Chapter 7
Chris Larabee was not a restless man by nature--in fact, he turned all cold and still when he was worked up--but he had been pacing the limits of his cell for most of the night, back and forth, like a wolf locked away in a cage. Vin recognized the continuous, aimless movement as a warning sign, but he hadn't known Chris long enough to figure out exactly what it was warning him of.

Feeling every scrape and bruise and strained muscle he'd collected from falling down the rock face, the bounty hunter was too achy to sleep, so he'd been up most of the night too, sitting in the dark, breaking the monotony of his own thoughts from time to time by trying to draw his companion into a conversation. He was getting pretty good at settling Chris down or drawing him out when he got himself all rolled up in his troubles, but right now his efforts were earning him nothing better than monosyllabic replies. Chris hadn't even broken the pattern of his uneasy movement while he was flinging those replies through the bars.

Having always had a preference for his own company over that of others, Vin wasn't a man to make friends easily, but he and Chris had hit it off immediately, as though each of them could somehow understand the other's thoughts as well as he understood his own. As time passed, Vin was discovering that bone-deep affinity to be a mixed blessing. He was a straightforward man, not prone to moodiness or extremes of temper. He preferred to keep his own counsel, but when he didn't, he said exactly what he was thinking. At times like this, he found himself looking at Chris and seeing a torn-apart landscape made up of every single thing he wasn't. It didn't change his friendship, but it made him a bit uneasy, as though he was wading through water that was just about nose-deep, with no guarantee there wouldn't be a ledge to step off of between one footfall and the next.

Somewhere around about dawn, the bounty hunter finally gave up on the possibility that Chris would ever settle down. Easing himself carefully into a sitting position, he studied his friend through half-closed eyes. His movement brought Ezra's head up, though the gambler didn't move from the cell's second bunk, where he was hidden in deep shadows.

"Do you suppose it is his intention to keep that up all day, too?" Ezra asked in a voice that was soft, but not so soft that it wouldn't have carried to Chris had he been listening.

"Maybe." Vin shrugged.

"Lord," Ezra muttered under his breath and closed his eyes again.

Vin's mouth twisted into a slight smile as he wondered if the gambler realized how much worse his present lot in life could have been. The jail had exactly two cells, and only random chance had given him Vin as a cellmate rather than Chris. With Chris in his present mood, Ezra would have been very lucky if his sarcasm and endless muttered complaints earned him nothing worse than a black eye and a few bruises.

The gambler had been in a strange mood, himself, since he was dragged in last night. Vin would have been the first to acknowledge they all had reason to be out of sorts, seeing as how they were in jail and liable to end up hanged or shot, but somehow that simple, logical explanation didn't feel like the right answer to explain how the gambler was acting. Once he got past a simple explanation of what had happened to get him arrested, Ezra couldn't seem to open his mouth without rubbing Chris the wrong way. Part of the trouble was that Chris didn't much like the Southerner at the best of times--which this certainly wasn't--but part of it was Ezra, too. There was a sharper-than-usual edge to the gambler's stinging wit, a whisper of buried anger. Listening to the echoes of whatever half-sensed truth lay behind Ezra's snappish impatience, Vin had concluded he wasn't going to like whatever it was that the gambler was hiding.

<Maybe I'm worrying for nothing. Most likely he's just scared, and he don't want to admit it. Or maybe he don't like being shut up in a box.>

Vin wasn't fond of being caged himself, though he was being quieter about his misery than either of his companions. He'd spent most of his life in the open, surrounded by nothing more restrictive than the earth and the open sky. If he let himself think about it, he could feel the brick and iron around him closing in, so he didn't let himself think about it. Chris was having enough problems for both of them.

Vin shifted his cotton-swathed hands uneasily, brought one to his mouth and tried to scratch an itch with his teeth. Nathan's thick bandages defeated the aim and filled his mouth with the rancid taste of whatever ointment the healer had spread over his scraped flesh before covering it. Making a disgusted face, he spat as much of it as he could onto the floor of the cell, then tried to clean the rest off his tongue by scrubbing it against his shirt sleeve.

"Lovely," Ezra commented from his corner. "I am incarcerated with barbarians."

The waspish complaint drew a brief smile from Vin. "Could be worse."

"I am certain that I have but to linger a few minutes, and it will be."

"I've heard about enough of your crap, Ezra," Chris growled, offering the first proof he'd given in hours that he was paying any attention to them. "I don't have time for it."

"Time would appear to be the one commodity we possess in multifarious abundance," the gambler shot back. "Or am I missing something?"

"You'll be missing your head, if you don't shut up."

Sliding closer to the line of bars that divided their cages, Vin asked quietly, "Chris? You doing all right?" He only had to look at Chris to know it was a stupid question. The gunfighter's unease seemed to be growing worse instead of better with the passing of time. At first, Vin thought Chris wasn't going to answer, but he finally broke his repetitive pattern and came over to the adjoining bars. Folding his forearms against them at forehead height, he leaned against them and looked down at the seated man.

"Yeah, I'm doing fine. I could sure use a drink, though."

"Can't argue with you there," Vin agreed cheerfully, his expression passing along that he understood the admission on several levels. Chris never seemed to get drunk, but he went through liquor at a rate which passed well beyond the bounds of sociability. Vin couldn't think of a time when he'd gone dry for a whole day and night. He must be starting to suffer from the abstinence, craving liquor because his body was used to it--and maybe because its absence made the world a little too clear and personal.

"We'll be sure to hit the saloon first thing when we get out of here," Vin promised, giving him an ironic little smile.

"Yeah, sure." Chris snorted, and went back to pacing. Between the small cell and his long legs, there wasn't enough room to make it a satisfying activity. Three steps took him from the rough brick wall to the bars, and all he could do was turn around and head back again. He could guess what Vin was thinking, and there was truth in it, but he had always been able to handle the lack of whiskey when he had to. He was just having trouble handling it on top of being caged up, out of touch, and with his fate lying in other hands. He was developing a real understanding for why the past week had gotten Buck so much on edge. Waiting with absolutely nothing to do, and not even the freedom to walk off his impatience or find solace in a bottle, was driving him crazy.

Or maybe he was just finding excuses. He couldn't really tell anymore.

He was still pondering that unwanted thought when the front door opened to admit Ethan Mandrell. The tall marshal sauntered inside, then paused with his hand on the edge of the door before finally closing it. His attention was fixed on the sheet of folded newsprint in his hand, and whatever he was reading, it was causing him considerable amusement.

The Clarion News was not a large paper, its regular editions running to a single printed sheet, and most of that filled with reprints of news items from other parts of the country. This time, half of the front page had been given over to a headline in the largest type Mary owned: SALOON MASSACRE JUST THE BEGINNING? Chris and Vin both had a chance to read it when the marshal strolled over and held it up for their review.

"Your woman has a way with words, I do have to give her that."

"She's not my woman," Chris said with deadly cold anger. "And I'd advise you to leave her alone."

Mandrell folded the sheet of newsprint carefully, poked it through the bars of the cell then, when Chris didn't reach for it, balanced it carefully on one of the crossbars.

"She asks some hard questions," he continued, acknowledging neither Chris's denial nor his warning. "I wonder if she is aware that those who ask hard questions sometimes receive hard answers?"

"You even look at her the wrong way, and you're a dead man."

Mandrell met Chris's hard, flat gaze, laughed, then turned and walked out of the building again.

When he was gone, Ezra said, "You realize, do you not, Mr. Larabee, that that hand went to him."

"Shut up, Ezra," Vin suggested, even though he completely agreed with the statement.

With an angry sweep of his hand, Chris caught the small newspaper from its resting place, flipped it open and scanned the story below the headlines. It told him nothing that Ezra hadn't already relayed, but as he read the words and Mary's editorial comments, he was aware of their unspoken irony. This was the second time in their brief acquaintance when he had become the focus of Mary's editorial zeal, but where he had once been an icon of lawlessness, her words now gave him a status approaching that of a martyred hero. He had never spent much time thinking about news reporting--he didn't see it as all that different from the sensationalist prose of the cheap adventure novels J.D. adored--but he did know an open-handed challenge when he read one. In a few succinct paragraphs, Mary had issued one to Stuart James and Mandrell, and another to the citizens of the town, to not allow themselves to once again become sheep.

<Not that they ever were much of anything else,> he thought, the cynicism colored by resignation rather than bitterness. Crumpling the flimsy paper into a ball, he tossed it through the intervening bars to land on the blanket beside Vin.

"That woman just doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut."

Vin's lips twitched.

"You just figurin' that out now, are you?" He looked at the crumpled newspaper, considered the problem of picking it up with his bandaged hands and decided it was too much effort.

"She's just wasting her time," Chris went on. "The town has barely even started to think that we might be better than what they had before. Now, everything's changed again. People's first concern will be for their own welfare. That's just basic human nature."

"A rare point on which we agree," Ezra put in dryly.

Nathan's arrival interrupted Chris's reply. Looking tense and concerned, the healer waited passively while the man on duty relieved him of his gunbelt, then searched him and his medical pack. Patrick had come in with him and remained by the door, with his rifle ready while his companion led Nathan to Vin's cell.

"How's the shoulder feeling today?" Nathan inquired with false heartiness, stepping aside while Mandrell's man unlocked the door. He squeezed inside and listened to the lock rattling behind him, then the man's footsteps as he went back to the desk out front. Patrick sprawled down in a chair on the opposite side of the desk and pulled out a deck of cards.

Vin didn't answer Nathan's question until the two men started discussing what game to play, leaving the prisoners as close to alone as they were going to get. Even then he answered by way of a lopsided shrug and an eloquent wince.

"Still bothering me a mite," he admitted when Nathan's glare informed him that wasn't an adequate response.

"I have an excellent remedy for a similar affliction in my hotel room. Unfortunately, our less-than-gracious hosts make it difficult for me to retrieve it."

It took Nathan a second to realize Ezra was referring to the bottle of horse liniment and even longer to convince himself the gambler was actually making a joke about it. Their eyes met briefly, then Ezra sat up on the cot and looked away, developing a sudden interest in a spider which was making its way up the stone wall. One of his hands fished automatically in his coat pocket to retrieve a deck of cards, and he began to play with them, shuffling and cutting them one handed.

The two men hadn't had a chance to talk last night, which suited Ezra very well. There was nothing he wanted to say to Nathan about the split-second decision he had made. At the time, it had been necessary to some unwanted part of his nature that he couldn't--or didn't want to--define. Now, in the clearer light of morning, it was simply a mistake that could cost him dearly.

"Ain't had a chance to say thanks for last night--" Nathan began inevitably, but Ezra cut him off curtly.

"No need."

"Sure there's a need. You hadn't made a move when you did, I mighta been shot."

"If I had thought the situation was no more serious than 'might,' I would not have taken action," Ezra drawled. "As you see, I have already reaped my well-deserved reward for that moment of misguided altruism."

"He's trying to say thanks, Ezra," Vin intervened to head off the anger and indignation he saw building on Nathan's face. "Just say 'you're welcome,' and let it go."

"You're welcome," the Southerner echoed, infusing the words with deepest sarcasm.

Grumbling something too soft for the other men to hear, Nathan settled down on the edge of Vin's cot. Chris immediately shifted over to lean against the row of bars that separated the cells, close enough to talk to him quietly. It put his back to the front area of the jail, but he trusted Vin to warn him if either of their guards moved.

"How are things outside today?"

"Damned uneasy. Getting to be just like the bad old days." Nathan signalled for Vin to hold out his hands and began to unwrap one from its cocoon of bandages. "Except a lot quieter."

"You'd think everything would be spit-and-polish with this many lawmen running around," the bounty hunter offered wryly.

"A little too spit-and-polish. What happened last night in the saloon really shook folks up. Opened a few eyes to which way the wind's blowing. People are getting nervous. There's a lot of talk going around, people wondering what's coming next. I already heard a couple of storekeepers get to talking about moving on. Trying their luck somewhere else."

"But there hasn't been any more open trouble?"

"Yeah, actually, there has. I don't see that it's related to all of this, though. Fella rode into town this morning, said he'd just been out at the Bowey spread. Somebody killed Hank Bowey and his wife. House was all torn up, the two of them shot dead inside. Prob'ly outlaws that done it, but with all that's goin' on..." He shrugged. "Just makes folks even more uneasy."

"That would be number four," Ezra put in abruptly.

Nathan looked over at him, then back to Chris. Seeing his own puzzlement reflected in the gunslinger's hard stare, he turned back to the gambler and asked, "Number four of what?"

"The jury which passed sentence on Lucas James."

Frowning, Nathan thought about it, then nodded. "You're right. Billy Parks, Slow Joe and Tom McCraney were all on it, too."

"And now they are all dead, in a positive epidemic of inexplicable misfortune."

"You don't think these guys are...?" Nathan's dark eyes widened in disbelief, then he shook his head. "That's crazy!"

"Were I Mr. Stuart James, revenge is a motive which would hold conspicuous significance to me." Keeping his eyes trained on his cards, Ezra began to deal out hands, face up, not bothering to count them, just keeping his fingers busy. He dealt himself a couple of eights, and a single ace, then swept the cards back into a pile, not wanting to know if the jinxed hand would complete.

Chris and Vin exchanged glances, weighing the comments and their source in brief, silent communication. They already knew James was behind Mandrell's presence, but had assumed he planned to eliminate them, then continue with the plan their arrival had originally interrupted: regaining control of the town. The idea that he might do it by cold-blooded, wholesale slaughter had occurred to neither of them.

"How long ago'd you figure that out, Ezra?" Vin inquired. "You didn't say anything about this last night."

Chris cut in with, "And how the hell do you know the names of the jurors? I doubt we even heard them at the time."

"A good memory is critical to my profession, Mr. Larabee. As is the ability to assess patterns. I had my suspicions last night when I witnessed which two men were singled out during the altercation in the saloon. Mr. Jackson could not have been the original target because he did not arrive until the brawl was in progress. At the time, I was apprehensive that the incident was aimed at me, but that turned out not to be the case. Therefore, there had to be another point to it. Mr. Jackson's information merely confirmed what I already suspected."

"Makes sense," Vin admitted quietly. "Shoulda thought of it myself."

"You're talking about twelve cold-blooded murders," Nathan protested. "More than that, since they killed Mrs. Bowie along with her man."

"I would venture to suggest the proposed number is nineteen," Ezra reminded him. "From Mr. James's point of view, the blood debt is ours as well. I would wager considerable money against the chance of any of us remaining alive to stand trial. And, as you all know, I have never been a gambling man."

The two men out front had started their card game, but were already embroiled in an argument over it. Yesterday, when Nathan came in, Mandrell's men had watched him like a hawk the whole time he was with Vin, but today his presence seemed almost to be taken for granted. By implication, the town's new power structure was already growing complacent with its situation. After last night's dust-up, it wasn't an unreasonable assumption.

"But if they are fixin' to kill everyone connected with Lucas, why are you three still alive?" Nathan finished rebandaging one of Vin's hands and started work on the other. "Why are any of us?"

"Ain't found a good chance to kill us yet, I suppose," Vin offered. "They're being careful how they handle this. Makin' sure they got some kind of legal excuse for everything they do. 'Sides, if they don't plan to leave town until they've finished up their job here, they'll want to keep me, at least, alive as long as possible."

Nathan gave him a puzzled frown, so he sighed and admitted, "We don't know if they've really turned up something on Chris, but I got a bit of trouble with the law following me around. Price on my head, over in Texas. They likely mean to collect that as a bonus once they're done here. It ain't too much fun, running around the desert, dragging a dead body. Done it a time or two, and after the first two-three days, you start to wonder if the reward's worth putting up with the smell."

Nathan took another look towards the front of the sheriff's office. Patrick and his companion were still arguing. As long as he kept his voice low, they probably couldn't hear him anyway. It was only "probably," though. They were too close for any real safety.

"Soon as I get done here," he said quietly, "I'll be heading straight off to Bitter Creek. Did Ezra told you about the telegraph?"

Chris nodded. "It isn't surprising they'd want everything cut off until they get organized. But you're not going to Bitter Creek."

"What? Why not?"

"I was hoping we could do this within the law, to save the Judge and us some trouble, but what happened last night and what Ezra has figured out changes everything. We can't afford to wait while you ride out there and come back. Mandrell isn't going to give us that much time. We'll have to do things our way. Take our chances with straightening it out with the law when it's over."

"How do we get you three out of here without getting you killed?"

"We'll have to work on that one," Vin admitted. "Didn't figure we'd need to get out quite this quick."

"We'll have to make our move tonight," Chris prompted quietly. "I doubt Mandrell is going to try much of anything during the day."

Vin gave him a small smile. "'Course, he's probably thinking exactly the same thing about us."

"That's a chance we'll have to take. They only had one deputy in here watchin' us last night--"

"But there's another one outside," Nathan told them.

Vin nodded. "Probably others as well, set up where you can't see them too easy. He's got to know we'll be making a move eventually. How many men's he got altogether?"

"Six, I think."

"Appropriate." Chris smiled without humor. "The first thing you have to do when you leave here is let the other jurors know what's going on. Give them a chance to get out of town, or watch their backs, at least, in case their turn comes before we get out of here. After that, figure out as much as you can about where his men are spending their time."

Their original guard suddenly threw down his cards in disgust, heaved himself to his feet, and stalked over to the entrance of the cell block.

"You planning to take all day in there, boy?" he demanded, glowering at Nathan.

"Just finishing," Nathan admitted with regret, since it was obvious they would have no more privacy to talk. While he tucked in the edge of Vin's bandage and put his supplies away, he thought quickly, then said loudly, for the deputy's benefit, "I'll check back with you around dinner time, Vin. Some of them cuts are pretty deep. Wouldn't want any infection to be setting in."

"Sure," the bounty hunter agreed, smiling. "See you then."

After he walked out of the jail, Nathan hesitated. He knew Buck had stayed in J.D.'s room overnight, but he hadn't seen Josiah yet this morning. He'd been planning to drop his medical bag back at his room, then slip off to the livery stable around the edge of town to be sure none of the intruders spotted him. Now that the talk with Chris had changed his plans, he needed to get the other two members of the team together to let them know what they needed to do.

The halfbreed bounty hunter opened the jail door behind him, and came outside to join another of Mandrell's men who was lounging in front of the building. Nathan picked a direction at random, just to get away from their scrutiny. Having his every move watched by hostile eyes wasn't a new experience for him, but it was one he hadn't had to deal with much this past while, and he'd grown sensitive to it.

Josiah wasn't in the saloon, but Nathan went inside anyway to ask around, only to find people melt away as he approached. Even in its worst days, Four Corners had always had a few things going for it. Out here in the West, a lot of folks had better things to worry about than a man's color. They judged him for who he was. Now those around him, some of them folks he'd known for years, wanted nothing to do with him precisely because of who he was: one of Chris's men. After the third stammered excuse and retreat, he turned around in disgust and walked back into the clean, outside air.

Three horses were tied across the street in front of the Clarion News. Nathan recognized the two men who were lounging in front of the building as cowboys from the James spread just before the rancher himself walked out of the newspaper office. The old man turned back briefly to aim some final remark through the open door, then started off down the boardwalk with his men following in his wake. A moment later, Mary appeared in the doorway and stared after him. Even from a distance, fury was obvious on every spare line of her body. She turned to go back inside, then spotted Nathan and changed her mind. Closing the door behind her, she started towards him.

As James reached the hotel, Mandrell emerged from its front door, as though he had been waiting there. The rancher had been clutching a copy of the Clarion News in one fist, and he slammed it into the marshal's chest. Mandrell took it, but didn't bother to look at it. Nathan assumed he had already seen it since Mrs. Travis had been out and around earlier that morning, handing out copies to anyone who wanted one and many who did not.

The two men stood talking for a moment then went inside the hotel together.

"More trouble, Miz Travis?" Nathan asked when the woman reached him.

"It's nice to know my special edition is upsetting the right people, at least." She folded her arms across her chest, tugging her shawl closer in an unconsciously protective gesture.

"He threatened you?" Nathan guessed, looking at her face.

"Not in so many words. He never does. But the idea is there."

Nathan considered what to do, uncertain about the wisdom of pulling the young woman into the meeting he was about to call. Chris wouldn't like it if they allowed Mrs. Travis any deeper into this mess than she already was. Then again, Nathan wasn't sure there was such a thing as "deeper," and the welfare of Four Corners was as important to her as it was to any of them. More so since she had been fighting in her own way to protect and civilize the town for as long as Nathan had lived there.

Deciding to take the chance, he said, "Tell you what, Miz Travis, I'm just looking for Josiah, and once I've found him, I need to have a talk with him and Buck. They'll want to hear what you got to say. Buck's over at the hotel with J.D. We moved him over there last night," he explained, in answer to the question in her eyes. "Figured it'd be easier to keep an eye on him. Why don't you go on ahead while I round up Josiah? Best you go in the side door, though. Wouldn't want to call attention to us all being there at once."

Nodding agreement, she started off down the street.

+ + + + + + +

The small restaurant inside Wheeler's Hotel was the only decent public eating room still open in Four Corners. In spite of the early hour, it was packed with customers gathered to talk over coffee or catch a hasty breakfast before they started their day. A wave of silence flooded the room when James and Mandrell walked in, and when the background chatter started up again, following the two men to a corner table, it held a furtive note which pleased James enormously.

"I see you're settling in well, Marshal." Deliberately, the rancher seated himself with his back to the wall. In his experience, men like Mandrell had an in-born dislike of turning their back to an unguarded room and an open door.

If Mandrell felt any qualms about the arrangement, they didn't show on his thin, hard face. He settled in the opposite chair and leaned back in it comfortably.

"Things are under control."

"They had better be, considering how much I am paying you."

"I'm worth what you're paying me."

The girl who served tables approached, and James put his response aside while they each selected their meal. As she walked away, he asked, "What do you have to tell me?"

"Four of the names on your list have been dealt with."

"Only four?" There was no visible sign on the rancher's face to indicate the comment was meant as sarcasm, though in fact the information astounded him. He hadn't expected any results at all for several days.

"I had my men take care of two of those who live outside of the town itself before we rode in. Two more met with unfortunate accidents last night during a barroom brawl. I would have done the first of Larabee's men then, too, but matters took an unexpected turn. That would seem to be quite rapid progress, considering we have been here less than twenty-four hours. When we discussed how this matter was to be handled, it was my understanding that you didn't want an open massacre in the streets."

"Would you provide one if I did?" James inquired, with genuine curiosity about the man's limits. Mandrell was anything but a thug, and yet he appeared to possess no conscience at all. They might have been discussing the slaughter of cattle rather than the cold-blooded killing of men.

"The price would be considerably higher," the gunslinger told him casually. "I would probably need to leave the country afterwards."

"I don't think that will be necessary. You still think you can have everything handled before Judge Travis gets back at the end of the month?"

"Long before then, so long as the citizenry continues to cooperate. They have not yet realized the precise lesson they are being taught, but that's only a matter of time. I've already planned the next incident, which will be of a considerably higher profile than what has gone before. By the end of the month, everything should be exactly as you wish it to be."

"I'm told you have three of Travis's enforcers in jail."

"Larabee is the one who matters, though having a couple of the others out of circulation is convenient. 'Divide and conquer,' as they say. Of the four who remain free, the boy is bedridden, and the other three are keeping a low profile. With their leader and two of their friends in my control, they are hesitant to cause trouble."

"Get rid of them."

"In due course." When James frowned at him, Mandrell went on to explain, "The townsmen are still strongly divided on whether Larabee's band are a force of justice or a group of hired vigilantes. Either way, they are perceived as powerful. Dangerous. Now, I have three of them in jail, and I am openly ignoring the others, allowing them to remain free and helpless. That passes a message. One which will get stronger as people begin to realize exactly what is happening around them."

"It's also dangerous."

Mandrell gave his employer a vulpine grin. "Of course it's dangerous. Danger is what makes life interesting, Mr. James. Without it, you simply waste away to dust. You're a hunter yourself. You know that."

"I have never hunted for sport alone. I've hunted deer and buffalo for food. I've hunted cougars or wolves that come down from the hills and take my stock. If an animal has something I need, or it takes something that's mine, I kill it. I've never seen a need to do it just to prove I'm stronger and smarter than it is. Never doubted I was."

"An interesting philosophy."

James caught the flash of anger in Mandrell's half-lidded blue eyes as he said it. The marshal tilted his head back and slowly blew a trail of blue smoke upwards toward the ceiling. When he straightened again, that flash of emotion was hidden away behind his customary mask of amused indifference.

"I believe you are intentionally missing the point. No matter. Our arrangements give you the right to tell me who to kill, not how and when to do it. I'll take each of them out as a convenient opportunity presents itself. We've already agreed that Larabee himself is mine to dispose of when and as I see fit. That was part of my price."

From where he was sitting, he could keep a peripheral eye on the reception area of the hotel, and the stairs that led up to its guest rooms. A flash of pale hair caught his eye, and when he glanced over, he saw Mary Travis cross in front of the desk and start up the staircase. Seeing her reminded him of the small newspaper James had thrust at him, so he picked it up and unfolded it to its headlines.

"I have always admired a woman who knows her own mind," he commented silkily.

"She's nothing but a troublemaking yellow journalist," James declared sourly.

"Hardly a fair assessment. Her style may be unnecessarily bombastic, but her facts and accusations are, for the most part, completely true."

"You sound as though you approve of her."

Mandrell raised one shoulder in a small shrug. "I can admire determination so long as it doesn't inconvenience me. Mrs. Travis is trying to stir the town into some kind of concerted action. From what I've heard, she had little luck managing it before Larabee's arrival, and I doubt she will do any better now. However, by the very act of trying, she will spread additional fear and uncertainty. That is exactly what we want."

"I want her eliminated. That was part of my side of the bargain we made, if you'll recall. She and that little boy of hers are all the family old Judge Travis has left. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. He took my nephew. He owes me a life. I want him to know I've collected and not be able to do one goddamned thing about it, just like he did to me."

"It will be arranged," Mandrell agreed. Even if James had not marked the woman for murder, he had already made the same decision for differing reasons. "You know how it is with buildings out here. The wood dries out. They become fire traps."

"Do it however you want, just do it."

"Of course. That is, after all, what I'm here for."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. was more comfortable than he had been in a very long time. His side still ached, but there was nothing urgent about the pain. Nothing he couldn't bear for a while. He was lying on a bed that was far too soft to be Nathan's. In fact, it was just about the most wonderfully cozy bed he'd ever slept in, and he probably would have gone right on sleeping if Buck hadn't taken to snoring again, somewhere in his close neighborhood. The air he drew into his lungs smelled of fresh-baked bread and other mouth-watering savories which made his stomach growl a plaintive demand for something more substantial than the soup and bread Nathan had been feeding him.

As soon as he blinked open his eyes, he remembered where he was and how he'd gotten there, and some of the lethargic sense of peace slipped away. Not all of it, though. With a full night's sleep behind him--real sleep, not the nightmare-wracked blackness of his illness--he felt too good to be depressed, even though he was still weak as a newborn kitten, and any unwise movement made him wince.

Yawning widely, J.D. managed a cautious stretch that didn't make his side too unhappy with him and built himself a mound of pillows so he could sit up and look around. Last night, he'd been too exhausted and embarrassed to pay any attention to his surroundings, but now he realized he was in one of the best rooms in the hotel. It was set on a corner, with windows on two sides instead of one. In addition to a bed so wide that he could have slept in it sideways, there was room for a vanity, a clothes press and a fancy sofa upholstered in pink satin brocade. J.D.'s first thought was to hope that nobody expected him to pay for all this, and his second was that Buck looked patently ridiculous, stretched out on a sissy little sofa that was about half as long as he was. No doubt Buck would be glad when J.D. was back on his feet again, if for no other reason than it would mean he could go back to his own regular sleeping arrangements.

The thought amused J.D. briefly, but it also strengthened his depressed awareness of his present uselessness. He had to get out of this damned bed, if only so his friends didn't need to waste their time thinking about him when they needed to be thinking about other things.

Almost as though he was mocking the thought, Buck snorted loudly in his sleep, then shifted around, sending a couple of dainty little needlepoint pillows scooting onto the floor.


J.D. winced as the big drifter answered him with a long, ragged snore. He repeated the call, more loudly, until Buck finally started awake. He lost a few more cushions in his attempts to sit up, which annoyed him so much that he flung the remainder onto the carpet with considerable force.

"Damned stupid, useless piece of furniture." He swung his long legs down onto the floor, leaned back, and bumped his head against the sofa's fancifully carved wooden back.

"It wasn't meant for sleeping on," J.D. pointed out, adding, "Morning, Buck."

"What're you doing awake so early? Nathan said you were liable to sleep all day."

"I'm hungry," J.D. complained. "Man can't sleep on an empty stomach." Because he was curious, he asked, "How come we got one of the fancy rooms? Mr. Wheeler ain't usually the generous sort, and I sure as hell can't pay for this."

"Wheeler's in Ridge City on business. Mrs. Turnbull's looking after the place these days, and I think she's a little sweet on Josiah. Besides, she likes you. Said the room was empty anyway, and you might as well be comfortable for a few days."

"Does it come with breakfast?" he inquired hopefully.

"As soon as Josiah shows up, I'll go find out."

"Oh, come on, Buck, nobody is going to walk in here and shoot me." The thought made him look around, trying to figure out where his gunbelt had ended up. There was no obvious sign of it, so he asked, "Where're my guns?"

"Still back at Nathan's, I guess. I'll pick 'em up for you later."

"You could get them while you're finding us some breakfast," J.D. hinted. When Buck didn't move, anger flashed through him. "If I'm this damned much trouble, why don't you just shoot me?"

"That's what started all this in the first place, ain't it?"

J.D. could tell from the tone that Buck was trying to tease him, but that was too true to be the least bit funny.

"Leave me your Winchester," he demanded truculently. "Anyone I don't like comes through that door, I'll blow their damned head off."

"Come on, J.D., you can't be that hungry."

He wasn't, not really. He just wanted a few moments of solitude to prove something to himself. When he responded to Buck's comment with a glower, his friend shrugged and heaved himself to his feet.

"All right, I'll go get your damned guns. I could use some breakfast myself and a chance to stretch my legs. Since you're feeling so all-fired independent, you'll get your grub when I've had a chance to see what's going on in the bad old world this morning, how's that?" Buck picked up his rifle, which was lying across the top of the dresser, came over to the bed, and laid it down on top of the covers where J.D. could reach it easily.

"Sure," J.D. agreed, knowing full well that Buck would arrange for someone to bring him up a tray before he left the hotel--probably the severely maternal Mrs. Turnbull, who was the hotel's cook and assistant manager.

He listened to the click of the door, then the fading sounds of Buck's boots on the stairs. When they were out of hearing, he caught the edge of the quilts and tossed them aside, then very, very carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. Sitting up unaided still made him dizzy, but this morning it was possible, and he could have crowed in satisfaction when he proved that. Whether or not he could get any farther... He cut off that thought with the decision that he was going to get farther. He didn't figure there was any remote hope that he was going to be a help to his friends for awhile, but he was bound and determined to stop being a hindrance.

His first couple of attempts to stand up were unsuccessful and left him clutching his side and staring at a world full of stars. Helping himself to the laudanum bottle that sat on his bedside table didn't just seem like a good idea, it seemed like a necessity, even though he knew Nathan would yell at him if he found out. It took the painkiller ten or more minutes to really start working, but after five, he convinced himself he was feeling much better. He gave it another try and this time managed to stagger upright. By laying both hands flat on the bed table, he even managed to stay there.

It didn't make any sense that a man could completely forget how to walk in a week, but his progress to the window was a series of staggers, rest-periods and stumbles, aided along by various pieces of furniture, which he clutched at for support. Once he got there, he slumped down gratefully on the window ledge to recover, hoping no one outside would decide to look up and catch him sitting there in his nightshirt.

The street below was quiet. It was never much of anything else, but this was more than the regular midmorning quiet--more of an unnatural, hushed waiting. It reminded him of the day Judge Travis had first tried to bring Lucas James to trial, and the citizenry had retreated behind their closed doors to get out of the way.

J.D. leaned his forehead against the glass, enjoying the feel of its morning coolness against his sweat-dampened forehead. You'd think he had run a circle around the town, he was so tired, instead of just having walked a dozen steps or so across a room. But the small distance was a triumph, and he savored it to his fullest, knowing he couldn't afford to stay there long. If Buck, or anyone else, caught him out of bed, he'd never hear the end of it.

<Best get back to bed 'fore they find you, then,> he decided, refusing to admit that the idea was becoming an urgent necessity, as his small cache of strength bled away. Carefully, he maneuvered himself upright again, his teeth clenched, one hand pressed tightly against his wound. The other groped from handhold to handhold, helping him maintain his precarious balance.

"What on earth are you doing up?"

J.D. had almost made it back to the bed when that question startled him half out of his wits. All of his concentration had been focused on staying upright. He hadn't heard footsteps or a knock on the door or anything else.

He hadn't been particularly steady on his feet to begin with, and when he jumped in surprise, balance deserted him. As he was falling, he had time to think that he wasn't going to enjoy the impact with the floor at all, but that it wasn't going to be half as bad as being caught by Mrs. Travis while he was wobbling around the room in a nightshirt that left him naked from the knees downward.

He managed to catch his elbows on the side of the mattress, so he didn't go full-length on his face. The daggers that shot through his middle when his muscles tensed wrenched a horrible little whining noise from his throat, and he was mortified to realize Mrs. Travis must have heard it. Somehow, he managed to get himself dragged back into bed, the covers clutched desperately to his chest, before she could recover from her surprise and cross the room to help him.

Irritation and concern were written on the blonde woman's face as she halted beside the bed and looked down at him. J.D. waited for the inevitable, but all she said was, "Are you all right?"

His head was spinning, his side hurt, and he could feel his heart trying to batter its way out of his chest, but when he announced, "I'm fine," there was a note of stubborn triumph in his voice.

"Just lie still. Nathan will be here soon--"

"Don't tell him!" J.D. blurted out. Turning on the wheedling tone that had usually had a good effect on his mother, he added, "Please? He'll just get all worked up over it."

Mary hesitated, frowning down at the young man in concern. The whiteness of his face was broken by spots of unhealthy color on his cheekbones, but whatever escapade he had been up to when she arrived didn't seem to have actually harmed him. The green-gold eyes gazing back at her were embarrassed and defiant, but very much alert. Murmuring, "You should take care of yourself," in a concerned voice, she let it go.

"Chris, Vin and Ezra are in jail. The whole town's in trouble, and all people keep telling me is that I gotta take care of myself."

The frustration in the young man's tone drew an unwilling smile from Mary, as she nodded a promise she probably should not have made. As J.D. shot her a grateful grin and relaxed, her mind went back to more immediate troubles, and she paced to the window, looking out to see if she could spot any of the others.

"What's going on now?" J.D. asked, taking it for granted that she wouldn't have come here just to pay him a social call.

She crossed her arms, her hands restlessly chaffing the sleeves of her dress. "Things are--"

The sound of boots clattering up the stairs interrupted her. Mary froze, and J.D. grabbed up the Winchester Buck had left with him, then dropped it again with a sigh of relief when Nathan came through the door, Buck and Josiah on his heels. Buck walked over to the side of the bed and hung the gunbelt he was carrying over a corner of the wooden headboard. Removing his rifle to a place leaning against the wall, he slapped J.D.'s knees through the covers, and gave him barely enough time to get his legs out of the way before sitting down where they'd been, with his back supported by the footboard.

"Nathan tells me you had some trouble this morning, Mrs. Travis?" Josiah picked up a chair and held it for her, inviting her to take a seat.

Mary shook her head in answer to both the offer and the question, then paced uneasily from the window to the bed.

"Stuart James just came to the Clarion."

"So Nathan said."

"He even told me he was willing to buy it. It isn't the first time he's offered, of course. He's wanted to put me--and before that, my husband and I--out of business for years. Stephen was always a thorn in his side, and I like to think I have managed to remain so. A very small thorn, unfortunately."

"Big enough that he wants to be rid of you," Josiah pointed out.

"Perhaps. Though I imagine my father-in-law has as much to do with that as I do." She bit nervously at a fingernail, then forced her hand back to her side.

"We've got another problem, too," Nathan announced, then proceeded to outline the conversation he'd had with Chris and Vin. "So Chris wants me to stay in town. And we gotta warn the other men, before they end up buried, too."

"How do they expect to get away with this?" J.D. asked. A frown of puzzled indignation knitted his brows together, and he shook his head slowly from side to side. "It's just plain crazy."

"I said the same thing," Nathan put in. "Trouble is that it ain't."

"But if they kill the twelve men on the jury... and us..." He lost momentum for a moment, looking around at the people gathered in the room. "For mercy's sake, people are going to know."

"Knowing is one thing, J.D." Josiah's rich baritone had taken on a funereal gravity. "Proving it is another. Half-a-dozen people saw Lucas gun down Mr. Potter. How much luck did you have finding one of them who was willing to testify to it in court?"

"None," the young man admitted. "They were all scared, but--"

"They'll be even more scared this time," Buck put in. "Hell, Mandrell could probably line us all up and gun us down in the streets, if he wanted to, and get away with it. Probably even get a few people to testify it 'uz in self-defense, just 'cause they want to suck up to him. In case it's escaped yer notice, the whole town ain't never been behind us. Some of them are, but others..."

He didn't glance at Mary when he said it, but she stiffened perceptibly and a light flush rose up on her pale skin.

"I hope you don't think--"

"Wasn't meaning you, Miz Travis," the big man cut her off. "You want justice for this town, even if you ain't too happy with how you're getting it."

"Believe me, Mr. Wilmington, time and events seem determined to teach me the error of my original reservations about Mr. Larabee and the rest of you," the woman admitted gravely. "So. What are we going to do?"

"Well, ma'am, I think the best thing you could do is go back home and--"

"Please don't tell me to hide under my bed, Mr. Wilmington," Mary interrupted him. "I have never been very good at that. It is, I fear, a serious flaw in my character."

Buck acknowledged that admission with a friendly smile that said he, personally, had always been rather partial to ladies with similar flaws.

"Never been much good at hidin' myself, ma'am," he admitted. "High time we did something better."

"We need some of Mandrell's men alive, if we can," Josiah put in. "It'll make the explanations easier in the long run."

"Their choice," Buck threw in with a predatory grin.

"First things first, though," Josiah reminded him. "We warn the rest of the jury."

"Shouldn't we try to get them together, somehow?" Mary asked unhappily. "Perhaps find somewhere safe for them to stay? Most of the men have families. They can't just pick up and leave town."

"You really think that would work?"

She hesitated, then shook her head. "No, I suppose it wouldn't."

"The best thing we can do to protect them is to get things back under control as quick as we can."

With Mary's and Nathan's help, Josiah constructed a list of the remaining jurors. All of the men had been unknown to him and Buck at the time of the trial. Most of them still were, nothing more than half-recognized names, which they could barely associate with faces.

When they were finished, Josiah leaned back and stared thoughtfully at a point on the opposite wall. "We'll tell each of them how things stand. After that, it's up to them what they want to do. When we've done that, the next thing is to be sure Chris and the others are out of the line of fire. That means getting them out of jail."

"About time," Buck offered, triumphantly.

Josiah's eyes travelled on to Nathan. "Think you can get in to see Vin again?"

"Before I left, I said some of the cuts are deep and I'm worried about infection. Said I wanted to take another look at them tonight, just to be sure. They might not let me in, though. Hell, I ain't sure why they're bothering to let me in at all, seein' as how they're planning on doing away with all of us."

"It's almost like they want us to have a chance to work together," J.D. put in. "But that don't make any sense."

"Maybe it does." Josiah picked up the large, silver cross that hung around his neck and began to turn it over in his fingers while he stared at it thoughtfully. "He wants us dead, and he wants a legal excuse to kill us. What better opportunity than a jail break?"

"That mean we ain't gonna do it?" Buck demanded, prepared to argue the point.

"Not at all," Josiah returned, giving them all one of his rare, wild grins. "It just means we're going to watch our backs."

"Come on, then," Buck threw in, "Let's get those fellas warned, then come up with a plan."

He started to rise, then sat down again, looked at J.D., then looked away again. The reason for his sudden attack of indecision was obvious, especially to its cause.

"I'm as safe on my own as any of the rest of you," J.D. informed him flatly. "I don't need no more damned babysitters." This time it didn't even occur to him to apologize to Mrs. Travis for the profanity.

"Look, J.D.--"

"He's right," Josiah broke in quietly, laying a restraining hand on Buck's arm to silence him. "That's why we moved him over here. The hotel is probably the safest place in town right now--"

"--And I've got my guns."

Josiah looked at J.D., wondering if the youngster had any glimmer of understanding that all those guns would do was enable him to sell his life at a price. Perhaps he did; the boy's eyes were uncharacteristically grave as they locked with Buck's, demanding that mark of respect and independence.

"J.D. may not be mobile, but he's a fine shot when he needs to be," Josiah agreed. "He can look after himself, Buck."

The young man threw him a look in which nerves warred with his abject gratitude. The nerves gave Josiah hope that J.D. might actually be learning something from the hard lesson that had been driven home to him by a bullet. It had always been pretty obvious--to Josiah at least--that the stubborn boy who had latched onto them like a burr, following no matter how they tried to drive him off with words and ridicule, wasn't as cock-sure of himself as he let on. But J.D.'s self-doubts, like his fears, had a way of twisting around until they ended up as rash defiance. He seemed to fling himself headlong into danger at every opportunity, trying to prove himself--blinded by the naive belief that nothing really bad could touch him.

The youngster in front of him now had discovered the hard way that he wasn't invulnerable, but there was indomitable courage behind his naivete. No matter what the possible consequences, he wasn't backing down from what he believed he needed to do.

Patting Buck on the shoulder before he could continue the argument, Josiah said, "Come on, let's get this thing started."

Reluctantly, the big drifter nodded and followed him out. Nathan lingered a moment longer, facing Mary uneasily.

"Sure you won't stay a while, Mrs. Travis? I'm sure J.D. wouldn't mind the company." To J.D., he added, "You must get bored all by yourself, now that you're awake most of the time."

J.D.'s only answer was a shrug. Nathan had no way of knowing he planned to be out of bed again as soon as the healer's back was turned, futilely trying to force his body to regain its strength, but Mary could see that decision in his guilty refusal to meet Nathan's eyes. She hovered on the edge of telling him the truth, but kept to her promise, trusting that sheer stubbornness wouldn't be enough to get J.D. down the stairs and into the heart of trouble.

"I appreciate what you're trying to do, Nathan," Mary told him honestly. "But there are things I need to do, and I can't do them here. I have to talk to people. I have to try to make them understand that we can't just let things sink back to what they were before. If we do, we deserve exactly what we get."

Chapter 8

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