Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
- 1 -
Only minutes outside the town of Four Corners, the stagecoach carried just one passenger. The greenish hue of her complexion betrayed the waves of nausea flowing through her. She'd been telling herself for miles that the rolling motion of the coach was to blame but in her heart she knew the sickness came from dread. What a sorry pass when she could think of no one else to ask for help.
Inside the half-empty saloon, four of the town's seven protectors played poker. Buck laid out a full house to take a healthy stack of bills and coins from the center of the table. Ezra raised an eyebrow.
'Lady Luck is certainly with you today, Buck.'
The tall man grinned broadly. 'Yeah, maybe I better quit while I'm ahead. Wouldn't want you to start any o' that fancy dealin'.'
'A gentlemen always gives his opponents an opportunity to win back some of their losses.'
'Don't recall Buck ever claimin' to be a gentleman,' Vin pointed out.
'A fair point, Mr Tanner. Nevertheless '
Ezra did not finish the thought; his eye was caught by a woman surveying the saloon from the door. When her gaze fell on them, she walked purposefully across the room. Small and slender, she was attractive enough but it was something else that caught his attention. She looked familiar, something about her sharp blue eyes.
Beside him, Chris watched the woman with the same sense of recognition. He was certain he had never met her and yet there was something familiar about her, in her stance and even in her gait.
Vin and Buck noticed their friends' preoccupation immediately and looked over their shoulders to locate the cause. Vin watched the woman draw near, sure in an instant that he did not know her and that she was not seeking him. And yet something about her struck a chord.
Only Buck paid her no attention. The second he saw her, he turned back and stared at the deck in his hands. He could not have declared more clearly to his friends that he knew her. He would not normally ignore any new woman in town, certainly not one as young and eligible as this woman was.
When she reached them, she stood awkwardly at the end of the table and looked down on Buck's head.
There was a long silence.
He set the deck down and stared at it.
'I got nothin' to say to you.'
His friends shifted uneasily. Although notoriously irresponsible when it came to women, none of them had ever seen him be less than civil to a lady.
'I'm in trouble.'
'Yeah? Well, don't bring it to me.'
'I have no one else.'
He stood and looked at her for the first time. Anger burned deep in his eyes.
'Then you have no one.'
She studied his face for a second, made as if to speak, then changed her mind. Close to tears, she hurried from the saloon. Buck dropped back to his seat.
There was another long silence.
The men weren't in the habit of minding each other's business but they weren't in the habit of turning away women in trouble either. Knowing Buck, they had a fair idea of the sort of trouble she faced.
'You can't just turn her away, Buck.' Chris's voice was low but firm. After twelve years, he felt he had earned the right to speak his mind.
Buck dealt a hand.
'You hear me?' Only one of the seven would dare push another so far.
Buck fixed him with the hardest glare any of them had ever seen from him.
'It's none o' yer business, Chris.'
'C'mon Buck.' Vin pitched his voice lighter, trying to defuse the tension. 'Couldn't hurt to talk to her, could it?'
Vin felt a cold shudder as Buck turned on him. The glitter in his friend's eyes was as clear a warning as any man needed that the topic was not open for discussion. The edge to his voice when he spoke dispelled any lingering doubts.
'If we're not playin', I got things to do.'
With that, he left.
Vin and Ezra looked at Chris. Neither of them had seen this side of Buck before and now they silently asked the man's oldest friend what he made of it. For his part, Chris was no less surprised, no less baffled. He took a different tack.
'Seemed to me like she was kinda familiar. We run into her someplace?'
Vin shook his head slowly. 'Know what you mean but I don't reckon I seen her before. Ezra?'
'Likewise. I don't believe I am acquainted with the lady and she surely would have acknowledged us.'
'Figure we know what kinda trouble she's likely to be in,' Chris ventured.
'Ladies acquainted with Buck almost invariably appear to run that risk.'
Vin nodded cautious agreement but added, 'Never seen him look at one of 'em like that though.'
'Very true, Mr Tanner.'
Chris shuffled the deck pensively. He knew Buck inside out and upside down: the man was impetuous and irresponsible, but he was also compassionate and affable. Chris had never known him to refuse anyone help or even to bear a grudge. He might try to duck his duties - indeed they had seen him do so - but always with the same charm that got him into trouble in the first place.
Watching Chris's deliberations, Vin considered the woman's plight. He felt nothing but pity for her, knowing how persuasive Buck could be and how even a single lapse could cost a woman dearly. Remembering how his father had left his mother to cope with such consequences alone, it took a conscious effort to control the anger he felt toward his friend. It wasn't the first time he'd resented Buck's selfishness and it wouldn't be the last.
Ezra picked up the hand Chris dealt him but his preoccupation was such that he could not even have named the cards in his hand, let alone described his strategy for them. He discarded a queen carelessly, while running the woman's plea through his mind again. He despised Buck's chasing because of the lack of taste and self-control it revealed, preferring to involve his head in the selection and courtship of his own lovers.
'I don't see he'll be up for listenin' to anythin' I got to say right now,' Chris concluded.
Vin's smile was grim. 'You might not be up for sayin' much by the time he'd finished listenin'.'
'I'll give him some time with it but I ain't lettin' it go till we know what's goin' on.' The fair man gave his friends a hard look. 'She's a woman in trouble and it don't make no difference to me if her trouble's Buck.'
- 2 -
By evening, Ezra had moved on to a more serious game with a group of cowboys who were passing through. Chris and Vin took their beers outside. The heat of the summer day had abated and now the air was pleasantly warm. A full moon hung over Main Street, its silver light almost as bright as day. The friends settled themselves comfortably on two wooden armchairs and rested their feet on a third. They had not seen Buck since their earlier conversation. Now he rode into town and headed for the livery stable.
'There he is.'
The voice took them by surprise. Too much preoccupation could be a dangerous thing for men like them.
'Hell, JD, don't be creepin' up like that!' Vin caught the bite in his tone and grinned up at the youngster to compensate.
'Ain't you the jumpy one? I wasn't creepin'. Where's Buck been?'
'How should we know? He don't have to tell us where he's goin'.'
JD didn't need to hear or see any more to know that his friends were on edge and that their unease had something to do with Buck. He followed their stares up the street to a woman leaving the hotel. She walked deliberately toward the livery, leaving no doubt that she had seen Buck's return and intended to intercept him.
Chris and Vin watched the woman until she disappeared into the stable, looked at each other, then at JD.
'We don't know,' Vin told him, 'But Buck does and he ain't so pleased to see her.'
'Buck not pleased to see a woman?' JD's response was light-hearted but he quickly saw that his friends did not see the visitor as a joking matter.
They watched as Buck strode out of the stable and across the street, pursued by the woman who ran to keep up with him. She reached forward and grabbed his sleeve. He spun on his heel and wrenched his arm from her grip. He did not even notice his friends under the shadow of the stoop and his voice drifted to them, clear on the still air.
'How the hell did you find me?'
'I heard a woman talking about you in a town a few days west. I didn't even know you were in this territory.'
'Yeah, well, that was fine by me.'
'She said she said you were kind. That you and your friends help people who are in trouble. I hoped '
He drew himself up until he seemed to tower over her. His voice was low and menacing.
'Don't recall you wantin' my help last time. Just wanted me out of your life, didn't you?'
She stood her ground, glaring up at him, defying him.
'That's crap.' Her hesitance in using the word underlined the strength of feeling that made her press it into service. 'What about before? How would you know what I wanted from the next damned state?'
'Don't try an' turn it 'round. You wouldn't take help from any man. I wanted to be there.'
His voice dropped lower as he grew angrier. Hers rose into a shriek.
'You were never there! Never there for her! Never there for me! You've never been anywhere for anyone!'
She turned away in a swirl of skirts and fled to the hotel. He stood, watching her, fighting the anger, fighting the tears.
His friends looked on in silence.
After a minute or two, he headed for the saloon. He didn't see the other men until he was almost on top of them and then made a point of ignoring them as he went inside.
There was no longer any trace of amusement in JD's expression. He looked at Chris for a few seconds before speaking. 'I never seen him like that. Have you?'
Chris shook his head. 'This afternoon, we figured she was in the family way but it don't look like that's it.'
'Never there for her never there for me ,' Vin repeated the woman's words thoughtfully. 'You don't reckon she could be his daughter, do you?'
A frown furrowed Chris's brow. 'He'da had to be young - can't see her as less than twenty-five - maybe.'
'Seems to me that's why she looked familiar. She's a lot like him round the eyes.'
'You could be right.'
Josiah and Nathan had witnessed the exchange from the back of Nathan's office. After spending the day making repairs to the roof, they had been on their way to the saloon for a well-earned drink. Like Buck, they didn't see their friends until they drew near.
'Do we know what that was all about?' Josiah asked, his deep voice full of concern.
'No.' It was Chris who replied. He disliked intruding on anyone's business but the scene they'd witnessed convinced him that there was more to the situation than met the eye and that Buck would almost certainly need the support of his friends at some point, even if he himself did not yet realize it. 'She arrived this afternoon and Buck wasn't any too happy about it.'
'Vin was jus' wonderin' if she could be his daughter,' JD added.
'Never there for her never there for me ' Nathan picked up on exactly the same words as Vin had.
Their deliberations were interrupted by Ezra bursting through the swing doors of the saloon. Shaking his right hand and holding the left to his jaw, he didn't see Josiah and walked straight into the big man.
'Must you stand about in doorways, you oaf?' he demanded abruptly, stripped of his usual veneer of courtesy.
'Let me take a look at that, Ezra.' Nathan stepped forward to look at his face.
'I'm fine,' the gambler snapped. Pulling himself together, he continued in something closer to his normal tone. 'My apologies, gentlemen. I was leaving before I succumbed to the temptation to do Buck real harm.'
'He still don't fancy talkin' about her then?' Vin inquired.
In the dim light spilling from the saloon, Ezra revealed the bruise that was already coloring his jaw. 'I think you can take that as a "no", Mr Tanner. I merely asked him if he was feeling better.'
'Bad timing,' Chris growled. 'They just been arguing in the middle of the street.'
Ezra's innate curiosity soon overcame his irritation. 'Did you discover anything new?'
The fair man shrugged. They had little by way of solid information. 'It ain't what we thought. Sounds like they go way back.' He repeated JD's words, 'Vin was jus' wonderin' if she could be his daughter.'
'Do you think there's a sufficient difference in age?' Ezra's skepticism was clear.
'I ain't sure how old Buck is. Figure he's past forty, same as me. Say she's twenty-five '
'As you say, it is possible,' Ezra conceded. He quickly hit on the same point Vin had. 'She does resemble him, something about her eyes.'
Vin nodded. 'That's what I said.'
'Don't guess it's any of our business,' Nathan suggested.
'Ain't so sure.' Chris stood and straightened his hat thoughtfully. 'She said she was in trouble and now it don't look like she meant what we thought she meant.' He paused. 'Seems to me, Buck didn't hold back on tellin' me what I oughtta do for Hank. I'd like to know why this is so different.'
Vin's teeth caught the moonlight as he broke into a broad grin. 'You gonna ask him then, Larabee?'
Chris had already turned to face the saloon but there was a smile in his voice when he replied. 'He punches me, he'll know all about it. I ain't so forgivin' as Ezra.'
He went into the saloon, quickly located Buck at the bar and joined him there. The tall man was already quarter down the bottle of whisky in front of him. The bruise starting to show on his jaw suggested that Ezra had not been so forgiving as all that.
'Spare a shot for a friend?'
Buck eyed him suspiciously. 'Friends don't come pokin' their noses into their friend's business.'
'Did I say a word?'
'Don't tell me you wasn't goin' to.'
'Like you stayed out of my business when it came to Hank.'
Buck studied his shot glass, aware even through the anger and the alcohol that the point was fair. He said only, 'Ain't the same.'
Chris breathed in long and breathed out slow. 'Okay. I'll say one thing, then I'll leave.'
Buck did not reply but waited without resorting to violence.
'She said she was in trouble and it seems to me you still don't know what kinda trouble. If it's bad, you gonna live with it?'
With another long look, he left his friend to think about that.
The other men had been watching over the doors and stepped back as he came through them.
'Well?' It was JD who asked.
'Jus' tryin' to give him something to think about. I'd leave him to it if I was you. He's plannin' on finishin' that bottle and it ain't gonna do nothin' for his temper.'
- 3 -
Late next morning, Ezra was headed for the saloon when Buck emerged from it. Both sported purple bruises, blotched with black.
Buck nodded at Ezra's. 'Sorry.'
Ezra shrugged off the apology. 'Don't tell me you spent the night in there.'
'Inez'd make sure any other man found his way back to a comfortable bed but the prospect of me spendin' the night on a hard floor musta been more than she could resist.' He stretched, trying to unknot rigid muscles and bend stiff joints.
With another nodded apology for his ill temper of the day before, Buck set off along the sidewalk for a hot black coffee in the restaurant. Ezra watched his progress, musing on the uncharacteristic behavior they had seen from him over the preceding twenty-four hours. That was how he happened to see what followed.
Buck was walking past the dry goods store, rubbing his eyes and spitting into the street, just as the new woman came out of the door, one hand clasping a paper package and the other reaching to close the door. She stepped back into Buck, knocking him off the sidewalk and dropping her package. They glowered at each other, both suspicious that the other had staged the encounter, both determined to emphasize that they had not sought it.
'You still here?' Any idea that Buck's mood might have mellowed overnight was dispelled by his tone.
'It's a free country.'
'You can hang around till hell freezes over. It won't change nothin'. You might as well go now.'
'I thought I might as well stay. Then, when they kill me, you can watch.' Her voice had been quiet but now it rose in pitch and volume. 'You'd like that, wouldn't you?'
Her question caught him unaware.
Heading into hysteria, she wept. 'That's what it was all about in the first place, wasn't it? The wrong person died.' She threw the parcel at him, hitting him full in the body but wasting her energy as the bundle of clothes and toiletries had no weight. 'I'm sorry she died. I'm sorry I lived.'
Following a familiar pattern, she ran to the hotel.
Buck looked back at Ezra, a warning in his eye, then carried on as if nothing had happened. Weighing the matter carefully, Ezra decided against another exchange of blows. Instead, he picked up the parcel from the sidewalk and followed the woman to the hotel. Minutes later, he tapped on her door.
There was a long pause before it opened a few inches. The woman looked cautiously through the gap.
'Good morning, ma'am. You left this in the street.' Ezra held out the parcel.
She opened the door to take it. 'Thank you. That was kind of you.'
'If you would forgive the intrusion, might I inquire whether you are all right?'
Her expression wavered for a moment, before settling into a rueful smile. 'Apart from making scenes all over town, yes, I'm fine. Thank you.'
'My name is Standish, Ezra Standish. If there's anything I can do anything at all '
The offer was kindly meant and cordially made but Ezra saw immediately that it was also unwelcome. The woman's face froze and her voice was cold when she replied.
'Thank you, Mr Standish. I'll bear that in mind. But now you must excuse me.'
She shut the door firmly, a physical representation of the rebuff Ezra had seen not ten minutes before in Buck's eye. Shaking his head slowly, he turned away only to find Vin a few paces in front of him.
'Didn't sound none too friendly.'
'No, I thought perhaps someone should offer some help or consolation but I see I was mistaken in that too. Perhaps I should abandon my attempts to be a better citizen.'
Vin smiled. He knew Ezra too well to believe the man's chosen guise, seeing the kindness and concern that hid below the façade of avarice and self-interest. 'Decent of you to try.'
'And you, Mr Tanner? You must have some reason for being here.'
Another smile. 'Great minds I seen her run back here, figured they'd had words again.'
Ezra nodded and, with a tilt of his head, invited Vin to follow him. He led the way down to the hotel's dining room and ordered coffee for them both. He considered the situation in silence until the refreshments arrived. Once the waitress had left, he repeated the exchange he had witnessed.
He concluded with: 'It seems likely that you were correct in your surmise, that she is his daughter and that her mother died in childbirth.'
'Don't know. It'd be a hard man blamed the child for that.'
'It sometimes happens that way. In any case, it is only her belief that he blamed her. Buck did not say so.'
Vin remained unconvinced but moved on. 'She said "when they kill me"?'
Ezra nodded. 'She is certainly overwrought but whether that is the cause or the effect of the perceived threat is hard to gauge.'
Vin pondered the matter through the rest of his coffee. 'Well,' he announced finally, 'I ain't sure of much but I am sure that makes it our business. If there's trouble behind her, we wanna know what it is.'
'As always, Mr Tanner, you go directly to the heart of the matter. Shall we locate our compatriots?'
This time, Vin's smile was inward. Ezra's turn of phrase never ceased to amuse him. Vin loved the power of words to convey time, place and feeling. For Ezra, they were tools to display his mental superiority, weapons to fend off those who sought to approach too closely.
It took them some time to find Chris, seated as he was with Josiah on the church steps. It was not one of his customary haunts and only finding him inside the church would have surprised them more. In fact, the two older men had also been discussing Buck's situation but the absence of any new information hampered their speculations.
'Either of you seen Buck today?' Chris asked.
Ezra summarized the confrontation he had witnessed, ending with Vin's opinion on the matter and his own agreement with it. Realizing he had omitted his visit to the woman's room, he ran that through his mind again. 'I called on her to return the package she had dropped in the street. She was initially very civil but became distinctly cold when I offered my assistance.'
'Cold don't hardly cover it,' Vin added. 'Icy, more like.'
It was Ezra's turn to smile privately. He had always suspected a softer side to Vin's nature but the man's interest in poetry had come as a revelation. Initially, it afforded him considerable entertainment but now he noted the changes in Vin with more interest. With less than half his own vocabulary, the tracker still had a knack for finding the right word for the situation: icy was indeed the right word. Education might have produced a formidable orator.
'What did you say? Exactly?' Josiah asked.
'Exactly?' Ezra echoed. He thought for a few seconds. 'I introduced myself and then said "If there's anything I can do anything at all " I believe those were my words. Why?'
Josiah toyed with the hammer in his hand. 'I think there's more to this than we're seeing.' He thought some more before continuing. 'Buck's compulsive when it comes to women.' He nodded at Chris. 'You say he's been the same ever since you known him so I guess it goes back a long way.' He looked up at Ezra. 'Say, just say, you were interested in her as a woman what would you do?' Without giving Ezra time to reply, he offered an answer. 'Maybe pick up the package, take it to her room and offer your services anything at all?'
The other men followed his reasoning well enough. It was true: the errand could as easily have been a pretext as a genuine kindness.
Ezra looked uncomfortable. 'That wasn't '
'I didn't think it was,' Josiah assured him. 'That would be more like Buck than you. But I think that's what she thought. Maybe what she's come to expect.'
'You ain't suggestin' Buck would do something to his own daughter, are you?' Vin asked in disbelief.
Josiah started at the question. His reply was emphatic. 'No, no, not at all.' The truth was, he wasn't sure what he was suggesting. 'I think I wonder if whatever made Buck the chaser he is sent her the other way. Remember what he said last night? "You wouldn't take help from any man."' He drew a deep breath and then shrugged. 'I don't know what I'm saying.' Looking up at Vin he threw in a casual aside. 'Ask her out. She'll run a mile.'
Vin grinned. He wasn't given to asking women out and didn't intend to start with one who might be unstable. Still, he took Josiah's point and considered what he'd seen of Ezra's call on her.
'Who'll run a mile? Vin ain't that bad.' JD had sauntered over just in time to catch Josiah final remark, not having seen Buck that morning and not thinking along the same lines as the others.
'Thanks, JD - I think,' Vin told him.
'Nothin' a bath and haircut wouldn't fix,' the youngster added.
Vin knocked the lad's hat to the ground good-naturedly. With no vanity to upset, remarks about his appearance caused him little concern.
Dusting off the much-maligned bowler, JD looked up more seriously. 'You talkin' about her, Josiah?'
The big man nodded, then looked at Ezra. 'I don't suppose she introduced herself to you?'
'No. It does go against the grain to refer to a lady as she, her and that woman, doesn't it?'
They were all surprised when they saw the subject of their conversation heading directly for them. They exchanged puzzled glances, wondering what she wanted. On her arrival, she had seen Buck playing poker with Chris, Ezra and Vin but that didn't make them friends. She may since have seen them talking to each other but barely to him, given the way he had cut himself off.
She stopped in front of them and waited. They looked at her, expecting some explanation.
'Excuse me.' Away from Buck, she was calm and her voice soft.
Clearly frustrated by their lack of response, she looked past them and into the church. Realization swept over Josiah and he got to his feet hastily. With he and Chris seated on the steps, the others standing round them, the entrance to the church was effectively blocked.
'Thank you.' She stepped past Chris, her skirts brushing his shoulder, and went inside.
Josiah shrugged to the others and turned to follow her. It was an opening: perhaps he could get something from her and at least she was unlikely to pack as much of a punch as Buck.
Chris was still pondering. 'There could be something in what Josiah said. I known Buck a long time and I ain't never understood how he is around women. But she ain't scared of men or she'da turned back just now - she may not like us much but she ain't scared.'
Inside the church, Josiah watched the woman cross herself in front of the altar and settle to her prayers. He retired to the back room, ostensibly to give her privacy but settling where he could see her through the crack between door and frame. It was twenty minutes before she rose from the rail. As she turned to leave, Josiah stepped into her path.
'Good morning, ma'am.'
The woman looked up at him, examining his expression carefully.
'Are you the priest here?'
'No. Was a preacher once but my preaching days are over. I just take care of things, you might say.'
'Did you become disillusioned with the Church?'
The question came as a surprise. Josiah had not expected the conversation to take a theological turn. He nodded contemplatively. 'You might say that. I've never gone far from God but '
Her gaze did not waver. 'But men of God are merely men?'
'We're all of us merely men or women.'
'True. Are you a friend of Buck's?'
'I'd like to think so. Are you?'
'I don't think he would say so.'
'My name is Josiah Sanchez. May I ask yours?'
'You may ask.' She paused with a smile. 'Ida Wilmington.'
'We noticed the resemblance.'
'We? The men outside?'
He nodded. 'We've never seen him like this.'
'Really? It's been a long time since I saw him at all, longer still since I saw him any different from this. I knew it was pointless coming here but it was just as pointless going anywhere else. If you'll excuse me.' She made to go, feeling she had already said too much, taken a step toward trusting a man who would undoubtedly prove to be merely a man.
The other men were still loitering outside, now joined by Nathan, and watched her leave. When Josiah came out, they looked at him enquiringly. He ran through the conversation in his mind, gleaning the facts from it.
'Her name is Ida Wilmington. She hasn't seen Buck for a long time and they fell out way before that. She wasn't expecting him to help her. She has a low opinion of men in general and men of God in particular.'
'Ida Wilmington,' Ezra repeated. 'So it seems Mr Tanner's intuition was correct.'
Chris chewed his lip. 'I can't believe he never mentioned her.' He looked up at his friends. 'Hell, I spent years chasing women with him. Even after I got hitched, he was still around half the time.' With customary obliqueness, he did not mention what followed. 'An' I ain't shook him off yet.'
Josiah sighed as he added, 'She said she knew it was pointless coming here but it was just as pointless going anywhere else. I can't believe Buck won't even talk to her.'
'She musta done something to make him feel that way,' Nathan said softly. 'He's never turned his back on a woman before.'
Vin stretched lazily. 'Well, Ezra's up - must be chow time. I'll see you fellas later.'
Rising soon after the sun meant he was always hungry by noon. When he reached the restaurant, he glanced through the window before going in. It was busy: it usually was since Alma Cotton took over. The combination of excellent food, polite service and scrupulous cleanliness drew custom like a magnet. Vin valued those things but it was her fair prices that clinched the deal for him. His job in town paid room and board, though he preferred his wagon to a room, but that meant breakfast and supper not dinner.
Vin wandered in casually, knowing Alma would accost him before he had even closed the door behind him. She was a plump fifty-something who thought he needed mothering. That wasn't something he generally welcomed but Alma was so kind and thoughtful that it was impossible to resent her ministrations.
'Young Vin! I was worried you'd found somewhere else to eat.' She winked. 'I put by the last slice of pork pie.'
He grinned his thanks. It was true: he was later than usual and he would have been sorry to miss out on that pie. She loaded his plate with potatoes, carrots and lashings of thick gravy. When he reached to take it, she held on until she had his attention. Leaning forward and letting her eyes flick to the corner of the room, she spoke softly.
'Folk're talking. What's going on with her and young Buck?'
Even Chris was young Chris to Alma. Only Josiah escaped the treatment. She had the utmost respect for the former preacher and her yearning for him to notice her was most definitely not maternal. There weren't many people who would get an answer from Vin when it came to his friends but Alma was one of the few.
'I wish I knew, Alma. He sure ain't himself.'
'That's the truth. He didn't eat a mouthful after she came in and I do hate waste.'
Vin smiled. 'This won't be going to waste, don't you worry.'
The merry eyes twinkled back at him. 'The day you or young JD don't clean your plate, I'll shut up shop.'
Vin hesitated as he turned away. There were no empty tables but plenty of free seats with other diners. She'll run a mile. He pondered Josiah's words. He wasn't planning on asking Ida out but He went to her table with his usual quiet decisiveness.
'Mind if I join you, ma'am?'
Ida looked up at him with those worldly-wise blue eyes so like Buck's.
'I've never been in a town where so many strange men invited themselves to join me.'
Taking the absence of a refusal as permission, he settled himself opposite her.
'Another friend of Buck's?' she inquired. 'One without bruises?'
Vin tucked into the pie with relish.
'You must be the quiet one.'
Vin's eyes creased into a smile but he said nothing.
'Why don't you just ask Buck what you want to know?'
Vin worked through another mouthful while he considered his reply.
'Can't say I'm in a hurry to get some bruises.'
Ida studied him. Even from her jaundiced perspective, the man's face was kind. He was the third one to approach her and the second in whom she could detect nothing but concern for a friend. But she had been wrong before
'What is it you want to know, Mr-?'
'Vin.' He considered her question, doubting he would get too many chances to hit on something she found acceptable. 'What kinda trouble you got?'
She frowned. That was the last thing she expected him to ask. Why should he care? She studied him again.
'Are you a follower of the Church of Rome?'
Vin choked on the piece of pie he had just loaded into his mouth. Swallowing with difficulty, he wiped gravy from his lips and a tear from one eye.
'Church of Rome?' he echoed faintly.
'Roman Catholic,' she expanded.
They were succeeding in surprising each other.
'Ida?' He raised an eyebrow to check the name. She nodded. 'I ain't given to following nothin', Ida. The church and me ain't what you might call acquainted, not one in Rome or nowhere else.'
She saw nothing in his even features to suggest that was anything but the truth.
'And the others in your number?'
'You're askin' the wrong man,' he informed her. 'Far as I know, Josiah's the only one believes much at all and you already spoke to him. He was a preacher way back but I got no idea what breed.'
His reply seemed to satisfy her but she did not answer his original question.
He returned to his meal, giving her time. She watched him eat, sipping coffee delicately, taking in every detail about him. His slouch hat, fringed jacket and tan jeans were dusty and worn. The heels on his boots were half gone and the leather was scuffed all over. In contrast, his shirt and bandanna were clean and colorful. His strong jaw was covered with a day or two's stubble but he was not dirty. Many men of the West could be smelled before they could be seen; Ida could smell the man before her but the odors were only those of horse and leather. This Vin was not a dandy like the Mr Standish who had called at her room but he was presentable.
She wondered about the group of men that seemed so concerned for Buck. As well as the ex-preacher and dandy she had met, there was a hard-eyed gunman, a negro and a boy and the man now dining with her. What could they possibly have in common? Why should they care about Buck's problems?
Vin was aware of her scrutiny and guessed some of her thoughts. He considered what he had heard her say since her arrival. Finally, he settled on another question.
'Can't no one else help you with your trouble?'
Could they? Perhaps. Would they? 'Why should anyone else help me, if my if he won't?'
'Reckon a man figures to try'n'help a lady when she's got trouble.'
The same coldness spread over her features as Ezra had seen earlier.
'Yes, of course he does. I wasn't thinking.'
She stood abruptly and left him to his dinner. He touched his hat absently, knowing he had offended her and thinking on why. It was only a few seconds before Josiah joined him.
'She seemed to leave in a hurry,' the big man ventured.
Vin nodded. He used a crust of bread to mop up the last of his gravy, licked his fingers and sat back. 'I says could someone else help her with her trouble? She says why would they? So I says a man figures to try'n'help a lady when she's got trouble.' He gave a humorless smile. 'Like you said, she ran a mile.'
'I think she's found such offers come at a price.'
Vin's grin was genuine this time. 'Didn't realize I was such a scary prospect. Maybe I better look into that bath an' haircut after all.'
Josiah returned the smile. 'I don't think it'd matter if you were the President himself.' He raised an eyebrow. 'Would you?'
Vin was taken aback by the question but only shrugged. 'Seems nice enough when she ain't around Buck. But I don't reckon I oughtta be dippin' into his daughter, whether he cares or not.'
'I think Buck cares a good deal more than he's letting on. A man who doesn't care doesn't need to drink whisky by the bottle and punch his friends for passing the time of day.'
'Yeah, reckon I'd got to about the same place. What we gonna do 'bout him, Josiah?'
A big grin spread across Josiah's face. 'I'd say it's high time we had a word with young Buck.' His eyes flicked at Alma with a twinkle as he said it. He had noticed her long since but was still pondering what to do about it. She was older than he might choose but as kind as a person could be. Sometimes he relished the thought of a home to go to and a woman to care about him.
His friend's thoughts on the matter had been clear to Vin for some time but he had no need to pass comment. Alma was a good woman - as far as he was concerned, Josiah could do a lot worse.
The two of them sauntered out, touching their hats to Alma, and then headed for the saloon. Buck had resumed his position at the bar, a bottle of whisky in front of him. Inez smiled at Josiah and Vin, pleased somebody was finally going to take Buck in hand. On the one hand, it was a relief to be spared his incessant efforts to woo her but, on the other, his ill-temper and soaring whisky consumption was small improvement.
Josiah propped himself on one elbow to Buck's left while Vin leaned back against the bar to his right.
'Hey, Buck,' Vin said casually.
'Leave me alone,' Buck growled.
'Just passin' the time o' day,' Vin assured him. 'Ain't hardly seen you.'
'I reckon you've heard more'an enough to make up for that.'
'Never seen you turn your back on a lady in trouble,' Josiah remarked.
'And kin at that,' Vin added.
'She put you up to this?'
Vin contemplated how hard to push his friend. Reaching his decision, he braced himself and said, 'Nope. She ain't keen to talk to none of us. Seems to reckon men've only got one thing on their minds. Can't think where she mighta got that idea.'
Buck looked at him in disbelief. He had never known one of their number provoke another so openly. Ordinarily, perhaps that would have been warning enough that his friends thought he was well out of line but, through a third of a bottle of whisky, all he saw was red. He lunged at Vin, loosing a left hook to his jaw and a clumsy right to his gut. Neither punch found its mark, as Vin dodged to one side and back in a single fluid movement.
'C'mon, Bucklin. You can do better'an that, can't you?'
Buck steadied himself and took a second to cool down before assaulting Vin again. Three minutes of trying left him giddy and breathless. Deep down he knew that he'd never get near the tracker stone cold sober and that he had no chance in his current condition.
Chris and Ezra came through the doors in time to witness the last half minute or so of Buck's humiliation. In spite of the circumstances, they couldn't help but laugh at the contrast between the intoxicated infuriated Buck and the amused agile Vin. Their smiles evaporated when Buck, overwhelmed by frustration and resentment, pulled a gun on Vin. That was something a man simply did not do. If he didn't intend to use the weapon, it should be in his holster. If he intended to use it, he was putting his friends in an impossible position. Only Vin looked unperturbed, certain that Buck would not shoot him and unconcerned about the threat. He reached forward and pushed the barrel downwards.
'Now I've got your attention, you gonna tell us what the hell's goin' on? I just had dinner with your daughter and she '
The disbelief returned to Buck's face. 'My daughter?' He looked around them, holstering his gun slowly and gradually seeing the situation from their perspective. 'You think ? She ain't my daughter. Hell, she must be lookin' better on her age than I am. She ain't my daughter, she's my sister.'
His friends looked back in surprise, taking a moment to understand what he was saying and to realize that all the evidence that had taken them to a daughter could fit a sister just as well.
'Half-sister. To be precise. And I'm not that old.' The voice behind them was calm. 'Be fair on your friends, Buck. The way you go through women, the territory's probably full of your bastard children. They weren't to know I wasn't one of them. I've no idea whose bastard child I am, any more than you have.'
He flared up at her words. 'Always the same with you, ain't it? Just can't let it alone.'
Ida closed her eyes, fighting for self-control, wanting to talk with Buck as sister and brother not as enemies trading the same old insults.
When Buck went on, his voice was mostly reproach but held a hint of a plea. 'She's dead. Can't you let it lie? She was '
'A saint?' Fury infused Ida's response. 'Some saint who puts her fourteen-year-old daughter to work. And you? A lot of help you were!'
Buck stepped nearer, looming over her. 'I tried, before that, but she sent me packin'. Didn't wanna depend on no man, not even me. I thought you were the same.'
'Hah!' Ida hid behind the shield of anger and resentment she had carved over the years. 'Far better to depend on half a dozen a night. That's real independence. Not that you'd care. You're just like all of them.'
He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her so hard that her teeth chattered. 'No! I've never paid for it.'
She fought his grip in vain, then went limp within it. The hysteria was back in her voice when she laughed at him. 'And all this time, I thought you had no moral standards. It's a relief to know you've never paid for it!'
Vin watched the emotions he had unleashed, appalled but fascinated.
Chris took Buck's arm and spoke softly, persuasively, into his ear. 'Let's take this someplace quieter.'
As Chris prized his friend's fingers from the woman's shoulders, Josiah caught her arm to keep her from falling. He looked at the other men. 'The church?'
They steered the siblings out of the saloon, down the street and into the church. As Alma said, folk had indeed been talking and now they watched the little party's progress. JD left Casey where they had been sitting outside the telegraph office and followed behind his friends. Nathan saw their passage from his office window and fell in step beside JD. They all wanted to know what was going on and figured they might as well hear it first-hand.
Five minutes later, inside the little clapboard church so lovingly restored by Josiah, Buck and Ida sat facing each other. The other men stood around at a distance, torn between minding their own business and helping Buck to sort out his.
Ida stared miserably at her hands. Chris had been right when he said she did not fear men - her feelings were closer to derision - but now she was overwhelmed by seven of them, seemingly rowed up against her. Lifting her eyes, she examined them one by one, adding little details to the pictures she had built up of them since her arrival in the town. When she spoke, her voice had softened again.
'You're lucky, Buck. To have such friends.'
He looked up at her in surprise, recognizing her words as the olive branch she intended them to be.
'Yeah.' He studied her closely for the first time. 'You? You still '
'Whoring around?' There was no anger in her words. 'No.'
'What you said about the wrong person died I never thought that.'
'Why didn't you come?'
Buck ran a hand over his forehead then rubbed his eyes. Too much emotion, too much whisky and too little sleep had left him drained. 'Figured it was too late. Figured you blamed me.' He lifted guilty eyes to examine her again. 'When I saw you that time in Kansas, I knew I was right.'
She shook her head sadly. 'I didn't blame you at first. That came later.' Tears rolled down her cheeks. 'I didn't even blame her.' She dabbed at her face with a fine cambric handkerchief.
'What happened that night?'
Ida looked at the ceiling, then the floor, and then the stained glass window over the altar anywhere but at Buck and the other men. She bit her lip as long-buried memories surfaced. Finally she spoke, in a voice so low that the listeners had to strain to hear her words.
'It was a father and son. We did a lot of those - our specialty, you might say. It was the boy's sixteenth birthday and I was supposed to be his present. But they'd been drinking a lot and he couldn't.' She rested her head on her hand, the handkerchief crumpled in the fist. 'His father laughed so he got mad, said I was pig-ugly and no one would want to. He hit me, just a couple of slaps to start with. Ma tried to laugh it off, settle him down, but he got madder. He threw her across the room and then starting punching me. It all went hazy after that. The last thing I remember is Ma standing behind him, holding up a poker, then a shot.'
She sobbed silently, remembering that ghastly night. When Nathan came to her side with a glass of water, she whispered her thanks and sipped from it.
'Ma must have brought that poker down hard 'cause the boy died. I thought I'd be in trouble but they hushed it up. The man was mayor of the next town and the last thing he wanted was for people to know what happened.' She met Buck's eye. 'I wrote to you, wired you, kept hoping you'd come but you never did.'
'I'd signed up by then. Didn't know nothin' about it till the war was over. When I got them letters, I came lookin' but you'd moved on. I couldn't find you. I knew I never should have left you to that life.'
A deep sigh rattled through her body. 'Oh, that life was nothing. It got a lot worse later. I suppose I gave up you'd be surprised how much money you can make if you don't care what they do.' She gave a bitter laugh.
He reached for her hand.
'Then I found I was with child.' When she looked up, tears shimmered in her eyes. 'I was so pleased. It was pathetic really. God knows who the father was, some perverted son-of-a-bitch, but I was thrilled. I decided to pack it in and move somewhere where no one knew me. It was my last week when I took a stranger: a cavalry officer, good-looking, charming. I've never seen a man change the way he did. He locked the door and, when he turned back to me, he was someone else.'
She took another sip of water. 'I thought I was going to die. When I found the baby was gone, I wished I had. I tried to pull myself together but That was when I saw you in Kansas, up to your old tricks, and I got so angry. I can't even remember half of what I said but what I remember was bad enough.'
Shaking his head sadly, he squeezed her hand between his. 'It don't matter. A good bit of it was true.' He thought for a minute. 'If you went through all that without comin' to me, what brings you here now?'
She drew her hand away, sat up and dabbed at her face. 'I'm not here for me. I could probably have got clear if I'd kept moving. I'm not even sure they're still looking for me and I'm past caring anyhow. I came because there're forty other women locked away, being made to do what I did for money, and someone has to stop it.'
The other men had been gazing at boots and out of windows, uneasy about intruding into Buck's past and Ida's misery, but now turned their eyes on her.
Buck collected himself together as Ida had, slopped water onto his bandanna to wipe his face and then drank the rest. 'Sounds like I shoulda been listenin' a whole lot sooner. Again.'
A warm smile, the first, crept onto her face. 'You'll help then?'
'Forty damsels in distress? You better believe it.'
'Don't get too excited - they're nuns so your reward'll have to be in heaven.'
'Shit. I ain't likely to be collectin' up there.'
'No, nor I.'
After a short pause, Josiah cleared his throat. 'Nuns? Is that why you asked about my parting with the church?'
'And the Church of Rome?' Vin prompted.
Ida nodded. 'At first, I thought I'd go to someone in the Church but then I realized that I didn't know who knew. If I trusted the wrong person, I'd throw away my only chance to do something. It was the same thing with the local law.'
'So what's goin' on?' Buck asked.
Ida shifted her chair and settled herself more comfortably. The men followed her lead, taking chairs, steps and leaning posts as suited them best.
'A little while after Kansas, I met some nuns on a train. They talked about their convent and I thought it sounded wonderful.' She gave a wry smile. 'No men - wonderful. So I went with them and became a novice. I had no faith but then who lies better than a whore? Six months later, I took my vows and became Sister Hope.' She flushed with embarrassment but met Buck's eyes. 'I really liked it, especially later when they put me in charge of the gardens. I even started to believe - it all sounds quite sensible if you repeat it often enough.'
She hesitated in her story and looked at the men around her. 'I don't expect you know much about convents?' Apart from Josiah, their expressions made it clear they did not. 'Ours was an open order, part of the community, ministering to people, providing medical care and such like. But I didn't want anything to do with outsiders, especially men, and that was against the rules. You must have humility, obey instructions and put yourself aside. I was forever having to pay penance for not doing my duty.
'Eventually, our Mother Superior summoned me. She told me that she couldn't disregard my disobedience any longer but that there was another way: to join a closed order. There you renounce the world to draw closer to God, sacrificing all outside contact. Of course, that wasn't much of a sacrifice for me. She asked me to think about whether it would suit me better. It didn't take me long to decide that it would, even though I was sorry to leave my work and the friends I'd made.' She gave a soft laugh. 'I was always doing penance for that too - having particular friends, not loving all the sisters the same.
'So, of my own free will, I left the only place I've ever been happy and went to join the other order. As soon as the gate closed behind me, I knew something was wrong. Convents are busy places: the days are long and every moment is devoted to worship or work. I stood in the courtyard and there wasn't a nun in sight. All I saw were a few armed men. One of them locked me in my cell.' She pictured her prison. 'Nuns' cells are always basic - rejecting earthly pleasures is said to take us closer to God - but this was different. In the open order, everything was clean and lovingly prepared. This was like a jail. I sat for hours, thinking what a mistake I'd made, then I heard a whisper. There was a crack in the brickwork and the girl in the next cell was calling.'
Ida's eyes filled with tears. 'Sister Ruth. She's sixteen, Buck, went there when her parents died of the fever. Lots of the girls there are young, from pious families, but a sixteen-year-old in a closed order the first she knew ' Words failed her. 'Not like me I can't recall a time I didn't know didn't hear the pawing and panting but at least Ma was there the first time and later too.' Ida smiled. 'She wasn't a saint but she was kind, gave me some of her best regulars.'
She let Buck take her hand again, welcoming the comforting gesture.
'You reckon the woman who sent you there knew?' he asked.
'That's what I'm not sure of. I don't think so. She didn't pressure me at all, seemed to want me to be happy. If she knew, they could just take the ones they wanted - not waste time on persuasion. It must be much safer if no one knows, given that no one expects to hear from nuns in closed order anyhow.'
'Would she know what what you were before?'
'Only through confession, the later ones at that - I wasn't very honest to begin with. That would mean at least one of the priests would have to be involved. I'm not even sure they'd think it was an advantage. It's easier to push a naïve sixteen-year-old around than someone like me. The priests who took my confession would know how how angry I was. I should think they'd be worried about a customer losing part of his anatomy.'
Several of the men grinned in spite of themselves. A woman who didn't care if she lived or died could do irreversible damage to a man before he had time to react.
Realizing there was something she hadn't told them, Buck asked, 'How did you get away?'
She laughed lightly. 'It was the easiest thing in the world but it was weeks before I thought of it. A doctor who liked me unconscious. I think he'd have preferred dead but that's expensive and risky. He was in two or three times a week, very polite, very gentle - I'd have thought it was easy money, if I was getting paid. Anyhow, he was small and slight, and always wore a long coat and broad-brimmed hat, not keen to be recognized I suppose. So I held my breath when he chloroformed me, took him by surprise and turned the tables. The hardest part was waiting, wondering how long it would be before the guard came back. I just took his horse and rode out.'
'Where is this place?' Chris asked.
'About a week southwest of here.'
'What do you know of the setup?'
'It's an old Spanish convent, adobe buildings round a courtyard. There's a lot of land round it but it's not worked anymore. They run a saloon and casino. The customers know the score but they're not the sort of men who care. As I said, I think there are about forty women. I've seen at least half that but I'm guessing at the rest from things I heard. There seemed to be about a dozen men.'
'It is surprising that they are able to conceal such an operation,' Ezra remarked.
Ida shrugged. 'Closed order means just that. No contact at all, not even with other nuns or priests. There is a resident priest but well, you can imagine what he's like. Do you do you think you can do anything?'
For the first time since Ida's arrival in town, Buck laughed. 'Oh, you ain't seen these fellas in action or you wouldn't ask.'
She looked uncomfortable. 'Can you ' her words were a whisper, 'Trust them? With this '
'Can you trust me?'
'Of course.' The confidence in her voice surprised him.
'Believe me, every one of 'em's more trustworthy than I am when it comes to women.'
There was a deep sadness in her smile. 'You've never paid. I've always charged. What a pair we make, Buck. Why do you do it?'
He shrugged and his gaze fell on the dapper gambler standing by the window. 'Ezra's Ma's a hustler. Like mother, like son.' The frown on Ezra's face showed that he did not welcome the characterization but he did not refute its accuracy. 'Guess we learn early. Like you said, I can't recall a time I didn't know didn't hear '
She surveyed the men once more, needing them to understand. 'These aren't women like me. They matter. That's why I went along with it until I saw a chance I was determined to get help for them somehow.'
Josiah rested a comforting hand on her shoulder. 'Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings and not one of them is forgotten before God. But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.'
'Such friends '
'Far better than I deserve,' Buck admitted. 'But what we need now is a plan.'
'On what basis are clients admitted to this establishment?' Ezra inquired.
Ida studied him, noting the keen intelligence in the cool jade eyes. 'I'm not sure I can give you much information. Being locked in a cell, with men thrown in for servicing, isn't very instructive.'
He caught the irony in her voice and smiled. 'You are remarkably accepting of the misfortunes fate has thrust upon you, Miss Wilmington.'
Her eyes twinkled back at him. 'The first thousand times are the hardest.'
'What sort of men?' Chris asked.
She instantly sobered as she faced the green ice of Chris's gaze and considered his question. 'No army - that's unusual, a lot of money there but maybe too much risk of someone thinking that a convent was going too far?' He gave a slight nod. 'Rough and dirty - probably wanted. I heard talk of someplace called Purgatory.' Another slight nod. 'Lot of specials.' In response to his raised eyebrow she expanded, 'Like the doctor, men who want things that are harder to get. As I said, he was fine but I wouldn't take the risk if I had a choice - being unconscious that is. And there aren't many free women who'll take the real rough stuff at any price.' She watched his face as he considered her words. 'You want to get in as customers?'
'Seems the best shot. Rough and dirty ain't a problem. How does a man go about getting a special?'
'Usually he'd need to know someone who knows someone ' She paused as a thought drifted through her mind. 'Rudi Rudi can get anything he must know about that place.' Her brow furrowed as she thought. 'Rudi used to get me high-price specials. He wouldn't know me as Hope.' Her voice was a murmur as she made the connections. 'I could send you to Rudi. Maybe he could send you to them. He's over in Julestown.'
'This Rudi a friend of yours?' Buck asked.
Ida laughed. 'Men like Rudi aren't anyone's friend. But he's a businessman, dependable but not trustworthy.' She glanced at Ezra. 'I'm sure you understand the difference.'
Ezra nodded. 'Motivated by repeat custom and word-of-mouth rather than higher ideals.'
'Exactly. But he's good at what he does. There's nothing he can't get: man, woman or animal.'
'Jesus.' It was JD who balked at the world they were about to enter.
Chris gave the youngster a grim smile. 'Don't worry, JD. You can do rough and dirty. Buck, how 'bout you?'
'Whatever.' The whole thing was going to take him back to times he'd rather not revisit but it made little difference to him what role he played.
'Ezra? Can't see you as a Purgatorian.'
'No. I am confident I can acquire some dubious tastes to suit our purposes.'
'Okay. That splits us pretty even.' He surveyed Vin, Josiah, Nathan and JD: he had no doubt they could do rough and dirty but there was precious little lust or cruelty between them. His gaze settled on Vin, who returned a wounded look. Chris shrugged. 'You're the closest we got to a Purgatorian.'
Chris looked at Ida. 'Any way you can give these boys some tuition?'
That made her laugh heartily. 'Don't they know how?'
He smiled for the first time. 'Wasn't planning on takin' it as far as the how but I figure they gotta look like the setup ain't nothin' new.'
She studied them without inhibition. 'We can work on it. I hope it's easier to make a kind man cruel than the other way around. But what will you do if you get in?'
'Castrate these sons-of-bitches if I have any say in it.' Buck's growl underscored the feeling in his words.
Ida giggled. 'You don't change, do you?' She looked around his friends. 'Ma told me about the first time he came to her rescue. He was only eight years old but he tried to take on this fella with a horsewhip.' She looked back fondly at her brother. 'You're lucky he thought it was so funny or you wouldn't here today.'
Buck shrugged. 'Bastard was well out of line.'
Chris wore a grim smile as he looked at his friend anew. He'd known about the man's background for years but knowing about it wasn't the same as watching him with his younger sister, talking about the vagaries of their mother's calling as though it were the most normal thing in the world.
It was Ezra who returned them to their scheming. 'What would you recommend, Miss Wilmington, by way of special services?'
She considered the question, while examining them carefully. Nodding to Chris, she began. 'No offense, but you could pass for a sadist. It's not hard to find a cheap woman to knock around a bit but not so easy if you want to go further.' She shifted her gaze to Ezra, with a sidelong look of apology to Nathan. 'There are still some Southern gentlemen who miss the services they used to take for free. There were colored twins at the convent - that's not common.' She grinned to Buck. 'Wet'n'messy?'
JD had followed up to that point but now looked puzzled. Buck slapped him on the back. 'You don't even wanna know, kid. Bring your dinner back.'
'All right,' Chris announced. 'Me, Buck an' Ezra'll give this some thought.' He nodded to the others, 'You fellas, spend some time here with Ida. You'll likely need to hang around in that saloon for a while and I want you lookin' right.' He led his co-conspirators away.
Josiah broke one of his own rules by locking the church door. He smiled as he turned back to his friends. 'Don't want to send one of my flock into a faint.'
Ida let her gaze roam slowly over her charges. She raised an eyebrow at Nathan. 'I can't believe there's much you haven't seen. I've had some good friends from the plantations.'
He gave a sad nod. 'But then seein' ain't doin'.'
Vin agreed. 'I seen how the army treat the tribes. Don't make me wanna do it.'
'You're all so nice - what are you doing hanging around with my brother?' There was no malice in the rhetorical question; her trust in Buck in spite of their estrangement had been clear for all to see. 'It's not so much what you do as how you do it. You all look at my face when you speak to me, as if I'm a person - you need to stop that for starters. We're not talking about lonely widowers who miss their wives: we're talking about men who've never seen a woman as anything more than a piece of meat. All you care about is here and here.' She patted her breast and skirts.
JD reddened, becoming ever more uncomfortable with their mission. His gaze dropped but went right past her breasts and fixed on the floor.
Ida smiled. The sweet young lad took her back in time, to those father-son initiations. Many of them had been kind men, considerate to her mother and wanting only to introduce their sons to a woman in country where there weren't enough to go around. She unbuttoned her dress, let it drop to the floor and stepped away from it.
In spite of his embarrassment, JD's eyes strayed to her cleavage.
'That's better.' She took his hand reassuringly. 'You don't look at the mantelpiece when you're stoking the fire. There's only one part of my head you're interested in.' She touched his fingers to her lips. 'And it's not for my conversation.'
Vin was still draped over a chair near the altar. Ida perched lightly on him, the firmness under her backside telling her that her state of undress had already done half her work. She looked at the hand he settled on her knee, then met his eyes.
He saw the laughter there and smiled back, knowing his touch was a lover's touch. He clenched his teeth and took a firmer grip.
'Better but use your fingertips. You want it to hurt, you want me to know you can hurt me and there's nothing I can do about it.'
With a supreme effort of will, Vin dug his fingers into Ida's soft flesh. The slightest flinch told him that her requirements had been met.
They spent the afternoon working through situations, poses and conversations. Just as they began to feel confident, Ida would throw in a trap and laugh delightedly when they fell into it. But, by the end of the afternoon, only JD still struggled.
'I'm sorry,' he said for the fiftieth time. 'This just ain't me.'
Vin gave him a look of mock umbrage. 'Hope you ain't sayin' it's us, kid.'
JD shook his head, knowing there wasn't a gentler man in the territory than Vin when it came to women. 'You mus' just have a talent for actin', Vin.'
Ida's heart went out to her student, wishing more men found it so hard to be cruel to a woman. 'Don't worry, JD. You're young - it doesn't matter if it looks like you're new to it. Even the worst of men have to start somewhere.'
'Don't it bother you? What you did?'
Josiah frowned. The boy's question was judgmental, his inexperience making him mistake her resignation for willingness.
Ida saw the older man's concern and gave him a slight shake of her head. She retrieved her dress and put it on thoughtfully. 'I didn't always mind. Ma and I worked a good place, clean and fair. I wouldn't've chosen what we did but I'd already done it a lot of times before choice came into it. Most of our customers were decent men, said what they wanted and paid for their fun. If they gave us any trouble, Old Mac'd throw 'em out and never let 'em back.'
She looked honestly at JD. 'It was a living. But later, yes, it bothers me a lot what I did later and I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't already decided I wasn't worth damn-all.' Her gaze intensified into a stare. 'But don't you see? That's why it matters. The women I'm talking about are nothing like me - they didn't let this happen they were forced. You're their only chance. If you have someone you care for, think how you'd feel if it were her.'
JD nodded slowly. His expression grew first cold, then mean, as he imagined one of the men he'd seen in Purgatory with his filthy arms around Casey, grabbing at her small breasts and slavering over her pretty lips.
Ida watched the transformation. 'There! Keep that thought. That's why you're doing this.'
JD smiled at her. 'I will. I'm sorry. Just now, I didn't mean '
Ida dismissed his apology with a laugh. 'If you want to upset me, you'll have to work harder than that.' She looked round the others. 'I think you're as ready as you'll ever be. Let's hope they've come up with a plan.'
Josiah touched his hat to Ida, unlocked the door and headed for the saloon with Nathan and JD in tow. Only Vin stayed behind.
'You sure you're okay?' he checked.
Ida nodded, trying to brush a tear away without him seeing. If she'd known Vin better, she'd have realized she was wasting her time: there was little the man did not see. 'However bad you look in your own eyes, it's never fun seeing yourself through someone else's.'
'Don't dwell on it. JD don't think afore he speaks.' Vin considered his words. 'There ain't one of us, not even JD, ain't done stuff we regret.' Those gentle eyes were earnest. 'Don't think that lettin' men treat you bad is halfway to the killin' and maimin' some folk've done.'
'You're a very kind man, Vin. I wish I wish I'd met someone like you a long time ago.'
A wave of sadness swept over Vin, to see a woman still so young feeling such hopelessness. 'It too late?' he asked, ready for the anger he expected the question to provoke. All he got was a sad smile.
'What would a fine-looking man like you want with a soiled dove like me?'
Ignoring her question, he repeated his own. 'Is it too late?'
'I don't can't want a man.' She met his eyes. 'Too many memories.'
He nodded. 'Don't need that but I reckon you could use a friend.'
'A friend ?' Her voice was dreamy, as if the idea confused her.
'Yeah. You ain't had too many friends that were men, have you?'
'I haven't had any friends that were men. Kindly acquaintances at best.'
'Being the first'd be somethin' special.'
She gave him a sisterly hug. 'You are somethin' special. Shall we try supper, seeing I didn't give you much of a chance at dinner?'
'That'd be fine. I'll go check in with Chris now. You get yourself some rest and I'll pick you up in an hour or so with the news.' With that, he left her to her contemplations.
Turning to the altar, she saw the brass cross shining in a shaft of the late afternoon sunlight that flooded through the window behind her. That morning, she had asked God to help her save his handmaidens. Now, God had sent help, not just for them but for her too. She sank to her knees and gave thanks.
- 4 -
When Vin joined Chris in the saloon, he found all the other men there. Buck glanced up at him.
Vin gave a curt nod, unsure how he felt about Buck's recent behavior now that he knew more about the situation. With only faint memories of his mother and no other kin, he envied Ezra having a mother and now Buck a sister. He backtracked over that thought - he wasn't sure he'd want Maude for a mother but then any mother was better than no mother. Unable to understand Chris's reluctance to help his father-in-law, he now felt the same lack of comprehension at Buck's evasive maneuvers.
Buck held up a hand with a grin. 'You're right - I've been a bastard. It's been so long since either of us talked and the other listened, I guess I forgot how.'
Vin relaxed into a smile. 'Ain't for me to say. Don't know much about kin nor the rest of it neither.'
'She likes you. I ain't seen that in a long time.'
'She needs a friend.'
'Friendship's likely all you'll get.'
'Wasn't lookin' for nothin' else. Reckon she's had enough o' that to last her ten lifetimes. Now, what we gonna do 'bout this mess?'
Chris had been watching Buck and Vin, reflecting on the gulf between them when it came to women, and was surprised to see this woman acting as a bridge instead of the flashpoint he'd feared. Vin's question returned him to the business of the day.
'We figure it'd be fair enough for you four to drift by, after hearin' talk in Purgatory. If they got that kinda dirt passin' through, the place has gotta be common knowledge down there. Bit o' luck, you can jus' drink'n'play cards but you may have to fit in.'
Josiah frowned at that.
Chris's response was to shrug. 'Hell, one more ain't gonna make much difference to 'em.' Hearing how heartless that sounded, shocked that he could be so detached and knowing he'd've knocked a man through tomorrow for saying that if it were Sarah, he coughed and then shrugged again. 'Shit, tell 'em you like to watch, say you're too far gone, whatever. I don't see 'em complainin' that you didn't deliver.'
Buck wiped his mustache to remove non-existent foam, failing to hide his amusement at his old friend's embarrassment. He gave an apologetic smile in response to Chris's glare.
'Point is, we want you in there, part of the furniture, afore we need backup. If this Rudi can get us in, maybe we can find out a bit more before we move.' He frowned. 'I'll say this, if I'm payin' through the nose for a special, I sure as hell don't expect to be in some prison cell with a whore who ain't seen a bath in weeks. There must be a better side o' their operation.'
'Which brings us to another question, gentlemen,' Ezra said quietly. 'How are we to fund this charade?' Finding the others' eyes on him, he set down the deck he had been shuffling. 'No.' Vin's hard gaze did not shift. 'No.' Ezra leaned forward. 'No, Mr Tanner, and that is final. I have no intention of subsidizing this man's retirement.'
JD cleared his throat. 'Ida said she made a lotta money doin' specials. Reckon she's still got it, Buck?'
'Well, she won'ta been spendin' it on loose men, that's for sure.'
Josiah was frowning again. 'I believe it's customary for novices to donate their possessions to their convent when they take their vows.'
'Shit,' Chris repeated.
Buck shook his head. 'Ida ain't big on trust. Can't believe she wouldn'ta kept a fair chunk back.'
'I'll ask her at supper,' Vin said. 'Let's assume we got it for now.'
His glance at Ezra made no secret of his Plan B. The other men made no comment, caught out as they were by his casual reference to his dining arrangements. Picking up on their reactions, he shook his head as if surprised.
'Don't friends eat?'
Chris grinned, uncertain if he thought the man was exceptionally kind or out of his mind - or a bit of both. 'Just need her for the introduction like she said maybe give us some kinda token. Don't see what else we can do ahead of time.'
'An' when is time?' Buck asked.
'No sense waitin' around.' Troubled by his earlier insensitivity, Chris spoke quietly when he added, 'Don't matter whether we do or whether we don't, every day means a few more times for those girls. Far as I'm concerned, first light ain't too soon if we reckon we're ready.'
- 5 -
When Vin tapped on Ida's door, she answered it quickly. She wore a smart crimson dress and had rearranged her hair. He let his eyes roam over her, admiring her flawless skin and glossy curls, wondering whether to compliment her. He decided against it - she had dressed for supper as any woman would and he intended to do nothing to suggest that they were anything other than friends. Hell, he wasn't in the habit of telling Chris he looked nice just 'cause he'd changed his shirt. That thought gave him a moment's amusement, feeling the punch he'd likely get for his trouble.
She took his arm and let him lead the way to the hotel dining room, where the waitress seated them at a quiet table in a private corner. The hotel food was good but the menu restricted so they wasted little time over their selections, Vin treating himself to steak while Ida chose the meat and potato pie.
'What do the others think?' she asked him after the waitress had left. He looked up to check her meaning, making her smile. 'About a plan?'
He summarized what Chris had said and then paused. Sensing his discomfort, Ida raised an eyebrow. 'Gonna need some cash to make this work. You ain't lookin' at high rollers here, 'cepting Ezra and it ain't easy to part him from his money.'
'There's no reason for him to fund this. You're all doing more than anyone could expect by helping. I have some money put by - more than enough - I came prepared.'
He nodded. In truth, he had expected as much. He wouldn't be sitting here, caring for her as much as he did, if he thought she was a fool. 'Chris thought maybe a token or somethin' from you for this Rudi fella, then move out at first light.'
She studied him. 'I want to come.'
He hadn't been prepared for that. 'No way.'
'How will you find the place?'
'You'll tell us where it is. I'll find it.' His tone defied her to argue.
'Don't try to push me around, Vin.' There was an edge to her voice that told him that their friendship would be short-lived if he did so again.
'Sorry. Didn't mean it that way.' He sought to explain himself. 'Man's gotta be focused to do what we do, can't afford to be worryin' 'bout you an' I would worry.'
'Please, Vin. Just let me ride with you. I'll wait somewhere, wherever you tell me to, but I have to be near. Sister Ruth ' She struggled to maintain an even tone. 'Please.'
It was his turn to study her while he thought. 'Ain't for me to say yes. I'll ask Chris but I can tell you now what he'll say - he ain't a soft thing like me.'
She laughed. 'I think you're like a stream, Vin. You come over all accommodating but you could wear away a mountain if you needed to.'
Pleased to see the merriment in her face, he let his eyes twinkle back. 'Maybe so, but I only got a few hours and Larabee's some mountain.'
'He's a hard man, isn't he?'
With the slightest tilt of his head, Vin conceded the point. 'Hard but fair. Not a man to get on the wrong side of none of 'em are but he's got his reasons same as you.'
She gave him an inquiring look.
'Ain't up for discussion.'
She accepted that without argument. 'I'd rather know about you anyhow.'
'Ain't much to tell.'
Her expression made it clear that wouldn't wash so, over the next hour, he told her most of his life story apart from the price on his head. He wasn't given to being so open but she had bared her soul to them and then some. Besides, friends trusted one another.
'Are you happy here?' she asked when he had finished.
He considered the question through the apple pie he'd ordered to keep her company in her chocolate cake.
'I got my problems,' he admitted, 'But yeah, reckon I'm as happy as a man's got a right to be.'
She contemplated questioning him about his problems but knew that he would have included them in his story if he wanted her to know.
'Do you like Buck?'
His eyes crinkled into a smile. 'Do you? Under it all?'
'He's all I have.'
'That's no answer.'
'Yes. Ma told me about all the times he helped her. He was a good son - it wasn't his fault that she pushed him away when he became a man. He's twelve years older than me so I don't remember it well.' She concentrated on her plate, removing every trace of cream before finally putting her spoon down. 'I don't think he knows how Ma came to be what she was. She was married young and treated very badly. Even though I get angry about her putting me to work, I know she didn't mean to be cruel. To let me marry and be hurt like that seemed much worse to her. If you don't get close, you can't get hurt.' Her eyes shone with tears when she looked at him. 'Are you have you ever been close to a woman?'
He looked away, fighting for control over his memories. 'Once. Guess it didn't amount to much - a few days on the run with a married woman.'
'But you loved her?'
'Fate can be a cruel mistress. You are so kind - why should she send you a woman you couldn't have?'
He resisted the temptation to point out that it was happening all over again.
'So, do you like my brother?'
'Yeah. He's a good man, cares about folk, looks out for his friends. We ain't always seen eye to eye over the ladies, what with my Pa leavin' my Ma to it, but maybe I understand that better now.'
He caught the waitress's eye on him and raised his eyebrows for the check. When the girl brought it, Ida asked her to charge it to her room. When Vin protested, she took his arm and steered him firmly outside into the cool evening air.
'You didn't need to do that,' he told her. 'I ain't that skint.'
'That's not why I did it. I didn't want to charge. I've never spent an hour with a man without him paying for it.'
He placed his hand over hers. 'Thanks.'
'I should be thanking you. I still don't understand why you want to be a friend to someone like me.'
'Not someone like you. Just you.'
'You do understand believe I have nothing to give you.'
He nodded sadly. 'Yeah. I ain't anglin' for nothing. You can trust me.'
'I didn't mean it like that, Vin. I do trust you but it's not about trust. You can come to my room now if you want. I'd have no problem doing anything for you - I've done more for men who weren't fit to clean up after you. But you'd just be getting a freebie from a whore. I can't want you in return.'
There was that sad nod again. 'I know. Like I said, I'd rather have you as a friend.'
'You already do. I won't forget you as long as I live.'
He gave her a sidelong glance. 'Then I got all I need.' Her pledge of friendship reminded him of the young girl she was so determined to save. 'Reckon this Sister Ruth is gonna be pretty glad to have you as a friend too. She means a lot to you, don't she?'
'She reminds me of me, after Ma died, wishing someone would save me. I can't let her down.'
'You won't. We ain't fallen down on the job so far and Buck wouldn't let you be the first time.'
'Do you think he likes me? He hides it well if he does.'
Vin laughed. 'From what I seen, Buck's got things that are worth botherin' with and things that ain't. He wouldn'ta been so fired up if he didn't care.' He thought back to an earlier conversation. 'Like Josiah said, a man who don't care don't need to drink whisky by the bottle and punch his friends for passing the time of day.'
That made her laugh. 'It was funny, him and Ezra.' She chuckled again. 'You men are funny. You see a woman and you're itchin' to bed her, see a man and you're itchin' to hit him. I sometimes wonder what's in your heads, if anything.'
He took her teasing in good part, wise enough to see she was half-joking, wise enough to see there was some truth in her jest. 'Nature's way. Find a mate, protect your pack.'
She paused mid-stride to look at him.
'I envy you the hunting. My life's always been, well, mostly indoors. I hadn't thought about it before but I'd much rather be out in open country like you than in the sordid little towns I've mostly lived in. That was why I liked being in charge of the gardens at the convent so much, growing things, feeling the earth on my fingers '
'Know what you mean. I ain't no farmer but there's nothin' finer than the land.'
They completed their circuit of Main Street. Vin knew the stroll had been observed, by Chris in the shadows under the stoop of the saloon, by Josiah and Nathan on the steps of the church. He knew they were surprised that he had reached out to this broken woman as he had, knew they had only concern for her and for him.
Meanwhile, Ida's thoughts had returned to the matter in hand. 'A token ' she murmured. After a minute or two, she laughed. 'I know just the thing. Come on.'
She led him purposefully back to her room and he stood by while she rummaged in a drawer.
'When I became a nun, I left some money and a few things with a friend. We worked together, stayed in touch after she packed it in to get hitched. I picked up the stuff before I came here. Here it is.' She threw a garter to Vin. 'I don't know why I kept it but Rudi'll know it's from me. He brought me this fella, couldn't do it unless a woman wore a blue silk garter. If I took it off, he'd just ' She curled her little finger and chuckled. 'Even Rudi'd never come across anything quite like that. We used to joke about it.'
'You sure he's still in Julestown?'
'My friend heard talk of him a few months back. He's worked out of there for years so I don't see why he'd move. He travels a lot but there'll be someone to take care of business. I guess they'll be able to reach him.'
'Chance we gotta take.'
She ran through what he had told her of their plans. 'If Chris needs a story for Rudi, tell him to say he met me at a Christmas party in St Louis in '74. I was there for a couple of months, visiting, but I worked a bit. He was headed west and wanted to know where to find the type of woman he needs. I said to look up Rudi Scheider if he was ever near Julestown, gave him the garter. Rudi's a bit shorter and wider than you, swarthy, long scar down his left cheek, dresses well but still looks a mess. He knows me as Marguerite.'
'Can you be ready to leave at dawn if I talk Chris round?'
'I'll be ready but I don't have a horse.'
She rested a hand on his sleeve. 'You must talk him round.'
'Don't worry about Buck. The day hasn't dawned when I take any notice of what he says.'
Vin grinned. 'No, don't reckon it has.' He reached for the door handle. 'I'll stop by afore I turn in, just to let you know.'
Ida watched him walk along the corridor, as light on his feet as a cat, wondering how she would have reacted to a man like him if her life had been different. She had some idea of the difference between love and lust. Some of the young boys she had introduced to the bedroom had fallen in love with her, only youthful crushes and yet she had seen the love in their concern for her comfort and in the flowers they brought for her. Some of the widowers she had comforted in their loneliness had cared about her, taken her out and bought her presents.
But she herself had never known those feelings. She appreciated kindness, was grateful for consideration, but she never felt her eyes widen and her body yearn as she saw others did. When she looked at Vin, she saw his dilated pupils while her own remained resolutely contracted. In the church, she felt his desire but it stirred no response in her. A tear ran down her left cheek as she realized how much she would like to reciprocate and knew that she was just a dry husk that had, perhaps, once been a living breathing woman.
- 6 -
Dawn saw all the men tacking up their horses in the livery stable. As Vin moved from his gelding to a hired chestnut mare, Chris frowned in the half-light.
'I'll be damned if I know why you wanna take her or why I'm lettin' you.'
Vin turned his face away to hide his smile. Ida had been right: there weren't many times that he didn't get his way. After thinking it through, he had seen no choice. He knew she would wait where he told her. He knew she had to be there for Sister Ruth. He moved on to matters in hand.
'So you fellas reckon you'll be there a coupla days after us, if Julestown goes to plan?'
'If,' Chris emphasized. 'If we ain't there in four, you better pull out and watch for us.'
'If you ain't there in six, we better come find you.'
'Don't see it comin' to that.' Chris rummaged in his pocket to check he had the garter. Most of Ida's savings were now secreted in his boot, with Vin taking enough to fund his party's more mundane amusements. 'Marguerite, St Louis, Christmas '74. Rudi Scheider, short, broad, dark, scar on left cheek, smart but ugly.'
Vin nodded, then looked toward the door as he heard Ida's soft footsteps.
'Morning, gents. I hope I haven't held you up.'
'You should stay here,' Chris said bluntly. 'Tell her, Buck.'
'Like she'd listen,' the tall man scoffed but went over to her. 'You should stay here, Ide.'
She smiled and hugged him. 'Take care, Buck.'
He held her tight. 'You too, sis.'
They mounted their steeds and set out on their separate journies.
- 7 -
Four days later, Chris, Buck and Ezra rode into Julestown. Although they had all been there before, none of them recalled a Rudi Scheider or a short, broad, dark man with a scar. That wasn't so surprising, given the size of the town and the fact that they did not require the services in which he specialized. They headed for the saloon, the most natural place to start their inquiries.
Chris and Buck took their beers to a table, while Ezra invited himself to join a game of poker. They whiled away a couple of hours, sizing up the patrons and playing their parts as trail-weary travelers looking for entertainment. Just as they were considering their next move, two saloon girls honed in on their table and draped themselves over the newcomers.
Settled on Chris's lap, with an arm around his shoulder, the darker one introduced them both. 'I'm Carrie and this is Darleen. Can we help you gentlemen with anything?'
When Chris met her eyes, his gaze was cold and mean. 'You may be out of your depth. We heard talk of something a little special round here.'
She switched off in an instant. When she replied, her voice was hard. 'You want Rudi.' She nodded to a door at the back of the saloon, got up abruptly and led her friend away.
Buck wore the trace of a smile. They'd be lucky if it all went as easy as that.
Ezra had watched the exchange from the corner of his eye and now raised an eyebrow. Chris's look told him to stay where he was. They should be able to make the arrangements and, if there was a problem, Ezra might be more use on the outside.
Chris went to the door and rapped firmly. There was a pause before a deep voice with a trace of an accent told him to come in. When he opened the door, Chris saw a man matching Ida's description behind a large desk. No doubt a gun under that desk was trained on him now. He went in, with Buck a step or two behind.
Buck closed the door and checked around. They were alone with the man. There was nowhere that might conceal anyone else, unless he or she was under the desk providing special services at that very moment.
'Good afternoon, gentlemen. Is there some way in which I can assist you?'
'We heard there might be,' Chris conceded. He tossed the garter onto the desk.
Rudi did not move but the recognition was clear in his eyes. 'Would you care to explain?'
'Met a young lady called Marguerite in St Louis, Christmas '74. Gave me quite a present, if you know what I mean. She said to look you up if I was ever lookin' for action round these parts.'
Rudi picked up the garter. 'It's a long time since I saw Marguerite ' He heard the softness in his own voice and jerked himself back to business. 'I may have some contacts. Perhaps you could explain your requirements more clearly. Marguerite was unusually versatile.'
Buck fought to maintain his detachment. Years of pushing Ida, and every trace of the sweet little girl she'd once been, out of his mind evaporated as he smarted at the implication of the man's words. But any reaction now might endanger their mission.
Chris's voice was even, as if he were ordering a new saddle for his horse. 'I need a woman with a high threshold of pain. My friend here has an interest in bodily functions, if you take my meaning.' Rudi's firm nod indicated that he most certainly did. 'Our travelling companion may be more of a problem. He has this thing for coloreds, twins in particular - don't see you being able to do much for him.'
'You may be surprised what I can do but requirements such as yours do not come cheap.'
'Wouldn't expect 'em to. Lookin' for a fair price though.' Only the slightest movement of his hand was needed to direct Rudi's attention to the Colt at his hip.
Rudi smiled. 'No need for that. My livelihood depends on my satisfied customers. I can direct you to an establishment that will meet your requirements. My fee is fifty dollars, non-negotiable. There will be a further fee of one hundred and fifty dollars to pay on arrival. You will have the use of these services overnight. Is that acceptable?'
'Providing services that are not strictly within the law carries certain risks. In particular, there is inevitably wastage associated with requirements such as your own.'
Chris's expression did not waver but inside he cringed from a man who could describe women's deaths for men's pleasure as 'wastage'.
'Okay. But we'll be back if we're disappointed.'
Rudi accepted that with a wave of his hand. He clearly wasn't used to his clients being disappointed.
Chris took a wad of bills from his coat pocket. He had split up Ida's money before they rode into Julestown, not keen to advertise what he had to bargain with. He threw five ten-dollar bills carelessly onto Rudi's desk.
Five minutes later, Chris and Buck left the office with directions and a note for when they reached the 'establishment'. They downed a couple of shots at the bar while Ezra finished his hand, then the three of them rode out of town. At the cost of two days' extra travel and a pile of money, they were now headed for the same place as their friends but, hopefully, with a better position to work from.
- 8 -
Two days after their friends caught up with Rudi, Ida stood on the top of a low rise with Vin, Josiah, Nathan and JD. After leading them confidently as far as a small town called Harpersville, she had lost her way. She scanned the landscape in the twilight, her frustration giving way to distress.
'I'm sorry. How could I forget?'
Josiah rested his hand on her shoulder as he had in the church. 'Don't worry, we'll find it. Calm down and let it come back to you.'
Ida did not move while they set about making camp for the night. She stared at the horizon, desperate to recall anything that might help her place the convent.
Vin watched her back, concerned more about her than about finding the place. If they had to, they could ask. Plenty of people in the area would know about an old Spanish convent and the chance of any trouble coming from such a question was small.
'C'm'ere,' he called softly.
Reluctantly, she pulled herself away from the view.
'Tell me everythin' you remember 'bout the country round this place.'
She frowned at him, wondering what good a word-picture of the place would be if they couldn't find it.
JD laughed and said, 'Humor him.'
She sat between Nathan and Josiah, facing Vin, and closed her eyes. 'It's in a wide valley running east to west. There's a low ridge to the north, with a band of scrubby trees along it. There are higher peaks to the south, a pair together in the middle, with three to one side and one to the other. There's a river in the valley, wide but not deep, slow-moving.' She faltered as she ran out of things to describe.
'What color's the dirt?'
'Redder than it is here. The ridge is the same but the peaks are gray.'
'What sort of plants?'
'Nothing much bigger than a thorn bush. Lots of tumbleweed.'
'Which way does the wind mostly blow?'
She opened her eyes. 'How would I know?'
'Is there more dirt piled up on one side of the buildin' than the other?'
'Yes. More on the south-west.'
'You see which way most of the rough and dirty types rode in from?'
She considered his question. There was a small window in her cell and she had often seen such men ride in. Was it most of them? 'I'm not sure. South-east, I think.'
'Think about the peaks to the south. Any of 'em look like anythin'?'
She examined them one by one in her memory. She squinted as she pictured them. 'The three together maybe like a bird at rest its head and the top of its wings '
'Buzzard Pass. I only ever seen it from the south but the country sounds 'bout right.'
Ida looked at him in amazement. 'How can you know that?'
JD laughed again. 'Vin knows as much about this country as you know about what we're here for.'
'Are you sure?'
'Ain't nothin' in life is sure but this is as good as most.'
'You'll tell us where it is. I'll find it.' She repeated his words from when they had supper together, matching the tone he had used precisely. 'You weren't kidding.'
He smiled back. 'I got my uses.' Conscious that he was close to flirting in his front of his friends, he reluctantly forced himself back to the matter in hand. 'Ain't a bad place for what we got in mind. The others'll be comin' down from the north, over that ridge. Should be able to find a spot up there for you, with the trees for shelter an' a creek for water. Bit o' luck, you might catch 'em for news as they come through. But don't you be lettin' on where you are to no one, unless you're real sure it's them.'
'I won't, Ma.' She gently mocked his solicitous tone.
The hunting in the area was poor so they made a meal from dry provisions. They chewed on the unappetizing fare, their spirits raised a little by Vin's insight but still feeling far from cheerful. Nathan looked round his friends, wondering how he might improve their mood. Seeing Ida was close to her usual form now that she was not so upset about letting them down, he decided to ask her something he'd been wondering about.
'So, Ida, what was Buck like as a lad then?'
Surprised by his question, she considered it for a while. 'He's that much older than me so I don't remember him when he was small. In fact, him moving out is one of the earliest things I do remember but he was still around town. I don't think he was that different - always one for the ladies, mostly the married ones. I suppose he's got better at not getting caught - he used to be in trouble a lot of the time.' She smiled. 'As you can imagine, we weren't a family with much of a reputation.'
'You get on back then?' Nathan asked.
'Oh, yes. He used to be forever buying me things and taking me places. When I wanted to travel on a train, he rode for two weeks with me just so I could. We went to the next stop, got off and came back again.' She drifted away into the distant memories. 'He taught me to ride and shoot. I'm sure he'd much rather have had a brother.' She smiled to JD. 'That's where you come in.'
'Pity you fell out,' the boy replied. 'I'd've liked a brother or sister.'
Ida nodded. 'The good thing about family is that you can say anything to them. The bad thing is that you do say anything and then you can't take it back. I thought it was too late.'
Josiah smiled. 'Don't reckon it's ever too late, as long as we have breath in us.'
'No, perhaps you're right.'
The big man looked at her thoughtfully. 'I've spent a lot of years working through the legacy my father left me.' At her inquiring look, he added, 'Missionary. Reckon it's much the same thing for you and Buck.'
She chuckled. 'Your father's probably spinning in his grave, being likened to my mother.'
'Oh, I don't know. They probably get on like a house on fire. Two of the oldest trades there are.'
'Do you think she could go up there? I often wonder.'
'Sounds like she died to save her daughter. Can't believe the Good Lord wouldn't take some account of that.'
'He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.'
'Well, she'll have some good company down below if that's the way of it.'
'After a while, at my old convent, I really wanted to believe but it's so hard to make sense of it all. There are such good people who have no faith.' Without thinking, she glanced at Vin. Her point was not lost on him but he hadn't the learning to join in their conversation.
'It's probably blasphemy,' Josiah said softly, 'But I look at it like this. The men that wrote the Bible were just men, good men doing their best but still men. Maybe they didn't always hear it straight or get it down right.'
She smiled. 'Our Mother Superior would have a fit if she heard you say that.'
He shrugged. 'Only fools believe everything they're told without thinking for themselves.'
Ida sighed deeply. After a long pause, she turned her attention back to Vin. 'How long will it take to get there?'
'Make it 'fore dusk tomorrow. Reckon we'll get you settled, then ride in after dark.'
Sitting there, so close to the convent and yet so far from being able to stop what was being done there, Ida struggled to hold back her tears. She thought of the first time she saw Sister Ruth. After many whispered conversations through the crack in the brickwork, they were eventually dragged to an upstairs room. A man ordered them to clean themselves up, then left another standing inside the door, not ten feet from them. Even after the indignities she'd already suffered, poor Ruth was mortified at the lack of privacy.
Ida smiled to her and took the lead, soaping herself all over, enjoying the chance to be clean and simply shutting the man out of her mind. She saw Ruth draw strength from her bravado, stand straighter and follow suit. They served a man together, offering precisely the services she had recently suggested her brother should request. Ruth wept throughout the encounter but, rather than shame their customer, her tears seemed only to heighten his pleasure.
Ida's companions exchanged sober glances, guessing what was on her mind and wishing they had some comfort for her. Eventually, Vin could stand it no more.
'C'm'ere,' he said in the same soft tone he had used before. He settled himself back against a rock, drew her close and tried to convey some of his own strength to her. He no longer cared what his friends thought but, had he been able to look into their minds, all he would have seen was pity for a friend's sister. What Vin might want from her, what he surely would not get from her, didn't even figure.
- 9 -
Vin's estimate of the location of the convent, and the time to get there, were as accurate as JD's faith declared they would be. In the fading rays of the sinking sun, they explored the band of trees until he found a place in which he was willing to leave Ida. He wore an earnest frown while he checked over her supplies and the rifle he'd borrowed for her saddle holster.
'You stay here and keep your head down,' he instructed firmly. He took a small metal mirror from his pocket. 'I'll signal you with this when you can come down or a lantern if it's dark. Two times two for come down. Anything else, you get into Julestown and call in the law. It ain't gonna be afore the day after tomorrow.' He gave a grim smile. 'You'll know when to look 'cause all hell'll break loose and then it'll go quiet. Okay?'
She nodded soberly. 'Two pairs.' Looking around them all, she added, 'Be careful.'
'Always are,' Josiah said, with a pat to her shoulder. Grins from Nathan and JD confirmed his assurance.
Ida hugged Vin, wanting to say or do something to tell him how special he was but knowing that she would only embarrass him. A moment later, he was in his saddle and she was watching four backs fade into the twilight.
The friends trotted briskly down the ridge, headed for the adobe compound that sat alone in the middle of the barren valley bottom.
'All right, Vin?' Nathan asked noncommittally.
Since Vin had intervened with Chris to save Nathan so long before, the two men had developed a close bond. They rarely said much, rarely needed to, but shared a mutual respect far deeper than any words.
'As all right as a man can be when he only ever goes after women that don't want him.' There was terse humor in his voice. He wasn't one for feeling sorry for himself and, in any case, he felt a lot sorrier for Ida.
They did not speak again until they had covered half the distance to their destination. It was JD who broke the silence. 'Reckon we'll get in?' He examined his companions. 'You fellas look rough and dirty to me.'
Nathan frowned. 'Yeah, but there's dirty and there's Purgatory. I can't smell you.'
A few minutes later, JD reined back his horse. 'Je-sus! I can sure as hell smell something. What is that?'
They walked their horses around, seeking out the source of the stench. It wasn't long before they found it about a hundred yards away. A half-decomposed horse lay on its side, stripped of its tack, two bullet wounds in its flank. Vin and Nathan dismounted to examine it.
'What're you doin'?' the boy asked. 'Let's get outta here.'
Vin grinned up at him. 'You were the one worryin' 'bout gettin' in. A bit o' blood and some o' this stink, ain't nobody gonna look too hard.'
'Ain't no way ' JD began but, before he could finish, Vin reached over to wipe a filthy palm on his pants.
'Reckon some wounds wouldn't go amiss,' Nathan said thoughtfully. 'Make us look rougher and weaker. Keep any surprises on our side.' He spent a few minutes putting botched dressings on Vin's bicep and Josiah's calf. The results were convincingly amateurish and reeked. Well used to scrubbing other people's blood from his clothes, he now simulated those stains with the horse's blood. He raised an eyebrow at JD. 'How do we look?'
'Ain't how you look is the problem. Get downwind of me afore I puke.'
They rode confidently on, looking for all the world like a quartet of desperados in dire need of rest and recreation. When they reached the high gates, Josiah rode forward and thumped the side of his fist on the wood. An inspection panel slammed back and a lean, mean face looked warily out.
'You open or what?' Josiah growled.
Josiah leaned down menacingly. 'I'm askin'. Don't say you're getting' picky who you let in. I heard 'bout this place from Bloody Hand Barnes and my fuckin' money's as good as his.'
The man made a show of inspecting them but was clearly swayed by the name. Eventually he slammed the panel back into place and swung the gate open. They rode in, ignoring him and making a deceptively casual survey of the establishment to which Josiah had so nonchalantly gained access.
Vin edged close to the big man and spoke in a whisper. 'Didn't know you was a frienda ol' Bloody Hand.' He was joking but his voice held an edge. There were plenty of men he hoped not to run into here and the mention of a familiar name served only to heighten his caution.
The convent was doing good business. Upwards of fifty horses were tethered around the courtyard and the noise and light spilling from rooms along either side of it made it clear where drinking and gambling were to be had. Above, lamplight flickering behind some of the higher windows promised other entertainments. They watered their horses at a trough then hitched them in a bunch away from the others.
The looks they gave each other were a mixture of determination and apprehension. None of them was given to fear before a fight - with fists, knives or guns - but this was outside their usual line and two days was a long time to maintain a front. Vin's voice was barely a murmur.
'Remember what we went through in the church, JD. We ain't gonna have no trouble with the drinkin', gamblin' or fightin' but watch your eyes and mouth round those women. Don't matter what no one does, you don't care. Only way you can step in is to make like you want her for yourself but mosta these fellas'll shoot you as soon as look at you. Remember, whatever it is, it woulda happened if we wasn't here.'
The boy nodded, knowing that the recap wasn't just for his benefit and that his friends were struggling to steel themselves against what they might have to witness during their wait.
Josiah and Vin strode toward the nearest open door. When they reached it, the smell from inside was little better than the rotting horse. There were more than enough men inside to account for the horses they'd seen so there had to be stabling out of sight as well, what with the other lit windows across the courtyard.
Josiah spoke under his breath. 'Some odds.'
'Mosta these guys'll be out like a shot if they think we're law. Ain't nothin' to them if it's cleared out.' Vin wasn't as confident as he sounded but had no intention of backing out.
They took a bottle of whisky to a table and sat back to watch the crowd. Every piece of information, every face recognized, every door noted, could be valuable when they made their move. That was why Chris wanted them in place and that was what he'd get from them. They appeared to drink steadily, appeared to grow more rowdy but - using a trick borrowed from Ezra - more of the whisky ended up in the spittoon under their table than in their stomachs. They were embarking on a third bottle when a scuffle broke out at the far end of the saloon. A wiry man had been dragging a girl down the staircase in the corner but then shoved her over the handrail. She fell heavily into the middle of a poker game, breaking the table and scattering cards and cash.
'For Chrissakes, you horse's ass, can't you see we're fuckin' playin' here?'
The man on the stairs was too liquored up to care about the ample height and breadth of his challenger. 'Yeah? Well, I came here to get my greens but that whore's whimperin' clean took away my appetite.'
A third man cut in. 'Couldn't be the bottle o' whisky you put away first, could it? Or maybe it just ain't long enough to reach?' The heckler clearly knew the girl's assailant and took delight in his acquaintance's failure. His laughter was cut short by the other man's fist and, within seconds, pandemonium erupted.
From their table, the four friends monitored the situation in their peripheral vision. It was exactly the kind of dust-up they expected and intended to keep clear of.
Meanwhile, the girl had crept away from the debris of the poker game and was trying to reach the door without being noticed. Vin watched her, his jaw set in a hard line. She was very young, bruised and terrified. Glancing at Josiah, he saw the fury simmering below the big man's forced calm. In their own town He stopped himself. They weren't in their town and, however fast they might be, they couldn't take on sixty or seventy men.
At that moment, a man came through the door. Although he wore no badge or uniform, something in his bearing made it clear he was an employee not a customer. He looked round, first taking in the brawl and then catching sight of the girl trying to fade into the wall. He had no need of words, the ferocity of his grip as he hauled her away telling her what she could expect. It was evidently not the first time she had failed to give satisfaction and provoked an incident.
As he passed their table, Josiah caught the girl's other arm with equal brutality. He examined her body coldly.
'I'll take her.'
The man met his gaze and tilted his head to one side. 'Ain't good for much. Does nothin' but fuckin' whine.'
'Suits me down to the ground.' Josiah's voice was unrecognizable: pure, cold evil.
'I aim to. Got somewhere I can get some privacy? Like to take my time.' The way he lingered on the last word promised suffering beyond the girl's worst nightmares. Her eyes widened and filled with horror.
'Twenty bucks for the night.'
Josiah threw him five. 'You're lucky to make a cent on her.'
The man hesitated and then took the money. 'This way.'
Josiah caught Vin's eye for a fraction of a second. Both men knew that he wouldn't be back till morning. It was the only help they could offer. With luck, he'd see a bit more of the compound. He followed the man across the corner of the courtyard, holding the girl in a viselike grip and supporting most of her weight. They went through a door directly opposite the main gate, into a darkened wing, along a corridor with barred doors on either side. The only sounds were their footsteps on the stone floor and the muffled weeping of women. The man stopped at the second to last door on the right.
'In there. Bar it when you go.' He left the lamp he'd lit when they'd entered the wing.
Josiah pushed the girl roughly inside, onto the bed, and pulled the door shut behind him. He listened as the guard's footsteps receded into the distance, taking in the girl's fixed stare and the twitches in her limbs. She was close to some sort of breakdown - if they didn't get her out soon, he doubted she'd recover. He wished he could explain their plan and reassure her but she was far too unstable to risk that. He examined the cell. As Ida had said, it was like a jail, dirty and bleak. There was a pitcher of water, complete with dead flies, with a chipped mug and bowl. The only other 'comfort' was a bucket in the corner. Dear Lord.
He fished the bugs out of the pitcher and poured a mug for the girl. He tried to hold it to her lips but she shrank away from him.
'It's all right. I won't be hurting you. Take a sip.'
It was several minutes before she obeyed. He returned the mug to its shelf and sat on the edge of the bed. He felt her trembles through the thin mattress.
'All that was for the boys. I just want you to lie with me. Okay?'
He wasn't sure if she understood him, or even if she heard him, but - slowly - she got to her feet and moved a hand to unbutton her dress.
'No need for that. Just lie with me.'
He stretched out on the wretched cot and held out a hand. Another minute or two passed before she hesitantly lay down next to him. He settled her head on his shoulder.
'Mind, you tell anyone about this and I will give you something to cry about.'
The threat was just a precaution, an attempt to maintain his cover, but he felt like a monster when a shudder shook her body. The poor young thing had plenty to cry about already. He knew what it was like to feel dog-tired, weeks in the saddle without a proper night's sleep, dreading what the next day would bring, and he recognized that in her. She was covered in bruises and lumps that probably meant broken bones.
At first she was as stiff as a board, terrified that he would revert to his original plan, but slowly she relaxed. Perhaps half an hour had passed when her fist unclenched and she laid her small hand on his chest. Not too much later, her breathing deepened into sleep. He stroked her unkempt, unwashed hair. There were worse ways to spend his first night in hell.
- 10 -
Back in the saloon, Josiah's three friends played poker and kept their eyes open. No one showed any interest in who they were or what they were doing. It was the kind of place where such interest could get a man shot. As the evening wore on, it became clear that men seeking something other than whisky and poker went through a door behind the bar. Numerous men went in but none came out, making it obvious that they were taken out through another exit when they had paid for the services they required.
Nathan leaned forward to collect his winnings from the last hand.
'Reckon Josiah made the best move. He's probably settled for the night and done his good deed on the way.'
Vin wore an anxious frown when he looked at his friend. 'That girl was right on the edge. Don't see some of 'em comin' through this.' He feared she was the Sister Ruth whom Ida was so determined to save and wondered if they'd be too late for her mind.
Nathan's face mirrored his friend's concern. 'Sure ain't gonna do nothin' for their faith in the Almighty.'
'Don't seem fair,' JD agreed. 'How can somethin' like this happen to ladies like them?'
Nathan gave a grim laugh. 'Don't get Josiah on that one. Folk've argued for years on how a loving God can allow sufferin'. Plenty o' slaves've sure pondered it.'
Vin dragged himself back to the present with determination. 'Yeah, well, we ain't meant to care.' Getting to his feet, he glanced around. 'I'm gonna see if I can take me a look at this place. Keep your heads down, boys.'
He sauntered out of the saloon and made a circuit of the courtyard, checking on their horses as he did so. Even if the nuns had not belonged to a closed order, the building and its location would still have formed a secure and isolated prison. Few men would happen past and, of the few, even fewer would care what went on within its walls. His eye roved along the top of those walls. The bastards running the place were obviously relying on their seclusion and other people's apathy - it wasn't guarded. Nonetheless, trying to take a place of such size, even if there were only a dozen or so staff as Ida thought, was never going to be easy and the number of armed customers around wasn't going to help. Vin had been honest when he said he didn't expect them to defend the place but interrupting an armed man on the job in a confined space was sure to see bullets flying. What they needed-
'Hey! What're yer doin' bucko?'
Vin turned to face his challenger. The man was a couple of inches taller than himself, his skin visibly sunburned even in the poor light, with frizzy red hair poking out from under a crumpled hat. Only his cool gray eyes and steady hand an inch clear of a Remington revolver signaled that he meant business. Two women waited behind him, one standing erect with her head bowed, the other cowering against her.
'Lookin' for someplace to take a piss if you must know.' Vin spoke with a slight slur, just enough to explain his indecisiveness.
There was a split second while the man considered the reply before he broke into a grin. 'Hell, ain't nobody here gonna care where you do it.' He nodded at the wall.
Vin wasn't in the habit of relieving himself in front of anyone, least of all women, but the kind of man he claimed to be was unlikely to have such fine feelings. He swallowed his pride and chose a shadowy spot near the wall. Taking the opportunity to think and knowing the guard had not moved, Vin wondered if he was under suspicion or if the man had nothing better to do with his time. He buttoned up, fumbling to maintain his pretense of being the worse for drink. When he faced the wretched trio again, he saw that the man had an altogether different reason for waiting.
'Just takin' these two back to their rooms. You want one of 'em? Both of 'em?'
Vin looked the women over, remembering Ida's advice on where he should focus his attention and happy to comply with it. He had no wish to look into their frightened eyes.
He shrugged. 'Fact is, I only stopped by for a fella I'm ridin' with. I ain't so keen on 'avin' it indoors.'
The other man frowned, then looked closer at Vin's buckskin jacket and mare's leg. With a knowing laugh, he said, 'Redskins on a hillside, huh?' He studied his captives, then pushed the upright woman forward. 'She's dark enough. Take 'er up there.' He nodded at a flat roof in the corner of the compound. 'Let you 'ave 'er for a buck - won't get it no cheaper.'
Vin studied the woman's body again, buying himself time. The chance to look around that roof was tempting. He rummaged in his pocket and threw a dollar to the man. The man shoved the woman so roughly that she stumbled. Vin grasped her arm with the same resolve he had seen in Josiah earlier, nodded grimly to the man and pushed her toward a stone staircase ahead.
The view from the platform was worth the charade. Vin released his grip on the woman and surveyed his surroundings. The roof was an excellent vantage point, one that might make a difference when the inevitable confrontation came. He mused on how he might arrange to be there at that time; establishing his preference now might prove invaluable later.
Realizing the woman was standing to one side, watching him, wondering why his interest lay elsewhere, he dragged himself back to his role. For the first time, he looked into her eyes and was surprised by what he saw there: calm resignation.
'Ain't you afeared o' me?' he asked.
She shook her head. 'God is testing me, as he tested Job.'
Jesus. Nothing Ida had said in the church prepared Vin for the fact that some of these nuns would accept their fate as part of a divine plan.
'Well, maybe he figures you need a break. Like I said, this ain't my thing.' He sat on a ledge at the back of the roof. The deep shadows there would make them invisible from the ground. In response to his pat on the cool stone, she trotted over and sat beside him. 'Pretty nice up here, huh?'
She looked at him in surprise and then studied the view. Her gaze drifted upwards and settled on the stars. 'Yes. It feels close to God.'
'Wouldn't know,' Vin said truthfully. 'Know a bit about the stars though. Wanna know what you're lookin' at?'
'Yes, I should like that. They are God's handiwork.'
Vin caught a half-smile on his lips. The woman was focused enough to be a gunfighter if she fancied a change of line. He spent the next forty minutes pointing out the constellations and telling her stories he'd heard about them, first from his mother and later in Kiowa and Commanche villages.
When he had exhausted his bank of tales, he gave her a sideways look. 'You go down now, can you turn in or ain't you finished yet?'
She shrugged. 'It depends what is wanted.'
'Wanna stay up here?'
There was a long pause before she nodded slowly.
'Okay. Ain't nowhere I need to be.'
She looked at him, initially puzzled by his compassion but then slowly seeming to understand something.
'You are God's instrument.'
'Been called a lot o' things but that ain't one of 'em.'
She said nothing but nodded firmly, seemingly to herself, then moved closer and leaned against him. Seeing that she was satisfied with her interpretation of his motives and that she would not be questioning his actions or telling anyone about them, he put his arm round her shoulders and shuffled until they were as comfortable as they could get on their perch.
- 11 -
'Don't look like Vin'll be back anytime soon,' Nathan speculated, back in the saloon.
JD was getting edgy. 'Maybe he's hit some trouble.'
'He can take care of himself,' Nathan said firmly. ''Sides, in a place like this, he was in trouble, we'd know about it. He's probably found himself a good spot and wants to keep an eye out. You know Vin.'
JD nodded. He was still concerned but knew Nathan's faith in their friend was justified. 'What we gonna do? Reckon I'll fall over if we sit here much longer.'
Nathan pondered that. He was beat himself and the saloon was slowly emptying out. 'Let's see if we can stable the horses and maybe bed down with 'em. Don't see that'll be any worse than the board round here.'
JD gave him a wry grin. It came to something when good clean horse piss was the best option open to them. His affinity with horses went back further than he could remember and sharing a stall with his gelding held no worries for him. He would far rather sit staring at a horse's backside than have to face any of the women they had seen about the saloon while they played poker.
Twenty minutes later, they'd bagged a corner of the dirty stable and made their steeds as snug as they could. A quick sweep with a broom and armfuls of clean straw from a bale out back saw them fairly comfortable, tucked well out of sight with a clear line of fire if anyone troubled them. Nathan got some biscuits from his saddlebag and they sat side by side, chewing thoughtfully.
'You ever been with a workin' girl, Nate?'
'No. Jus' slavery under another name.'
'Even if they choose it? Like Ida and her Ma?'
Nathan considered the matter. 'Don't know if it's ever a fair choice. Ain't so many ways for a woman to make a livin'. Maybe she gets treated bad by a man and figures she might as well get paid for the privilege. Don't know. Ain't something I want to get into.'
'You reckon the others've been with 'em. Apart from Buck - we know he don't. And Chris - I know he does.'
'Hell, JD, how would I know? Ain't something you ask a man. Leastwise, it ain't something I ask a man.'
Unperturbed, JD continued his reflections. 'I don't reckon they would.'
Nathan smiled at the boy's persistence. 'No, I don't reckon so either. Wouldn't sit well with Josiah and it's beneath Ezra's dignity.'
'And Vin could have any number of ladies if he wanted anyhow.'
'True enough but then he's lookin' for romance.'
JD looked at his friend. 'You think that's why he don't bother much?'
'I know it. Man who writes poetry and falls for women he ain't gonna get is after love, not a roll in the hay.'
'Pity about Ida.'
Nathan nodded. It was a pity about Ida, in more ways than one.
- 12 -
A day from the convent, Chris led Buck and Ezra in the hardest riding they'd done for a while. They had started at a steadier pace, thinking about the long journey facing their horses, but each hour that dragged past brought more images into their minds of what was going on to the southwest. Gradually, unconsciously, they accelerated. During a brief walk to rest the horses, Chris eyed Buck thoughtfully.
'Can't believe you never mentioned her. All these years.'
Buck shrugged. 'Wasn't any too proud how things turned out. Spent a long time tryin' to put her out of my mind - last thing I wanted to do was talk about her.' He coughed. 'Bad business in Kansas. Ain't never had words like that with any woman, before or since. It was when you were down in Mexico for a couple of months, after that trouble with Smithfield. You recall?'
Chris thought about it for a minute. 'Yeah. You were drunk for a week after I got back. Couldn't get any sense out of you. Figured it was over a woman but I never figured it was your sister.'
Buck laughed. 'Don't know too many women can get to me like she can.'
Ezra smiled, knowing all too well what it was like having troublesome women in one's family. 'Well, Buck, you still have the capacity to amaze. I feel confident I can speak for us all when I say that we did not expect to find you closely related to a nun.'
'No one was more surprised than me,' Buck admitted with a grin.
The urged their horses on again, keeping them moving fast until far into the night.
- 13 -
It was halfway to noon before the convent slowly stirred into life. The infiltrators there had been dozing since dawn, none of them comfortable in their squalid quarters but none of them keen to face the sordid world beyond.
Josiah lay still until the girl beside him woke. She had slept deeply through the night and he wondered how long it had been since she last had such rest. When she looked at him, her eyes were still strained and fearful but she had retreated a little from the abyss he knew she'd been staring into the night before.
'All right?' he asked.
'Yes. Thank you.'
'Look, I'll be sticking around a day or two. Want me here tonight?' He had no illusions that she wanted him but it was the only way to avoid someone else.
'Please.' Her voice was a whisper.
'Okay. Stay here. I'll be back later.' Paying did not guarantee her services exclusively for him but it was all he could offer.
Up on the roof, Vin's thoughts ran along similar lines. He wanted to be up on that roof again and his companion was his safest bet. She had risen with the sun for her first set of prayers and was now on the third. He watched her as she knelt, facing east, her lips moving silently. When she finally rose to her feet and caught his eye on her, she smiled.
'I prayed for you, brother. God will watch over you.'
'You reckon I need help?'
'We all need God's help. You are not the kind of man who comes here. You look around with a purpose. I have faith it is God's purpose.'
So much for his cover.
'I gotta purpose all right,' he admitted. 'But it ain't gonna be easy.'
'Is there some way in which I might help?'
Vin studied her for a minute then made the decision to trust her.
'This is a hel a good spot. I wanna be up here when things start movin'. You're the best chance I got.'
She nodded. 'You can buy me for as long as you want. I will wait with you, watch with you.'
'Fair enough. Stay here. I'll go find that fella from last night.'
In the stable, Nathan and JD got stiffly to their feet and started with their horses' care. When they were done, they headed for the saloon. Minutes later, they picked at poor breakfasts while they waited on Josiah and Vin.
- 14 -
After only a few hours sleep, Chris, Buck and Ezra hit the trail in the first rays of the rising sun. For the first time his friends could recall, Ezra made no complaint about the hour. He was as resolute as they were, and it showed in the set of his shoulders and the angle of his jaw.
Their noon stop was as short as they could risk, taken more for the horses than themselves.
'Reckon we can make it by nightfall,' Chris ventured. That was half a day better than they'd dared to hope and moved their assault forward by a full twenty-four hours. They'd make their move in the dead of night, under cover of darkness and after most of the evening's activity had subsided.
- 15 -
Dusk that night saw the three riders approach the convent, only a day behind their comrades after all. Although they swept down from the north as Vin had expected, they passed half a mile east of where Ida waited patiently, hoping to intercept them. Chris handed Rudi's note to the gatekeeper. The tall wooden gate swung open, its hinges creaking ominously.
'Down, down to hell and say I sent thee thither,' Ezra muttered under his breath.
'You sound like Josiah,' Buck said with a grin. 'You'll be prayin' next.'
'That was Shakespeare, Philistine. Henry the sixth, to be precise.'
Chris smiled in spite of himself. What a strange group they made.
Their arrival was communicated by unknown means to those in charge of what Chris had described as the better side of the operation. A man came out of the shadows to take their horses.
'Evenin', gentl'men. Go through that door,' he nodded to a corner of the compound. 'Up the stairs, first door on your right.'
They did as he said, alert but not expecting trouble. When they reached the upstairs corridor, Chris rapped firmly on the first door. A man's voice bade them enter, just as Rudi had in Julestown. When they did so, they faced a far more hardened man than Rudi. He was just over six feet in height and just past forty in age. There was something in his impatient eye and brisk nod that told them two things: his interest in the operation was pecuniary and he did not share his clients' tastes in leisure activities.
Chris assessed the man quickly, knowing he could not afford his customary direct stare and obvious evaluation of an opponent. What he saw did not reassure him. A dissolute man, distracted and destroyed by his vices, would be far easier to take on than the disinterested professional he recognized in front of him now. The two men behind him were run-of-the-mill hired guns; Chris doubted they'd present much of a problem.
'Good evening, sirs. Friends of Rudi's?'
Chris nodded, keeping to himself the revulsion he felt at the notion of being friends with a man like Rudi. He gauged his own response and opted for slight embarrassment.
'He told us you offer some unusual lines in entertainment.'
'Oh, yes, highly specialized. Rudi advised me of your preferences by wire.' The man examined the note they had handed in at the gate: someone must have run through with it. 'I'm sure we can provide satisfaction but I regret I must ask you to settle your debt first.'
Chris reached into his pocket. The stooges watched him like hawks but made no move for their guns.
'How much?' Chris asked.
'I'm sure Rudi appraised you of the sum outstanding. One hundred and fifty dollars.'
Chris tossed more of Ida's savings into the hands of leeches.
'Thank you. Your rooms are ready, with refreshments prepared. You are welcome to avail yourself of any of our facilities but I should warn you that some of our passing trade may not be to your liking. You may prefer to stay in your rooms. If there is anything else you require, please do not hesitate to summon a maid.'
He showed them to the door, where an older woman was waiting to take them to their rooms.
'Follow me, please,' she said meekly.
'Not to our likin' ' Buck growled as they walked but fell quiet at a sharp look from Chris.
Ezra's room came first. He followed the woman over the threshold and appraised his surroundings. His manner was condescending but, in truth, the room was better than he had expected. It was clean and adequately furnished, with a freshly made bed and a ewer and basin on a washstand. A cold supper and selection of drinks were laid out attractively on a sideboard.
'Please make yourself comfortable,' the woman instructed. 'The ladies will be along shortly.'
She repeated the exercise for Buck and then Chris. All three men used their time alone to examine their rooms. Buck's window looked out over open country and was unlikely to be of any value. Chris and Ezra both had views over the compound, Chris's from a small corner window through which he had no hope of exiting but Ezra's through a door opening onto a fine Spanish-styled balcony.
Once he had completed his initial familiarization, Ezra took a few minutes to clean up. He didn't enjoy being covered in trail dust and his cover did not require it. He was just buttoning up his shirt when there was a light tap at the door. He quickly put on his waistcoat and jacket, checked himself in the looking glass and ran his fingers through his hair, then answered the door.
The same woman had returned, this time with two negresses on her arms. The girls were identical twins, perhaps in their mid twenties, and very beautiful. Ezra was surprised to catch that thought going through his mind. He had not grown up with slaves to fulfil his every whim and, while he bore the traces of a Southerner's attitude to coloreds, he was more consistent than some. He had never subscribed to the view that they were animals when it came to their rights but humans when it came to their suitability as bedmates. Now that he had ridden with a negro for a year and a half, slowly discovering him to be as loyal and courageous as any man, he was no longer sure what he thought.
Cutting his reverie short, Ezra stepped back and waved the girls in.
'Will there be anything else, sir?' the woman inquired.
'No, I believe these arrangements are most satisfactory. Good night.'
'Good night, sir.'
Ezra studied his guests, wondering how to handle the coming hours.
'Would you young ladies care to join me in some supper?'
The girls were clearly surprised at the invitation, giggling to each other and then again at him. Finally, they nodded and sat side by side on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to do the honors. He passed each of them a plate laden with an assortment of food. The eagerness with which they dispatched his offerings did not escape him: they were not used to having edible food or enough of it. He plied them with more until they were sated, eating only lightly himself.
'Drinks?' He waved a hand at the bottles.
That made them giggle again, clearly shocked at the thought of drinking hard liquor. He poured brandies for them and winked kindly. 'It'll keep you warm at night.'
They sipped cautiously, huge brown eyes fixed on him.
'Don't you have tongues?'
Another giggle. Then the bolder of the two pushed the tip of her tongue past her lips for a moment. They were like girls of fifteen Ezra reflected, before realizing that life in a convent would have taught them nothing about men and that, in terms of experience, they probably had been about that age before current events overtook them. He put the plates and glasses back on the sideboard and set about dragging a heavy couch out onto the balcony. When he was satisfied with the vista, he sat in the middle and pulled one girl close on each side. He was the customer and it was up to him what he did with his purchases. Their time in this dump must have given them some idea what men wanted but he doubted they'd know what to think if his requirements were different.
Along the corridor, Buck welcomed a sinewy blonde into his room. Before her current incarceration, she must have done hard work of some kind because he felt a firm bicep when he caught her arm. His room was equipped with a couple of buckets and a waxed cotton groundsheet. He had no plan for dealing with the situation, being neither aroused nor repulsed by the services his sister had suggested for him. The only decision he had reached was that he would not have intercourse with a nun - as close as he had to but not that last step.
Like Ezra, he started by offering refreshments to the woman. He saw the temptation in her eyes but then caught her swift glance at the buckets. She'd been pumped full of water as a prelude to meeting his needs. Seeing a folded screen against one wall, Buck set it up and put a bucket in the corner enclosed by it.
'Don't you want ' her voice tailed off.
'Don't ask no questions, you won't hear no lies,' Buck told her.
She looked at him for a full minute, then nodded and accepted his courtesy. He couldn't help but hear and wondered how much she'd been made to eat and drink for his pleasure. When she'd finished, she washed her hands delicately in the washbasin and looked to him for instruction.
'Fancy some grub then?' Buck's hospitality was less refined than Ezra's but its recipient was just as grateful. The couple sat on facing armchairs, working their way through every last morsel. When they'd finished, she curled up on his lap and was soon asleep. He wasn't particularly surprised by her faith in him: he'd been around women for as long as he could remember and they were always easy in his company.
Chris awaited his guest with trepidation. Ida had been right when she said he was a hard man, and he wasn't above enjoying thrashing a man if he felt it was deserved, but he had never laid a rough hand on a woman and had no intention of starting with a nun. The woman brought to him was older than he expected, perhaps in her late thirties, but he immediately saw in her eyes why she had been selected. The self-loathing there told him that she had become a nun because of her torments: the haunted look had nothing to do with the hell-hole in which she was now imprisoned. She would welcome all the pain and humiliation he could heap on her as penance for whatever she had done or believed she had done.
Like Buck's, his room boasted special equipment. There was a rack in which an assortment of whips and clubs was arrayed. Coiled ropes and leather thongs offered him a choice of ways in which to restrain and abuse his captive. He had come with no intention of doing so, wondering how to evade the issue. Now he faced a new problem: this woman might not even thank him for sparing her. He gave a curt nod at the bed, taking time to think while she obeyed his order.
'Hell, can't make an omelet without breakin' eggs,' he told himself.
He picked the most pliable of the leather thongs and bound the woman to the bed. He blindfolded and gagged her, securely but no tighter than necessary, and then stood back. If anyone came by, it would look convincing enough. She wasn't in a position to say anything before they made their move and afterwards it wouldn't matter.
He inspected the row of whips, chose one he felt comfortable with, and proceeded to lay into one of the overstuffed armchairs with a vengeance. The noise would assure passers-by that all was well and the exertion would get rid of some of his pent-up fury and leave him cooler for their task.
In a cell not two hundred yards away, Josiah lay beside the sad young girl, using his presence to protect her from more evil. High above, Vin and his faithful companion sat hand-in-hand, having watched from their vantage point first the arrival of his friends and later Ezra lording it on his balcony. Nathan and JD looked on from the shadows outside the saloon. All the men were in place, with a fair combined knowledge of the layout and routine of the establishment they sought to shut down. Now they had only to act.
- 16 -
Chris checked his captive wasn't going anywhere and then made his way back to Buck's room. Every muscle in his body was tense, and his ears strained for any movement, but no observer would have known it. He paused casually in the corridor, lit a cheroot, looking for all the world like a man who had met his physical needs and now sought the company of his friends.
At the soft tap on his door, Buck stood with the woman still in his arms and laid her gently on the bed. She stirred but did not wake. He let his friend in and locked the door behind him.
'Okay?' There was concern in the tall man's eyes: he had not wanted the sadistic role for himself.
Chris drew on the cheroot. 'She wouldn'ta cared if I'd beaten her to death. Matter of fact, reckon I'da been doin' her a favor.'
With an effort, the fair man lightened up. 'Hell, even we can't set the whole world to rights, Buck.' He looked over at the sleeping woman. 'How 'bout her?'
'Seems to be holdin' up pretty well, ready for whatever came, pleased when it didn't.'
As low as their voices were, they still woke the woman. She sat up and stared at them, curious but not disturbed.
'Need you to wait here, sweetheart. Like I just stepped out. Can you do that for me?'
She nodded, stood and removed her dress and petticoats, then climbed into bed.
'Good girl. Let's go find Ez.'
Ezra had whiled away the hours on the balcony teaching his consorts how to play poker. Playing them engaged less than half his brain and he used the spare capacity to monitor every movement around the compound. He noted Vin's surveillance from the roof, watched while JD and Nathan wandered between the saloon and casino, saw to their horses and generally sized up the whole place. His keen ear now caught Chris's tap on his door.
'Wait here, ladies.'
He stood back to let his friends pass and locked the door again. They looked around the room, wondering for a moment what he had done with his prizes. He inclined his head to the balcony.
'We have been admiring the view.' He led Chris and Buck to the window beside the door, allowing them to see without being seen from a distance. The girls on the couch saw they had company and reverted to their giggles.
Buck looked at them and the playing cards, then raised his eyebrows. Ezra shrugged. 'I've been teaching them poker.' He lowered his voice. 'They are somewhat younger than they look, when it comes to ' He cleared his throat. 'Were you gentlemen successful in circumventing your obligations unobtrusively?'
Buck grinned at Chris and said, 'We ain't been givin' nuns a shot, if that's what you mean.'
'Quite so. I have been fortunate in being assigned such well-appointed accommodation. Mr Tanner is on the flat roof in that corner of the compound.' He waved a hand to indicate the direction. 'He is in the company of a young lady who is presumably providing his cover. I suspect, from their demeanor, that she is aware that he is not what he claims. She has been keeping watch with him.'
'The others?' Chris asked.
'Nathan and JD have been drifting around the drinking and gambling emporiums. Like Mr Tanner, they are aware of our presence in general and my location here in particular. By now, they must have a good knowledge of the premises, along with its routines and customers. I have not seen Josiah at all.'
Buck held up a hand in a sharp gesture for quiet. There was a rustle in the dead vines below the balcony. He and Chris drew their guns and stepped back out of sight. Ezra waited to see what would follow. A man's hand grabbed the top rail. Its small size confirmed what Ezra already suspected.
'Good evening, son. Is the door too conventional for you?'
JD hauled himself over the dark side of the balcony, close to the wall and all but invisible to even the keenest observer.
'Hey, Ezra. Ladies.' His manner was casual, as though their current circumstances were the most natural in the world. 'Chris and Buck?'
'Through here,' Buck said gruffly. 'Glad to see you ain't got yourself killed yet.'
JD grinned, recognizing the man's concern for him. 'Hope you been keepin' your mind on the job.'
'Day comes I have to take it 'gainst a lady's will, I'll hang myself.' His tone was light but his companions knew he meant what he said. 'How's it been goin'?'
'You seen Vin?' JD checked. When they nodded, the boy expanded. 'The lady with him is fine. She knows we're up to somethin' - she's doin' what she can to help.'
Ezra nodded at the confirmation of his own impression.
'Me and Nathan been driftin' around, sizin' the place up. It's pretty much how you see.' He pointed out the drinking and gambling areas on the two long sides of the courtyard. 'There are rooms like this upstairs along both sides but we ain't seen much smart trade comin' in. The rough trade mostly pays through a room out back o' this saloon.' He tapped the floor with his foot. 'But it gets pretty hit and miss later, with 'em jus' sellin' ladies to anyone who passes. That side ,' he indicated the darker wing facing the main gate, 'Is where the ladies are kept the rest o' the time.' He thought for a second more before adding, 'We moved our horses out back o' the stable, case someone decides to take 'em in the confusion, and we put yours with 'em.'
'What about Josiah?' It was Chris who asked after their missing companion.
JD's face darkened. 'There's a lady who ain't holdin' up so well. Josiah stayed with her last night and he's over there now.' The boy nodded at the nuns' quarters.
Buck ground his teeth so hard that his friends heard the sound. 'I'm gonna enjoy makin' these sons-of-bitches pay.' The words were closer to a grizzly's growl than to a man's voice.
'He knows you're here though, waitin' for us to move.'
'Okay. How many men you seen?' Chris checked.
'Ida was about right, around the dozen, and pretty sharp. Vin reckoned the one he bought his lady off is a pro. We ain't seen who's in charge though.'
'Fella's got an office back there.' Buck nodded to where they had met the man. 'Same story: cool, hard, businesslike. What about the priest Ide told us about - you seen him?'
'Nope. Well, not to know it but then the ladies ain't dressed like nuns so I don't guess he'd be dressed like a priest.'
'True enough,' Buck admitted.
'So, how we gonna play it?' JD asked.
Chris thought for a minute. 'Don't see we got too much trouble, so long as the customers don't join in.' After another pause, he settled on a plan. 'Right. One, take out the fella in charge. Me and Buck'll see to that. Two, get that gate open so them as wanna run can - last thing we need is a load of cornered Purgatorians. JD, you and Nathan handle that. Three, take out as many guards as we can and hope for the best.'
His closing words made them all smile grimly. 'Good plan, Chris,' Buck mocked.
Chris couldn't keep the smile from his own face. Even with their skill and experience, they often had to depend on some luck and this little show was not going to be any different. 'Ezra, you stay up here and back up Vin. I wanna stop the low-lifes that've been runnin' this place and encourage the rest to go.'
Ezra nodded his understanding.
'JD, afore you and Nathan get down to business, tell Vin and Josiah what's goin' down. Josiah may as well stay where he is and deal with any other men over in that wing once we make our move. Tell Vin to let the shit flow and just stop the staff. Okay?'
JD nodded and hopped nimbly over the balcony.
The two girls still sat on the couch, watching his exit with wide eyes. Ezra considered their presence.
'I'd prefer to get them well out of the way,' he told Chris. 'As I said, they're a little immature.'
Chris nodded, wondering whether to bind them as he had his own companion. Buck caught his doubt and shook his head. 'Let's take 'em along to my room. My young lady'll keep an eye on them.'
Unsure at the wisdom of depending on any of the imprisoned women, Chris hesitated but, recalling her self-possessed manner and her calm obedience in response to Buck's instructions, he agreed. They waited while Ezra followed JD's nigh invisible progress, first to Vin and then Josiah, and finally into the saloon to link up with Nathan. It was some minutes before Ezra detected the boy and the negro in the shadows near the gate.
'All in position,' he confirmed to Chris.
After checking the corridor carefully, Chris and Buck ushered the girls along to Buck's room. His young lady, as he called her, readily agreed to keep an eye on them, locking the door after the men left and steeling herself for the coming showdown.
Chris looked at Buck as he had before more confrontations than he could recall, from the war to their carousing days, through his marriage and since.
'As I'll ever be,' Buck smiled.
They walked stealthily toward the office at the top of the stairs. On his way, Chris picked up a sack of refuse that someone had left in the corridor. It was a fair weight, enough for his purposes. When they reached the door, they took position either side of it and then Chris tossed the sack at the base of the door. It landed with a satisfying thud.
'What the-?' an unfamiliar man's voice asked.
'Check it out. Carefully.' Chris recognized the voice of the man with whom they had dealt earlier.
The door opened and there was a pause while the guard evaluated the sack at his feet. He leaned out just as his employer warned him again to watch out. Buck cracked the butt of his gun over the man's head and swept him easily through the door, dumping him to one side and hitting him again for good measure.
Chris knew the man in the office was too smart to come out. He had known it would be difficult to take him without firing a shot, and thus sending up the alarm, and now wondered if it was even possible. The first question was whether there was another guard inside.
After a moment's wait, it became clear that the stand-off could last long enough to be dangerous. Someone might come along the corridor at any time. Buck picked up the man he had dropped and hefted him until he formed a maneuverable shield. Too fast for Chris to stop him, he swept into the office and ran at the desk, throwing the guard onto the man behind it. Chris backed up his friend instinctively. If there was a second guard, they could be in trouble. If not, they stood a chance.
Seconds later, they stood over the unconscious body of the ringleader, wondering just how they had succeeded in subduing him without a sound. They looked around quickly, sizing up the disturbance. It was minimal and that was worth exploiting. Buck hurriedly found an empty room while Chris fetched ropes from his own. The woman on the bed did not move and, for a fleeting moment, he wondered if the fear had finished her off but a quick inspection revealed her slow steady breathing - Chris had never seen someone sleep so soundly while bound and gagged before.
He returned to Buck, finding his friend had already moved the bodies into the empty room, restored the office to order and closed the door. With luck, anyone coming in now might simply assume their employer was elsewhere. Such ruses bought the minutes that could be life or death to men like themselves. They bound their captives tightly, Chris pulling the ropes with every ounce of the force he had earlier spared the woman. Locking the door behind them, they congratulated themselves on a successful first stage. They returned to Ezra only long enough to communicate their success so that he could signal JD and Nathan and then headed for the stairs, resuming their guise of satisfied customers casually taking the air.
Squatting down only twenty paces from the gate, Nathan and JD watched Ezra on his balcony.
'There it is,' Nathan said softly as their friend leaned on the rail and lit a cigar.
He and JD had already sized up the two men at the gate, finding them to be sober and effective but not particularly daunting. They were expecting a threat to come from the outside, not by stealth from behind them. It took longer to bind them securely than it had to throttle them into unconsciousness. Nathan and JD opened the gates, wedging them back firmly with kindling from a logpile.
On the roof above, Vin watched events unfold.
'You sit back there, Miss. Don't want you takin' a bullet.'
'God's will be done.'
'All right.' She sat in the shadows, remembering the stranger's stories of the stars and praying for him again.
Chris and Buck stood outside the saloon. Nathan and JD worked their way round to the casino. Now it was a matter of waiting for the right moment. That came when two guards came out of the nuns' quarters and headed across the courtyard. It was a few seconds before one of them spotted the open gates.
Vin and Ezra had been watching, their guns trained on the guards, and fired before the alarm was raised. As always, Vin's aim was flawless: his two bullets lodged in identical positions in the men's right thighs. Only half as far as Vin from their targets, Ezra caught one man square in the left thigh but winged the other. Their shots launched the offensive. Chris and Buck picked off guards from the men that came out of the saloon while Nathan and JD did the same at the casino opposite. Now that their quarry had guns in hand, the infiltrators had no problem with killing them if required.
Inside the nuns' quarters, Josiah had been standing quietly by the girl's window. After JD's update, he saw nothing but knew the action would not be long in coming. He looked at the girl, sitting subdued in the lamplight. It would be a long time before her scars healed but he had hope that they would. He thanked the Lord for bringing them to her before she broke, doubting that she could have coped with another night of fear and cruelty alone. She now knew what they were here to do and he no longer feared she would get in their way.
As soon as he saw Vin and Ezra ready to fire on the guards, he moved to the door and checked out the corridor. He had already listened carefully at all the doors, establishing that there were at least ten men with women in the cells and preparing himself to deal with them. Within seconds of the gunfire starting, men spilled into the corridor. Josiah waited until they were all headed for the door and then followed behind, ready to move them on or shoot them as circumstance dictated.
To start with, there was nothing for him to do. Assuming the noise to be a raid by the law, the customers wanted only to get to their horses and get out. In no time at all, the courtyard was a heaving mass of men on foot heading for stables and hitching rails and men on horseback heading for the open gates. His friends were doing a good job of picking out the guards they'd identified and letting the other shit flow, as Chris had so eloquently put it.
Vin watched the exodus calmly. He knew from his hours on the roof which men were guards and he surveyed the mêlée for any that might have got through. Only twice did he need to intervene, with well-placed shots that disabled without killing.
As the momentum of the men in front of him ebbed, Josiah let off a series of shots to keep them moving. Most resumed their flight with renewed vigor. Only one man turned back to plead pathetically with the gunman behind him.
'Don't shoot me. I'm a priest.' Little did the sniveling wretch know but those were the last words in the world he should have uttered.
Josiah had been doing his job, with the same calm dedication as he showed whenever his services were required. Those words ignited his fury as surely as a man's hand raised to a woman ignited Buck's. He strode forward, grasped the man by the throat in one mighty hand and forced him back against the building.
He punctuated the question by banging the man's head against the wall.
'Then why are you alive?'
'Why didn't you protect these women?'
'You should have laid down your life for them.'
'Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life '
'He who seeks to save his life shall lose it '
It was Nathan who caught Josiah's arm.
'Enough, Josiah. He ain't feelin' it no more.'
The big man started, as if out of a dream, examined his captive and then dropped him. The priest wasn't dead but Nathan was right - he certainly wasn't in any condition to feel anything.
Josiah and Nathan looked around slowly. The last of the customers were streaming out through the gate under Vin's careful eye. Guards were dotted around, some wounded, some dead, few conscious.
Women began to emerge cautiously from doors around the courtyard, studying their former captors and their rescuers with the same wide-eyed confusion. Nathan and Josiah gathered them in the saloon, Nathan seeing to their injuries and Josiah offering words of comfort and hope. It was more than half an hour before the other men had checked the place over to their satisfaction, binding their prisoners and freeing women that they found captive around the place.
When he was sure it was safe, Vin returned to his rooftop and sent the promised signal. Up on the ridge, Ida was waiting impatiently after watching what had happened. Only her word to Vin kept her from rushing down as soon as the gunfire stopped. She had been mounted for more than quarter of an hour when she finally saw the two pairs of flashes from a lantern. She flew down the slope and across the valley, without a thought for any danger the fleeing men might pose. She rode into the courtyard at a gallop and barely managed to stop before colliding with her friends who were assembling captives there.
Ida looked around, seeing how efficiently Buck and the others had dealt with her former jailers, without any injury to themselves as far as she could detect. Relief swept over her as she saw them intact, caring for all of them but especially for her brother and her friend. She hugged first Buck and then Vin, squeezing them so tightly that their first injuries threatened to be cracked ribs.
'Thank God Thank you all.' She looked up at Vin. 'Ruth?'
He looked at Josiah uncomfortably, not having seen the girl since the previous night. Before either man could speak, Ida looked past Vin to the saloon.
The two women flew forward and clung to each other. When they rejoined the men, the lines between Vin's eyebrows conveyed his confusion.
'That ain't is that Ruth?'
Ida nodded, holding the hand of the woman who had kept vigil with Vin for the past twenty-four hours. He slowly realized that he had never asked her name. It hadn't even occurred to him that the calm, pious woman could be Ida's friend. He would never have guessed that a sixteen-year-old could show such fortitude. Hearing his own thoughts he realized that was precisely why she had reminded Ida of herself, far older than her years.
'Are you all right?' Ida asked her.
The girl gave a slight nod. 'As He sent you to be my comfort, so God sent this man to be my shield.' She smiled to Vin.
Ida returned the nod. 'I asked for help and He heard my prayer.'
Laughing at the surprise in Ida's voice, Ruth gently chided her. 'Did you doubt that He would, sister?'
Ida's only reply was to hold her friend's hand more firmly.
- 17 -
Within a week, a federal marshal arrived with his deputies to take the men for trial. Church representatives came to escort the nuns to their destinations. Ida's fears about the extent of the conspiracy proved groundless: the exploitation of her sisters was thanks solely to one greedy entrepreneur and one corrupt priest.
Their work done, the seven men led horses from the stables and prepared for the journey home. Ida and Ruth came to bid them farewell, now dressed in the stark black and white vestments of their calling.
Ida and Buck embraced warmly.
'Goin' back to your old convent?' Buck asked.
'Yes, we both are. Visit sometime. Please.'
'I will.' He smiled down at her. 'I'm glad we're okay again. An' sorry it took somethin' like this. The others gonna be okay?'
'It'll take time. Some are going back to their families, some to their convents. This place will be shut down. It could never be safe again, with the reputation it has now.'
'What about ?' Chris glanced at two women outside the saloon who were visibly pregnant. Only time would tell how many others faced that fate.
The answer came from the Mother Superior of Ida's old convent, come to take her daughters home. 'The Church will help, whether they wish to keep the babies or find new families for them. God bless you, my sons. We owe you a great debt of gratitude for what you have done here.'
Ida turned to Vin. 'I owe you the greatest debt of all. The only man who has ever been my friend. Knowing you has made me understand that there are outsiders worth meeting - I shall be a better nun.'
He nodded sadly, biting back the words he wanted to say.
Understanding his sadness, she sought to reassure him. 'The Bible says that a friend loveth at all times and a brother is born for adversity.' She stepped forward and kissed him, long and lovingly, letting him take her in his arms as he had so wanted to do. When he finally released her, she gave a mischievous smile. 'That'll cost me a few Hail Marys.'
Vin touched the brim of his hat to Sister Ruth and swung into his saddle. With one last look at Ida, he fell in beside Buck and they led their little band out through the gates. Waiting just long enough for his tears to clear, Vin glanced across at Buck and saw the emotions fighting in his friend's face too. They grinned at each other and urged their horses onward - time to get back to their town, their lives.
Ida and Ruth stood side by side, watching until they could no longer see even a twist of dust in the distance.
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