Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em…damnit!
Summary: The fellas don't mind a challenge, but not one like this
Thanks, as always to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
Happy 19th anniversary, boys!
Inside the favorite saloon of the town's seven regulators, Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee threw in their cards, stood up from the table they were playing poker at, and touched their hats to their companions before heading outside. With a wide grin, Ezra Standish scooped up the redundant playing cards, and the pot.
"Another game, gentlemen?"
Buck Wilmington took a drink of his beer. "Dunno, Ezra, seems to me the quickest way to double my money when playing cards with you is to just fold it over and put it back in my pocket."
Josiah Sanchez chuckled and stood to go to the bar. "Deal me in," he said before walking away.
"And you?" Ezra asked Buck. "Am I to take your previous comment as a negative response to my inquiry?"
Ezra spoke with emphasis. "Will-you-be-playing?"
Buck looked back toward the batwing doors that Chris and Vin just exited. If they were taking over from JD in the jail, then the kid would likely make his way to the saloon at some point. "Yeah, go ahead, deal me in...take my money. I can always eat next week."
In the jailhouse, JD looked up when the door opened. Seeing it was Chris and Vin, he hastily dropped his feet off the desk, slid open a drawer and tossed in the dime novel he was reading before hurriedly closing it.
"Little early ain't you, fellas?"
An amused Chris glanced between the prisoner in the cell, Vin, and then back to JD. "Well, if you'd rather sit here longer..."
Vin perched on the corner of the desk, opened the drawer to peer in at the dime novel, and then closed it. "...'Specially as Nettie and Casey Wells are 'bout due to roll into town."
JD snorted. "Heck that kinda news would just as soon have me heading in the opposite direction...or better still, staying put." To his surprise, Vin stood, hauled him out of the seat by the back of his gunbelt, and put a boot to his butt.
"Go get some fresh air, Kid."
"Aww, Vin, I..."
"You in there, Larabee! You got five minutes to come out here an' face us, or we're comin' in to get my bother!"
Inside the jail, and on hearing the threat, Chris and Vin strode to the window and looked out. The nerve in Chris's jaw twitched and he sighed heavily.
"Damn, I was looking forward to a quiet afternoon."
Vin looked at him. "Ready?"
With a nod, Chris opened the door and sauntered out onto the boardwalk. With mare's leg drawn, Vin followed. Before he closed the door, he looked at JD.
"Stay put, and stay down." He gestured to the prisoner with his head. "If he tries to stir up trouble, shoot him."
Cody Packer rose from his bunk and grinned at JD. "Give it up, Kid, or one or more o' you boys'll be dead afore sundown."
JD's eyebrows rose. "You really think Chris Larabee's afraid of your brother? Guess again, Mister."
"Kane ain't bluffin', him and the boys'll be all guns blazin' before you got time to draw."
JD smirked. "Soon as he fires, him and his boys'll either be full of holes or hi-tailing it outta here just after."
Cody's fingers curled around the bars. "You seem real sure of your lawdog friends' abilities, boy."
JD shrugged a shoulder. "I know Chris and the others well enough to figure that the more they're threatened, the more dangerous they become." JD gestured with his hand as he checked his gun. "You may wanna hunker down in your cell there, no telling how many bullets'll find their way in here once the shooting starts."
Packer first shrugged off the caution, then decided to heed the warning and scurried off into a back corner.
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner stood shoulder to shoulder on the boardwalk facing eight riders. The leader of the group spoke.
"You let my brother go now, and we'll leave all quiet like."
Chris eyed the man. "You'd be wise to go quietly anyhow, and it'll be without your kin."
"An' iffen we don't wanna leave, what are you gonna do about it, cowboy?" He frowned when the other man standing with Larabee hissed at his words.
Chris's hand hovered over his gun as his eyes narrowed. "It's not up for debate, friend, and if you aim to come into my town and threaten me, you'd best have a fast horse to ride outta here." His gun cleared leather before Kane Packer moved a hand.
"And don't call me 'cowboy'."
"He hates that."
Vin and Chris's eyes remained fixed on the group, but the riders' gazes moved to the large man armed with a rifle who'd spoken as he approached. They noticed he wore a cross.
Kane looked back at his original challenger and bobbed his head toward Vin and Josiah as he spoke. "You callin' on a Injun lover an' a preacher to back you up, Larabee?"
"Don't be forgettin' one mysterious, dark-haired, and devilishly handsome fella," Buck said, his gun also drawn as he came up behind Josiah,.
"Gentlemen," Ezra articulated while approaching his compadres, "it appears you started without me." He eyed the riders as he spoke and raised the hand holding his Remington for effect.
"Jail ain't empty of help either, Mister," JD called out from inside the building, causing Buck to grin.
Kane Packer glanced at his men, and then hollered. "I'll be back, Cody! Be ready!"
A familiar voice to the gang cried out from inside. "Ready when you are, Kane!"
Josiah armed his rifle, and all five regulators raised their weapons. Kane placed a hand on the saddle horn and leaned forward.
"I guarantee, you're gonna regret this decision."
Chris's steely glare was unwavering. "My only regret is that you're still here." He continued to stare even as the group rode out of town.
Vin lowered his rifle. "Reckon we're gonna pay for that."
"We'll be ready," Chris replied. He holstered his gun. "How long is Nathan out of town?"
"He figured three or four days, including the journey," Josiah answered.
"Due back day after next," Vin confirmed.
Chris blew out a breath. "Good."
Inside the jail, JD un-cocked his rifle and turned toward Cody. "Looks like all your talk of your brother was hooey."
Packer smiled and relaxed back on his cot. "I guess we'll see. Then again, maybe you won't be around to do so."
Something in that comment made JD go cold. He looked up when Chris and Vin came in. Handing Chris his rifle as they passed him, the boy thumbed over his shoulder toward the door.
"I reckon I'll go get that fresh air now, fellas." JD glanced toward Cody and left.
Both men looked in the direction of the cell to see Cody resting back on the cot on his elbows and grinning at them. Seconds later, he lay down and set his hat over his face. Chris glanced back toward the door and Vin approached the bars.
"You been raisin' corral dust with your jawin', Packer?"
Cody answered without initially moving, or looking up. "Nope. Only tall tales heard in here came from you fellas." Lifting his hat, he peeked at Vin.
"Shame that once Kane comes back for me, I ain't gonna be around to see the kid's faith in his friends go belly up."
Tanner simply glared at the man recently convicted of multiple murders throughout the territory, including women. He turned to leave. "Talkin' of seein' things, I heard the view over the town from the top of the gallows is real good. You be sure to make the most of it afore you stretch hemp."
From the boardwalk outside the jail, JD looked toward the direction the Packer gang rode out. Normally, he relished the possibility of action, but something about these outlaws caused a knot in his gut. Both Kane and Cody seemed certain of success, and sure, most desperados that came to town talked up a storm before taking on him and his fellow regulators; but the conviction in those men's voices was more deep-seated than he'd ever picked up on before.
Snapping out of his melancholy, JD looked around. The town was coming back to life now the threat was gone, and the trundling sound of a wagon in the street behind him caused JD to turn. With a grin, he jumped down off the boardwalk and walked toward the familiar driver and companion. He touched his hat.
"Miz Nettie, Casey."
Nettie Wells pushed down the wagon's brake and coiled the reins around it. "Good afternoon, JD." She gratefully accepted his hand to help her dismount.
JD offered Casey help, but she flipped his hand away before jumping down onto the street.
She looked around. "Quiet day, huh?"
The young sheriff bristled. "No! Why, no more than five minutes or so ago we had the Packer gang here demanding we let Cody Packer loose."
Casey made a face and gestured around at the bustling street. "Yup, sure looks like the town just had a run-in with the Packer gang."
"We did," he squeaked, and hastily coughed to clear his throat.
"Quit squabbling, child, and get on over to Gloria's store."
Casey jumped to it. "Yes, ma'am."
"JD, help me carry the heavier goods to the wagon, son."
"Yes, ma'am." He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Vin behind him.
"I got this, Kid." Vin winked. "Leaves you free to give Casey a hand."
Nettie smiled. "Hello, Vin." She looked at JD. "Would you, son?"
Still reeling from the speed at which he'd lost out on a less heated errand, JD narrowed his eyes at Vin before touching his hat to Nettie and leaving for Potter's Mercantile. "Sure."
Nettie slipped her arm through the crook of Vin's extended elbow. "I need shells, nails, and a new hammer."
Vin smiled, touched his hat, and walked her over to Watson's hardware store. "Yes, ma'am."
Inside Potter's store, Gloria was laying out goods on the countertop as Casey read from a list. The girl looked up and out toward the street. She grinned on seeing JD heading her way, but her expression sobered when he entered the store.
"'Afternoon, Missus Potter."
"'Afternoon, JD. Do you need something?"
"Nah, I'm good, thanks. I came to help Casey."
"What makes you think I need help?" Casey pouted.
"Your Aunt Nettie said so."
Gloria interrupted before the bickering started. "She's right, Casey, the sacks of flour and grain are a mite heavy."
Casey shrugged and continued with her list. After a short period, she spoke. "We're staying over."
JD looked her way. "In town?"
"Uh huh. Aunt Nettie thought we might all have dinner together, later." She saw JD smile, and couldn't help but reciprocate.
"Sounds good, though we got a prisoner in the jail, so there'll be guard duty..."
"You?" Casey inwardly cursed for asking so quickly.
JD nodded. "I offered 'cause we're shorthanded, what with Nathan away at the Seminole village." He shrugged. "You could bring me a plate over when you're done."
Casey's eyes lit up. If she did, they'd be on their own...well, there'd be a prisoner. Still...
"I guess I could," she casually replied. Casey looked at a smiling Gloria. "That's it, thanks, Missus Potter."
JD swung a sack of flour up onto his shoulder, opened the door, and let Casey through with a basket of goods. He lifted another sack and then, slipping his foot under it to 'kick' it up, managed to swing another sack, grain this time, onto his other shoulder. He was about to follow Casey but was a moment too slow and the door closed behind her.
"Casey!" JD rolled his eyes, and Gloria Potter, still grinning, tottered around the counter and across the immaculately swept wooden floor to hold the door open for him.
"Thanks, Missus Potter."
"You're welcome, dear."
Outside, JD tried to catch up with the hustling girl. "Damnit, Casey, you might 'a held the door open for me."
She looked back and grinned. "Didn't I?"
Closing in on the waiting wagon, JD made a face and mumbled to himself. "You know darn well you didn't."
"Are you cussing, child?"
JD jolted and almost dropped his cargo. He looked at Nettie and Vin, who exited the store and stopped on the boardwalk. "Sorry, Miz Nettie."
"You're forgiven." She gestured to the wagon and they all walked toward it. "Once those sacks are in there, pull the tarpaulin over and secure it. Then would you drive the wagon to the livery?"
JD offloaded the sacks. "Sure."
Nettie handed him some coins. "Ask Yosemite to see to the horses and stow the wagon safely until the morning."
JD took the coins and nodded. "Will do."
Casey stood with Nettie and watched JD drive away. "I could 'a done that."
"You could've, but then I would have to carry the bags over to Mary's myself."
Casey picked up the two small bags they'd brought to stay overnight before Vin grinned, took them from her, and walked the pair to The Clarion News office.
+ + + + + +
In the restaurant later that day, Mary glanced around at the five handsome, smiling men, sitting at the table with her, Nettie, and Casey. JD, bless him, after Buck instructed him on what to do if the Packer gang came back, was dutifully guarding Cody Packer. The gang's return was mostly the reason the evening meal was earlier than usual, and while still light. Chris felt sure the gang would wait until darkness to return - if at all.
Cora Stebbins, one of two of the restaurant's servers, approached the table. In her hands was a tray with two covered plates of food. Casey stood and took the tray.
Cora smiled. "Tell JD I've given him extra dumplings for being so brave."
Casey's eyes narrowed. "Thank you." She watched Cora walk away before turning to the others. "I'll just go give JD his supper."
Buck rose from his seat. "Hold up there, li'l lady, I'll walk you over." He strode to the batwing doors to hold them open for her to walk through, and then followed her out.
Ezra chuckled. "My, I do believe I saw green sparks follow Cora out just then."
Josiah nodded. "I agree."
"Casey's too young for such foolishness," Nettie said, dismissively. "Good that Buck went with her, though."
Chris lowered his gaze. Buck would never see a woman hurt, but he loved to match-make, and knowing how he trusted JD with his life, as did they all, Buck would trust the boy's intentions toward Casey. Chris smiled to himself, and wondered, after watching Casey with Cora just before, if it was JD they should be concerned about.
Buck knocked on the jailhouse door and waited for JD to check who was there and then open up. Casey set the tray down and lifted off the covers to reveal a plate of beef stew and dumplings, and a dish of baked apple pudding with white sauce. JD's eyes lit up.
"Thanks, I'm so hungry my belly's a-rattling." He watched Casey lean in and swipe one of his dumplings. "Hey!"
Still munching, Casey sat opposite JD. "It's alright...Cora gave you extra for being so brave," she said pointedly.
JD stared at her, and then grinned as he tucked in. "Nice."
"Hey! Where's my grub? I'm hungry 'nough to eat a saddle blanket."
Buck narrowed his eyes at Packer who was standing in his cell and holding onto the bars. "That can be arranged."
Packer huffed. "Oh sure, you're full of yourself while I'm stuck behind these bars."
Buck turned to face him. "Packer, take some advice, never miss a good chance to shut up; you got more crap in you than a chock-full outhouse."
JD's fork clattered to the plate and he looked at Buck. "Uh, eating, here."
Buck offered a semi-remorseful expression. "Right, right."
Cody slammed at the bars. "Damnit, if I was outta here..."
"You'd what?" Buck challenged. "Shoot, I got saddle sores tougher'n you. Now sit down, and shut your piehole or I might just forget you ain't eaten since lunch."
For a few seconds there was a standoff, then Packer moved back and sat down on his cot. Buck thumbed toward the door.
"I'd best go rustle up some grub for Packer. Casey, you come back with me, darlin', just in case there's trouble."
"Aww Buck, I'll be alright..."
"Sure you will, but I don't reckon Miz Nettie's gonna let me walk back in that there eatery without you."
With a sigh, Casey stood and walked to the door. JD hastily wiped his napkin across his lips, stood, and followed her. "Thank Cora for the food," he told Casey. He stifled a smile at the look she threw him. "And thanks for bringing it over."
Casey's expression softened. "Couldn't let you go hungry, could I?"
Buck gave a nod to see JD ready to lock up, and after opening the door and checking around outside, Buck led Casey out.
JD went back to his meal. Removing a dime novel from the drawer, he settled down to eat, and read.
It was dark when Chris arrived at the jail to take over from JD. The light from the street bonfires cast odd shadows around the town, putting the retiring townsfolk on edge.
After dinner, while the others talked, Ezra excused himself and moved on to the saloon. When Chris announced he was taking over from JD, Vin, Josiah and Buck walked Nettie, Mary, and Casey to the Clarion office, of which the back, and upstairs doubled as Mary's home. From there, Josiah bid goodnight and walked on toward the church, and Vin and Buck headed off; Vin to take a look around before keeping Chris company awhile, and Buck to walk the town with JD before both retired for the night at the boarding house.
While patrolling the streets, Buck chattered to JD about the evening meal. After some time, he stopped and waited until JD realized he was walking on alone. The boy halted and looked back.
"Why'd you stop?"
"To get your attention." He caught up with JD.
"You had my attention," JD pointed out.
"No-o-o...something else did. Wanna talk about it?"
JD shrugged and continued checking doorways and shadows. "Just thinking, is all." He stopped abruptly and Buck strolled right into him. "While on guard duty, I got the feeling Cody Packer's been broken out of jail before."
JD glanced toward the jail, and then back at Buck. "He was real quiet. After Kane came for him, I figured he'd be bragging, and goading, but he just sat there, grinning like a loon."
"Like he knew something we didn't?"
Buck pondered a moment or two. "Reckon we might need to skip sleep tonight." He put an arm around JD's shoulders. "C'mon, let's check in with Chris, then maybe get a drink."
"You reckon we should be drinking tonight, Buck?"
Buck scratched at his whiskers. "Well, I sure could use one, and as you know, my philosophy is you should never drink unless you're alone or with somebody." He bobbed his eyebrows. "For me, company's always favored."
JD stared, and then chuckled. "Buck, you are so full of..."
"...Crap, I know, but if we're gonna get shot at, I'd rather be full of beer."
Inside the jail, and seated in the chair behind the desk, Chris's hand went straight to his gun when the door opened. Vin grinned at him when he saw Chris relax as he walked in.
"Just keepin' you sharp." His grin widened at Chris's fixed stare. Vin glanced toward the sleeping prisoner. He took up a seat, kicked back, and rested his boots on the desk.
"Did you take a look around?" Chris asked.
"Some, then I left Buck and JD to it." Vin gestured toward the cells. "He's kinda quiet."
"He ain't moved since I came in." The fact that Vin's gaze connected with his confirmed to him that the gnawing in his gut was worth taking notice of.
"Reckon he's been broke out of jail before?"
Chris nodded. "Or been involved in one..."
The door opening again caused both men to go for their guns.
"Mite jumpy there, fellas."
Vin and Chris smirked at each other and re-holstered their weapons.
"Boys," Chris said as Buck and JD walked in and closed the door. "Everything okay?"
"Yup. It's quiet enough out there to hear grass growing," Buck replied.
Sensing a 'but', Chris and Vin waited. They weren't disappointed when Buck gestured for them to step outside, and then explained what he and JD talked about just a few minutes earlier.
Chris looked at JD with approval. 'Boy's learning'.
"Looks like we're in for a long couple 'a days and nights before the Judge gets here. JD, Buck, go rest up, and on your way, let Josiah and Ezra know we're expecting trouble. Vin, check out the rooftops and alleys and then me and you'll take first watch."
With collective nods, Chris went back inside and the three men set off, but they'd barely gone a few yards when gunfire flashes from rooftops and shadows sporadically illuminated the darkness. Bullets ricocheted off buildings and porch uprights, kicking up dirt from the street and woodchips off the boardwalk. Buck grabbed JD and propelled them both underneath a parked up wagon. Vin dropped and rolled in the opposite direction. Scrambling toward an alley, he melted into the darkness, enabling him to search undetected for whoever was shooting at them.
Inside the jail, Chris dropped to the floor when a bullet shattered the window. The noise caused Cody Packer to dive off his bed and roll underneath. They might be his brother's men outside, but a stray bullet would soon put an end to any rescue plans. Chris took cover behind the desk before crawling his way toward the gun cabinet. He couldn't help noticing that Cody was hiding, and didn't look like a man expecting to leave anytime soon. Chris shrugged off the thought, grabbed a rifle and some bullets, and managed to get to the wall next to the door. After loading, he stood, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
Ezra was excited - not that it showed. Inside the saloon, one of the largest pots he'd encountered in some weeks was his for the taking - once he'd seen off his last opponent. He was about to play his masterstroke when the sound of gunfire and shattering glass had patrons diving for cover. Moses Root was true to his surname and remained seated.
"Your call, Mister."
From his position crouched next to the table, Ezra couldn't believe his ears. "Perhaps it might be prudent to suspend our game until such time..."
"Your call, Mister," Root repeated.
In an effort to conclude, and amid the continuous volley of bullets, Ezra, while remaining crouched down, threw money into the pot. "I'll see your two dollars, and raise you twenty." Prepared to grab the cash and go when Amos capitulated, Ezra was further exasperated when Amos coolly picked up his own money and tossed it.
Dodging a passing bullet, the gambler couldn't believe his luck...or lack of it. Unable to delay further, and with a heavy heart, Ezra closed his cards. He forced a smile at the man. "I fold. Enjoy your spoils."
Standish stood, tugged at his clothing, and thrust his hat on. Before leaving, he glanced back at the older man happily raking in his winnings. "This is never worth a dollar a day."
Sprinting toward the action, Josiah stopped dead when the saloon's batwing doors flew open. He smiled to see Ezra, but gunfire quickly had the pair sheltering behind a horse trough and some barrels.
"Busy night," Josiah claimed and peeked up over the trough to fire.
"And definitely not profitable," Ezra replied. A thump to the barrel he was behind, and the resulting outpouring of water from within confirmed just how busy they were, and after a few moments of staring at the occasional glint of flowing water highlighted by a nearby bonfire's light, Standish returned fire.
Buck's instruction was observed, but JD couldn't help wondering why Buck would think he'd do anything else with bullets flying around. The darkness made it impossible to see anything more than shadowy images and gunfire flashes. The pair knew where all their friends but Vin were, so they focused on shooting when whoever was out there on the attack fired, and offered them a direction to aim for.
A stifled cry from JD alarmed Buck. "You okay, Kid?"
Forgetting it was dark, despite the bonfires, JD nodded. "Something ran over my hand," he whispered.
"Probably a woodrat...'course, it could be a scorpion..."
"...Or maybe one of them big ole spiders..."
"Shut up, Buck!" JD urged.
He really didn't want to think about what critters could be running about out there at night. The boy could hear Buck laughing and nudged him hard, prompting an 'oof', followed by more muffled chuckling. Bullets kicking up dust from the street into their faces instantly stopped the teasing and the pair returned fired on the hidden enemy.
"Guess we won't be getting that drink, Kid."
Chris opened the jailhouse door and fired repeatedly into the darkness. He could see gunfire flashes from under a barely distinguishable, unhitched wagon, and more from the direction of the saloon and behind a water trough. Without warning, from somewhere overhead, Chris heard the familiar roar of Vin's Mare's Leg. The crash of a porch roof on the opposite side of the street told him that either Tanner's ability to see in the dark, or his exceptional instincts, had taken one desperado down. All six men fired on the positions they were covering and after a minute or so of intense shooting, Chris called a halt. The pounding of hooves heading out of town brought Josiah, Ezra, Buck, and JD out of hiding and running down the street firing after them. A distant whinny and a solitary cry out indicated another gang member was down. Realizing the gang was well away, the lawmen stopped firing.
"Should we go after 'em?" JD called out to Chris.
Standing on the boardwalk outside the jail, Chris shook his head. "No, I don't like going out at night."
Vin came out of the shadows to join them, and while JD took over guarding the prisoner, the five remaining men split up. Each taking a burning log from a bonfire, or a lit lantern, they went in search of the dead and injured. By dawn, there were three bodies, and evidence of injuries caused, but no prisoners to round up.
Cody Packer looked up from his cot at the young sheriff guarding him. "You look plumb tuckered out, boy."
JD glanced at him. "Don't you worry mister, I'm fine, and so are the other lawmen of this town."
Packer smirked. "Just as well...this is only the start." He knew he'd shared too much, but it was too darned tempting not to get the kid's expression to break down. Cody had to give him credit, though, it didn't crack by much.
By the time Chris and Vin came back into the jailhouse, it was full light, and JD was fighting sleep. Chris gestured with his head.
"Go get some rest."
JD stood, nodded, and gathered up his jacket and hat. His gaze hinted that he wanted to talk, so Chris walked him out of the door.
"Packer told me that last night was just the start."
Chris gave a tight smile and patted JD's shoulder. "Yeah, I kinda figured."
Weary to the bone and choosing to carry his jacket and hat rather than wear them, JD was crossing the street when he noticed Nettie and Casey's wagon outside the Clarion. He made his way there, and hastily dropped his belongings to take their bags from Casey as she emerged from the building.
"Here, let me get those." He noticed Casey staring at him, and expected a scolding at any moment, but it never came.
"Are you and the fellas okay?"
JD pushed the bags across the bed of the wagon and turned to her. "Sure, why?"
"Tish, child, say what you mean," Nettie reminded. She looked at JD. "We heard a lot of gunfire in the night."
"Uh, yeah." JD nodded as he helped Nettie up onto the buckboard. "Packer's gang came back, but we saw 'em off." He couldn't help but show pride in their efforts.
Casey climbed up onto the wagon. "Alright, JD, no need to go bragging about it."
Still standing near the wagon on Nettie's side, JD shook his head and as he turned away, he grinned to himself at Casey's constantly switching disposition. Nettie urged on the horses, and JD looked back to watch the wagon roll away until it disappeared around the bend. A single gunshot rang out, and for a moment or so JD stood stock still until a sharp pain in his side sapped him of his energy and brought him to his knees. By the time his head and jaw hit the dirt, he knew he'd been shot.
When Chris walked back into the jail to join Vin, Cody Packer turned his back on his new guards. These two were nothing like the kid; their eyes did all their talking, and it was never good where he was concerned. His time for taunting was over, now it was time sit and wait.
Vin poured two coffees from the freshly brewed jug on the pot-bellied stove. "JD okay?"
Chris's glance flicked toward Packer before moving back to Vin. Tanner nodded his understanding, handed Chris a mug, and took up the seat behind the desk. He sipped his coffee and smiled.
"Kid's gettin' good at makin' coffee."
Chris moved to take up the other chair. "He's been stuck in here a lot, lately - been getting in a lot of practice." He set down his mug on the table. "So - what d'you figure last night was all about?"
Vin raised an eyebrow. "Been thinkin' on the same thing. Whatever it was, it can't be good."
Chris nodded and picked up his cup, but before he could take a drink, a single gunshot rang out from the street. Both men jumped to their feet and drew their side-irons.
Inside the saloon, Buck and Josiah were enjoying breakfast. Both looked up from their food when Ezra joined them.
Buck grinned. "Trouble sleeping, Ezra?"
The southerner joined them. "I find your concern touching, Mister Wilmington, however, be assured, my somniferous activities are perfectly adequate." He took a seat. "I'm simply in need of nourishment this fine morning after our grueling nocturnal encounter."
Buck popped a piece of bacon in his mouth. "Uh huh, sure was some shoot-out last night." He noticed Josiah pause from eating. "Problem, Preacher?"
Josiah dabbed at his mouth with a napkin before setting the linen down on the table. He glanced between the pair. "It achieved nothing."
Buck grinned. "Well sure, we saw 'em off..."
"...The attack succeeded in keeping us from our beds," Ezra cut in.
"Since when've you been concerned with an early bedtime, Ezra?" Buck looked again at Josiah and went serious. "You think last night was a distraction, or maybe they were checking us out."
Josiah nodded. "Something like that. They didn't strike the jail - which could've been attempted with the amount of time we were pinned down."
"All sound lines of reasoning, my friends," Ezra agreed. "I fear we may..." He was interrupted by a single gunshot from outside.
Buck's fork clattered to his plate in frustration and he wearily stood. "Aww hell, what now?"
Nettie and Casey were almost outside the town's boundary when a gunshot echoed from behind them. Casey's head snapped around to look back as an unexpected feeling of dread overwhelmed her. Nettie patted her hand but kept going.
"Sounds like the boys have their hands full. Best we get on home and give them one less thing to worry about."
Casey nodded her understanding, but her anxious gaze remained on the town until it was out of sight.
Chris and Vin exited the jail with guns drawn. What they saw, instantly had them moving toward the street, but the pair split and dove behind water barrels when their actions produced a hail of gunfire sending bullets their way. From their refuge, they stared in dismay at the familiar, limp form lying in the street, but any thought to risk more shooting was discouraged when bullets scuffed the ground close to JD. The pair was at a standoff - move, and JD could be hit again, intentionally; stay put and the boy would bleed to death. The two men exchanged knowing looks; it appeared that the play was to be the life of one of their own for Cody Packer's release.
Although armed, Buck sauntered out of the saloon to face whatever annoyance the Packer gang was heaping on them now. Ezra and Josiah ran into him when, after spying JD lying bleeding in the street, Buck had momentarily stopped still. By the time his companions realized what Buck was looking at, the big man was moving.
He was halted by a hail of bullets that came unseen from high and low, and, like Chris and Vin, he hurriedly took shelter behind a water trough. Josiah and Ezra quickly followed his actions, and the three watched in horror as bullets kicked up the ground close to JD's unmoving form. Buck stared across at Chris and the leader returned the concerned look with a furious glare. The message was clear; Packer and his gang were calling the shots - literally.
JD hadn't realized he'd drifted off until dirt from a bullet bouncing across the ground close by, peppered his face and he came to. More bullets followed, and while his mind came to terms with why he was hurting, he couldn't help but ponder on why someone was still shooting at him. He tried to look around but another close call from a bullet brought his shaky, bloody hand up to protect his head, even though, deep down, he knew it was scant protection from hot lead. A familiar voice from behind him spoke low and urged him to stay still, and despite Buck's warning words, JD found it oddly comforting to know he was close.
The boy couldn't stop the groan that followed a surge of pain. JD's hand returned to his wound and he felt warm blood ooze through the fingers clamped to his side. Bizarrely, he found himself wondering if the bullet had gone straight through, or was it still in there somewhere. Hot and cold chills racked his body while he fought the urge to throw up, and was strangely grateful when he realized he was losing consciousness. At least he'd be spared the pain for a while - providing he ever woke up again.
Buck's attention instantly switched from Chris when he saw JD move. He stared at JD's back for several moments to be sure he'd seen correctly, and called out a warning for JD to be still when the boy's hand feebly came up to attempt protection from bullets fired more as a threat to the rest of them, than to hurt JD. Buck hunkered down to attempt to talk to the boy, but his heart sank when JD's body relaxed and he once more became still. All that the usually gregarious brunet could focus on was the puddle of blood forming along the ground next to JD's hip. He stood and hollered out before Josiah managed to pull him back down.
"Show yourselves you cowards!"
There was a pause.
"You let my brother free, and we won't let the boy bleed to death."
As Kane Packer spoke, Vin and Chris scanned for clues as to where he was hiding.
Chris replied to the demand. "He's an innocent. Your fight's with me."
"He's no innocent, Larabee, he's one o' you. Now, we got a deal, or do we watch that there blood pool get bigger?"
"Cody's goin' nowhere," Vin countered.
"Well, guess you'd best start plannin' the Kid's funeral then. And if any one o' you fellas try to get to him, we'll just add to his pain until you quit and release Cody."
Once again hunkered down behind a barrel, Buck's shoulders sagged and he rested his forehead against the rough wood. "Aahh, Kid."
Josiah squeezed the man's shoulder while staring at the motionless boy whose arrival had been like a breath of fresh air to six battle-weary gunmen. From the corner of his eye he noticed movement from the southerner.
"Ezra, don't…" He wasn't really surprised to see emotion in the man's green gaze.
"We can't just leave him there to die in the dirt," Ezra hissed.
"Have faith," Josiah urged, continuing quickly when Ezra looked about ready to burst. "Chris has never let us down."
"Chris will never let Cody Packer go," Buck said, softly.
"I know," Josiah agreed. "He's also smarter than all their gang and the Packers put together, not forgetting four of us here who would rather fight and die, than let these philistines win." He pointed. "Add to that, a young man out there who will be every bit as strong as us, and you have a force to be reckoned with, my friends."
Vin's mind was going a mile a minute while figuring how to get clear of this standoff and out there looking for these bastards. He was closer than Chris to the jail, and the door was open. If he could get inside, his aim would be to get to the heavily barricaded side door. Chris was looking his way, and Vin somehow knew they were of the same mind. Chris nodded, giving Vin the sign that somehow, he would get him in there, but even knowing that, the tracker's mouth went dry when Chris stood and stepped off the boardwalk.
"God help him."
Josiah's soft utterance had Buck and Ezra look up and follow his gaze.
"He's making his move," Buck stated.
"Be ready, boys," Josiah whispered, making the slightest movement in preparation to act.
"I am," Ezra assured.
"If it sparks off, I'm going to JD," Buck insisted.
Josiah patted his arm. "As it should be." He offered a tight smile. "While I pray Nathan's close to home, I also hope his ministrations this day will only be needed for JD."
"Packer! This is between you and me! I'm calling you out!" Chris picked his battles carefully these days, and he believed this was the right time. "You hear me?" He barely reacted to the gunshot, or the searing burn of a bullet brushing his arm.
"You let Cody go, or the next shot from me's for the kid, Larabee."
Gunfire sounded from above, and bullets kicked up between Chris and JD's position. The man in black stood firm, and as he did so, Vin slipped inside the jail.
Tanner fully expected to have to take out Cody before he sounded a warning to his brother, but the man was so far under his bunk, he failed to notice the tracker's ghost-like movements through to the side door. Vin heard more gunfire, and as he made use of the noise to unblock the door, he hoped his friends hadn't been the bullets' targets. He peered cautiously into the alley, and once he was sure he was clear, Vin was gone.
JD became conscious during the current round of shooting. To his horror, he saw his hero standing defiantly while gunfire raged around him and bullets bounced perilously close to his position. JD tried to call to Chris and froze when lead just missed his head.
Infuriated by JD's near miss, Chris yelled out. "Packer! You and me, now!"
"I told you, Larabee, Cody, for the boy! You need to think on whether I'll lose patience first, or the kid'll bleed to death!"
With more clarity than his previous period of consciousness, JD's heart sank on realizing his friends were in danger because of him, not to mention the risk from having to release a convicted killer in order for them to save him.
'I can't let that happen.'
He heard Buck call out. "Hold on, Kid, we're gonna get you outta this. Just keep your head down and everything'll be fine."
JD's hand slid down his side to his gun. The movement prompted more warning gunfire, the bullets close enough to send dirt spraying up over JD's dark hair.
Chris drew his gun aimed it high and hollered out. "Packer! Show yourself you yellow-bellied sonofabitch!"
An enraged Buck had also stepped out into the street and was firing his gun toward the rooftops. "Shoot at someone who can shoot back, asswipe!"
Shots followed their angry cries. Bullets thundered fiercely around the pair; pock marking the street, splintering wood, and forcing both men to take cover from the onslaught. They looked on in alarm when one bullet hit JD in the leg, causing the boy to yelp and squirm in pain.
"Time's up, Larabee! Free my brother Cody, NOW!"
Fighting the fire and pain in his leg and side, JD stretched out a finger and scrawled something in the dirt. Ignoring the bullets sent as a warning, he drew his gun. JD's voice was weak, and thick with emotion, but he yelled out as best he could. "Chris, whatever happens, don't let Packer loose!"
With a shaking hand, JD set the muzzle of his gun against the soft underneath of his stiffened jaw and pulled back the hammer. His eyes filled, not through fear, but with the thoughts of who, and what he was leaving behind. 'Forgive me, fellas. Please don't think me a coward, but I can't let you do this.'
All four peacekeepers on the ground become aware of JD's actions at the same time.
Josiah and Ezra stared in horror, neither man able to cry out the words wedged in their throats.
Chris went cold, his eyes wide, and his mouth, dry. 'JD, no!'
Buck's voice was at full power. "KID, NOOOO!"
But even as he yelled, a shot rang out.
Vin's fingers throbbed with the grate of numerous splinters acquired from hurriedly clambering up rough wood to reach the rooftops. From a hidden position, he cautiously scanned the skyline and pinpointed two of Kane's gang, who were tucked out of sight but with a clear view of the street. With an adjustment or two, he spied three men on the ground, concealed, but well covered by the two on the rooftops. Vin quickly calculated that, after two fierce gun battles, this was likely all that was left of the gang. He had yet to locate Kane.
Gunfire, followed by Chris and Buck hollering angrily, and then Kane's unseen voice issuing an ultimatum made up Vin's mind to take Kane out as fast as possible. To do that, he'd need to stand up and present himself to the gunmen the instant he knew where Kane was. He had a good view of Buck, Josiah, and Ezra, and felt sure he could at least convey the gang's positions before getting shot at. However, as he moved to stand, Tanner heard Buck's anxious cry from below. Unable to tell what was happening, Vin suddenly saw Kane reveal himself from one side of a sloping roof and behind the building's roof façade, fire into the street, and then dive back to cover in what seemed an instant. The tracker's focus returned to his original mission.
Kane Packer's attention was drawn to a frantic shout from the street. The instant he saw JD's intentions, he aimed his rifle and shot the boy's arm before ducking back to cover. "I ain't ready to lose my ace in the hole, boy. You die when I say so."
On hearing Buck's yell, JD swallowed hard, but he believed with all his heart that his actions would free his friends to put this gang away, or in the cemetery, whichever worked. A shot rang out and a pain in his arm caused him to lose all feeling in the hand holding his gun. Numb fingers dropped the Colt and he clutched the arm causing him fresh agony. JD rested his head on the ground and closed his eyes. 'Aww hell, I couldn't even shoot myself right and now I got three holes in me.'
After the gunshot, Buck stared at JD and then looked across at Chris. It was like old times that each man could see both relief and anger reflected in unison. Chris mouthed back at Buck.
Buck, Josiah, and Ezra nodded. They couldn't have put it better themselves. The four men went back to cover and after glancing around, Chris whispered to himself.
"C'mon, Vin, we're ready."
Sweat beaded on his upper lip and clung to his bangs as JD shivered and lay on his side staring at his gun. He could reach it with his left hand, but he wasn't keen to get a fourth bullethole for trying. For a little while he was troubled that he'd failed his friends, but with nothing else to do but suffer or distract himself, his thoughts changed from disappointment to determination when JD saw, in a store window ahead of him, one gang member's reflection as he popped up to scan around.
JD figured if he could get across that fella's position to Chris, it was one less shooter to worry about. Quivering from the effort, JD raised his head enough to look in Chris's direction. He felt a surge of energy when he caught Chris's eye and the man in black looked his way. Hoping he would make sense, JD moved his gaze from Chris to the storefront, and then jerked his head back and to the left before looking back at Chris. His relief was palpable when, after a few seconds, Chris followed his gaze and then frowned at him awhile, before snapping his attention to exactly where JD wanted it. Larabee offered the boy a tight smile and JD relaxed.
He sure was tired.
Chris smiled at JD when he realized what the kid was gesturing toward. Larabee knew he'd been pinned down both from above, and from the street, and the location JD was nodding to, quickly made sense to the blond. Ezra was closest, and Chris fixed his gaze on him and gestured to the gambler's left until Ezra understood and touched his hat to say so. With eyes on them from above, the move would be a tough one, but Chris knew the job was as good as done. A pebble from above landed in the dirt directly in front of the hidden outlaw's now known position. It alerted Chris that Vin was pinpointing locations. Just before gunfire from a new point sounded above him, another stone dropped into the street to Chris's left, and then one to his right but on the opposite side of the thoroughfare and further up than to where JD had gestured.
Time to earn their dollar a day.
Vin needed to work fast. He shoved his hand into his jacket pocket and took out the stones he'd snatched up prior to climbing to the rooftops. With pinpoint accuracy, he directed one to every position of the street where he'd spotted a gunman. He had no doubt Chris would pick up on the message. The final pointer would expose him to the gunmen on the roof, so Vin prepared himself. The moment the stone left his hand, his fingers were clutching his rifle. He aimed at the emerging shooter about to gun him down and fired. Vin spun to his left, but before he could shoot the next outlaw, his arm took the man's bullet. Without missing a beat, he fired back and watched the desperado fall dead.
Only Kane was left up there, now.
Vin dropped back against a façade and gritted his teeth to combat the searing pain in his flesh. He removed his bandanna from around his neck and, with the help of his teeth to tie it off, wrapped the wound tightly. He peered around the façade but quickly ducked back when gunfire almost took his head off. Very aware of the emerging street battle below, he took off his hat, balanced it so only the crown could be seen, and then slinked off to finish what he'd climbed up there to do.
Once Chris heard Vin's rifle bark out, he stood and strode into the street to one of the marked locations, somehow dodging bullets fired from where Kane was positioned as he did so. Chris stepped into an alleyway, and before the startled gunman could fire, Chris did. Without looking back, he moved on to the next location, but uppermost in his mind was that Vin was up above them and fighting his own battle.
Seeing Chris make his move, Ezra took a deep breath and quickly shifted to where Chris had earlier directed him. He was shocked to find no one there, and stiffened on hearing the cock of a gun hammer.
"Drop the gun and put your hands up, fancy pants."
Ezra tossed his gun, raised his hands and as he turned to face his attacker, he smiled. "Seems you have me at a disadvantage, sir."
The man aimed. "Yup, and I'm gonna shoot you deader'n a beaver hat."
The southerner stretched his right arm to reveal a hidden Derringer, with which he shot the man between the eyes. He bent down to retrieve his discarded gun.
"Or not, as the case may be."
Within moments of seeing Chris take off, Buck and Josiah were heading for two of the marked positions while firing up at the unseen shooter on the roof who was getting mighty close to hitting one of them. Josiah's target was making a run for it, but a booming shot at his feet from Josiah's gun stopped the man in his tracks.
"Good decision, friend."
Buck's man wasn't at the spot he should have been. Cautiously he glanced around but there was no sign. He turned and made his way back to the street, where a gunman was waiting for him.
"Not your day, huh, Lawman?"
Buck narrowed his eyes at the man and swallowed hard. The gunman aimed and a shot rang out.
JD lay still and winced at the relentless gunfire echoing around him. He hated being so helpless while not knowing how his friends were doing. He reached out for his gun but instantly drew back on expecting a warning bullet. There was no shot so a shaky hand again reached out and picked up the Colt. Just as he did so, JD looked ahead to see Buck about to be shot. He instantly took aim, and fired.
Buck had faced down a gun many times, but this was the first time he actually believed his number was up. Instinctively, his eyes closed when a shot rang out. Moments later, he opened one eye to see the man about to kill him, lying dead in the street. Buck's head snapped toward JD in time to see his gun hand drop down, swiftly followed by the boy's head. Snatching up the gunman's weapon, Buck raced off to JD's position, just as Kane Packer showed himself and aimed his rifle into the street. Seeing their main target making an appearance, Buck took up a protective stance over the prone boy and pointed his gun at the rooftops.
Despite the pain in his arm, Vin didn't take long in descending a building on one side of the street, and shinnying up another on the opposite side. From his new position, he spotted his perched hat across the way, but couldn't see any sign of Kane. Cautiously, Vin peered over into the street. All of his friends were visible, his heart lurching at the view of JD, lying curled up on his side surrounded by a significant bloodstain. He barely had a moment to hope that the parched dirt made the spectacle look worse than it was when, to his left, Kane suddenly appeared and was pointing two handguns into the street. Vin was close enough to make full use of his mare's leg, and he quickly drew and aimed the sawn-off Winchester.
Kane watched in frustration as, one by one, his gang members fell. With his brother due to hang, and his pack of outlaws gone, he knew there were only two courses of action open to him; to turn tail and run, or fight it out and take as many of the lawmen as possible out with him. He glanced down at the boy in the street and saw the mustached regulator rushing to get to him. The other peacemakers were scattered but visible. Removing two Colts from concealed holsters, Kane stepped forward and began shooting.
Already moving into the street, Chris saw Buck running toward JD, but before he could consider doing the same, movement from a roof caught his eye. Realizing what was happening, and with lightning speed, Chris twisted and aimed for the rooftops. Seeing Chris's reaction, Ezra followed his line of vision and also aimed high. He shouted to Josiah, who turned to face him, but the shooting had already started.
Buck was the first to spot Kane and ran to protect his exposed, self-proclaimed little brother. Just as he got to JD's side, a bullet to his shoulder almost caused him to fall, but the rush of adrenalin pushed back the pain and instead of his knees giving way, the ladies' man raised his side-iron and fired back.
Ezra grit his teeth as a bullet bit into his thigh. Without missing a beat, he put all his weight on his good leg, and shot at Kane. Josiah grunted in pain as he took a bullet to his left arm. Deftly switching his gun to his right hand, he also fired at Kane.
Packer fired well-aimed bullets at three of the four lawmen in the street. He was just debating whether to shoot Larabee, or at the hat of the man hiding on an opposite roof, when a noise to his left caused him to turn his head. His last vision was of a hatless Vin aiming a gun at him before the bullets from the mare's leg, and four other guns, jerked his stiffened body where it stood. Moments later, Kane toppled over the edge and landed with a crunch in the street below.
An eerie silence fell over the smoke-hazed town. Chris hissed in pain and touched fingers to the bullet gouge in his arm that he was feeling for the first time since Kane shot him earlier. Buck went down on one knee and caught his breath for a moment. Ezra edged his way to a horse trough. Perched on one corner, he stretched out the injured thigh. Gesturing to his leg, he glanced at Josiah, who had just plopped himself wearily down on the edge of the boardwalk.
Holding a kerchief to the oozing wound, Ezra fingered the bloody hole in the material beneath. "A perfectly good pair of tailored pants ruined."
Josiah nodded, his large hand covering the puncture in his arm. "Shocking."
Buck recovered his composure in moments and he urgently moved next to JD. Pulling off his bandanna, Buck pushed it against JD's side, relieved to hear the boy grunt in pain. He leaned in. "Hey Kid, how you doing?"
JD's eyelashes fluttered open and he squinted up at Buck. "A…ask me…tomorrow," he whispered.
Buck couldn't help but smile, but tears welled in his eyes when he read what JD had scrawled into the dirt moments before he'd considered ending his life for the cause.
'Don't think me a coward, can't let Kane win.'
Buck looked up when Chris joined them and also read the scratched out words. The look Larabee gave JD as he squatted down next to the boy's head spoke volumes.
"You got grit, Kid."
Buck touched JD's head. "What he said." For now, Buck wouldn't share with JD that Kane would indeed have won some sort of victory had the boy shot himself.
The street slowly came alive as townsfolk stepped out to view the result of the shootout. Yosemite and Mary ran toward Chris, Buck, and JD. Chris looked first at Mary, and then the blacksmith. He wrapped a bloody hand around Mary's wrist.
"Mary, go prepare the clinic."
She nodded, squeezed his hand, and hurried off.
"Tiny, help us get JD up there."
The big man glanced around at the injured lawmen. "No problem, Mister Larabee. I'll see to him, you boys make your own way up there, looks like you could all use some tendin' to."
The undertaker was already scurrying between the bodies and taking measurements. He approached the huddle in the street. "I'll sort out these fellas, Mister Larabee."
Chris nodded. With a wince of pain, and his injured arm stiff to his side, he got to his feet. His relief was evident when Vin sauntered over to them, but was short-lived when he saw the bloody bandanna around Vin's arm. "You've been hit."
Vin nodded and gestured around at his friends, finishing with a pointed finger at Chris's own injury. "Looks like I ain't the only one." His gaze drifted down to JD, and to the words scratched in the dirt. Vin couldn't read them, but he already knew what they said. He squatted down next to Buck, who had placed his jacket over a shivering JD.
"How's he doin'?"
"Lost a lot of blood," Buck said, softly.
Buck's words spurred Chris into action. He looked to Vin and Yosemite. "Okay, let's do this." He nodded toward the jail. "Got one stop to make before I join you."
Cody Packer was pacing his cell like a caged lion. While the shooting was going on, he'd kept his head down, but now, the silence was driving him crazy. He startled when the jailhouse door opened, and grasped the cell bars in earnest.
"Where's Kane?" He hollered.
Chris offered a smile that chilled the outlaw to the bone. "Let's just say that neither he, nor your gang will be around to bury you after you hang." He watched Cody stagger backwards, sit down hard on his cot, and rest his head in his hands. Feeling tired, hurt, but hugely satisfied, Chris turned and left the jailhouse.
In the glow of the street's night fires, Nathan couldn't help but smile as he approached the town's livery. Three tooth extractions, repairing a dislocated shoulder, stitching up several wounds, and especially seeing Rain again, had provided him with an interesting few days at the Seminole village, but he was glad to be home. He'd missed the town, and its residents, but mostly he'd missed his friends.
The smell of gunsmoke lingering on the evening air instantly had him on alert and his gaze drifted up to his clinic above the livery. Nathan's heart lurched to see a glow through the window. There was also a light in the jailhouse, so he wasted no time in getting his horse inside.
As the door to the jailhouse creaked open, Nathan was greeted by a Colt .45 and Larabee's deadly earnest expression aimed his way. He saw Chris relax and, nodding to the bandage on Chris's arm, he approached the gunslinger. "How bad?"
Chris stood. "Just a crease." He winced as Nathan examined the wound.
"Looks clean, but I'll…" He glanced down at the hand gripping his arm.
"Nathan, all the boys took a bullet, but JD took three."
Even as Chris nodded, Nathan was out of the door and jogging toward the steps to his home. "I'll be back to check on you!" he called out, before taking the stairs two at a time.
Inside the clinic, four guns greeted the healer. He looked to Josiah as the man approached and patted his shoulder.
"Good to have you home, brother."
Nathan wasted no time and checked Josiah's injury. "Bullet's still in there."
"It is, but it can wait." He gestured toward the bed.
Nathan saw Vin and Buck with their arms in slings and seated next to the cot. Ezra was close by and with his bandaged leg propped up on a chair. The southerner raised a weary hand.
"Forgive me for not standing to greet you, Nathan, but I'm somewhat incapacitated."
"Who tended to y'all?"
"Mary," Vin replied.
Nathan gestured between the three injured men. "Are the bullets still in there?"
Vin, Buck, and Ezra nodded.
"JD…" Buck said, softly.
In two strides, the healer was next to JD and examining the sweat-soaked youth. It was an agonizingly silent minute or so before he spoke. "One bullet went clean through his flank. Th'other two just creased him." He was already checking the stove for a pan of boiled water, pleased to find there was one waiting. Taking out a bottle from his bag, Nathan nodded to Buck and Vin.
"Might want to hold onto him." Turning JD onto his good side, Nathan inspected the boy's wounds, soliciting a moan from the kid. "Easy, JD. Soon be over." Easing JD down onto his front, Nathan pulled out the cork from the bottle, positioned it over the wound, slipped a towel under the exit hole, and poured.
JD stiffened and shrieked in pain. With only one good hand each, Buck and Vin could barely hold the writhing easterner, while watching in fascination as the once clear, now pink liquid, dribbled out of the exit wound and onto the towel. Josiah helped by resting on the boy's thrashing legs, until Nathan corked the bottle and leaned over JD.
He placed a hand on JD's back and felt the sobs rack the slight body. "All over, Kid. Rest, now." The healer examined the pink-stained towel, nodded in satisfaction at the detritus flushed out by the carbolic, and turned to the other four as a shaken Buck and Vin retook their seats. "I'll give him something to help him sleep and then sew him up."
JD's wounds were cleaned and stitched in less than half an hour and the boy, though hot, was resting comfortably. After washing his medical instruments, Nathan held up a long, slender, bullet extractor. "Who's next?"
Three voices answered. "Ezra!"
Standish, closed his mouth to halt his imminent comment, and instead feigned a smile. "Lucky me."
Dawn broke before Nathan wearily finished his busy night by bandaging Chris's arm. Chris glanced across at Vin, who had accompanied Nathan to the jail, and was now resting in a chair with his feet up on the desk. The tracker's eyes were hidden under a tipped hat, but Chris was sure Vin was still awake.
"The others resting?"
Nathan nodded. "After I patched the boys up, I made 'em all a drink to settle 'em down." He thumbed toward the door. "If Vin's okay here, I'd like to go check up on them, especially JD. You should come too, Chris, get some proper rest."
Chris pursed his lips and avoided the suggestion. "How's the kid doing, Nathan?"
"If we lose him, it'll be down to blood loss."
"We ain't gonna lose him though, right?"
Nathan turned to look at Vin, whose piercing blue eyes were staring at him from under his hat. "Kid's running a high fever," he replied, "but, yeah, if I can keep him topped up with fluids, I reckon he'll make it."
Tanner nodded to Chris. "You go get some shuteye, I'll take over here." He saw Chris wince as he moved his arm when he stood, and figured he should maybe pay a visit to the clinic. "Check in on the kid for me, huh?" Tilting his hat back over his face, Vin winked at a grateful Nathan, and relaxed as the healer led Larabee out of the door.
It was only when Chris walked into the clinic he truly appreciated how tired he was. To have fought a brutal, premeditated battle with an injury, and while forced to watch a friend lie helpless and bleeding, was finally taking its toll and he gratefully slumped into a chair alongside JD's bed, and next to a sleeping Buck.
Chris glanced around. Behind him and against the wall, Ezra was asleep on Nathan's own cot, while in the seat between Buck's chair and Ezra's bed, Josiah sat with his head tilted back as he snored softly. The blond's lips curled into a small smile on seeing Buck sleeping almost upright, with his chin planted firmly on his chest. The softest of moans brought Chris's attention to the boy in the bed.
In the lamplight, JD's shoulders, neck, and face took on a pale, sweat-slicked sheen; his breathing was unnaturally fast and shallow. Chris watched Nathan wring out a cloth and gently dab JD's forehead, cheeks and neck with it. The action seemed to soothe the boy. Nathan turned back to the stove, emptied water from the kettle into a tin mug, stirred, and then handed the mug to Chris, whose narrowed eyes looked first at the cup, and then to Nathan.
The healer raised an eyebrow. "Just something to get some fluids into you, and hopefully take the edge off the pain. You'll only sleep if you want to."
Chris relaxed, took the mug from Nathan, and drank until it was empty. He shuddered. "What was that?"
Nathan took back the mug. "Willow bark mixed with a little chamomile."
"Got any whiskey?"
Without hesitation, Nathan reached up, moved two bottles aside, and brought down some redeye. He paused before handing it over. "Purely for medicinal purposes."
Chris reached out with his good arm and grinned as he took the bottle. "Sure, why not."
"Hope you're gonna share that, Stud."
Nathan supplied three glasses. "Reckon we could all use one, Buck."
"You're supposed to be sleeping," Chris said as he handed Buck a glass and poured him a drink.
Buck knocked back the shot in one go and held out for another. "Slept more'n you in the last two days."
Chris savored his own drink. "Nothing new there, Pard."
JD became restless. Chris leaned in, placed the flat of his hand against JD's chest, and waited until the boy settled down.
Buck's eyes filled and he smiled, sadly. "You still got it, Stud."
Chris sat back. "He's real hot."
With a nod of agreement, Nathan went back to dabbing a wet cloth over JD. Buck reached out and curled the fingers of his good hand around Nathan's wrist.
"I'll do that for you, Nathan."
Accepting that Buck wasn't about to go back to sleep anytime soon, the healer nodded and handed the cloth and bowl of water over. Even though it was awkwardly one-handed, Buck worked diligently to keep JD cool. In the quiet of the room, and the safety of good friends, Chris dozed off.
Next morning and a gallows was dismantled while a lone coffin was transported to the graveyard. Colt Packer was gone, and the town had resumed normal trading. Ezra was up and about, but was using a cane to walk. He made a big show of how he didn't need it but, on Nathan's insistence, it was this, or being confined to bed. He hoped no one but his friends had worked out how close that was to the truth and secretly, Ezra was glad of the corporeal support. It got him safely to the saloon, where he could at least sit and play poker.
Enjoying playing, however, was a whole other thing. While JD's fever was coming down, the boy was not yet awake, and that fact, coupled with the other regulators' concern about it, played on the southerner's mind. After losing his sixth game in a row, he decided to check in to the clinic to inquire of the young man's health. It seemed the decent thing to do, and ignored the gnawing in his gut as he hobbled up the steps to the clinic. He walked inside to find Buck reading the day's newspaper aloud. The ladies' man looked up and shrugged.
"Ran outta things to say."
With a soft grunt, Ezra took up a seat next to Buck. "I find that improbable, Mister Wilmington. I cannot recall an occasion when you haven't had a diversity of dialogue to impart."
Buck sighed and looked back at JD, who lay still, and appeared to be sleeping comfortably. "You just did." He turned to Ezra. "How come he won't wake up?"
Standish shrugged a shoulder and rubbed at his aching leg. "While I'm no physician, I would imagine JD suffered extreme exertion during his ordeal." Ezra offered a sad smile. "I know you're concerned, Buck, however, the body has an amazing capacity to heal itself, and in its own time."
It took Buck a while to reply. "I guess, but…I got this feeling something's not right, I can't explain why, I just know it."
Standish relaxed back and stretched out his bad leg. "Well, Buck, if there's one certainty in this life, it's that I've come to trust gut instincts just as much as clear odds."
In the saloon, Nathan was just about to get up from the lunch table when Chris and Vin entered. He nodded to the pair, as did Josiah, who was also seated at the table.
"Boys," the latter said.
Chris nodded, and then focused on Nathan. "How's JD this morning?"
Nathan's lips tightened before finally speaking. "Still out."
"Kinda draggin' on some," Vin noted.
Nathan agreed. "Buck reckons so, too." He shrugged. "JD's healing good, his fever's down. I guess he's just plumb tuckered out."
Chris turned to Vin. "What say we call in after breakfast and make our presence known?"
Vin offered a crooked grin. "I'd say, good call."
Nathan nodded his approval and gestured to his lunch mate. "I'm just gonna check on Josiah's arm, and then I'll be up to check you fellas over." He glanced around. "Where's Ezra gotten to?"
After bidding farewell to Buck, Ezra made his way from the clinic. He touched his hat in greeting as he passed Vin and Chris on the stairs. "Boys."
"Nathan's lookin' for you," Vin stated, an amused twinkle in his eye.
Standish touched his ornate silver cane grip to his hat as he limped away. "Thank you, Mister Tanner. I shall endeavor to locate him without delay."
Glancing at each other, the two men's eyebrows rose and they watched Ezra reach the street and head off. "Wrong way, he's in the saloon!" Chris called. The reply caused both men to chuckle.
Their smiles faded as they continued on to the clinic. There was one unresolved issue before they could finally put their recent ordeal behind them, and, like Buck, both men wanted it settled before sundown.
JD could hear familiar voices, but they seemed distant. Were they real? How could he see himself lying in the street and bleeding? He felt pain, but not as bad as he thought it would be, considering all that blood. Did it mean he was dead?
'What am I doing now? Why am I putting a gun to my…?'
JD felt overwhelming shame and pulled away from the familiar voices. What must his friends think of him? JD Dunne - a coward. How could he ever explain what was in his mind at the time? His only thoughts were for their safety, but how it looked to them right then must have been a very different state of affairs. If there was one thing he couldn't bear to see was the look of disappointment in his friends', brothers'…heroes'…eyes and so he slipped even further away from the sounds he loved.
Well, he tried.
The voice nearest to him possessed an urgency and despair that reached deep into his heart, forcing him to stay close.
JD heard his friend ask him to wake up. 'How can I, Buck? How do I face you after what I did?'
New and encouraging voices could be heard alongside Buck's, and JD's inner conflict increased. 'Maybe…just maybe, I can explain, before…'
Before what? Joining his Mama?
Buck's eyes closed in despair. He'd felt he was getting through to JD, yet there was still no sign of the kid waking. 'What's eating at you, Kid?'
The ladies' man opened his eyes and looked at Chris.
"Have you talked to him about what he wrote in the dirt?"
Buck frowned. Had he? He couldn't recall half of what he'd said, now. "Not sure. Why?" His eyes widened and he glanced between JD, and Chris and Vin. "You think…?"
Vin's cheek dimpled. "Kinda seemed like he worried about us thinkin' him a coward."
Buck straightened in his chair. "Well hell, I sure don't, do you?"
The expression on Vin's face told Buck all he needed to know. Chris set a soothing hand on Buck's shoulder, and wrapped the fingers of his other hand around JD's wrist.
"No. Any man prepared to lay down his life for his friends, is hardly a coward."
Buck leaned into JD. "Is that it, Kid? You thinkin' we're mad at you?" He winked at Chris and Vin and raised his voice. "Well, I am. There's you lying there while you could be awake and saving my aching throat by talking back at me. Get your sorry butt up and face us like the man we know you to be."
Chris looked down sharply at the wrist in his hand, before smiling back at Buck and Vin. Seconds later, JD's legs were moving.
The boy sighed, blinked opened his eyes, and peered up at three blurry faces. "Hey."
Buck grinned. "Hey yourself." Taking the drink offered by Vin, Buck eased JD's shoulders up. "Here, Kid, have some water."
JD sipped at the water, spluttered a little, then took some more before indicating he'd had enough. He relaxed for a moment before his eyes widened, and he glanced earnestly between the three men.
"Did we get 'em?"
Vin nodded. "Every last one, Kid."
JD's gaze scrutinized his friends and he could see they were all injured. "You fellas doing okay?"
"Got us a few war wounds, but nothing that won't heal," Chris assured. He watched JD's expression change from concern, to relief, to guilt. The gunfighter leaned in.
"I'm only gonna say this once, and then it's done with. No one thinks you a coward. What you considered doing was plucky, and selfless, but was the last thing any of us would have wanted. I'm actually grateful Packer shot the gun outta your hand, 'cause if he hadn't, I would've." Chris decided that telling JD he likely wouldn't have made it in time wasn't important.
JD's eyes glistened as he listened to his hero. "Yeah?"
Chris raised an eyebrow.
The boy nodded. "Got it."
Chris smiled at JD, and then winked at the other two men, who were grinning like loons. "Good."
"How about some food?" Buck asked. "Nathan said that when you woke up, you could have some chicken noodle soup if you want?"
JD nodded. "Sounds real good," he rasped, his voice still croaky from disuse.
All eyes turned to the door when it opened and Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra walked in, the former pair carrying a tray of food, two bottles of whiskey, and glasses.
"Well, lookee here," Nathan called, "reckon I won't be needing to warm up this soup later, after all." He set down the tray. "You up for some food, JD?"
The boy nodded. "Reckon I could eat."
Nathan glanced to Buck and Chris. Chris placed his hand against Buck's chest to encourage him to stay seated, and then helped Nathan raise JD up enough to eat.
The movement caused JD to gasp in pain, but he soon recovered and nodded he was ready for his soup. He looked at Buck in despair when, after a few attempts, JD realized he didn't have the strength to feed himself. Without a word, Nathan held the bowl, and Buck fed the boy, while chatting away to the others as if his action was the most natural thing in the world.
After only a half-dozen spoonfuls, JD was done, and as he rested back against his pillow, Nathan wiped his face.
"Time for whiskey," Vin said, and with a grin, handed out the glasses, and then poured each of the five men seated around the bed a drink. When finished, the tracker perched on the bottom of JD's bed.
With weariness winning over the need to enjoy being with his friends, JD glanced around. "What happened to the Packers?" He feared he may have already asked the question, but his mind was too fuzzy to recall much at all right then.
"Both dead, son," Josiah answered. "Cody Packer was sentenced to hang, and Kane died in the street just before you were taken to the clinic."
JD nodded, and finally relaxed. It really was all over. To the sounds of his friends' banter and laughter, and with a smile on his face, JD fell asleep.
Six men in high spirits lowered their voices when they noticed their youngest sleeping. The lines of pain and weariness in their faces revealed the true story of the last several days, but their amazing capacity to overcome adversity together shone through in their triumphant demeanor. Once again they'd been tested to the full, and had come through the other side battered, bruised and bleeding, but still seven strong. Chris topped up the glasses and raised his own.
"Here's to having time to heal before the next fight!"
Four men laughed and went to drink, but Josiah made a little noise to draw the five's attention. "And to knowing we aren't alone while doing so."
Ezra grinned widely. "Amen, brother!"
Laughter erupted and the chatter resumed, interrupted only by the sounds of glasses filling and whiskey being imbibed.
Tonight was theirs. Tomorrow was another day; and no matter what mayhem chased the sunrise into town…
…they were ready.
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