The saloon was getting noisier. Durning noticed it when he had to start talking louder because Sherson, who was sitting opposite him as they played poker, couldn't hear him calling cards anymore. It looked like Sherson noticed it too, and the others. And they all looked nervous about it.
Durning was too, he had to admit. Steadily, all day, the place had been filling up with what he called the scum of humanity - dirty-looking bandits, scarred desperados, and some men who looked like they'd as soon kill you as look at you. They were a surly bunch too, drinking and arguing and occasionally, pulling guns on each other. The regular patrons, the men Durning had been talking to the last four days, had come in for a few minutes, then left, looking warily over their shoulders as they did so. Durning didn't blame them.
In fact, maybe going back to the hotel wouldn't be such a bad idea. Concho's men scared him. They all looked a little insane, and if it wasn't for that Domino keeping a rein on them Durning was sure they'd have starting tearing things up already. Concho wanted to wait until the gunslingers were gone to start wrecking, which made sense, but Durning hadn't seen Domino in over an hour, and this bunch was getting rowdier by the minute. Things were going to get out of control quick if that big guy didn't show up, and Durning was just starting to get nervous enough to suggest that maybe they go back to the hotel when the saloon doors opened and another outlaw came in, his face wild with - what was it? Anger? Happiness? Looked like some bizarre hybrid of the two.
Tims noticed the outlaw's entrance, leaned over to Durning. "I don't like this. Where's Domino?"
Durning shook his head, watched the outlaw say something in loud, drunken tones to the nearest group of bandits. They all jumped up, startled, and scattered, and it looked like they were spreading some kind of news. Durning suddenly thought of 1865, when President Lincoln was killed. The telegraph came, and everybody had to know, ran out onto the streets, the same hysterical immediacy. Durning slowly stood up.
Childers glared at him. "What's with you?"
Durning looked around at the ripple of reaction as the news spread. Guns were coming out, they were grinning, talking excitedly and nodding at each other.
"Something's happened," Durning said. "I think somebody got killed."
"Who?" Sherson turned around in his seat, tried to decipher what they were seeing.
Durning shook his head again, didn't like the cold feeling that was wrapping around him. He turned around to a pair of ragged outlaws that were standing over a table behind them. They looked almost overjoyed, loading their guns rapidly, and when they noticed him staring at them one of them, a consumptive-looking fellow with rotten teeth and a long beard, barked. "What the hell do you want?"
"What happened?" Durning asked, trying not to look scared.
The blond outlaw laughed, nudged his partner. "That Domino bastard's got himself killed tryin' to kill the newspaper lady. Party's startin', boys!" He whooped, aimed his gun at the ceiling, and fired.
Jesus Christ. Tims and Sherson stood up beside him. "Party?"
"Hell, son!" The other outlaw, a grizzled old- timer, shook his head as he grinned with half his teeth missing. "Don't you know there's a tracker sittin' in the jail that's worth five hundred dollars in the state of Texas? Most of these fellers been stewin' in here all day, waiting for a crack at 'im. Now there ain't no reason to delay!"
"What about the law?" Tims asked, in shock.
The two outlaws laughed, and the old one said, "Sonny, once we get our hands on 'em there ain't gonna be no law!"
Durning turned around, faced the others with a white face as random gunshots began to ring out through the bar. "Shit!"
"What do we do now?" Childers asked as the throng surged around them.
"We gotta get out of here," Durning said. He scooped his money into his hands, dumped it in his pocket, and waved his hand. "Come on. We'll go back to the hotel and wait this thing out."
"Domino tried to kill that lady," Tims cried as they all gathered their things from the table. "I told you!"
"Shut up, Tims," Durning retorted, turning around again and cursing. The place was very loud now, loud and crowded and full of drunk men waving their guns around.
"Shit," he hissed again, and with the others at his heels began to push his way through the dangerous crowd, and toward the swinging doors.
+ + + + + + +
Conklin didn't pay attention to the roiling mob in the saloon. His face was set, his mind determined as he led the group of council members down the street toward Nathan Jackson's room. They were all there, that's what somebody told him. It was getting dark, Conklin was sure that, despite the thick clouds overhead that made it hard to tell, the sun was setting. The sun was setting, and those bullheaded gunslingers were still there. Well, he'd see about that.
They passed the jail, and Conklin quickly sidestepped, opened the door. Gerald was lighting a few lamps to combat the gloom, and in the yellow light Conklin could see the tracker's light form, sitting lazily on the cot.
Gerald was looking past Conklin, at the group of men with guns and torches behind him.
"Those hired guns won't budge," Conklin rasped. "So get things ready, we'll probably be bringin' a few of 'em back here."
Gerald opened his mouth. "Conklin, are you sure - "
"Don't question me, dammit!" Conklin barked. "Just be prepared." He ignored the fact that Vin had stood up, and was approaching the bars with a worried look on his face, and slammed the door.
Gerald looked at Vin, saw the concerned look on the former buffalo hunter's face as the shadows from the bars flickered over his face, his hair.
"You best get ready, Mr. Townsend," Vin said softly. "Because I think things are about to go straight to hell."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was standing at the balcony, looking down into the darkening street when he saw a small crowd approaching, bristling with torches and guns. Shaking his head, he turned and walked into Nathan's room.
Buck had just finished settling JD back into the bed, and Nathan was lighting lamps while Mary unfolded a clean blanket. Ezra was sitting in one corner, calmly loading his gun and trying not to wince at the pain in his pummeled arms and ribs. They all looked up at Josiah, and he gave them a grim smile.
"Ready for a righteous fight?" he said lightly. Buck and Nathan looked at each other and started for the door.
Nathan looked over at Ezra, who was struggling to stand up, and shook his head. "Ezra, you stay here and look after JD and Mrs. Travis, just in case this thing gets out of hand."
Ezra took a step forward, looked a bit disappointed, but a shooting pain up his leg made him reluctantly lower his gun.
"Smart man," Nathan said, and he walked out the door, closely followed by Josiah.
Buck was last, and paused at the foot of JD's bed. The youth hadn't said a word since they'd brought him back in, and wasn't looking at them now. Instead, he was sitting hunched down in the bed, his eyes riveted on his good hand, which clutched the blanket in silent frustration. Buck glanced around, saw JD's Colt Lightnings sitting in their holsters on the small table under the front window. He walked to the table, picked the guns up and brought them to the nightstand by JD's bed. The boy glanced up, saw them, and turned curious eyes to Buck.
"Thought you might be needin' these," Buck said with a quiet smile. " You got to keep in practice, for when we get back from San Francisco."
JD looked at the guns, blinked at them. Buck walked quickly to the door, pausing only momentarily to look back.
JD was touching the ivory grip of one gun with his good hand, looking at them with an almost frightened expression. Then he gingerly gripped the firearm and slowly drew it out.
Buck smiled and nodded in satisfaction. It wasn't over yet.
And left the room.
+ + + + + + +
It seemed to take an eternity to walk down those wooden steps, toward those torches and guns. They walked silently, Josiah taking the lead, Buck and Nathan behind him. When they got to the bottom, Josiah cast his gray eyes on Conklin, who was standing at the front of a group of about a dozen men, all armed. Conklin himself had a shotgun, and in the firelight his sheriff's badge gleamed ominously.
"I told you men to clear out," he growled. "Now this is your last chance."
Josiah put his hands out, and his face was gentle as he said, "We talked it over, sheriff. All of us. We decided it would be in this town's best interests if we discussed with you the possibility of letting us stay."
Conklin gasped, looked behind him at the grim- faced councilmen shaking their heads. "You're crazy! Thinking I'd let you murderers ruin this town. One of you tried to kill me! You think I'm a fool?"
"No, sir," Josiah said calmly. "But it don't take a fool to see that there might be some trouble for this town, and we just want to make sure you folks is safe. And we don't think leaving would be very safe, for you."
Conklin scowled, and opened his mouth to object when another voice cut in.
"Listen to him, Mr. Conklin."
Everyone looked over to their left. It was Gloria Potter, leading a group of about twenty citizens, and to his dismay Josiah saw that many of them had guns too, their barrels glimmering in the torchlight. Emmie Walters was there, holding her broom, and Matthew Dwight, brandishing a shotgun.
Gloria looked at Conklin steadily and said, "We've been trying to talk to you, Mr. Conklin, but you don't seem to want to hear us. We think this town would be better off if Mr. Sanchez and his friends stayed here, to protect it."
Conklin's scowl grew deeper. "I appreciate your point of view, Mrs. Potter, but surely you haven't forgotten how this all got started? Their leader - the man who heads their group! - he beat another man senseless, and took off with their help. And then his second in command shoots me. How can you defend such actions?"
"We can't," Buck said suddenly, coming up to stand beside Josiah in the faltering light. His face was set, solemn as he said, "Mr. Conklin, you may not believe me seein' as how I'm a gunslinger an' all, but if there's anybody on the face of this earth that hates Chris Larabee as much as I do now, I'd like to meet 'im. He didn't get no help from me, and won't till he pays for what he done. I just want things set right, but I don't think they will be unless you let us stay and do the job Judge Travis asked us to do. And that includes making sure you don't all get yourselves killed."
Conklin raised his shotgun, cocked it. "I'm telling you for the last time. You're going."
Josiah looked behind him, then at the group huddled behind Gloria, all scared and counting on them. He looked at Conklin and regretfully shook his head.
Conklin paused, glaring at Josiah with open contempt. Everyone in both groups stopped moving. Time seemed to slow down, stop, and for a long moment everything in the world stood still.
A few moments later, it exploded.
+ + + + + + +
The crowd in the saloon was undulating, bumping Durning as he made his slow way to the door. "Dammit!" he cursed.
Another gun went off, nearby, and Tims winced.
The outlaws were shouting, some in English, some in Spanish, and the businessmen could tell the bubble was about to burst.
"Run for the hotel," Durning yelled, hoping he was being heard over the chaos. "We gotta get our stuff out of there before somebody busts the doors down and takes it!"
A few of the outlaws were pushing their way out the door as well, and when Durning finally popped out onto the saloon porch he saw more riding in, serious-looking and with large guns. Looking down the street, he saw a couple of groups with torches by the black doctor's room.
"Huh." He nudged Tims, nodded down the street. "Look at that. The kid must have died."
Tims looked, his mouth dropped open.
Behind them, outlaws began to surge drunkenly in the streets. They shouted at each other, and Durning heard the words "bounty" and "jail".
He shook his head, and with the others began to walk very quickly toward the safety of the hotel.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah heard shouts coming from the saloon, glanced over in that direction, over the heads of Conklin and his men.
"Sheriff," he said evenly, "I think you got troubles."
Conklin looked around, saw the throng of unruly outlaws spreading themselves out onto the street.
"Aw, crap!" He lowered his shotgun.
At that moment, a gun went off in the distance. Two.
Gloria started, and Emmie turned white.
"Now, don't worry, ladies." Conklin waved his free hand, and made a halfhearted move toward the noise. "We'll get this taken care of..."
"We?" one of the councilmen asked archly. "We're not the law, Conklin. That's what we voted you in for!"
Conklin looked genuinely shocked, and looked around himself almost dazedly. Some of the councilmen wandered away; about six stayed.
Josiah said, "Men, I suggest you get these ladies to a place of safety, and quick. This looks like it could get dangerous."
Most of the men in both groups complied, breaking up and taking the arms of the women, leading them away nervously. Somewhere, glass shattered, and more gunfire erupted. There were more outlaws in the street now, many more, and Buck said almost sarcastically, "Well, come on, sheriff! Go do your job!"
Conklin took a step forward, two, but he seemed uncertain where to start.
Josiah stepped forward, put his hand out.
The man stared at him.
"Can we help?"
Conklin blinked at him for a moment, then the old hatred came back, and he shook his head, then stalked off, his shotgun held high, the councilmen who were left following him.
Josiah suddenly felt very sorry for all of them.
More glass breaking. Three outlaws rode past the men, very fast, screaming and shooting off their guns. A large crowd heaved out of the saloon, and Nathan's expression changed to one of horror.
"They're headin' for the jail!" he shouted Yanking out his gun, he ran down the boardwalk.
"Shit!" Buck hollered, and both he and Josiah followed Nathan through the darkness highlighted by random gunshots and the sound of breaking glass.
+ + + + + + +
Vin had heard the shouting and the gunshots, knew what it meant. Gerald, however, was still merely curious, and went to the window, his hand on his chin.
"Now what the hell is all that?" he mused.
Vin went to the front of his cell, gripped the bars. "Mr. Townsend, you got a gun?"
"Hm?" Gerald looked around, shrugged. "Well, I probably do, somewhere around here..."
"You put mine in the corner, over there." Vin pointed. "You're welcome to it."
"Oh," Gerald waved his hand. "Whatever it is, I'm sure Conklin's - "
Just then the door burst open, and outlaws began pouring into the jail.
Gerald froze for a second, then shouted, "Hey! You're not allowed in here!"
Three men shot at him.
Gerald fell against the wall, gasping as he gripped his chest. Vin cursed, backed against the rear wall of his cell, but there was nowhere for him to go.
The outlaws shoved around the desk, grabbed for the keys. Vin quickly pushed his cot in front of the cell door, hoping at least that might slow them down a little. And he prayed for a miracle, because he knew it would not slow them down by much.
One of the outlaws jammed the key in the cell lock, turned it with a loud click. As the cell door swung open someone fired a shot at him, which went wide. He ducked, winced as another one bit into his shoulder. Damn, he thought as the shouting and gunfire in the small office reached a fever pitch. Damn!
Another shot, but this one came from behind him. One of the outlaws gurgled, fell into the cell. Surprised, Vin looked behind him.
Buck was grinning at him, not two feet away. Josiah and Nathan were right behind him, and Vin saw the back door of the jailhouse was wide open.
Buck handed him a pistol through the bars. "Miss me?" he said lightly.
Vin just grunted, took the gun, and started firing.
The outlaws fell back as Buck, Nathan, and Josiah began firing on them. Vin made his way out of the cell, almost falling over the slain man in the doorway. He glanced over at Gerald, but even a cursory glance told him there was no hope.
More outlaws were pushing into the office, crazed looks glazing their drunken eyes. They shouted angrily when they saw the other gunfighters, and all three men ducked as bullets rained at them.
"Five hundred dollars!" one of the outlaws shouted. "Don't let 'em get away!"
"Come on!" Josiah hollered, and pulled Vin toward the back door of the jail, which was still hanging open. Hewinced as a bullet grazed his calf; another took his hat off.
Buck brought up the rear, aiming and firing carefully until they spilled into the alleyway.
Then Vin looked around and saw a dozen outlaws bearing down on them.
"God damn!" Buck yelled, and the four men took off running in the opposite direction, as fast as they could.
+ + + + + + +
Mary tried to see what was going on, but she sighed in frustration as she looked out Nathan's window.
"I can't see a thing," she said, looking over at Ezra and JD. Ezra was standing near the door, leaning on the iron footboard of Nathan's bed, and JD was sitting up against a pile of pillows, one of his beloved Colt Lightnings settled tentatively in his right hand, the other still sitting in its holster, on the bedside table. He had come out of his daze, a little bit; his eyes glittered with an impatient fire, as if he'd be all right again, if he could just pretend he could still be a gunfighter.
Ezra stood up. "I'll go outside to investigate. Mrs. Travis, you stay here, Mr. Dunne, if you will be so kind..."
JD sat up straighter and nodded somberly, and Mary smiled at the gambler's blithe ignoring of JD's injuries. She moved to where JD was sitting as Ezra opened the door and went outside.
Not a half-second later he was back in again, and Mary did not like the look on his face at all.
"Mrs. Travis," Ezra said in a strangely breathless voice, keeping one hand on the doorknob, "please listen carefully. When I close this door, please put one of those chairs - " he gestured with his gun to the chair by JD's bedside, "under the door handle, and then conceal yourself underneath Mr. Jackson's bed."
Mary's mouth dropped open.
The gambler glanced out the door, then turned his green eyes to JD. "Several outlaws are headed this way. Mr. Dunne, if I should fall, you must protect Mrs. Travis, is that clear?"
JD nodded automatically, and his hand tightened around his gun. Ezra nodded to himself, then hurriedly closed the door.
Mary heard angry shouts outside, getting closer. She grasped the closest chair in her hands, felt the rough wood against her skin, and hefting it up, walked quickly to the door and jammed the chair under the knob, tilting it so it was braced against the floor.
She sighed, and turning looked at the small space underneath Nathan's bed. Shaking her head and thanking God she had taken off her bustle after the attack, she moved close to the bed and dropped on her hands and knees. At least it didn't look dusty under there.
Just before she scooted under the bed, Mary glanced up at JD. He was watching her, the gun cradled in his hand, the amber lamplight bathing his injured face. His eyes were determined, but a little frightened too, and far away. She gave him an awkward smile, which he returned. But his heart didn't seem to be in it.
Footsteps, pounding up the stairs. A gun went off - Ezra's.
JD aimed his gun at the door. "You'd better get under the bed, Mrs. Travis."
With an inward groan, Mary slid on the wooden floor into the tiny, dark space, and watched the bottom of the door. And waited.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah bit his lip against pain coursing up his wounded leg. They were running down the alley, and it seemed that every time he looked back, there were more outlaws chasing them.
"Make for the livery!" Vin hollered. " We got to head for the hills!"
All four men knew that the livery was not far away, but it felt like it was on another continent. Buck turned, fired, saw one of their assailants go down. But there were still five pursuing them.
It was dark in the alley, dark and dangerously tight, but it worked to their advantage. Nathan and Buck fired, fired, fired, and the sound echoed and bounced off the narrow, confining walls.
And the livery was still a continent away.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra cocked his gun and fired, the darkness filling with sound as another outlaw fell onto the balcony in front of him.
The gambler looked at the street and cursed; there seemed to be desperados everywhere, and he only had a limited supply of bullets. At least the walkway around the balcony was narrow; only one gunman could travel it at a time, and so far that had worked to his advantage. But Ezra knew his luck could not hold out forever...
A gunshot, by his ear. Ezra jumped, looked down at the ground, saw the gray smoke from an outlaw's gun, shot at it and heard a distant groan. The sound of two more sets of heavy boots approached, and Ezra backed up to the door. He couldn't let them get in. JD had a lot of courage, but in his condition he couldn't hold off an attack for long, and then he and Mary Travis would probably both be killed...
Another outlaw came lumbering around the corner, slowed down by the bodies of the others that were now blocking the narrow passageway. Ezra shot at him, and he let out a noisy gargle and fell off the balcony to the street below. The outlaw behind him, a large dirty-looking man, staggered forward and aimed his gun at Ezra, who obligingly aimed back.
Both men stared at their guns for a second; Ezra's was empty, and looking at the rusty specimen the other man held, he guessed that weapon had jammed. With an impatient roar, the outlaw tossed his gun aside and charged at the gambler, ramming him into the wall with a loud thud.
+ + + + + + +
Mary gasped as she heard a muffled bump on the other side of the wall. There were yells on the other side of the door, loud curses and the sounds of two people struggling violently. She heard JD shifting in the bed above her. His eyes looked so scared, she remembered, as if he wasn't sure he could protect her. There had been no time for reassurance, but she was sure he'd die to keep her safe. And hoped it wouldn't come to that. She cringed a little further under the bed, trying not to listen to the town falling apart.
Another thud, the sound of a struggle. The room rang with the sound of something falling with the weight of two bodies against the door, once, twice -
And the chair fell away from the doorknob with a rattling bang.
+ + + + + + +
The lone lamp that shone at the entrance to the livery was at last in view. Buck and Nathan covered Josiah and Vin as they all raced for that faraway star, and escape.
"Where'd all these men come from?" Buck hollered to Nathan as they traded volleys with the advancing desperados. There had been five before; now there were eight of them.
"Damned if I know!" Nathan gave the others a quick glance, then said, "Josiah and Vin are both wounded. You get back to my place, help Ezra. We'll make a run for Hornet's Rock, okay?"
Buck nodded, got off a few more shots. "I'll cover you!"
Nathan blinked understanding, and all four men ran for the livery, the outlaws right behind.
+ + + + + + +
Mary stared at the fallen chair for a moment, began to back herself out from under the bed.
"Stay there, Mrs. Travis," She heard JD command above her head, and then she saw the mattress heave, and she knew that the youth was getting out of the bed.
"JD - " Mary began, somewhat alarmed.
"Don't move," JD ordered as she saw his feet hit the floor. Gunshots outside, far away, more shouts. "It's dangerous, just stay there."
"But - " Mary began, but didn't finish.
Another banging noise on the door.
JD fell to the ground with a gasp, his good hand grasping the bedclothes to stop himself.
Mary gasped too, and covered her mouth.
The chair was upended across the room, about four feet from where JD was laying. Letting go of the bedclothes, he righted himself, and Mary saw that he'd tucked his gun into the bandages that bound his right arm to his side. His face glistening with exertion, JD began to crawl toward the chair, but his movements were awkward and uncoordinated, like a baby's, and he mostly dragged himself by his good arm, slowly, so slowly. Outside, the struggle was getting louder, and Mary bit her lip and prayed.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra threw a punch, and another one. His adversary reeled, but they were an even match. And his opponent wasn't injured.
"Yew goddamn - " The outlaw slurred, and once more charged Ezra into the wall.
The gambler grunted as he hit the wall, again. I can't let him get in there. But his back was telling him he was running out of options. And ribs.
He shoved the ruffian away, cracked him across the jaw and moved to stand in front of the door, his fists raised. More footsteps, running up the stairs. Ezra knew he couldn't take on two men, but he set his feet firmly apart in front of the wooden door. One last stand...
The outlaw charged him, and Ezra fell back against the door, felt it give a little too much and thought, oh no. With a desperate grunt he heaved his weight away from it.
+ + + + + + +
JD gasped as his hand finally grabbed one of the chair legs, and he struggled with his good hand to right it while he lay on his back. His face was red with impatience and fear, and Mary heard him grunting loudly, more out of aggravation than pain. The weight of the top of the chair made it difficult to set upright with one hand, and it fell over once, twice. JD hoisted himself into a sitting position, and shoved at the chair, but the angle was wrong and the chair crashed over the other way, out of his reach.
Another loud thud. The door began to splinter inward.
"Oh, my God," JD whispered, and moving in front of Mary he leaned his back against the footboard and drew his gun. He was trying not to, but Mary saw he was shaking.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Travis," JD said, his youthful voice trembling with grief. "Jesus, I'm so sorry - "
Mary opened her mouth, heard a loud gunshot on the other side, and gasped.
The door crashed open. JD raised his gun with a loud yell.
A huge man slumped through the door, fell onto the floor dead, shot in the back of the head. JD gazed at it in horror, looked up to see Ezra standing over the man, gore finely splattered on his white shirt. But he didn't look back at JD. He was looking behind him, at the slender man standing two feet away, staring at the back of the outlaw's blown-out head in pasty-faced horror. JD saw him, but didn't recognize him. Neither did Mary, who peered at him curiously as she slid cautiously from under the bed. But Ezra knew him, and his jaw hung open in shock.
It was Tims.
+ + + + + + +
Buck flung the door of the livery wide, checked with his gun as Josiah, Nathan, and Vin thundered by on their horses. A couple of outlaws rounded the barn, guns blazing, but Buck cut them down quickly as his friends rode away through the rocky field that marked the edge of town, and into the surrounding hills.
Another outlaw appeared. Buck brought him down. No more came; that was the last of them.
"God damn," Buck said to himself, and watched his friends ride off into the gathering darkness. Who knows if I'm ever gonna see 'em again. Then he reloaded his pistol, cocked it, and ran as fast as he could for Nathan's.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra stood in the doorway of Nathan's room, but after noting that Mary and JD were uninjured he turned his attention to Tims, who was hanging onto the railing and loudly retching into his handkerchief.
"Mr. Alderman," Ezra said with a smile, straightening his bloodstained shirt. "When you have pulled yourself together, please accept my thanks for dispatching that villain. He nearly had me."
Tims was shaking his head, almost as if he wasn't listening to what Ezra was saying.
"I just couldn't do it anymore," he said, leaning forward and putting his hands on his knees.
"Do what?" Ezra asked, genuinely curious.
"At first it was just the hotel safe," Tims babbled, "and I thought, why not, you know? Then Concho shows up and says we can do the jewelry store, and that sounded...but then it all went wrong, it just went - "
"You robbed the jewelry store and the hotel safe, Mr. Alderman?" Ezra asked, incredulous.
Tims paused, then nodded. "Yes, I admit it. It was just - it got out of hand. It was bad enough when Durning told the sheriff all those lies about the tracker - "
"Lies?" Ezra repeated cautiously.
Tims nodded. "Yes, Durning made it all up. I was there, I'll tell them."
Ezra blinked in amazement.
"That was bad enough," Tims continued, still breathing in large gasps, and he glanced inside the room, where Mary was tending to JD. "But then that Domino showed up, and said he'd take care of her, and I didn't go for it. But they wouldn't listen to me."
Ezra's eyes narrowed in understanding. "So you came here."
Tims nodded. "I didn't know if you'd be here or not, or what would happen, but I knew I had to do something. Those outlaws, they wanted to kill the law, and I knew the one who was beat up would be..." His eyes fell on JD, who was still sitting against the footboard, and he stopped.
The boy was huddled on the floor, the old bloodstains still stark on his underdrawers. Ezra followed Tims' gaze, and felt a rush of concern. JD didn't look injured, but his good hand was grasping his hair, and what Ezra could see of his face looked flushed and upset. Mary was trying to talk to him, but it didn't look like she was succeeding. But Ezra knew Tims wasn't paying attention to that. He was looking at the bloodstains on JD's longjohns, at the arm still bound to his side, at the dark bruise that still marred his fair features. We're taking bets, Ezra heard in his mind. How long till the sheriff dies...
Tims stared at JD for a moment, a long moment, and Ezra thought he looked ashamed.
Ezra cleared his throat and asked, "Mr. Alderman, where are your friends now?"
"They, um." Tims tore his gaze from JD's beaten face and lo
ked at Ezra. "They're at the hotel, I think. All the stuff we've taken is there too, and I'll tell you anything you want to know. None of us should get away with what we did."
Ezra nodded. "And did I hear you say something about Concho? Would that be Concho Charles?"
Tims nodded. "We worked out a deal with him, we'd help him steal things and he'd look out for us when he came to town."
"And when is that?" Ezra asked.
"Tomorrow," Tims answered, looking at Ezra and Mary in turn. "Tomorrow, at dawn, he's coming with all his men. I know all about it."
"Hm," Ezra said thoughtfully, and tilted his head at the bandits still roaming the streets. "Perhaps there is a way we can make his welcome somewhat less than pleasant." He turned his head back to Tims, and his look was stern. "I know how you must feel betraying your friends, Mr. Alderman, but to clear Mr. Tanner's name and save this town you must do so. Are you ready?"
Tims pursed his lips, looked into Nathan's room, at Ezra's battered form, at the havoc in the streets. And nodded. "They're not my friends. And the answer is yes."
+ + + + + + +
Buck trotted along the main street, his eyes darting back and forth as his boots crunched against splintered wood and broken glass. Damn. God damn.
The streets were quieter; the gang of outlaws had, he suspected, been partially diminished by the others, and some had gone back into the saloon once Vin was no longer a tempting target in the jail. There were some men still skulking in the streets, and Buck heard random sounds of gunfire and shouts in the distance, enough to make his stomach tighten. All around him were broken windows and overturned horse troughs; up ahead Buck saw a frame shop that had been broken into, it wares busted and scattered in the street. He thought of Mrs. Potter's goods store, and thinking she might need some help turned his steps in that direction.
He turned the corner down her street, saw with relief that Mrs. Potter's place looked all right. The street was dark, deserted. A hunched-over form was lurking in the shadows, but as soon as Buck casually brought his jacket back over his holster, the shadow took off.
Keep runnin'. We'll catch you someday.
His wonderings satisfied, Buck was just about to turn around and head for Nathan's when he noticed a nearby store with a broken window, and he froze.
Emmie's notions store. Damn it.
The store was halfway down the block, but even at that distance Buck could hear someone rummaging around noisily inside. Whoever they are, Buck thought as he tiptoed closer and drew his gun, they ain't professional. Poor Emmie, look at her stuff just thrown in the street.She'll be devastated.
Buck got a little closer, cleared his throat to challenge whoever was pillaging inside. Before he got his mouth open, however, someone else stepped out of the shadows and leveled his shotgun at the door.
Well, I'll be. Conklin.
"You in there!" Conklin called out, in a pretty strong voice Buck thought. "Come on out. You're under arrest."
Buck hung back in the shadows and watched. The rummaging ceased. and Buck saw Conklin step into the open doorway. "It's no use hiding in there. Come out now and you won't get shot."
Silence, then softer bumps and scrapings. The back way, Buck suddenly realized, and just at that moment Conklin glanced over and saw him.
Quickly, Buck put his finger to his lips and walked closer. He had no reason to help Conklin. The man was a bully and a coward, had caused JD a lot of unneeded grief and probably after tonight the town would kick him right out on his butt. But Buck wanted to get whoever was looting Emmie's store, and he didn't want to get shot by Conklin while doing it. Which left him with one choice.
Conklin waited until Buck was close enough to whisper to, then hissed, "What are you doing here?"
Buck noticed Conklin's belligerent impatience was gone. It had been replaced by a weariness, an almost helpless tone. But he'd think on that later. "He's goin' out the back way, Mr. Conklin," he said in a low voice.
"He is?" Conklin craned his neck to the back of the building, which was up a narrow alley.
Buck nodded, and waved his hand. "Come on. You can surprise him."
Conklin nodded dumbly, and following Buck they treaded lightly up the alleyway, to the back door of Emmie's shop.
It was almost pitch black there, only the light of an outdoor lantern three doors down gave them any light at all. Still, it was enough to see the door handle jimmy around, and both men heard the grunting of whoever was on the other side as they worked the lock open.
Conklin raised his shotgun. Buck kept his gun down, but cocked it just in case.
The door creaked open a little.
Conklin grabbed it, and flung it wide.
The man standing behind the door blinked in surprise, his startled face looming over an armful of stolen goods. He backed up a step, but Conklin jammed the shotgun closer, and Buck saw that his face was confused.
"Hey," Conklin said, squinting into the shadows. "Aren't you Anthony Durning?"
The man's eyes narrowed, and his face grew dark. But he seemed unable to move.
Conklin pointed his shotgun at Durning's head. "Drop the goods."
Durning looked at Conklin, then Buck.
Easy, Buck thought. Watch him, I don't like his looks...
"Come on, drop 'em," Conklin said, then turned to Buck and muttered, "I don't understand, he's a businessman. He's the one who saw that tracker shoot - "
In that instant Durning dropped the clothes and reached for his belt. Conklin swung his head back, but didn't see the gun in Durning's hand until there was a white flash, and the fence behind him splintered with a loud crack.
Buck cursed, and aimed his gun, but Durning had already run back into the shop. To Buck's surprise, Conklin cursed too, and ran back the way they came.
Durning burst out of the front door of Emmie's shop just as Conklin and Buck rounded the corner. Durning paused, raised his gun and fired it. The shot went wide, and Buck and Conklin both pointed their guns at Durning's head. The businessman froze.
"You're under arrest," Conklin said in an authoritative tone. "Drop your gun."
Buck saw Durning smirk in the low light. "You can't shoot me. I didn't do anything."
"You made a shambles out of Miss Emmie's store," Conklin pointed out.
"No, I didn't," Durning said confidently, spreading out the hand that wasn't holding his gun. "I don't have anything on me, see? I was just trying to find my way back to the hotel."
"Through the back door?" Conklin asked unbelievingly. "With your arms full of goods? What kind of a fool do you take me for?"
Buck tilted his head. "I'll tell you what kind, Mr. Conklin. The kind that don't believe a wolf can hide in a business suit."
Durning glared at him.
"But what if I told you I saw him break into Emmie's store?" Buck asked in a threatening growl, his eyes riveted on Durning. "What if I told you I saw him plain as day. And maybe he shot some people too, murdered 'em in cold blood. You'd believe me, wouldn't you, Mr. Conklin? Cause I saw it."
Durning was starting to look a little rattled. "Oh, come on!"
Conklin's eyes narrowed at Durning;s discomfiture. "What else did he do?"
"Oh, let's see." Buck sighed. "Held up a bank. Stole some horses. Maybe you even made up some stories so's you wouldn't get caught. That about right, Mr. Durning?"
"No," Durning shook his head, more rattled now. "No, I never did any of that. You're lying!"
"Maybe," Buck tilted his head as he looked at the thief over his gun. "Why not? Good enough for you, when you wanted to frame Vin. Wasn't it?"
Durning opened his mouth, closed it again, then shook his head. "I didn't frame him. He shot that man!"
But Conklin was shaking his head, his shotgun still aimed at Durning's head. "And you shot at me. Were you trying to kill me, Mr. Durning?"
Durning took a step backward. Conklin leaned forward, a little, and at that instant Durning whipped up his gun and fired it at Conklin's head.
Conklin ducked, and his hat flew into the street. Durning turned around and took off running, and Buck and Conklin both took aim and fired. Durning tumbled forward and yelled out, grabbing his leg.
Buck walked with Conklin up to Durning's side. It was almost as dark in the street as it had been behind Emmie's store, but even then they saw that Durning's pockets had emptied as he fell. Watches, jewelry, money, and a small glittering array of loose gems lay strewn about the thief as he lay cursing and grasping his bleeding leg.
Buck studied the stolen goods for a moment, then turned to Conklin, who seemed amazed.
"Mr. Conklin," he said lightly, "I think you may want to review this gentleman's statement. I have reason to believe he ain't tellin' you the truth."
Conklin ground his jaw, glared at Durning, who glared back in sullen defeat.
"Oh, just to let you know," Buck said as Conklin leaned over and picked up Durning's gun, "bunch of outlaws tried to get your prisoner. Not to step on your authority none, but Josiah and Nathan rode him out of town for his own safety. He'll be comin' back."
Conklin sighed, shook his head in a sad kind of wonder, but didn't say anything.
"And - " Buck waited until Conklin looked at him to add softly, "I'm real sorry, but your deputy got shot during the attempt. Don't think he made it."
Conklin stared at Buck, stunned for a moment, then his shoulders sagged. "Oh, Jesus Christ." He glowered at Durning, gave him a nudge with his shoe and growled, "Get up."
Durning started to stand. Conklin impatiently put out an arm and yanked him up the rest of the way.
Buck holstered his gun, took a step backward. Durning was growing increasingly cowed, whether from his wound or from the undeniable evidence of his crimes being so blatantly displayed, Buck couldn't tell. But these kind of men were dangerous, and he regarded Conklin nervously as the older man began to lead Durning away.
After a few steps Conklin paused, and turned to Buck. His face was an open battlefield of conflict, anger, bewilderment and chagrin all mixed up together, and it was obvious that Conklin had no idea how to handle what had just happened. He's too proud to apologize. Buck thought: But there was sorry in the older man's eyes, and when Buck took Durning's other arm to help Conklin take him to the jail, Conklin didn't protest.
Well, it ain't much, Buck thought as they walked down the dark and shadowed street. But it's a start.
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