Nathan stretched as his spine popped. He’d stood over the makeshift table for nearly four hours. Hints of daylight rimmed the eastern horizon, but his eyes felt like they were full of sand. His patient laid still, the barely discernable rise and fall of the blanket testimony that he still breathed. Never recovering consciousness during the hours the healer tended the wounds, the stitching of the gashes closed did produce some guttural moans.
Sweat covered the young body, while a fever burned as he tried to fight a hidden infection. Nathan was exhausted and longed for sleep but he didn’t dare leave the young lawman. What had he missed? Where was the cause?
“Morning, Brother.” Josiah handed his long-time friend a hot cup of fresh coffee. “Nettie will have breakfast ready in a few minutes. I’ll watch him, you go eat. You haven’t met Casey’s daughter, yet.”
“Is the baby JD’s daughter?” Nathan refused to believe that the young man could abandon the Wells girl after getting her in the family way. He also refused to believe the boy would turn his back on his friends and come hunting Vin.
“Can’t say I’m the best to judge that but she’s got lots of dark hair and the palest, pearl-like skin I’ve ever seen. If I was to vote one way or the other, then yes, I say little Miss Mary Kathleen Wells is the offspring of John Dunne.
Josiah gathered the bloody rags into a pile and dumped the mess into a washtub, letting the cloth soak before washing them. The water turned a sickly red. He shook the straw from the suit coat, carefully touching the two holes on the right side where Chris’ bullet entered and exited the fabric and body. For the first time he noticed the smaller, bloody stain near the left shoulder. A few threads revealed the small hole, temporarily sealed by blood. Had JD been shot a second time?
He pulled a blood soaked paper from the inner coat pocket, the layers married together. A corner of the document remained loose and he pulled it back with his thumbnail. The seal looked official. He could make out the words State of Texas but as he tried to pry the rest apart, the heavy paper tore. Part of the page was missing, like something gouged a trough threw the layers. Was the boy carrying something official? He peeled another layer off and made out the name Vin but nearby was the ominous word ‘extradite’. “Oh, son. Chris was right. You were looking for Vin. Why did you loose your faith in your brother?” The preacher looked towards heaven and prayed. “Oh, Lord. Forgive your child for his misguided judgment. If it be your will, remove him from this mortal plane now before another of our brothers learns of this transgression.”
He laid his large hand on JD’s forehead, feeling the heat radiating. “Your sins are forgiven, son. Peace I leave with you. May His peace go with you.” Josiah wiped a stray tear off his cheek. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, for this young man to die so violently, especially at the hand of his hero. At least Buck Wilmington wasn’t here to witness the destruction of his protégé. Hopefully he continued in wedded bliss with his dear Louisa and wouldn’t discover the passing of the young man.
His thought of the seventh man. He and Nathan traveled together; Chris and Vin still had a connection. Where did the winds of opportunity blow Ezra? Had he joined his mother’s path, always looking for the easy money? Some cosmic force had brought five of them back to the place where they first met. Was this a sign that they were all stronger together than independent?
Nettie Wells sat in a rocking chair beside her niece’s bed, watching the barely discernable rise and fall of Casey’s chest. She loved the young woman like the girl was her own daughter, but at a time like this Nettie felt a multiple of emotions. Nothing could sever her love for her brother’s daughter and the new baby sleeping contently by the new mother, but anger, frustration, joy, betrayal and relief jockeyed to possess her heart.
The tiny baby slept, unaware of the hate and accusations the adults hurled at each other. Nettie couldn’t believe the polite and considerate Easterner would return to arrest his friend Vin Tanner who’d been like a son to her. Since her stoke, he’d returned and added a man’s touch to the meager homestead. She also couldn’t believe the boy would take advantage of Casey and leave her in the family way. Why hadn’t he taken responsibility for his action and made a proper woman of the girl?
“How is JD?” Casey asked, her voice soft and loving as she gently caressed the downy, fine softness of her daughter’s tiny head. She refused to look at her aunt directly; fearful of the awful truth she would see.
“He’s not good, girl,” Nettie answered, still blaming the young man for all of the happenings since yesterday.
“I’ve got to go see him, tell him why.”
Nettie narrowed her eyes. The stroke may have left her legs too week to walk but her mouth was more than ready to explain to Casey what she thought about him. “I think he knows what he’s done.”
“No,” Casey replied, her voice barely more than a whisper. “No, he don’t know. Till yesterday, he never knew. I sure made a mess of everything,” she sobbed.
“You told Vin and me that you wrote him, told him about the baby. He made his choice to stay in Texas rather than coming back here to care for you and his child. Don’t waste your fretting on a man like that.”
The new mother gingerly rolled to her side, her mouth muffled by the feather pillow. “What if she isn’t his baby? I didn’t know what to do.”
Her interest piqued, the older woman grabbed Casey’s arm and gently pulled. “My hearing isn’t as good as it used to be and you hiding your mouth don’t make it any better. Did you say she might not be his baby? You trying to tell me you’ve been with other men besides that, that …!” Nettie shook her finger towards the barn, trying to hold her anger in check.
Taking a deep breath, she sighed and asked again. “When you came back from Colorado Springs, you said you was carrying JD’s child. Now you’re not sure who the father is?”
“I know. I should have told you what happened but when JD was gone, it was easier to say it was him than explain.”
The older woman settled back into the comfortable chair, deep in thought. Silence permeated the room. A few minutes later she spoke, “With all the accusations being tossed around this place since yesterday, it’d be nice to hear the whole truth from someone before more innocent folks including this little baby get hurt.”
“I know,” Casey responded, carefully cradling her infant. She kissed the baby’s head and took a deep breath. She’d been such a fool.
“Me and JD, we’d been getting real close, really cared for each other. Maybe it was Buck’s wedding, I don’t know. Later that week, we went fishing together, like we’d done lots of times before. It was hot. I think I pushed him in the water and he ended up pulling me in. We horsed around, dunking and splashing each other. The swimming together wasn’t anything new but that time was different. I should have figured out what he had in mind. I guess I wanted it as much as he did. He offered to stop, though I know he didn’t want to. I didn’t want him to stop.” She stopped talking, looking wistfully out the small window.
“He bedded you in the river?”
Casey shook her head negatively. “I got home and you were so excited about the letter from Aunt Sally, a real chance for me to get an education and see more of the world. I told JD I wouldn’t leave, that I wanted to be with him. We hid away, in his room. No one was around.”
Nettie frowned, not understanding. Was little Mary Katherine a result of that tryst in the boarding house? What did her niece imply when she wasn’t sure if the baby was JD’s daughter?
“Don’t go stopping there, child. I’m about ready to have Mr. Larabee put another bullet in that young man, him taking advantage of you!”
The new mother sighed and she fought back the tears. “I decided to go; to get back at him for being so cruel. I didn’t know Buck was leaving town. I never should have left.”
She stood up, leaving the sleeping infant on the bed and walked to the window overlooking the barn. “The next day, JD was awful, said some spiteful words. I thought he was mad at me and I felt so used. He’d gotten his way and was ready to find something better. Really, I was scared. I cared so much for him and wanted to be with him. But what if he got shot again?” She turned toward her aunt; tears running freely down her red cheeks.
“Why, child? What happened?” Nettie knew Casey needed to share the whole story.
“I got along fine with Aunt Sally and Molly and Josie. I went to the academy and it was fun to meet other girls just as county as me but at night, when the family ate supper, I missed you and here.” Casey spun around, pointing at the small cabin room. Her eyes drifted to the tiny, dark-haired bundle on the bed. “I missed JD so bad. I started getting sick, after everyone else was in bed. I snuck outside, hoping the cooler air would settle my upset belly. I wanted to come home so bad.”
“You should have. You didn’t have to stay there.”
Casey shook her head. “One night Uncle Adolph found me, crying my eyes out. He held me, said nice words to comfort me. The next night he was there again. He was so kind and let me know I wasn’t a burden in his home. He’d walk me back to my room, always so quiet so we didn’t wake anyone.”
She looked at her aunt. “Aunt Sally and Uncle Duff went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I had to stay.”
Nettie smiled and sighed. “I feel better. I was afraid you were going to tell me that Adolph...”
The girl aged before the older woman’s eyes. “He did. He might be Mary Kate’s daddy. I was too ashamed to come back here and face you.”
Josiah ignored the stares he received as he rode toward the undertakers. He could image their curiosity at the blanket wrapped body slung over the saddle of the second horse. The gawkers almost seemed possessed as they followed him and gathered around the furniture store’s front door.
The news that some of the seven returned, spread through the town like a wildfire. Were they planning on taking back town or was it coincidence that Dunne, Larabee, Sanchez and Jackson all had been sighted the day before. Would it be long before the last half of the alphabet, Standish, Tanner and Wilmington also rode into town?
“Sanchez!” one voiced hollered. “Who ya got?”
“Is it Jackson?” another voice yelled.
Sheriff Coffee shoved his way through the onlookers and stood in the doorway, stopping the preacher from entering.
“What do you want here?” He’d listened to the talk and didn’t like what he’d been hearing.
“This fellow needs Johannsen’s services. Needs to get buried sooner than later.” Josiah smiled his huge grin at the lawman. “If you could help me carry him inside, I’ll tell you what I know.”
The undertaker opened the door wider for the two men carrying the body. Before anyone else could enter, he closed and locked the door.
“Figured you’d need a little privacy.” He showed them where to lay the body and began unwrapping the blanket.
“Found him and his horse near Nettie Wells. Name’s Higgens. Also found this.” Josiah handed the thin wallet to the lawman.
The sheriff saw the ugly chest wound and grey skin of death. It was as much as he needed to see.
“Any idea who shot him?” he asked, stepping away from the body and nauseating smell.
“Ranger JD Dunne. We found him in the same field. Hurt real bad. Nathan isn’t sure the boy will survive.” The older man’s face saddened as he thought about the younger man’s fight for life.
“Larabee and you boys plan this little reunion?” the sheriff asked, more interested in counting the few dollars in the wallet. “Enough to bury the poor fellow at least.” He studied the wanted posters. “You figure he was a bounty hunter? Looking for some bounty around here?”
Ready for the questions but wanting to appear unprepared, as if to be contemplating his answer, Josiah paused before responding. “We had no idea of his calling at the time of his passing though it would seem to be the case.”
“You keep referring to ‘we’. You mean Widow Wells?” The two men left the backroom so the undertaker couldn’t witness their discussion.
“By we, I mean Chris Larabee, Nathan Jackson and myself. Nettie’s niece safely delivered a baby yesterday. We went to the Wells homestead to offer our congratulations. Mrs. Wells mentioned hearing gunfire in the vicinity. We discovered the horse, its reins tangled in the brush, and found the body nearby, already dead. It took us a while longer to locate the ranger, shot and sporting several knife wounds. Higgins knife was coated in dried blood.”
Coffee looked at the crowd milling around the store, ready to feed on any tidbits of gossip thrown their way.
“How do I know you didn’t murder him and blame the ranger, the one you claim is dying?” He remembered the boy with a sharp mind and the long bangs, left behind when Larabee’s gang disbanded.
“We don’t know if Dunne was hunting Higgins or if he was following Dunne. Nettie mentioned the boy stopped by to call on her. She never saw the other man. Sheriff, no disrespect but we could have just as easily buried him in the hills but decided he needed a decent burial. We have nothing to hide.”
Would the lawman believe his story and stay away from the Wells’ home or investigate the killing and find Vin?
“Seems suspicious, the four of you all showing up back here, on the same day. Next day you drop a dead stranger in town. Larabee threatened my deputies yesterday.” The man made a show of unlocking the door and stepping outside. The citizens waiting outside easily heard the veiled threat. “I’ll be checking with Texas to find out why he was in the area. Just in case you get any ideas, I ain’t locking you up, yet, but I might change my mind.”
The former priest leaned against the furniture store wall and watched the older man scurry off toward the telegraph office, the wallet still tightly clasped in his fist. The trap was set, now they’d wait. He pushed away from the wall and headed towards the saloon. Chris needed to know his plan.
“Saw you ride in with the body. JD or the bounty hunter?” Larabee sat in front of the saloon, enjoying a steaming cup of coffee, remaining clearly visible to anyone on the main street.
“Didn’t want Nettie saddled with a dead body being found on her land. It was Higgins, the bounty hunter.” The larger man settled onto the bench and stretched out his legs. “Missed sitting here, watching the town. Too bad we left.”
“Can’t you feel it? The fear? Something’s going to happen and we won’t be able to stop it.”
Several minutes passed before either man spoke. Chris spoke softly, “Everyone agree on your plan? Saw Coffee talking with you. He’ll have to investigate.”
“Nathan and me and …, well, we all agreed. Put all the blame on the kid. Figured he was the one that shot Higgins anyway. After what I found in the boy’s coat. Thought he had more sense.” Josiah shook his head, remembering the ripped document he’d found in JD’s jacket.
“What did you find?” Chris rose and followed Josiah into the saloon. Grabbing two mugs from the bartender, they found their way back to the same table they used to claim as their own. “He still breathing?”
Buck strolled casually down the board walkway, finally feeling like he was home. He’d been a drifter most of his life but returning to the small settlement where he and six other men made a difference seemed like the right thing to do. He and Ezra, convinced of Matthews’ intentions, accompanied the young ranger searching for JD. The three men decided to split up, hoping to locate someone who might have seen Dunne and knew where he might be headed.
“Mrs. Potter! You’re looking more beautiful every day!”
The storekeeper blushed at the rogue’s greeting and she smiled, mentally counting to five. “You just scared five year’s off my life, Mr. Wilmington.”
“Best place in the territory to shop, ma’am. By chance, have you seen JD around these parts recently?”
She nodded in agreement but before she spoke, noisy footfalls announced the approach of someone. Deputy Gordon stepped into the store, butting between Buck and the counter. “You’ll have to wait. Miz Potter. Mr. James was none too pleased with you. You gonna pay your account today? Wouldn’t want nothing happening to your merchandise. Insurance’ll take care of ya.”
“Problem, Mrs. Potter?” Buck stepped up to the counter, not liking the tone of the other man’s voice.
“Told ya cowboy, none of your business.” Gordon glared at the tall, well-built man. Where had he seen the drifter before? He looked familiar.
“Get out. I’m not paying your insurance money.” The woman stood proudly, in the face of the bully. “You can tell Mr. James that. I’m not going to stand back and let you destroy this town.”
He sneered at the woman and spat a stream of tobacco juice on her clean floorboards. “You’ll be sorry, lady.” He turned and left as quickly as he’d entered, leaving the stench of sweat behind.
Buck chewed on the inside of his lip. He’d seen the change come over the woman the minute the deputy stepped inside her store. What kind of insurance did the widow need?
“Ma’am? You alright?”
He waited for an answer, wanting to help the woman but not wanting to interfere if it was a personal matter.
“Town’s not the same since the seven of you left. We were growing, becoming a place to shop, a good place to have a business. What you witnessed is the case now. No one is safe. They prey on everyone. They think their brawn and guns and money is enough to ride over anyone or thing in their path.” She looked him directly in the eye. “You planning on staying, Mr. Wilmington, and do something? I asked Mr. Larabee the same question yesterday. He couldn’t get out of town fast enough.”
“I really need to find JD, ma’am. Not really ready to settle down again.”
“Humph.” She turned her back, effectively dismissing him.
“Ma’am? Did I say something to offend you?”
“Extradition papers. You were right, Dunne was hunting Tanner. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. As evil as the snake in the garden. Used his friendship for his own personal gain.” Sanchez’s voice rose in anger as he grabbed examples from the Bible where the devil hid his true intent and tricked believers into doing his evil.
“Nathan still tending him.”
“Boy’s got a fever. Hasn’t been lucid. Nathan’s not holding much hope. The why of what JD did, he’ll take to hell with him.” Josiah scowled in hatred. “Let the sheriff believe Dunne’s responsible. Left the wanted posters in the wallet so Coffee knows what Higgins was. Except we destroyed one of them.”
“FIRE! FIRE! The hardware store is on fire!”
The alarm spread through the small town, spurring everyone into action. Fire was everyone’s enemy and could destroy homes and business if not controlled. Black smoke billowed from the back of the building. Kerosene barrels and other fuels were kept back there. Flames licked the wood frame through the broken window frame.
Josiah and Chris joined the men fighting the flames, side by side with the residents who scorned their return. Others began evacuating the supplies of the neighboring businesses, piling the boxes and barrels in the street. Watson’s building sat at the end of the block. The arid conditions of the area sucked all moisture from the building materials, and the tinder-dry wood was no match for the hungry flames.
“Get those barrels moved,” Chris shouted as others began tossing water in a futile attempt to extinguish the beast.
Watson tossed new buckets to anyone available from the front of the store, coughing from the choking smoke rolling through his store. Josiah dragged him away from the building as the flames marched through the walls.
“Ezma. Ezma’s upstairs!” Joseph Carter, owned the next building, the harness shop. His family occupied the second level. “She’s been sick, in bed.” The harness maker lost his left leg during the war and stood in the street on his crutches.
The preacher didn’t hesitate but ran into the black interior. He knew the stairs to the family’s quarters was on the opposite side of the store from Watson’s building. His large hand used the counter as a guide as he tried to remember the location of the stairwell. The smoke tightened his chest like an iron band, squeezing tighter with each second. His body screamed for oxygen while his eyes blinked constantly.
“Help! Help me!” The faint voice carried through the fire’s roar and spurred him in his rescue attempt.
Something exploded and he could feel the searing heat. Smoke swirled in the upstairs but the flames had not yet penetrated the shared wall. “Mrs. Carter! Can you hear me?” A small draft of fresh air, drawn in through the less than tight walls gave the giant of a man a small reprieve to supply his own body with oxygen. He sucked greedily as he tried to see through the smoke.
More items exploded in the neighboring building and Josiah could feel the heat through his own feet. The fire must have breached the wall downstairs. How would he be able to save the woman if he found her?
The couple’s living space overlooked the main street but the shop no longer had a porch covering the boardwalk. Carter had been unable to rebuild it following some outlaws’ attempt at commandeering the town. Josiah remembered dropping it to stop them from killing Vin.
“Josiah!” Chris’ voice penetrated the growing fog in his mind. “Get out now. Out the window.”
Looking out the window, he saw the men positioned a tall ladder next to the burning structure. Flames were visible in the stairwell blocking any retreat. His hands reached out, trying to find the woman. Something soft yielded to his touch and he grabbed the fabric. The woman was lying across the table, unconscious. Wasting no time, he carried her to the window and knocked the glass out with his elbow before pushing the limp body through the opening. Hands grabbed the woman away from him. He tried to climb out, his broad shoulders barely fitting through the small opening, as flames lapped the floorboards. No way could he turn and stand to descend the ladder feet-first.
First a pop then a huge boom roared, sending flying debris in all directions. Firefighters and rescuers fled from the firestorm, scattering to escape the raining embers. As the initial shock ebbed, the battle resumed before more structures caught fire.
Chris paused a moment to look at the destroyed businesses. Both buildings’ walls continued to smolder but the terrific explosion extinguished the ravaging flames. Another fiery scene flashed through his mind, the charred skeleton of his own burned out cabin. Had fire claimed another victim?
“ Someone give me a hand? Want to set that ladder up so I can get down?” said a familiar voice.
Larabee ran into the street and looked at the roof of the bank. Josiah’s huge grin smiled downward at him while blood glistened down the side of his head. How did he get across the street? He saw Tommy Potter peering out the door of his mother’s store.
“Tommy. Go get Nathan. He’s at Nettie Wells. Tell him about the fire and that Josiah needs him! Go!”
A horse stomped its foot and swished its tail to chase away annoying insects. The cow mooed, uncomfortable in its wait to be milked. JD blinked his eyes, trying to dislodge the crud that wanted to glue them shut. A fly hummed close to his ear before setting down on his forehead, the tiny, barbed feet tickling his skin. He raised his hand to swat the annoyance away but stopped as his pain-racked body protested.
What happened? Was there anything that didn’t hurt? Above his head, cobwebs hung from the ceiling, thick with the dust normal in a barn. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. More flies buzzed in his ears and he felt something run down the side of his face. It pooled in the ear’s opening. His breath came in short pants as he attempted to sit up on the makeshift bed.
“JD.” The vision of a goddess floated toward him and he felt strong arms help him rise. His eyes scrunched shut tight, fighting the building nausea by trying to swallow. A dull roar filled his head and shivers racked his body.
“Here.” A tin cup touched his lips and he greedily drank from it. Taking a chance on not passing out, he tentatively opened his eyes, trying to focus on the object in front of him. What was it? Where was he? Why did he hurt so badly? The questions assaulted him faster than the answers formed.
A wet rag was wiped across his face and he smiled at its comfort. “Are you feeling better?” Casey asked, worry lines evident on her forehead.
“Yeah, only I wish this wasn’t a dream. I see you, in my dreams, Casey.” JD slurred, shutting his eyes and imagining her again.
“JD, this isn’t a dream. You’re hurt. Here, you’d better drink some more water.” She guided the cup to his mouth while he kept an eye on her face.
“Why do you look sad? You should be happy, always happy,” his speech sounded like he was drunk.
JD leaned against the wall, too tired to move. Casey left the cup beside him after telling him to drink more. She needed to milk the cow and get back to the house to tend to her own child. He could hear the swish, swish, swish as the milk squirted into the pail. His mind tried to remember why he was in Nettie’s barn with Casey. What was wrong with him? One name rose through the confusion and he suddenly exclaimed, “VIN! I gotta find Vin!”
Casey set the full pail of milk by the barn door and sat beside him, grabbing his good arm. “Why JD? Why did you want to kill him? Why?”
“What?” He was baffled. “I didn’t kill him. Did I? No, I had the papers for him.”
Casey stood abruptly, “Taking him back to Texas is the same a killing him here! He’s your friend, more man than you’ll ever be!” She grabbed the pail and left the barn, leaving a very sick and confused man alone.
Now Casey was mad at him. She was so complicated. What had he done? He should go talk to her, explain how he’d presented the evidence to the judge, won Vin’s freedom. He didn’t want to take Tanner back to Texas in custody; he wanted to tell his friend he’d gotten him exonerated!
Nathan checked the bandage one more time, wanting to be sure he hadn’t left any debris in the wound. Josiah’s hair was stiff with dried blood but his face had been washed. He smiled silly, still amazed at the miracles of God. An angel’s hand guided him across the street to safety when the buildings exploded with him half way out of the window. Was it destiny? Providence? Coincidence? Devine Intervention?
“You sit still. I’m going to see if’n others need help.” Nathan washed his hands and dried them on a rag before moving onto another man who’d been burned on his arm.
Dr. Quinn stood on his porch, ready to treat the injured but most of the town’s residents were willing to wait for Nathan or Mrs. Kennedy’s assistance at the scene of the fire than to trouble him. Why would they rather have the healer’s help than come to his office? Should he insist that they come to him for true medical help? What did the other man offer that the people preferred?
Vin, ignoring the looks from Chris, continued to help people clean up debris after the fire. The town was lucky the fire didn’t spread beyond the destruction of the two businesses. Residents extinguished the smaller fires quickly before the embers destroyed property.
Standing near what had been the back door of the hardware store, Larabee studied the scene. Something wasn’t right. He’d visited with Watson more than once in his store and never smelled leaking fuel. The man stored the barrels outside where they were least likely to cause spontaneous combustion. This was no accident; this was a deliberately set fire, intended to cause damage. Had the arsonist intended to murder as well?
“Virgil, come here. What was in the back, by this window?”
The storeowner, still soot-covered, answered, his voice raspy. “Tools, fencing. Nothing flammable.”
“You had any problems lately? Anyone who might want to cause you trouble?” Chris scanned the crowd.
“No, well, not really. Unless.” The normally talkative shopkeeper shut his mouth.
Before Chris could question him further, Sheriff Coffee, followed by Deputy Gordan, pushed their way to the middle of the group. “Break it up, break it up. Larabee. What are you still doing here? Thought you’d be gone by now.”
“Sheriff,” Chris started.
“Get out my town.” The lawman turned toward Watson. “Sorry about your loss, but you need to get this cleaned up immediately. Whole town might have burned down by your carelessness. Now we got an eyesore for any folks that trade here. Bad for business.” Just as abruptly as he’d barged into the conversation, he left, headed toward Joseph Carter.
Virgil and his friends stared at the departing figures. What? They thought he’d set the fire intentionally?