Chapter 8
The entirety of Four Corners' main street could be seen from any of the chairs scattered along the sections of boardwalk that fronted its buildings. Ethan Mandrell was developing a preference for a seat in front of the jail, for its symbolism as well as the fact that it put him nearly at the midpoint between the church and the two-story boarding house that marked the practical limits of town. Like all settlements in this part of the country, Four Corners included residences, barns and stabling areas strewn haphazardly across the surrounding countryside, but this drab little stretch of buildings formed the core of the community.

A middle-aged man crossed the street and came up onto the boardwalk a few steps away. <Conklin, store owner, harmless,> Mandrell identified him automatically just as the man tugged off his hat and called, "Afternoon, Marshall," with obsequious friendliness. When Mandrell returned the greeting with a cool, disinterested stare, Conklin looked away quickly and nearly ran to get himself out of sight.

Patrick let himself out of the jail house, saw his boss, and sauntered over. Ignoring a second, nearby chair, he squatted on his haunches beside Mandrell, and fished around in his shirt pockets for the inevitable supply of candy.

"One good fire would take out the whole damned place," he commented idly, popping a peppermint ball into his mouth. "Save us some work."

Staring at the curl of smoke rising from the cheroot which hung between his fingers, Mandrell smiled slightly at the suggestion. It was certainly the truth. Such disasters were common news in a land where buildings were thrown up practically overnight, built of whatever material was close at hand, and lit by kerosene lamps or tallow candles.

"You, my friend, have quite an appalling affinity for the flames. Unfortunately, if we were to torch it and that failed to achieve all of our goals, we would find ourselves squatting in a tent or back at that filthy homestead until we finish our job here. I don't know about you, but I find the boarding house to be considerably more comfortable than either possibility. Give it another week, and I may agree with you. Right now, it would be a mistake."

Patrick shrugged indifferently, then a wide smile spread across his sharp features. "Make a great show, though, wouldn't it?"

"That it would. But you'll have a chance to appreciate it on a smaller scale tonight."

"Oh, yeah?" The young man looked up, his dark eyes bright with new interest. "Who?"

"Two targets. Caleb Brewer and Mrs. Travis." In answer to Patrick's puzzled frown, he explained, "Our employer has placed a special request that we add the lady to the top of our list. Her death fits in well with my own plans, though I hadn't planned for it this early in the game. Still, no matter. This way, Larabee will have a few days to mourn her passing before he joins her."

The subject of their discussion strode out of a shop across the street just then, threw an uneasy look at them, then hurried down the boardwalk past two boarded-over buildings. When she reached the next open establishment, a shop which sold leather goods ranging from boots to saddlery, Mary went inside. She had been working her way methodically up the street for the past hour. She wasn't shopping because she still carried nothing in her hands, so Mandrell guessed she was trying to stir up support against him.

<Tenacious woman,> the gunman thought with amused admiration.

Patrick gestured towards Mary with a sharp jerk of his chin. "Damned beautiful woman. Seems a waste to just burn her."

"As you know, Patrick, there are certain transgressions I do not countenance, and what you are contemplating is one of them. I suggest you keep that very carefully in mind."

"What difference does it make if we use her before we kill her?"

"The matter is not open for discussion."

Patrick acquiesced with a shrug, but when Mary emerged from the saddlery and continued her quiet campaign down the street, his eyes followed her with vulpine interest. Mandrell raised a hand and snapped his fingers sharply in front of the youngster's nose, breaking his attention.

"So what's the plan?" Patrick demanded, sullenly accepting the reminder.

"Wait until things quiet down tonight, then pick up Mrs. Travis and take her out to Brewer's workshop. Unless the wind picks up, we can burn it without posing a serious risk to the rest of the town. What with Brewer being a bachelor, I regret that her good name may go up in smoke along with her body, but it can't be helped."

Patrick's legs were beginning to cramp, so he slid gracefully to his feet and drifted over to stand by the edge of the boardwalk. Turning back to face his employer, he asked, "How long do you think Larabee's going to sit in there on his hands?"

"He's a careful man. He won't make a move until he believes he has no other options or until something goads him into it. I had originally planned to use the death of one or two of his men as an incentive, but Larabee is decidedly attached to our Mrs. Travis. When news of her death reaches him tomorrow, things should heat up."

"So he breaks jail, and that gives you an excuse to kill him. Seems a damned waste of time to me. Just walk inside and put a bullet in his head. You can still claim he was trying to break out."

"Pragmatic, but out of the question. I don't want to execute him, I want to look him in the eye and beat him. Some men are a challenge to out think. Others are a challenge to outgun. Larabee falls into the latter category. When the jurors, Mrs. Travis and his own men are dead, we'll have our moment together."

"One of these days, that pride of yours is going to get you killed."

Mandrell acknowledged the prediction with nothing more than a soft breath of laughter. While he and Patrick talked, he had continued to watch the town go about its business. The three of Larabee's men who remained free were keeping a low profile, but he had seen Josiah Sanchez pass through the dry goods store, then make his way onward to the saloon. The other two were also on the move, seen in quick glimpses here and there.

Not long after Josiah visited him, the owner of the dry goods store hurried out of his establishment, locked his door and headed down the street. After a few steps, he glanced nervously across the street and spotted Mandrell and Patrick. For a moment, he froze solid, staring at them with the wide, fixed gaze of a rabbit caught too far from its hole, then he looked away again and literally bolted for the alleyway between Main Street and the livery stable. He didn't stop running until he was out of sight.

"Someone is more clever than I gave them credit for."

"What?" Patrick looked over his shoulder to follow the direction of his boss's gaze. The storekeeper was already beyond sight, so he frowned, finding nothing that might be considered of interest, then turned his dark gaze to the marshal.

"It has scarcely been twenty-four hours, and our friends have already figured out what's going on. One of our targets just made a rather hasty exit towards the livery stable. Who's watching that end of town?"


"Good. He'll handle it. This speeds up the timetable slightly."

"You think the others are going to bolt?"

"A couple of them will. Hopefully the others will stay to fight." His eyes were fixed on the town as a rare grin momentarily broke the austerity of his features. "It's more fun that way."

"You know something, boss? You're crazy." Having added that observation to his earlier prediction of Mandrell's fate, Patrick muttered, "I'm going to have a look around," and strode off.

+ + + + + + +

Very little had changed in Potter's General Merchandise since the day when its owner was murdered by Lucas James. Gloria Potter had always been involved in its operations, and if she felt the added weight of running it herself, she didn't let on. She was a strong, determined woman with two children to raise. She wasn't about to let anything, not even her husband's death, stand in her way.

Mrs. Potter was herding the first of the day's accumulation of dust toward the front door with her broom while she brought Netty Wells up to date on current events in town. Netty was a woman of advancing years, a widow who ran a small ranch on her own and came into town infrequently. She was busily piling tinned goods and bags of supplies on the counter while she listened to the other woman's narrative, but she paused briefly to call a greeting to Mary when the young woman entered.

"Hear tell you've been having some trouble with your new hired guns, Mary."

"Mr. Larabee and his men aren't the problem," Mary told her quietly. She had an armload of copies of her newspaper, and she extended one, then set it down on the counter when Netty made no move to take it.

"That wasn't the story I heard last time I passed through," the old woman reminded her, with a bark of laughter.

"I've had time since then to reach a more informed judgment."

"Fancy talk for admittin' you made a mistake."

"Yes," Mary agreed readily, "I did."

"Good girl. Does a body good to admit that every once in a while. Gloria tells me this is all Mr. Stuart High-'n-Mighty James's doing. Been seeing those damned ruffians of his all over town..." She hesitated briefly, then added, "Speak of the devil, and he's sure to appear."

Mary turned around in time to see one of the town's new deputy marshals stroll past. He hesitated pointedly by the open door, as though considering entering, then gave the three women an insolent grin and moved on.

"That isn't one of James's men...?" Mary's voice turned the comment into a half-question.

"Sure is, or was last year anyway. Saw him out at Deke Mitchum's place once, and I never forget a face. Don't think I heard a name. Sportin' a badge these days, is he? No wonder the town's in trouble." With that pronouncement, Netty went back to gathering together her supplies.

"Have you read my article, Gloria?" Mary inquired. She rescued the paper she had set on the counter just before a sack of coffee beans landed on top of it and handed it to the shopkeeper.

"You already know what my feelings are. Stuart James is a slimy snake who cost me my husband." Mrs. Potter expelled the last of the dust with a stroke of her broom and closed the door. "Our new 'hired guns'--" she smiled at Netty as she borrowed the appellation "--have never given me cause to regret their presence, but beyond saying that, I'm not sure what I can do to help."

The cowbell hung on a corner of her front door jangled as it was thrown open to admit an out-of-breath Harmon Conklin, who was clutching a copy of the Clarion, already waving it in Mary's direction before he closed the distance between them.

"What do you think you're doing, stirring up even more trouble? Do you want to destroy this town once and for all? Because that's what you're doing, you know!"

"What I am doing, Mr. Conklin, is trying to save it. If you read my account of what happened last--"

"I don't care what happened last night!" the man interrupted. "We don't need any more trouble!"

"We didn't start the trouble, Mr. James did."

"And he'll finish it, and finish all of us, if we don't just mind our own business! We've got to wait this thing out. It'll all blow over, and then we can get on with our lives!"

"That's all you ever were good for, Harmon Conklin," Netty interposed. "Hiding in the root cellar, waiting for someone else to save your worthless hide."

"It does nobody any good if we get ourselves killed!"

"Does nobody any good if you sit around on your behinds and let an unscrupulous bastard do whatever he damned well pleases with the town."

"Nothing illegal has happened--"

"Two men were murdered last night!" Mary shot in, furiously. "And more men will be murdered if we don't take a stand!"

"Maybe, but I don't plan to be the next victim. On your own head be whatever happens, Mrs. Travis. You and the Judge started all this." On that pronouncement of doom, Conklin turned and hurried out, stopping in the doorway to cast a furtive look around the street as though he were afraid to be caught speaking with them.

"Never could stand that man," Netty commented, when he was gone. "Damned spineless little coward."

"Unfortunately, he speaks for a good portion of the town," Mrs. Potter said, shaking her head regretfully.

"Most of the town, from what I've seen." Mary went over to the bench that was set along one wall and slumped down on it, suddenly feeling tired and defeated. "I've been fighting this battle for so long, and I never get anywhere. They want someone else to look after them. They'd rather hide than stand up for themselves."

"That's just what folks are like," Netty said. "No use worryin' yourself into a frazzle over it. Some folks will take a stand for what they believe in, but most folks just try to get by, whatever it takes 'em. Always been like that, always will be like that, and nothing you're going to do or say will change it."

"I know, but..." Mary shrugged, helplessly. "It's very discouraging sometimes." She rose to her feet and started for the door. "Please, both of you be careful until this is over."

"Always am, girl," Netty assured her wryly. "Don't get to be my age by being anything else."

Outside, Mary paused on the boardwalk. Mandrell had not moved from his seat in front of the jail house. He seemed supremely confident in his control of the town even though he had, as yet, made no open effort to strong-arm it into submission. He was counting on the apathy that surrounded him. Unfortunately, she couldn't think of any way to make a lie of his smug conviction that he had the only dangerous element in town well under control.

Turning away, she saw Josiah crossing an alley behind the row of Main Street buildings. She kept herself to a normal walking pace until she was beyond Mandrell's sight, then quickened her steps to a near run until she caught up with the tall preacher. When he heard her swift approach, he turned with his hand on his gun, then dropped it to his side as soon as he saw her.

"Something wrong, Mrs. Travis?"

"Not exactly... Well, I'm not sure, so I thought I should tell you. Netty Wells just mentioned to me that one of Mandrell's deputies works for Mr. James." She made an exasperated noise, realizing the wording didn't make sense. "Oh, I know, they all do. But one of them is a cowboy from the James ranch--or, he was at one time, anyway."

"That's interesting," Josiah admitted, considering the information. "Professional like that, he wouldn't come into town with less men than he thought he needed... You know people around here better than we do, Mrs. Travis. You seen any newcomers hanging around these past couple of weeks?"

"Several. We're a small community, but there is always a certain number of people coming and going. Drifters, travelling representatives, and so forth. Why, what are you thinking?"

"Oh, probably nothing. Just wondering if the deputies we're keeping an eye on are the ones we should be looking for."

"You think Mandrell has other men in town?"

"Could be. We know that young Indian, Patrick, was hanging around for a few days before they rode in. Checking things out. There could be others, people we aren't paying attention to."

Nathan emerged from the back door of a nearby building. He joined them in time to overhear the final part of the conversation, and Mary's promise to ask around concerning the presence of any strangers.

"Mr. Jorgensen and Mr. Dooley have both offered to help if you need them," she finished.

"Mike Dooley can't see clear beyond twenty feet," Nathan reminded her, "and I doubt either of them's ever shot a pistol or rifle in his life."

"The point is that there are some people willing to stand behind you."

"We appreciate the thought, Mrs. Travis, but we're better off on our own," Josiah said quietly. "We can't count on people we don't know in a situation like this."

"You're still planning to..." She threw an uneasy glance toward the jail.

"Best you don't know too much about it, ma'am. When dinner time comes around, it would help a lot if you'd take J.D. up a tray, and stay to visit with him for awhile."

"Which of us do you see as the guardian, and which the guarded?" she inquired, not angered by the transparent request. This wasn't her type of fight, and she knew that as well as the man in front of her.

"Kind of mutual, I would think," Josiah returned pleasantly. "Anything bad happens, J.D. will kick up quite a fuss before he goes down, even in the shape he's in right now. That's the kind of man he is. But the truth is, we're counting on it not working out that way. Doesn't make much sense that Mandrell would bother with one bedridden kid when he's still got the rest of us to worry about. And we do plan to keep him and his boys pretty busy tonight."

+ + + + + + +

"I sure wish we could wait a couple more days, until Josiah and the others get a better idea of how he's operating," Vin commented quietly. "We don't know if he sets out his men the same way every night. Don't know--"

"We'll have to take the chance," Chris interrupted, silencing the bounty hunter's uncertainty. "Mandrell strikes me as a real organized man. I'm betting he'll put his men the same place tonight as he did last night: one man in here, another out front on the boardwalk, two more hiding on the roofs. That way, he can spot anyone moving around before they get too close to the jail. Pretty much what I'd do if I was expecting trouble. Josiah made sure none of them spotted him last night, when he was checking them out, so Mandrell should post them the same way tonight."

"Maybe," Vin agreed with considerable reluctance. He was chafing badly under the inability to confirm that for himself. It wasn't that he didn't trust Josiah. He would have trusted any of the three men on the outside with his life--in fact he was doing precisely that--but none of them was a tracker by nature. What they might miss worried him. Because Vin was honest, even in the privacy of his own mind, he acknowledged that what bothered him the most was his own lack of control over the situation. He'd always had a liking for doing things for himself, not sitting back and letting someone else handle them. Maybe he wasn't really so different from Chris, after all.

The two men were conversing in low murmurs through the bars that separated their cells, under cover of the card game they were playing with Ezra's deck. The gambler had handed over the cards with only a token protest, but while he was sitting on the foot of Vin's bunk, he hadn't taken the bounty hunter up on his offer to join in their game. While they talked, he stared off into space, lost in his own uneasy thoughts.

"So--" Vin laid down his current hand and grinned through the bars, claiming the victory even though there was no money in the pot "--the boys outside take care of the guards, quiet like, then bust in here and get us out. Sounds simple enough. Why doesn't that make me feel better?"

"Perhaps because it has occurred to you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra inserted, "that there are occasions when the fine art of subtlety is a weapon of greater value than a large stick."

"I've heard tell of quite a number of jail breaks over the years," Vin returned without rancor, "and most of them weren't exactly what you'd call subtle."

"Given the advantage of surprise or superior numbers, perhaps not, but we can count on having neither. Our hosts must know that such a move is inevitable."

"You got a better idea?" From Chris, the question would have been fraught with sarcasm or ridicule, but Vin just cocked his head slightly to the side, gazing at the gambler with genuine interest.

"Not immediately," Ezra admitted with unhappy honesty.

By the terms of his deal with Mandrell, he should already have passed on a warning that something was on for tonight. It had never been his intention to do so, but the thought nagged at him, an unwelcome reminder of the choices he was making, the escape routes he could hear closing behind him. He'd agreed to Mandrell's terms to buy himself time, assuming he could use it to come up with a better alternative--or even allow the others to come up with a sensible plan of their own. Tonight's plan didn't fit any of his definitions of "sensible." Ever since Nathan had come and gone, and the escape "plan," such as it was, had been settled upon, he had been haunted by an internal voice--it sounded disconcertingly like his mother's--that informed him with coldly rational disdain that he had been handled all of this wrong, starting from the moment when he decided not to turn his back on the whole affair and head out of town.

In reality, it hadn't been a "choice." Much as he might wish to deny it, he had known at the time that he wasn't staying to assess the situation, he was staying because the unwanted accouterment that he refused to label a conscience simply wouldn't allow him to go any more than it would have allowed him to stand by and watch Nathan die in the saloon.

Since the day it had dragged him back into the jaws of both Colonel Anderson's private army and Chris Larabee's wrath, his conscience had become increasingly loud and troublesome, as though determined to get him dead--albeit with honor. In Ezra's experience, the empty boughs of honor were of little use to the living, and none at all to the deceased. And yet, while the term might hold an entirely different meaning for him than it did for his two companions--a fact for which he was exceedingly grateful--there had always been limits he couldn't force himself to overstep, even in the service of his own best interest.

He tried to ease his discomfort with that line of reflection by reminding himself of the fact that Mandrell had presumably had no more intention of honoring their deal than Ezra himself. He was making the only choice he could, for purely pragmatic reasons. The rest really didn't matter.

But as the hours ticked away, that thought brought him very little comfort.

+ + + + + + +

Mary sat primly on one end of the pink satin couch, her uneasiness visible only in the restless movements of her fingers, which played constantly with the ribbed patterns on her skirt. Across the room from her, J.D. was stretched out on top of the quilts, fully dressed, propped into a sitting position by a stack of pillows and throw cushions. He seemed almost feverishly alert, excited and frustrated at the same time, knowing something was about to happen, and he wasn't destined to be part of it. Mary hadn't asked if his latest escape from bed was with Nathan's permission or without it. It was none of her business, and she guessed that J.D. would not appreciate her interference in his life.

"Getting late," he blurted out abruptly, after a long, less-than-comfortable silence. He had been talking to her on and off since she arrived, never quite managing to start a conversation. They didn't know each other very well, and neither of them would have been comfortable making small talk even if they could have found something in common to talk about.

"Things should start happening soon," the young man offered when his previous conversational gambit produced only a slight nod from his companion.

"I expect they will," Mary agreed, feeling a certain amount of sympathy for his restive tension. She had experience with having her fate reside in other hands while she remained helpless to directly affect the outcome. She hated it, but she knew how to summon up patience when the situation demanded it of her. J.D., on the other hand, had both the impatience of his youth and a direct and assertive nature to make his present situation unbearable for him. Mary had heard the story of how he forced himself into Larabee's group. If he had been capable of it, he would no doubt be doing the same thing now, following his friends on his own if they hadn't agreed to take him along. If he'd been alone, he might have tried it anyway, so perhaps her presence here would have one good outcome.

"We should be able to hear what's going on, I guess."

"We must hope that we don't. If things go well, there won't be any shooting."

"Maybe," J.D. returned doubtfully.

Unable to think of anything better to do, he pulled one of his pistols from the gunbelt that lay on the bed beside him and fiddled with it, cocking it then lowering the hammer carefully back into place, polishing the barrel with a corner of the bed spread, then opening the loader and rotating the cylinder, checking each chamber. Mary had been around enough men who lived by their guns to recognize both skill and inexperience in the way he handled the weapon. He knew precisely what to do, but it wasn't a comfortable, second-nature thing for him, as it was to someone like Chris Larabee.

<It shouldn't have to be,> she thought. <You're too young to live this way. Too young to understand the life you think you want. By the time you understand it, it will have destroyed you, one way or another.>

The bitter thought made her realize she genuinely cared about the young man's fate. Until a few days ago, when she found herself kneeling beside him in the street, trying to stop him from bleeding to death, she had thought of J.D. as simply the friendly, puppy-ish figurehead her father-in-law had hired to fill the post of sheriff. It was Chris who really filled that job. If she needed to discuss something that was happening in town, she talked to him. Of the others, Nathan was becoming a friend, Buck Wilmington was simply too pushy to be ignored, and when Chris wasn't in evidence, she felt reasonably comfortable about going to Josiah Sanchez with her questions and concerns. The remaining three men of the group were almost ciphers to her, elements of the unwanted intrusion that had turned into a necessary evil. Now, she found herself seeing each of them in human terms, worrying about them, wondering which of them would be alive in the morning. She wasn't quite sure when that transition of thought had come about.

"I don't suppose you drink tea?" she asked on a whim, when J.D. finally returned the weapon to its holster and began looking around aimlessly for further distraction.

"Um, no, ma'am."

"That's too bad. I've always found it gives me something to do when I'm worried."

A delightful, little-boy grin crossed J.D.'s pale features. "I think Mama must've thought the same thing. Whenever she was upset about something, out came the teapot. She had this funny old brown..." He trailed off in mid-reminisce and flushed bright red all the way to his hair, embarrassed to catch himself prattling aimlessly to a near-stranger.

"Your mother is dead?" Mary inquired kindly.

"Yes, ma'am. Last year."

He went back to playing with the holstered guns, a new discomfort in his posture signalling that he didn't want to talk about that topic at all. Acquiescing to the wish, Mary wandered over to the window. The hotel room was still over-warm and stuffy from the day's heat, so she opened the window a crack to let in some fresh, evening air.

"Let me know if it gets too cold for you," she told J.D. over her shoulder, then leaned close to the glass to gaze out at the street below them. Lights burned from the doors and windows of the saloon, but there was little movement inside, and in the time she watched, no one left or entered it. It was getting late, leaving her to wish she had demanded more solid information from Josiah on what was going to happen.

A knock on the door startled her into a hasty step backwards. She turned just as J.D. cocked one of his guns. Accepting that he didn't have the strength to handle the other one left-handed, he left it in its holster and concentrated on keeping one arm up, his elbow braced on pillows while he aimed it at the door.

"Who is it?" Mary queried nervously.

"It's Dan Redpath, Mrs. Travis," a voice answered nervously. "I'm, um, I'm sorry to bother you but, um, there's been a complaint, um, that is, well, it's late and it's against the rules... and Mrs. Turnbull didn't leave me no special instructions or nothing."

J.D. and Mary worked their way through that tangled statement at roughly the same speed. J.D.'s pale complexion flushed red, and Mary felt an unwanted heat in her own cheeks, even though the insinuation was ludicrously ridiculous. Redpath was a meek little mouse of a man who had known her for years. While he wasn't aware of the circumstances that kept her here, he most certainly did know that J.D. was wounded and bedridden--not to mention being halfway young enough to be her son. The implication that there was even a whisper of impropriety about the situation caused her embarrassment to change to anger. She marched over to the door and dragged it open.

"Dan, you know very--"

The sentence ended in a shriek of dismay as she realized the man standing in the doorway wasn't Redpath, for all that he had managed a passable imitation of the little clerk's voice. Before she could retreat, he snatched her by the wrist, whirled her around and dragged her back against his chest. She barely had time to recognize Patrick before a foul-smelling cloth was being pressed to her mouth and nose, and her whole attention shrank to the need to fight for air.

"Mrs. Travis!"

Running on instinct, J.D. managed to roll onto his stomach and slide off the edge of his bed into the meager cover it provided. He landed on his knees with a thump and lost a moment while he blinked away tears at the pain that sudden, violent maneuver cost him. Mary was half-in, half-out of the room, blocking any kind of clear shot at the man holding her. If he had been healthy, J.D. might have risked it anyway, but a wave of dizziness had left him barely able to see, far less hit what he was aiming at. He couldn't think what to do, and he knew with absolute certainty that he was about to die, but that didn't seem half as important as the fact that he was about to fail at even the small task that Josiah had entrusted to him.

"Drop the gun."

It took J.D. a couple of heartbeats to realize the demand was aimed at him and twice that long to struggle with the dilemma of whether to obey it. A second or two ago, Mary had been struggling in Patrick's hold, but she had gone terrifyingly limp, her head sagging, her whole weight supported by the arms around her waist. There was a second man in the doorway, and his pistol was pointed casually at the side of her head.

"Drop yer gun," the Indian snapped, in his odd, unexpected accent, "if you want the pretty lady ta stay among the livin'."

Reluctantly, J.D. uncocked the pistol and started to drop it onto the bed.

"Be makin' damn sure it hits the floor now," Patrick demanded, stymieing that idea.

J.D. obeyed, tossing the Colt so that it landed on the rug beyond the bed. He winced at the thud it made, thinking miserably of the cost of replacing the ivory grip if it cracked, even though he probably wouldn't live long enough for that to be a problem.

"Raise yer hands and stand up."

His hesitation had nothing to do with disobedience, and everything to do with the fact that he wasn't sure he was capable of doing that. He struggled with the problem, levered his weight up by leaning heavily on the bed, and managed somehow to get himself onto his feet. Swaying unsteadily, he glowered at the door, his right hand raised to shoulder level, his left pressed tightly against the bandages that covered his wound. They could shoot him if they wanted to for that defiance. He couldn't do more.

The Indian had passed Mary's limp form to his companion and pulled out his own gun. Keeping it casually pointed towards J.D., he walked into the room and came around the bed. He paused when he was just beyond reach of a sudden grab--not that J.D. was capable of making one.

Patrick must have realized the same thing. Commenting, "You don't look at all well, do you now, boyo?" he came closer. His free hand darted out, feigning a punch at J.D.'s shoulder, which failed to land but caused him to flinch backwards. Losing his balance, he staggered back a couple of steps and stayed on his feet only because he ran into the bedside commode and managed to get a hand on it to steady himself.

"Let Mrs. Travis go," J.D. demanded, cursing the unsteady breathlessness of his voice. "You've got me."

"Ah, now there you are mistaken, boyo. 'Tis her we were after, y'see. You're nothin' but a damned inconvenience."

"So you're just going to shoot me down like a coward." Keeping his eyes on his opponent, J.D. thought about the remaining pistol. It lay in his holster, only a couple of feet away and completely beyond his reach, but he knew he was going to go for it anyway because he didn't plan to die without doing something.

"Last thing on me mind, balaich. Can't be leavin' evidence, can we now?"

J.D. wasn't really listening, he was trying to calculate how long it would take him to drop onto the bed--more like fall onto the bed since he was growing dizzier by the moment--find the holster, and get his hand on the butt of his Colt. He was trying not to think about taking another bullet. If he let his mind dwell on that horrific possibility, he knew he would panic.

He was concentrating so hard on the problem that he didn't even see the second, real blow coming. Patrick's left hand shot out in a low-aimed punch that caught him at waist level. It just missed the hand J.D. had pressed to his side, but his world exploded into scarlet torment, so sharp and fierce that he couldn't even drag in his breath to scream. In that one instant, he remembered everything his mind had blocked out about what it felt like to land on the wrong end of a .45 slug. His knees gave way, but Patrick caught him by a fistful of his shirt front, and steered him so he landed on the bed, not the floor. As he sprawled helplessly back against the pillows, the other man's weight came down on top of him to pin him in place.

Grabbing the laudanum bottle from the top of the commode, Patrick upended it, pouring its contents into J.D.'s mouth. As he finally managed to drag in a ragged breath, J.D. gagged on a mouthful of the familiar, syrupy-sweet liquid. He coughed violently, and some of the drug spewed forth to stain Patrick's shirt. The rest ran down his throat, and he was forced to swallow a second, larger mouthful before it could choke him.

His mind wrestled with the puzzle of why his opponent was feeding him painkiller, but J.D. was too close to unconsciousness to come up with an answer. Patrick was half-sitting on him, one hand holding his jaw, the other tipping the bottle so the liquid ran into his mouth faster than he could spit it out. Gasping, he swallowed again and again and felt the drug land like acid in his roiling stomach.

The torment ended as abruptly as it had begun. When Patrick's weight withdrew, J.D. rolled onto his side. He knew he was passing up an opportunity to go for his gun, but he couldn't force his body to do anything other than curl into a useless, defensive ball around his pain.

Very distantly, he heard Patrick murmur, "That should make you feel much better, m'friend... For a little while, anyhow." The amusement in Patrick's voice stirred up a new, instinctive fear, but J.D. couldn't bring it into focus. He was still struggling with the question when he heard the door close.

During the struggle, he had bitten the inside of his mouth. Mixed with the thick, cloying sweetness of the laudanum, the taste of his own blood formed a combination that made his aching stomach churn and rebel. J.D. barely managed to roll the few inches to the side of the bed before he began retching violently onto the floor. The muscle spasms hurt nearly as bad as Patrick's punch. Feeling as though his body was trying to tear itself apart, he lay with his head hanging over the edge of the mattress, his vision blocked by sweaty tendrils of black hair. He could hear a far-off, pathetic sobbing, but it seemed entirely unconnected to himself or his misery.

Eventually, he caught his breath and convinced himself he wasn't going to be sick again. Lurching over onto his back with a grunt of discomfort, he sprawled full-length on the bed. The desperate, futile need to help Mrs. Travis clawed at him, but his body still wouldn't move. The burst of activity had stripped away all his self-delusions that he was almost back on his feet.

Silently, J.D. cursed himself for lying there, totally useless, when he ought to be doing something. If Chris or Buck or Vin had gotten themselves into this mess, they'd be able to figure a way out of it--not that any of them would get themselves into it in the first place, because none of them was stupid enough to get himself shot when he wasn't even fighting for something.

The pain in his middle faded slowly until there was nothing left but a pulsing throb. The worry and guilt that were nettling him seemed to fade with it, until he was tempted to just let himself sink into the sleep his body craved. He could barely keep his eyes open, and he felt oddly lightheaded, as though he were floating somewhere on top of a cloud rather than lying on a mattress.

He bobbed along lazily on a current of disintegrating thoughts. With the pain gone, he thought he might be able to stand, but he couldn't quite remember what it was that he was supposed to do.

Blackness took him for a little bit, but he was used to the world fading away and coming back again. It was hard to remember a time when life hadn't been like that, when his body hadn't been full of knife-blades and misery. Even when he was asleep--even when Nathan gave him medicine--the hurt never quite went away, it just kind of faded into the distance. Right now, it was so far off in the distance that he felt really, really content just to lie there and enjoy the respite.

Why was that wrong?

Something was wrong, but he really couldn't figure out what it was...

And he felt so damned good that he just couldn't bring himself to care...

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington was a direct sort of man, who liked to walk right up to trouble and stare it in the eye. If said trouble didn't back down, he'd blast a hole through it and go on about his business, problem solved. He had been all for the idea of just taking out the guard who sat out in front of the jail house, booting his way in through the front door, and trusting that Chris, Vin and Ezra had the smarts to get themselves out of the line of fire for however long it took to put a bullet or six through the murderin' son-of-a-bitch fake deputy, or deputies, who were waiting inside.

It was a good plan, and it annoyed the hell out of him that Josiah couldn't see that. He wasn't sure who had appointed Josiah leader in Chris's absence, anyway. The fact that most of the instructions were Chris's didn't matter, because from the inside of a jail, he couldn't exactly see what was going on.

At the moment, what was going on was dead nothing. One of Mandrell's men was supposed to have relieved the deputy sitting outside the jail half an hour ago, or at least that was what had happened last night. Buck was getting damned sick of hiding in an alley, waiting to take care of the bastard when he obviously wasn't going to show.

"So they ain't following no damned pattern after all," he muttered as he slid a few feet closer to the street, keeping in the shadows, looking to see if anything was happening. He couldn't see Josiah or Nathan, but he knew they were out there somewhere, trying to peg down the locations of any others of Mandrell's men who might be important.

The sounds of a closing door and voices talking reached him from the back of the hotel, in whose shadow he was hiding. It was after midnight, and most of the townsfolk were already in bed. There was something about the tone of those furtive, low-pitched voices that caught his attention and made the hairs on the back of his neck sit up and take notice. For a couple of minutes, Buck stayed where he was, trying to ignore what his instincts were telling him. The warning wouldn't shut up, though, so with a silent apology to Josiah--whose nice, organized plan wasn't going anywhere, anyhow--he turned and pussyfooted his way back down along the alley until he reached the rear of the building.

The hotel had an old-style kitchen, set out in a little building all its own to protect the main structure from fires. A motley collection of other outbuildings, from storage sheds to a tiny smoke house, were scattered around behind the hotel itself and the adjoining buildings. Beyond them lay several hundred yards of open range, then, sheltered by a copse of trees, another huddle of buildings marked the shop of Caleb Brewer. Brewer was a cooper and general woodworker, and he liked a little more elbow room than could be found in the main part of town.

Buck reached the rear corner of the hotel in time to see two men emerge from the shadows of the kitchen. One of them was Patrick Dull Knife, easily identifiable by his ebony hair. The second man was no one Buck had seen before, a burly mountain of a man who seemed completely untroubled by the weight of the woman he was carrying slung over one broad shoulder.

"Hell!" Buck muttered under his breath as he recognized Mary by her dress and her crown of snow-blonde hair. She was dead or unconscious, because she hung there like a sack of grain, her arms dangling limply down her captor's back, strands of hair straggling loose from its neat confinement.

Cursing again, he glanced up at the building that loomed over him. He could see the lights burning in J.D.'s corner room. There hadn't been gunplay up there, because Buck would have heard it, but beyond that anything could have happened. The kid might be dead, or he might just be madder than a wet hen because he'd failed to prevent Mary from being taken away. Buck tried to convince himself of the latter, because it would just be too goddamned unfair for J.D. to have fought so hard and survived a bullet, just so he could die for nothing. Life, unfortunately, never gave a damn about fairness or justice. Never had, and it probably never would.

<Let's just see about getting you a little revenge, J.D. And I hope 'n pray it's revenge for yer pride, son, 'n not yer life...>

Moving with amazing silence for such a large man, Buck flitted up behind Patrick and his companion, stepped out of concealment, and cocked his pistol as he levelled it on Patrick's back.

"All right, howabout you hombres just freeze right where yer standin'."

The two men whirled to face him, surprise and dismay written on their faces. The clearer view confirmed something Buck had already figured out: The second man wasn't one of Mandrell's deputies.

<Josiah'll be happy to hear he's right. There are more of them than we think,> Buck decided grimly. He gestured towards the ground with the barrel of one gun. "Drop your hardware, boys. Throw 'em over this way where I can see 'em."

The young Indian obeyed first, tossing away his weapon casually. The dismay on his face had given way to wariness and that, in turn, became a guarded look that Buck couldn't read, but that his instincts didn't like one bit.

Reality bore out that gut-level feeling a second or two later, with the sound of a gun being cocked somewhere close behind his left ear. Buck froze, cursing silently. Either the man behind him was damned good or he was just plain getting old. He concluded it had to be the former.

Grinning from ear to ear, Patrick stooped to retrieve his weapon, then came forward and grabbed the two pistols that Buck had lowered to his sides without prompting.

"This is just too easy," the Indian declared. "I thought you boys were supposed to be good. You're the second one I've finished off tonight, and I ain't even had to fire a shot."

That confirmation of his earlier fear made Buck see red. He'd been running on a leash for way too long, first with Chris holding him back, later Josiah. He wasn't about to stand there like a prize calf while a couple of low-down killers figured out how to finish him off like they'd "finished" J.D. If he was going to die, goddammit, he was going to die fighting.

With a growl, he flung himself forward. Buck was a big man, and the impact of his full weight carried the much smaller Patrick to the ground. The Indian's gun ground into his stomach, but Buck was so mad that he was oblivious to its danger.

To his own great surprise, nobody shot him. The man who had been behind him ran forward and grabbed the back of his bandana, twisting and pulling until it tightened painfully around Buck's throat. He continued to pull on it, almost as though he were trying to use it to lift Buck off his opponent. It didn't do that, of course, but it did hurt like hell and cut off his air.

Reaching behind him, Buck wrapped his fingers around a fistful of shirt sleeve and arm, hung onto it, and flung himself sideways. He outweighed his opponent enough to knock him off balance. The man crashed to the ground, his breath making an audible whoof as it was knocked out of his lungs by the impact and Buck's weight landing on him.

Using the few seconds that bought him, Buck scrambled to retrieve one of his pistols, which had fallen to the ground when he knocked Patrick down. Before he could get to it, the young Indian was on him again. Buck saw a punch coming and dodged aside. The move saved him from a broken jaw, but Patrick's fist still connected with force that sent lightning bolts of pain through his cheek. Still seeing stars, he made another dive for the pistol, figuring he had second or two before the second man recovered enough to come at him again. The third one, the one carrying Mrs. Travis, was hanging back, a gun in his hand which he didn't seem willing to use.

Buck knew he'd miscalculated when a body came down on his back like a lead weight, and the hard, steel length of a pistol broadsided his skull. He felt the skin break, and the warm wetness of blood in his hair. He didn't pass out, but his vision wavered and for a moment he couldn't hear anything but the rushing of blood in his ears.

Belatedly, it occurred to Buck that they were all trying to be quiet, which meant it would be smart to make a lot of racket. Thrashing wildly in an attempt to throw off the man holding him down, Buck inhaled to tell the low-down son-of-a-bitch who had just tried to smash in his brains exactly what he thought of him--at the top of his lungs. Instead, he found himself breathing in something that was acid sharp and nasty as hell. He experienced a few seconds of confusion while he tried to figure out where the cloth over his face had come from, then his vision blurred from gray to black. Seconds after that, there was nothing.

As soon as he stopped struggling, Patrick stuffed the chloroform-impregnated handkerchief back in his pocket and climbed to his feet. He aimed a kick at Buck's side, and gave an almost-silent gurgle of laughter when there was no reaction.

"This night just keeps getting better," he commented to his two companions, Redden and Guthrie. "Bring him along."

"Shouldn't we check with the boss?" Redden inquired. "He might have other plans for him."

"Even if he does, they're shot to hell now. We can't be turnin' him loose, can we now? Bring him along," Patrick repeated. Tapping Guthrie, he took Mary's limp body from the bigger man, staggering slightly as he settled her awkwardly into place on his own shoulder. As he stepped back out of the way, he turned his attention to Redden and demanded, "You take care of Brewer?"

"Yeah, all done. I came back to see what was keeping you two." Grinning maliciously, he added, "Good thing I did, too."

"I could've handled it."

"Oh, sure. Way it looked from my side, he had the drop on the pair of you." Grunting with exertion, Redden helped Guthrie manhandle Buck up off the ground.

"Come on, let's get this the hell over with."

The night was clear, the sky lit by strong moonlight. They crossed the open stretch of ground to Brewer's place as quickly as possible, though there was little chance that anyone from town would spot their movements. Once the trees and buildings of the cooper's yard sheltered them from view, Patrick slowed to a halt.

"Where'd you put Brewer?"

Redden nodded towards the large, two-story building in front of them. "He has living quarters over the front of the shop. There's a store room up there, too, in the back. Lots of flammables. We going to take these two up there?"

"Nah, why bother traipsing them up the stairs? Anywhere inside will do."

Redden led them into the interior of the cooper's workshop. Like the surrounding yard, it was cluttered with stacked wood, barrels pungent with the smells of paint and wood stains, and half-finished projects. Looking around for inspiration, Patrick spotted a farm wagon, went over to it, and dumped Mary unceremoniously on top of the pile of empty gunny sacks in its cargo area. He climbed up into the wagon bed beside her, and dragged her forward until he was able to secure her hands with a length of rope to the metal frame that held the driver's seat in place. When he was finished, he ran one hand lingeringly along her body from hip to breasts, feeling the sleek line of her figure beneath the layers of skirt, corset and petticoats.

"'Tis a crime that his High'n Mightiness is so goddamned particular about what we do before we kill her. A woman like this was born for better uses."

"A half-dollar'll buy you a woman any time you want one," Redden reminded him sharply. "Go against the boss's orders, and you're dead--ain't no woman worth that. Let's just get this over with."

Guthrie stepped forward and dumped Buck's limp frame into the wagon bed. Patrick grabbed his arms and hauled him up beside Mary. In spite of the length of Buck's arms, they wouldn't reach far enough for Patrick to secure them to the metal, so he snorted with dark amusement and heaved the big man over so that he was lying half on top of Mary. Wrapping Buck's arms around Mary's, he secured them with a second length of rope, then sat back on his heels, grinning as he studied his handiwork.

"Kill them and be done with it. We don't want anyone to find them tied up like that," Redden complained.

"Nobody's going to find the ropes, not when all of that--" he waved his hand toward the ceiling, and the second floor above "--comes down on top of them. Be lucky to find enough to bury. This way, if the chloroform wears off before the fire gets to them, they'll be able to enjoy a last few moments of togetherness."

"You're a sick bastard, Patrick."

"Can't blame a man fer havin' a little fun." He jumped back down off the wagon and waved a hand towards the stairs. "C'mon, let's get the rest of it set up and get the hell out of here."

Chapter 9

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