Dakota for the Holidays

by Kris Mashburn

Four Corners, New Mexico Territory

Mary and Jeffery walked back to the newspaper office. They lunched again today at the hotel, though today's lunch conversion had no ties to the story.

They had reached the office door, when Jeffery stopped and asked, "How about a buggy ride, you could show me the area you report about, this area does seem different than the Kansas Territory."

Mary smiled and said, "that would be nice, and I can show some of the areas that cause disputes."

They walked over to the livery, and while they were waiting for the stable hand to ready the buggy, Katie rode in on Midnight. After she dismounted, she greeted Mary, then unsaddled her horse. She walked over to the stable hand and asked him if he would wash and groom Midnight.

Robby smiled and nodded yes, "I'd be glad to Miss Katie, me and Midnight get alone right fine."

"Thanks, Robby, I know Midnight feels comfortable with you. See you later," Katie smiled again at Robby, then walked over to Mary.

"Mary, I hear that your hard work is getting recognized," Katie wanted to show Mary her support.

"Well, I should have realized that it would get around. Katie, this is Mr. Jeffery Albright, he writes columns for several newspapers." Mary then turned toward Jeffery, and indicated Katie, "Jeffery, this is Katie Harper, of Harper Horses."

They nodded and smiled at each other. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Albright. See you later Mary." Katie nodded as Jeffery tipped his hat to her, and she left the livery. Katie went over to the telegraph office, hoping for a word from Callie.

Katie left the telegraph office disappointed, no word from Callie. She went to see Gloria and set up some Thanksgiving plans. Katie figured that since Gloria had lost her husband and she had lost her Dad, they could create a town Thanksgiving. She had also figured that the seven had nowhere to go, and would probably feel more comfortable with a town event. Gloria welcomed the idea, and they set about how to invite he town.

Gloria suggested, "We could put it Mary's paper."

"You know Mary is going home for the holidays, but she would still probably do it for the town. Will you ask her later? She just left on a buggy ride with that Mr. Albright, so we'll have to wait tell later. Gloria, what do you know?"

"Not too much more than you, only that they have been together from breakfast to bedtime ever since he got here. Mary is looking very happy," Gloria told her all she knew.

"Well I'm glad for Mary. So, you talk to her later, and I'll go over and set some thing up with the hotel. Talk to you later on." Katie smiled and waved as she left.

Nebraska Territory

By nightfall, the group had made it halfway through the Nebraska Territory. Their strong motivation to be as far away from the Pawnee renegades kept them in the saddles for as long as the horses could take it. They made camp within easy distance of the creek. Vin made use of the moonlight to hunt up some dinner.

Nathan had just finished redressing JD's wound as Buck came up. "How's he doing, Nathan?"

Nathan saw the concern in Buck's eyes, all JD noticed was the cheerful voice, so JD answered himself, "JD is fine Buck."

Buck looked at Nathan for conformation, Nathan nodded his head in agreement to JD's assessment. "Ok, then, now next time, duck, ok? JD." Buck ducked himself as he said it to avoid the swipe JD took at him.

Josiah, Chris, and Ezra were talking out part of Chris'idea when Vin returned with three rabbits and Josiah left to help Vin prepare them.

After supper, Chris talked with Vin lowly, "Ya know you'd probably be recognized as a bounty hunter, it'd be best if you stay outside town, and protect our escape."

Vin didn't like it, but he knew Chris was right. "Reckon it'd be best."

Chris faced him, put his hand on Vin's shoulder, and smiled his half smile, saying, "We don't want no dead beavers around here."

Vin shook his head, "I'll take first watch," he said over his shoulder as he went to the high ground.

Ezra ambled over to Chris, and waited for him to light his cheroot, then asked him, "Do you believe this will work?"

"I believe it's his only chance."

"Good enough," Ezra nodded and went to his bedroll.

Dakota Territory

Vin was surprised at how contented he felt at seeing the mountains pressed against the skyline. It had become just a bit tiresome riding hour after hour in the perfectly flat surroundings. Nebraska had never been his favorite area.

JD, on the other hand, was drinking it all in. He had never seen this part of the country, and was amazed that there were such a variety of landscapes just a couple days away. If it weren't for the reason they were on the way here, he would be truly enjoying himself.

The flat landscape finally gave way to rolling hills, shrubs and trees. Josiah was sure that he heard a collective sigh, or possibly the wind, but either way, they're destination was close at hand. They avoided going through Deadwood, the thriving gold miner's town, so as not to run into someone who could recognize them later in Tilford.

"Let's make a base camp here, then we can go in and see what we're up against," Chris said as he was off loading his gear.

Nathan left most of his gear with Vin, even his gun. His knife holster, though, was worn outside his clothes, fully stocked with seven knives. "I'll return back t'night, won't be stayin' in town."

"I, on the other hand, will stay among my flock," Josiah said this, as he put on his preacher's collar. "I believe that all men need to make their peace with god, even the condemned," Josiah used his "Sunday best" voice, with the biggest grin on his face.

" Josiah if you need to locate me, I'll take a room in the saloon establishment. I am going to look into the "sheriff" of this town, and let it be known that I've come to watch the hanging. " Ezra said as he filled his saddlebags with the necessary supplies.

Chris nodded, "I'll also take a room in town, but at the boarding house. If I find out something important, I'll play some poker with you." Chris smiled at Ezra as he said that last bit.

Josiah said to them both, "I'll find out the players of the hanging crew and let you know Ezra." Josiah rubbed his chin and smiled, "Guess, I'll just have to play some poker too."

Buck and JD changed their appearances just enough to look like gold miners. JD looked at Chris and said, "We'll get all the saddles this time, Chris."

Buck added, "I'll have our horses close by the platform. Oh, Vin," looking over at him, "We'll be back late, but as potential dusters, don't want us wastin' good money in room fees." Buck had his hand in his belt, with an affected "good ol' boy" posture. He was rewarded with chuckles from everyone.

Vin looked somber as he said, "I'll set up a lookout tomorrow after I get some information from Nathan and Buck."

With the general plans made, they all readied themselves, each of them calculated for their own delayed start times, and alternating entrances into town. Nathan then took off, the first to set the plan into motion. Vin eventually found himself alone, then took off himself to do a little hunting.

Buck and JD rode into Tilford with a slow, easy pace. JD was cranking his head every which way, looking at everything. Buck didn't know if he was playing the part, or if he was genuinely looking at the town with a kid's wonderment.

Buck overheard a couple of the carpenters talking about the upcoming hanging. So he slaps JD on the shoulder, and said louder than normal, "Hear that kid, we're just in time for a lidda entertainment."

JD looked disappointed as he answered back, "Aw, Buck, I jus' wanna git started on gittin' rich."

"Now, boy, I told ya, we was fixin' to, didn't I? So, jus a couple a days, and I aim to have some fun before we start out."

Buck and JD walked out of earshot of the two carpenters that were listening to their banter. The two carpenters looked at each other and shook their heads, one saying, "That kid'll be disillusioned before the month is out. Get rich quick, geez." They went back to their work.

In the saloon, Ezra had already joined a game, winning and losing, while he scoped out the clientele. It didn't take long for the conversation to make its way back to the hanging. Seeing an opening, Ezra said, "what fair man is meeting his demise?"

The balding man with a beer in his hand looked confused-like at Ezra, and answered what he thought was the question. "They're hanging good old Judge Travis."

Ezra raised his eyebrows and replied, "Not Judge Orin Travis?" The man nodded, and Ezra said, "well good." He then sat back with a satisfied look and folded his hands across his chest. "That man tried to incarcerate me over in Fort Laramie, but I misplaced myself by trail time."

"You jumped bail?"

"Indeed I did, sir," Ezra said smiling still.

"Then you should enjoy the show on Friday. Sheriff Jack is hoping for lots of secp-taters!"

"Oh, I plan too!"

Josiah walked into the jailhouse, looked at the deputy kicked back in the sheriff's chair, and said in his preacher voice, "I've come to give the condemned a chance to repent, so he will be welcomed into the kingdom of heaven."

Josiah then held out his bible for the deputy to see, and he held his arms up so he could be frisked for weapons.

The deputy, seeing this, assumed that the preacher must make it a practice to talk with the condemned, and so he stood up grabbing his keys. He opened the door for Josiah and locked it up after him. Yelling at the man lying on the cot, "Hey, a visitor to give you last rites." The deputy then walked out of the jailhouse to find the sheriff.

Judge Travis laying on the cot, didn't open his eyes, he just said, "Don't want any last rites from you."

"Oh, I wouldn't be too hasty, if I were you," Josiah said with a half smile.

Judge Travis'eyes flew open as he recognized the voice, he was about to say something, but Josiah shook his head, and continued in his preacher voice. "You have a chance to repent your sins, brother, you have the chance to redeem yourself in the eyes of the lord. He loves us all, if we admit our mistakes." Josiah then motioned to the cell window that someone was listening.

Travis nodded his understanding, and said, "Don't need to repent, did nothing wrong."

Josiah smiled at him and stood up, walking toward the cell window, "I'm sure, my brother, that you have done something in your life you could repent. Come now, bow your head and let us pray."

To anyone looking in, Josiah was on his knees in front of Judge Travis, who'd sat up and also had his head bowed. After a couple of minutes of a chanting prayer, Josiah whispered, "How you doing?"

"Still here," the Judge replied, though the bruises on his face belied some of his statement.

"Chris has a plan, but the actual rescue will take place on the hanging platform." Josiah then continued in a whispered voice, in an answer to the Judges raised eyebrows, "The plan seems sound, and we won't have to shoot everyone in this here town."

"Most are criminals around here," the Judge muttered.

Josiah smiled, "So, you telling me it's open season on the criminals ‘round here?"

The Judge actually cracked a smile at that one, one that reached his eyes.

Josiah chanted some more of the prayer, then added, "Ezra'll be by in a ruse of taunting you, so if you overhear anything important, pass it along then."

The Judge nodded, and his eyes may of said more, a thank you.

The sheriff came into the jailhouse and sat at his desk, watching the cell.

Josiah acted as if he hadn't seen him come in, and said to the Judge, " I shall return to offer you another chance to repent." Josiah move to the cell door and asked the sheriff, "Sir, if you would so kind as to let me out."

The sheriff got up slowly, never taking his eyes off of Josiah, and walked to the cell door. "Don't know you, preacher, where you from?" He stood at the cell door but did not open it.

"I am Brother Josiah, and it is my calling to visit the condemned and offer them the chance to accept the lord and repent their sins." Josiah smiled at the sheriff.

"Well hell, you sure sound like a preacher." The sheriff opened the cell door, gave the Judge an evil stare, and banged the cell door closed. "Brother Josiah, in this here town, your calling will be kept right busy."

Josiah smiled at him again and headed for the door. As he opened it, he paused, turned to the sheriff and said, "Thank you, sheriff, may the lord bless you," then he walked outside.

Chris was dressed in black from head to toe. He didn't bring along the blue or gray shirts that he had taken to wearing occasionally, for they tended to reflect the man he was becoming, not the man he was. He was no longer the Chris Larabee from the gunslinger years, but the people here did not know this, and the fear his older image instilled would help in pulling off this daring rescue.

As he rode into the town atop Velifer, people stared or pointed at him. He heard a few whispers of recognition, followed by gasps. He was glad he had a cheroot in his mouth, for it prevented him from smiling.

He stopped in front of the saloon and tied up his horse. He walked in with a purposeful, slow stride and stopped just inside the saloon door. Falling into old habits very easily, he surveyed the people inside looking for enemies, or potential problems. He never flickered or hesitated as his gaze fell, then passed, Ezra. He continued his perusal of the place. Recognizing several patrons but finding no immediate problems, he headed toward the counter and ordered a whiskey. He listened to various conversations, gleaming little useful information, until, one substantially inebriated man proclaimed in a loud voice, "Sheriff Jack, himself, will man the lever. He really hates that son of a bitch."

Chris casually glanced over to Ezra, and saw, that he too had overheard the drunk. Well that was one platform player confirmed, and he also figured on Josiah wrangling his way onto the platform. Rescuing the Judge depended on knowing who all was part of the hanging crew. Chris decided to stay here a while longer, on the chance that Nathan will show up with additional information.

Nathan had come into town almost invisibly, and he was able to move about freely. He picked up different bits of information, some of it very pertinent, and some just helped define who may give them trouble. The few times that he was noticed and approached, the knives he wore seem to deter even the most harden of criminals.

Nathan enjoyed watching Chris ride into town, for a man that would like to remain unnoticed, he sure turned a lot of heads. The frightened whispers of the town's people only added to the building frenzy for a hanging. Nathan figured it was best if he just headed for the saloon, for he felt in the need for a poker game.

Ezra had won a fair amount of money and was in control of the deck when Nathan sat down at the table. The recent losers were leaving the table as Chris approached, one of them looked at him, as if to make a comment but as soon as he recognized him, put his head down and quickened his walk. Chris sat down, and tapped the table as though he wanted the cards dealt. Ezra obliged and they proceeded to play several hands. When the spectators left out of boredom, Ezra looked over to Nathan and said, "Mr. Jackson, may I say how very intimidating you appear."

Nathan only cracked the edges of his lips, but his eyes held a full smile. "You think it could be the knives?"

Chris added, "No, it's probably just the frown."

Josiah came up to the table, using his preacher voice, "Brothers, with the lord on my side, I cannot lose."

Ezra gestured with his hand for Josiah to sit down, and he reshuffled the cards. While dealing he passed on what he and Chris had overheard, "It appears that the sheriff is very determined to make sure that the Judge gets dead. His deputy, also has plans to be on the platform,"

Josiah nodded, "yes, it seems that the Judge Travis imprisoned his brother, and he then died in jail. I will also be there, giving out the last rites. And according to the sheriff, he has even grander plans for more lawkeepers to meet their early deaths."

"We will need to deal with him in a fairly permanent manor when we rescue Travis," Chris said in a voice that booked no argument.

Nathan was nodding his head, "Not all the folks ‘round here are pleased with the sheriff, ‘pears some are downright scared of crossing him. He also plans on having shooters placed on several roofs as insurance. The deputy is his right hand man, but he also has three other strong arms that are completely loyal to him."

Chris looked over to Nathan; "You can identify these deputies?"

"Seen two of ‘em, only heard ‘bout the other," Nathan told Chris as picked up his cards. He discarded two, and looked over to Ezra.

Ezra dealt him some fresh cards, then asked, "When can you point them out to me?"

Nathan smiled as he said, "Seems like you'll have to let me win some so as to keep me here till they come in here, which they will."

Ezra returned his smile and added a knowing look, "I'll have to see what I can do. " Ezra then looked at both Chris and Josiah saying, "Oh, the hard work I have to attempt to do in this rescue job."

Josiah coughed to cover his laugh. Chris rolled his eyes as he shook his head. Nathan just sat there grinning, enjoying this light moment amid a difficult project.

The four had played several hands of poker when Buck and JD came in the saloon. The two went straight to the counter to get drinks.

Buck took a long swallow of his drink, then motioned over to the card table. "I think I'll go play a little poker."

Watching JD react to the news, you'd never believe that he and Buck had rehearsed this, for he looked as outraged as his voice sounded as he said, "Ah, gee, gambling Buck, let's jus go out and get rich finding the gold."

"Now, see here little brother, I'm just gonna have a little fun, don't fuss so much," Buck then got up and went over to the game table.

Buck sat down as Ezra said loud enough for those at other tables to hear, "Would you care to join us in a hand of poker?"

Buck nodded at Ezra then looked at the other players. They played a couple of hands before any real conversion took place. Buck then told them, "We overheard the carpenters and they will be two of four shooters on the roofs. I'll let Vin know tonight, I think he might need to be on a roof too."

Josiah filled him in on the information they had all gathered, then Chris added, "We still have to find out the identities of the other two shooters and one more deputy. ‘N Buck's right, Vin will be needed for some roof work. Buck, you and Nathan will give him the lay of the land, we have only tomorrow to set it up." Buck and Nathan nodded their agreement. Chris then looked over to Josiah, "When do you see the judge again?"


"Poker, gentlemen, tomorrow at four o'clock," Ezra made eye contact with each of them. They all looked at each other then nodded back at Ezra. Meeting time set.

Buck got up, smiled with the twinkle reaching his eyes, "Thanks, pards," and headed back to JD. JD swallowed the rest of his drink and the two of them left the saloon.

They four of them played a few more hands of poker, then Josiah excused himself. He was off to see the Judge. As he was walking away from the table two strangers joined them for poker. Chris was impressed at how the strangers lost hand after hand, while Nathan, Ezra and himself either pushed or won. Not a thing seemed out of place, and the strangers left in disgust, once again, leaving the table to themselves.

The sun was completely down and the saloon was filling up. Nathan kept his eyes sharp for the deputies he would recognize. His vigilance was finally rewarded as three men entered the saloon. He immediately caught Chris'and Ezra's eyes indicating the two he knew. Chris nodded and got up to get a drink and settled in right in next to them. He was hoping to discover if the man with them was a shooter or platform man.

His information passed along, Nathan left to join Vin at the campsite. He nodded at Ezra and left the saloon. He noticed Josiah entering the jailhouse as he mounted his horse and headed out of town.

Josiah was not surprised to see the sheriff at his desk as he entered the jail. He was surprised to see the prisoner tied to a chair with fresh bruises and cuts to his face. "Interrogating the condemned, Sheriff Temple?" Josiah asked, deleting the censure from his voice.

The sheriff appeared unrepentant as he answered the preacher, "Jus making sure he understands the depth of his mistakes."

"Being hung, come Friday, will probably drive the understanding home, don't you think?" Josiah inquired lightly.

The sheriff grinned at the preacher and said, "Yep, probably will." His grin got bigger as he tightened the imagery noose around the Judge's neck. The sheriff then turned his attention to Josiah and asked him, "Are you here for a spell?"

Josiah nodded and added, "Sinners must be provided with the chance to repent."

Travis grunted, "Don't need a preacher."

Sheriff Jack figured asking the preacher to stay a while would upset the Judge, so he did just that. He added to the request, "I'm gonna grab some grub, will you stay till I get back?"

Josiah answered enthusiastically, "Of course, anything to help you out."

The sheriff nodded his thanks and headed for the saloon.

Truly alone for the first time, Josiah first cleaned up the blood on the judges face, then inquired after his condition.

"Hell, I'll live till Friday." Once again his determination not to break allowed him the strength to continue.

Josiah smiled, then turned serious, "Hear anything interestin'?"

"Not much, just that that sheriff can't decide if he's going to shoot me before I hang, or during. Tough decision for him."

"Seems he taken a major dislike to you." Josiah raised his eyebrows with his half smile. "We have most of the players identified, and with this bit of information, we can understand why he has all the extra shooters. JD'll have the horses, you may have to jump still tied, depending," Josiah lowered his voice on the last part.

Travis looked over at Josiah, "Don't care how I leave here as long as I'm alive."

"That's our plan too," Josiah said as he nodded his head. "I'll be back tomorrow, as you're so resisting to redemption. Ezra'll be by later tomorrow."

Judge Travis nodded his understanding. Josiah was helping him back into his cell as the deputy returned.

"Sheriff asked me to relieve you, said thanks." Deputy Joe Farber didn't seem all that happy that he was chosen to sit in the jail, but he followed orders.

Josiah smiled at the deputy, saying, "I never mind helping out my fellow brothers. A good night to you, sir." Josiah left without a backward glance.

Nathan rode into camp and noticed the fire right off, but couldn't see Vin anywhere. He called out, "Hey Vin, it's Nathan, you here?"

"Behind you."

Nathan jumped clean away, "Geez, I hate when you do that."

Vin just grinned at him. "Want some grub?"

Nathan nodded, and Vin dished up some of the stew he had cooking in the pot. While they ate, Nathan filled Vin in on what had happened in town, and the information they had discovered. He then let him know about the change in plans and how he was needed in town.

"Figured I'd end up there," Vin nodded.

Hearing noise, they both turned and at the ready, they waited. Though, it didn't take long to identify who was coming. Buck's and JD's voices arguing over something could be heard long before they rode into view.


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