Mary noticed the outlaws as she hurried along the street. She didn't know where she was going exactly, only knew that she had to talk to someone, one of the men, had to stop this farce before it got completely out of hand. How could Conklin tell Orin not to come? How could he be so blind, so full of himself? They needed the men's help, now more than ever, but Conklin was so - ooh, why wasn't I born a man? Then I could slug Conklin across the jaw and feel better.

There were a number of people on the street, but even so Mary saw some distance ahead of her the back of Ezra's red jacket moving down the walkway. Catching her breath, Mary began to run, not caring if people stared, and a moment later she was close enough to the gambler to snatch at his arm, and at her touch he turned. And after a moment of confusion, smiled.

"Ah, Mrs. Travis," Ezra said amiably. Studying her face keenly, he said, "I see by your dismayed expression that you've been informed of our unemployment."

"It's wrong," Mary said helplessly. "It's a terrible decision, and I told Conklin so."

Ezra nodded. "And he reversed it immediately, no doubt."

Mary sighed, shook her head.

"I thought not. Well, thank you for trying, in any case..."

Ezra turned to go, but Mary grabbed at his arm again.

"Mrs. Travis!" Ezra smiled, and this time Mary saw a twinkle in his eye. "You are certainly endeavoring to get yourself a reputation in this town."

Mary shook her head in frustration. "I'm sorry, it's just - Conklin wired the judge. He told him not to come."

"Did he!" Ezra exclaimed, and he looked genuinely surprised. "The man has more nerve than I thought."

Mary looked around quickly, dropped her voice to a low whisper. "We've got to talk this over. I won't let Conklin destroy this town with his stupid pride. Are you men leaving soon?"

Ezra replied softly, "Conklin wants us out by sundown. We have until then, at least."

Mary nodded. "Please, tell Josiah and Buck to come meet me at the newspaper office later this afternoon. We've got to think of a way to stop this."

Ezra saw the seriousness in her eyes, didn't blink. "I'll pass it along. But are you certain you can afford to have us come visit you there?"

"It's the only safe place." Mary's look was steel as she faced Ezra. "And I don't give a damn about my reputation anymore."

Ezra tugged his hat in parting with a smile, and turning smoothly away from Mary muttered, "Good for you." and walked away.

Mary shook her head a bit. Of all of them, she had to run into Ezra. Oh well. She lifted up her skirts and went back the way she came, feeling a little better. Yes, she still had things to say. And it would take more than Conklin to keep her from saying them.

+ + + + + + +

Durning finished another beer and looked around the saloon. He was starting to feel a little fuzzy around the edges, but knew he wasn't too drunk to notice that, since they'd gotten there that morning, the place was gradually filling up with outlaws.

Boy, that Concho Charles. Durning chuckled to himself as he studied his poker hand. He sure knows what he's doing. Trickles 'em in gradually. I'll bet the law hasn't even noticed. By tomorrow, we'll be all set.

Sherson threw Durning a little glare. "Come on, Durning. What do you say?"

Durning returned the glare, looked at his cards, threw in a chip. "I'm in."

Childers threw in a chip as well. Tims did too, but without the gusto of his companions.

"Whatsa matter, Tims?" Childers asked, his eyes still on his cards. "Losing your nerve?"

"I still don't like this," Tims whispered, looking around at the dirty, rough-looking men who were now lounging more conspicuously around the bar. "We're in over our heads."

"Oh, shut up," Durning growled, pulling out a card and throwing it on the table. "You're giving me a headache."

Over by the bar, a group of three men were harassing the bartender, shouting at him to get them drinks. The bartender was trying to comply, but obviously not fast enough for one of the men, who pulled out his gun and cocked it. Durning frowned, felt a flash of fear. One gunshot, and the whole place could erupt. He didn't say anything to the others, but silently mapped out a quick path to the door. Just in case.

Just then Domino appeared through the saloon doors. Scowling, he walked quickly over to the bar and shoved the man with the gun.

"What are you doing?" he hollered, snatching the gun from the man's hand. Saying something else to him in Spanish, Domino grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him outside. By now many people in the bar were watching, and Durning noticed the combination of respect and fear in the outlaws' faces as they watched Domino leave.

A few minutes later, Domino returned, casually wiping what sure looked like blood from his knuckles as he sauntered over to the businessmens' table. The saloon was a little quieter, and Durning noticed that the outlaws seemed to be behaving themselves. For the moment, anyway.

"Hello, my friends," Domino said lazily, draping himself over a chair and stuffing his bloodied handkerchief in his pocket. "How's it going?"

"Just peachy," Durning returned, then asked, "You having problems?"

"Not me, my friend." Domino shook his head, waved a hand to the men at the bar, who were now regarding him apprehensively. "They are, though. Some of these men, they haven't seen action in a long time. They're too eager to start trouble, so I have to remind them to watch themselves until Concho arrives. Now maybe they're learning, I think. Don't you?" He finished the sentence with a vicious grin.

Durning didn't grin, just looked at Domino irritably. "You take care of the newspaper lady yet?"

"All in good time," Domino replied, holding up his hands defensively. "It's being dealt with, don't worry. I have news from Concho."

Tims jumped a little, looked around swiftly to make sure no one had heard. Durning shook his head at Tims' nervous behavior and said, "Oh yeah? What's he say?"

Domino grinned wider. "We're growing stronger, my friends. He'll be coming into town, dawn tomorrow, with many of his men. Hold on to your hats."

"Uh - huh," Durning said, hardly moving except for his eyes.

"And too," Domino added, "I hear that the hired guns are leaving. The preacher, the gambling man you fellows hate so much, and the one with the moustache. All gone by sundown."

Sherson counted mentally. "That's only three. What about the others?"

Domino shrugged. "We'll deal with them."

"And the sheriff?"

Domino snickered. "Don't make me laugh."

"So it's really gonna happen," Sherson said, smiling. "You guys really are gonna overrun this place."

"Oh, yes." Domino rose to his feet. "And you have a front row seat. Exciting, isn't it?"

"Just let me at that jewelry store," Durning said under his breath, his eyes on Domino.

"You've got it," Domino replied with a serving smile. "Now, I must go make arrangements for our ladyfriend. See you all later."

Durning shook his head in awe as he watched Domino leave. "God damn. We're gonna witness an actual western takeover."

Tims fanned his cards nervously. "What do you think he meant by 'arrangements'?"

Durning sighed, and went back to his cards, and said nothing.

+ + + + + + +

As the afternoon wore on, thick clouds moved in, and it turned a little colder. Nathan returned and found JD awake, and Buck helped him change the boy's bandages. Buck didn't really like doing it; most of the time JD's stomach and arm had been hidden under a wrapping of gauze, so Buck hadn't had to look at the terrible marks there, the splotches of blue and red on JD's torso, the black marks where his ribs were only just healing. There was a large bruise on JD's left arm as well, where he'd hit the brick wall full force, and underneath JD's fair skin the mark looked monstrous, huge, like it would never heal. Nathan was trying to be as gentle as he could, but still JD sucked in his breath, and fought the pain as his wounds were unbound and checked. Buck hovered close, didn't want to smother JD with his attention, and knew that the youth didn't want Nathan thinking he was a big baby. But when the pain became intolerable, it was JD who grabbed Buck's hand, and squeezed it until both mens' knuckles turned white. Buck didn't mind at all.

Finally the dressings were changed, and Nathan mopped JD's sweating brow with a cool cloth until the boy drifted off to sleep. Then he sighed, gave Buck a tired look and went out onto the porch to smoke a cigar.

After making sure that JD was asleep, Buck rose and walked out onto the balcony, where he found Nathan leaning against the railing, blowing thin ribbons of smoke into the wind.

Buck leaned against the railing too, paused before saying, "I told the boy about San Francisco. He don't seem to mind goin'."

Nathan looked at the street below them, took another drag on the cigar. His light eyes were unreadable.

"I could - drop you a line once we get there," Buck ventured. "Maybe you could come too. Ezra's got a

ot of money - "

"Now how am I gonna do that, Buck?" Nathan said suddenly, looking at Buck sharply. "I got to stay here, somebody's got to be here when Chris gets back."

Buck nodded, unsure how to take Nathan's outburst. He decided not to take it any way at all, and leaned back on the rail, letting it pass.

Nathan took another puff on his cigar, then said, "Reckon Josiah'll be goin' back to the mission. Least he won't be too far away."

Buck tilted his head. "Where do you suppose Ezra will end up at?"

"Who knows," Nathan said with a shake of his head. "Maybe back to St. Louis. Maybe the coast. Lots of places for a man like him."

Buck felt a small knot of pain in his gut, winced and tried to think it away. It wouldn't be so bad, maybe it wouldn't even be for very long. He could see him and JD set up in 'Frisco, maybe some nice rooms, find a doctor for JD, send letters out to keep in touch. Maybe one day they'd get a letter from Nathan, one that said come on back, somebody needs us. Or just for the hell of it. Come on, let's ride again.

But Buck sighed. What if JD didn't get better? Wouldn't be any fun any more. He knew what his answer to that letter would be. Have a good time, pards. Kick back a few for me and JD.

He sighed, already feeling isolated and lonely. And it hadn't even started yet.

A couple of minutes went by. Then Nathan asked, "Think you'll ever forgive him, Buck?"

Buck looked over. "Who? Chris?"

Nathan studied the cigar, nodded.

Buck's brow furrowed, and he thought. He thought of that morning, was it really just four days ago? Chris hung over, staggering, blaming JD for everything. An arrogant denial in his eyes and manner, no remorse at all, just annoyance. The hair-trigger maniac in the body of his best friend.

Then he thought of JD, how broken he'd been when they found him, so much blood and he didn't wake up for a whole day. And then, the terror in his eyes when he didn't recognize anyone. More terror, when he finally had to face what had happened, and then just a little while ago, a little-boy voice saying, we're never going to ride together again, are we.

Buck thought of all this, shook his head. "I don't see how."

Nathan took another drag, nodded slowly. "You think anybody will?"

Buck knew who he was asking about, considered for a moment. "Vin, maybe. Josiah might, he ain't shocked by much."

Nathan blew out the smoke. "Ezra?"

Buck shook his head. "Naw, Ezra's too mad. That kind of mad stays with a man."

Nathan stood up, stretched his back muscles. "Think he'll come back?"

"If he don't," Buck hissed, his eyes narrowing, "I'll lead the posse myself to get him." Nathan took another puff of the cigar, shook his head in the afternoon sunshine. "Sure is a crazy world. Last week things were fine. Now we're talkin' about gettin' a posse together to go get Chris, an' splittin' up for good. Don't make sense."

Buck sighed, shook his head. Then he brought it up, said, "It's a pretty nice day, ain't it? Think when JD wakes up, I'll ask if he wants to come out here. Been cooped up in there long enough, don't you think?" The reality was too close. He didn't want to talk about it.

Nathan nodded, and Buck knew he was agreeing to change the subject. "Fresh air ought to do him good. He'd probably like that, Buck."

Buck turned his head toward the door to Nathan's room, then back. He gave the healer a little half-smile and went back inside.

Nathan watched him go, then leaned against the railing once more, and blew a thin column of smoke into the cloudy afternoon sky.

+ + + + + + +

Mary looked up from her desk and noticed how dark it was getting. Frowning, she glanced at the clock; four-thirty. Hm, we must be getting more rain.

She got up, walked to the front door and looked out the window. It was definitely darker than usual for this time of day, and people were casting uncertain looks to the leaden sky as they walked along the street. Mary glanced a short way down the street, saw a small knot of rugged-looking men loitering around the horse trough. A shiver went down her spine.

Maybe Orin will disregard Conklin's telegram and come anyway. She drew the shade down against the glowering afternoon. Conklin can't handle a town full of bandits on his own, and even if the hired guns stay...

Oh, Lord. Mary groaned as she drew the other windowshade down. It feels just like it used to; the constant fear, the helplessness, it feels just like it did before. She almost thought that if she looked out the window again, she would see pine boards across the storefronts across the street, see desperadoes thundering through the town, shooting their guns at anything that moved.

But maybe this time it would be different.

It already is different, a voice answered her. This time Chris Larabee isn't around to stop it.

Mary suppressed a shudder and turned from the door. It was gloomy in the small office now; there was no light except the lone lamp on her desk, and it wasn't turned up bright enough. She walked over to the lamp, turned the small metal knob to bring the wick up, and at that moment she heard the door open and looked up.

Ezra - no, wait a minute. An unfamiliar outline, unknowable against the light from outside. Squinting, Mary finished turning up the light, saw a dark-complected man standing in the doorway, with two other men behind him.

Her defenses sprang up as she turned away from the desk. "Can I help you?"

"Yes, ma'am," the man replied in a light Spanish accent, walking into the office. The other two men followed him in, and Mary suddenly realized that they were all very big men, and they were very solidly between her and the door. "My name is Domino Jiminez. I understand you run the newspaper."

"Yes," Mary said, trying not to sound angry or defensive, but she backed around her desk, to where she knew her pistol was lying in the top left-hand drawer.

"Ah, good." Domino nodded and smiled at her, his eyes glittering like a snake's in the half-dark. "I've been asked by a third party to...well, not to be too vulgar about it, I've been asked to shut you up."

"Is that right?" Mary asked, a little more archly than she had intended. The drawer was right in front of her now.

"Yes, ma'am." Domino tilted his head, grinned salaciously at her. "And it's always a pleasure to carry out these requests when a beautiful woman is involved."

Without being told to, the two men standing toward the back turned and walked back toward the door, opened it and went outside.

Mary's eyes flicked to them, and Domino saw her look and explained, "They will see that we are not disturbed...Mary, is it? I never do these things alone. Affects my concentration."

Mary glared at him, hoping she was at least a little intimidating. Her hand crept toward the drawer, very slowly.

"Now." Domino cracked his knuckles, walked toward her in a leisurely way. "We can do this easy, or difficult. Easy, and you will still be able to move after this is all over. Difficult, and well, let's just say you don't want to do it difficult."

"Get out of here," Mary hissed through clenched teeth. Her fingers touched the drawer pull. Domino's head came back in surprise, and he grinned again. "Aha, so you do have some fire in you! This will be f - "

Lightning fast, Mary yanked open the drawer, gripped the pistol in one sweaty hand and yanked it out.

Domino jumped at her.

The gun went off.

He slammed her against the floor.

"Now that wasn't nice," he said lightly as he firmly held both her wrists against the cold floor. She held onto the gun, struggled against his hold, but he was easily twice her size and a panic gripped her when she realized she was trapped. He squeezed her wrist, and Mary felt her hand go numb. The gun rattled to the floor.

Domino looked up, saw the small bedroom in the back of Mary's office, and a smile crept over his face.

"Well, now," His grip on Mary's wrists tightened, and he stood up, pulling her to her feet. "No reason to be uncomfort - "

Mary screamed, in anger and fear, and tried to knee Domino in the groin. Her long, tight skirt trapped her legs, however, and Domino gave her a small glare and slapped her.

"Shuttup," he growled, grabbed her shoulders and shook her as he looked her in the eye, and his eyes were the bottomless wells of an absent soul. "Who's going to come anyway? Think that stupid sheriff would come within twenty feet of my men?"

Don't panic. Mary stared at this loathsome man whose face was mere inches from hers. Her hair was falling in her eyes, and she tasted blood in her mouth, but she maintained an iron grip on her will, and whispered, "There's still law in this town."

"Ha!" Domino clapped his big, dirty hand over Mary's mouth and began to drag her toward the bedroom. "If you call that trembling little man law. Maybe one of my men will go get him, and he can watch, eh?"

Mary struggled, knew it was probably futile but she had to try. The front door was fading, getting smaller, and her panic threatened to overwhelm her. Summoning her last ounce of courage, Mary bit down on her attacker's hand as hard as shecould.

"Aargh!" Domino yelled, and threw Mary down on her bed. She scrambled backward, but with animal swiftness he grabbed her by the throat, and pinned her to the bed.

"You bitch!" he roared, and struck her again. "Are you really so stupid?"

Mary discovered she couldn't breathe. Her hands went up, clawed at Domino's wrist as he shook his head menacingly.

"For that, I think I'll kill you." he growled. "For that, this is going to be very painf - "

Suddenly something hurtled through the window of Mary's bedroom, shattering the glass into a thousand directions. Mary turned away as best she could, closed her eyes. Domino jumped backwards, releasing his tight hold on her throat.

The object unrolled itself, stood up, glass shards dripping off like shimmering rain.

It was Ezra.

Mary threw herself backwards off the bed, landing between the bed and the wall. Ezra flicked his wrist, and his derringer flew into his hand and aimed itself at Domino's head.

"Please relinquish your gun, sir," Ezra said, his green eyes deadly.

Domino laughed. "You must be joking." His hand flew for his holster.

Ezra fired.

Domino fell back, dead.

Mary screamed.

Ezra shook his head, turned to Mary and held his hand out. "Mrs. Travis, are you - "

Mary peered up at him just as one of Domino's men appeared in the window behind Ezra.

"Ezra!" she cried out, just as the man jumped through the window and grabbed him.

They fell together, into the bedroom. Ezra hit the floor hard, face down, and the other man had his pistol out and hurriedly cocked it. Before he could fire, however, Mary tackled him, and the two rolled over into the main office.

"Goddamn bitch," the man muttered, and before she could focus clearly Mary felt something strike her very hard on the side of the head, and she slumped to the floor, dazed. She heard footsteps, felt someone run by her into the bedroom, heard the sounds of a huge fight going on, but she had to fight to get past the humming in her head.

Blurry shapes, struggling before her in the dim lamplight. Oh, my. Two men, and Ezra, tearing up my living quarters. Oh - Oh, God -

She staggered to her feet, her throat still burning from where Domino had strangled her. The two men had ganged up on Ezra, who was nevertheless putting up a hell of a fight. She lurched toward where her gun still lay on the floor, but her head throbbed unmercifully and she couldn't trust her aim. She fired the gun once anyway, hoping to at least frighten the men, but they didn't even notice. She saw Ezra throw a solid punch, then sink to the floor, the other two men piling on top of him.

Oh, God. She fought to clear her head, and stumbled toward the door, into the fresh air. "Help!" she heard herself call out, and people were staring at her, but no one was moving, and Mary felt herself starting to slip, and screamed out, "Help!"

Suddenly someone grabbed her from the side, and Mary screamed out again and struggled, then turned her head and saw that it was Buck.

"Oh!" she gasped, slumping gratefully against him. She knew it looked scandalous; she could not have possibly cared less.

Buck's eyes were full of shock and concern, but she stammered, "Ezra - he's - "

"Hush now," Buck said quietly, steering her away from the door as he peered into the office. "Josiah's taking care of that. You just sit right here."

Sitting? Was she sitting? Oh, yes, she was. Mary blinked, and the world swam before her eyes as she saw Buck reach into his holster and pull out his gun. Then someone drew a curtain over her eyes, and the world went black.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked back and forth in the cell, stopping every once in a while to glance at Conklin, who was conferring with Gerald in low tones. He couldn't quite hear what they were saying, but he heard a few words that suggested to him that they were discussing what to do if his friends didn't make it out of town by sundown.

Words like "renegades". Words like "shotgun". And "run them out."

Vin shook his head, paced the cell. He hoped Buck got JD out of town, felt a stab of remorse that if he had, Vin would likely never see them again. Probably he'd get out of this all right, but he didn't know how long he'd be in that little cell, and when he got out Buck and JD would be at least on their way wherever they decided to go.

Well, Chris might be back by then... but there was no comfort in that rumination. Vin had no idea what state of mind Chris would be in, or if he would even return. Vin knew Chris' demons, knew they'd dog him. He also knew what a man alone with his guilt was capable of, and couldn't ignore the awful fear that was burning a hole in his gut. It was possible that Chris might not even be alive anymore.

And even if he was, if he came back...the others would be gone, and the judge wouldn't be very likely to hire Chris on again. So then what? Vin sighed, and thought of the mountains, the freedom there. He could go there, and be happy. Maybe forget.

But Chris would be carrying this for the rest of his life. No getting away from that, and no way Vin could help him either. Except go with him, watch his back, and watch Chris destroy himself. After this, probably nobody else would want that job. But Vin felt it was perhaps the right thing to do. Chris would need him, the Chris that was under all that madness. And Vin would go where he was needed.

Simple as that.

Vin had walked to the little cot and sat down again when the door burst open, and one of the townspeople ran in, a terrified look on his face.

"Mary Travis was just attacked!" he blurted.

Vin jumped up to the bars, grabbed them in shock.

"What!" Conklin yelped.

The citizen nodded. "Happened just a few minutes ago, in her office."

"Well - " Conklin stared at the floor for a moment. "Well, is she all right?"

"She looked a little beat up," the man replied. "That moustached gunslinger was taking her over to Nathan's."

"Moust - " Conklin put his hands on his hips. "I told them to stay out of these things!"

The man paused, looked confused. "Well - they saved her, Mr. Conklin. Him and that big fella, the preacher, they got the men that were attacking her. One of 'em's dead, the other two are still in her office I think. Gambler fella got beat up too, pretty bad."

Vin gripped the bars tighter, wanted to ask, couldn't.

Conklin threw Gerald an exasperated look. "Why didn't anybody get me? I'm the law here, not them! Doesn't anybody pay attention in this town?"

Gerald shrugged, cast a glance at Vin. The former bounty hunter looked down, cursed the bars that shut him off from the world and his friends.

Conklin looked at the citizen. "Where are they now?"

"I don't know." The citizen shrugged. "At Nathan's, I guess. The preacher told me to come get you, and he and the moustached fella took Mary and the gambler and took off."

Conklin appeared to think.

The citizen hesitated, spoke up. "Mr. Conklin? Those men that attacked Mrs. Travis, there kind of seems to be a lot of them in town right now. You might want to do something about it, the folks around here are getting kind of nervous."

Conklin nodded, as if he hadn't really heard. After a moment, he glanced at the citizen and waved him off. "Thank you, son. You can go now."

The citizen nodded, looked at Vin in a way that suggested to him that the citizen sort of wished he weren't locked up, and hurried out.

Gerald looked at Conklin, stood up. "Well, I'd better get the handcuffs..."

"Can you believe the nerve of those men?" Conklin groused. "Stepping in on my territory. What do I have to do, draw them a map?"

Gerald glanced toward the empty cell next to Vin. "Uh - Conklin, I think we should go get those men who attacked Mrs. Travis..."

"Hm? Oh, yes. Yes, of course." He looked up at Vin, and walked over to him, disgust written all over his face. "You hired guns, you're all alike. Just can't stop yourself from taking the law into your own hands."

Vin just looked at him steadily, and didn't respond.

Conklin paused a moment, frowned. "Well, we'll see how far they get. Gerald, go get those two felons and put 'em in the other cell." He turned, and walked toward the door.

Gerald gave Conklin a surprised look as he fished the handcuffs out of the desk drawer. "Where are you going?"

"Me?" Conklin barked, one hand on the doorknob. "I'm going to make sure those gunslingers get out of my town, and stay out. For good!"

And stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

+ + + + + + +

It only seemed a second later when Mary opened her eyes and found herself staring at the ceiling in Nathan's room.

She blinked, confused for a moment. Her head hurt like hell; her throat burned, and her wrists felt as if they'd been held by ropes. She swallowed, tried to sit up, thought better of it and laid back down.

A face hovered close to her. Nathan, and he looked very worried. "Miz Travis?"

Mary's eyes wandered to him, and she winced, brought her hand up to her head.

Nathan smiled reassuringly at her, laid a cool cloth on her head. "You gonna be all right, ma'am. Gotta bump on the head is all."

Mary nodded, of course. But -

She sat up a little too fast, felt dizzy. "There was a fight, at the office. Mr. Standish - "

"Yes, ma'am." Nathan eased her back down. "Don't worry, he ain't too bad hurt. We may not be the law any more, but we still know how to throw a few punches."

Mary almost laughed, but she still felt dizzy. Slower this time, she sat up and looked around. The room was a little darker than her office. "How long was I unconscious?"

"'Bout half an hour." Nathan replied, his expert hands feeling the bump on her head.

Mary saw Ezra then, stretched out on the floor several feet away, his back against the wall. He looked terrible. His clothes were torn and bloodied, his face was scratched and bruised, and he was dabbing at a split lip with his handkerchief and looking into a pocket mirror.

He looked up at Mary and smiled. "Ah, Mrs. Travis. I had a humorous line about chivalry being not quite dead, but you'll forgive me if I save it for another occasion." He coughed, and made a face before going back to his lip.

"Oh." Mary suddenly felt terrible, eased herself off the bed and, as Nathan walked with her, knelt by the gambler's side. He looked worse close up, all banged up and cut, but at least he hadn't gotten himself killed. "Oh, Ezra, thank you. You saved my life."

She put her hand on his arm, and Ezra swallowed and raised his eyebrows. "Mrs. Travis, it would appear your earlier remark about being unconcerned about your reputation is more than accurate. After this, we may have to get married."

Nathan chuckled. "Nice try, Ezra. This is about as close as you're ever gonna get to a respectable woman."

Ezra shot him a look. "Merely making the suggestion, Mr. Jackson. After all, we only have until sundown to protect this fine lady, and I have no time for dalliance."

Mary stood up, slowly, found she didn't feel dizzy anymore and looked around the room.

To her quizzical look, Nathan replied, "JD's sittin' outside. He's been feelin' kind of down, and Buck thought he should get some fresh air. Come on."

Mary walked toward the door, turned to see Ezra heaving himself off the floor, with Nathan's help. She walked to the door, opened it and went outside.

It was still cloudy, smelled like rain, but it hadn't started yet. Mary saw Josiah and Buck lounging against the railing of Nathan's balcony, and they both stood up straight and tugged at their hats as soon as they saw her. JD was seated nearby, in a chair with a blanket covering his legs. He looked pale and wan in the gray light, and his eyes looked so sad, but he smiled when he saw her and said softly, "Hi, Mrs. Travis."

Mary smiled back, at all of them. Nathan guided her to a seat across from JD, and she suddenly felt a strange sense of warmth, familiarity. They all looked concerned about her, but it felt good, it felt like when Stephen was alive, or when she was a little girl and her parents watched out for her. After everything that had happened, after the town had practically spit on them, they hadn't abandoned her.

Mary looked at the sea of faces around her. They're good men. And I'm going to be damned if I let them go.

"How are you feeling, Mrs. Travis?" Buck asked, sincere concern in his brown eyes.

"I'm fine, Mr. Wilmington," Mary replied, and tried to show it, because she knew that all Buck had done for the past four days was worry, and she felt guilty adding any more to it.

Ezra sat himself down with a groan against the railing opposite the wall, and as he did so Josiah said, "Mrs. Travis, do you know who the men were who attacked you?"

"Um - " Mary's mind went reluctantly back. "The man who was shot said he was Domino Jiminez. I think he must have been part of a gang."

"Hm," Josiah said, frowning. "That he was. We've all been watching these outlaws trickle into town all day long. But up till now, they been pretty quiet."

Mary thought. "He said he'd been asked by someone else to shut me up. I can only assume someone doesn't want me to expose Mr. Conklin's witness for what he is."

Ezra's expression grew puzzled. "And what's that, Mrs. Travis?"

Mary looked at him. "A liar, Mr. Standish."

Josiah crossed his arms. "Are you sure?"

Mary nodded firmly. "His story just doesn't make sense. If Conklin wasn't so blinded by pride and his conviction that you're all a bunch of - " Her eyes shot to JD suddenly, and she stopped herself. He shouldn't be hearing this, she thought with a twinge of guilt. JD hadn't really known a lot of what had been happening while he was bedridden, and Mary wasn't sure how he'd react to it. But JD wasn't looking at her, was in fact gazing absently at the blanket that covered his lap, picking at it with his good hand. She bit her lip and continued, "He's positive that Vin is guilty, but it isn't true. Conklin won't listen to me, but I can prove it."

"If we can keep you alive long enough to get your paper printed," Josiah said, gazing out into the streets.

Mary nodded, and sighed, but the truth was that as long as she was within that knot of men on the porch, she felt as if the demons of hell could assail her and she'd be safe. Even though they were missing their leader; even though one of them was injured, and another crippled, she still felt safer there than she thought she could have in a house covered with locks and steel bars. How odd. But it felt wonderful.

Footsteps could be heard hurrying up the wooden stairs, and all heads turned to see Gloria Potter rush across the balcony toward them, her face flushed and covered with worry.

"Mary, my God!" she exclaimed, going to her friend's side and taking her hands. "Are you all right?"

Mary tried to smile reassuringly. "I'm fine, Gloria. Thanks to Mr. Standish and the others. They saved my life."

Gloria nodded, pressed Mary's hands for a moment, then let them go and turned to the men. "Everyone's talking about what you men did. I'll never be grateful enough."

"Our pleasure, ma'am," Josiah said, with a tug of his hat. "Mrs. Travis has been mighty kind to us in the past. We figured we owed her one, before ridin' off into the sunset."

"Well, you might not have to," Gloria said, looking around, her face a mixture of happiness and concern. "After what you done this afternoon, there's been talk that if Conklin tries to make you leave, he'll be in for a world of trouble."

JD looked up. The men all looked at each other, and Buck asked, "What do you mean, Mrs. Potter?"

"Well..." Gloria took a breath. "Conklin's been saying that if you're not gone by sunset he'll get the town council together with shotguns and make you leave. But after this...well, a lot of folks think Conklin should give up his badge, and let you men take things over till the judge gets here."

"The judge - " Mary said quickly, then found she had to swallow before getting the rest of it out. "Conklin wired the judge, and told him not to come."

Gloria's jaw dropped. After a moment she said, "That fool. Well, it's settled then. Whatever happens, you men have to stay here. We'll be lost if you go."

The men traded more uneasy looks. Josiah said, "We want to stay, Mrs. Potter, but the last thing this town needs is you folks at each others' throats. As many people as want us to stay, just as many would be happy to see us go. And they'll all have guns."

"But you can't leave." Gloria said, evenly but with just a trace of anxiety in her mellow voice, "There's an outlaw element here that Conklin can't handle. Once you go, all hell will break loose."

There was slight pause. Nathan nodded and said, "She's right, you know. Me and JD got leave to stay, but we can't take an outlaw gang on by ourselves."

JD's head came up, for a second, then went down again. Mary noticed Buck was watching the youth, and his expression was full of concern.

"So our choices are indeed between Scylla and Charibdis," Ezra muttered, almost to himself.

"What and who?" Buck tilted his head toward the gambler.

"Greek mythology," Josiah explained with a sigh, "Ancient sailors would find themselves between Scylla, a giant whirlpool, and Charibdis, two rocks that would crush any ship that came between them. Two choices, both bad."

"Hm," Buck said thoughtfully, "We stay, and cause a riot. Or we go, and this place goes to hell."

"Precisely," Ezra said, turning his beaten face to Buck with an appreciative nod. "You can be taught, Mr. Wilmington."

Gloria's dark eyes flitted among the men. "So what are you going to do?"

Once again, heads turned, eyes locked to each other. And for a moment, no one said anything.

+ + + + + + +

It was during that time, when they were all standing there thinking, that Buck noticed that JD wasn't looking down anymore. He was staring past Buck, out into the street, a melancholy expression on his face. Curious, the gunslinger glanced over his shoulder.

A short distance away from them, on the main street, Buck saw a dark-haired girl leaning against a post outside the general store and chatting with a young man on a horse. They were teasing each other, laughing and happy, and as Buck watched the young man put out his hand, and helped the girl up into his saddle. She put her arms around him, and they rode down the street and out of sight, still laughing.

Wincing, Buck turned back to JD, saw the stricken look on the youth's face, knew what he was thinking. JD saw him looking, lowered his gaze quickly and pressed his lips together, embarrassed and distraught.

Dammit, Buck thought, he don't deserve this. We're all rolling over and showing our bellies, and that ain't what JD needs right now. He needs us to stand up for something, let him know it ain't right to run...

Almost before he knew he was saying it, Buck cleared his throat and said, "What the hell. Let's stay."

JD looked up. Everybody looked at Buck. Ezra blinked at him and said, "May I ask what your reasoning behind this decision is, Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck glanced at JD, just for a moment, saw those wounded hazel eyes, just as quickly looked away and began to pace as he talked. "Well, hell, I mean, the judge, he hired us to look over this town, right? He knew we weren't gonna win no popularity contests. Dang, half the time we been here we been savin' these people from themselves! This ain't no different."

The men were looking at each other. Mary and Gloria nodded in agreement.

"So..." Buck continued pacing, waving his hands for emphasis. "So now, we got a mess of outlaws lookin' to ambush the town, and we know what'll happen if we run off. Now I don't know about you-all, but I ain't in no hurry to explain to the judge why we let his town get all shot up. No sir, no hurry at all."

Nathan folded his arms. "What about Conklin?"

"Oh, don't give him no never mind!" Buck gave a dismissing wave of his hands. "He's just like a scared jackrabbit, they all are. They might put up a fuss, but if these outlaws start making themselves known I got a feelin' they'll be mighty glad we stuck around."

"Very optimistic, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra noted. "But convincing the local law enforcement that we are needed here will not be easy."

"Easy!" Buck leaned against the railing and laughed. "Shit, Ezra, it's gonna be about as easy as peeling a rattlesnake. I know it ain't gonna be easy. But it'll be right."

Josiah regarded Buck thoughtfully, rubbed his chin. He was smiling faintly, which Buck took as a sign of encouragement and, boldened, he continued.

"It ain't right, us splittin' up, and you all know it. We can scatter to the four winds one day, but now ain't the time. We signed on here to do a job, and until that job is done or we die doin' it, I say we stay right here and - and keep an eye on Vin and make sure Mary's safe and - " Buck's eye fell on JD, who was looking at him with a kind of anguished hope. And watch over JD, Buck thought, but didn't say it; that would embarrass the boy, and he didn't need reminding of his limitations right now. He needed hope. " - and make sure this place is still in one piece when the judge arrives. And he will, I don't think he's gonna pay Conklin's telegram any mind at all. There's only one way we're gonna do this, and that's together. And you all know it."

There was a long pause. Nobody moved for a moment, and Buck let out a long sigh, was unaware that he'd been holding his breath. He looked at everyone's faces, his friends, and in their eyes he saw that they agreed with him. The town needed them, needed their protection, and there was only one way they could do it.


Josiah spoke first, tilting his head and scratching his ear. "We stay, and there could be some resistance. Still...I guess we'll stand a better chance against Conklin than this town will against those bandits."

Gloria smiled a little, hopefully clutching her hands together. "Then you'll stay?"

Josiah looked around at the eyes of his companions. He nodded slightly, a question. Received nods in return. Nathan looked determined, Ezra skeptical but committed. Buck's face was flushed, and his eyes were glowing with relief and pride. Josiah glanced at JD, and Buck noticed that the youth was staring at the preacher with hazel eyes that seemed to overflow with the question, you're staying? Like a child, Buck thought, disbelieving hope. You're staying? Really?

Josiah looked at Gloria. "Yes, ma'am. I hope it ain't a mistake."

"It won't be." Gloria said happily. "We need you. Even if Conklin doesn't think so."

Josiah nodded, and Gloria reached out and gave him a grateful squeeze on his arm before turning to Mary and saying, "It'll be sunset soon. I'll tell everyone what you've all decided, and maybe this will make the outlaws leave."

+ + + + + + +

Mary smiled and watched as Gloria made her way out of the group and toward the staircase. It was starting to get darker; even though they couldn't see the sun, Mary knew sundown was not far away. She was still worried, but...maybe now it wouldn't be so bad. She glanced at the others, saw a mixture of resignation and determination on their faces as they began to move about the balcony, stretching and talking quietly about the night ahead. Nathan was helping Ezra to his feet; Buck was talking to JD, or trying to - the boy still looked sad and preoccupied, despite his obvious relief that his friends weren't going anywhere. Josiah walked over to Nathan and Ezra, and the three talked together in low tones.

Yes, Mary thought as she watched the quiet scene on the balcony, maybe things would improve. The men would stay, come hell or high water. And knowing Four Corners, they were likely to get plenty of both.


Comments to: