JD had it all figured. He knew from Josiah's description what Warren Freely looked like, and he'd seen enough of Jay Stackhouse's Wanted posters to be able to spot him. He wasn't quite so sure about Bentann, though Buck had described him in the process of telling his story in Nathan's clinic--God, had it been only four days ago? He'd have to hope that either the man hadn't changed too much in twenty years or that he said or did something that would mark him out as a leader. The best strategy, JD was sure, would be to take out the leaders first and fast. That way there'd be some hope of throwing the others into confusion, a state which would be worsened by the realization that they were caught in a crossfire from above, and of getting Buck and Butterwick out while they were trying to figure out what to do.
He kept his face turned toward the trees and the barn, and saw the first outlaw leading a saddled horse from the shed toward the latter. Then out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of hats moving just the other side of his tailings pile, and in their midst a mop of dishevelled black hair. He set himself. Ready. Here they come. Now!
+ + + + + + +
"All right, freeze!"
Buck gasped at the sound of that familiar voice, somewhere just behind him and to his left. "JD?" he whispered. If he's here, Chris has to be, and likely Josiah, and maybe Nathan-- He flicked his eyes around in the Indian fighter's head-motionless viewing arc he'd learned in Colorado. No sign of them, but he knew they were close. He shot a quick glance at Jeremy, who was being marched along beside him, their captors not wanting to take the chance of his slipping out and getting to a horse while their backs were turned. Get ready to move, son. He didn't dare say it aloud; he could only hope Jeremy would have the sense to realize it for himself.
In the instant it took that flash of thought to shoot through his mind, his escort had stopped in its tracks, Freely slowly twisting his head around so his single eye could pick out the speaker. Buck didn't move, but he didn't have to. He'd seen the kid in action enough times to know just how he'd be standing, both Colts levelled, his slight body perfectly balanced, ready to fly off in any direction--one of which, Buck fervently prayed, would put him behind some kind of shelter.
Then Stackhouse drew and everything went to hell.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck, get down!!" JD screamed.
Everything suddenly seemed to be moving in slow motion, like molasses being poured out of a jug outdoors in January. He saw Stackhouse going for his gun, but he saw too that the patch-eyed man who must be Freely was carrying a rifle, identical to one Vin had once pointed out to him, in the Four Corners gunshop, as a Remington Rolling-Block buffalo rifle. JD had to make a choice. He didn't dare let Freely get into the trees where he could snipe them with that thing. So, for one vital instant, he ignored Stackhouse and fired at Freely.
Buck threw himself flat. A man in a buckskin shirt, who had been slowly looking around as if to locate JD's backup, suddenly yelled out, "They've got men above us! Scatter out!" A slender man in a gray suit, whom JD presumed to be Jeremy Butterwick, made a lunge for the mouth of the adit and vanished inside it. The other outlaws scattered like minnows from a dropped stone as JD's Colt barked and Freely grunted, folded at the middle, and sank to his knees. At the same instant rifle fire erupted from either side of the clearing, Stackhouse's handgun bellowed with the heavy sound of a .45, and Chris on his hack horse appeared out of the trees, spurring to a full-out run.
JD felt something burn deep into his hip, lurching him sideways. It threw his second shot off, but not his third; by that time his body had automatically compensated. That shot and Stackhouse's second blended sound. The charro-suited outlaw turned a backflip as JD's bullet took him at the base of the throat. Something hit JD almost exactly in the middle of his chest, like a big fist, and hurled him into the tailings pile. He couldn't get his breath, and everything was turning black. Men were yelling and the air was filled with the sound of gunfire. Blinking frantically against the shadows that swirled around him, JD searched the scene for Buck and finally saw him, face-down, hands bound behind him, head twisted around so the dark eyes met his own. He saw the look of deepening horror on Buck's face but didn't really understand it. He wasn't hurt, there wasn't any pain--
Then the shadows swooped over him like a blanket being thrown over his head, and he fell into darkness.
+ + + + + + +
Chris's hack covered half the width of the opening in what felt like about three good jumps. He whirled it around a tumbled shed and fired point-blank at a man he recognized as the first of the outlaws to emerge from the mine, the one who'd placed the hanging rope. The man gasped and fell back. Knowing that his hack would almost certainly become progressively more unmanageable as the gunfire continued, Chris threw himself out of the saddle, whipped the animal's reins around a sturdy manzanita bush that had established itself beside the shed, and began moving in afoot. He kept his eyes on the tunnel mouth, needing to know how many of his enemies there were. It looked like two or three down, one of them, by the color of the clothing, being Stackhouse. JD must've got him. But where is he, and where's Buck?
An outlaw leaped spasmodically, ran a couple of steps, and sprawled to earth. A split-instant later Chris heard the characteristic harsh, flat, snapping crack of a Spencer carbine being fired, a sound he'd heard a hundred times or more in the War, and knew Nathan had scored a hit, straight through the heart to judge by the man's dying movements. Four or five down. Damnit, Buck, JD, where are you?
+ + + + + + +
Nathan, up on his ledge, saw the moment of shocked suspension break in violence, saw smoke erupt from JD's Lightning, and then was too busy to pay further attention. He'd already seen a tall, hatless, black-haired figure, almost certainly Buck, throw itself to the ground. Good man, now I don't need to worry about hittin' you by mistake. The Spencer fired with a crack and Nathan pushed the big, looping trigger guard all the way down with his thumb to open the breech, pulled it up again to kick out the spent cartridge and bring the new load into the barrel from the magazine, cocked the hammer and squeezed off a second shot, all in a little under one and a half seconds. His third shot caught a running outlaw on the fly and he saw the man leap like a startled goat, take two long running/falling steps and drop. Damn, that had to be six hundred yards or better. Wind must be with me.
Keepng count in the back of his mind, as any experienced fighter had to learn to do, he realized the next shot would empty the carbine, squeezed it off, and pushed a little higher up to turn the little knob sticking out of the heel of its butt, pull the dry magazine out, and in almost one motion yank a fresh one from the Blakeslee box at his side, fit one end of it against the trap, shove it up till it seated, snap the gate shut behind it and turn the knob again to lock it in place. He was aware of the sharper sound of Josiah's Winchester keeping up a sustained steady fire from across the opening: with twice as many rounds to his magazine, he could fill in while Nathan reloaded.
Cora Lejeune had agreed to "do what we tell you when we tell you and not argue." Chris had said to stay where he put her, with JD's and Josiah's horses. But, she reasoned, he hadn't said how long she should stay there. So, having remained in the designated place for what she figured was about ten minutes before the shooting started, she considered herself to have kept her word and fulfilled her obligation. She tied the two men's horses securely, and, directing her own deftly, began to circle around just inside the edge of the trees. She didn't know exactly why she felt it was so important that she be close to the fighting. Maybe it was just needing to see Jeremy, needing to know they hadn't killed him as soon as they got him out of town.
Maybe it was more.
She had seen how these four men were with each other, how Chris Larabee seemed to expect--no, to know--that his followers would fall into the rhythm of whatever happened, would understand immediately what they had to do. She had spent more than an hour, last night, talking with young Sheriff Dunne, and what he had said made her feel that all this wasn't simply the result of having gone through a lot of fights together, although of course that was part of it. She thought perhaps they sensed things about one another. As she sensed that Jeremy was going to need her.
Chris Larabee had said it was important that the outlaws not realize she was there, because then they would have no reason to try to get to her and use her as a hostage. Cora could see that this made very good sense. But if they didn't realize she was there, they would also have no reason to expect a fifth person to take a hand in the fight. By now they knew of the two rifles above them, of Mr. Larabee and of Sheriff Dunne. They would think there were no others. That would be Cora's advantage.
Chris ducked and rolled to get behind the wagon shed, hearing the horses inside it whinnying and stamping and yanking at their tethers. He ran up the length of its back wall, paused a moment as he reached the corner, took a fast count of three, and then flicked out, low down, and fired more by feel than anything else. An outlaw who'd been creeping along the adjoining wall screamed, dropped his gun, and fell, clutching a shattered shinbone. Chris dodged past him, bending just long enough to scoop up the discarded revolver and stuff it into his belt next to Buck's Colt. Damn, where's JD and Buck? And which of these is Bentann?
"LARABEE! CHRIS LARABEE, DO YOU HEAR ME?"
Chris whirled in mid-stride and dived behind a tailings pile, not the same one JD had used. He turned to wave a signal to Nathan and heard the Spencer fall silent. Josiah, catching it, apparently aware that the healer hadn't used up a full magazine yet, also ceased fire. Chris looked around, trying to decide if there were any more outlaws hiding within easy gunshot of him. The enemy suspended its shooting too, understanding that some new factor had entered the equation. In the silence Chris shouted back: "I hear you. Bentann?"
"That's right." The voice wasn't anywhere near as loud now; it didn't have to be, since it wasn't competing with gunfire. "I'm in the tunnel and I'm coming out. I suggest you don't fire."
That don't sound good. "Come ahead!" Chris scrambled around on his knees until he could peer around the heap of debri and get a clear sight of the gaping black mouth of the adit. He could make out a prone form, arms twisted awkwardly behind it, squirming away from the motionless bodies that lay just clear of JD's covert; a familiar canvas jacket and loose-draped bandanna, a flushed face with black dishevelled hair falling down into it. Buck. He's all right, then, he's clear. Thank God. Extrapolating his old friend's course by eye, he felt his heart give a sharp knock as he saw the tumbled brown form visible against the mixed gray and foliage colors of the tailings pile. JD's down. Oh, damn, damn, I knew it.
Movement at the mouth of the tunnel swung his attention away from his two friends. At first he thought it was just one man, and then he saw it was two. One in a gray suit, with the rising sun glittering off silver-rimmed spectacles, held as a shield before the second, who was squeezed up against the left-hand, or south, side of the adit, back protected from Josiah's position by the framing timber, body covered in front by that of his hostage. Chris made out a gleam of gun barrel held jammed against the angle of the latter's jaw. Has to be Butterwick. Damn. He must've jumped back into the tunnel, which wasn't a bad idea in itself, but Bentann saw him go and went after him.
"Larabee! Stand out where I can see you!"
"Not damn likely," Chris spat back. "I ain't takin' any shots at you with the protection you've got, that's all you need."
Bentann seemed to think that over a moment. "The Pinkertons said you were good. All right, you've got a point. Warren! Stackhouse! Anyone who hears me, sing out!"
A thin shout from behind another tailings pile was the only response he got. "Damn, Larabee, you're better than good," Bentann grudged. "Ten men down in, what, five minutes? Tell me something, can you see Buck?"
"I saw him just before you came out, and he was movin'," Chris responded. "He's under cover by now."
"All right. I'll strike a deal with you. You can have his life if you let me ride out of here. Otherwise, I'll kill Jeremy here and just duck back into the tunnel. I don't care how many men you bring in here, you'll never pry me out of there alive."
It was all too possible, Chris knew. Any mine that had functioned for a reasonable length of time was certain to be a maze, furnishing hundreds of hidey-holes and, very possibly, ventilation shafts or other escape hatches. If the outlaws had been camping in there, they'd have left food and ammunition inside. Bentann would have it all his way. If he couldn't simply last out a siege, he could kill himself before anyone got up the nerve to charge his position. He might even be able to find a way out. And if he does that, Buck'll never be safe, nor the rest of us either, likely. Chris's face turned grim. No. It ends here.
But he couldn't let Butterwick be murdered, either. How would he face Cora Lejeune if he did? Or, for that matter, Mary and the Judge and the people of Four Corners?
Up on his ledge, Josiah squinted along the sights of his Winchester. Sound travels upward, and he could catch the exchange of shouts, but not the individual words. Still, he had marked Chris, by his black clothing, taking shelter behind that one pile of tailings, which suggested he was one of the people talking. He couldn't see more than just the vaguest slice of an arm exposing itself past the edge of the nearer framing timber, but he knew that anyone standing in a position such as that would be wide open from where Chris was. Chris wasn't firing on him, which meant that whoever that was must have a hostage. JD? Buck? Butterwick? Josiah couldn't tell, and at this distance he hadn't a hope of making a clean enough hit to give that hostage even so much as the opportunity to pull free and drop.
Nathan, on the other side, had a clearer view. Knowing that neither Chris, JD, nor Buck had been wearing gray when he'd seen them last, he guessed that the human shield had to be Butterwick. He pushed up a bit, locating the body of the man he'd heart-shot, then resettled. The adit had to be a good hundred yards past the corpse. Still within the Spencer's effective range, but whoever was holding Butterwick wasn't showing enough of himself to make a target out of. Lord, I wish Vin was here. He can hit small targets a lot further off than I can. Nathan held fire. If the man would give him a chance, give him something a bit bigger to shoot at, he'd do it. But he couldn't chance killing Butterwick. Taking guilty lives was one thing: Nathan often saw his role as one of Four Corners's protectors, and as a friend to the other six, as an extension of his healer's duties, and he knew that sometimes you had to cut out bad flesh to preserve good. But to cut down an innocent hostage--no. That he couldn't do. He waited, praying for just one chance.
Buck, breathless from his earthworm-like struggle--his bound hands were useless, so all direction and impetus had had to come from his legs and feet, and that in turn communicated the motion to his injured ribs and strained abdominal oblique muscles--had finally made it around the tailings pile to where JD half-sat, half-lay against it. There was blood on the kid's trouser leg, and worse on his shirt and vest; to the horrified gunslinger it looked as if the bullet might have taken him in the heart. But he was still breathing..."JD? JD, my God, son, can you hear me? Oh, Christ, JD, don't die on me, don't leave me knowin' you got killed tryin' to save me--"
"Buck?" Just a sigh, a whisper of a voice, but to Buck it was a sweeter sound than the chanting of angelic choirs. "Buck, are...are you...okay?"
"Don't you worry 'bout me none, boy," the gunslinger told him. "Ol' Buck's been through worse'n this, damn straight. What the hell did you think you were doin'? How many times have I told you--?"
"Oh, Buck. You're so full of crap." Yet the note that underlaid the words was gentle and loving. "Buck?"
"Buck...you know why...why I came down after you?"
"'Cause I'd've done the same for you," Buck guessed, dropping all pretense of anger.
"No," JD whispered. "Not...just. It was...'cause I owed it to you. I...I understand now...it could've...could've...just as easy...happened to me. If...if I hadn't found...you...'n'Chris...'n'Vin...I...I'm so sorry...Buck...I had no right...I shouldn't've...turned away from you...like I done..."
Buck's words to Chris, on the boardinghouse porch almost two weeks ago now, echoed in his mind: "God, he was so lucky he fell in with us. There ain't a day goes by I don't give thanks it was us he dropped off that stage in front of, and not somebody like Bentann..."
"It don't matter, JD. I understand. I don't hold you no grudges, you hear me? Now you need to rest, you been shot, boy."
JD let out a soft pained sigh. "Why...why ain't...anybody shootin'? Are...are they all...all down?"
Buck rolled onto his uninjured side, pushed up on his elbow, and with a sharp heave managed to get himself into a sitting position. He squirmed onto his knees and cautiously peeked around the tailings pile. "Damn. No. Bentann's at the mouth of the tunnel holdin' Jeremy as a shield."
JD's eyes opened wider. He saw clearly for the first time that Buck's hands were still bound, making it impossible for him to use a gun. He forced himself to think, to review the scene as he remembered it, distances, angles. "Buck?"
"Keep still, damnit, JD, and save your strength. You and me're out of it now. We gotta leave it to Chris and the others."
Chris, forted up behind the other tailings pile, was trying desperately to think of a way he could get to Bentann without killing Butterwick in the process. He'd be damned if he'd let the man get away, knowing the kind of money and power he had. A man like that, especially with Bentann's past, probably had a good share of his wealth squirrelled away somewhere that only he knew about. He could go to wherever it was, get it, and hire more men like Freely and Stackhouse to come after Buck and his friends again, and again, and still again. Four Corners and its people would be placed in danger too: that kind of gun didn't care who got in his way. He thought of Sarah and Adam, burned in their house because someone had been trying to get to him. No. Damn it, I will not lose anyone else like that.
But Butterwick's just as innocent as they were. I can't let him die.
And JD's hit, maybe bad hurt. The longer we drag this out, the worse his chances get.
Two lives here, now, in front of me, against lives that might be in danger sometime down the road. Or might not: Bentann said I was good; he might just as easy decide to head for Brazil or someplace, rather than risk this happening to the next batch of guns he hires.
And one of those lives is JD, and if he dies--
"All right, Bentann. I'll let you go. But don't waste any time about it, because Sheriff Karlberg down in Eagle Bend knew where we were goin', and he promised to follow." There, that way maybe he won't take the time to saddle a horse for Butterwick.
"That's better," the ex-jayhawker told him. "Go down to the shed and saddle the blood bay. Tie the roan and the buckskin on lead behind it so I'll have remounts. Then bring them up here so I can stay where I am and not expose myself to that rifle you've got up on the south rim."
Damn, Chris thought, he's even smarter than Buck said he was. But he didn't have any options. He'd made his choice and he had to follow through. He holstered his Colt and edged out from behind his breastwork, pausing a moment to throw a bitter glare at the self-satisfied Bentann and his silent hostage, then moved slowly down toward the shed.
JD's chest hurt and it was hard for him to breathe, but his right Colt was still in his hand. Buck was kneeling a few feet away, watching Bentann from around the heap of debri that formed their shelter; his back was to his young partner, his attention on the tableau being played out before him. He'd managed to locate Chris: the man was a little to his left and about another fifteen feet downslope, behind a second tailings pile. Then he heard his friend's voice, offering surrender. He was tempted to yell out to him, tell him not to do it. But he couldn't. JD was hurt. They had to break this impasse so he could be taken care of. He's mine to look after...
The breathless silence, complete but for the soft crunch of Chris's boots as he started toward the shed, was broken by hoofbeats, quick, sure hoofbeats, and a horse appeared out of the trees, a sturdy, deep-chested black gelding ridden by--good God, was that a girl?
Chris heard, and stopped where he was. Buck couldn't make out his face clearly at this distance, but he could tell by the way his old friend's body tautened that he both recognized the newcomer and was surprised and furious at her advent.
JD hitched himself back, a little at a time, until his shoulders slid sideways against the tailings and he skidded down into a supine position with his head just clearing the heap. He could see, now, the adit, Bentann and Butterwick, and Cora Lejeune on her black hack horse trotting across from the trees. His amazement was such that he literally didn't feel the pain caused by his movement. Reflexively he pulled his right Colt higher, away from his side, thinking of something Buck had told him, one of his many lessons and one JD had made good use of in more than one fight: Aim before you go for your gun. And if it's out but it ain't in line, aim before you bring it around. Put your eye on the place you want to hit and keep it there. Know where you want that bullet to go.
Bentann heard the horse too. He was sure neither of the riflemen had had time to get down to the level of the opening, so it wouldn't be one of them. He knew where Buck, Larabee, and that kid were; it wasn't one of them. Karlberg would have brought a posse. That meant it almost had to be an ally. Maybe one of Stackhouse's men had gotten off into the trees and then turned back. He cranked his head around to peer past the timber and over his shoulder. Cora?!
Hello, Uncle Marc," she said, pulling the black to a halt about five feet from the adit and swinging gracefully out of the saddle. "I brought you a horse."
I'll be damned, he thought. How did she ever find her way up here?
She must've tricked Larabee and his lot into letting her come along. Damn. I didn't know I'd been such an influence on her.
"You're just in time, Cora," he said. "Stay right there and I'll come and get it." She had turned the animal so its left side--the side from which to mount--was facing the south end of the opening, its head toward the tunnel, its body ready to serve as a shield from the north-rim rifleman, whom Bentann had already realized must have a Spencer, arguably at that distance the more dangerous of the two high guns. The other one wouldn't fire with Cora standing out there like that. He could see Larabee; if the man made a move toward his gun, he was dead. Buck was probably still bound, and Stackhouse had brought the kid down. Bentann considered a moment. He couldn't take Jeremy up with him, double on the one horse, but then he hadn't really planned to anyway. He needed to move fast, which meant travelling light. Cora was waiting, the horse's reins held in her left hand. There was just that five feet or so of open space to cross. Bentann didn't see his niece's right hand--the hand on the side away from him--slipping into the pocket of her skirt. He was just beginning to sidle out of the tunnel, still walking Jeremy in front of him, when she spoke again, gently. "Uncle Marc."
He turned his head.
Cora's Merwin & Hulbert Pocket pistol came up, levelling.
He had to move, fast. He spun Jeremy away from him, toward his left, back into the adit, his right arm scything out to catch the M&H with his extended gun barrel, to knock it out of her hand.
JD, with the last ounce of strength he had left, pushed up on his left elbow and lifted his Colt and fired.
The Merwin & Hulbert went off just as Bentann's gun barrel touched it.
Two explosions blended sound. Bentann, struck from two directions simultaneously, lurched back, half off his feet, and slammed into the timber behind him. He stared up at Cora in utter disbelief as it penetrated his mind that she had shot him. She had actually shot him. Why?
Because he was threatening Jeremy Butterwick.
It was the last thing he knew.
Chris Larabee took off, running, as the shots sounded, racing up slope to the adit. Buck, hearing the familiar sharp report of a Colt Lightning directly behind him, threw himself back into a sitting position, scrambling around on his butt, and groaned a curse as he saw JD lying there, flat on his back, eyes closed, his right arm fully extended, the Colt in his hand pointed ruler-straight at where Bentann lay sprawled against the timber. You damn fool kid...why the hell--?
Cora seemed stunned, not fully aware of what she'd done, though the pistol still hung in her hand. A dozen feet inside the tunnel, the young man who must be Jeremy Butterwick was sitting up, adjusting his glasses, as Chris raced up. He kicked the long sleek Remington away from Bentann's hand, then knelt to feel for the pulse in the neck as he'd seen Nathan do.
"Is he dead?" Butterwick's voice, hoarse and shaky.
"Yeah, he's dead. Take care of the girl," Chris ordered, and took off toward the tailings pile.
He found Buck struggling frantically to free himself of his bonds, the thongs slicing into his flesh. "Chris! Chris, cut me loose, JD's hurt, I gotta see to JD--"
He's mine to look after. His old friend's words on the boardinghouse porch came back to the leader. "All right, hold still, Buck, or I'm likely to cut somethin' important here."
With an evident effort of will Buck ceased his frantic efforts and held himself still and taut as Chris's pocketknife slid between his wrists and then up and back, snapping the thongs in one quick motion. Buck didn't even bother to unwrap them, he just hurled himself forward and settled next to the fallen kid. "JD! JD, come on, son, don't do this...JD..."
"Buck...?" Barely a ghost of a whisper this time, but the eyes opened far enough for him to see the weak gleam in them.
"I'm here, son. I'm right here with you...let me see..." He wasn't sure if Nathan would approve of what he was about to do, but it didn't matter. JD was hurt and probably scared and needed comfort. He slid his long arms around the boy's upper body and very slowly, very gently drew him up, gathering him into a loose embrace, supporting and cradling him.
Exhausted and in pain, JD let his body slacken, let Buck take his weight, and felt the older man's arms come around him, a strong protective wall. And Buck, knowing what the kid needed now, did what he always did: he talked him through it. "All right, son...it's okay now...it's over...you just stay still and let ol' Buck take care of everything...Nathan'll be here in just a minute...you're safe...I got you...I ain't goin' nowhere...you rest now...you're gonna be just fine..."
He heard the breath slide out of the kid in a faint sigh, felt the slight weight droop against his chest, and looked down quickly as a rush of panic grabbed him, but JD was breathing, his face turned half into his partner's shirt, half hidden by his hair. He tightened his embrace a little, trying not to put any pressure where it would hurt, and just held on, not aware that he'd begun rocking.
Chris was down on one knee beside them, trying to get a look at Buck, to determine if he was hurt. The handkerchief bandage had slipped off at some point, revealing an ugly gash on his forehead, but Chris remembered Nathan saying once that the skull was thickest in front, so that injuries there were the least likely to cause serious damage. Buck's right wrist was badly swollen, though he didn't seem to be noticing it, and by the way his body had reflexively positioned itself as he knelt, there was something wrong with his ribs too. But he's alive...now all we have to do is keep JD that way too...
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