The Weight of Guilt
Larabee and Wilmington approached the sleeping town quietly. Instead of going straight down the main street, they entered from the east, leaving the horses behind the telegraph office and snuck down the back of the buildings until they reached the newspaper office.
Mary Travis lived in the back of the newspaper office and, knowing she would be rising early, Larabee knocked lightly on the door. He and Buck waited, watching to make sure they were not sighted. A noise at the door drew their attention and they turned to the entry as a soft whisper was heard.
"Mary, its Chris." His announcement was met with the rattling of the lock and the door cracked open a bit. A blue eye appeared and then the door was flung open. The slender blonde, dressed in a light dressing gown over her nightclothes, rushed out and wrapped her arms around the gunslingers neck.
"Oh, Chris." She pulled back, tears in her eyes.
He gently took her arm and led her back inside. Buck followed in their wake, peering out as he quietly pushed the door closed and turned into the room.
"Chris, they said that you all of you were dead." Mary explained. "The bunch of them rode into town telling how the seven of you had been killed after leaving the Wells ranch, that no one else was going to be hurt as long as we didnt interfere. They they had JDs bowler hat as proof of what they were saying."
Larabees face grew hard as he listened to the woman. He heard a noise behind him and turned to see the pained expression flash across Wilmingtons face as he stalked through the room and out to the office in front. Chris turned to face the woman and found her looking at the retreating form. She returned her attention to Chris, a question on her face.
Chris glanced in the direction of the office out front and seeing his old friend was out of earshot, he pulled his hat off as he told the woman, "They took us by surprise." He paused before saying, "JD the boys dead."
The woman gasped, her hands going to her breast. She reached out and placed a hand on the mans arm. "Chris, Im so sorry. Is Buck no, of course he isnt." She wiped a tear from her cheek, her mouth tight in grief at the loss of the young life. Chris gave her a curt nod and they stood for a moment looking at each other. Chris broke the spell as he drew himself upright and stepped around her.
He joined Wilmington in the newspaper office. They looked up and down the street, watching as the town came to life. The jail was in plain view with three men sitting out front. The two lawmen quickly located nine of the eleven men they had seen the day before. Ryan and one other man were still unaccounted for. They stepped back to form a plan of attack. Mary came into the room with a pot and cups and poured them all coffee.
"You think we can get any help from the townspeople?" Chris asked the woman.
Marys eyes moved around as she thought about the question before answering. "Some of them, yes. Yosemite, of course. Mr. Carlson, Thomas. I can get them together in the livery."
"I dont want you involved in this, Mary."
"I dont see how you will be able to move around town, Chris. You cant exactly walk down the street."
Larabees mouth tightened, but he knew she was right. He or Buck would be spotted as soon as they stepped out the door. If they were spotted before they were ready to spring the trap, some, if not all, of the men would get away. He nodded in agreement with the newspaper editor.
"Give me a minute to get dressed." She rose quickly and left the room.
Chris turned to Buck. The man had not said a word since telling Larabee they needed to head to town. As much pain as Larabee knew the man was in, he needed to be sure that he could count on him to remain in control.
Blue eyes turned slowly to look at the blond and Chris was shaken at the lack of life in those eyes. He had grown accustomed to the sparkle in those eyes and now realized he might never see it again. When Chris own soul had been shattered, it had been Wilmington that had brought back to him to life, but Larabee didnt think he had the ability to do the same for his old friend and feared he would lose the man to his guilt.
"Buck, I need to know that youre going to follow the plan. I dont want you to go off half-cocked and go after Ryan on your own." The gunslinger had thought grief had drained Wilmington of all emotion, so the sudden flash of hate and rancor was unexpected, causing Chris to pull back a bit. This was not a look that was normally associated with the jovial demeanor of Wilmington.
The man said nothing, but continued to stare at Larabee. "Buck? Tell me youll wait for me."
There were several moments of silence before Buck responded. "No promises, Chris, but Ill stick to the plan. But when its done, hes mine. You stay out of it." Bucks voice was whisper soft, but there was a force behind it that was unmistakable. Wilmington planned to kill Ryan. It was a sentiment Larabee was familiar with; he wanted a piece of the man, also.
"No promises, but you can have first crack at him." Chris had a feral grin on his face and both men nodded.
That was how Mary Travis found the two men when she returned, their eyes locked in silent agreement.
At the womans appearance, the two men pushed out of their chairs, meeting her at the door to the living quarters. "Mary, well go out the back and go down to the livery. Have the others meet us there."
She nodded and headed out the front entrance of the office. Looking back, she saw the two men slipping out the back door and, taking a deep breath, she left the office and went in search of help.
+ + + + + + +
Thirty minutes later, there were eight men gathered in the livery, waiting for instructions. Chris explained the situation. "We have eleven men in town that are looking to take a army payroll due in today. Its coming in for one day and the army is arriving tomorrow to take charge of it. Buck and I have located all but two of these men."
The dark clad gunslinger surveyed the group of men that were gathered in the stables. A blacksmith, store clerk, bank teller, a motley crew of men that he wasnt sure he wanted to put in the middle of a fight.
"Okay, boys, this is the plan. Well " indicating Buck and himself. " take these guys down. I need you to keep them locked away while we get them rounded up."
The men nodded. It was agreed that they would hold the men in the livery. There was a feed room with no windows that they could be detained in. Buck was at the door waiting as Chris gave a few more instructions to the men. As Larabee turned, Yosemite stopped him with a question.
The men had seen the look on Wilmingtons face and no one wanted to ask him about the others. "Mr. Larabee, where are the other men?"
"Theyre coming. There were ten men holding us and they're bringing them in. Just dont when theyll be here."
The blacksmiths eyes glanced at Wilmington as the mustached man stood at the door, watching the street. Yosemite knew there was more, but did not press the gunslinger. Chris nodded and moved to join Buck at the door.
"What have you got?" Larabee asked.
"Those three are still at the jail. I saw two of them go into the saloon. We could start with them."
"Sounds good, Buck. Lets do it. Yosemite, a couple of you come with us." Silently, the men slipped out the door and headed across the street. They ducked behind the buildings and moved down to the back entrance of the saloon where they quietly entered the backroom, listening to the sounds from the front. Peeking through the faded curtains, they saw that as well as the two men they had seen enter, there were two others, as well as Inez.
As they watched, the Mexican woman turned to come their way. They stepped back out of view as she pushed through the curtains. Chris wrapped a hand around her head and covered her mouth as Buck stepped into her view. She struggled for a moment until she recognized the mustached man and relaxed. Chris released his grip and she stumbled forward into Bucks arms.
"Oh, senor, they told us you were dead. They said you were all dead," she whispered.
He led her away from the curtains and the would be thieves in the front room. Chris followed, watching the curtains for anyone that might come through them. Once they got to the kitchen area, Chris asked her if there were any more than the four they had seen.
"No. Only the four of them. What are you planning to do?"
Larabee looked at Wilmington as he asked, "Think you can get one or two of them to come back here?"
Her eyes narrowed as she smiled seductively. "Oh, I think I can do that, senor."
She moved back to the curtains and slipped through as they positioned themselves. It was only moments later that the woman reappeared with one of the men right behind her. As the curtains fluttered close, Buck slammed his fist into the mans jaw, satisfied as the man crumpled into Larabee's outstretched arms. Inez smiled and held up one finger as Wilmington hefted the unconscious man onto his shoulder and carried him out to the waiting men at the back door.
By the time Buck returned, a second man lay on the ground. He silently picked the man up and deposited him with the waiting townsmen and returned inside to assist Chris with the last two men. This time, they had Inez remain in back and they casually strolled in, their guns un-holstered and their hands down at their sides. The two men were busy drinking; they did not look up until the peacekeepers were standing next to them, guns in hand.
"Now, we can do this real easy, boys. Or if you want, well do it the hard way." Chris growled.
The two men placed their hands on the table after only a moments hesitation. After taking the outlaws guns, the two lawmen escorted their prisoners out back and into the hands of Yosemite and two others. Buck and Chris headed to the back of the jail, looking to gather in the next three outlaws.
+ + + + + + +
The sun had cleared the horizon well before Vin, Nathan, and JD arrived in town and headed to the livery in search of Buck and Chris. They had ridden hard, hoping to catch up to the two men before they engaged the outlaws. Nathan had watched the young easterner with a critical eye, but while Dunne had wavered a few times, he had managed to remain in the saddle. Now, they pulled their mounts up at the back of the livery and dismounted. Tanner was standing at JD's shoulder as the young man's feet touched the ground and he staggered back.
"JD " Nathan began.
"I'm fine," he snapped. Color instantly rose in the young face and he hung his head as he said, "Sorry, Nathan. But I'll be fine. I can rest after we find Buck."
A sound from the stable door had all three men going for their guns. They lowered their weapons as Yosemite appeared at the door.
"Boys." The big man pushed the large door open. "We've been excepting you."
Vin and Nathan looked at each other before leading their exhausted mounts inside. JD thanked the blacksmith when he came out and took the bay's reins. JD followed him in, one hand on the saddle to help steady himself.
Inside, the peacekeepers found a group of five men guarding four of the men from the day before. Yosemite filled the three in the plan that had been put into place.
Vin told Nathan he was going up the street by the back alleys, to get closer to the jail since that was where Chris and Buck were headed. Tanner started toward the door as Jackson turned to say something to Dunne, but his words were cut short as shots rang out. The three peacekeepers were first out the door, followed by three of the others. Two men stayed behind to guard the prisoners on Tanner's instructions.
Vin sprinted across the street as Nathan and JD headed up the other side. They could see at least two outlaws were in the jail. There was one gunman firing from the doorway, while a second appeared periodically at the window. Another man was firing from the alley next to the jail. The odds had been cut by three, though. One man lay face down in the dusty street and two more were sprawled in front of the jail.
Vin was on the same side of the street as the jail and he could see Chris crouched down behind a stack of barrels in front of Potter's store. Buck was firing from behind a water trough, water trickling out from holes punched in it. The big man would need to find a new place to hide soon. As if reading Tanner's mind, Wilmington inched back to roll under the high boardwalk. Moments later, he reappeared in the alley and disappeared again. Vin saw Chris' head turn that direction briefly before turning his attention to the shooters again. The Texan couldn't hear the words, but he could see the look in the blond's face and Larabee was clearly pissed.
The tracker had a clear shot at the man in the alley and he took it, the man slamming into the wall with the force of the slug from the short rifle. Vin nodded as Chris' head and gun jerked in his direction. A slow smile pulled at the man's lips as his gun came up to touch the brim of his hat before he once again turned his attention to the jail.
Nathan and JD stopped on the far side of Potter's store, taking cover behind some benches and crates. Jackson fired at the man in the doorway of the jail and was rewarded with a yelp as the man fell back. Chris didn't look in the direction of the shot, knowing that it was one of his men. He called out, instead, "In the jail. You boys best just throw those pistols out. Everyone else is dead or in custody."
There was no response for a few seconds, and then the distinct thud of pistols hitting the ground was heard. Chris glanced over at Tanner, who nodded and aimed his mare's leg in the direction of the jail entrance. Larabee stood slowly and moved warily into the street, his gun never wavering from the doorway. He tensed as a shadow fell across the threshold. The two robbers appeared in the doorway, one man supporting the other.
"Jasper needs some help," called the taller man as he helped the wounded man through the door, both held their hands up as Larabee approached. Jackson moved across the street, checking the men that lay in the dust. As he suspected, they were past his help, so he moved on the jail and took charge of the injured man. Nathan took him back into the jail and checked him out as Chris pushed the tall man into the second cell. Locking the door, he turned to hang up the keys as Vin came into through the door. Larabee pulled off his hat and, tossing it onto the desk, ran his hands through the short blond strands of hair. A voice had his head jerking up.
"Where's Buck?" JD asked as he entered in Tanner's shadow.
"JD?" Larabee stood staring for a moment and then moved to stand in front of the young man, a smile pulling at his lips. He placed his hands on the slender shoulders and the smile faded. "JD, should you be up, son?"
He didn't wait for an answer. He turned his head, asking over his shoulder, "Nathan, JD needs to go to the clinic, don't he?"
The boy pushed the man's hands from his shoulders. "I don't need the clinic. I 'need' to know where Buck is."
Chris took in the sheen of sweat on Dunne's face, he had felt the tremors in the slender shoulders, noted the stained bandage around his head, but all these things were overshadowed by the fire in the boy's eyes. JD wouldn't rest, wouldn't give in, until he found Wilmington. He felt something touch his head and realized it was his hat even as Tanner moved past him.
"Come on, kid. Let's go find the big guy."
Larabee placed a steadying hand on the teen's shoulder as they turned and followed Tanner out.
+ + + + + + +
After seeing Vin moving down the street, Buck knew he could trust the young Texan to watch his friend's back. He had stuck to the plan just like he had promised Larabee; now he had dependable help backing him, so Wilmington felt no guilt at leaving. There was another friend that had depended on him, had worried about him, and it had gotten him killed. JD had tried to get Buck to shut up, worried that he was going to get himself shot. Instead, Buck's antagonizing of the outlaws had gotten the kid shot and Buck can't shake the feeling that he had pulled the trigger himself. So, when he saw Ryan make a run for it, Wilmington followed him.
The man disappeared a couple of times, but Wilmington stuck with him. They wove through the back alleys, exchanging shots every once and a while. They finally ended up at the church.
Ryan hit the double doors at a run, splintering the wood at the catch. He moved to the front of the small structure and turning to see Buck coming up the steps, he fired a quick shot at the opening
Buck was just coming around the corner of the last building when he heard Ryan's boots slamming against wood. Knowing there was no more boardwalk, Wilmington guessed the man was going up the stairs to Josiah's church. Hearing the splintering wood, Buck knew he would be doing some work on the house of worship to make amends to the preacher, but at the moment he didn't care about the manual labor that he usually tried to avoid. The tall peacemaker charged up the stairs in pursuit of JD's killer.
As he reached the top step, he saw the man aim and fire and Buck moved to his left. He felt the sting as the slug passed through the muscle of his right bicep, but what caught his attention was the click of the murder's gun as the hammer fell a second, but against an empty chamber. Wilmington's face took on a malevolent smile as the click repeated itself three times more. Seeing Ryan searching his gun belt for more cartridges, the mustached man charged up the aisle and plowed into the taller man and both men crashed to the floor.
Buck felt Ryan scurry away and reached out to drag him back, only to receive a kick to the shoulder, forcing him to roll away. But he recovered quickly and jumped to his feet to find Ryan crouched, a knife in his hands and a look of hate in his eyes.
"How the hell did ya'll get loose? I left ten men to guard you."
"Well, now " Buck said as he began to circle the man, withdrawing his own knife from the sheath on his belt. " I'll just have to look into that when I get finished here. Guess one of your men decided you weren't payin' 'im enough to kill in cold blood."
That thought brought images of the young easterner's body falling into the dust into Wilmington's mind and his blood boiled again for revenge. He moved closer to the tall ringleader and swiped his knife through the air, testing the man's skills. Ryan jumped back and then lunged forward to awkwardly thrust the weapon at Buck's abdomen. Wilmington smiled, seeing that the man was not a good knife fighter, but he remained wary. While Ryan lacked skill, his weapon was still deadly sharp and a lucky blow could easily hinder his opponent's ability to fight back. So Buck waited, biding his time, wearing the man down by constantly moving and striking blow after blow, drawing blood from several cuts across Ryan's arms and chest as well as one deep on his face.
Ryan began to stagger as he attempted to escape the vengeance of the lawman. But the effort became too much and, in an unguarded moment, the mustached peacekeeper swept past and delivered a crippling slash across the back of Ryan's leg, dropping the man to the ground. Crying out in pain, Ryan dropped his knife and grabbed at his leg, trying to staunch the flow of blood.
Buck turned slowly, his face devoid of emotion as he watched the man roll onto his side, groaning. He stood and watched for several moments, in which time Ryan adjusted to the level of pain. The man gritted his teeth as he laughed.
"You may have won this one, but I'll have the last laugh, cause you wont kill me. And I'll be back."
"Murder's a hanging offense, you son of a bitch. You won't be coming back. I'll see to that."
"I don't plan to hang, Wilmington."
Buck snarled as he moved closer to the downed man, kicking the man's knife out of reach. "JD didn't plan to die. Sometimes things just don't work out the way we plan, you worthless piece of shit. That boy was worth a hundred of you and you killed him; shot 'im in cold blood. Oh, you'll hang. One way or another."
Ryan smiled up at the Buck. "It was worth it. Just to see the look on your face."
Buck roared in his rage and drew the knife back. He wanted to feel the man die, feel his blood rush out and cover his hand as it clutched the hilt of the weapon. But he stopped, frozen as the face that he wanted to avenge came to mind. JD would never forgive him for murder, not even to avenge his own death. The boy was too principled for that. Killing in self-defense was one thing, but murder was murder. There was no acceptable reason. In frustration, he slammed the hilt of the knife into the smirking features of the man instead of the shaft into his gut.
Buck stood up and stepped away from the unconscious form. He stumbled back and, as his knees contacted a pew, fell onto the hard wooden seat. His hands came up and covered his face as he wept, the emotional turmoil of the last twenty-four hours finally catching up to him.
"Buck, you okay?" Vin's soft voice asked.
Buck nodded without looking up. "Chris okay?" he asked as he rubbed the heels of the hands into his burning eyes.
Wilmington felt a presence at his shoulder even as he heard Larabee's voice, "I'm fine, Buck. See ya got 'im."
Wilmington continued to sit with his face in his hands, the last of his strength drained. He felt someone sit down beside him, but did not look over. He listened to the sounds as Tanner or Larabee, perhaps, slapped Ryan into wakefulness and then dragged him to his feet, the outlaw protesting that he was injured and couldn't walk.
Tanner drawled, "Walk or be dragged. Don't matter to me."
"Larabee, you can't treat " The man stopped talking in mid-sentence. Buck heard a small gasp and then, "What the but you're "
Whatever the man was going to say was cut off and Buck turned his head to see Vin and Chris dragging the man down the aisle and out the door. Ryan was still staring over his shoulder to the front of the church as they started down the stairs.
Buck frowned as he realized someone was still sitting next to him. He turned, expecting to see Josiah, but froze as he found himself looking into hazel eyes.
"Hey, Buck." JD said softly. "Do you know you're bleedin'?"
Wilmington's eyes took in the bandage, the sunken and dark ringed eyes, and his breath caught in his throat. "JD?" he managed to whisper.
When the kid reached out and touched the bloody sleeve, Wilmington flinched and looked down as if realizing for the first that he had been hit. He looked up into worried hazel eyes and commented, "Looks like we both need to see Nathan."
That said, he stood and pulled the youth up. Wrapping his uninjured arm around the boy's neck, he started toward the door. The man could feel the lack of coordination in the boy's step and pulled him in close to brace the smaller body against his side. They moved down the steps and headed up the street in silence.
Buck saw Chris standing in front of the newspaper office next to Mary Travis. Vin Tanner stood leaning against a post in front of the jail, while Nathan stood in the dust, waiting for his two patients to reach him. Just coming into town, Buck could make out Ezra and Josiah herding a group of men walking in front of them. The sight brought a chuckle to the man's throat. The sound had the head tucked into his shoulder, come up to glance at him; one eye squinted close as the boy tired to focus.
The man's hand patted the young man's shoulder as he said, "I'll tell ya later, kid."
As Nathan fell into step with them, Buck's mind continued with, 'Later. Thank you, Lord. Thanks for letting there be a 'later'.'