by Sevenstars

Late in the afternoon of the fifth day, five dusty men on tired horses rode into Four Corners, left their mounts at Yosemite's stable, and made their way to the saloon, where they ordered a round of cold beers and slacked wearily into chairs around a vacant table. Chris, Vin, and Travis observed them from Ezra's favorite table on the raised dais. Two were perhaps fifty, one around thirty-five or forty, a third about thirty, and the youngest no more than twenty-five, similar enough in features and coloring to one of the two eldermost that it was clear a blood relationship existed. These two were also similarly dressed, in tight-fitting pants (one pair gray, the other biscuit-colored), Eastern-style coats (one a pepper-and-salt sack, the other a belted tweed), and flat-heeled riding boots, incongruously teamed with good Western hats; the second of the older men wore a brown-checked suit and a beige felt bowler not unlike JD's, and was a husky, florid specimen with a handlebar mustache, whose fading auburn hair, when he took off his hat to fan himself with it, proved to be parted in the middle and trained into spit curls in the manner often affected by bartenders. The thirtyish man was hard-eyed and wary, dressed range-fashion and with a hickory-handled sixgun hung for a crossdraw at his left hip. The last of the company wore laced boots, a Fedora hat, and a sober brown frock coat teamed with buff trousers stuffed into the high tops of his boots.

When they had drained off their beers, the youngest of the men went up to the bar and spoke to Inez. The jurist and the two regulators caught the flash of her eyes as she glanced their way before she responded. The stranger wasn't so discreet; he turned around for a brief, measuring look before returning to his table and reporting to his older image. This man copied the younger one's assessing gaze, then rose with a gesture that brought the others to their feet too. They tramped across the room and up the steps to the table. "Judge Orin Travis?"

"That is my name, sir," Travis agreed.

"Brice Winterhaven, owner of the Royal Tiger Mine, Silver City," the stranger introduced himself. "This is my son mine superintendent, Hugh chief security guard, Grant Stoner...and this is Albert Rooney, who was tending bar on the night my other son Drew was killed, and was a witness to the crime, as we all were. Our town marshal has informed us that you propose to hold a hearing to decide whether Drew's murderer will be granted a change of venue."

"I propose such a hearing, Mr. Winterhaven," said Travis evenly, "but may I remind you that the accused has not yet been proved to be a murderer. These gentlemen with me are Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner, two of Four Corners's corps of peacekeepers."

Cautious nods were exchanged. "I take you to mean, Your Honor, that the hearing has not yet been held," Winterhaven observed.

"No, I felt sure some witnesses were en route, so I thought it best to delay a day or two," Travis agreed. "I felt it would be improper to decide the issue without hearing from both sides in the dispute."

"I thank you for that, Judge Travis. I do hope to see justice done with regard to my son's death, whether here or in Silver City. I hope you'll permit us some time to recover from our ride."

"I don't wish to seem hasty, Mr. Winterhaven," Travis told him, "but you'll appreciate that, as a circuit judge, I have a large area of ground to cover every month and many cases to oversee. I'd like to get this one decided as quickly as I can. I venture to guess that overnight should be sufficient for you to 'recover.' "

Something tightened in Winterhaven's face, but he didn't object. "Very well, we'll get cleaned up and find some food and a place to sleep. Where and when will court convene?"

"Here, at ten A.M. tomorrow," Travis replied. "Since it will be a hearing and not a trial, I intend to close the proceedings to anyone not directly connected with the case under dispute. You say you were all witnesses to the killing, so you may all attend, and I'll see that Marshal McCray is informed of your arrival at his lodgings; being the senior law officer of the jurisdiction where the alleged crime took place, he should also be here. Apart from that, there will be no one present except myself, my clerk, the defendant, and Mr. Larabee and his company as the marshal's counterparts."

"I have no objections to that, Your Honor. Until tomorrow, then." And the quintet marched out of the room, crossing as they did in front of Josiah, who had been just about to come in.

The big man followed their progress across the street with his eyes, then continued on his interrupted way, joining the other three at the table. Inez brought him a beer. "Should I assume that I've just had the honor of not quite meeting the witnesses against JD's father?" he asked.

"Some of 'em, anyway," Chris allowed. "Brice Winterhaven, a son, and two or maybe three employees."

Vin slouched lazily back in his chair, but his face was somber. "Don't care what they call that Stoner, he's a hired gun. And McClendon and them Winterhavens was all wearin' hideouts."

"Are you sure, Vin?" Travis inquired quickly.

"'M sure. McClendon's is in the top of his boot, I could see the butt showin'. Perry Winterhaven's got a leather-lined hip pocket with somethin' small in it, most likely a Storekeeper's Model Colt. His pa's wearin' a shoulder rig under his coat. Can't say for sure 'bout Rooney, though I wouldn't put it past him to have a derringer on him somewheres." He frowned. "Somethin' 'bout this don't smell right."

"How so, Brother Vin?" Josiah wanted to know.

"JD's pa claims that when he killed Winterhaven's boy it was in a saloon, late evenin' time," the tracker remembered. "I ain't passed a lot of time in minin' towns, but I know they ain't got the pattern we do here in Four Corners--pretty quiet all winter, a big whoop-up after spring roundup and a bigger one in the fall, and the biggest part of the saloon business and such once a week, on Saturday nights. Minin' towns, you always got mines close by, and men drinkin' to celebrate comin' off shift or bracin' up to go on. Means it don't matter what day of the week it is, there's gonna be plenty folks in just about any bar in town. So how come there's only five claimin' they seen the fight?"

Josiah snorted softly. "Sometimes the mere fact of many people being present is enough for things to be obscured by the crowd," he observed. "And often even people who claim to be eye witnesses to somethin' lack your perceptiveness, Brother Vin. As it says in the Book, 'They have eyes and see not.' "

"Don't make no diff'rence iffen Winterhaven's figurin' to stack the deck," said Vin. "If he can bribe or scare folks into lyin' for him it don't matter whether they seen what happened. The lyin's enough." His eyes were bright and restless and his friends knew he was thinking of his own situation.

"On the other hand, Vin," Travis reminded him, "if any appreciable number of these witnesses work for Winterhaven, he might not want them to waste productive time coming here, at least until he knows where the trial will be held. In fact, if I decide in Dunne's favor, he'll be better off to wait; as witnesses for the prosecution they can claim reimbursement of travelling expenses from the court. For a simple show-cause hearing, they can't; it all has to come out of his pocket. Men don't get to where Brice Winterhaven is by throwing their money around."

Vin grunted softly. "Still gravels me. I got a bad feelin'...Chris, I reckon I'll go take me a swing around town tomorrow, soon's it's light. You all won't be rightly needin' me in court, and I just as soon go on stayin' out've McCray's sight anyhow."

"What do you figure to find, pard?" Chris asked.

Vin was evasive. "Know it when I see it. But I know it's out there, somewheres; I can feel it."

"Let him go, Chris," Travis advised. "He's right; with the other six of you on hand, and Winterhaven's group right here under our eyes, I think we can muddle along without him." He rose and stretched briefly. "And now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I have an engagement with my daughter-in-law and grandson. I'll see you in court in the morning."

+ + + + + + +

On the morning of the sixth day, the hearing was convened. Since JD's father had been known to Winterhaven under his working alias, and since his true (if it was) identity had no discernible bearing on his guilt or innocence, Travis decided to refer to him throughout the proceedings as Darrin York. He helmed them skilfully, quickly establishing for the record that Winterhaven was indeed a major power in Silver City and eliciting from a rather reluctant McCray and Perry Winterhaven that the deceased had for some time prior to his demise been apparently attempting to bait York into a fight. It took him only an hour or two to determine that it was indeed very possible that an impartial jury could not be assembled in the jurisdiction where the victim had met his end, and to set York's trial for Four Corners a week hence. When Winterhaven objected, Travis threatened to find him in contempt, then reminded him that the defendant's guilt or innocence had yet to be decided, and that if he or Marshal McCray had witnesses who might be able to substantiate the former, they had every right to bring them up to testify, and to bill his court for their expenses. "In the meantime," he finished, "I strongly advise Mr. York to obtain legal counsel. The interim between today and the date of the trial will permit them to consult while I take a brief trip to Santa Constancia and attend to official business there." He pounded Ezra's table with his gavel. "This hearing is dismissed."

Winterhaven's little group stormed out without a word. "You leavin' right off, Judge?" Chris asked.

"No, it's only about six hours by stage to Santa Constancia and the same back, barring accidents, and they don't have any major cases waiting for me," said Travis. "A couple of wills for probate, a couple of civil lawsuits, and one rustling charge; it shouldn't take more than three days to clean up. I'll stay on here a day or two and take care of any minor matters that may have accumulated since my last visit. Sheriff Dunne, you may remove the prisoner," he added.

"Yessir." Supported by Ezra and Josiah, JD escorted his father back to the jail.

"Well," said the ex-preacher when the cell had been locked, "I suppose I'd best go and see about dinner trays. Care to help carry, Ezra?"

"So long as I am not to be expected to consume my repast in these precincts, I shall lend my assistance willingly, Mr. Sanchez," the gambler agreed. He shot a brief icy emerald glare at Dunne. "I find that certain company upsets my delicate digestion."

Josiah slapped his shoulder lightly and turned him toward the door. "We wouldn't want that to happen, would we? The pleasures of the table are among God's good blessings, and it would be an affront to Him not to make the most of them."

After they had left, JD turned to face the cell and broke into a broad grin. "I told you Judge Travis was a good man, Papa. Now you can be sure you'll get a fair trial, just like you wanted."

"Maybe so and maybe not, son," the man replied. "No reflection on your Judge, but the game's not over till the last hand is laid down, and right now I've got a notion there's one that's being played pretty close to the vest."

JD frowned in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"

"I haven't seen much of your long-haired tracker friend Tanner the last couple of days," Dunne observed. "He wasn't at the hearing like the others, and he hasn't had jail duty in the last twenty-four hours, though all the rest of you have, except Wilmington. Where is he?"

JD wondered what this had to do with anything but saw no reason not to answer honestly. "He told Chris he had a bad feeling about somethin' and he was gonna take a long swing around town today and look for trouble." Mention of Wilmington reminded him that Buck hadn't been much in evidence around town the last several days either. He wondered why. Buck had been so kind and patient with him when he'd first found out who their prisoner was, but now he didn't seem to want to have anything to do with his young partner. Had JD said something to make his best friend mad at him? No, that didn't make sense. Buck didn't nurse his grudges the way Chris did, or go off alone to lick his wounds in Vin's wild-animal fashion; if he got mad about something, he either blew up and let everybody within earshot know about it, or he got drunk. It never occurred to JD that Buck might be trying to prepare himself for life without him. He was simply so blinkered by his own happiness at finding his father and making peace with him that he never stopped to think he might be expected to choose between Dunne and his friends.

His musings were cut short by Dunne's voice. "When did he leave?"

"First thing, I guess, around dawn. Vin don't lie abed mornings."

"In that case, he's probably either knee-deep in trouble or closing in on it fast by now," Dunne observed, much to the boy's bewilderment and distress. "Looks like he and I had about the same opinion of Winterhaven."

"I don't understand," JD protested.

"Look, son," the man began, "if I've heard and read so much about you and your partners even spending most of my time up north, don't you think Winterhaven has too? Silver City's less than three hundred miles from here by the shortest route. And he's not a stupid man; you don't get where he is without having a good brain and knowing how to use it. He knows now that he's not going to get me in front of some pocket-pet jury back home. That puts the odds just about even that I'll get off, and he knows too much about my reputation to think he can even the score for his son by hiring me killed once I'm released. I worked for that man for six months and I know how his mind works. I'd lay your gambler friend any bet he cared to make that the four men who came into town openly with Winterhaven aren't anywhere near all the ones who left Silver City with him."

JD lost a shade or two of color. "There are more?"

"I told you, son, I know this man. I know how he works. He bides by the law just as long as he thinks things might go his way, and then he takes matters into his own hands. He's got better than five hundred men on his payroll at the Royal Tiger alone, counting the miners belowground and the ones up top; do you think he can't spare a few of them for something that matters this much to him? My bet is he's got twenty, thirty, maybe more men scattered out all around town, waiting for some signal from him. When he gives it, they'll come in, overwhelm you and Larabee and the others, and hang me."

"No!" cried JD. "Papa, we won't let 'em do that!"

"Son, you won't have any choice in the matter, and you'll be lucky if you just come out of it without any holes in your hides," Dunne told him firmly. "Didn't you hear the numbers I mentioned? You're all good, but what can you do against a surprise by odds like that?"

JD's thoughts raced. If his father was right--and certainly he had some cause to know what Winterhaven was capable of doing--then Vin might already be taken or worse, perhaps a hostage to Winterhaven's men, perhaps lost to his friends forever. The remaining six would have neither warning nor cover, as they'd had against similar odds in their first fight together. "I gotta tell Chris," he muttered. "Soon as Josiah comes back with dinner--"

"What good will that do?" Dunne's question cut brutally across his frantic planning. "You don't know when they'll come. The only way you could hope to deal with numbers like that would be to split up and scatter out around town, try to get some height. But Winterhaven's already got himself and four others right in your midst, and for all we know there are more filtering in even as we speak. If he sees anything to suggest that you've guessed what he's up to, he'll either hold off or else he'll try to get some idea of how you're preparing to meet his attack and have you taken out one or two at a time. You won't stand a chance--and neither will I. Wilmington, Standish, Larabee, the others, they'll fight if they can, I don't doubt it, and maybe they'll die. And for what in the end?"

His friends' names seemed to echo like drumbeats in JD's head. He knew, he knew all too well, how stubbornly they would resist. He thought of Buck, with whom it seemed he had some breach yet unhealed, dying without their difference (whatever it was) settled and made up. He thought of Ezra's wit silenced, his vivid eyes dulled in death. He thought of Chris, his hero, dying to defend JD's father. "No," he gasped. "No, there's gotta be somethin' we can do!"

"There's something you can do," Dunne told him inexorably. "You can turn me loose."

JD whirled to face him, cheeks flushed. "No! Chris trusted me, the Judge trusted me--I can't let them down like that! I can't do it, Papa! Not even for you!"

"Can you stand by and watch me lynched?" Dunne insisted. "What would your mother think of that? You've gotten to know me pretty well these last few days--do you believe I murdered that kid? Do you think I deserve to die at the end of any rope, let alone one put around my neck by a vengeance-blinded father? I've fought off eight Blackfoot braves from a buffalo wallow and bloodied them hard, but I can't stand against as many men as Winterhaven will have brought with him, and you and your friends can't either. I'm not afraid of dying, a man in my line can't be, but I don't want to die that way. Would you?"

", but..." JD's head was spinning, his emotions in a whirl, his stomach suddenly tight and sick. And what would his mother say? Regardless of what she might think of the choices her husband had made, would she believe he deserved to die for them? JD had accused the man of a kind of indirect murder, that first day, but he no longer believed the words he'd said. His mother's fate had been tragic and perhaps unnecessary, but it hadn't resulted only from his father's failure to come home. Much of it had been chance--the chance that had dictated the burning of their cozy little house in Brooklyn, the chance that had placed them in a household where, although Jenkins and his wife had done their best to soften the blows for the underservants, there was just too much expected of them, the chance that had placed Marged in the right place at the right time to take the illness that had killed her. The fire and the illness, at least, could just as well have happened even if Dunne had returned to them, and while his earning power might well have eased their way afterward, not even the best doctors knew any sure way to save a victim like Marged.

Dunne, in the cell, watched the successive waves of emotion wash over his face and barely held the look of triumph from showing on his own; the kid was easier to play than a harp. Positive that JD's confusion and uncertainty were now keyed to their highest possible pitch, he shifted his attack and made his final play. "I'm not saying you should let me go now," he said, his voice quieter now. "Here's what I suggest. Now, while your friends are gone, get my valuables out of the safe and put them inside your coat. Put my gear outside the back door where you can get at it easily. Then, when your watch ends, go and get Ebony, my horse, and saddle him up. Put my gear on him and hide him somewhere around town. Keep alert and try to stay away from anyplace your friends are likely to spend a lot of their time; my bet is that Winterhaven's first move will be to neutralize them, and you won't do them or me any good if you get swept up in the same net with them. Watch for strangers coming into town in any appreciable number, probably beginning around sunset or very soon after. If you see them, then get Ebony, bring him around to the back, come in and turn me loose. Most of the men Winterhaven's likely to have brought with him won't be able to night-track; I'll have maybe as much as twelve hours to get a good long lead on them." He paused a moment, then spoke with a quivering sincerity in his tone. "Son, I've done some things to your mamma and you that I'm not very proud of. I don't want you or your partners getting killed in a useless attempt to save my life."

It was perhaps the greatest advantage he owned, greater even than the innate gun skill he had discovered in himself when he first came West all those years ago: his ability to manipulate others with the words that were the heritage of his extensive education, to seem perfectly sincere even when he wasn't. It was, in fact, a reverse variation on the tactic he had been using, these last few years, to goad the men he was hired to kill into gunfights. He knew it worked, and because he knew that, he made it all the more likely to work every time he did it. This time was no exception. JD gazed at him strickenly, his hazel eyes enormous. Then he turned quickly to the safe and began hastily spinning the dial, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Ezra and Josiah didn't come back and surprise him. He didn't speak. He didn't have to.

+ + + + + + +

Vin wasn't quite sure what plan he expected Winterhaven to have, if he had one at all. But he knew that a lynching required a mob, and he doubted very much that the mineowner could stir one up in a strange town where no one had ever known his dead son. That meant he would have had to bring his own mob with him from Silver City. Since they hadn't come in openly with him, they had to be somewhere close by, waiting to hear from him whether they were needed or not; and since he and the other four had come ahorseback, likely they had done the same. They would have to be someplace where there was water, grass, and wood, somewhere well off the regularly used trails and supplied with enough natural cover to hide the smoke of their fires by day and the glow by night. But it would also need to be a place within quick reach of town, possibly even within telescope sight of it, depending upon what kind of signal he had arranged with them. And after a year and a half of helping to keep the peace in and around Four Corners, Vin knew just about every place that fit that description. That was his advantage, that and the years of life as a Comanche, a buffalo hunter, and a bounty hunter that had taught him to listen to his own instincts and had honed his skills as a plainsman.

He started out from town in an ever-widening spiral pattern, and about midmorning he found what he was looking for: a hidden camp well tucked away in a box canyon maybe twenty miles out. He found a place to leave Peso tethered and moved in afoot, soft and silent as the Comanches had taught him. Lying in some thick plum-brush at the mouth of a shallow draw, he counted the men: fifteen. Not very much against the seven, but they'd have the advantage of surprise. Most were dressed like off-duty miners, but one or two looked as if they might be members of Winterhaven's "security" force. These would be the professionals, the ones to watch; the rest would fight willingly enough to defend their own lives, but they'd probably have come along on this jaunt more out of fear of their employer than out of any personal desire for revenge, and could be scattered easily enough once their gunslinger leaders were neutralized.

Vin began withdrawing, then froze as he heard a twig crack. He started to spin, his hand going to his knife--he didn't dare fire the mare's leg this close, they'd be all over him in minutes. He was too late. Someone laid a gun barrel upside his head and he reeled and puddled to the ground.

When he woke, spontaneously, it was to find himself in the camp he had scouted, lying under a tree, his hands bound behind him. His head ached with savage, pulsing waves of pain. He'd known Nathan long enough to be aware that he could have a concussion or worse, but he didn't have time to concern himself with that now. He pushed aside his awareness of the pain and nausea by a sheer effort of will, then searched out the angle of the sun in the sky and saw that it was well past noon. Vin knew Judge Travis, knew how he worked. He doubted that the man would have wasted time about the hearing; by now it was probably concluded and the Judge's decision rendered. If anything was going to happen, it would almost certainly happen tonight: the longer Winterhaven kept his people in the area, the likelier somebody out hunting meat or trailing strayed stock would stumble across them. And he, Vin Tanner, was the only one of the seven who knew they were here. He had to get free and get away, had to warn Chris and the others. The fact that he'd been permitted to live argued that Winterhaven didn't want any unnecessary killing, but if the remaining six resisted--and Vin knew they would, unless they were taken completely by surprise--anything could happen.

Nobody was paying him much attention, and he began slowly working at his bonds, watching the men as they moved about the camp, ready to play possum if one of them came too close. After about an hour he caught the sound of hoofbeats approaching and paused in his efforts: this might be it.

It was. The incoming rider proved to be Grant Stoner. He swung down and handed his horse off to one of the miners to be led away for water and rest, then picked out Vin's trussed form with his restless eyes and spoke to the man who'd come to meet him, another like himself by Vin's estimate. Vin couldn't hear what they said, but he guessed the circumstances of his capture were being described. Stoner seemed to hesitate, then nodded curtly and ordered everyone close around. Vin suspended his efforts to escape and bent his attention to trying to make out what was being said. It soon became clear that Stoner was drawing a map of Four Corners in the dirt. Vin could catch an occasional phrase: "...livery stable...keep their; one of 'em's some kind of a clinic. The black man's a healer...jail...saloon, where most of 'em spend their time in the evenings...boardinghouse; three of 'em live there...newspaper..."

Workin' out where the others are likely to be, Vin realized. They figure to catch 'em unawares and take 'em all out of play, or at least any that ain't at the jail when they get in. He listened again and caught scraps of description as Stoner explained how his cohorts could recognize the Seven and assure themselves that they had all of them. There were some questions from the leaders of the group, including one of the miners, possibly a foreman or other respected senior worker. Then Stoner's horse was brought back and he readied himself to mount.

"Goin' back now?" The question came clearly to Vin's ears from one of the gunmen.

"Hell no," was Stoner's response. "You boys was just the start. I still got three other camps of you to let in on it all before sundown."

Vin's heart lurched. Three? Besides this one? Had Winterhaven brought that many men with him? If each group was the size of this--Sixty men? he thought in something like horror. Oh, my God, no, not even Chris'n'them can beat odds like that--

I gotta get away, I gotta warn 'em--

His wrists were raw and bleeding and the sun was beginning to slip out of sight by the time he finally felt the last loop of his bonds give way. The men were beginning to mill around, break camp and saddle their horses. Vin had already located Peso, unsaddled, picketed off to one side in case he might fight with the group's own animals: horses have very strong likes and dislikes, and when introducing a stranger into an established bunch, it's best to throw them all into pasture together for a few weeks so the "new kid" can make friends with one or two of them, something for which Winterhaven's men naturally didn't have the time. He had also guessed that the men were liable to do one of two things about him: leave him here, perhaps afoot, or take him along in case he might have some value as a hostage. The process of getting to his feet made him feel dizzy and sick; again he forced himself to ignore it. Moving as slowly as he dared, yet casually as if he belonged, hoping in the uncertain dusky light under the trees to be taken for one of Winterhaven's own, he began easing his way toward the waiting animal. He had long ago trained Peso to stand for being mounted from either side, unlike most white men's horses which would rear and start bucking if you didn't get on from the left. He kept Peso's bulk between him and the moving men, worked his way up to the horse's side, then pulled out his picket peg, gathered the stake rope in his hand and hurled himself onto the animal's bare back, not at all disconcerted by the lack of saddle; that was an advantage of Comanche rearing. With a hoarse yell, he kicked Peso into motion.

Shouts of surprise, bewilderment, and then realization and anger went up as he roared through the camp. They'd be after him in moments, he knew; his only chance was to gain as much distance as he could as fast as he could, and bank on the fact that they'd be slowed by their own numbers and by many of them being unaccustomed to the saddle, especially at speed. He bent low over Peso's neck, pasting himself against the horse's body; in the poor light they'd be unlikely to hit a moving target except by sheer luck--

Guns banged behind him and he felt something sear his flank like a hot branding iron. Sheer luck, it seemed, sometimes worked after all. Vin clutched Peso's flying mane desperately, not daring to come loose, and yelled at the pony in hoarse Comanche, urging him to greater speed. Gotta get away, gotta warn 'em--


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