by Sevenstars

Still somewhat numbed by his father's words, JD had somehow managed to choke down the dinner Ezra had brought him--thank God the gambler and Josiah hadn't stayed--and then, when Chris arrived to relieve him, made his escape as fast as he decently could. Hidden inside his coat were Dunne's valuables from the safe. He circled around the back of the jail building, picked up the man's baggage which he'd left in the alley, and hurried to the stable, where he quickly saddled and bridled Ebony and fastened the bedroll and saddlebags in place. He then led the animal to a vacant shed he knew and left it there, with a bucket of water drawn from a nearby well, and cinches loose for comfort. After that he began moving randomly around town, his eyes peeled for unfamiliar faces. Around suppertime he saw Nathan go into the jail with two trays and Chris come out and make for the restaurant, but not before he paused on the boardwalk and looked uneasily up the street. He's lookin' for Vin, JD knew. He knows Vin's been gone too long for what he went to do, same as I do. Papa was right. Trouble's comin'.

His stomach growled and he ignored it. He didn't dare join any of his friends for a meal; he didn't dare risk being caught with them when Winterhaven's men arrived. Already the early fall sunset was painting the sky. It would be soon.

Presently he saw Chris and Josiah emerge from the restaurant and start up the street toward the saloon. I should tell them what Papa said. If they're not there--if we hole up in the jail, all of us--

But Papa said so many...we'd just be trapped... Buck emerged from Mrs. Potter's store and spoke to his two friends with considerable gesturing. He's wonderin' where I'm at, thought JD, who could read Wilmington like any of his dime novels. I'm sorry, Buck, but I got to do this. I can't risk losin' any of you, or Papa. And he withdrew into a convenient alley before any of the three could spot him.

It was perhaps an hour later, perhaps a bit less, that he heard the hoofbeats coming fast down Main Street, one horse at a high lope. The animal flashed past one of the street fires and he recognized Peso, with Vin riding bareback. The horse pulled up in front of the saloon and the tracker slid hastily off, staggering as his feet touched the ground; JD could see blood black on the left leg of his dun-colored trousers.

Instinct and friendship hurled the young sheriff two steps forward before he could check. It's begun, he thought, watching as Vin clutched at the hitching rail for support, gathered his resources, glanced back once quickly the way he'd come, and hurled himself desperately at the batwings. JD watched him vanish inside and paused, his mouth slightly open, as the tracker had taught him, so he could hear better. Distantly to his ears came the building thunder of many horses. They're right behind him.

He looked around once, caressed his right-hand Colt's smooth ivory butt, and withdrew into the alley.

+ + + + + + +

Chris came to his feet, knocking his chair over backward, as Vin lurched through the doorway of the saloon, clinging to the left batwing to keep his feet, his left trouser leg black and red with blood, the right side of his face covered with a dried crust of it. From the dais he heard Ezra's exclamation of "Good Lord!", and from the bar something in Spanish from Inez. Josiah, moving with the speed that startled so many people in such a big man, was already at the tracker's side, supporting his sagging weight. Buck too was on his feet, hand on his gun, glaring toward the dark beyond the doors as if expecting Vin to be pursued by something terrible.

Larabee didn't clearly register how he crossed the intervening space to his friend. Josiah was sinking to the floor, taking Vin with him, easing him down. "Steady now, Brother Vin. Inez! Agua!"

"Chris..." the tracker gasped. His eyes were wide and too bright.

"I'm here, pard. What happened?"

Vin struggled to organize his thoughts, flinching and groaning as his wounded leg was inadvertantly nudged by Josiah's knee. "Comin'...four bunches...Winterhaven...aaahh..."

"Ezra!" Chris snapped. "Get over to the jail and send Nathan, fast!"

"No..." Vin's hand clenched on the edge of Chris's tailored vest, pulling his friend toward him. "Gotta move...they know...gonna try'n'take us out..."

"No try about it," said a voice behind Chris's back, and a sixgun cocked just to the left of his ear. He heard a curse from Ezra as the gambler spun, and then the back door crashed open to admit a good half dozen armed men, several with rifles or shotguns. Saloon patrons and working girls scattered back in confusion and fear. The batwings slapped aside and a second group of strangers stepped in, likewise armed.

Chris turned cautiously, his eye following the gun barrel up to the hand and face of its owner. Stoner. Damn. Never even saw him come in. You've been in one place too long, Larabee, you're gettin' slack.

"All right, everybody, listen up," the gunman ordered. "We don't want any trouble with you. We got no gripe with anyone in this town except that killer in the jail. Everybody but Larabee and his men, clear out. We'll just hold 'em here till we finish our business, and then we'll be out of your hair. You, Preacher, you and the gambler get your friend up to the table on the platform. Larabee, you and Wilmington drop your hardware."

Fuming but much too experienced to take long chances in the face of such odds, Chris rose slowly to his feet, unbuckled his gunbelt with his left hand and let it slide to the floor. He knew Buck was doing likewise. As the five of them got clear of the doors, the girls and customers began quickly sidling out past the ready long guns of the invaders. Back by the bar Inez said something incredibly filthy in Spanish and Chris heard the sharp crack of her palm against flesh. "I will go nowhere!" she declared in her pleasantly accented English. "This is my saloon to manage and I stay!"

Buck growled softly and took a half-step forward. "Leave her be," he snarled at Stoner, "or I'll follow you to hell and back again."

Stoner seemed to think it over a moment, then spoke to the man harassing the Mexican woman. "Let her stay, Purvis. If it comes to that we can use her as a bargaining chip against them. All right, Scruggs, Lawler, Robins, Crum, Malloy, you stay here and keep these boys out of trouble. The rest of you, let's get what we came here for."

One of the men addressed moved to secure the rear door, another to close the half-glass storm doors behind the batwings. The other three arranged themselves to cover the five men who had by now reached the dais, where Inez joined them a moment later with several clean bar cloths and a basin of water. Vin was conscious and aware but clearly in intense pain. Josiah had pulled out his pocketknife and was ripping the bloodied pants leg at the seam to get a look at the wound. "I don't think the bullet's still in there, Chris," was his verdict after a moment. "It looks like it just dug a nasty deep furrow in the muscle, but I won't be sure till we can get some of that blood cleaned off. Inez, help me here."

"Si, Padre." A quick look at the other men: "Señor Ezra, Señor Buck, you hold him, por favor."

The gambler and the scoundrel exchanged quick looks, then moved into position, Ezra taking Vin's ankles, the bigger Buck assuming the responsibility of immobilizing the tracker's torso and shoulders: Vin might be wiry, almost skinny, but his upper-body strength was impressive. Without being asked, Chris lifted one of the wall lamps from its bracket and held it lower so the woman and the preacher could see what they were doing. His eyes met Buck's along the length of Vin's rigid, trembling form and he knew what his old friend was thinking: JD and Nathan--

+ + + + + + +

JD had two huge advantages and he knew it. First, he was small and slight: with his low body mass he could move fast and quietly and hide in the most unlikely spots. Second, after a year and a half as sheriff of Four Corners, he knew every inch of the town--every building, every alley, every shadow. He used both of them as he flitted swiftly toward the jail. He caught a sight of a shadowy clot of men rushing the church and another scurrying up the stairs to Nathan's clinic. Has to be more than one bunch of 'em, he thought. They're figurin' to round us all up, get us to one spot where a few of 'em can keep a guard on us while most of 'em make a rush on the jail.

He reached the shed where Ebony waited, tightened the black's cinches and led him quickly toward the back of the jail. Then he slipped down the alley and peered out at the street. A knot of men had gathered in front of the saloon and was slowly increasing in size as others of their fellows joined them. I don't have much time, JD knew. He slipped around to the jail door and knocked as loudly as he dared, not wanting to attract hostile attention. "Nathan! Nathan, it's JD, let me in!"

The door opened and JD shouldered the healer aside, shutting it hastily behind him. Dunne, in the cell, came to his feet. "Nathan, there's a mob makin' up by the saloon. I think they got Chris'n'the others already. I saw Vin come in, he was hurt--"

He saw the emotions flicker across his friend's face, the healer/friend's instinct warring with the ex-slave's conditioning--made doubly personal by his own experience not two years ago--against lynching. Then Nathan reacted as JD had hoped he would. "If they've already got the others, there's nothin' we can do to help," he decided, "but we got a duty to keep your pa alive." And he turned toward the gun rack to get a shotgun.

I'm sorry, Nathan, JD thought, and he whipped out his left-hand Colt and brought it down in a quick clubbing blow. The black man crumpled without a sound.

JD snatched the key ring from its nail and unfastened his father's cell. "Ebony's just out back," he rattled out as he went on to open the rear door. "Your gun and wallet and stuff are in the sugar sack tied to the horn. Go quick, there ain't much time."

Dunne grabbed his hat from under the bunk and settled it on his head as he nudged past JD in the limited space. Faint starshine sifting down between buildings picked out the blaze and boots of the waiting horse. "I've said this before, son," the man told him, "but you're a good man. And your mamma would be proud of you." He checked the cinches once, reflexively, and then swung up and wheeled away.

JD went back into the office, opened the front door, and was kneeling on the floor, cradling Nathan's shoulders on his knees, when the would-be lynchers burst in.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had mercifully passed out when Inez and Josiah started using raw bar whiskey to clean the ugly gash on his leg. It was Ezra whose second "Good Lord!" of the evening alerted Chris to the arrival of JD and Nathan, escorted by several of the strangers. Nathan looked dazed and was leaning heavily on the kid for support. Buck came to his feet, his expression a blend of concern and anger. "JD, you hurt, boy?"

"No, I'm okay, honest, Buck. But Nathan ain't."

"I'm better'n I look, I think," the healer retorted. "Somebody take a look, though."

"Let me, Padre," Inez said quickly, slipping in between Josiah and the healer as JD helped him settle into a chair. Her quick, light fingers danced over the back of his head and neck. "The skin is not broken, Señor Nathan, and there is no blood. Only a big bump."

"Where at?" Nathan asked.

"At the base of your neck, where your shoulders begin to spread."

Nathan snorted softly. "Somebody knew what he was doin'. He hit me right where there's a big knot of nerves, what the book calls a ganglion. Stunned me, but that's about all. How's Vin?"

"No lead in him," Josiah replied. "We cleaned that leg wound the best we could. Ain't so sure about his head."

"Was he talkin'? How'd his eyes look afore he passed out?"

As Josiah brought the healer up to date, Chris put his hand on JD's shoulder and drew him aside. "We didn't hear any shooting," he said. "What happened?" He had been listening for the ominous roar and sudden triumphant baying that so often accompanied a lynching and had heard nothing of either.

JD paled a little, but answered steadily. "They didn't get him, Chris. Papa got away."

"Got away?" Chris echoed, swapping glances with Buck. "How? When?"

JD took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and met his hero's eyes. "I let him go."

Ezra's head whipped around, and Nathan, Josiah, and Inez suspended their conference on the subject of Vin. Buck's jaw dropped in astonishment. "You did what?" Chris demanded.

"I let him go," JD repeated, his voice shaky but determined. "I got his stuff out of the safe after the hearing, fetched his horse from Yosemite's place, and when I saw all them men startin' to clump up out front here I went and got Nathan to let me in and hit him. Then I unlocked the doors and turned Papa out so he could get away." He glanced toward the healer a moment. "I'm sorry, Nathan, I tried not to hurt you bad. I remembered one of the pictures in them medical books of yours and figured if I hit you there I'd just knock you out long enough to do what I had to. I'm sorry," he repeated, half to Chris as he turned back to face him, "but I couldn't let him get lynched. He guessed it was comin', he knew Winterhaven had to have men outside of town waitin' to hear from him. He told me what to do, but I'm the one that did it."

Chris stared at him a moment in silence, then turned his back sharply. Buck saw the kid wilt, the gleam go out of his eyes as he realized he had lost his hero's trust and respect. The mustached gunslinger for his part felt an irrational and completely selfish rush of relief. Dunne was gone. He wouldn't be taking JD away with him. The worst was over. Buck reached out a hand to his young friend, but JD slipped out from under it and retreated to one corner of the dais, where he sank down quietly in the angle of the railing, put his head against the uprights and seemed to close himself away from everyone else.

And Buck knew then that the worst wasn't over. It had only just begun.

+ + + + + + +

"He got away?" Brice Winterhaven demanded. "Are you sure?"

"I'm tellin' you, boss," Stoner insisted, "the cell door was hangin' open and so was the back door on the alley, and that kid sheriff was sittin' on the floor tendin' to the darky, looked like somebody'd knocked him on the head. We found horse sign in the alleyway, and boot tracks where a man got up in the saddle."

Winterhaven shook his head in astonishment. "How could it have happened? I could see him breaking out, but how did the horse happen to be waiting for him?"

Stoner shrugged. "Got no idea, boss. What do we do now?"

The mineowner paced a couple of turns around his hotel room, his son Perry watching from the best chair. "What's the situation with those seven regulators?"

"We've got 'em under guard in the saloon. Tanner's hit like I told you, he'll be out of it awhile."

"That means the healer at least will have to stay with him, and probably at least one other to look after the town. The most who could follow us is four; they'll have no chance against over sixty. All right. We can't follow the man in the dark, but he'll want to make distance, and he doesn't know this part of the country; he won't be trying to hide his trail. Have the men find sleeping space wherever they can, and see about requisitioning some cold food so they can eat in the saddle. As soon as it's light enough to see, we'll follow him. He's not getting away."

+ + + + + + +

Six exhausted men and one woman gradually dozed off in whatever semblance of comfort they could find; Vin, covered with Ezra's and Buck's jackets, slept on. With morning they were wakened by Stoner's arrival. "All right, Larabee," he said, "our business took himself a run, so we'll be leaving now. You all can look after your friend and go back to the way you were."

"What about D--York?" Chris demanded harshly.

Stoner grinned. "We ain't give up on him yet. He won't get away. He's only one, and we're better than sixty. We can run relays on him, like a wolf pack, until his horse gives out or he decides to make a stand. Either way, he'll still hang for killin' Drew."

Buck glanced toward JD, whose shoulders twitched, a sure sign that he was listening. Chris stared at Stoner with flinty eyes. "We're not finished, Stoner."

"Every man's entitled to his opinion," Stoner observed cheerfully. "All right, boys, let's go."

Chris stood without moving as their guards tramped out and, moments later, a rising rumble of hoofbeats betrayed the departure of a large body of riders. Nathan pushed to his feet. "Let's get Vin up to my place," he said. "It ain't doin' him no good bein' on this hard cold floor."

Inez found a long board in the storeroom, and Buck and Josiah got the wounded man onto it and carried him to the clinic, closely followed by Chris and Ezra. JD trailed wordlessly behind and took up a position back in a corner of the room, out of everyone's way. Nathan recleaned Vin's wounds and dressed them, binding a poultice against his head, wrapping his torn wrists in bandages. "Well," was the healer's eventual verdict, "the bullet tore a pretty fair hunk of meat out of him, he's lost a lot of blood and he's like to have a nasty scar, but it don't look like he'll have no permanent impairments, like the books call 'em. If we can just keep the wound clean, and he ain't got a concussion, which I don't think he does, he'll be on his feet and 'most as good as new in two or three weeks, though he might need to take it easy for a spell after that."

Chris nodded. "All right, Nathan. You stay and take care of him. Ezra, you look after things in town. Buck, Josiah, you're with me. We're following those lynchers." He didn't even look in JD's direction, though the others knew he was well aware of the boy's presence.

Ezra blinked. "Pray tell me, Mr. Larabee, what possible chance do you suppose three men will have against sixty?"

The gunslinger shrugged. "Ain't the question, Ezra. Dunne was in our custody--my custody--and he was our responsibility. He still is till the Judge releases him officially. We can't let anyone lynch him. And besides, he's a fugitive and we've got an obligation to retake him."

The gambler shook his head. "You're quite insane, you know. You haven't a prayer of succeeding, even with Mr. Sanchez in attendance."

"I know," Chris agreed simply. "Come on, boys," he added.

Buck had been sitting in his typical fashion, astraddle a turned-around kitchen chair with his arms folded across the back of it. He swung his leg over the rush seat as if dismounting from his horse and said quietly, "Not me, Chris. Not this time. The boy needs me. I gotta stay with him."

Chris swung to face him, his eyes venomous. Buck met that intimidating gaze calmly. "I'm sorry, Chris," he went on. "No, at that, I ain't. It's just what I got to do, like settin' his pa loose was what JD had to do."

They stared at each other a long moment. For perhaps the first time Chris realized that, for all he had gained since the day he rode into Four Corners, he had lost something too. Buck had accepted that he was no longer first in Chris's life, had gracefully given way to Vin and found himself someone to take the place Chris had once held. For a moment Chris felt something that was neither sadness nor regret, but a kind of reverie, a remembrance of good times and laughter, fights side by side, a strong shadow at his elbow for a good quarter of his life, a big hand passing the ring into his the day he married Sarah, a tall figure who had set Adam on his first horse and been the second the boy greeted, with a joyous cry of "Uncle Buck!," every time the two men rode home to a now-burned ranchhouse at sunset, the special smile Sarah had always had for her husband's best friend, as special as the one she'd given to no man but Chris himself. Buck, who had been his brother, as truly so as any other son of his father, perhaps more, because they had chosen each other, of their own free will. Buck, whom he'd driven away. Buck, who was someone else's brother now. Chris knew then that if he or Judge Travis made any attempt to penalize JD for what he had done, Buck would stand up and claim he'd helped, or it had been his idea, and he'd hammer on and on at it until they let him share the kid's punishment, because that was Buck--honest, loyal, generous, great-hearted Buck. And, as he had the morning the Judge's telegram arrived, Chris seemed to be able once again to read Buck's thoughts, as he used to be able to do all the time. It's been a good ride, Chris, and there ain't one minute of it I regret. But I got somebody else needs me now, more'n you do, and I can't let him down, no more'n I ever done you, or tried to anyhow, till you wouldn't let me. A soft mental sigh: Man's got to make a choice sometimes. You made yours a long time ago, now I'm makin' mine.

"All right," Chris said at length. "Come on, Josiah."

When the footsteps of the two men could no longer be heard on the clinic steps, Ezra sighed tiredly and looked around at the others. "Gentlemen, I greatly fear that we may never see our compatriots again. And I fear too the effect of that eventuality on our Mr. Tanner. But as my profession demands, I accept the cards dealt to me, and will carry on to the best of my ability. With your permission, I shall now set out to show myself to the town, and assure the people in our trust that they retain yet some protectors, however less than sterling. You will inform me, Mr. Jackson, should any change occur in your patient's condition?"

"Count on it, Ezra," the healer promised quietly.

The gambler glanced at Buck, and then beyond him at the silent form of JD in the corner, and his bright foxlike emerald gaze softened with compassion. He clapped a hand gently against Buck's shoulder, opened his jacket to check his guns briefly, and left the room.

Buck moved over to the silent youth, who was staring at his feet, trembling a little. "You okay, kid?" he inquired gently.

"It's over, Buck," JD whispered, his voice tight and painful. "Chris is never gonna trust or respect me again."

"His loss, then," Buck retorted. "It don't matter."

JD's head came up, his eyes full of tears. "It does matter! You'n'him'n'everybody, you're all the family I got left. What do I have if I lose you all?"

"You ain't lost us all, son," Buck assured him, not even aware of the endearment he had used, one he hadn't dared speak since this whole affair with Daniel Dunne had gotten started. "You ain't lost nowheres near all of us. You got me, no matter who else. Maybe I ain't much, but you got me, now and for as long as I live, and that's a promise, son."

And then he folded JD into his arms and held him and comforted him while the boy wept.

+ + + + + + +

From a deserted cabin near the edge of town, Darrin York watched as the two distinctive forms, the grim black-clad Larabee and the massive Sanchez, trotted past on the trail of the Winterhaven men. Two, and the kid said Tanner was hurt, he thought. That leaves four. Tanner'll be at Jackson's place, and the others'll be checking up on him regularly. That's where I'll go.

He led Ebony out of the cabin's shelter and swung into the saddle.

+ + + + + + +

"I think I better ride out to the Wells place and fetch Miss Nettie," Buck said, about three hours later.

"There's no need for that, Buck," Nathan objected mildly. "Vin's gonna be fine, he just needs rest and quiet." The tracker had regained consciousness briefly twice since Chris and Josiah left; he'd been coherent, though still rather weak, and had taken Nathan's herbal teas without any more than his usual argument.

"You didn't get a helluva lot of sleep last night, doc," Buck reminded him. "You can't look after him all alone, not and take care of the rest of your obligations too. Plus which, I ain't eager to deal with how that lady'll rip into us when she finds out Vin got hurt and we didn't let her know. You know how she is, fusses over him as bad as I do over the kid."

Nathan grinned briefly. "There is that. All right, you go on."

Buck turned toward the door, pausing as his eye fell on JD. The kid hadn't let the mustached gunslinger out of his sight all morning. He still looked pale and wan, and his hair was rumpled where he'd been running his fingers through it. "You comin' with, son?"

JD shook his head. "I don't--I ain't sure I can--" He stammered to a halt. "You go, Buck, I'll stay here and help Nathan and Ezra. And tell Miss Nettie..." pause-- "tell her I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Buck's brow crinkled under the broad brim of his pushed-back hat. "For what?"

"It's all my fault," JD whispered. "If it hadn't been for me Vin wouldn't be hurt, and Chris wouldn't--Josiah--I--"

"Whoa, now, just hold up and back off a little," Buck told him. "How's it your fault? 'Cause your pa asked to have that hearing with the Judge? He'd've likely done that anyhow, and after what happened last night I can't say's I'd blame him. 'Cause Winterhaven turned out to be a damn arrogant fool with lynching on his mind? You didn't make him that way. 'Cause Vin went out and got himself shot? He done that all on his own grand notion, on account he had one of them feelings he gets. He done what he figured he had to. Just like you done."

JD just shook his head again, his mouth tight-drawn and miserable. Buck shot a worried look at Nathan, who answered it with a helpless shrug. "All right, then," the gunslinger said at length. "If you don't feel like comin', that's fine too. I'll be as quick as I can," he added, and walked out the door.

He dropped down the steps to street level and paused before turning toward the stable, scanning the vista before him in hopes of sighting Ezra's colorful jacket and quick, graceful gait. He was perhaps too tired, after the events of the last sixteen hours or so, to be aware of any warning sounded by his well-honed instincts, and the first he knew of his danger was when a gun cocked behind him and chill metal touched the back of his neck. "Just stand easy, Wilmington," said York quietly.

"What the hell--?" Buck began as the older man lifted the sixgun from his holster.

The gun barrel prodded him gently. "I'm holding the gun, so I'll ask the questions. Where's the kid?"

Buck's breathing quickened. "You leave him the hell be, you no-good. You've damn near broke his heart just as it is."

"I didn't ask you how he is, I asked where," York reminded him. "Now answer the question."

Buck swallowed his rage and kept his voice steady by an effort of will. "Upstairs with Nate and Vin."

"Anybody else there?"

"No. Ezra's off patrollin' the town. Chris'n'Josiah went after that bunch that thought it was chasin' you. What are you doin' back here anyhow?"

"You'll find out," York told him smoothly. "Now, up the stairs and in."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah rose with a grunt and turned to catch up his horse. "I'm not the tracker Vin is, Chris, and I'll be the first to admit it," he told his companion. "And with all these horses in Winterhaven's group, it would be almost a miracle if any trace of the man they were following still existed. But there's something about the way they're behaving--"

Chris frowned. "What?"

Josiah fingered his charm necklace and the crucifix that hung below it. "The Lord speaks to men in many ways, my friend. Often when He does it we call it instinct, like the whisper that sent Vin out yesterday. The Indians call it medicine, wakan if they're Sioux. I can't explain how I know this, but I sense that Winterhaven's men are following a chimera. That means," he clarified, "something that doesn't exist. I don't think JD's father is out ahead of them any more; I'm not sure he ever was."

"Then where is he? Did they just miss his trail?"

"I don't know," Josiah murmured, "but I have the strongest feeling--like something pulling at me. We need to go back to Four Corners, Chris. Our friends left behind are in danger, and Dunne is part of it."

Chris hesitated, looking at the ruck of trampled earth that marked where Winterhaven's company had passed. It made no logical sense. But Chris Larabee had followed the gun trade long enough to know that when you got a "feeling" of something being askew, it often was.

He thought of what Ezra had said, that two men would stand no chance against sixty. No, he told himself. It ain't that. Josiah's right. I've been feelin' somethin's off about that man since the night I talked Ezra into takin' a fling at him. Maybe whatever it is we can find out now. If it ain't too late.

He swung his horse around. "Let's go."

+ + + + + + +


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