The coal-oil lamps hanging on the dingy walls cast dim shadows off the two men, as they cautiously proceeded up the stairwell one creaky step at a time. The shabby red, gold, and black carpeting helped slightly to stifle the sound of their movement against the stillness of the wee-early morning. At the top of the staircase, the first man let go of the mahogany banister and moved his rifle from his left hand into his right one. As they expected, the long hallway at the top of the stairs was vacant and all the doors leading off of it were closed for the night.
The big, bearded man paused his movement outside of the second door as the floor creaked beneath his feet. Slowly he reached out and turned the doorknob, and then with the back of his hand he pushed the door open. The door groaned as the stiff hinges took exception at being disturbed. He again paused to listen for any noise that might indicate the rooms single occupant had been awoken. Hearing nothing but the soft steady breathing of sleep, he cautiously entered.
A moonbeam of light shining through a crack in the curtains fell upon a young face. Thick, dark hair laid spread out across a white cotton pillowcase in a messy tangle and long sooty eyelashes fluttered against pale winter skin, as the young man chased outlaws in his dreams.
The shadow tiptoed across the floor; never taking his eyes off the small sleeping form that was curled up under a heavy quilt to ward off the frosty night chill. After setting the rifle against a chair, he carefully stretched out his huge bear of a paw and placed it over the youthful mouth.
Startled, big hazel eyes flew open.
The burly man pushed the kids head further down onto the pillow and threw a powerful arm across the boys chest to pin him to the bed.
+ + + + + + +
Down the hall, the other murky figure slowly pushed his way into a dark room. Through the darkness, he could barely make out the two forms cuddled together on a queen size bed. Pushing the door open wider behind him, the glow from the lanterns captured the intertwined, unshucked bodies as they lay sleeping tangled amongst love-messed bedcovers.
Striding across the floor to the bed, the image of the female became clearer to him. He slowly rested his weight on the bed with one hand, and loomed over the woman. She was one of the saloon girls from downstairs, but now devoid of her heavy make-up she appeared younger and almost innocent, as she lay wrapped peacefully in the arms of the handsome man beside her. The shadowy figure then turned his attention to the mustached man lying on the far side of the bed, next to the wall.
The tall, leanly muscled man was lying with the woman spooned gently against his naked body, warm and protected, and a slight smile touching at his lips. A long, curled strand of the womans blond hair lay softly touching the mans freshly razored cheek. The shadow drew his hand towards his holster when he heard a small gasp, and looked down to see the woman staring up at him with wide, shocked filled eyes.
With a screech, and her feelings of self-preservation firmly in place, she swung her ring-clad fist at her assailants face and connected with his nose.
Instantly, the mustached man beside her was awake and moving.
The man hovering over them was clutching his nose with one hand and trying to cover the womans mouth with his other, when he was tackled to the floor with a hard grunt. Both men swung awkwardly at each other, with the woman and bedding ending up twisted between them.
+ + + + + + +
Outside, a shadowy silhouette stood in the middle of the street and listened to the sounds of the night, before slowly walking under a star filled sky towards a covered wagon. The crisp, frozen ground crunched beneath his feet and pungent chimney smoke wafted through the air of the small town, making him wish he were sitting in front of one of the fireplaces. Quietly lifting up the canvas flap, moonlight revealed the outline of a slender shape asleep on a bunk.
The figure slept curled up in a tight ball as though to fend off the nights cold air that insisted on creeping into the wagon. Long, sandy hair was the only thing poking out from under the worn woven blankets, which were rising up and down with a steady sleeping regularity.
The shadow agilely stepped over the closed tailgate into the wagon, and slowly let the axles absorb his weight. Careful not to get the wagon rocking under them, he warily approached the sharpshooter and pulled the blankets back from his face.
As he reached out to cover the younger mans mouth, the sound of a trigger being cocked was heard from under the blankets, and calm blue eyes stared out at him from a ruggedly striking face.
+ + + + + + +
JDs hands came up to fight off the hand covering his mouth.
"Easy son!" came Josiahs deep baritone voice. "Sorry for waking you this way, but weve got company at the bank. Get up quick but quietly."
Blinking the sleep from his eyes, JD nodded his understanding as Josiah removed his hand and tossed the kid some pants off the floor. In the dark, JD slid them on as fast as he could over his longjohns, and not bothering with a shirt or socks slipped his feet into his boots and followed Josiah out the door while buckling on his holster.
Half way down the hall they could hear muffled talking coming from Bucks room. Following Josiah into his best friends room, JD froze at the sight in front of him.
A woman on the floor tried to let out a piercing screech at the new intrusion, but Ezra managed to crawl half way out from under Buck and smack his hand over her mouth to cut the scream off.
Buck shoved Ezra on his chest and pushed him away, "Ezra what the hell do you think you are doing? Youre lucky I dont break your ruddy neck! And why the hell are ya sneaking into my room in the middle of the night? And whats the idea of taking a punch at me?"
"Reflex, pure and simple reflex! Now if you would remove your hulking body off me, I will be happy tell you what sent me to your humble abode. And it is imperative that we remain as quiet as possible, so if you could maybe encourage your lady guest to stop screaming " Ezra shot Buck a scathing glance, then noticed the two other men standing in the doorway. "Oh great, more witnesses to this humiliating and unfortunate circumstance."
"Whoa JD, your young eyes might not outta be seeing this!" Josiah said with laughter filling his voice, as he tried to steer JD back out of the room.
"Wait Josiah, I can see anything you can see! Hey whys Ezra laying on the floor? And whys Buck naked? Come on Preacher! Get out of my way, I cant see nothing with you standing there." JD managed to dodge around Josiahs bulkier frame, and his eyes ran smack dab into the milky-white mounds of female breasts and then Bucks angry glare.
"Oh geez omigosh sorry I " He sputtered, before his mouth dropped open and the pupils in his eyes grew huge.
Heat rose from his belly button, up to the top of his head and turned his face a brilliant red. Stammering, he back-peddled a step and ran into Josiah, and then whirling around he bounced off the door jam before escaping into the dark hallway.
"I think Ill just wait out here for ya, Josiah," JD wheezed out, from the safety of the hallway.
"You can wait out there with him too, if you dont mind, Josiah!" Buck snapped from down on the floor, as he struggled to get the blankets sorted out and his lady friend covered. "And take pretty-boy here with you before I forget were friends!"
Hissing, Ezra kicked at the blanket that was wrapped around both of his feet off and checked his nose to see how badly damaged it was. Finding it battered, but unbroken, he retracted a piece of paper from his holster and waved it at Buck. "I would be happy to exit your little den of promiscuity, no offense meant maam, but Chris sent me. We have unwelcome company down at the bank. Chris got this telegraph warning him that a band of escaped convicts may be heading our way, but we didnt get it in time and it now appears they are in fact already in our bank. He wanted us to be quiet and not alarm anyone, but I think we might have exceeded that expectation. We are to meet in the back alleyway as quietly and quickly as we can."
"Well, heck Ezra, why didnt you just say that from the door, instead of climbing into bed with us?" Buck said as he dragged on his pants over his long legs, his normal sense of humor already fully restored.
"Miss Sally, it has been a pleasure! Why dont you just go curl up back in my bed, so when I come in from the cold Ill find more than just a warm place to sleep?" Buck dropped a light kiss on the end of the blondes nose, pushed his broad brimmed hat onto the back of his head, and buckling up his holster he followed Ezra out into the hallway.
Josiah and JD were leaning against the hallway wall waiting for them. Buck ducked down to get into JDs vision as the red-faced kid tried to avoid looking at his friend.
"Got a good peek did ya, kid? That satisfy some of your curiosity?" Buck chuckled at his blushing friend.
"What no I mean, yes maybe what?" JD stuttered, embarrassed at his own reaction to the attractive woman.
"You want me to pick the answer for ya?" Buck asked laughing, as he pushed JD down the stairwell in front of him.
"Oh okay thats it! Ive seen lots of you know womens ! Oh youre so lucky Ezras holding me back Buck, or Id make you eat that grin! Hey, Ez hold me back." JD tried to place his arm in Ezras hand. "Ezra, you better hold me back, or Im liable to kick Bucks butt!"
"Please dont use the words, holding and Bucks butt, in the same sentence together around me JD. I am still occupied trying to get the image of Mr. Wilmington in his altogether, out of my mind," Ezra shuddered, pushing JDs arm away and quickly averted his eyes from Buck. "Thats not a picture I want to see again any time soon, nay ever again!"
JD snickered at Buck as they reached the bottom of the stairs.
"You just watch yourself there, boy. Youre so green, youre still growing." Buck said at the same time pulling JD back away from the entrance window. "Sides Ezras manliness just took a hit tonight, hes probably feeling a little inadequate all of a sudden."
"My manliness is very much intact, thank you Mr. Wilmington, and feeling quite unthreatened by you at this moment." Ezra smirked as he pressed his back up against the wall and snuck a peek outside at the frosty blackness. "The street looks empty from here."
"Chris say where he wanted us to be?" Buck asked Josiah, getting into the serious side of his job.
"He wants us to handle the back alley."
"Well boys lets go handle it then!"
+ + + + + + +
"You going to shoot me with that peashooter?"
"Depends, ya going to make a habit of sneakin around my wagon before even the roosters are stirring?"
"Then I might shoot ya!"
"Well, you mind waiting awhile. We got us some unwanted company trying to make an off hour withdrawl from the bank." Chris passed Vin his leg-mare from the corner of the wagon. "I figured you wouldnt want to miss out on all the excitement."
"Thought I heard some horses on the back side of town, but since I aint on nightshift for a change I figured you boys could deal with whoever it was." Vin said as he pushed back his blankets and stepped out of bed. Shivering in the night air, he tugged his arms into a buckskin coat and nodded at Chris to lead the way. "We got some kind of plan?"
"Josiah counted four strange horses tied in back of the livery, then he and Ez went to wake up Buck and JD. Nathan is keeping track of the bank from the saloon. You best get up on a roof somewhere to cover us. Nathan and Ill go in the front; the others will take the back alley."
"Four?" Vin paused, a slight smile touching his lips. "Ya woke me up for four men never figured I see the day you couldnt take on four men all by your lonesome!"
"Yeah, well I figure if I have to go light on sleep tonight I could use some company, sides you know I never get enough of watching all you boys in action."
Chris slowly lifted the flap back up and cautiously checked out the street. He gave a little shutter as the cold air hit him again.
"Winter is coming on too soon! I wouldnt miss it if it decided to step around us this time. I feel it deeper in my bones every year that passes."
"Ya want to go plunk your crochety bones in front of a warm fire somewhere, old man? Me and the boys can finish off this fight if you aint feeling up to it!" Vin grinned as he followed Chris out of the wagon and started to shimmy his way up to the roof of the General Store.
Chris pointed his gun up at Vins retreating backside. "I would choose my spot a little more careful if I was you, smart ass! You arent exactly leaving yourself in the best position to be insulting me."
Vins eyes got a little wider as he turned his head to look down at the ground behind him and saw the flash of moonlight reflecting off a muzzle and Chriss glare.
"I can always tell the boys the bad guys got ya!" Chris said breaking out into a grin, before melting into the nights protective shadows.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pulled the back door open and scanned the alley behind the boarding house. Lanterns lit the main street up in a dull glow, but the back of the alley was as black as the inside of a cow. Indicating the street looked clear as far as he could tell, he moved back to let the other men pass.
Buck grabbed the material from the back of JDs longjohns and pulled him inside, as the kid tried to bolt out the door in front of everyone else. "Stay behind me, kid!"
"Buck Ive known you three months now, and you still always do this to me! I told ya, I can fight my own battles " JD hissed out in annoyance, then paused. "What the heck am I arguing with you for? Lead on, your royal highness of bossy! Your big old, chunky body should make as good of a shield as anything else around here, just in case someone out there does want to shoot at us!"
"Dont be sassing me back, boy!" Buck rapped JD on the top of his head with a finger and then pushed the grinning youth between him and Josiah.
Warily, they made their way down the length of the alley, pausing at the end of each building to make sure the way was still clear and that the bank-robbers didnt have a lookout watching for them. Ducking into doorways and behind pillars, they used the dark cover of night to their advantage as they made their way towards the back of the bank. Looking down part of the alley, they could just make out Chris on the main street with his carbine in his hand weaving his way to the front of the bank, and Vin setting up on the roof across from the bank.
Ducking under a window, they surrounded the back door of the bank. Buck and JD stood on one side, and Josiah and Ezra on the other, all with their backs pressed up against the building waiting for a signal from Chris.
JD shivered in the frigid night air and wished he had thrown a coat on over top of his longjohns. He chanced a glance at his best friend. Buck wore nothing but his britches and boots, yet he seemed oblivious to the cold as he concentrated on the job at hand.
"How can you not be cold, Buck?" JD asked in a hushed tone.
"Being a portly gentleman helps, Mr. Dunne!" Ezra whispered from the other side of the doorway.
"Hey, who you calling a gentleman, Standish?" Bucked hissed back indignantly. "Its the adrenaline, kid keeps me sharp!"
Leaning past Buck, JD watched Ezra and Josiah on the other side of the door, tensed and ready for action. Both had their guns drawn, light and easy as a raw finger on a hair trigger.
JD jumped as an elbow connected with his side.
"Keep your wits about ya, kid!" Buck shushed, "And quiet."
Fumbling a whispered apology, JD also pulled his gun from his holster, willed his rapid pulse to slow down and got ready to follow Buck into the bank.
"Buck, Josiah!" Nathans hushed voice barely reached them from the back door of the saloon. "They left their horses behind the livery. Might have left a man back there too, I couldnt tell. Id go check it out, but Chris is going to need more than just Vin up front."
"Three of us can handle the back door, Nathan. You go help Chris and Vin, one of us can go check out back," Buck whispered at Nathan, than watched as the healer saluted them and disappeared around the corner of the building, heading for the main street.
"No! No way, Buck! You aint sending me away from a fight to check on some horses. You can go yourself, if youre so anxious to see whats back there." Sparks danced out of JDs eyes and he had to fight to keep his voice down low. This was just like Buck, including him in, but at the same time trying to keep him on the outskirts of the battle.
Ezra, Josiah, and Buck all stood silently looking at him.
"Oh hell!" JD cussed as he pushed away from the bank and started moving down the alleyway. He was going to be the one to go whether he wanted to or not, so he might just as well save his breath and go now. Maybe if he went fast enough, he could make it back before the fight ended and he could actually be of some assistance, maybe even save Buck from getting shot in the backside.
+ + + + + + +
Chris nodded at Nathan, as the healer joined him on the boardwalk near the front of the bank.
Looking up, Chris then nodded at Vin, who waved back with his hat before dropping it on the roof beside him. Vin sat totally still, crossed legged with his finger on the trigger, and his rifle nestled lightly up against his shoulder. He alternated between watching the bank below for the slightest wrong movement, and the bright stars above. He pulled in a deep lungful of crisp, cold air to help focus his thoughts. The men in the bank were ruining a perfectly beautiful night, by his estimation.
Peaking through the frosty windowpanes into the bank, Chris spotted a man carrying a low-burning lantern around inside the bank. A couple of others were walking towards the rear exit of the bank with canvas bags in their hands, and the last was closing up the bank vault.
Chris ducked under the banks big plate glass window and came up beside the front door. He froze as the boardwalk squeaked under his foot, but the men inside did not appear to be warned. With his finger, Chris indicated for Nathan to join him, and then he slowly placed the key he had gotten from the bank manager into the keyhole and turned it.
The robbers all jumped as the solid wooden door was slammed open, and the sound echoed through the bank.
"Everyone just set them bags down easy and drop your holsters real slow like!" Chriss steel edged voice rasped out from the front entrance.
With a yell, the bank robbers scattered behind counters and released a volley of gunshots.
Chris and Nathan jumped back behind the protection of the banks outside wall. Chris had to give the outlaws an option to surrender, but somehow he just knew they werent going to be obliging on this cold night.
Hearing the gunfire, Josiah shot the handle off the back door, and Buck kicked the door in. Ezra dove in head first with his guns blazing, and Josiah fired from the doorway providing the gambler with cover.
"Drop your guns and well let you walk out of here alive!" Chris shouted out again.
"Go to hell, lawman!" a voice answered, as one of the outlaws drew his six-gun from his holster and emptied the chamber in their direction. Flinging the gun to the ground, he then grabbed his Remington and blew a hole out of the bank wall just above Nathans head.
Glass suddenly exploded around them as a figure came hurling through the front window and took off running down the boardwalk.
Vin raised his rifle up and through his sights followed the dodging bandit. Waiting, waiting, then a gentle squeeze of the trigger and the man toppled to the ground with a howl, clutching the back of his calf. After making sure the man was staying down and out of the action, Vin swung his rifle back to the bank.
Chris and Nathan returned fire and then were forced to drop to the ground as one of the robbers blasted the doorway with buckshot, sending chunks of wood and pellets in every direction.
"You okay, Nathan?" Chris hollered, as he looked at the giant hole the shotgun blast had blown out of the front of the bank. "Pull back "
Chris covered his head with both arms as another shot exploded near him and the hole became bigger, exposing parts of both him and Nathan.
"Chris, Nathan move!" Vin shouted from the roof and started firing shot after shot into the bank. From the back of the building, more gunfire could be heard as the other three men exchanged shots with the robbers.
While the robbers were scrambling for cover from Vin, Chris rolled across the boardwalk and dropped down behind a water trough. With a groan, Nathan crawled backwards until he was at the side of the building and out of sight.
"Nathan you hit?" Chris shouted from behind the water trough.
"Just enough to make me mad!" Nathan yelled back as he pulled out some wooden splinters that had embedded themselves into his side.
The roar of Vins mare leg again ripped through the night air, as Chris and Nathan also returned fire. Taking aim through the broken window, Chris fired and hit one of the outlaws in the shoulder. The wounded man fell to the ground with a howl and then lay motionless.
In the back of the bank, Ezra lay pinned to the floor as bullets flew over his head. Buck stood in the door jam and tried to divert the attention from the downed gambler, while Josiah stood behind a pillar exchanging shots.
"Ezra get your butt outta there!" Buck hissed as another bullet kicked up a chunk of floor a few inches from the gamblers face.
"Now why didnt I think of that!" Ezra shouted back sarcastically, then covered his head with an arm as another blast went off beside him.
Buck and Josiah both let go with a barrage of gunfire, giving Ezra a chance to move back.
With a roar, Ezra pushed off the floor to his feet and started to bolt to the safety of a counter when a rifle butt struck him across his knee and he dropped to a heap on the floor.
Clutching his knee, he lay groaning on the floor as the shooting continued going off all around him.
Ow my knee? First my nose, now my knee, He moaned, as he felt the cartilage in his knee grind as he tried to stand and his leg buckled under him. Finally, he just curled into a ball and tried to make himself invisible.
Buck stuck his head back around the door and watched Ezra curl up with his hands wrapped against his injured knee.
"Buck look out!" Josiahs loud shout brought Bucks head up in time to see a shotgun being pointed at him.
"Whoa "Buck yelled as he dove away from the door and skidded along the alleyways black dirt on his belly. The blast blew the top half of the door right off the jam and splattered pellets in a wide arch across the alley.
Hearing footsteps, Buck lifted his head up from the dirt and watched two men burst out the back of the bank and with guns blazing, disappear down the alley.
"You hurt, Buck?" Josiah appeared at his side and helped him to his feet.
"Nah lucky for me, they were pretty lousy shots. How bad off is Ez?"
"Looks like he hurt his knee, but at least he made it behind some cover. Ill stay here and back up Chris and Nathan, you go after the those two."
With a nod, Buck took off after the two escaping outlaws.
+ + + + + + +
JD had just made it to the end of the alley when he heard the gunfire start. Ignoring his orders to check out the livery, he made his way back towards the bank. The tall buildings blocked even the moonlight from reaching down into the alleyway, and he could barely see through his frosty breath in the cold night air. Placing his hand on the rough honed planks of the closest building, he felt his way along in the darkness.
Up ahead somewhere, he could hear feet running towards him.
JD stopped to listen; glancing right and left, trying to find which direction the footsteps were coming from. Soon, two shadowy figures came from his left, and JD jumped out to the middle of the alleyway with his guns drawn. He was just opening his mouth to shout a warning when he caught his foot on a rock and sprawled out onto his hands and knees. Both guns flew from his hands as he hit the dirt hard. His britches tore and his knees were bloodied as they scrapped along the frozen ground. Hissing at the stinging pain, he pulled himself back up onto his feet and searched frantically for his guns on the pitch-black ground. He could make out dark forms, as the running men were getting closer.
He dropped back down to the ground and on hands and knees felt around for his Colts. His chilled fingers finally wrapped around the cold steel barrel of one gun and JD leaped back to his feet.
"Stop!" He yelled out.
The men running didnt slacken their speed or identify themselves; they just changed direction and veered down another alley.
"I said stop!" JD called out again, and then licking his dry lips, he raised his pistol and fired twice. The shots didnt miss by much, but they did miss, and the two men disappeared unharmed around a corner. Hoping no one saw him shoot, he glanced around and with another curse he found Buck watching him. JD exhaled and rolled his eyes to the skies, before turning and facing his silent friend.
Buck didnt stay silent for long. "Damn it, boy! How many times I got to tell you about squeezing the trigger. You draw it nice and easy. You dont go bang-bang-bang like some green sodbuster!"
Indignant, JD turned away. "I didnt go bang-bang-bang, Buck. I aimed, but its so dark out here I can hardly find my nose with two hands!"
"Maybe thats your problem, kid. You aint supposed to be shooting at your nose; youre supposed to be shooting at the bad guys! Now I gotta go chase them some more."
"Shooting aint my problem, Buck. Youre my problem!" JD snapped over his shoulder and then turned to follow the running men.
With his long arm, Buck reached out and grabbed the collar of the kids longjohns again, and spun him in the opposite direction. "You were told to go check out the livery, Ill go after the two getting away!"
"Dang it all to heck, no!" JD said as he twisted out of Bucks hold. "You know there isnt anyone hiding out in the barn. Youre just sending me over there to keep me out of the way when you know youre going to be needing all the help you can get!"
"JD, you best start taking my orders, or we could all end up dead right where we fall. We got armed men running all over the place now, and chances are one or all of them will try to get back to their horses. Which are behind the livery, so get your backside over there and this time if you have to shoot someone, dont miss!"
Angry, JD started to stalk back to the livery, muttering a blue streak under his breath.
"JD " Buck called.
"Careful! JD muttered. "Careful of what stepping in a pile of horse manure?
Gunshots could still be heard coming from the bank. The loud boom of a shotgun ripped through the air, only to be answered by Vins mare leg.
JD punched at an open door with his fist as he stomped by. He should be at the bank helping the guys out, not keeping the horses company at the livery. Or helping Buck chase the robbers down. JD couldnt see how he was going to be of any help from the livery. He was going to be stuck in the dusty old barn all by himself, not helping his friends and at the same time missing out on all the action. Heck, for all the good he was doing, he could have stayed in bed where at least he would have been warm and sleeping.
Keeping the disgruntled conversation running in the back of his mind, JD threw open the big livery door and entered the dark building. Fumbling around, he searched for the lantern Yosemite always kept hanging on a beam. The sudden glow of light made JD blink as his eyes re-adjusted from the darkness outside.
The horses met him with quiet knickers as they also blinked from the sudden light. Some of the big animals came and hung their heads over the stall doors. Others scrambled up to their feet from their straw covered stalls and shook themselves to remove the bedding from their coats. The familiar sounds and scents of horse sweat, sweet hay and fresh bedding, calmed JD somewhat, as they always did.
With a resigned sigh, he walked down the alleyway to the end of the barn where his small, bay gelding Seven was stalled. With a gentle hand he reached up and scratched the horse on his silky neck.
"Just like I thought, theres no one out here disturbing you guys," JD said to his horse. The geldings ears flipped back and forth as he listened to his owners soft voice.
Moving past the stalls, JD made his way to the back of the barn and opened the top of the Dutch door. Tied to the livery corral rails JD could make out the shadows of four strange horses. The horses seemed unconcerned with his presence, but even though Nathan had told him they were here, JD still tensed up at seeing them.
Squinting his eyes, JD scanned the corral area to make sure that none of the bank-robbers was hiding back here with their mounts, but the horses appeared to have been left in the corral unattended. JD cautiously opened the bottom half of the door and moved out into the nights moonlit murkiness. After making sure the corral gate was securely latched and all the horses were tied up tight, he reached under each saddle and loosened the cinches, before pulling the saddles from the horses backs, and tossing them inside the barn.
Even though he was resigned to playing a minimal role in the nights activity, JD still nearly jumped out of his skin when a loud bang went off behind him. Whirling around with his gun pointed in front of him, he sagged in relief at the sight of a lone pitchfork toppled over against a water barrel.
"Polecat scare the heck out of me, why dont ya?" JD laughed nervously, as he leaned the fork back up on the wall beside Bucks gray geldings stall, and gave the horse a scratch between his ears. "Stop knocking things over, ya big knothead!"
JD exhaled to get his racing heart to slow down, and after giving the horse another pat turned to close the back door.
Standing at the back of the barn with Seven, JD paused to listen to the battle that had been raging around the bank. All he could hear now were the normal sounds of nighttime. The gunfire at the bank had finally stopped, or at least there was a long lull in the battle.
"Oh, this is stupid! I aint staying in here, no matter what Buck says!" an exasperated JD said to his horse.
Drawing his gun out again, he ran to the big barn doors and was about to throw them open, when someone from outside hit them hard at the same instant and knocked JD flat on his rump.
This time JD managed to hold onto his pistol and he brought it up to point it at a filthy, long-bearded man. It never dawned on him that he might not be able to handle the situation.
"Hold it right there, mister " JD barely got out, when a foot connected with his wrist and the gun went twirling through the air.
JD watched his weapon fly out of his grasp and fall beyond his reach. With eyes wide, he swung his view back to the bearded man.
The man slammed the barn door shut and dropped a bar across to lock them. Then he turned and with barely contained fury, glared at the youth sitting on the ground.
Breathing hard, JD lunged for his gun, but snapped his hand to his chest as the man behind him fired into the floor, pelting JD with dirt.
JD whirled back around to stare at his captor. From outside they could hear Buck yelling at Chris that one of the robbers was in the livery, and then running footsteps heading towards them.
With Buck unknowingly providing a distraction, JD lunged headfirst into the mans stomach, and sent them both tumbling to the ground in a mess of limbs. JD swung his elbow back hard and connected with the criminals chin, snapping his head back.
The outlaw then grunted as a fist caught him another blow across his mouth, and his lip split open as it was crushed between his front tooth and a knuckle.
With a shout of anger, the outlaw swung his pistol like a club and struck JD a hard blow on his forehead.
Crying out, JD reeled backwards into the dirt. With his head spinning, he reached up to feel the cut that had been opened across his right eyebrow, and blinked as his blood started to drip down across his eyelid and pool onto his lashes.
Reaching up, the escaped convict grabbed hold of one of the bridle hooks that hung off each stall, and pulled himself to his feet.
"Ive had lawmen from all over this territory try to take me down, boy! What the hell makes you think you can, when they have failed?" The bearded man snarled bitterly as he turned away and dismissed the young man bleeding on the dirt floor.
"Cause if I take a step back, another man will have to fill my shoes, and around here that means one of my friends!" JD snapped back, and lunging at the large man, he wrapped his arms around the other mans legs and tackled him to the ground with a thud.
JD instantly pounced on top and tried to pin the convict to the floor, but instead he found himself flying through the air when the bigger man reached behind him and grabbing the back of JDs collar, tossed the lighter youth over his head. A loud whoosh came out of JD as he landed hard on his back and the wind was knocked from his lungs.
"Dang it all to hell!" the bearded man hissed out as he regained his feet, and in one swoop reached down, grabbed JD up by the front of his longjohns and pushed him to the back of the building. "Youre going to be my way out of here, ya little runt!"
The front barn doors started to rattle, as someone from outside fought to open them. Then Bucks anxious voice called out to him.
"I dont think so!" JD gasped out, as feelings of relief flooded over him. "My friends will kill you, if you dont give up!"
"JD you in there, kid? Answer me!" Buck yelled out again and banged hard on the door with his fists.
"Buck " JD tried to answer back, but the bearded outlaw closed his hand over the kids mouth and hauled him towards the back of the barn.
JD grabbed hold of a stall door with his free hand and hung on tightly.
"Let go, runt!" The bearded man slammed the butt of his gun across JDs fingers in exasperation, and tugging hard, ripped him free of the stall.
With the hand across his mouth growing even more taunt, JD went rigid in the mans grip, and then sank weightless in his arms.
"Stay on your feet, runt, or Ill snap ya in two like a twig!" The outlaw barked angrily, as he tried to force JD to stand on his own.
Unable to outmuscle the older man, JD again let his legs go boneless and he sank to his knees, nearly dragging the other man down with him.
"Listen, ya little get up!" The man fought to regain his footing, and dragged JD back up while shaking him like a rag doll. "I aint going to tell ya again, ya hear!"
Then from up above their heads, they could hear feet running across the livery roof.
Help was on the way!
Biting down hard, JD clamped his teeth into the meaty part of the outlaws hand. "My friends are coming for ya, best just let me go!" He spat out, as the outlaw howled and had to snap his hand away from JDs face.
"Shut your trap, ya no good !" The man exploded, and in desperate frustration, shoved JD headfirst into a stall door.
A strangled scream was torn from JDs mouth and his knees gave out in earnest this time. His thoughts shattered in an explosion of pinpointed lights that burst upon a background of spinning gray.
"Git up!" The man grabbed the back of JDs collar, brought him to his feet, and then shoved him into the stall door again.
Out of self-defense JD brought both hands up to try and protect his face, as he sagged heavily in the mans grip.
With another shout, the man hefted JD to his feet a third time, but the sound of a strangers soft Texas drawl from somewhere behind them, stopped him before he could shove the kid again.
"Ya dont need to hurt the kid no more, Sam! He cant do ya any harm, but the men out front searchin for ya can. Im thinkin they wont like it none, finding this boy dead. The horses are still tied out back if I was you, Id git out of here while the gittings still good!"
JD slithered down the front of the stall to the dirt floor, as the hands that had been supporting him suddenly disappeared from the back of his longjohns. Pain was erupting through his skull as he pressed his bloody and bruised face into his hands. Wrapping his arms around his head, he rocked back and forth. With his jaw clamped tight, he made hissing noises through his clenched teeth as he fought off the nausea that was threatening to overtake him.
"Rest easy, son. Your friends are coming to take care of ya!" That strange voice penetrated JDs mind again, and a calloused hand gently settled on the back of his neck.
JD turned his head slightly to watch a stranger in a red shirt melt out the back door into the night.
Unsure if what he saw was real, JD shook his head in disgust to clear the cobwebs and rose to his feet.
That was a mistake. His forehead pounded as though it was intent on splitting open. His ears rang and his knees buckled. He caught himself before he fell to the ground. On quivering legs he managed to stumble to a stall door and lean against it, grateful for the support.
Outside he could again hear Buck pounding on the locked door. Keeping a hand on the stall he moved towards the door. He released the wood and stood in the alleyway for several seconds to reassure himself that his legs would in fact hold his weight. He sucked back a few steadying breaths and slowly straightened his spine. He caught himself before he gave a nod of approval. He had made that mistake of sudden movement before and it had nearly put him face down in the dirt. Slowly and unsteady he moved towards the door feeling both foolish and embarrassed by his condition and how he had been put in it.
He stumbled a few more steps to the door before his vision blurred and JD sank the rest of the way to the floor, curling himself up tightly in a ball with his throbbing head buried in his arms.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was still banging on the barn door, when he felt a tug on his arm. Whirling around he found Vin and Chris standing behind him.
"What happened, Buck?" Chris asked in a hushed voice.
"Two of them got past us out the back. I lost one of them when they split up, but I followed this one to the livery," Buck blurted out in a quick rush.
"And ya think banging loudly on the door is going to make him give up?" Vin asked quizzically.
"Ya dont understand I sent JD here to watch their horses and I heard a gunshot, just one. He didnt want to come, but I made him, and now he is inside and I dont know if hes okay or hurt or !" Bucks face was full of dread as he turned to look at his two friends. "I aint heard nothing else from inside since I got here!"
"Hard to hear anything with all your banging and hollering, Buck," Josiah said as he slid across the frozen ground and hunkered down beside the others.
"Buck, you and mell take the roof and come in through the hayloft." Vin patted Buck on his cold, bare shoulder and sprinted to the ladder that lead up to the loft.
"Josiah, you take the back and Ill watch the front!" Chris said, and started to move when the sound of running hooves hit them, followed by the roar of Vins rifle from the hayloft door.
Out of the nights shadow, the other man who escaped out the back of the bank galloped by them on a stolen horse. Vins shot was high as the figure rode hunched low over the horses withers, his rowels stuck in the horses side. He galloped straight down the main street, slowing only when he approached the wounded man on the boardwalk, who had now struggled to his feet. Reaching down he grabbed the injured man by the back off his britches and hauled him over the front of the saddle, and then took off at a gallop.
"Wheres Ezra?" Chris yelled to Josiah, as they watched the men escape.
"Hes down! Took a nasty blow to his knee with the butt-end of a rifle."
"Okay forget them for now, lets get this guy, and then well trail those two later," Chris said, and then nodded for Josiah to head around the back of the livery.
Before Josiah got half way around, he heard Bucks angry shout and then the sound of many horses galloping out of the corral and down the main street. Again, Vins rifle roared out and Bucks pistol let loose with another volley of shots. Josiah made it around to the front in time to see the outlaws horses race down the street in a wild stampede. The top of the escaping mans head bobbed up and down from between a couple of the panicked animals.
"You get him?" Chris yelled out to Buck.
Buck let out a blast of blasphemy as he quickly descended the barn ladder.
"NO !" He shouted as he raced by on foot with Vin hot on his trail, and ran down the road after the departing outlaw.
"Chris go make sure JD is okay!" He shouted behind him before disappearing around the side of the saloon.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Buck raced down a side street after the escaping convict until a hail of bullets had them diving into a backyard tool shed. Breaking one of the grimy windows, Vin set up for a shot with his mare leg, as Buck sent another volley of shots after the outlaw.
Darkness immediately swallowed the running horses up, and Vin was just able to squeeze off a couple of shots at the sound of pounding hooves.
Breathing hard in the cold air, Vin slapped Buck on the shoulder. "Come on, lets get the horses and go after him!"
Buck stared down the road the convict had disappeared on, and then back towards the direction of the livery. "Vin wait a minute, slow down! I gotta go check on the kid first, and make sure he aint hurt!"
Vin looked down the road disgustedly, and then with a nod slung his rifle upside down across his shoulder and exited the rickety tool shed. "Yeah, okay lets go check on the kid, and then Nathan and Ez."
Turning and walking backwards, Vin stared down the road again and shouted out loud, "You can run tonight but tomorrow youre mine!"
+ + + + + + +
"JD son, can you hear me?" Josiahs rich voice penetrated the haze of his mind.
Somewhere in the distance the sound of gunfire erupted, and then stopped just as quickly as it had began.
Slowly memories of the night hit JD, and with a soft moan, he reluctantly opened his eyes. He was lying on straw, horse manure and dirt. Sticky, wet fluid trickled in a stream down his face. And for the second time this evening, Josiahs large form was poised over him.
"He okay?" Chriss questioning voice sounded from somewhere behind him.
"Got his bell rung real good, but soon as we get him cleaned up I think hell be fine," Josiah answered as he got under the young man and helped him sit up.
JD had to let his head settle against Josiah strong chest for a few seconds, as dizziness threatened to overtake him.
"Wheres Buck, Josiah? And the rest of the guys?" he managed to mumble out in a weak voice. "Everybodys okay, arent they?
"Them gunshots you just heard are him and Vin. They both went chasing after the one who did this to you. None of you seem to be all that bad off, but that said about all you, Nathan, and Ezra will be good for the next few days is playing cards."
Chris re-holstered his gun "You take care of JD, Josiah. Ill check on Nathan and Ez, and then Im going back to the bank to check out the one I hit. Four against seven and we let three of them get away. The citizens of this town are going to think we are getting overpaid at a dollar a day!"
"Well, anyone of Four Corners fine citizens who thinks they can do it better, is welcome to my job," Josiah mumbled, as he shifted his cold, tired body out from under JD. "The fella still inside the bank, he dead or alive?"
Disgusted, Chris spit on to the dirt floor, "He wont be any deader in a hundred years," He answered, before heading out of the barn, his heavy steps showing his frustration.
"We didnt get them all, Josiah?" JD asked as he unsteadily regained his feet with the preachers help.
"They had two shotguns that blew holes in the side of a building big enough to drive a stagecoach through. They got us running around and ducking, and it looks like three got away, but Chris hit one inside the bank. Vinll be busy tomorrow morning tracking down the others."
"I blew it I had my sights on the bearded guy, and next thing Im lying in a pile of manure," JD said dejectedly. Bad enough his head hurt this bad, but he had let his man get away too.
Sensing JDs mood, the preacher placed his big hand on the back of JDs neck and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Not your fault JD, we let them get out of the bank in the first place. That should never have happened, but we dont paid enough to stand in front of that kind of weaponry"
JD froze under Josiahs hand. He remembered someone else touching him on his neck before Josiah had found him, but the memory was so foggy and unclear.
"What is it, JD?" Josiah asked as he felt the kid tense under his touch. "Whats wrong?"
"The man in the red shirt!" JD said slowly, as a faded image made it to the surface of his memory.
"What man in a red shirt, JD?" Vin and Buck asked in unison as they appeared in the barn door, both breathing hard from their chase down the street.
"I dont know I could swear I heard, or saw " JD shook his head confused, as Buck rushed over to him and lifted his head up with two fingers under his chin.
"Good thing you took it on your hard old noggin, or he could have done some serious damage to ya, kid!" Buck said as he examined the two bumps on JDs forehead and the cut above his eye. "I swear, you know more about attracting trouble than any other human being I have ever met!"
"Any luck with our getaways?" Josiah asked Vin, with a small smile on his face as he watched Buck fuss over an increasingly annoyed JD.
Vin gave his head a negative shake.
"And we aint going to have much of a posse left to ride with in the morning. We got both Ez and JD hurt, and it looks like Nathan took some buckshot in his side. He aint hurt serious like, but hell be riding his bed instead of his horse for a few days."
"But Im fine, guys! Ill be ready to ride in the morning." JD said as he swayed on his feet.
"Easy there, kid!" Buck reached out and grasped the wobbling young man around the waist. "Sure you will, but first I think we need to get ya fixed up and then into a bed!"
"But there was another man in the stable," JD said as he wavered against Buck. "He went out the back door. I didnt see him real well, just that he had on a red shirt."
"The only one we saw leave the barn was the dark bearded cowpoke who laid this likin on you, JD." Buck slowly, but insistently started to direct JD out of the barn.
"Dang it, Buck!" JD turned in his friends grip and spoke out to Vin and Josiah. "I know what I saw, there was another man in here and I think he saved my life!"
"Hold up a second, Buck." Vin examined JDs intense expression. "Kid says there was someone else here, then I think we outta at least take a look around!"
Buck rolled his eyes upwards and let out a deep breath. Since Vin was prepared to humor JD, he was not going to argue. The sooner he proved there was no one else out here, the sooner he could get the mule-headed kid up to the clinic.
"Fine." Buck set JD down against a bale of hay, and stuck his finger into JDs bony chest. "You stay put! Vin and me will check it out. Josiah you make sure he dont move his scrawny butt as much as a foot off this bale!"
"Which way did ya say this man went, JD?" Vin asked.
"I just saw a red shirt go out the back door!" Warily JD pointed to the back of the barn, then he let his head drop against the wall and closed his eyes.
Buck pushed open the door, and carefully exited with his gun pointed in front of him. "Anyone here? Come out with your hands up where I can see them!"
Vin came and stood beside him. Both listened to the silent night.
"I told you so. Kid got clouted on the head so hard hes seeing things, and Im out here wasting my time when I should be dragging his skinny little butt up to the clinic!" Buck turned in disgust back to the barn. "Vin what are ya doing?"
Buck watched as Vin slowly walked to a water trough in the corner of the corral, and with his gun leveled in front of him gestured at someone to stand up.
"Get your hands up nice and easy where I can see them, and dont make the mistake thinking I wont shoot ya, cause I will!" The tracker said in a steely tone.
Slowly an old man with shaggy white hair that hung down past his shirt collar, with about a weeks worth of stubble and a droopy gray mustache, stood up. He was a lean weather-beaten man with a hungry look. His worn pants were several sizes too big and were held up with haying twine, and the red shirt that hung on his hunched shoulders was so threadbare it was almost transparent even in the moonlight. He gave the impression he had been fighting a long, tough battle with life and it was a downhill losing struggle.
"See I told ya so, Buck!" JDs tired voice reached them before his unsteady shuffle carried him to the doorway. "I told ya I seen another one!"
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