The sun crept slowly skyward, away from the horizon. It was time to find another vantage point, one that didn't put him between the open sky and a big, flat piece of rock that would heat up like a griddle by midmorning. The outcropping was a great vantage point at night, offering an unimpeded view of the range eastward to the boundary of Stuart James's ranch, but when the sun was high, it was mostly good for frying eggs.
Vin unfolded to his feet with easy grace, then picked his way across the outcropping until he found himself a crack in the rock that was sheltered by some higher boulders and a stunted, half-dead old tree. The view wasn't as nice, but it kept the sun off his back and made him a less obvious target for anyone who might come riding along.
He wasn't particularly expecting anyone to come riding along, unless they happened to be passing by on business that had nothing to do with the reason he was sitting up here. Since the morning when James's men rode into Four Corners to pick up their dead, not a damned thing had happened except that life had gone on. J.D. had weathered the crisis and was beginning to recover. The rest of them were starting to wonder how long Chris would cling to the idea of running border patrols on a "border" that was dead quiet. Even Vin was no longer sure Chris's instincts on this thing were right. Hell, Chris wasn't sure of it himself, as Vin could guess from a conversation they had not-quite-had in the saloon, the last time they were both in town.
But some feeling of impending danger continued to haunt Chris, and he wouldn't let it go. As far as the lanky bounty hunter was concerned, that wasn't a problem at all. He enjoyed the comforts of a warm, dry bed and a roof over his head as much as the next man, but town life had never suited him all that much, even when it was a rough little excuse for a town like Four Corners. Getting away every couple of days to spend a few hours with just his own company and the open range helped him to fight off the closed-in feelings that had been building up inside him since he'd drifted into town.
Having nothing better to do than stare at an empty panorama of trees and hills, Vin spent some time wondering what it was about people that made them huddle together in towns in the first place. To Mary Travis, every shopkeeper who moved on to greener pastures represented a loss, every new business that came to Four Corners a triumph. Vin just couldn't see the logic of that. If he ever thought about settling down, he'd want a house off by himself, somewhere where he wouldn't be forever tripping over his neighbors. Maybe he'd buy a bit of land so he could think about raising some horses.
<Next thing you know, you'll be talking J.D. into starting up a business partnership,> the blond man thought with amused self-mockery. <And that ain't the way to get any peace and quiet.> The kid had a keen eye for horseflesh, but J.D. was more company than any dozen people his size had a right to be. Having him around all the time would be no different than being in town.
Vin wasn't sure how he'd drifted around to the thought of settling down in the first place. A week or so ago, Judge Travis had wired Chris, extending the terms of their contract to ninety days. When that ran out, Vin really needed to be riding on back to Texas, to see about getting the distant shadow of the law off his tail. After that, assuming they just didn't hang him anyway, he'd find something to do, somewhere he'd never been before. He just wasn't the settling-down type. There were too many places he hadn't seen yet, and he'd better not wait too long or somebody would build a damned town in the middle of every last one of them.
There was a little box canyon below the outcropping, which he had turned into a make-shift corral for his horse by closing it off with a pile of dead brush. Hearing a restless nicker from the black gelding, Vin shifted forward, leaning over the lip of the rock to check on what was disturbing it. The horse was standing at the brush barrier, its ears flickering randomly in interest, its nostrils flared to scent the air. Nothing bigger than a jackrabbit had moved along the direction he'd been watching, but once he had moved down from the summit, the land to the west, back towards town, was hidden from view. Rising silently to his feet, Vin started back up the path along which he'd descended, intending to check it out.
He hadn't taken two steps before something heavy dropped on him from above, knocking him flat. His forehead hit the rock so hard that for a minute all he saw was stars. He couldn't breathe, partly because the breath had been kicked out of him by the fall, partly because there was what felt like a couple of hundred pounds of lead sitting on his back. By the time he figured out that the weight was a man, he was already twisting sideways, trying to get loose.
Half-blinded by the blood that had started to drip into his eyes from his split scalp and dizzy as hell, Vin struck upwards with the heel of his hand and felt it make a satisfying impact with his attacker's jaw. A grunt of discomfort was echoed by a fist heading for his face. Snapping his head sideways, Vin almost avoided it, but a glancing blow caught him and made his vision dance sickeningly again.
Running on sheer instinct, Vin got one foot under him and threw himself sideways, dislodging the crushing weight. His attacker jumped clear, rolled, and was on his feet long before Vin could stagger to his. The bounty hunter got a quick glimpse of a thin, dark face framed by long, straight black hair, then the Indian's foot impacted with his guts, and he was flying backwards.
He took a couple of scrabbling steps, trying to catch his balance before he landed on his ass. He felt solid ground beneath his boot on the first step, and nothing on the second. Making a wild grab for the rocks, he felt it strip the skin from his fingers and palms as he clutched at it, then lost it again. After that, there was nothing but the strange, stomach-churning experience of being in midair, heading for ground that was way too far below. The last thing he saw before he disappeared below the edge was the young Indian grinning at him.
Vin knew damned well he was dead, but he fought anyway, twisted in midair, grabbing for the rock face that was whipping past. He caught a handhold and felt something in his shoulder tear before he lost his grip again. For a second, the pain made him sick, then he had worse things to worry about. Half-turned on his side, he struck a tangle of branches and thorns, some long-dead bush clinging to a crevice in the cliff. His heavy leather coat cushioned most of the impact, but a thorn gouged his cheek, narrowly missing his eye, and more of them sank through his already bloodied hand as he clutched at the bush instinctively. The dead, dry wood tore loose under his weight, but it changed the direction of his fall, swinging him sideways in an arc so that he landed on a bed of loose sand and rock and sharp-edged bits of shale. The ground planed away under his weight, but it turned the deadly plummet into an out-of-control tumble. One of his arms was a useless weight, and he was going too fast to have any chance of stopping himself, so he concentrated on minimizing the damage. Keeping his body straight, the damaged arm clutched against his chest with his other hand, his eyes closed against dust and flying stone chips, Vin just let himself roll, praying the ground ahead would level out beneath him instead of dropping away.
When his fall finally slowed, he felt as though he'd gotten on the wrong end of the brawl to end all brawls. He was battered and breathless, his shoulder throbbing daggers of agony, every inch of his body reduced to a single gigantic ache. For a few seconds, he was blind and deaf, too stunned to even guess how badly he might be hurt. All he could do was lie where he'd landed and try to absorb the fact that he was still alive, but probably wouldn't stay that way unless he could get himself back on his feet before his attacker found a better way down from the outcropping above.
A rhythmic thumping noise echoed through the ground beneath him. Vin was so dazed that it took him a long time to identify it as approaching hoofbeats. Wincing at the bright sunlight, he blinked open his stinging eyes and stared up at the horse that was picking its way over the uneven ground towards him. The animal was tall, elegant, and milk white, with a mane and tail that hung in improbable waves nearly to the ground. It was easily the most beautiful horse he'd ever seen in his life, but it belonged in a show ring, not out in the middle of goddamned nowhere. For a moment or two, the sight of it almost convinced him that the fall had killed him or battered him completely out of his wits.
Ten feet away from him, the approaching rider reined his impossible mount to a halt and examined Vin along the barrel of a Colt Peacemaker. Like the animal he was riding, the stranger was tall, rangy, and completely out of place amidst rocks and dust and scrub grass. His dark blond hair fell to his collar, but it was neatly cut. He wore a dark-blue suit and a silver-on-blue brocade waistcoat, both lightly coated with trail dust, but still so fine that they would have made Ezra weep with envy.
"You are a stubborn man." The man's voice was cultured, too, and colored by amusement. "Can you stand up?"
"Who the hell are you?"
There wasn't a flicker of change in the pale blue eyes staring down at him, but the Peacemaker cracked, and a hunk of stone a few inches to the left of Vin's head disintegrated.
"Can you stand up?" the stranger repeated.
"I don't know," Vin returned with perfect honesty. Except for his shoulder, nothing hurt a lot, but he was still dizzy and so numb that he wasn't sure if that meant anything.
The command was aimed at the half-dozen hard looking men who had ridden up to circle Vin. Two of them dismounted and dragged him to his feet. The bounty hunter did his best to cooperate because it was the only way to spare himself more abuse than he was ready to face right now. Once he was standing, he decided he really wasn't hurt bad, but he didn't find it necessary to let his captors know that. When the two men released him, he staggered a couple of steps sideways until he came up against a wall that breathed and was in bad need of a bath. He let the bigger man support him on one side while he swayed gently and tried to gather his wits.
The young Indian had made his way down from the outcropping and now drifted over to stand beside the man on the big white horse. Seeing him closer up, Vin decided he was more likely a half-breed, his skin tanned rather than naturally dark. He was dressed like a cowboy, the only concession to his heritage being ebony hair that fell nearly to his waist in a mix of loose hanks and small braids. He looked vaguely familiar, and when he searched his memory, Vin recalled seeing him around town a couple of times over the past few days. He'd been minding his own business and hadn't had anything to do with their present worries, so nobody had paid much attention to him.
"Vin Tanner," the Indian said, nodding in his direction.
"Yes." The blond man nodded. "I recognize him from his descriptions. By the way--" His cold, pale eyes found Vin again. "I am placing you under arrest for murder."
"I don't know what the hell you're talking about," Vin drawled, trying to ignore the icy knot that had clenched in his stomach. One side of his mind yelled at him that he never should have let Chris talk him into staying here, he should have gone back to Texas and dealt with this. Another, more practical side was calculating the odds that this gang, whoever the hell they were, had any intention of taking him back to Tascosa alive. If the performance up on the outcropping was any indication, those odds were pretty damned small.
"Don't waste my time," his captor returned. "There's a warrant out for you in Texas."
"Last time I checked, bounty hunters can't place a man under arrest."
The blond dandy gave him a smile of chilling amusement and indicated the Indian standing beside him. "My young friend here occasionally works in the trade, but I am not a bounty hunter. Allow me to introduce myself. Ethan Mandrell. U.S. Marshal."
"I have a Federal writ which empowers me to place you in custody, pending extradition to the appropriate jurisdiction."
"What the hell does all that mean?"
"Get him on his horse," Mandrell demanded, ignoring Vin's question.
His men fetched Vin's black gelding and loaded the bounty hunter into its saddle. Bad shoulder or not, he could have mounted on his own if they hadn't chained his hands behind his back. As it was, he had to be thrown up onto the horse. He was an excellent rider, so he knew he could stay aboard the horse that way, but anything more than that was impossible. Even if he had managed to knee the horse into breaking away from the man who held its reins, he was helpless to control it without the use of his hands.
"Where you takin' me?"
Mandrell still paid him no mind, but the answer to that question was quickly obvious. With the Marshal in the lead, and the other half-dozen men strung out behind and around Vin, they made their way down out of the rocks and onto the well-worn stage trail that ran from Ridge City past the boundary of Stuart James's ranch, and on into Four Corners. When they reached it, Mandrell turned his horse towards Four Corners. It should have made Vin feel better, or feel that he was, at least, heading towards help. Instead, he spent the whole long, painful ride worrying.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee was beginning to notice how many of the solid citizens of Four Corners would go out of their way just to avoid him. His reputation had always had a way of keeping people at a distance, and for the most part, he encouraged it. But he'd been getting used to having folks nod a greeting as they walked past, some with respect, even a few with gratitude. Nowadays, his tension showed in his walk and his hard expression, and it reminded people of the stories they'd heard, the rumors and gossip that had made the rounds when he first came to town. Chris in a bad mood was known to be trouble, and people out here knew that the best way to handle trouble was to give it a good, wide berth.
Twenty paces ahead of him, a middle-aged woman seemed to suddenly remember some urgent business on the far side of the street. Half-dragging the little girl who was clinging to her hand, she stepped down off the boardwalk, hiked up her skirts to keep them clear of the dust, then increased her pace sharply to cut in front of a farm wagon which was lumbering past.
"Hey, Chris!" Buck's loud, cheerful voice broke into Chris's thoughts while he was watching the woman and child vanish into the cloud of dust thrown up by the heavy vehicle. "Come rest your feet a spell."
Following the sound of his old friend's voice, Chris discovered Buck and Josiah seated to either side of a wooden barrel, using it as a table. The coffee pot sitting on the barrel head between them made the decision for him. By the time he reached them, Josiah had disappeared into the saloon and returned with another mug. Accepting the coffee gratefully, Chris found a seat on a wooden crate and settled his back against a pile of similar containers that were half-blocking the boardwalk.
"When are you taking over from Vin?" he inquired, raising an eyebrow as he stared at Buck.
"Oh, 'round about now, give or take a few hours," the big man returned. "Thing is, he likes sitting out on them damned rocks a hell of a lot more than I do. Y'know, I've been wondering--"
"Leave it, Buck," Chris told him harshly. "They'll come."
"An' if they don't?"
Buck took in the hard, closed set to Chris's face and let it go. Arguing with Chris when he was like this was a bad way to get anywhere except maybe dead.
That thought left him wondering what the hell he was going to do if the present situation didn't resolve itself soon. If the gunslinger had suggested they strap on every bit of hardware they owned and go invade James's ranch, Buck would have gone along willingly--legalities and sanity be hanged--just for the sheer satisfaction. But he was getting sick of riding or sitting around in the middle of nowhere, waiting for something to happen when it was damned obvious to everyone except Chris that it just plain wasn't going to.
"Well, at least there's one good thing," he ventured finally, because Chris was still staring at him with that flat, cold glower that gave him the jitters. "At this rate, J.D.'ll be up and about in time to take his turn. Kid'll enjoy the hell out of it. Make him feel real important. 'Course the first time we send him out on the trail, I'd better go along with him, just to be sure he don't sit on any scorpions or try to pet the gila monsters."
One side of Chris's mouth quirked into an almost smile, and he relaxed visibly. Pulling one long leg up onto the box in front of him, he took a sip of his coffee, then balanced the mug precariously on his drawn-up knee.
"The boy may be green," Josiah put in in J.D.'s defense, "but I doubt he's that green. He would take great offense at the implication."
"Well, at least he's still around to be offended, and that's good, because I'd miss 'im. He has a way of livening up the place."
"Amen to that, brother," Josiah agreed, raising his mug as though in toast. He took a sip of coffee, then set the mug back on the barrel, fished out a flask and poured an ounce or two of bourbon into the dark brew. He leaned forward to return the flask to his pocket, then stayed like that, staring down the street with an expression of blank fascination.
"I know I haven't had that much to drink," he muttered after a moment.
"What's the--" Buck leaned forward to follow the direction of Josiah's gaze and similarly froze, staring. "What in the name of Mother Mary is that?"
Approaching down the street in a nervous, sideways dance, Ethan Mandrell's stallion was drawing equal attention from everyone it passed. As the clump of men riding behind the marshal moved past them, the citizens' attention shifted from the high-strung, showy animal to the bedraggled looking captive in their midst.
Vin was still hidden from sight of his companions by the men surrounding him, so Josiah gave a deep rumble of laughter at Buck's reaction to the big, long-legged horse.
"That, my friend, is an Andalusian."
"Andalusian. They're an ancient Spanish breed. Some of the grandes import them for their personal use. I've seen a few down in Mexico, but only the good Lord Himself knows how one of them got all the way up here. They're worth a fortune, and I've never heard of a grande who was willing to sell one."
"Man, J.D. is going to be sorry he missed this. Looks like something right out of one of them novels of his." Buck shook his head in amazement. "'Cept, of course, it oughta be someone like Kit Carson or Buffalo Bill riding in on it, not just some duded-up ordinary fella."
Mandrell was scanning the street ahead of him as he rode. Locating the small brick building which identified itself as the jail, he steered his horse to a halt in front of it. As his men rode up behind him, Buck spotted Patrick Dull Knife among them. A puzzled frown began to spread across his features, but it ended in a curse of disbelief when the riders started to dismount, and he saw Vin in their midst.
Chris was already on his feet and starting down the street.
The front door of the jail was outfitted with a lock, but J.D. had never managed to locate its key. For all he knew, his predecessor to the post of sheriff had ridden out of town with it still in his pocket. J.D. thought he should have it replaced, but when he mentioned the idea, Buck had just asked him with scathing sarcasm if he'd ever heard of anyone trying to break into a jail. Thinking about the near-mob that had tried to release Lucas James, J.D. hadn't changed his intentions, but neither had he figured out who he was supposed to ask for money so he could pay the locksmith.
Its lock still unusable, the jail door swung open when Mandrell tried the knob. He was strolling around its interior, checking the integrity of the cells, when Chris, Buck and Josiah reached the building.
"What the hell is going on here?" Buck demanded as he barrelled through the door, shoving it back against its hinges with such force that the inset glass rattled alarmingly and the yellow oilcloth blind battered against it.
Chris was already a couple of steps inside, silently taking in the array of weapons that had come to bear on him the moment he entered.
"You would be Wilmington," Mandrell decided, looking the big man up and down with casual disinterest. "I have no business with you right now. Get out."
"Like hell I'm going to get out. You all right, Vin?" Buck demanded, trying to get a good view of the bounty hunter past the ring of well-armed men who stood between him and the cells.
Vin had collapsed onto the cot, but he dragged himself back to his feet and came over to lean against the bars. The blood from his lacerated scalp had dried on his face and matted the front of his hair, giving him a nightmarish appearance, but his blue eyes twinkled with an irrepressible sense of irony as he admitted, "I've had better days."
"What happened?" Chris asked him quietly.
"I'm not sure. I was--"
"I arrested him for murder," Mandrell cut in, overriding Vin's answer.
"What? Mister, you are damned well crazy!" Buck exclaimed with explosive anger. Looking from Chris to Vin, a puzzled frown formed on his face when he found no echo of his own outrage reflected on either of their faces. "What the hell is going on?"
Mandrell had already shifted his attention to Chris.
"So, you're Larabee?" When Chris nodded, he went on calmly, "That saves me some time. You're under arrest, too."
"What?" Buck repeated. "What the hell for?"
"Suspicion of murder. The sheriff up at Apache Creek has some questions he wants to ask you. He'll be sending someone down here to collect you."
"You have no authority here." Chris's voice was flat calm, betraying none of the confusion or concern that was roiling around through his mind. The law had nothing against him, here or anywhere else, but everything about the man in front of him said he was dead sure of himself and what he was doing. His stance radiated confidence that had little to do with his present advantage in guns and men.
"Ah, but there, my friend, you're wrong." Mandrell strolled over to J.D.'s desk and sat down in the wobbly old wooden chair behind it. Fishing into a pocket with one thin-fingered hand, he withdrew a gleaming badge and held it up for them to see. "I have all the authority I need."
"That don't prove a damned thing," Buck snarled. "For all we know, you found it in a desk drawer where some other fella left it."
"I presume this settlement boasts a telegraph office. Feel free to check with the territorial capital after you leave. My name is Ethan Mandrell." He acknowledged the flash of recognition in Chris's eyes with a small smile, then, for Buck's benefit, spelled his surname in a tone that turned the small act into an insult. "I am a U.S. Marshal, and as of ten days ago, my territory included this county."
His eyes cut briefly to his own men, who still had Chris and his companions covered with a half-dozen weapons.
"So, Mr. Larabee, unless you wish to die right here, I suggest you pick yourself a cell. The choices are limited, I'm afraid, but I don't expect you'll be here for more than a few days."
Behind him, Buck continued to sputter protests until a few soft words from Josiah silenced him. Chris walked forward slowly, carefully keeping his hands away from his sides. As he reached the first of Mandrell's men, he was stripped of his gunbelt and searched, then shoved through the open door of the empty cell. The man who had taken his gunbelt delivered it to Mandrell, who examined its fancy silver tooling and the quality of the weapon it carried with interest before he slipped it into one of the desk drawers.
Vin had gone back to sitting on the cot in his cell. His posture was a tired, uncharacteristic slump, and close-up, he looked like hell. His clothes were filthy and torn in a dozen places. In addition to the scalp wound at his hairline, a long cut marked one of his thin cheeks, and a multitude of others were visible on every inch of exposed skin.
Chris was about to get his attention, but before he could, Buck began to stir up a fuss again.
"You can't just walk in here and--"
"Buck!" Chris called sharply, interrupting the building tirade before it got the drifter killed. "You and Josiah get out of here."
Buck met Chris's eyes across the width of the room and the half-dozen men between them and read the warning in them. Giving Chris a sharp, unwilling nod, he took a step back toward the door.
"You just take it easy for a bit, Chris--Vin. We'll be back." He looked as if he was about to say more, but Josiah laid a hand on his arm and steered him firmly out the door.
As soon as they were gone, Mandrell's men visibly relaxed. One of them grabbed the ring of keys from the hook where J.D. kept it, locked Chris's cell, then retreated to join his companions.
Mandrell himself walked back to stand near the bars, studying Chris with cool interest. The two men were almost the same height, and as Chris glared back at his captor, he recognized that they were also the same type. The man gazing back at him from hard, pale eyes seemed like a slightly skewed reflection of himself. From what he had heard of Mandrell, that thought was not one which brought him comfort.
"You want something?" Chris demanded, breaking the silence and the unspoken competition first because right now he was more interested in checking on Vin.
"I already have it," the other man said quietly, then turned and walked away.
The building was too small to give them any privacy, but having gotten them under lock and key, their captors appeared to lose all immediate interest in them. Mandrell gave his men a few soft instructions, then he and all but one of the others departed. The man who was left behind claimed J.D.'s chair, rolled himself a cigarette, and proceeded to ignore them while he smoked it.
"Vin? You all right?" Chris repeated his earlier question, figuring this time he might get an honest answer.
"Had a bad fall. Tore my shoulder up some, and--" With an embarrassed shrug, Vin displayed his hands. They were red and raw, the nails broken and the skin on his palms flailed to bloody ribbons. Something had torn open the sleeve of his coat and the shirt beneath, leaving a long, deep gouge in his forearm that was coated in a mixture of sand and dried blood.
"Figure I'll live long enough for them to hang me," Vin assured him wryly when Chris raised a brow and winced in sympathy.
"Nobody is going to hang. Mandrell has no authority to arrest you, marshal or not. This isn't Texas."
"He's got some fancy bit of paper says he does," Vin told him. "Way I see it, I'm gonna need a bit of maneuvering room if I'm gonna have any chance of clearing my name. Not much of that in a jail cell."
He headed off whatever reassurances Chris might have tried to give him with, "You never mentioned you were a hardened desperado like me," in an attempt at humor.
"I'm not. But there are things in my past that could be dug up if someone wanted me bad enough."
"You been to Apache Creek?"
"Yeah, a few times. But I never killed anyone there, fair fight or not."
"Maybe the sheriff just plain don't like you."
"Maybe not," Chris agreed, with a small, hard smile. "Can't even remember meeting the man."
Vin took another look at their remaining guard. He was a hard-looking customer, someone who would have been more believable as a bank robber than a deputy marshal. When he was working as a bounty hunter, Vin had run across plenty of lawmen who weren't much better than desperadoes themselves, but they were all lone guns. Mandrell's band had an air of organization, as if they had done all this before.
"What do you think this is all about?" he asked Chris quietly.
"I don't know, but it sure as hell is trouble... You ever heard of Mandrell?"
"I have. Supposedly, he started out as one of those Pinkerton detectives. Got himself fired because he played too rough."
"I didn't think there was such a thing as 'too rough' for those boys."
"Tells you something, doesn't it? After that, I heard he spent some time as a sheriff, up in the Dakotas."
"So he's a real lawman?"
"A real killer. He specializes in bending the law to the advantage of whoever he's working for at the time. Cattlemen. The railroad. Whoever is willing to pay what he's asking. Last I heard of him, he was somewhere down in Texas, working for one of the big ranchers."
"So how the hell did he end up out here, wearin' a marshal's badge?"
"Must've cost someone a bundle." Chris stretched out on the narrow, hard cot and stared at the bars. "I think I underestimated Stuart James."
Vin gave him a dubious look, a little worried that Chris's "feeling" might be starting to develop into an obsession. Without thinking, he reached up to rub his chin, but winced as soon as he moved his hand and let it fall back, carefully, into his lap.
"You saying you think James is behind this?"
Chris could easily guess Vin's concerns, even though the bounty's hunter expression gave away nothing but his physical exhaustion.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure of it," he admitted. "Otherwise, it's one hell of a coincidence. We've felt all along that it didn't make any sense for James to do nothing about his nephew's hanging. I made the mistake of thinking he'd come riding in with his cowboys and start a war, like he did when the Judge was here. He didn't."
"So, you think he hired himself some fancy guns instead?"
"I think he hired an expert who knows how to break the law without getting caught at it," Chris agreed. "He must've started planning this right after Lucas died. He's trying to beat the Judge on his own terms."
Vin thought about that in the quiet way he had, and nodded agreement as he saw the sense of it. "If that's true, then Judge Travis played into his hands by not taking too close a look at who he was hiring."
Chris nodded. "Looks like maybe he did."
"You think what happened to J.D. is part of it?"
"I doubt it. More likely, some of James's boys jumped the gun a bit."
"What are we going to do?"
"I was kind of hoping you'd tell me," Chris told him, smiling. "Whatever we do, we'll need to do it carefully. We make a wrong move, we're liable to get shot attempting to escape."
"Meanwhile, Buck and the others die trying to break us out of jail?"
"Could happen." He pursed his lips on the sour thought. "Damned well could really happen if Josiah doesn't sit on Buck. He can be a mite hasty now and then."
"I never woulda guessed," Vin agreed wryly. Moving carefully, like an old, old man, he settled back on the bed and folded his damaged hands gingerly across his chest, trying to find a comfortable way to hold them. "Think Buck and Josiah will be able to get hold of Judge Travis?"
"Probably, but he must be midway around his circuit right now. Take him a week, maybe ten days to get here. I bet that'll be too late to do us much good."
+ + + + + + +
"Almost done, J.D. Just hang on another minute, son."
Clamped around the painted iron post at the corner of the bed, J.D.'s fingers were starting to shake. He could feel the vibrations spreading up his arm as his weakened muscles protested the strain, but he didn't think he could have let go if he'd tried.
"There," Nathan pronounced, tucking the end of the strip into the clean bandage around his torso. "You can breathe now."
There was a little bit of mockery in the comment, but it was too friendly to give offense. This was the first time J.D. had managed to get through having his bandage changed in silence, and if he had to spend a few minutes panting for breath, trying not to be too obvious about it, it still felt like a triumph. Shakily, he rubbed his sweaty forehead against the sleeve of his nightshirt, and said, "Ouch," very quietly.
"That all you got to say?" the medic inquired, grinning at him.
"It's enough." The young man looked down at the pillow and pondered whether or not he had the strength to arrange it so he could stay sitting up for a while. When there was no one around to help, Nathan had to more-or-less drape him against the headboard while he rewrapped the cotton bandages. Up until now, J.D. had either passed out during the procedure or been more than glad to get flat on his back again when it was over, but he was getting sick of being flat on his back, staring at a view which consisted mostly of the stain on the ceiling and the curtains on the window above the bed. He would never have believed that being in pain could actually get to be boring.
Idly, he tried to figure out what day of the week it was. His recent memory wasn't much better than a blur, short periods of absolute misery divided by blackness. It didn't give him any real sense of time. The waking periods were finally growing longer and more real, which was a mixed blessing. Being awake still hurt like the devil, and he was never going to hear the end of Buck's lecturing him on the dumb mistake--Buck used considerably worse descriptions--he'd made. J.D. knew he had made a mistake, and he hated lectures, but he had to admit they were better than the first little while when all his friends, even Buck, had been so quiet and patient and gentle with him that he was sure he was going to die. Now, he was equally sure he was going to live. He just wasn't going to be enjoying it for a while.
When he reached--slowly--for the pillow and struggled to rearrange it, he promptly got another lecture.
"What the hell d'you think you're doing?" Nathan demanded.
"I want to sit up. I'm tired of staring at the ceiling."
"You want to start bleeding again? You want to get that wound infected, and die of gangrene? You want--"
"I want to sit up," J.D. retorted. "It ain't gonna kill me, Nathan. I heard you talking back when I started running that fever. You said you'd know in another day if I was going to throw it off, or if it meant the wound was turning bad. That was... days ago." At least, he thought it was days ago. "It ain't turned poison."
"How do you know?"
"Because I can't smell it." When Nathan gave him a dubious frown, he expanded, "I looked after a horse once, got one leg cut up bad taking a fence. It was a real valuable horse, so we tried to pull it through, but..." He shrugged, caught his breath in dismay, and decided not to do that again.
"Anyway, I know what gangrene smells like," he finished. The fact was that he did stink, but from nothing worse than dried fever sweat clinging to a body in bad need of a bath. That problem was going to have to wait a while. The bathhouse might as well be back home for all the chance he had of getting to it, and so long as his six-guns were within reach, there was no way in hell that Nathan was giving him a bed bath.
Nathan tugged the pillow away from him with every intention of rearranging it properly and getting him flat on his back again where he belonged, but J.D. glowered at him with mulish determination. The healer took that as the best sign he'd had yet that the young man really was on the road to recovery. Another few days and Nathan figured he might need to fetch some handcuffs from the jail if he wanted to keep his patient confined to bed. J.D. couldn't quite sit up by himself yet, but he was already chafing at the inactivity.
"Fine," Nathan agreed, giving up. "But just for a little while."
He wrapped an arm around J.D.'s chest above the bandage, lifted him clear, then stuffed the pillow in behind him.
"But if it hurts like hell, it's your own fault," he informed the young man, noting the new layer of sweat that formed an unhealthy sheen on J.D.'s pale, set face.
"So what's going on?" J.D. asked, when he'd recovered.
"Not a damned thing, as far as I know," Nathan returned. Out of the corner of his eye he watched while the youngster looked around, played with his blankets, confirmed the presence of his hat and six-guns, combed his hair into a semblance of order with his fingers, and generally twitched impatiently within the small limits his body's weakness allowed him. Smiling to himself, Nathan shortened his estimate on when he was going to be needing those handcuffs. He didn't look forward to the fight, but at the same time, it was good to see J.D. starting to act like himself again.
"Look, I'm gonna head over to the hotel to pick you up something to eat. You ain't planning to go runnin' off as soon as my back is turned, are you?"
J.D. bristled at the implied accusation, then realized he was being teased and favored Nathan with a rueful grin.
"Wish I could, Nathan."
"I won't be gone long." Picking up his hat from the rack by the door, Nathan left.
J.D. relaxed and let his eyes drift closed, enjoying the solitude. He'd never been much for keeping to his own company, but after days of solid nursemaiding, having a few minutes to himself was an unexpected pleasure. Buck and Josiah had been taking turns relieving Nathan, and he had vague memories of the others, even Chris, dropping around from time to time to see how he was doing. Lectures notwithstanding, their concern and companionship felt damned good. If they hadn't considered him one of their own, none of them would have wasted that much time on him.
<So now all I gotta do is get back on my feet and prove I learned my lesson...>
With morbid curiosity, J.D. pushed aside the quilts and hiked up the hem of his nightshirt. Tensing his stomach muscles against the pain, he peered gingerly under the edge of the bandage Nathan had just finished wrapping around him. Seeing the damage that had been done to his body made his stomach churn, so he quickly let the bandage settle back in place. He glanced at the battered piece of lead which was sitting on the corner of a cabinet, where Nathan had placed it when he'd asked about it and reminded himself that the wound would leave him his first decent scar. Too bad it was in a place where nobody but him would be able to regularly appreciate it.
He hadn't realized how familiar he had grown with the normal sounds of the street outside until it started to itch at the back of his mind that something was very wrong. Nathan had the window open to let in some air, and the sounds of voices and wagons from the street below drifted in as a background murmur. Now, the sounds that reached him were all wrong. He couldn't say exactly why, he just knew it on the level of instinct.
"Damn..." J.D. muttered to himself, when he had waited so long that he was sure Nathan should have been back by now. He would have disproved Nathan's faith in him by trying to get up and look out the window, but a few careful experiments convinced him that wasn't even a remote possibility. It wouldn't gain him a thing to be flat on his face on the floor, unconscious, when the healer returned.
He was just about convinced that the risk was worth it when he heard hurried footsteps on the staircase outside. The door shoved open, and Nathan came through in a rush--his hands empty of food--and began to gather together some supplies and stuff them into the saddle bags he used as a medical bag.
"What's going on?"
"I don't know yet."
"Nathan!" J.D. griped in exasperation.
"Look, I'll explain later."
With that, the healer vanished through the door, leaving J.D. trapped and frustrated, aware that something bad was happening, but completely helpless to even discover what it was.