That boy can't be too far up the way." Grabbing his saddle Buck headed towards the grass where their horses were picketed.
"For once, Mr. Wilmington…we agree."
Chris woke to a pounding head and the taste of whiskey in his mouth. He thought he remembered Josiah helping him to his room, but he couldn't be certain. Molly had retired early, the drinks having taken their toll on her, but Chris and Josiah had drank the night away. He was still wearing his clothes, his boots, and his gun. He must have passed out as soon as he was on the bed.
Swinging his legs off the side of the bed, Chris started to get up. His feet met something soft and he had his gun drawn and cocked before the familiar voice greeted him.
"Mind not stepping on my chest?" Josiah slowly sat up beside the bed, bloodshot eyes focusing on the gun. "Or shooting me?" Using the bed for support, Sanchez pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the door.
Holstering his Colt, Larabee rubbed his own tired eyes. "Sorry, Josiah. Didn't know it was you." There was no answer from the preacher as he left the room, closing the door softly behind him. Staggering to the washstand, Chris poured water from the pitcher into the bowl and proceeded to wash his face and hands.
"Vin and Nathan back yet?" Chris sat down at Josiah's table in the saloon. The hour was too late for breakfast, but neither man wanted food quite yet. Coffee was a more immediate need.
Josiah shook his head. "J.D. is riding out to meet them. That boy's got enough energy for two men."
The bartender brought Chris a cup of steaming coffee. "Red was in here a while ago looking for you. Wire from Judge Travis came in this morning."
Chris nodded his thanks for both the coffee and the message. Red Hays was the town's telegraph operator and postmaster. Sipping his coffee, he met Josiah's worried gaze. They hadn't expected to hear from the Judge until the next day. Two more sips and Chris set down his cup and rose from the table. "Might as well see what the Judge has to say."
"Shit." Larabee stared at the telegram, reading it for a third time before leaving the telegraph office and heading back to the saloon.
The familiar perfume of whiskey and sweat wafted out of the saloon in Eagle Bend, bringing smiles to the faces of both of the men who paused outside its doors. Exchanging a long look, they entered and headed for the bar.
A quarter of the tables were occupied--surprising, as it was barely past ten in the morning. Buck and Ezra glanced around the room, ignoring all but the bartender. They especially ignored Rafe standing at the far-left end of the mahogany bar.
"Morning gents. What can I get you?" The barman inquired.
"Couple of beers." Buck smiled broadly. He recognized the man as Clive, the murdered bartender's replacement.
As the mugs of beer were set in front of them, Ezra fished out one of Molly's silver coins and set it on the bar. The gambler smiled very slowly as the barkeep's eyes went wide. "Is there something wrong?"
"We don't accept foreign money here, mister." Clive's voice was louder than necessary. Out of the corner of his eye Buck saw Rafe looking up from his drink, casually looking over his shoulder toward the entrance.
Ezra handed over the two bits for the beers. "Of course."
"Don't 'spose you know a Mr. Gerard do ya?" Buck asked pleasantly, knowing that he and Ezra were standing in the midst of a snake pit but hoping none of them were in a biting mood.
"Can't say as I do. Excuse me, I have work to do."
"One more question, if you please." Ezra's eyes gleamed wickedly. "How much did it cost to effect repairs after our last visit to your establishment?" Taking a long sip of beer, he watched in amusement as Clive tried to keep his anger under control.
Buck finished his beer and wiped his mouth with a sleeve. "Guess we'd best be on our way." He turned to Ezra. "Unless you have another question eatin' at ya."
Standish shook his head to indicate he hadn't.
"All right then." Belching loudly, Buck turned and walked out onto the boardwalk.
Sighing loudly, Ezra turned to the still fuming man behind the bar. "You see what I am forced to endure. Good day." Touching the brim of his hat in salute, he followed Buck outside.
The bartender watched through the windows as both men mounted their horses and headed down the street. He turned his attention to one of the front tables and the man who sat there. With a jerk of his chin, he sent one of Gerard's men off to trail the Four Corners gunmen. As the man left, another rose and approached the bar. After a few minutes discussion with Clive, the second man also departed.
"Can I get another beer here?" Rafe called out.
Judge Travis had wired to say he would be arriving earlier than anticipated. Josiah read the telegram with a sense of resignation. "Tomorrow."
"Yep." Chris leaned his head against the saloon wall and closed his eyes.
"Soon as Gerard gets wind of Buck and Ezra he'll likely be sending someone here to watch us." Josiah looked up as Molly entered the saloon. "And that's if he hasn't got men already in town."
"That'd be my guess." Chris opened his eyes as Molly made her way to their table. Once she was seated, he wordlessly handed her the short message.
A few choice curses later, Molly stood and left the building.
"Guess it's unanimous." Josiah sighed.
"I raise you five." Standish drawled.
Buck's eyes narrowed as he tried to decide if he were being bluffed. "Wait a minute." He placed his cards face down in the dirt and scouted around for the three pebbles he was short. Grunting with satisfaction as the he came up with his stake, Buck turned back to the smiling gambler. "Call."
Spreading his cards out in front of him, Ezra smirked as his friend's face fell at the sight of three threes and two deuces.
"Damn you, Ezra." Buck tossed his cards at his friend.
Both men pulled their guns at the sound of an approaching horse, relaxing as Rafe rode into view. From the grin he sent their way, Buck and Ezra concluded his eavesdropping must have borne fruit.
Dan had two beers poured before Vin and Nathan could reach the bar. He had come to know the drinking habits of most of the townsmen, especially a certain group of seven men.
"Thanks, Dan." Vin took a long pull on his beer, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Two more sips and he turned to meet Chris Larabee's gaze. With a quick nod he told his friend that Mary and Billy were safe. Nathan had already moved to join Chris and Josiah, but Vin remained at the bar. He needed to think about the situation some more before joining his friends.
The night before he had spent some time talking with Molly, filling in the blanks of the past couple of years and going over the situation with Marcus Gerard. Molly was determined to catch, maybe kill, Gerard, but her rage was of a colder sort than Larabee's. She'd told him enough about their prey to make him realize that Chris was in a great deal of danger if he couldn't keep his anger in check. Vin had seen Chris fight for control before, and win. He had to trust that he could do so again.
Vin closed his eyes and tried to think of a plan that would keep them all alive, yet still bring Gerard down. He shot a glance at the table where his friends were sitting, deciding that whatever was to come, he would make it his job to keep both Chris and Molly alive.
"…ride out to meet the stage. Just like we done with Mary an' Billy." Nathan said confidently. He wouldn't mind seeing Rain again.
Vin sat down at the table, smiling at Nathan. "Gettin' to be a habit."
"Could be trouble, if Gerard knows the Judge is on that stage." Chris rubbed a hand over his eyes. He hadn't slept well in the last couple of days.
"Chances are he don't. An' if he does, don't mean he'll try to take the stage." Vin leaned back in his chair and studied Chris' face. He could see the frustration getting to his friend. Chris hated the unknown.
Making his decision, Chris looked at Vin and Nathan. "You two go, take J.D. with you. Head out at first light." He nodded to himself, as if in reassurance.
Josiah had not missed it. "It'll be fine, Chris. The Judge will be safe." The Preacher tried to soothe his erstwhile leader.
"Maybe. Maybe." Chris frowned as he though of the different ways the Judge could be endangered.
The three men left Four Corners shortly after the sun crept over the horizon. Few townspeople were about at such an early hour, and no strangers among them. It seemed they would arouse no suspicion.
From the second story of the boarding house, a man peered out and smiled. He began to mentally prepare the telegraph he would send in a short while, but it could wait until he had eaten.
Molly ate sparingly at breakfast. When Nathan had informed her of Chris' plan she'd been angered that she wasn't included in the escort party. She'd later grudgingly admitted that the man had a point. She, the Judge, and Larabee himself were targets. Best to keep them separated rather than together.
Finishing her third cup of black coffee, she looked up as Chris and Josiah entered the hotel dining room. They made their way to her table and sat down.
"The boys on their way?" She knew the answer already, but didn't know what else to say.
"Yep." Josiah smiled broadly.
Molly thought he seemed terribly cheerful, all things considered. The big man was an enigma to her. He was both an optimist and a fatalist. Josiah made her nervous.
"Left at sun-up. Should make good time." Chris waved the waiter over.
After the two men had placed their orders, and Molly had embarked on her fourth cup of Arbuckle's, an uncomfortable silence descended over the table. Josiah was remembering the crows of his dream, Chris was wrapped in thoughts of Eagle Bend, and Molly pictured her father dying at the hands of Gerard's hired killers.
Their breakfast was interrupted by the arrival of Red Hays.
"Mr. Larabee? I'll likely lose my job for this, but a stranger sent this out not fifteen minutes ago. I thought you should see it." Red handed over the telegram he'd sent.
Reading it carefully, Chris rose to his feet and began to swear. "Any idea where this man can be found?"
"No sir. I haven't seen him around." Red looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"Alright. Thanks, Red." Chris dismissed the man with a toss of his head.
Josiah cocked his head to one side. "What is it, Chris?"
"Gerard did have spy here. He sent a wire to Gerard about the boys leaving town, and that me and Molly were stayin' behind." Chris crumpled the paper in his hand.
Rising from her chair, Molly loosened her Colt in its holster. "Don't like the sound of that."
Chris eyed her with amusement. He had the feeling that when push came to shove, Molly would live up to her reputation. Vin's testament to her ability was enough to convince Chris that she wasn't a liability.
It was J.D. who spotted the stage first. "They're attacking!" The easterner's excited voice called out.
Without further comment, the three men spurred their horses toward the beleaguered stagecoach. They could see the smoke from pistol and rifle, and saw the shotgun fall from his perch, lying still in the dust. The driver was already slumped in his seat. Long before the trio was in firing range they witnessed the Judge being removed from the coach's interior, bound and hauled onto a waiting horse. Vin began to fire his rifle, Nathan and J.D. followed suit. The distance was too far for accurate fire, but Vin still succeeded in dropping one of the attackers.
By the time they arrived at the coach, Nathan discovered that all his potential patients had expired, and the only other passenger murdered as well. As he examined the shotgun rider's body, it occurred to him that now they would never know what Cassidy's voice sounded like. Climbing into the saddle, he exchanged hard looks with his companions and the three men turned as one to follow the kidnappers.
Nathan turned his head back to call out a question to Vin at the exact moment a bullet exited the tracker's forehead. Vin's body slumped over in the saddle, his horse breaking into a gallop as a second shot grazed its flank. Nathan trained his gun on his friend's killer, the man was partially hidden by a rock outcropping immediately behind them, but not hidden well enough. Nathan's aim was true, and the man fell mortally wounded.
J.D. reined his horse in, torn between staying with Nathan and going to Vin's aid. He sensed what had happened, but turned frightened eyes to the healer for confirmation. "Vin?"
Nathan Jackson looked at his young friend, then beyond to where Tanner's horse was fast disappearing, its burden still in place. Nathan shook his head. "Nothin' anybody can do for Vin."
"What do you…" J.D. clamped his mouth shut.
"He's dead, J.D. That bullet went through his head. I saw it." Nathan kept the tears at bay, focusing on the here and now. "We'd best go tell Chris and Molly what's happened." Pulling his horse's head back in the direction of town, Nathan waited for J.D. to join him.
"Dead." J.D. muttered tonelessly. Tears rolled down cheeks that were impossibly white. He didn't seem to notice their fall.
Wiping a pair of tears from his own face, Nathan uttered the last word either of them would speak until they returned to town. "Dead."
Chris sat outside of the saloon, awaiting the return of his friends and Judge Travis. Molly stood within the batwing doors, he knew, watching as he did. Josiah had gone back to his church.
When the two riders rode hard into town, Chris' gut tightened. He could recognize the riders and a cold fear ripped through his gut.
Molly stepped out onto the boardwalk, glancing once at Larabee before fixating on the riders. Her face tightened as she too realized who the missing man was.
They waited in silence as Nathan and J.D. rode up to the hitching rail and dismounted. If Nathan's solemn expression wasn't evidence enough, J.D.'s grief-stricken one confirmed the worst. Vin Tanner was dead.
Chris tried to ask what had happened but the words wouldn't come.
"He was shot from behind, Chris. Don't think he felt nothin'. Killed the man who done it, but the others got the Judge away. They killed everyone else with the coach." Nathan turned to Molly. "The Judge looked to be alright, Molly. I don't think they hurt him none."
Her knuckles whitening as she gripped her gunbelt, Molly amended Nathan's comment. "Not yet." She turned and re-entered the saloon.
Staring at J.D., who was busily examining his horse's saddle, Chris gave the expected word. "Dawn tomorrow, we leave for Eagle Bend."
Nathan nodded, remembering Vin's death as he stared at the town's sole church. "I'll get Josiah."
By the time Four Corners was in sight, Buck Wilmington was more than ready for a few beers and a visit to his current paramour, whose name was evading him at the moment. He frowned as he sought it out. Linda? No. Lydia? . Lucinda? He grinned as the name came to mind. Lorena. Lorena Hart. Guiding his horse to the saloon, he smiled at his two companions, happy to be home again.
Ezra sighed in relief as he dismounted in front of the saloon. Long hours in the saddle went against his personal belief system. As did manual labor, perspiration, and heroics. It worried him slightly that his high standards had fallen by the wayside for a token payment and uncertain table winnings. Four Corners was not yet a gambler's paradise.
Only Rafe seemed disappointed to be home. His part in what he thought of as an adventure was over now. He was determined to find a way to remain involved. Both Josiah and Vin had taken him under their respective wings. Josiah helped him to move beyond the tragedy of his sister's death and Vin had taught him to track. He'd tried to get Chris Larabee to teach him how to shoot, but in the end it was J.D. and Buck who were his instructors. He wasn't yet in their class, but he was a fair shot with a rifle.
All three men froze as Josiah came out of the saloon. The look on his face spoke volumes, but his actual words were Spartan. "Vin's dead and Gerard has the Judge."
Looked away, Ezra blinking back the tears that threatened to spill. He opened his mouth to ask how Vin had been killed, but closed it again as he realized he would learn the specifics soon enough.
Buck's jaw tightened as he attempted to digest this latest bit of news. He grieved for Vin, but he feared for Chris. He moved past Josiah into the saloon, wondering what he would find inside. Ezra followed close behind.
Rafe stood staring at Josiah, unwilling to believe one of his heroes had fallen. He couldn't bring himself to move until the Preacher gave him encouragement.
"Chris will want to talk to you, son. You'd best come in."
Hitching up his pants slightly, Rafe crossed over the boardwalk and through the batwing doors. Bringing up the rear, Josiah gently guided the young man to the tables where the rest of remaining six men were gathered. As Rafe slowly lowered himself into an empty chair, a chill ran down his back. Larabee's eyes were empty. He had seem them angry, cold, and amused…but he had never before seen them empty.
Flicking a glance toward Buck, Rafe realized that Chris wasn't the only one who wanted to exact revenge on Gerard and his men. Looking at each of the men in turn, Rafe suddenly realized what was coming. He'd felt such rage when his father had killed Claire. Grabbing hold of the pain he felt at Vin's murder, Rafe prodded it until it turned to anger. He could see Josiah's slight frown as the older man watched the transition, but he ignored it.
Chris spoke first. "Nathan, you want to tell it?"
Nervously licking his lips, Jackson began. "By the time we saw the stage it was already bein' attacked by Gerard's men. Killed everyone but the Judge. We was ridin' after 'em when a shot came from behind us, I turned 'round an' seen Vin get shot through the head. We killed the fella that done it, but the others made off with Judge Travis."
"We got back soon as we could." Nathan looked uneasily in Chris' direction. "Vin's horse spooked an' ran off with Vin still in the saddle."
Ezra paled at hearing that bit of news. It was enough the man had died, but not be buried, to be left lying in the desert….
Clearing his throat, J.D. added, "We'd have brought him back if we could've."
Focusing his attention on Dunne, Chris marveled at how much the boy had matured in so short a time. He hoped the kid would live to see his twenties. The way things were going, he wouldn't want to wager on it. Chris began to pour another whiskey when Molly came into the room, blood clearly visible on her hands. He stood as Nathan rose and went to check on her. She waved him away and continued to their tables.
"Not my blood. Hope none of you were planning on sending any telegrams in the next little while." She looked down at her hands. "Someone killed Red. Judging from the amount of blood, I'd say he didn't die so quick." She sank into a chair, reaching for an empty glass. Chris filled it and then filled his own. "So we going after this bastard or not?"
"First thing in the morning." Chris added Red to the list of people who needed avenging. It was getting to be a lengthy list. He suddenly remembered the other stage passenger.
Chris looked at Nathan. "You didn't say who the man riding with the Judge was."
"Fella name of Wilkins. Jeremiah Wilkins." Nathan supplied.
"Mean anything to anyone?" Chris asked. He was answered with muttered noes and shakes of the head. He sipped his drink, feeling the whiskey beginning to fog his senses. The pain of Vin's death was sharp and he longed for the escape to be found in the bottom of a bottle, but the Judge was in danger and Marcus Gerard still breathed.
Buck smiled inwardly as he saw Chris fight off his demons, at least for the moment. Maybe they would live through this fight after all. "Rafe here is just plumb full of information. He even made a map of Ol' Marcus' ranch, didn't you Rafe?"
Nodding, Rafe pulled out a piece of well-worn paper. Spent an hour or two watching the comings and goings." Spreading the map flat on the table before him, he began to point out landmarks. "This is the main house, over here the bunkhouse, along here is a…"
"Just how'd you get this?" Chris interrupted.
Coloring slightly, Rafe explained. "Went in and asked for a job." He shrugged. "Seemed like a good idea at the time. Buck and Ezra had left and I wasn't getting anywhere just listening, so I asked where I might try looking for work. They gave me directions to the Bar GA, Marcus Gerard's place."
"G for Gerard." Ezra smiled, exposing his gold tooth. "A for Arrogant?"
After Rafe had finished explaining his map and answered all of the questions put to him, the group began to form a plan of attack. Marcus had built a fortress of adobe. It would resist burning, withstand bullets, and generally make their job much more difficult that Chris had originally envisioned.
There were a few weaknesses. There was a large barn far removed from the main group of buildings. Chris figured that if they could set it ablaze it would be a reasonable distraction. There was also an interior courtyard in the main house that gave access to most of the rooms in the building. If they could get onto the roof and into that courtyard, it would greatly increase their chances for success.
As the plan took shape, the loss of Vin Tanner became more problematic. Chris would have liked to have positioned the former buffalo hunter atop the main house with his sights set on the bunkhouse, discouraging any support from that building. No sooner had the thought occurred to him than Rafe volunteered his services.
"If a man could get up in that corner, with a good rifle and enough ammunition, he could keep the bunkhouse from emptying." Mosely looked up from his map. "I could do it. I'm a good shot with a rifle, and I'd like to help."
Out of the corner of his eye Chris could see Josiah shaking his head no, but he hesitated for only an instant. "Alright. You've got the roof." He didn't miss the flash of excitement in Rafe's eyes. It brought back memories of J.D. before the fight at the Seminole village.
So eager and so young. Chris tried not to think about whose blood he might end up with on his hands.
Buck and Ezra would take care of the barn and then move to the south side of the main house, where the kitchen was housed. There they would dynamite the door and interior, creating a second distraction.
The rest of the group would approach from the northeast, gain the roof, and spread out. Rafe would station himself at the northwest corner, covering the bunkhouse. Once in place he would signal Buck and Ezra to set off their charges. Josiah, Nathan, and J.D. would enter the courtyard along the south side, Chris and Molly the north. It was in the northern portion of the building that Rafe had learned Gerard had both his living quarters and his office. Chris guessed Marcus would keep the Judge nearby. It was a gamble, but no more than any other aspect of the plan.
Once the plan was set, and everyone understood their role in it, the men and Molly went their separate ways. Chris stayed in the saloon, occupying his usual table and chair. Buck remained also. Across the room, but with Chris in his line of sight. Neither man drank much and, after an hour or two, they left the saloon together.
Molly had gone up to the bar and began making inroads into a fresh bottle of whiskey. She drank to quell her fear for her father and to ease the pain of Tanner's death. He'd been a good friend. One she had trusted. Somewhere in the midst of the flow of whiskey, she vowed to put a bullet into Grant for Vin. Gerard. He was Gerard now.
Seeing Mary had brought back memories of her brother, and the memories of Stephen had taken her back to her childhood and its hopes and dreams. As she had outgrown the dreams and begun looking for new ones, she had been faced with Gerard's treachery. Molly had traded her dreams for a gun and a need to keep other women from suffering the fate of Elizabeth Thornton.
Molly 'Mostly Dead' Thompson was born in the blood of the first man she had ever killed, and the first she had hunted. Otis Olsen had killed the young couple employing him for fourteen dollars, a wedding ring, and a locket. She had caught up to him in a border town and he had put a bullet through her arm before she had returned fire and killed him. For months after, Molly had hid away, trying to make sense of what had happened. In the end she had decided that she had done more good than harm, and if God didn't agree, well, at least Hell was warm.
Nathan packed as many medical supplies into his saddlebags as would fit. He could have fit more, but for the boxes of rifle and pistol cartridges that took precedence over medicines and bandages. Once done he sat on his cot. He knew sleep would elude him for some time. Grabbing his hat and coat, the ex-slave left his clinic and descended the stairs to the boardwalk below.
Josiah had gone to his church, tidying it up in case he wasn't to return after tomorrow. He said prayers for Vin, prayers for the Judge, and prayers for his remaining friends. He'd run out of prayers and was getting restless when the door to the church opened, revealing Nathan Jackson.
"Thought we might play a while, if you've a mind to." Nathan walked past Josiah into the back of the church where the chessboard was kept. The two men sat opposite each other and looked at the pieces that remained.
"You’re move." Josiah's deep voice said.
Smiling as he placed the white King in check, Nathan leaned back to enjoy Sanchez's reaction. The healer had defeated the preacher in their last three games. This had the look of victory number four.
Josiah studied the board with a frown, occasionally throwing a disgusted look across the table. "I knew I should never have taught you this game."
J.D. had ridden out to Nettie Wells ranch. He'd wanted to see Casey again before leaving for Eagle Bend.
"J.D., what's wrong?" Casey's eyes grew wide as J.D. pulled her away from her porch, out to the privacy of the barn.
Staring into Casey's eyes, John Dunne suddenly didn't know what to say. With horror he realized that Casey and her aunt could not know yet about Vin's fate. Tanner had been close to Nettie Wells, it would be hard for her to learn of his death. Running a hand along her cheek, J.D. leaned in for a kiss. Casey pulled away.
"You're scaring me, J.D."
"We're leaving tomorrow, all of us. Judge Travis is in trouble and we're gonna get him freed." J.D. tried to keep his voice light.
Her eyes widening as his real meaning sank in, Casey clutched at his shirt. "You don't have to go. Chris and the others can handle it, can't they?"
J.D. lowered his voice. "Vin's dead. I have to go."
Backing away toward the door, Casey began to cry.
Closing the distance between them, J.D. pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She fought for a moment but then returned his kiss. One kiss turned into many and only Nettie's call from the house stopped them from going farther.
As Casey brushed the hay from her clothes, J.D. couldn't help but smile. She was worth coming back to, of that he had no doubt. "I wanted to know, before I left tomorrow. Casey Wells, will you marry me?" Some part of J.D.'s mind was trying to understand what had just happened, but the rest of him was holding its breath.
Staring in silence for what seemed like forever, Casey finally was able to answer him. "You come back in one piece, and I'll marry you. You don't and I'll spit on your grave." Tears began to stream down her face and J.D. hurried to brush them away.
Ezra retired to his room. He sat down at his writing desk and began to compose a letter to his mother, Maude Standish. In it he explained that he had always loved her and he was sorry if he had proved a disappointment in recent months. He kept it short, not trusting himself with a longer message. Blotting the ink and folding the paper neatly, Ezra tucked the letter into an envelope. Dipping his pen into the inkwell, he proceeded to write…'If I should die….'
Once finished, Ezra attempted to get some sleep. He was not surprised when it evaded him. The thought of riding into Eagle Bend and then to the Bar GA filled him with a sense of dread. He couldn't see how any of them would live out the next few days.
According to Rafe there were over thirty armed men guarding Gerard, and an unknown number of other employees who might or might not offer resistance. In Ezra's view, the odds were not in his party's favor.
It never occurred to him to refuse to join his friends. He blamed Chris and Buck. Chris for trusting him and Buck for befriending him. The combination had sealed his fate. He had been less close to Vin Tanner, but when he'd learned of the man's death he realized just how much he himself had changed. He wanted to avenge his friend, and he wanted it badly.
Cleaning and oiling his guns, Ezra went over the plan in his mind. The odds were not inspiring, but it was hardly the first time they had defied the laws of probability. Ezra slowly smiled as he ran a hand over his deringer's rig. Suddenly he began to think they might have a chance after all.
Chris had left the saloon for the livery. Saddling his horse, he mounted and rode out of town. He rode north until the road reached the mountains, then turned off onto a small trail headed up to a ledge that overlooked Four Corners. Vin had loved the spot. Dismounting, Chris walked over to sit on the large rock where he had seen his friend sitting on many an occasion. Pulling his duster around his shoulders, he took a drink from the bottle he had brought with him.
Closing his eyes against his pain, Larabee tried to remember the first time he had met the ex-bounty hunter. Mary Travis had been trying to save the life of a black man. Chris smiled at the memory. Not just any black man. Nathan Jackson had been on the verge of being lynched. Chris had considered stopping the proceeding, but the odds were a little one-sided. When Vin Tanner had volunteered his services, Nathan's rescue was assured. One glance across a dusty street had told Chris all he had needed to know. Tanner was someone he could trust, someone who hated injustice as much as he himself did.
Another sip of whiskey and another memory. Vin defending Chanu when no one else believed in the Indian youth. Chris had been a bit leery himself, but had trusted Vin's instincts. In the end, Tanner had been proved right. More often than not, the tracker's gut feelings were incredibly accurate. Chris picked up a rock and dropped it over the ledge, listening to it clatter on the way to its new home a hundred yards below.
Vin had been able to see things that Chris had not. Chris had been able to put the information to good use. Together they had made a successful team. A team that fate had seen fit to break up. Feeling a new stab of pain, Chris took another pull at the bottle. The burning liquid coursed down his throat, deadening all sensation.
Removing his gun from its holster, Chris ran a loving hand over its length. His uncle would pay a steep price for what he had done. For Chris' father, for the Travis's, and for Vin Tanner. No easy death. With luck, the man would suffer for days. Pulling the hammer back to the half-cock position, Chris rotated the cylinder slowly, taking comfort in the sound.
Soon, Uncle Carl. Soon.
Buck had watched Larabee ride out of town before heading back to the saloon. He had a good idea of where his old friend was headed, and although there was a slight chance of one of Gerard's people following, Buck decided against guarding Chris' back. Molly was the more likely target of the two.
He glanced toward the Undertaker's shop. When Nathan and J.D. had first returned to town after their encounter with Gerard's gunhands, Josiah had suggested that someone be sent out to retrieve the stage and the dead men's bodies. The only man in town that any of them knew had experience driving a stage was Billy Foley, who currently operated Four Corners only freighting business. He volunteered his services as soon as asked, taking along one of his drivers to help. Foley had come into the saloon after returning to town, reassuring Chris that both the stagecoach and the bodies were back in town. Buck winced when he realized that not all the murdered men had been returned home. Somewhere in the desert lay the body of Vin Tanner.
As he approached his destination, a shot rang out from the saloon's interior. Buck broke into a run, bursting through the doors with his gun drawn and cocked. He relaxed when he realized it was nothing more serious than Curly Carmichael firing into the ceiling again. The man buried lead into the wall or ceiling at least once a month.
"Easy, pardner. Let me have the gun. There you go. Nice an' easy." Buck carefully took the gun from the drunken tailor. He suspected Curly had been reading dime novels again, it was usually what prompted his saloon escapades. Buck grabbed the man by his collar and led him outside. A night in jail was all Curly needed.
Rafe had grown increasingly restless as night had fallen. He ended up going to the saloon in hopes of finding one or more of the seven peacekeepers within. Heading straight for the bar, trying to appear calm and confident, he noticed Molly Travis was still leaning against it. He wondered if she had been standing there for hours or had left and returned. Judging by the bottle, it was the former.
"Ma'am." Rafe leaned on the bar next to her.
Throwing him an amused glance, Molly responded. "Have a drink, kid." She poured him a shot from her half-empty bottle.
Noticing the photograph Molly had in front of her, Rafe took a closer look. "I've seen them. Those men with the Judge. Two of them, anyway."
Molly slowly exhaled. "Two?"
"Those two." Rafe rested a finger first on Richard Arlington and then on Gerard. "At the Bar GA."
"You're sure? You saw both of them?"
Rafe stared into her brown eyes. "I'm sure. They were on the north side of the house. They're why I figured it was where Gerard's rooms were. That one," he pointed to Arlington, "was called Ashford. Who's the other one?"
"This one," Molly tapped the photo, " is Marcus Gerard. This one is Richard Arlington. I thought he'd gone east somewhere. Guess I was wrong about a lot of things if Arlington is here in Arizona." Looking around the room, she spotted Buck Wilmington lounging against the back wall. "Rafe. Go find the others."
Chris had watched the sun setting, saying goodbye to Vin in his own way. He led his mount down the mountain and onto the road to town. Full dark had already fallen, but the moon was bright and the path easy to follow.
The closer he grew to town the more tired he became. For three years he had sought vengeance for the killing of his family, and now that the time was at hand he could feel nothing. No pain, no anger, no joy. Vin's death had numbed him to the core.
He was dimly aware of his horse's movements beneath him, of the coyote's yips and the nightbird's call. The smell of woodsmoke drifted from a house on the edge of town, but Chris barely registered its presence. His existence had become focused on one thing and one thing only--the attack on the Bar GA.
Carl Larabee had taken Chris' entire family from him. In two days time he would exact payment from his uncle, and then send the man to the hell he so richly deserved. The thought of revenge brought a cold smile to his lips.
By the time Chris made his way into the saloon, the rest of the group had reassembled. He swore a silent oath as he moved to join them. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear what had happened in his absence.
"Gerard's not alone." Molly tapped the photo as Chris seated himself across the table from her. "Rafe saw Richard Arlington at the Bar GA."
Larabee frowned. "Arlington. You didn't tell us anything about him."
"Didn't see any reason to. I thought he'd gone east." Molly stared hard at the photo. "Now I'm wondering if I've been hating the wrong man all these years."
Nathan cleared his throat before speaking. "You thinkin' maybe this Arlington was behind it all?"
"Richard Arlington was a brilliant lawyer. He didn't try cases in court, but he was the best researcher I've ever seen. He could find witnesses that no one new existed and evidence that no one else thought to look for." Molly smirked. "He was also the only one of the Judge's partners I didn't like. If he is behind Gerard, there's more to this than revenge against my father. A lot more." Molly pocketed the photograph and took a long sip of whiskey.
"And what, pray tell, gave you cause to dislike him?" Ezra asked.
"Because he's the coldest son of a bitch I've ever met. And I've met a few." Grinning across the table, Molly added. "Makes Chris here seem downright friendly and sociable."
"So he's a killer. The killer." Josiah leaned back in his chair and looked at each of his friends. "Does that change our plans at all?" His gaze rested on Molly.
"Hell, I don't know. The odds against us just went way up, but I can't see what we can do that would improve them any." Molly glared at Rafe. "Anything else you haven't told us?"
Rafe reddened. "Not that I can think of."
"It changes one thing." Everyone looked at Chris as he spoke. "Now we've got two men that need killing instead of one." He stood wearily, looking around at the faces of his friends. "We leave at dawn. Get some sleep."
Flames ate hungrily as Tanner fed more wood into his campfire. The fire was as much from habit as from necessity. The night was warm and he had no coffee to boil or food to cook. Reaching up to touch the makeshift bandage on his head, he once again marveled that he was still among the living.
When Vin had first regained consciousness, he had carefully checked himself over for injuries. He discovered a pair of bullet holes. One to the back of his head and one to the front. He had heard of such things--bullets travelling beneath the scalp instead of entering the skull. He had never believed the stories. Wincing as he touched the back of his head, finding the mass of dried blood, it occurred to him that he owed an apology to the man he had scoffed at.
Going over the sketchy plan once again, Tanner briefly regretted the necessity of keeping his friends in the dark. He knew they thought him dead, or they would have looked for him. When he had woke up with only his horse nearby he had feared that Nathan and J.D. had both been killed. Vin rode back to the stagecoach and was gratified to find only three bodies instead of five. It was then that he knew for certain that, in his friend's eyes, he was considered dead.
He had been about to ride back to town when it occurred to him that his "death" could serve a useful purpose. With a little subterfuge, it might be possible to infiltrate Gerard's stronghold. Vin had turned to follow the tracks of Gerard's hired guns.
As he watched the flames dance, he considered what he needed to do next. He would ride to within walking distance of Eagle Bend, picket his horse and cache its tack along with his coat, hat, and mare's leg--the things that identified him as Vin Tanner. There was one more thing that people would have remembered about him. Vin drew his knife and began cutting off his long hair.
The sky had begun to lighten when Chris Larabee entered the livery stable. He was surprised to find Ezra already inside. Normally the gambler was among the last to arrive. Judging from the look on the man's face, Chris suspected he had not spent the night sleeping.
Throwing a blanket over his gelding's back, Chris went about the business of saddling the horse. The stable door creaked open to admit J.D. and Rafe. Rafe looked like he was ready to burst with excitement. Chris shook his head in amusement. Before long, if he still lived, Rafe would know better than to long for battle.
Josiah arrived quietly, followed by Buck and Nathan. Each man kept silent as he prepared for the coming journey.
It was Buck who finally asked the question that was on most minds. "Where's Molly?"
Ezra spoke up. "Outside. Miss Travis was ready to begin our sojourn before, I suspect, most of us were awake." He thought back to the look in the bounty hunter's eyes. "She is waiting on us, gentlemen. She is most definitely waiting on us."
Leading his horse outside, Chris tossed back over his shoulder, "Let's not keep her waiting."
One by one the men filed out into the morning light. Molly had climbed into the saddle the moment Larabee had appeared, eager to be on the road. The seven men followed suit and the group turned as one.
None of them noticed Casey Wells standing in the shadows, watching as they rode out of the town and into an uncertain future. Silent tears ran down her face as she watched until J.D. was long out of sight. She turned and slowly walked toward the Potter's store. Gloria Potter had more than once kept the young woman on an even keel where J.D. Dunne was concerned.
"What the hell do you want?" Two hundred and fifty pounds of grizzled foreman greeted Vin Tanner at the Bar GA.
"Lookin' for work" Vin said, his normal soft drawl replaced by a deeper, harsher tone.
Pete Whitman had not become foreman of the Bar GA by accident. He scrutinized the man in front of him carefully. He took in the ragged hair hanging over his forehead, the lack of a gunbelt, and the torn and filthy clothing. A drifter, down on his luck. "What can you do? You ever punch cows? Work horses?"
Vin smiled tiredly. "Prefer horses. I worked some as a stable hand and a wrangler. Mostly up in the Dakotas."
"Dakotas? You ever heard of a Mr. Tolliver, owns a big spread up that way?"
"Can't say as I have." Vin suppressed a grin. He was being tested. Unless there were two Tollivers, the ranch in question was in Texas. "The biggest spread I heard tell of was owned by a man name of Justin Granger. Never had no call to meet the man, but caught sight of his daughter once. Mighty fine little gal, that one." Vin gave silent thanks to Buck for recounting his conquest of Miss Elsie Granger when she and her father passed through town several months past.
Whitman nodded, satisfied. "I guess we could try you out with the horses for a spell. It won't pay much, but we got the best grub this side of the Mississippi. You got a name?"
"Wells. Name's John Wells."
Buck rode directly behind the group's leaders. Larabee led by right, Travis by determination. It was her father held captive and she would be damned if she did not lead the rescue effort. He watched their stiff backs for some time before Ezra Standish trotted up next to him.
"What is that heathen saying? Today is a good day to die?"
Buck rolled his eyes. "We won't be gettin' there today, Ezra. Tomorrow's soon enough."
"I am simply pointing out that there is an excellent chance that not all of our party will survive the upcoming battle." Ezra stared hard at Larabee's back. "We should be prepared for that eventuality."
"Just what are you gettin' at?" Buck looked suspiciously at the gambler.
"Merely that, if tragedy should befall us, we should be prepared. Nothing more than that, I assure you." Ezra fiddled with his reins.
"If Judge Travis should not survive, and you will agree it is a distinct possibility, the rest of us need to consider what we will do next." Ezra looked slightly embarrassed. "With our benefactor dead, we will be in need of employment."
Tanner had spent most of the day getting the lay of the land. He was certain that Chris and the other men would be arriving soon, probably at dawn tomorrow. The largest concentration of men was in the bunkhouse where he himself had been assigned a bed.
He had quickly noticed that the men it housed were better acquainted with their firearms than with livestock. Gerard had his own private army.
One option after another was discarded until Vin decided that the only course of action was also the simplest. One wall of the bunkhouse was lined with racks of rifles, shotguns, and a wooden crate containing boxes of cartridges. Hoping that there would be no reason for anyone to test the weapons before the attack came, Vin put aside mucking out stalls in the stable in order to fill the rifle and shotgun barrels with sand and mud. He tamped down the wet earth and wiped the barrels clean before replacing the guns in the racks.
He managed to disable fully half the weapons before he heard footsteps approaching and hurried to the pitcher and basin to wash up, drying his face and hands as one of Gerard's hired guns entered the room. It was nearly time for the evening meal so Vin's presence, in and of itself, would not be cause for alarm.
The man glanced at Vin briefly before removing his gunbelt and lying on his bunk. Vin recognized him as one of the men who patrolled the outside of the main house. Tanner had already decided that the house guards were his top priority once the raid began.
Rafe tried to see through the thick smoke. The men of the Bar GA had dispersed after the fight, leaving him to stumble and crawl through the smoky courtyard in search of his friends. Panic filled his mind as he realized that even the moans that had led him there had fallen silent. There was no sound, none at all.
He found J.D. first. Soulless brown eyes stared up at him, the slack jaw and pale skin confirmed what Rafe had feared. J.D. was gone. So were Buck, Nathan, Josiah, Ezra, and Molly. He found them all sprawled nearby, their lifeless bodies bloodied and broken. Rafe searched for Chris. He found him propped against the courtyard wall, blood streaming from a chest wound.
The dying gunman raised tired green eyes. "Go home, kid. Go home and live."
Rafe watched as the light left Chris' eyes. Dead. All dead. He threw back his head and screamed.
Larabee watched as Rafe fought his way through a nightmare. He thought back to nightmares of his own, nightmares that followed the deaths of Sarah and Adam. Nightmares that were, in part, memories. He saw Rafe's eyes work their way open, saw the boy fight to replace the dream with reality.
Turning to look at Chris, Rafe asked, "Is it time?"
Lying back on his bedroll, Rafe closed his eyes.
Chris had slept soundly until Buck had awakened him for his watch. He and Mollie had chosen to stand last watch. She had been watching Rafe as well, doubt plain on her face. He wondered if she doubted Mosely's ability or the wisdom of bringing him along. Or both.
Mollie met his eyes and he nodded slightly. They began waking the other members of their group, smiling as Ezra complained at length over being disturbed at such an early hour.
No one spoke much. They had talked last night, banter interspersed with more serious discussion, and there was nothing left that needed saying. The time for talk had given way to the time for action.
The seven men and one woman mounted their horses in the pre-dawn light. The horses had picked up on their rider's anxiety and were snorting impatiently. Absently stroking his gelding's neck, J.D. swallowed hard and looked briefly at Buck before turning his attention to Larabee.
Chris looked slowly around the group of riders, registering the looks of grim determination that each face displayed. He turned his horse east toward the Bar GA, less than a mile distant. "Let's do it."
The stretch of open ground that separated the tree line from the south side of the main house seemed impossibly wide to J.D. Dunne as he and his friends began to run across it. Buck and Ezra had split off to fire the barn. The rest of the group needed to be on the roof before the alarm was sounded. The south end of the building housed the kitchen and storerooms and its roof was several feet lower than the rest of the structure.
Holding a gun in each hand, J.D. drove on. He watched for any sign of movement from the house, any sign of a guard. He saw none. Dunne began to sweat from both fear and exertion. There should have been a guard.
Swinging the barn door wide, Buck Wilmington smiled as he walked into its dim recesses. "Hello?"
His answer took the form of a stream of vulgarities, which tapered off into a weary command. "Get your own damned horse." The voice came from a room to Wilmington's immediate right.
"Real sorry there, pard. Can't do that." Buck drew his gun and used it to motion the man outside. "My horse ain't here, for a start. Then there's the part where I burn this here barn down and cause a ruckus." Using his gun butt as a club, he knocked the man unconscious as he drew even with the barn doors. Looking up from the sprawled form, Buck was in time to see Ezra shaking his head in disgust. "What?"
Rather than answer, the gambler produced a box of matches from his coat pocket. "As you can see, I came prepared on this occasion." Even in the dim light Buck could see the glint of the gold tooth as Ezra flashed a grin.
Buck produced an identical box from his own coat. "Let’s get these horses out of here."
Chris boosted Rafe onto the roof, handing up Molly and Buck's rifles in his wake. Rafe carried additional ammunition in his coat pockets. The men in the bunkhouse would be hard pressed to reach the house unharmed.
At Josiah's urging, Chris reached the rooftop next, followed by J.D., Molly, Nathan, and finally Josiah himself. Chris glanced one last time at Rafe before moving with Molly to the north end of the courtyard. Josiah and Nathan would cover the west hallway--the guest quarters, if Rafe's information was correct. J.D. would cover the eastern corridor containing the dining room and library, as well as the front entrance. Buck and Ezra would back J.D., once they had made it through the kitchen.
Reaching their destination, Chris and Molly crouched at the roof's edge with their weapons trained on the courtyard below. Now it was up to Buck and Ezra. Chris pushed the image of his uncle's face from his mind. They were here to rescue Judge Travis--revenge was of secondary importance.
"Fire!" The cry reverberated throughout the bunkhouse. Several men ran out half-clothed and unarmed, looking around to try and determine just what it was that was on fire. Smoke rose from the barn and the men began running in that direction.
A shotgun was snatched from the rack by a more cautious hand. The man broke open the gun to insert a shell and discovered the packed mud in the barrels. Checking the next long gun he found it similarly disabled. After checking another three, he gave up and turned away in disgust. "They're all spiked," he announced to the rest of the bunkhouse occupants.
Rafe tensed as men began to stream from the bunkhouse. The first few men ran directly to the barn without pause. Rafe released a held breath. Ezra and Buck had reached the house and it would be only a minute or so until the dynamite blast signaled the beginning of the assault. At that point, the bunkhouse hands would turn their attention in his direction. Rafe wiped the sweat from his brow and took a deep breath.
Ezra lit the stick of dynamite as he and Buck reached the kitchen door. As he stooped to position it, the door swung inward and revealed a young Mexican woman. The girl's eyes widened in fear as Ezra pulled her clear and drew the door shut behind her. As the trio put distance between themselves and the explosive charge, Ezra wondered if the entire enterprise was doomed to failure.
As the force of the explosion shook the building, Rafe drew bead on the ranch hand closest to the house. The building quieted and he could see the gun the man held. He saw the moment the gun was raised to aim toward the kitchen where, presumably, Buck and Ezra were in view. Rafe slowly squeezed the trigger and felt the recoil as his shot rang out. His target looked surprised as he slowly dropped to the ground.
Before Rafe could reflect on what he had just done, another armed man demanded his attention. Then a third. As his fourth bullet found its mark, Rafe began to feel numb.
Dropping down into the courtyard moments after the blast, J.D. quickly entered the door to the east hallway. He couldn't see anyone in either direction and he took up a position near the main entrance to the house. Despite the absence of an enemy presence, J.D. found himself hoping that Buck and Ezra would make their way to him soon. The hair on his neck was standing on end.
Entering the northern end of the home, Molly let loose a load of buckshot at the two men standing guard in the hall ahead of her. One of the men collapsed with four wounds to shooting arm and chest, the other man caught a piece of shot in his shoulder. He tried to raise his gun to return fire and stopped as Larabee's shot caught him in the stomach. Slumping to the ground he tried to bring the gun up once more. Molly knocked him senseless with the butt of her shotgun as she followed Chris past the dying men and toward the door they had been guarding.
Trying the doorknob, Molly was surprised to find the door unlocked. She backed up and replaced the spent shell in her shotgun, giving Chris a worried look.
Josiah had lost sight of Nathan as the two men had entered the building and begun fighting their way toward the north end of the house. He heard shots from directly behind and assumed Jackson was keeping pace with him. Most of the resistance seemed to be along their path. Josiah smiled grimly as he fired at yet another defender.
A noise from behind caught his attention. He turned to find Nathan standing within arm's reach, gun dangling loosely from his hand before dropping to the ground and discharging--the bullet crashing into the wall next to Josiah's knee. With horror he watched as the former slave crumpled to the ground.
The sound of gunfire from ahead meant Nathan would have to wait. Josiah could only hope that Jackson was still alive and would stay that way long enough to get him medical attention. Kicking in the door to his left, Josiah continued checking the rooms for occupants.
J.D. listened to the sound of gunfire that came from everywhere but his own position. He wanted to join in the action but Chris had been very clear on where he wanted the young Easterner to be during the fight. The days when he second-guessed the older gunman were behind him now. No matter what he saw or heard, he would stay at his post.
He nearly missed the movement in the hall as a man began to move quickly in his direction. Raising his twin Colts, Dunne blinked in surprise as he felt a bullet bury itself in his chest. In the dim light, he hadn't seen a gun. By the time it occurred to him to return fire, the man had passed by on his way out of the house. J.D. recognized him from the picture--it was Richard Arlington. Sitting down heavily, J.D. realized that his chest didn't hurt. He wondered if that meant he was dying.
Once inside the house Buck and Ezra could here the sound of gunfire coming from the area that Josiah and Nathan were clearing and also from the north end, where Chris and Molly were searching for the Judge.
Without a word Ezra headed off to help Josiah and Nathan while Buck went to meet up with J.D.. Buck found himself worrying more about Chris Larabee than he was about the kid. At least there wasn't any gunfire coming from J.D.'s location.
Ezra hoped he could avoid getting shot by his friends as he came up on them from behind. He could hear shots up ahead but the gunsmoke made visibility difficult. At best he could make out vague movement near the end of the hall.
Groans came from some of the bodies that lay strewn along the passage. Ezra raised a foot to step over one such body before recoiling in shock. It was Jackson. Gently checking for signs of life in his friend, Ezra didn't hear anyone approaching from behind until it was too late.
Moving cautiously down the empty hallway, Buck looked for a sign of his friend. There was a figure slumped against the wall about halfway along its length. Buck's gut tightened with fear as he called out Dunne's name and received no response. As he neared the crumpled form his fears were realized. J.D. Dunne looked dead.
Buck knelt down next to the boy and put his hand in front of Dunne's open mouth. When he felt J.D.'s hot breath against his skin he was dizzy with relief. The gunfire was dying down and Buck fought the temptation to find Nathan and bring him back to care for J.D. He would have to wait just a little while longer.
"Easy now, J.D. Ol' Nathan'll have you fixed up in no time. Yessiree. No time at all. You just wait and see." Buck took his coat off and draped it over the injured man. "An' don't you be worrying none about no scar. Ladies like a scar or two. Shows you’re a man." He lowered himself down to sit next to his friend, patting the leg nearest his own. "Hell, I ever tell you about Lucille and how I got that scar on my…."
Chris held Molly's eyes as they bracketed the unlocked door. As she her signaled readiness, he pushed open the door and peered inside. Judge Travis sat bound to a chair near the far wall. He wasn't alone. A man stood next to the chair and was in the act of drawing a large knife out of his belt sheath.
Unwilling to risk shooting the Judge, Chris holstered his gun and charged into the man, going down in a heap and grabbing the assailant's knife arm with both of his hands. He heard the air being forced out as he drove his knee into the man's belly and, as the knife clattered to the floor, he drove a fist into a face already distorted by pain.
Dazed when a return punch loosened several teeth and bloodied his lower lip, Chris clawed for his gun, only to have it knocked away. He caught hold of the fallen knife, driving it toward the man's belly. Two strong hands gripped his wrist as he put all of his weight behind the blade. The knife began to inch forward and Chris stared at its point, willing it to move.
"Chris…" The voice was raspy and filled with pain.
With the knife a half-inch from its destination, Larabee slowly raised his eyes to find Vin Tanner's familiar blue ones staring back.
For one shocked moment, Chris continued to press the knife home. His mind refused to believe what he had heard and seen. As the truth dawned, he slowly eased back away from Tanner. "Vin?" The whispered name was as much a prayer as a question.
"Nice to see you too, pard." Vin wiped a trickle of blood from his nose.
"But…" Chris watched Tanner climb to his feet and reach out for the knife. He watched as Vin cut through the ropes holding the Judge before sheathing the blade. In stunned silence he watched Judge Travis rubbing his wrists and sharing words with an apparition. It wasn't until Vin reached down his hand to help Chris to his feet that the truth took hold. The moment their hands touched Larabee felt a surge of relief so strong it was painful.
He kept hold of Tanner's hand a moment after standing, looking his friend up and down to reassure himself that Vin was all right. Finally releasing his grip, Chris grinned from ear to ear. "You look like shit, Vin."
The sound of approaching footsteps alerted Molly to the fact that someone was in the hall behind her. She swung around, her gun lining up on Josiah Sanchez. Molly had come within a hair's breadth of killing the former priest. Coloring slightly, she grinned up at the big man. "Sorry Josiah." She jerked her head toward the inside of the room. "But you're going to love this."
She had been watching the corridor, her father, and the fight, unwilling to leave the doorway unguarded. The room looked to be a parlor and had an inner door leading to an adjoining room. That door was open and Molly had kept a close eye on it, as well.
Molly didn't know how Vin had ended up at the ranch, but as she and Josiah went into the room she felt happy for the first time in months. Her father was alive, Mary and Billy were safe, and Vin Tanner was back from the grave. She couldn't have asked for more than that. She stopped in front of the Judge.
"I'm alright." Oren Travis answered the question in his daughter's eyes before focusing on Larabee. "Although somewhat confused."
Chris looked the tracker over once again, trying to understand how it was that Tanner still drew breath. "You ain't alone there, Judge"
"Reckon y'all thought I was dead. Bullet went along here, under the scalp." Vin supplied as he traced the bullet's path with his finger. "Never went in."
Inspecting Vin's savaged hair, cut short and uneven, Molly offered, "I'll pay for the barber."
Josiah said a short, but heartfelt, prayer of thanks. Vin and Judge Travis were both still among the living. He caught Chris' eye. "Nathan's been hurt. I'm going back to check on him." Receiving a nod in return, Sanchez turned and quickly retraced his steps. His pace slowed as he realized there were more bodies in the hall then there had been previously, and one of them was wearing a bloodstained red jacket. Standish sat propped up against the wall, a gun in each hand.
Blood masked Ezra's face and hands and soaked his white shirt. The gambler slowly turned his head to watch Josiah's advance. "I had begun to wonder…."
"Ezra?" Josiah couldn't see any obvious wound other than a few cuts on the man's face. "You been shot?" He knelt down in front of his friend.
"Not that I recall. I believe I was cut on the shoulder, however." Ezra winced and leaned forward to allow Josiah to glimpse the wound. "I was trying to aid Nathan when this…miscreant…attempted to murder me. As you can see," Ezra carefully holstered his guns, "he failed." He kicked the body of his assailant, lying on the floor in front of him.
"My first shot merely annoyed him." Ezra dabbed at the blood flowing from his split lips with a handkerchief. "He nearly succeeded in beating me to death before I could fire the second. How fare's Mr. Jackson?"
Josiah turned his attention to Nathan. Blood pooled beneath the healer's head and a large swelling showed where he had been struck by something hard and heavy. Josiah could find no other sign of an injury. "I wish I knew."
The house had grown quiet. Even Rafe's rifles had fallen silent. Buck and J.D. sat in the hall and waited for help to arrive. J.D. had regained consciousness almost as soon as Buck had sat down next to him, but hadn't spoken up until the story of Lucille had given way to the seduction of Hannah.
The bullet had struck J.D. high on the left side of his chest and Buck could feel air escaping from the lung with each exhaled breath. He had seen his share of men lung-shot, but he had never seen one survive. J.D. would have to change that.
"Guess it's over, huh Buck? No more shootin'." J.D. shifted slightly. "Think Chris found his uncle?"
"I imagine so."
Buck thought about Chris facing down his uncle, about Sarah and Adam, about the others who had died because of Carl Larabee. Most of all he though about the boy who might yet die.
"Don't you worry none. Nathan'll be here real soon." Looking toward the north end of the hall, Buck added, "An' if he ain't, we'll just have to go find him."
From his perch on the roof, Rafe kept watch on the half-dozen men who had surrendered to him. Most of the Bar GA's hands had run off or been shot, but the half dozen lying on the ground below had put down their guns and given themselves up.
The cries of the wounded were beginning to wear on Rafe's nerves. He wasn't sure how many of the men he'd shot were killed and how many wounded, but he could hear pleas for help coming from several directions.
He had his own injury to deal with, as well. A bullet had ploughed a furrow along his left forearm, leaving a wound more painful than it was serious. It stung and it throbbed, but in a strange way he was pleased to have been hit. The scar would be a reminder of this day and what it had made him into. Rafe tensed as another cry came from below.
"Where are they?" Chris' voice was soft. It usually was when he was on the edge of violence.
"I assume you're referring to Grant and Arlington. They were in there." Judge Travis waved his hand toward the next room. "I heard shots."
"Gerard, Grant…whatever you wanna call him, he's dead." Vin saw the flash in Chris' eyes at the announcement. "Not my doin', Chris. And no sign of the other one."
Chris digested the news. For the nearly four years since Sarah and Adam's deaths, he had been consumed with finding their killer. Now that the man responsible was dead, he felt suddenly empty. "We'll find him." He glanced toward Molly, curious to see what effect Vin's statement had had on the woman. She had gone pale and still, as if in shock. He noticed the Judge watching her as well.
As if she had felt Chris' stare, Molly suddenly drew back her shoulders and addressed the room at large. "I'll go check on the others." With a quick glance to her father, she turned and left the room.
Chris frowned as he watched her exit. He had expected her to want to see Gerard's body for herself. He turned back to the Judge. "Any idea what that was about?"
The elder Travis smiled sadly. "I gather my daughter has left out a few details concerning her relationship with Joe Grant."
"I can walk." Ezra gasped in pain as Josiah helped him to his feet. He hoped he had told the big man the truth. Walking seemed more of a challenge once he was upright. Josiah has assured him the cut on the right side of his back was deep but not mortal. That assurance did nothing to lessen the pain that each movement of his arm brought about. Using his left arm to hold the right tight against his chest, Ezra began to limp his way toward the north end of the hall.
He could hear Josiah picking up Nathan and following behind him. They had been unable to wake the healer, and Josiah had suggested moving to join their friends in the parlor. Friends that apparently included the late Vin Tanner.
Reaching their destination, Ezra leaned heavily against the doorframe and looked inside. No one. The room was empty, but he heard voices from the room beyond. Shuffling inside, Ezra made his was to a well-cushioned chair and eased himself down. He watched as Josiah gently placed Nathan onto the settee. It felt wonderful not to be moving. He hadn't realized he had closed his eyes until he heard Josiah's voice saying his name.
"Ezra. Ezra?" Josiah held out a half-filled glass.
"You are indeed a man of God." Ezra sniffed the glass appreciatively. Brandy. Possibly very good brandy. Sipping tentatively, the southerner was delighted to discover that the filthy, cowardly, murderous scum that they had come in search of had refined tastes when it came to spirits.
Molly had walked several yards down the hallway before she noticed Buck and J.D. sitting along the wall near the house's main entrance. She stopped up short and stared for a moment before continuing on.
"Never thought I'd be this damned happy to see a bounty hunter." Buck smiled up at her, but the smile never reached his eyes.
"How is he?" Molly crouched down to make her own determination.
"Not doin' so good," J.D. said, his voice weak.
"Where's Nathan?" Buck's fear had made it into his voice.
Sitting back on her heels, Molly made a quick decision. "Nathan's hurt, but I don't know how bad." She held up her hand to forestall Buck's response. "I'm going into Eagle Bend and find a doctor. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Buck put a hand on her arm to keep her from rising. "How's your daddy?"
"Dead. Arlington is missing." Molly stared hard into his eyes. "Any more questions?" Shaking off his hand, she rose and headed for the door. She felt bad for Wilmington, he was overly fond of the kid and, from what she could tell, it was only a matter of a day or so before J.D. Dunne was being read over. Buck knew that, she could see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice.
Pulling her gun, Molly exited the house and skirted along the wall to the south end of the house, calling out to Rafe not to shoot. She walked past the men Rafe had pinned down suddenly realizing that they would be incredibly lucky if J.D. was the only man lost this day. The fact that Nathan was hurt weighed heavily on her mind, but it was Joseph Grant's death that sent her running from the house and away from the others. Her part was done. Her father was safe and Grant, Gerard, had paid for his crimes. .
After she had reached her gelding and finished saddling him, Molly looked back toward the ranch. The barn was only partly destroyed, thanks to the quick action of the ranch hands. The bunkhouse was empty, she had checked it inside and out and signaled to Rafe that his work was done. The young man had lowered himself over the side of the house and dropped down while she kept watch over his prisoners.
She was tempted to get on her horse and start riding, to keep on riding until sunset and put Grant and the day's events behind her. With a curse, Molly surrendered to fate. She could ignore Wilmington and Dunne, but Nathan Jackson was a friend. You didn't abandon your friends. Hauling herself up into the saddle, she spurred her horse in the direction of Eagle Bend.
Staring down at the body of his uncle, Chris felt numb. Vin and Judge Travis had been speaking but Chris hadn't heard the words, only the sound of their conversation. Talk had ceased as sounds had come from the other room.
"Who is it?" Chris drew his gun and looked back toward the door.
Vin edged around the open door and stole a glance into the room's interior. Pulling back inside he faced Chris. "Looks like Nathan and Ezra got hurt. Josiah brung 'em in. Nathan ain't movin' and Ezra don't look so good."
"Ride to Eagle Bend and bring back the doctor." Chris holstered his Colt before continuing. "And send Buck and J.D. back here."
"Tell him to stay on watch." Suddenly Larabee felt incredibly tired. "Tell him I'll send someone to relieve him soon as I can."
Oren Travis approached Chris as Vin left the room. "I want to thank you for saving my life." He looked down at his former colleague's body. "Although I understand that wasn't your only reason for coming here. Joseph and I had ourselves quite a discussion last evening. I believe he knew he wouldn't be seeing you alive. He gave me this." Retrieving an envelope from inside his coat, he handed it to Chris.
"What happened?" Nathan Jackson's voice brought Ezra to his feet.
"Nathan? It is about time you rejoined us." The relief that flooded through the gambler was nearly enough to mask the pain from his injuries. Josiah had gone for water and clean linen and left the two wounded men alone in the room. Ezra lowered himself carefully to his knees.
"You been hurt." Nathan tried to rise but fell back as nausea overtook him.
"As have you. Mr. Tanner is at this very moment on his way to locate a physician." He smiled at Nathan, his first real smile in days. "He'll no doubt be pleased to learn his trip was unnecessary." He watched Nathan looking around the room in confusion.
"Where are we?"
"In Marcus Gerard's personal parlor. It would seem the man no longer has need of it. Someone has claimed Larabee's prize as his own--Gerard is dead."
"Gerard's Parlor?" Panic flickered across Nathan's dark features. "Ezra, the last thing I remember is ridin' back to town with Vin after takin' Mary an' Billy to stay with Rain's people."
Buck was helping J.D. to stand as Vin came around the corner. One look told him the boy was badly hurt. Not J.D., we can't lose the kid. He quickly walked the fifteen yards that separated himself from his friends. Neither man noticed his approach until he was within ten feet.
"God, Buck. I'm dyin'." J.D.'s eyes went wide with fear as he stared at the ghost drawing near. The closer Vin approached, the more frightened J.D. became. "I don't wanna die."
"Nah, kid. You ain't dyin'. I see him too," Buck whispered.
As Vin closed to within arm's reach, J.D. blurted out, "But I saw you die!" The pain from his wound was momentarily forgotten as J.D. reached out his hand to grab hold of Vin's arm.
"I'll explain later." Vin removed J.D.'s hand from his arm, eyeing the boy's wound as he did so. "Right now I'm goin' for a doctor. Nathan's hurt and Ezra don't look so good neither." He paused, looking up at Buck. "Best get J.D. here down to the rooms at the end o' the hall." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Vin moved to walk by when Buck's voice halted him.
"Molly's already fetchin' a doc. Chris didn't send her?"
Vin looked a little more intently at Buck. The question and the tone in which it was delivered set off alarm bells. Buck didn't trust Molly to return with help. "No." He admitted. "But if you're thinkin' she cut an' run, you don't know Molly."
"You’re right 'bout that. I don't know Molly. I don't know her and I don't trust her. That woman don't care 'bout J.D. or anyone else, 'cept maybe her daddy." Buck snorted. "An' her daddy's not hurt, is he?"
"I got t' check on Rafe. You'd best move J.D. an' wait for the doc." He started for the door again, pausing long enough to add, "You're wrong 'bout Molly, but now ain't the time to argue it."
Rafe had been trying to remember why he had insisted on coming. Why he had thought killing a man would be easy, so long as that man was a killer himself. He wouldn't allow tears to fall, but the part of his soul that had survived the morning's firefight was questioning his insistence on coming.
When his father, the late Reverend Mosely, had been exposed as a murderer, Rafe had known he would be spending the rest of his life trying to make amends. He couldn't bring Claire back, but he promised Chanu, her husband, that he would never allow himself to be blinded again by prejudice. He and Chanu weren't especially friendly, but they had come to respect one another, at least Rafe hoped they had.
Swinging the Winchester around, Rafe stared open-mouthed at Vin Tanner. "I thought…"
Grinning from ear to ear, Vin cut him off, "You an' everybody else. Tell ya later." Tanner's gaze lowered to the bloodstained shirtsleeve. "How bad?"
"Just a graze. Hurts a lot, but it's stopped bleeding." The whole time he spoke Rafe's eyes were fastened on the scab on Vin's forehead--evidence of a bullet's passage.
"These all surrender?" Vin gestured at the half-dozen men lying on the ground.
Rafe nodded. "What do we do with them?"
Vin smiled. "I'll show ya."
Chris stared at the envelope in his hand, unwilling to read the words his uncle had written. The man had killed his own blood--nothing he could say would absolve him of his crimes. Nor would his death.
The room the parlor adjoined was a study, not a bedchamber. Presumably the door set into the west wall led to the bedroom, but the study was furnished with a large desk, several chairs, and a very large and heavy desk. It was on the desk that Chris laid the letter his uncle had left him, noticing as he did so that a copy of the Clarion sat off to one side.
Picking up the newspaper, Chris read the lead story's heading--Murderers Caught. It was the article detailing the capture of Stephen Travis' killers, Frank Ellis and Ben Wheeler. Looking through the rest of the stacked paperwork, Chris found the deeds for banks, hotels, saloons, and liveries from over a dozen towns. Frowning he looked up at Oren Travis, a question forming on his lips. It died there. Now was not the time. Now they needed to take care of the wounded and sort out what still needed to be done. Finding Richard Arlington topped the list.
Movement from the doorway caught Josiah's eye. He stood and quickly helped Nathan onto his feet and into a nearby chair. He turned back to see Buck lowering J.D. down onto the settee. J.D.'s eyes were closed, but his movements let them know he was conscious. Josiah closed his own eyes as he realized that the boy was shot in the breast.
"I'd like t' look him over," Nathan said quietly.
Buck looked over at the healer, taking in the rough bandage Josiah had applied. "No offense, Nathan, but I don't think there's anything you can do for him, hurt like you are."
Nathan started to protest but sat back instead. "Vin's gone for a doctor."
Snorting, Buck corrected the healer. "Molly beat him to it. Vin's checkin' on Rafe." Looking around the room he asked worriedly, "Where's Chris?"
Leaving Nathan's side to squat next to J.D., Josiah answered Buck's question. "Through there." He nodded toward the door to the study. "With Judge Travis." He looked closely at J.D.'s wound and felt a heaviness descending. If the boy was truly lung shot, his chances were not good and his recovery, should there be one, would be long and difficult. He patted the young man's shoulder gently before rising to his feet.
"And how is our young friend?" Ezra's voice was edged with more than his own pain. The green eyes looked everywhere but at the injured man.
"He's gonna be fine." Buck's firm insistence ended the conversation.
Staring at Vin's handiwork, Rafe had to suppress a smile. "That ought to keep them." Vin had led the six men back into the bunkhouse and tied them to the beds by their hands, feet, and a rope around their midsections.
Rising wearily from tying the last man, Vin agreed, "I reckon. Now we got t' check the rest of 'em." He walked past Rafe and out of the building.
Following Vin outside, Rafe watched as the former man-hunter checked the bodies scattered nearby. He noticed that Vin stripped away each man's weapons and checked for any sign of life. By the time Vin was kneeling next to his third man, he had reached his first. As he retrieved the abandoned revolver, he heard a groan. Bile rose in Rafe's throat as he realized the man was gut-shot and still very much alive.
"Water." The word came out as a gasp.
Rafe ran back to the water barrel next to the bunkhouse, filled the dipper and carefully carried it back to where the man lay bleeding into the dust. In his short absence the Bar GA hand had expired. Rafe stared down at the dead man for a long time before moving on to the next body.
Five wounded and two dead. Vin turned back to check on Rafe. The boy was checking his fourth man, using his neckerchief to try to staunch the blood flow from an arm wound.
"Doc's on the way." Vin left his man and headed over to join Rafe as the younger man stood and looked around. "I got five hurt and two needin' coffins." He looked down at Rafe's bloodied sleeve. "Make that six hurt."
"Two dead, two…" Dropping to his knees, Rafe supported himself on his good arm as the contents of his stomach spilled out onto the ground.
"It's OK, kid." Vin helped Rafe to his feet. He knew that the boy was beginning to absorb all that had taken place that morning and that before long he was going to need to talk or get drunk. Maybe both.
"Sure y'are." Stooping to pick up Rafe's fallen hat, he handed it back to him. The boy was pale but Vin could see he was determined to do whatever needed to be done. His eyes flicked down to the injured forearm, fresh blood seeping into the material of Rafe's shirt. "Right now I need someone with two good arms. I'd appreciate you tellin' Chris for me."
Standing in the doorway between study and parlor, Larabee took in the view. Josiah was washing the blood from Ezra's face, Nathan was looking miserably from one man to the next, and Buck was standing in the doorway that led to the hall. Chris couldn't see J.D. from where he stood. The back of the settee was toward him.
He kept his eyes on Buck until his old friend returned his gaze. He could see both anger and fear in Buck's expression, and the latter reassured him that J.D. was still among the living. It was just now hitting home that they might lose one of their own before the day was over.
"I'm going to go look things over," Chris announced.
"You do that." Buck's voice was cold with anger.
"Might be a good idea to set up a room with beds. Make it easier for the doc when he gets here." Josiah suggested.
Nodding his approval, Chris stared at the back of the settee. "Good idea. I'll see what we got to work with. Place like this oughta have a good sized dining room."
Turning back into the study, he found Judge Travis going through the documents piled on the desk. "Judge?"
"I'll stay here and sort through these papers. If you could give me a hand moving Joseph to the other room?" With a jerk of his head, he indicated the bedchamber.
Chris called for Josiah and the two of them moved Gerard's body, placing it onto the bed. "How's J.D. doin'?" He looked down at his uncle while he waited for the answer. He wasn't sure he trusted his expression at the moment.
"Not good, Chris. The bullet hit a lung. He's still alive and that's something, but he needs a doctor." Bowing his head, Josiah began to offer a silent prayer for the soul of the dead man.
"No prayers," Chris spat out. "Not for him. He's already in hell where he belongs."
Turning to look at Chris, Josiah hesitated before speaking. "Maybe. And maybe you're wishin' that you'd been the one to send him there? Angry you were cheated out of your vengeance?" Josiah's gaze dropped once more to the dead man. "What's done is done. Maybe it's time to think about the living."
"Not yet. Not until Arlington's in hell with him." Chris spun on his heel and left the room.
Molly slowed to a trot as she reached the edge of town. The ranch house was a good five miles from Eagle Bend and she had managed to avoid thinking about Marcus Gerard the entire trip. Instead she had worried about the injured men and Richard Arlington's whereabouts. She knew he was probably either already safely in Mexico or heading for the nearest train station. It didn't matter which. She'd find him eventually.
The last time she had passed through Eagle Bend the doctor's office had been near the west end of the main thoroughfare. It still was. She reined up and dismounted, securing her horse absentmindedly as she read the name on the shingle. Charles P. Middleton, M.D.. It was even the same doctor as she remembered.
Before she could knock on the office door it swung open and a man appeared. He was on the far side of forty, with light brown hair and had the clearest blue eyes Molly had ever seen. Middleton drew up short upon seeing he had a visitor. When recognition set in, Molly noticed the momentary panic the man tried to conceal.
"Hello, Doctor. What's the matter? You look like you've seen a ghost." She took a step forward, backing Middleton into his office..
"As I live and breathe, Molly Thompson!" He smiled nervously as he looked her up and down. "You aren't injured, are you? Or sick perhaps?"
"Not this time, Doc. But some of my friends are." Molly watched as sweat began to roll down the man's forehead. "I need you to come with me." She scanned the room behind him, but saw nothing that would suggest the reason for the doctor's uneasiness.
"Are they ill or injured? How many 'friends' are in need of treatment?" Wiping his forehead with his handkerchief, Middleton visibly calmed. Only a tightness around the mouth betrayed his tension.
"One man's lung-shot and a couple more have been beaten pretty bad. There may others shot, but I'm not sure how many of them will be needing you." Molly waited for the doctor to go further inside to collect his medical bag. She fully intended to follow and investigate the cause of the man's nervousness.
Middleton's saddlebags, as it turned out, were kept on the floor next to the office entrance. He stooped to retrieve them as he exited, closing and locking the door behind him and then pocketing the key. He looked at her and frowned. "In that case, we should be on our way quickly." He began to head for the stables. Looking back over his shoulder he asked, "And where is it that we are going?"
Molly watched him closely as she answered. "The Bar GA." Middleton's body tightened perceptively. "I'm guessing you'd know it. Mr. Gerard and Mr…." Molly paused, having to dredge up Arlington's alias from her memory. "Mr. Ashford are important men in town, aren't they?" She slid her Colt free of its holster. "I imagine they pay well. Maybe even enough to buy loyalty."
Blood drained from Middleton's face as Molly cocked the gun. He looked from the muzzle to her face and quietly answered her question. "My only loyalty is to my oath. I would never withhold treatment from anyone who needed it."
Easing down the hammer, she holstered her gun. She didn't completely trust the doctor, but she believed he meant what he had said. If he was on the Bar GA payroll, it must cut deep against the grain. Everything about the man, both now and when she had first met him years before, bespoke of integrity and honor. She found it difficult to believe he would willingly defend someone like Arlington.
By the time they reached the livery, color had returned to the doctor's face. He seemed angry as he saddled his mare, informing the hostler that if someone should need him, he could be found at the Bar GA.
They led their horses outside the stable, halting just outside the big double-doors.. Hoisting herself into the saddle, Molly watched Middleton do the same. He glared at her for a moment before his gaze softened. "I will help your friends, Miss Thompson. I promise."
Nodding her acceptance of his statement, Molly felt a wash of sympathy for Middleton. In many ways he reminded her of her father, which was why she was so certain he had been hiding something back at the clinic. Whatever it was, it could wait. She guided her horse out into the road and pointed its head in the direction of the ranch.
Richard Arlington moved aside the curtain that served as a door between the front and rear rooms of Middleton's office. He watched through the window as the doctor and Molly entered the livery, deciding to exit through the building's back door. He still had enough influence in Eagle Bend to insure a few days rest before departing the region. Should Larabee look for him in town--unlikely but possible--no one would reveal his location. Those who couldn't be bought had long since been replaced.
He caught his breath as pain shot up from the wound in his side. Middleton had insisted the wound would heal in time, but that he must rest for a few days before attempting to travel. For the hundredth time that day, Arlington cursed his former business partner. It had never occurred to him that Grant would attempt to kill him. The man had been a coward. The only time Grant had ever killed was when he had shot Jacob Thornton, and that had been the result of blind panic. Arlington had underestimated the late Joseph Grant.
He had also underestimated Chris Larabee, Larabee's friends, and Molly Travis. He was used to having control over all the pieces on the game board, but these particular pieces had refused to follow the path he had laid out for them. Nothing had gone according to plan. In retrospect, killing Larabee's family, without killing Larabee himself, had been a costly error in judgement.
Overconfidence had resulted in his current situation, but he knew he could start over without much difficulty. He had money and land under several aliases both in the Territories and in the States. Richard Arlington would disappear completely for a year or two before resurfacing under a new name and beginning to rebuild his empire. All he needed was two days rest.
Reaching the south wall of the main house, Vin eased the injured man down to sit next to the entrance to the kitchen. He checked the makeshift bandage he had placed around the man's arm, loosening the knot in order to draw the bandana tighter and slow the flow of blood. Satisfied the wounded gunman was not in imminent danger of succumbing to blood loss, Vin stood and stretched his shoulders.
With a slight smile he conceded that Buck had done a fair job of teaching Rafe how to shoot. In addition to the four men the boy had killed, three of the seven wounded would be losing limbs once the doctor arrived. Two more were likely to die from their wounds and the final two weren't hurt badly--just enough to make them realize that they weren't being paid enough to commit suicide.
The sound of men approaching caught Vin's attention. Chris and Josiah passed through the door, followed by Rafe, sporting a fresh bandage on his arm. Looking from one face to another, Vin asked. "J.D.?"
"Alive." Chris met Vin's gaze and quickly averted his eyes, instead surveying the damage Rafe had inflicted from his aerie. "We can put the wounded in the dining room. Line up some mattresses along the floor."
Nodding slowly, Vin agreed. "An' we'd best get the dead out of the sun. There's a cellar. Door's in the kitchen."
"Rafe and I will care for the dead," Josiah said. "Won't we, Rafe?"
Molly rode up to the house with Doc Middleton at her side. The bodies that had littered the ground between the bunkhouse and the main building were gone, testament to the activity that had taken place in her absence. There was a patch of blood on the wall near the open door.
"And just how many men did you say were shot?" Middleton asked.
"From what I saw, most were dead or headed that way." Molly dismounted and led the way inside. Ushering the physician through the kitchen and into the hallway, they walked quickly toward Gerard's parlor. She hoped that they were in time to help the Dunne kid. She wasn't convinced the boy could be saved, but she had described his wound to the doctor and Middleton had assured her that he knew of several men who had survived such wounds--one had been his patient.
They passed an open door and heard the cries of men in pain. Middleton began to turn into the room but was stopped by the sudden appearance of Chris Larabee in the doorway. Molly grabbed the doctor's coat and pushed him along the corridor.
"But those men…" Middleton began.
"Those men can wait. It's the men I'm taking you to that you need to worry about." Molly grit her teeth as they neared the room. She was half convinced they would find J.D. dead and Nathan close on his heels.
Middleton lifted the cloth from J.D.'s chest, feeling the air escape as the boy exhaled. Covering the wound again and trying to ignore the fear in the youngster's eyes, he turned to Nathan. "I understand you were injured as well? A blow to the head?" Over Nathan's mumbled protests the doctor unwound the bandage covering the large swelling and torn tissue that Josiah had cleaned using brandy and, when it became available, hot water. "Miss Travis has told me that you are a healer, and a gifted one. Tell me, are you familiar with the symptoms of a concussion?"
Bristling slightly, Nathan answered. "I don't remember the last couple o' days and I've been feelin' sick. Comes an' goes. Right now I'm feelin' alright."
After examining Nathan's eyes and asking a few more questions, Middleton was satisfied that that the concussion was mild in nature. "And you," Middleton addressed Ezra, "how are you faring?"
"Quite nicely, all things considered." Ezra smiled, his gold tooth glinting in the lamplight. His coat rested over his shoulders, but his shirt had been removed to allow Nathan and Josiah to tend to his knife wound. "Mr. Jackson assures me my injuries are not fatal and the judicious application of spirits has made the pain quite tolerable. Quite tolerable indeed."
"He'll need stitchin'," Nathan volunteered. "Cut's across his shoulder blade and the bone is showin' through."
Middleton opened his saddlebags and began to remove the instruments within. He would probe for the bullet in the boy's chest and remove it if possible. The location was good. There was a reasonable chance of the young man's survival. As he looked around the room he noticed that someone, Jackson most likely, had decided that more lamps would be needed. There was also a large table cleared off and standing ready for use.
Josiah started lighting the extra lamps and Nathan began to arrange the bowls and bandages that Middleton would need, once work on JD had begun. Neither man asked what needed to be done. It was obvious both men were both accustomed to caring for the wounded.
"I'll move him." Stone-faced and pale, Buck stooped to gather J.D. into his arms, carefully transferring him onto the cool wood of the table.
Middleton watched silently. Molly Travis had cautioned him about Wilmington, explaining the closeness of the two men and hinting that it might be difficult to render aid in the older man's presence. He could see the doubt and worry set into the lines of the man's face, but as Buck Wilmington turned to face him, he also saw hope.
Molly hadn't stayed with Middleton after escorting him to the parlor. The doctor had been nervous during the trip out to the ranch and had seemed particularly uneasy when she had mentioned Arlington's name. She would have bet money that Arlington had been in the back room at the clinic. If she was right, she might be able to pick up his trail and catch him before he had the chance to leave Eagle Bend.
Stopping at the open door to the recently transformed dining room, Molly looked inside for Larabee. She found Vin Tanner instead.
"Lookin' for Chris? He's gone to talk to the Judge." Looking at her closer, Vin rose up from where he was squatting next to one of the injured men. "You look fit to bust. Mind tellin' me why?"
"I think the doc knows where Arlington is." Molly moved back out of the doorway and began to walk back the way she'd come.
She slowed as she heard Vin hurrying to catch up with her. Glancing over as he fell into step beside her, she couldn't help but grin. "I meant what I said about paying for that haircut."
"You're sure?" Chris frowned as he listened to Molly's recounting of Middleton's behavior. They were in Gerard's study, along with Judge Travis and Vin. The door to the parlor was closed and all of them were keenly aware of what was transpiring beyond it.
"I'm sure he knows something. I'm not sure what." Molly sniffed the contents of a decanter sitting on a sideboard. She poured out drinks as Larabee waited for her to continue. "My guess is that Arlington's hurt. Middleton's not the sort of man who'd help him out, otherwise." She turned to place a drink in front of her father, still seated behind the desk, immersed in documents. "Besides, the doc's office was wrong."
"What do you mean wrong?" Chris reached out to accept the drink Molly held out. He wanted to go into the other room and question Middleton, but held off for J.D.'s sake. Until their wounded were cared for, the doctor would be allowed to keep his secret.
Slowly sipping what had proved to be quality bourbon, Molly took her time answering. "His saddlebags were next to the door."
Chris stared at the closed door to the parlor. "Like he knew he'd be goin' somewhere."
"And didn't want whoever came to fetch him coming inside." Molly's face grew hard as she turned to look at him. "Like he was hiding someone. That's what I'd thought at the time, but I figured J.D. needed a doc more than we needed Arlington."
"You did the right thing." Chris silently willed the door to open and Dr. Middleton to walk through and tell them that J.D. was alive and would recover. It dawned on him that Buck wasn’t the only one who had grown attached to the kid.
Jaw clenched, Nathan watched as the doctor withdrew the bullet probe. It had gone nearly through the chest, from what he had seen. He carefully set the lamp he held down beside the table. He knew what was coming next.
"We need to turn him," Middleton said and he reached across J.D.'s body to pull the still youth closer to his side of the table. With Nathan pushing the boy's hips, it went quick and smooth.
"Watch his head, Buck," Nathan instructed as he and Middleton reversed their roles and he pulled J.D. over into the prone position. He watched as the doctor felt along the flesh of J.D.'s back, the spot near where the bullet had finished its travel. With a grunt of satisfaction the older man reached for a scalpel.
The stairs to the cellar creaked as Josiah carried the last of the dead down into the relative coolness below. It was one of the two men who had been keeping guard prior to the attack. Vin had killed them in the early morning hours and hidden their bodies from sight. Each had a single knife wound to the chest and, not for the first time, Josiah wondered about the former bounty hunter's past.
Laying down his burden, Josiah stretched his back and shoulders as Rafe began to lay the man out and search through his clothing. Looking around the room he silently counted. Ten dead, so far. He and Rafe had cleared out the halls of the main house, moving bodies and two wounded men--one who would be joining his friends in the cellar before long.
Rafe stood and turned to face Josiah. He didn't ask. He had stopped asking.
"He's the last." Placing one of his large hands onto Rafe's shoulder, he smiled grimly. "Let's go and see how J.D.'s doing."
Washing his hands clean of blood, Middleton looked down at his patient. The bullet had been trapped between two of Dunne's ribs and had chipped bone fragments from each. He had removed both the bullet and bone chips and cleaned the wound as best he could. The wounds were dressed but not closed. Keeping them clean would hopefully prevent infection from setting in, but in all likelihood the lung would need to be aspirated at least once during the boy's convalescence.
Buck had dragged Nathan back into a chair, admonishing him to rest while the doctor finished his work. Middleton regarded them thoughtfully. He had previous experience with Negro "doctors," but Nathan Jackson was the first he had encountered who displayed any real medical knowledge. Jackson's continuous observations and questions throughout the operation had first annoyed and then intrigued him. The observations had been accurate and the questions astute.
Getting back to more immediate matters, he wiped his hands dry and turned to Ezra Standish. "I believe you were next?"
Closing the door behind him, Buck entered the study. "Bullet's out. Doc says J.D.'s got a fair chance of gettin' through this. He's sewin' up Ezra right now."
"I want to talk to him when he's done with him." At Buck's puzzled look Chris added a few words of explanation. "Molly thinks Arlington might have been with him when she showed up. If it's true, he might have an idea of where we can find the bastard."
Buck laughed at that. "An' he's just gonna tell us out of, what, the goodness of his soul? Hell Chris, Arlington probably owns him."
"Probably," Chris agreed, "but he'll talk. He won't be able to help those men in the dining room if he doesn't. From what I saw, that ought to be enough of a threat to get him to cooperate."
"If it isn't, maybe this will be." Oren Travis handed a sheet of paper to Chris and leaned back in his chair.
Chris read through the paper's contents and raised his eyes to stare at the Judge. "If this is true…."
Cries of pain diverted Josiah and Rafe into the dining hall. The room already smelled of sickness and death. Scouting around the room, Josiah located a supply of brandy and handed one bottle to Rafe and took a second himself. They made the rounds among the wounded, hoping to ease their suffering.
"This one's dead." Rafe Mosely's voice was tired.
Without a word Josiah picked up the dead man and left the room. Rafe didn't follow. Instead he leaned against the wall, sank slowly to the floor, and raised the brandy to his lips. He ignored the hot tears cutting trails through the grime on his face. Rafe focused only on the warmth of the brandy as it coursed through a body he doubted could ever be warmed again.
Taking off his coat, Arlington sank down onto the feather bed. He was in the house of Eagle Bend's illustrious mayor, Horace Phipps. The pain in his side had become more insistent and he sipped from the laudanum bottle the doctor had given him. He knew Middleton would talk, but he hoped the gunmen of Four Corners wouldn't be disposed to look for him at his present location.
"They'll be coming." Pete Whitman stood staring out the window. The Bar GA foreman exuded nervous tension even standing still. He didn't like remaining in town.
"I know." Arlington closed his eyes and lowered his head to the pillow. "Go keep a lookout. Wake me if it becomes necessary." He listened as the bedroom door opened and then closed. His side throbbed unmercifully and he again thought of his late partner.
Grant had turned on him. Not all at once, but a gradual betrayal that had ended in the attack on the Bar GA. He had tried to conceal his nephew's presence from Arlington and, after Larabee's wife and son were dead, had convinced Arlington to allow Chris Larabee to live--insisting he was no longer a threat. He hadn't been, until Oren Travis had been appointed a Territorial Justice. With Larabee in Four Corners, employed by Travis and aided by fellow gunmen, his threat potential became enormous. The proof was in Fowler's failure and death.
Out of curiosity, he had traveled to see the gunman for himself a few months after Larabee had settled in Four Corners. The memory still haunted him. He was not normally a superstitious man, but the moment he had seen Larabee he had felt the hand of death. The premonition had nearly come true. He would see to it that, once he was safely away, Mr. Larabee rejoined his family.
The sound of a throat being cleared announced Middleton's arrival in the study's open door. His eyes grew wide as he noticed Oren Travis' presence. He shot an accusing look in Molly's direction and his eyes grew wider still as the family resemblance became apparent.
Molly grinned at the man. "Now you know why I use an alias. I take it you recognize my father."
"The court passed through town not too long ago." Middleton spoke directly to the Judge, "We never met, sir, but I sat in on several proceedings. If I may say so, the district is fortunate to have you."
"Thank you. Did Richard Arlington share that opinion?" the elder Travis asked.
"Ashford, Doc. Charles Ashford." Molly responded to the puzzled expression that the Judge's question had produced. She moved next to her father. "You saw him this morning."
Larabee walked slowly up to stand in front of the doctor. He spoke softly and without menace. When he caught up with Arlington, a part of the price paid would go to this man. "We know about Mrs. Middleton. You wanna tell us how it happened?"
"Alice--my wife--went back east to visit her family. She never came home. Please, may I sit down?" After Chris waved him into a chair, he continued. "My wife and I came to Eagle Bend a little over a year a ago, just before Miss Travis came to call, actually. Several months ago you," he indicated Chris, " came to town searching for a killer. Men were injured and some were killed, but no one seemed to be concerned. The law never investigated either your actions or the actions of the survivors. It was as if it had never happened. I telegraphed a lawyer I know in San Francisco. The telegram was never sent," Middleton said bitterly. "That same day Alice received word that her father was ill and she left on the next stage."
Vin detached himself from the wall he had been leaning against. He gave a quick nod to Chris and left the room by the hallway door.
Middleton watched the tracker's departure and continued on with his narrative. "The next day I was invited to dine here, at the ranch, by Marcus Gerard. It was then that I met…Arlington? Yes. He explained that it was not in his best interest that I invite any outside investigation and that I would be much happier if I limited myself to medical matters. My wife would guarantee my conduct. As long as I was loyal, she would be well treated. Once a month I was invited to dinner and presented with a letter from Alice. I was allowed to read it and then it was destroyed. I could send one in return." He paused. "I love my wife, Mr. Larabee."
"Where is Arlington now?" Chris asked.
Middleton stared up at Larabee. "You mean to kill him?"
"Not if he surrenders," Chris lied. He could feel Judge Travis' eyes boring into him. He doubted anyone in the room had believed what he had said.
"You can find my wife?" the doctor asked.
Chris smiled. "No need to. We already know were she is." This wasn't a lie. The night before his death, Chris' uncle had made a long list of townspeople and the holds Arlington had over each. In the case of the town doctor, the information included the whereabouts of the man's wife. "She's being held about ten miles west of here, at another one of Arlington's ranches."
"I don't know precisely where he is, but he was there this morning--at my clinic. He had been wounded, no doubt by one of you. I advised him to rest a few days before attempting to travel. After what I've seen here, I'm not certain he'll have taken my advice."
Vin met up with Josiah as the bigger man was reaching the door to the dining room. He had wanted to ask Rafe a few questions about what, if anything, he had seen of Arlington's escape. He also wanted to look among the wounded and the dead for the ranch foreman. He had accounted for nearly all the men that he had judged the most dangerous during his short stint as a wrangler. The only one missing was Whitman.
Looking past Josiah into the room, Vin saw that Rafe was slumped against the far wall. A momentary flash of pity shot through Vin, but there was no time to coddle the young man. "Rafe? I'm goin' t' bring in the horses. I could use some help."
He watched as Rafe worked his way to his feet and joined them at the door. The man's eyes were reddened, but otherwise he seemed calm and confident. Vin led the way to the kitchen door and out into the bright sunlight. It seemed inconceivable that so many men had died on such a beautiful day. He glanced at his companion and noticed the bemused expression on Rafe's face. Vin remembered well the first time he'd killed a man. It had haunted him for weeks. Months.
They passed by the smoking barn. He hadn't had the chance to ask, but if the barn had been meant as a diversion, it had been a poor one. Very little of it had burnt. The acrid smell of charred wood hurt his nostrils as they neared the edge of the woods where the Four Corner's men had picketed their mounts. Vin reached for Chris' black gelding and began to saddle the animal. He glanced over his shoulder and met Rafe's confused stare.
"I'll be back directly." Vin pulled himself up into the saddle. He would question Rafe upon his return, but for now he was off to retrieve his gun, coat, and horse from where he had cached them.
The moment Vin had left the building, Josiah had continued down to the hallway to the study. There was one last body that needed to be moved. He reached to door just as the doctor was exiting into the parlor, followed by Buck. The silence was heavy between Chris and the Travises.
"I thought I might move Gerard's body, free up the bed for J.D.. How is he?"
It was Chris who answered. "Bullet's out. Doc says he has a chance of makin' it."
"Needs rest, but you know Nathan. Ezra's gonna be all right, but he can't fight. I want Rafe to stay here and keep guard. If we can tear Buck away, that'll give us five men." Chris stared into space, lost in thought.
"You have any idea of where to start looking?" Josiah asked.
By the time Vin and Rafe had returned with the horses, Vin had learned what he had needed to know. A rider had approached the west side of the house with a second horse, and two men had ridden away. Rafe had been keeping his rifle trained on the men below his position and, since the men had not fired on him, he had seen no reason to try to prevent their escape. No one else had made off, at least no one that Rafe had seen.
They picketed the horses near the kitchen entrance and went inside. Vin lit a lamp and headed down the cellar stairs. It didn't take long to determine that Whitman had not been killed in the fighting.
His next stop was the dining room where he found the doctor preparing, with Josiah's help, to remove a man's arm. Vin's gut tightened at the sight. He had seen men wounded, killed, and mutilated, but the sight of surgery always sent a cold fear running through him. He could hear Rafe hurry past the doorway and down the hall. Entering the room, he quickly walked up one side of the room and down the other, looking for the foreman. He didn't find him. He left as Middleton was lifting his saw.
Standing in the doorway to the parlor, what little color remained drained from Rafe Mosely's face. "J.D.?" The whispered question sounded loud to his ears. Nathan was lying in the place he had last seen his friend. Ezra was slumped into a chair. Both men appeared to be asleep.
"I believe," Ezra intoned, "you will find him resting in Gerard's bedroom. Beware the lion at the gate." The gambler's eyes slowly opened and flicked down to Rafe's blood-soaked shirtsleeve. "I assume you have come to regret your decision to play hero?"
Rafe stared down at the injured man, taking in the battered face and the arm in a sling. You're a fine one to talk. He looked toward the door to the study before he answered. "We weren't playing and we aren't heroes." His gaze returned to Ezra briefly, taking note of the approval he read in the green eyes.
"Congratulations. Would you kindly explain that to Mr. Dunne when he wakes up?" The glint of gold could be seen before Standish's smile turned to a grimace of pain. Blood welled at the corner of his mouth as he waved Rafe out of the room.
Pausing in the doorway, Rafe glanced back and saw Ezra watching Nathan with concern in his eyes. He felt a slight twinge of envy. He would never really be a part of the group. A New York writer had dubbed the men "The Magnificent Seven" and had promised he would immortalize them in print. There was no room for an eighth.
"Hell, we might as well shoot us our own selves and be done with it," Buck snarled. "We go waltzin' in an' start takin' horses we are dead, Chris. An' don't give me no crap about first light. By now everyone in Eagle Bend knows what's happened. Rafe saw how many runnin' from here? We ain't gonna be surprisin' anyone out of diapers."
Chris looked past Buck to where Vin Tanner stood. "The town knows we took down Arlington's hired guns. They might think twice about protecting him." He could see Vin sifting through the possible outcomes of the plan, polishing the rough edges and increasing its chances for success. A part of his mind flooded with relief that Tanner was still alive to be able to function as his sounding board.
"An' who'd you have in mind to keep watch at the livery? There's only five of us still fit and you're gonna need us all for what you got in mind." Buck was beginning to calm, but his face was still tight with anger.
With J.D. badly wounded, Chris knew that it was all Buck could do to leave the younger man's side. He also knew that at the root of Buck's anger was guilt. J.D. had been left to guard the hallway alone and nearly died as the result. Might still die. Chris turned to address Rafe Mosely, slumped against the wall near the door to the parlor. "Can you still handle a gun?"
Something dark passed over the boy's eyes before he answered the question. "Just tell me where you want me."
Buck swore under his breath and left the room to check on J.D..
Noting the determined set of Larabee's jaw, Ezra flinched involuntarily. The door to the study had remained open throughout the planning of the raid on Eagle Bend, and Ezra had heard enough to suspect that Chris had plans to make use of he and Nathan in some way. He had considered leaving the room, but his injury and the brandy combined to keep him in his seat.
"How's the shoulder?"
"No need for pleasantries. You know perfectly well that I'm an excellent shot with either hand." Ezra was satisfied with the brief flash of guilt he saw cross Larabee's features. His mother would be appalled. For the second time in as many days, he would be risking death for a principle.
"An' before you ask," Nathan chimed in, "I'll be more'n happy to help. Figure the dizzy spells ought to be gone by mornin'."
Ezra caught Chris' eyes as the gunman turned to leave. For a long moment they stared at each other in silence. A slow smile spread across the hardened gunman's face and Ezra felt compelled to return it. They might face death together come the morning, but they would do so as friends. As Chris left the room, Ezra began to think he had stayed too long in Four Corners.
Once the plan was set, Vin decided to give the bunkhouse prisoners a drink of water. It wasn't as much a humanitarian decision as it was the desire to be alone to consider the upcoming action. Once he had doled out the water and assured himself that the knots he'd tied were still intact, he went outside and sat against the bunkhouse wall.
Chris' plan was workable. With Nathan and Ezra keeping watch over the livery stable, Rafe would collect any horse that might be tethered along the streets at the pre-dawn hour the search was planned for. With the three injured men guarding Arlington's only means of escape, the five healthy fighters would conduct a search for the man. From the papers left behind it was apparent that Arlington owned much of Eagle Bend and held sway over the owners of the properties he did not.
The hotel and boarding houses were the least likely places for Arlington to hide, but Molly had pointed out that, for that reason alone, it might be where he was staying. A building close to the livery is where Vin would chose to be, but if the Judge and Molly were right about how Arlington thought, he might well be hiding on the other end of the town. There was no way to predict where he could be. They would have to search everywhere. Whitman was another problem. Would the foreman stay close to his boss or be sent out as a diversion? Would he even be in town? Vin rubbed a hand over weary eyes as the different scenarios played themselves out in his mind.
"Hey kid." Buck leaned over the pale figure in the bed. "You're gonna be just fine. Doc did a helluva job fixin' you up."
"Guess I didn't die after all. Vin's really alive?" J.D. shifted slightly, wincing as the bandages moved over the wound in his back.
"Yep. Bullet never got through that thick skull o' his." Buck pulled up a chair beside the bed.
"Good." Brown eyes closed as J.D. lost the fight to remain awake.
"You just rest up, kid. You just rest up." Buck briefly patted the boy's hand and rose to leave the room. No one had said it, but it was obvious that the man who had shot J.D. was the man they were preparing to track down. Buck closed the door behind him as he reentered the study.
Chris had left the room shortly after Vin's departure. He had decided it was time to read the letter his uncle had left for him. Walking down the east hall, he entered one of the empty rooms and shut himself away from the world outside. As he sat in a chair placed next to the bed, he removed the sheets of paper and forced himself to focus on the words. "Dearest Christian," it began. Chris smiled slightly. Carl Larabee had been the one to give him his name. The anger he had carried with him since youth began to fade as his uncle's words spilled one after another across the pages.
It was an apology and an explanation. It was a plea for absolution from a man who had been facing imminent death. Over twenty years ago he had vowed to kill Carl. Folding the letter and returning it to the envelope, Chris felt a surge of relief that he had been too late to accomplish his goal.
"So you're saying he was responsible for Stephen's death?" Molly asked.
"He wrote to Stephen. Told him about the fake deeds. Joseph hoped Stephen would expose Arlington's plans." Oren gestured to the stacks of documents on the desk. "Four Corners was one of the few towns that escaped, thanks to Joseph."
"How can you sit there and say that? He got Stephen killed. I don't give a damn what he was trying to do. The man was a coward."
"He was," Oren agreed, "but he still managed to keep you alive."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Molly nearly spat the words out as she glared at her father.
"After Stephen's killers were caught you became a threat to Arlington." Pulling open a desk drawer, the Judge withdrew an object and held it up for Molly's inspection. It was one of the silver tokens. "You were in La Paz. Someone saw you with one of these." He placed the coin down onto the desk. "Arlington sent the killers after you, but Joseph was the one who hired them. He could have hired the best, but he didn't." He leaned back in his chair and waited for Molly's response.
Touching the still healing wound on her head, Molly said, "The last one nearly had me."
"The last one was one of Arlington's own men. He couldn't afford to let you reach Four Corners alive. When you did he decided it was time to abandon Arizona and start up somewhere new. Arlington hoped taking me hostage would buy him some time." Oren smiled grimly. "I could have told him he was wrong."
Wiping his hands dry on his trousers--the cleanest cloth available to him--Josiah slowly looked around the makeshift hospital. The end tally had been an arm and a leg each lost to amputation. Middleton felt certain he could save the severely wounded leg of one of the men if gangrene could be warded off. The man in question was scarcely out of his teens and Josiah had said a heartfelt prayer of thanks when he the doctor had announced his decision.
The doctor had taken his leave, heading back down the hall to see if J.D. was awake and how the boy was doing. Josiah had removed the severed limbs and bloodied cloths and cleaned the room as best he could. With a clarity he had seldom felt in his life, he knew that if he lived to return to Four Corners he would retire his gun and let the other six men dispense justice.
Vin watched as Chris headed toward him. He remained where he was, unwilling to go back inside the house quite yet. Larabee slid down to sit next to him and the two enjoyed a companionable silence for several minutes. Curiosity broke the silence.
"You read it?" Vin looked meaningfully at the envelope Chris held in his hand.
Chris nodded. "Bastard apologized for being born and every day since. Sarah and Adam are still dead."
"So's he," Vin pointed out.
"He tried to keep Arlington from finding out about us. Sarah's pa owned our land--the deed was in his name. He says he didn't know Arlington had found out until after the fire. Fowler was told to leave me alone unless I returned to the area." Chris picked up a small stone and threw it. "Hell, I don't even remember most of that first year."
Vin looked sideways at the closed expression on his friend's face. Only the eyes gave away the pain he was feeling.
A short laugh preceded the resumption of the narrative. "Not a hell of a lot of the year after. After I buried Sarah and Adam nothin' mattered. Nothin'." He turned his face towards the ranch house. "Nothin' except findin' the man who killed them."
Silence regained its hold over the two men. Vin looked toward the tree line, scanning for anything out of place. It was a habit that came as natural as drawing breath. It was a habit that had enabled him to continue to draw breath. In the state of Texas, Vin Tanner was a wanted man. He hadn't committed the murder he was sought for, but he had no way to prove his innocence. Rather than pay the ultimate price for a crime he never committed, Tanner had escaped and made his way west into a land where the law hadn't yet gained purchase.
As he watched a hawk swoop down to capture its prey, Vin smiled. He had been both predator and prey in his life, and he much preferred the former. His stomach grumbled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten since the night before. Out of the corner of his eye he caught Larabee's quick grin.
"I figure the kitchen's well stocked." Chris levered himself to his feet and stretched his tired shoulders. "I'm gettin' too old for this crap."
Supper was beefsteak, boiled potatoes, apples, and coffee to wash it all down. The sun was setting as Chris once again joined Tanner outside the house. Josiah and Rafe were feeding the prisoners and allowing them to use the outhouse before they were secured for the night.
"How's J.D.?" Vin asked without turning to look at his friend.
"Asleep." Chris had checked on the wounded youth before heading outside. "Seems alright, considerin'." He handed over a cup of coffee.
"You explain things to the doc?" Vin took a sip, the hot black liquid scalding his tongue. It was better than he was used to and he savored the flavor.
"He's more than happy to stay. I think he knows he's not safe until Arlington is gone, one way or another." Chris scratched the back of his neck and watched as Josiah escorted another man to the privy.
"So now we wait." Tanner took another sip of coffee and stared at the steam rising from its surface. The cawing of crows pulled his attention skyward. Josiah's crows.
Two hours before dawn, Vin and Josiah rode up to the Eagle Bend livery stable. The rest of the Four Corners party waited on the outskirts of town. Climbing down off their horses, the two chatted amiably with the hostler while scanning the interior of the building for sign of an ambush. Satisfied there was no one else present, Vin lifted a lantern down, preparing to give Chris an all-clear signal as Josiah tied the stable hand up in an empty stall near the rear of the building.
"Wells? What the hell…." Pete Whitman stood in the open doorway, pointing a gun toward Vin's midsection. He tensed at the sound of a pistol being cocked.
"You shoot him, I shoot you." Josiah's deep voice came out the shadows, followed by Josiah himself. "You'll die slow and in pain. You want that?"
Whitman lowered his gun. "Can't say I do." He watched as Vin drew the mare's leg and cocked the hammer back. Looking from one man to the other, he smiled and raised his gun toward Vin.
Two bullets buried themselves in Whitman's chest and he slumped down to sit on the ground. He glared up at Vin. "Knew you were trouble." He fought to raise his gun again, but collapsed instead, his blood mingling with the dirt and straw that was the stable's floor.
Vin levered another cartridge into his mare's leg. "Shit."
A few hundred yards to the north, waiting for Vin's signal, Chris started at the sound of gunfire. There had been a trap Vin and Josiah had sprung it. Putting his spurs to his horse's flanks, he sped down the moonlit road toward town, aware of the rest of his friend's keeping pace beside and behind him.
Reining in as he reached the livery, Chris jumped from the saddle and cocked his gun as he drew it from its holster. The clicks of a five other hammers being ratcheted back sounded ominously through the night air.
"Easy, pard." Vin's slow drawl floated out the door. "It's safe for now."
"What the hell happened?" Chris anxiously strode into the cavernous barn. He pulled up at the sight of Whitman's empty stare and slackened features. Raising his eyes he saw Vin loading a fresh cartridge into his weapon and Josiah snapping closed his Schofield, having done the same.
"No ambush. This here's the Bar GA's foreman. I was gonna signal ya in an' then he showed up. I'm thinkin' he was here t' get Arlington a horse. Maybe a wagon."
"Where's the hostler?" Chris squinted as he peered around the room, the light from the lantern barely enough to illuminate the portion they stood in. Josiah walked back into the shadows and returned with the man in question.
Chris looked the worker over from top to bottom. He looked at least sixty, disheveled, and not very frightened. Motioning for Josiah to remove the gag he had so recently installed, Chris asked, "You know this man?" He pointed to the corpse.
"Pete Whitman. Foreman out at the Bar GA."
"You know why he was here?"
"Came by earlier. Paid three days rent for a horse and wagon. Figure he came to pick it up." The man looked down at Whitman. "Never did much like the man." He looked up at Chris, his eyes dancing. "Or his boss."
Chris frowned. "I thought you worked for Arlington?"
"That his real name? Calls himself Ashford. My boss works for him. I work for my boss. Don't mean I have to like it." He snorted. "Don't matter no how. You wanna work in this town, you gotta work for Bonny Prince Charlie. That's what I call him--Bonny Prince Charlie."
"Any idea where the Bonny Prince might be holed up?" Molly asked.
"Not a one. You the bunch that took his ranch? Word is you all shot anything that moved and some that didn't. Killed all the hands and the livestock. Let the cooks go and killed the rest." The old man grinned at Molly. "And you'd be the she-bitch that was ridin' with them."
Vin shot Chris a look and, at the other man's nod, cut the ropes binding the stable hands wrists.
"You got a gun?" Chris asked the man.
"Scattergun loaded with buckshot." Grinning from ear to ear, the graybeard chuckled. "Guess I'm out of a job."
Surprise no longer an option, the first of several contingency plans went into effect. The stableman, who gave his name as Tar, was a welcome addition. His presence, more to the point his shotgun's, allowed Nathan to help with the search for Arlington.
The original plan had called for them to neutralize the Sheriff and his men and that was still their first priority. There was every chance that the deputy on duty was en route to the livery, having either heard the shot or been alerted to it by someone who had. With drawn guns they ranged along the inner wall on either side of the open double-doors, they waited in silence. Tanner slipped out the side door.
It was a short wait. The deputy cautiously maneuvered toward the open double-doors. They felt more that heard his approach. The moonlight cast his shadow over the dead man lying on the earth, flies crawling over the still warm flesh. They could hear his quick intake of breath before he became as quiet and still as the corpse before him. He wasn't close enough to draw down on, so the silence lengthened.
A muffled curse brought a grin to Chris' face. Vin had shown himself. Walking into the doorway, he was in time to see the angry deputy placing his shotgun on the ground in front of him. As he unbuckled his gunbelt he glared first at Chris and then at Tar, standing behind him.
"Tie him up."
At Chris' words, Molly came forward to grab the man, pushing him into the dark recesses of the stable. Josiah went with her.
Vin walked in from behind his cover of hay bales. He looked briefly at the foreman's corpse. "We'd best get him out of sight."
Standing at the livery door, Ezra watched as his friends disappeared from view down Mowry Street, Eagle Bend's main thoroughfare. His shoulder throbbed, a painful reminder of why he must remain behind to help guard the stable. The brandy in his flask hadn't lasted the distance from ranch to town, his discomfort while riding had seen to that. Adjusting his sling for the third time in as many minutes, Ezra glanced at the man standing next to him. Tar felt Ezra's eyes on him and turned to face the gambler.
"Won't be long now." Tar shifted his shotgun upward, cradling it across his midsection. The ten gauge barrels were now pointed in the gambler's general direction.
Ezra frowned. He backed up a step or two, uncertain of what was happening but trusting his instinct that Tar was a threat. The man's eyes followed him and so did the shotgun. Knowing that he would be dead the moment he went for his gun, Ezra remained still and waited for the hand to play itself out.
"I thought I heard something." Rafe's voice called softly from the other side of the stable.
Before he could call out a warning, Ezra heard the sound of a blow and a body falling to the floor. He heard a groan come from Rafe before a second blow silenced him. His options were limited. He could try to force Tar to shoot him, which would alert Chris and the others or he could surrender and hope for a future opportunity to disrupt their plans. Deciding that Tar could just as easily beat him to death as shoot him, he opted to wait and see what transpired.
As if in answer to his thoughts, Tar began forcing Ezra up against the boards of a stall, the twin barrels of the shotgun pressing against his chest through the material of the sling. He winced as his shoulder was jarred.
"So you got yourself a busted wing?" Tar reach out his free hand and grabbed Ezra's forearm. His eyes widened as he made contact with the sleeve rig. "That ain't no splint." Reaching behind his back, Tar pulled a knife free of its sheath and brought it bear against Ezra's throat. "Real easy now. And then the gunbelt."
Doing as he was told, Ezra relinquished his weapons. He silently cursed himself. None of them had completely trusted Tar and he knew that Chris would expect him to keep a weather eye on him. Instead he had allowed the man to get the drop on him. By doing so he had likely gotten Rafe killed.
Noise from the side door announced more arrivals. Ezra watched as the liberated deputy dragged Rafe's body into view. The boy's face was a mask of blood and he looked dead. Two more men stepped out of the shadows. Ezra's jaw clenched as he stared into the face of Richard Arlington.
Looking across the wide street to where Buck led Molly and Josiah past Whedon's Mercantile, Chris grew increasingly wary. It was still over an hour until dawn, but even in that early hour there should be some sign of activity. There was an occasional lit window, but no sign or sound of anyone going about their business. He could almost feel the guns trained on them. Vin sidled up next to him.
"We’re in trouble."
Chris didn't bother to reply. Instead he scanned the rooftops and upper windows, hoping to see movement. It was a motion closer to the ground that finally signaled the start of the gun battle. Buck Wilmington suddenly threw himself onto the boardwalk and fired up the street. The tongue of flame from his pistol gave away his position and an answering shot wrenched a scream from Buck's throat and sent a sickening feeling through Chris' gut.
The sound of Vin's rifle firing tore through the night a millisecond ahead of the lead bullet that ripped its way into a shadow on the balcony above where Buck lay unmoving. The shadow slumped but still returned fire until Molly and Josiah riddled both the balcony and the shooter with shots from down below.
Silence returned as each side listened for movement and waited for the smoke to clear. After what seemed like hours, he saw Josiah move to check on Buck's condition. He saw the preacher shake his head as he looked up at Molly. A bullet splintered the post near Chris' head as he began to walk out into the street. He trained his gun on the area he had seen a muzzle flash and fired. Across the way Molly had fired as well, her shot toward the now open doors to the saloon on Chris' right.
Running down the boardwalk with Vin on his heels, Chris burst into the saloon and opened fire on the two men inside. The first one went down in a spray of blood as a bullet passed through his neck and tore through the carotid artery. His hands clutched the wound as he sank to the floor, his companion turning to run out the back before a bullet from Vin's rifle ended his escape.
Nathan called out a warning before entering. "Josiah's gone inside the store. Took Buck with 'im. Don't know where Molly got to." He broke a window with his pistol barrel. "Can't see nobody."
After making sure both of attackers were no longer a threat, Vin walked angrily toward the saloon's front. "Shoulda known. Arlington's probably been gone all along." His gaze suddenly locked on the balcony across the street. The same balcony earlier used by Arlington's gunman. "Larabee. You'd best take a look."
Chris was trying to focus, trying not to think about Buck. "What?" Joining the men at the window, he looked to where Vin was pointing. "I'll be damned. We live through this and I'm gonna kill that son-of-a-bitch." He watched as Buck Wilmington took up position with the dead man's rifle. The moonlight glinted off white teeth as Buck grinned and waved at them before ducking out of sight. Catching sight of Josiah in the mercantile, Chris added, "Josiah, too."
Shifting his weight to his right leg, Buck winced in pain. The bullet had passed through his left buttock and lodged in his thigh. Although he could still walk, the wound made concentration difficult. Forcing the pain aside, he assessed his new vantage point. The view from the balcony was a good one, he realized. The moon was still high enough in the sky to illuminate the street below and the boardwalk opposite.
Casting a glance at the dead man he shared his perch with, he started in recognition. He hadn't noticed when he had taken the rifle from unresisting hands, but Eagle Bend's Sheriff lay dead not three feet away from him. Reaching out his hand, Buck picked up the open box of cartridges that sat like an island in a dark pool of blood. He fed several into the rifle, replacing the ones that had been fired at Vin.
Movement to the right of the saloon caught his eye. Someone was slowly making their way down the boardwalk. A shot from his side of the street sent the man crouching behind a water trough, but Buck still had a decent target. The rifle jarred his shoulder as he sent a shot downward into the shadowy figure. For a few moments nothing happened, then he saw the man's pistol drop into the water and his body relax against the side of the trough. Dead or dying, it was one less foe to worry about.
Molly had taken up position in an alley bordering the dressmaker's shop. It was two doors down from the mercantile where Josiah and Buck had taken refuge. She had fired and missed the man who had been working his way toward the saloon, watching as either Buck or Josiah had successfully taken him out.
When Buck had gone down Molly had first thought him dead. It wasn't until she had asked Josiah that she had learned otherwise. Now the question was how badly was he hurt and could he still fight. There was no way to know how many men Arlington had been able to round up for the ambush. They needed all the help they could get.
A sound behind her froze Molly's body and her thoughts.
Dropping to a crouch as she spun, she heard the click of a hammer falling home but no accompanying shot. Her assailant's gun had misfired. Hers did not, and the man yelped in pain as she sent a round into him. She fired again. She fired a third time even though he had already begun to fall. He was all but dead by the time he struck the ground.
Replacing the spent cartridges, Molly fought to get her breathing under control. She had allowed someone to get the drop on her. By all rights it should be her that lay dead in the dirt of the alleyway. Holstering her gun, she pulled the shotgun from its scabbard. When she was a small child she had owned a doll that she held onto whenever she was frightened. These days she derived her comfort from twin barrels of steel.
More shots sounded from across the way and she peered around the corner and noticed the cloud of gunsmoke that hung in front of the saloon doors. Someone was pulling themselves across the boardwalk fifty yards past Whedon's, trying to find concealment behind some barrels and crates. The man's gun was still where he had dropped it in the street. Another threat had been neutralized.
The pounding of the departing horses' hooves faded and Ezra pulled at the rope securing his wrists. His shoulder sent out a blinding flash of pain and he ceased his movements. Focusing his efforts elsewhere, he called out, "Rafe!" When no response was forthcoming, he tried again. "Rafe! Are you all right? Rafe?"
No sound had come from the rear of the stable since Arlington and his men had left. The deputy had tied up the young man, so Ezra was reasonably certain he was still alive. It occurred to him that perhaps Rafe was better off unconscious--he wouldn't be subjected to the fears and doubts that were plaguing Ezra himself.
As more gunshots split the night, he closed his eyes and tried not to picture his friends stretched out and dying in the street. The pain of helplessness far surpassed the pain of his injuries, including the fresh facial bruises bestowed upon him by the deputy before the man had left with Arlington. Ezra was beginning to feel put upon. The sound of another shot prompted him to push aside the pain and work at the rope again.
Buck lowered the rifle. Nathan had crossed the street and drawn a shot from somewhere to Buck's right. He hadn't seen the exact location, but had fired in the general vicinity in an attempt to discourage the shooter from repeating his action. He could hear the door to the room behind him opening and in a moment was joined on the balcony.
"Hurts some, but I'll live." Putting the rifle down, he looked over his shoulder as Nathan sliced through the canvas of his trouser leg. In the dim light he could barely make out the hole in the blood-coated skin of his thigh. Nathan continued cutting cloth until the other wound was exposed to the air.
Despite the gravity of their situation, Nathan grinned wide and wickedly. "All this is over, you might just think about movin' on. You ain't never gonna hear the end o' this."
"I'll worry 'bout that later, if you don't mind."
Nathan had brought a bed sheet with him from the mercantile below. He cut and ripped the cloth into bandage strips.
"Chris and Vin alright?"
"Not a scratch between 'em." Nathan began wrapping the leg wound.
"Don't that just figure." Buck grunted in pain as Nathan tied off the bandage. "You heard the horses?" The sound of several horses galloping had sent shivers of dread through his body as he thought of Ezra and Rafe.
Nodding his head, Nathan examined the buttock's wound.
"Leave it alone. It ain't bleedin' much and you'd have to bandage damn near all of me to cover it." Buck move his wounded leg experimentally. "Feels better. Thanks, Nathan. So…what's Chris got in mind?"
Slowing their mounts to a walk, Arlington and his men headed south. The wound in Arlington's side bled slightly and the pain was sufficient that he had turned to his supply of laudanum for relief. As a warm numbness took hold, he thought back to the town behind them. He had no more illusions where Larabee was concerned. The man had the Devil's own luck and it was entirely possible for him to survive the trap Whitman had arranged.
Glancing at the man who rode beside him, he smiled. Tar's return from Mexico had proved timely. Not only did he arrive with the news that the hacienda was ready for occupation, he had proved invaluable in keeping the livery out of Larabee's control.
"Sun's gonna be up soon." Tar's eyes were on the lightening sky over the hills on their left. "We'll be easy to track. An' those boys won't be bothered by the Mexican border, I don't think."
"No, I shouldn't imagine they would be." Arlington agreed. "Let us hope they are in no condition to give chase." He looked over at Tar and saw the skepticism in the man's eyes. "And assume that our hopes are in vain."
"Could be our string's played out." Tar suggested.
There was no answer to that, so Arlington did not respond. The fear he had felt when he first laid eyes on Chris Larabee had not only returned, it had grown substantially. He could not remember ever having been as close to panic as he was at that moment. He silently vowed that if the fates decreed his time was at end, he would not go alone into the abyss.
Turning away from the window, Vin caught sight of Chris descending the staircase. "Anything?"
"No one's moving, but we can't stay in here forever."
Vin looked back out into the street. The sun was coming up and still there was no movement to be seen. If he hadn't known better, he would have sworn the town was deserted. "We best be goin' then."
Pushing past the batwing doors, Chris strode out onto the boardwalk. Vin walked behind him as he stepped down into the street. No gunshots. The two men crossed over and entered Whedon's without incident. The siege appeared to be over.
Greeting them just inside the entrance, Josiah smiled warmly. "It would appear the wolves have abandoned their prey." Before they could ask, he added: "Nathan is helping Buck down the stairs."
Moving close to the window, Vin kept watch as the sun finally broke free of the horizon and cast warm rays onto the buildings across the way. The noise from the stairs caused him to look over his shoulder as Nathan and Buck came into view, the latter with a bandage around his left upper thigh. Buck's face was white as a sheet and sweat dripped from his brow.
"How bad?" Chris asked.
"Bad enough. He ain't gonna be sittin' a horse anytime soon. Be best if he goes back to the ranch an' stays with J.D.." Nathan hesitated. "Ezra an' Rafe oughta go with him."
Vin met Chris' eyes. They had all heard the horses leaving the livery.
Flies swarmed around Whitman's corpse and several tried to land on Ezra's bloody face and wrists. Jerking his head to dislodge the pests, he cursed as the fire in his shoulder spread to his neck. The sun was full up now. He was beginning to fear the worst about the fate of Chris and the others.
Forcing himself to ignore the flies as they continued their assault on his wrists, he concentrated on listening. He was rewarded with a groan from Rafe Mosely. "Rafe?"
"Ezra? What happened?"
Saved from answering by the arrival of the rest of their group, Ezra smiled broadly as they walked into his line of sight. The cut lip opened up and blood flowed anew, but he scarcely noticed.
It was Chris who cut the rope that bound his wrists--wrists that were a bloody mess from his attempts to escape. Although he knew Larabee would deny it, Ezra swore he saw sympathy and respect in the gunman's eyes in the brief look they exchanged.
"Where's Tar?" Chris' voice was harsh, suggesting he already knew the answer to his question. He didn't wait for a response but instead turned and kicked a board free from the nearest stall. The cursing was in Spanish as well as English.
Vin emerged from the rear of the building with Rafe in tow, the younger man rubbed the junction between his neck and shoulder. A large swelling marked the spot where he had been struck.
Looking around slowly, Ezra started to ask, "Where's Mol…."
"No one came out to take a look. Guess it's over for now." Molly walked through the double doors and smiled as she saw both Ezra and Rafe on their feet. "Guess we all made it."
Ezra looked from Chris' angry countenance to Rafe's confused one and sighed in resignation. He was beginning to believe this nightmare was without end.
Slapping the reins against the horse's hindquarters, Nathan drove the buckboard away from town. Ezra sat next to the healer and Buck lay stretched out on his stomach in the back. Rafe rode his horse alongside, looking decidedly unhappy with his newfound aches and pains.
Chris watched them go and turned to finish saddling his black gelding. Nathan had protested, but only briefly. Ezra had said that Arlington left with three men--Tar, the deputy, and one who was as yet unidentified. With Arlington wounded, the odds were in their favor. Nathan would be of more use helping Dr. Middleton care for the wounded.
By the time he had guided his horse outside, the others were already mounted and ready to ride. There was still no sign of the residents of Eagle Bend. Chris would have bet money that as soon as the dust of their horses settled, the streets would be filled with people. Without a word he turned his horse and led the way out of town.
When Tanner drew up alongside, Chris threw him a worried glance but said nothing. He had nothing left to say. Memories of Sarah and Adam came to him unbidden as he rode, stoking the fires of rage that had been a part of his nature ever since their deaths. For over three years he had longed for this day, needed this day. Now that it had arrived he was almost afraid.
He no longer knew how to be the Chris Larabee that had existed before April 15th, 1875--the day his life had, for all intents and purposes, come to an end. It remained to be seen what sort of man would emerge from the shards of his past, once freed from his vow of vengeance.
Rocks slid down the hillside, dislodged by Arlington's horse as it walked along the trail that worked its way down to the border between Arizona and Mexico. They would stop once they had crossed over into Sonora. He needed to rest. The wound in his side was becoming increasingly uncomfortable but he dared not deaden it with more laudanum. His wits were already dulled from pain and exhaustion.
Riding into a small arroyo just inside the Mexican border, he let Tar help him down off his horse and walked unsteadily over to sit leaning against the trunk of a mesquite tree. He watched wearily as Deputy Parker and Felipe picketed the horses. Tar knelt down next to him and checked his bandage.
"You're bleedin' again, Richard."
"I'll be fine. Worry about Parker. I don't trust him." Parker had arrived in Eagle Bend two months earlier and had become an immediately favorite of the local citizenry. He had opened a Faro game at the Sandpiper Saloon and earned a reputation as a fair and even-tempered dealer. Although he could not give voice to its origin, Arlington had always had the nagging suspicion that Parker was more than he seemed. The deputation had been the sheriff's idea--a way to keep a closer eye on the newcomer.
"Felipe will watch him, don't worry." Felipe was Tar's twenty-seven year old son and the product of a liaison with a Mexican peasant woman. She had borne him three children, but only one had survived childhood. The woman had died in a cholera epidemic that had also claimed the lives of their other two boys. When Felipe had reached his fourteenth birthday, Tar had taken him from his grandmother's home to live at Arlington's hacienda in Mexico. Since turning twenty, he had been his father's traveling companion.
Arlington allowed himself a small smile. Tar's pride in his son was palpable. He had to admit, the boy had grown into a fine figure of a man. His only fault was the sense of honor that he had inherited from his parents. Tar had entered his employ in 1863, the year Arizona became a territory of the United States. He had needed someone to keep an eye on the region's development and to keep him abreast of the comings and goings of the men who were selected to govern the fledgling territory. Thanks to Tar, he had made sizable profits from mining interests in the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott and entrance into Arizona's most influential circles, albeit by proxy.
"I'm going to see if I can spot their dust." Tar climbed back in the saddle. "I won't be gone long." With a touch of his spurs he sent his horse back the way they had come.
Closing his eyes and enjoying the feel of the sun's warmth on his face, Arlington drifted off to sleep.
Filling the canteens from a water hole, the only one for the next twenty miles, Vin thought about the way Chris and Molly would react when they finally caught up with Arlington and his men. He was half convinced that one or both of them would shoot the man dead before he had the chance to surrender.
He knew that Chris normally would only kill in self-defense, but this was not a normal situation. The murderer of his family was only two hours ahead of them. Vin had little illusion that Arlington would live to see the end of a rope.
Molly, as a rule, only killed as a last resort. When she was scared the shotgun came out, but she seldom allowed herself to get backed into a corner. This time it was hatred and anger driving her. Whether or not the Judge's influence would win out over revenge was anyone's guess.
Watching as Molly approached Chris, Vin wished he could hear their conversation. If they all lived through this, it would be an interesting next few weeks as Chris sorted himself out. For the first time in a while he thought of Tascosa, Texas. Maybe it was time he dealt with the price on his head. Once he was sure Chris would be all right, he would head east. Until he was cleared of the murder charge against him, he was never going to be completely free. If there was one thing Tanner valued, it was freedom.
"But why the fancy rig? You don't seem the type." Molly scratched an itch on the back of her neck and waited for Larabee's answer.
Chris ran a hand over the silver conchos and spots that adorned his holster and gunbelt. "Belonged to the first man I ever killed. We were both mad drunk and could barely clear leather. I got lucky. He didn't. Kept this to remind me."
"Let me guess. He fancied himself a gunman." Molly shook her head disgustedly.
"Yep. And when I killed him I became one. It was three months after my wife and son were killed. I think I was hopin' he'd win the fight."
"And the hired gun reputation?"
"Unless you count ridin' shotgun on a stagecoach, I've never hired out my gun. Near as I can tell, your brother is to blame for that." Chris smiled slightly at her lifted eybrow.
"How 'bout you? How'd you come to be a bounty hunter?"
"Your uncle and Arlington get the credit. I gather my father told you I thought I was in love with Joseph Grant. It wasn't really love, but Mother couldn't convince me otherwise. Then Joseph murdered Jacob, and Elizabeth was destroyed as well." Molly gave him a rueful smile. "Women can't be lawyers or lawmen, but there's no law that says we can't collect a bounty. It was my way to make amends. If I hadn't been so blind, Jacob might be alive still."
"So you became a killer?" Chris asked skeptically.
"I bring in killers." She corrected him. "I prefer to bring them in alive, but some of them…. Maybe they just don't want a woman bringing them in." Molly conceded, adding, "The men I choose to hunt are ones that will hang once they're caught, so I'm not sure if it's me or the rope they object to."
"I killed a man once in Abilene, Jackie Pinder. He was just a kid." Chris remembered the look in the boy's eyes as the lifeblood poured out of his chest. Fear and shock. "I could have wounded him, but I shot to kill."
"He shoot first?"
"Tried to. Never had a chance."
"I don't see the problem. If you'd only wounded him he might have killed you. You know that." Molly's expression grew dark. "I once shot a man at close range with buckshot. Had his guts spill out all over me. He wasn’t a bad man--he was just drunk and stupid. I can't bring him back to life and you can't bring back Jackie Pinder." Molly walked back to her horse and hoisted herself into the saddle.
"Maybe not. But I can sure send Arlington to hell ahead of us." Chris smiled up at her, but the smile never touched his eyes. His eyes had grown cold like green ice.
For the fist time Molly realized that it wasn't going to be her bullet that ended their quarry's life. A part of her was relieved. .
Bringing the buckboard to a halt, Nathan climbed into the back to check on Buck. The road from town was rough and Wilmington had been cursing the entire trip excepting the last mile. "How you holdin' up, Buck?"
"Now you're askin' me? Now? Why, I'm just fine, thank you. But don't go tryin' to move me just yet." Buck took a deep breath and moved his legs experimentally. "Damn, that hurts."
Deciding that the buckboard would not be moving anytime soon, Rafe opted to check on the prisoners. He filled a water bucket and carried it inside the bunkhouse.
The two men trotted over to the building and entered, nearly plowing into Rafe. As one, they came to a shocked standstill. The bunks were vacant with only discarded ropes to show that there had ever been prisoners tied to them.
"Rafe? What's going on?" Buck's strained voice carried through the door.
The three men inside the bunkhouse exchanged fearful glances. Rafe finally spoke the name on all their minds: "J.D."
Tar had not gone to check for signs of their being followed. He had wanted time alone to think about the situation. Arlington was no longer capable of making sound decisions. The wound and the laudanum were clouding his judgement. It was time for Tar to make a few decisions of his own. Decisions that might keep he and his son alive once Larabee caught up with them.
When Arlington had warned him about Parker, it had made him realize that paranoia had begun to set in. Soon everyone would be an enemy, perhaps even Tar. Like a wounded animal, Arlington would bite, claw, and fight to his last breath against any perceived threat. Staring down from the hilltop, he was surprised when he caught sight of movement in the far distance. It wouldn't be long now. Larabee was just over an hour behind them. Less, if Arlington needed to rest as often as Tar suspected would be necessary.
Thinking of Felipe, and the boy's mother, he made his decision. "Sorry, Richard." His soft words were lost on the breeze but he felt a cold chill run the length of his spine as he spoke them. It was not over yet. He would have to use caution.
Turning onto his right side and pushing up enough to peer over the side of the wagon, Buck looked around anxiously. He heard the two men before they stepped out of the kitchen door and had a rifle aimed and cocked as they came into view. The fear that crossed their features would have been comical at any other time. Their hands shot up over their heads in twin gestures of surrender.
"Look, Mister," the taller of the two blurted out, "we don't want trouble. No guns, see?"
"Turn 'round." Buck looked for any sign of a weapon as the men did as they were told. "All the way 'round." He heard the approach of Ezra, Nathan, and Rafe and waited until they came up next to the buckboard. "They ain't armed."
Rafe spoke up. "They're two of the bunkhouse prisoners. How'd you boys get loose?"
The answer to his question appeared in the doorway behind the men. Middleton raised his chin defiantly. "I turned them loose. I understand the need, but when you men all left this morning, I was alone to care for the wounded and there was no one to take the dead into town for proper burial. These men and their friends are able and willing to assist me." He walked over to the buckboard and looked in at Buck, pulling free the blanket. "Unlike yourselves."
Lowering the rifle, Buck decided it was a little late to debate the wisdom of the doctor's decision. "How's J.D.?"
Middleton's eyes lost their hard glint. "Resting. He's doing very well, all things considered. Unlike some of the other men." He shifted his gaze to Nathan in time to see the flicker of interest his words had elicited. "Mr. Jackson, I'd be grateful for your assistance."
"Richard, I think I know a way we can slow Larabee down and maybe get rid of Parker at the same time." Tar knelt next to his boss, they had only ridden another ten miles before Arlington had needed to rest again. The gap between the pursuers and the pursued was closing rapidly.
"Ambush?" Arlington considered the idea. "Excellent idea, Tar. Send him. Tell him to kill Larabee or find another employer."
Tar smiled slightly. "That's what I'd planned on telling him. How's the pain?"
"Manageable." Leaning back against the warmth of a large boulder, Richard Arlington fell asleep once more.
Looking down at the man he had served for the last fifteen years of his life, Tar felt a twinge of regret. He was delivering Richard Arlington unto his enemies. He was also saving his son's life, his own and, if the man had any sense whatsoever, Parker's.
He stood and walked over to where Parker stood keeping an eye on the trail. They were resting some twenty yards off the path, hidden from view by boulders and brush. There was no water, but there was something nearly as valuable--shade.
"Parker. Boss wants you to set up an ambush at that piece of high ground a mile or so back. Pick off Larabee as he passes. He says to either kill him or don't try to catch up with us. I'm telling you straight that if you do this and live to return, Arlington will put a bullet in you himself. He doesn't trust you Parker, and he kills men he doesn't trust. If I was you I'd steer clear of the trail and head back up to Arizona or California. Live longer that way." Tar watched as his words were absorbed. He saw the exact moment Parker decided to become another notch on Larabee's gun.
"Thanks for the advice, old man."
Pulling up as they approached the section of trail that passed next to a wall of rock, Vin pulled his spyglass from his coat and searched the top of the cliff. Just as he was about to lower the glass, he caught movement about a hundred yards up ahead. A rifle barrel protruded from between two rocks, its owner hidden from view. As he watched, the barrel shifted again.
"Get down!" Pitching himself from the saddle, Vin struck the ground at the same moment the sound of a shot reached his ears. Looking around hurriedly, he saw that his friends were unhurt and had ducked behind tree and shrub in hopes of concealment. Standing only long enough to retrieve his rifle, he sprawled out prone and sighted on the spot he had seen the rifleman. Slowly squeezing the trigger, he sent three hundred and fifty grains of lead flying up toward the gap between the rocks. Levering another round into the chamber, he fired again the moment the man jumped up from cover. This time the bullet struck flesh and Vin watched as the shooter's body slipped and tumbled its way down onto the trail below.
The bullet removed from his leg, Buck leaned heavily on Nathan as he hobbled into the bedroom where J.D. was recovering.. A bunk had been placed atop two crates, the resulting bed level with the one already occupying the room. Easing himself down onto his stomach, Buck sighed contentedly. He could heal and keep an eye on J.D. all at the same time.
Noise from the neighboring bed grabbed his attention. J.D. was beginning to wake up. Buck smiled as the boy's eyelids struggled to open. One hand rose up to sweep hair from his forehead and to rub his eyes. When the hand fell away, the eyes were open.
"How ya doin', J.D.?" Buck tried to sound cheerful, but the throbbing of his wounds put an edge in his voice.
"Buck? Buck, what are…" J.D.'s eyes grew wide as he saw best friend stretched out in bed, in obvious pain. "What happened?"
"Well, kid, I got shot in the butt, that's what happened. I don't wanna hear any jokes 'bout it, neither. Hurts like the dickens." Buck grinned. He had to strain to hear J.D.'s next words.
"It's OK. Ladies like scars." The brown eyes closed as J.D. drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face.
Arlington groaned as Tar eased him from the saddle. The stops to rest were frequent now. Too frequent. He came to a decision as he sat and leaned against the trunk of a mesquite tree.
Tar spoke first. "I'm thinking we should send Felipe ahead to fetch a wagon."
Nearly laughing at the words, he countered, "You and Felipe both go. Let's not play games, you and I. I will never see my land again and, if you stay, you'll be buried at my side. Go. Take your son and leave me here."
"You heard me." Shifting to reduce the bite of the tree bark into his back, Arlington looked over at Tar's son, tending the horses. "Felipe's a good boy. The ranch is in his name, did I tell you? No? A Mexican surname on the deed seemed prudent at the time. Fortuitous, as it turns out." He smiled slightly. "There will be no questions."
When Tar remained silent, Arlington's smile broadened. "No need to thank me, but I do have one last favor to ask of you."
"There is a valise in my safe. I wish the contents destroyed. Will you do it?" he asked gravely. Tar knew the combination to the safe, knew the papers and what they represented. Arlington was certain that his request would be honored.
"Consider it done."
"Good. Go now. Let me rest." He closed his eyes and listened as the two men spoke softly together. He listened as the creak of leather and shifting of hooves told him they were in their saddles. He listened as one horse approached and stopped in front of him and Tar's soft voice spoke to him one last time.
"Goodbye, Richard. Vaya con Dios."
Tasting the stew simmering on the stovetop, Ezra looked around for the ranch hand turned cook. Spotting him, he asked, "You say this recipe was your dear mother's?" Avarice gleamed in the gambler's eyes. "Do you enjoy the culinary arts, Winslow? A man with a talent such as yours is cruelly misused working with cattle." Taking another sip, he amended, "Live cattle, that is to say."
Winslow looked up from shaping bread dough into loaves. "What the hell are you talkin' about?"
The answer was postponed by Rafe's arrival with Alice Middleton in tow. Two of the men the doctor had released had volunteered to bring the woman back from the ranch where she had been held a prisoner. Once the ranch owner understood that Arlington was gone and never returning he had been happy to release his hostage.
"Is there more beef broth to be had?" Mrs. Middleton was a small, trim woman with deep chestnut hair plaited and pinned neatly up and out of her way.
"Yes, ma'am." Winslow placed the pans of bread into the stove and reached for the empty kettle Rafe held out for him. Filling it halfway full with the steaming liquid, the cook passed it back, giving Rafe time to wrap a heavy cloth around the handle.
Waiting until Rafe and the doctor's wife had departed, Ezra attempted to continue the earlier conversation but the words caught in his throat when Winslow picked up a large knife and glared in his direction. Backing out the door and into the hallway, Ezra decided it was time to check in on J.D. and Buck.
Dust kicked up by Josiah's horse choked Molly as she rode five yards behind him, bringing up the rear of the group. Taking a swig of water from her canteen, she rinsed her mouth and swallowed the grime and tepid water both. She was tempted to spit out the foul tasting liquid, but water was scarce in this part of Mexico and not to be wasted. Vin was scouting up ahead. With the hunt nearly at an end, conversation had come to a halt. She scanned the trail ahead and to the sides, occasionally turning in the saddle to look back over her shoulder.
Arlington was down to two men, but he was also desperate. A last stand on his part was possible, as was another ambush. Like the wounded animal Molly considered him to be, he would fight for his life. The real question was whether those with him were willing to fight for it, too.
Sound ahead drew her attention. Vin was headed back to rejoin them. Kicking her horse into a trot, she passed Josiah and pulled up along Chris' right side. Her horse tossed its head, wanting to take over the lead.
Josiah moved up on the other side of Chris as Vin neared. All of them reined their horses in as Vin stopped a few yards in front of them. His eyes were unreadable as he looked at her first, then Larabee. Molly felt her gut tighten.
Riding slowly southeast, Tar and Felipe kept silent for the first few minutes after abandoning their former employer. Tar was thinking about the papers that Richard had asked he destroy. It wasn't necessary. The documents were already burned and their ashes scattered at Marcus Gerard's urging. Much of it was material used to blackmail government officials, including Judge Travis' predecessor. Land grant forgeries Richard had not yet put into play were also in the safe.
It was for Felipe that Tar had stayed with Arlington as long as he had. By the time he had realized that Richard wasn't just interested in investing in Arizona Territory but wanted to gain control over it, the money Tar was making was enough to assure his loyalty. It had taken Gerard to force him to examine his own involvement in a scheme that had brought about a great many deaths and the financial and political ruin of more men than Tar cared to think about.
What he did care to think about was astride the horse riding next to him. "When are to going to marry that girl of yours and give me some grandchildren?" His eyes widened as Felipe suddenly looked distinctly embarrassed.
"I've been meaning to talk to you, Papa." Felipe looked straight ahead. "I think the wedding must be soon."
Leather creaked as Chris dismounted. He suddenly felt old. Tomorrow no longer existed. There was only now. Now and the old man sitting less than a hundred yards away, hidden by the rock outcropping off to the right. When Vin had told them that Arlington was alone, Chris had grown quiet. It was the end of the line for both himself and the man he intended to watch die. They had been linked by blood and only blood could set them free.
Looking over his saddle at the man who had become a brother to him, Chris gave a slight nod. Vin returned it and lifted his rifle from its scabbard, moving away to take the high ground in case Arlington's companions returned. As Tanner disappeared from view, Chris led his horse over to where Josiah and Molly had tethered theirs. He caught Josiah's eyes on him and stared back until the older man broke the contact. Molly was watching them both, her face set with grim determination. They were ready.
Drawing his gun, he eased back the hammer. Holding it at his side, he began walking toward the rocks, scarcely aware of anything other than the edge of the stone that blocked Arlington from sight. He rounded the boulders and got his first look at the man who had destroyed his family. Time seemed to come to a stop. No sound or movement penetrated his awareness save for that of his own breathing. After what seemed an eternity he saw Arlington raising his hand from his lap. He had a gun.
"…a girl we shall name her…" Felipe broke off as the sound of distant gunfire reached their ears.
Tar flinched when he heard the shots. He said a silent prayer for Arlington's soul. Whatever else the man may have been, he had been Tar's friend.
"What? You'll name her what?"
"Maria Teresa." Felipe flicked a nervous glance at his father. "Papa…"
"What's done is done. We won't speak of it again, understand?" Tar stared at his son until the younger man answered.
"Si, Papa. I understand."
They rode on in silence.
Chris stared at the body of the man who had stolen more from him than he had thought it was possible to take. His shot had caught Arlington in the center of the chest and the man had died over the course of several minutes, the life fading from his eyes as Chris watched in satisfaction. Hell had a new tenant.
"Chris, I need to stop the bleeding." Josiah's deep baritone was tinged with concern.
"Wha…." Looking down at his left arm as Josiah's knife slit the material of his shirtsleeve, Chris saw the damp stain that was still spreading from the bullet wound in his biceps. Dimly he realized that he was in pain and that Arlington hadn't missed with his shot, after all. His gaze returned to the corpse in front of him. He wanted to empty his gun into the body, to tear at it with a knife, to leave it a bundle of rags and torn flesh. He did none of those things. Instead he remembered his wife and son and vowed that their memories would not die along with his need for revenge.
"It's over." Vin Tanner moved to block Chris' view of Arlington.
"I don't want it over," Chris said flatly.
"Chris, it's over. He's dead," Vin's voice was insistent.
"We ain't buryin' him."
"Never thought we would," Josiah said softly.
Slowly holstering his gun, Chris took a deep breath. Vin was right, it was time to bury the past in the grave Arlington had dug for it. It was time to move on.
April 14th, 1879
Four weary stage passengers exited the mail coach when it arrived in Four Corners. The last to disembark slowly scanned the main street for familiar faces, disappointed when he saw none. Ezra Standish was returning to what had been his first real home.
"Lookin' for someone, Ezra?" Josiah Sanchez' voice boomed from behind.
"Not at all. Merely reflecting how little has changed since my last visit." Ezra reached out for the bag the driver held out for him and turned to smile and shake the preacher's hand. "Including yourself, I might add." He began walking to the hotel, Josiah falling into step beside him.
"Five weeks ain't a whole lot of time. What'd you expect?"
"I'm not quite sure." Darting a glance toward the saloon, he asked, "Is Chris in town?"
Shaking his head, Josiah opened the hotel door for Ezra to pass through.
"And our former fugitive? Now that he is free to go where he will?"
"He's stayin' in town. Least for now. Between scoutin' for the Army and hiring out as a guide, he does alright." Josiah followed Ezra over to the desk and watched as the southerner signed the register with a flourish, wondering how many years it had taken to perfect the fancy script.
"Then Vin's in town?" Ezra didn't want to sound excited, but the prospect of spending a day or two in the company of his friends held an enormous appeal for him.
"Yep, over in the saloon. Chris is out your way, near Eagle Bend."
Ezra stared down at the date on the ledger and slowly said, "I suppose it’s no coincidence."
"You're the bettin' man. And Molly's in town."
"Molly? But I'd heard…."
Nathan smiled warmly as he watched Ezra entering the saloon. He missed the southerner more than he had expected to. After the wounds had healed and the dust settled in the wake of Arlington's death, much of the ownership of Eagle Bend was either buried or had fled. Never one to miss an opportunity, Ezra Standish had stepped in to help rebuild the town. A saloon, a hotel, and a boarding house made up the bulk of his holdings. He was doing well in his new role as a civic leader, but it had meant his departure from their midst. Sipping his coffee, Nathan wondered who would be the next to leave.
"How's J.D.?" Ezra asked as he shook Nathan's hand and claimed the empty chair opposite the healer.
Nathan's smile faded as he answered solemnly, "The same."
Shaking his head in despair, Ezra turned his gaze up at the ceiling as if looking to the heavens. "Lord help the boy. He is far too young to undertake such a sobering enterprise as marriage. I suppose there's no hope?"
"Not unless Casey comes to her senses." Molly piped up from where she sat sharing a table with Vin.
J.D.'s recovery from his wound had been a long and difficult one and, for a time, it seemed as if they might lose him. Casey had nursed her man through the worst of it and had matured a great deal in the process. Ezra had little doubt their marriage would be a good one. "So young. Such a pity." He paused as the bartender brought over a glass for the new arrival, looking slightly chagrined when Ezra's eyebrows raised. "Dan?"
"Don't look at me, I didn't drink it all." With a quick glance at Molly the barman retreated.
"I always did admire your taste in spirits, Ezra."
Enjoying the stricken look on Standish's face, Vin wasn't inclined to tell his friend that Dan was in cahoots with Molly and that the precious liquor was safe behind the bar.
"All? You drank all of my stock?"
Molly lifted a bottle from beneath the table. "All except for this. Heard you were due in soon." She pulled the cork and poured Ezra a drink.
"You drank it all." Ezra gazed despondently at the sole remaining bottle from his private collection. "From what I've heard it should be pouring out of the numerous bullet holes in your entirely dead 'Mostly Dead' Thompson body."
"It was one bullet and it didn’t hit anything important." Molly slowly stood and moved to hand Ezra his glass.
Vin snickered. "Go on, Ezra. Ask her where she got shot."
Before he could comply, he saw what Vin had lifted off the seat of Molly’s chair. His eyes widened as the pillow’s significance sank in. "I see you and Mr. Wilmington now have something in common."
"J.D.? You awake?" Wilmington good-naturedly flicked water at the man in the tub next to his.
"I'm fine, Buck. Quit your nursemaidin'," J.D. answered back, mildly annoyed at Buck's need for conversation. J.D. just wanted to let the heat of the water take away his aches and worries.
"Ain't that. I was afraid you'd fall asleep an' miss all the good advice I'm about t' give ya." Buck chuckled.
"Right." J.D. traced the scar on his chest with one damp finger. He hated it. It reminded him of how close he had come to losing everything and everyone that he cared about. The bullet had forced him to make decisions he would rather have put off for a few more years. It had forced him to grow up.
"You're thinkin' again, ain't ya. Warned you 'about doin' that."
"Yeah, you warned me." He couldn't help but think. In two months he would marry Casey and things would never be the same. It made him nervous.
"You go right ahead thinkin'. I'll leave you to it." Buck rose up out of the water, exposing his own set of scars briefly before wrapping a towel around his waist. He threw one last glance at J.D. and added a grin for good measure. "Don't you go getting' shriveled up in there. Your small enough as it is."
April 15th, 1879
Stacking the two wooden crosses on top of the load of charred wood, Chris stopped to take a drink from his canteen. It was four years, to the day, since he had lost his family, and well past the time when they should have had proper grave markers. Running his eyes over the new headstones of carved marble, he smiled softly. Sarah would have approved, he felt sure. He had fixed up the fence that surrounded the small burial plot and had pulled the few weeds that dared to grow within its boundaries. The burned remnants of his former home were in the wagon, waiting to be hauled away and deposited in a ravine, far from the spot where the house had once stood.
Tomorrow he would leave for Four Corners. As the duly elected city marshal, he found he always felt a little uneasy when he was away from the town for any length of time. There was no need for uneasiness. J.D. and Rafe, his sworn deputies, were capable of handling anything that might arise. If needed, Buck, Vin, Nathan, and Josiah were more than happy to lend a hand. With Ezra’s departure, Chris had expected some of the other men to leave. Buck and Vin were the prime candidates, especially now that Vin was no longer a wanted man.
With money recovered from Richard Arlington’s bank accounts, Judge Travis had hired Pinkerton detectives to track down the previous owners of the lands and businesses that Arlington and Gerard had illegally acquired. Nearly seventy percent of the properties had been already been returned to their rightful owners or their heirs. He had also hired the agency to clear Vin of the murder charge against him. They had succeeded in locating a witness to the killing and, along with pressure from the Judge, it had been enough to have the charge dropped and the five hundred dollar bounty removed.
A lifetime ago Josiah had asked him what he would do when Arlington was caught. He didn’t have an answer then. He still didn’t. There had been no magical transformation that gave him a new purpose in life. No deep despair overtook him now that he had no devils to pursue. He found that he simply lived. He worked, he spent time with his friends, and he went on with his life. Maybe that was the answer after all. He was getting on with his life. Chris walked over to stand staring down at the graves, a gentle breeze chasing his hair into his face. The rage had gone and the grief had softened into sorrow. Of this too, Sarah would have approved.
The breeze stiffened into a wind, breaking Chris’ reverie. There was plenty of daylight left, if he were to drop off the wood and return the wagon, he could be well on his way home before he was forced to make camp. He knew Ezra was in Four Corners and hoped he would arrive in time to visit with him. With one last look at the graves, Chris turned away and began to hitch up the team of horses.