II. Horse Thieves

by Sevenstars

“Look,” said JD. “They´re leavin´ the store.”

The seven men watched as Lucas James tromped down the boardwalk past the doors of the lobby-saloon, pulling his bandanna down as he went. Two men followed him, bulging gunny sacks slung over their shoulders. The sound of the shots and Gloria Potter´s scream had given them a good idea of what had happened inside, and Chris at least was berating himself for not making a move sooner. He hadn´t figured that Lucas would resort to violence; after all, the man had to live in these parts. Something unforeseen must have forced his hand.

The trio shoved its way into the restaurant and disappeared from view. “What they got in mind in there?” Nathan wondered. “Ain´t like the till would have anywheres near as much money as the store or the bar.”

Buck went pale, then flushed. Stuart James had said at the ranch that nobody had witnessed Ezra´s confrontation with Lucas except Inez, but that wasn´t quite true. Max had been watching from the barn at least long enough to have realized what Lucas had been trying to do, and while he was far too fond of his skin to spread the word around-- the Jameses being the power in local affairs that they were--he had, eventually, told Buck, who was technically his immediate supervisor. In addition, Wilmington had heard enough from his lady friends over his two years at Sedgwick to know that such an attempt wasn´t at all out of character for the younger man. “Son of a bitch,” he growled, “he´s goin´ after Inez.” And he took off in a rush, aiming not for the restaurant entrance but for the corner of Willoughby´s barbershop-bathhouse next door.

“Damnit, Buck,” JD called after him, “wait up!” And before anyone could stop him, he had gone dashing in pursuit of Wilmington.

Chris took breath to call them back, then thought better of it. He knew Buck well enough to know that there were some situations that would always take precedence over any other obligation with him, and one of them was a woman in danger; the big man would do whatever he felt was necessary to save her, and to hell with orders. At least he had JD for backup.

Ezra had apparently come to the end of his patience as well. He pushed himself into a crouch. “Since Mr. Wilmington has taken it upon himself to fragment our merry band,” he said, “and any action he may take will certainly warn the miscreants in the bar that someone proposes to resist them, I believe this may be the last opportune moment to take them from the rear. Mr. Sanchez, would you care to accompany me?”

The smith grinned menacingly and settled his hat. “Lead the way, brother.”

Ezra bolted for the corner of the building, following the same course as Buck and JD, who by now were out of sight. Josiah was close behind. Nathan hesitated a moment, frowning, then sighed and checked his knives and followed. This might be the chance he´d been looking for to balance accounts. He´d had no opportunity to do so earlier, since it was Vin who had gotten Standish out of the Indian camp and Chris who´d persuaded the Arapahoes to cease their pursuit.

“Damn,” Chris growled quietly, watching them go. Feeling Vin´s dancing blue eyes on him, he swung his head around. “What?”

Vin´s twisted half-smile betrayed his amusement. “They ain´t in th´Army, cowboy. They´s followin´ you ´cause they want to, not ´cause they got to. You figure to get anywheres with ´em, ´ceptin´ maybe Bucklin, you best keep that in mind.”

“Does that include you?” the officer demanded.

“Reckon it does. I ain´t no man´s dog, Larabee. We´s friends, but I got my own notions of what´s right to do. My ma done told me never to forget I´s a Tanner. I ain´t.”

Chris frowned briefly, then turned his attention toward the stage office. “All right,” he said. “Ezra was right about one thing: as soon as he or Buck start shooting, the whole gang´s going to realize their plans have gone south. Royale wants me. I´ll oblige him. Stay back and keep me covered.”

+ + + + + + +

Inez had been in the kitchen, absorbed in preparations for the noon meal, when the gang first swept into the settlement. The waiters, not being armed, naturally fled as soon as the first warning shots were fired, and the handiest way to go was out the back. One of them stopped to tell Inez what was going on, though he had no idea of the connection between the gang and the stage robbery: that, so far, was known only to Mary and to Chris´s group.

As soon as she heard that Lucas James was almost certainly a member of the band, Inez realized that she might be in danger. As long as she remained in the kitchen she was vulnerable from two directions. Snatching up her ancient escopeta--a single-barrelled gaspipe shotgun that could send its load about twenty yards--from the corner where it leaned, she retreated to the back room of her apartment off the kitchen and took up a position well away from the windows and directly opposite the door, which she had locked behind her.

For a time there was no sign that anyone was taking any interest in her. She could hear a certain amount of commotion, muffled by the intervening log walls, from the saloon next door, but no further shooting--until James killed Potter. She could tell from the volume of the sound that the shots had not been fired in the bar, and wondered what it could mean.

James and his two men found the dining room deserted. Ignoring the sounds of looting from the saloon, they crossed it to the service door, which let into the butler´s pantry where the dishes were stored, and on into the kitchen. The assortment of foodstuffs spread out on the central table told James that Inez had been here recently. He considered the back door, which was closed, and the door to the food pantry on the south side of the room, then decided her likeliest bolthole would be her own quarters, where she would know the layout exactly, feel secure, and have light. He tried the door, and on finding it locked knew he´d guessed right. Pulling his Colt, he shot the lock out and kicked the door open. On the far side of the small sitting room was yet another door, also closed. “Stay here and cover our backs in case anybody gets brave,” he told one of his men, and, followed by the second, started toward that other door.

Inez heard the shot and the crash of the sitting-room door flying back. She pulled a cane- bottomed chair around in front of her and rested the long, heavy barrel of the escopeta across the seat, lining it on the bedroom door, as heavy footsteps approaching from the other side, followed by a second shot, told her her refuge had been discovered.

Sweeping his eyes about the room, Lucas saw the deadly eye of the escopeta lining directly on him and dropped flat. Inez couldn´t adjust in time to keep her finger from tightening on the trigger, and the gun went off with a tremendous roar, its load catching the man behind Lucas full in the chest and blowing him practically to doll rags. Before she could pull the weapon back off the chair seat and begin the process of reloading, James leaped to his feet, hurled himself across her big brass bed, and yanked the chair out from in front of her, reaching down with his other hand to tear the shotgun from her fumbling grip.

Just passing the back door of Willoughby´s, Buck heard the bellow of the shotgun, recognized it for what it was and shifted into his highest gear. His Remington was already in his hand and the hammer cocked when he kicked the back door in. A man he didn´t recognize, standing between the center table and the door that led to the passage between Inez´s quarters and the store-closet where the more exotic groceries were kept, spun toward him, but a moment too late; Buck raised his sixgun and fired once, and the man went down in a heap. JD hurtled through the back door, both his new Navies drawn and ready, and jammed to a halt, struggling to catch his breath and smother the coughs that rattled up inside him.

From the direction of the passage sounded a female shriek of rage and fear. Buck swore foully, took a step, then hesitated, forcing himself to think. His experience in the Rangers and the Army had taught him the value of holding some of his forces in reserve. “Stay behind me, boy,” he ordered in a low voice. “I don´t want James knowin´ you´re with me till it´s too late. Understand?”

JD hesitated too, but Buck´s choice of words convinced him that he wasn´t being relegated to a subordinate position because he was thought incompetent or in need of protection; indeed, Buck was counting on him, trusting his young friend to provide backup and to avenge him if he were cut down. “Okay,” he agreed.

“Let´s go,” said Buck, and began moving in, putting his back to the wall and sidling toward the door.

+ + + + + + +

Like the Potters´, the saloon´s rear door was always left unlocked during business hours, and opened readily when Ezra turned the knob. Passing the back storeroom, he crossed the billiard saloon, or rear barroom, which the Sedgwick officers used as their club, and paused when he reached the curtained archway that led to the lobby. He heard the sound of gunshots as James blew out Inez´s door locks, followed by the roar of her shotgun, and forced himself to be calm and ignore them. Mr. Wilmington would see to the bastards who threatened her.

Cautiously he twitched the draperies a half-inch or so out of line, leaving just enough of a slit for him to see through. He could see George and the day clerk, Emmett, crowded into the front corner between the window and the end of the bar, along with a couple of early bar-flies who hadn´t had the spryness or good sense to flee, and a man covering them while a second stood behind the registration desk, scooping money out of the cigar-box till into a sack. The Southerner frowned. Three men had come in here; he had seen them just as Larabee had. Where was the third?

He sensed a presence at his back and guessed it was Josiah. He knew his own skill with a gun but wasn´t fully certain of the smith´s, and he preferred not to endanger his employees if he could help it. “One at our left, in front, Mr. Sanchez,” he murmured, “and one at the desk. I shall leave him to your tender mercies and dispense with the other myself. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” came the big man´s quiet rumble. “On count of three?”

Ezra nodded briefly. “One,” he began. “Two. Th--”

The word was only half past his lips when another gunshot sounded from the kitchen. The previous shots had apparently come from a gun with whose sound the two road-agents were familiar, since they had paid them little heed, but this one didn´t, and their heads jerked up. Taking advantage of their distraction, Ezra swept the curtains aside and lunged over the threshold. “Drop your weapons, gentlemen,” he ordered.

They didn´t--which, considering that they were both facing a noose as accessories to the deaths of the two guards on the stage, was nothing more than he had expected. The boom of Josiah´s Walker directly behind him all but deafened him even as he threw himself forward and down. The road-agent in the front corner was firing at a dropping target, while Ezra was firing up from breast-aim at a standing one backlit by the window. The miscreant scarcely knew where Standish had gone or what had hit him. He fell backward into the curtains, his weight crashing through the glass pane they shielded, and lay still, half in and half out of the opening, his body swathed in the green fabric. “Damn,” the Southerner grumbled querulously as he pushed himself to his feet. Now he´d have to replace the window, which, according to the saloon books, had cost eighteen dollars plus freight. He glanced toward the registration desk, where the second man hung sprawled head-down, his hand dangling over the edge, sixgun fallen to the floor beneath. He couldn´t remember whether the fellow had been able to get a shot off, but obviously Mr. Sanchez´s marksmanship had proved equal to the challenge. Now, where is that third brigand?

“Boss, look out!” George yelled, and Ezra twisted and dropped, gasping as fire lanced through his right shoulder, just in time to see Number Three pop up from behind the bar, his gun lifting to target the gambler--and then stiffen, his face going blank with shock, and plunge forward like a felled tree. A black-handled knife stood up from the middle of his back, and Nathan Jackson stood in the rear archway with a look of grim satisfaction on his face.

+ + + + + + +

Buck reached the door of Inez´s quarters and gestured to JD to remain in the passage. Not waiting to see whether the boy would obey, he stepped into the neat little front room, glancing around, then homing in on the sound of a struggle from the one behind.

James had heard the shot from the kitchen and realized immediately what it signified. He was on his feet, his back to the wall, Inez held before him as a shield. Her blouse was ripped at one shoulder, a bruise forming on her left cheek and jaw. James´s left arm crossed her body from left ribs to right shoulder, at once immobilizing her and crushing half the breath from her lungs; her hands tore at it ineffectually, but she lacked the strength to free herself.

Buck paused on the threshold, reflexively using one foot to shove the limp remains of the escopeta´s victim out of his way. James grinned thinly at him. “Looks like we´ve got ourselves a Mexican standoff here,” he observed.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Buck replied. “You can´t stay where you are forever. Even if you take me, I got six pards around town who´ll hunt you down long before you can find yourself a horse.”

“Not if I take her with me,” said James.

“Even then. You´re down two men already--” Buck paused as a barrage of gunfire sounded from the saloon. “Make that five,” he amended; he didn´t know for certain who had won, but he understood the value of planting doubt in the enemy´s mind. “Plus them two that was holdin´ your horses. Sure, you can take her along, but you´ll have to sleep sometime, and when you do Vin or Nate´ll creep in and get you with a knife. Or maybe Vin´ll just circle around ahead of you and find a good place and pick you off with his Sharps before you even know he´s there. Give it up, son, before it gets any worse.”

“Not much chance of that,” James retorted. “I´m already up for a noose for those two stage guards and Potter. What´s one more--or more than one?”

Listening in the passage, JD held himself back by sheer force of will. His heart was pounding and his breath coming in short, labored pants that were only partly the lingering effects of his bout with influenza. He knew Buck well enough, by now, to know that he would do whatever he had to if a woman´s life was at stake. Wasn´t there anything he could do to help resolve this stalemate? Wilmington had told him to keep out of sight, had made it clear that he was needed as a reserve. He couldn´t betray his presence by going in the way Buck had done--but maybe he could take a hand from another direction. From the sound of the two men´s voices, he thought they must be in the bedroom. It had windows looking out on the rear yard, as did the sitting room. If James could persuade Buck to let him go out, with Inez as a hostage, he´d have to pass within line of sight of those. If he were focused on Buck, he might not realize his back was open. Moving quietly, as Vin had taught him, JD began fading back, across the kitchen and toward the rear door.

+ + + + + + +

Guy Royale and the man with him had pistol-whipped Virgil Watson to unconsciousness when he went for the gun under his counter, then forced Owen Jerrenson to drag him into the corner by the rear-office door, where Royale´s companion covered them while the ex-Superintendent attended to the safe. He had emptied it of money and was just turning toward the front room when a shout sounded from the street outside. “Royale! Guy Royale! This is Larabee! It´s me you want, isn´t it? Come on out and take your best shot!”

Royale hurried out to peer cautiously past the shades he had pulled down over the outer-office windows. Sure enough, there was Larabee, standing in the middle of Jamesburg´s main “street,” his black leather jacket open and thrown back to give him easy access to the Remington Army sixgun at his side. There was no sign of Standish or of the five men who had supposedly gone with the officer to search for the missing gambler--Owen had told Royale about that, under duress-- but, as Royale hesitated, a shot sounded from somewhere down the length of the building, followed by a brief heavy barrage somewhat nearer. He thought he saw a thin mirthless smile appear on Larabee´s face beneath the brim of his black slouch hat. “We´re cutting your men down, Royale, a few at a time,” he said clearly. “If you want any chance of saving yourself, you´d better grab it now while you can.”

Royale thought quickly. There was only one way in or out of the company facilities, and that was the front door; the windows were all covered with a lattice of bars, and any communicating door to the Potters´ place had been planked up after RM&W leased the rooms. He opened the door a crack and shouted back, “Just what kind of fool do you think I am, Larabee? If you´re here, so are the rest of your men. Even if I take you out, they´ll cut me down.”

“No, they won´t,” Larabee replied, and raised his voice a touch. “Vin? Can you hear us?”

“Hear you fine, pard,” came a reply from somewhere in the tangle of growth along the riverbank.

“If Royale comes out and faces me, and if he wins,” Larabee proceeded in the same even tones, “I want your word you´ll let him ride out of town, and make sure the others do the same.”

Silence for a moment as the unseen speaker, whom Royale presumed to be the tracker, considered the bargain. Royale frowned; this sounded far too easy. Then it occurred to him that Larabee hadn´t said anything to forbid his men following the former Superintendent after he´d gotten out of the settlement. And, despite his current civilian dress, Larabee was still technically an officer in the Cavalry; Travis would almost certainly send a detail in pursuit of his killer.

The same facts had obviously dawned on the tracker as well. “You got my word,” he agreed.

“What about it, Royale?” Larabee demanded. “It´s your call.”

Royale reflected. It wasn´t much of a chance, but it was a chance. As to his ability to take his replacement down, he had little doubt. He´d faced more than one man over the sights of a pistol even before he came West, had proved his coolness and courage, his steadiness of hand and accuracy of eye. And he could take young Jerrenson with him as a hostage; that might give pause to any pursuit. As matters stood, if he didn´t accept Larabee´s offer, they could just surround the place and starve him out. That was no death for a Creole gentleman.

Chris waited patiently. Six weeks ago, the day he first took over here, Ezra had suggested he might not “be familiar with Royale´s type,” but in fact he was. Since the military was considered one of the few professions open to a gentleman, and since many sons of the planting class could hope for no better inheritance than what was called a “competence”--enough land to feed them--the officer corps, especially in the West, was heavily freighted with Southerners. They had brought with them unaltered their aristocratic vision of what a man´s honor demanded, and this vision had melded almost seamlessly with the expectations the Army had of its “officers and gentlemen,” so that code duello was an accepted part of military life. Chris had never been a principal in a duel, but he´d served as a second in several, and had been acquainted, over his two decades as an officer, with many Southern versions of the type, Creole and otherwise. He had a good idea of just how far Royale was willing to sink, and he was pretty sure that the temptation of evening the score with him would be too much for Royale to resist, especially if a fair and open fight provided him with the guaranteed chance to get safely out of town before any pursuit was mounted.

“All right, Larabee,” came the voice from inside the office, “you´ve got a deal. I´m coming out.”

+ + + + + + +

Buck was seething, but he knew that James had estimated the situation correctly. Whether he had actually fired either of the shots that had killed the two stage guards, he could still hang as an accessory to their murders--and any killing that occurred during the commission of a felony tended to be viewed by the courts as murder. He had also admitted openly that he had killed Randolph Potter, which was certainly sufficient cause to hang him. And it meant he´d have to kill anyone who had heard him say it--Buck and Inez first. He really didn´t have a damn thing to lose.

Wilmington knew JD would have heard the exchange, and wished he could somehow communicate with the kid. That James´s back would be open--to the pantries off the kitchen or the windows of Inez´s quarters--as he tried to make his way out of the building hadn´t escaped the big man; he would never have encouraged JD to shoot a man in the back, but even just to be called from behind might be enough to distract Lucas and give Buck an opening.

“I´m coming out, Wilmington,” James told him. “Back out of my way or I´ll shoot you where you stand and go out over you.”

Knowing he had little choice in the matter, Buck began sullenly inching backward, his gun still clenched tightly in his hand. Inez, feeling the muzzle of James´s pistol against the angle of her jaw, moved with him as he advanced. Yet what he saw in her eyes--what James couldn´t see, being behind her--wasn´t fear, or at least not fear alone. The realization that she was still thinking, that she might even have a plan, was all that held him back from some overenthusiastic rush. Like dancers they all moved together, Buck backing one step for each forward step James and Inez took.

+ + + + + + +

“Why the hell didn´t you say you were hit, Josiah?” Nathan demanded as he deftly unbuttoned the big man´s shirt.

“Because I wasn´t,” Sanchez retorted. “I think the bullet must have ricocheted off something. It just grazed me, if you must know--dug a furrow along my right side, from the hipbone toward the navel. It´s just a shallow one, a bleeder but not a killer. I can tell.”

“How would a blacksmith know that?” the healer asked.

“I wasn´t always a blacksmith,” Josiah answered calmly. It wasn´t until he had gone to help George haul the dead man off the windowsill and back into the room, and Ezra had spotted the drops of blood leaving a trail behind them, that anyone else had realized he´d been wounded. Called on it, he had sat down rather abruptly in the nearest chair and admitted that he felt “just a little dizzy.”

“Shallow wounds can still give you a hell of a nasty case of blood poisoning,” Nathan grumbled. “George, I need a bottle of whiskey to wash this out with.”

Ezra barely noticed the bartender pulling one out of the plunder-filled gunny sack of the road-agent Jackson had killed. He was standing by the broken window, looking out into the street, tenderly cradling his sore arm. At first he´d thought he´d been shot, but it had turned out that he´d hit the floor at a bad angle and popped his shoulder out of the socket. Nathan had yanked it back--a painful process, but quick--and told him not to use it any more than he could help for a day or so. “Damnyankee idiot,” he growled, “what is he tryin´ to accomplish?”

+ + + + + + +

Inez had decided it was about time to tilt the balance in her favor. She wasn´t about to be dragged off as a hostage even if Buck did maintain she´d be rescued before James could get her very far. She realized that if she could deprive him of the shield her body was providing, it would give Buck the opening he needed. So she took refuge in one of the most basic tactics of women everywhere: she fainted.

It wasn´t a genuine faint, but it had much the same effect. James was suddenly faced with a dead weight in his arms and had to pause, hitching her up against him, still watching Wilmington closely. As he continued to half- drag her toward the door, debating whether to drop her and take his chances or continue as he had begun, and at the same time trying to keep his gun on her, watch where he was going, and keep track of Buck, he tripped over the forgotten escopeta on the floor. Inez felt him start to fall and came to life, jacking her elbow back hard, at the same time bringing her foot up to slam into his knee and finish what the shotgun had begun. As she tore herself free of his grip and rolled away from him, she heard his Colt go off.

+ + + + + + +

“We don´t seem to have a referee,” Royale observed.

“I noticed,” Chris agreed.

“So how do you want to do this?”

“Twenty paces is usual, isn't it? That would be forty to sixty feet. I´d say we´re about twenty-five from each other now. We need to widen the gap.”

“You don´t seriously think I´m going to stand back-to-back with you, do you?”

“I´m not that naive, Royale. You´ve got your gun out already,” and he nodded at the ´51 Navy Colt, much like Ezra´s, that hung down beside the other´s leg. “Keep it there and I´ll start backing away. Whenever you feel lucky, just bring it up and fire. I´ll have to draw mine, which gives you just a little advantage. How does that sound?”

“Better than I´d thought,” Royale admitted. “Start moving.”

+ + + + + + +

Buck was aware of eyes on him and glanced sideways to find JD just outside the window, which was open about two inches at the bottom. “Buck?” he asked through the crack. “I heard a shot, are you and Inez okay?”

The big man looked toward James, who was lying in a twisted heap, half on his left side, half on his belly, his gun fallen to the floor just beyond the spread fingers of his right hand. A crimson stain was slowly spreading into view on the brown sheepskin that intervened between him and the floor. His eyes were open, but bright with mute agony. It was a look Wilmington had seen many times in his life before. He moved forward to toe the Colt out of the younger man´s reach. “Where you hit?” he asked quietly.

“Gutshot,” James gasped. “No--don´t touch me. Don´t--move me. You know--there´s nothin´--anybody can do.”

Buck straightened and looked the scene over. James´s own gun must have gone off when he tripped over Inez´s escopeta, and since he´d been in the process of falling at the time, he´d shot himself accidentally. Wilmington smothered a sigh and nodded. The man was done for, and it wouldn´t be an easy death. For all that, he had a moment of pragmatic gratitude. At least neither he nor JD nor Inez could be blamed for James´s death and targeted by his uncle for future revenge.

JD lifted the sash and scrambled in over the windowsill, staring at James in confusion and shock. “Buck?”

Buck shook his head. “He´s dyin´, kid. Men don´t live after they been shot through the belly.” He moved back to where Inez was slowly pushing herself up, and knelt to give her a hand. “You okay, darlin´?”

“Si, Señor Buck.” The woman sounded breathless and shaken, but that was all. “You are home--is Señor Ezra--?”

“He´s fine. Tired and needs a bath and a good feed, but Nate´s had a look at him and says there´s no permanent damage done. Lucky we had Vin with us is all.”

Inez frowned in puzzlement. None of them noticed at first as James´s hand slid to his waist, to Potter´s once-fired Colt still tucked through his belt, hidden from view by the curve of his body. He knew he was doomed, but he was resolved to take at least one of them with him.

Some well-honed sixth sense, developed over a quarter of a century of frontier life, warned Buck just in time for him to lift his head and see the barrel shakily rising. James might or might not have been aiming for him specifically, but with the three of them clumped together in a group as they were, JD´s and Inez´s backs to him and his pain and shock interfering with the accuracy of his aim, there was a good chance the man would hit one of them instead. Wilmington didn´t even think. He threw himself sideways, using his weight to tumble the kid and the woman in a breathless heap on the floor, just as the Colt went off.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had seen formal duels, and he had also listened as Buck told of gunfights in Texas and New Mexico. He knew that Royale would have grown up learning how to behave in the former, but he also knew that the man had spent a number of years in the West and didn´t doubt that his experiences there had modified his outlook. He didn´t delude himself into expecting that Royale would lift his sixgun slowly and sight carefully, as an officer would do in a properly refereed duel. He´d aim before he even brought it up, and shoot from the hip. As soon as he saw Royale´s shoulder tense and his arm begin to lift, he dropped his own hand to the butt of his Remington and drew.

Unlike Buck, whose frontier experience had involved either a straight-up or a left-to-right cross- draw, Chris´s entire history of carrying a sidearm had involved the military style of a reversed holster. It wasn´t designed for a quick draw, and its wearers didn´t expect to need to use one. But over his twenty-one years in the Cavalry, he had brought his weapon into play so many times that he had gradually developed a deftness even he didn´t fully recognize. Turning the back of his right hand toward his body, he grasped the gun and corkscrewed it out of the holster with a lifting, twisting motion that brought the muzzle sweeping an arc up and across his stomach, his forefinger sliding through the trigger guard, outstretched thumb spreading over the hammer, cocking it as tightening fingers pulled the weapon free. His weight shifted on the ball of his foot, turning him profile-on, as a duellist would stand, to offer a smaller target. His hand closed fully about the weapon, the second joint of the thumb pulling the hammer back, and the muzzle travelled only inches, barely enough to bring the barrel level, before the trigger snapped from the hip. The two shots sounded almost as one, but Royale´s bullet whined harmlessly past Larabee´s left ear as his own slammed into the Creole an inch above the belt buckle and brought him down like an axed tree.

Chris stood a moment, Remington cocked for a second shot, nerves and senses at full alert. Royale didn´t stir. Somewhere behind him a door slammed and he fell back and sideways in a quick, almost dancing movement, but it was only Ezra, with one of his looted Navy Colts in his left hand and his right tucked into his belt. “You hit?” Larabee demanded.

“Dislocated my shoulder,” the gambler replied. “Mr. Jackson reduced it with notable efficiency. We have three dead in the bar, and Mr. Sanchez has suffered a minor wound.” He moved past the older man, his gun trained on Royale, and cautiously pushed him over with one toe. Moving in behind him, Chris saw that the man´s eyes were open in a fixed stare, already glazing over. “We need have no further concern over him,” Ezra observed, and then turned quickly as the stage-office door opened and a pair of sixguns came flying out.

The man inside, seeing Royale go down and Standish emerge from the saloon, had obviously concluded that the odds were no longer in his favor and decided to take what little chance he might have and surrender. “Don´t shoot,” he called from within, “I´m comin´ out!”

Chris frowned. “Can you find some secure place to keep him?” he asked the Southerner.

“I dare say George and I can improvise somethin´ in the cellar,” Ezra agreed. “Go and see to Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne, and kindly assure Inez, if you will, that I shall be along shortly.”

A single shot boomed from somewhere at the back of the restaurant, followed almost instantly by a high despairing yell. Chris didn´t wait. He spun on his heel and ran.

+ + + + + + +

JD was cradling Buck´s head on his knees, begging him in a thick, tear-filled voice to hang on, to not be dead. Inez was tearing strips off her petticoat and folding them into a pad, pressing down on the welling red stain on the big man´s shirt. Both their heads jerked up as if pulled on a single string as Chris hurtled into the room. “What happened?” he demanded.

“James had a gun we didn´t see,” JD gasped. “Buck was facin´ him, he must´a seen James bring it up--he threw himself into the line of fire--oh, God, Mr. Larabee, he sacrificed himself for us, for me--”

Chris strode across the room to push Lucas James over on his back. The man was dead; the effort of aiming and firing had drained the last of his waning power. Dismissing him from consideration, Larabee holstered his Remington and knelt beside his old friend, feeling at the side of his neck for a pulse. “He´s alive. Inez, Nathan´s in the saloon. Run and get him.”

“Sí, Señor.” Inez gathered her skirts and dashed out in a twinkling of bare ankles, nearly colliding with the incoming Vin as she crossed the threshold.

Chris folded his hand around Buck´s limp fingers and squeezed. “Damn it, Buck,” he whispered, “you hang on, you hear me, you sonofabitch? I know I´ve got a lot of things to make right with you, and I´m not letting you go till I´ve done it. You´re not gonna die, understand?” JD needs you. I need you. He slid a glance at Tanner as the younger man sank into a graceful heel-squat on Buck´s other side, scanning the wound´s location with serious eyes. Maybe you think that now that I´ve got Vin your part of the job is done. Well, it´s not. He may be my future, but you´re my past, and I need both of you to keep me grounded in the present. “Hang on, pard. Don´t let go. Nathan´s coming...”


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