Mary Travis was sleeping in the small bedroom that occupied the back room of her newspaper office. She was exhausted, and needed to sleep deeply and peacefully, but her sleep was troubled and full of nightmarish visions: JD, battered and bleeding against a too-red brick wall; Chris, no longer a human being but a snarling, uncontrollable animal, chased away from her by the ghostly apparitions of the townspeople who, in her dreams, turned on her as well. And over it all, woven through her disturbed mind like a dark thread, a formless terror, a relentless awareness that everything was changing, vanishing, that the earth was falling from beneath her feet, and she couldn't stop it. She couldn't -
Mary opened her eyes, stared into the moonlit darkness of her bedroom. Something had awakened her, she realized drowsily; what was it?
There it was again. Someone was knocking on the front door of her office.
Mary struggled to wake up enough to get out of the narrow bed. No, not knocking, pounding, hammering almost frantically. She looked at her small bedside clock; twelve-thirty. Groping for her robe in the darkness, Mary found it, pulled it over her nightgown as the knocking continued, and hurriedly padded through her darkened office toward the double doors.
The knocking stopped as soon as Mary unlocked the door. Opening it, she was surprised to see Gloria Potter, fully dressed, and looking very upset. Before Mary could get a word out of her startled mind, Gloria almost pushed past her into the unlit office and swiftly closed the door.
Before Mary could find her voice to protest, Mrs. Potter said in heavy tones, "Mr. Tanner's been arrested."
Mary hummed with shock. No, wait a minute, maybe she was still dreaming. Rubbing her eyes, she said the only thing she could think of. "What?"
Gloria paused, then looked around the gloom, which was relieved only by the dim moonlight in the streets outside. Quickly, the older woman caught up a lantern that was sitting on a nearby table and, taking a match from a nearby box, lit it.
Mary squinted against the sudden bright light, but Gloria seemed to be unaffected by it as she turned up the wick. Her face was stern, set as she repeated, "Mr. Tanner's been taken to the jail for shooting Mr. Conklin."
Now Mary was fully awake, and stunned. She gaped at her friend. "Shooting Mr. - are you sure?"
Gloria nodded soberly. "I was up doing my books when I heard a gunshot from down the street. I went out to see what happened, and saw Mr. Townsend taking Mr. Tanner to the jail. He told me Mr. Tanner interfered with Mr. Conklin's lawkeeping duties and shot him when he tried to do his job."
Mary felt like laughing, but her stomach hurt too much. She fought for words, merely gasped for a few moments before saying, "Oh, now - now that's just absurd, Gloria! You and I both know Mr. Tanner would never do such a thing."
"We do." Gloria said flatly, "But they don't. I saw some men by the saloon giving Mr. Tanner the evil eye when we all went past. And Mr. Conklin isn't going to let this matter set till the judge gets into town, I can promise you that. Mr. Tanner's friends will be hard put to keep him from getting hung."
Mary blanched, stared at her friend for some reassurance, but found none. She sputtered, "Oh, my God. What can we do?"
"Nothing." Gloria sighed. "Nothing but pray that nothing happens until tomorrow, when Orin arrives. And once Conklin is finished driving the rest of Mr. Larabee's men out , pray that the outlaws don't notice we'll hardly have law in this town."
"Oh." Mary sighed helplessly, and for no reason she could think of began to look around her office, as if the answers to this sudden crisis were in there somewhere. No, she couldn't stand around while this was happening, she couldn't just stand there while - suddenly she turned around and began almost running toward her room.
Gloria caught her arm, gently but firmly. "What are you doing?"
Mary looked at her, confused. "Why, I'm - I've got to go to the jail, get Mr. Tanner out. Mr. Townsend respects me, he'll understand if I tell him it was all a - "
"No." Gloria's grip tightened, her face stern in the dim lantern light.
Mary fought her hold, getting angry now. "Gloria, I can help Vin! Conklin's a suspicious old fool - "
"Listen to me!" Gloria's hand became an iron vise, and Mary winced under its clench as Gloria said, "You can't be seen helping Mr. Tanner, or any of them. Conklin's a fool, but he's running things right now, and if you cross him you'll be next."
Mary's eyes widened; but she shook her head. "Gloria, that's crazy! Everybody here knows me, they wouldn't turn me out, not with the newspaper and - "
"You'll lose the newspaper," Gloria said with finality. "They'll come in here with torches and burn this place to the ground before the judge even gets here. They're scared, Mary, and Conklin is making them more scared. He's already got the town fathers half-convinced you're a starry-eyed fool hypnotized by Mr. Larabee into helping him escape. They think you're in cahoots with him."
Mary's jaw hit the floor, she was sure of it. "Gloria, that's - Chris didn't escape! He left out of concern for his own safety!"
"And he was right to do so." Gloria finally relaxed her hold on Mary's arm, stood back a bit and regarded her sadly. "Sometimes I'm ashamed to live in such a small-minded town. Lord knows I don't want my children to grow up like these narrow-minded people. But we have to be careful, Mary, you and me and the folks who don't think this is right. We have to keep our distance, not give them any more reason to suspect us too. And it won't be easy."
Mary nodded blindly. She had a horrible headache. She cast her eyes around the office, flickering golden in the lantern light, and a sudden, horrible image came, flames and curling paper, smoke and the hiss of burning wood, everything she and Stephen had, gone.
Gloria looked at the floor, pursed her lips, then said, "I'm sorry, Mary, I really am. You've given a lot to this town. You don't deserve what's happening to you."
Mary gazed around the office again, the lantern throwing huge shadows on the walls, thought of Stephen, and Chris, and JD. Then thought of Vin, sitting in jail, wrongly accused, she was sure of it. But what could she do? If only Stephen was here...
Then she heard, in the corners of her mind, a familiar chuckle. Stephen's laughter, his voice full of admiration, saying to her as he often had, what do you need a corset for, Mary? Your backbone's already made of steel.
That's right, Mary thought in wonder, as if it were dawning on her for the first time. It is, isn't it...
Gloria noticed the change in Mary's face, said uncertainly, "Mary? Did you hear me?"
"Yes," Mary said as if in a dream, not looking at her friend. Then, after a moment, she turned to her friend and her voice was a little stronger as she added, "Yes, Gloria, I did. I did, and you know what? You're right. I've given everything I have for this town and I'll be damned if I let them squander it because of their stupidity and superstition." She walked resolutely to her desk, opened drawers, went looking for things.
Gloria stepped closer. "What are you doing, Mary?"
"I run a newspaper, don't I?" Mary answered, feeling her spirits lifting. Yes, this was it. She found her notebook, grabbed some pens. "I need to write a story about our brave sheriff and his search for truth and justice. Facts, Gloria. Facts!"
Gloria cocked her head. "Now, don't do anything rash - "
"Why not?" Mary asked archly, "Conklin is. He's ready to throw this town to the wolves, and for what? To satisfy his own selfish, stupid pride!"
Gloria's jaw dropped. But she didn't deny it.
"Well," Mary said firmly as she flipped through her notebook, "I'm tired of standing by and watching our esteemed city fathers turn Four Corners into a ghost town. If there's any way at all I can even slow this down, I'm going to do it. Oh, I'll be decorous and respectful of the men I dare not raise my eyes to, but I'm going to fight this. And I'm going to get this town back from those idiots if it takes the last breath in my body. And don't you dare tell me there's nothing I can do, Gloria. Because I won't believe you."
+ + + + + + +
Vin paced slowly back and forth across the small space in his cell, and thought.
Gerald had brought him there not an hour before, and already Vin was restless, frantic to get out. But no, some dramatic jailbreak would only make things worse. And they did not need worse right now.
Vin had taken off his hat and jacket and tossed them into the corner. As he walked in circles in the small cell he ran one hand repeatedly through his long hair. He glanced up; of course, Gerald waswatching him. Vin knew he scared the man, actually felt a little sorry for him. It wasn't any kind of love of the law or desire to see things set right that had made Gerald Townsend take the deputy's position, and Vin knew it. It was common fear, and pride, and a stubborn belief that even an ignorant towns person was a better peace keeper than a hired gun. That was a lie, and Gerald knew it, but he wasn't about to let on that he did. He'd keep putting on the front, giving Vin a little half-hearted glare every so often, then sit at the sheriff's desk and rustle papers, pretending he was doing something. It was all a sham, and the nonsense of it made Vin angry.
But you played right into it. Vin sighed as he sat down heavily on the cot and rubbed his face. One stupid accident, and you're the trigger-happy outlaw Conklin always thought you were. A self- serving 'witness' and Conklin's pride are all it takes to put you on the unwelcome end of a hangman's noose. Chris isn't around to pick on; guess you'll have to do.
Chris. Vin sat back on the cot, groaned a bit as the reality of everything that had happened in the last three days swept over him. How in the hell had things gotten so insane? It couldn't have been just last week that they'd had that all-night poker game, could it? No, it had been too happy. Vin remembered Chris and Buck sharing some laugh at JD's expense, something about women, and JD had turned to Nathan for support, but the healer had said only that the youth should take gambling tips from Ezra. Everybody saw the way your face fell when you saw you didn't even have a jack, Nathan had joked. And everyone had laughed.
Had they? Was that possible? Vin stared mildly at the metal bars that now marked the limits of his freedom. Yes, they had. It had been a good time, seven men who a year ago wouldn't have looked at each other twice on the street, enjoying some company and poker and a little pretending that life wasn't so bad.
A week? Impossible. It was a lifetime ago.
Vin sat and thought that he could now say he hadn't had a pleasant thought in four days. Just darkness and rumination. What to do, how to keep things from falling apart, and what are you going to do, Vin, when Chris comes back? Now, there's a good question. Say you get out of this; say the witness recants, the judge shows up and lets you out, but there's Chris standing on the outskirts of town. Who will he be now that this has happened? What frame of mind will he be in? Buck had ranted that Chris had denied that he ever hurt JD, then it was JD's fault for trying to help him. Josiah had said Chris was full of guilt and remorse. So who would come back? The stubborn, rampaging drunk, or the hollow-eyed, crushed penitent? And could either of them survive for long?
The door to the jailhouse opened, and Vin looked up to see two men enter, apparently a little drunk. Gerald, who had been reading a magazine at the desk, looked up at them uncertainly and asked, "Um - can I help you?"
"You sure can!" the taller of the two men slurred, waving an arm toward the window. "You're the law, right? You got to tell this son of a bitch that that is my horse he is attempting to steal, and put it right."
"Your horse, hell!" the shorter man bellowed, putting two unsteady hands on the desk and leaning far enough forward to make Gerald want to lean very far back. "I won that horse, fair and square! It's the truth, judge, so help me Gawd!"
"Um, I'm not a judge," Gerald corrected, standing up and straightening his vest. "But I'm sure when Mr. Conklin gets back he - "
"Hell with that!" The taller man burped. "I got to get back home, and this bastard sez I ain't takin' his horse! Sez he's gonna shoot me! Now what are you gonna do about it?"
"Um." Gerald glanced at Vin, a little helplessly Vin thought. Then blinking, he turned back to the two men and said, "Well, why don't we just - put that paper down, please - why don't we go out on the porch where there's some air, and we can talk about this..."
Vin tried not to smile too much as he watched Gerald herd the two drunk men out of the jail. He was glad to see the men go; it was getting powerful fumy in there.
Gerald had stationed himself right outside the half-open door, and Vin was watching his struggle against the two animatedly intoxicated cowboys when he heard the slight sound of something being jarred. He paused, listened, then realized it was the back door of the jailhouse. A moment later he heard the tiny rasp of the door being opened, and before he could stand up Ezra's face popped around the corner, his finger to his lips.
Vin glanced toward the door. "Ezra, what the hell are you - "
Ezra threw Vin a cross look. "Mr. Tanner, do you not know what a finger to the lips means?"
Vin sighed, noticed the gambler's crouched stance, the watchspring tension in his posture. "What are you doing?"
"Not to worry." Ezra smiled toward the two drunks. "I paid those two more than sufficiently to keep our erstwhile deputy engaged. They'll make sure he doesn't come back until I've gone."
Vin nodded, understanding. He moved closer to the bars, put his hands around them. "What do you hear?"
"Well..." Ezra looked not at Vin, but at the door, his green eyes alert and keen. "You are definitely not a popular person, although there are those who don't entirely believe the rumors. Including myself, I might add."
"It was a accident," Vin whispered. "I caught those four businessmen with Concho Charles, robbin' the jewelry store. They made to run, and I tried to get off a warning shot, but one of them grabbed me, and it hit Conklin."
"Hm," Ezra nodded. "So far your version makes the most sense."
"I don't care about the other versions," Vin said, shaking his head. "Any trouble?"
"Not so far," Ezra reported. "Although I 've been getting some dark looks from some of the more inebriated saloon patrons since word of your adventure hit the town. I imagine we shall all have an interesting time of it tomorrow."
"I was afraid of that." Vin muttered, then his eyes snapped to Ezra's face. "There's something you better know." The gambler looked over, his eyes showing that he'd heard the urgency in Vin's voice.
It was in Vin's eyes too, in every inch of him. "I heard Conklin talkin' to his deputy. He's gonna try to get all of you to leave tomorrow."
Vin knew the news wouldn't be unexpected. Still, he was a little surprised at how dismayed Ezra looked.
"He was just lookin' for an excuse," Vin continued in a tone of self-reproach, looking at his hands. "And I reckon he's got himself one now."
"And how does he intend to accomplish this?" Ezra asked apprehensively.
"He told the deputy he's gonna call a meetin', first thing in the morning. Likely they'll be comin' for your gunbelts by the afternoon."
Ezra hesitated. Vin waited for one of the gambler's flip remarks, his usual defense in moments of gloom. But instead Ezra only said softly, "Well, Conklin may try, but I'm afraid the judge will have a word or two to say about it, when he arrives."
Vin shook his head. "Conklin wants you out by then, he said so. Reckon he don't want to argue about it with the judge, figures if you're gone already there won't be nothing he can do about it."
Ezra looked like he was trying to think of something reassuring to say, but couldn't think of anything. Vin felt a great weight inside him, felt defeated, beaten. Beaten...Vin remembered something, leaned forward against the bars and said, "Ezra."
The gambler looked up, looking a bit startled by the sudden urgent tone in Vin's voice.
"You gotta take a message to Buck for me. Tell him I'm sorry it went down like this, but he's got to get JD out of here quick as he can."
Ezra hesitated, shrugged. "Surely Mr. Jackson's care is adeq-"
Vin shook his head rapidly. "It's gonna get bad soon, for all of us. Word of this gets out, and every outlaw who ever had a grudge against Chris or me - or you - "
Ezra blinked, looked down.
Vin paused, then said, "They're gonna come down on this place like rain on a cornfield. And JD's gonna be a perfect target."
Ezra fell silent as he pondered this.
"What happens to me happens," Vin said quietly. "But that boy didn't ask to be the way he is, and anything we can do to make his road easier, I figure we better do. You'll tell Buck?"
Ezra nodded. Vin sighed, almost felt the shadows on him as he looked down at the floor. Injustice. Too damn much of it. After a long pause he heard Ezra's voice say softly, "Mr. Tanner?"
Vin blinked, shook his head, looked up at Ezra for a moment before saying softly, "Sorry. I just didn't think it was gonna end like this."
There was a pause, and Vin continued, his voice melancholy, his face half-lit by the jailhouse lantern. "I figured we could all get past what Chris did, one way or another. And JD...well, we weren't going to just leave him be. Didn't count on gettin' myself put in here. When Chris comes back, won't be nobody left. Don't know about you, but I'm gonna miss it."
Ezra didn't seem to know what to say. Vin knew he was considering words, considering the possibility that this might be the end of their time together. Chris was gone, or he would come back in disgrace. Vin was in jail. JD was crippled, and he and Buck would soon be gone, probably far away. And the others would be driven out. Vin could read it in the gambler's face: Ezra never saw it ending this way either.
Ezra seemed to notice Vin's gaze. He coughed self- conciously, then dug around in his pocket as he said, "Well, it's a bleak picture to be sure, Mr. Tanner, but bear in mind our time is not over yet. I myself am quite fond of last-minute reprieves, and if you'll recall we've all seen our fair share of them. Perhaps we shall see another."
Vin regarded Ezra with faint surprise. "Shoot, Ezra. You're gettin' as starry-eyed as JD."
Ezra pulled out his hip flask, smiled a bit as he unscrewed the lid. "If that were the case, I would be only too glad." He held out the container. "A toast, Mr. Tanner. To second chances."
Vin eyed the flask, took it and took a long, deep pull.
Ezra smiled as he took the container back. "And to your very swift release."
He took a drink.
The voices outside grew louder. Vin pulled himself away from the bars. "You'd best get. They catch you in here, who knows what you'll get charged with."
"A good point." Ezra pocketed the flask, paused and looked at Vin. "Mr. Tanner - "
"I'll be all right." Vin sighed, hoisting himself onto the cot. "Just take care of JD. And let the others know what I told you."
Ezra nodded, turned toward the back door of the jail. Then he seemed to have a second thought, and leaning toward the bars one more time he whispered, "A word of advice. Avoid the food here, it's terrible."
Vin smiled tightly and looked down at the floor, and when he looked up again the back door of the jail was rasping shut, and Ezra was gone.
+ + + + + + +
Dawn came, cold and gray. Mary continued to pace the floor as she had been pacing it all night, waiting for the sun to come up so she could go about respectably, and get some answers. Mrs. Potter made them both breakfast, and they ate in silence.
Down the street, Nathan stood at the foot of his bed and looked around his room, that had not been his room for four days. Josiah had gone back to the church. Ezra had appeared briefly, at about two o'clock, and had sensed immediately the change in the air. Nathan had told him what had happened, and Ezra had left again, his face as dark and troubled as Nathan had ever seen it. Buck was dozing in his chair, looking haggard and tense even in sleep. And JD...
The boy was curled up in the covers, coiled into a tight ball that seemed to resist the idea of the sun coming up. Nathan had come in some hours before expecting JD to be, at the least, very upset at the horrific memories he was being forced to recall. Nathan was expecting yelling, crying, maybe ranting against Chris' uncontrolled rampage. He was unprepared for the stunned silence, the absent, haunted look in the boy's eyes, the noncommittal answer to every inquiry. Buck and Josiah were quiet, helpless. Finally JD had just meekly turned over and rolled himself up, and gone to sleep. But Nathan could tell it was not the restorative, healthy sleep that JD needed; it was the heavy, burdened slumber of the depressed. And he hadn't moved in nearly six hours, remained in that soft bundle of escape, only the black fringes of his hair visible.
Nathan prepared for the day, and wondered what to do.
And out in the wilderness, the first cold fingers of daylight stretched across the plains, turning the black night into gray dawn and, sometime in the next hour or so, into bright blue day. It was a chilling time, bleak and frosty, and hidden in the blue shadow of a large rock Chris Larabee sat alone, a stolen piece of paper and half of a broken pencil in his hand, and thought.
His eyes searched the landscape, as if the words he sought were there. They weren't, of course, and he knew it. He'd been thinking for hours, well, maybe days, about what he was about to write. And now the time had come to write the words, and he still was unsure what to say.
Then he knew exactly what he wanted to say, and wrote it down:To whoever finds this, My name is Chris Larabee. I'm putting this note in my coat pocket, so if you find it you're likely standing on what was once my ranch. Please bury me in the little graveyard next to the two crosses that are marked Sarah and Adam. They are my wife and son.
After you bury me, go to the Four Corners Clarion and ask for Mrs. Mary Travis. Tell her you are the beneficiary of my estate, and show her this letter. I own this ranch, and what's in a room I rent in town. This is what I want you to do.
Sell the land my ranch is on. Sell everything in my room. My horse might still be around here somewhere; sell him too.
In Four Corners there may still be some men who I am proud to say I knew. Their names are Vin Tanner, Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, and JD Dunne.
The money you make from the sale of my estate is for JD Dunne's care and comfort. He was injured through my carelessness and stupidity, and my last wish is that all I own be used to provide for whatever he needs. You may run into a Mr. Darcy Thomas. He has my wedding ring, and instructions like these. Maybe you can work together.
I hope JD Dunne and the others are still in town when you get there. They are all good men. Don't say my name to them, esp. JD. He might not accept your help.
Chris paused, swallowed, took a few shaky breaths as he stared out at the wakening prairie. The world seemed fresh and new, or it should have; but Chris felt numb, detached, the words he'd overheard the previous evening still chiming in his head, over and over. Broken ribs, busted collarbone, can't walk anymore...shipped off to a home...the town's turned on the rest of the hired guns...people want him dead, including a few of his men...
Chris sighed again, ran his hand through his ragged blond hair. Jesus, it was worse than he'd dreamed in his blackest nightmares. Beyond repair, or redemption. JD crippled. The others driven out, and hating him. Mary, what had happened to her? And all his fault.
But there was one hope. One last, forlorn hope, and it hinged on a man he barely knew. Who didn't know him at all.
Taking another unsteady breath, Chris continued to write.If you meet Mr. Thomas, tell him I wish things had turned out like he wanted them to. Tell him I hope the ring buys JD everything he needs, or wants. He should have it. He should have had a better hero than me.
The sun was coming up in earnest now. Chris blinked at the rising light, squinted against it as if it were blinding him. Then he slowly rose, folded the note he'd just written into his pocket, and mounting his horse pointed the animal toward his final destination: the mountains, and the burned-out ranch that had once been his home.
+ + + + + + +
The sun had climbed halfway into the midmorning sky as Mary picked up her notebook and set off for the jailhouse. She hoped to find some clues there as to just what had happened, and just how insane the town had gone.
She felt it as soon as she stepped out into the street. It was around nine, and people were going about their business, but there was a hush in the air, as if they were all waiting for something. As she walked down the street, Mary saw some people pointing at her, whispering. Whispering what? That shameful floozy, how dare she associate with - with those men? Mary smiled at the implied insult, thought about how Chris had saved her father-in-law's life, and her son Billy's. The others had always helped her out, and Nathan had long been a friend to her. Associate with those men? I'd rather associate with them than you.
How quiet the street was, for so late in the day! Mary passed in front of the telegraph office, almost bumped into a man coming out of it.
"Oh, excuse me!" she said hurriedly, backing up. It was an older man, a man she recognized as Sam Worthington. The man who owned the jewelry store.
"Mr. Worthington," Mary said quickly, saw him stuffing something in his jacket.
"Mrs. Travis." the man returned, not looking at her. "I suppose you heard."
"About Mr. Tanner? Yes, I - "
"Tanner, hell!" Sam exclaimed, then blushed. "Sorry, ma'am. But - Tanner, nothing! My jewelry store was robbed last night."
Mary's jaw dropped.
"Got most of my inventory." Sam shook his head, took his top hat off to mop his brow. "The safe was the only thing they didn't run off with."
"Oh, Sam, that's terrible!" Mary put a hand on his arm. "Did you tell the sheriff?"
"Huh!" Sam snorted, put his hat back on. "That good-for-nothing Conklin? He's too busy arresting the only law we got to bother with me."
Mary removed her hand, put it over her notebook, couldn't think of what to say.
Sam squinted into the street. "I swear to God, Mary, when Larabee left I was almost glad. He always kind of scared me, I'll admit it. But I had no idea it would come to this. When I heard Conklin had put Tanner away I came right down here and wired my brother in Tucson." He looked down at the boardwalk, a look of almost-shame on his face.
Mary knew what it meant. "Sam, you're not leaving?"
"I got to, Mary," Sam said earnestly, looking at her with a frustrated expression. "I stuck it out, you know I did. When things were bad, I kept my stock under my bed, with a shotgun right next to it. But then things started to look up, and I thought, well, maybe folks'll want nice things, things they aren't afraid some stranger's gonna shoot 'em over. But not now. Once Conklin runs the law out, it'll be every man for himself. And I gotta look after what interests I have left."
Mary nodded. She couldn't argue. But - "You know, Sam, Orin will be here tomorrow. Why don't you wait till then to decide?"
"Come on, Mary," Sam said sadly, backing away a few paces. "I know it's hard, but we got to face facts. Orin might come, but he's only one man. Last time he had help, but not this time. Larabee's gone, Tanner's in jail, and that poor kid - " He paused, looked down again. "I'm sorry, Mary, I know how hard you tried to keep this town together, but...well, look at that."
Sam waved a hand down the street, and Mary looked, saw the dusty front of the saloon. In front of it, a couple of ragged-looking men were tying their horses, looking around the streets with anticipatory smirks. Outlaws.
"It's starting, Mary," Sam said, still with that sadness in his voice. "And I'm afraid I can't afford to see it through again. Jennie's expecting, you know, and I just can't take chances anymore." He paused, shrugged, back away more. "Maybe it's best if this town fades away, after everything that's happened. Maybe it isn't supposed to go on."
"Don't talk like that, Mr. Worthington," Mary begged, suddenly feeling as if she were living in a graveyard.
Sam paused, then shrugged one last time. "Sorry, Mary, but that's how I feel. Well, I have to go make arrangements. I'll see you later."
Mary watched Sam Worthington go, fought the conviction she suddenly had that he was only the first. Her eyes went unwillingly to the unkempt, dangerous-looking men outside the saloon, and her skin crawled.
No. She struggled up from that quagmire of helplessness. Not anymore. Not if I have to dig this town out with my bare hands. I won't let it go again. She clutched her notebook tighter, and continued toward the jail.
+ + + + + + +
"I'm a salesman. From St. Louis."
The air in the jailhouse glowed with dust and early morning sunlight as Durning leaned across the wooden desk and looked at the sheet that Gerald Townsend was writing on. Durning glanced at the cell where the long-haired hermit was holed up, but Vin was sitting motionless on the cot, lazing against the back wall, his legs drawn up and his hat hiding most of his face. Durning smirked at him, then looked back to Townsend.
"You're a salesman." Gerald wrote it down. "And, um...well, I guess, tell me what you saw last night."
"Okay." Durning leaned back, rubbed his chin. "I was taking a walk, down by where that jewelry store is, - "
The door to the jail opened just then, and both men looked up as Mary entered, a benign smile on her placid face.
"Oh - good morning, Mrs. Travis." Gerald hastily rose to his feet.
"Morning, Mr. Townsend." Mary returned. "Is Mr. Conklin available?"
"Um - " Gerald sat back down again, not noticing the very suspicious look Durning was giving Mary. "No, he's at a meeting. Guess you heard, huh?"
Mary nodded, smiling sweetly. "I need to get some facts for my newspaper. Do you mind if I wait?"
"Uh - " Gerald glanced at Durning, who was scowling at him.
"We're conducting some business here," Durning said, looking at Mary but not smiling.
"Oh." Mary backed toward the cells. "Well, I won't disturb you then. Mind if I take a seat?" Mary sat down in a nearby chair and opened up her notebook.
Durning scowled at her. "Do you mind, lady? This is personal."
Mary looked him up and down. "Pardon me, Mr....Mr- ?"
"Durning." Gerald offered helpfully.
"Mr. Durning," Mary amended with a smarmy smile. "But if this is regarding your witnessing last night's alleged crime against the town, it's a matter of public record, and there should be no problem with me, as a member of the public, hearing it. Should there?"
Durning scowled at her again, then turned back to Gerald. "Who is that woman?"
"Oh, that's Mary Travis," Gerald said cluelessly. "She runs the newspaper."
"Travis?" Durning asked. "Like in Judge Travis?"
"Mm-hmm." Gerald looked down at the form. "That's her father-in-law. So, anyway, you were walking down the street and you heard two people arguing."
"Right," Durning seemed to be thinking, very hard. After a pause he said, a little less certainly than he had before, "One of 'em, I guess it was Conklin, was askin' the other guy to leave him alone and let him do his job. I got curious, I guess, and I walked a little closer to check it out."
Gerald nodded, dutifully writing everything down. "Conklin told me there were some kids trying to break into the jewelry store down that way. Did you see anybody?"
"Nah." Durning replied quickly. "It was too dark."
"Then what happened?"
"Well." Durning thought. "I heard the other guy say something like, get out of here, we're running this town. Then I got close enough to see them, and suddenly that long-haired guy just lifts up his gun and blam!"
Gerald blinked, amazed. "Really?"
"You bet." Durning nodded. "Well, I got scared and started running, but then I saw that the sheriff wasn't dead, he was just kind of winged, and I thought, that guy needs help. So I came back, and that 's when you showed up."
Gerald nodded again, still writing. Durning turned to Mary, and noticed she was writing too, in her notebook. Frowning, he said, "Hey, this isn't for you. I don't want this in the paper."
"Hm?" Mary looked up, the stamp of innocence across her face. "Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Durning,but as a journalist it's part of my responsibility to record as many facts as I come across, when composing an article. So far I see nothing objectionable in your statement. What don't you want reported?"
Durning's mouth worked for a moment, then he shut it, shrugged, then said, "Oh, forget it. Just spell my name right." He turned back to Gerald. "So, you got all that?"
"Uh-huh, I think so." Gerald double-checked the paper in front of him.
With a rustle of her skirts, Mary rose out of the chair and came forward. "Well, it certainly sounds like you went through an ordeal, Mr. Durning."
"Damn - er, darn straight." Durning nodded, glaring at the sleeping Vin. "That man's an animal. He oughta stay locked up for good."
"Yes," Mary purred. "Now, just so I have all my facts, you say you didn't see anyone breaking into the jewelry store?"
"Nope." Durning answered, "Like I said, it was pretty dark."
Mary nodded. "And when you heard the gunshot, what did you do?"
"I ran, are you kidding? This is the west, lady. It ain't safe around here."
Mary nodded again. "And how far from Mr. Conklin were you when you turned around and saw that he wasn't dead?"
"Oh - I don't know. Maybe twenty feet."
"So what happened, that you could suddenly see twenty feet in front of you in the dark?"
Durning stopped, blinked at Mary for a moment. "What?"
"Well, you just said it was too dark to see who was breaking into the jewelry store, but you had enough light to see Mr. Conklin was not dead. There wasn't a moon last night, so - well, I'm sorry, but I have to get the facts straight."
Durning glared at Mary for a second, then coughed and turned to Gerald. "Are we finished?"
"Hm?" Gerald appeared lost in thought. "Um, yeah, I suppose. You'd better stay in town, Mr. Durning, until Judge Travis arrives. Probably he'll want to talk to you."
"Oh?" Durning's voice went a little higher than it usually did, and he coughed again to hide. "Well, fine, whatever."
And with that, he turned on his heel and abruptly left the office.
Mary watched him go, looked at Gerald apologetically. "I'm sorry, Mr. Townsend. Did I step on your jurisdiction?"
"Mm - no, no." Gerald sat with one finger to his mouth, as if pondering something. He stared at the wall for a minute, then said, "You know - "
Mary was halfway to the door, turned around. "What's that, Mr. Townsend?"
"You know, I didn't think of it, but there was light in that alley last night. There was a lantern on the ground. Funny how Mr. Durning doesn't remember it."
"Hm." Mary tried to hide her smile. "Very strange."
Gerald blinked. "Oh - don't you want to wait for Mr. Conklin?"
Mary put her hand on the door. "No, Mr. Townsend, thank you. I think I have everything I need, for the moment. But you've been a lot of help."
"Oh, well. Anytime." Gerald went back to the statement and his own little world, his brow creased with confusion.
+ + + + + + +
Mary paused as she opened the door and took a half-step out of it, her mind churning so fiercely she was surprised the whole town couldn't hear it. Yes, if she could help it, maybe things weren't as hopeless as they had first seemed. She leaned in a little bit, gave one last glance toward the cot where Vin was sleeping -
And saw him smiling at her from underneath his hat, his calm eyes twinkling in the darkness under the brim. He waved at her, just a small movement of the fingers on one hand lying on his chest, but it was enough. She smiled back at him, felt a strength return to her. She glanced at Gerald, still puzzling over the contradictory statement he'd just taken. No, it wasn't hopeless. Not if she could help it.
And Mary opened the door, took a deep breath, and stepped outside.
+ + + + + + +
The saloon was almost empty in the early morning hours, empty and quiet. The only patrons were Childers, Tims, and Sherson, who were sharing a table and some breakfast in one corner, and a couple of dirty-looking desperados who had just wandered in five minutes before and were skulking by the door. The bartender had gone to them reluctantly, and the businessmen heard the outlaws cursing at him in Spanish. Judging by their actions, they wanted beer. And quick.
Tims shook his head. "I don't like this," he stammered as he watched the bartender hurry by their table.
"Ah, calm down," Sherson said as he set his beer mug down. "Concho said he's got it all worked
out. It's the town that's got to worry."
Childers nodded, but Tims was still shaking his head and muttering to himself when Durning walked through the saloon doors, walked up to the table, and pulled the chair out from it with a loud bang. Sitting down with a loud 'humph', he pulled the seat up and glowered at the faces staring back at him.
"What's wrong with you?" Childers asked archly.
"Ah, that newspaper bitch," Durning spat, reaching for Sherson's beer and taking a long pull. "She was all over my story at the jail. Nosy broad."
"You mean she knows?" Tims squeaked.
"No, but she ain't as easy to fool as the deputy," Durning groused. "She probably suspects."
"Doesn't matter." Sherson shrugged, grimacing at how much of his beer Durning had drunk. "She can't prove anything, and all we need is that tracker to stay in the jail."
Durning took a cigar out, lit it, and peered at Tims. The man was white as a sheet. You'll blow our cover, Durning's glare told the other man as soon as their eyes met. Watch it.
Tims had just looked away, and was nibbling at some of his breakfast bacon, when a large, dark-complected man dressed in a bolero jacket and black pants suddenly appeared at the door. The other outlaws looked at him, and one of them pulled out a knife and muttered something, gesturing in a complaining way and pointing with the knife out the door. The dark man shook his head, moved his hands in a stopping motion, and was apparently arguing with the others about something. After a few moments he seemed to win, and Tims saw the knife-weilding outlaw reluctantly sheathe his weapon and shake his head in disappointment as the dark man wandered away - and, surprisingly, over to their table.
"Good morning, my friends," he said in amiable, Spanish-accented tones as he clapped Sherson on the shoulder and sat down. "How are you doing?"
Durning turned his glare on higher. "Who the hell are you?"
"Oh! You don't know?" The man smiled calmly as he leaned lazily back in the seat. "My name is Domingo Jiminez, but everybody here, they call me Domino. Concho asked me to come out ahead of time, look you guys up."
"Is that right?" Sherson asked, putting one elbow on the table and looking the new man up and down.
"That's right." Domino kept smiling, sat up and put his hands together. "I am here to take care of you. So, what can I do for you gents? You want some women, or I know. You probably don't have guns, right?"
"Forget the guns," Durning said, looking at Domino seriously. "This Concho guy, he talks pretty big. Is he for real?"
"Oh, as real as they come, señor," Domino said with an earnest nod. "Bigger, even. He told me we're gonna take this dump over, once the law is gone."
"But the law's not gone," Childers pointed out. "What's he going to do about that?"
Domino held his hand up. "Not to worry. We got it all planned out. Everything will go perfectly."
Tims blinked anxiously, pointed at the two outlaws by the door. "Is that what you were talking to them about?"
"Hm?" Domino glanced at the men. "Oh - they are overeager. They want to go get the tracker that's in the jail. There's a bounty on his head, and they want it. But Concho says, nothing like that until he arrives tomorrow. And I am Concho's second, so they have to listen to me."
"Oh," Tims said, at once impressed and scared to death.
Domino sighed in satisfaction. "Yes, my friends are impatient, they want to start tearing things up right away. But I have to hold them back until Concho arrives. Then we can do whatever we want."
"Yeah," Sherson said into his beer. "If that newspaper bitch doesn't screw it up for us."
"Pardon me, señor?" Domino leaned forward on his elbows, tilted one ear toward Sherson. "What was that?"
"Ah, nothing," Durning waved a hand. "Just this woman, runs the local rag."
"Oh, her." Domino straightened up and smiled. "I know about her. She a problem?"
Durning looked at Domino inquisitively. "Might be. Can you fix it?"
Domino put his hands wide. "For you, my friends? Anything! I just need a little time to get my people organized, and your troubles will be over."
Tims was turning pale, but Sherson and Durning exchanged surprised, pleased glances. Then Durning looked at Domino and said, "And what will this little solution cost us?"
"First one's on the house." Domino said happily, clapping Durning on the shoulder.
"Oh, shit!" Childers suddenly said, nodding toward the saloon stairs.
Durning looked. Ezra Standish had just come down, and was regarding the outlaws in the room with a look that approached alarm. Durning hurriedly scooted his chair as far from Domino as possible, but Ezra didn't seem to see them. Instead, after a pause, he walked straight through the room and out the saloon doors, leaving them flapping wildly in his wake.
"Geez," Sherson huffed as soon as Ezra was gone. "That's all we need, is those guys breathing down our necks."
Domino laughed. "You're afraid of them? After today, they are - pfft! - nothing. If the town doesn't make them leave, believe me, we will."
"Oh, yeah?" Durning eyed the boastful Mexican. "How?"
Domino lifted up his index finger and smiled. "Sorry, señor. A good craftsman does not reveal his secrets." He stood up, gave the men a final, sweeping glance. " See you all later."
Durning traded looks with the others as Domino wandered back to his compatriots.
"Just what we need," Childers groused. "More complications."
"What complications?" Durning argued. "You heard him. He's going to take care of things for us."
"He sounded like he was planning to kill that lady," Tims said anxiously.
"Nah." Durning said dismissively, then paused. Then said again, "Nah, he'll just scare her. Scare her so's she leaves us alone."
"I don't like it." Childers reiterated. "The more people know what we're up to, the more ways it can go wrong."
"Then leave." Sherson snapped. "Nobody's making you stay, Childers."
"Don't say that," Durning warned Sherson, glaring at Childers. "He'll leave, then he'll rat on us. You'd better not, Childers."
Childers glowered at the other businessmen. "You're insane. I'm not going to rat on you."
Tims was shaking his head, pushing his bacon around on the plate. "We should have left that safe alone," he moped.
Durning shot him a look, then cast his eyes on the saloon doors, which had just settled back to their original positions.
"After today, they're nothing." he said in a low voice, and grinned as he reached once more for Sherson's beer. "Yep. I'll definitely drink to that."
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