by Sevenstars

A hush settled over the street as the stalemate continued. On the downcanyon side of the jail, Buck and Josiah had picked up a miner's pickax and an eight-pound sledge at the hardware store and were easing their way toward the jail, keeping their backs against the facades of the buildings so no one would spot them out the jail window. Darcy followed close, Winchester ready, with Diego and his brothers bringing up the rear, carrying a few one-pound canisters of powder that had presented themselves. Vin and Ezra were forted up behind the false front of the mining-supply store, watching the door and window of the building. At street level, Fernando Miramontes and his son José had cleared out the building to the south of the regulators and were protecting their flank, one at the front, one at the rear, though José had taken a bullet through the arm. Francisco was two doors in the other direction in a dance hall, where the owner and a couple of patrons stood by to support him if need be.

JD holstered his Lightnings and stepped into Chris's cupped hands as the gunfighter made a stirrup and lifted. The youngest regulator was boosted up to the high side parapet of the office, just reaching it with arms extended. He clamped his fingers over the coping and hauled himself higher, feet scrabbling against the bricks. With a grunt he flopped head first onto the roof, where he lay for a moment getting his breath before he paused to locate the trap door. It was centered in the tarpapered expanse, about six feet from the front wall and seven from either side. A dead man lay face-up just at the edge of its frame. JD turned around and knelt at the coping, bracing himself against it as he leaned over to catch McFarlan's hands while the deputy stood on Chris's shoulders.

Vin, catching the flurry of activity, squinted cautiously in that direction from his post across the street, then relaxed as he recognized the kid's brown suit and Larabee's distinctive black outfit. He touched Ezra's arm and pointed them out. The gambler frowned in puzzlement. "Whatever useful effect do they suppose they can have from that angle?"

"Gotta be some way in through the top," the sharpshooter guessed, "or Chris wouldn't bother. He ain't one to waste effort, you've maybe noticed."

The gambler smiled wryly. "That peculiarity of our illustrious leader has indeed come to my attention on more than one occasion, Mr. Tanner." His quick emerald eyes picked out a larger group advancing at a cautious sidle from the other side of the building. "It appears that Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Sanchez also have some thought of breachin' the enemy's defense."

Vin nodded. "S'pose we see can we make sure them boys don't do nothin' to piss with 'em while they're gettin' set up," he proposed, and began squeezing off shots at a measured pace, randomly shifting his aim from the window to the door and back again. Ezra fell into the rhythm with his revolving Remington, the tracker's own Winchester, and a couple of saddleguns recovered from the original occupants of the position, who no longer had any use for them.

JD and McFarlan, who had just reached the roof, heard the racket start up but could tell from the level of the sound that the shots were aimed well below their own position. Several of the defenders in the office began firing back, and the youngest regulator hesitated, head cocked, listening to the pattern of fire. With black powder, no two firearms, even of the exact same make, model, and caliber, produced identical sounds when fired, while between different ones the distinction in sound could be very evident. JD wasn't familiar enough with the weapons the men inside were using to be able to tell their identity from a single shot, as he could when one of his partners was using his personal gun, but something about the rate and voices of the shots he heard made him uneasy. "That ain't right," he muttered.

"What ain't?" McFarlan demanded.

JD shook his head. "They're tryin' to make it sound like there's more of 'em than there is," he said. "There ain't as many of 'em shootin' as there was before Chris yelled to 'em."

"Meaning what?"

The kid frowned. "Don't know, but I don't like it."

Ten seconds later there was a roar that made the whole building vibrate on its foundations. Buck and Josiah and their party stopped where they were, about fifty yards from their target. Chris jumped back and drew his gun. JD went down on one knee and McFarlan fell full length. It was Vin and Ezra who were best positioned to understand what had happened. "Good Lord!" the gambler exclaimed. "They've blown out the cell wall where I effected your release--but from the inside. The mortar must not have set firm as of yet."

"Must've emptied the powder out've a mess of cartridges and made a train," Vin guessed, as a clump of men squeezed their way out the fresh hole and bolted down the alley. He raised up and waved his hat. "Chris! Buck! They're movin' east along the alley!"

Larabee cut around the building front--and was nearly ambushed as Dave Taylor hurled the door open. Probably he had figured it was now every man for himself, and had counted on the explosion to delude his opposition into thinking everyone would choose that escape route. Chris threw himself sideways as the Texan's Smith & Wesson came up, hit the ground and rolled. Taylor's first shot passed two inches over his spine as his body curved and twisted, but the killer wasn't easily rattled. He adjusted his aim and his second shot hurled dirt into the older man's face, blinding him. As his eyes flooded with tears Chris heard the spiteful crack of Vin's mare's leg, but the sawed-off either didn't have the range to reach across the broad street or hadn't been adjusted to that steep downward angle. Then a hoarse yell and the heavy bark of a Peacemaker sounded and Taylor was slammed back against the brick wall of the office. He slid down it, his eyes wide with shock, as a big hand reached down and clamped around Chris's arm. "Hey, pard, you hit?" asked Buck's familiar voice.

"No," the gunfighter replied, lifting his forearm to blot his eyes with his sleeve, "but I would have been in another second or two. Thanks, Buck."

The rogue grinned. "Just part of the service," he said, and moved toward the man sprawled at the base of the wall. Chris gathered his feet under him, made it erect and followed, his spurs ringing gently.

Taylor was still alive, but the blossom of blood on his shirt showed that the condition was temporary at best. Nathan appeared as Buck toed the Texan's Smith & Wesson away from his open hand, took one look at the position of the wound and stopped where he stood.

"Didn't...give me...a chance," gasped Taylor. It was hard to tell whether he was addressing Wilmington or his leader.

"We couldn't afford to," Chris told him. "Maybe if you'd stuck with the rest you'd have made it."

Taylor looked from one of the three to the others, then lifted his eyes to the storefront across the street. "That's...your secret, ain't it?" he whispered. "All of you...workin'...together."

Chris nodded. "Yeah. That's the secret. That, and knowin' we can trust each other to be there."

The killer gasped and his eyes rolled back. His body slipped sideways against the bricks and was still. Nathan advanced cautiously, limping on his hurt leg, and felt under his jaw. "He's dead."

"Where's Josiah?" Chris asked of his old partner.

"Took off after them others. Seen JD jump off the roof and go the same way," Buck told him.

A volley of gunfire sounded from somewhere back behind the row of buildings. "Let's see if they need backup," Chris proposed, and both men plunged into the alley. Nathan made a move to follow, then remembered his lameness and thought about the deputy who'd been on duty when the jailbreak went down. He paused long enough to check Pennoyer, who proved to be as dead as last week, then limped into the office.

Josiah's courage and endurance couldn't be faulted, but he wasn't built for sprinting. JD distanced him in the first thirty feet. He'd lost track of Darcy and the Miramontes boys. The kid, who had drawn his right Colt on the run (having had to put both away to make the jail roof), stopped just short of the back corner of the cell bloc, hesitated, and then dropped flat and edged a look around. The flicker of his movement drew an instant spatter of pistol shots, but the shooter had apparently counted on a normal-sized man standing erect or close to it, and overshot by a good four feet. JD raised up on one elbow and fired back, three times in quick succession. A horse whinnied in panic and something hit the ground--or rather hit a mud puddle, to judge by the thick splash it made at impact. Josiah caught up as JD scrambled to his feet, and they both hurtled around the building as three or four men gained the saddles of the horses waiting a hundred feet away and charged them in desperation, guns blazing. Josiah grunted as a bullet raked across his right clavicle a quarter-inch from his neck. JD threw himself straight forward again, face buried in folded arms, then rolled sharply onto his back as the horses leaped over his body. The last two rounds in his right-hand Colt skinned across the rump of the hindmost animal, sending it into a fit of wild pitching that flipped its rider out of the saddle, and burned along the right ribs of the man ahead of him; the latter lurched sidewise, almost losing his stirrup, but somehow recovered and raced after his fellows.

Knowing his right gun was empty, JD reached down to holster it as he clambered to his feet, looking around to first satisfy himself that Josiah wasn't seriously hurt, then try to decide whether there was anyone else around he ought to worry about. Twenty feet away Ben Morrison lay face-down in a puddle, his identity proclaimed by the two holsters at his sides, one high on the left, the other low right.

"You, kid!"

JD whirled, his trained eye taking in the situation in a single wild second. Ray Lockwood was standing another thirty feet past Morrison's body, horse's reins wrapped around his left hand, right stabbing toward his Remington .38. The back of his hand turned toward his body, his fingers grasped the butt of the reversed weapon, and it came corkscrewing out with a lifting, twisting motion, sweeping the muzzle arcwise up and across his stomach. The maneuver was perhaps not as fast as a conventional draw would have been, but clearly he realized that JD's right gun was shot dry and counted on that to compensate, figuring the youngest regulator wouldn't be fast enough with his left to beat him.

He figured wrong. Even as JD realized his peril, his hand was moving, the Lightning blurring out of his left holster in a flash of silvered metal that rivalled the speed of the impulse whose name it bore. One shot was all he needed. Lockwood screamed and dropped his sixgun, his left hand loosing the reins of his horse and flying reflexively to his shoulder as the agony threw him to his knees. JD waited, poised, his finger on the trigger ready for a second shot if necessary. Buck came charging up and paused level with him, his own big Colt trained on the whimpering gunman. "You okay, boy?" he demanded.

"Yeah, Buck. He never even got his shot off," JD reported with a note of pride.

The big man glared at him. "What the hell I tell ya about pickin' your target! Aim any place between the belt and shoulders. You hit the other guy there and don't finish him, you still got time for a second shot. If you gotta protect yourself and don't wanta kill him, you go for below the knee--he falls down but he ain't hurt fatal. Even that takes damn close aim in a tight place. But, no, you gotta be fancy and aim for his damn shoulder! What if you'd been high, you'd'a missed the damn fool entirely!"

"But I didn't go high," JD retorted. "When do I ever go high, Buck?"

Chris smiled thinly at the familiar echo of argument as he jammed a bandanna against the crease in Josiah's shoulder. It hadn't been that bad a choice of target, he could tell from the level of pain Lockwood was expressing. The wound would heal up, but the shoulder would never work right again; he'd seen it before. Lockwood had better find himself a new trade, if he got out of this fight without getting hung.

"What became of Blackner?" Josiah asked suddenly.

Larabee's eyes narrowed. "Wasn't he in this bunch?"

"I didn't see him among the ones that rode past," the preacher replied.

"Shit!" the gunfighter growled. "Buck! JD! Come on!" Without knowing why he chose that course, he spun on his heel and went racing back the way he'd come, toward the main street. Vin and Ezra, having contrived to get down off the roof (no easy task considering that the tracker's wounded arm was painful and beginning to stiffen up), met them halfway across.

"What's the hurry, cowboy?" Vin inquired.

"We've lost track of Blackner. God knows the kind of damage he can still do if he gets away," Larabee retorted.

"That man has the luck of Lucifer himself," Ezra muttered, "if not with a deck of cards. What do you propose we do?"

From the alley three doors up, the man they sought eyed them cautiously around the corner of a building, a sixgun plundered from Deputy Keaton's body in his hand. He was tempted sorely to take a shot or two at them as they stood there, but knew he wasn't good enough with a pistol to be sure of doing any real damage, least of all one man against five. He had fled north, up the gulch and parallel to the street, when his men went south, and had turned up an alleyway and darted across the main drag without anyone, apparently, recognizing him. Now his first thought was to get out of the camp and onto the downbound trail. Discovery didn't have telegraph connections. Once he reached the plain he could pause and cut the wires in a few places, making sure of a delay in the word of his status getting out to any surrounding towns. With luck, he could still make it to Pueblo and empty out his safes at home and at his company office. The money might not be enough to keep him the rest of his life, or even to get out of the country on, but right now he didn't care. It would be enough to hire more guns, and he didn't intend to go down without taking out these seven meddlers at least--and Darcy Cullin if he could manage it.

Quickly he retreated down the alley, mounted his roan mare and urged her at a fast shuffling trot along the lane that gave access to the backs of the buildings, under the lowest residential terrace. As the structures petered out from mostly frame and brick to lower cabins and tents and half-log hybrids, he edged his way out into the open and pointed for the dogleg where the trail followed the curve of the canyon and began descending. Past that elbow and he'd be clear.

"Pull up, Elliott."

The lightness of the voice told him as surely as the use of his first name who it was. He reined the mare around. Darcy had apparently been waiting behind one of the shacks on the other side of the trail. She stood in the middle of the muddy way, hat tumbled down her back and hanging by its hard-braided Mexican jaw strap, the mountain breeze stirring her piled and pinned blonde hair, Winchester pulled into her left shoulder and levelled on him. Her face was smudged with powdersmoke, but her stance was even, perfectly balanced, body turned profile-on, gunfighter-fashion, to present the smallest possible target, and behind her spectacles her eyes were hard and bright.

"Damn," he said quietly. "How did you guess?"

"Plato tells us to know ourselves. I say, know your enemy. I haven't competed three years with you not to know how your mind works, Elliott. The only thing I missed was what you did to my stock. That I would never have expected. But this...I knew you'd let your men distract everyone's attention and give you a chance to get away. After all, they don't mean anything to you, like my boys do to me. They're just hired hands, and you can hire more. Your own skin is all that matters to you; it's all that ever has, that and money." The rifle's deadly black eye remained fixed on him. "Now get down. I ought to kill you, but I'm taking you back up to Mr. Larabee and his men."

Blackner didn't move. "Who the hell are they, anyway?"

"They're just who you think they are. They're Circuit Judge Travis's men, the ones who cleaned up Four Corners, and this camp is in their jurisdiction. They're going to see that you hang."

"Travis doesn't have any say here. This is an independent mining district."

"You're still going to hang. You murdered a man here. Get down." She hadn't lowered the rifle.

He shook his head. "You won't shoot me, Darcy. In the first place, I've seen you use a sixgun. You're right-handed. You're holding that rifle the wrong way for your natural preference. Besides, you're a woman. You're too soft." He kneed the mare around.

The Winchester barked once, a flat metallic whang! A hot poker reamed through Blackner's left shoulder, throwing him forward against the mare's neck. She half-reared as his sagging weight dragged her back around. "That was for Petardo, you bastard!" Darcy yelled at him, resorting to English profanity for perhaps the third time in her professional life. "A coward's shot for a coward!"

Blackner suddenly realized how very wrong he had been about her. He reached for his revolver and a second shot burned the flesh of his right thigh. "That was for Ivanhoe!"

He clenched his teeth, fighting the pain, and dragged the sixgun free. Two more shots sounded in quick succession as Darcy pumped the Winchester's lever; the first holed his wrist and the second shattered his elbow. "Sonora! Caliban!"

His gun had fallen from his strengthless hand. Panic poured through him. "No! You can't kill me--not for that! They were mules! Just mules!"

"Ask Buck Wilmington or JD Dunne if I can kill you for that, you son of a piebald bitch! They were my mules! Your fight was never with them, it was with me. You had no right to punish them just for belonging to the wrong person. No right, do you hear me, you worthless piece of snakeshit?" The Winchester lowered by just a fraction, as if she were hesitating, or wondering whether she'd tortured him enough.

Blackner all but tumbled headlong out of the saddle, his wounded leg failing him as he tried to put his weight on it. Teeth clenched, he reached with his left hand for the fallen revolver, knowing the twice-damaged right arm was useless, knowing he was dead but determined to take her with him. As his fingers closed around it a fifth shot slammed into his lower left ribs and hurled him back. "Rusty!" Darcy's relentless tally continued.

Vaguely through thickening veils of shadow he made out a clump of scurrying figures descending the street behind her, made out Larabee's flying black duster and Standish's maroon jacket. Still the instinct for self-preservation asserted itself and he tried once more to raise the revolver. And Darcy shot him through the heart.

"And that," she finished coldly, "was for Sugar. Damn you. Damn you. Damn you to the lowest circle of Dante's pit." The last sentence came out in a thick, unsteady voice as her eyes filled. She let the smoking Winchester fall just as the Seven, or rather five of them, caught up and slowly spread out to either side of her, taking in the bloody wounds on Blackner's body and the gun still clutched in his death-spasmed hand.

Buck holstered his sixgun and once again folded his arms around her as she began to cry almost soundlessly. "I don't feel anything, Buck," she told him through her tears. "I told JD, when you get to not feeling anything after you kill a man, it's time to hang it up. But I don't feel anything."

"That's okay, darlin'," the big man told her quietly. "That piece of filth ain't rightly a man at all, and never was." His chin rested itself on her head and his eyes met Chris's, hard and challenging. "Looks like self-defense to me," Vin drawled softly. "Got a gun in his hand, ain't he? Wounds is in the front, ain't they? Fugitive runnin' from a murder trial, wasn't he? Ain't nobody lost nothin' that matters."

Ezra nodded somberly. "I must concur, Mr. Tanner. He would certainly have been executed in any case, probably within seventy-two hours, given the notable swiftness of minin'-camp retribution."

"Josiah says we should do unto others as we'd have them do unto us," JD observed. "Seems to me like there's another side to that: what people do comes back to 'em, sometimes with interest. If it don't, it should, maybe."

Buck held his old friend's cool green gaze until he sensed the subtlest of shifts in the gunfighter's mindset, then turned his face down to Darcy's, buried against his calico shirt. "Come on, darlin'," he said quietly, "let's get on back and find Fernando and them before they start thinkin' they've lost you." Still holding her within the circle of his arms, he began walking her back the way they had come, his friends falling back to either side to let them pass. JD moved a few feet forward to gather up her rifle and followed. Ezra shot a venomous glittering glare at the dead man, pulled out a linen handkerchief with his initials ornately worked in the corner, wiped his hot powder-stained face, refolded the kerchief meticulously and replaced it in his pocket, straightened his jacket and adjusted his cuffs and strode after them.

"It ain't exactly the law, I know, cowboy," Vin said softly. "But it's justice, and that means more. Don't it?" Vivid blue eyes held pale green a moment, and the unspoken thought of Tascosa passed between them.

"It does," Chris said then. He turned, falling in beside the tracker with a penetrating glance at the improvised bandage on his arm. "Nathan needs to look at that. What the hell kinda dressing you got on there?"

Vin chuckled. "Ezra used his scarf. Said he could buy a new one but he couldn't buy a new life."

The older man's brows lifted. "First I've known him to admit it. Sounds like a story there."

The tracker shrugged modestly. "Weren't nothin'. You'd'a done the same. There was this boy with a knife, up on the feed store roof--"

+ + + + + + +

Three days later, at the edge of the foothills, Darcy's mule train was preparing to break camp and turn north for Pueblo while the Seven headed east toward Four Corners and home. The Mexicans were readying the last of the pack mules while Darcy, who had put up most of the camp outfit with JD's assistance, shared a last cup of coffee with the regulators, Nathan sitting on a rock resting his wounded leg before he got into the saddle. Since José had a bad arm, he'd been let off packing duty, and Buck, being the tallest of the Seven and one of the strongest, had offered to lend a hand; Josiah couldn't, for fear of pulling open the deep crease on the top of his shoulder. A slow smile curled the woman's lips as she turned to slosh out the dregs from the coffeepot and saw Francisco striding toward the big gunfighter, who had stepped back to let Juan throw the diamond hitch on the mule they had just loaded and was standing with hands in the small of his back, stretching muscles unaccustomed to the lifting of half of three hundred sixty troy pounds of bullion.

"Señor Wilmington," Francisco said, his voice sharp, and Buck turned cautiously, not wanting to pull his weary spine any more than necessary. The young Mexican's dark Indian eyes were as inscrutable as Ezra's when there was a big pot on the table, and his right hand rested on his hip, within easy reach of the ruby-starred butt of his Smith & Wesson, but it was his left that Buck noticed particularly as it played casually with the roughened grip of the heavy Bowie knife jutting from a thin case just inside the waistband of his fine yellow buckskin trousers. "There is a matter unsettled between us."

Buck didn't like the looks of this. "Uh...there is? What would that be?"

"On the night we all came to the cantina," Francisco replied evenly, "and you played espadachín [bully] to su chiquito--that I understand was not meant as it seemed. It was that you hoped to make el asesino [the murderer] Blackner and his pistoleros think that you and your compañeros were of the same breed as they. But it seems to me that you, Señor, carried the play perhaps farther than you should. There were words you used to me that a man's pride should not be obliged to accept without requiring satisfaction."

Nathan frowned and made a move to rise. Darcy flashed a sidewise grin at him, one hand lifted in a "wait" gesture. A slow wicked smile slid across Josiah's face where he stood savoring the last of his coffee.

Chris's eyes narrowed and he shifted position slightly, spreading his feet for better balance. He had always known Buck's mouth would get him in trouble one of these days, if his way with the ladies didn't first, but this time he was the one who had told the rogue what to do. Ezra smiled and sat back, touching his tongue to his lower lip. "What?" Chris demanded.

The Southerner's reply bubbled with suppressed amusement. "It takes a con to spot a con, Mr. Larabee..." His gold tooth flashed. "Mr. Wilmington is in no danger..."

Buck swallowed, his eyes widening a bit as he remembered exactly what he'd called the younger man and the suggestion he'd made. "Hey," he said, pasting a weak imitation of his usual shit-eating grin on his face, "you said yourself, that was just a game, a fake. I didn't mean what I said to you no more'n I meant what I said to JD. Can't we talk about this?"

"Sí, sin duda," Francisco purred, taking a slow step forward, his hand sliding around the knife hilt. "But not with words, Señor."

Buck backpedalled, panic rearing its ugly head as he remembered his duel with Don Paolo less than a month ago, remembered how much Mexicans loved knives and how all of them knew how to use them, remembered Anderson's saber and how much he really disliked sharp, pointy objects, his own big belt knife notwithstanding. He could have sworn he felt a sympathetic twinge from the barely healed wounds in his arm and leg. "Take it easy, amigo," he entreated. "Come on, my pards and me done your patrona a real good turn, didn't we? Don't that count for nothin'?"

Francisco followed him relentlessly, lips pulled into a tight gloating smile. "Seguro, but it is what your Juez Travis pays you to do, es no eso? To uphold the law and assist those who ask your help? This is not to do with law. It is personal--un pundonor [a point of honor]."

The gunslinger kept retreating, circling the fire and wondering frantically why none of his so-called pards were coming to his assistance. He really didn't want to have to shoot this kid, even if Francisco did pull that knife eventually; he liked and respected Darcy too much to want to hurt any man who took her pay. But he also didn't want to keep dancing around all morning, and he didn't want to look like a coward in front of Francisco's family or the six men who had become the nearest he had to one of his own.

He was so busy watching Francisco's left hand that he never saw the younger man's right come up. For a moment he wondered where the hell that mule had come from. The next thing he knew, he was sprawl-sitting in the grass, one hand gingerly probing at his aching jaw and coming away red-wet where the Mexican's blow had broken the skin at the corner of his mouth, while Francisco stood over him flexing his hand and smiling broadly. "Now," he said, "we have talked about it, Señor." And he turned on his heel and walked away in a sweet chiming of spurs, laughing, as his father and brothers burst into a chorus of amusement and delight at Buck's bewilderment and discomfiture. Too late Buck remembered that all Mexicans not only knew how to use knives, but had a sense of humor and one of drama--and a hard-dying wish to put a successful bluff over on the gringo.

Ezra was laughing so hard Buck thought he'd go into convulsions. Nathan was trying without much success to keep a straight face. Vin looked as inscrutable as a Comanche, except for his blue eyes, which were dancing with amusement. Josiah and Darcy were both grinning, and even Chris's grim features bore something that looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a real face-splitter. For a moment relief overcame embarassment and Buck found himself thinking, Well, thank God that's all there was to it! Then a shadow fell across him and he looked up at a scowling JD, with fists planted on his hips. "Serves you right!" the kid told him.

"Aw, hell," Buck groaned, "not you too! Some partner you are! Couldn't you at least have give me a high sign?"

"If I could'a reached you as easy as Francisco could, I'd'a fought him for the first hack at you!" JD retorted. "I told Darcy you and me were gonna have some words when this was over! Damn it, Buck, you owe me more'n you done him! Talk about partners--"

And Buck Wilmington hid his face in his hands and turned hot as ten pounds of chili peppers while his friends' laughter washed over his head.


Comments to: sevenstars39@hotmail.com