Dakota for the Holidays

by Kris Mashburn

Four Corners, New Mexico Territory

Moonlight over Four Corners found Mary Travis and Jeffery Albright returning from another buggy ride. They'd talked of home, their pasts, their schooling and places they had both seen. Realizing all they had in common had Mary putting her head down in embarrassment, so Jeffery couldn't see her face turn red.

Jeffery, himself, had also realized all they seem to have in common, "Mary, I feel as if I've known you three years not three days. I have that, I'm home feeling with you, Mary, I'd like to court you. May I?"

Mary felt all flustered, her heart was racing, and she was really contemplating marrying again. She looked over at Jeffery, meeting his eyes and nodded her head as she said, "Yes, I'd like that."

Jeffery smiled into her eyes, then gently tilted her head up and kissed her. Mary returned his kiss.

Dakota Territory

After some rabbit stew for breakfast, Nathan, Buck and JD left for Tilford. Vin decided he needed a first hand look at the town. He'd best check out possible sniper points, and just where he would plant himself. He took a back route into town, just as Nathan had, for he too knew how to look invisible when needed.

The platform was nearly completed, and it was easy to guess where the sheriff's extra shooters would place themselves. So Vin picked out two likely places he would place himself tomorrow. As he was finishing up his perusal he saw Chris walking toward the saloon, and trouble headed his way.

"Hey, Larabee, you look like an old man, time for you to put down your gun, six feet under." A kid, no older than JD, stood there in a challenging stance.

Chris thought to himself, ‘shit, he couldn't believe this,'out loud he said, "Don't have to do this."

The gunslinger wanna-be sneered, "Lost your edge,….. yella?"

Chris pursed his lips and shook his head as he turned around, thoughts of what the Lawless brothers had said to him running in his head. "Well, here I am."

Chris'opponent stood there with a look of satisfaction on his face as he said, "Ok, old-timer, draw."

The kid had a moment of vacillation as Chris'gun was out before he had finished the word draw. He refortified himself with the thought that Larabee was old so his aim wasn't as good as it was, so he still went for his gun. A look of disbelief crossed his face as his gun was shot out of his hand. The pain took him to his knees, but he still grabbed for his other gun as he taunted, "Guess your aim is off, I won't let you off so easy."

Chris had already turned and started to walk away, but hearing the kids words, knew the kid was never going to let it rest. Not because he wanted to but because he had to, Chris turned and shot the kid straight through the heart.

Again the look of disbelief crossed the kid's face, though, this time it was for the last time, as he fell face first into the dirt.

Chris didn't hesitate or look back, just continued on to the saloon.

Vin shook his head from his vantage point, he could tell Chris didn't want to do that.

Buck and JD had also witnessed the shoot out; Buck wanted to go talk with his friend, but knew that he could not. He smiled sadly at JD as they continued on to the assayer's office.

Ezra was already back at his table when Chris came into the saloon. He, along with the rest of the saloon patrons had seen the whole thing. This latest, only added to the Larabee legend, no one looked or said a word to him as he ordered a whiskey. Ezra knew he was in a position to act unlike the townsfolk and so he said, "You rid this fair town of another of its undesirables?"

"Yea, so it seems." Chris picked up his drink and approached Ezra's table.

The rest of the saloon's customers that had all paused at Ezra's words, now resumed their activities, as this last episode fell to the floor of their memories.

The natural reluctance to be so close to death kept any card players away from their table, giving Chris and Ezra time for unrestricted talk. Ezra dealt cards and they began to play.

"I was fortunate enough to play poker with the sheriff and two of his deputies last night. It seems that during the hanging they also plan on robbing the bank. The idea is for the Judge to be shot just before he's hung, adding a touch of confusion to the already heightened festival mood he has been trying to promote." Ezra won the hand even though he had talked the entire time.

Chris checked his newly dealt hand before he looked up at Ezra, his face not displaying any of the thoughts churning in his mind. "Our priority remains freeing the Judge, the bank is not our concern. If we are successful, the bank won't even get hit."

Ezra nodded his agreement, "If we have identified the correct players, then as you say, solution of our original problem, will automatically resolve this new one."

The festering fever of anticipation for a hanging grew as the day wore on. People that were clicking their tongues at it yesterday, were eagerly awaiting it today. Nathan was saddened by the way the town folk were getting excited to witness a death. He kept to the shadows and picked up last little tid-bits that might be helpful. As it was approaching four o'clock, he made his way to the saloon.

Buck and JD were already at a table in the saloon when Nathan entered; he didn't look at them, just headed straight to the bar.

Chris was still playing poker with Ezra and Josiah was the first to join them. He went straight to the table bypassing a drink. His stride appeared very purposeful as though he knew he would win. Ezra dealt him in. Josiah had won a couple of hands when Buck and JD joined them. Nathan waited several more minutes before he too joined them.

Buck looked at his friend, but Chris showed no discomfort over the events that had happened earlier. Not that he had really expected him to, but he looked just to be sure. Nathan filled them in on his observations as did JD and Buck. Josiah shared what the Judge had picked up, which only confirmed what Ezra had discovered.

"Knowing that they plan on killing the judge prior to the hanging moves our timetable up just a little bit." Chris ‘ voice showed no annoyance at the change.

Nathan added, "Vin left a note that he'll be close by on a roof top."

"After I've helped JD, I stay by the stairs," Buck sounded uncommonly serious.

JD looked earnestly at Chris; "The horses will be taken care of."

Chris looked up at JD, making eye contact and nodded, letting him know he believed him. JD sat back, relieved.

Ezra shuffled as he said, "I'll be visiting the Judge later this evening, as I taunt him," Ezra smiled broadly at this, "And I'll let him know that what-fors. Chris, I'll join you in your room after midnight."

Chris nodded, then to Nathan, "Get Vin's planned whereabouts, and find out if he's stashing his own horse, or joining us, that way Buck and JD will know what to leave alone." Chris half smiled at the two of them. "Josiah, best if you meet up with Ezra and I tonight."

"Gentlemen, tomorrow then." Ezra half bowed as he left them on his way to the jail.

Chris and Josiah continued to pay cards as the rest made their way away from the table. They were ready to put their plan into action.

Evening brought a lot of pre-celebration. Ezra figured that most were happy that it was not them that would soon meet the end of their fate. As he entered the jailhouse, he couldn't help but notice that the sheriff and his deputies were just finishing a meeting.

"Good evening, Sheriff, I've come to inspect your prize catch." Ezra turned to face the cell, "That there man incarcerated me in Fort Laramie. I am more than pleased to see that he is going to meet his demise on the morrow." Ezra then walked over to the cell and used a rougher voice directed at the Judge. "Hey there Mister Lawman, how does it feel to be on this end of a judgment? Feeling remorse that you've put so many others in this position?"

"They all got what they deserved." Although the Judge's voice was weaker, the strength of his words rang through quite clearly.

The sheriff came out of his chair in anger at the judge's words, "You're getting yours tomorrow, old man." He then stormed out of the office.

Ezra didn't waste any time, "Judge, hear any of their plan?"

"Bank seems to be their main objective, I'm just the side show. Two men are going to be posted inside just after it opens."

"Chris has altered the plan a mite, follow Josiah's lead and you'll live to tell. See you in the morning, I'll be back. Now back into character." Ezra tipped his hat at the Judge and walked toward the door, and in a louder voice exclaimed, "It will be one of the finer viewing pleasures to see you hang." Ezra laughed as he left the jail.

Tilford, Dakota Territory, Hanging Day

Nathan and Vin left the camp together and each entered the town virtually unnoticed; both had the ability to fade into the scenery. They separated for their individual posts with the confidence gained from working together.

Buck and JD worked their way through town cutting each of the horse's saddle straps. This time JD was determined not to fail Chris, cause he knew their lives were riding on it. People took no notice of them, as they were transfixed with the upcoming event. They weaved their way in and out, taking care of all but their own get-away horses.

Josiah was already praying with the judge when Ezra walked in. He went to the sheriff, sitting at his desk and inquired, "Why do you allow this vile man a chance at redemption?"

The sheriff actually smiled up at Ezra, "Aw, it makes the preacher feel good, he…," the sheriff pointed his thumb toward the cell, "Won't repent, says he's done nothing wrong. So the preacher keeps trying." His voice then decreased volume to just above a whisper, "It annoys Travis so damn much, I encourage the preacher to keep it up." The sheriff was chuckling to himself.

Ezra returned the sheriff's smile at that last bit of information, and then walked over to the window to look for Chris.

Chris was leaning against the post outside the bank. To the passer-byes he appeared lost in thought, when actually he was primed and ready, awaiting the deputy crossing the street. For just as the deputy was to pass Chris, Chris moved forward enough so that the deputy was forced to touch Chris.

Chris'face looked enraged as his voice calmly said, "You better apologize."

The deputy became indignant and returned with, "Who the hell are you?"

"The last face you see before you die," and Chris pulled his weapon.

Inside the jailhouse, this was what Ezra was waiting for. He turned to the sheriff and said, "Looks like your deputy is in a shoot-out with that gunslinger."

The sheriff jumped up and rushed to the window, then high-tailed it outside. Josiah followed right behind him, leaving Ezra alone in the office. He quickly exchanged all the ammo with his blank cartridges. Ezra then took all the live ammo and put it into his vest. He winked at the Judge as he left the jailhouse.

Meanwhile, Chris was all set for a shoot-out in the street. The sheriff was trying to get his deputy to back down without exposing his plan. The distraction was enough for Ezra to bump into the other deputy and utilize his slight of hand.

Josiah added to the confusion with his booming voice, and had his head tipped upward asking the lord, " show forgiveness of the town's people, they do not understand."

The sheriff, who had his deputy ready to back down, approached Chris. He talked to Chris as he pointed at his deputy, "He's a hothead, please, just ignore him, I'll keep him under control."

Chris stood there, looking as cold as ice, only said, "He'd better apologize."

The Sheriff turned to his angered deputy and gave him a look that yelled don't mess up the plan.

"I apologize," came from the deputy's direction, as his head was down, one couldn't tell if it came from him or not.

Chris turned and walked away.

Ezra went up to Josiah, as the town's people watched Chris leave and they used the slight pause to burst forward and bump into the sheriff. As Josiah was brushing him off, Ezra's slight of hand was never noticed. His task accomplished, Ezra faded into the crowd.

The sheriff checked his timepiece, and realized it was heading toward twelve. He directed the town's people to the hanging platform, as he wanted to get his plan back on track. He went to fetch the prize, Judge Travis. As the sheriff lead his prisoner up the stairs to the platform, Josiah was already there, waiting with his bible in hand.

Chris, Ezra and Buck moved to their intended positions, Vin was atop a building across from the bank. JD had the reins of the get-away horses and Nathan was pulling a buckboard into place.

Then as if a calm before the storm, the crowd grew quiet as the sheriff stepped forward. "The time we have been waiting for is here, justice. We finally have control of these so-called lawmakers, so we judge you, as you have judged us. Guilty!"

The crowd, caught up in the mood of celebration, cheered. Josiah started a prayer as the sheriff's men took their places. The sheriff looked to his deputy, about to give his signal, instead, Vin took it as his signal. He aimed, and shot the base of the rope holding Judge Travis. The Judge dropped to his knees with the force of being cut loose, Josiah then shoved him over the edge of the platform and he rolled into the buckboard Nathan had waiting there. With that first shot, pandemonium broke out and people began screaming. The sheriff turned and shot at Josiah, but he had already jumped off and was heading toward the deputy at the bank. The sheriff couldn't believe that he had missed his shot and shot wildly into the crowd that was running away. At that point all hell broke loose and people were just running anywhere, and the sheriff still missed all of his shots. He knew then that something was wrong with his weapon. He jumped off the platform and slugged the first man he encountered and took his weapon. Chris was ready for this, with his gun aimed at the sheriff, he signaled him to throw down his weapon. The sheriff had no intention of doing this and took aim at Chris. Chris saw his intention immediately and fatally shot him first.

Many of the other criminal types of this town saw the plans for the hanging go array and joined in the fracas against the seven. So instead of making for the get-away horses, Ezra and Buck were kept busy busting heads, dodging punches, and placing a few well aimed shots. Chris and Josiah had their hands full with the sheriff's deputies.

Witnessing their leader fall, one hoped to avenge him, and possibly his own embarrassment. So Chris was not surprised when his friend from the morning's shoot-out attempt stood before him with contempt etched all over his face. He sneered at Chris, "Let's see how fast you think you are."

Before the deputy could draw another breath, he was falling toward the ground with Chris'bullet lodged in his chest.

Chris then rejoined Josiah in combating the rest of this town's low life lawmen. They also had to bust heads, dodge punches and placed some well-aimed shots. One deputy faded into the alleyway, working his way toward the get-a-way area.

Nathan was checking out Judge Travis, who kept trying to brush aside his attempts, stating he was bruised but fine. Nathan asked him, "Can you ride or would you rather use the buckboard?"

"These bones might be old and bruised, but they can still ride," his voiced booked no argument.

JD reached around to the outside of his saddlebag and withdrew his rifle. He offered it to the Judge. Orin Travis reached out and took the rifle nodding his head at JD, saying, "Thanks son."

"The others should meet us here, we need to be ready," Nathan pulled his gun, "I don't think they'll be comin'alone."

It wasn't long before Chris and Josiah were running for their horses, for just a moment, it appeared as though they had made it unencumbered, but that wasn't the case. Two were chasing after them on foot, while another two went for their horses. The two on foot didn't get far as the met up with a couple of obstacles, Buck and Ezra coming from the other direction. Buck and Ezra both had their guns out and made short work of the two. They jumped on their horses and were turning to check behind them when they heard a shot hit behind the Judge. Seven heads turned in time to see one of the sheriff's deputies falling to the ground as blood spread across his chest. Chris looked up at Vin and signaled for him to join them.

With help from Nathan, the Judge got up on his horse and they cantered over to meet up with Vin. JD had the reins of Vin's horse and held them till Vin had mounted. Many of their pursuers were getting fixed to chase after them and attempted to mount their horses, only to fall to the ground due to saddle strap failure. Chris nodded his head and smiled at JD. JD managed to sit just a little straighter in his saddle. They all turned and headed out of town.

They traveled at as fast a pace they figured the Judge could handle. As it was more than likely some would come after them after fixing their saddles, they left in a different direction than they actually planned on traveling.

They had been riding a couple of hours when they reached a creek and stopped to water their horses. They also figured that the Judge could use a breather.

Judge Travis took a long drink of water and then wet a handkerchief and wiped his face. He sat on a smooth faced rock and looked over at his rescuers. "Thank you, gentlemen, I wasn't sure you could pull it off, but I'm real grateful you did."

Vin and Chris nodded their acknowledgment to Travis, while Buck and JD wore huge grins on their faces. Ezra smiled at the Judge as he sat close by. Josiah summed it up in his preacher voice, "Looks like it just wasn't your time to die."

Nathan was trying to assess how the Judge was doing, "how you holdin' up?"

"Just fine." His face said it didn't matter how he was feeling, his answer would continue to be 'Just fine'.

Nathan nodded his head to the Judge, but he was determined to keep an eye on him just the same.

Vin scouted around a bit before returning to the group. "Found some Indian Pony tracks, I think it best if we change direction now and head homeward. Don't need to invite no trouble, if'en we can avoid it."

Getting no argument, they filled their canteens and got back up on their horses, and headed south for home.

Four Corners, New Mexico Territory

Even though Mary knew she had been walking on air the last couple of days, she had noticed the absence of the seven. She went over to general store in hopes that Mrs. Potter would have some idea. Mary waited as Gloria finished with a customer.

Gloria smiled at Mary and asked, "Something I could do for you Mary?"

"Our lawmen seem to have been gone awhile, and I wondered if you knew where they had gotten off to?" Mary really hated to admit she didn't know where they were.

"Come to think of it, your right Mary, but I don't know. Last I remember, they were talking to Katie, and haven't seen them since. So maybe she knows." Gloria finished putting the money away.

"Is she coming in to town to work on the Thanksgiving plans?"

"I know that she is planning on meeting Nettie later at the barn, they want to fix it up in case it rains. I'm meeting them there after the store closes." Gloria was glad that town was getting behind the big celebration, for she knew it would've been hard on her and the kids, this first one without her husband. " Your newspaper article really got everyone involved, Mary. It's nice to see them all come together for this."

"Well, I'll come over and help if I may? I had already promised Billy and my in-laws that I would spend Thanksgiving with them, or I would be here, for ours." Mary had a ‘what can you do'expression, and then shrugged to match it. "I'll ask Katie then. See you later Gloria." Mary went back to her newspaper office.

An hour later, Mary stepped out of her office and locked the door. She headed toward the barn. As she was passing the boarding house, Jeffery was just starting down the steps and hailed her.

"Mary, how wonderful you look. Where are you headed?" Jeffery asked as he joined her.

Mary blushed at the compliment, then answered, "The barn, to help ready it for the holiday."

"May I join you? After a long afternoon at composing my article and finishing it, I could use a change of anything."

"They will probably put you to work doing heavy chores," Mary smiled at the thought of Jeffery a might dirty, she would have to offer to help clean him up. Then the rest of what he said caught up to her and she asked, "Oh, the article is finished? May I read it?"

"Of course," Jeffery then took her hand as they strolled over to the barn.

Many of the town's women folk were there helping with the clean up, including Katie and Nettie, when Mary and Jeffery entered the barn. Nettie looked to be in charge and they went over to her to offer their services.

Nettie smiled at Mary, "How good it is to see you, Mary. You can pitch in anywhere, though it's a shame you won't be here to celebrate with us, especially as you have helped the town so much. Now, before another minute goes by, don't you think you should introduce me to that young man holding on to your hand?" Nettie enjoyed the horrified expression that crossed Mary's face when she realized she was still holding hands.

Mary dropped Jeffery's hand and straightened an imagery out of place hair before she began introductions. "Nettie, this is Jeffery Albright, Jeffery, this is Nettie Wells. Her niece, Casey, is the one standing on the ladder over in the corner."

Jeffery stuck out his hand to Nellie, and after she took it, said, "Very nice to meet you ma'am."

"Nice to meet you too, young man, though, the whole town knows you're sparking Mary." Mary blushed again.

Nettie then set Jeffery to work, easing Mary's embarrassment. Mary went in search of Katie, to find out about the seven. She found her in a corner with Becky, removing cobwebs.

Katie saw Mary on her way over and asked Becky to go help Casey. Becky nodded at Mary as she brushed by her. Katie recognized a determined look on Mary's face, and knew a tough question was coming up. As Mary reached her she said, "Hi, Mary, I see you brought Jeffery to help. Is it true that he's courting you?"

Mary shook her head and smiled, thinking there is no real secrets in this town. "Yes, he asked if he could. He is so very easy to talk to. I missed all the sweet things that go along with having a beau, I'd forgotten. It's a little different than with Steven, but special, none the less."

"And Chris?

"Oh Chris is very good looking and actually quite nice, but, after these last few days, I realize how little we have in common. Jeffery understands what I do, and I didn't know how important that really was. Heavens, listen to me go on. I wanted to ask you a question, do you know where Chris and the rest of them are?"

"They got a message to go rescue someone." Katie was hoping Mary wouldn't ask something she would actually have to lie to.

"Do you have any idea when they're returning?"

"JD said they would be back by Thanksgiving, and I remember Vin groaning that it figured he couldn't get out of JD's plans." Katie knew what she said was all true, just not the answer to that exact question. But Mary seemed OK with that and much to Katie's surprise, left it there. Katie and Mary worked side by side in earnest to get the barn ready, for the clouds really looked like rain clouds.


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