by Sevenstars & Aureleigh
"You're back earlier than I expected," Miranda observed as her segundo entered the ranch office.
"I got lucky," the man replied. "I hadn't much more'n gotten into town than them three fellers from Four Corners came out of the hotel with a man on a stretcher. The woman was with 'em too, and a man I didn't recognize, tall, good-lookin', with a black mustache."
"Wilmington," Cole Newbolt supplied from the corner where he was nursing a glass of whiskey.
"They had a man on a stretcher?" Miranda repeated. "Was it Standish?"
"They was all so close around him I couldn't see for sure, but he looked the right size and build under the blankets. They loaded him into a buckboard and took him to one of them rental cottages out Weber Street, I think it's the one back of Stitzer's house. I followed 'em, careful like, and saw 'em carry him in. They didn't seem to pay me no heed."
"That's why I sent you," his boss observed. "If Standish has told them anything of what he saw, they'd recognize Cole or Sam, but they wouldn't know you. Why was he on a stretcher?"
"I went back to the hotel after and asked around. Seems like he got in last night with spotted fever. They were movin' him to a quieter place where he might have a better chance to rest and get over it."
"If he's that bad off," Newbolt speculated, "might be he ain't had enough sense to talk about what he knows."
"I was thinking the same," Miranda agreed. "God's still on our side, Cole. Nick, how many were there with him, altogether?"
"The black man, the big one, the one in black, and the one with the mustache. And his ma."
"Four. Maybe Wilmington was off following some kind of lead, and had arranged to meet his friends here if it didn't pan out. Dunne and Tanner are probably doing the same somewhere else." Miranda considered the situation. The quartet would have a fairly solid position, having taken Stitzer's cottage, and they were professionals. The last thing that was needed was to get into a gun battle with them inside the city limits; that would only draw witnesses and the law. "We have to keep this quiet and quick," she decided. "We could overwhelm them by numbers, but that would only make trouble for us in the end."
Cole squinted at her dubiously. " 'We,' Miz Kane?"
"I'm going in with you," she told him.
Cole's Adam's apple bobbed nervously. "Ma'am, I ain't sure that's such a good notion..."
"I'm going," she repeated. "Or did you actually think I intended to let you kill Standish without being there, even before he got away from you? He and his have owed my family this for twenty-three years. I've been dreaming of it and planning it and working toward it for thirteen of those years. I want to see him dead, Cole. I want to hear his mother scream when she lays eyes on his body. And no one, especially not you, is keeping me from it. Now, who gives the orders here, and who pays your wages?"
It was all said very calmly, evenly, reasonably, with never a hint of raised voice or volume, and once again Cole felt a shudder go down his back. "You do, Miz Kane."
"Then it's settled." She thought for a minute. "Four men. Jake's dead, so we're down one. Nick, you already know what's been going on, so you're the logical choice to make up the shortfall. Now, I want you to draw me a map of the cottage they're in."
JD came upstairs from his supper break with an envelope of familiar appearance. "Desk was holdin' a telegram for Chris, from Miz Travis," he explained.
Maude looked up only briefly, then returned to bathing Ezra's skin with diluted distilled witch-hazel. Dunne had to admit, inwardly, that he was a little surprised at her devotion. From what he'd seen of her up till now, he'd never have expected her to be particularly good with sick people. But, on reflection, patience was a necessary part of her makeup; Ezra had explained to him that every gambler and grifter had to cultivate it. "A con must be permitted to run until it is ripe. A pigeon at the poker table must be nursed along until he is ready to stake everything, or nearly everything. A player must be willin' to wait until he has a fightin' hand." JD, who had had experience caring for his mother as she was dying, knew how very important such patience could be in nursing too.
Nathan, who was steeping a new batch of tea, eyed the message speculatively. "Gonna open it?"
"It's really Chris's," JD observed. "But there might be somethin' in it that would help him know who or what to expect to have comin' at 'em. I guess maybe I better." He slit the flap and scanned Mary's message.
EDMUND LIVERMORE HAD NO LIVING BROTHERS STOP=TWO SISTERS NOW DECEASED STOP=LEFT WIDOW AND NINE CHILDREN STOP=ROWENA ELEANOR MIRANDA AUSTIN DENIS RODERIC LYDIA ROSELLE HENRY STOP=AGES EIGHTEEN TO ONE YEAR AT TIME OF HIS DEATH STOP=WILL ATTEMPT TO LEARN WHAT BECAME OF THEM STOP=EVERYONE SENDS BEST WISHES FOR EZRA STOP=MARY
"Huh," said Nathan. "Don't sound too promisin'."
"Well, if this is the order they were born in," JD mused, "don't forget that was better'n twenty years ago. The boys'd be all grown up now, as old as Ez or you, I guess. And that would've made 'em old enough to really know their father, so they could'a been nursin' the grudge all along. Buck's told me of people that waited longer."
The healer frowned and addressed Maude. "Miz Standish, didn't you say that you bein' a part of gettin' Livermore sent to prison was s'posed to stay a secret?"
"Indeed I did, Mr. Jackson. That is why I was so severely disconcerted when I saw the clippings. If you are askin' me how his family might have uncovered my role in the affair, I assure you I haven't the slightest notion. It's not as if I was a witness at a public court proceedin'."
"I was thinkin' about that," Nathan agreed. "There wouldn't be no record of your testimony, or nothin' like that. And Judge Travis ain't a man to talk."
JD's brows kinked. "What are you sayin', Nathan? You think it ain't connected to Livermore at all?"
"I ain't sure what I'm sayin', JD, but I know it ain't that. Sendin' them clippings to her can't be coincidence."
"Well," the kid observed with a sigh, "it don't look this is anything Chris'd be in a hurry to know. It'll wait till he gets back."
The cottage had been built as a variation on an A. J. Downing plan, only about half again the size, and was basically a workingman's house, some fifty-two and a half by thirty-one and a half feet, but with a higher roof line than its model, a full second storey, and a three-sided porch on which convalescent residents and their families might lounge in pleasant weather. The front door gave into an entry hall with a U-shaped stair going up at the back. On the right was the dining room, with a butler's pantry at its right rear and the kitchen opening off the left rear. On the left was the sitting room, and directly behind it a bedroom, as was the usual case in these lungers' cottages, since consumptives might find stairs taxing. Upstairs were two large bedrooms and two smaller ones, each with a closet and a large window. A big cottonwood stood in the front yard, with a semicircular bench at the base of it, and others crowded closer, providing shade; geraniums and fuchsias dotted the grass; japonica and snowball bushes clustered about the edges of the porch, providing a modicum of privacy. A narrow red-brick walk led from the gate to the front steps. The gentle summer-evening breeze swayed the porch swing in a rhythm of soothing creaks, and opposite it a mesh hammock with a raised headpiece bobbed silently against its supporting cords.
Josiah Sanchez, for all his size, could move like a ghost when he wanted to, and what was more he had the patience of a mountain. Vin might have had keener senses and equal self-control, but he lacked Josiah's great silent strength--and Chris didn't want to scare off any invaders prematurely. He wanted to toll them in and take down their advance guard silently and fast, then anyone who followed, without having to maintain the charade for night after night. He was sure the boss kidnapper had either been having the hotel watched all along, or would have some means of quickly catching up on gossip. His hope was that their quarry would want to finish the job quickly.
Nathan had suggested calling in the local law, but Larabee overruled him. They knew they were dealing with someone who had money; could they be sure the police weren't in his pocket? To let the official law-enforcement apparatus know what they were planning would not only entail long, complicated, and possibly incriminatory explanations, it might leave them with an agent of the enemy in their very midst. "Besides," he added, showing his teeth, "this is personal. This is one of us. Coverin' each other's backs is part of the job."
So Josiah had crept out the kitchen door as soon as it was dark and settled himself in the concealment of one of the snowball bushes. The cottage had been chosen in part because a line of thorny Osage orange hedge marked the property line on three sides: nobody was likely to try to get onto it from any of the neighboring lots. Josiah's job was to watch the front walk and give warning to the three men indoors when he saw someone coming in who behaved as if he didn't want to be detected.
There were no street lights in this residential section of the town, and most people in the other houses along the street had turned in, their house windows going dark all up and down the length of the section Josiah could see; in a community planned as a convalescent resort, late nights weren't fashionable, except among the poker-playing crowd. The moon was full, but a thin scum of clouds was building up, gauzy scarves gliding across the sky, setting up an intermittent pattern of shadow and light which was one reason Chris hoped the enemy would make his move tonight: the weather in Colorado Springs at this season was seldom so favorable to what Ezra might have called "surreptitious incursions."
The one thing he hadn't counted on was how fast the halfbreed, Sundog, would have gotten home after Vin killed Jake on the South Park trail. Josiah tensed as he saw a shadowy figure glide over the fence about twenty feet to the left of the fence. The figure he didn't see was the one that came up behind him and laid the barrel of a pistol across the back of his neck, just under the curve of his skull. The preacher collapsed without a sound.
Ezra was dimly aware of the passage of time; although some compassionate soul had drawn the curtains, enough light crept in through the crack for him to discern its character, which was a signpost to the approximate hour. He remembered vaguely the bumping of the travois beneath him, jolting him repeatedly awake to a world of light that hurt his eyes, of awareness of his own pain and nausea and general malaise, of JD's voice greeting the opening of his eyes--more than once, hadn't it been?--and sometimes Buck's too, though that had been under different circumstances; the sky had been mercifully dark above him, he had been aware of the crackling and sweet woodsmoke scent of a campfire. He thought he had heard other voices too, voices he knew. Nathan, coaxing him to drink from the hot cup held to his lips, reassuring him in a gentle bedside tone. "We got you now, Ezra. You're safe. Just rest easy. Don't go thrashin' around. Go back to sleep." Josiah, sometimes quietly encouraging him, sometimes praying. "I'm sorry if I hurt you, Ezra. I never knew you'd had a real father you loved. How was I to know when you never spoke of him? But I don't mean to say that it was your fault. It must hurt you to think of him. It must hurt worse to talk about him. I didn't intend to tear open old wounds. I know you're not really my son. But Vin wasn't really the son of the Comanche warrior who raised him, and that man loved him just the same, as I do you. And I'd be very proud if you were mine. I just wanted to make sure you understood that. You're a good man. You don't want to admit it, but you're one of the best I've known, and I've known a multitude. We need you here, Ezra. Hang on." Buck, his usual jovial tones hushed and almost pleading. "Stay with us, Ez. You're gonna be okay. I'll bet you my next six months' wages you will--c'mon, pard, don't you wanta open them eyes and take that bet? You're a fighter, pard. I've always known that. Don't you give up on us, hoss. Don't you leave us." Chris, his flat Midwestern accent strangely soothing, like a father with a fretful infant. "You're too stubborn to let a little tick lick you. You fight this. You're the biggest pain in the ass I ever met, but you're our pain in the ass, and we're not lettin' you go. You hear me, Standish?" JD, hushed and encouraging at once. "I wish you'd say somethin', Ezra. I know you don't talk in your sleep, at least I've never heard you do it out on the trail, but it don't seem right for you not to be usin' them five-dollar words all the time, or arguin' back at Nathan when he gives you stuff. I watched my mamma die of somethin' a lot like what you've got, I don't want to watch you die too. Give us a sign, okay, Ez? Just let us know you know we're here. Let us know you're tryin'." And once Vin's raspy drawl exhorting him. "Had me frettin' the whole time I 's out there watchin' your back trail, pard. Couldn't stop thinkin', what if you died afore I could come? But you done made it this far, I know you can make it the rest the way. Won't hear nothin' else. You can lick it. We'll all help you. We ain't givin' up on you, and you shouldn't neither."
And once, just once, he could have sworn he heard his mother, half humming, half singing a tune he remembered well:
Oh, Shenando', I long to see you,
Roll away, you rollin' river,
Oh, Shenando', I'm sure to leave you,
And away I'm bound to go,
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh, Shenando', I love your daughter,
Roll away, you rollin' river,
For her I'd cross the rollin' water,
Away, I'm bound away,
'Cross the wide Missouri.
But of course that was nonsense. Mother hadn't sung to him since--since when? He couldn't remember her ever doing it.
Though that had been one of Father's favorite tunes, he was sure.
He didn't know where he was, or exactly how he had come there; only that his associates seemed to be there too. He wasn't quite sure how that could be, and was only half disposed to think it other than a fevered dream of some kind. He'd left Four Corners. Had been lured away. A telegram...a doctor...a trap...he wasn't terribly clear on the details, but he knew it had turned out to be something other than he had expected, feared, been trying to prepare for. No one in Four Corners knew he was in any danger. He wasn't sure they'd care even if they did know. So what possible reason was there for any of them to be here? Still less for Mother to be.
The life he had lived (chosen, or been coerced into?) had taught him to rely on no one but himself. It was difficult to forget the lessons learned over so many years, learned from as far back as he could clearly remember. Yet in this past year he had been taught other lessons. About how there were a few people who could be trusted, people on whom he could turn his back without needing to fear that they would stab him in it. People who accepted a man for who he was--or could be--and not what he owned or had done or been in the past.
Or so he had thought.
He was just so tired. So tired of always being alone, even in a town full of people.
He just wanted all the pain and confusion to end. Wanted to be at peace. Wanted to be with Father and Catherine again.
He wondered if they'd met. He thought Father would have loved Catherine, not only for his sake but for what she was.
Lord, how he just wanted it to end...
Ezra woke again, eyes seeking, dull, bewildered. Nathan had left only a few minutes earlier to get something to eat while the dining room was still open and maybe enjoy a breath of air, and JD was sitting at his bedside, just changing the cool compress on his forehead. The kid saw that he was conscious and smiled encouragingly. "Hey, Ez. How're ya feelin'?"
"Mistah...Dunne?" Ezra's accent was much thicker than usual, a sure sign that he was either exhausted or feeling less than well. "...warm..."
"Yeah, Ez. You got a fever. Just don't try to move around, okay? Nathan says you need to stay covered and rest, so's you don't get a chill or shoot your temperature up." He hesitated, wondering if it was really a good idea to do what he had been thinking about. He had learned enough over his time with the other six to understand the prejudice of courts against hearsay. Yet Ezra was still so very ill, even Nathan wasn't sure yet that he was going to survive. If he didn't, how would his friends ever be able to balance accounts for him if they hadn't found out, while they could, everything he knew about the people who had kidnapped him? Wasn't that one of the reasons Chris had said JD must stay behind while his friends laid their trap? "Ezra? You still with me?"
The Southerner blinked and seemed to think about the question. "...s'pose..."
"Ezra, listen to me, okay? Just try to concentrate on what I'm sayin'. We found somebody in Trinidad who saw you bein' taken out of town. We know what they looked like--the man with the beard, and the one with the feather in his hatband, and the rest. But we need to know anything else you can tell us about them, or about the guy who paid them."
Ezra's tongue flicked out over his lips. "Not...guy."
A swallow, another flick of the tongue. "Was...a woman. Mistah Jackson's age...brown eyes...reddish hair. Very well dressed...spoke as if...had...education."
JD was briefly nonplussed, but precisely because he was still quite a young man, lacking in the range of experience of his elders, he was more readily capable of accepting new ideas. Where Buck, for example, might have been blinkered against the darker angels of the sex by his genuine respect for all females, or Vin by his general lack of understanding of white women, or Chris by years of facing male foes, JD's imagination was more flexible. He knew, too, that Maude had done a lot of questionable things, and while she had never (as far as he knew) resorted to kidnapping or the murder of a doctor, the fact that she could fly in the face of conventional law and morality made it easier for him to believe that there might be other women with even less scruples. Apart from that, he was still close enough to his young childhood to remember how very many female villains there were in the fairy tales that had been shared with him by the daughters of the house where he'd grown up--wicked stepmothers particularly. He frowned briefly as something seemed to ring a faint bell in his ear, then returned to his self-appointed task. "Did you ever hear her name?"
"No. Only...men...Cole...leader...Sam...Jake, the--big man...Sundog wore--feather--"
"Okay. Easy, don't get upset. It don't matter. If we can catch one of them, maybe we can force 'em to tell us who she is. Is there anythin' else you can tell me?"
"Brands? On their horses, you mean? Hey, yeah." JD searched quickly through his vest pocket for the little canvasbound tally book he carried, in imitation of Buck, who had adopted that cowhand style as his own. He produced a pencil and wrapped Ezra's fingers around it. "If I hold the book, can you draw the brands you saw?"
His hand was trembly and unsure, but somehow he managed to scribe five different cryptic marks. There was a letter T with a curved line suspended directly above it and to the right, which JD recognized as "T Half Circle"--not because it was a brand he knew, but because he had learned from Vin and Buck how to read such marks, always from top to bottom, left to right (and then down, if applicable), and outside in. There was a numeral two with a sort of H-shape to its right, the crossbar of the H humped up like the low port in a curb bit--Two Bit. There was a crescent moon with a letter N beside it and a straight horizontal line below: Crescent N Bar. There was a circle vertically divided by a line, with a short angled extension at either upper quarter; that one gave him a moment's pause until he got it figured out--Flying Buckle. And there was a triangle standing on one tip, with what looked like a small letter V centered on each of its planes. Ezra tapped each of the marks in turn with the butt end of the pencil. "Cole...Jake...Sam...Sundog...pack horse."
JD gently prised the pencil from his hand and labelled each brand as he had specified. "That's good, Ezra. That's real good. You want some water?"
JD slipped an arm behind his head, lifting it and steadying him so he could drink from the tumbler presented to him. The gambler took it willingly, sighed, and settled back, his eyes looking lost. "Mistah...Dunne?"
Standish hesitated, looking at him, and then his eyelids drooped. "Nothin'..."
JD watched him fall back asleep, aching at the sight of his pallor, all the more noticeable in contrast to the hectic red spots of fever that burned in his cheeks. The Southerner looked so exhausted, so gaunt, so frail and weak, so utterly spent and lost. He looked like he was giving up. JD couldn't accept that. He wouldn't. Ezra had never quit a game in the middle for as long as they'd known each other--unless, of course, he was dragged out to go on patrol, or interrupted by a bank robbery or something. Don't you leave us now, JD thought. Don't you go. Damnit, Ez, this is no time to be wanderin' off by yourself! And anyhow, Chris'll come after you and haul you back by the scruff of your neck.
He glanced toward the chair where Maude was apparently dozing-- God, I hope she is. I don't think she slept at all last night. Ez'd never forgive us if we let her run herself into the ground on his account. He smiled wryly to himself. He could just hear that gentle drawl, with the special biting note underneath it that Ezra used when he was peeved with them. "Why, pray tell, gentlemen, could six of you not persuade one woman to sleep? Surely you, Mr. Jackson, could have employed your well-known underhandedness and drugged her, if all else failed."
He scanned the brands Ezra had sketched, idly speculating in the silence. If all of the men had been riding differently branded horses, and if their pack horse had in turn carried a distinctive mark of its own, what could that mean? That the pack horse didn't belong to any of them, maybe? That it had been furnished by their boss? That made a kind of sense, JD reflected. If I hired somebody to do a special job for me, and I knew it was gonna mean they'd need supplies for a week or two or more, wouldn't I provide 'em? And a horse to carry 'em? I wouldn't expect them to do it, at least I don't think I would--least of all if they were people who already worked for me and got their keep furnished. They'd expect me to supply their grub--let alone Ezra's.
He frowned at the pack horse's brand as Ezra had drawn it, a little wobbly, lines not meeting exactly. Wait a minute. If you break it apart at the corners, and stand each of the parts up by itself-- Snatching up the pencil, he flipped over to a fresh page and tried it. It looks like three K's.
Three K's. Like the three Kanes.
Suddenly he pulled Mary's telegram from his pocket, where he'd tucked it for safekeeping. Wait a minute!
He scanned the list of names of Livermore's children, wondering if the connection could really be that obvious. Their stepmother. Her name was Miranda, same as one of Livermore's daughters. And Miz Travis said she didn't get what her husband wanted her to after he died, just a little bit of his estate. Enough to give her a nice income, enough to hire men...enough to start a ranch? Or maybe...maybe she already had it somehow. The K's don't have to stand for Kane. Maybe she had another husband before, and brought it with her when she married the second time.
But she got rooked out of most of what Kane wanted her to have, so it'd make sense she'd want to get it back from his sons, whatever way she could. And she'd have to try to do it some way that wouldn't make 'em suspect it was her doin' it... like by gettin' Maude to play poker for it and then forcin' her to hand it over.
And if she's got a brand, that means a ranch, and a ranch means a crew. And at this time of year all the ranch crews are full up to capacity so they can take care of the work while the weather's good. She probably wouldn't call all of 'em in--likely couldn't even reach all of 'em in less than a day, a lot of big ranchers drive and ship small herds pretty much all summer. But the biggest can have a couple hundred cowhands. That's worse odds than we had against Anderson and his Ghosts, and then we knew how many men we were dealin' with, or at least we were pretty sure we'd be outnumbered, just not by how much, till after the first charge they made.
Chris was figurin' on just the four who took Ezra. He won't realize it could be ten or twenty times that. I gotta warn him, if it ain't too late already.
He hesitated, wondering if he should wait until Nathan got back. But every minute of delay might be a matter of life or death. Maude was here; she'd look after Ezra. He crossed the room to her chair and gingerly shook her until her eyes flicked open, amazingly alert considering the situation. "Ma'am, I gotta go out for a while," he told her. "I'll try not to be too long, but you'll have to watch Ez till I get back."
"You may rely on me, Mr. Dunne," she assured him, and, oddly enough, he felt that he could. He tipped his bowler to her, grabbed his coat, and hurried out the door.
The windows of the cottage were dark, except for the faintest crack of lamplight showing between the curtains of the back bedroom. Cole Newbolt had been forced to rethink his strategy after Sundog took out the watcher in the bushes. Standish's friends were obviously expecting something to happen. They might well have someone watching the front door, or they might have it locked, and the back one too.
But they might not have thought to lock the upstairs windows.
Gesturing his men in close, Cole began outlining his plan.
Vin was lying at his ease on the downstairs bed, hands clasped under his head, dozing in the dim-lit room, aware of Chris and Buck quietly keeping watch in the corner, when his Indian-trained senses picked it up: a soft sliding sound, so muffled by intervening floors and walls as to be almost inaudible. His eyes snapped open as he concentrated. There--a hint of a creak. He jackknifed into a sitting position on the bed and caught the rustle of motion as Chris heard the squeak of the bedsprings and turned. "What's up?" came the gunfighter's low-pitched query.
"Somebody's upstairs," Vin whispered.
"Didn't hear Josiah's signal," Buck murmured worriedly. They had agreed that Josiah would give them a coyote call if he saw someone he couldn't take out, an owl's hoot if he nabbed someone.
"Either they got past him or they took him down," Chris guessed, "and then they must've climbed up one of the trees. All right, cowboy, get under the covers. Buck and I 'll see to this."
Resignedly Vin slid himself beneath the soft, bright comforter with its edge of turned-back white muslin, pulling it up in a sort of tent that shadowed his face and head so the length and lightness of his hair wouldn't be apparent in the dim lamplight. Being the closest to Ezra in height and build, he had been the logical choice to play "sick man" as the group pretended to evacuate the hotel. He heard the soft footfalls as Larabee and Wilmington, with their boots removed for caution's sake, padded out across the sitting room and toward the stairs.
Chris drew his Colt and cocked it, squeezing the trigger as he did to prevent a telltale click. Cautiously he began climbing the stairs, sticking close to the wall, since treads are likeliest to creak in the middle, and the windowless well was darkest away from the central banister. He could feel Buck just behind him, and thought for a moment how good it was to have his oldest friend watching his back again. So often now it was Vin doing that, while Buck looked out for JD and JD returned the favor. And for a brief instant it occurred to him how inevitable it was that, in a group of seven, there always had to be an odd man out. Had they somehow forced Standish into that role without really meaning to? Was it one reason he seemed to take so much to heart Chris's long-ago warning not to run out?
Near the top of the flight he paused, listening, then signalled Buck that he would check out the two back rooms, leaving the front ones to his friend. Both of them understood that they needed to keep the invaders from getting down the stairs, and that meant dealing with them on this level. Wilmington nodded and held back, allowing the older man to move on ahead. He waited, alternately eyeing the bedroom door directly to his right and just ahead of him and the archway to the hall, through which Chris had vanished, on his left. If anyone popped out of the former and tried to take Chris from the rear, he'd be ready. If, on the other hand, he heard nothing to suggest that Chris had encountered any of the enemy, he'd figure they were cornered, or waiting, in there, and would be ready when they tried to sneak past.
Larabee eased his way around the shoulder of the dining-room chimneystack, sending a sharp glance toward the door of the smaller front bedroom. They'd left it open, and it was still open, which seemed to suggest that nobody was trying to hide inside. He wished Vin could have guessed exactly where the invaders had come in, since that would have provided a hint as to which room they might likeliest be waiting in. Ahead, the short passageway dead-ended at the end wall of one of the bedroom closets, with a large rectangular room--the largest bedroom in the house--on the left and a smaller, almost-square one on the right. Again, both doors were open. The gunfighter frowned to himself--no matter which one he examined first, he'd be leaving his back uncovered. Unless I shut the door behind me...yeah, that's probably the best thing to do. They'll have to either shoot through it blind, which gives me a chance, or open it, which I'll hear. He thought for a moment, then decided to try the larger room first: its window faced the back of the lot, which meant that the bulk of the house would have served to conceal anyone climbing in by it from chance late passersby on the street.
He eased across the threshold, drawing the door closed with his left hand, his eyes scanning the shadowy scene before him. The cottage naturally came furnished, and the furniture provided all sorts of shelter. Directly ahead of him, centered on the long wall and facing the window, was the bed, which was, of course, the largest item available to hide behind, or perhaps under. Beyond was a dresser with the closet door to the right of it. To Chris's right was the washstand, handy to the door, and just the other side of that was the window, which was open. He realized he'd guessed right: this was almost certainly where they'd gotten in. But where were they now? For a moment he considered hurling himself onto or across the bed, but dismissed the idea; it might give him a momentary advantage of surprise, but if the enemy was hiding behind it rather than underneath, he'd be practically on top of them, and they might be able to grab his gun and wrestle it away from him. Sticking as close as he could to the wall, he began edging his way around the perimeter of the room.
He had just passed the window when the closet door suddenly burst open and a clot of dark moving forms charged out of it. The moon was at the wrong angle to reach this side of the house and he couldn't make out details, but it didn't matter; he knew that the only friend he had on this level was Buck, and Buck was still somewhere behind him. At this range, even in the dark, it was impossible to miss. He squeezed off a shot and heard a gurgling scream, managed a second that was answered by a yell and a string of curses, and then there was a bellow and a flash of muzzle fire practically in his eyes and a sharp blow on his right forearm. The sudden light momentarily blinded him, and someone crashed into his legs just below the knees, hurling him backward, losing his Colt--not that it mattered, because by then the pain and familiar sick weariness had hit, and he realized the bullet had taken him in his gun arm.
Buck, hearing the commotion, reflexively lunged forward to his oldest friend's assistance. As he did, something rushed out the door of the big front bedroom and collided with him, and the two of them tumbled back down the stairway, thumping against walls and the edges of steps, cursing and gasping and striking. Buck did his best, but he was at a disadvantage from the start, and the man who'd hit him must have had Indian blood, for he fought like a wildcat, or perhaps a wolf; the gunslinger knew that an ounce of Indian was often worth a pound of other flesh when it came to hand-to-hand combat, and even a quarterbreed would probably be worth four ounces to one. Wilmington hit the bottom of the flight on his back, bruised and breathless and seeing stars, and felt rather than saw someone sitting on his chest, holding a knife to his throat. He knew better than to fight against odds like that.
Vin, in the downstairs bedroom, had heard the racket too. He sat up just long enough to blow out the low-turned lamp on the bedstand, then burrowed quickly under the covers again and waited.
Cole Newbolt came down the stairs in a rush, bounding past Sundog and the man sprawled beneath him. Nick was dead upstairs, and Sam had a bullet gouge along his ribs, but they'd taken down all three of Standish's defenders, one way or another. It wouldn't take but one of them to finish him, and then they could get out of here before the noise brought the town police. The Springs wasn't a cowtown; Saturday nights weren't noisy and lively here as they were out in Colorado City, where the cowboys and miners went to play.
Newbolt peered quickly around the open archway directly to the right of the stairs. The furniture suggested a sitting room or parlor, rather than a dining room, which would communicate with the kitchen, and in the middle of the back wall a door hung half open. Having worked for Miranda Kane for almost two years, Newbolt was well aware of the custom of providing a downstairs bedchamber in these convalescent cottages, and he guessed that that was it. He moved quickly in that direction.
The porch roof shaded the sitting-room window, blocking out much of the moonlight, but the opening of the doorway was still a paler space in the middle of the wall, and Vin Tanner had always had excellent night-sight. He knew that, until they all felt assured that all was clear, if one of his friends wanted to come in, they'd call to him. When he saw a man-shape appear without warning in the opening, he knew it for an enemy. He threw back the quilt and levelled the mare's leg that lay on the mattress beside him. The sawed-off blasted once, and the invader lurched back and sideways, crashed against the doorframe, grabbed at it and hung there. Vin saw the weak glimmer of light on metal as the wounded man struggled to lift his weapon, and fired again. This time the man spun and went down, and the Texan hit the floor running.
The distinctive heavy bark of the mare's leg, which Buck knew well, was enough unlike the sound of a sixgun that the man sitting on Wilmington's chest realized something was amiss. His momentary distraction gave the gunslinger an opening, and Buck used it, bringing his knee up fast and hard. He couldn't hit the fellow's crotch, but he could and did ram him in the butt and throw him off balance. At the same time his hands shot up, fending off the knife, turning it away from his throat. He felt it bite into the top of his shoulder, piercing the thin sheath of flesh just above the collarbone, and then Vin came charging out of the sitting room and the knife-wielder rolled and came up, drawing a pistol. Tanner shot him.
In the upstairs bedroom, Sam too had heard the roar of the mare's leg and understood that the plan had gone awry. He had no way to know just what had become of his two surviving partners, but he wasn't about to stick around and find out. Leaving the semiconscious Chris Larabee where he lay, the Confederate veteran swung out through the open window, into the branches of the tree, and began scrambling groundward, the adrenalin enabling him to ignore for a time the painful wound in his side.
Miranda Kane, sitting her horse in the deep shade of a cottonwood a hundred yards down the street, heard the commotion and recognized that something wasn't working out. Her quick, creative mind immediately made the leap: it had been a set-up all along. Somehow Larabee and the others had figured that Standish was in danger--and in that case, since they were trying to defend him, it was hardly probable that he was actually in the cottage, as Nick had been led to believe. So where might he be instead? The most likely answer was that he'd never left the hotel.
She was just about to turn her horse away when she heard galloping hoofbeats coming her way from the center of town. She checked and waited, and saw a small bay flash by, with a slight rider wearing a city bowler. Dunne. If there were four or five men at the cottage, and Dunne was coming to join them, that left, at most, one with Standish at the hotel. Miranda's Webley Bulldog in its conchaed holster would be sufficient to take care of both of them. She let Dunne get past her, then spurred her black into a fast trot.
JD hadn't been able to persuade Chris to let him wait at the cottage with the rest of them, but he had managed to convince the gunfighter that he should keep Seven close up, ready, in case he was needed, or some message had to be taken. He'd brought the mare around to the back of the hotel and tied her, and she'd been waiting ever since. With her under him, he covered the fifteen-hundred-odd yards of street separating him from his friends in just a breath over two minutes. The familiar roar of gunfire, including the well-known voice of Vin's mare's leg, gave urgency to his flight and focused his attention on what lay ahead, and he never realized that he had passed within twenty feet of the woman Ezra had described to him.
He leaped the horse over the low picket fence and raced across the lawn to the porch, where he left the saddle without ever touching the stirrup, drawing his Lightnings as he went. "Chris! Buck!" he yelled, taking the porch steps in a single bound, and hit the door like a battering ram.
Vin, helping Buck sit up against the newel post, whirled alertly at his advent, but relaxed as he recognized a friend. "What're you doin' here, boy?" Wilmington demanded, with an anger that was part pain. "You and Nate was s'posed to stay with Ez."
"I had to--had to--warn you," JD gasped. "He woke up--he told me-- Buck, you're bleedin'!"
"I don't reckon it's bad, JD," Vin reassured him. "But I gotta go up and see what become of Chris. You take care of Bucklin?"
"You bet," the kid promised.
Pawn IndexComments to: Sevenstars