The torches were burning brightly among the delapidated shacks, their amber light glimmering off the high canyons walls that hid the location of Concho Charles' hideout. Men were scrambling everywhere, cursing, shouting, carrying loads and readying their weapons.
And in the middle of it, Concho Charles stood and smiled.
A young blond man came up to him, eagerness written across his hardened face. "When do we move out?"
Concho chuckled, lit the cheroot he'd just taken out of a silver cigar case. "Patience, Billings. Four Corners isn't going anywhere, and we have plenty of time."
Billings glanced around, shaking his shaggy head. "Can't believe they just rolled over like that. Thought they'd put up more of a fight."
"Ah, well." Concho sighed and blew out the match, tossed it away. "I must admit this is less of a challenge than I thought it would be, but still, we'll have our center of operations back and that's what's important. Besides, as I hear it not all of the law is gone, so at least there'll be some sport."
"There's still law in the town?" Billings asked nervously, his red-rimmed eyes popping. "What - "
"Oh, calm down." Concho took a drag, blew it out liesurely. "A crippled boy and a slow-witted darkie. Nothing to worry about, I'll take care of them as soon as we get into town."
Billings nodded, but didn't look entirely convinced. Just then, a voice echoed down the canyon, a voice that was caught and carried by someone closer, then closer yet, and finally someone stationed at the mouth of the opening yelled, "Torres is coming!"
"Ah!" Concho took another puff, smiled in satisfaction. "Torres is back. Let's see what kind of disrepair our quarry is in, eh?"
Billings nodded dumbly, trotted at Concho's heels as the outlaw wandered a little closer to the canyon opening. Moments later, Torres rode in, his horse lathered, and looking upset.
"What's the matter?" Concho asked immediately.
Torres swung himself off the saddle, his head shaking ominously. "Big trouble. Domino got himself killed."
"Oh," Concho said, unruffled. "Well, that's his problem. What else?"
"Bunch of the boys got riled up," Torres explained breathlessly, still holding the reins of his horse. "Went over to the jail and tried to get the tracker out."
"Oh, no." Concho's face fell, then hardened into angry lines. "Have I taught them nothing? They couldn't wait until sunrise?"
"Guess not," Billings muttered.
Concho sighed in disgust. "Then what happened?"
"They broke into the jail," Torres replied. "Shot the deputy, but Tanner got away. Couple of his friends busted him out, headed out of town."
"Hm," Concho said, puffing on his cheroot. "Hm. What was the place like when you left?"
Torres shrugged. "Some of our boys were still goin' around bustin' things. I got 'em in line, shot the ones that didn't listen."
"Did you get the sheriff?" Concho asked casually.
Torres thought a moment, shook his head. "But he's more'n likely dead now anyway."
"True," Concho admitted. "All right, Torres, this is a setback, but hardly a catastrophe. That tracker and his friends are probably somewhere close to the town, so I want you to take a dozen men and finish them off. Are there any of those hired guns left?"
"Uh - " Torres made a mental check. "The one with the moustache, and the fancy gambler. And the kid that got beat up."
"Oh. Well, we'll simply make their deaths a priority, won't we? After you take care of the tracker, get yourself into the town and dispatch them. Start with the child, he's hardly even a moving target."
"Got it," Torres said, and led his horse away to carry out Concho's wishes.
Concho turned around, his eyes darting about furiously. "Damn. If that fool Domino messes this up for me, I'll personally go down to Hell and kick his sorry ass."
Billings turned his head to see Torres walking away, then turned back to Concho. "Are we still going back?"
"Oh, of course!" Concho snapped. "But now their guard will be up. Fortunately, these people are rabbits, but if the gunslingers get protective we may lose some of our capital." Concho took one more puff on his cheroot, then flung it away and began to walk away.
"So what does that mean?" Billings asked nervously, running after his leader.
"It means," Concho growled, "That those gunslingers had better be taken care of by the time we get there, or I'll send Torres to keep Domino company."
With that, he stalked away, and Billings watched him go as the sounds of readiment continued unchecked around him.
+ + + + + + +
Four Corners was quiet.
Buck sighed and scratched his head as he leaned out over the railing outside Nathan's room and gazed out into the street. The outlaws were likely all passed out, or headed off into the hills. The saloon looked dark; Buck smiled a little as he pictured Billy, the bartender, sweeping up all of the broken glass from the crowd that had been in there all day. If he'd bitched about Chris' little mess, Buck could just imagine how he was complaining now...
The clouds were breaking up, and there was a half-moon out. All up and down the darkened street Buck could see the results of the evening's riot. The glass from countless broken windows glittered in the street, and splintered wood and scattered goods lay here and there in abject piles in the dusty street, and on the boardwalks. Buck shook his head. At least the glassblower would come out of this all right.
But it hadn't had to happen. None of it had, and that was what vexed Buck. He glanced back behind him, to where JD was sleeping, finally a calm, restful sleep after four days of nightmares and anxious pain. Buck's gaze turned once more to the street. Jesus, Chris, how are we gonna get out of this? I'll take the boy to San Francisco, but it ain't what he wants. He wants to ride again, and walk, but more than that he wants us all to be together again, and I just don't see how we can work that out. You were his hero, Chris, and now he don't have one, and I got a feeling JD is the kind of kid that needs somebody to look up to. I can get him to Frisco, I can see about gettin' his body back in order. But I can't do nothin' about his heart. I'm afraid that's broke for good, and even when JD gets better he won't be the same JD he was before this all started. I reckon that simple-hearted gusto he always had won't be there no more. He's just like us now.
And I don't know about you, Chris. But I'm sure gonna miss the old JD.
But no. Buck suddenly realized that there was some part of him that didn't buy what he was saying. It was incredible, but something told him things hadn't played out yet. Buck shook his head; usually he tried to be optimistic, but thi
time he argued with himself. How could things possibly be all right after this? After what Chris did, after what had happened with the town, how could he possibly think that things were going to improve?
But it was there. Silent, almost unnoticed beneath the fatigue and the sorrow and the turmoil of the past few days. In a corner of his heart, right where he left it.
Hope. Maybe the last piece of hope Buck had, but it was still there. And maybe it was only by two fingers, but Buck found himself clinging to that hope as if he was over a great cliff. And he didn't want to let go.
So he didn't. And decided to suppose that things just hadn't played out yet.
Quiet footsteps came up the stairs, and Buck turned his head to see Ezra walking toward him in the moonlight, his jacket pulled over the bloodstains on his shirt, the scratches and bruises from that day's events still evident on his face.
"How's Mrs. Travis?" Buck asked as Ezra drew close.
"Sleeping," Ezra answered in a whisper, leaning next to Buck on the railing. "Mr. Alderman is keeping his eye out. He's not practiced, but he's a damn good shot."
Buck nodded, satisfied.
"In fact, " Ezra continued, "I'm downright optimistic about Mr. Alderman. I sent him over earlier to the jail and told him to repeat what he told me about his associates, and Concho Charles. I figured Conklin would listen to him before he'd listen to me."
"What about Concho Charles?" Buck asked, suddenly concerned.
"Well," Ezra sighed. "According to Mr. Alderman, that desperado will be paying us a visit come morning. And bringing some friends. I don't know what Conklin intends to do about it, since he fired us, but I thought he ought to know about it anyway. And he has information that will clear Mr. Tanner's name in this affair. That nightmare may be over, at least."
"Thank God." Buck said softly.
Ezra cast a concerned eye over his shoulder. "What is Mr. Dunne's condition? He seems to be resting comfortably."
"Yeah, he'll be fine," Buck said, and his words were half-hope, half-fatigue. He drew one hand over his eyes and said, "He's just got a lot to work through. Just like the rest of us."
"Hm." Ezra nodded, let his gaze travel over the street. "Do you suppose Mr. Tanner and the others have found refuge?"
"Well, if anybody knows them hills, it's Vin." Buck said, straightening up and stretching. "I reckon they'll wait till morning, then head on back."
There was the sound of more footsteps, and Buck and Ezra looked at each other. Quietly, they both drew their pistols and aimed them slowly at the approaching stranger.
Then the stranger appeared, and it was Conklin.
"Oh, shit," Buck whispered, putting up his gun quickly.
Amazingly, Conklin didn't shout out or even scowl at them. Instead, he just shook his head and said quietly, "Do you people do that automatically, or do you have to think about it first?"
"Our apologies, Mr. Conklin," Ezra said as he holstered his weapon. "The streets are none too friendly this evening."
"Yes, well..." Conklin took a few steps forward, not too close, and then stopped, staring at the floorboards.
He stood there for what seemed to be a long time, and finally Buck glanced at Ezra curiously, then said softly, "Uh, Mr. Conklin? You want something?"
"Uh, no. Uh, yes," Conklin stammered, bringing his head up. His face was twisted with uncertainty. "I'm sorry, I'm no good at these things. It's just - you're all such wild people, you got no city breeding at all, and I figured - " He stopped, sighed and scratched the back of his head.
Ezra looked at Buck, confusion all over his face.
Conklin sighed and started over, his voice firmer and stronger. "I've changed my mind. You men don't have to go."
Buck stood up from the railing. Ezra's face was placid, but Buck saw the surprise in his eyes.
"In fact, I - " Conklin didn't look at them, kept his eyes on the floor. "I sent Matthew Dwight out to find Tanner, and...and ask...for his help."
The last words were said so low that Buck wasn't sure he'd heard Conklin correctly. He leaned forward and asked, " 'Scuse me?"
"I need your help!" Conklin snapped, then backed off, his hands wandering in and out of his jacket pockets as he spoke. "I - was wrong about Tanner, that Durning fellow was lying about the whole thing. And I got back to the jail, and Townsend was dead."
Buck dipped his head. "I know. Outlaws got him."
Conklin nodded, sighing sadly. "I'm...willing to admit that I might have...overstepped my bounds. You men might be...uncivilized, but the criminals are more scared of you than they are of me. I got all this on my head now, and I figure the only way we're going to keep this town from collapsing completely is if you...step back in." There was none of Conklin's bluster, none of that arrogant bravado in those words; only the defeated, tired tones of an old man who had tried to do what he thought was the right thing, and failed. Buck and Ezra looked at each other, the same thing in both their glances, and Ezra looked at Conklin and said, "We'll do our best for you, sir. Just like the judge asked us to."
Conklin didn't say anything, merely nodded. After a moment, he put his hands back in his pockets and said, "Well, I...I guess I'd better get back to the jail, I just thought...oh." He pulled something out of his pocket, gave it to Buck. "This is for Mr. Dunne, when he wakes up."
Buck felt the cold metal in his hand, looked down. The sheriff's star.
"Probably means more to him anyway," Conklin said, and without another word turned around and left the balcony. Buck and Ezra heard his footsteps as they echoed down the wooden stairway.
"Huh," Buck said as he looked at the sheriff's star, turned it over in his hands. Hope. "Huh. Conklin said he was sorry. Don't that beat all."
"It certainly does, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said with a small grin, the moonlight glinting off his gold tooth as he leaned over the railing and stared out into the quiet street. "It most certainly does."
+ + + + + + +
Vin stared at the fire and tried to ignore the shooting pain in his shoulder. What time is it? He glanced around wearily. Josiah was asleep, his bandaged leg stretched out in front of him and his rifle laid over it. Nearby, Nathan was dozing against a nearby rock, his head nodding in gentle rhythm to his deep breathing.
Vin sighed and looked up at the sky. Here and there stars poked through the clouds. If a storm had been coming, it had passed them by. Thank God for small favors. Vin put his head down and winced as his shoulder bit him.
Wonder how they're doing back in town. Vin turned his head to gaze back at direction they'd come. When they'd left, it had seemed like there were bandits everywhere, and only Conklin, Buck, and Ezra to fend them off. And Ezra wasn't in the best of shape.
I should go back. Vin considered, but then thought again. His hurt shoulder would make firing a rifle difficult, and more than likely Conklin would throw him back in the jail. Unless something had changed...
At that moment, Vin heard hoofbeats approaching from the town, and tensed. Glancing at the others, he rolled over and eased the rifle off Josiah's lap. He stood up, slowly, and aimed his gun at the shadowy figure he could just make out in the starlight.
"Hey!" a voice announced that Vin didn't recognize. "It's me, Matthew Dwight. From the town."
Vin put up his gun, stepped out from behind the rock. "Sorry, Mr. Dwight. Can't be too careful."
"Yeah, I know." Dwight glanced around, then swung himself off his horse.
The others were stirring as Vin leaned back and put his hands on his belt. "Somethin' happen?"
"Conklin sent me to find you," Dwight said, and as he approached the men saw that he was carrying Vin's sawed-off Winchester. "He was afraid you men would be gone by now."
Nathan and Josiah got up groggily. Vin glanced at them, then turned his eyes back to Dwight. "I'm listenin'."
"First off," Dwight said with a smile as he handed over the gun, "you're not being charged anymore. Turns out Conklin caught the witness looting a store, and then somebody else came forward and said they made up the whole thing."
Vin allowed himself a small smile, and took the rifle.
"Second - ," Dwight started, but before he could continue Vin suddenly turned his head and put his hand up.
Everyone tensed, and Josiah said, "What is it?"
"Horses," Vin answered tersely, scanning the darkness and listening. After a pause he said, "'bout a dozen of 'em, headed this way."
"Oh - maybe it's the judge," Dwight said hopefully.
Vin's face was dark as he shook his head. "I don't think so." He took one step, two, toward his rifle.
A shot rang out, splintering into the rock behind them, and they all dove for cover.
+ + + + + + +
"You got 'em?" the scruffy-looking outlaw said in a low voice to Torres as they neared the rocky area, marked off by its tiny fire.
"Just about," Torres replied, aiming his pistol again.
Suddenly the fire went out.
"Aw, damn it," Torres growled, drawing his horse up.
His compatriot looked up. "There's a half-moon out. We can see good enough."
Torres nodded, the threat of Concho's anger hanging over him, and spurred his horse forward.
+ + + + + + +
Vin ran behind the rock, his hand grasped firmly around his sawed-off Winchester rifle. Dwight, Josiah, and Nathan were crouched next to him, peering around the smoke into the darkness. An instant later, they were surrounded.
The darkness made aiming difficult, but in the moonlight Vin counted a dozen men and horses, all armed and looking for a fight. Priming his gun, he aimed and fired, once, and bit his lip as his shoulder burst with agony. One man fell, but the others continued to ride, shouting crazily and shooting holes in the rocks as they fired their guns.
"Keep movin'!" Vin commanded, gasping against the pain. "They can't see us too good neither."
The others nodded, squeezing off shots and maneuvering as best they could around the large, towering rock. The night air was puncuated by the ringing sound and bright flash of ricocheting steel, and Vin saw to his satisfaction that a few of the horses were riderless, and galloping away. A few, but not enough.
Vin glanced over at Dwight, noticed that he could see the whites of the man's eyes as he stared in bewilderment around him. But he was firing, and loading, so Vin decided he could hold his own.
Someone bumped into him, and Vin turned his head to see Nathan reloading his gun.
"This don't look good," the healer remarked as he lifted his pistol and aimed it, just before ducking a shot. "You okay?"
"I'll live. Maybe," Vin responded dryly, priming his gun and squeezing off another shot at the circling riders. A horse went down, and the rider spilled out onto the desert. The other horses ran over him heedlessly, and Vin winced.
"Keep it going, boys," Vin commanded, struggling to rise over the hurt in his shoulder, and rising up, shot his gun again and ran to the other side of the rock.
A bullet glanced off the rock, sending a short burst of sparks over Vin's head. Even with a half-moon, it was impossible to see faces clear enough to try to pick out a leader, but Vin knew that one of them had to be. Damn! My shoulder's on fire. Don't think on it, Tanner. You got work to do.
A bullet whizzed by his ear, and Vin flinched. He looked up, fired, but had a sinking feeling that they were through. Five riders had been killed, but seven remained, and he could feel himself slipping, the pain in his shoulder encompassing his mind, turning the night landscape around him red. He slumped backwards and looked over, saw Josiah limping along, and Nathan, and Dwight. Dammit Tanner, they're your responsibility now. Don't you even think of passing out on them. Don't you -
- even -
Vin blinked, shook his head, and let out a low growl. God dammit, he wasn't going to let these bastards win. He lifted his Winchester, fired off a shot, and the pain made him cry out but he channeled it, thought of Chris and fired, of JD and fired, of Ezra and Mary and fired, each time crying out with the pain andthe anguish and every awful thing he'd felt since the whole nightmare had started. And it helped, helped him manage the pain, but even then Vin knew it wasn't enough because he heard more riders coming, and he knew that they were finished.
No, you can't give up, his mind shrieked as the redness returned, you let them go and you know where they'll go next, into the town, they'll get JD, and Buck and Ezra, they'll get Mary and burn the place to the ground and you're their last defense, even if you gotta stand alone against a legion of them you still gotta stand because you know it's right. You're all they have -
Vin stood up, shakily, and aimed his gun, thought for a hazy, pain-induced moment that Chris was right there next to him, knew that that would be right. Chris wouldn't have backed down either.
Vin fired, felt the pain in his shoulder explode, and fell backwards.
The sound of approaching riders came closer, and Vin struggled back to his feet. Last stand, make it count - Vin willed his eyes to focus -
And blinked, amazed.
The horsemen were scattering. No, that wasn't possible, but...Vin blinked slower, shook his head in amazement, saw them turning and firing at someone, then riding away panicked confusion. Vin heard what sounded like a thousand guns go off, and the riders all fell, dead or wounded. Only one remained, took aim and fired, and in response Vin heard another score of guns go off, and the rider fell into the dirt, dead.
Silence. Deafening silence, and Vin could hear his own heart beating like an anvil in his ears.
Oh, God. Everyone okay? He looked over, and through a filmy curtain he saw Nathan and Josiah smiling at somebody, Dwight was holding his arm but he looked all right, and then Vin collapsed against the rock and began to slide downward, finally letting the pain overwhelm him. He closed his eyes. Over...
Someone grabbed his arms gently, stopped his descent. Puzzled, Vin opened his eyes and struggled to focus.
Blurry. A little less so. More distinct. An older man, gentle features, aristocratic even in western attire. "Judge Travis?"
"That's right, son." Travis said softly, and in the darkness Vin thought he saw soldiers behind the judge, hundreds it looked like. But they were so indistinct...
"Aw, shit." Vin moaned, and closed his eyes again. Just before the dreams claimed him, he heard Travis saying in a voice full of authority and wonder, "Now would someone kindly tell me just what the hell is going on here?"
+ + + + + + +
Nathan's room was dark when Buck walked up the wooden stairs and quietly approached the door.
That wasn't a surprise; when Buck told Ezra he was going to go around again, make sure everybody knew about Concho's attack and see if there was any way they could help out, he knew that the gambler would probably turn out the light and try to catch some sleep. And he didn't blame him a bit.
But Buck was surprised when he gently pushed the door open. Ezra wasn't huddled in one of the chairs, or stretched out to doze on the floor. Instead, he was sitting on the low table in front of the window that fronted the main street, staring out into firelit dimness as his elegant hands idly shuffled his deck of playing cards. He hadn't even noticed Buck's entrance, and for a second Buck stared at the gambler. Ezra was barely traced into the darkness by the outside light, his face absorbed with thought and melancholy. Then Buck felt like he was intruding, and deliberately made a noise with his boot to alert Ezra to his presence.
With a small start, Ezra looked over and blinked at Buck, then turned his head as Buck approached and continued his thoughtful gazing. "So," he asked in a quiet whisper. "Have the good citizens been warned?"
Buck nodded, glancing over at JD as he neared the window. He could just barely see the youth, who was once again curled over on his right side, one hand half-clutching the blanket at his throat. His black hair was mostly hiding his face, but not the stitches that Buck had grown used to seeing, or the fading bruise. But still, at least the kid looked like he was getting some decent sleep.
"I went over to the jail," Buck said softly as he joined Ezra at the darkened window. "Told Conklin he should think about puttin' the townfolk somewhere safe, like the church basement. When Concho gets here I have a feelin' we're all gonna feel like prayin' anyways."
"Amen," Ezra said humorlessly, his eyes still locked on the street.
Buck glanced at him in curiosity, eyed the vacant street before them, trying to see what his friend found so fascinating. It was a pretty good view. From Nathan's window, one could see down the length of the main street, from the whitewashed church Josiah had been working so hard to restore, all the way down the street to a large building set at an angle sent the avenue off to the right. On a regular day, the window would be a good place to sit and watch Four Corners go by. Tonight, the streets below were littered with glass and wood, deserted. Haunted, almost.
Buck sniffed, glanced again at Ezra. "Thought you'd be sleepin'."
The gambler looked at him, his light green eyes shielded as they usually were, but still he dropped them quickly to his hands as he shook his head. "Too many apprehensions to lie easy tonight, I'm afraid."
Buck noticed the anxious tone in Ezra's voice, cocked his head. "Like what?"
Ezra glanced behind him, as if to make sure that JD was still asleep, then faced Buck with a serious expression. "My friend, we must face facts. Concho Charles will be here at first light with a mass of men determined to overtake this town. The citizenry here are ill-equipped to truly defend themselves, and our numbers have - well, they've dwindled. And if we assume the worst, if we assume that Mr. Tanner and the others did not survive their escape, then you and I are all that's left."
Buck took in a deep breath. "I see what you mean, Ezra. That's damn depressing."
Ezra was shaking his head. "There's more. Even if you and I are the only hope this town has, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking we would be able to even slow Concho down. We cannot run, so our only choice is to face his men and die like gentlemen in the certain resulting hail of gunfire. And if that is what must happen, then that is what I intend to do."
Buck's expression changed to one of confusion. "What about me?"
Ezra cocked his eyebrow at Buck, shook his head. "I cannot allow you to make that stand with me, Mr. Wilmington. You have responsibilities." Ezra glanced at the sleeping youth huddled in the patchwork quilt behind them. "If you and I both fall, Mr. Dunne will most assuredly be next, because he will be the last, excluding Mr. Larabee whom I doubt we shall ever see again. So you see, Mr. Wilmington, you cannot die because you are Mr. Dunne's last hope, and he is the last hope of us all."
Buck felt a chill go through him then, stared at the solemn, set face of the man standing opposite him. He opened his mouth to argue. Dammit, Ezra, don't you go all noble on me and set yourself out there to die. I ain't never run from a fight in my life, and I sure as hell ain't gonna start now. We're part of the group; we die, we die together.
But Buck didn't say those things, because he knew in a way that wrenched his gut that Ezra was right. They were outnumbered to the point of lunacy; if they went out together, they would both be cut down before they could draw their guns. And then that Concho bastard would just laugh, trample over them, run on up the wooden steps to Nathan's and -
Buck's eyes darted to JD, still lying asleep in the bed, and he shivered. No, he couldn't let that happen. Not if there was any way on earth to prevent it.
So, Ezra was right. Damn him.
Ezra smiled gently, nodded his head out the window. "It may be, Mr. Wilmington, that you were wondering what I was ruminating on, when you entered just now. Do you know what irony is?"
Buck thought a moment, shook his head.
Ezra let out a small sigh. "Irony is a situation in which something occurs which is the opposite of what one might expect, given the circumstances. And I was just thinking of the first time I made the acquaintance of you gentlemen, in that saloon - " he indicated with a nod of his head the darkened saloon down the street, "Six months ago, when all I cared about was making money and moving on. If you had told me then that I could function in a group of seven individuals, I would have laughed in your face."
"As I recall," Buck said, his voice low, "that's exactly what you did."
Ezra glanced at him, smiled a little. "I never in my wildest dreams thought any person could mean more to me than gain. I was more surprised than any of you at the depths of my..." Ezra paused, looked down at his cards, then back onto the street. "For a short time, I would like to imagine that we accomplished something here, Mr. Wilmington. As you said so eloquently earlier, we were always strongest when we acted together. So it is a bitter irony to me that now, when the dawn comes, I alone must venture into that street and die, or disgrace myself forever."
Buck shifted, uncomfortable at the mental image that presented.
"But if that must be so," Ezra said quietly, his eyes once again going down to where his hands shuffled the cards, endlessly arranging and rearranging them between his fingers, "all I ask is that you notify my mother, ship me in a halfway decent coffin - " His eyes flicked to Buck's, deadly earnestness telegraphing from those pale depths. "And get Mr. Dunne to San Francisco as soon as you possibly can."
Buck nodded, didn't want to talk about the possibility of all of them being dead by morning. He also knew that there was no way Ezra would have been sharing this with him if the gambler were not utterly convinced that he would be dead the next day. So Buck swallowed, looked out the window, and said nothing. And waited for the dawn.
+ + + + + + +
Conklin sat at the sheriff's desk, ran one tired hand over his eyes. He tried to concentrate, tried to think about what he could do to stop what he knew was coming, but all he could think about was that awful bloodstain on the wall just behind him.
Gerald's blood. Gerald's lifeblood.
Conklin shook his head, scowled at himself. He'd never really liked Gerald, the man wasn't what you'd call a friend, but still...still, Conklin knew he'd messed up, badly, and as a result Gerald was dead, the town was shot to pieces, and now a huge gang was coming and there wasn't anything he could do about it.
Not that he wasn't trying. Several council members were right now going from door to door, telling the citizens about the danger and offering the chance to take shelter in the church's basement. After the way he'd botched things up, Conklin was surprised that he wasn't being stoned, but apparently anyone who had a semblance of authority was being taken seriously tonight, which really rankled Conklin because he knew he didn't deserve it.
So, when they'd all huddled together in the sheriff's office after the panic was over, it was Conklin they asked, so what do we do now? Then that gambler had brought the businessman over, and he'd told them all about Concho and what his plans were, and now the council was trying its best to stem a townwide panic. But what good would it do? With no protection, no way to stop them, he was just delaying the inevitable. Concho and his men would take over the town. Dozens of innocent people would likely die, including him. There really wasn't any way to stop it. Since the judge wasn't coming...
Dammit, Conklin. You really messed things up.
"Hey!" a loud voice barked from the rear cell.
Conklin looked up, irritated. It was that businessman, Durning, again. "What?"
"I'm hungry," Durning groused, sauntering to the bars and gripping them. "Don't you guys ever feed your prisoners?"
Conklin sighed hugely, went back to his plans. "You'll eat in the morning."
"We'll all be dead in the morning," Durning said sarcastically. "It's your fault I'm in here, dammit! I want some food."
Conklin slammed his pen down. "Mr. Durning, it is not my fault you decided to run with the likes of Concho Charles. Now shut up and stop bothering me!"
Durning shot Conklin a nasty look, went and slumped down in his cot. After a moment he asked, "Hey, where's Sherson and Childers? They were in on this too, you know."
"I know." Conklin's eyes stayed on his paper. "They're rounding them up, don't worry. Your friends are better at hiding than you are."
Durning snorted and shook his head in disgust.
The door opened, and Conklin looked up. It was one of the council members, a younger man named Pender, and he looked a little shaken up. "Mr. Conklin - "
Conklin furrowed his brow. "What is it, Pender?"
The younger man looked out in the street, then back. "You'd better come - "
Conklin stood, felt his blood go cold as he reached for his gun. "What is it? More outlaws?"
Pender shook his head. "No, sir - soldiers! Dozens of 'em!"
Conklin froze. "Federal soldiers?"
Pender nodded, his eyes wide with amazement as he added, "And the judge!"
+ + + + + + +
Buck was looking down at his hands, thinking about how much he was hating his life at the moment, when he felt Ezra grip his arm and gasp. Looking up at the gambler quickly, Buck saw the naked astonishment in Ezra's eyes and turned his gaze out the window.
The first thing he saw was Vin - the tracker's light coat made him easy to pick out, plus he was riding out front, Josiah and Nathan on either side of him. Was that blood on his coat? Something dark...he was shaking it off, but Buck saw Nathan putting a hand on Vin's shoulder occasionally, for support.
But they were alive. All three of them, alive. Thank God.
Then Buck's gaze went to Josiah's left, and he saw the man riding next to the preacher. It was dark, and Buck couldn't see all that well, but damned if he wouldn't have known that shoulders-back, head-up, don't-mess-with-me attitude a mile away.
Orin Travis. The judge was here.
But behind him - behind the judge was what was making both Buck and Ezra stare open-mouthed in surprise. Soldiers, blue-clad Federal soldiers, at least a hundred, cavalry and infantry, marching behind the judge as if they were on parade. Buck's skin tingled, and he thought of the war, the last time he saw that many men marching in formation that way. My God. We might have a chance after all.
The judge is here. We got us a legion of soldiers.
As Buck and Ezra watched, the entourage pulled up to the jailhouse, and they saw Conklin walk uncertainly out of the jail to meet them.
+ + + + + + +
Orin Travis gave Conklin an even stare as the old man tentatively approached his horse.
"Mr. Conklin," Orin said in iron tones, then waited.
Conklin fiddled with his tie, didn't meet the judge's eyes, cleared his throat before talking. "Judge Travis."
There was another pause, then Orin looked to where Josiah and Nathan were helping Vin from his horse. "I understand that up until recently you were the self-appointed law in this town."
Conklin cleared his throat again, nodded.
Orin pressed his lips together briefly, then said, "Well? What do you think of the job?"
Conklin brought his head up then, gave Orin a look of sheer capitulation. "I - well, I..."
He glanced over to his right. Vin was on the ground, standing with his back to Conklin and shaking off the helping hands of his friends. He turned a little, and Conklin saw the determination in the tracker's eyes as his face caught the street fire's glow.
Conklin sighed, shook his head and looked Orin in the eye. "To tell you the truth, Judge, I don't think it agrees with me."
Orin gave the older man a curt nod. "Good. Then you won't argue with me if I step in."
Conklin shook his head vigorously. "I'd really rather you did."
As Orin swung himself off his horse, Nathan put a firm hand on Vin's shoulder and said, "Come on, let's get you both looked at."
Josiah nodded assent, and together he and Nathan began to lead Vin and their horses away.
Orin straightened his jacket, shot his steel eyes in their direction. "Gentlemen, just a moment."
The three men paused, turned back toward the judge.
Orin turned to one of the soldiers behind him, a tall man wearing officer's bars, and said, "Captain, take your men to get something to eat and then meet me in the basement of that white church over there. If what I'm told is true, we have until sunrise to formulate a plan to save this town, so I suggest you all put your thinking caps on."
The captain nodded. "Yes, sir." and he attended to the soldiers massed behind him.
Orin paused, noticed the small knots of townspeople drawn out to see this amazing spectacle, soldiers and their bristling weapons in the dusty streets of Four Corners. He turned to Conklin with a scowl.
"These people look mighty scared, Mr. Conklin. Anybody get hurt? Mary?"
Conklin shook his head. "Mrs. Travis is fine. Some stores got broke into. We got some of the men that did it, but..." He broke off, stared down at the wooden boardwalk, ashamed.
Orin eyed Conklin appraisingly, checked his watch. "Mr. Conklin, in troubled times it's very easy to let your passions direct your judgment. I'm going to assume you've learned from all this."
Conklin nodded, kept his eyes down.
"Good." Orin said with a hint of a smile, and patted Conklin on the shoulder. "I can trust a man who learns from his mistakes. You and Mr. Dwight are in charge till I get back."
Conklin raised his head then, surprise and something like relief on his face, and it stayed there even after Orin left him, and walked toward the three gunslingers who stood in the shadows.
Vin gave Orin a quietly appreciative gaze. "Sure am glad you're here, judge."
Orin nodded a little, then his eyes went to Nathan, and they were full of concern as he asked softly, "How's JD?"
Nathan glanced toward his room, then back again. "He was doing better, last I knew. We can see if he's awake."
"Is he walking?" Orin asked quickly.
Nathan bit his lip, shook his head no.
Orin sighed, his voice somber and compassionate."Mary told me, when she wired me, what happened. " He looked up, met their eyes but Vin's especially, and his gaze was hardest stone. "Want you boys to know, when Chris comes back he'll be damned if he gets any leniency from me."
Vin met the gaze, shook his head slightly as he said, "If the Chris we want comes back, he won't be askin' for any."
Orin held their gaze for a moment, then shifted his eyes down the street and waved his hand. "Well, let's get you fellas tended to. When morning comes, I'm going to need every hand I can get."
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