<...tell me the truth, Buck... Am I dying...?>
The thought--nightmare, daydream, whatever it was--didn't make any sense. He had been shot and nearly died, but he was recovering. He was going to live-- --So why was he back in this cold, dark whirlpool, floating out of control, no long able to see or feel his body or think?
<...Something... happened... ?...>
Struggling against the laudanum overdose spreading through his system, J.D. tried to make sense of the thought. The pain that had been the core of his world for more than a week had vanished completely. Trouble was, his whole body seemed to have gone with it, drifted off somewhere so that he was no longer connected with it. He felt so... weird... that he couldn't just relax and enjoy the unfamiliar comfort.
His fingers twitched in an involuntary spasm, and he heard the incongruously loud noise his nails made scraping across the surface of the bedspread. The noise made him giggle and trying to stifle the giggle--which made him sound about six years old--made him giggle even harder. He raised a hand to his mouth to stifle the ridiculous racket he was making, but his coordination was shot and all he managed to do was hit himself in the nose.
That caused the giggling to escalate into hysterical laughter, which went on and on until he was alternately chortling and whooping for breath. When he finally recovered, he couldn't even remember what it was that was so damned funny.
Just like he couldn't remember why he felt so weird-- --Or how long he'd been lying there-- --Or why he was sleeping on top of the covers with all of his clothes on.
Time was drifting past, minutes or hours, and somehow that mattered, but he couldn't force his drug-overloaded mind to tell him why.
The room was getting cold. Out here in the West, it always got cold at night, even when the days were so hot that he wondered why his blood didn't sizzle away inside his skin. It was kind of like having summer and winter coming and going each day, instead of having them in seasons, the way they were back home in New York. If he had any brains, he would crawl under the covers before he froze, but that meant finding his body and figuring out how to move it. All that was far too much effort, so he just laid there and started to shiver. He really should have asked Mrs. Travis to close the window before she left.
A stab of fear penetrated his drugged confusion as he remembered the blonde woman as he had last seen her: hanging limply in a gunslinger's arms.
<Oh, God... What...?>
Dizzily, J.D. floundered onto his side, caught the bed post, and hung onto it in a death grip while he struggled to his feet. Standing was both easier and harder than it should have been--easier, because his side still didn't hurt, and harder because he seemed to be floating somewhere in midair, or maybe sinking into the carpet up to his knees with each step he took.
He leaned over the bed to grab his gunbelt and narrowly avoided going flat on his face again. It took him a dozen uncoordinated attempts to get the leather buckled around his waist. With one holster empty, it was an unbalanced, awkward weight. He thought about retrieving the second gun, but a glimmer of common sense made him leave it where it lay. If he tried to bend over that far, he'd fall, and probably never make it back to his feet.
He reached the door, fumbled it open, and staggered through. The hallway was nearly pitch black, the only light coming from one wall-mounted lamp set beside the stairway and the dim glow of the moonlit sky filtering in through a window at the end of the hall.
J.D. didn't so much walk to the stairs as slide, keeping the wall against one shoulder to support and guide him through darkness that was as much in his mind as in front of his eyes. A year seemed to pass before the stairwell dropped away in front of him like a cliff. For a moment, he just stood at the top of it, weaving back and forth while he tried to decide if he had it in him to descend.
He didn't have a choice. He was the only one who knew Mary was in trouble, therefore she was depending on him to help her. He made it down the first half-flight by clinging to the bannister, and the second by sitting on his tail and sliding, the way he used to like to do when he was a little kid. Once he reached the ground floor, he regained his feet then had to stop to rest. With his back pressed to the wall to keep himself upright, he dragged in deep gulps of air while he tried to work out what to do next.
The building around him was silent, the front desk abandoned for the night.
<There must be people around somewhere... Where?... Think dammit!>
His ability to think seemed to flicker in and out like sunlight through dark clouds, letting him down when he needed it most. Finally, a sliver of conversation popped into his head from when Josiah and the others had discussed their plans. Buck should be just outside, waiting to waylay one of Mandrell's deputies-- --Or maybe he had been there earlier in the night. J.D. had no idea what time it was, so he had no way of knowing if the jailbreak had already taken place. He couldn't think of anything else to do, though, so he would just have to hope Buck hadn't left yet.
Instinctive caution sent him staggering towards the back door of the hotel instead of the front, moving drunkenly from one source of support to the next. He couldn't exactly feel his feet, but he put one of them in front of the other without thinking about it, his mind fixating on the immediate goal of getting out of the building. After that, he had to find Buck. After that... His mind couldn't work that far ahead, so he didn't worry about it, just kept going until the door was in front of him, and he could let himself out onto the back steps.
The night air was chill, and after so long within the protection of warm quilts, it stabbed him to the bone. He was sweating from exertion, and the beads of moisture seemed to freeze to his body beneath the inadequate protection of his clothes. He looked around at the darkness, fumbling through his mind for where to go next. Buck was somewhere nearby, but he couldn't quite remember where. Maybe he was close enough to hear if J.D. just called out.
While he was groggily considering that idea, a glint of metal on the ground caught J.D.'s eyes and resolved itself into the shape of a Colt SAA six-gun. The sight stirred an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach, and without thinking about it, he made his way shakily down the steps. With nothing to support him, he reeled like a drunk on a week-long bender, but somehow he managed to keep on his feet until he reached the gun. It was a standard, well-worn weapon with a walnut grip, nothing fancy about it at all--but he'd seen it enough times to recognize it. The identification was confirmed an instant later when he spotted Buck's familiar, wide-brimmed hat lying in the shadow of a nearby shed.
J.D. froze in sheer panic, feeling the lifeline he had been counting on stripped away. He was afraid to think about what the abandoned weapon could mean.
Even more than the cold, fresh air, the surge of terror shocked him out of his stupor, so his mind was somewhat clear when he heard the sound of faint, furtive voices coming from the darkness ahead of him.
"The show should be starting up soon." The lilting Irish cadence sent a shiver of memory and fear down J.D.'s spine.
"I still say you're a sick bastard, Patrick," a bass voice rumbled in answer, the tone filled with mirth that belied the words.
Three men were approaching through the hodgepodge of buildings behind the hotel. By the time they came into sight, J.D. had buried himself in the shadows thrown by a pile of storage crates. He watched helplessly while Patrick stooped to retrieve Buck's hat and gun, then they walked on, entering the alleyway that would take them out onto Main Street.
When they were out of sight, J.D. sagged down onto one of the crates. He wasn't exactly tired, but standing up had a strange way of robbing him of breath, so he took a minute to recover while he tried to think. Whatever had happened to Buck, he wondered if it had to be tied into what had happened to Mrs. Travis.
<Where were they coming from?>
He thought about the layout of the town, and remembered the cooper's yard. Caleb Brewer had been one of Lucas's jurors, one of the people on the list of those who were targets.
<What does that have to do with Buck and Mrs. Travis?>
He couldn't puzzle that one out at all, so he didn't worry about it. Pushing himself back to his feet, he started off in the direction from which Patrick and his companion had come.
The cooper's buildings were only a few hundred yards away, but it seemed like the longest walk he had made in his life. He hoped nobody was watching him. He was zigzagging at random, his course thrown off by any uneven patch of ground he stumbled over.
The workshop was dark, but there was a bit of light visible through the windows of its upper story. J.D. had been out to Brewer's place a couple of times, so he knew that half of the second floor was a supply room, the remainder a small set of rooms where Brewer made his home. At first he thought the glow was just the normal flickering of hurricane lamps, but as he closed the distance, he realized the light was growing brighter. The hearths and stoves of the town made the scent of smoke a constant presence in the air, but when a little breeze blew past him from the direction of the cooper's yard, it brought with it a sharper, different sort of smoke, one tinged with burning chemicals.
This time J.D. didn't have to think about the implications, he just knew what was happening, as surely as he knew he would never make it back to Main Street in time to summon help. He was thinking more clearly now, but his body was weakening as fast as his mind was coming back to life. His breath came harder with every step he took, as though rawhide bands were being tightened around his chest. Ignoring the discomfort, he concentrated on picking his way across the uneven ground as fast as he could while still retaining some semblance of balance.
By the time he staggered into the cooper's yard, a long, thin pillar of flame was climbing the curtains that covered one of the upstairs windows, and the stink of smoke was too thick to be mistaken.
"Buck!" The word came out winded and far too softly to do any good. Dragging a long, raw breath past the tightened muscles of his chest, J.D. tried again, yelling, "Mrs. Travis!" into the darkness.
An explosion of sound and flame erupted through one of the second-floor windows as the glass shattered, releasing a dark column of smoke into the night sky. In a moment, the other curtains were ablaze, and tiny, harmless-looking fingers of fire were seeping through the roof shingles in a half-dozen places.
"Buck!" Sheer desperation lengthened his steps into an unsteady run, though he was terrified by the thought of what he would find--or wouldn't find--when he reached the building. Anyone who had been in the second floor was already dead. The only hope he had was that Mandrell's men hadn't bothered to carry Buck and Mary up the narrow, rickety flight of stairs to Brewer's living quarters.
Still calling Buck's name whenever he could catch enough breath, J.D. reached the massive double doors at the front of the cooper's shop. He stopped by running into them, the impact sending an odd, uncomfortable shock through his body that wasn't really recognizable as pain. He scrabbled frantically with the latch and heaved one of the doors open, letting it swing away from him as it was caught by the wind.
The drug still raged through his system. His head was ringing. He shook it in an attempt to clear it, and almost tumbled to the ground as he lost his balance. By now, he could hear the fire burning above his head, and the air around him was hot rather than cold. No flames were visible, but the reflected glow of the fire shone in through the windows circling the shop, bathing the interior in an eerie, orange-gold glow.
Once the fire did reach here, the whole building would go up in minutes. There was dried, cured wood everywhere in the form of half-finished barrels, water troughs, wagon axles--all the rough-hewn objects of Brewer's trade. Storage barrels filled with grease or varnish waited to add fuel to the flames.
A shiver walked up J.D.'s spine at the thought of the ceiling collapsing, dropping tons of burning wood onto his head, but he barely hesitated before flinging himself into the interior of the building. If there was even the slightest chance of finding them alive, he had to take it.
"Buck! Mrs. Travis?" Shouting made him cough on the foul, fast-heating air that filled the building, so he saved his breath and lurched deeper into the interior.
The main floor area of the workshop was deserted, and it would have taken him far more time than he had left to search every cluttered corner. Sick with worry and loss, J.D. headed deeper into the building. There was more than enough light to see by, and the heat was building until he felt rivulets of sweat itching down his back beneath his clothes, the sensation so unexpectedly normal amidst the general confusion of his senses that it was almost unreal.
A farm wagon sat at the back of the shop, one of its corners propped up on blocks of wood because the wheel was missing. In spite of its size, J.D. didn't notice the conveyance until he ran into it. His breath expelled in a whoof of surprise, and he doubled forward, his hands coming down hard on the heap of cloth that was mounded in its cargo area.
The interior of the wagon was in heavy shadow, so it took him a moment to realize the pile of sacks was moving. He barely had time to tell himself it had to be a trick of the dancing firelight before something tried to kick him in the face. He came very, very close to landing on his rump on the hard-packed earthen floor as he automatically flinched backwards in surprise. By the time he'd regained his balance, the dimly lit contents of the wagon had resolved itself into a pile of sacks and clothing and people.
"Oh, my," J.D. muttered inadequately.
A loud thump from somewhere overhead jarred him out of his momentary distraction and sent him clambering awkwardly up onto the tailgate of the wagon. Mrs. Travis tried to kick him again, but he didn't hold it against her because she obviously couldn't see him. She probably couldn't see much of anything except for Buck, who was sprawled face down on top of her with his head lying on her breast and his weight holding her in place like a gangly, limp anchor.
Barely managing to fend off a flailing foot, J.D. called, "Mrs. Travis, it's me! J.D.!" with as much volume as he could force out of his aching chest.
The sound reached Mary through the roar of the fire above them, and she instantly became still. This close, J.D. could finally hear the sounds she was making, her breath sucking in and out in sobs that held a mix of fear, desperation and sheer frustration. Her hands had been tied above her head, the rope looped around the wagon seat, and a white handkerchief bound her mouth to keep her from yelling for help. Her crystalline eyes were wide, staring up at him in disbelief as he leaned over her.
Buck was tied up, too, in such a way that even if he'd been awake, he couldn't have escaped the tableau Patrick had placed the two of them in. And "awake" was one thing he definitely wasn't. He didn't even stir when J.D. shook him. His mouth hung open, but he wasn't snoring. He was so limp that it wasn't until J.D. pressed his fingers to his throat and felt the reassuring thump-thump of a pulse that he managed to convince himself Buck wasn't dead.
A hiss like venting steam broke through the general noise of the fire, then a section of ceiling collapsed over by the far wall, and burning wood rained down into the workshop. Mary could see it from where she lay. She gave a small, startled shriek and redoubled her determined, useless efforts to wrench herself free. The ropes had already cut into her wrists so deeply that they were slick with blood, but she had been expertly tied, and short of breaking her hands, she couldn't escape.
J.D. froze, staring in horror as the flames caught and started to spread, but Mary's frantic movement shook him free of his paralysis. Shoving Buck's coat aside, he found the hunting knife the big man carried at his belt, and started hacking at the ropes. The knife was sharp, so it took only a few slices before Buck's arms dropped limply to the floor of the wagon, encircling Mary's head in a parody of a caress. An instant later, the woman's hands were free, too, and she was fighting to free herself from the drifter's weight.
To this point, J.D. had been so driven by fear and necessity that he had thought about nothing beyond the need to keep moving. But the stress that was burning away the fog from his mind had also been eating away at the layers of opium-laced numbness that made it possible for him to ignore his body's limitations. When he tried to help Mary lift Buck's weight, he cried out sharply with reawakening pain and sagged back against the side of the wagon, clutching his side.
Hampered by the awkward position, and the pins and needles of returning circulation, Mary continued to fight with the dead weight that was trapping and threatening to suffocate her. Years of operating a printing press had left her far stronger than she looked. After a brief struggle, she managed to heave Buck over onto his back and sat up.
She had awakened several minutes earlier, dizzy, slightly nauseous, and with no idea of where she was. It hadn't taken her long to work through her automatic anger and panic at finding Buck on top of her to the realization that he wasn't there by choice. Now, she recognized her surroundings automatically, but wasted no time questioning them, or even J.D.'s timely arrival. There was no time for either if they were going to survive.
The fact that J.D. was here at all astonished her and gave her a new appreciation for the amount of willpower packed into his slight, unpretentious form. Even in the dim, ruddy light, he was pale as a corpse, his cheeks streaked with sweat, his black hair lank with it, but as he carefully sat up, Mary could see more determination than fear in his brightly hued eyes.
"What do we do?" Any other time, pride would have kept him from asking her that question, but he was beyond that right now. He couldn't even lift a small part of Buck's weight. Now that the laudanum was wearing off, and he'd made the mistake of stopping moving, he wasn't sure he could even walk himself.
<I don't know!> Mary didn't say that out loud. The fire was spreading even as she watched, making each second of lost confusion seem like an hour. In five minutes, maybe less, there would be no way out. "We've got to wake him up!"
Shouting above the background roar, she called, "Mr. Wilmington!" then broke off into a fit of hacking coughs as she inhaled to shout again and dragged smoke into her lungs.
"Buck!" J.D. added his strained, breathless voice to hers. Pressing his hand to his side, he levered himself up onto his knees, leaned over Buck and slapped him across the face. <Come on, dammit, Buck, you gotta wake up. I know I promised to drag your sorry ass back to yer bunk one of these nights, but I can't do it right now, so you're gonna have to drag it out of here yourself. Please!>
The sight of Buck's lolling, peaceful face awoke an insane, completely hysterical need to giggle, but J.D. managed to stifle it. He was starting to feel all floaty again, reality coming and going in waves. This time, he didn't think it was the opium in his system, he thought it was the result of breathing air that was getting thicker with smoke by the minute. A dim, gray-black haze hung in front of his vision, stinging his eyes and making them water so badly that he was nearly blind.
Sliding down the length of the wagon, feeling slivers driving into her hands from the rough wood, Mary got her feet on the ground. She grabbed Buck by the ankles, and dragged him towards her until his legs were dangling off the end of the boards. Even that short movement convinced her of what she already knew: she wasn't strong enough to drag him as far as the door if he was a dead weight on the ground, and she certainly couldn't carry him.
"Mr. Wilmington!" she shouted again. "Mr. Wilmington, you must wake up now!"
To emphasize the point, she leaned over him and thumped him not-at-all gently on the chest at the same moment J.D. slapped his face again.
Either the sound of his name or the sudden, rough treatment finally drew a response. Buck came back to consciousness as he'd left it: fighting. In a burst of movement, he sat up, and aimed a swing at the only readily available body. By blind luck, the punch missed J.D., but the follow-through carried Buck straight off the end of the wagon. He landed in a tangle of wildly disarrayed limbs, hauled himself up onto his hands and knees, and stayed there, shaking his head dazedly from side to side while he waited for the world to stop spinning. Before he could quite figure out which way was up, both J.D. and Mary were babbling at him and Mary was tugging at him, too, trying to get him onto his feet.
"Oh, hey there, Mrs. Travis," he told her amiably, as he let her persuade him upright. When J.D. struggled down off the wagon, he added, "What you doin' out of bed, J.D.? Nathan's gonna be mad."
J.D. wrapped one of Buck's long arms around his shoulders and settled against the bigger man's side, both offering support and in urgent need of it himself. Mary Travis took Buck's other arm and they staggered towards the door.
They were halfway there when another section of ceiling collapsed with a roar, bathing them in unbearable heat, seeming to suck away the air even though a night wind was howling in through the open door. A beam collapsed, throwing up a shower of sparks that ignited one of the storage barrels, and in an instant, the whole back of the building was engulfed in a roaring inferno.
Somehow, they managed to reach the door and stagger through it. Clean, blessed air waited for them, but the heat from behind kept them moving, Mary and J.D. dragging the pliant-but-unconcerned Buck between them. Once they had put a little distance between them and the deadly roar of the inferno, they could hear distant shouts from the direction of town. Although the time seemed impossibly long to both J.D. and Mary, scant minutes had passed since J.D. had reached the building. The fire had only now been spotted, and word of it was spreading through town.
"Come on," J.D. said suddenly, his voice almost soundless from strain. "We've got to hide!"
"You two--" He paused to drag in a painful breath, trying not to start a fit of coughing "--were supposed to die in there. We gotta hide until we see who's around."
Nodding as she recognized the sense of that, Mary helped him steer Buck towards a copse of trees bordering on one of the outbuildings. It was far enough removed from the fire to be in no immediate danger, and on the side away from town, where they should escape notice from the crowd of would-be firefighters who would soon be gathering.
Fighting the fire at this point was useless. The whole building was a pyre, its storehouse of wood and chemicals fueling the flames which leapt high into the darkened sky. Far above their tips, a gigantic cloud of smoke blotted out the stars, like one of the swift-moving thunderheads that blew in off the desert.
As soon as they were within the shelter of the trees, J.D. let go of Buck. Stepping away, he laid a palm against a tree trunk for support and raised a shaky hand to wipe at the sweat clinging to his forehead.
"That was--" He broke off, finally surrendering to the coughing fit that had been tickling at his throat. He felt as though he'd swallowed a whole, damned campfire, and some of its embers were still burning deep in his lungs.
"Close?" Mary supplied softly, still amazed by the obdurate determination it must have taken the young man to get here from the hotel.
"Yeah... close..." He wiped at his face again, dashing away sweat as it dripped down his nose, then blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. Even though he wasn't moving, and nothing around him could possibly be changing, the night seemed to be getting darker and darker by the moment. Unsteadily, he reached down and found the Colt holstered at his waist, eased it carefully free and extended it, butt first, toward Mary.
"Buck's gonna need this when he comes out of it," he told her thickly. "I don't think... I can... I'm real sorry, Mrs. Travis."
"You saved my life, Sheriff, and Mr. Wilmington's." She took the gun from his shaking hand and, not knowing what else to do with it, shoved it into one of Buck's empty holsters. "You have nothing to apologize for. Thank you, J.D."
His voice faded away, and he collapsed so abruptly that Mary stood no chance of catching him, as though he had finally used up the last drop of strength or stamina he could muster. He landed on his knees, then sprawled full-length on the parched earth, one hand still clutched to his side, his face pressed into the crook of the other elbow.
"Sheriff Dunne? J.D.?"
Uncertainly, Mary looked from the unmoving figure on the ground to the tall man whom she was still partly supporting. Buck had a hand up to his head, scrubbing his short black hair as if he was trying to rub away the numbness that clouded his thoughts. He hadn't reacted at all to J.D.'s collapse.
"Here, sit down," she demanded, steering him over to the base of a tree. A gentle push completed the demand. Buck obediently folded his long frame down onto the ground, then sat there, staring benevolently at nothing. There was a stripe of black soot across the side of his face, and, like J.D. and herself, his clothes and skin were liberally dusted with ash and smoke, but he didn't seem in any way injured. He was simply not present. Having passed through a similar state, Mary could sympathize with his confusion. She had never before encountered chloroform, but she had read enough about the anesthetic to recognize both its effects and its unpredictable nature. It was hitting Buck much harder than it had hit her, but he was in no danger and already showed signs of shaking it off.
Kneeling beside J.D., she laid a hand on his back and sighed in relief when she felt the slow rise and fall of his chest. His only response to her touch was a soft, incoherent murmur. His shirt was clammy, and he was shivering steadily in the cool air. Even if he was suffering nothing worse from his adventure than utter exhaustion, he couldn't stay out here, losing body heat to the cooling ground. In his weakened condition, a chill could easily finish what the bullet had started.
More and more noise--shouting voices, the clatter of wooden buckets, the constant scream of the fire itself--came from the direction of the cooper's yard. Hearing them suddenly made it all real, and Mary found herself trembling as badly as J.D. Her shawl still lay back in the hotel room where she'd dropped it, but she wasn't cold, she was simply terrified: by her near brush with death, by everything that was happening.
Buck's blank calmness had gradually given way to a murderous frown, as though he was trying so hard to think straight that he was giving himself a headache. He glanced in the direction of the fire, but the stand of trees and the corner of the outbuilding hid it from view. His eyes wandered on to take in Mary and J.D., and he heaved himself up from his sitting position. He got halfway to his feet, decided that still wasn't a great idea, and slid over to them on hands and knees.
"I think he's just worn out," Mary reassured him softly. "But he's cold."
"Oh." Hastily, Buck stripped off his coat and laid it over the younger man.
"That isn't going to do much good. We need to get him up off the ground before he catches a chill."
"Uh, sure... Um, Miz Travis...? What the hell happened? Last thing I remember is gettin' into a royal dust-up with a couple of Mandrell's yahoos... Is that a fire?" he demanded, sniffing the air.
Mary filled him in quickly--leaving out a few irrelevant details, such as the compromising position in which they'd found themselves, and wishing without much hope that J.D. would do likewise the next time he talked with Buck. She finished with, "We thought it better not to let anyone know we escaped."
"That's good thinkin', ma'am," Buck agreed with a nod. "But you're right. We need to get J.D. somewhere warm."
"The hotel? We might be able to sneak back in?"
"Didn't do a lot of good last time. I think somewhere a bit quieter would be good."
"My place then. Since they believe I'm dead, they should have no reason to go there. And they won't set it on fire, because Stuart James wants the press for his own use. It's as safe as anywhere else right now."
"You got a point," Buck agreed. He heaved himself to his feet, then stood there for a moment, testing his own stability. Most of the aftereffects of the anesthetic had worn off, though he envied J.D. his oblivion. He would have liked nothing better than to curl up somewhere himself and go to sleep until his head stopped throbbing. On the other hand, that might have robbed him of the opportunity to take his misery out on the slimy bastards who had tried to kill him--and there was no way he was going to miss out on that.
"Come on, then, J.D. Let's get you somewhere nice and warm." He stooped carefully and picked up the young man. "Then I got me a few so-and-sos to kill."
+ + + + + + +
An hour or so earlier, around the same time that Buck decided Mandrell's men just weren't going to cooperate with the plan and headed off to get himself into trouble, Josiah and Nathan were arriving at the same conclusion.
"This isn't working out, Josiah."
"I know," Josiah whispered, in answer to Nathan's soft comment. The two guards who should have replaced the man Mandrell had sitting in front of the jail and his companion inside were nowhere in sight, even though the time when they'd changed places the previous night had come and long gone.
"You think we should wait a while longer?"
"Doubt it'll do any good. We better go find Buck and come up with another plan."
"He's gonna love that."
"I know. Come on, let's go see what's happening."
Quietly, they moved out of their hiding place. Except for the guard in front of the jail and a man warming his hands by one of the small fires at the far end of town, the street was deserted. The two point men Mandrell had stationed atop abandoned buildings near the jail weren't in sight, but Josiah had worked out their range of visibility earlier in the day. If things had gone as planned, they would have been eliminated as soon as the replacement jail guards were dealt with; as it was, they were better left where they were for now.
"You go round up Buck," Josiah decided. "I'm going to check in with Mrs. Travis and J.D."
Nathan gave him a puzzled frown. "You think something's up?"
"My gut does," the preacher admitted. "I'll meet you behind the hotel in five minutes."
Nodding, Nathan moved away. Josiah waited until he had disappeared into the night, then headed for the hotel. He found its back door standing half-open, which brought a worried frown to his craggy features. Had he thought to look behind him, he might have spotted a slight figure staggering across the open ground towards Caleb Brewer's workshop or noticed the first flames of the fire that were already beginning the work of consuming it. Instead, he hurried inside, picking his way carefully through the dimly lit corridor and mounting the back stairs at a soft-footed run.
The open door to J.D.'s hotel room confirmed that fear. There were few obvious signs that a struggle had taken place, but that did little to ease the fear gnawing at the pit of Josiah's stomach. He retrieved one of J.D.'s prized Colt Lightnings from where it lay abandoned on the carpet and shoved it in his belt, then spotted the dark blue laudanum bottle lying overturned on the side table. It had been more than half-full earlier in the day, but even though Nathan doled out its contents with miserly caution, none of the liquid had spilled from the bottle onto the side table. The bed itself was disarrayed by the brief struggle that had taken place on it, the carpet beyond its edge stained with acrid evidence that not all of the potentially deadly drug had stayed in J.D.'s stomach. Josiah didn't know exactly what had taken place, but he could guess at parts of it. Muttering, "I just hope you got rid of enough of it, boy," as he straightened up, he finished his swift examination of the room, then headed downstairs again.
Nathan met him at the foot of the stairs, looking winded and worried.
"No sign of Buck," he called, as soon as he spotted Josiah, "but the Brewer place is on fire."
Together they pelted out the back door. Most of the cooper's workshop itself was hidden from view by the hotel's outbuildings, but its roof was visible, and the dancing flames that were beginning to consume it. There was the distant sound of an explosion, and suddenly the flames were everywhere, streaming across the roof and in long, bright trailers up the walls of the building itself. A couple of distant shouts attested that some of the townsfolk had heard the explosion or spotted the flames and were already gathering others.
By the time they reached at the copse of trees that sheltered Brewer's yard, a sparse bucket brigade had formed, with more half-dressed men joining it as they arrived. If Mandrell's arrival had brought out the worst side of many of the townsmen, this situation brought out their best. The main workshop was a tower of flame that rose far above tree level, so the townsmen concentrated their efforts on keeping the fire from spreading to the outlying sheds and barns.
"Brewer's name was on our list," Nathan commented quietly, as the two men hung back in the trees.
"I know. He said he wasn't going to let 'no damned good-for-nothing with a tin star' drive him out of his home," Josiah quoted the man softly from the brief conversation they'd had a few hours earlier. Tapping Nathan on the shoulder, he gestured back the way they'd come. "Come on, there's nothing we can do to help here. We still gotta figure out how to get into the jail--and I think we're doing it on our own."