by Sevenstars

It took another day to rearrange Darcy's freighting contracts to allow for the loss of five of her mules, since she was reluctant to pay high mining-camp prices for replacement stock, but at the end of that time the Coming Wonder and the combine sent down a heavily guarded train of ore wagons laden with forty-five ingots of bullion, worth, by Ezra's calculations, $3,110,400, or $311.04 in fees to the woman herself. The district's local criminal court had already set Blackner's trial for the following day, and though she would have dearly loved to be on hand to watch him condemned and hanged, she had decided, after a consultation with Josiah, that it would be better not to waste any more of the travel season. Although it was possible that his boss packer would be permitted to carry out one load of the bullion for which he had obtained contracts--those contracts being in his company's name rather than his own--Ezra had observed that once he was executed, unless he had heirs who could take over the business, the documents would be null and void, and with the help of her attorney brother Vandy she would have a good chance of picking them up, together with at least some percentage of Blackner's stock and equipment. Buck had grinned in delight and slapped Vin (who happened to be nearest) on the back when he heard that. "Looks like you might be gettin' them jerkline outfits you talked about, Miss Darcy," he had said.

The surviving mules had been brought down from the boarding ranch to the feed lot where the packers' mounts had been boarded, and their aparejos strapped in place. The Magnificent Seven and the mine owners' security guards stood watch while Miramontes and his sons horsed the ingots aboard the readied animals and lashed them on. Suddenly the process was interrupted by a fusillade of gunfire from the middle of the camp, followed by screams and yells. "What the hell?" Buck exclaimed, as JD's Lightnings jumped into his hands and Vin drew his mare's leg.

Chris was experienced enough to know that when human noise, particularly of that tone and volume, accompanied that of weapons, even in a mining camp, you could be pretty sure that it was neither a fair fight nor some overexuberant drunk popping away at the sky; it was exactly the reason Ezra's diversion had succeeded in getting the on-duty deputy out of the jail. "You men stay here and watch the mules and the bullion," he ordered the senior security guard. "Boys, let's go!"

Leaving their horses where they stood, the Seven dashed down the alley and scattered as they hit the boardwalk, directing their attention down street, toward the source of the noise. Three hundred fifty yards or so to the south, in the busiest central block, puffs of thick white smoke betrayed the presence of guns--at least a score of guns--and riders, pedestrians, and even drivers who had abandoned their teams to the ever-present convoluted jam of traffic were streaming away from the jail building in all directions. Josiah reached out and grabbed a fleeing miner by his blue flannel shoulder, causing a whinny of astonishment and terror. "What's going on?" Chris demanded of the captive.

"It's a jailbreak," the miner gasped. "That freight operator Blackner that they jailed for murdering Halkett a couple of days ago--his packers and his guards hit the jail and took him out of his cell. They're forted up in it and around it ready to hold off the whole camp."

Ezra muttered something not at all gentlemanly. Buck shot a look at his oldest friend. "Vin said he counted thirty--"

"I know," Larabee agreed with a brief nod. "Anybody dead?" he asked, returning his attention to the miner.

"Maybe, I ain't sure. I think they got the deputy on duty, I don't know if they killed him or just wounded him. I saw one ore-wagon driver shot off his seat. That's all I know, Mister, I swear!"

"All right. Let him go, Josiah." The preacher complied and the miner sprinted off.

The gunfighter's mind worked quickly. He seriously doubted that Blackner's men had made this move out of any great love for their employer. As Darcy had said, a job was just a job, and a man skilled at working with mules could always get another, even if he didn't simply stick with whoever eventually acquired Blackner's assets. More likely Taylor and the other two had been the motivating force; they knew that if Blackner was executed, they'd lose easy work and a steady meal ticket. As professional guns they might not be anywhere near Larabee's own level, but they still had a certain force of character that came of their skill, and could always resort to threats if they found the packers were reluctant to fall into line.

"Chris," Nathan said softly. "Look at the boardwalk in front of the jail."

Larabee squinted, and in the half-shade of the awning made out a sprawled form in what looked like a black Prince Albert frock coat, head hanging over the edge of the walk, hat fallen off to reveal a heavy thatch of jet-black hair. "Pennoyer?" he guessed.

Ezra moved up alongside his chief, Remington in hand, sharp emerald eyes narrowed. "I would wager on it, Mr. Larabee."

"Shit," Vin hissed quietly from the gunfighter's other flank.

"You said it, pard," Buck agreed. "Even if them other two deputies is still loose and shootin', they ain't used to dealin' with this kind of thing, least of all without somebody to give orders. And if Taylor and the others can get Blackner out of town, he won't have a damn thing left to lose. He'll come after Miss Darcy and us, sure as God made little apples."

Chris drew a deep breath. "Then we have to make sure they don't get out of town."

"What can I do?" demanded a new voice, and Darcy dropped to one knee on Ezra's right, her Winchester in her hand. Fernando and Francisco Miramontes were passing the Seven's saddleguns out to them.

Larabee hesitated, reluctant to involve a woman in a full-scale gun battle, and then remembered what he had been thinking about at the boarding ranch. Pride and skill, courage and intelligence and the ability to lead had no sex, and could not be cavalierly ignored or dismissed. Mary had shown him that. Sarah and his own mother had shown him that. In any case, as Buck had just observed, her own safety was at stake too. "What about the bullion?" he asked.

"The bullion's fine. The mine guards will keep an eye on it. Anyway, Blackner's lot don't even know it's there, and if they did, I think they've got a few other things on their minds--like escape."

"There is reason in the lady's assertion, Mr. Larabee," Ezra observed. "Even the most devoted gambler will get no good of gain if he is not alive to spend it."

"All right," the gunfighter agreed with a brief nod. "Darcy, we need to block the other end of the street so they can't get downcanyon and onto the trail. Take three of your Mexicans and circle around. Josiah, Buck, go with her. Vin, Ezra, you're best at roofs, see if you can take out any of their high guns. Nathan, JD, the rest, come with me."

Buck's dark brows shot up as he realized his old partner had called the lady muleteer by her Christian name for the first time since he'd met her, over a week before. It was an intimacy he accorded to no adult female in Four Corners except Mary and Inez. "You watch your back, pard," he said then, and paused to slap JD's arm lightly. "Keep your head down, boy." And he scurried off after Josiah.

"C'mon, Ez," Vin said with a wink and a predatory grin, "let's find us a drainpipe we can get up by."

Ezra sighed dramatically as he checked the chambers of his Remington revolving rifle. "I foresee the ruin of the knees of my trousers," he lamented quietly. "Lead on, Mr. Tanner."

Chris peered down street again, trying to get a picture of how Blackner's men had disposed themselves. The three gunmen might be too young to have served in the War, but he'd bet that at least some of the packers weren't; with the professionals to provide the impetus and the veterans to suggest refinements of strategy, they'd have a fair chance of keeping the disunited and surprised camp residents at bay long enough to get to their horses. All they needed was to clear the streets for a few minutes--

"Looks like one on the jail roof, Chris," Nathan pointed out.

"I make out two on that minin'-supply store across the street," JD added, his young eyes almost as quick as Vin's-- "one high, one low."

"Couple more on top the Pacific," the healer finished. "Can't tell is they any up this end."

"Well, we won't get anywhere stayin' here," Chris grunted. He glanced back to see which of the Mexicans was with him. Darcy had taken Diego, the eldest of the boys, and his two-gun youngest brothers, leaving Fernando, Francisco, and José to support the gunfighter. Good. Fernando was a wise old hand who'd probably seen his share of battles, very likely with Indians if no other kind, and Indians were geniuses at using cover. Larabee ordered him to make his way down this side of the street and gestured Nathan and JD after him as he made a lunge for the other. At that range a standard saddlegun wasn't much good, though a Spencer like Nathan's or a buffalo rifle might have some effect, but as the trio got nearer the odds would shift, and a thin distant cry suggested that their dash had been sighted by one of the high guns.

By now everyone disinclined to fight had gotten off the street and boardwalks, though a desultory return fire issued from a few doors and upper windows and behind water troughs, barrels, and similar objects. Chris worked his way down the block in a series of quick rushes, aware of JD's light footsteps directly behind his right elbow and Nathan's heavier ones at his back. At two hundred yards, just the edge of easy rifle range, they found the deputy who had been with them in the Pacific barn, looking grim and a little scared as he sighted over the long barrel of his big .44. He probably wasn't any older than Vin, and a lot less seasoned, but his mouth was tight with resolve. "You all right?" Larabee asked him.

The deputy looked around, startled. "Yeah, so far," he breathed. "You buyin' into this, Mr. Larabee?"

"We figure it's our hides too," the gunfighter told him. "Got any idea where your partners are?"

"Sam would've been off shift and sleepin'," was the reply. "He lives with his folks almost all the way back to the Wonder--his pa's one of the shift supers up there--and it'll take a while for the noise or the word to get to him. It was Keaton's trick at the office, so one way or the other I reckon he's out of play. I think they got the sheriff too, not that that means much. I don't know if you heard--Mr. Sandlin and some of the other big men in camp gave him his walkin' papers yesterday; he put up a tussle, but in the end he agreed to come in this morning and clean out his desk."

"So it's you and us," Chris guessed. "Think any of these other people will take an interest?"

"Not once it gets through to 'em that their businesses ain't in danger of gettin' robbed or something," the young man guessed. "Their fire's fallin' off already, hear it?"

Just then a sharp, deep bellow sounded from a little further down the street, and a man tumbled backward over the parapet of a false front. "That was Vin's mare's leg," JD identified the sound.

"And that's Ezra," Nathan added as two thin cracks followed close on the sawed-off's discharge. "They're on the other side, workin' toward them two on the supply house."

"All right, let's move up," Chris ordered. "What's your name, Deputy?"

"Kyle McFarlan, sir."

"Kyle," the gunfighter acknowledged with a brief nod. "You're with Nathan. We'll move up one at a time from here on, man in the lead take cover before the next one breaks it, so each of us always has three to lay down fire for him. Got it?"

"Got it, sir."

It occurred to Chris that Buck must have seen very much the same kind of potential in JD that he now saw in this young lawman. "We'll roll forward, whoever's farthest back movin' up past the rest. I'll go first, then you, then Nathan, and JD." He made sure his hat was firmly settled on his head and took off, low and fast. None of the opposition seemed to catch sight of him, perhaps owing in part to the shade of the awning. He threw himself down between the boardwalk edge and a watering trough and saw McFarlan flash past out of the corner of his eye. A spatter of gunshots sounded from the opposite side of the street, but none of them came near him; probably Fernando and his sons had found someone holed up. Nathan's fast, heavy strides thundered on the planks as the healer made his move, followed shortly by JD, so quick and light that only the brown blur of his suit betrayed him. High up came a shrill Rebel yell, the boom of Ezra's revolving rifle, and a scream, and a body hurtled down off the roof of the mining-supply store and crashed onto a buckboard, whose nervous horses, their constitutions already strained beyond enduring, yanked back in unison, broke their tethers, and tore off up canyon, away from the heart of the fight, taking the body with them until the vehicle hit a chuckhole and bounced it out onto the street. A wildcat's shriek sounded--that was Vin.

The men in the jail had slowed their rate of fire, no doubt in the hope of conserving ammunition, not that there probably wasn't a good store of it, and guns too, in the building. Their companions, however, were beginning to realize that something had changed the tenor of the fight. On Chris's next rush a bullet whipped past his ear and another thudded into the planks an inch from his heel. Kyle popped up--Chris knew it was Kyle because the sound wasn't the familiar voice of either Nathan's or JD's revolvers--and squeezed off two fast shots, and a shattering sound of glass breaking accompanied the appearance of a man who flopped into view across a ground-level windowsill in the assay office. From somewhere inside a building a volley erupted; Larabee hazarded a guess, as he threw himself down to get his wind, that Fernando had sent a son or two around the back of the row of structures that faced on the street, to get in by a rear door and take some of Blackner's men by surprise.

"CHRIS!!" JD yelled, and the Seven's chief rolled and brought his Colt into line as a man with an old Henry repeater appeared in the doorway of the clothing store directly to his left. His first shot took the enemy high on the left shoulder and spun him back into the doorframe; the second hit him just where the breastbone stops and he crashed back full-length and didn't move, only his boots protruding.

Damn, Larabee, you're gettin' old, Chris rebuked himself as he lifted his left hand in a quick assurance to the nervous kid. Used to be at this range you'd have nailed him dead center, one shot. Hell, if Buck had seen that, he'd scold you for wastin' ammo just like he does JD. His mouth twisted in wry amusement at the thought of being on the receiving end of one of Buck's patented lectures. All right, we know that's at least four down--no way to tell how many Miramontes and his boys got, if they didn't get it themselves. Still leaves twenty or more. Nathan flashed past him, pausing long enough to fire a snap shot at a man who appeared from a doorway like a cuckoo from a clock. Chris guessed from the lack of answering sound that the healer hadn't inflicted a major or fatal wound.

Buck and Josiah hadn't needed to confer; they had worked together long enough by now to understand not only what Chris expected of them but how best to do it. They cut around to the back lane that ran behind the buildings of the main street and headed down it at a steady jog, hearing the jingle of spurs close behind them as Darcy and her Mexicans kept up. When they estimated that they were as far below the jail as they had been above it when they started out, they turned up the next alley they found and made their way cautiously out to the mouth of it. Their guess had been right. The fight was still centered on the jail, slightly over a thousand feet to their north.

An empty ore wagon, which had doubtless been on its way back to its mine after dropping off a load at one of the mills further down, stood at an angle about ten feet from the edge of the boardwalk, where its driver, warned off by the shooting and in any case blocked from going on by the jam of abandoned vehicles closer to the jail, had left it. Buck scrambled up onto the seat, unwrapped the reins from the brake rod, and slapped them along the team's backs with a shout. Maneuvering the animals skilfully, he backed and filled until he had positioned the wagon broadside-on in the center of the street and about thirty feet below the alley where his companions waited. When he had it where he wanted it, he jumped down and began deftly unbuckling the harness tugs. Darcy gave orders and Agustín and Juan ran out to grab the leaders' bits and hold them until the gunslinger had finished, then hurry the horses on down the street another hundred feet or so before they turned and ran back.

Josiah, Darcy, and Diego had joined Buck at the downcanyon side of the wagon. The preacher handed his rifle to Darcy and crouched down at the midpoint of the wagon bed, his back to the sideboards, hands crooked under the angle where it met the floor. Diego threw his shoulder against the vehicle's side just short of the rear wheel. Agustin and Juan grabbed the front wheel and tongue. "All right, brothers," Sanchez ordered, "on three--uno, dos, tres, elevad!"

Grunting with effort, all four men threw themselves into the task. The wagon's inertia resisted for a moment, then slowly the downcanyon wheels lifted from the clinging half-dry mud and the vehicle rose, hesitated, and tipped over with a crash, its open top turned toward the jail. To anyone who looked at it quickly enough, it would seem that its team had panicked and run off, turning it over and pulling out their doubletrees.

Up on the roofs, Ezra spun at a yell of warning from Vin and threw himself flat as a man--a Mexican or halfbreed by the tone of his skin--rushed him with a knife. The man's pantherlike spring, which would have slammed full into him had he remained standing, instead carried him harmlessly over the gambler's prone form, and then the tracker was there, his ten-inch Bowie drawn from its boot sheath and expertly poised in his hand. Ezra cautiously pushed himself up on his hands and knees, looking around for further foes, as the ex-bounty hunter clinched with the newcomer. They were still one building up from the mining-supply store, and while he knew he had eliminated one of the men who had been stationed there, it didn't mean reinforcements might not be on the way. His skepticism was warranted. Although the false front of the building on which they were currently located--he thought it was a feed store--provided a bulwark that defended him and Vin from shooters on the other side of the street, they remained vulnerable at the sides and rear. A man popped his head over the coping near the left back corner of the building--how he'd gotten there Ezra neither knew nor cared--and the gambler snapped off a shot with his .44. It creased the fellow's skull just over the ear and he lost his grip and hurtled backward to the ground. Figuring that he would be at least stunned and probably worse by the fall, the gambler dismissed him, glared quickly around the perimeter of the roof to make sure no one else was creeping up on him, and then turned to see how Vin was doing. The tracker was down on one knee, panting, his bloodstained knife in his hand as he crouched over the unmoving body of Ezra's attacker. The Southerner noted that his companion's sleeve was ripped and the edges of the gap stained red. "Mr. Tanner," he said urgently, scuttling over to join the younger man. "Vin! Are you seriously injured?"

Vin shook his head slowly as his gasping evened out and merged into a normal breathing rate. "Naw, I'm okay. Ain't but my left, anyhow."

"Nevertheless, you are losin' blood." Without a moment's hesitation Ezra yanked the pin out of his cravat, thrust it through the lapel of his coat to keep it safe, and whipped the necktie around the wounded limb to form a temporary dressing.

Vin watched wide-eyed, well aware of how choice the gambler was about his wardrobe. "Aw, hell, Ez, you're gonna spoil your purty scarf."

"If you had not shouted," Ezra retorted without looking up, "that gentleman would have spoiled my pretty life, my friend. I can purchase another cravat, but lives are not so readily available." He deftly tied off the improvised bandage and nodded in satisfaction. "Do you feel equal to clearin' off a few more of the opposition?" he inquired, indicating the target roof with a sidewise jerk of his head.

Vin grinned. With one arm out of action his full-size Winchester wouldn't be much use to him, but he still had his mare's leg and knife. He wiped the latter on the pants leg of the man he had killed and thrust it into its case. "Let's get 'em."

The rather spectacular deaths of three of the six men so far taken out by the seven regulators and the deputy had drawn the attention of their cohorts and made it clear to them that, while the common citizens of the camp might not resist any further than was warranted to preserve their own lives and property, there were apparently at least a few individuals involved who held a different attitude. As Darcy had observed to Chris Larabee days earlier, Blackner's packers might fight readily enough if they were attacked on the trail, but they weren't hired or paid to be professional warriors, and the younger ones, who had never seen active combat, were beginning to get uneasy. In addition they were coming to the realization that the men they were sure of had an unknown number of allies apparently working under cover of the interiors of the buildings. Independently, half a score of them reached the same conclusion: that it was time to cut their losses. One by one they began withdrawing, slipping away from their stations toward the spot a few doors up from the jail where the horses were waiting, shielded from the street by the buildings. As they came together and realized that they all had the same goal in mind, an alliance was formed. The two men who had been detailed to make sure no one bothered the tethered animals were quickly persuaded to join in the retreat.

Circling around the back of the jail and past the pool hall next door to it, they led their mounts up the alley and out to the street, flung themselves astride and spurred hard for the downcanyon end. In the jail, Ben Morrison saw them go and yelled a bulletin to Blackner and the others who shared the position. "Cowards!" the freighter screamed in fury, and snatched a big Sharps buffalo gun from the rack whose chain his deliverers had broken soon after cutting down Deputy Keaton and Sheriff Pennoyer. Shoving Morrison aside, he took a position at one of the front windows, rested the Fifty on the sill, squinted along the barrel and squeezed the trigger. One of the deserters was hurled out of the saddle with a fist-sized hole through his back.

The survivors, seeing that the fat was now in the fire, whipped their horses to greater speed. Two or three lighter rifles spat parting statements at them but failed to bring any more of them down. Ahead an overturned wagon lay in the middle of the street. They urged their mounts onward, planning to split around it. They were no more than two hundred feet from it when a row of heads popped up from the far side and a volley of gunfire erupted in their faces. Men screamed in surprise and pain, horses reared or stumbled or fell sidewise as the weight of riders thrown from the saddles yanked painfully at their bits. Two of the fugitives, luckier than the rest, came through unhurt and lashed their horses into desperate soaring leaps over the barrier. Buck ducked as the shadow of a horse flashed by not six inches above his head, pulling his Colt and firing upward. The horse shrieked in that particularly horrible way horses have, and crashed to earth, flailing, catching its rider underneath it. Darcy and Josiah whirled and fired simultaneously at the other jumper, whose mount had landed safely and was tearing on down the street in full flight. The rider lurched forward over the neck of his bay, which immediately plowed to a halt and wheeled, completing his ungraceful exit from the saddle. The animal bolted into an alley and vanished, leaving its rider groaning in the mud.

The Miramontes boys scurried out to gather up the survivors, not one unmarked, and hustle them at gunpoint, limping and moaning, into a convenient saloon, where the bartender willingly took on the task of watching over them with his sawed-off shotgun. "My guess is that makes eighteen down so far," Buck observed as he ran a hand through his dishevelled black hair.

Josiah grinned savagely. "Not bad for less than half an hour's work, eh, brother?"

The rogue laughed, teeth flashing in his powder-stained face. "Hell, Josiah, ain't that why Steele called us the Magnificent Seven?"

"Buck," said Darcy, and the big man turned quickly, thinking she might have picked up a bullet, but she was standing just short of the wagon's endboard, staring thoughtfully up the street.

"What is it, darlin'?"

"Isn't this side of the jail where Ezra blew the hole in the wall?" the woman asked.

Wilmington tilted his head in thought. "Yeah, I reckon it is."

Darcy grinned. "Want to bet the hole's still there?"

The gunslinger and the preacher traded glances of sly delight. "Damn, likely so," Buck agreed. "Even if them masons finished patchin' it the other day, odds are the mortar ain't set yet."

"There's a hardware store just two doors up," Josiah added, "and that means tools. Let's go."

On the other side of the fight, Chris and his three supporters were now within about a hundred feet of the jail. They had paused at the bellow of the buffalo gun, seen the brief engagement down street, and realized at once that this was bound to have a salutary effect on the remaining members of Blackner's company. JD had lost his bowler somewhere, Nathan was limping on a creased right leg, but they were all still functional. They stopped to reload their guns and study the target. One door, one double window to its left, protected by a grid of bars. No side windows, no back entrance. Larabee's lips compressed. "Damn. Looks like we'll need to go straight down their throats."

"They'll have bolted the door," JD guessed, tucking a wayward lock of hair back behind his ear. "How do we get in?"

Above, hidden from their view by the awning, the rifleman on top of the jail building suddenly let off a volley of shots. "What the hell?" Nathan wondered. "He sure ain't shootin' at us."

The answer to his question came in the form of a spatter of fire from two guns on top of the mining-supply store. "Didn't two of your men take out one of the guns Blackner had up there, Mr. Larabee?" McFarlan asked.

JD whooped in delight as a gargling shriek from the jail roof suggested that the man there was down. "Not one," Chris retorted with a meager satisfaction, "both. They're up there now, coverin' the jail front."

A figure appeared briefly at the edge of the store's false front, waving a light-colored hat. "That's Vin," Nathan declared. "He sees us. Wants us to know him and Ezra got that position secured."

"Blackner!" Chris yelled out suddenly. "Taylor! You hear me? This is Larabee!"

The gunfire from the jail building slackened, fell off, and faded to silence. "We hear you!" came a hoarse shout in response.

"We've got you boxed!" the gunfighter shouted. "You've lost half your men or more. The street's blocked at both ends and your only way out of there is covered from a high angle. You can't win. Give it up! Throw your guns out the door and come out with your hands in the air!"

There was a pause while the defenders apparently conferred. "We give it up, we'll hang anyway," came the reply. "Go to hell!"

"Been there," growled Chris under his breath, and raised his voice again. "All right, it's your choice!" He glanced questioningly at McFarlan. "It's your jail. Any ideas?"

The deputy shrugged and shook his head. "It was designed to be hard for people to get out of, but that means it's just as hard to get into. If we had a way to break through the bars at the window of one of the vacant cells--they're left unlocked when nobody's in 'em--maybe Mr. Dunne or I could squeeze through and take them fellows from the rear. But it'd mean blasting, like your gambler friend done, and the noise'd warn 'em."

Larabee nodded. "What's the roof like?"

"Double-tinned over the cell bloc," was the reply. "Tarpaper over the office, with an underneath layer of corrugated sheet-iron in case anybody thinks to throw a torch up. There's a trap door, but it's padlocked on the inside."

"Can't be too thick, though," JD observed, "or you wouldn't be able to lift it, and what would be the point of havin' it?"

"Well, it's got a counterweight that does a good bit of the work," McFarlan explained, "but you're right, it's only about three inches through."

"And even a Henry slug, twenty-five grains powder, can go through seven inches of pine," Larabee mused. "Anyway, we don't have to break the trap in; we just need to make 'em think we can. Nathan, that leg's gonna slow you down; you stay here and watch that front door in case one of 'em takes a chance on Ezra and Vin. Kyle, JD, let's go."


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