JD dismounted from his horse and looked around the tidy Wells’ homestead. Someone must be helping the older woman with the heavy chores. He tied his horse to the picket fence, memories of the day he came to ask Casey to go riding with him flashing through his mind. Josiah waited under this very tree while he made a fool of himself, his Ezra inspired romantic words tangled around his tongue. To this day he wondered what he’d said to the young woman. Not that it mattered. She’d left, charmed by the attraction of a big city, the theater, culture, the lure of education and fancy dresses.
He’d swear she didn’t matter to him, swear it till the day he died but deep down he knew his heart would never belong to another woman. The rough and tumble tomboy, dressed in oversized overalls captured his soul and held it captive.
“You gonna stand there all day, JD Dunne, or are you gonna give your girl a welcome back hug?”
JD looked up at the woman standing on the porch, his voice choked, “Casey? Casey!”
Was he daydreaming? Was the person he thought about each night before he fell asleep, standing just a few feet away on the same porch where she’d shattered his hopes?
Almost shy, she replied, “It’s really me, JD. I came back.”
He took a couple of steps toward her when he looked beyond her glowing smile and tear-filled eyes. “I came to call on your aunt. I was in the area and thought I’d stop by…damn, Casey. It’s good to see…” He stopped, his eyes frozen on the petite woman’s swollen middle. She was definitely with child and looked about ready to pop!
“I see you still got a sock stuck in your mouth, JD. Just say whatever it is you want to say.” She glanced down at her protruding belly and more tears streamed down her cheeks. “Aunt Nettie had a stroke and needed help. I came home to be with her.
The ranger swept the familiar hat from his head and hugged it to his chest. “Casey, you’re, you’re beautiful.” He stepped closer his eyes looking at her face and then to her swollen middle and back to her face.
Both spoke simultaneously.
“You first,” came in unison.
JD climbed the final steps and put his arms around the woman. She returned the hug, each lost in the feel of the other in their arms.
Releasing her like dropping a hot coal, he backed down the steps, stammering, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
A blue blur flew from the left just before a fist solidly connected with the lawman’s jaw, sending him into the dirt. He jumped up, ready to fight the attacker and saw Vin Tanner standing protectively between Casey and himself.
“Vin, what the hell was the punch for?”
Vin didn’t reply except to throw several punches at his former friend. “You bastard. How dare you come back after what you did?”
JD tried to defend himself against the raining blows but refused to reciprocate.
“Stop it Vin. Stop it. “Casey screamed, continuing down the steps.
Vin staggered back, gulping air and waited to see what his opponent would do.
Dunne picked himself up and rested his hands on his knees. “Casey, you and Vin? That’s why you…”
Before completing the question, JD’s left arm shot out catching Tanner in the chest and sending him flying backwards while the ranger’s right smoothly drew his pistol and fired. The shot was followed by two instantaneous echoes.
Vin and Casey fell backwards into the steps, their arms and legs tangled together. JD’s body jerked and a grunt escaped his lips. He stood statue still, his gun still aimed over Vin’s head. Abruptly, he collapsed to the dirt, raising a fine cloud of dust that quickly settled over his prone body.
Casey struggled to get out from under her ‘big brother’. “Get off me Vin. JD!” She crawled toward the body sprawled in her yard.
“Leave him be. Vin, he’s been hunting for you. He was going to take you back to Texas. Joined the Rangers and came here, hunting you.” Chris Larabee stepped over the writhing body and stopped the young woman from getting too close to the bleeding man.
Kneeling beside her, Vin asked, “Casey, you alright?”
She looked up at the two men, pain creasing her forehead. “I think,” she panted. “I think I need you to go get Mrs. Kennedy.”
“Come on, let’s get you into your room. Can’t have your baby out here in the yard. “
Vin scooped the woman into his arms and carried her into the small cabin, gently depositing her on the bed. “I’ll go get Miz Kennedy; get her back here as soon as I can.” He nodded at Casey’s aunt.
“Stop by Potter’s Store, pick up my order. She should have it ready. This baby’s not quite ready to be born yet. What was that shooting?”
Tanner glared at the window, remembering who was laying outside in the dirt. “JD. JD came back.” He looked Nettie in the eye. “He came back huntin’ me.”
“Vin, you’ve gotta help JD. He didn’t know. He didn’t know.” Casey cried out as another contraction claimed her petite body.
“I’ll go,” Larabee offered. He stepped over the ranger’s body again, ignoring the man’s wounds. “You shouldn’t go to town.”
Vin glanced at JD and hissed. “Go away, kid. You ain’t welcome round here, no more! Come’on Larabee. I’ll fetch the midwife, you can collect Nettie’s groceries.”
JD crawled to the corner of the steps and used the post to pull himself upright, ignoring the sticky mess on his right flank and the bloody handprints he left on the white railing. He vaguely remembered Vin exiting the house and saying something to him. Was someone else with him? His chest burned with pain as he slowly climbed the few steps. Twice he heard Casey scream. He’d die before he let anything harm the woman he loved.
“Hush now, child.” Nettie consoled the soon-to-be mother. “Take a deep breath. Vin will fetch Mrs. Kennedy and they’ll be back real soon. Hush now.”
The older woman rubbed Casey’s arm. Since a stroke four months ago left her unable to walk, she sat in her rocking chair beside the bed. Though her physical strength was diminished, her mind remained as sharp as ever.
“Everything alright in here, ma’am?” JD asked tentatively, taking in the bedroom scene.
“You? YOU! This is all your fault, you worthless piece of…” She stopped before uttering the curse. “Get out! Get OUT of my house before I get my rifle and shoot you myself. Get out and don’t you ever come back here. You’re nothing but trouble, you selfish, worthless, backstabbing bastard!”
Shocked at the vile words hurled his way, JD shuffled back outside. His breathing was shallow and darkness hovered on the edge of his vision. Casey seemed pleased to see him again. Why were Vin and Nettie so mad at him?
A stick cracked as something stepped on it and JD looked around the small homestead. Higgins. He’d forgotten about Higgins, the bounty hunter he saw take aim at Tanner. His eyes searched the shade for the body but the pasture was empty. Another snap caught the wounded lawman’s attention and he followed the sound.
The ground heaved and spots danced in front of him. Higgins was a determined hunter and wouldn’t be above holding Casey and Nettie hostage to get to Vin. Casey screamed again and JD was torn. He needed to protect the women but he’d rather be offensively hunting for the man than waiting in defense.
“Looking for me, lawman?” A board swung in a deadly arch from the barn door but the Texas Ranger ducked in time. The lumber hit his left shoulder and a white, blinding pain exploded in his brain. Sucking in a deep breath, JD recovered and ran after the limping man. He tackled Higgins and the two men wrestled for dominance.
“Tanner’s innocent. I got the papers to prove it. Leave him alone,” JD hissed, trying to keep control of the battle.
“Got me a wanted poster says he’s worth 500 dollars, dead or alive.”
The men rolled around in the grass, each slowed by their respective injuries. JD kneed the wound in Higgins’ leg before the bounty hunter successfully landed a punch on JD’s bleeding side. The larger man pulled a hidden knife and plunged the steel towards Dunne’s gut.
“You kill me and you’re committing murder,” JD tried to reason, his strength fading fast.
The knife missed its mark but sliced deep into the lawman’s thigh.
“Might be, Ranger, but it’ll be your word against mine. I doubt you’ll be doing much telling.” He took one last look at the pain filled eyes and laughed. “Thanks for showing me the way to find Tanner.” Higgins rose on unsteady legs and walked away from the dying foe.
JD cross drew his left pistol and fired, dropping Higgins to his knees. The bullet struck the bounty hunter between the shoulder blades and exited through the front of his chest. He died before his body fell limp to the ground.
‘Chris, sorry, no way out. Had to shoot him in the back.’ Overhead crows called from their lofty perch in the trees. Josiah’s crows. Too bad it wasn’t Nathan and his herbs. Should have listened to Ezra’s advice and never leave anything to chance. Vin was safe. At least Buck was happy. Just before his entire world went black, the tiny cry of a baby reached his ears.
Larabee entered the world of women when he crossed the threshold of Potter’s Store. Maybe no one would notice him while he waited for Mrs. Potter to finish waiting on the other lady before making Nettie’s requests.
“Chris?” came a familiar voice. “Chris. I thought that was you I saw ride into town.”
He turned around and smiled at Mary Travis. “Hello, Mary.” This was neither the time nor place to visit with the attractive newspaper editor.
“It is so good to see you again. Can we expect to see you in town more regularly?” Mary tried to remain polite, even though her mind shot a thousand questions she wanted to ask.
Shaking his head negatively, he offered. “Came to fetch Miz Kennedy. Casey’s time. Nettie needs some supplies.” He purposely kept his voice low but Mary missed the unspoken hint.
“Casey’s having her baby!” She beckoned the other women into the conversation. “We should send them some food. Nettie will have her hands full with the baby and Casey.”
Larabee slipped away from the women’s clucking and glared at the shopkeeper. “Nettie said she had some items on order. Asked me to deliver them.”
“Mr. Larabee. It is so good to see you in town again. We,” she pointed to the rest of the women visiting. “We miss you and your friends being the law. Wouldn’t you and that nice Mr. Tanner reconsider and come back?”
He shook his head. “You got law here. The town made it real clear, we weren’t needed.”
The cackling stopped. Mary spoke. “The sheriff and his cronies decided they need more money to protect the town. Each business has to pay insurance money. A few refused.”
“Each one has had problems,” another woman added.
“I saw Mr. Dunne ride in last night. We were hoping that meant the seven of you were coming back, to take charge. Like you did before,” the boarding house owner said.
At the mention of JD, Chris turned back to the shopkeeper. “Nettie’s order?” Now was not the time to consider helping these good folk. If they knew what he’d done earlier they would be trying to lynch him rather than hire him.
“I’ll get it bagged up. Should be ready in a half hour.”
Larabee tipped his hat. “Ladies,” he said, stepping out the door. He needed a drink.
Chris Larabee threw back another shot of Red Eye, unsuccessfully trying to drown the memory of shooting the boy. He wasn’t going to interfere but when he saw JD pull his gun and aim it at Tanner, his own gun leapt into his hand and he fired. Over and over he relived the scene. The fiery alcohol burned as he took another drink.
What happened to the boy after the seven separated? What would make him abandon Casey and their baby? Why did he come back hunting for Tanner and try to shoot him? Worse of all, was his own guilt for shooting JD. He stared at the amber liquid. The conversation from the general store nagged him. He never wanted to be the law in this town anyway. That was all JD’s idea, accepting the job as sheriff. The rest of them stayed around to look after the boy.
The alcohol soured in his stomach. It was time to collect Wells’ supplies and leave this unthankful town. He stepped outside and stood beside the door, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the bright sunlight.
He could almost smell the fear. People scurried like rats down the boardwalks, not stopping to socialize, barely looking up.
“What you doing here, Larabee?” demanded a large, burly man. “This is our town now. Get out!” Standing next to the large man was a skinny twit, his face pocked.
Chris turned casually to look at the bully. “Picking up supplies for the Wells. Get the midwife for Casey.”
“Get them supplies and get out. We don’t need you or your gang around here.” Deputy Festus Gordon rested his meaty hands on his twin guns, his feet spread, ready to draw down on the notorious Chris Larabee.
“Ain’t planning on staying round.” He didn’t want to tangle with the fellow. He could see why the residents felt intimidated.
Convinced he belittled the former peacekeeper, the deputy stepped into the tavern.
“So the little whore is ready to whelp. Have to mosey on out there, get a taste of that sweet milk,” the thinner man sneered.
Without a chance to blink, Chris grabbed the insolent man and slammed him up against the saloon wall, his gun cocked and dug deep into the man’s gut. “That’s no way to talk about a lady, and Miss Wells is too good for the likes of you,” he hissed as his arm cut off the man’s windpipe. “You stay away from their place.”
“Let him go.” A gun barrel jabbed into Larabee’s back. “I should shoot you right here for attacking Harold. You’re going to get to see the inside the jail from the other side of the bars, cowboy.”
“Tsk. You shouldn’t have called him ‘cowboy’,” said a different voice.
A deep baritone added. “Mr. Larabee hates to be called cowboy.”
Larabee smirked, hearing the two familiar voices. “Thanks for the invitation, deputy. But I got other plans. Maybe some other time. Your friend and I are through.” He wrinkled his nose. “Something smells around here.” Larabee tossed the smaller man away and walked away, not looking back at the two bullies and the wet spot on the boardwalk.
“Can we join you, Brother?” asked Josiah.
“Suit yourself. Ain’t much company,” Larabee said, not surprised by the sudden appearance of two more of the seven. What brought them back to this place?
“Good to see you too, Chris.” Nathan added.
“You been in town long?” The preacher and the healer followed Larabee’s long stride.
“Too long already.”
The three men headed toward Potter’s General Store, Larabee in the lead. The other two wore huge grins, following their friend.
“Nathan, anything seem different?” Josiah asked
“What, other than Chris is still as ornery as ever?” Nathan laughed.
“Look around. I tried greeting a few folks; they ignored me, like I was the devil himself walking by.”
Jackson observed the people he could see. He’d been so glad to see Chris; he missed the obvious. No one stopped to visit with their neighbors.
“What are they all scared of? Maybe Mrs. Potter would know.”
The three men stepped into the store’s interior, interrupting an argument.
“You’re late, again, Miz Potter.” The well-dressed man towered over the shopkeeper. He glanced at the three intimidating men glaring at him. “I’ll be back, when you’re not busy. Your rate just increased. Pay or be prepared.” His voice hissed, almost snakelike. “Gentlemen.” The tall, pasty-skinned man nodded his head at them as he exited.
“Everything alright, Mrs. Potter?” Josiah asked, watching the retreating man.
She smiled, though her eyes revealed her true thoughts. “Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson. You’re back!”
“Just come to get Nettie’s supplies.” Chris didn’t like what he’d just witnessed and feared the worst.
“Yes. I have them ready. Thank you for waiting. You gentlemen are always welcome in my store, not like some others! I’m glad you saw that for yourselves. That was Mr. James, Mr. Weston T. James, another relative of Stuart James. Sheriff Coffee pretty much turns a blind eye to him and those two he hired as deputies.”
She set the three burlap bags on the counter and handed Larabee the receipt. “I’ll settle with Nettie later.” She lowered her voice. “Please, this town needs you, all of you to come back. You stood up for me when they killed my husband. I’m begging you. We need your help.”
Larabee stuffed the paper into his shirt pocket and grabbed the bags. “Not now.”
Sanchez and Jackson followed him out of the store, more confused than ever. The smiles vanished from the two men’s faces but they knew this was neither the time nor place to get the answers from Larabee. Too many ears and eyes would be watching the former lawmen, ready to share with ones currently in power.
After helping the middle age woman down from her buggy, Vin grabbed the carpet bag from the seat. He followed Mrs. Kennedy into Nettie’s house, noticing the bloody handprints smeared on the railing. His anger returned. He might not be able to help Casey birthing her baby but he could sure do something about the man responsible for her situation.
He set the bag on a chair in the bedroom, stole a glance at the woman in labor and quickly left the bedroom. He’d rather be in the middle of a gun battle than to look after a woman giving birth. Had his ma suffered, too, bringing him into the world?
“Vin, I appreciate you fetching Mrs. Kennedy. Won’t be long now.” Nettie said, sitting at the table, peeling potatoes.
“Casey gonna be alright?” Vin stared at the closed bedroom door. “She looked like she was hurtin’ something awful.”
“She’s strong. They say after giving birth, mothers have so much love for their baby, they forget all the pain.”
Casey’s cry of pain filled the small house sending Vin toward the back door. “Better go take care of the livestock. You see JD? He hidin’ around here somewhere?”
Nettie scowled. “I saw him. The coward left. Just before you got back I heard a gunshot out near the woods. I’m not looking forward to telling Casey how he ran out on her and the baby. Again.”
Tanner paused on the small porch, his mind replaying the confrontation earlier. JD seemed genuinely surprised to see him, not like a lawman stalking him. Why did he shove them out of the way before shooting? Vin stood on the step, mimicking the ranger’s movements, pretending to shove himself into Casey, sending them both to the ground as he drew and fired towards the trees in the distance. Chris’s shot dropped the younger man but what had he been shooting?
The late summer sun dropped slowly to the west, splashing the sky with purples, reds and orange bands of color. Chores completed, Vin sat on the steps, waiting. He’d washed the bloodstains from the railings. The tiny wail of a baby sent him to his feet and onto the threshold.
“Nettie? Everything all right?” he said, not wanting to intrude on the women’s work.
“We’re fine. Casey has a daughter. Both are fine.” Nettie’s voice, clear and strong, reached his ears. “Be a few minutes before you can come in to see the baby.”
He stepped onto the porch. This day certainly ended differently than it began. Tomorrow would be another day. How long would he survive before a bullet killed him? How could JD have changed so much to believe him guilty and come all the way back from Texas to hunt him?
Something moved in the gathering darkness. Was JD still lurking around or was it a danger to the women? He pulled his gun and walked towards the trees, keeping to the shadows. An unfamiliar horse threw its head, trying to free the reins from a tree branch, still wearing its saddle. Several gunnysacks hung from the pommel and the rifle remained in the scabbard. This horse was ready for travel. JD’s? Dunne usually preferred smaller boned mares to this rough looking gelding.
Something wasn’t right. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he scanned the small pasture. The twilight hid details but his eagle eyes saw a small lump in the waving grass. His gun ready, he approached silently. Barely enough light remained to see the body sprawled in the clover. Vin reached out with his left hand and flipped the man and revealed a shaggy beard hiding a stranger’s face. Grass and leaves stuck to the dead man’s chest, saturated with blood.
He glanced the short distance to the house. Nettie said she’d heard gunfire. Who was this stranger and who’d shot him? Were they still hiding around the homestead? Vin grabbed the reins and pulled the nervous animal towards the body. He’d take both to the barn tonight and look for the killer in the morning.
Someone was coming. Vin threw the body over the saddle and pulled the skittish horse into the shadows. Too much noise to be one rider, he again drew his gun in preparation.
The hoofbeats drowned out the faint voice calling him, pleading with him for help. “Vin. I got something for you. I…”
Vin waited at the edge of the trees to see the riders and recognized Chris’ horse first. Who were the other two men?
“Vin,” Larabee yelled into the night, wanting to announce himself before Nettie or Tanner shot first and asked questions later. “Got Nathan and Josiah with me. Met up with them in town.”
All three horses stopped by the barn and the three men remained in the saddle, waiting to be acknowledged before dismounting. Lights shown brightly in the small house but no shadows moved in front of the windows.
“Chris,” Tanner yelled from the darkness. “Nathan, Josiah. Good to see you.” He tied the strange horse to the ring on the barn wall before lighting a lantern. “Casey has a girl!” he offered. Nodding at the horse, he continued, “Found a body out behind the house. Didn’t recognize him.”
The three men dismounted and joined their friend. Josiah and Nathan carried the corpse into the barn while Chris and Vin tended the horses. “Ain’t seen JD since you left. Someone shot that fellow, shot him in the back,” Vin said quietly, not sure how much Larabee had shared with the other two.
“I told them. Maybe he’s got something to identify himself.” The older man opened the one saddle bag and began to search. Inside, a leather wallet held a thick wad of cash. Three sheets of paper were neatly folded beside the money. The flickering lantern offered illumination but barely enough light to read the smudged papers.
“Damn,” he said, his anger growing. “He’s a bounty hunter. Got your poster and two others in here. The kid led him here. He must be the same fellow Tompkins claimed was with JD.”
Nathan, finished with his examination, joined the other three. “He was shot twice, once in the thigh; that wouldn’t have killed him. The other was in the upper chest. He was dead before he hit the ground. Shot right through the heart.” The healer handed Chris another smaller wallet.
“Vin, let’s ride. Head up into the mountains for a while.” Chris offered.
“Can’t. Can’t run out on Nettie and Casey. I’m all they got. I won’t leave Casey like the kid left her. Nettie can’t make a go of this place herself.”
“You boys finished gabbing out there. I got fresh coffee, nice and hot. Got a little girl would like to meet you.” Nettie’s voice drifted down through the still night air. “Nathan, Josiah. Good to have you back.”
Josiah looked away from the light, contemplating the facts. What did they know for sure and what did they think happened? JD returned. JD pulled a gun after shoving Vin and Casey to the ground. He fired at something. Chris heard a ranger was hunting Tanner and saw JD draw. He shot the younger man, wounding him but not killing him outright. Vin discovered a mysterious stranger’s dead body only a few feet away from the house.
“Where’s John? Have you seen him? Are you sure he’s gone?”
Chris turned sharply and stood nose to nose with the older man. “He’d better be long gone. I thought he was a better man than to come back here, hunting his friend. Leaving a girl, with no means of support to raise his child? He’s no better than his own sire. He ain’t anyone to care about. I’m sorry I shot him but I won’t mourn if’n he’s dead.” Just as quickly, Larabee left, walking out into the darkness rather than taking his anger into the Wells’ home.
“What did JD say, Vin? Chris has the boy tried, convicted and ready for the noose. Did he return to take you back to Texas?” Sanchez refused to believe JD capable of the evil accusations.
Larabee was angry and felt betrayed by the Easterner. Dunne possessed tenacity, convincing the other men to accept him and during the few months the seven stayed together as peacekeepers, he’d come to admire JD. He was smart and quickly learned from the others, not quitting or complaining, when the others called him on his mistakes. But to come hunting Vin; that was unforgivable.
He came back here, to get Vin, hadn’t he? The shopkeeper in Eagle Bend said a ranger, wearing a bowler hat, was looking for Tanner. Had he judged JD without all the facts? Had he shot an innocent man?
The quarter moon rose past the trees with enough light to faintly illuminate the landscape. A few steps away the grass was crushed, like something had laid here for a while. He stood still and slowly turned his head, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. A flutter of white flickered through the grass. The night sounds filled his ears, crickets chirping, tree branches rustling and a frog croaked nearby. He stepped silently toward the white object like a moth drawn toward a lamp.
Chris found JD sprawled in the grass, his hand still clutching his pistol. The older man stared at the prone body, his emotions warring inside. Was JD dead? If not, did he hate him so much that he’d let the young ranger die rather than try to save the man hunting his best friend?
Friend. The thought brought Buck to mind. How would he tell his long-term friend that he’d shot JD and left him to die? His soul won the internal battle; Josiah was right. Only the person lying here, dying, could explain why he’d returned and answer those questions.
“Nathan!” he yelled, his voice carrying through the still night air. “Found him! He’s hurt bad.”
Settling the wounded man in the Well’s barn and giving him a quick examination, Nathan shared his findings. “JD’s still with us but he’s in poor shape. Need to get the doctor fellow here, to take care of him. He’s lost a lot of blood. I don’t know that I’m good enough.”
Josiah reached out to his friend’s shoulder and gently squeezed. “Don’t doubt yourself, brother. You removed a bullet from the boy before; you can do it again.”
The midwife stood on the fringe of the men, waiting for one of them to escort her back to town. “He won’t come. Doc Quinn don’t make house calls. You gotta take him to town, if you want that man to fix up him.” She pointed her long bony finger at the injured man.
“He won’t survive the ride.” Nathan interrupted the woman, surprised that the doctor wouldn’t come here.
“Mr. Jackson, I’ve been to Doc Quinn and if I need doctoring in the future, I’d rather see you first than that pompous windbag. He may have that certificate framed and hanging on the wall. He doesn’t have the compassion and caring you have in your little finger.”
The other three men murmured in agreement.
“Sides,” continued Mrs. Kennedy. “I understand that boy laying there is the new baby girl’s daddy. You want to tell her how you let her papa die the same day she was born?”
Nathan shook his head. “But what about JD? Think he’d want me to tend him?”
“You aren’t the one who shot him.” Chris turned away. “If you won’t do it, I’ll go hog-tie the doc and drag him out here but I think JD would rather have a friend tending him than a stranger. I got some questions I want answered and JD is the only one who can do that.”
The men helped Nathan set up a makeshift operating table, sliding a barn door between the slats of two stalls. Lanterns were hung from the haymow rafters above the work area. Nathan laid out his tools and supplies on the end of a barrel. When he was ready, the four men gently lifted JD onto the blanket-covered board.
The healer began the arduous task of cleaning each wound carefully before packing them with gunpowder and stitching the ragged edges together, a styptic technique he learned as a stretcher-bearer. The other men busied themselves away from the grizzly scene. While Larabee left to escort the midwife home, Vin carried hot water from the house and Josiah searched the bounty hunter’s possessions for any answers to their questions.
“Mr. Larabee.” The woman’s voice broke the silence of the night; the only other sound being the clip-clop of the horses’ feet on the dusty path. “I’m sure glad you and your men are back.”
“Why? We haven’t done anything.”
“The town needs you. When you were the law, you were fair and kept the ranchers from overrunning folks with less. Now look at it.”
“Miz Kennedy, no disrespect, but I don’t plan on staying around here. The town was ready to get rid of us before. I doubt we’d be welcome. You, Miz Potter, Mary and a couple others, maybe, but Conklin and his cronies, they’d be the first to complain.”
The two rode in silence for another mile when the midwife spoke again. “Do you suppose it would be alright to ask Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson to stay?”
“You got a preacher and a real doctor. Folks will head to them, not a defrocked priest nor a colored healer.” Chris could tell she was getting upset as she fidgeted in the buggy seat.
“You are wrong, Mr. Larabee,” she said bravely, challenging the gunfighter. “The preacher left town, taking the doctor’s wife with him. We got no preacher, a doctor who’d just as soon bury you as heal you, and puppet lawman controlled by a racketeering businessman. The townsfolk would be more than pleased to have any of you back keeping the law. I wouldn’t be surprised to have one of James’ men waiting at the house; to be sure they collect their share of my fee. What right they got to take half of what Nettie paid me, two chickens and four jars of preserves? If’n I don’t give it to them, they’ll take whatever they please from my house. Last time I delivered a baby, the family didn’t have the means to pay me, promised me some meat this winter. Corly, the scarred face one, he helped himself to the pie and bread I’d baked earlier in the day. Said my income taxes were due.” Gladys Kennedy was afraid of no man but her anger at the situation grew, “Mark my words, Mr. Larabee, they’ll be there. They might wait until you ride out but they’ll be there tonight.”
The rest of the ride progressed in silence though the woman’s worry grew as they approached her home. The widow lived on the edge of town in a small cabin. After her husband died in a mining accident, she settled in the small town, supporting herself delivering the area’s babies and tailoring for bachelors.
“And there they are, the vultures,” she said softly as the buggy pulled up to her door.
“Let me help you with your bag, Miz Kennedy.” Larabee’s voice carried through the night air, authority evident, glad he’d offered to escort the lady home rather than Tanner.
“What you doing here, Larabee? Got your pals hiding in the bushes? ‘Fraid to show your face, yella belly? Or maybe you and the baby lady planning on doing a little dancin’.” The two men laughed, unafraid of tormenting the lion. Too bad they couldn’t see the feral grin hidden by the brim of Chris’ hat.
He assisted the older woman from the buggy and carried her bag to the door. “Get in and bar the door,” he whispered. “I’ll take care of these two.”
He turned to face the two deputies. “You must be real proud of yourselves, robbing old women. Shows what kind of men you are. You bully children, too? I saw what happened this morning, when you had to meet a real man,” he chided.
“Why you piece of…” the skinny deputy reached for his gun but before his hand touched the grip, he was staring down the barrel of Larabee’s weapon. The larger bully froze, his mouth hung open, unable to believe how fast the gunman had drawn.
“Get out of here. Miz Kennedy owes you nothing more tonight. Consider the fact you’re still breathing your payment. And if I hear a single word that you came back to harass her, you’ll be answering to me. I wasn’t planning on staying around. But now, I’ve changed my mind. You can tell your boss that. You messed up and now you’ll be answering to me. Understand?” To emphasis his point, Larabee drew back the hammer, the click ominous in the night air.
“This ain’t over Larabee.” The second deputy recovered his voice. “You can’t be watching everyone, all the time.”
The former peacekeeper widened his grin, his teeth reflecting the moonlight. “And neither can you.” He watched as they remounted their horses and kicked them into a gallop away from the house.
“You can put the shotgun away Miz Kennedy. I doubt they’ll bother you again tonight.” He heard the release of the hammers as he grabbed his horse. He didn’t think the two deputies were stupid. They’d stay clear of the widow tonight but they’d continue to ride roughshod over others in the town.