As soon as Buck saw that his friends were heading their way, he hurried over to the bed and carefully knelt down in front of JD, who was still asleep. Ezra walked around him, quickly hunting some matches down, and as Buck heard drawers being opened and closed he leaned a little closer and said, "Hey, JD? JD."
The flare of a match stick being struck, and amber light gleamed on JD's face as the long black eyelashes fluttered, opened sleepily, squinted against even that low light. "Hm? What?"
"The judge is here, son," Buck said, quietly but in a happy voice, and he felt better than he had in a while, at that. "He's comin' over here. You wanna see him?"
JD's eyes widened, and he struggled to sit up in the bed, his black hair flopping into his eyes. "Judge Travis?"
"Uh huh." Buck stood quickly, arranging the pillows so JD could rest his back against them. "And Vin and them are with him."
The youth turned over, grimacing as his efforts to comb his hair with his fingers proved a total failure. "Is everybody all right?"
Buck nodded and said, "Looks to be."
As he spoke, Ezra turned up the lamp. The room grew brighter, and Buck tried not to wince as he once again saw those bruises, the healing cuts, the neat row of black stitches that edged out of JD's hair. But then he noticed something - JD was tugging at his nightshirt, smoothing his hair, all with an expression of anticipation that had completely replaced the morose gloom Buck had seen him inearlier. Heroes. Maybe JD still had at least one. At least one, and as Judge Orin Travis was in town, JD would be distracted from his hurts, maybe he'd even get better a little faster. Buck felt his heart lighten a little. Maybe things would be okay for JD, after all.
The boy looked supremely self-conscious, and as he sat up muttered, "Hope the judge ain't mad at me. He gave me the town to look after and it's just gone all to hell."
"Well, we ain't gonna worry about that just now," Buck responded, helping JD sit up.
"Leave me alone, Buck!" JD snapped irritably, shaking himself out of Buck's grasp. "I ain't a baby."
Buck backed away, both hands up and a smile on his face. That was a little of the old JD. "Sorry, son. Just trying to lend a hand is all."
"Bad enough I gotta see the judge lying around in bed," JD groused, half to himself, as he wrenched his body around and slapped at the pillows.
Buck frowned a bit, put his hands in his jacket pockets. As JD huffed back against the pillows, he glared at the gunslinger and saw Buck's face change a little as he said, "Oh, shit, son, I almost forgot."
JD scowled at Buck's words, then watched as Buck pulled something out of his pocket and held it up.
JD's eyebrows shot up in amazement. "My sheriff's star? How'd you get it from Conklin?"
"He gave it to me," Buck said happily as he leaned forward to pin it on JD's nightshirt. "Said it belonged to - "
"No, wait a minute, Buck." JD said suddenly, pulling back from Buck's attempts to fasten the pin.
JD winced, looked up at Buck with reluctant eyes and shook his head. "I ain't ready to have it back on yet. Not till I can do the job again."
Buck straightened up, a little surprised. "Oh. OK, JD."
"But I'll hold onto it," JD said quickly, holding his good hand out.
Buck obligingly dropped the tin star into JD's hand, and the youth tightened his scratched fingers around it and smiled a little.
"Thanks, Buck," JD said, grasping the tiny piece of metal as if it were a gold medallion. He paused, and said in a soft, hopeful voice, "I'll - I'll put it back on when we get back from San Francisco."
Buck heard footsteps coming to the door, nodded at Ezra, then looked back at JD with a small smile.
"You do that, son. That sounds like a fine plan to me."
JD set the star on the nightstand, and turned his eyes to the door. Look at his eyes, Buck thought for a moment before looking away from JD, that's the way he used to look at Chris. Heroes.
He's still got one left.
Then the door opened, and all three men turned silent.
+ + + + + + +
The first man through the door was not the judge, but Nathan, and Buck and Ezra both came forward when they saw that he was supporting Vin on his shoulder. The bounty hunter looked irked, but wasn't fighting Nathan's help too much as the healer led him to the chair by JD's bed.
"God, Vin!" JD gaped, staring at the dried blood on Vin's jacket. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, kid," Vin said in his usual low, gravelly voice as he sat down, hard. He looked at JD, looked again. "You doin' better?"
JD shrugged, looked down at the bedsheets.
"Get out of that jacket, now," Nathan commanded, walking around the bed to his medical kit as Josiah and Orin entered.
"Josiah?" JD asked in mild alarm when he saw that the preacher was limping. "You too?"
"Only a scratch, son," Josiah said reassuringly as he thunked himself down on the table next to the front window. He let out a loud sigh, as if he'd been holding his breath, and grimaced.
"Only a scratch," Nathan said sarcastically as he gently began to pull Vin's jacket away from his hurt arm. "With these two, an arrow through the neck is only a scratch. Josiah, you get yourself ready over there, I'll be fixin' you up in a minute."
Buck smiled, crossed his arms. "I know that tone. I'd just like see you argue with that, Josiah."
Josiah smiled back, winced as he brought his foot up to remove his boot. "No, thanks."
JD then noticed Judge Travis, standing at the foot of the bed and looking at him. Nodding a little, JD squared his shoulders and said, "Sir."
"JD." Travis nodded back. "How are you doing, son?"
"Fine," JD said automatically, then stammered for a moment and looked at his good hand. "I'm - I'm sorry you had to come all the way out here."
"Not at all," Travis said diplomatically, looking around the room, "Been meanin' to come back around, take a look at things. Pretty good timing, I'd say."
"Amen to that," Josiah said softly as he eased his boot off.
Travis looked at him for a moment, then began to walk slowly around the foot of the bed. "Yes, now about those outlaws. Mr. Dwight tells me we're expecting more of 'em, around sunup?"
Ezra nodded, and Buck echoed his movement.
"Hm." Orin put his hands in his pockets, continued to pace. "Well, it's a good thing I came prepared. I'm going to post men in every alley, empty store, and back street in this town, and when dawn comes we'll see to it that once Concho Charles rides into Four Corners, he won't be riding out again."
Vin grunted as Nathan laid his shoulder bare. The healer handed him a bottle of whiskey and reached for his tools as the tracker said, "We'll stay out of the way if you want, judge."
Orin's eyebrows went up, and he walked once again to the foot of the bed, bathed in the amber rays of the oil lamp. "No, you gentlemen misunderstand me. This town may be blind, but don't think this old man hasn't seen what you men have had to put up with, defending this town. It's a thankless, dirty job, but you've all done it, when lesser men would have shaken the dust off long ago. And for that, I'm mighty grateful."
Orin paused, and the men looked at each other, mildly embarrassed by the praise. Orin cleared his throat and continued. "After tonight, I don't think there's a soul in this town that doesn't know that you are all men of character and courage. And don't think for a minute that just because I have a hundred soldiers at my disposal that I can do without a single one of you. No, I'm going to need you in the morning, right out where the people can see you, and know that because of you, this town is safe."
Buck felt a twinge of pride, nodded his head and spoke for them all. "We'll be there, sir."
Ezra laughed softly and shook his head. "Lord help us all."
Vin took a swig of whiskey, nodded as well, although he was gritting his teeth.
"Oh, now don't you start," Nathan chided as he cleaned Vin's wound. "You got a banged-up shoulder, and you lost some blood."
Vin eyed Nathan steadily, then smiled a little. "They didn't hurt me. Just got me mad, is all."
Nathan shook his head, knew he was losing. Had lost already.
Vin caught the other mens' eyes over Nathan's head, and winked as he took another swig of whiskey. The men laughed a little, looking at each other in a conspiratorial way, and for a few warm moments a familiarity hung in the air, a rich feeling of camaraderie they had all missed, and there was a long pause, as if each man had just realized what was coming back, and was savoring it, didn't want it to go away. Just like old times.
Orin was leaning back, his hands still in his pockets, when the door opened again and Mary appeared. She saw Orin, and her tired face lit up with relief and joy.
"Oh - " she gasped, and rushed in to give her father-in-law a warm embrace. "Oh, Orin, thank God you're here!"
"Mary," Orin said fondly, patting her on the back as he hugged her. "They told me you were sleeping."
Mary shook her head as she drew back. "The noises in the street woke me up. Oh, Orin, it's been the most awful - I've tried everything I can think of, but..."
Orin nodded. "I know, Mary, you've held down the fort as best you could. Stephen would have been proud of you."
"We're all proud of her, Judge," Josiah said sincerely, and Mary glowed as the others nodded agreement.
"Well," Orin said admiringly, "I'd expect no less from a relative of mine. But you can rest now, Mary. Everything's going to be all right."
Mary sighed, looked down at the floor. "I hope so."
"Oh, you may depend on it," Ezra said with a gallant smile. "Now that we are officially back in business again, I think you may bet on it, my dear, especially with your esteemed father-in-law at the helm." His expression hardened a little. "We'll make Concho Charles pay for what he has done here."
"Yes, we will," Orin agreed, and he turned back to Mary. "And while we're rounding up him and his men, I need to know you're somewhere safe."
Mary's eyes blazed. "If you think I'm just going to cower like a simpering - "
"No," Orin said firmly, taking Mary by the arms and looking her in the eye. "Any man who would ask you to simper would be looking for a black eye, and I'm not in the market. But I do need you to stay with the other women and the older folk, in the basement of the church."
Mary opened her mouth to protest.
"Now, Mary," Orin said in commanding tones. "These people need to see your strength, and your courage. They need you, Mary. Accept it."
Mary sighed, looked at her father-in-law. Accepted it. And nodded.
Orin looked around at the group and said, "I have to go, gentlemen, I have an outlaw to catch. But I'll be in touch with all of you before morning comes. And on behalf of this stupid, insolent, backwards town - thank you."
The men smiled. Vin lifted the whiskey bottle, and as Orin walked out, Mary on his arm, Buck chanced another look at JD. He smiled when he saw how the kid's face glowed, from sweat and from pride and from the struggle of hiding how bad he was hurting, so the judge wouldn't see it. He's fighting back. Good for you, JD. We'll show those demons we ain't beat yet. Chris' demons, and the ones comin' at sunrise on horseback. We'll show 'em.
We ain't beat yet.
Then Buck cleared his throat, and began to get ready for the dawn.
+ + + + + + +
In the jail, Durning sat in his cell and fumed. He'd been pacing, but was now sitting on the edge of the cot, growling to himself and rocking back and forth with barely suppressed anger.
"Damn that Tims." He growled to himself, balling his hands into fists and then flexing them out again, over and over. "When I catch up with that little squealer, he's dead meat. Just wait till I get my hands on that lousy - "
The jail door opened, and Durning looked up to see Dwight walk in with two men in handcuffs.
"Oh, shit," he said out loud. Sherson and Childers.
The two men looked at each other, then at Durning. "You snitched on us," Sherson said darkly.
"No I didn't," Durning snapped back as Dwight opened the outside set of bars. "Tims did."
"Tims!" Childers yelped. "That little bastard."
"Don't worry," Durning said with a smirk. "We'll get him. Soon as we get out of here."
"You guys shut up," Dwight said in a threatening tone as he opened the door to Durning's cell and shoved the other two into the small space. "Word gets out about what you did, you'll be lucky if you don't get lynched."
"What we did!" Durning gaped at his partners, then at Dwight. "We didn't do anything, you hick!"
Dwight smiled sarcastically as he hung the keys up on the nail. "Sorry boys, but the money and the goods in your hotel room say otherwise."
"Oh, so what!" Durning said, then thought a minute and said, "Hey, you know what? You let us out of here, you can have some of that money. It isn't all in the hotel room. I can get you enough money to blow this one-horse town."
Dwight turned around, looked at Durning with interest. "You don't say."
Durning nodded, and the two other men nodded too, their eyes gleaming encouragement. "So what do you think? We gotta deal?" "I think..." Dwight said evenly, walking to the bars and grasping them lightly. He paused.
Durning became impatient.
"I think," Dwight repeated, "that you're all a bunch of greedy city slickers looking to rip off people you thought were just a group of small-town hicks. I also think you're about to find out all about what we call frontier justice."
Durning heard Childers gulp. He asked, "What's that?"
Dwight smiled in an evil way. "You'll find out. But it's not pretty."
Dwight let go of the bars, and walked to the sheriff's desk, ignoring the men completely.
"Oh, shit." Childers said. Then again, "Oh, shit."
"Will you shut up!" Durning barked, raking his hands through his hair. "Will the both of you just shut up."
Sherson looked shocked. "I didn't say anything!"
Durning growled, and buried his head in his hands.
And at his desk, Matthew Dwight smiled to himself and busied himself with the paperwork.
"Frontier justice," he said quietly to himself, "is the three of you, stuck together, for a good, long time."
+ + + + + + +
The first grey haze of morning shimmered over the quiet landscape.
The sky was just on its way from the blackness of the night to the first subtle hues that announced the approaching morning. In the streets, Orin rode stealthily through alleys and back roads, his eyes darting cautiously at the abandoned houses and empty storefronts, where eyes gazed back at him from under caps of Federal blue. The outlaws that had been in the town had been rounded up a few hours before, herded to a nearby barn for safekeeping. The trap was waiting. All it had to do now was be sprung.
In the basement of the church, Mary went around with Dwight, talking to the large crowd of people that had gathered in that tense space and trying to calm their fears. Emmie Walters was there, as was Gloria and two Mexican girls Mary remembered seeing in the streets some nights. The younger of these two looked particularly afraid, and although her Spanish wasn't very good, Mary did her best to calm the child down. The older girl, who told Mary her name was Rita, smiled and thanked her. Mary smiled back, and felt a little less resentful about not being allowed to blast Concho Charles' head off.
Meeting Dwight in the middle of the room, Mary rubbed her palms together as she surveyed the milling, nervous townspeople. "I hope we're safe enough here."
Dwight nodded with confidence. "Don't worry, Mrs. Travis. There's a guard at the outside stairwell, as well as a few soldiers outside the church."
Mary looked at him uncertainly. "Only a few?"
Dwight shrugged. "Sure, we didn't want to tip our hand to Concho that most all of Four Corners is in this basement. He might come here lookin' for hostages."
Mary glanced around quickly. No one had heard that potentially panic-inducing comment. Mostly, people were just looking bleary from not enough sleep, and scared. Very scared.
Gloria came over to the cot, greeted Mary with a somber smile. "May I sit down?"
Mary shrugged, gave her friend a tight little smile in return.
Gloria sat down, shook her head and said quietly, "Look at them, Mary. I've never seen these people so on edge."
Mary nodded. "After this morning, I might not have a newspaper anymore. The town didn't try to take it from me, but he might."
Gloria gave a light laugh. "Somehow I doubt that. I don't think Concho Charles would take the trouble to drag off your printing press."
Mary smiled, felt her heart lift a little.
Gloria sighed as she studied the people in the room, young and old, sitting and standing, a collection of phantoms in the uneven lamplight. "I'm sorry it had to come to this, Mary. If only they'd listened to you, to reason. If only they'd thought with their common sense, instead of their common fears. Maybe we'd have been all right."
Mary licked her lips, looked at the floor.
"But," Gloria said regretfully, "they had to try and run Mr. Tanner and the others off, and now we're all stuck here waitin' to see if we got a town to go back to. I don't know, Mary. Do you think they'll ever learn?"
Mary looked at Gloria, saw the fatigued wonder behind those brown eyes, and thought.
While she thought, Gloria said with a smile, "You'll be a hard person to be around for a while, Mary, you know that? They'll all have to avoid you. Don't take it personally."
Mary looked at her friend crossly. "What do you mean?"
"Well, think about it," Gloria replied, waving her hand. "You were right. You told these people from the beginning. Conklin, from the beginning, you told him to trust the hired guns, and no one listened to you. They thought they knew everything, and what did you know? You're just a woman, after all, and so heir to misconceptions. So Conklin takes Mr. Dunne's badge, pins it on and thinks that makes him a sheriff. Trouble is, Concho Charles doesn't take that very seriously, not like he takes Tanner and the others, and now here we are, and these people all know if they had just listened to you...if they'd just listened to you, Mary, we'd be asleep in our beds and Mr. Townsend would still be alive. You were right, Mary. You were right, and that's mighty hard for these people to accept. But they will, eventually."
"I hope so." Mary said softly, but she was having trouble caring at the moment. "I just want this day to be over."
Gloria smiled in commiseration. "Me too, Mary. Me too."
And the two women sat side by side, and waited for the dawn.
+ + + + + + +
Far above the basement of the church, Tims looked out of the window of Nathan's room into the streets below. They were just barely visible in the predawn light, but even in that dim gloom the broken glass and splintered planks of wood were seen in ugly piles everywhere. Tims sighed and shook his head.
"Are you sure this is going to work?" he asked Buck, who was leaning on Nathan's desk and loading his shotgun. Tims asked the question softly, because JD was still asleep, but Buck heard him and smiled.
"Son, I know the judge pretty good," he replied quietly. "And I ain't seen a plan of his fail yet."
"How many of his plans have you seen?" Tims asked as he checked his own gun.
"Uh - " Buck's face changed to mock irritation. "Don't ask questions, son, just make sure you got enough bullets in that thing."
Tims checked the cylinder as Buck eyed him. He'd agreed with the judge that having Tims under house arrest, and helping them out, was better than having his 'friends' strangle him in their cell, but still he hoped this fancy-pants Easterner was a better shot than he looked. 'Cause he looked like he couldn't shoot worth a damn.
There was a muffled sound behind Buck, and he turned to see JD turning over sleepily in the bed, rubbing his eyes with his good hand. He squinted up at Buck and asked, "What's going on?"
"Oh, nothin'," Buck said lightly, setting the rifle aside. "We're just waitin' for our visit from Concho Charles. How're you feelin', son? Want some breakfast?"
JD thought a moment, then nodded.
"Good." Buck smiled encouragingly. "I think that can be arranged. Flapjacks, or potatoes?"
JD sighed, scratched his head. "Potatoes."
"Comin' right up." Buck said, and stood up.
"No, I'll get it," Tims said, moving toward the door. "I know where the restaurant is."
"Oh. Okay." Buck said with a smile. "Thanks. Pan fried, now, we gotta fatten this boy back up."
"Got it." Tims said, and was out the door.
JD watched him leave, then turned his healing face to his friend. "Buck?"
Buck looked at him, decided he looked better. Not a hundred percent yet, but better. "Yeah, kid?"
"I wanna help."
Buck's expression turned puzzled. "Help?"
"With this." JD gestured toward the window. "With you guys, fighting Concho Charles."
Buck grew more puzzled. "Well, I reckon bein' stuck in bed would make you restless, son, but I don't see how - "
"You can put me in a chair," JD said convincingly, awkwardly pushing himself up in the bed with one hand, "By that window, the one that faces the street. I can see the whole street from there, and you know what a good shot I am, Buck - "
"Well, yeah, I know, son," Buck said uncertainly, torn between being overjoyed that the boy was at last showing some of that spark Buck thought might be lost for good, and knowing that all JD was going to do was get himself killed. "But now what would Nathan say if he saw you settin' there waitin' to get your head blown off?"
JD set his face petulantly. "If I was all right I'd be fighting with you guys, right?"
Buck laughed. "We ain't been able to stop you yet."
"So?" JD reasoned, gesturing towards the window. "You'd let me fight then, why not let me fight now? I can shoot with one hand, I'll be fine Buck, I just...I can't just sit by and watch this happen. The judge said he needs every single one of us, and that's me too. Please, Buck. You've got to let me fight."
Buck sighed, looked at JD again. He could tell how badly JD wanted to do this. It was in the boy's eyes, that hadn't shone as they did now for a long time. And the set of JD's jaw, Buck realized he'd seen that expression before, in a dusty Indian village six months earlier. If he told JD to stay out of this fight, the boy would find a way into it anyway. He would, just to show Buck and the others he could. And to show the judge, too.
JD was fighting his demons. And Buck knew he had no choice but to let him.
Buck shook his head, couldn't stop himself from grinning. "All right, Nathan'll probably kill me, but...I'll get you set up, but you got to promise me that you'll give it up if it gets too hectic."
"Oh, I will, you bet. Thanks, Buck," JD said earnestly, and grinned, the first real grin in five days. The bruise was still there, the stitches would be for a little while yet, but somehow they faded when JD put on that I-can-do-anything smile. Buck had to stop himself from laughing out loud from the sheer joy of seeing it again.
Buck got up, went to the window, cocked his head and thought. "Well, all right then. Have to move this table I guess, get you some pillows so's you can see all right...best get a move on, we don't got a lot of time."
JD nodded, then looked down at himself and said, "Buck?"
Buck had both hands on the table and was trying to move it. It was heavier than it looked. "Yeah, kid?"
"What happened to my clothes?"
"Uh - " Buck stopped and looked around, saw a neatly tied bundle on the floor. "They're right here, where the laundress left them."
JD tilted his head. "Can I have them? I don't want to fight in my underwear."
"Sure, kid." Buck handed the clothes to JD.
JD sat up, accepted the bundle as Buck handed it to him. "Thanks, Buck. My hat?"
"Hm." Buck looked around. "Now I don't know where that is. But I'll find it, don't worry."
JD nodded, started to untie the bundle, then stopped and thought a moment. "Hey, Buck?"
Buck was back at the table, trying to move it. "Yeah, JD?"
JD glanced at the door that Tims had just exited through, and when Buck looked at him his young, battered face was a map of confusion. "Who was that guy?"
+ + + + + + +
His army was moving through the desert.
It was not a large army, or a fancy one. But an army nonetheless, a determined army. An army set on pillage.
The sun would not come up for a short while yet, but Concho Charles knew they had a lot of ground to cover, and wanted to arrive in Four Corners just a little early. He rode at the head of the men, over fifty strong, and as he rode he tried to remember why he hadn't done this a long time ago.
They were only seven men, Concho thought to himself as he rode through the dusty dawn. Only seven, and one of them was only a boy. Well, yes, but they knew what they were doing, and that Chris Larabee was a killer. Concho could have gotten his men into Four Corners, but sooner or later Larabee would have found him out, and everything would have been over.
But now...Concho smiled as he knew they were nearing the town. Now Larabee was gone, and probably not coming back. The boy was injured, crippled for life he'd been told, so good riddance to him. If Torres valued his life, the boy was dead, along with the others. None of them had come back to the hideout, so Concho knew that they must be in the town. He'd wanted to be sure, though, so he'd sent an advance party, with instructions to meet them just outside the town. He would have Four Corners back; there would never be a better time.
The dark sky overhead was turning lighter blue, and light pink clouds sketched airy lines into the dawn. Ah, a beautiful day. Concho smiled. A glorious day indeed.
They came upon the last low hill before the town, and Concho held up his hand to halt his men. He scanned the scrubby landscape before them, searched for the advance party. Ah, there it was, five horsemen waiting for him just outside the low jumble of rocks and hills that surrounded the town. With a satisfied smile, Concho urged his men forward.
"So," Concho asked with a smirk as he drew close to the horsemen. "Everything ready?"
The lead horseman nodded, his face blank.
"Ah, wonderful." Concho sighed, gazing at the town that sat before him, its few lights shimmering in the predawn darkness. He heard a commotion behind him, turned around. There were too many men behind him to see all the way to the back, but he could see to the top of the low rise behind them.
And he saw the row of cavalry standing there, their outlines stark against the lightening sky.
"What the - " Concho blurted, turning around. "I thought you - "
He stopped, gaped. Behind the horsemen, rising out of the bushes, were three men that should have been dead, all with shotguns aimed at his head. In the road ahead of him were at least ten Federal soldiers, their guns drawn, looking very serious.
"Mornin', Mr. Charles," one of the men, who Concho recognised as Tanner, said with a small smile. "Thought we'd make this easy on you, an' give you a chance to surrender, you and all your men."
"What!" Concho pulled out his gun and aimed it at Tanner with liquid ease.
A loud shot went off, and the gun was ripped from his hand.
Concho brought his stinging hand back, gasping, his eyes going to the large, bearded man who'd fired the shot.
"Not very neighborly," the bearded man intoned. "Now come on, Concho. Surrender your men. You're surrounded, and we got too many dead already."
Concho glared at his horsemen, "You idiots, you led me right into a trap! How dare you!"
"Don't go too hard on 'em," Tanner said sympathetically, coming out of the bushes, "It was this or get shot. Most men would rather live than die for no reason."
Right then, in the rising light, Concho noticed that the advance party all had their hands tied to their saddles.
"But you see," Tanner continued in the same gentle tone, "we had to get you close enough so's you didn't run off. Now I don't care much for these men, but all the same I'd rather not shoot 'em. So put up your gun, Mr. Charles. You're under arrest."
Concho looked around, at the soldiers, at Tanner, at his men who were looking around in frightened confusion. He bristled, tightened his hands on the reins.
The big preacher shook his head, raised his shotgun. "Mr. Charles, your men beat up a couple of very good friends of mine. Please don't make me fight the better angels of my nature and blow your head off."
The hands slackened, and Concho let his gaze drop. The men behind him milled dazedly, unsure what to do.
One of the soldiers dismounted and came toward him, his gun up as he reached out one gloved hand. "Give me your gun."
Concho didn't move, let the soldier come a little closer.
"Careful." he heard Tanner whisper to the soldier.
The soldier took one step closer.
And Concho struck upward with one steel-toed boot, and kicked him in the face.
"Go to hell!" he cried, and with a rough cry spurred his horse forward at a breakneck pace.
And suddenly the air around him was full of flying lead.
+ + + + + + +
Vin grunted as the stricken soldier fell back against him. Concho had barrelled off, and his men followed him through the line of soldiers, who all drew their guns and blasted at the attacking men. Many of the men broke through; some didn't and were captured by the soldiers, the rest of whom thundered past Vin, Josiah, and Nathan and into the town.
"Come on!" Vin heard Nathan call out, and with Josiah he was running for his horse, which was nearby. Vin shook his head, and righting the soldier again watched him rub his jaw and spew forth a fountain of profanity. Then Vin rubbed his aching shoulder, and followed his friends.
+ + + + + + +
JD readjusted the pillows on his chair, setting his good elbow on the windowsill and looking down the street. Far in the distance, he could see Buck and Ezra standing on the roofs, one on either side of the street, their guns poised and ready. It was just about dawn.
He sighed and glanced behind him, into the room. Tims was there, still a little nervous, but a lot more put together than JD thought he'd be for a businessman who'd never really fired a gun before. He was standing at the other window, which really didn't face much of anywhere, but Buck thought he'd be safer there than anywhere else.
"You're really from New York?" JD asked, impressed.
Tims looked over at him and nodded. "Uh - huh. You ever been there?"
JD shook his head. "But I used to know people who were from there. They talked kind of funny."
"Huh, well," Tims smiled, "We think you-all talk pretty strange out here too."
JD laughed, then heard a thunderous roar coming down the street. He sucked in his breath, felt the adrenalin rush he'd missed so bad. JD felt a wild thrill of excitement. It's like my first battle, and I don't care if I have to shoot one-handed, or that I can't ride. I wouldn't miss this for the world.
He saw a horseman coming up the street. Two, three. And a huge cloud of dust.
JD's heart jumped, and he pushed himself up so his elbow was squared against the windowsill. Not for the world!
He grinned ear to ear, took in a huge gulp of air and shouted to no one in particular, "Here they come!"
+ + + + + + +
The earth felt like it was coming down on them.
Mary heard the rumble from the church basement, where she'd been waiting with Gloria and Emmie Walters and many of the townsfolk, waiting to see if by some miracle their town would be spared. And now the fight was upon them.
"Listen to that!" Emmie whispered as the ground shook around them. They could all hear the rattling of the windows upstairs, heard gunshots too. A few people covered their ears.
Matthew Dwight was standing in the center of the room, where everyone could see him. He held up his hand and listened, his eyes on the ceiling.
"Don't worry, folks," he said reassuringly. "They know what they're doing. We'll be all right."
Mary sighed, and prayed that Dwight was correct.
+ + + + + + +
Concho and his men raced through the streets of Four Corners, fanning out into every street in the city, but they met disaster at every turn. Every door and window was bristling with Federal troops, and as soon as the outlaws came into view guns were leveled, and as one the troops opened fire.
A hail of bullets rained down on Concho's men, who fired back in kind. The noise was deafening, the bullets ripped holes in the buildings and shattered windows, and men fell into the street groaning, injured, or dead.
Concho raced down the main street, firing his gun at anything that moved. Suddenly he looked up and saw, in front of the jail, a thick line of Federal troops, all with their guns aimed at him. He pulled his horse up, his men piling behind him in a blinding swirl of brown dust. A quick glance to the rear showed more troops, and in front of them those three gunslingers he was sure would be gone or dead by now. They should have been, but there they were, the preacher and the darky and that damn tracker. All still alive. Concho let out a small growl of impotent fury and glared at them.
A door opened, just next to Concho. Judge Travis stepped out of the jail, his shotgun raised, his face stern and merciless.
"Drop the gun," he commanded in icy tones, his eyes locked on Concho like a hawk.
Concho's men fell silent behind him, and there was a thick silence for a moment. Travis glanced up; Buck and Ezra were slowly advancing over the roofs, their guns pointed at Concho, their bodies tense against the pink morning sky.
Concho paused, considered.
Travis' eyes narrowed. "Give it up, son. It's finished."
Concho's eyes went suddenly wide, and he let out an inarticulate scream and fired a shot at the soldiers. They fired back, and he fell off his horse, but in a moment his men swarmed around him, and the soldiers rushed forward.
And the fight was on.
+ + + + + + +
As soon as Concho's men realized that they could no longer go forward, their primary objective turned from takeover to escape. Renegades were everywhere, careening down alleys, riding back up the street they had just ridden down, diving off their horses to try to escape on foot, if they had to.
And the hired guns were trying to stop them all.
Vin, Nathan, and Josiah were in the rear when Concho's men decided to try to break out, and as a result were almost stampeded by the headlong rush of men, mindlessly spurring their horses to spring forward against all common sense. The horses fought against the maneuver, but their riders urged them on, and the men found themselves having to move, or have hundreds of pounds of horseflesh slam into them at full gallop.
Vin sensed it first, saw the frightened horses rearing and blowing, and their trapped riders spinning them about and cruelly jabbing them to make them run. At first it was just a few; then suddenly there was a wave of movement from back to front, and Vin's eyes widened.
"Move!" he suddenly shouted, and forced his horse sideways as a shrieking, shouting mob of horsemen barreled past, bashing their steeds into the soldiers' mounts in their frantic bid for escape.
Nathan and Josiah barely made it out of the way in time. They opened fire on the outlaws as they rode past, then spurred their horses in hot pursuit. There were about twenty of Concho's men who made it past them, and thundered for the desert. Vin cursed, and hoped they could catch them before they got there.
+ + + + + + +
This is just like Gettysburg. Buck ran from one rooftop to the next, taking shots at various outlaws to try and keep the odds even. Except that little Pennsylvania town had houses you couldn't run on the roofs of. But it was just as noisy, the sound of gunfire ricocheting off the brick and glass like it would go on forever, and never stop.
Buck looked down, saw the mass of outlaws and Federal blue soldiers and if he squinted, damned if it didn't look like a mess of Rebs and Yanks tanglin' together. Hey, Chris, he wanted to say, ain't it just like old times?
But, shoot. Chris wasn' t there.
Buck aimed, fired, brought another man out of his saddle. Shit, it is about an even match, ain't it? Almost as many outlaws down there as soldiers. He glanced over, saw Ezra at his post on the roof of the Clarion, firing down at the approaching outlaws with deadly precision. And over in the window at Nathan's...
Buck looked over, had to smile. There was JD, practically hanging out the window, aiming and firing, looked like he was aiming near the jail. He'd put his clothes on, was wearing the familiar brown checkered suit, and as his black hair whipped back and forth as he looked around, Buck suddenly realized that he'd missed that stupid suit. It was actually good to see that shade of brown, under that black hair and over that white shirt. Well, shit. Never would have thought of that.
JD looked up, saw Buck, waved his gun.
Buck smiled and waved back. "Give 'em hell, kid!"
Buck didn't know if JD heard him, but the boy grinned anyway, and kept firing. A bullet slammed into the window frame behind his head, and Buck sucked in his breath as JD ducked into the window and then back out again, his face flushed with excitement.
Jesus, don't get killed, kid. Reloading his pistol, Buck ran to the next rooftop, and thought of Gettysburg.
Durning, Childers, and Sherson crouched down in their cell, covering their ears and trying not to think about the battle erupting outside of the red-brick protection of the jail.
Childers looked up. "Hey, Sherson."
Sherson glanced up, irritated. "What?"
"You ever in the War?"
Sherson shook his head. "I'm not that stupid. Why?"
Childers grinned. "I was, Seventy-First New York. Excelsior Brigade."
"Will you two shut up!" Durning shouted, his eyes darting nervously at the jumbling cascade of soldiers and horses outside the large jail window.
Sherson glared back at Childers, clearly unimpressed. "So you were in the War. So what?"
"Sounded just like this," Childers said almost fondly. "Boy, you missed out on a party! Those were some great times."
"Wait a minute." Sherson looked back at his associate. "Excelsior Brigade."
"Jesus, Childers, that was Dan Sickle's outfit! You idiots almost cost us the war!"
"Bullshit!" Childers returned hotly. "You should have seen where we got stuck! We had to move!"
"I'm going to kill you two in a minute!" Durning shrieked, staring at his cellmates bug-eyed as they regarded him with open shock.
There was a pause while they all listened to the thunderous battle outside, too stunned by what was going on to say much of anything. Then Sherson said, "When my wife finds out about this, she's going to kill me."
Durning glared at him menacingly, then said, "Mine isn't going to find out. I already got a story for her."
Childers nodded. "Me too. If you think I'm going to let her in on what we've been up to, you're nuts."
Sherson regarded the two men in amazement. "But they'll find out eventually. We'll have records."
"Are you really that stupid?" Durning mocked angrily. "Once we blow this hole, you'll have tons of time to make something up. Say you were framed. Say these idiots saw your fancy clothes and went berserk."
Sherson looked dubious. "You sure that'll work?"
Durning eyed Sherson meaningfully. "As dumb as your wife is, Sherson? It'll work."
Sherson scowled, and was about to get up and deck Durning when Childers looked toward the front of the jail and said, "Hey, that judge guy is gone!"
Sherson looked up. Travis was standing at the open door, his rifle in his hand, staring with steely determination into the street. Four soldiers were standing with him.
Durning shook his head angrily. "See if I don't gut that bastard Tims when this is all through. That good-for-nothing snitch cost me everything."
A gunshot sent splinters flying out of the doorway. The judge shouldered his rifle, took a few steps away from the door.
Childers was shaking his head too, when suddenly his expression changed and he leaned forward and grabbed Durning, pointing behind him. Durning looked.
A ragged-looking blond youth was stealthily making his way toward them, moving quietly but very fast. As the men watched, he scooted up to the outer jail cell door and quickly jimmied it open.
The businessmen stared at him as he hurried to the bars.
"I'm Billings," the youth whispered to them. With a rotten grin he started to jimmy the second lock, "Concho sent me in here for you."
"Did he." Durning grunted.
Billings nodded as the cell door popped open. All of the men crawled forward, but Billings closed the door a bit and whispered, "Not all of you. Just one."
The men looked at each other.
"I get to go," Sherson said. "If I'd been running this whole thing, I'd have got rid of that rat Tims a long time ago!"
"No," Childers argued. "I should be the one to go, you guys'd be dead in two seconds out there. Why should I let you waste my chance at blowing this hole?"
Durning sighed in angry frustration and pushed both men out of the way, muscling his way through the cell door as quick as he could before Billings shut it again.
Childers and Sherson both grabbed the bars and glared, but Durning ignored their hot stares of hatred and followed Billings to the open side door, sparing his former business associates and partners in crime only a snide smile and a sarcastic wave on the way out.
Sherson and Childers looked at each other for a split second, reading the same hurt and bewilderment on each others' faces. Then they turned as one toward the front of the jail, took a deep breath and yelled, "Jailbreak!"
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