Feet scuffed, chairs scraped and voices rose to conversational levels. The jury filed out quietly, the doors opening to a bright, cold splash of sunlight. Not guilty? Not guilty? How -?
"Sam. Here." Something cold touched Sam's hand, a glass of water. Ezra smiling and yet looking worried behind it. "Are you all right? It's over, my dear. You're a free woman."
"I'm -." Free. Never mind John Frame, over there wishing looks could incinerate. Never mind three Yarbroughs with eyes like stone and the patience of snakes. She was -. The first sob broke from her utterly without permission, a traitorous gulp, but that one dragged after it a whole string of others, from a door not to be shut up.
"Oh, here, here." Ezra let her cry, big, wet, sloppy tears on his fine and expensive lapels. From a vest pocket he drew a white handkerchief, which she promptly snatched up. Then he stroked her back and lightly touched her hair, and stared a mute guarantee of murder at anyone looking their way. "Now, that's all right, child."
When at last she stood, it seemed she might have risen on no more than the strength of their presence. All of them, Ezra, Chris and Buck, JD, and Nathan, and Josiah, who appeared to break off a private conversation with unseen personages. Sam felt them as the power of storms and tides, flowing around her, parting a clear way out the door, and onto the cold, glaring sunlight of the street.
James Lightfoot stood there, alone and looking very much like a dog someone had just thrown out of the house. Ezra smiled his best winner's smile and touched two fingers to his hat brim in jaunty salute.
"Counselor!" he said cheerfully. "Quite a day in court, wouldn't you say?"
"Ah, yes, it was indeed." Lightfoot's answering smile gave him the appearance of a man with severe internal body pain. "It seems congratulations are in order, sir."
"Not at all, not at all!" Ezra waved dismissively. "It would be unseemly for me to crow over the defeat of a hopeless cause. Good day, sir!"
Lightfoot's smile shriveled like a raisin, especially when Buck Wilmington's voice drifted back to him;
Voices spoke and heads turned, as they walked, and the bright sun washed her face. Not guilty. Free. Yet somehow, she felt no surprise, when she saw a white puff of gunsmoke high up, heard the snap of a bullet in that same instant. Poor, mad John Frame. Once he had been kind, in his own way. Sam watched as if in slow motion. Watched Vin Tanner rise from his rooftop, saw him as if for the first time, his stillness leaping to lethal purpose, taking the shot, Ezra and JD and Chris and Buck reacting as one. Stuttering gunfire rocked the street, while glass exploded into a billowing curtain. Then Josiah swept her away, as Vin and JD raced separate paths for the stairs to a second-floor store window. Josiah pinned her in the shield of his own body, beneath the coldly shaded shelter of a wagon. But no more shots came.
The Yarbroughs appeared on the hotel porch, moments later. Tall, hard men in somber homespun and slouch hats, and this time they were armed. Sam watched Larabee walk towards them, a shadowed form that moved as if to embrace the coming fray. Of course the others flanked him, Buck and Nathan, and Tanner and JD coming solemnly away from that tattered, fluttering curtain . . . Into her fight!
Sam pulled clear of Josiah's clasp, away from Ezra's startled exclamation. Nothing had ever been so clear as this, and she walked straight as ever a free woman could. Towards them and among them, stopping at Larabee's shoulder. Meeting the Yarbroughs' cold eyes.
"How you want this?" Chris was saying.
One hat wagged a slow negative. "There didn't have to be no fight with you."
Sam knew that drawling voice, remembered it from a family she once had been a part of. So long ago. Equal parts hope and nightmare, until the nightmares won out.
"Yes, there did," Chris replied sharply. "If you're huntin' trouble with anybody in this town."
Three of them, seven of the others. Unequal, improbable, impossible. But Sam knew the mettle of the mountaineers, and knew what the cost would be.
"Their fight's with me, if they have one," she announced.
Clear, sharp young Tennessee voice, and all eyes swung to her. One other thing she had learned, in her days on the road with Papa, and Ezra patted himself and an empty holster, even as the others realized what hung in her hand. A breeze tugged at her skirt, she standing as a slight, straight figure in calico and a linen bonnet, with a Colt's revolver dangling at her side.
The eldest of the Yarbroughs nodded, and leaned carefully to spit. "What you reckon to do now, girl? Shoot us?"
To his credit, Larabee stepped silently aside, likely to give himself room, but not breaking his concentration to deal with an errant girl. As the scene for a contest changed, so he adapted.
"Your fight's with me, Absalom" she replied. "But my fight ain't with nobody. Not if you don't make it so."
"Eye for an eye," the eldest Yarbrough said. Life or death, he regarded either with vast calm.
"How many pieces of a body you want?" Nathan shot back, nor did the mountaineers' chilly stare daunt him. Dark fury vibrated in him, as he stared back. "Your kinsman took the hide off this girl's back, the trust out of her heart, and the chance she had at just bein' a happy wife."
"What I wanna know," said Buck suddenly. "Is if whippin' wives is something you boys just do all the time, up in them-there hills of yours?"
Yarbrough scowled through his beard. "I don't know nothin' about that."
JD snapped, "Or how about blowin' her up in her own bed last night, huh? Is that your kinda justice?"
"Warn't our doin'," came the stolid but telling reply.
"And that makes it all right?" Buck eased a step closer, eyes cold-black, and his words dropped to a deadly, velvet key. "Mister, I only wish Lew Yarbrough back, so's I could kill the son of a bitch myself. I don't give a damn if he's brother, cousin or daddy to you, he won't never be dead enough, for the evil he done that girl. His WIFE, mister!"
Anger and tension and bloody possibilities now loomed as a pressing force. Sam desperately, fervently wanted to pull it all onto herself, off these seven men. To divert calamity that teetered like the impending fall of a mighty anvil.
"She might be lyin'." Unperturbed, Yarbrough turned his stare on Sam. "Ye might be lyin'."
"Ye want I should strip down rat chere?" Sam asked sharply. "Which you wanna see, Absalom, the brands on my arms, or the stripes on my back? Or how about you just ask your wife what I told her, about me and Lew last Christmas? She knows, Absalom, and so do you, if ye'd just open your thick head long enough to remember!"
Long, shuddering silence, while the oldest Yarbrough spat once more, and the other two waited his play. The streets practically echoed, now, emptied but for those wise, wary heads that peered from window and doorway.
Quietly, earnestly, Sam said, "I never lied in all my days, Absalom. And I tell you now, I never meant for him to be dead. I wanted to be gone from him, and that's all. I'll be gone from you, too, if ye just let me be. You got Lew dead and now John dead, and gettin' me dead won't change the balance none. You just let me be gone. That's all I want. Just let me be gone . . . Please."
Absalom Yarbrough listened to her, stood eyeing her with the silence of a stone. But then he spoke, and the drawling words sagged heavily with reproach.qqq qqq "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was shaped in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me."
Sam felt cold, felt her heart thumping deeply, felt the texture of her tongue on the roof of her mouth as she swallowed. Ezra's pistol weighed heavily on hand and arm. They blamed her. It would not end without her life. Never had she wished ill on the kinsmen of Lewis Yarbrough, but the slow seconds ticked now towards eternity. Just one deep breath, just one split- second of courage, and she could tip the scales to favor seven good men . . .
Yet a deep voice spoke from her left, completing the ancient words of Jeremiah; "Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts, and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou has broken may rejoice. Hide thy faceqqq from my sin, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me."
Absalom looked at Josiah. The big man stared back with strength of David, the patience of Job.
The mountaineer said, "I hear tell you're the preacher."
"So they tell me."
"And you stand with her?"
"I stand with righteousness."
"Ye could die, too."
"Always that chance."
The elder Yarbrough shifted his weight, and let his stoic scrutiny drift over the company on the street before him.
"You fight for her? Or this place?"
Larabee replied, "We fight for what's right."
"And she's right," Buck said.
"Damn straight," JD echoed.
Nathan spoke not, beyond the bleak purpose in his gaze, and Ezra stood gracefully as a wolfhound, taut and keen.
"Somethin' to think about . . . " Larabee cocked his head to regard Absalom Yarbrough. "Why would John Frame want her dead bad enough to try and blow her up, bushwhack her? He was her guardian, for God's sake."
"What ye sayin'?" Absalom rumbled.
"Just a thought," Chris said. "What's she got, or what did she have, that he don't want her to get?"
Yarbrough blinked, and Sam stared. Thought. Felt realization like a window opening.
Chris nodded, almost looked about to smile. A very cold, thin smile. "I got a friend of mine, owns the newspaper here. She did a little investigatin' into John Frame, there. He's in debt up to his collar stud. Maybe somebody needs to look into what he's still got, of hers."
"My money," Sam repeated. "Papa left me some money. Not a lot, but John put it in the bank and then I just never thought about it no more . . . I never had money, before, and then I got married . . . "
Yarbrough scowled deeper, the clouds settling on shrouded hills. "How much money?"
"I don't rightly know. Papa sold some horses and then the court sold off some stuff, and they paid his debts off . . . Why, I don't rightly know. Few hundred, maybe. It was John who took care of Papa's estate."
"And the interest on that, over almost three years' time," Chris added. "Not a lot, but enough to float a man a while, and enough to make avenging a cousin look even better. Man like that, he'd be scratchin' anywhere he can reach, to keep from goin' dead broke. Might want to think about that, mister. Might see what else he had, that rightly should have gone to James McLachlan's daughter. You go home and ask around a bit."
Yarbrough shifted something in his beard - likely the cud of tobacco he worked on. He appeared to think a moment. Then another Yarbrough spoke, startling as if a tree had suddenly found voice.
"Reckon John always was a bit hasty."
The third then stated, "Yup. And Lew had him a temper."
All three nodded sagely, beards dipping in solemn unison. They moved, turned inward, exchanged silent looks. Whatever deliberations they made, whatever opinions they held, whatever thoughts they had gained from the testimony of past days, all ground silently through the inscrutable grist of their minds.
At last Absalom faced around, again, stared hard down at Sam.
"You don't come back," he said. "Not ever. Not for nothing."
"No," Sam replied.
"You do, ye die."
"Your name is dead to us. We won't speak of or remember you."
Then the mountaineers were going away, boards creaking and shoes clumping, and the hinges of the hotel door squeaked briefly. She could breathe again, great, long lungfuls of cold November air. A breeze rushed past in soft, whirling race, and then the soft chime of Larabee's spurs freed them to move.qqq qqq "Well," said Buck brightly. "That was about the damnedest thing I ever did see. Josiah, what in hell was all that?"
Josiah shrugged. "I reckon Sam's in exile, now. They cast her out into the wilderness."
"Wilderness?" JD made a face and laughed. "Well, Sam, at least you got lots of company."
Someone cleared his throat loudly, and Ezra stepped in Sam's way. He had one hand held out and a very severe look on his face.
"My dear, I believe you have something that belongs to me?"
"Oh!" Sam flushed warmly, reversed the pistol in her hand, butt-first. "I'm sorry, Ez. I - It just seemed the thing to do. Anyhow, you got more guns."
"You, miss, are a filch." Yet the glance Ezra gave her, as he re holstered his pistol, seemed to lack real rebuke. "Don't ever scare me like that, again."
"I won't." The others were moving, walking away, casting wary backward glances at the silent hotel. Sam and Ezra went with them, and Sam asked, "Say, Ez, I don't have to keep wearin' a dress now, do I?"
"What? My dear, you look lovely as spring daisies! Why on earth would you want to -."
"For one, I'm hopin' maybe the stable wants me back to work, and I can't hardly shovel and harness and such in a dress. For t' other, it's danged hard to ride in a dress, and one of these days I'm a-gonna buy me a good horse. With a Texas saddle."
"Yeah," JD said. "I was gonna ask if you wanted to go ridin' with Casey and me, sometime." The young man broke into a wide, silly grin. "You'd really like Casey. She's somethin' else. Why, she can ride 'most as good as me, and she can -."
"JD," said Ezra severely. "You are not helping. I am trying to remind this young lady of the gentler -."
"C'mon, Ezra!" Buck's lanky frame swung into step beside them, and he clapped a long arm around the gambler's shoulders. "Admit it, you liked that lawyer stuff. You just don't wanna give up bullyin' your client, is all."
"Sir, I did not bully my client! And I'll have you know that -."
Their laughing banter washed around Sam in a warm tide, gently sweeping her along the street with them. Seven men. Did others see as she did? No two of them alike, yet together creating an imperishable whole. Josiah, the quiet preacher with havoc in his hands and compassion in his heart. Chris, a taciturn mix of dark and light together, with the Devil and decency dancing on either shoulder. JD, quick and laughing and fierce as a hawk. Nathan, whose dark eyes now met hers in deep and silent understanding. To him she said softly, "I didn't have to steal myself, Nathan. You all done it for me." And she understood when he had to suddenly look elsewhere. Buck, laughing out loud and talking with broad gestures, clown and rake together, yet first to stand between her and all that threatened. Ezra, fussing at lace cuffs and glaring at Buck, and she remembered him wielding words as knives and thoughts as hammers, against the crushing wall of her despair. And last, a lean presence appeared at her elbow, with long, easy strides and a voice like sand and leaves.
"I seen a picture," Vin said, and his grin was boy and bashful, all at once. "A dress that was kinda like britches, too. For ladies to ride in. It looked right handy, and purty, too. I bet Miz Potter could order one for ya."
"Aw, I could make one, I reckon." Sam caught his surprise, and laughed. "Vin, I do know how to sew. A woman's gotta know somethin'."
Vin didn't seem to know how to answer that, save with a widening of his self-conscious grin. He matched her pace with his hands on his belt, and then Sam realized these were the first words he'd spoken directly to her, since he had recaptured her out along the rim rock.
"Vin . . . you ain't vexed about nothin', are ya?"
"Like me not really bein' a boy. Actin' shameless or somethin'."
Tanner drew in his chin with a startled frown. "When you ever act shameless? I don't recollect nothin' like that. And I like you just fine, as a girl."
"Well, then . . . Maybe about how ye had to come fetch me back."
His face seemed to go shuttered, and Sam knew she'd struck her mark. Quietly she said, "We both done what we thought we had to, is all. But I was never feared of you, Vin. Out there. You know that."
Sam watched as his eyes touched hers, and in their blue stillness she thought she saw something like relief. She said, "In fact, you helped me. I could see colors, out there. Even in all that trouble, you showed me how, and I could see colors. I don't think I'd have done so well, else."
They stopped then, some looking towards the saloon, Nathan towards his clinic and books, Buck talking about someone named Blossom. Yet Sam kept her attention on Tanner. Watched him as he looked at the ground, then faced her again with a small, crooked smile.
"Well, reckon that's good." Then he reached out his hand, the same hand that shot John Frame, and lightly touched the edge of her bonnet. "You deserve colors, Sam. Colors and smiles and reasons to laugh."
"I don't mind it," she said, and realized the others were all watching. "Being in exile. Moses must have loved the desert, to stay there forty years. I reckon I can match that. If I got friends."
"You do," Vin said softly.
And she felt them around her once more, brief touches on her sleeve, Buck's arm squashing her briefly while he planted a heavy kiss on her forehead, JD grinning as he ducked his head to touch his hat brim, turning away. Chris pursed tight lips and appeared suddenly intent on studying his boot toes. Nathan smiled at her, his gaze deep and knowing, before he, too, was gone, and then Josiah loomed at her shoulder.
"Your room is all clean," he said. "Swept it out last night, beat the rug."
Last night? Before the verdict could be guessed, let alone known . . . Truly, Josiah had leaned on faith.
Past the lump welling in her throat, Sam said, "Thanks, Preacher. And maybe later you can show me how ye make that chile con carne o' yor'n"
Deep, blue eyes shone, above a smile like the sun coming up. "You got it, Sister."
And last stood Ezra, pulling at his cuffs and smiling what had suddenly become a remarkably uncertain smile. "Well, my dear . . . "
"Ezra." Sam took his hands, felt them clasp gently. There were not enough words in all the books of the world, to express what she felt. To this fastidious dandy, to this fancy gentleman, a half-literate Tennessee hill girl owed her life. "You are a good man."
For once, the gambler had no reply, but lightly, gallantly kissed one of her hands. Then she gave in to purely feminine impulse, and hugged him, right there on the street. While he still stuttered, she gave him a playful shove, sending him back to the kind of games he knew best.
"Vin." Chris lifted his head to look at the tracker. "See if you can find her things, in that mess at the jail. And maybe . . . " He waved a brief, aimless gesture, at the sidewalk, the sky, the many people covertly watching. "Take her for a walk or a ride or something, get her the hell away from all these damned tourists."
Strange, stiff, cold-seeming man, and yet he was always first to defend, first to bare his teeth in protection of the weak. Where had he been forced to learn to keep that goodness so locked away?
He stared back at her, arms crossed on his chest and mouth drawn tight under that stern black hat. "You heard the judge, right?"
"Think you can stay out of gunfights and such, from here on?"
"Of course I can! . . . Chris?" She had never called him by his first name, before.
Sam reached out to touch one of his hands, and he did not pull away. "Thank you."
Larabee nodded, once, and then his lips quirked in . . . a real smile. Warmth that flooded his eyes like sunlight, and softened the hard planes of his cheeks.
"It weren't no trouble," he said. "No trouble at all."
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