An out-of-place shadow caught Buck's eye as he came up alongside the rear of the bathhouse. Moving closer to the building, he eased J.D. down to sit on the ground with his back propped up against the wall, and made a swift, 'shhhing' gesture when Mary started to question him. As he put his lips close to her ear to whisper to her, he discovered that a trace of light, lavender scent clung to her hair, discernible even through the smell of smoke and soot.
"There's someone up ahead. I'm gonna go have a look."
She nodded and dropped to her knees, supporting J.D. when Buck let go of him. The big man gave her a nod and a grin of admiration for how well she was handling everything she was being put through tonight.
"Won't be long," he told her, miming the words in silence. When she nodded, he turned and pussyfooted forward, keeping close to the wall, moving slowly out of caution and to give him an extra minute or two to catch his breath. In order to get back without risk of being seen, he'd had to detour a fair bit around the edge of town, and he was more than a little winded. J.D. might not go up very high, but his compact frame was solidly muscled, heavier than it looked. For all that Buck would have vehemently denied it, carrying him all over creation was no easy task.
Another few steps gave him a clear view of the man in front of him, and it was all he could do to swallow the growl of fury that bubbled up in his throat. Buck didn't think of himself as a particularly violent man, but he just didn't look kindly on the sort of low-life scum who tied up a man--not to mention a lady--and left him to fry in a burning building. It put him in a downright unforgiving mood.
He dragged J.D.'s pistol out of his holster, tried to make its small, oddly shaped grip sit comfortably in his hand, then sighed and shoved it back into the leather. Even if he hadn't had a bone-deep dislike of gunning down a man--even a low-life scum--from hiding, he didn't want the kind of company a shot would bring down on him. He'd just do this the old-fashioned way.
It was a hell of a lot more fun, anyway.
"Quite a show out there, ain't it?" he inquired sociably, as he stepped out into the open. "Always seems to be, when there are people dyin'." When Mandrell's man--Redden--whirled at the sound of his voice, Buck favored him with an ear-to-ear grin. "'Course, there ain't quite as many of 'em dying out there as there was supposed to be."
They were less than four feet apart, and in the fraction of a second while Redden's hand was making the automatic, unthinking dive for his gun butt, Buck closed that distance and sent his fist, with the full weight of his nearly six-and-a-half-foot frame behind it, into the other man's stomach. Redden curled forward as if he'd been kicked in the guts by a mule, his chin coming down on Buck's rising knee with a wonderfully satisfying thud. He staggered backwards, slammed into the building behind him before he could fall, and shoved himself back to his feet.
"Come on--" Buck invited, both hands summoning his opponent to try to return the blow. "Come on, you low-down, stinkin..." Remembering there was a lady present, he swallowed the rest of what he'd meant to say and delivered the message with his fist, dodging in past Redden's guard as the gunman threw himself forward.
The blow landed with gratifying force, but Redden kept coming, his momentum carrying both of them backwards. Buck stepped into a rut in the ground, lost his balance, and they crashed down into a heap. After that, it was a free-for-all, so confusing even to its participants that Buck was never quite certain afterwards how he managed to win. Eventually, he just found himself lying on the ground, gasping for breath, and trying to shove aside the limp, bleeding weight sprawled on top of him. He was stiff, bruised, tired and so almighty pleased with himself that when he found his feet again, he gave Redden a couple of final, satisfied kicks just to remember him by.
In the heat of the moment, he'd forgotten about Mary and J.D. He straightened up and started toward where he'd left them, and was considerably surprised to discover they were standing only a couple of feet away, J.D. with his arm around Mary's shoulders as she supported a good part of his weight. The young man was swaying in place, but he greeted Buck with an undaunted grin.
"Mr. Wilmington, are you all right?" Mary inquired with concern.
"Well, I tell you something, Mrs. Travis. Can't say I've felt this good in quite some time now." He took a step towards J.D.'s other side, intending to relieve her of the youngster's weight, but as he stepped past Redden, the unconscious gunslinger groaned.
"Perhaps you'd better attend to him," Mary suggested.
"He won't go anywhere in the time it'll take to reach your place."
"I can walk," J.D. informed him.
"Sure, you can, J.D." Buck made to take hold of him, then gave way to the determination in J.D.'s eyes and up-tilted chin. "You sure you'll be all right?"
"Made it out to Brewer's place on my own, didn't I?"
"That you did, son." Buck pulled out J.D.'s pistol and slid it back into its proper place in the kid's gunbelt. Bending down, he relieved Redden of a long-barrelled Remington. He never had liked Remingtons, with their awkward, front-heavy weight, but the thing was a sight more comfortable in his hand than J.D.'s fancy, newfangled gun with its peculiar little birdhead grip. "You get him on home, then, Miz Travis, and I'll just finish cleaning up the trash."
"Be careful, Mr. Wilmington."
"Always am, ma'am," he told her, touching his hat politely, then stepping back to let them pass him. Redden was beginning to stir in earnest, not entirely conscious yet but instinctively trying to drag himself back to his feet. Buck set one foot on his back to discourage him from the notion and kept his eye on J.D. and Mary until he saw them reach the back door of the Clarion office and slip inside. He waited a minute longer and sighed in relief when no lights came on inside--not that he would have expected anything less from the lady.
"Come on, trash," he muttered, reaching down to grab Redden's collar in one hand while he stuffed his own pistol into the back of the man's neck with the other. Feeling the man stiffen, he thumbed back the hammer of the Remington. "You feel like doing something stupid, be my guest. I'm finally startin' to have a good night and blowing your stupid brains all over that wall would purely make it a great one."
The threat was uttered in an amiable and encouraging tone which managed to leave no doubts of its sincerity. Not surprisingly, it earned him a considerable amount of cooperation, which was just as well, because he still didn't want the attention a shot would have attracted. It didn't mean he wasn't a tad disappointed, though, as he dragged Redden to his feet and started him off down the alley while he tried to figure out what the hell he was going to do with him.
Though neither of them realized it, Buck had barely disappeared from sight before Chris ghosted along behind the jail a few buildings away, heading towards the fire. Instinct told him Mandrell would be there, watching his own handiwork and assessing its effects. Where the rest of the gunslinger's team were right now, he didn't know and didn't care. Vin, Josiah and the others would take care of them. Mandrell was his.
Stark moonlight gave his surroundings a pristine solemnity they had never possessed in the harsh brilliance of day. Behind him, Four Corners was dark and all but deserted, only a few lamps left burning to light people homeward when the excitement was over. Ahead, the fire had already reached and passed the peak of its majesty, the towering flames losing their strength as their fuel began to wane. The smoke was thickening by the minute as the fire reached wood that had been soaked through, the sheer heat causing it to release its dampness in hissing columns of steam before it ignited.
Most of the citizens of Four Corners were milling around Brewer's yard, some battling the conflagration, others watching it finish its destruction. From the cover of darkness, Chris could see them muttering among themselves, spreading rumors or guessed-at facts about how it had started. Their collective fear was palpable. If matters weren't settled tonight, more than one of them would wake up tomorrow having made the decision to move on.
Ethan Mandrell stood far away from the heat of the fire, his smug satisfaction equally tangible as he watched what was happening. He was making no attempt to play the lawman role he had defined for himself, and people gave him a wide berth. Silhouetted against the oranges and golds and black of the burning building, he made a perfect target, and as Chris watched him from the darkness, there was a part of him that itched to pull out his six-gun and end the matter right there, without fuss, without any more gambles. Smiling to himself without humor, Chris shoved the thought aside. That choice just wasn't in his nature, though at the moment it owed less to honor than a need to have Mandrell facing him when he died.
He didn't know all of Mandrell's men by sight, but he could recognize those who had, at one time or another, stood guard on the inside of the jail. Checking through the milling crowd, he found one of them, slipped up behind him and stuck the barrel of his pistol in the man's back.
"One more word and you're dead," Chris told him. "I have a message for your boss. Tell him to meet me in front of the livery stable. Tell him if he wants me, he's got me. You got all that?"
He waited until the man nodded, then gave him a violent shove that sent him reeling into a couple of gawking farmers. By the time they'd disentangled themselves, Chris was gone.
+ + + + + + +
The livery stable sat off by itself at the end of an alleyway which might one day earn the status of being a side street. A dozen horses roamed loose in the corrals which surrounded it. They had stirred uneasily when Chris arrived, but they were settled again now, clumped in twos or threes with their heads hanging low in sleep.
He waited patiently, one shoulder propped against the wall of the stable, his eyes fixed on the alley. It was possible that Mandrell's men were circling around behind him but he didn't think so. They might be out hunting his companions--who were more than able to look after themselves--but Mandrell would come for him personally. Besides, he qualified with silent cynicism, if anyone did try to sneak up behind him, the horses would warn him long before the men became a threat.
Mandrell's stallion had a well-isolated corral to itself. As it circled restlessly within its confinement, the big animal was a streak of graceful, silvery motion that occasionally caught the corner of Chris's eyes. If it was a trophy of some earlier victory, it was a fine one, worth far more than anything Mandrell would find in a sliver of nowhere like Four Corners.
The stallion suddenly whirled and threw up its head, its shrill trumpet breaking the silence and causing the other horses to stir and nicker uneasily. The big Andalusian cantered along the wooden fence which imprisoned it until it came as close to the alley as it could, then stood with its ears pricked forward in interest, its nostrils flared to catch its rider's familiar scent.
"Hope you weren't planning on sneaking up on me," Chris commented wryly when Mandrell strode into view.
"Not at all." Strolling to the corral, the tall gunslinger laid his hand lightly on the stallion's velvety nose. "Though you have somewhat... accelerated my plans. I'm surprised the gambler had the nerve to double-cross me."
"He's more scared of me than he is of you," Chris retorted evenly.
"Next time, I'll take that into account. Never mind. The key to success is flexibility." He half-turned, scanning the darkness around them. "I trust we're alone."
"We are as far as I'm concerned. I don't plan to share the pleasure of killing you."
The statement earned him a short laugh that held genuine amusement.
"I knew you'd be a rewarding opponent."
"Why?" Chris demanded. "Why me?"
"You don't fit the pattern. Most gunfighters are killers, pure and simple. They get their thrills from watching the light go out of a man's eyes as they stand over his body. It makes them feel like big men. You... You're something different. Half-killer, half-paladin. The stuff of legends. A hero." Smiling to himself, Mandrell gave the Andalusian a light slap on the shoulder which sent it back to its aimless circling of the corral. "I don't believe I've ever killed a hero."
"Damned stupid reason for six innocent people to die."
"Your count comes up a few short." Mandrell took a few steps clear of the corral fence so that they were facing each other, each of them spotlit by the rays of the moon. "By my count, it's ten at this point. You'll be happy to know your young sheriff suffered no pain. An overdose of laudanum simply brings on sleep than eases into death. I wish I could say as much for your friend, Wilmington, and Mrs. Travis, but I'm afraid fire is never kind."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"The Brewer place." Mandrell gestured towards the fire, whose smoke hung like a pall in the night sky to the east. "It seemed a shame to waste it. When they sift through the wreckage tomorrow or the day following, they'll find three bodies. Or whatever scraps are left of them."
As the meaning of Mandrell's casual words sank into his soul, the cold, controlled fury burning in Chris's heart was extinguished by a surge of memories he had been battling to suppress from the moment he first saw Brewer's workshop ablaze. Uncontrolled fire held a special abhorrence for him. When he looked into flame, he saw the past. The ravaged ruins of the home he'd built. Two blackened, twisted horrors he could barely identify as human, far less acknowledge as all that remained of the woman and child he had loved more than life itself. The memories were as sharp and devastating as the reality had been in the moment when he'd clawed his way through the wreckage of his life to find them. Now, his mind overlaid that atrocity of contorted, boiled-away flesh onto Mary's ethereal beauty and Buck's stubborn, grinning countenance, and something inside of him snapped.
"No," he said in soft denial and heard the word transmute in his throat until it came out as a scream. The smoothly polished familiarity of a stag's horn grip was in his hand with no memory of how it had gotten there, a gunshot shattering the stillness. For a moment, he thought the bullet had found its mark, because Mandrell was no longer in front of him, then instincts claimed him, and he dived sideways into the shadowed space between the livery and the corral just before the answering shot tore a fist-sized hole in the boards where his head had been.
"You're supposed to count to three, you know," Mandrell's amused voice told him from somewhere off to the right. "It is tradition. Still, no matter. We'll play this your way, if you prefer."
Chris moved without thought, almost as if he were divided in half. His mind seethed between the past and the present while his body functioned on its own, fueled by anger, responding automatically to the messages of his senses. He came around the edge of the corral, caught a flash of moonlight off the barrel of Mandrell's Peacemaker, and fired twice. Two rounds left in the cylinder, a corner of his awareness counted down automatically. Even while he was running, bent low and in the shadows, his free hand was reaching for his gunbelt, extracting bullets, emptying and reloading the chambers of the revolver. Six bullets, because he didn't care about safety, didn't care about anything but the burning hunger for revenge.
The round ball of the moon caught his eye, hanging low on the horizon, its cool glow the same, bewitching silver as Mary Travis's hair. Even to himself, Chris had never acknowledged the feelings she stirred in him, the whispered hopes her scent awoke, the darkness her smile made him long to forget. A whole world of might-have-beens that had never been remotely within reach mocked him, mixed with the pain of losing the oldest friend he had. The one fixed thread which wound through his whole adult life, surviving every attempt he'd ever made to reject it.
Another glimpse of movement drew his fire, the bullet splintering one of the fence posts of the corral. The Andalusian shrilled a startled response, kicking its heels into the air in surprise and fury as its hindquarters caught a few flying slivers.
"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't shoot my horse," Mandrell called from the far side of the enclosure, his voice nowhere near where Chris expected it. "It really would be petty."
Chris swallowed the rejoinder that boiled to his lips. The rational part of his mind recognized that the mockery was aimed at his already lacerated control. Ironically, it seemed to have the opposite effect. Crouching in the shelter of the corral fence, he drew in a long, steadying breath, pushing the past, his loss and the blinding fury that gnawed through him, down somewhere deep inside so he could think.
The rhythmic thud of the stallion's hooves on the hard-packed earth and the restless nickering of the horses in the other corral stripped away any chance for him to hear Mandrell moving. They had hunted each other in an almost complete circle around the corral, using the shelter of outbuildings, an abandoned buggy and the few scrubby trees that circled the yard. Now, Chris had the livery stable to his back again, its looming mass sheltering him from any possibility of being spotted until he moved.
As Chris knelt, frozen in place as one shadow among many, he caught another flicker of movement that gave away his opponent's location. Mandrell was circling again, trying to spot him or get into position for a clear shot. He was good. Taking advantage of the darkness and every scrap of shelter, his progress was almost invisible. If Chris stayed where he was, Mandrell would have the advantage of cover by the time he reached the corner of the corral. If he moved, he'd be spotted.
Still angry over the invasion of its territory, the Andalusian paced the corral only a few steps from the fence rails. As the edgy stallion approached his hiding place, Chris worked out the advantage and decided to risk it. Mandrell couldn't see him--yet--and he had no patience for this game of cat-and-mouse. In the few seconds while the horse came between them, he eased his way through the rails into the corral, and dove into shelter behind a watering trough. Most of the corral itself lay in moonlight, impossible to cross without being spotted. Almost flat on his belly, Chris crawled to the edge of the trough and waited until he caught another glimpse of the carefully moving wraith on the far side of the rails. Another few seconds, and Mandrell would be close enough to see he wasn't where he should have been.
The stallion came around again, almost dancing across the packed ground, tossing its head with nervy restiveness. As it circled in front of him, Chris waited until it was almost past, then erupted to his feet, gambling that the stallion already knew he was there and wouldn't give him away in the few seconds he needed to get into position. His sudden movement prompted it to kick up its heels again, but it kept going, its long-legged trot almost more than he could match. As it circled around the end of the corral, he dropped back, keeping a wary eye on its hooves as he shifted so that it stayed between him and Mandrell. If the gunslinger looked directly his way, he'd spot the ruse immediately, but his concentration was on where he expected Chris to be. The stallion should be nothing but a known--and therefore ignored--source of motion in the corner of his eye.
As the big horse turned the final corner and raced along parallel to the fence that sheltered its rider, Chris launched himself over the rails, landed gracefully in a crouch and shouted, "Mandrell!" to the half-seen figure in front of him.
The other man rose to his feet and turned in one silken motion, a lifetime of training and instinct automatically overriding the wave of disbelief that should have slowed his aim. He was still in motion when he pulled the trigger. His first bullet hit wood inches from Chris's head and the second tore a burning crease across the top of his shoulder, inches from his throat. The third shot went wild as a 45-caliber slug drove into Mandrell's chest.
Before his second shot struck home, Chris drove sideways, making himself a harder target. He landed hard, rolled in behind the wheel of a buggy that was sitting in the livery yard, and watched with cold triumph while the fair-haired gunman staggered, fell against the rails, then slowly collapsed. Cautiously, he waited a slow ten-count, then rose to his feet and walked forward, with his pistol still aimed at the unmoving figure in front of him.
He toed Mandrell's corpse onto its back, then stared down numbly at the hard-edged features gone lax in death. The victory was completely empty of triumph, all it left in him was a space that he knew would soon be filled to overflowing by memories and regrets.
"My trophy this time," Chris said in a voice devoid of emotion. "Too bad it doesn't change a damned thing."
He raised his eyes slowly, looking over at the huddle of horses that were already settling down in the far corral. His own black gelding was among them. For a moment, the temptation was overwhelming to find his saddle and simply ride out of town, but he was just too tired. Or perhaps he had lost the ability to lose himself in his own pain to the exclusion of all else. He had to stay until he finished this--seen that all of Mandrell's men were rounded up, seen that the Judge knew everything that had happened, assured himself that Stuart James would pay for the events he had set in motion. After that, he could find himself a saloon somewhere a long way from here and try to forget. Not that it had ever worked before.
Leaving Ethan Mandrell, U.S. Marshall, lying in the dirt where he'd fallen, Chris turned and started wearily back towards Main Street.
Thinking back upon the past hour or so, Chris remembered hearing shots more than once. In a better frame of mind, he would have taken it completely for granted that Josiah, Vin and the others were taking care of business, rounding up Mandrell's "deputies," alive or dead by their own choice. Right now, that natural confidence in himself and his friends was in short supply, so his steps grew more wary as he approached the street. Everything in front of him was peaceful and deserted, as if he'd walked into the midst of a ghost town. Even the pall of smoke that blotted out the starry sky to the east of town was beginning to thin as a chilly night breeze blew it away.
Unlike most of the buildings around him, the jail house across the street was brightly lit. Hurricane lamps burned to each side of its door, and more lights within shone golden through the lowered blinds. The chair in front of the building was overturned, its occupant gone--the only open sign of whatever had taken place there.
Having no better idea of where to go, Chris drifted toward it. He was halfway across the street when the jail house door slammed open and a large, familiar, entirely impossible figure strode through, then slammed it closed again behind him.
"Buck?" Chris asked blankly, grinding to a halt.
The sound of his name caught the big drifter's attention even before he spotted the dusty figure standing in the middle of the street, staring at him.
"Hey, Chris!" Clattering down the steps from the boardwalk, Buck headed for him. "Where the hell have you been? We've been looking all over tarnation for you. Thought maybe one of them low-down varmints had gotten the drop on you. You know how many of them bastards there are? We found seven of them so far, and we know that can't be all of them. We're still missing that halfbreed, for one. Worse than bed lice in a cheap whorehouse."
Buck's stream of cheerful babble frittered away as he reached Chris and halted in front of him. There was the most peculiar expression on Chris's face, and for one long, disbelieving moment, Buck thought he was about to be enveloped in a bearhug. Buck wouldn't have minded the hug--he'd always been a bit over-demonstrative himself, and had been known to embarrass his friends from time to time--but from Chris such a display was so downright impossible that he wasn't sure how the hell he was supposed to deal with it.
The moment came and passed, with Chris doing nothing more than extending a hand to very lightly and briefly touch his shoulder, as he unthinkingly assured himself that Buck was flesh and blood and really was standing in front of him.
"Last time I checked," the drifter agreed. Looking down at himself, checking for any damage that might've somehow escaped his attention, he added, "'Less you know somethin' I don't."
"Mandrell said..." Chris trailed off uncertainly.
"You take care of that bastard?" Buck made a visual examination of the rip in the shoulder of Chris's shirt, and the blood that was matting it to his skin. There wasn't a lot, and it was already drying, so he rightly concluded that it wasn't even bad enough for Chris to be aware of it right now.
"He's dead," Chris returned. "He told me you were, too."
"Damned near-run thing," Buck admitted, his expression sobering. "Goddamned bastard tossed me and Mrs. Travis into--"
"Hey, relax, m'friend, the lady's fine. She'n J.D. are over at the newspaper office, layin' low. Hey, wait up," he appended, catching up quickly as Chris started off down the street. "Don't you want to hear what happened? Makes quite a story, if I do say so myself. Lemme tell you, Chris, I ain't never gonna underestimate ol' J.D. again. That kid is harder to kill than a prairie dog with a ten-minute head start..."
+ + + + + + +
When her husband was alive, Mary Travis had lived with him in a comfortable homestead a few miles outside of town. The night she had come home to find his body lying in the home he'd built for her was the last night she had spent there. She had stayed with friends for a while until she recovered enough self-possession to look after herself, and then she'd outfitted a small living area for herself in the rear of the Clarion office. It was more convenient, she told herself as the months drifted by and she made no move to leave it. The truth was she would never again be able to live under the roof where Stephen had been murdered.
Her makeshift home consisted of a small storeroom refitted as a bedroom, a tiny parlor, and a cleared area behind the printing press that had become her work room, kitchen and living area combined. Unable to turn on any lights, and afraid to approach the windows in case she was seen from outside, Mary had been moving aimlessly around that long-familiar space ever since she had settled J.D. onto her bed and left him to rest. She tried several times to set herself to work, because work was a remedy that had gotten her through the hardest moments of her life, but she still didn't know the ending to the story she would be reporting in tomorrow's paper.
She went back to the bedroom door and peeked in at J.D. He looked as much of a fright as she must have been, pale and disheveled, reeking of smoke. At the sound of her footfalls, his eyes fluttered open, his hand searching automatically for the pistol holstered beneath the quilt she had spread over him.
"It's just me," she whispered, backing away. "Go back to sleep."
Somewhere outside, the sharp report of two pistol shots, one after the other, shattered the night. She'd been hearing gunfire intermittently since she returned home and trying not to dwell on what might be happening. She didn't even know if Chris and his companions had been freed from the jail, or if they were still helpless targets, trapped behind bars.
That thought drew a small, wry smile to her lips. Whatever else he might be, Chris Larabee would never be a helpless target.
She gave a nervous jump, then turned to face J.D. He was propped up against the frame of the bedroom door, partly bent over as he favored his wounded side. He looked dreadful, but as soon as she faced him, he gave her a merry little grin.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you."
"I'm just a bit jumpy tonight. Why aren't you asleep?"
He just shrugged, settled his attention on the chair that waited a few steps away, and very carefully made his way to it. He was closer to the light there, and she was able to see a tiny rivulet of sweat break free of his hairline and trail down the bridge of his nose. J.D. scrubbed it away impatiently with his shirtsleeve as he started toward the window.
"Wonder what's going on out there?"
"I wish I knew," Mary admitted. Compulsively, she went to the front of the building and pushed aside one of the drawn blinds just an inch so she could peer out into the street. Nothing stirred outside, and after a moment, she let it fall back into place. "I haven't really said thank you. You saved my life, and Mr. Wilmington's. You were very brave."
J.D. shrugged again, glad the room was so dark that she couldn't see the flush which spread across his face. At the time, he hadn't given a single thought to whether he was doing something "brave." He'd been the only man available, and the mess had been partly his fault in the first place, so he'd just done what needed doing. Maybe tomorrow he'd start feeling proud of himself, but right now he was just glad it was all over. Glad all of them had made it through all right.
"Was me that let them take you away," he reminded her. "I shoulda been able to stop them."
"You did your best. That's all anyone can expect."
"You don't talk to Buck much, do you?" J.D. inquired, his voice lightened by amusement. "I've been trying to get him to admit I can do anything right ever since I jumped off that stage coach."
"Well," Mary told him, laughing softly, "I don't think he can have any argument on that point this time."
"He'll find one."
She went over to the cook stove, moving carefully through the darkened room. She hadn't set a fire in it for hours, so there was nothing left but a bed of dimly glowing coals within. She added a couple of sticks of wood from the pile beside it, then set her tea kettle on to boil.
"I know you said you don't drink tea, but...?"
"Sure," J.D. agreed. "Thanks." He wasn't entirely sure his stomach was up to tolerating anything, but tea had always been one of his mother's recipes for settling a tricky digestion. Besides, the warmth held infinite appeal. He was sweating, but somehow he still managed to be cold inside, which made as much sense as everything else he'd experienced tonight. Even now, he felt as though he wasn't quite linked with his body. His mind was wide-awake, but his body was so tired that it was a struggle just to keep his eyes open.
"Is your side bothering you badly?" Mary inquired solicitously. "I think I have some laudanum around. Stephen used to take it for headaches--"
"No!... Thanks," he added when he found her watching him with startled puzzlement over the vehemence of the response. He was tempted to explain, but that would have meant admitting that his first reaction to her kidnapping had been to puke out his guts, and his second had been to fall asleep. He could have certainly used the painkiller, but he didn't think he'd ever be able to face that syrupy, over-sweet taste again without his stomach instantly rebelling.
More distant gunfire brought his mind sharply back to the present and filled him with a disconcerting mixture of nerves, confidence and regrets. He wanted to be out there helping.
Mary had her back to J.D. as she stretched up over the stove to retrieve a dainty porcelain tea pot and a canister of tea from the shelf above it. Settling back on her heels, she turned towards the table with them in her hands, then flinched back with a cry as the door burst open. Recognizing Patrick, she leaped backwards, the tea pot and canister flying out of her hands. She heard the pot shatter as it hit the floor, heard J.D. shout something, then Patrick's arm was around her waist and the cold metal of a gun barrel pressed into the side of her face with bruising pressure.
"Seems we've been here before, haven't we, laddie-buck?" Patrick's still-startling voice lilted from behind her. "Drop the gun."
J.D. shook his head slowly. His pistol was levelled on Patrick, though Mary felt as though she was staring directly down its barrel.
"Not this time," he said quietly.
"Suit yerself. But you try to shoot me, and me finger's liable to flinch a bit. Blow her pretty head clear off." He waited, then when J.D. still didn't move, he laughed softly. "You two are downright hard to kill, aren't you, now? Bloody well thought I was seein' a ghost when I spotted the lady here peeking out the window. Convenient for me, though. Things are getting a mite tense, and I think it's time I was on me way. Could use a fair escort as far as the livery stable, darlin'."
He took a step back toward the door, holding her in front of him as a shield. J.D.'s aim followed, tracking a point just slightly to the right of her head. Another step, and Mary felt the pressure of the gun in her cheek lessen slightly. Afterwards, she never could decide if she chose her course of action because she guessed what was about to happen, or simply because she was so tired and angry that all of her common sense deserted her. But into that slight change in pressure as Patrick pulled the gun away from her cheek, she read his intentions. And as his gun barrel glided in an arc toward J.D., moving too fast for her eyes to really see it, she twisted sideways and brought her elbow back into Patrick's solar plexus with every ounce of strength she possessed.
The sound of the pistol going off drowned out his whoof of surprise and pain, leaving her ears clamoring with tinny echoes. Hot, bitter smoke seared her eyes and lungs. As she bent over double with a fit of coughing, two more shots penetrated the jangling in her ears. One came from in front of her--J.D.--but the other seemed to come from the doorway behind her.
Mary staggered a couple of steps, completely disoriented, and would have fallen to her knees if two hands hadn't grabbed her, digging into her arms just above the elbows with painful strength. Furious and frightened, she tried to struggle free, then blinked open her still-stinging eyes and found herself staring close-up into a pair of light-hazel ones that were achingly familiar, yet so wild and feral that they offered no immediate comfort.
In a moment, her mind had cleared enough for her to realize Buck Wilmington was grinning at her over Chris's shoulder. As soon as she looked at him, he touched his hat with a finger, said, "Evening again, Miz Travis," as though they were in a perfectly normal social situation, then walked past her to attend to J.D., who had somehow managed to end up kneeling on the floor, but seemed to be unhurt. On his way, Buck stepped over Patrick's body, which lay sprawled face down in the pool of blood spreading sluggishly across her braided rug.
Chris's fingers were still digging into her flesh. He was so close that Mary could feel body heat radiating off him and the warmth of his breath against her face. Her gaze tracked slowly back to his face, but she couldn't quite bear to meet his eyes. Couldn't bear to face the maelstrom of raw emotions burning within them. Her one, fleeting glimpse past his mask of cool distance would haunt her far longer than anything else that had happened tonight.
She was finding it difficult to breathe, and for a moment, she almost wished she could take refuge in the escape that was expected for a woman who had been through everything she had in the past few hours. But fainting had never been in her repertoire, so she carefully tested her legs and discovered they were shaky but entirely capable of holding her upright.
"I tell you something, J.D.," Buck's voice announced from behind her, speaking with overplayed heartiness, "I purely can't turn my back on you for five minutes or you go gettin' yourself into even more trouble."
"I shot him, didn't I?" J.D. demanded, trying to shake off Buck's assistance in getting back up into his chair. His outrage was also a little too loud, as he played along with Buck's effort not to eavesdrop on the odd scene that was playing out a half-dozen steps away from them. "My bullet got him before Chris's did. You saw that, right? It was my bullet."
Buck struck a match to one of the lamps, and in its fitful glow Mary discovered that Chris was filthy, one side of his shirt stained with blood that was starting to dry. The strength and steadiness of his grip told her he wasn't badly injured, but he still hadn't spoken or moved, so in a concerned voice she asked, "Are you all right, Mr. Larabee?"
The question earned her no response, so she added quietly, "You can let me go. I promise I won't fall over."
The soft words shook Chris from his frozen stillness. He released her and stepped back so abruptly that she almost made a liar of herself, and managed to catch her balance only by putting out one hand quickly to steady herself against the edge of the table. Chris retreated to stand by the back door, so deep in the shadows that he was little more than a black-on-black silhouette, with the lamp casting occasional glimmers onto the studs of his gunbelt.
"Maybe you should sit down, Miz Travis." Buck came over and laid a hand on her elbow. "You're startin' to look 'round about the same color as ol' J.D. here."
"I'm fine," Mary and J.D. informed him in chorus.
In spite of that being the truth, in her case at least, Mary allowed Buck to fuss over her while he settled her into a second chair. His friendly, open concern was something she could deal with more easily than Chris's stiff silence. In the short few weeks of their acquaintance, she had never seen him when Chris wasn't perfectly in control. Tonight, that control was hair thin, and she thought she finally understood some of the reports that were whispered about him.
When she was comfortable, Buck straightened up and turned his attention to the body lying on her floor.
"You wanna help me with this, Chris?" he inquired, paying no attention at all to the gunslinger's odd behavior. "I just plain don't think he goes with the decor." He stretched the final word out into "day-cor," and laughed as he said it, as though he was embarrassed to admit he knew what it meant.
Chris stirred again, coming forward into the dim light to grab Patrick's ankles while Buck caught him under the arms. Together they lifted the body, then carried it out the back door. Mary wasn't surprised when, a few minutes later, Buck returned alone.
"Chris's headed off to see how Josiah and everybody else's doin'," he explained casually. He knelt down and rolled up the blood-stained rug, then left it lying in front of the stove.
"Was he the last of them?" she asked, gesturing at the rug and, by extension, the man who had died on it.
"We think so, ma'am," Buck answered. "If there are any more, they're probably hauling their sorry ass--that is, high-tailin' it out of town right now. Just as well, too, 'cause we got about as many of 'em in the jail as it can hold. Downright friendly in there. Maybe we ought to have a talk with the town council 'bout building a bigger jail house."
"I really hope such a thing isn't necessary, Mr. Wilmington," Mary returned wryly. "I'd prefer a small jail which is usually empty, if you don't mind."
"Me, too, ma'am," he assured her sincerely.
"You just like to get paid for doin' nothing," J.D. informed him with a snicker.
"Can't argue with you there, son," Buck agreed, not the least insulted by the suggestion. "It purely would be a nice for a change."