Confessions In The Dark
The first tendrils of day snaked across the sky as Chris pulled on his boots. He had been having a nightmare about the others. He had bolted upright in his bed to find Ezra sitting in a chair at his side. He blinked to clear his vision and then glared at the intruder.
"I was awakened from my slumber by the most hideous of nightmares and sought companionship. I feared that your sleep might be similarly troubled so I let myself in. I'm sorry if I've startled you." The green eyes had a haunted look. Ezra was truly afraid for the others.
"Why don't you see about rounding up something to eat and I'll see to the horses. We can meet at the clinic in a half hour." Seeing the gambler nod, he added, "Thanks, Ezra, for watching over me." Touching his hat in salute, the southerner slipped silently out of the room.
Nathan slipped quietly into the clinic and looked down on the sleeping woman. She didn't appear to have moved at all in her sleep. He placed his palm on her forehead to check for fever. Her eyes opened and she blinked sleepily at him.
"Good morning, how are you feeling?"
"My arm hurts. Could I have a drink of water, please?"
Nathan moved to fill a cup and sat on the edge of the bed. He helped her to sit up and she took the cup from his hand. After a couple of swallows, she handed the cup back and looked around the room.
"Do you want something for the pain? I can make you an herb tea."
"No, thank you. Did you find the others? Are they all right?"
"We haven't been out yet. It's just now daylight. We're going to ask Mrs. Travis and Inez to sit with you. The others are getting ready to head out," Nathan explained.
Josiah pulled on his boots and approached the woman on the bed. She certainly looked better than she had when she went to sleep. Her eyes locked on his and she nodded a silent greeting. A soft tap on the door brought Ezra into the clinic.
"Did you get any sleep last night, Ezra?" Nathan's voice stopped the gambler in the doorway.
"What makes you think that I didn't?" Came the cagy reply.
"I went by your room to check on you and you weren't there. Your bed looks like a herd of buffalo trampled thru it in the night."
"I was wakened by an unpleasant dream. I relocated myself to another locale and got a few more hours of sleep. I'm fine, Mr. Jackson."
"Did Chris have nightmares too?" The question came with a teasing smile. Nathan had looked in on the other man and found the gambler dozing in the chair at his side. Knowing that he was caught, Ezra only smiled.
"Mrs. Travis will bring you some breakfast and take care of you today. I'll look in on you when I get back. If the pain gets to be too much, I'll leave the laudanum with her." Nathan explained to Meagan.
"Do you know where the mine is? I could go and show you the way."
"You aren't going anywhere till those ribs heal. Damned lucky you didn't puncture a lung riding in the way you did. We'll find them, you just lay back there and take it easy," he scolded gently.
"Be careful! Thomas could still be out there. I gave his horse some herbs that upset his insides and he was trying to throw Thomas when I got away. If he's out there, he's mad as a wet hen."
The men exchanged a glance. If Dalton was angry and he even suspected that she had returned to Four Corners he might come looking for her. The door opened again and Chris stepped inside.
"Mary's on her way over. We need to go," he announced.
"We have a small problem, Chris," Josiah said.
"Dalton may be headed this way looking for Meagan. Either we take her with us or we leave someone to watch her while we're gone."
"Nathan?" The rest of the question went unasked.
"You could take me in a wagon. You'll need picks and things anyway. I could ride in the back. It wouldn't be too bad," Meagan offered.
"Picks and things?" Ezra asked.
"Thomas lured them into the mine and blew the opening. You'll need picks and shovels to get past the caved in section."
"Damn!" Chris hissed softly. "Ezra, Josiah, go see what Mrs. Potter has in the store. Nathan, get her ready to ride. Gather whatever you'll need of your supplies too, it's likely to be bad." He brushed by Mary without a word.
A half hour later, Meagan had eaten and Mary had loaned her a dress. The wagon borrowed from the livery had been loaded with equipment and a posse of men stood waiting to accompany the men to the mine. Nathan insisted that Meagan take a small dose of laudanum before they started out to keep the pain at a manageable level during the ride. Ezra offered to drive the wagon.
The darkness was closing in on him again and Vin was having trouble breathing. He pushed JD off of him and scrubbed at his chest with his palm. In the silence of the enclosed space, the sounds of the other two men breathing sounded abnormally loud. He crawled away from Buck and moved to the edge of the rockslide. His hands felt the assorted rocks and he pounded his fists against them weakly.
JD was also feeling the effect of being in the enclosed space. He was having trouble breathing and he was cold. Missing the warmth of Vin's body, he cuddled up against Buck. The ladies man draped his uninjured arm across the boy and drew him close. He was beginning to doubt that they would get out of this one.
In his mind, Buck began to list all of the things he wasn't going to get to do if he died in this mine. He wasn't going to get to see JD grow up into the man they all wanted him to be. He wasn't going to get to see Vin clear his name of the vile charges laid on him in Tascosa. He wasn't going to get to have children of his own. That hurt! The realization that he had missed the opportunity to leave a tangible mark of his presence on Earth was painful.
From the back of the mule, Thomas Dalton watched the group riding toward the mine. Somehow, he knew that Meagan Riley was guiding them. He growled his rage as he rubbed the stock of his rifle. He would relish putting a bullet into her head. After the stallion had thrown him off and refused to allow him to mount again, he had killed the animal. It had taken him an hour to get the saddle off of the body and he'd had to leave most of his possessions behind to take the mule. An evil smile lifted his cheeks as he began to plan.
Balling up his fists, Vin scrubbed at his eyes. His mind was refusing to accept that there was nothing to see. He began to tremble again as his knees folded. He continued to rub at his eyes until he became angry. His nails left scratches as he dug into his clenched eyes. He was unaware that he was screaming.
JD lurched across the dark expanse and landed on top of Vin. He quickly felt for the tracker's hands and pulled them away from his face. When the screams dissolved into sobbing, he ran his fingertips lightly over Vin's face. The wetness he felt was not like tears, it was sticky like blood. He quickly untied the bandanna from around Vin's neck and used it to cover his eyes like a blindfold.
"Buck, he's tearing at his eyes. I don't know what to do for him!" JD's voice cracked as the knot formed in his throat.
"Can you get him back over here?" Buck hoped that his touch would calm the terrified Texan. He wanted to comfort him for however long they had.
It took him a while, but JD got Vin closer to Buck. The older man threaded his injured arm into the sleeve of the hide coat as the tracker had curled up against his legs on that side. He was able to lay that arm across Vin's shoulder without too much more pain. JD moved back to his other side and huddled there. Buck wrapped his arm around the kid and drew him close.
"JD, if we don't make it, there's something I want you to know," Buck started.
"Don't talk like that, Buck. I'm scared enough as it is!" JD protested.
"JD, that heavy feeling in your chest? That's the air going bad. If we don't get out of here soon, we'll die. I don't want to die without getting something off of my chest. I want you to know how proud I am of the way you've carried yourself. In spite of all the riding and digging I've done to you, you're turning into a right fine young man. Someone I'd have been proud to call 'son.' You were so green when you got off of that stage, boy. I wasn't sure you'd make it thru your first week here. Now look at you. Sheriff JD Dunne, you're ma must sure be proud of you up there."
"Stop it, Buck. You can't give up! I'm scared, Buck! I don't want to die."
"No one wants to die, JD. I don't want to die. Vin doesn't want to die. But facts are facts. The air in here is going bad and when that happens, we will die." He tightened his grip on the young man.
"Buck, I never knew my pa. I always kind of hoped that he was kind of like you, like a cross between you and Chris. You would have liked my ma, Buck. She was so gentle and she always had this smile. We didn't have a lot but I always knew that she loved me."
A trembling hand reached out and touched Vin. He couldn't imagine what it must have been like to lose your mother so young. He had always had the love and protection of a parent, Vin had missed out on that. A wash of guilt swept over the younger man and he leaned out to press against the tracker. Buck rested a hand on one shoulder of each of them and closed his eyes. He did not expect to open them again.
The wagon seat had good springs but it was still a rough ride for the injured young woman. Ezra reached out occasionally to steady her when it appeared that she was losing her grip on the pain. Nathan rode close to the side of the wagon and kept an eye on the woman. Chris scowled at the slow pace of the group. He knew that they wouldn't be going much faster without the wagon because they wouldn't know where they were going. It still upset him that his friends were in trouble and he couldn't get there any faster.
When the opening of the mine came into view, Meagan pointed. The mounted riders thundered down the hill leaving the wagon behind. Chris and Nathan were out of their saddles before the horses had stopped moving. They ran into the opening shouting for their friends. Chris attacked the wall of rocks with his bare hands, tossing smaller stones over his shoulder until Nathan made him stop.
"You're tearing up your hands and we need to shore this up as we go or we're likely to bring the whole thing down on top of us. Come on, Chris, think about what you're doing."
The blonde nodded and allowed himself to be pulled out of the opening. A sudden gunshot had both of them diving back into the opening for cover. Everyone dove for cover as a second shot rang out. Chris scanned the hills for the source of the gunshots.
Over the sound of the wagon, Ezra didn't hear the first gunshot, but he felt it. The bullet grazed his arm missing Meagan by only inches. He slapped the reins down hard on the team as he tried to figure a way out of what was becoming a very bad situation. The second shot missed both of them and the gambler caught sight of the muzzle flash. Drawing his gun, he sighted over Meagan's shoulder and fired three times. There was no answering fire and the horses came to a stop at the edge of the group of saddled horses. Ezra jumped from the wagon and pulled the woman down and stood in front of her as his eyes scanned the area where the shots had come from.
When no more shots came from the hill, the others began to come out of cover. Josiah moved to check on Chris and Nathan before moving to check on the others.
"Ezra, you're hurt!" Meagan announced breathlessly from behind him.
"It's just a scratch, Miss Riley. I have nicked myself worse shaving with a hangover. Think nothing of it." But his hand was shaking slightly as he holstered his gun.
The rescue was organized in short order. Josiah and Yosemite attacked the larger boulders, rolling them out of the opening. The others passed out the smaller stones in a bucket brigade so as not to block the area around the mouth of the mine. Two of the men from the town had walked up the hill and brought the body of Thomas Dalton down tied to his mule.
Nathan took a short break to check on Meagan. She was pacing nervously at the edge of the clearing. Occasionally, she would bring a canteen to the men and pass it around. In spite of the grazing, Ezra was right in the thick of the lines of men passing out the stones.
The rescue effort ground to a halt when they encountered a large boulder in the center of the pile. Both Josiah and Yosemite together tried to move it and it would only barely shift before settling back. Ropes were brought in and passed around the stone. The wagon tongue was unhooked from the wagon and the roped attached to it. The animals leaned into the harness and the stone shifted. More pulling caused the stone to roll forward several inches and the rubble behind it cascaded down to fill the space. The next time the stone rolled, the ropes shifted and one came off, singing thru the air to hit one of the men in the chest. The man dropped, screaming as the rope had ripped the muscle on his chest.
Nathan bolted to the man's side as the others worked to reattach the ropes to the stone. Blood poured from the wound in spite of the pressure placed on it by the man's friend. The healer found himself looking into the man's ribs thru the gash. The rope had cut him as neatly as a knife. Ezra dropped to his knees across from Nathan and offered to help. The injured man passed out a moment later.
As Nathan and Ezra worked on the injured man, Josiah and Yosemite worked at getting the ropes around the boulder again. The line continued to pass out the other stones. Several minutes later the horses were again made to pull on the big boulder. It rolled free and the whole wall began to tumble down. The men beat a hasty retreat until the dust began to settle. Chris clenched his fists, as he was afraid that they would bring the whole place down on his friends.
A coffee pot filled with hot water was placed at Nathan's side along with a basin of cool water. Without looking up to see who had read his mind, the healer plunged his hands into the water. Moments later, his bag of supplies was lowered to the ground. He looked up to see that Meagan was tending to a small fire and had heated the water. It was awkward for her with only one hand but she was doing it. Nathan shook his head.
"Remind you of anyone?" Ezra asked as he raised his eyebrows.
They finally got the bleeding stopped and the wound closed. Two other men came to help hold the man up so that the bandages could be wrapped tightly around his chest and shoulder. The man was dosed with laudanum and placed in the back of the wagon. There wasn't anything else Nathan could do for him at the moment.
The men attacked the slide again and began passing out stones. Yosemite and Josiah alternated working with the picks to loosen the rubble while the others removed it. Finally, one blow of the pick created an opening in the wall of fallen rock. Eager hands pulled at the opening and enlarged it quickly. A torch was passed into the hole and one of the smaller men stuck his head in to look.
"They're in there!"
"Are they pinned in any way?" Josiah asked since it was he who was boosting the man up into the hole.
"No. They're all against the far wall. Looks like they're asleep!"
Nathan's heart sank at the man's words. Chris caught him by the arm and spun him around angrily.
"What are you not telling me?" The words were dripping with venom and the healer recoiled from them. He reached out and eased the tight grip off of his arm.
"If the air in there went bad, we may be too late. If they're not breathing when they bring them out, there isn't anything I can do for them. I'm sorry, Chris."
The group of men at the wall worked feverishly to enlarge the opening so that they could get to the men inside. Nathan noticed that some of the stones had blood on them and knew that someone had injured their hands pulling out the sharp rocks. He paced nervously as he waited for word.
Scrambling thru the opening, Josiah climbed into the small space and moved to kneel beside his friends. Issuing a silent prayer, he reached out a trembling hand and felt for a pulse on JD's neck. He had almost given up when he found it, weak and slow but there. Gathering the young man into his arms, he carried him to the rapidly enlarging opening and handed him to one of the men holding out his hands.
As JD was lowered gently onto a blanket, Nathan's breath caught in his throat. The boy looked dead. He knelt on the blanket and a warm cloth was pressed into his hand. He looked into the dark eyes of the Irish woman. She nodded at him and brushed the hair back from JD's face.
"One down and three to go," Josiah whispered as he reached out to Vin. The tracker actually trembled slightly under the touch and the older man issued a sigh of relief. He gathered Vin into his arms and carried him to the opening. He allowed himself a brief embrace of the Texan before passing him into willing hands.
Chris stopped the man holding Vin and took him into his own arms. The blindfold puzzled him but he was beyond caring about anything as he cradled the other half of his soul. Easing Vin onto a blanket, he gathered both of the trackers hands in his and rubbed them gently. He wept unashamedly as he watched the steady rise and fall of Vin's breathing. A blanket was spread over the still form and Chris looked up as Ezra moved away.
Reaching out with a trembling hand, Josiah eased the hide coat away from Buck's chest. He could feel the heat radiating off of the body. When he eased the sleeve off of Buck's arm, he noticed the burn. A pair of torches had been stuck in the dirt so that he could see. The burn was not deep but it covered a large portion of his arm.
"Nathan! I need you in here!"
The deep bass bellow brought the healer to his feet and into the mine at a jog. He climbed thru the ever-increasing opening and knelt next to Josiah. He studied the burn for a moment before he laid his hand on Buck's face to check his temperature. He shook his head and looked into the intense blue eyes of the older man.
"He's bad off, Josiah. We gotta get him cooled down quick or he'll die. I don't even know if he'll be right in the head when he comes out of it. I'm just trying to prepare you for the worst. You'll have to deal with Chris while I take care of Buck."
The two men gathered the ladies man between them and carried him out of the mine. They put him directly into the wagon and Nathan climbed up beside him. Chris was torn between going to see his oldest friend and staying with the young man who had captured his soul. Meagan knelt and began to wash the dirt from Vin's face and drew his hands away from the blonde man, allowing him to move away with out leaving his friend alone.
In the back of the wagon, Nathan was wrapping the burn loosely with the cleanest bandages he had before pouring water on them and laying his arm at his side. He then turned his attention to trying to lower Buck's temperature.
"How bad is he?" Chris asked. Getting no answer, he asked again. "Nathan? How bad is he? Will he live?"
The brown eyes that held immeasurable sorrow met hazel eyes and a cold feeling passed thru Chris. A cry of anguish broke free and the blonde man hurled himself into the wagon. Heedless of the others watching, he gathered Buck into his arms and wept into his shoulder. Josiah allowed him a minute before he placed a hand on his shoulder and eased Buck away from his chest.
"Get the others! We're going home together!"
It wasn't a request, it was an order. Josiah got out of the wagon and went to collect the younger members of the group. While he carried Vin, Ezra gathered JD into his arms and moved toward the wagon. Nathan took JD while Ezra lifted Meagan into the wagon. She took up a seat in the front corner and the young sheriff was settled at her side. Vin was passed into the wagon and Chris climbed up to take him into his arms. Josiah gathered the horses and asked one of the men to bring them back to town as he and Ezra climbed onto the bench.
An Irish lullaby fell softly on JD's ears and he snuggled into the warmth of the arm that encircled him. His hand crept up to grasp the hand that lay on his chest and he smiled.
The young man had become very tense as the wagon began to move. Meagan began to hum softly into his ear and she felt him began to relax. Josiah smiled as JD reached up to grasp her hand and a faint smile lifted his lips.
Nathan had removed the handkerchief from Vin's eyes to discover its purpose. Upon seeing the deep scratches around his eyes, he had cleaned them gently and wrapped them again in a clean bandage. He carefully studied the tracker as he lay limp in the blonde leader's arms. Vin had not moved or even twitched since being removed from the mine.
It was nearly dark when the wagon rolled into Four Corners. They decided to use their rooms at the boarding house where they had more room and better light. The men who had followed them back moved quickly to disassemble and move another bed into Chris's room since his was one of the larger rooms in the boarding house. Buck was placed on one bed and Vin and JD on the other. The man injured by the rope was placed in Vin's room, which was next door to Chris's. Inez appeared almost immediately with soup and sandwiches.
The room was crowded with all the people and the added bed but Nathan wouldn't ask any of them to leave. Ezra and Meagan were tending to Vin and JD. Chris moved between the two beds. Josiah helped with Buck, freeing Nathan to tend to the injured man in the next room. It was Chris who noticed that Meagan appeared to be in pain and caught the healer's eye. Inez led her to Buck's room and tried to get her to lie down. She had been gone no more than five or ten minutes when JD began to toss fretfully in his unconscious state. Ezra suggested that they bring a rocking chair into the room and let Meagan sit near JD to keep him calm.
As the sun dropped below the horizon, all of the men in the room were lulled into a relaxed state by the soft Irish lilt. Meagan remained in the chair resting as she sang softly. When JD became agitated, she would sit on the edge of the bed and stroke his face gently.
When JD finally awakened, he was weak but relieved to be out of the mine. His eyes sought the woman whose voice had been such a comfort to him. He was concerned about her injuries when he realized that she had been tending to him. He was also terribly worried about Vin because he was still unconscious.
After an alcohol bath and several cool wipe downs, Buck's temperature began to come down. He began to toss and pull at the blankets. Nathan carefully cleaned the burn and slathered it in salve to keep the tissue soft. Buck remained unconscious thru the night. Vin began to move around at the first sounds of morning. His hands reached for the bandages on his eyes only to be stopped by Josiah's larger hands.
"Don't be reaching for that just yet, son. You've got some bad scratches around your eyes and Nathan wants them to have a chance to heal clean."
"Josiah? You're real? I'm not imaging you am I?" The tracker's hands gripped tightly onto the sleeves of Josiah's shirt. "Don't leave me, okay? Just stay right here."
"I won't leave you, son. Take it easy. Just lay still. You're going to be fine."
"Chris? Is Chris here?" The soft pleading tone of the young man's voice was heart breaking. The blonde man quickly crossed the room and took hold of Vin's forearm. Josiah eased away from the bed to get a mug of soup for Vin. He passed the mug to Chris as he eased the tracker up and placed pillows behind him.
After finishing the mug of soup, Vin went right back to sleep. Chris sat with him until Vin's hands slipped free on their own. When JD awakened an hour later, he was allowed to go to the restaurant to get breakfast. Josiah went with the young man to provide support for his shaky knees.
By lunch, Vin was awake again and chomping at the bit to have the bandages removed from his eyes. Chris sat at his side while Nathan unwound the bandages and removed them. Using a soft cloth, he gently wiped the scratches and then went lightly over the eyelids.
"Shield your eyes with your hand and open them slowly. It's going to be very bright in here, even with the curtains drawn."
Vin did as he was instructed and slowly opened his eyes. The bright flash of light caused his eyes to water fiercely but he blinked several times to clear them. When it was not uncomfortable to do so, he lowered his hand and looked around the room. The subdued lighting and the somber colors of the room caused a feeling of dismay for the tracker until the door opened and Ezra walked in wearing his bright red jacket.
The tracker came to his feet and, before anyone could stop him, embraced the startled gambler in an enormous bear hug. His tears rained onto Ezra's shoulder for several minutes before the southerner found his voice.
"Mr. Tanner? Is there something you wanted to tell me?"
"I was afraid that I couldn't see colors anymore after the darkness. My mind was playing tricks in the dark and I got scared when I looked around in here and couldn't really see any color. I'm just glad that my eyes are all right."
"Then I am grateful to have been of service. Would you care to join me for lunch in the restaurant? I'm sure you could do with something more substantial than the soup Nathan has for you."
"You buyin'?" Vin asked in a teasing tone of voice.
"Gladly, Mr. Tanner. Shall we go?" Ezra waived his arm toward the door and followed the tracker out into the hallway. He looked back and touched an imaginary hat brim before moving to catch up with Vin.
"Did Ezra just agree to buy lunch?" Chris asked Josiah.
"That he did, Chris, that he did."
It was nearly dark before Buck's eyes began to flutter. A low moan of pain drifted out and he felt hands touching him lightly. His arm felt heavy but was not as painful as it had been before. He opened his eyes and immediately closed them against the brightness of the room.
"Pull the curtains again, Josiah. It's too much light for him."
"Take it easy, Buck. We're going to darken the room for you."
Without opening his eyes, Buck asked, "Vin and JD?"
They're fine. They're having supper at the restaurant right now," Nathan explained.
"Vin's all right? He was having a hard time in there. Curled up in a ball, shaking."
"He's fine, Buck. It took him a little longer to come around but he was fine when he left here with Ezra."
"His eyes? He was clawing at his eyes." The concern in his voice bordered on anguish.
"His eyes are fine, Buck. Don't worry about them. They're both fine." Chris insisted.
"How did you find us?"
"Meagan led us to the mine. Thomas Dalton tricked you into the mine and then blew up the entrance. She escaped from him and came back here on Ghost to tell us where you were. And before you ask, she's fine too," Chris exclaimed.
"Could you take some soup, Buck? I have it right here." Nathan offered.
"Can I get a drink and something for the pain?"
"Here's some water and I'll get you some laudanum. How did you burn your arm?"
"There was a lantern. It fell over in the explosion and caught fire to the dummy. My arm must have landed on it when I fell. When I woke up it was burned. How bad is it?"
"The burn is large but not deep. Putting it inside of Vin's coat may have actually saved it. The skin didn't dry out and die. It'll peel eventually but if it heals underneath first, it shouldn't be a problem for you."
A deeply relieved sigh rolled out of Buck's mouth before he pulled himself up to wrap his arm around Chris. The long hours in the darkness had left deep scars on his soul and he needed his anchor. After a hard shudder, he released the blonde and rested back against the pillows Nathan had piled up behind him. After the mug of soup, Buck's eyelids drooped and he went back to sleep.
It was quiet over the next few weeks. JD and Vin camped out in Chris's room while Buck was recovering. Ezra and Josiah looked after the town while Chris and Nathan tended to Buck and the other injured man.
One afternoon when they were alone together, JD sat on the foot of the bed and looked at Buck with a very serious expression on his face.
"Something bothering you, kid?"
"When we were in the mine, when the air started getting bad, and we started talking, do you remember?" When Buck nodded, he continued. "We both said some things that "
"I meant every word of it, kid. I am proud of you. I look forward to seeing you grow into the fine young man that I know you will be one day. If I ever have a son of my own, I hope he turns out to be just like you."
"And I meant what I said about my pa. I really wish he was someone like you."
Meagan approached Ezra after supper one night. She was troubled about something and she trusted the gambler to tell her the truth.
"What do I do now? Dalton is dead and my bond contract is dissolved, right?"
"Of course, you are free to do what ever you wish, Miss Riley. What is it that troubles you about that?"
"I have no one here in America. I got off of the ship and Dalton picked me up. We traveled constantly. I don't know anyone except for the people in this town. I just don't know what to do. I have no money, no place to live, you and your friends have been paying my way."
"What do you want to do? What did you do in Ireland?"
"I was a seamstress, I made clothes. But I have nothing to start with here."
A soft hand caressed hers and she looked across the table. A gentle expression crossed Ezra's face as he patted her hand.
"Give it a few more days. Sometimes, things happen that give you opportunities you didn't know existed. Who would have believed that I would have ended up staying here to enforce the law? I'm a gambling con man; I've never worked for anything in my life until I got here. Suddenly, I'm getting paid a regular wage to put my life on the line and I can't imagine it any other way."
A couple of days later, Vin bumped into Meagan on the boardwalk. She had her sketchpad open on her lap and was drawing something that she covered up when he approached.
"Hey, whatcha doin'?"
"Can I see?" Vin edged closer. She reluctantly withdrew her hands.
The entire page was filled with small sketches. A man's hand held cards. On each card was a face. Below the hand were several cards lying on the tabletop. On each card was a picture of one of the seven lawmen. In the background of the picture was a collage of towns ending with Four Corners. She had captured each one of them in their truest form.
"Wow! You have a real gift there." Vin's voice was filled with awe. An embarrassed glow warmed her face as he eased the pad off of her lap. Several pages were filled with pictures of the seven of them. Vin was shocked to see the sketch of himself as Chris carried him out of the mine. His hand trembled as he reached for the image.
That evening, Vin broached the subject of what would happen to Meagan. The others looked around the table before anyone spoke.
"Well, with Dalton dead, her bond contract is dissolved so she's free to go," Nathan stated.
"But that doesn't change the fact that she's got no one and no place to go. She doesn't have a dime to her name," Vin protested.
"Anybody know what she used to do before she got here? To America, I mean," JD amended.
"I believe that she was engaged in the honorable field of haberdashery," Ezra stated.
"She what?" JD asked.
"Seamstress," Josiah explained.
"You mean like Miss Dunlap?" JD asked.
"Yeah, kid, just like Miss Dunlap," Chris said softly.
"That reminds me, Mr. Tanner, what ever became of the funds we contributed toward the liberation of the fair lady in question?"
"Wha' oh the money. Here, I forgot I was carrying it." Vin tossed the bundle of bills onto the table. The money lay like a dead rat, no one touched it.
"Why do I have the feeling that something is about to happen?" Chris asked.
"Merely that you consider a business opportunity. We have the funds to bankroll the young lady while she gets on her feet. Miss Dunlap's shop remains available. I'm certain that we could acquire the building and contents for a fraction of their original value. Miss Riley could ply her wares and reimburse us when she gets the business off the ground. As many articles of clothing as we damage in the course of our employ, she should be out of the red in no time."
The idea rolled around in the men's minds before Vin nodded. Josiah and Nathan began to nod. JD looked around the table and smiled before nodding his head. Buck tossed a smile at Chris before nodding.
"Well, as long as everyone agrees, it's fine with me," Chris announced. Ezra gathered the money and replaced it in his pocket.
"I shall attend to the acquisition of the necessary paperwork. When shall we present the fair lady with the proposition?" Ezra enquired.
"As soon as we have everything in place, I guess. What makes you think she'll agree to stay here and set up shop, Ezra?" Nathan asked.
"Let's just say that I have some inside information and leave it at that."
A couple of days later, Meagan was escorted to the church. JD said that Josiah wanted to talk to her about something important. When she arrived at the church, all six of the lawmen were there waiting for her.
"Miss Riley, sit down please. My friends and I have a business proposition to discuss with you. I remember when you told me that you used to work as a seamstress. Due to an unfortunate set of circumstances, Four Corners has been without a seamstress for most of a year. What we are offering is an opportunity for you to fill that vacancy. We have purchased the building and contents and you could begin as soon as your arm is sufficiently healed."
"A shop of my own? You all bought me a shop of my own?"
"If that meets with your approval," Ezra said softly.
"I, I don't know what to say. How can I ever hope to repay you?"
"You will earn your keep. When you get money ahead, you can begin to reimburse us for our investment. I assure you that we will keep you quite busy repairing and replacing the volume of clothing that is damaged and destroyed in the course of our work."
"Will you stay?" JD's hopeful voice asked.
"Yes. I'd like that! Very much!"
"Then let's go see your new shop," Vin suggested.
The shop was small but adequate to her needs. There was a room in the back that she could use for her personal quarters. The old treadle sewing machine worked and there was a dressmaker's dummy. Along the walls were a few bolts of material. There would be plenty of light coming in thru the large windows once the plywood was removed.
"Well?" Josiah asked.
"It's wonderful!" Meagan exclaimed as she hugged him. She then hugged each man in turn as she laughed and cried. It was a wonderful beginning in Four Corners.
That night, over supper, Ezra returned all of the money that each of them had contributed for Meagan. They looked at him with identical expressions of confusion.
"One thing you overlooked, gentlemen, in the saddlebags of the late Thomas Dalton was a substantial quantity of silver. I took the liberty of converting it to cash. There was enough to purchase the shop and order a shipment of material, which should arrive by stage any day now. The shop is hers, free and clear along with a few dollars in the bank for any incidentals that she may need."
"Sometimes, Ezra, you surprise me," Chris said with a wry smile.
"Then I have achieved my fondest desire, Mr. Larabee." Ezra returned with a tip of his hat and a gold-toothed grin.