I had no concept of time, neither the hour it was, nor how long we'd ridden, when at last the dark forms ahead bunched and slowed. Red wanted to crowd amongst them, but I held him back. We were waiting again, whilst Tanner scouted ahead once more, making sure things were as he had left them. No one spoke in the waiting stillness, and the cold bit more sharply through my trousers. Leaning forward, I tucked my hands beneath the steamy warmth of Red's saddle blanket. Among my shadowy companions, Buck's big grey shone like a chunk of the absent moon, and I realized I could see the soft dapples in its coat. Looking up, I saw grey light softly flooding the sky, dimming the stars, and my wits briefly skidded around the understanding that it was coming dawn. Where had I lost the night? Perhaps I had slept, after all.
Swiftly the stars fled, leaving the sky a flat, steel grey, and us below in a grey world devoid of shadow or texture. Finally dark motion thumped softly, and our scout was back. Tanner's sandy voice carried well enough, telling of a shack and horse corral ahead, distance, layout, and four men who slept there. We had them. My heart fetched my lungs a stiff kick. The trembling in me now was not cold, nor the dryness I tasted from lack of water. Larabee spoke next, brief, metallic tones detailing his orders. Now I could dimly see their faces, tautly attentive as hat brims nodded quick acquiescence against the pale dawn sky. Then my belly got a jolt as Larabee turned right to me, and he called me by name, Morgan. They had to know the horses would be safe, in case one of the stage robbers got by them. Would I do that?
Responsibility, not demotion, and I sat taller at his words. "Yes, sir," I replied, and there was light enough to see the glint of Larabee's hard smile. They were moving, shifting apart, and I followed. Now we rode slowly single-file, along a narrow game trail that threaded through scanty brush at the base of the hills. As the silvery light grew, I glimpsed the thin line of an old road or trail, away off beyond brush and thin trees to our left and west. Evidently that was how the robbers had gotten to the yet-unseen shack, ahead. I smelled it before I could see anything, just the lightest taste of smoke, sweet mesquite smoke on a drift of frigid air. My belly tightened with a cold thump. The scent had the after-bite of a fire gone to mere embers, so I guessed it to be from the robbers' cook fire, last night.
Then Hell just fell off the shelf. Shots exploded and men yelled, and Red leaped mightily into clawing brush, only to slam up short against the spinning rump of Josiah's big sorrel. More shots and more, guns booming around me, and something snapped wickedly past my head. Larabee's voice shouted, matched by Buck's great booming yell, all to fall back, fall back, and I glimpsed JD's hand punching smoke uphill, as I wrenched Red around and bang into Ezra's horse. Brush raked savagely and something hurtled heavily past me, Vin's shout left hanging behind him, to move, kid!
Ambush. We'd ridden right into it. Bare limbs clawed and Red plunged, and then the earth dropped giddily from beneath me. Down a collapsing embankment we plummeted, yet landed right side up and amongst the others, who threw themselves from the saddle with guns in hand. Reins were thrust at me, some caught, some not, what with me foolishly clutching my Winchester. Larabee appeared briefly, a black swirl of hot eyes and savagely contained fury, my orders to watch the horses but keep my ass down. I near twisted my head off my shoulders, trying to see, to think. We were pinned inside the deep curve of a dry creek bed, where floods had cut away a small section of hillside. The crumbling sandy banks stood perhaps seven feet tall here, but sloped swiftly to much less, on both sides of us. The hill above spat smoke, the others scattered into cover, and twigs mysteriously broke loose and plopped among us.
Then silence fell, silence that rang like thunder, and I heard the gusty breathing of the horses around me. One of them, Josiah's, backed up as if to move into the open, but I jerked Red to block him, got hold the trailing rein and pulled the animal back into place. I shook so hard, the muzzle of my Winchester trembled as if with cold, and my heart pounded in my ears.
"Whattaya think of that, huh, boys?" The thin, sharp taunt drifted clearly on the cold air, from the stony hills above us. "Thought we'd set up a lil' welcoming committee, and fix it so we don't have to worry about you, no more."
Then I heard a laugh, high and tittering, and I wished I could see who it was. What kind of man laughs, at the prospect of another's death? Somewhere to my left, I heard Vin's harsh whisper chanting a bitter mantra, cursing himself. Finally Standish's droll tones noted that, unless Tanner included clairvoyance among his many talents, there was no way he could have anticipated this. Hell no, I thought. These people must have spent the entire night, setting up and waiting for the hunters to become the hunted. Even that smoke from their wood stove was likely part of the bait. Looking behind us, I saw that the opposite side of the stream bed was low and wide open, scoured bare by monsoon flooding, slanting shallowly to dry grass and the whole, wide valley, beyond. Here inside this bend in the arroyo was the only cover, and they had us pinned, with a clear field of fire from the broken hillside above. Now my shoulders tightened against more than the cold morning chill. No retreat.
I wished again I could see past the blank embankment before me, then realized that, sitting horseback, my head was stuck well above it, with only the dry brush on top shielding me. Swallowing hard, I swung down before my leg had a chance to object. It did that when I hit the ground, crumpling in a bolt of agony to pitch me on my rump. But I struggled up, under power of much profanity, and began stripping hobbles from the saddles that had them, slapping them around restive forefeet. Those horses who had no hobbles, I looped reins around saddle horns of the horses who did. Better. Breathing hard from painful exertion, I leaned off my throbbing leg and into Red's warm shoulder, drew my old Winchester's hard comfort against my chest. What now? Through a forest of horse heads, I watched as Larabee crabbed his way along the lower end of the bank, talking briefly to each of his men. When I looked behind us again, I saw the first sunlight bathing the hills across the valley in a ruddy flood of icy light. The color of blood in water.
Larabee glanced back towards the horses, stopped and stared, then relaxed when I moved my rifle to catch his eye. Here he came, at a crouching run. He wanted me to stay down, stay with the horses, and watch my back. If things went wrong, I should grab a horse and just go; they'd make sure I had cover enough to get away. Went wrong? My chest tightened until I almost fell over laughing like a crazy man. If this was not wrong, how would I know when wrong got here? Yet I managed to merely nod, and Larabee actually grinned, like this was the most fun he'd had all week. He told me attaboy, then scooted back the way he had come.
At the farthest end of our little breastworks, Nathan lay over a Spencer rifle, dark face impassive as a gourd. Once I read a story about African warriors, who hunted the great lions as proof of manhood, and I wondered if perhaps his people had been such as them. JD had his hat set beside him, rifle propped at his side as he reloaded one of his two pistols. Kid was a walking arsenal. Beside him, Buck held his Winchester loosely against his shoulder, coat tail swept clear of the Colt's pistol tilting at his hip. Next Ezra Standish snuggled a Remington revolving rifle, his own elegant coat tails bulging with weaponry, and no thought visible for the dirt he lay in. Vin Tanner lay on his back, stuffing fresh rounds into a full-sized Winchester, but with the cut-down one laid across his knee. Josiah leaned into his rifle like Moses upon his staff, deep-set eyes fixed patiently on the deadly hillside beyond. Patience like that had probably killed more foolish men, and I felt mighty pleased the preacher was on our side. And last, Chris Larabee, intense as a jaguar, crouched low and tight-held, watching, waiting for that which would win us free.
Waiting . . . Morning blazed its determination behind the deadly hills, as the blue tide of night slowly sank towards the valley floor. Now a breeze began to whisper cold promise, and I turned up the collar of my coat. I watched Vin roll over, flip up the sight of his long rifle, and aim at nothing I could see. Yet no shot followed, and I saw him turn his head towards Larabee, then motion his hand in a circular gesture, tilting his chin upwards. Larabee narrowed his eyes towards that hill, then looked back and nodded once. Vin holstered his cut-down gun, then with the other in hand, he slid back and away. Nathan glanced at him briefly, with a smile that made me think perhaps he himself had hunted lions. Buck also watched him go, and took off his hat, raised it cautiously on the muzzle of his rifle. Instantly the hillside barked smoke, and a harsh voice laughed.
"Hey, boy, how 'bout you put a head inside that hat, huh?"
Wilmington hollered back at him in a great voice, a long and colorful diatribe. Among other things, he described the hidden marksman as a pusillanimous son of a bitch, whom he thought was probably just four feet tall with a chicken neck and a little bald head.
Thinly, the derisive reply drifted back; "Why don't you come find out?"
With the enemy's attention hopefully thus drawn the other way, Vin scuttled towards me, almost on all fours. His fingers briefly touched my shoulder in passing, and warmth for that kindness touched me, as well. Like a knife through water, he slid between the horses, then up the crumbled bank where I had so steeply dropped. In an instant, a quiver of dry brush was all that remained of his presence. If ever we needed a man who could be an Indian, this was the time.
Bang, the hillside spoke again, then belched forth a staccato pattern of whacking smoke, each puff fractionally ahead of the report that followed. Only an instant had I, to marvel at this phenomenon, before the boom of Nathan's Spencer led the rest of our guns into a stuttering, thudding barrage of smoke and chaos. Dust spat and twigs spun, fluttering, off the rim above. Death was trimming its hedges, unseen missiles that cared not if they hit earth or man. Fear seized hot hands around my throat, and the nerve-cracking effort of just standing there near unhinged me. Be damned Larabee's instructions, I edged up the bank, just far enough to sight through the tangle of brush, snugged my own Winchester to my shoulder. Hard to see, there, and I had my orders to watch the horses, yet I slashed the rifle to either side, broke twigs enough to see the hillside above. From my vantage, it was almost three hundred yards, and no clear target. Smoke erupted up there, my rifle slammed my shoulder in reply, yet through my own smoke, I could not tell if I even came close. Levered another shell in, waited for another smoke, fired again. Something spatted into the brush and I heard Larabee's harsh yell to get down. Hadn't realized I'd let my shoulders creep up, and I dropped with a jerk, sand dumping down my shirt and my bad leg screaming silently.
JD's sharp voice blurted a stark new truth, that there were five men up there, five, not four as we started with. The hill belched smoke and the valley roared bolts of flame. I squeezed off another shot, then another, but with such a poor field of fire, I had no idea of effect. Poor Red trembled behind me, until sweat began to darken his flanks and neck. However, the other seven horses stood quietly, their big eyes wary, ears alertly working and feet shifting, but that was all. That must say something, that the horses of these men could stand so well under fire. Buck swore and jerked back, JD instantly turning with question large in his eyes, but Buck shook his head, blood on his face, and his rifle spoke once more. Something dark snapped up and spun to the sand, Ezra's hat, but the dandy man never flinched, merely touched his tongue to his lips like a boy calculating his next marble toss. His Remington boomed and a rock up the hill spat a cloud of pulverized rubble. Something behind that rock jerked from sight. Larabee's dark trousers were now smudged sandy-white, as he fired, then levered and fired and levered again. We lay in a pungent fog of our own making, and I tasted powder smoke in my throat. Five to seven wasn't hard odds, it was the manner in which the game was being played, and with them up there shooting at us like fish in a barrel, we just now held the losing hand.
Then a screech tore from the hill above, a wildcat squall that near stalled my heart. Shots stuttered fast and my leaping stomach screamed, what in HELL? Yet Buck laughed aloud, spoke Vin's name, and Josiah quoted something about the hills from whence my help cometh.
I saw them, then, saw them rise from that place as if by one mind. I see them still, rising up just as the sun burst forth in glory, six of them surging forward with the fires of the Apocalypse upon their shoulders. Larabee leaped the rim of their would-be grave like a flung lance, cat-black and arrow-sure, with JD the hawk flung from Larabee's gloved hand. Buck bore thunder in his eyes and havoc in his hands, as Ezra bounded ahead with the cold, bright focus of a leopard to the hunt, Nathan's dark grace now a lion-hunter in fact and action, and Josiah terrible as a prophet, afire to crush the wicked beneath chariots and flaming swords. They swept forward like a pressing tide, rushed like a fall of mountains, each sure of the other and never a glance turned to either side. I forgot my rifle, forgot my own name, stood transfixed in that moment. The smokes on the hill burst anew, but now they had something awful up there with them, and again rang that wildcat scream.
Those poor, stupid bastards never stood a chance. Once I saw a pack of hounds tear into a little band of coyotes. The coyotes had been badly ravaging the local calf crop, but I remember the twist of pity I felt, watching those ragged dun forms vanish beneath the sinewy, savage leaps of the hounds. This looked a lot like that. I saw the badmen try to flee, hats and shoulders lurching amid stones and brush, but as the golden sun caught them, so, too, did swift forms bear them from sight. Voices yelped thinly, the triumph of the hunters, and I breathed, knew they were well, knew seven would come down whole.
The horses saved me, sharp ears swiveling and high heads staring, as I chanced to glance back. I half-turned, heard branches snap, then crush, and I pivoted fully, rifle swinging around even as a heavy man-shape plunged from the brush beyond. He had a gun! - and clay crumbled underfoot, spilling me to tumble headlong, twisting to see him. An explosion burst in my ears ~ my own rifle ~ then a shot boomed back, but I couldn't be hit, could I, if I heard it? Horses' legs lunged away and legs in tan cotton leaped over me. Thunder exploded in triplicate over my head. Yet I knew those legs, lay still as they stepped away, then slowly backwards, stopping beside me. A hand reached down, light fingers just touching my coat. A raspy voice asked was I hit, and I looked up at Vin Tanner's face, framed against the luminous blue sky. I tried to say no, but a dry clicking noise seemed all the sound I could make.
Larabee and the boys brought the others off the hill. Four wretched men, some limping, some bleeding, all scowling and surly. They shoved the prisoners to the dirt, shouted at them to lay down, stay down, and they did. One I looked for, one I wanted to see. He was not that crumpled, blank-eyed heap beside the horses, so he must be among the others, and he was. Red paisley scarf still around his neck. The boys watched me coming, limping on a leg near dead, dragging that Winchester which now weighed fifty pounds. My man would not look at anyone, his sullen stare hidden behind a lowered hat brim.
"I want him up," I said.
He did not want up, but Josiah plucked him by one arm, as if weightless. Blood glued a shirt sleeve blackly to one of the man's arms. His eyes were bloodshot, but I knew them still. I reached out, he jerked back, and Buck seized the back of his collar with a wordless growl. My fingers found the paisley kerchief, and in one motion I dragged it roughly up over his nose.
"You won't see Dan Dupres where you're going," I said. "But I reckon hangin' is a quicker way to die, than what you did to him."
After that, I was simply . . . done. I walked off, sat down and dry-heaved, and then sat there and shook like a half-frozen dog. Whatever they did, securing prisoners, gathering horses, collecting guns and booty, they did without me. I held my Winchester as if it were a tender friend, felt my bad leg shudder and throb, felt the warm sun bathe my shoulders. Mostly I tried very hard to concentrate on nothing more than what a radiantly wonderful morning I saw before me. After a bit, a shadow spilled up to me, and Josiah's sarape fringe swung at my shoulder.
His deep tones commented on what a hell of a morning it had been, and when I answered with little sense, he grunted, set hands to his knees, then plopped down beside me with a big sigh. Turning to look at me, he smiled the gentlest smile, this man who had packed Armageddon up a smoking hill. Being alive is the most precious thing, is what he told me, and then he laid an arm around my shoulder. Felt like my father's touch, heavy and warm, and he didn't say any more. Nor did I feel any shame in it, as Nathan checked on how I was doing, and the others went about making ready to leave. Reckon a body sometimes needs to feel the awareness of other life, when death has breathed so close, and somehow Josiah read that, in me.
At last, the sounds of pending movement grew too urgent to ignore, and I let Josiah haul me to my feet. Larabee called me over to the pack horse, where he wanted me to look through the things they had recovered from the shack. At a best rough accounting, it was all there, both mail bag and the contents of the strong box. JD had my horse, and offered a big smile as I took Red from him. Here I could scarce believe I was among the living, and he grinned like ain't it a great Fourth of July. Still, it lightened me inside, a bit, for which I was grateful. Next, Larabee came back to me, wearing a self-satisfied smile himself, and held out a prize, my lost coach gun. I tied it behind my saddle, since my hands were full of Winchester, and carried his words with a smile of my own. This kid had done good. Then Buck went by and made some smart-aleck remark about how next time, I should try going into a fight right side up, instead of head-first. Laughing out loud felt like I'd coughed up a clot of something unhealthy, and so I laughed some more, when Ezra stuck his finger through a hole in his hat, and grieved loudly about the appalling condition of his wardrobe.
"Too bad that ain't your skull," one of the captives dared to sneer. Tanner slapped the man's head so hard, I swear his eyeballs spun in their sockets.
And that, I realized, was what they had, these seven men. Each other. We were mounted up and moving, as I pondered the thing. Seven men, each as different as the stray buttons in my mama's sewing drawer, and whom it seemed should never have met, let alone formed what they were. Yet it struck me that, if a man made a wheel with seven spokes, and made this one red, and that one blue and the next one green, and so on, he could still make each spoke as strong as the other, and each one an integral part of the wheel's strength. What is more, the wheel would never question whether all the spokes would turn, nor would one spoke doubt another. The iron tire which bound them together was nothing more complicated . . . than trust. A trust greater and more profound than any I will likely ever know.
Our shadows rippled beside us, as we rode into the triumphant blaze of morning. I began to feel alive again, as golden light poured upon the hills, and the thin October sun lapped warmly across our backs. With us we had four prisoners, my lost shotgun, the return of the express cargo, and a dead man wrapped and slung like fresh venison. Him I simply could not feel bad about, and my heart sprang lightly above the deep, nagging ache of my bad leg.
After we'd ridden a spell, JD swung in alongside, to ask me about riding as shotgun messenger. Kid-like, he swore no money in the world could get him to sit up there, on a box in the wide-open, just waiting for someone to take a shot. I tried telling him that most of us never heard a shot fired in anger, our whole lives, and likely I'd be an old man before I heard another. Hard weather and bronc animals were the worst things we had to contend with. He wasn't having any of that, however, and finally rode ahead, with the boyishly-grinning assertion that I was nuts. That made me smile and swell my buttons a mite, but I knew where the real courage lay.
Behind me, Ezra and Nathan argued some obscure point, Ezra's broad drawl sharpening to a tone of aggrievement, yet it was balanced by his smile and Nathan's wide grin. Ahead of me, Buck and JD now animatedly discussed ~ no surprise ~ a woman, with Buck soon on the defensive as JD gleefully poked fun at him. Josiah rode beside Vin, the two of them gabbing about something I could not quite make out, only that Josiah smiled a lot, and Vin lightly gestured one hand and even laughed, a couple times. Larabee rode slightly ahead of them, yet glanced back often with a relaxed smile, like a panther purring in warm sunlight. Where had those differences gone, that I had so noted, before?
I knew I was not made of the same stuff as these seven. On the coach, I dealt only with chance. Here today, I ran on little more than instinct. Yet these men braced Hell every time they hit the saddle, they knew this, and still held perfect confidence in each other. Did others see as I did? Have many witnessed the terrible, splendid truth I saw? Or did the common folks merely peer out from their curtains and nod meek satisfaction, that the bad men were dealt with and all was well in their world? Did they give any thought to the razored edge of faith upon which these men walked, trusting their lives to the man on their left and right? Knowing people, I thought most did not. Their town had become safer, the territory a little quieter, the desperados a lot fewer. They did not ask how the hounds dispatched the lion, only that the predator was gone.
This, then, was my knowledge, my gift. This was something upon which Dan Dupres could look, from his reward, and know that justice had been truly done. A bloody price had been levied, and almost paid, but these good men had been willing to risk that, and in the end cheated the Reaper splendidly. My small honor lay in that, for one blazing moment, I saw them for what they knew how to be, and recognized them now for the men they were. Good men, not perhaps as more docile souls would define such, but men good enough to meet Evil on its own ground, throw wickedness back in its own teeth, and press its misdeeds to choke in Evil's own throat.
I looked at them now, JD laughingly dodging a swipe from Buck's long arm, Tanner falling in beside Larabee in easy companionship, Josiah contemplating a million square miles of morning, and Nathan shaking his head as Ezra wagged an earnest finger in his face. Separately, they were but men, with all the imperfections and foibles of Man. Together, they were as seven spokes of a formidable wheel, each turned by the Master Wheelwright's hand, to bear a share of the load of Justice.
Red knew we were heading towards home, even from all these long miles out, and I felt new spring in his step. A little devil in me giggled, and I kicked Red up and off the narrow road. Whap-whap, I lashed the reins over and under, and Red leaped away, stretching to a flying run. My shot leg screamed red protest, and I hollered through it, and pushed us beyond hurt and catastrophe, into the bright, sweeping ecstasy of being alive, with all of creation sprawled before us. There was poetry in the big horse's thundering stride, jubilation in the rushing air that filled my lungs, and I whooped again, for the joy of being here to do it.
Then I swung Red around, eased the horse down to a jigging, blowing trot, and turned us back towards the road. I could see white teeth yonder amongst the small, trotting figures, and knew they were laughing. Yet I wanted to watch them come, backlit by the rising sun. I wanted the room and time to watch seven magnificent champions bring Dan Dupres's killers in.
~ ~ FINIS ~ ~
Special Thanks to Lady Angel, who dropped the gauntlet. A challenge not only impels us to write, it inspires us to create.
Comments to the author, G. M. Atwater, may be made at: