Main Characters: Seven
Note: Yes, yes, Hitchcock did this first and best. I just dusted the idea off and set the boys loose. They managed to do a surprising amount of damage in a short amount of time. Sorry, Hitchcock.
William Wright, alias Wilson alias Will Perry alias Roaring Bill.
Horse Thief. Cattle Rustler. Stagecoach Robber. Receiver of Stolen Goods. Murderer.
Thirty-two years old.
Height 5 feet 4 inches.
Weight 165 pounds.
Black hair, dark eyes, light complexion. Usually wears a mustache.
Scar on right temple, over eye. Small scar on left cheek. Scar from pistol shot on left shoulder. Anchor tattooed in India ink on back of right hand. Escaped from Yuma Prison three weeks ago.
JD flicked the wanted poster aside and rested his chin on the window sill, studying the suspect in the street below.
True, the man loitering in front of the hotel didn’t have a mustache, but mustaches could be shaved. JD double-checked the description on the flier. And maybe this man’s hair was more blond than black -- but a man on the run from the law might dye his hair, right?
He fidgeted, wedging another pillow behind his back so he could continue his surveillance in comfort. What he really needed was…aha! Josiah came strolling down the boardwalk on mid-day patrol, nodding pleasantly to the stranger in passing.
They were the same height. Drat.
JD crumpled the wanted poster and chucked it across the room before collapsing back on the mattress in a huff.
There was an unsympathetic snicker from the chair next to his bed.
“Shut up, Buck,” he groused as he shifted on the mattress, searching for a comfortable position and knowing he wouldn’t find one.
“Now, JD, I think folks in town’d be mighty touched to know you’re keeping an eye on things from up here,” Buck said, managing an expression of deep sincerity for all of ten seconds before he started snickering again. “I’m just wondering what in Sam Hill you think you’d do if you actually spotted one of them desperados wandering down the street.”
Buck shot a significant look at the complex system of ropes and pulleys and weights that kept JD’s left leg elevated and immobilized over the bed.
JD crossed his arms and scowled. “Ain’t nothing wrong with the rest of me. I can still shoot--”
“But you can’t ride,” Buck cut him off with a gentle cuff on the shoulder, his expression dark. “And you sure as hell showed us you can’t fly.” The smile slid off his face as he looked away, remembering.
“Hey, I flew.” JD jostled Buck’s elbow, trying to lighten the mood.
Buck snorted. “’Til the ground got in your way.”
“If you’d just untie me…” JD’s voice took on a whining edge as he eyed the rigging that kept him trapped in the infirmary.
“Ah-ah!” Nathan Jackson’s brusque warning cut JD off before he could explain -- again -- his plan to patrol the town on crutches.
“Two more weeks.”
“Two more weeks in traction and not a day less,” Nathan looked up from the workbench where he was grinding leaves and twigs into a fine powder. “You want to keep your foot? Keep still.”
JD subsided; studying the pink toes that poked out the other end of the immobilized lump of splints and bandages that was his leg. Three weeks ago, the same leg had been bent in two places it wasn’t supposed to bend, with shockingly white spars of bone jutting out of his splintered shin.
Most doctors would have just sawed the thing off, he knew. He was grateful to Nathan, more than words could say. But he was also…bored.
Bored... JD’s attention strayed to the items piled on his bedside table. Books from Josiah and Chris. Vin’s spyglass. Two decks of playing cards from Ezra -- one marked and one unmarked, and he was still trying to puzzle out which was which. A huge sheaf of wanted posters. A stack of dime novels. A plate of cookies from Casey that Nathan had sampled and declared unfit for human consumption.
JD sighed bitterly. Boring. He glared at his leg again, feeling the warning tingle of an itch, maddeningly out of reach. Perfect.
He eyed the stack of dime novels again. This was all their fault. Jumping from a second-story balcony into the saddle always worked like a dream on paper.
He picked up the spyglass and turned his attention back to the street.
Five days later
JD slunk lower in the bed and plotted Buck Wilmington’s imminent, messy death. The dead man walking ignored the daggers being glared his way and carried on with his dramatic reading of one JD’s dime novels.
“Buck…” he tried again.
“Hush up, kid. This is just gettin’ interesting,” Buck shushed him absently. “Where was I?”
“‘Oh, spare me, sir,’” Nathan prompted helpfully, not looking up from the bandages he was rolling on the other side of the room.
“Yeah, that’s right,” Buck cleared his throat and forced his voice into the squeaky registers of a dime novel damsel in distress: “‘Oh, spare me -- spare me, Sir! Oh, my God! is there no one here to help me?’ the poor girl sobbed...”
Buck’s voice dropped down to a villain’s menacing snarl: “‘Nary a durned galoot, my gal!’ Piute Dave declared, with a triumphant chuckle. ‘As I allowed, before, I'm boss o' this burg, an' thar's not a man hyar as durst lift a hand to help ye, when I'm around.’”
JD rolled his eyes as Buck sprang from his chair and struck a heroic pose, pointing dramatically with the hand that wasn’t holding the paperback: “‘You lie, you brute! and if you but lay a hand on that girl I'll bore a hole in your thick skull! If you offer that girl the least molestation, I'll make you up into a perforated porous plaster quicker than a Dutchman can say beer!'"
Buck dropped back in his chair, gasping for air, then launched back into the hero’s monologue. “Yes, I am Deadwood Dick, the celebrated cuss from Custer clime -- the diabolical devil-may-care devotee of road-agency, from Deadwood the hunted hurricane!”
JD crossed his arms and scowled as Buck and Nathan collapsed, howling with laughter. “Deadwood Dick’s Doom” fluttered to the floor, forgotten.
“Perforated porous plaster,” Nathan snickered, wiping his streaming eyes with a corner of the bandage roll.
“Deadwood Dick!” Buck countered.
JD huffed, then picked up Vin’s spyglass and pointedly turned his back on his chortling friends. He trained the telescope on the street, cheered by the sudden appearance of a red jacket on the boardwalk below. Relief was in sight.
“...from Deadwood the hunted hurricane!” Ezra took up the narrative with gusto, sliding into the bedside chair and propping his boots up on one corner of the mattress.
JD fished out a pillow and winged it at the gambler, who caught it nimbly and wedged it behind his back as he carried on with his dramatic reading. JD gave serious thought to firing the rest of his bedding at the other men in the room, but abandoned the idea. He might be able to take down Buck and Nathan, but Chris Larabee was another story. He was pretty sure Larabee wouldn’t shoot a man in traction, but he didn’t want to risk anything that might extend his clinic stay.
“Now, you sure you’re gonna be okay while I’m gone, kid?” Buck asked, gathering up his saddlebags and gear from the corner of the room with what looked to JD like a certain degree of eagerness.
JD crossed his arms, eyeing the trail gear enviously. “Oh,” he said with a martyred sigh. “Go ahead. Don’t worry about me.” He plucked at his bedding. “I’ll be just fine.”
Buck froze in the doorway, staring back at him uncertainly. “You know if I could get out of this assignment, I would.”
Larabee rolled his eyes, planted a hand in the middle of Buck’s back and shoved him none-too-gently toward the exit. “He knows. We know. The judge knows. The whole damn town knows. Now get a move on. Josiah’s waiting for you in the livery.”
Buck caught the door frame and peered back fretfully at the kid. “You’re sure you’re gonna be okay? I mean, you’d tell me if you were feeling poorly, or your leg was flaring up--”
JD turned woeful eyes on him and let his head loll back against the pillow, as if he were too weak to hold it up a moment longer. He gave Buck a frail smile, forgiving him for abandoning him to this lonely bed of pain.
Larabee threw his shoulder into it and shoved the protesting lawman out the door. He tossed JD a wink and followed after.
A moment later Buck’s head reappeared in the doorway. “Don’t forget. I'll be back at the end of the week. And I’ll be just a telegram away. If you need anything, I mean anyth--awk!” A hand appeared, grabbed his collar and hauled him away.
Nathan and Ezra stared at the door a moment, and then turned to JD, impressed.
The kid held his pathetic pose for a beat longer, then straightened and started whistling.
“That was bad, JD,” Nathan said, shaking his head and trying to smother a grin.
“I tip my hat to you, sir,” Ezra said. “And I believe I shall make it a point to stay on your good side in future.” With a flick of his wrist, he sent Deadwood Dick’s Doom spiraling across the room.
Satisfied, JD leaned over and snagged a fresh stack of wanted posters off the bedside table.
"Still don't see anything," Nathan said, squinting through the spyglass. He glanced back at the bed to double-check that he and JD's finger were pointing at the same spot. "You want to tell me what's so interesting about an empty patch of boardwalk?"
JD grinned without looking up from the pocket watch he'd borrowed from Ezra. "Wait for it... Five seconds...four..."
Nathan spun back to the window. On cue, the front door of the Gem Hotel swung open and old man Heidegger stepped out, broom in hand. The innkeeper looked around, then ducked his head and started sweeping. Nathan sighed. He'd been hoping for something more interesting than the sight of Heidegger waving a broom. A thought struck him and he squinted more carefully through the glass. Heidegger was sweeping the same spot, over and over again, ignoring the pointed looks he was getting from the townsfolk who were forced to detour around him.
"'Three...two...one...'Good afternoon Miss Daphne!'" JD crowed in an atrocious German accent.
Nathan's eyes widened as the town's new seamstress swished around the corner and was intercepted by Heidegger, right on cue. The businessman bobbed his head nervously and gestured her toward the front door.
Daphne Ledbetter fluttered her long lashes, tossed her blonde curls and, after a quick glance around the street, allowed the shopkeeper to usher her inside. The door snapped shut behind them, almost snagging the pink ruffled hem of her dress. Heidegger's broom leaned against the wall outside, forgotten.
Nathan lowered the spyglass, sputtering.
JD cackled. "Told you! You would not believe the stuff that goes on in this town."
"There's plenty of reasons she might be going into the hotel. One of the guests might need some tailoring."
"Every day? At the same time of day? For a week?"
Nathan harrumphed. "Heidegger better pray his wife don't get wind of this, ‘cause I don't know enough doctoring to remove her frying pan from his skull."
Unable to stop himself, he raised the spyglass and took another peek at the hotel’s empty front stoop.
JD craned up for another look of his own. "And Heidegger really better hope Miss Daphne's husband don't come town anytime soon."
Nathan blinked. "She's married?" The pretty young seamstress had arrived in town a few weeks earlier, accompanied by a mountain of fabric bolts and dressmaker's dummies, but no husband that he’d noticed.
"Buck told me," JD said. And Buck would know. "Said the husband was out of the picture. Wait'll I tell him that Heidegger made a move on her before he could."
Nathan grinned, then caught himself. "Don't know what you're smiling about," he said, shutting the spyglass with a snap. "Spying on folk? That ain't the sort of thing decent folk do."
JD shrugged, unrepentant. "What else am I supposed to do all day? It ain't like everybody else on the street can't see what they're doing -- they just don't notice 'cause they've got better things to do." He gestured grandly toward his leg. "And I don't."
JD spent the rest of the afternoon rolling bandages for Nathan and reminding himself to keep his mouth shut the next time he saw something interesting out the window.
That night, gunshots startled JD awake. For a confused moment, he thought he was caught up in a familiar nightmare. But this time instead of the shooting leading to falling and screaming, the gunshots kept coming, crackling through the pitch black on the other side of his window.
He levered himself up on one elbow, hissing as the movement jarred his leg. He could make out shouting in the street below, and bright muzzle flashes, sparking from one side of the street to the other.
JD leaned closer, trying to see, only to flinch back with a startled yell as a stray bullet punched through the glass, spraying shards everywhere. He threw himself backward without thinking, then let out an even louder yell as the traction ropes cut the movement brutally short. Hissing, he pawed through the pile of odds and end on the bedside table, fingertips brushing across paper, brass and...there. A tiny penknife he’d borrowed from Larabee during his brief, failed, experiment with whittling the other week.
Grasping the little knife, JD sat up, feeling broken glass shower out of his hair and down onto the blankets as he sawed at the ropes. His leg thumped down on the mattress with a jolt he could feel all the way to his teeth. Ignoring the pain, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and grimly eyed the distance between the bed and the chest of drawers across the room where Nathan kept his spare weaponry. A gun was the one thing he hadn’t thought to add to the pile on his bedside table.
Before he could work up the nerve to move, the sickroom door burst open. JD looked up, expecting to see one of his friends come to check on him. Instead, an unfamiliar silhouette filled the door frame. Frozen in shock, he watched the stranger bolt into the room, making straight for the rear window. Faint moonlight glinted off a shotgun barrel as the man shoved the window up, leaned out, and took aim at something in the alley below. Still unaware that he had an audience, he started firing.
JD’s fingers tightened on the tiny knife as he heard a shout of pain through the gunshots. Without thinking, he leaned toward the window, trying to see what was happening. The bedsprings creaked beneath him.
“Who goes there?” the man at the window barked, whirling and firing wildly into the room.
JD threw himself to the floor and rolled under the bed as buckshot peppered the walls. The gunman emptied both barrels, then tossed the shotgun aside and went for his pistols.
Muzzle flashes illuminated the room like a strobe, giving JD an eerie stop-motion view of the figure moving closer, hunting for him.
The clinic door slammed open again and JD shouted out an incoherent warning as the gunman took aim at this new intruder.
The shadow in the doorway ducked and returned fire, diving for cover behind Nathan’s work bench.
JD flinched back against the wall as bullets sent plaster dust, bits of paper and shards of glass flying around the room like an indoor blizzard. Again, he wished for a gun. He had a clear line of sight on the intruder at the window, which meant the only thing stopping the man from picking him off like a clay pigeon was the darkness and one of his friends. At least, he hoped the other gunman was friendly.
There was a final shot and the figure by the window flinched back, overbalanced, and tipped backward through the glass. A heartbeat later came the distinctive thud of a body landing two stories below.
The room fell silent. Then the shadowy form of the other gunman rose from behind Nathan’s workbench.
“JD?” Larabee’s voice rang out, sharp with concern.
“Here,” JD gasped in relief. “I’m okay.” Dust bunnies under the bed tickled his nose and he sneezed. He'd just spent most of a gunfight hiding under a bed. Good thing Buck wasn’t around or he’d never live this down.
He could hear Larabee fumbling around the room, searching for a lamp that hadn’t been shot to pieces. There was a crash, a muffled curse and finally the glow of lamplight warmed the room. It was JD’s cue to move.
“Owww,” he groaned, rolling out into the open and flopping onto his back on the rag rug. Larabee crouched over him, frowning. JD blew his bangs out of his eyes and tried to look casual and competent, not like a man who’d brought a penknife to a gunfight. “What the heck happened?”
“Bar brawl,” Larabee said succinctly. He brushed a few stray splinters of glass out of JD’s hair. “Town’s still in one piece. How about you?”
JD grinned, despite the growing ache in his leg. “I’m not in any more pieces than I was when this mess started.”
Larabee matched the smile and offered him a hand up. JD accepted, wobbling as he found himself upright for the first time in weeks. Before Larabee could steer him back to bed, he gave an awkward hop and collapsed ungracefully into a rocking chair. This was the first time he’d been off that mattress in what felt like forever and he wasn’t in any hurry to get horizontal again.
Larabee left him to it and headed back to the rear window. Leaning out of the shattered frame, he peered down, trying to see what was left of their intruder.
A moan drifted up through the night.
“I’ll be damned,” Larabee muttered. “He ain’t dead.”
JD, survivor of a two-story drop of his own, wasn’t impressed. “Any idea who that was?” he asked, wishing he’d gotten a better look at the man’s face. His only impression of the intruder was of a monstrous shadow with a giant gun. "Or why he came up here?"
Larabee grunted a negative.
Undeterred, JD leaned forward, eager for a report. “So what happened? Who started the fight? How many of them were there? Was anybody hurt? Do you--?”
Larabee pulled his head back in the room and squinted at him until the stream of questions dried up. “No idea,” he said, then turned his attention back to the window, listening for any more gunshots. “I was in the jail when all hell broke loose.”
A shout from outside broke the silence. “Nathan!”
Larabee was already moving, sprinting toward the door. They both recognized Vin’s voice, and recognized the tone he was using.
Larabee wrenched the door open, only to find the way blocked by Vin and Ezra, with the slumped form of Nathan slung between them.
JD barely had time to register the spreading red stain on the healer’s shirt when Nathan staggered forward, dragging his would-be rescuers with him as he collapsed.
“You missed absolutely nothing of interest, my fine fractured friend.” Ezra was saying as he stepped back from JD’s bedside and squinted at his handiwork. None of them felt up to replicating the cats-cradle apparatus that Nathan had used to keep the leg in traction, so Ezra had settled for propping the broken leg up on a pile of pillows.
JD glared. “‘Nothing of interest?’ Somebody shot up the whole dang town! It’s the first interesting thing that’s happened in weeks!”
Nathan’s slurred voice piped up from the other side of the room. “In’ersting, yup. First i-interesting thing that’s happened since JD took that flying leap off the saloon balcony.”
The healer lifted his head off the pillow and blinked owlishly around the clinic. It had taken half a bottle of laudanum and two different medical textbooks for the other lawmen to figure out how to properly scrub and stitch the ragged bullet tear in his side. They would have asked Nathan himself for advice, but that hadn’t occurred to them until after they’d spooned all that laudanum down his neck.
“Heeeere kitty, kitty, kitty...” Nathan crooned, leaning precariously over the edge of the bed as he tried to peer underneath.
Larabee, who sat on a chair beside him, reached out and nudged him back onto the mattress without looking up from the medical reference book he was balancing on one knee.
“There’s no cat, Nathan,” he said, for the third time. He flipped to section H, for “hallucinations” and squinted at the tiny print. “You wouldn’t happen to be experiencing any blurred vision, nausea or, uh, constipation right now, would you?”
Nathan poked critically at his bandage-swaddled torso. “I better be experiencing blurred vision. Who the hell stitched me up? Were they drunk?” He gave a fretful tug at the cloth wrappings, which promptly unraveled, revealing an uneven ladder of lopsided stitches. “And seriously, now, who let that cat in here?”
Leaving Larabee to the job of putting Nathan under wraps again, Ezra turned back to JD and resumed his narration.
“It all began – as most interesting stories do – in the saloon,” he said. “Your brief acquaintance...” He gestured grandly toward the rear window. “Got into an altercation of some sort with a gentleman in Digger Dan’s. Words were exchanged, then bullets were exchanged, then their friends got involved and the action spilled out into the street. The rest you know.”
On the other side of the room, Nathan had given up his search for the invisible cat and drifted off to sleep, snoring gently. He’d been deposited on JD’s old bed, once Vin and Ezra had shaken all the broken glass out of the covers.
JD had grudgingly agreed to lie down on the spare cot the others had set up for him. He fidgeted on the thin mattress, already missing the big bed with its view of Main Street. Now he was on the opposite side of the room and there was nothing to see out the rear window but the alley and the back of the boarding house one street over.
He craned his neck to peer out the shattered window. Vin and Yosemite were lowering a sheet over a body sprawled in the dirt.
Had the fall killed their gunman after all? JD frowned, remembering the stranger firing at something – someone? – outside before Larabee interrupted.
“Do we know who he was? The guy who fell out the window, I mean?”
A shadow passed across Ezra’s face. “That,” he said with a nod toward the body in the alley, “is not 'the guy who fell out the window.’”
JD glanced back at the scene below. The sky was lightening toward dawn and it was easier to make out details -- including the ruffled pink hem of the skirt poking out from underneath the shroud.
“Daphne Ledbetter,” Vin said thoughtfully, leaning on the broom he’d been using to sweep up the battle debris inside Nathan’s clinic. “That’s a real shame.”
He looked around the shambles that surrounded him, without really seeing the pellet scars in the walls, the pockmarked books or the shattered glassware. He shook his head sadly, and JD wondered if he was thinking about the grisly fate of the town’s last seamstress, Miss Irene.
JD was jolted out of his own gloomy thoughts by an unwelcome tug on leg. He yelped and glared at Ezra, who was flexing his injured limb through a series of exercises. The gambler glanced at a sheet of paper covered with scrawled instructions and flexed JD’s foot in a direction it was never intended to bend. JD howled. Ezra dropped the foot, picked up the paper and scribbled a note.
JD scooted backward until his leg was back under the protection of the blankets. On the other side of the room, Nathan snored gently through his latest dose of laudanum. Ink-splattered papers covered the mattress around him. The one draped over his face fluttered with each exhale.
“You really need to stop giving Nathan that stuff,” JD said. Before the laudanum kicked in, Nathan had explained that the exercises were meant to work life and strength back into his leg. Right now, his muscles felt as brittle and useless as dried jerky. Nathan called it therapy. JD called it slow torture. To distract himself, he went back to interrogating Ezra and Vin.
“Why would anybody want to shoot Miss Daphne?”
“Don’t know that anybody did mean to shoot her,” Vin said. He went back to sweeping. “She probably got hit in the crossfire.”
“That guy... Wait, did we ever find out who that guy was who went out the window?” Ezra and Vin looked up, shrugged, and went back to their tasks. “Anyway, that guy was shooting at someone in the alley last night. Maybe Daphne Ledbetter got in the way.”
“Or perhaps,” Ezra said, wadding up Nathan’s garbled instructions and tossing them aside, “she was his intended target all along.”
By the time Nathan woke that afternoon, the wreckage of the gun battle had been cleared away, only to be replaced by chaos of another sort.
“That’s new,” he muttered, blinking at the sight of Vin staggering into the room with a body wrapped in a length of canvas.
“Ey, Nathan,” Vin greeted, shrugging his burden off his shoulder and onto the rug in the center of the room. It rolled a few times and fetched up against JD’s bed with a solid thunk.
“Thanks, Vin! That’s great!” JD said with a grin.
Someone snorted and Nathan turned to see Larabee leaning against the wall and staring sourly at the activity in the room. “This is stupid,” he corrected, giving Nathan a careful look. “How’re you feeling?”
Nathan thought for a moment, one hand resting on his throbbing ribcage. “Fine.”
Larabee ignored the lie. “You need anything for the pain?”
“No!” the shout came from around the room.
Nathan made a face at his snickering friends. “No laudanum,” he agreed. “Although I wouldn’t say no to a cup of—” He smiled as Larabee passed him a mug, steaming with a foul-smelling brew. “Ahh, willow bark tea. Thanks.”
He settled back against the pillows, took a sip, and studied the odd tableau in the middle of the room.
“What do you think you’re doing with that body? That ain’t respectful. And it sure as hell ain’t sanitary. You’re gonna stink this whole place up.”
Vin threw him a wink, grabbed one corner of the canvas shroud and gave it a yank. It unraveled to reveal a dressmaker’s dummy, and a shotgun. Nathan stared.
“We’re trying to figure out who shot Miss Daphne,” JD said, as if that explained anything.
Nathan sipped his tea. “And you figure the dummy did it?”
“Noo-oo-oo,” JD’s voice vibrated as Vin shoved the patient’s cot sideways across the floor, clearing a path to the rear window. “That guy who fell out the window still hasn’t woken up, so we’re trying to figure out what happened for ourselves.”
Larabee let out a frustrated groan. "She took a shotgun blast to the head. That idiot in the window was blasting away with a shotgun. Mystery solved."
The others ignored his protests and turned to the scene at the window. The dummy was a wooden affair -- just a knob of a head and a long torso and hips, padded with cloth in all the right places -- with a metal post in place of legs. As Nathan watched warily, Vin leaned the dummy against the window sill. “Ready, Ez?” he called out the window.
“Let the record show that I do this only because I have five dollars riding on the outcome.” Ezra’s voice floated up from the alley below.
“You just keep that money handy. I’ll be collecting it directly.” Vin rested the shotgun barrel on the dummy’s shoulder and took aim. “Get clear now, Ezra!”
The shotgun blast left everyone’s ears ringing. There was a pause and then Ezra’s voice came again, sounding smug. “I think we can rule out ‘shotgun blast from the infirmary’ as the cause of death.”
JD let out a low whistle. “Geez. That dummy is just never going to be good for anything again.”
Intrigued, Nathan pushed himself up and wobbled across the room. Breathing hard, he took a look at the crime scene for himself.
“That look right to you?” Larabee asked, squinting down at the dummy, which had flopped sideways -- away from the dried pool of blood that still faintly marked the spot in the alley where Daphne Ledbetter had died.
“Aw, hell,” Vin muttered. “Anybody got five bucks I could borrow?”
The dummy’s head and torso were a pockmarked mess, but the scattershot damage didn't match the description of the shotgun blast that had erased Daphne Ledbetter's pretty face. The only way they’d been able to identify her was by her bright blonde hair and her distinctive pink dress.
Ezra hauled the battered dummy upright. “If you’ll permit me a small demonstration of my own?” he called up, a feral smile exposing the glint of a golden tooth. "The shotgun, Mister Tanner, if you please?"
Nathan nodded in approval as the gambler lowered the damaged dummy until its wooden head rested in the blood pool, then carefully tilted it upright until it was standing approximately where Daphne would have been. Again, Nathan wondered what possessed the young woman to run out into a dark alley in the middle of a gunfight.
Vin unloaded the shotgun and dropped it carefully into Ezra's waiting hands. The ammunition followed.
Ezra cocked his head, studied the dummy for a moment, then backed up until he was standing in the shadowed rear exit of the boarding house. He leveled the weapon point-blank at the dummy's face. The hapless mannequin’s head exploded in splinters as the dummy jerked and fell, landing squarely in the traces of Daphne Ledbetter’s blood.
“So she was caught in the crossfire. End of story,” Larabee said. He had two men out of town, two laid up with injuries and two playing with dolls. He was just about out of patience with JD’s little experiment.
“Peculiar sort of crossfire. Shot from the doorstep of her own home,” Vin drawled.
Larabee pulled a face. “Everybody who took part in that brawl last night is cooling their heels in our jail,” he said. “Judge can figure out who did what when he gets here at the end of the month.”
JD sputtered. “But we’re just getting started! We still have to figure out who shot her and who that guy was in the window and why the fight started and--”
Larabee gave the dummy in the window a straight-armed shove that sent it tumbling to the ground below. Ezra let out a startled yelp as he dodged out of its way. Ignoring the complaints from below, Larabee herded Nathan back to his own bed. The healer let himself be led, still craning back for one last look out the window.
"This ain't one of your books, JD," Larabee said with a sigh. "We're running out of able bodies." He shook out a blanket and dropped it over Nathan. “I need Vin’s help to watch the prisoners and patrol the town. I’ll send Ezra up here to keep an eye on the two of you.”
JD shot him a pleading look. “What about the guy who fell out the window? Can't we at least try to figure out who he is?”
Larabee snagged the pile of wanted posters off the bedside table and tossed them at him.
“Knock yourself out.”
“No. No. Wrong height. Wrong hair color. No. Wrong gender,” Ezra tossed each discarded wanted poster onto the growing pile next to JD’s cot. “JD, this is an exercise in futility. We don’t even know whether your assailant had a criminal rec--” He paused, staring hard at the image on the flier he was holding. “Hello.”
“What?” Nathan called out, his question lost in a coughing fit. Ezra pushed the wanted poster at JD and hurried over to pour a glass of water. The healer accepted the cup, but ducked Ezra’s attempts to feel his forehead for signs of fever. Ezra huffed and moved over to the kettle to check on the foul-smelling brew he was steeping from one of Nathan’s recipes.
JD squinted at the poster in his hands. “Ludlow Hall?” his voice climbed into an excited squeak. “You think we took down Ludlow Hall? He’s one of the most wanted men in the territory! They say one time he ran out of bullets and robbed a stagecoach with a brick!”
Ezra took an experimental sniff at the medicinal tea and reeled back, eyes watering. “I can’t swear it’s the same man,” he said, throwing open a few more windows. “But they're both tall blond men with identical eye color and similar tattoos. And both of them are missing their left ear.”
Nathan caught a whiff of the vapors wafting around the sickroom and clamped his lips shut. If Ezra thought he was drinking that, he had another thing coming.
“It’s your recipe, not mine,” Ezra said, pressing a steaming mug into his hands and glowering over him until he took a drink.
Ignoring the faces Nathan was making, Ezra turned back to JD and continued. “What a high-profile miscreant like Mr. Hall was doing in Four Corners is anyone’s guess.”
JD smoothed the wanted poster. “Maybe he’s here to hold up a stagecoach?”
“In that case, why would he have involved himself in a common saloon scuffle?” Ezra wondered, relieving Nathan of the empty mug and offering him another drink of water to wash away the taste.
Shuddering, Nathan set the mug aside. “Somebody needs to figure out how long he’s been in town and what he’s been up to since he got here.”
Silence filled the sickroom, until Ezra realized that both patients were looking at him. “What?”
“What do you see?” JD asked impatiently.
Nathan twisted the spyglass until the view of Main Street sharpened into focus. “Ezra’s still talking with Heidegger,” he said, watching as the German innkeeper mopped at his forehead and gestured wildly. “Looks like our outlaw was staying at the Gem.”
“Kinda pricey place,” JD said. “I guess he had plenty of stagecoach money to spend.”
Nathan grunted and leaned back. “Ezra’s heading back this way.”
“’Bout time!” JD squirmed, wishing he’d asked Ezra to leave a bedpan handy before he went out.
To his vast relief, the clinic door opened to reveal Ezra – and a guest.
“I believe you’ve already made this young lady’s acquaintance?” he said, hoisting another one of Daphne’s dressmaking dummies into the room. He propped the mannequin against the wall and eyed his charges. Without a word, he dug a bedpan out for JD and moved to check on Nathan’s bandages.
Nathan nodded approvingly. The same skills that made the gambler so good at reading faces around a poker table made him an able assistant in a sickroom. He glanced down at his torn-up side, noting that the infection seemed to be fading.
The stitches still looked like some demented child’s sewing sampler, though.
“What’s the dummy doing back up here again?” he said, hissing softly as Ezra dabbed at the stitches with an alcohol-soaked cloth.
“Oh, I asked Ezra to bring her up here,” JD called out from his side of the room. “We’re gonna put her in Buck’s bed right before he gets back.”
“Good thinking, Nate. How many of those things do you think we could fit into Buck’s room, Ez?”
Ezra rolled his eyes. Caretaking duties complete, he threw himself into a chair and pulled a small notebook out of his jacket pocket. “Is anyone at all interested in the fruits of our fact-finding mission?”
JD and Nathan made encouraging noises as Ezra flipped a few pages and referred to his notes. “Our mysterious stagecoach robber checked into the Gem more than a week ago, under the name,” his lip curled in disdain, “‘John Smith.’”
JD sat up straighter. A week ago, at the Gem... But Ezra was already moving on with his report.
“Our Mr. Smith kept to his rooms, rarely venturing out until last night's ill-fated visit to Digger Dan’s. How and why the fight started remains a mystery. Hall remains unconscious. The rest of our prisoners claim to be unemployed ranch hands who deny ever having met the man they were trying to kill.”
“At the Gem,” Ezra continued, flipping another page. “Mr. Smith received only one regular visitor, and he paid our friend Heidegger to usher discreetly to his quarters every afternoon at--”
“Three o’clock!” JD broke, almost squirming off his cot in excitement. “That’s who Daphne Ledbetter was meeting at the hotel every day! Omigosh!”
Nathan shook his head in amazement. “So maybe Ludlow Hall really was trying to kill her last night? Some sorta lover’s quarrel?”
Ezra paced over to the window to study their crime scene again. “Or perhaps,” he said slowly, “he was trying to protect her.”
Moving quickly, he grabbed the dressmaker’s dummy and pulled it to the center of the room.
“The late Mrs. Ledbetter rented a room in the boarding house next door. Her landlady said she was home and in her quarters when the gunfight broke out. Why, then, would she leave the safety of her rooms? Unless--” he scooped the discarded shotgun up from the wall next to the window and leveled it at the dummy, “unless someone forced her to leave?”
He prodded the dummy in the back with the weapon. “It’s possible our outlaw was riding to the aid of a lady in distress.” He cocked an eye at the face snarling out from the wanted poster. "A remote possibility, I admit."
JD’s eyes widened. An outlaw with a heart of gold. Just like in the dime novels. Then again, Hall did try to blow his head off. Plus, the man once robbed a stagecoach with a brick. That didn't sound like a fella who had a soft spot for anything.
"So who shot her then?" he asked. "One of the cowboys from the saloon?"
Ezra holstered his weapon and propped an elbow on the dummy's shoulder to ponder the question. "All the combatants were arrested inside or in the immediate vicinity of the saloon. It hardly seems credible that one of them ran from the fight, shot Daphne Ledbetter, and then ran back just in time to be arrested. In fact, we're running out of excuses to keep the lot of them in jail."
"What about the guy who shot Nathan?" JD asked.
"Oh, that one's not a guest in our jail," Ezra said with a bland smile. "He's taken up more permanent residence just outside the town limits." He gave a meaningful nod in the direction of the cemetery.
Nathan yawned, exhausted by the afternoon's excitement. He settled back on the bed and closed his eyes. “Sure would like to know what happened at Digger Dan’s that night,” he said softly. “If we knew how the fight started, it might help us figure out how it ended.”
The soft weight of a blanket settled over him.
“Don’t you worry, Nathan,” JD’s voice came to him, sounding very far away. “We’ll figure it out.”
It was Ezra’s turn to patrol while Vin took over sickroom duty. He came bearing news from the jail and an old pair of crutches that he smuggled in while Nathan was still asleep.
Delighted, JD wrestled himself into street clothes, including a pair of pants they had to slit up the leg to make enough room for the bulky splints and bandages. The crutches and splint made a godawful clatter on the wooden floor as he practiced maneuvering himself around the room.
The noise woke Nathan, who gave Vin a poisonous glare and pointed out that JD wasn’t supposed to be putting weight on that leg for another week.
JD ignored the complaints and the jangling pain in his healing bones. Ludlow Hall had bought him an early release from bed rest. He could have kissed the man, outlaw or no outlaw. He made another circuit of Nathan’s work table, whipping around the corners with increasing speed and confidence. The crutches were killing his armpits, but he wasn’t about to complain.
Vin held out his peace offering to Nathan – a pecan pie from the hotel’s kitchen. JD teetered over for his share and the three of them settled in to enjoy.
“Talked with them fellas in the jail again,” Vin said, using one of Nathan’s good throwing knives to cut one half of the pie into three massive slices. Nathan ignored the abuse of his weaponry once Vin passed him the biggest wedge.
“And?” JD mumbled around a syrupy mouthful of pie.
“They ain’t cowboys,” Vin said, polishing off his slice and eyeing the remaining half of the pie.
Nathan wiped his sticky fingers on his bandages. They’d need changing soon anyway. “What makes you say that?”
“Soft hands. Big guns,” Vin said succinctly. “We took enough weapons off ‘em to arm a cavalry regiment.”
JD snapped to attention. “Bandits!”
He knocked one of the crutches over and hopped in an unsteady circle with the other, trying to maintain his balance. Eyes alight with detective fervor, he jammed the remaining crutch under his arm and started hitching his way toward the door.
Vin and Nathan watched him go, bemused.
“C’mon, guys! We need to talk to them! They must be Ludlow Hall’s gang. We need to find out what they had planned!”
He banged into the door and lost his grip on the other crutch. For a moment, he teetered there, clutching the doorknob and breathing hard just from the strain of crossing the room.
Vin moseyed over, handed him his crutches without comment and stepped back, clearing a path back to the cot. JD eyed the bed and the nice soft pillow and the second slice of consolation pie waiting for him. He thought about the two steep, rickety flights of stairs down to the street.
Then he squared his shoulders, swung the door open and hobbled out into the sunlight.
Vin and Nathan exchanged a look.
“Well, what’re you waiting for?” Nathan flapped a hand at Vin, shooing him out. “Go make sure he doesn’t fall and break his other leg.”
Vin clamped his hat on his head and set out after the sickroom escapee.
JD was shaking by the time he reached the street. Vin had shadowed him down two flights of stairs, close enough to grab him if he lost his balance. But he made it on his own. Somehow.
Turning his face into the sunlight, JD planted the crutches against the dusty road and drew a deep breath of fresh air. A wagon trundled by, the driver tipping his hat in greeting. A few shoppers strolled the boardwalk. Heidegger was out on his stoop, sweeping again. The town looked the same as always. No lurking bandits, no gunfire, not even a stagecoach waiting to be robbed.
Glancing down, he realized he noticed he'd forgotten something. Shoes. Maybe nobody would notice? It wasn’t worth asking Vin to go grab one of his boots from wherever Nathan had stashed them. Not when he was finally back where he belonged, patrolling his town. In socks.
“Okay. Great,” he said, steeling himself. “The jail, right. The jail is, wow, really far away from here.” He gripped the crutches tighter as he thought about the long stretch of street between him and the prisoners he wanted to interrogate.
Vin nudged his shoulder. “There’s a stop you might want to make first,” he said, nodding toward Digger Dan’s. The saloon was a few doors up the street, closer enough to smell the stale beer.
There were reasons the Seven rarely spent their off hours in Digger Dan’s. But the same watered-down whiskey, off-key piano and sticky floors that kept the locals away, seemed to draw passing cowboys and drifters like flies. JD wrinkled his nose but gamely put his crutches in motion. Vin walked beside him, matching his pace to JD's.
As they reached the batwing doors, a body went flying past them to land in the street with a crunch. The next figure out the door was Larabee, who stalked up to the whimpering man and hauled him up by the collar.
He caught sight of JD. “What’re you doing up?” he asked. “Never mind. Ezra’s waiting inside.” With that, he turned and hauled the protesting man down the street toward the jail.
JD eased into the grimy saloon interior, his wool socks squelching unpleasantly on the tacky floors. He might have to burn them by the time this was over. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he caught sight of Ezra holding court at a corner poker table. He hesitated, wondering if they were supposed to leave Ezra alone to weasel information out of his marks, but Vin nudged him toward the table.
It felt better than JD wanted to admit to slide into a chair and rest his leg. Ezra greeted them with a raised eyebrow. With him at the table was one of the saloon girls, looking nervous about sitting down on the job.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Ezra said, looking JD up and down. "The lovely Miss Eileen," he nodded politely to a bony young woman with lank red hair and the cringing posture of someone who expected to be kicked, "was just telling me about the fight the other night."
Eileen straightened a bit, looking pleased by the attention. "Like I said, all the big fella did was walk through the doors. I heard somebody yell something about him being a dead man and by the time I turned around, there were chairs flying and glasses breaking."
Eileen warmed to the topic, her voice taking on an aggrieved edge. "And who do you think was here all night cleaning up the mess? Me." She turned to Vin, as if there was something he could do about it. He gave her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "We're short-handed since Lizzie ran off with that traveling salesman and then Mindy didn't even bother coming in for her shift this morning. I guess she's upset about what happened to Daphne Ledbetter, but that's no--"
"Ah, so you knew the late Mrs. Ledbetter?" Ezra said, cutting smoothly across the stream of complaints.
Eileen plucked at the sleeve of her worn work dress. "All us girls did. She was real friendly-like. Offered us a cut rate on dresses. She and Mindy spent a lot of time together, with fittings and whatnot. She was altering one of her old dresses to fit Mindy. Said the pink would look real nice with Mindy's yellow hair." She sighed. "Guess I won't be getting my turn, seeing as how she's dead now." She pushed back from the table and hefted a serving tray onto her hip. "Mindy can tell you more. When you see her, tell her to come in to work before Dan fires her."
Ezra thanked her for her time and ordered a round, handing Eileen five times what the drinks should have cost.
As their beers arrived, JD stretched his leg under the table and looked around. The saloon was crowded with rough and unfamiliar faces. It was getting close to the end of the month – which meant payday for the local ranches and the trail drives that were passing through town.
“What’re we doing here, anyway?” he asked, wincing as the piano player launched into an off-tempo rendition of O Susannah. “You hate this place. It smells like feet.”
Ezra took a sip out of the glass at his elbow, grimaced, and pulled out his pocket flask instead. “More so, since you arrived, oh Shoeless Wonder.”
Vin let out a bark of laughter and downed his beer.
“What this place lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for in scenery,” Ezra said, flicking a glance toward a side table crowded with half a dozen surly faces. Out of habit more than anything else, he pulled out a deck of cards and dealt a hand of poker.
“Am I supposed to know who they are?” JD hissed, forcing himself not to crane around for a better look. Instead, he stared at the hand he’d been dealt. A full house, kings over jacks. Figures that would happen the one time they weren’t playing for cash.
Ezra and Vin smirked. “Former guests of our jailhouse,” Ezra said. “We concluded that there was no need to keep them incarcerated until the judge arrived, so we released them on their own recognizance. All we asked was that they not leave town before the end of the month.”
Vin slapped down his cards, revealing a handful of nothing. “Funny thing," he said, taking up the story. "None of ‘em seemed like they were in a powerful hurry to leave town anyway.”
In the corner, the men who had been involved in Ludlow Hall’s final bar brawl bent their heads together, muttering quietly. From time to time, one would cast a glare over at the watching lawmen.
“Jail breaks are so tedious,” Ezra drawled, dealing a fresh hand. “We thought it might be more instructive to let them out and see what they did next.”
“So, what have they done?”
Ezra executed a showy one-handed shuffle and dealt a new hand. “Very little. They departed the jail and came here. And here they sit. They order beers that they do not drink. They showed no interest in the bar fight that our Mr. Larabee just broke up.”
"They're waiting for something," Vin said, slouching back in his chair and discarding another worthless hand. "And it sure ain't their trial."
JD slapped down a small flush, cursing his luck. “Think they’re in town to hold up the payroll stage?” he whispered, even though no one in the noisy crowd was close enough to possibly overhear.
Vin shrugged. “Hall made his living robbing stagecoaches. There’s enough money coming into town this week to make it worth his while -- if that’s why he was here and if them fellas over there are actually his gang. Couldn’t find any wanted posters with their names or faces on them."
"If they're his gang, why were they trying to kill him the other night?" JD asked. "And if they're not his gang, well, whose gang are they?"
"Excellent questions, my friend." Ezra raked in the cards and pocketed the deck. “Now that you and Mr. Tanner have arrived to take over the watch, I’m off to pursue another line of inquiry.”
JD hopped up to join him in a flurry of elbows and crutches. The saloon really did smell like feet. “Where are we going?”
Ezra led the way around the livery and into the narrow back alley. JD craned his neck up to study the narrow window two floors above, and the scuffed spot in the dust where Ludlow Hall had landed. A few feet away, the wind and passing traffic had all but erased the bloodstain that was all that was left of poor Daphne Ledbetter.
Skirting the mark, Ezra led the way to the rear entrance of the boarding house and pounded loudly. The widow Muller, who ran the place, was deaf as a post. After several minutes of knocking, Ezra nudged the door open and yelled a greeting. Eventually, the widow made an appearance, hobbling up to greet them with a smile on her round apple doll face.
“Boys!” she chirped, tugging them inside the neat whitewashed interior of the house. She clucked over JD’s injuries and steered him onto an uncomfortable horsehair sofa in the parlor. She bustled around, reemerging a few minutes later with a tray of apple cake and tea.
JD sighed. This was the part of crimefighting he liked least. The part where people just sat around and talked. He couldn’t picture Deadwood Dick sitting down to tea with old ladies. Deadwood Dick would have found the killer by now and turned him into a perforated porous plaster. But Ezra was good at talking and the apple cake wasn’t half bad, so he settle back on the lumpy sofa to enjoy the show.
“Our condolences on the loss of your tenant,” Ezra began.
“No, she was never late with the rent,” the widow corrected him, tilting her head like a curious sparrow.
Ezra leaned closer and raised his voice. “Can you tell us anything about her? Did she have any friends in town? Did you know she was married?”
“Yes, yes, it was quite scary,” the widow agreed. “Why, a gun battle in my own back yard! I didn’t even realize anything had happened until the next morning. Poor little lamb.”
“MARRIED!” Ezra bellowed.
The widow blinked at him. “Married? Oh, yes dear. She mentioned that she’d lost her husband in Yuma. At least, I think she said Yuma. She was a dear girl, but she did tend to mumble.”
The interrogation that followed left Ezra hoarse and JD sloshing with too much tea and apple cake. Daphne Ledbetter, according to Mrs. Muller, kept to herself, never entertained visitors other than the nice young ladies who came over for their dress fittings, and never caused her landlady a moment’s trouble. “Never heard a peep out of her rooms,” the widow assured them.
There was one odd thing. A stranger who arrived at the door the day Daphne was killed. An angry little man, she said, with a beard and ragged coat. “He kept asking for Mary...or possibly Carrie. Another mumbler, that one. I sent him on his way. This is a decent house.”
There was a muffled crash from somewhere in the back of the home. The widow chattered on, oblivious, but Ezra rose cautiously and eased down the hallway.
“Those are Daphne’s rooms. Are you going to search them? Isn’t that what officers of the law do?” Mrs. Muller called after him, her voice carrying clearly through the quiet house. The noises in the back room ceased abruptly.
The door to the seamstress’s room flew open, revealing a small, disheveled man with a scraggly beard and a brace of pistols. Ezra threw himself at the intruder before he could fire, knocking him back into the bedroom.
JD placed himself between the widow and the fight and awkwardly herded her back toward the parlor. “Stay down, Mrs. Muller!” he yelled, watching to make sure she had heard him. Satisfied, he hobbled back down the hall, wincing as a gun went off, then another.
The bearded figure reappeared in the doorway, ducked a wild swing from JD’s crutches and darted out into the alleyway.
A gunshot split the air and the stranger howled, stumbled, but kept his feet as he staggered into the livery. Above him, Nathan leaned farther out the infirmary window with Ludlow Hall’s shotgun, but couldn’t get another clean shot.
JD hesitated, torn between going after the gunman and checking on Ezra. Ezra settled the issue for him as he elbowed past him, bleeding freely from a bullet hole in his arm.
“Where?” Ezra shouted up to Nathan.
“Livery!” Nathan yelled back, gesturing with the shotgun. “Where the hell are Chris and Vin?”
There were answering shots in the distance. JD paled, remembering the rest of the gang who were holed up at Digger Dan’s.
“Stay back, JD,” Ezra hissed as he darted across the alley toward the stables. He slipped through the door and JD held his breath. More gunshots sounded in the distance but the stables remained ominously silent.
“What the hell does he think he’s doing?” Nathan demanded, emerging on the balcony wearing nothing but a pair of trousers and a gunbelt. Even from this distance, JD could see the fresh blood spotting his bandages. JD waited, frustrated and unarmed, as Nathan rushed down the stairs faster than was good for him.
“I thought I told you to stay off your feet,” Nathan said, breathing hard as he reached him. Without further comment, he passed JD the shotgun and unholstered a pistol for himself. Side by side, they moved toward the stable’s rear entrance.
A gunshot stopped them in their tracks. JD took shelter on one side of the livery door. Nathan pressed himself up against the other.
“Stay back!” an unfamiliar voice called out. “I’ve got your friend and if you want him to keep breathing, you’ll give me what I want!”
The lawmen exchanged dismayed looks. “What do you want?” JD yelled.
“The money!” the stranger yelled back. JD peeked cautiously around the door, but couldn’t see anything in the dim stable interior. “I want the money my bitch of a wife was supposed to be hiding for me! You bring me the money and you let me ride out of here and I might just let you keep your friend.” There was a meaty-sounding thump and a low groan. “What’s left of him.”
Nathan snarled. A hiss from JD caught his attention. JD pointed back toward Digger Dan’s and mouthed the words GO-GET-CHRIS. Nathan glanced at JD’s leg, gave a reluctant nod, and vanished around the corner.
JD was left alone. “Hey mister?” he called out tentatively, trying to sound harmless. “Mind if I come in and talk for a minute? I’m not armed.”
“Go to hell!”
“Honest, mister. We don’t know anything about any money. If you could explain, maybe me and my friends can get you what you want.” JD edged cautiously into the entrance until he was framed by the sunlight and clearly visible to anyone inside – just a kid on crutches.
There was a moment of silence. “Okay. But no funny business. You keep your hands were I can see ‘em.”
The stable was quiet and cool and the horses nickered greetings as JD hitched his way down the aisle. A shaft of sunlight angled through the plank walls and illuminated the man who was waiting for him, with a foot planted in the middle of Ezra Standish’s back. JD could see the blood matting the gambler’s hair, but Ezra’s eyes were open and fixed peevishly on him.
“Ah’m gonna slap you silly when we get out of this,” Ezra said, spitting out a mouthful of hay. "Get out of here, JD."
The gunman ground his heel down harder until the gambler subsided. He squinted at JD. “Turn around. You better not be hiding a gun in your waistband or something, boy.”
JD turned awkwardly, his splinted leg tracing a circle in the hay and his crutches tangling.
Satisfied, the gunman trained his pistol on JD’s forehead. “Ten thousand dollars,” he said. “The money from our last heist. I told Carrie to hide it right before they carted me off to Yuma Prison last year.”
“Carrie?” JD asked, darting a glance around the stable, hoping to see Chris or Vin or Nathan. But the gun battle was still raging outside. For the moment, they were on their own.
“Carrie Wright! Mrs. William Wright!” the gunman shouted. "She's been sewing your shirts for the past month!"
JD gasped, taking a good look at the gunman. He was short; shorter than JD by a good three inches. There was a scar over his right eye. The beard made it hard to check for the scar on his left cheek, but by craning his head, he could make out the blurry outline of an anchor, tattooed on the back of the hand that was pointing a gun at him.
“Roaring Bill Wright from the wanted posters? Really?” he squeaked out. “You're Daphne Ledbetter's husband?” Wait until he told Buck.
Roaring Bill straightened to his full, meager, height, and preened. “You heard of me?”
“Your face is on wanted posters in every jailhouse for two hundred miles,” JD said, watching hopefully as the gun dipped down. “Why would you risk coming here?”
Roaring Bill’s stared at him, a year’s worth of prison beard bristling. “Ten thousand dollars!” he repeated again. “What’re you, deaf as that old lady? I told my no-good cheatin’ wife to hide it when they arrested me last year and now I come to claim it. So hand it over!”
“A year is a long time,” Ezra drawled, sounding sluggish and slightly breathless from the heavy boot compressing his lungs. “What makes you think your beloved hadn’t spent her way through your ill-gotten gains?”
The question earned him a brutal kick in the ribs that flipped him onto his back. Ezra curled up, coughing.
“Shaddup,” Roaring Bill snapped. “Carrie wouldn’ta spent that money. She knew what I’d do to her if she did. And she wrote me every week, letting me know where she was and that the money was safe. I told her to come here and scout out the town.”
Ezra uncurled slightly and studied the outlaw through slitted eyes. “'Scout out the town' for what, exactly?”
"Never you mind," Roaring Bill said, his face darkening with remembered rage. "Wasn't until I saw 'em together in the saloon that I knew they were planning to pull a double cross."
There was a blur of movement at one of the windows. JD spoke up, hoping to distract the gunman. “They? Who?”
“My no-good wife and my low-down ex-partner, that’s who!” Roaring Bill said with a snarl, stalking toward JD with guns drawn.
Ezra's voice halted the man in his tracks. “Ah, that would be the unfortunate Ludlow Hall, I suppose? I understand the two of them were passing afternoons together in his quarters at the hotel.”
Roaring Bill roared and swung a leg back to deliver another vicious kick to the downed man.
The sound of a shotgun cocking froze him in place.
“Get away from him,” JD snapped, sighting down the long barrel to Roaring Bill's skull.
Ezra let out a weak laugh. “Where on earth were you hiding that?”
JD waggled his splinted leg, which was suddenly less bulky than it had looked when he first entered the barn.
Roaring Bill reached down and hauled the gambler up, one pistol planted in his ribcage.
“Looks like we’re back where we started, boy,” he said. “So why don’t you toddle off and get me my money?”
JD scowled and tightened his grip on the shotgun. The outlaw knew as well as he did that if he pulled the trigger now, the buckshot would shred Ezra too.
“Look,” he tried again. “We don’t know anything about any--”
The sound of two gunshots, fired simultaneously, cut him off. One shot came from the window, the second came from Ezra’s derringer as the gambler wrenched himself out of Wright’s grip and fired as he fell.
Roaring Bill Wright teetered for a moment, blood pumping from his newly-ventilated forehead and chest. Then he toppled lifelessly backward to the stable floor.
“—money,” JD completed the sentence weakly, as Chris Larabee leaned through the stable window to survey his handiwork.
JD perched on a bale of hay, grinning from ear to ear. The bad guys were dead or in jail – again. They’d solved the mystery of who killed Daphne Ledbetter. And best of all, with Ezra hurt, there was no way Nathan was going to make him spend another night in the infirmary.
The gambler looked up from the hay bale where Nathan was examining him and gave JD a narrow look, almost as if he sensed what the kid was thinking. JD just grinned wider.
Nathan straightened up with a wince and surveyed the group in the stable. Ezra was listing sideways and looking queasy. JD’s splints were coming unraveled for some reason. Vin was holding a handkerchief to his bleeding nose after an outlaw had tried to break a chair across his face. And Larabee was trying to hide a limp.
“Alright, I want every damn one of you to get up to --”
“The boarding house!” Ezra interrupted. He pulled himself up, using Nathan as an unwilling crutch.
Larabee crossed his arms. “The town’s been shot up again. One of the most wanted fugitives in the territory is starting to draw flies, and if Buck and Josiah don't get back to town soon, we're going to run out of able-bodied lawmen.” He watched Ezra attempt to walk a straight line toward the exit. “You really think now's the time for a tea party with the widow Muller?”
“Do as you like,” Ezra called over his shoulder, apparently unaware that he was walking on the diagonal. “I shall simply retrieve the $10,000 on my own. Finders keepers—oops,” he murmured, bumping into a stall door and stumbling sideways.
Vin eased next to him. Blood had dried in streaks down his face like war paint. Ignoring the damage, he gave Ezra a helpful nudge in the right direction.
“Many thanks, my friend. Shall we split the reward, then? Seventy-thirty?”
“Fifty-fifty, Ezra, ‘less you want to try searching a room when you can’t even focus your eyes.”
“That is unkind. Sixty-forty?”
As the pair made their unsteady way across the alley, still haggling, the other three lawmen rolled their eyes and followed after.
The late Daphne Ledbetter – or the former Carrie Wright – had lived in a large, airy room in the boarding house, cluttered with mannequins and half-finished outfits and bolts of fabric. It was clear that Roaring Bill had already attempted a search of his own. Drawers were emptied, storage tins were upended, buttons and spools of thread lay scattered across the floor. The mattress had been slashed and the rug was pulled back to reveal the floorboards.
The lawmen surveyed the wreckage. JD nudged a fabric bolt with his crutch. He’d seen what $10,000 in cash looked like and he knew it didn’t take up much room. The stagecoach loot could be anywhere. If it was even here at all.
"What I can't figure," he said. "Is what they were doing here in the first place. If you'd run off with an outlaw gang's money, would you stick around when the same outlaw gang showed up in town?"
Ezra studied the room, eyes alight with the prospect of hidden treasure. "You would if you were hoping to add to your stash. She wasn't hiding the money from the gang. She was holding it for them. If they really were planning another stagecoach heist, it stands to reason the gang might entrust their ill-gotten gains to her again afterward."
Methodically, they divided up the room and started the search. At one point, Vin spotted a gleam of gold and dropped to the floor to fish something out from behind a chest of drawers. It was a brass locket on a broken chain. It held two small photos. One was obviously Daphne, looking even younger and prettier. The other was Roaring Bill, with a mustache instead of the beard, and carrying an extra thirty or so pounds that prison must have worn off him.
But aside from a few coins in the dead woman’s change purse, there was no money. No hollowed-out floorboards, no metal strongboxes, not even hidden pockets sewn into her clothes – Ezra had checked for that.
JD flopped onto the ruined mattress. His leg was throbbing in time with his heartbeat. He sifted through the valise they’d found half-packed in a corner of Miss Daphne’s wardrobe, trying not to feel like he was invading her privacy. Inside, he found a small photo of Ludlow Hall in a velvet case.
“They must have been planning to run off together,” he said, holding up a tangle of ribbons and cheap jewelry. “Her and Ludlow Hall. If his old gang hadn't spotted him in the saloon.”
He upended the bag, cringing as petticoats and unmentionables slid out in a lacy cascade. Blushing furiously, he tried to look through them without actually touching anything.
Larabee rubbed his forehead. “Let’s call it a day. We can make another search of her boyfriend's hotel room tomorrow. Maybe they left the money there. Maybe he'll be awake by then. Or maybe one of the idiots down at the jail knows more than he’s telling.”
Ezra stood in the middle of the room, swaying unsteadily and looking mutinous. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said, unaware that his words were slurring. His arm had started bleeding again, tiny droplets of red speckling the rug where he stood.
“Makes no sense a'tall. We can see she hadn’t spent any of the money," he said, nodding toward the broken brass locket and the tacky trinkets they'd found in the room, "and she would want to keep it close until she and her paramour could get away together.”
If there was anyone who knew how a woman on the run hid her money, it was probably Ezra. Nathan caught up Ezra’s arm, frowning at the amount of blood that had soaked the sleeve.
“Wherever they hid it, it ain’t going anywhere for now,” he said, looking none too steady on his own feet. He squinted at the arm, twisting Ezra’s wrist to assure himself that none of the bones had been broken. “Right now, I need to take a look at this up in the clinic.”
Ezra tugged his arm away. “Listen. She would have kept it close. She would have kept it someplace that wouldn’t attract suspicion and that she could take with her as she moved around. There is a king’s ransom in this room and we just need to...”
Ezra’s voice trailed off in mid-sentence, his face going bone white. JD sat up in alarm. Ezra’s eyes rolled back in his head and his legs folded so fast, he hit the floor before anyone else in the room could move.
“Buck!” JD’s shout rang up and down Main Street the next morning.
From his perch by the window, Nathan trained the spyglass on the street below.
Sure enough, the Friday stagecoach, with the payroll shipment on board, rolled to a smooth stop in front of the bank, with Buck and Josiah rising escort, as planned.
Nathan grinned as he watched JD hop animatedly around their returning comrades, clipping both their shins with his crutches. He watched their expressions shift from amusement, to alarm, back to amusement, and then alarm again as JD delivered a rapidfire account of the past week.
Josiah was already on the move. Nathan could hear him taking the stairs two at a time as he bounded up to the clinic. He burst through the door, only to be shushed loudly by two of the room’s three occupants.
“Keep it down,” Larabee grunted, barely glancing up from the copy of “Deadwood Dick’s Doom” he was reading. His ankle was wrapped and propped on a chair. “You’ll wake Ezra.”
Josiah put up his hands in a gesture of surrender, then glanced over at Nathan, studying the bandages. Nathan waved off his concern. “Just a scratch.” Josiah looked skeptical, but turned to check on Ezra...and stared.
The gambler was tucked into JD’s old cot, arm and head bandaged, cuddled up against...a dressmaker’s dummy?
Josiah moved closer, not trusting his eyes. Sure enough, Ezra was sharing his bed with a female mannequin. As he watched, the gambler yawned and tossed an arm over his companion. He snuggled closer to the padded bosom and drifted off again with a happy sigh.
Josiah opened his mouth, but Larabee shushed him again. “Let ‘im sleep,” he said, pulling a corner of the blanket up to cover Ezra and his wooden lady friend. “He had a hard day.”
Shaking his head, Josiah retreated to Nathan’s bedside.
“It was Vin’s idea,” Nathan said, still scouting out the window with the spyglass.
“I figured,” Josiah said. “And the rest of you went along with it, because...?”
Nathan thought about it for a moment. “Because none of us could wait until Buck got back to try it on him?” Lowering the spyglass, he gave Josiah a smile. “We’re glad to have you home, Josiah. You and Buck. You would not believe the nonsense that’s been going on around here since you left.”
“JD told us.” Josiah rested a hand on Nathan’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you too, my friend. Although, I have to say, you’ve looked better.”
Nathan waved off his concern. “Now that y’all are back, we can tear that room apart and find the money. If Ezra wakes up and that ten thousand dollars is still missing, he’s gonna have a conniption.”
On the other side of the room, Ezra stirred at the mention of money, then subsided, hugging the dummy tighter.
The door swung open again to reveal Vin, trailed by Buck, who did a double take that nearly ended in a conniption of his own as he caught sight of Ezra. Only Vin’s hand over his mouth and Larabee’s glare kept Buck from rousing the sleeping man – and half the territory – with a bellow of laughter.
Vin shoved Buck back outside until he composed himself and nodded a greeting. “Josiah.”
“Vin. Still no sign of the missing treasure?”
After a quick check on Ezra, Vin dragged a chair over to join Nathan and Josiah. Larabee kept his head buried in the dime novel. He was just getting to the good part.
“We just about turned that room upside-down. Nothing there. Nothing in the hotel room. Nothing out of the three members of the gang who are still breathing,” Vin said with a shrug. “JD even sent a telegram to sheriff in Vista City, because that was the last place she worked and he figured she mighta stashed the money there.”
Josiah stretched his arms above his head, working out the kinks in muscles knotted by too many miles on horseback.
“I don’t suppose it really matters,” he said. “You took down the outlaw gang. Lord knows how many lives that’s going to save down the road.”
Vin nodded, then winced. His broken nose had blossomed into two spectacularly blackened eyes and he looked like he could have used a cot right next to Ezra’s. Hell, all of them did.
Josiah was about to suggest that his friends return to their rooms for a rest, when he remembered the other duty that had brought him up to the infirmary. Rising, he crossed the room and tapped Larabee's shoulder. "They need us down at the bank to fill out some paperwork on the payroll delivery."
Larabee shot him a glare and reluctantly set the paperback aside, after carefully dog-earing a page to mark his place.
As the two of them left, Buck elbowed his way back into the room, wearing the determined expression of a man on a mission.
A few quick strides brought him to Ezra’s bedside.
“Oh Ezzzraaa!” he crooned in the sleeping man’s ear.
“G’way,” Ezra murmured, tugging the dummy closer.
“Let him sleep, Buck!” Nathan snapped, winging a pillow across the room to thump off the back of Buck’s head.
Buck gave the patient another poke. "Wakey, wakey, loverboy."
"C'mon, Bucklin..." Vin started to protest.
But Ezra’s eyes were already fluttering open, blinking up in confusion at the slight of Buck’s face hovering two inches from his own. Confusion shifted to horror as he caught sight of his bedmate.
“Arrgh!” he gave the dummy a shove that sent it clattering out of the bed. “Vin!”
“Hey!” Vin sounded wounded. “What makes you think it was me?”
Ezra didn’t even dignify that with an answer. Wincing, he pushed himself upright and took stock of his surroundings. Eyes narrowing, he ground out, “Buck."
"Miss me?" Buck asked as he retrieved the dummy from the floor. He made a show of dusting off its chest. “Did that mean ol’ gambler throw you over, darlin’? Let ol’ Buck take care of you. I’ll treat you right.”
Beaming at Ezra, he pulled a chair close to the bedside and perched the dummy's wooden torso on his knee.
“Sure is good to see you awake, pard,” he said. “JD said some desperado damn near knocked your head clean off your shoulders.” He gave a rap on the side of the dummy’s head for emphasis, grinning at the hollow-sounding echo. He gave it an apologetic peck on its featureless wooden cheek.
He noticed that Ezra was staring at him with wide, wild eyes. "You okay there? You're ain't having one of them fits Nathan's always talking about, are you?"
Buck flinched back as Ezra lunged at him and grabbed the dummy. "Easy, hoss! Plenty of wooden ladies to go around."
Ezra ignored him and rapped the dummy’s head against the floorboards, wincing as the movement jarred his head and arm. When that didn’t seem to yield the desired results, he switched to banging it against the wall and the corner of his bed in rapid succession.
“Aw, hell, Nathan! He is having a conniption,” Vin said, grabbing the dummy away from Ezra and trying to lever the injured man back down to the mattress. “Where’d we stash that laudanum?”
Ezra shoved irritably at the hand planted on his sternum. “I most certainly am not! Give me back that mannequin!” Slithering out of Vin's grip, he snatched the dummy and retreated to a corner of the room.
“Nathan, would you lend me one of your knives? Or possibly a small hacksaw?” he took a tighter grip on the dummy and wrenched at its head, as if he were trying to pop it off like a wine cork.
Nathan looked like he was about to pitch a fit of his own. “The money? You think she hid the money in the mannequin?”
The others were on their feet now, staring at the dummy.
“I’ve got an amputation saw in the drawer down there,” Nathan said, eyes wide.
"My way's faster," Vin said, grabbed the dummy with one hand and unholstered his mare's leg with the other. With that, he shot the dummy point-blank in the head.
The mannequin’s head split like a melon and clattered to the floor, revealing a cavity that opened into its hollowed-out torso.
"It's okay!" Nathan hollered out the window, waving off Larabee and Josiah as they came bolting out of the bank, weapons drawn. "Vin just shot a dummy, is all."
"Again?" Larabee yelled.
Ezra sank back down on the bed, clutching his head. “The money,” he moaned. “Tell me you didn’t shoot the money.”
“Nope,” Vin said, reaching into the hole. When he pulled his hand out again, it was gripping a wad of money the size of a cabbage.
He tossed the money toward Ezra, letting it flutter down around the gambler and the cot. Buck laughed and reached out to snatch a few bills out of the air. Ezra just sat there, transfixed by the sight of money falling from the sky.
"Is it all there?" Nathan asked, frowning. "Somebody might want to check those other dummies before Yosemite burns them for kindling."
Vin reached in again, elbow-deep in dummy, and dredged out another fistful of dollars.
The others crowded close to stare at the dressmaker’s hidden treasure. Ezra snapped out of his daze and was greedily raking the bills into a pile. “That is no way to treat currency,” he said, sorting the bills into neat stacks of one thousand dollars each.
“And don’t even try to tell me we have to give it all back this time,” Ezra snapped, leveling a finger at his colleagues before going back to his task. Neat stacks of bills were materializing on the cot, lined up like soldiers. One stack of one thousand. Five stacks. Ten.
Nathan sighed. “That money was stolen off a stagecoach somewhere, Ezra.”
The gambler ignored him, holding the money up to his ear and running a thumb along the edge of the stack of bills. He smiled dreamily at the fluttering noise it made. Bliss.
The clinic door swung open again. This time, JD stood in the entrance, breathing hard and balancing on his crutches.
“Hey, JD! Thought you were going on crutch patrol,” Buck said, waving the cracked dummy torso in greeting.
His smile faded as he read the expression on the kid's face. JD limped grimly into the room, revealing the stranger who loomed behind him, holding a gun to his head.
“I’ll be taking my money now,” the man said.
“Ludlow Hall?” Ezra murmured, staring in confusion at the battered face half-hidden behind JD.
Buck cocked his head. “Thought you said he was half-dead?”
“He was half-dead!” Nathan sputtered. “Chris shot him out a second-story window!” He frowned, realizing that he hadn’t actually had a chance to examine the patient himself. Vin and Ezra had parked the comatose outlaw at the hotel -- over Heidegger's loud objections -- and turned to more pressing business.
JD scowled around the room. “Just wait,” he said. “It gets better.”
“What a sweet thing to say!” A sugary-soft voice floated into the room.
Nathan groaned. He was never letting the others declare someone dead ever again.
“Hey there, Miss Daphne,” he said, watching with resignation as the late Daphne Ledbetter stepped around her lover and his hostage and sashayed into the room.
“What did you oafs do to my mannequin? All you had to do was twist the head counterclockwise.” The erstwhile dead woman wrinkled her nose at the splintered dummy. "Oh well," she sighed, tossing a drawstring purse on the bed next to Ezra. "Be a dear and pack up my money, won't you?"
Ezra's hands moved, shifting bills carefully from bed to bag. But his eyes were locked on the woman.
"The dead girl in the alley..."
JD's eyes widened in horror. There was only one other missing woman in town. Another blonde, maybe not quite so pretty as Daphne, but close enough to her size to wear one of her dresses. A shotgun blast to the face at close range would have taken care of the rest.
"Why?" he choked out, almost forgetting the gun at his back as he twisted to study Daphne, whose pretty face was twisted in an ugly sneer. Suddenly, it was a lot easier to believe she was the kind of woman who would marry a twisted little gnome like Roaring Bill Wright, the stagecoach bandit.
Daphne stomped an impatient foot. "Don't be dense! That was the plan all along. Of course, we had to move the timetable up once my husband caught sight of Ludlow in the saloon. I might have mentioned to him that Ludlow got himself killed in a knife fight down in Santa Fe last year."
She paused, surveying the room with a frown. "Tarnation, Ludlow! We're missing two lawmen. I thought you said they were all up here!"
Ludlow Hall, a mountain of a man with pale blond hair and a lattice of scar tissue where his left ear should have been, just shrugged. "They were, last I checked."
Ludlow's battered face was covered with bruises from his fall, but the gun he was holding on JD was rock steady. JD winced as the outlaw dropped a meaty paw on his shoulder and squeezed hard enough to make his shoulder bones creak. No wonder this guy had been able to hold up a stagecoach with a brick.
Out of the corner of his eye, JD could see Vin, tense and coiled to spring, watching Hall. All he'd need was a split second and a clean shot at the outlaw, JD knew.
Then the odds shifted. Daphne produced a silvery pistol from somewhere in the folds of her ruffled skirt. She waved it at the room.
“Your weapons,” she ordered. “Drop them.”
Vin and Buck unbuckled their gun belts and let them fall to the floor. Daphne's glare raked across the two patients in bed. Nathan was quietly calculating the distance to the knife that Vin had left out after cutting up the pecan pie yesterday. Ezra sat on the edge of his bed, carefully not looking at the gun belt Buck had dropped almost at his feet.
“Let’s get out of here, sweets,” Ludlow grunted, tightening his grip on JD’s neck. "You don't owe these law dogs an explanation. Take the money and get out and I'll make sure none of them follow us."
“You got shot out the window," Nathan said suddenly, drawing every eye in the room.
Ludlow rolled his eyes. "I fell out the window. You see any holes in me?"
Nathan cocked his head, frowning. "You still fell two stories. That wasn't some stunt you could pull with a poor little saloon girl. How the hell are you up and walking around?"
Daphne – or was it Carrie? – gave a silvery little laugh and held out a hand to Ezra, waiting for her satchel.
“The fall was real enough. Fortunately, dear Ludlow landed in a hay wagon. We decided it might be best for him to play possum for a bit, at least until someone took care of Roaring Bill.”
Ezra tucked the final stack of bills into the bag and handed it over. "If you don't mind my saying so, this seems an unnecessarily complicated and," his eyes hardened, "cruel plan. You had the money and you had each other. Why not simply ride off and start a new life while your husband was in prison?"
Daphne ran greedy fingers across the money, then tightened the purse drawstrings with a snap. "Why should we settle for ten thousand when we could walk away five times as much?”
Nathan glanced out the window, his gaze falling on the stagecoach. "The payroll. You knew the gang was coming here to rob the stage."
"My idiot husband left his money with me once. There's no reason why he wouldn't do it again," Daphne said, peering out the window toward Main Street and letting out an unladylike curse as she spotted Josiah and Larabee exiting the bank.
The two lawmen consulted for a moment, then started walking toward the clinic.
"To hell with this," Daphne muttered. She took aim at Larabee's head and pulled the trigger.
It was Nathan who saved their friends in the street, knocking Daphne's aim askew at the last minute. She responded by clubbing him brutally across the jaw and firing wildly out the window as townsfolk scattered for cover.
Ludlow whirled to face the other lawmen, hauling JD around with him. "Don't move," he snarled. "Everybody just sit back and relax while we figure out what we're going to do next."
He gave Daphne a pinched look. "What are we going to do next?"
"Shut up and let me think, Ludlow." She panned the gun around the room slowly. Nathan spat blood and glared. Buck and Vin tensed, ready to go for their guns. The gun came to a stop, leveled at Ezra. "Leave the boy, Ludlow,” she said. “This one has two good legs,” her eyes traveled down Ezra’s nightshirt appreciatively.
“Aw, sweetcakes!” Ludlow complained. “I already got this one. That one's way too slippery. And he ain’t dressed decent.”
Daphne whirled to confront her partner in crime.
Several things happened at once after that.
JD elbowed Ludlow, doubling the man over and loosening his grip enough for him to slip away. Buck swung the mannequin like a club, catching Daphne’s wrist and knocking her pistol flying. Vin and Ezra dived for their guns.
Ludlow charged at Buck, howling. Bullets caught him, spinning him around. He kept his feet somehow, staggering sideways as he reached beseechingly for Daphne. She shrieked and flinched back from him as he staggered by. His legs collided with the cot and he stumbled forward, hit the window frame, and tipped through for the second time in as many days.
This time, there was nothing to break his fall.
Daphne hurled herself toward the exit, clutching the bag of money. JD, who happened to be in her path, stumbled backward, unwilling to fight a lady.
Once again, Buck stepped up, swinging the mannequin. Daphne crumpled to the floor and was still.
For a long moment, nobody moved. Then Nathan limped over to the window to sound the all-clear while Ezra bent to retrieve the bag of money. Even unconscious, Daphne's fingers were locked around the bag like a predator's claws. He yanked it free.
Vin clapped Buck on the shoulder, nodding to the battered mannequin he was still holding. “You might want to stick with dummies from here on out, Bucklin,” he said. “They’re a hell of a lot less trouble than the real thing.”
Buck beamed, tucking his new lady friend under his arm. Glancing over at Ezra, he noted that the gun the gambler was holding was his derringer, not one of their discarded weapons. “Where the hell did that gun of yours come from?”
“Trade secret,” Ezra said, flopping back onto his bed with a grunt. Nathan mirrored the action on the other side of the room. JD pulled himself back onto his feet with Vin’s help and staggered to a chair, just as Josiah and Larabee barreled back into the room.
"Well, well," Josiah said, surveying Daphne's crumpled form. "The sanctified dead have risen from their graves." He held out a hand for the bag Ezra was clutching. "That must mean it's time for Ezra to start doling out the cash."
The bills crackled as Ezra tightened his grip.
Buck stooped to lift Daphne’s feet while Vin hefted her shoulders. “Is there any room left in the jail, Chris?”
“There will be if you move a few stagecoach robbers around,” Larabee said.
Nathan groaned and started pulling on a shirt. “Suppose I better go down and make sure Ludlow's actually dead this time."
He broke off at the sound of a scuffle, a shriek and a catastrophic crash from the staircase outside.
"The devil take you," Carrol Carner cried, arising to a sitting posture and rubbing his cheek where the imprint of Deadwood Dick's knuckles were yet to be seen. "I want to know what business you had to strike me?"
JD rotated his ankle, delighting in the freedom of motion now that the splint was finally gone. Ignoring the grumble of protest from the bedridden patient, he turned to the next page and tried out his best imitation of Deadwood Dick's heroic tones:
"The business of being a consolidated protective association for the protection of widders and orphans an' weak humans generally. I found you an unscrupulous knave, attempting to kiss this girl against, her will, and I very naturally lost control of my pugilistic members to that extent that you immediately let her alone and set down."
"Shut up, JD!" Buck groaned, scooting as far from the narrator as his cracked ribs would allow. "That sentence don't even make sense! Who the hell talks like that? And who the hell walks around with a name like Deadwood Dick?"
Daphne Ledbetter had come to as Buck and Vin were carrying her downstairs. Daphne Ledbetter, it turned out, could kick like a mule.
"Hush, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said, sounding distracted as he leaned closer to the sickroom window, training the spyglass on something in the near distance. Frowning, he passed the telescope to Nathan. "He's doing it again."
"Old man Conklin?" Nathan tutted his disapproval as he squinted through the lens. "Man his age? What's he thinking?" He yelped suddenly, swatting at Ezra's arm to draw his attention to the view.
"Who's that with him? Mrs. Heidegger?" Ezra gasped. "Good Lord. The two of them? Together?"
"Conklin's gonna throw out his back again," Nathan warned, passing the spyglass back to Ezra.
"That is just...unnatural," Ezra said, in tones of mingled fascination and revulsion. "That is completely contrary to the good Lord's plan for his creation."
Buck made a desperate effort to roll off the bed and see for himself, but fell back, clutching his ribs and groaning.
"That's not nice, you guys," JD scolded. "I swear, I'm gonna start up a collection around town so everybody can buy themselves some curtains."
"Draperies wouldn't spare my eyeballs from this travesty," Ezra said. Nevertheless, the two convalescents put the spyglass away and crossed the room to join them.
"So," Ezra said easing himself into a chair by Buck's bedside with a sigh. "What did Deadwood Dick do next?"
On the street below, Mr. Conklin and Inge Heidegger wobbled through traffic, perched precariously on the first bicycles ever seen in Four Corners. Horses shied out of their path and pedestrians bolted for the safety of the boardwalk.
Three seconds after Ezra and Nathan left the window, Conklin lost control of his velocipede and crashed face-first into a display of tomatoes outside the produce store, while Inge, unsure how to brake the contraption, rolled over Chris Larabee's foot.
In the infirmary upstairs, JD turned the page and Deadwood Dick lived to fight another day.
You can read Deadwood Dick's Doom, in all its glory, right here: http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/dp/pennies/texts/wheeler_toc.html